The boy felt it before he saw it.

There was a chill feeling, different from the usual cold that filled the stone halls of the orphanage. That cold was familiar and simple. You felt it in your bones. You endured it by hovering closer to the kitchen fire before the matron caught you, or by sharing a blanket with your chosen brothers and sisters.

But this was different. This was a sharp-edged cold. Like the glitter that came off the knife they used to kill the goats. Like the ice that sheathed the old tree outside and made the branches snap off. He did not feel this cold in his bones, but in his very soul. And it made him want to whimper with fear.

He had tried to keep quiet. Already many of the other orphans were angry at him. The dancers and jugglers had them clapping and laughing, a rare treat for the forgotten children housed here.

Until he had begun screaming and pointing at one of the performers.

He had ruined the show, and the embarrassed matron sent the children off to their dormitories immediately. Their anger was palpable, a terrible thing he felt all around, and he could hear harsh whispers up and down the halls of the old fortress that served as the orphanage. “Crazy is at it again,” he heard. “The lunatic’s seeing monsters again.” He knew if not for his friends, he would have suffered that night.

His friends Elinor, Alys, Roan, and Kay had not been angry, though. They believed him. They comforted him, drawing him away from the performers and out of the room without a look back at the ruined entertainment. Elinor wrapped an arm around his shoulders as they walked and Roan stared daggers at the other orphans, defying their anger at his friend. Together, they returned to the dormitory and prepared for bed.

No, his friends had not been angry like the other children were. They never were. But he also knew they did not understand. Not truly. Even he began to doubt himself. Perhaps the cruel whispers from the other children were right, he thought.

Until tonight. Until he had seen the blackheart just an arm’s length away from him and he screamed and screamed till his throat was raw. Where their hearts should have been, oily mud and black smoke oozed from their chests to cover their bodies. He had seen them three times before, but never up close like this.

Even now, in the small hours of the night when everyone in the large room was asleep, the boy remained awake. The fear of the shadowed juggler would not leave him, and behind his closed eyes, he pictured the horrible darkness moving over the man. The feeling crept over him more and more. The cold feeling. Sharp. Dangerous.

He finally could not stand it any longer. His eyes snapped open, and he looked across the darkened room, past the simple cots the orphans all slept on.

And he saw it.

The blackheart was in the room. The rolling, oily blackness spilled from its chest like blood from a wound, deeper even than the dark of the night. It stood across the room from him, looming over the foot of one girl’s bed. The boy felt his heart pounding, and he longed to reach out to touch his friends, either to wake them to see what he saw or to wake himself from what must be a nightmare. But he was too frightened to move.

As he watched, the juggler’s shape sloughed off, dropping to the floor like a discarded garment. In its place was something more horrifying. The head became longer and had no eyes, only a round mouth from which the boy could see wicked teeth. It craned a long, serpent-like neck toward the sleeping child while reaching forward with ragged claws at the end of spindly arms. The thing bent down to feed, and the boy moaned with terror.

The long neck whipped impossibly around, turning its eyeless face toward the boy. It dropped to all fours and charged across the room.

For the second time that night the boy screamed himself raw.

***

Ferran opened his eyes and tried to still his breathing. The room was warm. All around him were men and women, wearing the earthy colors favored by the Order of Talan. Many of them had their exposed skin heavily tattooed with strange symbols and designs. But all of them looked on him with understanding eyes.

An old man stepped forward, leaning heavily on a cane. Dark stripes were inked onto his weathered and wrinkled face, contrasting with the bright white of his long beard. He stood before Ferran and watched as the young man drew deep breaths.

“What did you see?” the old man asked.

Ferran matched the old man’s gaze and steadied himself. “My past,” Ferran said.

The old man studied him for a long moment and then nodded once. He stepped out of the way and made a gesture. Across the length of the chamber, a heavy iron door swung open, to reveal the creature from his memory. The monstrous head whipped around and the circular maw puckered at the air. Long talons scraped across the floor with a high-pitched keening as it drew away from the open door.

“What do you see?” the old man asked from behind Ferran.

In his left hand, Ferran felt the weight of a long length of silver chain, and he let one end fall to the floor with a clear, bright ring. His other hand tightened around the haft of a short spear, the blade held before him, catching the light of the torches carried by the members of the Order who looked on.

“What do you see?” the old man asked once more.

Ferran’s lips drew back into a savage smile. “My future,” he said and advanced on the monster.

 

Continue to Act 1

 

Release: October 15, 2015
On sale now on Amazon