From Under the Mountain (C.M. Spivey)

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As the second child of the Aridan imperial family, nineteen-year-old Guerline knows exactly what is expected of her: be unobtrusive, be compliant, and do not fall in love with her low-born companion, Eva. She has succeeded at only two of those.

But before her feelings for Eva can become a point of contention for the royal house, Guerline’s calm and narrow life is ripped away from her—in the course of a single night—and she is abruptly cast in the role of empress.

Faced with a council that aggressively fears the four witch clans charged with protecting Arido and believes they are, in fact, waging war against the humans, Guerline struggles to maintain order. As her control over the land crumbles, she learns that the war is rooted in a conflict much older than she realized—one centuries in the making, which is now crawling from under the mountain and into the light. With the fate of Arido hanging in the balance, Guerline must decide who to trust when even her closest councilors seem to have an agenda.

Darkly cinematic, From Under the Mountain pairs the sweeping landscape of epic fantasy with the personal journey of finding one’s voice in the world, posing the question: how do you define evil, when everything society tells you is a lie?

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ISBN: 9781942111405 Category: Tag:

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Read The First Chapter

One

Guerline held the smooth ceramic poultice jar in her left hand. Her right held a large scoop of greenish goo, which jiggled and betrayed the shaking she fought to control. She stared at it. Vaguely luminescent, yet transparent enough to show a distorted view of her palm, it waited for her to choose.

Her father moaned, and her gaze listed from her hand to his face. He and her mother were laid out before her, their deflated shapes resting on plain linen sheets. Guerline wondered whose decision it had been to stop sacrificing the Sunese silk to her parents’ oozing, wondered if her parents were even aware that their deathbeds had been reduced to roughspun blankets. That cloth was almost worse for the situation than the silk; the linen absorbed all the fluids and odors that hung around her parents in a miasma. In the ten minutes she’d been standing over them, their stench, the smell of rot—sweet, but tangy with metal underneath—had burrowed into her nostrils and permeated her throat.

Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and she could see almost every detail of her disease-ridden parents. Pieces of their scalps peeled back from their skulls and piled wetly on the pillows in grotesque halos. Their hands were so deteriorated they were practically bone, laid on their stomachs and surrounded by little pieces of flesh stubbornly clinging to joints. Their noses were gone, sunken back into their skulls. Their eyes had melted away completely. Their lips were falling off, and their tongues lolled.

It had only taken a week for her parents to decompose, and they weren’t even dead yet.

No one would speak of it. A flesh-eating curse. Such things were unheard of in the center cities. Magic had all but disappeared in the capital and surrounds, crawling back to the borderlands where the witch-lords guarded the empire from any who made it across the cliffs, the mountains, the forests, and the seas that formed natural defenses around Arido.

Magic’s retreat was the reason she had only a poultice at her disposal, rather than the healing powers of a Gwanen witch.

Guerline relented at last and inhaled deeply, blinking past the sting of pungency in the air. The poultice was useless. She knew it, and if her father had his senses at the moment, he’d know it too. He’d slap her and curse her for getting such a fool notion into her head, demand to know why, at nineteen, she couldn’t manage not to be a bother. The poultice wouldn’t save him. She doubted that even a Gwanen witch could, at this point. Their only hope, if such still existed, was with Thiymen clan, for the emperor and empress were certainly more dead than alive.

The poultice might ease some of their pain, though, and it was this mercy Guerline debated. She had come to their sick-chamber with every intention of being a help to them, as much as she could. Yet her hand would not turn over, would not apply the poultice to her father’s flesh. Tears filled her eyes that had nothing to do with the acidic atmosphere in the room. Was her heart so bitter, that she couldn’t exceed her parents in decency?

“Guerline, what are you doing here?”

She jerked to attention, silently cursing the smooth-hinged door. Her brother stood a few feet inside the room. Though she stopped herself from taking a step back, she could not stop her knees from buckling; she leaned against the thick mattresses of her parents’ bed.

Alcander wore his customary glare as he looked at her, squinting at the jar and goo in her hands. He held a white handkerchief over his mouth and nose; a pitiful attempt, she imagined, to block the smell of death. Like her pitiful attempt to ward off the thing itself with her poultice.

She looked back down at her parents, fear like an icy rock in her stomach. Her father’s chest collapsed minutely, an attempt to breathe. Guerline’s own chest tightened as she fully comprehended, for the first time, that when her father died, Alcander would be emperor.

Lisyne save us from the reign of Alcander.

Alcander stomped closer. “Well? Answer me!”

“I was just trying to help,” Guerline whispered.

He was silent for a moment, then said quietly, “Stupid girl. Can’t you see they’re beyond help?”

Guerline’s stomach turned at the softness of his voice. She tried to stand still as he stalked toward her, boots hissing on the stone. “Mother is . . . but if we could just summon a Gwanen witch—”

“Absolutely not.”

She slumped forward, cast her eyes down, and bit her lip, but Alcander stayed where he was. Slowly, she pushed herself away from the bed and stood on her own. Unable to bear the gelatinous texture of the poultice a moment longer—it felt too much like a stag’s stomach—she dumped her handful back into the jar, dragged her palm along the rim, and set it down, taking up the small towel she’d brought and wiping her hands.

“Summon the Thiymen witch, then,” she said.

“The damned Thiymen witch has no need of a summoning, she will come when she comes,” Alcander spat. “Whether I will it or no.”

He looked away from her, staring into the dark far corner of the room, and Guerline narrowed her eyes at him. Surely even Alcander, who hated magic, wouldn’t prevent the witch from doing her duty. But if he could, if he had that power, would he stop the witch from laying their parents’ souls to rest? Guerline couldn’t fathom why Alcander the favorite, Alcander the firstborn and heir, would deny his parents their final reward, even if it had to come from a witch’s hand.

“Their souls must be taken to Ilys,” she said.

Alcander sneered at her. “The god-denier still believes in Ilys, does she?”

Guerline’s cheeks flamed, but she didn’t look away. It was an old argument among the royal family. Her parents and Alcander were all devout followers of the shifter gods, but Guerline . . . she questioned. Both that the gods existed as anything but stories, and whether such gods as were described should even be worshipped; either question was enough to earn her the hatred of her parents and the derision of her brother. Alcander seemed to delight in reminding her that only her value as a political bargaining chip prevented Emperor Johan from turning her over to the Temple for cloistering and flagellation. As if those threats were meant to teach her to love the gods.

“I have never seen Lisyne. I have witnessed the power of the witches. If they say Ilys exists, I will trust them,” she said.

“You do wrong to rely on the witches, Guerline. They are exalted enough as it is without a member of the royal family setting such a poor example for the rabble. Remember that they were created to serve humanity,” Alcander said.

“At least they are among us,” she retorted before she could stop herself.

Alcander rushed her. She tried to twist away from him but tripped on her gown and fell forward. She flung her hands out; one landed on her father’s stomach and sank into the sticky mass, tacky to the touch and soft beneath his sopping velvet doublet. She could feel hard lumps within his guts that could have once been bones.

She screamed and pushed back, slipping again and reeling into Alcander’s waiting arms. He snapped them shut around her, strong like bands of iron around a barrel. Her fingers went numb with panic and she collapsed, hoping to break his grip with her dead weight. But he was ready for her. He snaked one arm around her waist and used his free hand to grab both of her wrists together.

“Stop your whimpering. Weren’t you paying attention?”

Guerline swallowed hard and stopped breathing. Alcander nuzzled in close to her ear, his smooth cheek scraping the stubble on her shaved scalp.

“Father didn’t make a sound when you struck him. Do you know what that means?”

She gulped again. Yes, she did. Father was dead.

“I am emperor,” Alcander whispered.

He let go of her waist and she spun away from him, ignoring the burn as her wrists twisted in his grip. When she faced him, he stared down at her, his brown face wide and unreadable. For one horrible moment, she thought he might—

He released her.

“Get out,” he said.

She hesitated. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d let her go only so he could chase her.

“I said, get out. Now!”

She barely resisted the impulse to run.

 

 

Alcander contained the urge to seize Guerline’s arm as she brushed past him. She must have thought he didn’t notice, but he knew she’d been purposefully avoiding him. He wouldn’t stand for it. But there would be time to deal with her later.

He walked around the sickbed, hardly breathing, watching his father and mother warily. Both lay utterly still. He went to the windows and ripped the curtains back. Sunlight flooded in. Alcander turned from the window to look at them and gasped at the full horror of their decay.

His stomach churned. Coughing and choking, he ran from the room. The door slammed behind him. He leaned against the cool stone wall and sucked clean air into his lungs.

“Alcander?”

The prince jumped and turned. He smiled when he realized it was only Evadine. She looked pristine in her simple linen dress, with her black hair plaited down her back and her cheeks lightly rouged. She was a welcome vision of health and life after the disgusting scene he’d just witnessed. Her face was passive, but her eyes asked the question: what happened?

“My parents are dead,” Alcander said.

Evadine dropped to one knee.

“Your Majesty,” she said demurely.

Alcander smirked and went over to her, hooking a finger under her chin and guiding her up. He looked into her eyes.

“You need never bow before me, Eva.”

She did not respond. Her eyes danced over his face. “You’re so ashen, and sweating. Is it that bad?”

His lip curled. “They were living corpses. Impossibly alive even as their bodies disintegrated. But they are dead now, and that’s all that matters.”

“Thiymen will pay,” Evadine said.

Alcander scowled at the dullness of her voice. She said she supported his cause—he certainly believed the reasons she gave for her begrudging support—but he was not yet sure her commitment was genuine. “Yes. Yes, they will. If only we could prove it was them.”

“We don’t need proof. All we need to do is show the people what happened to your parents. They will know as surely as we do that the disease came from the coven of death,” Eva said.

“You know I can’t do that. It would deeply dishonor my parents to show their subjects how repulsive they have become.”

She pursed her lips. “None of it would fall back on them or their legacy, Alcander. The people will blame Thiymen, as they should. They will be outraged . . . and we will have the momentum we need.”

Alcander clenched his teeth and stood silently. He knew she spoke the truth, but he couldn’t allow his parents to be seen by more people than necessary. The emperor and empress had been proud and healthy a week ago, and now they were utterly destroyed. He was of the same flesh and blood. The people may very well declare that he possessed the same susceptibility to evil magic and depose him. They had done it time and again throughout history. The people of Arido could not be trusted to stand with him if they knew the truth.

“Alcander?”

“Do not ask me again.” He walked away.

“Where are you going?” Eva called after him.

“To the Vale. Go and inform the council of my parents’ death, and get everything ready for the washing and the watch. The witch will come soon.”

“What shall we do when she does?”

He stopped and sighed, and looked back at her over his shoulder. “Nothing. We can do nothing. Yet.”

While he waited for his horse to be saddled, he went to the fountain in the square, just outside the palace gates, and splashed cool water on his face. It refreshed him and relieved some of his nausea. A stable boy came out and handed Alcander his reins. The prince mounted his horse and rode off toward the Orchid Vale, the forest on the edge of the capital city of Del.

It was almost an hour’s brisk ride from the First Neighborhood, where the palace was situated. Luckily it was midday, and since it was coming on summer, many people were spending the next few hours indoors. Lake Duveau kept the city from becoming blistering hot, like some of the Southwest, but its effect didn’t entirely keep Del from getting uncomfortable under the high sun. Alcander was grateful for his timing, though sweat streamed down him as he rode; his path was clear the whole way.

He slowed when he arrived at the tree line, and then halted. Dismounting, he led his horse to the Stone River that ran through the center of the Vale. He slipped its bridle off and let it drink, then stripped himself of his clothing and waded into the river. The water was still cold, flush with snowmelt from the Zaide Mountains and shaded by the tall trees. Alcander dunked his head under a few times, whipped his braids back from his face, and climbed out of the river. He sprawled on the bank to dry, feeling cleansed of the grossness he’d felt at his parents’ sickbed—their deathbed.

The bodies would have to be burned. Such a blight of the flesh must not be put into the earth. Burning was a dishonor, but he was sure his devout parents would have agreed to it if they had had time to discuss it with him. The trick would be convincing the council, and keeping it from the public. The funeral procession would be closed-casket, unusual but not unheard of. The watch, though . . . he hardly wanted to allow the witch to gloat over the ruination of his parents’ bodies. Could a Thiymen witch collect a soul through a coffin? Would she even come for his parents’ souls? And what would he do if she did? He was a skilled swordsman, but weapons were no match for magic.

He detested Thiymen clan all the more for his dependence on them. Only a Thiymen witch could take his parents’ souls to Ilys, the place of rest they deserved—yet how could he give her care of their souls when he knew that her clan had murdered them? To confront a witch without a plan was certain death. His hands were tied. The watch must take place.

His horse looked up and snorted. Alcander raised himself onto his elbows.

“What is it?” he asked.

The horse’s eyes were wide and white all the way around. It trotted nervously back and forth. Alcander stood up and listened intently, but he couldn’t hear anything over the horse’s stamping and snorting.

“Will you shut up?” he snapped at it.

The horse screamed, reared, and ran, breaking through the underbrush in its haste to get away from whatever it had sensed.

“Hey! Come back here!” Alcander yelled, running a few steps after it.

He could still hear it screaming, but it was long gone. Alcander scowled and gathered his clothing, grumbling about stupid animals and the long walk back to the palace. He pulled his trousers on and laced them up, and had started to pull his shirt over his head when he shivered violently. Had it gotten colder in the forest? He looked up; the summer sun was still shining through the trees as it had been before. He shook his head and laughed. He was not usually prone to paranoia, but the eeriness of his parents’ deaths had clearly followed him to the forest—and cost him his horse! He stood still and listened as hard as he could, wishing he had the beast’s ears or sense of smell.

Goosebumps rose on his arms and he looked down. Though he neither heard nor smelled a thing, he felt it approach him from behind. His breath came shallow and rapid, and his heart raced in his chest despite his attempts to stay calm. Slowly, cautiously, he turned around.

The creature’s head was mostly visible skull, with dry-looking musculature around the jaw and ears just barely hanging on. The body seemed oddly mismatched, thick about the torso and hips but stunted in the legs, with a long tail that looked more like a dog’s than a cat’s. The fur was patchy and dingy, and the uncovered flesh was the same sickly green color his parents’ skin had been in their final hours.

But all the oddity of the hell-cat’s form did nothing to detract from the evil in its glowing yellow eyes, nor the sharpness of its dripping fangs.

Alcander’s hands went to his hips, but his sword was on his saddle.

“L-Lisyne, Mother Wolf and protector of us all,” he whispered, eyes wide as he stared at the devil-cat. “Take my form and shield me from evil—”

The devil-cat took a step forward and Alcander shrieked. He jumped backward and fell over a rock. The cat circled him. He was paralyzed; training urged him to find a weapon, but fear wouldn’t let him take his eyes off the predator. He felt along the ground with his trembling hands. The cat crept on top of him. Its stench was overwhelming; he couldn’t breathe. His vision darkened, and when it returned, the hell-beast was nose-to-nose with him.

“Back! Stay back!” he wailed. He beat it about the face with his hands and elbows. Blood streamed down his arms from the scratches made by the rough old skull. He ceased his attack when he saw the blood, and screamed anew, looking back and forth between his arms and the cat’s now bloodstained head.

The cat, for its part, seemed intrigued. It sniffed at Alcander’s bloody arm and tentatively licked it with a swollen purple tongue. Alcander watched it, lips trembling and tears streaming down his face. The cat looked down at him, its eyes bright.

“Lisyne! Seryne! Oh please, let me be saved,” Alcander whispered.

“Saved?” said a voice.

A face appeared above the devil-cat—a pale blonde girl with blood-red lips. She grinned.

“Alcander. You have been chosen.”

Her black eyes sparkled. Alcander screamed. The cat closed its jaws on his throat, and the clearing fell silent.

 

 

Guerline woke to shouts in the hall outside her chambers. After her encounter with Alcander, she’d rushed back to her rooms and shut herself in. It had taken ten minutes to scrub the poultice and gore from her shaking hands, and when she was finished, she’d collapsed into a chair in her parlor and sobbed herself into a fitful sleep.

Someone pounded on her door, and she lifted her heavy head to squint at its black expanse. She swung her gaze toward the large window opposite her. Evening had fallen. She’d been asleep nearly all day.

The pounding on her door resumed.

“Princess Guerline! Your Highness! Please, please open the door!”

Still groggy, she tumbled out of her chair, nearly falling as her legs came clumsily back to life.

“Let me help you,” said a soft voice to her left.

Tender hands slipped around her waist and under her left forearm, taking her weight. Guerline halted and looked down at her left wrist. A slim white hand held her there, translucent-looking against her dark brown skin. She followed the white skin to a black-clad wrist, up the arm, and looked into the face of a young woman with dark eyes, dawn-gold hair, and blood-red lips. The woman smiled at her.

“Good evening, Guerline,” she said.

Guerline scrutinized the woman, furrowing her brow and staring into eyes that were nearly black in the twilight. There was something familiar in her steady expression, and even in the pressure of her hands. Guerline drew a shallow breath, tried to look away, and found she couldn’t. She wet her lips.

“Am I dreaming, or have I died, and you are my Thiymen witch?” Guerline asked.

The woman—more a girl, really—laughed. Guerline gasped; it was as if a window had just been opened in a stuffy room.

“I wondered myself, before I arrived. But I think I won’t be taking you to any underworld yet.”

Guerline nodded, absently gazing about her twilit room. “A dream, then.”

Pounding on the door.

The girl laughed again. “If it helps you to think of it that way, then by all means.”

Guerline shook the last of the sleep-fog from her head and turned back to the girl, but she was gone. Guerline wavered slightly where she stood and held her breath, waiting for some sign that she was truly awake.

“Break it open. We must find her!”

She cursed and ran for the door, stumbling on her long skirts. Dream or no, she couldn’t risk losing a locking door. She flung the bolt back and pulled the door wide, stepping out of the way in case the shouts of “Hold, hold!” didn’t stop whatever battering ram they’d been preparing to use.

In rushed Lord Engineer Theodor Warren; Josen, the Captain of the Palace Guard; and Hartt Lana, her father’s—Alcander’s—Chief Adviser. All three men were flushed of face and breathing heavily, staring at her with wide eyes. She could guess that Hartt and Josen were here on the occasion of her parents’ deaths, though why they looked so panicked she couldn’t tell. Surely they hadn’t just found out; it had been hours. Lord Warren’s presence she couldn’t account for at all, but the tender way he looked at her provided some hint.

“What on earth is going on?” she asked.

“Your Highness. You must have heard that your parents died early this afternoon,” Hartt said softly. His voice was raspy, and Guerline wondered if he’d been crying. Her father had been a hard man who allowed very few into his close confidence. But Hartt, who had a decidedly softer touch than Emperor Johan Hevya, had occupied that position her entire life and then some. If anyone loved her father, it was him.

She nodded. “Yes.”

None of the men offered anything further. Guerline raised her eyebrows. At last, Lord Warren stepped around Josen and reached out a hand.

“Permit me, Your Highness?” he asked.

She placed her hand slowly into his, her breath coming short with apprehension. Such serious countenances couldn’t simply be for her parents, could they? Toward her, her father was always dismissive at best, her mother spiteful; but as rulers, they were all aloof benevolence—not too distant, just removed enough and fair enough to give the illusion of compassion. She had to admit that the rest of the empire loved her parents much better than she did.

Lord Warren led her to a settee and they both sat. He didn’t let go of her hand for a moment, staring at it in his. Then he jerked it back and sat up straight. He looked her full in the face, but still he was silent. Whatever he meant to tell her must have been very dreadful indeed. He’d never been so formal or awkward with her before.

“Theodor.” She reached for his hand again.

“Your brother is dead,” he blurted.

Her heart stopped. She swallowed, with difficulty, and narrowed her eyes at Lord Warren. Her throat suddenly seemed like sandpaper. “What?”

“He went riding this afternoon. When his horse came back without him, I sent men out to look for him,” Josen said.

“They . . . recovered his arm from the Orchid Vale,” Lord Warren continued.

Guerline inhaled sharply. “His arm. His arm?”

Lord Warren squeezed her hand. His blue eyes shone like sapphires. Guerline focused on them and tried to tamp down the inappropriate, giddy relief threatening to burst out of her.

“It appears to have been an animal attack. Some panther or wildcat,” he said.

She coached herself to breathe. Alcander dead. She hadn’t wished for it. She’d only ever hoped to get far, far away from him. But her fear of him uncurled itself from around her heart and fluttered in her chest like a swarm of butterflies. She was not, truly, happy to hear that Alcander was dead. Yet neither was she sad.

“Are you all right?” Lord Warren asked.

Guerline took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to fill to the bottom of her lungs. “Yes. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll arrange everything, Your Highness,” Hartt said. “You needn’t fret.”

“Everything?”

“The washing, and the watch,” Hartt said.

“And your coronation, of course,” Lord Warren said.

Of course. Her coronation. Because, with Alcander dead as well, she was the next in line to rule. The hysterical laughter she’d been fighting broke through, high-pitched and breathy, quickly turning into sobs.

“Josen, fetch Lady Evadine here at once!” Lord Warren said.

She could barely see Hartt and Josen as they bowed and left the room, and she gratefully sank into Theodor’s embrace.

About The Author

C.M. Spivey is a speculative fiction writer, author of the high fantasy Trident Chronicles series, and the paranormal series, The Unliving. His enduring love of fantasy started young. Now, he explores the rules and ramifications of magic in his own works—and as a panromantic asexual trans man, he’s committed to queering his favorite genres.

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