Amid Wind & Stone ONLY
an Otherselves novel by Nicole Luiken
Behind the mirror lies your otherself…
There is one True World, and then there are the four Mirror Worlds: Fire, Water, Air, and Stone.
Audrey and Dorotea are “otherselves”—twin copies of each other who live on different Mirror Worlds.
On Air, Audrey has the ability to communicate with wind spirits. As war looms, she’s torn between loyalty to her country and her feelings for a roguish phantom who may be a dangerous spy.
Blackouts and earthquakes threaten the few remaining humans on Stone, who have been forced to live underground. To save her injured sister, Dorotea breaks taboo and releases an imprisoned gargoyle. Brooding, sensitive Jasper makes her wonder if gargoyles are truly traitors, as she’s always been told.
Unbeknownst to them, they both face the same enemy—an evil sorceress bent on shattering all the Mirror Worlds.
Title: Amid Wind & Stone
Series: Otherselves, #2
Author: Nicole Luiken
Genre: Young Adult
Length: 448 pages
Release Date: March 2016
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
Amid Wind & Stone
by Nicole Luiken
Copyright © 2016 by Nicole Luiken. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
In the Mirrorhall
By the light of a red sun, on a dying world, in the tower of an evil sorceress, Leah stood alone before the Four Worlds mirror and tried to Call her otherself.
Tried and failed.
Tears of frustration burned in eyes already red-rimmed from fatigue and too little water to drink. A gust of wind blew through the long, horizontal window in the Mirrorhall, swirling up more ash from the belching Volcano Lords and leaving a fine black coating on her skin and the mirror.
Taller and wider than herself, the Four Worlds mirror hung a foot off the floor, its sides seamlessly melding into the stone alcove. A magic far beyond her own abilities had wrought four mirrors together. Each one represented a different Mirror World: gleaming black obsidian for Fire, cold ice for Water, transparent glass for Air, and yellow gold for Stone.
Mechanically, Leah used the sleeve of her once fine dress to wipe the ash from the beaten panel of gold. Her reflection looked gaunt: her dress hung on her like a flour sack, her chin even pointier than usual. Her long, dark hair was tangled and filthy.
The reflection ought to have shown Dorotea.
Leah had been trying to Call her Stone World otherself in the gold mirror for four hours now with no success.
The four Mirror Worlds were imperfect copies of the True World. The original copies had even included their inhabitants, with the Mirror versions known as “otherselves.” Centuries had passed since the Mirror Worlds’ creation, and much of the population had diverged, through accidental death and marrying different people than their otherselves on other worlds had, but an elite few still possessed otherselves on some or all of the Mirror Worlds. Leah was such a one.
She’d Called Stone World before, but it had been difficult. Hadn’t the sorceress Qeturah said that Stone World had a dearth of reflective surfaces? Although Qeturah had been born on the True World, she was very knowledgeable about all of them.
Of course, Qeturah was also a liar.
Thinking about the lies Leah had swallowed in the belief that she was helping Qeturah’s son Gideon—the young man Leah had loved—made her stomach twist.
Qeturah’s power-mad drive to rule Fire World had led to war and Gideon’s death, and the deaths of thousands when the Volcano Lords had erupted in fury. Instead of being appalled at what she’d done, Qeturah had been triumphant. She’d immediately started draining magical energy from the dying world and schemed to do the same to Water. Leah and her Water otherself, Holly, had stopped her. Barely.
Leah did not doubt that Qeturah and her mysterious True World allies would try again with either Stone or Air.
Leah had sworn to stop her.
She’d meant it—at the time.
Leah sagged against the wall and faced the truth. The white-hot anger that had sustained her after Gideon’s death had burned out. Right now, all she felt was exhaustion and a soul-sucking grief that made her want to curl up under the blankets and sleep the week away.
Except she kept having nightmares of Gideon dying over and over.
What Qeturah was doing was terrible, and Leah ought to care, but the fate of another world she’d never seen meant little to her. How could she scrape together concern for other realms when her own personal world had collapsed into ruin?
Rebellion rumbled through her. Why was this her responsibility anyway?
Maybe she could send a message to Holly and dump the problem on her shoulders. Her Water self could warn their otherselves on Stone and Air. The three of them could fight Qeturah without Leah’s help.
The relief that came with that thought made Leah sway. She turned away from the mirror and took a step toward the door. Bed. Rest. Hopefully, this time she wouldn’t dream, or would dream of being with Gideon.
She halted, head bowed.
Because while Stone and Air were abstracts, Gideon wasn’t. And Qeturah’s plan for shattering the Mirror Worlds hinged on the death of Gideon’s otherselves. Each boy had an elemental for a father, the element associated with that particular Mirror World. Just as Gideon’s murder had sent his Volcano Lord father into a paroxysm of grief that resulted in a chain of devastating volcanic eruptions, so would Gideon’s otherselves’ murders spark worldwide disasters.
A spike of grief pierced her at the thought of Gideon. Dead and cold, his diamond eyes shut forever.
The only thing that made his death even slightly bearable was the knowledge that part of him still lived on in his otherselves. Leah had saved Ryan, his Water self.
She couldn’t leave the survival of his Stone and Air otherselves to chance. She had to save them, too.
Resolve tasting like iron on her tongue, Leah put her hand on the golden panel and Called yet again: “Dorotea, find a mirror.”
The lights went out, plunging the cave into absolute darkness.
Dorotea froze on her hands and knees in the tunnel. Behind her, Marta wailed. Dorotea reached back and found her little sister’s hand. “It’s all right. The lights will come back in a moment.” Despite her reassuring words, worry wormed its way into her stomach. It wasn’t unusual for one or two of the light squares embedded in the walls to burn out and stay black for a few weeks before being replaced, but every light in the whole tunnel had winked out at the same instant as if it were False Night instead of an hour short of noon.
Instinct prodded at her. Something’s wrong.
Marta squeezed her hand with six-year-old strength. “I’m scared! Make the lights come back.”
As if being eleven years older conferred magic powers. “The Elect will fix it. All we have to do is wait.”
“I’m so scared,” Marta whined.
“Crawl up closer to me,” Dorotea said. “The tunnel’s wide enough here.”
Marta squirmed up. Dorotea lay on her side and cuddled her sister’s small body. The contact comforted Dorotea, too. Marta’s presence meant Dorotea couldn’t panic.
Her eyes remained open, uselessly straining to see in the utter darkness. She’d never experienced anything like it. During False Night, each cavern had a few lights that remained on so people could find their way to the privy. This darkness was blacker than the inside of a coal seam.
Maybe only the tunnel’s lights had gone out. Maybe there was still light in the main caverns.
“I’m scared of the dark.” Marta whimpered again. “What if the gargoyles get us?”
Dorotea’s heart jumped into her throat at the thought of hands reaching up through solid stone, but she made her voice calm. “Don’t be silly. All the gargoyles are safely locked up in the Cavern of Traitors.”
“But what if they tunneled through the floor?”
“They can’t,” Dorotea said shortly. “They’re frozen in place. Why are you scared of gargoyles? You’ve never even seen one. They were imprisoned before you were born.” They didn’t kill your father, like they did mine. Marta’s father, Martin, was annoyingly alive.
Dorotea had been younger than Marta when the gargoyles rebelled. She barely remembered them except for fuzzy images of her father’s gargoyle: a very tall, silent man made of gray stone with a craggy, rough-hewn face.
The gargoyles couldn’t have caused the blackout. Could they? Surely not, but anxiety still twisted inside her, keying her nerves to a higher pitch. She shivered in the clammy embrace of the stone tunnels. The rough trousers and tunic she’d donned for weeding were better suited for crawling than her usual robes, but the material was also thinner.
Something’s wrong. Something more than a Tech malfunction.
She made her voice cheerful for Marta’s sake. “While we wait for the lights to come back on, why don’t we keep going?” The lights had been off for at least five minutes now. They couldn’t stay here forever. Her throat already felt sand-dry, and soon the chill of the rock walls would seep into their bones. Or Marta was sure to need the privy.
Why, oh why, had she decided to take the tunnel today instead of the stairs?
Oh, right. Laziness. After three hours of weeding, the idea of a shortcut had appealed to her greatly.
The small natural passage connecting Vegetable Cavern with Artisan Cavern was seldom used except by children. It was big enough for an adult to squeeze through but hard on the knees. Dorotea could still crawl through it in fifteen minutes instead of the near hour it took to climb the stairs from Vegetable up to Elect Cavern, go over the mill bridge at the top of the falls, down the ladder to Stone Heart Cavern, and then along the narrow, winding passage beside the river to Artisan Cavern.
She was scheduled to take her weekly turn powering the treadmill that stored energy for the looms this afternoon. The task was both back-breaking and mind-numbingly boring. Taking the shortcut would give her a longer break.
Silently, she admitted the real reason she’d taken the tunnel: she liked it. Even though the tunnel was usually well lit and was dead easy to navigate with no side tunnels, crawling through it always made her feel like an explorer, a Stone Heart Clan member. It made her feel closer to her father.
Taking the tunnel on a day when she had Marta with her was her real mistake.
Though at least in the tunnel she didn’t have to worry about Marta making a misstep and falling in the swift-flowing underground river. She shuddered at the thought.
Although the passageway itself might twist and turn, when traveling through the tunnel, there was only forward and back. Right now there was only forward because Dorotea didn’t think there was space enough for her to turn around without getting stuck. Marta could manage it, but not her.
“Will the lights be on at home?” Marta asked.
“I should think so,” Dorotea lied. “Do you want to go first or should I?”
“Can’t we go together?” Marta clung to her neck.
“There isn’t enough room to go side by side. Why don’t I go first, and you hold onto my foot?” Dorotea suggested. The exit into Artisan Cavern was a bit steep. Dorotea didn’t want to risk Marta falling. Besides, if Marta went first, she’d go slowly. Dorotea wanted out of here with an urgency that grew every moment.
The closeness of the tunnel had never bothered her before. Indeed, she’d prided herself on her caving ability, part of her Stone Heart Clan heritage, but it was different in the dark. The cave walls seemed to press in on her.
Dorotea gently disentangled herself from Marta and started down the sloping passage. She shuffled on her knees, taking care not to accidentally kick Marta.
Her sister clutched her ankle. “What if a gargoyle grabs me?”
“There are no gargoyles here, I promise,” Dorotea said. She needed to get Marta to think about something else. “Let’s sing a song, shall we?” She launched into the first song she could think of: “Inchworm, inchworm, crawling through the underground.”
Marta joined her on the chorus, and they kept crawling through the irregular tunnel. Dorotea bumped her head once and her shoulders repeatedly. Goddess, it was dark. She tried to remember how far down the tunnel she and Marta had gone before the lights went out. Over halfway, maybe as far as three quarters the distance needed.
Nothing to do but keep crawling and singing. She’d run out of verses, so she started making them up: “Inchworm, inchworm, bumping his something something.”
Marta giggled. “That’s not right!”
“Oh? How does it go then? Inchworm, inchworm, crawling behind his sister—”
A tremor shook the tunnel walls.
Marta shrieked. “Gargoyles! Help!”
Dorotea broke out in a sweat, and dread iced her blood. That had been something far, far more dangerous than gargoyles: an earthquake. They’d been occurring all too frequently of late as the Goddess’s sleep grew restless. And one tremor was often followed by a bigger quake. Dorotea swallowed, her throat painfully dry. “Keep going!” she yelled.
But Marta had let go of her ankle, crying.
“Come on, Marta, grab my foot. Please, we’re almost out,” she lied, nearly frantic.
But Marta just kept wailing, too young to understand how precarious their situation was in this narrow tunnel. One rockfall could trap them. Or bring the roof down on their heads.
Dorotea ground her teeth, annoyance spiking her fear. It drove her crazy when Marta did this: decide she was tired, sit down, and cry to be picked up. Her father, Martin, always gave in and picked her up as if Marta were still three instead of six.
Dorotea couldn’t carry her, even if she wanted to.
“Marta!” she barked. “Move now, or I’ll leave you behind.” To make the threat believable, Dorotea crawled forward two feet. “I mean it! I’m leaving!”
Dorotea listened hard, hoping to hear her sister following, but Marta just bawled louder. Great. Now the kid was hysterical.
Dorotea resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. Grudgingly, she admitted that this time Marta wasn’t being willful. She was genuinely terrified. Which meant her sister wasn’t going to budge.
Dorotea had two choices: go on without her and return with help or drag her along.
No choice really.
“Stop crying,” Dorotea said without much hope that Marta would listen. With cold fingers, she measured the width of the tunnel. Her fingers came away gritty. When the lights were on, the tunnel had seemed generously wide. In the dark, she was constantly bruising herself on the walls.
She moved a little farther down the tunnel, away from her crying sister, and explored again. Was it wider here? Maybe. Taking a deep breath, she laboriously began to turn around. Rock scraped against her spine, and for a horrid moment, she thought she was stuck in that folded-up position, but by pushing with her feet, she squirmed past the sticking point.
Only to ram her forehead into an unseen rock. Tears stung her eyes. Sandstorms, that hurt. Had she broken the skin? She found a lump, but no blood.
“Mom, Mom, Mom, Momma,” Marta blubbered.
“I’m coming, Marta.”
Dorotea was facing away from the direction they needed to go, but her head and hands were aligned with her sister. In this position, she could talk to Marta—and drag her along by force if she had to.
Creeping forward, she located her sister’s head in the dark and brushed at her fine hair. “Marta, it’s all right. I’m here.” She hugged her little sister. “Shhh, I’m here.” She rubbed a circle on Marta’s back and tried not to dwell on the looming possibility of another quake.
Gradually, Marta’s sobs quieted.
She kissed her sister’s forehead. “Come on, let’s crawl together.” On her hands and knees, she backed down the tunnel, coaxing Marta into following. It was slow and awkward, and Dorotea’s nerves screamed at the delay, but at least they were making progress.
Why hadn’t the lights come back on? Dorotea couldn’t remember them ever being off for this long before. Biting her lip, she urged Marta forward with a constant stream of praise. “That’s right, you’re doing well. We’ll be out of here soon, and Mom will make us soup.”
Marta hiccupped. “I h-hate soup.”
“Sweet tea then,” Dorotea promised, rashly, considering how dear sugar was. They had to move faster. She could swear she felt another earthquake gathering: a vibration in her back teeth. The hairs rose on the back of her neck.
They were out of time. They’d never make it out of the tunnel.
And then, like a miracle, her knee came down on metal instead of stone. They’d hit one of the reinforced sections of the tunnel, a hollow metal box there to shore up a previous rockfall. They could shelter inside it.
She crawled faster, scraping her knee in her haste, dragging Marta forward. “Hurry.” Again, that looming sense of danger, of gathering anger.
Except the metal tunnel proved too short to shelter them both, only three feet long. Nor was it wide enough for them to lie side by side. Dorotea’s heart kicked in panic as she crawled out the other side, but she kept her voice calm. “Do you feel the metal floor, Marta? Get your whole body onto the metal. Curl up if you have to. Are you inside?”
“Yes. It’s cold.” Marta wriggled around.
“Stay still,” Dorotea said sharply. She put her head next to Marta’s—the only part of herself she could protect—and held her sister’s hand.
The sense of building wrath exploded.
The whole passageway started to shake. A low rumble like an angry gargoyle traveled through the earth in a wave. The top of her head clonked against the metal ceiling; her teeth bit down on her tongue. Pebbles and dirt cascaded over her back and shoulders as the shaking grew fiercer.
Marta was screaming, but Dorotea could barely hear her. This was more than the Goddess turning over in her sleep. The hard shaking expressed rage, an anger so vast it battered the world. All Dorotea could do was grit her teeth and hang on as fists of stone pummeled her body.
When the earthquake finally slowed and stopped, she didn’t trust it for a moment, unmoving.
The fall of pebbles turned into a fine sifting of dust. Dorotea coughed, eyes stinging. There was nothing to see except darkness, but she couldn’t bear to close them.
Rubble covered her legs. She shifted them gingerly. Nothing seemed broken or trapped. She started pushing rocks to one side of the tunnel. “Don’t worry, Marta,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll have the way cleared in a jiffy.”
Ominous silence answered her. She would have expected Marta to be wailing at the top of her lungs.
Dorotea’s pulsed pounded in her ears. Sudden terror seized her chest, making it hard to breathe. “Marta? Answer me!” Her sister was supposed to be safe in the reinforced tunnel. Somehow she’d lost her sister’s hand. She groped until she found it again. “Marta!”
Marta’s fingers hung limp in her grasp.
Still coughing, Dorotea reached out and touched rocks. The tunnel roof had caved in just where the reinforced section met stone again.
No. Goddess, no. Please—
Frantically, Dorotea picked up rocks and pushed them behind her. She found the space created by the reinforced tunnel and Marta’s head. Hair, forehead… Her fingertips dabbed wetness. Blood. Either Marta’s head had stuck out just a little too far, or a falling rock had bounced inside and hit her.
“Marta!” Speaking provoked another coughing fit. Crying, Dorotea patted her hands over her sister’s frail chest, terrified of what she might find. Was she—?
Marta breathed. And the rest of her body was untouched, just unresponsive.
Dorotea screamed for help, but she knew in her heart the tunnel had too many twists and turns for anyone to hear her.
Breathing ragged, Dorotea pressed the hem of her tunic to Marta’s bloody forehead. She applied pressure and made herself count aloud. At five hundred, the bleeding stopped, but Marta didn’t wake.
She wanted to scream. Why were the lights still off? What if the earthquake had collapsed the entire cavern? What if she were the only person still alive?
Stop it! She couldn’t think like that or she’d go mad.
She couldn’t panic—Marta needed her.
What was the best thing to do? Go for help? It might be the fastest way, but Dorotea couldn’t bear to leave her sister alone in the dark. She couldn’t stand the thought of Marta waking by herself, in pain, in the dark, screaming in fear of gargoyles.
Or dying alone.
Dorotea cleared away the rubble as best she could and began to back down the tunnel, dragging her sister’s body after her. She paused frequently to reassure herself that Marta was still breathing and to call for help.
Unable to stand the silence, she began to sing the stupid song again, “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the passageway…” But Marta never joined in.
After an endless time, Dorotea’s toes detected a steeper downward slant. Finally. The pitched incline meant they were near the entrance to the Artisan Cavern. She drew in a deep breath and yelled, “Help!”
She strained her ears and was rewarded with the faint sound of voices. Encouraged, she bellowed again. “Help! I’m in the tunnel, and my sister’s hurt!”
“Who’s that?” a voice called, and a faint glow appeared.
It was just barely visible, but any light after so long in darkness was incredibly welcome.
She answered the voice’s questions and tugged Marta down the incline. At the bottom, hands helped both her and Marta out of the tunnel.
Dorotea tried to stand, but her legs collapsed under her. Her clothes were caked in cave mud, and her whole body shook with cold. She watched dully as her neighbors carried her sister to a nearby pallet. Under her own layer of mud, Marta was cavefish pale, her light brown hair matted with blood, and so terribly, terribly small.
“You’re Hilde’s daughters, aren’t you?” someone asked.
She nodded. She and Marta shared the same pointy chin, inherited from their mother. Otherwise, they didn’t look much alike. Dorotea had her father’s dark eyebrows and dark brown hair as well as his sturdier build.
And then there were more people, and her mother was there, and Dorotea could finally let go and cry.
Two hours later, the cavern lights blazed back to life. Two hours after that, a healer and her Unskilled servant finally arrived.
The tall, bony Elect healer had bags under her eyes. She took one look at the tiny alcove that served as Dorotea and Marta’s bedroom and brusquely started giving orders. “You”—she pointed at Dorotea’s mother—“sit on the bed with your daughter. Everyone else, out.”
Dorotea and Martin retreated, then took turns watching through the beaded curtain as the Elect’s Unskilled servant carefully unwound Marta’s bandages and cleaned away the dried blood. Despite the black U tattooed on her cheek, the servant seemed quite skilled to Dorotea, her movements deft and gentle.
When the world Above was evacuated, the population had been separated into Skilled and Unskilled workers. To the Unskilled fell the task of farming and other menial labor. The Skilled further subdivided into Artisan, Stone Heart, and Elect Clans depending on their work, and each group was given their own cavern to live in. The Elect, of course, was the most elevated of the three.
The Elect healer examined Marta’s head wound briefly, then palpated the rest of her scalp and thumbed open Marta’s blue eyes. She performed a few more tests: clapping her hands loudly near Marta’s ears, burning a feather beneath her nose, and tapping Marta’s knee until it jerked in reflex.
“Annemarie, re-bandage her head,” the Elect said to her servant, then addressed Dorotea’s mother. “Let’s talk outside.”
Dorotea’s stomach twisted, not liking the Elect’s grim expression. Dorotea, Martin, and Hilde followed the Elect into the Commons. The Elect faced them. “Has she been unconscious the entire time since the quake? Has she stirred at all?”
They all exchanged anxious glances but were forced to admit that Marta hadn’t.
“I won’t lie,” the Elect said grimly. “That is a bad sign. This is more than a concussion. Your daughter has fallen into a coma.”
“A coma? What’s that?” her mother asked the question before Dorotea could.
The healer waved an irritated hand. “A prolonged state of unconsciousness.”
“What can we do?” her mother asked steadily.
“Make her comfortable. Talk to her. People who wake from comas sometimes report being able to hear voices while unconscious. Try not to mention dying around her—”
“Dying?” Dorotea’s voice shrilled. “Marta is dying?”
The Elect gave her a flat stare. “Keep your voice down. Most coma patients never wake. They waste away and die.”
Martin made a strangled sound. Abruptly, he strode away, almost knocking down the Unskilled, who’d quietly joined them. Typical Martin, always hanging around when Dorotea didn’t want him there and evaporating when he was actually needed.
Dorotea stepped closer to her mother so that their shoulders pressed together in mutual support.
“Is there nothing else that can be done?” her mother asked huskily.
The Elect shook her head. “She’ll either wake up, or she won’t. Now, please excuse me, but I have other patients to attend.”
Dorotea stared, aghast. “That’s it? My sister is dying, and all you can do is tell us to make her comfortable and wait?”
“Dorotea.” Her mother laid a restraining hand on her shoulder.
“She’s one of the Elect! The keepers of knowledge. She’s supposed to know everything.”
Another squeeze from her mother. “Thank you for your assistance, Elect. Will you come again tomorrow?”
The Elect shook her head. “I have too many patients, ones that need me. Her, I can do nothing for.”
“Please, Elect.” Tears stood in Hilde’s eyes. “Is there nothing more that can be done?”
The Elect sighed. “If she doesn’t wake by tomorrow afternoon, send me a message. I’ll try to spare Annemarie to assist you in getting some broth down her throat, but by that point, it will probably just be prolonging the inevitable. I’m sorry.” And she left, the Unskilled trailing in her wake.
Dorotea shook with fury, hands balled into fists. “What’s the point in tithing the Elect if they can’t help when we need it?”
“Enough, Dorotea,” her mother said sharply. “You’re not helping.”
More words trembled on Dorotea’s lips, but the strained look on her mother’s face hushed them.
The Elect had always seemed wise and omnipotent before. Their healers and engineers possessed wonderful Tech that could solve any problem. Now they couldn’t help Marta, and their excuses for the blackout sounded weak. “A sandstorm Above disrupted power.” As if there weren’t sandstorms every day.
Dorotea’s chest felt tight with betrayal. The Elect’s powerlessness frightened her. Were there other things she believed to be as solid as rock that were actually as shaky as sand?
“Now listen to me,” her mother said, gazing directly into her eyes. “The healer is very tired, and she doesn’t know everything. Marta will wake. Believe it.”
Dorotea took a deep breath and nodded. “Marta will wake up,” she repeated. Because the other possibility was unthinkable.
They went back inside their quarters and sat with Marta. They talked in gentle voices and washed the blood from her face and hair.
After about half an hour, Martin returned, clomping around in his usual heavy-handed fashion. For a man who seldom spoke, he made a lot of noise.
Dorotea’s temper flared. But before she could make a pointed remark about his absence, Martin dropped to his knees by the pallet. His Artisan hands, callused from drawing gold wire, stroked his daughter’s fine, light brown hair, and his pudgy face worked with emotion. Dorotea closed her mouth, her anger doused. The one thing she and her stepfather agreed on was Marta. They both loved her.
The silent truce lasted until the evening meal of the very same soup Marta had said she hated. Dorotea blinked back tears.
Martin dropped his spoon with a heavy plop and stared accusingly at Dorotea. “What were you doing in the tunnel anyway?”
He’d already asked her the same question three times. “I told you, taking a shortcut.”
He scowled at her. “You shouldn’t have been playing around in there. If you hadn’t been in the bloody tunnel, the rock wouldn’t have fallen on her head.”
Dorotea inhaled, feeling like she’d been kicked in the stomach.
“Martin!” her mother said sharply. “That’s not true! Plenty of people in the regular passageways were also hurt. The earthquake wasn’t Dorotea’s fault.”
“No, but if they hadn’t been in the tunnel, she wouldn’t have had to drag her sister. You can’t tell me that was good for her.”
“We all have things we wish we’d done differently,” her mother said wearily. “I wish I’d gone weeding with them this morning.”
Dorotea ignored her, her gaze locked on Martin’s close-set brown eyes. “So I should have left Marta alone in the dark?”
“Any true Artisan Clan girl wouldn’t have taken the shortcut in the first place!” Martin burst out. “Stone Heart Clan is in disfavor. You should be hiding your Stone Heart tendencies, not sneaking off to play in tunnels like a child.”
He was right. Dorotea guiltily dropped her gaze. Her stomach clenched into a hard knot, making the soup she’d swallowed want to come back up. With a Stone Heart Clan father and an Artisan Clan mother, Dorotea fit in nowhere.
Martin scraped his chair back from the table.
“Where are you going now?” her mother asked. She didn’t rise.
“To pray for our daughter.”
Her mother nodded.
Martin was more devout than either Dorotea or her mother. He’d dragged Hilde and Marta along with him on regular visits to the Cathedral but seldom insisted Dorotea come. The last time Dorotea had gone had been to hear Marta sing in the children’s choir at Thanksgiving.
“Do you believe the Goddess will save Marta?” Dorotea asked, troubled.
Her mother sighed. “I don’t know. The truth is, I lost faith after your father left us.”
Her mother always said it that way, “left us,” as if it had been a voluntary act, when in fact, her father had been brutally murdered.
“Why did you marry him?” Dorotea burst out. “Martin?” It was a question she’d never dared ask before. Her mother was pretty, with shiny brown hair and a trim figure, and she knew how to dress well; Martin was…lumpy.
Her mother sighed. “Because it’s hard to be alone, and he’s a good man in his way. Dependable. And then we had Marta, and we both love her.”
Dorotea risked another question. “Did you love my father?”
“In the beginning, very much. Towards the end…” She shook her head. “Your father could make me angrier than any other person alive. Martin is calmer.” Her hands clenched into fists. “He will never betray me.” She got up before Dorotea could ask any more questions. “Sit with your sister while I clean up.”
Dorotea obeyed, but inside she was reeling. Had her father betrayed her mother? The idea upset her, but she only had a handful of memories of her father. She belatedly realized she didn’t know a thing about her parents’ marriage.
An hour later, Martin returned with a wizened priest in tow. The elderly man was two feet shorter than Martin, and the darker cast to his skin and his epicanthic eye folds gave him a wise look.
Despite her own lack of faith, Dorotea couldn’t help hoping he would be able to wake her sister. But all he did was pray. And pray. And pray some more. Her teeth soon gritted together in resentment at being evicted from her sister’s side by this stranger.
“Goddess of Mercy, shine your compassion on this poor child,” the elderly man intoned, holding one hand over Marta’s chest.
Dorotea couldn’t stand it any longer. “If the Goddess is so merciful, why did She send the earthquake in the first place? It’s Her fault Marta is hurt.” Dying.
The priest directed a sorrowful look at Martin. “As head of the family, it’s your job to keep the faith strong during these trying times.”
“My faith is strong,” Martin said quickly. “Dorotea isn’t my blood. Her father was Stone Heart Clan.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
He might as well have said she had tainted blood. Dorotea’s face tingled with shame—and that made her angry. The gargoyles were the traitors and murderers, not Stone Heart Clan. But since the Stone Hearts had been tasked with controlling the gargoyles, somehow they got tarred with the same brush. It wasn’t fair! Her father had died fighting the gargoyle rebellion!
She struck back. “So if my faith was stronger, the earthquakes would stop?” she demanded. “If I say ten prayers, Marta will wake up? Twenty prayers? Just tell me how many I have to say, and I’ll do it.” An edge of desperation crept into her voice. She’d stay on her knees for a week if it saved Marta.
“I can’t give you a number,” the priest protested. “That’s not how faith works.”
Her fists clenched, and she bared her teeth. “Fine then, I’ll give you some numbers. Five earthquakes already this year, four last year. Why are there more every year? There were only two or three during the first ten years of my life. Why don’t you ask your precious Goddess what She wants from us, because it isn’t prayers!”
Martin growled. “You go too far. Apologize.”
Her mother’s hands settled on her shoulders, as always, playing the peacemaker. “Please excuse my daughter,” she said to the priest. “She’s had a very trying day. She was caught in the tunnel when the blackout occurred and had to pull Marta’s unconscious body out after the earthquake.”
The priest sniffed. “These are trying times for all of us, but to blame me for her own lack of faith is inexcusable.”
Her mother’s voice turned ice-cold. “Yet she raises a valid point. Why are there more earthquakes? Is the Goddess angry?”
“Who can know the mind of a Goddess? The priesthood is doing all we can to soothe Her back into a deep sleep,” the priest said irritably. “She began to rouse because the power failed. If you wish to blame someone, blame the Elect.”
Dorotea blamed the priests and the Elect and the Goddess. Most of all she blamed herself for taking the tunnel that day.
As penance, she insisted on taking a turn sitting vigil by her sister’s side during the long hours of False Night. The Elect healer had claimed Marta might be able to hear them, even if she couldn’t respond. So Dorotea held Marta’s hand and talked to her. Reassured her that she was safe, not lost in the dark of the tunnel with the gargoyles.
And then it happened again. Another blackout.
Dorotea froze, fearing another quake would follow, but all was still around her. Perhaps she was the only one awake in the cavern to even notice that the few lights of False Night had winked out. She waited, hardly daring to breathe, as the minutes stretched out.
In the limitless black, it felt like eternity but was probably more like twenty minutes before the guidelights flickered back to life. Certainly less time had passed than the two hours it had taken the Elect to fix the problem the first time, but Dorotea couldn’t take too much heart. A second blackout so soon after the first was a bad sign.
She licked her lips and resumed her quiet one-sided conversation with Marta. As her mind grew fuzzy with fatigue, Dorotea started to ramble, more thinking aloud than talking to her sister.
“The priest all but admitted they can’t even communicate with the Goddess. But it used to be possible in the old tales,” she murmured. When had the ability been lost?
The Goddess had been sleeping for as long as Dorotea could remember. The Goddess’s body encompassed all of Below, but Her face was visible in Cathedral Cavern. Her stone eyes had always remained closed, even on feast days. To a Goddess, a year was a mere blink of an eye. Guarding Her while She slept was part of the priesthood’s duties. At least so Dorotea had thought. But the priest had spoken as if waking the Goddess was a bad thing instead of a joyous occasion. As if they feared what She might do.
What if the priests weren’t guarding Her sleep, but deliberately keeping Her from waking?
It didn’t make sense. The priests and priestesses taught that the Goddess was merciful and benevolent. She had saved humanity when the terrible sandstorms consumed all life Above. So why was She so angry that She now caused earthquakes even in Her sleep?
If only they could talk to Her…
Dorotea’s head ached. Her thoughts felt thick and slow. This wasn’t getting her anywhere, and she was supposed to be talking to Marta. “How about a story?” Forcing cheer into her voice, she launched into her childhood favorite, the legend of how the Stone Heart Clan saved humanity when the sandstorms destroyed the world Above. Her father’s version was slightly different from the priests, emphasizing his clan’s proud contribution.
“…And the gargoyles asked the Goddess to shelter their friends, the Stone Hearts. And the Goddess took pity on them and opened up Her caverns.”
Dorotea’s jaw dropped, her heart suddenly hammering. The gargoyles asked the Goddess. The gargoyles, being made of Stone, had a special ability to communicate with Her. They could find out why She was angry. They could ask the Goddess to heal Marta.
And that was when Dorotea began to think the unthinkable.