Dark Roads Book One - The Pact

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 3 (v.1) - Chapter Three

Submitted: December 17, 2018

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Submitted: December 17, 2018



Somewhere amid the study and reflection, D'aej put Serenity to bed. She recognized it when his consciousness took control of the body—he could do so, of course, and when she sank so deeply into her work that she forgot all sense of time and even her physical needs, D'aej often slid into the lead and handled those things for her. She allowed him to guide her. Her mind already drifted towards sleep.

All weavers dealt with darklings. Bonding with an otherworlder, however...that was a different matter.

Even weavers acknowledged the darklings were deceitful beings, just like all demons of the otherworld. They might need darklings in order to tap into magic, but allowing a darkling access to a human mind and body, even for the instant, carried terrific risk. Men could be driven insane by the darklings, or lose their sentient personality under the encroaching shadow. lost souls were all that remained when humans lost themselves to the will of a demon, and the demon stole their body for mischief in man's world. Darklings couldn't affect the physical realms alone, after all, with their natural powers confined to the realm of the spirit, or the twisted Rachalör, where the realms of the spirit bled into the realms of man. Any weaver who tapped those realms gave the darklings a chance—no matter how brief—to cross over. And a darkling who gained the power to play in the world of man was a dangerous being, indeed.

So, traditional weavers took great care over how much of themselves they offered to the claws of the spirits.

But there were other weavers—a secret sect of them, a cabal known as the Black Guild—who deemed the interaction between weaver and darkling as the key to true knowledge. When a weaver opened his body to a spirit, and the spirit paired his mind to man's, then and only then could greater understanding come truly within reach. A weaver strong enough to take a darkling into herself, and to hold it in herself, without succumbing to its wild, ferocious nature, would in theory retain all the creature's supernatural talents indefinitely. She could draw from it at any time, for any purpose. The secrets of nature could conceivably be reached out and plucked from the aether like an apple from a tree.

These men and women—Black Guilders—were more than weavers. They were true arcanists. Demonologists. Prodigies, like Serenity.

And she wasn't afraid to let her demon take over her body every once in a while. She knew D'aej like a good man knows his wife. As the darkling moved through their hotel room, managing little things like cleaning up her studying space and putting away her books, Serenity—inside herself—was mostly already dreaming.

D'aej's cool words, like a night breeze, came to her. Don't forget why we are here, my little one. Hold it before your heart as you sleep. Remember the man we are hunting. And why he must be punished.

Her journey on the path of the Black Guild began after they laid Jack to rest in the ground. Though fate had taken her teacher, her studies continued, and every evening after Magda excused her, Serenity trekked across town to the weaver's school to spend long hours in study. The weaver's library contained perhaps the most expansive collection of spiritualism and lore anywhere in the daylight lands, and there was something to be had in those books, she was sure. Some precious gem of knowledge she intended to find, something to take the place of the emptiness Jack left behind. He'd want her to go on in her studies, she knew. He'd have wanted her to learn great things.

Weavers were drawn to discovery, and wherever many weavers could be free to move in the open, scores of them gathered to collaborate and debate. In the grand library of the school at Eclipse, this was the order of the day: huddled groups sharing in thoughtful whispers; marking their journals and notes and playing the cards in large circles; brainstorming what meanings they might understand. Serenity shied away from the groups, however. She didn't want to share the intimate moments of her study, moments that, up until then, only Jack had ever shared. So she entered the library silently, only nodding with reverence to the bookkeepers, and perused the stacks alone, resigning herself to an abandoned table and politely declining the invitations to grander discussions.

It was in this habit of solitary lessons when she first came upon the name of the Black Guild, and read of their discordant philosophies. Weaver history treated them unkindly, and the mention of them brought scowls and reprimands from the scholars she questioned. After that, she kept her interest quiet, but sought out more and more details of their society, and their arcane experiments. Soon, it became clear to her the Black Guild had a measure of knowledge other weavers sorely lacked. Only the greater challenge, greater ambition, could truly lead a man to greatness.

She became determined to put her own talent to the test.

They'd excommunicate her from the weaver discipline, if the scholars knew she'd gone so far into study of the Guild. None of them would have approved. None of them would have understood. The weavers of Eclipse maintained peace and pacifism toward all human life, careful to conduct themselves well in the company of neighbors and never lend credence to the fear bleeding through the world below their town, where weavers were witches and criminals. The will of the Black Guild—to bind the demonic and twist it into a part of one's own soul—was blasphemy.

But she was careful.

She came to the library and studied in peace, and excused herself to return to the Wolf's Den, where she laid out the cards at her table by the fire. She grew in her studies, despite Magda's constant motherly frustration—why did she keep studying such nonsense when Jack was gone and buried? Didn't she understand there was a busy tavern with hungry people to be served? Didn't she know men and women would drop good coin in her pocket for a decent meal and not for a silly game of cards? Even so, Serenity stayed the course, always remembering Jack knew she could do great things, and no other opinion on the subject would ever matter.

That's when Rook came, she thought, warm in the folds of sleep and dreams. That's when I found him.

She began her covert search for the members of the Guild, watching the travelers who came and went, the ones seeking knowledge at the school and throwing cards in the tavern. Guildsmen kept their studies even more secretly than other weavers, of course, and dozens might wander through Eclipse every week, passing time at the Den or trading studies at the school, without ever betraying their true nature.

Years passed, and she kept her vigil, still working quietly by herself in the back, still spreading the cards out and reading them carefully, on the hunt for whatever secrets might be hidden in them with each new draw. As long as she finished her work and kept her room neat, Magda, no matter how frivolous she thought Serenity's free time might be spent, had no reason to complain.

Then, finally, a man came. Robed and hooded, he kept his hands hidden in the folds of his sleeves, like man of the cloth. He spent his days in and out of the school, but she saw him every night in The Wolf's Den, sitting near the fire, studying the cards just like her. She sensed a shadow about him, a cold, quiet, and isolated nature drawing her eyes to him again and again. And she understood, somehow—it came whispered to her on a sudden cold draft, or snickered to her as the light flickered around his table—this was the man she had been looking for.

Later on, she'd realize where the summons really came from. At the time, though, the discovery felt every bit like a stroke of fate.

She kept watch on him, serving him drinks and food without being asked. She never said a word to him but bowed away respectfully, in the manner of an apprentice. She dropped the signs of thanks and blessing when he nudged a coin toward her, and took care to keep her hands tame when he offered no attention at all. She waited for him to make the first move.

One night, as she set down his amber whiskey beside him, keeping her eyes low, her efforts were rewarded. His hands had emerged from his sleeves to lay out the cards, and for a moment he turned his wrist out, flipping over a rune without seeming to notice her.

A small black letter was tattooed on his flesh. Not a casting rune, not a letter from the futhark. A human symbol, the mark of the Black Guild— she recognized it from the books her teachers didn't want her reading. A simple, geometric triangle with the point toward his longest finger, and a crescent nearly encircling it.

Then, as quickly as he'd revealed it, he turned his wrist over again and studied the cards. Serenity kept her silence, only nodding once before returning to her work.

She knew he'd done it on purpose. The instant had been as deliberate as it had been quick. If she'd missed it, surely he'd have moved on without a second thought, forgetting the curious little girl in the tavern at Eclipse. She hadn't, though, and he'd seen it. Cool blue confidence filled her mind. Yes. He'd seen. He understood. He saw her.

And he didn't disappoint her. As night crept into early morning hours, a knock at the door disturbed her little room at the back of the Den.

On any other night, Serenity would have been sharing the room with another of Magda's girls, but tonight that girl had gone away to her family in the foothills, so Serenity and her visitor were blessedly alone. Another fortunate detail: the last thing Serenity wanted now would be a roommate snooping into this private meeting, or possibly tattling to Magda over a strange guest—a gentleman caller—in the girls' bedrooms.

She opened the door with her head bowed, muttering the weaver's greeting. The weaver, still hidden in the folds and hood of his traveling cloak, returned it with a gentle gesture.

"You cast runes," he said. It wasn't a question. He'd no doubt watched her shuffling and studying just as she'd watched him. His voice came clear and gentle, but with a subtle roughness at the edges, something a little bit seasoned and wild. It filled her with a patient confidence. She nodded.

The temperature dropped as he crossed the threshold. A thrill of goose bumps scaled across Serenity's arms, along with the increasingly familiar sense of blue, wintry energy.

"You can look up," he said. "What is it you want from me?"

"I want to learn greater magic," she replied. "Those in your sect tame the darklings. I wish to do the same."

"You? I doubt you can even begin to understand the risks of higher demonology."

"I'm not afraid."

She felt his eyes on her, though she couldn't see them. He was calculating her, trying to read her. She left herself open to it.

"You're only a child," he said. "What makes you think you can handle power and knowledge of such a nature?"

"I'm eighteen," she replied. "And in six years I've learned more than my share. My mentor chose me from nothing. He called me prodigy."

"And where is your mentor now?"

She paused a moment before saying, "Dead and buried."

The Black Guilder tilted his head to the side. "Then I am sorry for your loss. Who have you studied with since he died?"

"No one. I study by myself. Here at the tavern, or in the library at the school."

"You practice alone?"

"Sometimes, if I'm asked, I throw with others," she said with a half-hearted shrug. "But not often."

"It seems then you are in phase with isa." Lifting his hands, he produced a card from somewhere within his sleeves—a lady at rest within a haze of white frost. "The primal ice, symbol of isolation and withdrawal."

"But also of meditation," she added. "And of wisdom."

Again, the curious sense of his careful eyes.

She couldn't help but smirk, just a little. "As I said, I am a good student."

"So I will venture to guess isa is your mark, is it?"

Her gaze dropped to the floor. A quiet flush rose to her cheeks, and she shook her head. "I... have no mark. Yet."

Silence fell between. Even though she couldn't see his face, she could feel surprise in his wordless response. She'd called herself a prodigy, claimed to be ready to seek magic of the darkest type...but she kept to herself, learning alone. She sought no collaboration, no exchange of ideas, skills or discovery. She was a stray.

She hadn't even earned her runic name.

"The scholars say I must wait longer," she added with a half-shrug of one shoulder. "Until I've shown them I am a serious student."

"Then you are not ready." He turned to leave.

In a moment of desperation, Serenity lunged, seizing his arm and pulling him back to her. "No, please! I am ready, I am more than ready!"

He didn't move, the dark shadow of his face beyond the hood turned away from her, avoiding her pleading eyes. "Your teachers haven't seen fit to draw you a mark. You're just an unnamed fledgling. You haven't proven your worth to them, so you cannot be ready to prove it to me."

Not letting go of him, she pressed on. "They dismiss me because I choose to study on my own, because I read spreads they've never conceived of, and because the runes and chains dance for me even when they expect me to fail. They want me to follow their rules for rune-weaving, and since I won't, they hold me at bay until they think they can understand why. The Black Guild may be the only weavers who can offer me the teaching that I need."

"You think so? You can't imagine the amount of power it will take to conquer a darkling and hold him in your grasp."

"But I will learn," she insisted. "And even if you will not teach me, I will learn on my own. I will find a way."

He sighed, then gently tugged his arm from her grip. "What you know of our guild has come to you through whisper and hearsay, rumors spread by people who know nothing of our ways. You know nothing of our ways. What makes you so sure you are capable of the kind of magic I would have you learn?"

Serenity lifted her chin. "Because the scholars here deny it. Because they're afraid of it, but fear only means they're not willing to understand or explore it. They're afraid of the runes I cast, when I cast them in my own ways. I'm not afraid. I've told you as much, and my mentor knew I would do great things. I can't be great unless I'm willing to learn all there is about rune-weaving, and to know all there is I must know this, too. And I must learn it from someone who is not afraid to teach me."

"Your mentor, would he approve of this?"

She paused again. "Does it matter?"

The Black Guilder faced her once more. Now, though, she felt something else: a real, tangible icy breath, traveling up and down her flesh, under the cloth of her blouse and skirt, running through her hair and close to her scalp. Something searching her...really searching her. She fought the urge to shiver.

"I will be a student of the Black Guild," she said when he remained silent. "Whether I learn from you...from the next Guilder who sits at our tables...or even if I have to leave this place and seek others out, all across the continent. But I will do it, believe me."

The touch of cold drifted across her shoulders. Nipping, velvet fingers tripped like tiny grasshoppers along her neck. A low susurration rose in her ears, and it took her a moment to realize it wasn't her own brain playing tricks on her. Under his hood, her visitor mumbled, seemingly to himself. Then, all at once, she understood the chill presence she'd sensed around him since he first caught her eye.

His darkling. Of course.

The guildsman lifted his hands and pushed back his hood. He was a tribal, from the south, with a face tawny and lion-like, his eyes a wild, molten yellow. He wore his long, red-black hair tied back in braids, adorned with two white feathers by his right ear. It surprised her. She'd never met a tribal who studied the art of runes.

He inclined his head. "Very well. I can teach you. But I'll show no compassion if you are not every bit as dedicated as you claim to be."

An overwhelming gratitude flooded her chest. She nodded, a quick and eager motion, then bowed low in thanks.

He put his hand out to her shoulder, not gentle or brotherly, like Jack, but sudden and solemn, a firm grip, and straightened her. "You'll need to learn more than the higher magic of weaving if you travel with me. Do you have guns?"

She nodded again. She had Jack's pistols, wrapped in cloth and hidden beneath her bed.

"You'll also need a satchel and equipment for making camp along the road. Can you ride?"

"I can," she said. "And I have enough coin saved for a horse and saddle."

"Good. Then I'll speak with you again when I am ready for us to leave, Serenity Walker."

She didn't ask how he'd learned her name, nor did she say anything more as he turned away from her. He put up his hood again and disappeared into the dimly lit passage, and she watched him go, studying the turn of his step and the line of his posture with curious, and ecstatic, fascination.

She was his now. His student, his apprentice, adopted into his care.

As it had once been with Jack.

A thought crossed her mind all of a sudden. How much of this man—her new teacher—was truly the man?

How much was the demon?





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