by Jamie Rusovick
FROSTBLOOD+LABRYINTHLOST Mother Nature made fire-wielding Azara to end the world. Instead she falls for a Brujo on her hit list #YA #Pitprom
Seventeen-year-old Azara wields fire like it’s an extension of her body. Fitting, as her insides are fashioned of coal. For years, she’s prepared to become head Matriarch of the elemental Acalica, and finally rid Earth of humankind: a greedy, worthless bunch that abuse their world and each other. Or so she’s been told... She’s never left the lair or met a human, and until she’s fit to end the world, Mother Nature won’t grant her freedom. Azara’s power makes her unpopular with her sisters, and it’s no secret any one of them would kill to take her place. Determined to keep her birthright, Azara sneaks out of the lair to spy on the world she must soon destroy.
When she stumbles into a graveyard and disturbs a mourning boy, Salvatore, the unbidden kindness he shows her causes Azara to wonder if her view of the world is a lie. Upon finding them together, Azara’s deadliest sister attacks and forces Sal to use Brujeria— a type of witchcraft— to defend himself. Turns out humans aren’t as helpless as Mother led Azara to believe. Seeking safety and freedom, Azara and Sal flee their homeland. But Mother won’t let Azara go so easily, and she unleashes every power in her arsenal to bring her daughter home.
If Azara obeys Mother, she’ll have to end all humans, their magic— and Sal. But following her heart means she’ll not only have to betray her family, she’ll also spend the rest of her life fighting to survive Mother Nature’s wrath.
THE BURN KINGDOM, a standalone with series potential, is a 74,000 word young adult fantasy based off the Mexican myth of the weather-controlling Acalica. (I have heritage from Guadalajara Mexico and still get nightmares from the monster stories my Abuela told me growing up.) It would appeal to fans of the Elemental magic in Elly Blake’s Frostblood and the Mexican folklore behind Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost. My short non-fiction piece was published in The Faithful Creative’s inaugural issue, my short story Withheld was published in the April 2017 edition of Pilcrow and Dagger and was also turned into a podcast, and I’ve just been selected to write for a twisted fairytale anthology for Fiction Vortex.
First Ten Pages:
A HEART OF COAL
Azara hated the dark. She stepped into the cave, even as her fingers grew numb with dread, and let herself sigh. Her breath fluttered like a moth in her chest. Disquieted. Unsure. The heavy scent of rain and iron raked at her nerves, but she forced herself to walk farther into the shadows anyway. She listened for a sign of movement, or a drip of water. Only her muffled footfalls on the packed dirt met her ears. Azara took step after step. Trust was always part of these tests. Follow me into the darkness and I will make you a master of it, Mother had said the first time. As if a girl with fire burning in her veins could ever fully embrace the dark. Even now her flesh held a faint red glow beneath her olive complexion.
Something scuffled from deeper in the cave. A skitter to her left, and Azara froze. The chambers of her coal-heart clinked faster, as she swallowed the anxiety clawing its way up her throat. It’s just another test. One more trial, and if she got this right, Mother would set her free.
Flames below, the only thing Azara wanted in life was to see the outside world. To see it and touch it and feel it, at least once, before she had to destroy it.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim, Azara’s panic abated. Ahead of her, Mother Nature stood, arms folded across her chest, her color-changing eyes already a most annoyed yellow. Or perhaps it was trepidation staring back at Azara? Even her mother could not hide in the shadows completely. Along with her glowing eyes, Mother’s glittering, energy-filled skin cast a blue glow around her person, much like the haze that surrounds a flame. She raised her arms— the fabric of her sleeves skimmed the dusty cave floor— and the energy coursing through her body channeled into the ground. It shot out from her like a crooked spider’s web, snaked up the walls and into the rusted sconces, each held in place with a spike. Azara rubbed the back of her head, touched the thin band of scarring hiding under her raven hair, and tried not to dwell on the last time she disappointed Mother in this room.
With a clap of Mother’s hands, the sconces burst to life, and revealed Grimmer— Azara’s mentor— lounging against the sloped cave wall. He nodded to her but said nothing. Hope swelled behind Azara’s ribcage. They had practiced so, so long. She could do this for him. Make him proud of her, this once.
“I haven’t got all day, darling,” Mother drawled. Her voice held all the power of a hurricane, even as it came with the subtlety of venom. It set Azara’s teeth on edge.
Right. Her test, which she was expected to fail. Well, Azara would show her something.
Settled into her stance— feet a foot apart, shoulders back, chin high— Azara took a deep breath and raised her hands. The musty air sizzled against her coal lungs, and the resulting smoke filled her nose. One breath, two. The scent of ash and earth, the smell of home, calmed the last of her jittery nerves. She could do this. Her palms crackled with fire from deep inside her body, and exploded outward. A massive fireball formed, more than three times Azara’s height in diameter, then crept towards the edges of the cavern. The fire crawled towards the pockmarked walls, towards the ceiling dripping with stalactites. It smoldered nearer Mother and Grimmer.
“How’s that?” Azara cocked her head. Please be right, please be right this time.
Mother inspected the fireball, the blueness of her skin a contrast to the persimmon glow of the flames. The silk of her gown swished around her legs as she circled the small sun. She pursed her lips, ran her fingers along the licking edges. The yellow in her eyes turned to peach—curiosity and maybe a dash of hope. “Can you make it burn hotter without expanding the size?”
A smirk snuck onto Azara’s lips. Something like confidence dared to venture from the depths of her bones. She could make it hotter. She could make it hot enough to scorch every inch of the underground cave, including her sisters’ quarters and the training wings. But then Mother and Grimmer would burn like dried branches, and Azara would never be given permission to leave the lair.
And if she never left, she would never fulfill the measure of her creation.
“Of course.” Azara tried to sound carefree. Controlling fire came easy to her. Perhaps not as easy as she would have everyone believe, and not quite to Mother’s liking, but Mother never tolerated weakness. Azara had to make it look easy, make it seem as though she was ready. And in that moment, when her fire burned brighter than any sun, and her hands were sure and steady, she let herself believe it. This would be the last test, the last thing standing between Azara and the outside world.
When Mother clucked her tongue, Grimmer flicked his wrist and the ball vanished in a puff of smoke. Azara’s hopes plummeted from her heart into her leather-clad feet, as she gaped at her mentor. The old man grinned, the ends of his mustache tilting up towards his nose as he tipped his head. He wore his long salt and pepper hair in a low ponytail, the end spilling over one shoulder when he bowed to her.
Coals and ash. Azara resisted the urge to stomp her foot, but she didn’t hide her glare, even when Grimmer righted himself and saw it pasted on her face. He raised his eyebrows in question, but she only scoffed in reply. Why must he show off?
“Well?” Mother put her hands on her hips and the ground rumbled with her displeasure.
“The power is there, but the concentration is not.” Grimmer shrugged. “Easy to dispel when your heart is not in it.”
“Dismal.” Mother crossed the cave floor and scowled at Azara as she passed. “I would have expected more of an improvement in your focus by this point. In less than two months, you will be eighteen and—”
“You act as though I’ll have competition when I go to the surface.” Azara blew a lock of hair from her face and followed her mother, drawn to her like flowers to the sun. “They have no way to protect themselves, right? Wouldn’t help each other even if they could. I’m ready to end the humans. My power is—”
Mother whipped around and the furious red in her eyes stopped Azara mid-step. “You are my most powerful Element. I made you with talent to spare. But you are still not powerful enough. You have no idea what the outside world is like.”
Azara pointed at the ceiling and all of the world above her. The world Grimmer had spoken of in lessons, but hadn’t been allowed to show her, no matter how much she begged. “I would know if you’d ever let me out of the lair!”
“Silence.” Mother didn’t have to raise her voice to make her point clear. She held a hand three feet from Azara’s throat and squeezed. Azara held firm, pulled her courage from her core, but her knees trembled. The energy pressed into her airway. She couldn’t inhale. Her eyes watered, and her mouth went dry. Azara’s gaze traveled over Mother’s shoulder, to Grimmer still leaning against the wall. He stiffened, and a muscle in his jaw twitched, but he didn’t—couldn’t— intervene.
“You,” Mother spat, “won’t leave this lair until you are fit to end the world. If you would only try harder, then we could both have what we want. Do I make myself clear?”
Azara’s vision blurred, her head lightened, but she managed a nod.
Mother released Azara, and she gasped. Ignored the ache to rub her throat, to take several deep breaths— Mother must not know the attack had shaken her. She couldn’t show weakness, even though the scent of Mother’s power, like heavy rain and evergreens, threatened to choke her again. So she stood statue-still and lowered her gaze to the floor. Good thing a girl made of fire couldn’t cry.
“Now then.” Mother smiled. She used the energy to smooth a section of Azara’s hair, and a condescending kindness laced her words. “That’s a good girl.”
“Thank you. Mother.” The words came out raw and unfeeling. Azara tugged her long sleeves over her hands, and folded her arms across her chest. Despite being clothed collar-to-toe, she felt unbearably naked in front of Mother when she failed. Every time she failed.
Mother turned to Grimmer. She straightened to her full height and looked down her nose at him. “Have you anything to say?”
The old man exhaled, tucked a cigar between his teeth— his hands shaking as he did— and pulled his cloak around his wiry frame. He nodded to himself. Pursed his lips. “She has a strong will. Not sure we’ll ever break it.”
Mother’s already grim expression hardened. She stalked towards him, leaned in and whispered, “We’re running out of time.”
The unspoken question pounded through Azara’s veins. Time for what? She’d missed something. Or she would miss something if she didn’t get out of the lair soon. A draft pushed through the cave, punctuating the silence and calling goosebumps all over her flesh. Grimmer would not meet her stare, even as Azara willed him to explain.
“Indeed.” His voice, both gravelly and sweet, tremored, and the explanation never came. “I’ll do my best to… inspire her.”
Mother nodded, then left. The hem of her gown ruffled dust as she dragged it behind her and out into the hall.
With Mother gone, Azara let herself exhale and her shoulders drooped. Time was running out. But for what? She pressed her hands into her sides, her fingers warming against her internal heat. Grimmer wouldn’t tell her unless he meant for her to know, but at present, she couldn’t push the issue. “Why did you embarrass me?”
Grimmer righted himself and limped over to Azara. He blew out a coil of wispy smoke, then tipped his head, the grey of his irises sparkling despite the poor lighting. He smelled of cherries and cinders. “Mother expects things from me, too. I’m not allowed to disappoint her any more than you are. You’re also not trying hard enough.”
Azara faced her mentor. “I am trying. It’s not my fault nothing is ever good enough for her.”
The edges of Grimmer’s mouth crinkled— his eyes lost a bit of their sparkle. Even his posture changed and guilt clawed behind her ribs. Mother viewed Azara’s performance as a reflection on Grimmer’s training abilities. Her failures were his. Her shortcomings, his fault. As her only ally in the underground, the last thing Azara wanted was for Grimmer to be punished on her behalf. Again.
Azara gulped. “Suppose I don’t improve. Mother will have Ria take my place. You’ll have spent all this time training me for nothing.”
Grimmer scoffed. “I wouldn’t worry about that much. Your mother is anxious, to be sure, but she holds to tradition. She’ll not give away your birthright as firstborn unless she’s given no other choice.” His face held a harsh line, a certain set to his jaw which might be grief. Of course… Grimmer might be the most powerful of them all, but he was a man in Mother’s world— only her daughters would be allowed to inherit the earth.
Azara gazed towards the cavernous ceiling, her despair thickening by the second, and said, “I want to please her, I do. She is my mother, after all… And I want to see the outside world. I want it more than anything.”
“So did Ria.” Grimmer shook his head, and took his cigar from his mouth.
“Ria.” Azara’s deadly younger sister. For all her eagerness, Ria listened even less than Azara and she had a slew of bodies in her wake to prove it. Not that Mother minded the deaths. It was just Ria had gone and caused a massacre without anyone in the underground knowing. She might not have returned to the lair in one piece. She might have ended the humans without Azara’s help at all. She would have made Azara’s existence— what was the word? It didn’t matter. Ria had been stopped.
Grimmer tucked his hands into his pockets and headed towards the mouth of the cave. His boots thudded against the dirt, highlighting his uneven gait. Thud…thump, thud-thump. Thud…thump.
“Let’s not be useless,” he said. “Take a five minute break and meet me in the training room.” He too vanished into the hall.
The cave seemed to deflate without anyone one else in it. The sconces went out, leaving Azara alone with her thoughts. They swirled in her mind, too tangled up with her feelings to make much sense.
“Useless.” Azara snapped her fingers and sighed. That was the word. Ria had almost made her useless.
Azara slunk into the hall, break be damned, and went to follow Grimmer. But no sooner did she enter the low-ceilinged tunnel than a rough wind slapped her in the face and let out a dark chuckle. She held her hand to her jaw, opened and closed it twice. Her gut tightened. She blinked away the shock and turned a mournful stare on her sister.
“Going somewhere, Coalheart?”
The North wind shimmered in the gloom. Her translucent form glitched in and out of focus, as the light from the wall-hung candlesticks danced straight through her and lit up small circles of the dirt-packed floor. She smirked and folded her ghost-like arms, without bothering to make her legs appear. Her breeze sang quietly in Azara’s ears, even when her sister wasn’t moving. It was a constant melody. A song Azara came to associate with the prelude of a taunt. Like all her wind sisters, this one had a translucent body that could vanish at will. Made it nigh on impossible to punch her.
“Do you need something, Nordica?” Azara dropped her hand from her face and clenched her fist. Just in case a shot presented itself.
The wind shrugged. “Do I have to need something in order to speak with you? No time to chat with your little sister?”
“You slapped me.” And they hadn’t just talked in years. Azara made to skirt around Nordica, but the narrow passage forced her to pass through her sister instead. Nordica fizzled out of sight, then reappeared behind her.
“Oh, come on.” Nordica blinked. “It was a playful slap. Honest.”
Azara arched one eyebrow. As she walked onward, her gaze alit on the various soot stains covering the walls. Evidence of her past encounters with her sisters in these parts of the lair. “So you weren’t going to try to kill me?”
Nordica scoffed, and breezed up to match her pace. “I haven’t tried to kill you for at least two weeks.”
“Ah, right. Two weeks. That must be a record for you.” Azara tried to run away, but Nordica howled and a great wind stalled her in place. “Please move,” Azara said through gritted teeth. “Grimmer is waiting for me.”
“Let him wait. We need to talk.” Nordica dropped her wind and held up her hands. “I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
Azara jerked back. Drops of water trickled from the ceiling to the floor— the only sound between them, beside Nordica’s natural hum. She exhaled, didn’t dare to believe the words yet. “You’re sorry?”
“I am. For everything.”
A muscle in Azara’s jaw twitched, a part of her begged her legs to carry her away, but something else kept them still. “May I ask why you’ve had the sudden change of heart?”
Nordica grinned. “Well, your Harvest Day is coming up. And we used to have such fun on our Harvest Days. Do you remember?”
Azara tried not to. When they were little— before their training had begun in earnest— Grimmer would trade out the day’s lessons for a bit of fun on the girls’ Harvest Days. He would cook them something sweet, like chocolate flan or a small cake, and sing songs with them until his voice grew hoarse. As Mother— ever unsocial— kept herself locked away in her quarters, she never stumbled upon these forbidden joyous times. But the pleasant tinge to the memories had faded with each attempt made on Azara’s life, and instead of inspiring happiness, they brought on a wash of dread Azara would rather not embrace.
She shook her head and cleared her throat. “I remember everything changing after my twelfth Harvest Day. When Mother said only one of us could inherit her crown.”
Nordica sighed and wound a lock of Azara’s curls around her index finger. Azara stiffened, but relaxed when a flash of genuine regret passed Nordica’s face.
“I used to brush this for hours. I was so jealous of you and Ria, what with your actual hair.” A half laugh escaped Nordica’s lips, and a tussle of silvery strands blustered behind her, tangible enough, but never in need of a comb. Nordica grinned and fixed her translucent eyes on Azara. “Did you like that?”
“I—” The soft murmur of her sister’s fingers in her hair caused a twinge of hope to spark in her chest. Azara shouldn’t tell her. Nordica might use it against her. But Nordica’s smile reached to her core. Maybe she missed Azara. Maybe she no longer cared if Azara would be the one to rule. Azara’s heart thumped in her chest and she nodded. “I enjoyed it.”
Nordica hummed, and her smile darkened. “Then maybe you’ll enjoy this.” She fisted Azara’s hair and tugged hard, sending her sprawling towards the dirt floor.
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