The sequel and finale of Aqua's story is planned for release in 2014
Be one of the first to read exclusive excerpts and see the cover here.
For those of you that didn't see it, the first chapter is here, EXCLUSIVELY, for you.
Aquila; Into the Light
There’s a new numbness in my heart, acquired in the unconsciousness. I can feel it settling like snowfall, slowly, melting slightly on first contact. If I let it continue, pretty soon my heart will be as cold as the deepest winter and as unfeeling as ice. I’ve felt this numbness before, swore I never would again. Now I welcome it.
I try to fight my new reality, keep my eyes closed, attempt to sink back into oblivion; but the din in my ears increases until I’m almost convinced that there’s a swarm of locusts somewhere inside my head. There are other sounds too; faint sounds leaching in around the buzzing: the squeal of our convoy as we traverse steel tracks, a gentle snoring and a voice I recognise shouting my name, but my muddy brain can’t place it.
“Liam?” I murmur; out of some deep rooted hope that I’m waking from another chest-crushing nightmare.
The voice sounds confused by my comment. “No, it’s Brue,” he says. “Are you ok?”
Brue? His name is relatively new to me, but I know who he is – a dragone – one of my captors.
My breathing is surprisingly even. I inhale slowly. The air is damp and stale; the scent of dirt permeates every pore. I choose to squeeze my eyes closed tighter. I don’t need to see to know where we are. The cage which holds me is wrought of iron. The engine which powers us is not mechanical. A dozen dragone pull the thick chains; strong dark creatures swathed in black and as swift as the wind. The air is damp because we are no longer above ground. And my heart is breaking, not because I find myself captive but because of what’s lodged itself so deeply into my thigh.
“Aquila?” Brue calls my name again.
I still refuse to open my eyes. Stubbornness is embedded into my DNA – along with a few other things.
I can picture Brue clearly, despite only knowing him a few hours. He’s just a child; small, rough around the edges and nursing an injured stomach courtesy of a punch from me. I find it hard to believe the concern in his voice is for my benefit.
“Hey, fake-angel!” Brue shouts at me again. “Wake up, we’re nearly home.”
Home? I almost laugh. Wherever they’re taking me is not my home; I’m not even sure if where I came from is my home. Celthia is an impressive city; carved into the rock of a mountain, only the monolithic golden doors visible to the human world. My friends are there – my family are there, but it’s never felt like home.
No, my home was inside the heart of an angel. A man so beautiful I could barely stand to look at him; unruly dark chocolate hair – as soft as velvet to plunge my fingers through. Caramel eyes which held the secrets of his soul – or so I thought – and wings as fine as silk, with warm brown feathers; the same shade as the fletchings of the arrow in my leg. The angeli of Celthia are a proud and regimented people and fierce enemies of the dragone; and Liam is the fiercest of them all. Liam...
“Aquila, wake up or Clyst will have to carry you,” Brue yells.
Clyst? That name is not familiar but I can guarantee I would not want to be carried by the owner of it. I may have just been stripped of my freedom; I can at least attempt to maintain some of my dignity.
With a groan I force myself to sit. Brue’s impatient face is what greets me when I pry open my eyes. His jet black hair is as scruffy and unkempt as I remembered. It looks as though he’s attempted to cut it himself – with some kind of garden sheer. His face is pretty, obviously youthful with a small button nose, but it’s hidden beneath a layer of grime and sloppily applied black face paint. His stunning yellow irises are flashing bright against the dark of the tunnel.
All of the dragone have luminous eyes and excellent night vision. The pitch black of the tunnel is no problem for my captors. Then again, the darkness is not a problem for me either. My bright amber eyes hold the same mystery ingredient – another element embedded into my DNA.
Brue visibly relaxes when I make eye contact. It makes me smile, though I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the way he’s suddenly changed his response to me. When I dived into this cage to protect my mother, the dragone looked more frightened of me than I was of them. Brue especially, after I tackled him and sent him sprawling into the dirt. But now that he’s been tossed in here with me, the real Brue is starting to emerge – streetwise and worldly expedient. I’m not afraid to admit I like the boy, despite my circumstances; he reminds me of August – and August is one of my favourite people in the world.
A soft moan from the other side of the cage draws my attention. The recently snoring form of my mother is rousing from her impromptu slumber. I passed out, she willingly fell asleep. Although in her defence, she’s been a prisoner of the dragone for months now – not hours. Plus, she’s as high as a kite on peyote; the dragone’s drug of choice to keep her compliant and amenable. I can’t seem to muster the appropriate level of anger at that fact. The truth is I’m glad she’s partly out of it. I don’t know how I would handle an emotional reunion with her at this time. I was furious when she showed so little emotion as I practically surrendered myself to save her. Now I’m just glad she’s safe, that we’re together again.
She sits up slowly. Her ochre hair is a mess. She usually has it shorter; it’s grown in the time she’s been missing. Her skin is darker from the regular sun she’s been enjoying; we very rarely had sun in England. Our small farmhouse at the foot of the Quantocks was generally floating on a puddle of rainwater. I loved the rain. I used to think of it as home – before Liam...
“Rise and shine,” I murmur the first words which come to me as I scramble to not think about Liam.
My mother’s head snaps around. “Aqua?” Her eyes attempt to focus in my direction for the first time. I mean properly focus – like the veil has lifted and clarity now rules. I guess it’s been awhile since they last dosed her. She can’t see me in the dark. Her eyes wield wildly, her breath comes in short pants.
“Hi mum,” I answer. My voice still sounds off. It’s tinged with the uncertainty and pain I’m trying very hard to suppress beneath the increasing snowstorm. I cough to clear the gravel from my throat. I can’t think about that yet. I can’t think about who and what I left behind to come here for her. I can’t think about my angel. I definitely cannot think about what the dragone plan to do now they have me. So instead I focus on her; on my mother and her soft features. I forget sometimes, how young she is. Not quite forty but wise and talented – in the kitchen especially. I have missed my mother’s cooking, the smell of her baking wafting around the thick stone walls. I have missed her, more.
Her sweet face falls in horror. “What are you doing here?” she gasps. I can barely hear her voice, even with my heightened senses, it’s just a whisper.
“I came to rescue you,” I answer gently, afraid to upset her. I’m past being upset myself – that was before I passed out; before the blessed black of unconsciousness beckoned me; before my heart went into self-preservation mode. Now I’m focused on her, I’ll deal with me later. “It didn’t quite go to plan,” I add.
“Honey.” She moans her favourite endearment. “You shouldn’t be here.”
I refrain from agreeing. I know I shouldn’t, there are many other places I would prefer to be; but since the moment the dragone raided our house and stole her in the night – leaving my best friend broken and bleeding to death on the floor – I have vowed to get her back. I do not regret coming after her. I very much regret what I have lost because of it. Liam... I open up to the snowfall a little more... let it bury Liam.
“I couldn’t have stayed away,” I whisper.
She moves then, stiffly after her doze on the metal bars of the floor, and finds me in the darkness. At least most of the moss they used to disguise the trap is riding with us. It makes our journey only slightly more comfortable.
Folding me into a hug I feel her tension release, and suddenly torrents of warm tears are pouring down the collar of my leather vest. My mother sobs violently against my neck as I hold her. I let her cry. I’ve been here; I’ve felt this pain – the night my world was whipped out from under me. I descended into a haze of depression soon after – I won’t let that happen to her.
“It’s ok mum,” I soothe, talking into her hair. “I’m here now. With you is where I need to be.”
Brue is watching us with interest. He witnessed my outburst when I was first caged. When I yelled at her because of her lack of emotion; when I found out my captive mother has actually been sunning it up on a beach sipping cocktails.
My mother’s arms are around me, her fingers dipping into the feathers on my back. I feel her stiffen as she registers that I have them on display. “Aqua,” she gasps. “What are you doing?”
I know what she means. My mother is human. I was raised in the human world, hiding my wings under sweaters my entire life – almost eighteen years of existence.
“Don’t worry mum, it’s a bit late for secrets now.” That secret at least, I have plenty more I’m hanging on to.
“Aqua,” she questions. “What’s happening? I feel like I’m waking up from a nightmare, except I’m still in it.”
I’ve been there. “I know mum. I’ll explain everything I know when I can.” I can’t now; there are too many inquisitive glowing eyes turned in our direction. Even the pace of the cage has slowed as the dragone strain to listen.
I look at Brue then, his are the most inquisitive eyes of all. “Where are we going?” I ask him. I know he’ll answer; he started talking before I passed out.
He shrugs nonchalantly. “Our home, Hantiem.”
I’m more than a little surprised by his answer. The angeli told me the dragone live somewhere called Gravinwart. Then again, they said it was underground too – I don’t think there are many beaches underground. I nod anyway, filing away the information for later. I’ve lost track of the turns in the tunnel now. I was cataloguing them as an escape plan – passing out has scuppered that.
Axion, Brue’s brother, looks up every time Brue speaks. He’s at the front of the pack, pulling the longest chain and flanked by the monster brute – the one who gave the order to kill my mother. He’s the one I’ll kill first – if I ever escape.
“I don’t think your brother likes you talking to me,” I state.
“Axion doesn’t like anything I do.” Brue grins while flashing his crooked white teeth. “He didn’t want me to come.”
I smirk. “Well I’d have to agree with him. What would you have done if it had come to a fight?”
My protective instincts are stirring. I really should rein it in. I’m sure I’m not meant to care about the fate of my enemy. Ha, and I thought my mother was the one with Stockholm syndrome. Incidentally, I don’t know if she is listening to our words, she’s still sobbing ferociously against my shoulder.
“I can handle myself,” Brue huffs.
There’s a palpable flash of fire in his eyes. I’m quite sure he believes he can, although it didn’t take much for me to bring him down. The dragone are supernaturally strong and incredibly fast. I ran from China to England in one night using the added strength my lineage provides, though I don’t believe my captors are party to that particular secret yet.
“I believe you,” I offer. “But still, that didn’t stop the brute almost leaving you behind.” I can’t help smiling at the dragone boy, though it’s more of an instinctive face movement than the result of an emotion. I’m putting a lot of trust in my judgement of character, but I really can’t envisage Brue as a threat... the monster brute on the other hand will never receive a civil word from my lips
He frowns at me. “Axion isn’t a brute.”
“Not him.” I can tell he isn’t – he looks soft. “The other one – taller and fatter.”
Brue’s face turns iridescent as he descends into a fit of hysterical laughter; it’s a melodious sound, full of innocence and promise. He snorts as he tries to talk. “That’s Clyst,” he sniggers.
“Oh, then I’m glad I woke up.” Though if I pretend I’ve passed out again I could stick my dagger in his gut when he carries me; no, not his gut – into his heart.
He shrugs. “I told you, they couldn’t leave me. My dad would kill them. They were just messing with you.”
I raise my eyebrows but don’t reply. He didn’t see the sneer on Clyst’s face when he rolled him in here with me. That man is evil personified.
Something else grabs my attention then and my conversation is forgotten. I nearly drop my mother too, in my eagerness to push myself against the bars of the cage. I can smell the ocean. Salt and seaweed, brine and life – everything I associate with water.
Water is my safe place. Now it is my only safe place; the other one could be the reason my leg is protesting with every movement. Now water is my only safe place. I could live beneath the waves indefinitely. Another of my secrets – one that nobody else knows, not even Liam...
“We’re nearly there!” Brue almost bounces in his excitement. It’s another thing about him that reminds me of my favourite brother. I have to force down the urge to vomit; let the snow speed up. I promised August I’d never leave him. He was my tie to Celthia – one of the few. I’ll vow now, to myself, that I’ll return to him; I can focus on that.
The smell of the ocean is getting stronger, calling me. “I can smell it,” I sigh.
“Smell what?” Brue asks.
I forget the dragone don’t share all of my abilities – like heightened day-vision, smell, hearing and flight. “The ocean.” I grin, a genuine grin – for the water.
Brue huffs. “I wish I could do that.”
I shrug. Those gifts come from my angeli half; my supposed father, Marcus.
I can almost taste the water now; my skin is tingling with anticipation. I can’t wait to see it. Claustrophobia is an issue with me. I hate walls, any walls. I crave open space. I need water like I need oxygen; though needing the water is one thing, being held captive so close to it and being denied it is another. It just occurred to me that being taken to an island, as a prisoner, may not be a good thing. “What will they do with me, Brue?” I blurt.
Brue looks at me strangely as he processes my question. Maybe it was wrong to ask him. He’s so young, I bet not even a teenager yet. Maybe he’s too innocent to be able to provide a real answer.
“My dad will kill you,” he answers.
Or maybe not. “Kill me?”
My mother amps up her wailing, squeezing me so tightly I can barely breathe. Brue’s father won’t need to kill me; my mother’s doing the job rather effectively. I prise her arms away from me gently. I am much stronger than a human. It doesn’t take much effort.
The numbness is hastening; snowfall an inch deep, cloaking my heart from the horrors of the world, protecting me from the hurt. I know I should feel terrified right now. After all, I’m a bird in a cage. Brue looks apologetic at least.
“Why would he do that?” I ask.
“Because you’re an angel,” he shrugs again; though I see a twinge in his eyes.
“Only half,” I correct. My voice holds no emotion.
He frowns slightly. “I don’t think that matters.”
“Worth a shot,” I shrug.
I’m definitely having some kind of episode. I’m sat in a cage, discussing my pending execution with the son of my would-be executioner. Brue grins at me, my mother wails and Axion stares dumbfounded. All of their faces disappear though, when I look ahead.
The end of the tunnel is approaching. We are on an incline. Light is beginning to seep into the darkness. It affects my vision as I switch from night to day mode. The world turns hazy until I’m blinded by white. I know my captors are suffering the same affliction – the cage shudders as they stagger from the mouth of the passageway and into the light. I’m sure my eyes adjust quicker, because I gasp a good second before Brue.
I can understand his reaction, and he lives here. Hantiem is breathtaking. It’s not the bare gray walls of Celthia, or the lush green hedgerows of England; it’s the pristine white sand and sapphire blue ocean – which disappears into a blurred line with the same coloured sky. The air is breathtakingly moist, and wonderfully hot. It almost burns my lungs as I breathe it in. I don’t care. I love the heat and the water droplets sticking to my skin. I’m dehydrated from my run earlier, I only drank mouthfuls of rainwater during my several thousand mile marathon.
We’ve appeared out of the side of a small hill, a stone’s throw from the beach. The tracks sweep around to the left, gifting me with a view of the eternal coast. A seam of pure white dissects the centre of my field of vision. To my right the blessed ocean goes on forever. To my left, rows of grass huts are nestled in the abundant green vegetation and boarded with colourful exotic flowers. The tracks weave in behind them and then climb up the bank to the next level. The same huts edge our passing. These are slightly bigger, though still woven from the same materials, and stood on wooden stilts. The dragone pant as they pull us. We have travelled a long way from England tonight. I can’t help wondering why they went to all the effort, when they plan to kill me anyway. At least I have survived long enough to see this view, to feel this warmth. It could even warm my now frozen heart, if I allowed it.
Brue and my mother are watching the landscape with the same look of wonder on their faces; the view seems to have helped my mother forget – at least for a few seconds. I relish the quiet after the sobbing in my ear. If not for the bars of the cage, I could imagine living here; browning my pale skin under the sun, exploring the marine life around the coast, sleeping under a reed roof with the smell of dried grass, fresh brine and colourful flowers. This could be home...
“You like it?” Brue asks hesitantly, but not in the way you ask a visitor if they like your home. No, he asks me in shock – disbelieving that an angeli could like somewhere like this. It is true, the angeli hate the heat. They relish the high ground – ultra high ground inside mountains. They live in the dark, illuminated only by candles. Few leave the city of their birth, few leave the rock walls unless on a special occasion.
I glance at Brue. He’s staring at me, watching my reactions. He really is very astute for a young boy.
“I like it,” I sigh. “I like the heat and the smells and especially the water.”
My mother starts crying again then, her momentarily relief forgotten, so I hug her to my chest and hold her as the cage nears a wooden gate.
It isn’t ornate, or overly spectacular. It’s just a series of small logs held together with dried vines; but I find myself smiling at it. It’s the wood. Celthia had very little. The wood reminds me of Somerset; of Saturday mornings at the course and chopping logs for winter. It reminds me of Aaron.
“You like the gate?” Brue frowns. He’s been staring at my face the whole time. I’m obviously very readable.
I nod. “I like wood.”
I watch as the dragone push through, the gate swings steadily until it catches open. The metal tracks run only a little way into the trees which line the path. They grind to a halt, panting and pulling off the black robes that cover their bodies. They are home now I guess; no need to be ghosts anymore.
Although, my breath hitches minutely when I see what little they are wearing. I guess you don’t need t-shirts in this hot climate. Their shorts are relatively snug, cut long in the same fabric as their cloaks. They are wearing shoes, heavy boots with thick soles used for hiking long distances. They each have a single broad sword, fastened to their waists. They are not the vile looking creatures depicted as lizards in the angeli scriptures.
Axion comes towards us then, the only one still wearing his cloak. I watch his progress. He has a fluidity to him, a gentle grace. I still can’t budge the feeling that I know him somehow. His face looks so familiar. He is their leader, though I have no idea why. He doesn’t have the assertiveness leadership requires. There’s nothing Alpha male about him.
He stands by the cage, looking unsure how to proceed. The three of us watch him. My mother is still sobbing. Brue is huffing out of his cloak, eager to be free of the bars. I am merely inquisitive. Axion is not a good leader. I have seen good leaders. Victus is one, Plyrian another. However, Liam is the best. Master of the guard of Celthia; my Guard Master, my brother and my boyfriend – all rolled into one gorgeously hateful reward. I touch the arrow in my leg instinctively, drawing Axion’s eyes to it.
“Can you walk?” he asks.
Walk? I’ve got a friggin’ arrow in my leg and a distraught mother on my arm. But if he wants to let me out I’m happy to fly... I nod and help my mother to her feet. My leg protests painfully. The fire is spreading from the point of penetration. I almost welcome it, it’s a feeling I can cope with; the snowfall is at blizzard status, my heart sufficiently numb to protect me from the other kind of pain... emotional pain.
The dragone surround us then, drawing their swords in defence. I roll my eyes. I’m not planning on fighting. Plan A; if I can get my mother out with me I’ll be fleeing all the way, it’s what I usually do.
Brue tenses beside me. He’s not armed. I don’t know if it’s because of their reaction of because he’s just remembered he’s locked in a cage with me. I give him a reassuring smile. I really must stop with the niceness. His dad’s possibly about to kill me.
I bend my knees in preparation, I could be airborne in seconds; escaping with my mother in my arms – except shrewd little Brue jumps on my back like a limpet and secures his arms and legs around me with unbelievable pressure.
He’s secured my wings. I smile. I knew I liked Brue. He may have more brain cells than the rest of the party combined. It won’t stop my plan B.
It takes four of the biggest dragone to lift the iron bars. Clyst is one of them. I watch the veins on his bulging arms as he heaves the side of the cage above his head; then I step forward, and kick him in the face.
“Aqua!” my mother exclaims at the same time as Clyst bellows an expletive and Brue starts laughing, he’s like a cutely annoying musical backpack.
Clyst stumbles backwards and I follow, jumping from the elevated platform and landing inside a ring of my captors. My mother shouts my name again but I ignore her. I am single minded – goal focused in this instant. The blizzard in my chest has eradicated the feelings that held me back in the clearing. I’d thought I had them under control then. I’d thought I’d be able to rely on my training. But they hindered me, they prevented me from fighting. It was my heart that brought me here. I stood and talked, and received an arrow to the leg and a trip in a cage, all because my heart was too afraid. Afraid I may die, and leave my love behind. Now I will fight. Now my love is encased in ice.
I move first; spinning, I kick Clyst in the stomach this time. He falls backwards with an ooof. While he’s down I kick him in the crotch. I feel Brue squeeze tighter as he clings to my back. I ignore his voice; I think he’s shouting too.
The next kick is aimed at the dragone whose sneaking up behind me, I go straight for the groin this time. As he hunches over, I grab his arm and throw him down. He lands heavily in the powder fine sand of the trail. I stick my leg out behind me; my foot connects with the stomach of whoever I heard approaching. I spin with that leg still held up. The burn of the fire is intensifying, spreading across my whole body. The soles of my feet are suffering, worn raw. My lungs pant because of it, my heart thumps in my chest. Sweat glistens on my skin and Brue’s grip begins to slip.
I roundhouse the next attacker, my fist connects with his nose sending a spray of blood onto the white sand. I kick my foot into the side of his knee and he goes down like the Titanic.
“Aqua!” Brue slips then with a squeal of my name. He lands in a heap on the floor, just as a dragone is sneaking up from behind. Brue takes the brunt of the man’s boot as he kicks for my leg. He screams in agony.
“No! Not Brue.” A red veil descends over my vision. I stop fighting with my head. The perpetrator doesn’t see my dagger until it’s in him; sunk to its hilt through his ribs.
I freeze, in horror I think though I can’t really feel anything. The rest of the dragone freeze too, watching the man’s face drain of colour.
Brue pulls himself to sitting, staring at the dragone who is now wobbling unsteadily. My mother is screaming. Oh. My. God.
The man I killed falls hard, like a felled tree, landing at my immobile feet. I can’t move. I can only stare and try not to vomit. Even my mother has fallen silent. The ocean breeze whispers through the leaves around me; whispers murderer like a mantra and my legs give way under the crushing guilt; the guilt that this man is dead, the guilt that I’ve tarnished my soul. I’m now a murderer – just like Liam.
I’m on my knees before I know what’s happening. Brue is there too. I watch as he leans across and pulls the dagger from the man’s chest. I’m broken. Only the ice in my own chest is keeping me upright. If I could really feel right now, I would be ending my own life to escape the pain. I never wanted to kill...not really...
Brue wipes the blood on his shorts, inspecting the blade when it’s clean. I just watch. I’m barely able to process his actions, like watching a foreign film with no subtitles. The images are there but I can’t understand them.
He looks at me then, and smiles. I blink but nothing else. I can’t fathom his expression. His eyes are bright and alive. Not like those of the dead man in front of me. Brue hands me the dagger, or tries. I just stare at it, my brain has logged off – or crashed. So he crawls over and slides it into my sheath. I watch his little fingers as they release the handle and he sits back. I stare blankly as he says; “Thank you.”
Hands grab me then; lifting me into strong arms. I don’t see whose face it is. I don’t even care if it’s Clyst. I close my eyes, and pretend I’m somewhere else – anywhere else. My body sinks into unconsciousness on command.