Hello and a Happy Tuesday to all!
Today, we are delighted to host an exclusive excerpt from Perilous Prophecy, an upcoming Tor.com novel Leanna Renee Hieber. Perilous Prophecy is the prequel to the author’s seminal gaslamp fantasy, Strangely Beautiful!
In the late 1860s, in Cairo, Egypt, Beatrice Smith and five other young people are summoned to become the Guard. Founded in antiquity by the goddess Persephone and the Muses, the Guard have stood between humanity and the forces of darkness for centuries. There have always been six, born and reborn in each generation.
Persephone sighed as the portal shut behind her, sealing her again in a world of shadow. This damnable purgatory would yet drive her mad, with its wailings and whispers, eternal regrets voiced in endless repetition. And its king. She heard his tread. Nearby. There was no avoiding him. A footstep, a scrape. A footstep, a scrape. Flesh, then bone. Tick . . . tock. Life. Death. Each in the blink of an eye.
“My Lady” came the sad voice of a rotting woman in clothing that may have been Puritan. Or perhaps she’d been a nun; it was austere and black and absorbed all of Persephone’s shifting radi- ance. The spirit collapsed at her feet, kissing the pale posies that, in an endless cycle, bloomed then rotted as she walked.
Persephone felt tears wash her feet and water the dead and fallen petals.
“What is your name, spirit?” she asked, bending to touch the wretch upon the cheek and lift it to its feet.
“Why do you weep?”
“I cannot quit the darkness, it will not quit me. There is such a void in my soul.”
“Maria,” Persephone commanded, “look at me.”
The gray, shuddering spirit did so. Her eyes were cataract- covered sockets.
“Maria. Choose to nullify that void. Misery only wins if you let it.”
“Show me light, my Lady, show me hope!”
The spirit’s cries were hungry and desperate, and Persephone had to hush them. If the ghost went on like that, half of purgatory would flock here and devour her whole with their endless need. She closed her eyes. Her light cost her nothing in the mortal world, but here, it caused great pain. This place had begun to eat away at her insides; her divine form had been rotting for centuries, soured from within and corrupting her budding life and infinite youth. She felt her bosom burn, and when she opened her eyes, she saw the shifting rainbow of her life force clear the cataracts from Maria’s eyes.
“Bless you, my Lady,” the spirit cried out in celebration.
She ran past Persephone, singing, and hurried down a corridor that brightened from a deep blackness to a pale gray. Maria was being drawn toward the Liminal, and from there the Liminal would send her onward—to the Great Beyond, if the spirit was cured enough. If not, perhaps she would be return to haunt the earth, spending another round as an observer. Or maybe she would be recycled into another human life, given another try to get it right. Persephone wasn’t ever quite sure what happened to any soul she managed to free, for she had never made those rounds herself. Her own cycle was more limited.
The use of her light made Persephone cough, a sickly sound that rattled more as the years went by. Now and then she brought up blood and seeds and spat them upon the wet floor of the Whisper- world.
She heard noise. A fleshy clap, then the click of bones. The slap of palms, the click of bones. He was here. Clapping.
“They so adore the one who hates them” came his voice, as if from across a cavern.
Persephone turned and squinted down the long corridor behind her; the shadows were tall and regal, and the red eyes of the shadow king burned within. She sighed. This conversation was always the same. Darkness both adored and abhorred when she did such deeds as this. He loved that his subjects welcomed her as queen and begged for her attention, but loathed that she set so many to rest or onward toward vibrant missions.
“I have never hated them,” she said. “You always think you know my heart. And you always fail.”
“I know one thing,” he rasped. “And that is?”
“You hate me.”
“I didn’t used to. I pitied you, as it wasn’t your fault mankind made you from its wastes,” she stated, her voice flat, the script true yet spoken by rote. “Then you killed my love. Made him a ghost so that his arms will never again hold me. I will forever hate you for that.”
“Promenade with me.”
Persephone knew if she didn’t, he’d follow her until she did. When she humored him, he allowed her some freedom.
“Shall you set more of my minions free?” he asked.
She coughed again; this time fewer seeds, more blood. “I wish I could.”
“I’ll tell them you are indisposed.”
King and queen together walked the corridors and caverns, along the riverbank lined with skulls and trellises made of bone, crafted with care and fastidiously maintained by the Grounds- keeper. Darkness’s subjects fell at their feet, and many cried out for Persephone’s touch, for her time, for a glance. Darkness batted them away with great sweeps of his robe. Its fabric in the ghostly light was visible as crimson. All light was ghostly in this place save hers.
She wept because she could not help those who begged her; her constitution was too weak. Quicksilver tears fell from her face and rolled away along the stones as tiny metallic beads that dis- appeared into the crevasses and muck of mortal sorrow. Sometimes those tears made talismans and magic. Sometimes they fell, useless, to the ground.
She tried to avoid looking at the floor of the Whisper-world. While her step birthed flowers that soon died, the tread of Darkness brought forth insects that went scuttling into cracks and seams. The countless tiny movements never ceased to disturb her.
“I want to do so much more,” Persephone murmured. “Every year I can do less and less. This place rots me.”
“Mmm,” Darkness replied.
Once, she’d used so much of her light trying to set souls to rest that her heart was actually wounded in the process; she’d been almost destroyed by the following seizure. The episode had been so frightening to the entire Whisper-world that Darkness had in- structed Luce the Gorgon to magically ascertain where the Guard was, then he hurled her body into their care. Shutting himself back up in the Whisper-world, he had left her there, in old Ireland, until she was well enough for him to reclaim her. She remembered her convalescence with some wistfulness.
The Guard healer then, in time, came here. All members of the Guard did, though they rarely knew the Whisper-world would eventually be their fate. Because of his actions, this particular man had been granted a certain amnesty. His spirit knew the ways of the Whisper-world like few others. He kept well out of the way and tried his best to have the Whisper-world forget him, lest Dark- ness turn spiteful.
Darkness had a limited memory, for good or ill. He rarely walked the full breadth of his domain, and there were ways to stay safe if you did not draw his wrath.
Persephone never would forget him. Good Aodhan, brave Healer. He was one of her favorites. She always did what she could for him.
Realizing they were passing the grand dais, where the river became a moat surrounding vast stone pillars wound thickly with dead ivy, crumbling ruins that always been ruins, Persephone withdrew her hand. One pass was plenty, and Darkness would not dare press his suit.
She could use her light to scald him if he did; she’d done so before. Yes, she could hurt Darkness, but she was not powerful enough to overtake him in his own domain. For that she would need help.
She would need an army just to fight the minions who would flock to him. While many spirits sought her help, many more would rather see her bleed. If she battled Darkness, she might set an army of the best of life against an army of the worst of it. But she was not a creature of war; love and peace were her calling, and thus, plans of battle were lost on her.
“Good night,” she murmured. “I continue my walk alone.”
Darkness’s Raphaelite face—and then his skull—scowled. He stalked to his throne, sat, and whipped his robes into place. The layers settled in a pattern, the shape of a great crimson rose. It remained the only color, save for hers, in this dreary place: an enormous red rose frozen in the heart of darkness. Beneath the pet- als, mere bones. That was Darkness’s tempting lie.
Persephone turned away and strolled as if wandering aimlessly, but in truth heading in the same direction Maria had run. The Liminal always helped her find her way in this labyrinth, sending a spark down a darkened path that would lead her to who and what she sought.
She took roundabout corridors, glancing behind to see if any of Darkness’s minions followed. The Gorgon worried her most— their mutual hatred ran deep. Relations always worsened when Persephone was weak, as she had been after her seizure and after an episode earlier in the nineteenth century; the shark smelled blood in the great river of souls.
The goddess knew she was playing a dangerous game, hiding all of the Guard’s spirits in one place, but the deception had sufficed for centuries. Though what was that span to eternity?
Darkness would never let these spirits pass to the Great Beyond, to the place that was their just reward. Someday that sweet release might yet be earned, but her hour had not yet come. In the mean- time, she preserved and protected her army.
Ducking into a crevasse in the dark, wet rock, she felt the damp of death press in upon her and fought its cloying tendrils. Sorrow stifled her nonetheless; fluid welled up in her mouth. She spat pomegranate juice, red and sour, onto the gray stones.
“Light, I say,” she murmured, raising her glowing hand before her face and ignoring the taste of fruit in her mouth, refusing to let it corrode her spirit. This was one of Darkness’s many tricks to keep her here. If she didn’t focus, if she didn’t keep her mind on her mission, she’d start to drift, eat seeds, drink red juice, and finally lose her core of light and mortal joy once and for all. Dark- ness desperately hoped for that, though neither of them knew what would happen next if it came to pass.
No. She’d made a promise to her beloved never to give in. Never.
Moving ahead, her bright, ghost-white hand was a lantern in the gloom. To all else, and in her reflection, she was all colors at once, shifting, prismatic, iridescent. But to her own eye, when gazing down at her own flesh and hair, she was entirely colorless: a bright, luminous white; an eerie, blank pearlescent canvas.
Holding her breath, Persephone came to where the crevasse widened into a cave and an underground creek became a pool be- fore her. She plunged into dark, cold water and swam, feeling her thin garments float around her limbs. The murmurs of the dead roared in her ears like the crashing of ocean waves. It wasn’t long to the other side, but she hated this journey. It always felt like eternity, and she’d had a good taste of that already.
Ahead there was a large stone, beneath it was a faint glow of light, a barrier that had been made responsive to her presence. She dove under and felt light shine bright from the other side, dancing on the other side of her eyelids. The cries of the dead were now drowned out by only the sound of water.
Nearing shore, she pushed her head out of the black water, gasped for breath, and kept her eyes shut until they could adjust. The light here on this side was bright and blinding, as close as she could imagine to heaven in this place.
Finally opening her eyes when her hand grazed sand and tufts of grass, she gazed upon the denizens of this fabricated Elysium, drinking in the sight of a host of transparent forms from every human epoch and culture, all staring down at her from the crest of a rise and holding out their hands for their great Lady.
Here, she was reminded once more, was the beautiful, luminous army that she needed. But how and when she could best use them was uncertain; she didn’t dare risk them if she couldn’t be sure . . .
Thousands of Guards stood there. Her white hands fumbled at the riverbank in her eagerness to get to them. Their welcome buoyed her to shore, as if their hearts literally lifted her up, and she placed her bare feet on solid, warm grass.
It was a miracle, this expanse of open green on a perfect day. The Guard’s choice for their solace was an Elysian field where she did her best to keep them happy and protected. It sapped a degree of her remaining power. Still, here they all were, or nearly all of them. Some had chosen to remain on Earth, to wander or watch over mortal loved ones; a few had managed to slip away uncounted, and the very first Guard had long gone on to peace. But thousands remained. “Dear Lady,” she heard them murmur, in many different languages, bobbing, floating, or kneeling before her.
“Hello, darlings,” she said, and the echo of her voice splintered into countless different tongues.
“We’ve a new set,” she stated. “Cairo this time. Did the others make it here all right?”
A broad, rugged-featured man in a plain tunic and sash, his long hair a mane down his back, stepped forward. “Yes, my Lady, they’re just being shown around and made comfortable,” he said in old Gaelic.
Aodhan directed Persephone’s attention down the slope, to a group of six spirits. The women in wide skirts and fine hats, the men in uniforms and mustaches, they bent over a bubbling spring, dipped their hands in glistening water, and smiled at one another. In American-accented voices, they said that this field was better than their proposed Central Park in their dear New York. If that was ever fully completed, they agreed with a laugh, they’d have to haunt it.
“Thank you, Aodhan,” the goddess replied in Gaelic. “You know it always does my heart good to see you, my savior.” He’d been the one to literally restart her heart and clean up the blood that had poured from her mouth. Her appearance had shaken his Guard for weeks.
“Of course, my Lady.” His grayscale face darkened in a blush, and he gestured her to precede him.
“How long ago was that, when I nearly died in your arms?” “You’re immortal,” Aodhan assured her, “you can’t die.”
“Well, it hurt. Terribly,” she said.
“But how long? You see, Aodhan, time is so different for me. When I’m with mortals I’ve this desperate sense of time, as if everything moves in a blur, vanishing like hourglass sand, but here . . . it’s all hazy, odd, dis- jointed. I don’t know if Darkness has kept me here a hundred years or a thousand. Or more. I’m not faring well,” she added, a cough encroaching. “Pardon me.”
Her lungs rattled; a disgusting, alarming noise.
“That was mortal centuries ago, my Lady,” Aodhan replied. He placed a hand over her sternum. His healing powers had been long since passed along to a successor, but there were faint traces left, and he bestowed what little succor he could. Her seeming death rattle quieted slightly.
“Thank you,” she murmured. A tremendous guilt washed over her, one that had been building for some time and was becoming unbearable.
“My darlings, I should let you go,” she murmured to her cham- pions. “I should find a way to get you to your reward.”
Their faces were a wash of bright spirits. Aodhan said with a gentle smile, “You say that every time.”
“I am a too fond parent, scared of the evils of the world,” she mused. “If I’m made of sentiment and of hope, just as my captor is made of misery, then why do I falter?”
“Because you were never meant to be trapped. None of us were,” Aodhan replied. “And you’re not sure how to free yourself. Or us.”
She looked at the grass blowing gently in a magical breeze. “So Hope must trap her children with her?”
“For our own safety,” Aodhan said, but she could tell he was tired. They all had to be. Very, very tired.
Aodhan understood. When he had repaired her heart, he’d been taken into her memories, shared that pain of hers that no touch of his healing hand could cure. No magic in the world could restore what Darkness had taken from her.
“One day it will change,” she insisted, knowing that sometimes even these dead needed to be reminded of what they were fighting for.
The Guards were listening, intent. She opened her mouth to continue, but stopped short at a warm caress as a disembodied hand made of blue flame pressed its fingers to her lips. Signaling.
“Go.” Aodhan smiled. “Spend time at your true husband’s grave.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she turned away. Far down the gentle slope was a ring of birch trees, their bark pale and elegant. As she neared, their leaves rustled and their limbs bent as if reaching toward her. Encircling the trees was a ring of heather and a faint haze of blue light. She felt Phoenix’s power humming around her and within her. What pieces she’d managed to recover of her lover lay beneath this soil. Part of his fire was ever tied to those remains, and to her, a modest portion of power separate from the Grand Work, with a will of its own.
She nearly fell into the ring of flowers, pressing her body to the earth and running her fingers through the heather as if it were her lover’s hair. The leaves rustled and the flowers enlarged, fill- ing her nostrils with a sweet and living smell, obliterating the lin- gering stench of her lover’s burned flesh, which never entirely left her consciousness save when she visited here.
Persephone rolled onto her back. Two tiny wisps of blue flame hovered just over her face, as if he were atop her and the flames were the sparkling love in his eyes. She tried to imagine him, to exactly recall every strong feature and tiny, gorgeous detail of wisdom, of power and light made incarnate. But it had been so long. Her lungs grew heavy and she turned her head with a helpless, ugly cough.
“We should be looking for a body you might take over,” the fire murmured. “Perhaps you should join the next Guard. You sound worse by the day. No matter what you tell me.”
“I’m scared,” she whispered. “I know.”
The breeze caressed her intimately. Tendrils of air spread palms down her body, her diaphanous layers of clothing no barrier to his spirit. A pressure curled down along her flowing locks, over her arms, dragged up her thighs, thrilling her to her core. She gasped, the flowers the only witness to this passion as she writhed against their bed.
“I need you,” she whispered. “Now more than ever. What did you find out about that boy? That Alexi?”
“His family has been in London, looking to move to a new home,” Phoenix’s ghost replied. He added, “London always was one of your favorite cities.”
She chuckled. Flowers bloomed beneath her shoulders at the sound. “I remember when you flew me over the Thames, before there were bridges . . .”
He purred in fond recollection. She gasped at a particularly brazen, if ghostly, caress, and gave herself over to the acute sensation. It was some comfort, even though it was only an echo of all they had once known.
Rising to her knees, she stroked the sturdy heather all around her, a flower she’d planted here because it reminded her that life could thrive and be beautiful in difficult climes. Against its purple glory, the colorless skin of her hand appeared less youthful than ever. Hope was withering.
Overwhelmed, she smoothed the layers of thin fabric that floated about her body.
Kissing the ground, she bid farewell to her beloved’s grave and fled up the slope, leaving this echo of what should have been her marriage bed. The many incarnations of the Guard strolled along the green crest, arm in arm, group with group, beside tree and flower, appreciating the blue sky and one another’s company. They seemed at peace, happy. If they weren’t, she won- dered whether any of them would say.
Approaching the boundary waters again, already dreading the cold, black misery they contained, behind her Persephone heard the Guards saying good-bye in their many languages. Their words seemed to reach her across a chasm, distant, fleeting. She was praised using many different names, terms as diverse as the varied beliefs of the world.
Blowing kisses, she fell backward into the water and shot her- self down under the barrier stone and across to the other bank in a graceful few strokes, jumping up and into the gray shadow, shak- ing off the river that clung to her and made her garments heavy with sorrow.
Only later would she recall that, as she moved into the crevasse that would take her back into the Whisper-world’s unmitigated clutches, she had faintly heard the sound of hissing. She was fal- tering indeed to have been so careless, to not hide more carefully where she had been. It was foolish not to have more zealously guarded her treasure, for it was all that she had left to live for.
Copyright © 2017 by Leanna Renee Hieber
About the Author
Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber is the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards, with new revised editions from Tor Books now available. Darker Still was named an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy saga, The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega, is now available from Tor Books. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance, featured on Tor.com and she writes for Criminal Element. A 4 time Prism Award winner for excellence in the genre of Fantasy Romance, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into languages such as Complex Chinese, German and Polish. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is represented by Paul Stevens of the Donald Maass agency and is active on Twitter @leannarenee.
Perilous Prophecy is out June 20 2017 from Tor.