No one likes to think of themselves as jealous. It’s not only a bad look, but it sabotages your relationship with your friends and family. Sabotages your own well-being. It’s a place Deryn has lived for a long time. Just another fellow, sewing and mending clothes for the Fellowship while their brother is worshipped for his skills with magic and combat: Meadowlark, the Anointed, the perfect. But, on the other side of the fence, after their leader is arrested and powerless, Deryn is the one chosen. By the FBI. To return to their old home on Druid Hill and help with the investigation. So, of course Lark appears. Of course the FBI forgets about Deryn and chases after their brother. But, this time, Deryn is determine to lead.
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.
DERYN / NOW
I stand near the entrance to the commune like an abandoned doll. I came here to help Agent Miller, but, of course, she and Kane ran off the second she saw Lark. After a shinier toy. I shift my weight, not leaving the place they left me—I could if I wanted to. This was my home too. I know its paths and places. I’m not a prisoner; I can go. But, where?
I stuff my hands into the pockets of the coat one of the social workers gave me. It’s purple and shiny and the material whirrs when I scrape my nails over it. Kane didn’t want one. Too bulky, he’d said, too hot. But I thought it was nice to have options, to style myself in something besides muted earth tones.
Ten minutes pass before he appears over the hill, alone. Mouth a taut line, forehead furrowed. Hands balled into fists, he storms down the path toward me, looking into the distance at Miller’s car, as if he’s going to drive off on his own.
“What happened?” I ask when he’s within earshot. Still, he doesn’t look at me. It’s odd even talking to him. Fellows and Anointed rarely cross paths, and then only during rituals and meals. Since we crossed the fence, I’ve had to work myself up every time I wanted to speak to him. How ridiculous. He’s no better than me—even he doesn’t think so anymore.
“Kane.” I turn my body to follow him as he nears. “Kane, where’d Lark—”
When I use Lark’s name he sees me. As if, until then, I was a tree to walk around. “She shot him.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Miller shot him? With what?” My words are breathy with… hope? I feel the curl in my lips. A smile? I know Miller didn’t kill Lark, or Kane wouldn’t be throwing a tantrum. He’d be sobbing on the ground, inconsolable. He’d wail like the sirens that sound outside the fence.
“With a gun.” Kane stops when he reaches me, as Miller comes jogging over the hill. Her suit jacket is unbuttoned, gun visible in its holster, hair falling out of its sleek hold.
“Where?” I ask, but my question is lost to Miller’s arrival. It’s probably for the best. I force my lips into a straight line, mimicking Kane’s anger.
Miller doesn’t slow. She digs her keys from her pocket and barrels toward the car. “Get in.”
But Kane doesn’t move, so I don’t either. I stand off to the side like one of the teachers supervising recreation. I watch and wait for him to combust. For Miller to react. She holds the door open and looks between us—as if I have any stake in what just happened. I don’t care about Lark. I’ve tried to be his sibling numerous times, and he’s reminded me consistently that I am not. That he’s Anointed and I’m a Fellow. He’s someone and I’m no one.
“Let’s get you two back to the hotel,” Miller says. “I’ll send out a team to pick up Lark.”
Kane doesn’t move. He pinches his fingers together and punctuates his words. “You shot him.”
“Why are we still arguing over this?” Annoyance threads her voice. “I wasn’t aiming for anything vital. The situation would be under control right now, if you hadn’t grabbed at my gun.”
An Anointed charging in to save the day and fucking things up. I roll my eyes.
“You shouldn’t even have been pointing it.” He scowls.
“Look,” Miller says, waving him off. “We’ll get Lark medical help, as soon as they bring him in.”
“Absolutely not,” Kane says. “You think I’m going to let you call more outsiders with guns? We need to go get him ourselves.”
Miller already has her phone out. A ring emanates from its speaker. “I’m calling for backup. You can come back to the hotel with us or not.”
“I can testify or not.” He stares at Miller. Challenges her.
My heart is in my damn throat, and I’m choking on it. I’ve only ever seen Kane prostrate himself before authority, but we can object now. Can make choices outside what’s handed to us.
I take a chance. “I’ll testify. Let’s go back to the hotel. We don’t need Kane—or Lark.”
Miller doesn’t even look at me. She holds Kane’s gaze. “You’re really going to risk Nova going free?”
“Yes,” he says. “If it means Lark’s safe. You just shot him! I can’t imagine what a bunch of agents will do.”
“They’ll take him to the hospital, and then bring him back to the hotel.”
Kane crosses his arms. Looks at his feet. Why is Miller even allowing this to drag out? “Lark can take care of himself,” he finally mumbles. “Better than outsiders would.”
“Hello?” a tinny voice says from Miller’s phone. “Miller, can you hear me?”
She holds the phone in front of her face, not speaking, not looking at it. She bites her lip. “False alarm, ma’am. I’ll contact you with any updates.”
The person in the phone sighs. “Thank you, Agent.”
Miller pockets the phone and strolls toward Kane, eyes trailing up his body, sizing him up. I can’t decide who I want to win. I hate that, even on the outside, an Anointed One gets all the attention, holds all the power. But I need Miller to need us. Need me.
“You don’t need Kane.” I step between them. “I can testify for you. I can even help your team track down Lark—he’s my brother.” That doesn’t feel like much. But what is real? If there was never magic, what does Kane have that I don’t?
Miller looks between us. Doesn’t even look at me when she says, “No. I need Kane’s testimony, if not Lark’s.”
“But, why? I told you, I was Anointed as a child; it clearly doesn’t mean anything.”
Kane rolls his eyes. “It means everything. Just not in the way you think.” He clips his words.
“He’s right, Deryn.” Miller’s face slackens. She shakes her head and looks at me, sympathetic for the first time. “I’m sorry.”
“Doubt it,” I mutter.
“I won’t call for backup—we can bring Lark home ourselves—if you agree to testify,” she tells Kane. She’s back to ignoring me, but I will stand up for myself.
Kane works himself back up. “If Lark’s hurt—”
“—I will make sure he gets appropriate medical attention; I would still like him to testify.” Miller smooths her loosed hairs back into place, then opens the car door. “Ride in the front with me, Deryn.”
I perk up at the sound of my name. At the scowl that crosses Kane’s face, when he’s denied special treatment. Being Anointed doesn’t mean what it used to. They’re not special anymore. They can be wrong. They can be hurt. And I don’t feel one bit sorry that the thought warms me inside.
Excerpted from First, Become Ashes, copyright © 2021 by K.M. Szpara.