Chapter 2

In a war chamber built by her father's Psion mind-sculptors, Caiatl piloted a fighter through a strange world. It twisted and turned on itself to create strange, rotting landforms all around her. She passed mountains that sprouted weeping tumors and saw fields crusted over with scabrous tissue.

The exhilaration of flight made her eyes sharp; the familiarity of the controls kept her hands steady. She was so much better here than in any of her father's tedious lessons. Awake. Alive.

Umun'arath's voice rumbled in her ear like a surfacing landwhale.

"Imagine all of Torobatl as the putrid grave swamps of Aark," she said. "Centuries sunk in muck. A testament to someone else's conquest."

Caiatl narrowed her eyes at her ship's heads-up display as a corrupted flame suddenly burned a hole in the sky itself, straight ahead…

"There are monsters at the edges of our territory that would tear our world open and turn it inside out," Umun growled. "They fear nothing."

Caiatl felt a jolt: the telltale rock, tilt, and drag of damage at the tail of the ship. She tried to pull up. Through the hole in the sky emerged a hag: enormous, robed, screaming. Emerald fire burst from her claws and spiraled toward Caiatl's ship, but she was too dazzled by the fireworks to avoid it.

Seconds before the flames engulfed her ship, Caiatl heard: "What do you fear, Princess?"

In these war chambers, simulated death felt like real death. Panic, pain, darkness. Realistic consequences for failure. The chamber left its inhabitants floating in a void after defeat—and in that emptiness, minutes could feel like hours.

When the darkness finally evaporated, Caiatl stood in the blank chamber. Alone.

Umun emerged and crossed the room. "You're dead," she told her.

Caiatl kept her back straight and voice level, though there was a tremor in her arm—a humiliating aftereffect. "Yes."

"You were distracted," Umun said. "I saw you: looking around, like you were on a sightseeing flight." She made a dismissive gesture with her left hand. "Weaned and coddled on too many stories."

"I won't fail again," Caiatl said.

"Wrong," said Umun'arath. "You will die many more times if you wish to live." She clapped a hand on Caiatl's shoulder. "Do it again."