Authors: Chuck Wendig
Tags: #Book 3, #The Heartland Trilogy
Under the Empyrean Sky
, Book One in The Heartland Trilogy
“This strong first installment rises above the usual dystopian fare thanks to Wendig’s knack for disturbing imagery and scorching prose.”
“Wendig brilliantly tackles the big stuff—class, economics, identity, love, and social change—in a fast-paced tale that never once loses its grip on pure storytelling excitement. Well-played, Wendig. Well-played.”
—Libba Bray, author of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy,
“An imaginative, page-turning adventure that will delight science fiction fans and have them impatiently waiting for the next installment.”
—Joelle Charbonneau, author of The Testing Trilogy
“A tense dystopian tale made more strange and terrifying by its present-day implications.”
Under the Empyrean Sky
is like a super-charged, genetically modified hybrid of
The Grapes of Wrath
Wendig delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a future agri-dystopia. Fascinating world building, engaging and deep characters, smooth, electric prose.”
—John Hornor Jacobs, author of
The Twelve-Fingered Boy
“A thoroughly imagined environmental nightmare with taut pacing and compelling characters that will leave readers eager for more.”
“A lunatic, gene-spliced, biofueled thriller. Fear the corn.”
—Tom Pollock, author of
The City’s Son
, Book One in the Atlanta Burns Series
“[Atlanta Burns] is like Veronica Mars on Adderall. Chuck Wendig knocks this one out of the park as he so often does.”
—Stephen Blackmoore, author of
City of the Lost
“Give Nancy Drew a shotgun and a kick-ass attitude and you get Atlanta Burns. Packed with action and fascinating characters, [
] is a story that will captivate both teens and adults and have them clamoring for the next installment.”
—Joelle Charbonneau, author of The Testing Trilogy
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Chuck Wendig
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Skyscape, New York
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Skyscape are trademarks of
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ISBN-13: 9781477830017 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1477830014 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781477830024 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1477830022 (paperback)
Cover artwork © 2015 by Shane Rebenschied
Book design by Sammy Yuen and Susan Gerber
To the folks on the ground looking up at the sky
ONE YEAR AGO
CAEL FALLS TO
THE HARD EARTH.
And the hard earth catches him.
Wanda stands vigil over the dead corn, and the Blighted stand vigil over her. They hover in the background, a semicircle of shifting, moaning men and women, their flesh given over to leaves and vines and roots.
She knows that she isn’t to leave. Nobody’s said as much to her, but she understands this. It’s okay. She’s not going anywhere.
The sun goes up and the sun goes down, and still Wanda remains. Somewhere she’s aware of hunger and thirst, but those urges feel like they belong to someone else. She shakes sometimes in the wind, quaking like the stalks of corn do. It occurs to her, almost absurdly, how she must look like just another stalk: thin, reedy, quaking, whispering.
And then, as the sun begins to slide back down behind the Heartland, she hears the cracking of corn.
The Maize Witch is returning.
Wanda’s guts tighten the way a noose tightens around a condemned man’s neck. The witch, Esther, will be returning with what Wanda knows will be Cael McAvoy’s body. The woman told her:
Cael was there. On the flotilla
How do you know?
Wanda asked her.
I just know.
Is he okay?
No. He’s hurt. And he is dying
Please, I want to go to him—
You stay. I will go to him.
Now the corn shudders and cracks. It turns violently away as a path is drawn through the stalks—as if invisible hands turn the dead spears of Hiram’s Golden Prolific into corkscrews and splinters.
The path is made, and the Maize Witch walks.
Behind her walk her two . . . Wanda doesn’t even know what they are. Servants. Slaves. Soldiers. The bald woman. The man in the ratty coat. Skin studded with thorns. Tongues of rose petals. Eyes like fruit ready to burst. The witch’s Blightborn.
In their arms is Cael.
Wanda breaks and runs toward them. The other Blighted move to stop her, but Esther gives a slight shake of her head and they halt, then recede.
The two Blightborn set Cael down and she drops to her knees. He looks bruised, beaten, run through a laundry wringer. He looks
. Limbs going the wrong way. A gash slashed across his brow—a deep gash, too deep, a gash that shows a glimpse of bone through the blood and hair. Wanda hears the babble rise up out of her—“No, no, no, Cael, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I hit you, I’m sorry I didn’t stand by you—” He’s dead. He’s just a corpse, a mangled body where the soul has gone into the hands of Jeezum Crow, taken back up to the manse of the Lady and the Lord—
But then Cael coughs. A hard, sharp cough. His lips fleck red with dots of dark blood. His chest rises with a keening wheeze and then he quiets anew.
“He’s alive,” the Maize Witch says, kneeling by Wanda in a move so swift and so silent that the girl didn’t even sense it until it happened. “Your love will not save him, but mine can. Let me save him.”
The Blightborn pick Cael up, and they move toward the house.
“Fix him,” Wanda says to the witch.
And the witch nods. “I will do what I must.”
“Will you go home, or will you remain?”
That question jars Wanda from sleep. She awakens with a gasp, pried forcibly from a dream where something was stuck in her throat, some piece of food, a
piece of food, too, like a mouthful of ham hock or a bite of an apple. Her body lurches upright (her stomach growling, that betrayer), and there stands Esther, the Maize Witch.
It was she who asked the question, and she asks it again.
“Will you go home . . . or will you remain?”
“I . . . I can’t go home.” Her voice is a goaty bleat. She tastes bile. Her eyes feel tired, stinging from crying. They brought Cael in here last night and took him upstairs, and she fell on the couch in this ruined room—the remains of Boyland’s yacht pulled out, the gap fixed only by a ragged mesh of vines and roots—and there Wanda wept until she slept.
“You love Cael.”
“I do. We’re Obligated.”
“Then stay. You’re welcome to. But staying comes with a cost. You’ll need to work.”
Esther nods. “Do you want to see him?”
. “I do.”
The witch offers her hand, and Wanda takes it.
They go out to the garden. A crumbling path, stones pushed up by stubborn, shoving roots. Shrubs of red berries, green peppers hanging, the boughs of a tree overhead heavy with pink fruit that she’s never even seen—
And then, at the center of the garden, another kind of tree.
A tree that is not a tree.
Thrust up out of the earth, a braid of brown, flaking vine. It spirals up, ten feet, maybe higher. At the top those vines splay out like a cradling hand, and in the center of this tree-that-is-not-a-tree is a gnarled ball of thriving green roots. Bundled like a skein of yarn. It seems to throb and shift.
“That is Cael,” the witch says.
“I . . . I don’t understand—”
The woman points to the sky. “He fell. From the heavens. From the Empyrean tower back down to our land of pain and dirt. The city, the Saranyu flotilla, breaking apart around him. Even if one
survive that fall, he was battered by debris, pummeled and broken. And yet—he did survive. He fell and the corn reached up to meet him. It reached up like a hand and caught him—that’s how I found him. Broken, twisted corn forming a shape that looked much like this one. He willed it to happen. The corn didn’t save him because it has a mind of its own—the corn saved him because it had
“But why . . . why this?”
“Because he survived, but he is still broken. His life is not guaranteed. He could still die. His bones are broken. His innards crushed. Even
he survives, it remains to be seen the quality of the life that continues.”
Wanda chokes back a sob.
“This is a chrysalis. We will see what emerges.”
“How long? Wh-when will I know?”
Esther says nothing at first. A pause, as if she’s considering how to answer. “It could be ten days. It could be ten years. It may never be.”
Wanda wants to close her eyes and go back to sleep, but she can’t. She can’t even blink. All she can do is stare at the strange shape of the not-tree in front of her, a tangled hand holding her Obligated.
It’s then she decides.
It’s then she
“The people here . . . you . . .” Wanda says. “You’re all Blighted.”
“We’re all gifted. This is no Blight. We are bound to a life force greater than our own. To the oldest gods of grass and soil, of fig and vine.”
Wanda swallows hard, finds the words hard to say—so much so that she can’t say them at first; they come out as an awkward croak. But then she stills herself, draws a deep breath, and tries again: