Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lady of Stone & Darkness: (1) Oathbound

Here's the first installment of Lady of Stone & Darkness, my new, semi-experimental and absolutely free online serial. If you're totally confused about what Lady of Stone & Darkness is, please check out this page devoted to the online serial.

Just a reminder...from the end of the second installment onward, I'll be asking for reader involvement and input as to where the story goes from there. Think of it sort of like an online "choose your own adventure" story.

Premise: Centuries have passed since an epic cataclysm forced humans and nightwalkers to flee to the subterranean cities of the Land of Stone and Darkness, but to Elise, a twenty-year-old human woman, the City of Night is all she's ever known. Moments before she binds herself to the nightwalker king, her lifelong protector, Jidor, starts making startling confessions. Will she still fulfill her duty and pledge herself to her lord and master, King Usire, as one of his queens, or will she finally find the strength to be the master of her own life? And if freedom is too slippery to grasp, will death be a more attractive option?

***some installments may contain mature content, themes, and/or language***

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“Do you accept your role as Queen of Stone and Darkness?” The oathweaver's long, white beard trembled as he spoke, and his words echoed throughout the cavernous Hall of Oaths.
There was so much anxious energy buzzing through me that I was having a hard time resisting the urge to chew my bottom lip. Words my praestes, Jidor Blackheart, had repeated many times whispered through my mind.

Break yourself of that habit, Elise, and do it soon, or I’ll be forced to fight off nightwalkers who are too tempted to resist sinking their own teeth into your tender flesh.

Jidor had always been big on propriety where I was concerned, and for a puera, a lady-to-be, tempting random nightwalkers wasn’t the most proper of behaviors. It also wasn’t the safest. Nightwalkers like to bite and had the razor-sharp fangs to do so quite effectively.

I tore my wide-eyed stare away from the oathweaver’s glassy eyes to glance over my shoulder at Jidor. He was standing on the wide ceremonial dais behind me, his ageless face as hard and his body as immovable as one of the limestone stalagmites standing sentry throughout the Hall of Oaths. Even the pale leather of his cuirass, pants, and boots blended with the limestone; only the color of his skin, a brownish-gray darker than that of most nightwalkers, set him apart from the Hall’s stone architecture.

As soon as his eyes met mine, he recognized the fear filling mine. He clenched his jaw and shook his head the barest amount, and my mind replayed the conversation we’d had immediately before entering the Hall.


“What will you choose, puera? Will you turn back now?” He stared down at me with enough intensity in his quicksilver eyes to turn my spine to jelly. Honestly, considering his body was at least twice the size of mine and every possible ounce was hard, honed muscle, the spine-to-jelly effect seemed to come quite naturally to him. “Will you be a nightwalker queen, or will you be a nightwalker meal?”

I couldn’t help it; I pulled my lip between my teeth and stared at him, searching his expression for some sign that there was a way out. I didn’t find one. “You’re certain he won’t allow me to join the breeders? Being with my own kind—”

Jidor shook his head, denying my final attempt to reach for the one thing I yearned for desperately, but had never experienced: human companionship. “You have always been slated for him, Elise. You know this. I did what I could to put this off for as long as possible, but…” He shook his head. “We’re out of time. You have two options once you get in there. Give yourself to him, or don’t. But if you deny him the right to possess you as one of his queens, he’ll take your life’s blood as punishment”—Jidor’s voice gained a rough edge—”and that I won’t allow. I’ve invested too much in you.”

Invested. Like I was just a thing to him, an object. But I’d known that my whole life, no matter how badly my heart tried to convince me otherwise. Being my praestes
my keeper and protectorwas Jidor’s punishment for some failing unknown to me; he’d done something to infuriate the nightwalker king before I’d even been born, over twenty years ago. For Jidor, I was a means to an end. It was clear that he believed successfully preparing me to serve King Usire as one of his willing and obedient queens would return Jidor to the king’s good graces. 

“And what if I would rather give him my life’s blood than free access to my body?” There was iron in my voice, iron Jidor had painstakingly cultivated and honed through years of tutelage. He was right; he had invested a lot in me, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed being traded like a cask of moonwine.

Jidor’s nostrils flared, and fury raged in his eyes. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I enjoy the prospect of either option, but at least if you become his queen, you’ll still be alive.”

I opened my mouth, intending a rude retort, but his words knocked me off balance. Closing my mouth, I searched his eyes. Frequently, I thought I caught hints of genuine affection in Jidor’s expression or tone, but he always shattered my misconceptions by becoming colder, harder, and more-closed off. At least, I’d thought they’d been misconceptions. Had I been wrong? Did he care about me as more than something valuable to barter? It was suddenly imperative that I knew the truth.

I took a deep breath, intending to ask why my life mattered to him, but before I could, Jidor answered my unspoken question wordlessly. His expression was heartbreaking. Pain. Longing. Loss. He raised a hand to my face and brushed his cool fingertips over my lips. I could barely breathe. “Would you still choose death if the alternative were to become oathbound to me
?”

I closed my eyes, holding back tears as I imagined it was his lips rather than his fingertips pressed gently against mine. Was this what it felt like to be kissed? I allowed myself that single, blissful moment before pulling away. 


“Why, Jidor?" I was suddenly furious. "How could you say something like that? Even if…” I narrowed my eyes, making a soft growling sound. “Maybe you just enjoy torturing me with impossibilities. I never expected such cruelty, not from you.” I glared at him in attempt to mask my wrenching pain. 

“Cruelty,” he spat. His mouth curled into a sneer, and in one of those lightning-fast nightwalker movements, his hand had shifted, grasping the back of my neck painfully. Towering over me, menace rolling off him in waves, he hissed, “Listen carefully, little puera. What I’m about to tell you is known only to nightwalkers.” I whimpered, and he squeezed harder. “Every living being has an eternal essence, part of them that continues existing even when their physical form is gone. When a nightwalker drains a being to the point of death and takes their life’s blood, the moment that being’s heart ceases to beat, their essence is absorbed by the nightwalker.”

My eyes went wide, and my heart pounded in my chest. What he was saying was impossible. I would have heard about something like that.

Jidor shook me again. “Do you understand what I’m saying? If you reject Usire, and he takes your life’s blood, he will consume your essence. It will cease to exist.
You will cease to exist.” He leaned down, his face a storm of wild, dangerous emotions. “If you refuse to be his queen, I will snap your neck before his teeth ever pierce your skin. I will not let him have that part of you.” 

Abruptly, Jidor released me, and I staggered back a few steps. Stunned and horrified, I stared at him. “Jidor…do you have any idea what he’d do to you if you did that?”

Killing me, denying the King Usire both my body and my life's blood, would be tantamount to stealing from the king, the gravest possible crime other than attempting to 
physically harm the king. Jidor would be tortured for days, months—unholy light, possibly even years—and then he would be dismembered and burned, and his ashes would be scattered in Nocturne Lake because doing so is the only way to truly kill a nightwalker. Well, that and the solar poisoning that resulted from extended exposure to the sun, but since the surface could no longer sustain human life, nightwalkers had no reason to venture aboveground. Solar poisoning hadn’t been an issue for many centuries.

“You’ll be one of his queens, or we’ll both die.” Jidor's expression was as fierce and harsh as his tone.



Turning my head away from Jidor, I shifted my focus to my soon-to-be lord, Usire, King of Stone and Darkness, who was standing less than three feet away from me. Tall, lean, and pale, Usire was well-known to be as cruel as he was handsome. As his lady, I would not only be a vessel through which new nightwalkers are created, but I would also be a Queen of Stone and Darkness. The title makes the position sound a lot grander than it is. Perhaps it’s the eighteen other “Queens of Stone and Darkness” that dilute the role, or maybe it’s knowing that I’ll have no right to turn down my lord’s attentions, painful and sadistic as they’re rumored to be.

Usire’s mouth twisted into a knowing smirk, and his anticipation for the rapidly approaching consummation ritual was palpable. I swallowed roughly. Could I go through with it?

Behind me, almost as though he was reading my thoughts, Jidor cleared his throat in a wordless reprimand. The sound reminded me I didn’t have a choice. I had to go through with the ceremony. I had to become oathbound to King Usire.

“Do you accept your role as Queen of Stone and Darkness?” the oathweaver repeated, wheezing slightly.

I took a deep, shaky breath. “I do.”

There was a collective exhale from the audience watching beyond the dais. The rest of Usire’s Queens were in attendance, along with their few children and the other high nobles who resided in the City of Night. It wasn’t relief at securing the longevity of my life that caused the exhale, but relief at avoiding Usire’s far-reaching wrath that any refusal on my part would have ignited. He’d chosen me long ago, before I’d ever shown signs of feminine maturity, and it had taken much quick thinking and quicker talking on Jidor’s part to keep me out of the King’s reach until my twentieth year. I'd always though Jidor delayed the inevitable for the sake of training me to be the best lady and Queen I could be, but after his recent revelations, I suspected he'd done so for far more personal reasons.

Jidor cared about me.

Only now did the reality sink in. He truly cared about me. Knowing that made what was about to happen seem so much worse. I felt like an invisible blade had been stabbed into my chest and was being twisted, shredding my heart and collapsing my lungs.

“Repeat after me,” the ancient oathweaver directed. “I, Elise, puera of Jidor Blackheart, do beg his eternal ruler, Usire the Everlasting, Lord of the City of Night and King of all of Stone and Darkness, to accept my body, my heart, and my life as a willing offering.”

I breathed deeply, then repeated his words, somehow managing not to choke on “willing.” When prompted by the oathweaver, I knelt at Usire’s feet. Usire ran his long fingers through my straight, flaxen hair, and I heard him emit a low chuckle. I allowed myself a minute cringe, knowing my face was hidden from all but the polished limestone floor.

“I accept your offering, sweet Elise. I accept it most readily.”

Again, I cringed, barely managing not to pull away from his deceptively gentle touch.

“An offering has been made and accepted,” the oathweaver stated, his wobbling voice emotionless. “Jidor, as the lady’s former praestes, you are tasked with escorting her to the consummation chamber and preparing her for the ritual. It is time.”

I felt Jidor’s hand on my arm, firm and demanding. He pulled me up to my feet and led me away from Usire without saying a word. Inside, I was screaming.
~~~~~

High up in the enormous cavern containing the main portion of the City of Night, there is a cliff that overlooks the entire city. Jidor often brings me there when I’ve done something particularly well, or when he believes my spirits need lifting. Though the climb up the zigzagging path of jagged, crumbling stairs is exhausting, the view is more than worth it.

Standing at the precipice, one can see the entirety of Nocturne Lake, from its glowing aquamarine core to the emerald rim curving along its sinuous perimeter. Graceful bridges arch across the lake at its narrowest stretches, and gleaming buildings constructed of polished limestone bricks huddle in chaotically organized clusters around the lake’s shores, reaching all the way to the cavern's walls on all sides.

On the far side of the cavern, at the place where the lake comes nearest to the wall, the brilliant facade of the Hall of Oaths reaches up toward the ceiling with such a dizzying array of intricately carved arches and spires that it almost looks as though it grew there over millions of years along with the forests of stalactites and stalagmites surrounding it.

That view is the most majestic sight I’ve ever beheld.

As Jidor guided me up a seemingly endless spiral staircase and, much to my panting relief, finally through an asymmetrical, naturally formed archway into the consummation chamber, I gasped. The far wall was, well, nonexistent; it was completely open, and beyond it spread the City of Night in all of its glimmering, iridescent glory. I barely even registered the bed in the center of the chamber lavishly draped with transparent silk curtains and pale satin sheets or the four people standing against the wall to my left, drawn as I was to the far edge of the room.

“Burn me, Jidor! Did you know this chamber was open?” I asked my praestes—my former praestes, I reminded myself—as my sandaled-feet neared the drop off.

“Language, Elise,” Jidor murmured, and I scowled.
“Maybe you should’ve watched your language around me,” I muttered under my breath. I knew he could hear me easily; nightwalkers’ hearing is extremely sensitive, as are the rest of their senses.

Jidor stopped by my side and curled his arm around my waist protectively. “You shouldn’t stand so close to the edge. The fall would be fatal, and I wouldn’t survive your death for long.”

I glanced at him sharply. “He’d execute you if I took my own life, even now? But you’re not even my praestes anymore. I know he’s not known for his fairness, but really…how could he blame you for that?”

One of Jidor’s rare, crooked smiles curved his lips, altering the harsh set of his chiseled features into something softer. I lived for the moments when he smiled like that, rare as they were. Especially because he usually looked like he was ready to rip someone’s throat out…

“That wasn’t what I meant.” He met my eyes for the briefest moment, then gazed out at the city. “And I will always be your praestes, just as you will always be my puera.”

Unable to formulate a response, I held my breath. I couldn’t look away from his bold profile. Jidor was full of all sorts of surprises today. Unfortunately, it was one day too late. Which begged the question—why now? Why was he telling me all of this now? It only made what was about to happen that much more painful. Now it would feel like I was betraying him, even if I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Which, as he'd made perfectly clear, I didn't.

Jidor raised his other arm, extending it in front of him to point at a spot high up on the opposite side of the cavern, too far away for me to see clearly. “There is our overlook.” Our overlook. It astounded me that he considered something to be ours, together, like we were one unit.

I squinted, unsuccessfully trying to make out the shallow outcropping I knew so well. “I can’t see it,” I confessed.

Jidor’s hold on my waist tightened. “I know. But I can.”

Understanding dawned on me. If he could see our lookout point from here, then he could see into the consummation chamber from there. “Is that where you’ll be...when he—he—”

Clenching his jaw so hard I thought I could hear his teeth grinding, Jidor nodded.

I cleared my throat, then swallowed. Both seemed louder than usual. “Will it be as bad as they say?”

“Worse.” Jidor’s voice was soft, cold. It was the most dangerous tone his voice could adopt.

“Oh,” I whispered. I’d started shivering, and not because my barely opaque ivory silk gown did little to fend off the main cavern’s ever-present chill. I was terrified of Usire, of the consummation ritual, and of the fruit the ritual would likely bear.

Jidor once brought me an old above-ground book about a man and woman who fell in love. The woman was human, but the man was something called a “vampire.” Jidor had explained that “vampire” was the ancient term the humans gave to nightwalkers, back in the days when they were still believed to be myths and humans still flourished on the earth’s surface. The vampire, when faced with the mortal truth of his lover’s life, decided to turn her into a vampire so they could spend eternity together. I’d found it amusing that my ancient ancestors believed a human could be turned into a nightwalker. I’d giggled and tossed the book at Jidor, telling him it was too ridiculous to continue reading. A human could be transformed into a nightwalker as easily as a glowfish could become a bat; it was impossible. There was only one way to bring new nightwalkers into the world: the consummation ritual.
The ritual can only be enacted between a male nightwalker and a female human, and no part of it includes the woman being transformed into anything other than what she already is: human. That is, unless one counts motherhood as a transformation. If, during copulation, a nightwalker exchanges blood with a human, any resulting offspring will be a nightwalker. Gestation is hard on the mother, as the fetus literally feeds on her blood while it grows within her, and frequently both perish during the process. That very danger is the reason why Usire and the other high nobles tend to keep so many ladies. The more ladies they had to carry out the consumation ritual with, the more potential offspring they had.

I wrapped my arms around myself, interlocking my finger’s with Jidor’s. His hand was so much larger than mine that holding it made me feel like a child. “I hope the ritual works the first time so I only have to do it once.”

“As do I, my puera. As do I.” Jidor's voice was grave. He stepped back from the ledge, taking me with him, and led me over to the people who were standing against the wall.

No longer entranced by the view, I noted that they were four human men with downcast eyes, each beautiful in his own right. As they were human, but their drawstring pants were white rather than the black worn by breeders, I knew they were also eunuchs—the untouched. The untouched were as much decoration as they were servants to the nightwalkers, and I had no idea why they were there.

I looked from the untouched to Jidor, my eyebrows raised in question.

Jidor finally released me and took a few steps away, backing toward the wide doorway leading out of the chamber. “Pick whichever of the untouched pleases you most. Your chosen will prepare you for the ritual, at least as much as anyone can be prepared for the ritual with Usire.”

I frowned and studied the attractive faces of the four men, each too feminine to be considered handsome, then turned to face Jidor. “I don’t understand. The oathweaver said you're supposed to prepare me.” Not that I had any idea what “preparing me” entailed, but I felt the sting of betrayal that Jidor could so carelessly pass my care to another, especially after his recent bittersweet claim that he would always be my praestes and I would always be his puera.

Mimicking the untouched, Jidor shifted his gaze to the floor. “As your praestes, yes, it’s my duty to prepare you, but…you don’t understand wh—”

“Then explain it to me,” I snapped. With my sudden outburst, heat flooded my cheeks, and I, too, cast my eyes downward. “Sorry.”

I heard the soft sound of his boots, then felt a cool hand on my cheek. Jidor was standing so close to me that when he spoke, his breath brushed against my forehead. “A praestes’s final duty to his puera is to prepare her body for her new lord.” His fingertips trailed down the side of my neck and lower, to my breastbone, tracing the path my blood took with each increasingly erratic beat of my heart. “The process can be very…intimate, which is the point. It’s seen as a ritual in and of itself, a way for a praestes to say goodbye to his puera.”

I still couldn’t meet his eyes, instead looking at his light gray boots. “But you have no desire to touch me intimately.” It was a statement, not a question, and my voice sounded hollow as I said it. I’d fantasized about him doing such things on multiple occasions, though I’d never thought it was an actual possibility. “Does the thought disgust you? Is it because I’m not pretty enough?” My questions were genuine.

Mirrors are banned throughout all of the underground cities in the Land of Stone and Darkness, because, when a nightwalker peers into one, it is said that their true age is reflected back at them. I’d caught Jidor’s reflection in water several times, and he never looked any different than my usual, familiar praestes, so I didn’t know if there was any truth to the myth. My own reflection, on the other hand, was that of a stranger—a pale-haired, pale-skinned, pale-eyed stranger.

I knew I wasn’t unattractive, since Usire had claimed me as intended for him when I was still a young girl, but almost all the human women in the City of Night were stunning. At least, all the women walking around the city freely, either as ladies or breeders, were stunning; the others were food. Most nightwalkers preferred to be surrounded by beauty and found little value in creativity or intellect, at least where humans were concerned. After all, how could any human ever surpass the creativity and intellect of a nightwalker who'd had hundreds of years to hone their mind?

“Don’t be ridiculous, Elise.” Jidor's voice was low and rough.

“Then, what is preventing you from—”

“I can’t ensure I’ll be able to resist completing the consummation ritual myself.” And doing so would mean death for us both. Even I knew that.

Stunned, I raised my gaze to lock with his. His eyes were an inferno of roiling, liquid emotion: passion and fury, hatred and regret. I was so very tired of death lurking around every corner, waiting for me to misstep. I needed a reason to keep on trying, something to remind me why living was so grand, because at the moment, life could go burn itself.

Unfamiliar boldness washed over me along with a whole new, far more exciting set of shivers, and I stared into Jidor’s eyes. “If you don’t fulfill your final duty as my praestes, I swear to you, Jidor Blackheart, I will throw myself off that ledge at the first opportunity.” I meant every single word.

Jidor searched my eyes. He swallowed several times before he could find his voice. “Leave us,” he told the untouched without breaking our eye contact. As they filed out, he reached his free hand behind me and placed it on my lower back, pulling me against him. He was so solid, like he really had been carved from the limestone of our underground world.

Slowly, he lowered his head and kissed me. My whole world—my whole universe—fell apart, reforming with this moment, this feeling, as the apex of my sheltered existence.

Jidor's mouth sealed over mine, and his lungs stole my breath, despite requiring none to sustain his own body. I drowned in Jidor, in the taste and feel of him. I wanted nothing more than to have the earth open up and swallow us whole so I wouldn’t have to live another second without my lips pressed against his. It was my first kiss, and if I were never to be kissed by Jidor again, I hoped it would be my last.

He broke our contact unexpectedly, turning away from me as he stepped back. Despite being superfluous, his breathing was as ragged as mine. “I can’t do this,” he hissed.

My eyes were wide, my mouth hanging open in shock. “What?” Burn me, was I that bad of a kisser? “But you said—”

Jidor leveled a fierce glare on me. “He will not have you!” As he spoke, I realized the glare wasn’t actually for me.

I took a step toward him, raising placating hands up to touch his face. “Jidor, you know that’s not possible.” As my fingertips touched his tensed jaw, his harsh expression eased, just a little. “Please don’t throw away what little time we have.” Unshed tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away as best I could. “These next few moments together…that’s all I’ll have to sustain me for the rest of my life.”

“No.” His voice was hoarse. “It’s not enough.”

My hands fell away from him, hanging uselessly at my sides. I started to turn away, but Jidor moved more quickly than I could track. He was suddenly in front of me, his hands grasping my upper arms. He held me before him, refusing to let me mourn the loss of what could have been in peace.

“There's another way,” he murmured emphatically.

I shook my head, confused.

“If we leave the city…”

Frowning, I continued to shake my head. “You want to go on the run? But Usire has eyes everywhere—in all the cities. It’s impossible. And once he finds us, what he’ll do to you…” I shuddered in horror, but deep inside me, I also felt a mounting flurry of giddiness. Was it possible? Could we do this? Could we break free from King Usire's hold for good?

“No, Elise. I know of a way out…to the surface.”

My hopes, which had been rising with his excitement, evaporated. “You forget—I can’t live above ground. I’m only human, and the surface isn’t habitable for—”

“No, Elise,” he repeated. “Don’t you see? He lied. He’s been lying for centuries, ever since we retreated back into the underground cities. The surface was never uninhabitable, least of all for your kind. If it’s dangerous to anyone, it’s dangerous to nightwalkers, not humans.”

“That’s not…Jidor, that’s not possible!”

He shook his head emphatically, his eyes bright. “You were killing us. Your technology was too great, and even with our superior physical abilities, you’d become more than a match for us. You started hunting us, wiping us out, so we returned to the only place safe for us, and many of our loyal humans followed. Usire convinced us all that there’d been a disaster shortly after, and—”

“You can’t know for sure,” I argued. “It could just be a wild rumor. We might get up there, and—and I might die immediately!”

It was Jidor’s turn to shake his head. “Perhaps, but I don’t think so.” Another rare smile, wry this time. “Besides, would that be any worse than the fate awaiting you here...with him?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “No, but—”

“I love you, Elise.”

That shut me up.

“Please.”

I just stared at him, wide-eyed, and nodded.

For the first time in my entire life, I saw a full grin spread across Jidor’s face, baring his elongated canines completely. Burn me to eternity and back, he was breathtaking.

He kissed me, hard, and pulled away far too quickly for my liking. “This is what we’ll do…”

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Read the next installment: ESCAPE.

2 comments:

  1. Intriguing story. I'm anxious to read what happens in Escape :)

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    1. Thanks! I can't wait to hear what you think!

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