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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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.
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.
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.