Each Sunday, English-writing indie authors from around the world are posting samples of their work on their blogs and Tweeting when they're ready to view. This week I'm offering the Prologue from paranormal thriller ebk Torc of Moonlight : Special Edition, the first in a trilogy set in university cities pressing against the North York Moors.
How many believers does it take to keep an ancient religion alive?
It is you, isn't it, who throws coins into wishing wells?
He could hear dogs, far off — big dogs, hunting dogs — and he knew he had to run because the hunting dogs were hunting him.
There was a Sanctuary. He kept the knowledge a beacon in his mind. He knew the path, had trod it years before, but it was overgrown now, so overgrown, and he had no flame to light the way. The Keeper was gone, but the Presence would be there, locked among the thorns. The Presence was all powerful. She would embrace him, surround him, protect him. He still had the gladius, the jewelled and flashing blade. She would take it in payment. She could not refuse. She would protect him, disarm his enemies, turn them to stone, to pillars of fire, to hares to be hunted by their own dogs.
He faltered. His chest was aflame, his legs close to collapse. There should be a path, another path. The sword was brought up, its hilt glinting in the night’s weak light, its blade a blur of shadow against the silhouetted trees as it swept through tangled briars. And he was running again, down an incline. The trees were thinning, the earth becoming softer underfoot, water and mud squelching as he ran, forcing between his toes, splashing up his legs, burning into his torn skin.
Ankle-deep now, he stood at the rim of the Pool, not a ripple stirring its surface. Trees crowded the edges as if they had backed away in deference, leaving a ring of sky so brightly starlit that he drew breath in wonder at the spectacle.
He spied a fallen tree, its roots lost in the darkness of the woodland, its leafless boughs reaching into the centre of the Pool. Splashing across, he heaved himself up. The trunk was covered with moss, and the water cascading from his legs turned the surface to slime, but his balance was good and he did not fall.
A single slapping of the water focused his attention and he brought up the sword two-handed against the leaping dog. Its dark shape grew to fill his vision, the starlight catching the bared fangs, coating the glistening tongue with frost. It did not yelp as the blade parted its ribcage. Blood spurted hot over his arms as he turned along the axis of the animal’s leap to heave the body from the blade. It flew by his shoulder as if still under its own momentum, landing on the jutting branches to be impaled there, dripping gore into the dark liquid below. The initial sacrifice.
He could hear his hunters crashing through the woodland, men as well as dogs, see yellow fire-torches flashing between the trees, but the Pool filled his senses: scents of rotting wood and peaty earth, of deer musk and boar dung. Most of all there was the Presence, waiting in her domain, waiting for him.
Anticipation made the hairs rise on his skin. It powered his blood and fired his sexual desire. He called with a voice deep and challenging. Again he called, and again, followed by an invocation fast and rhythmic. The gladius was taken in both hands, its blade pressed flat across his thigh. All his strength was applied, but it did not even bend. The dogs were close; he could hear them splashing at the edge of the Pool.
Lifting the weapon to shoulder height he sang out a second invocation, a third invocation — three by three by three — and the sword was tossed skywards to meet the twinkling stars. It turned as it rose, twisting along its length, the jewels set into its pommel blinking and winking against the darkness of the woods. Its thrust exhausted, it began to descend, out of the sky and the stars, down through the column of silhouetted trees, and into the yielding water with less sound than a pebble’s drop.
On tip-toe he stood on the narrow trunk, head back, arms outstretched, every muscle tensed for the moment, for the coming of the Presence.
There was splashing, much splashing. A spear flew by his arm. He gave a great whoop of indrawn breath, a gasp, his eyes widening to the brightness of the stars, to the silence of the Pool below his feet. He called afresh, a great shout filled with horror. The name again, fear gripping the tone. He howled the name, bellowed it, fists clenched in anger. He railed at the Presence, jabbing at the air in front of him as if it were a person, seething abuse at an unseen form which gave no answer.
He did not see the dog. He felt its weight, its claws at his back. When the great fangs burst through his shoulder the night turned red to his eyes and he screamed until his lungs had no more air to make the noise. He was falling, the weight of the dog bearing him down, twisting in the air as the sword had twisted, man and dog together. The cold waters of the Pool enveloped him, breathing fire into the wounds on his back. And still he railed at the Presence, cursing and swearing vengeance until the bubbles frothing from his lips sparkled no more in the starlight, and the chilling liquid poured into his lungs, water hissing over red hot stone.
There were no trees.
The sky was a clear tempering blue. Burnished by the noon sunlight, it was the exact shade of the enamelled decoration borne by the gladius. A glorious colour, it seemed suspended so close that he might have raked its surface with his fingers and watched it ripple like an Otherworld pool.
But there were no trees.
Without trees there were no birds, and no bird’s song to break the desperate keening of the wind across a land shaded from his sight. A desolate land, he reasoned, devoid of all living things except the sky above him and the water that bore him and refused his release.
He set aside anxiety. Had there ever been a time when none had sought to conspire against him: Senecio, his sword brother; Yslan, the Shrine Keeper; the Presence herself?
He spat his contempt in a string of phlegm. The Presence did not speak against him now, had never spoken but in the mind of the Keeper and through her twisted tongue. All those years wasted in trepidation of that which did not exist. The songs, the rituals, the very memory of her false existence—
How he hated her.
A sound caught him unawares, a cry as mournful as the wind. Focusing, he strained to hear it afresh, quartered the sky with his sight to catch a glimpse of beak or feather. A curlew! Its dagger-sharp wings set rigid against the air currents, it skimmed at the speed of an arrow to bank and return across his vision.
Oh, for such movement, such freedom...
It would be his. The summer was dying. The chill winds hugged the dusk and the dawn, dragging the mantle of winter behind them. There would be no mistake this time. The rite of passage would be fulfilled.
Drawing together an image of his sword-arm, he reached out to grasp the weapon’s jewelled hilt with its enamelled decoration of sky-riven blue. The lure never failed to draw them. Let the warmth of the sun kiss his form spread among the water droplets. Let it lift him to the bosom of the darkest cloud. Let the wind carry him to the chosen. This time nothing would conspire against him. He, Ognirius Licinius Vranaun, he would pass through.