Eidolon, p.1Grace Draven
Dedicated to my father, D. W. Walker
I love you, Dad.
To my editors Lora Gasway and Mel Sanders: once again you saved me from myself.
To my intrepid beta reader Jeffe Kennedy: the wine is on me, lovely.
Thank you all.
Also by Grace Draven
When Kirgipa accepted the coveted position of second nursemaid to the youngest of the Kai heir apparent’s brood, she never imagined the role entailed consecutive days of sleep deprivation and exile to the farthest corner of the palace. The baby in her arms nuzzled her shoulder, grunting like a badger. Her small fingers twitched against Kirgipa's sleeve, thin black nails scoring marks in the fabric. Kirgipa tapped her gently on the back in steady rhythm as she paced back and forth across the room under the watchful eye of a royal guard.
The chamber housed a pallet for Kirgipa, a more luxurious bed for the baby, a chair, and a basket of supplies for feeding and changing an infant. Beyond that, it was a room spare of comfort, tucked far away from the nursery and anyone else who wanted to sleep, undisturbed by a colicky, fractious child's cries.
Kirgipa ignored the ache in her arms from holding her charge for hours and eyed the simple pallet with longing. It wasn't much protection from the hard, cold floor but after days of almost no sleep, it looked as inviting as an eiderdown mattress.
"Have you worn holes in your shoes yet?" The guard, a man she now knew as Necos, offered a sympathetic smile. As the guard assigned to day watch for Prince Harkuf's youngest child and only daughter, he kept Kirgipa company in the stretch of time when the rest of the palace slept. Mostly silent, he sometimes surprised her with inquiries into her health or brief suggestions for how to soothe the baby. Kirgipa often sneaked glances at him during the long hours, admiring the sheen of his black hair and the way muscle rippled under taut gray skin. He possessed elegant hands, his black claws neatly filed.
"Not yet, but close," she replied softly and began her hundredth, maybe thousandth circumnavigation of the chamber. "If I counted the steps I've tread across this floor, I suspect I could have walked to Saggara and back."
Times such as these, when her eyes were scratchy as dried thistle and her lids heavy as stones, she wished she had accompanied the royal family’s young prince Brishen and his entourage to the garrison of Saggara months earlier. Instead, she'd chosen to stay behind in Haradis. Her short tenure as second maid to the prince’s human wife had aided her in capturing her current position, but this was much harder work. The human hercegesé, so different from the Kai in appearance, had been a fright to look upon but was of pleasant disposition and held to a more merciful sleep schedule.
Kirgipa idly wondered how the new princess Ildiko had adapted to her home among the Kai. Whether brave or reckless, any woman who stood up to the formidable Kai queen Secmis possessed the backbone necessary to cope and succeed in any situation.
The Kai feared Secmis—a fear beyond that of lesser nobles for a ruthless monarch. Maybe since Brishen's bride had not been Kai and unfamiliar with the queen's reputation, she hadn't understood the need for caution. Whatever had moved the hercegesé to take such risks, Kirgipa wished she had witnessed firsthand the initial confrontation between the two women.
She ran a soothing hand down the baby's back as the little one squirmed into a more comfortable position. The guard, Necos, tracked her path with his gaze as she passed in front of him once again. "This is dull duty for a soldier," she said.
He shrugged. "It is still duty, and I am bound to it." His eyes shimmered in the room's shuttered gloom. "There are worse assignments than keeping watch over the newest royal child and her pretty nurse."
His compliment surprised her, and her face heated. She lowered her head, hoping the action hid the telltale blush she suspected swathed her cheeks. Necos was a well-favored man, a decade or older than she were she to guess his age.
His position as a royal family guard denoted both fierce loyalty to his king and experience in battle. During the many days Kirgipa and her charge spent under his protective watch, she had learned he was kind but not inclined to flirtation. A compliment from Necos carried weight and meaning. Her blush burned under her skin.
She was saved from forming a witty reply by a noise rising from the palace's lower levels. The floor beneath her feet vibrated with the sound. It fell away into an absolute silence that made the fine hairs on her arms rise. She met Necos's eyes. "What was that?"
He shook his head, the easy half-smile replaced by a grimness that made her shiver almost as much as that wrong-feeling sound. Even the baby, slumbering restlessly in her arms, stilled.
The noise rose again, sly whispers like the soft chattering of aristocrats exchanging salacious gossip or the quick patter of tiny nails from vermin trapped in the walls. Her skin crawled at the second thought then nearly leapt off her bones at the sudden piercing scream that overrode the strange whispers. Another followed it, louder, tortured, as if whatever wailed convulsed in the throes of suffering beyond comprehension.
The baby startled awake with a squawk. Frozen in place by the horrific sound that swelled and tapered and swelled again outside the chamber's door, Kirgipa clutched the youngest royal and stared wide-eyed and silent at the guard.
Necos drew his sword. He threw the bolt, locking them in. Any hint of softness in his expression had vanished, and he made a sharp cutting motion with his free hand, indicating she back to the farthest corner of the room away from the door. The screaming became a chorus, resonating through the floors and the walls, punctuated by the whispers. Kirgipa's knees turned to water, and she huddled against the wall to hold herself up. Necos pressed his face to the wood, one eye squinted closed as he peered through the peep hole in the door with the other.
"Necos, open the door! Open the door!"
Kirgipa recognized the voice—Dendarah, the night guard who shared watch duty with Necos. He leapt to do her bidding, throwing back the bolt and swinging the door wide. The infant princess was now wide awake and indulging in a full, screeching tantrum. Kirgipa could hardly hear Dendarah over the cacophony.
The guard barreled into the room and skidded to a stop, pale and haggard. Her silvery hair hung in tangled locks that had escaped her braid. "Close the door and bolt it!"
Necos did as she commanded. "What's happening?"
Dendarah ignored his question, her gaze lighting on Kirgipa in her corner with the baby. "We have to get them out of here and to the river." Her hands curled into fists, and a great shudder wracked her frame. "Someone has released galla into the palace."
Kirgipa whined low in her throat and hugged the baby. Galla. Demons. Their name meant destruction in the old tongue. Necos could wield ten swords, and it wouldn't matter. Clean steel didn't kill galla.
Necos froze, turning as pale as Dendarah before resheathing his sword. "How much time do we have?" He spoke as he turned to Kirgipa's pallet and ripped the linens from th
"They've overwhelmed the entire south and east wings and the first three floors of this one." She joined Necos in stripping bedding and cutting it into long strips they knotted together into a makeshift rope.
The baby halted her crying when Kirgipa plopped her on the floor at her feet to fold and knot the blanket into a sling. "The others? The royal family? The nursery?" Her questions were rhetorical, but she asked them anyway, hoping against hope that someone had survived to escape. Sorrow warred with horror inside her. All that screaming. Men, women, children. Consumed by the galla.
Dendarah's gaze mirrored Kirgipa's turmoil. She gestured to the small child, whimpering and hiccupping at Kirgipa's feet. "Demons have overrun all the lower floors. For now, behold your new queen," she said flatly.
The screams continued, joined by the sounds of twisted revelry, of laughter bloated with malice as if something fed off the terror and the agony and found it delicious.
"Hurry," Dendarah said. She and Necos finished knotting the rope. He anchored the end to the iron shutter bar riveted below the window while Dendarah threw open the shutters to a punishing sunset that bloodied the western horizon.
Kirgipa shrugged on the makeshift sling and lifted her charge with shaking hands. Queen of the Kai. The baby settled into the sling, finally quiet and content, unaware of the abominations that boiled and frothed and consumed below them, unaware that tragedy crowned her in the role of monarch.
Necos tossed the length of rope out the window. It rippled down the outside wall, stopping short of the ground. "We'll have to drop a ways," he said. "Enough to rattle your teeth when you land, but if we're careful enough, we won't break anything."
"I've never climbed before." Kirgipa stared out the window, at the descent to the ground that seemed to go for leagues. "What if I drop the baby? What if I fall?" Her reason told her that plummeting to their deaths would be far cleaner than any death meted out by galla. Still, she didn't want to die at all, didn't want to harm the innocent who rested trustingly in the sling against her body.
Dendarah gave the rope a last yank, testing its strength and the knot Necos had made to fasten it to the bolt ring. "If you fall, one of us will catch you." She turned her attention to Necos. "How old are you?"
"Thirty and four," he said.
She nodded. "I'm forty and one. My magic is stronger. You go first and wait for the nurse. I'll follow her."
Necos nodded as if what Dendarah said made sense. Confused, Kirgipa watched as he wrapped a section of rope around his forearm and slung a leg over the windowsill. He paused. "Climb fast," he instructed both women and swung out of sight.
They leaned out the window and watched as he rappelled down the wall. Dendarah turned Kirgipa to face her and checked the knotting on the sling. "Your turn, little maid." Behind her, the sound of demonic revelry rose to a fevered pitch, drawing ever closer.
Kirgipa stared at her. "Why does it matter that your magic is stronger?"
Dendarah glanced out the window once more. "You know the tales. The galla feed on magic. I'm the more enticing meal. If they breach the door before we escape, they'll feed longer on me than they would on Necos. It will give you more time to get away." Kirgipa gasped, rendered speechless by the woman's practical courage. The guard ushered her closer to the window. "He's down. When he tells you to drop, let go of the rope. No hesitation." She helped Kirgipa across the sill, offering additional instructions for how to rappel down the wall and not injure the infant.
Her descent was harrowing, stomach-churning, and she was soaked with sweat by the time Necos called out "Let go!" She released the rope. Her stomach wedged itself into her ribs as she fell, slamming back into place when she landed solidly in Necos's arms.
He tipped her out of his hold and onto her feet and grabbed her hand. "Run!" he shouted and yanked her toward the herb gardens that surrounded the palace's western side.
Made fleet and nimble by terror, Kirgipa easily kept up, feet flying over the ground as if she'd grown wings from her heels. Her heart thundered in her chest, thundered in her ears, almost drowning out the sickening shrieks that raged behind her. Had they breached the door? Did Dendarah escape in time and raced to catch up?
She didn't dare look back at the palace, but she glimpsed movement from the corner of her eye—a blackness that writhed and clawed as it spread over the palace grounds toward the city of Haradis like a dark tide. Oh gods, the city. Her mother and sister were there. Everyone's mother and sister were there. Sons and daughters. Fathers and brothers.
"We have to warn them!" she shouted to Necos.
His iron grip on her hand made her fingers throbbed. "Someone will. Someone may already have. We must get to the river."
A stitch in her side burned, and her shoulders ached from the baby's weight as they raced the seething black tide purling toward Haradis. She almost fell once, slipping on a slick stretch of grass that reeked of decay and burned refuse. Necos clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her scream.
The slippery patch had once been a Kai. The only way Kirgipa could tell was by the single yellow eye that floated in a viscous gray puddle peppered with bone splinters and the remains of a mouth that impossibly opened and closed over and over like a fresh-caught fish gasping out its last breath.
Necos's voice shook even as he steadied her and pulled her along once more. "Don't look. Keep running."
Dry sobs rattled in her throat as she clutched the baby and sprinted alongside the guard. The river, the river, the river. The two words echoed in her mind in sync with her heartbeat.
The great Absu, born as a stream in the far Dramorin Mountains, bisected the city as it rushed toward the sea several leagues south. Its waters, deep and perilous, had broken ships and drowned sailors. Now it was the salvation of the Kai. The old tales spoke of how galla couldn't cross over flowing water, bridged or not. Kirgipa prayed the tales were true.
They reached the city outskirts, plunging into streets filled with panicked Kai. Necos was right. Someone had warned the denizens of Haradis, creating a beast made of terrified people that heaved and labored toward the Absu's banks.
Necos shoved his way through the solid wall of bodies, clearing narrow wedges of space for Kirgipa to pass. The crowd didn’t part before them. They were like the rest—ordinary folk desperate to save themselves from the boiling darkness erupting from the palace to spread across fertile fields and toward the city. The infant queen was nothing more than a baby clutched by her frightened mother and protected by her soldier father.
A cry, resonant with terror, rose above the mayhem. "THEY ARE COMING!"
All of Haradis screamed in reply, and the crowds transformed into a stampeding mob. Kirgipa shouted Necos's names as the surge wrenched her from his grasp. She held the baby close, fighting to stay on her feet as others fell around her and were trampled to death. The guard struggled against the wave of frenzied Kai to reach her but to no avail. He disappeared in the throng, swept away, as she was, toward the riverbank.
The infant queen squalled in Kirgipa's arms, her tiny features lavender from her bellows. Kirgipa rammed her elbow into the face of man who literally tried to climb her and others to walk atop the crowd. He toppled, fingers clawing her dress in an attempt to gain his balance. She stumbled, falling toward him. He grunted as she tried to kick herself free. Her skirt ripped through to the hem, snapping the tether that bound her to him. He let go of her, his plaintive calls for help silenced beneath the crush of running feet.
A powerful hand gripped the back of her shirt and shoved her forward. "Step lively, little maid. We're almost there," Dendarah said near her ear.
Were they not in the midst of a panicked herd of people with galla at their backs, Kirgipa would have turned and hugged the royal guardswoman. Instead, she doubled her efforts to reach the Absu, Dendarah beside her, doing as Necos had done-using brute strength to clear a path.
The Absu's icy waters swirlin
"Can you swim?" Dendarah asked in a voice pitched loud above the din. Kirgipa nodded. "Good. We have to cross the river. Stay as far away from others as you can. Those who can't swim will drown those who can in an effort to save themselves. You have to hold the baby so I can protect you both and help you cross."
They navigated slowly across the river, pulled by the rushing current. Kirgipa recited every prayer of deliverance and protection she learned in childhood, her teeth chattering as her sodden skirts weighed her down in the cold water. The baby rested high on her shoulder, kept dry except for the sling's trailing ends. Dendarah swam beside her, rising out of the current twice like an avenging water nymph to shove away other swimmers who drew too close.
The protected side of Haradis swelled with people—those fleeing the galla and those who patrolled the banks to help the swimmers ashore. Dendarah was helping Kirgipa to her feet when a dripping wet Necos rushed up to them and wrapped his arms around both women and the baby. All three squawked in protest until he let them go.
"I thought you were galla meat, woman," he told Dendarah, a faint smile flitting across his lips.
She didn't smile back. "Almost." Her gaze turned to the opposite shore and the twitching, gibbering darkness that had swallowed all the fields and seethed into the first streets of Haradis. "And I may well be yet."
The screams and warped laughter that had followed Kirgipa and Necos as they fled the palace echoed in the avenues and alleyways. Some of the Kai had not run fast enough or had been unable to flee. Kirgipa closed her eyes, praying her mother and sister were among those who swam across and were somewhere in the throngs of people finding sanctuary on this side of the Absu.
More people clogged the river, struggling to reach the opposite shore. Kirgipa's mouth dropped open when she caught sight of a group of Kai doing the exact opposite. Clothed in their armor and mounted on horses, they plunged into the Absu, cleaving a path to the side vulnerable to the galla.
Eidolon by Grace Draven / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes