If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know today is a very exciting day (and hey, if you’re new here, welcome!). Daughter of Nightmares is officially live in the Amazon store in both ebook and paperback! Return to Astryae eighteen years after the action in the prequel novella and meet Lilianna Trevil and her found family as she battles for her life against angels and demons alike.
Curious? Here’s a quick peek inside chapter one.
“This is your last chance to change your mind.” Father’s voice dipped with warning, the tone he’d reserved for reprimands and reminders over the years. “Are you certain this is what you want?”
I followed his gaze towards the crowded fairgrounds. Oil lanterns hung from thick ropes like stars above the festivities. Tents and game booths sat scattered throughout the tousled bed of grass. Spices and ale perfumed the air. Children shrieked as they ran back and forth through the maze of people. Whimsical music drifted out from the ticket booth, an outstretched hand beckoning me to come join in the fun.
I had never been more certain of anything in my life. “Yes, please. It’s silly, but I’ve always wanted to visit the festival.”
I waited for Father to criticize my choice in entertainment for the night. Though we attended Temple each morning and said our prayers before bed, festivals and celebrations rarely made it into our calendar. Father offered dozens of excuses for avoiding the festivities over the years. By the time I’d turned ten, I realized frivolous concepts like “fun” had little place in Father’s life.
Father snorted and shook his head, but he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of dull coins. “If you’re certain. Biggest waste of money in Faomere if you ask me. But it’s your gift.”
The reminder sent a shiver down my back despite the warm spring night. My eighteenth birthday. The morrow, and year to come, promised a slew of changes. Father’s investments into private tutors and etiquette lessons would pay off once suitors arrived to request my hand in marriage. He’d auction me off to the highest bidder. He’d claim he made the decision in my best interest. Nothing could transform me into the son he wanted, but he’d done everything in his power to ensure I’d age into a profitable daughter. A prized pig plumped for slaughter.
“What if I have no desire to be someone’s wife or mother?” My final question died on my tongue. No high-bred girl with a brain in her head would wish to die an old spinstress.
Unless some miracle transformed me into a man overnight, most career options remained off-limits. The law in Faomere permitted women to ‘volunteer’ their time. Paid professions and the pursuit of higher education, however, were limited to men. If Father failed to arrange an advantageous marriage, I’d end up a servant or die in the streets of starvation.
“You will.” Father took the paper tickets from the man behind the booth. He passed me one and added, “You have the rest of your life to figure out what kind of woman you wish to become. Why not enjoy one last night of being a girl?”
Though what was to come still weighed on my shoulders, a smile tugged at my lips as he slid a ticket into my hands. I’d dreamed of this moment for years. Every autumn when the carnival came to town, I cracked open the window next to the bed and fell asleep to the trumpets and drums. I pressed the paper to my chest. Nothing could ruin tonight for me, not even the uncertainty of the future.
Smoked jackalope and spices wafted into my nostrils. “What should we try first? The food?”
“Not unless your gut is made of iron.” Father chuckled and rubbed his stomach. “It smells better than it sits. Come, we’ll investigate the game booths. Perhaps you can win a prize.”
I opened my mouth to agree as the flap on the largest tent in the ring’s center flew open. A tall, broad-chested man with a top hat emerged, a woman almost double his height behind him. His smile cut into me like daggers as I studied his too-perfect complexion.
The man straightened his suit and cupped his hands around his mouth. His voice boomed as he shouted over the music, “Come one, come all, witness the main attraction! Collected from all parts of Astryae, it is my pleasure to present to you the world-famous Monster Marquee!”
A chill spread through my body. Father shook his head beside me, but I paid him no attention. I glued my eyes to the strange couple from the tent. The behemoth of a woman waved her arms and smiled, her teeth cracked and yellowed.
“You won’t find another act in Astryae like ours, folks!” The echo of her voice carried on for miles. “Don’t miss your chance to behold the most sinister display in entertainment.”
I reached for Father’s arm, my voice high. “Please, Father, can we go?”
“Are you mad?” He jerked away. “They design their performance to scare you, Lili. Why would we pay good money for that?”
I fought back the urge to roll my eyes. With one of the largest estates in all Faomere, our household never experienced empty bellies or cold beds. Yet Father lived as if his prosperity might dry up any day. The cost of admission didn’t scratch the surface of his budget for the week, but the tone of his voice suggested we might starve from the loss.
I didn’t have time to reason him into defeat. A sea of bodies swarmed the tent. They’d sell out of tickets before Father moved.
“Please, Father?” I pressed my hands together in front of my chest and batted my eyes, my bottom lip out.
Father’s shoulders slumped. He hung his head and sighed. “If you want to walk into their devil’s trap I won’t stop you. But you’ll go alone.”
“You heard me. I’ve seen enough monsters in my day.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out two small copper coins. “Here. Twenty lamna should be more than enough for one ticket. I’ll wait for you out here by the game booths.”
My hand shook as I accepted the money. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Why? Is your confidence faltering?”
“Of course not. I hate to think of you standing out here all alone though.”
Father chuckled and shooed me away. “I’d rather be out here any day. Go, have fun.”
The tent seemed larger up close. The red and black stripes towered over my head, a caged lion positioned in front of the door. My pulse quickened the closer I ventured, my hands damp with perspiration. Once the man with the top hat caught my eye, his face split into a predatory grin.
“Welcome, child. Care to purchase a ticket?” A gold canine tooth glistened beneath the moonlight, his dark eyes hungry.
My grip on the copper pieces tightened. “What goes on in there?”
“That’s what the ticket is for, my dear. To satisfy your sick curiosity.”
He had me there. “How much?”
“How much do you have?”
I handed him the coins, my eyes glued to his face. “Is it safe?”
“Safe enough. For the audience, anyway.” He shoved the money into the pocket of his coat without bothering to count. I waited for him to hand me a ticket, but he pulled the flap back and grinned.
“Right this way, girl. Enjoy the show.”
I disregarded the man’s ominous tone and stepped into the dimly lit tent. My limbs shook with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The shadowy atmosphere did little to comfort me. Wooden benches circled the raised stage inside. Every seat in the place appeared occupied. I slipped into the first empty spot I could find, a small space at the end of a bench near the back. A giant elephant balloon floated at the top of the domed roof. Body odor and smoke choked the air as the room buzzed with anticipation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time,” a feminine voice boomed moments later. “Welcome to the most sinister sideshow in Astryae.”
Fire erupted around the platform like a geyser. The crowd gasped. A woman descended from the ceiling on a silver hoop swing. Her right hand gripped a sleek black cane, her left a black top hat. Long dark curls framed her ivory skin, her lips painted blood-red. A short, stretchy black gown clung to her slender body. She flipped the hat onto her head and lifted her gaze to the crowd, her eyes crimson.
“Shall we?” A sadistic smile crossed her lips. She raised her fingers and snapped; the flames extinguished in a flash. Three silk ropes dropped from the ceiling. Slender women twirled in the nude through mid-air as they wrapped the silk around their flesh. The music slowed as the audience froze in mesmer.
Pale red smoke drifted from the ground up to the ceiling. Irritation tickled the back of my throat. My eyes burned as the thick fog obscured my vision. The music picked back up, and for the first time, I wondered if I made a mistake in begging so hard to come here. Once the smoke cleared, the woman and dancers vanished with it.
I spent the first half of the show in a daze. My fingernails dug into the underside of the wooden bench as my jaw gaped. Men swallowed swords and hypnotized reptiles with tiny flutes. A pair of strong men lifted elephants over their heads. Everyone watched with morbid curiosity as a girl bent her limbs backward and crawled across the stage like a spider. A woman danced and flipped with a flaming stick in her hands, her body’s movements and the way the fire complimented it both artistic and eerie. Once her performance ended, she opened her mouth and engulfed the flame before exhaling it towards the sky. The audience clapped and cheered as the animals and performers worked their magic. Every bottom, mine included, remained glued to the edge of their seats.
The lights dropped. Gasps of surprise rippled through the tent. I held my breath and sat on the edge of my seat, ready to run for the door if the need arose. My head swam. My corset hugged too tight against my ribs as if my lungs had expanded with smoke.
Fire exploded once more. The woman from the start of the show returned, her body fastened to a wooden wheel. The man in the suit from outside stood in front of her. His fingers curled around a stack of five silver daggers. A maroon scarf hugged his neck. He turned to the spectators with a possessed gleam in his topaz eyes.
“There are forces in this world we cannot understand.” His expression was grim as he spoke. He opened his palms, but his eyes remained fixed on the crowd. The blades in his hands levitated inches above his open hands. They hovered without movement as he lifted the scarf around his neck over his eyes. “Powers older than the universe itself. Few can access those powers, and fewer still can control them without being consumed.”
How is this possible? My heart leaped into my throat. Though no one around me appeared bothered, a cold sweat glued my chemise to my flesh. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut until I woke up in my bed at home with the madness behind me.
The mysterious ringleader, however, had other plans. He held my attention captive, my eyes unable to blink or disengage from the scene.
The man wiggled his arm. The blades swirled in a slow circle as a foreboding smile crept onto his face. “Those of us who master such powers become the gatekeepers of Death himself. Rasvan, give her a spin, would you?”
The sword swallower from the first half of the show bumbled back on stage. I detected no fear on his face as he lumbered towards the enormous wooden contraption. The woman didn’t blink as he approached, her lips stretched into a smile. He reached for the top and yanked the device into motion before scurrying off-stage faster than I’d expected possible for someone his size.
The audience remained silent as a graveyard while we waited for the ringleader’s next move. Everyone leaned forward in their seats. A few people in the back row stood for a better view. My jaw clenched. Whatever the ringleader had planned, the crazed smile on his lips told me to expect danger. The ends of the scarf around his eyes wiggled as he raised his arm and twirled his index finger in a circle.
The daggers rose and flipped, each sharp end now pointed at the captive woman. A deep chuckle left his lips as he flexed a finger and sent the first dagger soaring through the air. The tip of the blade impaled the wood inches above the woman’s head with a sickening thud.
No one moved to stop him. He whistled under his breath and spun in a circle as he flexed his index finger once more. The woman squealed as the second dagger nicked the tip of her ear before hitting the wood. Blood dark enough to mirror an oil spill ran down the side of her face. Her smile never faltered.
My mouth went dry. Had the rest of the crowd expected such a strange performance? Why had no one spoken up to help the woman strapped to the wheel? The ringleader hurled the third blade before I could ponder more. The dagger whooshed through the air and landed between her index finger and thumb. I held my breath and waited for the ringleader to throw the last two levitating knives.
The drums rumbled. The wheel continued to spin, the woman’s face still glued in a smile. I dug my nails into my palms and waited for something to go wrong. Luck had blessed the ringleader’s sinister tricks, but everyone’s luck ran out.
The fourth dagger spun and sailed into the timber between the woman’s splayed legs. I waited for the blood to pour from her skirt, but her expression never changed. The ringleader whistled as he flung the final dagger into the wood a hair away from the woman’s slender neck. A tense silence hung over the room as the spectators collectively exhaled. Through either some miracle or dark magic, the woman remained unharmed.
The crowd exploded into a chorus of cheers and whistles. People sprang to their feet as the thunder of clapping split the air. The ringmaster slid his blindfold off. He gave a small bow, his pride etched into the lines of his skin.
“The only people who deny the existence and limitless potential of magic are those without access to it,” he said as he righted himself. “But don’t let parlor tricks and special effects fool you. Real magic comes at a price. And when the time comes to pay that price, no one can fight fate.”
The wheel froze. The woman’s eyes went wide as her lips formed an O. Her skin darkened, her ivory complexion transitioning into a smoke-gray before turning black. She crumbled to pieces like a stale cookie, a pile of onyx ashes left in her place. A dark vapor rose from the soot to the top of the tent. Tiny spots covered my arms as a chill gripped the room.
The tent darkened once more. Whatever the mischievous ringleader had planned for his captive audience had only just begun. A million questions about the scene raced through my mind. I should have forced Father to come in with me. I should have listened when he said no.
But time had run out. The lights rose once more and changed to red, the platform empty. A rumble of confusion spread through the tent. Was the show over? Where had all the performers gone?
The music morphed into something more sinister, the drums more robust. My chest tightened as my body tensed with anticipation. When the ringleader’s voice boomed through the arena, cold sweat drenched my body.
“We’ve seen some incredible talent here tonight,” his voice came from nowhere. “Fire dancers. Sword jugglers. Lion tamers. The invisible woman. All unique and talented freaks. But acts that have become…familiar. They don’t unsettle us the way they once did, even if they entertain.”
His boots appeared first, the rest of his body right behind. He descended from a rope somewhere in the top of the domed ceiling, his arms outstretched by his sides. At first glance I expected to see a noose around his neck, but no. Instead, someone tied a three-pronged fishhook to the end of the rope. The center prong spliced through his tongue, no other measures in place to ensure his safety. When his feet touched the ground he reached for his mouth and removed the hook, his lips curved into a smile as blood poured from the cracks in his teeth.
“I hope you’re ready.” The corners of his mouth twitched. “Bring her in!”
The strong men from the first half of the show stomped out with the fire dancer’s arms gripped between their meaty paws. She kicked and thrashed as they pulled her back on stage towards the wooden wheel. Daggers still protruded from the wood. The men forced her onto the wheel around the blades and strapped her down. The ringleader reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his mouth. His topaz eyes flashed to crimson as he advanced with a predatory lick of his lips.
The ringleader yanked one knife out of the wood. “Pain is an interesting sensation.” He ran a finger over the edge of the blade. “One of the few universal experiences every creature in the world shares.”
Without warning, he spun on his heel and slashed the blade down the woman’s face. My hands flew up to cover my eyes as the dancer howled in agony. I held my breath and waited for someone to intervene and stop the madman on stage, but no one moved. The audience remained transfixed under the ringmaster’s spell as the woman’s cries filled the tent.
No part of me wanted to see what the ringmaster was doing, but my fingers parted as if my curiosity had a mind of its own. I wiggled in my seat and prayed the show would end, but the woman’s screams only grew more tortured. I swallowed the lump of terror in my throat and forced my eyes open.
The ringmaster had stripped away the dancer’s tiny dress, her bare flesh exposed. Smears of blood covered her skin, a strange design carved into her abdomen. Bile rose into my throat. How much longer would the dancer live through the ringmaster’s sick torture? And why did none of the other viewers share my repulsion?
“Please, please, don’t!” The dancer’s tears choked her voice.
The ringmaster only laughed as he raised the knife over his head to plunge into her once more. No one moved to stop him or help her. The surrounding faces appeared more eager than afraid.
No. I sprang from my seat and raced out of the tent as fast as my feet would carry me. Twice I stumbled on someone’s foot or a stray rock, but I didn’t stop. I ran until the brisk night air met my skin. Acid rose from my throat as I struggled to breathe. I should have listened to Father; I should have stayed away.
“Lili? Lilianna, what’s wrong?”
Father appeared by my side. His face wrinkled with worry as he studied me. A pair of children giggled as they zoomed past. A chipper melody drifted out from the game booths. Father rested a hand on my back. His eyes searched my face for answers. Before I conjured an explanation, I fell to my knees and vomited into the grass. My lungs constricted against the corset as I heaved. Soil and sickness covered my linen skirt.
“Ugh.” Father groaned as he stepped back. “I hope you didn’t care much for that gown. I’m guessing it didn’t go well? What happened in there?”
I wiped my mouth on the back of my arm, my stomach still tight. How did I explain what I’d seen? A part of me felt dirty for being in the tent.
“The show was more intense than I expected,” I said, at a loss for other explanations that wouldn’t force me to sacrifice more pride. “I shouldn’t have pressed so hard to see it.”
I expected Father to chuckle at my expense. But his mouth remained a thin line as he searched my face. “What happened?” he asked again, this time with more urgency.
I rubbed my forehead. “Nothing. I overreacted. I’d never seen dark magic up close before.”
Father’s expression darkened as he reached a hand down to help me up. “I’ve told you a thousand times, Lili; there’s no such thing as magic. Whatever illusions they showed you were all part of an act. They prey on your fears for a living. Come. Let’s get you home. We’ve both had enough excitement for one night.”
I didn’t argue as I took Father’s hand and rose on shaky knees, my chest still tight. The ground beneath my feet felt unsteady the entire walk home. I could still hear the music when I climbed into bed hours later, the images burned onto the backs of my eyelids.
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