Valentine’s Day is nearly over but there’s still time to share a little love . . . Below is a sneak peek from The Dawning which will be released in April. Enjoy!
“Solomon, take this, hide it! Hurry now – hide it!”
Rathan’s urgent whisper was accompanied by the thrusting of a compact, leather-bound book into Solomon’s chest. “It is for no-one but you – protect it with your life. Hide it – hide it!”
Solomon grabbed the book, clumsily securing it as he continued to crouch low on the debris-strewn floor of the cathedral balcony. “Protect it?” he immediately asked. “Why, what does it contain?”
“Hide it!” Rathan demanded in reply.
Solomon snapped his stare from Rathan’s unusually anxious face in order to hurriedly find a nook in to which he could obediently conceal the book. “Why?” he whispered again, twisting sideways to see if the destruction behind him held a suitable hollow. “What’s so important about this book?” No fitting burrow appeared to be at his back and he leaned further sideways, lowering himself onto his elbows as he strained to squint amongst the levelled pews scattered on the floor beside him. “This probably isn’t the most appropriate place to hide something,” he warned in a low mutter, “the cathedral is falling down around our ears.”
Feeling suddenly frustrated by Rathan’s irrational need to hide a simple book amongst the chaos erupting around them Solomon shunted himself back into a sitting position. “There’s no safe place, I can’t -.” The words came to an abrupt end as he turned to see an empty space. Rathan had vanished just as suddenly as he had appeared.
“Now, you plebeians, let us witness who holds the most power, shall we!?”
The insult boomed throughout the majestic cathedral wrenching Solomon’s attention back to why he was ducking low in the choir balcony. Lorcan’s challenge echoed tauntingly around him, the soaring, domed ceiling bowling the challenge into every crevice, jarring the foundations below and rattling the stained glass windows above. What fragments of glass remained lost their tentative hold on the buckled lead, showering a shattered rainbow onto the empty pews below, dozens of which had already been reduced to splinters.
“Come and face me, Higher Council!” Lorcan goaded, striding the length of the broad altar, “It is time Adorned learned just how weak their precious leaders are!”
Solomon continued to clutch the book to his chest, watching as Lorcan came to stand in the centre of the altar, his shoulders back and his chest puffed out. Did he know that he was wasting his breath? Not a single member of the Higher Council was going to respond to the battle invitation. Rathan, Axel, Kane, Clarissa and Lara were gathered somewhere in the Cathedral below, Lorcan’s crude demonstrations of power probably not even vaguely distracting them as they patiently waited.
Vexation dared Solomon to shuffle forwards and peer down through the crumbling marble balustrade to see if he could guess where they might be hiding. He knew his five leaders were safe but his suspicion about Rathan’s order that had him hiding in a separate location was growing. Why at this last hour did Rathan want him sequestered? Rathan had never demonstrated concern for Solomon’s safety before. Yes, defeating the Supremacy had wholly consumed his life for the last few months and, true, he wanted nothing more than to participate in the Council’s strategy to bring an end to Lorcan’s malignant faction, but it wasn’t a desire that had blinded him to reason. Did Rathan not trust him?
Maintaining his hold of the mysterious book Solomon ducked as another holler from Lorcan sent a fire-ball roaring through the air. The blazing sphere blasted against the wall behind him, snapping him into a tighter protective huddle as burning debris showered down. Remaining on the balcony for much longer would be madness he decided, Rathan’s order would have to be disobeyed. Peeking out from behind his arm he squinted towards the opening of the staircase he had clambered up earlier. Was it still passable he wondered and if he moved, could he do so without revealing himself?
Lorcan’s followers were gathered behind their zealous leader on the altar in direct line with where Solomon hid. Every genre of Adorned was represented amongst the huddled groups; he could see sorcerers, healers, witches and even faeries lingering at the edges of the cluster. There were more in the tight huddle, in fact, all the races endowed with supernatural abilities were represented – with the exception of one; shape-shifters were noticeably absent. Lorcan’s plans for domination did not include the breed of Adorned he utterly despised.
Solomon blinked his gritty eyes and set the book onto his knees. The smoky atmosphere was blurring his view of the altar and the dissenting Adorned who only months previously had been living peacefully amongst their fellow kind. The Adorned world had been spun into turmoil by Lorcan’s scheming. Hundreds had died. Former friends and families had become embroiled in a vicious war, their supernatural capabilities causing pain and destruction on a level that had never been witnessed before, and yet, as he dabbed his sleeve against his watering eyes, there was a sense of apprehension amongst the men and women shouting a sporadic cry of rebellion. Perhaps they knew their fate had been sealed the moment that they had stepped up to join Lorcan. It was one thing to verbally contest the Higher Council for leadership but another to physically challenge them, and their cowering clusters suggested that they were not as confident as their months of anarchic proclamations had declared.
The ground beneath Solomon shifted with a sudden jerk. Instinctively he threw out his hands as if to grab and steady the tilting floor. Rathan’s book tumbled from his knees but he paid it no heed as he scrambled backwards and clung to one of the sturdy wooden organ legs. The massive instrument gave a deep groan and from somewhere inside its complex wooden structure he heard the ominous crack of splintering wood. The balcony stilled. For a long moment he did too and when it became apparent that the structure was not going to immediately plunge him far below he cautiously loosened his grip.
A few inches beyond his feet the book lay discarded, a chalky grey smudge marring its honey-toned cover. Lorcan’s theatrics continued to flash and smoke but the echo of Rathan’s anxious insistency that the book be protected still reverberated in Solomon’s ears. “Protect it with your life,” he reminded himself and immediately stretched out his leg in an attempt to hook the book with the tip of his shoe. His confined position made it an awkward manoeuvre but the book allowed itself to be slowly dragged closer and once within his reach he snatched it up and single-handedly clutched it to his chest again. It was time to move, and from where he was now huddled it appeared that the upper portion of the staircase was clear. So too, however, was the space he needed to cross to get to the staircase. When the balcony had lurched the pews at its front had slid sideways. Moving two feet to his right would now place him in direct view of Lorcan.
Glancing between the altar and the exposed stretch of balcony Solomon repositioned the book in his arm. Physically, it was not cumbersome; he could easily hold it under one arm while using the sleeve of his other to muffle the coughs scratching at his throat, but mentally, the unassuming object had his mind prodding him with the same question: What does it contain?
Forcing the thought aside he contemplated his chances of being seen if he crawled across the floor on his hands and knees. Perhaps sliding on his belly would be better. What does it contain? Why is it so important? “Not now,” he muttered, shifting the book irritably. “Now is not the time.” One of the re-positioned pews was still within reach. If he was to very slowly drag it to the right it was entirely possible that the minute movement would not be noticed from the altar. What does it contain? Solomon slid lower, stretching out his foot towards the edge of the pew. Sharp-edged debris bit into his calf but he ignored the pain as he strained to hook the tip of his shoe around the stumpy wooden leg of the pew. Shifting lower to gain more leverage the corner of the book dug into his chin. What does it contain? He tested the weight of the pew. It didn’t move. Gritting his teeth he quickly placed the book on the floor beside him, slid lower, and then balanced more weight onto his elbows. Again he tried to pull the leg of the pew towards him. Again it remained still. It was stuck fast.
Solomon remained in the strained position for another moment before cautiously sliding upright again. A fire had started somewhere below and the crackle of burning wood had begun to echo around him. Lorcan’s taunts continued to echo too, although there was an edge of impatience to them now. Impatience leads to carelessness, Solomon reminded himself. An impatient sorcerer is a dangerous one.
What does it contain? Solomon allowed himself an exasperated sigh as the question poked at him again. He pinched the bridge of his nose and then plucked the book off the floor. What does it contain? Placing the book squarely on his lap he gripped it with tight determination before gently wiping the smudge of grit off its front. A thin panel of carved wood was set into the smooth leather casing. It shone with a rich mahogany glow that his fingers ached to appreciate. His eyes ached with a greater want. What is inside? What is so special about this book? “This really is not the time or place to lose focus,” he told himself but even as he aimed a resolute stare in Lorcan’s direction the questions prodded again. Why is it so important? What is inside? Why all the secrecy? “Curiosity killed the Causticnor,” he reminded himself. “Don’t be a fool.”
Once, uncountable years previously, Solomon had rushed a summoning in his eagerness to see a Causticnor demon for the first time. The diminutive, slug-like demons were the only one of their kind that Rathan, at that stage of Solomon’s training, was prepared to bring into their classroom. Solomon’s neglectful haste summoned the docile demon, but it arrived in a violent blur of dense fog and glutinous slime – stone dead. Causticnor demons are favoured for their usefulness as missiles by larger demons. When projected with force they explode on impact causing their acidic innards to spew in every direction and dissolve whatever they splatter against in a hissing, spitting second. Solomon’s dead demon caused such damage and Rathan had been quick to compare the Causticnor’s destructive acid to Solomon’s curiosity as they watched it digest their surroundings. Now, at that moment, as he slumped against the organ, the book pleading for attention on his lap, he could feel the acidic bite of his curiosity eating away at his reasoning.
What does it contain? What does it contain? A brief glance was all he needed, a swift peek. Concentrating on anything else but the damned book had become impossible. Shoving images of liquefaction aside he pursed his lips together and flipped over the front cover.
Humour was not an emotion that Solomon could ever associate with the Higher Council but the pages before him led him to think that Rathan was playing some sort of bizarre joke. He thumbed irritably through the freshly-bound parchments and then slammed the book shut. Every single page was blank. Why would Rathan be so desperate for him to hide and protect an empty book?
Too angered to dwell on the question he threw it onto the floor and sagged back against the battered organ. He was now at a complete loss as to why Rathan had him secreted on a crumbling balcony with an empty book. He had never, ever questioned Rathan before, but this . . .
Muttering his annoyance, Solomon let his head fall back and stared upwards. The mangled pipes of the organ loomed over his head, the force of magical destruction having twisted the long metal cylinders into odd angles that reminded him of spiders’ legs. One of the pipes was only inches above him. It had split wide open and, despite his reluctance, he knew what he had to do. With a tight sigh he picked up the book and shoved it into the gaping space. A short spell then soldered the toothed ends shut. Once the Supremacy was destroyed he would return for Rathan’s mysterious book and ask Rathan himself what he meant by placing the empty volume into his care.
The posturing on the altar had gained intensity. Lorcan was now standing on the altar table itself, his arms spread wide as he prepared for another performance. His calls for retaliation continued to remain unheeded, although Solomon knew that it would not stay that way for much longer. The Higher Council would not engage with Lorcan until the outside of the cathedral was secure and judging by the faint shimmer seeping through the glassless windows the spell was nearly complete.
Beyond the walls of the cathedral battle-ground was the First Realm. It was the most advanced of the ten Realms that existed. Nine of the ten Realms were inhabited by both Adorned and Unadorned but to Unadorned, regardless of where they lived, they believed it was the ‘Real World’. Lorcan’s campaign had resulted in hundreds of Unadorned witnessing clashes that had many suddenly questioning if childhood tales of witches and wizards were more than just fanciful fables. It had left Solomon and the Higher Council with the grim task of wiping the memories of those who had glimpsed the truth. ‘Real world’ science would never fully unravel the mysteries of the supernatural but if even part of the truth about the Adorned world were to be discovered the delicate balance that had existed since the beginning of time would be threatened. To protect both worlds, the Higher Council had ordered their newly-instated deputies, the Brethren, to weave a complex cloaking spell around the exterior of the Cathedral. Once the stately building appeared at peace to the eyes and ears of Unadorned the battle would begin.
“You hide like frightened animals!” Lorcan’s roar preceded another fire-ball and Solomon wondered if his presence had been sensed as the flaming globe hurtled towards him again. Cowering under his arms he felt the impact of the missile to the left of the balcony. The force jarred his surroundings and the balcony shifted again, its front tipping dangerously lower as if the entire structure was hinged to the back wall and was now ready to snap free. Gravity yanked the pews hiding Solomon forwards too and in a panic to stay hidden he threw himself onto his front, pressing his body hard against the floor to make himself as flat and invisible as possible. The middle section of the cathedral was now ablaze and the towering columns that supported the weight of the roof were trembling. The massive cylindrical sections stacked from floor to ceiling were grinding under the pressure and Solomon’s eyes widened as he saw the warning streams of powdered marble spilling down their lengths. Lorcan threw another blast and from somewhere below an unmerciful explosion boomed out. “Your hesitation to face me is a declaration of your fear!” Lorcan hollered, another sweep of his hand gathering the hundreds of ruined pews stretching before him into a rising wave. “I demand you face me, Higher Council. Let us put your immortality to the test!” The timber wave swelled along the length of the cathedral, pew after pew being gathered in its current before it crashed against the end wall in a thunderous hail of cracking wood. Under protection of the dust cloud that billowed up in its wake Solomon scrambled towards the stairwell. Smoke and dust watered his vision as he stumbled down the tightly curved steps and when he broke free of the dimness, his breath choked with grit, he was startled to see the Higher Council gathered in the portico.
They were not alone. Four Brethren stood with them, along with another group, none of whom Solomon recognized.
“Solomon.” Clarissa held out a slim hand and beckoned him to join them with a questioning frown. Axel, Kane and Lara turned to him with the same expression. It seemed that Rathan had been the only one who knew of his whereabouts and the tight line of his mouth indicated that he was not pleased his order had been defied.
Feeling anything but remorseful, Solomon clambered over a mound of wreckage to join them, briefly registering the quivering air that filled the open door space leading from the portico to the main body of the cathedral. The protective shield was hiding them from Lorcan’s view as he continued to holler and act out for their attention.
Solomon turned his attention back to the Council. Despite the severity of the situation, they maintained their customary composure; even Kane’s wandering gaze suggested that he was already thoroughly bored. Rathan however, was not. He hovered at a distance from the group, his eyes darting nervously to the frescoed ceiling above them, his hands twisting agitatedly in the deep sleeves of his robe.
“A large group of Adorned have gathered outside, Solomon.” Clarissa’s feathery voice forced him to push his sense of sudden disquiet aside. “They wish to join with us in battle.”
“This fight is between us and the Supremacy,” he replied, aware that the brave group before him and on the opposite side of the firmly shut entrance doors would be no match for Lorcan.
“But we can help,” one blonde-haired man spoke up. “The Supremacy threaten us as much as you. Do you think we want that lunatic governing us?”
“We are prepared to face losses,” another declared gravely. As he spoke, a young boy poked his head out from where he had been hiding behind the man. His solemn gaze lingered on Solomon for a long moment before he pressed his face back into his father’s side.
“Too much has already been lost,” Solomon reminded him.
“It is not safe for you to be here,” Axel agreed, motioning towards the altar. “Lorcan and his followers are too powerful for you.”
“Enough now, come, come.” Rathan spread his arms to gather the small group, the sleeves of his robes stirring the dust laden air as he jostled them towards the door. The impatience that vibrated through him suggested that the debate had already delayed the Council’s plan far too long. “We will take care of this. You must go outside,” he urged.
Solomon crossed to the grand cathedral entrance doors and began to drag aside the thick cylinder bolting the doors shut.
“You too, Solomon, I want you outside also,” Rathan said. The unexpected announcement stilled Solomon’s hands. He drew a breath to suppress the anger he knew his voice would carry but was interrupted before he could speak by the blonde-haired man brushing off Rathan’s guiding hands with a violent gesture. “But we can distract them,” he insisted, jabbing a finger towards Lorcan’s motley crew. “If we shift into birds we could divert their attention. Then you could -.”
“They would kill you in seconds,” Clarissa cut across him. “Too many of you have already perished.”
“But can’t we at least -.”
Rathan silenced him by shouldering his way into the middle of the small group. “This discussion is over!” he snapped. “We have already wasted too many precious minutes on it. You must move from here,” he ordered, frantically shoving them towards the doors. “Come now, please. There is very little time!”
The uncharacteristic anxiety in his voice sparked a sequence of concerned glances between the other Council members as Rathan pushed and nudged the men forward. He grasped agitatedly at the young boy causing the father to protectively pull his son closer.
“Brother?” Axel reached out to rest a calming hand on Rathan’s flailing arm. It was shrugged off immediately and once again Rathan threw a nervous glance above their heads. “You must move now, there is no time,” he repeated, stepping towards the father and son again. This time the boy whimpered and grabbed his father’s hand, tugging it hard as he tried to pull him towards the doors himself. The father resisted the pull easily. “We’re strong enough to fight with you, why can’t you see that?” he questioned angrily, snatching his hand away from his son’s reach. The boy stumbled backwards and collided with Solomon’s legs. “Why won’t you listen to us? Eh? That’s been the problem all along, hasn’t it? You just won’t listen! Our families – our children – all of us, we’re all under threat! Why can’t you see that?”
Solomon had steadied the boy and was now resting his hands on his slight shoulders. “Just as you want your son protected, so we want you protected,” he said, and then addressing the small group he made a point of lifting the boy’s hand and holding it out for his father to take. “You must all leave. We are truly grateful for your offer of help but this battle is for the Higher Council to contest.”
The boy’s father ignored the small hand being held towards him. “The Higher Council,” he snarled, bitterness twisting his mouth as he gestured angrily towards the five figures standing amongst them. “They’re the very reason we’re in this situation to begin with. They ignored us when we approached them for help, they treated us like second class citizens!” He turned from Solomon to glare at each of the Council members. “You’re no better than that damned Supremacy lot the way you regard us Shifters. If you had listened to us instead of -.”
“No-one will ever want to listen to what shifters have to say,” a voice suddenly cut in. “The sooner you and your wretched kind come to understand that the better our world will be.” Lorcan’s mocking laugh trailed after the declaration, except this time, neither the laugh nor the words had echoed from the safe distance of the altar stage. The door space that had previously shimmered under the protection of the shield was now filled with Lorcan’s towering frame. “So . . . here you all are,” he smirked.
In the years that followed Solomon would never be able to recall with much clarity the events that filled the ensuing moments. He would never be able to explain how he and the boy became separated from the rest of the group or how they became safely entombed when the ceiling Rathan had seemed so preoccupied with collapsed upon them. He would only ever remember the suffocating darkness and the whimpering cries of the boy who he learned during those dark hours was called Devyn. All else was lost to him. Shrouded in the fallen cathedral he was deaf to the sounds of battle and blind to the deaths of numerous Adorned – including the boy’s father. When the chunks of debris were finally lifted by the Council he staggered to his feet with Devyn cradled in his arms to see the interior of the cathedral lying in ruins. The Supremacy had also been destroyed.
It was many nights later before Solomon had been able to safely return to the cathedral for Rathan’s book and it had taken hours of searching in ashen moonlight before he had found the organ pipe buried amongst the rubble. The book had suffered no damage. He hunkered amongst the destruction, blowing a sheet of dust off the front cover before opening it once again, cursing Rathan afresh for his ludicrous request to have an empty book hidden.
Solomon’s mutters fell silent as the book parted in his hands and he saw that the first two pages were no longer blank.
Rathan’s elongated hand was immediately recognizable to him. The familiar print completely covered the sheets, neat in some sections, scrawled and blotted in others. Numerous symbols punctuated the short passages, most of which he did not recognize, his bewilderment compounding even further when he saw the ribbon of ancient cyphers bordering the pages.
Solomon could not comprehend what he was looking at. All he knew was that Rathan had a secret, a secret that he had trusted only Solomon with, and a secret that Solomon would have to uncover alone. The answers to the riddles on the pages would never be revealed to Solomon by its maker. Rathan was dead.