Arnaka Skytree grew up believing she was chosen to bring new magic to the world. As the heir to the cult of druids responsible for keeping their floating palace habitable for the wealthy aristocracy, she’s expected to wield her power as those before her did: by culling the souls of peasant women.
But when Arnaka learns more about the source of her magic, and that her best friend’s soul will be harvested, she embarks on a journey to end the barbarous practice and to restore a long-forgotten harmonious system of magic practiced by the original druids. Along the way, she discovers she’s not the only girl chosen to restore balance to their world—many others have powerful magic inside, and with them, she will tear the floating palace from the sky so everyone can live in the sun—out of the shadow of the eclipse.
|Publisher:||Ninestar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.98(d)|
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FLOWERS BLOOMED AROUND Arnaka Skytree. Tiger lilies tickled her feet while orchids pried open one eye. Rose, the pricklier of the three, stuck her with one of its thorns. She puffed some air up in its direction, fluttering petals and her bangs. Late for her Choosing, Arnaka forced the insistent garden out of her mind, to focus on the currents of air traveling around her, picking out the magic radiating from the flowers the way her older brother picked out soldiers to die for him — delicately, decidedly.
Strong magic ran in her family. The ritual she had to go to was nothing but a mere formality. She would be a druid like all the other women in her family before her, down to the original matriarch — Arnaka the Creator — whose name she shouldered. She was bound to it the way her magic was bound to living things. Soon, it would be the last tattoo burned by magical fire into her skin.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she pressed her finger deep into the sifted dirt around her, begging the world to swallow her whole. The flowers, sensing her sadness, bowed their heads, but they couldn't give her what she wanted. Destiny's feet were too heavy for soft petals.
"Lady Arnaka? Are you here?"
Nara, one of her maids, stumbled into the conservatory. Arnaka felt the young woman's life force before she opened her eyes to watch the bony girl blunder over the flowers, which recoiled from her steps, lifting their leafy underparts to avoid a trampling. Arnaka gave Nara's approach a small, fond smile.
When she finally saw Arnaka, Nara jumped as if surprised. Her brown eyes widened, giving her the appearance of a deer about to be speared. "Lady Arnaka. Your mother wants you in the hall for the ceremony."
"She sent me here to get you."
"Lady Arnaka ..." the poor girl prompted her.
Arnaka sighed. Nara, who was brought here as a servant and lived on the daily whims of her captors, had no choice but to play her role in today's events. She wasn't trying to drag Arnaka to the ceremony out of spite, avarice, or revenge. Doing her job without getting hurt was her only goal.
Pity softened Arnaka's voice. "Of course. Tell Mother I'll be right there."
Nara hopped from one foot to the other. Voice barely above a whisper, she said, "I'm supposed to escort you, Lady Arnaka."
Arnaka lifted her head and glowered at the servant, hoping the severe expression might be enough to send her on her way. Having company on the long trek toward the hall forced Arnaka to be strong. Really, all she wanted to do was run, hide, vanish.
You promised, she reminded herself. You promised you'd go through with this, and that you'd keep it from happening to anyone else.
With a wince, the servant tried again. "My lady, please. Your mother. She'll —"
"Very well. Come on," Arnaka interjected before Nara completed the statement with "punish me." Hearing about her mother's temper coupled with her propensity to harshly correct servants for slight failures would only twist Arnaka's already knotted emotions.
"Thank you, Lady Arnaka."
Said as if she had a choice. "You're welcome."
Banter wasn't something Arnaka lavished on the silly, sweet girl. The walk down the hall was silent. Nara didn't seem to mind the quiet, or notice. Newly employed, she occupied a world where magic was still magical. The diamond archways casting rainbows to the reflective surface beneath their feet dazzled. Gold shone. Ruby and sapphire mosaics sparked her brown eyes to flame. Tiredly, Arnaka grabbed the gawking servant, who tripped over her own feet as she ogled the spectacle, by the upper arm to drag her inside the transport.
In moments, they arrived. In front of them, the entire court gathered. Thousands of nobles, maybe more, in their best attire.
Her mother broke from the crowd and rushed over. "Arnaka, my daughter. You are radiant today."
Both of them had black skin that always seemed moonlit and black hair that grew in thick waves. Her mother's was always swept up into elaborate twists. Arnaka cut hers rebelliously short, letting her curly bangs cover her golden eyes, the pride of her family line. Look into your future mirror, the elder druids always liked to say, you are the spitting image of your mother.
Although her mother was undeniably beautiful with her high cheekbones and angular features, Arnaka's pleasure in hearing about their resemblance waned. She didn't want to be kin to a monster.
The swirl of Mother's elaborate gown extended a foot or two in each direction. Mercurial as the woman herself, its folds, bows, frills, and ruffles shifted on whim in color and in style until she settled on a deep royal purple with a long ivory lace train that fluttered in the air like a cobweb in the breeze.
"Wasteful as always, Mother." Arnaka pointed to the dress, to which she still made minor adjustments. Meanwhile, the living gathered around her looked wary. Druid magic required life, willing or not. "Glad you settled on something before the whole assembly was depleted."
A few of the nobles glanced at their feet and cleared their throats but did not comment on the awkward exchange. Her brother puffed his chest. "Sister," he bellowed, not unlike a braying goat. "We have waited for this moment your whole life."
Lacking the refinement of magic, Escan's features looked blunt and staggered as though whoever carved him had jittered uncontrollably during the process. Only his eyes, the color of golden flame that was his family's legacy, rendered him attractive. Every girl wanted babies with ladder-climbing genes and nothing said advancement quite like the bloodline of old aristocracy. Otherwise, her brother lacked figurative magic as well as literal. He was doing his best to steal the moment despite it.
Arnaka looked at the assembly of aristocrats before her. Like her mother, they wanted all the religion with none of the sacrifice religion required. Servants were there to pay the life price for their magic. In a pinch, merchants would do. Who better to understand there was a cost to doing business? This was probably the first time in centuries any of them felt the intrusive pull of magic's touch at their own doorstep.
Resigned to what was to be, Arnaka raised her voice to carry across the room. "I am here to bring new magic."
Applause broke out. Arnaka winced away from it, hating the fact they clapped for her, for the evil thing they were about to do. You promised her, Arnaka had to remind herself again. You looked her in the eye and said you'd go through with this, then you'd keep it from happening to anyone else.
She'd been so focused on remembering her vow that she forgot the ceremony. The pain from the burning as her final tattoo, a small circle on her forehead, seared her skin surprised her. More than any of the other tattoos branded into her arms and back, it hurt with pain beyond the smell of her own flesh, beyond the residual throb of the wound. It foretold what was to come after.
As the smoke around her cleared, a young woman a few years older than her was escorted forward. Unnamed at birth, she existed to be Arnaka's spirit sister until she became a soul familiar, forever bound to serve as an instant source of magic. But Arnaka knew her name, a deep secret between them that she'd sworn to keep. She held onto it even as the knife plunged into the young woman's throat. She thought it when the soul heeled at her side — Hannah. Again when she went to bed with the thing looming over her shoulder — Hannah. Only once more after that.CHAPTER 2
The Price of Magic
UNLIKE THE FIREFLIES floating in the night air around Arnaka, the soul familiar could only follow its master. Arnaka daydreamed Hannah was one of the lively bugs, free to make her own light blink on and off. In her mind, the two of them romped in the garden where the Choosing was only an abstract concept neither of them worried about with so many figs spilling from their skirts.
Arnaka reached out to the plant life in the garden around her, begging for scraps of energy. There was no answer. Child's magic, the ability to ask the world to take part in her schemes, vanished the moment the final tattoo carved its place in her flesh. Adult druids didn't ask for favors. They used rune magic to force compliance from the natural elements — earth, fire, wind, water, electricity — and they used energy transfer to create or manipulate physical matter.
The tattoo on her forehead burned and itched. You are an adult now, it said, and magic has a cost.
Tears threatened, but Arnaka had no time to waste, so she blinked them away and puffed her bangs up out of her eyes. Reclaiming the magic of her youth was impossible. Now sixteen, she could no longer hide from what was to be.
"There you are. Mother searched all over for you." Escan's resentful voice startled her out of her musings. He glared at her. His too-thick lower lip jutted out like a cliff. The suit of armor he wore shone in the dim lamplight. Cut to give the illusion of hard muscle, the steel concealed her brother's actual body, which was softer than a feather pillow. He didn't need to be hard, not when he had thousands of young men to die for him. "You can't keep hiding in here whenever there's a social event. You have duties."
"Leave me in peace," Arnaka said.
He snapped his fingers as though calling a dog. "Come, dine. The banquet is to honor your womanhood." The last he said with a sneer. He always used exaggerated malice when he spoke of druids becoming women. Magic elevated their status to that of a low-born man's once they were able to contribute to the defense and upkeep of the palace. On more than one occasion, Escan had called the tradition hogwash.
"There's no cause to celebrate," she replied stiffly.
Bored by her declaration, he rolled his eyes. "Oh, would you please lighten up, dear sister? And put on some decent clothes, for goodness sake. A daughter of the Soulkeepers can't go around sulking in such lowly garb."
Cotton shirt and cotton pants — nothing magical, nothing conjured — seemed most appropriate after the ceremony. As an adult, even frivolous spells where the caster created an object required energy transfer. It was a tax of sorts and meant to make casters wary of overusing their powers. Arnaka resolved to be a good steward of her friend's soul and the souls of others. At the very least, she'd refuse to waste their lives on nonsense like clothes and jewels.
Arnaka put on her sweetest smile. "Did Mother tell you to drag me if need be?"
Escan gave a small, regal nod.
Escan loved any opportunity to use physical violence, especially against her. Grinning ear to ear, he advanced as though she were still nothing more than a child who made lights dance. Time to remind him she was no longer a babe with weak magic. As he closed the gap, she traced the rune for electricity. Tiny jolts scrambled Escan's expression, and he squealed in outrage, yanking his injured hand to his body. "Attacking your own family! Beastly little harpy!"
Arnaka twisted one corner of her mouth into a half smile in response. For extra insult, she pulled sips of energy from Hannah to strip him to his undergarments. Let him walk back to the hall in true form.
His narrowed eyes scrutinized his near-naked body. "What did you do with my armor?"
"Changed it to something more fitting. Now leave. Tell Mother I have no desire to eat dinner with her or any of her friends."
Now that the rite was complete and she was an adult druid at last, Arnaka wasn't going to bother pretending she was okay with what had happened to Hannah. The promise she made to go to the Choosing didn't extend beyond the ceremony itself.
Eyes wide, cheeks puffing in and out, Escan took another step in her direction. "Bring back my armor."
"What's that? You want me to take your undergarments too? Well, all right. If you insist."
The soul familiar bobbed as Arnaka pulled energy from it. Guilty, she realized she enjoyed her new power, thrilling as it channeled throughout her body. Nonmagic users couldn't channel the ebb and flow of magic surrounding them, but Escan's wide, fearful eyes indicated he knew she wasn't bluffing. He left in a hurry, occasionally shooting dark glances over his shoulder as though to remind her he wouldn't forget this. He'd better not.
"Sorry about that," she told the soul familiar, forgetting, for a moment, it was no longer Hannah. "I thought you'd approve if you were here. You always said you'd give almost anything to slap him."
Maybe Arnaka saw what she wanted to see, but she swore the light blinked once or twice. A moment of hope flashed through her haze of grief. Had a tiny part of her friend survived the ceremony? Hannah's name tiptoed on Arnaka's lips when Mother burst in, full of fury. Dressed in a new suit of armor — no doubt tailored by Mother's magic — Escan slunk in behind her.
"Arnaka." The name sounded like a scold on Mother's lips. "Armor is too expensive for your little tricks, and harmful magic is for enemies, not family."
"And when they're the same?"
"I thought we were over this show of defiance. Dinner. Now."
Mother's eyes narrowed. Magic swirled loose petals from the once-blossoming apple trees around her feet. Soon, whole branches were caught up in the growing storm. Anger sharpened the blade of Mother's powerful magic. Involuntarily, Arnaka swallowed any other sarcastic retort she might have had. Without realizing it, she'd fled backward. When she hit the stone wall on the outer edge of the garden, she gasped, surprised by the contact.
"No more drama. Come and graciously take part of the festivities in your honor."
Cowed, Arnaka went without further comment.
Time to leave the garden behind. Arnaka wanted it to be where her youthful dreams remained connected to her memory the way the roots of the trees intertwined, the way the flowers bloomed at her touch. The stone walls would never crumble, the trees would never catch blight, and every year the fruit would fall to the ground into her eager hands. Eternal.
One day she might go back there. Until then, the memory of the branches cradled her the way a mother might.CHAPTER 3
ABOVE THEM, A portrait of Arnaka the Creator loomed. Her golden eyes, severe in the lamplight, judged the worthiness of her ancestors. At least that's the intent Arnaka saw in her cold stare, which was far-reaching enough to frostbite plants all the way in the garden. Below the portrait, the crest of the Skytree family — a massive floating oak with its branches reaching beyond the heavens and its roots hovering above the earth — reminded everyone whose wine they tasted, whose bread they broke, but above all else, whose glory they exalted.
Mother had ordered Arnaka to wear a brooch with the same symbol pinned to her breast, but she'd thrown the cumbersome thing in a potted plant on her way to her family's dining hall.
Arnaka automatically recited the names of the most powerful houses as she saw the faces of their matriarchs: Skytree, Woodshaper, Leafbrook, Blazeseeker, Riverscar, and Willowisp. Ever since birth, she'd been asked to memorize the greater noble families' names and crests. Forgetting now would be an unforgivable breach in etiquette.
Arnaka took her seat and rested her hand on top of a nearby noblewoman's. "Lady Airblossom, isn't it?" she asked, knowing full well that was the name of the least powerful noble family in attendance. The woman, who belonged to the Riverscar family, would be vexed by the snub.
As predicted, Lady Riverscar bristled. The diamonds on her earlobes shook. "I should say not!"
The actual Lady Airblossom shifted in her seat. The grimace on her face suggested some ire at Lady Riverscar's horrified tone. Later, she'd probably take her wrath out on a merchant of some sort.
Arnaka kept hold of Lady Riverscar's hand and guessed again. "Goodness. Lady Westbrook?"
Another noblewoman, attempting to spare Arnaka the disgrace of forgetting the name a second time, waved her hand, "Yes, my lady. I'm delighted to be here on this auspicious day of your Choosing. You blossom like a flower."
Not wanting to be spared either embarrassment or ire, Arnaka guessed yet again. "Is it Flowersinger?"
Coldly, Lady Riverscar withdrew her hand. "No."
"Whoops." Arnaka squinted her eyes and placed a finger on her chin as if in deep thought. "I want to say it's something naturey, though."
The insulted woman sniffed pointedly. "Riverscar, young Arnaka." She tapped the ornamental brooch pinned on her breast. The scene on it depicted a silver river cutting through golden valleys. "One of the oldest houses and the most powerful."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Soulstealers"
Copyright © 2018 Jacqueline Rohrbach.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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