For all my awesome fans…
Here is a snippet of Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!
Despite access to the greatest apothecaries, age finally afflicted Xaiutwoa III, Empress of the Dawn. She gasped for breath as she leaned against the hulking form of her bodyguard, Tezl, solid form for support. Every bone in the avian Empress’s body ached. As a Gezitziz of the Ethinsk Tribe, he towered above the tallest of the Luastria, and Xaiutwoa stood short for her avian race. His crimson scales blended into the blushing-red sandstone walls of the Tower of Morning.
“Thank you, Tezl,” Xaiutwoa chirped, looking up at the fierce, wedged snout of her bodyguard. He’d served her the last twenty or more years.
“It is my honor, Your Radiance,” he hissed, a deep, dry sibilant. Every few heartbeats, his pink tongue flicked out, scenting the air.
Xaiutwoa clucked her beak in amusement. “I’m hardly so radiant any longer.”
Her eyes glanced at the dull-brown plumage, mottled by age, peeking out from the sleeves of her robes. In her youth, her feathers had possessed a sleekness, her scaled feet a fetching shade of purple-black, and her tail feathers straight and proud. Now, mud discolored her feet and her tail drooped.
“The setting sun is just as beautiful as the rising,” Tezl answered.
Xaiutwoa’s feathers ruffled in embarrassment. It was easy to think of the Gezitziz as unemotional with their dead, reptilian eyes. She let her distal feathers at the end of her wing stroke his scaled forearm. Then she made the last ascent alone. Letting Tezl assist her up the tower this far had violated tradition. But not even she could allow him to reach the top of the tower, no matter how much age had weakened her. Not even the caretaker ever stood at the holy tower’s prominence.
Xaiutwoa’s breath wheezed as she struggled up the stairs, leaning against the tower’s walls. Her sun-yellow robes, made of the lightest Sowerese silks, dragged at her wings as if soaked by water while the golden Crown of Dawn—the largest, single collection of metal in the entire Empire—weighed upon her brow.
Her strength failed. She sucked air through her beak, her heart fluttering too fast. “Come on, you old hen,” Xaiutwoa clucked. “The Rosy Prayer needs to be sung.”
She forced herself to climb, ignoring age’s burdens. She wouldn’t have to bear them much longer. But would her daughter, Niiwa, have the strength to withstand the Book’s truths? Gentle Niiwa had struggled to escape her shell at her hatching. And when Yriitwao, Xaiutwoa’s second daughter, poked her head out of her shell, she’d withdrawn, scared to escape. Both so unlike headstrong Opiixu, who’d burst free of his egg. Her heart fluttered at the pain of his memory. Her beautiful hatchling, so sure he could fly.
Xaiutwoa wiped a tear away with a distal feather.
With a clucking sigh, she rejoiced in the cool, predawn air atop the tower. A gentle breeze blew in from the southeast. A school of silvery red-banded minnows, sleeping in the protection of the tower’s crenellations, scattered into the sky at her appearance, their small tails swishing. Her eyes focused on the plinth. On it rested a transparent, crystal case protecting a slender book bound in faded, red leather.
On her coronation, the first time she’d climbed the Tower of Morning, she discovered the case. No one had told her of its existence. Curious, she’d opened it to read Iiwroa’s Book. The words had shattered her soul with their weight.
Xaiutwoa walked to the battlements to survey the sky. The Tower of Morning rested upon a Jyuou, a small skyland no larger than a prosperous house. Her functionaries and hangers-on crowded the base of the tower and her moored barge like a colorful flock of birds. She glanced to the west where the greatest skyland in the Empire, Swuopii, hung above the Storm. The larger of the two moons, Twiuasra, set fast behind Swuopii, framing the skyland with his soft, blue face. The Sky Tower’s crystal face warped the moon’s light, intensifying the colors into a deep azure thrusting above her palace. If she possessed the sharp vision of her youth, Xaiutwoa would have witnessed her subjects crowding the eastern shore of Swuopii, awaiting the dawn and for their Empress to sing the Rosy Prayer in thanks to Riasruo. More citizens crowded boats hovering in the gulf between Jyuou and Swuopii.
Xaiutwoa turned to the east where the Storm Below spread out like a mottled black-and-gray blanket, curving off into the horizon in a fuzzy haze. Beneath those churning, imperturbable clouds lay the mythical ground. A thousand years ago, so the Talesingers proclaimed, her ancestors dwelled on the ground, living with the Humans, the Gezitziz, and the Zalg. Peace had reigned until Kaltein and his Wrackthar Humans made a pact with Theisseg, the dark Goddess of Storms and bitter rival to her sister Riasruo, Goddess of the Sun. When Kaltein summoned the Storm, its dark face blotting out the sun forever, the Goddess shone her mercy on her children, lifting the skylands above the eternal tempest.
The Storm grew lighter as sunrise approached. Blushes of pink and orange spread on the horizon while the stars above faded. Xaiutwoa took a deep breath, preparing herself to sing the Rosy Prayer, the most vital duty of the Dawn Empress. The Book was explicit. As she readied herself, she noticed a turbulence upon the Storm’s surface.
Instead of the usual boil of clouds in a random, chaotic pattern, they instead rotated slowly about a dark spot. She squinted, detesting that age made her see only as keen as a Human, and realized it wasn’t a spot, but a hole in the Storm’s clouds. She studied the Storm Below with nervous curiosity. In all her long years, she’d never observed a pattern form in the chaotic Storm.
The clouds rotated faster about the hole. The sight reminded her of water swirling down a drain. The first golden rays of dawn dazzled her eyes. Her gizzard tightened in realization. Pay attention, old hen, she thought. She’d nearly missed beginning her Song on time.
Xaiutwoa sang the complex, wordless melody of the Rosy Prayer, trying to pull her attention away from the strange pattern. Power hummed in the music, passing through her from something . . . else. Creation vibrated the Crown of Dawn upon her brow. A lullaby to soothe Her pain.
She continued to study the Storm as she sang, the Song’s harmony coming unbidden to her beak. The rotation moved faster now, the clouds streaking as they swirled about the hole. Thunder rumbled from below while a low, roaring sound filled the air. Xaiutwoa wracked her memory, straining to recall her lessons as a hatchling.
Has the Storm ever behaved so strangely? Unease settled in her gizzard as peals of thunder growled again. Something’s greatly wrong.
Indecision filled her thoughts. Her gizzard warned her to assemble her scholars at once to determine what strange madness swirled before her. But the Prayer was too important to stop. She had to channel the energy into the Storm. What if this is just a rare behavior of the Storm? What if it is only some vagary of winds and currents, and I doom us all with my panic?
She sang louder to drown out her unease.
The cyclonic pattern burst from the surface of the Storm, bulging like a bubble rising from the depths of a dark pool of water. The Rosy Prayer faltered, a crackle of static washing across her feathers. Xaiutwoa let out a chirp of surprise. The maelstrom swelled higher and higher. A wall of swirling grays and blacks thrust out of the turbulent Storm, occulting the rising sun.
Darkness fell, night replacing dawn.
Horror churned in her gizzard. What is happening? I sang the Prayer every solstice. I followed the Book!
Has She grown more powerful? Or more desperate?
Shock rooted Xaiutwoa to the spot. She was too stunned to do more than watch the Cyclone rush forward, winds howling with rage. The wall of clouds filled the horizon. Inside the chaotic turbulence, shapes appeared. Dark blotches moved through the maelstrom. They resolved into figures on impossible mounts.
“They’re riding in the storm,” she chirped to herself.
The riders moved through the maelstrom untouched by fierce gusts as if they possessed the Blessing of Wind. Lightning flashed, the figures reflecting the light. But what could make them . . .? Her gizzard churned in violent terror. “Goddess Above, they have metal.”
Lanii’s golden feathers. How have the Wrackthar survived a thousand years without the sun? It’s impossible.
Tears ran from her eyes, matting the downy feathers of her cheeks. Xaiutwoa turned to the west, towards her Empire. The roaring of the Cyclone pressed like weights on her ears, so loud she couldn’t think. The boats in the bay turned, flying back towards the shelter of Swuopii’s docks.
Realization struck Xaiutwoa. A thousand years of peace. We’ve forgotten how to fight.
She turned to face the maelstrom, winds ripping at her feathers and billowing her robes. She swayed, a thin branch in a tempest. The wall of swirling clouds rushed towards her, a terrible blackness hungering to swallow her Empire. The riders in the tempest raised weapons, long and straight, flashing deadly in the pulsing lightning.
Niiwa, her eldest daughter, beckoned from the stairwell. A moment later, Tezl rushed past the princess. The red hulk raced across the parapet towards Xaiutwoa, fighting the screaming winds to reach her. Certain she would not survive, a single thought crystallized in the Empress’s mind: Niiwa will need the Book.
Xaiutwoa wrenched open the crystal case and scooped Iiwroa’s Book up into her wings. Tezl reached her, towering over the Empress. She thrust it into his chest. “Protect this Book! It cannot be lost! Niiwa will need it!”
“What?” Tezl asked as he grabbed the Book.
“The Truth!” she shouted with every breath in her aged lungs. “Niiwa will need it. You need to protect her now. She’s the Empire’s future.” Xaiutwoa caught her daughter’s green eyes. Love and fear reflected in the mirrors of Niiwa’s soul.
“I’ll protect you and the Book,” Tezl said in his deep, rasping voice. His cold, scaled arm wrapped around Xaiutwoa’s frail form, lifting her. She felt safe in his arms, her loyal guard. He would protect Niiwa and the Book. He was too loyal to fail. As Tezl turned, she witnessed the Cyclone over his shoulder, the raging maelstrom almost upon them. The riders in the tempest possessed pale, Human faces, black braids streaming behind silver helmets as they galloped upon beasts of boiling clouds.
We have forgotten how to fight.
The Cyclone crashed into the tower.
~ * * ~
The Sun set upon the Age of the Dawn. The Great Cyclone swept across Swuopii and pulled the heart of light down into darkness. The Dawn Empire shattered, splintering into petty Kingdoms ruled by vain despots warring over the scraps. Ambition and blood wrote the next thousand years of history.
—Excerpt from History of the Skies, Volume 4 by Uolvaex Zhnoagsick.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!
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