Everyone has a soul. Some are beautiful gardens, others are frightening dungeons. Soulwalkers―like Kamai and her mother―can journey into other people’s souls while they sleep.
But no matter where Kamai visits, she sees the black door. It follows her into every soul, and her mother has told her to never, ever open it.
When Kamai touches the door, it is warm and beating, like it has a pulse. When she puts her ear to it, she hears her own name whispered from the other side. And when tragedy strikes, Kamai does the unthinkable: she opens the door.
A.M. Strickland’s imaginative dark fantasy Beyond the Black Door publishes October 29th with Imprint. Read an excerpt below!
I was five the first time I asked my mother about the black door. The moment seared itself into my memory.
We were walking together through her soul, my hand in hers, the deep blue tiles of the place that was both hers and her as cool as water beneath my silk-slippered feet.
We’d done this for as long as I could remember, exploring her soul while our bodies slumbered, our spirits free to traverse the sleeping realm to which souls belonged. My mother would explain how people such as us—soulwalkers—could wander souls by night, and she would describe the gods. And yet she never mentioned the black door I always found in her soul.
On this particular night, I finally gathered my courage and stopped in the wide hallway, pointing. “Mama, what is that door?”
In my mother’s soul, the sandstone halls were rosy, lit as if a fireplace burned merrily next to every stretch of wall. There was no fire; it was my mother’s warmth, her light. The walls were pale and smooth, perforated with airy latticework that revealed the glow of rooms beyond, as if there were nothing to hide here, while the long hallways with deep azure tiles beckoned like fingers, hinting at wonders just out of sight.
But the black door was closed tight. Its sleek black surface parted the creamy sandstone of the wall like a slick dark stone in bright water, the sinuous lines of its frame meeting in a point at the apex. It gleamed like midnight fire. Despite seeming to draw in the light around it, it lured me like a candle’s flame.
By then I’d learned that fire would burn me . . . but only through touching it several times already. I’d never touched the black door, and I wanted to.
This dark, tantalizing danger didn’t seem to belong in my mother’s bright, inviting soul. My mother, her eyes narrowing, stared at the door for a moment, her jaw clenched, a look on her beautiful face like I’d never seen. There was resolve, anger, and yes, fear. I’d never before seen my mother afraid.
Turning away, she knelt before me, took both my hands, and said very seriously, “Kamai, you can never open that door. It’s best if you just forget about it.”
“But, Mama, you said I could go anywhere in your sleep house.”
A smile tugged at her mouth. “My soul house, not my ‘sleep house.’ It’s about time you started using the proper name: nehym.” The word actually meant “soul house” in the old tongue. “And that door isn’t a part of my nehym. It belongs to somewhere else. You must understand how these things work, Kamai, because someday you’ll be able to walk anyone’s soul at your whim and find what you will inside. But you must never”— she leaned closer, holding my eyes with the liquid brown of her gaze— “open that door.”
Trepidation overrode my curiosity. “Is it hiding something bad?”
She leaned forward to brush her lips over my forehead— lips, I would one day learn, that were the envy of both men and women. Marin Nuala’s lips, I’d later hear someone say, could unlock anyone’s. “Something very bad. Something evil. You won’t be safe from what’s behind it. It wants the door to open.”
I was both intrigued and disturbed that the evil thing behind the black door could want, that it had desires . . . and that it was lurking in my mother’s nehym. “What is it?”
She stared at me for a long moment. “I pray you’ll never know.” She stood and strolled the hall, away from the black door. Even here, where only I could see her, she dressed like a queen, her pale skin accented by a silk blue gown that swirled about her hips as she walked, her belt of fine gold links glimmering in the warm light. “Now, come, tell me what else I’ve taught you this evening. If you repeat it true, I’ll give you a surprise.”
I couldn’t keep the excitement from my voice. “Will it be my own sleep hou—nehym?” I could learn quickly, when I had an incentive.
My mother glanced down, rare sadness in her gaze. “You don’t have one, my dearest.”
My feet ground to a halt. Everyone’s soul was a house. It could be as dark, primitive, and dank as a cave, or as vast, ornate, and maze-like as a palace. My mother’s nehym was as warm and welcoming as a sprawling country villa, but with so many halls and wings and doors, no walls in the waking world could have contained it. To not have my own made me want to cry until I got one.
“Do I not have a soul?” I asked.
“Of course you do, sweetness,” she said, swiping away my brimming tears with her thumbs. “It’s only that sometimes these things are hidden from us, kept secret, even from within.” She placed two warm fingertips over my heart. “You don’t have a nehym because your soul is so deeply asleep that no one can find it. No one can walk your halls and discover your secrets that way.”
Something flickered across her face, like a shadow, and I knew she wasn’t telling me the entire truth. Even then I had a decent sense of such things.
“It is good that it stays hidden,” she added, smoothing down my hair, a tousled mirror of her own cascade of dark curls. “For it stays safe.”
“Like from the evil creature behind the black door?”
She drew in a breath. “You’re safe from it. But I don’t want you to speak of the door or what’s behind it anymore.”
“Did you open the door?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder. “Is that why it’s here?”
She shook her head. “No, my darling. It’s here because you are. It follows you, because it knows that only you can open the door. But that’s why I’m safe too, because I know you won’t. Now, tell me what else you’ve learned this evening. No more talk of the other thing. Who can walk the halls of souls and discover the sleeper’s deepest secrets?”
“People like you. And me,” I added, with some satisfaction. “And priests and priestesses. But we’re different from them, because we’re soulwalkers.” That was what my mother called us. At five years old, I didn’t understand everything by far, but I at least knew for sure we weren’t priestesses, since I found going to temples dreadfully dull, and this wasn’t dull. And besides, everyone knew that priests and priestesses could explore souls. No one knew we could.
“And what is a soulwalker, when we’re asleep like we are now?”
“A spirit.” Which was a layman’s term for our cerebral, conscious aspect— just like the soul was our subconscious, but I didn’t yet know any of those words. “And who can know what we do?” “No one,” I said quickly.
“Not even Hallan and Razim, remember?”
I nodded with proper solemnity. Hallan and Razim were the closest thing I had to family after my mother, close to a stepfather and stepbrother, though not quite. It had been difficult not to brag about my secret soulwalking ability to Razim, older than me by a couple of years, but I’d managed.
And now it seemed like there was a new rule that was just as serious, if not more so, than never betraying the secret of our soulwalking:
Never open the black door.
I didn’t press her about it, because I wanted to believe it was as simple as that: I wouldn’t open the door, and my mother and I would be safe. And maybe, if I learned enough about soulwalking, practiced hard enough, not only would I make my mother proud, but someday I would find my own soul.
“Now tell me the gods’ story,” my mother said.
I drew myself up as tall as possible. “In the very beginning of time, there was a husband and a wife, and they were surrounded by darkness.”
“The Darkness,” my mother corrected.
“That’s what I meant. Darkness kept following them, trying to swallow them, so they always had to move. But one day, they were going to have a baby, so they stopped running. They fought the Darkness back to make a home for the baby, and then circled her every night after she was born to keep the Darkness away. They’re our sun and moon, and their daughter is the earth.”
It was a highly distilled version of the gods’ history, but it was easy enough to remember. Simple stories for a simple age, and yet it was a story we all on some level believed. It comforted me to think of bright parents hovering over a sleeping girl’s bed, keeping her safe from danger.
Despite that, I was already drawn to dark mysteries. And my question about the door had only left me with the burn of unassuaged curiosity. Later, I couldn’t even recall what my mother’s promised surprise had been, but I could remember the way my eyes drifted back, seeking one last glimpse of the black door.
I was nine when I first touched the door.
Razim drove me to do it. A guest was staying at our villa— well, my “stepfather’s” villa, where my mother and I lived with him and Razim. My mother and Hallan weren’t actually married, though they pretended they were, presiding together over Hallan’s home of pale tile floors, arching doorways, mosaic- patterned ceilings, and fountained courtyards, buried in the coastal forest near the capital. It was a mask, my mother said, for who they really were, what they really did. But what it masked, I didn’t yet know.
Early that evening, after our parents had gone upstairs with the guest, Razim and I stayed downstairs under the watchful eye of our tutor. A nighttime breeze wafted the sheer white curtains in front of the open shutters, letting in the coolness and the scent of flowers growing outside the windows. I was practicing my letters, but Razim was only pretending to read a book, actually practicing a look of haughty adult boredom, the very picture of a young lordling in his new silk shirt embroidered in shades of deep red like his father often wore. When our tutor left the study to relieve himself, Razim’s boredom vanished, revealing the boy of eleven. He grinned at me, white teeth and bronze cheeks glowing in the candlelight, and whispered, “I know what our parents are doing up there.”
My mother had told me only that she and Hallan secreted themselves away with their guests for business.
“I do too,” I said, glancing down at my paper and betraying the lie.
Razim smirked. “What are they doing, then?” “Work,” I said.
“I know exactly how they work,” Razim said slyly. “My father told me.”
I knew my mother would often walk in the souls of various guests, but I was never to tell Hallan and Razim, just as I was never, ever supposed to mention the black door. Not that I had much to tell about the latter. Whatever secrets my mother whispered about soulwalking, about the cities and people of Eopia, about the gods and half- forgotten myths, she wouldn’t tell me anything more about it. As if it didn’t tug at my attention whenever I soulwalked with her—and only her so far, never alone— despite my trying to ignore it. It was like a secret I had to keep even from myself.
But now Razim knew something else about the nature of their work.
“How, then?” I asked.
He leaned over the polished inlay of the wooden table, his black hair glinting, and whispered, “They have sex. I’ll bet you don’t know what that is.”
“I do too,” I said, even though I didn’t exactly. My mother had explained the basics, and that I wasn’t to do any of it until I was older. Which was fine by me, because it sounded like a supremely awkward thing I never wanted to do. I’d had no clue that was what she was doing upstairs with the guests.
“What is it, then?” Razim pressed.
I looked down, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. “You get naked, and you, you know, do it. Down there.”
Razim seemed disappointed that I knew even that much, and he leaned back. “Yeah, well, they do it with all sorts of people. My father has even done it with the queen consort.”
I gave him a skeptical look. We didn’t have a queen like we had a king, because the official queen, at least in absentia, was Ranta, the earth goddess, daughter of Tain and Heshara, the sun god and moon goddess. Just as Tain was the guardian of spirits and all things cerebral, as fiery and exacting as the sun, and Heshara was guardian of souls and the sleeping realm, as cool and mysterious as the changing, shadowy faces of the moon, Ranta was the beautiful guardian of physical bodies, and thus had married the first king of the land both to better protect the earth and to gain further protection herself from the encroachment of Darkness. No one had ever seen Ranta, of course, not even her husband, but every time a new king rose to power and took the sacred oath to the earth goddess, people swore they could feel her blessing settle over them like a warm blanket.
The king still had to produce heirs, and so he needed to marry a human woman as well, one who actually slept in his bed and stood beside him at royal functions. This was his queen consort, never equal to him in power but a powerful figure nonetheless. And so I found Razim’s claim that his father had some relationship with the queen consort a little dubious. Important- looking people often came to the villa to visit, but never anyone that important, as far as I could tell. I told him as much.
“That’s because it’s a secret!” Razim hissed. “She wouldn’t come when someone like you could see her.”
“Then someone like you wouldn’t know for sure, either. I don’t believe you.”
I didn’t want to, really. I loved Hallan, and we were all supposed to revere the king nearly as much as the gods. The king protected the land and Ranta, just as she protected us. Even if the queen consort wasn’t his official queen, it seemed a poor way for Hallan to pay the king respect.
Razim shrugged and made a show of going back to reading. “Fine. You’ll see. Maybe your mother will tell you the truth. And maybe she’ll even let you in on a bigger secret. Why they’re doing it with people.”
My curiosity always got the better of me. “Why?”
Razim shot me one last grin before the study door opened and our tutor returned. “I can’t tell.”
I scowled at him and got scolded for failing to finish my letters. But it was too much for me. Everyone had their secrets— Hallan, Razim, my mother— and the black door hid the biggest one of them all. Except I could hardly even glance at it, let alone ask about it, with my mother always by my side in the sleeping realm. But perhaps if she wasn’t near . . .
Later that night, I sneaked down the stairs and out the servants’ door. The trek to the neighbors’ wasn’t difficult. I’d already learned that while my mother was occupied late into the evening, it was easy to slip away. As long as it didn’t rain, which it rarely did outside of the wet season, or I didn’t soil my dress too badly, no one ever noticed. Usually, I would just wander nearby, listening to the songs of insects and the soft snorts of the horses dozing in the stable, or lie on a rock staring at the stars. But this night I walked.
The surrounding countryside, while blanketed in a scrubby, palm- filled forest canopy, was threaded with sturdy roads and further interwoven with sandy paths. We were close to the king’s court, just a couple of hours by carriage outside of the royal capital, Shalain. Our king had shepherded in a new age of trade with other lands and thus prosperity for our island kingdom, and the orderliness of the countryside reflected that. I certainly appreciated the quick ease with which I found my way to what I sought.
Soon, I stood by myself in a neighbor’s soul that was as rustic as a farmhouse, the rough- hewn stone walls and splintery wooden ceiling enclosing a space not much bigger than our entryway. My body lay in the sand under a bedroom window of their villa, napping behind a screen of palm fronds, close enough to allow my spirit to reach the sleeper. The body was the outer walls of a nehym, inside of which the soul unfolded like a maze, unguarded while the spirit slumbered.
The difference between the elaborate villa in the waking world and this farmhouse of a soul were stark enough to make me smirk. Our neighbor was definitely compensating with much bigger walls in the waking world. Not that they knew their nehym was tiny, and not that I should have laughed at it, since I didn’t have one at all.
Solar, Lunar, Earthen. Cerebral, subconscious, physical. Spirit, soul, body. Those were the three aspects of the gods that made up a person, and I was missing one of them—or at least a nehym. But I could walk other people’s souls.
And with access to everyone else’s, I tried to tell myself I didn’t need my own. I also told myself I didn’t need Razim’s stupid secrets. Whatever Razim was hiding felt like nothing next to the black door.
Although I usually preferred darker, more mysterious souls, I wasn’t disappointed by the simplicity of my surroundings. I wasn’t even sure which of the neighbors this nehym belonged to. Since they weren’t soulwalkers, as most people were not, their spirits weren’t allowed in Heshara’s sleeping realm while their bodies rested. And I didn’t care to figure out whose it was.
I was only there for the door. I’d seen it, at least once, in every soul I had ever walked. It was always in a different place, even within the same nehym. I poked about on the lower level, but there wasn’t much to see, no room for anything to hide, and so I started up the rickety staircase.
Nothing, not even my mother’s dire warnings, could smother the curiosity that burned within me. Only it held the answers to its dark mystery.
Nevertheless, I was careful as I searched the nehym, following my mother’s rules: I didn’t shout or run, so as not to disturb the sleeper’s peace. I didn’t touch or move anything. I was never to do that if I could help it. Small adjustments would soon return to the way they had been, but if you moved too much, a soul could be irreparably changed . . . a nd thus, so could the person. Meddling like that, my mother said, was what had gotten soulwalkers branded as witches in the old days and burned alive. Priests or priestesses of Heshara, who had years of training built upon centuries of knowledge and wisdom, were the only ones openly sanctioned by the king to affect another’s soul— or even to walk in one.
And of course I still planned on following the most important rule of all: to never open the door. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t touch it.
I found it upstairs. I froze at first, and then stood, arms folded, frowning at it in challenge across the rough floorboards of a hallway. It was like a massive, fine-c ut gem nestled in the crude stone. The black surface flickered in the dim candlelight, but the door itself gleamed, large, dark, and oppressive. It was like the glint of a glaring eye, a ruthless, crystalline, intelligent stare.
The impressiveness of it distantly reminded me of something, and it took me a moment to figure out what.
In human form, the god Tain was depicted as a towering, imperious man with dark skin and hair of bright orange flame, or simply portrayed as a giant eye of fire glaring out of the center of the burning sun. The goddess Heshara, when she wasn’t the white- pale woman with her face half- shadowed, her midnight hair speckled with stars and her smile an untold secret, appeared as one of the phases of the moon, usually the quarter moon, equal parts dark and light. Less often she was the full moon, and even less the new moon, completely dark. But the darkness that stood before me was different even from that: Tain’s opposite, as if an unseen eye were peering from the deepest part of the night sky.
I should have been afraid. But I wasn’t.
I rubbed my fingers together, took a breath, and darted across the hallway. The merest brush of my fingertips was all I allowed. I expected the door to be hot, or even cold. Anything but what it was.
It was as warm as flesh and felt alive, even though it was the texture of glass. It thrummed like blood under skin. Clutching my hand to my chest as if burned, I fled back to my body, where I awoke with a gasp.
Excerpted from Beyond the Black Door, copyright © 2019 by A.M. Strickland.