In the weeks leading up to the release of Empire of War & Wings, I want to give my readers a taste of what is coming. This is the first scene of the book. It hasn't been to my proofreader yet, so please forgive the typos! (There are always typos!) I plan to give the whole book to my mailing list for free the week before release. It's a crazy plan, but I'm a crazy author! If you want to get the book that way, be sure to sign up to my newsletter here:
I slashed out with my sword, hacking at the tendril of Forbidding that whipped out at me from the tangled green tree. Yesterday, this oak had been healthy and thick with vibrant leaves the size of my palm. Today, it smelled of rot and something that looked like a snake slid under the bark and seemed to bulge out from its trunk as it clawed toward me.
One of the branches unfurled, waving in the air toward me. I severed the snatching branch with one blow, pivoting on my left foot and whirling into a crouch to hack a second branch right before it caught the back of Alect’s cloak.
“You’ll have to be faster than that,” I warned my younger brother as I slid my foot back from where a root arched out of the ground, hungrily pawing at my foot.
We were getting close to the heart. One more good blow and we’d be able to plant a flame within the tree. Something buzzed in my ear and I swatted at a fluffy bee.
“I only have to be faster than you,” Alect teased, striking with his axe and hacking an opening into the oak about the size of my palm. I shook my head in resignation. Whoever didn’t open the heart had to set the fire. That was our rule for fighting Forbidding-taken trees.
“I’ve got your back,” he said solidly, for all the world like a grown man instead of a gangly fourteen-year-old.
Fighting the Forbidding, like many things in life, had a lot to do with trust.
You had to trust your fighting partner. You had to trust your sword. And you had to trust your own good judgment and intuition. Mine was telling me that something was off today. Something was about to go wrong. I sure hoped it wasn’t this Forbidding fight.
I clenched my jaw, sheathed my sword, and dove under the darting strands of Forbidding that sliced out from the tree. I shoved a tiny nest of dry grass into the heart of the tree and eased my flint out of my belt pouch. That was one thing I couldn’t afford to drop at a time like this. I was striking it with my belt knife before most people could have arranged the grass. But we learned to light fires quickly on the frontier edge of the Winged Empire.
You learned or you died.
I struck again, shifting my angle.
A spark took in the clump of grass and I blew gently on it, refusing to look over my shoulder and let anxiety distract me. The spark flared into flame.
Behind me, I heard a grunt and barely turned in time to deflect the root rising up and shooting toward me.
I rolled across the grass and came up clutching the root as it snaked toward my throat. It was too slippery. It was too strong.
It slid around my neck and I gasped, dropping my knife in my desperate attempt to open a space to breathe.
This must be why I had such a bad feeling today.
I couldn’t draw in a breath. I flailed, panicking now.
Come on, Aella. Think of something.
The edges of my vision began to sparkle and dance. I wasn’t ready to die.
And then the root went slack and I fell to the rocky ground, gasping and heaving.
I scanned for Alect and saw him bent double, clutching his knees as he tried to catch his breath, too. In one hand, he held his sword. In the other, the end of the severed root.
Fighting the Forbidding was all about trust.
The fire took to the tree at that exact moment, and it went up like it had been dried and aged for two summers. Forbidding-taken things burned hot and fast. And it was the only way to drive back its eternal creep.
I scrambled to my feet, hurrying to pull the mustang from the tangle of roots that had locked it in place. They were slack now – the magic in them as dead as the tree the fire had killed.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Alect said as he came to join me, axe hacking through the thicker roots holding the mustang. “What it’s like in a place without the Forbidding.”
“Like the Continent?” I asked. The main continent of the Winged Empire lay south of our shores. I’d never seen it. I was proud to say I’d been born here in Far Stones.
“Sure. Or anywhere really,” he said, looking over to where the land curled up like a wave of the ocean. The trees and ferns on that patch of ground grew upside down. It would need to be burned too – eventually. The edges of it slithered like snakes beneath the lip of ground. Always snakes. It made my skin crawl.
“You’d hate it. Everyone there has enough to eat, pretty clothes, oil for their hair, and all the latest contraptions,” I said dryly.
“Yeah, that sounds awful.”
We shared a grin.
“And they live under the ever-watchful eye of Le Majest, the great Winged Emperor.”
“He can’t watch everywhere at once,” Alect teased. He was lean for fourteen, but with his sleeves rolled up I could see our constant battles on the Empire’s frontier were starting to bulk up his arms and shoulders. Just like my own arms had grown strong and taut.
Soon enough he’d be making his choices about the life he’d lead away from home. So would I.
I tried not to think about that. The only thing I’d ever wanted was my family. And they seemed to slip away a little more every year as my siblings grew and started lives of their own.
“They say he has a thousand eyes in every street and a thousand ears listening at every door,” I said in my spookiest voice, trying to distract myself from the things that actually scared me. “And they drag you from your home in the night and bring you to his Vultures.”
“Yeah, I’m sure frontier kids are their top priority,” Alect said. “But maybe we won’t be frontier kids for long. Maybe big bold Aella will test as a Wing tomorrow at the Hatching and go practice ancient magic on the mainland.”
He waggled his eyebrows at me.
“Big bold Aella,” I said, putting a palm on my chest to indicate myself, “is more than happy here in Far Reach. Besides, Alect. No one has Hatched here since Amalia and that was an aberration.”
I gave the vines a final tug and the mustang whinnied, shook his mane, and tumbled out of the clutches of the dead Forbidding Oak, rolling his huge eye at me and plummeting into the forest.
I sighed. He’d been hard enough to catch last time. He’d be even harder now that he was spooked.
“Come on,” I said wearily. “We’ll have to catch him later. It’s almost dark.”
“The old man won’t like that we lost the mustang. That’s the fourth one this month,” Alect said, his expression dark.
“He’ll be more worried if we’re out past nightfall,” I said, retrieving my fallen knife and backing away from the burning tree.
I whistled for the dogs, hearing their yapping echoing out over the stony ridge. They ran toward us, tongues lolling from their mouths and I looked around at the landscape wreathed in Forbidding with a tired slump to my shoulders.
It was getting worse.
Every day, we fought back the Forbidding as it tried to reclaim the land we’d hacked out of it in the first place, and every day it seemed to fight harder and harder. That tangled dark mass – unnatural and twisted, part spirit and part real – wore on a person.
But if I could choose any other place in the world, I’d still stay here. It was home. It was where my family was. It was where you could live free and clear, as hard as it might be.
I was never going to leave.
“What will you do if you Hatch tomorrow, Aella?” Alect said and the way his voice trembled a little, I thought he was more worried for himself than for me.
“I won’t Hatch, Alect. And neither will you. No one in Far Stones ever Hatches and that won’t be changing now,” I said.
But as we walked down from the rocky ridge toward the lights of our farmhouse, I thought I saw a flicker of something glowing – a faint purplish-white between the reaching tentacles of the dark Forbidding. It made a little stab of terror shoot down my spine. There was something different about this Hatching. And I wished I knew what it was.