So, I promised a sneak peek at Perilous, my new fantasy WIP….. Because I’m feeling so generous, here is a glimpse at all three of the main POV characters…..plus a first look at the potential cover design!
In the end, it was always the same. The Plague, the Madness, and the Death — the Three Heralds of the Cataclysm. Time and again they brought humanity to its knees. Time and again, only a handful escaped. Time and again, we picked ourselves up, and built civilizations like towers that we believed could withstand the devastation.
Time and again, we failed.
We have watched the cycle of the years so long that now we can see the Heralds of the Cataclysm coming from afar. The last time the Heralds came, we built no mighty civilization, raised no banners in defiance of the skies. We fled to the mountains and built tombs for the living in cold stone, and watched the world fall apart at our feet.
But even that was not enough to save us.
— The Annals of Keridan Vae
On the day the boy came into the world, the midwife who caught him cried out corbran the moment she saw him. Years later the Elders told the boy the story, but no one ever bothered to explain why, or why that word had become his name. He learned that the word used to mean “night raven” in the old language of his people. When he was still young he assumed it referred to his hair, which was much too dark, and his eyes, which even in those first moments were much too gold, like a bird’s.
It wasn’t until many years later that he learned that corbran meant something new to the elders and the soothsayers and the readers of herbs and stars.
To them it meant, Herald Death.
His midwife died two years after his birth, so he never had the chance to ask her if the name was old or new, if the meaning was black the way night is black, or black in the way that Death is black. But whatever she meant by it, that word had been his from the moment he drew his first screaming breath.
His mother was the first to call him Bran, as if that could somehow shatter the link that bound him to Herald Death. If anyone else knew the meaning besides the Elders who locked themselves in the inner Sanctum, at least they did him the kindness of never showing it in his presence.
But when Corbran turned twelve, Elder Matron Daria took him from his class and led him into the Sanctum, and whispered that Chaos was upon them.
And when he turned fourteen, Elder Father Weyman brought him out of the tunnels of the under-mountain city they had built, and on the cusp of a high cliff had shown him the stars and murmured that Darkness was coming.
So as the day marking his eighteenth year approached, a disquiet began gnawing at his mind, troubling his sleep with nightmares of fire and ash and wind, so violent that not even the Wards inked on his shoulder blades and across his heart could drive them away. He told no one about the dreams. He didn’t need to.
The night before his Advancement, his scream told his entire cohort.
When it woke him he lay perfectly still, wondering for one breathless moment if he had actually screamed out loud. His throat burned as if he had, but the stone walls and stone halls persisted in silence for so long that he was sure he’d dreamed it. Then came the flicker of light beyond his curtain, the cold, pale blue shimmer of a weyr lantern. He stiffened, pressing his forehead against the crisp contour of his pillow, praying to whatever gods might be that whoever stood beyond the curtain would think they’d imagined the sound, and go back to bed.
A moment later the curtain twitched aside, letting in a flood of the weird bluish light. Curiosity got the better of him, and he slanted one eye open to peer at the entryway. Idrasi stood there silhouetted by the light—Bran would have recognized his wild halo of pale hair anywhere.
“Bran?” Idrasi hissed. His voice cut in a harsh whisper over the night silence.
“What?” Bran asked, loud and cross.
Idrasi hesitated, then came into the room, holding the lantern up by Bran’s face to see him better. Bran squinted at the light and batted his hand back.
“What do you want?”
“Was that you who nearly cracked the vault just now?” Idrasi asked, ignoring Bran’s discomfort and swinging the lantern up to his face again. “I thought someone was trying to murder you.”
Bran suppressed a shudder.
“No,” he said. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
Idrasi arched a brow. “You woke up everyone. They were all just too scared to come and see if you were still alive. I think Dash was hoping you’d died, so he would have a chance at your title for these last few hours.”
Bran groaned and pushed himself up, wiping a hand over his face. It came away damp with sweat. The rest of his year-mates bunked in a common room just outside his own, and if he listened carefully, he could hear the faint murmur of half a dozen other voices. No laughter.
He let out a thin sigh. At least that.
Perhaps he should have been more concerned about the meaning of his nightmare than whether or not his peers were mocking his terror, but, curse his pride, he couldn’t.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Obviously I’m not murdered. Tell them to go back to sleep.”
Idrasi set the lantern down on Bran’s bedside table and folded his arms on his bare chest, the light and shadows deepening the scowl on his face. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Bran picked up the lantern and shoved it back at him, disturbing the magic enough to make the light flicker.
“Take the damn light out of here and let me go back to sleep. Muster is only a few hours away.” He eyed his friend darkly. “That’s an order.”
Idrasi sighed but gave him a feeble salute. “Yes, Degan.”
Bran couldn’t suppress a triumphant smile as Idrasi turned away. Advancement was tomorrow; Idrasi would never risk earning a rebuke from him tonight.
Advancement. He sighed and laid back down, tucking his hands behind his head and staring up at the rough stone ceiling arching overhead. Every year he and his year-mates celebrated a common birthday, but Advancement was so much more than that. This year Bran’s cohort would finally be leaving their studies at the College. Some of them would become teachers in their own right. Some would train to be guards and wardens, while others would devote themselves to the perfection of their magic and healing arts.
Some, of course, would take up political positions in the Assembly. Everyone assumed that was where Bran would end up — his father had ranked quite high in the Assembly before his untimely death, and his mother had served a long tenure in the Chamber before stepping down a few years ago. Bran imagined that was why his peers had elected him Degan for the last several years of their education. Family history. He certainly hadn’t asked for it. Deep down, he had no desire for it. He didn’t want to be a politician. He didn’t want to squabble and bicker over rules and forms and edicts — he didn’t even want to be governed by them, much less be the author of them.
A dark and wild corner of his mind whispered that there was no point to all their politicking, because Chaos was coming.
Fire, and ash, and wind.
The stuff of nightmares.
In the old library of the capitol city of Vestyg, in the farthest, deepest alcove she’d been able to find, Zari was lost in the chaos of an ancient battle. Victory hung in the balance, fickle as a girl in the blush of Spring, and the dauntless hero Kol had just begun his final charge when—
“Azari!” someone cried, slapping her hard on the shoulder. “What’re you still doing here?”
She jumped clear out of her seat, sweeping the tattered book off the desk and behind her back in the same motion. Her breath rushed out in a sigh that would have sounded like relief if it hadn’t felt so much like despair. In the mercurial candlelight, her headmistress Tola Bayza stood peering up her thick nose at her, squinting her pale grey eyes as if that could help her see better.
“Just studying, Tola,” Zari said, avoiding her gaze.
Tola Bayza craned her neck like a dog to see the tome behind Zari’s back and shook her head. “What use does a girl like you have for reading those old fables? There are better things to fill your head with.”
“You’re the only one who says that,” Zari muttered, setting the book down. “Most people say I shouldn’t be bothering with my head at all.”
Tola Bayza snorted. “Fools, the lot of them. But come now, Zari, why not botany?” She tucked her hand in the crook of Zari’s elbow, leading her out of the library whether Zari wanted to go or not. “You’ve got a knack for the practical disciplines. Always have. Facts and details, that’s what you do well.”
Zari wrinkled her nose, only daring to because Tola Bayza couldn’t see her in the shadows. They’d had this conversation before. The headmistress knew perfectly well that Zari would rather stack bricks than label plants all day. In fact, she’d rather make bricks than label plants all day. But it was a game they played. Tola Bayza liked to feel important, and Zari liked to be left alone. So the headmistress would lecture Zari with unflagging enthusiasm, and Zari would listen in silence…and then keep doing what she’d been doing before.
They passed beneath the library’s glass dome, the tall central pillars gleaming like bone specters in the moonlight. During the day, the sunlight cast the pillars’ carvings in sharp relief, but under the moon they looked smooth as glass. Zari had always liked the library best at night, when there was nothing but silence and dust and the deep shadows where heroes could battle in peace. But Tola Bayza didn’t like visitors in her library when she couldn’t keep an eye on them. Sometimes Zari managed to hide, but usually the headmistress managed to find her. Like tonight.
The small woman marched her through the ring of pillars and all the way to the tall double-doors, her booted heels clacking on the green and rose marble floor. Zari was over a head taller than her but she almost had to run to keep up.
“Go on home now, Zari,” the headmistress said, shoving her out the doors and into the street. “Or, wasn’t there a dance tonight you should be attending?”
Zari grimaced. “Was that tonight?” she asked, but she knew she couldn’t dissemble with Tola Bayza.
The headmistress clucked her tongue and scowled.
“Tola,” Zari said, and held her hands out in appeal. “When you were my age, wouldn’t you have rather been in the library?”
Her scowl deepened. “Maybe, but maybe I regret that now. Do you want to end up like me?”
“I’m a Cradaggi girl stuck in Vestyg, and a student on top of it,” Zari said. “Do I have a choice?”
Tola Bayza jabbed a finger into her shoulder. “You always do. Now go on, get out of here. I’ve got work to do.”
Zari’s spirits brightened. “What work?”
She slammed the door in Zari’s face, turning the bolt with a sharp click. Zari turned, facing the street like it was her executioner. At this hour it was quite empty; everyone would either be at the Gardens for the dance or home asleep like normal humans. Zari had no desire for either. But home was less terrifying than the Gardens, and besides, she still wore her lecture robes. She already got mocked enough on a daily basis for being a student, not to mention the sometimes curious, sometimes suspicious glances she received on account of her dark complexion. The last thing she needed to do was show up at one of the grandest social event of the season in a plain brown smock instead of a jewel-encrusted gown.
When people said dances were for making an appearance, she really didn’t think that was the kind of appearance they had in mind.
Zari sighed and headed for home. Her mother was still awake when she arrived, just as Zari expected. She had a habit of staying up for her daughter, even when Zari convinced her she was only going to be three streets down at somewhere as safe as a library. Zari didn’t like the worry in her eyes when she opened the door, but the look faded quickly enough when her mother realized she was actually alive and not mortally wounded.
“There you are, Zari. Did you have a nice time…? Oh.” Her gaze drifted over Zari, and she gave a small sigh. “You didn’t go to the dance.”
Zari sat down on the low bench by the fire and tugged off her ankle boots, curling her toes appreciatively toward the warmth.
“Bardrew was going to be there,” she said. “I don’t like him.”
Her mother propped her hands on her hips, dark eyes reproachful. “Oh, and you wouldn’t have known anyone else there to talk to.”
Zari leaned onto her knees so her thick black hair hid her face and didn’t answer. Her mother knew she didn’t have many friends; most of her friends would have been hiding in the library with her if they’d been allowed.
“You were at the library, I suppose,” her mother said, leaning over her and brushing back her hair. “You study too much.”
Zari snorted. In most cities, having the chance to study at all would be considered a luxury. In Vestyg, they had one of the greatest libraries in the world and the most renowned university, and still the people thought learning was a nuisance and a waste. Sometimes the world made no sense.
She had always thought she was one of the lucky ones, being sent to school as a child and then the university when she’d turned sixteen last year, but lately she’d come to realize that in Vestyg, advanced schooling was reserved for the children the city considered unimportant, useless…in the way. Most children grew up in a trade, or in the military, or in the courts where they could parade and prance and wait to be admired. Only the ones without potential or talent or sufficient charm were sent to school. At least, that’s what society made everyone believe.
But the revelation didn’t bother Zari; she knew she wasn’t suited for their guilds and trades, and certainly not for making a spectacle of herself. She liked learning, and she really didn’t care if it made her peculiar.
The first thing he knew was the darkness. The second was the pain.
Pain raced down the nerves from his face, hot as rage, burning and stinging until he screamed through his teeth. Somewhere nearby he heard movement, and all at once the memories came rushing back. The guards, the chains, the long blackness. The accusations, the trial, the mockery of justice. The branding.
He tried to lift his hand to his face but his arms were bound at his sides, restraining him against a narrow, hard bed. Another scream tore from his throat, but this time it was anger, not pain, that ripped it free.
“Calm down,” someone said, in Vestich.
The voice came from close by his head—too close. He thrashed, then something cold and damp pressed over his mouth with the sharp stench of ryumik leaf. The fear and anger flickered and faded, and slowly, little by little, he grew still.
“Now then, I’m going to let you see, but if you start yelling at me again I’ll put you under faster than you can twitch, understood?” the voice asked.
Again? he wondered. When was the first time?
But he thirsted for light, for sight, so he only bit his tongue and nodded mutely. He felt hands tugging at a knot near his right temple, then the darkness fell away and cold, pale light washed over him. Squinting, he tried to make out the details of the room around him, but everything swayed in darkish blurs. After a moment he was able to distinguish two tall shapes beside him, one in an obvious military hat, the other a little shorter, bare-headed. He ignored the shorter one and tried to glare at the officer, inexplicable rage beating at the back of his mind.
“You!” he shouted—or tried to shout. The word escaped in a high rasp, in a voice that he almost didn’t recognize. “What the hell did you do to me? Where am I?”
The man leaned forward, one hand lashing out to push his shoulder back onto the bed. “I wasn’t talking just to hear my own voice, man. Scream at me again, and we start this all over again.”
Panic laced into his thoughts. What did the officer mean, again? Twice now he’d said it. But did this man expect him to be rational? He couldn’t even see his face. How was he supposed to know if he was friend or enemy?
“Keep me awake long enough,” he gritted, “and let me get my sight back, and maybe I’ll stop.”
The officer straightened up, turning to the shorter man beside him. “You didn’t say he wasn’t able to see.”
“I didn’t know,” the other man said, apologetic. “You, what’s your name?”
He hesitated, the terror threatening to surge up again. But a name came quickly to his tongue: “Killean.”
“Killean, how long have you not been able to see?”
“Gods, man!” he shouted. “I don’t remember! Since…” His voice trailed off, and he struggled again at his bonds. “How long have I been here? Why don’t I remember either of you?”
“Please tell me you were aware of that,” the officer said to the shorter man.
“Short-term amnesia? No, I—”
“Have I talked to you before?” Killean demanded.
A brief pause. “Yes.”
“What did I say then?”
The officer cleared his throat. “You swore to rip my guts out through my navel and feed them back to me.”
Killean froze, but something like horror, tinged with macabre approval, snickered in the back of his mind. “Why…why did I say that?”
“You tell me,” the man said. “You certainly didn’t seem happy to see me again just now.”
That much was true, but Killean wasn’t sure he understood why. Something about the officer’s silhouette just demanded his rage…but the more he heard him speak, the more he realized this man was a stranger.
“I think you remind me of someone,” he muttered. “Don’t ask who; I don’t remember.”
He twisted his head to scan the room again. The pale light had begun to harden into shapes he could identify—metal bars spanning floor to ceiling, a narrow desk, a small table by his bedside. A chair in the corner. The two men’s faces came into eventual focus, revealing a man of middling years with copper epaulets on his shoulders, and a physic who looked much younger. They both stood studying him gravely.
“I recognize you,” Killean said to the military man. “Are you the one who marked me? You are, aren’t you? Why? I told them everything I knew! You soddy bastard! Did you like it?”
He was screaming again, he realized—too late. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the physic reach for an amber phial and a piece of white cloth.
“Wait, wait!” he cried, thrashing to try to escape the drug. “Wait, please. I’m sorry. Listen, I’m all right now. Please just don’t…don’t do that to me again.”
The physic and the officer exchanged a long look, then the physic slowly placed the phial back on the table.
“That was your warning,” the officer said. “Now. My name is Dason Frey. You probably recognize me because I’m one of the men who found you on the road.”
“On the road…?”
“Yes. We found you on the road in Vestyg, near the Abarok border. Your brand was red then, like they’d just given it to you. You were delirious too, and near dead. We brought you here but you haven’t exactly helped us to save your life.”
“What is the brand?” Killean asked, his voice almost a whisper.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. In the vague corners of his memory, he realized that he had wanted to die on the road into Vestyg. He’d never wanted to see the brand, the mark that would scar his face and ostracize him from every human community. If only he could remember why he’d received it.
Dason Frey didn’t answer him. He turned away, moving to stand by the lone narrow window in the room, one hand held lightly behind his back.
“Why were you coming into Vestyg?” he asked. “Our nations may be at peace, but we don’t encourage travel between our lands.”
“What,” Killean asked, feeling his mouth tug into a vicious smile. “You don’t think they sent me here as an assassin, do you?”
He saw Frey catch his breath, just barely, then turn back to face him. “Did they?”
Killean snorted. “No. I escaped.”
Escaped? From what?
“So you say.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Killean growled. “And why can’t I remember anything? Did you do something to me after you found me? How do I know you aren’t lying? You could be anyone, saying anything!”
“I told you, I found you on the road—“
“Right. Because so many people travel the road into Vestyg these days. Did they send you after me? Send you to finish the job? Feels like you only got one side of my face. Are you here to brand the other?”
“Calm down, Killean. We’re trying to help you, really we are.”
“Like hell you are!”
“I did not have to put my career on the line to bring you here for medical help!” Frey hissed, bringing his face close to Killean’s.
“You’re a knave and a coward and your career isn’t worth the dirt you walk on! Keep your face away from me or I’ll give you a scar to match mine!”
He didn’t have time to flinch before the physic clapped the white linen cloth back over his mouth. Killean held his breath and fought against his bonds, struggling to escape the muffling cloth. But already the darkness was closing in…already…
So, there you have it! Thoughts? Let me know in the comments!