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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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Reread of The Thousandfold Thought: Chapter Fourteen

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought

by R. Scott Bakker

The Final March
Chapter 14
Shimeh

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

Some say I learned dread knowledge that night. But of this, as so many other matters, I cannot write for fear of summary execution.

DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, THE COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR

Truth and hope are like travelers in contrary directions. They meet but once in any man’s life

AINONI PROVERB

My Thoughts

Wow, those are some quotes. The one is foreshadowing. Clearly, Achamian is going to learn something that he’s too terrified to write. Mind you, this is in his heretical book after he’s already rejected Kellhus and gone into voluntary exile. Even Achamian knows not to put what he learns. Even reading this the first time, you can only imagine the truth he learned.

Which leads us to the Ainoni proverb that truth and hope are so rarely meet up that you get it once in a lifetime. It implies that hope is built on lies, on self-fabrication. That the truth doesn’t care about what sustains you. And when you learn that truth, it can kill that hope. However, once in a blue moon, they compliment each other.

Will it happen here?

Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Shimeh

Esmenet dreamed that she was a prince, an angel fallen from the dark, that her heart had beaten, her loins had ached, for tens of thousands of years. She dreamed that Kellhus stood before her, an outrage to be blotted, an enigma to be dissected, and above all a burning question…

Who are the Dûnyain?

She awakes confused about who she is for a few moments. Then she doesn’t find Kellhus beside her, but she’s not surprised. She feels a “sense of finality in the air.” A dread has been building in her since reading The Sagas. She’s felt strange desires since her possession, seeing memories of the Inchoroi flooding her mind. Those desires, while alien in origin, still were hers. Kellhus tried to comfort her while questioning her, telling her what Achamian had already explained about Xinemus and his compulsion. Kellhus says that she was Aurang for a bit, which is why she felt like all those dark lusts were hers. He even says that is why Aurang tried to provoke Kellhus to kill her so she wouldn’t retain any of his secrets. But she argues that she felt them too strong. That they were her desires.

“Those desires weren’t yours, Esmi. They only seemed to be yours because you couldn’t see where they came from… You simply suffered them.”

“But then, how does any desire belong to me?”

She thought the dread building in her was knowing Xinemus was dying. She tried to convince herself after she learned of his death, but couldn’t. It was “too obvious for even her to believe.” Then Achamian moved out, giving her a new lie. But it, too, faded when she beheld Shimeh and believes they all will die here.

She dresses and learns Kellhus is wandering the camp without an escort. Once, Esmenet would have been fearful. No longer. She knows the Holy War is the safest place for him now. She heads out looking for him, moving through the nighttime camp, finding some still awake carousing or drinking. She bumps into an Ainoni and realizes he’s a former customer before she reunited with Achamian. She realizes from his smirk that he takes pride in having bedded the Prophet-Consort, revealing that Esmenet’s belief she had controlled her activities a lie. He grabs her arm, drunk, clearly looking to enjoy her again.

“Do you know who I am?” she said sharply.

“Yes,” he repeated, his manner lurid. “I know you…”

“Then you know how close you stand to death.”

A look of dank puzzlement. She advanced and struck him with an open palm.

“Insolent dog! Kneel!”

He stared, stunned, unmoving.

“Kneel! Or I’ll have you flayed alive… Do you understand?”

Terror breaks through his drunkenness. He blubbers for forgiveness. She contemplates having her agents find the man. Different ways he could be punished flash through her. She knows it’s petty, but she revels in them. She normally hated “the brutality that her new station had forced upon her.” She isn’t sure why she feels this way if it was his shame or his delight. “Or was it the mere fact that she could do these things?” She feels giddy knowing she’s Kellhus’s “vessel.”

She climbs the hills over the Meneanor Sea, thinking, and comes across Kellhus staring at Shimeh. He’s atop the ruins and contemplates joining him, but thinks it’s too risky considering she’s pregnant. Instead of seeming lonely, he dominates the situation as always. Without even glancing at her, he says she’s worried that he’s getting distant like he was before the Circumfix. She thinks he’s doing something dangerous, though she admits she’s trying not to. She asks why he’s here. He says he has to leave soon then offers her a hand.

With ease, he hauls her up to join him on the narrow ruin. She is dizzied by it and holds him, savoring his presence “as she always did.” She asks where is going. He answers Kyudea, which was the twin city to Shimeh, destroyed a long time ago. She mutters, “Your father’s house.”

“Truth has its seasons, Esmi. Everything will be made clear in due course.”

“But, Kellhus…” What did it mean that they had to assail Shimeh without him?

“Proyas knows what must be done,” he said decisively. “The Scarlet Spire will act as they see fit.”

Desperation welled through her. You can’t leave us.

“I must, Esmi. I answer to a different voice.”

She realizes it’s not her voice. “The things that moved her simply didn’t touch him.” She feels that they are moving through the heavens. He feels like a stranger to her. “The son of something terrible.” She asks if Akka should go with him as protection. Kellhus says he has to go alone and that he’s beyond needing Achamian for defense. Esmenet points out Achamian will want to know where he goes and Kellhus smiles and nods in that knowing way and says Achamian’s already asked. His levity makes her want to try, though she isn’t sure why. She finds herself kneeling before him, “playing out in pantomime what others did.”

No matter where they turned, men found themselves encircled by greater things. Usually, they ignored them. And sometimes, moved by pride and base hunger, they warred against them. But either way, those things remained just as great, and men, no matter how lunatic their conceit, remained just as small. Only by kneeling, by offering themselves as one might offer the haft of a weapon, could men recognize their place in this world. Only by submitting could they recognize themselves.

There was rapture in submission. The vulnerability of another towering overhead—precarious, like letting a stranger touch one’s face. The sense of profound communing, as though only those who acknowledged their insignificance could themselves be acknowledged. The relief of surrender, the disburdening that accompanied the yielding of responsibility.

The paradoxical sense of license.

Everything grew silent. She finds this moment euphoric and arousing. He laughs, helps her stand, and says he loves you. Though a part of her “gushed like an adolescent,” the old whore in her watches with “callused eyes.” She says she knows and he says she afraid, as all man are. She claims she can’t survive without him.

Hadn’t she told Akka the same thing?

He touches her pregnant belly and says he can’t without her. Then he kisses her. She holds onto him, not wanting to let go of him even as he looks away from her to Shimeh. She’s desperate and he knows.

“Fear for the future, Esmi, not me.” Fingers combed through her hair, drew tingling lines across her scalp. “This flesh is but my shadow.”

Kellhus reflects on how far he had come from Ishuäl and thinks he hears someone shouting his name. “How far had he come?” He had departed for Kyudea after sending Esmenet back to camp. He walks through hills and starts talking to the world, saying he knows the world can hear him. Wind answers him. He asks what he was supposed to do when they only attend “to what lies before their eyes.” If it doesn’t make them happy, they hurt it. They entrust “things unseen” to the world. The wind dies.

“What was I to do? Tell them the truth?”

He stooped, pulled a twig from the straps of his right sandal. He studied it by the moonlight, followed the thin, muscular branchings that seized so much emptiness from the sky. Tusk sprouting from tusk. Though the trees about him had died seasons previously, the twig possessed two leaves, one waxy green, the other brown…

“No,” he said. “I cannot.”

The Dûnyain had sent him into the world as an assassin. His father had imperiled their isolation, had threatened Ishuäl, the great sanctuary of their hallowed meditations. They had no choice but to send Kellhus, even knowing that they served Moënghus’s ends… What else could they do?

He reflects how he had mastered the three great weapons: faith, war, and sorcery. “He was Dûnyain, one of the Condition.” He followed the Shortest Path and yet “he had come so far.” He remembers weeping against Serwë’s corpse on the Circumfix. Thinking that, he takes off running across the broken ground.

He ran. Not once did he stumble, nor did he slow to determine his bearings. His ground was his… Conditioned.

Everywhere, all about him, one world. The crossings were infinite, but they were not equal.

They were not equal.

In the night, Kianene and Amoti hear a sound “like tapestries being beaten” moving across the sky. A shadow crosses the First Temple. Something inhuman watches. “It drank with its eyes, while its soul dreamed a million years.” It hates where it is, feeling like it is being cut.

Thorns. Its every glimpse speared like thorns.

The stone is weak. We could wash it away…

Do nothing, the Voice replied. Just watch.

They know we are here. If we do not move, they will fund us.

Then test them.

The creature is a Ciphrang named Zioz. It comes across a Cishaurim and attacks it, ripping the soul from the manling’s body and throwing the corpse to the ground. It thinks they are weak, but the voice says there are others. The Ciphrang speculates it might die, but the voice says Zioz is too strong.

Perhaps you will die with me… Iyokus.

Achamian feels “a pendulous absence” circling him and thinks he should wake up. He is dreaming he is Seswatha vomiting in the bowels of Golgotterath while Nau-Cayûti watches. The pair is still moving through the “endless dark” as they climb through new horrors.

Seswatha had heard rumors of the horrors of this place, speaking with Nil’giccas and hearing his account of fighting through the “horrid immensity of the Incû-Holoinas.” The Nonmen said 1 in a 100 Inchoroi died in the Ark’s crash, but they still had thousands left. Nil’giccas had warned the Ark “was an ingrown world.” A maze. You always have to be on guard in it.

Nau-Cayûti spots a light. They douse theirs and creep towards it across eons of detritus and filth. There is a swelling clamor. The passage leads to a mighty void, a great space. They are looking down upon a city in the bowels of the ship. “The steaming heart of Golgotterath.”

He [Achamian] should be awake.

He keeps dreaming of Seswatha staring at what he realizes is the hold of a vast ship where the city has been built in it. “Structures of mortise and hacked stones climbed their foundations, crusting their sides like stacked hornets’ nests, not dwellings but open cells, squalid and innumerable.” In it, they see human captives toiling amid Bashrag and Sranc while others. There are “open-air harems” where men, women, and children are used. Achamian again thinks he should be awake.

Screams and roars echo as Nau-Cayûti slumps in horror realizing that the woman he’s here for is down there. He attacks Seswatha demanding to know where she is. Achamian struggles awake at his point, realizing that his wards are trying to wake him up. He claws to consciousness and finds a Chorae dangling over his head.

“Some time ago,” the Scylvendi grated, “during all the empty hours thinking, I understood that you die as I do…” A tremor passed through the hand holding the string.

“Without Gods.”

Eleäzaras is watching the Ctesarat Tabernacle, the heart of the Cishaurim power, from his tent, Iyokus beside him. There are circles of blood painted around them. Tomorrow, he thinks, they will face their “mortal enemy.” Eleäzaras can’t hold back anything. He is employing demons. Iyokus retorts that the Cishaurim flee the Ciphrang. They have no Chorae up there but are summoning those who bear them to deal with the Ciphrang.

That was what Eleäzaras wants, for the “Snakeheads” to pull away some of the Chorae guarding the wall to defend them from Ciphrang, giving the Scarlet Spires a better chance in the assault tomorrow.

However, he disagrees with using such a powerful demon, a Potent, when a Debile would have worked. He thinks Zioz is becoming too strong. Iyokus is dismissive, saying all is well. Eleäzaras wonders how he’d become so cowardly and accuses Iyokus of recklessness.

Iyokus turned to him. Blood soiled his bandages where they pressed against his translucent cheeks.

“They must fear us,” the man said. “Now they do.”

Achamian is both terrified by waking up to Cnaiür and the Chorae and shocked, thinking he must still dream. Cnaiür demands to know where Kellhus is. Achamian begins to say he doesn’t know, but Cnaiür says he lies, that Achamian is his protector.

Please…” he gasped, tried to cough without raising his chest. The Chorae had become unbearable. It seemed his heart might crack his sternum, leap into its absence. He could feel the stinging of his skin about his right nipple, the beginnings of the Salt. He thought of Carythusal, of Geshruuni, now long dead, holding a Trinket above his hand in the Holy Leper. Strange how this one seemed to have a different… taste.

I was never meant to escape.

Achamian feels Cnaiür’s murderous rage. The Scylvendi warns he won’t give Achamian another chance. Achamian tries not to panic as he manages to tell Cnaiür that he won’t betray Kellhus. Achamian says he’s willing to die.

Cnaiür thinks then offers a trade. Achamian is shocked by this as Cnaiür puts away the Chorae “like a child with a well-practiced toy.” Relief floods him but he’s still confused and frightened. Achamian asks what they will trade and notes there are a man and woman in the shadows behind Cnaiür.

“Truth.”

This word, intoned as it was with exhaustion and a profound, barbaric candour, struck him like a blow. Achamian pressed himself onto his elbows, glared at the man, his eyes wild with outrage and confusion.

“And what if I’ve had my fill of Truth?”

“The truth of him,” The Scylvendi said.

Achamian says he knows the truth, but Cnaiür cuts him off, spitting out he knows nothing. Like the rest of the salves. Achamian protests his freedom, but Cnaiür says he is because “all men are slaves.” Cnaiür says Kellhus is Dûnyain with such hatred in the word. It’s a curse, the way Achamian thinks of the Consult. Achamian has never heard the word but knows it means Truth in a dead tongue.

“The tongue is not dead,” Cnaiür snapped, “and the word no longer means ‘truth.’”

Achamian remembers the first time met Cnaiür, Serwë, and Kellhus, and realizes that they lied. Cnaiür didn’t come on a wager. Achamian has to know if Kellhus also lied about dreaming of the Holy War. Cnaiür wants to know where he is, but Achamian insists on the Truth not willing to “barter untested wares.”

The barbarian snorted, but it didn’t strike Achamian as an expression of derision or contempt. There was a pensiveness to the man, a vulnerability of movement and manner that contradicted the violence of his aspect. Somehow Achamian knew that Cnaiür wanted to speak of these things, as though they burdened him in the way of crimes or powerful grievances. And this realization terrified him [Achamian] more thoroughly than any Trinket ever could.

Cnaiür explains that Kellhus wasn’t sent, but summoned, that he’s not unique, and nor is he a savior. He’s a slaver. The blood drains from Achamian’s face. He doesn’t understand, but Cnaiür continues on explaining how the Dûnyain have bred themselves for millennia until humans were “little more than children to them.” Achamian listens as Cnaiür explains it all. Achamian finds it too “naked not to be true.” He listens to Cnaiür talk about his experience with Moënghus, how Cnaiür helped to murder his own father while claiming he wasn’t willing.

“They see our thoughts through our faces—our hurts, our hopes, our rage, and our passion! Where we guess, they know, the way herdsmen can read the afternoon’s weather in the morning sky… And what men know, they dominate.”

Cnaiür continues his story how he helped Moënghus kill his father. To Achamian, only Cnaiür and the Chorae exist. Cnaiür explains how Kellhus’s “every heartbeat” wars against the world. He conquers and makes men into his dog.

“They make us love! They make us love!”

Kellhus runs through the wilderness. Jackals start running beside him. He outruns them and he seems to hear them ask who he is. He calls them their master as he runs off into the night. He begins laughing, though the humor was foreign to him. He finds saying “your master” amusing.

Achamian is shocked by Cnaiür’s words after the barbarian leaves. He is bewildered by what he is learning. Off-balanced, he struggles to think. He knows that Cnaiür plans to kill Kellhus, Achamian’s “final, greatest student.” Despite that, he has betrayed Kellhus even after seeing that one of the figures with Cnaiür is “dead” Serwë. A skin-spy.

You gave him up. The Warrior-Prophet… You told the barbarian where he goes!

Because he lies! He steals what is ours! What is mine!

But the world! The world!

Fie on the world! Let it burn!

“The beginning!” he cried. Please.

Achamian pulls out a fresh paper and redraws his map of events, the one he lost to the Scarlet Spire. He stares at Inrau’s name after writing it, feeling grief. Then he writes “THE CONSULT” in violent strokes. He gave up Kellhus to the Consult.

When he finished, it seemed he held the very same parchment he had lost, and he pondered the identity of things, the way words did not discriminate between repetitions. They were immortal, and yet they cared.

He crosses out THE EMPEROR and replaces it with CONPHAS. Achamian knows he has to warn the Holy War of the threat marching from the West. He adds new lines to the map, things he’s learned since escaping the Scarlet Spire. In a steady hand, he adds DÛNYAIN and connects it to KELLHUS. Then, as if spurred, he writes Kellhus’s father, MOËNGHUS. “The man who summoned him [Kellhus] to the Three Seas…”

He dipped his quill into his inkhorn, his hand as light as an apparition. Then, as though crowded forward by dawning apprehension, he slowly wrote,

ESMENET

against the top left margin

How had her name become his prayer? Where did she fall in these monstrous events?

Where was his own name?

He studies his completed map, unaware of how long. The Holy War rouses around him. He feels like a ghost searching for a secret in the ink. All these important institutes representing the world. Representing prophets and lovers.

There was no pattern to these breathing things. There was no encompassing thought to give them meaning. Just men and their warring delusions… The world was a corpse.

Xinemus’s lesson.

He connects all the names to SHIMEH, the “bloodthirsty city.” He draws the line last to Esmenet’s name, knowing that she needed the city more than any other except, perhaps, Achamian. After drawing it, he keeps drawing it over and over until, in a frenzy, he rips through the vellum.

For he was sure that his quill had become a knife…

And that flesh lay beneath the tattooed skin.

My Thoughts

Aurang is compared to a fallen angel. The Inchoroi are rebelling against the Outside. They don’t want to follow the rules but want to their own thing. They think they’re right. Prideful.

Esmenet’s having the same issue as Xinemus. She felt those desires of Aurang as her own. Even though Kellhus explains it to her, she still feels that violent lust for rape.

How can you have a sense of identity after something like that? Where you became someone else and felt everything they do. Where their desires were your desires. What does it say about yourself? How can you trust anything after that?

After that, she’s having more illusions shattered from the knight she encounters about her own sexuality. She thought she was taking from men when she was selling her body, but to a man, spreading seed is a primal motivation. He takes pride in having done it to a woman so powerful. To protect her ego, she has to lash out, to prove that she’s not that woman any longer. That she’s risen above him. She has every right to be angry though she’s shocked by how quickly she came to ordering his death. How much the power has already changed her. We all have those dark impulses in us. Murder lurks in every human’s heart, but we usually control those impulses. We are ashamed of them, often pretending we don’t have them. She is in a position to exercise those impulses, and she knows it. It’ll be a test of her character going forward how she wields that ultimate power.

She calls Achamian “Akka” to Khellus. She’s starting to realize she doesn’t love Kellhus. The possession has eaten away at her worship. She’s realizing that her voice doesn’t move him. Her concerns are not his. That’s not good for a healthy relationship. Then he seems like a stranger to her, something dangerous, and she instantly asks about Akka.

She kneels in supplication before her husband and thinks she’s just imitating worship, that she’s his wife. But this is not something a wife does. Not in a real relationship. She’s prostrating herself before her prophet.

More doubt seeps into Esmenet. She’s seeing Kellhus like a whore now, too. She’s growing cautious around him even as he’s manipulating her to get that giddy, lovey-dovey response. Then the realization that she had told “Akka” the same things as Kellhus. That she meant these words for another.

She holds onto him with desperation because the lie is slipping from her that she loves him. She was only infatuated and never formed anything deeper. How can she when Kellhus’s emotions are as shallow as they come.

Kellhus is almost praying to the world. To the Darkness that Comes Before. He isn’t sure if he’s doing the right thing. He is having doubt, but he can’t see any other way. Just like the Dûnyain who sent him despite the fact they were doing what Moënghus wanted. “What else could they do?” Not even the Dûnyain, even Kellhus, are self-moving souls. They are still bound by cause.

Now we’ll see what effect all those causes have had on Kellhus. How they have changed him from the standard Dûnyain. How the Outside has affected him. He’s like Cnaiür. He’s been nudged from the Dûnyain tracks onto something else.

Kellhus remembers weeping. He’s feeling it. That he’s not wholly Dûnyain any longer. His mission has changed. He has come to a decision as he takes off running across that he know thinks as his. He knows longer is following the Conditioned path of his father, but one of his own choosing.

What a cool way to introduce demon summoning. From the point of view of the demon thrust into this world and constrained by reality. It hurts it and has to obey the voice. It knows who summoned it, and is eager to hurt the summoner. Rumor has it, the Ciphrang you summon get to play with you in the Outside.

Iyokus, it’s going to suck when you die.

Then we switch to the dream of the true horrors of Golgotterath, the slaves, the rape-pits. It’s disturbing. It is a place of true evil. A true Hell, the place the Inchoroi want to escape from experiencing they have unleashed on those they dominate. It is a place where reprehensible atrocities are committed in the name of satiating selfish desires. That is all the Inchoroi are. They don’t control themselves. If they can brutalize you, they will and enjoy it.

Achamian wakes up from one form of danger to another. To another man who doesn’t control his desires. Cnaiür seizes what he wants, kills men to get it, and brutalizes those when he needs to satiate his mad urges.

We get just a tease about Ciphrang. Two different classifications. Potent and Debile. I hadn’t heard of that word before, debile. It’s an archaic word for feeble, where our word debility originates from. Interesting to call one Potent and the other Feeble. Such a glimpse into this one bit of magic. I’ll have to pay attention to the end of The Unholy Consult when Ciphrang are next employed in the series.

“I was never meant to escape.” A curious thought for Achamian to have at this moment. To escape the Scarlet Spire? Probably. Kellhus never expected to see him, moving into the seduction of Esmenet from him, causing all sorts of problems when Achamian returned. I am convinced Kellhus would have tried to convince the pair that it was only right for Esmenet to be Kellhus’s queen, instead it gave Achamian that wedge of anger that ultimately led him to reject Kellhus and for Esmenet to never surrender her love for Achamian but only to bury it beneath her infatuation with Kellhus.

Or, perhaps, Achamian thinks he should have died that day in the tavern of Carythusal, when Geshruuni spared him. He can’t think that he will escape the fate of the Chorae a second time. Not with Cnaiür looming above him.

This meeting is great between Achamian and Cnaiür. The reversal. The bewilderment. The discussion of Truth and what Kellhus is. The Dûnyain spared Cnaiür out of pity when he witnessed the man’s madness on the beach. Kellhus, a good Dûnyain, should have killed him. But even then, he was splitting off from Conditioned Ground.

Of course, Cnaiür wants to speak. Who likes to swallow a secret. Especially one that causes such harm. Cnaiür, for all his hatred, has come to like Proyas as a friend. He hates what Kellhus is doing and, clearly, he has had his fill of it. He’s out for vengeance. He’s ready to unburden himself. It’s like his deathbed confession. Time to get his sins off his chest before he crosses the threshold.

“What men know, they dominate.” There is so much truth in that sentence. The crux of humans. We crave knowledge so we can make order out of chaos. We seek to dominate everything around us for stability. Familiarity. So then we can indulge in our desires. Our passions. We take nature and divide into plots. We take plants and cultivate them into crops. We’ve breed beasts into pets and livestock. We tamed the atom because we understood it.

Kellhus running with jackals right after we have Cnaiür compare humans as dogs eager to obey their Dûnyain master out of love. A loyal pack trained to obey.

For the first time since Inrau’s suicide, Achamian begins acting like a proper Mandate. He’s had his faith in Kellhus destroyed. He was manipulated by Kellhus all this time to not report in on him. So he put aside his map. He didn’t use it. Now he’s redrawing it, seeing the new state of the world.

He understands as he connects Esmenet’s name to Shimeh why she has fallen to Kellhus. The promise of salvation. That same promise, of being freed from the sin of sorcery, had enraptured Achamian, too. Remember back in book two when Kellhus scraped away the ink in the scripture that condemned harlots like Esmenet. How she wept. How she surrendered to him thinking it was love, but it was really worship.

Shimeh is the representation of the lie of Kellhus’s divinity. He has promised them salvation and then lead them to commit terrible acts. They are murdering their fellow men out of a delusion. They are slaves to Kellhus and the darkness that comes before him.

Esmenet is his slave. She’s Achamian’s prayer, and Kellhus stole her. Now that the truth is revealed, Achamian realizes just how utterly betrayed he was by Kellhus.

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Review: Shattered Night (The Extraction List 4)

Shattered Night (The Extraction List 4)

by Renee N. Meland

Reviewed by JMD Reid

In a world where economic collapse has plunged even the U.S. into the third world, Riley, her boyfriend Cain, and her friends are returning from a mission to rescue Olivia from a life of forced prostitution in Italy. Thinking they found a safe place for Cain to recover from his injuries, instead, they find their new home under the control of the sadistic Keagan.

An old enemy of Cain, Keagan is eager to get revenge on the freedom fighter. Riley and her friends are going to have to find a way to survive in a town where all the weapons are in Keagan’s control. Can they buy enough time for Cain to recover before Keagan executes his plan of revenge?

Shattered night is the fast-paced conclusion of the Extraction List! This dystopian, young adult series is a wild read. The plot twists and turns as the fortunes ebb and flow for the heroes. Meland keeps you on your toes while the story keeps you reading.

This is the definition of a page-turner.

The characters are raw and real. The emotions punch you hard. This series is a must-read for fans of the genre!

Leave Me Lost is available from Amazon.

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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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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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