Snippet 2 – The Reavers of the Tempest (The Storm Below Book 2)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Reavers of the Tempest, the sequel to my dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter One

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

Theisseg didn’t create the Storm.” Her husband’s portentous words echoed through Chaylene’s mind. “She is the power that fuels it. It draws on her . . . essence. It exists because of her. She needs to be freed.”

The idea of freeing Theisseg, the Dark Goddess of Storms spilled frigid water down her back. She drew in a deep breath as she lay beside her young husband on their bed in the small cottage provided for them by the Autonomy Navy. Outside, Camp Chubris slept on undisturbed. She gazed at him, seeing the earnest expression filling his clean-shaven, square-chinned face. She always found his face—squat and with a proud nose—handsome, but not dashing like a hero from a story. The corners of his eyes, crimson irises darker than the surrounding white, crinkled. Doubt appeared to fill him. Fear. Concern.

He’d carried this secret for seven years, holding in that Theisseg had touched him, tainted him. A part of Chaylene—a shameful corner of her soul affected by seventeen years, her entire life, of hearing terrible things spoken about the Storm Goddess—cringed from him. Every ill wind, every foul vapor bringing plague, every stillborn child, was blamed upon Her. Chaylene drew a deep breath, resolve stiffening through her body. Her husband placed his trust, his life, in the palms of her hands. She could not snuff out his flames.

She would not betray him again.

Her cheeks warmed at how close she had come with Vel.

She stroked her husband’s face, fingers sliding across his brown skin darkened by a summer spent training at Camp Chubris. She reached his close-cropped hair. He had a darker shade of ripe barley than her lighter hue. She smiled at him. “We’ll figure it out.”

“How?”

Her smile tightened. How did you free a Goddess? How did you even trap one? Chaylene’s guts twisted. A dizzying wave of vertigo beset her as she became aware of the skyland beneath the foundation of her cottage. Les floated above the ever-churning Storm. It seemed to her she could feel the minute shifting of the massive hunk of rock. Les was larger than most skylands put together. Vesche, their home skyland, took just two days to stroll across. Les was as long as thirty Vesches, maybe more. But it still felt so vulnerable hanging in the skies, a speck before the eternal size of the Storm.

Skylands could fall. History proved that.

“You said . . . that’s what the Stormriders want, Ary,” she said, her coal-black fingers sliding through his hair, cut so short it felt almost like bristles against her palm. “To free her. Do you think . . .” She swallowed. “They destroyed Swuopii and all the Eastern Skylands a thousand years ago. What if you have to . . .?”

His face hardened. “I don’t know what it will take. It can’t be that. The Storm and the skylands can’t be related.”

“If they are—”

“Then Theisseg can stay tortured in the Storm.” Pain crossed his face, twisting the expression. His eyes became raw. His left hand, resting on her hip, squeezed her through her blue jacket and white britches. “She can suffer because . . .”

“Suffer?”

“Riasruo Above, you have no idea how she suffers. We fear Theisseg, but she’s so pitiful. Two thousand years of torture, Lena. Two thousand years of pain and torment. It courses through her. I’ve touched her chains.”

Chains . . . The word sounded so foreign to Chaylene. She tried to picture what Ary described: a rope made of metal. The silvery material was so rare in the skies above the Storm; she couldn’t imagine why anyone would make something as mundane as a rope out of it. But the Stormriders fashion swords and armor out of metal, she thought.

“The chains course and crackle with energy. Lightning. It burns, Lena. It seared my soul.” Ary’s voice grew more and more ragged. Helplessness filled his face. Chaylene wanted to soothe it away. It tortured her heart to witness him hurting. “I felt my bones melting. Like they became liquid sunlight. I screamed. I howled for an eternity. And I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t break them.

“And she gets no relief. For a heartbeat, I felt a twelfth of what she suffers. A twelfth, and it almost destroyed me.”

Chaylene moved her hand from his head to his arm, stroking his muscle through his white wool shirt. “We’ll figure it out. Does she say anything in the dreams that’s any help?”

Chaylene had grown to dread Ary’s dreams. For the last month and a half of their marriage, when training at Camp Chubris became its most stressful, he would moan in his sleep. His jostling body would wake her up while he mumbled words that made no sense, talking to . . .

To Theisseg. The icy water poured down her spine again. She squeezed her husband’s arm.

“Nothing useful, Lena,” he said after a moment. “She just babbles about the foci, about being betrayed, and begging me to end it. To end the pain. She’s broken.”

Chaylene had demanded to know what he dreamed, needing to understand what trauma harried her husband night after night. His denials only hurt her. She couldn’t understand why Ary, a man she’d known all her life, wouldn’t trust her with something as simple as this dream. Instead, he would lie or grow angry.

Their fights . . .

Now she knew, it upset her entire world. She clutched Ary as another wave of vertigo assaulted her. The Storm churned below. Theisseg’s prison boiled with anger. It covered the face of the entire world. Riasruo, the Sun Goddess and Theisseg’s benevolent sister, had lifted the skylands up above the raging maelstrom and rescued those people she cared for, leaving behind Theisseg’s foul servants, the Wrackthar, to live in a world engulfed by eternal darkness. The stories claimed Theisseg created the Storm for the Tyrant King Kaltein, an act of a petty man whose ambitions came to ruin.

“Who betrayed her?” she asked, trying to parse.

Ary’s forehead furrowed. “There’s a name she screams it’s . . . it’s . . .” He shook his head. “A strange name. Eerwow or Yeerwa or . . . or . . . It’s all so jumbled. She babbles and screams in pain. She begs me to free her. To end her pain. She shouts that the most.”

“Okay. So you just have to ask Her questions next time you dream.”

“I try.” Ary sighed. “She’s mad. It’s hard to get anything coherent out of Her. And it’s not like I can control when She appears.”

“Well, maybe you can? Maybe it’s one of Her Blessings.”

Ary’s forehead furrowed. “Blessing?”

“Theisseg’s Blessings. You must have hers. How else did you heal your wounds?” Only a half-hour ago, Ary had suffered deep slashes down his back, buttocks, and thighs. Wriavia’s sharp talons had severed the tendons at his knees, laming Ary.

Only, he’d healed. He’d stood and fought. Chaylene couldn’t get the image of her husband’s shredded flesh knitting itself back together again from her thoughts. It was miraculous. And miracles possessed only one source in the skies: a Goddess’s Blessing. Riasruo had her four, given to all who worshiped her when they come of age. Chaylene and Ary both possessed them. Not the same Blessings, but they wielded powers to affect the world around them.

“Your healing ability has to be from Theisseg,” Chaylene said, her thoughts grasping onto something familiar. Something to anchor her against that swirling dizziness afflicting her. “Estan mentioned Theisseg has her own set of Blessings. The Agerzaks use them.”

Chaylene remembered the conversation from a few weeks ago. It was right after Ary recovered from his sickness. Or was he poisoned? Did Wriavia sell me tainted candied fruit? Was that the first time he tried to murder my husband?

Chaylene shoved that aside, instead focusing on her memories. Estan explained about the connection between the barbarous Agerzaks and the Stormriders. He claimed the Agerzaks were Stormriders who settled on the Eastern Skylands instead of dragging them down into Storm like the Great Cyclone had to the heart of the Dawn Empire a thousand years ago.

“Agerzak pirates can ride across the skies like Stormriders,” Chaylene said. “That’s one Blessing. Your healing must be another.”

“You think they work like Riasruo’s Blessings?” Ary asked.

Static charge prickled through Chaylene’s body, standing up the hairs on her arms beneath her light-blue jacket. Her husband manipulated his Lightning, one of the two Blessings he’d received from Riasruo. Blessings came in four types—Wind, Mist, Pressure, and Lightning—and three strengths—Minor, Moderate, or Major. Ary had Moderate Lightning and Minor Wind. The Goddess had granted Chaylene Moderate Pressure and Minor Mist.

“So there’s healing and . . . sky walking,” Chaylene continued, not sure on the proper names. “What are the other two?”

Ary shrugged.

“Well, if you have a healing Blessing, do you have another one? I think yours must be at least Moderate. You healed the wounds the Luastria inflicted and . . .” Chaylene words trailed off. She blinked. “That’s how you recovered from your sickness so quickly!”

“And how I survived the choking plague as a kid,” Ary said, rolling onto his back. He stared up at the ceiling, his left hand pulling from her arm. He balled it into his fist, chiseled jaw trembling.

“You didn’t kill her, Ary.” Chaylene snuggled closer to her husband. After the Cyclone ravished their village of Isfe seven years ago, the choking plague came in the winter. Many died, including Ary’s younger sister, Srias. “Your ma was wrong to ever blame you.”

Angry winds swirled inside Chaylene. She detested Ionie Jayne, Ary’s ma. The mad woman always found new ways to hurt him. Even her recent death plunged one final barb into her son’s heart.

“I always survive,” Ary muttered, his voice cold. “My ma was right. Theisseg tainted me.”

“You’re not tainted! Theisseg gifted you. Blessed you! You survived when you should have died. You would have . . .” Her voice broke, emotion choking her throat. “You would have died and left me alone.” A sob shuddered through her. She didn’t want to think about Ary dying. Didn’t want to end up weak and broken like her own dead ma.

Ary pulled her close, forehead furrowed. She studied his face, trying to parse his emotions. “You really believe that, Lena?” Something touched his voice. Awe? “That Theisseg Blessed me?”

“You’re alive. Of course I do. So should you. Stop listening to your ma. She never cared for you.”

“She broke, Lena.” He stared up at the ceiling, words sounding remote. “Anyone can break. She tried to find her way back . . . If I’d let her . . .”

Chaylene hugged him tight. He didn’t need to think about his ma’s recent death. She searched for a distraction and . . . a question popped into her mind. She voiced it: “How . . . how does Wriavia know about this?”

“Who?”

“The Luastria that attacked us. He . . .” She shivered. How often was he flying above us and watching us? Spying on us? Her chest ached where the bird-like Luastria had kicked her, and her right wrist throbbed from his pecking beak, a hasty bandage wrapped over the shallow wound. “How did he know, Ary?”

Ary didn’t answer right away. “It must have been at the Blessing ceremony.” Every year, Human youths who turned seventeen before the Summer Solstice received Riasruo’s Blessing at her nearest temple. The Bishopress of Vesche performed hers and Ary’s three months ago. “The acolyte grew excited and the bishopress unnerved. She smoothed it out, and I believed her excuse, but now . . .” He frowned. “When you had yours, there was the central plinth with the charcoal. What happened when you touched it?”

“Nothing.” An expectant tension seized her heart as she waited for her husband’s answer.

“When I touched it, the charcoal burst into flames.” Excitement animated his face. “That’s what startled them. It’s a test to screen for Theisseg’s touch.”

Chaylene’s stomach almost fell out of her. “Are you saying the Church of Riasruo is trying to kill you?” She felt so foolish even saying that. The Church taught the Goddess’s love, encouraging everyone to be kind towards each other, not to hurt each other. “No, Ary, not the Church.”

“You think it’s just a coincidence that a Luastria merchant tried to kill the pair of us?” Ary asked, incredulity staining his voice.

Chaylene bit her lip. How else could the merchant have known? She remembered, the day before Ary’s mysterious sickness, Wriavia giving her a special jar of candied pears pulled from beneath his stall instead of off his shelf. She bought the treat for Ary since he couldn’t leave camp that Dawnsday. If the charcoal test was to find Stormtouched, then it made a perverse kind of sense. The Church’s clergy all hailed the Sun Goddess’s favorite race: the Luastria.

Her stomach churned as she groaned, “Goddess Above. What do we do? We need to tell someone. We were attacked in camp. Do we report it to Captain Dhar or—”

“No!”

*

Chaylene jumped at his sudden roar.

Shame flushed through Ary immediately as his wife flinched back from him. Stray strands of her pale-blonde hair danced over her ebony forehead while her cloud-gray eyes widened. He didn’t mean for the outburst to explode out of him, but fear’s sickly vines squeezed his heart. Blood screamed cold through his veins.

“Sorry, Lena,” he said.

She waved her hands. “Just startled me.”

Dread swallowed his hot shame. “No one can know. They’ll quarantine me, Lena!” The terror he suffered for the last month or longer, that sickening unease, wracked his guts. “We’ll never see each other again if the Navy suspects what I am.”

He rubbed at the puckered scar on his left side right below his ribs, the mark Theisseg’s lightning bolt had left on his ten-year-old body; it was proof that the Dark Goddess had touched him. The Church of Riasruo wanted him dead while the Autonomy’s Navy would lock him in a cell for the rest of his life.

Why do they fear me so much? What is so dangerous about being Stormtouched that the Church would send an assassin to kill me?

“We have to be careful, Lena,” he continued as the surprise of his outburst faded from her expression. He drank in the sight of her face, her nose, a small rise above her plump lips, which always gave her face a delicate and girlish delight. With her blonde hair tied back, it left exposed her round ears that his fingers enjoyed stroking while she burned beneath him. And those eyes . . . He could lose himself staring into them, soft gray like clouds after spring rain. He knew her features well. He’d loved her for years, since maybe the day of the Cyclone when she’d kissed his cheek while they’d played with Vel on the edge of their skyland.

“Of course we’ll be careful,” Chaylene said. “But what about Wriavia? Will he follow us when we sail from Les?”

Though not officially over, training had halted at Camp Chubris. After fighting the Cyclone last week, the survivors had more practical experience than most who served for years in the Navy. During peace, most sailors battled only boredom. In two days, the Dauntless would sail for the port of Onhur out on the edge of the Fringe, the eastern extent of the Autonomy, to start a four-year tour defending against Agerzak pirates.

“I don’t know.” Ary’s eyes fell on the bandage on his wife’s right wrist. She couldn’t heal herself. That night, that feathered demon had almost ended her life. The helpless terror Ary had felt lying maimed on his belly filled him. He never wanted to see his wife in such danger again. She’d fought with the dancing Luastria, held the feathered sow at bay, but the bird danced with too much skill, moved with too much grace. If Ary hadn’t healed . . .

Black rage swelled through Ary, devouring that sickly writhe in his innards. His hands clenched as he ground his teeth. He growled, “We have to kill Wriavia. We can’t let him follow us. We’ll have to search for him. End him!”

“Now? You want us to march into Shon and root him out in the dark?”

“Yes!” He rose from the bed, the anger beating on his heart like a warning drum. He ripped off his torn and bloodied shirt. The storm snarled inside of him, driving him to march to the nearby village. “He won’t be expecting it. I’ll carve him up.”

“And how will you explain that? How will we tell Captain Dhar or Admiral Dhamen that we murdered a Luastria merchant?”

“He tried to kill us!” he boomed.

She stood and faced him without flinching. Ary witnessed something hard, something vicious flick across his wife’s face. “I know that! I want him dead. He tried to murder you, Ary. He poisoned you! I was never so scared in my life—not even during the Cyclone—than I was sitting by your sickbed. I don’t want him to try again! I want him dead!”

“Good!” Ary grabbed his sword belt. “Let’s go kill him!”

“We. Can’t.” She said each word with clipped syllables. “What, do you think we can just kick down his door and murder him?”

“Why not?” He belted his sword around his torso, the burning in his back almost gone; his wounds had healed.

“Because we’ll be hanged for murder, Ary!”

The turbulent tempest inside of him quivered. It howled, beating at his insides, demanding to be unleashed. He’d felt this storm many times. It had propelled him through fights as a youth, and exploded out of him upon that sow Grabin when he’d grabbed Chaylene’s rear three months back.

“I’m not losing you!” She threw her arms around his neck, her eyes blazing. “Not after this. I almost ruined everything with my stupidity, so I won’t let you ruin it with yours.”

“Stupidity? Killing him is stupid? After tonight?”

“We can’t tell anyone why we killed him. We. Will. Hang.”

The pain in her eyes was so real, so visceral. He stared into it and . . . the tempest howled louder. It demanded action, but . . . but . . . She was right. He had to think. He couldn’t just let his anger control him. He took a deep breath. He’d almost killed Grabin because he’d let his fury loose. He’d come within a heartbeat of throwing him over the side of the Xorlar into the Storm Below. Ary’s anger always lurked in the dark corners of his soul, building over the years of swallowing his ma’s insults, hearing her mad pronouncements that he was corrupted, that he’d killed Srias and his pa.

He. Would. Control. It.

With a grunting snarl, he relaxed his fist. “You’re right. Tomorrow, after the funeral, we can . . . look around. Maybe find something—do something—about him. We can’t have him skulking around. I won’t let him hurt you.”

Chaylene arched an eyebrow. “And I won’t let him hurt you. I made a promise to your sister, Briaris Jayne.”

Ary smiled at the fierce expression on her face. “Your ma named you well. You could be the Shieldmaiden.”

Chaylene squirmed, her soldierly expression melting into girlish embarrassment. Then she sighed, her eyes becoming ancient and worn to Ary. They looked as old as he felt after witnessing the butchery of actual battle. She still was a youth like him in appearance, only seventeen, barely an adult.

Sickening images swirled through Ary’s memory: blood spurting, men and women screaming, bodies torn into fragments of ground meat. Crimson splattered across Chaylene’s smooth cheek, eyes staring skyward, filmed over in death.

The shadowy Luastria, hidden by that strange engine that wreathed his form in mist, stood over Chaylene, her blood staining his talons.

The dark winds stirred in him. His hand clenched. He itched to choke the life out of the assassin’s scrawny neck. He needed to find Wriavia. He wanted to march out into the night right now, kick in the Theisseg-cursed bastard’s door, and protect his wife. Blood screamed through his veins, beating action against his temple. Hunting down the feathered sow was something he could do. Could control.

Denied this path, he turned to the other problem. “How are we going to do this, Lena?”

“Find Wriavia?”

“No. Freeing Theisseg? How do I possibly free a Goddess?”

She worked her plump lips. “What if we talked to Estan about it? He knows things.”

Ary breathed deeply. He couldn’t be angry right now. Not with this. It was too important to let the tempest dictate where he sailed. He had to be calm, to channel his darker impulses. He drew in another lung-filling inhalation.

“I think Estan does know something,” he said as his pulse slowed. “He quoted a poem once. It sounded like someone who . . . witnessed Theisseg chains. A Stormtouched.”

“Good.” A smile spread on Chaylene’s lips. “Let’s talk to him.”

The dark winds turned icy in him. Fear and anger . . . Both emotions could lead him astray. Calm . . . Think . . . “What if he turns me in?”

“Estan wouldn’t do that. He would be more excited by the chance to learn what you know.”

“And share it.” Ary’s eyebrows arched. “Isn’t that what scholars do? Pen books and share their thoughts with the world?”

“If we asked him . . .”

Ary shook his head, the winter’s gale ravaging his soul. He stared at his wife. He wouldn’t let anything take her away. Not Estan. Not the Autonomy and their quarantine. Not Wriavia!

“I can’t take that chance. It was so hard just gathering the courage to tell you, Lena.” He shook his head. “It has to be just you and me.”

Chaylene bit her lip. “Thank you for trusting me. I . . . I won’t tell anyone. Not even Estan.”

Her arms hugged about his neck, pulling him tight. Her kiss was fierce, the heat washing through his body. Winter retreated before the shining summer of her love, a blazing sun spilling feathery rays of passion upon him. He couldn’t remember the last time she felt so lithe in his arms, tasted so sweet on his lips.

So much ash had choked their marriage the last few weeks. Distrust and secrets almost snuffed out their united fire. He pulled her close to him, feeling her through her uniform. His blood raced faster and faster, matching her ardor.

She didn’t resist as he pressed her down onto the bed. He didn’t have to worry about anything right now. The other problems—hiding Theisseg’s touch, figuring out the meaning of his dreams, dealing with the assassin, discovering the key to freeing the Dark Goddess—could wait for morning. He had his wife back. Trust soothed the hurt they’d inflicted on each other. Together, they stripped off stained clothing. He missed this intimacy, this wonderful passion. Chaylene became the sun. Her heat exploded out of her like he’d opened a galley stove. He bathed in her love.

After spending their desire, he savored holding her in his arms, stroking her golden hair spilling across the swarthy brown of his chest. Everything could wait for tomorrow.

*

Estan couldn’t sleep.

He lay on his lumpy, bay-stuffed mattress in the barracks for the crew of the Dauntless. His ribs, broken by a Stormrider falling on him during the Cyclone, ached. “It just needs time to heal,” Lieutenant Jhoch, the Dauntless’s medical officer, had said earlier today, his green eyes bloodshot behind his horn-rimmed spectacles. The Cyclone’s aftermath had aged his fatherly face. The Stormriders had killed or maimed over a third of the crew. Each day, the death count climbed as another seriously injured sailor succumbed. “There’s nothing to do beyond wrapping a tight bandage around your chest. Just take it easy, Private, and it will heal.”

Estan could not wait. Breathing hurt. Standing hurt. Writing hurt. Everything hurt.

He focused his thoughts through his discomfort to grapple with the conversation he’d had with Ary that afternoon. Estan’s ebony forehead furrowed as he reflected on Ary’s reactions, his words. Estan was positive Ary was Stormtouched and that was causing problems in the young man’s marriage.

Estan possessed only the greatest respect and brotherly affection for Chaylene. She possessed a sharp intelligence and quick wit. He enjoyed conversing with her on all manner of topics, especially her great passion: history. Many times they’d delved into deep discussions on the minutiae of the past. It pained Estan to see the rupture in Ary and Chaylene’s relationship. It was so obvious that the pair loved each other that even the most squall-addled fish could recognize it. The rumors of Chaylene’s infidelity—as if she would cuckold him, scoffed Estan—and Ary’s secret drove a deep wedge between them.

He has to be Stormtouched, Estan thought for the hundredth time. He reacted to Nzuuth sze Hyesk’s poem. He was entranced by the Dawnspire. He mentioned the foci!

Estan could still remember that day, three years gone, when his tutor opened his eyes to the truths the Church tried to hide when they’d declared the fragments of Nzuuth’s poems heretical. In her works, he read cryptic references to the foci.

His thoughts drifted . . .

*

Bwuovoa 18th, 395 VF (1960 SR)

I must impress upon you the seriousness of what we’re going to talk about today, my boy,” Master Rlarim said, his age-cragged face peering down at Estan, spectacles resting on the bridge of his wizened nose. Wisps of white hair, coarse like a boar’s bristles, were all that remained of his hair circling about the crown of his balding head.

“Of course, Master Rlarim,” the youth said. Today celebrated the fourteenth anniversary of his birth; already, he possessed the sober calm of the scholar he yearned to become. He long dreamed of attending the University of Rlarshon or the great University of Qopraa in the capital of the Vaarckthian Empire. For the last four years, he soaked up the knowledge of his tutor, his mind blossoming like a broad sunflower beneath the feathery rays of Riasruo’s light.

An excited squirm twisted through his guts. The gravity of the situation only fanned the thirst in him to learn something new. The pair sat in the library of his father’s house, the ancestral home of the Bthoovzigks and the current residence of the Lord Mayor of Amion. Shelves made of cherry wood, polished to a dark burnish and oiled by Estan’s own hand every day at the insistence of his tutor, gleamed around them. Books bound in leather and scrolls rolled up in ivory or bone cases covered the shelves. Estan knew them all. He’d read them all, devouring them with an eager thirst. He found even rereading them a thrill, for something new could be found written in black upon parchment or vellum.

“I am deadly serious, my boy,” Master Rlarim said, his voice a hushed whisper. “Not even your own father can know what we are going to discuss.”

Estan blinked at that. “Well, it is a good thing I am all but invisible to him. I doubt it should come up in our infrequent conversations.”

A twinge flicked through the youth’s heart that didn’t show upon his coal-dark features. Only the deeper rise of his chest in his blue doublet, held closed by bright-crimson ceramic buttons, betrayed any reaction.

Master Rlarim’s face darkened. The Vionese man patted the back of the youth’s hand and then gave it a squeeze. Estan’s eyes focused on the paper-thin skin stretched over his tutor’s bony hand, the spots of dark brown staining the nut-tan flesh. Estan’s back straightened. Master Rlarim trusted him. It drove back that twinge, and his heart beat faster.

“But . . .” Estan said after the euphoric surge through his veins had passed. “Why would you be afraid to share this with me?”

“Because knowledge is power, my boy.” Deep-red eyes bored into the youth’s, their dimensions magnified by the curve of Master Rlarim’s spectacles. “Explain why.”

Estan’s brow furrowed as he considered the maxim. “Well, it can give you the power to change things. It allows you to understand the world, to apply mathematics and the physical philosophies to shape it, to build faster ships, stronger buildings, to discover new engines to channel our Goddess’s Blessings. Is that what you mean?”

The older man shook his head from side to side. “Knowledge cuts through lies and exposes what sentient creatures try to hide. For those seeking to conceal, revelation is what they fear most. Guilt, so wrote the great philosopher Nzuuvsk sze Vviry, resides not in the guilty nor does it lurk in their victim. No, it resides in the eyes of those who witness. To those who possess knowledge of their crime. To silence that guilt, the powerful can be driven to dark ends.”

The boy trembled. He swallowed as he felt a cold, winter wind howling out of the Onamen Sky surging through him. “Dark ends . . . Surely you are not saying that there are those who would kill to protect this knowledge?”

“Not would kill. Have.” The old man arched a white eyebrow. “Do you understand that we walk upon the skyland’s edge now?”

“But . . .” Estan protested, his body trembling. “Then why risk sharing it? Why would you . . .?” His forehead furrowed. A thought fell amid the fertile soil of the youth’s mind. “Because there is no greater harm to the skies than knowledge concealed. Than the wise refusing to question the world around them through the material or the esoteric philosophies. Reason must be applied against every idea, every belief, every theory. They all must be tested, must be questioned, and must be challenged so that we can winnow the nature of this world Riasruo created for us from the chaff of ignorance. Any who seek to stop that cannot be allowed to succeed. We must face the pursuit of knowledge with unflinching dedication. Even if it means that we have to admit our own mistakes, to recognize that our own beliefs were incorrect. Always must we strive to gain a more exact understanding of natural and moral truths.”

Master Rlarim nodded his head. “Scholarship is far more important than dogmatic censorship. And this truth . . . This truth is forbidden by the greatest power in the skies.”

The chill wind howled stronger. Its frigid gusts unleashed shivers throughout Estan’s body. “The Church?”

“The Church herself. Even the University of Rlarshon has allowed the pursuit of truth to waver in face of the Bishriarch’s power.”

The Church of Riasruo, through her Theological Treaty with the Vaarckthian Empire, dominated the religion of the skies. Only the Bishriarch, the ultimate head of the church, could speak for the Sun Goddess, imparting pronouncements of the Goddess’s benediction upon the body of the faithful. Estan worshiped every Dawnsday at the temple, throwing his wicker effigies into the flames so Riasruo could cleanse his sins. Still, learning that Her Church would impede knowledge left a bitter taste in his mouth. He grimaced, thick, dark lips puckering. Then his eyes widened. “This is why you were dismissed from the university.”

Master Rlarim leaned back in his seat. “One step ahead of being denounced and cast out in disgrace. A paper I wrote, to test my colleagues’ dedication to pursuing knowledge, proved my good sense not to reveal all I’d learned. I have continued my studies in exile, but it has been difficult and . . .” He swallowed. “Well, what I know shouldn’t be entrusted only to me. I have an obligation to pass it on to at least one person lest infirmity and old age rob the world of what I know. Never hoard your knowledge. A miser may clutch to his porcelain coins, but a scholar who does the same fails to enrich the world, let alone himself.”

Estan’s heart thundered in his chest. A sweeping, bubbling, buzzing joy swept through his body, driving back the winter winds. He fought to keep his exuberance from bursting out of him, his lips twisting, the corners aching to turn up into a smile. “I am honored by your trust. I will not betray it. I will study with all dedication and absorb all you have to teach. Your research shall continue.”

A broad smile crossed the old man’s lips, his eyes dazzling. He clapped his hands together. “That we shall, my boy.” He reached into his simpler doublet, a sober gray without the added embroidery and woven from a coarser grade of linen than Estan’s. He produced a slender book from its inner pockets. “This book was declared heretical by the Bishriarch ninety-nine years ago. All copies were ordered to be destroyed. Those found possessing it face excommunication, if not worse.”

He held it out to the youth.

Estan grasped it. His fingers ran across the dark-brown cover as he turned it over and stared at the title. Embossed into the cover read: “The Collected Poems of Nzuuth sze Hyesk as translated by Shamil Oatlis.”

“Ethinski poetry?” Estan said, struggling to keep his words neutral as the buoyant jubilation in him deflated. His shoulders sagged ever so slightly.

“Yes, Ethinski poetry. And yet the Church of Riasruo declared it heretical. What crime are they hiding by suppressing the knowledge found in this book?”

Estan opened it up, glancing at the title of the first poem: “Lightning Flashed.”

“These poems speak of the foci,” Master Rlarim said.

“Foci to what?”

“To that, I am not sure,” the old man conceded. “But my research has convinced me that Nzuuth was Stormtouched.”

A prickle ran across Estan’s skin, his flesh puckering, every hair on his arms standing up straight. “Theisseg touched her?” He did not hide the disgust in his voice. He stared down at the book in his hands, fearing it would transform into a ravenous shark. “No wonder it was banned.”

“To be viewed with caution, yes,” Master Rlarim said. “The Church fears the Stormtouched. She encourages all the nations to dispose of any who are touched by lightning during a Cyclone. But some are missed. The poet survived the Cyclone of 276 as a child. Nzuuth soon started writing. She was acclaimed a genius because of her tender age. And then her entire village perished in one of the worst outbreaks of the choking plague in the Ethinski Union’s brief history.”

“I do not understand.”

“You will, my boy,” Master Rlarim said. “We shall talk about the Skein of Adjudication another time. For now, it is my suspicion that the Church read her poems and it scared them. Their guilt was witnessed. And their crime was so monstrous, they unleashed the worst sickness in the skies to kill a single girl younger than you are now.”

Estan fought the urge to gulp, his mouth dry, aching for water.

“She gleaned something from the mind of Theisseg,” Master Rlarim continued. “She understood something about Her plans. And those of Her servants.”

That puzzled Estan for a few heartbeats. “You mean the Stormriders?”

“Did you know that Cyclones have been on a sharp rise?”

“I had not realized that, no,” Estan admitted. “I believe they average one every five years.”

“And yet there was one hundred and seventy-three years between the Great Cyclone which destroyed the Dawn Empire and the second.”

Estan’s chest tightened. His heart labored to pump thickened blood through his veins. “That is an increase of a great magnitude of order.”

“Indeed, my boy. During the Age of Isolation, they averaged two a century. By the time of the Vaarckthian Empire, and better records were kept, they had three in the nation’s first century, seven in its second century, and thirteen in its third. For the last hundred years, Cyclones have begun to average one per five years.

“But that number is on the rise. They are coming every year now. Yes, once every five years in the Autonomy. But across the skies . . . there is a logarithmic increase. In a few years, by the time you have reached your maturity, they may be coming three times a year. In a decade, they will be every month. And not long after that, every week. In perhaps ten to fifteen years, every nation in the skies might be swept aside, the skylands dragged down into the Storm Below or colonized by the Stormriders.

“So we must understand what these foci are and why Theisseg needs to break them. We have to understand if the Stormriders seek to replace us or to kill us. The survival of the skies lies before us, and the intellects at the University of Rlarshon are too cowed by theology’s blind tradition to pursue it and save us.”

Estan’s heavy breathing filled the silence of the next moments. He struggled to process and understand his tutor’s words. Dizzy waves beset him, his thoughts fighting to retain their normal placid order.

Then he asked the most important question he could think of: “What are the foci?”

“We know them by a dozen names, my boy, artifacts of the Dawn Empire. There are twelve of them scattered throughout the skies.”

“The Dawnspires,” Estan gasped.

“As the Vionese call them.”

Estan knew them by their most common names: Sky Towers, Dawnspires, Crystal Teeth, Sunrays, and Diamond Hearts. Their true purpose was lost in the chaos of the Age of Isolation. So much fell with Swuopii into the Storm a thousand years ago, so much knowledge lost it almost made Estan weep.

“I must know everything you do, Master Rlarim,” the youth said. “Only then can a hypothesis be constructed and experiments devised.”

*

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

To this day, Estan itched to understand everything fully. A vast carpenter’s puzzle lay before him, the pieces strewn through the texts of history, that he sought to complete. He yearned for nothing more than to pursue his studies with Master Rlarim.

But the Navy had tied him to the Dauntless.

Bitterness swelled through the young man. When his father, the Lord Mayor of Amion, caught his son studying one of those forbidden texts, fear had seized the older man. In his terror, he’d dismissed Master Rlarim with no letter of recommendation. Without it, the old scholar could not find work tutoring a new pupil. Estan then found the family’s purse denied him. When the draft happened soon after, his father was more than happy to let the marines induct him without buying his son an officer’s commission.

Thus ended Estan’s dream of attending the University of Rlarshon, or even traveling to the famed University of Qopraa in the Vaarckthian Empire. His father’s shortsightedness had trampled over his hopes of finding those last pieces to the puzzle.

And then he’d met Ary.

Estan sighed, then winced at the ache rippling across his ribs. He stared up at Guts’s bunk above him. The wood creaked as the large marine shifted in his sleep. Sometimes, Estan dreaded the bed’s frame would fail beneath Guts’s impressive bulk, crushing the slender Vaarckthian.

Estan returned to his current problem. How do I get Ary to open up to me?

If Ary feared telling his wife his secret, how could Estan win his confidence? Ary dreaded being quarantined, forced to live out his days in a cell cut off from his family. Estan should report his suspicions to Captain Dhar, it was his duty, but he could not let any law prevent knowledge’s discovery. Through Ary, Estan could continue his research. Theisseg’s secrets needed to be understood. The Stormriders needed to be stopped.

How do I convince Ary to share the most dangerous secret in the skies? Do I confront him?

A fear settled in Estan. Ary was rumored to have a violent temper when provoked. He had personally witnessed Ary attack the Sergeant-Major and heard his friend had almost thrown Grabin, a marine serving on the Dauntless’s sister ship, into the Storm.

If I confront Ary, would he unleash that rage on me? He has been touched by Theisseg. Is that the source of his anger?

A Vaarckthian proverb rose in Estan’s mind: “The only beast more dangerous than a hungry shark is a cornered man.”

He must sail these skies with great care and trepidation.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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