City of Quartz – Chapter One [Sneak Peek]
So, I’m working on City of Quartz, book two in the Children of Nar Chronicles. It’s going to be a bit darker than City of Light and the first chapter certainly sets that tone and expectation. Couldn’t resist sharing this sneak peak with readers. So here’s your first taste of City of Quartz!
After six orbits of rising suns, I’d gotten used to riding out through a greening scrubland. The black murk of the shadowlands had given way to blue skies. The earth had sprouted with life. Even the eagrim, heavy winged creatures with fanged teeth and haunting, squinted eyes, had mellowed as plants and insects flourished. Over the many weeks, the bleak and barren land had transformed into blossoming beauty.
Now that wonderland has a new kind of beauty. An eerie, white beauty, that steels my breath away in misty puffs. The blasting chill of icy air cuts against my cheeks.
The green shoots of fresh life lie buried beneath a blanket of frosted flakes. The echo of Oliver’s genetic memories in my mind calls it “snow”, but I’ve never seen it before. Even Tye had freaked out when we’d seen it through the windows of Elixr two days ago. No one on Nar remembers winter. No one but me, and Niah.
I guess that’s the advantage of being alien clones of long dead men. We remember the world before the darkness.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
Sometimes I wonder if my thoughts are mine, or if they’re his. The Lord of Light, the one who’d tried to kill us, and doom Nar to an eternity of sunless skies.
Now, zooming over the hills, mini-zip rumbling softly beneath me, I let the cold wind whip my hair back from my face. The stretch of empty land around me makes my freedom feel complete. No more rooms to clean, rations to sort, measurements to check. Elixr was space-ready, and as soon as we figure out how to get where we need to go we’ll be leaving Nar behind.
I squint against the blinding frost as I crest another rise. There’s supposed to be a lake between me and the city. But a large, ice pit has replaced it. The domed city rises behind it like a noble sentry, standing guard over the inhospitable wilderness.
Against the rim of the frozen lake I see movement. At first I think it’s probably a stray tiolf. The furry, four-legged beasts lap from water sources like these. But as I slow the mini-zip against the lake’s banks, I see more clearly the dark navy shirt and ribbed pleats of the young boy’s clothing.
He leans precariously close to the water’s edge. The golden flecks of light in his tawny hair and the cheeky grin on his face remind me of my friend Casper. This boy is younger though, maybe only six narcycles.
Tentatively, he treads his boot on the ice. He slips a little then steps his other foot onto the surface.
With a slight wobble, he glides out a little way from the edge.
I tilt my head, curious but concerned. We are just two circuits into the frost; there’s no telling how solid that lake is.
“Careful,” I call out. The wind whips my voice away. He doesn’t even look up. My chest lurches and my breath catches as I see the splinter of ice give way. The boy plunges down into the inky depth beneath the white surface.
I nudge the mini-zip forward and rev the engines, gliding directly across the lake. The ice crackles beneath the mini-zip as the hover jets blast a wake of frosty waves behind me. It’s quicker than going around.
I reach the hollow where he’d disappeared in two deccas but the swirl in my stomach is terrified I’m already too late. I don’t know medicine like Jenin does but even I, or maybe the genetic Oliver memories, know that a child that size can freeze to death or drown in the heartbeat from one decca to the next.
I tilt the mini-zip as I approach the hole in the frosted surface of the lake. The ice beneath me is thicker than the edges but I drop to it carefully and let the mini-zip glide away. It slams harmlessly into a drift at the edge of the lake. I lay, winded, on the hard ice about a quarter-furlong from the gaping hole that gives way to the chilly waters below.
With careful movements, I shimmy over the ice. I try to keep my weight evenly spread and wince as the frost chills through the mamot leather gloves that cover my fingers. I’m shivering as I reach the edge of the pool and gaze down into the murky abyss.
I breath again when I see him, one arm flailing as he tries to reach upward. Thrashing against the water is a very good sign. He’s still alive. As I take the moment to gather myself, his flailing stops. Beneath the water I see him convulse, then grow lax. The freezing lake seems to suck him downward, tugging him toward a watery death.
I thrust myself over the edge to catch him before he drifts out of reach. The icy water burns across my face and slicks down my back as I plunge almost to my waist. But I press my lips together against the instinct to suck a breath into my lungs and instead reach, grip the boys shirt, and yank him up to the surface. I haul him over the edge.
His small body is limp in my arms. As I pull backward and roll over, I hear the splinter of the ice beneath me. The boy’s weight crushes me from above. It presses us both into the crunching ice of the lake. I draw a breath and glance at the bank, at safety.
I bite my lip as I glance at the boy’s blue skin and closed eyes. The sharp sound of the ice splintering pushes me to action. I wrap my arms around him and push myself, and him, into a roll that takes us across the ice. His body is heavy and cold in my arms but I leverage against our momentum to travel the short distance.
The boy hits the ground hard. I try to stop myself from crashing into him but feel his chest compress beneath mine as we slam into the snowdrift. We’re just feet from the mini-zip, and thankfully, on solid ground.
He starts coughing, spluttering a gagging breath as he spits up water. I sit up and reach toward him, pulling him upright so that he can clear his lungs. “It’s okay,” I whisper, my own voice tight. “Just breath. You’re okay.”
He gazes up at me. His blue lips quiver. I notice how pale his skin still is as his teeth begin to chatter. I can feel the chill myself, shivering through the layers I’d put on earlier. I glance around, searching for help, but there’s no one else at the lake’s edge.
“Where is your mother? Your family?” I ask the boy.
He gazes up at me, lips quivering, but does not say a word. I turn toward the domed city. It’s only a short distance. Despite the fact that the surface of Nar was habitable again, most of the citizens of the City of Light had remained within the dome rather than venture outside. It was probably a good thing since they couldn’t be prepared for this winter. But right now it meant the unwelcoming city was the only help on hand. My starship, Elixr, was too far away.
I push myself to my feet. “Let’s go to the city. You need to get warm.”
I glance down, ready to help the boy to his feet, but his eyes are closed again and his body rests against the snow. I kneel down, reaching my fingers to feel the rise of his chest as I lean forward. I feel his breath against my cheek, it’s cold and so feint that it’s almost as if he’s not breathing at all. My own breath catches, but I force myself to exhale, then haul the boy up into my arms.
I try to sprint toward the city but the snow rises up my shins. Each footstep sinks in, slowing my pace so that I’m wading through the drifts. Still, I push myself as fast as I can. The boy’s weight is cold and heavy. His clothing, logged with water, is freezing in places against his skin. I feel the uncomfortable chill of my own clothes. My hair is stiff; a slick of ice stalactites hanging against my cheeks.
As I approach the city, the thick, heavy black cloaks of the Stalkers shift. They turn to watch me. “Help!” I call out to them when I’m sure I’m close enough to be heard. One lifts his chin so I know he heard me, but neither man moves forward. The other Stalker places a hand to the laser blaster at his belt. I shake my head. “Please, he needs help!”
I’m wilting by the time I reach them. My arms ache with the boy’s weight and my legs tremble. The Stalkers step forward, barring my way. “Hold there, the city is closed to outsiders.”
I shiver against the breeze of cold air that lances down my back. Even the light from the twin suns can’t cut through the bitter chill. I drop to my knees and place the boy against my thighs as I look up at the Stalkers. “Please,” I whisper, “we need help.”
I catch the glint of recognition in one of the Stalker’s eyes. I try to remember how he knows me, then tense as I remember the chortessa pit and the mamot ride that followed. This Stalker, Erron, had been one of our captors. An underling to Hanzor, but still compliant in the kidnapping.
He stares down on me, obviously recognising me as well. “Erron, isn’t it?” I ask.
He shudders, shaking his head. “I don’t know you.”
“She knows your name,” the other Stalker says, glaring at him. The white of Erron’s eyes sharply contrasts against the darkness of his skin. He lifts a hand to wipe the black tuft of his moustache.
“Nah, she don’t know me.” His gaze narrows, then he adds, “Get away, filthy offworlder.”
“Please, Erron,” I keep my eyes fixed to his. “The boy fell in the lake. He needs medicine. Blankets, warmth, something.”
Beneath my hands the boy barely moves. His breath is shallow. I pull off my gloves and keep my fingers close to his lips just to feel the moisture of each breath. He’s still alive. I tell myself that, desperate that we won’t be too late.
Erron shakes his head again. The other Stalker nudges his head out toward the wilderness. “Go home to your Shadow village, girl. The contaminated are not welcome in the City.”
“Contaminated?” I shove a hand through my ice-frosted hair and wince as it tugs against my skull. “We’re not contaminated. We’re wet, and cold. Eagrim’s beak, it’s just water!”
He rocks his head back, pointing out the sign over his shoulder. “Quarantine. No one out, no one in.”
I glance through the gates beyond the sign. A scatter of citizens gazes out at us. One, a woman with caramel hair and tear-filled eyes, stares at us. Her gaze rests hungrily on the boy and her hands clasp together, her lips tight and face pinched.
“Orders from her Lady,” Erron adds, drawing back my attention.
“You mean Carmen?” Erron flinches at the use of the woman’s given name. “Lord Oliver’s mistress?” The other Stalker’s lips compress and his gaze darkens. I continue anyway, knowing I’m pushing my luck. “She’s not a lady, she never was. The city is free now, you don’t have to stay inside. Nar is saved.”
The Stalker glances out at the barren white lands that stretch away in every direction. He snorts.
“Saved?” Erron mutters. “More like the a whole new version of the Nine-voids.”
I glance down at the boy. His lips are a darker blue now. My fingers are so cold with frost that I can’t feel the chill of his breath or the moisture tingle across them.
“Please, he’ll die. He needs a doctor. He needs his mother.” I glance up at the woman through the gate again, wondering. Our gazes catch. There’s a trace of torture in her look and a hesitation in her stance. It’s as if she wants to step forward, to intervene, but her fear crackles through the air around her like hardened toffee, holding her in place.
I still as I realise that the feint rise and fall of the boy’s chest has stopped. I gasp, laying him flat on the ground and lean close. My ear touches the chill of his lips. No breath stirs there.
In the whisper of Oliver’s memories I feel traces of knowledge and act as if his mind controls my body. I press my hands together against the boy’s chest. One, two, three, four. Then lean down again. I place my lips across his mouth and blow a burst of air to fill his lungs. His chest moves under my hands and the breath rushes out again as I compress once more.
I glance up at the Stalkers as I count off four more beats, breath again, then count again. “Please,” I whisper. “He’s dying.”
Through the gate the woman raises a hand to cover her horrified mouth. She goes to step forward but other hands pull her back.
“He’s lost, Becky. He’s already lost.”
I can’t put a face to the words whispered in the crowd.
“It’s not too late!” I shout back before giving the boy another breath. Four more compressions. “Please, you can save him.”
The guards stay fixed in place, watching. The people inside the gate turn away. I clench my teeth against the sob that fills my chest.
“You can’t do this!” I shout again putting my attention on the boy as I work to keep him alive.
Whispers rise up. I hear the echo of repeated words, “Look, it’s the Lady. She’s coming.” The young mother’s head snaps up and swivels, searching. I glance through the crowd, seeking the face I’d only seen on digiscreens aboard the Elixr.
“Carmen?” I call, searching for her. The woman’s pale hair stands out against the darkness. So do her brightly painted red lips and the glimmer of diamonds in her ears. Her dark eyebrows, brown eyes, and black roots stand out against the artificial platinum of her hair. It was the Bellamy colour, like mine, but hers was achieved by chemistry not nature.
The people shuffle around her as she steps up to the gate. Erron goes to open it, to let her out, but she waves a hand to ward off him off. Instead, she watches me through the bars. Her gaze is firm, resolute. Her smile stiffens. She hides it well but I can see in the tightness around her eyes that she hates me. Hates everything that Niah and I mean to Nar.
“It’s too late, Wish,” she says. Her voice is gentle and I think that makes me even more angry.
“Don’t pretend that you care!” I snarl.
Her gaze rests on me. “I do care. All loss is tragedy. You and your sister should know that, having caused so much of it.”
I lift my chin. “You don’t even see, do you? Closed off in this artificial void. The world is bigger than this crushing dome.” I glance down at the boy’s limp body, then wipe away the tear the streaks down my cheek before glaring back at Carmen. “You could have saved him.”
“He was lost the decca he stepped outside the dome, Wish. You killed him, you and the false hope and promises. Nar is not safe.”
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