sábado, 20 de enero de 2018

mirror

PROLOGUE
When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.
“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.
Lilia traced the scars on her mother’s arms and her own, and she believed her.
Until the day something crossed the fence.
It was high autumn, and the leaves were falling. Lilia sat on a shallow, chalky outcrop overlooking the toxic mix of lavender poppies and bulrus ivy that cloaked the heath between her village and the thorn fence. A sea of colorful leaves swirled through the air. She had dressed herself in tattered white bone-tree leaves, pretending to be the Dhai hero Faith Ahya. She played alone, rubbing her face with dandelion heads and pretending she could fly. Her mother hated it when she played that game, because it meant climbing up onto the outcrop and launching herself off it, arms outspread, hoping with each leap that some great wind would take her into the sky.
The pale green light of the satellite Tira bathed the world in a burnished emerald glow. The broader sky was a brilliant amber wash. It was the only color Lilia knew the sky to be. Tira, the life-giver, had been ascendant as long as she could remember.
Lilia scrambled to the top of the outcrop once again and spread her arms. This time, surely, the wind would carry her. As she prepared to jump, she saw the trees on the other side of the heath tremble. She froze. The thorn fence stood between her and the trees. Whatever stirred there, she resolved to face it bravely.
A wave of fuzzy gray treegliders leapt from the forest canopy. They spread their webbed limbs and glided down into the field of poppies – dozens and dozens of them. The big-eyed creatures bounded toward her, hurling themselves onto the thorn fence. First one, then two, then six, eight, twelve. Impaled on the hungry thorns.
Lilia shrieked and slid down from the outcrop. The barrier’s tendrils wound about the treegliders’ trembling bodies. She scrambled forward, desperate to free them.
“Take me, take me!” she cried at the fence, holding out her scarred arms. “Let them go.” She tripped and fell in the field of poppies.
A great snuffling, crackling sound came from the forest. She poked her head above the poppies. Immense white bears with jagged black manes broke through the trees. Forked tongues lolled from their massive, fanged mouths. Their riders wore chitinous red-and-amber armor and carried green-glowing everpine branches as weapons, the sort imbued with Tira’s power. Lilia knew those weapons well – her mother used them to kill wolverines and walking trees.
Conscription gangs sent by the Dhai in the valley to gather people for their great war carried those weapons, too. Lilia had heard dark stories of children bundled away in the night. Fear of being hauled off to join a terrible army overwhelmed her compassion, and she choked on a sob. She clawed her way back into the shadow of the stone outcrop. I am a terrible coward, she thought. Now everyone will know.
The riders barreled toward the thorn fence, trampling the dying treegliders. When they reached the fence, they raised their weapons and cut it down as easily as cutting a fresh tulip. Lilia willed herself to be still. If these people could cross the fence, they could do anything, and that scared her more than being thought a coward.
They galloped past Lilia’s stone outcrop and away – toward the towering mass of webbing that cocooned the trees around her village, protecting it from the seething, semi-sentient plants that roamed the woodland.
Lilia grabbed a loose stone at her feet and ran after them. Maybe she couldn’t face them directly, but they would not expect her to come up behind them.
She wasn’t certain when she first noticed the smoke, but by the time she came to the creek that marked the boundary of the village, gasping for breath, the smoke choked her. Great gouts of flame ate the cocoon sheathing above her, exposing the village to the dangers of the woodland.
She stumbled into the circle of the village. Found screaming chaos. The taste of smoke was bitter. She ran toward her mother’s holding, an immense banded cocoon that hung from the birch tree at the far end of the village.
From the folds of the smoke, a bear emerged.
Lilia shrieked and clutched the stone like a talisman against evil. The bear rider’s weapon was extended, glowing green and bloody, the hilt protruding from a dark seed implanted in her wrist. The rider wore no helm, so Lilia saw her face. She was indeed one of the Dhai from the valley, the ones her mother told her to stay far, far away from, even if times were lean.
Lilia held her ground. Raised her stone. Her mother had taught her how to heal a hundred types of wounds and illnesses, and shake loose a bone-tree’s prey, but no one ever taught her how to fight. She did not want to join the army.
The bear snarled at her. The rider laughed.
“Li!” Her mother’s voice.
Lilia threw the stone and missed. The air felt heavy. She tasted copper. Glanced back. Her mother stood behind her, arms raised.
A great blinding-tree burst from the bare ground between Lilia and the rider, taking Lilia again off her feet. The blinding-tree sprouted brambled arms and sprayed a great rain of acid, a dew that ate at skin, hair, and armor alike. It coated the rider and her mount – and splashed across Lilia’s right foot.
Lilia screamed and tried to wipe it away as the rider squealed and thrashed.
Her mother caught her hands. “Don’t touch it!”
The flesh sloughed off Lilia’s foot, revealing bloody tendons and bubbling, melting bone. The acid numbed her flesh as effectively as it disfigured it. The hem of bone-tree leaves on her makeshift dress hissed and smoked.
As Lilia wailed, her mother ripped the dress from her body, leaving her in a thin slip of linen. Lilia thrashed. Her vision swam. She was suddenly light-headed. I’m going to die, she thought. We are going to waste so much blood.
Her mother dragged her along, swift and silent as the world burned around them. Lilia was struck dumb, too horrified to speak. Within the sticky drapes of the trees, the immense cocoons where her people lived were burning. Great charred hunks of the cocoons fell, a rain of fire and flesh so mortifying that it took on the surreal aura of a dream. Women fled through the undergrowth, dressed in their twisted green regalia for the Festival of Tira’s Descent. There was to be feasting tonight. Blood soup. Stuffed moths. Dancing. But it was all gone now, all in ruin.
When they came to the other side of the blazing village, her mother kicked open a discarded immature cocoon.
“Hide here,” her mother said. “Like a snapping violet.”
Lilia climbed inside. Her mother’s skin was slick with sweat and blood, though Lilia did not know where the blood had come from. When Lilia looked back from inside the cocoon, her mother pressed something into the soft flesh of Lilia’s wrist and murmured a prayer to Tira. Lilia saw a red tendril marked into her own flesh: a trefoil with a curled tail.
“It will bring you back to me,” her mother said. “Come back to me.”
“I’ll come back,” Lilia said. “I promise I’ll come back. Please don’t leave!”
“You’ll find me,” her mother said, and clapped her hands. The broken flesh of the cocoon reknit itself.
“I promise, Mam. Don’t leave me.”
Lilia pressed her face against the edge of the cocoon, where some insect had worried open a hole. She saw her mother standing before a dozen riders wearing chitinous crimson armor. They sat rigid on their massive bears. The bears’ yellow eyes glinted. The lead rider menaced forward, a severe-looking woman with a tawny face and broad jaw.
Lilia went still, like a snake. She put her hands to her mouth, fearful she would cry out and give her mother away.
“Where is she?” the rider asked.
“Gone, Kai,” Lilia’s mother said.
“You’re a liar.” The Kai’s weapon snarled out from her wrist, a lashing length of everpine that hummed with a pale green light. “You don’t have enough blood to kindle a gate.”
“I do now,” Lilia’s mother said.
Lilia felt the air condense, as if the weight of the world pressed down on her. She closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. Heavy air meant someone was drawing on the power of Tira to reshape things. But covering her ears did not cut out the screaming.
The ground trembled. When Lilia opened her eyes, her mother stood above her, covered from head to toe in blood. She ripped open the cocoon and pulled Lilia into her arms.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me,” Lilia said.
But Lilia could see something over her mother’s shoulder. Four paces behind her, a dark, tattered shadow rippled across the fabric of the woodland, as if some great beast had rent a hole in the stuff that made up the sky. Between the black tatters Lilia saw hints of another woodland, a field of black poppies, and some hulking structure in the distance. The double hourglass of the suns’ light was reflected from a massive glass dome there. The light hurt Lilia’s eyes. Beyond it, Lilia saw the faint red blot of the third sun in a lavender-tinged blue sky, suffused with the green light of Tira in the distance.
Lilia blinked and gazed up into the sky above her, on her side of the rift. She saw the same hourglass suns, and the third red sun. But the sky on her side was amber, not lavender-blue. And as the suns sank in her sky, the horizon was a brilliant, blazing crimson, as if the suns bled. Why was the sky different on the other side?
“It’s time to be brave,” her mother said. “You remember what I said about being brave?” She set Lilia down and pushed her toward the tear in the world. “I’ve opened a gate. Hurry now. I’ll bring the other children and follow after.”
“But, Mam–”
“No questions. Be brave. You remember what I said about the Dhai from the valley, and what would happen if they came here among the woodland Dhai? Go now, Li, before it’s too late and this was all for nothing.”
“I’m not a coward,” Lilia said. Her eyes filled. She wanted to throw herself at her mother’s feet. Instead, she rubbed the tears from her eyes and stumbled forward.
She fell through the waving tatters between the reflected worlds, tumbling into the field of black poppies under the new sky. She looked behind her.
Her mother had turned her back on the gate. The Kai stood before her, bloody everpine weapon in hand, a tangle of poisonous vines crawling up her opposite arm. Blood wet the vine. The Kai swung her weapon.
The weapon crushed Lilia’s mother’s collarbone. Her body crumpled, a mangled succulent.
The Kai stepped over her mother’s body, shiny crimson armor soaked in blood and shredded plant matter. The vine on her arm was shriveling now, turning to brown dust.
The Kai reached for Lilia–
But her fingers stopped short on the other side of the parting of the worlds, as if they met some invisible barrier. The Kai’s face twisted in anger.
“Motherless woodland fool,” the Kai said. “I have other cats to whip. Oma is rising, and we will rise with it.”
The air around Lilia contracted. The world pulled her down, as if she had gained three times her weight. She put her hands over her ears. Closed her eyes.
When Lilia opened her eyes, she stood alone in the field of poppies in the middle of a deep, wooded glen. The tear in the world was gone. She saw the emerald light of Tira high in the lavender-blue sky, and the hourglass of the twin suns. Her foot ached badly; the numbness was wearing off. She saw the bloody, melted flesh of her ruined foot covered in dirt and curious flies.
Lilia retched.
“Child?”
A plump woman stood at the edge of the clearing. She had a kind face and a thick mane of silver hair; swaths of it peeked out from beneath the broad hood of her coat. She held a large walking stick.
“Where is Nava, child? Your mother? Where are the others?”
Lilia held out her wrists. “Please cut me,” she said. “If you’re a blood witch too, you can bring her back.”
The woman recoiled. “Child, drop your hands. Don’t speak that way here, no, no. Things are very different here. I’m Kalinda Lasa. You’re to come with me, you understand? And no more talk of blood witches. Witches, of all things? Tira’s tears.”
Lilia kept her hands outstretched. “I made a promise.” Her voice caught. “I have to find my mother. I promised.”
“We all want a good many things, child, but it doesn’t mean we get them,” Kalinda said. “I’m sorry. The world – all worlds – are bigger than the both of us and your mother, too.” She glanced at Lilia’s foot. “If you want to keep that limb, we must go quickly.”
“My mother,” Lilia said, and finally dropped her hands. It was like grasping at air. Already the horrifying morning felt like a terrible story that had happened to someone else.
“Your mother is dead, likely,” Kalinda said. “You’ll meet her fate, too, unless you come with me.”
“But I have to–”
Kalinda gently took her arm. Lilia felt numb. Her attention grew hazy. The light here was so different, dazzling, as if she’d come from a place where she only saw things through a haze of smoke. It was the sky, she realized, staring up at the blue-lavender wash. The sky was so different.
“You can keep your promise,” Kalinda said softly, “but do so when you’re a woman, not a little girl. Your mother will forgive you for waiting awhile longer.”
Kalinda brought her to a small camp on the other side of the field and bound her foot. Then she loaded Lilia into the back of a bear-pulled cart. They traveled some time before halting at the steps of a grand temple. Lilia recognized it as the structure she had seen when she first peered through the tear in the world.
“A pity you have no magical talent yet,” Kalinda said, gazing up at Tira’s waning light. “But we all have our place. The Temple of Oma will look after you, child. Keep your head down. Don’t cause any trouble. And don’t tell any wild stories. You’ve been ill, and your mother is dead. That’s all they need to know. No blood witches. No armies. You understand?”
Lilia nodded, even though she didn’t understand at all.
“You’ll be safe here,” Kalinda said. “Until they come for you again. But we’ll be ready then, won’t we?”
It was only after Lilia woke the next morning in her simple bed in the Temple of Oma scullery and saw that the red tendril her mother had pressed into her flesh was gone, the skin red and blistered as if she’d been washed in poison ivy, that she wondered if she herself was just some shadow, another person’s memory from some other life.
It was in the Temple of Oma, many months later, that Lilia met the Kai a second time.
“You’re welcome here,” the Kai said to Lilia and the twelve other girls and boys admitted to the temple that season as they lined up in the great foyer to meet her, safe behind the crown of webbing that kept out the worst of the toxic plant life that still crawled across the valley. This Kai had the same severe, unwelcoming face that Lilia remembered from their first meeting. But she wore no armor, and her wrist bore no seed of a retracting weapon. If she knew Lilia at all, she did not show it.
“And what brings you here?” the Kai asked.
“My mother,” Lilia said. “Some people say she’s dead, but I’m going to find her.”
The Kai smiled, but it was a sad smile. “You’re a woodland Dhai,” the Kai said. “I can tell from your accent.”
“And you’re one of the Dhai from the valley,” Lilia said. “But where is your army?”
The Kai laughed. “Army? I’m not sure what the woodland Dhai tell their children, but there is no army here. We are a peaceful people, just like you.”
“But I saw you with a sword.”
“I’m sorry, child, I’ve never picked up a weapon in my life.” She hesitated, then said, “It must be very confusing to lose your family. Don’t fear. We’re your family now. Everything may seem very different for a time. But we’ll help you get through it.”
Lilia thought to ask her about the sky, too, but the Kai was already moving on to the next child.
The Dhai people in the valley were not at all what she thought they were. In truth, she wondered if these were really the same people who burned her village, or if she’d dreamed the whole thing after all.
For many years after, Lilia dreamed of treegliders. Some years, she even forgot about her promise to her mother. But when she was fifteen, well after Tira’s descent, when Para, the Breathmaker, bathed the world in blue light, she made a sketch on the back of a book in the temple library. She drew the trefoil with the tail her mother had pressed into her flesh. Then she handed the book over to her best friend Roh – a novice learning to draw the breath of Para – in the hope he’d find some record of it in the temple libraries she didn’t have access to. She wanted to know how much of her memory of her former life was the terrified fantasy of a young girl.
“What’s this for?” Roh asked as he pondered the paper, bouncing back on his heels.
“I’ve been a coward too long,” she said. “It’s time to be brave.”
He laughed. She didn’t.
That night, for the first time in over a decade, Lilia did not dream of a bloody Dhai army.

1
Because ruin so often came from the sky, borne by fickle satellites on erratic orbits, Shao Maralah Daonia did not think to look to the sea until it was too late. She expected the next wave of invaders to come in over land after falling from a tear in the sky, the way they had the last six years.
Instead, the invaders came in on the morning tide. They drove before them a boiling swarm of vegetal flesh – a massive black surge of death that slithered up the coast like ravenous snakes of acidic kelp, devouring all it touched. Six cities had fallen to the same onslaught in six weeks, driving Maralah and her army further south. Now they came for the seaside city of Aaraduan, last stronghold in Saiduan’s northernmost province.
Maralah expected they would take Aaraduan just as easily as the other cities, but not before she evacuated her Patron, burned the archives, and took a legion of them with her into death. She did not mind dying here. Her brother’s army was only half a day away, slowed by spongy tundra and permafrost made unpredictable by the summer’s heat. When he did finally sweep into the city, after it was taken, she relied on him to murder any stragglers she could not finish herself.
Maralah summoned an air-twisting parajista at the height of his power to secure Aaraduan’s inner and outer gates with shimmering skeins of air and soil. She gazed at the cracked face of the ascendant star, Para, glowing milky blue in the lavender sky. She cursed the invaders for not coming ashore fifteen years earlier, when her star, Sina, was ascendant, and she was the most deadly power in Saiduan. She felt only the most tenuous connection to her violet-burning satellite now, and could do little more to aid in the shoring up of the gates than give orders. Her days of calling lightning and fire from a clear sky were long behind her. If all here went as she foresaw, she would die before seeing Sina again.
Maralah marched into the hold to watch the burning of the archives. A half dozen sanisi – Saiduan assassins blessed to call on the stars, as she did – tossed ancient records of bamboo, human skin, carnivorous plant exoskeletons, finger bones, and the pounded carcasses of winged insects – most of them long since extinct – into the roaring hearth. On some other day, one not so mad, Maralah imagined the Patron of Saiduan himself sitting beside the hearth with a book of poetry, tracing the columns of text with his worn fingers as a sinajista conjured a flame for him to read by. But the Patron would never sit here again. The room itself would be eaten soon, and the sanisi with it.
What records they could not save, they destroyed. Maralah had heard the same reports from every city – the invaders went first to the libraries and archives, drawn there like spotted beetles to the nectar of claw-lilies. Whatever knowledge they searched for, she would rather see it burned than give them the satisfaction of having it.
Like the other sanisi, Maralah dressed in a long black coat of firegrass and fibrous bark that touched the heels of her boots. She wore a knee-length padded tunic and long trousers. The hilt of her infused sword stuck up through her coat, a twisted branch of willowthorn that glowed faintly violet. The weapon marked her as one of Sina’s soul stealers. Even in Sina’s decline, the weapon retained its power. She could still kiss a conjurer to death with it.
The youngest of the sanisi, Kadaan, looked up from the stacks. His dark hands were smeared darker with soot. As a boy, it was Maralah who put a Para-infused bonsa weapon in his hand, a gnarled yellow branch that burned blue when he drew it. She ensured he was apprenticed to the best parajista she knew, a man who taught him to channel Para’s breath to unmake the weather and push down walls of solid stone with a strong breeze. It was she who took responsibility for his fate now.
“We’re nearly done here,” Kadaan said. “Let me die on the wall with the others. I won’t become their slave.” Maralah saw the fire reflected in his bright eyes. Oh, to be twenty-odd years old again. And foolish.
The archivist who oversaw the purging of the archives, Bael, was already well gone with what he chose to save. Maralah wished she could have sent her youngest sanisi with him.
“The ones at the wall will be dead in an hour,” Maralah said. “Killing a single biting tendril achieves nothing. You must burn out the weed’s nest. Keep burning.”
Maralah stepped into the corridor outside the archive room, seeking relief from the oppressive heat. She heard a great yawning sigh move through the hold. Maralah let her fingers linger on one of her shorter blades and walked into the long mirrored hall that faced the coast. She gazed across the jagged black city still bundled in a husk of late summer snow, to the harbor where the invaders anchored their fantastic bone and sinew boats. She’d had to sneak the Patron, his broodguard, and the archivist out across the mosquito-filled tundra in the other direction, hoping her brother’s army found them before some group of foreign scouts.
She looked for the source of the sigh but saw no evidence of it. From this vantage, the sound of the slithering plant life devouring the walls was indistinguishable from the thrashing of the sea; they drowned out all else.
She rested her hands on the warm railing. The holds this far north were ancient things, grown and manipulated by long-dead tirajistas, back when they had been called something else, something far more fearsome. Those sorcerers had since become priests, torturers, and engineers, because their work still breathed and grew; it lasted. But something that was grown could be eaten. And the invaders knew it.
Maralah heard the low, keening sigh again. She pulled at the collar of her coat. Some may have thought it was just the wind blowing through empty corridors, creeping through wounds in ancient living walls, stirring paper lanterns whose flame flies had long since died. But she knew better.
Maralah drew the short blade at her hip, pivoted left, and thrust deep into the shadows of the curtained balcony behind her. The blade met resistance. Slid through flesh.
A figure hissed and yanked its body from her blade. As it stepped into the light she saw it was most likely a man – always hard to tell, with Taigan – but yes, she could see the snarled beard that clothed his face now. He was especially particular about which pronoun others used, depending on his latest manifestation.
“Taigan,” she said as he pulled out of the shadows, clutching at his bleeding side. She sheathed her blade. “You have gotten soft… and noisy.”
“Release your ward on me,” he said, “and you’ll see just how soft I am.” He took his bloody fingers away from his side. The blood around the wound began to bubble and hiss as he repaired himself. She smelled burnt meat.
Taigan dressed in oiled leather and a padded brown dog-hair coat. He carried no visible weapon. Tall and dark, he wore his hair shorn short, and he stooped awkwardly: wreckage from a wound she had inflicted on him, one he could not repair himself, not unless he persuaded another sanisi with her talents to assist him, and only when Sina was again ascendant. When the Patron stripped Taigan of his title four years before for betraying him, Maralah removed the ward that bound Taigan to the Patron. Maralah suspected the Patron would have killed him, if killing Taigan was possible, but his talents were too useful to see him waste away in exile in some fishing village.
“Was she the one?” Maralah asked.
Taigan shifted his weight as another cold wind curled in through the windows, bringing with it the smell of the sea and the acrid stink of the plants. “She died in the ruin of a ragged gate,” he said, “so let’s hope not. Perhaps all of those who can open gates are dead, and you can let me go in peace.”
Maralah went back to the rail and watched the invaders disembark from their bloated boats. The men’s chitinous armored forms rippled up the beach. All men. She had yet to see a woman among them. They rode no dogs or bears, brought with them no pack animals or siege engines, only the burbling plants and fungi and red algae tides, and those they tugged with them from coast to coast, like fish dragged along in great nets.
As she watched, a bit of the sky tore above the ships, like something from a fantastic nightmare. She had a glimpse of some… other place where the sky was a murky amber-orange, as if on fire. A rippling shadow crossed the sky there, a black mass that made her skin crawl and her breath catch. The sky shimmered again, and the seams between her world and… the other closed. She let out her breath. She pointed at the sky. “The world is ready to come apart on its own. There’s an omajista more skilled than you who can control it.”
They had started seeing those mad tears in the sky eight years before, in the far, far north. She had not believed the sightings at first, thought it was just some drunk tuber farmer enchanted by especially brilliant northern lights. But no. Oma, the dark star, was creeping back into orbit. The worlds were coming together again far sooner than anyone anticipated.
“There will be an omajista among the Dhai people who can open the way,” she said. “There always is, when Oma rises. You don’t have that many Dhai to pick through. We only need one.”
“The Dhai are weak-minded cannibals. Let the invaders take that maggoty country and their omajistas with it.”
Maralah had fought the invaders on every coast, in every province, at the height of every snowy peak. When she sought out her father’s house in Albaaric after the fighting, she found only a weeping ruin and the slimy remnants of red algae smearing the walls at knee height, where the highest tide had reached. She and her brother had not spoken to her father or sisters in twenty years, but she went to the house in search of living kin – a near-cousin, a second-mother, even a village brother – despite the silence. She found nothing but the taste of smoke. They never left the bodies, these invaders. What they did with them… Maralah did not care to guess. But rumor had it they had a taste for blood.
“The city is done, Taigan,” Maralah said. “Now you must decide if you’ll perish with it.”
“May your roads run long, then,” Taigan said, grimacing.
“And yours,” Maralah said. “Don’t come back without an omajista. A real one. You understand?”
“They’ve reached the walls,” he said.
Maralah looked. Black, slithering plant flesh swarmed the shimmering blue walls, even as the structure spat and hissed at them. The sanisi standing at the top of the walls raised their hands to call on the ascendant star Para, Lord of the Air, for protection.
When she looked back, Taigan had gone.
Maralah took the worn hilt of her weapon and pulled it from the sheath at her back. The room cooled. A soft violet light emanated from the length of the willowthorn branch. In response to her touch, the branch awakened; the hilt elongated and snapped around her wrist twice, binding her fate to the weapon’s. She watched blood weep from the branch, gather at its end, and fall to the stones. The weapon sang to her, the voices of hungry ghosts, all Saiduan, all collected in the living weapon when Sina was at its height. The invaders did not have ghosts, because their souls were not of this world. A pity, that. Her weapon was always so hungry.
Maralah swept the sword over her head and slammed it into the living flesh of the hold. Violet light burst across her vision. The weapon keened. The hold wailed as a massive wound appeared on its face. Thick, viscous green fluid gushed from the hold, pouring across her forearms, her boots. Her weapon licked greedily at the soul of the hold.

She prayed to Sina it would be enough to survive the night.

Cuervos

PROLOGUE
Rot. It was the rot, Tan’is reflected as he stared down into his daughter’s eyes, that had taken his child.
Screams and imprecations, pleading and sobbing shivered the air as the long lines of prisoners filled the valley. The scent of blood and urine thickened in the noon heat. Tan’is ignored it all, focusing instead on the face of this daughter of his who knelt, clutching at his knees. Faith was a woman grown now, thirty years and a month. At a casual glance she might have passed as healthy—bright gray eyes, lean shoulders, strong limbs—but the Csestriim no longer bore healthy children, not for centuries.
“Father,” the woman begged, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Those tears, too—a symptom of the rot.
There were other words for it, of course. The children, in their ignorance or innocence, called the affliction age, but in this, as in so much else, they erred. Age was not decrepitude. Tan’is himself was old, hundreds of years old, and yet his sinews remained strong, his mind nimble—if needed, he could run all day, all night, and the better part of the next day. Most of the Csestriim were older still, thousands upon thousands of years, and yet they continued to walk the earth, those who had not fallen in the long wars with the Nevariim. No; time passed, stars swung through their silent arcs, seasons gave way one to the next, and yet none of these, in and of itself, brought harm. It was not age but rot that gnawed at the children, consuming their bowels and brains, sapping strength, eroding what meager intelligence they once possessed. Rot, and then death.
“Father,” Faith pleaded, unable to proceed past that single word.
“Daughter,” Tan’is replied.
“You don’t…,” she gasped, glancing over her shoulder toward the ditch, toward where the doran’se went about their work, steel flashing in the sunlight. “You can’t…”
Tan’is cocked his head to the side. He had tried to understand this daughter of his, tried to understand all the children. Though he was no healer, as a soldier he had learned long ago to tend shattered bones and ruptured skin, to treat the festering flesh that came from a soiled wound or the racking coughs of men too long in the field. And yet this … he could no more comprehend the nature of this decay than he could cure it.
“It has you, daughter. The rot has you.”
He reached down and ran a finger along the creases in Faith’s forehead, sketched the delicate tracery of lines beside her eyes, lifted a slender filament of silver hair from the brown locks. Just a few decades of sun and wind had already begun to roughen her smooth olive skin. He had wondered, when she first burst from between her mother’s thighs, strong-lunged and screaming, if perhaps she might grow up unscathed. The question had intrigued him, and now it was answered.
“It touches you gently,” he pointed out, “but its grip will grow stronger.”
“And so you have to do this?” she exploded, jerking her head desperately toward the freshly turned earthen ditch. “This is what it comes to?”
Tan’is shook his head. “It was not my decision. The council voted.”
“Why? Why do you hate us?”
“Hate?” he replied. “That is your word, child, not ours.”
“It’s not just a word. It describes a feeling, a real thing. A truth about the world.”
Tan’is nodded. He had heard such arguments before. Hate, courage, fear. Those who thought the rot an affliction merely of the flesh understood nothing. It corroded the mind as well, rusting the very foundations of thought and reason.
“I grew from your seed,” Faith continued, as though that followed logically from what came before. “You fed me when I was small!”
“This is the way of many creatures: wolves, eagles, horses. When they are young, dependent, all must rely on their progenitors.”
“Wolves, eagles, and horses protect their children!” she protested, weeping openly now, clawing at the backs of his legs. “I’ve seen it! They guard and tend, feed and nurture. They raise their young.” She reached a trembling, imploring hand toward her father’s face. “Why will you not raise us?”
“Wolves,” Tan’is replied, brushing away his daughter’s hand, “raise their young to be wolves. Eagles, eagles. You—,” he continued, frowning once more, “we have raised you, but you are broken. Polluted. Compromised. You can see it for yourself,” he said, gesturing to the hunched, defeated forms that stood waiting at the rim of the pit—hundreds of them, just waiting. “Even without this, you would die on your own, and soon.”
“But we’re people. We are your children.
Tan’is shook his head wearily. It was no good reasoning with one whose reason had decayed.
“You can never be what we are,” he said quietly, drawing his knife.
At the sight of the blade, Faith made a strangled sound deep in her throat and flinched away. Tan’is wondered if she would try to run. A few did. They never made it far. This daughter of his, however, did not run. Instead, she balled her hands into white, trembling fists, and then, with an obvious effort of will, straightened from her knees. Standing, she was able to look him directly in the eye, and though tears plastered her hair to her cheeks, she no longer wept. For once, however briefly, the disfiguring terror had left her. She looked almost whole, hale.
“And you cannot love us for what we are?” she asked, words slow, steady for the first time. “Even polluted, even broken? Even rotten, you cannot love us?”
“Love,” Tan’is repeated, tasting the strange syllable, revolving it on his tongue as he drove the knife in and up, past the muscle, past the ribs, into her galloping heart, “like hate—it is your word, daughter, not ours.”


1
The sun hung just over the peaks, a silent, furious ember drenching the granite cliffs in a bloody red, when Kaden found the shattered carcass of the goat.
He’d been dogging the creature over the tortuous mountain trails for hours, scanning for track where the ground was soft enough, making guesses when he came to bare rock, doubling back when he guessed wrong. It was slow work and tedious, the kind of task the older monks delighted in assigning to their pupils. As the sun sank and the eastern sky purpled to a vicious bruise, he started to wonder if he would be spending the night in the high peaks with only his roughspun robe for comfort. Spring had arrived weeks earlier according to the Annurian calendar, but the monks didn’t pay any heed to the calendar and neither did the weather, which remained hard and grudging. Scraps of dirty snow lingered in the long shadows, cold seeped from the stones, and the needles of the few gnarled junipers were still more gray than green.
“Come on, you old bastard,” he muttered, checking another track. “You don’t want to sleep out here any more than I do.”
The mountains comprised a maze of cuts and canyons, washed-out gullies and rubble-strewn ledges. Kaden had already crossed three streams gorged with snowmelt, frothing at the hard walls that hemmed them in, and his robe was damp with spray. It would freeze when the sun dropped. How the goat had made its way past the rushing water, he had no idea.
“If you drag me around these peaks much longer…,” he began, but the words died on his lips as he spotted his quarry at last—thirty paces distant, wedged in a narrow defile, only the hindquarters visible.
Although he couldn’t get a good look at the thing—it seemed to have trapped itself between a large boulder and the canyon wall—he could tell at once that something was wrong. The creature was still, too still, and there was an unnaturalness to the angle of the haunches, the stiffness in the legs.
“Come on, goat,” he murmured as he approached, hoping the animal hadn’t managed to hurt itself too badly. The Shin monks were not rich, and they relied on their flocks for milk and meat. If Kaden returned with an animal that was injured, or worse, dead, his umial would impose a severe penance.
“Come on, old fellow,” he said, working his way slowly up the canyon. The goat appeared stuck, but if it could run, he didn’t want to end up chasing it all over the Bone Mountains. “Better grazing down below. We’ll walk back together.”
The evening shadows hid the blood until he was nearly standing in it, the pool wide and dark and still. Something had gutted the animal, hacked a savage slice across the haunch and into the stomach, cleaving muscle and driving into the viscera. As Kaden watched, the last lingering drops of blood trickled out, turning the soft belly hair into a sodden, ropy mess, running down the stiff legs like urine.
“’Shael take it,” he cursed, vaulting over the wedged boulder. It wasn’t so unusual for a crag cat to take a goat, but now he’d have to carry the carcass back to the monastery across his shoulders. “You had to go wandering,” he said. “You had…”
The words trailed off, and his spine stiffened as he got a good look at the animal for the first time. A quick cold fear blazed over his skin. He took a breath, then extinguished the emotion. Shin training wasn’t good for much, but after eight years, he had managed to tame his feelings; fear, envy, anger, exuberance—he still felt them, but they did not penetrate so deeply as they once had. Even within the fortress of his calm, however, he couldn’t help but stare.
Whatever had gutted the goat did not stop there. Some creature—Kaden struggled in vain to think of what—had hacked the animal’s head from its shoulders, severing the strong sinew and muscle with sharp, brutal strokes until only the stump of the neck remained. Crag cats would take the occasional flagging member of a herd, but not like this. These wounds were vicious, unnecessary, lacking the quotidian economy of other kills he had seen in the wild. The animal had not simply been slaughtered; it had been destroyed.
Kaden cast about, searching for the rest of the carcass. Stones and branches had washed down with the early spring floods and lodged at the choke point of the defile in a weed-matted mess of silt and skeletal wooden fingers, sun-bleached and grasping. So much detritus clogged the canyon that it took him a while to locate the head, which lay tossed on its side a few paces distant. Much of the hair had been torn away and the bone split open. The brain was gone, scooped from the trencher of the skull as though with a spoon.
Kaden’s first thought was to flee. Blood still dripped from the goat’s gory coat, more black than red in the fading light, and whatever had mauled it could still be in the rocks, guarding its kill. None of the local predators would be likely to attack Kaden—he was tall for his seventeen years, lean and strong from half a lifetime of labor—but then, none of the local predators would have hacked the head from the goat and eaten its brain either.
He turned toward the canyon mouth. The sun had settled below the steppe, leaving just a burnt smudge above the grasslands to the west. Already night filled the canyon like oil seeping into a bowl. Even if he left immediately, even if he ran at his fastest lope, he’d be covering the last few miles to the monastery in full dark. Though he thought he had long outgrown his fear of night in the mountains, he didn’t relish the idea of stumbling along the rock-strewn path, an unknown predator following in the darkness.
He took a step away from the shattered creature, then hesitated.
“Heng’s going to want a painting of this,” he muttered, forcing himself to turn back to the carnage.
Anyone with a brush and a scrap of parchment could make a painting, but the Shin expected rather more of their novices and acolytes. Painting was the product of seeing, and the monks had their own way of seeing. Saama’an, they called it: “the carved mind.” It was only an exercise, of course, a step on the long path leading to the ultimate liberation of vaniate, but it had its meager uses. During his eight years in the mountains, Kaden had learned to see, to really see the world as it was: the track of a brindled bear, the serration of a forksleaf petal, the crenellations of a distant peak. He had spent countless hours, weeks, years looking, seeing, memorizing. He could paint any of a thousand plants or animals down to the last finial feather, and he could internalize a new scene in heartbeats.
He took two slow breaths, clearing a space in his head, a blank slate on which to carve each minute particular. The fear remained, but the fear was an impediment, and he pared it down, focusing on the task at hand. With the slate prepared, he set to work. It took only a few breaths to etch the severed head, the pools of dark blood, the mangled carcass of the animal. The lines were sure and certain, finer than any brushstroke, and unlike normal memory, the process left him with a sharp, vivid image, durable as the stones on which he stood, one he would be able to recall and scrutinize at will. He finished the saama’an and let out a long, careful breath.
Fear is blindness, he muttered, repeating the old Shin aphorism. Calmness, sight.
The words provided cold comfort in the face of the bloody scene, but now that he had the carving, he could leave. He glanced once over his shoulder, searching the cliffs for some sign of the predator, then turned toward the opening of the defile. As the night’s dark fog rolled over the peaks, he raced the darkness down the treacherous trails, sandaled feet darting past the downed limbs and ankle-breaking rocks. His legs, chill and stiff after so many hours creeping after the goat, warmed to the motion while his heart settled into a steady tempo.
You’re not running away, he told himself, just heading home.
Still, he breathed a small sigh of relief a mile down the path when he rounded a tower of rock—the Talon, the monks called it—and could make out Ashk’lan in the distance. Thousands of feet below him, the scant stone buildings perched on a narrow ledge as though huddled away from the abyss. Warm lights glowed in some of the windows. There would be a fire in the refectory kitchen, lamps kindled in the meditation hall, the quiet hum of the Shin going about their evening ablutions and rituals. Safe. The word rose unbidden to his mind. It was safe down there, and despite his resolve, Kaden increased his pace, running toward those few, faint lights, fleeing whatever prowled the unknown darkness behind him.


2
Kaden crossed the ledges just outside Ashk’lan’s central square at a run, then slowed as he entered the courtyard. His alarm, so sharp and palpable when he first saw the slaughtered goat, had faded as he descended from the high peaks and drew closer to the warmth and companionship of the monastery. Now, moving toward the main cluster of buildings, he felt foolish to have run so fast. Whatever killed the animal remained a mystery, to be sure, but the mountain trails posed their own dangers, especially to someone foolish enough to run them in the darkness. Kaden slowed to a walk, gathering his thoughts.
Bad enough I lost the goat, he thought ruefully. Heng would whip me bloody if I managed to break my own leg in the process.
The gravel of the monastery paths crunched beneath his feet, the only sound save for the keening of the wind as it gusted and fell, skirling through the gnarled branches and between the cold stones. The monks were all inside already, hunched over their bowls or seated cross-legged in the meditation hall, fasting, pursuing emptiness. When he reached the refectory, a long, low stone building weathered by storm and rain until it looked almost a part of the mountain itself, Kaden paused to scoop a handful of water from the wooden barrel outside the door. As the draft washed down his throat, he took a moment to steady his breathing and slow his heart. It wouldn’t do to approach his umial in a state of mental disarray. Above all else, the Shin valued stillness, clarity. Kaden had been whipped by his masters for rushing, for shouting, for acting in haste or moving without consideration. Besides, he was home now. Whatever killed the goat wasn’t likely to come prowling among the stern buildings.
Up close, Ashk’lan didn’t look like much, especially at night: three long, stone halls with wooden roofs—the dormitory, refectory, and meditation hall—forming three sides to a rough square, their pale granite walls washed as though with milk in the moonlight. The whole compound perched on the cliff’s edge, and the fourth side of the square opened out onto cloud, sky, and an unobstructed view of the foothills and distant steppe to the west. Already the grasslands far below were vibrant with the spring froth of flowers: swaying blue chalenders, clusters of nun’s blossom, riots of tiny white faith knots. At night, however, beneath the cold, inscrutable gaze of the stars, the steppe was invisible. Staring out past the ledges, Kaden found himself facing a vast emptiness, a great dark void. It felt as though Ashk’lan stood at the world’s end, clinging to the cliffs, holding vigil against a nothingness that threatened to engulf creation. After a second swig of water, he turned away. The night had grown cold, and now that he had stopped running, gusts of wind off the Bone Mountains sliced through his sweaty robe like shards of ice.
With a rumble in his stomach, he turned toward the yellow glow and murmur of conversation emanating from the windows of the refectory. At this hour—just after sunset but before night prayer—most of the monks would be taking a modest evening meal of salted mutton, turnips, and hard, dark bread. Heng, Kaden’s umial, would be inside with the rest, and with any luck, Kaden could report what he had seen, dash off a quick painting to show the scene, and sit down to a warm meal of his own. Shin fare was far more meager than the delicacies he remembered from his early years in the Dawn Palace, before his father sent him away, but the monks had a saying: Hunger is flavor.
They were great ones for sayings, the Shin, passing them down from one generation to the next as though trying to make up for the order’s lack of liturgy and formal ritual. The Blank God cared nothing for the pomp and pageantry of the urban temples. While the young gods glutted themselves on music, prayer, and offerings laid upon elaborate altars, the Blank God demanded of the Shin one thing only: sacrifice, not of wine or wealth, but of the self. The mind is a flame, the monks said. Blow it out.
After eight years, Kaden still wasn’t sure what that meant, and with his stomach rumbling impatiently, he couldn’t be bothered to contemplate it. He pushed open the heavy refectory door, letting the gentle hum of conversation wash over him. Monks were scattered around the hall, some at rough tables, their heads bent over their bowls, others standing in front of a fire that crackled in the hearth at the far end of the room. Several sat playing stones, their eyes blank as they studied the lines of resistance and attack unfolding across the board.
The men were as varied as the lands from which they had come—tall, pale, blocky Edishmen from the far north, where the sea spent half the year as ice; wiry Hannans, hands and forearms inked with the patterns of the jungle tribes just north of the Waist; even a few Manjari, green-eyed, their brown skin a shade darker than Kaden’s own. Despite their disparate appearances, however, the monks shared something, a hardness, a stillness born of a life lived in the hard, still mountains far from the comforts of the world where they had been raised.
The Shin were a small order, with barely two hundred monks at Ashk’lan. The young gods—Eira, Heqet, Orella, and the rest—drew adherents from three continents and enjoyed temples in almost every town and city, palatial spaces draped with silk and crusted with gold, some of which rivaled the dwellings of the richest ministers and atreps. Heqet alone must have commanded thousands of priests and ten times that number who came to worship at his altar when they felt the need of courage.
The less savory gods had their adherents as well. Stories abounded of the halls of Rassambur and the bloody servants of Ananshael, tales of chalices carved from skulls and dripping marrow, of infants strangled in their sleep, of dark orgies where sex and death were hideously mingled. Some claimed that only a tenth of those who entered the doors ever returned. Taken by the Lord of Bones, people whispered. Taken by Death himself.
The older gods, aloof from the world and indifferent to the affairs of humans, drew fewer adherents. Nonetheless, they had their names—Intarra and her consort, Hull the Bat, Pta and Astar’ren—and scattered throughout the three continents, thousands worshipped those names.
Only the Blank God remained nameless, faceless. The Shin held that he was the oldest, the most cryptic and powerful. Outside Ashk’lan, most people thought he was dead, or had never existed. Slaughtered by Ae, some said, when she made the world and the heavens and stars. That seemed perfectly plausible to Kaden. He had seen no sign of the god in his years running up and down the mountain passes.
He scanned the room for his fellow acolytes, and from a table over by the wall, Akiil caught his eye. He was seated on a long bench with Serkhan and fat Phirum Prumm—the only acolyte at Ashk’lan who maintained his girth despite the endless running, hauling, and building required by the older monks. Kaden nodded in response and was about to cross to them when he spotted Heng on the other side of the hall. He stifled a sigh—the umial would impose some sort of nasty penance if his pupil sat down to dinner without reporting back first. Hopefully it wouldn’t take long to relate the tale of the slaughtered goat; then Kaden could join the others; then he could finally have a bowl of stew.
Huy Heng was hard to miss. In many ways, he seemed like he belonged in one of the fine wine halls of Annur rather than here, cloistered in a remote monastery a hundred leagues beyond the border of the empire. While the other monks went about their duties with quiet sobriety, Heng hummed as he tended the goats, sang as he lugged great sacks of clay up from the shallows, and kept up a steady stream of jests as he chopped turnips for the refectory pots. He could even tell jokes while he beat his pupils bloody. At the moment, he was regaling the brothers at his table with a tale involving elaborate hand gestures and some sort of birdcall. When he saw Kaden approach, however, the grin slipped from his face.
“I found the goat,” Kaden began without preamble.
Heng extended both hands, as though to stop the words before they reached him.
“I’m not your umial any longer,” he said.
Kaden blinked. Scial Nin, the abbot, reassigned acolytes and umials every year or so, but not usually by surprise. Not in the middle of dinner.
“What happened?” he asked, suddenly cautious.
“It’s time for you to move on.”
“Now?”
“The present is the present. Tomorrow will still be ‘now.’”
Kaden swallowed an acerbic remark; even if Heng was no longer his umial, the monk could still whip him. “Who am I getting?” he asked instead.
“Rampuri Tan,” Heng replied, his voice flat, devoid of its usual laughter.
Kaden stared. Rampuri Tan did not take pupils. Sometimes, despite his faded brown robe and shaved head, despite the days he spent sitting cross-legged, eyes fixed in his devotion to the Blank God, Tan didn’t seem like a monk at all. There was nothing Kaden could put his finger on, but the novices felt it, too, had developed a hundred theories, attributing to the man a series of implausible pasts by turn both shadowy and glorious: he earned the scars on his face fighting wild animals in the arena at The Bend; he was a murderer and a thief, who had repented of his crimes and taken up a life of contemplation; he was the dispossessed brother of some lord or atrep, hiding at Ashk’lan only long enough to build his revenge. Kaden wasn’t much inclined to believe any of the stories, but he had noticed the common thread: violence. Violence and danger. Whoever Rampuri Tan had been before arriving at Ashk’lan, Kaden wasn’t eager to have the man for his umial.
“He is expecting you,” Heng continued, something like pity tingeing his voice. “I promised to send you to his cell as soon as you arrived.”
Kaden spared a glance over his shoulder for the table where his friends sat, slurping down their stew and enjoying the few unstructured minutes of conversation that were allowed them each day.
“Now,” Heng said, breaking into his thoughts.
The walk from the refectory to the dormitory was not far—a hundred paces across the square, then up a short path between two lines of stunted junipers. Kaden covered the distance quickly, eager to be out of the wind, and pushed open the heavy wooden door. All the monks, even Scial Nin, the abbot, slept in identical chambers opening off the long, central hallway. The cells were small, barely large enough to fit a pallet, a rough woven mat, and a couple of shelves, but then, the Shin spent most of their time outdoors, in the workshops, or in meditation.
Inside the building and out of the slicing wind, Kaden slowed, readying himself for the encounter. It was hard to know what to expect—some masters liked to test a student immediately; some preferred to wait and watch, judging the aptitudes and weaknesses of the younger monk before deciding on a course of instruction.
He’s just another new master, Kaden told himself. Heng was new a year ago, and you got used to him.
And yet, something about the situation felt odd, unsettling. First the slaughtered goat, then this unexpected transfer when he should have been seated on a long bench with a steaming bowl in front of him, arguing with Akiil and the rest of the acolytes.…
He filled his lungs slowly, then emptied them. Worry was doing no good.
Live now, he told himself, rehearsing one of the standard Shin aphorisms. The future is a dream. And yet, a part of his thoughts—a voice that refused to be stilled or settled—reminded him that not all dreams were pleasant, that sometimes, no matter how one thrashed or turned, it was impossible to awake.


sky

PROLOGUE

Breanna Skyborn sat at the edge of her world, watching the clouds drift beneath her dangling feet.
“Bree?”
Kael’s voice sounded obscenely loud in the twilight quiet. She turned to see her twin brother standing at the stone barricade that marked the end of the road.
“Over here,” she said.
The barricade reached up to Kael’s waist, and after a moment’s hesitation, he climbed over, leaving behind smoothly worn cobbles for short grass and soft dirt. Beyond the barricade, there was nothing else. No buildings. No streets. No homes. Just a stretch of unused earth, and then beyond that… the edge. It was for that reason Bree loved it, and her brother hated it.
“We’re not allowed to be this close,” he said as he approached, each step smaller than the last. “If Aunt Bethy saw…”
“Aunt Bethy won’t come within twenty feet of the barricade and you know it.”
Wind blew against her, and she pulled her dark hair back from her face as she smirked at her brother. His pale skin had taken on a golden hue from the fading sunlight, the wind teasing his much shorter hair. The gust made him stop, and she worried he’d decide to leave her there.
“You’re not afraid, are you?” she asked.
That was enough to push him on. Kael joined her at the edge of their island. When he sat, he sat cross-legged, and unlike her, he did not let his legs dangle off the side.
“Just for a little while,” he said. “We should be home when the battle starts.”
Bree turned away, and she peered over the edge of the island. Below, lazily floating along, were dozens of puffy clouds painted orange by the setting sun. Through their gaps she saw the tumultuous Endless Ocean, its movement only hinted at by the faintest of dark lines. Again the wind blew, and she pretended that she rode upon it, flying just like her parents.
“So why are we out here?” Kael asked, interrupting the silence.
“I was hoping to see the stars.”
“Is that it? We’re just here to waste our time?”
Bree glared at him.
“You’ve seen the drawings in Teacher Gruden’s books. The stars are beautiful. I was hoping that out here, away from the lanterns, maybe I could see one or two before…”
She fell silent. Kael let out a sigh.
“Is that really why you’re out here?”
It wasn’t, not fully, but she didn’t feel comfortable discussing the other reason. Hours ago their mother and father had sat them down beside the fire of their home. They’d each worn the black uniforms of their island of Weshern, swords dangling from their hips, the silver wings attached to their harnesses polished to a shine.
The island of Galen won’t back down, so we have no choice, their father had said. We’ve agreed to a battle come the midnight fire. This will be the last, I promise. After this, they won’t have the heart for another.
“It is,” Bree said, wishing her half lie were more convincing. She looked to their right, where the sun was slipping beneath the horizon. Nightfall wouldn’t be long now. Kael shifted uncomfortably, and she saw him glancing behind them, as if convinced they’d be caught despite being in a secluded corner of their small town of Lowville.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stay with you, but if we get in trouble, this was all your idea.”
“It usually is,” she said, smiling at him.
Kael settled back, sliding a bit farther away from the edge. Together they watched the sun slowly set. In its glow, they caught glimpses of two figures flying through the twilight haze, their mechanical wings shimmering gold as they hovered above a great stretch of green farmland. The men wore red robes along with their wings, easily identifying them as theotechs of Center.
“Why are they here?” Kael asked when he spotted them.
“They’re here to oversee the battle,” Bree answered. She’d spent countless nights on her father’s lap, asking him questions. What was it like to fly? Was he ever scared when they fought? Did he think she might become a member of the Seraphim like they were? Bree knew the two theotechs would bless the battle, ensure everyone followed the agreed-upon rules, and then mark the surrender of the loser. Then would come the vultures, the lowest-ranking members of the theotechs, to reclaim the treasured technology from the fallen.
The mention of the coming battle put Kael on edge, and he fell silent as he looked to the sunset. Bree couldn’t blame him for his nervousness. She felt it, too, and that was the reason she couldn’t stay home, cooped up, unable to witness the battle or know if her mother and father lived or died. No, she had to be out there. She had to have something to occupy her mind.
They said nothing as the sun neared the end of its descent. As the strength of its rays weakened, she turned her attention to the east, where the sky had faded to a deep shade of purple. The coming darkness unsettled Bree. Since the day she was born, it had come and gone, but it was rare for her to watch it. She much preferred to be at home next to the hearth, listening to her father tell Seraphim stories, or their mother reading Kael ancient tales of knights and angels. Watching the nightly shadow only made her feel… imprisoned.
It began where the light was at its absolute weakest, an inky black line on the horizon that grew like a cloud. Slowly it crawled, thick as smoke and wide as the horizon itself. The darkness swept over the sky, hiding its many colors. More and more it covered, an unceasing march matched by the sun’s fall. When it reached to the faintly visible moon, it too vanished, the pale crescent tucked away, to be hidden until the following night. Silently the twins watched as the rolling darkness passed high above their heads, blotting out everything, encasing the world in its deep shadow.
Bree turned her attention to the setting sun, which looked as if it fled in fear of the darkness complete.
“It’ll be right there,” she said, pointing. “In the moment after the sun sets and before the darkness reaches it.”
Most of the sky was gone now, and so far away from the lanterns, the two sat in a darkness so complete it was frightening. The shadow clouds continued rolling, blotting out the field of stars that the ancient drawing books made look so beautiful, so majestic and grand. But just as she’d hoped, there was a gap in the time it took the sun to vanish beyond the horizon and for the rolling shadow to reach it, and she watched with growing anticipation. She’d seen only one star before, the North Star, which shone so brightly that not even the sun could always blot it out. But the other stars, the great field… would they appear in the deepening purple?
Kael saw it before she did, and he quickly pointed. In the sliver of violet space the star winked into existence, a little drop of light between the horizon and the shadows crashing down on it like a wave. Bree saw it, and she smiled at the sight.
“Imagine not one but thousands,” Bree said as the dark clouds swallowed the star, pitching the entire city into utter darkness so deep she could not see her brother beside her. “A field spanning the entire sky, lighting up the night in their glow…”
Bree felt Kael take her hand, and she squeezed it tight. Neither dared move while so close to the edge and lacking sight. Perfectly still, they waited. It would only be a matter of time.
It started as a faint flicker of red across the eastern horizon. Slowly it grew, spreading, strengthening. Just like the shadows, so too did the fire roll across the sky, setting ablaze the inky clouds that covered the crown of the world. It burned without consuming, only shifting and twisting. It took thirty minutes, but eventually all of the sky raged with midnight fire, bathing the land in red. It’d last until daybreak, when the sun would rise, the fire would die, and the smoky remnants would hover over the morning sky until fading away.
A horn sounded from a watchtower farther within their home island of Weshern. The blast set Bree’s heart to hammering.
“They’re starting,” she whispered.
Both turned to face the field where the two theotechs hovered. The horn sounded thrice more, and come the final call, the forces of Weshern arrived. They sailed above the field in V formations, their silver wings shimmering, powered by the light element that granted all Seraphim mastery over the skies. Hundreds of men and women, dressed in black pants and jackets, armed with fire, lightning, ice, and stone that they wielded with the gauntlets of their ancient technology. Despite her fear, Bree felt an intense longing to be up there with them, fighting for the pride and safety of her home. Sadly, it’d be five years before she and her brother turned sixteen and could attempt to join.
“Bree…”
She turned her head, saw her brother staring off into the open sky beyond the edge of their island. Flying in similar V formations, gold wings glimmering, red jackets seemingly aflame from the light of the midnight fire, came the Seraphim of Galen. The two armies raced toward each other, and Bree knew they’d meet just above the fallow field, where the theotechs waited.
Bree pushed herself away from the edge of the island and rose to her feet, her brother doing likewise.
“They’ll be fine,” she said, watching the Weshern Seraphim fly in perfect formation. She wondered which of those black and silver shapes was her mother, and which her father. “You’ll see. No one’s better than they are.”
Kael stood beside her, eyes on the sky, arms locked at his sides. Bree reached for his hand, held it as the armies neared one another.
“It’ll be over quick,” she whispered. “Father says it always is.”
Dark shapes shot in both directions through the space between the armies, large chunks of stone meant to screen attacks as well as protect against retaliation. They crashed into one another, and as the sound reached Bree’s ears, the battle suddenly erupted into bewildering chaos. The Seraphim formations danced about one another, lightning flashing amid them in constant barrages. Enormous blasts of fire accompanied them, difficult to see with the sky itself aflame. Blue lances of ice, colored purple from the midnight hue, shot in rapid bursts, cutting down combatants with ease. The sounds of battle were so powerful, so near, Bree could feel them in her bones.
“How?” Kael wondered aloud, and if he weren’t so close she wouldn’t have heard him over the cacophony. “How can anyone survive through that?”
Boulders of stone slammed into the fallow field beneath, carving out long grooves of earth before coming to a stop. Bree flinched at the impact of each one. How did one survive? She didn’t know, but somehow they did, the Seraphim of both islands weaving amid the carnage with movements so fluid and beautiful they mirrored that of dancers. Not all, though. Lightning tore through chests, lances of ice with sharp tips punctured flesh and metal alike, and no armor could protect against the fire that washed over their bodies. Each Seraph who fell wearing a black jacket made Bree silently beg it wasn’t one of her parents. She didn’t care if that was selfish or not. She just wanted them safe. She wanted them to survive the overwhelming onslaught that left her mind baffled by how to take it all in.
The elements lessened, the initial devastating barrage becoming more precise, more controlled. Bree saw that several combatants were out of elements completely and forced to draw their blades. The battle had gradually spread farther and farther out, taking them beyond the grand field and closer to the edge of town where Bree and Kael stood. Not far above their heads, two Seraphim circled in a dance, one fleeing, one chasing. They both had their twin blades drawn. Bree watched, entranced, eyes wide as the circle tightened and the combatants whisked by each other again and again, slender blades swiping for exposed flesh.
It was the Galen Seraph who made the first mistake. Bree saw him fail to dodge in time, saw the tip of the sword slice across his stomach. The body fell, careening wildly just before making impact with the ground. The sound was a bloodcurdling screech of metal and snapping bone. Bree’s attention turned to the larger battle, and she saw that more had been forced to draw their blades. The number of remaining Seraphim was shockingly few, yet they fought on.
“No one’s surrendering,” Kael said, and she could hear the fear threatening to overtake him completely. “Bree, you said it’d be quick. You said it’d be quick!”
The area of battle was spreading out of control. Galen Seraphim scattered in all directions, loose formations of two to three people. The Weshern Seraphim chased, and despite nearing town, they still released their elements. Bree screamed as a pair streaked above their heads, the thrum of their wings nearly deafening. A boulder failed to connect with the fleeing Seraphim, and it blasted through the side of a home with a thundering blast.
“Let’s go!” Bree screamed, grabbing Kael’s hand and dashing toward the barricade. More Seraphim were approaching, seemingly the entire Galen forces. They wanted to be over the town, Bree realized. They wanted to make Weshern’s people hesitate to fight with so many nearby. As the twins climbed over the stone barricade, the sounds of battle erupting all about them, it was clear their Seraphim would have no such hesitation. Lightning flashed above Bree’s head, and she cried out in surprise. She ducked, stumbled, lost her grip on her brother’s hand. He stopped, shouted her name, and then the ice lance struck the cobbles ahead of them. It shattered into shards, and Kael dove to the ground as they flew in all directions.
“Kael,” Bree said as she scrambled to her feet. “Kael!”
“I’m fine,” he said, pushing himself to his hands and knees. When he looked to her, he was bleeding from several cuts across his face and neck. “I’m fine, now hurry!”
The red light of the midnight fire cast its hue across everything, convincing Bree she’d lost herself in a nightmare and awoken in one of the circles of Hell. Kael pulled her along, leading her toward Aunt Bethy’s house, where they were supposed to have stayed during the battle, waiting like good children for their parents to return. Hand in hand they ran, the air above filled with screams, echoes of thunder, and the deep hum of the Seraphims’ wings.
They turned a corner, saw two Seraphs flying straight at them from farther down the street. Fire burst from the chaser’s gauntlet. It bathed over the other, sending her crashing to the ground. Kael dove aside as Bree froze, her legs locked in place from terror. The body came to a halt mere feet away from her, silver wings mangled and broken. Her black jacket bore the blue sword of Weshern on her shoulder, and Bree shuddered at the sight of the woman’s horrible burns. High above, the Galen Seraph flew on, seeking new prey.
“Bree!” her brother shouted, pulling her attention away. He’d wedged himself in the tight space between two houses, and she joined him there in hiding.
“We have to get back,” Bree insisted. “We can’t stay here.”
“Yes, we can,” Kael said, hunkering deeper into the alley. “I’m not going out there, Bree. I’m not.”
Bree glanced back out of the narrow alley. With the battle raging above the town, Aunt Bethy would be terrified by their absence. They were already going to be in trouble for not coming in like they were supposed to in the first place. To hide now, afraid, until it all ended?
“I’m going,” she said. “Are you coming with me or not?”
Another blast of thunder above. Kael shook his head.
“No,” he said. His eyes widened when he realized she was serious about going. “Bree, don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me!”
“I can’t stay,” Bree said, the mantra overwhelming her every thought. “I can’t stay, Kael, I can’t stay!”
She dashed back into the street, racing toward Aunt Bethy’s house. As strongly as Kael wanted to remain hiding, Bree wanted to return to their aunt’s home. She wanted to be inside, in a safe place with family. Let him be a coward. She’d be brave. She’d be strong.
A boulder crashed through the rooftop of a home to her right then blasted out the front wall. Bree screamed, and she realized she wasn’t brave at all. She was frightened out of her mind. Fighting back tears, she turned down Picker Street, where both they and their aunt lived. Five houses down was her aunt’s home, and Bree’s heart took a sudden leap. Her legs moved as fast as they could carry her.
There she was. Her mother was safe, she was alive, she was…
She was bleeding. Her hand clutched her stomach, and Bree saw with horrible clarity the red gash her fingers failed to seal. She lay on her back, her silver wings pressed against the door to Aunt Bethy’s home, a dazed look on her face. Beneath her was a pool of her own blood.
“Bree,” her mother said. Her voice was wet, strained. Tears trickled from her brown eyes. “Bree, what are you… what are you doing out here?”
Bree didn’t know how to answer. She fell to her knees, felt her pants slicken from the blood. She reached out a trembling hand, wanting so badly to hold her mother, but feared what any contact might do.
“It’s all right,” her mother said, and she smiled despite her obvious pain. “Bree, it’s all right. It’s…”
Her lips grew still. She breathed in pain no more. Her hand fell limp, holding back her sliced stomach no longer. Bree touched her shoulder, shook her once.
“Mom,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mom, no, Mom, please!”
She buried her face against her mother’s chest, shrieking out in wordless agony. She didn’t want to see any more, to hear any more. Bree wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck, clutching her tightly, not caring about the blood that seeped into her clothes. She just wanted one more embrace before the vultures came to reclaim her wings. She wanted to pretend her mother was alive and well, holding her, loving her, kissing her forehead before flying away for another day of training and drills.
Not this corpse. Not this lifeless thing.
A hand touched her shoulder. Bree pulled back, expecting to see her brother, but instead it was a tall Weshern Seraph. Blood smeared his fine black coat. To her surprise, the surrounding neighborhood was quiet, the battle seemingly over.
“Was she your mother?” the man asked. Bree could barely see his face through the shadows cast by the midnight fire. She sniffled, then nodded.
“Then you must be Breanna. I—I don’t know how else to tell you this. It’s about your father.”
His words were a dagger to an already punctured heart. It couldn’t be. The world couldn’t be that cruel.
“No,” she whispered. “No, that can’t be right.”
The Seraph swallowed hard.
“Breanna, I’m sorry.”
Bree leapt to her feet, and she flung herself at the man, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“No, it can’t. Not both, we can’t lose them both, we can’t… we can’t…”
She broke, collapsing at his feet, her tears falling upon his black boots. She beat the stone cobbles until she bled, beat them as she screamed, beat them as, high above, the midnight fire burned like an unrelenting pyre for the dead.


image   CHAPTER 1   image

I keep telling you,” Jevin said as they walked the stone road to the fishing docks. “You aren’t ready.”
“But you said when we turned sixteen we’d get to go with you,” Bree insisted.
“And when is that?” Jevin asked.
“Next week.”
The deeply tanned man threw up a hand, as if that answered everything. With his other hand he carried dozens of heavy nets slung over his shoulder. Jevin was a friend of Aunt Bethy’s, and he was quick to remind Bree and Kael of how close he’d been to their father as well.
“Peas in a pod,” he’d tell them. “Until he joined the Seraphim, anyway.”
Bree had used that close relationship to guilt and charm dozens of gifts and favors out of the man, but as they passed through the gathering crowds of fishermen, she decided that connection might now be working against her.
“It’s not that long to wait,” Kael said, walking alongside her. “I’d rather practice on land a few more times anyway.”
Bree had to choke down her exasperated groan.
“Of course you would,” she said. “You’re terrible at it.”
Kael raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yes. That’s the point. I’d rather not go crashing headfirst into the ocean because I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not sure crashing headfirst into dirt is any better…”
“Enough,” Jevin said, interrupting them both. “We’re not having this discussion. You want to fly, do it over the island.”
Bree had a dozen retorts ready, but she held them in, deciding it was not yet time to wage this battle. Idea growing, she obediently dipped her head and remained silent as they entered the docks. All around her were tanned men, their clothes faded brown and gray. Several long tables lined either side of the street, their surface coated with fish guts and gore as giant cleavers rose and fell, cutting off the undesirable parts as those beside them sliced with long knives, cleaning and gutting the catch of the day. The noise was one of hearty cheers, jokes, and laughter accompanied by thuds of steel and the ever-constant roar of the unseen Fount below.
But most interesting to Bree were the men at the far end, where the docks ended and the sky began. With the morning so young, most were strapping on their wings, buckling belts, and adjusting the connected gauntlet on their left hand. At their feet were dozens of nets and sharpened harpoons. The wings themselves were short and stocky, designed for lift instead of speed. Bree and Kael had practiced with a set just like them, hovering several feet above the ground while Jevin watched protectively. The whole while it drove Bree insane. It was like being a bird with clipped wings.
“Hey, Bryce,” Jevin said, approaching a hollowed-out stone block where a bearded man stood within with arms crossed. “Morning going well?”
“No one’s died, but the fish ain’t catching themselves,” Bryce said, deep voice rumbling. “So going as well as one can hope for without wishing on angels.”
The big man turned about, scanning rows of wooden shelves inside his structure, each shelf lined with the wing contraptions. He found Jevin’s, pulled it off, and handed it over.
“The switch was getting sticky, so I replaced the spring,” he said. “Best I can do before sending it off to Center for the theotechs to have a look.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Jevin said, hooking his free arm through the two leather loops that went underneath the armpits. As he stepped away, Bree put her hands on the small barrier between her and Bryce.
“Mine, too,” she said.
Bryce shot a look to Jevin, who gave a hesitant nod.
“Should start making you pay for this,” the bearded man said, leaning down beneath the front shelf and pulling up a smaller set of wings from out of view. “Light elements don’t come cheap.”
“Thank God you aren’t paying for it then,” Bree said, accepting the wings. The light element that powered the wings came from Central. Weshern’s Archon then allocated a set amount each month to training new fishermen.
“Rate you’re using it up, I might have to anyway,” Bryce said, but a grin was on his face. Seeing Kael lingering beside Jevin, he called out, louder. “You also going to fly today, kid?”
“Maybe,” Kael said, smiling warmly at the man. “But only if Bree doesn’t hog it all.”
They traveled across the street and onto the wooden planks, Bryce’s roaring laughter to their backs. As Bree clutched the wing contraption to her chest, she glanced down. The docks were built onto the side of their island, overhanging the sky, and through gaps in the planks she could see glimpses of the clouds below. The sight gave her shivers of the good kind.
Jevin stopped them at an open spot near the middle, let his net plop to the wood, and then lifted his wings up and over his shoulders. He was a scrawny-looking man, his face long and gaunt, but his arms and chest were corded muscle. The wings could carry only so much weight, and while the stunted version the fishermen were given was designed to carry more than normal, it still had its limits. As a result, nearly all the men around were lean and fit, strong of arm, and thin around the waist. The more fish they could carry each trip, the better their pay at the end of the day.
“Is it all right if I go first?” Bree asked her brother as Jevin began tying the buckles.
“You’d only argue with me if I said no,” Kael said, and he grinned at her. “Go ahead. We both know you love flying more than I do.”
Bree mussed his hair, then began sliding on the harness to the wings. She’d never understand Kael. They spent every single day of their lives with their feet touching the ground. The clouds, the wind, the world spinning beyond… how could you ever deny the allure? Putting an arm through one side, she shifted the harness onto her back and shoulders, then slid the other arm through. The weight settled comfortably on her shoulders. The wings were a rustic gold, hard and unmoving from their folded position. Everything else, though, was stiff leather and padded cloth. Two buckles went underneath her armpits, a large strip of leather dropped down her back and then latched around her waist, and the last two strips connected to those looped about her thighs before buckling tight. Bree went through the process one after the other, refusing Jevin’s offered help.
“How do I look?” she asked when finished, standing tall and thrusting back her shoulders.
Jevin smiled at her.
“Like an angel,” he said.
Bree glanced over her shoulder at the small, stunted wings now attached to her back. They were not designed to move, instead remaining perfectly in place during flight. It was the light element that gave the wings the ability to fly, and that element was controlled by the left gauntlet attached to the wings. Reaching over her shoulder, she shifted the wings to rest a bit more comfortably, then unhooked the gauntlet from its side. A slender tube ran from its bottom to the thick stump at the arch of her back, where the wings connected. Bree put her left hand inside the golden gauntlet, then tightened the buckles. It took every hole on the belt to get the wings snug.
“Flex your fingers,” Jevin said, having watched her all the while. She did so, showing that the gauntlet fit fine and would not cause issues in flight.
“What next?” Jevin asked, running her through the checklist he’d taught her to prepare for any period of flight.
“Check the element,” she said.
She lifted the gauntlet, where along the wrist was an opening covered by a sliver of glass. Inside, protected by the metal of the gauntlet, was a white prism shard: the light element they used for flight. Various tubes and wires understood only by the theotechs connected to the prism, drawing out the energy of the light element and pulsing it through the tube running from the gauntlet’s edge to the wings. As Bree flew and the light element was used, the color would slowly drain away, turning the prism gray. Peering through the thick glass, she saw the element was bright white, fully charged.
“Good,” said Jevin. “Next, check the switch. Make sure it ain’t sticking or being stubborn.”
Bree knew all this, and on normal days she’d have grumbled at his belief that he must remind her. Not today. Today she felt a stirring in her stomach. Today, she knew, was different.
Built into the right side of the forefinger was a red toggle switch. Using her thumb, she could tilt it forward and backward, effectively increasing, or shutting off entirely, the push from the light element that was sent to the wings. Back and forth she moved it, quick enough to prevent the wings from gaining any lift. The contraption thrummed, a deep, pleasant sound. The wings themselves shimmered a bright gold.
“Remember, stay above the docks,” he told her as he picked up his net. “And try not to fly more than thirty minutes. Bryce gets pissed at me when you do.”
He walked toward the end of the docks, and she followed. Jevin paused, and there was no hiding his frustration when he glared at her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m going with you.”
“No, Bree, you’re too young to…”
“Josh Hadley is already fishing with his father, and he’s fifteen. Do you think he’s a safer flier than I am?”
Of course he wasn’t, and the argument was hardly a new one for her. Still, Jevin was suited up for work, and with each second he argued, he risked missing out on a good catch.
“Fine,” he said. “Your aunt will kill me for this, no matter how many times I tell her it was your idea. Promise me you won’t do something stupid.”
“Jevin…”
“Promise me.”
Bree rolled her eyes.
“I promise,” she said.
Jevin hardly looked convinced, but he let it drop.
“Let’s go,” he said. They walked to the edge of the docks, where the wood came to an end. Peering over, Bree saw only clouds, big white puffy things drifting lazily along. The twisting in her stomach heightened, but her excitement easily overwhelmed it.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Kael called out to her, stopping at a groove cut into the wood that marked where those without wings were not allowed to cross.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Bree called back.
“Liar.”
Jevin took her by the elbow and guided her closer to the edge, chuckling at her brother’s words.
“Remember,” he said, “scrunch your shoulders to rotate forward, pull them wide to rotate backward. It’ll help a little, but most changes of direction will depend on your own upper body strength.”
Her mouth opened, the words I know on her lips, but he shushed her with a glare.
“This is serious,” he said. “You may think it’s all obvious, but when something jostles your wings and you’re plummeting toward the water in a dead spin, even the easiest of things can be hard to remember. I’ve watched good men, fishers all their lives, react wrongly to things they didn’t expect. It cost them their lives. So fly slow, fly straight, and stay away from the Fount. Got it?”
Despite the seriousness of his tone, she bobbed her head and smiled.
“Got it.”
Jevin took in a deep breath, and for a moment she feared he’d change his mind.
“Well, then,” he said, “come along.”
With that, his own wings thrummed to life, and he rose into the air, spinning about so he could watch her as he floated away. Bree looked down, off the wood and to the clouds. This was it. Rising above the docks and the nearby buildings was one thing, but now there would be no dirt, no grass, no street. Only the open air. Taking in a deep breath, she stepped back, another step, and then before her rational mind could convince her she was insane she vaulted out into the open space, letting out a whoop as her adrenaline surged. Clutching her left hand into a fist like she’d been taught, she pushed the switch to full. Her wings thrummed, and she felt the belts and buckles tighten as the harness caught her.
The wings pushed only one direction, and that was in the direction she pointed them. Keeping at a forty-five-degree angle, she decreased the throttle until she settled into a comfortable, steady line. Much of the thrust negated the pull of gravity, the remainder pushing her straight ahead. Behind her, the docks shrank. She spun to watch them, shifting so that she was perfectly erect as well as decreasing the throttle the tiniest bit more. Her momentum kept her drifting away from the island, the push of her wings keeping her from dropping.
To her complete lack of surprise, Jevin flew after her, joining her side.
“Remember,” he shouted. “Nothing stupid. You promised.”
Her smile was her only acknowledgment.
Down Jevin dropped, and though she was excited to follow, she wanted height first. Remaining erect, she pushed the wings to full power, rising straight up into the sky. The wind blew through her hair, and when Jevin left her, she realized she was alone and free. Only the slowness of her wings, bulky and heavy and designed for carrying fish, tarnished it. Taking far too long, she rose until she could see far along the southwestern limits of her home island of Weshern. Along the outer edges were the fields, great swaths of green and yellow depending on what grew in the fertile soul. From her vantage point she saw Lowville, a tiny little cluster of stone buildings with wooden rooftops, and it thrilled her beyond words. Peering into Weshern itself, she could just barely make out the holy mansion, home of the Willer family that had ruled Weshern as Archon for decades. The building was enormous, with lofty spires and clean white marble walls. So many times she’d viewed it from afar with jealousy, but now she saw it as small as everything else.
Thumbing the switch so it was half pressed, she pushed her shoulders forward and bent her waist. The change in direction of the wings rotated her in midair, and once she was pointed downward she arched her back and spread her shoulders to halt her rotation. Straightening out, her body began to descend, a gentle glide that blew the wind through her hair and spread her smile from ear to ear. She curled the tiniest bit so that her descent sharpened, dropping her through the clouds. Down and down she went, until she emerged beneath not only the clouds but the island of Weshern itself. The soil above her head was thick and brown, a ragged, pointed shape of earth that floated by the grace of God and his angels. And down there, before the Fount, she entered another world.
Beneath her was the Endless Ocean, sparkling and blue. It stretched for miles in all directions, with not a hint of land to be seen. Connecting ocean to island in a great swirling funnel a thousand yards wide was the Fount. The water lifted almost lazily, a roaring mass with a hollow center that gently turned, rising up and up toward the very heart of the island. Through the water Bree saw the faintest hint of the Beam, the mysterious shaft of light controlled by the theotechs that caused the water to rise and the island to float. Once the water reached the bottom of the island, it vanished through enormous grates, was blessed by the theotechs, and then poured out in various waterfalls scattered throughout Weshern. Some of the water went to the fields, some to fountains and decorative ponds, while the rest went to the many lakes Weshern was famous for.
The sound of the Fount, while inaudible on the top of Weshern, was a tremendous roar below, and Bree stared at the swirling waters with her mouth agape. A hundred times she’d read about the Fount and seen its pictures in books at school, but witnessing the true scope of its size was another thing entirely. Swarming about it like bees around a flower were the fishermen. They were brown and gold shapes flitting up and down the great length of the funnel, dragging nets and hurling harpoons. As she watched, she could not deny their bravery and skill. The Fount was always moving, never much, but its size was so great and the fishermen so small that the slightest shift threatened to plunge dozens at a time into the waters, yet with each shift the men were ready, adjusting their circular flights. From the docks to the Fount, she watched a constant flow of men traveling each way, some carrying filled nets to the world above, others hurrying below, eager for another haul.
Jevin must be there somewhere, she thought, and flicking the switch back to full, she flew toward the Fount. Her body lay parallel to the ocean below, but her speed was so slow the strength of the blowing air was not enough to keep her legs lifted. Instead she hung from the straps, needing to use her muscles to keep them straight. It drove her mad, and she pushed harder and harder on the switch, as if to pry the tiniest extra speed from the folded wings. She thought of the aerial stunts performed by the Seraphim during the yearly military parades, and her frustration grew. She didn’t want to plod along, feet dangling.
She wanted to fly.
Bree thrust her body backward, altering her course so that the folded wings pointed to the sky. Rising upward, she watched the Fount and the fishermen disappear as she traveled through the clouds and into the space above. Once she was nearly even with the surface of Weshern, she reduced the throttle so that she hovered. Staring at the clouds at her feet, Bree smiled.
“Time to soar,” she whispered, and punched her arms forward as if diving into the waters of Lake Pleasance. Her angle dropped, and she pushed the throttle to its maximum. The wings might not have been designed for speed, but with them pointed toward the ground, adding to gravity’s pull, she felt the wind blast against her as her velocity rapidly increased. Tilting her head and dipping a shoulder to the side, she shifted her aim, flying faster and faster toward the bottom of Weshern and the Fount below.
For a moment she doubted herself, but the exhilaration was too much for fear. Bree twisted herself parallel to the ocean, and though her descent slowed, her speed remained, and like a shooting star she entered the great shadow cast by Weshern and began circling the Fount. The fishermen were blurs, barely visible from her left eye. Laughing, Bree spiraled downward, looping the twisting waters, feeling the wet spray across her face, her long hair wildly flapping behind her like a cape. She danced through the fishermen, staying just outside their own steady upward spirals. Harder and harder she pushed at the toggle, willing herself faster, feeling more at home in that moment than she ever had staying at Aunt Bethy’s.
And then a fisherman flew in her path.
His back was to her, legs and net dangling as he lifted dozens of fish. He was returning to the docks, and with her rapid descent she was on a direct collision course. Panicking, she felt her mind blank, felt her body lock up. Deep in her stomach she knew it was the worst possible reaction, and as she careened toward the man she forced herself to do the only thing she could think of: she rolled. Shoulder over shoulder she twirled, ending her curved path about the Fount and sending her flying off and away. The roll gained her the few feet necessary to prevent herself from slamming into the fisherman, but her relief lasted only a split second, for as she tried to right herself, she found herself spinning. Head over feet she rolled, and it seemed every twist of her waist and pull of her shoulders was in vain.
She was falling.
Bree’s heart hammered in her chest as her stomach looped. She saw the ocean, the island, the Fount, all in a rotating dance as she plummeted. Remembering what Jevin had taught her, she shut off the wings. Without their push, her spinning would slow, increasing her control. She just had to right herself, that was all. The wind on her skin was now a threat, a reminder of how quickly the ocean approached. Crossing her arms, she tried to go limp, to stop fighting the natural pull of gravity. Fear closed her eyes. It was terrifying, relenting control in such a way, but her frantic mind knew it was necessary. Her rotations slowed, and when she opened her eyes she saw water above her, which meant she fell headfirst.
Curling her legs up to her chest, Bree took another deep breath, then kicked them out as she swung her arms. Her body began to rotate, and she timed it just right, waiting until her feet pointed toward the ocean before setting the switch to half power. Instinct screamed to go full, but she knew doing so could send her spinning once again. The wings shimmered gold, and she felt a pull on her body from the buckles as the contraption attempted to lift her. Her speed was too great, and she steadily increased the power as her heart hammered inside her rib cage. Louder the wings hummed, glowing brighter, but the water was so close now. The buckles about her body dug deep into her skin, the ache her punishment for being torn between the strength of her plummet and the pull of her wings. Eyes wide, she watched the ocean closing in, the waters so blue, so deep. Closing her eyes, she prayed that if she died from impact, it would be quick and without pain.
The impact never came. A hand grabbed her wrist, twisting her about. She opened her eyes to see Jevin spinning her so he could grab her other wrist, and then he looked to the sky as his own wings flared gold. Another strong jolt shook through her body as his wings added to her own. Her plummet slowed, then ceased completely. Face buried into his chest, she felt frightened tears finally release.
“I knew it,” she heard Jevin say. “Moment I saw you zooming down like an idiot, I knew this would happen.”
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“Dropped a full net to catch you. Hope you appreciate that.”
Bree pushed herself away, and she set the switch to half so she could gently rise.
“I’m glad I’m more important to you than some smelly fish,” she said, and despite the tears on her face and the snot she felt dripping from her nose, she laughed. Jevin’s glare lasted but a moment before he shook his head.
“Follow me,” he said, and he offered her his hand. “Let’s get you back on solid ground.”
She took it, and together they rose back to the docks, neither saying a word to the other. When near, Jevin let her go, and she drifted down to the wood and landed on wobbling legs. Plopping to her knees, she curled over, cold sweat on her neck. Her palms pressed against the wood, fingernails digging. Kael rushed to her side as the din of the fishermen welcomed her back to her previous life.
“Bree?” he asked, clearly worried.
“I’m fine,” she said, not looking at him.
“So how’d it go?” he asked. “What was it like to fly in open air?”

In answer, she vomited all over the docks, bits of it slipping between cracks and dripping down through clouds to the ocean so very far below.