Review: Skyward

Skyward

by Brandon Sanderson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

It’s hard being the daughter of a coward.

Spensa, a young girl living on an alien planet, wants to be a pilot like her father. An alien race known as the Krell have driven Spensa and her people to Detritus, a planet far from Earth. Three generations back, their spaceship crash-landed here while the incredible orbital debris keeps them pinned on the planet. As a child, her father was among the first to fight back.

Only in the middle of a pivotal battle, he fled.

Living with the stigma of his cowardice, Spensa wants to prove her own worth. She wants to be a pilot like him, but will her society let her? While they espouse equality and merit, will she ever truly be allowed to fight to protect her people?

Skyward is about a young woman struggling to get out from the shadow of her father. It’s a story about pain and loss, hope and duty. It’s a story about the resilience of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances, a tale of belief and faith. Is Spensa like her father? Will she be a coward, too?

Or can she make her own destiny?

This was a fast-paced and engrossing story. Sanderson has penned another excellent tale, this time in the science-fiction universe. It’s not the hardest science, the technology is never explained, but it’s well-written. It’s full of great characters and powerful emotions.

This is a must-read for fans of Sanderson and good stories alike!

You can buy Snapshot from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Story – The Plight of the Arshion

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each 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 Plight of the Arshion

Thugri Sound, Isamoa 9th, 399 VF (Vaarck’s Founding)

The Bosun’s shrill whistle screaming through her skull awoke Rhione from the bliss of sleep.

Groaning, she snapped her eyes open, staring up at the hammock swinging above her head. Her body didn’t want to move, but she forced herself to sit up in her own hammock, brushing strands of her white-blonde hair from her brown face.

Theisseg’s scrawny feathers,” she muttered, cursing the Storm Goddess for interrupting her sleep. She’d been up past the midnight watch patching the starboard hold of the Arshion. A small skyreef had struck the whaler near sunset. Thugri Sound was rife with the obstacles, and the lookout should have been paying more attention. They were lucky that it had only been a small reef that had collided with the ship, a boulder the size of a fat sow instead of a massive rock. It didn’t damage any of the ship’s frames—the ribs of the ship that ran along the hull from port to starboard—and only cracked a few of the hull’s planks.

Rhione rolled out of her hammock, trying to blink back the weight of sleep from her eyes. She grimaced, the deck cold on her bare feet. She forced herself to stand up, joining the rest of the night watch as they struggled out of their hammocks, men and women cursing and grousing.

What minnow’s crawled up the Cap’n’s skirt?” muttered Dhith, his portly face flushed red as he stepped out of the quartermaster’s stores.

Don’t know, dear, I was sleepin’,” Rhione muttered to her husband. She just wanted to lean against Dhith’s solid frame, close her eyes, and drift off into . . . She shook her head, trying to make her mind work.

Pirates,” muttered Three-Finger Tharsh, the oldest sailor on the Arshion, his face as wrinkled as a year-old prune. “It’s gonna be pirates.”

The grime of sleep fell off Rhione as her heart thudded to life. Agerzak pirates. They haunted Thugri Sound, riding on their strange beasts across the skies. After two years of sailing the Great Empty hunting for whales, the Arshion was heading home to Shuutan and passing through the most dangerous part of their voyage: the stretch through Thugri Sound. The Sound was the border between the Autonomy of Les-Vion to the south—Rhione and the rest of the crew’s nation—and the Agerzak Kingdom of Estapf to the north. Every year, Agerzak pirates took a few whalers out of the hundreds that plied the Sound, forcing their crews to fly the captured ships to the nearest Agerzak port.

Lucky crews were ransomed. Most weren’t. The pirates just wanted the whale oil.

Rhione formed the sun with her thumb and pinkie. “Riasruo defend us,” she muttered as she climbed up the steep steps out of the hold and onto the well deck, the Goddess’s feathery rays falling on her slim shoulders.

Take your battle stations!” bellowed the beefy Bosun, thrusting a crossbow and leather quiver full of bolts into Rhione’s calloused hand. “We gots an unfriendly ship behind us.”

She actually felt relieved. The Agerzak pirates never had ships. At least they didn’t two years ago. A lot could’ve changed.

Sailors scrambled through the rigging, unfurling the sails to full. A great gust whipped down the ship as the Windwarden increased the breeze, propelling the Arshion faster through the skies. Grioch, the slimy Windwarden, had been lucky when he’d received his Blessing. Riasruo, the Sun Goddess, had granted him Major Wind.

There were four different categories of Blessing—Mist, Wind, Pressure, and Lightning—that could come in three different strengths—Minor, Moderate, or Major. Every worshiper of Riasruo was granted a combination of Blessings at seventeen. The Goddess had blessed Rhione with Moderate Mist, allowing her to see through thick clouds and precipitate moisture from the air, and Minor Lightning, granting her immunity to electricity. Thanks to Grioch’s Blessing of Major Wind, he could power the Arshion’s engine, allowing her to fly, and could generate the breezes to propel her across the skies.

Don’t just stand there!” the Bosun bellowed at her.

Rhione glowered at the squat-faced man. As the ship’s chief carpenter, she had equal rank to the Bosun and the Quartermaster. Only the First Mate and the Captain stood higher than her.

I don’t care that you ain’t under my command,” the Bosun grunted. “You get your backside to the gunwale and prepare to defend the ship!”

Aye,” she muttered, shrinking from his boarish rage. Her hands shook as she clutched the crossbow. She’d never used one in her life.

The Bosun thrust one into her husband’s hands. Dhith’s jowls paled. This can’t be how it ends. We didn’t just spend two years plyin’ the Great Empty for it to end just a week out from home.

Ma!”

Rhione’s son raced up, his skinny face thick with fear. Chev served as the cabin boy on the Arshion while learning his parents’ trade. It was his first voyage, and he’d grown so much, sprouting into gangly youth, his brown face sporting a few red pimples. He’d soon have a man’s height and build. Rhione’s spine stiffened; she couldn’t afford to be afraid.

Get below deck!” she snapped at her son. “Ain’t no place for you up here.”

But it’s my job to run out the crossbow bolts. I gots to do my job.”

Fear and pride warred inside her. Chev was such a hard worker, eager to become a full member of the crew. He already knew all the various knots, hitches, bends, splices, loops, and bindings to manage the complicated rigging of the Arshion. Once he gained his strength, he’d make a fine sailor.

You mind your ma,” Dhith snapped.

Sorry, Pa!” Chev yelled, running to the stairs leading below deck. “I need to fetch another barrel of bolts.”

To the gunwale!” the Bosun bellowed at Rhione, cracking his scarred knuckles.

She knew the Bosun wouldn’t spare hitting her just because of her sex, so she joined her husband at the gunwale, the railing that lined the Arshion’s three decks. She kept throwing quick glances over her shoulders, keeping an eye on her son as he lugged a heavy barrel out of the hold, stony points of crossbow bolts sticking out of the top. He set it on the deck, ready to run resupplies to the ship’s defenders.

Stormin’ winds, that’s me and Dhith.

Rhione leaned her crossbow on the gunwale, her hands shaking as she stared out at the open, blue sky above Theisseg’s Storm, struggling to still the tremble in her hands. I’m forgettin’ somethin’. She looked at the wooden crossbow, a string made of wound carp guts connected the weapon’s arms. She hadn’t loaded it. Get it together. Don’t be no downyheaded fool now! She cranked back the windlass, the bone mechanism clicking and clacking before she settled a bolt on the cradle. With a breath, she aimed out at the sky.

Here they come!” roared the Captain from the stern deck, her voice shrill. “Five Agerzak raiders ridin’ across the sky. Hear that? There’s only five! We can beat them back. We have more numbers. So just feather them with your bolts, and we’ll get through this. Just remember the wealth in the tanks! You’ll all be rich when we get the oil back.”

How can the Captain care ‘bout the whale oil right now?” Rhione muttered, trying not to think about five Agerzak raiders bearing down on them.

It’s all the woman cares about,” snorted Dhith. “She’s probably happy we’re bein’ attacked. The more of us them pirates kill before we beat them back, the bigger her share.”

Get ready!” Captain Rhey’s voice was even more shrill than usual, her panic infecting Rhione’s heart. “They’re comin’ up on the port side.”

Great. Why did we choose this side?” Dhith asked.

Theisseg’s scrawny feathers are rainin’ on us today, dear.”

Her husband reached out and touched her arm, his thick fingers giving her a reassuring squeeze. They had shared their fires for over fifteen years, and while it wasn’t always the most steady burning flame, their marriage had been more good than bad.

It’ll be fine,” he smiled.

The Agerzaks burst around the side of the ship, galloping across the skies. They were all barbaric, hulking men, barely dressed, their pale chests muscled and covered in blue paint. Their beards and hair were all thick and black, flowing behind them as they rode their strange, wingless pegasi across the skies. Every time the beasts’ hooves struck the empty air, fire burst as if they were running upon a sheet of flames across the skies.

Rhione aimed her crossbow at the first rider. This pirate clutched a bow, not holding on to his reins as he drew back an arrow. She fired. Her bolt missed him by more than a few ropes, falling uselessly behind him down into the Storm.

Storm-cursed thing,” she muttered, grabbing the crank.

The pirate released his bow. Agony flared across her temple. Darkness crashed down on Rhione.

* * *

Pain was the first thing that Rhione felt, a throbbing ache right behind her eyes. Her stomach roiled and bile crept up her throat. Her eyes fluttered open, sunlight stabbing into her mind. She heaved her stomach onto the deck of the Arshion.

Dhith,” she muttered, spitting out vile vomit from her mouth. She pushed herself up with her arms. “Dhith. What’s happenin’?”

He’s dead, Ma.”

Her son’s voice was so quiet, a whisper from leagues off even though he knelt right next to her.

Who’s dead?” she asked, her hand going to her temple. Pain flared. Sticky blood stained her hand.

Pa.”

That can’t be. He was right next to me. Dhith! Where are you?”

Her son hugged her, clinging to her. “Pa’s dead. They killed him.”

His tears were hot on her neck. Then her gaze arrested on proof of her son’s words. Her husband’s body lay crumpled on the deck, missing his head.

Horror seized her mind as she gazed across the well deck of the Arshion. Her husband wasn’t the only corpse. Agerzak greatswords had painted the white-yellow well deck of the Arshion red. Her stomach rebelled again.

What’s goin’ on?” she asked, struggling to remember. Everything was so fuzzy. Her head throbbed so badly.

We lost, Ma. The pirates boarded us. They took all the oil onto their ships and—” Her son started, looking up at the shadow that fell on them.

You’re alive,” the Bosun grunted, looming over her and her son. “Cap’n wants to see all the chiefs now. We got plans to make.”

Not now,” Rhione muttered, clutching her son. She wanted to cry, but her head pounded.

Now!” he growled, seizing her arm. “The Theisseg-damned pirates took Grioch.”

Grioch. The name penetrated the fuzz paining her skull. “Our Windwarden?”

He nodded, hauling her to her feet.

But, how are we . . .?” She shivered in dread, glancing at Chev; her fingers made the sun, joining thumb to little finger. “Riasruo defend us.”

We got about a day to find a skyland before the engine’s charge dies and . . .”

We fall into the Storm Below.

We’re at the mercy of Theisseg and her capricious winds,” he continued as they crossed the deck, passing the stunned crew. Many sported bandages, staring with dead eyes at the deck. Men and women broken by the pirates. In the distance, a pair of ships with black hulls and blue sails dwindled as they sailed away. They looked like Vaarckthian corvettes, but no Imperial warship would be painted in those colors.

If we had put in at Onhur, we would’ve known the pirates got ships now. Damn greedy Cap’n. Would a day in port really have ruined the trip?

Captain Rhey waited in her cabin, a map of the Thugri Sound unfurled before her, a compass lying on the parchment along with her other navigation tools. A dotted line drawn with a grease pencil led from the Arshion’s position southwest towards the Skyland of Eche. Behind the Captain, the ship’s lanky scout lounged against a bulkhead, a frown creasing his weathered cheeks.

Cap’n,” the Bosun said. “Me and Rhione are all the officers I could find. Brele’s dead along with the Quartermaster.”

Dhith. Rhione’s heart squeezed with pain.

Sorry to hear, Rhione,” Captain Rhey said, her bony face trying to look sympathetic.

She don’t care. One less person that has to split the . . .

It’s all for naught.” A hysterical laugh bubbled out of Rhione’s lips. “The pirates took it all, didn’t they? Two years of Storm-damned work gone.”

Yes. And worse, the wind isn’t blowin’ us south towards Tlele or Tlovis, but southwest towards Eche. That’s over a day’s sailin’.”

So we’re dead,” muttered Xoar Whalesight. The scout straightened up and ran his fingers through his blond hair. “You still got that bottle of whiskey in here, Cap’n? Think I want to get drunk.”

That ain’t gonna help!” snapped the Captain, her shoulders swelling, her red eyes darting about as her bony fingers squeezed her arms. “We ain’t dead yet. We gots to keep focused. There gots to be a way to squeeze some speed out of the Arshion.” The Captain seized Rhione’s hands in a cold, clammy grip. “Right? You know the ship best.”

We need to lighten the ship,” Rhione whispered.

The Captain’s hands squeezed hard. “Right! Right!” She seized on Rhione’s words, clinging to them. “Lighten the ship. We run at full sails and lighten the ship. The mast’ll hold, right? Runnin’ at full sail won’t cause any problem?”

Unless we hit a squall,” Rhione nodded. “She’ll hold. Probably. I checked out both masts two days past. They’re both still solid and well anchored to the keel.”

Good, good! I need you and your carpenters to disassemble every bit of the ship we don’t need. We’re gonna dump everything over the side.”

Doesn’t matter, we’re dead,” laughed Xoar again as he opened up a cabinet. He found the bottle and ripped the cork off with his teeth. “Too far for me to fly Lucky to a skyland. We’re so dead.” Lucky Chemy was the ship’s only pegasus, and Xoar was the only one with the Blessing of Pressure. A pegasus had trouble flying with a full weight of an adult human, but with Pressure, lift could be generated beneath the mounts wings, letting the pegasus carry greater loads.

The Bosun stalked over, seized the bottle from Xoar’s hand, then marched to one of the porthole windows. He threw out the bottle. “Everythin’ needs to go. Food. Water barrels. Personal property. They’ll all gots to go, Cap’n.”

The Captain nodded at the Bosun. “Even the dead.”

But!” Rhione gasped. “If we don’t burn them, how can we send them to Riasruo?” How can I send Dhith . . .? She shook, a ragged sob ripping out of her throat.

Dhith wouldn’t want you or Chev to die just so he could be properly burned,” whispered the Bosun, putting a strong hand on her shoulder. “You gots to be strong for your boy.”

Rhione sniffed, pulling away from the Bosun. She pushed her grief down for Dhith, bottling it up inside her and sealing it with wax. Later. When Chev’s safe.

Okay, I’ll get to work on tearin’ the holds apart.” She took another breath, thinking about the problem. There was a lot of lumber on the ship that could be dismantled, and that didn’t even count the spare supplies for repairs: barrels of tar, bone nails, ceramic fittings, spare sail, and hemp rope. There was a lot of weight that could be tossed. Hope dawned inside her. “We need to get started right away. I’ll get this ship sailin’ as fast as a Sowerese rake.”

What about my pegasus?” Xoar asked.

We’ll keep her,” the Captain decided. “Just in case. Maybe you and another can fly off the ship if . . .”

I’ll go saddle her,” Xoar muttered. “And maybe pinch a ration of grog before you toss it over the side.”

Once you’re done saddlin’ that beast,” growled the Bosun, “you’ll be joinin’ the crew in tossin’ everythin’ overboard.”

Xoar gave a mocking salute—two fingers to his bushy, brown eyebrows—and pushed past the big Bosun.

Okay! Let’s do it!” the Captain said, rubbing her bony fingers together. “Let’s save my ship.”

Rhione couldn’t watch as the bodies were tossed over the side, so she quickly led her three carpenter mates and ten other sailors down into the holds, Chev at her side. She could only hope Dhith and the others were somehow able to ascend to Riasruo’s fiery sun and be bathed in her warm light forever.

The Arshion had two holds; the crew slept in the middle of the lowest deck on hammocks slung between beams. The ship’s stores of dried food and other goods were kept in the fore of the lower deck while the quartermaster supplies—spare lumber, tar, bone nails, canvas, rope, tools, and more—were kept in the aft. Beyond the quartermaster’s was the engine room where the ship’s heart pulsed. The upper hold was taken up by the storage tanks for the whale oil, the rendering ovens, the galley, and the menagerie where they stabled Lucky Chemy. It lay right under the Captain’s cabin in the aft of the ship. The stern of the ship could unfold, opening onto the skies to let Xoar fly his pegasus in and out of the ship.

Hurhen and Seyele, clear out the food stocks, then disassemble the deckin’. Sruthech and Arthen, start with the quartermaster supplies. Pitch it all over except a tool barrel. Then start rippin’ up the deckin’ in there and the engine room. The rest of us, we’re going to work on the crew’s stuff. Grab every trunk, sack, hammock, and bundle of clothin’. All of it is to be pitched over the side. Then we’ll rip up the deckin’ towards the stairs and move on to the upper hold.”

A fair wind blew as none of them objected. There wasn’t time to spend energy on fighting or bickering. She could see it in their eyes; a burning spark of hope was fueling them. They would work hard and fast, without the usual complaining and lollygagging she normally would expect out of the crew.

Chev was the first to grab a chest. He held it in his arms, carrying the wooden trunk up the stairs, straining to carry the heavy weight. The hammocks were unstrung as Rhione seized another chest, carrying it up the stairs after her son.

He was out of her sight for a moment; her heart beat faster.

Come on, you mottled ostriches!” bellowed the Bosun as she climbed up on deck. “Pitch it over. Clear the Stormin’ deck of everything.”

Chev walked to the gunwale and pitched his chest over the side. Rhione followed and hurtled her box down to the churning Storm below. She watched it dwindle then vanish into the dark-gray clouds, joining her husband in Theisseg’s tempestuous domain. Dhith deserved better than to spend his days at the Storm Goddess’s dark mercies.

Come on, Ma,” Chev said, tugging at her linen shirt sleeve.

Right.” Rhione didn’t have time to grieve. The dead could wait until tomorrow.

The entire crew of the Arshion worked with purpose, tearing down the vast holding tanks that rose up through the well deck from the upper hold, the planks still greasy with traces of whale oil. Even Xoar pitched in, dragging out the frame of the captain’s bed and tossing it over the side. The Captain herself manned the wheel, her eye on the compass, keeping them pointed towards safety.

Sweat covered Rhione’s lean body. Her muscles ached. She ignored it. They couldn’t stop working. More sailors came down after the topside had been cleared, crowding the holds. They dragged up sacks of grain, barrels of grog, ceramic pots and pans, and the entire galley stove. Soon the decking was coming up, leaving the bones of the ship exposed. Then the wall compartmenting the engine came down, the amethyst gem pulsing like a beating heart, shining pale purple through the ship’s naked frames and supports.

The pulses grew slower as evening approached. The charge dwindled, died.

Let’s keep movin’!” bellowed the Bosun. “Still plenty of the ship to dump. Keep at it. If I see any of you minnows takin’ a breather, I’ll pitch you over. I’m lookin’ at you, Arthen! You wanna be dead weight?”

No, Bosun,” Arthen said, the sailor’s back snapping rigid. The Bosun stalked off as Arthen muttered out of the corner of his lips, “Stormin’ shark.”

Rhione didn’t say a word, just tossed the pile of lumber in her hands over the side.

Is the Storm goin’ by faster?

It was hard to tell as the sun sank, painting the dark gray cloud below with orange highlights. But it seemed like the writhing Storm was passing by faster than usual. She leaned on the gunwale, looking out to the southwest, trying to see if Eche was on the horizon. There was something dark, partly hidden by the setting sun.

She smiled, straightening and holding her own hand before the sun to get a better look at the skyland floating in above Theisseg’s eternal tempest.

It wasn’t Eche.

Skyreef!” she shouted.

No one manned on watch. Every member of the crew was needed to lighten the ship. A floating patch of rocks hung in the air before them, coming up fast as the Arshion knifed through the sky. Thugri Sound was plagued with the floating collections of rocks, some the size of a pig, others as big as the Arshion. They were the reason no ship ran the strait as fast as they were.

The skyreef stretched across the sky, dark splotches coming up fast. If they had a Windwarden, the ship could change altitude, ascending or descending to clear the obstacle, or the Windwarden could turn the ship faster with a cross wind, detouring the ship safely around the reef.

Skyreef!” she shouted again, racing for the port stairs up to the poop deck.

Ropes creaked and squeaked as the Captain strained to turn the wheel to port. Rhione reached the top of the deck. She seized one of the pegs-like handles protruding around the outside edge of the wheel, helping the Captain turn the helm. Ropes rasped against ceramic pulleys and wood groaned as the mast spars turned. But the strong wind fought them, the wheel bucking in their hands.

Theisseg damn those pirates,” the Captain hissed, sweat beading her wrinkled brow. “How am I supposed to turn this ship without a Windwarden?”

There’s a gap in it,” Rhione shouted. “See it?”

Yes, I see the Stormin’ gap!” snapped the Captain. “Why do you think I’m turnin’ the ship to port? But turnin’ the wheel ain’t gonna be enough. Not with how fast we’re goin’.” She looked down at the deck. “Do you see the channel, Bosun?”

Aye,” he muttered before blowing his whistle, signaling the crew to their stations.

Shouts of alarm rang out from the crew as they flooded out from below decks, swarming over to the two masts. Barefoot sailors scrambled up into the rigging with ease.

Change the riggin’!” the Bosun bellowed. “Quarter for a port turn! Now! We need to turn six more points to make that channel!”

Ma!” Chev looked up at her from the well deck.

Hold on to somethin’!” Rhione shouted.

The skyreef hurtled closer, the drifting stones growing larger, filling the sky before them. There was a gap between two large boulders that the Arshion’s bow was slowly turning to aim at. But she wasn’t a graceful ship, built wide and thick to hold as much whale oil as possible. Even with a Windwarden, she wallowed through the skies.

A grinding sound split the air. Two of the boulders collided then ground past each other. Smaller specks of rocks splintered off, hurtling out from the reef, sending a school of red-scaled fish scurrying away in a panic.

Please turn,” Rhione prayed, straining with the Captain to move the wheel even a little bit. She jerked. The wheel slipped another few fingerswidth to port, the ropes grinding against the pulleys. She strained to keep a tight grip as the wheel throbbed.

Brace!” the Bosun shouted. “Brace, you Storm-damned guppies!”

The bow turned another few points as the first boulders hurtled past. The Arshion was going far faster than any ship Rhione had ever sailed on. She looked ahead. The ship was almost pointed at the channel.

We’re gonna miss them,” the Captain whispered, her voice high and tight. “I think we’re gonna miss. I can’t lose my ship. We’re not gonna hit, right, Rhione?”

I don’t know,” Rhione gasped, her entire body a ball of tensed muscles.

The massive boulder on the starboard side slowly spun, the rock pitted and cragged by weather, full of jagged spires. The rigging and spars of the foremast was coming up fast to the side. Rhione seized her breath, holding on to the wheel.

The boulder missed the foremast.

But the mainmast’s spar was coming up next; it was wider than the fore. Rhione closed her eyes. She sucked in her breath, her fingers tight on the wheel’s handle.

The boat rocked. A loud, splintering crack resounded. The impact threw Rhione forward, her hand slipping from the wheel. She gasped as the railing of the stern deck slammed into her stomach, the air forced out of her lungs. The ship shuddered, wood snapping and grinding. And then they were past the massive rock.

That wasn’t the mast!” the captain yelled. “It must have hit the hull.”

Yeah,” Rhione croaked, pushing herself off the rail, coughing and struggling to breathe. “I’ll go inspect the damage.”

It was bad.

Rhione stared out the length of the starboard side hull, a massive, jagged hole torn into the ship, leaving splintered planks behind. The ship creaked and groaned as half the hull’s strength on the starboard side was gone. She looked down, the ship’s frames groaning and bowing, struggling to keep the vessel from ripping to pieces.

The Arshion was dead.

This is bad, Ma,” Chev whispered.

The lower half of the mainmast flexed before her. The mast was anchored at the keel at the bottom of the boat between two of the ship’s frames. And those two frames had been badly damaged in the collision. The stress placed upon the mast was normally transferred into those frames and spread out into the hull of the Arshion. That whole system had been disrupted by the impact. It was only a matter of time before the mast ripped free of its anchor.

When it ripped free, it would break the keel, the very backbone of the ship. There were too many damaged frames to keep the ship in one piece if that happened. The Arshion was doomed if the main sails weren’t reefed. The stress had to be eliminated.

Get above deck right now!” she barked. “Tell the Cap’n and the Bosun to get down here!”

Yeah, Ma!”

And don’t come back down!”

The wood creaked again, the mast tearing at the frames and keel.

What’s the problem?” Captain Rhey asked, picking her away across the torn up decking of the upper hold, stepping from truss to truss.

The mainmast’s gonna rip free,” Rhione said. “Between the reef’s gouge and how much of the ship we’ve disassembled, there ain’t enough strength to hold her together.”

Patch it, then!”

Rhione looked at the captain, then at the massive hole in the ship’s side. “I can’t. Look at that! Riasruo bless us, that’s a good sixth of the hull gone. The Arshion’s like to rip herself to pieces if we don’t furl the mainsail.”

Patch it!” hissed the captain. “Add more support! Do whatever it takes!”

I can’t! We need to reef the sail right this moment.”

You’re gonna get us killed!” snarled the Bosun. “We need to keep runnin’ with full sails or we ain’t reachin’ Eche!”

Can’t you hear the creakin’? Look at the keel. It’s bucklin’! When that mainmast goes, it’s gonna rip the ship in half! Then we’re all gonna be plummetin’ down into the Storm Below!”

The Captain seized Rhione’s shoulders. “There has to be a way.” Fingernails dug into her flesh. “You gots to do something. We can’t die! No, no, no. We can’t die. I can’t die. My ship can’t die. We have supplies. So fix it!”

We threw the spare lumber overboard already,” Rhione whispered, her shoulders sagging. “And the barrels with the bone nails.”

How long until the keel snaps?” the Bosun asked.

Rhione opened her mouth to speak.

It won’t! She’ll fix it! I’m not losin’ my ship!” Spittle fell in Rhione’s face as the Captain screeched at her. “See that she repairs it now, Bosun. If she don’t, throw her off the ship.”

The Bosun looked up. “She’s right, Cap’n. Riasruo shine down on us, but she’s right. I’ve seen a mast uproot before. It’s bad when a ship don’t gots her guts ripped open. I agree with our carpenter; we need to furl the sails.”

Nonsense! The Arshion is a sturdy ship. Rhione’s just wantin’ to shirk on her duties! Everyone on this Riasruo-blessed ship wants to shirk!”

I’m gonna tell them to furl the sails to half,” muttered the Bosun. “Maybe it’ll be fine, and we’ll still make it to Eche.”

Where do you think you’re going?” screeched the Captain.

To save the ship, Cap’n,” the Bosun answered as he climbed up the stairs. “Someone gots to.”

The Captain followed after. “Hurhen, Seyele, seize the Bosun!” she screamed above deck.

What, Cap’n?” a confused sailor answered.

Rhione gained the deck. Chev’s lanky body trembled as he stared at the snarling Captain. The crew was gathered around the Captain and the Bosun. Rhione seized her son, pulling him behind her, trying not to shake. Beyond the crew, the mainmast flexed and torqued as the wind howled past.

It’s not going to be long,” she whispered. She had never seen a mast sway so much. The crow’s nest swayed at least three ropes, the height of a tall man, in length back and forth.

I gave you an order!” the Captain howled. “Seize the Bosun and throw him overboard. We don’t need his dead weight.”

The Bosun rounded on Captain Rhey, his body swelling with anger. “You filthy sow! The ship’s ‘bout to tear apart, and you wanna throw me overboard! I’m tryin’ to save your Storm-damned ship!”

He wants to furl the sails!” She pointed a bony finger at him. “If we do that, we ain’t gonna make it to Eche! He’s mutinying! And that’s death! So throw him over!”

The crew erupted into angry shouts. Hurhen seized the Bosun’s thick arm. The big man’s fist curled and he smashed it into Hurhen’s face; the sailor crumpled to the deck with a ruined nose. “Listen!” the Bosun bellowed over the crew’s roar, pushing another sailor off him. “The mast’s gonna buckle. We gots to trim the sails to half or the ship’s gonna rip apart! Now get movin’ and trim them or I’ll crack open every last one of your down-filled skulls!”

We’ll die if we don’t run at full sails!” cackled Three-Finger Thrash. “The engine ain’t gonna last ‘til dawn! You want to see us dragged down into Theisseg’s Storm!”

The Bosun wouldn’t get us killed!” snarled Seyele, pushing the old sailor back. “Look at the Cap’n. She’s lost it! I say we throw her overboard!”

Mutineer!” snarled the Captain. “Another Theisseg-damned traitor. You and the Bosun both. You’re trying to see me dead!”

The crew’s shouts grew louder, screaming at each other, fear thick in the air. Chev clung to Rhione’s side, his body trembling. She had to do something. They were all dead if the crew wouldn’t see reason.

He’s right!” Rhione found herself shouting, trying to make her voice heard over the roaring crew. “The hull’s badly damaged. The ship’s gonna rip herself apart. We gots to reef the sails! Believe me! I know the ship!”

No one heard her.

Throw the mutineers overboard!” shrilled the Captain. “Less weight to slow us down!”

The Bosun’s fist crashed into another sailor that tried to stop him from reaching the mast. The Bosun strode forward, pushing through the men. “I’ll storming do it myself!”

Stop him! Kill him! Do anything!” The Captain’s face was bloodless, her brown skin pulled tight over her bones. “We’ll die!”

Three-Finger Thrash’s bone dagger sank into the Bosun’s lower back. The big man roared, turning about. His fist crashed into the old sailor, knocking rotten teeth out as Thrash crumpled to the deck. The Bosun reached behind him and ripped out the bloody, hogbone dagger.

Downyheaded, sow-dung fool,” he muttered, the dagger falling from his fingers. He tried to turn to walk to the mast, but instead he collapsed like a felled tree, crashing to the deck.

Ma!” sobbed her son.

The crew stared at the dying Bosun as the Captain snarled and cackled, “Back to work. Clear the deck! We keep sailing! We’re gonna live!”

Stupid sow!” Seyele shouted and seized the Captain’s bony shoulder.

More bone blades flashed. More blood spilled upon the Arshion’s deck.

A great, shuddering crack snapped through the air ignored by the screaming mob. That sounded like a frame snapping, thought Rhione. It won’t be long now.

She had to act to save what she could. Rhione pushed her son towards the stairs to the hold. The Arshion was doomed. “Come with me,” she whispered, seizing her son’s hand and pulled him below deck.

Ma?” he asked. “What’s happening?”

She didn’t answer him. Her hand held his in a death grip, yanking him behind her.

Please, Ma?” He fought her, trying to pull away.

She whirled around, seizing his shoulders. “You’re gonna fly off on Lucky Chemy.”

But, what about the others?”

They’re dead. “They’ll be fine once they’ve calmed down. But we need to lose more weight, so the pegasus gots to go. You’ll fly her to Eche.”

She pushed her son through the door to the small menagerie. The pegasus greeted them with a nervous whinny, stamping her piebald forelock and rustling her gray-feathered wings. She was a Chuthi, a breed that could cover long distances, but she was small and couldn’t bear much weight without the right Blessing; Rhione only had Mist. Pressure was needed to increase the lift the beast generated with her wings, allowing the pegasus to fly through the skies with more weight.

Though Xoar was the only crew that had Moderate Pressure, Chev was small and light. The pegasus should be able to bear him. Rhione had to believe that.

Just me?” Chev asked. “I ain’t never flown one, ma. Why not have Xoar fly her?”

Yes, why not Xoar?”

Rhione spun about. Xoar stood in the doorway, his long, curved bone knife in hand, his eyes hard, green stones. The boat shuddered and groaned as Rhione moved between Xoar and her son, eyeing his dagger.

Will you fly my son to safety?” she asked him, pleading with his eyes.

He shook his head. “Too far. Even with my Pressure, I can’t afford the extra weight. Sorry.”

Anger flared inside her. “Open the rear of the ship, Chev.”

Ma?” His voice quavered.

Rhione pushed her son back towards the pegasus. “Just do it! Then you fly her southwest. Lucky’ll help you out. She’ll know how to find a skyland.”

You touch my pegasus and I’ll gut you like—”

With a screech, Rhione leapt at Xoar, seizing his knife hand. She’d been a sailor for too long not to know how to brawl. Xoar crashed into the door, grunting in surprise. His hand strained to press the knife towards her belly.

Mount up, Chev!” she screamed as she struggled against the man. Her heart thudded, fear pumping through her veins. Chev was the only part of Dhith left.

Sow’s dung!” hissed Xoar, seizing her blonde hair with his free hand and jerking her head back; pain burned across her scalp. “I ain’t dying on this worthless boat!”

Ma!”

You do what you’re told, Chev! Or I’ll whoop you so hard! Now go! Fly!”

Air whistled as the back of the ship opened up, a pair of hemp cables unfolding the stern hull.

I’ll kill your ma if you don’t stop!” Xoar snarled, pressing harder with his knife, the tip brushing her linen shirt.

Rhione screamed and hooked her foot around his ankle. They fell into a heap on the rush covered floor. Sour dung filled her nose as they rolled and cursed. The pegasus whinnied, her hoofs pounding on the deck.

I can’t leave you, Ma!”

You gots to.” The dagger moved closer to Rhione’s stomach, her sweaty hands slipping on Xoar’s wrist. “You will mind me! So fly away right now!”

The dagger sank into her guts.

Cold pain lanced through her. Her hands lost their strength. Xoar rose, ripping the dagger from her stomach. His face twisted into something monstrous. He would kill her son. She forced her arms to move, pushing down the lethargy sinking through her, weighing down every bit of her body.

Let go of my pegasus, or I’ll give you the same, boy!”

No!” she shouted and lunged for Xoar’s ankle. Ignoring the pain roaring in her side, she jerked him back. “You got to go, Chev. I love you! Now go!”

Her son scrambled onto the back of the pegasus, staring back at her. His red eyes—like his pa’s—were wet with pain. She saw so much of Dhith in his face: his bulbous nose, the cleft chin, his brown hair. But not her son’s ears, those were her own small lobes.

Please, go!”

Sow’s spawn!” Xoar’s foot crashed into her face. She held on.

Go!” she sobbed, her mouth full of blood, her lips split and crack. “Please!”

Xoar kicked her again. She would not relent. She would save her son. Xoar, cursing, stabbed the knife down into her left arm, cutting sinew. She didn’t feel the pain as her left arm fell useless from his leg. She only held on even harder with her right hand.

Don’t you hurt her!” Chev shouted, his voice warbling.

She couldn’t stop Xoar much longer. She stared at her son, pleading with her eyes for him to abandon her. He listened and began frantically strapping himself into the saddle, cinching the leather straps tight about his legs.

Xoar stepped forward, dragging her body. Darkness danced in her eyes as she struggled to hold on, fighting against blissful lethargy.

Goodbye, Ma!” Chev heeled the pegasus.

Lucky Chemy neighed and galloped forward. She leaped out the back of the ship, her gray wings spreading wide. The pegasus and Chev dropped out of sight, falling down towards the Storm Below. For a moment, fear gripped her heart, but then the pegasus rose into view, banking on the wind. She had one final glimpse at her son on the beast’s back, and she held onto the memory: brown hair rustling, his gangly legs strapped tight to the saddle, his hands clutching the saddle’s pommel. Then he was gone.

The knife dropped from Xoar’s hand, the blade snapping on the deck. He fell to his knees. She let him go, rolling on to her back. The ship shuddered and groaned beneath her, wood cracking as the keel snapped, the force vibrating through the entire ship.

The crew screamed as the mast crashed down above deck.

She didn’t care any longer. Her body was too cold to care about much of anything.

You killed me,” Xoar whispered.

I saved him,” she answered.

Xoar looked at her, his green eyes lost, and then he laughed, “Why did the Bosun have to throw out the whiskey? Riasruo Above, but I could use a drink.”

Yeah,” Rhione croaked. It was getting harder to talk, to think.

The last frames keeping the ship together failed with a mighty, tearing snap. Her body slid along the blood-soaked deck, then everything became strangely weightless. Rhione lifted up from the deck and rotated about in a slow spiral, bits of straw tumbling with her. Out the back of the ship, the dark sky whirled past, stars flashing, then the darkness of the Storm Below filled the opening.

I saved our son, Dhith,” she whispered as the Arshion plunged into Theisseg’s cruel domain.

The END

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If you enjoyed this story and like to support my writing, you can leave a review or buy  Reflections of Eternity from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon GermanyAmazon Japan, Amazon Italy, Amazon Spain, Amazon France, Amazon NetherlandsAmazon India, Amazon Brazil, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashword!

The Plight of the Arshion takes place in the universe of my novel, Above the Storm!

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

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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Review: Darkblade Justice (Hero of Darkness 7)

Darkblade Justice (Hero of Darkness 7)

by Andy Peloquin

Reviewed by JMD Reid

In Praamis, a series of strange murders are occurring and the king is blaming the Night Guild. Illanna, now leader of the guild, has to figure out what is going on and how to stop it. At the same time, the Hunter has arrived in his goal to destroy all the demons in the world.

Two years after the events of Enarium, the Hunter has found no lead on his daughter, but he is still hunting those demons who wanted to destroy the world. But will his presence in Praamis only make things worst?

Things spiral out of control. Will Illana and the Hunter clash while the real threat escapes their notice?

Peloquin is bringing his two series together once more. The Hunter and Illana are about to cross paths and meet. The stakes are high as they both blame the other for what is going on. This series has Peloquin’s fast-paced and exciting style, mixing characters you’ve grown to enjoy over nine novels and a novella.

If you’re a fan of fast-paced, exciting fantasy, you have to check out Peloquin’s series. He has created a rich world full of the possibilities. I’m eager to see where he goes next with this series!

You can buy Darkblade Justice from Amazon. Check out Andy Peloquin’s website, connect on Linked In, follow him on Google Plus, like him on Twitter @AndyPeloquin, and like him on Facebook.

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Snippet 3 – Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Reavers of the Tempest, the sequel to my dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter Two

Vel stumbled away from the village of Shon down the road towards Camp Chubris, the bag of poison clutched in his hand. The turmoil of his emotions kept him from noticing the autumn-ripe fields he passed.

Well, he wasn’t afraid.” Chaylene’s voice echoed in his mind. Since her rejection, her words beat at the inside of his skull. “He loved me first. He loved me more than you did. Find another woman to love. You lost me. I’m sorry.”

The words whipped him to finally put aside his fear. Vel wanted nothing more than to possess Chaylene. He loved her. He burned to hold her ebony body in his arms, to run his brown fingers through her blonde hair, to feel the heat of her flesh beneath him as he took her. No woman had ever refused him. No woman had ever possessed his soul more than her.

He burned to have her.

He would have her.

He loved her.

And she loved him.

To get her, he had to murder his former friend. His cowardice had let the brutish boar seize her. She didn’t resist, thinking she possessed only one suitor. She’d made herself love Ary and now it was too late. Understanding shone through Vel’s mind as clear as the first ray of Riasruo’s sun cresting over the skyland’s edge.

Chaylene would never break her marriage vows.

She was too good a woman to soil her word. She wanted to. He could feel that fire burning in her, her ardor bleeding out of her. Beneath her pain-filled words, he felt her love. She wanted to drive him away to protect him from her husband’s brutal anger. She was trapped. To have her, he must widow her.

His hand tightened on the poison. I have to kill Ary, he thought for the dozenth time. It daunted him. For most of his life, he’d admired Ary, played with him, took joy in his company. Once, they were friends. It’s the only way. He’s a brute. He hurts her. She’s sad all the time. Wriavia’s right. The only way to have Chaylene is to remove her husband.

I’m saving her.

Vel had discovered a new friend in the Luastria merchant these last few months. Wriavia understood the pain gripping Vel’s heart. Like him, Wriavia had fallen in love with a married hen. He’d won her by killing her husband.

I’ll be doing Chaylene a service. She’ll be free of her vow. Free to love me and be with me.

I just have to kill Ary.

Memories of his childhood weakened Vel’s resolve. He, Ary, and Chaylene had been inseparable in their youth. Ary had dragged Vel to play games or skip school while an eager Chaylene followed. The trio ran through fields together, fought with sticks, played tag in the Snakewood, chased ducks up the Bluesnake, and fished by the Watch.

Then one night, Vel noticed Chaylene had developed into a woman. Painted by moonlight, she’d stolen his heart.

Ary had also noticed Chaylene’s changes. The bold brute claimed her, staking his plot with threatening looks and meaty fists. Vel tried to find delight in other girls. He seduced more than a few with his handsome smile and beautiful eyes, but never the girl he wanted.

Fear held him back. He always found reasons not to tell Chaylene how he felt. Ary scared him. Ary wasn’t the tallest youth from the farming village of Isfe, but doing a man’s work had given him shoulders as broad as a bristleback boar with a temper just as vile. Any boy who mocked Ary, repeating the accusations of his ma, would find Ary’s fist smashed into their face. He thrashed them all, even boys older than him. Ary lacked fear, shrugging off blows which should incapacitate him, battering his fists over and over, his face twisted in bestial rage.

Vel had witnessed Ary’s wrath clear as day two years ago.

*

The Skyland of Vesche – Neiddoa 7th, 396 VF (1959 SR)

Vel savored the wet heat he found between Iatlisa’s thighs and the way she trembled beneath him on the pile of hay in her father’s barn. She moaned into his lips, kissing him with aggression. The tightness in his britches swelled. She wasn’t Chaylene—no girl in Isfe compared to her ebony ripeness—but Iatlisa would do to relieve his ache.

His fingers sank into the girl, knowing she would—

“Theisseg’s cursed Storm!” a voice bellowed behind Vel.

His head snapped up. Fear congealed the molten passion pumping through his veins into goopy syrup. Thush Shardhin, the older brother of the girl quivering around Vel’s probing digits, stood thunder-faced over them, hands folded into meaty fists.

“Thush!” the girl gasped, pulling her sky-blue bonnet over her darkening cheeks. “Go away!”

“So this little crow can peck at your flower?”

Murder sparked in Thush’s gaze. Vel’s innards liquefied. With a curse, he darted to his feet and charged for the open barn doors beyond Thush. The older boy snarled and lunged at Vel. He ducked a hard punch and darted past Thush. Vel reached his full speed by the time he burst out of the barn into daylight.

“Veneth!” Thush bellowed, thundering after him. “Huchen! Get that slimy runt!”

Vel pounded across the farmyard for the lane that led to the Quarry Road and back to Isfe. His long legs carried him on swift strides. Terror constricted about his heart, convulsing in a frantic beat. Thush Shardhin’s clenched fists burned in his thoughts.

Heavy footsteps thudded behind him. More than one set. Vel risked a glance. Wished he hadn’t.

He groaned at the sight of Thush’s brother, Veneth, and their cousin, Huchen, racing in pursuit. The Shardhin boys battered every youth they thought even looked cross-eyed at Iatlisa. The risk sweetened the thrill of cozying up to her in the barn. To have bedded Iatlisa Shardhin without her brothers and cousin knowing put an ache in Vel’s root.

He ran with everything he possessed, the road ahead. Exertion’s fires burned in his thighs. A sharp ache stabbed into his side. A tangy, blood-like flavor filled his mouth as he gasped and wheezed. The drumming of pursuing feet filled his sails with a powerful wind. He pushed through the fatigue as the Quarry Road loomed nearer. He had to keep running longer than the lumbering boars behind him.

He risked a look.

Veneth Shardhin had closed to only fifty ropes, his meaty arms pumping as his thick legs stretched out before him. A choked whimper burst from Vel’s throat. Fear’s wind blew harder, hurtling him swifter towards the road. He reached it and darted to his right without thought.

The Quarry Road stretched out before him, the barley field streaking by as he raced in the direction of Ahly’s Watch. Not towards Isfe and Vel’s own house, but Vesche’s sparely populated edge.

He groaned.

The footsteps drumming on the hard-packed earth of the road sounded nearer. He threw another look. Veneth now narrowed the distance to ten ropes, his face burnished-bronzed, drenched in sweat. His rage swallowed any vestiges of humanity, leaving behind boarish fury.

“Riasruo Above!” Vel squealed like a piglet searching the muck for a sow’s teat to suckle. “Ary!”

He screamed the name of his greatest friend and the person he hated the most. Ary had Chaylene wrapped about his fingers. The blonde, dark-skinned maiden fluttered around him like a remora sucking on the belly of a mighty shark.

“Ary!”

The Jayne farm loomed ahead, its barley fields green with spring growth.

“Ary!”

His hoarse throat burned, fear strangling his words. The gate lay only thirty ropes down the road. He could reach it, dash up the hill towards the farmhouse. Ary could fight at his side. The brute possessed one good quality: strength. Ary feared no one, let alone the older Shardhin boys.

Vel’s heart thudded with hope. He focused on that gate. On his salva—

“Got you, sow!”

A hand clamped down on his shoulder, grabbing the coarse linen of his shirt. Cloth tore as the hand jerked Vel back. His feet came out from beneath him. He slammed into the ground at the feet of Veneth Shardhin. The back of his head cracked into the road, thoughts fuzzing. The older boy grinned, teeth stained, one missing. Hands formed brick-thick fists.

“Knock the slimy runt’s teeth out!” Thush Shardhin bellowed, lumbering up the road with their cousin.

“A-Ary!” Vel gasped as Veneth hauled him to his feet.

Vel raised his arms in a pathetic attempt to block the fist hurtling at his face. Terror squeezed his eyes shut. Pain exploded across his mouth. His head snapped back. His mind reeled, bouncing around inside his skull. He lurched, the world swaying around him. He opened his eyes; the drainage ditch beside the road yawned before him.

He gave a startled gasp and plunged into the muddy bottom.

His lip throbbed as brackish water swept over his face. It soaked into his clothing and filled his mouth with a sour broth. His legs refused to work right as he scrambled in the muck, boots slipping as he struggled to gain purchase.

“Rooting in . . . the pigpen . . . hey, sow?” Thush, doubled over and clutching his thighs, grunted through deep breaths. “Let me just . . . get my wind . . . and I’ll pummel . . . you.”

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Vel cursed. Blood trickled from his swollen lips as he cowered against the far side of the ditch.

“You ain’t getting away from us this—”

Veneth’s words cut off as a huge shape slammed into him from behind. Ary’s body slam sent Veneth crashing to his knees. Fists balled, he gave a bullish snort at the other two Shardhin boys moved to surround him.

“You don’t want any of this, Ary,” Thush warned as Veneth scrabbled to his feet. “That sow was diddlin’ our sister.”

“And?” Ary growled, facing the three older boys without flinching. His wide face grew as hard as the stony road.

The Shardhin boys charged.

Vel’s jaw dropped. He’d seen Ary fight, but never three at once. The Shardhin boys’ punches landed on Ary’s broad chest and thick arms. Ary staggered, protecting his face with raised forearms. They pummeled him from all sides, Vel flinching as he rubbed his split lip. They circled Ary like a frenzy of sharks scenting blood on the wind. Ary staggered beneath the onslaught. He bellowed like a harness-maddened boar, taking blows to his sides and back that made Vel wince.

The pain throbbing in Vel’s lip faded as he watched in fearful awe. It was inhuman. Ary should have collapsed to his knees. No one could withstand such an assault. He felt the blows—jaw clenched against the pain, grunting with each blow—but his body didn’t surrender to them. He withstood their punishment.

And fought back.

Ary threw a punch, catching Huchen in the chest. The older youth grunted, clutching his sternum. The attack left Ary open; Thush landed a hard blow. Ary’s head snapped back. Blood flew in a crimson arch from a broken nose. Cursing, pain contorting his face, Ary ducked a hard punch from Veneth and planted his fist into his attacker’s floating rib. Vel winced as the air whooshed from Veneth’s lungs. He bent over as Ary drew back and slammed his fist into Veneth’s temple. The older boy collapsed into a limp heap. Vel clutched his own right hand, positive Ary must have broken every finger he possessed.

Ary flexed stiff fingers as he turned. Thush’s punch landed in the middle of Ary’s back. He grunted, stumbling forward. A second blow hit him in the kidney. He gritted his teeth and howled like a boar, spine contorting backward. Huchen darted in. Vel’s stomach clenched as Ary staggered.

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Ary bellowed, somehow still standing. He punched. He slammed his fist into Huchen’s throat. The older youth stumbled back, coughing and choking. Ary rounded on Thush. They traded blows, Ary grunting as his body absorbed the punishment. He didn’t defend himself, but attacked. Vel flinched as if he received each of Thush’s powerful blows.

How can he take it? Vel asked.

Ary staggered, his body slowing, but he punched back, sustained by an inhuman inner fire. Ary’s frenzied onslaught drove Thush into a retreat, Ary’s fists landing over and over. With a hard punch to Thush’s chin, Ary sent the older youth sprawling to the ground in a spray of blood and spit.

Horror gripped Vel. He wanted Chaylene, ached to possess her, but if he tried, Ary would crush him with ease.

Bestial fury twisted Ary’s face as he flung himself on the prone Thush. Ary’s fists battered over and over into Thush’s head, mighty blows thrown with inhuman strength. He reduced Thush to mangled, swollen flesh spitting blood and teeth. Huchen, britches wet, fled down the road. Vel witnessed murder in his friend’s eyes. A rage seethed in Ary, a vast, black storm ravaging Thush. Vel dreaded unleashing it. He knew he wouldn’t survive it.

Vel cowered in the muck. I can’t ever let him know I love Chaylene.

“You okay?” Ary asked when it was over, Veneth dragging away the senseless Thush.

“Mostly.” Vel forced out a laugh, ignoring the sharp pain of his lips. He had to be Ary’s friend. He had to fake it. In that moment, soaked by the mud, Vel realized his path to Chaylene: doubt. He had to undermine Ary’s faith in Chaylene, chip away at his attachment.

So Vel asked, “Do you think she’s only marrying you because no other goodwife would let her son marry her?”

*

As Vel blinked out of his memory, bitter gall swirled through him. His first plan had failed. He never managed to chip away at Ary’s desire for Chaylene, the boar too dense to think about any of the needling questions or sly comments Vel made. By the time he realized Chaylene needed him to be bold, Ary had married her. His next path, seducing her, had also failed.

Chaylene’s own innate sense of honor prevented that.

Vel clutched the sack with the powder, feeling the poison through the felt. Wriavia had given Vel a third path. His stomach curdled with fear. He fought against it, pushing down the lingering traces of affection for his old friend. He needed to be strong to save Chaylene.

*

Wriavia winged through the skies over the skyland of Les, fleeing Shon.

His gizzard churned with bitter failure.

The night air flowed cool over his dark wing feathers left exposed by the simple, brown robe he wore over his downy body. He kept his scaled legs, a purple so dark it verged on black, tucked tight against his breast. Moonlight caught in the brilliant green of his eyes and highlighted the dull-red feathers circling his keen orbs. Pain throbbed at his throat, bruised by Briaris Jayne’s final attack.

Every time his gizzard contracted, it reminded the assassin of his failure.

He flapped every dozenth heartbeat to maintain his lift as he glided north, slowed by the pack strapped to his back. Beneath, the farms of southern Les drifted past, fields ripening towards harvest. On the horizon, a glow beckoned: the lights of Selech, a moderately sized town and home of one of the famed shipyards of the Autonomy. There, a century or more ago, the first of the rebellious Autonomy’s warships were built to challenge the might of the Vaarckthian Empire.

Wriavia’s talons clenched in frustration. He had come so close to killing Briaris Jayne. Desperation had driven him to attack after two months of failing to kill his target. Such an open assault went against his training. Despite the risk, he’d achieved surprise. Wriavia knew his talons had severed Briaris’s tendons in his opening attack, which should have permanently crippled the man.

And yet he rose and fought me.

His plan was simple, direct, and utterly inelegant. A diving swoop ending with his claws slashing down the marine’s back, buttocks, and thighs to disable him. Then he’d launched at Briaris’s wife, Chaylene, expecting to kill her with ease. But she’d surprised Wriavia. She fought with more skill than Wriavia had expected. The Luastria assassin did not realize Autonomy Scouts were trained to use their Blessing of Moderate Pressure as a shield.

There are definite holes in the instruction at the Aerie . . .

Wriavia pushed that thought away. It wasn’t the Skein of Adjudication’s fault he’d failed. Surprises happened in the field. A skein needed to be prepared to adjust to them, reacting to ever-changing circumstances.

And I failed.

Worse, the assassin was exposed. His throat throbbed again. Only the engine powering his shader, a cloak that shrouded the assassin in mist, had blocked Briaris’s sword swipe. But it had been destroyed by the blow, exposing his appearance. Chaylene had recognized him from the market.

Wriavia’s orders from the Bishriarch were clear: Briaris Jayne must die. But the Church’s feathers must remain clean. Now Briaris knew a Luastria sought his death. The Autonomy would flood southern Les to search for the attacker. For Wriavia.

Refuge waited in Selech. The town held a small Temple to Riasruo. The priestess would have to aid him. From there, he could send a letter to the Bishriarch and the Synod. He needed to warn the Church about his failure and potential exposure, though Wriavia could remember no clues to lead back to the Church. He possessed no insignia, adornments, or scraps of parchment mentioning either the Church of Riasruo nor the Skein of Adjudication. As far as Briaris could discover, he was simply a merchant.

A merchant who tried to kill him. That will spark questions.

Wriavia could do nothing about that, so he plotted his next move. Killing Briaris would be more difficult. In two days, the Dauntless would sail to Onhur to defend against Agerzak pirates in Thugri Sound. It would limit his options.

As he wracked his brain for new plans, he couldn’t shake what had happened in the fight. His thoughts kept sailing back to his plunging dive. He remembered his claws raking through Briaris’s back and legs. The Human’s blood still stained his talons.

I cut him. He collapsed. How did he move with severed tendons? He had one answer: I failed to sever his tendons. I missed my target.

The assassin clucked his dull-yellow beak in annoyance.

But how? I was so sure I hit.

Wriavia closed his eyes and pictured Briaris. He stood shorter than other males, but built like a stout wall. He wore the red coat of an Autonomy Marine, a sabre belted to his side—and not a bone sabre, but a looted Stormrider’s blade. Blue trousers clad his legs. His wife strolled beside him in her light-blue scout jacket, a simple bone knife tucked into her boot. Wriavia’s first swipe landed high, his left talons cutting through Briaris’s back and buttocks. But his right talons connected lower, a powerful swipe across the back of the Human’s knees.

I was so sure that’s where I hit. The assassin studied the anatomy of all the races who dwelt in the sky: Humans, his own Luastria, the lizard-like Gezitziz, and the mole-like Zalg. A deep cut across the back of a Human’s knees severed tendons necessary for standing.

Ary collapsed like Wriavia had expected.

The assassin had landed, flapped his wings to spin around and plant a solid kick to Chaylene’s chest before she could react. His main target disabled, Wriavia assumed she would die quickly. But human Females were not as delicate as Luastria hens. With her Pressure and combat training, she’d held Wriavia off long enough for Briaris to recover. Human bodies were built for labor. Wriavia possessed delicate, hollow bones. He moved with grace and fluidity that no Human could hope to match; he lacked the strength and skill to duel a pair of armed and trained warriors.

He’d fled.

“Failure doesn’t matter,” Wriavia sang to himself. “The past is lost to the Storm. Like anything that has fallen from the skyland, that moment is gone. I need to focus on the moments to come.”

Wriavia pictured his swooping dive again, unable to stop his thoughts from dwelling in the past.

It was only the sight of Selech’s gray buildings drifting below him that snapped him out of his looping memory. The horizon lightened to the east, the Storm growing pink as Riasruo prepared to rise and shine Her glory upon Her children.

“That is Whom you serve,” Wriavia clucked as he watched the growing dawn. “That is Whom you failed. She requires success.”

The town of Selech passed beneath him as he descended. It superficially resembled a larger version of Shon, the village near Camp Chubris. Only Shon had the look of a camp; its buildings housed the merchants, laborers, and whores were only occupied for three months, giving them an ephemeral quality, not quite permanent despite being built of wood and stone. Selech felt inhabited year-round. Permanent. The stone buildings with slate roofs spread out from the harbor before dwindling into the autumn-ripe fields which fed the inhabitants. Great shipyards dominated the northern end of the docks. Vast piles of white cedar logs, chopped from deeper in the skyland’s interior and carted to the shipyards, lay in thick stacks waiting to be hewn and shaped into the frame and decking of Vionese ships. Three ships lay under construction, the first only a skeleton, the mere suggestion of a boat; the second half was built, its hull coming into shape from its narrowing point at the bow to its wide stern; and the third neared completion. All three possessed the wide girth of a Vionese whaler, built broad to hold as much oil as possible. On the southern docks, fisherman readied to sail out into the skies on their small skiffs. The Temple of Riasruo, constructed from a yellow stone, lay on a bluff near the skyland’s edge, a promontory overlooking Selech. Blue and red coral grew up the skyland’s side, stopping at the lip of the cliff and the manicured lawn of the temple. A tower rose over the courtyard where the priestess would perform the yearly Rosy Prayer.

Wriavia alighted on its parapet, flapping hard to kill his descent. He folded his wings before stepping through the doorway. He descended the spiral stairs into to the main temple, greeted by the familiar scents of smoke and incense. He found the priestess and her acolyte in the Solar, the heart of the temple, lighting the braziers that poured sweet-scented incense up to Riasruo. They ringed the central fire pit laid with fresh logs for the Dawnsday service to be held in a few hours. Wriavia inhaled the sandalwood and myrrh, savoring the heady scents. The spice reminded him of home, the Aerie of the Skein of Adjudication.

Many different skeins existed, monastic orders Luastria drakes joined, dedicating their lives to Riasruo. Some served the poor, others helped the sick. The smallest, Wriavia’s, adjudicated any problems besetting the faith.

The priestess let out a startled chirp when she noticed him. Her red silk robes, proclaiming her rank in the church, rustled as she flapped her wings. She was approaching her middle years, the dull-brown feathers of her face groomed, her yellow beak waxed to a gleam. She fixed piercing, golden eyes on Wriavia and clucked, “Who are you? How did you enter the temple?”

“My apologies, priestess,” Wriavia said with deference, lowering his head. “I am Skein Wriavia of the Order of Adjudication.”

“Really?” Wriavia heard the doubt filling the priestess’s song. “Dressed like . . . that?”

“Yes, Priestess. I am on pressing business of the Synod and need parchment and pen.”

“Priestess Srioatrii?” the acolyte chirped, a young, handsome hen in orange robes, her purple-black claws clicking against the stone floor.

“Quiet,” chirped Srioatrii, her eyes still fixed on Wriavia. “Continue lighting the incense.”

“Yes, Priestess.” The acolyte moved onto the next brazer, clutching a smoking brand with the distal feathers of her right wing. The prehensile feathers operated much like fingers of a Human or a Gezitziz, allowing the Luastria to manipulate the world around them with delicate precision.

“Do you have any proof of your claims, Skein?”

“I’m afraid I do not. My mission is of the greatest sensitivity.”

“What mission could the Skein of Adjudication have here?”

Wriavia’s gizzard twisted as he readied his lie. To the outside world, the Skein of Adjudication was the least needed of all the monastic order, a vestige clinging to the skies. Centuries ago, when the Age of Isolation ended, a myriad of sects, many embracing heresy, had sprouted like the chaotic coral on the side of a skyland. The Church created Wriavia’s skein to bridge the differences and convince them to bow down to the rightful voice of Riasruo—the Bishriarch. Sometimes those sects proved stubborn. Other ways of adjudicating the differences were discovered; the first assassinations needed. Now his order trained to eliminate those who threatened the harmony of the skies.

“A heretical sect is rumored to be forming among the farmers of Southern Les,” Wriavia lied. “I was sent to ascertain the truth. I spent many weeks disguised as a merchant traveling among them, trying to win their confidence.”

“Heretical sect?” Srioatrii gasped. “My acolytes have heard no such thing.”

There were never enough priestesses or temples in the far-flung reaches of the skies. The Autonomy of Les-Vion and the Tribes of Zzuk had the smallest concentration of churches. Here, acolytes roamed between villages on circuits to preach, teach, and cleanse the sins of the common rabble.

“This sect doesn’t trust Luastria priestesses. The Humans are growing . . . mistrustful of us. They are jealous of the Luastria’s exalted position in our Goddess’s feathery light.”

Srioatrii’s head twitched from side to side, her talons clicking on the floor. “This is . . . disturbing.”

“I need to write my findings to the Synod,” Wriavia continued. “I humbly request parchment and pen.”

“Very well. Bwuoutria!”

“Yes, Priestess,” the acolyte squawked.

“Lead the skein to my study. When he has written the letter, head to the docks and find a ship to deliver it.”

“Right away, Priestess.”

Wriavia followed the slim acolyte from the Solar, ignoring her trilling, excited questions. In his mind, he’d already composed his humiliating letter. The acolyte ushered him into a small, round room with several perches for visitors before a wooden desk strewn with parchment. Shelves lined with religious manuscripts covered one wall while a window, looking out at the courtyard and several persimmon trees, pierced the other. Wriavia mounted the perch, stout wood thrusting up from a wide base. It had a thick dowel running horizontally through the top, allowing a Luastria’s feet to grip it in comfort. Wriavia folded his legs against his breast and shook his feathers as he settled himself. He’d missed having a proper perch in Shon.

“Do you require anything else?” the acolyte asked.

“Privacy. My words are for the Bishriarch and the Synod.”

The chick left Wriavia to stare down at the blank, yellow-white parchment before him. His gizzard threatened to rebel and expunge his stone. A tremble shook through him. But Wriavia knew his duty and reached for the quill. As it scratched across the paper, painting the large, flowing letters of Luastria script, Wriavia planned his next step.

I need to reach Tlele. The Dauntless will sail out of the port of Onhur. Hopefully, Vel will use the choking plague, but Briaris has Theisseg’s dark chance protecting him.

As he wrote, he plotted how to destroy an Autonomy naval ship. Wriavia would not fail again.

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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Snippet 2 – The Reavers of the Tempest (The Storm Below Book 2)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Reavers of the Tempest, the sequel to my dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter One

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

Theisseg didn’t create the Storm.” Her husband’s portentous words echoed through Chaylene’s mind. “She is the power that fuels it. It draws on her . . . essence. It exists because of her. She needs to be freed.”

The idea of freeing Theisseg, the Dark Goddess of Storms spilled frigid water down her back. She drew in a deep breath as she lay beside her young husband on their bed in the small cottage provided for them by the Autonomy Navy. Outside, Camp Chubris slept on undisturbed. She gazed at him, seeing the earnest expression filling his clean-shaven, square-chinned face. She always found his face—squat and with a proud nose—handsome, but not dashing like a hero from a story. The corners of his eyes, crimson irises darker than the surrounding white, crinkled. Doubt appeared to fill him. Fear. Concern. Continue reading Snippet 2 – The Reavers of the Tempest (The Storm Below Book 2)

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Snippet 1 – Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Reavers of the Tempest, the sequel to my dark epic fantasy novel!

Prologue

Isamoa 9th, 399 VF (Vaarck’s Founding) (1960 SR)

She’s spotted us,” laughed Wierf, a smile spreading across his cruel, pale face. Wind rustled his thick, black beard. “She’s runnin’ at full sail.”

Nrein lifted his spyglass, a tube of leather rolled about a pair of glass lenses. The Arshion, name painted in black on the stern, leaped into focus. The wallowing Vionese whaler soared above the ever-churning Storm Below through Thugri Sound, the passage that ran between the Autonomy-held Fringe to the south and the Agerzak Kingdoms to the north. Nrein studied the wide, double-masted ship, her white sails unfurled to catch every bit of wind their frantic Windwarden could muster, desperate to escape the Iron Horse.

Pleasure tingled through the extremities of the tall man, his skin the same Agerzak pale as Wierf. Worn, leather trousers girded Nrein’s legs, the brown fading at the creases of his knees and groin. A vest left open exposed chests muscled by conflict and marked with puckered scars. His smile grew as he savored the whaler’s plight. He’d repainted his ship’s hull—a converted, Vaarckthian corvette—a deep black, her sails dyed bright-blue. A symbol to all who saw her, a totem of terror.

The Bluefin Raiders prowled these skies.

His ship flew faster, her wooden hull sleeker than the whaler’s; the warship was built not to carry vast quantities of rendered blubber but to soar through the skies and bring swift death. No Bluefin Raider, no Agerzak, ever pirated from a ship.

Only Nrein.

“Faster,” he growled to the brown-skinned, Vionese Windwarden standing nearby on the deck. The wisp-thin woman swallowed, an iron slave-collar tight about her throat. She possessed the fine, golden hair of her weak people.

“Yes, sir,” she whispered, head lowered like a horse broken to the saddle.

The winds about the Iron Horse howled faster, her sails billowing beneath the sudden gust. Captured sailors—mostly Vionese, but with a smattering of coal-skinned Vaarckthians—bustled in the rigging and about the deck, crewing the ship for the Agerzaks. Lacking the False Sun’s Gifts, the Agerzaks possessed no tradition of sailing. They couldn’t conjure the winds to drive vessels across the sky between floating skylands nor could they charge the crystal engines that kept the wooden sailing vessels afloat. But the Vionese were pathetic, easily cowed by the pirates.

Nrein pushed one of his three long, black braids off his shoulder, an excited smile on his pale, youthful face. A long scar running across his right cheek and the bridge of his nose marred his handsome features. His almond-shaped, amber eyes gleamed with lust for the whale oil carried on the Arshion. For two years she’d plied the Great Empty, her tanks brimming with the liquid wealth.

“Keddalr, prepare your men,” Nrein commanded, his voice rasping like gravel grinding on iron.

“Aye, Cap’n,” grunted Keddalr, commander of the archers.

The pirate captain smiled, the blood lust pumping through his veins to claim another prize. He needed another Windwarden along with more whale oil before he would meet with the Vaarckthians.

No Agerzak pirate would be as feared or remembered as him. The Autonomy would use his name to scare their children into obedience for a thousand years. He would crush their Eastern Fleet and pillage every last one of their whalers.

Horses whinnied on the central well deck, lower than the stern or fore decks. Keddalr and his four men wouldn’t fail Nrein. Leather creaked and horses nickered as their bare-chested riders climbed into saddles. With a whoop, Keddalr danced his horse into the sky. The five raiders rode past the front of the ship, their brown stallions galloping upon the sky as if it were firm ground. Sparks flared every time hooves pounded upon empty air. Each rider held short, recurve bows made of whalebone, their woolly, black hair streaming behind them.

The five archers raced across the open sky. A powerful ache to gallop with the Skydancers seized Nrein. Out of the Five Gifts of Dhessech, the Eye of the Storm, he possessed the weakest: Fleshknitting. An unmanly Gift that robbed all contest out of battle. He couldn’t dance across the air like his raiders, he couldn’t conjure flame like a Firedrinker, he couldn’t work iron like a Metalforger, and he couldn’t even glimpse the future like a Stormwitch. All he could do was heal; how did that make a fight fun?

“Now,” Nrein whispered as his raiders approached the Arshion.

As one, the raiders drew back their horse bows and launched the first volley at the fleeing whaler. Sailors dived for cover along the railing as the first sweep of flint-tipped missiles raked their ship. A second flight hissed and fell; a sailor toppled from the rigging. Other manned the Arshion’s gunwales, aiming crossbows. Bolts twanged through the air. Nrein might lose a raider or two, but there was always a Skydancer waiting to enlist in a pirate crew. Offnrieth crawled with them like flies upon pig dung.

“Signal Sevenfingers!” Nrein barked. “Let’s close the trap on these plump tunas.”

“Aye,” Wierf answered, then bellowed his command.

Green fire erupted in the skies above. Lroff, a Firedrinker, unleashed the signal. For a heartbeat, emerald washed across the Iron Horse’s decks. Nrein grinned, focusing his spyglass on a distant skyreef, a floating skylet too small to build more than a single house upon but large enough to conceal a ship.

The Hammer leaped from behind the skyreef, blue sails billowing as she cut off the Arshion’s escape. Eight Skydancers pounded away from Nrein’s second ship. The boarders, led by the madman, Kats, charged the whaler, their greatswords held aloft. All of Nrein’s boarders possessed the iron blades wielded by their ancestors, carefully maintained by Metalforgers down through the centuries.

No bone weapon could stand against the strength and weight of an Agerzak greatsword.

The sailors on the Arshion were slow to react to the trap. They turned their fat ship south to try to cut ahead of the Hammer while their crossbowmen rushed across the pitching deck to repel the new threat. Nrein loved this moment. He could almost taste the terror of the enemy crew. He smiled as panic rode among the whalers. Their ship handling grew sloppy. They didn’t properly quarter their sails to make the turn.

The Arshion’s speed died.

“Look at Kats,” chuckled Wierf. “Didn’t even flinch. That bolt must have missed his face by mere fingerswidth.”

Nrein grunted, feeling the weight of his greatsword strapped to his back. Blood spilled, and he stood safe.

Kats and his raiders leaped from the mounts, sailed over the gunwale, and crashed onto the Arshion’s deck. Metal flashed. Crossbowmen fell. Nrein’s hand itched to draw his own greatsword, jump from the prow of the Iron Horse, and somehow cross that distance to join the fray.

A man only lived when fighting. Nrein loved the fiery pump of his heart as his enemy tried to gut him with a bone saber. He’d laugh as his greatsword cut down his enemies in a spray of red. Months had passed since Nrein’s last taste of battle.

Using ships had downsides. More success, more wealth, but he missed riding on the back of a raider’s horse out to a ship to butcher . . .

“They’ll be running up the Sun any heartbeat, Cap’n,” Wierf predicted. “Cowards, one and all.”

“You have the slave-collar?” Nrein asked.

“Course I do, Cap’n. The ring’s attuned to Banch.”

The oily Vaarckthian would soon deliver a third ship; Nrein needed another Windwarden to control it. Without Riasruo’s Blessing of Wind, his new ship would be useless. When her engine’s charge ran out, she’d plummet into the Storm.

“There it is.” An ugly laugh rumbled from Wierf’s throat.

From the Arshion’s stern waved a white flag with a yellow sun surrounded by five golden feathers—the symbol of their pathetic Goddess. A plea for quarter.

“Blue flame, Lroff!” Nrein ordered.

Sapphire bathed the skies. The archers stopped their volleys. The boarders halted their carnage, quarter given.

“Bring us alongside,” Nrein said. “Let’s inspect our prize.”

A grin split Wierf’s cruel face. “Aye, Cap’n.”

The press-ganged sailors maneuvered the Iron Horse to the Arshion while the boarders’ horses ambled across the sky. With their saddles imbued with the Skydancer’s power, they could walk the sky without their riders for a time.

“Cap’n!” Kats called from the Arshion’s deck, blood sprayed across his blue-painted chest, a wild glint in his amber eyes. “The Arshion is yours!”

Pirates on the Iron Horse threw bone grapples attached to flaxen ropes. They hooked the gunwale of the Arshion. With grunts, they pulled the floating ships closer together. The metallic tang of spilled life filled Nrein’s nose. Crimson puddled across the white-yellow deck of the whaler. The dying moaned and gasped, their crewmates tending to severed limbs and spilled guts.

When the ships came close enough together, pirates shoved gangplanks across the gap between them and crossed. Nrein followed, his stomach churning as he stepped onto the narrow wood. The Storm boiled hungrily below. He didn’t rush—he wouldn’t ruin all his ambition by falling.

He stepped onto the blood-soaked deck.

A bony-faced woman in fine trousers and a double-breasted jacket climbed down the stairs from the stern deck. She strode with a brittleness towards him, her brown face paled to a jaundiced tan, the mask of her haughty authority cracking beneath the violence splattered across her deck. She kept her eyes fixed on him, not watching where she stepped like she didn’t want to witness the butchery.

“I am Captain Rhey,” she said when she reached him, her voice quivering. A spasm rippled through her body. “I . . . I surrender the Arshion . . . to you.”

Nrein savored this moment, studying her face. Her eyes were skittish, her lower lip quavering, her Vionese pride shattered beneath Agerzak might. Finally, he asked, “Where is your Windwarden?”

She whimpered, her face twitching. “Y-you gave us quarter.”

“And you shall have it,” he growled, low and dangerous. “Bring me your Windwarden before the winds change.”

She swallowed, her red eyes wild with dread. She flicked a greedy gaze to the holding tanks on the Iron Horse. She still wore her bone sabre, her fingers twitching. Nrein’s smile deepened, welcoming her attack. His blood pounded through his body, carrying that wonderful thrill through his veins, cold and exciting, sharpening all his senses.

Her eyes darted around as his crew watched, hungry. She relaxed; disappointment soured Nrein’s guts.

“B-Bring Grioch!”

A young man, two jowls quivering, lumbered forward. One glance at his soft, pampered body proclaimed him the Windwarden. Essential for a ship’s survival, they always enjoyed the best food and little labor. This carp appeared to never have done a day’s work, or missed a meal, in his life.

“Collar him,” ordered Nrein.

“What?” blubbered Grioch as Banch—a huge man with thickly curled, white hair—marched towards the Windwarden, a metal collar in hand.

Grioch bolted. He barreled for the stairs down into the hold. Kats thrust his greatsword out before the fleeing piglet. Squealing, the Windwarden halted his waddling flight before he cut himself on the sword’s gleaming edge.

“Where you going, tuna?” laughed Banch, grasping Grioch by the shoulder and spinning him about.

“W-what is that?” wailed Grioch, pointing at the collar. He flinched from it before he went to retreat, but Kats raised his weapon, and the piglet’s body locked rigid.

What a disgusting eel, Nrein thought, sneering.

Grioch trembled, staring askance at Kats’s ugly blade. The collar sprang open—Grioch squeaked—then Banch snapped it about the pudgy man’s throat in a blur of motion. The metal bent back together and melted into a single, solid piece before Grioch could jerk away.

“You are my Windwarden,” grated Banch. “You do what I say or live with the consequences.”

“What conse—”

Banch stroked a wooden ring on his finger surmounted with a smoky quartz. The collar squeezed Grioch’s neck, choking off the Windwarden’s words. Blubber spilled over the edges of the iron band. His brown face darkened as he struggled to breathe. His green eyes, flecked with red, bulged. Sausage-like fingers pried at the metal digging into the flesh of his throat. Banch seized the Windwarden’s lank, greasy hair. He jerked the tuna forward, staring into those trembling eyes. Grioch gurgled, foam gathering at the corners of his lips.

“It is a slave-collar,” the Agerzak explained, speaking slowly in the Vionese’s airy words. Their language flowed like water, womanly soft. “At my thought, it tightens about your throat. You do what I say, and you will never feel its embrace again. Disobey me . . . Understand?”

Grioch nodded his head, face darkening towards puce.

“Good.”

The metal relaxed. The ball of lard fell to his knees, gasping and crying, despicable tears spilling down his cheeks.

“You gave us quarter,” Captain Rhey complained. “Without a Windwarden, we’ll die.”

“Banch, have Grioch charge their engine before we depart.” Nrein smiled coldly at the Arshion’s captain. “That’ll give you a day to sail your ship to safety. If you’re lucky, the winds will be in your favor.”

*

Investigator Archene Thugris limped through the pristine grounds of the University of Rlarshon, enjoying the warm, autumn day as her cane thunked on the gray brick path. She passed topiary shaped by the gardeners with their bone sheers into schools of flying fish. Leafy sharks, sculpted out of darker shrubs, stalked their prey, mouths bristling with fierce, bushy fangs. Colorful songfish, the real kind, drifted through the topiary, their fins vibrating to produce sounds to delight the ear.

Their humming music danced across her awareness, bringing a rare smile curling the corners of her tan face. The setting sun lit up one side of the Dawnspire that reared to the south of the university. The great tower of crystal thrust high into the blue sky, brilliant fires refracting off its faceted surface.

A school of minnows burst from the leaves of a topiary shark—their silver bodies flashing as they flew up into the sky—and startled the investigator out of her reverie. Archene fought to keep her balance, her stiff right leg burning as her boot slid across the pavement. It didn’t move smoothly, her knee hardly bending. Seventeen years ago, during the war, a Zzuki warrior’s claws had mangled her thigh while she had served as a marine.

Archene planted her cane hard on the ground, leaning on it to arrest her fall. Her left hand clutched at her double-breasted, black waistcoat buttoned up to her neck. A sharp exhale burst from her lips as excitement bled out of her. Almost two decades with the limp, and she still felt incomplete, yearning to hustle, to run like she had as a girl through the fields of Xojhey. She was lucky to still have a leg. The medical officer had wanted to amputate at her mid thigh, but she’d begged to keep it.

“Are you okay, Investigator?” a polite young man asked, dressed in the white robes of a student. His brown hands seized her arm, helping to steady her.

The urge to snap at the young man swelled in her along with the embarrassment of her stumble being witnessed.

“I’m fine,” she said, biting back an acidic retort. The young man didn’t mean to make her feel like a helpless cripple. “Thank you for your assistance.”

The young man nodded and released her arm.

Archene straightened, smoothing her long, black skirt and adjusting her waistcoat. The yellow, double-headed griffin of the Autonomy shone on her breast pocket, marking her as a member of the Office of Special Investigations. Last, she adjusted the bone sabre hanging from a leather belt wrapped about her slim waist, a formality more than a practicality. With her leg, she could not properly fence.

Her charge crackled across her skin, itching to flow into the cane. She could feel the engine hidden beneath the carved bone. Though it didn’t look it, the cane was a thunderbuss, capable of discharging her Lightning. It lacked the range or accuracy of the more solidly built thunderbusses the Autonomy’s Navy employed, but its blast would surprise any would-be attacker. Philosopher Rheyn Duthan had designed it for her.

The student gave her a friendly smile before striding off towards the College of Esoteric Philosophy where theology and morality were taught. A half-dozen different colleges, each specializing in a different field, made up the University of Rlarshon. The College of Physiological Philosophy taught medicine and trained doctors. The College of Historiography poured over moldy parchment from before the Age of Isolation while the College of Abstract Philosophy lost themselves in numbers and mathematics.

But it was the College of Material Philosophy where researchers discovered new uses for Riasruo’s Blessings. They delved into the Sun Goddess’s gifts, uncovering new combinations of wood, gems, and powers, inventing new devices to save labor, or new weapons to wage war.

Archene touched her blonde hair, making sure no strands escaped her tight bun before limping onward. Her current assignment was as the liaison to Professor Duthan and his important work. New orders had arrived only an hour ago, the letter heavy in the breast pocket of her waistcoat. Back home, her husband packed for her trip. She fought through the growing fire in her crippled leg her quickened pace produced. Her brown-skinned forehead wrinkled as she fought the discomfort.

Ahead, her destination, the College of Material Philosophy, rose, a three-story, rectangular box constructed of gray granite mortared precisely together. A roof of red slate gleamed in the setting sun. Many classroom windows were left open to let in the cool breeze. Wedges held open the main double doors. She passed through them, the thunk of her cane transforming to a deeper thud as it struck the polished granite floor.

More students in white strode down the halls, their youthful faces full of excitement as they talked. They fell silent as she limped by. Archene could hear their thoughts whispering, “Griffin,” the nickname given to investigators. Like the fierce, wild red-crested griffins that dwelt on the skylands of Les and Vion, investigators were tenacious, tracking down their quarries with a single-minded ruthlessness. When a great crime was transgressed against the Autonomy, the griffins would swoop in to hunt the miscreants.

Archene paused when she rounded a corner to face the heavy oak door that led to the basement. A bored marine, Private Dharsene, lounged against the wall, his redcoat half-unbuttoned. Archene’s lips pursed at his slovenly discipline.

She cleared her throat.

The marine’s back straightened and he snapped a salute. “Investigator Thugris!”

Her cane thudded as she trooped down the hallway, left foot planting hard, the right half-dragging across the stone. The marine opened the door, his green eyes trembling. She fixed him with her hardest stare, the color paling from his brown face.

She swept past him and labored down the narrow stairs.

They were the worst to navigate. She had to go carefully, bracing her left hand against the coarse stones of the wall as she placed her cane on each runner. If she rushed . . . Step by grunting step, she worked her way to the basement hallway, sheens of sweat beading on her forehead. She paused at the bottom, heart laboring, shoulders rising and falling with deep breaths inhaled through her nostrils. Cool, damp air wafted around her, and a faint tinge of must wrinkled her nose.

She dabbed at her forehead with a handkerchief produced from her waistcoat’s pocket as she stared down the long hallway before her. Whale oil lamps, set in the wall, lit it, leaving gulfs of darkness between each skyland of light. A woman’s faint, muffled moans echoed.

The sounds of Philosopher Duthan’s research.

Her cane echoed louder in the narrow corridor as she stomped forward, passing wooden doors with barred windows. Another marine, almost a shadow in the dark hallway, guarded the final door. The cries of pain grew louder, gut-wrenching whimpers and heart-palpitating shrieks. Flickers of blue-yellow light bled through the gaps around the door.

Archene’s stomach twisted. She pushed down her revulsion. The Autonomy’s protection was worth any cost.

“Inspector,” the straight-backed marine said, saluting with alacrity, her voice calm despite the screams of pain.

“Corporal,” Archene nodded as the marine opened the door.

Inside, a woman lay strapped to a plain, wooden table, her half-naked body wizened to spindly limbs. Only a thin, dirty-gray smock covered her almost fleshless body. Agony dulled her green eyes, her shriveled lips squeezed tight. Bone needles were inserted into her arms, legs, stomach, and neck, each tipped with a sliver of rose quartz encased in a small frame of black hickory.

Shock needles.

They were one of the inventions of Philosopher Duthan and were an effective interrogation device. They allowed a person with Minor Lightning to deliver painful, though not lethal or incapacitating, shocks of static charge merely by brushing the ends.

“What did you dream about last night, Nianie?” a grave voice asked, almost a breathless wheeze from old age. Philosopher Duthan stood at the head of the table, looking down into his subject’s green eyes. “The guards heard your cries. What did Theisseg whisper in your mind?”

“They came to . . . to dance . . .” Nianie pleaded, her normal sing-song nonsense broken by hoarse agony. “They whirled . . . about three partners . . . three came . . . came to dance . . . and . . . and . . . play . . . Death’s dance . . . whirling dance . . . with . . . my . . . hero . . .”

“It is vital you talk with clarity, Nianie,” Philosopher Duthan said, reaching out to brush the needle buried in her neck. “What did She show you?”

Blue-yellow light arched from Duthan’s finger to the needle, bathing the dark room in harsh light. Archene battered down her motherly sympathy. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to watch as Nianie’s body jerked, her piteous screams echoing through the room.

Five years ago, the Cyclone of 394 VF had attacked the skyland of Humy. The warship, Courageous, sallied forth to fight it. The corvette had sustained grievous losses, and Able Sailor Nianie Srlyene was struck by lightning, tainted by Theisseg. Per regulations, the Office of Special Investigations had quarantined her. For three years she had been well cared for, kept in a pleasant cell at Rhision Prison at the south end of Rhogre. Rumors of her strange dreams had peculated out. She was the second Autonomy sailor ever to be tainted by Theisseg. The first was a madman, raving in his cells for a decade before dying. No one paid his words any attention until Philosopher Duthan had heard the rumors of Nianie.

Then he had arranged to study her.

Cyclones were on the rise. The destructive tempests that rose out of the Storm Below attacked the skylands with greater frequency. The Stormriders, the Dark Goddess’s servants, reaved and pillaged wherever they appeared. The Autonomy needed to know what secrets Theisseg had implanted in Nianie’s mind, to understand why She communicated with the mad girl.

“My hero . . . battled amid . . . the dead . . . in gray . . .” Nianie sobbed. “His fires . . . they burned . . . so hot . . . a shield . . . of her . . . love . . . about . . . the dance . . . so wild . . . women wore . . . dresses of crimson . . . and the men . . . fine doublets of . . . scarlet . . .”

“Tell me about the dream,” Philosopher Duthan demanded, his wrinkled face furrowing.

“Singing pain . . . always pain . . . free her . . .” The bony body flailed against her heavy restraints, flopping like a gutted fish. Nianie’s green eyes fell on Archene. “You . . . you must free . . . my hero . . .”

Archene furrowed her brow.

“You haven’t dreamed in months,” pressed Duthan. “Why last night? What does Theisseg want you to do? Are you supposed to aid the Stormriders?”

“There was a Cyclone this morning,” Archene answered, her hand touching her breast pocket, parchment crinkling. “The mathematicians calculate it struck Southern Les around dawn.”

Philosopher Duthan’s grandfatherly face paled. “Casualties?” Then he shook his head. “Right. This morning. Too soon to know.”

The lightning chart was an amazing discovery by Philosopher Duthan. Thirty or so years ago, his research had uncovered a new use for Major Lightning. Disturbances in the Storm Below caused by Cyclones rising could be triangulated. The Office of Special Investigations had leaped on the discovery. Two were built, always manned by a cartographer and a courier, one on the northern end of Rhogre, the other on the southern end. With precise compass bearings taken, the mathematics could triangulate the disturbance. It had taken over two decades to survey the skylands of the Autonomy and fix their position on a coordinate system to make use of it.

Philosopher Duthan tapped his wrinkled chin, musing to himself, “Not all the dreams are a precursor for a Cyclone, but every Cyclone has been precursed by a dream. What does it mean?”

Archene shrugged. “I am taking a ship to southern Les. The mathematicians estimate it struck Shon or Camp Chubris.”

Duthan nodded. “Perhaps another sailor has been touched. I fear we waited too long with Nianie before we began our interrogations. Her . . . isolation already broke her mind.”

And your interrogation hasn’t helped, thought Archene, bile gurgling in her stomach.

“Shadowed death . . . comes to dance . . . with my hero . . . and the . . . burning woman . . .” sobbed Nianie in her breathy chant.

“Now, Nianie, tell me what Theisseg said to you,” the aged philosopher said as he reached out to touch her needle. “Remember.”

Blue-yellow blazed. Nianie screamed.

Archene forced herself to watch a moment longer. If she did find another sailor tainted by Theisseg . . . “I’ll leave you to your work, Philosopher.”

“Yes, yes,” Duthan muttered, furrowing his forehead as he listened to Nianie’s sobbing words, absently stroking the few wisps of white hair circling the crown of his spotted head.

If Archene’s memory held, three crews trained at Camp Chubris, almost ready to take up their duty for the Autonomy’s Navy. Please let none of them be tainted, Riasruo, she prayed as she stomped out of the interrogation room, blue-yellow light flooding around her.

Archene knew she would deliver any she found. None tainted by Theisseg could be allowed to roam free.

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

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 and Reavers of the Tempest’s release, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

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Cover Reveal – Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below)

Reavers of the Tempest

(Book Two of the Storm Below)

 

Here is the amazing cover for Reavers of the Tempest from my awesome artists, Steam Powered Studios!

Pirates rampage across the skies!

Ary, Chaylene, and the crew of the skyship Dauntless are called into action again! The Bluefin Raiders pillage and burn, but the greatest threat lurks aboard the ship…

Vel plots murder.

Wanting Chaylene for himself, he waits for his chance to poison Ary. Only it’s not poison he carries…

It’s a plague.

You have to read this epic, action-packed fantasy novel as the Reavers of the Tempest ravage across the Storm!

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

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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Reread of The Thousandfold Thought: Chapter Thirteen

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought

by R. Scott Bakker

The Final March
Chapter 12
Holy Amateu

Welcome to Chapter Thirteen of my reread. Click here if you missed the Chapter Twelve!

What frightens me when I travel is not that so many men possess customs and creeds so different from my own. Nay, what frightens me is that they think them as natural and as obvious as I think my own.

—SERATANTAS III, SUMNI MEDITATIONS

A return to a place never seen. Always it is thus, when we understand what we cannot speak.

—PROTATHIS, ONE HUNDRED HEAVENS

My Thoughts

So the Sumni Meditations leads me to believe that Seratantas III was a Shriah. We all hold our beliefs as if they are truth, and it is hard when they are challenged. It’s terrifying to meet people who think the opposite of you. It can cause you to retreat into echo chambers (like the ones social media is creating for us these days), to quarantine ourselves in little spheres safe from dangerous ideas. It makes us insular. It makes us fanatics.

If we can’t face these fears, then we will never change. We will never grow. We will stay mired in beliefs that might do more harm than good.

This also ties into to Kellhus musing on how he trained the Holy War, giving them new customs so that they’ll act the way he wants.

The second quote’s a little denser. How can you describe a place you’ve never been? How can you know when you’re even there. If you can’t speak of something that you understand, it’s impossible to describe. To share. To experience. This might feed into the first quote and the dangers of staying in your insular area. You can’t speak those truths that maybe, just maybe, are lurking inside of your soul.

Or I’m completely spinning my wheels here. Protathis’s quote is… intriguing. He’s referenced a second time in the chapter proper, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this excerpt.

Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Atyersus

Nautzera, the Mandate Schoolman, is drawn by shouts from his studies in the Rudiments Library at Atyersus, the Mandate fortress. He spies some initiates pointing at the sea where fifteen ships are anchored at the mouth of the harbor all flying the Tusk. This throws the Mandate into a frenzy of activity and panic. Nautzera joins the Quorum atop the Comoranth Tower to observes the fleet. Nautzera thinks it is a blockade from the Thousand Temples to keep them for heading to Shimeh. “Did the Shrial ingrates think themselves a match for the Gnosis?” wonders Nautzera.

Simas wants them to attack, arguing the Second Apocalypse might have begun and that this is a Consult attack trying to keep them from reaching Kellhus. Nautzera councils that it would be folly to “act in ignorance.” Before they come to an agreement, a rowboat is launched from the fleet and the Quorum, over Simas objects, agreed to at least parlay.

Soon, slaves are carrying Nautzera and the others on palanquins to the docks, descending down the switchback from their fortress. Nautzera studies the boats, wondering just who and why they’re here. They reach the quay, crowded with soldiers and adepts. They assemble up just as they realize who is on the boat. It reaches the docks and five Shrial knights (each carrying Chorae) form up around the Holy Shriah. Maithanet, too, wears a Chorae.

Smiling with radiant warmth, the man [Maithanet] studied their faces, raised his eyes to the dark bastions of Atyersus behind them… He lunged forward. Then somehow—his movement had been too quick for surprised eyes to comprehend—he was holding Simas by the base of the skull.

The air was riven with sorcerous mutterings. Eyes flared with Gnostic light. Wards whisked into shimmering existence. Almost as one, the members of the Quorum fell into a defensive posture. Dust and grit trailed down the sloped sides of the jetty.

Simas had gone limp as a kitten. His white-haired head lolling against the fist bunched at the base o his neck. The Shriah seemed to hold him with impossible strength.

The Quorum demand that Maithanet releases him while he explains that by holding “them” just so, it incapacitates them. Nautzera demands answers. He hadn’t summoned words or retreated. He places himself between the Shriah and the Mandate while Maithanet says if they’re patient, Simas’s “true aspect will be revealed. Nautzera notices something is wrong about Simas and orders silence.

“We learned of this one through our interrogations of the others,” Maithanet said, his voice possessing a resonance that brushed aside the alarmed prattle. “It’s an accident, an anomaly that, thankfully, its architects have been unable to recreate.”

It?

“What are you saying?” Nautzera cried.

Thrashing slack limbs, the thing called Simas began howling in a hundred lunatic voices. Maithanet braced his feet, rocked like a fisherman holding a twisting shark. Nautzera stumbled back, his hands raised in Warding. With abject horror, he watched the man’s oh-so-familiar face crack open, clutch at the skies with hooked digits.

“A skin-spy with the ability to work sorcery,” the Shriah of the Thousand Temples said, grimacing with exertion. “A skin-spy with a soul.”

And the grand old sorcerer realized he had known all along.

Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Shimeh

Proyas reigns up his horse and stares at Shimeh for the first time. He’s shocked by the “dismaying sense of banality” he feels upon witnessing it. Before now, Shimeh had seemed “a monument so terrible with holiness that he could do naught but fall on his belly when confronted by its aspect.” He doesn’t feel that now. He just stares at it, wondering if seeing a dream come to life was always this disappointing.

Then the tears come before he realizes it, followed by the pain of Xinemus’s death, remembering his promise to describe the sight to his mentor. He grieves until he regains himself. He’s not the only man crying, but only he cries for Xinemus. The others are feeling that reverence Proyas expected. They cry out in prayers.

The words swelled with deep-throated resonance, became ever more implacable and embalming as horseman after horseman took them up. Soon the slopes thrummed with cracked voices. They were faithful, come with arms to undo long centuries of wickedness. They were the Men of the Tusk, bereaved and heartbroken, laying eyes on the ground of countless fatal oaths… How many brothers? How many fathers and sons?

May your bread silence our daily hunger…”

Proyas joined them in their prayer, even as he grasped the reason for his turmoil. They were the swords of the Warrior-Prophet, he realized, and this was the city of Inri Sejenus. Moves had been made, and rules had been changed. Kellhus and the Circumfixion had hamstrung all the old points of purposes. So here they stood, signatories to an obsolete indenture, celebrating a destination that had become a waystation…

And no one knew what it meant.

Proyas realizes that Shimeh wasn’t holy before this, but was made holy by all who died, Xinemus included, on the long road here. “There was no working back from what was final.”

Uranyanka, the Palatine of Moserothu, leads Kellhus to a vantage point to stare across the Plains of Shairizor to Shimeh, the city sprawls across it from the sea, surrounded by walls. At long last, the Holy War has arrived.

Some fell to their knees, bawling like children. But most simply stared, their faces blank.

Names were like baskets. Usually, they came to men already filled, with refuse, banalities, and valuables mixed in various measures. But sometimes the passage of events overthrew them. Sometimes they came to bear different burdens. Heavier things Darker things.

Shimeh was such a name.

They had come from across Eärwa, suffered much, to arrive here. “Now, at last, they apprehended the purpose of their heartbreaking labour.” For some, they wonder how Shimeh could ever be worth what they suffered.

But as always, the words of the Warrior-Prophet circulated among them. “This,” he was said to have said, “is not your destination. It’s your destiny.”

The Holy War visits all those shrines and relics they’ve read about. Then they notice the Juterum, the Holy Heights, where the Later Prophet had risen to Heaven. On that spot lies “the cancer they had come to excise.”

The great tabernacle of the Cishaurim.

Only as the sun drew their shadows to the footings of the man-eyed walls did they abandon the hillsides to strike camp on the plan below. Few slept that night, such was their confusion. Such was their wonder.

Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Amoteu

General Biaxi Sompas is obsessed over the threat Conphas delivered. If Sompas doesn’t re-capture Cnaiür, every last member of Sompas’s family will be burned alive. Sompas knows that Conphas could do it, but isn’t sure he’d dare? Xerius wouldn’t have. The Biaxi family possess too much power. However, despite this, Biaxi believes Conphas will do it because “Who would raise arms against the Lion of Kiyuth?” The army sided with Conphas over Kellhus.

Sompas forces his down to his captain, a sorcerer, and eleven Kidruhil. They are no longer the hunters, but are being hunted. Early on, he split his forces to better find Cnaiür, and it is proving a mistake as they move through the foothills of the Betmulla Mountains. He realizes he’d panicked, driven by the fear of Conphas’s warning, and had spread himself out too soon. Day after day, they find more groups of his men slain. He’s breaking under the stress because, “Demons hadn’t been part of the bargain, Saik or no Saik.”

Captain Agnaras is arguing they’ve gone too far towards the Holy War or the Fanim. They are in Amoteu now and are in danger. However, Sompas presses on through the forest they ride through, not caring. Suddenly, Captain Agnaras orders a halt in a clearing. They start pitching camp, none look at Sompas. They ignore him.

Very little was said.

When the sorcerer slipped away to relieve himself, Sompas found himself joining him. He was not quite willing things to happen anymore—they just… happened.

I have no choice!

The pair are pissing side-by-side when the sorcerer talks about how this was a disaster and how he’s going to write a report. Sompas kills him with “such a naughty knife.” He returns to his soldiers. He can understand them, unlike a sorcerer.

“He had no choice. It simply had to happen.”

His entire family existence is on the line. He realizes he has failed to recapture Cnaiür, so he must kill Conphas. He plans on reaching the Holy War and betraying Conphas’s plans to Kellhus. He even has thoughts of becoming emperor. After all, it was terrible that the Ikurei’s plotted with the Fanim. “The more Sompas had considered it, the more it seemed that honour and righteousness bound him to this course.” Realizing he has no choice, he feels calm at his decision. He then pretends to be worried about the sorcerer, but no one else cares.

As he warms his hand, she realizes that his men are waiting for the chance to slit his throat, their faces too blank. Sompas feels he has to speak with great care to survive, asking who guards the perimeter while his panicked thoughts tell him to run. Shouts erupt, soldiers crying out there’s something in the trees. Captain Agnaras yells to be quiet. They grow tense, weapons drawn, waiting. They stare at the trees, waiting.

Then they heard it: a rasp from blackness above. There was a small rain of grit, then bark twirled across the clearing.

“Sweet Sejenus!” one of the cavalrymen gasped, only to be silenced by barks of anger.

There was a sound, like that of a little boy pissing across leather. A sizzling hiss drew their attention to the main fire. It seemed all their eyes focused upon it at once: a thread of blood unwinding across the flames…

Something crashes into the flames. It’s the sorcerer, Ouras. His corpse has landed on the campfire, scattering coals and frightening the horses. Before Agnaras can cry orders, the Serwë skin-spy drops into the middle of them “falling like rope.”

All Sompas could do was stagger backward. He had no choice…

Agnaras dies. More follow as the Serwë skin-spy fights, “blonde hair whisked like silk in the gloom, chasing a pale face of impossible beauty.” His men fall back from her when more attack, including Cnaiür, looking mad and beyond human. As Sompas realizes he’s the last one standing, surrounded, he’s glad he relieved his bladder earlier. But they don’t kill him.

“She saw you murder the other,” the Scylvendi said, whipping spattered blood into a smear across his cheek. “Now she wants to fuck.”

A warm hand snaked along the back of his neck, pressed against his cheek.

That night Biaxi Sompas learned that there were rules for everything, including what could and could not happen to one’s own body. These, he discovered, were the most sacred rules of all.

Once, in the screaming, snarling misery of it all, he thought of his wives and children burning.

But only once.

Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Shimeh

Many of the Holy War bathe in the River Jeshimal the next day in an “impromptu rite of penance,” believing they are now cleaned. Others are unnerved by the mocking size of the Tatokar Walls around the city.

We’re given a history lesson about how Shimeh grew so large, from a small city during Inri Sejenus’s time, to a massive cityscape turned fortress by a Nansur emperor, to the Kianene rulers who glazed the walls and added the eyes painted upon the wall to remind the Inrithi that “the Solitary God does not blink.” The men debate about those eyes, some with curiosity, others are enraged by them. It made the city seem like “some great and unfathomable beast, like a vast, ramshackle crab sunning onshore after crawling up from the deep.” It makes some feel nervous.

Who knew what living things might do?

Meanwhile, Kellhus thinks he will see his father soon.

Where there had been many voices, many wills, now there was but one. With the Logos he had sown, and now with the Logos he would reap.

Kellhus turns from Esmenet to face the Council of Names, his hands radiant. More than them throng the hills to watch them. He stands midway down the slope, Shimeh positioned behind him to halo his body. He seems both eagerness and caution in their expressions. Even the Scarlet Spire have come if nervously. Eleäzaras keeps glancing at Achamian. Kellhus begins his sermon, saying he sees them now as the Tribe of Truth, watched over with pride by the ghosts of the fallen.

There could be no forgetting. They had paid for this moment in terror and blood.

Kellhus declares that they shall reclaim “my brother’s house.” He remembers the last three years since he left Ishuäl’s Fallow Gate, all those possible futures that almost overwhelmed him. “With every step he murdered alternatives, collapsed future after future, walking a line too thin to be marked on any map.” Once, Kellhus believed that he walked his own line, made his own decisions, but now realizes that “the ground he traveled had been Conditioned through and through.” Thirty years, his father had prepared his steps so that “even here, his [Kellhus’s] every decision, his every act, confirmed the dread intent of the Thousandfold Thought.”

Kellhus continues his speech, reminiscing about the council before the Emperor, joking how they were all fat then. They laughed. “He was their axle, and they were his wheel.” He talks about Proyas’s contest with Xerius over the indentured, how Proyas had to sully is faith for politics. “For your entire life you yearned for a bold God , not one who skulked in scriptoriums, whispering the inaudible to the insane.” Kellhus looks around the room, calling out others, giving them insights to make them weep while holding back the truth that Kellhus sees, like with Proyas: “Now you rail at the old habits and mourn the toll of the new.”

This exercise had become a custom of his [Kellhus’s]. By calling out the truth of a few faces, he made them all feel known—watched.

He continues, saying everyone had their reasons for coming to Shimeh—to conquer, boast, find glory, atonement—and then asks if any came for “Shimeh alone?” Silence descends save for their heartbeats. “It was as though their breasts had become ten thousand drums.” He repeats his question.

What he [Kellhus] wrought here had to be perfect. There had been no mistaking the words of the old man who had accosted him in Gim. The sails of the Mandate fleet could appear any day now, and the Gnostic Schoolmen would not yield their war lightly. Everything had to be complete before their arrival. Everything had to be inevitable. If they had no hand in the work that they witnessed, they would be that much more reluctant in advancing their claims. “Your father bids me tell you,” the blind hermit had said, “‘There is but one tree in Kyudea…’”

The question was whether the Men of the Tusk could prevail without him.

Kellhus says none did because they are humans, “and the hearts of men are not simple.” He says men, unable to fully express their emotions, pretend that their words are their passions. They make the complicated simple, but that doesn’t exist.

To speak was to pluck the lute strings of another’s soul. To intone was to strum full chords. He had long ago learned how to speak past meanings, to mine passion with mere voice.

He says humans are conflict and think that’s bad, something they have to defeat. But it’s the simple truth that no one does anything for pure reasons. Nothing is done “for the love of the God alone.” This shames his audience and he continues, pointing out the selfish reasons for why people act the way they are. He then asks if that makes them sinful or “unworthy.”

That final word rang like an accusation.

“Or does it mean that you are Men?”

Only the wind is heard. He smells their stink seasoned with perfumes. He finds himself standing for a moment “within a great circle of apes, hunched and unwashed, watching him with dark and dumbfounded eyes.” He then pictures himself at the heart of them as he knows the words to make them burn and “grind down their cyclopean walls.” He knows how to wield them by speaking “from the darkness that came before me.” He wonders what it means to use them as puppets, and if that mattered if “they were wielded in the name of the God?”

There was only mission.

He continues that there is no “undiscovered purity lying obscured in our souls.” He says even God is conflict. That means that humans are war. The Holy War fills the air with battle cries. Almost everyone, even Esmenet, is affected. All save for Achamian who “stood part from the spectacle.” Kellhus quotes from the Book of Songs that “war is heart without harness” then Protathis, saying, “war is where the gag of the small is cut away.” He points out that you only find peace when fighting. “War is our soul made manifest.”

He [Kellhus] held the Holy War in the palm of his intent. The Orthodox had all but dissolved away in the face of his manifest divinity. As his Intricati, Esmenet had effectively silenced the remaining dissenters. Both Conphas and the Scylvendi had been removed from the plate…

Only Achamian yet dared look at him in alarm.

Kellhus says tomorrow they will take Shimeh, and he, “the Prophet of War,” will be their reward. He had trained them for months to “recognized without realizing.” Proyas is the one who voices what everyone’s understanding: Kellhus won’t be there for the fight.

Kellhus smiled as though caught withholding a glorious secret.

“Every brother is a son… and every son must first visit my father’s house.”

Again the look from Achamian. Again the need to subdue the man’s endless misgivings.

The Lords of the Holy War agree they have to assault the city. They can’t starve it out. They are dismayed that they have to do it tomorrow without Kellhus. They are assured by Kellhus that their enemy is reeling from disasters and they have to strike first. They had scouts scouring the land around them because the locals claim that there Fanayal is regrouping and has reinforcements or that the Holy War will prevail. The Great Names don’t know what to believe while Kellhus says that these are all rumors planted by Fanayal to sow discord. “He makes noise to obscure truth’s call.”

In the end, they decide to attack Shimeh’s west wall and take the Juterum as fast as possible. They have to defeat the Cishaurim with haste. There is squabble on whether the Scarlet Spire should lead the attack or not, which leads Kellhus to admonish them and says that points of honor don’t matter now. Just success. The Holy War begins its preparations for their assault. As the night wears on, soldiers are troubled by the haste of it, though they all just want it to end.

And as the fires went out, leaving only the most stubborn and thoughtful awake, the skeptics dared argue their misgivings.

“But think,” the faithful retorted. “When we die surrounded by the spoils of a long and daring life, we will look up to those who adore us and we will say, ‘I knew him. I knew the Warrior-Prophet.’”

My Thoughts

Have to like the panic conveyed by the Mandate leadership in such a hurry to get together that some are still garbed for sleep and another is wearing dirty clothes. But the sight of the Thousand Temples on the doorstep would send any School into an uproar.

Hi Simas. Interesting that you want the Mandate to attack. He’s behind a lot of the stuff that sent Achamian into motion spying at the start of the series.

This is a plot twist! Maithanet’s last appearance on screen was way back in Book 1 where he told Achamian to flee and asked Proyas about the man. Then we got his letter, which showed him interested in protecting Achamian. We’ve gotten hints that he’s more than he seems. He came from the south, has the skin of Kianene, but has blue eyes like a Norsirai. He’s young and can see skin-spies. Who is he?

It’s a great mystery that Bakker set up from the beginning, and this scene only heightens it.

There was a definite change in Simas. Nautzera was surprised in book one at how ruthless the quiet man was vis-a-vis using Achamian and Inrau. Then he still had good eyesight despite his age. Now he’s unmasked as the first, and only so far, skin-spy who can use sorcery.

Have to love Maithanet’s clam here. Definitely has Dûnyain blood in him.

And then it all clicks for Nautzera. All those little clues Bakker seasoned into the earlier books are paying off now. What a great sequence. It has you wondering where this sequence is going. Makes you ask even more questions.

Yes, Proyas, reality always disappoints compared to dreams and fantasy. Ask any author. It’s always perfect in your mind, then you never can find the words to quite capture what you pictured when you type sequences of bytes into your word processor program.

Proyas’s grief comes across so believable. The way it can just sweep over you as you are reminded about something of your passed loved one. A promise unfulfilled, impossible to ever complete, a wound that will remain on his heart.

Bakker does a great job setting the mood of the Holy War as they gaze on Shimeh. He has a great skill for conveying the reactions of armies and peoples, mixing in enough variation along with his understanding of psychology to be a treat.

Destiny… Kellhus knows to appeal to men’s self-inflated sense of worth. Even the lowliest slave wants to believe they are the center of the universe.

So we have the Cishaurim building their tabernacle on the sight of a holy sight. It’s like the Mosque of the Rock built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A nice historical allusion to draw upon, since the three Monotheistic religions are the foundation of Bakker’s fictitious religious.

Bakker has said throughout the books that power is given to the person in charge. You don’t claim it, you just convince others to hand it to you. So when they stop permitting you to lead, you find yourself in Sompas’s situation. Impotent. He’s so crushed by the dread that he can’t even object. He knows it’s over, that his men have rebelled. He took then farther than their social contract would allow. And just like that, it’s broken.

I want to talk pronouns. I don’t often critique Bakker, but sometimes he needs to adjust his pronoun usage: “When the sorcerer slipped away to relieve himself, Sompas found himself joining him. He was not quite willing things to happen anymore—they just… happened.” So we have Sompas followed by “himself” than “him.” Now that him should refer to Sompas, but it’s actually referring to the sorcerer. Then it’s followed by the next sentence starting with “He.” You can infer it’s pointing to Sompas, but it could be the sorcerer. Maybe the sorcerer who’s not willing things to happen any longer. It’s probably Sompas since it’s his POV, but… It muddy things.

The social contract is broken again with Sompas this time between him and his commander. He was loyal until Conphas pushed him too far. Threatening to wipe out the man’s entire family. His entire house. That’s not something he’s willing to let happen. He no longer is giving Conphas power but is switching over to another: Kellhus. Will his men let him?

Conphas is another person that doesn’t understand that power is given. He thinks it comes from within himself.

To cope with all of this stress, Sompas has just given up any personal responsibility in his action. The strain has broken Sompas. It’s easier pretending your actions aren’t your own fault. Just the way life goes. It’s a fatalistic and nihilistic view.

Bakker shows us in the final moments what Sompas was really scared of, not his family dying, but the loss of his power. He would burn if he failed. He would die if he didn’t return. He really didn’t care much about the others. It was all about his ambition, after all, we saw flashes of him imagining being emperor himself.

Wow, silting your own harbor to force people to come to your city on foot can’t be the best decision for trade, but the Kianene did just that to shame the pilgrims coming to Shimeh by forcing them to walk beneath those towering, unblinking eyes on the wall. It’s a nice bit of world building. I always like when Bakker goes off on this historical tangents. I write fantasy, and it can be hard to just drop so much exposition like this, but when Bakker’s in his “Historical Oration” sections, it just fits. It’s an interesting style he’s cultivated.

“Who knew what living things might do?” That’s the thing you never can predict. How will a living creature, especially a human, react. I used to play D&D as the DM (dungeon master, the person running the scenario and controlling all the NPCs and monsters), and my players rarely reacted in ways I could predict. Sometimes, they would go off in baffling directions or utterly stun me with their decisions. It made things fun for the game, but in real life, with real stakes…

Kellhus is seeing his halos now. Interesting.

Even Kellhus has been manipulated without realizing it until he spoke with that beggar man. When he realizes just what his father has prepared for him. The Holy War was created for Kellhus to use, as we’ll see. It would have all gone according to Moënghus’s plan except for one thing: Kellhus went insane.

He felt emotions. Love. He “broke” on the Circumfix. A trial so great his Dûnyain conditioning couldn’t prepare him for it. He felt guilty for allowing Serwë to die. Empathy formed, and it’s that empathy that has caused him to make a different choice from the other Dûnyain. He’s broken their mold and doesn’t act like they do when they learn the Outside is real and that Damnation is their future.

Kellhus tactic of calling out a few people during these meetings and exposing their inner thoughts not only lets everyone feel “known,” but allows him to minimize the mental energy that “knowing” all those thousands of people would require. The shortest path.

Kellhus needs the Holy War to perform without him. Not just for today, but the future. He can’t be everywhere in his plans that he’s already forming. He has to mold them and unleash them. So he needs to sound them out and ready them like he will later do with Proyas over the course of the next series.

Such truth in Kellhus’s statement about how we humans want to make things simple, when everything is actually complicated. We boil things down to bold statements. We want to “love without recrimination, to act without hesitation, to lead without reservation.” But it’s a fiction we use to make the world easier to understand, including ourselves.

Why does Kellhus think about wielding the Holy War in the name of the God? He then says everything is about his mission. But is his mission still the same now? He questions what it means that he’s done this and then muses if he does it for the right reason, it’s fine. It’s for his mission.

What is his mission now? If it’s not to kill his father, what has it become? We know from the next series what it is, though we have to wait a long time for the picture to become clear.

Achamian stands apart because he knows what Kellhus is doing. He knows Kellhus is manipulating them, that it’s an act. It can’t affect him now. He’s armored against this form of manipulation, but, of course, Kellhus had found a new way to puppeteer Achamian.

Those two quotes from The Book of Songs and Protathis are interesting, they’re about passions being unleashed to their fullest. No restraint on the beast within us. On our hearts. We cut the gags that keep our darkest impulses from crying out. We let our passions charge unrestrained.

If you ever think Kellhus is infallible, right now he thinks Cnaiür and Conphas are DEAD. That Cnaiür went through with the command and perished in the backlash. He hadn’t realized how badly things have gone with that plan. Kellhus made a mistake with that plan, and now Conphas marches with an army to stop the Holy War at Shimeh.

Kellhus is troubled by Achamian still not fully on board, but he doesn’t have time to deal with him. Tomorrow, he sees his father and the Holy War assaults Shimeh without him. He’s trained his army of dogs, and now it’s time to unleash them.

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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!

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