The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Sample Chapter 3

Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies. Chapter One is here and Chapter Two is here, if you haven’t read them.

CHAPTER THREE: Darkness

Should I pause to explain? It is poor storytelling. But I must remember everything, remember and remember and remember, to keep a tight grip on it. So many bits of myself have escaped already.

So.

There were once three gods. The one who matters killed one of the ones who didn’t and cast the other into a hellish prison. The walls of this prison were blood and bone; the barred windows were eyes; the punishments included sleep and pain and hunger and all the other incessant demands of mortal flesh. Then this creature, trapped in his tangible vessel, was given to the Arameri for safekeeping, along with three of his godly children. After the horror of incarnation, what difference could mere slavery make?

As a little girl, I learned from the priests of Bright Itempas that this fallen god was pure evil. In the time of the Three, his followers had been a dark, savage cult devoted to violent midnight revels, worshiping madness as a sacrament. If that one had won the war between the gods, the priests intoned direly, mortalkind would probably no longer exist.

“So be good,” the priests would add, “or the Nightlord will get you.”

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I ran from the Nightlord through halls of light. Some property of the stuff that made up Sky’s substance made it glow with its own soft white luminescence now that night had fallen. Twenty paces behind me charged the god of darkness and chaos. On the one occasion that I risked a glance back, I saw the gentle glow of the hallway fade into a throat of blackness so deep, looking that way hurt the eye. I did not look back again.

I could not go straight. All that had saved me thus far was my head start, and the fact that the monster behind me seemed incapable of moving faster than a mortal’s pace. Perhaps the god retained a human form somewhere within all that dark; even so, his legs were longer than mine.

So I turned at nearly every juncture of corridors, slamming into walls to brake my speed and give me something to push against as I sprinted away. I say this as if the wall-slamming was deliberate on my part; it was not. If I had been able to reason through my abject terror, I might’ve retained a general sense of which direction I was going. As it was, I was already hopelessly lost.

Fortunately, where reason failed, blind panic served well enough.

Spying one of the alcoves that T’vril had described, I flung myself into it, pressing against the back wall. He had told me to think up, which would activate the lifting spell and propel me to the next level of the palace. Instead I thought AWAY AWAY AWAY, not realizing the magic would oblige that too.

When the coach had brought me from the Salon to Sky-the-palace, I’d had the curtains closed. The coach had simply stopped; my skin had prickled; a moment later the coachman opened the door and revealed we were there. It had not occurred to me that the magic had pulled me through half a mile of solid matter in the blink of an eye.

Now it happened again. The little alcove, which had been growing dim as the Nightlord closed in, suddenly seemed to stretch, its entrance moving impossibly farther away while I remained still. There was an inbreath of tension, and then I was flung forward as if from a sling. Walls flew at my face; I screamed and flung my arms over my eyes even as they passed through me. And then everything stopped.

I lowered my arms slowly. Before I could muster my wits enough to wonder whether this was the same alcove or another just like it, a child thrust his face through the opening, looked around, and spied me.

“Come on,” he said. “Hurry up. It won’t take him long to find us.”

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The Arameri magic had brought me to a vast open chamber within the body of Sky. Dumb, I looked around at the cold, featureless space.

“The arena,” said the boy ahead of me. “Some of the highbloods fancy themselves warriors. This way.”

I glanced back toward the alcove, wondering if there was some way to block it off so the Nightlord couldn’t follow.

“No, that won’t work,” said the boy, following my gaze. “But the palace itself inhibits his power on a night like this. He can only hunt you using his senses.” (As opposed to what else? I wondered dully.) “On a moonless night you’d be in trouble, but tonight he’s just a man.”

“That was not a man,” I said. My voice sounded high and shaky in my own ears.

“If that were true, you wouldn’t be running for your life right now.” And apparently I wasn’t running fast enough. The boy caught my hand and pulled me along faster. He glanced back at me, and I caught a glimpse of a high-cheekboned, pointed face that would one day be handsome.

“Where are you taking me?” My ability to reason was returning, though slowly. “To Viraine?”

He uttered a derisive snort. We left the arena and passed into more of the mazelike white halls. “Don’t be foolish. We’re going to hide.”

“But that man — ” Nahadoth. Now I remembered where I’d heard the name. Never whisper it in the dark, said the children’s tales, unless you want him to answer.

“Oh, so now he’s a man? We just have to keep ahead of him and everything will be fine.” The boy ran around a corner, more nimble than me; I stumbled to keep up. He darted his eyes around the corridor, looking for something. “Don’t worry. I get away from him all the time.”

This did not sound wise. “I w-want to go to Viraine.” I tried to say it with authority, but I was still too frightened, and winded now besides.

The boy responded by stopping, but not because of me. “Here!” he said, and put his hand against one of the pearlescent walls. “Atadie!”

The wall opened.

It was like watching ripples in water. The pearl-stuff moved away from his hand in steady waves, forming an opening — a hole — a door. Beyond the wall lay an oddly-shaped, narrow chamber, not so much a room as a space between. When the door was big enough for us both, the boy pulled me inside.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Dead space in the body of the palace. All these curving corridors and round rooms. There’s another half a palace in between that no one uses — except me.” The boy turned to me and flashed an up-to-no-good grin. “We can rest for a little while.”

I was beginning to catch my breath, and with it came a weakness that I recognized as the aftermath of adrenaline. The wall had rippled shut behind me, becoming as solid as before. I leaned back against it gingerly at first, then gratefully. And then I examined my rescuer.

He wasn’t much smaller than me, maybe nine years old, with the spindly look of a fast grower. Not Amn, not with skin as dark as mine and sharpfold eyes like those of the Tema people. They were a murky, tired green, those eyes — like my own, and my mother’s. Maybe his father had been another wandering Arameri.

He was examining me as well. After a moment, his grin widened. “I’m Sieh.”

Two syllables. “Sieh Arameri?”

“Just Sieh.” With a child’s boneless grace, he stretched his arms above his head. “You don’t look like much.”

I was too tired to take offense. “I’ve found it useful,” I replied. “To be underestimated.”

“Yes. Always good strategy, that.” Lightning-quick, he straightened and grew serious. “He’ll find us if we don’t keep moving. En!

I jumped, startled by his shout. But Sieh was looking up. A moment later, a child’s yellow kick-ball fell into his hands.

Puzzled, I looked up. The dead space went up several floors, a featureless triangular shaft; I saw no openings from which the ball could have come. There was no one hovering above who could have thrown the ball to him.

I looked at the boy and suffered a sudden, chilling suspicion.

Sieh laughed at my face and put the ball on the floor. Then he sat on it, crosslegged. The ball held perfectly still beneath him until he was comfortable, and then it rose into the air. It stopped when he was a few feet above the ground, hovering, then the boy who was not a boy reached out to me.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said. “I’m helping you, aren’t I?”

I just looked at his hand, pressing myself back against the wall.

“I could have led you in a circle, you know. Right back to him.”

There was that. After a moment, I took his hand. His grip left no question; this was not a child’s strength.

“Just a little ways,” he said. Then, dangling me like a snared rabbit, he floated us both up through the shaft.

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There is another thing I remember from my childhood. A song, and it went… How did it go? Ah, yes.

Trickster, trickster
Stole the sun for a prank
Will you really ride it?
Where will you hide it?
Down by the river-bank…

It was not our sun, mind you.

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Sieh opened two ceilings and another wall before finally setting me down in a dead space that was as big as Grandfather Dekarta’s audience chamber. But it was not the size of this space that made my mouth gape.

More spheres floated in this room, dozens of them. They were fantastically varied — of all shapes and sizes and colors, turning slowly and drifting through the air. They seemed to be nothing more than a child’s toys until I looked closely at one and saw clouds swirling over its surface.

Sieh hovered near as I wandered among his toys, his expression somewhere between anxiety and pride. The yellow ball that had brought us here had taken up position near the center of the room; all the other balls revolved around it.

“They’re pretty, aren’t they?” he asked me, while I stared at a tiny red marble. A great cloud-mass — a storm? — devoured the nearer hemisphere. I tore my eyes from it to look at Sieh. He bounced on his toes, impatient for my answer. “It’s a good collection.”

Trickster, trickster, stole the sun for a prank. And apparently because it was pretty. The Three had borne many children before their falling-out. Sieh was immeasurably old, another of the Arameri’s deadly weapons, and yet I could not bring myself to dash the shy hope I saw in his eyes.

“They’re all beautiful,” I agreed. It was true.

He beamed and took my hand again, not pulling me anywhere, just feeling companionable. “I think the others will like you,” he said. “Even Naha, when he calms down. It’s been a long time since we had a mortal of our own to talk to.”

His words were gibberish strung together without meaning. Others? Naha? Calm?

He laughed at me again. “I especially like your face. You don’t show much emotion — is that a Darre thing, or your mother’s training? — but when you do, all the world can read it.”

My mother had warned me of the same thing long ago. “Sieh — ” I had a thousand questions and couldn’t decide where to begin. One of the balls, a plain green one with bright white poles, went past us, tumbling end over end. I didn’t register it as an anomaly until Sieh saw it and stiffened. That was when my own instincts belatedly sent a warning.

I turned to find that Nahadoth stood behind us.

In the instant that my mind and body froze, he could have had me. He was only a few paces away. But he did not move or speak, and so we stared at each other. Face like the moon, pale and somehow wavering. I could get the gist of his features, but none of it stuck in my mind beyond an impression of astonishing beauty. His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak, or perhaps that was hair too, shifted as if in an unfelt wind. I could not recall him wearing a cloak before, on the balcony.

The madness still lurked in his face, but it was a quieter madness now, not the rabid-animal savagery of before. Something else — I could not bring myself to call it humanity — stirred underneath the gleam.

Sieh stepped forward, careful not to move in front of me. “Are you with us yet, Naha?”

Nahadoth did not answer; did not even seem to see Sieh. Sieh’s toys, I noticed with the fragment of my mind that wasn’t frozen, went wild when they came near him. Their slow, graceful orbits changed: some drifted in a different direction; some froze in place; some speeded up. One split in half and fell broken to the floor as I watched. He took a step forward, sending more of the colored balls spinning out of control.

That one step was enough to jar me out of my paralysis. I stumbled back, and would have fled screaming if I’d known how to make the walls open.

“Don’t run!” Sieh’s voice, suddenly unchildlike, snapped at me like a whip. I froze.

Nahadoth stepped forward again, close enough that I could see a minute shiver pass through him. His hands flexed. He opened his mouth; struggled a moment; spoke. “P-predictable, Sieh.” His voice was deep, but shockingly human. I had expected a bestial growl.

Sieh hunched, a sulky little boy again. “Didn’t think you’d catch up that fast.” He cocked his head, studying Nahadoth’s face, and spoke slowly, as if to a simpleton. “You are here, aren’t you?”

“I can see it,” whispered the Nightlord. His eyes were fixed on my face.

To my surprise, Sieh nodded as if he knew what such ravings meant. “I wasn’t expecting that either,” he said softly. “But perhaps you remember now; we need this one. Do you remember?” Sieh stepped forward, reaching for his hand.

I did not see that hand move. I was watching Nahadoth’s face. All I saw was the flash of blind, murderous rage that crossed his features, and then one of his hands was ’round Sieh’s throat. Sieh had no chance to cry out before he was lifted off the ground, gagging and kicking his feet.

For a moment I was too shocked to react.

Then I got angry.

I burned with anger — and madness, too, which is the only possible explanation for what I did then. I drew my knife and cried, “Leave him alone!”

As well a rabbit threaten a wolf. But to my utter shock, the Nightlord looked at me. He did not lower Sieh, but he blinked. Just that quickly, the madness left him, replaced by a look of astonishment and dawning wonder. It was the look of a man who has just discovered treasure beneath a pile of offal. But he was still choking the life out of Sieh.

“Let him go!” I crouched, shifting my stance the way my Darren grandmother had taught me. My hands shook — not with fear, but with that mad, wild, righteous fury. Sieh was a child. “Stop it!”

Nahadoth smiled.

I lunged. The knife went into his chest, going deep before lodging in bone with such a sudden impact that my hand was jarred free of the hilt. There was an instant in which I braced myself against his chest, trying to push away. I marveled that he was solid, warm, flesh and blood despite the power writhing about him. I marveled even more when his free hand wrapped around my wrist like a vise. So fast, despite the knife in his heart.

With the strength in that hand, he could have crushed my wrist. Instead he held me in place. His blood coated my hand, hotter than my rage. I looked up; his eyes were warm, gentle, desperate. Human.

“I have waited so long for you,” the god breathed. Then he kissed me.

Then he fell.

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


July 2014
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