I’ve always been bad at goodbyes. They make me cry, even if I know something better is ahead. Lark, however, doesn’t give in to the tears. Not yet twenty-five, he is about to see off his partner—a man he has trained with and loved and believed in his entire life. Lark and Kane were Anointed as children, bestowed with a righteous quest to go out beyond the safety of the Fellowship’s fence, beyond the magic wards that protect them from monsters. To slay those monsters and save humanity. So, unlike me, Lark does not cry. The loss creeps into his heart as he tries to adjust, but he knows that what Kane faces is bigger than him. That his turn will soon arrive and he will join Kane in the most important undertaking of their lives. Because he believes. Because he doesn’t know Kane does not.
First, Become Ashes, a new novel from author K.M. Szpara, explores self-discovery after trauma and outgrowing abusive origins over the course of an American road trip—available April 6th from Tordotcom Publishing. Read a selection below, and check back this week for additional excerpts.
The Fellowship raised Lark to kill monsters.
His partner betrayed them to the Feds.
But Lark knows his magic is real, and he’ll do anything to complete his quest.
For thirty years, the Fellowship of the Anointed isolated its members, conditioning them to believe that pain is power. That magic is suffering. That the world beyond the fence has fallen prey to monsters. But when their leader is arrested, all her teachings come into question.
Those touched by the Fellowship face a choice: how will they adjust to the world they were taught to fear, and how will they relate to the cult’s last crusader, Lark? For Kane, survival means rejecting the magic he and his lover suffered for. For Deryn, the cult’s collapse is an opportunity to prove they are worth as much as their Anointed brother. For Calvin, lark is the alluring embodiment of the magic he’s been seeking his entire life.
But for Lark, the Fellowship isn’t over. Before he can begin to discover himself and heal a lifetime of traumas, he has a monster to slay.
First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.
LARK / NOW
The fence that surrounds Druid Hill is ten feet tall and made from wrought iron. It encloses the 745 acres the Fellowship of the Anointed calls home. Along the east side of the hill, at the foot of the bridge, resides the only gate. In my twenty-four years, nine months, and three days, I have never known an Anointed One to pass through it. Until today. Until Kane.
I stand with him and the other Anointed. The toes of our boots overlap a red line painted across the road, exactly fifty feet inward from the gate—the fence’s weakest spot. Across it, Fellows gather to see Kane off. They’re allowed to cross the line. They have nothing to lose. My fingertips tingle, head feels light. We shouldn’t even be this close. And Kane is going to cross the line, going to cross the threshold of the fence.
The backs of our hands bump. When I feel his fingers slide between mine, I grip them hard. I know it’s an honor to go out into the world. We’ve trained our whole lives to slay the monsters that have corrupted and influenced those beyond the fence for generations. Kane for twenty-five years; I for twenty-four years, nine months, and three days. Isn’t that close enough to go with him? He shouldn’t be alone out there. Maybe Nova will allow it. We can be each other’s strength.
“Coming through.” A body bumps between ours, head turning. Deryn looks over their shoulder at Kane as they walk toward the gate, as if it were his fault. Their lips purse as they toss their long, loose hair over their shoulders; it falls across their wool shawl and soft, flowing dress.
I run my fingers over one of the three French braids that holds mine back. Deryn doesn’t wear their hair back—they don’t need to. Despite their insistence that we are siblings, Deryn and I look nothing alike, not least because they are a Fellow and I’m Anointed. They don’t wear denim and long sleeves to protect their limbs from sparring in the woods. Don’t require a leather harness to carry weapons and potions. Don’t spend hours every day running around the lake, strengthening their muscles so they can fight a literal monster.
Their days are spent mending and making clothes. Mine are filled with training and the intimacy of the Anointed. With fire and sweat and scholarship. With ritual and righteous discipline.
The Anointed are my real family and Nova is our leader. She raised us—the Fellows who conceived us mean nothing. I don’t even like knowing their names. I wish Deryn had never told me.
“Don’t,” Kane says. “You can’t let them fluster you, it—”
“—dilutes my magic, I know.” I press my pierced tongue against the roof of my mouth, comforted by the pressure of the warm metal barbell that makes my words more powerful.
He deflates. Looks at his feet and purses his lips, as if to keep himself from saying more. I squeeze Kane’s hand. His fingers are hot and sweaty between mine; is he nervous?
“Before I go…” He turns to look me in the eye. His are so dark brown, they’re almost black. They shine in the moonlight, just like his hair. I release my hold, reach up and run my hands down its length one last time. Rest my palms flat on his chest.
I’m not sure I can say goodbye again—especially not in public. “We did this last night.” I try to blink away the tears before they can erupt.
“I know.” Kane covers my hand with his, curling his fingers around mine. We slide naturally together, his arms circling my back, mine his waist. We hold each other so tight, my body begins to tingle. “Just remember what I said.” He kisses my hairline, the few strands that freed themselves during the day.
I was mostly asleep, but won’t ever forget his words. To them, I add, “You love me—I love you. Don’t forget that either.”
Kane tips my chin up, and then his lips are on mine, strong and sure. As we kiss, all I can focus on is the soft stroke of his thumb over my cheek. When he pulls back, I feel the memory of his touch against my face, though my lips are cold and alone.
The murmur of voices surrounding us drops to whispers, then silence, as several Anointed step aside. Nova walks forward, resting her hand on the shoulders of those nearby, greeting them one by one until she stops in front of us. I need to ask her if I can go with him. I’ve earned her favor. Maybe she’ll—
“Meadowlark.” Nova places her hand on my right shoulder, and I do the same to her. We greet each other with a brief exchange of power. An openness. Vulnerability. For a moment, we both close our eyes, and I feel her energy probing mine, like fingers digging between the tight strands of my braids. “Good, very good,” she says as we gaze upon each another.
I take a breath, open my mouth to ask—please, I’m ready—but her words outpace mine.
“I know it’s not easy for you to say goodbye to Kane.” She pauses, staring at me with such depth that I swear I can feel her inside my mind. “But your time draws near. Until then, you must remain disciplined.”
I release my held breath. Nod. She’s right; it was wrong of me to doubt her.
“You’ll join him soon. In the meantime, I’d like you to mentor a pair of promising Anointed Ones. You have much insight to offer.”
“Absolutely.” I bow my head slightly to her, think of the opportunity she’s giving me—and the compliment. Kane is moving on and so am I. “Thank you for your wisdom.”
She squeezes my shoulder, looking down the long, pale ridge of her nose at me. A sudden wind lifts her waist-length hair up around her in a spindly brown web as we stand holding on to each other. Nova doesn’t need to braid her hair or commit to chastity in order to discipline her magic. She is the original—the strongest of us. I shudder, overcome with warmth and love, reminded of why I believe in her. Of the person she’s helped me become.
When her hand slips away, I know this is right. I’ll leave when it’s my time. Now, it is Kane’s. Nova holds out her hand to him. He doesn’t look at me or anyone else before taking it. He believes in his destiny—in all of our destinies. He’s the best of us, and he can manage without me. I can wait two months and twenty-seven days.
Nova leads Kane across the red line—the closest any Anointed has ever been to the gate—through the throngs of our Fellows, those who’ve birthed and supported us. They gather around him, the youngest giving him flowers they picked during their Fellowship class, the eldest laying hands on his shoulder like Nova did. I crane my neck to follow him as he disappears into their mass.
An elbow jams into my side as I feel Maeve step into Kane’s place. She brushes soft baby hairs from her face, the ones that never keep, even in Zadie’s meticulous braiding. “What do you think it’s like out there?”
On my left, Zadie squeezes up to the line. Instinctively, I look down at our feet, making sure none of us have crossed accidentally. I shiver to imagine the atonement such a transgression would require.
“Empty,” Zadie says.
“Empty?” I look between the girls. They’re the only other Anointed approaching their quarter centuries. The only others who feel the pressure of going out into the world. The curiosity. The nerves.
“Not literally,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I can see their concrete towers and smell the black smoke of their cars as well as the rest of you. I meant in here.” She slaps her hand against her breast. “Imagine living your whole life out there, unaware that your soul is being corrupted by damn monsters.” She squirms as if one’s passed right through her. Normally, I’d correct her for using outsider profanity, but words evade me.
The three of us watch through breaks in the crowd, catching sight of the big toothy key Nova hands Kane. Fellows obscure him as he turns toward the gate. I wish I could see. Over their heads, the tall gate swings open, and I hold my breath, as if a stampede of monsters will surge through the opening. That’s not how it works, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying.
I need to see. I shouldn’t. I’m going to be in so much trouble, but suddenly the atonement feels worth it. I can handle the pain. Quickly, I slide away from Maeve and Zadie, and into the crowd. Over the line. I creep, stealthily, until I’m close. Obscured by a cluster of Elders but close enough to see Kane pull the key free from the gate and loop it around his neck on a chain. He tucks the key under his shirt, clutching it through the thin cotton. Knives line the bottom of his leather harness, its pockets similarly packed with potions. A Fellow hands him his quiver and sword, helping him fasten them to his back. Pride warms my chest and tears threaten my eyes once again.
Kane looks like the hero he was meant to be. Humanity’s savior. Ours.
I am going to miss the stars out of him.
He looks over his shoulder, not managing to find my eye before Fellows surround him again. That’s the last I see of him, the last time I’ll see him until my quarter century, and I try not to care. I make out the towering gate swinging closed. Kane’s gone. Kane’s gone, and I am so, so proud of him.
The Fellows disperse—my cue to rejoin the Anointed on the safe side of the line. I weave my way through them, keeping my head down as their volume swells. While they break into groups and wander off into the night, I glimpse Deryn chatting with their friends. Every now and then, one looks over their shoulder toward the gate. The Fellows are taught what lies beyond it, but not the gruesome details. They know that monsters wait out there, but not that they look like us. They haven’t heard about the otherworldly scales and ichor, the teeth like carving knives and eyes like holes drilled through wood, all hiding within fleshy suits. They’ll never have to face the filth and wickedness that monsters emanate, burning like the sun. They’re free to play and laugh and work, protected by Nova’s wards, by Kane’s sacrifice.
Zadie beelines toward me the second I cross the red line. “What the hell was that?”
I pull myself together. Remember what matters. “You shouldn’t use outsider profanity.”
“And you shouldn’t cross the line! The gate was open. You’re vulnerable.”
“I know.” Shame burns through my core, but I don’t regret it. “I’ll atone; I just had to see…”
Zadie sighs. “Let’s go to bed.” She takes Maeve’s hand and turns away from the red line. From me.
Bed. The word hits me like the first hard blow of a paddle. I have to go to bed without Kane. Nova’s going to assign me to an existing pair of Anointed to mentor, but not tonight, surely. I don’t want to be alone, but, even more, I don’t want to be with anyone else.
“I’ll catch up with you,” I tell the girls, knowing I can’t put off sleep for the next two months and twenty-seven days. Fatigue doesn’t wait for you. “I want to…” I realize I shouldn’t finish my sentence. I already crossed the line to see Kane off. Let them assume I’m off to see Nova or grab a snack.
“Zadie and I can wait up for you,” Maeve says in her soft, kind voice. “Hold a quick circle before bed, process what’s happened.”
“No,” I say quickly and firmly. “We can address it tomorrow during morning ritual.”
“Okay.” Her tone is skeptical, but I can tell she only wants me to know she’s there for me.
I wave as the two of them head down the path toward the commune, past the empty swimming pools and the track with its rusting exercise equipment. Before Nova bought Druid Hill, it was a public park, with tons of amenities. It even had a zoo. The only animals that remain are poultry and livestock.
I step up to the red line, not brave enough to cross it a second time, and align the toes of my boots with its edge. Kane can’t be far, yet, and for my magic to reach him, I need to get as close as possible. I was wrong to think last night was enough, or that I was strong enough to continue on without him. Looking over my shoulder one more time, I raise my palm to my lips and whisper my goodbyes to Kane—even though I said we’d already done this—my confidences and I love you. Magic rushes out of me and into my words, pulled along the connection between us. I squeeze my eyes shut and my hand into a fist. Hold it over my head and, with a deep breath, release my words to him. Hopefully he’s close enough to—
“Lark?” Nova’s voice shocks my eyes open and wide. Each crunch of the leaves under her boots sends a chill through my spine. “What are you doing?”
I was supposed to let him go. “Noth—” What am I doing? Am I going to lie, as well? Kane’s barely gone a minute and I’m struggling to discipline myself. Sneaking over the line. Lying. My body is suddenly prickling with warmth despite the cool air. I don’t lie to Nova, and I never ignore her instructions. “Speaking to Kane.” My eyes fall to the ground, head heavy.
“Mm-hmm.” The sound rolls around in her mouth like a bite of red meat. “What did I tell you?”
I mumble my response. “To remain disciplined.”
She pushes one thick finger against the bottom of my chin, until I’m looking square into her eyes. “What was that?”
“To remain disciplined,” I repeat, clearly this time. “First, you cross the red line—”
I open my mouth to object, but stop. A wasted breath.
“And now, despite knowing better, you’re wasting your magic on mindspeech. Have you considered you’re also wasting Kane’s on receiving your words?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Her fingernail digs into the underside of my chin as I swallow.
Nova’s face tightens, her eyes narrowing. They’re blue like mine, but dark as storm clouds. “Remember who granted you power, Meadowlark. Who can take it away. You haven’t worked this hard to lose it all worrying about Kane. I would not let an Anointed leave before they were ready, just because they reached their quarter century.”
I shake my head, held in place by the tip of her finger. “I won’t cross the line again. Or attempt to contact Kane.”
“Good.” Her lips flatten into a smile, age creasing the corners of her eyes. Nova drops her hand from my chin to my back, encouraging me to walk with her. “Why don’t you take guard duty for a few nights?”
We stop momentarily as an orange cat dashes across the road. We’re not supposed to pet them. Any that live on Druid Hill have snuck between the fence posts and may be tainted; monsters can influence all manner of creatures.
I don’t hesitate to agree, not after having just broken two rules. I need to correct myself. I risked losing her grace, by which we are Anointed.
I force myself to look forward as we continue down the path. Not at the pool to our right—and definitely not at the lake on our left. I don’t dare glance back at the fence, lest Nova think I’m searching for Kane. I close my eyes and listen to the footfalls of our boots against asphalt, to the distant shrieks of children who don’t want to go to bed. The bleat of goats on the hills.
We stop at the entrance to the old zoo. Two metallic cranes top the smaller fence that surrounds the commune. Between them hangs a wooden sign crafted by one of our Fellows that reads home.
“When the time comes, you will want to be ready,” Nova says. “Until then, take comfort in the other Anointed and focus on strengthening your abilities.”
“I am ready.” I don’t mean to say it—to be so presumptuous after demonstrating my fragility. I hope the night hides the embarrassment I feel hot on my face. Why has losing Kane undone so much of me? “I mean—”
“It’s okay, Lark. I understand.” Her voice softens and I feel my body relax. “Someone you love has gone, a thing that’s never happened before. I admit I’ve worried over the day you would leave each other, but I have faith in you. And you’re going to make a wonderful mentor, in Kane’s absence—think of the good deeds this situation has granted you.” She rests her hand on my shoulder and I return the gesture. “Go, now. The fence won’t patrol itself.” She smiles and nudges me toward it.
“Thank you,” I say, cherishing the warmth of her encouragement.
“I expect to see you for morning ritual!” she calls as I jog away. I pass the last of my Fellows making their ways to bed. Outside the commune, it’s dark. Trees twist their way up through sidewalks no longer used. A sheep chews a mouthful of grass with ambivalence as I rush past.
When the light from the commune no longer illuminates my path, I stop and reach into one of the chest pockets on my harness. From within, I draw a long plastic vial filled with a clear potion. One hand on either end, I snap it. Release the contained ingredients and shake them together, so a magical light glows from inside, brighter than the oil lanterns the Fellows keep in their quarters.
I take it with me to join the younger Anointed who keep watch along the fence at night. To the red line that borders the gate. To the place where Kane crossed over, and where I will soon. In two months and twenty-seven days.
Excerpted from First, Become Ashes, copyright © 2021 by K.M. Szpara.