Now, I have a great new series coming out with Harper, and Farworld is going to be finished. (Not to mention my time-travel series with Deseret Book.) If you see a crazy-looking author dancing and singing in the street, that would be me. I don’t know how I got this lucky. But I’ll take it.
As a reward for all of you who have waited so patiently for the next Farworld book, Shadow Mountain has agreed to let me publish one chapter a month until Air Keep’s release. First, just a couple of cautions, then we’ll get to the good stuff.
Until it is actually sent to the printers, any book is constantly a work in progress. Editing takes place. Chapters move around. Entire storylines come and go. Basically, what I am saying is that what you read here may be not be exactly the same when the book comes out. Theoretically, what you read here might not make the final cut at all.
Normally a publisher doesn’t release chapters until the story is set in stone. But you know what? You all are so awesome and have been so patient, we’re willing to take the risk. I’ll post the chapters as they come out of my brain (with a little editing help from my friends) and hopefully you’ll enjoy them. There will probably be a few typos, but I trust you can overlook them.
Occasionally I may add some author notes along the way. So here goes. Enjoy.
[Author’s note: As in Land Keep, Air Keep will be divided into four parts. Each part will begin with an interlude. This is the interlude to Part I]
Jaklah was thinking about water. Filling his mouth. Running down his parched throat. Splashing over his sunburned face and dripping from his hair. Unlike the small supply of warm, dusty liquid sloshing is his waterskin, the water in his imagination was fresh and so cold the very thought of it brought goose bumps to the backs of his arms and cramped his stomach.
Not yet seventeen, he was one of the youngest soldiers in the army, but the drought that had dried up entire rivers and shrunk lakes to little more than ponds was affecting him as much as the older men. His eyes, gritty with dust, hurt every time he blinked. His parched skin itched constantly and his lips cracked until they bled.
Marching across clumps of dead grass and weeds so dry they exploded into tiny brown clouds with every step, he let his mind summon up a crystal lake—icy, blue, and endless. He’d stop on the shore, inhaling the deep wet aroma. After smelling the water, he’d stick in just one toe, shivering at how good it felt on skin that hadn’t experienced more moisture than could be wrung out of a damp rag in what seemed like forever.
He’d wade in far enough to cover the tops of his feet. Then out to his shins. The waves would slosh against his knees. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he’d throw his hat, tear off his shirt and breeches, and—
Caught up in the wonderful vision playing out in his head, he didn’t notice the rest of the army coming to a halt around him until he ran face-first into the broad back of a stone statue.
Tankum, a curved blade sheathed behind each of his shoulders, didn’t so much as turn around as Jaklah collided with him. The stone warrior stood with both feet planted in the baked ground, arms folded across his chest like a boulder that just happened to be in the shape of a man. “Brace yourself.”
At the warrior’s words, Jaklah’s heart began to race. Was this it? After weeks of searching, had they finally come across a band of Keepers and their pet snifflers? Or even better, an unmaker—one of the creatures said to come from the mysterious world of shadows? His hand went to the nicked iron sword at his waist as he scanned the terrain.
Nothing. Not even the blurring of air and light that was said to signal the presence of the shadow creatures. Why had they stopped? It wasn’t until he saw the stone wizards and warriors standing in rows and columns safely apart from one another, the horses hobbled to keep from running, and the men and boys who had joined their army kneeling or lying flat on the ground, that he remembered what time it was. His eyes went to the sky.
The sun was almost directly overhead.
With a panicked yelp, he dropped to the ground. There were no bushes or rocks to clutch onto, so he dug his fingers into the cracked and broken dirt, hoping that would be enough.
For a moment everything was perfectly still, as though Farworld itself was waiting. Then it came, starting as a low rumble in the distance, growing in sound as the stalks of dead grass shook and crumbled to dust, and pebbles rattled and bounced. Jaklah clenched his teeth and closed his eyes.
Beneath his hands and knees, the ground rolled, and bucked like a wild stallion, determined to throw its rider and trample it underfoot. Dust filled his nostrils and caked his throat as the world around him shook and roared. Horses whinnied in terror and wagons groaned.
He’d experienced these quakes every day for the past six months—the same amount of time it had been since the last rain. But he was still terrified with each one—sure this would be the time when the world opened up and swallowed him.
As though hearing his thoughts, the ground gave a final heave, and a sound like rocks being torn apart roared in his ears.
“Look out!” a soldier screamed. Jaklah’s eyes flew open.
A split nearly the length of a man across and ten men long had divided the ground not a dozen steps away. Jaklah’s friend Theyin stood at its edge, straining to catch his balance. Wheeling his arms, he tried to keep from falling into the great black mouth that had stretched open before him. He wasn’t going to make it. Face white with panic, he slowly tilted toward the crevice.
“Hold on!” Jaklah shouted. “I’m coming.”
Before he could get to his feet, a flash of stone and steel blurred by him. Jaklah had never seen Tankum run, and it came as a shock to watch the living statue move so quickly that his feet barely touched the ground. Even then, he was going to be too late.
Theyin’s last shred of balance gave out as he tumbled into the opening. The warrior was only a few steps away, but he would never be able to reach Theyin without falling into the chasm himself.
“Help!” Theyin cried, spreading his arms as though he might somehow be able to sprout wings and fly to safety.
Without slowing at all, Tankum raced to the edge of the crevice, grabbed Theyin’s belt in his great stone hand and launched himself into the air.
“Not possible,” Jaklah whispered, his hand going to his mouth. He had no idea how much the stone warrior weighed, but he’d seen the man’s footprints leaving indentations in the dirt as deep as his little finger was long. Yet, somehow, with Theyin’s full weight in one hand, he bent his stone legs and launched himself over the crevice.
One foot crashed onto the edge of the opening, and Jaklah gasped as dirt and rocks crumbled away beneath it, sure man and boy would plummet into the darkness together. But Tankum’s momentum carried them forward, and a few seconds later he was setting Theyin gently on the grass as though they’d done nothing more eventful than go for a brisk walk.
Jaklah crawled to the edge of the opening and looked down. The crevice was so deep he couldn’t see to the bottom. Keeping safely away from the edge, he circled the hole and hurried to his friend’s side. “Are you all right?”
Theyin sat on the ground, trying to catch his breath, “I’m . . . not sure.” Around them, men were getting to their feet, untying horses, and climbing into wagons or checking their gear. Several of them eyed the break in the ground warily and muttered under their breath.
Jaklah reached out and pulled his friend up. “When I saw that crack open, I thought you were—”
Theyin held out a hand, cutting off his words. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. I haven’t been that scared since . . .” He ran a hand across his brow. “To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared.”
Jaklah pointed to the front of Theyin’s rough-woven breeches. “At least you didn’t wet yourself. The other soldiers would never let you live that down.”
“Slim chance.” Theyin pulled the cork from his waterskin and took a measured sip. “With as little as they give us to drink, my body wouldn’t dare spill a drop. There’s not enough moisture in me to break a sweat.”
“Forward, march!” Tankum shouted. The statue’s feet shook the ground like an aftershock of the quake as he strode forward. Theyin and Jaklah walked a few paces behind him.
“You think it’s true what some of the men are saying?” Theyin asked. “That the land elementals are behind the ground shaking?”
“Nah.” Jaklah had seen Lanctrus-Darnoc, the half-boar, half-fox creature that came out of Land Keep with Marcus and Kyja, and, according to Tankum, helped save Terra ne Staric from the Keepers. “They’re on our side.”
Theyin tried to spit the dust from his tongue, but his mouth was too dry to create enough saliva. “They say the water elementals are on our side too. But they don’t seem to care about the fact that folks are dying of thirst.”
Jaklah didn’t know what to say to that. Half the reason he’d joined the army of Terra ne Staric’s stone warriors and wizards was because most of the wells in his city had dried up and the soldiers had at least enough water to stay alive.
“My heart’s still pounding,” Theyin said.
“At least you had something happen,” Jaklah muttered, his voice thick with bitterness. He knew it wasn’t fair. His friend had nearly died. But the other reason he’d joined up was to get revenge on the Keepers that had stolen the magic from his friends and family for so many years. So far army life had been nothing but day after day of boredom. He kicked at a rock. “Guess we’ll never see any action.”
He’d forgotten Tankum was still there until the warrior turned to look back at him. “That anxious to wet your blade in another man’s blood, are you?”
Jaklah flushed. “It’s not that. It’s just . . . well, what’s the point of us being here if we aren’t going to fight anyone?”
Tankum pulled out one of his long, curved steel blades and ran its keen edge across the tip of his stone thumb. “An army’s job is to obey orders. Sometimes those orders mean fighting, to the death, if necessary. Other times they mean keeping violence away by our very presence.”
Jaklah had never looked at it that way. The warrior had been in many battles. Maybe it was time to do less talking and more listening.
The sun was still several hours from the edge of the horizon when Tankum abruptly called the march to a halt. Jaklah looked around. Why were they stopping? They never quit walking before dusk. The other men seemed confused as well.
A stone wizard with big ears and an even bigger nose took out his wand. “What is it?”
Tankum shook his head. He sniffed the air and put a palm to the ground. “Something’s wrong.”
For the second time that day, Jaklah’s hand reached for the hilt of his sword. Following the warrior’s example, he smelled the air. There was the faintest scent of something familiar. Despite hot dry air, the smell made him think of the swamp near his home—now turned to hard, cracked ground.
“Look!” One of the men pointed toward a dark spot in the dirt. Jaklah stepped through the crowd to get a closer look.
“Is that what I think it is?” Theyin asked. The dark stain on the ground was round and less than a stone’s throw across, but it appeared to be growing.
Several of the men dropped to their knees and touched it with fingertips. “It is,” one of them called out, his eyes wide with surprise. “It’s water!”
Jaklah rushed forward and flattened the brittle grass, ignoring the way it jabbed his fingers. He touched the dark soil with his palm. It was definitely wet.
Two men began digging into the ground, trying to get enough of the brown water to cup in their hands. Even as they did, it became clear it wasn’t necessary to dig. Like an unexpected spring, the water bubbled up through the ground, first soaking the dirt, then puddling around the base of the grass.
Theyin scooped up a handful and held it to his mouth. “It’s cold.” He hooted. “And delicious.”
Soldiers shoved each other to reach the water—cupping it in their hands, soaking pieces of cloth and squeezing them into their mouths, or lapping it straight from the ground. Theyin was right. It was ice cold and despite the grit and dirt, the best thing Jaklah had tasted in weeks.
The men started shouting and splashing—wetting their faces and dousing one another. One man dropped his pack and sword, tore off his shirt, and rolled across the ground, giggling like a child.
Only the living statues seemed impervious to the water’s allure. Unlike the humans, they could neither drink nor eat. Tankum, who had continued to sniff the air, stepped away from the growing pond. “Get back,” he growled.
When the men failed to respond, he shouted, “On your feet.”
A few of the man stood, but most of them ignored the warning. “What is it?” Jaklah asked getting up.
The warrior suddenly drew his second blade. “Away from the water. Now!” The army of living statues pulled out their wands and weapons.
Jaklah’s throat was aching for more to drink, but he grabbed Theyin’s arm and pulled his friend backward, taking the warrior’s advice. About half of the men did so as well. The other half continued to drink despite their commander’s orders.
“Is it the water?” Jaklah asked Tankum. “Is there something wrong with it?”
Tankum’s jaw clenched, the muscles in his stone arms bulging as he gripped his swords. “Something’s . . . coming.”
Jaklah looked around. There was nothing as far as he could see. But he did feel something—a tingling in his limbs. The hairs on his arms and legs were standing straight up.
Some of the men who had continued drinking must have felt it too. They stood and looked around with confused expressions, before hurrying to join their companions.
The ground shuddered under Jaklah’s feet. Was it another quake? Usually they happened exactly at mid-day. But once or twice the ground had trembled at other times. But if that was all, why was Tankum holding his swords out before him, a low rumble growing in his throat?
The water began gushing faster out of the ground, washing up chunks of grass and clods of dirt. Now all of the men who’d continued to drink began getting up—stumbling through the thick, silty water that had risen to their knees. Only the man who’d pulled off his shirt took no notice— continuing to splash and frolic.
“Look there.” Theyin pointed toward the middle of the pond. Bubbles boiled out of the mud.
“Get out of the water!” Jaklah screamed. Several of the soldiers started forward, but froze as something thick and brown rose out of the murky liquid. It took Jaklah a moment to realize it was an arm. Could there be a man down there? But it was so big. A man with arms that size would need to be . . .
A second arm emerged, dark as mud and lumpy, as if it wasn’t a real man at all, but some kind of monster. Out of the murk rose a head, big as a boulder. Its face was blank, with no sign of eyes, nose, or mouth. And yet Jaklah felt hatred radiating from it so strongly it might as well have been glaring straight at him. The creature climbed out of the water, growing as tall as a man, two men, a small tree.
Soldiers yelled out warnings, and for the first time the swimming man seemed to understand something was wrong. He turned, saw the creature towering above him and stumbled backward—straight into another pair of lumpy arms. The shirtless soldier reached for his sword. Before he could remember he’d dropped his weapon, the arms yanked him under the water.
Hands began emerging from all over the muddy lake now. Clay giants pulled themselves out of the ground. Ten, a dozen, thirty. Jaklah lost count as he drew out his sword with trembling hands. The golems turned and started toward the army of men and statues.
Just before Tankum raised his swords and moved forward to meet the charge he glanced across at Jaklah. “Looks like you’ll get your action after all.”