READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Goddess of Nod (The Balance, #3) by C. W. Snyder



An easy peace has descended on the land of Nod, but when an old ally turned enemy returns, loyalty and the fabric of the afterlife are stretched to their limits. To save the land she loves, Alice must choose to sacrifice everything she knows for the greater good, or be swallowed by the vast black of the encroaching Nothing.


Get carried away into the sparkling world of The Balance in this, the third installment, GODDESS OF NOD by C. W. Snyder—out next Tuesday, January nineteenth. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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CHAPTER ONE


ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A GIRL WHO WAS DEAD. Then again, she was something more than that. She was no longer a girl in the strict sense of time, though her appearance belied that assumption. She had been innocent, once. She had been a queen. She had been a warrior. Now, she was something else entirely. She had seen worlds broken on the back of corruption and friends fed into the maw of oblivion. To look at her, one would mistake her for a young woman, with black hair that lightened to red at the tips, and pale skin. Still, if you looked closely enough, you saw the ravages of time, even on an immortal frame. Scars crossed her arms and cheeks, her right hand still glistened raw and red, and her stare carried the weight of ages. It carried the weight of responsibility; an iron will forged in a blazing fire. She may have been dead, but she carried the burden of life like a yoke.


Alice sat on the veranda, staring out across the once-ravaged hill and vale of the Waste, now a thriving verdant belt. A rustle at her hip, the sound of fabric on fabric, and Maggie’s weight pressed into her. Her hand found Alice’s, her palm warm and soft. The other woman, beautiful in a way that made words slip Alice’s mind, frantic in the same way water rushes under ice, brushed her lips against Alice’s cheek.


“Come back to bed,” the whisper tickled her ear, and she squeezed Maggie’s hand.


The world outside the city of Axis Mundi was a green panoply of vine and arbor under the light of a bright moon. The followers of Bacchus found the fertility of the valley agreeable, the urge to plant and seed as alive among them now as it had been when they walked the Earth. They gathered on the outskirts of the city in a paradise of their own making, the grapes their children, wine the final satisfaction of that matura tion. They had built villas and vineyards, working the presses by day, rousing even the most apathetic spirits at night. Even now the other villas around the hills were brightly lit, and the sounds of piper and viola trilled across the cool night. The bucolic scene calmed Alice’s jangled nerves, smoothed the gooseflesh on her arms.


She’d been dreaming. The dead didn’t need sleep, nor eat or drink, though some did regardless. It was a way of holding onto what had once been for some, a comfort in familiarity for others. This dream though—a frown crossed her brow, and she looked inward. She saw fragments: Oberon atop a cliff that spanned a vast and hungry gulf, and Casca, his chest a writhing mass of corruption; a heart aflame, and the stirring of something vast and incalculable. Other friends lurked in shadow—Cain and John, and she wondered at their fates—their eyes milky, the pupils yellow like those of wolves in the moonlight.


Maggie squeezed her hand again, and Alice shook herself. She looked over at the woman she'd come to love and smiled. “Everything okay?” Maggie asked.

Alice nodded. “Fine. Just a dream.”


“Come back to bed then.” A wicked smile played on her lips. “You can worry about dreams later.”


Alice grinned before Maggie turned and ran. She chased her wife through the house, and though they

fell into bed, they did not sleep for some time.


In the wee hours, while Maggie slept softly in their bed, Alice stared up at the ceiling and watched the light make patterns of the shadows thrown by beam and plaster. She tried to see futures in them—any one of a thousand, a million, a hundred million, but even with the threads of possibility available to her, there were too many. What matter did the future make when you had an eternity to get there? Instead, she turned her thoughts to the past, to the woman beside her.


Their courtship had been tempestuous. Maggie was hot blooded, prone to violence as easily as a smile, passionate in her belief. She’d had a hard life, and a harder death. She’d traded a part of herself to be whole, though what that might be, she was unwilling to discuss with Alice. Alice sympathized—she had been through much the same. An abrupt, brutal death, a harsh embattled afterlife. A part of her traded, and at what cost? In those things, they’d found common ground. It grew from mutual respect, from shared experience, and blossomed into something more.


The world had settled into some semblance of normalcy after the Breaking, and they had struggled with their emotions. Alice knew in their hearts that Zee and Maggie feared her. She’d brought down a god, after all. Zee, as a companion who had watched her grow from a naive waif to a woman who could bring down the heavens. Maggie, as a once-enemy who’d been spared and forgiven the darkness in her heart.


While Zee pulled away, making his own distance and creating a sense of safety, Maggie had done the opposite. She’d found herself drawn to Alice, found herself intrigued by this woman who had the capacity for violence and forgiveness in equal measure, sadness at the things she’d been forced to do the weight that kept the scales between the two even. Alice was a balance to her own roiling rage, her lack of remorse, her almost insatiable need to break the things that had brought her to this world.


Alice understood all this in a way most didn’t. Among the threads of possibility, she’d seen possible pasts and futures. Bloodshed, wounds repaired, lives reduced to ash, and love rising from the ashes like a phoenix. She saw for her friends a thousand lives, a thousand maybes and what-ifs, but for the road she trod, she saw only a black fog ahead. It did not bother her. She was no oracle. She’d leave that to the Sisters in their mountain redoubt. As for her, she had found love, and hoped for the time being, it would be enough.


Alice still remembered that warm night, Zee away with Cade, her and Maggie alone for the first time in months. They’d had wine from the bacchanalists, music from the cellists, and moon light. They had stayed up, speaking for hours, of the things that had passed, and what might come. Before she could even think —her lips still tingled with the memory of the kiss—Maggie leaned in, her breath sweet and heavy with grape, her lips full and warm. Alice smiled at the memory and looked over at Maggie, her sleeping form still in the early hours. She stroked one gentle finger across her wife’s face, the other woman smiling in her sleep and curling closer to her.


The threads of possibility twisted and vibrated around her, and Alice dropped her hand. She was being summoned. Hooks of imperative lodged themselves in her spirit, a compulsion she couldn’t refuse. She sighed and took a breath she didn’t need, then another, and another.


 

CHAPTER TWO



HER ENVIRONMENT SLIPPED AWAY, AND ALICE FLOATED IN THE space between worlds, the demesne white all around, like a blank page. Alice opened weary eyes to the ever-shifting goddess Enya tapping a foot impatiently.


“You’re late,” Enya said.


“I was nearly asleep. Even cosmic agents get a night off, don’t they?”


“No,” Enya said.


Alice sighed with resignation. “Fine. Let’s get to it then.”


Enya walked a circle around her, stopping to occasionally prod her spine or straighten her hips. Alice watched as the deity walked, shifting shapes between friends and foes she’d known. Silence stood for a time, a wedge of comfortable familiarity between the two women. They’d become…if not close, friendly, in the time since Alice had made her bargain to return to Nod. She never could tell what constituted friendly for a god, but if anything, she supposed it might be the absence of attempts to steal more of her precious life.


The only sound in the space was that of Enya’s footsteps, which made no sense in a formless void, but Alice thought it hard to argue the rules of physics with a god. It was hard to argue anything with a god, really. In Alice’s experience, it was easier to concede the point and do what she wanted once out of the deity’s line of sight. Sure, she felt a child again doing so, but you had to choose your battles. Finally, Enya paused, her lips pursed, and Alice forced her attention back to the now.


“Better.”


Alice let a small sigh leak out. “What?”


“Your concentration. We’ve been here an hour, and you’ve managed to avoid manifesting a couch, what I can only assume was a pizza, and Cate Blanchett.”


Alice blushed. “That was...unfortunate.”


“Yes. Now, close your eyes.”


Alice did as she was told. The floating feeling was both comforting and distracting, but she was growing used to it. “There are pieces of the worlds, bits of what you call the Balance. Reach out, try to touch them.”


She took a breath and imagined lines extending from her, seeking out those lost pieces. She found them almost immedi ately. A warehouse in New York. She knew this one from past exercises—this was where the Blood held council. She pushed past it, and on into the darkness in her mind. One by one they lit up, a soldier in Iraq, a doctor in Brooklyn, a housewife in Van Nuys. They were little parts, holding a small amount of talent. She pushed harder, and a light, unlike the others, burned bright in her mind, igniting like a bonfire. She followed the thread, and saw a girl, no older than fifteen or sixteen, sleeping deeply. Light coruscated from her in waves. Alice’s breath caught in her throat, and the fire burned brighter, making her head suddenly throb and pulse. Her eyes flew open, and she sucked in a breath.


“What was that?”


“The first piece of the puzzle. You have found the White. There are three. The Red, the Gray, and the White.” “What of the Black?” Alice asked.


“The lynchpin. None would exist without the other. Nod has already gone too long with those seats empty. Your father broke the world when he impregnated Alma. When he killed her. You followed and broke it further. Your sister, Mr. Black. It’s your job to heal it now.”


“How?” frustration echoed in Alice’s voice. “With magic glue? Am I supposed to just trade some beans for a tube, and stick it all back together?”


“This is your mess.”


“If I hadn’t ended them, they would’ve done for me. Would you do different?”


“Are there those who could end me?”


Alice gave her a hard stare. She didn’t know if it was arro gance or simple fact to the goddess, which made the entire conversation all that much more frustrating.


“Find the pieces. Put them back on the board,” Enya said, ending the conversation.


Alice found the space around her slipping away at the words and struggled to hold on. The white walls receded, and as if from a great distance, she heard the goddess.


“You need to move soon. Nod will not heal itself.” Then she and the demesne were gone.


Alice opened her eyes to the sun, the light leaking between the slats on the overhang to the veranda and painting the stucco walls of the villa brilliant white. The house stood on the edge of Axis Mundi, in a suburb that had sprung up around the city in the intervening years since Leviathan’s defeat. She shaded her eyes and looked further, to the only still visible scar of the Reach, stretching away into the distance. Somewhere at the end stood the remains of the Crown.


“Did you find them?” Maggie’s voice cut through her thoughts.


Alice sighed. “No. I’ve no idea where they are.”


“Where who are?” Zee sauntered onto the patio; a clutch of grapes grasped in his new silver hand. Cade’s presence surrounded him like a thin cloak, stared out from his eyes.


“What are you doing with those?” Maggie asked.


He shrugged. “Holding them. Hephaestus says it’s supposed to be good practice. Don’t crush the grapes, won’t crush uh, other things that are like grapes.” He ended his explanation with the question again. “Where who are?”


“John and Cain. They’ve been missing since the Breaking,” Maggie said.


“Ah.”


“Ah?”


He shrugged. “Ah. What else am I supposed to say?” Maggie rolled her eyes and turned to Alice again. “Did you find anything?”


Alice rubbed her forehead. “Something, yes. I found the White, according to Enya.”


“That’s important?”


“I’m sure it is. The Sisters hinted at something of the sort when they made me agree to give up the Crown.” “So now what?”


The question hung in the air. Alice wasn’t sure what the next step was, but she felt she needed answers to move forward. “I think I need to talk to the Sisters again.”


“When?”


“Fairly soon. My gut is telling me that there is something going on. Especially with this girl appearing out of the blue after so long.” She gave Maggie a level look. “Are you up to stepping through the Gloaming?”


Maggie scrunched her face up a little, one corner of her mouth puckering in. “I’ve been a little iffy about it since Gren del, but if it’s important, then yeah.”


“What about me?” Zee piped in.


Alice gave him a long look. “Are you okay to travel?” He held up his hand, the grapes cradled in it. He dropped them on a small table by the women’s seats and flexed the metal fingers, then rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sure, yeah. Better than fondling grapes.”


Alice stood and dusted off her leggings. “Let’s meet outside in the morning.”


She moved off, leaving Zee and Maggie alone. After a long quiet, Maggie spoke up.


“Grapes, huh?”


“Yeah. Look, I have to be...”


“Somewhere else?”


“Yep.”


He wandered from the veranda, leaving Maggie alone with the grapes and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the light.


Maggie stared out at the vineyards, clusters of royal purple glowing among the emerald strands of green. A cool breeze kicked up, stirring the leaves on the arbors, sending them dancing. Light, dark; light, dark. An image of close tunnels, of chill dirty water that crept to her thighs, and hollow-eyed infants and adults flashed into her mind, and she heard the rumble of the beast behind her, the stink of its breath on her neck.


She squeezed her eyes and counted down from ten. Ten, nine… blood in the water…eight, seven…gleaming teeth…six, five…gnawed bones in off-white piles…four, three…screams…two, one…

The images faded and Maggie opened her eyes. She shook herself and stood, then took a brisk walk around the villa, pretending to inspect the well, the tiny garden she kept with Alice, the shed with their tools. She looked across the fields to Axis Mundi, the spire disappearing to the heavens, gleaming steel like a spear through the heart of the world. It made her think of hearts pierced and hearts broken, and she was glad that Alice had her. Who else would take on the horrors of memory for her love? Who else would bear the scars of violence done?


She wrapped her shawl tighter and went into the house.


Zee stood in the early light filtering through his room, conversing with ghosts. Cade whispered in his head, his trip to Hell still not forgotten. Occasional flashes of an image accompa nied them, broken bodies hung from rusted chains, hooks threaded through flesh like needles piercing a skein of thread. Blood covering every surface, refusing to dry. Entrails festooned steel girders and rafters, great loops of intestine stretched to their full potential and bloated with the gasses of the dead and dying. Screams echoed from stone walls as men were forced to shed their skin as one sheds a coat.


He shook himself and found his wife and child standing in the space between him and the window. Morning light limned their edges, gave them an unearthly glow. No words passed between them then, but the chaos in his heart and mind stilled, and he took a deep breath, smelling dust and smoke. He no longer felt their loss so acutely, nor the horrors that had taken them from him. In its place, a sort of serenity.


He sat on the bed and wept anyway.


Though the dead need not sleep, they can if they wish, and in doing so, dream.


Murder is easy. It’s the part that comes a#er—the blood and sinew spilled like human dross, and cold staring eyes—that is what makes murder hard. Most can’t deal with it. Not because of a weak stomach, or bowel-clenching moments of doubt and remorse, but because they don’t love.


He wipes his blade on the woman’s coat. It parts wool as easily as flesh, even laid along the side, so he has to clean it in a couple places before the steel is unmarked. No need to mar the flesh underneath any more than necessary. He holds it up to the dim light that seeps through the tram’s windows and inspects the surface. Runes etched in the steel catch the pale yellow glow and throw back reflections &om the sodium arcs. He sheathes the blade and steps to the faded grey and white doors of the tram. After a moment, they open and he steps onto the platform. Cold white tiles and the smell of ozone greet him. He leaves the body behind. Others will take care of it. Others always do.


He has always dreamt. Vivid nightmares, dreams both fleshy and senti mental, and the typical—falling, running, screaming. All with bouts of lucidity blended with pure terror. There is one though, that stands out. It has for almost fifteen years, &om a time when his dreams were composed mostly of anxiety and sex, when he would wake entangled in sheets damp &om sweat or semen.

In the dream, he’s always in a desert. Sometimes there are others, a caravan of sorts, what he imagines to be nomads, maybe peddlers. They matter little, except to distract when he should be making the pilgrimage. He suspects they are disciples too, however, other travelers seeking her out, maybe even doing her work. When they sit around the fire in a canyon built &om red rock buttes and red sand turned almost black &om the night, in the flickering light, you can almost see the writhing black behind their smiles.


Most times though, he is alone, in another valley built &om the same red rock. Rough columns rise to either side, so worn &om wind and sand erosion that it is impossible to tell if they were once man-made. A path, half-buried in blowing sand, lies before him, the parts he sees worn smooth where many feet before had tread. At the end of the path lies a temple, half-eroded, hewn &om the same red rock of the desert, architec tural styles blending and shifting until nothing is certain. In the center of it all lies a wide set of stairs that lead to an opening flanked by Roman columns.

Without moving his feet, he is before that opening, and the air is different there, no longer dry, and parched, but cool, almost to the point of a chill. He steps inside, into a vast chamber black as night. The cool air stirs with a directionless breeze and carries a damp smell with it. Some thing moves in the darkness, something vast and long-dead, and he takes another step. Only then is he inside.


The temple proper is carved &om the same red rock as outside, yet somehow larger than the exterior would su'est. The walls and ceiling are rough-hewn and glow with a light of their own. The floor is black and white marble laid in a checkerboard pattern, statues lining it every six feet, forming a processional that leads to a raised dais, and a throne carved &om bone and steel.


The air here is not as cool as before, and smells somewhat musky, like sex and perfume mingled with the coppery tang of blood. He notices the statues, each rendered in painstaking detail, flesh and bone carved with an anatomist’s precision, and twisted in positions that echo agony and lust. In the back of his mind, he registers arousal, and pushes it down; sure that to give in here is blasphemy.


He turns and sees her where she hadn’t been before, striding across the marble floor. Her skin is alabaster, accented by red hair and lips, her eyes a deep green. She wears a vinyl bodysuit that stops at her breasts, pale and heavy, her nipples pink and erect. Behind her flows a train of lace that whispers as it slides across the stone.


Above all though, is the glint of steel. Sword hilts and lengths of blades protrude &om just behind her arms and form a fan, as though she were a peacock made &om flesh and steel. The display ends just above her head, the hilts crossing to form a halo of sorts. He looks down at the floor, and sees where she has walked, footprints traced in blood marking her path. He doesn’t need to see her &om behind to know that each blade is woven through the skin of her back, like threads in a tapestry.


He kneels as she approaches. He feels her palm on his head, and looks up to see a slight smile play across her lips. He rises, and she stands on tiptoe to kiss him, and then, he awakes.


He takes the stairs out of the subway, steam rising to the street as he exits into the cold November air. It’s late, and few cars roll along the city streets, an off-duty taxi, the occasional patrol car, and a lone family sedan —probably someone passing to their job cleaning offices—none concern him. In the alleys the homeless huddle under &ayed blankets and newspa pers. Some are still awake, staring past the mouths of the gaps between buildings, or staring up at the stars. Some mutter in low voices, maybe prayer, maybe conversations, maybe just memories spoken aloud. He turns up a narrow tree-lined street, towards a modest brownstone wedged between others of its kind. He mounts the stairs, fetches his keys out, and a#er the lock clicks open, steps inside.


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