Laurel Beckley has a new queer sci-fi book out, The Satura Trilogy book 2: That Slow Awakening.
After a small yet memorable explosion that got him expelled from his academic studies and kicked straight to the Black Hells Army, Quernadenta Khelek was prepared for a quiet exile in the middle of the Dragonback Mountains. The worst he’d face were a few magical flare-ups, a bunch of blizzards, and his taciturn new partner.
He never expected to see one of the offworlder invaders—not so far north. Until an offworlder flying contraption slammed into one of the mountains, and Khelek and his partner were sent to investigate with strict orders to ensure there were no survivors.
Khelek never meant to disobey, but that was before his entire world became unraveled by what he found in the ice.
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Power shifted, rippling throughout the mountains moments before a thunderous bang roared across the lookout post.
Khelek’s wards triggered, firing magic to keep the structure together, tendrils knitting and locking as the ground trembled, shaking his chair and the books on his desk. The cave groaned. His pen rolled off the flat surface and plinked to the floor. Khelek dove from the chair, trying to figure out if the ringing, tingling sensation in his chest and fingers and ears was the aftermath of a powerful magical working, a magic-caused earthquake, or something else. He tried to remember if he should be cowering under the desk or struggling to hold the cave together.
He’d never seen a magic flare-up like this before. Earthquake season was in the summer, when the mountains grew restless, shedding their perpetual coats of snow. He’d had several moments of breathless panic during those flares, watching as the mountains shuddered and heaved, bucking up and down as though something underneath was trying to escape. In the past, when the ground stilled so did the magic and his nerves. According to his partner, winter was supposed to be the quiet season. No earthquakes. No flares. Not for the past three months.
But this. This didn’t feel like the wild magic running rampant in the Dragonbacks.
This felt wrong.
The trembling continued and the power pulling on his chest grew stronger. A sensor ward began wailing, both audible and in his head. If whatever was going on didn’t cease, in a few seconds his wards would seal the lookout in a safe cocoon and then—
“Oh shit.” Khelek scrambled to the cave’s rear chambers, hands pressed against the cold rock walls for balance, until he reached the base of the rough-hewn staircase leading to the lookout tower.
“Mother of dragons, do you feel that?”
Khelek shrieked and clasped his chest as a face leaned over the stairwell opening, cast into shadow by the light streaming through the watch point. He doubled over, trying to catch his breath. The wards relaxed with him, pulsing slower and opening as the rocking in the mountains ceased, until his magic retreated into its dormant state.
His partner knew how easy it was to frighten him.
“Seriously?” Secara asked, the scorn apparent in her voice. “Something crashed into Youngest Sibling so hard it shook this side of the mountain and I startled you? Get up here. You’ll want to see this.”
Khelek eyed the staircase with concern, but obeyed, moving as fast as he dared up the icy steps and wishing he’d changed from his slippers into his hob-nailed boots. He had been studying not three seconds ago, dammit, and it wasn’t even close to his watch shift.
His glasses fogged at the change in temperature. He waited for them to clear, wishing he’d brought his goggles with the special inserts. Wished, too, that he were wearing his parka instead of a sweater. Their lookout was built into the side of a mountain, the watchtower emerging from one of the peaks and open to the air. It provided a wonderful view of the southern portion of their sector, but it was always freezing. He checked the heat wards he’d placed when he had first arrived. Secara had not activated them, which explained why his nose hairs had frozen and his toes were starting to go numb.
It was a brilliantly clear day in the Dragonbacks, with a blue sky a painter would die to capture, the sun so bright it reflected white gold off the snow-covered peaks. Smoke rose off one of the peaks—he never remembered the names Secara had given all of them. She treated the mountains—some of the mountains—like they were her extended family. Khelek hoped he wouldn’t be stuck out here long enough to start doing the same.
“What the hell happened?” he asked.
“A flying thing came out of nowhere and dove straight into Youngest Sibling,” Secara replied. Her voice was a distressing combination of angry, alarmed, and flat, all at once. Her entire face was covered, from parka to half mask to goggles, hiding her expression.
Khelek peered closer. Something was off about that smoke.
It should have been white, or dark gray, the color of most wildfire burnings—and they were too high in elevation for trees. Instead the smoke billowed into the sky, a thick, voluminous black. Blue flickered within the column, flashes of magic. He blinked, peering harder and wishing he’d worn his damn goggles. Secara handed him her binoculars.
The peak came into focus, but the blue flickering faded, the wind whipping the column away, erasing the damage like it had never been there. There was no trace of whatever had hit the mountain.
“Do you feel anything?” he asked. “Or see anything unusual in the smoke?”
That made sense. Secara was as magical as… Khelek frowned. Everything had some magic, except her. She was the least magical person he had ever met, although he’d heard stories of the offworlders and their own astonishing lack of power.
Laurel Beckley has been writing ever since she started her first novel the summer before eighth grade—a hand-written epic fantasy catastrophe that has lurked in her mind and an increasingly ratty college-ruled notebook ever since.
She is a writer, Marine Corps veteran, and librarian.