Flight Sneak Peek
The chilly fingers of winter crept into Isadora Spence’s carriage through gaps in the door. She frowned at the wide cracks and pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders.
Winter was so intrusive.
The carriage wheels creaked with every jolt, both seemingly threatening to collapse and announcing their exact location. Could the traveling box be any louder? Or older? Maximillion likely chose it on purpose—just to make her more uncomfortable. Any minute now and the faded cushions beneath her would break their last string and split in half.
Still, it was safer than being out there.
A thick band of darkness stretched across the horizon, no doubt teeming with Defenders waiting to attack. The Defenders’ steep hatred of Watchers seemed mandatory. As if they knew this was her first raid, her first attempt to save an innocent Watcher from their famed interrogations, as a member of Maximillion’s rogue force that protected Watchers—the Advocacy.
Unable to bear the darkness anymore, she glanced at her hands. Enough gauzy moonlight slanted through the windows to highlight thick, ropy veins under her translucent skin. Her back curved into a hump. In the reflection of the window, an old woman stared back through different-colored eyes. No matter what kind of transformative magic she attempted, her eyes remained distinctively off. Like Maximillion’s—only his were far subtler. Indistinguishable, really. Much like his emotions. Only now, her eyes were rheumy, red-rimmed.
A girl in her early teens sat across from her. Bright, wide eyes peered out of a heart-shaped face. Unassuming. Naive, even, with her perky nose and bowtie lips. No one would imagine she was a powerful witch beneath layers of meticulous transformation spells. The girl caught her eye and winked. Lucey, Isadora’s mentor, hid beneath the disguise.
Next to Lucey trembled a young man—a boy, really—with olive skin and pools of umber for eyes. Alessio. His fingertips tapped an uneven rhythm on his bouncing knee. Isadora swallowed her questions for Alessio. How did it feel when you transitioned? Is anyone else in your family a Watcher? The strange Watcher magic operated on unknown rules. Not even Maximillion’s intensive study had formed conclusions on how one became a Watcher, or where the magic originated.
Was Alessio silently saying goodbye to the Eastern Network and the only home he’d ever known? Lucey had said he was a musician once destined to work with the Eastern Network High Priest in Magnolia Castle—and that he was now headhunted by his own witches. The Defenders in the East were ruthless. Not a week ago, they’d captured a new Watcher, violently interrogated her in front of her family, then burned their house, and abducted her. Before Lucey could get to the seventeen-year-old girl, the Defenders had whisked her into Carcere, an ill-reputed prison from which there was no escape.
Isadora turned the thoughts away.
Your focus on the mission must be meticulous, Maximillion had said with a hint of irritation in his voice. Never waver. They won’t.
She studied the unchanging landscape again.
Rolling hills, separated by stone hedges and copses of trees, passed by. Humidity lay thick in the air. Two days farther east and they would have seen the ocean. Isadora tried to picture the expanse of water in her head until an unusual flash in the distance caught her eye.
For Isadora to ask about the strange light while maintaining their deception, she would need to use Ilese, the Eastern Network language. While the last six months of dedicated study since she joined the Advocacy made her speech passable, it was a halting mess. Her tongue wasn’t used to the language’s gentle nuance and soft edge, so she hesitated. Was it worth breaking the silence?
Lucey’s young face furrowed. Her brow creased. Isadora lifted an eyebrow in silent question, but Lucey shook her head and leaned back again.
Not yet, she mouthed.
Magic hummed bright in Isadora’s chest. She let it hum through her body. The momentary reprieve of energy granted her a bit of courage. Lucey gave no indication she noticed. Eventually, Isadora calmed.
Alessio’s tense shoulders remained taut. Isadora tucked the magic away again. It flared, as if impatient, then settled. Minutes passed. Alessio closed his eyes while he muttered under his breath, hands clenched.
Embrace the uncertainty of whether you’ll live or die, Maximillion had said. You’ll pay more attention.
Isadora kept her mind focused on the biggest question of all—what was the purpose of any of this? Why did magic have to be so beautiful and so dangerous?
“We’re almost there,” Lucey murmured in Ilese. “Just an hour to the Central Network border.”
A chill swept through Isadora. Her eyes darted back to the darkness. She fought off a shudder. Lucey shifted ever-so-slightly to the left to peer out the window.
What could have been a simple extraction—requiring only Lucey’s help—was complicated by Alessio’s young age. At eleven, he was one of the youngest Watchers Maximillion had ever heard of. He hadn’t learned to safely transport before he transitioned into his powers—and certainly not to an unknown location. He would have to be smuggled into the safety of the Central Network.
The bitter stench of rotten eggs wafted into the carriage. A metallic taste filled her mouth.
Lucey’s eyes brightened, gleaming in the still night.
“Palude Marsh,” she whispered in delight, still using Ilese for Alessio’s sake. “Wonderful.”
Prepare yourself. Defenders will be waiting in the marsh, Maximillion’s voice said, an echo of his instructions early that morning. If all goes according to plan, you won’t even have to see them. Avoid the bog if you can help it.
“Never fear.” Lucey grinned, a twinkle in her eye. “Letum Wood awaits.”
At that, Isadora’s tension faded slightly. If nothing else, she could look forward to the protection of her forest home. A wispy blue bird with yellow-tipped wings fluttered into the carriage. It alighted on Lucey’s shoulder and leaned toward her ear. No sound came from its beak—no one else could hear the message it carried. An update from Maximillion, no doubt. The bird dissipated into smoke.
Lucey squeezed Alessio’s arm with a reassuring smile that seemed to ease him, no doubt in part because of her transformed, youthful face. The putrid scent intensified—the driver had taken the carriage on a road alongside the marsh. Isadora nearly gagged.
“All is so quiet,” Lucey said.
The words Isadora had been waiting for. She closed her eyes and slid into the waiting magic.
At first, darkness encased her vision.
Then Letum Wood blossomed before her, filled with thick vines and a canopy that soared so far overhead she couldn’t see where it ended. No sound stirred in the twelve sprawling trees that formed a circle around her, as wide as several houses put together, so tall their closest branches were barely visible in the high canopy. Light seemed to infuse their trunks, their leaves, the ground where their roots stood taller than she did. Flowers bobbed in lazy coils along the trunks, draped with vines and ivy. Not a breath stirred here.
Twelve trails appeared in front of her.
“Twelve,” she murmured. When in the magic, possibilities for the future of whomever she was with showed themselves through paths. The paths populated on their own, shifting, betraying possibilities of the future. Only her twin sister Sanna’s paths and her own were always present. Exploring the paths posed a legitimate danger—Defenders could sense Watcher magic at work. In nearly all cases, Watchers helping the Advocacy refrained from using their magic on a raid. Tonight, however, was different.
Isadora was different.
The Defenders already knew Watchers were there because Lucey had carefully sculpted their plan. She wanted the Defenders to ambush them.
They won’t expect it, she had said. And we always have to take them by surprise. Otherwise, they’ll guess our next move. Their magic is the opposite of yours. You see future possibilities; they see the past. Their advantage is seeing what you’ve already chosen, or not chosen. Cecelia trains them to analyze our decisions to learn our weaknesses.
Isadora turned her mind and focused on the forest. The twelve paths formed a complicated map of ethereal wisps, some of them as vague as smoke, some so articulated she felt the witch stood in front of her in the flesh. Only six of the faces were familiar to her. Lucey, Alessio, Sanna, herself, and the two drivers. That meant six Defenders awaited them.
“Show only my path,” she commanded the magic. Her clear voice rang through the forest.
The others faded away. Her paths spread over the area. Almost immediately, the main trail broke into two sections; each moved opposite directions. She frowned. That had never happened before. The possibilities had always split away from the main path, which remained mostly solid.
Perhaps danger also toyed with fate.
Isadora brushed past it—there was no time to study or guess. On either side, her paths branched out five different ways. Each segmented out, spreading through the forest with wisps of light that meant . . . something. Isadora hesitated. If only the future were more concrete.
All the immediate paths showed her in the marsh, or in Letum Wood, except one strange one showing her on a dragon. The trail was faint—which meant it wasn’t a strong likelihood. Isadora shook her head, forcing herself to focus. If not careful, she’d get lost in the paths again, which happened every time she tried to make sense of her future.
With a heavy sigh, she stepped back to the top of the trail. Already, the possibilities had shifted. Trails had moved. Some disappeared. New ones sprang up.
The temptation to stay nearly overwhelmed her. Following the paths to see endless possibilities was always interesting—the future led to amazing, wild places. Like a toddler with a paintbrush and blank canvas. Time was easily lost here. Not to mention her powers were . . . different.
She closed her connection to the magic.
Lucey and Alessio waited. A glint of something—impatience—reflected in Lucey’s eyes for a moment. Isadora’s breath hitched. Egads, but time passed differently in the paths. She’d likely been there too long. Her cheeks burned.
“Sorry. Six Defenders,” she whispered, avoiding Ilese to spare Alessio the anxiety. “I recognize none of them. From what I could tell, they were all waiting in the trees.”
“Near the marsh?”
Isadora shook her head. “Not that I could tell.”
Lucey’s brow furrowed. No doubt the Defenders had a single scout who would summon them to the ambush the moment success seemed certain. “Only six,” Lucey murmured. “So few? A bit insulting, if you ask me. They sent fifteen last time, and I still managed to avoid them.”
“Cecelia isn’t amongst them.”
“She never is.”
If Cecelia, leader of the murderous Defender force and Ambassador to the Eastern Network, wasn’t here, why did Lucey frown? She peered outside again. “No matter,” Lucey murmured. “More may transport in as soon as we get going.” Lucey looked at Alessio and asked both him and Isadora in Ilese. “Do you remember the plan?”
Isadora nodded. Alessio gulped, nostrils flared, and nodded.
“Then I shall go break our axle and proceed. Good luck,” she whispered.
She disappeared into a transportation spell.
Alessio straightened, eyes wide, as he studied Isadora for what seemed like the first time. He looked so much like a little boy right then. Frightened, vulnerable. His own Network would interrogate and kill him for something he had no control over—being born with powers that gave him a glimpse of future possibilities. She ignored his uncertainty and put a hand on his arm.
“I’m going to take good care of you, Alessio.” Despite the terror of knowing what awaited them, certainty filled her tone. “Let’s get ready.”