Beyond the Veil: Book One (Beyond the Veil Series 1)

Written by Charity Becker

Published by Blysster Press http://blysster.com/store/store/beyond-the-veil-book-one-print/

From the back:

When the dark riders come, death always follows. There is no escape, for they have no mercy. For thousands of years, this has been the only truth for the people of Ahwn.

However, the soldiers of Brynn have not given up. The prophecies tell of a great journey across the world and through the Sleeping Grounds, a land of magic and mystery from which no one has ever returned. The prize: a legendary weapon of immeasurable power. The only weapon strong enough to tip the scales in their centuries-long war. Whoever wields the weapon first, wins.

But countless lives have been lost in the search, because the final key was never found. . . until now.

When the dark riders raid her peaceful village, slaughter her family, and enslave her, Lilly, a sheltered young woman who knows nothing of the outside world, must fight for her life. Amid lies and deceit, death and magic, Lilly must pick a champion, knowing that if she chooses wrong, Ahwn will pay the ultimate price.

Read on for a sneak peek!

 

Beyond the Veil

Book One

 

Set in Motion

~~

The dark riders turned west at the base of the Drakespine Mountains, the screams of their latest victims ringing in their ears. With their eyes fixed on the last glow of the sun slipping to shadow, they pushed their horses harder, clenching their teeth in anticipation of the days to come.

Far to the west, in the Sleeping Grounds, their treasure awaited, calling to them from across the land. This was their purpose. This was their destiny. Any who dared stand in their way would perish like the rest. They had their orders; they must not fail.

Stone-faced and determined, the riders pressed on into the darkening night, their hearts keeping pace with the pounding of their horses’ hooves.

~~

Lilly donned a light robe on her way out into the meadow. Long grass caressed her bare feet, brushing her ankles with each step toward the far end of town. The glade was peaceful this morning; the air was still and the sun had just peeked over the horizon, bringing a golden warmth to everything it touched.

Everyone was still asleep in her village, so she made sure to slip out unheard. She tiptoed past the small houses, listening to her neighbors snoring and shifting in their beds, a mischievous smile tugging the corners of her mouth. When she came to the main barn, the aroma of freshly cut hay tickled her nose. She stopped in the doorway, one hand against the wall. Briefly, she considered climbing to the top of the loft and jumping into the fluffy, deep piles before anyone else got a chance to. But Lilly had things to do today, important things, so as she walked away, she promised herself she’d come back later.

She passed the lake, admiring the picture of the early morning sky reflecting off the glassy surface. The sight of the still water tempted her to dip her finger in so she could watch the image ripple and change at her command. However, she resisted the urge and moved past with a sigh and another promise to herself to return later today and indulge in her favorite games. After the adventure this morning, she’d deserve a little fun time.

Everything was so serene, so perfect, almost as if a secret somebody had painted the glade onto the canvas of the world just before she woke. Had she risen just moments earlier, she may have caught the artist as they put the finishing touches on their masterpiece.

Despite the beauty of the morning, a shadow of uneasiness crept over Lilly as she stepped closer to the trees. Nothing moved in the woods ahead. While it wasn’t unusual for her glade to be still and quiet this early in the day, the forest itself should be alive with sounds and movement. Birds should be singing and fluttering in the trees, families of frillion should be stepping through the brush to drink at the lake, small creatures should be scampering along the trails and darting under bushes, crackling the leaves as they fled. But ahead, there was only silence, a soft stillness to the air.

Touched by a sudden chill wind, Lilly shuddered. Though she was sure she felt the breeze, the leaves in the trees remained still, the grass didn’t sway, and her fiery curls lay at rest against her body, tumbling down her back and brushing the backs of her knees. Glancing over her shoulder, toward her house, she dismissed her imagination with a wave of her hand, and then hurried to the edge of the clearing before Mother awoke and stopped her.

Reaching the first old oak guarding the glade, Lilly placed a hand upon the rough bark and peered around the tree into the Fae Forest. Any child would have been frightened at the sight before her: moss-covered branches hanging from limbs high above, like skeletal fingers reaching out to grab her; deep shadows between each trunk, hiding their dark secrets; layers of dead, dry leaves and broken branches scattered around the forest floor like weathered old bones. But Lilly was no longer a child. Unlike the others in her village, the stories had never scared her. Monsters and specters weren’t lurking in the woods waiting to pounce. No curses or dark magic dwelt here in the cool space under the canopy. And the namesake of the forest itself? The Fae? They certainly didn’t exist.

Even as she reminded herself of these things, her heart raced and she held her breath, listening to the silence ahead for any unnatural giggling or clacking teeth.

Nonsense, she thought, squinting into the shadows.

Proving herself an adult was the whole reason for this secret trip into the woods so early this morning; she couldn’t turn back now. Everyone in the village treated her like a baby, coddling and sheltering her, and she was tired of it. She was just as capable as any other grown woman, and today she would prove that once and for all. Blowing a stray curl from her face, she took her first brave step into the forest.

~~

The dark riders stopped just outside the village nestled in a narrow clearing between the Fae Forest and the base of the mighty Drakespine. Several of the horses tossed their heads and fidgeted, their hot breath misting in the crisp air, steam emanating from their bodies with a soft hiss. The leader surveyed the sky, then the surrounding area, and finally settled his eyes on the nearest squat house. Smoke rose from the crooked stone chimney in uneven spirals, joining the smoke from the other houses to form a soft gray blanket above the village.

Drawing a breath, the leader savored the smell of eggs and fresh rolls traveling on the wind. He imagined a plump farm wife pouring cups of honey-milk for her family while breakfast finished cooking, blissfully unaware of the fate in store for them. His soot-black steed stamped its hooves, stepping back and forth impatiently, tugging at its reigns and grunting, reminding its rider of the duty at hand.

Thoughts of this happy town and its simple people living their lives in complete ignorance made the leader’s lip curl beneath his helm. Someone should teach them what life was really like. Teach them that living your whole lives here in this tiny village so far from everyone else wouldn’t save you from reality.

Without a word, the leader raised his sword to the sky, brought it down, and leveled it toward the first sleepy house. At his silent command, his riders burst forward with such force, the ground seemed to fold behind them, rippling like cloth as their horses sprang into motion.

In a flash of metal and fire, the peaceful scene vanished and the town was bathed in blood and flames. Violent war cries echoed off the mountains, mingling with startled shouts and the ring of steel on steel. The riders shattered the flimsy wooden doors and tossed torches inside each home, forcing the occupants to flee into the cold of the morning, many still dressed in their nightclothes. Sneering, the riders sliced deep into the flesh of the first people to emerge. Howls of pain sent a chilling warning to the villagers at the back of the town.

A warning that had come far too late.

The farthest houses yawned to life. People peeked through their doors or moved their curtains aside to locate the source of the commotion. Curiosity turned to horror as they watched their neighbors being ripped apart and thrown to the ground like discarded dolls, blood pooling beneath the still bodies, splattering the sparse snow in crimson drops. Massive steeds reared up and stomped the struggling bodies of the fallen villagers into the ground, crushing the last bits of life from them. Panic jolted the remaining villagers into action when they realized the dark riders were coming for them, too.

A young mother dragged her three children out of her home and toward the safety of the trees, shushing her squalling infant as she ran. However, she didn’t get far before arrows from the mounted archers zinged through the air and brought down their tiny victims, each with a single merciless shot.

As the wave of death washed over the last house in the village and the final echo of a baby’s cry dissipated into the still air, an eerie silence fell over the town. The leader of the murderous pack cracked a smile, his thoughts turning, once again, to that delicious meal waiting for him in the first house.

He dismounted and walked among the bodies, kicking at each one he passed, stepping over the warm, red rivulets snaking through the dirt and snow. Impressed with his army’s work this day, he nodded his approval to each rider as he sauntered by. Inhaling deeply at the door of the first house, he savored the mingled aroma of fresh baked rolls and newly spilled blood.

Meeting

~~

This isn’t so bad, Lilly thought.

Ahead, the path coiled around the partially exposed roots of an ancient tree and out of sight. Soft, loose soil covered the ground, cool and damp between her toes. She stopped to draw a face in the dirt with her big toe, smiled at her work, then strolled on. Dried leaves seemed to fall constantly from the limbs overhead and land whisper-soft on the trail; Lilly delighted in their sound when she stepped on them, and she made sure to crunch each one she came upon with a dainty pounce and giggle. Occasionally, the trail became quite narrow and Lilly brushed against the moss and overgrown ivy clinging to the trunks of the big trees. She bent to sniff the aromatic foliage as she passed, fingering the delicate white petals of the diminutive flowers there.

It was beautiful here, there was no doubt about that, but Lilly worried. She didn’t hear any of the sounds she’d expected and she didn’t see any of the creatures she’d hoped to get a glimpse of. Though she had never been this deep in the forest before, Mother had told her about her own trips through it and some of what Lilly would find when she was old enough to venture into the woods herself.

When she was young, Lilly would sit in Mother’s lap and twirl the woman’s sparkling silver necklace around her small fingers and listen to stories of the woods. She didn’t believe Mother’s fairy tales about magical creatures or lost little children, but Lilly had always loved to hear what the forest looked like deep within the labyrinth of trees and brush and shadows. A forest filled with sounds and movement, the vibration of life touching your skin, beautiful plants you could only find in the deepest parts. That’s what she’d expected to find, not this silent, lifeless place. Mother said the woods were always full of sounds and movement and life.

But not today. Not for Lilly.

She frowned, peering deeper into the woods.

Only a little while had passed and she was sure she hadn’t traveled too far in. Already, the newness of the forest had worn off, replaced now by this nagging feeling that things weren’t quite right. The Fae Forest quickly turned from enchanting to menacing. With each passing breath she could feel her chest tighten and her fists clench a bit harder, a nervous lump forming in her throat.

Lilly peered around another wide trunk and saw a low-hung branch drooped across the path ahead, its dangling branches and leaves brushing the ground beneath it. There was no other way to go. If she went back the way she’d come, she would end up back in her village. There were no trails branching off the main path and she knew these trails led all the way through the woods, right to the mountains to the north; Mother had said so. The path must continue on the other side of that limb. But the limb was so menacing laying across her path, warning her not to go farther.

Don’t be silly; it’s just a tree branch!

Ducking under the bough of the bent, old tree, and pushing the hanging branches aside, she found herself in a clearing just barely the size of a cottage. No trees grew here so the sun shone through the hole in the canopy, filling the space with a bright, warming light. It was a cloudless sky, hinting at the promise of a bright and sunny day ahead. Perhaps a day warm enough to play in the lake when Lilly returned home.

All around the clearing, small purple flowers opened and closed in steady rhythm, drinking in the shimmering rays of the sun. They completely obscured the soil beneath them, making the forest floor appear to be alive and breathing—a large purple beast slumbering in the quiet of the woods. Lilly immediately recognized these as the medicinal flowers Mother used to make elixirs and powders to heal the people of her village—and as the goal of her forbidden trip this morning. If Mother knew she was out here all alone. . . But bringing back some of these precious plants would surely prove there was nothing to fear in the forest. If Lilly could get them, anyone could!

Peaceful as it was here, and as fascinated as she was by the pulsing flowers under her feet, troubled thoughts crept over her brain once again as she gazed up at the open sky. Although the glade had been quiet when she’d left it, the unnatural silence here within the woods seemed deeper, more sinister, like all the sound—and life—had been sucked out of the forest, out of the whole world.

With a furrowed brow and all her worries now pressing down on her, she bent to collect the flowers. A quick harvest—just a handful would do—and then a speedy return to the safety of her home, and she could put all this nonsense behind her. No monsters, no sprites, no spirits to whisk her away. She’d prove Mother’s stories as just that. Stories. And in the process, she’d prove that she was an adult.

When Lilly bent and touched the silken petals of the first flower, the air around her grew cold and it felt as if the ground melted away from beneath her. Bracing herself with one hand on the ground, she closed her eyes against the dizziness as her belly seemed to drop to her feet. When the lightheadedness passed, she opened her eyes again, but soon wished she hadn’t. It was growing darker; black clouds moved across the sky at an unnatural speed, blocking out the sun. The darkness made the trees appear to close in around her, sealing her in the clearing. The flowers were gone, leaving only bare ground and clouds of dust as Lilly turned around in her spot.

Fighting her growing fear, she attempted to reason with herself; Mother once told her that the flowers in the forest pulled back into the ground when the sun set.

That must be it. There’s always a reasonable explanation for things, if you can stay calm enough to think of one.

However, her thoughts did little to soothe her nerves now for she knew it was still early morning; the sun should be moving higher, not lower, and just moments ago the sky had been a flawless blue without a single cloud in sight.

With a shaking step forward, she strained to see through the deepening shadows to find the low limb she had ducked under. A whimper of desperation and her panic grew when she realized the limb had disappeared—and her trail with it.

No, she thought. You spun yourself around so much in your panic, you’ve forgotten your way! Stupid!

Whether the trail had disappeared on its own or the fault lay with Lilly herself, it didn’t much matter. If she couldn’t locate the large bough, she’d never know which way was home. Letting her imagination carry her away now and completely losing herself to her fear, she heard whispers, rustling leaves from above, a menacing spectral voice surrounding her, and she felt icy fingers scraping the flesh of her arms.

No longer did the ground feel dry and firm. She glanced down and was horrified to find a shallow pool of warm, dark liquid seeping up from the soil, oozing between her toes and under her neatly trimmed toenails. A metallic, coppery scent assailed her nostrils. Lilly retched once when she realized it was fresh blood seeping from the ground, and she averted her eyes, frantically seeking a place to run.

With both hands clamped tightly over her mouth, she stifled a scream and a second wave of sickness. Panic-stricken, she fled the clearing, bolting into the gloomy forest beyond with no attention to direction or speed. There was no trail to follow so she tore through the vines and fought her way through the dense bushes. Branches snagged and pulled at her gossamer robe and whipped her face, stinging her skin. Her feet ached with each step, as sharp rocks pressed into her bare soles. Brambles and vines seemed to come from nowhere to trip her up, scratching and tangling around her ankles. It was as if the forest itself tried to stop her from leaving.

Then it came over her. The awful feeling that someone—or something—was watching her, following her every move, inches behind, reaching to grab her hair and drag her back into the woods. Another surge of panic and her heart raced faster, pounding in her ears and climbing into her throat. Without slowing, without thinking, she turned her head to get a glimpse of her pursuer.

A sudden, sharp pain, bright sparks before her eyes, and Lilly’s world went black.

~~

Out of the forest came this sliver of a girl crashing into him with a dull thud. Taken so off guard, he nearly drew his sword and sliced her in two. Had he not seen her, he doubted he would have even felt her through his thick armor, she was so small. The nymph crumpled to the ground, knocked out cold, a knot already forming on her right temple.

Removing his hand from the hilt of his weapon, he bent to inspect this surprise visitor. Her head had collided with his mid-chest leaving a single strand of glossy, red hair stuck to the engraved emblem on his breastplate. He knocked the hair away and tipped his head to get a better look at the girl. Long curls spilled out around her like a scarlet river as she lay on the ground at his feet. Beyond her delicate features and pale skin, one thing stood out the most: an elaborate gray pattern swirling across both slender shoulders and her upper back.

A thin veil of a robe was all she wore; leaves and mud clung to the edges, and it was torn in ragged strips all along the sleeves and front. Kneeling by her side, he reached out and pulled the back of her robe down. Touching her shoulder, he noted her surprisingly cool skin, even through his warm armor. He traced the gray mark with his black-gloved finger. It swept across her shoulders, up and down, swirling in circles and curves, never a straight line.

Closer now, he realized she wasn’t a child at all. Small as she was, she appeared to be a young woman. He turned her over for a better look. Cupping the back of her head in his hand, he imagined how easily he could snap her frail neck. He leaned in closer still, inhaled near her face, still holding her head, and closed his eyes.

Sweet cakes and flowers, spices on the wind, he thought. “I could just eat you up,” he whispered, a flourish of excitement warming him from within.

Another man came to kneel beside the young woman. He leaned in for a closer look, and after a moment, glanced to his leader and shrugged.

“Look at this,” the leader said, lifting her shoulders off the ground. “This is our clue.” Poking roughly at the girl’s shoulder, he grinned. “She ran right into us!” he said and let out a hearty laugh that shook the leaves from a nearby shrub.

He stood and gazed at his prize for a moment. A gust of strong wind swirled around his ankles and blew the girl’s long hair, covering her from head to knees with the silky locks. He sniffed the air, scanning the skies, then bent and swept the girl up into his arms. His dark hair brushed the trickling blood at the corner of her mouth as he carried her into his tent.

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