(SPOILERS FOR FEAST OF DREAMS AHEAD—READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.)
Alright. It’s been rather crazy over here. I feel like a juggler with one arm in a sling. One thing dropped, and that was the release date of Feast of Dreams. It’s with disappointment that I have to announce I’ll be delaying the book for another few weeks. A last minute typographical mistake popped up, and unfortunately, it takes a while to fix such a simple error (especially in both print and digital formats). Could I launch the book with that dastardly, repeated “only” floating around in one of the sentences? Of course. However, I wouldn’t be doing myself or my readers any favors by providing a less than polished product. I won’t do that. You’ll have Feast of Dreams in your hands and on your e-readers by the end of the month—that’s the goal for which I’m aiming.
Now, to cushion the disappointment, I do have a very special surprise and a lengthy excerpt to tide everyone over for those few nail-biting weeks! The surprise will be announced and available next weekend. As for the excerpt, enjoy! This is your final peek into the new adventure—and peril—faced by our heroes in Alabion. Every character in this tale has a role to play, for life is a stage with many actors. Even Mouse will discover that her destiny is grander and darker than what she’s so far known…
(From Chapter I: The Web of Fates)
“Adelaide,” says Mouse.
She is about to ask her young friend what she is doing here, and then she dismisses the question as ridiculous. They are at the charterhouse playing cards and sitting upon creaking, worn bunks with threadbare sheets. Where else would they be? Out on the dismal streets of Menos? She can spot the grayness of the city through the window behind Adelaide’s golden hair. Not out there. Not anywhere else. Only here. This is the only place to be.
Adelaide’s pretty face is frowning. “Your move. Pay attention,” she demands in an unusually authoritative voice.
Pay attention, thinks Mouse, and she stares at the colorful, lacquered cards arrayed in two rows between them on the mattress. Instantly, Mouse gravitates toward and grabs one of the cards. A king—pale, beautiful, and surrounded by an aura of power. He stands atop a crest of rock like a conqueror overseeing the battlefield. As strange as it is for Mouse’s tiny mind, she feels as if she knows this figure or something important about him.
“Is that your pick?” asks Adelaide. “The Everfair King takes two cards out of play and converts one more to his cause, or have you forgotten the rules?”
Three cards to choose, ponders Mouse. She glances at the line of fantastical creatures and places lined up before her. First, she picks a scarecrow that hangs ominously against the backdrop of a wasted, black field and a sky full of stars. He—the scarecrow is definitely male—has a hauntingly mortal face. However, he has eyes of pitch and a grim, yellow smile. He is happy, this scarecrow, even as he presides over the emptiness. She fancies him and feels as if he should have a name, but she cannot grasp what it could be.
Adelaide claps in her face. “Goodness, you’re slow today, Mouse! Dumb as dear Bettifer, who eats her own hair. You, who are always telling me to hurry. Move along now before the other children return and sell us out for a second helping of that misery they call porridge. Two more cards. Go!”
Of course Adelaide is correct, and should their game and contraband be discovered, it will mean nothing but punishment. Mouse regretfully places the scarecrow facedown in a pile off to the side with the other discarded cards. Next she runs her hand over her choices and quickly settles upon the image of a bright sward, a radiant sun, and a flowing wind. All are rendered in bold lines. Mouse feels as if this could be a place—a real place somewhere—and when she closes her eyes, she can nearly feel the warmth, peace, and tickle of the summer breeze on her cheeks.
“The east wind?” says Adelaide. “The wind of change and sacrifice? The wind that chases the sun to its death each day? If you put that in the graveyard, you change the game’s rules. No peace now. We keep at it until one of us has nothing. Are you sure? Do you understand? Attrition until death. You can’t change your mind later. Just like the scarecrow, it’s gone forever. Everything changes.”
“I…I’m sure,” replies Mouse, but she really isn’t.
She’s dithering when she shouldn’t be. That is usually Adelaide’s role. Gone forever. The warning echoes. Mouse shakes off the chill of it and looks for her third pick: the card she gets to keep. It’s the one that will stay with her in the battle to come. The battle with Adelaide? she wonders, but her blood is boiling as if something more dire than this frivolous game is unfolding. Her fingers graze several cards—a pack of wolves, a beautiful ebon mare with a single silver horn, and a castle crumbled to its foundation and covered in ivy—before freezing upon a card. Yes. This is it. This is the one she must have. What a queer relief this card painted in watercolors is. It’s so soft while the other cards are bold. What is this picture other than plumes of gray mist or smoke? As she stares, she begins to make out the faintest outline of a shape: a scribble of a face, two slashes that could be suspicious eyes, and some bolder twists that could be the outline of arms and legs. As with cloud watching, though, what she sees fades to inconsistency, and she is not sure what she has seen until Adelaide whispers, “The Gray Man.”
There is fear in Adelaide’s voice. Mouse swallows the sudden lump in her throat. The mystery and fright of this card and the choice she has made are palpable to them.
“The trickster, the thief of secrets,” Adelaide continues. Her voice is hushed. “He’ll steal what you know and what you don’t. He can’t be trusted, and yet you’ve made your choice.”
“I have?”—Adelaide nods—“I have,” repeats Mouse.
The canny part of Mouse—the forgotten woman she is or was to be (why can’t she remember?)—knows they are no longer discussing the stratagems of a simple game. These cards are not simply amusements. The cards have meaning. The unseen scarecrow she has buried in the graveyard calls to her. His face is so familiar, and his name dances on her tongue. Vor…Vorig…Vortig…
Adelaide studies her intently with a gaze that seems more knowing than it should be, considering she’s a hapless child—always bumbling and in trouble.
“You’ve made your choice,” says Adelaide quietly. “Now watch, and I shall show you the path.”
With surprisingly deft hands, Adelaide sweeps up all the cards, shuffles them with a flourish, and pulls one off the top. Mouse recoils at the revealed picture. Even as a child, which she is starting to sense she is not, she has always hated these things. Spiders. And these ones are particularly repulsive. Around a dozen are cluttered into the frame, which is bordered in white, drawn lines of silk. Their bodies are lean with sleek, long abdomens, and they teeter on stilted legs like herons. Most revolting are their armored heads, spiked as the helmets of warriors and slashed with white markings that resemble war paint. Indeed, there is an anthropomorphic impression to the monsters, and even though they are mere representations, she can feel their deep-red clusters of eyes leering at her from under the armored crests. She quickly looks away.
“No,” says Adelaide. “You must be brave. Look at the card.”
Mouse does as she is told. The spiders are eager to capture her with their stares, so she looks elsewhere within the picture—anywhere they cannot follow her. A glimmer of silver lost in the cobwebs like a rolled-up metal gnat provides this escape. She has to squint to make it out, as minuscule as it is.
“What is that glimmer?” she asks.
Adelaide applauds her discovery. “Good. Such a sharp eye you’ve always had, Mouse. It will serve you in the dark when you need to find what you have just seen—the first marker of Fate. A bread crumb for you to follow. However, there are three, as is always the way of things. I must show you the others before we part.”
Marker of Fate? wonders Mouse. In flickers, her adult sensibilities are returning to her. The process stings. Each bit of memory drives like a spike into the back of her skull. She is aware she is in some manner of dream that is not quite a dream, and she is speaking with some manifestation of her old friend and someone or something else too. A guide, perhaps? She is starting to recall a place and people far from this dreaming whom she has left behind: Vortigern, Morigan, Caenith, and Thackery. She remembers enough of this other life, even though the recall is incomplete.
“The second marker,” declares Adelaide. “Study it. Burn it into your thoughts. See the unseen.”
Mouse concentrates on the new card Adelaide now holds between two of her fingers. Painted on the glossy surface is a slice of sunset scenery—a cartoonish crimson and orange sun setting over a stretch of woodland. Surely it is Alabion, judging from its tangles and density. A flock of white birds flutters to one side. Study it. See the unseen, she commands herself, and she begins to wonder what has startled the flock into flight. A growl in the woods? The passage of a predator? Something certainly has frightened the birds, but she can discern nothing more in the smears of black between the green trees. Perhaps it is not what spooks the birds that matters but where they are headed. She searches the landscape, which seems larger and more detailed than the confines of a card should be, and she notes a ripple of blue and gray—rapids on the east. Yes. This is to the east side of the woods. The birds will flee in that direction to or near a stream, and they will be safe from what hunts them.
“East,” says Mouse. “They will fly east.”
She knows this is the correct answer because Adelaide has folded the card away and is quickly flashing another in her face. “Well done. Now the last marker.”
Mouse isn’t clear what this is. It is a jumble of bones and serpentine strokes of darkness dotted with white marbles. Whatever the image is supposed to be, it roils her stomach with sadness—not sickness, though. The picture twirls inward and gives a sense of spiraling and constriction. She feels as if she could cast herself through the paper and fall to the very bottom of this abyss toward that pearl of gray shadows at the epicenter of the torrent. Wait. That isn’t a pearl; it’s a pinprick of light. An opening to a larger space. A place where there is music and the saddest song in all Geadhain sung by…
“Yes. Yes,” says Adelaide, and the card disappears back in the deck with her prestidigitator’s skill. “You have your signs—although I don’t think you’ll much like the journey on which they take you. Be brave. There is light after the dark. Always. Good luck to you, Mouse. Luck has ever watched your back, and you have a greater destiny than I ever did—I thought I was simply to die at the hands of that awful man. But it seems I have one last purpose and one last bit of joy, which is to say good-bye.”
If this is a dream, the rules and realities are bent. It is like no other dream that has claimed Mouse. The clear, gold shimmer of her friend’s tresses, the candied smell she always exuded, and the half-smile that never left her lips—all these poignant details are present and tangible. Mouse cries out for her long-lost and fallen friend, and the two fall into each other, embrace, and shed tears.
Memories are assaulting Mouse, and she sees Adelaide’s corpse folded and broken in a closet in the charterhouse. She remembers sobbing and being unsure how to handle the naked, bruised body. She remembers how the brightness of Adelaide’s eyes had faded to a dull, fishy gray. She remembers the sensation of something cracking inside her—a wall that let in the darkness and hate. Always suspicious and alert, she remembers one of the ironguards pulling her from the corpse and staring at the body afterward with a lip twitch and an eye tremble. Hunger. A lesser, more innocent mind would not have seen this as an admission of murder. Barry Grimsby was his name. She learned it and enshrined it in her skull. All the way into adulthood, she carried that name until she was able to take revenge on him and defile him with knives as he had done to any number of innocents. She pulls back.
“He’s dead,” she says with a wicked smile. “I ended him. Cut his balls off and fed them to him.”
“I know,” says Adelaide remorsefully. She is radiant to Mouse—a star one and true. “All that hate for me. I thank you for your vengeance, but I am sorry for how it has changed you.”
“But how? How is it possible you are here?”
“I don’t know. I know only that I was headed somewhere…yet I knew I couldn’t leave. I wasn’t sure why. Until now, at least. This is where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to do. A voice…yes, a man’s voice, I think. It led me back out of the grayness and to you, my dear Mouse. You have been lost for so long, but you’re starting to find your way. There will be more sadness to come, and you’ll stumble again. But I’ve given you a few more steps to take. I’m looking out for you this once.”
Mouse does not care about any more of this mystery—only the miracle of it. She pulls her friend in again and squeezes with all her strength. She understands their intimacy is to end by her friend’s sudden lightness and brightness.
“No. Please. A little longer,” she pleads to the wisps of brilliance Adelaide has become.
Adelaide’s voice fades like the last rays at dusk. “Remember the markers. Believe in what you see and feel. He will find you as he found me. But you must go. I wouldn’t be a good friend if I kept you here any longer than was safe. Anger…danger…wake. Need to…wake…up. Don’t think. Just kill.”
Danger. Wake up. Don’t think. Just kill.
As Adelaide vanishes into a golden mist, Mouse tumbles forward and scatters the cards. Her friend was right about many things. Mouse is a survivor and a quick study, and she knows she has to wake up. She pounds the mattress with her fists. Wake up! Wake up! Remember where you are supposed to be! The more she focuses herself and her Will, the more the world begins to shake and blur, and the greater that dreadful pain—the stabbing at the back of her neck—becomes. She reaches around to soothe the spot and feels something hard and wet attached to her. In disgust, she rips at it.
Mouse awoke and gulped for air, but her breaths drew in only cottony gobs that dissolved on her tongue like bitter, spoiled carnival candy. She spit them out and thrashed about. She discovered that the stuff completely enveloped her. Somewhere in her frenzy, she grasped what this entrapment was, yet she could spare no thought on it now—not when the situation was so dire, when she could sense a throbbing wound in her skull, and when she could sense a great, hissing darkness skittering around her cocoon. Don’t think. Kill. She had specks before the shadow would do something unspeakable to her again and inject her with whatever toxin had lulled her into a coma. One of her gluey hands found a dagger—one of a pair of parting gifts from Alastair, her eternal protector—and suddenly the shadow was above her. She sliced down the silken bag in which she was trapped and slid out onto a rock floor.
Her surroundings came to Mouse in fragments as she stumbled to her feet. There were natural walls coated in ghostly webbing, tiny shadows balled up in ivory and strung around like festive ornaments, the fustiest of reeks, and a lanky shape draped over the deflated pile of strings she had escaped. She couldn’t piece the nightmare together. However, she knew what was atop the string pile. As it rose from its web on long, slender limbs, she could see it clearly in the white-tinted darkness. It was an enormous arachnid twice her size at its full height. She saw a glint, a greasy sheen, reflecting off the ivory markings on its clacking, horned skull. She had a flash of the same chain of red eyes descending upon her in another time. There was hardly a moment to reflect, though, for the spider was coming for her. There was a fist of fear inside her gut, and she could not steady her knives. Praise the Kings, she still had them, though. Only a spider. Only a spider, she chanted as though that could shrink the creature or her horror. Then came the chattering. It crept into her ears like a spider all its own, and she knew this was but one of many monsters in the dark. It took everything she had not to scream.