In advance of the publication of The Acolyte on November 30, here is a short excerpt:
It is some time after the channel vanishes—the ferry and the tiny room where Morris Loverne has just been overwhelmed gone with it —before I can find it in myself to move again. I feel adrift. Events have conspired again to leave me alone, with no one I can turn to.
Though I can no longer trust Morris—he is a creature of the Seeker and a Society agent, after all—his familiarity, our shared history, was a comfort to me. There was something like trust there, no matter how illusory it might have been. He was a friend once, however false he proved to be. Those are the only kind I have.
How pitiful it all seems now. The illusion of trust. That is all I have—illusions and lies. Even my body is not my own. My mind seems less and less so with each passing day.
Especially now, as I am reeling from the aftereffects of the transfer. My hands are shaking and my legs are trembling. It takes all my effort to keep my feet under me. I have to close my eyes against the sun, painfully vivid against the cloudless blue sky. My head aches. Everything hurts, actually, and, as I take a first tentative step, I collapse onto the rocks.
A swirl of thoughts and colors assaults me. I try to blink them back, to no avail. Somewhere, lurking behind this internal cacophony, lies Aeida, waiting for his chance to take control. He is still so dangerous. No matter that he is not what he was, this is still his body.
A terrible coughing fit assaults me, bruising my lungs. I don’t know if I can survive another crossing, not in my current state. It was never like this before. But I was never like this before either. This remade mind, stolen and tamped, was not intended to be sent across the channels. It was supposed to stay lost in a universe known only to the Watchers’ Order and myself.
If I am to restore myself to my body, I will have to attempt another crossing, especially now that I am here in another lost universe. It is inevitable. The thought terrifies me. Will entropy work further upon me each time, until there is nothing left of me and Aeida but a twitching mass of limbs?
That thought is almost as disturbing as those I have about what has become of my body. I imagine it, hidden somewhere in the endless universes, suffering under whatever tortures Molijc can devise. He will not win, I tell myself, as I work to steady my breathing and still my body. I will not allow it.
The Seeker has asked me to become his agent for the Society, or whatever faction of the Travelers he serves, and foment revolt within the ranks of the Regents. I have no doubt I will have to account for my failure to do so someday, but hopefully when I next stand before him, it will by my own eyes that meet his terrible ones.
I do not have the luxury of worrying about him. My time is short; I can see that clearly now. It is only a matter of time before Aeida gains command or this constructed mind collapses in on itself and neither of us survives in any form. I must restore myself before that happens. I must destroy Molijc and end the tyranny of his faith before that comes to pass.
My urgency brings me to my feet. There is no time to linger. As I rise, the colors grow brighter and brighter, at their center a pulsating orb that penetrates deep into my brain, lancing it like some doctor removing a tumor. Darkness is ascendant, and I feel my legs go from beneath me again.
I do not know how much time passes before I awake again. Looking up at the sky, I see that the sun has gone across the sky and is on its way to setting. I have no sense of how much time I have before darkness arrives, but a chill has already stolen into the air and I find myself shivering. I will need to find shelter soon and assess my options from there.
My first attempt to stand fails, and I end up on the ground, dizzy and nauseated, but my second succeeds. I look around to reacquaint myself with my surroundings. The waterfall is before me, the thunderous roar of its descent swallowing all other sound. Beside the fall is a cliff of rock that looks, to my untrained eyes, impassable. To my left the river passes, curling like a snake ready to strike. On every other side I am surrounded by forest.
There is no sign of habitation anywhere, no evidence that humans have ever passed this way. I have no sense of where Osahi and his people might be hiding themselves in this apparently vast wilderness and no idea of where to even begin in my search. A thought occurs to me as I ponder this conundrum: what happened to Nicola?
She came with me across the channel, but I did not see her after I came across, and there is no sign of her now. Given the injury she was suffering from, she cannot have gone far, and a quick search of the immediate vicinity reveals her prone form, hidden behind some rocks closer to the waterfall from where we had come through the channel.
I rush to her side, putting a finger to her neck. There is a pulse, though it is faint. I lift up her shirt and see that her wound has bled through the bandages Morris put on her. There is nothing I can do for her in that regard. I do not, I realize, a tremor running my hands, have food or even proper clothing for where we are. The chill in the air will only get worse once the sun sets.
I wonder how close we are to Osahi’s refuge. We cannot be far, I reason. Nicola would have been well aware of how precarious her health was and that she was in no condition to begin an arduous journey. Surely she would have set the channels so that we crossed somewhere near our final destination. Yet that does not appear to be the case.
Is that the result of an abundance of caution? Or was she intentionally leading us astray? I cannot trust her—I cannot trust anyone, not entirely. Not even myself.
For a time I am paralyzed by indecision, unsure how to proceed in this new world. Finally I decide I will have to attempt some kind of search, and I leave Nicola where she is, judging her to be safe enough for the moment, and start to reconnoiter the area. The only trace I can find of any human activity is a thin trail leading toward the rock face alongside the waterfall. I follow it along to the base of the cliff, where it comes to an abrupt end. As I look at the cliff, I can make out what might be a path to its summit.
“Motherfucker,” I say to myself, the sound of my voice startling me and bringing me from a reverie I was not even aware I was in.
Along the base of the cliff wall I see a place where a small crevice has formed, and I go to investigate it. It is near the waterfall, the mist dampening my face when the wind gusts. The noise is incredible as well, a ceaseless roar. The crevice is large enough to shelter two or three people, and the ground in it is lined with leaves and grass. There is a small depression at its edge where a fire had once burned.
I retrace my steps to where I left Nicola, finding her awake and trying to stand up.
“Don’t,” I say. “I’ve found a place we can camp in. I’ll carry you there.”
She looks as though she will argue with me, her dark eyes fierce, but relents in the end. I pick her up and carry her to the crevice, letting her settle herself there while I go in search of firewood. There is plenty of deadwood nearby, and when I have collected what I think will be enough to last us for the night, I return to the crevice. Nicola is asleep again, a slightly pained expression on her face, though her breathing remains steady.
Aeida knows how to light a fire without matches or tools from his youth in the Pacific Northwest. It is strange that he can remember this, when everything else from that time is vague and unrealized. His mother and father, all of that, has apparently been removed to allow space for me, though a few things seem able to bleed through to now.
How I long to scream at the Acolytes, to stand before them and ask why they obliterated two people’s beings. For what purpose? How do they justify this to Molijc and themselves? I cannot fathom it. Whatever their reasons, I will see them answer for what they have done. They are as much to blame as Molijc. He may have held the gun, but they fashioned it and gave it to him to use.
Nicola is awake by the time I get the fire going. She raises herself to a sitting position as I kneel over the flames, feeding branches in until the blaze is glowing healthily.
“I’m impressed,” she says, her voice sounding weaker than before.
“Just a trick I picked up over the years,” I say. “How’s your stomach?”
She shrugs, wincing as she does so.
I nod. “We don’t have any food. Is there some nearby that I can scavenge? I didn’t see any, but this place has clearly been used for camping before.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I expect most people go on to the citadel. If they do camp here, they probably have supplies with them.”
“The citadel,” I say, hesitating over the word. “Osahi is there? It’s up this rock?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she nods. “Climb the cliff and find the trail heading north. It’s less than an hour’s walk through the forest.”
“You can’t make it up the cliff, can you?”
A longer hesitation, before she shakes her head. “No,” she says, with great reluctance.
“I’ll go up at first light tomorrow,” I say. “Osahi should be able to send someone down to get you back up here before the end of the day. Will you be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says.
I nod, and we both fall silent, staring at the fire as darkness begins to envelop us. The air turns cold with nightfall, and I can see Nicola beginning to shiver from the cold. I give her my jacket and add some more branches to the fire. She lies back down and falls into a fitful sleep, while I stay by the fire, keeping it stoked, my mind still racing from the events of the day.
What will happen to Morris, I wonder? The agents who came to intercept us were Travelers, I thought, from the brief glimpse I got of them. They were not dressed as Black Robes, but they had that military bearing to them that was unmistakable. I have grown skilled at picking those sorts out of a crowd.
But I well knew that the fact that they were Black Robes did not mean they were not ultimately answerable to Molijc. He has insinuated his agents within their infrastructure. I should know—I helped him do it. And the Society does not have any reason to pursue Morris—surely the Seeker would act to protect him even if they did—whereas the Grand Regent most certainly does.
I know what Molijc will do to him. He will have the Acolytes perform their terrible work to extract whatever information they can and render him another of the half-things that wander about the campus or Order transfer point, blindly doing whatever the Grand Regent or Lasinha bids. A terrible fate for anyone.
Will the Seeker act to spare Morris that, or will he decide that it is better to keep his involvement secret, provided he can trust Morris not to reveal it under the Acolytes’ extraction procedures? I think I know the answer to the question, based on the final expression on Morris’ face before the channel closed.
It is a long time before I can get that image from my mind and I am able to lie down beside Nicola, stealing a bit of her warmth, and sleep.
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