After the Scour over three generations ago, the face of magic had changed completely. Most of the bloodline families had gone underground to escape. A few had stayed on the surface and hidden alone, spreading out to pretend to be normal and not a threat to mankind who saw them as monstrous.

Underground, there were dozens of the old families, but the four most powerful rose up to rule over the rest of us. Some of us had more by way of the Spark than others did and more Spark in our bloodline to pass on.

My family, we were on the bottom. My parents had not shown a personal Spark with no ability of their own. It was in their bloodline and that meant they carried it, but had no abilities of their own and they were therefore useless to the powerful families.

Underground, there were tiers. The four great families lived near the surface, under them were the ‘gentry’ as they were referred to. Sparkers with moderate abilities who were kept close to the ‘royalty’ in case someone emerged with an exceptional ability. They were immediately brought up and blended into one of the royal families through marriage, whether they were willing or not.

It was well known that someone who disappeared suddenly had surfaced an exceptional Spark and was above now, living a better life. Some dreaded it, some lived with the hope they would be next.

My sister was one of the latter. We had lived on the lowest level for so long, in what was now commonly referred to as Dante’s seventh level. There was level 1, the 4 ‘royal’ families, level 2, the gentry which consisted of about six families. Level 3 was the wealthier and more well to do families with above average Spark. Level 4 were the crafters and engineers with decent Spark. Level 5 were the wealthier Sparkers who had shown declining or lower Spark. Level 6 was the working class with low Spark and level 7, my family’s level, was poor with no Spark showing for over two decades.

It was it’s own sort of hell, I supposed, but it was also all I knew, all I had ever had. I had heard stories and rumors about the decadence of the upper levels, but I never took them seriously. They couldn’t be that much better if we were still all hiding underground.

My sister on the other hand, talked about it constantly. She wanted the life they had above. She dreamed of it, fantasized about it. She worked every charm she had, gaining favor, getting the best clothes available to us, clothes that showed off her figure. She wore make-up, as if looks would sway anyone in our world. She was beautiful, I would give her that, but everyone knew that in our world, that didn’t mean much. Our parents would have passed for nulls in the above world and here, that meant we were the lowest of the low.

Still, she was convinced that she was meant for larger things. And if she was, that meant I was too. That was how it worked. If one sibling showed promise, the others were snapped up quickly in the hopes that they too would show promise.

She was coming up on her 20th birthday, the day she would go to the third level and see the Seer. The Spark, if it was going to surface, would surface by the birthday of the 20th year. She was beside herself with excitement and worry. Saying goodbye and worrying that she would be returning all at the same time. I didn’t know why she was upsetting herself over it, it wasn’t like Mom and I wouldn’t both be going with her to watch the Seer touch her. Hell, she already had me carrying her bag for her, full of her most treasured things, just in case. I didn’t mind, not really, though the walk back down to our home was going to suck with her crying the whole time.

I myself had just turned nineteen the week before and the day had passed with zero fanfare. There could be none while Leona was so focused on her own impending 20th birthday. I wasn’t worried about it, I worked through the day as if it was a normal day and also pretended not to know that I overheard my mother speaking to my boss about my sister’s hand in marriage tomorrow, after we came home with her. In return, he would give my mom and I both a raise. That was the way of things down here. In a year, she would find a similar arrangement for my hand.

I followed her and my mother quietly, listening to her talking to the guide, asking questions about the above and how large of a Spark would be required to get to the top level. I only shook my head. Why did she get her hopes up so high? She was only going to be let down when she had to marry Geoff tomorrow.

The trek up to the third level was longer than I had imagined it would be and I was actually sore and tired when we finally arrived outside of the Seer’s hall. We weren’t the only ones there. It happened to actually be Leona’s birthday, but there were others here who had had a birthday in the last week from the third level and below. The first and second level never had to travel to see the Seer, the Seer was brought to them, and not just on Sunday. That was only for those of us from below.

I stood in line with my small family, watching the others curiously. I realized for the first time the huge difference between the levels. It wasn’t just the clothing and quality of clothing, it was their weight. Some of these people never went without a meal, or even went light on a meal. Some were tall, as if they had room to grow more and they were less pale as if they had access to sun lamps and therefore electricity. I saw several of the men in line looking at Leona with interest and even a few who looked me over, which surprised me. I didn’t dress like my sister or wear makeup or try at all. I hadn’t even brushed my hair, just twisted it up quickly to get it out of my way. I was wearing my work uniform, knowing I was going to be hard pressed to make it back for my shift.

Leona was smiling under the appraisal, flourishing with the attention. I could see the way it made her shine, she was in her element. If personality alone could get her to the top, she would be there.

I stood and watched as one after one, the families went in to see the Seer. They almost all came out looking dejected or disappointed. One young man came out looking pleased, but not overly excited.

The young man behind me spoke up as I watched. “You know, if they get flagged for up top, they don’t come back out, right?” he said.

I turned, looking at him. “Hello Arik, I didn’t know you were twenty already.”

“Hello Hailene. Yesterday.”

“I know. Have you met my sister? I am pretty sure I know this ritual and what happens better than anyone else on the 7th level.”

“She is a little over the top about it, isn’t she? I guess that means I won’t be seeing her at the factory for a week or so.”

“Probably never. Mom promised her to Geoff so she will probably start working at the mill with us instead.”

“Pay is better. Geoff, huh? Yikes. That is going to upset her. How old is he?”

“Not that old, his first wife passed on darklung.”

“Yeah, I guess I heard that. How long till you are twenty?”

“A year.”

“You have a plan? Someone in mind?”

I looked back at Arik. He looked… hopeful. I looked him over again. He was a solid enough boy, his head not too high in the clouds. A hard worker, smart, pleasant. He was even pleasant to look at. I gave him a small smile. “It will be my mothers choice of course, but I am sure with the right encouragement I can let her know if I have a preference.”

His smile brightened his entire face.

I felt a little awkward then as I stood there. What did you even say to someone after that while stuck in a slow line with them? He didn’t seem to have the same issue at all. He stepped up closer and caught my mother’s attention, saying hello to her and engaging both of us in conversation.

After that, the time passed quickly as we talked and he had my mother and I both smiling. Even Leona joined us and smiled with us.

Her turn finally came and Leona was smiling radiantly as we went in. The Seer wasn’t nearly as old as I assumed she would be. She was younger than my mother and she looked bored and put upon as she sat on her pile of cushions. More cushions that I had seen in one place.

The Seer looked my sister over, then finally lifted a hand and Leona went rushing forward to take the seer’s extended hand excitedly.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but nothing really happened. The Seer touched her hand for a moment, her eyes distant, then released her. The Seer turned to one of the guards next to her and made a motion and the man stepped up and took Leona by the arm and pulled her away roughly through a back door and Leona looked back at us in confusion.

I blinked and started to look at my mother, but I was grabbed from behind by another hand and dragged through the same door as I tried to pull away and look back at the large man dragging me. I was shoved into a small room with Leona who looked terrified now as the door was shut and we were left alone.

What the hell was happening?!?

“I… I did it!” Leona cried, suddenly ecstatic. “Hai! WE did it! I have a Spark! We are going up, Hai! We are going up!!!”

I blinked again, then sat down hard on my ass.


She laughed joyously and took her bag from me, pulling out her mirror. “Oh, Hai, look at you! You are a mess! I will fix your hair! You can’t go up like that!” she said, going to her knees behind me. I let her brush out my hair, too stunned to even think of doing anything about it. She had the Spark? Did I have a Spark too? How much Spark? What level? How were we supposed to start all over again somewhere else? Would she be married into a family? What would happen to me? It would be a whole year before I would know if I had a Spark or what it was?!

Leona wasn’t worried at all as she chattered endlessly and fixed my hair. She adjusted her make-up, then tried to do mine, but I shook my head and scooted back to the wall, feeling sick. I realized I didn’t really want this. This was Leona’s dream, not mine. I liked the idea of going back down and having a nice, quiet life with Arik. I was terrified.

Leona was not, she smiled and paced and checked the mirror every twenty minutes. She lectured me on how to act, what to say and do and what not to say and do. I hardly heard her though, my world had been upended. I was not prepared for this, not at all.

It was three full hours at least before the door was opened and the two guards came in and took hold of us, dragging us back out to the hall with the Seer. There were also other people there, older people along with young men. There were nine families there it looked like, with nine young men. I was held back as Leona was brought forward for the families to look at.

The seer moved closer. “Her firstborn will be born with the gift of transformation into a hooved creature.”

That seemed to put the backs up on a few of the families, but seemed to be fine with the others. Some wanted her to have the Spark, others were fine with the child having it. I was stunned. Transformation was a decent sized Spark!

“There is no way to tell what the sibling may have?” an older woman asked, stepping forward to look at me.

“I might check to see, at the behest of one of the great families, should they choose to pay for the trouble,” the Seer said irritably. “I am at my limit this day. If you are passing, you may go.”

Six of the nine families left, which surprised me. I wondered who was left? What level they were from? Were any of them from the four great families?

“The bidding begins at 500 shards,” the Seer said without preamble.

What? Bidding? What the hell was happening?

An older man with white hair lifted a finger.

“Six?” the Seer asked.

An older woman with black hair and oddly slanted eyes lifted her chin.


The man from the last family nodded.

The white haired man left with his family.

It was between the two families until it finally ended at 2800 shards, which seemed like an impossible number to me. I was paid a single shard every two weeks.

The black haired lady with the oddly slanted eyes stepped forward and looked Leona over as the other family left and the young man that was with her looked down at Leona with a scowl.

“Test the other now,” the woman demanded.

“I told you, I am done today. I may be convinced in two days for the right price.”

The woman scowled at her, but made a motion and the older man who was with her paid the Seer, then stepped out to call in four large men. Two of them took hold of Leona, who looked horrified, and the other two took hold of me.

“I can walk!” Leona said quickly. “I am well versed on how to behave, I swear it! Let me show you how hard I have worked to be worthy of this!” she pleaded.

The woman looked her over again, then made a motion to the men. They let her go and Leona stepped up and bowed her head to the woman.

“I am Leona and this is my sister Hailene. I have always known I was destined to come up and I worked hard for the day it happened. I am very pleased to be a part of your family in whatever way you desire!”

“We shall see,” the woman snapped, then looked back at me. “And her?”

“I am sure she will also behave!” Leona said quickly.

I shook my head. “Look, I am positive I don’t have a Spark. My kids won’t either. I will just go back down, ok?”

“What?” Leona shrieked. “Hai! Of course you want to go up!”

“Silence!” the woman snapped. “Bring her,” she snarled to the men holding me. “Seer, I wish you to be at our hall tomorrow, before noon.”

“I will come on Tuesday, when and if I feel like it,” the Seer snapped.

I was guessing the woman definitely wasn’t one of the four great families, or the Seer wouldn’t be treating her this way.

The woman spun and left, leaving everyone to follow her. Outside of the hall, there was a large box and eight large men standing around it. The woman got into the box and the older man and younger man followed. One of the guards led Leona in and the two holding me pushed me in. It was full of cushions and it was snug with the five of us, but there was no getting out as the panel was shut and the box was lifted by the men outside and it started moving.

Leona settled near the young man, looking at him hopefully as the older man turned a light orb up in the ceiling of the traveling box. I sat where I was near the panel, between the older man and Leona.

“Repeat your names,” the woman snapped.

“I am Leona and this is my sister Hailene. Travis. Leona and Hailene Travis.”

“This is my third son, Itsuki. You will wed Saturday next and bear him a child immediately, do you understand?” she asked Leona angrily.

“Yes of course!” Leona said breathlessly, looking Itsuki over. He looked angry as he glared at the far wall. “Hi,” Leona said to him. “It’s lovely to meet you.”

The boy looked at his mother. “I will do this thing for you, but I will not like it. She is no Belinde and I will not ever care for her as I do Belinde!”

“Enough! You will do as I say to keep the line strong. Belinde is less than middling in the Spark and her family may soon fall. I will not hear of this again!”

Itsuki turned away again, his cheeks red with anger. Leona blushed and looked unsure for the first time. She looked at Itsuki. “I will be good to you! And I know how to please a man, keep him happy. I have read all the books!”

Itsuki turned to her, sneering. “Do you think sex is all there is? I love Belinde! I will never have that with you, mole.”

I blanched. ‘Mole’ was a derogatory term for those of us from the 7th level. “Fuck him Leona! Fuck these grasping assholes, all they care about is power. You are too good for him by far. Too good for all of them.”

“Hailene! Be quiet!” Leona pleaded.

“You will be punished!” the older woman snapped at me.

“Do your worst you old bitch! As if being stuck here with you and your stuck up family isn’t punishment enough. You people suck.”

“Hailene shut up!” Leona wailed. “She doesn’t mean it! She is just upset, she is shy and doesn’t like to leave home unless she has to! And that wasn’t what I meant, Itsuke! I know how to treat you well, be a good wife and support you lovingly and faithfully. I know how to be genteel and graceful and speak as I should.”

“Are you dense?” Itsuke asked. “I love someone else. I will never like you. I will bed you… with the lights off, but the moment you are pregnant I won’t touch you again, and after you have the baby we are going back to the Seer. If you are of no more use, I will dispose of you and take my Belinde.”

Leona paled and I sat up. “You people are monsters! What right do you have to treat a life so casually? As if we aren’t even people unless you have a use for us and we can be a benefit to you?!?”

“Shut up!” the older man bellowed, speaking finally. “No more words for the rest of the journey.”

“Or what?” I snapped.

“Simion!” he yelled and the box stopped. The panel opened and one of the large guards looked in. “Take that one there and hang her from the back.”

The guard pulled me out of the box roughly and grabbed an ankle, dropping me to hang upside down. Him and another guard tied my ankles to two hooks on the top of the back of the box and I was left hanging upside down as they lifted the box and started walking again. I glared angrily until all the blood rushing to my head started giving me a headache and making me dizzy. I grabbed at one of the poles the guards were using to carry the box and pulled myself up slightly, enough that my head wasn’t swimming as they moved.

A hand shot out and I flinched, expecting it to shove me back down. Instead, it held me up more, so I didn’t have to strain so hard to hold myself up. I looked and it was Simion. He didn’t look at me as he stared straight ahead, but I still felt a small affection for him. I bet he was like me, from the lower levels being forced to serve these people just because he was large and strong. After several long minutes, he shifted, his large hand pushing me up higher as he moved closer to the box. I was almost sitting up now against his chest with my head on his shoulder and one arm around my waist as his other hand held the pole.

“Thanks,” I whispered.

“I do not want my feet puked on,” he answered, just as quietly.

“Kitsume finds out, she’ll see you on the pole,” the man next to him whispered.

“Dask can’t see, he’s the only one who would speak out,” Simion answered.

“What level are we going to?” I asked.

“Your level is not taught to recognise the higher families?” Simion asked.

“No, what use would we have of that information?”

“Second level, higher tier,” Simion answered.

“Why are you helping me?” I asked.

The other man snorted. “If the Seer says you have no Spark, you will be offered your choice of one of us. Usually. If you don’t upset her so much she kills you first. He hopes to be chosen.”

I could only sigh. Of course. No one does something for nothing. Still, he was being nice.

Once we seemed to be getting close as we climbed up and up and up, he eased me back down before they stopped and lowered the box.

“Bring her,” the woman snapped as she got out of the box and headed into the huge hall, followed by her family and Leona who had red rimmed eyes. Simion untied me and took me inside, following close behind the others.

The hall was lavish with rooms set off to the sides. Rooms with cushions and carpets and low tables that seemed to have no purpose save for lounging in them, and there were plenty of people lounging in them. They all watched curiously as we passed through, some getting up to watch or follow. There were a lot of children as well, almost all of them following and laughing.

Once we reached one of the far rooms in the hall, the woman pushed open a heavy wooden door and went in, everyone following her in except the followers and children. There were already other people there and it looked like a meeting room of some sort. The two men who stood were obviously Itsuke’s older brothers and the women with them were their wives. There was another younger man as well. He looked of age, but he was alone as he stood, looking all of us over.