Following the acclaimed Skyborn comes the next thrilling novel in a soaring new fantasy series from USA Today bestselling author, David Dalglish.
The letter lay before Jay Simmons on his desk. When the army of Center had invaded their home and declared sanctions against their island, he’d hoped that would be the end of the aggressive measures. That letter dashed those hopes to dust.
“You’d have us shut down our academy and disband our Seraphim?” Jay asked the messenger, a balding man wearing the red robes of Center’s theotechs. His name was Eyan, and Jay hated him from the moment the man had stepped into his office and sniffed as if he’d entered a pigsty.
“Is the wording not clear enough?”
Jay’s upper lip twitched.
“The desire is clear, but not the reasons for it. The Speaker has already burdened us with sanctions against purchasing any new elements. Now he’d leave us without a single harness or elemental prism to protect ourselves from the other three islands?”
Eyan scratched at his bulbous nose, seemingly more fascinated with that itch than the dismantling of Weshern’s last semblance of independence.
“For the duration of our occupation we will deny any requests for duels or battles from the other minor islands. Weshern is under Center’s care. You and your people will not be in any danger.”
“For the duration.” Jay rose from his seat, his fist rapping against the top of his hardwood desk. “And how long might that be?”
“Until the Speaker decides the danger is passed. What happened to Galen will not happen here, no matter the cost.”
“So days? Months? Years?”
The theotech finally met his eye. The acknowledgment worsened Jay’s mood further. This was not the look of a man addressing an equal, but of a master berating a dog for ceaselessly barking.
“Decades, if that is what it takes,” Eyan said. “You grumble as if you have a say in this matter, Headmaster. Weshern’s carelessness cost tens of thousands of innocent lives. Do you think your petty grumblings mean anything compared to that?”
He held up a wooden board in his left hand, along with several sheets of thick paper.
“Soldiers are on their way with wagons to load up your wings and elements. We’ll ship them back to Center, for safekeeping until the sanctions end. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to get started cataloging your total inventory.”
Jay swallowed down what felt like a razor blade in his throat.
“Not at all,” he said. “Follow me.”
He stepped around his desk, past the theotech, and out of his office. The outside hall was empty but for his over-secretary, Rebecca Waller. Ever since the Speaker arrived two weeks ago accompanied by his army of knights and ground troops, Jay had sent home the vast majority of students from the academy, leaving the fields and halls quiet and dull. Every single prism was precious, for the flow from Center had ceased completely. They didn’t have any to spare on training students. And now what they had left was to be taken . . .
“Rebecca, could you carry a message for me?” he asked the woman as she sprang from her seat.
“Of course,” Rebecca said. Jay felt a pang of regret in his chest, and he fought to keep his voice calm.
“The academy is shutting down, and we’re moving out our gear and elements. This ends it all.”
Rebecca’s slender face didn’t crack in the slightest.
“I will inform the remaining Seraphim,” she said, dipping her head in respect.
“Such dour attitudes,” Eyan said as Jay led him down the hall, Rebecca hustling in the opposite direction. “I’m sure there will be other cushy jobs for a man of your age and reputation. Your standing in Weshern won’t be diminished significantly.”
That Eyan would believe Jay’s most pressing concern was his reputation made him loathe the man all the more. All Eyan cared about was status and position. Dismantling the Weshern Academy was just another assignment, a bothersome one that would eat up too many hours of his day.
“Perhaps,” Jay said, opening the door and holding it for Eyan. “But this is the job I’m best at, and the one I expected to hold until my last days.”
A golden-winged and -armored man waited at the entrance, two swords sheathed to his wide waist. He was an angelic knight, Center’s elite version of the outer islands’ Seraphim. The knights were generally considered to be of far greater skill, not that such claims had been challenged in decades. To rebel against Center was considered suicide. The knight scanned over Jay as if analyzing a threat, then dismissed him, eyes returning to the skies.
“Herding little brats into apartments and classrooms, all in the hopes that a few will accomplish something to make the effort worthwhile?” Eyan asked. The theotech shook his head. “I’m not sure why you’d miss it at all, Headmaster. I’d think working the fields with the cattle would be more rewarding. At least the bovines won’t talk back to you when you give them an order.”
Jay chuckled, the good humor faked in an effort to keep Eyan and his bodyguard at ease while they crossed the academy grounds toward the nearby armory.
“Too true,” he said. “And you can whip a cow without fear of their parents’ displeasure.”
“Now you’re seeing the brighter side of things. Perhaps I misjudged you, Headmaster. You seem like a man with a good enough head on your shoulders. Even if your Archon is reinstated, there will be significant administrative changes in the way Weshern’s government works. I daresay we might find you a suitable position. If you can handle the entitled whelps here, then the rest of Weshern’s ilk shouldn’t prove any more difficult.”
They arrived at the squat building. Jay pulled out a key and unlocked the wide front door. Normally one of the mechanics would be lurking nearby, but they’d all been dismissed as Jay shrank the staff in anticipation of Center’s complete takeover. Besides, there was somewhere far more important for the mechanics to be.
“Do you want to start with the wing harnesses, the swords, or the stash of elements?” Jay asked.
“The harnesses,” Eyan said. “They’ll be the most difficult to transport. If we need more wagons, I’d like to know immediately.”
“Smart thinking,” Jay said, and he pushed open the door. Eyan led the way, eyeing the dozens of harnesses hanging from thick iron pegs nailed to the wall. As before, the knight hung back, keeping watch outside.
“Not a bad collection,” Eyan said. “And well cared for, surprisingly enough. I’d expected them to be more weathered, given all the use by trainees.”
“The trainees’ equipment is in the gear sheds at the center of the academy grounds,” Jay said. Beside the door rested the long pole used to remove the harnesses from the wall, and Jay casually took it into his left hand. “And even those are in fine condition. We take good care of what is ours here in Weshern.”
Eyan pulled out his pad, steadily adding marks to his paper with a piece of charcoal as he counted row after row. Jay followed after him a few feet behind.
“How long until the wagons arrive?” Jay asked when Eyan was deep into his counting.
“We flew ahead, so maybe thirty minutes or so. Why?”
Jay swung the pole with both hands. It cracked against Eyan’s neck, striking with the metal just beneath the hook. The theotech let out a cry as he dropped to the ground, body flopping limply. Jay hoisted the pole, bottom pointed toward Eyan’s temple, and thrust it down with a grunt. The metal crunched through bone, ending Eyan’s pathetic cries. Jay pulled the pole free and shook it in a futile attempt to clean off the gore and blood, frustrated by the racing of his heart. He should be calmer than this, more clearheaded.
A thud at the door turned Jay about. Argus Summers, the legendary commander, stood in the doorway, uniform crisp and clean as always. He held a bloody blade in his right hand. At his feet lay the body of the dead knight, unceremoniously dumped onto the armory floor.
“How much time?” the commander asked.
“The theotech said thirty,” Jay said. “So act as if we’ve got twenty and get this stuff moving, now.”
Argus motioned to someone outside, and a dozen men and women rushed into the armory. They were Seraphim, and they’d been stationed in the barracks waiting for just this possibility. Rebecca’s summons had brought them here for removal of all useful equipment. This ends it all, he’d told the over-secretary. The academy was finished, thought Jay with a heavy heart, but it was also a new beginning. There was no turning back now, no hoping for peace. Weshern’s resistance would officially begin here, in his academy, before his very eyes.
“We can’t get a tenth of this out in time,” Argus said as Seraphim grabbed spare sets and exited. “I told you we should have done this days ago.”
“Once the Speaker discovers their absence, there is no going back,” Jay said. “Forgive me for holding off signing our own death warrants until we had no other choice.” He crossed his arms. “Are you clearing out the gear sheds as well?”
“Another ten are there taking what they can,” Argus said.
“Focus on the elements. You only need enough wings for our Seraphim. The elements, though, may one day run out.”
“I’ve already told them,” Rebecca said, the over-secretary’s demeanor still calm as ever as she strode into the building. Seeing the dead theotech, she walked closer and took the pad from his limp hand. Her eyes flitted over what few scribblings there were before she pocketed the pad.
“At least Center won’t know the number of our supplies,” she said. “Every bit of information is precious.”
“What of our own records?” Jay asked.
Rebecca smiled at him, just the tiniest of curls at the edges of her mouth.
“Already burned. Some of us did not wait until the very last moment to make our move, Headmaster.”
Another stab to Jay’s heart. Another reminder that their academy was at an end, and that he’d been foolish to delay so long. “You were always better than I deserved,” he said. “Yes, but you were aware of it,” Rebecca said. “That helped more than you might believe.”
Jay caught a glimpse of a particular Seraph from the corner of his eye, and he turned to see Breanna Skyborn strapping on her own pair of wings.
“Make sure you get plenty of fire element for that one,” Jay said, projecting his voice. Bree glanced up from her buckles, and she blushed when she realized others were staring at her.
“I’ll try not to be wasteful with it,” she said.
“There is no waste,” Argus said. “Not when the flame covers your blades.”
The commander patted Jay on the shoulder, grabbed a set from off the wall, and hurried out. Jay glanced at Rebecca, who was busy jotting down numbers on a sheet she’d stolen from the dead theotech.
“It’s time for you to leave,” he told her.
The over-secretary lowered her pad.
“You may walk, or have a Seraph carry you. Either way, it’s time for you to go. Center’s people will be here soon, and when they discover what’s happened they’ll scour the nearby countryside to catch whoever’s responsible. I refuse to let you be found when they do.”
When it looked like she’d still argue, Jay straightened up to his full height.
“Miss Waller, this is my last order as headmaster of this academy,” he said. “I expect you to follow it. Is that understood?”Rebecca sighed.
“Don’t linger too long yourself,” she said. “You may be old, but you’re still useful.”
“I’m one of those two,” he said. “Now go.”
She left, and Jay wished he could shake the feeling that he’d never see her again. The minutes raced by as the Seraphs loaded up what they could and then flew off, leaving him alone. Jay walked the armory, staring at the gaps on the wall. Each missing set represented a soldier to fight against Center’s invasion. Each one might mean the difference between slavery to the Speaker, and freedom.
The Seraphs returned in groups, having stashed their supplies at several nearby safe holds Jay and Argus had prepared in advance.
“Hurry it up,” Jay barked at them. “Time’s almost out.”
The last group of four returned, led by the gray giant that was Loramere.
“Knights are swarming like bees beyond the academy,” Loramere said as he slammed open the door. The other three followed, Kael, Bree, and a veteran Seraph that had graduated from Jay’s academy more than a decade earlier, Aisha. “Had to fly us low and slow to get back here.”
“If it’s that bad, you shouldn’t have come back at all,” Jay said, stepping past them to the door. “Now grab a set of wings and go, all of you.”
The other remaining Seraphs hurried out as the last four pulled harnesses from the wall and began strapping them to their own to carry during flight. Jay kept his head out the door, watching for a sign of the wagons’ arrival. It came far too soon, a dozen angelic knights suddenly racing overhead in tight formation.
“Damn!” Jay shouted, and he hit the door with his fist. “They’re here already. Damn!”
Loramere yanked loose one of the belts holding the second harness to his own and let it drop to the ground.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“They’re already scouting overhead.”
“Do they know what we’re doing?” Kael asked, unhinging his own spare set.
“They don’t seem alarmed. This is only standard procedure, I’d wager. But the others will be here soon.” Jay glanced at the two older Seraphim, then the twins. Mind racing, he bit his lip as a plan formed in his mind. “Bree, Kael, take off your wings.”
“Sir, I don’t think . . .”
“I said do it!”
The twins obeyed, rapidly undoing the buckles to their harnesses. Jay turned to the others, and he lowered his voice.
“Two unarmed students may go unnoticed, but not you,” he said. “If you flee now, you might have a chance to outrace the knights. The other option is that you stay and ensure Kael and Bree escape.”
Loramere frowned at the two young Seraphim.
“Two experienced for two learners,” he said. “Are they worth it?”
Jay lowered his voice even further.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But who Bree is, and what she represents, might be worth a dozen Seraphim.”
Aisha shared a look with Loramere, then thudded a fist against her breast.
“If we’re flying, it’s with a purpose, and not as cowards,” she said. “What do you need us to do?”
“Loramere, go north; Aisha, go south,” he said. “Wait until the last possible moment, then keep all eyes on you. And . . . and thank you.”
Jay returned to the twins, and he knelt before them, a hand on each of their shoulders. Their silver wings lay on the floor behind them.
“Listen carefully,” he said. “I want you to walk, not run, walk to the eastern wall. Anything else might spark the interest of the knights overhead. Argus should have already seen their arrival, and he’ll be keeping low, watching for any signs of you. Climb over the wall the moment you think you’ll go unnoticed. If you don’t think that’s possible, return to your apartments and pray you aren’t taken for questioning.”
“But what about Aisha and Loramere?” Kael asked. “Don’t you worry about us,” Loramere said, putting on a brave face. “Me and Aisha here have our own plan.”
Jay squeezed their shoulders, then stood.
“You’ve done your island proud, and me most of all.” He smiled at Bree. “I told you I’d make a fine Seraph out of you. I just wish I deserved more of the credit. Both of you have your greatest moments ahead of you, so do not despair, do not give up, and do not give in. We are the sword in the sky. We shall not be slaves. Make Center and her theotechs regret the day they set foot on our sovereign soil.”
Kael and Bree saluted him, fists against their breasts. Both fought back tears.
“We fly unchained,” they said, the rallying cry of the newborn rebellion.
They walked for the door, but before exiting, Bree broke from her brother’s side and flung her arms around Loramere’s broad waist.
“Thank you,” Jay heard her whisper.
Kael followed up her hug with one of his own. Jay saw the big man’s calm veneer threatening to break.
“You’re good kids,” he said, rubbing the tops of their dark hair with his hands. “Now get the hell out of here.”
They stepped out, leaving Jay alone with the two Seraphs.
“Surprise must be on your side if you’re to have a chance to live,” Jay said. “I’ll stall as long as I can, but once you see anyone nearing the armory or the gear sheds, it’s time to move.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves,” Aisha said, and she patted a sword strapped to her waist. “There’s no outrunning them. We’ll fly as far as we can, and then we’ll die taking as many knights with us as we can. No one will capture us, or torture us for names. We’ll fall from the sky like soldiers.”
Jay bit his tongue. He would not argue, nor pretend there was any other realistic outcome. Saluting them both, he wished to God he’d vacated the contents of the academy days ago.
“The best of luck to the both of you,” he said, and he exited the armory before he might lose his calm. Once on the path, he hurried toward the western entrance. A pair of wagons approached along the dirt road, each pulled by a team of donkeys. Several knights hovered just overhead, while high above, four more circled like vultures over a battlefield. Once he knew they saw him he slowed his walk and put his hands into his pockets as if he were in no hurry.
“Who is in charge?” Jay shouted once they were within earshot. He stood directly in the center of the road, leaving them with no choice but to run him over if they didn’t stop. Stop they did.
“I am,” said a red-robed woman hopping out the back of the first wagon. Gold and silver chains rattled about her neck. Most notable was the gold dagger buckled to her waist, its hilt encrusted with five gems, each of a different color. Such daggers belonged to the Erelim, the highest-ranking members of the theotechs. Only the Speaker himself carried more power and authority. It took some effort for Jay to hide his surprise at someone of such importance coming to oversee the removal of their equipment.
“And you are . . . ?” he asked.
She stopped just shy of him, arms crossed over her chest. No hint of cosmetics upon her face, just pale skin creased with lines about her lips and eyes. She’d spent her lifetime frowning, and they had left their mark. Her blonde hair was tightly braided, held together by thin gold ribbons. Though she still looked young, her voice was one of age and authority. Her red robes were smooth and vibrant, her silver-buckled black boots immaculately clean.
“Er’el Jaina Cenborn. I assume you are this academy’s headmaster?”
“I am,” he said. “And Eyan told me to find you when you entered. You’ll need a third wagon to cart everything out. He insisted that you send for another immediately, lest, and these are his words, ‘we be forced to sit on our asses all day waiting for it to arrive.’ ”
Jaina eyed him carefully, a gaze Jay didn’t like one bit. A sharp mind was hidden behind those blue eyes, of that he had no doubt.
“Where is Eyan right now?” she asked, cool voice revealing none of her inner debate.
“In the armory,” Jay said.
Jaina snapped her fingers above her head. One of the flying knights landed in a kneel beside her.
“Tomas, go confirm the request,” she said. She pointed past him. “The squat rectangle there, just beside the barracks.”
The knight thudded a gauntleted fist against his chest. His gold wings shimmered, and with a deep hum he shot into the air, straight for the armory.
“You know the layout of our academy?” Jay asked her. “I don’t remember you having been here before.”
“I haven’t,” she said. “But I have come here with a task to complete, and I did not do so blind and dumb. Given past experience, I’d argue those are more Weshern traits. Now step aside, Headmaster, before I have my wagons run you over.”
Jay did so, telling himself he’d done his best. The game was over. Weshern’s freedom would now be in the hands of others. Jaina walked alongside the wagon, and she gestured for him to follow her. He thought to disobey, but every second he played along might be the difference between life and death for the Skyborn twins. Keeping to the grass, they walked beside the wagons on the dirt road. Jaina’s gaze remained on him at all times.
“You’re a brave man,” she said, suddenly interrupting the monotony of the rolling wagon wheels. “It is not too late to repent and confess your sins.”
For decades Jay had lived his life as a soldier, and then as a teacher of students. That experience allowed him to keep his face passive when he answered.
“I do not understand.”
“I think you do,” she said as she stared at the armory. “My knight’s delay tells me all I need to know.”
Jay was about to plead further ignorance when Loramere and Aisha burst from the armory, remaining dangerously close to the ground as they streaked in opposite directions. Wings thrummed as knights immediately gave chase. Jay watched, trying to judge the separation between them and the knights. They had surprise on their side, but the knights’ wings were faster, and they had the height advantage. Perhaps if either could make it to a forest, and hide amid the trees . . .
From the corner of his eye Jay spotted Jaina moving. He felt pain in his stomach, felt warmth flowing down his abdomen. Jaina held him close with one arm around his neck, the other clutching the jeweled dagger pierced up to the hilt in his belly.
“It’s not lethal,” she whispered into his ear. “Not yet. If you behave, and do not struggle, you might survive this.” Then, louder, “Garesh, check the armory. Find Eyan and Tomas.”
Jay tried to strike at the theotech with his shaking hands, but she was too close, her grip too tight. The dagger was always twisting and shifting, sending unending waves of pain up his spine. His blood flowed, steadily draining him of strength. A long moment passed, Jay clenching his jaw against the increasing pain.
A knight landed beside them, and he looked in a foul mood.
“They’re both dead,” he said.
“The gear?” Jaina asked.
“Some taken, but not all. Looks like they didn’t have enough time.”
Jaina pressed her cheek against Jay’s.
“Time you were meant to buy them,” she said, her voice a seductive whisper in his ear. “You still have this chance. Plead to God for mercy, and tell me where they’re taking the harnesses. Tell me, and you will die quickly, and your soul will pass on to the golden hereafter without the stain of sin. Tell me, and I will give you absolution.”
The dagger slid upward, tearing flesh on its way to his rib cage. Jay tilted his lips to her ear, whispered back as if she were his lover.
“I’d rather burn.”
Jaina shoved him free. Too surprised to react, Jay staggered a few steps, mouth hanging open as a fresh spurt of blood poured down the front of his shirt. In that brief moment, he met Jaina’s gaze. He saw no anger, no frustration, just mild disappointment as the Er’el stretched her arm to the fullest, jamming that jeweled dagger of hers deep into his throat.
“A brave man,” she said as he dropped to his knees, upper body hitching in a hopeless attempt to draw breath. “Such a shame. Cowardice would have spared a great many lives.”
The dagger denied him speech as Jay collapsed to his knees, his vision turning white from pain. In one last act of defiance, he lurched forward, ensuring he bled all over those clean black boots of hers. Despite the blood, she did not shy away. Her next order echoed in his ears, the last words he’d ever hear.
“Weshern needs to learn the price of rebellion. Take all that’s left, then burn the academy to the ground. Leave them nothing but ash.”
Ash, thought Jay as he watched his blood trickle across the smooth leather. Is that my legacy of twenty years? Ash . . .
The boots pulled out from beneath his head. He dropped limp, felt something push him over. His eyes saw only blurry shadows. When the dagger yanked out from his throat, he felt nothing, for death had finally come to take him away.