Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

First Chapter Preview of Cinder: Book Four the Dragon Apocalypse!

Cinder: Book Four of the Dragon Apocalypse, launches on May 18. I'm still putting some polishing touches on the manuscript, but feel ready to reveal the first chapter. It's been a long wait, and I'd like to thank all the patient fans who've followed the series to date. I hope you'll discover it's been worth the wait.

Chapter One

The Final Chapter

Wind lashed the Black Swan as she straddled the massive killer whale that flew through the howling blizzard. The night was utterly dark, the stars lost behind storm clouds, but her gaze extended beyond the material world. In the faint glow of the spiritual realms, she could see the Keep of the Inquisition rising before them.

“We’re close enough to land,” she shouted above the cry of the wind.

The whale tilted, diving down. With her inhuman eyes, she saw the frozen surface of the sea rushing toward them and wondered if Menagerie was about to crash. At the last second, the whale shifted shape, taking on the form of a polar bear inches above the ice, landing with a jolt. The Black Swan dug her iron fingers into the beast’s fur to keep from being thrown.

“Ow,” said Menagerie, rising on her hind legs as the Black Swan dropped to the ice. “Pulled fur doesn’t feel any better than pulled hair.”

“I can’t remember what that’s like,” said the Black Swan. “It’s been centuries since I last had hair.”

Still standing, the bear sniffed the air. The beast wore a gray silk cape that flapped in the wind, the ends threadbare and tattered. Menagerie’s nose twitched as she turned her head first to the left, then the right, before releasing her breath in a great cloud of steam.

“Be ready,” said Menagerie, her voice a gruff growl. “Someone’s near. I smell them.”

“Alive or dead?” asked the Black Swan.

“Alive,” said Menagerie. “Whoever it is, they’re wearing way too much perfume. Bears have better noses than bloodhounds. This much concentrated lavender is obnoxious.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I haven’t had a working nose in a long time, either,” said the Black Swan.

The Black Swan climbed to the peak of a frozen swell, the spikes in her iron feet skittering on the gray ice. Her diamond eyes whirred as she adjusted their focus, until at last she spotted the purple-robed figure standing atop jagged rocks on the nearby shore.

No, not standing. Dancing, arms lifted, toes barely touching as the figure gracefully leapt from rock to rock.

“Zetetic?” Menagerie asked as she climbed up the swell.

The Black Swan shook her head. “Equity Tremblepoint.”

“Is she a lunatic? She’ll freeze in this wind.”

“No one who lives here can be called sane,” said the Black Swan, as she slid down the swell and continued toward the Keep.

White flowers of frost crunched beneath the Black Swan’s steel toes as she ascended the pebble beach toward the front gate. She glanced back across the trackless ice.

“I hope we’ve had enough of a head start,” she said.

“I didn’t mind flying here as Slor Tonn,” said the bear. “It helped clear the scent of burning flesh from my lungs.”

Hours had passed they fled the Silver City. The last of King Brightmoon’s elite guard had tried to push back Tempest’s unliving armies by pumping burning oil from massive jets atop the palace walls. The endless hordes of marching corpses had kept advancing as they burned, crushing against the heavy oak of the barred doors until the wood finally gave way. The burning army had surged into the palace, bringing death to the last defenders of civilization.

Reaching the main gate of the Keep of the Inquisition, the Black Swan pounded on the iron bars, hoping her knocking could be heard above the storm. Her hope was rewarded as chains clattered within the walls and the gate rose. Beyond the gate, massive iron doors slowly opened.

After weeks without seeing the sun, she had to raise her hand to block the radiance that flowed from within the castle. She stepped into the great hall, brightly lit with a thousand glory stones floating in silver cages that filled the torch sconces. After the chill of the frozen ocean, the warmth of the hall felt like a furnace.

The bear stood once more on her hind legs, then shrank until it took the form of a woman with gray hair. For an instant, the frost that had tipped the bear’s fur glittered like diamonds against her nude skin until her gray cloak fell around her. She took a step forward, stumbling slightly.

“Are you okay?” asked the Black Swan.

“I’m fine,” said Menagerie. “A little out of practice. First time I’ve walked on human legs in weeks.”

The Black Swan moved further into the hall, gazing at the paintings and sculptures covering the space. It was difficult to discern a theme among the artwork. Paintings depicting church-like piety hung above marble nudes posed in acts of depravity.

Menagerie paused before a painting of a platinum-haired woman wearing pure white armor. The resemblance between the faces of the viewer and the subject was striking.

“Queen Alabaster Brightmoon,” the Black Swan said. “Your current body’s distant ancestor.”

“With paintings like this around, it’s surprising it took us all so long to realize Infidel was a Brightmoon.”

The Black Swan shrugged. “I knew it all along. I recognized the value of keeping her secret.”

Menagerie shook her head. “Does anything have value now? Both of us spent our lives in pursuit of wealth. My estate on the Silver Isles makes this fortress look like a cottage. You’ve got enough treasure stashed away to purchase kingdoms if you wished. Now, what’s it all worth? Absolutely nothing.”

“So I don’t need to pay you when this is over?” asked the Black Swan.

“A contract’s a contract,” said Menagerie.

“Of course,” the Black Swan said. “It’s good to see that some things remain true even in these—” The Black Swan stopped in mid-thought as a drawing in a glass frame caught her attention. It was a likeness of herself, naked, or at least unclothed. She didn’t know if the bareness of her iron shell constituted nudity or not. In any case, she now wore britches and a jacket of leather to conceal her metallic form. A broad-brimmed hat concealed her hairless scalp. Only her iron feet, fingers, and face remained bare.

She picked up the frame, studying the intricate detail of the drawing, carefully inked with crisp black lines. Beside the depiction of her outer form, dozens of gears, pulleys, and braided iron wires were sketched out, along with a pair of bellows. These comprised her internal organs. A human skeleton was drawn next to the objects. The stark depiction of her naked bones felt like the ultimate invasion of privacy.

“When did you pose for that?” asked Menagerie.

“I didn’t,” she said, the lenses in her eyes clicking into ever sharper focus, until she could be certain that the black lines weren’t soaked into the paper as ink, but instead sat slightly raised upon the surface, crafted of pure, rustless iron filaments fine as hair. “Sorrow’s been here. She sculpted my current body. These were her final plans, the ones I approved.” She shook her head slowly. “The breasts look better on paper.”

“Please don’t get started on that again,” Menagerie said with a sigh.

“Yes,” said a faint voice behind the two women. “Please don’t start a discussion of breasts until I’m close enough to participate. I’ve strong opinions on the subject.”

They turned and found an ancient man hobbling toward them, supported by a stave decorated with carved serpents. The old man was toothless, his right eye a yellow, sightless moon. His good eye sparkled as he regarded the two women.

“I’m so pleased you’re here!” he said, smiling. “I’d given up hope of seeing an actual woman again before the world ended.”

“What of the woman dancing outside?” asked Menagerie.

“Equity? She’s no woman. At least, I don’t think she is. Or he is.” He scratched his scaly scalp. “Pronouns get muddled when Equity takes the stage.”

“Why’s she dancing?” asked the Black Swan.

“To say goodbye to the world, of course,” said the old man. “Zetetic tells us it’s ending within the hour. If we make haste and disrobe along the way, we can still reach my chambers in time to— ”

“If you finish that sentence I’ll disembowel you,” said Menagerie.

The old man frowned.

“We’ve no time to waste,” said the Black Swan. “We must see Zetetic at once.”

“Zetetic isn’t taking visitors.

“Tell him the Black Swan must see him.”

“And Menagerie. He knows me. We were companions during the quest to slay Greatshadow.”

The old man smiled. “As long as we’re doing introductions, I’m Vigor.”

“I know who you are,” said the Black Swan. “You’re an authority on reptiles.”

“Yes,” he said. “Though my specialty is dragons.”

“If you know about dragons, do you have any clue how we can stop Tempest?” she asked.

Vigor shook his head. “Tempest is something much worse than a dragon these days. Nothing can save us, I fear.”

“I can’t accept that,” said the Black Swan. “Zetetic’s powers are almost without limit. Why hasn’t he acted? He has the power to stop this with any of a thousand different lies.”

“Zetetic would agree with you,” said Vigor. “But he says things will happen as they happen. He says that lies are but shadows cast by truth, and that truth has vanished from the world.”

“What does that mean?” asked Menagerie.

Vigor shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I had a conversation with Zetetic where I understood a single thing he was talking about.”

“Then let us talk to him,” said the Black Swan.

“As I said, he’s not taking visitors.”

The Black Swan’s arm sprung out with spring-driven force and clamped iron fingers around Vigor’s throat. “Take us to him or I’ll throttle you.”

Vigor smiled weakly, gasping, “Threats aren’t… terribly effective… with the end… so near.”

The Black Swan opened her fingers. “There won’t be an end if Zetetic acts. With a single utterance, he could undo all of this! He could send Tempest’s armies back to Hell. He could free Abyss from Hush’s control. He could at least tell us what Tempest did to the sun, and how we might put it back into the sky!”

Vigor rubbed his throat. “I hold out the faint hope that Equity’s sense of stagecraft has rubbed off on our host. Perhaps he’s waiting for the moment of greatest peril to make a grand entrance and turn back all the horror.”

“It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than they are at this exact moment,” said Menagerie.

From outside the open gate, above the howl of the wind, came a bone-shivering, high-pitched shriek. The Black Swan cut her eyes toward Menagerie, her iron eyebrows knitting together.

“I regretted saying it before the last word left my lips,” said Menagerie.

Equity Tremblepoint stumbled through the open gate into the hall. Her purple robes were torn to tatters. When she spotted Vigor, she raised the back of her hand to her forehead, shuddered, and collapsed against the door, her figure framed by the darkness behind her. She arched her back, extended her hand with its long, red nails, pointing into the darkness, trembling, as she exclaimed, “The damned! They’ve found us!”

The Black Swan ran to the gate. A trio of dead soldiers stood in the darkness barely a yard away, with shreds of Equity’s robes still dangling from their skeletal fingers. One carried a black blade that stank of sulfur as he raised it overhead, preparing to chop the Black Swan in twain.

There was a slight tap on the Black Swan’s shoulder as a squirrel used her for a launching pad to fling itself toward the sword-wielding corpse. By the time it reached the warrior, the squirrel had changed into an enormous silverback gorilla. The beast grabbed the lead corpse by the wrist and swiftly disarmed it, in the most literal meaning of the word. Using the dismembered limbs as clubs, the gorilla knocked the skulls free from the shambling forms flanking the first skeleton.

Menagerie turned to the Black Swan. “Find the Deceiver! I’ll hold them off!”

The Black Swan peered into the darkness, spotting the ragged forms lurching over the frozen swells. Their numbers were uncountable, as if Hell had thrown up all of its damned souls. Which, of course, was precisely what was happening. The damned had been promised the world once the last of the living perished. As far as the Black Swan knew, the last men still alive were the inhabitants of this small island.

“Why hasn’t he stopped this?” whimpered Equity. “I thought he would stop this!”

“Fall back!” the Black Swan shouted to Menagerie. “There’s too many of them! Get inside the gate!”

“You’ve seen how quickly they can penetrate a fortress,” Menagerie growled. “I can hold out far longer than iron bars.”

“Not alone,” said the Black Swan.

“He won’t be alone,” said Vigor, hobbling forward.

The gorilla’s eyebrows shot up. “No offense, but I’m not sure how much help you’re going to be.”

Vigor began to undress, struggling to pull his robe over his head, revealing his boney, wrinkled body.

Equity’s sobbing despair turned into a rueful chuckle. “There was no chance the world could come to an end without Vigor taking one last opportunity to display his genitalia.”

But it wasn’t Vigor’s crotch that caught the Black Swan’s attention. An elaborately inked tattoo completely engulfed Vigor’s torso, depicting a dragon in minute detail. The dark lines pulsed and glowed as Vigor pulled a small flask of powder from a pocket before he tossed his robe aside.

On wobbly legs thin as sticks, he shouted to Menagerie, “You think you’re the only person who ever studied blood magic? For three long years I lived with the scion of Greatshadow. I collected blood frequently while he was under my care. He had no reason to suspect I intended to study draconic biology from a vastly improved perspective.”

He popped open the cork on the vial and tilted his head back, shaking the powdery contents into his gaping mouth. The wind snatched away much of the dark powder, giving the air the scent of blood. Vigor coughed as he strained to swallow the dusty mouthful. Red spittle flew from between his lips. He coughed again, more violently, and a jet of flame shot ten feet from his open mouth. The flames seemed to have melted his face, which grew longer, more narrow, as the heat covered his skin with vivid red blisters, crusted with black. His body bulged as he dropped to all fours. With a horrible rip, his paper-thin skin split along his spine and two long red wings unfolded from between his shoulder blades.

In ten seconds, the transformation was complete, and a dragon larger than a bull with wings the size of mainsails stood facing the armies of the damned. He opened his crocodilian jaws and roared. An inferno billowed over the waves, incinerating the front ranks of the shambling dead.

Menagerie grabbed the Black Swan by the shoulders, refocusing her attention.

“Go!” the gorilla shouted. “Make Zetetic stop this!”

The Black Swan nodded, turning, grabbing Equity by the waist and slinging her over her shoulder as she ran into the hall.

“Where can I find him?” she shouted.

“Put me down before I throw up!” Equity shouted back.

The Black Swan put the aged thespian back on her feet. Equity responded by pointing at a stairway at the back of the hall. “Zetetic dwells in the uppermost chamber of the main tower!”

“You’re sure he’s there?” asked the Black Swan.

“Of course not. He’s probably long gone into an abstract realm. Even if you find his body, I don’t know that his mind will be with it. But what choice do you have but to try?”

“I’ve been asking myself that for over two hundred years,” grumbled the Black Swan as she ran toward the stairs, her feet clanging like hammer blows on the marble floor. She took some comfort from her certainty that Equity was wrong. Zetetic hadn’t fled to another reality. If a portal to an abstract realm had been opened here on the island, she’d know it. As a traveler of those realms, she could feel a pressure in the roof of her mouth, faint but unmistakable, whenever she was near a dimensional veil that had been breached.

She raced up the steps to the floor above. The light of a great fire flickered through an open window. She glanced out to see Vigor nearly a quarter mile out on the ice, spewing flames, spinning as he blasted the armies massed against him. Unfortunately, from her higher vantage point, the vastness of the army stood revealed. As large as the dragon was, he couldn’t protect the Keep from being overrun.

She ran on. Her only hope lay at the top of the stairs. Her tireless legs moved with machine precision to propel her upwards, leaping three steps at a time.

At last she reached a locked door. She hoped beyond this she’d find Zetetic. She pounded on the door with her fist. “Open up! It’s the Black Swan! You owe your life to me!”

When no reply came, she threw herself against the door. The thick wood cracked, but held. She threw herself again, then again, until the door came apart and she stumbled into the chamber beyond. Instantly, she felt the familiar sensation in the roof of her mouth. In passing through the door, she’d left the material world behind.

She found herself in a room lined with paper, in large sheets pasted roughly to stone walls. The paper had been painted white, though here and there some faint traces of words seeped through the chalky wash. The edges of the room were difficult to pinpoint, but the space felt cavernous. In the center of the space, dressed in red robes, sat Zetetic, cross-legged, his head in his hands, staring at objects before him.

She stepped closer, and saw a can of white paint before him, a worn and ragged brush balanced on the lip of the open container. Beside this was an inkwell, with a simple goose quill next to it, the tip black as soot. On the paper before Zetetic a few hundred words had been jotted, in a language she couldn’t read.

“Zetetic?” she said, softly.

He said nothing.

“Zetetic, it’s me. The Black Swan. I paid King Brightmoon to spare your life when you were captured by the Church of the Book all those years ago. I greased the palms required to let the king trust you with teaching Stagger how to guide the sun, and paid the necessary fees to have you take possession of this island. You owe me.”

Zetetic didn’t even look up.

She moved to a few feet away. She crouched, her iron joints creaking. Studying his face, she confirmed he was awake. He blinked, but never lifted his eyes to acknowledge her.

She reached for the quill, since it seemed to be the focus of his attention.

The Deceiver’s hand shot forward and grabbed her wrist.

“I owe you nothing,” he said in a calm, measured tone.

“Zetetic, listen to me. I know that out here in the Spittles, news may be slow to reach you. The Dragon Apocalypse is upon us.”

“It know what lies beyond these walls. Nothing at all, or very nearly nothing. All that remains of our world are echoes and shadows, soon to fade.”

“That can’t be true!” she said. “Yes, Stagger has vanished, and the sun has been torn from the sky. In the endless night, Tempest has thrown open the gates of Hell and the destruction wrought by his army of the damned is unimaginable in scope. Hush has enslaved Abyss, his mind frozen by her elemental chill, so that nothing prevents her from turning the whole world into a frigid wasteland. But it’s not too late! We have to hope that pockets of humanity yet survive. If we stop the dragons, enough remains of the world that we can rebuild!”

“I know all of this,” said Zetetic, lifting the quill, running his finger along the edge. “I’ve known it before it happened, thanks to your careful reporting from the future. Everything is happening, just as you said. You have the ultimate opportunity to say, fully, profoundly, ‘Told you so.’ This must provide you a great deal of satisfaction.’ ”

“Don’t be absurd!” she cried. “I’ve devoted numerous lifetimes to preventing this day. You swore you’d help me stop it!”

He smiled, ever so faintly. “Certainly you knew better than to take the word of the Deceiver.”

“Why would you lie when it means your own death?”

“Why should I fear death? It’s nothing but a door.”

“A door I’ve passed through many times,” the Black Swan said. “Trust me, the living world is far better.”

“You’ve traveled to the abstract realms, as have I. They are mere shadows of the living world. When life is gone, and they fade away, what will we discover beyond?”

“What if it’s nothing?” she asked. “Certainly it’s best to fight to save the world we know.”

“I don’t believe that at all,” said Zetetic. “I’m certain that the reality we know is nothing but a fiction created for the entertainment of beings unfathomable. We’re puppets. I would rid myself of strings.”

The Black Swan stared into his face, unable to fathom the placidity of his eyes. She whispered, her voice breaking into despair, “You’re mad.”

“Perhaps.” Zetetic focused his gaze on the tip of the quill, as if inspecting its quality as a writing instrument. “But insulting me is a poor strategy for getting me to change my mind.”

“What will change your mind?” she asked.

“The more valuable secret for me would be to discover how to stop it from changing.”

If she’d still had hair, she’d have torn it out. She’d never enjoyed any of her previous conversations with Zetetic, but she had no patience at all for his babble now. She stretched out her arms, seeing no choice but to take him by the throat and throttle him into obedience.

“That will end very badly for you,” he said as her hands approached him. “Besides, you’ve other concerns at the moment. Stagger’s back.”


“Stagger’s back. I know you’ve been searching for him. He’s approaching the Keep even now.”

The Black Swan drew her hands back. She knew he was telling the truth, or else had told a lie that had become the truth. The pressure in the roof of her mouth became a stabbing sensation. A being of enormous power had just entered into the real world.

“Stagger?” she whispered, then ran back to the stairway and the nearest tower window.

Walking along the ocean toward the Keep was a flare of light vaguely the size and shape of a man. His radiance disintegrated the undead hordes as he passed.

Pressing a button on the side of her temple, the Black Swan dropped lenses of smoked glass over her eyes. The radiance dimmed, allowing her to see a man at the center of the light, wearing a suit of yellow silk, his long hair tied back neatly into a ponytail.

Bright sunlight lit the frozen waves surrounding the Keep. On the sea below, the dragon gazed up at the light, smoke rising from his nostrils. In a circle several hundred yards around him charred corpses were heaped high.

Menagerie, still in gorilla form, stood atop the wall of corpses, her fur completely matted with dark blood.

Stagger reached the mound of bodies. Extending his arms to his side, he drifted into the air, rising above the corpses, until he was eye level with the gorilla.

“Who are you?” Vigor demanded from inside the circle of bodies, his voice loud enough to be heard from the top of the tower.

“Once I was Abstemious Merchant,” said Stagger. “A solar gentleman. Now, I am a loyal servant of Tempest. If you’ll please step aside, I’m here to kill Zetetic.”

“Kill Zetetic?” asked Menagerie. “I thought the two of you were buddies.”

“Menagerie,” said Stagger, turning his gaze toward the shapeshifter. “I’m genuinely sorry.” A flash followed. The Black Swan blinked to clear her vision. All that remained of Menagerie was a black streak of ash.

Vigor roared, flames belching from his serpentine neck as he blasted Stagger. As the flames died, Stagger proved unharmed. Vigor lunged toward him, his toothy jaws clamping on Stagger’s head. Stagger calmly lifted his hands and pried the dragon’s jaws open, freeing himself.

“You have the same aura as Brokenwing, but you’re obviously not him,” said Stagger.

“Urah muh daggoo,” answered Vigor, his speech rendered unintelligible by Stagger’s grip.

“Whoever you are, farewell,” said Stagger. The Black Swan shielded her eyes from the flash she knew was coming. When she lowered her hand, Vigor was gone. His ashes drifted down to the ice like black snow.

Stagger walked closer to the tower, ascending with each step as if he climbed an unseen staircase.

The Black Swan hesitated. Stagger was here to kill Zetetic? Why? Should she go warn the Deceiver? Was it possible that he didn’t already know?

As the living embodiment of the sun, there was little hope of stopping Stagger by force. Fortunately, she knew one important thing about the man. He loved to talk.

The Black Swan leaned her iron body against the wall and locked her joints. She loosened her grip on her physical shell, stepping outside its confines, connected only by a slender silver thread. She floated out the window to meet Stagger as he drew closer.

“Stagger,” she called out.

“I expected to find you here,” he said.

“I most certainly didn’t expect to find you here,” she said. “Where have you been?”

“In Hell,” he said. “Just another damned soul.”

“No,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he said. “Tempest is my master now. He’s achieved his dream of total dominion over the world. At least, he will once Zetetic has been vaporized.”

“I can’t let you do this,” said the Black Swan. “Zetetic is our last hope of undoing all the destruction.”

“You cannot possibly stop me,” said Stagger.

“Return to your bones,” said the Black Swan, pointing her wraithlike fingers toward the man.

Stagger smirked. “Necromancy isn’t as effective as it once was. Life no longer holds power over death. Now, be a good girl and step aside, won’t you? I can vaporize your spirit as well as your body, but we both know I’d rather not harm you.”

The Black Swan closed her eyes as the silver thread pulled her back into her iron shell. It was time to leave. She’d again failed to stop the end of the world. It was time to go back and try once more.

She opened her eyes. She frowned. She was still in Zetetic’s tower. The winds still howled above the frozen sea outside the window. The toe of Stagger’s boot fell upon the window ledge. He stepped down to the floor beside her.

“You won’t be going anywhere,” he said.

“How?” she asked. “How are you stopping me?”

“The Church of the Book used to draw magical glyphs that protected their holy sanctuaries from assaults from the abstract realm. In coming here, I’ve traced the outline of one of these glyphs to encompass the island. Tempest doesn’t want Zetetic to flee into a different reality.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Zetetic, his voice coming from the paper-lined room. “We’ve reached the last words of the last page of the final chapter. We’re all precisely where we must be.”

Stagger stepped into the room. The Black Swan followed, her mind racing. How could she hope to stop Stagger?

Zetetic no longer held the quill. He now held the paint brush. The words that had filled the paper directly in front of him were mostly gone, lost beneath a sheen of glistening paint. Somehow, in the seconds since the Black Swan had last seen him, he’d worked up a sweat. Huge beads of perspiration stood against the large red “D” tattooed in the center of his brow.

“Goodbye, Zetetic,” said Stagger.

Zetetic drew his brush across the words before him. They vanished beneath the white.

Stagger silently faded away. The Black Swan blinked.

“Where?” she whispered.

Zetetic put down the brush and picked up the pen. As he dipped the tip into the inkwell, the inkwell vanished. He frowned as the dry tip of the quill hit the paper. Then, the quill disappeared.

“My calculations were off a few seconds, I see,” he said with a heavy sigh, studying his empty fingers.

The Black Swan lifted her own hands, confused as to why she could see through them.

In the roof of her mouth, she felt something pop. She didn’t know why, she didn’t know how, but she sensed that the glyphs Stagger had drawn around the island were no longer there.

By instinct, the Black Swan leapt, jumping from the world of the living into the nearest adjacent realm. She tumbled into darkness, falling, falling. Since she’d been on an island, she expected to pass through the Sea of Wine, but it was gone. The Realm of Roots had always held a special magnetism for her ethereal self. She could no longer feel its tug. Stagger had arrived from Hell. The dimensional gateway should still be easy to pass through. Yet… nothing. She felt nothing. Hell itself had been swallowed by an all-encompassing vacancy.

She tumbled through the timeless dark, her mind blank, incapable of conscious thought, as a memory, exceedingly faint and long, long lost, crept into her awareness. She’d experienced this void before. When Numinous had read the One True Book, and ended the world. It seemed like the sort of thing that would be impossible to forget. But how can a mind keep a grasp on nothing?

She closed her eyes and stretched out her arms. The sensation of falling, she understood, was merely a remnant of her last physical sensation. It was impossible to fall in a place with no up or down, no side to side, where width and depth and breadth weren’t even concepts. She was in a place that was not a place. Which meant she couldn’t be here. She had to be somewhere else.

She no longer felt as if she were falling. She opened her eyes, finding impenetrable darkness above. She sat up and discovered herself surrounded by an endless plain of white paper covered in dark scratchings. She’d never been able to understand these symbols before, but realized suddenly that they bore a strong resemblance to the letters Zetetic had scrawled before him.

She stood, gazing over the final realm, the foundation that all of reality rested upon. She’d come once again to the Primordial Pages. Once, the pages had stretched out unblemished for as far as she could see. Now, she saw horrible rips in the paper, long gashes where she’d fallen through on her previous journeys back along the narrative stream of reality. Once, she’d been able to travel back decades with ease. Now, her repeated journeys had left the pages in tatters. Rips had grown and merged, leaving only thin and fragile bridges of intact paper for her to navigate.

Fortunately, she needn’t travel back far. A single step across the lines could carry her back days, even weeks. A few hours of careful treading on the fragile pages might yet take her back a few years. The limbo she’d fallen through provided her an important clue. Numinous Pilgrim had somehow survived her ambush on the Sea of Wine. Only the Omega Reader could have destroyed the abstract realms so completely.

Twenty years ago, Infidel had nearly killed Numinous while he was still a child. How difficult would it be to finish the job? With her destination in mind, she stepped forward.

Her body tensed as she heard the ripping caused by the single step.

When she’d traveled to the Keep, to gain traction on the frozen waves, she’d extended the spikes in her feet. She’d never retracted them.

“No,” she cried, but denying what was happening didn’t stop it. With a loud tearing sound, she plummeted through the page. She grasped at a dangling shard of paper, desperate to climb back. The paper tore from her iron grip and she fell, tumbling toward a recent yesterday.

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