So, there I was, hanging upside down underneath a gigantic glass bird, speeding along at a hundred miles an hour above the ocean, in no danger whatsoever.
That’s right. I wasn’t in any danger. I was more safe at that moment than I’d ever been in my entire life, despite a plummet of several hundred feet looming below me. (Or, well, above me, since I was upside down.)
I took a few cautious steps. The oversized boots on my feet had a special type of glass on the bottom, called Grappler’s Glass, which let them stick to other things made of glass. That kept me from falling off. (At which point up would quickly become down as I fell to my death. Gravity is such a punk.)
If you’d seen me, with the wind howling around me and the sea churning below, you may not have agreed that I was safe. But these things—like which direction is up—are relative. You see, I’d grown up as a foster child in the Hushlands: lands controlled by the Evil Librarians. They’d carefully watched over me during my childhood, anticipating the day when I’d receive from my father a very special bag of sand.
I’d received the bag. They’d stolen the bag. I’d gotten the bag back. Now I was stuck to the bottom of a giant glass bird. Simple, really. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then might I recommend picking up the first two books of a series before you try to read the third one?
Unfortunately, I know that some of you Hushlanders have trouble counting to three. (The Librarian-controlled schools don’t want you to be able to manage complex mathematics.) So I’ve prepared this helpful guide.
Definition of “Book one”: The best place to start a series. You can identify “book one” by the fact that it has a little “1” on the spine. Smedries do a happy dance when you read Book One first. Entropy shakes its angry fist at you for being clever enough to organize the world.
Definition of “Book two”: The book you read after book one. If you start with book two, I will make fun of you. (Okay, so I’ll make fun of you either way. But honestly, do you want to give me more ammunition?)
Definition of “Book three”: The worst place, currently, to start a series. If you start here, I will throw things at you.
Definition of “Book four”: And . . . how’d you manage to start with that one? I haven’t even written it yet. (You sneaky time travelers.)
Anyway, if you haven’t read book two, you missed out on some very important events. Those include: A trip into the fabled Library of Alexandria, sludge that tastes faintly of bananas, ghostly librarians that want to suck your soul, giant glass dragons, the tomb of Alcatraz the First, and—most importantly—a lengthy discussion about belly button lint. By not reading book two, you also just forced a large number of people to waste an entire page reading that recap. I hope you’re satisfied.
I clomped along, making my way toward a solitary figure standing near the chest of the bird. Enormous glass wings beat on either side of me, and I passed thick glass bird legs that were curled up and tucked back. Wind howled and slammed against me. The bird—called theHawkwind—wasn’t quite as majestic as our previous vehicle, a glass dragon called theDragonaught. Still, it had a nice group of compartments inside where one could travel in luxury.
My grandfather, of course, couldn’t be bothered with something as normal as waiting insidea vehicle. No, he had to cling to the bottom and stare out over the ocean. I fought against the wind as I approached him—and then, suddenly, the wind vanished. I froze in shock, one of my boots locking into place on the bird’s glass underside.
Grandpa Smedry jumped, turning. “Rotating Rothfusses!” he exclaimed. “You surprised me, lad!”
“Sorry,” I said, walking forward, my boots making a clinking sound each time I unlocked one, took a step, then locked back onto the glass. As always, my grandfather wore a sharp black tuxedo—he thought it made him blend in better in the Hushlands. He was bald except for a tuft of white hair that ran around the back of his head, and he sported an impressively bushy white mustache.
“What happened to the wind?” I asked.
“Hum? Oh, that.” My grandfather reached up, tapping the greenish-tinted spectacles he wore. They were Oculatory Lenses, a type of magical glasses which—when activated by an Oculator like Grandpa Smedry or myself—could do some very interesting things. (Those things don’t, unfortunately, include forcing lazy readers to go and re-read the first few books, thereby removing the need for me to explain all of this stuff over and over again.)
“Windstormer’s Lenses?” I asked. “I didn’t know you could use them like this.” I’d had a pair of Windstormer’s Lenses, and I’d used them to shoot out jets of wind.
“It takes quite a bit of practice, my boy,” Grandpa Smedry said in his boisterous way. “I’m creating a bubble of wind that is shooting out from me in exactly the opposite direction of the wind that’s pushing against me, thereby negating it all.”
“But . . . shouldn’t that blow me backward as well?”
“What? No, of course not! What makes you think that it would?”
“Uh . . . physics?” I said. (Which you might agree is a rather strange thing to be mentioning while hanging upside down through the use of magical glass boots.)
Grandpa Smedry laughed. “Excellent joke, lad. Excellent.” He clasped me on the shoulder. Free Kingdomers like my Grandfather tend to be very amused by Librarian concepts like physics, which they find to be utter nonsense. I think that the Free Kingdomers don’t give the Librarians enough credit. Physics isn’t nonsense—it’s just incomplete.
Free Kingdomer magic and technology has its own kind of logic. Take the glass bird. It was driven by something called a silimatic engine, which used different types of sands and glass to propel it. Smedry Talents and Oculator powers were called “magic” in the Free Kingdoms, since only special people could use them. Something that could be used by anyone—such as the silimatic engine or the boots on my feet—was called technology.
The longer I spent with people from the Free Kingdoms, the less I bought that distinction. “Grandfather,” I said, “did I ever tell you that I managed to power a pair of Grappler’s Glass boots just by touching them?”
“Hum?” Grandpa Smedry said. “What’s that?”
“I gave a pair of these boots an extra boost of power,” I said. “Just by touching them . . . as if I could act like some kind of battery or energy source.”
My grandfather was silent.
“What if that’s what we do with the Lenses?” I said, tapping the spectacles on my face. “What if being an ‘Oculator’ isn’t as limited as we think it is? What if we can affect all kinds of glass?”
“You sound like your father, lad,” Grandpa Smedry said. “He has a theory relating to exactly what you’re talking about.”
My father again. I glanced upward. Then, eventually, I turned back to Grandpa Smedry. He wore his pair of Windstormer’s Lenses, keeping the wind at bay.
“Windstormer’s Lenses,” I said. “I . . . broke the other pair you gave me.”
“Ha!” Grandpa Smedry said. “That’s not surprising at all, lad. Your Talent is quite powerful.”
My Talent—my Smedry Talent—was the magical ability to break things. Every Smedry has a Talent, even those who are only Smedries by marriage. My grandfather’s Talent was the ability to arrive late to appointments.
The Talents were both blessings and curses. My grandfather’s Talent, for instance, was quite useful when he arrived late to things like bullets or tax day. But he’d also arrived too late to stop the Librarians from stealing my inheritance.
Grandpa Smedry fell uncharacteristically silent as he stared out over the ocean, which seemed to hang above us. West. Toward Nalhalla, my homeland, though I’d never once set foot upon its soil.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Hum? Wrong? Nothing’s wrong! Why, we rescued your father from the Curators of Alexandria themselves! You showed a very Smedry-like keenness of mind, I must say. Very well done! We’ve been victorious!”
“Except for the fact that my mother now has a pair Translator’s Lenses,” I said.
“Ah, yes. There is that.”
The Sands of Rashid, which had started this entire mess, had been forged into Lenses which could translate any language. My father had somehow collected the Sands of Rashid, then he’d split them and sent half to me, enough to forge a single pair of spectacles. He’d kept the other pair for himself. After the fiasco at the Library of Alexandria, my mother had managed to steal his pair. (I still had mine, fortunately.)
Her theft meant that, if she had access to an Oculator, she could read the Forgotten Language and understand the secrets of the ancient Incarna people. She could read about their technological and magical marvels, discovering advanced weapons. This was a problem. You see, my mother was a Librarian.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Grandpa Smedry said. “But I intend to speak with the Council of Kings. They should have something to say on this, yes indeed.” He perked up. “Anyway, there’s no use worrying about it at the moment! Surely you didn’t come all the way down here just because you wanted to hear doom and gloom from your favorite grandfather!”
I almost replied that he was my only grandfather. Then, I thought for a moment about what having only one grandfather would imply. Ew.
“Actually,” I said, looking up toward the Hawkwind. “I wanted to ask you about my father.”
“What about him, lad?”
“Has he always been so . . .”
Grandpa Smedry sighed. “Your father is a very driven man, Alcatraz. You know that I disapprove of the way he left you to be raised in the Hushlands . . . but, well, he hasaccomplished some great things in his life. Scholars have been trying to crack the Forgotten Language for millennia! I was convinced that it couldn’t be done. Beyond that, I don’t think any Smedry has mastered their Talent as well as he has.”
Through the glass above, I could see shadows and shapes—our companions. My father was there, a man I’d spent my entire childhood wondering about. I’d expected him to be a little more . . . well, excited to see me.
Even if he had abandoned me in the first place.
Grandpa Smedry rested his hand on my shoulder. “Ah, don’t look so glum. Amazing Abrahams, lad! You’re about to visit Nalhalla for the first time! We’ll work this all out eventually. Sit back and rest for a bit. You’ve had a busy few months.”
“How close are we, anyway?” I asked. We’d been flying for the better part of a day. That was after we’d spent two weeks camped outside the Library of Alexandria, waiting for my uncle Kaz to make his way to Nalhalla and send a ship back to pick us up. (He and Grandpa Smedry had agreed that it would be faster for Kaz to go by himself. Like the rest of us, Kaz’s Talent—which is the ability to get lost in very spectacular ways—can be unpredictable.)
“Not too far, I’d say,” Grandpa Smedry said, pointing. “Not far at all. . . .”
I turned to look across the waters, and there it was. A distant continent, just coming into view. I took a step forward, squinting from my upside-down vantage. There was a city built along the coast of the continent, rising boldly in the afternoon light.
“Castles,” I whispered as we approached. “It’s filled with castles?”
There were dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. The entire city was made of castles, reaching toward the sky, lofty towers and delicate spires. Flags flapping from the very tips. Each castle a different design and shape, and a majestic city wall surrounded them all.
Three structures dominated the rest. One was a powerful black castle on the far south side of the city. Its sides were sheer and tall, and it had a powerful feel to it, like a mountain. Or a really big stone body builder. In the middle of the city, there was a strange white castle which looked something like a pyramid with towers and parapets. It flew an enormous, brilliant red flag that I could make out even from a distance.
On the far north side of the city, to my right, was the oddest structure of all. It appeared to be a gigantic crystalline mushroom. It was at least a hundred feet tall and twice as wide. It sprouted from the city, its bell-top throwing a huge shadow over a bunch of smaller castles. Atop the mushroom sat a more traditional-looking castle that sparkled in the sunlight, as if constructed entirely from glass.
“Crystallia?” I asked, pointing.
“Yes indeed!” Grandpa Smedry said.
Crystallia, home of the Knights of Crystallia, sworn protectors of the Smedry clan and the royalty of the Free Kingdoms. I glanced back up at the Hawkwind. Bastille waited inside, still under condemnation for having lost her sword back in the Hushlands. Her homecoming would not be as pleasant as mine would be.
But . . . well, I couldn’t focus on that at the moment. I was coming home. I wish I could explain to you how it felt to finally see Nalhalla. It wasn’t a crazy sense of excitement or glee—it was far more peaceful. Imagine what it’s like to wake up in the morning, refreshed and alert after a remarkably good sleep.
It felt right. Serene.
That, of course, meant it was time for something to explode.