Dawn of the Dark Times

By James C.G. Shirk

Fantasy, Action & adventure

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77
10 mins

Chapter 1

Avoid the ire of one who commands power, for he possesses means to unleash a terrible wrath upon thee.
      — Admonitory on a Merman bathhouse wall


   VilSono took a deep breath and wiped his palms against his trouser legs. Rax was furious. Just moments ago, the primus had related the results of the Blood incursion to the Ryan ranch on the other side. The affair had gone badly. His Second was killed by Kalan’s grandson and his forces routed by a coalition of humans, Merkim’s paladins, and a contingent of ex-pat mermen.
   The news was received predictably, the result just as predictable. The king faced the immense fireplace, his eyes fixed on the flickering flames, his fingers massaging the bloody mass in his left hand in a way vilSono found disgusting. Not that he was about to say anything. “Maluk was a fool,” Rax said. “But even so, a human should never have been able to kill him. It’s inconceivable.”
   “The Second was known to take unnecessary chances,” vilSono replied.
   “It still should not have happened, especially not at the hands of a pup,” Rax growled, turning away from the flames. “And worst of all, he was an offspring of the one who defiled the Tower.” His sharp-nailed fingers squeezed again, dripping blood on the primus’s corpse at his feet. A jagged hole represented what remained of the unfortunate’s throat, a reminder it was never wise to be the one who gave the king bad news.
   “I agree,” vilSono said, acting conciliatory. “The Ryan family has done little but vex you for a very long time.”
   The mention of Rax’s nemesis only served to make the king angrier. His misshapen face twisted into a mask of pure hatred. The First Proxis immediately recognized he’d made a mistake and held his tongue, hoping silence would quiet his master’s wrath.
   They stood in silence for a while as Rax relentlessly clenched and unclenched his hands, nostrils flaring. At last, he heaved his shoulders and spoke. “There’s little I can do on his side, at least overtly, now that the High Council has taken interest.”
   “It is unfortunate you cannot make him return to Tir fo Thuinn where the promise could be nullified.”
   Rax cocked his head. “I’m surprised you speak so. Of late, I’ve ruminated along the same lines.” He rubbed at his chin. “I can’t force Kalan to return, but perhaps … perhaps someone else could be persuasive in doing so.”
The elusive idea stalking around Rax’s mind began to take on solid form. For the first time in a long while, a smile creased his lips. He began to pace back and forth across the room, thinking. At length, he stopped and tossed the gory mess in his hand to the Hsigo who sat on a perch by the fireplace. The monkey-dog-man-bird beast deftly caught the offering in its mouth, secured it with its talons, and immediately began ripping it apart with its pointed teeth.
   “I’ve a thought,” Rax said, eyeing vilSono while wiping his hands on his shirt.  “Something that will take time to consider and even more to arrange. First, however, I’ve certain work with the free lords that requires my personal attention. But when my mind is cleared of such matters, I will have a task for you in the north.”
   The First Proxis bowed. It appeared some good was going to come out of this after all. So far, he’d been excluded from events underway in the stronghold at Uln. In fact, only three of the king’s closest Custos had any knowledge of what was going on up there. None of his own efforts to uncover information had proven successful, and now the king was primed to actually send him.
   “Whatever My Lord desires. I shall journey to the mountain stronghold personally to ensure complete secrecy.”
   Rax smirked. “We’re not talking about Uln. When the time comes, you will return to the keep at Cliff’s End. There will be no need for secrecy, but we will want you to go. Do not send a lackey in thy stead.”
   “Whenever you wish,” vilSono said, his voice controlled so as not to betray his displeasure the assignment would not be Uln. He did wonder, however, at Rax’s changed demeanor. The king’s smile and reversion to royal tongue indicated he was up to something. It could only mean one thing. Someone, somewhere, was about to have a terrible surprise.
   “And one more thing,” Rax said. “While about your tasks, consider a candidate for Second Proxis. I’ll need a replacement for Maluk with appropriate credentials, one who commands respect, or better yet, dread within the fear sidhe, and—”
   “And what, My Lord?”
   “Make sure it’s someone who also despises you. That part shouldn’t be too hard.”
   VilSono bowed and retreated toward the door. “I shall begin the search immediately.”
   “Don’t search. Just do.”
   “Yes, My Liege,” he replied. “As you command.”


Chapter 2

   Friday morning, and I was happy to be back in Chicago with a free weekend in front of me. It had been almost a month since that epic weekend at my grandfather’s place in Montana. For me, things had more or less returned to normal (or whatever passed for normal when it came to living with the knowledge of faeries).
   Much had happened after leaving Cole’s. Most of it good. I had taken a side trip to the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado and was now finishing up a series I was writing on whitewater rafting. Two magazines had expressed interest, and that wasn’t even the best news.
    I’d met Alexia.
   She was a grad student—working on her PhD at the University of Chicago—who I ran into one night at Jimmy’s in Hyde Park (best place in town for a grilled cheese and a cold one). We hit it off right away. Later, when I told Cole, he’d sounded excited about the possibilities. Of course he would. He was still on me about getting married early and starting a family.
The phone rang as I stretched and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I sat up and grabbed my cell phone off the nightstand, nearly jerking the charger out of the socket in the process. “Hello,” I said sleepily.
   “Sorry it’s so early,” Alex said. “But I’ve got a seven o’clock TA (teaching assistant) assignment and some meetings afterwards, so I’ll be tied up for the rest of the day. Just wanted to know if we’re still on for tomorrow night?”
   “You bet. I should finish writing my article today, so—” A pounding at my front door grabbed my attention. “Hey, someone’s at the door. Can I call you back?”
   “Kay, but I gotta go. Call after nine o’clock.” We hung up, and I slipped on a robe to go see who was after me so early in the morning. When I opened the door, I was shocked to see Cole standing on my doorstep, Eamon right behind him. “Cole, what are you doing here?”
   “Couldn’t get you to answer last evening, so I decided to come up and see you in person.”
   “Yeah, my phone has a problem holding a charge. I didn’t realize it was dead until I went to bed.” An afterthought jumped into my head. “Came up from where?”
   “Sprigs. Go brush your teeth, grab a shower or whatever, and let’s have some coffee. I’ve got some things to talk to you about.” He pushed by me and headed into the kitchenette.
   Fifteen minutes later, we sat at the kitchen table. He’d made the coffee while I got ready. He took a big sip, as though he needed a kick start before telling me why he was here. “That’s better,” he said, setting the cup aside. “I’ve got news about Rax. First off, he’s gotten his hands on the Eye of Danu.”
   “Damn.” From what Cole had told me before, having a merman control the amulet was about the worst thing in the world for merrows. “At the ranch, you said it was no longer in your possession. Where was it?”
   He sniffed, grabbed his handkerchief, and dabbed at his mouth. “Actually, I think I said it wasn’t at the ranch, which was true; however, I still had control of it. Merkim told me to keep it when I came back from Tir fo Thuinn.”
   “Why in the hell would she do that?”
   “Because of Rax’s Samhain promise to her. She figured it was actually better off on this side than in Tir fo Thuinn. Rory O’Shaughnessy had kept it safe for over a century, so she figured…” He shrugged and took another drink of his coffee. “Anyway, I kept it with me right up until your grandmother passed. After I discovered Rax was involved in her death, I figured I’d better do something to make absolutely sure he wouldn’t get his hands on it, a precaution if you will.” He raised an eyebrow. “Like, for instance, if I had an accident or mysteriously contracted something fatal.”
   I got the message. “So, what’d you do with it?”
   “I decided to put it in an iron box and hide it just like Rory did. I figured no matter what happened to me, no merman could divine its whereabouts. And then, probably because I’m an old romantic at heart, I decided to store it in old Shaughnessy’s safe.”
   “You had his safe?”
   “Actually, I had his farm. In fact, I was there just yesterday. When his last heir died off, I bought the place for its sentimental value. Anyway, old Shaughnessy had an ancient Excelsior safe tucked away in a corner of the farmhouse, so that’s where I put it. As far as I was concerned, no one knew it was there but Merkim and me, and I was the only one with the combination.”
   “Sounds as though someone else had to know,” I said.
   “I must’ve slipped up somewhere. Don’t know exactly how,” he replied.         “Hiding it there felt like a good idea at the time, but then yesterday morning I got a call from Freddy, the caretaker-manager, telling me the farmhouse had been broken into. I went right away. He showed me the safe, which had been opened. Not forced, just opened. The iron box I put it in was lying on the floor, empty.
   “Can’t undo what’s done, I guess. What does it mean as far as Merkim is concerned?”
   “That’s a bit of good news. Fortunately, Rax still can’t use it. Its powers are locked down while it’s bonded to me. His only choice to unlock them is to get rid of me, but he promised Merkim he wouldn’t harm me on this side.”
   “Sounds like a standoff,” I said. “Kind of where we’ve been all along.” Cole didn’t respond. There was more to this story. “So, I’m guessing you’re not here just to tell me that bit of news.”
   He fondled the coffee cup, thinking. “No, it’s not. I have new information concerning Sabine. Merkim thinks she has a way to rescue her.”
   “Sounds like great news.”
   “Yeah, sort of. The thing is, she thinks Rax is dangling her out there as bait to try and get me to return to Tir fo Thuinn for the rescue attempt.”
It only took a moment for me to break that idea down. “So, he could legally kill you under faerie law on that side without breaking his promise and recover the powers of the amulet at the same time. Pretty sneaky, but you have to admire his logic.”
   “I agree, but Merkim thinks she has a way to get around his trap. With this damn disease, however, I’m less than a match for much of anything Rax might throw my way.”
   Here it comes, I thought. “Which brings us to why you’re really here?”
Cole nodded. “The truth is, after seeing how you handled yourself at the ranch last month, your chances of being successful over there are a lot better than mine. You’ve got the gifts, my boy.”
   Those gifts were something I wasn’t sure I wanted, but now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Of course, I’ll do whatever you need me to, Cole. You know that.”
   His eyes momentarily watered over. “I know, Neil, and it means everything to me. My promise to Sabine has been baggage I’ve carried around for all the years she’s been held by that maniac.”
   “I don’t know how she kept going,” I said. “I think I would’ve given up wanting to live by now.”
   “Merkim took care of that a long time ago,” Cole said. “Periodically, a merrow healer was put into a windowless carriage and taken somewhere in the mountains to tend to Sabine’s health. If you remember, Rax promised to keep her well. Early on, the healer slipped Sabine a potion to effectively induce a fugue state. For her, the passage of time has meant almost nothing.”
   Thinking about the stress she’d endured being held as a prisoner brought back thoughts of my own experience in Afghanistan. Cole, it seemed, read my thoughts. “Are you managing your condition okay?” he asked. “Any episodes since what happened at the ranch?”
   “Nothing significant.” I lied.
   “I think you’ve got it licked, but if you harbor even the slightest doubt, you need to tell me now. Any hesitancy on the other side will get you killed. You saw what they can do in Montana.”
   “I’m good, Cole. Really, so what’s the plan?”
   “Merkim asked for me to come on Sunday night. It’s festival time again in Tir fo Thuinn, and with all the revelry going on, Rax will be sidetracked. She’s sending Gwyn over to escort me. What I need is for you to come back to Montana with me right now. We can indoctrinate you in faerie culture and paladin protocols. Probably wouldn’t hurt to practice a little on sword and other faerie fighting skills as well.”
   “Let’s do it.” I realized as I said it, there was another item to be considered. “I need to tell Alex I’ll be out of town for a few days. I was just on the phone with her, and she’s expecting me to call her back.”
   “Alex? Oh yeah, your new girlfriend. Sorry Neil, probably not a good idea to let anyone know you’re out of pocket. If Rax is keeping tabs on you, he might draw conclusions that would not be helpful. I’d prefer you just come with us and let Alex fret a bit for the short while you’ll be gone. You can patch things up with her when you get back. Blame me if it helps.” He looked around the apartment. “Leave everything here except Amari’s diary. I want you to bring it along. Anything else you need, I’ve got it at the ranch.”
   “Okay.” I wasn’t happy with his logic but understood where it came from.  “Just let me grab my phone.”
   “No, leave it. I don’t want you to take anything electronic. It might be bugged or tracked.”
   That left me cold. “You think I’ve been bugged?”
   “Don’t know, don’t care. We’re this close, and we can’t take any chances now.”
   I went to get the diary. Just a few minutes ago, I thought I’d be having a casual weekend with Alex, and now it looked like I was about to go off to who knew where to do who knew what.
   Damned faeries.



Chapter 3

   Strength of spirit manifests itself in many ways. One such way can be taken as acquiescence by casual observation when in reality, it reflects wisdom, consideration, and cunning.
        — The writings of Shama Laren’il IV

   It was quiet and dark in the small retreat. Candlelight provided the only illumination in the room. The darkened ambiance suited the troll Shama perfectly. He sat cross-legged with head bowed, eyes fixed on a page of proverbs in the Kresha-ta’tol, the ancient troll holy book that rested in his lap. He’d hoped there were words in the passages to soothe his fears, but so far, none had appeared.
   Events in the mountains were moving quickly, and his concern about the merman king grew daily. Disturbing reports came from his priests in the enclave to the north, very disturbing. So far, he’d kept the information to himself, but tomorrow he had his weekly meeting with Hargard, the troll king. He’d already decided to tell him of his concerns. The only question was what the king would do about it.
   A soft knock at the door.
   One of the four Dau-dal warriors, responsible for his safety, pulled back the slide on the viewing portal and looked outside. She turned to the Shama. “Your supper.”
   He looked up from the book. “I’ll take it here.”
   “A moment,” she said to the two hooded apostles outside. She closed the slide, released the three security latches, and a pair entered. She noticed their hoods remained in place, covering their faces. A hidden face was a total breach of protocol when in the presence of the Shama. All knew the rule. None violated it, especially not apostles.
   She reached for the black-boned knife at her hip.
   Too late.
   The apostle closest to her whipped a short sword from beneath his robe. The blade cut deep and true, severing her hand above the wrist. She screamed and fell to her knees. His foot lashed out, catching her in the forehead, silencing her.
   With lightening reflexes, two of the Dau-dal pulled their bows free and began to nock arrows but, again, not soon enough. The other apostle spun. His white robe unfurled as two faerie throwing knives shot from the folds. Both warriors clutched at their throats as the blades split skin. The deadly poisoned knife points embedded themselves into bony spinal columns. Neither of the guards uttered a sound as they slumped to the floor.
   The remaining Dau-dal guard leaped to her feet in front of the Shama who had now risen. A dagger appeared in her hand. The apostle who’d killed the guard by the door stepped calmly toward her. “Move not a step more or feel my steel,” she said, eyes focused, calculating.
   He took another step.
   Her knife shot forward, piercing the robe, sinking into unguarded flesh. The apostle grabbed her hand, held it in place, and twisted. The bones in her wrist gave an audible snap. She howled and fell backward, releasing the dagger.
   Looking down at the knife in his chest, the apostle slowly pulled it free. He examined the blood on the blade for a moment—seemingly perplexed by its appearance—and made a quick decision. A quick step forward, a lightening move, and the blade buried itself under the Dau-dal’s chin. The tip pierced the roof of her mouth and buried itself in her brain. Death was almost instantaneous.
   Her form dropped lifeless at the Shama’s feet.
   “Leave it. Come with us,” the apostle said evenly.
   The Shama, knowing any objection was futile, did as instructed. He placed the holy book next to the lifeless body of his former protector and went to the doorway.
   As they left the room, one of the intruders looked to the Dau-dal warrior with the severed hand. She was just beginning to recover from the blow to her head.
   “Tell the king we will be in contact,” he said.
   Less than three minutes after arriving, the pair was gone.




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