The Ascenders comes out today! The first chapter is below. Enjoy!
The infernal pig shot out of Chase’s hands, scrabbling further into the woods and away from the colony.
Damn it all, but that sow was slippery.
Chase, having fallen onto the muddiest portion of the trail when the swine eluded his grasp (again!), picked his stout frame off the ground and sprinted in pursuit.
“Mila!” he shouted. “You blasted ball of bacon, come back here!”
That was two hours of chasing this pig now; if he didn’t catch it soon, he’d miss the council meeting. Matthew would love that.
“Mila!” Chase called again, his ropy blond hair swinging in front of his eyes as he ran. “So help me, I will pluck your whiskers one by one if you don’t—”
He turned a corner on the trail and almost ran into a kneeling red man: Nootau.
“Yours?” the chiseled Croatan asked, his hands pinning the pig by the neck.
“Aye,” Chase panted. “She dug beneath the fence this morning … I’ve had a devil of a time catching her … Thank you.”
Nootau’s lips twitched, perhaps threatening to form a smile. “That rope for her?”
Chase removed the cord he’d wound around his shoulder. “It is, although I’ve half a mind to eat her now and be done with it.”
Nootau shrugged, accepted the rope, and expertly trussed the pig under its legs and round the neck, leaving just enough length for a leash.
“Flint?” a small voice asked to Chase’s left.
With a start, he realized Nootau was flanked by his son, Mukki.
“Flint?” the boy asked again, miming a striking action.
Chase chuckled. “You think I should roast the pig too?”
Mukki shook his head and gestured at his father.
“Ah—a demonstration.” Chase could feel grains of sand trickling down his mental hourglass. But Nootau had caught Mila, saving him Lord knew how much time. “All right.” He withdrew his flint and steel and made a show of holding the flint high. “At an angle, you see?” In a sharp motion, he struck the steel and was rewarded with a sizable spark.
“Fire man,” Mukki said, grinning hugely. “Every time, he makes fire.”
Chase suppressed a grin of his own—the boy’s Anglo grew better by the day. “One of my few talents; I’m told I’ve a knack for it.”
Nootau raised his eyebrows. “Every time?”
“If you hit it right. Here.” He offered the flint and steel in one hand and held out the other for Mila’s leash. “It’s the least I can do.”
Nootau considered the fire-striking tools for a moment, but made no move to take them.
“Please,” Chase said, stretching his fingers invitingly. “I’ve more in my cabin, and you’ve done me a tremendous favor.”
Mukki nudged his father eagerly, which seemed to tip the balance—with a shrug, Nootau exchanged Mila’s leash for the flint and steel. “Every time?”
“Every time.” Chase gripped the rope and turned back toward New Kent. “Thank you again, but I really must be going. I’ll see you on trading day.”
The red man nodded, clicking the flint and steel together experimentally. “See you.”
“See you,” Mukki echoed excitedly.
Chase waved and began trotting back the way he’d come. “Quick now, pig—I’ve other swine to wrangle.”
* * *
Matthew’s plump lips curled upward in that familiar smirk. “Are we in agreement, then?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
Most of the other council members murmured their “Ayes” with mixtures of relief and excitement, but Chase grunted angrily and stood to leave.
“Is that an abstention, Brother Chase?” Matthew wasn’t even trying to hide his pleasure now.
“It’s whatever you damn well want it to be.” Chase meant to slam the door on his way out, but he’d forgotten that its wood had swelled with the humidity brought by the year’s first rains. So instead of a bang, he got a scrape as the dirt entranceway checked the door’s momentum and robbed him of his parting shot.
Doubly furious now, Chase stalked toward his cabin, the modest house he’d built with his brother after their wives died crossing the ocean last spring, leaving James alone and Chase a single parent.
“But we built a new home together, Lord,” he grumbled, flashing a baleful look up at the sky. “Because we believed in the spirit of Jesuan cooperation New Kent was supposed to embody—a harmony that should extend even to heathens in the wilderness.”
Yes, the Croatons’ moccasins chafed less than Anglo boots, and the Sectans’ cotton was softer than Anglo wool, but petty comforts weren’t why he wanted to continue dealing with Nootau and his brethren—despite what his fellow co-founders kept insinuating. The point of New Kent was to build a community, a New World that succored the unenlightened instead of consigning them to damnation.
But Matthew and his cronies had already lost sight of that.
“Bloody imbeciles,” Chase said under his breath. “Bloody, dung-gobbling imbeciles.”
It wasn’t a far walk—the colony remained embarrassingly small—but it was long enough that Chase was able to step off some energy. For once, the fact that the unpaved roads were dangerously muddy didn’t bother him. Slogging through them, around the humble church and past the half-full granary, was cathartic just now. He’d have to remember this the next time the council decided on a similarly stupid course of action.
“You get your pig?” Kyle Bieberman called out when Chase tromped past him.
“Aye,” he said, civilly as he could manage. “She’s back in her pen; filled the hole in with stones.”
It was small comfort, though. Chase was still far from calm when he reached his front door, sweat streaming down his brow as he stopped with his hand on the knob. The question Matthew had carried the meeting with—Did not the Lord Jesua intend us to build this shining city with our own hands?—kept reverberating in Chase’s mind, challenging him to refight the argument he’d already lost.
Because where would they be without the reds’ help?
“Dead, that’s where,” Chase whispered at the sky. “Or close to it.”
The tribes knew the land, and they’d given aid gladly: advice about what to plant where; miracle cures for ailments that didn’t exist in the Old World; fair bargains for food and goods. There had been tensions—aye, and a few unfortunate incidents—but the good outweighed the bad. And practicalities aside, if the settlers maintained the relationship, the reds could be saved, converted to the true religion and turned away from their pagan frivolity. They would help New Kent live in this world; New Kent would help them reach the next.
It was the only way the city could truly shine.
Suppressing the urge to spit in frustration, Chase wrenched the door open harder than he’d intended and—
Stared in shock at his brother, who was coupling with a red girl.
They were rutting on the dirt floor, the lone bed apparently too small for their impure union. The girl’s eyes were squeezed shut with pleasure, but James looked at him in guilty surprise, his plump white hands frozen on her smooth red hips.
This was not the type of cooperation Chase had in mind.
“Chase …” James began uncertainly before stopping.
“In front of Kip?” Chase asked, pointing to his son, who snored loudly in the makeshift crib he’d nearly outgrown.
The red girl opened her eyes, finally aware that something was amiss. On seeing Chase, she mumbled a few mildly embarrassed words, slithered off his brother, and reached for a blanket to hide her nudity.
But the lack of any real shame in her expression, and the way his brother tried to shrug off his sin—literally, with a shallow roll of his bare shoulders—just burned Chase. There was no other way to describe the sensation: it just burned, sparking a firestorm of rage that made his earlier anger feel like a friendly smile. Feeling himself overheating with emotion, he tried to turn and leave, to walk away from his temper as his father had always counseled. His fury held him rooted to the spot, however, coursing through him, enflaming his blood, searing his mind with agonizing intensity.
And then everything was burning.
The roof, the walls—even the dirt floor had erupted with flame.
It took several moments for Chase to comprehend what had happened. His first coherent thought was that he’d been transported to Hell to suffer indignities even worse than watching his brother abase himself with a girl he hadn’t wed. But then it registered that the two sinners were gone. Burned to cinders by the first flash of impossible fire.
As was Kip.
Three steps forward confirmed it: his son was soot. His son—Jessica’s baby boy, the child she’d died to bear and the last legacy of her gentle grace—had been reduced to black dust and a bubbling stain.
Chase stumbled backward and fell into the street.
The stench of burning flesh slammed into him as he hit the ground. Breathless, he crawled to the nearest house and used the knob of its front door to pull himself to a stand. From this far away, the heat was tolerable.
But the recrimination wasn’t: it rained down on him like the ash in the air.
That rush of anger. The fire in his blood.
He’d caused this conflagration.
Chase knew the crime was his as soon as the notion formed in his head. His brother had sinned, to be sure. But so had he, and far worse. He’d murdered his flesh and blood with magick—with the Devil’s hellfire.
Chase’s mind went blank.
Peeling his gaze away from the inferno, he started walking, past an overmatched bucket brigade and through the sparse crowd, both of which had gathered without him noticing. Several people offered words of sympathy, and Mila squealed from her pen, but no one stopped him as he staggered out of town.
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