No matter how terrifying the stakes, there’s always a part of me that reads fantasy because I want their world, their magic. Calvin carries that weight, that want, in his heart all the time. He took the risk, abandoned the practical and steady job his parents planned for him for one that lessens the weight a little. That brings him closer to magic. Cosplay. Calvin is a professional nerd, dressed like the Elf Daddy Thranduil, himself, when news breaks that the Fellowship of the Anointed has been liberated. That one of their numbers has fled. That magic—real magic—is within his grasp. And, no matter the stakes, he is determined to find that magic. To find Lark and follow him.
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.
CALVIN / NOW
Lilian places the crown gingerly on my head, fitting the knotted branches over the fronts of my ears. She fidgets with my wig, careful not to let strands catch on the leaves, then pats my forehead. “There you go, Daddy Greenleaf.” She jumps from the hotel bed onto the carpet with a thud. A move not hotel recommended.
“You do know Greenleaf isn’t a family name, right?” I adjust my crown in the mirror, face already long and tense. Lips pressed and pouty. Eyes dramatic. I was never a good stage actor—though I desperately wanted to be—but the second I’m fully dressed in a cosplay, I can’t help but become that character. And Thranduil is one of my favorites: stylish, powerful, old as fuck.
Lilian flips her hair, pulling her grown-out dye-job into a bun. “You know what I meant.”
“He is Daddy, though.”
She rolls her eyes, smiling out of the corner of her mouth as she snaps her elastic in place. “You wish.”
“Not really my style.” I shrug, piercing the illusion of confidence. “But it’s fun pretending.” I dig my phone out of my pocket—always sew a pocket into your costume, even if you’re wearing spandex, even if you’re wearing a loincloth—and snap a selfie. “Say hi if”—I read aloud as I type—“you see me on the floor today! And don’t forget, if you pledge $25 per month, you can swipe up for the naughty photos, xoxo.” I add a heart gif and link to my Patreon, then post it to my Instagram stories.
“Nice,” Lil says, head buried in her backpack. Not the kind of backpack you’re supposed to lug podcasting equipment around in—Golden Snitches patterned across stiff white leather with matching zippers and straps—but Lilian is a committed femme. She always makes it work. “Have you seen my portable battery? The lavender one. I have the cable, but—”
When she doesn’t finish her sentence, I look over. She’s stopped searching—stopped everything, really. Across the muted television, captions appear beneath a guy who looks like an elf being led away by a SWAT team. Like Modern AU Legolas wearing jeans and a Henley. His blue eyes stare through the screen as if he can see me.
“Oh, oh, oh!” Lilian whacks my arm progressively harder until I have to fend her off. “That’s one of those what’s-their-names! The cult people who live on Druid Hill!”
“Of course.” I blink as if the idea lightbulb is going off directly in front of my face. “The Fellowship of the Anointed.” I grab the remote and unmute the television.
“—stabbed a SWAT officer,” says a windswept journalist. Behind her, a crowd of con-goers in cosplay and nerdy tee shirts wave at the camera as they pass. “Authorities have advised that Meadowlark does not pose a threat to the public despite conjecture that Fellowship members are being held in a hotel downtown, near the convention center.”
“Yo.” She turns in a circle, hands pressed to either side of her face, looking at the various piles of equipment on the floor but not approaching any of them. “Do you think he would guest on my podcast?”
“They just said he stabbed a SWAT officer.” Even though I’m the one reminding her, I can’t help but watch him and wish… Looking at him feels like magic. Could it be real, everything I’ve heard about the Fellowship? This Meadowlark looks like he could relieve an orc of its head, and he’s wearing denim. Something to do with his eyes and the way he holds himself, even as an armored SWAT officer leads him handcuffed into a car.
“Do you think they can really do magic?” I hold my breath, feel my heart beat with slow intent against my chest. Dare to look at Lilian.
She’s cramming a handful of escaped cables back into her bag when she says, “No.” Then, “Wait.” She stares at me. “Do you? You don’t, right?” Her eyebrows shoot up her forehead without waiting for my answer. “You do.”
“I think…” How the fuck do I answer this? Lilian knows more about me than anyone else in the world. She invited me to sleep on her couch when I couldn’t afford to stay in the dorms, so we’ve had more late-night conversations than a group of middle schoolers at a sleepover. She was the first person I told out loud that I wanted to be a professional cosplayer. Not a career goal you share with your college advisor—or your parents, it turned out. At least my advisor didn’t revoke my financial support when I told him.
Even though we lived together for almost a decade—even though we still share hotel rooms at cons, when Lilian can afford her own room thanks to being a famous podcaster and having a Grey’s Anatomy–level hot doctor girlfriend—I’ve never told her just how badly I want it all to be real, whichever “all” that is. Any kind of magic, any fantasy you could name. I’m not picky, only desperate. Now that I have my own (small) apartment, I can even walk around dressed like an elf or wizard or slayer, and no one will call me weird. It’s socially acceptable to dress up for other people, but not for yourself, and definitely not because your deepest desire is that the costume adhere to your body, and the illusion become reality.
So, yeah, I’ve watched every documentary on the Fellowship I could find. If there’s any magic in this goddamn world, that’s where it would be. They claim to have it, so why not believe them? Lilian zips her bag closed, finishing the motion as if she’d been on pause. “I’m going to leave you to finish what is clearly some deep soul-searching. I’ve got to go.” She slings her bag over her shoulders then hikes her leggings back up over her belly with a jump. Somehow, she’s managed to avoid putting holes in them with her stiletto nails—hot pink, today. “If you see this Meadowlark dude, give him my card.” With a wink, she’s gone.
I stand in full cosplay while the news anchors continue to discuss the Fellowship in the background. I couldn’t answer Lilian, because I’m unsure what to think of all this—what to think of myself. It scares me how badly I do want to meet Meadowlark and also how nervous I am to. Right now, I live in a place of hope. Where magic could be real. Where this Anointed guy could go all Edward Cullen on me and open a world of blood and monsters. I want it more than anything. I also have to pee, dammit.
Excerpted from First, Become Ashes, copyright © 2021 by K.M. Szpara.