a dark, dangerous despair

A quick excerpt from THE MAGI, the fifth book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available now for pre-order):

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“In prisons made,” she said from the shadows. “Silence are screams.”

I heard the rustling of fabric.  It sounded rough and heavy.  As if many layers of coarse woolen and thick linen sat one on top of the other, the weight of them forcing steps that were small and taken with great effort.

“This waits in lands yet known,” the voice said. “When all is dust and sand.” A long moment of silence.

Then,

“You are much less than you believe.”

I wanted to respond but my voice felt weak. I swallowed, willing away the tremble of fear lurking beneath.

And, courage captured, realized I had no words to give.

Standing in the small door, I paused, not yet entering the room. My neck ducked, head bowed, all I saw was dark. And dust. The forgotten remnants of a tiny room forgotten by time and the Temple. Walls bare. A narrow slit of a window draped with a sagging square of timeworn cloth. The stone beneath our feet an uninterrupted sea of soot.

Earlier, I’d stalked the quiet halls of the Temple. Felt those frightened Bones in the Stones. Calling the gods, I’d swallowed the fragile bands of memory with their whispers, sighs and cries. Dragged them from their dark corners, their memories, their knowledge, their secrets a forever feast.

And sated, slipped into the starlit dark to climb the Temple in search of an impossible story. A legend, if true, who might hold an answer to all.

Far below, the busy maze of Uruk dreamt safe in sleep.

This journey into myth began days ago.

“Before we wake, she comes,” a Priest, an old man, said earlier, his voice shaking. The deep lines in his face spoke of many winters, his withered hands reminding me of claws. Small beads pooled on his thin upper lip. If I listened closely, I could hear his heart thumping.

I smiled.

“She steals into your dreams?” I took a step closer.

He shook his head. The scent of sweat rose from his shaven scalp. I stepped forward. He pressed closer to the wall, the red and gold of his robes gathered in white-knuckled fists.

The hall was empty, the moon high. No one would find the body until the sun rose, I told him without words.

He cleared his throat. “No, no, it’s not a dream, no.” He paused to catch his breath. The wet on his upper lip gleamed. “She parts your dreams like water and steps into your thoughts.”

“And then what?”

“She decides.” He cleared his throat. “Everything. Just everything. All we do. All we choose and advise.” A glance down the empty hall. “Without a word, sometimes with a small look, she’s the one who decides all.”

And then silence.

“Tell me more of this Ancient Queen,” I said to the young servant the next day.

His hair was thick and black, his feet bare. His tunic sat square on his slender shoulders, falling almost to his knees. Although his chin and cheeks were smooth, he’d be wielding the blade on a beard by summer’s end. His smile quick, his eyes wide, I trusted, like most servants, he’d be eager to share whatever he knew.

The sun was high though we stood in shade. Nearby, priests and guards and servants rushed by, the passing clouds of red dust hugging their legs like fragile linen. I’d called the boy close using silent words. And he’d come, his steps quick, the answers to my questions coming even quicker.

“She is very old and very powerful,” he’d said. “They say, the priests, they say she was the one who laid the first stone of this Temple, though I find that hard to believe.” He grinned, the white of his teeth shining bright.

“But there are stories.”

A nod. “Yes, that she sleeps a very deep sleep here in Uruk or in the mountains or toward sunset buried in rolling hills of sand. But it’s understood that only the most powerful priests in this land of powerful priests know where. And she can wake at will, they say. And a single word, or even just a look, or a small move of her hand, can stop the beating of a heart or drive a man – a priest, even, or maybe a king – away from the gods and into a dark, dangerous despair.”

“She has access to secrets,” I said.

He nodded. “One older and more powerful than the oldest and most powerful among them?” he said, nodding to a group of priests plodding through the dust in the distance, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun. “I would think she knows more than one should.”

“And do you know where she might sleep?” I said.

The servant shook his head.

No.

“Tell me where she sleeps.” I knelt in front of a tall priest the following night. The blood still seeping from where his tongue once was, he sat in an earthen cell, ankles and wrists shackled, the digging of desperate fingers having stolen his sight.

Outside, the stars shone. In the halls of the Temple above, shocked whispers still spoke of this great man’s betrayal. And of the mysterious Man from the Mountains. The death of the Wounded King. The Elder’s cruelty. The screams.

They spoke of a priest, a tall priest, being dragged away by the guards.

Steps away, spied through slats of wood lashed with crude rope, others in their last hours slept or wept or sighed.

I drew close to this tall priest. He lifted his head as if sensing me. His thoughts, tenuous but easy to catch, an endless musing on death, betrayal, love.

Yes,

I said without words, drawing closer still.

His thoughts still mine, I felt his fear, his pain. The endless breaking of his loving heart. Saw glimmers of a son stolen and a seer weeping. Of a cave hidden in the mountains and a three-day journey on a winding path.

Of Those Beyond the Veil in a mumbling chaos.

Yes,

I said again, urging him to continue, our noses almost touching. I smelled the metallic tang of blood. The acrid sheen of sweat. Breathed deep the scent of the forest on his flesh and in his robes. The warmth of remembered sun on his skin.

Confused thoughts, then. His mind a churning of addled fantasies. Release and relief. Freedom. The end of pain. Of what waited for him Beyond the Veil.

Yes,

I said as I pressed my lips to his.

In his mind, in his breath, the tumult stilled and settled. The thoughts became clear.

I saw her.

Tall. Hair dark. Her skeletal form burdened by layers of woolen and linen. Heavy golden chains wound ‘round her waist and falling from her neck. Years of dust and the thick webs of spinning spiders shrouding her like a veil from crown to foot.

And there, the Temple. A staircase cleaved into the side. Different from the grand stairs used by priest and peasant, this was tucked away. Hidden. A small door, then, within reach. The sun setting behind me. The lock opening from within. The way clear, open. Darkness waiting.

And then, inhaling his last breath, I saw muted grey, then black, his memories hushed, as the tall priest became prisoner no more.

But I knew where to find her.

More rustling from the corner as she took another step.

“You are but a blade.” Another step, the movement slow, from the shadows. “Not sword, but blade.” Her voice was deep with age and the remains of slumber. And though halting, the words carried on a whisper, it still commanded authority. Still insisted one listen. Demanded to be heard.

She stepped into the shaft of light sneaking through the window. “A mere blade.” A hand, bone-white with age and years of cloistered dark, lifted, slow, to beckon me

Enter.

She was tall, yes. And her hair was dark, falling past her waist to kiss the tattered hem of her faded woolen. Her small steps were hidden under layers of fabric and heavy chains weighted with even heavier amulets and charms circled her slender waist and rested against her chest.

All this I’d seen in the final breath of the tall priest.

What I could not have imagined was her impossible age. Or how bone-white her flesh was. What I could not have expected was how she stood, awkward and stiff, like a stone statue. Or how thick and complete her veil of dust and spider webs. A gossamer tapestry that had knitted together to become one great hooded cloak dragging behind as she moved, careful and slow.

Her face was hidden by this veil. Her hands could lift, but not break, the webs. Not even her nails, though they seemed long, could rip the prison created by tireless armies of countless spiders, year after year.

Having entered, I stood, chin still tucked to chest. “You say—”

She silenced me with a lifting of her head and a single, long breath. The face, beneath the web, jutted forward.

I thought I saw two lips part before she spoke but decided it was a trick of what little light crept into the room.

“You are not a soldier, Magi.” She cocked her head as if listening to my most silent of secrets. “You are not the one who wields the weapon.” Her head turned to the window. “Your shadow is weapon and soldier.” The movement much too slow and thick, she continued pivoting away from me. “Without your shadow, you are dull and without use.”

Facing the window now, the light catching her, I could see beyond the web. Her eyes narrow with sleep. The brows above dark and flaking, their arch smeared with the tip of a finger as though traced generations ago.

Her lips, thin and pale, parted. She inhaled, deep and long.

“Are you more than mere blade?” Her body followed her head. Her feet beneath the layers shuffled. The shoulders turned to where the light shone in, everything sluggish and leaden.

“I am more than a mere blade, Queen.”

A sigh. A pause. “Impossible things await,” she said, her voice deepening, the words slowing. “Disappointment in the end, soon.” A long sigh. A hand rose to caress the sun, the fingers beneath the web shining in the weakening light. “Silence stolen.”

“To be more than a blade, my queen.” I took a step forward. “This can be done.”

“The Temple is fallen.” Her body stopped. She faced the window, her hand still out, the fingers spread as if reaching, the sun fading. “Buried by winters without count, all is dust.” Beneath her veil, her brow furrowed. “Yet, though all is ended, you walk, still, in lands not yet known.” Another sigh.

“As soldier, not blade—”

“Your answer, your burden,” she said. Her eyes closed. “The end, blade, is—”

Another pause.

She stood, hand raised, face to the window. A quiet settled over the room.

“My queen,” I said. I took a step, and then a second, drawing near.

Her eyes were open. Her lips held still, parted as if readying to speak. But she was no more.

“My queen,” I said again, louder.

She stood, like stone, turned to where the sun once shone.

A blade, she’d called me. A useless weapon without a soldier to wield it. And that soldier?

The darkness.

I stood, not yet ready to relinquish the journey. Believing, perhaps, that she would wake and, seeing me, have more to tell.

For I am more than a simple blade.

I have lived endless days. I am spoken of with hushed voices. Walking through flame, I am feared and revered. Draped in a cloak clattering with the clank of bone, all bow as I pass. Able to call the Olden Gods, those before the Time of the Moon, I have seen untold suns rise and set. Watched great kings weep and empires fall. I can strike terror without words.

I can swallow your soul.

And yet, without the darkness, I would be dust.

Yes.

I looked to her again.

Still, she stood, trapped in mid-sentence, her hand raised.

There was truth to her words. Without the darkness, I would bleed and fall and slip Beyond the Veil. Without the darkness, my magic would impress but not terrify.

Without my darkness, I would be the mere blade I am.

I am less than I believe.

But with my darkness? Equal and true?

Beginning the climb downward, the torches of Uruk aglow, I felt the stirrings of improbable hope. Of a battle to be won. A powerful prize to be claimed.

And, driven by this new dream, I ignored her ominous

Silence are screams

even as the words echoed in my head, confusing and haunting,

In lands yet known.

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Available June 20th

Martuk_Collection_ebook_Final

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