by Sarah Hawley (@MsSarahHawley)
Editor: Carly Bornstein-Hayward (@FromCarly)
Young Adult Fantasy
17-year-old Livvy’s fire magic can give or take life. It would be a valuable weapon—if only she could control the panic attacks that happen every time she uses it.
When she’s caught using her unlicensed and anxiety-inducing magic, Livvy leaves her clan of nomadic horse riders and travels to Trillia, the crime-ridden capital city, to register as a mage. There, she’s attacked by the soldiers of Trillia’s ruling magical family, the Lux, who see her strong magic as a threat to their power.
Livvy flees into the underground and joins a local gang for protection. Her new life is violent, and no nature-loving nomad—especially one prone to panic—can thrive in this crowded city of living metal. No one else seems to thrive, either: the metal animals are rusting, and the people are dying from a magical plague. A budding romance with Rissa, the tough girl who leads the gang, makes life more enjoyable, but Livvy plans to return to her clan once she’s out of danger.
As she patrols the streets, Livvy discovers she can reanimate the metal animals with her magical spark. And as she finally confronts her anxiety disorder, she realizes her magic might be strong enough to fight the plague, too. Staying in the city will save lives, but using magic will draw the attention of the Lux. Livvy must decide: return to her clan and let the city die, or stay and risk death herself.
THE DYING CITY is a LGBT+ YA fantasy and is complete at 98,500 words. It combines the grittiness and complicated group dynamics of THE YOUNG ELITES with the struggle to save a kingdom of REIGN OF THE FALLEN.
As a former archaeologist, I draw my writing inspiration from history and mythology. I'm the co-host of a popular podcast about the romance genre, The Wicked Wallflowers Club. Berkley Romance has recommended the podcast, and Entertainment Weekly has featured it on their Must List. I’ve worked in digital marketing and have the skill set to actively promote my work.
First Five Pages
I’m flying down a dirt road under the blazing sun, riding so fast even my thoughts can’t keep up. My everyday worries have faded away, leaving only instinct and the clench and release of muscle.
Every hunt makes me feel this way: achingly alive and confident that I can outrun anything. That confidence comes partly from my horse, Starlight. I named her in a fit of whimsy, although she’s a plain bay dun with lopsided ears. She’s strong and lean and loves to run, and on her back, I’m no longer a creature bound to earth, but something with wings.
I let out a whoop and give the mare her head, standing in the short stirrups while we gallop down the path. I nudge her off the track, into the grass, and pull an arrow from my quiver. The grass barely slows her, but it’s short here, the silvery stalks only reaching to her knee. The fox is a streak of brown in the distance, and as I sight down the arrow, I know it’s mine.
The beat of hooves behind me softens as Corsun’s horse also plunges into the grass. He’ll be too late, though. My arrow is already singing through the air. It strikes the fox in the side.
I crow and pull back a bit, giving Corsun the chance to catch up. He’s beside me in a moment, bronze face gleaming with sweat, his reckless grin making me want to be even wilder.
“Again?” He laughs as we approach the downed fox. “Must you claim all the glory?”
The fox is still dying, so I dismount to snap its neck, an offering of mercy. I work the arrow out of its side, wiping the head against the grass before sliding it back into my quiver. “You’re too slow,” I tell Corsun as I tie the fox’s tail into the bundle of three pheasants already hanging from my saddle.
“Perhaps I’m letting you win out of pity.” He grins at my skeptical look. I’ve always liked that about Corsun—the ease with which he smiles. Even among our lighthearted clan, his grin has an extra radiance, and I envy him that innate cheerfulness.
I’m about to taunt him again when his head snaps up and his smile fades. A predator’s focus overtakes his sharp-featured face, and he launches past me, his white stallion, Windfoot, blazing across the grass like an arrow himself.
I curse and swing into the saddle, knowing that whatever Corsun has spotted is big—and that I’m unlikely to catch up to him.
The grassland stretches in all directions but one. A forest lines the southern edge of the dirt road we came from, and a deer stands beneath the trees, nibbling at the ground. The doe is thin, but the clan will be pleased. Hunting has been scarce in these parts lately, and our leader, Sarvusa, has talked about moving on soon.
Corsun raises his bow, and I can’t stand the thought of how much he’ll gloat when we arrive back in camp with that doe, so I do something I never do.
I use my magic.
It prickles over my fingertips, casting an amethyst glow on the silver-green grass streaking by beneath me. My chest tightens, and the sharp tang of bile fills my mouth. I immediately regret calling up my power. As magic collects in my palm, it rips open my emotions, flooding me with worry and fear. A familiar litany of self-recrimination fills my head—I’m weak my mind is faulty what kind of person is afraid for no reason? My breathing accelerates as the churning doubt sucks me down like a whirlpool. If I can’t regain control, I’m going to drown in mindless panic.
Normally riding or running helps me escape my too-frequent anxiety, but even the exhilaration of the hunt isn’t enough when magic is involved. I can’t take the magic back, though, and I refuse to lose, so I fling a fiery bolt. It buries itself between the deer’s eyes a moment before Corsun’s arrow strikes its chest.
“Oh, come on, Livvy,” he shouts, casting me an exasperated look. “That’s cheating.”
Corsun’s protest provides a welcome distraction from the anxiety chewing me up. I shut my magic up tight again and force a cocky grin. “Oh, are there rules now? There weren’t last week when you replaced my arrows with wooden spoons.” Corsun even attached flights to the ends of the long stirring spoons so I wouldn’t notice anything amiss when I grabbed my quiver.
“The rule is that I have to win sometimes.”
I shake my head sadly. “Poor Corsun, always a victim of his own mediocrity.”
Corsun dismounts and scoops up a clod of earth to throw at me. I dodge, cackling at his feigned outrage.
After that, we work quickly, dragging the deer onto a sledge—a wooden frame covered by hide—which Corsun and Windfoot will pull behind them to camp.
Hoofbeats drum against the road. I look up to see which clan members are out riding, but the three horses that advance from the west are saddled in the bulky style favored by the rest of the country, rather than our lighter wooden frame saddles, and the men atop them sit too rigidly.
“City folk,” I warn Corsun. He nods and nocks an arrow, although he leaves the bow pointed towards the ground. I do the same, standing straight and tall beside the deer. My fingers tingle with little currents of magic, reflecting my apprehension. I try to smother my worry so my magic doesn’t give me away. City dwellers can be dangerous, but if these men think to deprive us of our kill or gain some amusement from taunting Equites, they’ll soon reconsider their choice.
They draw up before us, sending billows of dust into the air. Despite my unease, I try to project confidence. Sarvusa taught me that tactic. If you look fearless, others assume you are, and a fearless woman is a dangerous one.
The men are richly dressed, and it’s immediately apparent that these aren’t standard city folk. Their gray coats have a unique crest on the chest: a yellow sun, purple crescent moon, and silver crown. It’s the symbol of Rex Demoris, the king of all Cardonia, and it means they’re from the capital city of Trillia, approximately a week’s ride to the west.
My gut twists when I notice the gold bands sewn onto the ends of their sleeves. The bands identify these men as royal mages, with the number of bands corresponding to the strength of their magic. They serve the Lux family, the ruthless mages who founded Trillia and are second only to the Rex in power.
All the mages who align with the family are known colloquially as “the Lux.” These men probably aren’t actual family members, but they’re dangerous all the same. Two of the riders wear three bands, but the blade-thin one in the middle wears four—the highest level I’ve ever seen. Supposedly there are a few five-band mages in Trillia, but magic that powerful sounds mythical.
The way the four-band mage looks at us is unsettling. His expression is simultaneously disdainful and intensely interested. Most Trillians would dismiss us as nothing but itinerant Equites, but something has caught his attention.
“Who are you?” he asks. He’s blond and bearded, with a nose big enough to need its own mount.
I don’t bow. He may be important in the city, but he’s in the grasslands now. This is our territory. “We’re Equites.”
“Which one of you did magic?”
I don’t flinch, despite the jump of my pulse. “Neither of us.” Thankfully, my hands aren’t visibly sparking. Power still fizzles beneath my skin, but with Starlight and Corsun at my side and a bow in my hands, I can keep it contained.
“A magic bolt crossed the road. Who fired it?”
“I don’t know. We use arrows.” Unless the mage removes the layer of canvas covering the deer, he won’t see the singed hole in its skull.
For a moment he looks like he’s contemplating violence. “Does anyone in your clan have that kind of magic? Light and fire?”
“No,” Corsun says, lacing his tone with the perfect amount of disgust. “That would be cheating, and Equites never cheat.”
His subtle barb eases some of my tension. I’ll make him pay for that one later.
“Unregistered mages are extremely dangerous,” the man says. “They’re a risk to everyone. Sheltering one is illegal.”
“We don’t know any,” I say, never breaking eye contact.
The royal mage studies us intently. What does he see beneath the dirt, sweat, and ragged clothes? Liars? Idiots? Tricksters? So long as he focuses on those stereotypes, maybe he won’t look deeper.
Finally, he nods. “If you see a magic user in these parts, send word to the tavern in Black Vale. There will be gold in it for you.”
The three mages gallop away. As the dust raised by their passing falls to earth, I close my eyes.
My secret is safe.