Home > Blessed Monsters (Something Dark and Holy #3)

Blessed Monsters (Something Dark and Holy #3)
Author: Emily A. Duncan

 

prologue

 

THE BOY EATEN BY THE WOOD


This was a mistake.

Rashid was alone, in a dark forest that pried and pulled and tried its very best to rip him to pieces, and all he could think was, This was a mistake.

Don’t worry, it only wants those of us with magic, Nadya had told him, in a tone he did not want to contemplate, her gaze pinned on Malachiasz.

This was a mistake.

He had buried it deep—long abandoned, but never forgotten—that was a mistake, too. It was too late for regret. Too late to wish that he had taken a different path. When Parijahan had shaken him awake to run, he should have said no. If only he had remained ignorant to politics and its intricacies, remained what he was supposed to be: a guard and a captive, nothing more. The if onlys spread out like a spiderweb, a hundred thousand different avenues where he could have chosen differently, and he wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t be remembering what he had forced into darkness, waking it from its slumber.

He kept moving, boots crunching through underbrush, wishing he had a torch or a fancy blood mage spell to spin light into the air. He paused and grazed upon that sleeping power but pulled away.

No magic. And of no consequence. A guard and a captive and a boy from the desert who was in over his head.

If he stopped, the vines would curl around his ankles, tightening, whispering that it was better to stay. Wouldn’t he like to learn, finally, what it was that settled beneath his skin, waiting to break forth?

He slashed at a vine and kept moving. No and no and no. The trees—broad and vast as the eighteen pillars in the temple where he had been hidden away as a child—were slowly closing in. The spaces between them becoming so narrow that soon he would be trapped. Dying here would be his fate.

Rashid had wanted to die under the sun.

He flinched at a shivering underneath his skin, slithering within his forearm. He swallowed back bile as something broke forth. Green and wormlike and splitting across his arm. He blinked. A stem. Flowers burst forth, crimson and burgundy and pale violet and dripping with blood.

Rashid refused to let the whimper that had settled in his chest escape.

Crack. He whirled, coming face-to-face with a creature that he could not immediately put a name to. He didn’t know the monsters that lurked in Kalyazin’s corners, but this one was familiar. Hunched over, just shy of walking upright. Long claws tipped humanlike hands, and it walked on deerlike hooves. The head was that of a deer skull if deer had that many … teeth. Flowers, acrid and rotting and roiling with maggots, dripped from its antlers.

Oh. The word came to him.

Leshy. A forest guardian. One of Nadya’s preferred threats—to leave them all to the leshy that she claimed one of her gods commanded.

Rashid couldn’t fathom any god commanding this being. He couldn’t fathom this not being a god itself. But he had a very wobbly understanding of what the Kalyazi considered gods.

He took a step back, knocking into a tree. The openings had closed. Nowhere to run. He pressed flush against the trunk.

Words came crawling and scratching out of a throat dormant for centuries. They were strange and uncomfortable and unfathomable to him, yet they pierced deep into his core.

Escape was no longer possible.

His fate was sealed.

The forest only feeds on those with magic.

The forest would eat every single one of their doomed group before it turned on the rest of the world. Because they had set it free from its prison and it had been waiting a very long time to feed.

 

 

1

 

MALACHIASZ CZECHOWICZ


There is music at the end of the universe. Chyrnog’s songs that push like roiling worms into the brain and slowly take apart the mind. A weakening before consumption.

—The Volokhtaznikon

 

Malachiasz Czechowicz woke up in bloodstained snow. The cold of death was a needle that dug deep into bone, and he remained still, eyes closed, ice soaking into the last tatters of his clothes, until his skin warmed.

He shivered only once, as the cold from the snow became more present than that of the grave, doing his best to shove past his disorientation. Had he—?

Yes.

He had died. The last thing he had seen was Nadya, streaked with blood and tears, churning with spent power and clutching him. Then darkness, but not quiet. No peace.

He was afraid to move, afraid to disturb whatever tenuous silence had wrenched him away from the ledge. He shouldn’t be breathing.

His fingertips were blackened with what he hoped was magic and not frostbite. He let his iron claws slide back into his nail beds and nearly cried with relief that he could. He didn’t feel like himself, but he hadn’t felt like himself in a long time.

He was going to die here.

He blinked. Considered how he already had. He touched the wound at his chest. It wasn’t bleeding, but it was certainly a gaping hole that led straight to his heart.

He shouldn’t be alive.

At his edges were echoes of transcendence, and he wasn’t prepared to return to that state. Becoming a god was a bit of a lottery, he had found, and chaos was a not entirely pleasant lottery to win. As sweet as the thrill of power might have been, the pain of his bones shattering only to reform only to break free of his skin was a little too near for his taste. If he pressed out—just a bit—he could feel where he became something more. It was a series of steps before the fall, and the illusion that he was consciously in control of it was one he would like to maintain for as long as he could.

He had only killed one god.

There were many more to go.

“Well, boy.” A horrible voice slithered through the back of Malachiasz’s skull. His vision blanked out. No bleak mountainside of white and white and white. No more anything. Only darkness.

Malachiasz had known horrors. He knew the sounds of nightmares and chaos. The feeling of burning coals raked over skin, of knives under fingernails, of living shadows taking him apart and putting him back together in the wrong order. He knew pain. He knew chaos. He was chaos.

But chaos—chaos was small and rational at the foot of this.

This was all those terrors combined and wrapped into something much worse. Two words, small, insignificant, yet with them came an invisible shackle binding his wrists, a collar around his throat. A promise.

Well, Malachiasz replied, trying to be the Black Vulture and not the terrified boy. This won’t do at all.

It was the wrong move, and the voice gave a scraping laugh. A starburst of pain rattled across Malachiasz’s vision, sparking the darkness with bursts of light. He was so young before whatever had taken him.

“I am tired of mortals who think they can fight me,” the voice said. “I have been waiting a long time for you. But there will be time for that, time for everything, time for exactly what I wish. This is our introduction, you see.”

Malachiasz’s heart was pounding so hard he thought it might give up in his chest, and at least that would stop the horror.

Hard to have an introduction when I don’t know your name.

“Earn it.”

 

* * *

 

Malachiasz didn’t know how he had made it off the mountain. He was outside the strange church, every part of him aching, the forest creeping, taking, rotting within him.

He had grown used to his vision splitting every time a cluster of eyes opened on his body. He was used to his shifting chaos. But this pain was darker, and there was nothing for him to do but grit his teeth and press through it.

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