Weekly Free Story – The Assassin’s Remorse

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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The Assassin Remorse takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

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Snippet 3 – Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is another snippet from Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter Two

Hruvvoa 31st, 398 VF (Vaarck’s Founding) (1959 SR)

Ary bolted upright, gasping for air in the cramped attic room of his family’s farmhouse.

Free me!

The golden Luastria’s words haunted his mind as he struggled to slow his beating heart. He hadn’t dreamed of the void and the Luastria since the winter after the Cyclone while sick with the choking plague. He rubbed at his face, trying to shake her pain-filled words from clogging his thoughts. Then a trembling hand brushed the puckered scar on his side.

He flinched away.

In the seven years since the Cyclone had ravaged his home, Ary never understood what had happened to him. It bewildered the youth to think about that strange void where he’d hovered between life and death, reality and dreams. So, he ignored it. Between his pa’s death and his ma’s vitriol, he had too much to handle.

He never told anyone what happened, not even Chaylene. Why would he want to give his ma more fuel for her crazy ramblings? She spouted her vile madness to the goodwives in Isfe or to his face, hissing dung-filled words about how her son was tainted.

“Clawed by the Storm Goddess’s poisoned talons!” she’d howl. “It’s on his side! The scar where she touched him! Killed my husband and my Srias!”

Her words spoke the fear Ary could never voice. That he was tainted. The smooth patch of flesh on his side proved it. Scarred by a lightning bolt from the Dark Goddess’s Cyclone.

Once, crying on a hilltop, fleeing his mother’s vitriol, Ary tried to tell the one person he could be weak around, the person with whom he could relax the storm shutters of his heart. Her eyes, lit ruby by Jwiaswo, promised safety, trust. He loved Chaylene for that moment more than any other. She provided shelter from the abuse-churned storm wracking his ten-year-old body, still reeling from the death of his sister, Srias. He so wanted to tell Chaylene, yearning to hear his mother’s vitriol repudiated.

But . . . fear gripped him. Even with the girl he loved, the girl he shared every other secret and pain with, he couldn’t admit this horrifying possibility.

Theisseg’s lightning touched me. What if I am tainted? What if Srias is dead because of me?

Ary pushed the thoughts of his dead younger sister away as he lay back in bed beside his snoring brother. Jhevon didn’t even roll over. Ary closed his eyes, wanting to go back to sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day. The Summer Solstice approached. Ary, now seventeen, stood on the verge of adulthood. He and every other youth of seventeen would travel to Ahly, the capital of the Vesche. There, they’d receive their Blessings from the Sun Goddess and become adults.

How could you betray me? I did everything for you.”

Try as he might, he couldn’t escape the dream and the golden Luastria’s pain. She can’t be Theisseg, Ary thought. Not while suffering so much pain. But the lightning came from the Cyclone . . . He recoiled from the implication of their connection.

Groaning, he rolled out of bed, deciding to ready for the journey if he couldn’t sleep.

Ary peeled off his nightshirt, fabric sticking to his broad back and the powerful muscles of his chest. He rubbed a hand down his thick thigh. Since his pa’s death, he’d done a man’s work, and that put muscles on his short frame. From a battered chest of drawers, he grabbed a cotton shirt, faded from its original white to a dirty gray, and pulled it over his head. He paused, touching the puckered scar on his side.

End the pain.

Dressed in denim coveralls and his shirt, he headed downstairs to pack his and his siblings’ saddlebags, rubbing sleep from his red eyes. He threw the hog-leather saddlebags on the battered kitchen table and stuffed them with smoked ostrich jerky, hard sow’s cheese, and dried orange slices. He seized the waterskins and filled them from the well outside.

His ma was waiting in the kitchen when he walked back into the whitewashed farmhouse. He tensed, eyeing his ma in her cotton dressing gown, her hair falling in an unkempt, blonde mess around her brown, bony face. He never knew how his ma would act. Mostly she ignored him these days, but sometimes she’d fly into one of her rants, screaming at him, her eyes wild and spittle flying from her bloodless lips.

Something inside her broke the day of the Cyclone. She blamed Ary for his pa’s death, lashing out in her grief. His parents had possessed a close, fierce love he often saw lacking in other couples of Isfe. His best friend Vel’s parents always snapped at the other, trading barbs like a marine fencing with an Agerzak pirate.

In the months following his pa’s death, sweet Srias became the life of the family. His ma’s anger had dulled, Srias’s gentle love mending their ma’s cracked heart. But the attack had devastated Isfe, destroying crops and ruining food stores. When winter came, hunger howled and the choking plague raged. Never had Ary suffered such sickness, afflicted by a blur of fever dreams full of the golden Luastria, only interrupted by bouts of panic-inducing choking as his throat squeezed tight and strangled him.

Ary recovered, but Srias, only seven, didn’t.

His ma’s grief and malaise transformed into something worse. “That son of mine is tainted by Theisseg,” she said a few days after Srias’s death. He could remember her with vivid clarity; a few strands of her blonde hair had escaped from her tight bun as she’d hissed her bile to Vel’s ma. “That’s why my sweet Srias died. He poisoned her. I never should have put them in the same bed. I didn’t realize what a monster he was. I should’ve known. It’s the scar. That’s where She touched him.”

That day, Ary realized his ma would never love him again.

“Briaris,” his ma said, snapping him out of his memories, the first time she had spoken to him in over a week, her voice cold, distant. “You’ll be a man in two days.”

Ary nodded. He’d expected this for months. Deep inside, he’d known she’d despised him since Srias’s death. But it still ached his heart to witness her loathing.

“The law said I had to care for you, but that’s over now that you’re about to be an adult. Don’t bother coming back. There’s no place for you here. In fact, it’s best you volunteer. Go off to play marine like you always wanted.” A mad heat entered her voice, her hands shaking as bony fingers clasped together. “I don’t care what you do, just never step foot on my land again, you hear?”

“Fine.”

Anger flared inside him. His emotions simmered like a clay shot launched from a ballista. The chemical fuse reacted, moments from triggering the black powder charge and exploding. But he would not give her the satisfaction of seeing his detonation. Ary had learned years ago she enjoyed hurting him, taking a perverse delight in witnessing him erupt from her tiny pricks. He held off his wrath. Only when he was alone or with Chaylene would he show any pain.

“You’ve packed enough. You can wait outside for your siblings.”

He didn’t answer her as he dropped the waterskins on the table and exited the house. He did not slam the door behind him, refusing to betray his true feelings. He marched across the yard for the barn to saddle the ostriches.

The door banged open behind him. His ma stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip, a hogbone knife in the other. “Briaris. If you let any harm come to my children . . .” She let her threat hang in the air, hate and loathing burned in her eyes. Then she vanished back into the farmhouse, slamming the door behind her.

Ary realized he’d never see his ma again.

He leaned against the barn, fighting the tears, and looked to the stars. Chaylene always found them comforting to watch. His gaze turned towards the hills hiding her hovel. Did she look up at the sky right now, restless?

What would keep her up? Her ma’s dead.

Goldeneye, one of the farm’s ospreys, landed on his shoulder. Her beak nipped his temple. Every farm needed their flocks of ospreys and falcons to protect the fields from schools of fish. Ary stroked her sleek pattern of brown and white feathers as he watched Riasruo’s sun rise.

The dawn of his new life with Chaylene.

~ * * ~

Chaylene bolted up in her bed, gasping for air. Sweat matted her light linen camisole to her breasts. She shivered, her entire body drenched. A shuddering sob escaped her lips. She stumbled a few paces from her bed to the chipped, porcelain bowl sitting on a rickety table.

Her hand shaking, she poured water from a cracked-rim pitcher into the bowl. She splashed coolness on her ebony face, trying to forget the nightmares plaguing her for weeks—Ary, dressed in the red coat of an Autonomy Marine, torn apart by a hulking, blue-scaled Zzuki tribesman.

Dying like Chaylene’s pa had during the Zzuki Aggression War.

She feared losing Ary to the Navy. She’d loved him for as long as she remembered. As a child, in the bright future of her daydreams, she knew that he was her man. After the Cyclone, when his ma cracked and poured her madness upon him, she’d witnessed his strength and yearned to support him. When it grew too much, he turned to her for buttressing. They’d watch the stars, hands clutched tight, sharing their misery.

Ary’s like me, she realized as she approached thirteen. He’s got nothing for him in Isfe.

She wanted to leave Isfe, even Vesche, behind. To start a new life, away from the bullies and sneers, from the gossiping goodwives and the leering youths. Chaylene lost track of the times Ary’d bloodied his lips and nose thrashing boys who boasted of plucking her flower. She wished he’d thrash the sneering girls and their glaring mas, too.

I just want to leave. With him. Away from their pain.

But as their adulthood drew closer, she realized the possibility that the grasping claws of the Autonomy Navy could ruin their future together. On the Summer Solstice, every youth of seventeen had to enter the Naval Draft. He could be drafted or, worse, he could enlist.

The Navy offered the easiest escape from Vesche. And the most treacherous. War and accidents claimed lives. Peril lurked when sailing and fighting over the Storm. Sailors fell to Theisseg’s raging embrace if they weren’t killed defending the nation from the Empire’s covetous eye or the treachery of the supposedly conquered lizards.

Her ma had suffered being a sailor’s wife.

She sank back on her bed, clutching her hands. The hovel, a ramshackle structure constructed of scraps of lumber leftover from the Cyclone’s devastation, felt so empty since her ma’s passing a year ago. For all her life, Chaylene had lived in one small hut or another as the weight of her pa’s death serving in the Autonomy Navy slowly crushed her ma.

Her pa had enlisted at seventeen, and the Navy sent him to Rhebe where he fell in love with a Vaarckthian lass. When her pa mustered out after four years, he brought his bride home to Vesche. Then the Tribes of Zzuk invaded the Autonomy. He answered the call for veterans to reenlist and left Chaylene’s ma pregnant.

It took her ma sixteen years to die of grief. In her childhood, her ma was almost a whole woman with sparks of vibrancy that the years had extinguished. Every day, her mother cursed the Gezitziz barbarian who’d killed her husband while staring listlessly into the fire before she’d head off to Aldeyn Watch to wash the sailors’ laundry. After a long day, she’d stumble home, often drunk on orange wine. But as Chaylene aged and became more self-sufficient, her mother withdrew into herself. By the time Chaylene reached thirteen, her mother had stopped working entirely, no longer earning the pittance that kept them from starving when her pa’s naval pension didn’t cover sudden expenses or her ma’s increasing thirst for wine.

“Would I be strong enough to carry on if Ary died?” Chaylene whispered in the silent darkness, tears falling down to her clutched hands. “Or am I as weak as Ma?”

Chaylene feared if Ary enlisted, she wouldn’t have the courage to marry him and face his death. It disgusted her how dread picked at her love like a red-breasted crow feasting over carrion. Pecking, gnawing, tearing until only gouged bones remained. She shouldn’t fear marrying Ary.

Not every sailor or marine died. Most survived their four years.

But . . . not all.

The house still reeked of orange wine even a year later; the sour-sweet stench clung to the straw of her bed, soaked into the dirt floor. Her stomach churned. What did her ma find in the drink? Would it dull Chaylene’s own fear?

She fled the hovel, stepping into the cool, night air. The clouds had broken while she slept; the rains of the last few days ended. Stars twinkled bright at her, all the constellations she loved shining upon her. Whenever she couldn’t sleep, she watched the constellations, finding comfort in the stories they represented.

She sprawled on the dewy grass in her camisole. If any of the goodwives of Isfe were to see her, she would be the gossip of the village. “Did you see that Chaylene tramping around in her undergarments?” they’d whisper. “That Vaarckthian blood burns too hot in her. We best keep a close eye on the little hussy.”

They’d whispered the same words about her ma. Everyone thought Chaylene’s black skin made her burn with the famed Vaarckthian appetites, but she only felt the flames for Ary. The sight of him working with his shirt off, his muscular chest rippling brown with a sheen of sweat, his thick arms wielding a mattock, would spark off a blaze inside her. But she loved more than just his physical presence, she found solace in the gentleness of his soul. Despite his ma’s crazy accusations, he never grew bitter.

So why am I afraid of marrying him? Her thoughts circled the eddy of dread whirling in her heart, struggling to understand it. I do love him. Right?

The question revolted her. Of course she loved him. Who else looked at her as Chaylene and not “that Vaarckthian hussy”? Not once had Ary pressured her into more than kissing while star watching. She might have surrendered, ached to sometimes, but a voice always whispered in her mind: Just like a Vaarckthian hussy would.

Just like your ma.

So as much as she longed to feel Ary’s strong arms around her, to share her fires with him, she was glad he wasn’t like Vel. Her other friend had a roving eye, never staying with a girl for long before plucking his next flower. Every time she didn’t surrender to Ary proved she wasn’t what the goodwives and the Vionese girls accused.

She loved Ary most for understanding that.

She gazed up at the stars, wishing for his presence, to talk about her silly fear of the Navy, but . . . Every time she tried to bring it up, it lodged in her heart. Gooey, like molasses in winter, gumming up her innards and trapping her words.

Instead, she forgot about her nightmare and all her problems by marveling at the majesty of the night sky that unfurled above her. Her favorite constellations, Eyia and Bronith, had already set, but her other friends shone bright.

She found the constellation of the Golden Daughter in the southern sky. Lanii had hatched from a golden egg on the very day Riasruo raised the Skylands above the Storm. The Daughter of the Sun founded the Dawn Empire, and her descendants ruled a thousand years of peace before the Great Cyclone dragged Swuopii down into the Storm Below.

Ary could be killed fighting a Cyclone if he’s drafted. Just like the Intrepid’s crew.

Chaylene squeezed her eyes shut, trying to bury her fear. She imagined the Golden Daughter singing the first Rosy Prayer, attempting to hum the complex and beautiful wordless song under her breath to drive away the future. Her voice was melodic and her pitch perfect, but she couldn’t capture the complex harmony produced by a Luastria’s trilling song.

If I don’t marry Ary, what are my prospects?

Even if she didn’t love Ary (and she refused to believe that), only he out of the youths of Isfe had courted her. Their mothers had poisoned the rest. “Zue does more than just launder the sailor’s clothes,” the goodwives gossiped about Chaylene’s ma when they thought she couldn’t hear. “And that daughter of hers has blood that burns as hot. She’s not fit for my son to marry.”

Her pa’s pension would end the moment she received her Blessing in two days. If she didn’t marry Ary, she’d have to launder clothes at Aldeyn Watch to survive. Then all the goodwives would speculate on what else she did for the sailors.

Tears brimmed in her eyes. She hated all of them. She wished for Ary to hold her and whisper gentle words. “It’s easier blaming others, to see the sins that burn in us consume another,” he said to her a week after her ma’s death when Goodwife Tloay’s words spilled tears down her cheeks. “I try to believe that’s why my ma says the things she does . . .”

He comforted her at the cost of his own pain.

Chaylene sought another friend in the sky, the constellation of the Azure Songbird, Shian. The Sun Goddess sent five sacred beasts to the mortals to teach them crafts and arts. Shian gifted music to the mortals, teaching them to sing such beautiful songs. During the Sisters’ War in the distant past—when jealous Theisseg had wanted the love and worship her sister Riasruo received—the Storm Goddess sent a mighty hurricane to kill Shian.

But Riasruo loved the poor songbird and placed Shian into the sky so he could sing forever.

The history of the world stretched out above Chaylene. Each constellation told a different part of the grand story. She loved history, learning what had come before and how every story led to another. The Stormriders destroyed the Dawn Empire. Before that, the Golden Daughter, Lanii, founded the Dawn Empire after her mother Riasruo raised the skylands. The Sun Goddess performed that miracle after Kaltein summoned the Storm at the end of the Wrackthar War. On and on stretched history back to the Songs of Creation.

Her fear dwindled as she stared at the Great Whale Adelwem swimming above the Brilliant Sea, the milky band of thick stars encircling the world. Then her heart beat for excitement as she gazed up Drialus and the Hydra, their constellations forever locked in battle in the northern sky. Drialus perished slaying the Hydra, one of Theisseg’s foul children, during the Sisters’ War. Then she found her own namesake constellation—Chaylene the Shieldmaiden.

When the Hopeful Company set out to win Riasruo’s favor in the Wrackthar War, Chaylene the Shieldmaiden represented the Vionese in the company. A brave maiden who risked much to defend her companions. Kaltein himself slew her. But her attack so surprised the Tyrant-King, the rest of the Company escaped and reached Mount Wraiucwii. Like all the members of the Hopeful Company, Riasruo placed the Shieldmaiden into the skies for her valiant service.

Peace returned to Chaylene as she gazed at the heavens until the sun’s rise banished her friends.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

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Snippet 2 – Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is another snippet from Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter One

The Skyland of Vesche, 391 VF (Vaarck’s Founding) (1952 SR)

On the eastern side of Vesche, a ruined watchtower rose above the grassy hill, its slope terminating at the abrupt edge of the skyland. Any who had the misfortune of falling off the skyland would tumble past its coral-covered sides before plummeting into the boil of the Storm Below. Once, the tower thrust tall, but now its gray stones crumbled, its mortar decayed by time and the elements. It stood no higher than its second floor, its bones hidden in the tall grass. Instead of hard-bitten men from the long-dead Kingdom of Vesche-Arxo watching the Storm, it hosted the play of boisterous children.

“You cannot have her, Ary,” Vel shouted.

“I’ll save you, Chaylene!” Ary’s brown face twisted with excitement. He charged up the crumbling steps, a stick raised high in both hands, and bellowed a wordless war cry. Vel awaited him at the top, his stick held low, ready.

Their weapons cracked together.

“You can beat him, Ary!” cheered Chaylene as the ten-year-old boys traded overhand blows, filling the air with wooden cracks and exuberant yells. The smile on her coal-black face spurred Ary. Unlike the boys, who possessed the brown skin of pure Vionese, Chaylene had Vaarckthian blood. She’d inherited her ma’s black skin and gray eyes, though her dead father had gifted her with long tresses of blonde. “Beat the dread pirate and save me!”

“You can’t have her. She’s mine.” Vel’s skinny face attempted menace, the expression ruined by stray locks of his light-brown hair falling across his red eyes.

“No Agerzak pirate can defeat a marine.” Ary countered with his stick and pressed his attack, the sun warm on his back through his faded-blue cotton shirt.

Today was the first day the weathermaster had allowed clear skies in a week, and Ary, tired of being cooped up, thought his time better spent outside than stuck in school. As always, he’d had to convince Vel to skip school, too. Ary had ignored his friend’s feeble protests and dragged him along. Chaylene, unlike Vel, could not be stopped. Since her pa died in the war while she still grew in the womb, her ma didn’t care about much, and Chaylene took full advantage of it.

Ary knew he’d be in trouble with his parents for skipping school. His ma—blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, sleeves of her dress rolled up for cooking—would wait at the porch for his return, hands on hips, a fierce glare in her eyes. “Always making me worry about the trouble you get into,” she would say, or, “Your pa and I gonna worry right through the skyland and fall to our deaths, Briaris Jayne.” Ary knew he faced a whupping when she used his full name. And she’d be real angry if she learned he was with Chaylene. Last time, she’d spanked him, yelling, “Running around with that hussy’s daughter! I won’t stand for it, Briaris Jayne!”

Ary didn’t know what “hussy” meant. He’d asked his pa, but he’d just grunted and muttered something about waiting ‘til Ary was older. Chaylene’s ma worked as a washerwoman for the soldiers at the nearby Watch. Ary couldn’t figure why his ma would hate her for that. The sailors needed their clothes laundered.

Today, the boys and Chaylene played Pirates and Marines, Ary’s favorite game. He wanted nothing more than to enlist as a marine and fight for the Autonomy of Les-Vion. Every chance he could, he’d sneak down to the Jolly Farmer, the only tavern in the village of Isfe, to listen to the veterans tell war stories to the sailors and marines stationed at Aldeyn Watch. The old veterans drank in the attention, and the beer, the sailors supplied. Ary felt his ma’s lecture and his pa’s strapping worth it to sit on the rush-covered floor, reeking of stale beer and vomit, and listen.

Ol’ Thay would tell stories of the Neta Skywars between the Autonomy and their old masters, the Vaarckthian Empire. His craggy voice spoke of the desperate battle fought above the Neta Skyrift where corvettes and frigates traded ballista fire and sheets of crossbow bolts. Ships so badly damaged, the skyrift sucked them down into the Storm Below, never to be heard of again.

Other times, Jondheth Pegleg would talk about the Zzuk Aggression War. He’d boast of fighting the massive Gezitziz of Zzuk and show off the iron dagger, the rare metal worth a small fortune, he’d looted from a Zzuki chieftain. “The lizard-men make their armor not out of the hides of ostriches or hogs,” he’d whisper, forcing you to lean in, “but out of the hides of other Gezitziz they killed. And their swords are carved from the thigh bones of their fallen foes.”

A chill always passed through the young boy as he pictured Gezitziz warriors wearing bloody, scaly hides and wielding gleaming, fresh-carved swords.

“One Zzuki,” Jondheth would continue, more heat growing in his voice, “could best any Vionese in single combat. But that was their weakness. They always fought alone, whereas us marines were trained to fight together so we could overwhelm them.”

Ary couldn’t wait to enlist at seventeen.

“Relent, you mangy sow,” Ary snarled.

Vel stumbled back from his quick rain of blows. In Ary’s mind, he pictured Vel as a white-skinned Agerzak pirate, dressed in stinking furs and wielding the legendary metal greatswords the barbarians favored.

“Agerzak pirates never yield!” Vel boasted, recovering and counterattacking.

Weapons met, locked together for a heartbeat, then Ary’s stick slid down Vel’s and struck his friend’s exposed fingers. With a yelp of pain, Vel dropped his weapon. Ary, quick to take advantage, swung for his friend’s exposed neck.

“Yield!” Ary stopped his weapon a fingerswidth from Vel’s neck. Eyes brimming with tears, he nodded. Ary whooped in joy as Vel sucked his finger.

Chaylene rushed down the stairs from the ruined landing, passing Vel, and threw her slim arms around Ary’s neck. “My hero,” she said in a breathless gush, then kissed him on the cheek, leaving behind the burning impression of her lips.

Ary touched where she’d kissed him, dazed worse than taking a punch to the face.

Vel scowled, still nursing his hurt finger. “You look like a poleaxed ostrich.”

“Shut up,” Ary said, furrowing his eyebrows. He glanced at Chaylene, a large smile on her lips, childish joy transforming into a woman’s delight.

“Why do we always have to play this game?” demanded Vel. “You always win and save Chaylene. And when you’re the pirate, you still win. S’not fair.”

“You’re just jealous that she kissed me.” Ary’s grin spread wide. He felt a true hero. “With your pig’s face, who could blame her?”

“Brelyn says I have a handsome face!”

Ary shrugged. Most girls giggled and whispered about Vel’s handsome features, but Ary couldn’t resist his teasing. “Well, she is cross-eyed. Probably can’t tell a handsome face from an ugly one.”

“Don’t listen to Ary,” Chaylene told, patting Vel’s head. “Your face isn’t all ugly. Only half.”

“Thanks, Chaylene,” Vel muttered. “You’re a big help.”

Her grin broadened. “That’s me. Always helpful. So, is it my turn to be the marine?”

“You can’t be the marine,” Ary protested. “Who’ll play the damsel?”

Chaylene gave both boys a considering look, pursing her thin lips. “How about you, Ary? Since you’re more handsome than Vel.”

Vel nodded quickly. “Makes sense to me. Ary would make a great damsel.”

“You just want me to be the damsel so you’ll win.” Ary rubbed his hand through his short tangle of blond hair. “Besides, I’m a guy. I can’t be the damsel.”

Chaylene fixed her gray eyes on Ary, lips pouting. “Please? You two always make me play the damsel, and it’s booooring.”

Suspicion grew in Ary’s mind. “Is that why you kissed me?”

Her pout turned to a mischievous grin that somehow promised more kisses to come. His heart quickened while his cheek burned anew. “Okay.” He sighed and handed her his stick. “I’ll do it.”

Chaylene retreated down the stairs, holding her stick in one hand and lifting the skirt of her faded-brown dress with the other. Ary caught a flash of her black stocking, and discovered his face could flush even more. He backed up against the half-crumbled wall and muttered, “Oh, please save me.”

Chaylene glared at him. “Try not to be so excited.”

Ary cleared his throat and, in the girliest voice he could muster, squeaked, “Please save me!”

Vel laughed so hard he almost dropped his stick.

“Shut it,” Ary muttered.

Chaylene gave out a throaty yell, a fairly impressive war cry, and rushed up the stairs. She made it halfway before stumbling on her skirts. She caught herself on the crumbling wall then continued at a slower pace. She attacked, Vel parrying with ease.

“You’ll have to try harder,” laughed Vel. “Or I’ll keep the damsel.”

“Yes, please try harder. I’d rather die than be his.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll save you, Ary.” Chaylene giggled. A lock of her blonde hair fell free of her red hairband, gleaming almost white against her black neck. Lately, Ary found it fascinating to stare at Chaylene, noticing subtle changes in her figure. Interesting changes.

She gave another loud cry, her expression fierce as she dueled Vel, fueled by her hot, Vaarckthian blood. Everyone in Isfe said that about Chaylene’s ma. Is that what makes her ma a hussy? Ary set his thoughts to once again pondering what a—

A drumbeat sounded from the nearby Aldeyn Watch, a deep, thudding boom. Schools of field guppies, their scales flashing green, scurried into the open sky. To protect Vesche from the Stormriders, the Autonomy had built their own watchtower on a nearby hill. Clustered around that tower’s base were the barracks for the sailors and marines stationed at the Watch. Beyond, a dock jutted out from the skyland where the Intrepid, a corvette, moored.

Ary threw his gaze out to the eastern sky to spot what caused the alarm’s sounding. One beat meant an approaching ship.

A second beat thudded through the air.

“Pirates?” Ary whispered. Agerzak pirates never raided this far west.

A third beat.

A fourth beat.

A fifth beat.

Each one was louder than the last. A frantic cadence picked up as the drummer pounded faster and faster until it became an unrelenting, staccato rhythm. The day’s warmth vanished. Only one warning beat the drum so much.

“Stormriders,” Ary gasped, forming the sun by joining his thumb and little finger, warding evil.

“Th-that can’t be.” Vel swallowed as his brown cheeks paled. “Stormriders never attack Vesche.”

More drums picked up the beat in the distance, passing the alarm to the farmers and the village of Isfe.

“What do we do?” Vel gasped.

“The Xogrlys’ farm?” Chaylene said, her voice tight, squeaking. “It’s closest.”

“Should we . . . Should we tell the weathermaster?” Vel stared at Ary, beseeching. “I mean, it’s a storm. Maybe Master Xorlen can disrupt it.”

Ary swallowed, his heart pounding its own alarm. He struggled to think against the clammy fear squeezing his guts. Chaylene gasped as she stared east. A bulge arose in the swirling clouds of the Storm. The Cyclone. A hand took his; it was small, clammy.

Chaylene’s.

“It’s not a natural storm,” Ary said, pushing against the chill clutching his flesh. “The Weathertower’s useless against it. The Intrepid will protect us. Has to protect us.”

His gaze snapped to the Watch. There, sailors scrambled to the Intrepid. They swarmed the naval vessel, casting off lines and readying ballistae. Red-coated marines, bone swords at their waists, lined the ship’s railings and aimed their thunderbusses. The sight of them rushing to defend the skyland heartened Ary, buttressing him against fear’s winds.

“This is the perfect place to watch!” Excitement surged through Ary. The Intrepid would sally forth and save the day, a story come to life.

Vel gaped at Ary like he had been kicked in the head by an ostrich. “We need to run!” Vel seized Ary’s arm. “Come on!”

He shook Vel’s hand off him. “This is my chance to see a battle.”

Chaylene, her eyes liquid, said, “Please, Briaris, we need to go. It’s not safe. It’s a Cyclone.”

Ary stared into her beseeching face, tears brimming around dark lashes. Fear and excitement warred in his stomach. But this was his chance to see the Autonomy Navy in action, to watch the marines fight the Stormriders. He couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Ary let go of her hand. “I’m staying.”

“Are you stupid?” Vel asked.

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Get Chaylene to safety.”

“Thunder-deaf idiot!” Vel grabbed Chaylene’s hand and yanked her to the stairs.

“You have to come with us. Please, Ary.”

Ary wrenched his gaze from Chaylene to the Intrepid. The wooden-hulled ship soared into the sky towards the rising Cyclone. A banner with a golden pegasus upon a field of red and blue flew from the top of the Intrepid’s mainmast. He couldn’t wait to defend his country, to be a Stormwall of the Autonomy.

A low howl filled the air. Ary gripped broken stone with excitement. The Cyclone charged forward, a black boar full of rage and anger. The two ballistae on the ship’s bow fired. Clay shots tumbled through the air and detonated. Fiery flashes illuminated the Stormriders within the maelstrom.

Ary whooped in excitement, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

The Cyclone snarled closer and closer. More explosions lit the maelstrom’s interior with angry fire. A vicious thrill surged through Ary. Every explosion killed more of the evil Stormriders, hungry clouds ripping apart flesh. They rode on ethereal beasts formed of dark storm clouds and possessed manes of lightning and eyes of crackling white. Flashing lightning reflected off breastplates and glinted off metal swords. Other Stormriders wielded small, curved bows, arrows sailing unhindered through the winds at the Intrepid. Marines and sailors ducked.

The Cyclone’s front loomed across the entire horizon. The Intrepid plowed into the swirling winds, surrounded by a bubble of calm projected by the ship’s windwarden, holding back the hungry clouds. Streaks of black and gray swept around the vessel, pressing in on it, a fragile shell in the grip of a vast, dark hand.

The Intrepid’s marines fired their thunderbusses. Lightning arced from their weapons. Thunder cracked. Sparks threw Stormriders sizzling from their mounts. Scout sharpshooters in the corvette’s rigging sent pressure bullets punching through metal armor while the sailors unleashed volleys of crossbow bolts. Arrows raked the Intrepid, their points burying into the white-cedar hull. Others struck home in the bodies of the sailors. A marine fell forward over the railing and tumbled through the Cyclone’s fierce winds.

Stormriders surrounded the Intrepid like sharks circling prey. Horror swallowed Ary’s excitement as he witnessed men dying. A Stormrider blown apart by a ballista shot, pieces of ragged meat flying across the sky then whipped away by the howling wind. A sailor’s head sent flying by a Stormrider’s flashing sword as he vaulted onto the ship’s deck. More Stormriders charged the Intrepid, warring through the explosions and volleys of lightning and crossbow bolts to board the ship.

The Cyclone hit the skyland and slammed into Ary’s tower.

The winds threw him off his feet. The ruined tower creaked and shook beneath him. He pulled himself upright, struggling to stand. His raised hand warded his face against the wind’s sting, eyes burning. Lightning struck the grass on the hillside, the black smoke whipped away by howling gusts. With a loud groan, a nearby chestnut tree snapped and crashed to the ground.

The swirling, black clouds half-cloaked the Intrepid. Lightning flashed on deck, the brilliant arcs reflecting upon metal armor and blades. The marines fought the demons on the deck. A Stormrider’s metal blade flashed and cut two down before a third grabbed a hold of his metal armor. Lightning exploded from the marine’s hands. The Stormrider fell limp to the deck. A second Stormrider cut his way through a group of sailors towards the bow where a windwarden worked. The windwarden drew his bone sabre and raised the blade to parry the Stormrider’s overhand blow. The metal sword sheared through bone and buried into the windwarden’s chest.

Ary cried out in horror as the Intrepid lurched to the right. A loud, splintering crack preceded the foremast snapping, falling across the starboard side of the ship, crushing a ballista before tumbling off into the Cyclone. Sailors and scout snipers, still tangled in the rigging, plummeted to their deaths. The Intrepid floundered. The remaining windwarden strained to keep the winds from sweeping away the corvette.

Ary’s stomach sank. If the Intrepid failed to reach the Cyclone’s Eye, nothing would stop the maelstrom from sweeping across Vesche. Everyone Ary knew would be killed: his ma and pa, his little brother Jhevon, his sisters Srias and Gretla, Vel and his family, and Chaylene and her ma. The Cyclone would sweep them all off into the Storm Below.

Just like the great Skyland of Swuopii and the Dawn Empire a thousand years ago.

But the Intrepid sailed on, fighting through winds and riders towards the glowing heart of the Cyclone—the Eye. Ary spotted it brightening the black clouds to gray. “Guide and protect the Intrepid,” Ary prayed, looking up to the Goddess Above. The clouds hid her fiery orb, but Ary knew she looked down upon them. “Let your feathery rays penetrate the Cyclone and shelter the Intrepid from the minions of your dark sister.”

Never had he prayed so hard, so desperately.

“Please, Riasruo!” he screamed into the winds, voice lost to the howling.

Ary’s skin tingled, the hairs on his body standing up. The Goddess answered his prayers. Her power coursed through him. He smiled. It would be all right. The Intrepid would win through to the Eye.

A lightning bolt hurtled down from the Cyclone. The air exploded white-hot around him.

~ * * ~

Ary rushed upwards through darkness, pulled by a jagged line of light, blue in the center, fading to purples on the edges. It reminded him of the afterimage looking at the sun burned into his eyes. On and on it pulled him while the void rushed by. Or maybe he was stationary, and the void and whatever lay at the end of the line was being pulled to him. Ary couldn’t tell which. Eternity passed. Or was it only heartbeats? Was he even breathing? Did his heart even beat?

I was struck by lightning. This is death.

He frowned, or maybe he only imagined he frowned. Ary wasn’t even sure he had a body here. If he was dead, where were the solar eagles to fly him to the sun and the bosom of Riasruo? To be bathed for eternity in her love? A priestess had anointed him with the flame as a babe.

I’ve been good. Mostly.

Or had he not been good enough? Panic surged through him. “If you don’t stop skipping school,” his ma always lectured, “you’ll be dragged screaming down to the Storm when you die.” Was that where the line took him? Was he doomed to spend forever tossed about by scouring winds? To be pierced by lightning bolts and struck by icy rain, never to know rest or peace?

He shivered. Or he imagined he shivered.

Ahead, a light blossomed. Ary hurtled towards it. Or the light hurtled towards him. Details grew. The form of a glowing figure emerged. The lights became strange ropes made of joined loops binding the robed figure spread-eagle. Ary slowed. The void slowed. The figure grew distinct. What Ary mistook for the wide sleeves of a robe were feathered wings. The strange ropes of light wrapped cruelly about the figure’s body, flattening feathers, tangled about scaled legs, and wrapped around a thin neck.

“A Luastria,” Ary whispered.

He stared in awe at the Luastria, studying her burnished-yellow feathers. Horror struck Ary, seeing tiny barbs of light thrusting from the strange ropes into her flesh. Her—he did not understand how he knew her sex—golden eyes brimmed with suffering.

“Please,” the Luastria chirped. “End the pain!”

Compassion moved the boy. He grasped the nearest binding. Agony filled him, throbbing with the pulses. Nothing had ever hurt so badly. Not his pa’s strapping, or the time he’d scalded his arm with boiling water, or even when he’d broken his leg chasing ducks. For the first time, Ary experienced true anguish. All his previous injuries were shadows cast by the intensity burning through him.

He let go.

“Free me!”

“How?” Ary asked, his imaginary body trembling, tears running down his cheeks. “It hurts too much. How can I free you?”

“How could you betray me?” the Luastria demanded, her head thrashing. “I did everything for you!”

“What? Who betrayed you? I didn’t betray you.”

“End the pain.”

The void shattered into light.

~ * * ~

Ary awoke, grass tickling his cheek. A drum pounded inside his skull. His body ached like he’d rolled head first down a stony hill and hadn’t missed a single rock or boulder. Blood filled his mouth. His tongue throbbed.

What happened?

He struggled to sit up, his muscles protesting, and looked around. He lay on the grassy slope near the ruined tower. Ary gaped. Only the foundations remained. Fallen chunks lay about him, crushing green grass and red daisies. He swallowed; any one piece was large enough to flatten him. He glanced behind him and—

“Theisseg’s scrawny feathers.” Ary used his pa’s vilest curse.

He lay on the edge of the skyland. He looked over the edge, broken coral covering the rock. The Storm boiled beneath. He shuddered at the thought of falling all the way down through Theisseg’s Storm to the mythical ground.

Ary scrambled back from the edge, his side burning. A ragged hole burned through his shirt. Red, tender flesh peeked through the charred cloth. He struggled to remember what happened, but his head throbbed with his heartbeat. I think I got struck by lightning. He fingered the raw flesh, wincing. He remembered the strange void, the bound Luastria. Was that just a dream?

Shadows fell across him. The sun was setting. I must have been out for hours. The dream lingered in his mind. It felt so real, especially the agony. He rubbed at his aching forehead, the Luastria’s words echoing in his mind.

He pushed those away. “Chaylene?”

Where are Chaylene and Vel? Ary stood, wincing, his left leg burning with pain. He poked at it with his finger. Not broken, but definitely bruised. Gritting his teeth, he limped up the hill and reached the summit where the watchtower had stood.

He surveyed Vesche in stunned horror.

A pile of smashed rubble marked Aldeyn Watch. The naval base’s tower lay half-collapsed, the barracks heaps of splintered lumber. Branches littered the grassy meadow. The winds had uprooted an entire chestnut tree and dragged it across the ground, furrowing the dark soil like a gigantic plow. Field guppies and red-finned minnows drifted in lazy schools across the scarred landscape. In the distance, collapsed timber marked where the Xogrly farmhouse should have rested—the shattered memory of home.

The Cyclone had ravaged Vesche.

Horror crashed into Ary. Is my family safe? And Chaylene and Vel?

He set off at a limping trot across the meadow, swerving around the strewn debris: fallen branches, shattered lumber, tangled rope, and torn canvas. He reached Watch Road that led towards the village and his family’s farm. He lumbered down the hard-packed dirt, the setting sun blinding his eyes. Ary’s leg burned as he walked. A broken fence allowed a flock of white-winged ostriches to peck at the hard-packed dirt. Ary circled the ostriches, wary. Normally placid, the large fowl could kick hard when agitated. His uncle took one to the head as a boy, and his wits had been slow ever since.

Past the screeching ostriches, Ary came closer to the ruins of the Xogrly farm. Farmer Xogrly and his wife dug through the wreckage of their house, their two daughters watching. Unlike Ary, the farmer and his wife had sought shelter of their root cellar when the alarm sounded.

“That’s what I should have done if my head hadn’t been so stuffed with ostrich down,” he muttered to himself.

The sight of the Xogrlys picking through their home gave Ary hope. His ma and pa would be safe in their root cellar with Gretla. And the schoolhouse had a basement dug just for a Cyclone attack. Srias enjoyed school too much to skip it, and Jhevon feared their pa’s belt far more than Ary did.

“Wish I had that sense.”

Weight lessened from Ary’s shoulders: Chaylene and Vel lived. They’d had plenty of time to reach the Xogrly farm. Both would be home now, Vel at his family’s farm, and Chaylene at the hovel she shared with her ma.

But why has no one come looking for me? Flashes of Chaylene lying sprawled, blonde hair matted red, wormed into his thoughts as he passed more devastation. Others joined her: Srias staring with blank eyes at the sky, Jhevon crumpled into a ball, Gretla lying limp as a rag doll, his parents crushed beneath fallen timbers.

“Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement,” he muttered.

It became a mantra in his mind as he limped down the road, something to focus on other than the pain. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. Over and over the thought rattled. He kept walking, his limp fading as his fear grew.

A red-breasted crow cawed atop a headless sailor from the Intrepid.

The grizzly sight arrested Ary. He swallowed as the crow, a bloody tendon clutched in its beak, took flight. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.

Smoke rose lazily from behind the hill ahead. Ary ignored it. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement. He crested the rise. Ma and Pa and . . .

His thoughts faltered at the sight of the valley.

He should have witnessed sprawling farms spread before him with orderly fields of barley, neat rows of fruiting lemon and orange trees, and fenced pastures for ostriches. Everything familiar was broken. Debris choked the Bluesnake winding and wending between the farms and orchards, the waters churned murky. Animals roamed while above sharks and scavenging crows flew over the fields. Beyond the farms lay the village of Isfe, once a haphazard collection of wooden houses with thatched roofs, barns, and small vegetable patches built around the village green, anchored by the Jolly Farmer and the schoolhouse.

The Cyclone had left little intact. Piles of rubble marked the foundations of houses or barns. Other buildings lay half-collapsed with only remnants of their walls still standing. The south side of the schoolhouse had fallen outward, the roof caved in. Smoke drifted from heaps of charred lumber. Villagers searched through the rubble while others led harnessed bristleback boars pulling large chunks of debris.

Choking black rose from the nearby Oatlon Orchard. A hundred-rope-long swath of broken and flattened lemon trees ended at a mass of splintered white lumber and canvas. Men were pulling mangled bodies from the wreckage, adding them to a line of thirty or more bloody forms.

Horror’s realization struck Ary. The Intrepid had crashed, too damaged after battling the Cyclone.

“But that’s not how the stories go,” croaked Ary. “The heroic ship doesn’t crash after defeating the Cyclone. They’re supposed to return to the cheers of the grateful farmers and villagers.” Vesche still floated in the skies. The Intrepid had defeated the Cyclone. There should be celebration. “It’s not fair. The crew won.”

He strained his eyes, looking for any surviving crew, but only a few farmers dug through the wreckage. No sailors and no red-coated marines.

Ary struggled to think. No marines.

He knew all eleven of the marines who served on the Intrepid. Reisa always carried a piece of candy in her pocket for the village children; Myech would always drink too much at the Farmer’s Rest, singing bawdy songs until his mates would drag him back to the barracks; Sergeant Thuhly’s scarred face and broken teeth always sent a terrifying thrill through Ary. Other names: Skinny Hu, Thojhen, Chene, the keen-eyed Hawk, the pretty Grathene, Thame, and Quick Rlest.

They couldn’t all be dead.

His eyes darted across the valley, desperation compelling him to find a red coat moving. Instead, he spotted the small rise at the far end of the valley where his family’s farmhouse should have stood. Only broken lumber remained.

Fear clutched his stomach.

Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.

Fear drove thoughts of the Intrepid and her dead out of his mind. Ary needed to get home. Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.

How could such a beautiful day turn into this horror?

Ma and Pa and Gretla were in the root cellar, and Jhevon and Srias were in the school’s basement.

The burning in Ary’s leg vanished as the fear spread inside him, a sickly flower opening to a black sun. He had to get home. Then everything would be fine. The fear grew and grew until its blotched blossoms covered his thoughts. He limped faster. Smoke stung his eyes. Shadows lengthened as the sun set.

“Please, Riasruo, please let my family be safe,” he prayed to the sun shining dull red through the smoke rising over Isfe.

A crimson sun.

Fear transformed into terror. Blood smeared the horizon. He trembled. Please, please, please let everything be fine. The Goddess bled for Vesche and the Intrepid. Images whirled in his mind: Jhevon crushed by timber; Srias’s long, blonde hair stained scarlet; Gretla staring sightless at the sky; his ma buried in their house, crushed by the rubble. Fear’s blossom choked his soul. He wanted to curl up and cry, to weep out the terror.

“No. Everything will be fine.” He forced hope to prune fear back. He limped onward. Everyone is alive!

He hobbled up the path leading to his family’s farm. The gate and most of the fence were gone, a fence post driven deep into the old oak’s trunk. As he passed the tree, he peered up for his young brother, hoping Jhevon hid in the bough. He liked to throw acorns down at Ary from the tree.

Ary spotted only broken branches.

Everyone is fine!

Ary trudged up the hill, leg burning, and crested the top. Dirt-stained figures stood near the ruined barn. Spotting Jhevon and Srias, little Gretla in her arms, Ary quickened his pace. Vel kicked at the dirt, standing near his ma hugging Ary’s ma. His slow Uncle Omar held himself and wept. They all stood around something on the ground. Ary looked around for his pa. Gretla wailed. Tears stained Srias’s dusky face.

Where’s Pa?

Jhevon spotted Ary, pointing and shouting. Everyone looked. Tears shone on dirty faces.

His ma’s red eyes fixed on his. She stalked towards him. Anger and hatred filled her expression. Locks of dark-blonde hair spilled out of her usually tight bun. Ary stepped back, confusion warring fear inside him.

“Ma—” Her slap knocked him to the ground.

His head rang. Blood filled his mouth. Ary looked up at his ma. Her nut-brown face was twisted, ugly. He didn’t understand. She’d often been disappointed and exasperated with him, even angry a few times, but she never showed terrifying rage. Ary tried to speak, to ask what was wrong, but fear twisted his tongue. He shrank back, trying to worm his way into the earth. Her hand flashed out and grabbed his arm hard.

She dragged him to his feet and pulled him towards the others, hissing angry words at him. “You always have to sneak off and be irresponsible, Briaris! Never caring how me and your… and your…” Her rage faded, fresh tears welling in her eyes. Then the anger came howling back. “You never cared how me and your pa worried and fretted! You stupid, ostrich-brained, good-for-nothing . . . !” Her rant trailed off into a guttural screech.

Ary tried to pull away, but she held too tight. Confusion gripped him. He searched the crowd, then the farm, for his pa, looking everywhere but the form on the ground. Where is he? He dug his feet into the ground. His ma yanked him onward, his feet furrowing the dirt until he caught a rock. He pitched forward, chin smacking earth.

She didn’t stop dragging him.

She threw him down next to the covered form. Ary refused to look. Pa’s not dead. Pa’s not dead. He’s fine. He’s just working somewhere else on the farm. Pa’s not dead.

“Look at him!” His ma’s voice was shrill like an angry ostrich.

Her hands seized his hair and turned him to face his pa. A blanket covered his body, sticky blood matting the right side of his chest. Eyes stared upward, unseeing. Please, Goddess, please. This can’t be. Pa can’t be dead. Tears ran down his cheeks. The stress, the fear, of the last hours burst out of him in racking sobs.

“It’s your fault,” she hissed in his ear. “He was at the Xogrly farm when your friends showed up and told him what stupid idea had lodged in your down-filled head. He went out into the Cyclone to find you!”

“No,” Ary groaned.

“You selfish sow’s dung. You never think, Briaris. You never care how me and your pa worried after you. Are you happy? Did you have fun? Huh?” She jerked his head to face her. “Answer me!”

Ary tried to speak, to explain how he’d wanted to see the heroic marines fight the demonic Stormriders. Like in the stories.

Nothing came out.

“He’s dead . . . because of you.” The rage faded into tears. She collapsed onto his pa, sobbing into his chest. Her moaning words were incoherent.

It wasn’t worth it, thought Ary.

He’d thought any price was worth paying to see a Cyclone. To witness a battle and all the veterans’ stories come to life in their excitement and glory. But the battle hadn’t been glorious. He’d only witnessed pain and death and horror in that orchard.

What an ostrich-brained fool I am.

He looked down at his pa’s sightless eyes. The cost was too high.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Snippet 1 – Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

For all my awesome fans…

Here is a snippet of Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!

Prologue

Jyuou Skyland, 1025 SR (Year of Skylands Rising)

Despite access to the greatest apothecaries, age finally afflicted Xaiutwoa III, Empress of the Dawn. She gasped for breath as she leaned against the hulking form of her bodyguard, Tezl, solid form for support. Every bone in the avian Empress’s body ached. As a Gezitziz of the Ethinsk Tribe, he towered above the tallest of the Luastria, and Xaiutwoa stood short for her avian race. His crimson scales blended into the blushing-red sandstone walls of the Tower of Morning.

“Thank you, Tezl,” Xaiutwoa chirped, looking up at the fierce, wedged snout of her bodyguard. He’d served her the last twenty or more years.

“It is my honor, Your Radiance,” he hissed, a deep, dry sibilant. Every few heartbeats, his pink tongue flicked out, scenting the air.

Xaiutwoa clucked her beak in amusement. “I’m hardly so radiant any longer.”

Her eyes glanced at the dull-brown plumage, mottled by age, peeking out from the sleeves of her robes. In her youth, her feathers had possessed a sleekness, her scaled feet a fetching shade of purple-black, and her tail feathers straight and proud. Now, mud discolored her feet and her tail drooped.

“The setting sun is just as beautiful as the rising,” Tezl answered.

Xaiutwoa’s feathers ruffled in embarrassment. It was easy to think of the Gezitziz as unemotional with their dead, reptilian eyes. She let her distal feathers at the end of her wing stroke his scaled forearm. Then she made the last ascent alone. Letting Tezl assist her up the tower this far had violated tradition. But not even she could allow him to reach the top of the tower, no matter how much age had weakened her. Not even the caretaker ever stood at the holy tower’s prominence.

Xaiutwoa’s breath wheezed as she struggled up the stairs, leaning against the tower’s walls. Her sun-yellow robes, made of the lightest Sowerese silks, dragged at her wings as if soaked by water while the golden Crown of Dawn—the largest, single collection of metal in the entire Empire—weighed upon her brow.

Her strength failed. She sucked air through her beak, her heart fluttering too fast. “Come on, you old hen,” Xaiutwoa clucked. “The Rosy Prayer needs to be sung.”

She forced herself to climb, ignoring age’s burdens. She wouldn’t have to bear them much longer. But would her daughter, Niiwa, have the strength to withstand the Book’s truths? Gentle Niiwa had struggled to escape her shell at her hatching. And when Yriitwao, Xaiutwoa’s second daughter, poked her head out of her shell, she’d withdrawn, scared to escape. Both so unlike headstrong Opiixu, who’d burst free of his egg. Her heart fluttered at the pain of his memory. Her beautiful hatchling, so sure he could fly.

Xaiutwoa wiped a tear away with a distal feather.

With a clucking sigh, she rejoiced in the cool, predawn air atop the tower. A gentle breeze blew in from the southeast. A school of silvery red-banded minnows, sleeping in the protection of the tower’s crenellations, scattered into the sky at her appearance, their small tails swishing. Her eyes focused on the plinth. On it rested a transparent, crystal case protecting a slender book bound in faded, red leather.

On her coronation, the first time she’d climbed the Tower of Morning, she discovered the case. No one had told her of its existence. Curious, she’d opened it to read Iiwroa’s Book. The words had shattered her soul with their weight.

Xaiutwoa walked to the battlements to survey the sky. The Tower of Morning rested upon a Jyuou, a small skyland no larger than a prosperous house. Her functionaries and hangers-on crowded the base of the tower and her moored barge like a colorful flock of birds. She glanced to the west where the greatest skyland in the Empire, Swuopii, hung above the Storm. The larger of the two moons, Twiuasra, set fast behind Swuopii, framing the skyland with his soft, blue face. The Sky Tower’s crystal face warped the moon’s light, intensifying the colors into a deep azure thrusting above her palace. If she possessed the sharp vision of her youth, Xaiutwoa would have witnessed her subjects crowding the eastern shore of Swuopii, awaiting the dawn and for their Empress to sing the Rosy Prayer in thanks to Riasruo. More citizens crowded boats hovering in the gulf between Jyuou and Swuopii.

Xaiutwoa turned to the east where the Storm Below spread out like a mottled black-and-gray blanket, curving off into the horizon in a fuzzy haze. Beneath those churning, imperturbable clouds lay the mythical ground. A thousand years ago, so the Talesingers proclaimed, her ancestors dwelled on the ground, living with the Humans, the Gezitziz, and the Zalg. Peace had reigned until Kaltein and his Wrackthar Humans made a pact with Theisseg, the dark Goddess of Storms and bitter rival to her sister Riasruo, Goddess of the Sun. When Kaltein summoned the Storm, its dark face blotting out the sun forever, the Goddess shone her mercy on her children, lifting the skylands above the eternal tempest.

The Storm grew lighter as sunrise approached. Blushes of pink and orange spread on the horizon while the stars above faded. Xaiutwoa took a deep breath, preparing herself to sing the Rosy Prayer, the most vital duty of the Dawn Empress. The Book was explicit. As she readied herself, she noticed a turbulence upon the Storm’s surface.

Instead of the usual boil of clouds in a random, chaotic pattern, they instead rotated slowly about a dark spot. She squinted, detesting that age made her see only as keen as a Human, and realized it wasn’t a spot, but a hole in the Storm’s clouds. She studied the Storm Below with nervous curiosity. In all her long years, she’d never observed a pattern form in the chaotic Storm.

The clouds rotated faster about the hole. The sight reminded her of water swirling down a drain. The first golden rays of dawn dazzled her eyes. Her gizzard tightened in realization. Pay attention, old hen, she thought. She’d nearly missed beginning her Song on time.

Xaiutwoa sang the complex, wordless melody of the Rosy Prayer, trying to pull her attention away from the strange pattern. Power hummed in the music, passing through her from something . . . else. Creation vibrated the Crown of Dawn upon her brow. A lullaby to soothe Her pain.

She continued to study the Storm as she sang, the Song’s harmony coming unbidden to her beak. The rotation moved faster now, the clouds streaking as they swirled about the hole. Thunder rumbled from below while a low, roaring sound filled the air. Xaiutwoa wracked her memory, straining to recall her lessons as a hatchling.

Has the Storm ever behaved so strangely? Unease settled in her gizzard as peals of thunder growled again. Something’s greatly wrong.

Indecision filled her thoughts. Her gizzard warned her to assemble her scholars at once to determine what strange madness swirled before her. But the Prayer was too important to stop. She had to channel the energy into the Storm. What if this is just a rare behavior of the Storm? What if it is only some vagary of winds and currents, and I doom us all with my panic?

She sang louder to drown out her unease.

The cyclonic pattern burst from the surface of the Storm, bulging like a bubble rising from the depths of a dark pool of water. The Rosy Prayer faltered, a crackle of static washing across her feathers. Xaiutwoa let out a chirp of surprise. The maelstrom swelled higher and higher. A wall of swirling grays and blacks thrust out of the turbulent Storm, occulting the rising sun.

Darkness fell, night replacing dawn.

Horror churned in her gizzard. What is happening? I sang the Prayer every solstice. I followed the Book!

Has She grown more powerful? Or more desperate?

Shock rooted Xaiutwoa to the spot. She was too stunned to do more than watch the Cyclone rush forward, winds howling with rage. The wall of clouds filled the horizon. Inside the chaotic turbulence, shapes appeared. Dark blotches moved through the maelstrom. They resolved into figures on impossible mounts.

“They’re riding in the storm,” she chirped to herself.

The riders moved through the maelstrom untouched by fierce gusts as if they possessed the Blessing of Wind. Lightning flashed, the figures reflecting the light. But what could make them . . .? Her gizzard churned in violent terror. “Goddess Above, they have metal.”

Lanii’s golden feathers. How have the Wrackthar survived a thousand years without the sun? It’s impossible.

Tears ran from her eyes, matting the downy feathers of her cheeks. Xaiutwoa turned to the west, towards her Empire. The roaring of the Cyclone pressed like weights on her ears, so loud she couldn’t think. The boats in the bay turned, flying back towards the shelter of Swuopii’s docks.

Realization struck Xaiutwoa. A thousand years of peace. We’ve forgotten how to fight.

She turned to face the maelstrom, winds ripping at her feathers and billowing her robes. She swayed, a thin branch in a tempest. The wall of swirling clouds rushed towards her, a terrible blackness hungering to swallow her Empire. The riders in the tempest raised weapons, long and straight, flashing deadly in the pulsing lightning.

“Mother!”

Niiwa, her eldest daughter, beckoned from the stairwell. A moment later, Tezl rushed past the princess. The red hulk raced across the parapet towards Xaiutwoa, fighting the screaming winds to reach her. Certain she would not survive, a single thought crystallized in the Empress’s mind: Niiwa will need the Book.

Xaiutwoa wrenched open the crystal case and scooped Iiwroa’s Book up into her wings. Tezl reached her, towering over the Empress. She thrust it into his chest. “Protect this Book! It cannot be lost! Niiwa will need it!”

“What?” Tezl asked as he grabbed the Book.

“The Truth!” she shouted with every breath in her aged lungs. “Niiwa will need it. You need to protect her now. She’s the Empire’s future.” Xaiutwoa caught her daughter’s green eyes. Love and fear reflected in the mirrors of Niiwa’s soul.

“I’ll protect you and the Book,” Tezl said in his deep, rasping voice. His cold, scaled arm wrapped around Xaiutwoa’s frail form, lifting her. She felt safe in his arms, her loyal guard. He would protect Niiwa and the Book. He was too loyal to fail. As Tezl turned, she witnessed the Cyclone over his shoulder, the raging maelstrom almost upon them. The riders in the tempest possessed pale, Human faces, black braids streaming behind silver helmets as they galloped upon beasts of boiling clouds.

We have forgotten how to fight.

The Cyclone crashed into the tower.

~ * * ~

The Sun set upon the Age of the Dawn. The Great Cyclone swept across Swuopii and pulled the heart of light down into darkness. The Dawn Empire shattered, splintering into petty Kingdoms ruled by vain despots warring over the scraps. Ambition and blood wrote the next thousand years of history.

Excerpt from History of the Skies, Volume 4 by Uolvaex Zhnoagsick.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

If you want to stay informed on my writing, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

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Review: Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 3

Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 3

Story by Ryukishio7

Art by Yutori Houjyou

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Shion has gone insane. After learning of Tomitake and Takano’s murders the night of the Cotton Drifting Festival, Shion realizes the shadowy forces in Hinamizawa that have been enacting the curse the last five years have struck again, punishing the two for trespassing in the temple’s sacred storeroom, Shion realizes she’s in danger, too.

With Keiichi, Tomitake, and Takano, she also broke in. Her paranoia sending her into action, she uses her stun gun to disable her twin sister Mion and her grandmother, the head of the Sonozaki family. Believing all these murders and disappearances happened on the orders of her grandmother, including the disappearance of the boy she loved a year before, Shion is set to get answers.

But her elderly grandmother’s heart didn’t survive being stunned. Left with only her sister for answers, Shion will do anything to find out what happened to Satoshi and protect herself. But her actions have consequences. How many more people will die?

We are seeing just what happened in The Cotton Drifting Arc. All the weirdness, the manic behavior from Mion, the inconsistencies in Shion’s story, now make sense. Shion was behind it all, swapping roles, manipulating Keiichi and the village to provoke the true killers. Only it leaves so much tragedy behind and draws out a surprising confrontation.

This volume is delivering on what the Answer Arcs promise. We’re peeling back the mystery and learning that those we thought knew what was going on may be as baffled as we are. That there is something else lurking in the heart of Hinamizawa that needs confronting.

Another bloody scenario is playing out. Will Keiichi, Mion, Rena, Rika, and Satako survive this time, or will we see the same results as last time?

The art is gorgeous. It captures Shion’s madness. The story flows as we see her scrambling to react, trying to control the craziness bubbling out of her. All her years of resentment at her family for being shunned, for being put aside for Mion, are exploding out of her.

It makes for great reading!

Higurashi continues to excel as a horror/mystery graphic novel series! You have to check out this unique story!

You can buy Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 3 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: BERSERK Volume 26

BERSERK 26

by Kentaro Miura

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Though Guts and his companions have saved the village, the surviving trolls have carried off Casca and Farness. Fearing for his insane lover, Guts leads his small party into the trolls lair, a place of death and birth. In the depths, they will face horrors and discover what happens to the women kidnapped by the trolls.

As Guts battles to save Casca, his rage and passion attracts unwanted attention. One of the Godhand comes. Drawn to the place where new life comes at the death of the mother, Slann rises. Promising temptation and death, will Guts be able to defeat her.

Will he be able to resist her offer to make his own sacrifice?

As Guts and his forces battle, Griffith has dispatched forces on their own mission. He cannot abide the interference of Schreike’s mistress. Even if Guts can win the day, will he have the strength to face what comes next?

BERSERK explodes with action. The story compels you forward through the desperate struggle to save Casca, to the manifest of the succubus Slann. As the realities merge together, the Godhand can form bodies to appear. Hints at their true plan appear even as Guts is offered the same choice as Griffith.

The art is gorgeous and revolting all at the same time. Mirua’s art manages to show sensuality birthed from obscenity. It perfectly captures the essence of Slann and the true nature of the Godhand. Griffith’s current form may be beautiful like he was before his sacrifice, but does that mean the soul inside him isn’t as revolting as the entrails from which Slann forms her body?

The backstory peels back more and more in this volume. The action is intense. Never has Guts been weaker than this, battered and wounded from his scores of battle. How much longer can he continue to swing that massive sword of his?

Fans of fantasy need to check out BERSERK! It is a deep and layered story.

You can buy BERSERK Vol 26 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 2

Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 2

Story by Ryukishio7

Art by Yutori Houjyou

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Boy, we are getting answers now. Confused on what was going on with Mion/Shion in the Cotton Drifting Arc, you will find out in this one. Wondering why Shion freaked out in the Saiguden? Yep, see what’s up with her.

This volume picks up a year before the main story where the last volume ended. Satoshi is suspected in the murder of his aunt. To give him an alibi, Shion claims to have been with him to Detective Oishi, forcing herself to reveal her true identity and drop her charade of pretending to be Mion. However, associating with Satoshi, whose family is hated by her powerful grandmother, lands Shion in trouble.

Her family has a dark history. They have long been connected with the yakuza. To show her restitution for her actions, and to protect Satoshi from the Sonozaki’s power, Shion proves her contrition by self-mutilation.

She has to rip off three of her fingernails. It’s painful to read. It’s horrible to witness her going through such pain. But she loves Satoshi. She will endure it for him.

But, as we know, Satoshi disappears. It doesn’t matter that Shion offered up her pain to save him. It festers inside of her. She blames her family for his disappearance while trying to convince herself that he just ran away, a murderer on the run.

And then we jump to the present story. Keiichi’s arrival sends Shion’s careful world into chaos and ushers us into the events we witnessed in the Cotton Drifting Arc from her perspective.

This is a powerful volume. The fingernail scene is so hard to read. You can feel her pain. The artist captured it well. You see Shion dealing with her grief and this strange presence she feels. That extra footstep we’ve seen from others in this story.

Is it Oyashiro? What is truly going on?

This volume ends on such a dark note. We’re about to find out just how involved the Sonozaki family is in what’s going on. Are they the culprits, or have they merely been blamed for events outside their control.

The story only gets better. The art is wonderful, capturing the emotion between the twins, the anger of Shion, and her pain. It is brought to life in such vivid ink.

You can buy Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 2 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: BERSERK Volume 25

BERSERK 25

by Kentaro Miura

Reviewed by JMD Reid

To earn charms to protect himself and Casca from the evil spirits drawn to their brands, Guts has agreed to help the apprentice witch Schrieke in defeating the trolls threatening the village. To aid them, Schrieke hands out magical weapons to Guts companions. Guts, however, needs only his sword.

Now the trolls are attacking. Guts and his companions will have to buy Schrieke time to cast her spell before they mob of monsters overwhelm them and pillage the village. But with the fabric of reality merging with the astral realm, the trolls aren’t the only monsters lurking out there.

Guts and his companions will have their hands full.

This volume is the sort of action BERSERK is known for. Miura’s art is detailed and at once beautiful and horrifying. He captures the highs and lows of the fight as it ebbs back and forth. Schrieke’s magic evokes awe while the trolls and other monsters capture they’re mythological roots but with the disturbing twist of Miura’s imagination.

An action-packed volume of the manga that keeps you turning pages. If you’re a fan of great fantasy, you need to read this series! BERSERK numbers among the best of fantasy art out there.

You can buy BERSERK Vol 25 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 1

Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 1

Story by Ryukishio7

Art by Yutori Houjyou

Reviewed by JMD Reid

“I dropped my beads in the desert,” the girl wept.
The girl searched the desert for a hundred years.
“Maybe I didn’t dropped them in the desert, but in the ocean,” the girl wept.
The girl searched the seafloor for a hundred years.
“Maybe I didn’t drop them in the ocean, but in the mountains,” the girl wept.
How many years will it be before she questions whether she dropped them at all?
—Frederica Bernkastel

We are launching off the second half of Higurashi. It’s time for the Answers. We pick up in 1982, a year before the main events, with Shion Sonozaki, the twin sister of Mion, escaping from the Catholic girl’s school she’s been exiled to. She’s tired of being away from Hinamizawa. She resents the family tradition of dealing with twins. Her sister is the family heir and to keep her from interfering, the teenager has to stay away.

With the help of same allies in her family and the yakuza syndicate they run, she’s heading back home. Conspiring with Mion to hide out in the nearby town, she is dreading when her grandmother, the current family head, finds out. However, bored, she finds herself sneaking out dressed as her twin sister. When she runs into one of Mion’s classmates, Satoshi, love sparks in her heart.

Soon she realizes the suffering Satoshi experiences at the hand of his abusive aunt. Knowing her family is behind village shunning Satoshi’s family, she wants to help. But how can she stand up to the head of her family?

This arc plays out just like Cotton Drifting Arc save that Shion is the POV instead of Keiichi. The events of that arc hinted that the Sonozaki family is behind the suspicious murders. Shion was captured early on by Mion, held prisoner while she dispensed the family’s justice. With the twins able to pose as each other, the liens of what did or did not happen in that arc were blurred.

Now we’ll find out what’s going on.

Even more interesting, we get to meet the illusive Satoshi, a youth implied to have beaten his aunt to death for the fourth year curse only to vanish mysteriously a few days later. Did he really kill her? What happened to Satoshi?

We’re starting to get answers to these questions as well as see how well one of the three main theories put forward about what is going on is true.

You can buy Higurashi Eye Opening Arc 1 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: BERSERK Volume 24

BERSERK 24

by Kentaro Miura

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Guts no longer travels alone. To protect Casca and get her to Elfheim where the broken, insane woman can be safe from the evil spirits drawn to her brand, Guts has allowed Isidro, Farness, and Serpico to travel with him. He can’t protect Casca from her madness and the darkness trying to kill them.

Worse, he can’t trust himself around her.

While traveling through the woods, the party is ambushed by trolls. Since Griffith’s rebirth, the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds is weakening. Trolls, dwelling in the edges of the spirit realm, are rampaging through the woods and terrorizing a nearby village. Their ethereal bodies are impervious to normal weapons. Only a young witch named Schrieke can save them.

Schrieke and her mistress are the only hope for the village in destroying the trolls, and helping Guts and Casca. But will they stir from their protected home? Or will Guts and his companions stumble on without their aid?

BERSERK is shifting more and more into the pure fantasy story, but the grimdark brutality still exists. The trolls are horrible creatures, squat and brutish. It will take the aid of magic to allow Guts and his group to continue on. Miura’s world develops more and more in this chapter as he dives into not only the metaphysics of his world, but whether the Godhand’s belief that causality controls all is the truth.

Perhaps man has a choice when presented with their fate. But can they resist taking it? Griffith couldn’t resist sacrificing the Band of the Hawk to achieve his dream, but way back in Volume 3, the count did resist.

BERSERK continues to be an exciting read as Guts and his group deal with the trolls while Guts is beginning to remember what it was like to belong again. They’re not the Band of the Hawk, but has he found a new family to protect? A way to escape his destructive path of vengeance?

If you’re a fan of fantasy, you need to check out BESERK!

You can buy BERSERK Vol 24 from Amazon.

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out first ever Fantasy novel is out!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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