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Prey

Fiction
Doonvorcannon

Prey

This is an exclusive extract from Doonvorcannon’s latest book There Is No Mountain, which is available now in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.

 

The red eyes of the knight were like fiery wheels, bleeding and staring under the glare of the crimson-stained light of the cathedral windows. Women cloaked in white filled the pews, but the knight in his black armor stood at the back like a gargoyle. The priest peacocked through his rituals, arrayed in rich purple robes, and wearing a diadem of silver, spiked with seven crystal stars. He had a scepter topped with a coiled gold serpent, its fangs and eyes red.

They all were here to worship the king, the eternal sovereign who had built the Castle with the wonders of his will. But the king was not here, and the pantomime of worship was strained in the face of such an absence. The priest in his ranting claimed to have caught a glimpse above at the palace, and oh what a glimpse it had been!

The knight clenched his fists, the black fingers of his armor sharp and long like the talons of a dragon. The climax of the worship was coming, as the women in white sang with voices ecstatic and wild, discordant noise whipping and wailing about like the wind was in labor pains, desperate to give birth to a storm. The priest raised his scepter with his left arm, and in his right hand, he held a dagger, red and dripping with blood. His gaze swept over the women, searching for the sacrifice, and his eyes widened in horror at the sight of the six red eyes staring back at him from an abyss of black steel.

The knight pointed his spear, bleeding the same blood as the dagger, and rushed to the altar. The sacrifice would be completed, only not on the priest’s terms.

 

***

 

The field was covered in a soupy, purple-gray mist that concealed the ground. Trees, bony and white, stood like monuments to their once living kind, reaching upward with bare branches. The mist rolled far beneath the trees’ outstretched arms, making them appear as ghosts. Corwyn turned to look at Taran; the two of them were crouched behind a collapsed wall. They’d gone through countless halls and passed through even more of those vanishing wall doors until they’d come out on a hill and hid behind the wall, waiting and watching.

“We hide here and watch, but there’s nothing but fog and bleached trees.” Corwyn looked at the ground, its soil damp and bedded with yellow moss. He shook his head, glancing at Taran who remained still, his head tilted. “And you can’t watch, either. What are you listening for?”

“Mellan. His spirit is cold. I don’t feel him.” Taran’s face was grim, a deep furrow etched into his brow.

“Feel him?”

He sighed. “We are connected in our purpose. Or we once were. We know.” He paused, turning away from the mist, and blinking his blind eyes at Corwyn. “Yet, I do not know. I fear he has turned from mine.”

“What awaits in that mist?” Corwyn swallowed.

“Decay. Rot. Death. It’s all the same. The Hunting Grounds for the king, or so it once was. Now it is a ground for the hunters to be hunted in.”

Corwyn looked at the knight, whose black helm was placed beside him. There was strain and struggle drawing weary lines across his face.

“What is the Thunderbolt? Truly. What is its purpose, to so drive you?”

“The light of the storm crystallized into stone. A piece of day, the sun’s own presence, fallen. It offers a future and reconciles the past.” He spoke firmly, bending his head back to the field. The lines on his face smoothed over as he finished.

“And do I need this to help you? I seek only the king.”

“To seek the Thunderbolt is to seek the king of all. And the king of the Castle will only answer to its truth. He desires it.”

“Then let us go. We cannot stay here waiting for whatever sign you seek.”

“Quiet. Do you hear it?” Taran whispered, cupping his ears and leaning over the wall to listen.

Corwyn started to shake his head but stopped, as he heard a faint song in the background. He listened more closely, moving against the wall and peering over for the source. The song was birdlike in the way it warbled and chirped, but beneath it was something like words—greater even, so great as to be unintelligible but clearly there.

It was increasing in noise, the unseen birdsong coming nearer. Then a hint of a word would surface, bubbling up with sweet release.

Blood. Stone. Light. Dark. Remember. Thunderbolt.

All the words rushed in a saccharine flow of sound, shimmering and growing clearer as they intensified.

Remember. Remember. Remember. Remember.

He didn’t remember what he was supposed to, but he felt a sense of fulfillment. There was a pull forward, while deep within, something anchored him—like a seed finally planting roots in the soil of his soul. Corwyn went forward first, with Taran scrambling to follow as they both plunged below into the mist, the echo of the birdsong resounding unseen above.

“You hear it? Feel it … too?” Taran mumbled from behind, the fog so thick it seemed to stuff their ears.

“It germinates. We must go forward.” Corwyn’s voice was muffled.

He could scarcely see Taran despite being so close. The fog was steamy, a heavy and sweltering cloud that was more water than air. Its purple hue wrapped the environment so thickly that the ground was invisible, and all around them seemed to stretch on forever. Even if they had wanted to turn back, there was no guarantee they’d make it the same way.

“We need to stay close. I might not need to see, but this air muffles all senses.” Taran placed his hand on Corwyn’s shoulder.

The blind knight’s helm was back on, the black iron visage steaming with purple vapors. Corwyn brushed his hair out of his eyes, already wet and clinging to his brow. He nodded, knowing the knight didn’t need to see to realize his agreement. The song had faded, silenced by the shroud of mist. They stepped forward cautiously, the ground squelching beneath. Corwyn waved Vulferr in front of him like a torch. Taran kept his hand on Corwyn’s shoulder, with his other hand at his side ready to draw his white blade.

“Do you sense your friend?” Corwyn asked, breaking the monotonous sound of squishing mud. All else was hushed by the fog.

“I still do not know. I sense something else though. We are not alone here.”

Despite his concern, there was little else to be seen or heard. They went onward, hoping they were going in the right direction. Each step stilled the vigor that had so driven them forward. The song had long since fled. Whatever tower that led to the city below might have passed by, and they wouldn’t have realized. They both had only the sense that they had to keep moving, however slow.

“That song … have you ever heard its like before?” Corwyn asked.

“No. Though I wonder if we heard the same words. It warned me, and in its warning, I felt a terrible desire to disobey. But we’d be fools to ignore it. I don’t think it impure; it had no touch of darkness upon it.”

Whatever the song truly meant, another sound now emanated from the mist. A ghastly shriek, like a woman being torn apart. They didn’t falter, still moving ahead though gripping their swords tighter. Another shriek followed, and then another, until the shrieking was as everpresent as the purple mist.

The sound materialized into force as a dark violet shroud blew in between Taran and Corwyn, pushing them apart. More of the shrouds flew around them, their shrieking turned to girlish laughter. As they hovered around, Corwyn got a clear look at one of them. The creature wore a violet cloak with a hood thrown back. It was a woman, with flaxen hair playfully braided, crowning a face of angelic youth. But the eyes were lacking pupils, a faded-out purple swirling there like the mist they inhabited. They floated, the cloak covering their bodies, but by the way they moved, they appeared bodiless.

The woman saw Corwyn looking at her, and she smiled, her mouth bloody and cracking open. As she laughed, she sped at him like howling wind. He flung up his sword but was too slow as she passed through him, chilling his blood and halting his heart to a crawl. His grip loosened on his sword, but he held on as he clenched his teeth to prevent their chattering, as he shivered and spun to face another purple woman flying at him.

Despite his body being made cold and slow, he was ready as he swung down Vulferr ahead of her approach. Its hot blood cut through the frigid neck of the woman, sending her shrieking into the mist-covered muck. The cloak fell empty, fluttering to the ground. Taran was lost to him, though he thought he could hear the knight struggling somewhere nearby, unseen.

More of the women came, three to replace the one, and they rushed at Corwyn together.

He flicked his sword, sending out the scorching bloody flame to engulf one, spinning to swipe another, but the third passed through him just as before. This time he couldn’t stop the chill from bringing him to his knees. His heart barely beat, the only thing keeping him upright was the burning throb of Vulferr in his hands, its blood his own, burning back through him, keeping him conscious.

The purple woman came back at him, her mouth gaping as she aimed for his head. He twisted, throwing himself to the ground as he sliced at her face. His blow landed as he fell into the mud. The shrieks were distant, away from him. His hand burned hot against the hilt of

Vulferr. He couldn’t free himself from the warm, moist grip of the mud below.

He was sinking, and he felt the sickening grasp of fingers pulling him down. As his legs were pulled under, he desperately sliced at the ground, unable to see the misshapen appendages grabbing him, scything through them like they were weeds. Vulferr’s blood drenched the ground, sizzling and hissing, the mist giving way to its red burn. The hands that reached up were cut off, amputated from their wicked depths. They were malformed and rotted, some with multiple and elongated fingers, others stunted and furled. Their hold was beaten back, and Corwyn pulled his legs free, his armor covered in thick brown sludge mixed with blood from the sword and the severed hands.

Corwyn stood up, his breath cold and heaving; a silence rolled over him as the stillness and fog swallowed everything once again.

“Taran!” he shouted, his voice shrill and weak. “Taran! I’m here!”

He held his breath, his heart pounding, his chest aching. He heard nothing. But the shrieks were gone. Taran had to have prevailed, he refused to believe anything else.

“I hear you! Don’t move, I’ll find you,” he called back, his voice certain, cutting through the mist with strength. “I’m here!” Corwyn called out again, trying to match the power of Taran’s voice.

Taran emerged from the mist like a specter, covered in purple goo and globs of mud. The red of Vulferr which still flowed, coated Corwyn’s own armor as though he had been wounded.

“What were they?” Corwyn muttered as he clasped Taran’s vambrace.

“Who can say? As the darkness twists, so does this foul fog. A Hunting Grounds once. It was a park for the noble women to frolic in. I shudder to think who the purple ones once were.” “And the hands?” Corwyn said, already dreading the likely answer.

“The countless fools who’ve wandered in here and fallen over the many years. We need to find the Thunderbolt before there is nothing left of this once holy mountain.”

Corwyn tried not to dwell on the fact that they walked over a vast field of corpses rotted into a swampy paste beneath them. The stench of rot and death was all too apparent for its source. He didn’t mention Mellan again, afraid of the likely resting place of the knight. Even behind the blank mask of the black iron helm, Corwyn knew that Taran had figured the same. “This is hardly the last of the monstrosities that hunt here. There are worse beasts lurking. We must keep moving. The tower, wherever it is … I hope only that we hear that song again. The Thunderbolt is more than some dusty relic. It carries life and all that is powerful and lasting to our kind and our home. With the sun’s face turned, it is all we have left. I believe the song is it reaching out from wherever it is hidden.”

“I believe you,” Corwyn said, feeling his disdain and hatred of Camshron’s old books and sayings burned away in the furnace of struggle. “Your faith and courage strengthens me.”

Taran laughed. “And you strengthen me as well. From your little display when sparring, I wasn’t sure if you’d make it.”

Corwyn shook his head. “I’m the one leading the way; don’t you forget it,” he joked.

He slapped Taran on the shoulder and turned, and the two warriors walked forward with more purpose and strength than before. They kept walking, faster now though more vigilant, until they came across one of the large ivory-like trees in their path. Its bark was white, boney, and ridged, with pearl-like smoothness in large swathes between.

Taran stretched out his hand and rested it against the tree, which was frigid to the touch, the chill penetrating his armored hand.

“There was a forest of such beauty and life here once. I can’t imagine. These trees that remain are like tombstones, monuments to what once was.” Taran removed his hand and tilted his head as if trying to listen for the tree’s breath.

“Before. Always before.” Corwyn shook his head, eyeing Taran with confusion dampening his face. “How old are you, Taran? You look not a day older than me.”

“Old enough,” Taran said, unmoving. “And we have our truths. In not seeing, we have more knowing.”

“Everything backwards, inverted,” Corwyn said with a sigh, moving past the tree.

Taran followed quietly behind. In the rolling fog, a distant figure emerged, like a ghostly lantern draped in a strange red-black effulgence. The glow gave way to a knight with armor dripping off him, bubbling with molten darkness. He was covered in red and black flame, like blood mingled with night engulfed in the light of stars.

“No …” Taran mumbled, stepping beside Corwyn. “The phoenix’s flame,” he whispered.

The armor of the knight beneath the dark flame was black. With both hands he held a long sword that was polluted with a pale purple flame, covering the white steel. He didn’t say a word, though he limped forward, the flames charring what remained of the corpse beneath the armor. Whatever animated him now, it was like puppet strings forcing him to serve some greater will.

“Is that …” Corwyn said.

“Don’t speak. Nobody is safe from the touch of the death,” Taran said, turning to Corwyn as though judging him through the faceless helm.

He is safer and truer than you. Accuser.

Corwyn ignored Scáth as the fiery knight’s approach brought the sickening stench of burning flesh, and the heat of the desert, all the moisture of the air scorched away at his presence. The black of the flames danced, the shadows of a fire brought to life. The red looked like liquid the way it burned, churning through the hot blaze. The sound of the knight’s dragging feet beneath the crackling fire increased, as his limp turned to a lilting run.

Taran met the burning knight’s blade first, his own blade’s pure white clashing against the corrupted reflection, catching the blow. Corwyn riposted, drawing Vulferr in a swift flourish to spin and slice at the neck. The knight of red-black flame ducked, kicked Taran away, and swung his sword upward at Corwyn, who barely managed to parry the blow. This time, Taran and Corwyn attacked together. However, the limping knight, swaying as if close to falling and being burnt to ashes, blocked every strike. His movements were so precise and swift, he seemed to embody flame itself, consuming all that came near.

The fire on his armor surged outward as if being fed, the flames reaching out to singe them. Corwyn’s shoulder plate bubbled where he’d been touched, and ash and scorch marks covered his breastplate and arms. Taran was untouched, the skillful knight, bending and moving almost as swiftly as his counterpart. Go.

Scáth’s voice screeched within Corwyn’s chest, vibrating his bones and muscles, wrenching him away from the deadly dance of fire and darkness. He did not ignore it this time, he couldn’t. His body moved; his eyes went black. Scáth buried his pupils in darkness. Corwyn limped away. Slowly, then faster, he lurched into a pained gallop; he couldn’t even turn his head to look back.

“Go!” Taran called out, as if willing Scáth to hasten its flight.

Corwyn tried to scream but even his vocal cords were no longer his own. He was carried off and away into the fog, his darkened sight cutting through the purple mist so that he could see the true horror of the once pristine Hunting Grounds. The bodies that formed the ground twitched and wriggled like smashed insects. Their bloated forms with arms and spindly fingers grasping at the fog above. What Corwyn had assumed was mud atop the bodies was a coating of coagulated blood, turning the grounds into a grotesque swamp of gore. The thick blood deepened as Scáth brought him farther away. Corwyn could no longer hear the two knights dueling.

As the blood deepened to his knees and his flight slowed to a trudge, a vast lake of blood stretched ahead. There were strange pitches of a tarlike substance, a rubbery darkness that rode the surface in large inky blotches across the lake. The whole lake stank of rot, with the hot scent of metallic blood floating atop. Where Corwyn stood, the blood was up to his waist. Finally, he was unbound and able to turn, though he was ashamed of having no desire to go back. The blood surrounded him now. The hot red of the lake made the air shimmer like a mirage around him. His eyes were back to their molten brown, set further aflame by the red glow of the bloody lake.

“Why did you make a coward of me?” Corwyn whispered.

I seek only to survive. The knight of flame was meant to repay his brother-in-arms.

“Do not seize control from me again. I don’t care what prowess you’ve given me—I’ll fall upon my own bloody blade.”

Scáth did not respond, though it seemed satisfied as it retreated within him. He was left shivering despite the warm blood flowing through him; the lake and his own veins felt as if they were connected. His teeth chattered, the heat unable to take away the horror of what he’d thrown himself into, and away from. He recalled how Taran had told him to go, echoing Scáth’s words. He loathed how everyone seemed to know what he was to do but himself. To kill a king. To find the Thunderbolt that might very well save the king he wanted dead.

He waded deeper into the lake, the blood enveloping him further. He felt dead hands at the bottom grasping weakly at his feet. Corwyn went on until the blood was at his neck. Droplets clung to him, the blood running down his face. Vulferr was sheathed at his side, its pulse made silent submerged in blood not its own. He wondered if the tower even remained standing, or if it hadn’t been drowned in the corpses and blood of the polluted grounds. He thought of Scáth, even considered asking it where he should look, but there in the warmth of blood that was not his own, he decided against it. His sense of self was so distorted that Gira and the Corwyn who’d grown up there felt more a shadow than truth.

He sloshed forward, not caring that the blood rose to his chin. It wet his lips as it lapped his jaws, metallic and rancid. His hair hung down, drenched scarlet. Corwyn wanted to sink, the toll of his journey hitting him all at once. His will was weak, his body weaker, and his eyes and mind were heavy with doubt. It was like when he had first walked into the darkness, or after having his throat slit. His self so thinned out, pulverized then mixed with illusion—there was nothing clear or solid to cling to. Alayne was far away. The false faces he’d seen, how much falser were they than himself?

The black masses floating on the surface drew closer to Corwyn, slowly drifting in his direction. They weren’t that different from the black armor of the Knights of the Thunderbolt, a sort of darkness that was still in the process of hardening, trapped in a bizarre state that covered all matter, both actual and impossible. There were many, some narrow while others were stretched out and rose above the water in pulpy layers, engorged by blood.

The black masses were merging, the darkness combining until it formed a giant blob of an island. As they formed, they blocked Corwyn’s entire forward view of the rest of the lake. The unified mass was colossal and had taken mere moments to fully form, its seeming gradual approach a trick of shadow. Its black was pristine, like a giant biomass of onyx, smooth and unblemished. The mass stretched and pulled itself upward even further until it narrowed at the tip and took on the shape of an egg. Corwyn didn’t move, the blood around him undisturbed.

“You are like me. The blood of the hunters animates my darkness, but the blood of one who sleeps animates yours,” the egg said, its voice a hollow, cutting whisper that came in a whirlwind.

Corwyn stared up at it, a shell of his former self, barely upright and staying mute.

“I know of the tower you seek. And I cover the city you covet. But you act as a pawn when what is below belongs only to kings. Are you so lowly?”

Corwyn blinked, his eyes reflecting the black egg, his mind flexing, screaming against the confines of his flesh. He held his ground, but still did not speak.

“Have you nothing to offer?” The egg’s words were dry, as though carried by a slight desert wind.

“What is Xanthia for? What is the Thunderbolt worth?” Corwyn spoke calmly, his frayed senses relaxed under the weight of inevitability.

“To keep the moonlit flame and cover the shame of forgotten day.” The egg hovered higher, eclipsing the misty sky. “The Thunderbolt is the light that pierces the dark and brings a greater darkness through its brilliance. Eternal rest, eternal life.”

Any calm that had settled over Corwyn while asking the questions was shattered with the egg’s answer. He groped for his scabbard, and pulled out Vulferr and raised it above his head, splashing blood and scowling. The sword glowed a bright red, a blaze of blood set to steel, as it burned hotter than ever before. The blood around Corwyn was pulled into the blade, crimson threads leaping from the lake to join the sword. The level of the blood lowered to Corwyn’s waist as Vulferr drank deep, its blade swallowed in scarlet light.

The egg thundered, splitting down the middle, cracking like a lightning bolt with purple flame dancing along the divide. The shell of unmatter broke, the pieces flaking apart and vanishing into the air like dust. A silver figure hung sideways in a fetal position, suspended in the air. It uncurled itself, turning its head to look at Corwyn, who still held the burning torch of Vulferr high. The creature was faceless, but at its attention, the blaze of the sword was snuffed out. The creature dove head-first into the lake of blood. A whirlpool surrounded it, and the blood funneled inward, the level of the lake lowering even further, rapidly sinking to Corwyn’s knees. When the blood settled, the silver figure rested there on one knee. It raised its head, the right eye amethyst, the left sapphire. Each was split by serpentine pupils. It stood up, calmly walking toward Corwyn.

Its approach was slow, its feet atop what remained of the blood as if it were solid ground.

The being was humanlike, wore no clothes, and was androgynous in its sexless, lithe figure. Veins of glowing blue traced across its body, and sleek ridges and valleys of toned muscle made up the balanced strength and agility of its composition. The skin was pure silver with a moonlight glow radiating out from its pores. Along with the eyes, its face had formed features, the absorbed blood giving it life. Its nostrils were snakelike slits, and its mouth was wide with thin gray lips. A long, forked purple tongue flicked out from its mouth as pointed fangs, sharp and white, flashed beneath.

“I am Beithir. The covering, the tower you seek,” it said, smiling, hissing in the same whisper that had blown forth from within the egg.

“Then I’ll tear you apart,” Corwyn said, grimacing as the heat of Vulferr sizzled against his armored hand.

“The tower is a pillar, and the pillar is a tree. I am the seed. Do you seek to destroy your only way forward? To remove the root required to go beneath?”

Corwyn, shouting in pain, hurled Vulferr to the ground. As soon as it struck the lake it burned away the blood, a hot red steam hissing and billowing out. The exposed ground where

Vulferr lay was silver, veined with the same blue that threaded across Beithir’s skin.

He rubbed his singed hand, looking up from the ground and at Beithir. “Tell me, why do I carry this shadow within? Who am I to this darkness that plagues all? I feel like a ghost who can’t remember himself while everyone else seems to know who I once was or am supposed to be.” Corwyn’s frenzied eyes darted and his legs shook. With ragged breaths, looking at his feet, he muttered, “Meaning … give me some meaning. Make sense of this.”

Beithir stood but a foot away, pausing with its feminine hands reaching out. “Vulferr has never been carried this far. The very blood of the Gardener and king seeps from its steel. This shadow of yours, is no curse, no. Not yet. Only keep it where it belongs.” Beithir nodded, its eyes lidless and unblinking. “Where is shadow when it is in truth?”

Corwyn frowned, his breathing slowing, his despair replaced by anger at the question. “I ask for sense and meaning, and you give me a question.”

“Yes,” Beithir said, its voice never rising above a whisper.

Corwyn huffed, kicking at the few remaining puddles of blood at his feet. His entire body was covered in red, his hair matted, his armor worn and corroded. He forced himself to play his part, thinking that perhaps if he gave an answer, he might get one of his own.

“Shadow is light blocked. So, for it to be true, all light would have to be swallowed to bring it to the forefront.” He sighed, looking at Beithir who stood still with its eyes staring and face smooth. “Shadow is true in complete darkness.”

“Your answer answered your own question.”

Corwyn shook his head and threw his arms up. “And did it answer yours?”

Beithir smiled, baring its dagger teeth. “Now do me a favor. Cut off the head with your worthy sword. Let my borrowed blood add to your own.”

Something snapped in Corwyn at Beithir’s hissed request, and as himself—not Scáth—he charged, grabbing Vulferr from the ground. Beithir truly played the part of snake as its body contorted in a fluid slither, easily dodging the reckless swipes of the sword.

The ease with which Beithir dodged, and the uncanny nature of its movement, so watery and bending as though it had no bones, drove Corwyn to an even greater fury. In long arcing sweeps, he flung blood from Vulferr in sickle-shaped splatters, yet none of the spray managed to touch Beithir’s skin.

“What do you want?” Corwyn growled, huffing as he backed up, holding Vulferr low.

Beithir stood as before, a sharp grin like a scythe carved across its face. The mismatched eyes glowed like gems, and Beithir watched Corwyn with its tongue flicking in and out of its mouth.

“I want you to understand.”

“That you are a foul snake? That you goad and trick me for nothing but your own pleasure?” Corwyn scoffed and spat blood from his mouth.

“I want you to see that my head is no different than my tail. Just as dark is a shadow of light—they are the same. The infinite light that burns all sight away into a perfect blindness. The infinite dark that can never be fully known. I want the head removed, so that you can take its place.”

Corwyn’s choler lowered, and he released a long breath he’d been holding. Like when he had stumbled into that mansion, he felt something prodding him forward. A necessity that if acted upon would open the potentiality that was directed, and by being chosen, blooming and branching into the truest sort of movement. Another step on his path to kill the king. He walked forward, lifting Vulferr and handing the drenched blade to Beithir.

Beithir nodded, its grin smoothing into a thin line, taking the sword in its hands. Corwyn knelt, and with the bleeding blade, Beithir cut off his head.

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