Please welcome Sarah Daltry, today’s guest during our crazy Fellowship of Fantasy Writer’s Blog Tour.
Dust is the story of a young girl, Alondra, in another world. It’s a world that normally would be draped in magic – the kind of world traditional in fantasy. There are castles and kingdoms and all those fun fairy tale elements, but it’s also a world with futuristic features, such as teleportation and giant glass towers that reach into the sky. Picture something out of the Final Fantasy series, with less steampunk.
There used to be magic in Alondra’s world, but well before she was born, all of the kingdoms were part of war. It was a war that happened because human beings grew too powerful. They wanted more and they wanted it for themselves. No longer was man satisfied to have the power of the gods and use it for the greater good; now he wanted to be a god. Because of the fear of magic and the damage it wrought, it has been suppressed and Alondra only knows it as a hobby.
When a new villain appears, though, and the world so desperate for peace and security is shattered anew, Alondra sets out on a journey through the past. She soon discovers that the secrets people keep in order to preserve a facade of safety run deep.
I see this as a fantasy novel woven through with philosophy and moral questions, as well as a sprinkle of romance. Although there is a love story, it is not about romance, but about coming of age, about learning who you are and understanding your role in the world, and about independence and choice (as well as the associated consequences).
PART ONE (Dust)
Overhead, the sky is sparkling. The hills crest right below the moon and the tableau, in other circumstances, would be breathtaking. However, as I wade through corpses, I’m not focused on scenery. My quiver is by my side and I’m plucking arrows from the dead. This is not a time for waste.
I was once the type of person who was impressed by starlight; the type of person who would dance beneath glass ceilings and let the world swim in its loveliness. The sky reminds me of the parties we used to throw – parties like the one last night (or another party, not that long ago, but one that belongs in another lifetime.) The memories bring back the trill of harps and endless ripples of satisfied laughter. Now, though, when I try to recall what I felt, all I hear is screaming.
The troops are gathered, ready for my command. It is senseless. I have no military experience; no concept of how to lead. They come with their bows, and swords, and guns and they look to me for direction. My father’s last words before we watched our city fall were to assign me as his envoy. Because it is their duty to obey, the soldiers heeded his decision, even though it was clear they did not agree with it. They followed blindly, and now I stand holding the remnants of a man’s life in my quiver, having never spilled blood myself.
Over the hills, we’re not sure what awaits us but it is likely no different than the field of gore through which we trek. I look to the sky again and feel I can hear the moon laughing. Red stains the entire landscape. Where there were trees now stand charred remains and plumes of smoke. Bones are scattered across the earth, buzzards circle, and the smell of rot and death invades my senses. I want to wash myself, but even a long, hot bath could not erase the ruin that clings to me.
Behind us is only suffering. The kingdom has been shattered. Anara stands on the precipice.
Demoria, we were told, was the first city to fall, although the Demorians were fortunate in that the majority of them were stationed in camps around the other kingdoms. Syllab was ashes before the news even reached us in Kooram. While we danced and thrilled ourselves with frivolity, the world’s teleportation centers were demolished, cities were razed, and death marched on us like a silent sentinel.
The air is full of the stench of carnage. I continue to gather arrows as we move, but the bodies at last are thinning. The remnants of war are visible in the atmosphere and the once fertile prairie is now an arid stretch of debris. Sanguine rivers intercept our path.
“Alondra, we must continue to move. Their troops are amassing and it will not be long before they reach us. We must make camp before daybreak and I worry that we are running out of time.”
Ereditus is right; if the sun comes up and illuminates our position, the war will be over. Although the objective is to end the war, it is not to end it with my death. As our military leader and strategist (despite the fact he has never seen anything resembling war before) Ereditus is the only person who knows what the next steps should be.
I nod and continue the path through the remains of my kinsmen and my people. The sun is coming and we must get to the caves. I feel a hand on mine and turn to see Seamus. His sword is dripping crimson. Ragged marks lace his arms and hands. His eyes are dark and his sorrow is palpable.
“Only a bit further,” he says, trying to comfort me.
We have hours to go, but if we can make it to the caves, we can regroup, tally our losses, and strategize. “I, for one, am ready for a nap.”
“It is uncanny that you can joke right now,” I tell him, but he still coaxes a small smile. There is a strange security in the casualness of his comment, and his hand feels warm. I squeeze it, happy to have the familiarity of his touch.
“I aim to please.” His returned smile morphs into a grimace, thanks to the slash that runs across his cheek. It’s funny to think that only a few months ago, I was preparing myself for a date with Seamus, having my hair braided and my eyes lined with shadow, angry about something as petty as betrothal. What is marriage now that the world is dying?
As we walk towards dawn, I clench his hand tighter and try not to think on how we got here.
“You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself.”
Around the flaming tree in the middle of the courtyard (the tree behind which I have been hiding for the greater part of an hour) the voice snakes itself through the flame. A body soon follows it, but in the flickering heat it is a mere silhouette.
“I’m choosing to take a break,” I say in my defense.
“I see. I was unaware that those who lived within the castle walls had such a thing as a choice,” he says. There is laughter in the voice, but it’s taunting. It is also accurate, and that bothers me most of all.
“Are you here to mock me?”
As he steps closer, his eyes come into focus first. He appears as a mirage, a man wrapped in fire. However, through the darkness, blue swirls glow and draw my attention. He is young, not much older than I am, and he is not shy as he reaches for my hand and brings me closer to his body. Although my parents have sent me on a number of courting visits to other kingdoms – and many princes and nobles, both young and old, have held my hand in the same way – my body responds to his touch and I allow it.
“I only speak what I see, what I know,” he argues. “I know that you are hiding behind this tree for a reason.”
Inside my mind, my mother’s voice and the day’s earlier lecture echo.
‘Alondra, I expect obedience tonight. There are many coming to join us for this party and I have a surprise for you. This is not a night for your antics and I will be watching. Do not make me assign you a guard again.’
I think the threat was the inciting factor. The moment I was able to slip away, I did, and I have been in the courtyard avoiding the “surprise” since. Holding the hand of this young man with sapphire eyes, it comes to mind to give my mother a surprise of her own.
“Curfew is not for a few more hours,” I whisper. “The majority of Kooram dances in the great hall: The entire village could be explored in quiet.”
The stranger picks up on the suggestion immediately. His smile is dangerous, full of knowing and mystery. I return it, because it is danger that I yearn for in the darkest hours of the night. Squeezing his hand tighter, I turn toward the gates, to lead him into the village proper.
As we cross the castle threshold, he grabs me and spins me around to face him. As my body is drawn flush with his, he leans down to press his lips to mine. It is not my first kiss but it is a kiss that demands more to follow. When we part, I know that I will be learning all sorts of secrets tonight.
A scream distorts the sound of marching footfalls on the bleeding earth. I don’t know when Seamus dropped my hand, as I have kept my eyes trained forward; focused on the caves and what we will find. I do not want to see what the army does to make my passage safer.
However, I cannot avoid turning this time. There is something about the scream that is ceaseless. I wish I hadn’t; Seamus removes his sword from the stomach of a boy whom I guess is little more than twelve-years-old. The boy’s entrails slither along the blade and out of his wound. The woman standing behind them is the one who is screaming, but she does not move.
“Make it stop,” I ask no one in particular. “Please, make it stop.”
It is not the first death I have seen and I am certain it will not be the last. I want to feel compassion or empathy, but the blaster in the dead boy’s hand tells me that Seamus’ blade is the reason I am not dust.
At my side, Theomore flinches at the pitch of her screams, but he readies his aim and the bullet enters the woman’s windpipe, bringing a sudden and eerie silence. Her body joins the boy’s in the dirt. Their blood, mingled in the pools forming below them, glides in an unhurried stream to my boot tip. I wonder about the stories that used to run through that blood. I didn’t recognize either of them. Were they Kooramen who hated us for the luxury of our lives? Did they come with the army from another land? Were they simply people who misunderstood the targets of their violence? The answers are forgotten in the scarlet slicks.
“And we continue,” Ereditus says, taking the boy’s blaster. The woman was weaponless.
This time, Seamus does not jest. He does not take my hand. He joins me in walking toward the caves, but I can see that the dead boy burdens him. I do not have the words to console him. The wretch had been aiming for me and that fact truly resonates for the first time. I am eighteen and I have lived a life of silliness, yet, according to my father as we fought in vain to save our city, I am now the greatest threat Anara faces as death reigns – and I don’t know why.