Tag Archives: dark fantasy

REVIEW: Born to Darkness

Born to Darkness

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Raiann is the twin sister of the heir to the Black Throne. And that’s a problem. Rumors persist that she is the firstborn not her brother. Realizing that her father will do something drastic to ensure his son inherits the throne, she has no choice but to flee.

Her flight doesn’t go as plan. She finds herself in trouble. But a wandering mercenary named Orxy comes to her rescue. He’s a satyr, one of the light blood races while she’s a djinn, dark blood. He promises to teach her to fight and to use the magic brimming in her blood. Djinn have passion pumping through their veins, and he’s going to prove it.

Raiann finds a new life that excites her blood. A mercenary.

Born to Darkness was a great read. It’s fast and flows. It has some great twists and turns and goes into some dark places. Raiann has an interesting path that’s powerful to read. Brit has outdone herself with this one. I’m a fan of her previous fantasy series, and this one showed her growing strength as an author.

I want to read more of this interesting world and the character of Raiann. While I wished she’d made a different decision at the end of the novel, she’s not a perfect character. She’s flawed and struggling to find peace in a world that’s cruel and unfair.

If you’re a fan of powerful and character-driven fantasy, you need to check out Born to Darkness!

You can buy Born to Darkness from Amazon!

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Snippet 3 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Storm of Tears, the third novel in my epic fantasy series!

Chapter Two

The Skyland of Vaarck

Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, Uickthio Rnuilsick, stood on the balcony at the rear of the Imperial Palace. The white marble beneath her feet, veined with scarlet, encased the entire exterior of the center of power for the Vaarckthian Empire. She stood, hands clasped behind her, her red officer’s jacket buttoned to her neck, her white trousers freshly laundered and starched. Polished, black boots squeaked as she shifted her weight to relieve the growing ache in her lower back. Age groaned against Uickthio’s stamina, wrinkling her ebony face and streaking her red hair with gray.

How much longer shall the Emperor make us wait upon his glorious folly? she thought.

The balcony overlooked the edge of Lake Bkeurn, the largest body of water in the skies, its silver-gray surface rippling with mist that washed against the beach. Qopraa, the capital of the Empire, was entirely lost to the haze, along with the farthest regiments of the Imperial Army. Three-quarters of the Empire’s might stood in formation before the palace. The Emperor’s scheme of constantly assembling his army for inspection was for this moment. For a decade, they’d assembled in the fall before returning to their winter barracks.

Hopefully, it had allowed the army to assemble for war without alarming the Vionese.

Uickthio clenched her jaw when Satrap Qozhnui Uulvigk strolled out through the double doors. His jowls shook as the man shivered. Thick ebony fingers adjusted the front of his crushed velvet doublet.

“Brisk, isn’t it?” Qozhnui, the Master of Secrets, said as he joined her, his tone almost jovial. But Uickthio knew the shark too well.

“A chill in the air stiffens the soldiers’ spines,” the admiral answered. “Is the Emperor finally deigning to join us?”

“Soon, Admiral. He must be perfect. Our troops will need to be inspired this morning.” His eyes flicked to the mist. “Especially on such an uninspiring morning. The weather controllers should be flogged for allowing fog to form on the lake.”

“The weather controllers were given no special instructions to maintain operational security, as you well know.”

Qozhnui laughed. “Yes, yes. But, still, such a chill. The poor lads look like wraiths instead of the brave soldiers of the Empire.” He glanced behind him. “Now where is the old boy? I want to get out of the damp.”

“And back to your wine?”

“Imbibing mulled wine while watching Lake Bkeurn’s fog is one of the greatest delights. If you would ever relax, you would discover that.”

“Someone had to plan this folly.” For weeks, since the Emperor had grown more certain that the foolish plan with the Bluefin Raiders would bring a fair wind, she’d plotted with generals, admirals, colonels, and captains, strategizing the invasion of the Autonomy of Les-Vion. War games were played. Predictions were made.

Their plans were made of delicate, Ethinski rice paper. The slightest pressure, and they would tear.

“I have good news to ease your endless worry,” Qozhnui said. “Last night, President Kalthin met with his cabinet. A letter of great urgency had arrived from the Admiralty Board.”

“And?”

“The Autonomy’s admirals have not been fooled by our ruse and believe the ships we supplied to the Bluefin Raiders was an act of war.”

Uickthio’s cheek twitched. “How is this good news?”

“Kalthin and his advisers scoffed. They cannot dream we’d ever go to war with them. After all, trade has never been more prosperous between us. The president has rejected the Admiralty Board’s request for a state of emergency and the immediate ferrying of the southern militias to the border skylands. All he granted was recalling veterans to outfit a few ships. That will take weeks. You will have conquered much of their territory by the time they react.”

Uickthio snorted. “Liberated, remember?”

“Yes, yes. Liberated. A much prettier word, eh?”

Uickthio didn’t fly towards his bait. “How do you know what was said in the capital of the Autonomy last night? No ship sails so swiftly.”

The man’s smile grew.

“Yes, you have an engine that allows for instantaneous communication.” Uickthio pursed her lips. “It sounds useful for the military. In fact, I have a proposal written for the Emperor. The Navy would benefit greatly from faster communication, particularly during the invasion.”

The smile froze on Qozhnui’s lips. “Well, that would spread word of its invention. Soon the Autonomy would have it, and then its usefulness would be blunted.”

“To the Navy, or to you?”

“Why, both. And since you need my intelligence, you should be my most fervent ally in preserving its secret.”

“I disagree.”

“Well . . . I can see it from your point of view.” His jowls bulged like a toad’s croaking throat as he nodded. “Perhaps I could part with an engine. Your adjutant has Moderate Mist, yes?”

“He does.”

“I could communicate any relevant information to him. He can be trusted to keep this out of the Autonomy’s grasp.”

“That should suffice,” Uickthio said.

“Then I shall deliver—”

The doors crashed opened and out swept the Emperor. Veukni I Aepriqoigk possessed a warrior’s bearing, a tall man dressed in a red Naval coat and white trousers, his epaulets tied with knots matching the ones on Uickthio’s own shoulders, his boots polished to a gleam. He marched to the edge of the balcony and gazed upon his empire.

A loud cheer rose from the soldiers, their arms thrusting in the air, fists clenched, in salute. Uickthio felt the honesty of the love and affection the army possessed for their leader. The Emperor, while not a military genius, had learned one lesson from his mother, Empress Aepriqo I Vthuimnick: “To maintain the empire and expand its borders, you must have the love of your soldiers and sailors. Your generals can never unseat you if the troops love you more. Cultivate their affection, and you shall be the greatest emperor since Zhnavth overthrew the Republic.”

Veukni had embraced her teachings. He was constantly meeting with the troops. He walked among them, handing out gifts to the privates, shaking their hands, engaging them in conversation. He asked about their families and thanked them for their dedicated service to the Empire.

It was the only virtue Uickthio respected in her leader.

In private, he was vain and boisterous, convinced he had the genius and the ability to reclaim all the lands the Empire had lost. The Autonomy was just the start. He planned on reclaiming the Free Nests of the Soweral, the Ethinski Republic, and the Tribes of Zzuk. Uickthio knew the truth. They may win the war with the Autonomy, but they wouldn’t retake all of it. Holding the territory would be costly even with the Church of Riasruo’s blessing.

The Luastrian archbishopress, sent from holy Ianwoa, followed daintily in the Emperor’s wake, draped in her robes of pure white that contrasted with the dun-brown of her feathers. She stood at the Emperor’s side, giving official sanction to this war.

“My soldiers,” the Emperor called out, his voice a clear baritone that carried through the still air, “I see before me the finest men and women to have ever assembled. The strongest winds of your generation have gathered you on the shores of Lake Bkeurn for our Mother Empire. Your parents and grandparents and your ancestors, stretching all the way back to the dark days of the Wrackthar Wars, look upon you with pride.

I look upon you with pride!”

A cheer erupted through the troops. A vast, roaring gust of zeal swept over the balcony and sent a chill through Uickthio’s blood. They do love him.

“I look upon you and am moved to weep at your bravery. The gallant soldiers of the Empire have never lost so long as they have kept the love of the great Motherland in their hearts. They never faltered when the entire faith of our people and their ancestors wished them fair winds. They never broke beneath the brutalities of war so long as the golden light of Riasruo shone upon them.”

Another cheer. Louder, swelling like a rising gale. Arms and weapons were lifted in unearned triumph.

The Emperor, standing tall, waited for the exuberance to die. “The Motherland has been weak. Traitors and rebels have broken our once proud nation apart. To the south, the corrupt government of the Autonomy of Les-Vion keeps our fellow citizens in bondage. Whether Vaarckthian, Vionese, or Zalg, they are taxed and oppressed by the corrupt President Kalthin. They yearn for liberty, and we shall deliver it!

“I promise you all that we come not as conquerors, but as liberators. The sons and daughters of the Autonomy yearn to rejoin the Empire. They wish to throw off the yoke of the tyrannical rebels and traitors. So I charge you to be faithful, brave, gallant, and just. I charge you to free our brethren so they may be welcomed back into the loving arms of Mother Empire!”

The third and final cheer slammed into Uickthio with the force of a hurricane. She almost staggered beneath the voluminous celebration. They believed their leader. Her pulse beat faster beneath her skin. The soldiers of the Empire had righteous conviction in their hearts, a zeal that would hurtle them into battle.

What if we can win?

Pride in her countrymen sang in her heart.

“Grand Admiral Rnuilsick shall lead us to victory!” proclaimed the Emperor.

Uickthio stepped forward. Tears burned in her eyes as she gazed out at the soldiers of Vaarck. I will lead you to victory, she promised every last soldier standing in the field. Their cheers lifted her spirits.

War had come, and she would see the Empire triumph.

*

The Skyland of Tlele

After the funeral for the Dauntless’s crew, Ary folded his uniforms on the kitchen table, smoothing his good hand over the wool. Chaylene sat nearby, nursing a glass of orange wine. A basket filled with freshly caught fish, red potatoes, and lemons sat beside her.

“Do you think this will take long?” Chaylene asked.

“Probably,” Ary answered with a shrug. “Paperwork.”

He had two red jackets spread out on the table, one adorned with the medals he had worn to the funeral a few hours before. He set that one aside. As an officer, Ary was allowed to keep his dress uniform even after his discharge. His medals clinked as he shifted it. He placed a white cotton shirt and a pair of blue trousers atop the dress jacket. The rest he tied up in a bundle with twine. He wore civilian clothes: a pair of brown denim overalls and gray shirt similar to what he had worn so many months ago when he’d ridden to Ahly for the Summer Solstice. Only the heavy sword belt and Stormrider sabre hanging from it were different.

Ary stared down at the bundle. “I can’t believe it’s over.”

“For you,” Chaylene muttered and took another sip of her wine.

Ary stiffened. His left thumb rubbed along the stump of his hand. “You’re right. It’s not over until we’re both free.” He placed his good hand on her shoulder. “I don’t have to go.”

“You do, Ary.” Chaylene set her glass down. “Don’t make this harder by offering to stay.” Her hand grasped Ary’s on her shoulder, squeezed. “We both need to be free of Theisseg. We’ll never have a life otherwise.”

“You are an amazing woman,” Ary whispered. His eyes flicked to the wine. His stomach tightened. “You are strong. I know it. It’ll be hard without you, but . . .”

“Just don’t stare at the pretty girls in . . . Where are you going?”

Ary blinked. “I . . . don’t actually know.”

“Well, when you get there, don’t stare at the girls’ fruits and forget about mine.”

Ary smiled, his eyes drifting to the swells of her blouse. “I’ll keep the memory of yours seared in my mind.”

Life warmed her eyes. “After dinner, I’ll make sure you have a memory to keep you warm on all those cold, boring nights spent with Estan and his teacher.”

Ary bent down and kissed her lips, which were sour with the orange wine. Her hand tightened on the back of his neck, holding him in place. Fires kindled as his britches grew tight. Ideas of picking her up and throwing her down on the bed gusted through his mind.

Mustering out can wait, right?

Chaylene broke the kiss. “There, that’s motivation for you not to linger at the quartermaster’s.”

Ary chuckled. “Yes, because the quartermaster’s warehouse has all the entertainment of an inn’s common room. Maybe a Sowerese Talesinger’ll be there.”

Chaylene rolled her eyes. “I didn’t think you liked Talesingers. That one in Ahly had you out of sorts, and you wouldn’t tell me why. I remember being annoyed with you.”

“His tale reminded me of my dreams.”

The mirth in Chaylene’s eyes died. “Another reason for you to go.”

Ary grimaced. How long until the Church learns of Wriavia’s death? How often did he report in? He died eight days ago. They’ll know in . . . He wasn’t sure how long it took a ship to voyage to Ulanii. Maybe a day or two before he’s overdue. Then what? Send another assassin?

Ary swallowed his dread that a new assassin would track him and harm Chaylene. He didn’t mention that fear, his eyes glancing at the glass of wine. She had enough storms lurking in her soul.

“I’ll hurry back.”

Chaylene nodded her head as she pulled the fish from the basket. Without the gas sac, it had no buoyancy and flopped onto the table. Ary’s mouth watered. Years of Chaylene taking care of herself while her mother drank had taught her how to make a savory meal out of lesser ingredients.

Ary hefted his bundle, the armory keys, and his bone sabre before marching out the door. Twilight lengthened the shadows of the whitewashed buildings of Rheyion Naval Port. High above, a lone shark drifted across the darkening skies. Ary gauged its size and relaxed; the beast was too small to be a threat to an adult. Shark attacks were rare, but the occasional child was savaged by a larger beast drifting out of the deep sky.

“Adjutant-Lieutenant,” Corporal Huson called out. The fading light made her tan features even more matronly.

“I won’t be for much longer.”

“You’ll always be a marine, sir.”

“I suppose.” Training and combat had smoked being a marine into his flesh like an ostrich’s haunch cured for winter.

“Would you like any assistance, sir?”

“I can manage. I only lost half a hand.”

Corporal Huson paled. “I didn’t mean to cause offense, sir.”

Ary chuckled. “You need to relax your spine sometimes. Don’t be so rigid.”

“The keel of a ship is rigid to provide the support. The marines require someone to maintain discipline. It is my . . . strength. So I shall exploit it to keep your men sharp.”

“You can relax?” Ary didn’t hide the surprise in his voice.

“Rarely. I have been schooled in . . . prudence.”

Ary almost pressed her, but a wariness entered her stance. Everyone deserves their secrets, he decided. “Well, I assume this is where we part ways, Corporal. Unless you have business at the quartermaster’s?”

“No, sir. I was on my way to the mess.”

Ary snapped a salute in farewell to the corporal then kept marching along. He passed between the warehouses full of supplies for the naval port. Centered amid them was the quartermaster’s office. No one enjoyed coming here. The Navy’s labyrinthine bureaucracy could punish a sailor who’d lost vital equipment, ruined his uniform, or failed to read the paperwork he’d signed. Ary hoped mustering out would be a simple process.

He feared it wouldn’t.

Nearly an hour later, he stumbled out of the quartermaster’s office, glad to be away from the tedium of filling out and signing his muster and pension papers. He leaned against the building’s wall as he stared at the sun vanishing behind a warehouse.

I lived my childhood dream for five months and twenty-one days. He glanced down at his maimed hand.

“Ary.”

Estan, accompanied by the thump of his crutch, approached with Esty at his side holding a bundle of clothing. Estan wore a respectable waistcoat over a gray silk shirt and dark trousers, the right leg pinned up.

“Mustered out?” Estan asked.

Ary nodded. “Mind the quartermaster. If she gives you any issues, mention my name.”

“I hope you did not terrify the poor woman with that glower,” Estan said, a grin spreading on his dark cheeks. He glanced at Esty. “He frightened the quartermaster at Camp Chubris, too.”

“He does have the face for it,” Esty said, a smile on her pink lips. Her black hair, gathered in multiple beaded braids, framed her pale face.

Ary grinned back as he straightened from the wall. “Someone has to keep the quartermasters honest.”

Estan chuckled.

Esty glanced at Ary then at Estan. “Ary, this is my husband.”

Ary blinked. “Uuuhhh . . .” He didn’t know what to say to the declaration from the slender Agerzak maid. “That’s . . . sudden.”

“Estan is my husband,” she said, hooking her right arm around Estan’s left.

A foolish grin spread across Estan’s lips. Ary couldn’t help returning it as Esty stated a third time, “This is my husband.”

“Well, congratulations,” Ary said, shaking Estan’s hand. “I didn’t know you went down to the temple. I would have stood with you, and I’m sure, uh, Chaylene would have . . . Well, she would have been happy to be there.”

“I fear you misunderstand,” Estan said, still smiling, his teeth flashing white between dark lips. “You just witnessed it.”

“I have declared it three times in front of a witness,” Esty said, her cheeks blushing scarlet. “That’s all it takes for my people.”

“Just . . . one of you saying it three times?”

“No, the woman says it.” She gave Estan a look, her expression melting into the same joy Ary had beheld on Chaylene’s face during their wedding. “The man doesn’t get a choice. It’s too important a decision to leave to them.”

“Agerzak men have little say over whom they marry,” Estan explained through his grin. “Generally, they make their preference known to the woman, but it is her decision. If she says the words, they are married. I suspect that it is another custom borne out of the struggles of her ancestors to survive beneath the Storm.”

“Our menfolk are too busy killing each other or playing pirate. Without us women forcing the issue, they’d be content to just whore around and drink.” Esty smiled at her husband. Estan’s joy shone as bright as the noon sun.

Ary’s heart was lifted by the couple’s happiness.

While still staring at his wife, Estan said, almost sounding like an afterthought, “We’ve found a ship. The Varele sails just after dawn tomorrow.”

“So soon?” Ary asked, the warmth deflating out of him.

Estan wrenched his gaze from his new bride. “Well, given the pressing circumstances, I believe it is prudent to reach my tutor with haste.”

Ary exhaled. “I suppose you’re right. Uhhh . . . where exactly are we going?”

“Master Rlarim dwells in exile on Thunely.”

*

Estan rose from his muddled dreams later that night to the painful itch in his leg. His eyes opened, and he stared up at the strange ceiling as he scratched at the bandage over the stump of his leg, wishing he could scratch at the missing flesh.

As the sleep vanished from his mind, he realized he was alone in bed. He felt the warmth of Esty lingering in the sheets but not her body. He cast his gaze across her dark bedroom above the Last Port Tavern.

The reason that she had a room here, her form occupation as a prostitute, didn’t bother Estan. To Estan, selling her body was no different than a strong man hiring out his labor to haul cargo or pull nets. She had assets—a lush form and flirty wit—she’d leveraged to survive. It was logical. Learning that she’d actually used illusions, one of Theisseg’s Gifts she possessed, to make her clients think they’d lain with her only made Estan appreciate her more. She had used her talents in a clever way to avoid an unpleasant task.

“Esty?” Estan called.

“Yes,” she answered out of the darkness. Her words were hoarse. Pained.

“What is the matter?” Estan sat up and groaned, rubbing at his thighs. His right hand brushed the linen bandages wrapping around his stump.

“I just . . . had a dream.”

“Your brother?”

The gloom retreated as his eyes adjusted. He spotted her sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls. The slight moonlight, a mix of red Jwiaswo and blue Twiuasra, picked out the naked curves of her body.

Night’s chill pervaded the room. Autumn gripped the southern skylands. While the days were still warm, the temperature plunged after sunset. Estan pulled the blankets around his shoulders before grabbing his crutch. Awkwardly, he stood on one leg, the crutch’s butt digging into his right armpit.

There has to be a better way than this, Estan thought, his mind always chasing new ideas. He stopped his drifting and focused on Esty.

He hobbled over to his wife and sank down beside her. Esty wiggled under his arm and blanket, leaning against him. His father would be apoplectic to learn that he’d married an Agerzak, spoiling his pure, Vaarckthian bloodline. A nasty, vindictive part of Estan wanted to write the Lord-Mayor of Amion a long, detailed letter about his new daughter-in-law being an Agerzak with keen intellect, who was also the sister of the most feared pirate in the last five years.

“Do you want to talk?” he asked.

Esty shook her head.

To some, it might seem strange that Estan loved the sister of the man who had almost killed him. It wasn’t logical, but, Estan was discovering, his heart didn’t care.

In the silence, he studied the profile of her face. His thoughts drifted to the day he’d spied her peering down into the Storm. Her beauty had stuck him with a physical intensity. Her pale, Agerzak skin contrasting with her dark hair had, along with the ample bounty of her bosom, attracted his interest.

Her intelligence, however, had captured his heart.

“Is it wrong of me to be glad he’s dead?” Esty asked after several dozen heartbeats.

“Are you glad he is dead, or relieved that you won’t have to wait in dread for the news of his passing?”

“I’m not sure.” Her voice was low. “I miss the boy who cared for me when our mother died. He would hold me when I had bad dreams and sing a song or recite a story to me to banish away my fears. The sweet boy was utterly consumed by his rage. Every time I saw him as an adult, he was harder, leaner, angrier. Less and less like my brother.”

Estan closed his eyes, hating the pain in her voice. He wished he knew a way to banish her pain and make her smile. He understood the principals of buoyancy in regards to the engines that powered ships, and the mathematics behind the force of gravity. He could debate the various theories on how the skylands hung in the air in seeming violation of natural law. He’d studied the celestial movements of the stars, could name the features of both moons, and could predict when the next seven solar eclipses would happen.

He had no idea how to talk to his grieving wife.

It seemed holding her as she cried on his shoulder was enough. It startled Estan to discover such a simple principal. It required little effort on his part, and yet it was such an important moment. He stroked her black hair as the window lightened and lightened. Dawn approached. Their ship would soon be sailing.

What a remarkable creature she is. Her birth has denied her the opportunities afforded me. If she’d had a tutor of Master Rlarim’s talents, she would have earned a spot at the University of Rlarshon or even the grand University of Qopraa.

Estan vowed to himself to see that Master Rlarim gave her such a tutelage.

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

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: Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen 1)

Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen 1)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

 

The siege of Pale ends with the devastation of the famed Bridgeburners and the decimation of the Malazan Army’s mage cadre. Stunned by these events, the survivors suspect they have been betrayed by members of their own armies. Tattersail, the surviving mage, enters into a bargain with Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his surviving men to uncover the truth.

On the other side of the world, in the heart of the Malazan Empire, an entire section of the coast, several villages, and an army have been massacred. A young officer, Ganoes Paran, and the Adjutant of the Empress embark on a trail for the culprit that leads them to Pale and to a member of Whiskeyjack’s own squad.

In the city of Darujistan, the last of the Free Cities of Genebackis not conquered by the Malazan Empire, politics flare as some wish to capitulate to the Empire and others seek an alliance with the mysterious Anomander Rake who nearly single-handily stopped the Empire’s siege of Pale. In this city, a young thief named Crokus is about to be a pawn of the mischievous gods of luck while an assassin’s war explodes through the rooftop.

In the city of Darujistan, all these disparate characters meet, converge, and clash as Malazan Book of the Fallen begins.

I have never read a fantasy series like Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. History breathes in his books. You have the feeling that you are in the middle of some grand epic. Characters have rich backstories that would make an interesting series, and this is just the start of one new chapter in their varied histories. Gods, powerful Ascendants, lowly mages, undead warriors, thieves, and more. It is like a D&D campaign on crack.

Erikson pulls all these various characters, dozens of them, with their own goals. Each is a rich character brought to life. They clash, merge, and explode apart in ways you can’t imagine. It is a breathtaking read that keeps you turning until the converging climax.

Thus starts Malazan Book of the Fallen, the annals of the dead soldiers of this vast empire as its activities span the world as they challenge gods, dictators, and corruption within their own nation. This military fantasy is one of the best out there.

You can buy Gardens of the Moon from Amazon!

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Free Weekly Story: Reflections of Eternity

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!

Reflections of Eternity

Rehman leaned against the statue of the great heroine Xella, wineskin in hand. He took a deep swig, the wine cheap and sour, but he was drunk enough not to care. The world was ending. Heljina’s song had quieted. The ground shook as Zarketh stirred, so the quality of his wine hardly mattered at all. A silent breeze—even drunk, it was strange not to hear the Goddess’s beautiful harmony upon the wind—ruffled his sky-blue acolyte robes.

He took another long drink.

Despite the fact that the world was about to end, it was like a festival on the temple grounds. All the temples were bedecked in their finery, from Heljina’s own, painted blue like the sky, to the temples dedicated to her daughter and son, Golden Felikia and Silver Bedko, and all the lesser shrines in between. All of the activity was centered round the Kurokin Stone. Every would-be hero and braggart for miles around had come to draw Bedko’s Blade from the sky-blue rock—to throw his or her life away to save the world. Rehman and his fellow acolytes had watched, and mocked, oaf after muscle-bound oaf heave and strain and groan until, cursing, they’d stumbled away, faces dripping with sweat.

After the third wineskin, Rehman and his fellow acolytes found the absurdity hilarious. He wasn’t too concerned about the world ending. Five hundred years ago, Heljina’s Song to her slumbering husband had also stilled. The brave Xella, whose statue he so unceremoniously leaned against, had drawn the first sword from the Kurokin, entered the Tomb, and never returned. The world hadn’t ended, so she must have accomplished something.

And if one of these moon-drunk idiots pulled the sword, Rehman was confident they’d do the same.

“Look at that one,” Dorrim laughed, taking the wineskin and pointing at the Kurokin stone.

At the stone. a burly man, perhaps a blacksmith’s apprentice, grunted like a rutting bull as he struggled to pull the silvered blade from the heart of the blue stone. The man’s face grew a bright red, his forearm muscles bulging, but the sword refused to yield.

“Doesn’t he know only the promised one can pull the sword?” weaselly-faced Vellin chortled.

“His muscles have squeezed out all his brains,” Rehman joked.

The apprentice blacksmith heaved and strained with all his might to rip the sword out. So great was his effort, that when his hands slipped from the silver grip of the sword, he fell back, landing like a sack of his turnips on his backside. Perhaps if Rehman had been just a little more sober, he would not have laughed so hard, but he was now on his fifth wineskin and his head swam with drink.

A shadow fell across Rehman as he grasped his knees, his sides aching with laughter. Dorrim gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs. He looked up; the apprentice towered over him.

“Worthy try!” Rehman exclaimed, failing to notice the angry shame flushing the apprentice’s face. “If only big arms and small wits were enough, then the sword would have been pulled already.”

The apprentice grinned dangerously at Rehman and seized his wrist with an iron grip. “Let’s see how you fare, little acolyte.”

“What?” Rehman protested as the apprentice dragged him forward, the man’s hands as tight as a jailer’s fetters. “Hey, wait!”

“Let’s see if a flabby body and a sharp tongue work any better!”

The hulking youth flung Rehman forward. He fell, hands braced before him, against the hard surface of the Kurokin. The blue boulder, the size of a large carriage, was warm beneath his touch. It pulsed with a slow, steady rhythm.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

The Goddess’s hand had plunged most of the blade into the stone, leaving only the silver hilt and quillons—which swept downwards, forming a crescent guard—exposed.

“Draw,” the hulk ordered.

“Fine,” Rehman muttered. He grasped the sword and gave a half-hearted pull. “Well, guess I’m not the one.”

“You didn’t even try,” the apprentice glowered. He cracked his knuckles. “Give it a good pull.”

Rehman swallowed, eyeing scarred knuckles. Then he gripped the sword in determined hands and heaved with all his rather unimpressive might. He fell backwards, just like the blacksmith apprentice had. The ground smacked him in the back, driving the air from his lungs in a painful gasp. He lay stunned, barely aware of something gripped in his hand.

A hush fell across the crowd. Rehman stared in confusion at the apprentice’s paling face. Rehman sat up on his elbows, surveying the crowd through bleary vision. Men, women, and children gaped at him.

Why’s everyone looking at me? he wondered. He raised his right arm to rub at his sore back when he realized what he held.

By Heljina’s Song, I drew it. He held the silver blade in his hand, the edge rippling like gentle waves. Disbelief punched his gut. This can’t be happening. His thoughts whirled.

The world spun around him.

I can’t be the one chosen to defeat Zarketh. I’m just an acolyte.

Rehman gazed up at the statue of Xella, the maiden who’d drawn the golden sword five hundred years ago. The heroine was last seen walking into the Tomb to drive Zarketh back into his slumber. She stood proud, holding the golden sword, Felikia’s Blade, up high, her youthful face full of confident determination. She’d been a warrior, trained from birth in the arts of the sword.

I can’t even hold a broom right. How can I defeat the Lord of Earthquakes and save mankind?

“I am a dead man.”

Rehman fainted, the rippled blade still clutched in his hand.

* * *

Xella pushed through the men standing defeated around the Kurokin, her leather boots squishing upon the grass trampled into mud. The blue stone rested in an empty field near the rude village that the laborers dwelled in. There were grand plans to build a temple to the Sky Goddess near the holy Kurokin.

She didn’t care about any of that. As her father had always predicted, the world was ending, and someone needed to save it. None of the laborers or the men of her tribe had succeeded in drawing forth either of the swords. Now, they could no longer deny her the chance.

“Get back to your sheep, girl,” spat a leathery-faced man, three of his front teeth missing.

She ignored him. She was used to being shunned. They’d proclaimed her father a blasphemer, and his supposed sins against Heljina stained her, too. She reached the sky-blue stone, the warmth of the Kurokin taking the chill out of the autumn night. Two swords were thrust into the stone—one gold and one silver.

And twice shall come about the Song’s end,

With malice and hatred shall Zarketh awaken.

Two shall be chosen, separated by time.

Down in darkness will freedom be given,

Through death shall history transcend.

The words of the prophecy echoed in her head. Her father had believed the words and been ridiculed by these very men. “The song will never stop!” the tribe had declared. “Never.”

It had.

No longer did sweet melodies whisper on the wind. Instead, the ground rumbled beneath their feet. Zarketh stirred. Xella stopped before the large boulder, the Holy Tear shed by the Sky Goddess. Xella grasped the gold sword, Felikia’s Blade, and drew it forth with ease.

The mutters died.

The blade was long, both edges serrated with upturned teeth, as if the blade had been a single tongue of flame frozen in steel. The hilt was ornate, gold, a sunburst worked into the quillons. She surveyed at the crowd—the men who’d hounded her father to suicide and her mother to starvation.

They looked away.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered, gall burning the back of her throat.

Her journey to the Tomb took the rest of the night; no one followed her—they were all full of shame and cowardice. Clear skies allowed Bedko to light the grassy hills with his silver countenance. The ground’s trembling grew more frequent as she crossed the grassland in her sheepskin trousers.

She lived on the plains, herding her sheep with her dog, Usti. She’d left him with the flock. Someone will claim Usti and my sheep if I don’t come back. They’ll be taken care of. Her feet strode across the plain with the confidence her heart lacked. She could walk these fields blindfolded. She knew the terrain intimately.

She knew to never travel in this direction.

A single, dead hill rose up at the center of a valley, a boil upon the earth. Nothing grew on the mound. The grassy plain ended at the base of the hill—the tomb of a slumbering god. When humans were created, Zarketh had grown jealous of the attention his wife, the Sky Goddess, had lavished upon them. He’d caused the ground to quake, toppling mountains to bury men and opening chasms to swallow them up. So Heljina had begun her Song, singing on the winds and keeping him asleep until two champions would arise, separated by centuries, to defeat him.

That part never made sense to Xella.

The hill’s earth was cold and clammy, staining her hands black whenever she slipped and had to catch herself. Behind her, Felikia brightened the horizon with the new day’s birth. The dark soil seemed to drink in the morning light, darkening instead of brightening. She reached the summit of the dead hill, a single spire of black stone thrust upward at its crown. An uneven opening had been cut into the spike, large enough for three men to walk abreast. A cold, stale air burst out of the hole in successive gusts.

Fear gripped her. She looked behind her, almost blinded by the rising sun. A figure stood at the edge of the hill, almost lost in the bright sunlight. Her heart beat faster. She raised her hands to shield her eyes and see who’d followed her.

No one. Just a trick of the light. She was always alone.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered bitterly. “It’s what Father would have wanted.”

Xella faced death’s entrance and swallowed her fear. She surrendered to the chains of obligations pulling her into the darkness.

* * *

Rehman was breathing hard when he reached the summit of the dead hill, all his friends and family waiting for him. Everyone wanted to accompany him. He was the hero. He’d drawn the Sword of the Moon, Bedko’s Blade. Every girl he knew had kissed him for luck and every man had shaken his hand.

He desperately wished that anyone else had drawn the blade.

“I’ll just mess it up,” he’d complained to his mother.

“Nonsense,” she’d airily replied. “I always knew you’d accomplish greatness.”

His father had squeezed his shoulder. “I’m proud of you. You will not be forgotten.”

Everyone thinks I’m going to die. And why not? The great warrior Xella failed to return. What chance do I have?

“None,” he muttered as everyone watched him walk towards the uneven hole carved into the upthrust spire—the Tomb of the Sleeping God.

He wanted to run, wanted to throw the silvery sword away. He couldn’t. He had to save the world. Everyone’s expectations were chains about him, dragging him to the Tomb. His fear rooted him to the earth, trying to fight the pull towards the dark hole. The sun set behind the spire. Dying. Dead. Darkness fell.

Did Xella feel this same fear? Did she know she was going to walk into this hole and never return?

He pictured her standing at the entrance. A tall, slim girl, the Sword of the Sun held in her hand. He could almost see her peering into the dark portal, her black hair tied back with ragged strip of wool, form dressed in rugged leathers. She turned back, taking one last look at the world she was about to leave. He almost laughed; his imagination of her was plainer than her statue, not as graceful or beautiful, and certainly not as curvy. Just an average girl.

“What are you waiting for?” whispered Dorrim.

The image of Xella vanished. Swallowing, the sword gripped in his hand, Rehman took a single step towards the opening. Everyone stared at him, full of hope. He was supposed to save them. Rehman wanted to laugh. I can’t even sweep the temple right.

The chains pulled; another step.

I’m going to die.

A third step. All those eyes staring at him, ratcheting the chain tighter and pulling him towards the darkness. I have to die so everyone can live. My parents, my little sister, Dorrim and Vellin, my cousins, and aunts and uncles. The entirety of mankind depends on me.

“Skies above,” he whispered. “We’re all doomed.”

The portal loomed larger as if it had yawned open to swallow him. Cold air wafted out of the dark opening in short gusts that rustled his coat. It came in regular intervals, like something was . . . breathing. Rehman swallowed. The exhalations of a god washed over him. He trembled, his stomach twisting into knots like ropes of sausages.

He closed his eyes and stepped into darkness.

Everything went silent—the cheers of his friends and family, the beating of his heart. Deathly silent. He opened his eyes; the sword glowed silver, illuminating a tunnel that spiraled down into shadows. The rocks were dark, damp, and Zarketh’s breath washed over him.

Rehman looked back. There was a solid wall of sheer, inky darkness.

“Skies above,” he whispered.

No choice. He went down.

The tunnel seemed to spiral downward for eternity. Nothing changed. Always the same, uneven ground; jagged walls dripped with filth; spikes, like sharp teeth, hung down from the ceiling. He walked down a never-ending gullet, swallowed by Zarketh. When he grew thirsty, he drank from his waterskin. He had six of the heavy bladders in his pack, along with several days’ worth of tough, dried, and very salty jerky. When he tired, he slept, and felt even more exhausted and sore when he woke up.

His pack grew lighter. He discarded waterskin after waterskin, his food devoured. He kept walking. Am I dead? A corpse shuffling downward forever? The aches of his body faded, his throat grew less parched, and his stomach ceased to rumble.

“I’ve descended beyond life,” he’d mutter. “Isn’t that right, sword?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did. It just shined its pale, silver light. When he rested, Rehman would stare at his reflection in the wavy blade. His eyes were sunken, his fat face had grown hollow, and his lips had become cracked lines.

“Withering away, hey, sword?” He laughed, shrill and cackling. “You never talk back. What a dull companion you are.” He stood up, bracing himself on the moist wall. “Well, I should probably keep walking. It’s what you do when you’re damned. You walk and walk and—”

He froze. The tunnel opened up. He’d finally reached the bottom. Something lay grimy white on the ground.

A skull.

“What do we have here?” he asked Bedko’s blade, cocking his head in curiosity. Before the journey down, this skull would have bothered him. Now it was something different from slimy rocks. It was novel.

He reached down and picked it up with his free hand. Clumps of muddy detritus slid off as he shook it. The skull was about the size of a large dog’s, but the mouth . . .”

“Skies above!”

He dropped it.

The jaws were fused together and its snout was elongated, sweeping out into a crescent blade—an axehead.

* * *

Xella blinked; something different lay ahead.

For days, she’d descended the tunnel, her body slowly growing leaner, more gaunt. She hardly recognized the pale face reflected in the flame-like blade of the Sword of the Sun. Her black hair was a tangled, grimy mess from the moist dirt caking the walls, and her cheeks were sunken hollows.

And the loneliness . . . She thought she knew isolation. She didn’t even have her flock or Usti for company. And though she’d been shunned by her tribe, they were something. But this endless walk down into the grave taught her the true meaning of solitude: hopelessness.

But finally, there was something new and different. The tunnel leveled and opened wide. She moved faster, laughing aloud. She rushed out into the wide room, throwing her arms out and spinning about. She could barely see the spike-filled ceiling above or the walls out to either side.

It felt like freedom.

Something scraped in the darkness. She froze.

“Is someone there?” she shouted.

“. . . s . . . omone . . . the . . .” Her voice echoed back, hollow and faint.

“Please, don’t be afraid!” Xella cried out.

The scraping grew louder. She whirled, looking for the source. Something moved in the shadows. A beast. Maybe the size of a sheepdog. Usti followed me! she thought with desperate longing. But that didn’t seem right. Hope ignored doubt.

“Here, boy!” she called.

“. . . ere . . . oy . . .”

“Come he—” Her words strangled in her throat. It wasn’t a dog. It was hairless, black skin stretched tight over bones. And its head . . . “Demon!”

It lunged, slashing at her with its axehead mouth. Xella swung her sword, shadows dancing as the glowing weapon arced through the air. Her blade cut the demon’s body. The corpse landed with a rattle, like it was nothing more than a sack of old bones. The head bounced across the floor, before coming to a rest at the tunnel’s entrance.

“Felikia’s fire!” she cursed.

A low, scraping sound came from behind her. Then a second. And a third.

And a fourth.

* * *

Bones lay scattered all over the cave, grimy white with scraps of black, moldy leather clinging like filth. Rehman kicked another axehead skull over with disgust. A clean cut had sheared through the back of the skull.

“Xella did this,” Rehman told his sword.

He could almost see her, dancing around the cave, her golden blade flashing. The axehead demons must have attacked her from all sides. She was gaunt like him, her long, black hair a tangled, filthy mess swirling behind her. She moved with the grace of a maiden dancing in Felikia’s honor, stepping light, her dirty face so alive. Rehman stood in the cave’s center, entranced by his imagination, turning to follow her as she sprinted, attacked, dodged, and tumbled.

Xella swung and sliced through his imagination of the demons—their bodies the size of a large hound, with bony limbs tipped with sharp, curved claws. Half of a corpse landed at Rehman’s feet, right where a pile of bones lay. His imagination was so real, so vivid. His heart beat faster. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he felt alive. He cheered when her sword felled another demon, and winced when she narrowly avoided a sweeping slice from an axehead.

“Get him!” he shouted, his voice echoing in the cavern. “Yeah! Kill them, Xella!”

Sweat beaded his forehead. He held his sword up high, waving her on. Three axeheads cornered her. She faced them, her face flushed, red, alive. They leaped. Her golden blade swung, slamming through the first demon’s shoulder. She pivoted, the demon falling into a pile of moldy bones, and dodged the next monster’s leap.

“You can do it!” Rehman cheered.

She cut the second one down, then dashed across the cave. She passed through Rehman in a flash of warmth. The last demon followed. She spun around and slammed her sword down at the flying beast. Axehead met sword edge. He could almost hear the ring of steel on bone as her sword sheared through the beast. It fell in pieces around her.

“She did it, sword!” Drunk exhilaration filled him. It didn’t seem to matter to Rehman that this all was in his head. His hallucination was so real, he thought he could reach out and touch her.

Xella relaxed, bending over and grasping her knees as she struggled to catch her breath. She didn’t see the last axehead stalking behind her.

“Behind you!” he shouted. She didn’t hear him. She wasn’t real, just his imagination running wild after days, maybe weeks, of mindless boredom.

The demon stalked closer and closer; it crouched. Its crescent snout gleamed in the golden light from her sword. He didn’t think. Fear guided him, and he swung his silver blade at the beast.

The thing leaped, axehead streaking towards Xella’s unprotected back.

Bedko’s Blade bit into leathery flesh, the shock jarring his arm. His stroke passed through the demon, driving its body towards the ground in ragged pieces; they bounced and rolled to a stop at two piles of bones.

He stared at the bones in disbelief. “I reached into the past . . .” he whispered. “How?”

Xella turned and gaped at the severed body.

This can’t be happening. I can’t actually have killed the beast. Those bones have been there for five hundred years.

Xella’s dark eyes widened as she saw him. She spoke, but no sound reached his ears. She reached out; longing painted on her face. Her fingers were slim, feminine, filled with a desperate need for contact. Unconsciously, his own hand rose up, their fingers merged, the past reflecting before him as impossible to touch as his image in a pool of water.

She wavered and vanished.

* * *

The grimy man stared at her, reaching out to touch her outstretched fingers. His face was sunken, his skin hung loose, and his filthy clothes hung off his emaciated frame. His hair was short, dark, as tangled as a bird’s nest. He may have been handsome, but it was hard to tell beneath the streaks of dirt.

“I’m not alone,” she whispered. “You drew the second sword!”

Their reflections came together and. . . She passed through him. He vanished.

“No!”

She collapsed over the corpse the apparition had slain. Isolation crushed her, as oppressive as the weight of all the stone above her, imprisoning her in darkness. Ragged sobs shook her body.

“Please, no! I can’t be alone again!”

After a while, the tears stopped. Hope had died within her. There was nothing left for her to do but walk.

* * *

I affected the past.

Over and over, that thought wormed through is mind.

I affected the past.

Rehman stumbled on. After the axehead chamber, the tunnel narrowed again. It descended, but not as steeply, curving like the undulations of a serpent. I affected the past. I saved Xella. He drew strength from that thought. It breathed life back into him.

He almost felt like whistling. “I saved Xella, sword.”

The sword remained unimpressed.

Rehman shook his head. “Come on, sword. I saved her.”

“It was my edge that slew the demon,” Rehman answered, using a deeper voice to pretend the sword was speaking.

“I swung you,” he retorted back in his normal voice.

“Technicality.”

“A technicality I’m more than willing to cling to because . . .” Rehman paused, throwing his arms wide. “I saved Xella!”

The tunnel widened abruptly ahead into a vast sea of darkness. It appeared the tunnel ended in nothingness. Rehman approached cautiously, his left hand trailing against the wall and his right clutching Bedko’s silver-glowing blade.

It wasn’t the end of the tunnel, merely a cliff. Some great chasm, wider than his light could reach across, had split the tunnel in twain. When he looked down, he saw nothing but the rock’s face disappearing into darkness.

“How am I supposed to climb this?” he asked the sword.

He studied the cliff face, noting it consisted of the same dark rock as the tunnel, full of crevasses and cracks for purchase, but covered in damp filth. And its depth . . . The bottom could just be out of sight of his light, or could be miles below. Fear beat in his breast.

“I can’t do this,” he complained.

“What choice do you have?” he pretended the sword asked back.

Light blossomed below, golden as the sun. Xella appeared, climbing down this cliff. She was far below, little more than a dark form with a brilliant sword strapped to her back. Hope burned inside Rehman. She had the courage to do it, so why not him?

“What choice do I have?”

* * *

Xella slumped against the cliff’s base, exhausted. Depressed.

Forever cursed to be alone.

If she still had tears left in her, she would have flooded the Tomb and drowned the sleeping god. But she was dry; a desert of despair filled her. She clutched Felikia’s Blade in her hand, staring at its shining surface.

Maybe I’ll just stay here and die . . . Let all those who called Father a blasphemer be damned! They can save their own cursed hides!

Silver light bathed her, mixing with her sword’s golden aura. It was soft, rippling like light dancing on the surface of a pond. She looked up. The stranger was just above her head, climbing awkwardly down. He had Bedko’s Blade secured in a makeshift harness. Hope grew inside her. She fought it down, reminding herself that it was just an apparition.

An apparition that saved my life.

He wavered, rippling, and his light was gone.

“See,” she whispered. “There’s no hope. I’m all alone . . .”

The silver light burst into existence beside her. The man sat slumped against the cliff wall. He turned and smiled at her, nodding his head. Exhaustion melted from his face as his lips moved, but she heard no sound.

“Hello,” she said back, returning his smile.

She felt suddenly shy, like it was a festival and she was meeting a new boy from a distant tribe. Her heart drummed in her chest while warmth flushed through her. Xella reached out, knowing he wasn’t real, but needing to see, to feel, for herself. She brushed his shoulder; her finger passed through his reflection, tingling with life.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he dead? But he has Bedko’s Blade, and I left that sword thrust into the Kurokin. Did he come after me? His clothes were strange, not sheepskin leathers, but fashioned from some other material made with a fine weave. There were curious, round fasteners made of bone holding his clothes together instead of rawhide lacings.

Am I seeing tomorrow? Was this soft man the second champion spoken of in the prophecy? The one who would follow after me? But who he was didn’t matter. Only what he meant: she wasn’t alone. Her eyes closed; she was so tired. She leaned her head towards him. Her face tingled. She smiled, knowing his reflection touched hers.

Sleep came.

* * *

Rehman awoke alone.

He felt rested for the first time since venturing into the Tomb. He sat for a moment, the pulsing breath of the slumbering god washing over him. She’d seen him . . . And he’d seen her. He didn’t understand how the past was reflecting on the present, but it lifted his spirits. She was so strong and capable, and her strength rubbed off on him.

He stood up, stretched his sore back, and pressed on.

The terrain at the bottom of the cliff was a flat, wide-open forest—well, that’s the best way I can describe it—of rock spikes jutting up from the floor. Rehman wound his way through the spikes, using Zarketh’s breath to navigate. So long as the stale air blew against his face, he had to be drawing closer.

As he walked, Xella would flicker into being. Golden light would blossom, sometimes ahead, occasionally behind, but usually to his right or left. They didn’t walk quite the same path, choosing different routes to navigate the “forest.” She wouldn’t appear for long, often mere heartbeats. Long enough for them to meet the other’s gazes, nod their heads, and then she’d flicker away.

Every time she appeared, it filled Rehman with new vigor. Xella had survived this oppressive place and succeeded in defeating Zarketh. So could he.

The forest of spikes ended at another towering cliff face pierced by a huge, unevenly carved opening lined with spikes. For a moment, Xella appeared at the entrance, golden light painting the opening. He smiled at her; she beckoned him to follow.

* * *

Seeing Tomorrow, as Xella dubbed the apparition, flicker into existence as she threaded her way through the spikes kept her hopeful. He had a boyish grin plastered on his face every time he saw her, spurring her to keep walking.

The spikes ended at a sheer cliff that seemed identical to the one she’d climbed down, except a single, yawning opening pierced this wall. She studied the dark opening for minutes, maybe hours. Xella had come to savor the freedom of the spike valley where the ceiling was so high up it lay out of the reach of her light. She could almost pretend she was walking through a really dark night. That illusion was shattered, now; she trembled at the thought of reentering the oppressive closeness of another tunnel.

Silver light blossomed. Tomorrow was back. Strength rushed into her. She wasn’t alone. Xella motioned him to follow and stepped into the tunnel. His light died, but she knew he was following. Maybe not for tens or hundreds of years, but he walked the same, oppressive trail she did.

This tunnel spiraled in a tight, steep pattern. She feared another eternity-long descent like the first one. However, in what felt like only an hour, it flattened and widened into a large room. Relief flooded her. Open! The ceiling was well out of reach of her hands.

Just like the axehead room.

She tensed, scanning the room, straining to hear.

Silver light blossomed; Tomorrow manifested.

Fear twisted his face. His silver sword was swinging in a clumsy arc. A horrible, multi-legged thing leaped at him. Its body was black, bloated, and covered in thick, spiny hair. The demon almost resembled a spider, but no spider grew to the size of a large dog. And no spider’s legs ended in grasping hands with long, thin fingers.

Ichor spurted purple, splashing Tomorrow as his blade cut the thing in half. It fell to the ground, then wavered and vanished. His mouth was wide open. He screamed, terror filling his eyes. He swung his sword in a wide circle, batting a second spider away. More and more appeared around her, crawling on the walls and ceiling, scurrying on the floor. One passed right through her, leaving behind numbing cold.

“Watch out!” she shouted, forgetting he couldn’t hear her. He didn’t even notice her.

He fought, desperately slicing and thrusting his sword. Every time he killed one, its body vanished. She felt so helpless. She wanted to aid him. One leaped and landed on Tomorrow’s back, slamming him to the ground. The abominations swarmed him. Clutching hands seized him. One grabbed his throat, the fingers so long they wrapped around his entire neck, and squeezed.

“No!” she shouted. “You can’t take him! I can’t be alone!”

He saved me! The memory blazed in her mind; the axehead lying dead, slain by him. This has to work!

She swung her blade.

* * *

The spider’s clammy hand squeezed the life out of Rehman.

His vision grew fuzzy and black. He struggled to escape, but other spiders pinned him to the rough cave floor. Spindly hands grasped his arms, his legs, his torso, and his neck. Their grips were iron manacles, crushing him. I knew I’d fail. Why did the sword pick me?

Xella appeared, Felikia’s Blade burning with golden light and arcing swiftly down. It sliced through the demon. Cold ichor spilled across Rehman’s chest. The spider choking him fell dead. She swung again, severing three limbs on another. His sword arm came free. He stabbed and kicked and sliced. With Xella’s aid, he scrambled to his feet.

“I can do this!” he shouted, exhilaration flooding into him. Xella was with him. Together, they could defeat them.

More came skittering across the ceiling and dropped down at him. Rehman swung, parting a bloated body and raining more stinking, purple ichor on him. Xella danced past him, her glowing sword flashing from the past, killing demons in the present.

“Yeah!” he roared, brandishing Bedko’s Blade. “Which one of you spiders wants to get swatted next?”

Nothing moved. He blinked; they were all dead, hacked to pieces. Xella grinned at him, nodding her approval. Then she wavered and vanished. He exhaled, the excitement bleeding off of him. He struggled to wipe the ichor off his face. It tasted foul, bitter, and smelled far worse.

Through death shall history transcend.

The prophecy echoed in his head as he pressed on. “Is that’s what happening, sword? Is the past’s reflection merging with the present’s?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did.

“You’re no help.”

Past the spider’s lair, the path narrowed, but went straight for a time, until it widened into another huge gallery. Only instead of leading to a cliff, the path skirted along a rock wall, with a huge drop on the right. The path was narrower than his feet were long.

“Well, Xella crossed this. So can I.”

He had to press his back against the rock’s face, sliding his feet sideways, his toes dangling over the lip. A bit of rock broke free, tumbling and echoing loudly as it bounced deeper, and deeper, and deeper until the sounds just faded away. He never heard that final, resounding crash of it hitting the bottom.

“Skies above!” he shivered, and looked up. “This is just like cleaning the temple’s roof, sword. Don’t look over the side and keep focusing on something else. It’s not so bad that way.”

Xella manifested, standing in thin air before him. He blinked as she stopped her leisurely stroll to look at him, a curious expression on her face. How can she float? He looked at her feet. A rocky surface surrounded them, fuzzing into haze after a few fingerswidth.

The ledge he perched on was jagged, crumbling. “The cliff’s edge has collapsed since you walked this path, Xella.”

She watched him, shaking her head, a playful smile on her face as he shuffled along.

“I’m so glad I can amuse you,” he muttered, fear squeezing his heart. “I guess this means you didn’t have to cross this way. Great.”

He shuffled. His foot slipped. His stomach lurched as his right hand tried to grip the wall and his left arm pinwheeled. He teetered over the edge, about to fall forever like the rock.

Xella caught him and shoved Rehman back. Warmth burst through him. She pressed him up against the wall, her body pulsing against his in a steady, rhythmic beat. A heart’s beat. He panted, staring into her dark eyes. Her lips were so close to his. A sudden desire gripped him. He leaned in to kiss her.

She vanished.

* * *

Tomorrow was with her more and more often. She could still feel the lingering warmth of his body when she’d pressed against him. She didn’t understand what had happened, but his foot had vanished through the floor, and it had looked like he was about to fall. She’d reacted and . . . touched him.

She wasn’t alone.

Time had lost any sort of meaning. Did they walk for hours between rests? Or was it days, or weeks, or only minutes? When they grew tired, they would lean against the same wall, just inches and centuries apart. When Xella woke up, he would be watching her, and she couldn’t help smiling winsomely at him. He was always talking, and she wished to hear his voice. She imagined it high-pitched and full of boyish enthusiasm.

The tunnel widened into another room, spikes teething the ceiling. Tomorrow was with her, his sword gripped tight in his hand as he scanned the room. She stood at his back, looking the other way. What sort of horrors dwelled here? And when would they attack?

Nothing came. They moved cautiously across the room, watching and listening. He moved strangely, like he was stepping over something. Fear tightened her stomach. He must be stepping over the corpses of demons that hadn’t yet died for her.

A great, rumbling groan echoed through the room. A strong breath of wind rushed past her. She flinched. Tomorrow didn’t react until he noticed her, then he looked around, bewildered. The groan returned, louder, almost a physical force that rattled her bones.

And it rattled the Tomb.

Xella was thrown off her feet, the ground writhing beneath her, and landed heavily on her side. Her sword slid away, still glowing, and bounced wildly across the floor. Tomorrow stood in shock, staring at her. He didn’t move. The ground heaved and rippled about his feet, yet he stood unaffected. With a splintering crash, a spike fell from the ceiling. It impacted the ground, bursting into rubble and spraying her face with sharp rocks.

“Skies above!” she screamed, and tossed about on the ground.

More spikes crashed down. She rolled onto her back, getting caught in a small crevasse. Above her, a stony fang torqued as even the ceiling shook. Her eyes widened in horror. I need to move! Felikia’s flames, I need to move!

Tomorrow grabbed her. As he hauled her away, a warmth flushed through her. The spike crashed down where she’d lain a heartbeat ago, leaving behind a mound of rubble. Another violent shake bounced her out of his grip and rolled her across the floor. He followed and yanked her clear of another plummeting fang.

It was like he knew where they would fall.

* * *

Xella slipped out of his hands, bounced by the shaking that he could only witness but not experience. She landed amid the ruins of a spike, her body passing right through the rubble. For her, the spike hadn’t fallen.

Yet.

He lunged, grabbed her, and pulled her clear.

Rehman dropped his sword, his other hand seizing her, and he pulled her upright, wrapping his arms around her. She clung to him, her body quaking in his arms as he struggled to hold on to her. She squeezed him tight. Silent screams ripped from her lips.

“I won’t let you go!” he shouted, his words echoing through the quiet cave.

She peered into his eyes. Some of her fear retreated.

“You saved me!” Rehman yelled. “I’ll save you!”

She was grimy, haggard, terrified—and beautiful. He kissed her. Her lips were warm, sweet. The pulsing between them grew faster, matching his racing heart. He’d kissed a girl or two before, but it had not been like this. There had not been this . . . energy. Life flowed between them, driving back the death haunting the Tomb. Her eyes squeezed shut and her tension melted away, banished by—

She was gone. He stumbled forward; arms wrapped around empty air.

* * *

Xella stood transfixed.

Her lips still burned with Tomorrow’s kiss. He’d vanished, but the warmth remained. A giddy, excited energy burst inside her. She’d never been kissed before. Every boy had shunned her when they had learned of her father’s supposed blasphemy.

She twirled in the cave, laughing. There was life in this dark, oppressive prison. And it burned with energy. She tripped on a piece of rubble, stumbled, and blinked. The quaking had stopped while they’d kissed. She strode with a bounce to her step to where the Sword of the Sun lay, glowing with its yellow light.

Tomorrow appeared at the mouth of the cave. He waited for her, smiling like a pleased boy. She blushed; his eyes . . . appreciated her. She joined him, her hand immediately reaching out to touch him. She passed right through him, leaving behind a pleasant tingle. Disappointment stabbed her. She wanted to touch him again, but she’d settle for just being with him.

The quakes grew more frequent. A great snort of wind and a rumble would always precede them. Sometimes it happened to Xella, and sometimes to Tomorrow. Fear would clench her as she watched him stumble and bounce around. She’d try to hold him, to keep him from being crushed by falling spikes or toppling off narrow ledges.

When the quaking struck her time, terror gripped Xella. She’d cling to him, letting Tomorrow protect her. She felt helpless as she was tossed about, and protected when he grabbed her and yanked her to safety.

They were drawing closer, their histories bleeding together more and more. He was almost never gone and even when the Tomb wasn’t shaking, she could sometimes touch him. She would be walking and her hand would brush his and, for a moment, it would feel solid, real . . . Then she’d pass right through him.

A loud wheeze began to suffuse Zarketh’s breathing. They grew ever closer to the god. Whatever she had to do, she was glad Tomorrow was with her. They kept trudging deeper into death. Sometimes, she wondered if she hadn’t actually died the moment she’d stepped into the Tomb. It must have been weeks since she’d eaten or drank anything.

Other demons attacked. Slithering serpents with two heads and no eyes; large insects with thick shells and pincered hands that scurried sideways; furry beasts that walked on their arms and attacked with short, nimble legs. A cavalcade of nightmares.

They defeated them together.

* * *

The path ended at an inky wall of darkness. The sleeping god’s breath rushed past Rehman like a stiff breeze, rustling his clothing and grimy hair. He rubbed his chin. Frowning, he noticed that his face was bare. He should have had a full beard, but not even a whisker had sprouted.

Time didn’t matter down here.

“Well, this is it, Xella,” he whispered.

“It is,” she answered.

He jumped, staring at her, wondering if his ears had deceived him.

“I guess I’ve caught up to tomorrow,” she smiled.

He nodded; his mind went blank and his mouth felt dry.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “I can’t keep calling you Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” he croaked.

She laughed. It was rich, sweet, and did not belong in the Tomb. A shivering quake ran through the ground. They both stumbled, catching a hold of each other. The pulsing warmth was gone, replaced by the feel of actual flesh, stringy muscles, and hard bones.

The shaking stopped. Maybe Zarketh only rolled over.

“It’s Rehman,” he answered.

“I’m . . .”

“Xella,” he answered. “There’s a statue of you in front of the Kurokin.”

She blinked. “A . . . statue?”

“You’re a heroine. You saved the world. Your statue stands at the center of the temple grounds. People sing praises to you every year.”

She mouthed his words, awe widening her dark eyes. “How many tomorrows are you from?”

“Five hundred years.”

“Felikia’s flames,” she muttered. “And I’m famous? Do I get showered with gifts?”

He hesitated. How can I tell her the truth? Neither of us are leaving.

Xella’s face fell. “I don’t return?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She forced a smile. “I think we died the moment we entered the Tomb.”

“Then why do I feel so alive right now?”

“Hope? Love? Intangibles that are beyond death?” She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Love. Rehman wondered if he loved her. She’d come to mean everything to him, but what else did he have to cling to in this Tomb? She smiled at him; that made his heart beat faster. She leaned in and gave him a simple kiss on the lips.

“It’s time,” she whispered; the heat of her lips lingering on his.

He nodded, facing the darkness. They would have to pass through it. He could do it; Xella was with him.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered. “It’s great not to be alone.”

She took his hand, so alive, and they stepped into darkness and death.

* * *

Cold plunged through Xella. The only warmth was Rehman’s hand clutching hers. Light exploded, gold and silver, pushing back the darkness and the cold. Their swords shone so bright, almost blinding. Hers with all the fierceness of the sun, his with all the gentleness of the moon. Rehman squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back.

Their light formed a bubble against the darkness that pressed against them from all sides. Every time Zarketh exhaled, his breath slammed against their light, trying to snuff them out. Xella held her blade up, willing it to shine brighter. She finally had someone, and she would fight to be with Rehman for as long as possible. Maybe they would die down here, but she wanted to savor every heartbeat of his presence she could. She poured her emotions into the sword: the joy of his companionship, the hope for the world above, and the love she’d discovered in the darkest pits.

“I am the world’s love!” she shouted at Zarketh’s oppression.

The darkness recoiled.

“The world’s hope!” Rehman roared.

Their light exploded out, banishing the sea of ink. It withdrew like a receding flood, leaving behind slimy, black rocks and spikes jutting across the broken ground. They stood in a wide cavern. Zarketh’s breath washed over them, and the ground shook with a rhythmic pounding, a pulse vibrating through her bones.

Ahead, darkness glowed black.

“Bedko’s water!” Rehman gasped. “What is that?”

Xella did not have the words to describe it. A black light pulsed ahead in time to the vibrations rippling through the ground. It was the darkest, blackest thing she’d ever seen. And yet it shone with some sort of . . . unlight. Her mind grappled with it, twisting about as she struggled to comprehend it. She was like a blind person being described the color blue.

This dark light was beyond her imagination.

VERMIN

The word groaned through the ground. She didn’t so much as hear the single word as feel it vibrating through her bones. A deep, black malevolence filled the grating vibration, chilling Xella’s blood. A god spoke to her.

SCRATCHING CLAWING DIGGING

Demons skittered out of holes in the ground, loped past spikes, or crawled across the ceiling. Axeheads, spiders, two-headed snakes. All the demons they’d fought. All the deformed and twisted mockeries of the life who dwelled free beneath the skies.

WHY DO YOU DWELL ABOVE UNGRATEFUL DISGUSTING VERMIN

“Run!” Rehman shouted. “We can’t fight this many!”

They ran to the pulsing, unlight, blades slashing and felling any abhorrent demons that threw themselves into their path. The cavern quaked, spikes dropped from the ceiling, cracks split across the cavern’s floor. They scrambled, leaped, stumbled, and kept running.

The unlight grew brighter as they neared. A massive, stone heart beat upon the cavern floor, grinding as it contracted and expelled the god’s breath. The beating stone was manacled to the ground by slimy ligaments of rotting, dead flesh.

VERMIN FREE TO SCURRY BENEATH The ENDLESS BLUE

HATE

“Free?” Xella whispered. “Skies above.”

Pity stirred in Xella’s heart. Zarketh was trapped beneath the rocks, buried in this tomb. All that weight of all that earth above crushing down, oppressing him. Imprisoning him. He hates us because we’re free. Humans roam beneath the sky. Beneath his wife.

KILL YOU ALL

BURY YOU BENEATH MOUNTAINS

OPEN UP THE GROUND AND SWALLOW YOU

HATE VERMIN HATE

Xella and Rehman reached the beating rock, the heart of a dying god. Demons raced towards them, mere moments from tearing them limb from limb. She wanted to do something for the suffering god, but what could she do? All she had was a sword and no time to think of anything else, to do anything else.

“I’m sorry,” Xella whispered to the suffering god. “But we have no choice.” He had to die. I can’t let those ungrateful bastards be destroyed.

Together they raised their swords and stabbed.

* * *

The demons raced in from every direction. Rehman raised the Sword of the Moon as Xella raised the Sword of the Sun, tips pointing down at the beating, black rock. This is how we die. Saving the world. He stabbed. His sword sank into the stone as if it was water.

Light exploded around him: silver, gold, black.

He reached for Xella, grasped her hand as the world folded. Everything became . . . more. Geometries Rehman did not even have the words to begin to describe filled his universe. Things bent, folded, or twisted into impossible shapes. He felt stretched, compressed, inflated. Everything merged, becoming a single point of existence, and yet everything also expanded, filling every fingerwidth of creation.

They were everywhere and nowhere.

Then Rehman bounced back into being, stumbling and falling onto his backside amid soft, wonderful, and so very alive grass. It was dark, a soft twilight bathing the world with a blue glow. Xella laughed beside him, stretched out on her back, luxuriating in the fragrant grass. Above, a black disk hung in the sky, ringed by blue fire.

“What is that?” Xella whispered.

Rehman recognized it. “A joining,” he answered. “Felikia’s Sun and Bedko’s Moon merging together.”

Daylight exploded as the moon and sun separated.

Before them lay Zarketh’s beating heart. Rehman’s eyes widened. No, it was the Kurokin with both blades embedded into it. He stood up, looking around carefully. Everything looked . . . familiar. The land had almost the same general features of the temple grounds, only more pronounced, unaffected by human will. There was the rise that Bedko’s temple would one day sit upon, and there was the slope that would lead down to the market and his parent’s dry goods store.

The wind gusted. Heljina’s beautiful song chorused on the breeze, filling Rehman up with its perfect harmony. Xella laughed and stood facing the wind, letting it blow her grimy, bedraggled hair.

“She’s happy!” Xella shouted. “Can’t you feel it? We reunited them.”

“What?” Rehman asked, confused. “Who?”

“Heljina! The Kurokin is Zarketh’s heart. We didn’t kill the god, we set him free!” Her smile almost glowed. It was infectious.

Rehman walked to the holy stone, staring at it. In his mind, he pictured it beating furiously, swelling here, contracting there. He touched it, and felt the blue stone’s warmth and its rhythm of gentle pulses—a god at peace. He and Xella had traveled into the past, stopping Zarketh before his depression could doom the world in the future. One day, maybe five hundred years from now, Xella would draw her sword and then he’d draw his, and they’d do it all over again. And again.

His brain hurt just thinking about it.

Xella threw her arms around him and kissed him. That helped to stop his mind from aching.

“What do we do now?” he asked her after their lips parted. He enjoyed the feel of her warmth in his arms, her life.

“Whatever we want. We passed through death. We’re free, Rehman.”

Free. He mouthed the words, savoring them. “Have you ever wondered what’s over those mountains?”

She grinned. “Let’s find out.”

The END

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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!

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

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!

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

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

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

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

The Bluefin Raiders prowled these skies.

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

Only Nrein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arshion’s speed died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue flame, Lroff!” Nrein ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stepped onto the blood-soaked deck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“B-Bring Grioch!”

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

“Collar him,” ordered Nrein.

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

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

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

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

What a disgusting eel, Nrein thought, sneering.

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

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

“What conse—”

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

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

Grioch nodded his head, face darkening towards puce.

“Good.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The young man nodded and released her arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

She swept past him and labored down the narrow stairs.

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

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

The sounds of Philosopher Duthan’s research.

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

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

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

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

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

Shock needles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he had arranged to study her.

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

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

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

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

Archene furrowed her brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-yellow blazed. Nianie screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter Two

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

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

Free me!

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

He flinched away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End the pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

Ary realized he’d never see his ma again.

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

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

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

The dawn of his new life with Chaylene.

~ * * ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her ma had suffered being a sailor’s wife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But . . . not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like your ma.

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

She loved Ary most for understanding that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He comforted her at the cost of his own pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

Their weapons cracked together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary couldn’t wait to enlist at seventeen.

“Relent, you mangy sow,” Ary snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brelyn says I have a handsome face!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vel laughed so hard he almost dropped his stick.

“Shut it,” Ary muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second beat thudded through the air.

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

A third beat.

A fourth beat.

A fifth beat.

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

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

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

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

“What do we do?” Vel gasped.

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

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

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

Chaylene’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you stupid?” Vel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never had he prayed so hard, so desperately.

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

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

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

~ * * ~

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

I was struck by lightning. This is death.

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

I’ve been good. Mostly.

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

He shivered. Or he imagined he shivered.

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

“A Luastria,” Ary whispered.

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

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

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

He let go.

“Free me!”

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

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

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

“End the pain.”

The void shattered into light.

~ * * ~

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

He pushed those away. “Chaylene?”

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

He surveyed Vesche in stunned horror.

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

The Cyclone had ravaged Vesche.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wish I had that sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His thoughts faltered at the sight of the valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary struggled to think. No marines.

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

They couldn’t all be dead.

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

Fear clutched his stomach.

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

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

How could such a beautiful day turn into this horror?

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

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

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

A crimson sun.

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

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

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

Ary spotted only broken branches.

Everyone is fine!

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

Where’s Pa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t stop dragging him.

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

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

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

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

“No,” Ary groaned.

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

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

Nothing came out.

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

It wasn’t worth it, thought Ary.

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

What an ostrich-brained fool I am.

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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