For voters who are still undecided, even on the last day of voting, here are short excerpts–between 250 and 300 words–from the five CSA finalists.
- Jason steadied himself on the stone-movers’
raft and scanned the sky from horizon to
horizon. Still within the confines of the
Southlands, he dipped his steering pole into the river as
quietly as possible. Elyssa had said dragons lurked in the
area, and her Diviner’s gift of detecting a presence in the
air or hidden in the shadows seemed as sharp as ever. At
least one fire-breather was out there . . . somewhere.
As he, Elyssa, and Koren floated northward on the
river’s slow current, clouds hovered low to the east over
the Zodiac’s spires, drifting closer on a freshening breeze.
The western view revealed a forest beyond the river-
bank — peaceful and quiet. Now late in the day, Solarus
had already settled near the treetops. They would have
to make camp soon, but definitely not until the dragons’
village lay well behind them. Although no scaly-winged
beasts sailed or shuffled anywhere in sight, sleep would
come more easily if they could put some distance between
the dragons’ abode and their intended camping spot.
- Jason allowed his gaze to settle on the forest once
more. Somewhere in that area Randall and Tibalt
marched in search of Wallace and the cattle-camp children, meaning the lack of a dragon patrol was good news. Maybe they would find the refugees in time to warn them about the deadly disease spreading through Starlight, a hard-enough task even without dragon interference. Since the disease was so contagious, and since Randall and Tibalt had both been exposed, providing a warning while staying at a safe distance would require more than a little ingenuity.
- Roland Akara, Prince of the Nomads and second only to Rom Sebastian among all Mortals, sat unflinching upon his mount, scanning the valley below with the eyes of one who’d seen far too much to be either easily disturbed or easily satisfied. He was a warrior, loved desperately by all who followed him, a leader descended from generations of rulers, a man given to purpose without an ounce of compromise.
And that purpose had never been clearer: to usher in the reign of Jonathan at any cost in utter defiance of death.
On the dark stallion next to his own sat his sister Michael, twenty-seven—younger than Roland by three years. A composite bow was slung across her back in the same manner as his. The long drape of her coat covered the curved sword that rode her hip. They were two Mortals, clad in black, overlooking their kingdom.
But this was not their kingdom. This was a valley of death. It spread out to the west and east, a vast waste only intermittently broken by a patch of twisting scrub. Whatever had once flowed through this dry riverbed had all but poisoned it. Even now, hundreds of years after the wars that had ruined massive stretches of countryside—including the vineyards that had once characterized this region—only the staunchest new growth survived.
Michael spoke in a low voice, jaw tight. “He’s there.” A slight breeze lifted a dark wisp of hair free from the torrent of braids that fell down past her shoulders, each of them tied in darkly colored cords, each of them telling a tale of rank, victory, or conquest so that one might read the entire volume with a glance. Only her brother’s plaits, shot through with feathers, onyx, and lapis beads, were more elaborate.
- Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roeh’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow. Impossible.
She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?
Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne. Mud and stone wouldn’t burn, but the timbered interiors could. She’d seen it happen before, the thick dark smoke suffocating its helpless victims.
No, none of the houses were smoldering. Nor was Parne’s crown, he temple. Good. A blessing.
A gust of wind brushed her face with more ashes. Ela tasted the harsh metallic bitterness and frowned. If none of Parne’s homes were burning, then the ashes were puzzling indeed, because they must have come from a great distance. Parne, Ela remained convinced, was the most isolated city-state in existence. “Infinite . . .”
She stopped. Why pray about ashes without first learning their source? But perhaps she shouldn’t wait, especially when those ashes were interfering with little things, like her ability to see and breathe. Really, she needed to cover herself. The ashes were clinging to her like living creatures, scuttling bugs determined to cause misery. Ela shuddered, imagining insects scurrying over her skin. Why hadn’t she grabbed her mantle before deciding to take a walk?
Ela stepped back inside her family’s home, a stark uneven box of a residence, exactly like every other home in Parne. Useful. Basic. Never changing from one generation to the next. Just like Parne’s citizens. She snatched her thin brown mantle and called to her mother, “I’m going up to the wall! It’s snowing ashes.”
- The trees drew back from the girl as she fled. They dared not interfere while she walked that Path, no matter how they might wish to. She took no notice of them. how long has she fled now? Had it been one night, or days and weeks of this nightmare? And always the howls pounded her memory.
Suddenly, the howls vanished. A new voice spoke from the gloom.
Come to me, pretty maid.
The girl stopped, swaying where she stood, on the verge of collapsing. Slowly, as though she dared not hope to find what she sought, she turned her head to the left. Between the trees a river sparkled like a ribbon of pure light and sweetness.
Her thirst was overwhelming. Even the snarls faded from her mind, replaced by the river’s voice, babbling, gurgling, inviting. Come to me, pretty maid, it said, though she heard only the voice of water.
Her feet left bloodstains on the moss and rocks as she hastened down to the river’s edge. A glint of gold shimmered in the tail of her eye, shining even in the Wood’s oppressive shadows. She ignored it. Falling to her knees on the bank of the water, she plunged both hands in. The water stung her wrists where the harsh cords had bitten into her skin.
Drink deeply. Drink.
The water flowed about her arms, fresh and alive, and the sounds of its flowing filled her ears. She cupped her hands and lifted the cooling liquid to her lips. She drank.