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Excerpt from Drift
by M. K. Hutchins
I followed the Tender through the corridors, trying to think of anything but Eflet's words. I am
the treason. I know everything. Oceans, why hadn't she told me? I'd fled Island Ita, just like her.
Left Father and Ven behind. Watched Mother die. I didn't deserve to know why?
What could Eflet have even done to earn the ire of Ita's Handlers? We were only children then.
I brushed my fingers against the wall, feeling its grain, trying to think of anything but Eflet. I
wouldn't fail because I was too frustrated to focus. For five years I'd lived without knowing. In
three years, when I could leave the Tree, I'd convince Eflet to tell me everything.
The walls looked hewed from the Tree's living wood -- pale, honey-colored, with a few knots.
The wood gave me no splinters, but it wasn't polished hard, either. It was . . . vaguely warm.
When the hall forked, the Tender took a sharp right. A Handler stood in front of an arched door.
His bare feet were freshly scrubbed and his uniform immaculate: loose breeches that cinched
around the knee and a darkly gleaming fishskin-tight shirt like the Tender's that left his stomach
bare. I self-consciously brushed my tattered cotton tunic. He wore the simple markings of a man
of power. I wore the garb of peasants who only existed because of the Handlers' protection.
"You will take the test now." The Handler opened the door. Awe and dread bubbled in my gut.
Gyr came out of these tests with forty-three gashes. Forty-three gashes and a pinched face
whenever anyone talked about the tests. Eflet had prevented the wounds from festering. Eflet,
who kept secrets.
I pushed her from my mind and stepped into the room.
I'd expected darkness, or a monster, or a torture chamber full of cunningly flintknapped daggers.
Instead, light filled the room. The wood here glowed softly, the color grayer than the corridor.
The opposite wall held twisted gold veins that reminded me of the copper work on the door of
the Tree. These veins reached, spiderweb thin, over the ceiling as well, but on one wall they
gathered together in spots as thick as my hand, coiling around each other in a mesmerizing spiral
pattern. I stepped closer.
The veins were more than gold -- they were liquid light with floating flakes of burnished gold
and dark yellow gold drifting up and down, as if caught in a gentle breeze. Light washed through
the flakes, casting watery patterns on the wall.
I gingerly touched the golden vein. My mind spun.
I was in the vein, spiraling upward toward the Heavens, up past the island, up into the brightest
part of the sky. Suddenly, as if I had broken through a ceiling or plunged in the wrong direction, I
hung in a world of black smoke. I must have turned the wrong way. I floated weightless in a
I swallowed and looked around. An impish monster, only twenty feet away, dived at me. Not a
naga -- this creature had four limbs, each with claws as long as its forearms. Right behind him, a
glowing Handler drifted, calmly watching us.
"Help!" I screamed, feebly flailing my arms. I didn't know how to swim, let alone swim through
mists. "Help!" The imp swiped at my head. I managed to duck. I felt slow, like I was suspended
in honey. The imp curled back its lips and hissed at me, dark smoke trickling from its mouth. It
coiled its body to spring.
The Handler smiled and dived forward with a superhuman grace. The outline was a young
woman's, with a chert-tipped javelin in her glowing arm. She looked like a plunging arrow. I
feared she'd run me through as well, but she stopped as smoothly as she'd dived. The remains of
the imp slid off her javelin and dispersed into the mists.
"Is it dead?"
She laughed -- a shimmering sound like rain falling on a brook. "They can't die. But he'll take
many days to recover from that."
"Where are we?"
She was young, about my age, and she kept glowing -- like polished palm wood under a noon
"You're used to seeing the surface of Hell, the ocean, where the nagas live. We're far below that,
in Deephell. Here we rob the gods of the underworld to outfit ourselves for fighting the nagas and
protecting the Turtle and Tree."
So I had turned the wrong way -- I hadn't been flying up to the Heavens after all. I felt the fool: I
should have waited in the room for whatever the Handlers were sending.
"Th-thank you," I stammered at last, remembering my manners. "For saving me. I'm lucky you
She raised an eyebrow. "Luck? Luck had nothing to do with it. That, my friend, was the test. You