Monday, March 3, 2014

Lady of Stone & Darkness: (3) Mist

Here's the third installment of Lady of Stone & Darkness, my 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.

Read the previous installments:

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

Previously in Lady of Stone & Darkness: Elise and Jidor managed to escaped from the City of Night by tricking and wounding King Usire and stealing his amulet, the only key to the barrier separating the subterranean Land of Stone and Darkness from the aboveground world. Elise sacrificed her hand so Jidor could pass through the barrier as well, and the second installment ends with Jidor telling Elise that her hand is a nightwalker's would be.

Mist hovered around us, swirling lazily at our slightest movements. Light streaked through it, diffused from some point overhead, though the source itself was concealed by the mist.

It reminded me of the time Jidor took me to the Cavern Styx, a disorienting chamber hidden behind the cascade of a towering underground waterfall. The water itself spouted from a hot spring, and the combination of hot water on cool stone and the spray caused by sheer impact of the water hitting the fall’s base filled the cavern with a mist so opaque that no amount of torches or glow lichen could cut through it.

Jidor took me there to practice honing my senses, part of my more unconventional training as a puera. It had been nearly impossible to distinguish the sounds of him moving around in the cavern from the gentle echoes that haunted the space like ceaseless whispers from the dead. I’d had one goal—to sneak up on Jidor and touch his neck. Only once I proved I’d mastered my senses enough to do that would we leave.

We spent days camped out in that cavern, until I finally grew accustomed to the way the mist altered my perception. It wasn’t about isolating Jidor from the mist, but understanding how the mist reacted to him—the way it shifted in relation to his movements…the way the whispers combined with his sounds.

The mist surrounding us now was so similar—swirling, whispering, concealing—that I was certain passing through the barrier hadn’t led us aboveground, but to another cavern. A tightness in my chest eased. Despite Jidor’s assurances that the king had lied about the cataclysm and that the aboveground was habitable, and I found acute relief in knowing I was surrounded by stone. Even were it possible for me to survive aboveground, the idea that there would be no stone canopy overhead, that there would be nothing but sky, terrified me. What was to prevent me from falling into that vast expanse of nothing?

“Elise? Did you hear what I said?” Jidor’s grip on my forearm tightened, drawing my attention back to the stump where my hand had been only moments before. I stared, snakes of nausea coiling around in my stomach.

You’re healing…like a nightwalker.
For some reason, my mind had interpreted his words to mean my hand was actually growing back. It wasn’t. But neither would a nightwalker’s, so my assumption was ridiculous. I was obviously delirious.

Jidor shook me gently with the arm he had wrapped around my shoulders. “Elise!”

And if I wasn’t delirious, I was definitely going into shock. I stared dazedly out at the mist, soothed by its languid movement and hushed whispers. It undulated toward us, and wisps around the bulging area eddied, becoming an increasingly twisted mass. Something about that seemed significant. But I was floating through the mists and couldn’t bring myself to think about it, let alone care.

A tiny voice clawed free from an oubliette in the darkest recesses of my mind. Movement of air, it whispered, that’s what makes the mists shift.

Movement of air. But we were sitting still; we couldn’t have been making the air move, not that much. It could have been a breeze, had there been one. But there wasn’t. And still, that one portion of the mists danced.

My mind snapped into focus. Utter clarity.

We weren’t alone.

“Jidor!” I hissed as a pale shape coalesced only a few paces away—a tall figure cloaked in layers flowy gray and white fabric from head to toe. The only spots of darkness were its eyes.

Jidor had been so focused on my injury that he hadn’t detected the presence himself. As the figure lunged at us, Jidor rolled, shielding me with his body. His movements were fluid and practiced, and far too quick for my human eyes to track. He twisted before the attacker was on him, leaving his back to me.

Unfortunately, Jidor wasn’t the only one whose movements were nightwalker-fast. They grappled, rolling, lunging, and exchanging blows with bursts of preternatural speed and agility. Their shapes blurred, making them appear to be part of the mist itself.

Keeping my healing wrist tucked tight against my chest, I gathered my feet under me and rose to a crouch. My fingers dug into soft, moist ground, searching, as I watched the lethal dance. I caught my breath when I found what I’d been searching for—a stone about the size of my fist. A quick tactile examination told me it had a sharpened, jagged point on one side. It would do just fine.

I closed my fingers around the stone, never taking my eyes off Jidor and his cloaked opponent. Forcing myself to take long, steady breaths, I watched, waited. I would have to time it perfectly; if I placed myself in either of their way at the wrong moment and one of them collided with me, my comparatively fragile body would be shattered.

They broke apart suddenly, taking hasty steps away and settling into a slow circling pattern. Better. This arrangement was much better.

I just needed Jidor to lure his opponent around so I was out of sight. As good as forgotten. Being both slight and female, not to mention human, makes me easily dismissible to nightwalkers. In some instances, I’m practically invisible. It’s one of my strongest weapons.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a second cloaked figure surged through the fog behind Jidor. I shrieked a warning, but it was too late.

Jidor bellowed as a spearhead burst through the side of his cuirass just below his ribs. He stiffened, his back arched and his mouth open wide with rage and shock.

“NO!” The stone fell from my fingers. “No…”

Jidor looked past his first attacker, meeting my eyes. He mouthed a single word. “Run.”

But I’d become a tree, rooted to the ground. I could do nothing but watch as the spearman shoved down on Jidor’s shoulder, forcing him to his knees. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the metal spearhead protruding from Jidor. I could barely think.

Until I caught the glint of metal at the first attackers side. A blade. It was as long as my forearm and gleamed silver-blue in the diffused light. A pale leather sheath melded with the folds of fabric on either side of the figure’s hips, one empty, and one with a hilt protruding from the top.

A spear through the gut wouldn’t kill Jidor, but it would weaken him enough to make slicing him up into tiny little pieces a lot easier. That would kill him. Was that their plan? Were these people, whoever they were, going to kill Jidor?

No. Burning. Way.

Breaking the mental binds that fused me to the ground, I ghosted up behind the blade-wielder and pounced onto the figure’s back, simultaneously reaching down to pull the unused knife from its sheath. I was fairly certain that at least this cloaked figure was male, if the breadth of hard-packed muscle I’d latched onto was anything to go by. Had I been a nightwalker, or likely even had I been male, the sneak attack would have been impossible. But I was neither nightwalker nor male. I was insignificant. Invisible.

Or, at least, I had been.

I really love being underestimated, if only because it allows for moments like this. Jidor hadn’t spent my entire life training me to be the prissy kind of lady most nightwalker male’s preferred. I’d never thought to ask him why—perhaps it was because I’d been slated for King Usire from such a young age and Jidor thought I would need some rather unusual skills to have a chance at surviving the king’s notoriously sadistic whims—but my praestes had painstakingly trained me to be as skilled of a fighter as was humanly possible. I might be small and relatively weak, but I’m quick and clever, and I know how to use a larger opponent’s momentum against them.

I slammed the second blade home in the cloaked man’s stomach, leaping off his back before he was able to react. The injury slowed him, and I melted into the mist, preparing for my next assault.

When their outlines had faded out of sight, I eased to a stop and waited for the mists to fall still around me. I counted my heartbeats and focused on taking slow, quiet breaths. After nineteen heartbeats, I heard them whispering. After twenty-five, one of them took a barely audible step.

It was unlikely that both would come after me, since leaving Jidor unguarded was as good as committing suicide. If he were able to recover—which would only take a matter of minutes once the spear was removed—he’d go after the cloaked men until their bodies had been chopped, burned, and sprinkled over water. I just needed to get the spear out of Jidor. If I could do that, we would at least have a chance.

I gritted my teeth. Jidor would not die because I wasn’t good enough.

I inhaled, pursed my lips, and blew out a faint whistle. The sound floated through the fog. I’d been expecting it to echo off cavern walls, confusing my pursuer as to my true location.

It didn’t, which was very, very bad.

Almost without thinking, I dropped to the ground, flattening myself on the damp, cushy surface, and held my breath. A whoosh of air passed on my right as my pursuer chased after a phantom. I grim smile curved my lips. The distraction hadn’t worked out the way I’d intended, but it had lured on of our attackers away, at least for a moment.

Slowly and ever-so-carefully, I pushed up onto hands and knees—or rather, onto hand, elbow, and knees—then rose to a crouch. I gingerly placed the side of the knife-blade in my mouth and held it between my teeth while I searched the ground for things I could toss away as decoys. I found a few pebbles about the size of an eyeball, then straightened.

As I started to sneak back the way I’d come, I tossed one of the pebbles off to my left, closely followed by a second. It only took a few steps for the silhouettes of Jidor—down on one knee—and the wounded attacker—holding his mid-section with his free hand—to appear through the mist. The spear, longer than Jidor was tall, still skewered his middle. I tossed another pebble, leaving myself with only one remaining in my hand.

Two more steps, and I could see that Jidor had his hand around the shaft of the spear, right where it emerged from his abdomen. Keeping a close eye on the cloaked man, who was scanning the mists in the direction my latest tossed rock had landed, Jidor tugged on the spear. With a sickening squelch, it shifted forward, leaving half sticking out of his front and half protruding behind him. I wasn’t close enough to read his expression, but I imagined that his hard features were tensed in a mask of equal parts determination and agony.

His opponent fixed his attention back on Jidor. “Don’t…” There was warning in his deep, unfamiliar voice. Warning, but to my immense relief, no hint of shadowtongue. Jidor was a powerful enough nightwalker that it wouldn’t have worked on him anyway, but the cloaked man didn’t know that. Had he been able to use shadowtongue, he would have used to it command Jidor to leave the spear alone. This suggested he couldn’t use shadowtongue on me either. It also meant he was weaker than Jidor, and my praestes could use shadowtongue. I knew he was just waiting for the perfect moment.

I took another step closer, within Jidor’s line of sight, but not cloaked man’s. Jidor didn’t look away from the other man, though the barest hint of a smile curved up one corner of his mouth. He’d spotted me.

He slid his hand back down the blood-coated spear shaft until it was again flush against his body. Another jerk, and less than a third of the spear protruded behind him.

The cloaked man moved closer to Jidor and raised his knife so the blade was pressed against the dark, ashy skin of Jidor’s neck. “Do it again, and I’ll slit your throat.”

Jidor grinned, flashing fangs that glistened with pink and red. “You will not,” he said, his voice laced with the most concentrated dose of shadowtongue I’d ever heard. “In fact, you won’t move at all.” He pulled on the spear again, until the barest amount was visible behind him, and his pained eyes finally focused on me. “Now, Elise!”

I sprinted toward him as he gave one last tug on the spear shaft. It slipped out of his body, coated with blood so dark it was nearly black. He grunted and ducked under the knife, slowly sinking to his side. Blood oozed from the wound in his abdomen. Too much blood. Jidor was a prince by right, making him so ancient and powerful that he should have begun healing the moment the spear shaft left his body. So why wasn’t he healing?

I faltered a step.

Because of me!
My blood flowed with his in his veins. My blood weakened him. I’d miscalculated this one essential element of our defense—Jidor wouldn’t be able to heal as quickly as he usually could. With his eyes fixed on me, I realized what I had to do. I wouldn’t be able to rely on him at all. Not this time.

I had to save Jidor.

Picking up speed, I dropped my remaining rock and grabbed the knife out of my mouth. I crouched as I neared the back of the frozen man and raised the weapon to slide the blade along the back of his right knee. His tendons severed like snapping ropes. Pitching forward, I pulled in my legs and executed a shoulder roll that left me standing, facing him, just in case the pain shocked him out of Jidor’s hold. It didn’t. By the time I rose off the ground, the cloaked man was down. Dark, angry eyes bored into me.

Indifferent to his glare, I lunged forward and stomped on his knife wrist. His hold on the hilt released immediately, and I kicked the weapon back to Jidor. Not that he was in any state to use it, but it was better than leaving him defenseless and the weapon sitting nearby for the other cloaked attacker to find. And he would return; I just didn’t know when. I’d have to work quickly.
I stalked toward my downed opponent. Even with his once-pale, blood-soaked robes, I could tell he was large, nearly Jidor’s size. Nightwalkers were bigger than humans in general, but Jidor was in a class of his own, even taller and more muscular than King Usire. It didn’t matter how big he was—this nightwalker was about to be taken out by little ol’ me.

I stopped with my sandals on either side of the cloaked man’s torso and sat down heavily, being sure to land directly on his stab wound. It was likely already healing, which was a problem I needed to fix. I pressed the tip of the knife I’d stolen from him against his throat, just like he’d done to Jidor. “Why did you attack us?” I let the edge of the blade dig in to his flesh until he bled, just a little.

His dark eyes narrowed.

I pressed harder against his neck, opening the wound further. “Why?”

“Elise,” Jidor said from behind me. His voice was harsh and weak enough to fuel my anger.

I clenched my jaw. “Tell. Me. Why.”


“What?” I snapped, shooting an irritated look over my shoulder at Jidor. I froze, staring at him. My eyes widened in horror.

The other cloaked attacker had returned…and brought friends. We were surrounded by a circle of nearly a dozen pale-cloaked figures armed with spears, knives, and other types of weapons I’d never seen before.

The man beneath me shifted. When I returned my attention to him, I found him propped up on his elbows, watching me warily. He reached a hand up to the side of his face and lowered the expanse of pale gray fabric that had been covering all but his eyes.

“No,” I breathed. Skin of such a pale gray it almost looked human-toned. Sharp, handsome features. A cruel smirk curving a sensual mouth. It couldn’t be him. Not him. Anyone but him.

I scrambled backward until I was cowering beside Jidor, my eyes locked on him.

That cruel smirk slipped, and confusion mixed with curiosity filled his dark eyes. Some part of my mind registered that something was wrong about his eyes. His irises should have been so pale that they almost blended with the whites of his eyes. But that part of my mind was vastly overshadowed by the terrified, gibbering part.

We were dead. Jidor and I. We were so dead.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I lowered my eyes and stuttered, “My—my king.”


NEXT PART: coming soon!

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

1. Who is the nightwalker who looks like King Usire? Is it really the king? Someone else?

2. What's with the mist?

3. Why did pale-cloaked nightwalkers attack Elise and Jidor?

4. What do you hope happens next?

Thanks for reading, folks! I hope you've enjoyed the story so far! :)

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