“Tell me your story, old man? How did Earik, a son of Dominance, become king?”
It had been twenty years since anyone here had spoken of Point Dominance. Most of that generation was dead. His uncle, he believed, was the last who even knew he had arrived in this once-small hamlet by way of that city. This was not to say he had forgotten the city: it was a memory he had built up so many times over the years that it now set a bitter, unattainable standard by which he judged his kingdom. The memory both inspired and haunted every decision he made as king. That the old ways could return, he lamented.
The woman was careful to conceal her figure among the shadows of the chamber, a bear-fur cloak hooded heavily over her brow and draping unflatteringly over the entirety of her being. She was a stranger, yet she was purposeful and calculated in hiding her identity from him. Could she know?
“Who are you, stranger? Why do you conceal yourself?”
Leather soles touching upon the ground were the only warning of her advance. The air was perfectly still, and thus she was perfectly invisible in front of the blind king’s face.
She bent down towards the king’s ear and whispered, “I am a friend. Tell me your story.”
Her fingers slipped under the weight of the royal hands, and as she did so, warmth shot through his body, reawakening every nerve and electrifying his weary spine. This was a powerful gift, even given to a king…
Chapter 1: Point Dominance
“I haven’t felt true warmth since the earliest days of my childhood, when I was just nine or ten years old. I remember now.
On a warm summer evening, my older brother Peren and I were chasing fireflies in the black-brick streets near the dredge-towers. We liked to catch the brightest orange and purple fireflies in glass jars and hide them in our room until we could bring them to seminary in the mornings.
Just beyond the river to the east we could see the first nightfires being lit. Though this wasn’t a true Ardent city, it was protected as such, which meant four concentric rings of these fires would be built in quarter mile increments beyond the city each night. Normally the final ring burned a bright, reflective red hue into the sky, but in celebration of the recent end of harvest it burned silver this night. My uncle told me that the outer ring was colored so the Ardent could trace the streaks and see where the clouds were headed.
Two barbarians yelled at the new venison butcher in the nearby portside marketplace. My father had complained about a sweet spice imported from Bulwark just a few hours ago; though I couldn’t make out the harsh Vale language, I could only imagine the brutish men were also unhappy with the ground black pepper in their cuts being replaced by flowers and nuts.
Peren was fourteen — old enough to appreciate grandeur. He grabbed my shoulder and pointed to the Ardent warships docked at the wide river port. His eyes fixed on the Blackmaiden, a six-story, iron-framed behemoth anchored at the deepest part of the river. The Blackmaiden was using large deck-cranes to pull gunpowder crates from two nearby caravels and a stationary freighter.
Peren said the Blackmaiden belonged to the Southern Navy. As a rule, the Northern Army was strong but the Northern Navy was weak, whereas the Southern Army was weak and the Southern Navy was strong. But Point Dominance was a Northern city built on trade between Valen Tier and Bulwark City, and Ardent had a near-familial relationship with the seafaring powers in the region.
Peren had been fascinated by the navy since we saw our first warship in harbor two years earlier on Harvestday. Back then, we often snuck into the port shipyard with the other children to steal copper shavings, but this was a holiday, which meant the everyone had families to be with. We only had our drunk fisherman father.
Once we had gathered a leather pouch full of the shavings, two pikemen brigades began filing into the port from the city gates. We thought for sure that they were coming to arrest us, so, as we always did when we didn’t want to get caught, we scrambled to hide on the roof of the old fishery and wait them out.
The soldiers didn’t leave. It became clear they were not here for us. We couldn’t leave: we certainly didn’t want to get in trouble for sticking around. We waited to see what secret they were guarding, and after an hour it became clear: a black, steel-framed vessel glided with unnatural speed through the river waters.
The vessel was small and did not have the sails of a caravel or any other swift ship we knew of, but instead had sails that curved downward from each side of the hull, nearly touching the water. They arced upwards, contained in silver-threaded netting, to two points on either side, like the wings of a butterfly.
“That’s stormsteel,” Peren exclaimed, wide-eyed, as the ship came closer. The steel frame had a black, oily reflection unlike anything I had ever seen. Stormsteel was the rarest material in the world, named such since it was only found in the coldest, cruelest northern mountains; it was said that before it was processed, the raw metal was too heavy to move, so great refinery ships had to be built and anchored to the mountains where they touched the sea. Even then, the metal had only been used to create the Nightmare armor of the royal Atrian bloodline — Ardent couldn’t possibly have enough to build a navy out of it, could they?
We believed we had discovered the most tightly-held secret in the world.
“What do you think?” Peren asked, breathing in and flexing his chest.
“About what?” My eyes had drifted to the silhouettes of the laborers that danced across the lantern-illuminated water around the Blackmaiden.
“What if I joined the fleet?”
He had been talking about the navy ever since we had seen the butterfly ship. I knew he was old enough to enlist, but I didn’t want to lose him. I couldn’t lose him.
“You’re too weak,” I lied. “Father said we could never make it, that they don’t let Valemen like us be anything more than deckhands.” It was true my father had said that, but he was a liar, too.
I was angry at my father, and at my uncle for leaving, and my mother for dying. And now I had lied to my only friend because I didn’t want him to leave me.
He put his arm around my neck and rubbed my hair, laughing. He always used charm to disarm me when I was upset.
An hour had passed and we were walking home. The outer nightfires were burning into the starry sky, their silver streams reflecting on the ceramic rooftops as we walked by. Careful not to drop our jars of fireflies, we kicked a stone back and forth along the street.
Even though lanterns lit the path, the street was empty. The scrappy cats who would normally be hissing and screeching in their cat gangs were absent. The silver reflections on the rooftops faded as we walked.
Peren stopped kicking our stone and I felt his palm hit my chest. He had reached out and stopped me completely with a single stroke.
“Look.” I had been getting sleepy watching the fading silver on the rooftops and hadn’t realized what the fading meant — the eastern nightfires were burning out.
A light breeze picked up. Was the unexpected breeze a scouting wind ahead of a storm that had extinguished the nightfires?
We heard the sound of twigs cracking. Immediately after, bells from the eastern side of the river give a chorus of hollow rings as the great belltower snapped and crashed to the stone plaza below. Two cracks of thunder rolled through, followed by rapid cannon bursting, and finalized by a large booming of gunpowder munitions. The shockwave from the exploding Blackmaiden transferred violently into the river waters and through the earth of the western hills where we stood.
We were running now, further away from the port. Peren kept his head turned towards the east. “There’s nothing,” he said. There was no visible explosion, no fire, no lantern light. It was as if there was no city.
The breeze turned into a gale and the maddening bass of the storm began. Thunder reverberated through our feet and bodies every few seconds.
What we could see now was terrifying. There was a blanket of darkness rolling over Dominance, given shape and texture through towering turbines of charcoal thunder clouds. For all their power, even a Weatherman could not have conjured a storm of this ferocity — and even if they planned to, the Ardent would have stopped it. This was a fundamental force, not a coerced one.
If the breeze had been a scout checking ahead of the malignant storm, we were now facing the vanguard. Ground-to-ground lightning was striking out from the oncoming blackness, sparking fires across the city, sowing destruction where the storm had not yet reached. A dozen wind funnels formed and disappeared in the alleyways near us, followed by a half dozen more that formed and kept their shape, becoming monstrous tornadoes carving through the homes around us.
Between the thunder, the commotion and yelling of other people now echoed our terror louder than the oncoming winds. Hundreds of people seemed to be streaming into the avenue ahead, likely running for the reinforced monastery in the western foothills. We knew there wasn’t time, but neither was there time to get home and we had nowhere else to run, so we headed towards the crowd.
A tornado took shape between us and the avenue intersection. This tornado twisted more erratically than the rest, losing and gaining shape rapidly; fully formed, it came crushing down on the stone-and-oak structures immediately ahead.
“Get over here!” A grey-haired man barked out at us as he flailed a lantern to direct us to a sparse house; as the lantern gave light to his chest I saw the silver rank-and-shield insignia of an Ardent cloak pinning. It was Commander Talas, much more wiry than I imagined him without the heavy chainmail he wore on duty, and this was not his home.
I turned back towards the tornado moving wildly in front of us. Debris and dust gave it greater form and now moved in more exaggerated motion, as a whip held by an unseen torturer.
Talas grabbed hold of me and forcefully marched me to the doorway of the one-room house, pointed to the corner, then yelled into my ear, “Stay there or you will die.” I knew from the way my father yelled that Talas was trying to make me more afraid of him than the threat outside; the difference was that I believed Talas. As I sat down, the officer unpinned his woollen cloak and laid it across two of us.
There was a logic to the commander’s actions. There were homes and shops everywhere, yet Peren and I had not thought to use any of them. Talas had gone out front again to call for others.
I pulled the cloak over my head and stared at the jar of fireflies. I rocked violently back and forth, trying to forget what was going on. Peren tried to restrain me, so I rocked harder until he couldn’t.
Before long we had a half dozen children in the house with us. I was still rocking, but Peren had taken the cloak off my head so I could see an older woman who looked exactly like we remembered our mother. Talas stood at the door, his weight pressed against it to prevent it from slamming against the walls with every gust. Hail started shooting through the air and the streets were flooding with river water being pushed uphill by the winds. The glass casings of the street lamps were shattering under the hail and the tar of the unprotected torches was being shredded until each was extinguished. The charcoal storm walls were upon us.
It was in this moment that hopelessness and doom had overtaken my soul that I sensed the poetry of things.
As clear as the fireflies in the warm summer evening I could now see the air itself moving. There was a warm current in the room from each of the corners, spinning into microscopic cyclones with the cool air forcing its way in.
The currents led in all directions like threads torn loose from a tapestry. I followed the thread that led me above the city. The battle lines of Dominance were drawn, with cruel freezing Winter breaking down the defenses of temperate Summer. The whirlwinds were forming where warm and cooler winds met: each tornado and hurricane ripping through the city was simply a battle that Summer had not given up so easily.
I tarried with the thread of the high wind too long, to the place where there was no more Summer. I felt the storm wash over me, the elemental pain, and hate, and death, and horror it brought with it. It was infinite and uncaring. It would consume the world before its lust was satiated. It was unstoppable. Yet I could feel, rippling through the expanse, that the storm was being stopped — for a time — in the north. Were these the battle lines of humans? Were the Weathermen fighting back?
This thread was unraveling into nothingness and I felt the presence of the room and Peren and Talas and the woman who looked like mother. For a moment, though, I sensed that I could slip back in, as a dream that I was not ready to wake from.
I was now following the thread of the tornado that formed in our path, the torturer’s whip. It flipped like a suffocating fish across the streets, trying desperately to collapse on itself, when it struck one of the infernos blazing through the city. Embers and heat and smoke infuriated the beast, giving it more power and more rage.
I knew where this thread would lead.
And I screamed, and screamed, and screamed. I stumbled up and ran towards the woman.
The whip tore through the ceiling and snapped the oak beams on the far side of the room. The woman’s head was instantly crushed, and bone and blood and pink curd sprayed into my face and mouth.
I threw up, and passed out.
After that night, there was no more Summer. There was no more warmth.