Crowflight: My baby has been released into the big bad world

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As I was yelling about on various social media outlets yesterday, Crowflight – Book I of Casting the Bones – has been released and is now available to spend your hard-earned dollars on.

Goodreads link is here, if you’re so inclined.

It’s been almost exactly a year from completion of the first draft to release of the final; I wrote the book in October of 2012, as I was coming off one of the hardest semesters and summers of my graduate career. I’d taken and passed my comprehensive exams, I’d had a bit of a mental breakdown as a result, and I was retreating into writing in order to help heal myself. In many ways I’m still there. As I told Elise Tobler in the interview she did with me, a lot of what Turn goes through in Crowflight came out of those feelings of anxiety and uncertainty: having one vision for your future and having that vision entirely upended by events mostly beyond your control. Turn is a reluctant hero; she accepts her role but she never entirely embraces it. She doesn’t want the responsibility of saving an entire world on her shoulders. She’s not a coward; she’s just tired and hurting.

But we don’t always get to make those choices.

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to be offering a chance to win a copy of the book, and there will also be some assorted goodies. For today, allow me to offer, for free, the first chapter. If you like it, maybe you’ll check out the rest.

-1-

Turn held the bones in her hands. Her hands shook and the bones rattled gently, but their sound echoed off the walls of the cavern and amplified itself tenfold. It was as if the noise came directly out of the center of her head.

She clenched her teeth as though she could make it stop.

Divination was difficult. Even with training, even if one had the talent. A great many things mattered in the telling of fortunes: the phase of the moon, the conjunction of planets, the star signs. The subtle shade of darkness. The right blood, spilled onto the proper rock painted with the correct runes set into an interlocking series of circles into which the bones could tumble and the future be caught.

The bones themselves were the finger bones of a lesser Psychopomp, not as powerful as they might be, but still more than adequate for the job.

Then, of course, the timing. Oh, all must be done at the right time. That was essential. If that was missed, it did not matter if everything else was perfectly executed.

Turn pulled in a long breath and tilted her head back. Directly above her, a hole in the cavern’s ceiling—barely a pinprick, but large enough—let a shaft of moonlight through to touch the center of the interlocking circles.

It was the Huntress Moon—the sliver moon, which carried portents and omens and shadows of what might be in the curved hollow of itself. When it was new, the moon hid secrets and darkest truths. When it was full, it illuminated pathways and knowledge that aided and comforted the lost. But in every phase, at every time, it was the only light in the sky over the land of Nicht.

Inside the cave, she couldn’t see the moon itself, but she could feel its soft tug as it passed over her. She would know when the moon’s pull was at the peak of its strength.

All the Carrion Kind could feel the moon’s power. The Crows did not have the strongest instinct for it, but like lesser bones, what they had was sufficient.

“Blood and bone,” Turn whispered. Her large black eyes were closed now. She was naked, but not cold. “Flesh is stone.”

All stone is dust.

Time.

Turn slid into sudden movement. It was like fighting or flying; it was all done of a piece with no time for thought. She dropped into a crouch, pulled her hand back, and let the bones tumble through the air to land in a rough scatter within the contours of the bloody circles. They rattled, rolled, came to a stop. The cavern was still again. Even the echoes were gone.

She felt the moon pass overhead, unseen. Turn leaned forward, one hand on the stone floor, careful not to smudge the blood-lines.

One bone was caught in the moon’s light, the center of the interlocking curves. It was a distal phalange, a fingertip, pointing to one specific rune.

Sol.

Turn looked at it for a long time, her brow furrowed.

At last she spread her hands and moved them rapidly across the stone floor. She turned onto her side and rolled into the circles, painting her torso and arms and legs with congealing blood. Erasing the curving lines. Transferring them onto herself where they would have little power. But her skin could also keep secrets.

She lay on her back and let the moon touch her forehead like a mother’s kiss.

At last she gathered up the bones, moved away from the moonlight, and sat against one of the cavern walls. The blood had come from two white doves, plucked, their bodies crumpled and tossed aside separate from the feathers. Now she picked one of the bare bodies up and tore into its breast with her teeth. She chewed the flesh thoughtfully.

The future was always mysterious, even on the rare occasions when it revealed itself. Perhaps this mystery was better maintained than disturbed.

But one could not unknow what was known.

She stood up suddenly, her lanky limbs unfolding themselves as she rose into the dimness. She stepped back into the moonlight and let it drench her deep gray skin, her short hair and angular features, the black ink that snaked up her forearms in complex patterns and interlocking spirals.

Moonlight was plentiful, but that didn’t make it less precious. As she stood there, it slid away from the hole in the ceiling and the darkness descended once more.

Turn breathed a syllable that was a prayer much older than words, pivoted, and moved smoothly to the cavern’s entrance. She didn’t take anything with her. She didn’t look back as she headed out into the shadows and away over rocky crags toward home.

#

The city of Lune—the capital city of Nicht, the Land of Terrible Night—was at once sprawling and tightly clustered, all twisting towers and winding streets built over the jagged edge of a hill that was no longer really a mountain. The rock under the city was ancient, the hill worn down by thousands of years of storms. The city was a good deal younger, but even it was old beyond reckoning, and records of its early days were fragmentary and confusing at best. The Crows themselves did not know who built it, outside of the suppositions of lore and legend.

The Crows had not always ruled Lune as they did now.


Into the labyrinth of narrow streets Turn ran, still naked and blood-smeared, her short-cropped black hair standing up at wild, bristling angles. The moon had fully set, and it was the light-half of the day cycle in the neighboring and overlaying land of Sol—the Land of Dreadful Day. Not all in Lune kept exactly the same hours, but many slept during this time, and the streets were more sparsely populated than they would have been at any other time. A few saw Turn as she ran and their eyes followed her—not with any surprise or disapproval, for one of the Carrion Kind returning from divination was not exactly a rare sight, though it was also not especially commonplace.

Turn marked their presence but otherwise did not pay them much mind. She felt herself half-shifted, as if she was preparing to step sideways into Sol, unseen wings unfurling themselves at her back and her head elongating into a sleek aerodynamic shape, feathered and beaked. It was just her imagination; she only knew of shifting from lectures and texts, had never done it herself. Nor would she be allowed to shift or to enter Sol for some time yet. Shifting itself was both rare and difficult within Nicht itself. But the notion helped speed her feet and she embraced it.

Down through the outskirts of Lune, lights burning redly in high windows, down through the Raven quarter and toward the city’s center, wherein the highest towers rose and the brightest lights burned. The center of the governance of the translators of death, guides of lost spirits, mothers of dry bone, fathers of dead flesh, the children of Atropos. The Psychopomps.

The Carrion Kind.

Turn had been born to this. It was all she had ever known. Birth parents dead in the Calamity of the Split Earth, the Kind was her only family. It was more than enough. She ran into Raven, arms pumping, and she felt Lune embracing her with shadowy wings. Further through the city center, in the Old Crow quarter, was her bed and her rest and her lover, but that would come later. The future demanded that its readers carry back its message.

There was one she knew she had to tell.

She stopped in a wide, empty plaza of black marble dotted with patches of nightshade and foxglove, rimmed with gnarled black cherry trees that would never blossom. In front of her rose a tower not as high as many of the others, but certainly high enough, dark stone and smoky glass behind which dim lights burned. She leaned over slightly, catching her breath. A breeze whistled through the plaza but she did not feel cold.

One of the lights burning above was for her. It was comforting. A greater welcome. Turn moved swiftly across the plaza and the tower’s massive doors opened for her without a sound.

The interior of the tower was in a state of half-decay—as, indeed, was its exterior, and, for that matter, most of the rest of the towers of Lune. The ruin looked as though it was the result of something long neglect and sudden destruction. In truth, it was both—after a fashion. Long neglect had no greater or lesser effect on the city’s crumbling appearance; it had always looked that way, had perhaps been built that way, as befitted a land caught in the last breath before the soul’s departure. Nicht was the entry into night, but in fact only its far reaches were truly lands of night, where utter darkness and cold wind reigned. The rest of Nicht was a land of twilight, caught in halfway points and spaces of transition, and it was the same with Lune. Half inhabited, half abandoned, half kept and half dilapidated. Somehow the two blended into a darkly harmonious whole.

But there had also been the Calamity of the Split Earth, as yet poorly understood by even the most learned of the Crows’ scholars, hidden from the dark and cultish mysticism of the Ravens, and unbound by all the laws of the Rooks. The ground had shaken, the sky had exploded into brilliant light, and a hundred thousand of the Carrion Kind had screamed and taken wing as one, shifting in a place where no shifting should have been possible, soaring into that awful brightness as if to blot it out with their wings.

So many had never returned.

It was called Split Earth, and that referred not only the disaster but to its physical effects on much of the land around Lune. In truth, there had been no split. Exactly the opposite: rather than a breaking apart, there had been a crashing together, a collision. Nicht and Sol, colliding into each other.

Sol had suffered as well. But the reports brought back by traveling Psychopomps were inconclusive regarding how severely it had been affected.

Life—or the lack of it—carried on.

And Turn carried on. She had lost her parents—didn’t everyone, eventually? These things happened.

After going up a long, wide staircase and down a deserted hall, Turn came to the lift: a circular platform of painted glass enclosed by a cage of what looked like the bones of some massive creature—and perhaps they were. Her feet padded softly off the stone floor and onto the platform, the bone cage door opening for her and then closing with a quiet click. She didn’t have to instruct the lift as to where she wanted to go. It carried her immediately upward—up toward the light she had seen from the plaza—breeze brushing across her bare skin with its speed.

As she rose, she felt movement, though thin and periodic. People, if only a few, going about their work, delivering a few late lectures, carrying on endless research—methods to slice into the future; ways to call up and carry the dead; alchemies of bone and blood, eyes and heart. Turn felt them but, from her bone cage, saw nothing. Her eyes were closed again. She was tired to the point of dropping onto the glass floor. But she could not rest yet; she had been sent into the cavern outside Lune to perform a specific task, and that task wasn’t yet done.

She passed both hands over her face, scrunching up her eyes and nose and—had there been anyone to see her—she looked very young for a moment.

The lift purred to a halt. Turn stepped out of the cage as its door swung open and moved into a small, quiet hallway lined with doors. One or two were open, and through them came the green or blue or red flicker of firelight—depending on the purpose of the fire. She passed these by, not sparing them her attention; there were hunched figures before those fires, hands moving like shifting shadows, the soft rustle of feathers. Familiar. But not for her. Her door was at the end of the hallway, larger than the others and made of solid iron beaten into strange, abstract shapes. It was closed.

Turn reached out and ran her bloodstained fingers along one of the wandering pathways set into the door’s face, an indentation made by a winding vine. Her fingertips settled into the curving groove, traced it to an ending, and settled into the hollow there.

Some mechanism inside the door clicked and it swung open into darkness.

Yet not quite darkness. Turn stepped through the doorway and the iron slab clanged shut behind her. She stood still, feeling the air moving across her bare skin, the faint grit of old dust in her nose. Her heart beat echoed slowly inside her skull. Her teeth caught the silver ring piercing the center if her lip and worried at it.

She couldn’t see the room, but she could feel it looming around her. Directly in front of her: the faintest of glows—a red as deep as the drying gore on her hands. Faint but growing in intensity. Shadows moved across it.

Turn shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. She was still tired. Even more, now. These meetings were always draining.

“Enough,” said a soft voice from one of the larger shadows. The light flared and died down again; Turn threw a hand up to shield her eyes and hissed with annoyance.

The voice chuckled. It was bone-dry, like a rustle of long-dead skin. “Come closer, then. Let’s have a look at you, since you went so far to do some looking of your own.”

Turn moved slowly forward. The light was now bright enough to see by, and it illuminated walls of bookshelves filled with dusty bound folios and rolls of parchment tied with ribbons; here and there were spheres of cut glass in which strange lights danced. The hand of a greater Psychopomp—rare and powerful and possessed of a fragment of its original owner’s will—crawled ponderously to and fro among the books, occasionally sending a few thumping to the floor, presumably out of spite. Black quills—plucked, she knew, from their owner’s wings, giving them more power—dipped themselves into tarnished inkpots and scratched notes on scraps of paper or skin with no visible fingers to propel them. Perhaps they were notes directed by the room’s owner. Perhaps they were esoteric things composed by the quills themselves.

The light came from flames that danced low in a pit of dull-red stone. A dim figure hunched over the fire, passing its hands slowly over a long, narrow band of cloth spread across its knees.

“Come closer,” the figure said. It did not look around at her. “You brought me a gift. I can see it, even where you’ve hidden it away. It burns in your belly.”

Turn shook her head, but she moved forward again, close to the fire, stopping beside the figure and dropping into a crouch. She lifted a hand and the figure curled long, twisted fingers around it and held it.

“It worked,” Turn murmured. “Just as you said.”

Another dry laugh. “Of course it did, chick. I don’t lead you down false paths. Well—I do, but for your edification, not for my amusement. As you have seen.” It turned, and the firelight spilled across a female face that managed to be both ancient and young, gray skin with few wrinkles, but the eyes fathomless black and the mouth twitching with mischief—conveying the distinct impression that the owner knew far more than anyone else.

The woman reached up and pulled the folds of her cloak back away from her head, letting deep auburn hair spill across her shoulders. “What did the bones tell you?”

Turn settled back on her heels, hugging her knees close to her chest. “Not a lot of detail. You knew they wouldn’t show much, didn’t you, Corvi? You knew it would be confusing. That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“Some of it,” Corvi agreed, turning back to her cloth again. Her fingers passed over its length, and where they touched, runes appeared, glowing briefly with the fire’s light before darkening to burned lines. “What have I told you? The answers you want often don’t come in a form you would choose. You have to learn to work within the pattern you’re given. What did you glean from within the confusion?”

Turn was silent for a long time, staring into the fire. She had an answer—she felt it pressing against the top of her throat. But it wouldn’t come. It was still half-formed, like a chick struggling to break its shell far too early. She thought of the moonlight, the taste of the fresh blood. The coppery sweetness of the dove’s heart as she tore it out with her teeth and swallowed it.

Corvi was right. It burned inside her. She sighed and leaned her chin on arms folded across the tops of her knees. “Upheaval,” she said. “Reordering.” She frowned—that wasn’t quite right. But as she opened her mouth to try to find different words, Corvi held up a hand and silenced her.

“Don’t reach for more than what’s within your grasp, chick. You’re apt to grab the wrong thing and throw yourself into further confusion.” Corvi closed her dark eyes in a kind of meditation. “Upheaval? I haven’t seen it in the offal, but harbingers can be picky about whom they reveal themselves to, and we’re no Ravens, after all. Did you get a sense of what the upheaval pertains to?”

Turn shook her head. She reached up and threaded her long fingers into her spiky hair, coaxing it into an even wilder array of angles, her eyes locked on the fire. “It was only a sense. Like something huge being overturned. I didn’t get a clear image.”

“Not if it was interior or exterior? Yourself or another?”

“No. It was…” Turn fought back a shudder. The fire was soothing as it leaped and danced in the stone pit, but it also seemed to Turn that darker things cavorted in its bluish heart. Darker things that might be no friends of hers. “It was frightening. The way it felt.”

Frightening. She hated that word, hated the implication that she could be frightened by something she had been trained for, that Corvi had discerned she was ready to do. But she could also think of no other that would do the job as well.

Corvi nodded, leaned away from her rune-cloth and twined her fingers over each other in a gray tangled mass. But she said nothing else. Turn gazed back at her, brows furrowed. This was always the way with Corvi—hints and suggestions and proddings, but no direct guidance. Nothing clear. She wanted her pupils to be able to find their own way.

It was very irritating.

“You knew what I would see,” Turn said finally. Said to anyone else, it might have been accusatory, but to Corvi it was merely a statement of fact. “You sent me out there knowing what I’d find.”

“Know? No, chick. Not for sure.” Corvi rose and turned to a low table that sat near the fire. Picking up a pair of tarnished long-handled tongs, she used them to pick up a hand-sized smoky crystal. “I had a sense, as you say. An inkling. But none of it was clear. Nothing ever is clear about such things. Do you understand this?” She faced the fire again and, without waiting for Turn’s response, bent and plunged the crystal into the flames. They flared briefly and then died down again, Corvi left the crystal nestled in the fire’s heart, settling into her chair again and laying the tongs aside.

“Everything is in upheaval when someone reaches your age,” she said. “Everything is turning and twisting, lurching like a drunken man. Surging under the seas of death in which we swim. You seek your own depths now. You may not find them easily. The sea must hold all of us.”

Turn frowned. There was more. There was always more. “What else?” Why won’t you just tell me, everything in her wanted to scream, but she bit it back. Once she was where Corvi wanted her, she could go. Could sleep. Not before.

“Think,” Corvi said softly, her eyes half-closed like a dozing cat. “What is the state of you? What is the state of the city? What is the state of everything?”

Turn shifted her attention back to the fire again, using its flickering light as a conduit through which to coil herself inward. Half of her was rising in open rebellion, but she kept it down. The blood, the flesh, the bone in the moonlight; the inclination of the self outward and forward—the difficulties of divination meant that any message received should not be taken lightly. If there was something there, she had to chase it to its source. She felt her aching shoulders relax, her legs folding under her as she sat back on her heels.

The fire. The fire, dancing. The red light behind her closed eyelids, also dancing. Moving like her name. Spinning in place, but that place always shifting, always—

“In flux,” Turn whispered. Very faintly, she smiled. “In upheaval.”

“The state of the world is change, chick,” Corvi said. Turn looked at her; her eyes were fully closed now, and if she hadn’t spoken it would have been easy to assume she was asleep. “It’s the only constant. Until we know that—really know it, in flesh and blood and bone and marrow, we can’t pass between worlds. We can’t control our shifts, and we make very poor guides.”

She settled further into her chair, folding her clothes around her. In the dimness, in the crackle of fire, Turn thought of the rustle of feathers. “Go to your sleep. Meditate. Fly, if you can, little chick. You have miles yet to go. But beware of going too high, too fast.”

Turn rose to her feet, her skinny arms folded across her breasts. The breeze that came through the now-open door was chilly, and while she couldn’t see the moon, she could feel it setting. She could snatch a few hours of sleep before work would begin again. She gave Corvi a slight bow—which Corvi may or may not have seen—and slipped out through the doorway on silent feet, back to the lift and down to the plaza. Crossing more slowly this time, she hardly felt the dark stone under her feet—as if in a dream.

Contrary to what Corvi had said, Turn didn’t fly as she made her way into the old quarter of Lune. She walked through empty side-streets and past lightless houses where unseen crows made their nests. Flying was a thing reserved for shifting, for guiding, possible in Nicht only in the rarest and most particular circumstances. Turn did not fly. But she thought of it now, her eyes half-closed as she made her way through the narrow streets. Black cats hissed, slipped through the shadows, and watched her from ledges and the mouths of alleys; there were many cats in Lune, none of them tame, none of them especially fond of any of the Carrion Kind, but there was coexistence. The cats leaped from rooftop to rooftop, from tower to tower. They were wingless. But they almost flew like any Crow.

Turn drew to a halt, taking a pause to breathe in the night. Home felt a little too soon. She didn’t feel ready for it. She stood and faced three cats that sat in the street before her, regarding her with cool golden eyes.

They had always been there, through all the years of Lune’s history. “You ride it through, don’t you?” Turn whispered. “Upheaval. You ride it like waves.”

The cats drifted silently away. Turn ran on, once more heedless of her body and lost in thought.

After short time she slowed once more and turned up a long stone staircase that ran up the outside of a great house, its guts dark and full of sleep. She ran her hands over the cool plaster of the wall as she passed the doors of the apartments that opened out onto the stairway, on to her own at the top of the house. She could feel her way as well as she could see. A Psychopomp could not depend on sight alone to pass between the worlds.

Her apartment was a single room with an attached bathroom, sparsely furnished but cluttered with clothes and books, shelves scattered with bones, glossy black feathers strung into curtains over the single window. In the corner by the narrow bed, a single shaded light glowed, illuminating the slender lines of a shoulder, an outstretched arm, a curving spine, an angular hip covered by a thin, pale sheet. The body didn’t stir. Turn stood looking at it for a moment, then moved past it and into the bathroom, shutting the door silently behind her.

In the bathroom she ran the basin full of lukewarm water, wetted a cloth, and began to wipe the blood from her skin. She did it slowly, making it a meditation, her eyes still half-closed. It was her first divination. Turn was reluctant to wash it away.

A gift of the future. A gift she had no idea what to do with it.

She wasn’t sure what she had hoped for when Corvi sent her to the cavern with the doves limp in her hands. Something clearer, certainly. Something pertaining more obviously to her, of course. Since Corvi had taken her in, she had been in training to be a Psychopomp, a guide of dead souls from the Land of Dreadful Day, the sole privilege of the Crow tribe and her birthright. Some were scholars, like Corvi. Some, like the Ravens in their Shadowlands, were weavers of dark magic, spillers of blood and binders of flesh. Some, like the Rooks in the great city of Calvaria, were keepers of the law. But it was the prerogative of the Crows to be the leaders of the Carrion Kind’s purpose. It was a sacred trust, a charge, for which the blood magic and the law had been created by the Lady Atropos to support and augment.

Nowadays the Rooks were standoffish and aloof, and the Ravens were distant and strange and potentially dangerous.

These were the things Turn had been taught, beginning as soon as it was possible to teach her anything. They were also the things she had gleaned from lore and gossip, rather than from any knowledge formally given to her. These were the things on which she meditated as she bent her head into the water, washing out her mouth, rinsing blood from her face and her dark hair.

Upheaval, though. Constant. Where things seemed settled. Calm had generally reigned since the Calamity, and if there were a sea that held everyone, its surface would have been placid.

Turn shook the water from her hair, straightened again, and moved to the bathroom’s tiny window, letting the night breeze dry her. The house in which she lived was lower than many of Lune’s towers, but the old quarter was set high on one of the hill’s slopes, and she could see much of the city from her room. All through the streets and among the forest of towers, lights were coming on. The last edge of the moon was setting out over the plateau of the Shadowlands, where the Ravens dwelled in their huts of bone and stretched skin.

Upheaval.

Another Calamity?

Turn couldn’t remember her mother, her father. But she remembered feeling alone, huddled in an empty room, waiting for someone to take her in their arms. But no one came. For days… no one came. It was easy to forget a frightened chick when there was so much greater pain everywhere, hard death in the land of death. She had been alone until Corvi.

She reached across her torso, ran one hand over her other arm, and scratched away a stray smear of dried blood. As the blood came away, something came with it, falling slowly through her mind and showing itself to her. She drew in a breath, pressed her hands to either side of the window’s cracked wooden frame.

I’m afraid of change.

Again she felt the ghost of that half-shift, wings and feathers and the sharp edge of a beak.

I am change.

The last words came to her from somewhere deep, and she didn’t have time to pull a meaning from them before they were gone again, leaving only their shapes behind. Turn shook herself, turned away from the window and went back into the main room. She hesitated by the bed, then reached down and extinguished the light, sliding under the sheet, and pressing herself against the sleeping form. It stirred, turned over, revealing delicate features and a crop of shaggy hair as dark as her own.

“You’re back late.”

“I had to get back to Corvi. You know her. Wanted the details.” Turn pressed in, kissed the curving lips. “Go back to sleep, Sene.”

“I tried to wait for you.” He yawned and stretched, arching against her; she felt a little heat rising under her skin but weariness pressed it back. “I almost went out after you when you didn’t come. I was worried.”

“You always are. And you don’t need to be.” Turn wound an arm around Sene’s waist, let him tuck his head under her chin. “Go to sleep,” she repeated. “I am.”

“Tell me—” he yawned sleepily “—what you saw. Tomorrow.”

Turn said nothing. She could already feel sleep tugging at her, Sene going loose and warm in her arms. Suddenly it all felt unreal—the cavern, the moon, the bones and the blood, the raw flesh cool in her mouth.

I am change.

I’ll be nothing until tomorrow. Nothing while I’m this tired.

Turn did not dream of Cataclysm. But her dreams were like dark water, and through those depths black shapes moved, all around her, too distant for her to see clearly. But coming closer all the time.


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