From the Ashes
Book One - Legend of the Liberator
Shelby K. Morrison
Fantasy/ YA Fantasy
Coming 3 May 2015
For eighteen years Aia Wynnald has lived a lie. Raised as a highborn in the Kingdom of Tharien, she’s filled her days with tutors and archery lessons. But simmering beneath her polite surface is a dangerous gift, one which she must keep a secret. Aia is a Bender. And in Tharien, Benders are feared and hunted.
When her unruly power breaks free with dire repercussions, Aia’s lifelong goal of independence shatters. As she scrambles to piece her life back together while evading capture, she disturbs a vengeful force intent on destroying the kingdom.
Now, with the help of an unlikely ally, Aia will decide the fate of Tharien. To rescue those she cares about will require accepting what she is. But can she risk becoming the monster she’s dreaded to save the very citizens baying for her blood?
Shelby K. Morrison was born in Oregon and has grown up in California and Utah, where she currently resides, much to her dissatisfaction. She lives with her husband and two dogs and dreams of the day she can return to her Oregon roots. She enjoys criticizing bad driving, laughing out loud in movie theaters and short walks to the refrigerator.
Aia’s heart slammed against her ribs, her chest heaving. She sprinted down the narrow cobblestone streets, tugging at her silk dress when it tangled with her legs.
She replayed the final five minutes of her former life. The log hitting Damon. The blood. His smile. What had she done? She'd ruined everything.
The evening air nipped at her cheeks, and the coins her mother had slipped into her coin purse clinked loudly in the still city. The blood-red sunset dared her to continue. Shouting echoed in the distance. Someone had alerted the Breakers. They’d come for her. They’d be merciless.
She took the stone steps two at a time, her dress nearly tripping her again. Her steps pattered in the silence as she crossed the bridge connecting the base of Mt. Shadow to the rest of the kingdom. Farther and farther her legs carried her—from her home, the Church, the palace. But it didn’t matter how far she ran. They’d pursue her.
She threw a glance over her shoulder. The palace built into the mountain loomed above her, just as menacing, despite the distance. She couldn’t outrun it. Couldn’t outrun them.
The end of the bridge signaled her entry into Midtown, even worse than Hightown for someone evading capture. Houses towered over her, and dozens of windows like little black eyes dotted the sides. She pressed on.
She had to get off the street, away from the city. But where to run? Where would they not search for her?
The Ashen Wood. No one went into the Ashen Wood.
Her wretched dress bunched between her legs and she stumbled to the cobblestones. After a hasty peek at the road behind her, she scrambled to her feet and continued.
Hooves hammered against the cobblestones in the distance. They were coming. She dashed between houses like an alley cat, the Red Plains at the edge of the city in sight. Almost there.
She increased her speed, thrashing through the thick weeds, despising her dress and its clinging folds. The endless field stretched before her, but she didn’t let up. She yearned for her beloved longbow and the security it offered. But she'd had no time to grab it before her parents shoved her from her home.
On and on she ran, her legs jelly. The stars had emerged in the indigo ceiling by the time she reached the edge of the legendary forest.
She struggled to slow her breathing, swallowing with difficulty, as she peered between flaky, ash-covered trees, searching for a path, a place to conceal herself. It was hopeless. She could only see a few trees in. She looked over her shoulder at the city. Her home. Her life of security. Candles appeared in windows, lit one by one, and the orange glow of torch-bearing Breakers illuminated the sides of buildings. Word was spreading.
Hands shaking, heart thumping, she took a step into the forest. As if an invisible wall closed behind her, the outside world disappeared. No crickets singing. No city noises and shouts of pursuit. No whispering wind. Nothing but the forest.
Her lifelong secret had been revealed. Maia Wynnald was a Bender.
Cole Balain sat crammed among his peers on a skinny wooden bench. Sweat trickled down his neck while the Church filled with more observers.
Alabaster stone sculptures marked each corner of the vast hall, harmonizing with the white stone walls. A vaulted, ribbed ceiling stretched deceitfully into the heavens, stained-glass windows spanning both sides. In the daylight, colors spilled through to offer undeserved comfort to people who thronged with bright faces to enjoy watching the will of Mighty be carried out.
Cole alone was sick about it. Sick in body. Sick to his soul.
But tonight the bloated room glowed with a different, misplaced comfort. One central flame illuminated the otherwise dim hall. A massive porcelain crucible held stark white, crackling flames, which stretched higher and burned brighter than normal fire. A fire that had one purpose. To Cleanse a Bender.
In front of the flames stood the woman he’d handed over not an hour ago; her hands bound behind her. She was trembling, and tears streamed down her pink cheeks. Her tattered brown dress indicated her rank as lowborn, and she was perhaps in her thirtieth year. Cole had witnessed it all dozens of times, and his stomach churned the same way every time.
Two Purifiers, a couple, clad in their sanctimonious ivory robes, stood before the woman. The man had the Book of Salvation in his open hands. He’d finished reading the famous passage, granting her soul safe transition to heaven. It was supposedly an honorable duty, passed down through family lines. But they weren’t the only ones responsible. This Bender would die because of him.
An adult Bender. Rare. She offered a glimmer of hope for their kind. It meant she'd managed to survive, have a life, possibly children. Benders were still far from extinct. Finding an adult meant more were out there. Most families turned their children in for Cleansing at the first sign of the gift, following the law. A few hid them. Then some managed to reach adulthood without being discovered. This poor soul had remained hidden, hadn’t hurt anyone, had blended in with her neighbors.
But when a suspicious neighbor jealous of another woman’s apple pie recipe claims she knows a Bender, the Breakers must investigate. As they did for every absurd reason. Still, no test existed to identify a Bender. Actual Bending or running from Breakers typically sealed their fate, and this woman had run. Cole had no choice but to pursue. She hadn’t struggled, hadn’t pleaded for her life or tried to Bend her way to freedom. She’d accepted her fate.
Cole hunched over his linked fingers, elbows resting on his knees, his gaze burning into the woman’s, refusing to permit himself to look away. He forced himself to observe every moment of the consequences of his actions.
She didn’t need to die. She could have chosen a Draining, which would have relieved her of her gift but also would have left her a fraction of who she had been. He wasn’t sure which was more horrifying to watch.
Beside the oversized basin of fire towered a wooden contraption of pulleys and rope. Surely there were easier ways to go about this, without the use of such ridiculous gear. But, like the white walls and tall ceilings, it was more symbolic than actually useful. This was a show for the Church, a grand performance, and every prop enhanced the theatrics.
The Bender finished repeating the scripture through trembling lips. The male Purifier secured a strip of fabric across her eyes, which made the victim whimper more, the sound shredding Cole’s insides. How kind of them to blindfold her before they tortured her. Who was the blindfold for? The Bender, to prevent her from seeing the fire and panicking? Or the audience and the Purifiers, so they might sleep soundly that night, having avoided seeing the woman’s terrified eyes?
The Church expected Benders to choose what they deemed the reprieve of Cleansing. To relieve them of their burden. In the ten years he’d been a Breaker, only twice had a Bender been eager to be Cleansed. Despicable. Yet he understood their choice since the alternative was living a life of anxiety.
The torment of sitting through this ritual never eased. Not that there were many since the war two thousand years ago. Benders had to be out there somewhere, more than the few they’d captured. The Emperor prided himself on hounding them to extinction, as each Emperor before him had, but it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t a trait that could be weeded out, and even the people knew that. Still, the deep-seated fear plaguing the kingdom had roots so deep daily accusations flew like pigeons. The terrified expressions of every Bender he'd watched die would haunt him forever.
He massaged the crystals in the pouch on his hip. Their rough, uneven shapes and edges had been made smooth over time from his constant rubbing to calm himself. He blinked, the fire stinging his steadfast eyes.
Something kicked the back of his bench. Lenz smirked his approval through his sandy beard; his blond, dingy hair hung in his malicious eyes and down his neck, curling behind his ears. Not everyone felt the same about the proceedings as Cole did.
“What a glorious capture, Lieutenant.” Quinn, sitting beside Lenz, offered his usual artificial smile, his shaved head giving him the appearance of a plucked chicken. A brawny, angry plucked chicken.
Cole offered a simple nod and turned back to face the consequences of his actions. Yes, good job. Another one he couldn’t save. Their praise jabbed him like insults.
The contraption’s mechanisms moved, the cogs turned, the pulleys squeaked. It lifted the woman up and over the bowl of ghastly flames. Its squeaking echoed in the hollow cathedral as it lowered the woman into the fire. Her screams echoed around the gargantuan room.
“Cries of fear, not pain,” the male Purifier bellowed. “Children, don’t look away.”
Parents encouraged their children to watch, and some children wiggled eagerly in their seats.
The flames licked at her peasant dress. Her screams turned back into whimpers and sobs, confirming the Purifier’s explanation. Her pleas filled Cole's ears, blocking out any other sounds as if he were underwater.
Cole continued to rub the stones, his eyes never leaving the woman, despite his profound desire to escape her anguish. This stood as his penance. His heart sank as the blindfold slipped down the woman’s face. Her eyes darted about in terror, desperation. She stared into the flames lapping at her feet. The fire accepted her, its fingers pulling her inside as the contraption lowered her to be fully consumed.
The Kaz fire transformed from traditional flames to smoke-like tendrils, churning around her like a snake, her terrified face becoming obscured by a white veil until it enveloped her in the cyclone.
Cole broke his stare briefly to observe his peers. Some leaned forward in their seats, eager to witness the evil leach out of her. Others sat back with pursed lips; satisfied. A couple of new recruits appeared to be struggling between enthusiasm and nausea. He turned his focus again to the terror before him, rolling the two stones in his pouch.
A whistling sound reverberated through the obnoxious room while the smoke thrust into her nostrils and mouth until it disappeared. Gasps echoed from first-time audience members. The smoke remained inside the woman until her eyes rolled back and her head dropped and hung limp. A sigh-like whisper swept the room. The once-white smoke oozed black as coal from her lips, nose, and ears. It flowed and bubbled out of her, evaporating before it hit the floor. It was over.
“Another soul has been Cleansed and accepted by our glorious Mighty.” The female Purifier wiped a tear and hugged her spouse.
A few people cheered. Cole clenched his rocks, digging them into his palms to suppress the urge to turn around and deck Lenz, who whooped and hollered while encouraging a few newbies to do the same. Quinn would always remain silent but with a contented smile. Cole wasn’t sure which annoyed him more.
He remained seated while the torches along the walls were re-lit. They restored the usual orange glow but didn’t eliminate any of the horror embedded in the walls, columns, and vaulted ceilings from years of publicly-celebrated torment. Just as abhorrent.
The audience stood, making their way from the Church and back home or back to whatever duties had been set aside. Breakers wearing the same black leather tunics and gold belt Cole wore headed for the palace and the Breakers’ Corridors.
Cole made his way from the pews, the clenching of his gut refusing to let up. Commander Endrin stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, as he did after every Cleansing or Draining.
“Another quick apprehension, Cole.” His golden mustache hid his mouth, but his warm eyes revealed pride. “Your kingdom thanks you.”
Cole offered a brisk nod to his hulking superior and continued toward the door while the Emperor approached the commander. Emperor Stephan, King of Tharien and Emperor of Dyel. As feared as he was respected. At times, Cole couldn’t be sure who ran Dyel, the Church or the Emperor. Before Cole was too far away to hear, the Emperor’s words reached him.
“Let it circulate that this woman was poisoning food on open carts.”
A fire spread through Cole’s veins, and he tightened his grip on his stones. This was nothing new. If a Bender hadn’t caused a stir themselves, Emperor Stephan was sure to order it done. The Emperor could always be counted on to assure tax monies continued to pour into his coffers, whatever it took.
“Yes, sir.” Commander Endrin bowed.
“And see to it a few citizens become ill. I can’t have anyone doubting. Those vile Symps are everywhere, intent on my undoing.”
Cole once again headed for the exit, eager to escape this temple of death. Before he’d slipped through the doors, a young man, around his fifteenth year, burst through.
“Bender!” The highborn boy panted and caught his breath. “There’s a Bender loose, and she’s attacked someone!”
Cole felt gutted. Another one had been identified. So soon. Would she be worth saving?
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