Excerpts from Temper the Dark

Excerpt #1 (Alaris)

An oil lantern burned low in my room behind a small cage meant to ensure the room’s occupant couldn’t use it as a weapon. My eyes grew heavy under the cast of its warm glow. Closing them, I pressed my cheek into the clean sheets of the soft bed beneath me and inhaled ocean and fresh air and hibiscus. I hadn’t smelled anything so pure in weeks.

It brought back a flood of childhood memories I’d fought against for so long—clear, beautiful memories that tumbled from my mind like the water that roared over Wasani Falls, splashing, falling, and churning into a crystal pool of longing and emotion I could no longer staunch.

In a single heartbeat, I found that place in my mind where happiness had once been more familiar to me than my own name. And I hadn’t known how quickly that happiness would be yanked from me. 

The clear bright days on the beaches, collecting nami shells for Festival with Ayanna, the tips of our fingers sore from digging and cleaning sand off of the hundreds of tiny shells that clinked together like coins when tossed into our burlap sacks. Later, we would string together thousands of them onto ropes and wind the jingling cords throughout the Celebration Hall, down the walkways, and into the trees. 

Ayanna. I’d been thinking of one of Ayanna’s stories when I’d fallen asleep and found myself outside of my own body. Had her stories held some bit of magic?

Perhaps if I lay on the bed and remembered one of her tales, I’d be able to repeat last night’s performance.

Wait…if I lay on the bed?

I whirled on my heel, realizing quite suddenly that I was standing and yet I had no memory of doing so. I wanted simultaneously to jump back into my body and to run from the room as far as my astral feet would take me. Instead, I stood rooted to the spot, staring at my own form on the bed. I was out of my body. Time to take my opportunity.

I knew my way to and from the infirmary well enough that I was through the door, past Bhenzi, and on my way to the path that would take me to Naya’s hut before I could think about where I wanted to go in my suddenly free state.

A warm breeze ruffled the palms on the path and might have ruffled my hair had it been my physical body walking the path, but even though I felt the movement of air over my skin, my astral hair and clothes seemed reluctant to respond to nature’s forces.

Naya’s hut was aglow with light despite the starscape above indicating it was late into the night. Carnelian the Ram had already half set, and only the few stars that made up his rear hooves were visible above the horizon. Embers glowed red in the fire pit outside the home, their outlines shifting and changing like fire opals in the dark of the night. Naya must have had a fire going not long ago, which was odd, but then, given that it was Naya, was not odd at all.

When I arrived at her door, I hesitated. Something felt wrong about walking into the hut unseen and unannounced. Still, it wasn’t as if I could knock.

I slipped through the door and into the brightness. My mood lightened just seeing my old friend’s familiar face. Naya sat at the familiar wooden table with its worn surface and wobbly legs, sipping from a small cup. The spicy scent of hibiscus tea filled the air and for just a moment, I longed for a cup myself. I longed to sit and talk with this woman who had always been like a grandmother to me.

She had both hands around the cup as if to ward off a chill even though the day’s warmth lingered in the night air. For a few weeks every year, Na’uni never really cooled down no matter how many ocean breezes swept in with the tide. This year’s hot season had lingered longer than most.

Naya looked deep in thought, her weathered hands and the many lines etched on her face proof of the stories she’d seen and told throughout her years on our island. I couldn’t fathom how old she was. It seemed she’d always looked the same to me. The familiar sight of her brought tears to my eyes and happy memories to my mind. 

I wished I could pull up a seat and pour out my troubles so Naya could make them seem small in just a moment’s time. I nearly laughed at the thought. There wasn’t much Naya could do to help me with my troubles now. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to leave. No good could come of my lingering wishes. I was glad to have seen her at least.

Naya’s voice cut through the air, sharp and brittle at the same time, like every old woman with a strong opinion.

“I’d offer you tea, but seeing as you’ve come without a body, it might be difficult to consume.”

Excerpt #2 (Kagan)

Sweat poured down my temples. I wiped it away absently with the side of my arm, which didn’t do much since my arm was also drenched in sweat. Three hours of battle-training Second Orders was not my idea of a good time, particularly when it involved getting up two hours before sunrise, but given the choice, I still preferred training the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds to the younger years. It was somehow less painful when one of them dropped from heat exhaustion or had to be sent to the infirmary when a sparring partner didn’t pull back their thrust in time. They were smarter, older, and should know better.

At least, theoretically. There were one or two I wasn’t entirely sure would make it another couple of years to their graduation. And they certainly wouldn’t make it any further than Second Order.

Another ten minutes and the clanging of armor that filled the air would finally cease and maybe I could begin to think again. Far to my right, above the din, someone swore loudly at their opponent. 

“No!”  My spear skittering around the corner of a shield. “You do that, you’re as good as dead. I’ve got a straight path to your heart. Gods’ sakes, imbecile! If you can’t even parry properly, how in the hells did they pass you to Second rank?”

Instead of being chastised by my insults, my opponent grew angrier. Good. Anger would do one of two things for him—fuel him to work harder and correct his mistakes, or fluster him into making more mistakes. Dark eyebrows drew downward beneath his helmet and he scowled at me. 

Cue the fluster.

He swung a short sword, the blade arcing toward me at an angle that was comically easy to deflect. Spinning out of his reach and back around again, I pinned his arm between the spear and my own arm and pressed hard. He yelled as he dropped the sword.

Taking advantage of his surprise, I swung around behind him, holding the shaft of the spear in each hand on either side of his neck, the weapon beneath his chin. He swore. I smiled.

“Learn,” I said, throwing the spear down as an older First Order Guardsman blew the whistle that signaled training done for the morning. In between recovering my breath, I continued. “You let anger blind you. Do that in battle and you’re dead.” I walked from the training arena, leaving my equipment in the sand for my opponent to take back to the armory. First Orders didn’t do clean up.

I had never actually seen battle. But I had trained for it, prepared for it, and knew it was coming. Matookh had said as much. The emperor told him. A great war was coming to our land. It was why my uncle worked with the emperor to create the Throlani Guard. It was why I lived, breathed, ate, and slept everything war-related for the last eight years. It was why I didn’t ask questions.

Until now.

Now I’d asked more questions in the span of a couple of weeks than I’d pondered in eight full years.

I wondered what Ellis would say when he returned. He’d probably accuse me of going soft. Ellis was the only recruit in my year who had ranked higher at graduation. He was also my closest friend. He was currently off commanding our First Orders wherever it was the emperor had them stationed these days. I should be with them.

Not having to take daily orders from someone else was nice, but still… 

I made it as far as the hall to my room when I changed course and headed for the float room instead. I needed a bath anyway. Might as well make use of the time.

If I was going to find out anything about Alaris Kahlanik and why she’d been sent to the Cells, I’d need to play along. Hiding from the Darkness wasn’t possible anyway. In darkness, there is truth, after all. But exactly how much did the Darkness know? And did it have an agenda?

These were questions I probably should have asked long ago. Instead, I blindly accepted what I’d been told. Matookh had always said to place my complete trust in the Darkness. Like an idiot, I followed. 

No, not like an idiot. Like a child.

Well, I wasn’t a child any longer. Perhaps I could deceive with the best of them… But would the Darkness know? I hesitated at the door to the float room for only a second before pushing it open and entering the chamber.

I shed my clothing quickly and stepped into the water, immersing myself fully and allowing my legs to lift to the surface. Almost immediately, a feeling of weightlessness came over me.

I’m here, I said.

So I see, came the amused response, winding its way uncomfortably into the quiet corridors of my brain.

I am open. Ready. Here to receive.

I didn’t know what I hoped the dark might teach me, but there had to be something it could reveal, even if unintentional.

Are you? It asked patronizingly. I bit the inside of my mouth to keep from thinking about the answers I would have liked to give. I didn’t need to feel a threat to my eyes today.

Instead, I answered with a simple, However I may serve. In darkness, there is truth.

Your timing is quite impeccable. I have much to share with you. It is finally the right time.

A sense of apprehension made my skin hum. It couldn’t be so easy. Wisely, I didn’t answer.

You must wonder why you were held back while the rest of this year’s First Orders were sent on assignment.

The silence that filled my mind indicated the Darkness was waiting for my answer. Yes, I answered slowly. I wondered, but it is not my place to question.

Wise child, it cooed. 

I am not a child! I wanted to scream. Instead, I reined in my thoughts. Nothing good could come of instigating trouble over a perceived insult. I asked, Please. What was the reason?

I doubt you know it, young toa, but you are a peculiar sort. Dare I use the word ‘special?’ There are not many who possess the fortitude that comes to you naturally. It makes you a good candidate for the future.

The future of what? I asked.

The Empire, of course.