Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lady of Stone & Darkness: (2) Escape

Here's the second 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 this installment onward, I'll be asking for reader involvement and input as to what happens later in the story.

Read the previous installment, OATHBOUND.


***some installments may contain mature content, themes, and/or language***
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Previously in Lady of Stone & Darkness: Deep within the City of Night, Elise was oathbound to the nightwalker king, Usire, but before the consummation ritual could begin, she and her life-long protector, Jidor, expressed their true feelings for each other. Unwilling to give up Elise, Jidor devises a plan of escape for both of them. The installments ended with Jidor saying, “This is what we’ll do…”

When Usire strolled through the arched doorway, I did my best not to let him see my all-encompassing fear. I was sprawled on my back on the expansive bed in the center of the chamber, my dress blending in with its bone-white sheets and my limbs splayed in an alluring manner. Or, in what Jidor had deemed an alluring manner. Considering the intensity with which he’d kissed me after arranging me so, I had to defer to his expertise. After all, I had none.

Usire leaned against one of the intricately worked limestone canopy posts at the foot of the bed. “Are you satisfactorily prepared, my sweet, sweet Elise?” His gaze trailed a tangled path of icy shivers all over my body.

“I’m afraid not, my lord.” I forced myself to meet his pale blue eyes, careful to keep my disgust covered by a mask of disappointment. His irises were so light that they almost blended with the whites of his eyes. The effect was undeniably eerie.

Usire eased himself down on the edge of the bed, leaning toward me to wrap his hand around my nearest ankle. “And why is that?” he asked, his tone conversational.

“Jidor couldn’t stir my desires because…” I glanced away, biting my lip and feigning shyness.

“Because…?”

I forced myself to speak before I lost my nerve. “Because I find myself yearning for another’s touch…your touch.” Heat flushed my face and neck as I again met Usire’s eyes, lending credence to the pretense that my apparent forwardness embarrassed me. I was embarrassed, but not by what I'd said. It was recalling my desperate pleas for Jidor to truly prepare my body, to explore every part of me despite the fact that we had zero intention of me following through with the consummation ritual, that set me afire with a heady cocktail of embarrassment and desire.

“This pleases me.” Usire jerked me closer to him, and I squeaked in surprise. He slid his hand up my calf, behind my knee, and up the back of my thigh, pushing up the thin silk of my gown along the way. “My touch can be an acquired taste.” He squeezed my thigh, his grip firm enough to bruise.

I held in a cry of pain, but couldn’t stop my pulse from racing or my breaths from turning quick and shallow. Both responses he could easily detect. I hoped he read my reaction as arousal, but if he recognized it as fear, it didn’t do anything to lessen his own desire.

He bared his teeth in a wicked grin. Like all nightwalkers, he had elongated canines and lateral incisors, but his were by far the longest I’d ever seen. They gleamed in the iridescent glow of the lichen lighting the chamber. He released my thigh and lowered his head to run his lips over the reddened area. When his teeth grazed my skin, my breath caught.

“Is that what excites you so, my sweet Elise?” His right canine nicked me, and he pulled back to watch a thin trickle of blood run down the inside of my thigh and stain the stretch of my silk skirts that was still beneath me. “The sting of my teeth sinking into your tender flesh?”

“Yes,” I replied, my voice hoarse. It was the truth, sort of. I wanted him to bite me, to take a deep draw of the blood flowing through my veins, more than I’d ever wanted anything. But, I was also terrified of the pain. Despite living among nightwalkers my entire life, I’d never been bitten. I’d been a puera, and as such, protected until I became oathbound to a nightwalker. Had any nightwalker attempted to bite me, they would have had to go through Jidor. Considering that everyone—human and nightwalker alike—acted as though they were terrified of my praestes, biting me hadn't been high on anyone's list of to-dos.

Usire smeared the blood around the small cut. “I’m never one to keep a lady waiting,” he said right before he struck.

His bite hurt like all a million suns were burning within my thigh, but I held in my scream, emitting only a throaty groan. Usire grunted in response, his nails digging into my outer thigh and hip as he drank deeply. Jidor hadn’t warned me it would hurt so incredibly much. I squeezed my eyes shut, embracing the agony.

Necessary. This was necessary.

After his third swallow, Usire stiffened and raised his head. His eyes glowed with shock. “What did you—”

I scooted further up on the bed until my back hit the carved limestone headboard. The effects of the blood Usire had ingested had to be quick, incapacitating him before he could lash out at me, or my next few breaths would be my last.
Shock turned to outrage as Usire realized what Jidor and I had done. He lunged at me.

I twisted out of his reach, falling off the bed completely, and staggered to my feet. I backed away from the furious nightwalker king, who was coughing up as much of the blood he’d ingested as possible on the formerly pristine ivory sheets. Only some of the blood was mine; the rest was Jidor’s, and the blood of their own kind is the deadliest poison to any nightwalker, even to the king. Another nightwalker secret spilled, courtesy of my praestes.
While he was supposed to be preparing me for the ritual, Jidor had actually been doing something else—something unheard of. He’d retrieved an emergency transfusion kit from a chest set against the wall—a staple in any chamber where a nightwalker might accidentally draw too much blood from a human—and had exchanged some of my blood for his. Humans and nightwalkers shared blood frequently, especially when attempting to propagate the nightwalker species, but it was always ingested; nightwalker blood was never injected directly into a human's veins. To do so was forbidden, sacrilegious to the point of being punishable by immediate execution.

Witnessing the way Usire was writhing in agony on the bed, I understood why. Nightwalker blood was poisonous to other nightwalkers.

I was still standing in the middle of the room, watching Usire warily, when Jidor rushed into the room. After only a quick examination of the bed and its pained occupant, his eyes swept over me, honing in on the blood spotting my gown around the bite and nail gouges on my thigh. His face transformed into a mask of fury. “Tell me it’s just from a bite. Tell me he didn’t have a chance to—”

Realizing what he thought had happened, that Usire had completed the ritual, I blurted, “No, Jidor, I swear!” I closed the distance between us, hiking up my dress so he could see the bite. The bleeding had stopped, which was surprising, but the punctures were still red and puffy. I didn’t care that I was practically flashing him my most intimate parts. “See? It’s just a bite. I haven’t been, um, spoiled.”

Jidor blinked several times, seeming confused by my word choice. Within seconds, his expression cleared, and he leaned down and kissed me gently. “That wouldn’t have mattered…other than to Usire…who I would hurt. Badly.”

The man in question rolled off the bed, his head hitting the stone floor with a sickening crack. Jidor crossed the room to the motionless king, kneeling beside him and slipping a large, hammered silver medallion out from the unconscious man’s robes and over his head. “This,” he said as held the medallion up to examine it better, “is the key to the surface.”

Before Jidor could rise, Usire caught his wrist in his weakening grip. “You played me for a fool, brother.”

My mouth fell open.

Brother?

But they looked nothing alike. It wasn’t possible. I took a step toward them. “Jidor, wha—”

“Not now, Elise,” Jidor snarled. He’d never spoken to me so harshly, and I snapped my mouth shut. I felt like I’d been slapped. Did this mean it was true? Was Jidor really the king's brother? Why hadn’t he told me? Why had nobody else? Shouldn’t he have been ruling over one of the other cities in the Land of Stone and Darkness like the other princes?

Usire’s glassy gaze shifted to me. “My bastard brother is a skilled actor, is he not?” The king coughed, spraying pink saliva into the air. His eyes fixed on Jidor. “And here I was, thinking that little incident with Roselle had been all her doing, that she’d aroused your bloodlust and enticed you into her bed…that it was a single, isolated act of betrayal. How long have you opposed me? Since before, or after I stripped you of your titles?”

“I was loyal to you until you had her executed,” Jidor snapped. “I loved her!”

“Sadly, Roselle was incapable of returning the sentiment, Blackheart.” There was a surprising note of sympathy, or maybe pity in Usire’s tone.

My feet seemed to be glued to the floor. I wanted to flee, to escape their disturbing revelations, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the two brothers and the tragic history they were unveiling.

I’d read of Roselle, the harlot Queen, who’d been executed shortly after my birth. Immediately after their initial consummation ritual, Roselle had threatened suicide if Usire refused to dispose of his other nineteen queens at the time. So great was his desire for Roselle, that he had the rest of his living queens and their nightwalker offspring banished to the unlivable surface to appease her. According to the common histories, she’d been executed after her affair with another nightwalker noble, but nowhere had Jidor’s name been mentioned. I was beginning to understand that history could be rewritten, especially if one is the king.

Jidor’s face was contorted with outrage at Usire’s claim. “You’re wrong. She loved me. She told me so many times.”

Usire laughed, which turned into a sickeningly wet cough. “As she did me. Likely she told the same to the other men she was bedding when she wasn’t with us.”

Jidor stood and took a step back, bringing himself closer to the drop-off at the edge of the chamber. “You’re lying.”

“Am I?” Usire’s attention shifted to me. “Take a look at our sweet Elise, dear, blind brother. How could you have spent so much time with her and not noticed her resemblance to Roselle?”

Jidor’s eyes were wide as he looked at me, and he was shaking his head. He took another step backward, bringing him dangerously close to the ledge.

“Watch you step, Jidor,” I blurted.

“It’s no use denying the truth,” Usire said. “You can hear Roselle in her voice as well, can’t you? You can smell her scent and likely taste Roselle in her sweet blood—at least when its not tainted with your own."

“No,” Jidor breathed, but his eyes were filled with horrified recognition, and he was still staring at me. “No.”

“Yes,” Usire countered.

“What are you saying?” I asked, my voice trembling, but I was fairly certain I already knew the answer. Roselle, the Harlot Queen, was my mother. It seemed impossible. Queens didn't have human children. Queens bore nightwalkers. That was just the way things worked.

“How?” Jidor asked.

Usire sighed, and something gurgled in his chest. “Fetch me a snack, and I’ll explain. Otherwise, I’ll let the truth die with me.” Usire coughed again. “Tick tock, Blackheart. Soon the damage will be irreparable.”

Jidor didn’t hesitate. He swept past me on his way out of the chamber. “Stay here, Elise,” he called back to me, and then he was gone.

I couldn’t have left if I’d wanted to—which I did. Jidor had used shadowtongue, a form of mental persuasion possessed only by the oldest, most powerful nightwalkers. I hadn’t known he could use it, let alone was old enough for it to be a possibility. How had I grown up as his puera, practically worshiped him for most of my life, and known so very little about who he really is?

“He’ll never love you, sweet Elise,” Usire wheezed. “Every time he looks at you, he’ll see Roselle. He’ll hate you.” His eyes flicked to the ledge. “Best to end it now, before he has a chance to reject you. It’ll be quick, and you’ll barely feel the landing.”

Unwillingly, I inched closer to the ledge. It was a well-known fact that Usire possessed the ability to use shadowtongue, and he'd most certainly used it on me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked, my voice barely more than a whisper.

“There’s too much of Roselle in you. You’ve proved as much through your failed assassination attempt. You’re cold and calculating, absolutely incapable of love, just like your mother. You’re not fit to be a lady, let alone one of my queens. The continued beating of your heart sickens me,” he stated coldly.

I was at the edge, the many spires of the Hall of Oaths’ facade rising up on either side of me.

“Take the final step.” Usire’s voice rang with power, and I lifted my foot.

“Elise, no!” Jidor shouted.

The discordant clang of their warring influence wracked through my body. I froze, one foot raised as I teetered on the ledge, a breath away from death.

“Aid the king,” he commanded right before his arms wrapped around me. He dragged me away from the drop-off. Spinning me around to face him, he searched my eyes, tension hardening his features. “Why, Elise? What were you thinking?”

“I—he—I didn’t want to!" I cried. "I had no choice."

Jidor’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as his gaze slid to Usire. He didn’t look away from his younger brother, who was feeding hungrily on one of the untouched, as he guided me toward the doorway. “We’re leaving.”

“But…your explanation. My—my mother…”

“Your life is more important.”

“He was a breeder,” Usire called as we hurried through the archway. “Roselle couldn’t even recall his name. When the child was born human, I had proof of the depths of her treacherous depravity.” A gleeful laugh followed us as we rushed down the spiral stairwell. “You thought the child had been stillborn…and that it had been yours”—the mad giggling continued—”but Roselle’s rotten offspring has been right under your nose all along!”

“Jidor—”

“Not now.” He increased his pace, dragging me down the steep stairs at a near-run.

“Jidor, wait!” I locked my legs in an attempt to stop his descent and nearly tumbled forward. I would have fallen had he not caught me with a firm grip just above my elbow. Staring up into his tortured, blue-gray eyes, I blurted, “I didn’t know the Harlot Queen was my mother! I swear!”

“I believe you, but this really isn’t the best time.” He righted me and continued pulling me down the stairs. “As soon as Usire is strong enough to move on his own, he’ll hunt down some guards and send them after us. There’s only one exit to the surface, and the sole purpose of the medallion is to enable its holder to pass through the ward. Usire knows exactly where we’re headed. If he catches us, the things he’ll do—you’ll wish he’d succeeded in forcing you over that ledge.”

We reached the end of the stairs and Jidor released me and slowed to a quick, inconspicuous walk. I was breathing hard and was glad for the temporary respite.

“I just needed you to know that I’m not like her,” I said quietly between deep breaths. “I would never do what she did. And…I can love. I do love.”

Jidor shot me an unreadable glance but said nothing. In silence, we walked side-by-side through the City of Night like we hadn’t a care in the world. We didn’t receive a single suspicious look. After all, it wasn’t unusual for humans to walk around with spots of blood on their clothing, especially not ladies who had supposedly recently completed a consummation ritual.

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Much to my surprise, Jidor led me up the partially enclosed path toward our overlook. When we reached the familiar offshoot, he passed it by without a second glance and, increasing the pace, continued further up the unrelenting path than I’d ever been. We went through two doorways, pausing only long enough for Jidor to fit heavy iron keys into the locks.

“Take this,” he said, handing me the medallion. “Just in case.”

It was heavier than I’d expected, and felt cool against my breastbone as I settled its silver chain around my neck. Exhaustion made my hands shake, but I didn’t mention it to Jidor. We had neither the time nor the luxury to rest, and my complaining wouldn’t do anything to improve either of our moods.

“We’re getting close,” he told me, his tone distant. “Once we’re through the portal, you can rest.” He’d always been able to read me with the briefest glance.

I grunted and plowed on. The winding tunnel had narrowed, but a blueish light shone around the bend ahead. When we rounded it, I caught sight of the source of the glow and felt a burst of renewed energy. The ward shielding the portal to the surface glowed with a glittering azure light, reminding me of the shimmering surface of Nocturne Lake. I couldn’t see beyond the ward, but I didn’t need to. Beyond it awaited safety and rest and the glorious possibility of no more fear. Beyond it lay freedom. The possibility that Jidor might be wrong and that the surface might be toxic to me didn’t even cause me pause. Freedom, even if it was only for a few seconds, would be more than I’d ever had before.

I grabbed Jidor’s hand and tugged him forward, laughing joyously. “We made it, Jidor! We’re safe!” I didn’t hesitate before pushing through the shimmering veil. I glided through the tingly warmth…until somethine stopped me short.

All that remained on the opposite side of the ward was my hand, the one that was still clasped in Jidor’s. I yanked, intending to pull him through to the outside, but again, he refused to let his hand pass through. I stepped back into the tunnel.

“Jidor, what are you doing? We have to go now!”

He stared down at me, a mask a grief transforming his face into a visage that brought tears to my eyes. “The medallion won’t let both of us through.” He looked over my shoulder, swallowing several times. “I didn’t think…” Howling, he struck the rough stone wall with his fist. “It’s only going to work for whoever is holding it. Only one of us is getting out.”

I shook my head. “There must be a—”

Shouts echoed up the tunnel. Usire’s guards were on their way, and they were closing in quickly.

I slipped the chain over my head and, holding the medallion in the palm of my hand, grabbed Jidor’s hand. “There. If we’re both holding the medallion, we’ll both be allowed passage.”

Again I pushed against the barrier, but it was as solid as stone. In a fit of uncontrollable rage, I slapped it and cried out. It was an awful wail of despair and hopelessness and disbelief. I slapped the shimmering blue wall again and again, and when that did no good, I began clawing at it.

“Elise, stop!” Jidor captured my hand and pressed it against his chest. “You’re hurting yourself.”

I stared at my hand like I’d never seen it before. My nails were broken and bloody, and my pinky was bent at an unnatural angle, but I barely felt any pain. Or maybe it was just that the pain was insignificant in the face of our current, desperate situation.

Jidor sqeezed my shoulder. “You have to go. You have to live…for both of us.”

“No!” I shouted, tears streaming down my cheeks. “I won’t leave you in here! I won’t!”

Just as the first guard rounded the bend, coming into view, Jidor brought his mouth to mine with bruising intensity. Before I realized what he was doing, he closed my fingers around the medallion and shoved me at the barrier. I stumbled through, gasping for breath.

Knowing it was only a matter of seconds before the guards overtook Jidor, I thrust my face back through the barrier, found Jidor’s hand, and pressed the medallion into his palm. Our hands joined, I withdrew from the barrier as far as possible until only my hand and about a third of my forearm remained, and then I let go.

The pain was instant, sharp, and hot, and it was easily the worst sensation I’d ever felt in my life. Usire’s bite was a pin-prick in comparison. I doubled over, dry-heaving. Had there been anything in my stomach, it would have spattered the ground, but my nerves had kept me from eating anything all day.

“Elise! No! What have you done?” It was Jidor’s voice. I could hear him…which meant he’d crossed through the barrier. His arms were suddenly around me, and we were sitting, him cradling me in his lap. I couldn’t remember sitting down.

Blearily, I gazed up into his horrified face and smiled. “It worked.”

He reached for my arm and raised it, bringing it into my line of sight. “But your hand.”

I stared at my arm. My hand was…gone. In its place was a blackened, oozing stump. My hand…

I averted my gaze, staring at Jidor’s pale leather cuirass instead of my missing hand. It started to itch, and I pressed my face against the leather, breathing deeply to give me something else to focus on.

“That’s not possible,” Jidor whispered. “That’s not possible.”

What isn’t possible?” I squeaked, refusing to look.

“Elise, you’re healing…like a nightwalker.”

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NEXT PART: Mist (available now!)

Alright, here's your chance to have a say in where the story goes next. Please share your opinion regarding any of the following questions (or any other brilliant insights or inspirations that strike you), and I'll use your feedback as I delve further into the story.

1. What do you think will happen next?

2. What is the aboveground world like?

3. Is Usire truly evil, or does he just seem evil through Elise's eyes?

4. What the heck is going on with Elise's chopped off hand healing?


Thanks for any and all feedback! I can't wait to read your ideas and start weaving them into the story!!!

3 comments:

  1. I picture the world above being a dark, seemingly desolate city, perhaps even in ruins. But there are free humans, renegades maybe like the Resistance (Terminator status). That's who Elise and Jidor would eventually meet up with and join forces with.

    As for Elise's hand...well she's clearly someone of huge importance, her birth being one of significance that Usire is probably aware of even if Jidor and Elise aren't. She's a half-breed, part human and part nightwalker. It would be interesting to learn about her parents. She could bridge the gap between species, bring a sense of truth and understanding...in the end peace...to the two worlds. It would be cool if her destiny was prophesied and that's why Usire wants her, whether it's for control or to somehow tap into her power. What if she's immune to what hurts nightwalkers and what hurts humans and she's got a mixed bag of problems no one's prepared for because she's so unique?

    And yes, I feel like Usire is truly evil--no matter his intentions, I see them only being self-serving.

    I'm so excited for the next installment! I'll stop brainstorming now :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am totally in love with the idea of Elise being something other than human, and beyond that, Usire knowing about it. I'm definitely going to work that in later. Awesome suggestions!!! :)

      Delete
  2. Ah...how terribly disappointing the lack of discussion. I happened upon this page and thought
    "What FUN to be able to actually interact with the writing of a book!" but it seems I'm, as
    usual, out of step with the majority...ah well, no big change that.

    3> Yes, I believe Usire is truely evil.
    - He is controlling his society by the lie that "Above" is unsafe for them.
    I must say, I find this thread of the story really discordant:

    Part 1 says:
    "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"

    Following that with Usire telling his people of a "disaster shortly after" that he
    used to keep them (both Nightwalkers and their pet humans) there.

    But also presents the Nightwalkers as immortal/virtually impossible to kill:
    "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"

    And then Part 2 presents a special/magical barrier that noone can get through without
    a special medalion that only lets the bearer through without loss of body parts.

    doesn't all quite hang together for me...feels a bit reaching
    - He enjoys causing pain/suffering/fear per numerous references

    4> The infusion of blood that caused Usire's reaction to biting her has granted her
    temporary healing. Perhaps this knowledge will be utilized against the Nightstalkers later

    2> Well, Usire's story of distruction was a lie and hundreds of years have past. It would be
    a rather funny twist to bring them into present day with vampires being all the rage
    and then use that to step off into some cataclysmic event

    Guess I'll just have to read on and see where you chose to go....

    ReplyDelete