Series: Heartborn #2
Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Release Date: May 17, 2017
Livvy Foster has a new heart and home and a place in the powerful halls of House Windhook. The fall of Sliver was only the beginning of a civil war that sees angels from across the sky challenge each other to lead a world in which the past and the future are connected by a storm crafted from time, ambition, and power.
When House Selinus attempts to bend the light of days in order to become the supreme power in an apocalyptic future, they confront a goddess who is older than time itself - and she'll stop at nothing to get the one soul who escaped her deadly grasp: Livvy.
With deceit, war, and love swirling in the clouds above a shattered world that was once Livvy's home, she'll be asked to do something a girl with a broken heart never thought possible.
Fight for Windhook. Fight for her world.
Take wing with Livvy, one heartbeat at a time.
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Chapter One: Chaos
Three angels arrowed out of the sun at top speed, their swords drawn to gleam in the dying light of the fifth day since war began ripping apart the floating city of Sliver. Their armor was red on red, well-used, and marked them as experienced fighters rather than emissaries of a neighboring faction. They were not stopping by for a chat.
“Visitors?” Saiinov mused. He’d been expecting an incursion from another House, but his tone revealed that if anything, he was surprised it had taken this long. Along with his wife, Vasa, he led House Windhook and their devastating coup against the tyrannical control of the Crescent Council. He was dark of hair, and eyes, and tanned from countless hours in the sky as a warrior who knew his business well. For someone who was now confronted with murderous invaders, he was oddly placid. His wings were folded and still as he watched the approaching triad from the east. “And from House Carillon, it would seem. An unwise decision on their part.”
Habira laughed wickedly at his side. His daughter was a Skywatcher too, her body honed to lethality from years of combat training with and without her father. Her curly dark hair was plaited and tucked under a metallic cap of scaled armor; the material glittered in the last rays of the sun as she too followed the invaders with her gaze. She turned to the third member on the platform of House Windhook. Livvy Foster stood silently, her eyes narrowed as she drank in the details of what was transpiring. A recent addition from elsewhere, she was new to the idea of armed combat.
That did not mean she was unwilling.
Livvy’s hand dropped to her own longsword, a plain but vicious weapon that hung at her hip in a scabbard made from the hide of a beast far more dangerous than the approaching angels.
“Show me what to do.” Her words were silky, even clipped. She knew her role as a new member, and relished the opportunity to learn under masters of political and martial warfare such as House Windhook. In her chest pounded the heart of Saiinov’s youngest son, Keiron, who had given his life that he might save a girl from long ago and far away. Livvy’s cheeks were flushed with health and excitement at the prospects of a lesson to be had; her smile caused an array of freckles to move about like merry stars that gave away her secret joy. For years, Livvy had smiled little and laughed less, but those days were over. For now, she was safe. She was whole.
She was a soldier, if she could learn. At the altar of House Windhook, she would learn to fight as if she were breathing, with Saiinov and Habira as her instructors. Vasa was a different kind of teacher. As a Scholar, Vasa peered into the past--- and the future—to pry glyphs of magical power away from a history that jealously guarded its secrets. The power of the past was not meant for angels, a fact which Vasa cheerfully ignored as she went about the business of reconstructing skills that brought her to the forefront of an uprising against the Crescent Council.
The eldest daughter of Windhook, Prista, was a Scholar as well. Brilliant and secretive, she had her own House well underway, spending the bulk of her time in unseen preparations to the west. By message, Saiinov and Vasa learned that she’d chosen the name for her own residence, meaning that House Valuri had no elemental being living in its center. For the time being, all house business would be left to the eminently capable Prista, who would doubtless set the interior and exterior defenses exactly to her liking. By creating a tidy, safe environment, the chance of attracting a wandering elemental was that much greater, and neither Vasa nor Saiinov had any concerns about their daughter being joined by one of the powerful beings who ranged the clouds when they weren’t ensconced in the heart of a house. They both made mental notes to look in on their daughter, for her dedication to work was nearly identical to that of Vasa. Outwardly, they favored each other as well, both with honey hair and blue-grey eyes. Their only noticeable difference was height. Where Vasa was tall and lean, Prista was small and thin, with an eternally harried look on her beautiful features.
For the past several days, Livvy had been debriefed in a casual, if thorough method by the entire family she was now a part of. The questions ranged from minor to grave; no detail was too small regarding her former life as a young woman who lived with half a heart and had only recently struggled for every breath. An excellent student. Livvy asked as many questions in return, for the world she lived in was violent, yet beautiful and filled with elements that were oddly familiar, like the faces of people she’d met once and dismissed. She asked for and received a costly diary of thick parchment so that she could write down questions as they came to her. Paper was a luxury item since the fibers were from plants that had to be hunted, and were not incapable of injuring or even killing the harvesters. That fact imbued her diary with value even before she’s written her first word in it, and she knew that someday, it would unlock even more of the secrets around her. To record questions for future reference was both mature and thoughtful; these were traits that worked well in the life of a young woman who had reason enough to be cautious. She’d lived without a working heart for most of her life; being careful was a default setting she could not yet abandon.
Livvy ceased her musings and let her eyes focus on the three shapes growing closer. Two were male; one female, all looked capable and grim. “I’m sort of the new guy here, sir.” She grinned, a sign that her comfort around Saiinov was growing.
“Please, Saiinov will do.” He returned her smile then flicked his sword out of its scabbard with a whisper of ringing steel. Turning into the house, he lifted his voice slightly. “Dear heart, if you would?”
There was no response. No human response, that is, but a blast of malevolent white light sizzled forth to split the triad of invaders, toasting their feathers and scattering them like frightened children who saw the shadow of a Windbeast. “I’m rather busy. Was that close enough?” Vasa’s words were light with humor.
“Quite so, dear. They’re regrouping, but I think they’ll prefer to talk now rather than engage in something as brutish as an armed landing.” He cupped his hands and bellowed into the wind, “Blades away, if you please. We can discuss your intent like civilized people, over wine.”
As one, the experienced triad backwinged to hover a short distance away. At an imperceptible nod from the middle angel, all three sheathed their weapons, opting for discretion rather than senseless valor. In the face of Vasa’s immense power, their decision was only reasonable.
“Permission to alight, Windhook?” The angel on the left spoke. She was of middle age, with a thin, sour expression of barely contained distaste. Her light hair was cut short to be worn under a helmet, revealing her as an experienced flyer at the very least. Based on her stance as she landed, it was entirely possible she was a seasoned combat veteran. The remaining two angels landed, their scowls matching hers although they were taller and more heavily built. Both had black hair, visible scars, and the body posture of natural brawlers. A family relation was likely given their matching gray eyes and long noses.
Saiinov nodded professionally to all three. “Welcome to House Windhook. We’ll join my wife for wine and a discussion, if that’s amenable?” He was the picture of grace. He could afford to be. Vasa, no doubt, had another glyph of something unpleasant ready to ruin the day for House Carillon.
“Agreed,” replied the leading angel, her tone clipped. Habira motioned everyone forward into the wide spaces of the central house, its area filled with breezes and the variant light of sundown. When everyone was seated around a depression in the shell-like material of the floor, Vasa entered, casually attaching an earring as if caught by unexpected company.
“House Carillon. What a delight.” Vasa’s tone left no doubt that their visit was anything but a delight. She followed her pointed greeting with a brilliant, predatory smile, then moved toward a high serving bar where Cressa stood, silently watching the new arrivals. Cressa was a Blightwing, having been convicted of killing a family member, so her wings were gray fading to black. The world would know that the young woman with the dark eyes of an easterner and a flyer’s tan was a murderer. Her young face, long black hair, and mobile, small mouth looked like anything except that of a killer. She was plain, verging into pretty, tall, and held herself well. She was also fearless, and honorable, and many other qualities that could not be seen if one only looked at the color of her wings. As Livvy’s lieutenant, Cressa occupied a new position in the house, but one that was nonetheless critical. For the moment, she wordlessly helped Vasa pour tall flutes of wine in order to observe some semblance of hospitality, although anyone with sense could see that the visit was not going to go well.
“Thank you for the excellent wine,” said the leading angel despite not having touched her glass. “It would appear that your family is, in fact, alive and well, despite reports to the contrary.” She didn’t seem happy to admit this inconvenience.
Saiinov gestured amiably around him. “We are, as is our house. More to the point, it is my utmost desire that this condition continues.” Putting his glass down with a firm click on the smooth table, he regarded the visitors for a long moment before leaning back in a relaxed posture. “Perhaps we could begin with introductions?” He left the opening for the messengers, both from manners and curiosity.
A flash of relief passed over the grim woman’s face. There was strain, and not the simple variety involved in long distance flight, which Saiinov silently doubted they had used as their means of reaching the distant outpost of House Windhook. The lines in her face were something else—worry, and a lot of it, if he was any judge.
“My apologies for not announcing ourselves more clearly. It’s been a long night.” She nodded to her left and right in quick succession, indicating the angels who sat, unmoving but thawing slightly as they sipped their wine and relaxed. “Don Treo and Don Verga. They’re my lieutenants. I’m Doña Helia. I’m third in command of the House, but that status is in question.”
“Why?” The word blurted from Livvy before she could hold her tongue, but she managed to control her impulse to apologize. It was a legitimate question brought on by her instincts, if not her collapse in manners.
Saiinov nodded slightly to indicate that her question, no matter how impertinent, should be answered.
Helia’s face went through a range of emotions, settling on confused acceptance. She was an experienced fighter and leader, but there was an air of defeat behind her professional exterior. Saiinov could sense it easily, as could Vasa. Livvy felt it, but couldn’t identify what the woman with tired eyes was hiding. After a brief pause, she spoke, her voice low and careful.
“I say our situation is fluid because we haven’t seen Lord and Lady Carillon since the day of your, ahh, trial.” Helia pointedly avoided using the term rebellion, but it was understood. Her face was a maze of tiny motions despite being still and smooth from experience. There was a storm underneath her expression of calm, revealing a commander who was sick with worry.
“You suspect something happened?” Vasa asked. She knew something of the people in question; they were aggressive, but seasoned. They wouldn’t abandon their house without just cause, and it was unthinkable that they would do so during a time of upheaval. It left House Carillon vulnerable and rudderless, two qualities that could lead to the end of the line for their family.
Helia only shook her head, but both of her companions snorted with disgust. She stilled them with a gesture before returning her gaze back to Vasa. “I know it. My century of duty knows it. My bones know it. There’s no reason for them to leave, and they’ve never done it before in the history of our house. We’re in a delicate balance with the other families who span our length of sky. You know how things are.” She grinned, a sour look that spoke volumes about her mental state. “My brother and his wife are at the outer edge of houses that span the skies between Windhook and the rogue armies. Our location isn’t accidental.”
“I can imagine. I’m not sure we would be comfortable in your place.” Saiinov’s response avoided the fact that Windhook was directly responsible for much of the added chaos that swept the skies around them. After some consideration, he asked, “Were there any direct threats against your house, other than the usual background chatter?”
“Spoken, or real?” Helia’s eyes cut toward her companions. Their scowls deepened.
“Let’s try real.” Saiinov sensed that she’d been withholding information, probably with good reason. The skies were dangerous enough without giving an advantage of any kind without provocation or necessity.
“In that case, I am almost certain that the lord and lady are dead, although I have no bodies or evidence, except for this. The jar, please?” Helia nodded to Treo, who reached into his carryall with a delicacy at odds with his size and shape. He seemed almost fearful as he lifted the hide flap and withdrew a sealed glass jar. It was twice as long as a hand, and came to a stoppered end. There was a length of hide wrapped around the end to add extra security to the carved plug. Even through the pale blue glass, the creature inside gleamed with malevolence.
At Livvy’s involuntary gasp, everyone turned to look at her with great interest. “You know this—creature?” Vasa’s query was low and intense. She knew fear when she heard it.
Livvy moved without a sound to kneel next to the table where the jar stood, a robust clicking coming from inside the jar. As she grew closer, the creature paused, then hurled itself at the glass, tail first. It was a sickly yellow, shining like a poisonous fruit, and alive with danger in every fractious movement. After staring for a silent moment, Livvy turned her head slightly towards Helia. “Where did you find this?”
“Them. We found a dozen of them in the lord and lady’s bed. Their sleeping chamber is on the aerie ledge at House Carillon, when weather permits. We found these . . . things . . . and no sign of my masters. There was some blood, but very little. Just an odd drop or two.”
Livvy considered that before answering. She tapped a bold finger against the jar, sending the thing inside into wild spasms of violence. Clear fluid ran down the inner wall of the jar where it struck. Vasa shivered, while Saiinov looked unnerved. Cressa alone looked curious. “That would figure. These do not eat people—angels, rather. They sting. And that sting is venomous, even fatal under certain conditions. Many stings would do it, I think.”
“What is it?” Helia asked, her voice rough with worry and fatigue.
“More importantly, where did it come from?” Saiinov interjected. He was thinking ahead to the larger implications of a murder that, at this point, had no obvious motive.
Livvy pulled her finger away from the jar, her expression deep with concern. “It’s called a scorpion. They live all over the place, but I think that one is from the Middle East.” She looked at the jar with unease. “I think that one is called a deathstalker. They’re really dangerous, and they live in the desert.”
“What is a desert?” Helia asked.
Livvy was surprised, but then realized that angels would have no working knowledge of a desert or its inhabitants. The skies were dangerous, but hardly filled with sand, which was a rare commodity harvested from fine nets that hung below airships traversing the endless skies. “It’s an environment; a place, with animals and sand and heat. There isn’t a lot of water, and it’s incredibly difficult to survive there.” She raised a hand to stall further questions as a look of disbelief crossed her features. “Look, I don’t mean to seem uncaring, but aren’t we missing the big picture here?” Livvy pointed at the scorpion, its legs scrabbling against the glass with mechanical, unnerving precision. “That doesn’t exist here naturally, does it? Please tell me scorpions don’t fly around, because if they do I’m moving to Mars.”
Saiinov chuckled despite the tension. “No need. We have some rather aggressive beasts, but nothing that small.” He examined the scorpion with a critical eye before adding, “Or that land bound. You’ll come to learn that even the fish can fly here, Livvy.”
“That’s a small favor. But it doesn’t answer my question, nor does it explain how a bunch of nasties from the desert got in the bed of two angels who live far”—
Vasa smoothly interrupted. “—away from their natural habitat?” She gave Livvy an obscure look before resuming her thoughts. “Perhaps we should be more concerned with the missing people, yes?”
Helia looked grateful at that. For all their love of war, angels preferred order within their houses. A missing leadership was the guaranteed fall of a house, especially in a time when the political landscape was so unsettled. Although the upheaval was courtesy of House Windhook, that didn’t mean that Saiinov and Vasa wanted disorder and panic to spread.
“What can we do to assist?” Saiinov asked, simply.
Helia’s face was a mask of control, but her wings rustled with nervous energy. “I don’t know. We can’t go much longer without someone asking questions, and when that happens--” She trailed off, the unspoken reality of their house looming large. House Carillon would be attacked, and soon, if the lord and lady were missing. It would happen even sooner if, as Saiinov suspected, they’d been murdered.
Vasa placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder, squeezing lightly. “I propose an alliance, but it won’t come without cost.” Helia remained impassive, but there was an air of hunger about her at the possibility of deliverance from falling into the abyss. “Are there any other houses in your area who might be interested joining together, if only to forestall a local war?”
Helia gave the question thought, then nodded. “Perhaps.” She was too savvy to leap at an extended hand, no matter what the conditions.
Vasa looked at the two silent angels flanking Helia. They were capable fighters at worst, and potent warriors at best. The kind of people who made better allies than enemies, even if the terms were less than perfect. “I apologize for bringing politics into this time of strife and loss. Let me assure you that we do not wish to make enemies of Carillon, nor any of your favored circle. House Windhook had only one enemy, that being the former Crescent Council. We will not shed the blood of anyone save their supporters. You have our word.”
“Quite generous of you, Lady Vasa.” Treo’s comment was drily pleasant, breaking some of the building tension that clouded the air. It also happened to be true, given that House Carillon faced a crisis in which they could easily cease existing in less than a day if things went wrong.
Throughout the exchange, Livvy remained silent but watchful. She was far from healed, and still uncertain as to her actual purpose, other than being an interested observer in a game that she didn’t fully understand. The scorpion scuttled in its glass prison, frustrated and restless. Livvy cast a sympathetic look at the creature before focusing on the discussion at hand.
Helia responded after due thought, as the decision she made would likely determine whether she lived or died. Lone angels from fallen houses had notoriously short lifespans, and Helia was nothing if not practical. “What do you need from us?” She pointedly didn’t ask for anything in return, choosing to throw the fate of House Carillon in with the growing power of Windhook.
Vasa’s reply was instant. “Information. Specifically, who, why, and how this could have happened to your house. Anything at all that might help us protect you from further harm, and we ask nothing in return.”
“Nothing?” Helia’s reply was hopeful despite the reality before them.
Saiinov spoke, his voice soothing and calm. “Nothing. We seek no expansion of our territory beyond the air around this house, and would not inflict further pain on you and your people. Despite what you may think of us, we are not empire builders. We want freedom for all, and we were willing to risk our own lives to gain it.”
“You gave much more than that.” Livvy’s quiet statement brought everyone up short. She touched her chest with meaning, and the members of House Windhook understood. The trio of visitors didn’t know what she meant, but sensed the change in the air. Vasa’s eyes were bright, while Cressa looked stricken. Only Saiinov maintained his composure, and even that cracked, making him turn away. After a hard few seconds, he regained his outward calm and smiled sadly at Livvy.
“It’s true, but that’s a personal issue for Windhook. Forgive us if we keep counsel of our own recent losses.” Vasa reclaimed her role as lady and arbiter, eliciting a nod from Helia.
“Then, forgive my boldness, but what can you do to help in exchange for our information, such as it is?” Helia’s question was direct, her tone even. She was a capable being of some strength, and worthy of cultivation for future issues. Of that, Vasa and Saiinov were certain.
“Friends.” Saiinov said without fanfare. “We have precious few right now, and we’re going to need a stable sky, filled with houses who can tolerate each other rather than preying on the weak.” He shook his head, looking tired in that instant. “I’m finished with watching people like the council use our sons and daughters like pawns. No more. Vasa thinks that we can have a working society without using force to cure every ill, and I agree. We want to make that happen, but we won’t be able to do so without allies. So, we start with your house, and then, we move on. We form an alliance with Carillon, and then our houses reach out to build a network of clear skies and open hands.”
Helia nodded at this, grasping the importance of a beginning. Peace had to start somewhere, and she had the means to embrace it immediately. She squared her shoulders and stood, extending a hand to Vasa, who was closest. “Agreed. It starts with us, then.” She gave the scorpion a withering glare of disgust. “I know they’re dead, but I have no idea how such a creature came to be in their bed. It’s not natural.”
Livvy picked up the jar, causing the scorpion to wriggle with menace. Its tail waved about like a questing weapon, and she peered close to the jar while speaking. Never taking her eyes from the creature, she said, “I know. It’s where I came from.”