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An excerpt from The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell

Posted on April 14, 2010 by Flames

With The Conqueror’s Shadow, Ari Marmell brings a welcome seasoning of wit to the genre, proving that dark fantasy can address the enduring questions of good and evil and still retain a sense of humor. Playful yet intense, sharply sarcastic yet deeply sincere, The Conqueror’s Shadow announces the appearance of a unique talent—and an antihero like no other.

Flames Rising is pleased to present a portion of Chapter Six of this new novel by Ari Marmell…

The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell

    Chapter Six

    “Are you sure you can keep up?” Corvis asked, concerned.

    “As long as you don’t have the poor beast galloping the entire way, yes.” Davro actually huffed. “The day a healthy ogre can’t outlast a horse is the day I hang up my sword for good.”

    “Umm, Davro, you tried that already. That’s why I found you herding pigs.”

    “Oh, shut up.”

    Corvis, his head bobbing slightly with Rascal’s methodical gait, watched around him as the ground passed beneath their feet. The grasses glowed with a jade sheen in the light of the afternoon sun, and the grazing animals watched them pass with a minimum of alarm. Clearly the beasts of this place had few worries or concerns. The trees, though sporadic, were tall, their leaves thick in the full bloom of health. A few white clouds drifted over the mountains, casting enormous shadows upon the valley.

    “This is a beautiful place you picked to live,” Corvis admitted. “I’m surprised there isn’t a settlement here.”

    “Don’t get any ideas, Rebaine. I like it nice and empty.”

    “Relax, Davro. I’m not moving in, just commenting. And I promise you, I’ll do my best to get you back here just as soon as possible.”

    “Why, how kind of you. That’s so considerate, I could just squat.”

    “I’m trying to make conversation,” Corvis protested. “To make the journey go faster.”

    “I see. You know what’s even better than trying to make conversation?”

    “What?”

    Not trying to make conversation.”

    “Perhaps I’ll be quiet, then.”

    “Miracles do happen.”

    Corvis, deciding he wasn’t apt to get the better of this particular conversation, chose to watch the miles and the scenery pass in silence.

    It was Davro, in fact, who finally broke the hush. Just as they reached the edges of the foothills, where even the tiny knolls tapered off into sprawling flatlands, he asked, “Rebaine. . . How by all the reeking hells did you even find me?”

    The former warlord grinned down from his perch atop Rascal’s back. “I didn’t have to find you. I cast a locating spell on each and every one of my officers and advisors at the start of my campaign twenty years ago. Never saw any reason to dispel the enchantment, so it’s still active. All I have to do is concentrate on you, and I’ve got an exact direction and approximate distance.”

    Davro scowled, his tusks quivering. “Didn’t trust us?”

    “Hell, no!” Corvis laughed briefly. “I didn’t trust anyone at the time, though, so you shouldn’t take it personally.”

    “Fine. So you can find me. Seilloah and–what was that reptile’s name? Valescienn. You know how to get to them, too?”

    “Well . . .” Corvis frowned briefly, an expression not lost on the ogre stomping along beside him, flattening the flora as he walked. “Seilloah, yes.”

    “Not Valescienn?” Davro asked in mock sympathy. “Did the poor widdle sorcerer overestimate his spelly-welly?” He grinned wickedly at the disgust sliding across Corvis’s features.

    “Something’s disrupted the spell on Valescienn. Not sure what it might have been, or even if it was deliberate or not.”

    “Someone broke one of your spells by accident? My admiration grows by leaps and bounds.”

    “It’s an old spell, damn it! And a small one! It’s entirely possible–”

    “I bet one of Rheah Vhoune’s spells would have held up.”

    Corvis glowered. “You’re not planning to make this journey pleasant, are you?”

    Davro looked at him seriously, his single eye glaring straight into the human’s own. “Not in the slightest. Why should I be the only one who’s miserable?”

    Another mile passed in silence. The terrain flattened, broken only by grasses waving in the wind and an occasional copse of fir trees.

    “So where is Seilloah, oh master wizard?” the ogre said abruptly. “You still haven’t told me where we’re going.”

    Corvis, who’d hoped his companion might forget the issue for a while longer, squared his shoulders.

    “Well, you know her fondness for–umm, sylvan surroundings, right?”

    “Rebaine . . .”

    “And we know that, being who and what she is, she doesn’t have a lot of the innate prejudices and superstitions a lot of the common folk are prone to.”

    Davro’s jaw was beginning to twitch. “Rebaine? Where?”

    Corvis sighed. “If I’m judging the distance right . . . Theaghl-gohlatch.”

    The ogre drew back, his eye widening so far his entire face stretched. He hissed, little more than an indrawn breath, and the hand that wasn’t already clutching his spear dropped instinctively to the hilt of his newly polished sword.

    “You’re mad! You’ve gone absolutely, stark-raving insane!”

    “I’m as sane as I ever was,” Corvis said mildly.

    “Oh, that’s reassuring! No! Not a chance! We might as well just have it out right here! I’ll have a better chance of getting home that way than I ever will in Theaghl-gohlatch.”

    “I doubt it’s as bad as all that.”

    “Go to hell. You humans think of my people as savage–and maybe we are–but one of the first things we ever learn, before we set a single finger on a spear or a sword, is that death should accomplish something. You want me to face a few hundred soldiers armed only with a ladle and a live turkey, well, there’s honor to be gained dying in battle, so I might at least think it over before telling you to go rut yourself. But there is no way I’d even consider throwing my life away for no purpose at all! No. I’m not going.”

    “I seem to recall an oath, Davro.”

    “That was before I knew about this lunacy! I said I’d help to the best of my ability. Dying impaled on a blood-sucking tree by some forest demon is not the best of my ability.”

    “Fine,” Corvis snapped, exasperated with the entire affair. “Walk with me as far as the edge of the forest. Then you can make camp and sit with Rascal while I go in and find Seilloah.”

    “And what am I supposed to do while I’m waiting?”

    “I don’t care! Sing campfire songs, tell the horse ghost stories–whatever!” Corvis kicked Rascal into a brisk trot, unconcerned with any reply the ogre might make.

    And that, with the exception of essential observations such as “We’ll camp here,” and “Snore like that again and I’ll shove a rabbit up your nose,” was the extent of the conversation for the next five days. The miles passed at a crawl–the plains alone stretched on for almost three days, draining a surprisingly large portion of the rations Corvis carried.

    Fortunately for the travelers’ stomachs, the plains gradually gave way to a thin wood that, according to Corvis’s map and the tug of his spell, would eventually thicken into the nigh-impassible forest of Theaghl-gohlatch. The wood was benign, at least initially, not to mention teeming with deer, wild rabbits, and a plethora of other edible creatures (including the occasional owl, which Davro insisted was a delicacy among his people). Upon entering the woodlands, Corvis retrieved a short recurved bow from his saddlebag, and set out to kill something a bit meatier than a shriveled apricot or flattened fig. He hadn’t bagged anything larger than a rabbit on their first night in the woods, but it took only a few tries the second evening before he put a steel-tipped shaft into the side of a large buck. Davro broke several thick branches from the nearby trees and whittled them into something approaching Y’s. One sharpened sapling later, they were sitting beside a cheerful fire, watching the animal slowly roast.

    His tongue loosened and his attitude mollified by the prospect of a real meal, Davro condescended to speak that evening. “I suggest you smoke as much of this as possible and take it with you. You won’t want to shoot anything once you actually enter Theaghl-gohlatch.”

    Corvis smiled around a mouthful of venison, trying to catch the juices before they rolled down his chin. “I think you’re being just a bit paranoid, Davro. Legends and superstition.”

    “You’ll change your tune quickly enough when some banshee’s sucking your soul out through your pupils.”

    Corvis’s only immediate response was a muted chuckle–but when he woke Davro for watch some time around midnight, the ogre couldn’t help but notice the heavy scent of smoke mingling with the succulent aroma of the meat.

    It was roughly four hours after noon the next day when Davro’s steady pace jerked to a sudden halt, Corvis pulling Rascal up alongside him. They stared in silence at the sight rising from the earthen floor to greet them.

    “I’m going to take a wild stab at this,” Corvis said quietly, “and say that we’re here.”

    It appeared as though the gods had decided, on a whim, that the forest needed a wall to spruce it up. Thick and heavy, consisting primarily of trees far older than those through which the travelers had passed, it formed a solid barrier. Between and around the ancient moss-covered trunks sprouted a variety of bracken and brambles, rough-edged leaves and needle-tipped thorns visible even in the dim light. If Corvis had half-a-dozen men with axes, he might have carved a man-sized passage in time to do any good. As it was, it appeared impossible for even a lone man, unmounted, to make his way into the thickets of Theaghl-gohlatch.

    No way except for one perfectly clear path cutting through the impenetrable mass of trees, a mountain cave transported to the forest depths. It gaped open, an ovoid orifice that Corvis firmly insisted to himself did not look like a mouth, just like the overhanging branches that protruded into the tunnel did not look like fangs. Moisture, possibly dew or collected rainwater, trickled from some of those branches to drip irregularly onto the dirt below.

    “I hate this,” Corvis said simply.

    “Can’t imagine why,” the ogre told him. “Legend and superstition.”

    “Yes, but it’s an awfully dark legend and superstition.”

    “Can’t say I’d recommend carrying a torch in there, either. Some of those branches are pretty low-hanging.”

    Corvis shook his head and then determinedly slid down from the saddle. “I’m not entirely without magic, Davro. I can make light enough to see.” Brusquely, he adjusted the sword at his left side to a more comfortable angle and slung Sunder’s baldric over his left shoulder to rest at his right hip.

    “Armor?” Davro asked.

    “Not in there. I’d rather be able to move.”

    The ogre shrugged. “Your call. If you’re not here in two days, I’m calling you dead and going home. Any later, and I won’t get back to my animals before the last of the food runs out or goes bad.”

    “I told you, Seilloah will take care of that.”

    “Only if you’re alive to ask her to.”

    “Fair point. All right, Davro, wish me luck.”

    “Why?”

    Taking a deep breath to steady himself–after all, there was nothing to be worried about (and that gaping, slavering hole did not look like a mouth, damn it!)–Corvis stepped inside.

    If someone had simply tossed a heavy cloth over his head, it could not have grown more instantly dark. Even though the passage loomed open behind him, the light itself seemed to lose its nerve, refusing to enter the depths of Theaghl-gohlatch. Corvis wondered if it was possible for light to be afraid of the dark, and then quickly gave up the notion.

    All right, Corvis, focus already. Evil warlord. Terror of the East. Not about to let a forest stop us, are you?

    Shaking off his doubts, Corvis muttered the words to a minor incantation. His surroundings began, barely perceptible at first but with growing rapidity, to brighten. He kept the illumination down to a muted glow, little more than a moderately sized lantern. He wanted to see, but he also wanted to disturb as few of the denizens of this place as possible. Somehow, the thought of flooding the surrounding hundred yards with daylight didn’t seem even vaguely inconspicuous.

    Now that sight was more than a memory of happier moments, Corvis studied the environment, one hand hovering within a hairsbreadth of Sunder.

    The earth beneath his feet was a thick, tightly packed soil that clung tenaciously to the soles of his boots as he braved the darkness. Here and there, a small sapling, a hint of brush, or a far-ranging root would intrude into his path, but by and large he seemed to tread upon a road deliberately cut through the heart of the wood. On either side, reaching into a canopy of leaves too dark to make out, the trees lined up, soldiers of a relentless, disciplined army. Only a handful were visible at any given time, briefly touched by the light he cast as he walked, and just as rapidly fading back into the permanent gloom that was their entire world.

    And if the branches quivered where the light touched them, if the leaves and twigs drew back from the gleaming, well, that was just a trick of the breeze and the rustling of small animals. Right?

    The roof above, interwoven branches and heavy leaves, was lost in shadow beyond the range of his meager light. Corvis felt that even had he cast his spell with all the power at his command, the weight hanging over his head would still appear as nothing more than a dark, threatening veil.

    The rustling of the trees grew more violent. Corvis could hear the gentle whisper of leaf upon leaf, the scraping of twigs and branches. The shadows cast by the looming trees danced across his face and arms, phantoms that threatened to claw at his eyes, his mind, his soul.

    Shadows? On his face? Corvis suddenly swallowed, his throat dry as if he’d gulped down a mouthful of desert sand. He cast the spell; he was the only source of light! The shadows should be falling away from him.

    Yet the flickering and dancing continued before him. And even as he glanced in growing apprehension to either side, determined to spot the shadows he knew must be stretching away from him into the forests, his eyes could pick out nothing but a wall of gloom, a curtain of darkness hanging, impenetrable, behind the first of what must have been countless rows of the ancient forest giants. He felt each and every one of the hairs on his neck slowly stand up, and the Terror of the East barely repressed a shiver.

    Slowly, Corvis looked back the way he came. He’d walked only a dozen steps or so into the heavy, unnatural night of Theaghl-gohlatch. Still, he was not even remotely surprised to discover the passageway sealed behind him; it was simply too apropos. Where before there was a portal–menacing but perfectly functional–into the forgotten world of light and life, there stood now only more of the implacable forest: layers upon layers of trees standing between him and whatever was out there.

    With little other option, then, Corvis went forward.

    I’ll admit this much; if–when–I do get out of here, I’m going to pay a damn sight more attention to Davro’s legends and superstition!

    Only when he’d maintained his steady pace for several moments and had grown as accustomed to the alien surroundings as he was ever likely to, did further details penetrate his numbed mind. Sounds–quiet, distant, muted, but present all the same–slowly worked their way into his ears. The call of an owl, the chitter of a squirrel of some sort–they were all there, and more. For all the fear that lurked in this place like another hungry predator, the wood apparently contained all the requisite woodland life of any other forest. He found that oddly comforting. Hell, if a squirrel could live here, the place couldn’t be all bad, could it?

    But this ephemeral respite proved just another taunting phantom, as he realized that the sounds never changed. No matter where he walked or what noise he made, the calls of the animals remained unaltered, neither drawing nearer nor rushing away in sudden fear. What briefly seemed a comfort was now mocking him, mocking his foolishness in daring to hope. It seemed as though all he heard–all he would ever hear–were the echoes of life that had not existed in this place for untold ages.

    There! A sudden flash of movement on the path before him, barely within the last flickering inches of his light spell’s range. Nothing tangible, nothing identifiable, just motion where before there was none, and then back to the same, featureless trail.

    Corvis, one hand upon each weapon, had all but convinced himself it was merely his imagination when he spotted it again, this time vanishing into the woods on his right. With lightning speed, Corvis drew his sword, sending it whistling through the air. There was no sound of impact, no blood upon the blade. Somewhere, in the depths of Theaghl-gohlatch, the chittering of one of the squirrels slowly twisted and warped itself into a hair-raising cackle of malevolent glee.

    It–they–were all around him now, darting in and out on the fringes of his light: ghosts and shadows, movement without form, never remaining long enough for him to make out any detail but the simple presence of–presence. Laughter echoed from the trees around him, cloaked in the call of the hunting owl or the rustling of the leaves. Another blur of movement, nearer than before. Corvis gasped at the sudden touch of fire across his left arm. He stared in shock at the wound–three perfectly parallel gashes, deep, bloody, and already swelling with some unnatural infection–that marred the surface of his skin.

    Fighting the urge to lash out blindly around him, Corvis carefully returned the sword to its scabbard, and drew Sunder from his right hip with a quick, fluid motion. The Kholben Shiar flared at the feel of flesh and blood against its grip, exulted at the sense of fear and pain and, most delectable of all, burning fury in its wielder.

    The laughter ceased in a sudden hiss of indrawn breath from among the nearest trees. “Enemy!” It was a whisper, but it carried clearly across the unobstructed path. It cradled within itself the voice of legions, though it was spat forth as a single word, from a single source.

    A heartless grin settled across Corvis’s face. If they feared, they could be killed.

    “Enemy, is it now?” he called back, his voice steady, his tone challenging. “So what was I before?”

    Again, an infinity of hisses breathed as one. “Prey . . .”

    “Ah. Given the options, I prefer my current status.”

    Silence from the trees. Even the distant sounds of animals had faded.

    “What’s the matter?” he called, taunting. “Not the way prey’s supposed to act? Not an enemy you’d care to face? Maybe you should have thought of that before you tried taking a piece of–”

    The path, indeed the entire forest, slowly tilted upward before his eyes. He pitched forward, half catching himself with an ungraceful stagger that brought him to one knee. He glanced around wildly, fully expecting a sudden rush of . . . whatever he was facing.

    No attack came, but the simple movement of his head set the entire world to spinning. The butt-end of Sunder smacked the ground, its steadying influence the only thing keeping Corvis even remotely upright.

    What’s happening to me? The wound isn’t that bad! It doesn’t even hurt any–oh . . .

    Though difficult to see through his blurring vision, the gashes along his arm had swelled horribly, spewing blood and a noxious-looking pus into the soil around him. There must have been some anesthetic in the poison, or infection, or whatever coursed through his flesh.

    Fueled by spite as much as anything else, Corvis dragged himself to his feet, leaning on Sunder as though the ancient weapon were a simple cane. Then, though every muscle in his body protested, he lifted the axe and dropped unevenly into a ready stance.

    “You think I’m impressed?” he shouted, his voice grown hoarse as his body battled the raging contagion. “I’m not! Poison or no, I’ll take you with me!” He didn’t know what he was shouting any more, only that the words needed to keep coming, that defiance alone kept him on his feet. “Come on! One at a time or all at once! I’ll drag you into hell with me!”

    And he thought, for an instant, that his unseen tormentors might oblige. Several trees at the illumination’s edge began to writhe and shift, as though something large moved through the branches. Unable to see straight, scarce able to stand, Corvis faced the coming threat.

    Nothing emerged from the madly thrashing trees. Instead–or so it seemed to Corvis’s failing eyes–the branches of the wooden behemoths stretched and split, lacing their ends together at obscene angles, until the abstract suggestion of a face appeared, woven from bark-covered tendrils. Though no eyes hung in those empty sockets, Corvis was convinced that the thing was glaring down at him.

    “I . . .” he began unsteadily, but the face in the trees gave him no time to speak.

    The leaves shuffled in wildly uneven patterns behind the artificial visage, the branches scraped together. And, impossibly, the random cacophony of sound resolved itself into a raspy, but fully intelligible, voice.

    “Follow,” it scraped down at him. Then the branches fell limp, the face dispersing back into its component branches.

    Corvis wondered if the entire thing was some twisted hallucination. But no, the trees leaned aside, branches sweeping back, clearing a second, smaller trail that diverged from the main path. Corvis thought he heard a scream of rage from deep within the trees behind him, but no one and nothing appeared to stop him from taking the newly offered route.

    Head spinning, chest and legs burning, Corvis stumbled onto the smaller trail. He leaned heavily on Sunder, which quivered in disappointment as the battle and blood were left behind. More than once he stumbled and would have fallen, and more than once a heavy branch protruded into the path where it was most needed, presenting itself to steady him. The trail stretched on forever, though Corvis’s poison-wracked senses had lost all track of time and he hadn’t the first notion how long he’d wandered this endless darkness. The passageway twisted and turned randomly. He wondered, with what coherent thought remained to him, if the damn place was just leading him in circles, waiting for him to lay down and die.

    Once, in a lucid moment, he removed a length of bandage from his pack. Shearing off the end, he tied the sliver tightly around the tip of a branch. That, at least, would tell him if he was retracing his own path.

    When he came across the strip of bandage some minutes later, tied tightly around the branch of what was blatantly a different tree, Corvis abandoned himself to whatever force guided his steps.

    For an eternity he stumbled on. His spell of illumination slowly faded, until the feeble glow could barely show him where the trail left off and the endless trees began. He felt himself drenched in sweat, and he cycled regularly from the heat of fever to the chill of the grave as his body tried to burn out the infection. All feeling drained from his arm and it no longer responded to his commands, moving only occasionally as it spasmed without apparent cause.

    He was forced, ever more frequently, to stop and rest, leaning against the trunk of a tree or huddled by the side of the road, vomiting up the few contents of his battered and abused stomach. He thought once of the smoked meat in his pack, realizing much time must have passed since his last meal, but the very notion sent him to his knees, dry-heaving.

    Finally, he stumbled one time too many, and he lacked the strength to catch himself. The taste of soil coated his tongue, dirt caught in the back of his throat, and he found himself blind. He became aware of a faint tickling on his upper lip, decided it was probably an ant, and wondered deliriously if he could rotate his eyes far enough around to see it if it crawled up into his skull. Maybe if he could make himself sneeze hard enough in the right direction, he could catch an updraft and land the little bug in Davro’s dinner. Assuming it was anywhere near dinner time. Corvis laughed hysterically, choking on the soil, and flipped over like a landed fish. No sense in choking to death while he waited for the infection to kill him. He laughed again.

    And then, as his vision cleared for just a moment, he saw it. Not fifteen feet from him, visible only as a vague shape in the last sputtering remnants of his light spell, was a building. Nothing more than a simple hut, but it meant someone was here.

    Or had been here, at any rate. If nothing else, it offered a more comfortable place to die. With the absolute last of his reserves, Corvis drove himself to his feet and staggered through the front door.

    “I see you got my message,” Seilloah told him.

    Everything went black.

    * * *

    This preview for was provided and published with express permission from Spectra and Ari Marmell.

    The Conqueror’s Shadow is available now at Amazon.com.

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