Sneak Preview: At Faith’s End (Prologue)

Today, I have a special treat for you. With the release of “At Faith’s End” less than a month away now, I thought it time to tease out some of the facts contained therein. Where better to start than the prologue itself? If you can handle submerging into the crazy that is Usuri once again, I invite you to begin the sequel to “The Hollow March,” and step into the second chapter of the Haunted Shadows fantasy trilogy… More previews and goodies shall arrive in the weeks to come.

And remember: OCTOBER IS THE LAUNCH!

Prologue

Outside in the courtyard a dull, resonant clang issued from the gates. A dozen times a day they repeated that sound. They were never simply open any more. One never knew what might blow in on the wind.

Sword and smoke and always ash, rising in the east.

Outside, they were rattling the last bit of frost from the hinges. Pikes and bows bristled along the walls as soldiers stalked the battlements. They had been lax, at a time, but no more. The snow had gone, or near enough, yet the world never seemed to thaw. As the poets cried, the Winter King was nearly overthrown, but the young Spring Prince crept only slowly from his hole. The first flowers would be long in coming.

Seasons marched, like men, like countries. But there were no countries, and in time there would be no men.

Outside, they went about as if all the world was still the same—and so it was, and it wasn’t. They said an emperor was dead. Others had died before him. Those that lived on shedded tears wiped them on their sleeves and stepped over the graves into the twilight of their lives. Old men passed so new could arise. So this one had, and even now she could smell the stink of him, close her eyes and feel the horror of his ringing pulse battering her heart—the fervor of his face, looming orthodoxy sneer behind the thin veneer of snow and emeralds, and gryphons, as shepherds gliding beneath the setting sun.

All this she saw and felt, and all the while the world went on pretending she no longer was a part of it.

There was no country and no king, and all the fire in Hell bespoke.

Yet inside, she couldn’t feel the tumultuous summer’s pull. The walls assailed her. When she breathed, there was frost in her lungs. When she touched the glass, there was nothing but a mirror of herself, in all its horror.

Usuri had grown haggard over the months spent in Vissering Castle. She scarcely ate. Only when her body cried out agonized gasps for life did she oblige, and always questioningly. In rebellion against the eastern styles of longer hair, she had carved what little she had close to the scalp. There was something satisfying in the motion. Her father gnawed at her waking thoughts and Rurik at her dreams. Each mocked her from the flames. Both gagged her days with brimstone and stole her breath away.

For months her father had laid beneath the earth, but his blood was no longer the only thing coursing in her. There were other faces, other names, ghosts without homes save her own tormented mind. It was only right. She had done them. All of them. She had plucked the chords of their life away and forever silenced their notes in life’s song.

Three tunes for three dead princes.

It was their deaths that racked her, not their lives. Names. She did not like to think of them with names—merely featureless ghouls, stalking the periphery of her soul.

The soul—a fevered thing. It was breaking every day, piece by piece, bringing a skeletal paleness to the olive life of her body. When she killed, pieces of her died with them. Not literally. Will. A slow and purposeful dying within. Inside: blackness. She loathed to look into it, lest it become all she saw. A step or a bound—she did not know how far away she was, yet she was getting closer every day.

How long since she had killed? The princely pair were last in mind—the villain king and his dolled-up brother. She had kissed the one, felt his touch on her skin. It wouldn’t come out no matter how hard she tried. The stain was on her. It bubbled inside with her father’s voice, tormenting her.

“I see you,” it said, “I know what you did,” and she could not hide, no matter how deep she buried herself. Her hands were still wrapped from when she tried to dig the voices out. The blood had stopped flowing, but the bandages held—she knew the danger as well as they did. Yet the danger to herself was the least of her worries.

Somewhere down below, the blood stirred like a poison, threatening her sanity.

They were not alone in the castle anymore. There were others. Those things. They had its blood and they had its eyes, and they were laughing inside, where only her father could laugh now because they had taken him, as they took Kasimir, as they would take her. There was an empress and a prince, and it was their presence that saw her locked within a tower.

Before, she had been allowed to roam a little. She had her watchers, but so long as she was calm, she could roam. Then she had tried to put her claws upon the Cullick wench, the lying creature-creature-creature that had taken Rurik inside her and—they didn’t like that. Cullick saw her to the tower. She was too weak to object. Her deprivations took their toll on her body, as the killings peeled at the innards. They locked her in a tower, ostensibly for her own good, but she knew better.

Cullick couldn’t let her be seen. Cullick couldn’t risk what she would do if she saw them. Yet she did see them. In the yard. On the walls. They were everywhere.

“Father,” she cried as she had when she was small. “Father, I am weak! I have not the strength! I have seen the Sunrise! I have seen the Shadow, and the Lion’s mouth, but it is wide and it is terrible and what am I? Who am I to tip the storms? They will not change!”

Killer! The word barked back at her and she could not deny, but there were words in her head, pounding with the force of a thousand-thousand cannon, and she could not turn aside from them.

Everything slid slowly into place, piece by piece. Little pieces on the board, moving to fruition. Everywhere the kings and queens, riding onto glory and to death.

Their devil-angel rode on southron wings. That was what they said. She could hear it, when she wanted. It haunted her dreams. The terrible shadow in his robes of white—they could not see him for what he was. She ran from him, but he only grew and grew, fangs falling from his malformed cheeks as his body bloated and distorted. He would laugh at her, arms outstretched as the darkness spread around him. He was a devil, and in her dreams she would round the circle three times, and he would catch her, pin her, devour her in white, and she would be falling into pyre flames, and everywhere was her father, tortured in innumerable ways, and always by the same faceless woman, wearing her husband’s crown.

And as she screamed, the choirs sang—the children’s dirge, from little bodies without tongues. Sometimes, she saw Rurik there, and she would call out to him, but he could not hear her. Then it would be him on the scaffold where his father met his end, and it would be his head put before the chopping block, and Essa with the blade. Singers sang, the head rolled, and at her feet, Charlotte would raise it to her lips and the head would ask:

“Can you see the glory?”

Of the coming, of the coming—

The door rattled and she twisted back, watching how the shadows spread across the twilit planes. The room was always brightest this time of day. Keys jangled, real voices gossiped.  Her prison didn’t feel quite so small in these moments. Yet it wasn’t small, not really. Not terribly, at least. She had a bed and pillows, two mirrors—thrice broken each—and all the space for walking, wandering, twisting, dining on the open air—and the purity of that air was a marvel. There were no cobwebs. Not anywhere. She saw to that, day in and day out.

One day, she caught a spider weaving webs above the door. Spider-little-spider-May, she never saw it coming. Then there was no more spider above the chamber door.

If only she were just as squishy.

Weren’t they all?

Light broke from the hall beyond, in ringing dust. Usuri tried not to cringe. In the ring—a scream—then nothing, never.

Would that she could pluck her wings.

Charlotte filled the silence with her doll-like form—no ruffled wrinkles, no miscombed hair; curled, gold as the coins bitter men exchanged. Her skin—like porcelain. The light struck her angelic.

Tray in hand, the angel moved parallel to her, to place her meal beside the bed. Usuri inched a pace, on hand and foot, marveling at the novelty. Little Charlotte was not a rarity in her presence, for all the ill-will she bade her, but the girl never brought her food. Whether that was her desire or her father’s, Usuri could not say. All Cullicks are as kings before the servile—above, beyond, mere men with lofty heads. She watched, but she moved no nearer. A shadow lurked behind the angel, filling the doorway, then the room. She did not shrink from it, but she did not goad it.

It had struck her. It would have no problem doing so again.

She cringed, reveled—perhaps, again.

“A mess. As ever.” The angel did not look at her as she set each item on the bed. “How might a woman become a beast?” She paused. Usuri could imagine her smiling. “You teach us every day, bit-by-bit.”

Usuri kept her silence. Charlotte moved on, handing the tray off to her shadow as she gathered some unseen strength into herself. Charlotte turned, steadied, drank her in. Usuri waited, shrinking—she did not like it when those eyes were on her, when they would meet her as a person. She advanced, a river rushing on to swallow her whole. Usuri felt her breaths quicken, felt the tightening in her chest. Angel wings, all too near. False promises taking flight. She shut her eyes, tried to close out the voices.

“Can you see the glory,” her dead father asked.

“Go away,” she whispered as the body crouched beside her. Tiny angel wings, like a fly’s—she could crush them if she wanted. Just needed to reach out and…

“Usuri, please look at me.” She did not want to look. Hell is in the eyes, and in Hell you can see and you don’t want to see and everything is…“Please.”

Usuri lashed at her, crying “Out!” but the hand caught her wrist, Usuri’s shaking wrist. Another was on her arm and she did not want to look but Charlotte was there, and she was not leaving. They never left. Not really. They were everywhere and all around—but their walls, their halls, they could not hold her. Even with body broken, the spirit rose and swam in the deep recesses of the forgotten—self.

Usuri looked at her with eyes hollowed in the flame’s of man’s hate, watched the mirrors of the angel and the monster in their reflection. Her or her, she could not say. There was compassion there, though, staring back at the remnants of her life. The hand on her arm moved slowly, purposefully. She felt it, did not watch it, but it came to her, stroked the hair from her face and flecks of dirt from her skin. She must have been so thin.

Charlotte’s face shrank at the sight. Her eyes left Usuri’s momentarily. They found the floor, then back, creasing with care. “What is it like?” Charlotte whispered. Her touch lingered on Usuri’s cheek.

“There are things out there, you know. Waiting. We do not want to push you. You are so…”

Dead?

“Frail,” said Charlotte. A line of worry creased the woman’s brow. “Surely this does not…” Need to be? Apparently, Charlotte thought better of her path. Usuri could see the shift. “But you did this to yourself. And before that: them.” Charlotte’s hands folded in her lap. A place where so few things fell. Usuri would have thought her virginal, but all was poison there. Rurik was poisoned there. “It will get worse now. Our lord’s inquisitor would sit the throne. Ring about his neck, with bastard children in tow. There will be burnings, you know. Of course you know. Do you care?”

Underlying: would you have them do unto others as they have done unto you? She could imagine Charlotte burning, but the pretty locks always fell away until it was her father’s grimacing, screaming face—but she had not been there. The moment when the Inquisition’s flames finally split his screams. She could only imagine it now.

“Father wishes to see you. With them, between them—it grows dangerous. It’s just a matter of time before—it’s worse now. Much worse. We would end it. And you—I know you do.” Justifying, clarifying, always mitigating to the sound of its own sullen ring! A beast! A beast! Father, how of this breast, or of this beast, might any word yet change? “We could not spare Matair, but the rest—they still breathe, you know. Would you like to see them?”

And say what? Usuri looked at herself and in a moment’s clarity saw what they saw: the disheveled monster, in fine but ratted gowns; bound hands, black feet, hair crusted wet. All of House Matair was dead. She could smile for them and twirl in her little gown, as this creature did, but they would never know her as anything more than their father’s novelty.

“You will lie again,” she whispered.

Charlotte smiled faintly. “All men lie. Should we wish against it, we should not speak at all.”

“Does it sing? When no one is around to hear it?” Usuri watched the confusion settle about the lady. “Take heart. He moves in you. Never…I cannot touch them if I know not what to touch. I see them, but I do not know them.”

More than once, she had heard Rurik’s voice ringing in the dark. That faint cry from fields choked with frosted death. She tried to shut him out. To close her mind and her ears against it and pretend she couldn’t hear his pain.

“We can piece them for you. Or bring you to them. This is bigger now. You’re not a shadow, Usuri. You’re not,” Charlotte said.

“It says, the songbird without wings. In its cage, it speaks of wind. What does it know that she does not?” Usuri touched the hand and the hand faltered. She traced it down the wrist, felt it yield until the shadow stirred its steel. Such lines, such grace, majesty in a vase—the design was fickle. It never knew. They never did. It took something larger. “If it comes, then so will I.”

She released her grip on Charlotte’s skin, and the girl drew up and away. They always did. They had their purpose, and once they saw it done there was no other. Usuri folded her hands into her lap, watched the way the veins creased along the knuckles. So frail.

Rurik might have said that to the lamara whore, as he caressed her at night.

“Will you eat?”

Usuri smiled toothily at the woman until she left. Eat is the wrong word, she thought, as she looked over the bread Charlotte had left behind. She would consume—until she had grown fat on all the vagaries of her odium and burst forth in a requiem of deconstruction. How sweet the sugared tune that would sing them all to silence.

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