We’re proud to introduce this free excerpt from Child of a Hidden Sea, the first book in the new Stormwrack fantasy series by A.M. Dellamonica, coming on June 24 from Tor Books! (You may have read her original fiction or her Buffy The Vampire Slayer rewatch here on Tor.com.)
One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.
The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.
Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered…her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.
Sophie Hansa had barely worked out that she was falling before she struck the surface of an unknown body of water.
First, there’d been a blast of wind. A tornado? Rushing air, pounding at her eardrums, had plucked her right off the ground. Howling, it had driven her upward, pinwheeling and helpless, over the rooftops of the houses and shops, carrying her up above the fog, in a cloud of grit and litter, trashcan lids, uprooted weeds, discarded heroin needles, and a couple very surprised rats.
She remembered pain as something tangled and wrenched her arm. Then the upward thrust of wind blew itself out, taking with it the sunlight above. One second she was flying and sunblind. The next, she was plummeting, dead weight in the dark.
Terror jolted through her. She drew breath to scream, only to feel the spank of the sea, a wet fist of concrete between her shoulder blades, stinging even as it slowed her fall. She plunged beneath the waves, head first.
This, at least, was her element. Despite the fear and disbelief—the ocean? I made it to the water?—she instinctively held her breath as she went under.
Reaching out with the grace of long practice, arms extended, her body twisted to break her downward momentum.
A jerk—the arm—brought the motion short. Weight pulled her downward. The nylon strap of her camera case, looped around her wrist, had snagged something heavy.
She tried to slide it off, but there was no slack. Instead, she yanked up her skirt with her free hand, clearing her legs and scissor-kicking for the surface. One, two. For a frightening moment, she made no headway. Then she, the camera case, and whatever it had hooked all started moving upward. Sophie broke water, blowing to clear her nose and mouth, inhaling deeply.
Taste of salt, definitely not some lake …
“Help,” she shouted. “Hello?”
No reply. She kept treading, reeling in the tether on her wrist, creating slack so she could slip it off her arm.
The night sky was clouded over but something—a million somethings—twinkled above her, forming an oscillating, multipoint strip of light.
… shouldn’t be night; it’s three in the afternoon. Could I have hit my head? How far did the wind carry me? I was inland. Water feels too warm to be the Pacific …
What happened? Where am I?
One thing at a time. She tugged again on the nylon tether and saw a hand just below the surface.
“Nyuhh!” She got a good grip, wrestling the weight of the unconscious stranger. A woman’s upper body rose from the water, head lolling. Water dribbled from her lips.
Don’t be dead. Muscling her onto her back, Sophie supported her neck, letting her head drop behind her and fumbling to open her mouth and check her airway.
She was breathing. Relieved, she tried stabilizing the woman in a supported float—only to get swamped by a wave. Warm brine sheeted over her mouth and nose.
Spitting, she kicked harder. One foot caught solid meat … a fish? The sensation was like kicking a slimy two-by-four. She surfaced again, spitting.
“We’re good.” She coughed out the words. “I’ve got you, it’s okay.”
No answer. In the dim, cloud-filtered moonlight, the woman’s skin was the color of pewter, her lined face as still as an engraving. Then Sophie noticed the dagger, buried haft-deep under her breast.
Daggers. The alley. A couple of men had attacked the woman.
And I piled in, Sophie remembered, swinging the only thing I had, the camera case. The strap snagged her, I guess, in the wind. Or she grabbed it. I saw something go flying … a pocket watch?
The initial rush of fighting, falling, gonna-die terror was wearing off now. In its wake, she felt fatigue building in her muscles. Pain, too—the shoulder and wrist were throbbing. Sprained? She’d been lucky, she supposed; nothing was broken. She could have snapped her neck, hitting the water like that.
Just tread, Sophie, she told herself. Catch your breath, look around.
Fumbling to adjust her grip on the woman, she scanned the surface of the water. The breeze was light and the swells weren’t big—maybe half a meter high. Eddies near the surface and movement below, near her legs, hinted at more fish.
One of the aerial fairy-lights dropped out of formation, spiraling down to splat beside her like a fat purple-gray snowball. It was a bioluminescent moth, quivering feebly, in its death throes.
What the—I don’t recognize that species, Sophie thought. She wasn’t merely seizing on an ill-timed distraction—if she could identify the insect, she might at least know where she was, which ocean.
The moth’s wings had fanned out in the water: it was about five inches long from end to end. The posterior tip of its abdomen was aglow, but the light was fading as it died. Around her, more were falling, a sparse glittering snowfall.
Another fish bumped her treading legs, catching the edge of Sophie’s skirt as it lunged around her knee, spaghetti-slick and weighty, its open mouth crammed with jagged teeth. It gulped down the moth and vanished, leaving a wing drifting on the surface.
“Some kind of prey bonanza,” she said. “The moths are … migrating? This is incredible! I can’t believe I don’t recognize the species.”
A wave washed the wing against her wrist. It clung stickily. The injured woman’s chin dipped into the water.
Am I tiring?
“Wake up, please, wake up.” Kicking against the next surge, she tightened her grip.
Another moth drifted into view, wings beating furiously as it tried to stay aloft. As Sophie watched, it glided a foot, fluttered up a couple inches, then dropped down into another ready mouth.
It was easy to imagine the same thing happening to her. Tiring under the weight of the unconscious woman, wearing out, sinking below. The two of them breaking into anonymous nutrients, feeding the ecosystem.
“Not gonna happen,” she told herself. “Come on, focus on something else … like why isn’t it afternoon?” Talking to herself provided a check on her breathing. If she could speak, at least in short bursts, she wasn’t too exhausted.
Higher up, past the moths, a layer of cloud obscured the stars. It was bright nonetheless. The edges of the clouds were silver; edged in bone-white, lacy wisps backlit by moonlight. The full moon was ten days away. Could she have lost ten days?
Another swell lifted them, and she got her arm properly snugged around the woman, below the slender neck, braced above the knife. The lolling head rested against her shoulder. Now she felt secure enough to use her free hand to adjust her skirt, tucking it higher into her waistband, further clearing her legs.
“You got lucky there,” she told the woman. “I dressed up to impress you. No way could I have kept us both afloat if I’d been wearing jeans. You’d have drowned before I got them stripped.”
She was easing into what Bram called “diving mode” now, scanning the waves for threats, or anything she might use to improve their situation. She groped for the bobbing waterproof camera case, still bound to her wrist.
“Every bit of buoyancy, right?” Raising her face to the sky, Sophie aligned herself with the moths. Kick, kick, breathe. “Hope you’re headed for land, guys.”
The moths didn’t answer. They glimmered above, a streamer of pinpoints aswirl on windy gusts. Their bodies kept falling, more and more of them, blanketing the water, so many that Sophie could observe there were lots of big ones and a lesser number of smaller individuals. Females and males?
They were noisy, too. Between the splash and murmur of the waves she could hear … was that cheeping?
“Oop.” Embarrassment flared, though nobody was around to witness her mistake. “That’s not the moths, it’s—”
The woman coughed, spitting blood onto Sophie’s hand.
“Please wake up,” Sophie said. “Where are we?”
Something big broke the water, maybe twenty feet away. Anything might be coming from the depths, surfacing to feast on the fish that were here for the moths. Orca, sharks …
“Stay with me, okay?” she said. “Don’t die.”
A long sigh that might have been a groan.
“You kind of owe me. You’d so be dead if I hadn’t jumped into that fight with the guys who stabbed you. Besides, I think maybe you’re Beatrice Vanko’s sister. And the thing is, Beatrice is my biological mother…”
And apparently she hates me. “If I’m right, that would make you my aunt. I’m family. Maybe I didn’t exactly save your life, but you can’t die on family, right?”
Silly argument, but she pushed on.
“I know I shouldn’t have just turned up at Beatrice’s house. I should have called. I meant to drive by her place, get the lay of the land, you know? But she came down the street and I got excited. Seeing what I might look like when I’m middle-aged—”
So she’d done what felt right, as usual, without thinking it through.
“I’m sorry. You’re in shock, and I’m babbling. Suboptimal behavior, my brother would say.”
Kick, kick, breathe. “I guess after twenty-four years, I figured she’d want to know her daughter was alive. But that’s stupid, isn’t it? She got rid of me. I should have known she’d blow me off.”
Should’ve known she wouldn’t see anything worth getting to know. “Anyway, I saw you—” She skipped the part where she’d slept in her car for three days while watching Beatrice’s house. She wasn’t about to admit—even to an unconscious maybe-aunt—to practically stalking her biological mother. “I thought I’d try again. But those guys attacked you, in the alley—what was that about?”
You snapped, said a calm interior voice. The terrible things your biomom said drove you over the edge. All of what happened afterward—watching the house, weird guys attacking this unnamed maybe-aunt—it’s a nervous breakdown. Or do they call them psychotic breaks?
Kick, kick, breathe.
Maybe when your advisor called and tried to push you into setting a date to defend your thesis, you couldn’t deal. Finding Beatrice, the mugging and now this … maybe it’s all a delusion.
“If I’m insane, I’ll wake up in a clean, safe hospital sooner or later,” she said. “My family will come, I’ll take some antipsychotics and doctors will promise us it’s gonna be okay. Right?”
A furious, inhuman cheeping. A bedraggled moth had landed in the hollow of the woman’s belly. A small shadow splashed after it: one of the bats Sophie had heard earlier. It came up, triumphant, in the puddle of brine and blood, with the insect caught in its jaws.
The bat hitched itself past the knife, across her aunt’s breast, over Sophie’s wrist. It continued up her sore arm, climbing from the unconscious woman’s face into Sophie’s hair, pulling itself to the highest point it could find.
The bat settled on her head, munching on its catch and preening seawater out of its wings.
Sophie groaned. If this was a delusion, her subconscious mind was going all out to make it seem real. Pieces of carapace and drops of wet bug juice pattered on her forehead.
Just don’t crap on me, Dracula, she thought.
And then: I don’t know this species, either.
“See, that’s proof! Seagoing bats, glowing moths—come on! I don’t care how real it feels, it has to be a delusion.”
Munch, munch, munch.
“This is profoundly mediagenic. Somebody would have shot this. I’d have seen those moths migrating a thousand times. On IMAX, no less.”
From the bat, a spitting sound. The glowing tip of the moth’s posterior bounced down her face.
“I’ve never lost anyone—not on a climb, not on a dive,” Sophie said. “I’ve been in trouble before. You’ll make it.”
The body in her arms stiffened, then coughed.
“Those moths are going somewhere, and I’m rationing my energy. The sun’s gonna come up and I’m going to make it to shore. Some shore. With you, maybe-Aunt. That’s a promise.”
The woman’s eyelids fluttered. A second later, her weight shifted, lightening the load. Sophie felt a burst of acceleration; she was kicking.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said, “but I think that might make you bleed faster. Just float, okay?”
The woman sputtered some more; the kicking stopped. Her hand crawled to the knife, probing. She hissed, obviously pained.
“Dinna seyz Fleetspak?” she mumbled.
“You speak Anglay…?”
“Thought I’d imagined—Anglish only?” Her voice was thready.
“I can do Spanish, I guess, or a little Russian—”
“Who are you?”
“I’m—ow!” The bat on Sophie’s head had taken wing, yanking hair as it launched itself at the flying buffet above. “Hey, is that land?” The trail of lights in the sky was accumulating into a bright mass on the horizon.
“Stele Island. Moths … lay … eggs on the cliffs.”
“I don’t know Stele Island—is this the Caribbean? The Mediterranean? The Gulf?”
“Stele Islanders,” the woman repeated. “Boats’ll be out. The moths bring up deepfish … swim another mile or so, they’ll catch us.”
“Only a mile?” Sophie felt a surge of relief. “No problem.”
“Who are you?” the woman repeated.
Okay, Sofe, for once in your life don’t blurt out everything at once. Keep it simple.
It was what her brother, Bram, would have told her. Sophie blinked back tears as her detachment shredded. “I’m Beatrice’s daughter.”
Don’t go all motormouth on her, she’s injured …
“Daughter, Beatrice?” The woman’s face pinched; her mental processes probably muddled by pain or blood loss. “No. That daughter? How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. I didn’t mean any trouble, I just wanted to meet her. My parents are traveling and I wanted to track down my birth family while they were gone. Without hurting them, see? But Beatrice went mental when she saw me.”
“’Trice can be…” the woman mumbled. “High strung.”
“I kinda noticed. I told her, ‘Fine, I’ll go. Just tell me about my dad and I’ll bug him instead.’ That was when she lost it.”
“Do you know him? Did he die tragically or—” Sophie quailed from a picture-perfect memory of the horror on her birth mother’s face.
Beatrice recoiling, like I was poison …
She couldn’t quite ask—had her biological father been a rapist? Instead, she changed the subject. “Then those guys jumped you.”
The woman eyed her dully.
Told you, Sophie. You always feel this need to overshare.
Deep breath. Try again. “Sorry, miss—you are my aunt, right? I mean, you look like Beatrice.”
“Gale, child … name’s Gale.”
“I just wanted to know where I came from. Gale.”
A cough that was very much a laugh. “And here we are.”
“What do you…” But Gale had passed out, once again becoming dead weight.
Just swim, Sophie. It’s a delusion, remember? Kick, rest, kick, all in your mind, Kick, kick, rest. An aunt who’s a street-fighting ninja? Wizard of Oz windstorms that dump you in the ocean? Has to be a delusion.
Please, let me wake up in hospital. Is that a bedsheet?
No such luck. She’d caught a thread of seaweed with her arm.
She pulled free.
Another tangled her feet.
The weeds were moving.
Up and down the glimmering path of winged bodies on the water’s surface, green-sheathed bubbles were rising, bean-shaped floats dotting a growing thicket of stems. Seaweed: it formed a carpet, highway-wide and blistered with the buoyant, air-filled pods. Bristly stems clung to Sophie, winding around her legs, around Aunt … Gale?
The weeds raised both women, the camera case and all the fish who’d come up to feast on the moth migration. Water streamed out of Sophie’s hair and her dress and she shivered, suddenly chilled. Gale’s weight came off her arm. The pain in her shoulder ramped up a notch.
The fish, lifted out of water, thrashed as they suffocated. A pelican landed on the cushion of weed and plucked one of them up.
Brown pelican, Sophie thought, pelecanus occidentalus, perfectly ordinary. Maybe this is the Gulf of Mexico. But how?
Entangled, afloat, apparently safe, Sophie stared at the tons of gasping fish as insects dropped in a twinkling rain around her and bats chittered above.
A jerk—something was towing them.
She kept her good arm locked around Gale, in case any of this was real. The way things were going so far, whoever was reeling them in would probably decide to throw them back.
Child of a Hidden Sea copyright © 2014 by A. M. Dellamonica