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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!

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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!

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