Skysworn Page 1

Author: Will Wight

Series: Cradle #4

Genres: Fantasy

Chapter 1

Jai Daishou labored up the side of the sharp peak alone, madra trickling through his body in a pathetic dribble. The white metal strands of his hair flogged his back with each step as he pressed against the wind, moving higher with every step.

Remnants blacker than the night sky lined his path. They were voids against the stars, their caws like shattering glass, their feathers drifting down like shredded shadows. The feathers hissed as they landed on the rocks, eating into the stone. They had dissolved his shoes already, but an Underlord’s flesh was not so easily seared away.

He felt his weakness in every step, as agony traveled up his ankles and into his spine like lightning. His spirit was no longer strong enough to prop up his fragile body.

A month ago, he could have made this journey without pain. But back then, he’d still had options. Many plans in play, many pieces on the board. He had already been dying, but not so quickly.

Now, he only wanted his clan to outlive him. Anything that prolonged the life of the Jai clan was a virtue. No matter what it cost.

As raven Remnants screeched at him, he climbed toward a gamble he never would have made, had he any other choice.

This was the first of his last hopes.

He reached the end of the road, a sharp cliff overlooking an ocean of clouds. It stretched out before him as though he stood before the end of the world, and overhead the stars glared down at him.

Mist swirled before the cliff as something moved beneath the cloud’s surface. An instant later, wings of shadow rose from the gray cloud. Each of these wings was the size of a ship’s sail, and the head that followed was bigger than a horse. It looked like a bird formed from living ink.

The vast raven filled his vision, floating in the air with still wings. It remained motionless, not disturbing the icy wind with a single flap, drifting like a ghost instead of a living thing. Curls of darkness rose from its feathers.

Jai Daishou inclined his head. As a supplicant, he should have bowed, but his back had locked up so tight he thought he might fold over backwards. His lack of respect might kill him, and that thought chilled him as much as the Remnant’s presence. No matter how much he had prepared to throw his own life away if necessary, nothing could prepare him to come face-to-face with a spirit of death.

“I greet you, Lord of Specters, and I come with an offering.” From his robes, he produced an ebony box, holding it out in both hands. He could only hope the spirit heard him over the screeching of its flock.

Not all those who sought the Remnant’s services brought an offering, but the wise did. It was quite separate from the raven’s price, but a freely given offering bought a measure of protection. Returning a gift with betrayal incurred a soul-debt, which the Remnant should want to avoid.

A gift would not save Jai Daishou if he truly offended the Lord of Specters, but it couldn’t hurt his chances.

Two of the raven Remnants fluttered down from their rocky perches, landing on his arms. They radiated a cold that infected him, stealing his warmth, seeping even into his spirit.

With an identical motion of two beaks, they flipped open the box.

A severed head lay on a bed of stained velvet, its skin waxy and blue, its tongue swollen out of its mouth. This was a servant of the Arelius family whose name Jai Daishou had never learned—he had needed a head, and so he had taken one. Better to steal from his enemies than from his friends.

The great raven opened its beak and inhaled. In the Jai Underlord’s sight, a dark and nebulous mist lifted from the corpse’s head like smoke from a fire. Death aura had once been difficult for him to see, until he had learned the trick of it. Until he had become accustomed to its presence.

Once the Remnant had its mouthful, Jai Daishou threw the box—head and all—out over the cliff. It would have been more polite to kneel and place the container on the ground, but his knees were giving him almost as much trouble as his back.

The Lord of Specters opened its beak once more, and a voice issued forth like a distant chorus singing a dirge. “Tell us the name of your enemy.” The screeching bird-spirits grew louder, their discordant song scraping his ears.

In the Blackflame Empire, when you wanted an Underlord dead, you had precious few options.

There were weapons that could do it, but killing an Underlord yourself risked reprisal from their family and friends. And most assassins were Truegold at best. Any poisons that could affect a body forged in soulfire would cost a fortune, and the refiners with the skill to make such poisons were difficult to silence.

Still, there were a few specialists, if you had the resources and the fortitude to hire them. Among them, the Lord of Specters was the most…palatable.

“The feud between us cannot be solved except by blood,” Jai Daishou said, raising his voice over the smaller, squawking Remnants. “I cannot kill him, and I fear that when I die, his family will tear mine apart.”

The raven remained silent, listening. Some legends said that if the Lord found your reasons insufficient, it would feed you to its flock.

“His name is Eithan Arelius.”

Instantly, the broken-glass screeching of the ravens died. The night was silent but for the wind, which gasped across the spear-sharp peaks of the mountain.

“Eithan Arelius will not be taken,” the Lord of Specters sang. “Choose another, or be gone.”

Jai Daishou stood in shock, like he’d taken a step forward to find his foot poised over a chasm. He had come prepared for a failure of negotiations, or for hostility, or for the Lord of Specters to demand a price too high. But not for an immediate, flat-out refusal.

“Lord of Specters, your servant can prepare a handsome price. Blood essences from life-Remnants more than a century old. Spirits sworn to your service by oath. Scales of death and shadow from the Path of the Twisting Abyss. Name any wish, and if it is within your servant’s power, I will fulfill it.”

The Lord finally flapped its great wings, and ice crawled along Jai Daishou’s spirit. His madra pulsed brightly in his channels, fighting against the darkness—a weaker sacred artist might have withered in that one gust.

“Eithan Arelius is a friend to the flock. He has given us great gifts.”

“Only to protect himself,” Jai Daishou insisted. “He wants to tie you down so that none can hire you against him; he has no loyalty to you.”

“Even so,” the great raven said. “To act against him would bind our soul with chains of debt. You may name another, but not a feather of ours will harm Eithan Arelius.”


“Let me tell you something about that family,” Mo She said, slamming his clay mug back down on the tavern table. “You don’t ever take a contract against an Arelius. Not a real Arelius, anyway. They always see you coming.” Mo She looked like a desiccated corpse someone had unearthed from an ancient tomb: a skeletal, shriveled man with skin tight over his bones and hair like drifting scraps of mist.

His eyes were mismatched; one a blind, milky white, and the other a statue’s eye carved of green jade.

“And then there’s this Arelius in particular,” Mo She continued. “He doesn’t just see you when you strike. He saw you when you got up this morning.”

Jai Daishou stiffened in his chair. He may be on the last leg of his mortal journey, but he was still an Underlord. He had enough power to punish insolence. “You speak of him as though he were above me.”