That Dark Infinity

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By Kate Pentecost

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An immortal monster hunter and a royal handmaiden embark on an epic journey to change their fates in this soul-stirring young adult fantasy novel for fans of The Witcher and The Last Unicorn.

By night, the Ankou is a legendary, permanently young mercenary—the most fearsome sword for hire in all of the Five Lands, and its most abiding mystery. But when the sun rises, a dark magic leaves him no more than bones. Cursed with this cycle of death and resurrection, the Ankou wants only to find the final rest that has been prophesied for him, no matter the cost.

When the kingdom of Kaer-Ise is sacked, Flora, handmaiden to the royal family, is assaulted and left for dead. Wounded, heartbroken, and the sole survivor of the massacre, Flora wants desperately to be reunited with the princess she served and loved. She and the Ankou make a deal: He will help Flora find her princess, and train Flora in combat, in exchange for her aid in breaking his curse. But it isn’t easy to kill an immortal, especially when their bond begins to deepen into something more . . .

Together, they will solve mysteries, battle monsters, and race against time in this fantasy novel about sacrifice, love, and healing by Elysium Girls author Kate Pentecost.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

TWO MILES FROM THE VILLAGE OF IVO, IN A FOREST full of shifting shadows, a caravan stood alone in a shaft of moonlight. It was solid black, including the walls and the shutters and the curlicues of wood that ornamented the sides. The spokes of the wheels were black, the trimmings on the window and roof were black, and even the horses who pulled it were as black as the night they blended almost seamlessly into. This caravan was one of the greatest mysteries of Valacia, not because of anything about the caravan itself, but because of the one who drove it.

There was a stirring, and one of the two black draft horses lifted his head. A moment later, the door opened. A tall, angular young man stepped out onto the grass and yawned.

“Nik, Tal,” he said, nodding to the horses. The young man seemed like any other in Valacia: lanky and sharp-nosed, dark of hair and eye, with a smattering of patchy stubble on his chin. But his sleek black clothes, his broad black hat, and the tiny silver hourglass that hung around his neck marked this particular young man as the Ankou, the most fearsome and mysterious monster-slayer in all of the Five Lands—and the most abiding mystery.

He glanced upward, where the sky above the trees was just beginning to blacken. Plenty of time until dawn, he thought, and tossed a bundle of white sage into the fire. The sage began to smoke and billow, and the Ankou stood in its path, letting it permeate his hair and clothes. Soon, he began to cough. “I hate this stuff,” he said to no one as he tried to wave it away from his face.

When he had cleared enough of it out of his eyes and nose, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the latest of several small black notebooks and opened the page he’d marked with a piece of charcoal. “Where was I? Oh yes…”

The word possession seemed to leap out at him from the page, and, following it, a brief description written in his own hand:

Town healer bargained for greater power after failing to save child from sickness.

Date of possession: unknown.

It was a classic story. A well-meaning healer had wanted to do something beyond her power and had paid ghastly consequences for it. This healer, unsurprisingly, had been a natural witch. Witches were very rare and had a subtle magic that was innate and touched everything, unlike mages whose big, flashy magic was limited to fire or water or whatever element they’d been born into. However, witches often resorted to more drastic means of getting what they wanted when things didn’t go their way, and so once every few decades, he found himself on one of these cases. He heaved a world-weary sigh. Possession cases were always troublesome.

Animal victims: .

He recalled his conversation with the town elder the previous evening. “When the animals began to disappear, were there any pieces left behind?”

“Whole,” she’d said. “Save for a leg here, or a head there. But she always left the tongues.”

Dismembered, he wrote in the blank. A bad sign. He went to the next line, and his hand hovered over the blank after Human victims: .

“Has she killed any people?” he’d asked next, hoping fervently for a no.

But the elder’s wrinkles had deepened, and she said, in a voice so tired it rivaled his own, “We have no children anymore, thanks to her. They went missing, one by one, starting about three months ago. And we began to find parts of them… wrapped in broad leaves, waiting on doorsteps…”

He shuddered. After human victims, the Ankou wrote, Dismembered, eaten.

The Ankou strongly preferred monsters to demons. When a demon possession case was so far gone that the victim resorted to killing humans, there was no saving them. He could only destroy whatever was left.

He shut his book and put it away. Then he strapped a silver greathammer to his back, cocked his broad black hat at his usual rakish angle, and headed out into the forest to find the demon.

The night was full of calls and cries and the fluttering of wings. The shadows seemed to deepen and grow, to flit and shift. Everything had a smell of frost and earth and cold, and the darkness was thick as velvet. Anyone else might have overlooked or misinterpreted the signs, but the Ankou found the demon’s trail quickly. Disturbed ground made by human feet rather than deer hooves. A piece of cloth, torn from a shirt or tunic, resting in the leaves. And, most obviously, a smear of dried blood, stark against the silver of a birch tree trunk.

He followed these signs until the woods ended and he entered a clearing so misty he couldn’t see the ground. In the back of the clearing were the remains of what once had been a cottage, short and squat, crouching in the mist. Inside, someone was standing there, still, watching him. A cold trickle ran up his spine.

In the lopsided black mouth that had once been the cottage door, the demon stood within the possessed witch’s body, holding it so unnaturally still that the Ankou shuddered. The witch’s dress hung in dirty shreds, and her nails made her hands appear long and clawlike. She took a step out onto the grass and sniffed the air like an animal.

“All that sage,” the witch said, voice only vaguely human. “But still the stink of death beneath it… strange.”

“Do you know who I am?” the Ankou asked. His voice cracked a little on am, but he hoped the demon wouldn’t notice.

“Some young mercenary trying to make his name.” The healer shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me as long as you’re still tender.”

As the Ankou stepped nearer, he could see something hanging around the demon’s neck: a necklace made of white beads. He squinted. No, not beads. Children’s milk teeth.

“Do you like my bauble, mercenary?” The witch grinned, pushing the teeth one by one along the string. “Perhaps when we’re done I’ll add a few of yours.”

Something moved beneath the skin of the healer’s cheek—crawled and disappeared again. So there really was nothing left of the victim, the Ankou thought, only the husk of her body. Having no one left to rescue made things easier.

“How long has it been since she came to you for power?” he asked.

“Eight years,” said the witch, no… the demon. “Eight years of her blood in a teaspoon, and now there is only me.”

So long, the Ankou thought. No wonder. She must have fought against these urges for years without anyone knowing. And all for nothing. But the Ankou could not spend too much time feeling sorry for her. The challenge came next. No one could defeat a demon without knowing the right name to banish it with.

The demon smiled, stretching the witch’s mouth so wide that the corners of her dead flesh slowly tore. “And now I will taste new blood, mercenary. Yours.”

The Ankou badly wanted to respond with something clever but couldn’t think up anything like that on the spot—he never could, and it was one of his secret shames—so he just shrugged out of his black cloak and hung it on a nearby tree branch. Then he slid his falx—an ancient sickle-like blade—out of its sheath and faced the demon.

“Astaroth?” he asked.

“Ha! Trying to guess my name?” Jerky in its borrowed body, it stepped onto the dark leaves. “Good luck. I haven’t been seen on this plane of existence in two hundred years.”

Well, the Ankou thought, that narrowed it down quite a bit.

The demon’s fists clenched and unclenched. It blinked its dead eyes, and its tongue flickered out between its lips like a snake’s. A ball of pulsing darkness appeared in its hand, darker than the night around them. Then the demon slowly rose from the ground, floating in the healer’s body, dirty bare feet just touching the leaves.

“Anamalech?” the Ankou asked. “Sabnok?”

The demon hurled the ball of darkness, its arm stretching farther than it should have been able to stretch, and the Ankou leapt out of the way as it hit a tree behind him.

“Vox?” he guessed as the leaves fell from the tree and went to dust. “Namtar?”

The dust began to whirl around the clearing. It thickened to an opaque blackness, and the demon disappeared completely. The Ankou saw shapes twisting in the black barrier around him like sculptures of smoke: faces with fangs, hands with claws, shadowy, twisted bodies that writhed and lunged out at him, but he knew it was all theatrics. Then the darkness drew back. It rose like a thunderhead before him, huge and ominous. He felt something behind him, but before he could lash his sword backward, the demon flashed into existence, one long claw sharp against his throat.

“My name,” the demon hissed in his ear, “is Moloch!”

With a savage wrench, the demon slashed through the layers of bandages, deep into the Ankou’s throat. His jugular severed. Blood burst, red and steaming, into the night air. He felt the heat and wetness of it running down his neck and closed his eyes tight, hoping against everything, praying for a miracle…

But the blood stopped.

Changed directions.

Climbed back up the Ankou’s neck, back into his veins, like it always did. And as the Ankou’s skin knitted itself back together, the demon glanced down and saw its claws clean of blood.

“This cannot be,” it muttered.

But it could be, and it was, and it always would be.

“Moloch, was that it?” the Ankou said when his vocal cords were whole again.

“Wait!” the demon said.

But the Ankou drove his falx into the demon’s stomach and pushed hard, holding the demon there on the curve of the blade. The demon lurched forward, clutching the blade, and gagged. Then its eyes went dark with recognition.

“I know you,” it spluttered. “I have seen you in the Between!” It grinned, its too-wide mouth stretching into a bloody, toothy line. “You are the one who stands still at the place where all the worlds meet… waking and dying… waking and dying forever. The unholiest curse. And all for the love of a witch like this one.”

Blood dribbled from the demon’s mouth, and it began to change. Everything about it shifted until it was not the middle-aged healer, but a young woman impaled on the Ankou’s sword, her olive skin paling with blood loss, her dark hair falling to her waist. The demon looked up at him with her eyes, Ana’s eyes.

“Why, my love?” it said through bloody lips.

The Ankou gritted his teeth and pushed his falx all the way in to the hilt. “By your name I bind you, Moloch. Return to the place between worlds.” He reached into his pocket and tossed a handful of black salt onto the demon.

There was a terrible sizzling sound, and the demon yowled. It writhed and sank to the ground, pulling his falx with it. But there was still the body to get rid of. The Ankou took the silver hammer from his back. Then, putting all his will into it, he brought it down on the demon with one great blow.

The demon’s husk shattered like porcelain. Everything stopped. The swirling dust slowed and fell into a black circle around the Ankou; then the woods were still again.

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” the Ankou said to himself when the fight was over. He was a bit embarrassed, really. The demon never should have gotten a hit in. But at least he’d gotten to see the shock on its face when his wound had closed.

Now I will taste new blood, mercenary. Yours.

The Ankou sighed. “Too bad I don’t bleed,” he said. “That’s what I could have said. It would have been perfect.”

He strapped the hammer back onto his back and rebandaged his neck, muttering to himself about creating a book of comebacks if he ever had to take another demon job.

It struck him, the silence of the clearing, the peace without the demon there in it. The sadness. Then, just for a moment, he pulled the small hourglass necklace from his shirt: the last reminder of his life before the curse. He held the hourglass in his palm like an amulet as he searched the bloody, ramshackle hut. He held it as he studied the slashes of blood on the walls, held it as he tore up the floorboards and found children’s skulls, small and delicate.

Too late tugged around his ankles like a sad dog. Then he let the hourglass rest outside his shirt and did not touch it again.

Invincibility had been interesting at first, and it was true that the curse had allowed him to do things that no other mercenary in history had done. But three centuries had passed, and still he was no closer to the end of his true mission: finding the cure for his curse. The Five Lands, which had once seemed so vast, now seemed as small and claustrophobic as a closet. There was nothing he had not seen, nothing new to explore. He had even begun to recognize the Black Caravan’s tracks on most of the dirt roads in Valacia. That was when he had realized that, for all his travels, for all the generations of people he had watched born and grow old and die, he had only ever been going in circles. He shut the door to the healer’s hut and pulled his cloak back over his shoulders.

He felt a cold prickle under his skin and then, from everywhere and nowhere, the demon’s voice wound sinuously around him, getting one last taunt in before it had to leave this world. “You’ve heard what they say about you in the Between, haven’t you?” it purred. “The way you can escape her power?”

“I know the prophecy,” said the Ankou. “And so does everyone else in the Between, so spare me.”

But the demon carried on in a singsong voice.

“Lightning from the very earth,
a hidden golden key,

and one whose palm is starry
as the sky above the sea.

If the bound one gathers them,
these destined items three,

he can walk the Fates unfettered,
and come back whole and free.

But if he cannot find them,
though faithful he may be,

then by her love she’ll bind him,
and hers he’ll ever be!”

“There’s no use in being a sore loser, Moloch,” said the Ankou. “I’ve already tried all of that nonsense. Now back to the Between.”

Oh, I’m not the one who has lost,” the demon said. “I wouldn’t have your fate for all the souls in ten worlds, Ankou.”

Then, cackling, the demon leaked out of the plane of the living, back to the shadowy world where it belonged.




CHAPTER TWO

LESSONS WERE OVER, AND FLORELLE TANNETT LAY in the grass by the cliff, eyes closed, her long red-blond hair streaming out around her head like flames. Beside her, with straight brown hair intermingling with Flora’s curls, lay Princess Betheara Ilurosa, future queen of the island city-state of Kaer-Ise. It was a warm day, and the two of them had stripped to their underdresses, feeling the cool ocean breeze, as they had so often done since their friendship began. Lying there in the grass, they could have been any two girls in the world. Except, of course, for the ornate white gold circlet Beth spun on her finger. That braided circle of gold and pearls, however small, marked them as inhabitants of two different, yet interconnected worlds. And as much as she was tempted to on occasion, Flora never let herself forget that.

“I just don’t know,” Beth was saying. “I know it’s traditional, but I’m going to miss my hair. Do you think I can just give a royal decree that the hair-cutting part of the Calling ritual can be declared obsolete? I’m not going to look good with my head shaved.”

“It won’t be that bad,” Flora said. “And think of what will happen if you don’t. All the priestesses will be clutching their collars and saying what a rebellious princess you are—then somehow they’ll blame me for being a bad influence as a handmaiden.”

“Please,” Beth said. “You’re practically the Virtuous Goddess Emir yourself. You never bat your eyelashes at the guards or talk back to the tutors. You’re the one who really should be princess of Kaer-Ise.”

“You are kind of horrible at it,” Flora said, not opening her eyes.

“Hey!” Beth hit her in the shoulder.

“I’m joking,” Flora said. She sighed. “And you can complain all you want, but I’m kind of looking forward to my Calling. It’s just so important, you know? So… ancient and sacred. Holding that golden bridle in your hands, sitting in the forest—”

“Waiting for an extinct creature to come and lay its head on your lap and let the world know you’re a pure and virtuous maiden ready to go out and officially be a woman,” Beth said. “I know, I know.”

“It’s our culture, Beth,” Flora said, turning her head to look at her. And it was. The Calling of the Unicorn was a sacred part of Kaer-Isian life and had been even before the unicorn maidens of Kaer-Ise had ended the Necromancer’s War three hundred years ago by calling the unicorns from the sea to slay the dead. They lost all the unicorns as a result, but after the war, Kaer-Ise finally gained the respect it was due from Valacia, directly south, Skaard to the north, and even Parth, far to the west. A Kaer-Isian maiden’s Calling was a ceremony that invoked the goddess Emir, the maiden of eternal virtue, and even if unicorns were gone now, there was no more sacred ritual in all of Kaer-Ise.

“I know,” said the princess. “I just think it’s a little… outdated. The war was three hundred years ago. You don’t see Valacians still hanging on to it like we do.” She huffed. “You know, I’d love to see Valacia. Maybe when I’m queen. You’ll go with me, of course, no matter what my husband will say.”

Her husband. Beth hadn’t chosen a suitor. She had recently refused an engagement to the prince of Skaard, and for a moment it had looked like it might get ugly between the two nations, but nothing had come of it. Still, the thought of Beth being married, about it not being just the two of them anymore, always made Flora’s heart catch in her chest. It would be a husband for Princess Betheara, of course, and not a wife, though women marrying women and men marrying men wasn’t uncommon in Kaer-Ise. Beth only had eyes for handsome young men, and Flora… well… A beautiful girl could fluster her just as much as a handsome young man could. Not that she had told Beth this. Not yet. She would one day soon, but right now things were so good and uncomplicated that she hated to run the risk of anything changing. Still, she didn’t want to think about Beth being married, so she said, “Where would you want to go if we went to Valacia?”

“Davasca,” Beth said decidedly. “That water mage who does the tricks told me that the bazaar there is the best in the world, that it goes on and on and on forever and you can find anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Imagine all the interesting things we could find! All the people we could meet. Who knows?” She put a playfully eerie tone in her voice. “Maybe we could even meet the Ankou!”

“Beth!”

“Maybe he’d spirit us away in that Black Caravan!” Beth said, grabbing Flora’s shoulder.

“Ugh, you know I hate those stories!”

“I wonder what he looks like under all that black?” Beth said. “I hear he’s handsome.”

“Gods, you’re hopeless.” Flora rolled over in the grass. The sky had begun to change colors. Soon they’d have to go back to the palace. Flora peered into the forest that separated their cliff from the rest of Kaer-Ise. Sometimes, when she was little, she had imagined that a unicorn had survived somehow and was waiting for her there. Sometimes she almost thought she caught a glimpse of one through the trees. Absently, she pulled something from her pocket: a red pincushion stuck through with pins and needles. Her mother’s. It was the only thing she’d had with her when she’d been taken in by the priestesses at the temple, after her mother died and before Betheara had chosen her out of all the orphans to be her handmaiden. Her prized possession. She held it up, letting the orange light of the sunset dance on the pins.

“Do you think Emir is really watching us, Flora?” Beth said. “Do you think there’s really anybody or anything up there that cares?”

Flora thought about this. But before she could answer, a high, metallic peal broke the serene evening air. The alarm bells. And that could only mean one thing. For the first time in over three hundred years, Kaer-Ise was under attack. A sound of shouting rose all around them. A smell of smoke. And out beyond the cliffs, she could see the black silhouettes of dragon-headed ships. Skaardmen.

“Come on!” Flora shouted.

“But our dresses!” Beth cried, reaching for her gown.

“We don’t have time for that!” Flora grabbed her hand. “Come on!” They left their dresses on the bush and rushed into the forest. Smoke was rising from beyond the trees and in the distance, Flora could hear shouting and the clash of steel. Then came the war drums. They seemed to shake the whole island, beating almost as loud as Flora’s heart as she and Beth ran back toward the palace, hitching up their underdresses.

Back to the castle! The thought beat in Flora’s brain. To the castle!

Beth’s hand was in her own. Flora wished for her sword, to protect the princess as a handmaiden should. But she had left it back at the castle, because what cause would anyone have to attack Kaer-Ise?

Three horned shadows stepped into the path in front of them, eclipsing the light. Soldiers. Their swords were drawn, and in a moment, they would see Beth and Flora even in the shadows. I must protect her, Flora thought. At all costs, I must protect her. Before the Skaardmen could see them clearly, she took Beth’s crown and put it on her own head.

“Run!” she whispered.

“But what will you—” Beth started.

“Just go! To the escape ships, through the forest! I’ll hold them off! I’ll lead them away.”

“Flora!” Beth grabbed for Flora’s hand, but Flora pulled it free.

“You are more important than I am!” Flora whisper-shouted. “Now go!”

And she threw the rock. The Skaardmen turned. They saw her, with her circlet shining in the light of battle fire.

“The princess!” one of them said. “There, with the red hair!”

She began to run, crossing their path, leading them away, so Beth could go onward. A final glance backward confirmed that, behind them, Beth was running, running toward the castle. To safety.

And Flora ran, too, clutching her mother’s pincushion in her hand. The other way, through the forest, back toward the cliff, the only place she knew, far enough to give Beth time to escape.

But they were soldiers, fast and used to running, and as Flora’s long red-blond hair streamed out behind her, she felt one of them grab it and yank hard, pulling her backward into their arms.

“Such pretty hair, Your Highness,” one of them said, winding his fist into her curls to better hold her down. The nearest one began to unbuckle his belt.

“I thought she belonged to the prince?” another of them said.

“What the prince don’t know won’t hurt him.” He wrenched the circlet from her head and threw it into the weeds. “Besides, you heard him: Leave no one alive.”

Everything about her was screaming. She struggled, fought against them as well as she could, but they hit her, kicked her in the stomach, in the chest, in the ribs until she couldn’t breathe. I’m going to die, she thought, a strange, faraway sort of thought removed from the agony of the moment. I’m going to die now.

As they pulled her into the darkness, as she clutched her mother’s pincushion so hard that the pins pierced her hand, she saw the escape ships set sail. Beth, she thought. Then the sound of the ocean, the sound of the drums, rose and swallowed all.




CHAPTER THREE

THE ANKOU DROVE THE CARAVAN ONTO THE NORTHERN road, following the smell of fire. He leaned forward, craning his neck to see as far into the horizon as he could, hoping that he was mistaken, that his senses had gotten jumbled in his fight with the demon. But as the Black Caravan drew farther northward, toward the sea cliffs, the Ankou saw the source of the smoke.

Genre:

  • Praise for That Dark Infinity:

    “Unique, haunting, magical!”—Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Tempests and Slaughter

  • "Original and intriguing.... Discussions of trauma, self-worth, and found family add realistic elements to Flora’s fantastical journey.... This dark romp filled with gruesome imagery is a gripping adventure."—Kirkus Reviews

  • "Pentecost (Elysium Girls) crafts a robust world with mythological and Oz-evoking influences.... Pentecost’s absorbing plot moves swiftly."—Publishers Weekly

  • "The premise of the story is interesting, unique, and will draw fantasy fans into the world.... Action and character-driven dialogue will keep readers interested in what happens in this quest."—SLC

  • "Pentecost, author of the thrilling Elysium Girls (2020), shows her prowess in her sophomore novel, adeptly telling a tale of unusual circumstances. A must-have for fantasy collections."—Booklist

  • Praise for Elysium Girls:

    "Pentecost's ambitious Dust Bowl-inspired dystopia pulses with dramatic scenes.... Captivating."Publishers Weekly

    "Readers who enjoy apocalypse-infused danger will enjoy this neo-Westernized dystopian world filled with the good and evil magic of witches and demons, LGBTQ romance, steampunked mechanics, and hero moments."SLJ

    "The dystopian Western setting is enticing, the girl power is undeniable, and this high-concept adventure has all the right ingredients."Booklist

On Sale
Oct 19, 2021
Page Count
384 pages
ISBN-13
9780759557833