We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Premee Mohamed’s A Broken Darkness—the highly anticipated sequel to Beneath the Rising, publishing March 30th with Solaris.
It’s been a year and a half since the Anomaly, when They tried to force their way into the world from the shapeless void.
Nick Prasad is piecing his life together, and has joined the secretive Ssarati Society to help monitor threats to humanity—including his former friend Johnny.
Right on cue, the unveiling of Johnny’s latest experiment sees more portals opened to Them, leaving her protesting her innocence even as the two of them are thrown together to fight the darkness once more…
I spoke the words of power, and brought into being a perfect void.
The small impossibility hovered weightless and self-sufficient, fueled by strange particles, carrying impossible light, bound by rules not of our world but of worlds alongside ours, unseen and untouchable, worlds of endless abyss.
It was also about the size of a grape. Was it supposed to be that small?
I flipped through the deck of index cards containing my scribbled notes, but it was too dark inside the closet to read them. The only light—strange, headachy, and faint—came from the void. It was practically at my eye level, and I didn’t like the look it was giving me.
Don’t look, I knew that much. Don’t make eye contact: it didn’t like to be stared at. And don’t breathe on it. Human breath worried it.
“So it’s like a tarantula?”
“That is quite enough back-talk from you, Nicholas.”
I kept my eyes meekly down while I set the cards aside. It was dangerous in the first phase of creation, and vulnerable (maybe even nervous: who knew) while it grew its coating of reality, the hardened skin of molecules and time on this side of the boundary. Unstable, basically, in every sense of the word. Easily offended, capable of great harm.
But when it was all done, toughened up, wised up, it would be the first watcher I’d been allowed to create. An incredible honour (as my instructors kept telling me) for someone in such a junior position. Maybe even a first. Don’t let it go to your head, they said.
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A Broken Darkness
Not yet, I thought. Not while it was still raw and angry. Maybe I’d let it go to my head after, when the watcher was working, part of the global monitoring network, a blob with a job, like me, floating invisibly around and speaking in its inaudible and incomprehensible way to the other watchers. When it was more than just a gyrating grape shedding flecks of weird spectra. Lopsided, too. If it were a real thing, it would have been making a little woob-woob-woob sound as it lost its spin.
My back teeth hurt. Well, I’d been warned about that: you pay the price for the spell, as it took whatever it needed from you as well as whatever nearby magic was around. First thing the training had covered.
“And you’ll teach me to do… magic?”
“That will be the first part of the training. Not everyone has the capability, you know. And of those, the few that can be trusted to use it properly…”
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it. I rubbed my jaw and watched the void rotate faster, squeeze into a proper sphere, sprout tiny crackling spires of glassy, bluish light, the first stages of its armour. The spikes flickered, steadied, and sharpened themselves against one another just at the edge of hearing, the sound not like music but the massed voices of a choir heard from far away, sweet and high.
I didn’t know what would happen to me if I failed this spell. If the watcher didn’t work or, God forbid, decided to leave, or got itself caught somehow. The Society wasn’t real big on telling you about consequences in any kind of detail. Only that they existed: only that to violate the Oath would not result in anything so mild as being written up or demoted or disciplined in the way I understood from ordinary jobs. Because the Oath was “To protect the sources of magic and of magical knowledge; to acquire and guard whatsoever artifacts and devices which comprise the same; to uphold the system of watching and knowing which preserves the security of mortal life on Earth.” And at the end of the ten- or fifteen-minute recital, you had to say: With my entire being.
With my entire being.
My new employers were powerful. Always had been, to a greater or lesser extent, and in inverse proportion to their visibility. And now that I worked (I refused to say lived) in the bright upper-atmospheric cloud of that power, looking at the world I thought I knew from fifty thousand feet, I no longer felt awed by it.
Awe had lasted about a week. Now it was fear, pure and simple. Fear of the true and unfathomable strength of their grip, held in check till the Oath was recited and signed, and only then revealed: a hold that would not break even if you fought it with all your strength, or all your wiles, or all your money, or all your allies. Not even (someone had hinted) death could release those coils. And what the hell did that mean?
Still. To be so high up. To be raised so high, in such secrecy, lifted alone into this bright place, to look down on where I had been before they had arrived, even for the terrible reasons they had asked, the worse reasons I had accepted….
The void swayed and sang, sang and swayed. I monitored it out of the corner of my eye, seeing only glimpses of a thing like a solar eclipse: a feathery ring of light surrounding a perfect orb of darkness. It’s fine, it’ll be fine. Trained for weeks. Wrote the sigil a thousand times on the whiteboard.
And after this, who knows? Sky’s the limit, baby.
My heart pounded as the watcher rose slowly over my head, and settled into a kind of questing, steady flight, no longer rotating, the spikes quiet. I exhaled slowly, and reached for the whiteboard again. The second part of the spell would b—
“Nick? Can you come up? The boys won’t let me record my show!”
The watcher flinched in midair, jerked towards the door. Towards the voice of my sister.
Before I could think anything more coherent than Get the fuck away from her! my hand snapped forward and closed around it.
Roar of pain. Invisible explosion, trapped and rebounding from unbreakable walls, darkness whirling, a crack as something broke.
Under the surging noise I barely heard Carla’s socked feet pattering down the steps, and I wrenched my fingers open, shaking my hand. But it was too late. This was no crushed bee, dead after its single-use weapon. The watcher had… popped, or something, and an agonizing wave of cold crawled up my arm, burning and freezing and breaking and pulsing like lightning.
No time to suffer, only enough to conceal. My legs weren’t working; I staggered up from the floor, crashing first into the door then through, shoving it shut just as Carla entered my bedroom.
Her nervous, angular little face seemed startled in the reflected light of the stairway. “What were you doing?”
“With all the lights off?”
“What were you saying about the PVR?” I shepherded her back to the stairs and we climbed to the living room, following the familiar sound of the boys shouting.
“I wasn’t going to bother you,” she mumbled. “It’s just, I wanted to set it up to get the new Futurama, and their turn is over, and the rules say—”
“Okay, okay. TV cop.”
“Were you super busy? I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, it’s okay.” I sat on the couch, poking one of the boys—I couldn’t tell who—with my toe. They both remained glued to the rug, staring up at the TV. “Hey, you butts. Why’re you being butts this time? Why’re you doin’ buttly things to your saintly sister?”
“It’ll only take a second!”
“We just wanted you to see one thing! We found it on the news!”
“And Cookie is a tattle.”
“You’re supposed to say nark.”
“You don’t even know what that means.”
“Neither of you knows what it means!”
Chris turned, agitated; their usual bickering seemed strangely on-edge too. And what the hell could a couple of ten-year-olds worry about, I thought with a sudden flare of irritation? What was so important in their goddamn lives? It wasn’t like they’d just fucked up the most major task they’d ever been trusted with, it wasn’t them who’d have to explain… my God, and the phone was already beginning to buzz in my pocket, and I didn’t even dare take it out to look at the number. I knew who it would be, and the questions he would ask, and how weak my answers would sound.
How could you be so careless (the kids were busy and Mom was asleep, I thought I had time to), why were you doing it inside the house (I didn’t want to die of hypothermia), what other places would have been dark enough to perceive the necessary spectra (none, I checked, honestly I did), did you even bother to erase the sigil (no, whoops). Jesus Christ.
My brain felt like it was in two places at once, and I only half-heard Brent saying, “Hang on, I gotta fast-forward through the boring stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. My boss had recruited me, trusted me, placed me carefully into the global network of knowledge and safety, found me a spot in the system. And I’d just squished part of that system.
It wouldn’t matter to him that I was paying a price of my own; the Society would need to extract their own later. How long would I have? My phone fell silent at last, and through tears of pain I tried to focus on the TV, which both twins were pointing and yelling at in unison. Carla turned on the closed-captioning, which simply said [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE].
The cold, mercury-heavy weight in my arm faded; my fear receded; my ears rang. In a cartoon, I thought deliriously, in a comic, there would be golden stars and chirping birds and little pink hearts (no, not hearts, goddammit) orbiting my head like planets.
Because there, on the TV she had bought us (using the electricity she paid for every month, in the living room of the house she had given us) was Johnny Chambers, former child genius, prolific inventor, world-class researcher, scientific celebrity, noted asshole, and once the kids’ favourite aunty and my best and only friend in the world. No longer. And never again.
Excerpted from A Broken Darkness, copyright © 2021 by Premee Mohamed