Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
—available February 13—is an illustrated tale set in the Witchlands and told through Ryber’s journal entries and sketches. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Tanzi was summoned today.
It happened like it always does: we were at morning prayer in the observatory, hunched in our seats with eyes closed. I was sitting with the other Serving Sisters, a swathe of brown through the hall of silver Sightwitches. We might be all nationalities, all origins, all ages, but Serving Sisters always sat on one end. Full-fledged Sightwitch Sisters always sat on the other.
Clouds had gathered overnight. A flimsy light filtered through the stained glass in the observatory’s ceiling, casting the amphitheater rows in shadows.
We had just begun the Memory Vow. Head Sister Hilga stood beside the scrying pool at the room’s heart, her hands clasped at her belly and her eyes closed. Our voices bounced on the marble walls, eighty-seven throats sounding like a thousand.
As the final words in the Memory Vow—“Once seen, never forgotten. Once heard, never lost”—crossed our lips, a telltale flap of wings echoed out.
My heart dropped to my toes. As it always does when I hear that sound.
Please be for me, I begged, staring at the stained-glass dome overhead—at the constellation of bright stars. Please be coming for me, Sleeper. I follow all the Rules, I’ve learned all my lessons, and I have served you without complaint for thirteen years. Please, Sirmaya, Summon me.
I wanted to vomit. I wanted to shout. Surely, surely my day had finally come.
Then the spirit swift appeared, swirling out of the scrying pool. A black mist that coalesced into a sharp-tailed, graceful-winged figure, its feathers speckled with starlight. It circled once, with eyes that glowed golden, and a wintery, crisp smell wafted over me.
That smell meant a Summoning.
Pick me, I prayed, the tips of my fingers numb from clutching so tightly at my tunic. Pick me, pick me—
The spirit swift twirled past the telescope ledge above the back row of Sisters before winging down to the Serving Sisters, fourteen of us in brown. I swayed. My heart surged into my throat.
Two hops. It was almost to me, if aiming slightly more toward Tanzi. But there was still a chance it might change course. Still a chance it might twist back over to me . . .
It didn’t. It skipped over to Tanzi’s toes because, of course, the swift could not be here for me.
They are never here for me.
Seventeen years old, and my eyes are still their natural brown. Thirteen years at the Convent, and I’m still consigned to drab cotton.
Somehow, though, I managed to keep my throat from screaming, No! I wanted to shriek—Sirmaya knows I wanted to shriek it and that my eyes burned with tears. It wasn’t Tanzi’s fault, though, that the Goddess had picked her first.
And it wasn’t Tanzi’s fault that our loving Goddess never seemed to want me at all.
If I was going to blame anyone, I should blame Sister Rose and Sister Gwen, Sister Hancine and Sister Lindou. All those years growing up, they filled my head with stories, telling me that I would be a powerful Sightwitch one day. That I would be the next Head Sister with a power to rival even Hilga’s. No, they had never seen such visions with the Sight, but they were sure of it all the same.
Why did I still cling to those old tales when they were so clearly not true? If the Sleeper had truly wanted to give me the strongest Sight, then surely She would have done so by now.
So I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream. Instead, I forced a smile to my lips and gave Tanzi a hug. She looked so worried, I couldn’t not offer my Threadsister something. Her thick eyebrows had drawn into a single black line. Her russet skin was pinched with worry and guilt—an expression I never wanted to see on her face. If smiling would ease it, then smiling I could do.
“One of our ranks has been Summoned,” Sister Hilga intoned. The words she always said, words that were never spoken for me. “Praise be to Sirmaya.”
“Praise be to Sirmaya,” the Sisters murmured back. Except for me. Tanzi still hugged me so tight, so fierce.
“You’re not supposed to hug me,” I whispered. Hilga was already walking toward us, the Summoning bell pulled from her belt.
“Forget the rules for one second,” Tanzi hissed back. “And water my violets while I’m gone. Unless, of course, you get Summoned too.”
“Yes.” I held my smile as stiff as the stars in the stained glass. “Unless I get Summoned too.”
Empty words made of dust. We both knew it would never happen. Summonings are rare enough; two Sisters Summoned at once is practically unheard of. And with each day that passes, the less I think I will ever get called inside the mountain to earn the gift of Sight.
Then that was it. That was all Tanzi and I got for a good-bye before my Threadsister was tugged onward and the rest of us were assembling into rows. And finally me, last and alone, for our number does not break evenly.
Hilga rang the bell once, and its bright tinkle filled the observatory. Filled my ears, then hooked deep into my heart and yanked down. I hated the sound of that bell even more than the deeper bell that followed. The one in the belfry above the Crypts Chapel.
At the main bell’s single toll, we walked.
Little Trina, who is at least two hands shorter than I, glanced back at me. Pity clouded her blue eyes. Or maybe it wasn’t pity but rather a fear that she’d one day end up like me: seventeen and still pall-eyed. Seventeen and still dressed in brown.
Seventeen and still un-Summoned by our sleeping Goddess, Sirmaya.
I pretended not to see Trina staring, and when we began the Chant of Sending, I hummed the hollow tones louder than I ever hummed before. I wanted Tanzi to hear me, all the way at the front
of the line as we wound out of the observatory and up the trail into the evergreens.
Two of the Serving Sisters had cleared this path last week, but already white rubble clotted the pine-needle path. It sheds from the mountain each time she shakes herself.
I will have to clean it again tomorrow—just you wait. Hilga will come to me in the morning with that chore.
Except this time, there will be no Tanzi to help.
When at last we reached the chapel pressed against the mountain’s white face, the chant came to an end. Always the same rhythm, always the same timing.
We all stopped there, at the entrance into the Crypts, the Convent’s vast underground library. The chant was over, but its memory still hung in the air around us as we fanned into half circles around the arched entrance.
The spirit swift that had Summoned Tanzi swooped over us now, briefly multiplying into three aetherial birds. Then six. Then shrinking back into one before sailing through the open door.
When it had disappeared from sight, Hilga nodded at Tanzi. “From this day on, Tanzi Lamanaya will be no more. She will leave us as a Serving Sister and return with the Gift of Clear Eyes.”
“Praise be to the Sleeper,” we all murmured back—even me, though it made my stomach hurt to say it.
Tanzi smiled then. A brilliant, giddy one with no sign of her earlier fret.
And who could blame her? Even she, who waxed day in and day out about wanting to leave the Convent—even she wanted the Sight as badly as the rest of us.
And now she would get it. She’d been Summoned by the Sleeper, the most important moment in the life of a Sightwitch Sister. The only moment, really, that matters.
I tried to mimic her grin. Tried to show Tanzi that I was happy for her—because I was. A person can grieve for herself yet still revel in someone else’s good fortune.
Our eyes barely had time to connect before Hilga gripped Tanzi’s shoulder and turned her firmly away.
They walked, Tanzi and Hilga, step by measured step into the chapel. Into the mountain. Soon enough, they were lost to the shadows.
The next time I would see Tanzi, her eyes would no longer match mine.
The other Sisters turned away then and marched back to the observatory in their perfect lines.
I lingered behind, my gaze trapped on the words etched into the marble above the chapel entrance.
TWO OR MORE AT ALL TIMES,
FOR A LONE SISTER IS LOST.
We call it the Order of Two, and no matter your heritage, the letters shift and melt into whatever language you find easiest to read.
For me, that is Cartorran. My aunt took me from Illrya before I was old enough to learn its written language.
I cannot help but wonder, every time I see these letters, What do those words look like for someone who cannot read?
I shook my head. A useless question, and one that left me running to catch back up to the group.
The rest of my day unfolded in silence.
Tanzi’s half of the bed is cold now, as I write this. Only without her here do I realize adapted to her presence I am. Her sideways snorts when she thinks something’s funny. The constant cracking of her knuckles while she talks. Or even how she breathes heavy in her sleep, not quite a snore, but a sound I’m so accustomed to.
I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to wake up alone. And I don’t want to wake up wondering, yet again, why, why, why I am still without the Sight.
Copyright © 2018 by Susan Dennard
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