Uncrowned Page 1

Author: Will Wight

Series: Cradle #7

Genres: Fantasy


“Something is wrong with your home,” Orthos rumbled.

“It’s not my home,” Kelsa said.

As the sun rose over Sacred Valley, Samara’s ring faded away to a dusty arc of white around the eastern mountain’s peak. A bag of fruit over her shoulder, Kelsa led Orthos to the base of a different mountain. She had found a hidden grove tucked away between hills, surrounded by wilderness and far from the nearest road.

It was there that she’d hidden her father.

“I don’t mean this…hatchling’s cave.” The sacred turtle snorted smoke. “I mean your whole valley. My power has leaked away day by day since I arrived, and now I am no higher than a Jade.”

They crested a hill, looking down onto thickly clustered trees and a creek trickling from a nearby spring. Tents, huts, and lean-tos surrounded many of the trees, and perhaps half a dozen people looked up as she approached. Other exiles.

Kelsa reached out to a nearby boulder, letting her madra activate a security script etched into the stone. It shone briefly purple, the color of her White Fox madra, disabling the boundary field that would send out alarms if the wrong sacred artist entered.

She gestured Orthos forward, but his words had caught her attention. “You were stronger before?” When she thought back to how he had destroyed that detachment of Fallen Leaf artists only hours earlier, she couldn’t hold back her excitement. “How much stronger?”

The turtle lifted his black, leathery head in pride, his eyes shining circles of crimson. “I was a Truegold before your grandparents were born.”

“Gold?” Kelsa exclaimed.

Orthos’ chuckle shook the ground as he lumbered forward. “You should see your brother.”

They descended the hill into camp together, but Kelsa still hadn’t contained her shock. She had known her brother was dead. She was certain of it. Or she had been yesterday.

Kelsa caught the sentry, a Kazan clan man she knew who stared at Orthos with eyes wide as fists. She explained that Orthos was an ally.

Though she didn’t explain why she was leaving the turtle with him. Just because he had fought the Fallen Leaf School didn’t mean she could trust her father’s safety to him.

When the sentry finally understood, she turned back to Orthos and lowered her voice. “Stay here. I have an errand to run, but I’ll have more questions about Lindon when I return.”

Orthos examined her with black-and-red eyes, smoke drifting from his shell, but eventually he nodded.

She left in the wrong direction, and when she had put enough trees and tents between her and the turtle, she looped back around to go see her father.

Wei Shi Jaran was right where she had left him, as expected. He crouched on a stool beneath a roof of oiled canvas stretched between two pale branches of an orus tree. Their belongings were organized into boxes around him—Kelsa liked to be neat, and her father tolerated that—and his cane leaned up against the tree trunk. A large boulder blocked the wind from one side.

He had a gameboard spread out on a makeshift table in front of him, running his fingers over the pieces so he could tell one from the other. Occasionally he reached up to scratch at the wrappings around his ruined eyes.

At first, every glimpse she caught of her twice-crippled father had filled her with pain and righteous rage. Now, after almost three years, the wrath had faded, leaving hollow sadness.

She let none of that into her voice as she spoke—loudly, in case he had missed her footsteps. “Sixteen orus fruits!” she declared. “One of them lit up the detector. I think it’s on the verge of becoming a spirit-fruit.”

Jaran moved one piece forward then reached out to the other side, feeling the opponent’s piece as he played both sides of the board. “Trouble?” His voice was rusty with disuse; he probably hadn’t spoken with anyone all day. He liked to share stories with some other old men in the camp, but they didn’t gather until evening.

“Fallen Leaf artists,” she admitted. She didn’t want him to worry, but her fight could jeopardize the safety of the entire camp. “I’ll spread the word tonight.”

He straightened, and now his voice sounded more like the father she’d grown up with. “Did you kill them?”

“Not me, Father. I found an ally.”

Something heavy slapped the ground behind her, and she whirled around.

Orthos stood behind her, examining Jaran with scarlet eyes. “I am your ally,” he said. “I will not harm you.”

“How did you find me?” she demanded.

“No one in this camp is even Jade. You might as well all be blind.” He examined Jaran. “At least he has an excuse.”

Jaran rocked back as though slapped, and the breath froze in Kelsa’s chest. The despair could catch her father like a flood, and if this was the stone that finally dragged him under…

Her father began to laugh. It was a weak chuckle, but that was the most she’d heard out of him in months. “This one is Wei Shi Jaran.” He gave a slight seated bow. “It sounds as though you saved my daughter’s life.”

“You are her father?” When Jaran nodded, Orthos hesitated, and Kelsa begged the heavens that he wouldn’t mention Lindon’s name. At least not before Kelsa got the truth out of him.

Finally, the turtle said, “I am Orthos.”

“You have quite the voice, Orthos. Forgiveness, but are you not human?”

Orthos straightened. “I am a majestic turtle and a descendant of the black dragons of the Blackflame Empire.”

Jaran bowed more deeply than before. “Gratitude, Orthos. I am ashamed that I can’t see you myself. I would love to hear the story of how you came to save Kelsa.”

“I will tell you,” the turtle said gravely. “But first I believe I should speak with your daughter alone. She has questions that I must answer.”

Jaran was visibly confused, but he nodded, and Orthos began to walk away without any further discussion. Kelsa dropped her bag of orus fruits near her father and hurried after the sacred beast, reaching out to grab his leathery skin and pull him forward.

He was hot. She snatched her fingers away and shook them out. It seemed the smoke rising from his shell wasn’t just for show.

“Lindon never mentioned that his father was blind,” Orthos muttered, too softly for his words to carry.

That stirred up too many emotions in Kelsa for her to sort through. She was impatient for him to tell her more about her brother, angry on her father’s behalf, and adrift in half a dozen other emotions she couldn’t name. But she decided to answer the implicit question.

“He wasn’t,” she said bitterly. “The Heaven’s Glory School came to the Wei clan looking for a girl. ‘The disciple of the Sword Sage,’ they called her, said she had killed a bunch of them. They said Lindon had taken her home.”

She relaxed her hands, which had tightened into fists. “Obviously it wasn’t true. You can blame whatever you want on an Unsouled.”

Orthos grunted as he walked, tilting his head to watch her out of the corner of one eye.

“The clan elders immediately gave us up to Heaven’s Glory,” she whispered. “They didn’t even hesitate. All three of us were taken for questioning, and I went along. I thought they would let us go once they knew we had nothing to do with it. I didn’t realize my parents had resisted. The School blinded my father as a punishment, but my mother is a Soulsmith. She was taken.”