Fourteen years in the future, the second Scitha invasion is imminent and this time, there seems to be no hope of survival for the nature-loving society of the Rift. Leah Esvane, now aged 21, is more gifted than Caia. Feisty and passionate, she is also very like her mother, with whom she agrees on nothing. Leah can also mind-join across time, and perhaps find a way to prevent the emergence of City 5, even if this means she can no longer exist.
As the conflict begins, Leah seeks a host 17,000 years in the past and mind-joins with trainee fighter pilot Leanne Tai, who is on the point of death from an air crash. Her objective is to find and kill John Mack.
When Leah awakens within her host, the seven survival cities are already being constructed, and a pulse weapon is also being designed that will destroy not only the invasion, but all technology on the surface. There’s a chance that the same technology exists in her own time – and she has no idea what the death of John Mack would mean for her people. As Leah gets to know John and his family, and assumes the life of Leanne Tai, the choice becomes impossible.
Meanwhile, Caia has to find a way to impede the Scitha and buy time for Leah, even if it means the sacrifice of her beloved dragons and endangering the forests of the Rift. Some of the Outlanders, led by the sadistic commander Hol Xan and his centurions, want to side with the Scitha. Eventually, Caia must confront the Scitha Prime, calling upon all her magic to buy time for Leah. But Leah has got to know John Mack and his family, and Leanne has a complex life. And if Leah kills John Mack, then she and her sister Asha will no longer exist. How else can their world be saved? The only alternative is a gamble – to find and somehow re-arm the magnetic pulse weapon that was used so long ago, if the people from the city can join with Caia’s people and work as one.
Leah gains the trust of the shadowy people running the air base, partly because of her uncanny insight into their enemy. She is taken deep below the main building to an underground hangar, where a surprise awaits. A sanctum is kept there – one of the strange, ring-shaped craft used by the People of White, navigators to the Scitha. There is a solitary occupant who seems to be able to communicate by thought alone. He says he will only communicate with one person – Leah Esvane.
Leah Esvane stood alone on the windswept headland overlooking the Birdsong Estuary. It was late September, and the deciduous trees of the forest were already turning to russet and gold under a cold blue sky. The Rift People were busy harvesting acorns and berries, and singing their traditional songs, but not Leah. She drew deeply on the chan-pipe and felt her senses twang. She had never felt so aware of her body, but also so free. She span around laughing with her arms outstretched, and the world continued spinning when she stopped. She dropped to the springy turf and laughed some more, until it began to sound crazy even to her. City 5 was still there, squatting on the edge of the sea, and how much she detested it. The city was vast, the far side lost in the early evening mists. Over ten miles wide, some said. One hundred foot high. When she was little, the city was a monstrous, five-armed, rusting replica of a starfish. Then it was destroyed, but not dead. Now it lived again, but this time, gleaming spires rose from the centre. Unoccupied other than the Feelers, as far as she could tell, and the blind engineers kept themselves to themselves. She had refused to go back inside the place after what had happened thirteen years before – the world had moved on, but she had not. It was not easy to forget a war between two such cities, and to see the white heat of dragon fire sear through the endless twisting passageways, or see people falling and writhing in flames. Leah could still hear the devastating thunderclap that hammered down when the city of Rax at the entrance to the bay erupted in steam and flame. The calm grey waters had been filled with burned corpses, and it was Leah who caused the deaths of the sea people – she and her mother Caia and the ghosts of the aunt she had never met, and an ancient crone called Aris Dol who had been her mother’s teacher. Now, Leah could not look into a hearth or sit beside a song-fire, preferring to be in the safety of cold night air.
She drew on the pipe and let the chan blot out her memories. Chan was her friend and her confidant. She lay on her back, watching the swifts as they soared and darted. Then she was seeing the air-world through their eyes and the mind-join happened so easily, almost without being aware. She darted across the headland, wheeling back and saw a flame-haired, barefoot skinny girl wearing a tattered black uniform that was too small for her. The girl looked very like Caia Esvane, with high cheekbones and brooding eyes that dominated all other features, but these were emerald green instead of black. The girl looked like she should smile more often. The swift swept across the sky and then the mind-join was broken abruptly, but not by her. Leah opened her eyes and was afraid.
The rings in the sky had been there for so many years that people no longer noticed. They were like ripples in water, frozen in time since the city war. Now the rings were moving, and Leah could sense the change. The light was different, harder. The swifts were gone as fast as they came. The forest held its breath. She watched as the giant circles in the heavens slowly rotated, and the sky within them grew darker as if seen through a lens. The edge of Alpa Tapana, the giant red sun, lay behind the circles and even that was darkened to the colour of dried blood. Tiny points of space debris streaked across the sky, leaving trails of white. They had been circling Eco for over 17,000 years, but now, something was changing and it was bad. Then she saw an ancient crone dressed in black rags, who was trying to speak, but when she looked again there was no one. Leah put the chan-pipe and flints back in their hiding place and ran back to the village.
It was dusk by the time Leah arrived, barely out of breath after running twenty miles. The village of Fern was far bigger than it used to be – more of a town now. She reached the outskirts, where the poorly built tree-houses of refugees from both cities lived in ghettos. City 5 people did their best to copy the spherical houses of Rifters, but the new survivors from Rax were still struggling with the idea of life on land, decorating their homes with pathetic mats of seaweed and leaving the ground littered with discarded fishbones. Leah padded across the leafy floor. The autumn evening was already chill and she could smell frost in the air. A drumming session was underway from the central space, and she could smell wood smoke from the song-fire. Her parents would be there with Asha, busy indoctrinating her into the ways of the Rift. Leah felt the usual resentment bubbling away, but it had lessened in recent years. Caia had spared nothing in lecturing her about her faults. Jealous of her younger sister – ‘sibling rivalry’ – selfish and so on. Just words. But Leah was old enough now to acknowledge secretly, and begrudgingly, that perhaps there was some truth in what her mother said. She just shouldn’t say it that way. At least Caia did not know about Ross Zane, and the feel of the Centurion’s strong hands, and what they did together deep in the forest. That made Leah smile. The smile dropped when she thought of what her father might do if he found out. In her mother’s day, she would have been banished to the Outlands for such a heresy – even though she herself bonded with a Centurion. Leah walked between the colossal trunks of the oaks and iron trees, glancing up at the swaying houses as she stroked the rough bark and listened to the voices of the trees. Many windows flickered with candle-light amongst the ruddy leaves, and it was beautiful.
She reached the edge of the clearing and leaned against a tree. The fire at the centre was just getting started, and men were walking towards it in their russet clothes before bowing reverently and placing sticks on it, singing thanks to the Great Tree – a willow-bearded green giant armed with a spear of light. They sang about how the Great Tree once rode upon Dolor the first dragon, and life then sprang forth from the twisted spires of rock that littered the Rift. Caia was there with thirteen-year-old Asha, a perfect replica of her mother with silver hair and jet-black eyes. Flame-haired, green-eyed Leah was the image of the Royals who once ruled over City 5, and strikingly similar to Hedra Darke, once the despotic queen of the city. Her father’s old friends from their city days were busily drumming and laughing. Hath Ban was leading them, a lean, tattooed warrior. Laura Zobe sat beside him, sharing his drum, and her black and white dreadlocks writhed like snakes around her piebald face. Leah didn’t like Hath Ban, the one-time waste disposal drone who became a warrior and a hero. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, as if he could see all her faults. As if he knew she had once tried to betray them all. She wouldn’t have minded if he just lusted after her, like most men. Caia spotted her and got up, indicating to Asha to stay. She walked between the many people sitting cross-legged on the leafy ground, and they glanced up at her and smiled as if she was their saviour. She walked so effortlessly, so slight and beautiful. So desirable, still young, and so dangerous. And then she reached Leah, a head shorter than her tall daughter. She smiled up at her with those pitch-black eyes, and touched her face with a small, cool hand.
“Come to the fire, Leah. Sit you with us.”
“Why does you keep saying that? You knows I can’t.”
“A dragonwitch frightened of fire, that be a novelty. You mind-joined again. You promised me not to. You joins too often. I smells chan on you. I can smell something else too. Man-smell. What be you up to? Let me see this man.”
Leah smiled down at Caia, preventing the mind-join, knowing it would annoy her. “Be this the dragon-witch talking to me, or my mother?”
Caia took her hand away. “It’s both.”
“I ain’t no a child. I’m almost twenty. What were you doing, when you were twenty-three?”
Caia shot her a rare smile. The smile was beautiful. “That’s for me to know. Walk you with me, child. I won’t bite. Not this time, at any rate.”
“That’ll be a change then.”
They walked under the leafy boughs and the drumming faded, replaced by the soft sweet wind. A tawny owl hooted from very near, telling them about a night-worm that had passed that way not long before, but such things were no concern to dragon-witches.
“The rings in the sky be changing. I sees space debris and there was a lot. I thinks it came through the rings. It feels wrong. It feels bad.”
Caia gazed up at the fragments of sky between the many boughs. “Aye, I have seen this myself. There’s been changes for weeks now. People speaks of seeing ghosts.”
“No, this were different. I thought I saw my father, he were standing right in front of me and he were speaking, but I couldn’t hear nothing.”
“Wait – just now I seen an old woman dressed in black, and I think it be Aris Dol. She were pointing and saying something, but there was no sound.”
Caia seemed sad. “How I misses her, Leah. She were a mother to me, she taught me everything. She would’ve been saying that space-time is being twisted and bent, and there’s nowt we can do to stop it. She were warning us that we faces great peril. I’ve waited thirteen years for this, and prayed every day that it would never happen. The dragons feel it, can’t you tell?”
Leah closed her eyes for a moment, seeking her bond-dragon and finding Whiteflame far away, on one of the three moons. She was old now and running hot. And when they mind-joined, it was as if Whiteflame had been there all the time. Their conversation needed no time and no words, and below the thoughts was a well of love. She opened her eyes to see Caia smiling at her.
“What says your dragon? I heard none of it.”
Leah found it impossible to share. “What do Firestorm say?”
Caia found a fallen log and sat down, patting beside her. “He says the Scitha are coming, Leah. They are coming to wage war and take Eco from us, and this time our world has nothing to fight them with, apart from magic, and magic ain’t enough. We will have to run and hide deep in the forest, but even that may not save us. He says they have not forgotten what happened seventeen thousand years ago, but we has.”
Leah tried to absorb what she was hearing. “Will it be worse than the war with City 5, when Rax was destroyed? Will it be worse than that?”
Caia was holding her hand and this time, Leah did not pull away. “I fears so. This will be a war against Eco, as far as every horizon, even across the sea to the edge of the world.”
“can’t we summon the Great Tree to destroy them with his spear of light? Can’t the dragons burn them like they did to Rax?”
Caia’s hand felt cool and strong. “How many dragons should die, to save our world? Will you sacrifice Whiteflame?”
Leah felt her eyes burn with tears. “You can’t ask me that. You knows I can’t. She and I be soul-bonded.”
Caia gripped her hand hard enough to make her gasp. “It may come to that, sweetheart. We must do whatever it takes. Do you understand me? Whatever it takes. The world depends on us now, you, me and your sister Asha. But above all, it depends upon you.”
“I don’t understand – why me?”
Caia said, “You will find out soon enough.”