EXCERPT: Vile & Blessed by A H Serrano
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
We can’t believe that it’s less than a month before our pilot epic leaves the runway. We’re diligently putting things together for you on the backend at ER HQ, but while you wait, we wanted to share a bit of the story with you—a bit more than just the synopsis.
That’s right. It’s excerpt time.
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Vile & Blessed
Ice-cold water, a remnant of the high winter season, nipped at River Kennry’s ankles as he stood on the shore of the Tributary DioViend. The roar of the rushing water did nothing to block the voices in his head—Susurrus, as he had come to call them. They had come to him when he was young, when he’d become broken. One, at first, then more. His constant reminder of what he was and what he would never be. They taunted and soothed, their voices so intertwined that sometimes he couldn’t tell if they even spoke words.
He took another step into the tributary. The voices faded, if only slightly, as the icy water curled higher. Another step—more peace. He walked until the freezing water swirled around his thighs. The voices were only a distant whisper now. He dipped his fingers into the water. It sparked against his skin as it curled around each of his fingers; like a curious water creature, it was slippery and always just out of reach, despite being so close.
Then, as it always did, it fled. The slippery feel of it jetted past his legs and out into deeper water toward… River straightened, his eyes following the path he imagined the water took. Stretched before him, close enough to feel yet too far to reach, was the avauris. It settled like a thick fog today, though sometimes it was as thin as a fine mist. It seemed to dance as it hovered, touching the water, then leaping up; twisting into senseless shapes, then smoothing into an endless haze.
His eyes closed. Susurrus had gone silent, and the roar of the current had fallen into the background. Only the avauris spoke to him now. It whispered things he couldn’t understand, but it filled him with strength and power—a power he could find nowhere else. It touched a part of him that only he and it could ever know existed.
River’s knees gave way, and he plunged face-first into the icy depths. He pushed forward through the water, each stroke a desperate reach. There was something in the avauris, something that told him he would belong. It promised him relief from his suffering, promised him the home he had never found in Anmerilian.
His burning lungs’ scream for air forced him to the surface. He slicked his black hair off his forehead and stretched out his legs until he could stand. The water lapped at his chest.
“No…” he whispered.
He’d gone farther this time. He’d gone as long as his body would allow. He was certain he’d gone farther!
The avauris writhed in its seductive dance, beckoning him closer yet offering no help to get him there.
“No!” He smacked the surface of the water over and over as sound rushed in around him. “No…”
He stood in the water until his body had gone numb from the cold and his jaw shook, his teeth clacking together. Even then, he was reluctant to leave, but the rising sun reminded him that he had somewhere else to be. The tributary would be there tomorrow and the day after and every day that he continued his fruitless ventures. The avauris would wait for him, as it always had.
As he neared the shore, voices drifted toward him. He frowned as he glimpsed gray and red in the trees, the colors of the Anzéras. He splashed through the last few feet of water and made it to the grassy bank just as the first person emerged from the tree line.
“Zæ Fuéra! I found him.” An orange, flame-shaped pin glinted on the man’s lapel.
A second man exited the woods. He wore the symbol of a lieutenant-general—a red cravat that clashed with the copper color of his hair—and a flame pin similar to the first man’s. His hazel eyes glinted in the early morning sun as he smirked at River.
“Good work,” Aaro Fuéra said to his subordinate.
River considered making a run for it, but past experience reminded him that he would make things worse.
Aaro tucked his hands into his pockets and ambled toward River. “Morning, kid.”
“Zæ Fuéra,” Aaro corrected him.
River arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Swimming,” River said, motioning to his dripping clothes.
“Bit cold for that.”
River blinked at the obvious statement. “Excuse me, I have somewhere to be.” He moved to walk past the older man, but a hot grip on his forearm stopped him.
Aaro smiled down at him, a baring of teeth that was less than pleasant. “I’m here to escort you to the Léocas.”
River tried to wrest his arm away, but Aaro’s grip tightened. “I know where it is. I don’t need an escort. Shouldn’t you be in your office doing paperwork or something?” Something about the way Aaro had said it didn’t sit right with him—as if it were a joke.
The chuckle that passed Aaro’s lips sent a spike of fear through River’s gut. The older man twisted River’s arm behind his back and shoved him into the nearest tree. Rough bark bit at River’s face. He hissed as Aaro pushed his arm further, stretching his shoulder to an uncomfortable angle. His heart thudded.
“Aaro, let me go.” His voice trembled.
Aaro laughed. “No can do, kid. I have my orders.”
River’s stomach clenched. “What?”
Susurrus exploded in his mind.
They’ve got you now!
You’re going back! Back!
You can’t escape.
River let out a strangled cry and thrashed against Aaro’s hold. Bark cut into his cheek and the scent of fresh blood flooded his senses. His vision blackened. Memories of blood washed over him. He swung his head back, knocking into Aaro’s shoulder.
“Sir?” a hesitant voice called.
“I have it under control,” Aaro said.
Blood, so much blood.
River’s vision cleared. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of his shoulder, free from the red stain. The sight calmed him a fraction, but he still needed to get away. Someone had sent Aaro to keep him from reaching the Léocas hearing, and he couldn’t allow that. He had to make it to this hearing.
If he could just get his arm free of Aaro’s crushing hold, he could—
Breathe, he reminded himself. Relax.
River twisted his hand and grabbed Aaro’s wrist. He pushed off the tree and stepped back at the same time, struggling a little under the other man’s weight. Still, he managed to get his foot between Aaro’s feet, then jabbed his elbow into Aaro’s gut and pushed against his chest with his shoulder. The grip on his arm loosened, and a spark of triumph lit inside him.
Fingers tangled into River’s hair. Pain bloomed through his head as Aaro smashed his face against the tree trunk, once, twice. River’s knees buckled. His nose and forehead throbbed. Aaro spun him around, and the world tilted. It took a moment, but River gathered himself and stared him down.
“Don’t make this hard, River.”
“I … have to … go,” River said.
Aaro crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t move.”
River glanced to the right. He had to leave. Aaro’s wrath scared him far less than what the Léocas could do to him. He lunged, ready to run despite the pounding in his head, but the first step was his last.
A blast of fire caught River on the shoulder and threw him back. He rolled into a tree, his back smacking against the solid trunk. Aaro crouched in front of him. His expression had morphed into a hard mask, lips drawing into a tight line, brow furrowing, and hazel eyes blazing.
River cried out as Aaro grabbed him by the hair again and lifted him into a sitting position. The fingers touching his scalp burned with the aftershocks of Aaro’s fire.
“When will you learn?” Aaro asked.
River started to reply, but the words left him as Aaro banged his head against the tree.
“When?” he asked again.
Blood dripped down the side of River’s face. His eyes rolled, and darkness crept in around the edges of his vision. As he reached the brink of unconsciousness, Aaro’s voice drifted down to him, quiet and controlled.
“This is the will of the Eszéha.”
And as the darkness swallowed him, River believed it.
River woke with a stabbing pain in his head and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Dirt caked in blood formed a stiff crust that cracked as he moved. He sat against the tree for a few minutes, taking deep breaths and fighting off the tears that burned his eyes. This had been his last chance to go before the Léocas. He’d done so well on his probation, too. Managed to keep away from anyone who might pick a fight, followed his curfew, hadn’t gotten caught trying to swim across the tributary—he’d done everything they ordered.
He got to his feet and staggered to the water’s edge. Nausea gripped him as he fell to his knees. A deep breath calmed his rioting stomach, but as he cupped the water in his hands to wash his face, the glinting reflection of muted silver made his stomach revolt again. He vomited into the water, a sickening expulsion of bile. With shaking fingers, he touched the cold, smooth metal on his neck that transitioned to gnarled, raised scars at the base of his throat.
His touch sparked Susurrus’ awakening. Before the words cleared, he splashed away his vomit and dunked his head into the water. Somewhat cleaned of the dirt, he stood and started back through the Vadirlen Woods toward his house—home. No, not home. He touched the trees as he walked. The Vade was more of a home to him than his house would ever be.
It took about five minutes to reach the edge of the Vade. The earthy scent of sap and soil faded, stamped down by the heady scents of fresh bread and chimney smoke. He stayed close to the edge of the road as he made his way through the residential area of Tuerçic. He hated this walk. The houses he passed teased him with scenes of family life, windows—sometimes doors—being thrown open, children chattering and laughing, mothers serving meals, fathers shouting goodbyes as they left for the city center. The scenes left an ache in his chest, a pain he didn’t know how to soothe.
By the time River reached his house, his mood had soured further. The cottage-style home stood silent, windows darkened, doors closed tight. No smoke pumped from the chimney, no tantalizing scents wafted out.
River entered, tracking dirt from his bare feet.
Soft humming greeted him as his younger sister, Shiloh, rounded the corner, her hands busy tying her wavy, brown hair into a topknot. She stopped humming when she saw him. Brown eyes a shade darker than her hair widened.
“Is the Léocas meeting over? Where are Anma and Dappa?”
River grunted. “Didn’t make it.”
Her eyebrows drew down. “Huh? I told Zæ Fuéra you were down by the Trib. He said he would escort you.”
River’s jaw clenched.
Shiloh took another step toward him. “River! What happened to your face?” She crowded him, her gentle fingers prodding his face. “Spirits above!”
“I’m—I’m fine. Stop. Stop!” He tried to dodge her, but she gripped his chin and stood on her tiptoes to take a closer look at the gash on the side of his face.
“You’re not okay,” she said, her voice soft. “Come on.”
He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the table. All the residual energy drained from him as Shiloh wiped dirt out of his wounds. “I missed it, Shi,” he whispered.
“Dappa will fix it,” she said, full of the confidence he wished he had. “He always does.”
“He can only do so much, so many times.”
“You’re right,” a deep voice said behind them. “I can only do so much.”
River chewed his lip. What should he tell them? He’d promised he would be at his meeting. Would they even believe him if he told them what happened? His father, maybe. His mother …
The front door slammed.
River turned but kept his eyes down. “I’m sorry.”
His mother, Dalaní, breezed into the room and slammed her satchel onto the table. “I’m so glad you’re sorry, River. That fixes everything. Would you like to go tell the Léocas that you’re sorry, also? Maybe they’ll be just as moved as I am!”
“Dalaní,” his father, Barthol, admonished her.
“What, Barthol?” she snapped back. “Stop coddling the boy. He’s so … he’s …”
River’s contrition fizzled out, replaced by something cold.
He looked up and right into her eyes—eyes brown like the earth. The same brown eyes Barthol and Shiloh had. A color so unlike his own deep blue. “I’m so what, Anmaes?” He hissed out the formal title with such venom that it almost burned.
Dalaní’s head whipped toward him, and her hands clenched. The floor beneath River’s feet trembled, making the table rattle.
“Anma!” Shiloh yelled.
River’s heartbeat stuttered. “What?” He hoped his voice wouldn’t shake. “Go ahead. Just do it.”
The glasses in the cupboard clinked together in a threatening chorus.
Shiloh yelled something again, but River didn’t register the words. He kept his gaze on Dalaní. She glared back at him. The rattling intensified. River’s eyes narrowed after a moment. Her hands … why were they trembling like that? Behind her glare, another emotion lingered, one that left her eyes wide and made her lick her lips every few seconds.
“All of you, stop it. Now,” Barthol said. He put his hand on Dalaní’s arm, and the rattling ceased. “We need to have a family meeting.”
River leaned back in his seat as Barthol, Dalaní, and Shiloh sat. The three of them gathered at the other side of the table … they were what a family looked like. Shiloh took after Dalaní, with her wavy hair and dark brown eyes, but she got her smattering of freckles and the blonde highlights of her hair in the summer months from her father. Barthol had lighter features than the two women, with his fair skin, freckles, and sandy hair. River’s blue eyes and black hair were wrong—they didn’t fit. He didn’t fit.
“You missed your hearing,” Barthol said.
River’s brows shot up. Hadn’t they already established that? “I know.”
“You can get him to go before the Léocas again, right?” Shiloh asked.
“Shiloh,” Barthol said, and even River flinched at the hard edge in his tone.
“What …” River paused to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat. If Aaro went to the Trib specifically to stop me from making it to my hearing … He couldn’t even imagine what the man had set in motion. “What did they say?”
An unreadable shadow passed through Barthol’s eyes. Sweat broke out on River’s brow. He glanced at Dalaní, but her gaze was locked on the tabletop. Shiloh offered him a small, hopeful smile and reached out to touch his hand. The warmth of her fingers only furthered the nervous heat spreading through him. River opened his mouth to repeat the question, but the lump had returned, paralyzing his vocal chords.
Barthol tapped his fingers against the table, breaking the silence. Each hollow thud echoed through River.
Then Barthol spoke in a slow tone, pronouncing each word with care. “They’re having you admitted.”
River’s stomach lurched, and a flash of heat rolled through him. “A-Admitted to what? Tuerçic City again? They don’t—” As he spoke the words, his legs bounced under the table. The city hospital didn’t have a big in-patient program. And he wasn’t sick anymore. Why would they …?
Bile rose into his throat as he connected the dots. Can’t go back. Can’t go back. Can’t go back.
The silence that followed this announcement made him want to scream. Why couldn’t they just tell him? Get it over with! His legs bounced faster, the force starting to shake the table. The unreadable look in Barthol’s eyes had returned, and Dalaní had taken to chewing her bottom lip. Shiloh’s light touch had turned to a tight grip on his hand. Her nails bit into his skin, and her labored breathing was all he could hear. Or was that his?
“Not Tuerçic this time, son,” Barthol finally said. “The Institute Hospital.”
Everything stopped. River’s body went still, his back rigid. A lot of the testing he’d undergone in his childhood at Tuerçic City Hospital had been outsourced to the Institute Hospital. They had better resources, but tended to take on more … permanent cases. Barthol had managed to pull enough strings to keep him from being officially admitted to the facility.
Shiloh’s nails scraped trails of skin off his hand as she jumped up. River couldn’t bring himself to move, still, as Shiloh slammed her fist onto the table. The wood splintered down the middle. “People don’t come back from there!”
Her shout seemed to startle Dalaní out of her stupor. She turned first to River with a wide-eyed stare, then snapped at her daughter. “There’s no stopping this, Shiloh! What would you have us contest? The—” She rummaged through her satchel and pulled out a sheet of paper. The paper shook violently for a second before she slapped it onto the table. “Let’s see, they’ve listed truancy, fighting, breaking curfew, blatant disregard for authority. Detailed accounts.”
River reached for the paper, but Dalaní snatched it back. “That’s not true!” he said, desperation making his voice crack. “Those are—those—” They were mistakes; they had to be. He’d done everything right.
“You can’t just let them do this, Dappa! You worked under Vanzæ Fuéra. Do something!” Shiloh shouted.
River stared at his sister. She leaned partway across the table, her body shielding his, her pale cheeks nearly scarlet and wet with tears. His vision blurred. She’d shed too many tears because of him.
Barthol slapped his hands against the table, just as Shiloh had done moments earlier. River watched as instead of cracking further, the wood mended itself, the splinters coming together like a puzzle.
“Fuéra relieved me of my duties long ago,” he said. “I can’t use my former position as a crutch.”
“Well—you—you have to—” Shiloh broke off and looked over her shoulder.
River met her gaze with what he hoped was a comforting look. She had to believe that he was okay—that he was going to be okay. Her lip trembled, and a hiccupping sob broke free from her mouth. Before River could say anything, she turned and fled.
“River,” Barthol said, “you should have been there. You would’ve been given the chance to explain—to avoid this.”
I tried, he wanted to say. But what good were his reasons now? They’d lied, and no one had defended him. He was the only person on his side. He’d sealed his own fate.
“How long until I go?” His voice sounded disjointed, as if it had come from beside him instead of from his mouth.
“An official date hasn’t been set,” Dalaní said. “You can expect to wait a few months at the least while the paperwork is filed.”
River ran his fingers over the place that Barthol had fixed. There was no seam, no indication that anything was wrong. As River studied his father’s face, he realized the man wore the same, seamless expression—all prior uncertainties had gone. He didn’t look as if he had just delivered life-altering news to his child.
River stood. He wanted to say something to them, anything, but no words came. He had no words except the ones taunting him in his mind.
You can’t escape.
Do you feel that? It’s that feeling you get when you know a book is going to be amazing.
VILE & BLESSED drops on October 30th, 2020. But you can pick it up right now here.
There will be a pre-order for the book a week before release date, so look out for that coming soon.