Bordeaux author Damian Connolly is offering a sneak preview of his debut novel, Shepherds: Awakening, before its release on Amazon at the end of the month. The book, a fantasy fiction obvious future bestseller, tells the story of teenager Aisling Shepherd as she’s thrown into a world paralleling our own and realises that she has a vital role to play, but one that puts her own life at risk and demands much in return.
Shepherds: Awakening has broad appeal, especially so with young adults, old adults, and old adults pretending to be young adults. The response from early readers has been great, so get in on the action by heading over to – https://damianconnolly.com/books/shepherds_awakening/ and claiming a free copy of your own. When the book is released, you’ll also be first in line to get a complimentary Kindle version.
Damian originally hails from Ireland, the land of myth and legend, and moved to Bordeaux over a year ago when he discovered that other countries didn’t rain as much. By day, he works creating video games, while at night he writes. This novel marks the first step into publishing his work and he’s looking for as many people to join him as possible. He’s won multiple awards, but they weren’t for writing, so they probably don’t count. He welcomes feedback, and you can get in touch with him at – email@example.com.
“A fantastic book. Gut-wrenching in places, and very original”
Aisling Shepherd’s life is permanently changed when she’s thrust into a fantastical world that seems to parallel our own. One where the rules aren’t quite the same, and reality is what you make it. Hundreds and thousands of people live there, the majority of whom are blissfully unaware that they’re already dead.
And being fed on.
But as Aisling can see those dark parasites, they can see her, and she soon finds herself fleeing from a swarm of the creatures intent on draining her very existence.
She’s saved at the last by her father, a man that disappeared from her life when he abandoned her all those years ago. She’ll have to come to terms with why he did what he felt he had to do, for she’ll have the same choice to make. Blood is speaking and she now has to see if she has what it takes to live up to her name.
If she accepts, it’ll break her, and she’ll have to sacrifice everything. But she’s a Shepherd, and countless people are depending on her.
All she has to do is open a door…
You can read on here after some words from the author…
The following is an excerpt of the first 4 chapters of Shepherds: Awakening.
If you’d like to get in touch, then feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also available on Twitter at @divillysausages.
Thanks for reading!
She’d been here before; she was sure of it.
She was standing in long, thick grass up to her knees. It rippled like velvet whenever the wind blew. She was more of a city girl, but she was pretty sure that grass shouldn’t change colour when it did so. Greens became blues and then violets with each wave.
Around her, bushes and trees thrived; competing with each other to see who could be the most colourful. This, too, seemed normal. Harmonious, even.
She looked around. One direction seemed as good as the other, so she set off at random. The grass parted before her, and closed behind her, so she left no tracks.
The air seemed thick here, giving a slight resistance and making her feel sluggish. She moved her arm in front of her and could almost see the air flows eddying around it. She took a deep breath and smiled, her head dizzy. Growing up in a city, you never realised what clean air was until you experienced it. It was intoxicating. Each breath seemed to clarify the world – for the edges were fuzzy in her vision, as if she was looking through a vignette – and made her feel more alive. All manner of fragrances came to her, mixing and interchanging, never too strong, never uncomplimentary; each one hinting at an association with a memory, and not necessarily one of hers.
Ahead of her, rays of sunshine pierced through the canopy of a group of trees. God rays, her father, an amateur photographer, would have said had he been there. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t. She ran her hand through the beams and watched as they folded around it like bolts of silk. She took the pair of scissors that her mind insisted she’d been carrying, and cut off a piece long enough to wrap around her neck like a scarf. It was deliciously warm. She continued on, leaving the cut ray ending abruptly in mid-air.
As she walked along, snuggling in her sun-scarf, she picked the heads of various flowers as she passed them, and popped them into her mouth. It seemed the thing to do. Each one melted on her tongue, leaving a sweet taste behind. Any larger ones she found, she’d spin, and leave them hanging in the air behind her; eternal floral helicopters.
She came to a shallow river, maybe ten times as wide as she was tall. The water was crystal, and ran swiftly over the stoney bed, though it hardly made a sound, as if she was looking at it through a thick pane of glass. It was hard to tell if this noiselessness was specific to the river or everywhere, as this place was calm, seemingly devoid of life. It was mildly disconcerting.
When she looked up, she was on the other side of the river. She didn’t remember how she got there. It seemed unimportant anyway, and at least she wasn’t wet.
The clouds on this side were much more agitated. They streamed silently across the sky, probably faster than they should be – not that she’d made much of a study of clouds in the real world to be an expert on the subject. The thought of the real world went unheeded. The part of her brain that would have picked up on it was riding passenger, looking out from behind her eyes but unable to affect anything.
Truth be told, she didn’t much care for this side of the river. It seemed darker, and there was a tickling at the base of her spine that made her feel like she was being watched. Shapes that would flicker occasionally at the edge of her sight, only to disappear when she turned her head.
She continued on. Was the air even thicker here? It was almost like walking underwater; the more she pushed, the less she moved. She kept on as she could, feeling more uncomfortable, acutely aware that no matter where she turned her head, she could never see behind her.
It had been warm before, but she found that she was now wearing a coat with a large hood. She pulled it up over her head, but that cut down her field of vision even more, so she dropped it again, and immediately felt exposed.
There’s nothing here, she thought to herself, though it was a toss-up whether it was a wish or a declaration.
The weather seemed to be affected by her mood; it got darker still, and further away, on the horizon, she could see a storm. As she looked, lightning lanced down. She automatically began counting under her breath, waiting for the thunder.
One-one hundred…two-one hundred…thr-
The world exploded.
Aisling jerked her head up, heart thundering in her chest. Miss Linsey picked up the history book that she’d slammed down on her desk.
“Back with us, Miss Shepherd?” she asked.
Aisling looked around. She was the focus of everyone in the classroom. She hated being the focus of everyone in the classroom. Every face she looked at contained suppressed glee and sniggers were breaking out across the room. Blood flooded her cheeks. She hoped she hadn’t been drooling.
“Yes, miss. Sorry, miss.”
“Perhaps you’d like to inform the class of the subject that we’re covering at the minute?”
Knowing it was no good, but loath to not even try, she hazarded, “Agricultural revolution?” Around her, more sniggers.
“Not even close,” Miss Linsey said brightly. “See me after class.” She walked back to the head of the room.
Aisling grimaced and focused as hard as she could on a spot on the desk in front of her, willing herself to stop blushing furiously. She started to sweat. Great.
“Now,” continued the teacher, “for this week’s project – settle down, please – you’ll pair up and create a presentation on the Industrial revolution.” That, with a meaningful glance towards Aisling. She sank lower in her seat, trying to hide behind her hair. The other students lapped it up; she wasn’t friends with any of them so she was open game.
As Miss Linsey named out the groups, she found herself paired off with Jake Shelley, as she had been for pretty much every team exercise since first year, the alphabet being what it is. This brought another flush to her cheeks, much to the amusement of everyone except Jake and his girlfriend, Amy.
Aisling, somewhat absurdly, felt a tinge of pity for him. He was undoubtedly the coolest kid in school – the trifecta of good genes, athletic ability, and being a natural-born leader working their magic – while she, undoubtedly, wasn’t. She knew what the others thought of her. The not-so whispers and snide remarks made sure no-one would want to be seen associating with her, had Aisling the courage to approach them in the first place. No, she was destined to be a loner. To repeatedly get saddled with her must be frustrating, though Jake at least had the good grace not to be open about it.
The bell rang, and they gathered their stuff to leave for the next class. She snuck a glance at her project partner as she swung her bag over her shoulder. She’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit to fantasising a bit about him. His medium-length hair framed a face so casually good looking that it was almost unfair. He was on both the football and the water-polo teams, and the combination had given him broad shoulders, narrow hips, and tight arms. Her stomach clenched at the thought of spending time with him, even though it was for schoolwork.
She mustn’t have been as subtle as she thought, as Amy’s voice broke through the general babble.
“…snoring like a pig!”
Her clique of chittering puppets laughed their approval, and Amy’s face was a picture of petty triumph. Worse still, even Jake was laughing.
Aisling stared at the floor, face burning, doing her best to hold back tears as the others slowly made their way from class.
How it burned, the humiliation.
She walked home, bundled in a coat and scarf, holding an umbrella against the wind and rain. On a normal day, it’d take her about half an hour to get home. She normally didn’t mind, being of the opinion that any exercise was a good thing. On days like this though, when she’d eventually arrive home with soaking feet and sodden trousers, it was a right drag.
The other thing about walking was that it gave you plenty of time to think. And she was a champion thinker. For the current episode of Things that Happened to Me Today that I Should Have Handled Differently, she was running through all the different fantasies of what she could have done in History class, and kicking herself over what she’d actually done. Anyone looking at her right now would see her staring off into the distance while emotions and phrases flitted across her face as she played out each scenario.
“Back with us, Miss Shepherd?”
“That depends; is it interesting yet?”
Not very witty, of course, but in her head, all the other kids laughed, and she basked in the glow, counting up all the points she’d scored. She replayed it with a few other different phrases, but in the end, she just wasn’t comfortable with even the idea of flaunting authority. Besides, she liked Miss Linsey, as the teacher had always treated her nicely.
“…snoring like a pig!”
“Better than having the face of one! Not to mention the moustache!”
She imagined the look of shock on Amy’s face, the silence from the class, followed by the explosion of laughter at the result of someone like her standing up to the in-crowd.
She was even less comfortable with that, as it hinted at the possibility of a confrontation, as well as future vengeance.
In the end, Aisling settled for an imagined haughty demeanour, where she’d simply look down her nose at Amy, and treat her like the snot that she was. She liked this one better; she’d come across as the better person, something which everyone would take notice of. Later, maybe Jake could even have come to her locker to apologise in person. He’d come in close; what he would say only being for the two of them.
“I really liked how you handled yourself back there, it was very noble. It made me see that Amy’s just a jealous child and I need someone more mature.”
She pictured looking him in the eyes, letting him know without words that she’d picked up on the subtle hint and that he could make his move. Maybe even giving him a playful push on the shoulder – boys liked physical stuff, right? It didn’t matter. Jake would like it because it would have been her doing it.
She was broken out of her reverie by a cyclist riding on the footpath, nearly running her over. He would have too, if she hadn’t have jumped out of the way, getting skit by his wheels in the process.
“Hey!” she shouted after him. The jerk continued on as if he hadn’t heard her, hadn’t even noticed she was there. She looked around, seeking common sympathy from any stranger close by. One old man passed her without a glance.
What the hell? she thought. The injustice and indifference of it ate at her, but she had nobody to vent to. She tried her best to wipe the mud off of her trousers, but they were soaked anyway.
With a low cry of frustration – she didn’t want to draw attention, after all – she gave up and continued home, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get her fantasy back.
When Aisling arrived home to the apartment that she shared with her mother, the first thing she did was strip off her clothes and change into sweatpants and a pyjama top, with a bathrobe for good measure, as she was shivering. Her shoes, she threw outside onto the balcony. With luck, they’d be dry by morning, but given how cold it was, she doubted it.
Right around now, her mother would be leaving her waitressing job and heading to the all-night supermarket, where she’d work until about eleven, so as usual, Aisling had the apartment to herself. It was small and sparse, but neat. It was quiet enough that she could hear the clock ticking softly on the wall, and the distant crying of the upstairs baby, but she preferred it that way.
There was no TV, no internet, and any books had stamped library cards inside the front cover. There were a few pictures on the walls, all of her and her mother during happier times. Here was one when she’d started primary school, there was another for when they’d went to the beach together, and another of them lying side-by-side on the grass in the sunshine. None of her father though. Her mother had removed them all the day after he just upped and left years ago.
She went to the fridge to find something to eat. It was a small one, for they never had much in it. Her mother usually brought back some groceries from the store; often what was unsellable for one reason or another. She found a microwaveable curry and some bread that was probably on the brink of going bad. She heated the curry and toasted the bread for good measure.
After eating, Aisling washed the few dishes that she’d dirtied and set about her homework. Later, as it got colder, she wrapped a blanket around her legs.
She finished long before her mother was due home. She got up, took out the note that Miss Linsey had given her after class, and propped it on the table. Her mother would see it when she came in and sign it.
Then she headed off to bed. Despite the amount that she’d been sleeping lately, she always felt tired, though the only change had been the amount that she’d been dreaming. She’d always made a habit of writing down her dreams, and the notes from last few weeks had all been about the colourful world where it seemed like anything could happen. There was probably some deep meaning behind it all, so she vowed to get out some books about dreaming the next time she went to the library. Maybe something by Freud. He seemed to know it all.
However, when she finally tucked herself in, wrapping the quilt around herself against the chill in her room, she could only stare at the ceiling, her thoughts buzzing. She wanted to dream of that place again, but the one she’d had during History class had left her wary. It was the first time that strange world had hinted of something darker.
She was still awake and staring at the ceiling when she heard her mother’s key in the lock. Aisling listened as her mother kicked her shoes off, went into the living room, paused – that would be the teacher’s note – then head to the kitchen and put whatever she’d brought back with her into the fridge. When she heard her mother come towards her room, she turned away from the door, pretending to be asleep.
The door opened silently and she could see the shadow of her mother silhouetted against the opposite wall. Deep down, she was sure her mother knew she was faking, but she didn’t particularly want to talk to her.
Apparently, Aisling wasn’t the only one that felt that way. The door closed as quietly as it had opened and her mother made her way to her own room. She heard the bed creak through the thin wall, then silence. Aisling closed her eyes and willed herself to go to sleep. She heard some suppressed sniffs and told herself it was nothing.
Eventually, sleep took her.
She was back in the dream; this time standing at the river, the edge of the bank just under her toes. Overhead, the sun beat down, though she didn’t feel it as much as she should have. Across from her, the other bank seemed dimmer, less colourful, less inviting. She didn’t want to go there. She looked behind her, where life exploded in multi-faceted hues, where it seemed possible to do anything, where it felt safe.
When she turned back around, she was on the other side.
She was hit with the same sense of foreboding and danger as before, but this time it came quicker. She had no idea how she’d crossed, and she got the feeling that if she touched the water to get back to the other side, it would overwhelm her and sweep her away, shallow as it was.
Though the sky was clear, it felt as if a cloud had crossed over the sun; even the very air seemed drab. She hitched up the coat that she hadn’t been wearing a moment before and started to walk, unable to shake the feeling that she was being stalked, and unable to say by what. She couldn’t even say it was a real feeling; perhaps it was just a reaction to this side. The same brilliant colours were present, albeit muted.
She took some deep breaths, holding each one for a slow count of three before exhaling, in an attempt to control her fear. All the same, she walked more rapidly. She kept thinking she saw dark flickers in the corner of her eye, only to turn her head and see nothing. After a while, she stopped doing even that, walking with her eyes fixed in front of her. She told herself it was because there was no point in looking for what wasn’t there, but what terrified her was the idea of looking and seeing something.
Soon, her head felt full of fuzz, like she was operating without enough sleep; everything seemed to pass too quickly to register it. Occasionally, she’d stumble, as if her legs didn’t understand how to work anymore. Thoughts were hard to come by, and those that she managed to fix on, slipped out of her mind too quickly. Was the world getting more and more desaturated? It was hard to tell. It was hard to focus. She shook her head to try and dispel the feeling of being stuffed with wool. Even the air felt denser, dragging at her, pulling at her.
She shivered; a chill running up her body. The sun was technically shining, but she didn’t feel it. She realised that she’d stopped walking. For how long, she couldn’t tell. She stood there like a zombie, trying to figure out how she’d arrived where she was.
How much time had she lost?
Where am I going again? She couldn’t remember. She felt drained, as if knowledge and understanding were being slowly sucked out of her head.
I was going to do something, I’m sure I was going to do something.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t seem like anything mattered anymore. Around her, the long grass flowed softly in the wind, uncaring. This would be a good place to just lie down.
To give up, or just go to sleep?
She didn’t know, but it didn’t seem important. Lethargy crept into her, her limbs felt cold, and her joints were aching. Perhaps she was coming down with something.
She looked around her, feeling like someone else was controlling her head.
Ahead of her, on top of a nearby hill, she saw an enormous tree. She blinked at it stupidly. Had it been there before? She didn’t know how she could have missed it; it looked like everything was pointing towards that tree. The grass leaned in, flowers bloomed around it, and all the other trees and foliage seemed to get out of her way so there was a straight line leading there, as wide as a boulevard. Its leaves were a deep gold, and it exuded weight and age, and just like on the good side of the river, it was vibrant, casting off the pall of its surroundings.
That looks like a better place to lie down, she thought, but she couldn’t get her legs to move. She knew that if she could just get started, she’d make it, but her muscles didn’t seem to want to respond. It would frighten her normally, but she was too apathetic to care.
She frowned. I want to go there!
And like that, she was under the boughs.
It felt as if she’d been doused in cold water. The fatigue and cloudiness of before drifted away like smoke in the wind. Peace settled down on her, and the paranoia that she’d felt seemed like an amusing dream. Like after waking from a nightmare, she looked back on her behaviour and wondered how she could have been so idiotic, so childish. Of coursethere was nothing out there – it’d been her imagination all along. It was probably just stress, or remnants of today’s embarrassment. She’d been tired from walking all the way here, nothing more. Under the tree, she felt nothing but contentment.
She looked up at the branches spreading over her head. From close up, the tree seemed to stretch up to the heavens, so high that she couldn’t make out the top. Much, much higher than it had looked from afar. Surely that wasn’t possible? The space underneath the limbs could fit a large house quite comfortably; the trunk itself was probably bigger than her apartment.
Now that she had her wits about her, she could see that the tree was visibly, and without question, alive. It seemed to pulse with life; the leaves glowing in time to a massive heartbeat. No, she thought, that wasn’t right. It was the passage of colossal waves of power, to and from the tree. The ground beneath her feet thrummed deeply as they passed every few seconds. The power seemed too much to comprehend. Once, when she was younger, she’d visited an electric power plant, where the very air hummed with lethal potential. That was a mere spark compared to this.
She had to touch it. Some people are just born like that.
She walked closer to the trunk, a little unsteady, and pressed her hand to the ancient, crevassed bark.
THRRUMMMMMMMMM. She backpedalled in shock, whipping her hand back as if it had been scalded, and stuck the tips of her fingers into her mouth to try and still the numbness. Then, like a child that wants to make sure, she tentatively touched it again, this time with her other hand.
This touch went better; as the wave passed through, she felt the vibrations to her shoulder, but it seemed safe. With the next touch, the effect was less still. She wasn’t sure if the tree was lessening its power for her, or if the initial shock built an immunity.
To her left, a short way off, the roots of the tree formed a hollow that seemed like it would be the perfect size for a girl like her. She went over and eased herself into it, her back to the trunk. It seemed like it was made for her, it fit her that well. She smiled and relaxed against the bark.
With more of herself touching the tree, she could sense more about the waves. They started somewhere around the treetop, of that she was sure, came rushing down the trunk, and with a massive push that shook the earth, divided and subdivided amongst all the roots. The roots themselves were innumerous; she could see them in her mind’s eye, stretching beyond the horizon, perhaps circling the world itself. They split smaller and smaller, filling everything, until the smallest was no thicker than a strand of her hair. The wave travelled through each one, bringing with it…life, she assumed. Further and further it spread, with the tree as the epicenter, until it slowed on reaching the ends. Then, it was as if it was sucked back in, speeding faster and faster, each root a tributary to another, until it channeled back through the trunk, this time in the opposite direction, raising the hair on the back of her head as it went.
Each pulse reverberated through her body, relaxing her. As each one passed, it seemed like the world became clearer, sharper, more in focus. She felt like she could see everything; each individual leaf, each blade of grass, each tiny bump along the surface of the earth. She saw the world in a higher definition than she’d ever seen it before, like she was putting on glasses for the first time.
She didn’t know where the knowledge came from, but she knew that this tree was important. Probably the most important thing in the world. If something were to happen to it, she was sure the world would just dry up and crumble apart. And it was old. How old, she couldn’t tell. Since the beginning seemed about right, but the beginning of what she wasn’t sure. Earth? Mankind?
As Aisling sat contemplating this, she noticed one of the lower branches seemed lower than she’d originally thought, almost within reach in fact. It stood on its own, bearing a single apple. She was suddenly reminded that she was famished. She wondered if it was safe to pick and eat it, then decided that there was no one to tell her otherwise, so she got up, and stretched for it. Her fingers brushed the bottom of the apple, so she had to jump to snatch it. It buzzed faintly in her hand.
She sat back down.
Feeling absurdly like she was stealing, she took a bite.
Holy shit, she thought. It was amazing. Easily the best apple she’d ever had. She took another. Sweet juice flowed down her chin and she wiped herself with her fingers before sticking them in her mouth. The flesh was tart and the meat was cool and oh so good. She realised she was humming to herself. Each swallow seemed to spread warmth through her body, until she was tingling all over.
She ate deliberately, savouring every bite, choosing the next one with care. She stripped the apple down to its core, not wanting it to be finally done.
When she looked up, it was night.
How had she not noticed it? Had she really been eating an apple – an apple – for so long that the entire day had passed? This was like something out of a fairy tale. Perhaps three hundred years had passed in reality, and she’d wake to find her mother, Jake, Amy, and everyone else that she knew, long gone.
The air was still as warm as before, and with the comforting cradle of the roots, and the thrum of the tree acting as a massage, she decided that she didn’t want to get up. She was fine right here, thank you very much. She could probably sleep right here, in fact. Deep down, Aisling knew she was already asleep in her bed, but it seemed like she was about to find out if was possible to sleep in a dream. Would she dream in her dream? Deep, man.
The sky was still clear, and with no lights to drown them out, the stars were out in full force. As she lived in a city, she’d never properly seen them before, and they were, quite frankly, amazingly beautiful. Distant galaxies and gas clouds filled the sky in a humbling display. It was hard to look at that, at the sheer vastness of it, and still think all the day-to-day, petty crap that filled her life was important. One great, clustered streak ran through it all, splitting the sky into two halves; all that she could see of the great wheel that the world spun on.
She was still looking at it, when her eyes slowly slid shut and she slept.
She awoke to a hand on her shoulder, shaking her. Bending over her was a wrinkled old man in an old-fashioned suit, a hat in one hand.
“Ah, you’re the one I’m looking for,” he said.
Aisling screamed, jumped up, and ran.
She ran blindly down the hill and into the trees beyond, crashing through the undergrowth, not caring where she was going, just trying to get away. Part of her mind was trying to calm her and tell her it was only an old man, but the rest was seized by panic. Long grass tried to trip her, vines and all manner of hanging things tried to snag her. She ripped her way through them all, sheer force making up for agility. She burst through a gap in between two bushes and stopped, chest heaving. Her lungs and throat burned, and she couldn’t for the life of her seem to get enough air. But that wasn’t what stopped her.
Where the landscape had been empty before, there were now hundreds, maybe thousands of men, women, and children filling her view, as far as she could see. They sat, relaxing, or wandering somewhat aimlessly, stopping now and then to chat with each other. Where had they all suddenly appeared from?
The surprise had made her somewhat sensible again, so her initial thought was to back away before any of them saw her.
Then she noticed the Shades.
The name was there on her tongue before she thought to question how she knew it. Hovering around each and every person, young and old, was a translucent black form, initially hard to see, but undoubtedly there. Their shapes were blurred and more of a suggestion than anything else, like seeing the shadow of a child under a sheet, projected against a wall. The people didn’t seem to notice them, though she saw more than one person subconsciously make a slight change to their path to walk around one.
As she watched, she saw one Shade dip down through the head of a young man that it was following. The man’s expression faltered a bit, but otherwise gave no other acknowledgement. The Shade drew its head back, and she knew that it was somehow feeding. The realisation nearly made her throw up. Over there, a toddler no older than three or four was walking around without her parents in sight. The Shade following her dipped in, and the child faltered, nearly losing balance.
Everywhere Aisling looked, Shades were feeding. Some of the people seemed clear and purposeful, others forgetful and lost. Yet others seemed greyed and indistinct as if they were coming apart and fading from the world. Those poor souls shuffled around, head down. They talked – or perhaps whispered – but no-one seemed to hear them, or pay attention.
She stood rooted, one hand to her stomach, not sure if she was trying to stop from screaming or hurling. She was at once terrified and horrified.
Below, it seemed like she’d finally been spotted. A small group of people was pointing up to her and talking excitedly. Gradually, others took notice; those that were alert, smiling and nudging each other, those unfortunate others – the indistinct ones – simply shambling on, or staring at her vacantly. Soon, she was the center of attention. And not all of it was good.
The Shades around the first group that had noticed her perked up. One moved its head, and though she heard nothing, she knew it was signalling the rest of them. One by one, the Shades left their charges to stare at her. She could see no faces, pinpoint no eyes, but the feeling of their gaze gave her a cold flush of terror.
They watched her, ready. They seemed to be waiting for something.
Her eyes flicked from one to another.
One broke off from the pack and advanced slowly. She fixed on it, frozen. It turned to look at the rest of them, then slowly swung back towards her.
As one, they came at her.
Aisling screamed, causing the faces of the humans to crumble in anguish, and fled back in the direction she’d come.
She’d never properly grasped the meaning of the phrase “running for your life.” Now she ran as if her very soul depended on it. Wake up, wake up, wake up! she gibbered in her head. Legs that felt like jelly, pumped. She was hit by a double stitch, gritted her teeth and pushed through it. She sucked air into her lungs as fast as it would come. Her skin pricked as her pores opened. Sweat ran down her burning face, stinging her eyes. Her shirt began to stick to her. She pushed herself on and on, though like every nightmare she’d ever had, the air seemed to push against her, wrap around her legs, snap her, trip her. She threw a glance over her shoulder. It seemed like there were hundreds of Shades now, turning the landscape black, steadily gaining on her. She pushed on harder, though she was starting to flag. She needed something to hide her.
Obediently, trees and bushes rose out of the ground around her, and closed off behind.
Did I do that? No time to think on it. She looked behind her again. The Shades breezed through the newfound flora as if it didn’t exist. Panicking a bit, she thought of something stronger. A line of flame sprang into life where her heel thudded down and raced out on either side of her. The heat from it beat at her.
Taller, she thought. The flames roared higher. Two meters, four, five.
The Shades blew through it and the fire sputtered and went out. She gave a miserable cry.
Again! she shouted at herself, whipping herself mentally to keep going. This time she thought of a block wall, thick as a castle’s battlements. It was harder, as if reality itself was resisting her. She pushed back, forcing the image to take hold, willing it into place. With a snap like a rubber band giving way, the wall appeared, though the blocks were pitted and the mortar flakey.
It crumbled to sand as the Shades came through.
She despaired, then stumbled, suddenly aware of how exhausted she was. Creating the obstacles had apparently drained her, and she could barely get one foot in front of her in time before she came down onto it. Behind her, almost on her heels, were more and more Shades, perhaps thousands now. They seemed to be toying with her.
A few swooped in. She shrieked, batting her hand above her head in a vain attempt to ward them off. They dipped and the world blurred a bit. Misery filled her head, and she felt cold, numb. Again.Why bother to keep running? She was sapped. Again. She’d made a good go at it, but in the end she just wasn’t strong enough. She was never strong enough. Again.
With a clarity brought on by terror, where life seemed to slow down and crawl, she recognised the feelings and thoughts as the same ones she’d felt when she originally crossed on this side of the river, though hugely amplified. The Shades had been here all along – the people too – she just hadn’t been able to see them. Had they been feeding on her since then?
No. There was the tree. She’d felt no fear there.
I want to go there, she thought.
She visualised it in her tired mind, trying to remember as much detail as possible. Damn it, I want to go there!
Nothing happened. She was spent.
Her legs finally stopped responding, and she crashed heavily to the ground, winding herself. On all sides of her, she could see the Shades flying by, unmistakably triumphant. She blinked as they dipped into her again and again. Muscles trembling with effort, she dug her fingers into the crimson dirt and tried to drag herself along. But the numbness crept through her body, and eventually her arms wouldn’t move. They might as well have been on another body.
She rolled on her back. With a supreme mental effort, she encased herself in a glass case, no bigger than a coffin. She solidified it. Pain bloomed in her temple. She solidified it even more, realising that she was holding her breath in the process. The pain in her head flared; it felt like a dagger was driving through her skull.
A Shade dropped towards her, and bounced off the glass. It seemed to be working, though her head was splitting now. They milled over her, blotting out the sun, confused. She snatched a breath, and screamed with the effort of holding the barrier. Spots bloomed in her eyes, veins pulsed in her temples. She felt like her head was being ripped apart.
With a final hoarse cry, the barrier cracked, then split, and she flopped back, utterly wasted. She cried softly in frustration.
The Shades buzzed around her, excited.
This was it, she was going to die. Was it even possible to die in a dream? Was this still a dream? In the back of her head, she willed herself to wake up, knowing it to be futile. She closed her eyes, weak as a newborn, and accepted her fate.
Red bloomed behind her eyelids. At first she thought that it was the Shades swamping her, but then she realised it was light. She opened her eyes, then immediately squinted against the glare. The Shades were no longer focused on her, but on something behind her. Another light blazed, and the Shades closest to her disintegrated, blown back away from her and into dust. Again the light exploded and more were destroyed, blasting away like smoke on the wind. The rest threw their heads back in frustration – though she couldn’t hear it, she imagined their terrible screaming – and backed off.
Rough hands grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her back with a grunt. Some Shades broke forward, and again the light burst them asunder. Perspiration from her rescuer dripped down onto her face.
“Let’s get you out of here,” he said in a strained voice, pulling her back. And just like that, they were gone.
She was in a dark room, dim light filtering in through a crack in drawn curtains. She was lying on her back on the floor, on top of her saviour, and she struggled a bit as he pushed her off. He dragged himself to the side, panting. She turned her head to see him, but all she got was a silhouette of a man slumped with his head against the wall.
“I didn’t think you’d be here so soon,” he croaked.
She tensed. She knew that voice.
With a grunt, he pushed himself off the wall and came over to her on his hands and knees. “Unfortunately, this will have to wait for another time. I need to recover.” He reached out a hand and shakily brushed sweaty hair from her face. “Go, kiddo, you need some proper sleep. Come back and find me when you’re ready.”
He disappeared; one second there, the next, not.
Aisling woke, gasping. She’d only half seen his face, but it was one she’d recognise anywhere. How often had he tucked her locks away like that?
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Daddy,” she whispered.
Thanks for checking out this excerpt of the first 4 chapters of Shepherds: Awakening.