Doubt is terrifying. It gives you the power to change your entire world. It gives Kane the power to destroy his—to destroy that of the Fellowship. Over the course of his twenty-five years, he was taught that monsters had corrupted humanity, that pain is magic, and that, as the oldest, he would be the first to leave. The first to fight. But the Fellowships teachings never felt right to Kane. How could they be when they hurt him and his fellow Anointed? When he discovered a break in the fence, Kane’s doubt became hope. A terrifying hope that maybe, if he could be brave enough, he might be able to save the ones he loves—save Lark—from a lifetime of pain and lies.
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.
KANE / CONFIDENTIAL
I’d had my eye on the outside world for a while. As a child, stories of monsters and FOEs made me curious. When my powers manifested, and I started taking guard duty, I became fixated on the outsiders who walked past. After I turned twenty, when Nova started extracting my fluids for potions and rituals, I yearned for the other side. But it was her setting up Elder Zephyr’s “blessing” that drove me there.
There was a portion of the fence along the northern side of the hill that was obscured by trees and prickle bushes, even when the leaves fell. I liked to stand there and watch the outside. Used to imagine that’s what movies were like. It wasn’t a busy area. There was one wide road, mottled with potholes and rusting construction equipment, that traced the perimeter before ending at the fence. One of the old park entrances. From there, I could see rows of houses. The only outsiders who paused to stare seemed to be passing through; the ones who lived nearby ignored us. I’d guess they thought we were good neighbors. Never made any noise. Kept the land in shape.
I didn’t do anything heroic or on purpose. All I did was lean against the pickets and feel the iron shift. The fence shouldn’t shift. It was driven deep into the ground, sturdy enough to withstand a car crashing into it and warded with Nova’s own magic.
I glanced around the forest and listened for footsteps, making sure I was alone before looking more closely at the metal. It had rusted along a seam—and why not? It was an old fence, and this section was choked in thorns, hard to reach for maintenance. When you think your fence is protected by magic, what impetus do you have to reinforce it?
What would Nova even have told us? That the wards we strengthen with rituals and herbs and a line of our own seed weren’t enough? That she needed to hire outsider contractors to fix what we couldn’t? Suspicious at best, horrifying and corrupt at worst. Lark and the others probably would’ve excused it, somehow. Maybe I was always a lost cause, because I yanked on the bar, and it broke off. I remember looking at the iron picket in my hands like a rib I’d ripped from my own chest. Immediately, I fitted it back into the hole in the ground and returned to the commune.
But I went back the next day. I removed the picket and held it in my hand. The weight of it balanced in my fingers was all the proof I needed to know what I’d done was real. That the fence was vulnerable.
The day after, I stepped through, taking the picket with me, like I was still within the fence’s boundaries if I brought a piece with me.
The fourth time I visited the weak spot, I left the picket behind. As soon as I let go and my foot touched ground outside the fence, my body lit up. Exhilaration flowed through me like magic—at first, I thought that’s what it was! But magic never felt that good. Magic was work, like lifting a heavy weight. This new feeling was effortless, made me feel light as a leaf in the wind.
Quietly, I made my way down to the wide road with its crumbling gravel and piles of old metal. I hurried up it, worried a patrol might see me if I lingered. I didn’t get very far. Across the street, I found a small grassy area with stone steps and benches where outsiders walked their dogs—it took me a minute to place the furry beasts.
We’d learned about them accompanying FOEs, though these were playful. They jumped on me and wagged their tails. When I leaned close, they licked me with their big fat tongues, slobbering all over my face. I didn’t know how to talk to outsiders or even how to act, but somehow my body knew how to play with the dogs. I went to that park every day for a week straight, until the outsiders got used to me. They started to say hi, to teach me the names of all their dogs. I even told one of them my name and pronouns and they reciprocated. Their name was Ashir and they had short blue-and-green hair. Their dog’s name was Marley, and she was a miniature poodle.
It was going fine until they asked the question I’d been dreading: “Do you live around here?”
I bent down to scratch behind Marley’s ears, putting off the answer. I had to answer. Should I lie? I could hear my heart beating like it was in my ears. If I lied, they might ask where I’d come from, and I didn’t know anywhere else. I could think of no reason why I would be hanging out in a faraway park, playing with other people’s dogs.
“Yes,” I said, hoping the answer would suffice.
“Cool, I’m on Keystone, near Rockrose. You’d be welcome to come over whenever. We just got a grill and my partner is hankering to use it.”
Partner. Longing coursed through me. I wished Lark was with me—wanted him by my side. To bring him to Ashir’s house to meet their partner and dog.
“That sounds great,” I said. As if I could make plans! But it felt good to say, even if it was only pretend. Ashir and I weren’t friends; they were an outsider. We weren’t even supposed to be talking, much less grilling together.
I looked over my shoulder at the fence, as if making sure it was still there. “I’ve got to go.”
“Okay,” they said. “Feel free to knock on my door and say hi.” They smiled and tugged on Marley’s leash. I watched them turn a corner and disappear, making note of the way to Keystone. Ashir had their own home with their partner, where no one told them what to do.
I didn’t return to the park for a week. I was scared that the next time I went I wouldn’t come back, that I’d never see Lark again. My chest ached thinking about it, the pain worse than the knife, worse than the brand or the cat. When I was tempted to run to the broken picket, I ran to Lark instead. I pulled him away from lunch and down the path toward the cave where we stored our tools. Dropped to my knees and rested my forehead against his jeans.
“I need you to hurt me.”
Lark ran his fingers over my hair, tracing my braids. “Okay,” he whispered, then kissed the top of my head. “Okay.”
I chose the flogger because I knew it would bruise. I wanted to feel too sore tomorrow to venture outside the fence. Lark wasn’t brutal by nature, but he took magic seriously, and his swing was strong. I let him hit me until my groans became cries, became screams, became sobs. Until even the smooth touch of his palm against my skin felt like fire.
He offered to carry me back to our quarters, but there was nowhere he could put pressure that didn’t hurt. So, he walked slowly, letting me lean on him as we made our way to bed. It was only afternoon still. Zadie and Maeve were training, and I’m sure they’d noticed our absence. But Lark unbuckled my harness and peeled my clothes away, the layers like flower petals. He kissed each of my bruises, unwound my braids, and washed my hair.
This was why I had to stay. I had to stay for Lark. I didn’t want to think what it would do to him if I left, let alone how Nova would punish him for my transgression. As we lay together, afterwards, hair still damp, bruises blossoming across my shoulders and thighs, I imagined us at Ashir’s house, struggling to conjure an image that contained both Lark and a grill. Imagined what Lark would make of Marley, the dog that was very much not a monster.
We’d accomplished what I set out for, though. After that discipline, I couldn’t move for days. I was excused from most training sessions because every shifting muscle hurt. But as the weeks passed, and the bruises faded from purple to muddy gray, I felt the pull again. The temptation.
Lark returned one evening from performing a blessing—we never spoke about these private rituals, but Nova continued them with me, so I assumed Lark continued them with the Elders—and slid into bed beside me. He had his own, but neglected it more often than not. After the blessing, he usually passed out, exhausted, while I lay awake unable to shake the memories of Elder Zephyr fucking him. I couldn’t sleep—couldn’t live with myself any longer while Nova put Lark through that over and over.
When I was sure Lark was asleep, I carefully extricated myself from his arms and dressed in the dark. I left behind my harness and snuck out of the commune, down the path to the woods. Patrols were easier to spot at night because of the glowing potion we used to light our paths. I made sure to locate each of them before heading for the weak spot. Before pulling up the pike, slipping through, and sliding it home as if it were still rooted firmly in the ground.
The other side of the fence was quiet. No dogs were barking and only one car drove down the road. I waited until it passed to cross, then walked east, the way I’d seen Ashir leave the park. Walked until I reached a sign that read keystone and another at the top of the road that read rockrose. But there were a dozen houses lining the street on both sides and most of them looked the same. How was I supposed to know which one?
The grill. Ashir’s partner had a new grill, and grills were kept outside. I ran around to the alley and looked for grills. I found three. Which house, which house? I bit down on my fist and screamed, the frustration like a knife in my side. I pressed my back against the weak wire fence around one of the houses, unable to bear the thought that it might not be Ashir’s. That I’d never find it. That I’d return alone and hopeless, unable to help the person I loved the most.
That’s when the back door flew open and a sharp voice shouted, “Hey!” A dog barked—a familiar bark. A well-known tiny monster. I jumped to my feet to find Ashir brandishing a wooden club, their partner standing on the porch holding a shiny metal rectangle.
Ashir stopped when they saw me. Rubbed their eyes. “Kane? What are you—”
I braced myself on their fence as they lowered their weapon and approached. Marley darted out of the house and toward me, wagging her tail. Ashir’s partner relaxed and called out, “You okay?”
Ashir nodded and opened both the gate and their arms, which I fell into without words. As I sobbed, they invited me inside and made me a disposable cup full of noodles with salty broth. Steeped tea for me. Waited and listened while I explained that I’d come from Druid Park, that I was a member of the Fellowship of the Anointed. They weren’t surprised. They helped me contact the FBI, even though they didn’t normally like to call their outsider authorities. Said an agent had given out their business card to those in the surrounding neighborhoods in case anyone saw anything. Ashir said they’d suspected something about me, but hadn’t been sure. That I was welcome to stay until help came, but I declined. I couldn’t spend a whole night away. Lark would notice. He would tell Nova.
You know the rest. That’s why I had to wait until my quest—I couldn’t risk it. But it won’t be long now. I’m going to lose Lark when the FBI shows up. He’s going to hate me; I already hate myself. But it’s for the best. For all of us.
Excerpted from First, Become Ashes, copyright © 2021 by K.M. Szpara.