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Weekly Free Story: The Last Flight of the Intrepid

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

Enjoy!

The Last Flight of the Intrepid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then what in—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?” Captain Gronest asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Why, Private?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, Cap’n,” Thojhen muttered.

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

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

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

Why?”

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

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

I suppose not, sir.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

A boy who needed Thojhen to make the right choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stormwall!” the crew roared.

I’m not useless. I am a Stormwall!

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

And she’d answered their prayers with the Cyclones.

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

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

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

The Intrepid sailed on for the Cyclone’s Eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover!” Sergeant Thuhly roared.

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

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

Up and fire!” the Sergeant roared.

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

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

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

More raced in.

Keep them from the ship!” roared the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You killed her!” he screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up at the Captain.

What are you, son?”

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

The Captain nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see the Eye?” the Windwarden shouted.

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

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

Choose to be useful.

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

A thousand ropes out! Three points to port!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the Stormwall!” He squeezed the release.

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

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

The shot struck the Eye.

Light erupted.

The Cyclone died.

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

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

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

The END

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Snippet 1 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

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

Prologue

The Skyland of Ulanii

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

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

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

The door crashed open.

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

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

And Shzuugz was hardly short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But necessary.

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

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

“Your Radiance,” nodded Shzuugz before she rose.

“Praiocwii. My robe.”

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

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

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

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

Sitting on the table was the Book. Open.

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

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

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

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

Rwiistrau’s head cocked. “Disease?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you argue against me?”

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

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

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

*

Uarioa’s spirit floated through the Void.

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

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

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

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

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

Lost.

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

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Snippet 3 – Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter Two

Vel stumbled away from the village of Shon down the road towards Camp Chubris, the bag of poison clutched in his hand. The turmoil of his emotions kept him from noticing the autumn-ripe fields he passed.

Well, he wasn’t afraid.” Chaylene’s voice echoed in his mind. Since her rejection, her words beat at the inside of his skull. “He loved me first. He loved me more than you did. Find another woman to love. You lost me. I’m sorry.”

The words whipped him to finally put aside his fear. Vel wanted nothing more than to possess Chaylene. He loved her. He burned to hold her ebony body in his arms, to run his brown fingers through her blonde hair, to feel the heat of her flesh beneath him as he took her. No woman had ever refused him. No woman had ever possessed his soul more than her.

He burned to have her.

He would have her.

He loved her.

And she loved him.

To get her, he had to murder his former friend. His cowardice had let the brutish boar seize her. She didn’t resist, thinking she possessed only one suitor. She’d made herself love Ary and now it was too late. Understanding shone through Vel’s mind as clear as the first ray of Riasruo’s sun cresting over the skyland’s edge.

Chaylene would never break her marriage vows.

She was too good a woman to soil her word. She wanted to. He could feel that fire burning in her, her ardor bleeding out of her. Beneath her pain-filled words, he felt her love. She wanted to drive him away to protect him from her husband’s brutal anger. She was trapped. To have her, he must widow her.

His hand tightened on the poison. I have to kill Ary, he thought for the dozenth time. It daunted him. For most of his life, he’d admired Ary, played with him, took joy in his company. Once, they were friends. It’s the only way. He’s a brute. He hurts her. She’s sad all the time. Wriavia’s right. The only way to have Chaylene is to remove her husband.

I’m saving her.

Vel had discovered a new friend in the Luastria merchant these last few months. Wriavia understood the pain gripping Vel’s heart. Like him, Wriavia had fallen in love with a married hen. He’d won her by killing her husband.

I’ll be doing Chaylene a service. She’ll be free of her vow. Free to love me and be with me.

I just have to kill Ary.

Memories of his childhood weakened Vel’s resolve. He, Ary, and Chaylene had been inseparable in their youth. Ary had dragged Vel to play games or skip school while an eager Chaylene followed. The trio ran through fields together, fought with sticks, played tag in the Snakewood, chased ducks up the Bluesnake, and fished by the Watch.

Then one night, Vel noticed Chaylene had developed into a woman. Painted by moonlight, she’d stolen his heart.

Ary had also noticed Chaylene’s changes. The bold brute claimed her, staking his plot with threatening looks and meaty fists. Vel tried to find delight in other girls. He seduced more than a few with his handsome smile and beautiful eyes, but never the girl he wanted.

Fear held him back. He always found reasons not to tell Chaylene how he felt. Ary scared him. Ary wasn’t the tallest youth from the farming village of Isfe, but doing a man’s work had given him shoulders as broad as a bristleback boar with a temper just as vile. Any boy who mocked Ary, repeating the accusations of his ma, would find Ary’s fist smashed into their face. He thrashed them all, even boys older than him. Ary lacked fear, shrugging off blows which should incapacitate him, battering his fists over and over, his face twisted in bestial rage.

Vel had witnessed Ary’s wrath clear as day two years ago.

*

The Skyland of Vesche – Neiddoa 7th, 396 VF (1959 SR)

Vel savored the wet heat he found between Iatlisa’s thighs and the way she trembled beneath him on the pile of hay in her father’s barn. She moaned into his lips, kissing him with aggression. The tightness in his britches swelled. She wasn’t Chaylene—no girl in Isfe compared to her ebony ripeness—but Iatlisa would do to relieve his ache.

His fingers sank into the girl, knowing she would—

“Theisseg’s cursed Storm!” a voice bellowed behind Vel.

His head snapped up. Fear congealed the molten passion pumping through his veins into goopy syrup. Thush Shardhin, the older brother of the girl quivering around Vel’s probing digits, stood thunder-faced over them, hands folded into meaty fists.

“Thush!” the girl gasped, pulling her sky-blue bonnet over her darkening cheeks. “Go away!”

“So this little crow can peck at your flower?”

Murder sparked in Thush’s gaze. Vel’s innards liquefied. With a curse, he darted to his feet and charged for the open barn doors beyond Thush. The older boy snarled and lunged at Vel. He ducked a hard punch and darted past Thush. Vel reached his full speed by the time he burst out of the barn into daylight.

“Veneth!” Thush bellowed, thundering after him. “Huchen! Get that slimy runt!”

Vel pounded across the farmyard for the lane that led to the Quarry Road and back to Isfe. His long legs carried him on swift strides. Terror constricted about his heart, convulsing in a frantic beat. Thush Shardhin’s clenched fists burned in his thoughts.

Heavy footsteps thudded behind him. More than one set. Vel risked a glance. Wished he hadn’t.

He groaned at the sight of Thush’s brother, Veneth, and their cousin, Huchen, racing in pursuit. The Shardhin boys battered every youth they thought even looked cross-eyed at Iatlisa. The risk sweetened the thrill of cozying up to her in the barn. To have bedded Iatlisa Shardhin without her brothers and cousin knowing put an ache in Vel’s root.

He ran with everything he possessed, the road ahead. Exertion’s fires burned in his thighs. A sharp ache stabbed into his side. A tangy, blood-like flavor filled his mouth as he gasped and wheezed. The drumming of pursuing feet filled his sails with a powerful wind. He pushed through the fatigue as the Quarry Road loomed nearer. He had to keep running longer than the lumbering boars behind him.

He risked a look.

Veneth Shardhin had closed to only fifty ropes, his meaty arms pumping as his thick legs stretched out before him. A choked whimper burst from Vel’s throat. Fear’s wind blew harder, hurtling him swifter towards the road. He reached it and darted to his right without thought.

The Quarry Road stretched out before him, the barley field streaking by as he raced in the direction of Ahly’s Watch. Not towards Isfe and Vel’s own house, but Vesche’s sparely populated edge.

He groaned.

The footsteps drumming on the hard-packed earth of the road sounded nearer. He threw another look. Veneth now narrowed the distance to ten ropes, his face burnished-bronzed, drenched in sweat. His rage swallowed any vestiges of humanity, leaving behind boarish fury.

“Riasruo Above!” Vel squealed like a piglet searching the muck for a sow’s teat to suckle. “Ary!”

He screamed the name of his greatest friend and the person he hated the most. Ary had Chaylene wrapped about his fingers. The blonde, dark-skinned maiden fluttered around him like a remora sucking on the belly of a mighty shark.

“Ary!”

The Jayne farm loomed ahead, its barley fields green with spring growth.

“Ary!”

His hoarse throat burned, fear strangling his words. The gate lay only thirty ropes down the road. He could reach it, dash up the hill towards the farmhouse. Ary could fight at his side. The brute possessed one good quality: strength. Ary feared no one, let alone the older Shardhin boys.

Vel’s heart thudded with hope. He focused on that gate. On his salva—

“Got you, sow!”

A hand clamped down on his shoulder, grabbing the coarse linen of his shirt. Cloth tore as the hand jerked Vel back. His feet came out from beneath him. He slammed into the ground at the feet of Veneth Shardhin. The back of his head cracked into the road, thoughts fuzzing. The older boy grinned, teeth stained, one missing. Hands formed brick-thick fists.

“Knock the slimy runt’s teeth out!” Thush Shardhin bellowed, lumbering up the road with their cousin.

“A-Ary!” Vel gasped as Veneth hauled him to his feet.

Vel raised his arms in a pathetic attempt to block the fist hurtling at his face. Terror squeezed his eyes shut. Pain exploded across his mouth. His head snapped back. His mind reeled, bouncing around inside his skull. He lurched, the world swaying around him. He opened his eyes; the drainage ditch beside the road yawned before him.

He gave a startled gasp and plunged into the muddy bottom.

His lip throbbed as brackish water swept over his face. It soaked into his clothing and filled his mouth with a sour broth. His legs refused to work right as he scrambled in the muck, boots slipping as he struggled to gain purchase.

“Rooting in . . . the pigpen . . . hey, sow?” Thush, doubled over and clutching his thighs, grunted through deep breaths. “Let me just . . . get my wind . . . and I’ll pummel . . . you.”

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Vel cursed. Blood trickled from his swollen lips as he cowered against the far side of the ditch.

“You ain’t getting away from us this—”

Veneth’s words cut off as a huge shape slammed into him from behind. Ary’s body slam sent Veneth crashing to his knees. Fists balled, he gave a bullish snort at the other two Shardhin boys moved to surround him.

“You don’t want any of this, Ary,” Thush warned as Veneth scrabbled to his feet. “That sow was diddlin’ our sister.”

“And?” Ary growled, facing the three older boys without flinching. His wide face grew as hard as the stony road.

The Shardhin boys charged.

Vel’s jaw dropped. He’d seen Ary fight, but never three at once. The Shardhin boys’ punches landed on Ary’s broad chest and thick arms. Ary staggered, protecting his face with raised forearms. They pummeled him from all sides, Vel flinching as he rubbed his split lip. They circled Ary like a frenzy of sharks scenting blood on the wind. Ary staggered beneath the onslaught. He bellowed like a harness-maddened boar, taking blows to his sides and back that made Vel wince.

The pain throbbing in Vel’s lip faded as he watched in fearful awe. It was inhuman. Ary should have collapsed to his knees. No one could withstand such an assault. He felt the blows—jaw clenched against the pain, grunting with each blow—but his body didn’t surrender to them. He withstood their punishment.

And fought back.

Ary threw a punch, catching Huchen in the chest. The older youth grunted, clutching his sternum. The attack left Ary open; Thush landed a hard blow. Ary’s head snapped back. Blood flew in a crimson arch from a broken nose. Cursing, pain contorting his face, Ary ducked a hard punch from Veneth and planted his fist into his attacker’s floating rib. Vel winced as the air whooshed from Veneth’s lungs. He bent over as Ary drew back and slammed his fist into Veneth’s temple. The older boy collapsed into a limp heap. Vel clutched his own right hand, positive Ary must have broken every finger he possessed.

Ary flexed stiff fingers as he turned. Thush’s punch landed in the middle of Ary’s back. He grunted, stumbling forward. A second blow hit him in the kidney. He gritted his teeth and howled like a boar, spine contorting backward. Huchen darted in. Vel’s stomach clenched as Ary staggered.

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Ary bellowed, somehow still standing. He punched. He slammed his fist into Huchen’s throat. The older youth stumbled back, coughing and choking. Ary rounded on Thush. They traded blows, Ary grunting as his body absorbed the punishment. He didn’t defend himself, but attacked. Vel flinched as if he received each of Thush’s powerful blows.

How can he take it? Vel asked.

Ary staggered, his body slowing, but he punched back, sustained by an inhuman inner fire. Ary’s frenzied onslaught drove Thush into a retreat, Ary’s fists landing over and over. With a hard punch to Thush’s chin, Ary sent the older youth sprawling to the ground in a spray of blood and spit.

Horror gripped Vel. He wanted Chaylene, ached to possess her, but if he tried, Ary would crush him with ease.

Bestial fury twisted Ary’s face as he flung himself on the prone Thush. Ary’s fists battered over and over into Thush’s head, mighty blows thrown with inhuman strength. He reduced Thush to mangled, swollen flesh spitting blood and teeth. Huchen, britches wet, fled down the road. Vel witnessed murder in his friend’s eyes. A rage seethed in Ary, a vast, black storm ravaging Thush. Vel dreaded unleashing it. He knew he wouldn’t survive it.

Vel cowered in the muck. I can’t ever let him know I love Chaylene.

“You okay?” Ary asked when it was over, Veneth dragging away the senseless Thush.

“Mostly.” Vel forced out a laugh, ignoring the sharp pain of his lips. He had to be Ary’s friend. He had to fake it. In that moment, soaked by the mud, Vel realized his path to Chaylene: doubt. He had to undermine Ary’s faith in Chaylene, chip away at his attachment.

So Vel asked, “Do you think she’s only marrying you because no other goodwife would let her son marry her?”

*

As Vel blinked out of his memory, bitter gall swirled through him. His first plan had failed. He never managed to chip away at Ary’s desire for Chaylene, the boar too dense to think about any of the needling questions or sly comments Vel made. By the time he realized Chaylene needed him to be bold, Ary had married her. His next path, seducing her, had also failed.

Chaylene’s own innate sense of honor prevented that.

Vel clutched the sack with the powder, feeling the poison through the felt. Wriavia had given Vel a third path. His stomach curdled with fear. He fought against it, pushing down the lingering traces of affection for his old friend. He needed to be strong to save Chaylene.

*

Wriavia winged through the skies over the skyland of Les, fleeing Shon.

His gizzard churned with bitter failure.

The night air flowed cool over his dark wing feathers left exposed by the simple, brown robe he wore over his downy body. He kept his scaled legs, a purple so dark it verged on black, tucked tight against his breast. Moonlight caught in the brilliant green of his eyes and highlighted the dull-red feathers circling his keen orbs. Pain throbbed at his throat, bruised by Briaris Jayne’s final attack.

Every time his gizzard contracted, it reminded the assassin of his failure.

He flapped every dozenth heartbeat to maintain his lift as he glided north, slowed by the pack strapped to his back. Beneath, the farms of southern Les drifted past, fields ripening towards harvest. On the horizon, a glow beckoned: the lights of Selech, a moderately sized town and home of one of the famed shipyards of the Autonomy. There, a century or more ago, the first of the rebellious Autonomy’s warships were built to challenge the might of the Vaarckthian Empire.

Wriavia’s talons clenched in frustration. He had come so close to killing Briaris Jayne. Desperation had driven him to attack after two months of failing to kill his target. Such an open assault went against his training. Despite the risk, he’d achieved surprise. Wriavia knew his talons had severed Briaris’s tendons in his opening attack, which should have permanently crippled the man.

And yet he rose and fought me.

His plan was simple, direct, and utterly inelegant. A diving swoop ending with his claws slashing down the marine’s back, buttocks, and thighs to disable him. Then he’d launched at Briaris’s wife, Chaylene, expecting to kill her with ease. But she’d surprised Wriavia. She fought with more skill than Wriavia had expected. The Luastria assassin did not realize Autonomy Scouts were trained to use their Blessing of Moderate Pressure as a shield.

There are definite holes in the instruction at the Aerie . . .

Wriavia pushed that thought away. It wasn’t the Skein of Adjudication’s fault he’d failed. Surprises happened in the field. A skein needed to be prepared to adjust to them, reacting to ever-changing circumstances.

And I failed.

Worse, the assassin was exposed. His throat throbbed again. Only the engine powering his shader, a cloak that shrouded the assassin in mist, had blocked Briaris’s sword swipe. But it had been destroyed by the blow, exposing his appearance. Chaylene had recognized him from the market.

Wriavia’s orders from the Bishriarch were clear: Briaris Jayne must die. But the Church’s feathers must remain clean. Now Briaris knew a Luastria sought his death. The Autonomy would flood southern Les to search for the attacker. For Wriavia.

Refuge waited in Selech. The town held a small Temple to Riasruo. The priestess would have to aid him. From there, he could send a letter to the Bishriarch and the Synod. He needed to warn the Church about his failure and potential exposure, though Wriavia could remember no clues to lead back to the Church. He possessed no insignia, adornments, or scraps of parchment mentioning either the Church of Riasruo nor the Skein of Adjudication. As far as Briaris could discover, he was simply a merchant.

A merchant who tried to kill him. That will spark questions.

Wriavia could do nothing about that, so he plotted his next move. Killing Briaris would be more difficult. In two days, the Dauntless would sail to Onhur to defend against Agerzak pirates in Thugri Sound. It would limit his options.

As he wracked his brain for new plans, he couldn’t shake what had happened in the fight. His thoughts kept sailing back to his plunging dive. He remembered his claws raking through Briaris’s back and legs. The Human’s blood still stained his talons.

I cut him. He collapsed. How did he move with severed tendons? He had one answer: I failed to sever his tendons. I missed my target.

The assassin clucked his dull-yellow beak in annoyance.

But how? I was so sure I hit.

Wriavia closed his eyes and pictured Briaris. He stood shorter than other males, but built like a stout wall. He wore the red coat of an Autonomy Marine, a sabre belted to his side—and not a bone sabre, but a looted Stormrider’s blade. Blue trousers clad his legs. His wife strolled beside him in her light-blue scout jacket, a simple bone knife tucked into her boot. Wriavia’s first swipe landed high, his left talons cutting through Briaris’s back and buttocks. But his right talons connected lower, a powerful swipe across the back of the Human’s knees.

I was so sure that’s where I hit. The assassin studied the anatomy of all the races who dwelt in the sky: Humans, his own Luastria, the lizard-like Gezitziz, and the mole-like Zalg. A deep cut across the back of a Human’s knees severed tendons necessary for standing.

Ary collapsed like Wriavia had expected.

The assassin had landed, flapped his wings to spin around and plant a solid kick to Chaylene’s chest before she could react. His main target disabled, Wriavia assumed she would die quickly. But human Females were not as delicate as Luastria hens. With her Pressure and combat training, she’d held Wriavia off long enough for Briaris to recover. Human bodies were built for labor. Wriavia possessed delicate, hollow bones. He moved with grace and fluidity that no Human could hope to match; he lacked the strength and skill to duel a pair of armed and trained warriors.

He’d fled.

“Failure doesn’t matter,” Wriavia sang to himself. “The past is lost to the Storm. Like anything that has fallen from the skyland, that moment is gone. I need to focus on the moments to come.”

Wriavia pictured his swooping dive again, unable to stop his thoughts from dwelling in the past.

It was only the sight of Selech’s gray buildings drifting below him that snapped him out of his looping memory. The horizon lightened to the east, the Storm growing pink as Riasruo prepared to rise and shine Her glory upon Her children.

“That is Whom you serve,” Wriavia clucked as he watched the growing dawn. “That is Whom you failed. She requires success.”

The town of Selech passed beneath him as he descended. It superficially resembled a larger version of Shon, the village near Camp Chubris. Only Shon had the look of a camp; its buildings housed the merchants, laborers, and whores were only occupied for three months, giving them an ephemeral quality, not quite permanent despite being built of wood and stone. Selech felt inhabited year-round. Permanent. The stone buildings with slate roofs spread out from the harbor before dwindling into the autumn-ripe fields which fed the inhabitants. Great shipyards dominated the northern end of the docks. Vast piles of white cedar logs, chopped from deeper in the skyland’s interior and carted to the shipyards, lay in thick stacks waiting to be hewn and shaped into the frame and decking of Vionese ships. Three ships lay under construction, the first only a skeleton, the mere suggestion of a boat; the second half was built, its hull coming into shape from its narrowing point at the bow to its wide stern; and the third neared completion. All three possessed the wide girth of a Vionese whaler, built broad to hold as much oil as possible. On the southern docks, fisherman readied to sail out into the skies on their small skiffs. The Temple of Riasruo, constructed from a yellow stone, lay on a bluff near the skyland’s edge, a promontory overlooking Selech. Blue and red coral grew up the skyland’s side, stopping at the lip of the cliff and the manicured lawn of the temple. A tower rose over the courtyard where the priestess would perform the yearly Rosy Prayer.

Wriavia alighted on its parapet, flapping hard to kill his descent. He folded his wings before stepping through the doorway. He descended the spiral stairs into to the main temple, greeted by the familiar scents of smoke and incense. He found the priestess and her acolyte in the Solar, the heart of the temple, lighting the braziers that poured sweet-scented incense up to Riasruo. They ringed the central fire pit laid with fresh logs for the Dawnsday service to be held in a few hours. Wriavia inhaled the sandalwood and myrrh, savoring the heady scents. The spice reminded him of home, the Aerie of the Skein of Adjudication.

Many different skeins existed, monastic orders Luastria drakes joined, dedicating their lives to Riasruo. Some served the poor, others helped the sick. The smallest, Wriavia’s, adjudicated any problems besetting the faith.

The priestess let out a startled chirp when she noticed him. Her red silk robes, proclaiming her rank in the church, rustled as she flapped her wings. She was approaching her middle years, the dull-brown feathers of her face groomed, her yellow beak waxed to a gleam. She fixed piercing, golden eyes on Wriavia and clucked, “Who are you? How did you enter the temple?”

“My apologies, priestess,” Wriavia said with deference, lowering his head. “I am Skein Wriavia of the Order of Adjudication.”

“Really?” Wriavia heard the doubt filling the priestess’s song. “Dressed like . . . that?”

“Yes, Priestess. I am on pressing business of the Synod and need parchment and pen.”

“Priestess Srioatrii?” the acolyte chirped, a young, handsome hen in orange robes, her purple-black claws clicking against the stone floor.

“Quiet,” chirped Srioatrii, her eyes still fixed on Wriavia. “Continue lighting the incense.”

“Yes, Priestess.” The acolyte moved onto the next brazer, clutching a smoking brand with the distal feathers of her right wing. The prehensile feathers operated much like fingers of a Human or a Gezitziz, allowing the Luastria to manipulate the world around them with delicate precision.

“Do you have any proof of your claims, Skein?”

“I’m afraid I do not. My mission is of the greatest sensitivity.”

“What mission could the Skein of Adjudication have here?”

Wriavia’s gizzard twisted as he readied his lie. To the outside world, the Skein of Adjudication was the least needed of all the monastic order, a vestige clinging to the skies. Centuries ago, when the Age of Isolation ended, a myriad of sects, many embracing heresy, had sprouted like the chaotic coral on the side of a skyland. The Church created Wriavia’s skein to bridge the differences and convince them to bow down to the rightful voice of Riasruo—the Bishriarch. Sometimes those sects proved stubborn. Other ways of adjudicating the differences were discovered; the first assassinations needed. Now his order trained to eliminate those who threatened the harmony of the skies.

“A heretical sect is rumored to be forming among the farmers of Southern Les,” Wriavia lied. “I was sent to ascertain the truth. I spent many weeks disguised as a merchant traveling among them, trying to win their confidence.”

“Heretical sect?” Srioatrii gasped. “My acolytes have heard no such thing.”

There were never enough priestesses or temples in the far-flung reaches of the skies. The Autonomy of Les-Vion and the Tribes of Zzuk had the smallest concentration of churches. Here, acolytes roamed between villages on circuits to preach, teach, and cleanse the sins of the common rabble.

“This sect doesn’t trust Luastria priestesses. The Humans are growing . . . mistrustful of us. They are jealous of the Luastria’s exalted position in our Goddess’s feathery light.”

Srioatrii’s head twitched from side to side, her talons clicking on the floor. “This is . . . disturbing.”

“I need to write my findings to the Synod,” Wriavia continued. “I humbly request parchment and pen.”

“Very well. Bwuoutria!”

“Yes, Priestess,” the acolyte squawked.

“Lead the skein to my study. When he has written the letter, head to the docks and find a ship to deliver it.”

“Right away, Priestess.”

Wriavia followed the slim acolyte from the Solar, ignoring her trilling, excited questions. In his mind, he’d already composed his humiliating letter. The acolyte ushered him into a small, round room with several perches for visitors before a wooden desk strewn with parchment. Shelves lined with religious manuscripts covered one wall while a window, looking out at the courtyard and several persimmon trees, pierced the other. Wriavia mounted the perch, stout wood thrusting up from a wide base. It had a thick dowel running horizontally through the top, allowing a Luastria’s feet to grip it in comfort. Wriavia folded his legs against his breast and shook his feathers as he settled himself. He’d missed having a proper perch in Shon.

“Do you require anything else?” the acolyte asked.

“Privacy. My words are for the Bishriarch and the Synod.”

The chick left Wriavia to stare down at the blank, yellow-white parchment before him. His gizzard threatened to rebel and expunge his stone. A tremble shook through him. But Wriavia knew his duty and reached for the quill. As it scratched across the paper, painting the large, flowing letters of Luastria script, Wriavia planned his next step.

I need to reach Tlele. The Dauntless will sail out of the port of Onhur. Hopefully, Vel will use the choking plague, but Briaris has Theisseg’s dark chance protecting him.

As he wrote, he plotted how to destroy an Autonomy naval ship. Wriavia would not fail again.

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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!

If you want to stay informed on my writing and Reavers of the Tempest’s release, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

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

My first full-length fantasy novel is up for pre-order from Amazon! Releases 10/23!

I have been working on this since 2013. It’s been a long road to get here, but it’s finally happening. I’ve been a fan of Fantasy novels since my uncle gave me the Hobbit when I was back in the 4th Grade. I’ve wanted to join some of my favorite fantasy authors like Tolkein, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, Brandon Sanderson, George RR Martin, and more!

I hope you’ll travel with me on this journey. For a chance for an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), sign up for my newsletter!

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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Review: 13 Hours

13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi

by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team

Reviewed by JMD Reid

On September 11th, 2012, the US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya came under attack by Islamic Militias. Four men died over the next thirteen hours as a fierce gunfight raged through the night in the volatile city. This book is not about the political, partisan controversy that has mired what happened in Benghazi, but the members of the GSR—Global Security Resource) civilian contractors hired by the CIA to protect their clandestine sites—as they fought to protect themselves and other Americans that night.

The book first lays out the groundwork, discussing the history of Benghazi for the last several centuries so you can understand how the events of that night trace their roots back in time. Then it discusses who the GSR are. All are ex-military drawn from Navy Seals, Delta Force, and one Marine. These are men who had families and could make good money for a few months work in distant corners of the world. They didn’t want to fight. They just wanted to finish their tour and get back home.

Like a good history, it connects you with the participants. You get to know the operators, two of whom died during a mortar attack that night, and Ambassador Chris Steven and Sean Smith, who perished when their diplomatic building was set ablaze while they hid in a safe room. The book draws you into real, living history, letting you draw your own conclusions about the controversy.

Any fan of military history, will find this book to be a great read. It recreates, as best as possible, a terrible night. It makes an event argued about over and over by politicians grinding their own axes into something real and personable, cutting through all the bickering and backbiting that has characterized the tragedy since.

You can buy 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi from Amazon.

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