Blogtour: The Echoed Realm by A.J. Vrana excerpt & Giveaway
Author info: A. J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer from Toronto, Canada. She lives with her two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who nest in her window-side bookshelf and cast judgmental stares at nearby pigeons. Her doctoral research examines the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence. When not toiling away at caffeine-fueled, scholarly pursuits, she enjoys jewelry-making, cupcakes, and concocting dark tales to unleash upon the world.
The street was as empty as the eye of a storm. Save for the wind scattering autumn leaves over cracked asphalt, a lone young woman stood in the middle of the road. Her long, dark brown hair whipped around her face, and her muddy green eyes prickled from the sharp cold that howled at her to go home.
Home, however, was a long way from here.
She canted her head at the sound of a shrill cry echoing through the vacant night. A mass of black feathers and a sharp, curved beak entered her periphery. Talons dug into her shoulder, but the animal trilled contentedly.
“Hey, Kafka.” Miya scratched the raven’s breast, enjoying his silky plumage.
He squawked back, beating his wings as he clung to her.
Miya trained her gaze on the house up ahead. Lily-white paint chipped from the rickety paneling, and the bumpy driveway, with its patchy interlocking and overgrown weeds, reminded her of a world she longed to forget. But Summersville, West Virginia was no Black Hollow. A faded, grey sign was splayed on the lawn, the text barely discernable: As seen on—
America loved its ghosts. Amateurs armed with EVPs and electromagnetic readers went barging into people’s homes, yelling taunts and expecting answers. Did they think proof of the supernatural would keep the demons at bay?
Truth was never an antidote—only a drug too short in supply to meet the demand.
Taking a deep breath, Miya clutched the pendant that hung around her neck—a copper raven with its talons contoured over the top of an iridescent stone. The dream stone—a piece of it, anyway.
As she started up the porch steps, her companion flew away and perched on the blackened compass atop the roof. Kafka-the-boy—the one who’d gifted her the labradorite—had been absent from the dreamscape for three long years, but she suspected he was watching through Kafka-the-raven. He always stayed close.
“It’ll be ok,” she whispered to herself. “You’ve dealt with much worse.”
Refusing to use the ghastly colonial doorknocker—a brass lion’s head clutching an ornate hoop between its jaws—she rapped on the door three times before it swung open.
The woman who answered looked like she’d stumbled back from the afterlife or was on her way there. The only sign of animation was the bare look of surprise on her face as she took in her visitor.
“Are you the…”
“I’m the witch,” Miya cut to the chase. She didn’t have the patience for dishonest terms like medium, psychic, or empath. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t a witch either, but it was the closest thing to her true nature that people understood. Outside of Black Hollow, no one knew who the Dreamwalker was.
“R-Right,” the woman stammered. “I’m Dawn. We spoke earlier?”
Miya strained a smile, and the corners of her lips felt like they were chapping. “I remember. I take it the Ghostventures crew didn’t help?”
“No, they didn’t.” The door whined as she opened it further. “Please, come inside.”
Dawn’s slouched shoulders obscured her otherwise robust figure. Miya wondered if she was having trouble eating; her clothes hung loose, and her cheeks sagged. Her light brown hair was parched, peppered with silver strands that almost looked gold against the dim orange light of the hall.
“I’m sorry it’s so cold in here.” She wrung her knobby hands as she led Miya towards the kitchen. “The heat’s technically working, but it’s just…always so cold.”
“Asshole spirits will do that,” Miya mumbled. She clutched her dark mauve leather jacket around her sides and lifted the hood over her head. It helped her stay focused when she knew she was surrounded by malevolence. Dawn took a seat at the table and rubbed her arms with a sigh.
“It started a year ago, when my husband got his new job. We were struggling, and this house was such a steal. We figured it was because the town was small, too far from any major cities, but strange things began to happen almost right away.”
Miya helped herself to the chair across from her client. “Weird noises? Bad dreams?”
“The noises didn’t bother me.” Dawn fiddled with a wine bottle that’d been left on the table, then poured herself a glass. She’d obviously been finding ways to cope. “But the dreams…My husband, Greg, didn’t think they were a big deal. He thought I was being dramatic, or that I had a sleep disorder.”
Miya snorted; the narrative was almost cliché. “It’s always the husband who won’t believe.”
Dawn hesitated, then nodded slowly. “I suppose so.” She offered a tepid smile. “So, are you really a witch?”
Miya curled her fingers under her palm. “Sort of. I don’t worship the devil or eat kids if that’s what you’re asking.”
Dawn’s voice grew quieter. “Do you believe in the devil?”
Miya caught her client’s gaze. “I believe in far worse.”
Dawn bowed her head and clutched the cross around her neck. “Anyway, the dreams kept getting worse—more vivid. Most nights, it felt like I hadn’t slept at all. A few times, I woke up elsewhere, in the basement or the backyard. I did what Greg asked and went to see a doctor, but my test results came back normal. Nothing was wrong with me, so I figured it must be the house.”
“Why not move?” Miya asked.
“Greg refuses.” Dawn’s voice fractured, frustration bubbling to the surface like boiling water licking the lid of a pot. “It’s like he’s waging war against this thing, only he doesn’t even believe in the thing he’s fighting!”
“And what do you think this thing is?”
“I-I don’t know. Our church preaches that spirits aren’t real. There’s heaven and hell. Nothing in between.” Dawn covered her face with her hands, her shoulders trembling. “But I know it’s real, no matter what my faith says.”
Miya’s heart clenched. She could feel this woman’s pain, and it sundered whatever distance she’d worked to keep. “I believe you,” she whispered. “Even if you moved, there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t follow.”
Dawn’s breath drew in. “Is it a ghost?”
Miya shook her head, scanning the room. Claw marks were etched into the wall, revealing the entity’s path. “Ghosts are human spirits. This one’s not, and it isn’t friendly, either. To tell you the truth,” she stood and reached into her back pocket, “I’ve been hunting this one for a while.”
This was her life now—not out of choice but out of necessity. Miya never could have imagined just how many malicious spirits preyed on people in their dreams, and as the Dreamwalker, she was in a unique position to help them. She enjoyed it, but it wasn’t altruistic. The monsters haunted her too.
A crack, jagged like lightning, splintered the drywall, oozing something black and tarry. A low, wet gargle reverberated through the kitchen.
“It’s happening!” Dawn yelped, knocking over her chair as she jumped up.
Miya’s hand steadied on her back pocket. She glared down the fissure in the wall—or rather, a fissure in the seam of reality.
“Dawn,” Miya said evenly. “Get behind me and stay in cover.”
The older woman scrambled to the other side of the kitchen and ducked behind a cabinet. Grateful Dawn didn’t peek, Miya pulled a single playing card from her jeans.
It was the king of spades, copper stains marring him from a nightmare long ago.
She threw it down, face-up, and unsheathed a hunting knife strapped to her belt. “I didn’t think we’d do this here,” she called to the spirit, and it answered with a ferocious roar that ruptured the drywall around the blackened rift.
Miya winced as she dragged the blade across her palm. Clenching her fist, blood ribboned around her fingers and speckled the card on the floor.
She grinned into the oncoming void. “Long live the king.”
Wisps of black mist slithered upward and coalesced into the shape of a man.
The house rumbled in dissent, and the border between Dawn’s world and the dreamscape pulled taught. Something sinister was lurking.
Normally, Miya had to lie down and let her spirit descend into the dreamscape, but the demon spared her the effort and shunted her wholly across realms. The quaint kitchen, decorated in canary yellows and smelling of fresh casserole, stilled like a film on pause. The lemony hues melted to muddy browns. Tables and chairs fused into ghoulish shapes. A vase levitated from the crumbling windowsill, then hurtled towards her.
The man made of smoke extended an arm, clipping the vase just enough to slow it down. Miya stepped aside, watching, unfazed, as it drifted past her nose and dissipated.
The house was gone. Miya found herself in a sea of black fog, the laminate counter and spring-coloured backsplash sinking like sand through an hourglass. The plywood chimera, fused from fragments of domestic life, roiled in the dark. Its misshapen wooden joints screeched painfully as it tottered away. The stench of sulfur wafted with the haze, and Miya clamped her jaw to keep from retching. The spirit’s true form glinted up ahead. With the dream stone glowing against her chest, the darkness parted around its lavender light. She could see a silhouette: an imposing figure with long, slender limbs and fingers that dangled like knives.
“Are you the dream demon that calls itself Drekalo?” Miya stopped several feet from the grotesque creature, spindle-like with a head too large for its elongated neck. Its dappled skin was a chalky grey, scaly and splintered like a stone gargoyle.
The phantom’s jaw unhinged, and it released a bone-shattering shriek, its sharp teeth bound only by strings of thick, red saliva.
“How did you come here, witch?” its reptilian voice quivered.
“It doesn’t matter how. I needed more time.”
“You can’t kill me,” Drekalo slavered. “This is the dreamscape, where all is timeless. Death doesn’t exist here.”
Miya regarded the demon, then shrugged. She was waiting for the man made of smoke to become flesh and blood. Slipping off her leather jacket, she watched as it evaporated into the fog. When the last specs of mauve disappeared, she turned to the demon.
Throwing her arms back, she cut across the expanse. Her hand shot out to wrap around Drekalo’s throat. His gangling body careened to the side, but he couldn’t escape. Violet swirls enveloped Miya, then erupted into a billowing cloak of spectral feathers. A raven beak made of bone drew over her face, black and purple bleeding onto the ivory like oil mixing with water. The bottom edge of the mask cut over her lips in a sharp V, and she flashed the demon a wicked smile.
“Let’s take you somewhere death exists.”
Drekalo gasped—the start of a protest that never came. Miya hauled Dawn’s tormenter into the in-between—a sliver away from either realm. She could see the faint outline of the kitchen—all blurry lines and morphing shapes floating behind an ethereal curtain. The in-between was neither here nor there; it was a cell, trapping the demon where he couldn’t roam.
The bars to this cell were open to the blade, and the executioner always struck from the earthly plane.
The demon shrieked and flailed as Miya released him. “Y-You’re no witch!” His voice sounded garbled. “You’re—”
Drekalo’s accusation died in his mouth when a knife was thrust through his throat, then twisted for good measure. The man, it seemed, had finally arrived, and he’d reclaimed his beloved weapon.
The fissure in the wall sutured shut, and Miya returned to Dawn’s kitchen. She snatched up the half-full wine glass from the table and raised it in a toast.
Wiping his hunting knife, slick with black viscera, Kai turned to the Dreamwalker. He took the glass from her and spilled its contents onto the floor, then tossed the delicate crystal aside. Tilting Miya’s chin up, he swooped down and stole a kiss before she could say the words. He pulled back, grinning rakishly, and said them in her stead.
“Long live the fucking king.”
NOTE: Many thanks to Justine, Timy & the Storytellers On Tours for giving us an opportunity to take part in this tour. Here's the link to the event.