For all my amazing fans…
Here is another snippet from Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!
The Skyland of Vesche, 391 VF (Vaarck’s Founding) (1952 SR)
On the eastern side of Vesche, a ruined watchtower rose above the grassy hill, its slope terminating at the abrupt edge of the skyland. Any who had the misfortune of falling off the skyland would tumble past its coral-covered sides before plummeting into the boil of the Storm Below. Once, the tower thrust tall, but now its gray stones crumbled, its mortar decayed by time and the elements. It stood no higher than its second floor, its bones hidden in the tall grass. Instead of hard-bitten men from the long-dead Kingdom of Vesche-Arxo watching the Storm, it hosted the play of boisterous children.
“You cannot have her, Ary,” Vel shouted.
“I’ll save you, Chaylene!” Ary’s brown face twisted with excitement. He charged up the crumbling steps, a stick raised high in both hands, and bellowed a wordless war cry. Vel awaited him at the top, his stick held low, ready.
Their weapons cracked together.
“You can beat him, Ary!” cheered Chaylene as the ten-year-old boys traded overhand blows, filling the air with wooden cracks and exuberant yells. The smile on her coal-black face spurred Ary. Unlike the boys, who possessed the brown skin of pure Vionese, Chaylene had Vaarckthian blood. She’d inherited her ma’s black skin and gray eyes, though her dead father had gifted her with long tresses of blonde. “Beat the dread pirate and save me!”
“You can’t have her. She’s mine.” Vel’s skinny face attempted menace, the expression ruined by stray locks of his light-brown hair falling across his red eyes.
“No Agerzak pirate can defeat a marine.” Ary countered with his stick and pressed his attack, the sun warm on his back through his faded-blue cotton shirt.
Today was the first day the weathermaster had allowed clear skies in a week, and Ary, tired of being cooped up, thought his time better spent outside than stuck in school. As always, he’d had to convince Vel to skip school, too. Ary had ignored his friend’s feeble protests and dragged him along. Chaylene, unlike Vel, could not be stopped. Since her pa died in the war while she still grew in the womb, her ma didn’t care about much, and Chaylene took full advantage of it.
Ary knew he’d be in trouble with his parents for skipping school. His ma—blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, sleeves of her dress rolled up for cooking—would wait at the porch for his return, hands on hips, a fierce glare in her eyes. “Always making me worry about the trouble you get into,” she would say, or, “Your pa and I gonna worry right through the skyland and fall to our deaths, Briaris Jayne.” Ary knew he faced a whupping when she used his full name. And she’d be real angry if she learned he was with Chaylene. Last time, she’d spanked him, yelling, “Running around with that hussy’s daughter! I won’t stand for it, Briaris Jayne!”
Ary didn’t know what “hussy” meant. He’d asked his pa, but he’d just grunted and muttered something about waiting ‘til Ary was older. Chaylene’s ma worked as a washerwoman for the soldiers at the nearby Watch. Ary couldn’t figure why his ma would hate her for that. The sailors needed their clothes laundered.
Today, the boys and Chaylene played Pirates and Marines, Ary’s favorite game. He wanted nothing more than to enlist as a marine and fight for the Autonomy of Les-Vion. Every chance he could, he’d sneak down to the Jolly Farmer, the only tavern in the village of Isfe, to listen to the veterans tell war stories to the sailors and marines stationed at Aldeyn Watch. The old veterans drank in the attention, and the beer, the sailors supplied. Ary felt his ma’s lecture and his pa’s strapping worth it to sit on the rush-covered floor, reeking of stale beer and vomit, and listen.
Ol’ Thay would tell stories of the Neta Skywars between the Autonomy and their old masters, the Vaarckthian Empire. His craggy voice spoke of the desperate battle fought above the Neta Skyrift where corvettes and frigates traded ballista fire and sheets of crossbow bolts. Ships so badly damaged, the skyrift sucked them down into the Storm Below, never to be heard of again.
Other times, Jondheth Pegleg would talk about the Zzuk Aggression War. He’d boast of fighting the massive Gezitziz of Zzuk and show off the iron dagger, the rare metal worth a small fortune, he’d looted from a Zzuki chieftain. “The lizard-men make their armor not out of the hides of ostriches or hogs,” he’d whisper, forcing you to lean in, “but out of the hides of other Gezitziz they killed. And their swords are carved from the thigh bones of their fallen foes.”
A chill always passed through the young boy as he pictured Gezitziz warriors wearing bloody, scaly hides and wielding gleaming, fresh-carved swords.
“One Zzuki,” Jondheth would continue, more heat growing in his voice, “could best any Vionese in single combat. But that was their weakness. They always fought alone, whereas us marines were trained to fight together so we could overwhelm them.”
Ary couldn’t wait to enlist at seventeen.
“Relent, you mangy sow,” Ary snarled.
Vel stumbled back from his quick rain of blows. In Ary’s mind, he pictured Vel as a white-skinned Agerzak pirate, dressed in stinking furs and wielding the legendary metal greatswords the barbarians favored.
“Agerzak pirates never yield!” Vel boasted, recovering and counterattacking.
Weapons met, locked together for a heartbeat, then Ary’s stick slid down Vel’s and struck his friend’s exposed fingers. With a yelp of pain, Vel dropped his weapon. Ary, quick to take advantage, swung for his friend’s exposed neck.
“Yield!” Ary stopped his weapon a fingerswidth from Vel’s neck. Eyes brimming with tears, he nodded. Ary whooped in joy as Vel sucked his finger.
Chaylene rushed down the stairs from the ruined landing, passing Vel, and threw her slim arms around Ary’s neck. “My hero,” she said in a breathless gush, then kissed him on the cheek, leaving behind the burning impression of her lips.
Ary touched where she’d kissed him, dazed worse than taking a punch to the face.
Vel scowled, still nursing his hurt finger. “You look like a poleaxed ostrich.”
“Shut up,” Ary said, furrowing his eyebrows. He glanced at Chaylene, a large smile on her lips, childish joy transforming into a woman’s delight.
“Why do we always have to play this game?” demanded Vel. “You always win and save Chaylene. And when you’re the pirate, you still win. S’not fair.”
“You’re just jealous that she kissed me.” Ary’s grin spread wide. He felt a true hero. “With your pig’s face, who could blame her?”
“Brelyn says I have a handsome face!”
Ary shrugged. Most girls giggled and whispered about Vel’s handsome features, but Ary couldn’t resist his teasing. “Well, she is cross-eyed. Probably can’t tell a handsome face from an ugly one.”
“Don’t listen to Ary,” Chaylene told, patting Vel’s head. “Your face isn’t all ugly. Only half.”
“Thanks, Chaylene,” Vel muttered. “You’re a big help.”
Her grin broadened. “That’s me. Always helpful. So, is it my turn to be the marine?”
“You can’t be the marine,” Ary protested. “Who’ll play the damsel?”
Chaylene gave both boys a considering look, pursing her thin lips. “How about you, Ary? Since you’re more handsome than Vel.”
Vel nodded quickly. “Makes sense to me. Ary would make a great damsel.”
“You just want me to be the damsel so you’ll win.” Ary rubbed his hand through his short tangle of blond hair. “Besides, I’m a guy. I can’t be the damsel.”
Chaylene fixed her gray eyes on Ary, lips pouting. “Please? You two always make me play the damsel, and it’s booooring.”
Suspicion grew in Ary’s mind. “Is that why you kissed me?”
Her pout turned to a mischievous grin that somehow promised more kisses to come. His heart quickened while his cheek burned anew. “Okay.” He sighed and handed her his stick. “I’ll do it.”
Chaylene retreated down the stairs, holding her stick in one hand and lifting the skirt of her faded-brown dress with the other. Ary caught a flash of her black stocking, and discovered his face could flush even more. He backed up against the half-crumbled wall and muttered, “Oh, please save me.”
Chaylene glared at him. “Try not to be so excited.”
Ary cleared his throat and, in the girliest voice he could muster, squeaked, “Please save me!”
Vel laughed so hard he almost dropped his stick.
“Shut it,” Ary muttered.
Chaylene gave out a throaty yell, a fairly impressive war cry, and rushed up the stairs. She made it halfway before stumbling on her skirts. She caught herself on the crumbling wall then continued at a slower pace. She attacked, Vel parrying with ease.
“You’ll have to try harder,” laughed Vel. “Or I’ll keep the damsel.”
“Yes, please try harder. I’d rather die than be his.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll save you, Ary.” Chaylene giggled. A lock of her blonde hair fell free of her red hairband, gleaming almost white against her black neck. Lately, Ary found it fascinating to stare at Chaylene, noticing subtle changes in her figure. Interesting changes.
She gave another loud cry, her expression fierce as she dueled Vel, fueled by her hot, Vaarckthian blood. Everyone in Isfe said that about Chaylene’s ma. Is that what makes her ma a hussy? Ary set his thoughts to once again pondering what a—
A drumbeat sounded from the nearby Aldeyn Watch, a deep, thudding boom. Schools of field guppies, their scales flashing green, scurried into the open sky. To protect Vesche from the Stormriders, the Autonomy had built their own watchtower on a nearby hill. Clustered around that tower’s base were the barracks for the sailors and marines stationed at the Watch. Beyond, a dock jutted out from the skyland where the Intrepid, a corvette, moored.
Ary threw his gaze out to the eastern sky to spot what caused the alarm’s sounding. One beat meant an approaching ship.
A second beat thudded through the air.
“Pirates?” Ary whispered. Agerzak pirates never raided this far west.
A third beat.
A fourth beat.
A fifth beat.
Each one was louder than the last. A frantic cadence picked up as the drummer pounded faster and faster until it became an unrelenting, staccato rhythm. The day’s warmth vanished. Only one warning beat the drum so much.
“Stormriders,” Ary gasped, forming the sun by joining his thumb and little finger, warding evil.
“Th-that can’t be.” Vel swallowed as his brown cheeks paled. “Stormriders never attack Vesche.”
More drums picked up the beat in the distance, passing the alarm to the farmers and the village of Isfe.
“What do we do?” Vel gasped.
“The Xogrlys’ farm?” Chaylene said, her voice tight, squeaking. “It’s closest.”
“Should we . . . Should we tell the weathermaster?” Vel stared at Ary, beseeching. “I mean, it’s a storm. Maybe Master Xorlen can disrupt it.”
Ary swallowed, his heart pounding its own alarm. He struggled to think against the clammy fear squeezing his guts. Chaylene gasped as she stared east. A bulge arose in the swirling clouds of the Storm. The Cyclone. A hand took his; it was small, clammy.
“It’s not a natural storm,” Ary said, pushing against the chill clutching his flesh. “The Weathertower’s useless against it. The Intrepid will protect us. Has to protect us.”
His gaze snapped to the Watch. There, sailors scrambled to the Intrepid. They swarmed the naval vessel, casting off lines and readying ballistae. Red-coated marines, bone swords at their waists, lined the ship’s railings and aimed their thunderbusses. The sight of them rushing to defend the skyland heartened Ary, buttressing him against fear’s winds.
“This is the perfect place to watch!” Excitement surged through Ary. The Intrepid would sally forth and save the day, a story come to life.
Vel gaped at Ary like he had been kicked in the head by an ostrich. “We need to run!” Vel seized Ary’s arm. “Come on!”
He shook Vel’s hand off him. “This is my chance to see a battle.”
Chaylene, her eyes liquid, said, “Please, Briaris, we need to go. It’s not safe. It’s a Cyclone.”
Ary stared into her beseeching face, tears brimming around dark lashes. Fear and excitement warred in his stomach. But this was his chance to see the Autonomy Navy in action, to watch the marines fight the Stormriders. He couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
Ary let go of her hand. “I’m staying.”
“Are you stupid?” Vel asked.
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Get Chaylene to safety.”
“Thunder-deaf idiot!” Vel grabbed Chaylene’s hand and yanked her to the stairs.
“You have to come with us. Please, Ary.”
Ary wrenched his gaze from Chaylene to the Intrepid. The wooden-hulled ship soared into the sky towards the rising Cyclone. A banner with a golden pegasus upon a field of red and blue flew from the top of the Intrepid’s mainmast. He couldn’t wait to defend his country, to be a Stormwall of the Autonomy.
A low howl filled the air. Ary gripped broken stone with excitement. The Cyclone charged forward, a black boar full of rage and anger. The two ballistae on the ship’s bow fired. Clay shots tumbled through the air and detonated. Fiery flashes illuminated the Stormriders within the maelstrom.
Ary whooped in excitement, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
The Cyclone snarled closer and closer. More explosions lit the maelstrom’s interior with angry fire. A vicious thrill surged through Ary. Every explosion killed more of the evil Stormriders, hungry clouds ripping apart flesh. They rode on ethereal beasts formed of dark storm clouds and possessed manes of lightning and eyes of crackling white. Flashing lightning reflected off breastplates and glinted off metal swords. Other Stormriders wielded small, curved bows, arrows sailing unhindered through the winds at the Intrepid. Marines and sailors ducked.
The Cyclone’s front loomed across the entire horizon. The Intrepid plowed into the swirling winds, surrounded by a bubble of calm projected by the ship’s windwarden, holding back the hungry clouds. Streaks of black and gray swept around the vessel, pressing in on it, a fragile shell in the grip of a vast, dark hand.
The Intrepid’s marines fired their thunderbusses. Lightning arced from their weapons. Thunder cracked. Sparks threw Stormriders sizzling from their mounts. Scout sharpshooters in the corvette’s rigging sent pressure bullets punching through metal armor while the sailors unleashed volleys of crossbow bolts. Arrows raked the Intrepid, their points burying into the white-cedar hull. Others struck home in the bodies of the sailors. A marine fell forward over the railing and tumbled through the Cyclone’s fierce winds.
Stormriders surrounded the Intrepid like sharks circling prey. Horror swallowed Ary’s excitement as he witnessed men dying. A Stormrider blown apart by a ballista shot, pieces of ragged meat flying across the sky then whipped away by the howling wind. A sailor’s head sent flying by a Stormrider’s flashing sword as he vaulted onto the ship’s deck. More Stormriders charged the Intrepid, warring through the explosions and volleys of lightning and crossbow bolts to board the ship.
The Cyclone hit the skyland and slammed into Ary’s tower.
The winds threw him off his feet. The ruined tower creaked and shook beneath him. He pulled himself upright, struggling to stand. His raised hand warded his face against the wind’s sting, eyes burning. Lightning struck the grass on the hillside, the black smoke whipped away by howling gusts. With a loud groan, a nearby chestnut tree snapped and crashed to the ground.
The swirling, black clouds half-cloaked the Intrepid. Lightning flashed on deck, the brilliant arcs reflecting upon metal armor and blades. The marines fought the demons on the deck. A Stormrider’s metal blade flashed and cut two down before a third grabbed a hold of his metal armor. Lightning exploded from the marine’s hands. The Stormrider fell limp to the deck. A second Stormrider cut his way through a group of sailors towards the bow where a windwarden worked. The windwarden drew his bone sabre and raised the blade to parry the Stormrider’s overhand blow. The metal sword sheared through bone and buried into the windwarden’s chest.
Ary cried out in horror as the Intrepid lurched to the right. A loud, splintering crack preceded the foremast snapping, falling across the starboard side of the ship, crushing a ballista before tumbling off into the Cyclone. Sailors and scout snipers, still tangled in the rigging, plummeted to their deaths. The Intrepid floundered. The remaining windwarden strained to keep the winds from sweeping away the corvette.
Ary’s stomach sank. If the Intrepid failed to reach the Cyclone’s Eye, nothing would stop the maelstrom from sweeping across Vesche. Everyone Ary knew would be killed: his ma and pa, his little brother Jhevon, his sisters Srias and Gretla, Vel and his family, and Chaylene and her ma. The Cyclone would sweep them all off into the Storm Below.
Just like the great Skyland of Swuopii and the Dawn Empire a thousand years ago.
But the Intrepid sailed on, fighting through winds and riders towards the glowing heart of the Cyclone—the Eye. Ary spotted it brightening the black clouds to gray. “Guide and protect the Intrepid,” Ary prayed, looking up to the Goddess Above. The clouds hid her fiery orb, but Ary knew she looked down upon them. “Let your feathery rays penetrate the Cyclone and shelter the Intrepid from the minions of your dark sister.”
Never had he prayed so hard, so desperately.
“Please, Riasruo!” he screamed into the winds, voice lost to the howling.
Ary’s skin tingled, the hairs on his body standing up. The Goddess answered his prayers. Her power coursed through him. He smiled. It would be all right. The Intrepid would win through to the Eye.
A lightning bolt hurtled down from the Cyclone. The air exploded white-hot around him.
~ * * ~
Ary rushed upwards through darkness, pulled by a jagged line of light, blue in the center, fading to purples on the edges. It reminded him of the afterimage looking at the sun burned into his eyes. On and on it pulled him while the void rushed by. Or maybe he was stationary, and the void and whatever lay at the end of the line was being pulled to him. Ary couldn’t tell which. Eternity passed. Or was it only heartbeats? Was he even breathing? Did his heart even beat?
I was struck by lightning. This is death.
He frowned, or maybe he only imagined he frowned. Ary wasn’t even sure he had a body here. If he was dead, where were the solar eagles to fly him to the sun and the bosom of Riasruo? To be bathed for eternity in her love? A priestess had anointed him with the flame as a babe.
I’ve been good. Mostly.
Or had he not been good enough? Panic surged through him. “If you don’t stop skipping school,” his ma always lectured, “you’ll be dragged screaming down to the Storm when you die.” Was that where the line took him? Was he doomed to spend forever tossed about by scouring winds? To be pierced by lightning bolts and struck by icy rain, never to know rest or peace?
He shivered. Or he imagined he shivered.
Ahead, a light blossomed. Ary hurtled towards it. Or the light hurtled towards him. Details grew. The form of a glowing figure emerged. The lights became strange ropes made of joined loops binding the robed figure spread-eagle. Ary slowed. The void slowed. The figure grew distinct. What Ary mistook for the wide sleeves of a robe were feathered wings. The strange ropes of light wrapped cruelly about the figure’s body, flattening feathers, tangled about scaled legs, and wrapped around a thin neck.
“A Luastria,” Ary whispered.
He stared in awe at the Luastria, studying her burnished-yellow feathers. Horror struck Ary, seeing tiny barbs of light thrusting from the strange ropes into her flesh. Her—he did not understand how he knew her sex—golden eyes brimmed with suffering.
“Please,” the Luastria chirped. “End the pain!”
Compassion moved the boy. He grasped the nearest binding. Agony filled him, throbbing with the pulses. Nothing had ever hurt so badly. Not his pa’s strapping, or the time he’d scalded his arm with boiling water, or even when he’d broken his leg chasing ducks. For the first time, Ary experienced true anguish. All his previous injuries were shadows cast by the intensity burning through him.
He let go.
“How?” Ary asked, his imaginary body trembling, tears running down his cheeks. “It hurts too much. How can I free you?”
“How could you betray me?” the Luastria demanded, her head thrashing. “I did everything for you!”
“What? Who betrayed you? I didn’t betray you.”
“End the pain.”
The void shattered into light.
~ * * ~
Ary awoke, grass tickling his cheek. A drum pounded inside his skull. His body ached like he’d rolled head first down a stony hill and hadn’t missed a single rock or boulder. Blood filled his mouth. His tongue throbbed.
He struggled to sit up, his muscles protesting, and looked around. He lay on the grassy slope near the ruined tower. Ary gaped. Only the foundations remained. Fallen chunks lay about him, crushing green grass and red daisies. He swallowed; any one piece was large enough to flatten him. He glanced behind him and—
“Theisseg’s scrawny feathers.” Ary used his pa’s vilest curse.
He lay on the edge of the skyland. He looked over the edge, broken coral covering the rock. The Storm boiled beneath. He shuddered at the thought of falling all the way down through Theisseg’s Storm to the mythical ground.
Ary scrambled back from the edge, his side burning. A ragged hole burned through his shirt. Red, tender flesh peeked through the charred cloth. He struggled to remember what happened, but his head throbbed with his heartbeat. I think I got struck by lightning. He fingered the raw flesh, wincing. He remembered the strange void, the bound Luastria. Was that just a dream?
Shadows fell across him. The sun was setting. I must have been out for hours. The dream lingered in his mind. It felt so real, especially the agony. He rubbed at his aching forehead, the Luastria’s words echoing in his mind.
He pushed those away. “Chaylene?”
Where are Chaylene and Vel? Ary stood, wincing, his left leg burning with pain. He poked at it with his finger. Not broken, but definitely bruised. Gritting his teeth, he limped up the hill and reached the summit where the watchtower had stood.
He surveyed Vesche in stunned horror.
A pile of smashed rubble marked Aldeyn Watch. The naval base’s tower lay half-collapsed, the barracks heaps of splintered lumber. Branches littered the grassy meadow. The winds had uprooted an entire chestnut tree and dragged it across the ground, furrowing the dark soil like a gigantic plow. Field guppies and red-finned minnows drifted in lazy schools across the scarred landscape. In the distance, collapsed timber marked where the Xogrly farmhouse should have rested—the shattered memory of home.
The Cyclone had ravaged Vesche.
Horror crashed into Ary. Is my family safe? And Chaylene and Vel?
He set off at a limping trot across the meadow, swerving around the strewn debris: fallen branches, shattered lumber, tangled rope, and torn canvas. He reached Watch Road that led towards the village and his family’s farm. He lumbered down the hard-packed dirt, the setting sun blinding his eyes. Ary’s leg burned as he walked. A broken fence allowed a flock of white-winged ostriches to peck at the hard-packed dirt. Ary circled the ostriches, wary. Normally placid, the large fowl could kick hard when agitated. His uncle took one to the head as a boy, and his wits had been slow ever since.
Past the screeching ostriches, Ary came closer to the ruins of the Xogrly farm. Farmer Xogrly and his wife dug through the wreckage of their house, their two daughters watching. Unlike Ary, the farmer and his wife had sought shelter of their root cellar when the alarm sounded.
“That’s what I should have done if my head hadn’t been so stuffed with ostrich down,” he muttered to himself.
The sight of the Xogrlys picking through their home gave Ary hope. His ma and pa would be safe in their root cellar with Gretla. And the schoolhouse had a basement dug just for a Cyclone attack. Srias enjoyed school too much to skip it, and Jhevon feared their pa’s belt far more than Ary did.
“Wish I had that sense.”
Weight lessened from Ary’s shoulders: Chaylene and Vel lived. They’d had plenty of time to reach the Xogrly farm. Both would be home now, Vel at his family’s farm, and Chaylene at the hovel she shared with her ma.
But why has no one come looking for me? Flashes of Chaylene lying sprawled, blonde hair matted red, wormed into his thoughts as he passed more devastation. Others joined her: Srias staring with blank eyes at the sky, Jhevon crumpled into a ball, Gretla lying limp as a rag doll, his parents crushed beneath fallen timbers.
“Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement,” he muttered.
It became a mantra in his mind as he limped down the road, something to focus on other than the pain. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. Over and over the thought rattled. He kept walking, his limp fading as his fear grew.
A red-breasted crow cawed atop a headless sailor from the Intrepid.
The grizzly sight arrested Ary. He swallowed as the crow, a bloody tendon clutched in its beak, took flight. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.
Smoke rose lazily from behind the hill ahead. Ary ignored it. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. He crested the rise. Ma and Pa and . . .
His thoughts faltered at the sight of the valley.
He should have witnessed sprawling farms spread before him with orderly fields of barley, neat rows of fruiting lemon and orange trees, and fenced pastures for ostriches. Everything familiar was broken. Debris choked the Bluesnake winding and wending between the farms and orchards, the waters churned murky. Animals roamed while above sharks and scavenging crows flew over the fields. Beyond the farms lay the village of Isfe, once a haphazard collection of wooden houses with thatched roofs, barns, and small vegetable patches built around the village green, anchored by the Jolly Farmer and the schoolhouse.
The Cyclone had left little intact. Piles of rubble marked the foundations of houses or barns. Other buildings lay half-collapsed with only remnants of their walls still standing. The south side of the schoolhouse had fallen outward, the roof caved in. Smoke drifted from heaps of charred lumber. Villagers searched through the rubble while others led harnessed bristleback boars pulling large chunks of debris.
Choking black rose from the nearby Oatlon Orchard. A hundred-rope-long swath of broken and flattened lemon trees ended at a mass of splintered white lumber and canvas. Men were pulling mangled bodies from the wreckage, adding them to a line of thirty or more bloody forms.
Horror’s realization struck Ary. The Intrepid had crashed, too damaged after battling the Cyclone.
“But that’s not how the stories go,” croaked Ary. “The heroic ship doesn’t crash after defeating the Cyclone. They’re supposed to return to the cheers of the grateful farmers and villagers.” Vesche still floated in the skies. The Intrepid had defeated the Cyclone. There should be celebration. “It’s not fair. The crew won.”
He strained his eyes, looking for any surviving crew, but only a few farmers dug through the wreckage. No sailors and no red-coated marines.
Ary struggled to think. No marines.
He knew all eleven of the marines who served on the Intrepid. Reisa always carried a piece of candy in her pocket for the village children; Myech would always drink too much at the Farmer’s Rest, singing bawdy songs until his mates would drag him back to the barracks; Sergeant Thuhly’s scarred face and broken teeth always sent a terrifying thrill through Ary. Other names: Skinny Hu, Thojhen, Chene, the keen-eyed Hawk, the pretty Grathene, Thame, and Quick Rlest.
They couldn’t all be dead.
His eyes darted across the valley, desperation compelling him to find a red coat moving. Instead, he spotted the small rise at the far end of the valley where his family’s farmhouse should have stood. Only broken lumber remained.
Fear clutched his stomach.
Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.
Fear drove thoughts of the Intrepid and her dead out of his mind. Ary needed to get home. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.
How could such a beautiful day turn into this horror?
Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.
The burning in Ary’s leg vanished as the fear spread inside him, a sickly flower opening to a black sun. He had to get home. Then everything would be fine. The fear grew and grew until its blotched blossoms covered his thoughts. He limped faster. Smoke stung his eyes. Shadows lengthened as the sun set.
“Please, Riasruo, please let my family be safe,” he prayed to the sun shining dull red through the smoke rising over Isfe.
A crimson sun.
Fear transformed into terror. Blood smeared the horizon. He trembled. Please, please, please let everything be fine. The Goddess bled for Vesche and the Intrepid. Images whirled in his mind: Jhevon crushed by timber; Srias’s long, blonde hair stained scarlet; Gretla staring sightless at the sky; his ma buried in their house, crushed by the rubble. Fear’s blossom choked his soul. He wanted to curl up and cry, to weep out the terror.
“No. Everything will be fine.” He forced hope to prune fear back. He limped onward. Everyone is alive!
He hobbled up the path leading to his family’s farm. The gate and most of the fence were gone, a fence post driven deep into the old oak’s trunk. As he passed the tree, he peered up for his young brother, hoping Jhevon hid in the bough. He liked to throw acorns down at Ary from the tree.
Ary spotted only broken branches.
Everyone is fine!
Ary trudged up the hill, leg burning, and crested the top. Dirt-stained figures stood near the ruined barn. Spotting Jhevon and Srias, little Gretla in her arms, Ary quickened his pace. Vel kicked at the dirt, standing near his ma hugging Ary’s ma. His slow Uncle Omar held himself and wept. They all stood around something on the ground. Ary looked around for his pa. Gretla wailed. Tears stained Srias’s dusky face.
Jhevon spotted Ary, pointing and shouting. Everyone looked. Tears shone on dirty faces.
His ma’s red eyes fixed on his. She stalked towards him. Anger and hatred filled her expression. Locks of dark-blonde hair spilled out of her usually tight bun. Ary stepped back, confusion warring fear inside him.
“Ma—” Her slap knocked him to the ground.
His head rang. Blood filled his mouth. Ary looked up at his ma. Her nut-brown face was twisted, ugly. He didn’t understand. She’d often been disappointed and exasperated with him, even angry a few times, but she never showed terrifying rage. Ary tried to speak, to ask what was wrong, but fear twisted his tongue. He shrank back, trying to worm his way into the earth. Her hand flashed out and grabbed his arm hard.
She dragged him to his feet and pulled him towards the others, hissing angry words at him. “You always have to sneak off and be irresponsible, Briaris! Never caring how me and your… and your…” Her rage faded, fresh tears welling in her eyes. Then the anger came howling back. “You never cared how me and your pa worried and fretted! You stupid, ostrich-brained, good-for-nothing . . . !” Her rant trailed off into a guttural screech.
Ary tried to pull away, but she held too tight. Confusion gripped him. He searched the crowd, then the farm, for his pa, looking everywhere but the form on the ground. Where is he? He dug his feet into the ground. His ma yanked him onward, his feet furrowing the dirt until he caught a rock. He pitched forward, chin smacking earth.
She didn’t stop dragging him.
She threw him down next to the covered form. Ary refused to look. Pa’s not dead. Pa’s not dead. He’s fine. He’s just working somewhere else on the farm. Pa’s not dead.
“Look at him!” His ma’s voice was shrill like an angry ostrich.
Her hands seized his hair and turned him to face his pa. A blanket covered his body, sticky blood matting the right side of his chest. Eyes stared upward, unseeing. Please, Goddess, please. This can’t be. Pa can’t be dead. Tears ran down his cheeks. The stress, the fear, of the last hours burst out of him in racking sobs.
“It’s your fault,” she hissed in his ear. “He was at the Xogrly farm when your friends showed up and told him what stupid idea had lodged in your down-filled head. He went out into the Cyclone to find you!”
“No,” Ary groaned.
“You selfish sow’s dung. You never think, Briaris. You never care how me and your pa worried after you. Are you happy? Did you have fun? Huh?” She jerked his head to face her. “Answer me!”
Ary tried to speak, to explain how he’d wanted to see the heroic marines fight the demonic Stormriders. Like in the stories.
Nothing came out.
“He’s dead . . . because of you.” The rage faded into tears. She collapsed onto his pa, sobbing into his chest. Her moaning words were incoherent.
It wasn’t worth it, thought Ary.
He’d thought any price was worth paying to see a Cyclone. To witness a battle and all the veterans’ stories come to life in their excitement and glory. But the battle hadn’t been glorious. He’d only witnessed pain and death and horror in that orchard.
What an ostrich-brained fool I am.
He looked down at his pa’s sightless eyes. The cost was too high.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
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