Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Cassia woke when the great iron bar on the door of her prison clattered to the floor. She leapt into a crouch, looking wildly around, with no inkling of where she was or what was out there in the dark.
Then the door screeched open and Cassia remembered. A torch emerged around the door, painfully bright, followed by an arm and a scarred face. Iona was tall and imposing in the torchlight, until her brow wrinkled in concern.
“No light?” Iona frowned. “I thought you angels could make light. I would have told them to leave you a candle if I had known.”
Cassia didn’t answer.
Iona jammed the torch into the crevice of a rock and sat cross-legged a few feet away from Cassia. The door thundered shut behind them. She pulled a disk of flatbread from a pouch at her side and tossed it to Cassia. “Eat. I’m sure you’re starving.”
Cassia caught the flatbread automatically, but had no intention of eating it until she caught the faint scent of cinnamon. Her stomach growled, her hunger awakening.
“If I were trying to poison you, I wouldn’t bother with trickery,” Iona said, with a smile that was more creepy than reassuring.
Cassia took a bite. Iona was right — even if it was poisoned, it didn’t matter. They could do whatever they wanted to her while she was trapped her. One bite turned into two, and she devoured the rest.
Iona tossed her another disk of bread. “I promised you an explanation last night. A little tour of your family history. I’m here to give you that.”
Cassia’s stomach churned. She swallowed her bite of bread. “Why?”
Iona’s smile tightened. “You godformed are born on beds of lies. Do you want the truth or not?”
“What do you mean, the truth?” Cassia said loudly. She could guess at parts of it. The Treatise kept the peace between the godformed’s gods. Before the Treatise, there had been war — Order fighting Order, humans fighting godformed. Humans had driven out and persecuted the godformed ever since a human made a pact with a god and was molded into the first godformed. The Treatise allowed the Orders to stop fighting each other long enough to negotiate a peace with humanity.
Iona probably believed that the godformed had used the Treatise to subjugate them. But whatever the drakes had done in the hundred years since the Treatise, Cassia knew Micah’s only intent had always been peace.
Losing the Treatise would mean losing that peace.
Her stomach lurched. How long had she slept? Had the Treatise already broken?
Iona was watching her, her eyes narrowed. She leaned forward, the torchlight flickering harsh shadows across her face.
“The truth, child, is that the Treatise is not an artifact of peace. It is a prison. One that holds our gods.”
Cassia laughed. She didn’t mean to, but the statement was so utterly absurd that she had no other reaction. This was what Iona believed? This was why the Treatise was stolen, a hundred years of peace risked?
Anger flashed across Iona’s face and she made a sudden movement as if to reach out toward Cassia. Cassia’s laugh died in her throat.
“I suggest, little girl,” Iona said, a muscle twitching in her neck, “that you be silent and listen before you laugh about things you don’t understand.”
Cassia forced her mouth shut and nodded.
“You godformed have a simple enough relationship with your gods. They change you, they give you powers, and then you carry out their will,” Iona said, distaste on her tongue. “Tell me, what was magic like before the godformed?”
“We drew magic from objects,” Cassia said, “and shaped it to cast spells. That’s still the only way humans can use magic. Making pacts with the gods was how we got our own magic.”
“Wrong,” Iona hissed.
She held up a hand and chanted under her breath. A sudden wind whipped around the chamber, tangling their hair. A deluge of tiny specks hit Cassia, stinging against her skin before melting into specks of water. Cassia sheltered her face, staring at Iona’s chanting, both hands free and moving, shaping the wind and freezing what little water it had into ice and snow.
Cassia sucked in a breath. She was casting without a object as a focus. That wasn’t supposed to be possible for humans.
Iona heard her surprise. She lowered her hands and the wind died.
“How?” Cassia asked. “You’re not a godformed.”
Iona smiled and spread her arms. It was the first smile Cassia had seen of hers that reached her eyes. “No. I am a student of Change.”
Change… Cassia recognized it, in the way the water had moved from air to solid. “That’s one of the seven Essences.”
Objects that held magical power always had power of a particular essence, one tied to the object’s nature. It was the Essence the object carried that influenced what type of spells could be cast with the object’s magic. The quills Cassia used to send messages to her family held the Essence of Consequence, because a quill can alter the world with words. Changing the world through words from afar was a logical extension of the power a quill already held, and perfectly suited for a quill’s residual magic.
Iona laughed. “Is that what Micah has named them, to smother the truth? Essences? They are not amorphous forces. They are our gods.”
She leaned forward, and for a second Cassia thought she was going to grab her, but then the woman pulled down her sleeve and showed Cassia the symbol sewn into her cuff. It was the strange seven-pronged V Cassia had seen in Haven.
“Life. Death. Consequence. Luck. Change. Endurance. Duality.” Iona pointed at each prong in turn, starting from the rightmost tip of the V, then the leftmost tip, and working her way back and forth down the center until she pointed to the very bottom where a line bisected the V and ended with Duality.
As she spoke, Cassia felt a strange stirring. Not like the feelings that came from Tilana’s mote. This was deeper, subtler, almost like a resonance in her bones.
Iona looked up and met Cassia’s eyes. They were inches apart now, leaning together in the poor torchlight. “These are the Seven. The true gods of humanity. Not your pretenders.”
Cassia jerked back, and the momentary lure broke.“Pretenders?” she spat. “How pretend is this?”
Without thinking, she stretched out her hand and channeled moonlight. A second too late, she remembered her tainted power.
But the light that shone from her hand was as silver as a lake at midnight, with no trace of red. Cassia gasped and stared at her hand. It didn’t make sense. Maybe the blood moon had ended, but Mithrinde had to still be angry with her.
Iona didn’t seem to notice her relief. “The power is not pretend,” she snapped. “Far from it. But your so-called gods, they belong to nature, not to humanity. It is obvious in every way they warp you.”
The barb stung. Cassia looked at her silver-skinned hands and ruffled every feather in Tilana’s wings, so they all stood on end. She glared at Iona. “Warped? This is who I am. I’ve wanted this power since I was a child.”
And now Tilana’s mote felt more like hers every day, and sometimes Cassia caught herself pretending she would never have to give it back because what else could she do?
Iona’s face was growing uglier by the second. “You chose it because no one ever told you better. Because your ancestors lusted after power and got it, and passed it down from generation to generation like a birthright, until their children’s children were satisfied with their abominations no longer and wanted more.
Your father and that drake bitch were not content with ruling over their own people. They had to take. Take our power and our gods, so no one could stand in their way. They came to us with silver tongues and lying words and talk of alliance and peace. They turned our power against us and sealed our gods away and now for one hundred years you have used us and spat on us, secure in your power because of your precious Treatise. Any questions?”
“You’re lying,” Cassia said loudly, her face burning. The only thing holding her back from tears was an utter conviction that Iona was mad. “My father made the Treatise for peace. We were at war before! He saved us!”
Iona gave a sharp bark of a laugh. “The quickest way to peace is killing everyone on the other side.”
That was so unfair Cassia couldn’t think how to respond.
Iona was still waving the cuff with the V stitched on in Cassia’s face. Cassia fixated on that, the first point where Iona’s ravings fell apart. “But… there just can’t have been other deities first. The Essences aren’t gods.”
Iona leaned in close to Cassia, her breath hot on her face. Cassia tried to pull away, but Iona snatched her wrists and held them in an iron grip.
“We’ll see how sure you are about that when you break the Treatise at dusk and feel our power,” she hissed.
She shoved Cassia away, releasing her wrists, so Cassia tumbled onto her back. Iona towered above her, her eyes aflame. “Sasha told me you were unusually kind to her. So I thought I would try to teach you the truth. I should have known the Archpriests’ lies would run too deep.”
Iona swept away, turning sharply on her heel and yanking the torch from the ground. She reached the door, which didn’t have a handle on the inside, but she didn’t call for her men to open it. Instead, she sank her hands into the metal and pulled, bending the iron with a horrible screech and a bright flicker of blue around her hands.
Cassia’ stared in shock and registered almost too late that she only had seconds to change Iona’s mind. To stop this madness.
“Wait!” To Cassia’s surprise, Iona paused in the doorway.
“I know it’s not right, what the drakes do to you. And others.” Cassia stumbled over her words, her terror warring with desperation and memories of Sasha’s story and the little boy Fyn had threatened back in Ashbourne. “When I left Mithrinden I was horrified at how you were treated. But if you break the Treatise, the gods will go back to war!”
Iona looked at her, her hands still knuckles-deep in the ancient, rusted iron. She grinned.
“That’s the point, god-stealer.”
She stepped through the parted metal, taking the torch with her. Though she did not reach or look back, the second her heel cleared the hole, the metal snapped back into place as if it had never changed.
The torchlight vanished, plunging Cassia into darkness again. Cassia lay on the ground, chest heaving, for many long seconds before she gathered her wits enough to light her hand. The moonlight glowed, silver and soothing.
“She was lying,” Cassia said to her hand, but she was really speaking to Mithrinde. To her father. “Don’t worry, I know she’s crazy. Even though she has weird powers.”
She stretched her hand up and searched, but couldn’t make out the ceiling of her prison. Iona’s parting words before Cassia called her back rang in her mind. We’ll see how you feel about that when you break the Treatise at dusk.
“It’s impossible,” Cassia said. “The Treatise needs a representative from every Order to dissolve it.”
But Cassia would have said Iona’s trick with the iron door was impossible.
“She can’t make me do it,” Cassia said. “I won’t break the Treatise.”
Her small light flickered fearfully against the dark cave wall.
Fyn woke on a bed of fused sand to a parched mouth and sticky scales.
“Aw, rockslides,” he swore, scrambling to his feet, his claws slipping on the glasslike sand. The last thing he remembered was roaring fire at the alcove where Cassia had vanished in the middle of the night. Now from the heat in the air around him, the sun was high overhead. He must have fallen asleep, like an idiot.
But aside from his parched mouth, his head was clearer than it had been in days, and a bone-deep exhaustion he couldn’t have named until now had lifted.
His stomach gurgled, and Fyn glared down at it. “We eat when Cassia’s safe. Not before. Not to mention, the humans took all our food.”
Fyn climbed out of the alcove and surveyed the gorge. The sun pressed down like a smother and the sharp-edged rocks radiated indifference. Nothing moved or made a sound. He couldn’t even tell if the tiny brown desert plants that clung to the walls and shadows of rocks were alive, or long-dead husks of friendlier times.
Tracking the humans who must have taken Cassia and Sasha would be impossible on the hard, sandy ground, but that didn’t matter. There was only one place they were going to go in this wilderness.
Fyn set off down the gorge without any real idea of what he was going to do when he reached the Hive. He couldn’t fight Iona, not without Cassia’s wings and plenty of open space, but standing around and moping wasn’t going to help her either.
It didn’t take long for him to reach the last bend before the oxbow curve where the Hive sat. He could hear footsteps and the occasional indistinct voice, as well as a rhythmic thudding. He swept his tail from side to side and almost went bounding in, but then he heard Cassia’s voice in his mind as clearly as if she was standing next to him.
You’ve got to be smart about this, Fyn!
Fyn’s tail stilled. She was right. He pressed himself low to the ground and transformed into his human form.
He staggered, gasping for breath. The heat was ten times worse and his throat twice as dry in this form. Humans were not made to live in this hot of a desert. His head spun, but he pushed himself up and staggered to the outer edge of the canyon, climbing a large rock at the mouth of the oxbow so he could just see into the open half-circle.
Five humans were gathered around the base of the Hive. Two were scooping water from the shallow, stagnant pool that were the dregs of this river during the dry season. The other three seemed to be pounding and splitting rock along the edges of half-dozen wide, circular, and oddly familiar holes that dotted the base of the Hive. The cracked and broken stone was piled up in front of the holes, blocking two or three off while leaving others narrower. Probably to make them more defensible, or to keep out the heat, or something.
Fyn gritted his teeth. The still, murky water was probably rank enough that if he was in his drake form he’d smell it from here, but to his parched lips it already tasted sweet as rain.
“Focus, Fyn,” he told himself. Though he could take five humans easily, as long as they weren’t mages, then everyone would know he was there, and he’d have Iona on his tail faster than he could drink his fill. Despite all the tunnels in that spire of stone, going in directly obviously wasn’t going to work.
He leaned forward, straining to see around the oxbow bend. Were there more entrances over there?
His foot slipped on loose rubble. Fyn’s chin smacked against the stone and he slid, tumbling down along with a shower of scree. He fell flat on his back at the bottom, his breath rushing out with an oomph.
He braced himself for feet running around the corner, but the rhythmic pounding continued without pause. It didn’t seem like anyone had heard his fall.
“Unnngh,” he groaned, struggling to draw a breath. He stared up at the edge of the gorge and the blinding blue sky, cursing the sun and this whole Selach-forsaken climate. Selach’s fire was hot and invigorating, not suffocating and lifeless like this endless sandy rock. What he wouldn’t give for a real cave.
Fyn felt… a breeze? As if in answer to his complaint, a faint breath of cool air tickled his face, flowing down over his nose and past his mouth.
Fyn turned over and clambered to his hands and knees, scrambling forward and examining the cliff face behind him. There, in the shadows between the fallen boulder he’d climbed on and the cliff wall itself, was a long, dark crack just wide enough for him to squeeze into. Fyn took a deep breath, savoring the cool, damp air. From the smell of the air, this wasn’t just a crack. This led to an entire cave system.
Grinning, Fyn got to his feet and squeezed into the crack, wriggling his chest and then his butt, reaching ahead into the darkness as his eyes slowly adjusted. He wriggled deeper for five minutes or more, confident the crack would open up. Air didn’t lie. The walls pressed against his scales in a cool embrace, soothing his skin after so long underneath the foul desert sun.
He had to be close now. Even as he thought it, his hand reached forward and struck air. He waved it in all directions and felt nothing but cool, lightly circulating air on his skin.
He dragged himself forward and was yanked to a stop, a sharp pain stabbing in his hip where he had caught it on a particularly narrow corner.
Fyn growled. So close. He yanked again, but only managed to scrape dangerously near his crotch and wedge himself even more firmly into the narrow outcropping. He knew better than to try again — if he got stuck in drake form, he could always change to human form, but if he got stuck in human form, he was out of luck.
He withdrew his hand and shimmed backwards, then pulled himself up the wall, clinging to the stone and passing over the pinch point below. At last, with a final wriggle and a pop, he fell out of the crack and onto the smooth, deep stone of a wide, curved tunnel.
Fyn swelled into his drake form again. His paws slipped into well-worn grooves and his head just scraped the ceiling. He pressed up against the smooth damp-slicked walls and breathed in the rich air, filtering through the scents.
Then his claws found the marks, and Fyn knew. They were older than he could guess and well-worn, but unmistakable.
Drakes had made these tunnels.
Fyn let out a whoop of joy, not caring how it echoed underground. He leapt forward, feeling for more marks on the ground. Though simpler than the ones he was used to, they still wrote a map of the tunnels for any who could read them: one-way tunnel, outer ring, junction ahead, home cave this way.
The marking for home cave this way pointed, unless Fyn had somehow lost all sense of direction, directly to the Hive.
For the first time since Zhiron had given Fyn his orders under the red moonlight, Fyn felt sure of himself. Iona and her people had made a mistake.
Even hundreds of miles from Selachen, caves were drake territory.