HEART OF SHADOW
I'M NOT AFRAID OF THE SHADOW. HE'S THE ONLY THING KEEPING ME ALIVE.
I'm hiding in my father's closet, desperately picking the lock on a box containing an ancient evil when he emerges. He doesn't seem all that evil. But neither did my friends before they turned into monsters.
I'd like to think that I don't need him. But I love books and he loves battles. I'm used to drinking tea and he's used to drinking the blood of his enemies. Or whatever his kind drink.
In a world stricken by plague, all my friends have become terrifying monsters, and I have no other option but to trust him to keep me safe.
He'll teach me to hunt those monsters and I'll try not to fall hopelessly in love with him.
For lovers of EVER THE HUNTED, BLADE AND ROSE, and THE WITCHER comes a fantasy tale of magic, swords, plague, and monster-hunting. Intense, fast-paced, and utterly addictive, you'll love this new fantasy adventure by USA TODAY bestselling author, Sarah K. L. Wilson.
Ilsaletta & VARGAARD
"Intense. Delightful. Unrelenting. A no-nonsense heroine, a sword of questionable origin, and a plot that sinks its claws in and does not let go. Grab a reading buddy and buckle in. This is one hell of a ride."
- Melissa Wright, Bestselling YA Fantasy Author
I’m shattering, shattering, shattering. My fingers are icicles smashing to fragments. Every breath is shards of glass slicing through my lungs.
He’s in the room outside my closet door looking under the bed and opening drawers. And I still haven’t opened the box. I’ve been working on this lock with a letter opener and a bit of twisted metal for a day and a half. My fingers are nicked and bloody and they hurt all the time.
I almost had it a few hours ago, but then my hand shook, and the last tumbler fell back and I lost every bit of progress. An itch is forming between my shoulder blades from nervous sweat and my bottom lip is trembling so hard and I can’t make it stop because this time, if I don’t get the box open I’m definitely going to die instead of just maybe.
Because he is right outside my door.
And he’s hunting me.
Just a few days ago he was the cook’s boy. He brought in firewood and turned spits and joked with the guards when they came in the back to tease cook into giving them hot buns and tea. One day he gave me a daisy with my morning breakfast, his brown eyes shy in a face still soft with you.
“Because it’s smiling like you,” had been his stumbling explanation and now he’s outside my door smashing the wardrobe to splinters because I’m not inside it.
And oh skies, I’m not going to get this lock open. I’m going to fail again. And then all I’ll have to fight him will be my grandfather’s letter opener. He used it to hold off a pack of goblins intent on eating his flesh – or at least that’s the story he told me when I was small. But this is no pack of goblins and I am not grandfather.
I am Isaletta. I drank clover tea on my eighteenth birthday, five days ago. I am the daughter of Admiral Redtide.
I will be dead if I don’t get this lock open.
That’s the fourth tumbler turning. I’ve been this far now at least a dozen times but there’s a fifth tumbler and maybe more – oh sweet skies, I hope there isn’t more! I ease my pick into the little dip between them and try for what feels like the hundred thousandth time to find the leverage I need to shift that last tumbler. The vibrations in the little pick tell me that I’ve caught the edge of something.
Something new has broken on the other side of the door. The closet handle jiggles. It’s always been loose and the metal jingles when you try to open it while it’s locked.
Blood fills my mouth. I’ve bitten my tongue.
Please. If there is a divine sovereign out there, hear my prayer and let this last tumbler turn.
The handle jingles again and his harsh breathing gusts so loudly that I can hear it through two inches of oak door.
My cheeks are hot with streaming tears but I must not make a sound. I haven’t made a sound in four days. Except the tiny scratching sound of trying to pick this lock.
I know what is coming and I know I can’t afford to flinch. He’ll try to bash the door down. He won’t be the first. It was the footman the first day. But he was already weak and he had no weapon. His fists were not enough to shatter oak. I don’t think that the cook’s boy is only using his fists. But I know that whatever he does, I must not jump or flinch and lose my place in the tumblers.
The closet shudders but I hold my breath and keep my hands still. My breath saws through my chest painfully, but silently. I have become practiced at silence just like I am practiced at listening to the constant drip of the rain and remaining still in the ever-present darkness of the closet.
Another bang from the room suggests that the cook’s boy is putting his shoulder into his work. The dust on the floor bounces when he flings himself at the door again. My bits of metal are getting slippery. I’m sweating in ways I can’t stop and can’t allow.
I need this open. I need what is in it. And oh, divine sovereign, don’t let my father have lied to me about this box.
I feel the tumbler ease just a little and I can’t quite hold back my excited gasp.
“You’re in there, poppet. I know you are.”
That’s not Herralt’s voice. I know his voice. It’s unsteady as he eases into manhood. But it does not wheedle like that.
I can’t afford to move too fast and lose my pressure on the tumbler. I try to think of anything except the boy breaking down the door.
Out there, far to the south, my father sails with his fleet bearing Lord and Lady Harrowcross to the Pocco Perra Islands where they will drink vanilla rum and bathe their feet in the warm turquoise seas and dream as the susurrating songs of the Pocco people and even if I fail here, he will never know how I lied my last days.
I cling to that. And I take a deep breath and twist.
Light pours into the closet through a narrow sliver as the wood of the door splinters. He found an axe.
But my hands have not shaken too badly. I have not lost my purchase. I squeeze my eyes shut and channel all my focus into my fingers and seeing the tumblers in my head and I twist.
The axe is buried deep. He’s wrenching it back and forth to free it. Oak does not break easily and neither do I.
The last tumbler shifts and the lock opens with a snick at the same moment that all his efforts break the lock of my door. He wrenches it open as I pry the lid open.
Breath gusts from my lungs but this is not shock, it’s relief. My father didn’t lie and my salvation gleams in the bright light pouring into the closet.
My hands fit around the grip of the sword as if it was made for them. It’s balanced and easy to lift – which is good because I have only a heartbeat to draw it from the velvet bed it lay on and lift it up in front of me like a horn before he crashes in the door, arms raised, axe over his head.
Not like that. Hold it higher. Slide your bottom hand lower. Have you never held a sword before?
The thoughts aren’t mine but they’re useful. I adjust as he roars toward me.
He doesn’t look surprised as the sharp blade slides through his belly.
I can’t stop the shake in my hands, though. I can’t stop the way my breath gulps.
Steady now! This is no tea ceremony.
He stumbles back, off my blade, one hand clutching his belly, the other raising his axe. His mouth opens and I’m braced for his roar, but it doesn’t come. Instead, something that looks like pink smoke rolls out of his mouth and coalesces into a creature with holes for eyes and a screaming mouth. Its talons rip through the air as it claws toward me.
I bite back my scream.
Out of the closet! Out! No room to maneuver in here!
I stumble out, but more room isn’t going to help me. I’m no swordswoman. I should flee while I can.
You can’t. He’ll hack that axe into your back. Keep the blade up. Higher. Hold this stance.
Herrault’s mouth twists and he lunges toward me, axe raised as the strange smoke creature screeches, darting forward just inches from my face.
I don’t scream. I just freeze like a rabbit faced with a slathering dog. The light pouring through the window behind me casts my shadow over his face and I can’t see his expression anymore.
And then darkness grips the pink smoke, and it rips into a thousand tiny scraps and dissipates.
Now I scream. It starts as a squeak and builds into a thready wail.
And something shifts.
I don’t know what I’m seeing. I’m probably hallucinating. The first few days that I was locked in the closet, I hallucinated all kinds of things. I thought I heard friends. Saviors. Thought I could smell bread baking.
Now, I’m seeing a dark shadow coalesce and then lunge. It lifts Herrault up and before he can scream, it throws him and I brace myself as he falls with his neck directly on my blade. It’s so sharp that it slices through flesh without knocking me over from the force and I’m left gasping, shocked and horrified as I try to keep my balance.
I’m going to be sick.
There is no shadow now, just a bloody sword in my hands and a dead boy at my feet and I’m going to vomit.
I turn to the side and heave, but I haven’t eaten in almost two days and nothing comes up but a thready stream of acid and water.
I’m no swordswoman. I’m no guard. I don’t even spend time in the courtyard when they’re killing chickens. I avoid looking at what I’ve done as I clean the blade with numb hands on the hanging tapestry there. It’s a tapestry of Veronika, the warrior angel who slew and army to save a besieged city. In the woven threads she’s shown on a white horse with three squalling babes in her arms. I have saved no one but myself, and still I think she wouldn’t mind that I’m wiping life’s blood onto her tapestry.
It can’t be real. Pink smoke. Shadows fighting my battles for me. None of this can be real.
But you know to clean the blade. You know to show it respect. I can work with that. I’ve had far worse pupils.
The blade sparkles in my hand – black as night, even the wrapped hilt, even the dark gems on the pommel.
“What’s in the box,” I had asked my father when I was small. He kept it always on a high shelf in his study – dust free and polished, shining as only lacquer can.
“An ancient evil and a tale.”
“How can evil be in a box?” I had asked, wide-eyed as he drew me onto his lap, balanced me there and put my hands on the hilt of his sword.
“All swords are evil, Ilsaletta,” he said gently. “For they are made for one thing only – to slice the cord of a man’s life. But some evils are necessary or there will be no good.”
“Is there a sword in the box?” I had asked.
He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear tenderly and smiled. “So, they say. I have never opened the box and I never will. The key was lost long before my time and I am too old to be a fool. What is locked up is often best kept that way. This sword is more than a tool. It’s possessed by an ancient evil with a heart of its own. A dark, shadow heart. Only a fool would want to loose that upon the world.”
Coward’s words. They always fear me. They wish they had my great power.
Only the insane hear voices in their heads and since I was hearing a voice, I must be mad.
You are not mad.
If I wasn’t mad then why was I standing over a dead boy with shaking hands and a dark blade and listening to a baritone voice talk in my head.
Because a creature with a baritone voice is talking in your head.
You saw me. I was the shadow that aided your efforts to slay the corricle.
What’s a corricle?
The vessel of an evil being. The kind of being I usually try to avoid – or slay as the mood takes me.
Like the sword I held in my trembling hands. The sword that I should put back in the box.
No! Definitely not that.
I hesitate. I haven’t talked to someone else in four days. My mind aches for company.
If you lock the sword away, how will you defend yourself if more of them come? Be reasonable.
I’m already shivering, so there’s no new reaction to his thoughts, but I know he’s right. I watched from the study window that first night.
Arnault, the captain of the guard slew the first to attack him. When the creature fell it was like a ringing bell and a dozen more poured in from every direction. They overwhelmed him and dragged him under the mass of their bodies. And that was when I locked myself in the closet.
Dark memories, mortal girl. Dark, dark musings.
I am not a dark person. I see sunshine in between clouds. I notice the flower sprouting, not the crumbling wall under it. I save the goats born with deformities.
Even the brightest of lights must face the shadow someday. Today, it is your time. But you are fortunate. I am with you.
Scuffling sounds met my ears from somewhere below. I froze. Those were too large to be rats.
More enemies. Wait for them …
I bit my lip and eased slowly back toward the closet. There had been safety there before.
With a fresh kill in front of the door, you will tell the whole world where you came from. Better to stand firm and face them as they come. Cowardice is the friend of fools.
I was not firm. I was shattering. I was pieces of the girl I once was.
Not true. It only feels like that for now. A first kill will do that. In time, your pieces will weld back together – stronger in the places where they broke.
Who are you?
I closed the door of the closet behind me and turned the key in the lock, alone in the dark once more except for the ray of light shining through the hole the axe cut.
I am a Nakuraki. Guardian of empires, defender of queens, caught in the shadow of this dark sword for a thousand years. And released now in your time of need.
That was impossible. People didn’t live in the shadows of swords.
I am not a person – not anymore. Have you heard of the boogeyman?
The butler liked to tell scary stories when he was deep in his cups and one was of the boogeyman who lived in closets and under the bed. Light a candle and he fled.
I’m like that. But I don’t live under the bed. I live in a shadow.
How did you get in the sword’s shadow?
Too long I have slumbered untouched by another mind. I have lost much. My memories are moth eaten and they crumble to dust in my hands.
I worry my lip between my teeth. I should put the sword back in the box. If it is really haunted by some kind of boogeyman, then it is no wonder that my father has kept it locked up. No wonder he has pronounced it evil.
But my hands feel heavy at the thought of locking it back in the box. It is my only weapon. And in my closet sanctuary, I am low on water. By tomorrow I will have nothing to drink. I haven’t had food in two days.
But worse than all of it is the loneliness and fear. Every moment drags on and on. Every bump in the great house forces my heart to spike with fear and there is no one to help me be brave. There is no one to bear it all with me.
The Nakuraki bears the danger for the Vali. The Nakuraki is the companion of the right hand and the guide to the foot.
I don’t know what any of that means.
It means I will be here with you – if you will trust me. I will speak the vows of the Nakuraki to you – vows that will protect you and bind me in your service. Vows that will keep you safe.
Footsteps. They are clear even with the Nakuraki speaking in my mind. Someone is coming and there are no friends left in my father’s great house. The guards are dead or turned. Cook and the maids and my father’s manager and now even the kitchen boy – are all dead or dying.
Whoever is still here will want me dead, too.
I know my limits. Without the Nakuraki’s help, Herrault would have split my head with that axe.
I swallow down the fear climbing up my throat. I need to make a decision. I am weak and small and untrained for this. My skill with maps and languages us nothing in a world of kill or be killed. My best hope is a powerful ally and the only one offering is the Nakuraki.
If I accept his help, what will happen to me? Will he take me over like the smoke took over Herrault?
That is not my way. Even shattered as I am, I have not lost my honor.
Will I die, unable to bear his essence – just like cook who had doubled over, screaming about a voice and then clutched her throat and died on the spot?
I will die before I allow that.
Are you not dead? His baritone laughter in my mind is not comforting at all.
The door of my father’s study creaks open and heavy breathing tells me the newcomer is in a hurry.
I must decide right now, or it will be too late.
I protected Queen Gersa of Felinor from the raving priests of the Thunder God. I slew two hundred that day.
Where was Felinor and who was Queen Gersa?
I … he sounds confused. I can’t remember.
But it is still the best offer available to me.
I agree, Nakuraki. I wish to bind you in my service.
I am worried by the glee I feel in his mental voice.
Let it be done!