It was the nineteenth hour on Shia’s eighteenth birthday when the stones first fell from the sky.
The Bander family was gathered around their dinner table, consuming a celebration meal while hundreds of stones silently and swiftly hurtled toward their city. This was not a matter of small, harmless hailstones the likes of which are frequently spat from dark storm clouds, but large, jagged rocks the size of a man’s head—specifically selected for maximum destruction.
Kohleh, Shia’s father, was the first to hear a distant scream, alerting his keen ears to the fact that something was amiss. As the faint yell clung to the cold night air, Kohleh froze mid-bite, tuning his senses to forsake his immediate surroundings and lock in on the incident in the distance. Another scream, this time begging for help, pervaded the cold darkness of the new night that had recently settled on the mountain city of Iyravir.
“What’s the matter, Kohleh?” Tanja, Kohleh’s wife, inquired.
“Did you hear something outside?” Kohleh said, head slightly cocked, attention focused elsewhere.
Aboron, Shia’s younger brother by nearly seven years, placed the chicken thigh he had been carnivorously tearing through onto his plate and replied, “I did, Papa. It sounded like a cry for help.”
Kohleh stood up from the table and set his napkin on the dinner plate in front of himself. Tanja mimicked his motion. She placed her hand on his forearm and said, “It was probably nothing, Kohleh. Even if someone is in need, let Ratsach handle it tonight. Sit down and enjoy your son’s birthday feast.”
Kohleh hesitated and turned his head slightly to the left as he searched for any other noises in the night.
The foundation of the house trembled. Shia put down his own cup and stood beside his father.
Kohleh walked coolly to the north window and peered out into the blackness. A faint yellowish-red glow flickered to life on the horizon. Fire!
“Tanja, there’s a blaze a half-mile off!” Kohleh said as he darted for his jacket.
She crossed her arms and said, “Let Ratsach handle—”
An enormous stone breached their roof, angrily forcing itself through the thatching.
The loud crack from above caused the entire Bander family to flinch and cover their heads. This small act of self-defense was not enough to keep Aboron out of harm’s way. The stone that had intruded on their family dinner fell with a great force directly onto the eleven-year-old’s lap, snapping his right femur midway up the thigh with a sickening crunch.
A blood-curdling yell came from the depths of Aboron’s lungs as the heat and pain of the impact spread up and down his body then settled into his leg. One scream was all he could manage before his brain decided the pain was too unbearable to endure consciously. His head and shoulders slumped as his torso folded forward.
This time the scream came from the unconscious boy’s mother. Tanja rushed to Aboron’s side and attempted to roll the weighty stone off his small lap, but its weight proved too much for her slight build. Kohleh crossed the room in two large strides, lifted the stone off his son, hoisted it above his head, and furiously threw it aside. With Shia’s help, he gently lifted Aboron from the chair and laid him flat on the tile floor. The seriousness of the injury became immediately apparent as his leg took on the grotesque shape of an upside-down “L.”
Calm despite the chaos—with his son gravely injured and screams rising in the night outside—Kohleh looked steadily at Shia, “Go find Rophe. Aboron needs the help of the healer.”
Shia nodded assent, doing his best to remain as calm as his father, though in his mind a stormy sea tossed his confidence to and fro like a ship in a tempest.
Without pausing to pull on his winter coat, Shia bolted through the door but was stopped dead in his tracks before he could take three steps into the night. All around him, large stones—some on fire—were falling from the sky. People ran wildly out of their houses in sheer panic while multiple conflagrations roared madly through the homes of Iyravir. Meri Feldt, a girl close to Shia’s age who lived in the house next to the Bander family, knelt motionless in the middle of the street, blood on her hands as she wept over her father whose head was caved in from the impact of a fallen stone.
A soft whizzing noise grew louder behind Shia followed by another loud crack as a second rock—this one flaming—broke through the roof of his home. He heard his mother scream again, solidifying his decision to turn around and reenter the burning house. The blazing stone had knocked over a five-pronged candelabra, and the two flaming sources caught the expansive rug underneath the kitchen table ablaze. Aboron’s motionless body rested on the rug.
The flames moved rapidly down the carpet, but not faster than Shia and his father. They pulled Aboron out of reach of the licking blaze. Tanja filled a bowl usually meant for ceremonial washing and cast the water upon the fire, barely hindering its progress before the flames leaped from the rug to the walls and spread like wildfire all around the small home made of wood and clay and straw.
“Shia, help your mother out of the house,” Kohleh said, “I can handle Aboron. Do not try to fight the fire—your life is far more important than any material.” He then got to work, grabbing the nearest blanket to swaddle Aboron before lifting him and taking him outside.
Watching the only home he had ever known go up in flames, Shia rushed to his mother’s side and aided her through the door. The family of four moved twenty feet from the burning building before turning around to watch the malignant fire eat away at their only possessions.
Shia shivered in the cold—he had forgotten his jacket on the chair inside. Kohleh took off his own coat and wrapped it around his quivering son.
“Shia, now more than ever your brother needs Rophe. Forget the fire for the moment and find him. We’ll pause and mourn our loss together when the time is right, but now the moment calls for action. Go!”
Shia turned left and ran. He muttered a quiet prayer that the healer’s house would be standing, unharmed by the stoney massacre. As he ran, Shia kept his eyes high to spot the silently streaking shadows in the sky. Several close calls and a near-fatal hit to the chest caused him to question each footfall, but his reflexes were fast enough to avoid the oncoming missiles.
“Shia!” came a desperate call to his right.
He locked his legs and came to a quick stop.
“Have you seen Eve?” Pera Fier pleaded. “She left for a walk just a half-hour before …” he didn’t need to finish. “Has she been with you at all tonight?”
Shia shook his head and lied, “I’m afraid not, Master Fier. I haven’t seen her since yesterday.”
She, in fact, had been by Shia’s house earlier that evening, begging him to go to Deadman’s Shelf with her. He had promised to meet her there after his birthday dinner. “If I happen to see her tonight, I’ll tell her to find you.”
Pera nodded as Shia began running again. The dinner he had greedily been consuming mere minutes ago sat heavily in his belly, and an image of Eve sat heavily in his mind.
She was the most independent girl Shia had ever had the pleasure of knowing. Though she was not very tall, the confidence she carried embedded herself in others’ memories as being of considerable height. Her golden, tanned skin shone richly in the bright sun during her favorite season of the year: summer. But when the elements betrayed her into wearing warmer coats to fend off the cold winter, genetics still allowed her to maintain a healthy olive complexion. Her thick and undulating hair fell in varying layers of milk chocolate and dark chocolate coloring. Like her skin, her eyes were golden. Whenever he was fortunate enough to lock eyes with her, he felt very rich indeed.
A blast of heat knocked him out of his reverie and off course as the roof of a house to his left collapsed in on itself, buckling underneath the burnt and weakening frame of the walls below it. A stifled whimper sounded as he passed by the family of the destroyed home. They cried over the loss of their home. They cried out of sheer confusion. They cried because the violence surrounding them seemed so senseless. What is happening? That was the first time the thought had crossed his mind.
Rophe, the healer, lived in a dwelling less than a quarter-mile ahead, nestled in the far southwest corner of Iyravir. His home was part of a cluster of buildings that were built less than three feet from where the ground dropped off suddenly into nothing. The edifice acted as a barrier for this particular section of the city—one of the few places where something other than the Wall protected the edge. The property here was the most expensive private real estate in the Sky City—the view from the west-facing windows overlooked the cliff, unhindered and particularly breathtaking at sunset.
Shia knocked on the rough wooden door marking the entrance to Rophe’s home.
Boom. Another stone landed just yards behind him.
Shia cursed and knocked again. He was a fool to think the healer would be home in the midst of such chaos. The only healer in the city, Rophe was likely the most sought-after person in Iyravir tonight.
Shia knocked again, pushing a splinter into the knuckle of his third finger. He yelled, brought the finger to his lips, and sucked. The small piece of wood vacuumed into his mouth along with a few tiny drops of blood. He carefully picked the shard off his tongue and flicked it to the side as he swallowed the taste of iron.
“He’s on his way to Cloudhall.”
Shia twitched, startled by the sudden presence of Navi, the so-called prophet—though Shia had his doubts. Navi did not affiliate himself with the Order of Priests, who maintained the Temple and were known to go about God’s work. Shia feared the prophet more than he revered him. Navi was a man in his late fifties, an inch shorter than Shia, with grey hair, and crystal blue eyes—the same color Shia saw in his own watery reflection when the cisterns were full. The left half of Navi’s face presented a bone structure suggesting he may have once been very handsome, but now a long, jagged, and gruesome scar ran from the middle of his forehead, down his nose and across his right cheek. Shia had never ventured to inquire about the origin of the ugly scar, but the rumor was that the prophet’s story changed every time he was questioned. Shia doubted whether the true story had ever been told. He had always sensed something was slightly off about the prophet. Whenever the occasion arose that they were in the same place, which was rare, Navi tended to look at Shia as if he knew something no one else did. It always made Shia shiver.
Navi continued, “If you return home, I’ve no doubt he’ll find you. Your brother’s life is safe, and his leg will heal in due time.”
“H-how did you know he—?” Shia began but didn’t finish, stuttering only partially because of the cold.
Navi didn’t respond. He turned around and sauntered into the blackness without another word. Shia shook in the frigid air and stared at the prophet’s back as he walked away. Navi stepped with the confidence of a man who was unafraid. Fiery stones rained down from the sky, but Navi moved as if the freezing night was still and peaceful. A heavy rock whirled past him, missing his head by no less than a foot, but he didn’t flinch. Three more paces and he stepped intentionally two feet to the left; five seconds later another stone landed directly to his right. He walked as if he knew.
Shia blinked and remembered where he was. He pumped his legs as fast as they would carry him toward the middle of the city—toward Cloudhall. A small herd of mountain goats whined as they ran past him on the dirt road in the opposite direction. No doubt their pen had been smashed by the assaulting stones, and they were now free to roam the city in panic.
As the road to the Sky City’s palace brought him back to the place where he’d grown up, he slowed. His home was now a burning mess of wood and cloth and all the things his family had ever owned. His mother sat on the frigid ground, a blanket draped over her shoulders as she stroked Aboron’s black hair. His brother lay unconscious, and for a moment Shia thought he was dead, but then Aboron’s chest rose with a soft inhale.
“How’s he doing?” Shia asked, knowing there was no answer.
“He looks peaceful,” his mother replied, speaking softly as salty tears ran down her cheeks.
Boom. A stone landed ten feet from them.
Shia looked as his brother’s leg where a makeshift splint fashioned out of two small sticks and a few twines of hemp held the broken limb. The bone remained unset. His father must have feared further damage if he tried to snap it back into place without the help of Rophe. “Where is Papa?” Shia asked.
Tanja broke her gaze from Aboron’s face and looked sweetly at Shia. “He went to find Ratsach at Cloudhall.” Her eyes fell to the ground. “Shia, what’s happening?”
This night begged too many questions and offered too few answers.
“Is the boy conscious?” a small yet commanding voice asked behind them. “Kohleh informed me of the incident.”
Rophe limped—quite swiftly, Shia thought—to where they were situated on the ground. “No,” whispered Tanja.
“It’s no matter. He will be in a few moments, to be sure,” the healer said tersely, his eyes staring unblinkingly at the splinted leg. Shia didn’t want to imagine the sorts of things Rophe had witnessed this evening—flesh and blood and bone, displaced.
The healer bent his knees and brought himself low to the ground, squatting like a frog next to Aboron’s leg. He hovered his hands six inches over the broken femur as if he were gathering unseen information from the shattered bone. He began muttering a quiet prayer under his breath. Shia couldn’t make out every word, but he caught a few: God help … pain unbearable … sustain his life …
Rophe snapped his eyes open. “Shia, come around to his feet and hold them down. Tanja, do the same for his shoulders. When I set the bone, he’ll regain consciousness in a most unwelcome way, and when he thrashes, you must hold him still. If he knocks the bone out of place again, we’ll have to repeat the process, and believe me, that is most undesirable.”
Tanja’s tears, though silent, ran in tiny rivulets down her face. Shia grabbed his brother’s ankles and steadied his breathing.
“On my count. Remember, hold him still.”
The healer gripped one hand on Aboron’s upper thigh and the other just above his knee. “One … two … three.”
With a hard yank and a grinding crunch of bone the leg straightened.
And Aboron’s agonized scream cut the night like a knife.