Weekly Free Story – The Last Flight the Intrepid

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

Enjoy!

The Last Flight of the Intrepid

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

For all eighteen years of Thojhen’s life, everyone had thought he was useless—including himself. His ma said it every morning, and his pa often despaired that he’d ever accomplish anything. When he’d been drafted into the Autonomy’s Marines at seventeen, Thojhen was sure his parents were thrilled. “Finally rid of that useless ostrich-brain,” he’d imagined his pa saying, while his ma nodded on, a satisfied smile on her olive-brown face.

Today, he lounged on the supply dock at Aldeyn Watch, his feet dangling off the edge. Below, the Storm churned black and gray, boiling like a thick pot of stew. He fished, hidden behind a few supply crates, sweating in his woolen uniform. He lazily gripped his fishing pole in one hand while running his other hand through his short, blonde hair. Like most Vionese, he had tan-brown skin, blond hair, and deep-green eyes.

He glanced down at the coral-choked side of the skyland where his baited hook floated, buoyed by a fish’s gas-sac, near a school of blue-striped trout that flew in a lazy circle. Instead of fishing, Thojhen should have reported for duty to watch the gate. But after a week of rain, he wanted to enjoy the sunshine. Besides, watching the gate was dull and pointless. Who was going to attack the Watch? The farmers? Agerzak pirates? Aldeyn Watch lay on the eastern edge of the Vesche Skyland, and for miles, there was only ostrich ranches and citrus orchards. As for pirates, the skyland floated too far from the Agerzak Kingdoms for them to be a real threat.

Thojhen loved fishing. It was the perfect thing to do while daydreaming. Today, his thoughts were full of the slender and pretty Sharis, a sailor who served on the Intrepid with him. For months, he’d wavered on whether or not to ask her to join him at the village pub for a few drinks. A hundred times, he’d tried to work up the courage, but he always became a fish scurrying at shadows, too afraid to face her inevitable rejection.

The rod jerked in his hand, startling Trojhen out of his daydream. With a curse, he scrambled to get a firm grip on the pole and set his hook. A smile split his dark face as he fought with the flashing trout, flicking fins darting it to and fro in the air. He reeled, drawing the fish slowly higher and higher, not putting too much tension on the string that it snapped, letting the trout tire itself out.

None of the cooks’ food tonight,” he muttered.

By the Storm Below!” a voice boomed behind. “Attention, Private!”

Thojhen jumped to his feet, his fishing pool falling from his hands. It bounced once, then tumbled off the dock, lost forever to the rage of the Storm Below. He saluted, suddenly aware at the state of his uniform. His white, woolen shirt was only half-tucked into his blue britches while his red jacket, also wool, lay half-unbuttoned. Worse, his sword belt lay discarded upon the dock.

What are you supposed to be doing right this instant, Private?” Sergeant Thuhly bellowed, his face weathered into deep-brown leather, and his blond hair almost bleached white.

Gate duty,” Thojhen mumbled, fumbling at the bone buttons of his coat.

Then what in—”

The watch horn sounded. Deep. Loud. Impossible to ignore. It roared out over the camp from the wooden tower where the scouts spent their days staring east at the Storm. It sounded a second time. A third time, blowing with an urgency Thojhen had never heard before.

The Sergeant spun, fixing his eyes to the east and gazing down at the Storm. One blast meant a known vessel approached while two meant an unknown vessel. The horn blaring over and over meant only one thing.

Thojhen’s blood ran cold as his thumb and forefinger touched, forming the sign of the sun to ward off evil. “Riasruo Above! It can’t be!”

Other horns sounded in the distances, warning the farmers and the village of Isfe that a Cyclone approached. The Stormriders ascended to sweep across Vesche.

In disbelief, Thojhen looked to the east at the churning Storm that stretched to the horizon and beyond, the eternal tempest that covered the skies. A pattern had emerged in the normally chaotic pattern of clouds that rotated widdershins. The swirling mass of clouds bulged upwards from the Storm, like a bubble broaching the surface of a dark pool.

Sergeant Thuhly’s jaw dropped. The veteran of the brutality of the Zzuk Aggression War went pale with fear, sweat beading his forehead. Then the Sergeant straightened, clenching his jaw. “Grab your gear, Private!”

Thojhen just gaped at the Sergeant. Fear had its icy hands about his feet, rooting them in place. I’m going to die. It’s a Cyclone. I’m going to die.

The Sergeant grabbed Thojhen’s sword belt and shoved it roughly into his arms. “Get your Theisseg-spawned rear to the Intrepid, Private, or I’ll throw you off the dock!”

The thought of falling through the Storm to the mythical ground sent a shudder through Thojhen. With a panicked yelp, he wrenched his feet free of fear’s icy clutch. He donned his ostrich-leather sword belt and adjusted the wooden sheath that held his bone sabre to sit on his left hip. He glanced back at the Cyclone, and wished he hadn’t. It had risen to the height of the skyland, a wall of black and gray looming larger and larger as it howled towards them.

Riasruo Above, preserve us, he prayed to the Sun Goddess. Defend us from your sister Theisseg’s terrible wrath.

Thojhen pounded down the dock, his body tingling with static electricity. The sailors and his fellow marines were racing to the Intrepid moored at the next dock over. The Intrepid waited proud, ready to defend the skyland. She was a two-masted corvette with three decks: a foredeck, the mid deck, and the taller stern deck. The mid deck was a well, lower than the fore and stern decks. The fortified gunwale, the ship’s railing, encircled all three. The scouts climbed the rigging to take their place in the crow’s nest, pressure rifles slung on their backs. Sailors in white linen britches and shirts unfurled the ship’s canvas sails, while others unlimbered the Intrepid’s three ballistae, two on the foredeck and one on the stern deck.

A low howl slowly grew, deeper than any predator’s growl. The Cyclone roared closer, a dark wall of raging black that covered half the eastern horizon. Lightning flashed yellow and blue in the maelstrom’s angry clouds, and thunder snarled through the air.

Thojhen reached the gangplank right behind the Sergeant, the wood bending and warping as he ran up it. The Master at Arms, a skinny man in a blue coat named Lieutenant Tharxu, and a few sailors were handing out the ship’s weapons: crossbows to the sailors, thunderbusses to the marines.

Sharis, a slim sailor, her face full of fear, thrust a thunderbuss at him. “Good luck, Thojhen.”

You t-too,” he stammered. He always became tongue-tied around the pretty sailor. Why didn’t I ever ask her out? He opened his mouth, started to say: “Sha—”

Thojhen, take your position!” roared the Sergeant and shoved him from behind.

Thojhen stumbled forward and struggled to remember where his position should be. His feet, however, seemed to know because Thojhen found himself racing to the mid deck’s port gunwale before he realized it. Hawk was on his left; his eyes fixed at the Cyclone as he aimed his thunderbuss.

Sailors cast off the hawsers, and a gentle breeze whipped down the length of the ship, summoned by one of the Windwardens. The sails billowed. The Intrepid slid away from the dock and sailed out into the Arshu Strait. It was one small ship against the horizon-wide wall of the Cyclone.

Aim your thunderbuss, Thojhen,” a quiet voice said from behind, a hand clapping his shoulder.

Thojhen sighed. “I’ll just mess it up, Cap’n.”

Why?” Captain Gronest asked.

He shrugged. “Because I’m useless, sir.”

You are a Stormwall, son.” The Captain squeezed his shoulder, his voice calm.

How can he be so calm? My knees feel like they’re made of black pudding.

I need everyone to break this storm. We cannot fail. Fifty thousand souls live upon Vesche. They can’t afford for you to be useless.”

Words don’t change facts, sir.” Thojhen was surprised by the bitterness in his words.

We’ve had this talk before,” the Captain said. “Remember. What did I tell you?”

* * *

Thojhen trembled before the Captain, trying not to shake too hard. Three days at Aldeyn Watch, and he had been caught sneaking off to fish. “Sorry, Cap’n. I’m just useless.”

Why, Private?”

I don’t know. Just am. My ma always said I’d never ‘mount to nothing. Just plain useless.”

You’re from the skyland of Vilthon, right?”

Thojhen nodded. “Yeah. From Myatle, a farming village.”

Like Isfe?” The Captain pointed with the stump of his left arm, his dark-blue sleeve folded back and pinned to his shoulder.

Thojhen looked back at the skyland of Vesche. The orchards and fields were verdant with spring growth, and beyond them lay the dark smudge that was the village of Isfe along the Bluesnake. It looked a lot like Vilthon had when he’d sailed away to start his marine training—a speck of life floating green and brown above the Storm in the vast, empty sky.

That’s what we’re here to protect. One day, those farmers will need us to act. When that day comes, not a single man or woman serving on this ship can be useless. We are their Stormwall, Private.”

Thojhen swallowed, his shoulders slumping beneath the weight of that responsibility. “I don’t think I’m a Stormwall, Cap’n. I’m just too useless. The Navy shoulda torn up my draft card.”

The Captain stared into Thojhen’s eyes, the marine swallowing beneath the older man’s hard stare. “Do you think the Intrepid is useless?”

No, Cap’n,” Thojhen muttered.

The Captain rested a weathered hand on the white-yellow gunwale. The entire ship was made of the pale wood. “This ship has a proud service. Almost a hundred years ago, they laid her keel and carved her amethyst engine in the secret docks of Les. This ship helped to win our people’s freedom from the Empire.”

Thojhen swallowed, staring in awe at the ship. “It looks newly commissioned.”

She has been lovingly cared for.” There was a smile on the Captain’s lips. “She survived the disastrous Battle of the Neta Sky, defeated the Pirate Kingdoms of Thusseldem and Mecheissen, and defended the Autonomy against the Zzuk. But despite such an impressive service, the Admiralty was going to decommission her.”

Why?”

Better ships have been built, with better engineering.” He gave a snort of laughter. “Progress happened. Everyone said an old corvette like the Intrepid was useless. She’d been outclassed in almost every way. But there’s still some fight left in her. She’s quick, sturdy. The perfect ship to guard a distant skyland like Vesche from Agerzak pirates and Cyclones.”

The Captain looked him straight in the eye. “So is she useless, Thojhen, just because some admirals said so?”

I suppose not, sir.”

So why do you think you’re useless? Just because some people said so?”

He looked at the Captain, not knowing what to say. Can I really be useful?

You’re the only person who can determine whether you’re useless or not, son.” He gripped Thojhen’s shoulder. “It’s a choice. Just like I chose not to let fear consume me when I faced the Zzuk warrior that took my arm. I know you’ll pick the right one, son, when that day comes.”

* * *

Thojhen swallowed, his head turning to stare back at Vesche and its green bluffs. A lone, half-ruined tower rose on one of the hills, an old watchtower built centuries ago. A small boy stood on it, cheering on the Intrepid as she sailed against the roaring Cyclone.

A boy who needed Thojhen to make the right choice.

I need to choose to be a Stormwall, Cap’n,” Thojhen answered.

Exactly.” One more squeeze, then the captain moved on to Hawk.

The Oath of Enlistment echoed in his mind: I, Thojhen Rlyene, affirm that I am the Stormwall of the Autonomy of Les-Vion. I shall defend my fellow citizens from all enemies Above or Below the Storm with courage and fidelity.

Sharis stepped to the rail beside him, aimed her crossbow, and flashed a scared smile at him. He straightened up. It is my choice. Some of the Captain’s implacable certainty had rubbed off on Thojhen, like brushing up against a freshly whitewashed wall, staining him with confidence. Some of the fear retreated. Not all. But enough.

He set the wooden stock of his thunderbuss against his shoulder. His left hand grasped the square, ceramic barrel, aiming his weapon at the Storm. The static electricity tingled through his body and gathered in his left hand, ready to be discharged into the weapon. During his seventeenth year, like everyone in the skies, Thojhen had received Riasruo’s Blessing. Of the four, She’d gifted him two: Minor Mist and Moderate Lightning.

Each blessing had three strengths. Most were gifted a Moderate and a Minor Blessing. Some few were gifted a Major Blessing, like a Windwarden, and others only a single Minor Blessing. With Minor Mist, Thojhen could see through smoke and clouds and, thanks to Lightning, his body gathered a static charge that he could discharge with a single touch. Or he could fire it through a thunderbuss, the marines’ weapon.

He glanced at Sharis, finding the profile of her face beautiful despite the danger. I should tell her how I feel. I’m only useless if I choose to be. He opened his mouth.

There!” Hawk shouted, pointing at the Cyclone. “I can see them.”

Hawk had the best vision of the Intrepid’s ten marines. Like Thojhen, he possessed Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. Thojhen swallowed his confession and squinted at the tempest’s edge dominating the eastern sky. He peered through the raging clouds like they did not exist, their dense mist unable to hide anything from his gaze. Inside, things reflected the flashing lightning. The Stormriders galloped towards Vesche.

Remember your training!” the Captain’s voice roared over the howl of the storm. “Remember your oaths! We are the Autonomy’s Stormwall! The Cyclone shall break upon the prow of the Intrepid! Vesche shall not be dragged down into the Storm Below like the Dawn Empire!”

A cheer went up from the crew. Thojhen was surprised to hear his voice amongst them.

We shall not fail!” Captain Gronest bellowed. “We are the Stormwall!”

The Stormwall!” the crew roared.

I’m not useless. I am a Stormwall!

The Intrepid sailed straight for the Cyclone. Lightning’s flashes illuminated figures riding in the maelstrom. Thojhen’d grown up his entire life with the stories of the Stormriders, the twisted men who lived beneath the Storm, cut off from the Sun Above. They were full of hatred and jealousy for those lifted into the skies by Riasruo, so they prayed to their dark goddess Theisseg.

And she’d answered their prayers with the Cyclones.

The Cyclone was a thousand or so ropes out when Thojhen started to pick out details of the Stormriders. They were men, armored in the near legendary metal. He’d never seen metal, though he’d heard the stories about it: shiny as the surface of a pond and stronger than any stone. They rode on beasts made of storm clouds, four legs running across the sky as if it was solid, sparks flaring every time their hooves touched sky. They resembled pegasi, but were wingless, with manes of crackling lightning and eyes that glowed white-blue.

The forward ballistae released their first volley. Two ceramic shots soared out into the sky then erupted into fire and smoke amid the Stormriders. Gravel shrapnel burst from each detonation, ripping the Riders apart. The ballistae fired again and again. Stormriders died, but more kept charging from the Cyclone’s depths.

Darkness engulfed the Intrepid as the corvette penetrated the Cyclone. Then the Stormriders were all about them, galloping upon their terrible beasts. They were clad head to foot in metal armor, black hair streaming behind their helmets. Through gaps in their helms, Thojhen could see pale faces twisted in rage. Arrows, fired from short bows, thudded into the ship from all directions. The Stormriders circled the Intrepid like a school of sharks, looking for weakness, ready to swarm and tear apart the Intrepid’s flesh.

The Intrepid sailed on for the Cyclone’s Eye.

Despite the ferocity of the Cyclone, its winds failed to touch the Intrepid. The Windwardens, possessors of Major Wind, held the maelstrom at bay. Without them, the ship would be at the mercy of the tempest, tossed about until the Intrepid was torn to pieces. One Windwarden huddled in the foredeck, and the other at the stern.

The sailors fired their crossbows while Thojhen and his fellow marines discharged their lightning. A bolt of white-yellow leapt from the barrel of his thunderbuss, sizzling through the air. A Stormrider fell from his mount, smoke curling from a blackened patch on his breastplate, and he was tossed about like a jellyfish in a strong wind.

A wild scream escaped Thojhen’s lips. “I killed one!” We can do this!

These bastards ain’t tough!” Hawk yelled, discharging a brilliant bolt from his thunderbuss. It arced to the left, striking a Stormrider in the shoulder.

Thojhen fired again and again. Every time, his lightning bolts struck true. It was like the Stormriders attracted the bolts, each snaking towards the nearest Rider as if it were guided by Riasruo’s loving hand.

A crossbow twanged next to him, the bolt flying true, unaffected by the howling tempest. Sharis grinned excitedly, cranking her crossbow’s windlass back. Her blonde hair didn’t whip about her face despite the wind driving the Intrepid forward. She had the most common Blessing—Wind. Thojhen couldn’t help grinning back. She’s as beautiful as the dawn.

Cover!” Sergeant Thuhly roared.

A flight of arrows rose up before the Intrepid, tips glinting. Thojhen and Sharis ducked behind the gunwale as the arrows thudded into the ship, into flesh. Hawk took an arrow to the shoulder and pitched forward over the gunwale, his screams of pain and fear lost to the tempest’s rage.

Thojhen’s stomach twisted, staring where his fellow marine once stood. Gone, snatched away by the metal-clad demons assaulting his ship.

Up and fire!” the Sergeant roared.

Together he rose up with Sharis, and they fired their weapons. Lightning and crossbow bolts streaked through the sky. His blood howled through his veins, and he roared curses at the Stormriders as the wall of the Cyclone filled the entirety of the sky before them. Sharis screamed defiance beside him. Thojhen felt invincible; the Stormriders couldn’t stand against them. They were the Stormwall.

Thojhen kept discharging his lightning. It was easy. There was so much static in the air, his reserves weren’t even dwindling. He normally had ten good blasts stored inside him, and it usually would take about a quarter hour to recharge. Not today. He could discharge as much as he wanted thanks to the electricity in the air.

At some signal, half the Stormriders discarded their bows, and drew gleaming swords. They charged the Intrepid. Thojhen’s next lightning bolt caught the lead Rider in the chest. Armor smoked as the warrior was thrown from its storm mount.

More raced in.

Keep them from the ship!” roared the Captain.

Three more charged the mid deck, spurring their storm-cloud mounts.

Take that, Storm’s spawn!” shouted Sharis, her crossbow bolt punching through the metal breastplate. The Rider clutched at the bolt, blood staining silver. His mount dissolved into clouds and the demon dropped through it, plummeting into the Cyclone’s howling winds.

Great shot!” Thojhen grinned, his discharge felling the second.

The third leaped off his mount, sword in hand, and sailed over the ship’s gunwale. Silver flashed; Sharis’s head bounced across the deck. Her body remained upright for a heartbeat, for an eternity, then toppled over the gunwale, lost to the Cyclone.

No!” Thojhen stared in horror at her head as it rolled to a rest, a smile locked on her lips.

Never in his life had he hated so deeply before. “Theisseg’s spawn!” he roared at the hulking Stormrider.

The Rider whirled around, sword dripping red, and swung it at him. Thojhen raised the thunderbuss, blocking the swing. The ceramic barrel shattered, the force driving him against the gunwale. For a moment, Thojhen teetered over the edge, his stomach lurching as his hands scrabbled desperately to find purchase.

He caught himself and stared into the pale, cold eyes of the Stormrider. The Rider lifted his sword. I’m going to die. I was useless after all.

The ship lurched. The Rider stumbled. The Cyclone’s winds ripped at Thojhen. A Windwarden had died or lay dying, no longer shielding the Intrepid. The Stormrider recovered and moved to attack. I can stand here and let the Rider kill me, useless as always. His gaze fell on Sharis’s head. Or I can be useful.

It’s my choice!” he roared. He whipped his bone sabre from its wooden sheathe, and swung it at the Stormrider.

Nothing was rarer in the skies than metal. The Stormrider was armored in more wealth than Thojhen would ever possess in his lifetime. Thojhen’s sabre, carved from the bone of a bristleback, could cut through the flesh of a man with ease. But it shattered on the Rider’s armor. Cursing, he ducked the Stormrider’s blow and dropped onto the deck. The Rider stumbled, knocked off-balance by his miss.

You killed her!” he roared at the Theisseg-damned Stormrider.

Thojhen reached out, static crackling across his hand. The silver blade slashed down at him. His hands touched the cold, smooth metal of the Rider’s greaves. He discharged. Sparks sizzled where his hand touched the armor. Smoke issued from the joints. The Stormrider screamed; it sounded so human. The Rider’s sword arm jerked and his blade sliced down Thojhen’s thigh before the enemy crashed dead to the deck.

Chaos reigned on the Intrepid. More Stormriders had boarded. Sailors lay cut down everywhere Thojhen looked. Lieutenant Selech, the fore Windwarden, lay sprawled in a pool of his own blood as Sergeant Thuhly wrestled with his killer. Lightning discharged, and the Sergeant felled the Rider.

Clear the deck!” someone shouted. “Protect Lieutenant Fame!” She was their last Windwarden and only hope of reaching the Eye, let alone surviving the Cyclone.

The ship shuddered and groaned. The foremast flexed. A splintering snap resounded. The foremast’s base cracked. For a single moment, it stayed upright. But with the inevitability of a tree felled by a woodsmen, it toppled over and crashed down onto the deck. Thojhen watched in horror as it crushed the starboard ballista. Then the mast, sails, and rigging were swept off the side, carrying dozens of sailors and Stormriders off the ship.

He would have kept staring in horror except a metallic sword slid across the pitching deck to rest at Thojhen’s foot. The sight shook him out of his fugue. He snatched it up. The blade was heavier than a bone sword. Its edge gleamed deadly except where Sharis’s blood stained it.

Beautiful smile, golden braid. Grief threatened to overwhelm him. Why didn’t I ever tell her? Oh Riasruo, why?

No! No! Now’s not the time to be useless!

A Stormrider had Captain Gronest pressed against the stern deck. The Rider swung his weapon. The Captain parried, somehow turning the metal sword with a bone sabre. Thojhen charged, ignoring the pain flaring in his leg from the long, shallow cut, and slammed his captured sword into the Rider’s back. The enemy pitched forward, a crease denting his backplate. Thojhen swung again, putting all his grief and regret into the blow.

You killed her!” he screamed.

He would never see her smiling face, or hear her snorting laughter again. The Stormriders had stolen her life. It didn’t matter that the Rider who killed her was dead. They were all guilty. If they just stayed on the Theisseg-damned ground where they belong, she’d still be alive! He hammered his sword over and over and over into the ruin of the Rider’s body.

He’s dead, son.” The Captain’s voice was calm, an unbending rock amid the storm.

Tears and snot stained his face, his emotion pouting out of him as the Captain grabbed him with his one hand, turning him away. Thojhen wiped at his cheek. Red stained his fingers. More red dripped from his coat. He didn’t understand where the blood had come from.

The Captain said something. Thojhen stared at his bloody fingers.

Captain Gronest gripped his shoulder. “It’s your choice, son.”

He looked up at the Captain.

What are you, son?”

Thojhen choose to put away his grief. “A Stormwall, sir.”

The Captain nodded.

More Stormriders vaulted onto the deck. Thojhen threw himself into the fray alongside the Captain. The fight was a brutal, chaotic mess. Half the marines were already dead, as were many of the sailors. The ship pitched, dropped, and rolled, the combatants stumbling to and fro. With his right hand, Thojhen battered his captured sword into Stormriders, and with his left hand, he discharged lightning into their bodies.

Quick Rlest fell, a sword stabbed through his stomach, spilling out his ropy innards. Sergeant Thuhly grappled with a Stormrider, discharging his lightning, only to have his back sliced open like a gutted fish by another.

Hold the stern!” shouted the Captain. “We need to hold until we reach the Eye!”

The Stormriders were implacable. Their metal armor made them seem larger and more fearsome. More kept coming, leaping onto the ship from the backs of their storm mounts. Thojhen and the others were driven back, leaving behind their dead and dying, and forced up the narrow stairs of the stern deck.

Lieutenant Fame, the ship’s last Windwarden, knelt before the ship’s wheel. Concentration contorted her face as she fought the winds of the Cyclone and struggled to keep the Intrepid moving towards the Eye. Two sailors manned the only operational ballista, firing at the Stormriders who still circled the ship and loosed their arrows.

Can you see the Eye?” the Windwarden shouted.

It took Thojhen a moment to realize to whom she was speaking. Of the seven crew left alive, Thojhen was the only one who possessed Mist. Seven out of sixty-three. The number staggered him. Riasruo Above . . .

Do you see the Eye, Private?” Lieutenant Fame snapped, her voice shrill with concentration.

Choose to be useful.

Thojhen peered into the Cyclone, seeing through the dark storm clouds. When he used his Blessing, it was like fog melting away before Riasruo’s sun, becoming less and less hazy. Black rage gave way to a golden light. A miniature sun burned in the Cyclone’s center, powering the maelstrom.

A thousand ropes out! Three points to port!”

We’re gonna make it!” yelled Lieutenant Fame. “Just hold a little longer!”

The Stormriders rushed the stairs up to the stern deck. Now Thojhen could only worry about holding the port stairs while the Captain held the starboard. He swung, stabbed, parried, and discharged. “I am a Stormwall!” he bellowed at the Riders as they broke before him. “Stormwall!”

The clouds ahead brightened, golden light filtering through the thick, raging tempest, painting the ship and gleaming off the Riders’ armors. The Eye neared. They just had to hold on. He had to hold on. It was his choice.

Pain seared his right arm. His sword fell from his suddenly numb hand, clattering down the stairs. An arrow clipped his shoulder, leaving a ragged cut exposing bone. The Rider he’d been holding at bay lunged up the stairs. Thojhen stumbled back, flinching from the point of the Rider’s thrusting sword. He tripped on something soft that shifted beneath him, a fallen sailor’s body.

The Stormrider scrabbled up the stairs, metal armor rattling together almost like a wind chime. Thojhen lunged with his left hand, slamming into the Rider’s breastplate. The demon’s helm had fallen off, revealing pale-white, delicate, feminine features twisted in rage; a high-pitched scream issued from the Rider’s lips.

Thojhen discharged his lightning. The female Stormrider’s face contorted as every muscle clenched. She tottered back and crashed hard upon another enemy, pinning the second Rider beneath the weight of her armor and body.

His wounded arm throbbed in time to the frantic beat of his heart, blood trickling past the black shaft. It wasn’t made of wood, but somehow shaped from stone. Instead of feathers for the fletching, it had pale leather.

The roaring of the maelstrom dwindled. Golden light bathed the Intrepid. The ship’s flight became smooth. They had punched through the black clouds, and entered the calm around the Eye. The Eye shone bright, hanging in a column of empty sky. The Cyclone raged around them. Lightning arced from the Eye in regular, thudding pulses. Below them, he could see the skyland of Vesche. Thojhen hadn’t realized that the Intrepid had been blown back over the skyland.

The Cyclone had devastated the farms around Aldeyn Watch. Lemon and orange orchards were littered with broken and twisted trees, while barns and farmhouse had collapsed before the might of the Cyclone’s winds. If it wasn’t stopped, the maelstrom would sweep across the entirety of Vesche. And beyond Vesche lay the skylands of Oname, Elemy, more.

We did it!” Lieutenant Fame exclaimed, sounding surprised as she peered up from her cover to look at the Eye. “Man the ballista, Thojhen.”

Yes, sir!”

He stumbled across the stern deck. I can do this! He stepped over the Captain’s body, impaled by a metal sword. A Stormrider twitched next to the Captain, the Captain’s sabre thrust through the Rider’s throat. Thojhen reached the ballista. He shoved the corpse of a sailor slumped over it to the decking, two arrows sprouting like weeds from her chest.

The ballista resembled a giant crossbow mounted on a swivel. He struggled to work the ceramic handle with only his left hand. The mechanism ratcheted, drawing back the sling. An arrow whizzed at his face and scraped down his cheek. He wanted to duck down and shelter from the Stormrider’s attacks.

No! I will not cower uselessly! I am the Stormwall!

The Intrepid neared the Eye. He had to hurry, to be ready to shoot as the ship passed. With the crew butchered, no one steered the ship. He kept cranking and cranking until the sling drew back enough. Lieutenant Fame dropped a ceramic shot into the cradle, a smile on her face.

We’re only going to get one—” The Stormrider’s arrow made a ruin of her face.

The wind pushing the Intrepid died as the last Windwarden toppled to the deck. Momentum carried the corvette forward past the Eye and towards the far side of the calm where the raging edge of the Cyclone waited.

You’re only getting one shot, Thojhen,” he whispered. “Make it count.”

He swiveled and worked the cranks to swivel the ballista, a job for two men, but desperation gave Thojhen a burst of strength. An arrow thudded into the frame by his hand as he worked. He ignored the Stormriders’ volleys. Nothing mattered except taking the shot. He aimed at the Cyclone’s Eye.

I am the Stormwall!” He squeezed the release.

Taut cable snapped; wooden limbs creaked. The shot launched forward.

The prow hit the Cyclone’s wall. The ship wrenched violently to port, wood creaking in protest. Thojhen’s feet left the deck. The stern gunwale slammed into his left leg. He spun, hands reaching. Fingers brushed the smooth wood of the ship, then he fell past the Intrepid.

The shot struck the Eye.

Light erupted.

The Cyclone died.

The black clouds broke apart and dispersed like a greasy smoke in a strong wind. Riasruo’s sun bathed him in warmth as he fell. Thojhen smiled. I did something useful. If only my ma could have seen it. First his ma’s face, then Sharis’s, flashed through his mind as Vesche rushed up at him.

He closed his eyes. Sharis smiled at him. Maybe I can tell her how I feel up on Riasruo’s—

He landed amid the ruins of an orange grove. The Intrepid crashed not far away.

The END

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The Last Flight of the Intrepid 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 of The Redemption of Athalus

The Redemption of Athalus

by David Eddings

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Athalus, an unrepentant thief, is having a string of bad luck. All his life, Luck has helped him succeed in all his capers. And then he decided to visit the rich cities. Instead of a string of successes, he has one mistake after another.

Frustrated, he returns to the territory he knows best. He’s learned his lesson. Only when he enters his normal haunt, a man named Ghent wants to hire the thief to rob the House at the World and steal a book. Eager for the challenge, and hoping his luck has returned, Athalus agrees.

Only the occupant of the house had other ideas. Esmerelda the Cat has a mission to rehabilitate the thief and turn him into the savior of the world!

The Redemption of Athalus is a book fans of Eddings will love. Athalus is like Belgarath the Sorcerer mixed with Talen, with Esmerelda Aphrodite grown up. It’s a fun read if you like Eddings style, but it is full of Deus ex. The plot may not have the most agency to it, but the characters and their interactions shine. A host of colorful characters are recruited by our thief on his path of redemption and join the fight against the dark god. This could have almost been a book series in and of itself, but Eddings keeps the plot focused. It flows and moves.

If you’ve never read Eddings, I would start with Pawn of Prophecy or the Diamond Throne, but if you’ve read most of his books and enjoyed them, then you have to give this book a try!

You can purchase The Redemption of Athalus from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Story: Mutalated

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

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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Mutilated takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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Review: Belgarath the Sorcerer

Belgarath the Sorcerer

by David Eddings

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Belgarath the Sorcerer is the oldest human alive. He’s lived for 7000 years, guiding the fates of men and kingdoms for the day that Garion would come along and defeat Torak and save the world. He has endured hardship and loss in that time.

Now he tells his tale in full.

From his youth as a rural thief fleeing from the constraints of parochial society to the most powerful man alive barging into the throne rooms to berate kings, Belgarath tells it all. He’s a rogue. A scoundrel. He’s at home debating philosophy as he is drinking in a tavern. He has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments of history.

This book is fan service and I love it for that.

There are very little new things to learn here. Sure, you get more details about things you’ve heard, and Eddings is able to fill in some holes. He covers it all. His timeline fits together well. There are a few differences between narrations and what we learn in the Belgariad and Mallorean, but as we see with the followup book, Eddings put deliberate errors in. Belgarath is telling his story his way. The way he remembers it. The way he sees it.

So there might be one or two things different than you expect, but overall, there are no surprises. It is all backstory. It still has some great moments between characters, some touching scenes, and his relationship with Polgara as it develops is a delight to see how they ended up in their current state. It took care to make this book, and it shows.

Despite the fact I normally hate prequels, there is just something fun about diving back into the world of the Belgariad once more. Belgarath the Sorcerer and its sequel gave us one last chance to enjoy this fun series. It’s like visiting an old friend.

If you’re a fan of the Belgariad/Mallorean, you have to read this book, but I wouldn’t start here. This will spoil just about everything in those series since it is being written by Belgarath at the end of it. So read those amazing fantasy adventure novels first!

Belgarath the Sorcerer has Eddings wit, good humor, and delightful characters on full display. Writing irascible characters like Belgarath is something Eddings is a master of. The prose flows, the commentary from Belgarath entertains. A fantastic read!

You can purchase Pawn of Prophecy from Amazon!

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