From the Farthest Heights
Please enjoy this excerpt of the prologue and first chapter of From the Farthest Heights, my first novel in a new fantasy YA series:
PROLOGUE: THE WOMAN WITH MANY NAMES
She had hundreds of names, but none of them were right. The Letter Thief. The Archivist. The Dreamer. Those were just a few. She’d been called so many names that her true name was forgotten.
That was why she collected letters. She hoarded the most important ones here, in the circular room filled with secret messages and tomes of ancient knowledge. Each one was a key that could unlock her memories.
She’d lost something so important. She’d forgotten everything that mattered.
It was time to remember.
Stacking the most important letters beside her on the lacquered wood desk, the woman with many names examined each one like a puzzle piece. There were some entries from diaries, some formal requests from archived vaults, and some folded notes of wicked plans. On each of them, she made notes about its origin—the where, when, and how—in case she forgot again.
“Let me tell you a story,” the woman murmured as she turned another sheet of aged paper. Her fingers wandered from letter to tome, comparing the names, locations, and words that seemed so familiar; so important. But there were pieces missing—certain pages were torn or smudged from their journey between origin and current hands.
Names echoed in her mind like wisps of smoke. Each one was difficult to grasp and tickled like an itch she couldn’t quite reach. She couldn’t remember how long they’d been there; maybe they’d always been there. The names swarmed around her until one leaped to the forefront. Dymondros. She knew that name from before. She’d read it on some of the letters. But who was it?
As if answering the call in her mind, a thump against the far wall made her look up. Across from her desk stood a window of crackled glass with large shadows flitting back and forth behind it. An obscure thing, shaped like a wing, thumped again on the foggy surface and its sound caused that strange name to flicker through her mind again. Dymondros.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the part of her that sensed something beyond sight or sound; held the awareness that was beyond scent, touch, or taste. She sensed them—many unique presences circling around her in an intricate dance of existence. Their lifelines connected to hers, merging and diverging in seemingly random yet deliberate strokes.
Some were thicker than others, some longer, some brilliant, and some dull; all the many twined strands of them spun together like rope. She sensed the presences she had yet to touch, and then those she might never come in contact with that hovered moth-like around the whole. There had been… were… and would be so many. They clung to one another, wrapped themselves in each other’s existences, and desperately held on because it seemed there was nothing else in the intransient and emotionless void beyond the woman’s room.
Tentatively, she reached out to one strand in particular. She found one presence that had been and was and could be so important in her life. She touched its burning potential; caressed the glowing possibility like a friend, or a lover, or a soul mate.
This one was different than all of the others.
When she opened her eyes again, the woman with many names felt moisture build in their corners. She lifted a hand to brush it away, and then gazed curiously at the tears caught between her fingers. She was crying, but why?
Her sight shifted from the wetness on her skin and took in the room around her for what seemed to be the first time. It was smaller than she expected and stuffed with stacks of letters, journals, and books. The marble walls around her were barren, except for the solitary window across from her desk. On the floor sat a large, dark green rug made of two silhouetted figures crossed at the shoulder, but it was blurred and she couldn’t make out whom the figures were.
The woman looked down at her desk and was caught, almost spellbound, by the pocket watch sitting beside her stack of letters. The clock face seemed ordinary, but underneath it lay so much more. Its hands struck midnight as she touched the bronzed metal, and suddenly a curved knife flipped out from within it. On the glistening metal was written, The letters set you free.
The first letter she’d selected called to her now, tempting her hand closer until she began the puzzle. This is it, the woman with many names told herself. This is the story that will show me who I am.
Taken from Malcolm Carne’s Official Correspondences
Dated March 1930
To: Roland H. Hartley
From: Malcolm Carne
It troubles me deeply to hear of your state’s upheaval occurring in the wake of the tragic destruction of Dakota, Washington. During this time of depressed economics and societal uncertainty, I know it is difficult to control the rampart propaganda and media rumors that only amplify the Washington citizens’ widespread fear, anger, and despair.
An entire city was destroyed, and no one knows what happened. The people are calling for justice. However, when blame ranges from natural disasters to terrorists to the government itself, calming such intense paranoia before it manifests into mobs lining your streets is crucial.
I implore you to utilize my new program, the Bureau of Unfortunate Rights and Restrictions. No longer would your jails be overcrowded with unreformed criminals. No longer would you lose precious citizens to horrible poverty, violent crimes, and certain death like the many that were lost in Dakota. These misguided and poverty-stricken souls need guidance; they need saviors like us. You must join me in becoming one.
This bureau is designed to rehabilitate the “Unfortunates” of society through indentured labor while providing them the amenities with which to live. We must contain them through absolute rules and contractual caretakers who can give them the regulated labor and life direction they desperately need.
With your cooperation, Governor, Washington will become a pioneer of this new Unfortunates Bureau, which could quickly flourish into a nation-wide asset. I can guarantee the implementation of this bureau in your state within the next six to eight months. My sole hope is to give our “Unfortunates” a more fortunate future.
Our nation’s prosperity could rest with you, but you must act now.
Co-founder of the F.O.R.T.U.N.E. Association
CHAPTER ONE: UNEXPECTED DISCOVERIES
Ro Kylar trespassed deep in the forest. She was galloping hard atop Onyx, her black Friesian stallion, and then burst through a row of newly budding trees before racing up the dirt lane. No one pursued them, but these woods belonged to the F.O.R.T.U.N.E. Association, and Ro was not welcome.
She loosened the reins and let her mount run free, savoring the rush of wind and cold mist swirling around her curly blonde hair in the early morning. She knew these trails well, riding illegally on them several times a week. But her rides were worth the risk for the chance to taste freedom, if only for a short time. To escape her work as an indentured nurse’s aide at the Sky Falls Asylum, Ro chose her riding days sporadically every week. Otherwise, someone might notice a pattern to her stolen riding time.
Tightening her grip on the reins, she brought Onyx down to a walk. Ro tensed as her mount quivered with building energy that coursed like a hum through his body. He rocked back, pushed weight in his powerful hindquarters, and reared up to scrape the sky with two dish-sized hooves. Out of habit Ro touched her cheek, ready to keep her mask from slipping. Her calloused fingertips skated across the small bridge of her nose to the other side, but all she felt was the phantom weight of it, rather than her actual mask.
Her blue, feather-and-gemstone-decorated mask had once been perfectly molded to her face. That elaborate status symbol, a gift to all “Fortunate Club” members, had been removed four years ago, but the memory of it still lingered. Now she was cursed to be an “Unfortunate”—a criminal because of her family. She was cursed to be a Kylar.
Though small and slim, Ro pressed her stallion down from his rear. Onyx thrust himself forward, rocketing into the air like he expected wings to bloom at his sides and launch him up to the waiting clouds. But they never did, and he dropped back to the ground. Ro smiled when he sprinted ahead without pause, as if he hoped to chase down the sky.
The sudden buzz of static startled her. She realized it came from the transistor radio, a gift from the only friend she had at the psychiatric asylum, bumping against her leg as they ran. Ro brought the radio wherever she went, but it had never turned itself on before.
Reining Onyx to a halt, she untied it from her saddle. The wooden box hummed in her hands with live feed. Twisting the tuning knob, she searched for a steady frequency. When the screeching static cleared, an accented and tinny male voice said:
“They be looking for you.”
The tingle of fear coursed through her from lower back to the base of her neck. She felt like a teetering vase on the precarious edge of her luck, and wondered if today she’d finally been caught.
Staring at the radio, she turned up the volume knob, and said into the speaker, “Who?”
Static returned, shrieking above the quiet cacophony of life in the surrounding woods. She adjusted the frequency until the same voice said:
A sudden gush of wind billowed around horse and rider, raising goose bumps along Ro’s arms. The wind grew stronger and removed the mist, only to replace it with heavy fog.
“Who is this?” she asked. When she looked down, the hooves and ground beneath her had disappeared. In seconds the entire forest was blanketed in a dense shroud of fog. Onyx flicked his ears back and forth nervously.
Ro stiffened, forcing the air out of her lungs, at the sound of rustling leaves nearby. A large bird sprung from the brush in a flurry of feathers. It keened, the high piercing cry of a raptor, and flew at her stallion. Onyx whinnied in terror and bolted to the right, unseating his rider. Ro fell hard, pain rippling through the left side of her body once she hit the ground. She groaned, looking around for her frightened mount.
With one switch of his midnight-colored tail, Onyx disappeared into the woods. The fog pressed in around her like a tomb, and Ro tried to push down the growing panic in her chest.
She couldn’t see anything. Waves of hysteria clouded her mind. Trying to stay calm, Ro pressed one palm into the radio that had fallen beside her, and the other into the damp earth to remind her it was still there. She drew quick, gasping breaths and counted backward in her head from fifty as the panic slowly drained away.
Use your other senses, stupid, Ro told herself. She smelled the damp bark and pine needles. She heard the soft thuds of receding hoof beats and the distant crash of water against the island’s shoreline. The hawk had disappeared, but the sound of its flapping wings remained. Except the longer she listened, the less those wing beats sounded like feathers and more like rustling sheets drying in the wind.
She stood slowly, tucking the now silent radio under her arm, and turned toward the noise. Muted and distant, it reminded her of slippery fabric as it hit and slid against itself. She took a deep breath and reached the number zero in her head. Her free arm outstretched for balance, Ro moved closer to the noise. The occasional snort from Onyx meant he’d stayed nearby, and she was grateful.
When radio static sounded again from her portable box, Ro jumped. Adjusting the dial once again, she heard the voice say:
“Who being you?”
After a static-filled pause, it spoke again:
“Where is he?”
How could he talk to her? Ro thought it was impossible to have a direct conversation with someone through her one-way transistor radio, but here she was doing exactly that. She didn’t know what else to say, nor if she should. Instead, Ro looked up. The trees huddled close together, but when the fog faded, she stood at the entrance to a mist-filled grove. Surrounded by fir and maple trees, the path led into a small, circular field bedded with tall grass, wild flowers and weeds, and the sound of shifting cloth.
Through the mist, she could make out the curve of two trees, crisscrossed together and cradling an obscure mass that clung to the branches. Moving closer, Ro discovered the large form was a parachute, draped over the tree limbs and cascading down in the shape of enormous, artificial wings. Nestled between the lowest tree branches and folds of parachute material . . . was a young man.
She saw him lying on the upraised tree roots, partially obscured by the mist, seeming to the woods around him a part of nature. Billowing in the wind, his parachute wings and straps brushed against the unconscious stranger.
As she stood immobile, caught between the urge to approach him or flee deeper into the forest cover, Ro’s mother’s old words echoed in her mind: Perfect men don’t fall out of the sky. And yet, here he was. Even from a distance, shrouded in mist and covered with nylon, Ro could see his face.
He reminded her of Micah.
With that name on her lips, Ro couldn’t fight the resurfacing memories of him, no matter how much she wanted to block them out. She remembered his loving touch and bottomless hazel eyes. He’d had the most passionate, unpredictable eyes she’d ever known. She could tell just by gazing into those expressive irises that he was dangerous. At the time, she hadn’t cared. She didn’t care that her family was cursed. All that mattered was Micah’s lips on her own lips. She could feel his hot breath ghosting over her skin and his love for her.
Despite her instincts screaming, Run away before you’re caught, an invisible magnet pulled Ro toward the fallen stranger. She approached him, the sound of grass sighing beneath her feet, until he was inches away. She could smell the rich, woodsy aroma all around him, mixed with sweat and smoke. He had deep blue-black hair just like Micah, a dense body and muscles that twitched in his sleep. Barely more than a boy, but no older than twenty, his young face was held together by his prominent brow, long nose and wide lips, and a thick jaw that tapered to his pointed chin. Setting her radio down at the foot of a tree, she checked him carefully, noting that beneath his tattered dark coat and ratty gray trousers was a patient’s gown.
But no mark on his neck.
Even though she couldn’t see it hidden beneath her scarf, Ro could feel the cursed mark on her own neck. She grimaced at the thought of that tattoo burned into her skin—an upside down omega sign, which resembled a “U” with tapered edges. This was the mark branded on all Unfortunates. On official paper, everyone with this mark was a criminal being rehabilitated through indentured labor. In reality, most of them were poor people desperate for work and the basic necessities of life. Once in the system, the Unfortunates and their families were treated like slaves and property to be passed around. To those on the outside, the average and ignorant people Ro was kept away from, the brand was a devilish mark worthy of the criminals who bore it.
Ro inspected him for any medical concerns. She was a nurse’s aide, even though she had no certifications, and her training kicked in. She measured his vital signs and the rhythm of his breathing. Checking for wounds and other serious injuries, Ro discovered some minor bruises. When she tested his left wrist, the young man groaned in pain and reflexively tried to pull away.
His eyes flew open, and Ro found startlingly electric blue eyes staring back at her. He coughed, spasms wracking his chest, until he managed to wheeze, “Kar—”
“Car?” Ro echoed. “Do you have a vehicle nearby?”
“Kar . . .” he began again, and frowned with concentration as he stared at her face. “Kar. . . Karetta?”
Ro was dumbstruck, wondering if she’d misheard him. She whispered, “What did you say?”
“Karetta,” the young man moaned, and Ro tightened her grip on his shoulder. She hadn’t dared to think of that name, but now she came back to haunt Ro. Karetta, her great-aunt, was the first of the cursed Kylar children.
“Please wake up!” Ro exclaimed, seeing his eyelids begin to droop closed. “Do you mean Karetta Kylar? Please tell me what you know about her!”
His eyes opened again, and Ro gasped. His pupils were thin slits, just like a cat’s, and in the misty light they looked inhuman. Engulfing those slit pupils were vibrant blue irises that danced like gemstone prisms. He smiled and nodded.
“You look like her. My . . . Karetta.” His baritone voice was deep and smooth, before he sighed and his eyelids closed again. He did not wake, even when Ro shook his shoulders.
“Please, what do you know about my family?” she pleaded, but he had fallen unconscious again.
Everything in her mind screamed, Get out, run away, you’re not good enough to handle this. But her heart wrenched at the thought of leaving him behind. There was nothing she wanted more than to understand what cursed her family and why it started with Karetta. She had no right to do it, but she needed to know. She needed it like oxygen.
Ro stood up and peered around the grove. She whistled, and then breathed in relief when she heard Onyx’s answering nicker. He approached as swift as a phantom wisp on the wind, dancing into view near the parachute-laden trees. As Ro jogged over to grab the reins, Onyx flared his nostrils and shied at the rustling parachute. She tried to soothe him with a hand on his hot and sweaty neck, but he still backed away from her, snorting and pawing.
Instead, she went for the saddle pack and pulled out the bronze pocket watch Micah had personalized it for her. It was much thicker than an ordinary watch, able to accommodate the multiple accessory attachments that could be flipped out from inside it. Ro could slip her fingers into the grooves and retrieve a curved hoof pick, scissors, and even a slim knife masterfully shaped to fit the circular model of the pocket watch. She never went riding without it. Micah had been an inventive, creative soul, and that was one of the many reasons she had found him irresistible. Ro wondered if this strange boy was the same way.
Cutting away the straps binding him to the tree entangled nest, Ro lifted the parachute away and created a makeshift sling to lay him on. When she dragged him closer to Onyx, the horse snorted low like a growl, rolling his deep brown eye distrustfully.
“What’s wrong?” she muttered at him. They didn’t have time for this equine brain hysteria. She had enough of her own. Again and again she tried to make the stallion stand still, but he only grew more afraid. Ro suddenly realized he was spooked of the person and not the parachute. Despite the spring chill making her shiver, Ro removed her scarf and tied it around Onyx’s eyes. He trembled, but she whispered in his ear and coaxed him to calmness. Pulling carrots from her pockets, she encouraged him to lie down, a trick she’d taught him to make climbing on his back easier.
Her nurse instincts screamed at her for moving a patient who could potentially have internal injuries, but she couldn’t call for help. Once the police saw the brand on Ro’s neck marking her as an Unfortunate, a seventeen-year-old criminal, they would know she was trespassing and probably lock her up until Dr. Murphy, her master, was informed and showed up to claim her.
Ro managed to lift the young man up and across her saddle. She carefully removed the blindfold and mounted behind the saddle, holding the unconscious boy perched in front of her. Onyx lurched to his feet while Ro wrapped her arms around the stranger’s torso, and then guided her horse in a semi-circle and toward the grove’s entrance. The fog stayed thick around them, swirling against Onyx’s legs as he walked.
She wasn’t sure what made her to do it, but she held up the radio, adjusted the knobs, and waited. After a moment, that accented voice repeated:
“Where is he then?”
She said to the radio box, “I think I found him.”
Together, the three of them—boy, girl, and horse—disappeared into the shifting mist.