Niiiiiight of the Hunter: Chapter 1 Sneak Peek

sneak-peek-titleYes, I sang that as I typed it. Yes, it is a reference to a 30 Seconds to Mars song. Here’s a little tidbit you may not have yet realized about my fiction… All of the book titles? They’re song titles too. I tend to get really into a particular album or band while writing a series and name each book for a song whose lyrics touched my heart.

Night of the Hunter is no different. In fact, this tale is probably the nearest and dearest thing to my heart. It is set in the first fantasy world I ever wrote in, with present-day incarnations of the first two characters I ever seriously wrote about. (Sorry Cat; I still love you, I promise!)

Lucian and Blackthorn are little bits of my younger self given pointy ears, much the way Caitlin is a version of me in my 30s, only with a lot more magic and excitement. (Though I’m pretty glad no trolls have come barreling into my mundane life). Same can be said for L&B I suppose. Their world is much more exciting than mine, though also much more difficult to traverse.

Anywho, as I slog through the editing/re-write stage of Night of the Hunter in anticipation of a winter release, I’m finding myself falling back in love with a tale I left unfinished almost a decade ago, and also find myself hoping it will soon capture the hearts of others as well.

Its a long way off from being ready to share, but I’m pretty happy with the opening as it stands. Here’s a sneaky peeky of the first chapter…

~*~

Night of the Hunter

1

When did I get soft? 

A few years ago I would not have taxed myself to exhaustion trying to prove the parentage of some pompous border lord’s illegitimate child. I would have told him to stop frequenting such horrid establishments, where the women don’t know or care enough to prevent such things!

Blackthorn winced.

Apparently even thinking hurt.

He pressed a rolled cloth, freshly bathed in cold water, against his forehead and sighed. The chill felt blissful against his throbbing temples. His free hand groped for the glass he had set down beside the couch and, after a precarious false start that threatened to send an unfortunate cascade of burgundy across the floor, he brought the glass to his lips. It tasted like ambrosia.

After setting the glass back down, he rearranged himself on the settee with equal care. Despite being driven to distraction by the pounding of his head, he smoothed down the embroiled silk of his robe with instinctual care. Decorum insisted he look the best at all times, personal misfortunes notwithstanding, and that lesson was deeply instilled within him.

He had come into his empathic skills early in life, and had been trained from a young age in the distinguished calling of the Oainjyr: a servant of the High Lady dedicated to the healing of the heart and the arts of desire. It was something of a rarity for one of his skill to reside in a hum’an city, especially one so far flung as River’s Reach. While there had been some whispered discontent over such a scandalous trade being plied in their midst years prior—and by a man no less!—the townsfolk had come to see his presence among them as an unusual blessing.

The services an Oainjyr offered were held in the high regard among many and those who spent their coin on the company of one as proficient as he were often figures of some note. The traffic Blackthorn attracted to a burgeoning border city like River’s Reach fattened the pockets of many local tradesmen. Along with the inadvertent draw of his livelihood, he had become known for being Gifted, his kind heart and honest portents intriguing to those unable to afford, or otherwise uninterested in, his more exotic talents. Rarely did he fail to try to divine an answer when asked—even when common sense urged otherwise.

He moved his long auburn locks to the side with care, ensuring that they would not become tangled, and pressed the more tender side of his head against a pillow. The pressure felt good. He sighed. Once I had higher standards. Now? I push myself to pain without giving him so much as a mild tongue-lashing! He smirked softly. But in such troubling times, I lack the heart to turn any away.

Tension blanketed the kingdom of Caomh, his home away from the grandeur of the Elv’Íon court. After a long summer drought that had left the harvest withering in the fields, prices for even the most basic of foodstuffs soared. Many of the common folk were facing a harsh, hungry winter. As fear unfurled throughout the nation, many of the larger provinces were wracked by rebellion and others were left without the protection of the crown while the uprisings were quelled—a loss that many of the outlying towns felt all too well.

Few dared to travel along even the most well-worn of trade roads past dusk.

The unease had reached dizzying heights among those who lived along the passage of the Winding River, flush against the southern-most border of Caomh. Burdened by the threat of bandits lurking in their forests and an equally grim lack of food upon their tables, the country folk were especially susceptible to the trickery of fortune-telling charlatans. When bad tidings so frequently outnumbered the good, the desire to peek beyond the Veil to see what lay in the future intensified tenfold.

Self-proclaimed seers had cropped up by the dozens in city and village alike, drawn to the desperation in the air. Like vultures to fresh carrion, they fed greedily upon the ripe flesh of apprehension; leaving false hopes and empty promises in their wake. While the evils of men mingled with that of the monsters, none were safe.

Yet, even in such troubling times there existed honest folk who sought to right the ills done by the unscrupulous. It was whispered among them that the High Lord himself had touched those who possessed the true Gift and precious few could lay claim to that blessed touch. Blackthorn did not know if he considered himself lucky to be among those few. It certainly was hard to do so when his head felt ready to explode from exercising said Gifts.

A knock sounded at the outer door, resounding excruciatingly inside his head. Teeth gritted, he cursed the disturbance beneath his breath. His work was conducted by appointment only and random interruptions were not something he, or his clientele, tolerated lightly. He considered ignoring the caller, their purpose be damned, but the knock sounded again; faster this time. A wave of urgency broke through his pain.

Still muttering half-hearted curses beneath his breath, he peeled himself up from the settee with a wobbling lurch. His head and stomach both strongly protested the change in elevation. That would not do.

He gripped the edge of the seat, closed his eyes, and took a deep, steadying breath. With practiced ease, he found the calm pool at the center of his being and dipped down into its depths. A warm wash of energy spiraled upward and outward; dancing along his skin as it linked him to the faint pulse of the earth below. It soothed his pain like cool silk over bare skin; leaving behind little more than a dull ache. To soothe his own ills was a self-serving expenditure he rarely allowed himself, but tonight it served a purpose. Serenity settled upon his shoulders, a familiar mantle.

An Oainjyr’s work was never done.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the large, polished mirror on the opposite wall and paused to arrange his clothing and personage. His mixed heritage gave him a unique allure, combining the best of the Elv’Íon’s willowy grace with the exotically angular features of his mother’s nomadic kinfolk. A wrinkle was smoothed from a sleeve here; a stray eyelash flicked from porcelain skin lest it offend the visitor’s eye. A confidant twinkle gleamed in his startlingly clear jade-green eyes. And I always aim to please.

When he opened the door, he was surprises to see a ssisivihis waiting on his doorstep. He recognized the creature immediately, though it shocked him to see one of the reclusive forest dwellers in the heart of a hum’an city. Barely reaching his navel, the creature’s blunted snout protruded from the voluminous cowl of its hooded robe; luminous amber eyes regarding him curiously from within its depths. In the shadows of the shapeless garment, he was given only the barest hint of coppery brown scales, much in keeping with its travel-stained robes. When it pushed the hood back off its wedge-shaped head, he saw a telltale webbing beneath its lower jaw. A female.

“M’lady,” he said, jarring himself into action as he bowed to his unexpected guest. “Please forgive my stare. It was not my intent to be rude. I did not expect to find one of your people at my door this evening. How may I serve you?”

Her gaze did not waver as she asked in a rolling, sibilant voice, “I seek Lucian Knight. Might I speak with him? ”

The creature’s grasp of the elv’an tongue was surprisingly strong, despite her thick accent. Though their people had lived side-by-side for many years before the Fall of Ceann, few of the reptilian folk that he had met had reached such fluency. He shook his head. “I’m afraid he is not in residence at the moment, m’lady. He has been away for quite some time now.”

A glimmer of distress clouded the air about the diminutive creature, though there was no discernable emotion in her reptilian eyes. “Know you where he has gone?”

“No, I do not.” Although I can guess. He pushed back his own wave of frustration at the thought and kept his face impassive. “Perhaps I can be of service to you in his stead?”

The ssisivihis leaned in closer, giving him the feeling that he was being sized up. After a long, tense moment she straightened and said, “Perhaps. May you be Blackthorn of the clan Shevera?”

Interesting. This ssisivihis was not only fluent in his tongue. She was also familiar with the bloodlines of his mother’s people, the nomadic Elv’SiúilCé. An age and more had passed since their clans had split from the elv’an nations that had remained settled in Ceann; many more years than this creature had been alive. “Yes, I am he.”

There was no mistaking the relief that seeped into the creature’s aura. She nodded. “Then it is with you I will speak.”

Holding the door open wide, he ushered her inside. “It is my pleasure to serve you in any way I can m’lady. Please; enter. Come and rest while we converse.”

She hesitated for a moment, looking back over her shoulder before she nodded her assent. As she shuffled into the parlor, Blackthorn noted that she favored her right leg, her long prehensile tail compensating for a lopsided gait. Her garment was mottled with mud and the grime of travel, but a large patch along her left side appeared stiff and dark. It was dried blood, and plenty of it.

“Are you injured?” he asked. He made a gesture toward the hall that lead back to his working chambers. “I’m afraid my supply of herbs has run low thanks to the drought, but I have a few remedies at my dis–”

“That is not necessary.” The ssisivihis stopped in the center of the room, a dull tinge of unease swirling around her like a fine mist. Although her posture was weary, her gaze remained fixed on him. “Old is the hurt. There is nothing can you do for it now.”

She’s lying. He was certain of it. His empathy never lied. Something about the creature’s steady, unblinking stare weighed heavily on his heart, setting him on edge. The first stirrings of foreboding fluttered in his stomach. Clearing his throat with deliberate lightness, he said, “Very well then. Allow me the courtesy of being a gracious host, at least. Make yourself comfortable. I will fetch us refreshments.”

“No.” The tone of the ssisivihis’s voice froze him in mid-step. There was powerful conviction in that small body and yet that one word told him that her mettle was beginning to falter. He stood in awkward silence as the she rasped, “I must deliver the message.”

Danger.

A rolling wave of dread crashed against him, bringing back his earlier nausea in full force. He sank down into the closest chair, legs trembling. It took a few deep breaths before he could ask, “What message?”

“We can hold it no longer.” The ssisivihis’s eyes were no longer focused on him, though she continued to gaze in his direction. She took a deep, wheezing breath; her tiny frame wracked by a forceful tremor. “Give it to him and tell him we can hold it no longer.”

Confusion fogged the oppressing sense of apprehension, striking him dumb. “Give him what?”

The ssisivihis seemed to jolt from her stupor, her head cocked quizzically. She reached into the neck of her robe and withdrew a small package hardly larger than her tiny fist, wrapped tightly in hide and tied with a length of twine. She placed the parcel down on the low table next to the settee.

She hobbled back toward the door, repeating dazedly, “Tell him, fàidh. Tell him. We can hold it no longer.”

Fàidh. Prophet. Fear blossomed in his belly and he was shaken from his stupor. “Wait, I don’t understand! Tell who—Lucian? What am I—”

Even as the she reached for the door-handle, the lizard-woman crumpled like a rag doll dropped upon the floor. He sprang to his feet but his quick reflexes were for naught. Strength spent, her mission accomplished, the ssisivihis had given in to the specter of death that had hovered over her from the moment she had appeared on the doorstep. He knelt next to her still form, one hand pressed to his mouth, heart constricted by guilt. She gave her life to deliver this warning, and I never even learned her name.

The ssisivihis were all but unknown of in the kingdom of Caomh. Resistant to the tainted magics that had driven the elv’es from their homeland of Ceann, the stoic lizard-folk had remained behind; dedicating themselves to the preservation and containment of the wild woodland after the Fall. To see one nearly a world away from the borders of the ancient forest was unheard of. This one had travelled far and had paid the ultimate price for her boldness.

The curse of Ceann has stretched far indeed.

The ssisivihis and her mysterious message had stirred up a host of buried memories. A longing for the home his people had lost ached within him. For a few moments he was lost, adrift in a miasma of cluttered emotions; disbelief, homesickness, guilt, fear. Looking down upon the lizard-woman’s body, her open eyes empty, he wondered, Who would have done this? 

His face contorted into a determined grimace. Saying a prayer for forgiveness, he lifted the muddied hem of the poor creature’s robe. Her left leg was heavily bandaged, wrapped in bloodstained strips of linen that had appeared to have been torn from some other garment.

Her cloak. 

The memory formed in his mind, wispy as the owner’s life faded away but heartbreaking in its impressions. The blur of swiftly passing trees, the whistle of labored breathing, a heart heavy with loss; a mind frantic with the expectance of impending doom—the desperate fear of prey’s flight.

She was alone; her companion killed. She had to flee, leaving her supplies with him. It’s a miracle she even made it this far!

His fingers danced over the surface of the rough bandage, hesitant with sudden squeamishness. I do not want to see what lies beneath—but I have no choice. I need answers. Gritting his teeth, he undid the knot with nimble fingers and drew the bindings apart.

The sickly sweet scent of decay caused him to recoil. He cupped a hand over his nose and mouth to suppress the gag that rose in his throat. The ssisivihis’s scaly hide was torn asunder from hip to knee. Infection had set in long ago and when her body had failed to heal the wound, the flesh beneath had begun to spoil. The greenish cast of the fluids leaking from the wound turned his stomach. He tucked the bandages back in place, covering the lizard-woman with her robe once more. His jaw was clenched near to aching.

Poison, I’d bet my life on it. It must have been on whatever caused that wound. Lord and Lady be blessed; somebody was determined to kill her. They didn’t want her to make it to Lucian. But… why?

A chill slithered down the back of his neck. He pivoted and found himself gazing at the small package the ssisivihis had placed on the table before she had fallen. The world seemed to crawl in slow motion as he rose and approached the table, eyes locked on the parcel. He picked it up and turned it over and over in his hands as he mused, What could be so important?

It only a moment, his innate curiosity won out over common sense. Lucian would have showed it to me, he reasoned. Unraveling the cord, he smoothed the wrapping out upon his palm, thin brows furrowed as he regarded the object within. A key?

Composed of worn wrought iron, the key was clearly of elv’an make. Ornate as only his people could make the most common of objects, the head of the key was a work of art. Among the continuous loops and spirals laid the carefully fashioned design of a bird frozen in flight.

She died to give Lucian a key. To what? And where would that “what” be? And just why is that “what” so important that someone had to kill the poor thing in an attempt to prevent it from getting to him? He plucked the key from the wrappings to lift it up for a closer inspection.

There was no time to scream.

The breath was stolen from his lungs and his body bowed as if he had taken a punch to the stomach. He crumbled to the floor, a whiplash of pain setting every nerve afire; gasping for air. The world darkened around him as he was violently thrown into a vision, the edges of his sight obscured by tendrils of mist and painfully iridescent light.

A vortex of energy swirled around him, its pull frightfully strong. It threatened to whirl him away to be lost forever in the darkness beyond time should he lose control. He gritted his teeth and held on with force of will alone; the only thing he could cling to in the vast, featureless darkness.

The mist thickened, swallowing him, cloaking the world in fog. Images emerged ever so slowly—only flashes at first. His cozy parlor; fire glowing merrily. The common room at the Hooded Falcon, filled with friendly faces. The small woodland grove he and Lucian liked to visit, bright and sunny on a summer’s day.

Each one tempted him, promising safety if he would reach for them. He held firm, ignoring their pull; ignoring the darkness. It was a trap that claimed many untrained seers, a horrible fate of being forever caught in the tensile spider’s web that was the Veil between worlds. He would not be so easily fooled.

As that Veil began to part, layer by layer in a sensuously slow dance, the new world around became clearer; the colors more saturated, like paint spilling across a canvas. Trees appeared. Ancient, claustrophobically cluttered trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Even as the vision settled into place the mist remained; creeping around the edges of his sight, fraught with flashes of things half-seen. He ignored them and focused straight ahead on the forest that slumbered. An expectant feeling hung in the air, clinging to the leaves above him, to the blades of grass beneath his feet. Hope intermingled with an underlying current of dread.

Something stirred deep within.

Something had already awakened.

Something was coming.

The landscape around him changed swiftly, dragging him along in dizzying haste. The blackness of the beyond tinged his sight, riding a wave of vertigo. He swallowed it down and clung to consciousness with single-minded determination. To lose his hold now could spell disaster.

The brisk ride came to a halt as abruptly as it had begun as he was dropped down upon a weathered stone walkway thick with the grime of long disuse.

The sense of dread grew greater still.

All around him were the ruins of grandeur; a city long abandoned and given over to wild growth. Soaring archways and towers of white stone were overrun with thick, thriving vines and the remnants of a hundred cycles of nature’s seasons. Saplings had grown up through broken roadways, pushing aside the cobblestones as they reached toward the sky above. The buildings had fared no better. Their artful stonework was crumbling; their decorative murals faded.

Blackthorn looked back over his shoulder to see a fountain at the center of a small square, its basin cracked and empty. Beyond, more collapsing structures hid in the gloom. All about him was the pale shadow of former glory.

A vague sense of familiarity persisted through his confusion. He turned his attention back to the building before him. The walls, once richly painted, had faded into nearly unrecognizable washes of color, though its tastefully ornate stonework remained largely intact. Mesmerized, he stared up at the heraldry that stretched across the large archway leading up to the manse. The creature was a long-legged bird poised to take flight; it’s down curved bill open in a cry. Forever caught mid-leap in its cage of stone, the insignia was mottled now with age and harsh weathering, much like everything else in the forgotten city. A patina of moss coated its intricately carved feathers; rusty stains ran from its eyes like tears.

Something stirred.

The world shuddered. The carpet of debris littering the city rustled in indignation. Loose stonework sent a rain of dust into the air, while the more stable buildings groaned impotent threats. The city street seemed to buck beneath his feet, sending him to his knees. It was difficult to breath as the air filled with fragments of stone and plaster, caught up in the swirling mist. He was not alone. There was life in the forgotten city, buried deep; slumbering and overlooked.

Something had awakened.

Dread tingled along his nerves like the stinging passage of fire ants. He felt more than heard his name whispered, carried on the wind; quickly lost in the tangling threads of the mist. A deliberate presence brushed up against his senses.

His heart raced. Something was alive within the woods—perhaps within the city itself. A surge of power that rolled over him choked him with its intensity.

The world went dark. He fell into a void, sucked down into a cavern deep below the sleeping city’s streets. The darkness throbbed around him like a beating heart, thick with the lifeblood of forgotten magic. There were eyes in the darkness, watching and waiting. Eyes that knew him. He could feel the expectation in their gaze; could feel the pull as they beckoned him to join them in the blackness. He would have cried out, had he a voice; would have wept with fear, had he tears.

Again the world tilted and swirled. The darkness danced with mist, forming a cacophony of light and shadow as he was thrown half a world away from the decaying remains of the deserted city.

A beach. Brackish waves lapped against a shore that was as much rock as it was gray sand. Trees loomed not far from where he stood, marking the edge of a lost world. They were the only protection left for the lost city.

Something was coming.

The sun was setting. It painted the sky in a collage of orange and red over the heaving ocean. Fire on the water. Shapes darkened the horizon, silhouetted against the flaming sky. Longboats, built low and hearty for speed against the treacherous current. They were far out at sea, but there was no doubting their destination. A small party, yes; but one with a mission. A purpose.

Death.

A scream tore itself from Blackthorn’s lips. Spit mercilessly out into reality, he felt the solid floor of the parlor floor beneath him and pressed his palms against it for reassurance. Warm blood trickled from one nostril, mixing with the salty trail of tears to leave a familiar coppery tang upon his tongue. Great breaths heaved his parched lungs as he rolled onto his stomach and pressed his forehead against the cool wood. In time, the world came back into focus around him.

Muscles quivering, he pushed himself up and sat back on his heels; soaking in the familiar normalcy of his home. The dull ache that followed such an intense vision swathed his mind, his extremities working by instinct alone as he wiped away tears and stemmed the flow of blood from his nose. There were no words to describe the bone-deep weariness that settled like a leaden blanket about his shoulders.

Ceann.

The thought felt distant, insubstantial and untouched by reality. His stomach churned; a visceral response that could not be ignored. That was Ceann. I saw it! I had almost forgotten how beautiful she had been… 

Ceann had once been the sparkling jewel of the elv’an crown; the first and most glorious of the far-flung elv’an nations. The Elv’Íon, the last to inhabit the fabled city left to them by their forefathers, had abandoned her near a century ago, driven out by magic gone rogue. Those who survived the Fall had fled, leaving the city to fall into ruin. None had dared return in the many years since.

A shudder coursed through his body. The memory of The Fall was strong, though he had been hardly more than a child at the time, newly thrust into his Oainjyr training. Harsh memories like those engrained themselves deeply and he, like many of his kin, still struggled to forget.

Lord and Lady, I saw her as she must be now. Lost; forgotten—a shadow of her former glory…

His brow furrowed and the pain of it made him wince. He rubbed at his forehead absently. No. Not lost. I wasn’t alone there. I don’t know who—or what—it was, but I felt something buried beneath the city. Something alive and waiting. Something beneath…

Realization struck light lightning.

That bird! He scrabbled about for the fallen key. He picked it up with caution, relieved when it showed no trace of its previous power. He examined the ornate ironwork with a critical eye.

That’s an ibis; the symbol of House Knight. A cold knot of dread coiled in his belly. Aile niurin! I think this is the key to the Knight estate in Ceann.

Whoever they are, they knew of its existence and murdered those poor creatures to stop them from putting it in Lucian’s hands. He squeezed the metal tightly, feeling its hard edges bite into his palm.

Suddenly Lucian being overdue for his return home took on a much more ominous light.

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