Five years ago, I created a character. In those ensuing years, she has changed my life. Hers is the story that I wanted to tell even when I was writing and publishing Mundane Magic. She is why I learned the way to self-publish, why I went into writing as a career.
And starting tomorrow, you can read her story – because Protos is entering the beta stage.
From the 1st March, all Patrons of Daydreaming Darling ($10) pledge or higher will gain access to the entire first half of the-book-current-known-as Protos. It will be available in all the (digital!) formats you could possibly need, from ePub to PDF and everything in between.
I’ve already talked about what the beta will involve, so today – to whet your appetite – I’ve got something a bit different. My lovely Patrons have already seen this, but now it’s your turn, and I’m not going to dress it up anymore.
Here, for your reading pleasure, is the first chapter of my next book.
“Put your eyes on that – in the embrace of Sycorax. It’s a portal – an island too, I think. Two shields?”
Corentine raised her hand and pointed across to the other side of the valley, careful to keep her gesture low and unseen by any save the woman at her side. The wind howled as she moved, sending its October chill rippling over them both.
“One way in, one way out. Wonderful. Well, let’s wait and see how often they change guards. Bugger me, it’s freezing. Have you got a warming charm?” Corentine shook her head, and Kalyani sighed. “I suppose it’s frostbite for us both, then.”
They drew their cloaks closer around themselves and settled down upon the ridge, watching the partially obscured cave entrance that was a few hundred feet across from them. The sun, which was beginning to reach its peak, was well into the west before the guards changed – and fully set before they changed again, which meant they would have but a few hours at most.
“There’s a tree to our right,” Kalyani said, as the third shift change approached. “We can use its roots to climb down. If we do it whilst they’re changing, they’ve no chance of seeing us.”
“We’re deep into Oberon, Kaly, they’d have a lot of treacle putting eyes on us anyway.”
“True. But you know what they say, better safe than…”
“Waving a white flag.”
“You know, I’ve always found it interesting that you conflate apology with surrender.”
“Plenty of wakers paint it in that image.”
“Fair. Here, this is the one.”
Kalyani knelt down next to the tree, which was growing out of the steep side of the valley itself, its roots open to the world as they descended down. Whether they went all the way was hard to tell, but it was not the deepest part of the valley. Tilting her head, Corentine watched it for a moment – sifting for the future where they descended with the help of the tree.
Corentine nodded; the spectral images of them made it without much issue to the bottom. “You find eels. Eyes on your marchers.”
“How reassuring,” Kalyani sighed, before swinging around to the side of the tree. She pushed slightly on the basket of her longsword, tilting it so that the tip of the scabbard was away from the tangled roots. Soon she was descending, the dark gloss of her cloak barely visible in the moonlight.
Once she was sure there was enough space, Corentine followed – making sure her hands and boots had a good enough grip on the moss-covered branches. Fortunately, the tree went almost all the way down, leaving only a ten foot drop at the end. The landing made a jolt run up her legs and into her spine, but it wasn’t painful.
“This way,” Kalyani said, pulling her hood up to obscure her face, and beginning to pick her way through the undergrowth.
It was thick in some places and sparse in others, which Corentine had come to expect from Devon. Sometimes it even managed to be both thick and sparse at the same time. Many of the bushes were the harsh, prickly sort of shrubs that made her glad she had worn clothing in the Fae style, and not the completely impractical long dresses that – whilst pretty – were becoming the Primal fashion of late.
They made a direct route across the valley, moving until they were parallel with the cavern entrance. When they were little more than thirty feet away, the two of them crouched low at the base of a tree, using its silhouette to mark their own.
“This light’s going to be a problem.”
“It gives way to Oberon at times. There’s a path within his embrace.”
“If you’re certain. I can’t see it – by the Progenitors, I hate the outdoors, give me a bloody street lamp.”
“You go in this one’s shadow. I’ll find their pair.”
Kalyani didn’t offer her a signal. It wasn’t as if she needed one.
Keeping low and moving as quietly as she could, Corentine began making a wide circle around to the other side. She moved in the shadows of trees and bushes, avoiding the places where the light from the guards’ lanterns fell, always timing her steps with the howling wind. It made it rather easy to move without their noticing, all things considered – she barely had to look to see their future glances at all.
Eventually she was around, standing but a few feet from the guard on the right hand side. She could not see Kalyani behind the other on the left, but she was certain the noblewoman was there nonetheless.
Reaching to the scabbards crossed at the small of her back, Corentine drew her daggers. They were new – a gift for her birthday, which at Kalyani’s insistence came at all manner of times, since they had no idea when it truly was. She had a suspicion that, sometimes, Kalyani would give her more than one birthday in a year. But she was hardly about to complain.
The daggers were narrow and edged on both sides, tapering to vicious points, each one with a differently ornate handle. One was dotted with gemstones of vibrant colours, arranged into a glittering mosaic depicting a street lantern, and curving to a knob in the Mughal style – the other was smooth and straight, crafted from a single piece of veined amethyst. Corentine loved them.
And as she felt Kalyani begin to move, she leapt from the shadows and plunged both of them through the gaps in the guard’s armour. The world blurred as she saw him stumble, preparing for a revenge strike – it rippled over her head in painful intent. Corentine bent her knees and ducked before it came, sliding under the guard’s mace amidst a scattering of dusty gravel.
Then, blood gurgling from his mouth, the reality of his wounds caught up with him – adrenaline wearing off as he began to fall. Corentine caught him and dragged him away from the entrance, into the bushes a reasonable distance away. Fortunately, he wasn’t large. She had never been very strong.
“You know,” Kalyani quipped as Corentine returned, her own victim already disposed of, “that’s cheating.”
“You give me those words every time I tell that story.”
“That’s because you always cheat.”
“I am just dancing the steps I’ve been taught, Kaly. Throw your words at the foot of my teacher.”
The teacher in question smirked, the expression making her dark eyes gleam in the flickering lantern light. “Shall we?”
They walked side-by-side into the cavern, which quickly became much darker and narrower – there were only lanterns every thirty feet or so, just enough to see your way by if you didn’t mind not being able to see your own boots. The tunnel wended a weaving path for quite a way before opening up, and Corentine could feel that they were descending slightly. How far underground were they going?
Where it changed, it split in three directions. Kalyani held up a hand, pulling both of them to a halt, and gestured towards the left. There was much more light coming from that direction, as well as the sound of movement. It was well into the night, but they had not expected everyone to be asleep. For a start, that would be far too lucky – and they had enough luck as it was.
But it was safe to go right or straight ahead – Corentine was certain of that. So she gently pushed her way past her partner and slunk along the darker, right hand wall, watching the room to the left carefully before sliding into the other corridor. She caught a glimpse of someone moving within a small library as she turned away.
The other corridor led a little way away before opening up into a room full of bunks – most of which were empty, and a few of which held snoring women and men. Corentine stepped forward into the darkness and paused by one of the beds, watching the sleeping cultists by what little light crept in from the corridor. They were Fae, all of them – not a single human amongst them. She tugged on Kalyani’s armour and pointed at their shimmering, metallic-hued ears.
This was a problem.
They had never actually seen any of the cult in person before. They had been tracking them since before the war had ended, but had only found traces. The Wardens had all been convinced, not unreasonably, that it was some last-ditch attempt of Napoleon’s to get revenge – as if he could do that now.
If the cult were all Fae, this made the involvement of Paris very unlikely. There were a few Fae and significantly more half-Fae in every Primal army, of course, but not enough to be notable. It was rare that the Fae condescended to travel to Primus for any considerable length of time, let alone fight in one of their wars. And yet, they were here – and not in a small number.
Corentine sighed. They were going to be dragged into so many meetings. So many interrogations with the same questions, over and over.
But the only thing worse than telling the Wardens that there might be another enemy on the horizon would be telling them that without evidence – so, careful not to wake any of the sleeping Fae, Corentine began picking her way through the easily accessible belongings. Across the room from her Kalyani did the same, reaching into an open chest at the end of one of the bunks.
She hit the jackpot on the third bedside cabinet – a letter. In small, neat Fae, the envelope read: Domitus Alfornia, Portal Site 12, Primus. Corentine turned it over, and grinned at finding a return address: Iovia Alfornia, 67 Warding Street, Artisan Quarter, Argentward, Secundus. She glanced over the contents briefly, then quickly slipped both the envelope and the letter into her pouch – there would be time to read them fully later.
Moving back into the middle of the room, she signalled to Kalyani. They made their way into the cavern at the other end of the bedroom, finding a dark point where they were well concealed, and Corentine explained what she had found.
“Joachim,” Kalyani said, the name clipped short, “is going to hate this.”
“It gives words about a door. There are no doors in Devon.”
“Portal site … mm. That doesn’t sound good. How long does it take to enchant a portal? Divines, I wish I’d paid attention in magical studies.”
“If we were a triangle, we might have a windcaller.”
Kalyani stared blankly at her through the darkness. “Not helpful, Coren.”
“It’s not a false story.”
“How long does it take to enchant a portal?”
“Twelve moons. The shapemakings have to be told many times.”
“Rituals. Of course. Let’s see if we can’t find their ritual room, then. Shall we take the quick way?”
It wasn’t really a question, judging by the expectant look on Kalyani’s face. So Corentine stepped deeper into the shadows and curled up against the wall, pulling her veil down further over her eyes. The black lace made the ever-present apparitions of past and future shift, and within moments Corentine could see through them clearly.
Out of her body stepped her future self, standing alongside Kalyani’s. From her crouch on the floor, Corentine could appreciate how different they were. Kalyani stood tall and with the bearing of a noblewoman, her chin lifted high, one hand on the hilt of her sword where it rested by her right hip.
Next to her, Corentine was shorter both in stature and bearing, her silhouette less blocky than Kalyani’s – for where the duellist wore hardened leather armour, Corentine wore softened. Both were enchanted, of course, but even enchanted armour could only help as much as its base materials allowed. You didn’t have to be an Archmage to know that.
She watched with open eyes as the two of them walked, the vision speeding up as she saw them travel through the corridors – right, then left, then right again, weaving their way through. At one point they came suddenly upon a guard, and there Corentine’s vision diverged – there were no longer two of them but four, half of them looking on in panic as the guard called for help, the other half dispatching them before they could make a sound.
Two of them were quickly overcome by cultists, whilst the other pair walked onwards into a chamber with deep engravings on the floor – and Corentine felt herself pulling out of the vision, blinking to reorient herself.
“Hey,” Kalyani murmured, her voice strangely closer. “I’ve got you.”
Corentine found that she was no longer curled up against the wall, but was standing – Kalyani was holding her in her arms. “Did I try to march?”
“Down the corridor here. Is that the right way?”
“There’s a shield who throws their voice. In one story we put them to sleep, and in the other…”
Around her, Kalyani’s arms tightened, her grip turning briefly into a hug. “It’s not real, Coren.”
“We’re not asleep yet,” she replied, the mantra drawing the tightly held breath from her lungs. “I know where they drop.”
“Then you lead, and I’ll follow.”
The corridor became better lit as they passed through it, making it harder to keep to the shadows. Right, then left, then right again – Corentine found herself taking precisely the steps she had seen but a few moments ago.
It wasn’t that the future couldn’t be changed. What she saw was the most probable future – or futures, if some were as likely as each other. Corentine was not certain if she believed in Fate, as some of the Progenitors taught. It was said that Creation told the first humans that all that would come to pass was inevitable; but others taught that the future was malleable.
Corentine had never put much stock in religion. She found it hard to trust in something she had not seen herself. Her visions – they were things that she saw. Things that she knew to be truth, even if they were not certain truth. So she trusted in her visions and her instincts, above almost all other things, save for Kalyani and the rest of the Wakeman.
Her stomach fluttered, and she stopped. Footsteps – not her own, nor Kalyani’s, for she had stopped several paces behind. Here. It was time.
Corentine drew a short, sharp breath and her daggers. When the guard stepped out into the corridor, she let the hilts go, the blades flying silently into their throat.
“Throw your voice now, Macduff.”
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