Stories of the Raksura: Volume II
The Dead City and The Dark Earth Below
Night Shade Books, June 2015
Cover art by Matthew Stewart
"The Dead City"
A tale of Moon before he came to the Indigo Cloud Court. As Moon is fleeing the ruins of Saraseil, a groundling city destroyed by the Fell, he flies right into another potential disaster when a friendly caravanserai finds itself under attack by a strange force.
"The Dark Earth Below"
Moon and Jade face their biggest adventure yet; their first clutch. But even as Moon tries to prepare for impending fatherhood, members of the Kek village in the colony tree's roots go missing, and searching for them only leads to more mysteries as the court is stalked by an unknown enemy.
Also includes the short stories "Trading Lesson," "Mimesis," and "The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind-ship Escarpment."
Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, Mysterious Galaxy, Powell's, The Tattered Cover, Chapter Indigo, Books-a-Million, Book Depository, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, Amazon Spain, Amazon France, and all other Amazon sites, or look for it in an independent bookstore in the US through Indiebound.
ebook: Kindle US, Barnes & Noble Nook US, Kobo, iTunes, Kindle Canada, Kindle UK, Kindle DE, Kindle Spain, Kindle France, and all other Amazon sites.
audiobook: Audible.com, Audible UK, and Amazon.com, narrated by Christopher Kipiniak.
eBook and AudioBook available on iTunes
Excerpt from The Dark Earth Below
Moon followed with Chime and some of the other warriors as Bead led Pearl and Stone outside to one of the colony tree's garden platforms. As Moon flew down from the knothole entrance with the others, it hit him how much a relief it was to be outside. The air was fresh from a recent rain that had heightened the tree's own musky-sweet scent, and his wings felt as if they hadn't been stretched for a month. Maybe a few fast circuits around the tree's clearing wouldn't be as unfulfilling as he thought.
The platforms grew on all the mountain-trees and formed the suspended forest, the multi-leveled midsection of the Reaches, below the overarching canopy but well above the dangers of the forest floor. The trees' thick branches grew together and intertwined in broad swathes, and collected windblown dirt that eventually grew grasses and small forests, collected water, and became home to a large number of the creatures that lived in the Reaches. Including predators. On the colony tree the multiple levels of platforms had been planted as gardens and orchards, fed by the water expelled through the tree's knothole. The waterfall fell from pools on platform to platform, until it vanished in the mists above the forest floor.
Vine carried Bead, who directed them down toward the platform with the large patches of berry bushes. They landed out towards the edge, where Braid, one of the Arbora hunters, stood holding something that looked like a dead bladder fish. He was surrounded by a group of curious Arbora and warriors.
As they approached, Bead continued her explanation, "We noticed it when it floated up past the groundfruit garden. We thought it was an animal, and we were keeping an eye on it to make sure it didn't come at us. But then Needle saw it had that tied to it."
Needle, a young teacher, held up a big leaf rolled and tied with a dried vine, with a purple-blue flower tucked into the knot. "Briar flew out and got it, but she accidentally poked the bladder thing with a claw and all the air came out."
Stone took the dead bladder fish from Braid and held it up. It was actually several smaller membranes carefully sewn together, like the air bladder ships that the Aventerans used, but much smaller. Moon said, "Which direction did it come from?" Stone handed him the bladder, and he handed it to Chime, who spread it out to examine it.
"Up from below," Braid said, pointing down. Several of the warriors went to lean over the edge of the platform, but the mist was rising and Moon doubted they would be able to see anything.
"Hmm," was Pearl's comment. The reigning queen, she was a head taller than any of the Aeriat. Her scales were brilliant gold, the webbed pattern overlaying them a deep blue. The frilled mane behind her head was bigger than Jade's, and there were more frills on the tips of her folded wings and on the end of her tail. She wore only jewelry, a broad necklace with gold chains and polished blue stones. She held out a hand and Needle hurriedly put the leaf scroll into it. Pearl briefly examined the flower, then sliced through the vine with her claws and unrolled the leaf. The warriors and Arbora were too respectful of Pearl and her temper to cluster around. But Stone stepped in to look past Pearl's shoulder and Moon stepped in to look past his.
Scratched onto the leaf's green surface was a series of rough drawings. One was clearly meant to be the colony tree. The second showed a figure that had to be a winged Raksura flying down toward the base of the tree. The third depicted the Raksura standing with several bipedal figures among the tree roots. "That's got to be a message from the Kek," Moon said.
"Did we know the Kek could make these air bladders?" Chime asked, clearly fascinated.
"Presumably," Pearl said dryly. She handed the leaf to Stone. "Did they send messages this way in the past?"
"Maybe. I don't remember." Stone rolled the leaf up and handed it to Bead, who carried it away and unrolled it again to show the warriors. "I'll drop down and see what they want."
Moon took a breath to say he was going too, then thought about how far that was from Jade's bower. No, he couldn't risk it.
Watching him, Pearl said to Stone, "Take him with you."
Moon said, "I need to stay here." It took an effort to keep his spines flat. His temper was suddenly close to the surface. He knew it was just nerves, but knowing it didn't seem to help.
Pearl's expression was somewhere between annoyance and sympathy. It was how she had looked at him for the past month. Which was better than some of the other ways she had looked at him, but still. "It won't happen today. Or tomorrow, for that matter. Just go." She turned away.
"How do you know?" Moon couldn't stop himself from saying it, though he was well aware that Pearl's personal experience with clutching greatly exceeded his.
Pearl didn't answer, but the dismissive flick of her spines was eloquent. She took three long steps and bounded into the air.
Stone gave Moon a shove to the head, but not hard enough to make him stagger. Stone said, "She's right. Are you coming?"
Moon hesitated, but Chime and every other warrior on the platform was watching him hopefully. If he went, Stone would probably let some of them go too. He knew he needed a break from tension. Maybe everyone else did too. It was still an effort not to sound sulky about it. "All right."
In the end, Stone only let ten warriors accompany them, including Chime, Root, Song, and Vine, who had all been to see the Kek before. Moon knew half the court would have come if Stone had let them; everyone was curious about what the Kek wanted.
The Kek were groundlings who lived in the eternal twilight of the forest floor among the roots of mountain-trees. They preferred colony trees, and according to Stone, it was a common belief among Raksuran courts that Kek were good for the health of the tree.
Moon and the others followed Stone down the trunk of the mountain-tree, using the updraft of the waterfall, their wings out and cupped to turn the headlong dive into a more leisurely descent. The light under the mountain-tree's canopy was always dim and green, but it grew darker as they dropped past the last of the tree's platforms and into the lower part of the forest. There was a way down inside the tree as well, and doors out to the root area that were always kept securely sealed. But it was better to go this way and not open a passage into the lower part of the tree until they knew what the Kek wanted. The forest floor was far more dangerous than the suspended forest. It wasn't quite as dangerous with Stone here, who as a line-grandfather had a wingspan that was more than three times the size of Moon's twenty pace span. Most predators tended to avoid him.
Moon hoped nothing was wrong, that the Kek weren't asking for help with some disaster. The higher ground among the tree roots was said to be somewhat safer than the deep Reaches, the gorges and rocky outcrops and swamps that formed between the mountain-trees, but it couldn't be that much better. It helped that the Kek had little meat on their stick-like bones and seemed to be more plant than animal. There were few reasons for predators to be attracted to them.
As they passed down through the last layer of mist, Chime said, "I didn't know the Kek could build anything like that air bladder device. They've never done it before."
"They probably don't need them very often," Moon said. It seemed pretty simple to make, just some membranes, probably from snail skin, and a fire to heat the air to fill it. Down here, the fire was probably the hard part.
They landed on the ridge of a giant root, about forty paces above the spongy moss coating the ground. The great wall of the tree stretched up behind them to vanish in the mist. To the west were the ponds and swamps filled with the large snails that the Raksura sometimes harvested, and to the east the Kek village spread out through the roots.
The houses were big round structures woven from sticks, and they hung from the undersides of the roots that arched up off the ground. They were connected by a web of vine rope that the Kek walked along when the ground was too wet even for their light weight. It was a relatively dry day, and piles of grass mats lay under the houses, where the Kek sat braiding vines and doing obscure things with piles of flowers and other vegetation.
The Kek must have spotted the Raksura as soon as they dropped out of the mist; several had gathered around to wait for their arrival. They waved and made noises that seemed to indicate relief and pleasure to see them. Keeping his voice low, Chime commented, "Everything looks all right."
Moon thought so too. He was glad that nothing seemed badly wrong, but it was going to be a little disappointing if the Kek had sent the message just because they wanted to trade snail shells for more interesting flowers, or something similar. Stone tucked his wings in, and jumped to the ground, then shifted to groundling to give Moon and the others room.
The Kek had legs and arms that looked like lightly furred sticks, and their torsos were narrow and flat. Their heads were squarish, the eyes and mouth round, the nose just a slit, and their middles looked like they were all ribs. They wore drapes of vines as clothing, and bits of snail shells, insect carapaces, and flowers as decoration. Moon had never been able to tell what their sex organs were or where they kept them. He thought of the village elder Kof as male, mostly because the white stringy things growing out of his face and body were reminiscent of the beards that some groundlings grew. But the Kek could have had one gender or two or six or a dozen for all Moon knew; it had never seemed polite or relevant to ask and the language barrier kept it from ever coming up in casual conversation.
Kof moved forward to greet them. He was festooned with vines and wore necklaces made of tiny shells, and like the others seemed glad to see them. He gestured for the Raksura all to come forward into the village.
Moon followed Stone. He didn't shift to groundling, mainly because it was easier to get the moss off his scales than his skin. One of the nice things about the Kek was that they genuinely didn't seem to care. They had been a little nervous at the first meeting with the court, since at the time Indigo Cloud had arrived these Kek hadn't seen Raksura for more than twenty turns. But they seemed to like watching Raksura shift, and there weren't many groundlings who felt that way.
As they walked, Kof spoke to Stone, making gestures with the leaf-wrapped stick he carried. The structure of the Kek throat made it difficult for them to speak other languages, and equally difficult for other species to speak their language. They communicated with the Raksura in a kind of pidgin form of Raksuran and Kek that was often woefully inadequate. Moon suspected it was woefully inadequate now, from the way Stone's brow was furrowed in frustration.
When Kof stopped talking, Stone said, "They're asking for help. Some of their people are missing."
"Missing? From the village?" Moon's spines twitched. If some predator was creeping around the tree roots...
"No, they were hunters." Stone shook his head impatiently as Chime started to point out that the Kek didn't eat meat. "Plant hunters. That's what took me so long to understand him. We don't have a common word for it. The Kek have hunters who go out looking for new varieties of plants. Or at least that's what I think he means. The hunters were late coming back, and the Kek who went after them found traces where they were supposed to be, but no sign of them, and they couldn't track them. They've been missing for three days now."
Moon winced. This wasn't going to end well. Kof and the others nearby watched them with a hopeful intensity that was obvious even though Moon had trouble reading Kek expressions.
Vine offered, "We can look for them. Maybe we can find--" He glanced self-consciously at Kof, obviously reconsidering the words their bodies or what's left of them, even though the Kek probably couldn't understand him. "Something to show what happened to them."
Song said, "I'll go," and was seconded immediately by Root, Briar, and Aura.
Stone turned to Kof and said some Kek words. Kof shook his staff in approval and tugged on Stone's arm. Just about any other kind of groundling would never have dared to do that to a Raksura, let alone Stone, but Kof had never shown any inclination to fear them. Maybe the Kek thought Raksura were lucky, or good for the tree, the way the Raksura thought about the Kek. Kof went toward the other Kek, gesturing and talking, obviously filling them in on the conversation.
"Did they say how far it was?" Moon asked. Between the bad light of the forest floor and the uncertain terrain, it wouldn't be easy, but he could see why the Kek had summoned them. Warriors would still be able to move faster and more safely than Kek searchers.
"It's about a day's walk for them," Stone said. He lifted a brow at Moon. "You coming?"
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