Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!
Beneath the Storm
That one thought rang in Kov’s head as the Valiant careened through the skies towards the silvery, Zzuki warship. Below, the Storm churned and boiled beneath both wooden ships soaring over the boiling, angry-gray clouds. The Valiant, a twin-mast corvette of the Autonomy of Les-Vion’s Navy, had sailed forth from the Skyland of Rhogre to scout for any incursions of the Zzuki’s fleet.
And the ship had blundered right into a Zzuki scout.
Drums beat a frenzied, booming staccato from the Zzuki ship. The enemy vessel was larger than the slimmer Valiant. The scout’s deck swarmed with the blue-scaled brutes. The lizardmen of the Tribes of Zzuk only wore leather breach cloths even into battle. Their warriors crowded the deck, wielding massive clubs of wood. Each Zzuki towered a head or more over the tallest human.
Fear seized Kov. They’ll smash us into jelly with those clubs.
He trembled in his red, woolen Marine jacket, his ebony hands gripping the wooden stock of his thunderbuss. The thunderbuss was the primary weapon of an Autonomy Marine. A clay barrel about the width of Kov’s wrist and as long as his arm extended set into a stock of carved and polished wood. With the weapon, Kov could channel his Blessing of Moderate Lightning through the weapon and fire a bolt of electricity.
Kov’s skin itched as he built up his charge. Like every citizen in the skies, save for the heathen Agerzaks of their petty, warring kingdoms, he had received Riasruo’s Blessing. There were four different blessings—Mist, Lightning, Pressure, and Wind—that came in three separate strengths—Minor, Moderate, and Major. From the Goddess, Kov received a pair of gifts he used in her honor. Every Marine had Moderate Lightning, a requirement to utilize the thunderbuss. His second gift was simply Minor Wind.
Which won’t help me against those brutes. Falling slowly won’t help me over the Storm.
“Let’s show these lizards how the Autonomy’s vest fights,” declared Sergeant Dhar, commander of the Valiant’s Marines. She was a tall, willowy woman, her light-brown hair pulled back in a tight braid.
Most of the crew of the Valiant, like the majority of citizens of the Autonomy, were brown-skinned Vionese Humans. Other than pocket communities of mole-like Zalg and the few Luastria priestesses overseeing the churches and temples, there was a minority of black-skinned Vaarckthian, like Kov, scattered about the nation. Kov—which wasn’t his real name, but most Vionese couldn’t pronounce Qovthuimn—was descended from those Vaarckthians that had joined the Vionese in their rebellion against the Vaarckthian Empire almost a hundred years ago.
Kov was proud to be a citizen of the Autonomy and serve in the navy. His pride had only been strengthen when the war started two months ago. The Tribes of Zzuk were feeling aggressive and, believing the Autonomy was weak, had invaded in their silvery flying ships bent on expanding their control to new skylands.
The ships closed. The rigging creaked above Kov’s head. Sailors, clad in white linen, scampered through the rigging and spars of the Valiant’s twin masts, adjusting sails as the ship maneuvered.
“Ready to fire,” bellowed Sergeant Dhar.
Kov and his fellow marines set their thunderbusses to their shoulders. Kov gathered his charge in his left hand clutching the barrel, ready to fire. On either side of him, a sailor aimed a crossbow. Lacking Moderate Lightning, a rarer blessing, the sailors made do with less devastating weapons.
“Fire,” bellowed the Sergeant.
Kov discharged his lightning. Around him, sailors armed with crossbows let loose a flight of bolts and his fellow Marines fired their thunderbusses. The lightning arced and snaked, striking the defending warriors on the deck of the enemy ship while the crossbow bolts glanced off their tough hides.
Several of the lizardmen fell convulsing to the deck, struck dead by the lightning bolts. But not the one Kov hit. The Zzuki he struck possessed at least the Blessing of Minor Lightning, granting immunity to all forms of electricity
“Theisseg damn it,” Kov muttered, throwing out the name of the Dark Goddess whose never ending Storm churned beneath them.
The ships hurtled closer. The Zzuki warriors responded with a flight of javelins. The thin, long spears arced through the air. Kov ducked behind the gunwale lining the Valiant’s well deck and closed his eyes.
I’m so dead.
The javelins thudded as they slammed into the hull of the Valiant or crashed into the deck. A woman screamed in pain, struck by the weapon. Kov opened his eyes. A sailor lay on her back, a javelin planted in her belly. She ripped it out and bright blood soaked her white linens and spilled onto the pale yellow-white decking.
The forward ballistae of the Valiant thwunked as they fired. A pair of clay shot sailed at the Zzuki ship. The shots detonated in the rigging with deafening claps. Black smoke and fire erupted, snapping the enemy ship’s wooden spars that held the sails and shredding canvas. Blue-scaled sailors were torn to shreds, falling in bloody bits onto the warriors standing on the deck.
“Fire,” Sergeant Dhar yelled as a pair of sailors dragged off the wounded woman. “Don’t just storming sit there.”
Kov forced himself to aim over the gunwale. A javelin hissed past his face. He gathered his charge and added his shot to another volley of lightning and crossbow bolts arced towards the Zzuki. A line of hulking warriors fell on the enemy deck.
The ballistae fired their own volley again. The explosive shock waves rippled hot across Kov’s cheeks and left more dead on the deck of the Zzuki ship.
“We’re boarding her,” Sergeant Dhar shouted, her voice commanding. Despite her youth, she couldn’t be more than a few years older than Kov, she strode the deck with a commanding presence. “Break out the grappling hooks. Marines, fire another volley.”
“Riasruo above, defend us,” Kov prayed to the Sun Goddess, the benevolent sister to Theisseg. The sun’s warm, feathery light fell on his shoulder, and Kov hoped she answered his prayers and not those of the Zzuki.
As the Valiant approached the Zzuki ship, Kov continued firing his thunderbuss. Sailors rushed below the Valiant’s deck to retrieve the coiled grappling hooks. The Valiant groaned and creaked as she turned. The Windwarden, a person possessing Major Wind, changed the direction of the navigation wind to aid the ship’s maneuver.
Smoke billowed from the enemy ship from the ballistae detonations, drifting from the enemy ship to the Valiant. The acrid scent of burnt black powder stung Kov’s eyes.
“Here,” a sailor said, shoving a grappling hook into Kov’s hand. The hook was carved from the shoulder blade of a bristleback boar, three curved prongs lashed together and attached to a sturdy, hemp rope.
“Prepare to grapple,” Sergeant Dhar shouted.
Kov slung his thunderbuss and rose. He swung the grapple hook in a tight circle with his right hand, the left holding the loose coil of rope. He clumsily threw his grapple. It was one of dozens sailing from the Valiant to the enemy ship. His landed in the tangled rigging. He jerked rope to ensure the grapple’s hook had caught on something solid.
I am so going to die.
“Board,” commanded the Sergeant.
Kov planted his foot on the gunwale. It was just like training, only then he hadn’t had to swing over the Storm. The dark clouds boiled two or three ship-lengths below. He gripped the rope in his hands. Other marines and sailors jumped off the Valiant and swung across to the Zzuki ship. He had to follow. He had his duty to perform. He was a stormwall of the Autonomy.
Kov swung out.
His grapple came loose.
His stomach rose into his throat as he plunged down at the churning Storm still vainly clutching the rope. The carpet of roiling clouds rushed up at him. He screamed his fear as he tumbled. The blue sky above and the dark clouds below seemed to merge together.
Kov plunged into Theisseg’s domain. He would never see Riasruo’s light again.
The wet clouds swallowed him. Gray darkness surrounded him. The winds howled, ripping at his body. The wind tore the rope from his grip as he tumbled and flipped. His screams were ripped away from his lips. Lightning lit up the clouds around him and thunder slammed into his body.
I’m never going to see my friends, my family. Aibthuirni’s face rose in his mind, laughing with exuberance. I’m so dead.
* * *
“You are so dead,” Aibthuirni shouted in Agerzese, rushing at Kov while she brandished her wooden stick. “Agerzak pirates never loose.”
Kov, thirteen and growing into a man’s frame, parried his little sister’s stick, a loud crack resounding and drawing the attention of a few of the Agerzak workers tending the pineapple fields. The straighted up from the careful rows, straw hats covering their faces from the hot sun.
Kov’s little sister, her red hair gathered in a pair of braids above her ears, had a fierce expression on her coal-black face. She swung her improvised sword with a fierce passion, a vicious grin spreading across her face lingering with the traces of baby fat.
“Die,” she hissed in harsh Agerzese.
“You better not let mother hear you speaking Agerzese,” Kov laughed as he knocked back her make-shift sword.
This morning, the siblings played Aibthuirni’s favorite game—Pirates and Marines. She always wanted to play the pirate. His sister preferred to run around in his old pants and shirts instead of the dresses their mother tried to force her into, climbing trees and romping through fields instead of playing with her dolls.
“Mother doesn’t believe in fun,” Aibthuirni answered as she slashed, her attacks all wild and uncoordinated. She switched to Agerzese, snarling out the rough syllabus. “Besides, an Agerzak pirate would never speak such a weak tongue as Vionese.”
Kov laughed, and answered back in Agerzese, “If it’s so weak, then why did the Vionese Marines conquer the Fringe?”
“I…” Aibthuirni lowered her weapon and frowned, forcing Kov to stop his swing before he cracked his stick across her face. She looked at the Agerzaks working their parents plantation. Twenty years ago, the skyland of Isthia had been apart of the the Agerzak Kingdom of Mecheissen. “How did they loose?” she asked in Vionese. “Agerzak pirates are so fierce.”
“We were better,” Kov shrugged.
Aibthuirni hit his shin with her stick. Kov howled in pain. She laughed, “But you’re not strong enough to defeat the dread pirate Aibthuirni.”
* * *
Kov was barely conscious from the Storm’s battering as he emerged into the calm air beneath. The ground was dark below. He fell with the rain, hurtling towards his death. His eyes fluttered and he groaned.
Instinctively, he seized his Blessing of Minor Wind. His power reached out to the air rushing around him. It cushioned him, slowing his fall moments before he slammed into the ground. He hit with the force of falling off a roof instead of the thousands of feet from the Valiant. He rolled, the ground soft and muddy, and came to rest on his back.
Lightning flashed above, lighting up the churning clouds of the Storm. The world seemed upside down to Kov as he struggled to move. The Storm was above him. It was like lying on the bottom of a skyland, something impossible, and staring up at it. His stomach heaved as he grappled with the upset to his universe. He gagged and then spewed out acidic bile into the wet mud.
The world below reeked of sour, rotten plants. He groaned and spat as he sat up, his hands sinking into the soft mud. The rain fell on him. It was warm. He had never felt rain so warm before, even in a summer shower back at his parent’s plantation. The air was thick, muggy, almost choking him as he breathed.
Lightning flashed from the Storm, striking the ground nearby. For a moment, the world was illuminated by white brilliance. A landscape of fetid pools and limp, red vegetation surrounded him. He blinked back against the blinding lightning, a blue streak burned across his vision.
He stared up at the clouds. They were too thick for the sun’s light to penetrate. Riasruo’s love didn’t shine upon her sister’s domain. Two thousand years, Kaltein had called up Theisseg and she had answered. The Dark Goddess had covered the world in her Storm, blotting out her sister’s sun. But Riasruo had loved her children too much. She raised up the Luastria, Humans, Gezitziz, and Zalg above the Storm to live in the skies upon floating skylands. Only the Wrackthar Humans were left behind, the foul followers of the Tyrant-King Kaltein and Theisseg herself.
“What do I do?” Kov whispered. “Why did I even bother to save myself? I’m just going to die?” A sob shook his body. “How long does it take to starve to death?”
Kov had no idea.
He glanced up at the sky, wishing he could peer through the impenetrable Storm and witness the Valiant’s battle with the Zzuki. Had his comrades vanquished the brutal Gezitziz? Or had the lizardmen rallied and swept the Valiant’s Marines and sailors from their ship’s deck.
The rain splashed on his face. He grimaced and wiped at his cheek. The water was gritty. Kov frowned and pulled his fingers away from his face, trying to examine what polluted the rainwater beading on his hands. It was almost impossible to see. His hands were dark shadows before him. It wasn’t pitch black beneath the Storm, some of Riasruo’s light most penetrate the clouds, but only a fraction.
A soft glow caught his notice, rippling as the rain fell. The brackish water shimmered with blue. Kov frowned and stood up, adjusting his thunderbuss’s strap on his shoulder. He hadn’t lost either his thunderbuss or his bone sabre that hung from his waist. Kov moved to the brackish pool. Its surface glowed. He touched the water and scooped up stringy slime that coated his fingers.
Kov grimaced and wiped the slime off on his trousers. “Probably can’t drink from any of these pools. Full of pond scum. I guess it’s dying of dehydration instead of starvation Was that worse?”
Kov looked up. “It’s swifter.”
Lightning flashed and illuminated the plain for a stark moment. Something moved out there, large, four legged, and drinking from the brackish pool. It looked almost like a pegasus without wings and with horns rising above its narrow head.
“How does anything live down here?” Kov asked as he looked around.
Of course, something had to live down here, unless the Stormriders really were demons and not the Wrackthar Humans that had survived for two thousand years beneath Theisseg’s Storm. The Agerzaks were proof of the Wrackthar’s survival. His mother always complained about the heathen Agerzak farmhands who worshiped Theisseg and possessed strange Blessings from the Dark Goddess. Somehow, the Agerzaks had escaped from beneath the storm, probably riding one of their Cyclones, and carved out the eastern skylands as their home.
Kov’s mother detested the Agerzaks. He could still remember his switching when he was sixteen when his mother caught him and Chassei, an Agerzak housemaid, in the barn kissing.
“No son of mine will marry an Agerzak slattern,” Aabsaizhn, his mother, had sneered in her prim dress and her red hair pinned up in a tight bun.
Kov’s argument that there lived only one non-Agerzak girl within a day’s walk his age did not work on his mother. Kov’s parents had been among the first Autonomy colonist to settle the southeastern district of Isthia after the war, and Kov was among the oldest children born in their corner of the Fringe.
“They’re all filthy heathens, Qovthuimn.” His mother was the only one that still called him by his full Vaarckthian name. “I can trace my roots through my mother and her mother all the way back to the skyland’s rising. We have always revered Riasruo. Why would you want to spend time with a girl who’s ancestors attacked our goddess?”
Kov hadn’t dared to answer the truth: “Because she’s pretty and friendly.” Kov had spent weeks wooing Chassei, and all his careful seduction had been foiled. Instead he answered, “You don’t know the Agerzaks are descended from the Stormriders.”
Her angry tirade had ended with his strapping. Every colonist on the Fringe knew who the Agerzaks were descended from. Even the Agerzaks believed it. He had heard a few talking, forgetting he had learned their language to talk with their pretty, fair-skinned maidens.
Kov shook his head. Dwelling on the past would do little to help out his present. The rain seemed to dwindle. Kov wiped the gritty water off his face again. He rubbed his fingers together, the fine grains in the water rough on his fingers. The rain left a tangy flavor that seemed familiar to Kov. The water had ran down his the back of his neck, and the fine grit rubbed at his shoulders as he looked around.
“Where should I go?” He couldn’t just sit around and wait to die. That seemed pointless.
But what am I living for? No one ever returns after they’ve fallen into the Storm.
Kov couldn’t decide on a direction. The muddy, murky plain all looked the same.
A cry rose in the distance, some beast’s roar that started low and grew to a high-pitch howl. It seemed to linger for a while, drifting on the wind. A second beast answered. Kov shuddered. He had never heard the like before. The first beast howled again.
“Not that way,” Kov decided, putting his back to the howls. He marched forward.
The mud sucked at his boots. The ground was deceptive. He could barely make it out in the gloom. The flat mud could hid deeper puddles, plunging his step deep into the mire. He had to strain to pull his foot out. If his boots weren’t laced on so tight, he might have lost them to the mud.
After what may have been an hour, the rain stopped. But the air was muggy and hot. Even wet, he grew warm in his wool uniform.
“Why’s it so storming hot down here,” he muttered. It didn’t make sense. It was perpetually overcast. Cloudy days were always cooler than sunny, and it wasn’t this hot above the Storm. It was spring above, winter’s grip relaxing on Rhogre.
It grew hotter without the rain. Kov loosed the collar of his white, wool shirt as he marched across the bog. The heat reminded Kov of the oppressive Fringe summer, but the air down here was far muggier. Water constantly beaded on his exposed skin. He mopped at his brow and kept walking. There really was nothing else to do.
The ground grew more distinct, the world lightening as his eyes adjusted to the near gloom. Kov grew more certain that some light penetrated the Storm. The muddy ground was covered in vines with broad, red leaves, almost like the kelp that drifted through the skies above. The leaves were leathery and broad. Plants needed light. Every farmer knew that.
Could the small amount of light that penetrated the Storm sustain these plants?
Other things moved in the mud. Withing insects with hundreds of legs skittered and slithered through the muck. They were huge, some as big as Kov’s hand. Sinuous creatures with scaly bodies swam through brackish pools and hissed when Kov drew close. He shuddered and avoided the creatures as he kept marching.
A splashing, gurgling sound drifted in the air, catching Kov’s attention. “Is that a river?”
Kov paused to listen, straining to detect which direction the babbling stream lay. He turned to his right. The sound seemed to be coming from that direction. He marched a dozen steps across the mud and paused.
The sound grew louder.
“Blessed Riasruo,” he sighed.
Despite the oppressive humidity, his throat had grown parched as he marched. The ground firmed as he neared the splashing water. The ground rose and was covered in a thick carpet of the leathery plants. Rocks jutted out of the ground and others crunched beneath his boots.
The splashing grew louder. Another dozen steps, he discovered the source.
A stream cut into the ground, splashing over a rocky bed as it poured down into the plain. Kov fell to his knees and dipped his hands into the cool water. He cupped them and lifted the sweet liquid to his lips. It was blessedly clean. He drank more and more. He leaned over and shoved his face into the flowing water, sucking mouthfuls down.
His stomach rumbled.
“Well, I’m not going to die of dehydration,” sighed Kov. “I guess I need to find food.”
He looked forlornly at the leathery, tough plants and pictured his teeth wearing away to painful stubs trying to eat the flora. Everything was dim and indistinct in the gloom, but he didn’t spot anything that could pass as fruit.
Maybe the roots.
Kov pried up one of the leathery plants. Its roots were long and stringy, clinging with dirt. They looked less edible than the leaves. Kov sighed and dropped the uprooted plant.
There was that beast I saw drinking. Kov patted his thunderbuss. It could kill a beast as easily as a man.
Kov stood and decided to follow the stream and discover where it led.
He hadn’t expected to discover a girl.
After what Kov had figured was an hour following the stream, he took another break to drink. The stream seemed larger now, picking up small brooks as it tumbled down into the plain and on its way to a full river. He sat his thunderbuss beside him as he bent down to drink.
A woman spoke in a harsh language that sounded almost like Agerzese.
Kov froze. He looked up and saw the girl. She was slim, crouching across the stream. Her face was ghostly, almost glowing in the near dark. Her skin seemed paler than even the whitest Agerzak Kov had witnessed. Her black hair fell in thick braids about her face, and her eyes were almond-shaped and almost entirely black from her dilated pupils. She wore clothing made of reddish fibers that seemed slick to the touch, clearly made of the local vegetation.
She barked again in her languages Kov frowned. He almost could understand it. He thought he heard the Agerzak word for “who” and “you.”
His heart beat. She was a Stormrider. What do I do? The Stormriders were the enemy of everyone in the skies. They sent their Cyclones to attack the skylands, riding in the maelstrom on steeds of clouds. Their attacks were rare, but always devastating.
The Stormrider girl spat out another sentence. Kov caught a single word—“above.”
Her hand whipped out a dagger, long and sharp. It wasn’t made of bone but of metal. In the skies above, metals were rare. The only source was the looted armor and weapons of slain Stormriders. It was precious. Her dagger was worth entire villages above.
Her brows furrowed. She gripped her dagger and spat more in her language.
Kov glanced at his thunderbuss.
The girl straightened up. She was taller than she looked, almost his height, and older. Not a girl but a young woman. Lightning flashed, reflecting off her blade. Kov’s heart hammered. He reached for his weapon.
The Stormrider screamed and charged across the stream, water splashing about her boots. Kov grasped his weapon. He had drilled over and over during training. His body reacted without thought as he brought his thunderbuss to bear. His charge gathered in his left hand. His skin tingled as the electricity raced to his palm.
The lightning bolt lit up her stunned face. The arcing thunderbolt struck her in the chest. She screamed out once and fell limp, crashing onto the bank at his feet. Kov’s hands shook as he stared down at the girl, her braided hair splayed out around her head.
“I…I killed her.”
A burnt, acrid scent stained the air. Kov stepped back, his legs shaking. He didn’t even think of using a nonlethal charge. That was not how Marines were trained in the Autonomy Navy.
“Riasruo above, I killed her.”
The Stormrider groaned.
Kov gaped. That’s not possible. No one can take a lethal charge and live. Not even Stormriders. He had trained to fight the armored riders. He knew his lightning would kill them.
The girl moved. Her face lifted up. She spoke in her languages, her words slurred.
“Don’t move,” Kov said in Agerzese, aiming his thunderbuss at her.
The Stormrider froze and looked up. Mud smeared her pale cheek. She spoke in her language. It almost sounded like, “What are you?”
“I fell. From above.” Kov pointed up as he spoke Agerzese. “I’m stuck down here.”
Her face hardened. “Above.” Her accent was strange. Her words made with slightly different sounds, but Kov was beginning to understand it. Her language wasn’t much different than Agerzese.
“Yes. I’m from above. I’m Kov.”
She sat up. A hole was scorched into her red clothing. Kov jumped as fire suddenly danced on her fingers, burning with a soft, red light, far more crimson than any flame. She brought it to her wound, illuminating a puckered burn marring her flesh. She grimaced as she rubbed at her singed clothing.
“How did you make the fire?” Kov gaped. It danced upon her fingers without hurting her pale skin.
“How did you throw lightning?” she asked. Her words were getting easier and easier to decipher.
“Reeasur?” she said, stumbling over the world.
“The sun goddess.”
“The sun is a lie,” she spat. “You stole it from us.”
“Theisseg stole it from you.”
“Who is Theisseg?”
“The Storm Goddess.” Kov pointed up. “The Dark Goddess that wants to destroy the world. You Stormriders serve her.”
“Whatever you want to call yourself. You send your damned Cyclones to attack us.”
“No one called Theisseg sends our crusades.” She stroked her burned flesh. Only it wasn’t burned any longer Smooth, pale skin gleamed through the scorched hole in her clothing.
Kov’s jaw dropped.
“What?” she demanded. “You look like a horse kicked you in the head.”
“You healed yourself.”
“And you threw lighting. I have Dheissech’s Second Gift of Fleshknitting and the Second Gift of Firedrinking. You? What gifts did your false sun give you.”
“Moderate Lightning and Minor Wind.”
“Are you going to point your weapon at me all day?” she asked.
“I…I don’t know.” Kov’s shoulders slumped. “What’s the point. I’m stuck down here.” He lowered his thunderbuss and sat down on the mud.
The girl glanced at her dagger fallen in the mud. She snatched it. Kov didn’t move. I guess this is a cleaner death than starving down here.
She held the dagger clutched in her fist. She stared at Kov, nibbling on her lip. The fire burned brighter, climbing up her arm, shedding crimson light everywhere. She looked wild and fierce.
“You’re like a pale Aibthuirni,” Kov muttered.
“My little sister. You remind me of her. She was fierce, too. Always running about pretending to be a pirate.”
The girl furrowed her brows.
“If you’re going to kill me, just do it,” Kov sighed. “What does it matter? I’m never going to see Aibthuirni, my parents, or anyone else I know. I don’t even know if my ship won the battle.”
“Ship? I don’t know that word. It sounds like…my word, but…you speak strange.”
“It’s Agerzese I’m speaking. Anyway a ship is a big, um, wagon that flies through the skies. I served on the Valiant. We were fighting when I slipped and fell.”
Her eyes widened. “From your ship? Does horses pull it. Can you Skydance?” An eagerness crossed into her lips.
What was Skydancing? “No. We conjure wind and catch it in sails.”
She shook her head.
“Umm, big sheets that we stretch across the rigging. It catches the wind and the ship travels along with it.”
Her dagger lowered.
“That’s how we get about up there. Moving from skylands to skylands. I guess down here you don’t need to fly to get around.”
“No. We can walk or ride our horses. But it’s dangerous between the holds.”
Kov looked around. “It just seems muddy.”
“Dangerous. Quick bogs, wolves, storms, centipedes.”
“What is this?” She pointed at the thunderbuss. “You threw lighting through it. You said it has to do with your gift.”
“My blessing.” Kov frowned. “If you’re not going to kill me, then what’s your name?”
“Nreissa. That’s a pretty name,” Kov smiled.
She frowned. “I may still kill you, Kov.” Nreissa’s smile returned. “So what is it?”
“My thunderbuss. I can’t throw lightning without it. I can only deliver it by touch.”
“So if you touched me, you could zap me again?”
Kov nodded. “But this is an engine. It has a gem inside of it. The gem enhances my power. Let’s me shoot the lightning like I had the Major Blessing.”
“It’s not made of metal.” She stroked the barrel. “It’s like stone, but it’s not. It doesn’t feel right.”
“No it’s not.”
Kov grinned. “If you have the right type of clay and heat it, it hardens.”
Her fingers moved down and touched the wooden stock. “Is this also clay?”
“Wood…yes. I can feel the grains. Sometimes we find wood on the plain, remnants from your world above. Crashed…ships, yes? It is so precious. Every bit is needed. In the stories, it comes from from trees.”
She said the word with such awe.
“They say there were trees, once. They didn’t survive the murk.”
“Murk? Like dim light?”
Nreissa nodded. “Look at it. Murk. We were abandoned to it. Your sun left us behind.”
“You were our enemies,” Kov answered. He swallowed. She didn’t feel like an enemy. His eyes cast about. It was oppressive down here. Hot, muggy, and dark. The openness of the skies was gone. No vibrant blue and glowing sun.
“I guess we’re still your enemy. You fight off our heroes and crusades. Stormriders. That’s your word.”
Kov nodded. “We don’t want to die. Your first…heroes dragged down the eastern skylands. You plunged the skies into war and suffering.”
A vicious smile crossed her lips. It made her face ugly. “Good. You all deserve it.”
Kov’s face scrunched. “It was your ancestors that started the war. You tried to enslave us. So of course we fought back. And it was your mad king and your dark goddess that created the Storm.”
“Lies,” Nreissa leaped to her feet and shouted. “Why would we create the murk? Look what it’s done to the world. The songs all talk about grass and green plants. Cool forests. Blue lakes. The sun.” She threw her arms up. “They talk of moons and stars like they are the most beautiful things in the world. All we have is this.” She scooped up a handful of mud and threw it at Kov.
It splattered on his shirt. Kov swallowed. He had no idea what to say. She’s never seen the stars. Riasruo above.
“So we try to end the murk. We send our heroes in mighty crusades. So what if some of you die. One day we’ll end it. We grow stronger. We’ve learned to survive, to prosper. Despite the Murk.”
“I…” Kov closed his mouth. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Nreissa hissed. “Your people crushed us. You slaughtered us. With your Blessings. We were butchered.” She paused. “Maybe Kaltein summoned the Murk out of madness as some claim, but it was because you and your false sun drove it to him. Did we deserve this?” She stood forward. Tears burned in her eyes. The fires burning on her hands danced brighter, the red turning into yellow. It hurt his eyes. “Did we, Kov?” A shudder racked her body.
“I…maybe not.” He looked around. “No. No one deserves to live without the sun. The stars.”
“Mud and mire,” she groaned and her flames died away. The world plunged into darkness. Nreissa vanished before him. A bright, blue blur covered his vision.
“Nreissa?” he gasped. “I can’t see anything.”
“I ruined our night vision when I let the fire go yellow,” she hissed. “It’ll be awhile before we can see again.”
“Red flame doesn’t.”
“I don’t know why, it just doesn’t.”
A shape resolved. Nreissa was a few feet away, pacing back and forth.
“Why don’t you make your red flame again?” Kov asked.
“I shouldn’t use it. It attracts notice. We’re not the only creatures out on the plain. Wolves hunt it. They’re always on the look out for prey.”
“What’s a wolf?”
“It’s a wild dog. Vicious. Teeth.”
“Dog? Maybe my Agerzese isn’t good enough. I only know the names of domesticated animals. Is it like a shark?”
Kov snorted in laughter. “Riasruo above, we’re really from different worlds. Sharks have sharp teeth. They’re big and vicious. They sometimes attack children or livestock. In the deep skies, they can grow big enough to attack men.”
“Yes. Those are wolves. They’re…”
The howl Kov had heard earlier rose. He shivered. “What’s that?”
“Wolf. No time to wait for our vision to return. We need to follow the stream to get back to the hold.”
“Hold? Your home?”
“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper. “Ready your lightning thrower. If they have our scent…”
A second wolf howled. It was closer. The sound drifted on the air. Primal.
Kov’s vision improved as they followed the stream. It started out as a walk, but soon Nreissa was jogging. Kov’s heavy boots splattered through the mud as he struggled to keep up. He barely could see what he was about to step upon. His heart hammered in his chest. He gripped the thunderbuss, his charge ready.
Every few steps, he threw a look behind him. He could only see a few ropes, perhaps the height of two men. The world was swallowed by the murky darkness. He sucked in breaths, the thick, muggy air almost choking him as he ran.
A glow appeared on the horizon. It was faint, yellow, almost wavering as it barely fought to keep back the darkness. It grew brighter as they jogged. “Is that your hold?”
Nreissa stopped. She turned and bit her lip. “Kov, maybe—”
The darkness moved. A shaggy beast slammed into Nreissa, snarling in triumph as it bore her to the ground. She screamed in pain, the beast’s jaws ripping her guts open. She landed in the mud as the beast snarled.
The wolf was vicious, lean, the size of a large hog. It’s bloody maw was filled with sharp teeth as it snarled at Kov. He brought his thunderbuss to bear and fired. The lightning lit up the night. Eyes reflected around Kov as the wolf howled in pain and fell dead on Nreissa’s shuddering body.
Her breathing was wet. Blood bubbled out of her lips.
Kov remembered the other eyes in the gloom. He turned and fired lightning bolts into the darkness. His bolt snapped arch, snaking across the sky and striking the mud. The wolves howled, their bays high-pitched. They bolted into the darkness.
Anger gripped Kov. The first person he had met down here had been gutted by the foul beast. He discharged again and again, the charge draining from his body. The air burned and cracked. The wolves howled in terror.
He didn’t hit any of them.
Kov was plunged into darkness after his last bolt fired His night vision had been ruined by the bright lightning. He stood in absolute darkness. “Nreissa,” he yelled, looking around, struggling to get his bearings and remember where she was. “Nreissa.”
Fear clutched his heart. Her guts had been ripped out. She had healed from his lightning bolt, but could she survive disembowelment? He had two shots left with his thunderbuss. He aimed it high and discharged towards the Storm.
The world was painted blue-white for a moment.
Nreissa sprawled to his left.
Darkness fell and he rushed to her, slipping on the muck. His hands reached out, searching for her. He brushed the thick fur of the dead beast. The wolf was warm on top of her. His fingers sank into the fur, and he heaved the beast to the mud.
Kov had to work in the dark. His hands slid along her body until he found her ragged wound. He grimaced as he touched her slimy, ropy guts. Kov took a deep breath. He had received basic field medicine. This wound would kill a regular person, but Nreissa could heal herself.
I just have to help her out.
He worked by feeling, shoving her intestines back into the ragged tear across her guts. Her breaths were wet wheezes, and she uttered the occasional whimper as he manhandled her intestines. Once he felt confident her innards were back inside, Kov ripped off his jacket and prayed. “Riasruo, shine your feathery light down on us. I know a little big makes it through. Please, help her. She’s not bad. Please.”
The sun’s warmth didn’t caress his shoulders. Sighing, he wrapped his jacket around her torso, tying the sleeves into a tight knot.
The glow on the horizon beckoned. Her hold.
“Come on, Nreissa,” he whispered as he picked up her slim body. He almost slipped on the mud as he stood up.
Walking towards the light on the horizon gave Kov purpose. He wasn’t just lost beneath the Storm. He had Nreissa’s life cradled in his arms. A Stormrider. A Wrackthar. The bogeymen his mother had terrified his childhood with had been distilled into a scared, wounded, dying young woman.
“You’ve never even seen the stars,” Kov muttered as he walked. He ignored the growing strain upon his shoulders and back. “They’re beautiful, Nreissa. You’d love them. Twinkling above like diamonds. They form patterns. We call them constellations.”
Nreissa groaned. Her breathing seemed a little clearer. She must be healing herself. What an amazing Blessing.
“My favorite constellation is Aernigk. He was white lion. I’m not really sure what a lion is, but they were said to haunt the old world below. Big creatures, proud and mighty. Feared by all. Maybe you know them as wolves.” A smile crossed Kov’s face, his eyes glancing up at the Storm. “But Aernigk was the biggest, proudest lion. He slew all that tried to hunt him. He was smart and noble.”
Kov sighed. “But finally one hunter was strong and crafty enough to slay him. Nmiozhn. It was a great hunt. The pair went back and forth, attacking, stalking, and ambushing. Their hunt and struggle was said to last for a whole year. Can you imagine that? A year hunting and being hunted. But Nmiozhn finally prevailed and slew proud Aernigk.
“When Nmiozhn stood over his fallen foe, grief moved his heart. He had never hunted a fiercer beast before. He skinned Aernigk and threw his white hide into the sky so all could see it. The hide became the constellation and now Aernigk forever hunts in the sky.”
Nreissa stirred in his arms. Kov froze, glancing down at her face. His vision had adjusted to the gloom. He could make out he features of her face. Her eyes were still closed, and no more blood bubbled from her lips.
“You would love Aernigk. I think you must be a lot like him. I can’t imagine leaving the lights of your home to stalk through the murk alone on the plains. Fearless and proud.”
The lights were brighter. They hurt his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The world seemed to grow darker as he neared the hold, shrinking in around him. “I guess my eyes are adjusting to the light now.”
Kov’s next step didn’t sink into the mud, but landed on hard rock. A road stretched out before him, leading to the hold. It was made of carefully cut stones, the sides angled so the rain water ran off into the mud.
The hold’s light began to flicker and waver as he marched down the road. It wasn’t one light, but many lights. They burned bright as they separated and grew distinct, each driving back the darkness from the tops of buildings. A city sprawled before Kov. Figures moved in the city and the houses, leading horses hauling wagons. Eyes peered at Kov from either side of the road. There were people working farm fields growing red, leathery plants or tending pools of glowing algae.
Kov swallowed. Stormriders surrounded him.
Children appeared on the edge of the road, their faces pale and eyes almost black. They cried out in fear, racing back to their parents in the fields. I must be the monster to them. The people that live in the skies so dangerous they have to send their heroes to slay us and set them free of the murk.
Nreissa stirred in his arms. She groaned, “You’re not speaking anymore.”
“I…I guess not.” Kov swallowed, looking around. “We’re almost to your city. Your hold.”
She shot her eyes open and sat up in his arms. She winced, but not nearly as much as Kov would have expected. “What did you do, Kov?”
“I carried you to the light. So your people would heal you.”
“I heal myself. You have to flee.”
“Set me down and run. Back out into the murk.”
Boots thudded down the road. Something clanged and jiggled. Nreissa groaned.
“Once you’re safe with your family, I’ll leave,” Kov said, his back stiffening “I won’t offend them.”
“You don’t understand. You’re hardly the first person to fall from above.”
Hope beat in Kov’s heart. “There are others down here like me.”
“No. We kill them.”
“But..but…I saved you.”
“I know, but…” Nreissa shook her head. “You need to run.”
The boot steps grew louder. Shapes emerged out of the gloom, marching the quick step. Men and women clad in gleaming metal. Real Stormriders armored and coming for Kov.
“But…but…” Fear spiked through Kov. “I saved you. That has to count, right?”
Nreissa squirmed in my arm. “Run, Kov. Just run!”
Kov couldn’t hold her as she writhed. She spilled from his arm and landed onto the road with a thud. Kov swallowed. The armored figures were close. They held weapons. Their pale faces grim. Kov stepped back, fear growing in his breast.
Fire exploded before him.
“You have to stop,” Nreissa shouted behind him. “You cannot hurt him.”
The fire raced around Kov, blazing hot as it impossibly burned on bare stone. Kov flinched. His clothes grew dry as the water steamed out of the wool. Kov raised his thunderbuss. One of the figures channeled the fire. But Kov couldn’t see past the flames. He had no idea where to aim.
Nreissa screamed over the fire.
Kov’s face grew hot. He flinched. He had nowhere to run. He was completely trapped by the flames. Every breath burned. His wool smolder as the flames pressed in. Kov closed his eyes. Is dying by fire better than dying out there on the plains alone?
Nreissa rose in his mind.
At least I saved her.
The fires died. Kov fell to his knees, sucking in the cool air. Nreissa hugged him tight. “He’s my husband,” she screamed. “My husband.”
“What?” Kov croaked. That can’t be the word she said.
Her lips were cool as she kissed his cheek.
“He’s my husband. He’s my husband. You can’t kill him.”
“What are you talking about?” Kov groaned.
“It’s your only chance,” she whispered.
“But…we just met. I mean… You can’t…” She can’t love me. It’s ridiculous.
Nreissa kissed him on the lips, her mouth hot. Kov’s mind whirled. One of the armored guards yanked Nreissa off of him. A second placed a sword at his throat. The metal was cool and sharp. Kov froze, the pulse in his throat throbbing against the gleaming edge.
“What are you talking about, Nreissa?” a guard growled, shaking her arm. “He’s from above.”
“He’s my husband, Yeiss,” she stubbornly repeated. “I’ve lain with him many times.”
Kov’s cheeks burned.
“Rusted iron,” snarled the Yeiss. “You were supposed to be scavenging. What am I supposed to tell your father?”
“That he has a son-in-law,” Nreissa declared Her eyes were fierce. She faced down the armored man without flinching.
“Muck and mire. Cuff the skyers hands.”
Nreissa nodded her head. Kov had no idea what was going on. Why would her declaration spare my life? How could we even be married? Wouldn’t some sort of priestess have to perform the ritual? In the skies above, a Luastria priestess—a race of bird-people and the most favored children of Riasruo—would marry a couple in the name of the Sun Goddess, uniting their flames.
Metal bands were snapped around Kov’s wrists, the bands connected by a rope made of linked loops of metal. The cuffs, as Yeiss called them, bit into his flesh and the metal rope clinked with his every movement.
Yeiss and his soldiers marched Kov into the Wrackthar city. Rain began to fall, matting his hair. It was full of the same grit as last time. Brackish puddles formed, swimming with a reddish sediment. The rain sputtered in the flames that danced from the end of metal posts evenly spaced down the stone streets of the hold.
What do those flames burn?
Nreissa marched at his side. He wanted to question her, but he feared exposing her ruse. Kov didn’t want to die. Pretending to be married was a far preferable fate. His eyes studied Nreissa in the full light. She had a strong profile and a grace to the sweep her neck. Rust seemed to stain her pale skin, the grit left behind by the rain.
The grit reminded Kov of krill, the small life that drifted in massive, red blooms through the sky feasted upon by fish and fowl. Could it be krill? Could those little creatures get sucked down into the Storm and then rained upon the ground.
Wagons pulled by shaggy horses, the wingless pegasi the Agerzak used as beasts of burden, rumbled past carrying rocks to an open buildings. Fierce fires burned with harsh-reds. The rocks were dumped into huge puddles of glowing liquid. Men and women were covered from head to feet in thick leathers with heavy goggles set with smoky glass worked the pools.
“What is that?” Kov gaped. The liquid glowed so hot the heat rippled out into the street.
“Iron smelters,” Nreissa answered. “The pig iron will be taken to other smelters and turned into various types of steel. We also smelt tin, nickel, and copper.”
“What are those?” The words were so strange. Iron. Copper.
“There’s different types?”
Nreissa shook her head. “Don’t you have metal up there?”
“Then how do our crusades always fail? How do you beat us, Kov?”
“I…” Kov swallowed, glancing at the guards.
“Your husband’s still loyal to the skies above,” Yeiss snarled.
“We’re desperate,” Kov answered. “We know what will happen if your…crusades win. We don’t want to die. So we train to fight your armor.”
“Like with your thunderbuss?”
Kov nodded. His thunderbuss was slung over one of the guards shoulders. Another had his bone sabre. “Your armor has weak points at the joint. The weight slows you down. Our fighter are nimble. We attack at the joints. And we sail our ships into your Cyclones and destroy the Eye.”
“You know about the heart?” Nreissa gasped.
“It’s the engine powering your Cyclone. I’m part of the military, like Yeiss and his men. We fight to defend our lands. We keep ships stationed on our skylands to fight your crusades.”
Yeiss snarled. “What were you thinking, Nreissa? Why would you choose him?”
“Because he has a kind heart.” Nreissa eyed Yeiss
Kov swallowed. “Wait, is he…”
“One of my suitors,” Nreissa sighed. “My father is the chief of Metsak Hold. I should have made my choice of husband a year ago.”
“But you’re a willful brat,” Yeiss growled.
I see why you didn’t choose him.
“You have a duty to our people.”
Nreissa rolled her eyes. “I’m well aware of my duty. I will bear strong sons and daughters, heroes to join the crusade and ensure we survive in defiance of the false sun and her murk.” Nreissa touched my arm. “See how strong of a husband I have chosen. His skin has been burnt black. He’s a warrior.”
“He stopped being our enemy the moment he fell from above.”
Yeiss reached out and seized Kov’s shoulder. His eyes were fierce as he glared at Kov through his armor’s visor. “You will always be our enemy. Your ancestors left us to die in the muck. But see how we have survived. Every year, new holds our founded. We have mastered the world again. We have survived. Across the world, our crusades are readied, and we shall end your weak, cowardly peoples.
“We shall end the murk.”
Kov looked down. “Does the Storm, the murk, have to end at the cost of my people?”
“What other way is there?” Nreissa asked. “The song sustains both.”
“One of the Songs of Creation.” Nreissa frowned. “You have the gifts of your false sun. Didn’t the shaman’s song give it to you.”
Kov furrowed his forehead, remembering his Blessing. He had descended down beneath the newly-built temple at Felis. There the Bishriarch of Isthia had sung a song and agony had filled his body. When the pain left, he had Riasruo’s Blessings.
“Yeah. I guess the Church of Riasruo doesn’t like to talk about the songs.”
The group entered a large square. At the center was a half-constructed object, a frame of wood, built from the scavenged lumber of crashed ships. The frame’s reminded Kov of a cut gemstone, though this artificial gem stood twice the height of man. Panels of cut, smoky quartz were inserted into the frame like panes of glass set into an window.
“An engine?” Kov asked as they marched past.
Engines were gems that, when combined with the right wood, could channel a blessing in different ways. Kov’s thunderbuss had an engine hidden between the stock and barrel. The gem took his Blessing of Lightning and channeled it out as a lightning bolt.
“The heart of our crusade,” Yeiss said, awe in his voice. “In a generation or so, Metsak Hold will be ready to launch its first crusade. Maybe one of my children will be a hero and find glory in the skies above.”
Kov’s blood chilled as he stared at the half-construed Eye. How many of my countrymen will die fighting the Cyclone birthed from here? He looked up at the darkness. The skyland of Rhogre lurked up there. Would they pull it from the sky? The famed University of Rlarshon resided on the western edge of Rhogre So much knowledge would be lost.
But what can I do? They’ll probably kill me. And if they don’t, what? Will they let me live here? Would I want to? But where else would I go? And I have a wife now.
Kov’s eyes drifted over to Nreissa. She was attractive, in a wild, aggressive way. Like his younger sister. But he didn’t know her. He certainly didn’t love her. How could he? Kov had thought he loved before, but his intense emotions for Chassei had waned not long after bedding the Agerzak maiden. When he was drafted, he wasn’t sad to part with her. Last he heard, she had married another farmhand.
Nreissa smiled at him. Some of Kov’s fear faded. He had to trust her. She was his only friend down here.
Kov was surprised where he was led. Not to some grand government building or too a large dwelling fit for the important leader of Metsak hold. He was led to a house that looked no different than the other stone residence on the street. Yeiss marched up and rapped on the door with his metal gauntlet. The door was made of beaten iron boomed hollowly with each rap. After a few heart beats, the door groaned as it opened. A young boy stood there, his hair a thick, curly mop of black.
“What’s goin’ on, Yeiss?” the boy asked, peering around the armored man. “Nreissa. You’re back so soon?”
“With her husband,” growled Yeiss, seizing me and hauling me up.
The boy’s eyes widened and he stepped back. “He’s one of them?”
“Don’t be like that, Yovein,” snapped Nreissa. “Run and fetch Dad.”
“Dad,” Yovein shouted as he raced into the house. “Dad. Nreissa back. And she’s in trouble.”
Nreissa grimaced and a smile almost flitted across Kov’s lips.
Kov tried to move closer to her and and ask her a whispered question. Yeiss’s gauntleted fist grabbed his shoulder. The man squeezed. Pain flared. A reckless part of Kov wanted to discharge his lightning. Part of Yeiss’s gauntlet touched Kov’s bare fleshed. But cuffed, he couldn’t fight against the rest of the soldiers.
They were all itching to cut him down.
A man strode out of the depths of the house. He was tall, strong, and barrel-chested. Unlike most Agerzak men, Nreissa’s father was clean-shaven, his black hair short. His fists clenched, scarred by tiny burns.
“Daddy,” Nreissa smiled, sounding far more girlish than Kov had ever heard.
The man didn’t answer, his eyes locked on Kov. “Yeiss, why has this skyer been allowed to live?”
“Your daughter claims she married him, Wacheits.”
“Yes,” Nreissa seized my arm. “Daddy, this is my husband, Kov. I’m sure you must be thrilled that I’ve finally done my duty and selected a husband.”
Wacheits’s right eye twitched. “What?”
“I met him a few weeks ago. He had fallen from the sky. I know I should have killed him, but he speaks a form of our language and we started talking and, well, I love him.”
Kov nodded his head “Yeah. For weeks. We love each other.” The lie tumbled from his lips as his heart raced. How can this save my life?
Wacheits tensed his jaw. “Yeiss, bring him.”
The stern man turned and walked deeper into the house. Yeiss shoved Kov into the house, his grip never softening.
The house was made of stone bricks mortared together. Metal was everywhere, and came in different colors. Burning lamps made of an orangish, gleaming metal were bolted into the walls. Things that would have been wood or pottery up above were made of stone or metal down here. Shelves made of stone slabs were held up by metal braces nailed to the walls. The shelves were lined with leather-bound books.
Kov gaped. They’re supposed to be savages living down here. How can they have books?
There was no furniture in the house, instead pillows were strewn across the floor. Wacheits lead them to a low table made of stone surrounded by pillows. Wacheits sank down on one side, Nreissa on the other. Kov stood behind her, Yeiss’s metal fist on his shoulder.
The fist squeezed and pushed him down; Kov sat awkwardly down beside Nreissa, his metal rope clinking.
Yeiss dropped Kov’s sword and thunderbuss on the table. “He’s a soldier, Wacheits. He’s been trained. I can tell by how he carried himself. He’s dangerous. Kill him, sir.”
“Wait outside, Yeiss,” Wacheits commanded.
A look from Wacheits silenced him.
Armor clinked. “Yes, chief.”
Yeiss withdrew, clanking down the hallway.
Wacheits touched the thunderbuss, his eyes narrowing. “I saw one of their crashed vessels as a child. It had weapons like these.”
“It’s a thunderbuss,” Nreissa said, her tongue stumbling over the foreign word. “He can shoot lightning from it.”
“The false sun’s Gifts?” Wacheits asked.
“Riasruo’s Blessings, yes,” Kov nodded. “I saved your daughter’s life with it.”
“He did, Daddy,” Nreissa added, showing her bloodied, torn shirt. Kov had missed her removing his bandage. Her flesh was unmarred. She had healed all the damage. “I was gutted by a wolf. He killed the beast and carried me back. I would have died without him.”
“So that’s why you told this lie about marrying him.”
Kov’s blood chilled.
“It’s no lie, Daddy.” Nreissa leaned against Kov. “I have lain with him many times. I may even be carrying his child. I have announced it before witnesses. He is my husband.”
Kov’s cheeks burned. She spoke so openly about such private, intimate talks with her father.
“Even though you must have just met him today? You would claim an skyer as your husband?”
Nreissa squirmed. “I’m telling the truth. That’s why I’ve been so eager to go scavenging lately.”
“This man hasn’t spent weeks living out in the muck. His clothes are too clean. He has only the shadow of a beard growing. He shaved this morning. With what? This sword?”
“He…um…lost his knife, Daddy.”
Wacheits slammed his fist down on the stone table. “I will have the truth from you, Daughter.”
“What does it matter how long it’s been since I’ve known him?” Nreissa insisted after a few heart beats. “I have proclaimed it before witnesses. That makes him part of our clan.”
“He’s a skyer.” A wild look burned through Wacheits eyes. “Our enemy. He lived up there. He enjoyed peace and tranquility.”
“Peace and tranquility, father?” Nreissa asked “He’s a soldier. If it’s peaceful up there, why do they have soldiers?”
Wacheits made a dismissive snarl. “What does that matter? He’s free of the murk. He lives with the sun. He’s not stuck down here in the muck. So why do you want to save his life?”
“He saved mine twice.”
“Twice?” Kov asked.
“When I met him, I tried to kill him,” Nreissa declared “He could have killed me when he disabled me with his weapon.”
Kov squirmed. He had tried to kill her, she just didn’t die.
“And then the wolf attacked, and he carried me back to town. He didn’t know I would heal myself, but he wanted to protect me. How could I let him die?” Tears beaded her eyes. “We’re supposed to be better than the skyers. We don’t leave people behind to die. We care for every member of the clan. I can’t let him die. This is the only way you can spare him. The laws are clear. I have made my choice. He’s a member of your clan, Daddy. Will you let him die?”
“Rusted iron.” Wacheits leaned back, bracing himself with an extended, left arm. “They will hate him. They will despise him. They will shun you both.”
Kov swallowed. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what words would help. He barely understood how marrying Nreissa would make him part of this clan. How are we even married? No one has performed the ceremony.
“I can banish him,” Wacheits nodded.
“For what?” Nreissa gasped.
“Being a skyer.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Kov said.
“No. He’ll die out there. He doesn’t know how to survive down here.”
“I’m no worse off than I was when I first fell down here,” Kov said.
“I’ll join him,” Nreissa declared. “Will you banish your own daughter?”
“You would give up everything for a skyer?”
“If it will make you stop and think. Kov doesn’t deserve to die. He’s a good man. I’ve made my decision, Daddy. He’s my husband. I can join him in banishment instead of choosing divorce.”
“Muck and mire.” Wacheits glared at her. “I can see it in your rusted eyes. Why did you have to have you’re mother’s stubbornness?”
“Because she was a wonderful woman,” Nreissa said, lifting her chin. “And you know that, Daddy.”
Wacheits wrapped his fingers on the table, his eyes falling to the weapons “So you are a soldier?”
“A Marine,” Kov nodded.
“Marine?” Wacheits slowly spoke the word.
“A soldier that serves on a boat.”
“Have you ever fought?”
“In training.” Kov swallowed. “I fell while trying to board an enemy boat.”
“Did you discard your armor on the plain?”
“We don’t wear armor,” Kov answered.
“Look at his sword, Daddy, it’s made of bone. They don’t have metal up there. But, despite that, he knows how to fight our crusaders.”
Wacheits eyes flashed to Kov. The young man groaned, wishing Nreissa hadn’t mentioned that. \
“Is this true?”
“Yes, sir. We train to fight your, um, crusades.”
Wacheits went silent for a moment, his fingers rapping on the table. Then his eyes flashed to his daughter. “And you have not actually consummated your marriage, dear daughter.”
Nreissa froze. “Why?”
“Because he hasn’t proven his worth to the tribe,” Wacheits said. “If you haven’t consummated your marriage, then I can annul it if he fails to prove his worth.”
“He’s strong,” Nreissa insisted. “He carried me out of the wilderness.”
“I disagree.” Wacheits eyes bore down on Kov. “ He doesn’t look strong enough to me to be your husband. He will not sire strong children. For the good of the clan, he must be tested. We cannot have him be a drain on our resources.”
Nreissa’s face fell. “He is strong, Daddy. I know he is.”
“If you want me to accept this face and let your stray skyer live, then he needs to prove himself.”
“How?” Kov asked.
“You say you’re a soldier.”
“He wants you to fight Yeiss,” Nreissa hissed. “Right, Daddy?”
Wacheits smiled. “Yes. With your bone sword. You’ll prove how strong you are by defeating him and show your worth to the clan.”
“Will Yeiss wear his armor, Daddy?”
“Of course.” Wacheits smile grew. “By your own admission, Kov, you know how to fight an armored foe.”
Kov’s stomach twisted. “I do, sir.”
“Then let’s get this farce over with.” Wacheits stood and seized Kov’s sword. “Follow, boy. If you’re smart, you’ll try to run.”
“So you can hunt him down?” snapped Nreissa.
“It would simplify things. He might even escape.”
Kov swallowed and shook his head. I’ve trained to fight Stormriders. “I can do this.”
“Of course you can,” her father sneered. “You’re strong. All you skyers are.”
Kov’s fist clenched. He wished he wasn’t cuffed so he could punch the man. Wacheits seized Kov’s arm. One discharge and I could kill you.
But that would just earn my death.
“Is this a fight to the death?” Kov asked as he was lead through the house.
“It’s a formality. Normally.” Nreissa glared at her father. “Every youth at fifteen demonstrates their worth to the tribe with whatever skill or trade they’ve learned. In the past, right after the murk, those that failed were exiled. Now it’s just an excuse to celebrate adulthood.”
“But Yeiss will try to kill me?”
“He’ll try to make you yield,” Nreissa said. “You have to do the same.”
“And if I yield?”
“You weren’t strong enough for the clan,” Wacheits laughed. “I’ll annul your marriage and cut your head off.”
Kov’s stomach clenched. His body shook as his heart hammered faster. The fear before battle coursed through him. It was familiar, reminding him of the Valiant’s careening charged towards the Zzuki warship.
I was prepared to fight a hulking Gezitziz. This isn’t any different.
Kov recalled his training. A Stormrider was armored, slowed by his attacks. But their weapons could swing fast. A bone sabre could not parry one of their strikes. The Stormrider’s blade would sheer through the bone. With skill, the bone sabre could deflect attacks. Their armor was impenetrable Attacks had to be made at the joints. His task was to weaken and wound Yeiss, to make him collapse under the weight of his armor or to kill with lightning charges.
No, just stun. Nothing lethal if I can void it.
The rain hammered outside. Yeiss stood with his soldiers. The street was crowded with more Wrackthars. They all wore the same reddish clothing, though a few wore tan leathers. The women dressed in skirts or trousers, many clutching parasols to keep the rain off. The men wore open vests, their pale arms folded and ignoring the hammering rain. Children gasped at the sight of Kov, the youngest hiding behind the skirts of their mothers while the older yelled and jeered with their parents.
They want to tear me apart. Kov fought the trembles threatening to overtake his body.
Wacheits held up his hand. “My willful daughter as claimed the skyer as her husband.”
The crowd roared.
Wacheits bided his time, letting their passions pour out. “I know. She is young and foolish. Love had blinded her. She has made her choice, and the clan must respect it.”
“Hussy,” someone in the crowd shouted. Another screamed, “Traitor.”
“However, Kov the Skyer must first prove he is strong enough to aide the tribe. He is a soldier. He shall duel Yeiss to prove his worth. If he fails to defeat Yeiss, then he is not strong enough to be a Metsak. He is not strong enough to marry one our clan’s blood.”
The crowd roared for blood. Kov’s blood. Their screams buffeted the young man. The fight against his trembles grew harder.
Nreissa threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. He stood stunned. She broke the kiss and whispered, “You have to kiss better than that. Make them believe we’re in love. My people love their songs and stories. We have many tales of ill-fated lovers from vying clans.”
“Right,” Kov whispered back.
Kov put more effort into the second kiss, imagining she was Chassei. When Nreissa broke the kiss, she declared, “My husband is strong. He shall defeat Yeiss and prove his worth and the strength of our love.”
“Unmanacle him,” Wacheits barked.
One of the other soldiers pulled out a metal key and removed the iron cuffs from Kov’s wrists. Wacheits thrust his bone sabre into his hands. Kov drew the blade from his sheath, discarding the leather on the wet street. His charge crackled in his left hand as he fell into his stance, holding the bone blade before him.
Yeiss clanked forward. The rain hammered his armor, leaving reddish streaks behind. Kov took a deep breath. He struggled to think, to remember how to fight as Yeiss roared and rushed forward, clanking with every step.
Kov’s mind was blank with fear. But his body remembered the hours of training at Camp Chubris. He moved to the right, his boots gripping on the wet stones of the road. Water flicked from the end of Yeiss’s gleaming blade and splattered across Kov’s face as the armored man missed his attack.
“Stormwall,” Kov shouted in his native tongue of Vionese, the battle cry of the Autonomy’s Navy.
He flicked his blade at the exposed joint at the back of Yeiss’s knee. But the Wrackthar moved. Metal rang as Kov’s sabre struck the plate. Yeiss’s blade hissed through the air. Kov ducked and took another swipe at Yeiss’s exposed knee.
“You’re blade will break on my armor, Skyer,” bellowed Yeiss Fierce, dark eyes stared through the slits of his visor. “Nreissa’s mine.”
A roar issued from the crowd. Nreissa’s words filled his mind. “It’s not you she loves,” Kov spat out, his heart thudding. “She chose a stronger man. A better man.”
Yeiss roared and the crowd cheered him on.
The Wrackthar’s attacks were hard and sloppy. He swung with great energy. Kov dodged to the right, the blade streaking by. Sparks flared as the metal weapon struck the paving stone. Kov thrust his blade at the exposed joint on Yeiss’s left side where a gap in his metal skirt exposed his hip.
Yeiss howled as the tip of Kov’s sabre came away red with blood.
The Wrackthar’s backhand caught Kov in the face. The metal gauntlet sent Kov reeling, his head swimming. Kov fell onto his knees and spat out a bloody tooth. His skull rang with pain. He shook his head, struggling to focus. Some in the crowd cried out in fear.
Are they rooting for me?
Nreissa’s voice called his name.
Yeiss stumbled towards him, blood streaming down his hip. “Nreissa’s mine, Skyer. You shall never touch her with your filthy hand.”
The blade slashed down. Kov rolled out of the way and came to his feet. The crowd drank it in, cheering and clapping. Yeiss’s back was to him. Kov lunged in with his left hand, ready to discharge a non-lethal blast of lightning.
“Mine,” snarled Yeiss as he spun about, his blade slashing.
Kov saw they attack. His feet slipped on the wet road as he tried to stop his lunge. His sabre flashed up in a futile attempt to parry. Yeiss’s metal blade cut through bone. Pain burned up Kov’s side as the Wrackthar’s weapon buried into his side.
“Kov,” Nreissa shouted. “No, no.”
“Yield,” Yeiss snarled, seizing Kov by the shoulder.
Kov’s body went cold. His legs weakened.
“Yield Nreissa to me.” Yeiss’s eyes were wild.
“No,” Kov shouted. His charge tingled his body.
Fire engulfed Yeiss’s gauntlet gripping Kov’s shoulder. Kov screamed as his flesh burned. A charred scent of roasting meat filled his nose. The crowd’s cheers were feverish. Names were screamed, most for Yeiss, but there were those who called Skyer.
“Kov,” Nreissa shouted.
“Yield,” bellowed Yeiss “Give her to me.”
“She made her choice,” Kov shouted and discharged his lightning through his shoulder.
Sparks flared. Electricity conducted through Yeiss’s armor and into his flesh. The man convulsed. His fire snuffed out. He crashed forward into Kov and carried the wounded man to the ground. Kov screamed as Yeiss fell on him.
The world swam about him. Nreissa rushed forward, stroking his hair. She yelled something, but it was hard to understand. The world was cold. The rain mixed with his blood. Kov looked up into the clouds, trying to see through to the world he lost.
Aibthuirni ran across his parent’s plantation, her red hair streaming loose behind her as she raced to her favorite palm tree to climb. Sergeant Dahl and the rest of Kov’s Marines celebrated on the deck of the Zzuki warship. Kov’s mother cried and his father held her as they received the notification of Kov’s death. The sun shone with all her feathery warmth.
Will my soul reach Riasruo from down here? Or will I be trapped by Theisseg’s foul Storm?
A youth joined Nreissa, his face pale. He seized Kov’s hand. Warmth flooded through Kov
“Riasruo above,” Kov gasped as his body convulsed. The pain in his jaw, shoulder, and side vanished. The charred flesh of his shoulder repaired, muscles reknit and a new layer of unmarred, ebony skin covered his shoulder.
“What?” he groaned.
“Third Gift of Fleshknitting,” Nreissa smiled. The youth moved off. Already Yeiss was on his feet, his helmet off and a glower creasing his lips. “You knocked him out. He lost.”
“So I guess we’re still married, huh?”
Nreissa nodded. Then she kissed him. It made his heart race even though he knew the passion was a lie.
“Take your husband inside,” Wacheits barked. “He proved his strength.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Nreissa smiled and helped Kov to his feet.
Exhaustion wearied him. He leaned on Nreissa as she led him back into the house. She moved deeper and climbed up a set of stone stairs to a second floor and to a bedroom. A mattress lay on the floor covered in blankets woven from the same reddish fibers as her clothing.
“We’ll be staying here until we build our house,” Nreissa said, moving to a metal box. She lifted the lid and revealed neatly-folded clothing. “I don’t have any clothes that will fit you.”
Kov nodded. He stripped down, glad to be out of the wet clothes, and wrapped a blanket around him. He looked away as she undressed. She was his wife, and yet it felt wrong to watch.
Nreissa giggled. “You’re a gentleman, huh?”
Kov shrugged. “So now what?”
She wore a thin, reddish nightgown that fell to her knees. She sank down on the bed, a wide space between them. Kov stared down at his hand and she looked at hers. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I guess we…consummate our marriage.”
Kov’s cheeks reddened. “I guess.”
He scooted closer. She leaned in and kissed him. Her lips were dry. All the passion she had faked was gone. Kov pulled away. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“We don’t even know each other.”
Nreissa fidgeted and the space widened between them. The silence was profound. Kov swallowed. He had no idea what to do.
“Maybe we should just talk,” he suggested. “I’m Qovthuimn Aabsaizhnigk, but everyone just calls me Kov. I come from the skyland of Isthia. My parents own a plantation and…”
Nreissa smiled and asked questions as the hour grew late. All in all, Kov found it far preferable to dying alone beneath the Storm.
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Beneath the Storm takes place in the universe of my novel, Above the Storm!
Death rides in the Cyclone!
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Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?
When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?
You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.
Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.by