Annotated Excerpt: THE CITY OF DUSK by Tara Sim (Orbit/Hodder)

SimR-CityOfDuskWriting books is so weird.

Ever since I was fifteen I knew for sure that I wanted to be an author. Back then, writing books was so much fun. I got to let my imagination loose, play around with (aka torture) characters, and make up entirely new worlds. There were no deadlines, no pressures, no expectations — just the joy of creation.

Although writing is still fun, I find that it gets harder and harder. So naturally, I like to challenge myself with each new book.

The City of Dusk was certainly challenging. It’s my most ambitious book/series to date: four separate realms, four magic systems, seven POVs. Somehow, it all came together in the end, but the journey was arduous and spirit-shattering.

Was it worth it, though? Absolutely. Because now I get to share this epic story with you — one that’s lived in my brain for at least a decade — and introduce you to characters I love with my whole heart. In this excerpt you’ll be meeting Risha, the heir of House Vakara — one of the four noble houses in the city of Nexus — who is a necromancer and descended from the god of death herself.

Thank you to Civilian Reader for hosting this annotated excerpt! I hope you like what you see.

Tara

***

Excerpt from chapter two of THE CITY OF DUSK

Nexus was shaped like a four-pointed star, with a basilica in each point. When the carriage rolled to a stop in the western point and the door was pulled open, Risha saw the basilica ablaze with torches burning back the dark. Its tall stone buttresses led up to an impressive dome, figures of skeletons in various positions of prayer sculpted around its perimeter. The wide stone steps led to three sets of closed doors, barred and locked for the night.

First of all: lol, buttresses. Second of all: since this is the basilica for Thana, the god of death, naturally I had to make sure it looked goth as hell.

Once, this had been more than a place for those who worshipped Thana to make offerings. Once, this had been the portal house to Mortri, where priests would lay out bodies within the stepwell to ensure their spirits would journey to the realm of the dead and find peace, torture, or rebirth.

But the portals had been sealed for five hundred years, and they were no longer able to make that journey. Vitae was overrun. Even though the Vakaras could keep the spirits dormant for a time, keep them lingering in that blackness between Vitae and Mortri, there was still no way to disperse them until the portal reopened.

The residue of its power still lingered. That pathway, that connective tissue between realms, with its scent of dark soil and aged things.

I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but a long time ago I got the idea to use stepwells as the portals to the other realms. They’re beautiful and have unique designs, and the idea of walking down into one, or ascending the steps of one into another world, was too tempting to pass up.

Members of the city guard stood around the basilica square. They were all on high alert, looking to the steps with hands on their sword hilts.

The rogue spirit shifted from the shadows into flickering torchlight. There was something off about it, something she couldn’t quite discern from this distance.

Before she could approach, a guard with a black mustache blocked her path.

“Watch out, my lady. It’s already harmed two of my men.”

“I’m well familiar with the dangers, sir. But if we are to do our work, we must know what we’re up against.”

The officer nodded and sheepishly dropped his arm.

Yeah dude, better to just get out of the way and let her do her thing.

Risha and Saya drew closer to the shambling, shivering thing on the basilica steps. When they could finally make out its shape, Saya inhaled through her teeth.

“How did it manage to do that?” she whispered.

The spirit wasn’t merely a rampaging ghost — it had taken hold of a heavily decayed body, mostly bone with a few hunks of gray, tattered meat. Risha wondered how it hadn’t fallen to pieces yet when she noticed the vines strung through the skeleton like sinew. The plant fibers were threaded across its rib cage and twined around its arms and legs, some of them bearing fang-like thorns.

There was a lot of thought that went into making this world and its creatures. But also, a lot of the time I asked myself: what would be really cool? I decided a skeleton with vines and thorns was definitely cool.

The skeleton shuffled up the steps, or tried to. Its bony hands scrabbled ineffectively at a buttress. Its moan sent a shiver down Risha’s spine, hollow and echoing. No matter how often she witnessed a violent spirit, their voices still cut through her, into whatever animal instinct told her to run.

Saya trembled beside her. Risha took a deep breath, and then another.

“Let’s bind it,” she whispered.

They both opened pouches on their belts and pulled out pieces of red string. Risha allowed her fingers to work in familiar patterns, threading the string between them much like the vines through the skeleton’s body. She created the pattern for binding and immediately felt a warm rush of power, concentrated into the spell between her hands.

I wanted something unique for this particular magic system, since necromancy is pretty prevalent in SFF, which is how the string came into play. The idea is to use it as a sort of one-person cat’s cradle, where your intention for the spell is woven into specific designs.

But Saya was a little slower, not as practiced at creating the patterns. At the sensation of Risha’s power flaring up, the spirit turned and fixed them with dark, hollow eye sockets. Its jaw lay slack, and from beyond it issued a high, terrible scream that made everyone in the square flinch.

The skeleton lurched toward them, stumbling off the basilica steps with hands extended. The officer with the mustache drew his sword and stood between them and the approaching spirit.

MY EYES,” it screeched. “HE TOOK MY EYES.

In the first couple drafts I had the dialogue text for the spirit in alternating caps, but my editor informed me it was too hard to read. She was right, of course.

The string slipped from Saya’s fingers.

“Saya,” Risha said firmly. “You can do this. Focus on the pattern for binding.” She turned to the spirit as it shuffled closer. She could smell the rot emanating from its bones. “Who took your eyes?” she asked to buy time for her sister.

THE PRIEST,” the thing hissed, and another, softer scream was layered over it. “I STOLE HIS GOLD. HE TOOK MY EYES.

“Perhaps you oughtn’t have stolen his gold, then,” she said. The officer gave her a pained expression over his shoulder.

Lol.

“Got it,” Saya said as her power flared. With both of them concentrating on the binding spell, the skeleton froze in place with hands outstretched. It shuddered and keened, fighting against them. Risha felt it knock up against her power, desperate to break the connection, but she clenched her jaw and focused harder.

Then the skeleton’s head snapped back. Risha followed its empty gaze to the roof of the nearest building and twitched in surprise. A shadow was crouched above the eaves, watching the events unfold in the square.

“Someone’s up there!” she shouted.

The guards reacted immediately, racing toward the shadow. The figure darted across the roof and jumped down to the street, rolling to soften its fall. On the fringes of torchlight, the figure resolved itself into the shape of a man.

He glanced her way. Covering his face was a mask in the likeness of a skull.

Giving her a quick salute, he turned and fled.

Ooooo, who’s this?  

“Risha,” Saya gritted out.

Risha shook herself. She and Saya pulled their strings taut in unison, the pattern stretching to its limit, before they each twisted their hands and let the string snap.

The spirit gave one more vengeful wail before the skeleton collapsed in a heap of bone and vines. Risha felt the spirit dissipate, retreating toward the inter-realm void.

Saya rested her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Risha approached the dead thing, frowning. Whenever a corpse happened to be raised by a spirit, it was usually a body freshly dead. She had never seen a skeleton animated this way before.

She skirted around the skeleton. Under the eaves where the masked man had crouched was a circle of chalk. Torchlight flickered along its outer edge, barely touching the design of a seven-pointed star contained inside, triangles layered over one another.

Risha went cold. It reminded her of Saya’s textbook, the Cosmic Scale upon which the realms sat. Of the circle drawn too close to the Bone Palace for the king’s comfort.

Old, forbidden magic. Demonic magic.

Conjuration.

Like I was going to not use cool alchemy-like summoning circles in this book. And yes, before you ask: I’m a big fan of the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, which ended up being a lot more formative to me story-telling wise than I thought.

She stared down the street where the man in the skull mask had disappeared. If he’d used this symbol, this magic, to raise the skeleton…

That meant Conjurers really could replicate necromancy.

The officer with the mustache drew up at her side. “Thank you, my ladies, for your service tonight. We will dispose of the body in whatever manner you suggest is best.”

“Burn it first, then separate the remaining bone fragments. Bury them in different plots.” Risha took the garland from around her neck and handed it to him. “Place this on top of the body before it burns.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“Did you happen to catch that man?”

“Ah… no. But you can be sure we’ll be on the lookout for him. I’ll add it to the incident report.”

She almost told him not to bother. She would report this to her father as soon as he returned home, and tomorrow he would relate it to King Ferdinand. But the high commissioner’s guards seemed to love paperwork.

I don’t think anyone loves paperwork, Risha.

Risha hesitated as she passed the skeleton again, Taesia’s request for calciphite taunting her. It would be easy to snap off a rib and put it in her pocket.

Instead, she wrapped an arm around Saya’s waist — once again finding it unfair how much taller her little sister was — and watched the guards bundle the bones in canvas to haul them away. She couldn’t shake the oily, queasy feeling the spirit’s presence had left within her. She had built herself around that feeling over the years, the sweet yet sickening release of her power. Some days it came as a soft song, a clear chime she couldn’t help but follow. Today, it came as a low, pealing gong, a reverberation through her hollow spaces.

The Vakaras were the only necromancers in all of Vitae. The spells were in their blood, their marrow. The thought of others using it, wielding it so haphazardly, set her teeth on edge.

The basilica stood cold and quiet and empty. There was no telling how much worse this would get before she could open the way to Mortri.

When or where the Conjurers would strike next.

She and her sister were quiet on the carriage ride back until Saya suddenly groaned and put her face in her hands.

“I’m going to fail my exam tomorrow,” she muttered.

Poor Saya. Your older sister should know better than to keep a university student out late at night to fight skeletons.

***

I know, you’re probably asking: wait, who was the guy in the skull mask? What’s up with this Conjuration thing? Will Saya actually fail her test? All that and more (okay, not the test one, sorry) will be answered in the rest of the book, where you’ll meet the other heirs of the other three houses and plenty more skeletons.

*

Tara Sim’s The City of Dusk is due to be published tomorrow (March 22nd) by Orbit Books in North America and Hodder in the UK.

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