When a tiger-snake delivers a deathly bite, a beautiful, ghostly, and strangely familiar young woman appears, summoning Ari’s soul to the underworld…
We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Kate Hazel Hall’s debut novel From Darkness, publishing November 3rd with Duet Books.
Sixteen-year-old Ari Wyndham has a secret. Her best friend, Alex, drowned at Stonehaven beach when she was nine, and nobody knows that Ari still blames herself for Alex’s death.
When Ari is bitten by a tiger snake, a summoner is sent from the underworld to collect her. The summoner is Alex, who has spent the past seven years escorting souls to the underworld. They recognise each other, and Alex chooses to save Ari, even though she knows there will be a terrible price to pay for this transgression.
Alex’s rebellion is dangerous; it upsets the balance of life and death, and endangers the people and animals of Stonehaven. A rift opens from the underworld, and dark magic threatens the remote coastal town. Savage dog packs roam the pine plantation and emerge at night to kill pets and livestock, fishermen catch ghostly bodies in their nets, and children go missing. And all the while Alex is hiding the truth from Ari, which is that she could be drawn back to the underworld at any time.
The mid-morning sun was fierce on Ari’s head and on her bare shoulders, and she had to shield her swollen eyes with her hand as she looked up to gauge her distance from the farmhouse. As she peered into the blinding heat haze, Ari stopped. A dark figure stood on the track just a few meters uphill. It did not move but it seemed to shimmer and flicker in the heat. Here was an intruder, where nobody ever came, and Ari knew by the sudden chill in her bones that it was waiting for her.
Like a hare frozen under the hawk’s shadow, Ari stood, waiting. The figure came closer, transforming from dark silhouette to a young woman not much older than Ari. She was tall, with long black hair and greyish-green eyes that seemed for a long moment as though they might swallow the world and Ari too. They were beautiful eyes, but they had dark circles underneath them, like fading bruises. What did those eyes remind her of? Though her skin was much darker than Ari’s, she was pale, and her face reminded Ari of the faces of the city people who came in buses to Stonehaven Bay each summer, people who lived in the shadows of tall buildings and rarely felt the sunlight. She wore a long black cloak, and its hem rippled eerily in a breeze that wasn’t there. Ari was afraid, but it didn’t feel like normal fear. This wasn’t the vague unease she’d sometimes felt when random backpackers or hikers asked to use the phone and it wasn’t the terror that savaged her when she had nightmares.
It was more like the prickly chill, the skin-crawl, she’d felt that time she thought she saw a ghost in the hallway.
“Are you lost? The road’s back there.” Ari pointed over her shoulder. The tall girl said nothing. Ari shivered. Gooseflesh prickled her arms. “I think maybe you should leave now. You’re trespassing. If you need money or whatever, I’ll have to ask my parents.” As she spoke Ari heard the hollowness in her own words. This wasn’t that kind of stranger. Was she even real? Ari felt her neck and cheeks turn fiery with fear. The tall girl sighed and moved closer to her. When she was close enough to breathe on her, she said softly, “Don’t be afraid, Ari,” and then fear speared Ari in the chest. It made her sweat. She rubbed the goosebumps on her arms and tried to breathe normally.
The stranger put her hand on Ari’s shoulder. At that moment, Ari yelped as something pierced the side of her foot. She looked down, more surprised than shocked, and saw a long, striped snake on the dusty track. Its head was raised to strike, and it did, biting her twice more before she could move. Ari screamed, a high thin sound in the windless paddock. The stranger clapped her hands, and the snake hissed and slid away through the dry grass. Gaping soundlessly, Ari clutched her foot. It was on fire, and the fire was spreading up her ankle. She staggered, and the stranger caught her, letting her sink slowly to the ground. Then she knelt and cradled Ari’s head and shoulders on her lap. Ari bucked and writhed against the throbbing in her foot, but there was no escaping. Every movement made the pain worse. The stranger held her shoulders. Was she trying to calm her or restrain her?
“Help me,” Ari gasped. “Do you know what to do for snakebite?” The stranger looked down at her and gave her a sad little smile. “Even if I did, I’m not allowed to stop this, Ari. This is your time. You die here, today, from this snakebite, and I’m not allowed to interfere. I can ease your pain a little, perhaps.” She placed her hand on Ari’s foot, and coolness began to flow into her skin. The pain ebbed slightly. “Is that better?”
Ari unclenched her jaw and tried to breathe normally. “What did you do? And how do you know my name?”
“I am the Summoner. I’m here to collect you and to guide your soul across the river to its final resting place.”
Ari turned her head to look at the bleached paddock under the noonday sun, at the bright blue line of the sea beyond the hills. She watched the flock of cockatoos circle the oasis of the farmhouse and orchard. Then, finally, making herself do it, she looked up at the stranger’s face. A ghostly aura marked her off from the everyday world, like a neon sign advertising her strangeness. Ari could feel the venom travelling in a river of pain up her leg, and she knew enough about tiger snakes to know that multiple bites were often fatal. This Summoner, whoever she was, could be telling the truth. Maybe she was a messenger of death come to collect her. But Ari was stubborn and she wasn’t going to cower and be afraid, at least, not on the outside.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she stated. The Summoner looked away. Ari noticed the firm line of the other girl’s jaw, and the way her hair fell in dark waves past her shoulders. Ari opened her mouth to speak again but cried out as pain raged up her leg. The Summoner patted her awkwardly on the arm. “I’m sorry. You don’t have a choice. The poison is spreading. First, your muscles will atrophy, and you will not be able to move. You may feel sick and disorientated. It often happens that way with snakebite. Then the poison will reach your heart and your heart will stop. When that happens, your soul will leave your body, and you must follow me to the underworld.” She pointed back toward the scrub. “A portal is there, just under the rock ledge where the trees begin. When your heart stops, you must come quickly. The great river is rising, and the ferryman will not cross it at high water.”
Ari shook her head. “Even if I die,” she growled, “I’m not going with you.”
Kate Hazel Hall is a later-in-life lesbian, a writer, and a literary/critical animal studies academic from Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. She has published fiction and creative non-fiction in journals and anthologies like Hecate, Overland, The Grapple Annual and New Community Quarterly, and she teaches genre studies, ecological fiction and graduate research skills. Kate lives near the beach on Victoria’s rugged south-west coast, with her partner, her strong and beautiful daughters, and their horrendously spoilt rescue cats. From Darkness is her first novel.