Today we have an excerpt from the first chapter of Sue Tingey‘s debut novel, Marked. The first book the author’s Soulseer Chronicles series, it is published by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. Here’s the synopsis…
Lucky De Salle can see ghosts, but it’s daemons she’s really got to worry about . . .
With no family and very few friends, Lucky’s psychic ability has always made her an outcast. The only person she can rely on is Kayla, the ghost girl who has been with her since she was born.
But Kayla is not all that she appears.
And when Lucky is visited by a demonic assassin with a message for her friend, she finds herself dragged into the Underlands – and the political fight for the daemon king’s throne.
Trapped in the daemon world, Lucky is determined to find her way home . . . until she finds herself caught between the charms of the guardian Jamie, the charismatic daemon of death Jinx – and the lure of finding out who she really is.
Read on for the excerpt…
The school’s entrance hall was smaller than I remembered, but then, the last time I had been there, more than fifteen years ago, I’d been only ten and easily intimidated – I had changed since. But even so, I wasn’t looking forward to this visit.
My heels announced my progress as I walked across the tiled expanse of the lobby towards the woman waiting to greet me.
Miss Mitchell was everything one would expect of the headmistress of an all-girls’ private school: tall and buxom with a ruddy complexion and short, wild, wavy hair. The expression ‘jolly hockey sticks’ could have been made for her, although from the tightness at the corners of her mouth I could see that any jollity she had this afternoon was forced.
‘Miss de Salle,’ she said, crossing the lobby to greet me, her hand extended, ‘I have heard so much about you.’
‘Lucky, please,’ I said.
‘Then you must call me Lydia,’ she replied, briskly shaking my hand. ‘Can I offer you a cup of tea or coffee?’
‘I think I’d rather get on with it,’ I told her.
‘Of course.’ She gave me an odd, twisted smile, as though she was embarrassed. ‘I really appreciate you coming. I would have understood if you hadn’t wanted to assist.’
‘Water under the bridge.’ My eyes shifted upwards and I shivered. ‘But I’m not sure I can help you.’ I couldn’t see any point in playing games.
‘I was told that if anyone could, it would be you.’
I’d read that this woman had been headmistress for only three years, so she didn’t know me – not Lucky de Salle the person. She almost certainly knew of me as Lucinda de Salle, the disgraced ex‑pupil; she might have even heard of Lucky de Salle, a very minor celebrity, but she didn’t know me. And I liked to tell things as they were.
‘Look,’ I said, as we approached the stairs I had hoped I would never have to climb again, ‘last time I was here I tried to help and was scared half to death and then expelled for my trouble. I couldn’t help then and I’m not sure I can help now. The only reason I agreed to come here at all is because of the Ouija board. If your three boarders were playing with it and didn’t perform the final ritual, you could well end up with a problem far worse than the spirits of two young girls.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked, glancing my way.
‘The twins are nasty, vindictive little things, but there are far more vicious creatures out there.’ Which was true: I myself had faced some deeply malevolent spirits. But fifteen years ago the twins had frightened me more than any spirit had before or since, and today I was confronting my demons. It didn’t help that my best friend Kayla had refused point-blank to come with me. Kayla was never scared of anything, so if she was scared of whatever was up in the attic, I was pretty certain I had good reason to be.
Lydia walked with me through the silent corridors and up the first two flights of stairs, but when we reached the third she hesitated. This last climb led up to the sixth form common room and the attic beyond.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to come.’
She managed a small smile. ‘Thank you.’
I returned her smile, but I had to force the corners of my mouth to curl upwards. I took the first step up, and that’s when the girls began to call to me.
‘Lucky, Lucky,’ they whispered. ‘Lucky’s coming; Lucky, Lucky, Lucky.’
I hesitated. My legs felt leaden, but I gripped the banister and forced my feet to move upwards, slowly, one step at a time.
By the time I reached the common room I was shivering. The last time I’d been there I had been running through it, running to get help, running to get away.
I crossed the room, the sound of my heels cushioned by the carpeted floor. When I reached the door at the other end I lifted my hand to grip the doorknob, but before my fingers even brushed the cold brass the door swung open. Shocked, I stepped backwards.
‘Lucky, Lucky, come and play, come and play our games.’
‘I don’t like your games,’ I said as I stepped through the door and onto the first step up to the attic. ‘And if you don’t promise to play nicely I won’t play at all.’
The door slammed shut behind me. I grimaced and continued up. They were children, for Christ’s sake, dead children at that, and although they were vicious, they couldn’t hurt me. Spirits have very little physical power.
The door at the top of the stairs opened as I climbed the last step. Were they stronger than before? Or had I just forgotten what tricks they could play?
The attic wasn’t in total darkness. A dirty skylight halfway along the roof let in enough of the grey afternoon light for me to see piled-up desks and chairs at the far end. There were a few boxes stacked next to them, their dark bulk reminiscent of a beast ready to pounce. There was a lot of storage space up there, and very little stored. I guessed it had been a long time since this room had been used for that purpose.
The abandoned Ouija board was lying on the floor in the middle of the long room, just below the skylight. The planchette was upside down a few feet away. I took a pace forward and then another, the floorboards creaking at each step.
‘Lucky’s come to see us. Lucky’s come to play.’ Their whispers filled my head. ‘Where’s Kayla? We want to play with Kayla.’
‘Kayla doesn’t want to play with you,’ I said.
‘We want Kayla, we want Kayla, we want Kayla!’
Their chanting was loud and strident, aggressive, even: not a good sign. I wasn’t sure whether only I could hear the voices or not, but if others could, I was pretty certain they would hear the words reverberating through the school’s long corridors.
I walked across the room and reached down to pick up the board. My fingers had barely skimmed the surface when it was snatched away and sent skidding across the floor to crash into the wall. I followed it across the room. Could the twins have become this powerful? I frowned. Something wasn’t right.
Once more I reached for it, and once more it skidded away.
‘KAYLA.’ This time the word came out as a deep growl. Not the voice of children at all. The hairs at the nape of my neck bristled.
I spun around. Dark gloom surrounded me.
‘Who are you?’ I asked, my voice coming out as a shaky whisper.
I went to retrieve the board again. I bent down and picked it up, gripping it tight – and it was wrenched from my grasp with such force I stumbled forward and fell to one knee.
I stayed there for a moment, my eyes scanning the shadows. My ragged breathing was forming small clouds of mist in the air and I was shivering. It had suddenly become very cold. Goosebumps pimpled my arms and legs, but I wasn’t sure the chill had anything to do with that. I clambered to my feet, my eyes still searching the darkness.
‘Lucky, help us.’ Soft whispers floated across the room. ‘Please’ – a tremulous cry – ‘help us.’
I turned towards the stacked furniture and there they were: two girls in long, white nightgowns. Today they were huddled together, crouched down between the old desks and the stacked boxes, making themselves small.
I swallowed hard. Last time we had met they had been reaching out toward me, their greedy eyes glowing with malicious glee. Now they were just frightened little girls. Fear bloomed in my chest. It wasn’t the girls who had been called forth by the Ouija board, nor had they been the ones calling out to me. It was something far worse.
They looked up at me and even in the dark I could see the fear on their sad, little faces.
‘Help us and we promise to be good. We promise. Make him go away. Please make him go away.’
‘Who?’ I whispered.
Their eyes grew wide and they turned their heads, burying their faces against each other’s necks. I stood stock-still.
There was definitely something else in the room.
My breath was now white smoke and the air around me could have been made of syrup, it felt so thick. I tried to turn but it was hard, like I was swimming against the tide. Slowly I forced my body around.
It was dark – too dark for the time of day. I took a couple of steps backwards until I was standing beneath the skylight and the pale autumn light formed a rectangular patch on the dusty floor around me. Darkness so dense I could no longer see the door rose up to fill the other end of the room. It blocked my way out. I took another step back and heard whimpering behind me.
The darkness began to swirl in thick, soupy swathes, drawing in on itself, pulling together, solidifying and taking shape.
The girls behind me were crying. I could hear their hiccoughing little sobs, and it was then I realised they had never really been evil, they were just children, acting up the way kids sometimes do. Now they were afraid themselves and unfortunately I had the feeling they had good reason to be. I caught a sudden waft of a familiar sweet smell that reminded me of old ladies, but then it was gone as quickly as it had come.
Gradually the figure of a man grew out of the blackness. At first I thought he was exceptionally tall, then I noticed the high grey hat perched at an angle on top of his head. His close-fitting coat and breeches were also grey and his waistcoat and cravat a pale primrose. He wore white stockings, black shoes and looked very much like an eighteenth-century gentleman caught out of time. He even had a beauty spot near his top lip. I was surprised; he didn’t look at all frightening – but then his mouth curled into a cruel, supercilious smile.
‘Well, hello,’ he said.
I remained silent. It’s never wise to engage those from the other side in conversation unless you know what you’re dealing with; some delight in telling lies, twisting everything you say and generally playing with your head.
He took a step towards me and it took all of my self-control not to take a step back. The girls whimpered. I glanced around, trying to locate the Ouija board. He followed my eyes and chuckled – a low, menacing sound.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here? Aren’t you going to ask me what I want . . . Miss de Salle?’
‘Why don’t you tell me?’
He moved a step closer. Three more and he would be within touching distance. I really didn’t want him that close.
He smiled again, and this time he was near enough for me to see his very white, pointed teeth. I had been right to be afraid.
‘You have something we want.’
‘Kayla, he wants Kayla,’ the girls whispered from behind me.
His face twisted into an expression as close to madness as I would ever want to see. His lips pulled back into a snarl, exposing more of those vicious teeth.
‘Be quiet, you little wretches. Hell will be too good a place for you if you do not hold your tongues.’
I risked glancing over my shoulder. The two girls were still wrapped together in a small, quivering ball. When I turned back he had closed the distance to an arm’s length. Too close. I needed to get to that Ouija board.
He plucked at the lace cuffs of his shirt that flounced out from beneath the sleeves of his jacket, drawing my attention to long ivory fingernails that would have been more at home on a big cat. He noticed the direction of my gaze and the smile returned to his face. He looked solid, almost human, but it was obviously nothing more than a veneer; malevolence oozed from his pores, tainting the air. I was finding it very hard to breathe.
‘Where is Kayla?’ he asked at last.
‘Who wants to know?’
He raised an aristocratic eyebrow at me, then chuckled.
‘Forgive me,’ he said, sweeping into a low bow. ‘I am Henri le
French name, terribly English accent. He was lying, but then, they usually did. This one was a comedian: le Dent – the Tooth. I didn’t find it particularly amusing.
‘Well, Henri, I would like you to leave now. Goodbye.’
He chuckled again. ‘Come now, Miss de Salle – you’re far too experienced to expect that to work.’
I gritted my teeth. It had been worth a try, though I’d begun to realise I wasn’t dealing with a spiteful, restless spirit this time. Henri was something else altogether. Miss Mitchell’s three students had managed to call up a demon.
‘Okay, Henri, so what do you want?’
He flashed those pointy teeth again. ‘I have a message for your friend.’
He took a step closer and this time I couldn’t help but recoil. His smile grew broader. He knew I was afraid of him.
‘Tell Kayla you have a message for her from the other side.’
He moved so fast I didn’t have time to react. In an instant he was beside me and his slender fingers were closing around my throat. I clawed at his very solid hand, but it was futile. He lifted me up so my toes were barely touching the floor and pulled my face so close to his we were eye to eye.
He grinned. His teeth seemed to fill his face and I was quite sure I was about to die.
He saw the realisation dawn in my eyes and laughed out loud. ‘Yes, Miss de Salle – or may I call you Lucky?’ He contemplated my face for a moment and then very slowly licked his lips. ‘I think so. Death is such an intimate thing. Yes, Lucky, you are going to die – but not today, for you have a message to deliver. Tell Kayla she has been away far too long and we want her back.’
He leaned even closer and breathed in, closing his eyes for a moment as though savouring the bouquet of a fine wine, but when they sprang open they were black coals. His tongue flicked out and he licked the side of my face, tracing its pointed tip down from the corner of my eye and across my cheek. I tried to turn my head away, but his fingers were locked beneath my jaw. He was obviously enjoying himself, enjoying my fear. I caught a waft of his breath and the sickly-sweet scent I had smelled earlier returned full force. This time I knew what it smelled like: Parma Violets.
‘I’m hoping she will resist,’ he murmured, ‘for if she defies us, I will visit again, and when I do I will get to take another taste of you.’ He stroked my hair with his free hand. ‘I can hardly wait. I know you will be so sweet, like nectar. Oh yes, Miss Lucky de Salle, I am very much looking forward to meeting you again. I might even make a special visit – or two.’
I couldn’t breathe and my eyes were beginning to water. A tear overflowed and trickled down the side of my face.
He caught the teardrop on the tip of one of his viciously sharp nails and raised it up as if to study it. His nostrils flared as he took a flamboyant sniff, then with a reptilian flick of the tongue, he tasted it.
‘A woman’s tears, so fragrant, so delicious, so – endearing.’
He let go of me and I fell to the floor, gasping. When I looked up he was stepping into the thick black shadow cloaking the door.
He glanced back at me. ‘Au revoir, Miss de Salle. I shall be seeing you again very soon. In fact, I will be keeping a close eye on you.’
The darkness wrapped itself around him until all that remained was a black stain in front of the door, and then it was gone and the room was once again full of autumn gloom.
Somehow I managed to pull myself up onto my knees, though I was shaking so hard I had to clench my mouth shut to stop my teeth from chattering.
‘You must close the door or he’ll be back,’ a voice said from beside me, making me jump.
I looked around. The girls were standing there. The Ouija board slithered shakily across the floor and came to a faltering stop in front of me. The planchette followed. I reached out towards the board and then stopped, my fingers outstretched, but not quite touching it. I had a feeling it was too late for any of this.
‘What about you two?’ I asked. ‘Don’t you want to move on to where you belong?’
They glided around to stand in front of me, on the other side of the board.
‘We belong here.’
‘It’s been almost two hundred years. You need to leave this place,’ I said.
‘You’ve been frightening the girls.’
They both smiled, the sweet, sunny smiles of children. ‘We haven’t, not for a long, long time.’
I frowned at them. I knew spirits didn’t have the same sense of time as we did, but even so, barely a few days had passed since their last escapade. ‘What about the three girls the other day?’
It was their turn to frown. ‘That wasn’t us,’ one said with a pout. ‘It was him, and when they’d gone he started being mean to us.’
‘Did they call him with the board?’
They both nodded, their faces solemn.
With a sigh I dug in my pocket and pulled out a sealed plastic bag. I emptied the contents – a candle and matches – onto the floor, then set the candle upright. My fingers were trembling so badly that I managed to spill half the matches onto the floor, then had trouble picking them up. Eventually I managed to grasp one between shaking fingers, but I didn’t have the strength to light it.
I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths, then tried again, and this time a small flame flickered, faltered, almost went out, then bloomed. The girls watched me as I lit the candle.
I picked up the planchette, placed it on the board and pushed it to where it read ‘Goodbye’.
‘Goodbye,’ I said as firmly as I could.
I lifted the planchette and passed it through the candle flame, then did the same with the board, then, murmuring the Lord’s Prayer, I whacked it three times on the floor.
The girls drifted away.
‘Wait!’ I said, and they turned back to me. ‘Remember, you promised to be good.’
‘We will,’ they whispered, and then they were gone.
Still shaking, I gathered the candle and matches together and dropped them back in the plastic bag. I didn’t imagine for one minute that they would keep their promise – although if this was the first time the school had experienced any trouble in the fifteen years since I’d left, they hadn’t exactly been going out of their way to be nasty to the pupils. I would suggest to Lydia Mitchell that she arrange for the door to the attic be locked and bolted. It wouldn’t keep the two little spirits confined, though they had never really strayed far from the attic room, probably because it was where they had died. It would, however, keep her pupils out and hopefully away from this sort of mischief.
I climbed to my feet and started towards the door, but after a few steps I hesitated. There was no thick darkness blocking my exit now, but even so I was wary. I took another step, and another, then scampered across the room as fast as my heels would let me, threw open the door and bounded down the stairs into the upper sixth common room.
Any relief I might have felt immediately washed away when I looked back up the stairs. The doorframe at the top was filled with solid black darkness.
‘Remember my message,’ a voice whispered with a hint of laughter, then the door slammed shut with enough force to shake the doorframe and rattle the coffee mugs littered around the common room.
Marked by Sue Tingey is published by Jo Fletcher Books. the sequel, Cursed, is due to be published in February 2016. For more on Sue’s work and novels, be sure to follow her on Twitter and Goodreads, and check out her website.