In this exclusive excerpt, Thelana and Emma (not pictured) encounter a nightmarish entity in the shadows of Gloomwood.
Emma, so bold a moment before, so prepared to die at the hand of the wild woman’s dagger, was again seized by fear. They were consumed by darkness, by cold, and by the unknown. Blindly and clumsily she ran, over roots she could not see, stems catching in her hair, thorns grazing her cheeks and wrists and ankles. But the Ilmarin was there, leading her by the wrist, her presence reassuring. Could it be a ruse? Was she being led to the slaughter? No, she refused to believe that. Something was in their midst, something terrible—even Emma, with her dull senses, could feel it.
They stopped. Emma searched the darkness for the female silhouette. “What?” she implored. “What is it?”
The Ilmarin’s eyes caught the moonlight and glittered like emeralds. And it was there that Emma first saw it, reflected in her irises, a dark mass. “I said run!” She screamed it now, letting go of Emma’s hand completely.
Like a hare rustling through the bush, Thelana was gone. Emma tried running but forgot how, her knees catching in her skirts, her heels sinking at every turn. She could not see where she was going or what she was escaping from, but if it was bad enough to frighten Thelana, she knew it wise to keep moving. What could it be, unless . . .
. . . the giant?
She hesitated. If she could only go back to their encampment, rouse Xandr and Grimosse, but every direction was the same subtle outline of forest, a maze of shadows and silhouettes leading into pitch blackness.
“Oh Strom. Oh Strom . . .” She repeated the mantra aloud for the gods to hear, but she was alone in a vast dark nothingness. The only other sounds were her irregular gasps for air, and the flailing of a weak heart, which she was certain would fail her.
Calm yourself, Emma. You can think through this.
She looked to the moon and stars to find her bearings, as she knew sailors to do, but the heavens were gone, utterly and inexplicably gone. The darkness was a solid mass she could reach out and touch, and then the sky was moving, and Emma was seized with such terror that reason abandoned her completely.
A hand pulled her into the bushes. Thelana was there again, invisible. She pointed through the prickly leaves with her blade. “Do you see it?”
“I don’t see anything,” Emma replied, as quietly as she could. She had spoken in haste, without willing herself to look. But it was there, waiting, pondering, and perhaps searching. Following Thelana’s dagger, she could make out the broken line of trees in the vast gloom and the orbs like glowing embers. The air was crackling around it and Emma’s hair was prickling, the long strands twisting and writhing in the current, and somehow she knew the orbs to be eyes, knew that those sentient embers were focused upon them. She could feel them seeing into her. This was neither giant nor horg, but a being of an entirely different order.
“It knows we’re here,” Emma murmured.
“No—” Thelana began, but she did not have time to argue. The bush whispered and Emma felt herself alone again, a fleeting voice calling back, imploring her, “Move!” When she looked again, the dark mass was expanding in her direction.
Wet leaves slipped under her soles, making it difficult to gain traction. She groped blindly for a limb or a trunk. The stomping of some immense, bipedal thing shook the small bones of her ankles and rattled her eardrums. Wood shattered—an explosive cracking sound—followed by the hiss and thump of felled trees. Whole elms toppled next to her, shuddering as they struck the ground, groaning as they collided with others. Branches smacked her face, bloodying her lips, but there was no pain, only the primal urge to continue moving.
Descending into a depression, deep in the twisting paths of Gloomwood, she reached the limit of exertion, where even terror could push no further. Emma caught fleeting snatches of moonlight and silver streaks of stars. She paused, her lungs full of fire, each breath coming short. All was quiet.
A severe sense of aloneness hit her. She felt like a small child having lost its mother, and realized she would have liked to look upon her father once more, that she longed for even Thelana’s company. I was alone in this world and shall die this way. “It can’t be far behind,” she murmured, finding comfort in her own voice.
The thing had not given up pursuit. It was at arm’s length, as it had always been, silent as a shadow, and with awful clarity Emma came to accept it. She turned, seeking its description, but was left with only vague impressions. Like something beyond the boundaries of natural law, the moonlight seemed unwilling to reveal it.
She considered running again, but was wracked with fatigue. Resigned to Fate’s loom, she awaited whatever was to happen.
Many voices filled the silence. They spoke as one. It was so strange and unexpected a sound, she could not be certain whether it came from her own mind. A glove blotted out the moon and her feet lifted. She was weightless. He was holding her like a marionette, on invisible strings, its ember eyes glowing all around.
She could feel his presence like needles in her brain. Her every memory flashed across her mind’s eye—every shameful thought, every guilty association, every desire—even those she was too ashamed to admit to herself. Her essence lay open, like a book, helpless as he poked and prodded within her.
Reality was torn away like a veil. Stars and moons and the surrounding woods became immaterial. She saw Titian and Midiana, Anu and Eru, and all the places in Eldin’s book come into vivid focus, sights that defied possibility, that could only be dream. She felt herself lifting, far above the realms of her own thought into that of the other, into worlds beyond and behind the one she was born into. Her mind was open to his, a window to the frightful images that were flitting by it, things her psyche was ill-prepared to decipher—she was like a fish falling from the sky, an infant born a thousand times over, the scenery ever-changing. There were landscapes with glassy mountain towers and acid oceans and impossible canyons, and clusters of suns and cities in drifting bubbles and crustacean-like beings arguing the politics of their civilization. There were cephalopod-like monsters of unthinkable vastness, and life forms of such perplexing arrangement as to challenge the most basic assumptions of biology. The images continued to flow, violently, beyond her capacity to maintain her sense of self. Knowledge was drowning her, would kill her, she knew, and for the first time in her life she was desperate for ignorance. It was not long before she could not remember whether Northendell had been her home, or just another of the falling vistas. The colossal intellect behind those glowing eyes was the only constant, radiating such gravity that she felt her sanity disintegrating, yet among these many images, one caught hold of her, and like a raft she clung to it. It was Thelana, staring in horror at what Emma could only guess was her own floating body. Try as she might, Emma could not hold the image long. A vortex was opening somewhere, swallowing all realities into a dark void and she was being swept into it.
WE ARE HORDE, the voices said. STATE THE PURPOSE.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!? FIND OUT IN AGES OF AENYA!!!!