1 – An Awkward Invitation
“The ships sail, the wheel turns; if the Fayts fail, the world burns.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE.
Breeze and Valeo gaped up at the looming structure they’d sworn to infiltrate . . . and stare was almost all they did. They had only ever planned up until this moment. Now that it was looking right back at them, it was a sobering slap to the face. In richer garments than either of them had ever seen—much less worn—they hesitated on the threshold of what dared come next.
“Second thoughts, second thoughts,” Valeo muttered, trying to pin down his nerves. “Maybe robbing the richest person in five hundred miles is a bit . . . wouldn’t say stupid . . . but . . . ill-advised. Even for us.” He looked at Breeze beside him. She merely shrugged.
Valeo gestured to the score of soldiers, straight-backed and grim-faced, flanking both sides of the broad gate.
“And you’re sure these invitations are real? Because if they aren’t, we’re about to make some fast new friends.”
Breeze smacked him in the side of the head. “I told you ten times already. As long as we don’t stamp them with ‘stolen,’ we’re golden.”
She spoke each word with her hands, never uttering a sound, but Valeo understood every word. Breeze nearly always spoke this way, an intricate Evenglass sign language centuries old and passed down by her father. The only useful thing the bastard had ever given her, really. Despite having known her for almost a decade, Valeo had only heard her speak aloud a handful of times.
With her thin, angular face and eyes, Breeze looked every bit an Evenglass. Years of running the streets and roofs with Valeo had given her a hard form that was graceful and toned. She wore her hair in a tight tail, but it was black, not the silver of a true Evenglass. She tugged self-consciously at her violet gown, the fine fabric the exact same shade as her eyes—marking her for what she was, at least by half: Rageborn.
Twilight had fallen. They were late. They needed to make a move. Valeo strode up to the gate, his buckled boots pinching his feet with every stride. He reached forward and rang a large, golden bell, the soldiers’ eyes never leaving him.
“It just seems too convenient,” Valeo murmured, mind still on the tickets. “We’ve been trying to get in here for years. Now all of sudden luck strikes and we’re in.”
Breeze shrugged. “It’s often the way of things. A hundred half-baked plans thrown to the frogs when a ticket scalper comes along with just what you need.”
Valeo sighed, resigned. “Not much we can do about it now. Someone’s coming.”
An impeccably dressed attendant, with a nose that put any bird of prey to shame, came scrambling to the gate. His annoyance flowed seamlessly into apologetic bows as he peered down at Breeze’s invitations.
The attendant ushered them through a high iron fence interlaced with ivy and led across a lush lawn to the most extravagant house Valeo had ever seen. Calling it a house was a grievous understatement. It was bigger than most castles.
The Magistrate’s villa sat alone on a cliff overlooking the harbor town of Heartstone, where Valeo and Breeze had lived most of their lives. It was a beautiful combination of molded wood and worked stone, flowing together with such tremendous detail that it must have taken decades to complete. Easily five stories high, with crenulated towers capping each wing, it was part palace and all fortress.
More soldiers could be seen keeping watch from the towers. Valeo shook his head, aghast. A hundred half-baked plans aside, on their own steam alone, Valeo and Breeze wouldn’t have even made it across the lawn.
Huge bay windows stood on either side of broad main doors carved in rich rosewood. The doors were thrown wide in invitation, honey-colored light and the sound of music wafting through the gathering darkness.
Breeze stared wide-eyed, mouth slightly agape. Valeo took her elbow, leaning in to whisper. “Keep your head on straight. We have a mission and don’t need you messing about.”
Her only response was a withering stare.
Warm diamonds of light sparkled down from an enormous chandelier flanked by two grand staircases, marble balustrades gleaming. Plush red carpets covered the foyer’s wooden floors under soft furniture, arranged in whatever place a person might fancy sitting. Valeo glanced sideways at Breeze’s awe. She was even forgetting to tug grumpily at the ruffles of her outfit, something she had been doing nonstop for the past hour.
Servers bustled about with platters of canapés and champagne, dodging around Heartstone’s wealthiest. Anyone with a fat enough purse got an invite to the Magistrate’s annual Unification Day soiree—the day all of Sora fell under Timeless rule. Around thirty people milled about, sipping drinks and admiring the room’s many colorful portraits.
Several patrons turned to regard the newcomers, their gazes souring as they trailed over Valeo’s already rumpled sleeves and Breeze’s fraying hem. Their sudden celebrity status clearly didn’t travel past a certain social class. Valeo smirked and dived into the throng, pausing only long enough to grab a flute of champagne from the nearest tray.
Through a set of rounded stained-glass doors, was a brightly lit patio and garden bursting with orchids and lilies. Wrapped around the exterior of the villa, was a marble balcony festooned with hundreds of purple lanterns. Dainty tables peppered the patio, each one dressed in white cloth, china, and a vibrant bouquet of those orchids.
The moonlit stars mixed with the sound of violins and the smells of luxury painted an intoxicating aroma to all senses. It was a place and feel that the two of them had never experienced, and Valeo had to work hard not to get swept away.
He nudged Breeze and jerked his head toward the balcony.
“Think you can scale that?” he signed silently, not wanting the attendant to overhear. “Or will you rip that dress of yours?”
She punched his arm.
“No more than those stockings, pretty boy. Just tell me when.”
Valeo flinched, Breeze always forgot how strong she was. He brushed the thought away and looked around at the crowded courtyard. Too many eyes.
“We’ll need a distraction of some sort.” His hands stumbled, the movements never quite as smooth as hers. “So be ready if one comes along.”
She snatched the flute out of his hand and started away. Even in a constricting gown, her movements were fluid and balanced, a feat Valeo, strapped into his awkward suit and boots, could never match.
“Wait, Breeze,” Valeo called out as they passed the dance floor.
She shot him a questioning look.
“It’s just that . . . you look so beautiful tonight.” He fought to keep a straight face and gestured to the spinning couples. “Would you like to dance?” He bowed low.
She promptly grabbed hold of the back of his suit, pulling it up and over his head. They shared a laugh as Valeo struggled to straighten himself out.
After leading them to an unoccupied table, the beak-nosed attendant bowed and took his leave. Looking around at all the formalities and rich gowns, Valeo felt tremendously out of place. Valeo waved over another server laden with egg tarts and assorted cakes, cramming several into his mouth. As crumbs scattered down his chin, Breeze gave him a sincere look of disgust.
Valeo shrugged. “Whenza . . . rast dime . . . dis kine fwee fuhd?” he choked, preserving as much dignity as he could manage.
She shook her head again but caved, scooping a couple of little cakes onto the plate before her.
Valeo’s victorious grin became a cry of surprise as a man appeared, wearing an extravagant ivory suit. With his sleek brown hair and perfectly manicured beard, he could very well pass as the host of this party.
“Good evening, sir, and miss.” The man flourished the words with a bow.
Breeze blushed and gave a hesitant smile. She aimed a kick at Valeo, busy gagging—not in distaste but on too much strawberry filling.
With a tremendous effort, Valeo swallowed. Thumping his chest, he grinned and took the man’s proffered hand.
The man’s eyes twinkled down at the pair of them. “Forgive me, apart from some companions accompanying me tonight, the attendees at these parties can be dreadfully boring.” He eyed Valeo and Breeze’s ill-suited garb. “You two on the other hand . . . seem rife with intrigue.”
Valeo and Breeze glanced at each other, equally off balance.
Paving past their embarrassment, the captain bowed again. “Forgive my rudeness. Nathaniel Drake, captain of the Jolly Judy, at your sun and sails. I prefer ‘Captain,’ but since you are not yet members of my crew, Drake will do . . . for now.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Drake.” Valeo played along. The captain’s hand was as rough as any carpenter’s. Surprising. Valeo figured a captain’s hands would be smoother.
“Valeo Sorte, but feel free to call me ‘Captain’ whenever it takes your fancy.”
Drake chuckled and there was a strange flicker in his eyes.
“Um, and she’s Breeze.”
Drake’s smile widened. “A pleasure to meet you both.”
“Why don’t you join us?” Valeo asked, aiming a return kick at Breeze, hoping she would give him some direction. Instead, she just stared dumbfounded up at the captain.
Drake shook his head. “Thank you kindly for the invitation, Valeo, but I must decline. My presence is expected elsewhere, and I dare not tarry. So much to prepare, you see.” His eyes sparkled again. “I only wished to offer greetings and hopes that the winds favor you forward. Until we meet again.”
He hesitated before taking his leave, seemed to consider something.
“Whatever you do tonight, know that fortune favors the quick. Be quicker still.”
With a telling nod to Breeze, Drake disappeared into the throng of partygoers. They both stared after him, dumbfounded.
“What was that?” Valeo gasped.
“Not ‘yet’ part of his crew?”
“Yeah. Caught that, too.” Valeo acknowledged. “Think he knows something we don’t?”
“We’d better keep our heads down. I don’t like this.” Breeze craned her neck, eyes roving.
“Something familiar about him,” Valeo murmured, staring after the captain was long lost to the crowd. “Heard his name before, though for the life of me, can’t figure out where.”
Their looks of alarm quickly faded into excitement.
Valeo scoffed. “Next time maybe carry out your third of the conversation instead of gaping like a cow.”
Breeze snorted and flicked a pastry at his face. He caught it in his mouth.
As Valeo began to relax, Breeze remained rigid and upright. They were so close to their goal. These walls held answers, threads to a future they both yearned for, albeit in different ways. Breeze’s mother, well . . . after her wretch of a father had been given to sky, Breeze had resolved to track her down. The woman had been Rageborn, passing that innate fury and strength on to her daughter. Beyond that, Breeze had only a single clue: the date her family had arrived in Heartstone.
Breeze needed Heartstone’s travel logs.
Benetzio, Heartstone’s Timeless Magistrate, was a tax-gobbling little gremlin, keeping tabs on everything with ten toes or less that ever entered port. All of it, every detail, was under guard here. Valeo yearned for something real, but what lay in wait for Breeze . . . could lead to anything under the moon.
Lost and hopeless orphans, the pair of us. Someone should fetch a violin.
The party wore on, with more eating (which Valeo always enjoyed) and even more sitting and waiting (which made him want to claw his eyes out).
With the enigmatic appearance of Drake, Valeo’s thoughts never strayed far from the task at hand. He began noticing things. Most patrons came and went, but there were a few that seemed out of place, almost as if they were waiting for something. Two Brightwin fellows, one weedy with loose hair and glasses, the other beautiful, swaggering, and arrogant, were lounging alone near cliff’s edge, dark sky spilling out behind them. Another couple danced out of time and kept glancing over their shoulders. The last chilled Valeo. A man stood alone at the bar, suit untucked, cold gaze never leaving his glass. He looked up and caught Valeo staring, who glanced away in an instant, noting the intensity in the man’s eyes.
Valeo sat up straight, putting the pieces together rapidly in his mind. Drake’s meeting was no mere coincidence. The captain was here for a reason. Whatever it was, this party was about to get much more interesting.
That same bird-nosed attendant walked out onto the patio and cleared his throat.
“The unification speech is about to begin. The Magistrate humbly requests your attendance in the grand ballroom.” He turned on his heel and pressed forth into the villa without looking back.
“What’s a grand b-a-l-l-r-o-o-m?” Breeze’s hands flashed, spelling out the word.
Valeo shrugged. “Haven’t the foggiest. Judging by how uppity this lot is, probably something between the fantasmic boudoir and the splendiferous piss pot.”
Sudden inspiration struck Valeo as he stood to fall in tow.
“Wait !” He held out his hand and looked around quickly. Everyone was moving toward the patio doors. There wouldn’t be a better time.
“Now,” Valeo whispered, his eyes still darting back and forth, “while everyone has their eyes turned.” He pointed toward the balcony, even started toward it, but Breeze pulled him back.
“What?” he hissed.
“You can’t.” She glared at him.
“What do you mean? Is this about my stupid boots? Gonna be a far sight easier than those slippers of yours.”
She huffed. “No, idiot, you can’t. Someone’s got to keep a lookout,” her hands flashed.
“Why do you get to bugger off and not me?” Valeo asked, affronted.
“I’m quicker, quieter and, as a rule, better at basically everything.”
He swatted at her, and she knocked his hand away winking. She was right. Splitting up would be the best way to find his father’s watch, and that was all that mattered.
“So, get busy,” he declared aloud, indicating the balcony.
She smiled at his glum expression. “Don’t be such a wimp. ‘Fortune favors the quick,’ remember?”
“Let’s get what we came for,” he whispered, turning to the doors. “Meet back up with me as soon as you’ve found out about your mum. Oh, and Breeze,” she turned away from the shadows to regard him, “do try to keep that dress in one piece.” He grinned. “Almost makes you look cute.”
He didn’t need sign language to understand her return gesture. He chuckled and was halfway to the door when she whistled. A glint of light and Valeo reached out on reflex, catching the coin in his hands.
A white coin rested in the center of Valeo’s palm, a Timeless Dial, with a single burnt edge.
“What?” Valeo gawked. “Thought you used this fo—”
Breeze was already gone over the railing.
Valeo followed the excited bustle back into the foyer and up the marble staircase. The beautiful chandelier caught his eye again, its multi-faceted crystals dazzling.
He noted the back of Drake’s sleek brown ponytail but didn’t recognize anyone else as they made their way down a long, luxurious corridor.
This section was filled with life-sized statues of famous heroes Valeo knew by sight if not by name—the exception being Herwick Drassiter, the most fabled storybook legend and the very first Corsair. She had sailed The Fallen Phoenix all over Sora to the dread of its wealthiest. Her granite figure was carved in painstaking detail—the folds of her legendary black coat, the scar across her chin, and even her mismatched eyes, one gold and one blue, somehow conveyed despite the whole bust being a uniform grey. A bit odd, Benetzio having a famous pirate statue on display. It seemed fame superseded all sense of propriety.
The procession came to another pair of vast double doors, through which was, unmistakably, the grand ballroom.
More high windows covered both sides of the vast expanse, the room being as wide as the entire wing. Thick columns of polished white marble were spaced uniformly, leaving a wide area in the middle perfect for dancing, dining, or whatever else took the Magistrate’s fancy.
Along the far wall, directly opposite the double doors, stood a magnificent stage. Valeo was half disappointed there wasn’t a throne on it. As they approached, the birdlike attendant ushered Valeo around one of the columns to stand while Drake stood near the front of the group. He glanced at Valeo and winked, holding a finger to his lips.
Things are definitely getting more interesting.
Valeo held his tongue and moved to stand behind that same weedy, bespectacled Brightwin he’d seen on the patio earlier. The man gave off a strong scent of motor oil and polished brass, reminding Valeo of his grandfather’s machine shop. His brown hair fell lank across his brow, and his eyes danced about the room.
Valeo shifted back and forth, staring absently out over the vapid faces and wondering if Breeze had found anything yet.
A set of trumpeters brought everyone to attention with several piercing notes. In marched a procession of soldiers surrounding one of the shortest men Valeo had ever seen.
The Magistrate, waddling and pinch-faced, was sweaty and his red cheeks barely reached the elbows of the soldiers beside him. Despite his diminutive stature, he wore a look of absolute supremacy.
The audience applauded politely. His first time to ever see a Timeless up close, Valeo strove to notice whatever made this one immortal. Timeless were the only race in Sora that supposedly couldn’t die, but as far as Valeo could tell, nothing was special about this fat little man. He sighed, disappointed.
“Do all Timeless look like gremlins?” Valeo whispered. “Is that the secret? Figured the ‘supreme race’ would’ve been taller.”
The Brightwin, despite his nervous eyes, brought a fist to his mouth to stifle his chuckle. Benetzio was all smiles as he waddled his way toward the stage. The soldiers fanned out to stand beside the columns lining the room, very impressive with swords on their hips. The crowd parted to let Benetzio pass, and he mounted the stage with three tremendous huffs.
“Good evening, Heartstone!” he piped in a reedy, high-pitched voice that suited his frame perfectly. Valeo snorted and the Brightwin chuckled again.
“I thank you all for that most gracious welcome.” Perhaps he bowed then, though he was far too short for the gesture to make much of a difference.
“After decades of war and strife, on this day, seven hundred and forty-seven years ago, the nations of Sora came together. The Rixan uprising . . . the Rageborn and Brightwin incursions . . . all brought to a swift and decisive end. Centuries of harmony and peace since.”
The Brightwin beside Valeo snorted.
“This year we stand on the brink of history . . .”
Suddenly, the little Timeless’ gaze found Valeo and held. His look was one of such intensity it made Valeo’s skin crawl. Benetzio’s face broke into a manic, terrifying leer.
“History will forever change from today . . . yes,” the little gremlin continued, eyes never leaving Valeo’s face.
Valeo was struck with a sudden, tremendous sense of dread. Despite the calm scene, something preternatural screamed in his ears. Something was very wrong.
He glanced past the crowd to the door at the back of the hall, gauging the likelihood of a clean escape. Before he could take the first step, the Brightwin man grasped his wrist.
“Best shield yer eyes,” he whispered into Valeo’s ear. From the inner folds of his jacket, he drew forth a pair of strange glass spheres, billowing with smoke.
“Wh-what?” Valeo stuttered.
“Now!” the Brightwin roared, slamming the spheres down at his feet.
Valeo clapped his hand over his face. A tremendous burst of light flared beneath his eyelids. Screams. The sound of running. Several dull thumps. Silence.
Valeo chanced a peek through his fingers. Everyone in the hall, every guest and soldier except he and the Brightwin, was slumped across the marble, some even draped over one another. Benetzio lay snoring, his stubby arms dangling over the stage’s edge.
Valeo flinched back, on the verge of panic. Abruptly, several people among the prostrate crowd opened their eyes and stood.
Drake, shining brightest of all in his finery, approached Valeo and grinned.
“Thatch, you wonderful man,” he exclaimed, looking at the weedy Brightwin. “May you never cease to exceed my expectations.”
Thatch, currently bent over a merchant drooling into his beard, gave a salute.
Drake bent low over the magistrate, a knife flashing in his hands. Valeo, own misgivings aside, cried out. The captain gave Valeo a reassuring smile.
“If I wanted to kill him, a knife would not be of much use,” he declared. “Timeless never bend to blades, after all. It is merely his coin I seek.” He neatly sliced away a heavy purse under the Magistrate’s vest.
Valeo looked around at Drake’s companions, relieving sleeping bodies of every purse and piece of jewelry. In one fell swoop, they were robbing the richest people in all Heartstone.
“Merely the starter, to whet our appetite,” Drake said, hopping down and joining Valeo, still frozen in place. “Something much bigger awaits our main course.”
He strode the length of the hall, his crew falling in line behind, pockets bulging. The captain stopped just short of the double doors and looked back at Valeo.
“Are you coming? Cannot very well find your father’s watch with your mouth wagging wide open.”
A specter in the gloom, her bare feet no more than a half-remembered whisper flowing from shadow to shadow. A fleeting glimpse of violet flexing, shimmering, gone. While Valeo was a creature of the daytime, flourishing under the spotlight, Breeze Oshikari was a creature of the night.
The air along this section of the estate had a musty feel, the settled dust motes seldom stirred. Few lamps had been lit, and shadows pervaded these vacant rooms and corridors.
Just the way she liked it.
She’d gleaned enough from Drake’s cryptic advice as to where to go next. The belly of this manor was as good a guess as any as to where the travel logs waited.
Her Rage screamed to feed caution to the frogs. Rush after her greatest desire. She would not. Cool peace washed over her every fiber, stilling the storm. Flowing throw the majestic passages, she was a violinist about to pluck the first string.
Past a dry wash basin, forlorn in the moonlight, she found her staircase. She looped around and down each step. At stair’s end, a soldier patrolled a much brighter corridor, hand never trailing far from the rapier strapped to his hip. Cloaked in the safety of the darkened landing, she studied him.
He favored his right leg.
He’ll make a habit of turning left.
He squinted constantly.
Can’t see past a score of feet.
His shirt was rumpled and he had bags under his eyes.
Coming up on the tail end of his shift.
As the guard wheeled about, avoiding his bum knee, she shot off behind him, shadowing his every step to mask her own. When he reached the end of the passage, Breeze ducked under an end table even as he turned back.
A more alert guard would have spotted a flicker of movement, would have noticed a woman in purple under the table beside him.
Yes. A more alert guard certainly would have.
Breeze came once more to the grand foyer, now vacant. She searched between every oil painting and plush cushion, tried every door and cranny to no avail.
She moved off into the wing opposite, exactly two stories below a currently bewildered Valeo, and caught the sweetest smell of her life.
Cooking ham, candied fruit, pies . . .
She felt herself rise, carried toward the scent as surely as it wafted to her. Coming to an entryway, Breeze leaned forward, bold as daylight, to peek around the edge.
The sight nearly sent her hurtling in, secrecy be damned.
Table groaning with the weight . . . scores of towering pies on wire-rack tiers. Mountains of grilled vegetables. Haunches of beef, cured pork, and wildfowl. Boats of gravy. Wheels of cheese. Mashed turnips. Puddings doused with layers of clotted cream . . .
Only then did she spot the serving woman, busy making final preparations. With a small gasp, Breeze flung herself back. Ready to flee.
She peeked back in. There was only one red, plush-backed chair . . . the magistrate’s dining chambers.
What better place for secret entrances than little piggy’s parlor?
Breeze scrambled silently into the room as the servant unstacked dishes, ducking into the darkened fireplace. She straddled a stack of propped wood, dug her fingers into the sooty bricks, and pulled herself up and out of sight.
Breeze, hung calmly from her toes and fingertips, letting her mind wander as the servant finished her final preparations.
The scrape of steel. Below Breeze, a pair of hands smacked together, sparks erupting between them. One of the sparks caught along the base of the logs.
Breeze, trying desperately to hold on, tucked into a corner and closed her eyes, smoke now billowing up. She breathed in quick bursts as the fire grew, heat licking at the loose edges of her dress. She took in a last great breath, determined to hold, willing the server to leave before being roasted alive.
Near-roasting atop the pyre, lungs screaming for air and bare feet scorching, she leapt among the flames, serving girl be damned.
She slammed into the logs, searing embers exploding, and rolled free, yelping and swatting at her smoldering gown.
With a strangled bellow, Breeze tore a poker from a nearby rack, wrenched the heavy wrought iron into a knot and flung it into the pit. Hands trembling, she exhaled slowly.
The parlor was deserted.
Limping around, Breeze examined the room. An armchair by the fireplace. A round end table stacked with pipe weed. Mahogany shelves laden with books. A painting above the mantle caught her eye.
An immense, ornate family portrait. Quite faded, two short, chubby blonde girls, rosy cheeks bleached to a muddy brown, a snobbish woman barely taller than her daughters, and there in the middle, in all his underwhelming glory, Magistrate Benetzio.
Breeze’s brow furrowed. As far as she knew, as far as anyone knew, Benetzio lived alone. Well, except for servants, but the little goblin certainly never counted them. She had never heard anything about the Timeless having a family. Marring the corner of the aged canvas, in a slurred hand, was a single line of graffiti:
Mary, Rose, and Marry Lynn . . . my years, my life to remember them.
Dead? Departed? Breeze shelved the question and kept searching.
There it was.
Tucked in the corner, a broad oaken door. She tried the handle. Locked. A heavy, complicated contraption far beyond her abilities to pick. Valeo’s area of expertise. She had never bothered with it, opting for far simpler lock-defeating methods. She squeezed the knob and smiled.
With a squeal of splintering wood, the broken door rebounded off the stone beyond.
Behind it, a solemn staircase descended into inky, utter blackness. Breeze stumbled back, a muffled cry escaping her lips.
Breeze reveled shadow, embraced the edges between absence and light. The fraction of two halves, much like herself. Her heart pounded against her ribs so hard they might crack. If there was a little light to see by, the moon and stars, a distant lamp, or even a grate full of embers, she could manage. But complete darkness, when she couldn’t make out her finger as she flicked her nose. . .
That’s what waited at the bottom of the stairwell.
The Silence. Sickened hearts deserve blackness.
It was a testament to her determination she kept rooted, using every ounce of will not to bolt from the room.
Her eyes trailed back to the fireplace. Dashing over, she fished the longest log from the flames, making sure the end was glowing hot. Makeshift torch in hand, and before she could lose her nerve, Breeze plunged into the abyss.
The stairs went on for several minutes as she wound her way deep underground, nothing but her feeble flickering log protecting her.
You can do this, you can do this. You have to do this, you have to do this.
She recited the words over and over in her mind, a clumsy weapon against her memories—the darkness of a cold, steel cage punctuating her childhood.
The walls changed, from stones perfectly cut, to dull, natural rock worn smooth with the passage of time. She hurried down a passage, searching for a door or niche, any sign to help her along. Shadows grabbed at her, spindly fingers tugging at the light, eager to rip it from her grasp and smother her.
All her life Breeze had known only the cold, lashing hand of a despondent father. Since she was old enough to understand her mother was missing, constantly had she questioned the absence. Never had Breeze found answers at her father’s hands, just punishment for what she was, for what she harbored inside . . .
It was always there, swelling in her gut, as much a part of her body as her own heaving lungs. She hated it with her every ounce. Her father had somehow hated it even more.
Even as a child, she’d asked him why she must bear such a beastly burden. He only ever said it was in her blood, something never to be burned out. He’d spent nearly every waking moment trying to beat it out of her anyway.
Breeze needed answers. The reason for the rage, the cause of all her pain. She wanted to put face to her hatred.
Breeze was looking for her mother’s name.
She came at last to a heavyset door with a small window divided by thick bars. Craning up, she could see nothing beyond except more unremarkable cave walls. As she gripped the door’s rounded handle, there came a rasping sound. Breeze’s thoughts flashed to slimy, scaly things slithering in dark places.
For several minutes she stood paralyzed. Finally, every movement costing her a year off her life, she pulled the door open and stepped inside.
There wasn’t row after row of shelves housing names and documents. In fact, there wasn’t a single shelf, filing cabinet, or a single loose-leaf slip of parchment anywhere.
There was only a small, dank chamber with a solitary, overstuffed chair, and a tall slit window open to the elements. She stepped toward the chair, running her hand along the fine fabric so out of place.
Bright moonlight filtered through the window, and as Breeze’s eyes adjusted she made out broad iron cell bars. The cage’s single occupant was staring right at her. Breeze stumbled back and cried out.
The creatures skin, by nature’s hand or some trick of the moonlight, was the absolute black of a charred corpse. Silvery, pupiless eyes shone brightly through the darkness beneath a tangle of colorless matted hair. Its face was jagged, features inhumanly sharp as they raced to the blade of its chin. It ran a four-inch fingernail across the stone wall—the source of the rasping sound.
Within the span of a second, the prisoner shot to the bars, razor-like fingers reaching out. Breeze leapt back, unable to tear herself from the creature’s terrible shining gaze.
“Sorry to startle you,” the prisoner choked out, as if speech was a half-forgotten memory. It’s focus never left Breeze’s face. “You’re a lovely, fierce thing, in life and in death, and deserve more respect. Perhaps.”
It was a woman’s voice, deep and resonant despite the croak. Breeze had expected a hiss. She took a hesitant step forward, overwhelming curiosity combating every alarm.
She pointed at the prisoner and cocked her head.
The creature smiled, a threatening leer. It turned Breeze’s stomach.
“Not who you should fear. You should flee.” The thing’s voice picked up intensity as she looked toward the window. “My brothers and sisters are here.”
A tremendous retort boomed through the night. Trickles of sand poured from the ceiling as the walls vibrated. Cannons.
Valeo’s in trouble. As she took a step toward the door, she turned back.
“You must leave,” the creature snarled, the words excited and disgusted in tandem. “I’m already dead.”
A flash of bright light. Another blast thundered through the darkness. Breeze was thrown from her feet as an enormous chunk of ceiling came crashing down, obliterating the solitary chair.
“They’ll be here soon,” the silver-eyed woman whispered. “And they’ll not stop once you’re dead.” An insane smile filled her face. “Go!”
Breeze scrambled to her feet but again stopped. She had every reason in the sky not to. This creature was beyond her understanding, turned the very marrow in Breeze’s bones to rot, but she couldn’t leave it caged.
I’ve had enough of cages.
Breeze ran to the bars, keeping her eyes down, knowing if she met those strange, shining eyes she would lose her nerve, maybe even her mind.
She wrenched the bars apart with an iron shriek.
The prisoner’s cold fingers scrabbled at Breeze’s wrists, and she flung them off with a startled cry. She sped from the room, forgetting in her newfound terror to fear the smothering darkness as it swallowed her whole.