Prelude

Ayanda

            The Most Serene Republic of Venice

            4 March 1865

            Moonset

            I bolt upright and into dark. The pitch-blackness seems to tremble, vibrating with the echo of a scream.

            My heart pounds. Heavy blankets weigh down upon me. The sweat-soaked collar of my nightdress digs into my throat. Faint smells wind through the darkness, of fading embers, leather books, silver polish. My room.

            My brain feels soaked in fog. I can’t have been asleep for long, but I feel as though I’ve just torn free of a nightmare.

            I let out my breath and fall back onto my bed. It’s nothing, go back to sleep…

            I turn onto my side, adjusting my pillow, but before I close my eyes something pulls me back into waking. I sit up again. I went to bed at mistrise as I always do, just before dawn. The room should have brightened by now, but no pale light slips through the draperies. It may as well be midnight.

            A horrible jolt darts into my chest. Something’s wrong.

            I throw back the covers and slide out of bed. My mind races as I feel my way around the furnishings. The Dead. The Dead must be near…but no, I don’t feel their cold, nor any growing strength or sight…

            I knock into my vanity table and fumble in a drawer. The flare of the match is blinding, nearly scorching my fingers as I light the lamp. A small, unsteady flame glows inside the smoky mantle, throwing odd, quivering shadows about the room. Through the parted curtains the window-glass reflects me like a black mirror, a girl floating in a void, her hair wild, her face afraid.

            I go to the window. Not even the thinnest wisp of fog curls between the panes. I twist the latch and push open the casement.

            The window swings open into nothingness. Utter blackness hangs like a curtain, featureless and cold, as though the Shadow Palace has been carved out of the world and set adrift into space.

            I grab another match from the vanity and rush back to the window. I light it and let it fall. The match drops into the darkness, down, down, and melts away.

            A chill slides down my spine like a freezing drop. I’m asleep. This is still a dream. I’m still trapped inside it…

            I bite down hard on the inside of my mouth. I clench my metallaric fist and strike myself in the thigh. But my room and the nothingness remain, icy, piercing, and silent.

            I run for the door and throw it open. A cloud of dust billows into my face. I blink my tearing eyes, coughing, and choke back a scream.           

            The black-and-gold papered walls, the worn hallway runner and the battered grandfather clock of the Shadow Palace are gone. A row of ornate lanterns cast sickly orange light over a corridor I’ve never seen. Long veils of cobwebs hang from a high arched ceiling, turning the hall to a maze of ragged, gauzy shrouds.

            The door slams shut behind me. I whirl and see only a cobwebbed wall. The door to my room is gone.

            My heart leaps into my throat. I feel the wall, sweeping my hands through inch-thick dust. Beneath the grime isn’t the wall of the Shadow Palace but scratched ceramic tiles. Nothing more.

            I lean my forehead against the tiles. Wake up, wake up…

            But nothing changes. The tiles chill my forehead. Thick parched air fills my lungs, smelling strange and acrid, red-hot metal mixed with dead coals, and something sharp and rotten.

            I hold my breath and turn to face the corridor, swallowing another gasp at the sight. Beneath the dust and cobwebs I make out the walls of a fine house or manor, scabbed with painted tiles whose colors must have once been brilliant. But something’s wrong. The angles where the walls meet the ceiling are too narrow, then too wide. The corridor seems crooked, tilting as though the entire building is unbalanced just the slightest amount, an enormous dry shipwreck stranded in a waste.

            Then I feel it, a presence, a stare, and I know I’m not alone.

“H-hello?” I cough.

Nothing answers me. I spin about. “I know you’re there!” I yell. “Let me go back. Let me out!”

            A tremor shudders through the corridor, a deep, earthen growl, like some underground giant grinding its teeth. The floor tilts, knocking me back into the wall. A lantern tears from the plaster and smashes against the wall, casting blazing oil over the cobwebs. A wide crack jolts across the ceiling, cascading dust.              

            I push myself away from the wall and run, ripping through cobwebs and raining grit, dry, sour air scorching my throat like mouthfuls of cinders. I’ve no plan, no thought at all, but to get away from here before the entire mansion splits apart…

            Dirt and broken rock grind under my feet as I cross a warped threshold. A carved door appears ahead, crooked and cracked nearly in two. I shove its halves apart and topple into emptiness.

            A splinter catches my sleeve, jerking me to a halt on a ledge of shattered floor. Nothing lies before me. The entire mansion crumbles away into the open air. Sulfrous wind whips about me, plucking at my nightdress, longing to snatch me from the ledge. Ash rains from the sky, drifting like black snowflakes over a huge swath of wreckage that pours down the slope like an avalanche.

            My sleeve begins to tear. I grab the jutting splinter and haul myself backwards onto the ledge. I swipe ash from my eyes and lift my gaze.

            The mansion perches atop a hill overlooking a wasteland. It seems it was once a grassy plain, dotted with short stubs of trees, but black with ash, shivering in the smothered moonlight. The plain stretches for what must be miles and rises, traveling over foothills and crags, higher and higher, climbing the slopes of a mountain that…

I can’t even gather the breath to gasp. A gigantic mountain looms over the plain, capped with snow and burning orange at its peak. A tremendous, towering plume pours from the fiery glow and into the sky, rough and boiling like smoke made of stone, shot through with cracks of lightning.

            Another tremor thunders through the mansion. Cracks split the ledge. Part of it collapses, fragments tumbling away.

            Wood creaks behind me. I turn, about to push past the broken door, but steady wood faces me. The door is in place.

            I grab the handle and wrench at it, but it doesn’t so much as rattle. I slam my fist against the door. “Stop this! Send me back!”

A boom bursts from the mountain. The entire building groans. The ledge crumbles further.

“What do you want with me?” I scream. “Let me go!”

            A murmur wisps through the crack in the door like a curl of smoke. “Todavía no.”

It speaks in Continental, with an accent I’ve never heard. “Not yet.

            “Who are you?” The ledge rocks, swaying. I cling to the handle. “What do you want?”

            The whisperer ignores me. “Escúcheme. Le ruego. Listen to me. I beg you.”

            The mountain booms again. I look back. Another billow of ash erupts from its peak, blooming into the sky like a horrible bubbling fungus. The cracks on the ledge fork closer.

            “You must go. Leave Venice,” the voice hisses, dry, hoarse, as ash-coated as everything else. “We’re coming for you all.”

            A great shuddering crack roars from the mountain and smashes into me like a railway train, flattening me against the door. “Go,” the voice whispers. “Go! Run!

            A tremendous grinding ripples across the plain, the sound of a sea made of stone. Another ashy cloud pours from the mountain, not rising but rushing, tearing down the mountainside like a monstrous wave of rock.

            The ledge beneath me collapses. I fall, screaming, plummeting towards the wreckage as the hurricane of rock roars towards me and—

            Something hard and flat slams into my side. My head bangs against a floor. A floor of polished wood.

            I twist about and sit upright. A long corridor stretches before me, not wrecked and dusty but with walls of shimmering black and gold. The Shadow Palace.

            I gulp a breath. The air is clean, smelling of wood and the distant sea, of Venice, of home.

            No ash or dust falls from my nightdress as I clamber up and run for my room. I burst inside. The bedcovers are disheveled but the lamp is untouched. The casement window is shut. Pale morning mist billows past the glass, bearing the muffled sounds of the city waking.

            A horrible shiver nearly buckles my knees. I catch hold of the doorknob as words flit through my head. Dreaming, nightmare, sleepwalking—

            But different words drown them out, not dying like the remnants of a nightmare, but sharp, plain, real.

Go. Leave Venice.

            We’re coming for you all.

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