WORLD SERPENT ARCANIST [First 5 Chapters]

Hello, everyone! I hope your holiday season is going well! It’s almost the end of 2020 (thank god) and it’s only 10 short days before the release of WORLD SERPENT ARCANIST, the 5th book in the Frith Chronicles series!

If you’re one of the excited individuals waiting for the release, here are some chapters to sate your curiosity! I hope you enjoy!

World Serpent Arcanist releases Dec 10th!

CHAPTER ONE

ATTEMPTING TO SLEEP

            The creaking of the airship kept me awake.

            That wasn’t entirely true. I never would’ve been able to sleep, even if I had been wrapped in perfect silence. Yesterday, I had been fighting for my life. It almost felt surreal to be back on the Sun Chaser, an airship I considered to be a second home. If someone had told me I was dreaming, I would have probably believed them.

            The fighting yesterday had been so real.

            I could see the Excavation Site clearly in my mind’s eye. Tucked away in the woods beyond the Lightning Straits, where the trees had white trunks and gray leaves, there had been a pit filled with black bones. That location had been the heart of operations for our greatest enemies—the Second Ascension—and the bones they had been gathering belonged to an apocalyptic dragon.

            Somehow, despite all odds, I had made it out alive.

            I tossed in my hammock, chuckling to myself.

            “My arcanist?” came a voice from the shadows.

            My magic allowed me to see through the thickest of darkness, and although it was the middle of the night, I had no trouble glancing around my tiny room. My hammock hung in the corner, and barrels with iron rings filled the rest of the space. A single porthole allowed me to peer outside. Clouds whipped by, preventing me from seeing the land and sea below.

            Although I didn’t spot anyone else in the room, I knew I wasn’t alone. Luthair, a knightmare, was capable of hiding in the shadows. He blended with the darkness so perfectly, he might as well have been invisible.

            “Luthair?” I asked.

            “You seem preoccupied.” He spoke from the shadows under me, and his voice had the low rumble of a grizzled veteran. While it spooked some, I had come to enjoy it.

            “I’m just thinking about yesterday,” I muttered. “The Second Ascension, the apoch dragon—our fight. It’s almost too much to take in.”

            “Do you regret fighting?”

            “No,” I said without hesitation. “I just haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on it all.”

            “I believe that’s why Master Zelfree insisted you have a room to yourself.” The shadows in the room shook for a moment, but then they settled into their natural places, only disturbed for half a second. “You should stay here as long as you need to recover.”

            “I’m no longer injured.” Despite my many previous injuries, I felt fine. Arcanists had the ability to recover, as long as a wound wasn’t fatal. “I don’t think I need a room all to myself.”

            “Mental exhaustion is still a form of exhaustion.”

            My thoughts jumped to something important, and I sat up straight, my heart hammering against my chest. “Luthair. We need to tell Master Zelfree about the bones of the apoch dragon. I… well, we smashed the Excavation Site, but that doesn’t mean the Second Ascension won’t return and dig it all up again.”

            “Be calm, my arcanist,” Luthair said. “Master Zelfree is aware. He said he would make arrangements with associates. Now isn’t the time to fret about future problems—we must keep our eyes on the present.”

            Luthair’s words had a soothing effect. He spoke reason, even when my mind was searching for a million problems to fret about. I rested back on the hammock, forcing myself to take deep breaths. Our enemies were still out in the world, but they hadn’t achieved their goals yet. We still had time to thwart them, and that fact alone allowed me to let go of my anxiety.

            The creaking of the airship returned to the forefront of my thoughts.

            “You still can’t sleep,” Luthair said.

            I exhaled, my gaze locked on the oak wood of the ceiling. “Are Adelgis, Fain, and Karna okay?” They had been the three with me when I had fought the Second Ascension. I had told them to escape while I stayed behind, prepared to die in order to defend them. “I know they’re on the airship, but are they fine?”

            “None of them were injured.”

            “Can you check on them for me?”

            “As you wish, my arcanist.”

            Luthair slithered from the room, moving as a shadow would. As a knightmare, he was a masters of darkness. Anywhere a sliver of shadow could go, he could go.

            Once alone, I closed my eyes and attempted to force myself into slumber. I needed to rest because we had bigger problems to deal with. The Second Ascension had summoned god-creatures into the world, and now we had to stop them from bonding with them—especially with the world serpent. That one creature was powerful beyond measure, and our enemies had already-cowed rulers lined up to relinquish their countries the moment the world serpent arcanist appeared.

            If the Second Ascension had the strength of six nations—including the Argo Empire, the largest one around the Shard Sea—what hope would a single arcanist guild have? We would never be able to defeat them.

            I gripped my shirt, my breathing shallow.

            Luthair was right. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on future problems. I shook my head to dispel the thoughts, and focused instead on the immediate. I was tired. It had been a long couple of weeks, and I needed my rest. What could I do to help that along?

            For whatever reason, I thought about the others in the Frith Guild. A month ago, I figured I would never see them again. Now they were on the Sun Chaser, just a short jog away. That fact comforted me. Illia, Zaxis, Hexa, Atty, and Adelgis—all my fellow apprentices—it felt like forever since we had last seen each other.

            I couldn’t help but smile.

            And before I knew it, I was fast asleep.

***

            When I awoke, it was to pounding on the door. I flew out of my hammock, ice flooding my veins. Standing straight and tense, I tried to remember where I was and how I had gotten here. Once I recalled everything—about the Sun Chaser, about being plague-ridden—I ran a shaky hand through my black, disheveled hair.

            “Volke?” someone said from beyond the door. “Are you alive? Just say something if you are!”

            I glanced to the porthole. Sunlight shone through, brilliant and bright. How long had I been asleep?

            “I’m here,” I said, my voice rusty. I coughed and rubbed at my throat. It felt like I hadn’t spoken aloud in years. “Is everything okay?”

            “Yes,” the person replied. The feminine tone was familiar, but I couldn’t place it while I remained groggy.

            “I’ll be out in a minute.”

            “That’s good. We have food ready for you. We made you breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past two days, just in case you woke up, and we’ve saved what we could from all of that. Hopefully you’re hungry!”

            Two days? I had been sleeping for two days?

            My back did feel sore. I had to twist and rotate just to loosen up.

            “Master Zelfree wants to speak with you,” the woman said. “So, once you’ve eaten, you should go see him.”

            “Okay,” I replied as I straightened my shirt and grabbed my belt off the floor.

            For years, I had worn the clothes of a sailor—coat, trousers, high boots, button-up shirt—and the moment I was fully dressed, I felt whole again. My weapon, a long sword in its scabbard, sat on top of a nearby barrel. I secured it to my leather belt and exhaled. While my clothing made me feel complete, the sword brought with it a sense of security.

            I touched the hilt. On the blade was the word RETRIBUTION. It was the name of my weapon, one forged by my father.

            “My arcanist,” Luthair said from the darkness in the corner of the tiny room. “Adelgis, Fain, and Karna have never been better. They anxiously await to see you again.”

            I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Have you been waiting two days to give me that message?” I asked.

            “Knightmares don’t sleep,” Luthair said. “I had plenty of time to observe them, question them, and even mingle with them before returning to you.”

            At least he hadn’t just been sitting around.

            Once my boots were laced, I headed for the door. “Let’s go, Luthair. I can’t wait any longer to see the others.”

CHAPTER TWO

JOURNEYMAN ARCANIST

            Wind whipped across the deck of the Sun Chaser. Black storm clouds hung in the distance, perhaps a mile away. They swirled around the Surgestone Mountains that made up either side of the Lightning Straits, creating a perpetual storm. Thunder rolled across the sky, filling the area with a low rumble.

            I ate my biscuit and jerky as I headed for the quarterdeck. Master Zelfree stood at the stern of the ship, conversing with Captain Devlin, the roc arcanist who owned the Sun Chaser.

            Where were the others?

            I glanced around, hoping to spot someone from the Frith Guild, but all I saw was the crew of the airship. Unlike most ships I had been on, the deckhands for the Sun Chaser were mostly women. Karna, the quartermaster, had gone out of her way to help those who had nowhere to go, especially people who had come from terrible situations. They all seemed happy to work on the airship—and even happier to see me. Each crewmember waved when I glanced over. I hesitantly waved back.

            Once finished with my food, I clapped my hands together to clear the crumbs and then ascended the stairs of the quarterdeck.

            “That’s not how I normally operate,” Captain Devlin said, obviously in the middle of a conversation.

            He had a stern and gruff voice that matched his hard expression. Although I didn’t know the man well, from what I had seen of Captain Devlin, he wasn’t an angry man. On the contrary—he had always been quite reasonable. What were they arguing about?

            “The Frith Guild could use a man of your talents,” Master Zelfree said. “Your whole crew, actually.”

            “No one here likes workin’ for the guilds. They have harsh rules, and some of our crew members don’t fit into a rigid hierarchy.”

            “Did you not hear a word I said?” Master Zelfree crossed his arms. “This isn’t a normal proposition to join a guild. The whole damn world is about to change. God-creatures are among us. If the wrong people get their hands on them, you might not be able to sail the skies anymore, don’t you understand? We need your help.”

            Their conversation was iced over by an uncomfortable silence.

            Standing next to each other, Captain Devlin and Zelfree seemed similar. They were both men of the seas—or the skies, in Devlin’s case. They wore loose shirts, sailing trousers, high boots, and thick coats. Zelfree wore black, whereas Devlin had bright reds and vibrant browns, but it was clear the style was the same.

            They looked as though they could be friends, had their discussion not turned sour.

            “I’ll think about it,” Captain Devlin finally said. He stroked his chinstrap beard, his eyes narrowed. “But I’ll have to speak with my officers before I come to a decision.”

            Zelfree replied with a short exhale. “Fine.”

            With that, Captain Devlin turned on his heel. When he spotted me, his eyes went wide—and then immediately to the arcanist mark on my forehead. Devlin’s mark was a seven-point star with a large bird behind it—a roc, his bonded mystical creature, his eldrin.

            I rubbed at my own forehead. My star was interwoven with a sword and a cape, as I had bonded with a knightmare. And unlike most arcanists, whose mark was nothing more than an etching in the skin, my mark glowed a soft white, indicating my eldrin had achieved its true form.

            Not many arcanists had a true form of their eldrin.

            “You’re awake,” Captain Devlin said to me. “Nice to see you in the land of the living, lad.”

            “Thank you,” I replied.

            He walked by and patted me on the shoulder with a firm strike. “Karna and Jozé would’ve been mighty upset if something had happened to you. Keep that in mind for me, will ya? If they’re upset, I’m upset.”

            The captain kept his curly hair shoulder-length, despite the winds, but he kept most of it tamed with a bandana and a tricorn hat. He reminded me of classic swashbucklers, which I had always admired. A small part of me liked the man just because of those details.

            “I’ll try not to get myself into trouble,” I said.

            “Good. Because Karna told me all about your little adventure on the ground. Fighting plague-ridden arcanists? Are you touched in the head?”

            “Someone has to do it,” I said, no hesitation in my voice. “Or else everyone will suffer that terrible curse.”

            My words hung between us. Captain Devlin had no response, his expression hardening right back to the same cold look he had given Zelfree. He grumbled something as he headed down the stairs of the quarterdeck, his footsteps heavy. I hoped he would consider Master Zelfree’s offer to join the Frith Guild. We really would need all the help we could get to fight the Second Ascension.

            “Volke,” Zelfree said as I approached. “I’m glad you’ve come.”

            “Is everything okay?”

            “Depends on what you mean by okay. I want to know what happened at the Excavation Site. Karna, Fain, and Adelgis told me their side of things, but you were in the thick of it.”

            “I destroyed the Excavation Site,” I said as I rubbed the back of my neck. “Because they were digging up the bones of the apoch dragon. But burying the site won’t stop them. If they want to get that dragon again, they can.”

            Master Zelfree, my mentor for the last two years, always had a clever intelligence to his gaze. He mulled over my comments before forcing a smirk. “There’re always a million problems, aren’t there?”

            In an attempt to be positive, I replied, “There wouldn’t be adventures without problems, right? We just need to make sure we’re ready to handle them.”

            “Yeah, well, let’s hope that your ability to pull victory out of thin air inspires everyone else. Word of your true form eldrin has everyone impressed and working a lot harder.” Zelfree half-chuckled. “Even me. I’ve only known a handful of people who have achieved what you have—and most of them didn’t have the obstacles you started with. You were second-bonded to Luthair… I figured you’d never reach the peak of your magic.”

            The words cut, but I pushed away the doubt. Second-bonded arcanists always had a harder time with their magic—of course Zelfree had figured I’d have problems.

            “I’m sorry I doubted you,” Zelfree said. “I knew you were talented. I just didn’t realize how much.”

            When I had met Master Zelfree years ago, I had thought he was a drunkard past his prime. Now he reminded me of all those stories I had read about him—he was a cunning arcanist, someone unpredictable, someone who managed to get the upper hand in even the direst of situations. He had taken down hundreds of pirates and fought off dragons in the oceans. He had taken on the Second Ascension long before anyone else had.

            Zelfree thought I was talented? I almost couldn’t believe it.

            Wind rushed over the Sun Chaser as we neared the Surgestone Mountains. Zelfree’s black hair was no longer long and out of control—he had cut it short and shaved the sides, giving him a clean look, even if he still had stubble on his chin.

            His arcanist mark was unique, even if it wasn’t glowing like mine. He had a star, like all arcanists, but instead of having a picture of his eldrin wrapped around it, he had nothing. That was because he had bonded to a mimic—a strange creature that could shift its shape and resemble almost any other mystical creature in the nearby vicinity.

            And that reminded me of something…

            “Master Zelfree,” I said. “I met the Mother of Shapeshifters.”

            He lifted an eyebrow. “Is that right?”

            “Yes. At the Excavation Site. Theasin Venrover was going to kill it and use its body for trinkets and artifacts. I saved it—but I don’t know where it went.”

            “You needn’t worry,” Zelfree said. “I’m not sure how Theasin captured it to begin with, but the Mother of Shapeshifters is quite enigmatic. I’m certain the same tricks won’t work on it twice.”

            I nodded along with his words, thankful he thought Theasin wouldn’t get his hands on the creature again. After everything I had learned about Adelgis’s father, I knew nothing good could come from Theasin tearing apart the Mother of Shapeshifters.

            “So,” I said as I glanced over the side of the airship. “Where’re we headed? What’s our plan?” We had so many things to do—a sense of overwhelming urgency gripped at my chest, making it difficult to breathe.

            “Guildmaster Eventide is out searching for someone to bond with the world serpent,” Master Zelfree said matter-of-factly.

            “How will she know when she’s found the right person?” I asked. “The world serpent is so powerful and significant… It can’t just be someone random.”

            “Have you heard of Fini Isle?”

            The question seemed like a non-sequitur, but I decided to humor him. “I know of it. The arcanists there bond with sibyls—mystical creatures capable of glimpsing into the future.”

            The island was famous for its prophetic statues and paintings. Gregory Ruma had been gifted with three statues that told his future, but each was vague and difficult to interpret. A sibyl’s future sight was limited and often blurry—yet disturbingly accurate. Not always perfect, but damn close.

            “Is Guildmaster Eventide heading to Fini Isle so she can ask the sibyl arcanists who will bond with the world serpent?” I asked.

            Zelfree nodded.

            “That’s a great idea,” I said. “I never would’ve thought of that, but it’ll eliminate some of the guesswork. I can’t wait to hear what she brings back.”

            After a long exhale, Zelfree said, “I’m not so certain of this plan. What if the sibyl arcanists foresee someone from the Second Ascension bonding with the serpent? What good will future-sight do us then? The whole point is to stop them. Eventide wants us to wait in Fortuna until she returns with the name of the individual who will bond with the serpent, but that just gives our enemies breathing room. And trust me—in a fight, you never want to let your opponent recover.”

            “But we need someone to bond with the world serpent,” I said. “It can’t just be anyone.”

            All of history would be changed by whoever wielded such power. We couldn’t hand that over to the wrong person. That was why trials of worth existed, but the god-creature’s trials had already been tampered with when Queen Velleta gathered all the runestones and hoarded them. The trial wasn’t fair anymore, so we had to compromise. We had to find someone worthy.

            “I tried to convince Guildmaster Eventide that killing the beast was still an option,” Zelfree said, his tone neutral, his gaze on the thunderclouds.

            “Why would you say that?” I asked. “Those god-creatures are meant to help clear away the arcane plague. They’re here to help.”

            “If someone from the Second Ascension bonds with the world serpent we might be forced to kill it anyway.”

            I didn’t want to consider that. It seemed terrible to come all this way, only to kill the world serpent just because it had bonded with a madman.

            Perhaps the world serpent would refuse anyone with a black heart? I hoped so.

            Zelfree returned his attention to me. “Listen—our plan of action is to head back to Fortuna and wait for Guildmaster Eventide. Until then, you should focus on recovering. You’ve been through a lot.”

            “What about Akiva, the king basilisk arcanist? He’s on an assassination mission to kill the guildmaster.”

            “She can handle herself. And it won’t be long until we meet up with her again. You just have to trust that she’ll make it back.”

            Although I hated the thought of sitting and waiting, I knew it couldn’t be helped. Guildmaster Eventide was a talented arcanist. She was the only other one in the Frith Guild with a true form of her eldrin, and she was one of the few who had thwarted the plans of the Second Ascension since they had formed years ago.

            I had to believe she would be okay.

            “Where is everyone else?” I asked. “Are they relaxing?”

            “They’re in the hold of the airship. Training.”

            “Really?”

            Zelfree shrugged. “The moment they realized you had obtained a true form of your eldrin, they all decided they had been slacking. They’ve been working ten times as hard.”

            I turned to leave, but Zelfree grabbed my shoulder and held me back.

            “Wait,” he said. “I have something for you.” He dug around in his coat pocket and produced a copper guild pendant. Normally they had a person’s name, rank, and eldrin stamped into the metal, but this one was blank on one side. The other side had the Frith Guild symbol—a sword and shield.

            I took the pendant.

            “Congratulations,” Zelfree said. “You’re now a journeyman arcanist.”

            I couldn’t help but smile as I slipped the pendant over my head. “Are you sure? I thought there was a test to pass first…”

            “Yeah, well, you ran off, cured yourself of the arcane plague, and then gained a true form eldrin. Test passed.”

            “I don’t know what to say.” I fidgeted with the metal. “Thank you.” There had been a point in my life when I had figured I would never see the Frith Guild again. It felt like a terrible burden had been lifted from my shoulders now that I was back with them all.

            “The others took their tests and passed,” Zelfree said. “And it seems fitting that you should join them. Plus, journeymen arcanists can help train apprentices, under the right circumstances.”

            “You want me to help with training?”

            “Yes.” Zelfree dismissively waved his hand at the comment. “But we can talk about that later. For right now, you should go see everyone. Go on.”

            Still smiling, I stepped into the shadows and shifted down the stairs and onto the deck, moving through the darkness as a sliver of shade. It felt amazing now that my magic didn’t hurt anymore. I emerged from the shadows and headed for the stairs below deck.

            Journeyman Knightmare Arcanist Volke Savan.

            It had a nice ring to it.

CHAPTER THREE

TOGETHER AGAIN

            I entered the hold of the Sun Chaser with my breath held. The others were between the crates and barrels, chatting or practicing their magic. They didn’t notice me as I quietly descended the steps.

            Zaxis leaned against the bulkhead of the ship, the most distinguishable member of the group. He wore crimson scale armor—from a salamander, I suspected—and his pants were a dark brick red, held up by his belt of phoenix tail feathers woven into a vibrant cord. If I had to guess, they were all magical trinkets that resisted fire so he wouldn’t burn his clothes when he used his phoenix magic.

            Zaxis lit flames in the palms of his hands and then extinguished them a moment later. He had an intense focus—he always had, ever since we had been kids—and he seemed obsessed with lighting the fire faster than the time before.

            I caught my breath when I saw Illia standing next to him. She had been my sister since we had been adopted by Gravekeeper William, and I had so much to discuss with her, it almost hurt my chest to keep it all in.

            Illia leaned closer to Zaxis. She evoked white flames in her hands, but unlike Zaxis’s phoenix fire, her flames didn’t burn—they teleported bits of things away, piece by piece.

            She wore an eye patch over her right eye. Most eye patches weren’t much to look at, but hers had a rizzel stitched across—a cute ferret creature with white-and-silver fur—a gift from Gravekeeper William. The eye patch matched the arcanist mark on her forehead and also resembled the rizzel on her shoulder, Nicholin.

            “You don’t need to rush your magic,” Illia said to Zaxis. “I don’t think you’re evoking it right.”

            Zaxis slowed his evocation and allowed the flames to build in his hands before snuffing them out. “I want to improve my reaction time,” he muttered. “It still feels slow.”

            It amused me to see them standing side by side.

            Illia was lithe and lean, whereas Zaxis was bulky with muscle. Zaxis had red hair that grew long enough to get into his eyes, but Illia kept her wavy, brown hair tied back in a tight ponytail, held in place by her tricorn cap. Although distinctly different, they moved closer together, comfortable with each other’s presence.

            Zaxis’s eldrin, a phoenix with peacock-like tail feathers, hopped around near his feet. “My arcanist,” the phoenix said, his voice regal. “Perhaps you should try manipulating the flames into shapes.”

            “I’ll try that next, Forsythe,” Zaxis replied.

            I wanted to approach them, to blurt out my whole story and hear what they had been doing for the last few months, but I stopped myself and instead panned my gaze across the rest of the hold.

            Hexa and her hydra eldrin, Raisen, stood on the opposite side of the hold. Hydras didn’t normally travel far from their homes since their bodies were so rotund and heavy. Raisen captured that stereotype perfectly. He had the fat body of an alligator, complete with stubby legs. His four heads, on the other hand, had snake-like necks and pointed dragon faces. Each head hissed at Hexa the moment she turned her gaze to the porthole overlooking the passing clouds.

            “Don’t give me that,” Hexa said. “We’ve been workin’ all day. It’s break time.”

            “We should practice our poison on the deck of the ship,” one head said.

            Another head added, “Or maybe we should toss things in the air and shoot them—to better your aim.”

            Hexa patted the many heads of her hydra, her attention still on the weather. “We’ll go up to the deck in a bit.”

            She wore clothing that was uncommon for island life. Hexa had grown up on the mainland, after all, but it still surprised me whenever I saw her on ships. She wore a coat and shirt with no sleeves, exposing her arms—and the many scars she carried—as though they were points of pride. Her curly, cinnamon hair bounced freely whenever she tilted her head. Most sailors who kept long hair preferred to tie back their locks, but Hexa seemed to dislike that habit.

            I spotted Atty and Fain near the back of the hold. They leaned against a stack of crates tied to the floor, their conversation so engrossing that they never glanced in my direction.

            Atty swished back her blonde hair, and I was instantly aware of her elegant beauty and poise. I had never truly forgotten, but seeing her now was both a relief and a reminder. I had wasted too much time—I needed to tell her how I felt.

            I stared, probably for way too long, if I was being honest, but I couldn’t help myself. Atty seemed older—and prettier—and I wondered if I was just imagining things.

            “I finally discovered what I can manipulate with my magic,” Fain said to Atty, his arms crossed. “Volke and I tried most days we were traveling on the Sun Chaser.”

            I had almost forgotten Fain was in the hold of the airship.

            He was taller than Atty by a few inches, though he still wasn’t as tall as I was. And while Atty wore a bright white tunic and a pair of white puffy desert pants, Fain wore the outfit of a classic pirate, complete with a heavy coat and tall boots. Fain’s most striking features, though, were his frostbitten fingers and the tips of his ears. They stood out, even in the dim lantern light of the hold.

            “I want to master every aspect of phoenix magic,” Atty said to Fain as she tapped the tips of her fingers together. “And healing has always been my weakest point. If you manipulate flesh and injure someone, perhaps I can stitch it back together?”

            Fain laughed once. “There aren’t many people who wanna watch their skin get torn apart and then pieced back together. Maybe Moonbeam can handle it, but most others can’t.”

            “Uh, I’m sorry. Who… is Moonbeam?” Atty asked, her eyebrows knitted.

            “Oh, well, I meant Adelgis. Sorry.”

            “Hm? I wasn’t aware he had such a nickname. It’s very… unique?”

            Atty glanced to the crate next to her and gave her phoenix eldrin, Titania, an odd look. The phoenix shook her head, scattering soot onto the crate and floor. The bodies of the phoenixes burned bright, and whenever the phoenix feathers flared out, I enjoyed catching sight of the flames underneath.

            But where was Moonbeam?

            Er, Adelgis.

            Where was Adelgis?

            When I spotted him, I almost called out, just to make sure he was okay. He stood in the very back corner, his attention focused solely on the odd creature in his arms. It was Felicity, his eldrin, an ethereal whelk. She was no larger than a human head, but her sea snail body glittered in the lantern light, demanding attention. Tiny tentacles hung from the snail-portion of Felicity’s body, and the iridescent sheen across her spiral shell gave her a mystical quality.

            Adelgis didn’t speak to his eldrin. He just stared, his dark eyes unblinking.

            For a long while now, since we had left Thronehold, after the Sovereign Dragon Tournament, Adelgis’s behavior had seemed off to me, but this was a new low. He could speak telepathically, and I had no doubt that was what he was doing, but why did he have to practice that in a room filled with people? Surely, he must’ve known it made him seem odd in comparison.

            Despite his deep concentration, Adelgis was the first to look up from his training and notice me.

            He could hear thoughts—perhaps he had heard me thinking about him?

            Adelgis’s shiny black hair, which hung loose to his shoulders, matched his black shirt and dark leather trousers. It seemed he was taking after Master Zelfree when it came to appearances—or perhaps he wanted to blend into the corner of every room he entered, I didn’t know.

            “Volke,” Adelgis said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “You’re awake.”

            All at once, everything went silent, like the calm before a storm.

            Hexa was the first to dash over. She collided with me—we both hit the bulkhead—and she wrapped her arms around my neck. She was stronger than I remembered, and when we were up close, I noticed the scars on her arms appeared to be claw markings that had healed in fine fashion.

            “Volke! Thank all the good stars!”

            I patted her on the back. “Hexa—you saw me board the Sun Chaser a couple of days ago. You knew I was okay.”

            “You’ve been sleeping way too long,” she said as she held me at arm’s length. She had an intensity to her expression that I hadn’t seen before, and I wondered if I had angered her. With narrowed eyes, she continued, “Who does that, huh? Are you okay? Are you sure you don’t have any lingering effects of the arcane plague?”

            “I don’t think so,” I said as I rubbed my glowing arcanist mark on my forehead. “Having a true form eldrin protects me from any ill effects of—”

            Raisen bounded over, each hop-step creating a loud slam on the oak wood of the airship. I probably could’ve gotten out of the way had I been paying attention. Instead, I was thrown to the floor by the many heads of Hexa’s hydra. Raisen’s curled and prickly scales stung as he rolled around on top of me, but I gritted my teeth and endured. Why did he always have to knock me over?

            “Hey,” I said through a chuckle. “Stop that!”

            Raisen’s four heads hissed as I pushed him off my body and got to my feet. Atty helped me the last of the way, her touch delicate, but strong enough to help. She turned her blue eyes to the scrapes from the hydra scales on the back of my hand. With a simple touch of her fingertips, she used her phoenix magic to heal my minor injuries.

            It wasn’t necessary, though I did enjoy the warmth of her magic seeping through my skin and deep into my muscles.

            “I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” Atty said. “I worried you might’ve been sleeping that long because of the medicine from the Grand Apothecary.”

            I shrugged. “I’m fine. And I’m much better now that we’re all together.”

            Zaxis, Illia, and Adelgis stood close, each hovering around, waiting for me to step away from the bulkhead and join the group. No one else felt the need to tackle me to the floor, for which I was thankful. The two phoenixes created trails of soot as they flapped over to the group, and a smile escaped me. I had always admired phoenixes.

            “You need to tell us about your adventure,” Atty said. She grabbed my hand and held it close. “Adelgis told us a few things, and Fain elaborated, but no one knows how you gained your true form knightmare.” She tightened her grip on me and laughed to herself. “I almost couldn’t contain my curiosity. I wanted to wake you, just so you could tell us.”

            “Uh,” I said as I glanced between everyone.

            It seemed the whole room held its breath. No one looked away or blinked. Even the airship creaked less, like it also wanted to hear the tale.

            “Well, I was fighting the Second Ascension,” I said.

            Raisen’s four heads all lifted and held still, the eight golden eyes locked on me.

            I had never experienced such rapt attention, and although it made me nervous, I knew I couldn’t back out of the story now. They wanted to hear the details, and I didn’t blame them. I’d be the same way if I were in their shoes.

            “They were digging up the bones of the apoch dragon,” I said.

            Zaxis waved away the comment. “We heard that part already. Get to your true form. What happened in that moment?”

            “Uh, okay. Let’s see… I was fighting with plague-ridden arcanists. I was outnumbered, and I knew they were stronger.” I closed my eyes to visualize the scene better. I could still smell the smoke and blood from the Excavation Site. “But I had to keep fighting. I didn’t want the enemy arcanists to catch Adelgis, Fain, or Karna—and I also couldn’t allow them to keep digging up the bones. Somehow, in my gut, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I had to try and do it anyway.”

            I knew that didn’t make much sense. Why hadn’t I concocted a brilliant strategy? Or retreated and then attacked from the darkness? In the moment, I hadn’t thought of anything other than what needed to be done.

            “My magic was slipping,” I said, my voice growing quieter as I remembered the feeling of death clawing at my soul. “I was trapped, and I couldn’t think of a way out, but I just… I just kept doing what I had to do. And then—out of nowhere—I felt this spark of power. Wait, no, not power. It was like a spark of possibility. Like I could achieve anything, or be anything, or create anything. When the feeling went away, it was as if I had woken from a long rest.”

            Once Luthair had become true form, I had felt good. No, better than good. Everything felt right.

            I opened my eyes, done with the memories. “That’s it,” I said. “Then Luthair and I defeated the plague-ridden arcanists and smashed up the Excavation Site. Afterward, I met Illia in the woods, and that’s how I got here.”

            “But what triggered it?” Zaxis asked. He stepped closer, his muscled arms crossed. “Was it the fact that you were dying?”

            His curiosity and need to know didn’t bother me. So little was known about what made a mystical creature true form. From what I had read, a creature changed—and grew in power—the moment its arcanist displayed the virtues of its kind. Sovereign dragons required arcanists who were ambitious and authoritative to become true form. Wendigoes required arcanists who were hermit cannibals. And now I had gained a true form with a knightmare, the virtues and requirements vastly different from the others. But what were they exactly? It was difficult to articulate.

            “I don’t think it was because I was dying,” I said.

            “Was it because you were fighting the Second Ascension?”

            “I don’t think that was it, either.”

            “Then what?” he snapped. “Tell us.”

            At first, I thought he was being pushy, but when I caught sight of the others, I knew he was just voicing their inner thoughts. Each of them—except for Adelgis, who had turned his gaze to the floor—stared at me with knitted eyebrows.

            Especially Atty, and I knew why. For years, she had been interested in discovering the key to having a true form phoenix. But each mystical creature was different—what I had done wouldn’t apply to her. Why was she so obsessed with hearing my story?

            I shook my head, realization dawning on me. Sometimes it was inspiration enough knowing that someone else had achieved something once thought impossible.

            “I think it was the moment I realized that I would die fighting,” I muttered. “A weight had lifted off of me then. And… I accepted my fate. If I had to die to stop the Second Ascension, I would do so.”

            Although I wasn’t certain that was the moment I had gained my true form, it had felt the closest. Something about that sacrifice and choice resonated with me, even now.

            Perhaps that was what it meant to be a knightmare arcanist—what it meant to embody the virtues of a knightmare.

            The others didn’t say anything. They exhaled and exchanged glances, but no one else asked any questions. Even the ship resumed its normal creaking.

            Illia stepped forward, and the others moved aside so she could get close.

            “Volke,” she said, her voice hushed. “Do you mind if we talk for a bit? In private? I think we need to discuss something before any more time passes.”

            I nodded, and she motioned to the stairs.

            “Let’s speak topside, on the deck.”

CHAPTER FOUR

BETROTHED

            The winds whipped harder across the Sun Chaser the closer we got to the Surgestone Mountains. The storms above the mountains came and went on a fixed schedule. As soon as the thunderstorms waned, we’d be able to fly through the Lighting Straits and continue on our way to New Norra.

            Illia stood by my side, her one eye set on the horizon. I was content to observe the majesty of our surroundings. Whenever Illia felt like speaking, I was certain she would do so.

            Her eldrin, Nicholin, swished his little ferret-like tail as he glanced between me and her.

            “It’s too quiet,” he said, his voice proper, but his tone laced with whimsy. “My arcanist, remember all the things you said you wanted to discuss with Volke? We don’t have time for quietness! It’ll take the whole trip back to New Norra for you to finish your thoughts.”

            Nicholin squeaked and poked his nose into Illia’s ear. She giggled and flinched, finally turning her attention to me.

            “Volke,” she said. “I really did have a lot to say to you before… Well, before we found you. But I can’t remember half of it, to be honest.”

            I smiled and crossed my arms. “I feel the same way. I couldn’t wait to see everyone from the Frith Guild, and I thought I’d have a million things to say, but now that we’re together, it almost feels like we were never apart.”

            And the one thing I wanted to tell them all—about how Luthair had gained his true form—I had already explained. What more was there to talk about? I was ready for life to resume course and move on from my time with the arcane plague.

            Illia met my gaze, her expression betraying none of her inner emotions. Unable to read her, I just waited.

            “You were emotional when we reunited,” she finally said.

            “Very emotional,” Nicholin chimed in.

            I gave him a sideways glance. “You weren’t there when Illia and I finally reunited.”

            “But she told me all about it, mister. I’m her eldrin. We have no secrets.”

            “Enough,” Illia said as she held up her hands. “I just wanted to point it out and make sure everything was okay.”

            At first, I wanted to deny everything. I hadn’t been emotional—right?—but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Illia was correct. Now it seemed silly, yet at the time all I could do was express my feelings for her and everyone around me.

            “It had been so long since I last saw you,” I said, grasping at words to explain, though struggling to find the perfect phrases. “All I could think was that I wouldn’t get another chance to tell you all the things I felt—and all the things I wanted to thank you for.”

            Illia lifted an eyebrow. “Thank me?”

            The chilly winds rushed between us, so I stepped closer. It almost felt like we were kids again, and I was trying to explain some weird habit that had bothered her. It made me smile.

            “If it weren’t for you, I never would’ve bonded with Luthair,” I said, my voice quiet. “I never would’ve made it this far. I never would’ve taken part in any of these adventures. I just…” I closed my eyes, trying to piece together the last parts of my thoughts. “I wanted to say that you’ve influenced a lot of my life. You’re my family. I love you. And I mean that in its purest form. I’m sorry if I came across as overly emotional back at the Excavation Site, but in my defense, I thought I was dying at the time.”

             Illia laughed once and then stifled the rest with the back of her hand. “Volke,” she said, smiling. “I should’ve known. It’s always the noblest of answers with you, isn’t it?”

            Nicholin frowned. “What about me?”

            “Hm?” I asked.

            Nicholin disappeared from Illia’s shoulder in a puff of white and glitter. A moment later, he appeared on mine, his soft fur brushing against the side of my neck. The silver stripes on his ferret-size body glittered in the last of the light pouring through the storm clouds.

            “You should be thanking me as well,” Nicholin said. He nuzzled my jaw. “I’m the one who first told you about Luthair! Clearly, I’m as much a hero and family as Illia.” He poked his nose in my ear and whispered, “I want to be your kooky uncle.”

            “No one is becoming my kooky uncle,” I said as I scooped him off my shoulder. I held him in my arms, and he looked up at me with bright blue eyes, his pupils growing larger as though pleading through cuteness.

            I sighed. “Fine. I take it back. You can be my kooky uncle.”

            Nicholin teleported out of my arms and right back onto my shoulder. He poked me in the ear again. “I knew it! You’re soft and unable to resist my charms!” He followed his statement with an evil snicker.

            I lifted him off my shoulder a second time and gave him straight to Illia.

            Although Nicholin continued to chortle, Illia didn’t seem to notice. She placed her eldrin on her shoulder and patted his head.

            “Are you okay?” I asked. “You seem a little standoffish.”

            She half-smiled. “I’m fine. I just… I wanted to make sure everything was right between us. There’s still one thing we need to discuss.” She looked up at me, her expression brighter than before. “Remember how you were upset when I ran off to fight the Dread Pirate Calisto without anyone’s help?”

            I could already hear the I told you so and you’re such a hypocrite in her tone.

            With a sigh, I said, “Yes, I remember.” In order to cut this lecture short, I added, “And I’m sorry. I didn’t want to risk infecting you or the others, but I probably could’ve done something different than running off on my own. I acted on impulse. The situation was dire, and—”

            Illia placed a hand on my shoulder. I swallowed my words, confused by her contact.

            “You don’t have to explain,” she said. “I understand. Obviously, because I did the same damn thing, just… stupider. But as your sister, I need to point out what you did and why it’s ironic. You also made everyone worry, especially Master Zelfree.”

            “Okay, okay,” I said. “I really do get it.”

            Illia jabbed me in the ribs, and I flinched.

            “You need to promise me you’re never going to leave like that again,” Illia said, more serious than I had heard her in years. “I don’t care what happens. We handle it together.”

            “I understand.”

            This time, when she smiled, so did I.

***

            It wouldn’t be long until we crossed over the storm-covered mountains. Electricity hung in the air, and the sounds of distant plague-ridden monsters echoed through the clouds alongside thunder.

            I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I was done speaking with Illia. Although I’d had food when I had woken up, I needed more, as though my stomach was trying to make up for the many days I had been sleeping.

            The crew of the Sun Chaser didn’t mind when I entered the galley and asked for seconds. Most ships had to ration their food for long treks, so asking for seconds usually caused a problem. Either the Sun Chaser had plenty of supplies or the cooks were giving me special treatment, because I left with a pile of jerky, a hard biscuit, and a small tin cup of ale. I wasn’t a fan of the stale flavor of barrel-preserved alcohol, but something to drink was better than nothing to drink.

            Instead of eating at one of the tables in the galley, I took my food and headed for my quarters. I wanted to relax, avoid any questions, and spend the next few hours practicing my magic. According to the books I read, true form creatures were more powerful than their standard counterparts. Would I be able to feel the difference when I evoked terrors or manipulated shadows? I wanted to find out.

            My quarters were nothing more than a storage space between two of the officers’ cabins. Seeing the nameplates of the officers made me want to speak with Vethica, the airship’s boatswain, and my father, Jozé, the ship’s blacksmith, but that could wait until the evening.

            Thinking of the officers reminded me of Karna. I was certain she would visit me whenever she felt the urge, even if I were sleeping. As a doppelgänger arcanist, she could be anywhere—hiding in plain sight—so tracking her down was a futile effort.

            Balancing my food on one arm, I opened the door to my tiny quarters and entered.

            “There you are,” someone said.

            I snapped my attention to a girl standing next to my hammock.

            “Evianna,” I said. “What’re you doing here?”

            As a former princess of the Argo Empire, she held herself with a haughty, and somewhat stiff, posture. She wore an outfit of expensive leather that reminded me of thigh garments meant for horseback riding. Everything had been tailored and fit just right—it wasn’t the clothing suited for a long trip, but she wore it anyway. The dark brown of her pants matched her waistcoat, which accentuated her white tunic.

            And while Evianna’s clothes marked her as different, they paled in comparison to her long, white hair and bluish-purple eyes.

            Evianna held her head a little higher, displaying the guild pendant she wore around her neck. It was bronze, which denoted her status as an apprentice. She looked young—she was smaller than most—and I wondered if she was old enough to even join a guild. The age someone became an adult was fifteen, and if I had to guess, I would’ve said she was younger.

            “I’m training under Master Zelfree,” Evianna said, pride in her tone.

            I sarcastically glanced around the small room. There was a hammock, three barrels, and a crate. Nothing else.

            “Is Master Zelfree here?” I asked.

            Evianna frowned. “Of course not.”

            “Then… what’re you doing?”

            “Master Zelfree said, given your expertise on knightmare magic, that you’d be helping with my training.” She crossed her arms and glared at me with her distinct eyes. “Aren’t you happy to see me? You should be elated.”

            The shadows around Evianna’s feet shifted with subtle movement. “My arcanist,” came a feminine voice from the darkness. “There is a time for acknowledgment and a time for patience. Journeyman Savan has yet to fully recover from his ordeal.”

            I knew the haunting tone of a knightmare like I knew my own voice.

            Evianna was a knightmare arcanist. Her eldrin, Layshl, circled her feet, moving as a shadow.

            Luthair used to be the same way before he had become true form. Now I couldn’t detect his presence. It was probably for the better—an enemy couldn’t detect his presence, either—but I did miss catching glimpses of him as I walked.

            “Do you still need time to recover?” Evianna asked as she examined me with narrowed eyes.

            I walked over to my hammock and took a seat. “I’m much better now,” I said. “But I would like to eat. You can, um, stay if you want, but I don’t think I’m going to start training you until Master Zelfree is around. He’s a master arcanist—I’m still just a journeyman, even if my knightmare has achieved its true form.”

            The ranks of arcanist were meant to indicate a level of formal training and explain the extent of someone’s demonstrable power. I hadn’t yet mastered all the magics of a knightmare.

            Evianna stood next to me, her gaze on my food. “Well, I also came here for another reason.”

            I took a bite of my jerky and then motioned to the crate.

            She shook her head. “Sitting isn’t appropriate for this conversation.”

            I lifted an eyebrow as I chewed, confusion slowly taking over my thoughts. What possible conversation could she be meaning to have with me?

            “I didn’t realize it when we first met,” Evianna began, “but you remind me of… of my sister. Of Lyvia.” With haste in her words, she added, “And I’ll have you know there’s no higher compliment! My sister was beautiful and special and wonderful, and anyone who compares to her is in a category all their own.”

            Evianna was practically yelling the information, like this was an argument.

            After I swallowed, I nodded. “Listen, I understand. Lyvia was talented, and it’s a shame she’s no longer—”

            “Don’t say it.” Evianna huffed afterward, her arms tightening across her chest. “And don’t interrupt me. I’m not finished.”

            “Uh, okay?”

            I took another bite of jerky and listened, still unsure where all this was heading.

            “I’ve spoken to all the other apprentices of the Frith Guild, and even to several crewmembers of the Sun Chaser,” Evianna said. “Everyone has told me the same thing—you’re terrible at wooing women, and you have no love life.”

            Although I hadn’t finished chewing, I forced a hard gulp and half-coughed afterward. With a raspy voice I asked, “Wait, what? Who said that?”

            “Literally everyone,” Evianna said, matter-of-factly.

            “Why would you even ask them that?”

            “Because.”

            I motioned with my hand for her to continue. “Because what?”

            Evianna’s cheeks reddened, but she maintained her matter-of-fact tone. “Because not only do you remind me of my extraordinary sister, but you also saved me the night Thronehold was attacked by the Second Ascension.” Evianna ran her fingers through her ivory hair as she glanced to the wall, breaking eye contact. “You’ve proven yourself to be a valiant knight. And…”

            “Is everything okay?” I asked.

            She pursed her lips and brought her bluish-purple eyes back to meet my gaze. “I came here because I wanted to bestow upon you a great honor. I will allow you to save yourself for me. When I am ready, we will be wed.”

            We stared at each other for a long moment, and no matter how many times I mulled over her statements, I couldn’t accept them as reality. Was she proposing that we marry? That was what she had said—but it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be.

            “How old are you?” I finally asked, more gauche than I had wanted.

            “I’m nearly of age,” Evianna snapped. She returned to crossing her arms. “In a few months, I will be an adult.”

            “Four months,” Layshl said from the darkness.

            “Hush, Layshl. Four months is soon enough.”

            I shook my head. “That’s too young.”

            “You’re only seventeen,” Evianna said. “We aren’t far apart in age.”

            “Yes, but—”

            “We’ll be traveling,” she interjected. “The time will fly by before you know it. Is four months really so long to wait for a princess? Besides, we were obviously meant to be together.” Evianna motioned to the shadows at her feet and then swished her hair over her shoulder. “I’m a beautiful maiden and a knightmare arcanist. You’re a chaste and pure hero of the ages, waiting for true love. We’re the perfect candidates for a fairy tale, and your sister said you enjoyed those old stories, just like Lyvia did.”

            I ran a hand through my disheveled hair, too flabbergasted to speak.

            This couldn’t be happening. Could it? No. It was too bizarre. People didn’t just declare someone would be their spouse. This wasn’t normal.

            I set my food on a nearby barrel and then stood from my hammock. Evianna had to be a foot shorter than me—she was five feet, compared to my six feet and a few inches—and it made it awkward glancing down at her, but I felt too restless to sit.

            “Evianna,” I said. “This is, uh, unexpected to say the least, but Atty and I have said in the past that we’d be together, and—”

            “No,” Evianna stated.

            “What?”

            “No,” she repeated. “You lost the privilege of choosing a woman to court when you dithered around for so long. Now I have chosen for you, and I say you won’t be courting Atty. I am a princess, and my words carry more authority.”

            “You can’t pull that card on me,” I said, done with playing around. “You’re not really a princess. It was more of a ceremonial title due to your relation to the late queen. Your brother holds the throne now, and we both know he’d never give you authority in the Argo Empire. Plus, we’re not even in the empire.”

            Evianna stared at me, unblinking, her eyes becoming more glazed with tears after every word I spoke. I stopped, my concern for her growing.

            “Are you okay?” I asked.

            “How dare you bring up my murderous, traitorous, monstrous brother,” Evianna said, her voice low and shaky. “That’s cruel. I can’t believe you, my betrothed, would do that to me.”

            Before I could respond, she turned on her heel and flounced out the door of my tiny room, slamming the door on the way out. Her brother, Rishan, had killed her sister, and I should’ve known it would be a raw subject, but I hadn’t expected such an outburst.

            “Luthair?” I asked.

            “Yes, my arcanist,” he said from the darkness in the corner.

            “You saw all of that, right?”

            “Indeed.”

            “Do you… have any advice? I feel like I don’t know what to say or whom to go to.”

            “All I can say is—you are most certainly different from my first arcanist. He never got himself in such predicaments.” Luthair said every word with dry sarcasm, like the whole event was both comical and foolish.

            “Thanks,” I said with a sigh, equally sarcastic. “I guess I’ll just figure this out on my own.”

CHAPTER FIVE

THUNDERBIRDS

            I had been an arcanist for more than two years, but my magic had never felt like this before.

            Mist from the nearby clouds rushed over the deck of the Sun Chaser, and while I wanted to enjoy it, all I could do was stare at my hands in disbelief. Nothing hurt. That fact was a relief, one that I almost celebrated right there on the deck. I wanted to turn to a random crewmember and tell them the good news—my second-bonded magic no longer burned my veins!

            “My arcanist?” Luthair asked.

            I hadn’t yet grown accustomed to his effective invisibility. “Yes?” I replied.

            “Why have you stopped practicing?”

            “I was just thinking.”

            After taking in a deep breath, I shook my head and refocused on the task at hand. I wanted to manipulate the shadows in controlled bursts. Normally, I used the darkness as a net or a tentacle that held things, but if I could master a finer manipulation, perhaps I could use the shadows as tools. Lock picks, a doorstop, a needle—anything I needed.

            I lifted my hand and moved the shadows across the deck. The storm clouds above provided plenty of darkness, and the low light of the area made everything easier. In the day—or under harsh lights—my sorcery wasn’t as effective.

            With narrowed focus, I stared at a sliver of shadow by the railing. I tried to imagine the darkness coalescing into something small, something button-sized. Although shadows didn’t normally have substance, my knightmare magic gave it form. I condensed the void-like substance, creating something solid, and then held my hand out, trying to guide the shadows into the shape I wanted by imagining that I was holding it.

            Despite the fact that my magic came easily—and without pain—it still slipped away from me, like water running between my fingers. I lost hold of the tiny glob of darkness before it became a “button,” and it all melted away.

            I lowered my hand and sighed. “What am I doing wrong?” I whispered.

            “You should think of your abilities like muscles,” Luthair said from the shadows near the railing. “Stretching and working them every day will add to the results. You shouldn’t expect to master everything immediately.”

            I chuckled. “I dunno. I figured now that you were true form, everything would be a lot easier.”

            “It might be—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There is a distinction there.”

            “Yeah, I understand. I just… I want to fight the Second Ascension without having to worry about my abilities.”

            Although I had created a perfect eclipse aura once, I still hadn’t mastered it. I could face them in a fight with a broken aura, like I had done several times before, but it wasn’t efficient. And now that we were heading to the lair of the world serpent, there wasn’t much time left to master all the essentials.

            “Look alive!”

            Captain Devlin walked to the railing of the quarterdeck and motioned to the deckhands scrambling about. His eldrin, a roc the size of a small boat, lifted out of the nearby clouds, a mere twenty feet from the airship. Her golden feathers caught the flash of distant lightning, and her sharp beak cut through the sky as she glided alongside us. Rocs always impressed me—their gigantic majesty was a sight to behold. They truly were the dragons of birds, and when she flapped her wings, it practically changed the weather in the nearby area.

            “Mesos,” the captain called out to her. “Lead the way over the mountains, ol’ girl.”

            Mesos screeched in acknowledgment, her cry loud enough to echo on the rocks below.

            “Keep an eye peeled for thunderbirds! They’re plague-ridden in this area. We’ve got too many arcanists aboard to risk gettin’ into a tussle with them.”

            Another screech pierced the sky as Mesos flapped her wings and dove ahead.

            The Surgestone Mountains stretched on for miles in two directions, creating a natural barrier between the Shard Sea and the lands to the south. I walked to the railing and glanced over, fascinated by the dark speckled boulders that made up the mountains, each with a bluish-black coloration. The surgestones created electricity, but they could also burst with power at random times, making them dangerous to hold, even for a few seconds.

            “You should probably return to practicing,” someone said, pulling me from my thoughts.

            Adelgis stood next to me. I didn’t know when or how he had gotten to my side—but there he was.

            “Hey,” I muttered. “How long have you been there?”

            “Only a few moments,” Adelgis said with a shrug. “You stopped training, so I came up on deck to encourage you to continue.”

            “How did you know I had stopped?”

            “I heard your thoughts. The button-sized shadow was intriguing.”

            Ah, right.

            Adelgis’s mind-reading was more powerful than I had ever heard of. Even the old tales of swashbuckling arcanists never involved someone who constantly heard the thoughts of everyone around them—even through wood or steel, even hundreds of feet away. It was a gift, and likely a curse. Knowing the thoughts of everyone around would probably drive me insane.

            “It’s not that bad,” Adelgis said, answering my inner musings. “Some people do have dark and disturbing imaginations, but it’s made up for when there are lots of people around who have pleasant or amusing daydreams. Take your training, for example. I’ve learned quite a bit about knightmare magic through your constant focus.”

            “Uh, thanks,” I said. “Is that why you’re always around? You could be with the others, you know.”

            Adelgis’s long, black hair tangled in the wind, his expression unchanged from a hard neutral. “I find that your random thoughts are the most upbeat—and the most earnest. I like that about you, Volke.”

            I wasn’t sure how to respond, but a small piece of me knew it didn’t matter. Adelgis could sense how I felt. Did I even need to use words with him anymore?

            “Not really,” he muttered. Then he tilted his head to one side, as though listening to something different. “Actually, you should probably use more of your words with Atty. She’s very curious to see you and Luthair merged together.”

            “Why?”

            “She wants to know about your true form.”

            I nodded and cursed under my breath. I should’ve guessed—Atty had wanted a true form phoenix since we had left the Isle of Ruma together more than two years ago. Was she jealous or upset that Luthair and I had managed such a rare feat? I shook the thought from my mind. Atty was more reasonable than that. I doubted she would be upset over our accomplishments.

            “You can speak to people telepathically, right?” I asked Adelgis.

            He nodded.

            “Why don’t you invite Atty to the deck? We should be spending more time together, regardless. She can help me train.”

            Lightning and thunder rumbled in the distance. It made for a fascinating backdrop, even if it wasn’t the most romantic. It didn’t matter, though. I didn’t want to waste any more time—I could die fighting the Second Ascension, and I didn’t want to dither around anymore, as Evianna had so lovingly put it.

            “Atty is on her way,” Adelgis said, once again breaking me free from my thoughts. “She and her phoenix are delighted to train with you.”

***

            Although I had thought it would be beneficial to have Atty training with me, it turned out to be the exact opposite. Not because she wasn’t proficient with her magic—on the contrary, she was quite capable—but because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I wanted to say to her. Atty had a natural beauty that was only heightened by the flames she evoked from the palms of her hands, and that made it difficult to concentrate.

            Her red embers burst into the sky, clearing away patches of clouds. The storms wouldn’t be deterred with simple magic, however. They stretched on for miles, and the small bits that Atty destroyed were quickly replaced with even more clouds, some thicker than before. The air smelled of water, and I suspected it would rain soon.

            Atty’s white tunic and loose pants jostled in the bluster of the winds, giving her a mystical appearance, as though magic was perpetually swirling around her.

            I was supposed to be moving the shadows and making small objects, but I had stopped to ponder my words. Should I tell her she looked beautiful? Would she appreciate that or think me rude for focusing on something other than training?

            Atty’s eldrin, Titania, flew around the Sun Chaser, her flame body flashing through the gaps in her feathers. The long, peacock-like tail fluttered behind her. Titania was smaller than Mesos, but she had the same amount of majesty as she soared through the sky.

            “Volke?” Atty asked. “Is everything okay?”

            I returned my attention to her and nodded. “Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

            “You’ve been distracted this whole time.”

            “Was it that obvious?” I said with a forced chuckle. “I’m sorry. I was just… thinking that your eldrin is quite striking.”

            Atty patted the sleeves of her shirt. The cuffs were singed—a problem Zaxis often had when he unleashed too much fire. “Titania is very beautiful,” Atty said.

            “More than beautiful.” I hesitated before continuing, “She’s the most beautiful eldrin on this whole airship.”

            Atty stopped fiddling with her shirt and hesitantly met my stare. The look she gave me said she knew what I had meant and that realization frightened me more than I had thought it would. Atty had already voiced her desire for us to be together, yet I still felt hesitant—fearful my affections would somehow bother her.

            A blush crossed Atty’s cheeks as she rolled up the remainder of her sleeves and brushed back her long, golden hair. “You should tell Titania how you feel about her more often,” Atty said with a coy smile. “I’m certain she would enjoy hearing it.”

            “I will,” I said, caught a little off guard by her acceptance, but delighted nonetheless.

            The feeling didn’t last long, however. A hot breeze chased away the promise of rain, followed by a pulse of bone-tingling power. I shuddered as I turned on my heel, the hair on my arms and the back of my neck on end. Something ominous was close—I swear I could feel a heartbeat contrasting with my own.

            Yet when I glanced around, I saw nothing. Just the clouds, the Sun Chaser, and her crew.

            “Volke?” Atty asked, concern in her tone.

            I withdrew my sword, Retribution, from its nullstone scabbard. Although I had only owned the black blade for a short while, it had never failed me. If something was nearby, I would strike it down before it harmed anyone.

            “Volke?” Atty repeated as she jogged over to my side. “What’s going on?”

            “Don’t you feel it?” I asked. The odd heartbeat of the distant creature grew frantic. The heat in the air irritated my senses—something was terribly wrong. “It’s close,” I muttered.

            “What’s close?” Atty evoked a bit of flame in her palm as she panned her gaze over the deck. “I don’t feel or see anything. Are you sure?”

            “I don’t know what it is… but it’s here. Stand back.”

            “You needn’t worry about me,” Atty said as she took her place by my side. “I’ve fought villains and monsters alike.”

            I nodded, though I couldn’t help but be concerned. Since my eldrin was true form, my magic ran pure and incorruptible. It meant I couldn’t be affected by the arcane plague—at least, not again. But Atty… the same couldn’t be said about her. What if this creature I felt was actually carrying the plague? I wouldn’t want to risk her safety. I would be the one to handle the beast in that situation. It was the only way.

            Lightning crackled in the clouds overhead.

            The deckhands gasped and pointed, and someone rang a warning bell. They rushed around, everyone heading for the stairs to get below deck.

            “Thunderbird,” a deckhand shouted. “Get the capt’n! It’s a thunderbird!”

            I craned my head back, trying to spot the creature. The clouds remained thick. I couldn’t see anything, though I could taste the electricity in the air. Static made everything cling and move, even my hair.

            Atty had the same problem—her blonde hair frizzed at the ends, but she didn’t pay it much mind. Instead, she undid her belt and threw it to the side.

            “What’re you doing?” I asked.

            “Thunderbird magic is attracted to metal,” she said. “Their thunderclap aura specifically targets it.”

            “A mystical creature can’t create an aura without an arcanist.”

            Atty shot me an odd look. “Who said this thunderbird didn’t have an arcanist? We need to be prepared—the Second Ascension has been spreading the plague wherever they can.”

            Retribution was made of both bone and steel.

I sheathed it, but I didn’t get rid of it. The nullstone of my scabbard would prevent it from attracting magical lightning. Following Atty’s lead, I also rid myself of my belt. The metal clasp wasn’t large, but I didn’t want to risk getting struck with enemy magic.

            The foreign heartbeat became so prominent I almost couldn’t focus on anything else. It was coming from above. Louder. Faster. Desperate.

            It was the thunderbird. Somehow… I knew it was plague-ridden.

            And it was diving for the Sun Chaser.

One thought on “WORLD SERPENT ARCANIST [First 5 Chapters]

  1. I absolutely loved this little taste of the book. I can’t wait for the rest! I would read it all tonight if I could.

    Like

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