Tag Archives: JMD Reid

Reread Update and my Books!

Enjoy my reread of R. Scott Bakker’s amazing Second Apocalypse series and waiting for the next post? Well, check out my own fantasy novels. I’m not Bakker (what author is?), but I’ve tried to take what he’s taught me about human nature and put it into my own characters.

I should have the Prologue of The Judging Eye up late next week by the latest. That prologue is dense and full of so much foreshadowing for what’s to come. This is my first time reading The Aspect-Emperor since I’ve read The Unholy Consult!

In the meantime, check out my first fantasy novel Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)! I think you’ll like it!

Death rides in the Cyclones!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Get it now at 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!

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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!

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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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Free Weekly Story: Reflections of Eternity

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

Enjoy!

Reflections of Eternity

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

He took another long drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beat, beat.

Pause.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

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

“Draw,” the hulk ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world spun around him.

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

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

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

“I am a dead man.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

And twice shall come about the Song’s end,

With malice and hatred shall Zarketh awaken.

Two shall be chosen, separated by time.

Down in darkness will freedom be given,

Through death shall history transcend.

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

It had.

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

The mutters died.

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

They looked away.

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

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

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

She knew to never travel in this direction.

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

That part never made sense to Xella.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

He desperately wished that anyone else had drawn the blade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you waiting for?” whispered Dorrim.

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

The chains pulled; another step.

I’m going to die.

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

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

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

He closed his eyes and stepped into darkness.

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

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

“Skies above,” he whispered.

No choice. He went down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A skull.

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

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

“Skies above!”

He dropped it.

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

* * *

Xella blinked; something different lay ahead.

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

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

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

It felt like freedom.

Something scraped in the darkness. She froze.

“Is someone there?” she shouted.

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

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

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

“Here, boy!” she called.

“. . . ere . . . oy . . .”

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

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

“Felikia’s fire!” she cursed.

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

And a fourth.

* * *

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

“Xella did this,” Rehman told his sword.

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

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

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

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

“You can do it!” Rehman cheered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xella turned and gaped at the severed body.

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

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

She wavered and vanished.

* * *

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

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

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

“No!”

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

“Please, no! I can’t be alone again!”

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

* * *

I affected the past.

Over and over, that thought wormed through is mind.

I affected the past.

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

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

The sword remained unimpressed.

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

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

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

“Technicality.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t do this,” he complained.

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

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

“What choice do I have?”

* * *

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

Forever cursed to be alone.

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

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

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

An apparition that saved my life.

He wavered, rippling, and his light was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came.

* * *

Rehman awoke alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Just like the axehead room.

She tensed, scanning the room, straining to hear.

Silver light blossomed; Tomorrow manifested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She swung her blade.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through death shall history transcend.

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

The sword didn’t answer. It never did.

“You’re no help.”

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

“Well, Xella crossed this. So can I.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She vanished.

* * *

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

She wasn’t alone.

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

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

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

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

And it rattled the Tomb.

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

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

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

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

It was like he knew where they would fall.

* * *

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

Yet.

He lunged, grabbed her, and pulled her clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Xella stood transfixed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They defeated them together.

* * *

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

Time didn’t matter down here.

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

“It is,” she answered.

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow?” he croaked.

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

The shaking stopped. Maybe Zarketh only rolled over.

“It’s Rehman,” he answered.

“I’m . . .”

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

She blinked. “A . . . statue?”

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

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

“Five hundred years.”

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

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

Xella’s face fell. “I don’t return?”

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

She squeezed back.

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

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

The darkness recoiled.

“The world’s hope!” Rehman roared.

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

Ahead, darkness glowed black.

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

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

This dark light was beyond her imagination.

VERMIN

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

SCRATCHING CLAWING DIGGING

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

WHY DO YOU DWELL ABOVE UNGRATEFUL DISGUSTING VERMIN

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

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

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

VERMIN FREE TO SCURRY BENEATH The ENDLESS BLUE

HATE

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

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

KILL YOU ALL

BURY YOU BENEATH MOUNTAINS

OPEN UP THE GROUND AND SWALLOW YOU

HATE VERMIN HATE

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

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

Together they raised their swords and stabbed.

* * *

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

Light exploded around him: silver, gold, black.

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

They were everywhere and nowhere.

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

“What is that?” Xella whispered.

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

Daylight exploded as the moon and sun separated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His brain hurt just thinking about it.

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

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

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

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

She grinned. “Let’s find out.”

The END

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

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

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

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

The Bluefin Raiders prowled these skies.

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

Only Nrein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arshion’s speed died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue flame, Lroff!” Nrein ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stepped onto the blood-soaked deck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“B-Bring Grioch!”

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

“Collar him,” ordered Nrein.

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

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

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

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

What a disgusting eel, Nrein thought, sneering.

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

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

“What conse—”

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

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

Grioch nodded his head, face darkening towards puce.

“Good.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The young man nodded and released her arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

She swept past him and labored down the narrow stairs.

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

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

The sounds of Philosopher Duthan’s research.

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

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

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

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

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

Shock needles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he had arranged to study her.

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

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

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

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

Archene furrowed her brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-yellow blazed. Nianie screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

Their weapons cracked together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary couldn’t wait to enlist at seventeen.

“Relent, you mangy sow,” Ary snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brelyn says I have a handsome face!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vel laughed so hard he almost dropped his stick.

“Shut it,” Ary muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second beat thudded through the air.

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

A third beat.

A fourth beat.

A fifth beat.

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

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

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

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

“What do we do?” Vel gasped.

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

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

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

Chaylene’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you stupid?” Vel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never had he prayed so hard, so desperately.

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

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

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

~ * * ~

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

I was struck by lightning. This is death.

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

I’ve been good. Mostly.

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

He shivered. Or he imagined he shivered.

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

“A Luastria,” Ary whispered.

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

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

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

He let go.

“Free me!”

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

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

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

“End the pain.”

The void shattered into light.

~ * * ~

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

He pushed those away. “Chaylene?”

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

He surveyed Vesche in stunned horror.

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

The Cyclone had ravaged Vesche.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wish I had that sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His thoughts faltered at the sight of the valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary struggled to think. No marines.

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

They couldn’t all be dead.

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

Fear clutched his stomach.

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

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

How could such a beautiful day turn into this horror?

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

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

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

A crimson sun.

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

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

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

Ary spotted only broken branches.

Everyone is fine!

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

Where’s Pa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t stop dragging him.

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

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

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

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

“No,” Ary groaned.

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

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

Nothing came out.

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

It wasn’t worth it, thought Ary.

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

What an ostrich-brained fool I am.

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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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New Release: Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

Above the Storm

Book One of the Storm Below

My first ever Fantasy novel is out! If you’re a fan of epic and military fantasy, if you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then you have to check out my novel Above the Storm!

To save the world, Ary must die!

Ary, a young man scarred by his past, is thrust into the dangers of the military. But he carries a deadly secret: the dark goddess’s touch stains his soul.

Her taint threatens to destroy all he loves.

He must hide the truth from the other marines and the woman he loves. Can Ary survive the dangers of service and the zealous assassin plotting his death?

Are you ready for the action, danger, romance, and betrayal exploding across the skies Above the Storm!

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