Tag Archives: Epic Fantasy

Weekly Free Short Story – The Captain’s Mad Plan

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

Enjoy!

The Captain’s Mad Plan

The Skyland of Fwelal, the Free Nests of the Soweral

Charele flounced into the smugglers’ den.

Her pink satin skirt swirled to a stop, the lacy hem clearing the dusty, wooden floorboards of the creaking warehouse by several fingerswidth. Her curly, blonde hair bobbed about her round, youthful face, bright dimples shining as her smile spread across her ruby-painted lips. Her cheeks possessed the ruddy glow of a young maiden only emphasized by the girlish squeal that burst from her mouth.

Even after a year serving beneath her, Varen found himself transfixed by her.

“Oh, I am so excited to meet you!” she gushed as she swept towards the leader of the smugglers, a wizened Sowerese hen named Straedris.

The old hen’s one good eye widened as the taller Human swept her up in an embrace. Straedris’s black-feathered wings thrust out from her side as her waxy-yellow beak opened wide then snapped closed. The dull-gray robe she wore hid the rest of her delicate body save for the dull-black claws of her feet protruding out the hem. The Sowerese were a race of Luastria, the bird-like beings who dwelled in the northern skylands above the Storm.

“This is . . . I . . .” chirped the hen. Her feathers rustled.

“You remind me of my own grand-mama,” Charele said, continuing in that breathy gush that made Varen shake his head.

The burly man watched the exchange as he leaned against a wooden support pillar, his brawny arms folded before him. Like Charele, he was a Vionese Human from the south, though his skin was a much darker shade of tan-brown than hers, his hair not quite as fair. His eyes squinted in the dimly lit warehouse.

Above, the rafters creaked.

Eyes watched. The rest of Straedris’s smugglers lurked, Soweral Luastria all. Varen caught glimpses of their clawed feet gripping the rafters, roosting up there like a flock of pigeons. Only pigeons don’t peck your eyes out if you offend them, thought Varen, staying at his ease as his breathy captain planted kisses on both of Straedris’s downy cheeks.

“Y-you’re the smuggler,” the old hen finally managed to chirp out, her voice a trilling lilt, musical even in her shock.

“I am!” Charele said, stepping back. Her flowery scent caught Varen’s nose. He shifted his stance as she planted her hands on her hips, emphasizing the way her dress narrowed about her waist and fit her torso with the snug intimacy of a lover’s hand. “I have been so eager to meet you, Straedris!” Another rush of giggling mirth spilled from Charele’s ruby lips.

Straedris glanced at Varen. Some looks crossed the species barrier, and the helpless gleam in her one good eye almost made Varen crack a smile. He shrugged his shoulders, his leather vest shifting across his broad torso.

“You’re truly Captain Charele?” Straedris asked again.

“Well, who else would I be?” asked the young woman, her sun-bright curls swaying about her face. “Captain of the Varele. Now, I believe you have a case of Fwelalin perfumes lacking those pesky custom stamps.”

“I do,” Straedris said. “Sorry to choke on my gizzard stone, but . . . I did not expect a . . . a . . .”

“Ravishing woman?” Charele asked, lifting her chin, her smile growing, setting off the dimples in her tan cheeks.

Straedris clucked her beak. “Yes, yes, that’s a word. My apologies, but Vionese is not my best tongue to speak.”

“But you do it so well.” Charele glanced over her shoulder at Varen. “Doesn’t she?”

“Yup,” he grunted.

“See, you do it very well.” Charele clapped her hands together. “Now, the perfume. I have to confess, I’m going to keep a bottle for myself. I’ve always wanted Fwelalin perfume, but it is so expensive in the Autonomy. Three sets of tax collectors really drive up the price.”

An honest merchant would sail his ship from Hreasrow, Fwelal’s capital, through the Free Nests of the Soweral, cross the skies of the Empire where another excise tax would be charged, and then finally reach the Autonomy where Varen and Charele hailed.

“I do not have the export stamps on them,” Straedris said as two Luastrians carried in the crate. They used their prehensile distal feathers on their wings to heft the crate. Unlike Straedris, these two were drakes, their brilliant, emerald crests contrasting with the raven-black of the rest of their feathers. Male Luastria always stood out, loving to preen.

“I can fake those,” Charele said, giving a dismissive wave of her hand.

The crate rattled with glass as the two drakes set it down before Charele, both clucking beaks and ruffling the feathers of their bare torsos. Straedris’s scaled foot appeared from beneath the hem of the robe. She grasped the edge of the crate and pried off the lid, the bone nails popping free. She uncovered the contents: rows of delicate bottles containing a pale-amber liquid.

“Oh, my,” Charele gushed. She darted her hand down, the lace of her cuff ruffling. She snatched up the bottle and worked out the glass stopper. Her dainty nose wrinkled. “Oh, Varen, this is true Fwelalin perfume. Care to sniff?”

“Nope,” Varen grunted. It’ll wreathe the ship in no time. Captain Charele loved her exotic comforts.

“Is it true that the base water the perfume is made from is precipitated out of the air via Mist?” asked Charele.

Mist was one of the four Blessings that the Goddess Riasruo bestowed, via the priestesses of her Church, upon every adult in the skies. Mist, Pressure, Lightning, or Wind allowed society to function in a world suspended over the ever-churning Storm. Ships sailed between lonely skylands propelled by powerful breezes summoned by Windwardens and held afloat by engines charged with Riasruo’s gift. With Moderate Mist, a person could manipulate the water vapor in the air, creating a fog or causing the moisture to precipitate out of the atmosphere and fill containers.

“They do,” answered Straedris. “But only at the fields of the Fwelalin roses, picking up some of the natural scents of the flowers and enhancing the final product.”

“Well, that is worth the price of a dozen emeralds,” Charele said. She glanced at Varen. “Bosun, if you please.”

Emeralds were the largest denomination, a holdover from when the Vaarckthian Empire ruled much of the skies. Coins, from sapphire pennies to emeralds, were made of porcelain impregnated with the corresponding crushed gemstone. The dies that stamped them were some of the most guarded objects in the skies. Varen reached into his vest and produced the purse. It clinked as he tossed it to the old hen. She squawked in annoyance, fumbling to catch it with her wing.

“Varen!” huffed Charele. “Manners.”

“Sorry,” Varen grunted, folding his thick arms again. His eyes flicked to the two drakes who still flanked the crate. They stood too close to Charele.

Straedris slipped the pouch into her robe’s pocket.

“Oh, you’re trusting,” Charele said. “I like that. There’s so much suspicion in the skies. Why, I was carrying this gentleman on my boat. He was a rather ravishing Vaarckthian with the most beautiful gray eyes, who thought I was trying to pry into his affairs when I just wanted to enjoy a cozy supper in my—”

“You can leave now,” clucked Straedris. “I don’t need to hear your blather.”

“But I haven’t told you why he was so suspicious about—”

“Leave!” snapped the hen, her voice shrill.

Charele sighed and shook her head. “Fine, fine. Bosun, if you would be a dear.”

Varen pushed himself off the post, but before he took a step, the two drakes slid between the crate and Charele, their clawed feet spread wide, their wings tucked in close to their black-feathered bodies. Varen’s skin grew taut.

“I see,” Charele said, the breathiness vanishing from her voice. “No trust at all.”

Straedris clucked her beak. As she walked towards the darkness, her claws clicking on the wooden floor, she said, “I’m allowing you to leave with your lives.”

“Not good enough,” Charele said. Her hand moved fast, darting to the lacy cuff of her left sleeve and grasped a concealed hilt.

The drake on her left hardly had time to chirp before she planted the hogbone dagger into his breast. Dark blood welled over the black feathers. She wrenched her dagger free, skirt swirling as she slashed the crimson-stained blade at the second drake. He swept a wing up before him to block her attack.

It was a feint.

She ducked low beneath his feathers, layers of petticoats swishing, and slashed the dagger across his belly. He squawked as his wings clutched his stomach, holding in innards as he stumbled back and collapsed.

Above, the Luastria cawed and shrieked with the ferocity of a murder of crows.

Varen built his charge in his fists as they descended in a mass of black feathers, leaping down from the rafters. Though Luastria were smaller than Humans, their hollow bones giving them a delicate build, they came equipped with natural weapons: slashing claws and jabbing beaks.

His fist slammed into the first Luastria’s head. His Blessing of Lightning discharged. Sparks flared from his knuckles. Feathers sizzled as he sent the lethal jolt of current into the smuggler’s body. Varen’s foe collapsed, scaled legs twitching.

Pink skirts flared, flashing white petticoats, as Charele slashed and stabbed with her knife, driving back her foes while a pair of black-feathered drakes advanced on Varen, one’s crest a brilliant green, the other’s the deep hue of rain-fed grass. Mist spilled from the first, a thick fog that swelled through the warehouse.

Not just Moderate Mist, but Major, the strongest form of the Blessing Riasruo granted. He sought to choke the world to disorienting gray, reducing Varen and Charele to a mere arm’s length. Like most, Varen had been gifted with two Blessings by the Sun Goddess: Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. As the thick, wet curtains swallowed the warehouse, he peered through the vapor like it wasn’t there.

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers,” cursed Charele. She lacked Minor Mist.

“Hold on, Cap’n!” he bellowed as the two drakes rushed at him.

He grinned. Lightning crackled across his body. He had nine more discharges left before he ran dry. His bare feet shifted on the floorboards. Claws scraped on wood. Wings flapped. The drakes launched themselves at him, sharp beaks flashing at his chest.

Heart pounding, exhilaration flaring through his veins, he darted to his right. Brilliant-crest’s knifing jab streaked past Varen. His hand lashed out at the second, sliding beneath a sharp beak to grasp the bird by the throat.

He discharged.

The fog lit up with the sparks arching out of his palm into the smuggler. Instead of convulsing, the bird hissed. Clawed legs lashed out while wings spread wide. Leather tore, pain flaring across Varen’s thigh. The bird also had Lightning, rendering him immune from electrical attacks.

Behind Varen, brilliant-crest’s claws scratched at the wood, coming around for another attack. Varen pivoted, swinging around the Luastria he clenched by the throat. The bird squawked, wings flapping hard. Fog eddied around them.

Varen thrust his living shield before him. A sickening crunch echoed through the swirling mist. The Luastria spasmed in Varen’s grip. The tip of a bloodied beak burst from the drake’s chest. Varen flung the dying bird to the side.

Brilliant-crest recoiled, cawing and shrieking, his compatriot’s gore clinging to his beak.

Varen’s fist crashed into brilliant-crest’s chest. The sternum snapped with a loud crack. Lightning flared. The drake hit the ground hard, smoke rising from his caved-in chest. A thick, black tongue protruded out of his beak.

“Charele!” Varen growled, casting his gaze through the chaos of the mist. Not all the Luastria could see. Some stumbled around, crashing into crates and flapping wings. Others lay bleeding, chirping in pain.

“I’m here!” Charele answered.

He spotted her by the perfume crate. A foot lashed out at her, but she used the air around her as a shield, compressing it with Pressure. The dense atmosphere blunted the Luastrian’s attack, slowing it and giving her a chance to respond. Her skirts swirled as she thrust her dagger forward, taking her foe in the throat.

As she wrenched her blade free, she snarled, “Grab the crate! We’re leaving.”

“How?” Varen grunted as he rushed for the perfume.

Charele favored him a wild grin, her tanned face flushed not only from her rouge. Sweat beaded her forehead, giving her a vital gleam. “I have a plan.”

No words terrified Varen more.

Chirps echoed around them, the Luastria calling out in the mist. Their language spilled too fast for any Human to understand. It was too lilting. Too melodic. The songs came from all directions. He caught glimpses of the drakes moving through the crates while others stalked the rafters.

“Let’s see,” Charele said as she shifted around. “This fog is making it difficult and . . . Here we are.”

As Varen hefted the crate in both his hands, grunting at the strain, he watched as she stared down at the floor. Wood groaned beneath her. Dust covering the boards puffed into the air. He frowned and then gasped as the wooden floor snapped and compressed into sawdust, the weight of air ripping through the boards.

She dropped through the hole, her skirts fluttering up, exposing dainty petticoats and a flash of bare calves.

“Theisseg’s bunghole!” Varen snarled, rushing at the opening.

“I’m fine! It worked!” Charele called from below.

He peered down into darkness, her face swimming out of the shadows as she stared up at him. She took a step back and beckoned.

The bottles shifted in the crate as he threw a look over his shoulder. Claws scratched across wood. Beaks clucked with ferocity. Cursing, he stepped into the jagged hole she’d ripped through the floor with her Pressure.

He bent his knees and grunted as he landed hard. Pain flared through his shin bones as his legs bent to absorb the impact. His cut thigh throbbed as he snarled in wordless agony. He leaned back against an earthen wall, heavy breaths exploding past clenched teeth.

“Good, good, the perfume appears unbroken,” Charele said.

“We have deadlier eels to worry ‘bout,” grunted Varen, glancing up. The pain dulled to a throb, exhilaration soothing it away.

“Indeed,” she said. She bit her lower lip for a moment. Then she darted a hand into the box and yanked out a glass bottle. A wistful look crossed her face. “I would have smelled beautiful in this. I suggest you stand back.”

The chirping and squawking grew louder. Mist poured down the hole, tendrils of spindly gray. Varen stepped back down the tunnel, his shoulder brushing the soil. Dirt cascaded off the wall and spilled over his arm. The earth was cold beneath, his toes curling into the hard-packed floor.

Charele slammed the bottle of perfume hard on the ground at her feet. It shattered. What had been a sweet scent now overpowered Varen’s nostrils. His eyes burned from the tincture’s fumes. Charele covered her mouth with a frilly handkerchief she’d produced from . . . somewhere.

“If you would use your Lightning and start a fire,” she said. “That should delay their pursuit.”

Understanding sparked through him. Nodding, he shifted his grip on the heavy crate. He guided his static charge down to his right foot as he extended it, his big toe nudging the puddle of perfume soaking into the earthen floor.

He discharged his Lightning.

An arch of white-hot plasma zapped from his toe into the liquid. Flames burst across the perfume’s surface. He yanked his foot back as the tongues of orange and red leaped into the air, reaching for the hole.

“Come,” Charele said, staring off into the darkness lit by the dancing flames. “This way.”

She placed her hand along the wall and marched forward with confidence, skirts whisking. Grunting, he limped after her, thigh throbbing with his heart’s heavy beat. He ducked his head as the tunnel’s height descended. The bottles rattled in the crate, his fingers aching as they gripped the heavy load.

“What is this?”

“Zalg tunnels,” Charele said.

Behind them, loud screeches echoed. The flames danced, causing his shadow to flit across Charele as she led the way. She rounded a corner, vanishing into the deeper darkness. Varen glanced behind him at the fire.

Water splashed down. Steam hissed and half of the light died.

Skin tightening, he followed her around the corner. “Zalg tunnels?”

“They built much of Hreasrow,” Charele answered out of the darkness.

He couldn’t see her as much more than a shape as she moved ahead. A shiver ran through Varen as he stumbled after her. More steam hissed behind him, the last of the firelight snuffing out. The little illumination spilling around the corner vanished.

Darkness pressed in on him. He could feel the weight of Hreasrow above him. He shifted his shoulders. He’d never trusted those furry, mole-like creatures. Zalg grubbed in the dirt. They didn’t sail the skies above the Storm. They didn’t spend their time bathing in Riasruo’s sun. They hid in the bowels of the skylands, always digging, worming through dirt and rock. Their skill at quarrying stone and shaping crystals were unparalleled, but . . .

How could they survive in this?

The blackness had a texture. He felt it against his skin, squeezing at him. A gibbering fear swept through Varen. He’d rather have been back in the warehouse, swinging his fists into the flock of Luastrian smugglers.

“Now we go left,” Charele’s voice drifted out of the darkness before him. “You still with me, Varen?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” he muttered. “You know the way?”

“Of course.” A girlish laughter swirled around him, driving back the oppression.

His shoulder rubbed down the wall until he felt the passage. He stumbled after her, chasing the sweet scent of her perfume and the rustle of her skirt. He gripped the crate to his chest, the weight something familiar against the terror of the tunnels.

His head scraped along the ceiling, soil spilling over his shoulders. It tumbled cold down the back of his vest. He shuddered. Sweat dripped from his brow, but not from the exertion. He shifted his grip on the crate, clammy palms slipping.

“Now another left,” Charele said, her words almost an illumination against the umbral weight. “Isn’t this thrilling, Varen?”

“Not my word for it,” he muttered.

Chirps echoed through the tunnels. Sometimes light would flash around the bend, the dancing of torches beckoning with the seduction of a friendly barmaid. Feathers rustled and scaled feet slapped on dirt. He almost wanted to be found. To fight in honest light, not skulking through the skyland’s guts.

“First left,” Charele chimed, her words drawing him through the heavy night. “Second left . . . And here we are. Third left.”

“You know where we going, Cap’n?” he asked, throwing a look behind him.

A ruddy glow danced in invitation.

“Trust me, Varen.”

“Did you know they’d rob us?” he demanded, his spine itching. He wanted to throw down the Storming crate, let her perfume rot, and charge the smugglers.

“When I was in the Navy, my warrant officer always taught me to expect a sunny day but plan for Theisseg’s rain to ruin it.”

“My pa shoulda paid heed to that one,” Varen grunted. The ruddy glow approached. So sweet.

“And now we go right,” she said. “I think.”

He froze. “You think?”

She laughed. “Oh, Varen, relax. You need to take the time to enjoy this. We’re skulking through Zalg tunnels being hunted by Sowerese smugglers!”

“I know what we’re doin’, Cap’n!” he snapped.

“Really, Bosun,” she huffed. “I expect better from you. Now, we just go straight here and . . . yes, yes, here we are.”

The chirps and squawks swelled louder and the torchlight burned brighter as they turned towards another tunnel. Ahead, the darkness looked different. He frowned, his head cocking, then he noticed the little glimmers in the sheet of night ahead, little gems that twinkled like . . .

“Stars,” he croaked. “Riasruo’s sun be praised.”

“Yep,” Charele said. He could see her silhouetted against them, her figure separating from the shadows as she marched forward. “The skyland’s edge. See the coral growing around the perimeter of the tunnel’s mouth?”

Varen’s heart sank. Skylands tended to have sheer cliffs for edges. Various species of coral, differing from skyland to skyland, covered the sides. They gave each one a unique look, some beautiful in the mix of colors, others a riot of hues that clashed so badly it made your stomach sour to look upon.

But it also meant this tunnel dead-ended above nothing. Skylands hovered over the endless Storm, Theisseg’s domain. The Dark Goddess tortured those who fell in it, or so Varen’s gramma had always said in her cackling voice. The coral along the side of skylands was too sharp to climb.

“Then we’re trapped,” he muttered. He turned around to see the torches approaching the corner. The squawks were almost on them. Relief filled him as the light came closer and closer. “Guess this is a good spot to fight.”

I don’t gotta die in darkness, he thought, Lightning crackling down to his fists.

“What are you talking about?” Charele asked. “That’s utter foolishness. There’s at least thirty of them. How much Lightning have you used?”

He shifted his shoulders as he glanced at her. She stood right at the edge, the wind stirring her blonde curls and the skirt of her dress. “They can only come at us one at a time. I’ll take enough down to give you a chance, Cap’n.”

“Varen,” she said, shaking her head. “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard. Dying spoils all the fun.”

Then she leaped off the edge.

“Charele!” he shouted, his heart’s beat crushed by shock.

He raced towards the opening, bottles rattling. Terror had seared the image of her stepping off, her skirt flaring as she fell towards the Storm in his mind. Icy fear screamed through his veins. Behind him, the Luastria squawked in triumph.

He didn’t care.

He reached the edge, screaming, “Cap’n!”

“Varen?” she asked, a quizzical tone to her words.

She stood a few ropes down in a small boat that hovered beside the coral-coated sides of the skyland. Isan and Humith, a pair of sailors from the Varele, were at either end of the boat, both of them grinning up at him.

Varen’s jaw dropped as she shook her head. “Y-you . . . you . . . I . . . That . . .”

“Come now, Bosun,” she said. “Hurry, those birds sound like they’re almost on us.”

A loud caw cried out behind him. Feathers rustled. Torchlight danced along the walls. “Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!”

He jumped off the edge and landed in the boat.

It shuddered and sank, bobbing beneath him. Charele swayed with the shifting skiff, her skirts rustling, a merry smile on her face. She winked at him as the boat surged away from the skyland, propelled by the small wind engine in the back, the hiss of air crashing into the pea-green coral.

Varen’s legs quivered. They buckled and then he sank down onto one of the benches, the crate shaking on his lap. He trembled as he stared up at his captain. The smile on her face brimmed with triumph.

“You didn’t tell me?” he croaked. “You had this all planned out and . . . and . . .”

“Aren’t surprises fun?” Charele asked, clapping her hands together.

He shook his head as the longboat sped away from Fwelal. It rose into the air, the Luastrian city of Hreasrow gliding past as they headed for the harbor where their ship, the Varele, awaited, loaded with legitimate cargo to screen the illicit goods they smuggled.

“You’re mad,” he groaned, his eyes squinting at his captain.

Isan laughed as he guided the boat. “That she is.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Charele said, eyeing the crate. “We got our merchandise.”

He groaned and shook his head.

With the wind whipping around her dress, Charele winked at Varen. She spun and marched to the prow, dressed for a ball. A slender woman, her hair styled and waving in the breeze, the delicate lace around her cuffs fluttering, a bloody dagger clutched in her hand. She stood proud of herself. She was the most ruthless captain, honest or not, Varen had ever served beneath. He clutched the crate of perfume to him, the bottles rattling inside, and groaned.

She’s going to get me killed from fright, he thought. Riasruo Above, defend me from her downyheaded plots. Keep my backside whole from her wild schemes.

Charele’s chortles rose above the wind.

Varen had a feeling Riasruo didn’t hear his prayers over his captain’s mirth.

THE END

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The Last Flight of the Intrepid takes place in the universe of my novel, Above the Storm!

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

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REVIEW: Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

At the end of Book Four, Trull Sengar began to tell the story of how he became chained to the wall in the drowned pocket of Kurald Emurlan.

As the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memory of Ice was happening (sort of, since the Silanah stuff really throws off the timeline) on the other side of the world, the Tiste Edur tribes have been united by the Warlock King. They are facing annexation by the greedy Lether to the south, a nation merchants who want the natural resources in Edur lands. They have destroyed other tribes through shady treaties and deliberate betrayals.

The Warlock King has a new ally. He plans to send the Sengar Brothers (Fear, Trull, Binadas, and young Rulad) on a quest to receive a gift in the arctic wastes north of their lands. Will it prove the salvation of their people or their ruination.

Another set of brothers, Beddicts, have their own goals. Tehol Beddict appears impoverished after his financial collapse, but he had actually discovered the secret to destroying his people’s economy and flinched. However, when those whose people were destroyed by the Lethers want him to try again, will he accept? In the palace, Brice Beddict is the king’s champion. Emroiled in the complex politics of Lether, he vows to protect his king even if the man isn’t worthy of his devotion. Last, Hull Beddict plots his people’s destruction in another way. He wants to save the Edur from the fate of other tribes, weighed down by guilt.

A large cast of characters, both mortal, undead, and immortal, clash and swirl. This is one of Erikson’s best books in the series. Tehol and Bug number among my favorite duo and it was great to read them again. Tragedy and misfortune swirl as no one’s plans quite work out right. The darkest parts of humanity are exposed once more.

This fantasy series continues to be unique and amazing. If you haven’t read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen, you need to. It is worth the journey.

You can buy Midnight Tides from Amazon.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter One

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter One

Sakarpus

Welcome to Chapter One of my reread. Click here if you missed the Prologue!

Upon the high wall the husbands slept, while ‘round the hearth their women wept, and fugitives murmured tales of woe, of greater cities lost to Mog-Pharau

—“THE REFUGEE’S SONG,” THE SAGAS

My Thoughts

Pretty straight forward, a reminder of the devastation caused by the First Apocalypse. The men are sleeping at their posts, unable to leave the defenses in case of attack while their women weep because all their children are stillborn. They hear the rumors. They know what is coming.

It is fitting to open Chapter One which also starts out with the Great Ordeal and its mission to stop the Second Apocalypse and the re-awakening of the No-God. Here are the stakes that are being gambled upon. Kellhus has to surpass the original Ordeal that Anasûrimbor Celmomas led two thousand years. He only had to cross the final leg of the Great Ordeal’s march. Kellhus’s army has to survive the ruins of the north just to reach Celmomas’s starting point.

Also, it’s good to know how to pronounce Mog-Pharau. It rhymes with woe. Though the selection is written out as prose, it’s lyrical poetry.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The Kathol Passes

The tracks between whim and brutality are many and inscrutable in Men, and though they often seem to cut across the impassable terrain of reason, in truth, it is reason that paves their way. Ever do Men argue from want to need and from fortuitous warrant. Ever do they think their cause the just cause. Like cats chasing sunlight thrown from a mirror, they never tire of their own delusions.

Across the lands, priests of the Thousand Temples and Judges of the Ministrate preached the Truth and hunted for those who disputed it or ignored it for greed. Caste-slave and caste-noble alike are taught “the Great Chain of Missions.” This is how each person’s job helps other people’s job allowing the Empire and the Great Ordeal to succeed against “the apocalyptic designs of the Consult.” The Great Ordeal is the greatest host in the history of mankind. It took ten years to prepare. They have gathered for their march across the “Sranc-infested Wilds of the Ancient North” to reach Golgotterath.

“It was a mad endeavor.” It was no simple task. It required a massive movement of food and supplies. A knight, his mount, the pack mules that carried the supplies, and the slaves who prepare his supper all needed food. “This was why the most arduous battle waged by the Great Ordeal would not be against the Consult legions, but against Eärwa’s own wild heart.” They had to survive to make it to Golgotterath. So for years, the New Empire produced food and stored them in granaries while herds of livestock were driven north. The records to track this required their own warehouses to store them.

The call to arms did not come till the last.

The Zaudunyani come across the Three Seas to take up the Circumfix from Conryia to Kian. The Schools send their sorcerers including the new Saway Compact of Gnostic witches. Preeminent among them is the Mandate who are no longer seen as fools. They gather in Oswenta in Galeoth, swelling the city with foreign lords and soldiers. “The bowl of each nation had spilled, and now their distinct and heady flavors swirled together, continually surprising the palette with some unheard-of-combination.”

Summer and autumn passed. The lessons of the Holy War are remembered. The officer core is made of Zaudunyani veterans who won’t allow any trespasses. Punishments are swift and lethal because too much was at stake. This is the Shortest Path. “Mercy required a certain future, and for men, there was none.” Two skin-spies are uncovered by Kellhus and publicly executed. The Great Ordeal passes winter at the city of Harwash where the caravans that travel to Sakarpus and Atrithau depart from. Twenty thousand die to lungplague.

It was, the Aspect-Emperor explained, but the first of many tests.

As spring approached, preparations to march were underway. Men weep when the order to march is given. As they march, the men feel like the entire world is kneeling before them, approving their actions. King Saubon of Caraskand, who’s one of the two Exalt-Generals, leads the first host with the faster units. Kellhus’s eldest sun, Kayûtas, leads the Kidruhil with Conphas. They are the most famed heavy cavalry in the Three Seas. Sakarpus’s retreats before them, leaving only their skirmisher to harass the Great Ordeal. Behind them, King Proyas of Conryia leads the rest of the host, including the sorcerers. The column is so long, communication between the front and the back is too great for any rider to travel it quickly.

It snowed the fourth night, when the priests and judges led ceremonies commemorating the Battle of the Pass, where an ancient alliance of refugee Men and the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas had defeated the No-God in the First Apocalypse, so purchasing the World a year of precious respite. Nothing was said of the subsequent betrayal and the extermination of the Nonmen at the hands of those they had saved.

As they march, they sing to Kellhus, to their own might, to their wives and families, and about the world they would save. At evening, they shed armor to pray and listen to sermons. It took days for them all to file through the pass onto the “thawing fields of the Sagland.” The Sakarpi have left scorched earth behind, the King of Sakarpus hoping hunger would save his city.

Few Three Seas Men had ever seen grassland steppes, let alone the vast and broad-back Istyuli. Beneath grey skies, with tracts still scabbed with snow, it seemed a trackless and desolate place, a precursor to the Agongorea, about which they had heard so much in endless recitations of The Sagas. Those raised on the coasts were reminded of the sea, of horizons as flat as a rule with nothing but limits for the eye to fasten upon. Those bred along desert margins were reminded of home.

It was raining when the multitudes climbed into the broad scruffs of land that lifted the Lonely City above the plain. At last, the two Exalt-Generals clasped arms and set about planning the assault. They scowled and joked and shared reminiscences, from the legendary First Holy War to the final days of the Unification. So many cities. So many campaigns.

So many proud peoples broken.

Sorweel finds sleep eluding him so is already awaken when the emissary from the Great Ordeal comes to speak with his father, King Varalt Harweel II. Sorweel attends as the crown prince of Sakarpus, as he has attended all such important meetings. “But until recently, ‘important’ had meant something quite different.” Fights with Srancs, diplomatic issues with Atrithau, disgruntled nobles. He’s usually bored. Now he’s scared. He’s a year from his “first Elking,” on the cusp of full manhood, and is staring at King Nersei Proyas standing before his father. Through translators, Proyas broaches what King Harweel says about Kellhus. Harweel sneers about his “blasphemy,” showing his disdain for Kellhus’s godhood.

“Blasphemy…” the Exalt-General said. “He would not say that.”

“And what would he say?”

“That you fear, as all man fear, to lose your power and privilege.”

Sorweel’s father laughed in an offhand manner that made the boy proud. If only he could muster such careless courage.

Harweel, sounding merry, asks if Proyas actually sees him as using his people as pawns to protect them as opposed to standing up to Kellhus to protect his people. Proyas does see it that way by saying no man can “stand between a God and the people.” It unnerves Sorweel how Three Seas Men speak of Kellhus as a living god. Harweel says his priest call Kellhus a demon.

“They say what they need to keep their power safe,” the translator said with obvious discomfort. “They are, truly, the only ones who stand to lose from the quarrel between us.”

To Sorweel, the Aspect-Emperor had been an “uneasy rumour.” His earliest memories are sitting on his father’s knee as traders spoke about Kellhus. From them, Sorweel had heard about everything in the south. His father would always warn that one day, Kellhus would come for them.

“But how can you know, Da?”

“He is a Ciphrang, a Hunger from the Outside, come to this world in the guise of a man.”

“Then how can we hope to resist him?”

“With our swords and sour shields,” his father had boasted, using the mock voice he always used to make light of terrifying things. “And when those fail us, with spit and curses.”

But the spit and the curses, Sorweel would learn, always came first, accompanied by bold gestures and grand demonstrations. War was an extension of argument, and swords were simply words honed to bloodletting edge. Only the Sranc began with blood. For Men, it was always the conclusion.

Perhaps this explained the Emissary’s melancholy and his father’s frustration. Perhaps they already knew the outcome of this embassy. All doom requires certain poses, the mouthing of certain words—so said the priests.

Sorweel can feel Kellhus lurking outside the walls. “An itch, a name, a principle, a foreboding…” Sorweel knows they have come to kill the man, rape the women, and enslave the children. His father is boasting how Sakarpus survived the No-God and will survive Kellhus.

The Exalt-General smiled, or at least tried to. “Ay, yes… Virtue does not burn.”

Harweel asks what that means and Proyas explains all that is left after death is the good things your children record about you. “All men flatter themselves through their forebears.” Harweel snorts and says Sakarpus is still around, proving his strength. But Proyas says Kellhus has been here when Sakarpus was merely the frontier of a great empire. Its lack of importance is why Sakarpus survived. Chance is ever as fickle as a whore. The silence from his father unnerves Sorweel. The stakes were crushing his father. He was pretending everything was fine, but Sorweel could see the lie.

Proyas continues that the entire Three Seas and all the schools are here. Proyas pleads with Harweel to see that he can’t win, appealing to him as a fellow warrior who has fought and seen the terrors of war.

Another ashen silence. Sorweel found himself leaning forward, trying to peer around the Horn-and-Amber Throne. What was his father doing?

“Come…” the Exalt-General said, his voice one of genuine entreaty. “Harweel, I beg of you, take my hand. Men can no longer afford to shed the blood of men.”

Sorweel can’t believe how aged his father appears. He’s not old, but looks it, his crown heavy. For a moment, Sorweel wants to speak to cover his father’s weakness, but Harweel finds his strength. He tells Proyas if he doesn’t want to fight, then leaves and march to die at Golgotterath or return to “hot-blooded wives.”

As though deferring to some unknown rule of discourse, Proyas lowered his face. He glanced at the bewildered Prince before returning his gaze to the King Sakarpus. “There is the surrender that leads to slavery,” he said. “And there is the surrender that sets one free. Soon, very soon, your people shall know the difference.”

“So says the slave!” Harweel cried.

The Emissary did not require the translator’s sputtering interpretation—the tone transcended languages. Something in his look dismayed Sorweel even more than the forced bluster of his father’s response. I am weary of blood, his eyes seemed to say. Too long have I haggled with the doomed.

He stood, nodding to his entourage to indicate that more than enough breath had been spent.

Sorweel was hoping his father would take him aside and explain why he appeared so fearful. To Sorweel, his father is the bravest man. He’d earned it through is room, revered by his Boonsmen and feared by the Horselords. “How could he of all Men be afraid?” Sorweel fears his father is holding back something important. Sorweel can only watch in the wake of Proyas’s departure as his father gives orders. At dawn, he is marched through the streets with his father’s High Boonsmen, seeing the refugees from the Saglands who’d entered the city, mothers looking dazed as herding their children. Sorweel wants to fight, but he hasn’t had his Elking, so he’s not allowed.

It begins raining as the hours past. It soaks through his armor. He feels useless and miserable. Finally, his father calls for him after a while. He’s brought to an empty barrack and warms his hands at a fire with Harweel. His father is troubled. Sorweel has no idea what to say.

“Moments of weakness come upon all Men,” Harweel said without looking at his son.

The young Prince stared harder into the glowing cracks.

“You must see this,” his father continued, “so that when your time comes you will not despair.”

Sorweel was speaking before he even realized he had opened his mouth. “But I do, Father! I do desp—!”

The tenderness in his father’s eyes was enough to make him choke. It knocked his gaze down as surely as a slap.

His father explains that men who see things in absolute terms can’t handle fear or despair. It breaks them because they have not struggled with doubt before then. His father asks Sorweel if he’s a fool like that. Sorweel is hurt because the question is genuine. He answers no. He has so much fear and doubt in him. He can’t speak it as he feels ashamed for doubting his father. He realized he’d been a burden to his father instead of supporting him on this day. Before he can explain his thoughts, three Horselords enter, calling for them.

Forgive me…

Standing on the walls of Sakarpus, he still feels warm after his talk with his father. He’s in the northern tower It’s raining. He stares at the thick walls and can’t imagine them being destroyed. It’s lined with soldiers in the “ancient armour of their fathers.” Archers wait to fire arrows. He’s proud of his people’s courage and determination. He knows that beyond the rain-choked gray, the Great Ordeal lurks.

He says the war prayers to Gilgaöl like he was trained and to Anagke, the Whore of Fate, to keep him from bad luck. The High Boonsmen pray around him for deliverance from “the Aspect-Emperor’s grasping hand.” Sorweel tries to convince himself that Kellhus is a demon and will lose.

A horn rings out. After a pause, more sound. “Suddenly the whole world seemed to shiver, its innards awakened by the cold cacophony.” More prayers and curses are muttered by unnerved men. The horns die while a father tells his son to “Take heart,” and speaks of an omen that means they’ll have good fortune, but the man’s confidence sounds forced.

Peering after the voices, Sorweel recognized the Ostaroots, a family whom he had always thought hangers-on in his father’s Royal Company. Sorweel had always shunned the son, Tasweer, not out of arrogance or spite, but in accordance with what seemed the general court attitude. He had never thought of it, not really, save to make gentle sport of the boy now and again with his friends. For some reason, it shamed Sorweel to hear him confessing his fears to his father. It seemed criminal that he, a prince born to the greatest of privileges, had so effortlessly judged Tasweer’s family, that with the ease of exhalation, he had assessed lives as deep and confusing as his own. And found them wanting.

His remorse is swallowed up by warning shouts. Out of the rainy mist, siege towers appear. Their size surprises him. They are massive and had to be carried across the wilderness in pieces to reach here. They crawl forward in a V formation, covered in tin armor. They have the Circumfix painted across their fronts. Sorweel had seen that symbol tattooed on missionaries his father had ordered burned. Everyone on the wall grows breathless as they approach. The battle has finally begun. The previous months of stress are over. Behind the towers marches the vast Great Ordeal.

Once again the horns unnerved the sky.

Sorweel sees ten times the number of the defenders (who themselves number ten thousand) approaching. So many strangers who came from lands he’d never heard of. These people didn’t care about Sakarpus. “The Southron Kings, come to save the world.” Sorweel had imagined those lands, wanting to run away as a child to a place where “Men yet warred against Men.” He’d learned, however, to hide his fascination. The South is viewed with contempt. “It was a place where subtlety had become a disease and where luxury had washed away the bourne between what was womanish and what was manly.”

But they were wrong—so heartbreakingly wrong. If the defeats of the previous weeks had not taught them such, then surely they understood now.

The South had come to teach them.

King Harweel appears at his son side and tells them not to fear the Schoolman. They won’t attack because of all the Chorae Sakarpus possesses. The king is inspiring his son and the others. Harweel gives a rousing speech about how they stood unbroken against the Sranc and—

His speech is cut off by a stork swooping down before him, startling everyone. Sorweel presses on his belly, feeling the Chorae tied against his bellybutton. The stork shouldn’t be flying in the rain. The stork stares at them without fear, unnerving the men. Harweel pushes himself forward to stand over the stork. A bright light in the sky, like a star, draws Sorweel’s attention. When he looks back, the stork is gone.

Activity explodes across the battlement, men shouting as the siege towers move forward as the star winked out. It reappeared closer over the front of the marching army. Sorweel realizes that there is a man or a god surrounded by blue light

Sorweel fond himself clutching the pitted stone of the battlements.

The Aspect-Emperor.

The rumor. The lifelong itch…

Sorweel cries a warning to his father as heavy winds blow rains over the walls. Ballistae fire Choraetipped bolts, but the sudden wind cuts their range. They miss him. At the same time, Sorweel hears words of sorcery. Silver lines race out from Kellhus, forming “incandescent geometries, a sun-bright filigree.” Sorweel realizes Kellhus is making mist to blind them. The Southron armies are singing hymns as they advanced.

Harweel grabs his son and tells him to go to the Citadel. That it was a mistake to bring him here. Sorweel is horrified, protesting that his father would treat him like a child. He cries out, “My bones are your bones!”

Harweel raised his hand to Sorweel’s cheek. “Which is why you must go. Please, Sorwa. Sakarpus stands at the ends of the world. We are the last outpost of Men! He needs this city! He needs our people! That means he needs you, Sorwa! You!”

Sorweel protest that he won’t leave, crying hot tears hidden by the cold rain. His father punches him and knocks him to the ground and orders Narsheidel to carry him to the Citadel. Narsheidel obeys and drags Sorweel away. He cries out in protest, seeing his father one last time before the fog hides him.

“Nooooooo!”

The clamour of arms descended upon the world.”

Sorweel continues his struggle against Narsheidel, but the man won’t relent. He sees his father’s eyes watching him, full of love and concern and even regret. He sees a father’s pride and hope that “he might live with greater grace through the fact of a son.” Soon, they’re in the city streets, soldiers rushing to the fight.

And a solitary figure in the midst of the confusion, crouched like a beggar, only clothed in too much shadow…

And with eyes that blinked light.

The Herder’s gate is destroyed with sorcerery. The enemy flood into the streets. Men die, killed by sorcery. A siege tower reaches the wall supported by Angogic sorceries. Harwell is dragged farther and farther from the battle while his father’s blue, beseeching eyes fill his mind. He reaches the Citadel where he once again sees Kellhus as “bright as the Nail of Heaven—only beneath the clouds.” Narsheidel is overcome with fear while retainers and guards ask where the king is. In his panic, Narsheidel is screaming that the Citadel must hold secrets that will save them because it is old. He’s dragged to an antechamber where he finally shouts at Narsheidel to stop. He asks where his father is and is told that Harweel is dead.

The words winded him. Even still, Sorweel heard his own voice say, “That means I am King. That I’m your master!”

The High Boonsman looked down to his palms, then out and upward, as though trying to divine the direction of the outer roar—for it had not stopped.

“Not so long as your father’s words still ring in my ears.”

Sorweel looked into the older man’s face, with its strong-jawed proportions and water-tangled frame of hair. Only then, it seemed, did he realize that Narsheidel too had loved ones, wives and children, sequestered somewhere in the city. That he was a true Boonsman, loyal unto death.

Sorweel starts to shout that his father is dead when the wall explodes. He is thrown to the ground while the commander of the Citadel, Lord Denthuel, has his head crushed by debris. Sorweel lies stunned as he stares at a gaping hole. He doesn’t remember if he spoke. Through the hole, he sees the Aspect-Emperor striding through the air. The rain doesn’t touch him.

The shining demon crossed the threshold, framed by gloom and deluge.

A nameless guard flees when Kellhus steps through the breach. Narsheidel charges. Kellhus smoothly doges and whips out his sword, beheading the Boonsman. “The demon” stares at Sorweel the entire time, but Kellhus’s eyes seem far too human.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.”

Kellhus feels unreal, like he’s both physically here and in a spiritual place. He stands taller than Sorweel’s father and wearing a mail of nimil (Nonman steel). He wears the severed heads of two demons on his belt, and he has scabs of salt on his skin. The “vision” announces his identity and Sorweel pisses himself and collapses onto his belly.

“Come,” the man [Kellhus] said, crouching to place a hand on his [Sorweel’s] shoulder. “Come. Get up. Remember yourself…”

Remember?

“You are a King, are you not?”

Sorweel could only stare in horror and wonder.

“I-I d-d-d-on’t understand…”

A friendly scowl, followed by a gentle laugh. “I’m rarely what my enemies expect, I know.” Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.

Kellhus explains that this fight was a mistake, he’s not a conqueror, but here to save mankind. Sorweel calls him a liar. Kellhus tells him to grieve because it’s natural. “But take heart in the fact of your forgiveness.” Sorweel asks how Kellhus can forgive anything. Kellhus says Sorweel misunderstands what he meant.

“Misunderstand what?” Sorweel spat. “That you think yourse—!”

“Your father loved you!” the man interrupted, his voice thick with a nigh-irresistible paternal reprimand. “And that love, Sorwa, is forgiveness… His forgiveness, not mine.”

The young King of Sakarpus stood dumbstruck, staring with a face as slack as rainwater. Then perfumed sleeves enclosed him, and he wept in the burning arms of his enemy, for his city, for his father, for a world that could wring redemption out of betrayal.

Years. Months. Days. For so long the Aspect-Emperor had been an uneasy rumor to the South, a name heaped in atrocity as it was miracle…

No more.

My Thoughts

Bakker starts right off with a discussion on men and how they are controlled by Cause and Effect. Humans do not like being the villains so we always rationalize our actions and find excuses for them. Some are better than others, but most do it. We come up with why we lie, we cheat, we steal. Why we are selfish.

We spin out our delusions to justify our crimes.

“Men, all Men, warred all the time.” Pure Bakker there. Men are in competition, and war is the ultimate competition. Whether they are competing (warring) with the field they till or competing for the affection of their lover.

It’s clear Bakker thought a lot about how the host would survive the march. It’s great to see that level of detail.

Hello, skin-spies. Slipping them in early. Need to remember that they exist because there’s another one out there.

Men and their delusions are illustrated with: “The Men of the Ordeal could feel it: an approving world, a judging world.” Also, we see judging again. The Judging Eye does exactly what these men believe is happening as does the Inverse Fire.

We have our first reference to Cil-Aujas, the Nonman ruin which dominates the finale in this book. We get the first glimpse of its history, how the humans and Nonmen fought off the No-God and then how the humans later butchered them. It’s a whitewashing of history as well as planting the first seeds for a big story hook to come.

Bakker starts off the Great Ordeal by mirroring how it will end. The army crosses a plain that has been depleted of food, just like they’ll find when crossing the Agongorea, the Field Appalling. There, hunger will reduce them to cannibalism to survive. Like with Sakarpus, the Consult tries that same tactic of starvation to defeat the Great Ordeal. Only we see the armies here at the start, strong and proud and confident, eager to break another proud people.

They don’t realize they’re a proud people.

Bakker’s irony is on full display with the Great Ordeal fighting to save mankind by starting his campaign with conquering a city that has stood up against the Consult and the Sranc since the Second Apocalypse ended. In other fantasy, Sakarpus would welcome and aid the Great Ordeal.

Sorweel is our primary POV for the events of the Great Ordeal. He’s a young man who has to grow up and see the world for what it is. He still idealizes his father like any boy would. It’s easy to see someone as being brave when you don’t know the fear inside of them. It’s as Bakker described in an earlier book, that humans are a two-sided coin. There’s the face the world sees of us and the face we see of ourselves. You can never see how the world sees you, and the world can never see how you view yourself.

Proyas is trying diplomacy here. It is admirable. Harweel is as Proyas describes. He wants to keep his power. He seems like a good man, so he probably has his reasons like protecting his people and defying a demon. The rationalization to justify his desires. After all, Sakarpus survived the No-God. How could Kellhus threaten them?

Kellhus is a Ciphrang… An interesting comment to have in the prose given the deal he’s made Ajokli between the two series.

Bakker brings us some good insight on fighting and why it happens. Some say war is the failure of diplomacy, others say it’s the only way to accomplish it. Force is required to bring people to the peace tables. The threat of it or its actual unleashing. The outcome can often be seen ahead of time, which only makes the tragedy to come pointless. But people are stubborn. They have hope. They don’t want to see reality. They are consumed with pride or fear. A hundred reasons that can lead to men dying on the battlefield. They’re rarely good ones.

Well, Chapter One and fortune is compared to a whore!

Sakarpus says they are here because of the strength of their wall, the might of their ancestors, and the Chorae Horde (which why the Holy War is here). Kellhus says they were on the periphery of events and lucked out that the consult didn’t come. I imagine it’s more in the middle. They did weather attacks but they never felt the full brunt of the No-God.

Sakarpus reminds me of Game of Thrones. The North talked a good talk about how they were strong than their southern men, worth ten of them, and then Arya finds them slaughtered when Ned Stark is captured. She’s confused that their bravado didn’t match reality. Sorweel is starting to see through his father’s bravado before the face of the might before them.

The end is writ in stone. Everyone knows it, but Harweel cannot break free of the expectations that lie on him and the fear of losing all he has. He is grasping at straws to stay free and Proyas knows it. We see that after twenty years, Proyas has grown with more compassion. This isn’t the zealot we first met, but the man who witnessed Shimeh burn.

How many cities has he seen burned since?

I make no bones about how much I dislike Kellhus. What he does to Proyas in this series is brutal. The shortest path as no room for compassion or love.

Great father and son stuff between Sorweel and his father. His father is getting him ready for what’s to come. The fact that they’re going to lose. Harweel can’t bring himself from surrendering without a fight. He must feel trapped by duty and expectation. Sorweel can start clean as the subject ruler. He recognizes how Kellhus operates. He prefers to leave those in place who will be followed if they bend the knee. Sorweel is that person. Someone he can use as both a hostage and a ruler to keep Sakarpus in line after the defeat. Harweel needs his son to be strong enough to survive what is coming.

Sorweel is maturing fast now, feeling empathy to a boy he disliked out of habit. Humans fall into a social hierarchy, and you act in your place to maintain it or risk falling from your place and losing the ability to climb higher.

It’s interesting the relief that can come when the dreaded thing happens. You can finally deal with it and not worry about it, even if it goes bad. Stress is not good for humans in our current modern world. Its designed for life-and-death situations, not worrying for days or weeks on whether you’re going to lose your job. It’s not great having that building pressure with no release for too long.

Warrior cultures always think they are superior in military might to more civilized nations. They can often be surprised then to lose. Those countries might not have the culture on the surface, but that doesn’t mean they’re not humans who, when need to, can be just as aggressive to survive. Barbarians might win when they sweep unprepared against a “soft” enemy, but if the enemy can regroup, they can fight back. The Japanese saw the Americans as weak and easily swept aside. They were followers of Bushido. During the Battle of Midway, in one of the opening skirmishes, a US dive bomber almost crashed into the bridge of an aircraft carrier, nearly killing the admiral in command of the Japanese forces. This shook them badly seeing an American willing to go that far. On that day, they saw inexperience American forces, but not cowards. Not men who wouldn’t fight.

Sakarpus is seeing the same. The “weak” south has marched with the same martial fervor that any human can muster.

Harweel might be the best father in this series. He’s trying to keep his son alive, even if that means punching him in the face to get him to leave. Everything we’ve seen about him through Sorweel is positive. It’s a shame Harweel couldn’t bend his knee, but then giving up power is one of the hardest things to do. The darkness that comes before had its hand around Harweel. He couldn’t break free.

This shadowed beggar is something I’ve never noticed before. Eyes that blinked light. A follower of Yatwer? At some point, Sorweel drew the Goddess’s notice. She makes him her Narindar. I thought it was with the slave he later meets, but it might have been as early as right now.

Sorweel is trying to be an active main character here. His father is dead, and he knows he has to take charge, but Narsheidel is panicked. He’s obeying his last order no matter what. He’s placed Sorweel above protecting his own family because he finds comfort in following his oath. It’s something familiar.

Then Kellhus steps in and removes that agency from Sorweel that he almost had. Sorweel’s story is one of lacking agency. He wants it, but he’s continually forced into different roles, and in the end, becomes nothing more than a pawn for Yatwer.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.” Sorweel meets Kellhus as a kneeler king. Just as he thinks of all those others who serve in disdain, that’s how he meets our Dûnyain.

Kellhus’s Mark is probably at the point where even a near miss from a Chorae can cause him issues.

Come on, Bakker, you can’t use pronouns like this: “Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.” That’s two different men being referenced by the pronouns. Kellhus is helping Sorweel stand but it sounds like one person is helping himself stand. And that one person would be Kellhus, who is standing! I love Bakker’s writing, but his pronouns sometimes drive me nuts.

If you hadn’t known anything about Kellhus, if this was your first introduction to him, you would buy his act. Hugging the enemy of his son after reluctantly fighting his people in the greater goal of saving the world is something you’d see in fantasy. The savior of mankind with his inhuman power.

We know every word he spoke to Sorweel is an act to win his support and through him the resources of Sakarpus.

Sorweel is fantasy trope of the captured enemy who is out to avenge his father and in the process seduces the daughter of his enemy to his side. He only manages to seduce the daughter, and that only happened because he became a pawn of a Goddess using him in an act of mad defiance to kill Kellhus. It ends in failure. In his death, having no agency. Never taking his own power. He is perpetually pulled from event to event (quite literally when he’s dragged into the bowels of Ishterebinth in The Great Ordeal). Like with Kellhus in the first series, he is a subversion of this trope. In some ways, he’s a mirror of Kellhus. They both start out as the young man stepping out into the world, each their own fantasy trope, and each radically different. One seizes agency, the other is seized. However, they both end up being possessed by the gods.

Sorweel is a pawn. A slave to the darkness that comes before. Only it’s the darkness of Yatwer who can’t see the No-God and his actions. She doesn’t understand the context of the future and can only seek to stop it the way a blind man can: by blundering. Sorweel is one of those who are in her path.

Let’s follow him on his journey and study his character. His part in The Unholy Consult is something I’m eager to dig in when we (eventually) get there.

Click here for Chapter Two!

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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: Empire of Grass

Empire of Grass

by Tad Williams

Reviewed by JMD Reid

When we last left off, Prince Morgan, the grandson of Simon and Miramele, is fleeing into Aldheorte Forest fleeing the attack at his camp. At the Hayholt, Simon is struggling to hold the High Ward together as their deadly enemies, the fey-like Norns, are planning to attack and resume the war that ended thirty years ago. His wife, Queen Miramele, sells into the viper’s nest of Nabban to bring peace to two feuding power. In the grasslands, Unvar declares himself the Shan of Shan of the nomadic Thrithings and promises to drive back the foreigners encroaching on their grassland.

And behind much of this misfortune, Simon’s trusted adviser, Parcelleus, plots Simon and Miramele’s deaths and the end of their rule.

The characters are thrust into new danger. Everything is in upheaval. The past of the last three decades is crumbling. Treachery and betrayal are undoing everything Simon and Miramele had achieved in their youths while the Queen of the Norns has reawakened after the wounds she took at the end of the war. Competing interests clash and clatter. Events are spiraling out of everyone’s control.

Chaos threatens to destroy all.

It’s a great followup to the Witchwood Crown. It’s full of twists and turns, misfortune and misunderstanding sparking new conflicts, disrupting plans on both sides. The plot is engaging, keeping you reading to find if Simon and Miramele can hold their life’s work together and protect their grandchildren.

Will Prince Morgan survive being lost in the forest? Will Parcelleus treachery lead to Miramele’s death in the chaos of Nabban? What will happen to Count Eolair as he surrenders to the men who attacked and butchered his men? The Norn are descending on the world of men while they’re torn apart by petty conflicts.

Williams prose and story structure are engaging. The cast of characters is engaging, especially the trolls. They again are a favorite of mine. His plot has more pieces going than the original series, but he’s keeping it going so far.

Things have never seen bleaker. I can’t wait for the next book in this series!

You can buy Empire of Grass from Amazon!

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Review: Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

A collection of short stories set in her delightful World of Myrrah. Fleshing out the world surrounding her two fantasy series Rise of the Firth Order and Games of Fire. They involve many of her main characters from before the first series and between the two. Stories of love and guilt, stories of growth and pain.

These were a fascinating collection of stories. Some are short and sweet, others have some real depths, and others full of action and suspense. The writing holds all of Brit’s charm. The stories reveal new facets of her characters and shows the events that shaped them.

Her world has so many corners to explore, and I was glad to enjoy it. If you’ve read Brit’s fantasy series, you have to read this. If you’re a fan of imaginative and exciting fantasy stories, there is plenty in here even for newbies to her writing (though the last few will spoil Rise of the Fifth Order).

I was glad to pick this up and thoroughly enjoyed returning to Brit’s World of Myrahh. I can’t wait for volume 2!

This book peels back more of her world and reveals the underlining pinning of it. This is such a fast-paced and fun book to read. The stakes have never been higher, and the emotions have never been stronger. If you haven’t started reading Brit, then you need to pick up Born of Water and start reading this amazing series!

Fans of fantasy will fall in love with the writing of Autumn Brit! I can’t wait to see what new and imaginative worlds she’ll create next.

You can buy Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1 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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Snippet 2 – 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 One

The Skyland of Tlele, Lheshoa 20th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

How far will he go for knowledge, Ary?” Chaylene asked her husband, biting her lip. She trembled against him, feeling his heart thundering beneath his rib cage as she clutched him in the darkness of their bedroom.

Ary stared at her. “Estan?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you sound concerned about Estan?” Ary asked, pulling away from her. “And not . . . Theisseg’s warning?”

Her husband’s latest dream of the Dark Goddess Theisseg frightened Chaylene to her core. The intensity of Ary’s words had her shuddering, fear cutting through her hangover’s headache. She didn’t understand how Theisseg’s sister, the Sun Goddess Riasruo, was returning. Once, Chaylene had believed Riasruo was a benevolent Goddess, that Theisseg was the one to be feared, but now . . .

“Well . . .” Chaylene bit her lip. Riasruo was a remote threat, but Estan . . . The words he had spoken a week ago still gusted through Chaylene’s mind, shaking her trust in their intelligent and serious friend.

“Tell me, Lena,” Ary said.

In the dim light of their bedroom, she could make out Ary’s forehead furrowing. His square jaw worked and his eyes narrowed. A few strands of his blond hair tumbled down across his tan-brown forehead. Her ebony hands gripped his broad shoulders. Running a farm at the age of ten, and then serving as a marine, had given Ary a body thick with muscles. She pressed her face into his chest, her blonde locks tumbling about her dark cheeks.

“Lena?” Ary asked, his strong arms engulfing her. The young woman closed her eyes. She felt safe held in his embrace. And he’s leaving me. Estan’s taking him away.

“It’s just . . .” Chaylene didn’t quite know how to voice her nebulous fears. Estan was obsessed with knowledge. He constantly poked and prodded, driven to uncover truth. “Sometimes, I fear he cares more about knowledge than others.”

Ary snorted. “He’s a good friend, Lena.”

Chaylene had believed that until Estan had threatened to reveal Ary’s secret if Ary didn’t heal Esty, Estan’s lover. Ary had forgiven Estan, taking it as a slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment, but for Chaylene the threat hung around them.

Estan knew too much about Ary’s past.

Her hand slipped down her husband’s stone-hard chest and touched the puckered scar on his side. During the Cyclone that had ravaged their home as children, Theisseg’s lightning had struck him there. Ary was Stormtouched. The Church of Riasruo had sent assassins to kill him. Chaylene herself had almost died in two of those attempts. Worse, their own country, the Autonomy of Les-Vion, imprisoned Stormtouched in the infamous Rhision Prison out on the skyland of Rhogre. Only a month ago, Investigator Archene Thugris, hunting for Stormtouched, had interrogated Ary, Chaylene, and the rest of the crew of the Dauntless after they’d battled a Cyclone.

Stormtouched were thought to be cursed by Theisseg. People feared they were controlled by Her, threats to the skylands. Chaylene should be equally as scared, equally as repulsed by Theisseg’s taint on her husband. But she loved him. She’d vowed to Ary’s own sister to protect him. She wouldn’t let anyone harm him. She knew the truth. It wasn’t a curse. What Theisseg had given her husband had saved Chaylene’s and other’s lives.

“Just . . . be careful when you travel with Estan,” Chaylene said, stroking his scar.

“There are more important things to worry about,” Ary said.

“I know.”

His right hand stroked her ebony shoulder. Unlike Ary, who was a full-blooded Vionese with brown skin and red eyes, Chaylene was half-Vaarckthian, her coal-black skin inherited from her dead mother, her blonde hair from her dead father.

“What does it mean, that Riasruo is coming?” Ary asked. “Does Theisseg mean there are more assassins after me, or is it something else?”

“I don’t know.” Chaylene bit her lip, thinking on the stories. “Neither Theisseg nor Riasruo ever soared the skies in any of the legends. They only appear in certain places. Like Mount Wraiucwii.”

“Where Iiwroa somehow betrayed Theisseg.” Ary sighed, his face furrowed.

Chaylene had no idea how Iiwroa, the great leader of the Hopeful Company, could possibly have betrayed Theisseg. Iiwroa was Theisseg’s enemy. However, Chaylene had learned, from Ary and his dreams, that the stories about the Wrackthar Wars and the origin of the Storm Below were not what the singers and storytellers had claimed.

There was a secret concealed by Riasruo’s Church.

“I’ll talk to Estan in the morning,” Ary said. “Maybe he’ll have an idea.”

“Yeah.” Chaylene couldn’t deny that Estan was intelligent and had studied the very esoteric secrets that had been thrust upon Ary when he was Touched. Her labored heart tightened knowing Ary had to leave her. “I wish I could go with you.”

“Me, too.” Ary stroked his thumb across the stump of his left hand. The pirate Nrein had cut off the top of his hand, slicing through his palm right above his thumb, which he still possessed, during the Battle of Grion Rift. If Chaylene hadn’t missed her shot . . .

Tomorrow, Ary would be officially discharged from the Navy, free to live his life as he chose.

Chaylene snuggled tighter against her husband, clutching him. She didn’t want to let Ary go. She wanted him to stay at Rheyion Naval Base. He was her only shelter against the winds of her guilt. Tears burned in her eyes. Her mouth opened, desperate to ask him to stay. To beg him.

She knew he would.

But he has to find these answers, she reminded herself. She couldn’t be selfish. The Church would never stop hunting Ary. If he freed Theisseg and ended the Storm . . . We can go home to Vesche and be farmers. It wasn’t her dream. Hers had died with Whitesocks.

The image of her pegasus—a majestic beast with a coat of cinnamon and wings of iridescent gray—rose in her mind. She had once dreamed of flying around the skies on him, seeing new wonders. Her body shook, throat tightening. Sobs burst out of her while tears poured down her cheeks.

Whitesocks’s dying snort echoed in her mind, his broken legs kicking as she stroked his neck, loving him until the light left his black eyes. Other nightmares filled her mind: Stormriders galloping at the Dauntless, the Vionese sailor glaring at her right before her pressure bullet punched through his skull, Ary kneeling over Estan while the pirate loomed.

As if sensing her pain, Ary held her tight.

“Will the nightmares ever go away?” Chaylene asked.

“I hope they do.”

Ary found his sleep after her tears had dried. She listened to his heart thud, his chest rising and falling beneath her head with his slow breaths. Chaylene feared what waited in her dreams. Whitesocks had been such a beautiful pegasus. Smart, intelligent, and loyal. Every day for five months, Chaylene had gone to his stable, curried his hide, checked his wings and hooves, and fed him an apple or plum. They’d flown through the skies together. He’d soared into the battle over the pirate fortress out of love and duty for her.

Right into an Agerzak arrow.

She stared at the window, watching the horizon lighten through the bubbled, imperfect glass.

A new day dawned.

*

The frustrating itch in the calf muscle of Estan’s leg drew him out of sleep. He reached down to scratch it. The sensation drove him wild. The prickling tingles radiated up and down from his knee to his ankle.

His fingers touched no flesh.

The shock snapped Estan awake, heart pounding ice through his veins. For a frantic moment, he fumbled to feel his leg and . . .

Groaned into full memory.

He lay on a narrow cot in the naval base’s medical building. His right leg itched even though the surgeon had amputated it above the knee. An Agerzak greatsword, wielded by the pirate Nrein, had ended Estan’s short career as an Autonomy Marine. Once, he’d believed he was destined to study at the great University of Rlarshon, to be a philosopher in the natural sciences and follow in the footsteps of his tutor, Fehun Rlarim.

Why are we disobeying the church and studying forbidden knowledge?” Estan had asked Master Rlarim as a boy. Pursuing it had driven Master Rlarim from the academic halls into the household of the Lord Mayor of Amion.

Knowledge should never be hoarded and only handed out with miserly annoyance like a merchant bemoaning the debts he must pay,” Master Rlarim had answered. “Knowledge is like the sun shining down on us. It should be free for everyone to enjoy. To drink in, much like the plants growing in your father’s garden drink in the sun’s rays for energy. Knowledge invigorates and illuminates. It is worthless if kept hidden. And, like the sun, it is not something that should be feared.”

Unless you’re a Stormtouched and Riasruo’s church sends assassins to kill you, Estan thought.

The itch intensified. Estan groaned through his clenched teeth as he stared at the infirmary’s dark ceiling, wishing he could scratch the severed part of his leg. Lieutenant Aychiov, the medical officer, had disposed of it into the Storm. Maybe some creature is gnawing on it. Ary had told a story of an amputee he knew who held that superstition. That is why it itches badly.

Estan recognized the weakness of his hypothesis, but it was hard to care. He groaned again and gave up on scratching at his ghostly limb. He wasn’t alone in the infirmary. The wounded of past battles occupied the other beds. Of the Dauntless’s crew, only the fierce Bosun and Ienchie, the sailor friend of Chaylene, recuperated with Estan. Those two had both been grieved to learn that their injuries had prevented their deaths when the Dauntless had mysteriously detonated during the Battle of the Rift. Even Estan, who’d spent considerable time thinking on nothing else, failed to understand how their ship could have been so catastrophically and suddenly lost.

His fingers absently scratched at his stump as he considered the Dauntless’s fate. He wished Esty, his Agerzak fiancée, had not been forced to leave by the medical officer. Her lively conversation helped to focus his mind from the burning itch.

Alone, he muttered to himself: “The only cause that makes rational sense is an explosion in the powder magazine.”

In the bow of the Dauntless, below the two forward ballistae, lay the powder magazine. There the clay shots, filled with black powder and a variety of fuses, were stored during sailing. During combat, a sailor would be in the magazine placing the shots into a canvas sling to be hauled up to the ballistae.

“I suppose the sailor could have dropped the shot,” Estan mused. “There is a theoretical chance such a mishap could break the glass fuse. My own observations show a shot can be dropped from clumsy hands without detonation. Of course, proper tests should be conducted with a variety of fuses. If there is a flaw in the way warships store their shots, then it needs to be found and—”

“Private!” the growling voice of the Bosun cracked through the darkness of the infirmary.

Estan’s stomach clenched. “Yes, Bosun?”

The large woman sat up on her bed. Though he could not see her face in the shadows, he was certain her one good eye was fixed on him. “Will you Stormin’ be quiet, or I’ll pick up your gimped body with my broken arm and carry you to the skyland’s edge. Do you know what I’ll do next, Private?”

“Cast me down into the Storm Below, Bosun.”

“I’m glad we understand.”

Estan swallowed. He really didn’t think the Bosun would follow through on her threat, but she did have large fists. . . He’d witnessed her use them effectively on the sailors of the Dauntless.

Estan kept his mouth shut for the rest of the night. He only wished his leg would stop itching.

*

Lheshoa 21st, 399 VF (1960 SR)

Zori came awake in a flash. She bolted up on her cot in the nearly empty barracks for the crew of the Dauntless. Corporal Huson and Zeirie, the only other women sharing the top floor with Zori, were dressing in their marine uniforms. So many beds were empty. The normal bustle, laughs, and groans of the others waking up were absent.

The hollow echo blunted Zori’s usual good mood. It was hard to be excited about a new day when she’d be saying goodbye to the crew of the Dauntless who perished when their ship was destroyed. To the women she’d bunked with for months. Despite the sorrow, Zori forced herself to smile, the way her mother would, to forget her pain.

It mostly worked.

She felt Corporal Huson’s eyes on her. Zori grimaced. The corporal never spoke but always watched, looking for some infraction to gig a marine. It wasn’t uncommon for her to report to the Bosun if a female sailor was too slow to rise or too sloppy in her dress. Zori didn’t care how slovenly she looked.

She was a scout.

Zori let her stretch linger, ignoring Huson’s studious gaze. She didn’t have to fake her insolent smile. The linen chemise she slept in rustled while her short legs dangled over the edge of her cot. Zori was the shortest member of the crew, and her body was slim and compact. It had given her many advantages while living on the streets after her mother died. She’d dodged the militiamen wanting to throw her in the workhouses and the pimps wanting to throw her in the brothels.

Zori loved the Navy. Mostly. She had three meals a day where she didn’t have gulp down her food like a sow at the trough, afraid someone bigger would steal it. She had a clean bed and friends she trusted to watch her back. She had Guts.

And she had Dancer.

There was such wonder in flying. The wind rushing past her face, whipping her short, blonde hair behind her while the flight muscles of Dancer flexed beneath her when the pegasus flapped his wings. She could spiral high up then dive to the earth, whooping and hollering.

It would be perfect without the fighting, she thought, the emptiness of the room pressing upon her.

Zori ripped off her dirty chemise, the corporal watching. Zori fixed Huson a hard look. Technically, Huson outranked Zori, but Zori was a scout. It would be futile for Huson to report her to Chaylene, Zori’s bosom friend.

Zori stuck her tongue out at the corporal before bending over to slowly dig through her chest of drawers for a clean uniform. Despite the chill in the barracks, her skin pimpling, she forced herself to take her time until she felt the corporal’s eyes leave her.

That’s right. I’m not one of your marines with a stick rammed up my backside. I’m a person who does what she wants. Zori paused. Mostly.

The two marines left Zori behind to head to the parade grounds for the final muster of the Dauntless. Ary would be there, and Guts would be looking so handsome and strapping in his red jacket. Zori grinned. She loved watching Guts march in his uniform. She didn’t care that his face was disfigured.

Dressed in her scout uniform—white linen britches bloused into her stiff, black boots, a knife tucked into her boot top, a starched linen shirt, not buttoned all the way to her neck, and a sky-blue jacket left open—she skipped down the stairs, passing the two floors the unmarried men lived in. They were as vacant as the women’s.

She burst out into the daylight.

*

Buttons proved a challenge for Ary now.

Only having four fingers and two thumbs made many mundane tasks more difficult. Fastening his red jacket was almost more than he could manage. His teeth ground as he struggled to pop the bone button through the eyelet.

“May I?” Chaylene, dressed in the navy-blue jacket of an officer over her white blouse and britches, asked. A few errant strands of her blonde hair, tied back at the nape of her neck, tumbled down her ebony skin.

“Fine,” Ary growled.

Chaylene’s fingers were nimble, working their way up the front, popping each button effortlessly through its hole. Ary noticed her cloudy eyes misting as she asked, “Did I ever tell you that you look handsome in your uniform?”

“Maybe,” Ary said, his back straightening.

“When I was a little girl, before the Cyclone, I sometimes pictured you in this uniform. Dashing and daring.”

“I . . . I didn’t know.” Before the Cyclone, it had been Ary’s dream to be a marine. He used to watch them drilling at Aldeyn Watch on the edge of their home skyland, Vesche. To the young boy, the marines were the epitome of brave and gallant, the Stormwall of the Autonomy. He’d pretended to march and fight with them.

Then he’d witnessed the Intrepid’s sortie against the Cyclone. Seven years later, and Ary couldn’t forget how insignificant the Intrepid had looked as she’d sailed before the wall of boiling clouds spanning the horizon. He’d clutched at the stones of the ruined watchtower, his heart hammering in his chest, afraid and excited all at the same time.

Then the Cyclone had struck Vesche.

He’d felt its terrible force as the Intrepid wallowed in the winds. Ary had prayed to Riasruo to protect the warship. The Goddess hadn’t answered his prayers. A false sun . . .

A different Goddess had heard Ary. He was struck by Theisseg’s lightning and had his first dream of the supposedly evil Goddess bound in chains of pulsing lightning, screaming in agony, and begging for her freedom. Theisseg wasn’t to be feared. Only pitied.

Ary feared Riasruo now.

She’d ignored Ary’s prayer and allowed the Intrepid to crash. The crew perished. Riasruo wasn’t the benevolent Goddess the Church claimed. She was a monster who sent assassins to kill Ary.

And they almost killed Chaylene.

Seeing the dead of the Intrepid had scarred young Ary. He’d vowed give up dreams of glory and become a farmer. Until Chaylene was drafted into the Navy, Ary had no intentions of ever donning the red jacket. But he did. He served. He fought as a marine for his country, and now his maimed hand had ended his career.

Almost six months. I hated it. He snorted at his thoughts. Now that it’s over, I so desperately want to stay.

It wasn’t just for Chaylene that he yearned to stay, but for Guts, Corporal Huson, Zeirie, Jhech, and Messiench. His marines. Ary had led them into battle first as their corporal, then their sergeant, and lastly as their adjutant-lieutenant. He ached to serve on the Adventurous and protect the remnants of the Dauntless’s crew.

Today was his last day as a Marine of the Autonomy. Tears stung his eyes.

Impulsively, he pulled Chaylene to him, holding her tight. After a moment, her arms went around him, clutching him, clinging to him. I’m abandoning them all, he thought.

“I’ll be fine,” Chaylene whispered, her voice cracking. She cleared her throat. “The Bluefin Raiders are done. The Eastern Fleet won’t have much to do but patrol. It’s fine. You have to go, Ary. You have to find the answers.”

“I know.”

“You’re my Bronith. You’ll find me again.”

Ary squeezed his eyes shut. Chaylene loved the tale of the moon nymph Eyia who’d dance down on a rainbow of light when both the red and blue moons were full. The mighty hunter Bronith spied her in a glade, captivated by her beauty. When dawn came, she had to return home upon the moonbeams. Bronith would not be deterred. He followed her into the sky where he chased her to this day, their constellations shining bright.

Ary cleared his throat. “My Eyia.”

After one more desperate heartbeat, they broke apart.

Ary buckled on his sword belt, a metal Stormrider sabre hanging from it. They donned their boots, Chaylene blousing her britches into the tops of hers. Despite being promoted to the rank of lieutenant, she was still a scout at heart. For Ary, tying his boot laces proved easier than buttoning his jacket. He couldn’t perform the task as swiftly, but he could pinch the lace between his thumb and the stump of his left palm while the fingers of his right fashioned the knot.

Dressed, the pair left their small house and separated for the day. Ary marched to the Dauntless’s parade ground, his back straight while his boots crunched on the gravel walkway. The sky was clear.

Corporal Huson had the surviving marines standing at attention. Ary’s eyes flicked from one to the other. Corporal Huson stood before them, the sabre-thin woman’s back rigid, her face severe and bony. She wore her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, stretching smooth the tan-brown skin of her forehead. She was Ary’s age, but carried herself like a spinster.

“Adjutant-Lieutenant,” she said, snapping a salute.

“Corporal.” Ary saluted back as he stopped beside her.

“I am afraid not all the marines are accounted for, Adjutant-Lieutenant.” Her small lips pursed tight as she glanced to her right. Estan limped across the grounds with a crutch, the end of his trouser leg pinned up to his thigh, his red coat buttoned tight. His face was twisted as he struggled forward. Esty, his Agerzak paramour, lurked on the edge of the field, watching with hands clasped before her.

“I think he’s earned his tardiness, Corporal,” Ary answered.

“As you wish, sir.”

Guts caught Ary’s gaze. The big man rolled his eyes, a smile crossing his lips beneath the fake leather nose he wore strapped to his face. He’d lost his real one fighting Stormriders a few months back. Though Ary was a large man, his young body strengthened by running a farm at a young age, Guts was even taller and broader in the chest. The hilt of an Agerzak greatsword peeked over his shoulder. The sword had once been Ary’s. After being maimed, he’d traded it for Guts’s sabre.

The other marines waited in stoic silence for Estan as his crutch thunked with every step. Not even Zeirie made a comment. Estan’s back was straight. His Stormrider sabre hung in a sheath at his hip. Ary felt his marines’ admiration for their compatriot. Estan may have been the rich son of a Lord Mayor, but he’d never hesitated to perform the strenuous and dangerous duty of a marine.

“Private,” Ary said when Estan arrived.

“Adjutant-Lieutenant.” Pain creased Estan’s face as he fell in formation beside Zeirie. The half-Agerzak woman gave Estan a nod.

Emotion clung to Ary’s throat as he gazed at his men. He’d fought and bled with all of them, even Zeirie. In some ways, they were closer to him than his siblings. He could never tell his brother Jhevon what it was like to brain a man with a sword. He could never describe to his sister Gretla the sheer terror of standing at the railing while sailing into the maw of a Cyclone.

His marines understood.

“I would give anything to continue serving with you,” Ary said, fighting against the burning in his eyes, his words hoarse. He had to be strong. He was their commander. He clasped his maimed hand behind his back. He stared each of them in the eye as he spoke. “You are the finest marines in the Autonomy. You have served in more danger and muck in your first year of service than most will see in four. Not once did you complain. Not once did you shirk your duties. You stood beside me before the Cyclone. You rappelled down to the docks of Offnrieth behind me. You came to my rescue when Chaylene’s pegasus was shot from the sky at the pirate fortress.

“I . . .” His words faltered for a moment. His throat closed. The world grew watery. “I am truly fortunate to have met you all. The Sergeant-Major entrusted your safety to me. I did my best, now I entrust it to Corporal Huson. I know she’ll take good care of you.”

“I will, Adjutant-Lieutenant,” the corporal said, and Ary caught a rare gleam of emotion in her green eyes.

Impulsively, Ary hugged the corporal. She was a stickler for formality. Rarely had she relaxed her discipline. Only once, after his maiming, had she called him Ary. Today, she broke discipline again and embraced him back.

After a moment, he released her, emotion fighting to be freed as he stepped before Estan and engulfed him in a hug. Chaylene may have had her doubts about Estan, but Ary knew the Vaarckthian would never betray him. They’d bled together.

Ary released his friend and came face to face with Zeirie. The woman had once bullied Chaylene for being half-Vaarckthian, slinging mud with others. That didn’t matter now. Zeirie was his sister. He embraced her.

“I’ll watch out for your wife, Adjutant-Lieutenant,” Zeirie whispered, returning his hug with a fierceness.

Ary nodded.

He embraced the quiet and burly Messiench next, the man’s rough beard scraping on Ary’s neck. Next, Ary engulfed the stout Jhech, the man slapping Ary’s back. Ary shuffled down the formation to stand before Guts. Besides Estan, Guts was Ary’s closest friend.

“Theisseg damn, I didn’t see it ending like this,” Guts said as they crushed each other with brotherhood. “Out of all of us recruits, you were the only one of us that wasn’t a fish scurrying before the shadow of the Sergeant-Major. Had you running the perimeter during our first muster.”

Ary grinned. “And if you hadn’t had a head stuffed full of ostrich feathers, you wouldn’t have laughed and joined me.”

Guts laughed, the rich, honest bass rumbling from him while his arms tightened. Ary didn’t mind his spine cracking.

“It’s not going to be the Stormin’ same without you, Ary.”

*

Zori snorted as the marines jogged by, led by Ary. Only poor Estan was absent. She caught Guts’s attention and shook her head at him. Guts flashed her a broad grin that made his fake leather nose shift unnaturally.

“Why are you running?” Zori shouted. “It’s our last day on the Dauntless. No one cares.”

“Ary does,” Guts answered as his smile fell.

Like Estan, Ary would be discharged from the Navy that day. A marine with one-and-a-half-hands wasn’t needed. But he would still be living on Tlele, waiting for Chaylene to return from the boring patrols on the Adventurous.

Three and a half years of boring sounds just fine with me, thought Zori.

Zori never expected to fall in love. That was something for heroines in the stories. In the real world on the streets of Sey, there wasn’t love. There was plenty of lust. It was nice snuggling up to a dumb, strong man on a cold night, protected in exchange for a short time pumping on top of her. Zori had always kept a good eye out for a big man who would defend her but not hit her.

Besides, she hadn’t minded the pumping. Sometimes, it had made her burn quite hot. She really enjoyed it with Guts.

With Guts, however, she wasn’t giving herself for protection. She didn’t have to give herself at all. She did it because she liked being with Guts. He was funny, with a quip or a joke that kept her entertained. Zori even pictured a future with him once their service was over.

Next I’ll be cooking him dinner like Chaylene does for Ary. We’ll be playing house and talking about children. Her hand touched her belly. A long-buried emotion rose, the pain of Amiria threatening to escape.

Zori stuffed it back down in her and focused on the present.

It seemed so alien to Zori, and yet she yearned for it. Guts had crept under her skin. Their star watching had only supposed to be fun. Her mother had always advised her to never love a man. “They’ll tell you such sweet lies in bed. They’ll tell you sweet promises that you’ll want to believe. Your heart will beat fast. You’ll think you’re in love, but it’s lies. Men never tell the truth. They just take and leave. So don’t let them hurt you. Don’t let yourself love them. Take their money, their gifts, and their protection. Take what you need from them before they grow bored and find another woman to deceive.”

Zori was glad she hadn’t eaten all of her mother’s bitter meal. While it had sustained Zori on the streets, seeing Ary with Chaylene had taught her that not every man lied and maybe, just maybe, Guts was like Ary.

Zori was taking the chance.

She whistled a bawdy ditty sung in the taverns of Sey as she strolled to the stables. The words would make Chaylene’s ebony cheeks blush darker. Her grin twisted her lips. Maybe I should sing it for her.

The Dauntless’s section of the Rheyion Naval Port felt abandoned. All the life had evaporated. She kept expecting to see familiar faces rounding a supply building. She whistled harder to prevent the sadness from dragging her into foggy mires, her back straight, her arms swinging. She popped into the kitchen to snag a hard pear. She tossed it in her hand as she kept walking to the stables. They were whitewashed like the rest of the buildings, though smaller. The stale, sour scent of dung tickled her nose mixed with the earthy musk of a pegasus.

“I was wondering if you were sleeping in,” Velegrin said as he stepped out of the stables leading Blackfeather, his pegasus. His blond hair was its usual bird-nest mess, his shirt rumpled. “Or maybe your scrawny foot had slipped between the cracks of the floorboards and you’d gotten stuck.”

“Scrawny?” Zori arched an eyebrow. “There is nothing scrawny about me. I am perfectly proportioned.”

“For an eleven-year-old.”

“Eleven?”

“Sorry, eight.”

The pear struck Velegrin in the face with a wet thunk. Velegrin laughed as he managed to catch it on the rebound. “Definitely eight. You could have thrown it harder if you were older.”

Zori groaned through her teeth. As Velegrin passed her, he held the pear up for Blackfeather to eat. The pegasus bit deep.

“That pear’s for Dancer,” protested Zori.

“Then why did you give it to me?” Velegrin asked.

“I threw it at you! It was an attack.”

Velegrin cocked his head. “So, I should give my attacker back her weapon? That hardly seems prudent. Better if Blackfeather enjoys his snack.”

The pegasus munched on the pear. His black-feathered wings, an oddity for a Vionese pegasi, fluttered and his tail swished. Velegrin scratched Blackfeather’s neck as he led his mount for a walk.

Zori’s shriek was an angry sow’s squeal mixed with a falcon’s screech. She stalked into the stables where the far-more-deserving-of-a-pear-than-Velegrin’s-stupid-pegasus Dancer waited. He neighed in greeting, his roan muzzle peeking over the top of his stall.

“No pear for you,” Zori muttered. “Mean ol’ Velegrin took it for his piggish pegasus. Can you believe that?”

A sob answered Zori. It came from the next stall.

The slim scout frowned then sidled a few steps and peered into the pen. Chaylene sat in the straw, hugging her legs, her eyes swollen red and tracks of tears staining her cheeks.

“Chaylene,” Zori whispered. She darted inside. “What’s wrong?”

“Ary’s leaving.”

Zori sank down beside her friend and put an arm around Chaylene’s shoulders. “What do you mean, he’s leaving? The Navy? I know it won’t be great not having him onboard, but—”

“Onhur. He’s leaving Onhur.”

“What?” Anger hissed out of Zori. “That Storm-cursed, downyheaded jackanape! How could he?”

Chaylene blinked at Zori, her forehead furrowing. “What?”

“I thought he was a better man than to abandon his wife. I mean, I thought that—” Zori clamped her mouth shut before bringing up Chaylene’s unfortunate infatuation with Vel that had caused so many problems for her marriage a few months past.

“No, he’s not abandoning me. He has to go. He needs to . . . learn things. Find a way to . . .”

“Oh . . .” Zori swallowed. She didn’t want to say the “S” word, but it gusted around them. Zori had learned about it when Ary saved Guts’s life after the fight with the Luastrian assassin two weeks or so before.

Chaylene nodded. “With Estan. It’s just . . . I don’t want Ary to go. I want to beg him to stay.”

“Then do it. Tell your man what you want.” Zori flashed her friend a naughty grin. “It did wonders for me and Guts. The man did not know what to do with his hands.”

Chaylene groaned, and Zori fought her giggle. She loved teasing her friend with earthy suggestions.

“Ary needs to do this,” Chaylene said. “I know he’d stay if I pressed him, but it’d be wrong of me. Another assassin will come. And . . . it’s all . . . too much . . .” Her body shook. “The Dauntless is gone. Captain Dhar’s dead. And . . . and . . .”

Zori noticed the bridle clenched in Chaylene’s hand. The leather creaked as Chaylene rubbed it against her tear-stained cheek.

“I came . . . in . . . and . . . he wasn’t . . . here . . .” Chaylene sobbed, her entire body shaking. “I don’t . . . know why I thought . . . he would be . . .”

Zori held her friend. She loved Dancer. He gave her so much freedom, an extension of her. With Dancer, Zori could fly. That was a marvel to the poor girl from the streets of Sey. To lose that . . . lose him . . .

Zori held her friend until the horns blew.

“Time for the funeral,” Zori whispered.

Chaylene nodded. She stood, dusting the straw from her backside then wiping her cheeks with a handkerchief. “I could really use a drink.”

Zori blinked. “It’s pretty early.”

Chaylene didn’t answer. She marched out of the stall, her back straight. Zori swallowed, a chilly wind gusting through her. Zori’s injury during the Cyclone had caused her to miss the fight at Offnrieth and the choking plague. When she’d returned to the ship, she almost didn’t feel part of the crew. They’d all been through something transformative. Now a foul, dark shadow covered Chaylene, obscuring some of her warmth.

Zori ached to banish it.

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

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 1 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

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

Prologue

The Skyland of Ulanii

Bishriarch Rwiistrau chirped in relief as she was roused from sleep by a commotion outside her room. She ruffled her brown feathers as she stretched up from her nest. The new leader of the Church of Riasruo, elected after the tragic death of Swuiuprii IV in the wake of the Cyclone attack upon Ianwoa, shook her head, struggling to banish the nightmare.

It was a familiar one, plaguing her for the last month. It always began the same: the Cyclone rising over the edge of Ulanii, threatening the great city and the heart of Riasruo’s church in the skies. Its winds roared, hungry for the deaths of every hen and drake. The Stormriders glinted in the midst of the angry clouds, galloping on their steeds, thirsting for blood.

“You cannot disturb her,” screeched the normally level-headed Praiocwii, the young acolyte who served Rwiistrau. “She is sleeping. It can wait until morning.”

The door crashed open.

Rwiistrau squawked in surprise, her wings fluttering. She wore only a loose nightgown over her feathered body. Her scaly feet clutched at the shredded wool of her nest as she rose to her full height. Captain Shzuugz sze Tezl filled her doorway.

The hulking, female Ethinski cared little for modesty. She, like the other Tezlian guards, wore only a simple loincloth of white over her crimson scales. The lizardwoman squeezed through the door before striding across the room in three long steps. Even the shortest Ethinski Gezitziz towered over a Luastrian.

And Shzuugz was hardly short.

Her black tongue flicked out as she knelt before the Bishriarch. This merely brought the Gezitziz down to Rwiistrau’s eye level. Her tongue darted out again, the end forked while the dead, reptilian eyes stared into Rwiistrau’s.

“What is it, Captain?” asked Rwiistrau. “What news is so urgent to disturb my sleep?”

“The Book was opened. Archbishopress Uarioa sang a Song. After an hour, my guards peered inside. They found only her vestments.”

Rwiistrau’s gizzard clenched and writhed about her stones. What Song did she sing? What has Uarioa done?

The Book of Iiwroa was precious. The truths it contained needed to be protected and guarded. None outside the Synod of the Faithful, the body of archbishopresses who advised Rwiistrau, could know its contents.

“Did your guards touch the book?” Rwiistrau tensed, feeling her office’s weight.

If someone uninitiated had read the secrets, they had to die. The entire foundation of life in the skies would be shattered if the truth came out. It was a monstrous crime the Dawn Empresses and their successors, the Church of Riasruo, committed.

But necessary.

“None. They only stuck their heads into the room and saw she’d vanished.” Shzuugz’s tongue flicked. “I ordered the pair to be confined to their quarters. They have not spoken of what transpired to anyone but me.”

“Good,” Rwiistrau clucked. Annoyance at Uarioa tightened her gizzard. “Convene the Synod.”

“Your Radiance,” nodded Shzuugz before she rose.

“Praiocwii. My robe.”

The acolyte assisted Rwiistrau into the pure, white robes of the Bishriarch. The soft silk rasped on Rwiistrau’s dull-brown feathers. Her distal feathers, nimble like a human’s digits, adjusted how the robe rested on her shoulders. Praiocwii fetched the crown carved from yellow cedar, a poor imitation of the Crown of the Dawn lost so long ago.

Dressed, Rwiistrau swept through the slumbering halls of the Grand Temple of Riasruo. It was an open structure; ruddy columns carved like flames supported the ceiling. Mosaics of red, orange, and yellow covered the floors and walls. To Rwiistrau, she strode through stylized fire, the surface of Riasruo’s sun.

The chill of the autumn night robbed her of the illusion.

A pair of Tezlian guards, standing silent, opened the doors to the Synod. Inside, a table stood at the center made of yellow sandstone surrounded by fifteen perches. Rwiistrau’s talons clicked on the red sandstone floor.

Sitting on the table was the Book. Open.

She rushed forward. What did Uarioa do? Her eyes read the page. “The Song of Embodiment . . . ?” Rwiistrau’s gizzard sank. “What madness possessed you to do this, Uarioa?”

“Why have you roused me from sleep, Bishriarch?” demanded Archbishopress Saiuvii, the head of the Canton of Vion. “Has the Empire invaded the Autonomy? It was a mistake to send Puoupyi and lend legitimacy to the emperor’s insanity.”

Rwiistrau did not bother rebuking the insolent Saiuvii. She stared at her rival, the one voice who had dissented her elevation, and said, “Uarioa performed the Song of Embodiment.”

“Lanii’s golden feathers! Has her disease driven her to madness?”

Rwiistrau’s head cocked. “Disease?”

“She suffered from the mottling. It had progressed far. She had, perhaps, a month before it attacked her wings.”

Rwiistrau clucked her beak in a moment of sympathy. Nothing was worse to the bird-like Luastria than losing their feathers. The mottling had no cure. Once the disease reached the wings and attacked the distal feathers, a Luastria would lose the ability to do most day-to-day activities.

“So she sought to escape her mortality by incarnating as the Golden Daughter?” Incredulity echoed in Rwiistrau’s voice. “It is madness. She thinks herself worthy to be a living goddess? The book warns against following in Iiwroa’s wake. We do not need a ‘goddess’ to lead us.”

Saiuvii chirped in amusement. “You mean, you don’t want to bend your stiff neck before Uarioa when she hatches from the golden egg.”

“Exactly,” clucked Rwiistrau. “Two thousand years of empresses, bishriarchs, and archbishopresses have handled Iiwroa’s book. None were insane enough to do this.”

“Well, it is too late to stop it.” Saiuvii mounted her perch. “What shall we do about it?”

“Embrace it.” Rwiistrau’s gizzard almost ejected its stone. “The Church must spread the glorious news. Riasruo has seen her children’s plight.” She spoke the lies with practiced ease. “She knows the Cyclones grow ever more frequent, so She has sent Her golden daughter. Lanii shall return in two cycles of the blue moon.”

“Sixty-four days,” agreed Saiuvii, the time it would take for the Song to create Uarioa’s new body. “Yet more lies we must tell.”

“Will you argue against me?”

Saiuvii ruffled all her feathers. “It would split the Church not to support Riasruo’s daughter.”

The others filed in, squawking in annoyance. None continued when they learned of Uarioa’s madness. The vote was taken. All eleven archbishopresses present stood with Rwiistrau. The Church’s prophecy would sail on every ship that left Ianwoa, to be carried to every skyland. All the faithful would rejoice.

Another tarnished lie, gilded in pure gold, would stand as a beacon of hope.

*

Uarioa’s spirit floated through the Void.

The archbishopress screeched in rage. Or, at least, she thought she screeched. She no longer had a body. Her soul tumbled through the darkness, drifting farther and farther from her flesh hijacked by the Goddess.

“You tricked me!” Uarioa raged, her voice a piercing tweet. The Luastrian soul twisted in the Void. “You stole my body! I trusted you!”

The Goddess had stolen Uarioa’s chance for rebirth. The Book of Iiwroa, the tome that had guided first the Dawn Empresses and later the Church of Riasruo, had deceived Uarioa. She’d thought herself enlightened after reading its “truths.”

Was it all lies? Or had Iiwroa only written the truth as she knew? She was tricked, too. Why did she ever trust Her? Why did I?

Uarioa wept. The Void spun about her. Featureless black. Her new eternity: drifting through the space between life and death.

Lost.

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

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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Reflection of Eternity Audiobook

Reflection of Eternity Audiobook

My second audiobook is out! If you’d ever wanted to try one of my stories, it is now an audiobook available from Audible.com.

If you like to hear it for FREE, then email to get a promo code! I have plenty. If you’re a fan of my blog’s content, and my reread, it’ll help me out and you’ll get a free audiobook!

Warrior woman. Fantasy fashion idea.

In the depths of darkness, Xella reflects across eternity.

The dark god Zarketh stirs. Heljina’s lullaby has fallen silent. And all Rehman can do is drink as the world hurtles towards its end. But when Rehman draws the Bedko’s Blade, the foolish acolyte is tasked with saving the world.

Five hundred years earlier, the great warrior Zella marched down into Zarketh’s tomb to fight the god. She never returned.

Now Rehman must find the courage to walk the same, dark path as Zella. Across eternity, in the depths of the earth, the past reflects the present. What will he discover at the end?

You have to read this dark, exciting fantasy short story to find out!

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Weekly Free Short Story: Mutilated

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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