Among the Flames

After fleeing her home in Tharien with the Emperor's forces hot on her heels, Aia Wynnald has only one goal: To end the two-thousand-year-old discrimination against Benders—a race of beings like her, with a misunderstood gift. But when the Emperor’s Church of Mighty retaliates with a new threat, her noble plans are put on hold.

With her companion Cole Balain, a former enemy, by her side, Aia must halt the devastation triggered by her well-meaning actions. The only way she can fight the Church is with the help of a disenchanted group of rebel Benders who'd sooner submit to their fate than follow Aia's lead.

Can she inspire them to fight and work together to resolve this new crisis, or will her ingrained submissive nature bring her, and the Benders of Dyel, to their knees?

Reviews

"A flawlessly executed fantasy novel with stunning prose, characters and plot lines." - Blue Eye Books

"And she does it again!" -- Stina, Goodreads Reader

"I really enjoyed this book and I am really looking forward to reading the next book in this series Into the Storm." -- Amethyst Bookwyrm Reviews

"There is a new cast of characters introduced, new lands explored, and more magic expanded. "-- Courtney's Reads

"After finishing this book, that two year wait was really worth it. I’m eager to see where this story goes." -- Diminishing Thoughts

READ AN EXCERPT NOW!

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Aia lay absolutely still on the cave floor, peering through her hood at the figures at the cave entrance. They huddled together, silhouetted against the early morning light. Watching.

She’d been lying awake nearly ten minutes before she noticed their shadows. How long had they been watching her and her partner?

Breakers? No…they were unarmored. Why had they not made a move?

She and Cole had remained undiscovered an entire week, holed up in caves or hidden in forests across Dyel while they trained and planned. The Breakers were busy rebuilding their numbers, but now their luck had run out. Without a sound, she stretched her foot and nudged Cole’s leg. He mumbled, and she nudged him again.

He grumbled like a teenaged boy. “Is it so hard to wait till the sun wakes me? I only got to sleep a couple of hours ago. I was up all night again.”

She kicked him again, never taking her eyes off the intruders. He rolled to face her.

When she didn't turn to him, he bent his neck back to look in the same direction and froze. “Well, that’s unsettling. Who the hell are they? And what are they doing?” His whisper sounded louder than a shout. Thankfully, the intruders didn’t seem to react.

“I don’t know. They were like that when I noticed them. They haven’t moved. What should we do?”

Cole sighed. “We could attack. Or play defense, see if they attack first.”

“We’re already outnumbered, so we don’t want to give them the first attack, too. On the other hand, we’ve seen no proof they are hostile.”

“Right,” he said. “If they meant harm, they would have attacked in our sleep. They look…curious.”

“Okay, taking the politic approach.” She slid slowly to her knees.

Cole followed suit.

The silhouetted people didn’t move. What could she say to make them stand down? What did they want to hear?

She started with the obvious. “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” one countered in a foreign tongue.

Foreign, yes, but a language she knew well. A language she once shared with someone dear to her. The tongue of Siras.

But for now she didn’t dare reveal her knowledge of their language. Not until it was opportune. As she'd learned as a child, there was more power in listening first, then speaking. “Aia Wynnald. And Cole Balain to my right.”

The silhouettes charged them. She couldn’t get to her feet fast enough. Multiple hands seized her everywhere, dragging her and Cole out of the cave and into the pale morning. A group of horses waited at the base of the mountain.

Five men, three women. Tall, elegant, and lean, but not lacking in muscle. The light dirt of the Dustlands coated their mahogany skin, but their jewelry still glinted in the young sun. Brown, almond eyes surrounded by thick eyelashes, their smooth black hair in various styles of ponytails, all long and magnificent. Leather scraps hung off their shoulders and hips, covering what was important. Just like her tutor Olyisi, their beauty was astounding.

“Put them on separate horses,” one of them ordered in Siran. No smile or frown lines creased his smooth, stern face. The face of someone in charge. He had a thick ponytail at the crown of his head with beads down various strands, and a piercing with a ring below his lip. He mounted a horse, his bare muscles flexing as he took up the reins.

“What's the plan, Aia?” Cole muttered while two Siras tied his hands.

Before she could speak, Lip-ring spoke again. “Tula wants them unharmed, so don't show aggression, and don't Bend.”

Bend? They were Benders? And who was Tula? So they weren't being taken back to the Emperor. But the way Lip-ring glared at her, she doubted he'd explain himself if she were to ask. Perhaps it was more prudent to listen and learn. There was no chance of escaping if they were Benders, anyway.

“Cole, listen. They're all Benders.”

“What!”

“Don't show aggression. They plan to take us to Sirabel to someone named Tula.” One of them bound her wrists, as they’d done to Cole.

“How do you know all this? You speak Siran?”

“My tutor was Sira.”

A few mounted their horses while others moved to hoist Cole atop one.

“And you want to go with them? Talk to them, tell them to let us go.” Someone grabbed him in the wrong place. “Hey!” The Sira man repositioned his hands.

“You think that'll work?” She let one of them help her onto a horse, straddling one of their captors. “Just say no thank you? We are outnumbered four to one. It's wiser to just go along and not let on that I understand them. We'll learn a lot more that way.”

Cole, who was finally settled, sighed. “They teach you political strategies as a child? Hostage scenarios before breakfast?”

She ignored him. Sirabel! She’d always wanted to see Sirabel. Though not like this.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Lendor tried to smile while he busied himself behind his booth with reorganizing Sovren’s amateurish baskets and the poorly-executed scrolls she’d made to help by taking over for Dove. Ryk had fumbled through Eve’s previous occupation of looming, and his most recent efforts adorned the table. The rugs wouldn’t sell to even the most desperate of citizens, but it didn’t stop him from trying.

The city had only now, a week after the disaster, reached the point where they could begin rebuilding. Ash continued to fall from the skies, blackened buildings still loomed like frozen shadows, and debris was still being cleared away. Despite the cleaning going on around him, and the noisy reconstruction, Town Center was still, as though nervously awaiting something to happen.

Three Breakers rode past, not five minutes after another six had ridden around, questioning people. Not surprisingly, recruitment for Breakers had increased exponentially. Egotistical prats. Did they think Mighty would welcome his hunters with open arms in the afterlife? Or perhaps some were actually Benders, hiding in plain sight as Cole had. It wasn’t a half bad idea. Cole had gone undiscovered since he was a child.

Lendor called out his ridiculous product descriptions to passersby, forcing his friend from his thoughts. The group was depending on him. He had to sell their wares, buy food, ensure their survival. He'd promised Cole.

“Baskets, here. Hand woven with the finest attention to detail. Strong and durable, light and decorative. Whatever your needs, my quality baskets are sure to satisfy.” He held out a basket and displayed its craftsmanship to a woman whose interest was piqued. “You, madam…I see you’re carrying your groceries in your arms. Would be a lot easier with a fine basket. Only five coppers for a small, ten for a large.”

The woman nodded and purchased a large one. He pocked the money. Dinner for the week. He could do it. He could take care of them.

Posters of the man he admired were plastered all over every intact building in the city. It looked nothing like Cole, which wasn’t surprising. The wanted posters were always ridiculous. Still. Seeing him displayed as the villain, alongside the woman who had risked her own life to save them all, was more than disheartening. How far would the Emperor spread lies about them? All over Dyel, no doubt.

He glanced out over the tops of the buildings to the west. Where were they now? Safe, since he hadn't heard otherwise. But, despite never having ventured there himself, he knew there were other things to fear outside the kingdom walls. He’d read about them in Eve’s books. Even certain plants could kill a man. Not to mention animals that would welcome them…as a meal.

And that was all if they could avoid other like-beings out there. He’d heard rumors of bandits, loose Benders, Leeches. They must avoid all of them, plus the Breakers who were scouring outside the walls. What kingdom would give them shelter?

He shook his friends from his mind like a recurring fogginess that, if left alone, would cloud his every thought. They’d be okay. If anyone could do it, it was them. Meanwhile, he had others to worry about.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Hours had passed with no break. Aia shifted on her horse, her shirt and hair clinging uncomfortably to her sweaty, dirty body, and chafing. Her rider, however, hadn’t broken a sweat. A trait of the Siras, no doubt. Despite her hope, their captors had said little on the journey, leaving their motive a mystery still.

“Do these people drink water?” Cole said from a couple horses back. “I get they are desert people, but honestly.”

He was right. If they didn't have water soon, they wouldn't make it all the way to Sirabel. She glanced around both sides of the horse before spotting a waterskin by her rider's leg. She tapped his shoulder with her bound hands. He glanced around, and she pointed to the bag and made a drinking motion.

“Ralaam, I think we need to give them some water,” the young man said in Siran.

Lip-ring—Ralaam—didn't bother stopping his horse or even glancing over his shoulder. “Then give them water, if the weak Humans need it, Baeris. She's your responsibility during the trip.”

Baeris reached down to the waterskin and stuffed the bag into her tied hands. She lifted it, slopping only a little in spite of her awkward grip, and drank, the cool water glorious on her dusty throat. Her fingers slipped, and the bag dropped onto the saddle, but Baeris caught it before it hit the ground.

“Do they need to be bound like this? Tula said to invite her, not bring her as a prisoner. They did come willingly.”

Ralaam's horse stopped, followed by the rest of the train. The man thudded down from his horse and strode back to them, stopping at their horse’s side, eying the young man in front of her, nearly at shoulder level.

“Do you think a cornered animal will not play tame? But give it the benefit of the doubt, turn your back, and it will flee or tear your throat out. Should we give it the option to do either of those?”

Aia bit her tongue, hoping she looked like someone who didn't understand what was being said.

Baeris gulped but met Ralaam's eyes. “They aren't animals, so—”

Ralaam seized Baeris's shirt quick as a viper and yanked him forward, nearly tipping him from his horse. “The Elders want her, so they'll get her. And she'll fail to meet their expectations. If she didn't come, they'd still believe she was the savior they seek. Their flights of delusion must end. I won't risk that by playing nice.”

Baeris dropped his eyes and waited until Ralaam had made his way back to his horse before hopping off his own and going back to hand the waterskin to Cole, who also nearly dropped it.

“Damn Humans are the clumsiest, stubbiest things on two legs,” Cole's rider muttered. The piercings along his collarbone glinted in the sun. Despite not being the leader, he was the scariest of them all.

“Their hands are bound, Taenash. Give them a break,” Baeris said, taking the canteen back and making his way back to Aia.

But her thoughts weren't on Taenash or his ignorance. They were on Ralaam's words. Liberator? The Elders of Sirabel believed she was...a liberator? A liberator for Benders? She waited until Baeris mounted and they were off again before relaying what she'd learned to Cole.

“Liberator. Well, this should be good. At least they don't want to turn us in.”

True. It appeared they were on the same team in some form. But whose expectations would she live up to? Ralaam's or the Elders’?

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

Fynris Ratisen's foot slipped from the lip of the flat roof, but he righted himself. Sirabel was nearly black after the sun fell, the perfect time for secret deeds. Though it made rooftops more precarious. Below a group of ten rode in, two of the horses carrying two riders. They stabled the horses and set off on foot single file.

Two figures, cloaked and shorter than the rest, stood out from the others. Children, perhaps? But cloaks? Siras didn't wear cloaks. And coming back so late? And in such a large group?

A gust whipped through the thin alleys, and the group braced themselves against its assault. He squinted just as one of the children's hoods blew off.

His blood froze.

The glow of the moon highlighted her pale skin and red hair. Not children. Not even Siras. Two Humans. And not just any Humans—the ones the Emperor was hunting. Wynnald and the Breaker, Balain, if Fynris recalled from the posters that had been up for nearly a week. Even a child would recognize the two.

They entered a house after a single knock. All ten of them? What were they doing with the two Humans? Wynnald wouldn't be foolish enough to come here willingly, would she? Yet here she was.

Spying wasn’t a typical job for a priest. But he wasn't a typical priest, and for him, knowledge was power. And he needed all the power he could get.

He climbed down from the roof like a shadow and hurried home. Lenti had always hated when he was late for supper, as most wives did. Spy nights were always inconvenient. Besides, Yalana needed to leave soon. Even nannies had their own families to tend to. That would leave his son alone. And Acen couldn’t be alone.

Fynris rounded the corner, the tonics in his satchel clinking. He ascended the red clay steps to his home, pushed open the flimsy wooden door, and sighed with relief. Acen was on the floor playing with his small wooden horse. Alive. Undiscovered.

Yalana rounded the corner carrying a wooden platter of chopped, smoked lizard. The cayenne tickled his nose.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Yalana. With luck, tonight's endeavors will prove worth the trouble.”

The graceful woman patted his cheek and called Acen to the table. “You know this spying is no good for your nerves. Lenti wouldn’t approve of this dangerous work. How many times must I remind you?”

“It's because Lenti is gone that I must.”

“So you say. Isn’t there a potion you might take to ease yourself?”

“I’ll be fine. There is no potion in Dyel that would ease my ailments.” He forced the thorny feeling from his throat and slumped into a rickety chair as Acen rushed over.

The boy threw his arms around him, nestling his head against Fynris's chest. “I missed you, Papa.”

He squeezed his boy to him, clutching a fistful of his precious hair—silky, like his mother’s—as though he’d almost lost him. For every time he left, that was the risk he took.

Yalana served dinner and moved to put her shawl on.

Fynris, as usual, touched her arm. “Won't you sit awhile? Eat with us.”

She patted his arm. “Eat. Your son’s secret is safe another day. Till tomorrow.” She disappeared through the front door, leaving a longing emptiness behind. Something about a woman's presence in the house offered a peace he couldn't summon on his own. And now it was gone.

He turned to the third plate on the table. Lenti’s seat. A flickering flame in the back window pulled his attention.

“I see you’ve lit your mother’s candle.”

“I’m old enough. Should I have waited? She always did it once the sun fell. To keep the happiness of the sun inside until we sleep.”

He gazed at the candle. “No, you did right. She would have been proud. Would you take the job as yours? You’ll be responsible to see it lit every night. Can you do that?”

“I can do it, Papa.”

“Good boy. Time to eat.”

He forced the food down his throat, despite his lack of appetite. Yalana would scold him if she discovered he hadn’t eaten. And they didn’t have the means to let food go to waste. He studied Acen. Watching him eat, listening to him chatter about his day, attempting to answer all his questions. Acen's brain was always working, always absorbing.

How much longer could he keep his son a secret? What would happen when someone learned Acen was…a Bender? Despite Fynris's efforts to rise above suspicion, he was never confident. To be confident was careless. After losing Lenti, he would never be confident again. She was the positive one, the one who reassured him every night. But his wife was no longer here to whisper comforting words after all the candles were snuffed. It was up to him.

The Church didn’t know about Acen. And they never would. Not so long as he worked as a priest. Not so long as he showed his loyalty to the Church. His presence made his son invisible. And he’d do whatever it took to keep it that way.

And after tonight, he had something big to bargain with, to help him acquire more power. If eyes drifted his way, he had the information to get them to look away again.

The Bender the empire was hunting was in Sirabel. What she was doing, and who she was with, weren’t his concern. Acen was his concern.