Read the sneak peek of Mental Damnation: Reality.
Enjoy the excerpt of Chapter 1: Soft-Skins below. Order the novel today.
Thick red liquid oozed down the grey, mangy fur of a wolf. The animal lay on its side against a moss-covered tree, eyes glazed over and ears lowered. Flies began to swarm around its body. Each irregular breath it took was followed by a wheezing noise as blood pumped from the torn flesh around its neck. There were bite marks around the animal’s throat—clear indicators of an attack by another beast.
Whether the animal had engaged in combat with another wolf, or possibly a larger predator, was not important to the father and daughter who had discovered the dying creature and now stood mere meters from it. No, unfortunately the fate of the wolf had been sealed and now the question remained: What does one do with a dying animal?
“Killing and death are common things, my Krista,” the father said, looking down at his daughter through the slim pupils of his yellow eyes. He got down on one knee, extending his brown, scaly claw to stroke the top of her head, which was covered densely in long, thin, black and navy feathers. “Both in the animal kingdom and in ours.”
“But you always say killing is a wicked deed, Father. So all animals are wicked?” The little girl blinked a couple of times, staring at her father’s large, crested head.
“Yes, I did say that. The animal world is different than ours, their intentions less sinister. Killing is a regular part of our lives for the wrong reasons.”
“Because of the humans?”
The father nodded, his small nostrils flaring. “Yes. Because of the humans.” He got up to his feet and pulled out a dagger that was sheathed in his belt. “Animals understand the natural balance of our world … unlike those who are deemed ‘civilized’. Come now, we must offer this animal mercy.”
“How?” the girl asked, following her father as he approached the whimpering wolf. “You’re not going to kill the poor thing?” She stopped in her tracks, grabbing hold of the tip of her thin brown tail.
“I must, Krista. There are only a few scenarios when you will find yourself in need of killing.”
The wolf’s eyes looked over to the approaching reptilian and snarled weakly, exposing its teeth. It didn’t even have the strength to lift its head. The wolf’s breathing rapidly increased, and it coughed with the effort.
“Either as a favour to end one’s suffering…”
The father moved swiftly, dashing on all fours, dagger in hand. His long tail swayed side to side, aiding in his movement. He skidded on his knees before coming to a stop and plunging the dagger up into the animal’s skull from the lower jaw. The wolf gurgled once and twitched before the body relaxed and all movements stopped. Blood seeped down the dagger onto the reptilian’s hand.
“…or in self-defence.” He looked over to his daughter. Some of his scalp-feathers had been displaced by his quick movements and he brushed them back with his free hand. “Remember that.”
Krista nodded and stared at the wolf’s corpse while her father pulled the knife from its skull. She felt her heart sink, knowing that the animal was now gone forever. Her father was right, but she had a hard time grasping the concept of taking another’s life. Removing a living being from the world seemed like too much power. A horrific act. “Yes, father,” she replied.
He stood and wiped the blood off the blade against his knee-length green trousers. “Ideally, save your claws for self-defence. Use a weapon for more accurate execution when ending one’s suffering.” Pointing at the ground beside Krista, he added, “Pick up the berries. Your mother will need them for dinner.”
The little girl’s eyes widened. She had completely forgotten about the woven basket filled with berries that they had harvested! She snatched up the basket by its arched handle. The fruits were native to the pine forest: sweet, purple, and covered in lumps.
“Come now.” Krista’s father extended his hand, and Krista grabbed it.
The two walked slowly past the corpse of the wolf and back onto the rough dirt footpath. “Father, what if I don’t want to kill?”
Her father let out a hearty chuckle. “There will come a point in time when you will have to.”
“What if I don’t kill in self-defence or helping a suffering one?”
“I pray to the spirits you do not have to. However, I will never lie to you.” He looked down at her and smiled, tight-lipped.
“Do you think I will have to kill the humans?”
“Humans are a much younger race than us vazeleads, aging quickly and processing the world at a rapid rate. It causes them to think drastically, jumping to conclusions. Thinking at this speed worked as an advantage to defeat the draconem.”
“I don’t understand why they hate us so much.”
“The humans? I don’t think it is so much hate as it is fear. Their paranoia turned them into the very thing that they opposed after they ended the Drac Age.”
Krista frowned. She found it baffling that there were such terrible things in the world; she only wanted everyone to get along. As far as she was concerned, the world had plenty of space for everyone. “I wish we could all live together.”
“The humans see us as a threat. They think we are allied with the draconem, hence their paranoia.”
“But we’re not, are we?”
“No, Krista, not our village. The other villages overseas in Europe? I cannot speak for them. Harmony with the humans is just not an option. We live in a time of bigotry and you need to prepare to fend for yourself.”
“I don’t want to kill, Dad. I want to have peace.”
“As do we all.”
“Killing sounds like the opposite of peace. I won’t be a part of it.”
“Your passion is warming to hear, my dear daughter. There are things at work that are much larger than you or I. Some of the Drac Lords survived at the end of the Drac Age, and the humans are continually looking to hunt them down. Our kind were not meant to be dragged into the dispute between the draconem and the humans. We are simply suffering the consequences for our minor physical resemblance. I can only hope that the spirits will guide us through this.”
“We’re not a threat to them. I wish they could just see that.”
“It’s not so simple, my daughter. Unless you can peel off your scales and pigment your skin to look like theirs, they will remain suspicious of us. They will never accept us as vazeleads.”
Krista and her father continued down the path leading out of thick wilderness. It was a good hike from their home and well worth the journey to gather the berries. The fruit served as a delicious dessert after their dinner. Plus, Krista enjoyed having one-on-one time with her father without her pesky little brother getting in the way. It was a special father-daughter time.
Lately she could tell her father was ill at ease. She couldn’t fully grasp all of the events going on between the humans and her people, or throughout the Kingdom of Zingalg, but she knew her dad. It took a lot to throw him off his typically calm and collected state. Plus, this wasn’t the first time recently they had discussed killing. There was a reason he was lecturing her.
As they passed the last couple of pine trees and moved through some shrubbery the two stood at the top of a grassy hill, looking down at their village, which was about four hundred paces away. The small round wooden huts were aligned in rows all around the town, complete with backyard gardens. Just beyond the town was a river with a footbridge. Stretching from the riverbank were a couple of docks where the townsfolk would catch fish.
“We truly live in a paradise.” The father smiled. “I never tire of exiting Kuzuchi Forest to see our town.”
“Zingalg is very pretty,” Krista agreed.
Truthfully, she had not explored the continent very much. She was way too young, only about ninety years old. She had a lot of growing up to do before she could venture out on her own. Krista was much better off learning from her elders, as her mother would say.
Oh, no, Krista thought. Mum. She swallowed heavily. “Dad….” She spoke softly.
“Before we left, I completely forgot to grab the clothes off the drying racks. Please don’t be mad.”
The father shook his head. “Nonsense; it’s not a big deal.”
“It is to Mum.”
“Nitpicky details.” He winked at her. “I’ll have a word with her.”
“Thank you.” She smiled.
The two finished hiking down the slope, leaving behind the massive wild forest at the base of a large mountain. Looking back to the trees, Krista could see the steep dark grey rock face behind them: Mount Kuzuchi. Krista had never been beyond Kuzuchi Forest to see what was up the mountain. It remained as mysterious as the low clouds that shrouded its true height.
In no time, the two of them reached the bottom of the grassy hill. The footpath they walked on was now much wider and covered by gravel. Villagers busily walked up and down and across the road, completing their daily tasks while the sun was still shining. Some carried tools, like axes or hammers, while others hauled barrels filled with lumber or grain. A number of villagers were making exchanges with bakers or cooks so they too could return to their homes and prepare for dinner.
“I miss days like this,” Krista’s father commented. “This was the normal: a self-sustaining community of tradesmen and farmers.”
“Yeah.” Krista nodded. She knew her father was referring to the increased trading with the blacksmiths of the town for swords and shields, thanks to hushed rumours about the humans. Nowadays, their people spent their days practicing with their new weapons instead of enjoying time with each other.
The blacksmiths used to only make basic tools for their village. Now, with the new weaponry, high tension was radiating throughout the town. No one was sure what, if anything, the humans were planning to do to their people, where they were, or when. The one thing that was certain was the fear that the unknown created.
Krista’s father led them through the crisscrossing roads, moving around pedestrians and back to their home hut. The round dwelling was made of logs and animal hides forming two circular rooms; one was the living quarters and the other was the kitchen and working area.
“Just follow my lead and do not worry about your mother.” Krista’s father squeezed her hand once more before letting it go and he stepped into their hut, pushing aside the red linen curtains that draped over the front entrance.
“Muluve, we’ve returned from the harvest,” he announced.
Krista followed close behind him, nervously fidgeting with the handle of the basket she held. She never liked upsetting her parents. Her mother got exceptionally displeased when things she asked to be done were not.
Krista picked up on the scent of cooking lentils in the room and eyed the entryway, where her father kept some of his gardening tools on the wooden dining table alongside the stack of unset plates. Next to them was a set of painted wooden blocks that belonged to her brother. The table was multi-purpose – or, as her mum would say, a mess.
The dirt floor had several thick black rugs over it to help soften the space. Wooden shelves were carved against the curved walls. Beads hung from the ceiling just by the kitchen counter, helping to divide the entrance from the cooking area.
Muluve stood on the other side of the counter, hands on her hips, a wooden cooking spoon in hand. Her face, the hue of sandstone, was etched in a scowl. Her blue scalp-feathers were messy and some draped over her green eyes as she stared at her husband and daughter.
“Kristalantice Scalebane.” Muluve spoke in a stern voice. “Where have you been?”
Krista swallowed; her mum only ever used her full name when she was mad at her. This isn’t good.
“She’s been harvesting berries and learning about the challenges of life,” Krista’s father said with a smile, leaning down and grabbing the basket from Krista.
“Yes, I know, Scalius. She was not supposed to leave until all her chores were done…” She looked down at Krista. “…and she knew that.”
Krista looked away while putting her hands behind her back. “Sorry.”
“She can take care of them now while dinner is cooking.” Scalius stepped over to his wife, placing the basket on the counter. He gave her a quick lick across the cheek with his thin black tongue before stepping towards the doorway leading to the next room. “I’ll be reading while she does.”
“Wait.” Muluve gently grabbed her husband’s arm and he paused in his steps. “We need to talk.” She looked over to Krista. “Dear, can you watch the lentils for me?”
“Why can’t Salanth do it?”
“Your brother is out back taking care of the chores you left behind.”
Krista frowned. I swear that little brat is the favourite. “Yes, Mum.”
Muluve left the wooden spoon on the counter and followed Scalius into the extended room through the doorway, divided by another red linen curtain. Their lowered, muffled voices could just barely be heard from the kitchen.
Krista moved past the counter, grabbing the spoon as she went. She stepped closer to where she could see the stone stovetop with the pot of lentils boiling over the small fire. The doorway beside it was curtainless and opened into the backyard where her brother was presumed to be. She caught notice of a wooden footstool beside the counter. She had to use it anytime her mother needed her to help in the kitchen. Krista hated having to rely on it. If she were taller like her father, then she wouldn’t have to carry the footstool around like a crutch.
When I’m older, things will change, she thought while dragging the footstool beside the stovetop and stepping onto it. Then I can do what I want, and reach what I want without help.
Krista began stirring the pot of green lentils, moving the spoon clockwise. Some of the bubbles in the pot dissipated, and she was careful to avoid the steam. Learn one task at a time. She was decent at cooking thanks to her mum, but she could always learn more.
Krista’s eyes widened as she heard her mother exclaim the word, “What?”
Scalius hushed her and spoke a sentence too low for Krista to pick up.
What is so important that they are whispering? Krista thought. Curiosity got the best of her and she got off her footstool. When I am older, there also won’t be all these secrets.
Krista carefully crept closer to the doorway leading into the living quarters and leaned her earhole as close as she could to the red linen fabric without brushing up against it. A small sliver between the wooden doorway and the cloth allowed her to see her parents on the other end of the room. Muluve had her arms folded, one hand stroking her neck. Scalius held her arms with both hands.
It was difficult to hear over the fire and boiling water, but Krista focused intently as her father spoke.
“…Like I said, the Council of Just have sent the Paladins of Zeal and the Knights Union to round up other villages.”
“That is why our people are making weapons?”
“Yes. A few of the people know, and the rest are following out of fear.”
“What are the humans doing with the other villages?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“We need to get out of here, then. Why are we still here?”
“Not so quickly, my love. It would be foolish to get up and run. We are as safe as possible here by the base of Mount Kuzuchi. No one comes here.”
Muluve exhaled through her nostrils, her tail coiling around her ankle. “I don’t like sitting here.”
“Packing and running has no benefit to us either. The Council of Just brought the world out of the Drac Age and the Kingdom of Zingalg will listen to them without question. This whole land is a human dictatorship.”
“What if we set sail? Leave Zingalg and head for Europe or the seas in the northern west? They remain unknown.”
“How could we sneak across this continent? The mountain is too high to hike across, and anywhere else there’s too much land to cover. We’d be on the run for months.”
Muluve nodded. “It leaves me ill at ease to remain here, simply waiting.”
Scalius stroked her scalp-feathers and nodded. “Me too, but for the good of our children, keeping a low profile is our best chance of survival.”
“How can you be certain the other tribes are being taken?” Muluve asked.
“Some of the other villagers and I caught notice during our hunts. We witnessed with our own eyes the knights and paladins herding our kind. They had them shackled, bruised and bleeding, like cattle. They were too far from our village to be our own; the humans had to be raiding the other villages.”
“Impossible! I thought the humans were past the use of slavery?”
“They claim to be, since the end of the Drac Age, but who knows. Those dogmatists lack any sort of reasoning beyond saving their own skin.”
“So what are they doing with our people?”
“I don’t know.”
The two stood in silence, both staring at the ground.
Krista swallowed heavily. It was a lot of information to take in. What does that all mean for my family?
Muluve spoke, breaking the silence. “I need to check on dinner.”
“Of course,” Scalius replied before grabbing hold of her, embracing his wife with a kiss, tongues coiling for several moments before letting go.
Uh-oh, Krista thought while Muluve marched towards the doorway. She scurried away from her hiding spot and rushed over to the stove. Quickly she got up onto the footstool and placed the wooden spoon into the pot and began to stir again. Some of the lentils were now stuck to the bottom of the pot from the lack of motion.
Oops! she thought.
“Thank you, my dear,” Muluve said behind her. Her claws gently grabbed the spoon from Krista’s hand and she began to stir. Her mother’s stirring stopped and she pressed the spoon against the bottom of the pot, pushing several times before stirring again. She knew the lentils were sticking.
Krista stepped down and scratched her head. Normally her mother would have commented about Krista’s mistake – this was out of character. Mum and Dad are both not normal right now.
“Kristalantice, can you please cut some of the potatoes? I washed them but I haven’t had the chance to slice them.” Muluve pointed at the counter dividing the kitchen from the entryway.
“Sure.” Krista hadn’t even noticed the potatoes earlier. I probably didn’t see them because I am too small. She walked over to the counter, dragging her footstool with her, placing it on the ground and stepping onto it. Moments later, she heard footsteps stomping behind her.
Glancing over, she spotted her little brother dashing through the back entrance and around the kitchen, screaming in joy. He rushed past the counter and into the entryway where he plopped himself on a stool beside the dining table, resting his arms on the surface. He grabbed hold of a couple of his wooden blocks and began fidgeting with them.
“Salanth, you finished folding the laundry into the basket?” Muluve asked.
The little boy nodded and smiled at his mum. He didn’t use words yet. He was much younger than Krista; his scalp-feathers hadn’t even grown in yet. Salanth was easily amused by stacking blocks and running around squealing.
Give him a few decades and he will be fluent in speaking. Krista remembered some of her earlier childhood memories before Salanth was born; she’d never been as hyperactive as he was.
Screams erupted from outside the hut and brought everyone to a sudden halt. The sound of clanging metal and marching steel boots stomping on the gravel filled the air. Krista was midway through slicing a potato when she glanced over at her mother, whose eyes were wide open.
“Krista, grab your broth—”
Before Muluve could finish her sentence, three humans dressed head to toe in silver armour barged into the room through the front entrance. Their deep red capes swayed as they rushed into the small kitchen – the Knights Union.
Krista dropped her knife, watching as one of them swiftly grabbed her little brother by the head. He was small enough that a hand could easily grasp his entire skull.
“Humans!” Muluve hissed. “Give back my son!” She snatched up a large butcher knife from the counter and began to dash towards her child’s abductors.
Before she could make it around the counter beside Krista, another knight appeared from the back entrance.
“Mum!” Krista shouted. Everything was moving too fast for her to comprehend.
Krista gasped as the man caught Muluve’s knife-wielding hand in midair. He yanked hard, turning her around. The human struck her in the muzzle with the blunt end of his broadsword, shattering her bones on impact. Muluve dropped the knife and fell limply to the ground, knocked out cold as black blood began to seep from her face.
Scalius burst into the room, pushing the red curtains from his view. He quickly scanned the scenario: his son held by a human, his wife on the ground bleeding, and his daughter fear-struck. He let out a deep roar, neck vibrating as the sound burst from the depths of his throat.
“You’ve made a grave mistake, you arrogant soft-skins!” Scalius charged on all fours towards the three men who stood in the entry. He leaped into the air, front claws forward, snarling. Before the knights had a chance to react, he tackled the one to the far right, his claws lunging into the steel plating of the man’s helmet. Blood splattered from the open wounds like juice, as if he were puncturing a fruit.
He pulled his claws from the corpse while lashing his tail at the other men. The sound made a crackling noise, prompting the men to step backwards.
The knight who had entered from the back rushed over to aid his comrades, leaving Krista alone with Muluve. She got off the stool and lay down beside her mother, pressing her forehead against hers. “Mum!” she cried, shaking her head with both hands. Muluve did not respond. “Mum!” Krista repeated.
At the cries of another man, Krista glanced up. Her father had sliced open another knight’s throat, and red liquid sprayed wildly in all directions from the wound. He did a quick spin, avoiding the back-entrance knight’s sword thrust. Scalius finished his motion by slashing downward with his claws onto the knight holding Salanth.
The attack shredded the knight’s armour from head to waist, ripping through his eye, lips, and chest. The assault caused the man to drop Salanth and the little boy scurried away.
All the ruckus caught the attention of more humans, who rushed into the hut. It was hard for Krista to count how many there were, but the new swarm of beings blocked her little brother from making a clean escape towards the kitchen.
I have to do something! she thought, still holding her mother while glancing around. What could she do? She got up and grabbed her footstool. There had to be a bigger knife somewhere – the potato-peeling knife was too small and flimsy.
There are only a few scenarios when you will find yourself in need of killing … in self-defence. Her father’s words replayed in her mind.
She slid the stool over to the stove where they kept a drawer of cooking tools and eating utensils – she knew her mother stored the knives in there. Her claws were nowhere near as sharp as her father’s yet; she was far too young. Besides, he’d told her to rely on them only for defense.
The new attackers charged Scalius with their swords drawn. Krista’s father lashed his tail at one of the men’s ankles, coiling it around his leg. Scalius pulled on the man’s limb, knocking him to the floor, causing a heavy thud. The other men were too close to avoid and one knight thrust his blade, piercing it into Scalius’s stomach. The third man swung his sword at Scalius’s neck but the reptilian managed to grab the knight’s arm in midair. The second knight pulled his blade from Scalius’s gut and prepared to thrust again. Krista’s father kicked the man in the chest, sending him stumbling backward.
The first knight got up off the ground and rushed at Scalius with his sword in the air, ready to strike. It hacked into his collarbone; he yelped in pain and released his grasp on the third man’s arm. The three humans overpowered Scalius with their swords, slicing him from his neck down to his thighs, blood spraying from his body like a fountain.
Krista saw the men move away from her father’s bleeding form and back towards her mother – way too close to Krista. One of the humans stepped forward, grabbing Muluve, still unconscious, by the scalp-feathers, dragging her back by the dining table.
Krista ducked to make herself as small as possible; she was still high enough to see the scene, and still scrambling through the drawer. Fork … butter knife … no!
Lifting Muluve’s head up, the knight raised his cold steel blade to her throat and carved into her scaled skin. The sound of flesh, then bone, and flesh again resounded in the kitchen with each slice into her neck.
Krista’s brother screamed and tried to run from the dining table, past the distracted men and towards Krista. A man cut the toddler’s sprint short with a swift kick to the side of his head. Salanth was thrown into the air and collided with the base of a shelf. The impact of the human’s steel boot against the child’s face left the man with a bloody footprint and the boy limp on the ground.
Krista reacted in horror. This has to be a bad dream.
She slipped off the stool and onto the ground. The humans hadn’t seen her yet, but she realized that she would be next. The men were now inspecting their dead comrades. It was only a matter of time before they noticed her.
Just then, she heard a voice hiss out. “Over here!”
Glancing towards the sound, Krista saw a boy – one of her people, not much older than she – standing at the back doorway of the kitchen leading to the backyard.
“Quickly, before it is too late!” he urged.
She didn’t know whether it was a blessing or dumb luck that this mysterious boy had found her, but it didn’t matter. Her survival instincts kicked in and Krista ran outside to join him. Looking back, Krista could see the men still bent over their fallen allies and examining the room.
The boy reached out for her hand, and Krista grabbed it. “They won’t notice us. We are safe,” he said.
The two ran beyond the backyard. The Scalebane family’s garden was small, but somehow they’d always had enough to eat. Krista and the boy sprinted into the alley as fast as they could. The dirt track between rows of huts stretched on for blocks. The village was filled with the sound of screams, metal clanging, and the splintering of wood. Smoke rose from the flames that consumed some of the nearby huts.
In that moment, Krista clued in: she had left her family to die. “My family, they’re….” She wept. I shouldn’t have left them.
“Mine is, too,” the boy replied. “I lived a couple huts down from your own. The humans came for us and I ran out of there as quickly as I could. I heard screams from your hut and saw you on the stool from the back entrance. I’m lucky I found you when I did.”
“Thank you.” Krista wiped the tears from her eyes and studied him, noticing his long scalp-feathers that went down past the base of his neck. He wore a simple grey tunic that draped over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. “What’s your name?” She found it odd that he’d lived so close but she had never seen him before.
“Darkwing Lashback. You?”
“Krista Scalebane. Kristalantice.”
“Wish we met under better circumsta—” Darkwing stopped mid-sentence as he stared into the distance. Krista followed his gaze: the alley’s exit, only about four huts down, was blocked by five men in gold plating, marching towards them armed with maces and spears.
“Paladins! Back this way!” Darkwing spun around, pulling her along.
But the path behind them was now blocked by two knights wielding bloodstained swords. The men from Krista’s home had somehow followed them.
Krista felt her heart sink. “What do we do?” she asked.
Releasing her hand, Darkwing raised his arms in the air. “Put yours up, too. Let them take us.”
“But we have to defend ourselves! That’s the only time to fight,” Krista said, thinking of her father’s words.
“Notice what happened to our families when they did?”
Krista felt her stomach turn inside out. Her new friend wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t mean she liked the fact that she had to step down. Her father said killing was needed in self-defence. Darkwing is right, though. They’re too strong and there are too many of them.
Obeying, Krista raised her hands and accepted defeat with tears running down her face.
Thank you for reading!
Mental Damnation: Reality is available April 19th, 2017
Order today on Amazon Kindle. If you’re in Edmonton on this day, join us for the live reading and launch event.