Sorry this one is so late today! My sister got engaged yesterday (yay!!!!!!!!), so I got way too little sleep and topped it off with a really challenging day of substitute teaching. It took a lot of salsa and tea (my comfort foods), but I finally managed to get this ready for you.
If you need them, find links to previous chapters here.
The world twists into the half-sleep, half-waking realm where dream and reality mingle. Cold fingers slip up my ankle, but I know it’s a dream. I’m alone on the beach.
I dream the sea rolls up the shore to cover me like a blanket, though the tide is out.
The dream-water creeps up my shoulders. It squeezes my throat⎼and I jolt fully awake. I push against the sand, trying to sit up, but find I’m encased by water. It presses my arms to my sides. It squeezes my throat. It cuts off my breath.
I gasp for air. Sea rushes into my mouth, salty and bitter.
Aia, save me! I lash my arms and legs around. It’s like moving through a pool of stone. With all of my strength, I try to claw my way up the sand, but the water paralyzes me with relentless force.
Down the beach, the tide is still low.
My lungs burn. I want to scream. My body strains for air, but something keeps my nose and throat closed.
Time rushes and slows down. It’s hard to think, to do anything except fight for air. Spots fill my vision. Everything goes black.
Then I’m not. Fire burns up my throat, water pouring from my lungs. The water’s not over my face, but I can’t get enough air, I gag, screams fill the air.
The water gripping my throat squeezes again, harder, then it’s gone and Nhardah is here, dragging me toward the cliffs.
A wave lifts from the ocean, spirals sideways, loops around the water that’s reaching back toward me. My feet scramble the loose sand. Another scream rends the air, soul-chilling, inhuman.
Arms form a vice around my chest. Nhardah drags me to my feet. I stumble after him, but my vision’s still spotty, and the sand turns to soup, and the tree picks up its roots and flies at me.
A shout–Nhardah–mixes the tongues of Maraiah and the kaites.
The wind shreds the tree.
Splinters shower my head. My feet slip into the sand. The beach turns to soup and slurps at my ankles. Then Nhardah yanks, and I leap. An invisible force picks me up, and I’m standing at the base of the path up the cliff, Nhardah ahead of me, gripping my hand. He’s already running when our feet touch the soil.
Wind rakes my hair into my face, then the path smooths like pottery. Pebbles roll by. My sandals grip the polished ground a moment longer, but their friction gives out and we’re falling, falling, back to the liquid sand, Nhardah smashing into me. The breath rushes out of me, and I think that, even if Nhardah can’t die, he could still crush me.
I lunge for the cliffside and claw for handholds. The air pulls me back and down, but Nhardah pushes me up, and invisible hands drag me toward the top. My dress is tattered, my knees and elbows are bleeding, but I push myself up onto the hilltop and roll away from the edge.
A surge of sea lunges up, floats in mid-air, then splats down, and we creep closer to the nearby greasewood shrubs.
Nhardah’s on his feet, dragging me onto the hill. I stumble after him.
We race on the path over the island while winds rage and plants lunge and the ground billows.
We’ve reached the top of the grazing hill. Nhardah halts, and I smack into him. Is there a worse enemy ahead? I grab his arm and heave. Nothing looks different, just seething kaites and aivenkaites convulsing the world around us.
Nhardah’s lived with the kaites longer than I did. He’s married to one of them, and she can speak in his head. Maybe she warned him of something I can’t see or sense.
Then metal glints through the sky: Two swords. They slash at dirt and plants and wind that hurl themselves at me. Wherever they hit, the attack explodes and a wail bursts out.
I see no hands wielding the swords, but they move with greater speed than any human I’ve met. Even in the dark, I can see the weapons’ every detail. A trail of shimmering dust bathes one blade and wire twirling around its grip in reflected light. The other sword’s black spike down the center of its blade seems to drink the darkness. Triangles sprout from that sword’s pointed guard, making every side of it deadly.
The first sword embodies grace, the second, strength, but both dance through the air and smite the aivenkaites with complementary elegance.
“The swords of champions,” Nhardah explains without my asking. “Forged by the kaites and blessed by Aia Himself. They are the only two weapons on Orrock that can harm aivenkaites.”
“What do they do?” I pant.
The sword with the swirling guard arcs, and a howl splits the night.
“They inflict pain. An aivenkaite must return to the Void to recover,” Nhardah answers.
Clouds pour into the sky, blotting out the moons and indree. Even the swords of champions disappear. Whispers, shrieks, slurps, and thumps whirl around.
This is worse than my worst nightmare. This was my deepest fear as a child. No battle I witnessed from a distance came close to terrifying me this much.
Panic chokes me. My breath races.
I fall into a ball and claw my fingers through my loose hair, locking my elbows together in front of my face.
Aia, save. Aia, save. It’s an endless chant rolling through my head. My lips move, but I can’t tell if I’m speaking out loud. I try to make the prayer fill my whole mind, blocking out the sounds of battle.
It would just take one aivenkaite getting past the kaites.
It could slit my throat in half a heartbeat.
It could shred me like the kaites shredded that tree.
Through the terror, I feel arms wrap around me. A scream forces itself through my mouth, longer than I knew was possible. I twist, and the arms give. Human, then, not aivenkaite.
A deep, human voice fills my ear. “Raiballeon, it’s me.” Nhardah. “They can’t harm me, remember. I’ll do what I can to protect you.”
That’s what my kaites always vowed: We’ll protect you. The promise makes its way past my fear.
Think, Rai. Breathe.
The kaites are here. They’ll protect me.
The Firstborn can’t be killed, even by aivenkaites. He’ll protect me.
Nhardah tugs me closer. I reach for him blindly, scrambling for protection. He wraps around me like a father sheltering a child woken by a nightmare. Like a father, he starts to sing.
Nardah’s voice rises over the clamor, singing in Maraian. It’s a song I’ve never heard. The melody tugs at me, calming my racing pulse, and I strain to catch the words:
“Aia save us from the foe,
Aivankaites that whisper no.
They say you’re no longer near.
They would have us filled with fear.
Aia make your power known.
You alone are on the throne.”
Peace slides through me as he sings. The words stand as a reminder of the real power tonight and always. A tear slides down my cheek. Aia cares for His people. He’ll protect me.
As Nhardah sings again, I concentrate on the way the kaites taught me to sleep when I was scared. Piece by piece, I relax my body: First my toes, then my ankles, then knees, working the way up. I lean into Nhardah, like I once leaned against my father when I first learned to fear the slave master.
By the time I relax my shoulders and Nhardah enters the fourth rendition of his song, my fears have loosened. Fighting for my life has exhausted me. As I calm, the last of my energy evaporates. “You won’t leave me?” The words slur.
“Not tonight,” Nhardah promises.
With his reassurance, the last fight drains out of me. I let my mind relax. Despite the battle that rages on, I fall asleep.