Snippet 3 – Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is another snippet from Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter Two

Hruvvoa 31st, 398 VF (Vaarck’s Founding) (1959 SR)

Ary bolted upright, gasping for air in the cramped attic room of his family’s farmhouse.

Free me!

The golden Luastria’s words haunted his mind as he struggled to slow his beating heart. He hadn’t dreamed of the void and the Luastria since the winter after the Cyclone while sick with the choking plague. He rubbed at his face, trying to shake her pain-filled words from clogging his thoughts. Then a trembling hand brushed the puckered scar on his side.

He flinched away.

In the seven years since the Cyclone had ravaged his home, Ary never understood what had happened to him. It bewildered the youth to think about that strange void where he’d hovered between life and death, reality and dreams. So, he ignored it. Between his pa’s death and his ma’s vitriol, he had too much to handle.

He never told anyone what happened, not even Chaylene. Why would he want to give his ma more fuel for her crazy ramblings? She spouted her vile madness to the goodwives in Isfe or to his face, hissing dung-filled words about how her son was tainted.

“Clawed by the Storm Goddess’s poisoned talons!” she’d howl. “It’s on his side! The scar where she touched him! Killed my husband and my Srias!”

Her words spoke the fear Ary could never voice. That he was tainted. The smooth patch of flesh on his side proved it. Scarred by a lightning bolt from the Dark Goddess’s Cyclone.

Once, crying on a hilltop, fleeing his mother’s vitriol, Ary tried to tell the one person he could be weak around, the person with whom he could relax the storm shutters of his heart. Her eyes, lit ruby by Jwiaswo, promised safety, trust. He loved Chaylene for that moment more than any other. She provided shelter from the abuse-churned storm wracking his ten-year-old body, still reeling from the death of his sister, Srias. He so wanted to tell Chaylene, yearning to hear his mother’s vitriol repudiated.

But . . . fear gripped him. Even with the girl he loved, the girl he shared every other secret and pain with, he couldn’t admit this horrifying possibility.

Theisseg’s lightning touched me. What if I am tainted? What if Srias is dead because of me?

Ary pushed the thoughts of his dead younger sister away as he lay back in bed beside his snoring brother. Jhevon didn’t even roll over. Ary closed his eyes, wanting to go back to sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day. The Summer Solstice approached. Ary, now seventeen, stood on the verge of adulthood. He and every other youth of seventeen would travel to Ahly, the capital of the Vesche. There, they’d receive their Blessings from the Sun Goddess and become adults.

How could you betray me? I did everything for you.”

Try as he might, he couldn’t escape the dream and the golden Luastria’s pain. She can’t be Theisseg, Ary thought. Not while suffering so much pain. But the lightning came from the Cyclone . . . He recoiled from the implication of their connection.

Groaning, he rolled out of bed, deciding to ready for the journey if he couldn’t sleep.

Ary peeled off his nightshirt, fabric sticking to his broad back and the powerful muscles of his chest. He rubbed a hand down his thick thigh. Since his pa’s death, he’d done a man’s work, and that put muscles on his short frame. From a battered chest of drawers, he grabbed a cotton shirt, faded from its original white to a dirty gray, and pulled it over his head. He paused, touching the puckered scar on his side.

End the pain.

Dressed in denim coveralls and his shirt, he headed downstairs to pack his and his siblings’ saddlebags, rubbing sleep from his red eyes. He threw the hog-leather saddlebags on the battered kitchen table and stuffed them with smoked ostrich jerky, hard sow’s cheese, and dried orange slices. He seized the waterskins and filled them from the well outside.

His ma was waiting in the kitchen when he walked back into the whitewashed farmhouse. He tensed, eyeing his ma in her cotton dressing gown, her hair falling in an unkempt, blonde mess around her brown, bony face. He never knew how his ma would act. Mostly she ignored him these days, but sometimes she’d fly into one of her rants, screaming at him, her eyes wild and spittle flying from her bloodless lips.

Something inside her broke the day of the Cyclone. She blamed Ary for his pa’s death, lashing out in her grief. His parents had possessed a close, fierce love he often saw lacking in other couples of Isfe. His best friend Vel’s parents always snapped at the other, trading barbs like a marine fencing with an Agerzak pirate.

In the months following his pa’s death, sweet Srias became the life of the family. His ma’s anger had dulled, Srias’s gentle love mending their ma’s cracked heart. But the attack had devastated Isfe, destroying crops and ruining food stores. When winter came, hunger howled and the choking plague raged. Never had Ary suffered such sickness, afflicted by a blur of fever dreams full of the golden Luastria, only interrupted by bouts of panic-inducing choking as his throat squeezed tight and strangled him.

Ary recovered, but Srias, only seven, didn’t.

His ma’s grief and malaise transformed into something worse. “That son of mine is tainted by Theisseg,” she said a few days after Srias’s death. He could remember her with vivid clarity; a few strands of her blonde hair had escaped from her tight bun as she’d hissed her bile to Vel’s ma. “That’s why my sweet Srias died. He poisoned her. I never should have put them in the same bed. I didn’t realize what a monster he was. I should’ve known. It’s the scar. That’s where She touched him.”

That day, Ary realized his ma would never love him again.

“Briaris,” his ma said, snapping him out of his memories, the first time she had spoken to him in over a week, her voice cold, distant. “You’ll be a man in two days.”

Ary nodded. He’d expected this for months. Deep inside, he’d known she’d despised him since Srias’s death. But it still ached his heart to witness her loathing.

“The law said I had to care for you, but that’s over now that you’re about to be an adult. Don’t bother coming back. There’s no place for you here. In fact, it’s best you volunteer. Go off to play marine like you always wanted.” A mad heat entered her voice, her hands shaking as bony fingers clasped together. “I don’t care what you do, just never step foot on my land again, you hear?”

“Fine.”

Anger flared inside him. His emotions simmered like a clay shot launched from a ballista. The chemical fuse reacted, moments from triggering the black powder charge and exploding. But he would not give her the satisfaction of seeing his detonation. Ary had learned years ago she enjoyed hurting him, taking a perverse delight in witnessing him erupt from her tiny pricks. He held off his wrath. Only when he was alone or with Chaylene would he show any pain.

“You’ve packed enough. You can wait outside for your siblings.”

He didn’t answer her as he dropped the waterskins on the table and exited the house. He did not slam the door behind him, refusing to betray his true feelings. He marched across the yard for the barn to saddle the ostriches.

The door banged open behind him. His ma stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip, a hogbone knife in the other. “Briaris. If you let any harm come to my children . . .” She let her threat hang in the air, hate and loathing burned in her eyes. Then she vanished back into the farmhouse, slamming the door behind her.

Ary realized he’d never see his ma again.

He leaned against the barn, fighting the tears, and looked to the stars. Chaylene always found them comforting to watch. His gaze turned towards the hills hiding her hovel. Did she look up at the sky right now, restless?

What would keep her up? Her ma’s dead.

Goldeneye, one of the farm’s ospreys, landed on his shoulder. Her beak nipped his temple. Every farm needed their flocks of ospreys and falcons to protect the fields from schools of fish. Ary stroked her sleek pattern of brown and white feathers as he watched Riasruo’s sun rise.

The dawn of his new life with Chaylene.

~ * * ~

Chaylene bolted up in her bed, gasping for air. Sweat matted her light linen camisole to her breasts. She shivered, her entire body drenched. A shuddering sob escaped her lips. She stumbled a few paces from her bed to the chipped, porcelain bowl sitting on a rickety table.

Her hand shaking, she poured water from a cracked-rim pitcher into the bowl. She splashed coolness on her ebony face, trying to forget the nightmares plaguing her for weeks—Ary, dressed in the red coat of an Autonomy Marine, torn apart by a hulking, blue-scaled Zzuki tribesman.

Dying like Chaylene’s pa had during the Zzuki Aggression War.

She feared losing Ary to the Navy. She’d loved him for as long as she remembered. As a child, in the bright future of her daydreams, she knew that he was her man. After the Cyclone, when his ma cracked and poured her madness upon him, she’d witnessed his strength and yearned to support him. When it grew too much, he turned to her for buttressing. They’d watch the stars, hands clutched tight, sharing their misery.

Ary’s like me, she realized as she approached thirteen. He’s got nothing for him in Isfe.

She wanted to leave Isfe, even Vesche, behind. To start a new life, away from the bullies and sneers, from the gossiping goodwives and the leering youths. Chaylene lost track of the times Ary’d bloodied his lips and nose thrashing boys who boasted of plucking her flower. She wished he’d thrash the sneering girls and their glaring mas, too.

I just want to leave. With him. Away from their pain.

But as their adulthood drew closer, she realized the possibility that the grasping claws of the Autonomy Navy could ruin their future together. On the Summer Solstice, every youth of seventeen had to enter the Naval Draft. He could be drafted or, worse, he could enlist.

The Navy offered the easiest escape from Vesche. And the most treacherous. War and accidents claimed lives. Peril lurked when sailing and fighting over the Storm. Sailors fell to Theisseg’s raging embrace if they weren’t killed defending the nation from the Empire’s covetous eye or the treachery of the supposedly conquered lizards.

Her ma had suffered being a sailor’s wife.

She sank back on her bed, clutching her hands. The hovel, a ramshackle structure constructed of scraps of lumber leftover from the Cyclone’s devastation, felt so empty since her ma’s passing a year ago. For all her life, Chaylene had lived in one small hut or another as the weight of her pa’s death serving in the Autonomy Navy slowly crushed her ma.

Her pa had enlisted at seventeen, and the Navy sent him to Rhebe where he fell in love with a Vaarckthian lass. When her pa mustered out after four years, he brought his bride home to Vesche. Then the Tribes of Zzuk invaded the Autonomy. He answered the call for veterans to reenlist and left Chaylene’s ma pregnant.

It took her ma sixteen years to die of grief. In her childhood, her ma was almost a whole woman with sparks of vibrancy that the years had extinguished. Every day, her mother cursed the Gezitziz barbarian who’d killed her husband while staring listlessly into the fire before she’d head off to Aldeyn Watch to wash the sailors’ laundry. After a long day, she’d stumble home, often drunk on orange wine. But as Chaylene aged and became more self-sufficient, her mother withdrew into herself. By the time Chaylene reached thirteen, her mother had stopped working entirely, no longer earning the pittance that kept them from starving when her pa’s naval pension didn’t cover sudden expenses or her ma’s increasing thirst for wine.

“Would I be strong enough to carry on if Ary died?” Chaylene whispered in the silent darkness, tears falling down to her clutched hands. “Or am I as weak as Ma?”

Chaylene feared if Ary enlisted, she wouldn’t have the courage to marry him and face his death. It disgusted her how dread picked at her love like a red-breasted crow feasting over carrion. Pecking, gnawing, tearing until only gouged bones remained. She shouldn’t fear marrying Ary.

Not every sailor or marine died. Most survived their four years.

But . . . not all.

The house still reeked of orange wine even a year later; the sour-sweet stench clung to the straw of her bed, soaked into the dirt floor. Her stomach churned. What did her ma find in the drink? Would it dull Chaylene’s own fear?

She fled the hovel, stepping into the cool, night air. The clouds had broken while she slept; the rains of the last few days ended. Stars twinkled bright at her, all the constellations she loved shining upon her. Whenever she couldn’t sleep, she watched the constellations, finding comfort in the stories they represented.

She sprawled on the dewy grass in her camisole. If any of the goodwives of Isfe were to see her, she would be the gossip of the village. “Did you see that Chaylene tramping around in her undergarments?” they’d whisper. “That Vaarckthian blood burns too hot in her. We best keep a close eye on the little hussy.”

They’d whispered the same words about her ma. Everyone thought Chaylene’s black skin made her burn with the famed Vaarckthian appetites, but she only felt the flames for Ary. The sight of him working with his shirt off, his muscular chest rippling brown with a sheen of sweat, his thick arms wielding a mattock, would spark off a blaze inside her. But she loved more than just his physical presence, she found solace in the gentleness of his soul. Despite his ma’s crazy accusations, he never grew bitter.

So why am I afraid of marrying him? Her thoughts circled the eddy of dread whirling in her heart, struggling to understand it. I do love him. Right?

The question revolted her. Of course she loved him. Who else looked at her as Chaylene and not “that Vaarckthian hussy”? Not once had Ary pressured her into more than kissing while star watching. She might have surrendered, ached to sometimes, but a voice always whispered in her mind: Just like a Vaarckthian hussy would.

Just like your ma.

So as much as she longed to feel Ary’s strong arms around her, to share her fires with him, she was glad he wasn’t like Vel. Her other friend had a roving eye, never staying with a girl for long before plucking his next flower. Every time she didn’t surrender to Ary proved she wasn’t what the goodwives and the Vionese girls accused.

She loved Ary most for understanding that.

She gazed up at the stars, wishing for his presence, to talk about her silly fear of the Navy, but . . . Every time she tried to bring it up, it lodged in her heart. Gooey, like molasses in winter, gumming up her innards and trapping her words.

Instead, she forgot about her nightmare and all her problems by marveling at the majesty of the night sky that unfurled above her. Her favorite constellations, Eyia and Bronith, had already set, but her other friends shone bright.

She found the constellation of the Golden Daughter in the southern sky. Lanii had hatched from a golden egg on the very day Riasruo raised the Skylands above the Storm. The Daughter of the Sun founded the Dawn Empire, and her descendants ruled a thousand years of peace before the Great Cyclone dragged Swuopii down into the Storm Below.

Ary could be killed fighting a Cyclone if he’s drafted. Just like the Intrepid’s crew.

Chaylene squeezed her eyes shut, trying to bury her fear. She imagined the Golden Daughter singing the first Rosy Prayer, attempting to hum the complex and beautiful wordless song under her breath to drive away the future. Her voice was melodic and her pitch perfect, but she couldn’t capture the complex harmony produced by a Luastria’s trilling song.

If I don’t marry Ary, what are my prospects?

Even if she didn’t love Ary (and she refused to believe that), only he out of the youths of Isfe had courted her. Their mothers had poisoned the rest. “Zue does more than just launder the sailor’s clothes,” the goodwives gossiped about Chaylene’s ma when they thought she couldn’t hear. “And that daughter of hers has blood that burns as hot. She’s not fit for my son to marry.”

Her pa’s pension would end the moment she received her Blessing in two days. If she didn’t marry Ary, she’d have to launder clothes at Aldeyn Watch to survive. Then all the goodwives would speculate on what else she did for the sailors.

Tears brimmed in her eyes. She hated all of them. She wished for Ary to hold her and whisper gentle words. “It’s easier blaming others, to see the sins that burn in us consume another,” he said to her a week after her ma’s death when Goodwife Tloay’s words spilled tears down her cheeks. “I try to believe that’s why my ma says the things she does . . .”

He comforted her at the cost of his own pain.

Chaylene sought another friend in the sky, the constellation of the Azure Songbird, Shian. The Sun Goddess sent five sacred beasts to the mortals to teach them crafts and arts. Shian gifted music to the mortals, teaching them to sing such beautiful songs. During the Sisters’ War in the distant past—when jealous Theisseg had wanted the love and worship her sister Riasruo received—the Storm Goddess sent a mighty hurricane to kill Shian.

But Riasruo loved the poor songbird and placed Shian into the sky so he could sing forever.

The history of the world stretched out above Chaylene. Each constellation told a different part of the grand story. She loved history, learning what had come before and how every story led to another. The Stormriders destroyed the Dawn Empire. Before that, the Golden Daughter, Lanii, founded the Dawn Empire after her mother Riasruo raised the skylands. The Sun Goddess performed that miracle after Kaltein summoned the Storm at the end of the Wrackthar War. On and on stretched history back to the Songs of Creation.

Her fear dwindled as she stared at the Great Whale Adelwem swimming above the Brilliant Sea, the milky band of thick stars encircling the world. Then her heart beat for excitement as she gazed up Drialus and the Hydra, their constellations forever locked in battle in the northern sky. Drialus perished slaying the Hydra, one of Theisseg’s foul children, during the Sisters’ War. Then she found her own namesake constellation—Chaylene the Shieldmaiden.

When the Hopeful Company set out to win Riasruo’s favor in the Wrackthar War, Chaylene the Shieldmaiden represented the Vionese in the company. A brave maiden who risked much to defend her companions. Kaltein himself slew her. But her attack so surprised the Tyrant-King, the rest of the Company escaped and reached Mount Wraiucwii. Like all the members of the Hopeful Company, Riasruo placed the Shieldmaiden into the skies for her valiant service.

Peace returned to Chaylene as she gazed at the heavens until the sun’s rise banished her friends.

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

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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