The Downs

by Kim Fielding

As the son of a wealthy man, Enitan Javed has spent his life frivolously—drinking, fighting, and making love. But after his father dies, Enitan is unjustly accused of murdering him and is given the harshest sentence possible. Judged irredeemable, he is banished to the Downs. As even young children know, nothing lives in the Downs except demons who delight in torturing the condemned. Brutalized by the men who transport him to his fate, Enitan has nothing left but his thirst for vengeance.

His plummet to the Downs nearly kills him, and Enitan finds himself battered and helpless in a frightening, mysterious land. But many surprises await him there, including a strange man named Rig. And the realization that the demons he must face aren’t at all the ones he expected.

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Excerpt:

THE DOWNS

 

Chapter One

 

The anteroom was warm—much warmer than the cell where he’d been kept for the past several weeks. Enitan tried to concentrate on that small crumb of comfort instead of panicking over the complete darkness or giving in to the fear churning in his belly. He wouldn’t cry, he couldn’t run, and there was nobody to fight. Just him, naked, in a small bare room, the marble floor hot and smooth like skin.

When the huge doors began to rumble open, he turned to face them but had to bow his head against the piercing light. Although his hands wanted to clench into fists, he kept them open at his sides. The tightness across his shoulders and down his back threatened to affect his lungs. Steady, he told himself. Your future is out of your hands now. Just accept.

He’d never been the compliant kind.

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Finally the doors stopped their slow scrape. “Forward!” barked a female voice. Eyes squinted nearly shut, Enitan shuffled ahead.

“Stop!”

He couldn’t see the figure before him—the glare was much too bright—but he felt the weight of the Judge’s gaze. He wondered if she saw his physical self: a tall man, long-legged and muscular, with an angular face many men and women had called pleasing. Did she see the Enitan others saw now, a man accused and convicted of killing his father? Or did the Judge see his inner self, where the last bits of defiance lay smothered by terror, despair, and rage?

For a very long time, he remained still, his eyes closed and his heartbeat thudding loudly in his ears.

“This man is judged,” said the female voice at last, in a flat and unemotional tone. “Enitan Javed cannot be redeemed.”

He raised his head, opened his eyes, and looked at the Judge. He couldn’t make out the details well. She was taller than he was—taller than any human—and stood ramrod straight, her golden robes hanging from her thin body like curtains. Her skin and hair were golden as well, as if she’d been cast all in one piece from the precious metal. Her face would have been beautiful if it had been less harsh, more alive. But where her eyes should have been, two deep holes threatened to suck Enitan’s soul away. Overcome with dizziness, he almost lost his balance, and he staggered a half step. The Judge didn’t react.

Some men might have wept or pleaded for mercy. Some might have proclaimed their innocence. Others might have given a noble speech. Enitan did none of those things. In a voice almost as cool as the Judge’s, he said, “Fuck you.”

A bolt of agony made him cry out and collapse to his hands and knees. His skin burned. His organs burned. He couldn’t scream anymore because flames seared his lungs; he saw nothing but molten gold; his limbs flailed uncontrollably. Then the ground opened beneath him—or perhaps he flew into the air. He couldn’t tell. There was nothing around him but an inferno of pain as the last vestiges of his life burned to ashes. He had time for one final thought: Revenge.

He awoke to darkness, thirst, and a throbbing ache that encompassed his entire body. He was grateful for the thirst, however, because it meant he was still alive, and at least the pain was only a shadow of what he’d felt in front of the Judge. He lay curled on his side in a solid metal enclosure that was too small for him to stretch out his legs or raise his head and shoulders more than a few inches. The cramped space reeked of piss, shit, and vomit. And, he realized, the cage was moving, bumping along a road that seemed made of nothing but ruts. He shouldn’t have been surprised at that; few people journeyed across the Reach, and those who did were not entitled to comfort.

Groaning, trying not to lose what little remained in his stomach, he scraped at the walls. After a concerted effort, his fingernails came away bloody, but he hadn’t found any seams or weaknesses in the enclosure. The only irregularity was a small bit of grating near one corner. The tiny holes let in air but no light.

He was still naked, his skin and hair crusted with a fetid mess. His skin hurt as if he had a nasty sunburn. The worst spot was on his forehead, raw and seeping. The mark of the condemned. Nobody would call him handsome now. Not that it mattered.

With no one to see or hear, he could finally cry. But although his throat was bitter and his eyes stung, no tears fell. Maybe the Judge had burned them out of him for good.

But she hadn’t consumed his hatred. Minna, somehow I will find a way to visit vengeance upon you. He repeated it over and over in his head as a cutting form of comfort.

As the cage rattled on, Enitan closed his eyes against the darkness and tried to imagine himself far away. In his own bed, perhaps, with clean sheets that smelled of lavender and with one of his lovers bathed in moonlight and smiling at him. Or maybe at the Bennu Club, lounging among piles of cushions and laughing with his friends. But his lovers were gone and his friends had turned away from him, and he’d never go home or to the club again.

His thoughts turned to family. To his father, poisoned. The old man had spent too many hours at work for the two of them to be close, yet Enitan had loved him and had grieved at his death. His sister, Minna, had pretended to grieve as well, and she was a good actress—good enough to fool almost everyone. But Enitan had seen the triumph in her eyes when the Council had pronounced him guilty of patricide. Now rage burned in the pit of his empty belly, and he was glad. The Judge hadn’t taken everything from him.

He might have dozed for a while, but he grew alert when the cage came to a halt and metal squealed. As light flooded his enclosure, he instinctively curled into a ball. Someone laughed harshly and threw something at him, then slammed the hatch closed again. With some trepidation, Enitan felt for the object and was relieved to discover a waterskin. The liquid inside was warm and rank-tasting—he suspected someone had added piss to the contents—but he was dehydrated enough that he sipped at it anyway, grateful that he didn’t vomit.

After a time, the cage began to move again. Hours passed. He tried to remember how long it took to cross the Reach. Two days? Three? He’d seen paintings: a landscape as flat and endless as the sky and with no buildings to break the monotony, just league after league of stubbly brown grass. He’d heard that the only creatures living in the Reach were a few species of insects and some spiders. People said that the land was as cursed as the prisoners who were dragged across it.

When another fit of claustrophobia threatened to overwhelm him, Enitan measured his breathing. “Accept,” he whispered. “It’s already done. No use in fighting.” He found it difficult to heed his own advice, so he changed his tactic. “Revenge. Find a path for revenge.”

Although he tried to conserve the water, it was gone long before the cage stopped again. His limbs had progressed from cramped to numb, and he felt as if his stomach were consuming itself. He cried out hoarsely when the hatch sprang open and the bright light assaulted him, but he didn’t fight back as rough hands seized him and dragged him out of the box. He was dumped roughly onto the hard ground.

“Get up!” Someone kicked him hard enough to make him yelp. He tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Twice more a foot connected with his back before two men grabbed his arms and hauled him upright. Even then, Enitan would have fallen if his captors hadn’t held him up.

What kind of person made a living transporting the unredeemable across the Reach? Enitan squinted at them. There were three men, each coarsely dressed and sun-ruddy, all of them sneering.

“Not such a fine fellow now, are you?” laughed the one who wasn’t gripping Enitan’s arm. He was probably close to Enitan’s age—not yet into his forties—but his gray eyes were cold and lifeless. “No, not very fine at all.”

Enitan gritted his teeth.

For a few minutes, all three men shoved and taunted him. He took the opportunity to look around, but there wasn’t much to see. Mainly the wagon that had brought them there, pulled by a pair of underfed yaley-beasts with broken horns. In addition to the driver’s seat, the wagon boasted a small enclosure that must have provided shelter and storage for the three men as they traveled. Behind the enclosure and affixed to a platform was the metal box that had served as Enitan’s prison. Aside from the wagon, the yaleys, and the men, there was… nothing. Pale blue sky. Dull grass the color of old straw, waving slightly in the breeze. A road almost too overgrown to see. And there, to Enitan’s left— He turned his head quickly away.

The men began to handle him more roughly. He fell several times, but each time they dragged him to his feet again, jeering. They called him names and spat on him; they pulled his hair and slapped his bare skin. He knew there was no point in being outraged. There were three of them, and he was weak from his ordeals. And here at the end of the world with nobody to see, they could do whatever they wanted with him. Maybe that was the appeal of the job—the opportunity to have someone at their mercy.

One of the men gave a hard shove that forced Enitan to fall onto all fours, and while all three of his tormenters yelled at him to stand up, they kept knocking him down again. They laughed as he crouched on hands and knees, panting, his head hanging low. His dry mouth tasted of blood and dirt, and the grass prickled his skin. Doesn’t matter, he reminded himself again. No use in fighting anymore. He was nothing now—condemned and judged and worse than dead—and he couldn’t do anything to change his fate.

Gods. That Minna would do this to him out of nothing but greed! Perhaps he hadn’t spent money wisely, and perhaps he’d paid more attention to his own desires than the family finances. But he’d never harmed anyone—not her, not his father, not a soul. She should have poisoned him as well, made it look like suicide. She could have pulled it off. The fact that she hadn’t tried, that she’d deliberately consigned him to this hell, made his vision grow dim and red.

He shot to his feet and took a solid swing into the gray-eyed man’s jaw, catching him by surprise. It felt good for Enitan’s fist to connect with flesh and bone, and when the man fell to the ground, Enitan imagined his sister collapsing instead.

But it was only one punch, and immediately the other two men were on him, wrestling him to the ground. One kept his boot planted solidly on the back of Enitan’s neck, while the other straddled Enitan, pinning his arms behind his back. Enitan’s momentary strength drained away; he didn’t struggle when Gray Eyes grabbed a length of rope and tied Enitan’s wrists so tightly that blood trickled down his skin.

They all kicked him viciously then, concentrating on his unprotected head and back. It was a good thing, actually, because he grew dizzy and muzzy-headed, his awareness shrouded in thick gray fog. By the time his legs were jerked far apart, he was far enough gone that he barely registered the invasion and the fresh pain. His body lay battered and defiled on the Reach, but his mind was far away.

They could have left him to die just as he was. He wouldn’t have lasted long. But whether from a sense of duty or the desire to torment him to the end, the men roused him to full consciousness with a sizable splash of cold water, then yanked him upright. They dragged him forward, his feet scraping along the raspy grass. And then they stopped.

“Look at that,” Gray Eyes said smugly, as if he’d created the spectacle himself.

Enitan didn’t want to look. He wanted to curl into a ball and just… not be. But he couldn’t stop his head from rising a bit, his eyes from opening, and then he couldn’t stop himself from seeing.

The Reach ended abruptly just a few steps in front of him, the grassy plain cut off as if by a god’s knife. Where the Reach stopped, a steep slope began. It plunged so deeply that gray clouds floated far below, obscuring the bottom. Obscuring the Downs.

Although Enitan slightly feared heights, that wasn’t what made him shudder now. In fact, he was almost grateful for the depth of the drop, because if he were very fortunate, the fall would kill him. But he had run out of luck lately, and if he survived to reach the bottom, the Downs awaited him.

“No,” he rasped, attempting to brace his feet on the ground. He had no more pride. “Don’t.”

The men laughed and propelled him slightly forward. “The demons won’t let you die right away,” said the one with ginger hair. “They can keep you alive a long time.”

They were almost at the edge, only a few tufts of grass separating Enitan from his fate. He was suddenly glad that he’d had little to eat or drink, because otherwise he might have voided his bladder and bowels. His heart raced so quickly that he couldn’t discern the individual beats at all, and he couldn’t draw oxygen into his lungs.

But deep within himself he found one final bit of defiance. “May the gods curse you all,” he said. Especially Minna.

The men stopped laughing. Then somebody shoved him hard, forcing him forward. His feet slipped over the edge. For one very brief moment he felt like a wingless bird—and then he fell.

COLLAPSE

Kim Fielding donates all royalties from this book (ebook and audio versions) to Doctors Without Borders.

About the Author

Kim Fielding is the bestselling author of numerous m/m romance novels, novellas, and short stories. Like Kim herself, her work is eclectic, spanning genres such as contemporary, fantasy, paranormal, and historical. Her stories are set in alternate worlds, in 15th century Bosnia, in modern-day Oregon. Her heroes are hipster architect werewolves, housekeepers, maimed giants, and conflicted graduate students. They’re usually flawed, they often encounter terrible obstacles, but they always find love.

After having migrated back and forth across the western two-thirds of the United States, Kim calls the boring part of California home. She lives there with her husband, her two daughters, and her day job as a university professor, but escapes as often as possible via car, train, plane, or boat. This may explain why her characters often seem to be in transit as well. She dreams of traveling and writing full-time.


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