From The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess (A Strangely Beautiful prequel)
May 2nd in paperback and digital, copyright 2011 by Leanna Renee Hieber
Excerpt 1 - The mortal year of 1867 - From the prologue, at the Liminal edge of the Whisper-world:
As Persephone watched her friends the Muses leave the Liminal edge, tumbling into a blue sky spread vast before them, she remembered how they’d all once lived less troubled lives. She remembered bitterly how she’d sworn to be again with her beloved and not just his ghost. But that had never happened. And off they were to fight the good Guard fight again, and to fight it through eternity.
The Liminal threshold, ever mercurial, ever mysterious, perhaps sensed her mood. Above, on the Liminal’s proscenium arch, the clock that gently ticked away mortal life whirred and its intricate metal arms spun. The numbers on the barrel shifted, and the wide window suddenly revealed a scene from the past. Persephone and Phoenix saw no longer the sparkling muses careening down onto Egypt towards their chosen ones but a gas-lit street shining elegant at dusk, homes and townhouses full of Romanesque details with candles burning welcome in windows. German-speaking servants readied two carriages.
Phoenix did not need the language gifts of Persephone to translate, for the Liminal made all language comprehensible. A well-to-do family here had their belongings packed, and they turned to gaze fondly at a grand townhouse. Turning back to the line of carriages, the mother and father ushered their dark-haired daughter into one fine conveyance, but two persons lingered behind.
One, an exceedingly severe woman in an elegant black dress, her black hair streaked with silver and wound tight upon her head, clamped her hand firmly upon a young boy who looked older than his age in his fine dark suit. His black hair hung loose around his face, his dark eyes shone uncannily sharp.
“Once we’re in London, child, you’ll see. A great future will unfold,” the woman promised. Her voice was thick with an accent. “Alexi,” she said sharply when the boy did not respond.
“Yes, Babyshka?” He looked up at her, his face impassive, his voice strong.
“What symbol crowns the Alchemical pyramid?”
“The firebird,” he replied.
“Exactly. And what will you do with him?”
“I shall harness him in my hand.”
“So you shall,” she promised. “There is more to our folklore than mere stories, my dear child. There are two worlds, the mundane and the mystical, and I’ve called them both down upon your head.” The woman shifted her hand from his shoulder to brush a lock of hair from his face, cupped his cheek in a gesture more authoritative than kind. “You’d best do something with them.”
The boy looked at her, unflinching, with unspoken agreement.
“Who is that?” Persephone breathed. The Liminal window had gone a bit glassy with the time shift, as if to keep them distanced, and she could see her form reflected inside. Every colour of her was shifting subtly, as if her body were a prism held to the light and turned by a gentle hand.
“I’m not sure,” Phoenix murmured.
The grandmother spoke again: “Someday, my boy, you’ll light the darkness with your fire and all the world will bow before it. I’ll stake my life on that.” She helped the boy into the carriage then turned and stared directly through the Liminal, though that was of course impossible. She stared as if she were addressing Phoenix and Persephone, daring them. And then she held out an arm, deigning to allow a footman to help her into the carriage.
Persephone gasped. The scene faded to black, and the timepiece of the Liminal stirred, whirred, and presented the current mortal year. Persephone felt her excitement rise. Although she could no longer see herself and her multi-coloured form, she knew she cycled through hues more quickly; she always did when her emotions were high. “Phoenix, my love. That boy… I’ve never seen a mortal so like you, an elegant young king of wisdom. Why, you’ve even been called down to his hand. Surely that’s a sign. He’ll be your Leader!”
“No. He’s too young,” Phoenix protested, his fiery form floating upward to the Liminal clock and doing the math of the elapsed years. “It doesn’t add up. We take our mortals as late teens. The Grand Work at his age would break him. Besides, you saw: we’ve already chosen Cairo, and the Taking has already begun. He will be in London, and there can only be one Guard at a time.”
Persephone stared at the Liminal window. Its light had changed, and that Germany of years prior had faded to a metropolis of towers and domed temples, the morning call from Muezzins lifting prayer up into the bright sky from the slender spines of pearlescent minarets. She squinted at the brightness, her eyes having not quite adjusted from the shadows she hated, though she rejoiced at the feeling of the sun upon her face.
“Go on, love, you’ve an annunciation to make with the Muses and their new Guard. I must find my Leader—of appropriate mortal age. In fact, I believe I know just the one, and she has little inkling how her mortal life will change. But, tell me one thing before you go.” He wreathed phantom tendrils of flame around her, as this was the limited interaction they were still allowed. “I must know how you fare.”
How did she fare? She worsened every year. The corner of her diaphanous robe was stained with blood and pomegranate juice, a sickly, rotting combination she’d been coughing up for centuries.
“The pain comes and goes,” she murmured, giving a valiant smile and suppressing the rattle in her lungs. “But I always feel better when I meet my new Guard.” Stepping to the threshold, as if she was a bird ready to fly from a branch, she added, “But you must find out about that boy.” Then she stepped through the portal and disappeared in a blaze of light.
(End of Excerpt)
Chapter One -- Cairo, 1867
Eighteen-year-old Beatrice Smith stared into Jean’s deep blue eyes and really, truly wanted to be in love. Wholly in love. It was a fitting time for it; the breeze was warm, the Egyptian sun bright, and the ties of her bonnet were undone. She had stolen a few moments away from the ever-present eye of the housekeeper that her father had hired not only to clean their rooms but keep watch and be a female presence in Beatrice’s male-dominated life. For the moment, she was gloriously without scrutiny. Beatrice liked that best; when she was on her own and could make her own decisions.
“Will you ever get back to England?” Jean asked, his French accent as delightful as that bouncing lock of his sandy-brown hair in the breeze. “Do you even remember England? I’ll bet you don’t remember it like I remember Paris.”
Beatrice looked out over the city. They’d hidden themselves above it all, sitting on anterior ledge of a tower at the Church of Abu Serga from which they could survey their own little kingdom. Old Cairo’s minarets pierced the uneven skyline, spires calling to Heaven, cupolas and spherical forms above intermittent brick complexes, graceful curves among more blocky ones, a feast of shapes and varying heights. Along the stones far below strode both the wealthy and poor, robed and suited, veiled and open-faced; there were the bronze and pale, the native and foreigner.
“I remember a bit,” Beatrice replied, finding it hard to think of any world that wasn’t Cairo. “I remember how different the colours are. Perhaps the distance of memory mutes England’s hues, but it seemed a gloomier palette. There’s so much work here, I doubt Father’s thought one whit about Oxford. He hopes to find out everything about the pyramids before everyone else. I’d like to help him.”
Jean grinned. “Ah, yes, that’s right. He’s too busy grave robbing.”
“No, Jean.” Beatrice scowled. Jean was always teasing, but he should know better than to jest about a most passionate subject. “Father isn’t like that.”
“What’s wrong with it if he were? Valuable stuff, antiquities—and I’m sure your museums will do a much better job of preserving them than the natives.”
“You can’t think like that, Jean. That’s the whole trouble,” Beatrice scolded, easily sliding into the role of lecturer or professor. “Just because a way of life died doesn’t mean you can go tromping around their graveyards and taking souvenirs. Father’s interested in the culture, in learning about the hieroglyphs, about elaborate burials, rituals and daily life. Civilization began in Nile soil. It’s fascinating.”
After a moment of reflection she turned to Jean and reiterated, “He’s not just here to take things. He’s a gentleman, you know. Though, I daresay most Englishmen are less refined. Some of the things he’s suggested be stopped are quite…” She trailed off. “And then there are the tourists. They’ll come to ogle his discoveries once they learn of them. They’ve already begun. Have you seen the guidebooks? Entitled people with money to throw away, thinking they can learn everything about a faraway place and its people in a few unthinking moments.”
“You’ve heard too many of his lectures.” Jean elbowed her, yanking at a bonnet tie.
Beatrice readjusted her ribbons. “Just think if someone were to go into your Notre Dame and overturn the vaults just because they were curious. There’d be hell to pay—”
“The recently dead are different than the ancient, Bea,” Jean interrupted. “Your father might be standing in the way of a great discovery.”
“He’s trying to stand in the way of looters, Jean, it’s very different. I daresay your father wouldn’t mind a nice trundle of loot,” she muttered. She’d been attracted to Jean because he was carefree and jovial. But if he didn’t have a serious bone in his body, how could she ever talk to him about what was meaningful?
Jean held up his hands, the cuffs of his white linen suit ruffling in the breeze. “My family remains firmly rooted in the good, clean, honest work of banking. Father wants nothing to do with cursed mummy gold. But in a few years, none of this will matter. I plan on stealing you to Paris as soon as I’ve the chance, and I’ll make you Mrs. Jean Pettande before your father can say Book of the Dead. God willing.”
Beatrice blushed and cocked her head, giving him the first challenge of their young relationship. “But what if I don’t believe in God?”
Jean twitched his nose, amused. “You’re too young to be an atheist.”
“And you’re too young to know the truth. You grew up surrounded by Parisians. I grew up here. How can Coptics and Arabs, Sufis, Sunnis, Jews and everyone else who lives here, mildly disgruntled yet vaguely at peace with each other in the districts of this mad city, all believe different things and all be right? They must all be wrong.”
Jean shrugged. “Someone’s got to be right.”
Jean grinned. His ruddy cheeks dimpled. “Might as well be me.”
Beatrice snorted, not sure if she was amused or disgusted. “Why, Jean, I do believe you’ve succinctly stated the very heart of conquest.”
He grinned. “Oui.” His dive to place a kiss on her neck made her giggle. “But unlike Napoleon, all I’m interested in conquering is you.” Shifting his precarious position on the ledge, he pulled her into a real kiss. Then a thought occurred to him, and he raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t believe in God, why do you care about anyone’s mortal remains, like those musty old Egyptians?” He gave a mock sneeze, and she glared at him.
“No, I don’t believe in the Book of the Dead and I’m certainly not convinced about our Bible, but that doesn’t mean I want to steal anyone’s bodies and put them out for a show. I respect what I see. What I’m not sure about are all the things I can’t see: gods, demons, ghosts, curses—”
“You know, you really are too opinionated for your own good. I’m going to lock you away in a Parisian flat,” Jean said. “That’s what you really need.” He scrambled to his feet, standing precariously on the ledge.
“Jean, be careful,” she snapped. She was annoyed by his words, even if he was joking. Was he joking? He had a bent for carelessness. It would serve him right if he hurt himself, she thought in a moment of unkindness.
“Do you hear that, Cairo, Beatrice Smith shall be Mrs. Jean Pettande, stolen away like an antiquity, never to be seen again!” He stood shouting, flailing one hand and holding onto a gritty, sand-bitten window frame with the other. “I’ll protect her like her father protects the ancients!”
“Stop that. Stop talking like that. I don’t want to be stolen away or protected, I love Cairo.” And, she did. More than Jean. It was beautiful, complex and fascinating, its cultures, its histories and people… She even found some young locals attractive, which went very much against her upbringing. Considering the abyss that stood between ever really getting to know any of them, such attractions were foolish. Someone like Jean, foreign as he was, was still safe, accessible, and right. He was someone she was supposed to care for. This was what women her age did: they were courted, they fell in love and raised families. But his brash tone of conquest rode her sensibilities roughly. Her sunny, lovely day had soured.
Jean still played the buffoon upon the ledge. “Oh, Bea, your father may have let you read books and taught you ridiculous rituals of useless dead people, but you don’t seem to grasp your place in this world. Look at you right now; you’re just where a girl’s supposed to be.” He waved and giggled, shifting his weight. “At my heel, as I stand above and survey our kingdom!”
There came a cry from downstairs. A wind gusted, a powerful gale focused like a presence, like a person storming in as if in protest that Beatrice would not, in fact, be stolen away and trapped. Sand was kicked up at the same time Beatrice’s blood chilled. Women and priests cried out phrases she recognized as scriptural exclamations, and she pursed her lips, passing it off as superstitious fancy.
But, suddenly she couldn’t see Jean. And she couldn’t quite feel her own body.
All within her gaze went blue. Beatrice’s hands pressed hard against the tall window frame, and it was as if a great force collided with her body.
There came a burst of angelic music and blinding light, a thrilling jolt through her blood, and a firm male voice said: “You’ll not hear my voice again. You’ll only feel my fire. But you, Beatrice Smith, have been chosen for the Grand Work. You are now more than humanity could ever offer alone, and you will fight on the side of angels for a better world. You are the Leader of the Guard.”
A blinking image of a circular room and a bird fluttered before her gaze. The wind was all around her, inside her. Beatrice was too shocked to utter a sound, too taken with this cataclysmic event, but at last the moment faded. Her senses returned to the present.
It was just in time—or just too late. Beatrice squinted past her blowing bonnet strings to see Jean’s wide eyes and the top of his mussed brown hair vanish from view. He fell from the ledge upon which he’d been so reckless. He fell many stories, and Beatrice shouldn’t have looked down. But she did. So much red against so much white. She wasn’t sure she believed in God, but now, maybe, the Devil.
What had spoken within her? Whose voice had graced that terrible moment of pain and euphoria? Tears streamed down her face as she peered down from the ledge. People ran to Jean’s body and swarmed over it, though they were careful to keep out of the widening pool of blood. Beatrice ducked back, avoiding the upward gazes, gasping, wishing to see no more. Coldness poured over her, one overwhelming sensation after the next. An icy draft? Something transparent appeared, grey and shimmering.
Jean. It was Jean! He floated before her, grey-scale in his linen suit, his luminous face wearing an expression of confusion. He opened his mouth and spoke words she could not hear. She blinked. She’d stopped breathing moments before, and only now a gasp tore from her throat. She was staring at his ghost. She didn’t believe in these things; she’d just said so. She was being proven woefully, horrifically wrong. He was holding his hand out for her, as if everything would be all right. Beatrice reached forward, an unreleased scream threatening to tear her in two. Her world and sanity were both crumbling. Jean stared at her sadly. Seeming to realize something, he shook his head, disappointed. Then he blew her a kiss and faded from view.
Sound finally tore from her lips. Beatrice fell forward, turning her head and retching on the cool stone floor until she felt warmth on her hand like a ray of sunlight. Turning, she found a woman of unparalleled beauty beside her: glowing, majestic, full of colours. A glowing, floating woman whose hair was black, then brown, now blonde; her skin was pale, then olive, now dark— She’d gone crazy. That, or this was a wretchedly cruel dream with an avalanche of events and sensations.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman hovering before her, tears falling from her ever-changing face. She blinked blue then brown eyes. “I’m so sorry. I lost my lover too. He was murdered. He burned to death before my eyes.” Her tears were silver like mercury, and they rolled like beads down her cheeks and dripped to the floor.
“Who are you?” Beatrice asked, choking, wiping her mouth. “What are you?” She knew that sounded rude, but clearly she’d gone mad. She didn’t need manners when she’d gone mad.
“I’m whatever you want to call me, and I have a job for you,” the magnificent creature said.
Beatrice stared at her diaphanous layers and shifting colours, trying to sound brave but knowing she didn’t. “Wh-what do you want with me?”
“I want you to know that death is not the end. I’ll even show you it isn’t.”
Beatrice was suddenly full of fear and guilt. “I was saying I didn’t believe in God but… I don’t know. Please don’t tell me Jean was punished for my blasphem—”
“I’m not handing out punishments,” the woman interrupted. “But I am here to help set you on a path. You have been chosen for the Grand Work.”
“I’ve been chosen as a nutter,” Beatrice murmured. “And you can’t be real.” She rose shakily to her feet. All she wanted to do was weep, alone.
“Just outside,” the woman said. “In a place that’s neither here nor there, at the edge of time, between two worlds, you have friends waiting for you.”
Beatrice stared. Her mind struggled. There was something inside of her now, something warm and full of power. The sensation was making her dizzy, but it wanted her to be strong. Resolute. A leader.
“If you say so,” she whispered, dazed, moving awkwardly to the stairs. She descended, her bonnet askew, her blonde locks mussed, and she didn’t bother to wipe her eyes.
At the foot of the landing, looking similarly dazed, was a group of four young men and women. They were all about her age, and they were looking up at her. Waiting.
(end of excerpt)
From Chapter Five
Within the endless layers of shadow that made up the Whisper-world, around Darkness’s throne flocked his minions. His favourites tended their master, who was in a foul mood. He’d drawn dread curtains to sit entirely wreathed in blackness, his robes thick around him, no outside light penetrating. Red eyes blinked slowly, two deadly rubies glinting in the darkness.
Outside paced his dog, one pair then two hundred blood-red eyes glimmering to life; less like precious jewels than its master’s, their shifting numbers glowed more with fire than intelligence. The guardian creature drooled and whined, shifted its protean form, became a roiling mist, flickered, then again became a hundred-headed hound. Bored, Darkness tore open the curtain and tossed it bones from the River that clattered onto the dais below. The mass of vaguely canine heads pounced. Countless teeth gnawed the offering, those infinite fangs now and then gleaming in a bit of reflected light.
“Just let me follow her,” Luce the Gorgon whined nearby, folding her arms over the swaths of black fabric wrapped around her lithe body and head. Onyx snakes writhed beneath, hissed and snapped beneath her thin veil. “Let me prove myself to you.”
“Leave. Me. Alone,” was Darkness’s reply, a low murmur in his usual halting cadence, thick and wet, the sound of storms.
“It isn’t going to get any better. It’s been centuries,” Luce said in a conversational tone that seemed out of place in such bleak surroundings. “You’ll not break her until you find whatever she’s hiding. She disappears places. I think she’s got something she’d like you not to know about. Some private treasure.”
“She’ll hate me. All the more. If I begin rooting around,” Darkness replied. Robes shifted. Bones clicked together as Darkness adjusted.
“She’ll never not hate you,” Luce replied. “She always has.”
The shadows moved, a whip-like thrash at nothing in particular that hit some sad passing spirit who wailed in pain. Luce could hear Darkness’s teeth grind.
“I don’t hate you.” She sashayed up to where the shadows were thickest and knelt before him, running her hands up into the impenetrable blackness. “I adore you,” she murmured, fumbling blindly at his robes. When visible, they were bright crimson, the only colour in this grey wasteland. That, and her wretched colours. Persephone.
“I. Am aware. Of your sentiments,” Darkness replied, and the shadows kicked her away.
Luce scowled. “You’re a fool.”
“You. Are brash. For a servant.”
“How else can I lift myself in your esteem?” the Gorgon asked. “It isn’t like the olden days. We’re all falling apart, us great ones. We’re splintering. We’re weakening. Humanity slips farther from our command. She’s beyond hope, all mewling and retching. This may be her last century before she’s nothing but pulp. You remember, just mortal decades ago, when she bled herself all over these stones in that pathetic attempt to break free, to end it—”
Darkness whipped his robes and shadows again, this time casting Luce backwards upon the stone. “Of course. I remember.”
“Well, it could have consequences,” Luce said, unruffled, picking herself up and glaring at his tall and potent form, at the red fires of his eyes. “Her pathetic attempt unwittingly opened huge holes in your kingdom. Who knows what, in her desperation, her powers might do? You must admit that she was never meant for this place, would stop at nothing to destroy it if she knew how. She’s nothing but a hindrance—”
“STAND. DOWN,” Darkness roared. Luce cringed and retreated, expecting to be struck. But she was not. Instead, Darkness beat his chest, rattled his bones; he turned his despair inward. The water of the nearby River crested, and its murmuring voices wailed and wept. “She is beloved of the dead!” he wailed. “And why shouldn’t light couple with shadow! We are two sides, day and night! Together since time began!”
“Separated since time began,” Luce insisted calmly. “Day departs. Night takes over. They cannot sit side by side. You are of one kind, she is of another. Her light hurts you, does not strengthen you. Your darkness decays her. Isn’t it obvious it’s a poor match after all these years? I am of your kind. I am trying to help you!”
“Why. Do. You. Insist? You torture me with your words,” Darkness muttered.
Luce dared again to kneel at his feet, to again place herself partly into his abyss.
“My liege. You’ve lost your strength. I hardly recognize the master I came to serve. You might want to start listening to me rather than wallowing in self-pity like all the spirits you command. Leave them to miserable uselessness. You’re meant for something greater. You need to remind them all that you’re the lord of the land; that light, in the end bows to shadow. All life ends in darkness.”
Darkness growled, and Luce breathed, delighted at the sound. “If,” the shadows rumbled. “I have my way. It ends. With me.”
(End of excerpts)
The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess