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Echoes of Empyrean

Demo Issue; February 2022

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Publication Information

Echoes of Empyrean is a publication of Swift and True Media.

Swift and True Media
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Box #270
Olive Branch, MS 38654

This demo edition is made freely available for the public viewing as we attempt to raise funds and awareness.

Copyright Information

All stories are copyrighted by their respective owners/authors and may not be redistributed by any means (including, but not limited to, print and digital media) without the express written permission of the author and/or copyright holder.

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Letter from the Editor

Echoes of Empyrean exists for one purpose: to spread the Fire of Creation – both subcreation (stories of the imagination) and recreation (sharing the Story of the Gospel from the Author of life itself). But we don’t feature what you might think of as “traditional” Christian writers. The works published here are not in the “Christian” genre. Our stories are Fantasy and Science Fiction. They are not allegory. Don’t look for Christ figures. Don’t expect safe, sanitized, sterile stories. Expect heroism. Expect depravity. Expect joy and sorrow. Expect… life.

Life is messy. The Bible recognizes this. Here is a small list of things the Bible discusses, sometimes in graphic detail: murder, adultery, rape, incest, witchcraft, demonic possession… the whole gamut of human depravity is explored. And yet, would any Christian say the Bible is not a wholesome book? Of course, Christ is without sin, but what about all the (non-divine) people that we admire? David, after knowing God, committed adultery and murder. Abraham let powerful men sleep with his wife (twice!) and fathered a child with his wife’s servant trying on his own to fulfill God’s promise. Lot, listed in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11, allowed his daughters to get him drunk and commit incest. Moses murdered an Egyptian. Peter denied Christ. St. Paul murdered Christians! And that’s not to mention all the absolutely horrific things that those recognized as evil committed that are discussed!

So, what makes a Christian authors’ stories wholesome? It certainly isn’t by being clean and sterile – the Bible isn’t even that. Rather, the stories we publish here echo the Great Story. Though the God of the Bible may not be directly represented, His eternal attributes – Justice, Mercy, Order, Love… are. Good will be celebrated. Evil will be recognized as such. That doesn’t mean heroes will be without flaws – sometimes they will even have horrific ones. Rather, we hope our stories move people to think on things like Justice, Mercy, Order, Love, and all the other attributes found in their fullness in God. It doesn’t mean our stories will be safe for you to read to your young children (though we will have some that are). We will wrestle with hard questions and concepts; there will be brutality in our worlds, as there is brutality in this one. But we will celebrate good. We hope the echoes heard in our subcreation will help listeners identify the Voice singing His song over all creation.

Yet, as much as we are grateful and enjoy developing our God-given craft, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes and as Paul reaffirms, it would ultimately be meaningless if it just stopped there. But we do hope to make a direct, eternal difference. That is why 10% of Echoes of Empyrean’s gross profit will go to missionaries spreading the Gospel. We also will have non-fiction articles dealing with both our faith and craft. Our contributors worship God as the Father of all authors, His Story as the best one to ever be told, and the one that will be eternally written – no “The End.” We are humbly grateful to be created in His image, and as such believe we honor Him by emulating Him in our subcreation, much like a child honors their father by trying their hands at their father’s work. We know it’s messy. It’s not as good. But we understand our Father better when we try to do what he does. Christians who engage in subcreation gain insight into God’s character and understand him better than those who simply read about God creating.

Finally, we will glorify God as a publisher by paying our authors as much as we pay ourselves. It’s a sign of the fallen world where publishers of the story make so much more than the actual storytellers that give them something to publish. After the 10% donation to spreading the Gospel, the remaining gross profit is split into two, equal pools: contributor funds and publisher funds. The contributors will split their funds equally for each issue with their fellow contributors per issue. Meanwhile, 10% of the publisher funds will be reinvested to help grow our audience (and then the spreading of both the Gospel and our contributors’ stories), and the remaining will be the compensation of EoE staff.

If you are a Christian who would like your love of stories to help further God’s kingdom, whether you are a reader or a writer, we’d love you to join us. If you are a reader, you browse stories that hopefully delight you and be happy that most of the money you used to purchase your subscription will be primarily used to spread the Gospel and support the authors you love instead of the publisher’s salaries. If you are a writer, you can use the work of your hands to spread the Gospel and get paid exposure to grow your audience. What are you waiting for? Join Echoes of Empyrean today!

Works of Fiction

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Truth Unearthed
Book 1 of the Saga: A False Dawn in The Tales of Lugon

Truth Unearthed Cover
Author: Eric Sparks

Genre: High Fantasy

Reading Level: Adult / General Audience

Available in print (hardcover or paperback) from Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, or your local bookstore; also available as an eBook (Kindle, Nook, AppleBooks, and Kobo), and audibook (Audible & iTunes)

Author website:

EXORDIUM (Chapter 0)

Midnight had already passed, but Arun still couldn’t sleep. Even though he was only five years old, the Watchers had declared him “Gifted.” It was supposed to be an honor. He would be harvested from the Yeomanry, go to “school” (whatever that was), and given a chance to pursue a life in the Capital of Hilae. However, it also meant he would never see his family again. His father was quite proud. His mom was proud too, but Arun felt more like her: why should the reward for being Gifted be separation from his family?

Arun’s chest jerked up and down as he choked back the sobs he was trying to keep quiet. Afraid he was about to wake everyone and get in trouble, he decided to sneak away to his favorite hiding spot down by the lake at the bottom of the valley—a place only he knew. Quietly, he put on his older brother’s hand-me-down shoes. The soles were almost completely worn away, but that just made it easier to be quiet. He carefully dodged the creaky spots in the floorboards and made his way past his parents’ and brother’s beds in their one room hut. It took all his strength to keep his balance and avoid the groaning boards near the door as he removed the beam that locked the door and stepped out into the night. He hoped he wouldn’t get caught so the last memory of his parents wouldn’t include a beating.

Like a whisper into the night, Arun ran through the grass. The warm summer night had a cool breeze that gently brushed the tears from his face as he fled to the lake. He found his tree with the trunk hollowed out near the bottom. It was a small hole, and tall grass concealed it from those that were too big to enter. Arun had almost grown too large himself, and he had been afraid of having to find a new hiding spot. That wouldn’t matter now.

He cried. Hard. There was nobody there to scold him, and he let the tears run freely and sobbed without fear of being heard. The loud cries worked themselves out after a short while, but the tears were still falling when he heard a soft, pleasant voice singing. He didn’t understand the words, but they were beautiful, yet also sad. In his current mood, he found himself irresistibly drawn to it; the song was comforting in its beauty mingled with grief. Arun slowly ventured out of the hollow and followed the voice. It was coming from the other end of the lake on the same bank as he was. He crept closer, and soon he saw a beautiful woman lying down on a large rock, leaning over the water with her arms crossed under her. She looked young, but her hair was as white as the robe she wore.

Suddenly, she paused her singing and quickly turned in his direction. Arun tried to duck and hide in the weeds, but he slipped in the mud and fell. When he looked up, the woman had retreated some distance.

However, once she saw it was only a nervous child, she laughed and came back to him to help him up. She looked into his green eyes and saw the tear stains on his face.

“I’m sorry, little one. I didn’t mean for my song to upset you,” she said gently.

“Oh, no, miss …”Arun stammered, not sure what to say. “I … I was already crying, and I heard your song. It seemed sad too, but it made me feel better. It sounded so pretty. I didn’t know sad could be pretty.”

The lady laughed and picked the boy up, swinging him around. “Oh, little one, will you tell me your name?” She set him back down on more solid ground. “A friend once told me sorrow takes on
the form of those it visits, so I thank you forthe compliment,” she said with a smile.

Arun didn’t know what that meant, nor did he know what to do now that she had seen him. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. As if she knew his thoughts, she said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. I’m not supposed to be here either, but I can’t help but come out and see the water and the stars at least a little.”

“Arun,” he finally said. “My name is Arun.” There was a pause, and then Arun asked, “If you aren’t supposed to be here, why not watch the stars from your hut?”

“Well, Arun, you ask very good questions,” she said.

“That’s why I was crying,” Arun wailed miserably.

“Now why would you cry over something like that?” the Lady asked.

“I get told I ask good questions a lot, and now they say I’m Gifted. And that means they are going to take me away and make me go to school, and I’ll never see my family again.”

Poor child! the Elf thought to herself. For though Arun did not know it, or that even such creatures existed, that’s what she was. Arun began to cry again.

“Shhh,” she said. “Don’t cry.” She brought him back to her rock where she had been singing, swinging her legs over so that her feet touched the water. “Lay your head on my lap while I sing. I promise to sing about something happy this time.” And she did, a slow, beautiful melody that matched the warm, sleepy summer night that surrounded them. As she sang, voices that Arun could not hear called back to the Elf maiden. Never stopping in her song, a new soft blue light radiated from her eyes as she heard the Sea calling to her from the water in the lake. The water likewise shone with the same light, though Arun would have seen neither even if his eyes had been open. In place of her reflection, visions of potential futures began to take shape in the water. She saw a great battle with their ancient enemy, Bälech. Though she could not see him clearly, the great warrior struck down their hated foe. Her people were free. Next, she saw a young man walking among her people on the surface, laughing and eagerly talking with Dwarves and Elves. Her singing paused as she saw the mature face of the young boy now in her lap. She looked away from the water and back to the boy. His face was calm as he neared sleep, unaware of the flushed face staring at him.

Could this be the one? Is this young boy the future hope we have long searched for? If I can just lead him to his proper place, it will be for the benefit of all peoples!

The thought had barely formed in her mind when several voices in the Sea called out to her in a dark, foreboding voice.

Should this future you wish to see
Forsaken by your own will you be
A life in exile ’til you Fade into eternity;
A drop of rain longing to return to the Sea.

It was a warning, but of what she was unsure. Still, she could not let this chance slip by. She did not dare look back at the water lest she lose her nerve when the Sea showed her the price she would pay. Whatever the cost, we must accept this chance!

The light in the lake immediately extinguished, leaving her alone. The Sea had never so abruptly cut off a vision before, and the shock of it sent a tremor of fear through her body. At the sudden movement, Arun stirred, his drowsiness momentarily paused as he looked up at the Elf. Her eyes were dark blue, almost black, like the nighttime water in the moonlit lake beside them.

“Can I know your name?” he asked.

The Elf smiled at him. “Vera,” she said. “I am called Vera.”“Vera …” Arun mumbled. “Vera … I think I’m going to miss you t—,” Arun’s voice trailed off as he fell asleep.

Vera smiled at the child on her lap. “No, sweet Arun, you won’t. But I will miss you. I look forward to when our paths cross again.” And with that she placed her hand over Arun’s forehead and began other words that Arun would not have understood, but these words, beautiful in their own right, were powerful, unlike the soft like music she had been singing before. Arun’s lips contorted as images of his night thus far flashed in his mind: listening to the song, crying in the hollowed tree, running through the grass, and finally fleeing the hut. It lasted only for a moment, and then he smiled in his sleep. Now that Vera knew where he lived, she lifted the sleeping child in her arms and carried him back home. Placing him on his bed, she took off his shoes and went to the door, putting the locking beam in place. Then, pulling back the curtain on the high window, she leapt as quietly as a deer onto the window sill. The Elf took one last look at Arun and vanished into the night.

“There you are!” The Lady Lyr’s attempt at scolding was weakened by the relief of seeing Vera walking safely back in the camp. She had never felt fear coming from Vera before she lost her connection with her granddaughter over distance, but the surface was filled with dangers. Lady Lyr had been organizing a search party when she felt Vera’s presence approaching, still some miles off, but filled with an excitement and happiness that assured her there was no danger.

“I had thought that so close to becoming of age, bringing you to meet our kin in the Makrin Mountains was prudent in case something should happen to me, but perhaps you are still too impetuous.”

“Valima,” Vera began, hoping the term of endearment would help settle her normally stern grandmother. “The Sea granted me a vision. I have seen the future savior of the Savanir that the prophecy foretold.” Lady Lyr’s eyebrows arched in skepticism. Vera had more natural prowess in communing with the Sea than anyone had since … well, since Lyr herself had been a young Elf maiden, but the claim was still incredibly bold, even for her.

“Don’t you mean potentially seen?” her grandmother corrected.

“Yes, yes,” Vera said, annoyed at the reminder. “I know all visions are fluid and nothing is set in stone. But I saw him,” she said. “And after Bälech was struck down, our people walked with this young boy, only now a grown man, laughing and rebuilding the world as it should have been.”

A slight tingle in the back of Vera’s mind made her shiver. Lady Lyr looked gravely at her granddaughter. “I sense doubt. Are you sure of what you saw?”

Vera shook her head and with it all reservations. She was convinced in her vision. “Yes, I just wasn’t expecting a vision tonight, and the boy is still so young. It’s hard for me to imagine him as a warrior, but that is years away.”

The Lady Lyr paused. It was odd that the Sea had not shared this vision with her also. Still, she reasoned, my time draws near its end, and I may well fade before this young boy battles our Enemy. Perhaps the Sea also believes Vera would be a fitting seer to lead our people when this body is washed away and I return to the Sea.
Lady Lyr kept her emotions from her granddaughter. She must be sure of Vera’s conviction. Refusing to let Vera see any hope or joy coming from her, she stared long and hard to see if her granddaughter would waver in her proclamation. But in place of doubt, a defiant gaze met hers, as if daring Lyr to challenge her again. The old seer smiled.

“Even while reckless, I acknowledge your ability to commune with the Sea bodes well for you … and our people. But be careful.“Yes, Valima,” Vera replied.

Lyr smiled, knowing she had crossed into nagging. “Well, now that you’ve made my heart race, first with worry and now hope, I think it’s time we tried to sleep. Goodnight, little one … or not so little if the Sea has already entrusted you with such a vision.”

Vera smiled at her grandmother’s pride. “Goodnight!”

Twenty-Four Years Ago…

Athaz smiled as he looked around him. Even here, just outside Setenbor in the Northern Wilds, the camaraderie that surrounded him provided more warmth than the campfire they sat around. They were soldiers of The Dawn, meaning theirs was a bloody business. However, the battle was going smoothly, and already they had Setenbor under siege; their lookouts would let them know if any sortie was coming from the gates.

“Avid must be a bloody fool to try and rebel against the Son of Bälech,” a nearby soldier said. “Did he honestly think that the Emperor would tolerate treason, even in this miserable territory?”

“I doubt he was that stupid,” said another. “The snows are late; we would never have gotten through the pass to Lokin otherwise, and he would have had all winter to fortify this place. He already had quite a few mercs.”

Athaz laughed quietly to himself at that remark. Half of them had fled in terror when they had seen how many Wardens were leading the force to quell the rebellion. Now it was just a matter of hoping the snows waited a little longer. If they assaulted the strongest city in the Northern Wilds, they would win. But the price in blood would be much greater than letting their resources deplete and the people rebel against Avid in hopes of a pardon from the Son of Bälech.
A horn blast from the south penetrated the darkness. It echoed all around them, save for the direction of the city, startling the entire camp. “For Xiarch!” came a fell cry in unison from locations south, east, and west of their position.
“Bewildered ambush!” Athaz yelled.

It was too late. War horses cried as The Bewildered charged the camp, spears pinning men still in their sleeping bags, which then became their death beds. Those who managed to get up quicker found swords sweeping for their necks long before they were oriented enough to fight. Everything was chaos.

Damn Bewildered! Athaz cursed as he ducked under a sword and spun behind him to levy his zweihänder across his attacker’s chest, unseating him. Athaz was on him in an instant, quickly pulling out a dagger and stabbing the man in the throat before rolling away lest a spear find his back. They must have heard of Avid’s rebellion and are coming to his aid; any city no longer part of The Dawn is worth defending in their addled brains!

The initial charge was over, and The Bewildered were gathering to the north near the city, turning around and preparing for another charge. “To the east! To the woods!” Athaz yelled to any that could hear as he began obeying his own advice. The nearby forest was dense, and The Bewildered’s horses would become a liability instead of their biggest advantage.

On his way there, he found one of the Wardens gravely wounded. “I’ve got you, sir,” Athaz said as he put the Warden’s arm over his shoulder and called for help. Three other soldiers made their way toward them. The Warden was bleeding badly. They needed to get to a Healer quickly, but Athaz didn’t know if they would find one in time.

“Damn Bewildered targeted the Wardens first to keep us from quickly shaving their numbers,” he swore. “How they knew we would be holding council at that moment, I’ll never know, butbut they couldn’t have picked a better time to strike. Most are dead, and I won’t be long.”
At that moment, one of The Bewildered soldiers spotted them and sounded a cry for his fellow warriors to join him in chasing down the wounded Warden.

“Stop them!” Athaz shouted as he gently laid the Warden in the shallow snow and readied his zweihänder. Racing to the front, he led the charge, dodging under the swing of the first man’s sword. Rising back up with his own, he caught the second Bewildered attacker under the arm and threw him backwards into the snowy ground. Most of Athaz’s fellow soldiers had encircled their wounded commander and were trying to fend off the determined attack. A madness came upon Athaz as he saw his comrades falling. He leapt into the fray and slew his enemies. Too late did The Bewildered realize where the chief danger lay. After the final attacker fell, Athaz made his way to the man he wounded at the beginning of the fight, ready to finish him off.

“Hold!” wheezed the Warden. “Take him for questioning.”

Most of The Bewildered had already established a wall and no longer pursued the army into the woods. Hailing a few more soldiers, Athaz carried the Warden to cover while two others pulled the wounded Bewildered fighter with them.

“Get him to tell you how long they have infiltrated Setenbor and how long they had the ear of Mayor Avid. I’m too weak to search his mind. Don’t stop until you get answers.”

Athaz’s stomach did flips inside of him. He despised torture. He was glad it had always been the responsibility of the Watchers, not the military. But now he had just been given a direct order, so he beat the man. He broke every finger on one hand, but the man would not budge. “Start … the next … hand …” Though the Warden was weak, Athaz was still under his authority.
“You will tell me something!” Athaz roared as he punched the prisoner, felling him to the snow. Bending down to grab the man’s hair, he paused for just a brief instant. “Please tell me so I may stop!” he hoarsely whispered to his captive.

The prisoner looked into Athaz’s eyes through his one eye that he could still open. Had he really just heard that? He cried out in pain as Athaz yanked him up by his hair. But those eyes were still staring back at him, silently pleading. A chance to sow doubt among a loyal soldier, end his own suffering, and keep the spies of the Savanir safe lay before him, if he could just work this chance correctly.

“Stop! I beg! There isn’t much to tell, but I will share what I know. We heard rumors of the army on the move and were watching from afar. We have a camp on an island north of here.” He was glad an uninitiated grunt was questioning him and not the Warden that would know it was a lie. “While you were laying siege, some of our men got close enough to hear this Warden and the others plan to burn the city with ev—”

Suddenly, the Warden faced the prisoner and yelled, “Zol ete Bälech, a veryn fa Anpet falun cree, Shrik!”

The Bewildered’s speech fell into a gurgled scream as an ice shard shot through his mouth, pinning his head to the tree behind him.

Athaz numbly turned to the Warden. The Divine Command the Warden had used had drained most of his remaining energy. “Nobody … lives … accusing … The Dawn of such atrocities.”

Athaz couldn’t believe what the captive was about to say. Was it true? Had that been the plan? Surely not …

“Look in my cloak pocket for the parchment and ink and find me something to write with,” the Warden whispered weakly. “I don’t have much time left.” Athaz carefully lifted the Warden from the tree he was leaning against and found the requested items. Quickly scanning around him, he found a small twig that would have to do for a pen. “Lie down. I must have something to write on.”

Feeling awkward, Athaz obeyed. It was only a moment before the Warden spoke again. “Arise.” Athaz stood at attention before the dying Warden. “Take this. You might as well try to read it, they won’t believe you if you say no anyway.” A fit of coughing overtook the Warden, and he spat blood into the snow. “You can’t read it, but try to remember what it looks like; it will help during your questioning with the Watchers.”

Athaz shivered at the thought of them. “May I ask what it is?”

The Warden had already closed his eyes, thinking never to open them, but at this he looked at the young man before him and coughed out a laugh. “Your recommendation to be made a Warden for … your service.” Closing his eyes again, he took a few more breaths before his lungs stopped laboring.

* * * * * * * * * *

A familiar, lovely voice called to him. “Athaz, you’re doing it again.” Athaz’s head shot up from the plate he had been staring at, lost in the memories of three months prior. He wasn’t in Setenbor. He was home, in his humble but comfortable quarters. Lilleth was nursing their five-month-old son, Caedin, her soft brown eyes filled with worry as she looked at her husband. She had gone to feed Caedin after preparing Athaz’s breakfast, which still remained untouched on his plate. He quickly scarfed it down before standing and putting the plate on the counter. Lilleth walked over to him with their son and leaned against his chest in an effort to calm him down. Athaz scolded himself for letting that night overwhelm him again. He stroked her long brown curls. Her life as a soldier’s wife wasn’t easy, but it was the price both had willingly agreed to pay to escape the poverty of the Yeomanry.

“I know you don’t want to share what happened,” Lilleth said as she laid her head on her husband’s shoulder, “but this is tearing you apart. Please, don’t keep me out.”

Athaz put his arm around his wife, leaning his forehead against hers. Caedin grabbed at his father’s shirt and squealed.

“You’ve always been there for me—”

BANG. BANG. BANG. “Open for the Son of Bälech!”

Athaz looked at Lilleth. “Later,” he mouthed as he went to open the door.

A Healer was at the door. His hair, originally brown, was now mostly gray, but his face looked young, closer to thirty than forty. “Athaz of the House of Haedrin?” Athaz nodded, waiting for the man to explain himself. “My name is Palit. I am a Healer, as you can see,” he motioned to his robes.

Athaz confirmed he had indeed noticed. “But why are you here? There is nobody needing treatment in my house; I did not send for you.”
Palit looked surprised by the question. “Well, they said this was a rush, but I assumed you had at least been told. You are going to be made a Warden, and I have been tasked with preparing your body and overseeing its recovery.”

“Preparation? Recovery? What is he talking about, Athaz?” Lilleth strained her voice, trying to hide as much of her apprehension as possible.
“I don’t know,” Athaz responded calmly to ease her concern. Turning to the Healer, he said, “I was aware I was up for consideration, but they hadn’t even told me they had made a decision.”
“Odd. The Son of Bälech was in a hurry, but I hadn’t heard of anyone not receiving their notices.” He looked up at the future Warden with some concern. “Are you ready? Then
again…I guess that doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Athaz shrugged. “Since you seem to know more than we do, I guess you could at least tell us what’s going on.”

Palit then explained that the Son of Bälech was on his way; only he could perform the transformation process of Wardens, Watchers, and Healers. “It’s not as bad for Healers,” he admitted, “but bad enough. If not for having a Healer to help afterward, I’m not sure men would live through becoming a Warden.” Palit paused for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know if you could call a Watcher’s existence living,” he admitted with a shudder. “Let’s not talk about them. I had to make sleeping potions for myself for a month after my first one.”

Lilleth’s face went white. “Don’t worry my dear, not nearly that bad for Wardens, though it’s certainly an ordeal. And soon you and your little one will be in Hilae with all of the other Warden families, not stuck in this Light-forsaken village. You will have access to everything you and your child may need, including The Academy.”

“But will my son have his father?” she muttered under her breath.

Palit did not hear her. “Alright, quickly now. The Son of Bälech doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Normally you are told to prepare a bed for your transformation and recovery, but your main bed will have to do. And you …”

“Lilleth,” she responded curtly.

“Apologies, milady, but could you please peruse my drawings here? These are some symbols to choose from so you may identify your husband from the other Wardens.”

Lilleth would have liked to stuff the papers down the Healer’s throat, but she began looking through them while Palit led Athaz back to the bed and removed his clothing. “Hurry, my dear, the Son of Bälech may be here any minute!”
Lilleth returned with one of the sheets in her hand.

“Really? That was one from my first batch. I never thought it would be used. I was a fool for thinking Yeomanry symbols would be chosen. Those not from there find them insulting, and most like to forget about their past if they are from there.”

“Please, Palit,” Athaz said before Lilleth got any more upset. He could already read it in her eyes. She was terrified of losing him. “I will always remember where I came from,” he said to her.
The Healer was already busy covering his chest, explaining how his skin would absorb the permanent tattoo during the transformation process, but Athaz wasn’t listening to that. Lilleth had placed the infant in his crib and was near the bed, holding her husband’s hand. He motioned for her to come closer, whispering into her ear, “… and where I’m returning.”

A single THUD sounded from the front door.

“Dawn’s Light! We barely got that done in time!” Palit said as he hurriedly put away his things. “That will be him! Quick,” he said, handing Athaz a small vial. “Drink this. You’ll be out before I get back in the room.” Then, without waiting for permission, he ran to let in the Emperor and his personal guard of six Wardens. A Watcher also accompanied them, his face hidden in the depth of his hood. Palit shivered involuntarily.

“Not a good idea to keep his majesty waiting,” the first Warden said darkly.

“A thousand apologies,” Palit said, bowing deeply. “He is ready for you. Right this way.”

Lilleth went prostrate as they entered the bedroom, as was customary in their Emperor’s presence, but she couldn’t help but look up at their ruler and the man that was going to change their lives forever. When she did, their eyes met, and she stared, transfixed. She had heard the Son of Bälech’s eyes shone like the sun, but sheI guess that doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Athaz shrugged. “Since you seem to know more than we do, I guess you could at least tell us what’s going on.”

Palit then explained that the Son of Bälech was on his way; only he could perform the transformation process of Wardens, Watchers, and Healers. “It’s not as bad for Healers,” he admitted, “but bad enough. If not for having a Healer to help afterward, I’m not sure men would live through becoming a Warden.” Palit paused for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know if you could call a Watcher’s existence living,” he admitted with a shudder. “Let’s not talk about them. I had to make sleeping potions for myself for a month after my first one.”

Lilleth’s face went white. “Don’t worry my dear, not nearly that bad for Wardens, though it’s certainly an ordeal. And soon you and your little one will be in Hilae with all of the other Warden families, not stuck in this Light-forsaken village. You will have access to everything you and your child may need, including The Academy.”

“But will my son have his father?” she muttered under her breath.

Palit did not hear her. “Alright, quickly now. The Son of Bälech doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Normally you are told to prepare a bed for your transformation and recovery, but your main bed will have to do. And you …”

“Lilleth,” she responded curtly.

“Apologies, milady, but could you please peruse my drawings here? These are some symbols to choose from so you may identify your husband from the other Wardens.”

Lilleth would have liked to stuff the papers down the Healer’s throat, but she began looking through them while Palit led Athaz back to the bed and removed his clothing. “Hurry, my dear, the Son of Bälech may be here any minute!”
Lilleth returned with one of the sheets in her hand.

“Really? That was one from my first batch. I never thought it would be used. I was a fool for thinking Yeomanry symbols would be chosen. Those not from there find them insulting, and most like to forget about their past if they are from there.”

“Please, Palit,” Athaz said before Lilleth got any more upset. He could already read it in her eyes. She was terrified of losing him. “I will always remember where I came from,” he said to her.
The Healer was already busy covering his chest, explaining how his skin would absorb the permanent tattoo during the transformation process, but Athaz wasn’t listening to that. Lilleth had placed the infant in his crib and was near the bed, holding her husband’s hand. He motioned for her to come closer, whispering into her ear, “… and where I’m returning.”

A single THUD sounded from the front door.

“Dawn’s Light! We barely got that done in time!” Palit said as he hurriedly put away his things. “That will be him! Quick,” he said, handing Athaz a small vial. “Drink this. You’ll be out before I get back in the room.” Then, without waiting for permission, he ran to let in the Emperor and his personal guard of six Wardens. A Watcher also accompanied them, his face hidden in the depth of his hood. Palit shivered involuntarily.

“Not a good idea to keep his majesty waiting,” the first Warden said darkly.

“A thousand apologies,” Palit said, bowing deeply. “He is ready for you. Right this way.”

Lilleth went prostrate as they entered the bedroom, as was customary in their Emperor’s presence, but she couldn’t help but look up at their ruler and the man that was going to change their lives forever. When she did, their eyes met, and she stared, transfixed. She had heard the Son of Bälech’s eyes shone like the sun, but shehadn’t expected the glowing orange irises that looked back at her. Then he spoke an unnaturally heavy, gravelly voice that hissed like lava cooling into stone.

“Normally, it is death to gaze upon me without my bidding. But I am nothing if not merciful. And it would not do to spoil my newest Warden’s baptism day by leaving him a widower with no one to raise his child.” At this, he stared at the infant in his crib with an intensity and hunger that made Lilleth sick. But he finally turned his attention back to the bold woman before him. “No, that would not do at all,” he said as he stepped up to the bed. “Leave us,” he commanded.

Lilleth rose, but she did not leave her husband’s side, though she couldn’t bear the thought of looking into the Son of Bälech’s eyes again. It was not fear of the consequences but the eyes themselves that were so unnerving.

The first Warden unsheathed his weapon, ready to kill the woman. “How dare you repay our lord’s mercy with such insolence!”

“Stay your weapon, Warden!” the unnatural voice commanded. “Loyalty should be encouraged wherever it is shown. It’s so hard to find these days, as we all know from recent events.” His eyes glowed even fiercer as he said this. “She may stay. Watcher, stand with her. Prepare yourself, woman!”

Quickly, Lilleth made her way over to the crib. She pushed Caedin into the arms of the unexpecting, hitherto unwelcome, Healer, who now felt like a dear friend compared to the other guests.

Palit rushed the infant out of the room. The poor woman! If she knew what she was about to witness, she wouldn’t have stayed.

Suddenly, the Son of Bälech began speaking in a language Lilleth did not understand. For a long time, nothing happened. Athaz’s breathing shallowed, and he seemed to be merely in a deeper sleep. But it was not peaceful. He began to moan. His back violently arched and he roared in his sleep—in agony that no lack of consciousness could dull. The Son of Bälech bent down and held Athaz down as an unnatural orange light enveloped the young man’s body. It looked like a fire from within was burning him to death. Lilleth gasped and hid her eyes.

“Oh no, my dear, you wanted to see, and see you will!” another spine-chilling voice said. It was the Watcher’s. But where the Emperor’s voice was thick and heavy, this one was light and fragile. Speaking in the same tongue, Lilleth suddenly felt her hands go straight to her sides. Her eyes flew open, refusing to obey her mind’s command to close. Unbidden and unstoppable tears began to flow as her husband screamed and his body contorted in protest. Her legs gave way, but still she found herself supported by an unseen force, her mouth agape in a silent, terrified scream.

* * * * * * * * * *

When it was over, The Son of Bälech summoned the Healer back to him. “Stay with him. You are now his personal Healer.”

“Of course your majesty,” Palit said with his head bowed.

“I mean permanently. The situation at Setenbor has revealed that The Bewildered were stronger than we realized, hasn’t it?” At this he turned to the Watcher, who trembled violently in a memory that Palit couldn’t even imagine. “We have lost far too many Wardens lately, and we must take steps to ensure their ranks stay filled. You are now at his command.”

Palit was grateful that his bowed head hid the shock on his face. “Your wisdom is unquestioned, as always,” he managed to reply correctly.

Walking past the Healer, he turned his gaze toward Lilleth, who sat in a heap, looking as faras she could in the opposite direction. “Remember what you have seen today, woman, and you will be wiser for it. I have taught you the nature of things, a gift many in Hilae must wait years to see. Use this wisely and you will find yourself in a place of power among the families in my capitol.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Athaz awoke to the feeling of Lilleth wiping a moist cloth across his brow. He didn’t have to ask to know he had a burning fever. “What time is it?”

“It’s been a week since you became a Warden,” she said without emotion. “Palit has gone to retrieve some more supplies.”

Why wasn’t she looking at him? “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I have never seen you like this.”

Lilleth laughed bitterly, handing him a mirror. “You’re one to talk. Look at yourself.”

Athaz gazed at his reflection. He looked like every other Warden, though he had to admit it was still a shock to not recognize the face staring back at him. “This can’t be what’s bothering you.”

“How much do you remember?” she asked.

“Not much after Palit put the ink on my chest.”

“Thought so.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I watched him, Athaz. I watched … what became of you.”

“What became of me? I’m still me, no matter what I look like!”

“You are his now! You no longer belong to me … to us!” she screamed.

But now she could only sob. Athaz tried to hold her, but he was weak. She let him, though he might as well have been holding a cold wall; she couldn’t have felt further if they were on opposite ends of the world. “Where is Caedin?” he finally asked. “Can I see him?”

“I don’t think that’s a good—”

“Let me see our son,” he demanded.

Lilleth finally looked him in the eyes. Pain like he had never seen stared back at him. “Fine, I’ll get him.”

When she brought him, Athaz reached out for his son, but to his surprise, Caedin began to scream and burrowed into his mother’s bosom.

“What the …?”

“He is remembering the first time he saw that figure. He sees only a Warden,” Lilleth explained.

“And what do you see?”

Lilleth couldn’t stop the tears from starting again. “I still see you, Athaz.” She paused, but he could tell she wasn’t finished. She put their son in his crib and crawled into the bed, lying next to him. Relief poured through Athaz as he hugged her tightly. “But I also see the man our son sees. I fear there is no stopping you from growing into this body… I fear that the Son of Bälech will not settle for transforming only your flesh.” Lilleth’s fingers clutched him, like he was something slipping through her grasp.

Athaz looked down at his chest. “You chose well. As I told you, I will always remember where to return.”

“Then so much the worse for you,” she said, trembling in his arms. “You will never be free of him.”

Chapter 1
The Graduates’ Task

Arun checked the official seal of the headmaster three times before allowing himself to be convinced of its authenticity. His proposal for a Field Graduate Task had actually been approved! He would be studying a pre-Dawn historical site—well, at least that was how he saw it. He had phrased it as studying the First Light of the Dawn, where their first Emperor, Bälech, The One, had united the scattered human tribes. Bälech was of an old race, one with incredibly long life spans that preceded Men by several millennia. A disease had destroyed their population and Bälech, himself now slowly succumbing to the disease, wanted to unite the new noble and sentient race of Man to mirror his glorious society of old. Upon finding a human wife, his line, which had inherited his abilities in the Divine and the ability to imbue others with it, had ruled in an unbroken dynasty for 2700 years. Every emperor since their founder was addressed as “Son of Bälech.”

Arun chose Chronicling as his specialization at The Academy, desiring to become a Keeper. The Keepers of the Chronicles, historians and sociologists of The Dawn, kept meticulous records of every society The Dawn’s Light had reached, which was practically everywhere human civilization could be found. He had one class on pre-Dawn history and had learned very little other than what was generally known to everyone: Man was scattered, leaderless, and too busy fighting tribal wars to ever accomplish anything worthwhile. He saw pictures and even one exhibit of their crude weaponry, but he knew nothing of their culture. There must have been something for Bälech to unite, but no one seemed interested rediscovering what had been forgotten.

Arun knew he would never be granted a Field Task for pre-Dawn history, so he got as close as he could. Most of the tribes were united through diplomacy, eager for the benefits of The Dawn. A few had waged war, refusing to be led by anything stronger than themselves. Bälech despised war with Men; there were too many other enemies—Orcs, Goblins, and Giants—to spend time fighting with Men who could still redeem themselves. Some, becoming desperate, allied themselves with those vile creatures, and Bälech’s hand had been forced. Unveiling his true Power, the Divine Tongue, he destroyed the tribes that had united to defy him at Lacris. The ruins of that city were all that remained of pre-Dawn history.

And so that was where Arun wanted to go. If there was anything left to find, it would be in the Ruins. About a two-month trip one way, it would delay his start with the Keepers, but the opportunity was more than worth it. It would also delay his roommate and project partner, Baran, from getting his military commission, but Baran wasn’t about to complain about avoiding a thesis, no matter how much work getting out of it might require.

Arun was still reviewing the letter when he heard Baran’s booming voice singing boisterously and off-key as he approached their dormitory. He guessed his friend had been at the Bard’s Barrel again, where he spent a good bit of his time playing Six Stones or Courting the Deck with his allowance from their family. Baran had a lucky streak that didn’t seem natural, Arun thought; he should always be broke, both games were pure chance, but Arun had yet to see him ask his parents for more money. Baran’s family had adopted Arun from his original Court Family when they realized Arun was the only hope their son had of not being thrown out of the Court and becoming a Yeoman. Court members must graduate The Academy to maintain their position. Arun smiled, remembering how their odd friendship started when they were both eight years old. Compassion had forced him to help the struggling Son of the Court. Everyone knew who Baran was. As if the fiery red hair, blue eyes, and pale skin didn’t make him stand out enough, at eight he was already the size of a youth of twelve. Their Instructors seemed to enjoy that they could intimidate him by
reminding him of the disgrace that would befall his family, and the fate of Yeoman awaiting him personally, if he continued to fail. Arun had always been sensitive to the splitting up of families. It might seem natural to everyone else in the nobility, but he still had a few happy memories of the family he had been forced to leave behind. And so, after overhearing the instructor berating Baran after class one day, Arun decided to tutor his struggling classmate, and in turn Baran protected Arun from the bullies that tormented him because of his heritage. The rest of the Court never let the Gifted forget their Yeoman roots, but in Arun’s case, they at least stopped using it as an excuse to beat him. Over time, their mutual contract of survival developed into an incredibly strong, if odd, bond of friendship that had lasted up to this very year, when they would be graduating at age eighteen.

Baran’s six-four frame barged through the doorway, still singing. Arun hid the envelope. He owed Baran for the dead snake under his sheets last week, and this was the perfect chance for revenge. He quickly gathered some study materials right as Baran entered the room.
“Glad to see you’re in a good mood for another rehearsal,” Arun said, leaning over a tome, furiously scribbling away on a piece of parchment.

“Oh, c’mon,” Baran complained. “Now? I just got back from having three rounds of ale paid for by those unlucky bastards at the Barrel, and you want to ruin my mood with this?”

“Your mood will be a lot worse if you lose your commission by not graduating,” Arun pointed out. “Start at The Ramifications of the 737 Rebellion.”

Baran groaned as he began his part of the speech that had been planned should the Field Task not come through. Arun waited until Baran got to the part he always struggled with.

“It was at this point,” Baran continued in his best imitation of an academic tone, “that the citizens—”

“Denizens,” Arun corrected.

“—denizens…” Baran glared at Arun “…of Flur had the Light of the Dawn rekindled and Helite Katrina.”

“Katina!” Arun blurted with feigned impatience.

“Katina … aw hell … you made me lose my place!” Baran complained.

“You’re always lost.” Arun laughed, fetching the paper as he continued. “But that’s ok because I no longer need you to present anything.”

“Please.” Baran released a hearty laugh. “We both know you could do this better on your own, but we both know you won’t.”

“That thought had occurred to me,” Arun said, walking with the envelope containing the prized sheet in his hand. “But it wouldn’t be wise for me to do that just yet …” he said, tossing the envelope into Baran’s hands as he excused himself to the lavatory to relieve himself.

He almost didn’t get the door shut in time. “YOU LITTLE—” Clank. The latch closed and Arun bolted the door just as Baran started yanking it open.

“I know I normally carry you,” Arun called out from behind the safety of the door, “but you’ll be carrying quite a bit for this grade. That brawn of yours will come in handy moving rocks … other than the one between your shoulders for a change!”

Baran was fuming, and Arun thought about going ahead and bathing while he was in there to give his friend time to cool off. Then he realized that this would leave his peeved friend alone, in their room, with a sense of humor and vengeance that was a little more … direct than his own.Deciding the bath could wait, Arun stepped out and put on his most disarming grin. “I owed you for last week,” he reminded Baran.

“Fair enough. At least that’s over,” his friend said, thumbing over to the scrolls and tomes they had poured over for the past month.

They looked over the approval sheet. There had been some stipulations to their trip. All artifacts must be turned over to the Keepers. Expected. All findings must be reviewed before being shared with The Academy. Also expected. One caught their attention though.

“A Warden?!” Baran exclaimed. Arun whistled.

“We’re going into ruins. Why do we need such a powerful chaperone?” Arun wondered aloud.

“Beats me, but I can’t wait to ask him to train me,” Baran responded.

They soon realized Baran would get his wish without having to ask. The Warden had been tasked with getting them ready for the potential hardships encountered on the trip, like confrontations with Orcs, Goblins, Giants, and Bewildered—small, nomadic groups of Men that refused to recognize the Son of Bälech.

“Too bad Bälech hasn’t given me power in the Divine. My weapon skills are already pretty good,” Baran said.

“Pretty good compared to me and the other future scholars,” reminded Arun. “If you fare as well against a Warden, I’ll volunteer as a footman.”

The two friends continued reading the approval document, but nothing else really caught their eyes. One month of training, followed by five months allotted for their travel, survey of the site, and return, then one month to prepare a presentation of their findings. Arun knew he would be handling that final part.

The next morning, Arun and Baran excitedly talked about their upcoming expedition on their way to the Keeper’s Tower. Light was just peeking over the high walls that guarded the capital, Hilae. The streets were paved with white large stones hewn out of the Briarthorn Mountains to the south, which was used to construct most of the buildings in the Court of Hilae. The colonnades adorned with drapes bearing family emblems of the Court gave a false sense of permanence—rarely did a family stay in favor with a Son of Bälech for more than a single generation, but everyone in the Court believed they would be the exception and spared no expense in presenting their best image to their emperor. But each one would be torn down as a family erred in service, one way or another. On more than one occasion, Baran had nearly been that error for his family, and he knew it. He looked at Arun as they crossed his family’s gate. His family had never understood why Baran considered Arun a friend. They viewed him as a tool, nothing more. In their minds, it was Arun that should be grateful to Baran and the family for his relatively privileged life as a Gifted. Most Court families never thought to thank a Yeoman for anything, not even keeping them in the Son of Bälech’s favor.

They entered the Keeper’s Tower. A young Keeper, she couldn’t be more than twenty-one, turned and formally greeted them. Her brown hair was kept in the fashion of female Keepers: two braids that started at her forehead circled around her head before joining into a single braid that went down her back. Her dark green eyes were shrewd and searching, quickly analyzing everything in front of her, and immediately dissolving any thought that the petite five-three frame housed a demure girl to match. Much to Arun’s embarrassment, Baran felt the need to impress the young, attractive Keeper. “Baran of the House of Halew,” he said, bowing deeper and with more flair than the Emperor’s advisors. “Would you do me the honor of escorting me and my friend to Keeper Descia’s study? Perhaps on the way, I could entertain you with my family history, and if that fascinates you, perhaps you
would like to see our grounds sometime? Show you some of the treasures not visible from our gate?”

“Baran II, son of Taran. Chronicling Specialist to breeze into the military with the ambition…” the woman paused to eye him doubtfully with pursed lips “…of becoming a Warden. House of Halew, a Yeoman family until thirty-two years ago, when Taran, son of Baran I, sprinted five miles from his hut on the Green Path to warn a battalion of soldiers of an impending Bewildered ambush.” Baran swallowed hard as she continued while Arun tried not to laugh. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Descia, third-generation Keeper blessed to serve two Sons of Bälech. I will be attempting to instruct you, assuming you possess thought above your belt.”

Arun’s shoulders shook involuntarily at this point, and he feared opening his mouth. The Keeper looked at him as she waited for him to finish. “Forgive me, Keeper Descia,” he said when he composed himself. “I didn’t want to add to my foolish behavior by attempting to speak.”
“At least Gifted are aware of their shortcomings,” she said nonchalantly.

Arun tried to let the unintended insult slide off his back. To her it was a mere observation, he reminded himself. Baran started to come to his friend’s defense, but Arun elbowed his ribs. Even if she had thought highly of the aspiring Warden, it wouldn’t have done any good.

“Follow me to my study,” she ordered and turned without seeing—possibly without caring—if they followed. They climbed up seven flights of stairs before she turned into a room. Baran felt a little less undignified as his friend tried to hide his shortness of breath.

The room had two bookshelves crammed full of tomes, scrolls, and parchments. Keepers, by rule, shared everything in the Chronicle Library and were only to have in their study items pertaining to their current research.

Without turning, she motioned to two plain chairs in front of her desk. Taking her place across from them, she put her hand on some pieces of parchment and two scrolls that lay on the desk. “These are copies made by our novices of all we have concerning the final battle before The Dawn was formally established.”

Arun couldn’t hide his disappointment. How did the Keepers know so little? He wondered if they were holding back. “Will we have access to the Library?” he asked.

Understanding his thought process, she answered him. “I can see to it, if you want to waste your time. If I wanted to hide something we had from you, I would not have bothered acting helpful.”

Baran bit his tongue. This is helpful? What do unhelpful Keepers act like?

Arun bowed his head. “Thank you, Keeper Descia. I just had hoped for more information.”
“And we want more information,” she responded. “And that is why the Keepers will be joining your expedition when your training is complete,” she announced.

Baran sat up as Arun stammered, “You’ll be joining us?”

“Not just me,” she corrected. “Geown, Sylphia, Nihl, and many novices will also be joining the company.”

Stunned silence. The Keepers had every right to take over the expedition, but they had hardly anticipated it. “Do we still get credit for the Graduate Task when whichever Keeper claims the lead?” Arun finally asked.

“You are still the lead, at least for as long as your part in the dig lasts,” Descia said, and for the first time smiled encouragingly. “Some of us have been waiting for generations to explore the Ruins of Lacris. And I will be your Chief Councilor.”Baran, tired of feeling like a mute fool, said, “Impressive for a young Keeper to have so much respect.”

“Your flattery, while pleasing, isn’t going to raise my assessment of you, Baran. Still, I thank you.” For a moment, she dropped her commanding presence as she admitted, “They tell me it’s because I am closest to you in age, only three years out of The Academy myself.” Quickly regaining her former authority, she continued. “But in truth it’s because I was the one who fought with the Watchers about allowing two students of your backgrounds an honor the Keepers had yet to be granted.”

Arun’s fears were put to rest, but he was also confused. The Keepers had not yet studied the Ruins? Not been allowed? But he had no time to ponder these things, as the young Keeper launched into what they did know of the battle and, much to Arun’s excitement, pre-Dawn history.


The two hours flew by for Arun, but Baran kept glancing at the hour-candles to see how much time remained until he met the Warden. At last, Descia began collecting the scrolls and parchments for them to take back to their dormitory.

“Most of our meetings after today will be discussing plans and preparations for the expedition,” she said. “There is much to teach you. You have never been on a dig, and now you will be leading one, if only in name and for a short while. You will study the scrolls in your own time, but feel free to ask any questions when you arrive the following morning.”

Arun and Baran thanked her for her time and quickly departed. They had an hour to eat, take the pre-Dawn material back to the dorm, and present themselves to the Warden. As they ate, Arun started laughing at how the last introduction had gone.
“You can’t help yourself can you?” Arun asked.

“What?” Baran asked.

“Trying to impress every girl you meet whose hair hasn’t started turning gray,” Arun explained.

“At least I try,” he retorted and bit into a large piece of lamb to avoid having to talk.

Arun let it drop. Maybe the experience with Keeper Descia would keep his friend from acting overconfident in front of the Warden. That would be a much more grievous mistake.

They arrived five minutes early but found the Warden already waiting for them. He looked the same as all Wardens. Infused with the Divine, Wardens lost their previous appearance. Their bodies morphed into a muscular six-foot-six frame, and their eyes became black. They wore a full but neatly trimmed black beard and mustache. The only way to identify a Warden was a mark on their chest, which they kept hidden even while sleeping; only each one’s family and the Watchers knew which mark belonged to which person. It was then the boys realized they had never thought about how to properly introduce themselves to a Warden. Most were busy fighting battles or living as the personal guard of the Son of Bälech. They had always bowed prostrate in front of Wardens, but it was to the Emperor, not his guard. Not knowing what else to do, they both bowed deeply and waited until he spoke.

“You finished yet?” the Warden asked when they stared at the floor for more than ten seconds.

“Yes, sir,” Baran said.

“We weren’t sure what to do,” Arun explained.

“Salute, if anything, but only you need to practice that,” said the Warden, turning his gaze toward Baran. “I understand you wish to become a Warden yourself, so you might as well get used to it.”“Yes, sir,” Baran said again.

“Athaz,” the Warden said.

“Sir?” Baran asked.

“Athaz. I’m going to get tired of hearing ‘sir’ as much as you say it,” the Warden replied.

“Yes, s— Warden Athaz,” Baran stammered.

Athaz shook his head. “Alright, let’s get started. First things first, the Son of Bälech has graciously provided weapons for you to pick from. You will each select two weapons,” he said, pointing to the racks on the wall behind him. “Go on.”

Baran strode right up to a short, stout sword and a large rectangular shield. He fastened the sword’s sheath to his belt and slung the shield over his back before going to a rack with all manner of bows. He chose a short bow and a quiver of arrows. Athaz looked at Arun and nodded toward the weapons racks. “You waiting for a golden-inked invitation?”

Arun took a deep breath. He had never wielded a real weapon before, and he didn’t care for the thought of using one. He tentatively walked over. Finally, he picked up a quarterstaff from the melee weapons and a sling from the ranged.
The Warden sighed quietly and shook his head before going up and taking both away. “I may have let you pick one of those, but in picking both you are telling me your wish to avoid killing in a fight. The worst thing you can do is make your opponent angry by hurting him without disabling him. I could teach you to kill with both of those weapons, but this is more efficient,” he said as he handed Arun a fauchard, a weapon much like the quarterstaff he had chosen, but with a large, curved blade at one end. “And,” the Warden continued, “in trained hands, anyone can use any weapon without killing.”

Arun stared at the fauchard, and he felt his stomach already churning in knots at the thought of striking another person with it. He had to remind himself odds were it wouldn’t happen.

“I’ll let you try again for your second weapon,” the Athaz said.

Arun ventured to the rack again, trying to find something that would keep the Warden from changing his choice again but wouldn’t make him sick every time he had to look at it. Spotting a vest of throwing knives, he chose it. Won’t be many mirrors on the road, Arun thought to himself.

“The weapons of an assassin?” Athaz asked incredulously. Arun feared the Warden would change his weapon again, but he just shrugged. “Very well, I suppose just getting you to not kill yourself or us with just one weapon will be enough of a challenge in the time we have. I can give you some tips about how to throw these as we travel.” Speaking to both young men, the Warden pointed to a squire and said, “Give your weapons to this boy.” The squire bowed and left as soon as he had the weapons.

Turning to Baran, Athaz said, “Your friend needs some basic training you already possess. Go down this hallway, take the second right. First door on your left you will find Captain Muin. He will teach you some basic military tactics for the first week. Get used to him. He will be your commanding officer when you’re commissioned.” Baran saluted and with no small amount effort contained his excitement enough to not sprint down the hallway.

Athaz walked up to another rack with wooden training weapons. He grabbed the fauchard and tossed it to Arun. When caught, a splinter pierced his soft hands. Arun caught himself before he moved the hand all the way to his mouth, but not before it got close enough for Athaz to notice.

“We have a long way to go,” was all the Warden said.

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Author: Annie Douglass Lima

Genre: Science Fiction

Reading Level: YA

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Chapter One

My love of reading started the whole thing.

The best place to read on the Laika was in the lifeboats. I’d discovered that on the first leg of the trip, during the flight from Earth to the jump point off of Phoebe. I mean, what else was there to do when we couldn’t see much through the viewports? The view was exciting when there was one, but when you’re far away from anything, space all looks the same.

The hyperspace jump that shot us across the galaxy had been quick, of course, so no time to get bored there. And after we came out of it at the jump point off of Somav, the blue giant that would light my skies for the rest of my life, the flight toward the little moon Soma was pretty exciting, too. I couldn’t stop staring as we passed Somavia, the blue and white planet I knew none of us would ever see close up again. I wondered about the aliens whose home it was. What were they like? The pictures and video Forerunner had sent back, from the few passes it had taken in high orbit, left everyone with more questions than they answered.

Of course, we knew the planet had a breathable atmosphere. If it hadn’t been for the alien race who already lived there — and the tirtellium that we were going to mine on Soma, of course — New Horizons Industries might have decided to set up its colony on the planet Somavia instead of on its moon.

We passed Somavia three days ago, and we’d been orbiting Soma ever since. Which was also exciting, at first. I couldn’t wait to actually get down there and start life on my new home. A home I would get to help create, along with the adult scientists and miners and the rest of the Young Explorers. A home I would never be taken away from just when I was starting to settle in. My forever home. Normally I hated new beginnings, but this one was different. This would be the last new beginning of my life.

Even the colony’s name, chosen by the Samoan astronomer who discovered this solar system, was perfect. Avanoa, which apparently meant opportunity in the Samoan language, sounded to me like a kingdom from some fantasy novel.

Not that life in Avanoa was going to be a fantasy. I knew that starting a colony would be hard work, but that didn’t matter. A real home, with friends I would never have to say goodbye to, would be worth any amount of work.

Soma was interesting to look at, though not as pretty as the planet it orbited. The moon was mostly brown, with splotches of gray-green surrounding the dark blue dots that marked the location of its scattered lakes. With no actual oceans, the moon had just enough water to support a little plant and animal life. Nothing too dangerous, at least as far as we could tell from Forerunners pictures. Insects. Some fish and crustaceans that might or might not be edible. Small reptilian or maybe amphibian creatures that lived in and around the lakes. A handful of different mammals, all tiny, that made their homes in the hills. Nothing that seemed likely to bother two hundred human colonists setting up a new home on their world.

Of course, the aliens could be another story. We knew the Somavians had developed a limited form of space travel; we knew they had mines on Soma, too. But whatever they were mining for, it wasn’t tirtellium, and they only had a few tunnel mines in a few locations. We planned to set up our colony hundreds of kilometers away, where if all went according to plan, they wouldn’t even know we were around. Forerunners sensors had not detected any other artificial satellites in orbit around either Somavia or Soma, and as far as we could tell, the locals had no instruments capable of detecting Forerunner, no way to suspect we were coming. Its orbit was carefully programmed to keep it out of sight of any of their mines after dark, when it might be visible from the ground as a moving point of light.

The adults all said that hopefully we would never have to encounter any Somavians, but all of us kids hoped we would. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind not want to meet the first real live aliens actually confirmed to exist?

Jessie, who loved science fiction movies almost as much as I loved reading, had often kept Maria and Shaliqua and me awake late into the night back in our dorm room discussing all the possible alien-related adventures that awaited us if we ever made contact. Most of those possibilities were a lot more fun — though some were scarier — than the idea of living in isolation and never letting the locals know we were on their moon.

Anyway, judging by Forerunners footage, Somavian culture seemed peaceful, with no evidence of any wars going on down on their home world. If they did find out about the humans in their solar system, hopefully they wouldn’t mind us being there. We wouldn’t bother them, and with any luck, they wouldn’t bother us. And if they did get mad, well, the Laika had some weapons. Not enough to wage war with, but hopefully enough to convince them to leave us alone.

So much to wonder about. So much to look forward to. I could hardly wait to get down to the surface and start my new life. But here we all were, stuck in orbit for three whole days so far. Three painfully long and boring days. Earth days, that is. It had been nearly five Soman days, though we wouldn’t officially switch to using Soman time until we landed.

Atmospheric storms. Who would have thought that storms would be this big of an issue on a world with virtually no precipitation? Our science team had come up with a theory about minerals in the soil reflecting particles and wavelengths from the solar flares that Somav had been throwing out since our arrival. Whatever the case, the result was some pretty impressive windstorms in parts of the atmosphere. Since the spot picked out for Avanoa was directly underneath one of the worst storms, Captain Tyler insisted it wouldn’t be safe to try to land yet.

But no one had anticipated that the flares and storms would go on this long. At first, I was glad of the opportunity to orbit my new home and see what it looked like from space. But after a while the excitement faded, and everyone turned grouchy as we all grew more and more bored and impatient. The movies and games preloaded on our Horizon-brand tablets weren’t good enough to keep everyone happy, not while we had to put the adventure we’d all waited over a year to start on hold indefinitely. And I’d never been a big fan of video games or movies anyway.

So I did what I always do when real people get too annoying. I pulled out my old-school Novareader and turned to my true friends, the ones who never got annoying, who would always be there for me no matter what, whom I never had to say goodbye to. And I escaped to the one place I had found on board where nobody would bother me or interrupt my adventures to ask what I was reading or exclaim over their new high score in who-cares-what-virtual-adventure on their RizeTab.

The Laika was designed to be taken apart when we arrived. Its decking and bulkheads would be used to help create Avanoa’s buildings until we could construct permanent residences from local rock, and that was one of the reasons the ship was so large. But big though it was, it had no extra empty space. Every compartment was full of freeze-dried food items, mining equipment, packages of seeds for genetically modified crops designed to grow well in the moon’s dry soil, and educational resources for us youth, because even on an interstellar adventure, there was no escaping school in some form.

So I had discovered in between Earth and Phoebe that the lifeboats were the best place to read. I wasn’t sure if I was really supposed to hang out in them, but they were unlocked, because after all, what would be the point in locking something that people would need to get into in a hurry in an emergency?

I sat curled up on a seat in Lifeboat 1, alternating between reading and looking out to see if anything interesting had come into sight down below. But from this angle, the one window — a wide viewport at the very front — was mostly full of stars, only a tiny sliver of Soma visible from one edge. I could have turned on the screen at the lifeboat’s navigation console and adjusted it to show me any view I liked, but that might trigger some sort of alert, and I didn’t want anyone showing up to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be in here.

So I joined Caz and her friends on their travels across the Granbo system, caught up in their space adventure on my Novareader screen, since my own space adventure had turned pretty dull. Lunch was another two hours away, so I might as well enjoy myself in the meantime.

And I did — until the ship vibrated more vigorously than usual and the fasten seatbelts sign flicked on.

I often felt as though several of me were debating inside my head. For a moment, Cautious Liz wondered if I should return to my seat. But what was the point? Practical Liz reminded me that I would be just as safe here in the lifeboat, and if the turbulence got bad, walking around with the Laika lurching under me would not be the smartest idea.

I already had my seatbelt on, since that was the best way to keep from floating around. Not that floating around wasn’t fun, but there was too little room in the lifeboat to do mid-air flips and spins without banging into things, and drifting around while I read made it hard to focus on the book. Of course my magnetic-soled shoes could have kept me anchored to the deck, but not when I wanted to sit cross-legged.

So I just tightened my seatbelt a little and turned back to The Gypsy Pearl. We had encountered turbulence lots of times in the last few days, thanks to the solar flares. It was no big deal.

But the vibrations grew stronger, and then the ship started lurching under me. I lowered my Novareader and looked around, but there was nothing to see here in the little lifeboat. The stars jumped and jerked outside the viewport, and if it hadn’t been for my seatbelt, I knew I would have been thrown about and probably injured already.

I waited for the crackle of the intercom and Captain Tyler’s voice to explain what was happening or issue instructions. But I heard nothing, and I wondered if the flares had damaged the lifeboat’s intercom system. They had interfered with electrical systems on the Laika before, after all. Now I wished I’d returned to my seat while I could. If something dangerous was happening, I would rather face it with the others in the main cabin, where at least I would know what was going on.

Without warning, the lights flickered and then went out. Now that was a first. An instant later, an alarm screeched, making me jump. I gasped, really worried for the first time since we left Earth. The screeching continued as the stars swirled and zigzagged, sending faint but frightening shadows thrashing around me like alien spirits trying to take over the ship. For a second I wondered if that could actually be happening. Maybe the Somavians had powers we didn’t know about. Maybe they were trying to drive us out of their system … or worse.

Then the emergency lights embedded in the deck glowed to life, and I let out my breath in relief. The navigation computer two rows ahead of me powered on automatically, its screen lighting up green.

My relief was short-lived, though. The alarm kept blaring its intermittent warning. Screech! Silence. Screech! Silence. Screech! The turbulence was worse than ever, as though the Laika was a wild horse, bucking and leaping and trying to throw its rider off. And that rider gripped the edge of her seat all alone there in the lifeboat, wondering what in the universe was happening.

Suddenly the whirling stars vanished and Soma swung into view, filling the viewport ahead of me, a blur of brown-blue-gray-green-brown. I barely had time to notice before it was gone and the streaking stars reappeared. Then the moon appeared again.

My stomach was spinning as fast as the ship. Thank goodness I had inherited the Smith Stomach of Steel, or my breakfast would probably have ended up all around me. I could only imagine what a nasty experience that would be in zero gravity with the ship thrashing around like this.

A new noise caught my attention. A mechanical noise, a series of clicks and clinks and the sliding of metal against metal. I had only ever heard it before in simulations, but I recognized it right away, and my heart lurched in terror. “No!”

Words flashed across the computer screen, large enough to read from where I sat. LIFEBOAT LAUNCHING.

“No! I yelled again. I fumbled for the seatbelt clasp and flung myself across the tiny cabin, lunging for the manual override button beside the door. Not a smart move, I have to admit, considering how wildly everything was jerking around me. But I panicked. Can you blame me? None of our training, none of the simulations, had dealt with what to do if the lifeboat you were sitting in alone accidentally detached from the ship.

I knew what to do if a lifeboat didn’t detach when it was supposed to. I knew which lifeboat I was supposed to board in an emergency. Not this one, though they were all the same. I knew who my lifeboat buddies would be — a fairly even cross-section of the ship’s crew in terms of age and abilities, so we would have the best possible chance of survival in case not every lifeboat made it. I knew how to steer the lifeboat and bring it down for a controlled landing, even though I wasn’t the assigned helmsperson in my group. We had all learned all those skills, just in case.

But I didn’t know how to survive in deep space or on Soma’s surface on my own. The cupboards contained emergency rations and survival gear, of course, but not enough to live off of indefinitely. Of course the lifeboat would emit a signal that the ship’s sensors would pick up — I knew they were picking it up already, as of the moment my craft started to detach — but what if no one could come and get me right away? What if I landed on Soma, but the Laika couldn’t land for days or even weeks? They would have no way to rescue a stranded teenager who shouldn’t have been reading in a lifeboat in the first place.

And what if the aliens found me before my people did?

All that went swirling through my brain within a couple of seconds as I slammed my fist into the manual override button again and again. But nothing happened. That is, the hatch didn’t open to let me out into the ship’s corridor. But the incessant alarm finally went silent, and the frantic jerking and thrashing stopped, replaced by a slow, gentle twirl.

For a second, Optimistic Liz dared to hope that the trouble was over. But I knew that wasn’t it.

The lifeboat was no longer connected to the ship.

Too horrified even to yell again, I watched the Laika drift past the viewport, Somav’s light tinting her silver-white hull a metallic frostbite-blue against the blackness of space. She was still spinning and dancing like some huge bird as the solar flares played havoc with her electrical systems. And then I saw only stars, and then the mottled brown of the moon, then more stars. And then there went the Laika once more, further away this time.

Grabbing the back of a seat for leverage, I shoved off from the deck, thankful for the zero-gravity training. Floating was faster than clomping along in magnetic shoes, and I had to get to the controls now. I had to steer myself back to the ship.

But as I seized the arm of the helmsperson’s chair and maneuvered my body into it, I realized I had no idea how to reattach a lifeboat to its socket on the ship’s side. They had never taught us that. Were lifeboats even designed to reattach once they were separated?

Well, somebody must know the proper procedure for this kind of emergency. Captain Tyler or one of the other adults could talk me through the process. Right?

I fumbled for the seatbelt, twisting my ankles around the legs of the chair so I wouldn’t float off in the meantime. Jabbing the intercom button, I called, “Help! I’m in a lifeboat that just detached! What do I do?”

Realizing how panicked and little-girly I sounded, I took a deep breath and tried again. “I mean, this is Liz Smith on Lifeboat 1, calling anybody on the Laika who can hear me. Come in, please.”

There was no response, and I realized that the communication light wasn’t even on. The intercom was offline.

Great. Dang solar flares.

I took another deep breath. I had never felt so alone.

But the controls in front of me looked exactly like the ones in the simulator. I could do this. It would be just the same as I had practiced.

Except this was no game, where the only real struggle was to beat my classmates, to be the first to land my virtual lifeboat safely.

This was a real emergency.

This was my life at stake.

Chapter Two

The Laika fluttered past the viewport again, far in the distance this time. The screen in front of me flickered, reacting to the same solar issues the ship was dealing with. I seized the joystick, but I had to wrestle with it before the lifeboat’s spin slowed. “Come on, come on,” I muttered aloud. “Get some control here.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking to myself or the boat.

By the time I managed to stop the spin, Soma filled the whole viewport, its gravity inexorably claiming me. I managed to turn the vessel to the starboard and aim it at the Laika, which was still flopping crazily in space, though not quite where I had left it. The screen in front of me showed the ship comfortingly large, but it appeared as only a tiny fleck outside the viewport now.

But when I tried to engage the thrusters, nothing happened. Whats wrong? Frantically, I jabbed at the thruster icon on the screen, and a data box opened up at the top right. I scanned the information. “Thrusters offline? Great. Just great!” Those solar flares again.

I couldn’t actually go anywhere without the thrusters. All I could do was keep the lifeboat pointed in a certain direction — and if the stabilizers worked, I could control my descent — but I couldn’t go anywhere but down. Down into Soma’s gravity well.

And according to the readout, I was being sucked down dangerously fast. Significantly smaller than Earth, my new home had lower gravity, so my chances were a lot better than they might have been. But considering that I was piloting a damaged vessel I had never actually flown before, hurtling down for a landing on unfamiliar terrain, I knew I had to get better control.

I eased the joystick around until Soma’s barren landscape filled the viewport again. No clouds obscured the view; the moon didn’t have enough water for many clouds to form. Just mists that rose from the lakes every morning and clung to nearby hillsides before they burned off in the day’s sunshine. Our crops, once we planted them, would be watered by drip irrigation, not rain.

I had only ever seen Soma’s terrain this close up in pictures from Forerunner. Watching the rocky plains and low hills zooming toward me was totally different. No lakes in this area, so no vegetation. Just rocks and dust, and, according to the sensors, a few underground tirtellium deposits. Fortunately I saw no sign of any windstorms — or alien activity — around here.

The seatbelt straps dug into my shoulders and waist, reminding me that I was approaching way too steeply. I pulled the stabilizer levers and adjusted the joystick, trying to level out my angle of descent. My chances of pulling off a somewhat safe landing would be a lot better if I could come down like a plane instead of a falling rock.

The lifeboat responded slowly, but it did respond. The landscape began to slide by beneath me as well as rushing up to meet me. But everything kept getting bigger, and I was approaching at least twice as fast as I would have liked.

I knew there were no actual mountains on Soma. But a range of steep hills, higher than most, presented themselves at the top edge of the screen, and a warning light began to blink. At my current trajectory, I was going to smash right into their flank.

I couldn’t yet see them through the viewport, at least not clearly enough to tell that they were going to be a problem. But there they were on the screen, growing larger and larger.

My plan had been to wait till I was closer to the ground and then find a wide, flat area where I could bring the lifeboat down for a smooth landing. But with these hills in the way, there wasn’t going to be time, and without thrusters, I couldn’t make it over. And I knew that at my current speed, I wouldn’t be able to turn in time to avoid them, either. Better land soon, then.

That meant the parachute. I wasn’t still high enough for the friction to burn me up, was I?

I tapped the parachute icon on the screen. The parachute not recommended light was off, which was a good sign, but the one that said parachute recommended wasn’t on yet. Well, too bad.

I pressed deploy. The computer asked for confirmation, I gave it, and then the lifeboat lurched and slowed as the wind caught it.

I was still coming in fast, but not suicide fast. At least, I hoped not. The hills loomed alarmingly close on the screen, even steeper than they had looked at first, though deceptively small through the viewport. I zoomed the display in as far as I could, searching for any signs of a pass that would let me go between the hills instead of over them if I couldn’t stop in time. But nothing opened up.

The readout warned me that I wasn’t going to slow enough to come down for any sort of safe landing in the plains, parachute or no. And I definitely didn’t have enough elevation to make it over. I was running out of options. Im going to crash!

I could only think of one possibility, something I’d seen Shaliqua try on the sim once. Of course, she had crashed and burned, but a week later she mentioned that she’d tried it again and managed it safely the second time. Safely for her, that is. Her virtual lifeboat was destroyed.

I checked the wind direction in the atmospheric conditions section of the readout and changed the angle of the joystick accordingly. Adjusting the stabilizers, I let the craft fall lower, making sure to keep its nose up. What I needed to do was skim the ground and try to skip a few times like a flat rock skipping across the surface of a pond. If I did it right, that could slow me enough to let me stop before I smashed into that hillside.

The ground hurtled toward me, patchy-brown and rocky. I clenched my teeth, bracing myself.

Even though I was expecting it, the first impact was a shock. A horrible crashing and screeching of metal erupted around me, and the jolt jarred every bone in my body. I felt as though all my teeth had been knocked loose. The seatbelt straps bit into my shoulders so hard I was sure they would leave bruises, and my neck snapped forward. For a terrifying second I wondered if I had broken it, but I didn’t seem to be paralyzed, so it must just have been whiplash. I had lost my grip on the joystick, and I grabbed for it as the lifeboat leaped into the air again.

The craft was tilted now, and I couldn’t maneuver the stabilizers in time to straighten it out before the next impact. I scraped a little less violently this time, but then the starboard side hit an extra-large rock with another horrible jerk, spinning the lifeboat around. I ignored the warnings flashing across the screen — of course my maneuver was “not recommended” — but the wail of alarms and the smell of smoke were harder to ignore.

For another few seconds of dizzying flight, I struggled breathlessly to stop my spin before I smashed into something else, and to keep the lifeboat level and parallel to the ground. A steep rocky slope filled the whole viewport now.

CRASH! Once again I banged and thudded over and into boulders. The vessel shook violently, and I heard an ear-shattering metallic ripping as some part of it sheared clean off.

After we all got to Avanoa, the lifeboats were supposed to be used for traveling around Soma when necessary, kind of like helicopters. But this was one craft not likely ever to be used again. Except maybe for scrap metal.

Then I was airborne once more, and I coughed as smoke billowed through the cabin. I thought it was raining inside until I realized the water spraying on my face and hands was from the automatic sprinkler system.

Another scraping, jarring, crunching impact. I had definitely slowed; I could feel the difference, but would it be enough?

The port side of the craft caught on a rock outcropping that I didn’t see in time, swinging it around. I slid sideways and then slammed nose-first into something else I couldn’t see.

That crash was the worst of all.

I would like to think that I didn’t scream. I prided myself on not ever screaming, not even once, since the car crash. But the lifeboat itself was screaming in a dozen different voices, drowning out any sound I might have made, so I really can’t be sure. Bulkheads crumpled around me and metal ripped like cardboard as the lifeboat turned summersaults. Alarms wailed, light flashed through new windows of all shapes where there weren’t supposed to be windows at all, and debris tumbled through the air.

Letting go of the controls, I buried my face in my lap and braced myself, covering my head with my arms like they say to do in a crash-landing. For a moment nothing in the universe existed except my terror and the violence of the crash, mingling with images from that other crash that came exploding through my brain.

And then I realized that all motion had stopped. The alarm finally quieted, replaced by a rumble and clatter of rocks pounding against the hull, either thrown up by the impact or knocked loose in a landslide I must have caused. But in a moment, the clatter faded. Finally, the only sounds were the hiss of the sprinklers and the patter of water on the deck plates.

I sat motionless, my face still buried in my lap, not daring to look up. My ears rang and my heart pounded, and for a few seconds I wasn’t quite sure which crash I had just lived through. I could feel myself shaking as I fought to keep reality and memory separate.

The dust in the air finally pulled me fully into the present. It tickled my throat until I coughed and gagged and had to sit up to cough some more.

I unwrapped my arms from my head and opened my eyes, feeling dizzy and lightheaded. The air tasted smoky as well as dusty, but I sucked in a few big gulps of it as soon as I could breathe properly. Then I looked around to assess the damage, hardly able to believe I was still alive.

The bulkheads had buckled as though a giant had squeezed them in his fist. Shafts of blue sunlight filtered in through the holes, giving the white navigation console a faint bluish tint, changing my green sweatshirt to gray-green, and making the drops spraying from the ceiling glitter like blue diamonds. The screen in front of me had gone dark and was cracked and tilted at an odd angle. Several of the seats on the lifeboat’s starboard side had been crushed flat by a massive boulder that bulged into the cabin. If anyone had been sitting there, they would definitely have been killed.

At least my craft had stopped right-side-up. As I unfastened my seatbelt, I realized my hands were still trembling. I was lucky I hadn’t been killed, myself. I had come pretty close to death. Closer than I had in the last six years.

When I tried to get out of my seat, I discovered my legs were stuck, wedged between another large rock and part of the navigation console that had sheared off and was bent the wrong way. I tugged at the rock, the metal, and my legs, but nothing would budge.

Even then, I wasn’t really worried at first. Not until I realized that although my knees hurt, I couldn’t feel anything below them. I tried to wiggle my toes, but I couldn’t feel my shoes. I clenched and unclenched every muscle in my calves and feet, or I tried to, but I could feel nothing to tell me if I was really doing it or not.

Uh-oh. This cant be good.

The sprinklers finally stopped, and I realized I could no longer smell smoke. At least I wasn’t going to be burned alive. But I was soaking wet by now, and a breeze drifted in, making me shiver.

I pulled off my sweatshirt, squeezed out as much water as I could, and put it back on, but it didn’t feel much drier. The emergency kit contained thermal blankets, but they were well out of reach. I twisted around in my seat and eyed the cupboard longingly, but it was a good twelve feet away. If I had some sort of stick or pole — but no, nothing like that lay in the debris around me. Plenty of rocks, but throwing a rock wouldn’t make the cupboard open, let alone allow me to drag anything out of it.

I tried pressing buttons on the instrument panel in front of me, but there was no response. It was thoroughly dead. Of course, it could still be sending out a signal to tell the Laika my location.

But Pessimistic Liz laughed inwardly at the thought. In its current state? Yeah, right. Well, if it had been broadcasting up until my actual impact, they should still be able to find me.


I sat back in my seat and sighed. I was trapped. There was nothing I could do but wait. It would be up to the others to come and rescue me after they were finally able to land. As near as I could guess from glimpses on the readout earlier, I was at least two hundred kilometers away from where Avanoa would be built.

And there would be a lot to do after the Laika landed. Would anyone have time to take one of the trucks or another lifeboat and come find me right away? Each person had their own assigned responsibilities when it came to unloading supplies and setting up our new home. No one had counted on having to launch a rescue mission immediately after arrival.

No matter how I looked at it, I was in for a long wait. Possibly a fatally long wait, depending on how soon the ship could even land.

I turned and peered wistfully back at the cupboard again. Food. Water. Blankets. Tent. Heater. First aid kit. All out of reach.

I tried once more to free my legs, but still with no success. Next, I turned to peer around the floor. If I couldn’t get free, at least I could read while I waited for rescue or death.

But I didn’t see my Novareader anywhere. Bending over, I felt under the closest seats and pushed aside all the debris I could reach.

No luck.

Groaning, I slumped over the navigation console. I could handle any amount of waiting, any kind of difficulty, if I could at least read my way through it. I always had my books with me in the hard times.

Through those long days in the hospital, reading was all that stopped me from giving in to pain and despair. When I woke up trembling night after night, pajamas drenched with sweat, I turned on my Novareader to escape from the nightmares and memories. Every time I moved to a new school or neighborhood where I didn’t know anyone, my friends in my books kept me company.

Maria had mentioned once that when she was waiting to find out if she’d been accepted to New Horizons’ Young Explorers program, she lay awake tossing and turning for hours every single night, wondering and worrying. Not me. I simply turned on my Novareader after I went to bed and spent time with my literary friends till I was too sleepy to keep my eyes open any longer, until the day when the long-awaited phone call finally came. Once Avanoa Bound started, I was too busy and tired to lie awake very often, but when it felt as though my big adventure would never get here, I simply passed what little spare time I had reading. My friends in my books were there waiting for me every time I slid the power toggle on.

And now they were gone. Was my Novareader in here somewhere, waiting to be found later when I was rescued? Or had it been crushed, burned, flung from the lifeboat through one of the holes, to lie buried forever in the Soman dust?

I groaned again. Here I was trapped alone in a badly damaged vessel on an alien world, possibly with serious injuries to my legs, shivering in my wet clothes, with no access to food or supplies and no way to get to safety — and as if all that wasn’t bad enough, I had nothing to read.

Life couldn’t get much worse.

And then I noticed the blood.


Chapter Three

My first thought was how unnatural my blood looked. Our teachers had reminded us that colors wouldn’t look quite the way we were used to in Somav’s bluish light, but that didn’t make it any less weird.

I couldn’t actually see my lower legs, thanks to the metal and rock they were sandwiched between. But down to the left of my seat, a little puddle of very dark red blood was pooling on the deck.

I leaned over and tried to stick my hand under or around the metal that trapped me. But I could only fit two fingers into a tiny crack, just enough to touch the side of my left shoe. The shoe, or what I could feel of it, seemed intact. Whatever injury I had must be somewhere higher up my leg, out of reach.

My fingertips came away dark red, and I grew more worried. Blood had never bothered me, at least not in the way it bothered some people. I didn’t feel faint or freak out at the sight of it, not even after the car crash.

But if my bleeding didn’t stop, this injury I couldn’t even feel was going to kill me. It was as simple as that. I was going to bleed to death. Even if the Laika had already landed, which was extremely unlikely, no one would get here in time.

I tried again to shove the rock and metal off me. I braced myself and tried to squirm away, and then it occurred to me that if there were jagged shards sticking into my flesh, I could be making the injury worse. So instead, I picked up a fragment of deck plating and tried to use it as a lever to pry the rock away. Nothing worked.

Next I looked around for something with which to stop the bleeding. Apart from the bandages far out of reach in the first aid kit, there was nothing made of fabric in the lifeboat. Even the seats were slick and plasticky.

My clothes. I pushed my sweatshirt sleeves up out of the way and picked up a sharp scrap of metal. It wasn’t too hard to give my long-sleeved shirt three-quarter length sleeves, though I nicked both my arms and cut the hand holding the scrap in the process. Pulling my sweatshirt back into place, I bent over again and squeezed the strips of cloth into the narrow space between my foot and the boulder. I had no idea if it would help. It all depended on how far up my leg the wound was, and I had no way of knowing that. But I had to try something.

Hunching over the navigation console, I shivered in my wet clothes. I had done what I could. Now all I could do was wait … for rescue or death, whichever came first.

And I couldn’t even read while I waited.

I don’t know how long I sat there, breathing Soma’s thin dry air scented with dust and unknown minerals and flavored with a metallic tang. I wasn’t wearing a watch, and again and again I thought of checking the time on my Novareader, only to remember that I no longer had one. Of course, the Novareader’s simple clock was still set to Earth time. There was no way to program it for Soma’s 15-hour day. My tablet or phone, stashed back in my carryon under my seat on the Laika, could have told me the time here. They could have done a lot of things that my Novareader couldn’t, but they weren’t what I missed.

In spite of everything, Adventurous Liz loved the thought that I was the first human on Soma. No one else had breathed this air yet. No one else had touched one of these rough gray boulders or looked up at the blue-white sun through the moon’s atmosphere. Governor Gerald Morgan Pinkerton was supposed to have the honor of being the first human to set foot on the surface, but thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Hope Smith had claimed that spot in the history books instead. I hoped the governor wouldn’t be mad. Would I get in big trouble for causing everyone so much inconvenience? Or would they all be so relieved to see me alive that the governor and my teachers and dorm parents would settle for a few quick scoldings?

Assuming rescue happened while I was still alive, of course. Otherwise I would go down in the history books as the first colonist to die on Soma.

The little puddle of blood grew slowly, but it kept growing, no matter how hard I tried to shove my cut-off sleeves further up the crack. Gradually the shadows outside lengthened, and I knew it would get dark soon. The breeze picked up.

I couldn’t stop shivering. I just have to make it through tonight. My clothes will dry eventually. Things will be better tomorrow.

If only the emergency lights in the deck still worked. Not that I was afraid of the dark, but the thought of facing a night alone on a strange world without any way to turn on a light was kind of creepy. What if there were aliens nearby? Of course, the Somavians weren’t likely to go wandering around at night. All Forerunner’s footage of their mining operations had shown them active only during daylight, and my sensors hadn’t indicated any of their mines in this area anyway.

But there could be animals, and what if they were bigger or more dangerous than the ones we had seen in the pictures? True, animals weren’t likely to live far from water, and I hadn’t seen any lakes around here as I was coming down. But this was an alien world, after all, and you never knew how things worked here. There could be all sorts of mysterious dangers just waiting to be discovered … or to discover me.

But the only sounds I heard as darkness fell were the breeze and my own breathing. No crickets chirping, no dogs barking in the distance, no voices, none of the nighttime sounds you always hear back on Earth. The silence was eerie.

At least the stars outside were nice and bright, and I recognized some of the constellations we had learned about in Avanoa Bound. They were totally different than any we could see from Earth, of course. At one point, I noticed a tiny dot of light like a moving star crawling steadily across the sky, and I smiled. That would be either Forerunner or the Laika on their orbit around the moon. If it was the Laika, maybe their sensors were picking me up right now. Not that anyone could do anything for me at the moment, but it was comforting to think that people up there might be looking down at my crash site and talking about me. And if it was Forerunner, it might have captured the image of the lifeboat on video in its constant quest to survey the moon. Of course, no one would see that for a while, but eventually the colony leaders and the scientists back on Earth would analyze the footage and find my lifeboat.

Long after I had died or been rescued.

Adventurous Liz was excited about being the first human to spend a night on this alien world, but Pessimistic Liz wondered if it was going to be my last night. I was hungry and thirsty, my knees ached, dozens of bruises and scrapes all over me stung and throbbed, I was so cold, and in the starlight I could see that the puddle of blood by my feet was much larger now.

A faint sound began to grow in the distance, so gradually that I didn’t notice exactly when it started. But when I realized what it was, my breath caught in excitement. It was the hum of an engine, or at least machinery of some sort, definitely man-made. Which could mean only one thing.

As it grew closer, I felt a grin growing on my face. Theyve found me. Im going to be rescued. Im not going to die here after all.

The truck engine sounded a little different than it would have on Earth, quieter and steadier. But of course the terrain was different, the mix of gases in the atmosphere was different, the gravity was different — there were lots of reasons why a truck wouldn’t sound the same. Still, something started to prickle uncomfortably in the back of my mind as the vehicle drew near and bluish headlight beams flashed through the cracks in the lifeboat’s hull.

The light and sound both shut off abruptly as the driver parked out of sight. A moment later I heard what sounded like two sets of footsteps crunching over the loose rocks toward me, and I saw a smaller glow of approaching light. I let out my breath in relief. “Hello!” I yelled. “I’m in here! Help!”

The footsteps stopped, and a second later, so did my heart. I heard voices out there, quiet and yet easy to make out in the stillness.

And they were not human voices.

I knew that for sure. It wasn’t just that they were speaking another language. A lot of the colonists spoke different languages as well as English, since quite a few countries had sent representatives to be part of Avanoa. But that wasn’t it. The whole sound of their voices was foreign. Not foreign like from another country, but foreign like they didn’t have the same kind of vocal cords I did. Foreign like they made sounds I had never heard from any human being. High and low and in between, almost like musical notes filled with odd-sounding syllables chopped into bite-sized pieces. Some of the notes were definitely out of a human’s range.

I started to shake even harder, and not from the cold. I couldn’t breathe. Aliens. There are aliens out there. Actual aliens!

The footsteps resumed. I wanted to take back my words, to gather up my yell and stuff it back into my mouth. I wanted to hide. But I was stuck, and it was too late, anyway. They knew I was here now. They were coming.

From behind me, the footsteps drew closer, right up to the hull, and then the aliens started walking around the lifeboat. It felt as though everything was happening in slow motion. They must have been carrying some sort of flashlight or lantern, because light flashed through every hole and crack as they passed, shadows chasing each other around me like my frightened thoughts.

And then the aliens stopped in front of the viewport.

They stared in at me.

I stared out at them.

My breath was still stuck somewhere halfway between my lungs and my throat. We all froze, just staring at each other.

There were two of them. They were huge, probably eight or nine feet tall, and sturdily built. Just like Forerunners pictures had shown, they were covered in fur. The one on the left had pale yellow fur, and the one on the right was dark red. They were roughly humanoid, with what seemed to be mostly the same basic body parts as humans — except for the extra set of arms at waist level. Their faces were different, too: bulging black insect-like eyes at the sides of their heads, tiny rounded ears set just behind the eyes, flat noses with two little slits for nostrils. Their mouths were huge, stretching almost all the way across the front of their faces. Both aliens were wearing hats, hard round ones like construction workers wore, shaped to curve around those eyes and ears.

Are they mining helmets? Or a fashion statement? The aliens’ only other clothing was something like a satchel, its strap crossing from an upper shoulder to hang down by the opposite hip. One of them held a cube of blue-white light hanging from a cord.

I knew what Somavians looked like from the pictures, but seeing these two in person was different. Way different. I was suddenly reminded of a scene from a story I had once read, where a photographer visited East Africa. His jeep broke down in a Kenyan game reserve, and while he was hiking out alone, he came face to face with a huge leopard. All the leopards in his photography books didn’t prepare him for the terrifying reality of meeting a wild one face to face.

That was exactly how I felt now, seeing those two Somavians only five feet away. I was still trembling, and I clenched my mouth shut to keep my teeth from chattering. The knowledge that I was the first human being to actually have a face-to-face encounter with aliens did not make me feel any better. After all, we knew virtually nothing about the Somavians. They could be about to torture me, kill me, and eat me. Or drag me to some lab and perform horrible experiments on me. Or maybe something even worse that no human could imagine.

We stared at each other for a moment that felt like forever. Finally the red alien turned and said something to the yellow one, putting a hand on one of the other guy’s arms. Then they both walked around behind the lifeboat again, toward the hatch. I couldn’t see them anymore, but I could hear them back there, fiddling with the handle, trying to get it open. Like most of the lifeboat, though, that area was crunched in, and the hatch must have been jammed shut.

I forced myself to breathe. I have to get out of here before they get in! The thought made no sense, but all my instincts screamed at me to escape. The aliens are coming for me!

I couldn’t escape, though. Nothing would budge, any more than it had budged earlier. I was still just as trapped. Only now my life might end in seconds or minutes instead of hours or days. Or … whatever was left of my life might be so awful I would wish it could just end.

The aliens must have given up on the hatch, because the noises stopped, and I could hear them talking to each other again. I dared to hope they were leaving when their footsteps walked away, but they came right back a moment later. They stopped at the largest opening in the hull, a crack about three feet high and a foot wide. I couldn’t see much from in here, but it didn’t take long to realize that they were using tools to enlarge the hole.

I felt like a cow standing in a pen, watching people fire up the barbecue and knowing I could be on the menu, but unable to get away or do anything about it.

They might be friendly, Optimistic Liz reminded me. They might just be coming in to say hello. But I didn’t believe it.

Trying to keep calm, I fumbled around for something to use as a weapon. I couldn’t reach anything big enough or sharp enough to be really useful, but I picked up the same metal shard I had cut my shirt with. In a pinch, maybe I could use it as a knife.

Then I held my breath and waited.

* * *

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Author: Cully Mack

Genre: High Fantasy

Reading Level: Adult / General Audience

Sojin is the short story prequel to A Voice that Thunders, Available from Amazon

Part 1

Since sneaking off the trading galley three nights ago, Sojin had spent his time hiding under a pier located on the eastern side of the seaport. The area was quieter, and tonight was no different until a ship docked against the pier. He listened as footsteps thudded on the groaning beams overhead, and tension in the mooring ropes went taut. Shouts and a surge of activity followed, disturbing the evening calm settling over the harbour.

Moonlight slithered through the crack in the beams, cutting a line along the rock. Sojin tucked his limbs underneath him, away from the light. He doubted anyone on the pier above would notice, but he wasn’t prepared to take the risk.

‘Ya have one night. Return by sunrise, no exceptions,’ a commanding voice hollered.

The accent was unfamiliar. The speaker neither hailing from Sojin’s homeland, nor this unfamiliar place.

Jovial voices and thudding footsteps echoed and then diminished as distance ate up their sound.

‘Do you want me to stay?’ a husky voice asked.
‘Stick with the crew, keep em busy and out of mischief. I’m gonna scout around.’

Intrigued, Sojin shimmied over the rock and peered up between the pier and the side of the ship. A hefty man with black hair and strong looking forearms strutted over the gangplank and disappeared to catch up with the rest of the crew.

As fast as he was able, Sojin climbed over the rocks and scooted along the underside of the pier. He had no idea why someone wished to scout out this particular seaport. But the mystery was far more entertaining than watching the rats he lobbed into the ocean swim back to the shore.

Along the harbour, merchants and traders had abandoned their stations. The crewmen from other moored galleys had also hurried off at sundown to create a ruckus in one of the many beerhouses. Except for the ragged white dog who’d snarled in his face, and several scraggy cats stalking the rats, the harbour was empty.

It was a short distance from where the pier ended to the empty wooden vat stained with purple dye. With breathing ragged and heart racing, Sojin scrambled over the squelching earth and squeezed into the gap between the vat and a timber storehouse. From here, he’d get a clear view of the stranger coming ashore.

As he waited, he noticed a worm wriggling in one of his footprints, its motion signalling the ground’s recent disturbance. He ached for the writhing betrayer to go still, and whilst debating if he had time to duck from cover and remove it, a gull swooped and solved his dilemma. Distraction gone, he trained his eyes on the pier and tried to imagine what in the seaport held the stranger’s interest.

Granted, he’d only been here three days and understood nothing of this land. Compared to home, the air hissed with a constant chill. The drenched dark ground was unlike Niggisu’s sandy gold, and the rivers feeding into the sea arrived from different directions instead of one enormous river snaking through the land.

Wherever he went, the place stank. The worst stench being the aroma of decaying sea snails crushed to death in the vats. He tucked his hands under his cloak and brought them up to cover his nose. The vat he hid behind was empty, but death’s stain prevailed. At low tide, pickers with dyed hands and woven baskets scoured the rocks. Twice now he’d been forced to abandon his hideout under the pier for fear of being discovered by those venturing too close.

Beyond the seaport, fields of verdant vegetation butted up against felled trees and, during the day, labourers hacked at their fallen trunks with strange instruments. The port itself lacked the familiar sun-dried brick habitations with ramps leading to their rooftops. It lacked open space altogether, and he was beginning to wonder if sunlight ever dried up the sodden pathways winding through the place. The structures here were darker, a mixture of clay and timber, their locations more compact. It left shadows, grim places where unsavoury characters lingered.

He’d already clashed with a few lads keen to make his life more miserable, so he preferred not to venture too far from the harbour. Besides, it was easier to scrounge food scraps from one or two of the more generous merchants who took pity on miserable orphans.

The figure was almost invisible as he silently crossed over the pier and onto land. If not for the presence of moonlight reflecting on the ocean behind him, Sojin doubted he’d have known of his advance. The way he moved united him with the gloom. A dull cape covered the stranger from his hooded head to just above the knee, blending him into the bleakness. All Sojin discerned was a tall man, lean, but nothing about him appeared feeble. If he carried weapons, Sojin couldn’t see them. He moved like a feather-light spirit weighing the soul of a man.

Sojin shrunk against the vat, his toes curling as he squeezed himself into the smallest form he was able. The man slowed, head tilting a fraction, revealing a few strands of blonde hair. In that minuscule hesitation, the mouth of the world opened, a gaping, black expanse threatening to suck Sojin inside. He held his breath, fighting the urge to confess his reason for arriving in this unfamiliar land.

As the stranger carried onwards, Sojin waited until he was out of sight before taking steps to follow. He edged around the corner of the storehouse and walked straight into nothing. Crooked timber buildings lining the soggy path hindered any chance of escape. Nonetheless, the stranger had vanished.

No oil lamps flickered beyond closed shutters. A hush in this part of the city absorbed the jeering, singing and aggrieved debates resounding from the beerhouses further away.

Sojin rushed forward, searching for a breach in the buildings, a means of escape… nothing. A chuckle overhead made him stumble. Glancing up, he found the stranger crouched on the rooftop. A green gemstone glistened on his finger, but this was no mistake, the stranger wanted him to notice. Why? His finger moved to his mouth in a shushing gesture and the figure rose. He pivoted and slunk off into the darkness across the rooftops.

Sojin gave chase from the ground. With each step, an urgency kindled in his belly. He sensed a fate which screamed of destiny and he was losing his to the shadows and the buildings hindering his pursuit. He weaved through the narrow alleyways, no longer caring if the lads spied his presence. If he didn’t catch up now, he never would, and he’d have failed an unspoken test. He was sure of it. For what other reason would the stranger announce his presence?

It took an hour, maybe two, for him to admit defeat. After following and finding no sign, Sojin checked the most obvious locations. In truth, there was only one building of substantial importance. He’d only learned the owner’s name because of the lads who’d pinned him against the wall and demanded he pay his taxes.

They’d called him Naphal and said his home was on the outer edge of the city, to the north. From what Sojin gathered from listening to gossiping merchants, the man ruled this place and resided behind a fortified timber wall, paid for at the expense of those living within his borders.

Sojin had steered clear of it until now. He hoped by keeping out of sight, the ruffians who’d threatened him might presume he’d left. Truth be told, he’d considered leaving with the galley which he’d arrived on. The stench of this place had rubbed off on the people living here, turning them bad. But he’d learned the galley which had loaded with dyed fabric and timber was returning to Niggisu and his time for vengeance hadn’t arrived yet.

His imagination hadn’t done the wall justice. He’d never seen a construction of such size. It stretched away further than his eyes could focus. Dead in the centre, a tower, with a gaping entrance, stood like a monumental god of the forests and wilds. The lofty structure loomed over everything else, and at its base, torches blazed, illuminating the godly figure’s station. It was as though its creator dared you to walk beneath its limbs, a test for those seeking refuge. As he gazed at the tower and the glowing braziers burning at spaced intervals along the wall, he wondered how he hadn’t noticed this from the harbour.

With the thunderous sound of flapping wings, ravens launched from the tower and took flight. The sound of footsteps persuaded him to leave… right now. The stranger would never breach those defences, and even if he did, Sojin refused to follow. With no safer options, he retraced his steps to his hideout and waited.

The next morning, sea birds squawking over a bounty jolted him awake so fast, his neck cricked. He’d not heard the stranger or his crewmen return. As he rubbed his neck, the waves lapped against the rocks, ropes stretched and creaked, and birds continued their arguing.

A dog barked in the distance, setting off another, nearer to the harbour. Before long, a chorus of howls and yelps echoed throughout the seaport. After checking the ship was still tethered to the pier, Sojin left to beg food from traders setting up their stalls near the waterfront.

A sympathetic merchant offered him cheese and a chunk of bread, and Sojin used a cart to climb onto a storehouse rooftop. If they had known about the stranger’s nocturnal activity, some may have accused him of copying his example. He didn’t care. From here, he was unseen with an excellent view of the stranger’s ship.

Measured against the numerous galleys moored within the harbour, his ship was smaller. It had fewer oars, but more masts and sails. At its bow, a carved lion figurehead sat proud. Sojin didn’t know much about ships, but he could see this ship was well tended.

He shifted onto his front and nibbled at the cheese, hoping it might last longer, as he settled in to wait. On the horizon, clouds drifted. A rumble across the heavens threatened rain, and for a while Sojin stared into the murky grey, his mind drifting in and out of childhood memories. He was halfway through recalling the tale of the shipwrecked sailor when a succession of commands and a confident swagger caught his full attention.

In daylight, the stranger appeared a few years shy of thirty. He’d tied his shoulder-length blonde hair in a leather strap. Without his cloak, a tunic of the finest silk was as fascinating to look at as his roguish face. He wasn’t as lean as Sojin had imagined. A robust physique suggested years of physical labour had honed his body into an agile frame.

For a fleeting moment as the stranger crossed the deck, Sojin thought he saw compassion and a hint of loneliness grace his face. But, if it was there at all, it disappeared, replaced by a shrewd expression as his leather boots padded over the pier.

The stranger’s reputation was made evident as a respectable distance spread between himself and everyone else. Sly glances, rushed retreats, zealous head bows, and not so subtle flirtatious gestures, bombarded the man as he walked along the harbour. It appeared everyone in the port knew him except for Sojin. For the most part, the stranger ignored his onlookers, or at least made them think he did. Astute eyes, as green as the emerald gem on his finger, scanned everything.

Sojin imagined his gaze on par with an eagle’s, sweeping over the landscape, absorbing every detail with indifference until what it sought came into view. Like an eagle diving for its prey, the man singled out a youth who appeared no older than Sojin. Their exchange was brief and as the boy left cupping a piece of silver, Sojin debated if he’d have more luck following someone less aware.

The stranger paused to speak to a man heaving a sack onto his shoulder, and Sojin clambered off the roof. Keeping a safe distance, he followed, weaving around the timber buildings at a fast pace. Where was the man going and why? What was his purpose, and why had he revealed his position on the roof last night?

Calloused fingers digging into Sojin’s neck brought him out of his deliberating. Unable to follow, he caught the stranger’s blonde hair shining in the sunlight as he veered from the harbour, leaving Sojin to fend for himself.
Without releasing his grip, the one who’d restrained him pressed a presumed blade against the small of Sojin’s back. ‘Fetch Lestas,’ he said to a slim lad who proceeded to duck into the crowd.

His assailant’s voice hadn’t quite hit manhood, and by the strength of his grip, Sojin guessed he was one of the older youths who he’d been trying to avoid.

As if expecting a fight, the lad pressed the blade a little harder. ‘Don’t try anything or my friends will finish what I haven’t yet started.’ Sure enough, more youths than crab pots overcrowded the harbour.

Every vomit inducing one of them had their eyes locked on him until becoming distracted by a tall man’s advance. The man’s unhurried approach might have been mistaken for a stroll through the market, if not for the skinny kid who’d gone to retrieve him leading the way. Sojin’s shoulders slumped, and he reined in a groan. He assumed this was Lestas and his gaze was nothing like the strangers. Compared to an eagle, Lestas’ dark brown eyes fixed on one thing… how he would make Sojin pay.

Lestas nodded his unspoken command, and the lad behind Sojin released his grip on Sojin’s neck. Sojin suppressed the urge not to rub his flesh as the blood returned, causing a prickling sensation. If he moved, with the blade still digging in near his ribs, things weren’t likely to go his way.

His eyes flicked to the stranger’s last location, but all he spied were more lads prowling like a pack of open-mouthed hyenas. They circled, positioning themselves for their attack. Tension filled the air and the seaport inhabitants bristled. He suspected if he called out, none would help. Would the stranger hear and come to his aid? Lestas noticed the lads closing in, and with one glare, he sent more than half scurrying away.

To appease the man, Sojin had nothing to offer except for the stinking clothes on his back, and an onyx carved raven necklace hidden in the seam of his cloak. He’d die before handing it over, and looking at the sturdy boots, leather pants and embroidered green silk cloak which Lestas wore, he doubted he’d accept his clothes.

‘You’re not from here?’ Lestas asked. It took nothing for his eyes to flick from dangerous inquiry to deadly boredom. The man didn’t give a damn where he hailed from, so why ask?

With nothing to offer, his only hope was mercy. ‘I came from across the ocean, fleeing the god who butchered my family.’

This man didn’t deserve to know how his father had perished years before the god had arrived, and Sojin loathed to recount the details of his mother’s murder. He still didn’t have the right words to explain it to himself, and every time he’d tried to arrange what he recalled into something which made sense, oblivion stole his thoughts away. Lestas glanced toward a high pitched sound, his focus pausing on a group of young ladies drifting over the soggy pathway with their skirts raised to their ankles. ‘That’s some tale. Come, let’s find somewhere quieter and you can tell me more.’

Sojin despised following the man, but the blade sticking near his ribs convinced him to obey. Lestas bowed at the giggling ladies with the grace of a fawn stretching for grass, his head jerking upright once they’d passed.

Age-wise Lestas was younger than the stranger by several years. His effect on the crowds, comparable, but not the same. As he strode towards the harbour, people shied from his path. Their steps were deliberate— practised, a routine they’d carried out over and over. They understood the ramifications of causing offence or not paying taxes and did their best to evade the consequences.

With daggers carved from quartz tied to his boots and another sheathed at his waist, his purpose was obvious, unlike the stranger’s. As Sojin followed, he couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if Lestas and the stranger crossed paths. He found his attention wandering over the crowds, a futile search for the blonde-haired man.

The bladed lad and two others stuck close to his shadow as Lestas twisted through small side streets. Each pathway seemed narrower than the last, less trodden, the torches hanging over doorframes rusted with neglect.

Lestas slowed and halted in a side alley beside a timber storehouse. Facing the youth with the blade, he said, ‘Go, keep lookout.’ The lad retreated without a word, and Sojin snatched a peek at the two remaining. They might have been brothers, and like Lestas they were of marriage age, though he saw no union bands on their chubby fingers.

‘I apologise. You must think us insensitive, but we must be careful…’ Lestas’ relaxed posture was anything but calming; his sigh as fake as the sympathetic smile spreading on his face. ‘Well, it appears you already understand the hardships we face.’

His chin jerked towards a door opposite the storehouse with timber so splintered, Sojin wondered how it stayed in one piece.

‘This is where my runners stay. It’s nothing special, but it’s dry and safe.’

The skill by which he twisted safe into a threat sent a shiver rippling up Sojin’s spine.

‘There’s a space for you here, after you’ve paid your dues. Which god killed your parents?’

Lestas’ swift shifting of the conversation towards the gods was supposed to unsettle him, but its impact fell short. Buzur, the god who’d slaughtered his mother, never left his mind. Once he’d been unprepared.

Not anymore.


‘Did you see him?’


It was such a leading question, but Lestas appeared not to detect the lie.

He’d seen Buzur, but not when it mattered. Afterwards, from the magnificent boat on the great river, Buzur’s cherry red eyes had bore into him from underneath a golden horned helmet. He’d been seated under a canopy, shaded from the burdensome sun, a purple robe draped over a breastplate covered in jewels. The encounter was brief, and Sojin suspected Buzur assumed him too insignificant to alert his Nephilim.

Lestas brushed a hand through his hair. ‘I’ve not seen any of them either. We hear rumours of one called Shemyaza seeking tithes way up north. People speak of strange beasts, giants and such?’

Sojin had skirted around several patrolling war bands whilst fleeing to the coast. The Nephilim reached at least another half the height of the tallest men, broad across the chest and heavily armed. He’d spied no strange beasts, but he’d heard the frightening rumours.

‘The giants are faster than you’d expect,’ Sojin said.

Lestas weighed him with a hefty stare before continuing. ‘Do they have weapons like this?’ he asked as he unsheathed the quartz dagger and held it up to the dim light.

‘No,’ Sojin replied. ‘They forge their weapons from metal, not rock.’

Lestas scraped the blade under his fingernail, and Sojin stole another glance along the narrow pathway. To his dismay, a rickety timber structure blocked the opposite direction from where the lad kept watch.

Lestas tracked his line of sight and smirked. ‘Though I sympathise…’ This man wouldn’t know sympathy if it snagged him in the ass. ‘You must understand. Everyone pays.’

‘I have nothing.’

Lestas stepped forward, his body towering over Sojin’s. ‘Do you know why I’m their leader?’

Sojin retreated, but his shoulder nudged against the storehouse. Lestas scraped the quartz dagger into the wood near Sojin’s head. ‘I have the power to crush a man or raise him to greatness. You’re new here. I get you don’t understand our ways, so let me be clear. Everyone pays. If you fail, I will make your life so dismal, you’ll never dare defy me again. War is coming. If you haven’t got it, then get it.’ His teeth ground as he stared. ‘A full purse of silver should be enough to settle my cut and to pay off Naphal’s taxes. Seeing as I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you until sunset tomorrow.’

Lestas leaned closer, the smell of stale beer enduring on his breath. ‘Until you pay your fee, I can’t offer you my protection.’ He straightened and added, ‘And don’t think of fleeing, my runners will be watching.’

A glance at the bulky lads standing either side of him was Sojin’s only warning. Lestas strolled off to the beat of a fist thumping in Sojin’s gut. The first punch doubled him over, the second left him heaving on the floor.

It took him longer to circle back towards the pier. He couldn’t tell if he’d lost Lestas’ thugs, but he’d given it his best attempt. At one point, he’d dashed through a greasy beerhouse and snuck out the rear exit.

Out of breath, heart racing, and genuine fear that he’d expose his hideout, kept him from venturing topside to find food. He’d planned to beg for scraps and find something to use as a weapon, but as he’d neared the pier, some of the stranger’s returning crew had blocked off Lestas’ runners from view. He’d taken his opportunity and slipped under the pier undetected.

His belly grumbled, and he struggled to ignore it. Once darkness crept over the port, he intended to sneak away. It was his best chance regardless of Lestas’ threats because there was no way he’d be able to pay. His ribs ached and, after trying many ways to get comfortable, he found sitting upright on his makeshift bed of rags helped. Tucking his knees under his chin, he contemplated his escape.

Lestas said another god, named Shemyaza, was to the north. At first, he considered it wiser to avoid him, but that’s what Lestas might assume he’d think. Should he trek up the coast or go inland? From what he’d discovered, rocks covered the shoreline. They’d slow him, but also hinder any pursuer. If it came to it, he was a decent swimmer, better than most of his friends.

Thinking of his friends led to thoughts of his mother, which transferred into ruminations of how he’d take revenge against the god who’d cut her life short. It was a dream, he knew it. An agony craving freedom. How could he defeat a god when he couldn’t fend off an attacker with a blade But people’s dreams make everyone unique. They dwell in the soul and yearn for you to believe in them. Everybody has one; not a single dream the same. Each attainable if the dreamer pursues it. His father had taught him this. He’d said every dream felt impossible until the dreamer achieved it.

Sojin needed certain skills to fulfil his dream. Skills he’d seen in no one until a stranger docked his ship against the pier and slipped into the night with enough stealth to kill a god.

Part 2

‘What did ya learn?’ Ammo asked as Omer ducked and entered his cabin. Ammo had sent Omer back to the harbour to do some snooping straight after he’d boarded Wind Weaver with the rest of the crew. The freckle-faced kid who’d tried to follow him the previous night had triggered a memory buried so deep, Ammo had almost forgotten it existed. He didn’t care for it now, had extinguished it before it materialised and drove him insane, but thoughts of the kid, like nagging toothworm, refused to abate.

It made no sense. Like most seaports, Radad’s winding side streets were littered with runners scouting easy targets for gang leaders. It’s how they survived. Wherever he went, they avoided him, shifting into the shadows, but still, Ammo saw. None had ever crept from their hidden sanctuary and followed until last night.

His pursuer had a slight frame, but Ammo guessed he was older than he appeared, maybe thirteen or thereabouts. His worn clothes, cloak and threadbare leather boots suggested hardship and a warmer climate. The kid had no allegiance to hygiene, which rattled Ammo more than he cared to admit. Under the grime and the dirt, his tanned skin set him apart from those living in Radad and he’d cut a fringe over hazel eyes ringed with green.

‘He’s been here three days by the fishermen’s recollection. The ship he arrived on, loaded up with timber and has already sailed. Buzur killed his mother, so he’s more than likely a stowaway from Niggisu.’

It was brief, but Ammo closed his eyes, shutting down another memory. Oblivious, Omer pulled at his tunic’s high cut neckline and wiped his arm over his brow. ‘Lestas’ gang gave him a beating. I caught up with one of the shifty buggers and he said the kid has until sundown tomorrow to hand over silver.’

Omer’s catching up was often brutal, limbs twisting, breaking, or disappearing altogether, though he tended towards leniency with the lower level thugs. Until a few years ago, he’d tilled the land and threshed wheat.
Ammo thanked the seas every day for sending Omer his way. Besides his fondness for blowing things up, he never questioned or shied from a task, and offered Ammo his complete loyalty.

‘No one knows his name. The kid is clever. He used us as cover to sneak beneath the pier a few hours ago. I’m guessing he’s hungry.’

The kid was smart for sure. His foresight had predicted Ammo’s destination the previous night, and he’d learned fast by clambering on the rooftop to spy Ammo leaving Wind Weaver. Ammo had discerned enough to judge the scrawny little mugger had something special. Out of everyone in Radad, only this kid suspected and pursued an interest in Ammo’s plans. A commendable feat, but a risk which needed resolving. His cabin was sweltering. The jade bracelet hanging from the rafter, unmoving, but he refused to open the portholes with the curious lad wedged under the pier and within earshot.

He rose, dipped his hands into a bowl and cupped the water to his face. ‘Did ya pick up any news about Naphal?’

‘Nothing you don’t already know.’

Naphal was Ammo’s latest mark. Sailing to Radad to recruit fighters for Meciel’s forces, though worthy and paid well, was not his sole reason for coming here. He could recruit men anywhere, but only in this cesspit of greed and oppression was the blade. A supposed heirloom which an ignorant son had handed over to pay his debt.

No one hired an Acquisitioner to retrieve a simple blade, and the amount the father threw at him was proof enough of more to the story. He suspected it had everything to do with the sapphire gem in its hilt and nothing to do with sentimental value. After tracking the blade, and learning of Lestas’ involvement, he was more surprised Lestas had handed it over and not kept it for himself.
So here he was in sodden Radad about to complete two jobs. Recruit men for Meciel’s forces and recover the blade. Meciel might not be pleased with his little side venture, but he’d never find out, and if he did, what could he say? It wasn’t like there was a queue of Acquisitioners prepared to take the risks and chances as he did.
He only knew of one other bold enough to risk the wrath of these socalled gods—his father. But his father had no code, other than what profited him most. It’s why Meciel had approached Ammo instead.

Ammo was as cutthroat as any Acquisitioner, but he had a code, a line he refused to cross. Meciel might not like some of his additional assignments, but he tolerated them for the sake of his goal. In return, Ammo didn’t call him out for being something more than a supposed hermit.

Ammo finished wiping his face and placed the cloth onto the table. ‘That kid ain’t heard of me.’
Omer chuckled. It was foolish, but it bugged him. He’d travelled the known world. According to rumours, he was a slayer of dragons, conqueror of dwarf races, and an intuitive lover… at least the latter was true. Except for his father, he was the best Acquisitioner in the trade. Everyone had heard of him, though none truly knew him. He revealed what he desired them to see, but more often than not, he let them see nothing at all. So why had a kid, who’d never heard of him, had the foresight to see what others missed?

‘Whilst we’re here, I want ya to test the kid.’

Ammo unlatched the porthole and breathed. He always insisted on mooring Wind Weaver on this side of the harbour. With the wind hailing from the east, it blew away Radad’s vile stench. The evening’s salty breeze swept over his face and he welcomed its embrace like a familiar friend. If he was honest, the wind and the sea were his closest allies. He trusted Omer and the rest of his crew, never doubted their loyalty for a moment, but the wind and the sea were where he felt true affinity.
‘Start recruiting men, we leave in three days. Buzur and the other fake gods are increasing their numbers and we must be ready.’ If that little nugget didn’t make the kid’s ears prick, nothing would. He wished he’d left more meat on the bones as he grabbed the wooden bowl and lobbed its contents out of the porthole towards the rocks. He threw an apple as a bonus and hoped his action wasn’t too obvious.

After Omer left, Ammo scraped charcoal over the pigskin, outlining positions of interest on the rough drawn map. The blade sat behind a wooden fortress, all paid for by Radad’s inhabitants. He doubted Naphal would protect those he’d promised to save, doubted the fortress would deter Buzur or any other of his kind when they came. Ammo had spent his entire life on the sea, and half of that time was under the tutelage of his ruthless father. His father had taught him many things, often through hardship and gruelling tests. Most of all, he’d taught him the nature of those seeking conquest, and the lengths they’d go to acquire what they craved.

This was the true reason he’d said yes to Meciel all those years ago when he’d acquisitioned him to begin his biggest job yet. Recruiting men was only part of it. Meciel had tasked him with building the galleys with which to transport them when it came time for war.

At first, he’d thought the old hermit deluded, but Meciel had promised above average pay and if these so-called gods were half as committed as his father… then it wasn’t a risk he was prepared to ignore. Turned out the old hermit’s prediction was coming true, and it seemed they were heading forwar.

Ammo wiped dust off his boots, fluffed up his black silk shirt cuffs and grabbed his cloak. Tonight, he had two tasks to fulfil, retrieve the dagger and then seek a desirable woman.

* * * * *

Radad reeked. He could have stalked around the city blindfolded and found his way by the stench. Even after sundown, the odour of gutted fish lingered, overpowering the scented fruits being kept in the storehouses.

The mangy white dog rose at his advance and he lobbed a half gnawed chicken leg in its direction. Signs of brutality scarred its muzzle and face, and a chunk of flesh was missing from its right ear. At the sound of another dog’s approach, its pale blue eyes widened in warning, and a low growl revealed it still had some fight. The rival sniffed and then scarpered, deciding the chicken wasn’t worth the scrap. Ammo loved dogs, though he’d never own one again.

As he left the harbour, the salty seaweeds’ aroma faded, overcome by dank pathways with trodden in animal waste. A jovial applause echoed in the distance, instruments twanged, and the few men strolling ahead of him hastened their strides. The hideous scent of decomposing sea snails swept across the city from the west side. He wondered if the elites who coveted the purple fabrics realised the dye came from mollusc gore. The reek was so vile, the only people who ventured near the vats were those with violet dyed hands and Naphal’s enforcers who ensured they didn’t skive.

Coming to the edge of the city, the smell of fresh cut timber overpowered everything. Ammo both despised and admired the felling of trees. Without it, Wind Weaver wouldn’t exist. She was the fastest ship on the seas, faster than the galleys carrying the timber to build Meciel’s ships off the coast of Isriq. But labouring with wood was one of the first mysteries the so-called gods had taught when they first arrived, and some believed abusing nature was a harbinger of destruction.

It was from a stack of timbers, situated some distance from the exalted tower, that Ammo breached the fortress. One leap, timed when the guards paced in the opposite direction, was all it took. The timber defence wall on which he crouched, stretched back further than the moonlight. From his position, regular spaced brazen torches highlighted its snaking frame over the landscape.

Inside the fortifications, formal gardens with flowering trellises spread out in front of the main dwelling. An elegant display of clay arches obscured the lower half of its face. Above them, coloured gauze, shielding the windows from night-flying insects, captured the light, and exposed the inhabitants’ whereabouts.

It was too soon to sneak inside, so Ammo set out to discover what leverage he might find. In his trade, a little pressure and coercion went a long way, and finding Naphal’s vulnerability gave him another hand to play. Rising behind Naphal’s home, the storehouses within the compound exceeded those on the harbour, and what he sought might be in any one of them. He dismissed several enormous buildings, due to the faint contour of old tracks leading to their doorways. No one had entered for some time.

Ammo watched a guard pass. Shoulders straight, vigilant, well paid. He dropped to the ground when the guard paused and exchanged words with another. Two storehouses revealed Naphal’s more dubious trade. In one, straw bales concealed copper and in the other, he found beer with the outline of an ox seared into the barrels. All of it stacked and ready to embark on the smugglers’ routes. It was sufficient to threaten the man, but not enough to buy his silence.

Guards, playing dice from within the nearby storehouse, piqued his interest. He loathed making a sound, but there was no getting inside without detection. The stone he lobbed, thud against the upturned animal feeder, and soon after three guards rushed out. Two travelled along each side of the storehouse perimeter and disappeared into the gloom. The third searched near the entrance.

Unseen, Ammo slipped into the storehouse. An oil lamp rested on a crate just inside, three jugs of beer and evidence of half-eaten meals sat beside it. Some might have smothered the flame and continued on in darkness, Ammo ignored the light. To snuff it out exposed his presence and his location.

It didn’t take long to realise why guards patrolled this storehouse. A small army’s worth of weapons lay inside. He grinned as another plan materialised. Muffled voices exchanging bewilderment pushed him into action. He ducked outside and headed towards Naphal’s main dwelling.

A trellis near the clay arches made easy work of the climb. Inside, he discovered a woman with ebony hair sprawled across the bed, lavender linen held tight under her chin, shielding. A marriage of convenience, not love, proved why the woman slept alone. Ammo glided past her. If Naphal was still interested, he’d not come for his union yet.

He spied Naphal in the next room squatting over a pot emptying his bowels. Stacked clay tablets dominated the space. Trade agreements, the kind you didn’t want others to find. Naphal was mature compared to his woman, hair short with ash-grey spreading from his forehead over his ears, but despite his current predicament, he showed no signs of a weakened frame. If anything, Naphal’s robust form proved he still trained.

Crammed in the corner was a dishevelled bed with a narrow table beside it. Nothing struck him as being out of place. He suspected the dagger to be elsewhere. Somewhere lower down, in a basement, and easier to deny knowledge of its existence.

The creak of a wooden beam always made his soul sing. It spoke of promises, secrets, lost things and if he was lucky an opportunistic foe attempting to surprise him. This creak exposed a locked wooden box with a dagger secured within. The deep-blue sapphire gem set in its hilt reminiscent of the emerald stone in Ammo’s ring. As he’d predicted, there was more to the gem than financial gain. He switched the dagger with one of his own and fastened the lock. No one would know of the exchange unless they checked, and Ammo hoped to be long gone by then.

Upstairs, Naphal had not retired to his unkempt bed. His wife sounded quite convincing as she faked her pleasure. Ammo had two choices, wait for the farce to end or escape via the clay arches. As much as her performance amused him, he decided on the latter. He shoved the dagger into his empty sheath and retreated.

A pale wash covered the arches, and together with the oil lamps, they expelled the shadows. Ammo rushed beneath them and ducked into the formal gardens. He’d have preferred to sight the guards before his escape. Instead, he estimated their rotations by deducting his time spent retrieving the dagger. With his gaze scanning for motion, Ammo weaved under overhanging trellises burdened with creeping vines and captivating scents.

All the while listening for the thud of guards’ footsteps. He swerved from the sculptured sea dragon, spewing water instead of fire from the fanciful fountain, and almost crashed straight into a bird. Its tail feathers shot upwards and quivered, their rustle creating a low thrum announcing its presence. Its declaration was a bit too late for Ammo’s liking. He froze. The shriek which followed sounded like a monkey being throttled.

In the moonlight, the bird’s feathers fanned out, blocking Ammo’s exit with an illusion of many vibrant, glaring blue eyes. Any guards hearing its shrill might not have pinpointed its location, but if it shrieked again, he’d have no chance of sneaking away without detection. Ammo stayed dead still. At least its fanned tail shielded him from any guards closing in from an easterly direction. The bird studied him for several heart beats before lowering the tail and stalking off.
Ammo didn’t wait for second chances. He sidestepped into the darkness and didn’t return to the light until reaching the most popular beerhouse in all of Radad. Omer and some of Ammo’s crew glanced up as he entered. A game of rings and plenty of beer softened their potential recruits. A few promises of adventure and he’d find them on Wind Weaver’s deck soon enough.

The owner of this particular establishment knew better than to offer Ammo beer. He’d not touched the stuff in years. She smiled, wiped her hands on her skirts and disappeared out back, returning a moment later with a meal. He’d already argued and lost about taking food upstairs. Roza ran her business as tight as Ammo ran his, and picking up uneaten food wasn’t high on her list.

‘You’re late.’

Ammo got a whiff of the delicious stew as she placed the bowl down and tossed him a loaf. Between mouthfuls, he said, ‘Ya gonna get someone to take over or do I have to scare this lot senseless, so they leave?’

He swept the bread around the bowl and popped it in his mouth. He liked her, a free spirit like him, refusing to let anything or anyone pin her down. Roza untied her apron and nodded to her scowling brother.

‘Aman,’ Ammo said, jerking his chin. ‘My offer still stands.’ Roza and Aman both had the most amazing deep blue eyes. Staring into them reminded Ammo of sitting on his ship’s bow contemplating falling into the ocean. There was a vast difference though, Roza’s eyes danced with hunger and Aman’s glowered with hostility.
Aman snatched up Roza’s apron. ‘I told you, my answer will always be never.’ He got up right close to Ammo’s face. His barrel hefting shoulders stiffening as he seized the half empty bowl and with a convincing grimace said, ‘If it weren’t for my sister, I’d throw you out myself.’
No one dared speak to Ammo that way. Silence, hanging on every man’s beer-tainted breath confirmed it. Ammo supposed bedding his sister was too much for Aman to swallow, but still, Aman was a fool to decline his offer. Few got the chance to learn the skill of the Acquisitioner’s trade.

As for throwing him out, the shocked onlookers believed the farce and Aman’s don’t mess with me reputation tripled. It was the least Ammo could do, and he raised his hands to show he wanted no trouble.

‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ Roza said as she grabbed Ammo’s hand and led him away.
The hesitant glance she gave her brother, for leaving him to deal with their patrons, dissolved into something else as Ammo slid his arm around her waist.

He never stayed. Their unspoken agreement, give… take… separate. It was simple, uncomplicated, and for two free spirits refusing chains, it suited them both. He returned to his cabin before sunrise and tossed more food scraps out the porthole before taking a nap.

The next morning, Ammo dressed in his most flamboyant silk tunic, leather pants and soft leather boots. Nowhere in the Acquisitioner Code did it say he couldn’t dress well. With the sapphire dagger now secured in his hold, he sheathed his favourite at his waist and weighed out silver nuggets into two leather purses. One, he secured out of sight beneath an elegant cloak, the other, he kept in plain sight.

Soon they’d sail on the tide with the latest men recruited for Meciel’s army, but first, he had business to attend. There was no way he’d leave the seaport without giving the lad, hiding under the pier, a fighting chance.

Part 3

Sojin had overslept. The last thing he remembered was the rhythm of the waves making his eyes roll and the juice from the apple abating his thirst. What was he going to do now? If he ran, Lestas’ runners would sure spot him attempting to escape, but the alternative, to stay when he couldn’t pay… Sojin stubbed his boot into the rock. He couldn’t control much, but he refused to die with an empty belly.

An overcast sky promised rain. The sizzling of its advance tickled the ears of merchants on the harbour as they busied themselves erecting makeshift tents to protect their goods. Sojin helped an ageing baker in exchange for a portion of delicious date cake. They were almost done when the baker wiped his nose in his sleeve and said, ‘You need new clothes. If you search for the buildings with the largest padstones, you should be able to slip under.’


The baker waved his hand in the air like it was obvious. ‘The beerhouses are your best chance. More often than not, the fools are too drunk to notice or remember. It’s the best place to find nuggets, but be careful, their floors bow when they get busy. And watch out for Lestas’ little urchins, they carry knives.’

The baker gave him a handful of dried raisins and sent him away, saying something about Sojin’s stench putting off his buyers. He already knew there was nothing worth finding on the filthy pathways. After his arrival, he’d searched, unaware of Lestas’ underlings purging the ground of anything shiny. They snatched everything of value faster than a vulture tearing meat from bones. But if the baker was right, and he found a nugget, it could stall Lestas long enough for him to escape.

Padstones turned out to be cut stones, raising the timber buildings from their sodden foundations. If the eyes of Lestas’ runners weren’t on him already, they would be soon, and he’d rather not get caught with his limbs straggling underneath a building. He moved fast, trying to shake off any pursuer whilst searching the more popular beerhouses for one with a wide enough foundation for him to slip under.

A beerhouse with a stuffed raven hanging over its entrance made him pause. Not only was it hideous, but the bird’s wide open beak suggested it still sang a soundless death song. Of all the beerhouses, the gap between the timber and the ground darkened like an eerie sneer, goading him to try and squeeze inside.

Sojin altered course, and as he reached the rear of the building, he dropped to his knees and used his elbows to shuffle underneath. The air refused to move. It hung like a thick heavy cloud, wet and clinging to his nostrils, and that wasn’t the worst part. The fragrant scent of rodents’ piss, stale beer and mould clung to his airway making it difficult to breathe. Only the promising gleam of potential silver convinced Sojin to dig his fingers into the soil and drag himself onwards.

The gleam proved to be a tiny nugget, sufficient for a meal at least. Sweat stuck his fringe to his forehead and after failing to blow it from his eyes, he wiped his face with his arm. Another nugget rested on the soil dead ahead. As he shimmied forward, footsteps overhead made the wood creak.

Sojin paused as someone walked above him. A moment later, he was awarded with beer dripping down through a crack and soaking into his tunic.

‘You fool,’ a voice groaned. ‘You’re wasting my beer.’

‘I’m the one paying, so shut it,’ the man replied.

‘Enough,’ warned another. ‘You’re drawing attention.’

Sojin recognised that accent. Of all the places in this sodding city, what were the chances of the stranger’s dark-haired crewman being in the inn crushing down on him? He leaned sideways, trying to peer up through the slit to determine if the stranger was sitting with them. The beams creaked and bowed, forcing Sojin to lie flat against the putrid soil. Scuffling boots slowed as more men settled around a table, and the wooden beams above Sojin pressed against his spine.

Jammed between the filth and beerhouse foundations, Sojin twisted his head and prayed no more men would arrive.

‘What do we gain?’ a suspicious voice asked.

‘You get fed, a weapon and your freedom,’ came the response from someone who’d obviously said this many times.

‘What about my family?’ another asked.

‘Have you seen what they do to family?’ answered the voice he recognised. ‘Shemyaza’s giants sail closer each day, and word is Buzur has opened up mines and enslaved all of Niggisu.’

Could this be true? What did this mean for those he’d left behind?

‘That’s not what I meant,’ the determined man countered. ‘I have a wife and two daughters. In a few months, it will be time to sow the land. Who will protect them if I don’t return?’

After a few heart beats, a softer tone broke the silence. ‘What Omer meant to say is we can’t make promises, but we’ll do what we can.’

So the dark-haired man’s name was Omer. It wasn’t a name he’d heard before. He sounded gruff, agitated, and for a man who was seeking to persuade men to join their cause, he wasn’t doing the best job.

‘What sort of weapon?’ another man asked.

‘You do realise who is leading this, don’t you?’ Omer barked.

No one answered, and the silence drifted towards Sojin as he held his breath. He could only be talking about the stranger.

‘We’ve heard,’ came the whispered reply.

‘Then you know, you’ll have the finest damned weapons available.’

‘How many men do you have?’

There was a scratching sound and Sojin imagined Omer digging his nails into the underside of the table. His tone changed from indignation to disbelief as he replied. ‘As if we’d share. And we won’t be sharing their location or our strategy either, so don’t ask. It’s up to you, you can wait until you’re overrun by giants and strange beasts or you can stand with us. If you choose to fight, be on the pier before high sun the day after tomorrow. We leave with the tide.’
Chairs scuffed and several men departed. It took Sojin a moment to realise the stranger’s crew had left. Conspiring voices weighed up their options, and Sojin listened as he continued his search for silver. He wanted to scream and tell them what would happen to their kin if they didn’t act now.

Their debate ended when a man interrupted with a heavy sigh and said, ‘There is no argument. We all know his reputation. If the Acquisitioner has chosen a side, we’d be fools to go against him.’

Acquisitioner? Sojin had never heard of such a term.

‘Do you believe what they say?’ a hushed voiced asked. ‘That the wind obeys him? Orlik said the wind tells him what men say. He might be listening right now.’

‘He’s an assassin, a thief, and everything else besides. Stop spreading your wind nonsense. You’re beginning to sound like old Chozay. No one talks to the wind, and it damned well doesn’t reply.’

‘You better hope Chozay isn’t right,’ the man said, shoving back his chair. ‘I got better things to do than spend my last moments with you lot. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

Someone called out for more beer, and Sojin snagged another piece of silver. His mind skimmed over what he’d learned. The stranger was foreboding, he’d already known this, but could he control the wind? After watching him the previous night, it was a possibility he’d not dismiss outright. What was his reason for scouting out Naphal’s fortress? Was he planning to kill him? With this knowledge, Sojin could barter his way out of paying Naphal’s taxes. Naphal might even show a little gratitude and get Lestas off his back.

What was he thinking? Naphal and Lestas didn’t give a shit about him, and they never would. Men like them cared only for themselves and no one else. The Acquisitioner might not give a damn either, but he was gathering people to fight against the gods—against Buzur, and Sojin wanted in. By the time he was ready to leave, he’d collected several small silver nuggets. A few more beerhouses and some luck, and he might gain enough silver to placate Lestas for a couple of days.

Sojin found the main issue with shuffling backwards in the confines of an enclosed space, was his inability to discern a foe before their boot landed on his spine. He halted, but a firm grip on his waist ended thoughts of scrabbling back underneath the beerhouse foundations. He couldn’t even palm the silver into his boots without drawing attention. If he tried to conceal the silver elsewhere, they’d search. With no other options, he hid two of the middle sized pieces in either side of his mouth.

A chubby lad with a shadow of blonde stubble framing his jawline shoved him up against the face of the building. His expectant hand was already palm up, waiting. ‘This is my patch. Whatever you found belongs to me.’

Sojin dropped the remaining silver nuggets into his hand. The lad may have squeezed under the building several years ago, but not since.

‘I found them,’ Sojin defended through gritted teeth.

The silver nuggets he’d stashed in his mouth almost shot out as the fist knocked his head sideways. A tang spilled over his tongue, and Sojin swallowed the blood and silver together. He’d rather take the remaining nuggets to the grave than let this thieving bully steal them.

His harasser called to a smaller boy, ‘Check it out.’

The boy’s bare feet disappeared under the beerhouse and after a moment he reappeared, shaking his head.

‘Just as well. It’s too hot to punish thieves today.’ He opened a purse tied at his waist and dropped the nuggets inside. ‘Just so you know, there isn’t one building in the whole place which doesn’t belong to one of us. Find your dues another way.’
Sojin was still leaning against the timber for quite some time after the chubby lad and small boy departed. His belly growled at the injustice of being fed silver, and Sojin let out a winning smile. It had been worth it, a small secret victory, and he’d do it again just so he knew they hadn’t beaten him.

Not really aware of the steps he’d taken, Sojin made it back to the harbour. All the while, struggling to think of how to avoid Lestas and his runners, and survive long enough before the Acquisitioner’s ship sailed. A yell startled him, and as he glanced up, the Acquisitioner called out again to crewmen rolling a barrel along the gangplank. He was standing on the ship’s railing, a rope curled around his wrist as he leaned over the water.

The crewmen righted the barrel’s course and wiped their brows.

‘It ain’t my beer ya fools,’ he hollered, ‘but it’s my silver paying for it.’

His jovial smile teased rather than condemned. The Acquisitioner peered over his crews’ shoulders, and Sojin looked behind him to see where he stared. Nothing appeared unusual. Without warning, the Acquisitioner launched off the ship and landed on the pier. His confident swagger made quick work of the space, leaving Sojin little time to duck out of his way.

‘Where’s my grain?’ the Acquisitioner yelled as he strode past. Sojin swivelled.

‘It’s here. Come see,’ a merchant clasping a scrunched up hat replied.

‘My fool son let the wheel get snagged in a ditch.’
Both men veered into the storehouse. Sojin scampered around the side and climbed onto some stacked crab pots. Through the split in the shutters, he watched the two men as the Acquisitioner inspected thirty or so barrels. From the look on his face, the Acquisitioner appeared pleased with the grain. He untied a leather pouch and tossed it towards the man and then reached for another.

The seller, a pockmarked faced man with a protruding belly, lowered his tone and said, ‘I have something else.’

The Acquisitioner’s head jerked towards the double doors standing wide open. He placed his purse onto the edge of the cart and went to close the doors. Sojin waited until both men disappeared into the depths of the storehouse before prying the shutter open wide enough to sneak inside. The Acquisitioner’s purse slouched like a tiny wrinkle old man taking a nap in the back of the cart. His heart boomed so loud as he sped across the strawcovered floor and his mind thought of nothing but salvation. If he could just appease Lestas long enough, he’d be content to spend the rest of his life paying the Acquisitioner back. He snatched up the purse, pivoted, and raced to the shutter.
The Acquisitioner stepped out from behind stacked crates. His feet spread wide apart and his arms folded across his chest. ‘Looks like my purse slipped into ya hand?’

Sojin’s face went as red as a flower. He didn’t know what to say or what to do with the purse.
‘Don’t you realise who this is, boy?’ the seller asked as he came up behind him and snatched the purse from his hand. He lobbed it to the Acquisitioner saying, ‘I’ll go grab my axe.’

‘I was just bringing it to you,’ Sojin said. ‘You left it, and I worried that someone might steal it.’

‘Someone like you?’ the seller accused. He whacked him over the side of the head before departing to collect his weapon.

The green eyes of the Acquisitioner’s glare weighed up Sojin’s excuse as much as the purse in his palm.

‘Ya know,’ he called after the seller. ‘Leave the axe. My crew will want to take bets before discovering if he screams or not.’ He gripped hold of Sojin’s collar. ‘As for the grain and other supplies, we’ll begin loading tonight and the rest tomorrow.’ He shoved Sojin towards the exit, ‘Move ya thieving, little mugger.’

Part 4

‘Ya got a choice, kid. Ya can either lose ya hand or owe me a debt. Decide quick.’

It was as simple as that. The lad favoured keeping his nifty fingers attached to his nimble wrist. Who wouldn’t? He had to give the lad credit, not once did he whine, try to lie or plead his case. Most grown men caved, or did something foolish like attempt to sever his head with their blades. Few held their peace. This lad had stones.

When they reached the harbour, he threw the Harbour Master the purse. ‘Keep him busy cleaning my galleys until my next visit and ya best not try anything foolish.’
It seemed everywhere he’d sailed to lately, the requisite for the Harbour Master role entailed being a manipulating, thieving rascal. This one was no different, except he was skinnier than most. The Harbour Master peered into the purse and couldn’t slurp back his drool quick enough. He’d gained free labour and triple the amount of silver to keep the lad fed.

Prying his gaze away and glancing at the lad, he asked, ‘What’s your name?’ The lad was so busy staring at the galleys in the harbour, he hadn’t heard.

‘Is he deaf and mute?’ the Harbour Master asked.

‘No, he ain’t. He’s calculating how many galleys and the years its gonna take to clean them. Any surprise accidents and ya will be though,’ Ammo warned.

‘I was only wondering how best to take care of the boy? What’s he to you, anyway?’

Ammo glared, silencing the man. He yanked on the lad’s clothing. ‘Tell the man ya name.’


He showed no telltale signs of a lie. Ammo pulled him aside. ‘Ya have any problems, ya go to The Raven and ask for Roza. She’s gonna have a fit, but she’ll see ya right.’

‘Why, after what I did, would you help me?’

‘I ain’t helping ya. Ya owe me a debt and I intend to collect.’

Sojin grimaced but kept his thoughts to himself, and Ammo didn’t pry. He already knew what the Sojin feared. He’d tried to clear one debt and gained another and was racking his brains on ways to stay alive.

Though Ammo had never owed a debt to anyone, he knew a thing or two about surviving. Seven stars on his thigh attested to his plight.
‘My name is Ammo. Have ya heard of me?’

‘They say you talk to the wind and she answers?’

He’d heard the rumour, and it cut closer to the truth than he cared to admit.

‘This is how it’s gonna be. I ain’t got no use for a scrawny little mugger. Ya will work on my galleys until I return and see fit to claim my debt. If ya try to run while I’m gone, my spies will serve the justice ya escaped today. Got it?’

He didn’t enjoy threatening the lad, and as far as threats go this was mild, but the lad understood. He saw it flare in his hazel eyes.

‘How long will you be gone?’

Ammo’s sides tensed and he suppressed a laugh. ‘Never ya mind.’ The lad had determination. He might not have conceived a plan yet, but Ammo saw it brewing in his mind. What occurred next promised some amusing entertainment. Ammo rubbed his hands in anticipation. He just wished he’d have time to see it.

‘Get him some food before he begins,’ Ammo said to the Harbour Master. Without looking back, he headed for Wind Weaver.

* * * * *

Ammo spent the afternoon beneath deck finalising plans with Omer on how to relieve Naphal of his smuggled weapons. Earlier, he’d sent Kovi into beerhouses known to be favoured by Naphal’s trusted guards. The rumour about a travelling Inspector’s scrupulous intentions must have spread because word returned of Naphal ordering crates onto carts and sending them along one of the forest tracks.

Beer with an added sleep aid, a switching of crates on the dirt road, and the slumbering guards would be none the wiser when they awoke. Leaving his crew to complete the heist, Ammo donned his drab Inspector’s coat and even duller travelling attire. On his way to Naphal’s fortress, rain began its cleansing campaign, thrashing into filth. Ammo cursed at the soil clinging to his boots and wrapped his cloak tighter.

He deviated onto the rooftops and headed towards the preferred house of sacred activity. The reed pipes and lutes did little to drown out the intimate grunts and salacious gossip as he crouched on the rooftop. He didn’t expect to wait long. The redhead was as devious as the berries Ammo’s crew member had given her earlier, and sure enough, by the end of the second song, Lestas slipped outside to use the privy.

Before Lestas had unloosed his belt, Ammo’s dagger slid against his throat. The precision with which Ammo pinned him left no room for error.

‘Do ya know who I am?’

Most men would have shat their pants. Even with laced berries churning in his guts, Lestas refused to release his bowels. He had grit and ambition.

With training, he might have made a half decent Acquisitioner, but like Ammo’s father, he was cruel.

With the blade tucked up against his flesh, Lestas wasn’t foolish enough to nod his head.

‘Yes,’ he replied.

‘There’s a lad, brown hair, hazel eyes, freckles. Ya know the one?’


‘He owes ya nothing, not ever. Do ya understand?’


Ammo was about to retreat when he recalled Omer saying how they’d ruffed up Sojin in the alley. He swiped Lestas’ legs out from underneath him and as he fell sideways, Lestas’ jaw cracked against the hilt of Ammo’s dagger. Ammo saw no point in bruising his knuckles or leaving any trace connecting him to Lestas’ unfortunate fall. He might have warned the low life to say nothing, but Lestas was out cold with the rain splattering onto the blood seeping from the corner of his mouth.

By the time Ammo reached the tower house, rainwater trickled down the length of his spine. The incompetent cloak dragged on his shoulders, giving the impression of a downtrodden man. He coughed into his hand as he approached, exaggerating the facade. Guards escorted him to Naphal’s residence, where he insisted on coming inside. Naphal’s face purpled with fury at the Inspector’s late intrusion.

Ammo breathed, once, twice and said, ‘I’ll start in the basement.’ Naphal shot forward and shoved him in the chest. There was no doubt about it, Naphal was used to throwing his weight around. Ammo wanted to say, touch me again and ya are dead. Instead, he raised a calloused hand, clutched hold the man’s fist and let his green eyes simmer with an unyielding warning.

‘Come now, there’s no need for hostility. I have my duties as you have yours. I’m drenched. I want this inspection over as fast as you do.’

Ammo didn’t give a damn about being soaked through. If anything, moisture felt like a second skin to him. He took a step back to allow Naphal to lead the way. ‘This will all be over soon.’

The basement was not how he’d left it, and it reassured him to find an enormous trunk resting on the beams under which the sapphire dagger once lay. No one bothered to hide their bounty if they knew it was missing. He let his hand glide along the dark wood. ‘What’s in the trunk?’

Like a liar avoiding the truth, Naphal refused to glance in the trunk’s direction. He loitered by the staircase and his route to a hasty exit.

‘Linen,’ he replied, ‘and if you mess it up, my wife will throw a fit. You’re wasting my time, there’s nothing down here.’

‘Are you implying there is something elsewhere?’ Ammo asked as he crossed over the basement floor.

‘Of course not. I don’t know who lied, but it’s obvious one of those lousy lot from further along the coast is trying to destroy their competition.’
‘Nevertheless, I’m obligated to inspect. As a collector of taxes yourself, I’m sure you understand the lengths to which people will go to avoid paying what’s due?’

Outside, he followed as Naphal led him from storehouse to storehouse. The rain had slowed to a misty drizzle, and everywhere he looked, spider webs glistened like miniature constellations. Deep grooves filled with water and patches of fallen straw betrayed the carts’ hasty departure. He counted four tracks crisscrossing in the churned up soil.

‘Where does that lead?’ Ammo asked whilst staring at two timber gates sealed tight with a massive beam.

‘The trail leads to the paddocks where my cattle graze.’

The trail leads to your slumbering men, Ammo silently corrected. ‘Ah, that accounts for the straw,’ Ammo teased.

His search of the storehouses was meticulous, drawn out and boring. His only consolation, his insistence that Naphal bear witness to ensure no foul play. By the time he’d finished his inspection, the hazy hue of approaching sunlight promised to fend off the diminishing rain.

By morning, Ammo’s crew had transferred Naphal’s weapons into emptied grain barrels, and by late afternoon, they’d hauled them into Wind Weaver’s hold. From there, the crew secured the weapons into secret compartments below deck. By evening, he beckoned Omer to his cabin.


‘Everything has gone according to plan.’

‘And the lad, Sojin.’

Omer grunted. ‘He scrubbed galley decks for most of the day and attempted to sneak aboard Wind Weaver three times.’


‘He squeezed in-between Kovi and Berik as they hefted a barrel along the pier. They let him take the brunt of it before sending him packing. He dived off a galley, swam like a frog and climbed up the anchor rope. I heaved him off the deck, back into the water. The third time, he walked up the gangplank like he belonged, spied me, shrugged and darted away. The men are taking bets.’ Omer scoffed. ‘Half of them think he’ll make it.’

‘And ya don’t?’

‘You told me to test him. What do you think?’

Omer was straightforward and stubborn, an undefeated wall of muscle who declined to back down. If it had been anyone else, Ammo would have argued that they stood no chance, but something about the freckle-faced little mugger gave Ammo cause to doubt. ‘Who is running the odds?’


He changed the subject and kept his thoughts hidden. ‘What of the recruits? How many?’

‘Hard to tell. Maybe enough to man one extra galley.’

Tomorrow at high tide, they’d sail to Lithinos where Ammo had agreed to meet Meciel who rarely left the rock shelters where he hid away. No doubt, Terra, the flying reptilian who Meciel had saved would accompany him.

Ammo reined in a slight smile. Lithinos stank worse than Radad, and after their business arrangement was over, Meciel always declined to stay. Ammo didn’t like the place much either, but it was the closest bay with a pier large enough for Wind Weaver to dock. His anticipation rose at the thought of seeing the strange, old hermit.
But first, Ammo needed to focus on ensuring no trace of his recent ventures in Radad remained, starting with a storehouse floor covered in the grain.

‘Get the barrels back to the storehouse and refilled with the grain. Afterwards, the men can relax, but I want the remaining supplies loaded by sunrise. We leave on the tide.’

Omer departed to carry out his order, and Ammo open the porthole. He suspected Sojin wasn’t hiding under the pier, but to be sure he lobbed another apple. The scurrying of rats followed soon after, and Ammo smiled.

Part 5

After many failed attempts at trying to sneak aboard Ammo’s ship, and with dusk fast approaching, Sojin decided it was safer to hide under a tangle of ropes on the galley deck he’d been cleaning until the sky darkened. The night prior, Lestas hadn’t arrived as expected. But it didn’t mean his runners weren’t still waiting, ready to ambush him at first sight. In some ways, Lestas’ delay made everything worse. Whatever the cause, he knew when they caught him, it would be his fault.

By the time he stretched out his legs, they’d almost forgotten how to move. He’d scuffed his elbows, his knees and his knuckles while scrubbing the decks, and as he crept off the galley not one muscle in his entire body kept their anguish silent. Moonlight threatened to betray him, and so did the gulls with their golden-yellow eyes searching for scraps. Sojin raised his palms up so they saw he had nothing.
Seeing Omer bound across the pier with the rest of Ammo’s crew gave him some hope. The large man had been pretty agile and showed no mercy when he’d heaved him into the sea. He had no clue of Lestas’ whereabouts or whether Ammo remained below deck. Regardless, the wind was still, and if he did nothing to wake it… This was his last chance. His toe hadn’t even reached the pier beforebeing yanked backwards.

‘Try it again and you’ll find your foot tacked to the deck with a blade,’ said a gruff voice. ‘Now quit your messing and scarper.’

Thinking Lestas had grabbed him, he’d almost peed his pants. But as he twisted to get a better look, he couldn’t master his relief fast enough. Omer scared him, but their encounters were rat and cat games compared to the threats from Lestas. It might have been a hint of admiration in Omer’s big brown eyes. Regardless, Sojin considered it unwise to test him. He edged away and fled into the gloom when the huge man let him go.

Sojin slumped against a timber building and tried to come up with another plan. He’d underestimated Omer. The man had proved stubborn enough to forsake his last night in the beerhouse. Sojin refused to look, but he imagined Omer sitting on the ship’s bow, feet up, waiting for his next move. He didn’t have one. All he knew was if he didn’t sneak onto the ship before daybreak, he’d be left here alone.
The dust on his boot was drying and as he picked at it, images of a dagger thudding into his foot consumed his mind. He was so busy debating the pros and cons, and the risk, he didn’t notice one of Lestas’ runners approach.

‘I’m not moving,’ Sojin said.

If a beating and his throat slit in a filthy alley was his lot, then they could come to him.
‘I’m not asking,’ the lad replied.

Sojin refused to glance up. From his inferior angle, he spied the lad leaning against the storehouse, a knee raised and his ripped boot resting on the timber. Not the fastest position from which to give chase.

After a while, the lad’s stillness got under his skin and he snapped. ‘What are you staring at?’

‘What makes you so special?’

From underneath a rusty-coloured cap, a confused gaze, lacking any malice, bore into him. Though they appeared around the same size, the lad was younger than Sojin. And with one foot off the ground, he was an easy target to push off balance, if he tried to hinder Sojin’s escape. To dodge from one kid had better odds than from several with knives.

He rose, turned his back to the lad, and with his breath fighting to get out, Sojin walked the other way. Instinct kept him in the shadows clinging to storehouse foundations along the dock. He paced over the darkened soil, scanning ahead for Lestas’ runners and an opportunity to shake off the boy. If the runners remained out there, they hid well. The whole scenario made little sense.

His frustration amplified with each failed attempt to dodge the lad. Time slipped ahead of him with every wasted step, and after circling back towards the Acquisitioner’s ship, Sojin finally rounded on the lad and snapped. ‘What do you want?’

‘Lestas has never told us to back off until now.’

The lad’s reply was so unexpected, Sojin blurted out, ‘He’s not coming?’

‘He didn’t tell me directly. Banes said a vicious gang attacked Lestas and he’s got a nasty injury.’
As he spoke, the lad searched Sojin for clues to connect his missing pieces. Sojin snickered. Lestas wasn’t coming to collect. The runners’ disappearance made sense.

‘So you think I’m special or I somehow paid a gang?’

If the whole situation wasn’t so messed up, he might have laughed. He knew of no gang, and if he did, he had nothing to offer them. So who had forced Lestas to back off? There was only one person who came to mind. It was the logical conclusion, but why would the Acquisitioner go to such trouble?

‘I want to know why you want to get on that ship so bad, and yes, how you got free from Lestas?’ The lad shrugged at Sojin’s lifted brow. ‘He didn’t say I couldn’t keep watch.’

‘And why should I tell you?’

‘My Pa works for Naphal on the old trail, understand?’

Sojin didn’t have a clue, but nodded as though he did.

‘He’s gone often. So I get to stay with Lestas. I might be small, but I’m not stupid. The others get first divs, and most days I end up with nothing. He’ll break my legs and make me beg like Jonan if I fail him again.’

Anger overcame Sojin, and with it, a glimpse of a future he refused to accept. This kid wanted out and suspected Sojin knew the secret to freedom. It was a freedom Sojin had no power to give. He couldn’t even find the means of gaining it for himself.

Watching the kid’s anticipation, and his refusal to quit while waiting for Sojin to provide him with answers, was like staring at his own reflection. They looked the same age, his hair was a shade lighter, and he had fewer freckles, but who would pay attention to those subtle things?

Sojin stared into the lad’s hazel eyes, the beginning of a plan forming in his mind. He’d been going about this all wrong, and for the first time, he saw a way of misdirecting the huge man. He couldn’t give the boy his freedom, but he could offer him something else.

‘Would you like to earn some silver?’

The lad frowned.

‘It’s not dangerous. Hang here a moment. I’ll be right back.’

Sojin rushed down to the rocks and squatted. The least he could do was wash the silver nuggets in the ocean before pitching his offer. His worrisome belly rolled over as he returned. Would the lad still be there?

‘So you want me to scrub decks from sunrise until sunset?’ the lad asked. ‘What will you be doing?’

‘Never mind that. Will you do it?’ He turned the two silver nuggets over, letting them glimmer in the moonlight for a brief moment before palming them out of sight. As the lad mulled over his proposition, Sojin debated how to give him the silver. If he handed it over, the lad might run off.

‘If you are stealing from the one who speaks to the wind, I want no part of it.’

Sojin played dumb and hoped the lad might provide him with some answers. ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about?’

‘Everybody’s heard of him.’

‘I haven’t. I swear. I’m not from around here.’

The lad eyed Sojin’s skin, weighed up his accent and sniffed. ‘He’s an Acquisitioner.’

Sojin gave him his best puzzled expression.

‘You’ve never heard of an Acquisitioner?’
A shake of the head confirmed he hadn’t.
‘You must have travelled a long way.’

Sojin waited, hoping the lad didn’t question him about his homeland, but when he began with, ‘Where do you—’ Sojin cut over him, and said, ‘My family are dead. There’s nothing to go back to, so I’m here now.’

Sympathy warmed in the lad’s eyes. ‘You need to keep away from the Acquisitioner. He can turn invisible like the wind, and if you cross him, he’ll break your bones faster than a wave crashing against the rocks.’

‘Who is he?’

‘Nobody knows. He is everyone and no one. Your brother, your friend, whoever it takes to get the job done.’

‘He sounds like a devil.’

‘Worse. He makes the devils run. The only ones who don’t flee are the women he traps with his enchantments. I tried to help one once, but the ungrateful maid swatted me away and threatened to rat on me.’

Before his mother’s murder, Sojin was beginning to understand the attraction to the fairer sex, though he had no desire to shove himself forward for their appraisal. Every time he’d considered it, his cheeks burned hot with embarrassment.

He didn’t get it. The females fluttering their lashes at Ammo had reddened their cheeks on purpose, as though they didn’t care if they blushed. He’d seen it with his own eyes, not a single woman desired to flee. He doubted it had anything to do with enchantments, and more to do with Ammo’s sturdy physique and cocky confidence.

Sojin knew in his heart Ammo was no devil, but if there was one man capable of surviving the traps of the undead and reaching the field of reeds, this man would make it. He was his passage to Buzur and revenge!

‘Look, I’m not saying my task isn’t dangerous, but I promise, I’m not stealing from anyone. If I run into trouble, it won’t fall on you, and if I’ve not returned by nightfall, you can continue cleaning the galleys for the Harbour Master. I doubt he’d spot the difference between us anyway. It’s not much, but you’ll get food in your belly and a place to lie low until we figure something else out.’

He didn’t plan on staying in this stinking seaport, and if the kid had sense, he’d stay with the galleys and pretend to be him. It wasn’t much, but the Harbour Master was duty-bound to protect him until Ammo’s return.

‘I’ll do it.’

Sojin’s sigh was so quiet it went unnoticed. He rolled his shoulders, testing the weight, after a minuscule amount of anxiety lifted. ‘Give me your cap.’ Sojin didn’t wear one, and Omer was sure to detect the difference. He shoved the two silver nuggets into the lad’s fist and squeezed. ‘Go, right now. Sleep on the third galley from the Acquisitioner’s ship and when the sun rises make sure you’re busy.’ He tightened his grip on the lad’s hand and warned, ‘If you betray me, I’ll tell Lestas you nicked my silver and kept it from him.’

The lad and the rats scurried over the muddy ground, and Sojin kept watch until he boarded the galley and disappeared into the darkness. It took an age to circle around the storehouse. Each step threatened to expose his intent. The shutters were secured with wooden beams slotted into grooves on the inside. No padstones elevated the structure high enough for him to slip under. The front of the storehouse had weathered the worst, with rotting timber drawing moisture from the ground. He kicked at a repaired section. The new timber fastened over the old was bound too tight with twine. To wrench it apart would make too much noise. His one chance was the slim gap underneath the roof’s overhang. He shoved the rusty cap he’d taken from the lad into his mouth and climbed. To his relief, one barrel was half filled with grain. He used the cap to cover his mouth and hid inside.

Part 6

The sun reached the midpoint in the unburdened sky, and Ammo checked the murky horizon. They’d been sailing for a few hours and, with no hint of rain, Ammo left Omer grumbling, and ducked into Wind Weaver’s hold.

The night before, he’d sat on the rooftop listening to Sojin hatch out his plan, and as morning trailed towards midday, he’d watched Omer watching a boy who wasn’t the right one. The lad scrubbing the deck preferred his right hand over his left, but Omer hadn’t noticed.

With Wind Weaver rising and dipping on the swell, Ammo’s mind drifted through hours, months, and years of his training until he’d neither favoured his left or his right. Would the lad hiding in the barrel have the fortitude to achieve the same? He inhaled and blew his fringe from his eyes.

Sojin had made it onto Wind Weaver, and that was a feat in itself. He knew the kid was sweltering, he’d once hid from his father in a barrel of oats. So here he was standing in his ship hold, refusing to uncover his reasoning, but all the while knowing it felt right. He aimed for the lower half of the barrel. If he hit the lad, at least it wouldn’t be fatal. The dagger found its mark with a thud.


‘I ain’t wasting good grain tipping ya out.’


Ammo shrugged. ‘If ya are half as bored waiting as I am, maybe a meal, and witnessing Omer’s face when he realises ya bested him, will coax ya out.’

The lid shifted and Sojin stuck his head out. Dust and grain clung to his already filthy skin. The kid needed a bath, Ammo reflected. A crease line ran from his eyeball to his chin. How he’d managed to sleep, Ammo found quite admiring.
Sojin shook out a rusty cap and swept the grain from his hair. There was no mistaking the defiance butting up against the dread of being thrown overboard. It mingled with determination, the kind Ammo recognised in himself.

Ammo grinned. ‘Ya won me a decent amount of silver. The least I can do is pay ya back.’

‘You bet on me sneaking onto your ship?’

‘I gambled on far more than that.’

Ammo yanked his dagger free and flipped it so the handle faced Sojin.

‘Seeing as ya are stranded on Wind Weaver, ya may as well learn the first rule of the Acquisitioner’s code.’

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Title: Sojin
Short story prequel for, A Voice that Thunders series.
Author: Cully Mack

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Wayfinders: The Princess

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Author: Christina Morley

Genre: High Fantasy

Reading Level: General Audience

Wayfinders is a fiction WIP from Christian Life author Christina Morley. Her book on motherhood can be purchased on Amazon – keep up with her to see when Wayfinders is published!

NOTE FROM THE EDITORWe normally only feature published works, but without Tina’s help, this demo issue would have never gotten off the ground. If you believe Echoes of Empyrean can and should help spread the fire of creation and the Gospel, then we all owe her a big thank you, and please encourage her as she continues to finish her novel!

Chapter 1



The staccato of Myra’s shoes on the uneven flagstones of the castle grounds matched the rapid beating of her heart. It was a long walk from the stillroom to the solar. At least Nula had summoned her to a private place and not the public hall. She couldn’t face an audience, not if she was found breaking the law. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.

Making friends with an outsider and then falling in love didn’t fit with the kind of Livanian values expected from a princess. Everyone who agreed with those values was as unmovable as the castle, built against the Azure Mountain with one side of the great hall solid rock.

The people, the policies, and the palace had not changed much these past three hundred years. Hmm. That has a nice ring to it. If only it was a palace instead of a castle, then it might have been more bearable. But it was a fortress first and her home second. One of Myra’s least favorite tutors, who only spoke in monotones, always said it was built on fortitude and maintained with diligence. Gah!

She never meant to break the law. Getting swept up in Berne’s whirling energy was like being drunk on life. He was ruggedly handsome and charming, with a rumbling accent she found exciting. His unkempt hair and scruffy beard gave him a wild look. Wearing only a kirtle with a leather belt and carrying a sleeveless fur cloak didn’t help. He might wear clothes like an afterthought, but he wasn’t uncouth. When they were apart, her chest grew tight with longing, and when they were together, it felt like it would burst with joy.

When she asked how he avoided the scouts, he winked and said he was extra stealthy. So, maybe he had a secret or two, but so did she.

Clutching her necklace from Berne, she drew in a tight breath. She missed him desperately. If only she didn’t have to live two lives. The necklace was just as unusual as Berne. It had three golden feathers from a sweeping eagle, which hung from a plaited cord. The majestic bird was so idealized and elusive it was almost mythical. She hid the necklace under her tunic from prying eyes, pressing it against her chest as if to press Berne closer.

What was Myra going to tell her sister? The urgent summons probably meant the end of her trysts with Berne. That morning they’d heard a noise and saw an indistinguishable figure disappearing through the trees. It was likely a forester. A scout would’ve chased Berne.

Four months. That’s how long they’d been seeing each other. Myra was going to have to tell Nula about Berne, but the less she knew the better. It was already bad enough she had been seen with an outsider. She didn’t need ‘fornicator’ added to her list of crimes.

A chill went through her heated body. Her menses were late – not that unusual – but six weeks ago, she’d given herself fully to Berne in a moment of unbridled passion. The tips of her ears grew hot. What if…? Her foot stumbled. Giving herself a mental shake, she locked that thread of thought away to examine later.

Quickening her pace, she passed the guards keeping watch over the royal wing and made her way up the familiar stone steps to the solar on the first floor. It was the private family room. Attached to it, on the north side were Nula and Myra’s bedchambers with a spiral staircase between them, leading to another two bedchambers and a bathing room on the second floor.

The brisk walk made her flush and the short climb left her breathless. Thankfully, the solar was cooler than the stillroom. The high arched windows allowed the mountain breeze in. The stillroom in the summer was uncomfortable, especially when heating ingredients for candles and all kinds of soap. Myra normally lost herself there in a variety of tasks while surrounded by the earthy scents of thyme and sage, the lemony tang of geraniums, and the floral sweetness of roses, lilacs, and her favorite hyacinths. Staying busy was better than being anxious and overthinking everything, although it didn’t help much this time.

Myra walked past the dining table with leather chairs. Several tapestries hung on the limestone brick walls. The large stone fireplace, as high as Myra was tall, stood cold and empty. Father had had the old ceiling remodeled with curved beams and decorative woodwork painted with accents of red, green, and yellow. It was his gift to Mother on their first anniversary. Both parents were now gone, and those colors had faded.

A carved bookcase held personal selections from each family member. When their brother, Adrian, went missing, his books were left untouched on the shelves. It was the same when their parents died, although Myra would sometimes read Mother’s books when she wanted to bring her memory closer. Nula didn’t like reminiscing with her about their brother or their parents, which made Myra’s grief harder to bear.

Myra’s heart had ached for those she’d lost until she’d met Berne. Even though he could never replace them, she was starting to feel whole again.

That morning, Myra had cut their tryst short and rushed back to the castle. She still wore the same clothes, a linen tunic over linen trousers. It was a practical outfit for riding, but she had also taken time with her appearance, having Berne in mind. The tunic was her favorite color, aquamarine, with a round neckline and embroidered trim. Her eyes weren’t opalescent and striking like Nula’s, so Mother had encouraged her to wear shades of blue to enhance their color. Knowing Berne liked her sky-blue eyes brightened her countenance.

With nervous fingers, Myra played with the single braid that hung over her right shoulder. She didn’t dare sit down. She didn’t want to give the impression she wasn’t taking things seriously. On a round table was a pitcher of water. Myra quickly poured a glass and drank deeply, quenching her sudden thirst.

Nula entered the room with precise steps, heels clicking against the dark-stained wooden floor. Two woven rugs lying in her path swallowed the sound, slashing the room’s tension by half, yet Myra’s stomach still churned. Drinking all that water hadn’t helped.

Her sister was particularly stunning today in a flowing purple gown with embroidered trim and a midnight-blue sash tied at the waist. A portion of her pale-blond hair was braided in a circle around her head, while the rest flowed loosely down her back. She wore a gold circlet of diamonds, held in place by her braids. A vibrant white opal hung from the center and rested on her forehead. It was an important symbol of their kingdom, representing those who had opalescent eyes.

As Nula passed by her, Myra was enveloped with the perfume of lavender and lemons. It was a new summer fragrance and Nula’s most recent favorite. She had half a head’s height on Myra, but today she loomed taller and seemed more regal. When they were in private, Myra wasn’t expected to curtsy, but this time she did.

Nula briskly sat on one of the cushioned benches facing Myra. At eighteen, she was just two years older, but she still treated Myra like a child. Myra tried not to hold it against her. Becoming Queen of Livania was a huge responsibility and her sister hadn’t been prepared to rule at such a young age. Even though she had people to advise her, no one could replace Father. She was doing her best.

Thankfully, Myra wasn’t burdened with being queen.

With chin held high and hands planted flat on her lap, Nula sat ramrod straight. At her feet was a life-sized statue of a long-toothed wolf sitting on its haunches. Today, she seemed as personable as the stone statue. Its head reached as high as Nula’s shoulder, and the sheer size of the thing always made Myra shiver. Previous Livanian kings had had the emblem of the wolf displayed on their livery badges. Centuries ago, long-toothed wolves haunted their forests, but Livanian hunters became too many, forcing them over the border into Fulsan, a wild and savage country east of Livania.

Nula looked her up and down, mouth pinched. Even though they were sisters, they were two very different people. Today was no exception.

Clasping her hands to prevent them from shaking, Myra endured her sister’s silence. It was as much punishment as when she spoke. Three minutes under Nula’s flinty gaze felt like thirty. It was worse when her eyes flashed colored light. Livanians born with eyes the color of white opals had the gift of healing. Their eyes dulled or brightened depending on their mood. Mother had had iridescent eyes too. Myra would have preferred her firm chastising to Nula’s fiery anger, and she missed their mother more than ever. Nula didn’t have Mother’s restraint, and her anger could quickly spike.

Sweat trickled down Myra’s back and beaded on her upper lip, but she dared not lick it away or fidget under her sister’s stony gaze. Even though they were sisters, Nula was queen and Myra’s life was in her hands.

“Myra, you were seen with an outsider. The report I heard is you were very familiar with this individual. Explain yourself.”

Briefly, Myra closed her eyes, composing her thoughts. There was no use trying to lie, but she wouldn’t tell her sister everything. She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. “Your information is correct, my Queen.”

Nula scowled. “I gave you the freedom to enter the woods, knowing how much it meant to you, and trusting our scouts to keep you safe. But you’ve broken my trust.” Nula’s fingers tightened, crushing the purple silk of her gown where it covered her knees. “If news of this gets out, I’ll have no choice but to charge you with treason.”

“But you’re the queen!”

“Exactly, Myra. I cannot be seen as playing favorites. The peers won’t stand for it. Do you realize you’ll face death or imprisonment? And I’ll be the one forced to pass judgment on you.”

Myra cringed, wishing she could block her ears. She’d hoped for the best. She wasn’t prepared to deal with the worst.

“Thankfully, the man who saw the two of you together came straight to me, and I commanded my guards not to tell anyone. How could you place both of us in such a terrible position?”

That made Myra flinch. Oh, she felt wretched. She never meant to hurt her sister. “I’m sorry.”

As if not hearing Myra’s apology, Nula continued, “And all for an outsider!”


“I want to know exactly what’s going on. No more secrets. Who were you seeing and how did he get past our scouts?”

This discussion was not going well. Digging her nails into her palms, she said, “His name is Berne.”

“Burn? Like fire?”

A giggle escaped from emotions tightly spun. “I asked him the same thing. It’s pronounced burn, but it’s spelled B-E-R-N-E.” She took a deep breath and added, “I don’t know how he got past the scouts. He never explained.”

“That didn’t worry you?”

“Well, maybe at first, but once I got to know him, I realized he’s a good man.”

“Go ahead, enlighten me.”

Myra flinched at Nula’s antagonistic tone. “He’s thoughtful and charming, and—”

“How do you know he wasn’t just putting on an act to win your trust? Hmm.” Nula motioned with her hand. “Where is he from? What does he want?”

Clasping her forearms in frustration, Myra replied, “He mentioned having to go to the kingdom of Fulsan for a family meeting, but where they live exactly, I don’t know.”

“What did you talk about then?”

“I’m trying to explain. Just…” She blinked a few times, holding back tears. “He’s an outdoors kind of man, and he knows his plants. He’s never lived in a city. Although, he has seen our walled city from a distance and wondered what that was like. And, we talked a lot about me.”

Nula’s eyes flashed, and she sat forward. “You gave him information about our people? I thought you were smarter!”

“No, no! I didn’t tell him anything about us, not really. I don’t think he asked any questions that would worry you. I didn’t even let him know I was a princess. I promise!”

“Well, you won’t be seeing him anymore and that’s final.”

“You can’t! I need to see him again!” Myra didn’t like sounding desperate, but she was. Berne had revived her soul and given her heart wings to fly. If he was taken from her, she’d be crushed.

Nula’s eyes widened and her nostrils flared. “Why this big need? How long have you known him?”

“Just four months, but it’s long enough to know he means everything to me and—”

“Why are you risking our way of life for some… outsider?”

“He is not just some… outsider,” Myra said, mimicking Nula’s derisive tone. “You would understand if you were in love.”

“If I was in love? How can you even say you’re in love after only a few short months? Regardless, even if I did fall in love, it would never be with an outsider.” Nula took a few breaths. “I forbid you to have further contact with him.”

Tears sprang to Myra’s eyes. “You can’t! I need to see him.”

“Again, you do not need to see him. What nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense. When I’m with him, I feel happy, and all is right in the world.” Myra kneeled and reached for her sister’s hands, stopping short of touching her. Before Nula was queen, and the wall of formality had risen between them, Myra would’ve held her sister’s hands without hesitation. So much had changed in such a short amount of time.

Nula leaned forward and clasped Myra’s hands. “I have to do what’s best for the kingdom, and you should too.”

Her mouth was dry, making it impossible to swallow. “I can’t,” Myra whispered.

Nula let go of her hands and sat up, lengthening her spine. “Trust me, you will get over him. Life will go on.”

Myra stood and shook her head. There was no use arguing with her sister. Life didn’t just go on when the love of your life wasn’t allowed to be part of it.

Nula had put up walls around her heart that were higher than those around the city and castle. Livanians insisted on staying behind walls. The walls were a constant reminder of a three-hundred-year-old betrayal which people still discussed as if it had happened yesterday. Myra didn’t like living in the past, nursing old wounds, and she refused to dwell on the subject. Of course, she felt terrible that Livania’s crown prince had been murdered all those years ago. That awful betrayal had brought a dark time for their people, but she didn’t believe this endless, self-imposed isolation was good for their kingdom. This was one topic Nula refused to discuss.

Nula’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve placed me in an untenable position, Myra. Please, don’t force me to choose between my sister and my kingdom.”

Myra nodded. “Yes, my Queen.” There was nothing more either of them could say or do. Livanians were stuck in their ways, and there was no changing that.

Nula stood, ending the discussion. She shook out her dress as if shaking off something unpleasant, but when she walked out, her steps were less poised than they had been upon entering.

Myra was left alone in the solar. She didn’t like being alone, but this was becoming her new normal. True friends were almost impossible to find when you were of royal blood. She was used to that and accepted it. Family was better than friends. Family was everything. Now Myra’s family was almost non-existent.

Berne said he’d be away for two weeks at an important family meeting. What was his family like? Would they open their hearts to her in a way her family refused to for him? Could she leave Livania and take that chance? She wasn’t sure, but she had time to think over her next move. Maybe a future with Berne in the wide-open world would be better than a lonely future behind Livania’s walls.

Her sister preferred living separately from the rest of the world, but Myra needed more. And it was clear that remaining a princess of Livania meant imprisonment, maybe literally, for the rest of her life.

She sighed.

Nula could keep her walls. Myra had a life to live.

Currently Reading:

Truth Unearthed cover image

Title: Wayfinders: The Princess
Author: Christina Morley

Wayfinders is a fiction WIP from Christian Life author Christina Morley

Articles on Faith and Craft

Interview with Cully Mack

Author of the series, “A Voice That Thunders”

Echoes of Empyrean (EOE): Today we’re interviewing Cully Mack, author of the series, A Voice That Thunders. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions!

First, I have to say that I am a huge fan of A Voice That Thunders – it is easily my favorite Indie High Fantasy I’ve read so far.

Cully Mack (CM): Wow, thank you! To hear such praise from a fellow Indie author is overwhelming.

EoE: Let’s dive into some of the characters. Can you tell me some of your inspiration for your characters? Particularly Nate, though I know you get asked about him all the time and probably get tired of talking about him, [laughs]!

CM: I love writing characters. Alongside world-building, developing characters is one of my most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s amazing how real they become!

As for Nate… Is it weird to say that I never liked him? I wanted readers to love him and tried my best to make him desirable. However, I could not move past his involvement in the attack on Barakel. His arc poses interesting moral questions? Where is the line between condemnation and redemption? I guess I did my job well! Readers love him. Here is a snippet of one reader’s reaction:

Then there’s Nate. He’s the one that I felt the worse for so much of the time. I don’t know that I was supposed to, but I did. He did awful things during this part of the journey, following orders to do them. However, when I looked through his eyes with what he saw, I just couldn’t condemn him. He had so many pieces missing from his story, stolen from him. He felt as much as a victim, trapped as the others… His only answers came from someone he had no idea he couldn’t trust, the very person who was the mastermind of all the pain and suffering that stood before him. And yes, he could have done things differently and maybe he should have been able to see sooner, but I couldn’t make myself hate him. Instead, I kept remembering the Nate that laid under the stars with Mirah… Once again though, we are given a battlefield that leaves us in awe, with hearts and spirits shattered in their wake, and we’re left to see if they can pick up the pieces again.

Nate has become one of my most beloved characters. His arc has developed in ways I never expected. I do not know how his story will end, though it’s exciting figuring it out. One thing is for certain, he won’t quit!

EOE: [Laughing] Yes, and in full transparency with our audience, I’ve talked with you about Nate in personal conversations. But this is the first time I’ve heard one of your other readers’ exact words about the character. Personally, I think it speaks to your skill as a writer that you have a character so complicated that people can have such a wide array of opinions, even different from yours, and yet all feel justified. It shows that people are exercising their empathy, trying to figure out what they would do in his situation. And, without going into any spoilers, it reminds me of people in Nazi Germany that were trying to sabotage Hitler. They did some awful things to keep their cover, but they also were trying to mitigate his damage where they could. I think Nate’s story is a great example of “Life is messy.” On one hand, Nate has killed countless innocents and other horrible things under orders (not to mention his own failures not caused by others). On the other hand, he regularly risks horrific torture to be followed by a brutal execution to save many and ensure survivors of peoples when otherwise there would have been none. Combined with his backstory (which I won’t spoil), you can hate him as a murderer or see him as in the same vein as a tragic hero like Orestes from Greek mythology, someone put in an impossible situation and trying to make the most of it. I’ve only read the first book so far, but I am eager to see if you give him a full path to redemption or if he falls in judgment – especially because either way could be done and feel completely justified.

But let’s move on from Nate. What was your goal with some of your other major characters, like Mirah and Ammo? Or are there any other characters you would like to talk about and how they’ve developed in fun or unexpected ways? Of course, try to avoid as many spoilers as you can!

CM: There are two reasons why I wrote Mirah.

First, I never planned on writing Mirah. I had just started my master’s in creative writing and intended to finish writing A Voice That Thunders which originally featured Gabe, a young boy devastated by his clan being slaughtered by his enemy. My professor refused to let me continue writing Gabe’s story (Mirah’s brother) because I had focused on his arc for my degree. I refused to give up, so as a compromise, I switched to Mirah. I had no idea who she was or what her story would be about! I just put her and a few survivors on Nate’s ship and let her story unfold on the page.

Secondly, when reading, I often find the antagonist is a distant evil baddie, and the reader gets a half-explained reason why they want to destroy the world. For me, it’s disappointing. So, I was keen to write a character who got close to the antagonist. Hence Mirah’s arc where she travels across the world and into the enemy’s kingdom.

Although, I have always loved Mirah. I appreciate her honesty, bravery, empathy, and sacrificial nature. I also love Ammo. He came to life when I first started writing. I’d joined a beginner’s writing course where I was given a sheet of questions about a character. I answered those questions and Ammo appeared. He’s cocky, arrogant, confident, a legend before his time, into risks and taking chances. This guy refused to stay in my head. He pretty much forced his way into my books. As soon as I created Gabe, a youngster in need of a mentor, I knew Ammo was going to be a great, though unconventional fit. He makes me laugh. He has a smaller part in book one but plays a larger role later. When he faces his fears, I love how he handles things.

I also love Neviah’s fiery spirit, Zeev’s banter, Galia’s loyalty, Tur’s unwavering determination, Nate’s complexity, and Gabe’s devotion, to name a few. But out of them all, Sojin, Ammo’s apprentice, has surprised me the most. I loved developing him in book four, where he faces many challenges with sometimes devastating consequences. At present, he is the only character guaranteed to survive. I am planning a spin-off series with him.

EoE: Well, while I could (and would enjoy) talking about your story and characters all day, we should probably let people read the book first, so let’s turn to some fun easy questions about the stories we love in general: What book sparked your love of reading? What memories do you have about when you first got into books, and were there any significant people that helped form that passion in you?

CM: I started reading very young. I remember hiding under the bed covers with a torch each night. My first love was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. It’s essentially a portal fantasy where three children climb a magical tree and different lands appear at the top. The strange characters like Moonface and Dame-wash-a-lot, to name a few, and the magical lands and amazing food, all set my imagination wild.

I knew nothing of mythic trees and cosmic mountains back then. I just knew there was a secret and sacred place and I wanted to get there. I don’t remember not reading. I soaked up every book I could find searching for what? I don’t know, I guess, I’m still searching.

EoE: What is your favorite Fantasy or Science Fiction book/series and why?

CM: That’s hard to answer. I have favourites for different reasons. I am a traditional epic/high fantasy reader. I remember going into a bookshop and purchasing Feist’s Magician, GRR Martin’s Fire and Ice and Gemmel’s Legend. I had no idea about adult fantasy at the time. Out of the three, I enjoyed Feist the most and read him until running out of his books, then I switched to Rothfuss, Sanderson, and Brent Weeks. I still read the more traditional fantasy and recently enjoyed John Gwynne’s Faithful and Fallen Series, but lately romantic subplots have caught my eye.

It was by accident that I came across S J Maas’ Throne of Glass. I bought it for 50p and was hooked. I love how Maas uses romance to further develop characters, but for me, a book still needs a main plot. I prefer character-driven novels the most. I’m a sucker for the underdog and conflicted heroes. I love redemptive arcs, enemies to lovers, rising from the ashes, that kind of thing.

EoE: I’m actually in the middle of Gwynne’s Faithful and the Fallen series myself, having just finished book 1, Malice, and really enjoying it.

What is the most underrated Fantasy or Science Fiction book/series that you wish more people knew about? What makes it so great, and why do you think more people haven’t heard of it?

CM: I’d have to go with John Gwynne’s Faithful and Fallen Series. He is a fellow British author who has written a compelling character-centered epic fantasy featuring likeable characters who are swept up into an immortal war. There are four books in the series, beginning with Malice. This is a must for those who love multiple pov novels with huge casts and multiple plot arcs. It has some of the best battle scenes I’ve read in a while, and like mine, focuses on the battle between darkness and light.

EoE:Now for some questions about you, your writing, and your process. When did you start writing, and why?  How has your motivation and philosophy for writing changed over the years?

CM: I began writing later in life. In 2012, as I said, I joined a beginner’s writing class. You could say I got the buzz, with characters and worlds running around in my head, but I didn’t know how to write. I did what I thought was right and returned to university to study English Literature and Creative Writing. As a mature student, I had a blast.

I’m not sure my motivation or philosophy has changed. I have always been interested in myth. In particular, mythological texts from Ancient Mesopotamia that feature gods and mythical beings. Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilisation and many peoples lived side by side. Depending on the culture, some saw the gods (mentioned in Psalm 82) as a positive thing, others negative. It makes for great conflict when you can reimagine gods, hybrids and giants interacting with humanity.

In my series, I’ve tried to capture an essence of these cultures, what it was like thousands of years ago, and set it in a framework loosely based on their customs and beliefs. My series is filled with ancient myth, the kind that is buried in the soul waiting to be reawakened.  

EoE: As we are Christian writers here, can you give us a just brief (or long if you want) history of how you came to faith, and how that’s impacted your life? No need to say anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, can you just give us a general idea of how your faith affects your life?

CM: I was not brought up a Christian. I came to faith in my teenage years. For reasons I won’t go into, I was furious with God until this time. Angry and alone, I saw my mother changing into a new person after she had become a Christian.

It’s a long story, but the Lord showed me His true nature and taught me how to trust Him. I had refused prayer. At the time, I was volunteering at an animal shelter, and I agreed for my mother to pray for a list of dogs with various behavioral issues or ailments. Each week, I saw God answer those prayers, everything from aggressive dogs turning friendly, to dogs with ill health becoming healed. I couldn’t deny God was real and powerful. After, at times, volatile arguing, I finally reached a place where I trusted him with my heart. I have never looked back, and He has never given me reason to doubt Him.

EoE: What role does your faith play in your writing? Is the effect conscious or subconscious? How does it affect your characters, good, bad, and grey, as well as the themes in your stories, or any other way I’ve not thought of?

CM: My series focuses on a battle that has been raging since time began, one between darkness and light. Characters are both good and evil, human and immortal. Themes include destiny, our place in the world, and views on the afterlife.

However, I don’t feel pressured to express a Christian point of view, preferring to explore these subjects from different positions. My overall goal is to create art and, as with all art, to raise questions. If anything, I bring something new to the table. Most are familiar with biblical texts and have heard stories such as David and Goliath. Less familiar are the other Ancient Near East texts. I’m interested in particular with myths from Mesopotamia. Identified as the Fertile Crescent, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the cradle of civilisation. Many cultures dwelt in the region from the Sumerians, Akkadians, Semites, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Their writing offers an abundance of creation myths, heroic epics, and insight into everyday living. I’ve researched many, but texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the Book of Enoch (written later but discusses the mythos of the Watchers), and The Descent of Inanna into the Underworld are a few.

One could argue that my series reveals both the Semite (biblical) and the opposition’s points of view. It’s up to the reader to decide where they stand. This is the beauty of myth, the ability to embed unbiased truths without the need of confrontation.

EoE: Has God taught/revealed anything to you while you were writing? How does, in your opinion, the view of the author of a story provide different lessons about life compared to reading? I mean, as an author, you get to see, know, and experience (at times frustrating) different things than as a reader. But then again, there are also things the readers get to see by not knowing how it all is going to turn out. What are some insights you’ve learned through the craft of storytelling, both as a reader and writer?

CM: Yes, He has taught me many things, but they don’t often end up in my books. I’m sure the author’s view can provide lessons; however, I distance my personal views from my writing. For me, being a discovery writer, I’m often in the same position as the reader. I don’t always know how a character will figure out an issue until the words form on the page.

What I’ve learned above all else is to enjoy the experience. Writing is a creative act and while doing it, I am constantly growing and developing my mind and my ability as a writer. But when the words are out there for the world to read, it’s time to let go and allow the reader to contribute to the story in a way that is meaningful to them.

EoE: Okay, back to some light stuff, but still on about your writing and reading:

First… your story and character development style – do you outline? Are you a “planner” “pantser” or “plantser”?

CM: Total panster! I’m a discovery writer. I tend to know certain plot points. For example, I knew Mirah needed to reach Hermonial because I wanted to write a character who was close to my antagonist. My start point was her on the ship, so I began writing her journey and added conflict along the way. I love how characters grow and overcome the challenges they face. Being a discovery writer, my characters surprise me, leading me into territory I wasn’t expecting to go.

I love plot twists! Most of my twists come from writing myself into a hole and then figuring out how to fix it. There are quite a few big ones in my books, which my mind would never have imagined if I’d sat down and tried to think it up. Some people might think this tactic is insane, but for me, it keeps my writing fresh.

I remember my English Professor saying how my writing is unpredictable. Truth is, I have no clue what’s going to happen until I write the words on the page.

EoE: Favorite type of character to read vs write?

CM: I love writing multi-layered conflicted characters. I write characters who are passionate, living each day as though it may be their last. They’re either running straight for or away from something. I also enjoy writing strong female leads. And what I mean by this is women who have something more than just kick-ass feistiness. For me, it’s more about attitude. In fantasy, I often find female characters’ femininity has been stripped away. I like to write this back in, so even though my characters can tear you to shreds with their magic or lethal fighting skills, they’re just as capable of destroying you with their determination, wit, and grace.

My favourite characters to read are the underdogs. There’s something about a character who rises above their challenges and conquers their demons.

EoE: Worst trope/cliché/device? Favorite?

CM: As long as the writing is good quality, I’m not bothered by tropes.

Clichés will get my eyes rolling.

Devices bug me the most, and of those, it’s adverbs. Stephen King said, ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, and I agree. Don’t qualify the verb with an adverb, find a stronger verb!

Favourite devices are pacing and cliffhangers. I tend to end chapters on cliffhangers. For this reason, readers describe my books as being ‘on the edge of your seat’ and they find them difficult to put down. I am a fan of short, snappy sentences. They speed up the pace and increase intensity.

Being dyslexic, I tend to see in pictures. Therefore, I am constantly trying to express what I see with written imagery.

EoE: I didn’t know you were dyslexic. That’s incredibly encouraging for people who might think that writing isn’t something they can do because of their dyslexia. Congratulations on continuing to persevere through that challenge!

Final question: what advice would give for anyone wanting to become an author, particularly if they are a Christian?

CM: Wow! Great question. Don’t quit! It’s hard sometimes. First, here is some practical advice. If I was starting again, I’d begin with a novella or prequel and use it as a giveaway/reader magnet to find and build my audience. If you intend to write a series, some readers won’t purchase a book until the series is complete. Be mindful of this.

Read and then read some more. Read outside of your intended genre. Find authors who inspire your imagination and creativity, assess their techniques, and learn from them. If you have the opportunity, join a writing group either in person or online. Learn how to take critique. It will serve you well, not only in your writing, but also when you receive reviews. Don’t be offended! Not everybody is going to like your style, and this is okay.

Write every day. Stretch your creative muscles. Even when it’s rubbish, keep going. You will find gems in the darkest places. Editing comes later.

Specific to fantasy, I would say create a believable world with a unique magic system. Most readers read fantasy to be transported to a fantastical. Give them something they haven’t seen before! I use elemental magic, but how my characters tap into the power and the consequences is unique. I guess I’m saying re-invent tired tropes.

As for Christian advice… Hold on to your dreams! Believe in yourself and stay true to your vision. Be wise about the counsel you receive. Don’t let negativity sway you. If you feel the Lord is calling you to write something in a particular way, go write it.

Cully Mack’s series, A Voice That Thunders, can be found on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions. You can also join her mailing list at

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Understanding Spiritual Realities Through Subcreation

by Eric Sparks

Introduction: The Need for Christians to Reengage the Arts

Christians in the Western World have largely vacated the Creative Arts beyond direct worship. In one sense, this is understandable. Whenever we venture beyond exact retellings of Scripture and/or its lessons, we run the risk of our work being taken beyond its context, even used to promote ideas contrary to Scripture. But subcreation, as Tolkien called it, was never meant to be a replacement for devotions, worship, or theology – though the act itself can be an act of the first two and great expression the final (though it should not be taken as a theological expression unless expressly stated as such by the artist). Rather, artistic endeavors, like any other craft, are merely a manifestation of being created in the Image of a Creator.

Our God is creative and artistic and, being made in His Image, so are we. Just as the Scientist, in humility, studies the universe to better understand its Creator, so too does the Artist create for the same reason. Likewise, the audience, also awed by the Creator’s skill in the Beauty He has wrought, finds themselves moved in a similar, though lesser, manner upon finding a subcreation that echoes the themes of the Prime Creation. In this, the original Creator is glorified even more in the lesser (and, in this fallen world, marred and imperfect) subcreation – for all the good in our lesser creation finds its source in His. The fact that our Creator is not only powerful to create such a glorious creation but is powerful enough to create miniature creators to extend His creation through their reverberations is astounding. For this reason alone, Christians need to reengage the arts: because we are called to imitate our Father and Creator, bringing Him more glory as we do so.

Sadly, there is another reason Christians have vacated the arts – cowardice. In the absence of Christians engaging in the arts, the Enemy has eagerly filled this power vacuum. Instead of art that largely echoes God’s glory with unavoidable imperfections because of our fallen state, the arts have become a place instead where the lies of the Enemy abound and Truth only comes in small doses because of the inescapable fact that, no matter how fallen, we are still created in God’s image (forcing something good to still shine through) and lies are powerless to stand on their own and must mix a little bit of Truth to even carry a semblance of possibility. And, now that the Enemy has almost unquestioned control over this region of the spiritual realm, he is not going to give it up easily. He has those trapped under his control attack those that attempt to bring any more of the Light into this domain, and he will even venture into the realm of the ransomed to sow up discord and have them attack their own brothers over any mistake, real or imagined.

This, my brethren, must end. But how? By recognizing that subcreation that echoes our Father’s Creation will by necessity be messy. Not because He created it so, but because, in His sovereignty, He has allowed it. Does this mean His Creation is ruined and worthless? Of course not! This world proclaims His glory – even in its brokenness. That is the work of His Grace. To take the messy, even vulgar and disgusting, parts of this world and use them “for His glory and the good of those that love Him.”

So Christians, through His Grace, must break beyond the safe confines of devotionals, sanitized historical romances, and theological treatises, and back into artistic endeavors that embrace the brokenness of humanity and beyond in order that we might also embrace the ability to echo God’s great Grace.

So, how does one then evaluate if a Christian artist is succeeding? If it is not by sterilization, avoiding portraying fallenness and depravity, what is the yardstick that should be used? We go back to Scripture – taken as a whole, does the work, thematically, encourage the three things that remain – Faith, Hope, and Love? Does it, taken as a whole, promote a Philippians 4:8 mindset? Is evil, even if it seems temporarily profitable, ultimately exposed and brought to ruin while Good, though it may suffer much, ultimately shown to be victorious (even if not by the world’s standards)? Most importantly – does the echo create a longing to hear the Great Story of our Creator? These are the questions we should be asking. We need to move beyond sterilization metrics (swear word counters, graphic scene counters, and other “family-friendly” measures – though whenever we show ugliness it should be done for a specific purpose and not to delight in the ugliness itself) and instead look at works wholistically and ask the ultimate question: Do I hear the echo of the Song of my Father?

Lessons Learned: The Predestination / Sovereignty and Free Will / Agency Paradox

One of the greatest things about being a Christian artist is experiencing complex spiritual truths that are hard to encapsulate in a formulaic theological framework. For me personally, one of the hardest questions I wrestled with as a young Christian was predestination vs free will, the biggest point of contention between today’s Calvinistic/Reformed conservative resurgence and churches that embrace the Arminianism view of Salvation (we will not be diving into the Preservation of the Saints issue in this debate, merely the topic of Election).

On one hand, if God was not in absolute control, how could his claim to be sovereign be true? And likewise, if we did not genuinely have a choice, how could God’s claim of Graciousness and Love for all be true? How can it both be “whosoever will” and “desiring all to come to repentance” while simultaneously being determined before the foundations of the world? The two are opposites, and therefore cannot both be true? Or can they.

Enter the experience of writing my first novel, Truth Unearthed. This work of Fantasy is not in the Christian genre. I do not have a Christ figure. That being said, I do borrow heavily from my Christian worldview for its thematic content. I originally just set out to try to tell stories that happened after “the Big Bad” is destroyed. After all, whenever a world power collapses, that is not when the happily ever after begins – just the beginning of a chance to work for it, and one that almost always gets corrupted to various degrees.

Imagine my surprise then when I found myself one day falling on my knees and praising God for a Truth unlooked for! While some authors do write completely on a whim, I am very much a planner/outliner (though I do so in pencil). I had reached a critical point in the story where a major character was supposed to make a decision that would set up the rest of the story. Imagine my frustration when I realized that, after having spent weeks with this character, developing him and getting to know him, I realized he would never make the decision I planned!

Now, before both sides get all in an uproar – I am not suggesting we ever catch God by surprise. He is a perfect Author; I am not. But what I did realize was my characters had agency. Sure, I could have forced the decision I originally planned. It would have been horrible, and every reader would have, rightly so, slammed me for forcing something so out of character. But I had gotten to know my character better by spending time with him (starting to sound familiar?) and his own will was having an impact on my story.

Does this mean I lost control/sovereignty over the story? Absolutely not! This character could not grasp his sword without my fingers spelling out his doing so! Quite literally everything he, and every other character in the story, does is “within my will.” Does this mean it’s what I wish they would do? No. It merely means I give my permission for them to do as they wish – and I still work it in to tell the story I want. Unlike God, I did have to go back and change my original plan. But, if I was a perfect author, could my original plan have included my character’s will and it still be his own? Of course!

And yet, one could rightly argue that even my characters’ will is found in my original, before-creation design. After all, the characters sprang from my imagination with certain traits. But as you can see from the example above, even their traits do not stop them from having their own will separate from my own.

Can I now write a theological paper that will solve the fighting that has been going on for hundreds of years (even longer if you go into Aquinas and Boethius)? Of course not. But interestingly enough, I don’t need to. I can attest… bear witness… that God is both sovereign and yet lovingly allows His Creation true agency, and thus genuinely offers true love. Not because I have the exact wording and framework that can satisfy everyone, but because I have experienced an echo of it first-hand.

The conclusion? The simultaneous paradoxical existence of free will and predestination is easier to experience than to explain. Trying to explain how such a thing is possible is like trying to explain sight to the person born blind or sound to the person born deaf. Sure, you can create an abstract description that will give just the vaguest notion of what the rest of us are experiencing, but that does not make the blind doubt the existence of light and sight nor the deaf of sound and hearing. They trust those they know that such things exist, even if they have not experienced them. And those of us who have? Oh, the sweetness and the joy of them! As a subcreator, I now have a better understanding of my Creator, having experienced His Truth on just the tiniest scale, but in doing so greatly amplifying my understanding of Him and His Story and leading me to worship Him with even more zeal and humility while simultaneously bearing witness to Him and His Persons, just as I am commanded. Oh, the joy of a child learning through imitation of the Father!