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Anna Burke

Updated: Sep 13


The Singing Worlds—Novel Extract


An hour before first light, Zeth rises, dresses without a lantern, packs his bag, and brews a flask of tea. Then he buckles on his shield and sword and walks out into the snow to prevent the end of his world.

Outside his hut, the island is almost silent. There are no voices from the clusters of huts built against the mountainside and no movement from the paths that twine between them. The chimes and wind harps strung between the buildings emit only a few intermittent notes. Aside from the faint snowfall, only the beacon fires break the stillness. They shudder against the flank of the mountain, marking the trails up to the pastures and the farm terraces in a row of amber dots, bright against the black sky and white snow.

Zeth stands before his doorway, breath thickening into clouds. It’s eerie that Menet Var can be so quiet at a time when it’s hours from maybe-death. But then, if there were storms and panic every time Zeth had to prevent the annihilation of the island and everyone on it—well, there’d be storms and panic twice a month, and that would be exhausting for everybody.

All the same, the stillness is unnerving. So Zeth closes his eyes, exhales, and spreads his awareness out from his body. He beckons his senses to reach beyond the obvious information of it’s cold and the chimes are quiet and the air tastes of frost and smells of woodsmoke. His perception widens, deepens—until he can feel it. The soft hum of the Song, the murmur of the fabric of reality.

He listens. And his senses awaken, bringing him a rush of comforting movement: the motion of every lazy snowflake. The shiver of the beacon fires. And far above him and out of sight, the tramp of boots on earth and the push of bodies against the air, heading up the trail marked by the fires.

That will be the shepherds, heading early to the pastures. Empty as the morning seems, Menet Var is waking up, like always.

And Zeth would really quite like it to keep doing that, so he turns his back on the village and follows the firelit trail down the mountain toward the moor. There’s light on the horizon by the time he reaches the hills, revealing the sky and the slow-moving bulks of islands drifting through it. The snow begins to still, and the clouds that shed it sink down into a fog before falling below the island’s rim. From afar, Menet Var must look like it’s floating on a sea of cloud rather than drifting free in the sky.

Sunrise is close. And Shara told him that they needed to be in position soon after dawn, so Zeth quickens his pace. It’d be nice to arrive early and have time for breakfast before he and Shara prevent the Shattering. Zeth has saved the island on an empty stomach before, and he managed, and he could manage again. But it’s hardly a comfortable experience.

He hurdles an iced-over stream and turns from the heart of the moor, toward the edge of the island. It’s a barren place, the grass blown into rounded clumps, the rocks wind-scrubbed of all but the toughest mosses.

Shara’s sitting on the cliffside, her legs dangling over the edge and her crimson scarf lifted by the wind. Zeth tries to ignore his instinctive stab of terror at her choice of seating, and very much ignores his desire to run over and pull her back. She'd probably punch him.

She raises an arm as Zeth approaches. Zeth finds a rock close to Shara but a good few strides away from the edge, and sits down. ‘I brought tea,’ he says.

‘Thank Eshra,’ Shara says, and holds out her hand. ‘I need something warm. Just for once, I’d like the planet to try to kill us at noon, so we can do this without losing the feeling in our fingers.’

Zeth smiles. ‘I wouldn't hope too hard.’

‘Never do.’

She takes the flask from him with her right hand. The left, Zeth notices, twitches a little but otherwise doesn’t move. He frowns and leans closer. ‘How’s your arm?’

Shara grunts. ‘Sluggish. But don’t worry about fixing it. Save your energy for the Shattering.’

‘I can do both. I need to do both.’ Because there’s always a chance for demons, or worse, raiders. And if Zeth’s attacked while he’s stopping the Shattering, he’ll need Shara to defend him.

She grunts again, but pushes herself back from the cliff and marches over to sit down next to his rock. ‘Fine. Just don’t wear yourself out.’

She pulls back her sleeve and reveals the prosthetic arm: wood engraved with swirling patterns. It’s her own design, because only a mind like Shara’s could have figured out where to put the joints and how to slot the pieces together. She has an instinct for how things fit together, for patterns and calculations and cause-and-effect. But it takes Zeth to make the arm move. He’s a Wind-Singer; manipulating movement is his domain.

He lifts her wrist in both hands and focuses. He reaches out to the constant stir of energy that’s in the motion of the wind and the bowing of the grass, gathers it up, and channels it into Shara’s fingers, her wrist, up the carved muscle. He pulls it into her arm until the wood brims with stored-up kinetic energy, and knits that energy to the rest of Shara’s body.

This won’t make the arm respond to her thoughts. That would probably require some kind of telepathy, which isn’t something Zeth can do. But he can make the energy thrum in wait and respond to her movements. When she moves the flesh-and-blood part of her arm, the part above the elbow, the stored-up magic will sense it and respond, moving the next few joints. And then the energy will respond to that movement and set the next part of the arm in motion, and so on, right down to the fingertips.

It’s not perfect. It doesn’t always move exactly as Shara intends, and it never moves with the same fluidity as her right arm. And while Zeth can get it to work for a day or two, it always becomes slow and stubborn and finally still. Even Zeth can’t create perpetual motion—can’t create motion at all, in fact, only sense it or slow it or speed it. Which is stupid, because if he can stop a falling object or allow a person to run at twice their normal speed, he should be able to do something as important as giving his best friend an arm that works.

He’ll make it work. Someday. For now, the wood heats beneath his touch, and the fingers vibrate softly and curl into a fist.

Shara nods. ‘Thanks.’

‘No problem.’ Zeth reaches for his pack and pulls it open. ‘Breakfast?’

‘Eshra, yes.’

They sit and eat in silence, watching the clouds shift around them as Menet Var floats steadily forward. Other islands pass by, some gliding across the horizon, others dark and distant shapes between the clouds below. Nothing passes over them except for a few small rocks. That’s normal. This world is a cloud of islands, drifting above and around and over each other, layer upon layer, right down to whatever lies at the core. Of all those islands, Menet Var is one of the highest. It’s rare that another island passes above them.

‘So,’ Zeth says, after a few minutes have passed. ‘This is definitely happening?’

For answer, Shara unbuckles the skychart from her belt and unfurls it onto the grass. It’s a thick roll of leather marked with thousands of dots. Some are dust-speck small, some large as a fingernail. Each one represents an island, and between them is a tangle of lines and arrows, marking out the islands’ trajectories through the sky.

So Shara says, anyway. To Zeth, the chart’s a jumble—or an artwork, maybe, since it looks pretty without giving him any solid information. But Zeth isn’t the one with the navigator’s mind that translates the squiggles and dots into patterns. These markings tell Shara where Menet Var has been and where it’s going and what islands it will pass, as it follows the same route around and through the world that it always does.

And sometimes, the map allows Shara to figure out when an island has broken from its usual pattern and is lurching toward Menet Var on a collision course. A Shattering. The kind of thing that a civilisation has to learn to survive, when their god abandons them and leaves their world half-created and slowly crumbling.

At least, that’s the theory. Certainly, everyone who’s old enough to remember says that there were no Shatterings before Eshra left.

‘It’s happening,’ Shara says, and points to one of the dots. ‘This island here should have passed us half an hour ago. Never showed up. Which means it ran into something and got turned to rubble.’ She jabs at the chart again. ‘It would have gone right into the path of the one that's coming at us. See?’

Zeth doesn't see, but if Shara sees it, it's real enough for him. ‘Yeah.’

‘Sure you do.’ Shara lifts her head from the chart, her lips twitching into the closest thing to a grin that she ever gives anyone. ‘Hey—if you feel dumb listening to me explaining all this, remember that very soon I’ll get to sit and feel useless while I watch you stop a giant flying mountain from ramming into us.’

Zeth tries to smile, but he doesn’t think it’s very convincing. He’s stood alone against the fury of this broken planet dozens of times, and he’s never messed it up before. But it's just him between this thing and everyone he loves and everyone always has such total faith that he’ll save them—

‘You’re panicking,’ Shara says.

Zeth manages a smile. ‘I’m okay.’

Shara opens her mouth to respond, then stops. A stillness settles over her. Then she rises, sweeping the skychart into a bundle under her arm and releasing a slow breath—the same hiss-like sound she makes when staring down an arrow at a demon. ‘There you are,’ she growls.

Her eyes are on the blue before them—blue that, in the distance, has given way to one small dark smudge.

The food in Zeth’s mouth loses its last dregs of flavour. It’s early. They were meant to have more time. He was meant to have more time.

He tosses his uneaten chunk of bread aside. ‘How long before it hits us?’

‘It's not hitting us,’ Shara says. ‘But if you weren't here? I'd say sixteen minutes.’

‘Oh.’

Shara looks at him, head tilted, and Zeth bites the inside of his mouth. ‘That’s. Uh. A little faster than I thought it would be.’

‘You’ve stopped faster.’

‘I know. I know.’

Shara puts a hand on his arm for a moment, then steps back. Her role in this is over. As Skymaster, her part in this was to realise the island was coming, get Zeth here at the right time, point him toward the right hunk of rock, and stand by to defend him from any ill-timed attacks. From here, everything is Zeth’s to do.

‘Eshra,’ Shara says, and turns her face toward the sky. ‘God of life’s eternal movement, you created us, and you abandoned us. We live on your half-made world as it crumbles around us, but we survive. Give Zeth the strength to protect us. Though you have forsaken us, let us keep the lives you gave.’ She’s silent for a moment. Then she kicks a pebble over the cliff. ‘Or don’t. Your choice.’

Zeth stands up and steps a little closer to the cliff edge, breathes the snow-cold air deep into his lungs. He closes his eyes and listens.

He spreads his senses out into the Song. He drinks in the awareness it brings to him: the stirring of the air in his own throat, then the air in Shara's, then the air parted a mile away by the running of an animal across the moor. He feels the bending of every grass blade around him. The steady drift of an island passing far below Menet Var, the rapid scudding of a smaller cluster of rocks above them.

He presses his awareness out farther. He feels the stirring of doors and windows and bodies in the village far behind him as his people wake. The billowing of heated air in the forge, the fall of a hammer and the shudder of metal beneath it. The pacing of a herd of kern in the upper pasture, hooves scraping as they paw the ground. The beasts always grow restless as a Shattering looms.

Farther. Out into the endless maelstrom of the sky, a sky that looks so still but which is a seething turmoil of currents and breezes and updrafts and thermals—and Zeth feels it all. When he is this deep in the Song, his senses inform him of movement with the same inevitability that his body informs him of pain. He knows the motion of the islands below and the islands below those, slotting around each other in their endless sliding puzzle. The bowing of trees on those islands’ backs and the running of creatures through those trees and the stirring of the fur on those creatures’ bodies—

—and the movement of human bodies across the surface of an island. Not Menet Var. Another island, smaller, faster. Approaching.

Raiders. Zeth’s breathing stutters and he almost wrenches himself out of the Song, but he presses his teeth together and keeps concentrating. He’s let his senses stretch too far, and too unfocused. He can’t get lost in the Song and he can’t, he mustn’t think about raiders, not with a Shattering impending. So he swallows down the gasp he’d like to make and forces out words. ‘Someone’s out there.’

He feels, rather than sees, Shara nod and pull her bow down from her back. She will keep Zeth safe—she will—so he wrenches his Song-sense away from those moving forms and back out into the sky.

And—there. There it is, the heavy press against his awareness of something huge, solid, moving. The crash and break of the wind against it as it comes nearer and nearer and nearer.

Zeth opens his eyes. The oncoming island is larger now, a dark smear the size of his hand. Time always slips by fast when he's in the Song.

‘Ten minutes,’ Shara says.

The dark mass expands before them, and Zeth wraps it in his awareness as if in imaginary threads. He feels every angle and plane of its rocks. He knows it. He holds it.

The island swells in the sky before them. Closer. Closer.

Now.

Zeth gathers all of that massive, roaring momentum, and hurls the full weight of his will against it. He begs it to stop—and some sliver of his mind flinches from his concentration, reaches out toward where it remembers those maybe-raiders being.

His invisible grip slips. The island glides on.

Zeth deals himself a mental kick and re-gathers his focus. Reaches for every shard of rock and wisp of grass that makes up his mindless enemy, and strains against their collective motion. He can’t afford to be a child afraid of raiders, and even if that’s what he is, it doesn’t matter. His people need him. No. They need their Songmaster.

And a Songmaster isn’t a person, really, isn’t someone with pain or things to fear. A Songmaster is a conduit for energy. Because this is the tenet of Wind-Singing, the truth of reality that Zeth has spent all twenty-two years of his life on Menet Var fighting to understand and learning to bend: all things in motion remain in motion. Unless some other force acts against them.

Zeth is that force, and he commands: no further.

The island drags itself forward—and slows.

And slows, and slows, as Zeth stands at the cliff-edge in its path. He drops any awareness of his own body, narrows his senses until they bring him nothing but the island, and inch by inch he Sings it to a stop. It’s so close that he can make out every individual tree on its surface, but it’s hanging frozen in the sky before them. Well. Not frozen, really, because it's roaring against Zeth's unseeable grip, fighting to move again.

It will not move again.

So as Menet Var slides slowly by its would-be destroyer, Zeth clings to that shuddering mass and holds it still. Still, until his vision is blurring (but that’s okay, because he doesn’t need to see for this) and his whole body is wracked with shakes (but he doesn't need a body either). He holds and holds, and it’s fighting him, and it’s so huge, so full of strength and so desperate to move, and—

‘We're past it. Let go.’

Zeth releases the tethers of his awareness, and his senses snap back to their normal limits like taut ropes cut. He doubles over so that Shara has to pull him back from the cliff, and sinks to his knees. Which was stupid, because now there’s snow soaking into his trouser legs. But oh, Eshra, he’s tired, and the world always feels so sickeningly still when he emerges from the Song.

Something brushes his face. It takes him a moment to realise that Shara’s holding the flask in front of him, releasing steam onto his skin. ‘All right. Before we deal with whoever’s out there, have some tea.’

Zeth grips the flask and drinks until it’s empty. Then he kneels in the snow and watches the island that almost destroyed his home sail silently onward, until it drifts into cloud and is gone.




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