The Lily Cafe is thrilled to present author Douglas Murphy and his first novel Umbral Ten, the first book in his Khaldaia Chronicles series!
Title: Umbral Ten
Author: Douglas Murphy
Publication date: April 21, 2020
Genre: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
A blood moon rises, demons roam, and the Inquisition approaches.
Theodosia Archmail wakes up on the towers of Starkwind Monastery to find that her world has been turned upside down. Corpses litter every room; a beast that was once human roams the ruined halls; and a second, blood red moon hangs in the sky above her.
The last thing she remembers is escorting her mother and a delegation of mages to a ceremony of purely symbolic importance. Bewildered and hunted, she has no choice but to band together with five other survivors: A knight of the Ardent Church, a librarian, a secretive neophyte nun, and two mercenaries.
But there are worse troubles awaiting them. Across the sea the Blood Moon Inquisition, led by an old friend of Theo’s, has turned its eye towards the island.
The stench was overwhelming.
Jakob had come to his senses already gagging, as before he could see or hear the stink of rotting offal and mouldering blood hit his nose like a carriage slamming into him. He’d never smelled anything like it before, had barely even smelled the coppery scent of blood in his life, never even stepped foot in a butcher’s shop — and yet some primitive monkey part of his brain recognised it immediately.
While his eyes were still watering, a pair of hands had grabbed him and dragged him backwards into a tight, confined space, slamming a metal door shut so harshly that Jakob could hear it rattling in front of him. One hand clamped over his mouth.
“Shhh,” murmured a low, rumbling growl of a voice next to his ear, close enough that he could feel the speaker’s breath across his earlobe. “Don’t make a sound.”
Don’t make a sound? The command was absurd. An empty stomach was the only thing between Jakob and vomiting, as the sickly sweet smell of meat seemed to only grow stronger.
He tried to breathe. His lungs rebelled, and when he forced out a breath in one loud exhalation through his nose, the figure behind him, still holding him still, still keeping his mouth clamped shut, hissed a warning at him. Jakob shut his eyes, tried to still his thoughts, tried to ignore the staccato thump of his heart trying to exit his chest.
A cupboard. He was in a cupboard, just barely big enough for two people to stuff themselves into, the walls lined with saws, knives, and chisels of every shape and size.
It was dark, but there was some dim light filtering through a metal grate through the door, and if he strained his eyes, he could see out into the room he’d woken up in.
He wished he hadn’t looked.
It was true that he’d never been in a butcher’s shop, but he’d read about them in books. Cleanliness, one book had helpfully remarked, is of the utmost importance to any good butcher.
This butcher wasn’t clean. The room was dominated by a bloodsoaked table, so piled with grey and yellowing offal that it had tumbled off the edges and onto the bloody stone floor. Jakob could see tools not unlike the ones in the cupboard discarded haphazardly on the floor. But worse than that, worse by far, was the meathooks, and what was hanging from them.
Some were bisected. Some were whole. All were human, from every walk of life: A Church knight with his helmet still on; an old woman; a young man with peach fuzz on his chest; a child with pigtails.
Jakob retched. He couldn’t help it. Nothing solid came up, there was nothing in his stomach to come up, but saliva and bile filled his mouth nonetheless.
“Be quiet,” the man behind him said softly.
Something thudded. No, not something, a foot, a footstep, louder than any footstep had any right to be, and suddenly Jakob knew exactly why the man was so insistent that he stay still and quiet. He froze in place, staring out of the grate as a hulking, hunched shadow was cast across the far wall.
They were both going to die, Jakob decided.
Another thudding footstep. Whatever it was brayed like a farm animal. Through the metal gate, Jakob saw it haul itself into the room: A wall of tightly packed muscle on two bent, hairy legs, with arms as thick as tree trunks and, above its hairy chest, the neck and head of a bull.
Jakob blinked his eyes, redirecting the magical energies inside him to well up in front of his pupils like a lens, casting the world in shades of grey. If there was any mistaking the creature for something natural before, then the jet black aura surrounding it killed any doubt as to what it was.
It was almost drowned out by the roiling darkness around the beast, but there was a flash of colour just beyond it, a thin and trembling aura of blue-ish green that looked like it could be snuffed out at any moment. Jakob focused, pushing out the noise, narrowing his gaze onto that spot of colour.
Jacob shook his head, dispersing the sediment of magic resting atop his eyes, then peered through the grate again, trying to track the source of the aura.
There. The peach fuzz man, with a meathook in the back of his neck. He was still alive. Alive and stirring awake as the beast padded past him, groaning as he blinked open his eyes.
Jakob tried to surge forward, to burst out of the cupboard and try to grab the peach fuzz man. His captor held him steady. With a hand over his mouth, Jakob couldn’t protest that the man was still alive, but with a jolt of horror he realised he didn’t need to. His captor would have heard that groan. He knew.
Worse, if he struggled and cried out, all he’d do is get them both caught by that hulking beast.
The bull-headed Incarnate padded past the dangling peach fuzz man, to a corner of the room,
lifting a wooden box off the floor with slow, reverent motions and carefully withdrawing the pendant of an archbishop, a wide circle of interlocking gold links and rubies with the winged sun of the Ardent Church dangling from it, inlaid with rubies and sapphires.
Very cautiously, the Incarnate tied it about his thick neck, tightening it at back. It looked uncomfortable. The pendant had been designed for humans to wear, after all, not hulking monstrosities.
“Holy of … holies …” the Incarnate mumbled, its voice guttural, the intonations strange, as though it wasn’t used to speaking. “Holy … of holies …”
The peach fuzz man tried to turn, but seemed to only manage to make the meathook dig in deeper, giving a soft whimper of pain. If the Incarnate noticed, it didn’t react, just turning and lumbering closer. Jakob could hear the air whistling through its nose.
“Holy of holies …” The Incarnate said, the chain around its neck jangling as it closed in on the peach fuzz man, taking him by the shoulders in an almost comforting, gentle motion. “Holy … of …”
The peach fuzz man stared blearily at it, blinking tears out of his eyes. “Please do — …”
Jakob saw a flash of lamprey like teeth, and then something crunched, and there was just blood. He couldn’t stop himself from whimpering, wanting to shut his eyes but completely unable to.
The Incarnate turned sharply. Even at this distance, Jakob could see its pupils dilate. With a bellow, it closed the distance in a split second, the bull head suddenly pressed up so close to the metal grate that Jakob could feel its foul breath on his face.
It had to know they were there. It had to. They were mere inches apart, separated only by a thin piece of metal with a grate in it. It had to know.
But the Incarnate only breathed out slowly, the tension in its frame draining away. “Holy of holies,” it muttered, turning away from the cupboard. Slowly, too slowly, it sloped out of the room, leaving them alone with the corpses.
Jakob listened until the sound of its footsteps had faded, then nudged an elbow back into his captor’s stomach, just gently, a silent prompt to be let go. To his surprise, his captor obliged, giving him a push out of the cupboard that nearly made Jakob slip on the blood-slick floor.
“Don’t suppose you’ve seen a sword in here, have you?” His captor asked cheerily, hopping out after him.
He wasn’t that much taller than Jakob was, and Jakob had always been a rather diminutive sort.
Human, by the looks of him, with the tan skin and dark, shaggy hair of a Tengetsujin, although most of it was hidden under the hood of his coat, drawn so far forward that it made even seeing his eyes difficult. The man had a jawline that looked like it could cut glass, and a scar near the edge of his lower lip — just a nick, but judging by the colour, it had been recently acquired.
And he was smiling. Smiling despite the fact that they just saw a man be mauled to death seconds earlier.
“No,” Jakob snapped. “But there’s plenty of bonesaws around, why not pick up one of those?”
“Eh,” the man said. “I need something more swordly. Something with more swordliness.”
“You need — fine. Fine. Not like our lives are in danger or anything like that,” Jakob said, pushing his glasses up his nose. God, he felt sick. “… Can we get out of this room?”
“Hm?” The man seemed almost confused. “Sure, why not.”
Jakob stepped towards the doorway, peering around the edge, down the long stone corridor. No sign of the Incarnate. Safe for now, then, but if it came back … if it came back he didn’t know what he was going to do. He’d never held a sword in his life, never even used a knife for anything other than cooking, never thrown a punch.
“All clear,” he murmured, moving out of the room, keeping his footsteps light. He’d hoped that the smell of blood and offal would be less nauseating here, but that had always been a foolish hope: It streamed through the open door, suffusing the corridor with its stench.
But at least there was light here. Real, natural light, not the burning torches of the room they came from. Jakob thought it was natural, at least: The light streaming through the hallway windows was red, not golden like the sun or silver like moonlight, but perhaps it was simply twilight outside.
The strange man wandered past him, peering out one of those windows. “Where are we? My head’s still all foggy from … I don’t even know what from.”
“I …” Jakob frowned. He didn’t know either, not exactly. He took a moment, looking over the hallway, seeing if any of it prompted any memories. The neat stonework, the curved shape of the windows, even the slightly too-squat doorways did seem familiar somehow.
“Starkwind Monastery,” Jakob said, as the memory suddenly hit. “I was here for … god, I don’t remember. Something important. I came as part of the College of Mages’ delegation, but there were representatives of the Ardent Church, from Aldwick and Kingdom-Under-Stone and
Ilyasvale, even people from outlying territories.”
“Sounds familiar,” the man said nonchalantly. “I remember being on some kind of job. Protection, I think.”
“Right!” Jakob said, nodding quickly. “There were mercenaries and soldiers, all hired to protect each delegation and the monastery. But if this is the monastery, then where is everyone? The delegations should still be here, and where are the monks? The nuns? Pilgrims? This place should be bustling. It was bustling.”
The fog clearing from his head was only making Jakob more bewildered. It couldn’t have been more than an hour, maybe two, since Starkwind Monastery had been warm and bathed in sunlight, and so full of people that he’d found himself nearly squeezed to death trying to get through the corridors. Where had everyone gone? It wasn’t just that the monastery was empty. It was dusty and dirty. It looked like people hadn’t been living here for weeks, months.
“College of Mages, huh?” The man asked, still staring out the window. “You a mage, then?”
“Ah, no. No, no, definitely not. I’m a librarian. Well, I’m a junior librarian, at least,” Jakob said. “Jakob Riordain.”
“It’s a pleasure. I’m Snuffles.”
“… That’s …” Jakob blinked. “Is that your real name?”
“Sure, why not.”
“I feel like that’s not your real name, though.”
Jakob frowned, adjusting his glasses again. “I can’t remember why we came to Starkwind in the first place, though. Something about a … I remember a tree? A white tree with pink leaves.”
Snuffles made a thoughtful noise. “Guess your brain’s more scrambled than I thought. If this is Starkwind Monastery, and a bunch of people from all over were converging on it, then there’s only one thing it could be,” he said. “It’s the Ceremony of Resonance, right?”
The Ceremony of Resonance. He was right, of course. Every ten years, as Angelina’s Comet crossed the sky, the Ardent Church dispatched its Oracles to cleanse and recharge the Trees. Representatives from every major power on the continent assembled at the Trees to witness it, and this year he had — … Jakob could barely believe he’d forgotten about it, but then, his mind still felt so hazy when he tried to think back on it.
“The Ceremony of Resonance … right, that was it exactly,” he murmured. “The head librarian was sick, so I … I was so excited to be going in his place …”
“Right. I’m starting to remember now,” Snuffles said. “Your College hired us as muscle. Patrol the perimeter, keep the peace, make sure nobody tried to get in and stick a knife in the back of the Supreme Archmage. Guess we screwed that one up.”
“I’m kind of figurin’ something went wrong with the ceremony,” Snuffles replied. “Because I don’t remember there being two moons in the sky.”
Excerpted from Umbral Ten by Douglas Murphy, Copyright © 2020 by Douglas Murphy.
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Thank you so much, Douglas! Your novel sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to read it!