Welcome to Day 1 of the Scare Your Pants Off – week.
If you haven’t already heard all about the prizes and authors that will be present this week, click here. 🙂 (Don’t forget. The more days you reply, the more chances to win a prize!)
Today’s post has only one excerpt. It’s a horror, fantasy, erotica called The Scholomance, by R. Lee Smith. This one got my heart racing beautifully!
There was a door here. At the very end of the hall, flanked by carved pillars and dully-glowing blisters, a door. Similar in many ways to every other door in the lyceum, she supposed, but much larger. Like all the theater doors, its face had been carved in relief to show a demon triumphant over a cluster of writhing, pleading supplicants, yet the supplicants in this case were not naked humans, but demons themselves, of many different kinds. She was pretty sure she recognized the tree-like Zyera among them, and she thought the angular one huddled near the bottom and clawing at his own back might be Horuseps, but for the most part, they were so grotesquely intertwined, she couldn’t make out individuals. All of this held a certain fascination for her but of course, what interested her the most was that the doors were closed at all. The backswept horns of one upturned face made clear handles, but when Mara gave them a cursory tug, they didn’t budge.
Mara put her ear to the door and heard, naturally, her own pulse echoing back from unmoved stone to her own ear. She rubbed her palms briskly on her robe, braced her feet, and gave the horns as powerful a pull as she could manage.
Mara spent a few fruitless minutes searching without expectation for some secret latch or button hidden among the carvings. When she came up empty, as she’d rather thought she would, she found a place on the carved wall where she could lean and brood over the matter.
How likely was it really that this door led anywhere important? Her sense of spatial relationships were badly askew underground, but she knew she was higher than the portcullis where she and the other applicants had been brought in, much higher than the Oubliette, and she thought she was higher than even the Black Door and whatever lay beyond it.
The wall was not as flat as it needed to be. Stone elbows and gyrating hips shoved painfully into her back and kept her neck bent at an awkward angle. When she straightened up, light from the glowing blisters fell across the demon’s mouth, making him seem to sneer at her for giving up. Her own lips twitched sullenly back at it; she stayed.
So there were no mechanical switches…this meant the likelihood of a mechanical lock was also low. There had to be another way in.
On impulse, Mara touched it. Not the handle this time, but the door itself. Her hand traveled up over writhing knots of pleading demons to the Master who stood over them all. She wondered if it was meant to represent whoever was on the other side, the way the other theater doors acted as portraits for those who taught within. If so, this one cut an impressive figure.
It was a man’s shape, essentially. Heavily-built and wrapped in muscles well beyond most male proportions, he posed atop his writhing fellows with one clawed foot digging at someone’s spine, his arms slightly outspread to further emphasize his sheer size and strength, staring straight out and down at her. He had hair and he wore it in a high knot and a long fall that was, like the carvings around him, almost Asian and almost Aztec, but somehow neither one. A short ridge of blunt horns grew in symmetry along his hairline—the smallest perhaps thumb-sized directly over his eyes, growing progressively larger as they wrapped around his head, so that the ones sprouting above his pointed ears swept up and out like daggers. More of these bony nubs grew along his jaw, they outlined his thick neck, jutted from his wrists, ribs, thighs and biceps. The jagged points of larger spikes thrust themselves out from his shoulders, his back, even his hips. He wore some kind of layered skirt or complicated loincloth, baring his powerful body in defiance of any vulnerability, and the belt that cinched it all together was as sharply studded with points as he was. His eyes were deep-set, his mouth somewhat snouted. She couldn’t tell if he were snarling or just grinning, but the effect was not a cheering one, whichever. Like a fun-house portrait, the demon’s gaze had a way of following her as she paced restlessly before it. She couldn’t say there was any malevolence in his expression, but it was disquieting to stand before it and feel, however foolishly, that she was being seen and sneered at.
That notion, illogical as it was, suddenly put her in mind of the Oubliette again, and the tar-thick intelligence which had sealed its doors. After a moment’s thought, she touched the handles here, but didn’t try to pull on them. Instead, she opened her mind to them, sending out thought like a spear, searching for that vital crack in an enemy’s armor. She got no sense of awareness, but there was more to the door than just stone, she was certain of it.
**Open,** she thought.
She felt, or imagined she felt, a subtle vibration under her fingertips, just briefly, pulsing once through the rock and into stillness once more. ‘The mountain’s heart beats only once a year,’ Mara thought vaguely and gave her head a shake to clear it. When she looked up, the demon’s stone face was looking down, his teeth bared in what struck her increasingly as a condescending smile.
Outwardly, Mara did not move, apart from a slight curling of her upper lip, but outward appearances ceased to matter. If Connie herself had walked by, Mara couldn’t have noticed. All her attention drew inward, flexing into focus for one explosive command. She felt it drive out of her with good, righteous force. She felt it slam home and drive itself in deep. ‘Open’ was the word she gave and that word resonated once, just once, seeming to blow itself up into something far bigger than its echo, something ancient and alien of herself.
The doors didn’t budge, not even to hum this time, but Mara, without any hesitation, slipped her hands down to the curved horns of the pleading demon, and pulled them easily apart. She was not surprised. It was impossible that any intelligence could hear that word and not obey. Late that night, she would think this hugely conceited of herself, but at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. She pulled the doors open and stood between them and felt, just for a moment, ready to take whatever hidden thing laired within and crush it in her fist.
‘I’m here to find Connie,’ she thought, and that tight, feral sense of triumph faded. Connie. Right. This wasn’t a challenge, but a search. She let go of the doors.
Air breathed over her in one long, slow draft, but only once. It brought with it a musty smell, reminding her in a vague way of attics or basements—a dark place, where forgotten things gathered dust.
Very dark. In the dim glow spilling in from the hall, Mara could make out the pregnant bulge of another lamp on her right, but it wasn’t working at the moment. Moving slowly, testing each step, Mara felt her way through the doors and along the rock wall until her fingers brushed over the waxy lump of the blister-lamp. Light was slow in coming and it guttered badly when it did, but it was illumination enough to make out the next lamp, and the next, until she had awakened all five set in the wide outer ring of this classroom.
Because that was just what this was, another theater. No bigger, and not really more impressive than any of those below her in the lyceum. Disappointed, Mara climbed carefully down the risers to the empty dais, then turned at the bottom and looked up at her footprints in the dust. They were deep, deep enough to cast shadows in the bottom. She was the first person to walk here in years, in centuries maybe.
They’d closed it off for some reason. Maybe the demon who taught here had died, or left the mountain, or moved on to another part of it to work. Strange, that they wouldn’t salvage any of his stuff, she thought, as she ran her eyes over shelves of glass jars and boxes, books and archaic objects, all heavily-grimed with neglect.
This was likely to be her only chance to fully explore a theater. Mara headed for the stair behind the Master’s dais. It was wide, steep, and dropped down into absolute black—too inviting to resist. She had very little light, none at all after she’d rounded the second corner, but she went slow and kept her hands on the wall, hoping at each step to come across one of the blister-lamps.
After an eternity of climbing down in a black spiral, she finally caught a glimmer of light at the bottom. It grew as she approached, enough to make out an open doorway, covered in layers of hanging curtains, no less. They waved in the grip of a cold breeze, spilling out slivers of tantalizing light with each lazy billow of crimson, black, and gold.
‘This is it,’ Mara thought, with no real idea of what ‘it’ was. She crossed the final distance in a few short steps, letting determination lead her when common sense might fear to tread. The curtains were thick and old, but although ragged, they didn’t have that greasy/fuzzy feel of neglected fabric. When she passed between them, they tried to cling to her, and she was compelled to move completely out of their reach, not into daylight, but into a natural light all the same.
The draft, of course. The freshness of the air she breathed. These things had been obvious to her, but the moon held her transfixed. The far wall was open, the whole of it, without a ledge or even a rail to keep idle wanderers from stepping off and into oblivion. Mara went, mindful of the danger, but she had to go. The moon would be no closer, really, for her few extra steps, but she went. She had forgotten it was so beautiful. She had forgotten how the stars would shine. And they were no different here, in the Scholomance’s mountain of secret arts, than they were out the window of her bedroom in her mother’s house. Somehow, that didn’t seem fair.
Nothing happened, nothing changed, but the air grew somehow denser. She wasn’t alone here. She knew she wouldn’t be.
“They told me the time between first-bell and last was daytime,” she said.
Her voice didn’t ring boldly out into the room. The open air pushed it back. The stone walls swallowed it. It was the voice of an insect.
His was far more impressive—deep and rolling, relaxed, even amused, but never human, never that.
“Days are that by which mortals measure time’s passage. For simplicity’s sake, we call it so. As our students seeth not the sky, what harm?”
Mara turned toward him, not fast. He rose from his lazy crouch in the shadows just as slowly, as deliberately. The carving on the door had been a very good likeness after all. His skin was grey and rough even to look at, like living stone, raised and thick where the ivory spikes pierced through. His hair was black and very fine, and waved out behind him in the same breeze that moved the curtains. His eyes glowed green, just a little.
“Shall I disrobe?” he asked, indicating the ornate buckle of his plated belt.
For centuries, there has been a legend of a hidden school where magic is taught by the demons who dwell there to anyone who seeks them out, but they ask a terrible price: Anyone who reaches the door of the Scholomance may enter, but the Devil takes every tenth student who tries to leave.
A hidden school. Demonic masters. An inescapable fate for one out of every ten graduates. But Connie would do anything to have the magic her best friend was born with.
And Mara would do anything to get Connie back.
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