Authors: Devri Walls
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #magic, #YA, #dragons, #shapeshifters, #angels
Thank you to my readers, without whom I may have lost my courage. Those of you who have sent messages, notes and emails have no idea what a blessing you are to me.
Thank you to Ellie Soderstrom, editor extraordinaire, who snapped this book into shape. You are amazing. A very special thanks to Erin Keyser Horn, who is not only a great author but a fantastic copy editor who polished this piece to a shine. Ladies- I would be lost without you.
I hope someday when my kids are older and they look back on my work, they read this thanks to them. Thank you my little monsters, for your patience. Although you are both probably convinced that my laptop is a new appendage at this point.
Through all the crazy, my husband is still the most supportive man I could possibly image and thank you just doesn’t seem adequate.
I dedicate this book to the three people in my life who make this possible. Zack, Cody and Sydney. . . you are my everything.
The Other Side
THE PASS THROUGH THE mountain peaks of Meros took longer than Kiora had expected. Thick boulders lined the sides, often sticking precariously from the mountain, threatening to tumble down on them. The proof of their threat lay evident as they maneuvered around broken boulders and listened to the constant crunch of shattered rock under the horse’s hoofs. As they went through, Kiora had felt pinned in and vulnerable. She was grateful when the pass opened to the final rocky expanse that melted into trees in the near distance.
Kiora tried to relax with the pass behind her. She was a bundle of nerves, shifting back and forth in her saddle and fidgeting with the reins as the horses plodded forward. Drustan, on the other hand, looked as if it were all he could do to not jump up and down on the back of his horse like a school boy. A grin had been plastered on his face since they had left Meros, and now his eyes eagerly raked over the landscape before him.
This had been Drustan’s home, a home he hadn’t seen since the gate was shut. Watching him, Kiora realized that Drustan looked as she should feel: liberated! The land that had held her hostage was now behind her. But the weight of being the Solus pressed down with a crushing reality, making Kiora feel anything but free.
The horses picked their way through the rocks and sparse grass that dotted the mountainous landscape.
Emane’s voice came from behind. “Whoa.” He whistled.
Turning her head, Kiora saw what caught Emane’s attention. Behind them stood a strange sight—an epic illusion. They saw miles and miles of lifeless sand, the mountains of Meros camouflaged as giant dunes. It was a barren wasteland, a deathtrap. Only a fool would venture in. But now, as the magic was fading, the grey mountains of home poked through slits in the fabric of the illusion. Two rocky mountain outcroppings stood mysteriously in the sky, nothing but blue between them and the sandy dunes below.
“That explains a lot,” Drustan said, pointing to the desert. “No one would have gone near enough to Meros to find us. Brilliant,” he admitted grudgingly.
Fear stabbed at Kiora and she shifted in her saddle. “Yes, but the illusion is fading. Don’t you think it will cause interest? What if the villagers are found?”
“Don’t worry,” Drustan said, turning his eyes back to the trees. “Eleana will deal with it. We have only just come through the pass, you have to give her—” He was interrupted by a thread Kiora remembered from a few days before.
Kiora threw up a bubble, providing invisibility, hiding the threads of both them and their horses.
“What?” Emane asked. His eyes darted around as he twisted in the saddle, trying to identify whatever threat Kiora was hiding them from.
“Aktoowa.” Kiora groaned.
“The magic-eating bird that lives here,” Kiora reminded him.
“Oh, right,” Emane said as he pulled his horse up next to hers.
The Aktoowa had been the first thing Kiora had seen in this world as they stood on the mountaintop. Now, it lumbered out of the tree line in front of them on two enormous bird legs. Its head rooted the air, trying to find their scent. Kiora couldn’t look away from the wicked, sharp beak glinting in the sun.
“Drustan?” Emane asked warily. “Why does it have a dragon’s tail?”
It wasn’t a dragon tail exactly, but long and green and very reptile-like.
“Why do you have ears, Emane?” Drustan replied. “It just does.”
Emane muttered something under his breath about “useless,” but Kiora’s eyes were already traveling back up the Aktoowa’s body. The green scales were met at the top of its tail by red feathers, switching back to scales around his stomach, and then feathers again around his head.
“I should have known the creature wouldn’t go far,” Drustan said, peering out from the bubble Kiora had put up. “Kiora smelled too good for it to leave the area completely.”
“Well that’s a compliment if I ever heard one,” Emane drawled sarcastically. His horse snorted its discontent as Kiora’s pawed at the ground.
One excited hop forward and the Aktoowa spread its wings, flying towards them with a screech.
“I thought you said bubbles were a good defense against the Aktoowa,” Kiora nearly shouted, leaning back as the bird closed the distance. She had come too far to end up as dinner.
“It is,” Drustan said. “But it’s going to assume we are still here somewhere.” He spoke calmly, but his eyes were fixed on the Aktoowa. “It may be impatient, but it’s not stupid.”
was a dreadful shame.
Emane pulled a bow from his saddle, preparing to nock an arrow.
“No,” Drustan said. “We don’t want to leave evidence that we were here. Especially while we are waiting for Eleana to fix the illusion.”
Luckily the massive bird veered to the left, its wingtips passing just over the top of Kiora’s bubble and landing to the side of them. Kiora released a breath she had not known she was holding.
“It’s so big,” Kiora observed as the Aktoowa rumbled past them, sniffing this way and that. It was at least fifteen feet tall, and the claws of its three-toed feet sunk deep into the earth as it walked.
“Come on,” Drustan said, turning his horse. “We should probably get moving. It would be wise to put as much distance between it—” he jerked his head towards the predator, “and us as possible. The Aktoowa will have no trouble tracking you if you lose the ability to bubble within its range.”
Emane stared at the creature with disgust, putting his bow away. “If I never see another one of those things again it will be too soon!”
“You will see worse,” Drustan assured him. “Come.” He spurred his horse, forcing Emane and Kiora to follow or risk someone falling out of the bubble.
Emane shouted at Drustan over the pounding hoofs. “Thank you for the comforting words.”
Drustan’s long dark hair was flying over his shoulders. Kiora noticed that at some point he had shifted his ears; they were now long and pointy. It was the first Kiora had ever seen him, or any other Shifter, make that particular alteration.
“My pleasure, Your Highness,” Drustan yelled back, grinning widely. He threw his arms out to the side like a child pretending to fly. Tilting his head up he shouted, “It smells like home! I didn’t think I would ever see it again!”
Kiora couldn’t help laughing. She hadn’t seen Drustan in this good of mood since the enchantment had been lifted off the valley. Since then, he had walked with a spring in his step, acting like a much younger version of himself.
The horses thundered across the new landscape. It was somewhat familiar, and yet completely foreign at the same time. Miles of pine forests stretched out before them, carpeted with the same vegetation that grew in Meros. But new, unfamiliar threads crisscrossed the terrain, both magical and non. There were so many. She had no idea which ones were safe.
Kiora and Emane rode with their hoods up as Eleana had instructed; Drustan did not. She assumed it had something to do with those new pointy ears.
The horses had slowed to a walk and Kiora could feel an emptiness opening inside her as the magic drained. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold this bubble.”
Reining in his horse, Drustan looked around. “All right. Search for threads before you drop it.”
Kiora reached out to feel as many threads as she could. There was no sign of the Aktoowa, which was good. Beyond that, it felt like the first time she had trained on threads—strange and confusing. “There are so many.”
“Yes, fortunately most are harmless animals by the feel of them,” Drustan said.
Kiora scowled, scanning the forest. “I can feel that, but are the rest of the animals the size of the Aktoowa? How am I supposed to know which of them wants to eat me?”
“That’s what I am here for,” Drustan said, turning to look at her. Kiora huffed in irritation as she let the bubble drop. “Don’t worry, you will learn in time.” He pulled his horse around and started forward again.
“Hold on,” Emane objected, as his horse came alongside Kiora’s. “I thought you could determine whether something was good or evil by its thread. Now we have to wait until it tries to
us to be sure?”
“The threads are accurate for creatures that have enough brains to choose good from evil,” Drustan answered over his shoulder. “Animals with low intellect cannot choose.” He shrugged. “And they eat what they eat. Kiora will soon learn which threads constitute a threat and which do not.” Drustan looked over his shoulder in time to see Emane roll his eyes. “Or,” Drustan drawled, “we could always set you out for bait and see what happens.”
Emane opened his mouth with what Kiora was sure would be a snappy retort. To prevent the downhill slide that was Drustan and Emane’s banter, she moved her horse between them. “All right,” she said brightly. “Let’s go then.”
As the sun began to drop lower in the sky, they exited the tree line and came to a large, overgrown meadow. Kiora guessed that in the spring it was filled with brilliant wildflowers. But they were approaching fall now, and nothing remained but tall brown grass waving in the breeze.
Pulling his horse up short Drustan announced, “We will stay within the forest for the night and cross the meadow tomorrow. The Morow region is that way.” Drustan pointed. “Hopefully we run into whoever Lomay sent to find us between here and there.” Dismounting, he grabbed the reins and led the animal back into the relative shelter of the trees.
“Are we going to make camp and just hope that some monstrous creature doesn’t wander in?” Emane said, also dismounting.
Kiora shuddered, dropping off her horse. The thought of waking up to the pointy beak of the Aktoowa was not a pleasant one. Nor would it help her get some rest. She certainly couldn’t hold a bubble all night. Grabbing the reins of her horse she followed Emane and Drustan.
“We will deal with it,” Drustan answered without turning around.
Emane rolled his eyes as he tied his horse to a tree. “As usual, Drustan, you are always so clear with your answers.”
“And as usual, you lack patience,” Drustan said with a smirk, undoing the buckle on the saddle.
Although she couldn’t deny the banter was terribly entertaining, mostly because it unhinged Emane to the point of hilarity, Kiora chided them anyway. “All right, you two, we are going to be together for a long time.”
“It is all in good fun, My Lady,” Drustan said, pulling his bedding off his horse. “And should I be at fault that he is easily provoked?”
Emane dropped his head into his horse’s neck, breathing deeply, while Kiora pulled down her saddle, trying desperately not to laugh and failing. “No.” She giggled. “It’s not your fault.”
“Wonderful, Kiora. Thank you,” Emane said, unable to hide the half grin he was wearing.
Getting camp together was straight forward enough, except they were still in the open. Drustan settled down on his bedroll and asked Kiora to retrieve the book Eleana had sent with her.
She left the Book of Arian in the saddlebag, instead pulling out an old nondescript book. “What’s in this one?” Kiora asked, turning the book over in her hands.
“Incantations to use the old magic,” Drustan said, his eyes roaming over the cover. “Of all the books on old magic, I am a little surprised she sent that one with you. After the wars began Epona wouldn’t let it out of her sight.”