Well, this has been a long time in coming. Lots of things have happened since the last chapter was posted–most recently, I went back to Canada to surprise my dad for his 70th (great party, he had no idea I was coming, managed to catch him with his back turned in the kitchen for the surprise!); before then, I ghostwrote something and worked a few freelance jobs to offset the weight of the plane ticket and see that Palace of Glass can afford editing sooner rather than later; and, at the same time, my school’s semester came to an end and began again, bringing with it all the usual chaos that comes with ends and beginnings (parents day, new curriculum, an inherited turtle…).
Anyway. I’m back.
In other news, here are some things going on right now that are worth checking out:
Tor.com is giving away Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon as an incentive for signing up for their eBook Club, but only for the first seven days of September. Click here for more details!
Islam and Science Fiction has come out with their first anthology, a series of sci-fi short stories inspired by or based in Islamic cultures or countries–and they’ve made is completely free to download. Check it out here!
There are two contests running to give away different types of Kindles. First is the #SFling September Giveaway, which is giving away a Kindle Fire (click here for details); second is the Reader Rewards giveaway that I’ve participated in before, which is giving away a Kindle Paperwhite (I do like those e-ink screens. Click here for the giveaway, and note that the giveaway links are under all the books in the subcategory/genre pages.)
And, without further ado, here’s today’s chapter!
Fire warmed her skin. It started in her bones, turning her marrow into a bed of hot coals, then spread through her arteries like a latticework of molten metal. Pain numbed from her many injuries, twisting into a heat that edged her senses like tempered steel. Flames curled through her bandages, tickling her skin like butterfly wings.
In her mind, all she saw was white, hot fire.
Oh, no. Not here. Not now.
Mieshka sucked in a breath. Slowly, with effort, she pushed it back. Focused. Grounded herself. The ship was pitch-black, blinking with the afterimage of the fire in her mind. For a second, it felt like she was moving—as if the ship were still falling, turning over itself and spinning.
A clunk sounded from the cockpit. Aiden swore.
Boots thumped on the grating beside her. Jo’s hand found her shoulder. “You okay?”
The ringing ebbed in her ears. Other noises came from around her—clothes rustled ahead, along with the distinctive clink of McKay’s rifle; behind, Aiden and Gobardon muttered quietly to each other, their lilting tones and soft Lurian consonants whispering off the walls.
Mieshka groaned, feeling her head press against the grating. “Give me a minute.”
She gritted her teeth, unfolding one injured leg from under the other. Pain wracked her body when she tried to push herself up. Her stitches pulled tight like sharp, hot needles. The ship hadn’t fallen far, and she hadn’t landed hard, but her wounds had already been abused over the past twenty-four hours.
After a second, she lowered herself back down. “Ow.”
Jo patted her shoulder. “Take it easy. We’ll handle this.”
Mieshka nodded, twisting onto her side and curling in on herself. At the movement, she felt the Phoenix slip past her psyche, pushing heat into her skin. Fire wrapped around her pain like a scabbing wound.
A quiet voice spoke beside her. “Mieshka?”
Dad. He and Uncle Alexei were probably the only ones left who called her by her real name. With a thought, she let her fire flare on her arm, casting a light into the backmost part of the ship. By the looks of things, she had taken the hardest fall. McKay and Buck still sat next to the door, braced against the wall. Kitty had folded herself into the back corner, knees folded in front of her like a newborn colt, hands flung out to each wall like punk-rock spiders. Closer, Alexei and Dad’s faces bloomed red-orange in her firelight.
“I’m all right,” she said. Wincing, she unfolded her other leg and stuck it out. Three heavy bandages bulged under her borrowed pants, marking the spots where Gobardon’s father had stabbed her two days ago.
She leaned against the boxes behind her and raised her voice. “Aiden, what’s going on?”
The murmurs stopped. Magic flared in the front of the ship.
A half-second later, a new pair of boots thumped down on the grating.
“I plan to find out.”
Runes marked his skin. In the dark, they looked like sharp, angry tracks of magma. When he stepped over her legs and made for the door, his element brushed against hers like an orbiting sun. The smell of smoke tinged the air as he paused by the door.
Jo’s hand tightened around Mieshka’s shoulder. “Aiden? Should I—?”
“No.” Runes flickered on his wrist as he built a spell. The door’s slick Lost Tech surface reflected the fire like a drum of oil as he reached for the hidden seam.
Movement shuffled on the boxes behind her. Her dad’s breathless voice had a note of panic to it. “Wait! What are you—are you going to open that?”
“Yes.” Aiden’s hand paused an inch from the door. He peered back to the front. “Gobardon, your dad didn’t happen to teach you that glasna spell, did he?”
“Even if he had, I’m all tapped out.” The earth mage’s skin was dull and dark, devoid of runes. Mieshka could just barely make out the top of his reclined form in the co-pilot’s seat. “Hope you have a good shield.”
Aiden grimaced, but said nothing more. After a few seconds, he turned back to the door and touched his hand to the wall. Fire-orange lines shifted into the ship’s siding, framing the seam. As the magic triggered the opening mechanism, Mieshka felt a second spell build in the air.
Hydraulics hissed. The door clunked open, letting a slant of outside light spill across the floor grating. Mieshka caught a small, brief breath of fresh air.
Then, the world exploded.
Magic slammed into Aiden’s shield. The ship rocked, tipping back enough to jolt her against the boxes again. Aiden’s wrists, and Mieshka felt him feed more power into the spell. The doorway flared orange from stress, like pictures she’d seen of spaceships re-entering the atmosphere. Visible cracks fractured the threshold, spider-webbing around the center like breaking glass.
For a second, Aiden stumbled. His hand flew to the wall for balance.
When he righted himself, Mieshka felt a new surge of magic fill the ship. Threads of fire shivered in the air around him. The flare of the shield caught his face in an orange glare. His mouth twisted, eyes narrowing at whatever he saw beyond the door. She felt him gather himself. The runes shifted on his arm, forming four neat, searing lines on the back of his hand.
The Phoenix stirred in her gut as power trickled through the air.
Aiden held his hand to the door, and his spell exploded with a roar that shook her bones.
Light pierced the cabin. For a second, all she could see was fire—burning, dazzling, blinding fire. Heat blustered across her skin. She threw her hands up, pain wrenching through her arm at the motion. The ship rocked, knocking her hard against the boxes.
Then, everything quietened.
Well, everything except for Aiden.
“You idiots!” The fire mage bellowed. “What the hell are you doing? This ship is an antique.”
The fire had died from whatever attack he’d done, and the edges of the door glowed a soft orange. Mieshka heard a small hiss and crackle in the quiet that followed Aiden’s speech. A thread of smoke, just visible in the light in front of Aiden’s foot, curled slowly upward. The air smelled of charred circuits.
Another spell rocked against the shield—earth magic, by the green tint that suddenly blossoms across the surface—but it seemed somewhat half-hearted compared to the rest. It slid to the side and sniped a small hole in the ship’s doorway. A hard-edged shout followed it, barking an order.
Mieshka watched Aiden. At some point, Jo’s hand had re-found her shoulder.
Movement drew her attention outside. A man stalked carefully into view, his movements wary and alert. Although the gun he held never left Aiden’s face, its muzzle flaring a crisp orange with fire magic, the deep frown on his face, and the unhappy way his lips twisted, separated him from the other soldiers.
He considered them for a long moment, eyes narrowing as his gaze flicked from Aiden to the side, clearly trying to see into the dark ship. Mieshka shivered as his stare moved past her.
Well, at least they weren’t shooting anymore.
Finally, the man spoke: “That’s a Corvai, isn’t it?”
“First generation,” Aiden said, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t believe you actually shot it.”
“This is a Mageguard facility,” the man said coolly. “You shouldn’t be here. Who are you?”
“Aiden Tergunan. I’ve had authorization for months,” Aiden said.
The man’s eyes narrowed further. “We didn’t receive any notice of this.”
“Maybe if you’d picked up the phone, you would have. Tell me, are all your comm units down?”
A pause thickened the air. The man tipped his head upwards slightly—a personal habit, Mieshka thought—and, after a second, glanced to the side.
By the lift of his eyebrows, and the crackle of radio static that followed from that side, she guessed that he’d issued some sort of command.
Slowly, he lowered his gun.
“Actually, yes. Can you tell us more? Who gave you clearance?”
Aiden shifted at the door, casually letting his arms drop to his side. “You gonna shoot me if I drop this shield?”
“Not unless you shoot first.”
“Good. We’re all exhausted in here.” Aiden’s shield slipped out of view like a mirage. In its absence, a draft slipped into the cabin, sending a chill across Mieshka’s skin. Now that the pain had settled down, her fire had retreated back to her core. Her skin felt heated, like a stone left to sit in the sun. “We just came from Lyarne. It’s been a long couple of days.”
“From Lyarne?” The soldier frowned. “You said your name was Aiden?”
Another voice spoke—younger, female—from just left of the door. “Sir? Isn’t he the one with that elemental? The one that’s like her?”
Tension filled the air like an electrical storm. Mieshka sat straighter as the soldiers re-adjusted their aim on Aiden. Jo’s and curled into her hoodie. From somewhere behind her, Mieshka heard the hiss of fabric that told her Gobardon had left his seat. On Aiden’s other side, Buck and McKay had moved into a crouch, guns at the ready. Kitty stood behind them, a feral light reflected in her eyes.
Runes quietly reappeared on the underside of Aiden’s arm, unseen by those outside. “And if I am?”
Green light flared at the edge of her vision—runes on Gobardon’s skin that jumped in the dark as he crept along the side of the ship. When she looked his way, his lifted a finger to his lips, darts of green jittering across his hand like lightning bugs.
“We need to see her,” came the reply.
She stiffened further. Fire jumped into her mind, and she stifled it, fighting the panic. She squeezed her hand hard, drew in a sharp, hissing breath at the pain, used it to ground her thoughts.
The fire drew back.
Slowly, she reopened her eyes. Aiden’s runes drew her gaze like elemental magnets. She watched them shiver, undulating color like lit embers.
He was silent for a moment. She saw his arm shift, fingers flex.
Then, he tilted back into the ship.
“Meese, honey, do you think you could stand up?”
Jo’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “What the fuck, Aiden? She can barely move.”
Her father echoed her statement: “No. Absolutely not.”
Aiden ignored them. Her eyes had snapped up to his, reading into his expression. The light from the door cut across his face, putting parts of it in a harsh shadow. The grey-blue of his eyes pierced in the dark. His voice had been soft, softer than she’d ever heard him speak.
And he never called her “honey.”
They stared at each other for a long moment.
Then, Mieshka gathered her legs back under herself, gritted her teeth against the pain, and levered herself up against the boxes.
“Jo, could you get my crutch?”
The mercenary huffed. For a second, Mieshka thought she wouldn’t do it.
But then Jo’s hand left her shoulder. Boots rang on the grating, pausing as she grabbed the crutch from where it had slid under the pilot’s seat.
The mercenary handed it over without a word and took position on Mieshka’s other side, sliding her arm under the unsupported shoulder.
The room swayed unsteadily as she righted herself. Pain shot up her arm as they stepped to the door.
Luckily, there wasn’t far to go.
Mieshka blinked at the sudden light. Seven mages stood in a semi-circle around the door, and her heart shot into her throat as she saw all the guns aimed at her. From this close, she could smell the latent burn of magic on the metal. Their orange-tipped barrels flared in her mind’s eye like roman candles.
Aiden replaced Jo’s position at her side. Fire magic touched her skin when he slid his arm under hers.
“If you need a closer look, you’ll have to get a stretcher. She’s had a rough forty-eight hours.”
If Aiden had hoped her injuries would ease the tension, he had been dead wrong. Energy bristled around them, the soldiers stiffening at her appearance as if she were an armed bomb.
Their leader seemed uncertain. He hadn’t backed up at her appearance—not like some of the other soldiers had—but he didn’t look like he wanted to get any closer.
His stare bored into her, a hardness behind his eyes that she couldn’t quite read.
Then, his expression grew cold. He lifted his gun.
“Take her down.”
The next few seconds happened very quickly. Magic flared, both in front and behind her. Aiden snatched his arm from her, pushed her back. Hands grabbed her, dragged her out of the way. Before the pain hit, she saw Aiden’s shield shiver back to life—a hot, subtle hiss that rubbed at the edge of her mind.
The Mageguard shot through it in the first wave of magic.
Mieshka fell back; something hot seared past her hand, burning her bandage; her crutch clattered to the floor. She saw it tip over the lip of the door, fall from the ship. People shouted around her. Hands caught her again, pulled her back.
Then, soldiers rushed past the doorway.
Buck and McKay met them with the butts of their guns. Electric light flashed as Kitty jumped into the fray. Mieshka felt the floor bend and warp beneath her, metal groaning as Gobardon wrapped his element around it.
Then, it was over.
Two soldiers stood over her. Their guns were so close to her head that Mieshka could almost taste the magic-burned metal. Spell runes collected in lines on their knuckles, hissing softly in the sudden quiet. For a second, they were all she could look at.
Then, when nothing else happened, she let go of her breath long enough to take in the rest of the room.
Six soldiers held everyone at gunpoint, magic flaring on their wrists in a variety of elemental colors. As non-mages, Buck, McKay, Uncle Alex, and her dad hadn’t stood a chance. They all stood in as close a semblance of a line as they could make in the cramped space, their hands lifted in surrender.
Kitty lay to Mieshka’s left and slightly behind her, her joints wrapped in lines that looked suspiciously like magical rope.
To her right, Gobardon was similarly pinned to the wall. No glowing ropes encircled his limbs, but the gun in his face worked just as well. His magic hadn’t even had time to form before they’d countered it.
Near the door, Aiden groaned. Blood welled from a cut on his forehead.
A shadow crossed over him as the leader lifted himself into the ship. He glanced down at Aiden, expression cold and blank, then moved on.
When he squatted next to Mieshka, his gun pointed casually at the floor.
“Hello,” he said.
Cold shot through her veins. She looked briefly at the two soldiers above her—or, more specifically, to their weapons—and then back to him. Adrenaline sharpened her focus on his face, his clothes, the magic that glowed orange-red on his gun.
“Are you going to shoot me?”
“Not if I can help it,” he said. “I hear you’re a fire elemental?”
“I am.” She shifted—carefully, aware of the guns above her, aware of the stares from the rest of the ship. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, seeing what the outcome would be.
The leader shifted. His gaze moved briefly away, then back to hers.
“I heard that you absorbed a Phoenix spirit from one of our crystals,” he said.
The tension in the room amped up a few notches.
“I did,” she said.
His eyes drifted again, first taking in the singed bandages that wound around her right hand, then shifting to the more subtle bulges in her clothes. “What happened to you?”
“An earth mage happened.” Mieshka winced at the memory, tried to deepen the shallowness of her breaths. At some point during the skirmish, Jo had pulled her into her lap. The mercenary’s empty holster poked into the back of her shoulder, finding a bruise that hadn’t been there yesterday. “He stabbed me with a knife, then nearly crushed me with a building.”
The man’s eyebrows raised incrementally. “I take it he wasn’t a friend.”
“No,” Mieshka said.
“Can you defend yourself?” he asked.
Is that what he was worried about? Her power? It was Mieshka’s turn to raise an eyebrow. Sure she packed a lot of firepower, but not even her friends believed she could reliably hurt anyone—at least, not right now, and certainly not against a pack of trained mages. Even one mage had soundly kicked her ass.
Just what were they saying about her in Mersetzdeitz?
“Only if you wear a suit made of candles,” she said. “I explode sometimes, but that seems to hurt more friends than enemies.”
She looked down to a pink patch of skin on Jo’s hand. The mercenary had grabbed her after her last explosion, ignoring the fire that had consumed Mieshka’s body.
“Do you fee like exploding right now?” he asked.
Mieshka’s smile was bitter, sardonic, and short. “Right now, the only thing I feel like is some more painkiller and a good night’s sleep.”
For the first time since she’d seen him, the man’s strict expression softened. A touch of humor entered his eyes, followed swiftly by concern.
He opened his mouth but, before he could speak, his headset activated. This close, Mieshka could make out the smoothed syllables of the mage’s old language, along with a crackle of static.
A frown dipped his brow. He rocked into a standing position with a practiced smoothness. The floor grating dipped under her legs as he walked back to the door, muttering into a microphone on his lapel.
Mieshka froze, every muscle in her body straining to listen. She watched Aiden’s face for any clues, any signs of warning. Fire crept through her veins, wary, waiting.
And just what could you do if something happened? Even if she could explode—which was, considering her current state, a shaky assumption to make—what could would it do? All the mages could protect themselves. They’d probably shoot her in the head before she could even fire up—and they were probably trigger-sensitive enough to shoot all of her friends, too.
She’d just end up hurting everyone and achieving nothing.
The leader’s tone rose—almost to a laugh—and he turned back inside the ship and gave Aiden a once-over where he lay on the floor. His hand drifted down from his lapel as he exchanged a look with the downed fire mage.
“Looks like you’re in luck,” he said. “Your sister’s bailed you out.”
Mieshka’s jaw went slack. Had he said sister?
Aiden’s lips cracked when he smiled. “Wouldn’t be the first time. What now?”
“Now we wait. She’s bringing Les Amerand around. He’s in charge, here.”
PS: Palace of Glass has reached 53,600 words and is scheduled to finish its first draft at the end of September. Hooray!