A bloodmage reluctantly teams up with an undead spirit to start a rebellion among the living and the dead…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from In the Ravenous Dark, a dark YA fantasy by A.M. Strickland—publishing May 18th with Imprint.
In Thanopolis, those gifted with magic are assigned undead spirits to guard them—and control them. Ever since Rovan’s father died trying to keep her from this fate, she’s hidden her magic. But when she accidentally reveals her powers, she’s bound to a spirit and thrust into a world of palace intrigue and deception.
Desperate to escape, Rovan finds herself falling for two people she can’t fully trust: Lydea, a beguiling, rebellious princess; and Ivrilos, the handsome spirit with the ability to control Rovan, body and soul.
Together, they uncover a secret that will destroy Thanopolis. To save them all, Rovan will have to start a rebellion in both the mortal world and the underworld, and find a way to trust the princess and spirit battling for her heart—if she doesn’t betray them first.
I awake outside, staring up at the bright midday sky, with no clear idea how I’ve gotten wherever I am. The fact that I’m wretchedly hungover is a clue to my curious lapse of memory, but my head hurts too much to puzzle over it. I can hear the bustle of people as the aromas of food and horse dung waft over me in a light breeze. The front side of me, at least, is warm from the sun, but my backside rests on something hard and tilted, as smooth as glass. I groan and roll over.
And nearly fall off a rooftop. I catch myself at the last second, gasping. I sling my leg back onto a marble lip, scraping my knee, before my weight can drag me off. The gentle slope of the slippery roof—which is indeed glass—is still threatening to help me over the edge, and the mosaic-whorled ground is a dizzying distance from my down- turned face, about the height of six people standing on top of one another.
“Shit,” I breathe. Then I throw up.
The vomit—as red as the wine I must have guzzled the night before—vividly splatters a pile of oranges stacked in a neat pyramid on a vendor’s cart down below. There are lots of carts ringing me, because this is the agora, I realize. At the center of the square is a huge gazebo.
I know precisely where I am, at least: I’m spread-eagled on the edge of the gazebo’s dome, a rippling blue and green glass replica of the veil that protects the entire polis from the blight. This replica “veil” only shelters a fountain of the first king of Thanopolis, Athanatos, though he symbolizes the city itself, of course. Ringing the fountain and supporting the dome are three statues of the goddess, sculpted in white marble: the maiden, the mother, the crone. The maiden holds a chicken and a knife, hinting at blood soon to be spilled; the mother cradles—what else?—a baby; and a dog sits at the crone’s heels, mascot of the dying en route to the underworld, since dogs are supposedly the guardians of thresholds. I more often see them eating trash.
I’m certainly not shaping up to be immortalized. My vomit has narrowly missed the outstretched chicken in the maiden’s arms and hit the oranges instead. Better to have infuriated a fruit vendor than the goddess, I suppose.
The fruit vendor is indisputably furious. He’s shouting at me. “Rovan, you drunk of a girl, what are you doing up there?”
Oh no. He knows me. Luck is not on my side today.
“Ugh, who’s shouting?” moans a voice, quite nearby.
I carefully lever myself up to look. Yes, right. Bethea is up here with me. Her lips and eyes are swollen, but she’s nonetheless lovely as she props herself up on her elbows, blond hair and warm skin glowing. A crown of brightly wilting flowers sits askew on her head, and the disorderly folds of her peplos reveal too many voluptuous curves for decency. And yet I bet the two of us have thoroughly dispensed with decency already.
Don’t get attached, I remind myself. You’re leaving soon enough.
Bethea smacks her lips. “Where are we? Oh, the agora. On top of the statuary. And it’s market day. Lucky for us.”
“Do you remember what we were doing yesterday?”
She ponders for a moment. “Oh!” she exclaims, making us both grimace at her volume. Rubbing her temple, she finishes, “There was the pageant.”
I vaguely recall people parading through the streets, wearing gossamer death shrouds and cheap clay masks molded to look like skulls, colorful ribbons streaming from their wrists and wreaths of flowers in their hair. That’s where Bethea’s wilting crown must have come from. It all had something to do with the king—the current king, Neleus—though I didn’t care enough to discover exactly what. Pageants are often held to honor the famous and wealthy deceased, as if to put in a final good word before their arrival in the afterlife. But King Neleus isn’t dead, as far as I know. He is apparently old and sickly, has a middle- aged son ready to take over, and also has nearly grown grandchildren, but I’ve never seen any of them. The business of the royal family, other than that of the king, is mostly kept secret outside of the palace, away from the prying eyes of the populace. I’m fine with knowing next to nothing about them.
What I do know is there was plenty of free- flowing wine.
“Yes, the pageant,” I say. “That explains it. Somewhat.”
The two of us must have stolen across the dark and empty square last night after the festivities, climbed up the gazebo on a whim—though the goddess knows how we managed without breaking our necks—and then… Vaguely tantalizing memories of the two of us entwined surface in my mind. I remember more of that than how we got up here, especially the part where I was too drunk to achieve satisfaction.
“Lovely. Rather, you’re lovely,” Bethea adds, her eyes growing heavier lidded. She pinches a loose lock of my wavy hair—burnt umber in the daylight. “I’m sorry I wasn’t successful at persuading you to surrender.” Wincing, she pokes at her mouth. “I think my lips are numb.”
“That’s my fault and shame,” I assure her. “I was utterly wine wrecked.”
“Shame?” She arches an eyebrow.
“No, I… not about anything we did.”
“Are you sure? Your mother hasn’t convinced you?”
My mother doesn’t approve of my wine drinking or Bethea, never mind that I’m nineteen years of age and can do whatever and whomever I please. At least her disapproval has nothing to do with the fact that Bethea’s and my potential pairing can never result in natural children. Both of us are fine with that, even if some people might tut in reproach. No one much cares what you do in the bedroom, and yet having children is deemed a sacred duty to the polis, especially if you’re a bloodmage or a royal. But I’m definitely not a royal, and by all appearances I’m not a bloodmage. My dalliances are, as I’ve made clear, not exclusive to anyone and temporary, besides. No, my mother’s issue is with Bethea’s social standing. She fits into the category of “the less fortunate” as the poor daughter of a husbandless medium who communes with spirits in a back alley.
I shake my head. “My mother doesn’t have a peg leg to perch on. Everyone knows she’s ruined goods.” Ever since my father was hauled away when I was seven years old, and killed for being a fugitive, an unwarded bloodmage from an enemy island kingdom, suitors haven’t exactly been lining up at my mother’s door.
The memory still makes my stomach clench. Even now, I can smell the fear in the air, the blood. I try to shove it away.
At least, whatever my mother’s reputation, no one can resist her weaving—my weaving. My mother doesn’t have to lift a finger anymore, while my patterns are widely thought to be the most beautiful outside of the royal quarter. My scrolling vines and blossoms look as if they’ve grown from thread, my butterflies and birds ready to flap their wings. Since my mother takes credit for all my work, I view my drinking and dalliances as a fair trade.
And soon, so soon I can almost taste it, my mother won’t have to worry about me at all, because I’ll weave enough for her to retire on and leave all of this behind.
What I can taste now isn’t so pleasant. I roll my dry, vomit- flavored tongue around in my mouth and glance down at the still- shouting vendor. “I think we’ve been discovered.”
Bethea giggles. “Oh no. At least I didn’t fall off the roof and split like a melon. That would have been a real scene from some horribly dull tragedy. How did we get up here?”
“I was wondering the same thing. I’m also wondering how we get down.”
Bethea peers over the edge and shudders. “I better not have to be drunk to make the return journey, because we’re out of wine.” She flops back. “At least the view is lovely.”
I lean back on my elbows as well. Temples and official buildings, creamy and orderly, rise among verdant gardens and cobbled streets lined in blooming trellises until they reach the royal palace at the polis’s center. The palace is built of white marble in the smooth, swirling shape of a seashell, its perfectly round, columned tiers climbing to a point that nearly touches the shimmering magical barrier that surrounds the polis like an overturned bowl. I’ve never seen the sky without the veil, though my father told me it merely lends what is plain blue more of a green iridescence. The city itself rests atop a plateau that faces inland with jagged cliffs and slopes gently to a seaport on the other side, with just enough space for its populace and the farmlands that feed us. Beyond that, past the veil that protects us, is the blight. The blight is even less visible than the veil, but its effects on the land are obvious. The blight is everywhere, killing the land either through drought or a deep freeze. Depending on the direction you look from the polis, you might see the vast ocean to the east, billowing white snow around inhospitable mountain peaks to the northwest, or the dusty gray brown of the southwest desert. Any way you look, the blighted wasteland surrounding us is nearly devoid of life. The blight has consumed the entire continent aside from Thanopolis, half burying the skeletons of old towns and cities under either sand or ice.
And yet, somewhere beyond that great, desolate expanse is the island kingdom of Skyllea, which the blight hasn’t yet swallowed. My father’s homeland. Another memory: one of his strong, red- lined hands overlaying mine, directing my finger on a tattered map to find Skyllea. The warm rumble of his voice against my back, his stubble scratching at my cheek. His excitement, his pride. My urge, nearly overpowering, to go wherever he wanted, to be whatever he wanted. I thought I might explode with it.
There’s a hole in my chest, long walled off—except for the siren call of Skyllea, echoing in the empty dark.
It’s only as solid as a dream to me, but one I will reach out and touch someday—someday soon. As a child, my father warned me away from getting too close to the veil and the blight’s edge, but if merchants can cross it, I can, too. I’ve woven and saved, saved and woven. I’ve spoken to a Skyllean trader who says he’ll be taking his family’s caravan across the wasteland and I can buy passage. The journey is treacherous, and you need blood magic to protect you from the blight’s slow poison, which is why no one can leave without the king’s approval. All bloodmages—wards, with their guardians—serve him, and none would use their magic for such a thing without permission.
Maybe there, in Skyllea, I can escape that final memory of my father, the one that wine can never permanently wash away. His blood on the cobbles. A dead man’s eyes. My own guilt for ever secretly wishing he would join those who ended up killing him.
Under other circumstances, I might appreciate the opportunity to get a view of the wastes I’ll soon be traversing. But as curious as I am, right now my goal isn’t climbing higher atop the fountain’s precarious and potentially fragile glass dome.
“Anyone have a rope?” I call, after scooting myself to the marble edge. There are some good-natured chuckles. At first, all they seem to do is laugh at me, until a rope comes flying up from a rather handsome sandal vendor with muscular arms and a wide grin.
“Your wish is my command,” he says with a flourish of his hand.
The loop makes it only as far as the chicken in the maiden’s arms. Luckily the goddess is raising it in a sacrificial manner. But Bethea and I will still have to climb down roughly the height of an outstretched body to reach it.
“Let me go first,” I say.
My knees tingle as I grip the vine- carved marble lip and slide my feet over the edge. I’m barefoot and have no clue where my sandals have gone. I try not to think of all the nothing between me and the market square far below as my toes catch what feels like a flower crowning the maiden’s head. Gaining a foothold is a little tricky, making my breath come short as I cling to the edge, but after that it’s easy going until I reach the chicken. I pause for a quick apology to the goddess when I use the maiden’s nose for purchase. Dangling from the rope makes my stomach plummet. As if to catch up with it, I slide down too quickly, burning my palms badly. But I don’t mind once I’m back on level ground, the mosaic tiles warm and reassuring under my bare feet.
A crowd of onlookers clap and cheer. I give a bow, and then immediately regret inverting my head. The fruit vendor doesn’t need a reminder of what I’ve done; he’s rinsing oranges in a wooden bucket and glaring at me.
“Would have served you right to break your neck,” he growls.
I smile as sweetly as possible, given breath as sour as mine. After a flirtatious wink for the helpful shoe vendor—which changes to a wince at the fierce stinging in my palms—I turn to call encouragement up to Bethea.
Just in time to see my friend slip.
It all happens too fast. My thoughts freeze, but my hand doesn’t. I don’t think. I don’t consider the consequences. I only move.
Move, move, move—the one sigil that I’ve used over and over again almost every day, manipulating my mother’s wooden loom and natural fibers in fantastic patterns far faster than anyone without magic could have.
I throw out a hand toward Bethea, sketching as I do that simple symbol I know better than any other. Except it isn’t thread I feel running every which way through her body, but a tangled network of veins. I don’t try to move those, only to lift all the blood in her body at once, preferably without tearing it out of her. Already knowing that won’t be enough, I reach my other hand toward the fountain of King Athanatos with the same sigil, but in a complex layering like I would create for a weave—a shape in my mind, then in the air. Every drop of water roars toward Bethea like a river’s current, forming a massive sphere for her to land in. It explodes shortly after impact. I can’t hold it, or Bethea, for much longer. The displaced water floods one entire quadrant of the square.
And it leaves my friend soaked, alive, and entirely intact upon the ground. For a second, I’m too giddy with relief to realize the cost of what I’ve done.
Bethea turns to me on hands and knees, sputtering, wet strands of hair clinging to her face, her flower wreath long gone. “What just happened? Where did this water… How am I not… ?”
I’m not even sure. I had no idea I was powerful enough to do such a thing. I stare wide- eyed at my own palms. There’s blood beaded on them from where I skinned them on the rope—the blood that powers all living magic. It must have made my sigils vastly more potent.
I remember the moment my father took my small shoulders, stared intently down at me with his golden eyes, and said, “You can never show them, Rovan. I love you, and if you love me, and you love your mother, no one can know what you can do. Promise me.”
I promised him with all the fervency of a child who would do anything for her father.
Now, I quickly fold my arms and glance around. If I’d hoped to slip away, it’s impossible. The handsome shoe vendor retreats from me with his hands raised like I’m a wild dog about to attack. The fruit vendor’s mouth no longer spits curses or grumbles, but gapes, his oranges scattered all around.
A woman points and screams, “It was her! I saw her hands move! She did it, and she’s not warded!”
More people begin pointing and shouting. “An unregistered bloodmage!”
A man starts tugging at the rope still looped about the maiden’s statue. Never mind that I saved someone’s life; they’ll truss me up like a pig. My breath starts to come faster. I can smell the blood again, the smoke from the last memory of my father. Taste the fear.
Even Bethea stares at me with something like horror. “You did that? You can… You’re a…”
“Witch!” someone cries.
The more timid onlookers sidle away as if I carry the plague, leaving behind the harder sort. But there are plenty of those. An angry crowd closes in on me. They’re only a few steps away from becoming a mob.
And then Bethea steps between me and them, holding her arms out as a barrier. Her short frame and wet peplos aren’t very intimidating, but she’s doing her best. She glances back, her eyes wild. “Run,” she gasps.
Just as with my blood magic, I don’t even think. I run.
Excerpted from In the Ravenous Dark, copyright © 2021 by A.M. Strickland.