. .



The world burst into flame around Saphra Ashirine. She held her ground, waiting and watching the tongues of fire as they crept in towards her. Then, in a moment of clarity, she spread her wings and took to flight.

The giant fabric wings, buoyed upwards rapidly by the hot air, floated the Windrider out of the range of the inferno, and she could clearly see the other racers. They were all ahead of her by at least a length. Not for long, she thought to herself, half grim and half proud. She had to win this race, simply had to, or everything would be forfeit: her honor, her status in the Academy, maybe even her life. Because of her past, she couldn't afford to lose. And that was all there was to it. She gritted her teeth and pulled down at her Flightwings, picking up speed, slicing through the sky like an arrow, her green eyes narrowed in concentration.

~~~(Strange eyes, green eyes, eyes that held the secrets of the world in their depths.)~~~

Saphra's back was turned to the crowds cheering below. She could never stand crowds. All the noise was distracting, and she figured that very few of them were cheering for her, anyway. She once again pulled her wings down through a complete cycle, drawing nearer to the racer in front of her, escaping the barbaric mob below.

She snuck up on the other Windrider's tail, more gliding than flying, so her amchi-silk wings wouldn't rustle and alert him to her presence. Then, so close to him that from the ground, they must have looked like one person, Saphra reached up and clawed a fist-sized hole in her opponent's left wing. The fabric was ridiculously easy to puncture, light as it was, and the perforation was enough to disrupt his balance, sending him spinning. At their low altitude, he hit the ground before he could recover. Saphra would have looked back to see if he was hurt, but she knew he probably wasn't—all Windriders had been trained in how to fall lightly. Besides, she had a race to win. She couldn't waste time worrying about her adversaries' health problems.

The training compound for the Windriders, and the other warriors, was located in the middle of a dormant volcano, suspended across the crater. The racers for today (the five best Windriding students in the Academy) had taken off from immediately above the compound, so the air currents up to that point were pretty mild. But when they cleared the lip of the volcano, they were buffeted by some of the strongest winds Saphra had ever experienced. They tossed her around like a rag doll in a whirlpool. Looming in front of her was an angry grey tempest, swirling chaotically, reaching from almost sea level up towards the jet stream. In its vastness, Saphra lost all sight of her fellow Windriders, and began to feel disoriented even before she entered it. Lightning flashed from the black base of the storm and illuminated it from the interior; flying branches and debris hurtled through the air, almost tearing Saphra's wings. She fought for balance, but even her own body weight worked against her. She was being blown further and further off course, spiraling in towards the storm.

Anh Lua Kiene, the competitor representing the Green team, had never before been scared by a tempest, but this one was somehow different. But she shrugged it off. A storm was a storm, no matter how strange. It always had certain patterns, like—like a calm center. The eye of the storm, that was it. She'd head for there, like her given-mother had always instructed her to do. Anh Lua raised her wings and tried to force her way deeper in, searching for the eye, pitting brute force against the winds, her adrenalin coursing through her veins with every beat of her straining heart. Just as her exhausted muscles gave out, she realized that there was no eye after all, no place to hide from the wind…

There's simply no way this is an ordinary storm, Saphra decided. It's simply too big and fast. Her mind flashed back to her childhood, images of her uncle at his bench, mixing the five essential metals in such a way that whirlpools formed in the water around the castle. Alchemy. It was the only way a storm such as this could exist naturally. It was one of the three Trials of the race, probably devised to be as devilish and difficult as possible. In which case, there was likely no eye of the storm. She couldn't go over it: it was too high. She couldn't go through it, or she'd be disoriented and wear herself out. She couldn't go around it, as it was so vast. She had to go under it.

Saphra glanced down towards the ground. The space between the bottom of the cloud and the earth was minimal, just barely enough to fly through. She gulped. Lightning was still striking, as hard as ever, in that crucial space, making her Trial that much more lethal. It looked, from this distance, like the bioluminescence she'd seen in the waters of her childhood home—flashes of light produced by undersea fireflies. How poetic.

She couldn't waste time. Saphra pulled into a fast, dangerous, spinning dive, wrapping her silken wings around her body and darting downwards like a bullet parallel to the volcano wall. The world became whirled as she careened, faster and faster, towards the rocks below. Then, at the last moment, she spread her wings again. They caught the air, and almost were wrenched by Saphra's momentum out of her flight harness. But her gear held together, and—just a meter above the ground—she faced the first Trial, with the volcano at her back, and flew into it.

Lightning lashed out at her from the storm over her head. She could barely dodge it, especially with her Flightwings being so big and cumbersome. Her heart caught in her throat, pounding so hard she though it would burst out. But, with the skills and drills of her training in the Academy, Saphra realized, all of a sudden, that (with luck) she just might be able to make it.

It became like a dance. Watch for the lightning, shift your weight, dip vertically to the ground. Bank and flip. Dip the other wing down. Catch the currents of hot air that the lightning provided. There's really nothing to it, Saphra noted. This is even kinda fun.

Saphra's idea of fun was a little bit strange.

Someone nearly crashed into her, sending her spinning. It was the Green team's racer, a girl not much older than her. Anh something. Saphra didn't really know her too well, but she had seemed pretty nice at this morning's briefing. Saph hoped she was okay—but it didn't look like she was. No time to think about that, though. Saphra couldn't waste time.

But she had already been distracted for long enough, and when she turned her mind back to Windriding, Saph discovered she was exhausted. And she had gotten out of her rhythm. A bolt of lightning chased her, almost scorching the metal on her wingtips. The gray storm clouds rolled in around her, enfolding her body in impenetrable mists. She was as good as dead—or at least, far in last place (discounting the two fallen Windriders). I can't fight this thing any more. It's too strong and I'm too tired. I have to get out of here.

And then, as if it didn't think she tasted too good, the tempest spat her out. Saphra was too shaken to be surprised, but when she took in her new surroundings, she knew she was back in her element.

Saph had emerged over the sea, above a force of five warships. She didn't recognize their particular design—most of them looked motley and ragged at first, like a fleet of second-rate pirates or perhaps merchants just a bit too far in the red. Not at all seaworthy enough for a long voyage. But on second glance, she could see that they were pretty well outfitted after all. Their decks were lined with light cannons, marines, archers; their sails were of the thickest cloth, impossible to cut through. And on each bow was, on a velvet cushion, a tarnished silver key. This whole thing was either the second Trial, or the fleet of the North had a lot of time on their hands. And Saphra could guess which one was more likely.

There were now two racers in front of her—she'd taken down Tham from the Golds before the storm, and the Green competitor had fallen in the storm. The first racer, a rival of Saph's named Tavus Rayisa (nice guy, but with an inflated ego), was no idiot, so he instantly figured out what the Second Trial's goal was. He dove down towards the ship whose key was on a red cushion—red for the Red team, of course.

Tavus had never truly realized how many weapons could be fit onto one little boat. There seemed to be everything there, from swordsmen to massive cannons to little boys carrying slingshots. They were all aiming at him, daring him to move closer. And he knew that he had to get that key.

It was no use flying over the sails—they were lined with archers. Nor was it any good to just fly around the ship to the front. He opted for barnstorming in just inches above the boat's floor, forcing everyone to drop to the ground or be hit at high speeds.

In a few heartbeats—during which he began to doubt whether he could accomplish his task after all—Tavus swooped in towards the boat, over the wood floors, and was just barely able to grab the key at its front. Looping swiftly around to the open air, he held it in his fist and pumped it into the air in victory.
Tavus looked back. The second place racer, whose name he never could remember, was watching his technique carefully, about to try the same thing with his ship. But the Blue teamer, Saphra Ashirine, was already swooping down towards her ship. He wished her luck. All right, so they were rivals, but he didn't want her to get killed just in this one race. If she did, he wouldn't be able to gloat to her.

He began to fly onwards, in the direction he had been given in this morning's briefing. Glancing once over his shoulder, he saw Saphra's course of action unfold, and even he had to admit it was impressive.

Saphra knew Tavus' plan would only work once. The armies on the other ships had already seen what he'd done, and they assumed that she would try the same thing. So she gave them what they least expected.

She looped around the front of the blue ship, then tucked into another dive, hurtling down towards the waves. The marines and sailors on the warship watched her, assuming that some archer had shot her down and she was no longer a problem. Their key was safe, and they would be rewarded by the competitions' organizers at the Academy.

But Saphra, falling just lightly into the ocean, definitely was still in the race. She surfaced and hauled herself, waterlogged wings and all, up the anchor chain and onto the ship's deck. Just as she had expected, the ship's soldiers had already turned from their posts and broken out the rum in celebration. So there was no one watching the bow closely. No one saw the wet blob of blue flop onto the deck. And the key was just within reach.

The third lieutenant just happened to glance back for'rard as the hands were reaching for the rum. He could make out some sort of shape there, and moved closer to see it better. And to his amazement, it was a Windrider—or was it? She looked almost unreal, with her blue wings draped around her and her wet hair being tossed by the wind. Like some sort of mythical creature, the lieutenant thought. A mermaid, or perhaps even a Dionoid. But she was reaching for the silver key, and that was all that was important. Just as he was about to raise the alarm, he knew it was too late. She held the key, and—with a mischievous grin towards him—she dove over the starboard bow and back into the sea.

Aaaaagh! All of Saphra's nerves screamed at the touch of the freezing seawater. And it had been so long since she'd last swam in the ocean; at first she felt out of place and extremely uncomfortable. But then, as if by instinct, she fell into the old patterns of pull, kick, pull—and it was as natural as breathing. Maybe even more so. But soon, her air-loving lungs began to burn, and she started to fight for the surface.

That was when she heard it—a voice from the depths of the ocean, seemingly disembodied, rich and melodious. It spoke in the language of Saphra's childhood, with the inflections of someone she remembered well, but had never liked.

"Lost your touch, have you?"

She couldn't respond. She could only think to herself, What's he doing here? So he thinks he can just appear out of nowhere after I've told him what I think of him? Can't he see I have more important things to do right now?

"Of course I see that," the voice replied. "I see more than you know. But I haven't come here to chastise you, not this time. But I'm only telling you to hurry home, little fish who thinks she's a bird. Hurry home, but it won't do you any good. She is gone, little flying fish."
He had always spoken in riddles. Not very good riddles, even. But for the life of her, Saphra couldn't figure out who was gone. Or why he even cared to tell her. All she knew was she had to win the race—and she wanted to get away from the voice.

She burst out of the ocean, flinging droplets of water from her wings, and continued onward.

The Purple team racer, now in third place, had attempted the same thing as the Red. But it didn't work. The soldiers were waiting for him to try it. At the last minute, before he flew straight into their bayonets, he managed to pull out. But for the life of him, he couldn't think of a better tactic.

"Please, guys! Hey, if you let me pass…I can give you…" he searched his pockets. "Twelve gold coins?"

The soldiers just laughed. Purple wasn't getting the key anytime soon.

Two Trials down, one to go. Saphra followed Tavus along the coastline. He was just a red speck against a backdrop of blue by the time she surfaced, but she had luck on her side and caught up pretty fast. But she was tired. And hungry—but that's another story—Saphra was always hungry.

A glimmer of highly polished stone was on the horizon. Both of the Windriders knew what it was: the Temple of Victory. Its very name was almost sacred to the trainees at the Academy—reaching it meant that you were not only good, you were the best. Inside it was the Orbis Victoriae, a treasured sphere that was the ultimate goal in this race. If Saphra reached it first, she'd bask in honor and glory for the rest of her Windriding career. If I don't—I don't know what I'll do. Probably go somewhere and shrivel up in shame.

The temple was enshrouded, eerily, in mists where it perched at the top of a mountain. It was hard to see where the air ended and the rock began. The only logical thing to do was to fly straight for the center of the temple.

Saphra was drawing closer to Tavus with every stroke of her wings. Something was slowing him down, but she couldn't tell what. Until, as he noticed her coming up behind him, he turned, showing what he was carrying: a good-size iron sword, pointed straight at her.

"I don't want to have to kill you, Ashirine," he panted. "But I will if you don't let me win."

"Let you win?" Saphra said, incredulous. "So you're saying I should just give up?"

Tavus didn't say anything. He just glanced back over his shoulder at the temple, with its tempting treasure inside. Saphra continued, "Maybe you can take the easy way out, but I can't. I've worked too hard for this victory. In fact," she remarked almost casually, despite the tension in her throat, "I'm the one who might have to kill you." The final Trial.

Saphra drew a small, sharp dagger from the folds of her flight harness. They grew ever closer to the Temple of Victory; now they were inside it, hovering over the marble floor; now the Orbis Victoriae lay on a dais in the center; all that separated Saphra from her dream was Tavus and his broadsword.

The two Windriders, like birds of prey, hung suspended in the air for a moment. Then, as if by some unheard signal (although no flames arose around them now), they flew at each other, weapons drawn.

Tavus swung his sword. It was much too heavy and threw him off balance, almost spinning him upside down. Saphra avoided his first attack, but just barely—her Flightwings were still waterlogged from the second Trial. She clutched her only dagger, knowing she couldn't get close enough to her opponent to use it. She couldn't even tear his wings: he was expecting that and kept them skillfully, tauntingly out of her reach. He attacked again, directly at her heart.

There was only one way to parry that move—with her wing itself. It protected her, but broke under the force of the impact. Saphra crashed to the floor, her wings dragging behind her, still clutching her dagger. Looking up, she saw her chance.

Tavus was very close to the temple ceiling. Too close for his own comfort. He seemed to realize this, and moved to correct it. But before he could, Saphra threw the dagger up towards him, forcing him up.

The dagger glinted in the light radiating from the Orbis Victoriae. It hesitated as it arched up towards the bright scarlet uniform of the Windrider, coyly and shyly. And then, things all happened at once.

Tavus pushed his wings down, sending him crashing up into the ceiling to avoid the dagger, which hit him anyway. Wounded, he plummeted to the marble floor several meters below. With his crimson blood staining his crimson wings, the Windrider struggled, reaching for the sphere on the dais, and then collapsed.

Saphra didn't even look back at him. She dashed to the center of the temple. Drawing out her silver key, the one she'd stolen in the second Trial, she put it in the lock of the Orbis Victoriae.

And turned it. She had won.

But the world seemed silent…unreal…incomplete.

(Author's note: You like? You like? Please like! Ummm, yeah… Oh, and by the way, I know that in Tavus' little passage, there are a couple really pathetic things he says. I mean, who calls the decks of a ship the "floor?" Contrast it with Sovay Nikelan in later chapters—she uses so many nautical terms that it sounds like a foreign language at some points ("Helm-a-lee! Heads'l sheets! Raise up tacks and sheets! Haul mains'l! Ya HEAR ME? Mr. Tollin, put that rum down, that's MINE."). So don't write me nasty reviews saying I don't know anything about seafaring. Tapadh leinbh—thanks!)