include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Storm Crow by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.

Storm Crow

By T.A. Creech


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2018 T.A. Creech

ISBN 9781634867436

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

To my sprint buddies, you all made this one so easy to write. Thank you. <3

* * * *

Storm Crow

By T.A. Creech

Chapter 1

Jagged black rock blotted out the sun in a tapered monolith. The indomitable Fire Star Toa. A great fiery heart of power disguised as a massive volcano.

The deck under his feet rocked in time to the lapping waves, another great heart of power under Alegan’s feet, one he couldn’t harness to his will. In a way, it would’ve been easier if he were a water mage, a Runner, instead of a Fire Dancer. The Vensalin Ocean was vast and simple to access, and he only had to dip his toes in the water at any part of the coast. Less dangerous too, if he was honest. This was madness, from top to bottom.

But that empty pit in his soul pushed him on.

Orders volleyed around him as the ship captain made for the sturdy docks in the cove they sailed for. As Alegan understood the layout of the island, one of four Fire Stars clustered together, the sole village on Toa lay to the west of the volcano, and they had built the miniscule port far away from them in a northern cove for quarantine purposes. It was a good strategy, but it served his purposes in a beautiful fashion. No one would notice when he slipped away.

A rumble made him turn and glance over his shoulder. Graynight huffed out a thin stream of sulfurous smoke from the corners of his mouth, flint gray eyes darting between Toa and Alegan. “So, you really plan to carry through with this insanity?”

Somehow, without any intention to do so, Alegan had made a friend of the dragon in front of him. They had sailed from Rethkrul together, Graynight on an errand to Aelcua for a visit with family. On their first night at sea, underneath the vivid stars and black sky, Graynight had found him huddled and miserable on the ship’s bow. He had asked Alegan why he wore a cloak of chrysanthemums, of sorrow and death. The whole sorry tale spilled out of him in a rush, and Graynight had kept his company since.

“I’ve come too far to back out now, Graynight.” Alegan offered a grim smile, tinged with real humor at the edges, and turned his eyes back to the looming Star. “And I feel something good about to happen here. I can’t explain it better.”

Graynight snorted, hot tendrils becoming thicker for a second. The dragon’s voice was always a surprise to hear. Nasal and midrange, but it also held a hint of a purr. Alegan put it down to the natural rumble his creature form had, if he’d ever been treated to the sight. “I see. You are, of course, expected to come see me if you survive this mad venture, am I understood?”

“If?” Alegan twisted around so he faced his friend full on. The faint red pattern of scales peeking around his coarse travelling clothes blended in with newly sea-weathered skin and it gave Graynight a rough look about the edges. The dragon was pretty stout, unlike the twiggy height of most dragons wearing a human form. The temptation to ask about Graynight’s other shape itched in the back of his mind, but Alegan crushed it under his metaphorical boot. Such questions were unbelievably rude.

Graynight’s eyes wandered from Alegan to the great height behind him. “A warning, Mage. We dragons know the burning heart of the world and its power. You want to capture that heart and use it, where not even the Gods would dare. If is the very best I can offer when it comes to the chances of your survival.”

The numbness around his soul dissipated for a second, and he shivered. Alegan hitched a bittersweet smile on his face, though the dragon’s eyes weren’t on him. “Better I die in a failed attempt, than continue on without them.”

“I don’t understand,” Graynight conceded as he focused back on Alegan, “but I wish you luck all the same. You need all I can spare.”

“Don’t I know it?” The smile firmed into something a little more genuine.

A shudder ran through the old wood beneath their feet. Graynight grinned, sharp fangs bright in the morning light. “We’ve made port. Good.”

Alegan smiled, happy for his friend. Since becoming acquainted, Alegan learned about Graynight’s annual pilgrimage to the Fire Stars. A small cadre of dragons guarded the people on the islands, though they kept out of sight unless there was danger. Both the people and the dragons were happy with the arrangement, but it was Graynight’s duty, as the elected leader of Eyrie and its various non-humanoid inhabitants, to make sure the Fire Star dragons fulfilled their end of the treaty. It also gave him a chance to take back requests for aid and supplies outside of the normal and emergency shipments. The little things, after all, mattered to the comfort of anyone so far away from home.

The captain called out the final orders to drop anchor and tie off the lines. Alegan stepped forward with his hand out toward Graynight. His friend met him with a huge hand of his own and engulfed Alegan’s. They didn’t need any words after a month together at sea, despite the calm trip.

Graynight turned away once he dropped Alegan’s hand and disappeared below deck by way of the stairs splitting the center of the ship. He took one last look at the old ship that had brought him, sturdy yet it creaked with every slight breeze, and sighed. Alegan would miss the days he’d spent on the water. Though surrounded by the anathema of his innate power, it was a calm sort of life. Maybe he would return to it, after his task was done, if he succeeded. Gods, he hoped this worked. There was nothing left for him if it didn’t.

He swung his pack up onto his shoulders and stepped onto the damp wooden dock.

Other passengers and crew disembarked around him, so he went with the flow all the way into the ramshackle collection of buildings set up for temporary housing while quarantine was in effect. The whole area was less than the space the Osairan palace sat on. In a few minutes, Alegan was on the far side of the buildings, no one else within a stone’s throw of him. He took a quick glance around in a circle and slipped between two structures.

A field of lush grass and stunted trees spread out in front of him. Toa cast its shadow to the sea west of him, where the village was supposed to stand. The water boomed and broke the peaceful air with its massive voice. Alegan’s heart settled in his chest and the sense of rightness shook a little more of the numb feeling out of his bones. This was where he was supposed to be.

The volcano itself was a giant, there was absolutely no doubt of that, but the incline was a gentle swell for most of the climb. The last quarter was jagged, broken open like an egg split close to the top. A rough river of pumice and black glass, ribbon thin in the landscape, ran down the slope of the mountain toward the ocean, close to the port. It looked old.

Alegan picked his way through the foliage. The rock stood out as the only real path up the mountain and once he reached it, he laid his hands on the cool surface. A thrum of power swirled and eddied under the reflective surface. He dropped his pack in the damp earth and sat down, senses closed to all but the fiery thread in the obsidian.

It was beautiful and warm, shifting like a flame trapped under glass. He didn’t grab at the flickering strand, but eased his mind along it, magic drawn to its source. Trees and leaves and green whipped by as Alegan sped up the power’s current, until he came to the hole in the ground, glowing like a ruby in sunlight. Perfect and just above the tree line, if he had to guess. A day’s walk at the most.

The current carried him back down in a tumbling rush. An urge to chuckle came over him from some deep corner of his heart. He loved magic, in any form. The rush and flow and eddies and pools of energy were found all over, not just inside mages. So far, in every concentration Alegan had found in his life, the power was warm and playful; the stream of volcanic power he was immersed in was no different.

Graynight was wrong. There was no dangerous power here. And it certainly wasn’t going to hurt him.

Alegan teased his mind out of the magic he’d ridden and stood, pack settled in place on his shoulders. The walk up looked a little daunting, though. A day of hiking over a mountain, no matter how gentle it seemed, was going to exhaust him. Another day waiting to finish what he’d come to do was both depressing and no time at all. Besides, he couldn’t do such delicate spell work in the dark.

One foot in front of the other, Alegan started up the natural road he had found with one goal. The world around him faded away.

* * * *

Damp and stiff wasn’t the most pleasant way he had ever woken, but there were worse ways. At least the little hollow of rock he had found to sleep in was weathered smooth and formed a shallow bowl. If he hadn’t known better, Alegan would swear the dip was carved and polished for this exact purpose. The air was hot and humid well above the place where trees tapered off into scraggly brush and crab grass, the only plants hardy enough to survive the harsh air.

No ash drifted on the wind, which Alegan thanked the Powers for, though the smoke from the little vents pocked the ground as far as the eye could see. It smelled the same as Graynight, a faint scent of sulfur, on a much greater scale. He swore the odor was trapped in every inch of his skin and heavy wool clothes.

Alegan sat up and reached for his ankles, trying to loosen the stiffness in his muscles, and then stretched his hands up toward the impossible blue sky above, broken with trailing wisps of smoke from Toa’s caldron high above. None of his motions helped. Ah well, such was the price of his forty winters living. Once he was done and returned home with his family, he would have his comfortable bed with his beautiful wife for all the rest of his days. Discomfort meant nothing in the face of that promise.

The vent he found the day before lay a handful of steps from his stone bed, better than a campfire. Better than his own fire. He dragged his pack up when he stood, not too lumpy or damaged from its use as a pillow in the night, and settled down with it in his lap right in front of the glowing hole in the mountain.

With a deep breath, Alegan eased open his pack and pulled out the top items with reverent hands. The tarnished bronze star his wife, his Gadal, wore in her sunshine hair every chance she got. Jasa’s favorite drawing book, his eldest girl, filled to the brim with fantastical work from her own hand of machines and gears and the great works of the world. One final item and his breath hitch on a wet choke of emotion. His Tima, their youngest little girl, with only a handful of springs under her dainty feet, had loved her little stuffed butterfly almost to death. It bore the colorful marks of repeated repairs, the thread from whatever knitting project his wife had in progress at the time.

He held them cradled in his lap while he drew out the very few aids he needed to call on both the power of Toa and the presence of Serena, the great Death. A thick twig of willow carved with the Goddess’ sigils, a plain clay bowl in which Alegan placed severed strands of his wife and girls’ hair, and the traditional offering of belladonna. At the very bottom, wrapped carefully in Tima’s swaddling blanket was a flask of his own blood.

The tokens of his family went back in the pack and he set it aside, far out of reach. There was no reason to risk their incineration. His girls would cry if they were destroyed.

Alegan centered the rust red bowl between his spot and the steaming vent. The hair was scattered in the bottom with no order at all and he splashed the blood over the locks in dark ribbons. Willow stick in hand, he etched the illegible incantation in the coarse black sand.

The spell he had found, buried in the dusty stacks of Tanchar’s palace library was from before, when the first monarchs reigned with an iron fist. When magic was bigger, wilder, still a molten force fresh from the Gods, thousands and thousands of years ago. The original manuscript was in the ancient language of humans, no longer spoken now, and Alegan had been lucky enough to find someone to translate the work into the common tongue. If he had known it was so simple, he might have thought it a waste of time.

“Hail Serena, the great Guide of the dead. I summon you to hear my petition.”

Heat built to unbearable levels and stole his breath in seconds, hot ash blistering his face and tongue. The glow of the vent blazed red and then white. Lava bubbled, splashed up over the lip of the vent. A screech picked up in his ears, behind his eyes. Pain lanced through his temples.

Power roared in a firestorm through his veins. Alegan moaned as it burned down every last vessel in his body, heart a smoldering limb of iron in a blue flame. He saw it in the darkness behind his eyes in its frantic, deadly pulsing. This was Toa? The power Graynight had warning him about not a day before?

Ragged, faint whistles rushed past his ears. Where the screech went, he couldn’t tell. Skin burned at his fingertips. Stars splattered in agonizing constellations against his face. Even the stars rained down their objections? His dream of his family was objectionable?

Hot grit scraped at his face and hands and some rancid stench assaulted his nose. Burning hair, maybe. And the ground moved under him. Below him. Cool liquid ran over his cheek. Above him, more grit and brittle crunching. Just the darkness and smell and sulfur. Pain, distant from the hot iron heart he’d somehow acquired, followed the grit. Oh, his chest was going to melt from the inside out.

Cold.

Nonexistence.

* * * *

The dull throb in Alegan’s spine eased him out of his stupor, squinting up into the sapphire blue sky above. How he ended up on his back was a simple explanation the moment he rolled his head to the side, gaze directed up the slope. Dirt was scattered in an arc where he toppled to the side and smoothed flat where he’d rolled.

Blade sharp pain shot up his arms and his fingers ached as he pushed up into a sitting position. Blisters and blackened bits of skin decorated his hands. More charred spots were peppered on his pants and shirt, the smoldering, acrid scent of hair still in his nose.

Alegan swiped at the odd trickle on his face with the side of his hand, hissing from the tender bubbles on his fingers. Blood glittered when he looked at his fingers, mesmerizing garnet in the sunlight. It was funny. His face didn’t hurt at all. He knew his face was still, mostly, in one piece, judging by the small amount smeared on his hand.

Every limb was sluggish, heavy, as Alegan staggered to his feet. His knees didn’t want to hold his weight at all, because they refused to bend more than a fraction as he made his way back up to his original spot in front of the smoking vent. It had dropped back into its cool red.

“That’s not going to stop me, you know,” Alegan uttered through the ash clogged in the back of his throat. Who he was talking to, Serena or Toa or even the highest Malan, he didn’t know. If he had to destroy himself to bring back his family, so be it.

Alegan squared his shoulders and chomped down on the groan working its way from his screaming injuries. The bowl and sigils remained intact, though glassy black had filled in the impressions in the dirt. The willow twig was gone, probably burned to cinder or swept away.

This time, he raised his hands above his head.

“Hail Serena, the great Guide of the dead. I summon you to hear my petition.”

An incomprehensible scream shattered the air and his ears, piercing like a giant roc in the mountains. Lava spat out of the vent. It fountained, sputtering around his supplicant form in a vast circle. Sulfur burned his senses.

Alegan writhed as his whole body lit up from the inside, as if he had bathed in the heart of the volcano. Something in him snapped. His heart pounded and sizzled in his chest. It went beyond agony. It flayed him open, strip by strip.

Blood bubbled in his throat and the lights went out.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Catli breathed in the hot scented air at the great entrance into the cavern above the tree line and relaxed, muscles unwinding one on top of the other in a cascade of relief. The stress of dealing with the villagers was almost too much some days. Any time he was able to remove himself to the volcano was greatly appreciated.

That wasn’t to say he didn’t love his village, or his people. Catli was dedicated to his service, to helping his village stay healthy and safe in the shadow of the First God-Child of the Powers. If asked, however, he would tell anyone without hesitation that he preferred Toa above them all. The volcano had no anger, no malice. It didn’t spit hate and anger at him.

The light of Toa’s heart shifted and flowed along the cavern walls as Catli moved deeper into the sacred space. This was why he became a Koah. The position was the only way to gain access to the vast God-Child, to commune with it. To share the churning blaze in his soul with another like himself. In essence anyway, because the volcano wasn’t a being in the same way he was.

A huge, flat escarpment jutted out from the long hallway, barely high enough to make the hot air bearable while he worked. The ancestors carved it quite a few turns of the world ago, before written records existed. Some legends told of the Gods scooping out the entrances of the Fire Stars as a gift to the island peoples and a pointed reminder to keep the volcanoes satisfied with regular visits. Catli was pleased to follow that particular story. Toa was no hardship to spend time with, even though he had no language in common with the great being, beyond its fire.

Catli laid down the traditional offerings for Toa on the very edge of the stone cliff and knelt in the center, on a little rise in the floor. There were no words to offer. Catli raised his hands out to his sides and smiled as he closed his eyes. His magic came in an instant to his call, spreading fire from his core to the palms of his hands and he spilled his power down into the stone around him.

A quake shook the whole cavern. The heat rose by increments until Catli was pouring sweat from his temples, but he found no fear in his heart, even after all these years, as Toa reached back to him, fire meeting fire until the current glowed and circled him. If Catli opened his eyes, he would see a ribbon of magma had filled the rest of the floor, destroying the offerings, but not coming within an arm’s span of Catli himself. The first time, when he was still mostly a boy learning his power, he had squeaked like a mouse and run from the volcano.

After that, once he realized the magma had parted for him and he hadn’t been harmed, he wasn’t afraid. Toa wouldn’t harm him. Then, as now, a razor thin tendril of the volcano’s essence wound its way through Catli’s offered magic.

It burned in the best of ways. Power coursed to every corner of his body and mind, on edge of too much, and the unknowable Toa crooned to him. The tone of Its voice told him all he needed to know. Toa was joyous to find one who was willing to connect and share the vast well of life with It.

Dawn slipped away to midmorning before Catli and Toa broke their connection. The God-Child was careful of Catli’s mortal constitution, keeping their communion short. Once, Catli had protested the exactness of Toa’s time limit, but never again. The volcano had shown him why on Catli’s next visit. He’d been sore, lethargic, addled for days afterward.

Catli beamed at the tiny river of magma as it flowed back over the lip of the stone platform. “Thank you.”

A rumble was his answer, like rocks shifting deep in the sides of the volcano. Catli took the response for what it was, gratitude, and stood. He breathed in the acrid air one last time as he brushed the dust off his shins and went on his way out of the cavern.

While Catli was on the slopes, he planned to harvest some of the uncommon Blue Hearts that grew on the northern side of the mountain. The plant craved the heat of the magma through the stone. He hated the sickly sweet heavy scent of the flowers, but they were best to treat lung sickness. Catli had run out over the last week treating one of the villagers.

* * * *

Catli’s paths along the mountain side were well worn after generations of other Koah walking the same ways. The one he was on took him down and around the great bubbling crater at the top, over to the field of steaming holes in the rock on the north side.

There was some stunted bushes and scrub grass clumped together all over the place. Blue Hearts, on the other hand, grew in neat, almost square patches close to the hot vents. One day Catli was going to ask an Earth Singer why the flowers liked it up on Toa. Plants and volcanoes generally didn’t mix well.

The hair at the back of his neck stood on end as he rounded the sandy path. It almost felt as though the power current spiked, like Toa’s immense reservoir of energy was being used. Catli was running in the next step, magic cast out to the farthest reaches of his ability, blind to where he was going.

Static splintered along his skin and he pulled his awareness back in, looking around the pock-marked area. Toa’s Eyes was outside his usual wandering places, though not unknown to him. He had no reason to frequent the clusters of vents, except when he was passing through to the eastern slopes.

Now, however, he understood. Down at the bottom edge of the area, something had collapsed too close to a magma hole, the burning liquid breaking out of its natural tube. The body was curled up and covered in rough cloth. Too small to be a horse. Maybe one of the large dogs some travelers brought to hunt with?

Catli sidled closer, inching his way between the steaming vents, steps sure on the rocky ground shifting under his bare feet. He kept one eye on the creature curled in on itself and the other on the haze drifting along the sunbeams. Any change in density was a bad sign and he would never live down the shame if he were caught in an eruption, especially a minor one.

A couple steps from his goal gave him a better view of the being. It wasn’t a dog. Underneath all the hot ash, the short hair was blond, burnished gold almost. The rough, bland brown fabric was sturdy clothing he often saw on traders from the port, and they were of a height and size, if he had to guess. Catli squinted at the soft crest of the only visible cheekbone parting blond strands and the hint of a hard jaw. The being wasn’t familiar at all, though probably a human. Male or female was impossible to tell while they were still in a fetal position.

The body shuddered and air whistled as it did.

Catli darted forward, closing the scant space between them. Right on top of the human, he saw the scattered holes all over the fabric of its shirt and a few angry red-black blisters peppered across the few bits of skin he could easily see. He gave a gentle push to the upturned shoulder and the person collapsed, boneless, onto its back.

A man’s face was revealed, more delicate than he expected from the squareness of the jaw. A face stripped raw and bloody in a constellation of stippling burns down the right side of his face. Breath whistled again through clenched teeth and a thick expression of pain. The man was not from the islands, too pale, which meant Catli had nowhere to take the stranger except with him. Leaving him on the slopes was a death sentence to anyone unused to the volcanic fumes.

There was a pack an arm’s length away from the vent. Catli’s eyebrows rose as he reached for it. The fabric was canvas and something was stowed in it, but it wasn’t the pack of someone who expected to return home. He looped it over his shoulders. The stranger might thank him for the consideration late on.

Catli frowned as he looked at the unconscious man. Without his kit, he couldn’t make a gurney to drag the man back to the village and it wasn’t as though he’d wake up and walk on his own if Catli prodded him. If the stranger was going to do that, the pain would’ve woken him much sooner.

Annoyance rose in a deep huff, but he pushed it back down. The pack came off with a careless shrug of his shoulders and he swung it around, slipping his arms back through the loops so it hung from his chest. Leaving the man’s belongings was probably a bad idea. What if he wanted to come back to Toa’s Eyes and retrieve it before he was healed?

The burns in the long sleeves of the stranger’s shirt were warning enough to be careful. Lava was notorious for its habit of burning through everything under it until it cooled or was doused. Blood served just as well as water and Catli bet that was exactly what happened here. The plain fabric was bunched and rippled over the man’s arms, which hid the evidence.

Catli wasn’t strong enough to lift the stranger in his arms outright. Not one this big or bulky. He circled around until he stood next to the man’s knees and tugged him upright by the shoulders. A hair tie was probably a good idea, but Catli had none on him. Last time he would leave his hut without one on hand. He swept his hair over his left shoulder and knelt in the sharp black sand of the mountain.

Wrestling the stranger over his shoulder was like manhandling a giant doll. All the limbs were loose and flopped in every natural direction. Breath wheezed and whistled in his ear as he managed to flop the man’s dead weight over his right shoulder. His collarbone was jammed in the soft muscle of the man’s stomach, but he couldn’t do anything about it until he was on his feet.

A low whine came as he slid his left leg through the glass-sharp sand and planted his foot. Muscles whined in harmony with the sound from the stranger as he tightened his hold on the legs against his chest and staggered upright. Catli didn’t dare lock his knees for support, afraid he’d never move if he did, though his legs wobbled the same way his grandmother’s jelly would when he shook the jars as a child.

The body on his shoulder tensed and trembled as he tried to resettle the stranger with an odd little shrug and a hop. It didn’t work the first time, but the shudder from the man was a distraction he couldn’t afford. “Loosen up. If you’re too tense, I might drop you,” he growled.

Catli was pleased when the ribs pressed to his neck and ear lost the hard quality of tense muscles, the rush of air becoming deeper, slower. He forced the stranger into a better position with the arm wrapped around his thighs and calves, Catli’s unsteady feet sifting down into the shimmering black dirt, until he had his shoulder nestled into the solid valley of the man’s waist.

With the weight better balanced between front and back, Catli picked a careful way through the field at a snail’s pace. The vents were easy to avoid, heat blooming like hot flowers to brush delicate, smoky petals against his bare arms. It was the black glass obsidian he had to avoid. They were oversized caltrops in his opinion. In fact, he was almost certain they were used for that exact purpose in some parts of the world.

The path he wanted was back the way he came and he moved in careful steps. Sweat rolled down his face, arms, down his spine until his shirt stuck to his damp skin. Even after he was out of the open field, the cluttered forest offered no reprieve. The wind was absent between the trees, humidity from the warm summer ocean a vast stagnant pool over the island. Only high on the mountain was the air fresh at all. Most of the time, Catli was used to the hot, humid days, but carrying the dead weight of this stranger was taxing now.

He blessed the wisdom of his ancestors though. Their village, while small, was halfway up the volcano’s flank on the western side. A Koah had established their home, decreeing Toa required their people be close to the summit. Nervous squabbling meant the village was in the middle instead of at the top, which the God-Child seemed content with.

The journey was still an almost four-hour walk from where Catli found the stranger. Frequent breaks, as his body’s protests peaked and dipped, added more time. Luck was with him, though. As he reached the farthest edge of their crops, Hoalnia called out to him from between the rows of beans.

“Koah Catli!” Hoalnia puffed as he ran up. Catli offered an involuntary smile. It was hard not to when his friend was around. They had been close since their toddling days. His friend had grown into a big, happy farmer with a lovely, stalwart maiden to keep him on his toes.

Hoalnia had a great life and had still managed to find time for Catli, despite how busy farming was. Many others hadn’t, especially once he became a Koah.

The soft soil shifted under his feet with a sudden rumble. Catli almost dropped the stranger while he tried to steady them both, but Hoalnia was there, hands around his biceps to keep them all standing until the ground settled.

“I see Toa is aware of the world today,” Hoalnia chuckled. “I wonder why.”

Catli had no answer, though he’d figure out Toa’s reason for shaking the village the next time he went to commune with the volcano. His friend was already moving though, and the weight disappeared from his shoulder. Catli bounced up straight, light as air, then his body tried to knot now that his work was done. Work was never done, which forced him to finish his task. “Can you take him the rest of the way, Hoalnia?”

“Your home, I’m assuming?” Hoalnia pivoted and started down the rows, long legs eating up the ground. Catli had to trot to keep up. While he had no complaints about his size at all, he had to admit there were advantages to being Hoalnia’s build. His friend carried the stranger as if he weighed little more than a thick blanket.

“Of course.” Catli caught his breath and darted in front of Hoalnia. He pushed the leafy vines out of the way of the big man. No need to damage the plants.

There was no other option. He doubled as a healer now, though he hadn’t the magic for it. Seasons ago, before he was born, their village healer had gone to the Umbries and was killed in an accident. Since then, no healer had come to replace her and no healers had been born. One of his duties was using the old methods to heal his people. Good thing his teacher had added the knowledge to her lessons.

The boundary between the crops and the village was deserted. People were about their business this time of day, after lunch but before the evening meal. Catli breathed a little easier. The less the villagers knew before his stranger was on his feet and well, the better. Most on the mountain loved gossip and Catli bringing home some injured traveler off the slopes had the potential to cause problems. Nosy busybodies hanging about his home while he was trying to work guaranteed his temper would explode.

Hoalnia turned left, toward the northern edge of the village, where Catli’s hut stood apart from the rest of the village. It was a good place for the village Koah, away from the noise so he could work in peace, though in calling distance from the rest of his people. Now, he was again aware of his good fortune, since his hut would serve double duty as a long time hospital of a sort. Most people, injured or ill, had a home within the village they returned to after treatment, where he went to follow up.

The flimsy wooden door opened with a nudge from Catli’s fingers and he coaxed a wisp of magic out of himself. The bright speck bounced from his fingers about the edge of the dark room and passed some of itself to the cool wicks of the candles on shelves and tables. Glowing flames slowly brightened the room from the afternoon’s standard warm light to something he could work in.

“Put him on the table, Hoalnia.” Catli pointed at the great worktable shoved against the wall closest to the door and ducked behind the partition in the back of the great room. A big, shallow bowl of clear water steamed on the wood stove he kept lit at all hours with his magic.

Water flowed into his cupped palms as he dunked his hands in and spilled in a soothing rush over his fingers when he lifted the water to his face. Grit sluiced off with the liquid, banishing the tension he carried since he found the man now unconscious on his table. A proper soak in the communal bath had to wait, though he wanted one. For now, he was forced to wash off in the basin, removing the dirt and sweat of the mountain as best he could. It left his face, neck, and hands clean for healing, but the filth was stuck to his back and chest instead, a sticky film of grime.

Hoalnia waited next to the table with a deep crease on his brow and shadowed eyes as he stepped back into the main room. His friend gave him a strange look, concern or fear, Catli thought. “I think maybe I should stay for a while. The thought of leaving you alone with this one seems wrong.”

A grin slipped out before Catli could stop it. “I’m capable of protecting myself, Hoalnia. There’s no need to watch over me.”

“I can’t help it,” Hoalnia responded, his face already losing the expression and melting into a smile. “I’ve been doing it since we were little hatchlings, all arms and legs and eyes. You expect me to stop now that you can burn the entire island down with a wave of your hand?”

“No, and I shouldn’t ask you to.” Catli stepped into the bone-crushing hug his friend offered with his open arms. “And you would never be allowed back in the house if Saun knew you let anything happen to me.”

“So true, Catli. So true.” Hoalnia let him go with an affectionate nudge and held out a thick leather tie as Catli moved back a step.

Catli took the tie and twisted his hair into a bun. “Why do you feel like you should be here? We’ve had travelers come to me before and you’ve never expressed an issue with them.”

“This one is different.” Hoalnia scowled as his eyes flickered to the man and back. “Catli, no one goes to Toa with good intentions on their own. What was he doing up there?”

“Well,” and Catli stopped short. What was this stranger doing up there? Years ago, another had been found on the slopes in the vent field. He had died and a good thing too. The Koah at the time found the vile magic that stranger wanted to do and it would have resulted in devastation. Toa had put an end to that when the God-Child burned the mage from the inside out.

“He’s not dead, whoever he is,” Catli answered in the end. “If he was doing something wrong, or dangerous, Toa would have destroyed him. Instead, he comes to us injured, by his own fool ideas, I bet.”

Hoalnia growled, though Catli knew it wasn’t directed at him, but stepped back from the table. “I trust your instincts when it comes to Toa. I would feel better if you let me stay for a while, just to ease my own mind.”

That was fair. Catli was aware of how serious Hoalnia took the safety of his friends and family. Catli nodded and got to work.

* * * *

Chapter 3

Once the stranger was stretched out on his table, Catli winced. The clothes weren’t salvageable, no matter how they were repaired. Blood soaked through around the burn holes in the brown fabric and glittering dirt was ground deep into the seams and folds. Maybe it was a good thing Hoalnia had decided to stay for a little while.

“Since you’re here, I need your hands,” Catli said, eyes never leaving the man on his table. He was too big for Catli to wrestle him out of the clothes.

A creak of the chair was followed with Hoalnia’s barefooted steps on the floor. He walked the way Catli imagined dragons walked—loudly. “You still have that rule?”

Catli chuckled. “Of course I do. Otherwise, parents would fret themselves into hysterics when the children are in here. Best to keep them helping.”

“I’m not a parent to this one.” Hoalnia still came up beside him. “What do you want me to do?”

“Get his pants and boots off. I don’t think he’s in any condition to help.” Catli traded a smile with his friend and they got to work.

Catli smoothed out the front of his patient’s coat and shirt, frowning at the intricate buttons. The amount was ridiculous and they were so tiny, more like beads sown down the front. He even double checked for the button holes just to be sure, but there they were, as tiny as the buttons themselves. It was a style he had never seen before, so this one was probably a style follower. High maintenance.

Good thing he was adept with beads and buttons. Undoing the twenty little things, all a brassy material, took a few minutes. When he peeled the placket apart, he sighed in relief. At least the shirt was normal, laced halfway down the front and easy to pull over the head. It was a shame Catli had to cut it off him.

The small table to his right held a whole host of equipment for those without the magic to heal. A sharp blade, thin and smaller than a dagger, sat in the near middle, far from the edges of the table in case it was jostled. Catli picked it up and contemplated the coat sleeves first. The poor thing was ruined, but seemed a shame to mangle the fine fabric.

He made quick work of the front and sleeves with a decisive pull through the stitches along the shoulders and down the tops. Maybe the coat could be remade into something else, if the stranger had an emotional attachment to it. Catli spread the pieces open further and filleted the shirt in a jagged tee.

The skin underneath was alabaster, unnatural in its paleness. Only those who hadn’t seen sunlight were so pale. Catli frowned as he set the knife back in its place on the table. Maybe this man was a hermit, but why would he be anywhere near the Fire Stars? He should be home, not on Toa.

A deep hum made Catli look at Hoalnia. His friend had done the same to the stranger’s pants, though he left his underclothes in place, and seemed to reach the same conclusion Catli had. “Where did this one come from, that he hasn’t seen the light in so long?”

“If we knew that, we would know why he’s here.” Catli shook his head, both to quell more questions from Hoalnia and to shake away his own. “Let’s finish the job.”

Hoalnia propped up the patient while Catli tugged the ruined clothes from under the stranger with careful hands and a clinical eye. His friend had seen Catli work hundreds of times and was well versed in his methods. Catli gave the man’s broad shoulders and long expanse of spine a thorough once over before he waved Hoalnia to put him back down. At first glance, the stranger seemed to have escaped back injuries all together by a great deal of luck.

While his friend wrangled the cut pants out from under the patient, Catli found a piece of long cloth and draped it over the man’s hips and pelvis. Preserving the man’s modesty for the last part was always a good idea. The one time he had forgotten such a courtesy, years ago, he had ended up with a bruised jaw when his patient had woken.

Once the cloth was properly draped and nothing looked to be revealed, Catli ran careful fingers down the side of the man’s waistline until he hit the softer fabric of the patient’s undercloth wound over his hip. He pulled it away from the skin and gave it a quick slice, the fabric parting like water. The other side met the same fate and Catli had the cloth added to the rest of the stranger’s ruined clothes in less than a minute.

Now he took a long, hard look at the stranger on his table. The sunless skin was stretched over a broad and wiry frame, bones thick in the wrists and ankles, muscles defined in valleys and peaks where they were expected to be. His gold hair looked yellowed, sallow against the pale wood of the table, limp with neglect. The ocean’s salt clung to the sulfurous fragrance wafting from the patient’s skin. Definitely a traveler. A regular sailor carried the smell of pitch and salt, as this man didn’t.

Blisters covered the upturned fingers. Red and painful to even see, they forced the hands to curl in more than normal, the digits swollen from heat. They streaked across the palms, halfway up to the forearms and turned into proper craters in the flesh. Now that was odd. Catli had seen how hot cinders fell on the skin before, touched any piece of skin exposed to the air and a great deal of clothing, burning through in moments to leave those exact pits in the flesh. The hands should have taken the brunt of the damage. It was almost as if the patient had his hands immersed in something to protect them from the flying ash of the vents.


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-19 show above.)