We still get e-mail about “Two-Skins,” Shawn L. Johnson’s cover story for Black Gate 5. The tale of a brave and very resourceful young man dragged in chains to the Emperor’s gladiatorial games captured the hearts of many of our readers, and it was obvious the author was destined for great things.
Now we have the pleasure of seeing that promise unfold, with a generous excerpt from Shawn’s first novel, Oath of Six, the first in The Heart of Darkness series, and set in the same setting as “Two Skins.”
The second book in the series, Serpent Without Skin, was released early last year. But now you can get in on the ground floor on a dynamic new fantasy series from an exciting new author.
Atop a perilous, arctic mountain, a modern-day wizard leads the rest of his expedition to their doom. Magic has steadily ebbed from the earth for ages, decimating the creatures of legend, so he has gambled that the ancient hag residing here will know of a cure. She is insane, however, and her advice is treachery.
Soon afterward, David Tyler receives a desperate summons from his estranged mentor. The old wizard is wasting away, and fears he has been cursed by a former apprentice. The trail of the culprit leads the remaining apprentices through a haunted forest where a child has gone missing, and into the mythical underworld — the crossroad of all the myriad, dying worlds. There they face exiled shape-shifters and an insane goddess, in order to confront a childhood friend who has become both a traitor and a murderer.
Without further ado, we present the complete prologue to Oath of Six, currently available at Amazon.com for just 99 cents as a Kindle book. Enjoy!
An Excerpt from Oath of Six
by Shawn L. Johnson
Cover by Saarl
This is a Special Presentation of a work of fiction. It appears with the permission of Shawn L. Johnson, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2011 by Shawn L. Johnson.
Prologue: The Magician and the Hermit
The rest of the party was missing or dead by the fifth night of the climb, so the Magician carried on alone. The guides, both experienced mountaineers from the local village, had been last to go, buried beneath tons of snow only the night before. The Magician had heard the rushed footfalls of the two men abandoning camp, heard the avalanche rumbling down the mountain after them. There was little chance of their survival. He’d told the fools — as best he could with his rudimentary grasp of the local dialect — that it was safer with him. They hadn’t believed, and now they were dead.
No wonder the men had tried to run away. The expedition had been cursed from the outset. On the first day, their most experienced mountaineer was forced to go back because of a sprained ankle. A lucky man. The rest had all been qualified mountaineers, so they’d continued without him. Even the Magician had done a few tricky climbs back in the United States, though nothing this extreme.
Next, the American photographer fell to her death when her rope snapped. The two greedy archaeologists supposedly leading the expedition shared similar fates. Only two days ago, Raleigh perished in his sleeping bag, apparently of hypothermia. Fischer simply disappeared the day after that, along with the translator. The Magician doubted either had run away so early in their journey. Luckily he didn’t need either archaeologist, only the backing of their universities.
So it went, each member departing the doomed expedition — except for the Magician.
Even alone he wasn’t giving up. It had taken months to arrange this expedition, years to decide this location. So much effort to persuade the archaeologists and their backers. There would be no follow-up for this mission. The Magician’s credibility would be shot after so many casualties.
Until the last six or seven years, this mountain — which the locals referred to as “The Old Woman’s Chair” in hushed, almost reverent tones—would have been inaccessible to him, hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Still, it was a dangerous time to be an American amongst the remnants of communist Russia, especially on this mountain so determined to kill him. The Old Woman’s Chair was the most treacherous of the Arctic Urals — a virtual, snow-capped Devil’s Triangle. Heavy, constant winds made the use of helicopters impossible. Many explorers disappeared; the rest returned as failures.
This close to the summit, the Magician felt certain his intuition had been correct. There was more treachery at work here than steep bluffs and blistering winds. He had sensed the change in the atmosphere almost a thousand feet down, shortly before the all too frequent mishaps began. There was magic here, real magic, as strong as he’d ever sensed. And it wanted him dead or back where he’d come from.
He was so close!
Heavy winds had jeopardized the entire expedition, but they picked up even more his first night alone. Driving wind and snow whirled mercilessly about him — blinding him and prying at his hands and legs and climbing gear. Each time his body grew too numb, the Magician chanted another prayer to appease the wind spirits. Though they remained angry at his intrusion, he was spared the fate of his former companions. He was nearly starving now since the guides had fled with most of the food. If he didn’t reach his destination soon, it wouldn’t matter that the winds hadn’t killed him.
As he topped one last precipice, the blizzard tapered off, as if the tormenting wind spirits had lost interest in the solitary climber. There was still snowfall on The Old Woman’s Chair, the winds still swift and well below freezing, but he could now see across a relatively flat, snowy wasteland. The Magician had reached a plateau at last, a wide pass enclosed by steep slopes.
He unhitched himself from his climbing rope, clipped both ice axes to his belt, and then paused for his first rest in a long while. Ahead he saw no signs of life, only an endless snowfield dotted by rocky outcroppings. But there was a subtle magic at work here. He wouldn’t have noticed had he not been so focused.
I might die here, the Magician thought. If I’m wrong, all the magic in the world can’t save me.
He sensed the creatures coming for him across the wasteland minutes before hearing them. It began as an uncomfortable tingling in his teeth, and at first he thought his mouth had gone numb. Then the sound rose to a droning howl, like a continuous, higher-pitched wolf song. Almost faint enough to be imagination. Ending his break, he hurried into the pass. His pursuers traveled swifter. They appeared from at least three directions — dim, canine shadows surrounded by a denser swirl of snow. Pairs of pale, yellow luminescence roughly where eyes should be. The closest was perhaps a hundred yards away.
They were phantasms, he knew, remnants from ancient times when magic was stronger and more common. In one tale, the witch’s hut was guarded by a pack of dogs, which refused to harm a maiden kinder than their mistress. Perhaps this was all that remained of them. They might not be substantial enough to harm him, these snow-wraiths, but he didn’t break pace to find out. Their cries wailed in his ears now, making him dizzy. He tried not to stumble as they closed in.
The Magician cried out as the first nipped his arm just below the elbow. For a second he felt nothing, then a scorching pain frighteningly close to frostbite. He lashed out, feeling his hand pass through something colder and denser, almost liquid. The beast withdrew, but quickly returned, icy ghost-fangs tearing into his forearm and leaving no wounds. The others took turns biting at him, not trying to kill. Only wearing him down.
He fell to his knees mere feet from where the first phantasm had attacked. All around him, their eyes burned through the wispy steam of his hacking breath. It can’t end like this, the Magician thought. Not here, not so close! He was one of the last wizards left — perhaps the only one capable of completing this task. He must not fail!
Kneeling in the snow, shadow-beasts circling him, he called upon all his magic, shaping it into one command: Leave me! To his surprise, the beasts hesitated. This close, he could see that their paws didn’t touch the snow or leave tracks. He raised his hands and signed an ancient protective ward with numbed fingers. Would they recognize it?
The snow-wraiths faded out one by one, until only one remained. It stood watching him. Maybe there had only ever been one, he thought, the others merely an extension or illusion. Or perhaps they remained invisible while their alpha decided his fate.
“I’m not your enemy,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. His body was heavy with exertion and lack of sleep. “I’m like you. I’m all that’s left. Let me be.”
The phantasm cocked its head as if considering.
It was still staring when he fell unconscious.
The Magician hadn’t slept in two days. Now he dreamt of a tomb.
Torchlight glinted off stone walls covered with ancient runes. Statues of lean, graceful men and women flanked a reclining figure, which might have been either a well-preserved corpse or another statue.
“Go back, Seth,” a whisper echoed through the tomb. “You’ve passed the point of safety, but it isn’t too late yet.”
“You can’t help me, whoever you are,” the Magician shouted. “Only the dead belong in a tomb.”
“Not dead, boy. Resting. But I haven’t long, for she is too powerful here and even this task drains me. So listen well. Her kind nearly shattered the world once. Leave her to her maddened dreams and return home.”
“I have no home,” the Magician said. No home, only his quest. Despite the warning of this… vision, he must be nearing his goal. If he could survive the phantasms and the wastes.
Dozens of lifelike statues seemed to turn toward him, their gaze accusing. Or maybe it was just a trick of the light. The voice repeated, “Go home. Your last chance, Seth.”
“Go back to your own dreams,” commanded the Magician, “and keep out of mine.”
Then the vision disappeared behind a curtain of wind and snow, and the Magician dreamed only of the blizzard. He never expected to awaken.
But, sometime later, he did.
The phantasms were gone when he opened his eyes. He couldn’t have dozed long, the Magician realized, since he hadn’t frozen to death. Mercifully, the snowstorm had calmed to flurries. Despite the rest, he was still exhausted. And hungry. He managed to quench his thirst by melting snow in a pot he carried.
And what of his vision? Had it merely been the wanderings of a weary mind? Or had some power actually spoken to him? Could he trust a warning from any creature residing in a tomb? It made little difference either way. The Magician had come too far, struggled too much, to turn back now. This was the last place he knew to search. Besides, how could he trust such a vision? It might have been a manifestation of his niggling doubts, or some outside malignancy trying to cut short his quest. Continuing was the only option.
But which way? A simple tracking charm told him to head toward the sun, which now looked all wrong. The sky was strangely clear, yet the sun remained hazy. Nothing lay ahead but frozen waste. Much longer and he would be dead. Finally the Magician got wearily to his feet.
The world gradually shifted as he trudged on. Snowdrifts became deeper or shallower than was apparent from a distance, protruding rocks appeared or disappeared. A lesser man might have believed delirium had set in. The Magician knew better. Here, two separate realities overlapped—his home world; and this stark, secluded, nearly dead land. This new place would have been insignificant if not for the resident he’d traveled so far to meet.
The landscape grew progressively more alien, until the Magician knew for certain his home world lay far behind him. Now he traveled beneath a bruised-purple sky and a milky white sun, which never moved (or was that the moon? It was difficult to tell). Rock formations resembling stalagmites protruded from the snow, as if he were inside a cave rather than atop a mountain.
Overhead, alien creatures akin to large, white bats circled like vultures. No meal for you here, the Magician thought with grim humor. I’m not dead yet. Give me my last few hours, then we’ll see.
The first sign of habitation came perhaps a day later, though it was hard to tell since his watch had stopped. A crude fence stretched into the horizon in both directions, its posts topped with human skulls. The wide-spaced rails didn’t make much of a barrier, more a series of warning signs. He passed through these without pause. It was nothing compared to what he’d already been through.
From the fence to the garden of statues. That was how he first thought of it, the haphazard rows of ice sculptures. But they weren’t statues, he realized upon closer inspection; nothing like the ones in his vision. Here, dozens of men and a few women were frozen beneath thin coats of ice. Most appeared horrified, their skin bleached as white as their surroundings. A few appeared placid, even reclining, as if they hadn’t known what was coming. Perhaps they’d been dead beforehand.
One of the albino bat-creatures perched on the unmoving form of a screaming woman, its eyeless gaze on the Magician as he passed through the grisly menagerie. Fear gnawing his stomach, he wondered how much of this artwork represented the numerous lost expeditions. A few wore archaic clothing, perhaps centuries old. Others looked too old to have climbed such a mountain. It worried him that others had made it this far also, only to perish. He tried, but failed, not to picture himself among the others, a permanent scream etched on his unmoving features.
It took his eyes a minute to adjust to the sight of the hut just beyond the garden, even though he’d known it should be there. It shimmered in and out of sight, as if viewed distantly over hot pavement — much like the earlier pack of devil-dogs. Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut, or so the legend went. It was reputed to caper about on a pair of chicken legs, and perhaps had centuries before. Time had reduced it to a phantasm, only half-real.
The structure grew tangible as he neared. Just another old-fashioned peasant hut, complete with a smoking chimney. Without pause, he reached for the latch.
Buy the complete Oath of Six at Amazon.com for just 99 cents as a Kindle book!