All the Queen’s Men: A Sneak Peek into The Illusory

***Spoilers Ahead: Read At Your Own Risk***

Since dropping a sneak peek of Harlin from The Illusory at the end of last year, it would only be fair to show a peek of Skylar. Because honestly, it wouldn’t be The Benighted Saga without Skylar Mandolyn.

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Skylar, the tortured princess from The Benighted, becomes the first ruling Queen in The Illusory, which isn’t exactly going well. Correnth is being attacked by an enemy even her late father had feared, her allies are missing in action, and Skylar herself is having a hard time keeping it together. Although she’s a strong character, even she isn’t prepared for the emotional journey she’s about to undergo with her own psyche, which of course comes in the form of Cross Lutherus. That’s right; we aren’t rid of him yet. He’s basically the gift that keeps on giving. 😛

Now, before you read it, I should explain a few things first. This scene comes further along in the book when Skylar and Harlin are separated for reasons that I’ll let the book explain. But during this part of the story, Skylar is now down in the catacombs, which was believed to be the safest area to stash her while Correnth was attacked. Given the fact that she survived the prison just over a month prior, her fighting skills are a little rusty which is why she’s being pushed to the sidelines. Since Harlin’s sneak peek had to do with him meeting Madden Calibre in the catacombs, I felt it fitting to have Skylar in a similar situation. Although this scene is actually the second time Skylar meets with the spy, I decided to post this one because it shows just how much the prison still haunts her.

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This sneak peek will also introduce you to two new characters, Sir Siah Torrence and Sir Marcus Trist. These two have become Skylar’s guards, given the fact that Harlin has been a one man show trying to prepare Correnth for war. Because these two used to be her father’s guards, it was only natural for Harlin to trust them with Skylar…despite the fact that her father was murdered. But hey, there’s two sides to every story. 😉 The best part about them are their different personalities. Sir Siah Torrence is a dark and handsome man (picture Mike Colter with golden eyes and in armor) who takes his job extremely seriously, while Sir Marcus Trist is a feisty redhead who is a little more laid back and sarcastic than his cohort (Jerome Flynn would make a great Sir Trist, just saying). These two, along with the coyness of Madden Calibre and the all-around awesomeness of Harlin, makes for a pretty diverse cast. I figured since Skylar is a bad ass female lead she needed to be surrounded by interesting male counterparts.

Lastly, please keep in mind that since this story is still a work in progress, the below scene will undergo minor changes during the editing process. Consider this a rough tease. 😉 

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So without further ado, please find below the latest sneak peek from The Illusory. 🙂 Up until this point in the book, Skylar and her two guards are in the catacombs heading back to find Madden Calibre. They now know they’re being attacked by Bellumortis, all while coming to learn that the catacombs may actually not have been the best place to hide during a war…

_______________ SNEAK PEEK ________________

Skylar realized two things too late.

The first was when she agreed to let Sir Trist take the lead, when she couldn’t remember which hallway they had walked down since the maze of the catacombs were starting to confuse her. Walking behind Sir Trist with Sir Torrence following behind, Skylar felt brutally reminded that she wasn’t a leader after all.

And the second was when the corridor suddenly jolted, throwing her and the guards to the ground. They each hit the hard dirt floor, the torches forced from their hands and the light tossed away, throwing everything into darkness. That’s when she realized her nightmares were always one step ahead of her.

The screaming was what came first, a distant scream that had been cut off before anyone had a chance to realize it was human. Skylar’s hands pried at the ground, feeling the dirt gathering under her fingernails as she smelled the remnants of dust and death breathing into her nostrils. Coughing, her eyes fluttered open. She saw the light from Sir Trist’s torch down the hallway, casting a faint light on his silhouette as he shook his head after landing face first on the ground.

“What the hell was that?” he sputtered while crawling towards the torch, the sound of his armor scraping against the dirt floor now heightened by the dark. Upon reaching it, he immediately held it up, giving his companions some light as he surveyed the area and the debris that had fallen from the ceiling. “Your Majesty? Sir Torrence?” he questioned.

“I’m ok,” she reassured him, just as Sir Torrence spoke out behind her, saying the same thing.

With a nod, Sir Trist looked behind him, talking to himself as he climbed to his feet. “Something big must have hit or something must have fallen…”

Through the dimness, Skylar found that she was near a wall. As Sir Trist continued to speak, she lifted herself up and sat back on her heels, her legs shaking underneath her. Already knowing she would have a hard time standing up on her own, she reached her hand out towards the wall to help brace herself. But her hand didn’t touch the stone wall. Instead, it touched iron, which her fingers easily wrapped around.

Skylar gasped as she jerked away, the momentum causing her to fall backwards. She sat there in the dark, breaths heavy, eyes staring at the wall and the shadows casted by the fallen torches. Every other time she blinked, all she could see were prison bars.

“What is it?” came Sir Torrence’s voice, just as he regained his own torch and caught her reaction. He held his torch up, causing the orange flame to blur the images together until only the stone wall was left. In the light, Skylar found to her dismay that the iron she felt was part of one of the torch holders that fell from the violent tremor, propped up against the wall where she herself landed. Almost mockingly, a cold torch sat in its iron clutch.

With heavy breaths, Skylar just stared at the iron, allowing the foolish reality to beat against her before she realized that Sir Torrence now stood over her. Looking up at him, she found that he was holding his hand out to her without saying anything else. The light seemed almost blinding against his gold armor, dancing across the gold of his eyes that seemed to stand out more against his dark skin.

Skylar took his hand, feeling despondent while he helped pull her to her feet. She quietly said a “thank you” before her eyes looked over the wall again, apprehensive of what she had seen.

The guard was about to ask what was wrong when a voice cut him off, asking, “Did you two hear that scream?”

Both he and Skylar looked at Sir Trist, who still stood in the middle of the corridor, halfway turned to them and halfway towards the corridor. The darkness that laid just behind him, a tunnel of pitch black, made Skylar’s skin prickle in anxiety. She tried to hide it by pretending to be focused on dusting the dirt off her jacket and fixing her hair, relieved that the broken mirror pieces hidden in her hair hadn’t come loose and revealed themselves. She glanced at Sir Trist, seeing how vivid his red hair was against his tan face as a small flame snapped in the torch, causing her to blink and look down.

“I heard a scream right before the tremor ended,” Sir Torrence explained as Skylar readjusted her jacket, trying to get more comfortable against the sweat that clung to the back of her neck and in between her shoulder blades.

She noticed the silence all of a sudden, and focusing back on the guards, she realized they were both staring at her. “What?”

“The scream,” Sir Torrence replied, hanging on the last word, wondering why she avoided the subject.

Skylar shrugged her shoulders, looking at each guard in the same confused way they were looking at her. “I always hear screams,” she answered absentmindedly, breaking from their gaze in order to retrieve the unlit torch. Snatching it, she noticed that while she looked away, the two guards had eyed one another, exchanging a look that was as quick as a snap of finger. Slightly annoyed, she took a deep breath of the damp, cold air, knowing it would be better to not say anything more as she walked forward towards Sir Trist. They now knew about the screams, but they didn’t need to know about the faces, especially in the dark when she shouldn’t have seen them but they saw her. Frustrated with it, Skylar kicked a piece of debris from the ceiling out of the way with the toe of her boot, reminding herself as she approached the guard that this wasn’t the prison and these weren’t keepers. They were on her side.

“We should keep moving,” she said softly as she stood in front of Sir Trist, using his torch to light hers. She looked up at him only for a moment, only seeing a small understanding nod before she continued on without saying a word.

She could hear footsteps behind her, one of the sets belonging to a longer stride that had caught up to her. “I’ll lead, Your Majesty,” Sir Torrence was saying, though remaining one step behind as if he were apprehensive of her.

An irritated sigh slipped from her nostrils, quiet but present as she eyed the guard. “I’m fine,” she insisted, cutting straight to the point. “It’s just a hallway. We’ve already experienced the worst that could happen down here.”

From the sound of her tone, Sir Torrence hesitated before deciding to follow his better judgment. “The scream must have been from one of the guards,” he finally stated, moving past his own argument.

“Or Madden Calibre,” Skylar reminded him, taking a quick look over her shoulder to find that Sir Trist was right there following behind.

There was a chuckle that could only have come from him, and Skylar didn’t have to look back again to see the smirk he obviously wore. “We’d only be so lucky if it were him,” he commented.

Skylar bit back a frustrated sigh, focusing instead on the dark path in front of her. Despite not wanting to tell them, the darkness itself really did bother her because it was the faces that always came at night, deformed and straddling the line between real and unreal. Rulers needed to be sane, she had convinced herself. If they knew she saw things that weren’t real, who would want to protect her then?

“I have to agree with Her Majesty’s opinion,” Sir Torrence’s voice broke out, waking her up from her own inner turmoil. “Madden Calibre knows more than us, and that information is priceless now that we’re at war.”

“Priceless or not,” Sir Trist huffed, “let’s not forget that he has no loyalty. He can easily play us just like he did everyone else.”

There was a hint of malice as Skylar interrupted, “Believe me, his betrayal hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

Sir Torrence and Sir Trist fell quiet after she spoke, and Skylar was left to her own thoughts. While she followed the hallway back to Madden Calibre, stepping over pieces of ceiling that had fallen or parts of the wall that had crumbled, she felt her mind ticking away. Although she tried not to show it, she couldn’t stop thinking about Harlin. She had yearned for him while in the prison, her respect for him turning into a heartfelt ache in his absence. Now was no different. The familiar pain nestled itself back in her chest, and as she walked, lamenting over his disappearance, she began to think that she was somehow still a prisoner, just in a very different prison.

“Your Majesty.”

Skylar stopped, realizing the guards weren’t with her by how the sound of their footsteps had died. Turning around, she found that they had passed a corridor that laid to the right, both Sir Trist and Sir Torrence standing in its entryway as they stared at her. Her confusion met their hesitation, both staring at the other until Skylar was the one to eventually give in. Swallowing hard, she stepped towards them until the wall disappeared into the passageway. That’s when she found the fallen torch in the corridor, its holder shaken free but the flames refusing to die, burning against the dirt floor.

Then she saw it, just past the flames, the reason the two guards were now quiet. There was a hand outstretched in the light, protruding out of a mass of rock from the ceiling that had collapsed.

“Madden Calibre’s guards,” Sir Torrence confirmed softly, as if he didn’t want to disrespect the dead, as if they could still hear him.

Skylar only stared at the hand, trying not to lose her mind in the cracks of the darkness that hugged every corner around her. She had seen a hand like that before, but outstretched between prison bars. That was the reason, while captive, that she had always smelled death, that sweet perfume of decay that slowly returned the longer she stared at its newest victim.

Sir Trist was already on top of the rubble, digging away the broken stone that buried the guard. He held his torch over him until he suddenly stopped. Both Sir Torrence and Skylar watched as he dejectedly raised his upper body, taking a slight step back.

Heaviness weighed on her as she made her way towards the rubble, Sir Torrence remaining right by her side as he too approached. With the torchlight close together, the three saw the full scale of the damage: the familiar gold armor protruding from the crumbled ceiling, and the glistening blood that oozed out from underneath a piece of stone that had crushed the side of a man’s skull, killing him. Skylar felt her throat tighten with bile as she saw that the man’s eyes were still open, his mouth gaped open as if he were still trying to scream.

Skylar wanted to ask which guard it was until the gurgling moan broke out into the air. Sir Trist already raised his torch in the direction of the sound, picking his way across the rest of the rubble until his companions could hear him exclaim, “Oh God, he’s still alive!”

Sir Torrence glanced at Skylar before he picked his way towards Sir Trist, leaving Skylar with the body. She felt cold from the inside out, finally pulling her eyes from the scene to look up at the ceiling, seeing that a gaping hole now replaced the once smooth foundation. She heard the guards talking, and not liking the tone in their voice, she made her way to them.

Upon reaching them, she came to a slow stop, her torch lowering as she stared, lost in the scene before her. In front of them all, lying on his back was Sir Chatnik gasping for air while his eyes fluttered open and closed. She couldn’t tell what he was saying, only that he was pleading, blood spitting out of his mouth as he spoke. Half of him was under the concaved ceiling that had killed Sir Rodea, she now knew, and a solid piece of the ceiling crushed through the side of his breastplate. All Skylar could grasp as she stared past the torchlight was metal, stone, and blood.

“We can’t get him out,” Sir Trist confirmed, unable to look up from the man. “That,” he pointed out to the stone that had collapsed on him, “is holding him down. It’s cut right through him. Pulling him or removing it won’t do any good. He’s dying as it is.”

Skylar watched as Sir Torrence knelt on the other side of the fallen guard, still surveying the stone. Sir Chatnik’s mouth opened, gurgling as blood continued to spill over the sides of his mouth. “Please,” he mouthed, rolling his head sideways in order to see Sir Torrence. “Please kill me.”

Sir Torrence took his hand when he tried to lift it. Holding it, he looked at Sir Trist and then Skylar.

Still holding her torch, Skylar knelt down by Sir Chatnik other side, watching as the young guard rolled his head to see her, his eyes wide but fluttering as he tried to look at her. “Please,” he pleaded still.

Quietly, Skylar took hold of the handle of his sword next to her knees, still sheathed and strapped to his waist. Pulling the blade out, she placed it as best as she could on his chest. Taking his free hand, she helped him wrap the fingers around the hilt, the whole time never looking away from his gaze.

“It was an honor to know you,” she told him, her fingers never leaving his.

“Honor…was mine,” he replied hoarsely, spitting up blood as his lips parted to say the words.

Smiling sadly, Skylar could see in her peripheral vision Sir Trist take a small dagger out from behind the armor strapped to his calves. Sir Torrence, who still held the man’s other hand, nodded to his comrade as Sir Chatnik continued to stare at Skylar.

Skylar didn’t quite pay attention like she should have when Sir Trist held the dagger conservatively in his hands. All she saw was Sir Chatnik staring at her, a little gleam in his eyes to let her know that he was still there, that the trembling and gurgling wasn’t him dying but trying to stay alive despite his pleadings. She felt a duty to stare back, to smile, to encourage him even when all hope was lost. She smiled right up until Sir Trist bent down on one knee next to the fallen guard’s head. With one quick movement, he brought the blade of the dagger down, slamming it straight into Sir Chatnik’s eye. The guard’s body tightened only for an instant, a bubbling gasp that broke into a sigh of relief as everything went relaxed.

But the violent end caused Skylar to jump, and she looked on in bewilderment at the blade as Sir Trist pulled it up from the eye socket.

“It was the only way to kill him instantly,” Sir Torrence explained as he placed Sir Chatnik’s hand on his breastplate next to Skylar’s. “He didn’t feel anything. It’s just the body’s natural reaction.”

Sir Trist grunted in agreement as he pulled out a handkerchief next to where he kept the dagger, wiping the blade clean before placing them both back where he secretly kept them. Sir Torrence stood up then, making his way around the body with his torch still in hand.

Skylar pried her quivering fingers from Sir Chatnik’s hand, raising herself to her feet. She took an awkward step back as the white fluid that had been his eye began to turn red, blood replacing what was left. She was just about to ask about Madden Calibre when a voice in the dark spoke out for her.

“Two down, one to go.”

The familiar voice froze them all, sucking the air out of the room. Skylar didn’t hesitate as she held the torch in her left hand while her right hand found the pistol attached to the thigh holder. Sir Torrence and Sir Trist both pulled a revolver out of the holsters under their arms, the unholstering of their guns echoing into the air. Weapons drawn, the three formed together as they looked in the direction of where the voice had come from. Although it was faint, they saw then the glow of the torchlight coming from an entranceway, the room where Madden was being kept.

“How did I miss that?” Sir Trist whispered, accusing himself of not seeing the light or the threat sooner.

“We all did,” Sir Torrence replied as he drew closer to the room, not wanting to waste time talking. He leveled his revolver as he peered into the room, taken aback by what he saw. He hadn’t realized he had stopped until suddenly Sir Trist was next to him, lowering his weapon as he almost laughed.

“Bloody hell,” he mused out loud. “You’re like a cockroach.”

Skylar reached the two guards, peering in between them to find Madden in the same way they did: sitting against the far wall staring at them, one torch hanging upside down but still burning while the other had been flung to the ground, rolling against the dirt that turned it into hot embers. The rope was still tied around his wrists which were resting on his knees, while the rope itself snaked around him. Debris from the ceiling littered the floor around where he had once been standing.

Even in the dim lighting, they could see Madden smiling at them as he shrugged. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” his voice echoed out to them.

“Why haven’t you run away?” Sir Torrence wondered out loud as he entered the room and approached, coming to a stop at a good distance away. He held the torch up, watching Madden’s hands to see if he was hiding any weapons. When he didn’t see anything, he only slightly lowered his revolver and looked at his face, seeing for the first time the blood dripping down the spy’s temple from the gash on his forehead. He could only imagine that the culprit was part of the ceiling, which had almost collapsed to set him free but had struck him in the process.

“Because I know what’s up there,” Madden eyed him right back as Skylar stopped near the guard, causing him to look at her. “And I’m not in a real hurry to see them,” he added, never blinking as he stared at her amethyst eyes that glistened from the torch she held.

“The demonicers?” Sir Trist asked, approaching the other side of Skylar and standing closer than Sir Torrence. “They’re the ones Bellumortis always sends into war first, aren’t they?”

“Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” Madden quipped, never releasing his hold on Skylar. Just by his expression, she became aware that he was talking about the benighted. He was talking about Harlin.

“Then what do you have to worry about? The demonicers are from your homeland,” Sir Trist reminded him, sarcasm infringing upon his voice that made Madden finally face him.

“You think these demonicers are ours?” he questioned, raising his eyebrow before he looked to each person. Seeing them stare back in confusion, a chuckle rumbled from his chest, a deep laugh that made all three of his onlookers a little nervous. “Oh, you’re in for a rude awakening,” he laughed.

“Then whose are they?” Sir Torrence growled at him.

Madden turned and looked at Sir Torrence, a smile replacing his laugh. “Yours.”

Skylar assumed it was her temper that had caused her to come closer to him, to raise her pistol and aim it at his forehead.

“Your Majesty,” she heard Sir Torrence warn, slightly moving from his stance but in no way trying to stop her.

“Oh, let her kill him,” Sir Trist rebuked, not even budging from where he stood despite being the closest to stop her.

Skylar ignored the guards as she kept her eyes on the spy. “This is your warning, Madden Calibre,” her voice came out coldly, deliberate and even. “What exactly do you mean the demonicers are ours?”

“It’s that simple and that hard to understand,” Madden replied just as evenly, ignoring the gun completely. “The demonicers aren’t our people. They’re your people.”

Skylar squinted at him, trying to read between the lines, her finger on the trigger but the hammer not yet pulled back.

“Not everyone died during the inquisition. Not everyone died in the prison.” That’s when he rested his head back against the wall, as if already tired of explaining himself. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but you aren’t the only one who survived. You aren’t that special.”

The shaking started first, pulsing through her nerves and causing them to twitch. Others made it! There are others who are alive! hope told her, fluttering in her chest just before the doubt whispered, but what if he’s lying?

“There were survivors,” Sir Torrence spoke up. “But you as everyone else already know they didn’t live long due to their injuries. Her Majesty is the only one who’s remained alive, and Sir Brien has on good authority that apart from those few, there was no one else.”

Madden shook his head, but he did it in such away as if he were listening to an old, boring song that he knew was going to play. “Well, Sir Harlin Brien’s good authority was second-hand information,” he rebuked, causing Skylar to shudder upon hearing Harlin’s full name. “Sir Harlin Brien wasn’t there overseeing the rescue missions because Sir Harlin Brien was too busy preparing an unprepared city for war. Sir Harlin Brien has had a lot on his hands lately, or did no one notice?” Madden squinted back at her, mockingly and antagonizing.

The gun was trembling in her hand now. The anger formed a ring around her vision, making Madden her sole focal point. Stop saying his name, her mind was snarling at him for her.

“That’s the bad thing about killing spies,” Madden smiled, shrugging as if he were stating a known fact. “They take all their secrets with them.”

Skylar knew her thumb was pulling the hammer back without her consent, but before she fired at him, Sir Torrence already grabbed a hold of the barrel, aiming it away from Madden. “As you said before,” she heard his smooth voice remind her when she finally glared at him. “He knows too much. We need him.”

Hearing the logic, Skylar’s glare slowly thawed as she forced herself to put the hammer back in place. Sir Torrence gently let go, and afraid she would try to use it again, Skylar placed it immediately back in her holster.

“Contain him so we can take him with us,” was all she said as she took one more look at Madden before turning away. She heard Sir Trist take a step after her before stopping, knowing by her body language that she needed a moment to herself.

Reaching the entranceway, she only walked a few paces back down the hallway they had come before she came back to the body of Sir Chatnik, laying in rest until the torchlight caught the glistening of crimson that was his punctured eye. Blood was already streaming down the side of his temple. Coming to a stop, she pressed her hand against the wall in order to hold herself up when the panic began to set in, causing her to slightly lose her balance. It was the same eye that Harlin had lost while being tortured behind stone walls.

Her head fell as she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to control her breathing, trying to stay calm like Harlin had told her to. Shaking her head as if the thoughts would just magically disappear, Skylar absentmindedly looked at her hand that was still pressed against the wall, watching as it shook. Suddenly, almost like a flash, she was seeing her brother’s hands, shaking as he explained they wouldn’t stop. Shaking palsy, she remembered him saying, like a whisper that came in all directions. Who would follow a shaking king?

Skylar quickly snatched her hand from the wall, holding it against her chest as she took a step back. It wasn’t his hands now. It was hers, shaking from fear and adrenaline, panic and exhaustion. She was gasping now, trying not to scream as she rubbed her hand against her chest, feeling the stinging from her back penetrating straight through. One tear escaped out of rebellion, which she quickly wiped away, embarrassed.

Looking from the dead body to the pile of rubble, Skylar’s eyes trailed up to the ceiling. “Where are you?” she pleaded, her voice small as she imagined Harlin up there above ground. Somewhere. Anywhere.

She stared until her eyes burned from staring. Gripping the torch even harder, she cursed under her breath in frustration of being left among the stone and the dead without an answer. Even when she overheard the guards stepping out of the room behind her, she was forced to realize that even among people she trusted, she could still feel completely alone…

__________ HOPE YOU ENJOYED! ___________

Yes, I know, it’s going to be a rather intense story. But hey, its a story that’s been fighting me for over 4 years, so it’s gotten a little tough in the process. 🙂

Thanks for reading, peeps! ❤

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(Psst! Pic and gifs are from the History Channel’s show Vikings. Lagertha for the win!)

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