Tag Archives: The Storm Below

Weekly Free Short Story – Beneath the Storm

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

Enjoy!

Beneath the Storm

I’m going to die.

That one thought rang in Kov’s head as the Valiant careened through the skies towards the silvery, Zzuki warship. Below, the Storm churned and boiled beneath both wooden ships soaring over the boiling, angry-gray clouds. The Valiant, a twin-mast corvette of the Autonomy of Les-Vion’s Navy, had sailed forth from the Skyland of Rhogre to scout for any incursions of the Zzuki’s fleet.

And the ship had blundered right into a Zzuki scout.

Drums beat a frenzied, booming staccato from the Zzuki ship. The enemy vessel was larger than the slimmer Valiant. The scout’s deck swarmed with the blue-scaled brutes. The lizardmen of the Tribes of Zzuk only wore leather breach cloths even into battle. Their warriors crowded the deck, wielding massive clubs of wood. Each Zzuki towered a head or more over the tallest human.

Fear seized Kov. They’ll smash us into jelly with those clubs.

He trembled in his red, woolen Marine jacket, his ebony hands gripping the wooden stock of his thunderbuss. The thunderbuss was the primary weapon of an Autonomy Marine. A clay barrel about the width of Kov’s wrist and as long as his arm extended set into a stock of carved and polished wood. With the weapon, Kov could channel his Blessing of Moderate Lightning through the weapon and fire a bolt of electricity.

Kov’s skin itched as he built up his charge. Like every citizen in the skies, save for the heathen Agerzaks of their petty, warring kingdoms, he had received Riasruo’s Blessing. There were four different blessings—Mist, Lightning, Pressure, and Wind—that came in three separate strengths—Minor, Moderate, and Major. From the Goddess, Kov received a pair of gifts he used in her honor. Every Marine had Moderate Lightning, a requirement to utilize the thunderbuss. His second gift was simply Minor Wind.

Which won’t help me against those brutes. Falling slowly won’t help me over the Storm.

Let’s show these lizards how the Autonomy’s vest fights,” declared Sergeant Dhar, commander of the Valiant’s Marines. She was a tall, willowy woman, her light-brown hair pulled back in a tight braid.

Most of the crew of the Valiant, like the majority of citizens of the Autonomy, were brown-skinned Vionese Humans. Other than pocket communities of mole-like Zalg and the few Luastria priestesses overseeing the churches and temples, there was a minority of black-skinned Vaarckthian, like Kov, scattered about the nation. Kov—which wasn’t his real name, but most Vionese couldn’t pronounce Qovthuimn—was descended from those Vaarckthians that had joined the Vionese in their rebellion against the Vaarckthian Empire almost a hundred years ago.

Kov was proud to be a citizen of the Autonomy and serve in the navy. His pride had only been strengthen when the war started two months ago. The Tribes of Zzuk were feeling aggressive and, believing the Autonomy was weak, had invaded in their silvery flying ships bent on expanding their control to new skylands.

The ships closed. The rigging creaked above Kov’s head. Sailors, clad in white linen, scampered through the rigging and spars of the Valiant’s twin masts, adjusting sails as the ship maneuvered.

Ready to fire,” bellowed Sergeant Dhar.

Kov and his fellow marines set their thunderbusses to their shoulders. Kov gathered his charge in his left hand clutching the barrel, ready to fire. On either side of him, a sailor aimed a crossbow. Lacking Moderate Lightning, a rarer blessing, the sailors made do with less devastating weapons.

Fire,” bellowed the Sergeant.

Kov discharged his lightning. Around him, sailors armed with crossbows let loose a flight of bolts and his fellow Marines fired their thunderbusses. The lightning arced and snaked, striking the defending warriors on the deck of the enemy ship while the crossbow bolts glanced off their tough hides.

Several of the lizardmen fell convulsing to the deck, struck dead by the lightning bolts. But not the one Kov hit. The Zzuki he struck possessed at least the Blessing of Minor Lightning, granting immunity to all forms of electricity

Theisseg damn it,” Kov muttered, throwing out the name of the Dark Goddess whose never ending Storm churned beneath them.

The ships hurtled closer. The Zzuki warriors responded with a flight of javelins. The thin, long spears arced through the air. Kov ducked behind the gunwale lining the Valiant’s well deck and closed his eyes.

I’m so dead.

The javelins thudded as they slammed into the hull of the Valiant or crashed into the deck. A woman screamed in pain, struck by the weapon. Kov opened his eyes. A sailor lay on her back, a javelin planted in her belly. She ripped it out and bright blood soaked her white linens and spilled onto the pale yellow-white decking.

The forward ballistae of the Valiant thwunked as they fired. A pair of clay shot sailed at the Zzuki ship. The shots detonated in the rigging with deafening claps. Black smoke and fire erupted, snapping the enemy ship’s wooden spars that held the sails and shredding canvas. Blue-scaled sailors were torn to shreds, falling in bloody bits onto the warriors standing on the deck.

Fire,” Sergeant Dhar yelled as a pair of sailors dragged off the wounded woman. “Don’t just storming sit there.”

Kov forced himself to aim over the gunwale. A javelin hissed past his face. He gathered his charge and added his shot to another volley of lightning and crossbow bolts arced towards the Zzuki. A line of hulking warriors fell on the enemy deck.

The ballistae fired their own volley again. The explosive shock waves rippled hot across Kov’s cheeks and left more dead on the deck of the Zzuki ship.

We’re boarding her,” Sergeant Dhar shouted, her voice commanding. Despite her youth, she couldn’t be more than a few years older than Kov, she strode the deck with a commanding presence. “Break out the grappling hooks. Marines, fire another volley.”

Riasruo above, defend us,” Kov prayed to the Sun Goddess, the benevolent sister to Theisseg. The sun’s warm, feathery light fell on his shoulder, and Kov hoped she answered his prayers and not those of the Zzuki.

As the Valiant approached the Zzuki ship, Kov continued firing his thunderbuss. Sailors rushed below the Valiant’s deck to retrieve the coiled grappling hooks. The Valiant groaned and creaked as she turned. The Windwarden, a person possessing Major Wind, changed the direction of the navigation wind to aid the ship’s maneuver.

Smoke billowed from the enemy ship from the ballistae detonations, drifting from the enemy ship to the Valiant. The acrid scent of burnt black powder stung Kov’s eyes.

Here,” a sailor said, shoving a grappling hook into Kov’s hand. The hook was carved from the shoulder blade of a bristleback boar, three curved prongs lashed together and attached to a sturdy, hemp rope.

Prepare to grapple,” Sergeant Dhar shouted.

Kov slung his thunderbuss and rose. He swung the grapple hook in a tight circle with his right hand, the left holding the loose coil of rope. He clumsily threw his grapple. It was one of dozens sailing from the Valiant to the enemy ship. His landed in the tangled rigging. He jerked rope to ensure the grapple’s hook had caught on something solid.

I am so going to die.

Board,” commanded the Sergeant.

Kov planted his foot on the gunwale. It was just like training, only then he hadn’t had to swing over the Storm. The dark clouds boiled two or three ship-lengths below. He gripped the rope in his hands. Other marines and sailors jumped off the Valiant and swung across to the Zzuki ship. He had to follow. He had his duty to perform. He was a stormwall of the Autonomy.

Kov swung out.

His grapple came loose.

His stomach rose into his throat as he plunged down at the churning Storm still vainly clutching the rope. The carpet of roiling clouds rushed up at him. He screamed his fear as he tumbled. The blue sky above and the dark clouds below seemed to merge together.

Kov plunged into Theisseg’s domain. He would never see Riasruo’s light again.

The wet clouds swallowed him. Gray darkness surrounded him. The winds howled, ripping at his body. The wind tore the rope from his grip as he tumbled and flipped. His screams were ripped away from his lips. Lightning lit up the clouds around him and thunder slammed into his body.

I’m never going to see my friends, my family. Aibthuirni’s face rose in his mind, laughing with exuberance. I’m so dead.

* * *

You are so dead,” Aibthuirni shouted in Agerzese, rushing at Kov while she brandished her wooden stick. “Agerzak pirates never loose.”

Kov, thirteen and growing into a man’s frame, parried his little sister’s stick, a loud crack resounding and drawing the attention of a few of the Agerzak workers tending the pineapple fields. The straighted up from the careful rows, straw hats covering their faces from the hot sun.

Kov’s little sister, her red hair gathered in a pair of braids above her ears, had a fierce expression on her coal-black face. She swung her improvised sword with a fierce passion, a vicious grin spreading across her face lingering with the traces of baby fat.

Die,” she hissed in harsh Agerzese.

You better not let mother hear you speaking Agerzese,” Kov laughed as he knocked back her make-shift sword.

This morning, the siblings played Aibthuirni’s favorite game—Pirates and Marines. She always wanted to play the pirate. His sister preferred to run around in his old pants and shirts instead of the dresses their mother tried to force her into, climbing trees and romping through fields instead of playing with her dolls.

Mother doesn’t believe in fun,” Aibthuirni answered as she slashed, her attacks all wild and uncoordinated. She switched to Agerzese, snarling out the rough syllabus. “Besides, an Agerzak pirate would never speak such a weak tongue as Vionese.”

Kov laughed, and answered back in Agerzese, “If it’s so weak, then why did the Vionese Marines conquer the Fringe?”

I…” Aibthuirni lowered her weapon and frowned, forcing Kov to stop his swing before he cracked his stick across her face. She looked at the Agerzaks working their parents plantation. Twenty years ago, the skyland of Isthia had been apart of the the Agerzak Kingdom of Mecheissen. “How did they loose?” she asked in Vionese. “Agerzak pirates are so fierce.”

We were better,” Kov shrugged.

Aibthuirni hit his shin with her stick. Kov howled in pain. She laughed, “But you’re not strong enough to defeat the dread pirate Aibthuirni.”

* * *

Kov was barely conscious from the Storm’s battering as he emerged into the calm air beneath. The ground was dark below. He fell with the rain, hurtling towards his death. His eyes fluttered and he groaned.

Instinctively, he seized his Blessing of Minor Wind. His power reached out to the air rushing around him. It cushioned him, slowing his fall moments before he slammed into the ground. He hit with the force of falling off a roof instead of the thousands of feet from the Valiant. He rolled, the ground soft and muddy, and came to rest on his back.

Lightning flashed above, lighting up the churning clouds of the Storm. The world seemed upside down to Kov as he struggled to move. The Storm was above him. It was like lying on the bottom of a skyland, something impossible, and staring up at it. His stomach heaved as he grappled with the upset to his universe. He gagged and then spewed out acidic bile into the wet mud.

The world below reeked of sour, rotten plants. He groaned and spat as he sat up, his hands sinking into the soft mud. The rain fell on him. It was warm. He had never felt rain so warm before, even in a summer shower back at his parent’s plantation. The air was thick, muggy, almost choking him as he breathed.

Lightning flashed from the Storm, striking the ground nearby. For a moment, the world was illuminated by white brilliance. A landscape of fetid pools and limp, red vegetation surrounded him. He blinked back against the blinding lightning, a blue streak burned across his vision.

He stared up at the clouds. They were too thick for the sun’s light to penetrate. Riasruo’s love didn’t shine upon her sister’s domain. Two thousand years, Kaltein had called up Theisseg and she had answered. The Dark Goddess had covered the world in her Storm, blotting out her sister’s sun. But Riasruo had loved her children too much. She raised up the Luastria, Humans, Gezitziz, and Zalg above the Storm to live in the skies upon floating skylands. Only the Wrackthar Humans were left behind, the foul followers of the Tyrant-King Kaltein and Theisseg herself.

What do I do?” Kov whispered. “Why did I even bother to save myself? I’m just going to die?” A sob shook his body. “How long does it take to starve to death?”

Kov had no idea.

He glanced up at the sky, wishing he could peer through the impenetrable Storm and witness the Valiant’s battle with the Zzuki. Had his comrades vanquished the brutal Gezitziz? Or had the lizardmen rallied and swept the Valiant’s Marines and sailors from their ship’s deck.

The rain splashed on his face. He grimaced and wiped at his cheek. The water was gritty. Kov frowned and pulled his fingers away from his face, trying to examine what polluted the rainwater beading on his hands. It was almost impossible to see. His hands were dark shadows before him. It wasn’t pitch black beneath the Storm, some of Riasruo’s light most penetrate the clouds, but only a fraction.

A soft glow caught his notice, rippling as the rain fell. The brackish water shimmered with blue. Kov frowned and stood up, adjusting his thunderbuss’s strap on his shoulder. He hadn’t lost either his thunderbuss or his bone sabre that hung from his waist. Kov moved to the brackish pool. Its surface glowed. He touched the water and scooped up stringy slime that coated his fingers.

Kov grimaced and wiped the slime off on his trousers. “Probably can’t drink from any of these pools. Full of pond scum. I guess it’s dying of dehydration instead of starvation Was that worse?”

Kov looked up. “It’s swifter.”

Lightning flashed and illuminated the plain for a stark moment. Something moved out there, large, four legged, and drinking from the brackish pool. It looked almost like a pegasus without wings and with horns rising above its narrow head.

How does anything live down here?” Kov asked as he looked around.

Of course, something had to live down here, unless the Stormriders really were demons and not the Wrackthar Humans that had survived for two thousand years beneath Theisseg’s Storm. The Agerzaks were proof of the Wrackthar’s survival. His mother always complained about the heathen Agerzak farmhands who worshiped Theisseg and possessed strange Blessings from the Dark Goddess. Somehow, the Agerzaks had escaped from beneath the storm, probably riding one of their Cyclones, and carved out the eastern skylands as their home.

Kov’s mother detested the Agerzaks. He could still remember his switching when he was sixteen when his mother caught him and Chassei, an Agerzak housemaid, in the barn kissing.

No son of mine will marry an Agerzak slattern,” Aabsaizhn, his mother, had sneered in her prim dress and her red hair pinned up in a tight bun.

Kov’s argument that there lived only one non-Agerzak girl within a day’s walk his age did not work on his mother. Kov’s parents had been among the first Autonomy colonist to settle the southeastern district of Isthia after the war, and Kov was among the oldest children born in their corner of the Fringe.

They’re all filthy heathens, Qovthuimn.” His mother was the only one that still called him by his full Vaarckthian name. “I can trace my roots through my mother and her mother all the way back to the skyland’s rising. We have always revered Riasruo. Why would you want to spend time with a girl who’s ancestors attacked our goddess?”

Kov hadn’t dared to answer the truth: “Because she’s pretty and friendly.” Kov had spent weeks wooing Chassei, and all his careful seduction had been foiled. Instead he answered, “You don’t know the Agerzaks are descended from the Stormriders.”

Her angry tirade had ended with his strapping. Every colonist on the Fringe knew who the Agerzaks were descended from. Even the Agerzaks believed it. He had heard a few talking, forgetting he had learned their language to talk with their pretty, fair-skinned maidens.

Kov shook his head. Dwelling on the past would do little to help out his present. The rain seemed to dwindle. Kov wiped the gritty water off his face again. He rubbed his fingers together, the fine grains in the water rough on his fingers. The rain left a tangy flavor that seemed familiar to Kov. The water had ran down his the back of his neck, and the fine grit rubbed at his shoulders as he looked around.

Where should I go?” He couldn’t just sit around and wait to die. That seemed pointless.

But what am I living for? No one ever returns after they’ve fallen into the Storm.

Kov couldn’t decide on a direction. The muddy, murky plain all looked the same.

A cry rose in the distance, some beast’s roar that started low and grew to a high-pitch howl. It seemed to linger for a while, drifting on the wind. A second beast answered. Kov shuddered. He had never heard the like before. The first beast howled again.

Not that way,” Kov decided, putting his back to the howls. He marched forward.

The mud sucked at his boots. The ground was deceptive. He could barely make it out in the gloom. The flat mud could hid deeper puddles, plunging his step deep into the mire. He had to strain to pull his foot out. If his boots weren’t laced on so tight, he might have lost them to the mud.

After what may have been an hour, the rain stopped. But the air was muggy and hot. Even wet, he grew warm in his wool uniform.

Why’s it so storming hot down here,” he muttered. It didn’t make sense. It was perpetually overcast. Cloudy days were always cooler than sunny, and it wasn’t this hot above the Storm. It was spring above, winter’s grip relaxing on Rhogre.

It grew hotter without the rain. Kov loosed the collar of his white, wool shirt as he marched across the bog. The heat reminded Kov of the oppressive Fringe summer, but the air down here was far muggier. Water constantly beaded on his exposed skin. He mopped at his brow and kept walking. There really was nothing else to do.

The ground grew more distinct, the world lightening as his eyes adjusted to the near gloom. Kov grew more certain that some light penetrated the Storm. The muddy ground was covered in vines with broad, red leaves, almost like the kelp that drifted through the skies above. The leaves were leathery and broad. Plants needed light. Every farmer knew that.

Could the small amount of light that penetrated the Storm sustain these plants?

Other things moved in the mud. Withing insects with hundreds of legs skittered and slithered through the muck. They were huge, some as big as Kov’s hand. Sinuous creatures with scaly bodies swam through brackish pools and hissed when Kov drew close. He shuddered and avoided the creatures as he kept marching.

A splashing, gurgling sound drifted in the air, catching Kov’s attention. “Is that a river?”

Kov paused to listen, straining to detect which direction the babbling stream lay. He turned to his right. The sound seemed to be coming from that direction. He marched a dozen steps across the mud and paused.

The sound grew louder.

Blessed Riasruo,” he sighed.

Despite the oppressive humidity, his throat had grown parched as he marched. The ground firmed as he neared the splashing water. The ground rose and was covered in a thick carpet of the leathery plants. Rocks jutted out of the ground and others crunched beneath his boots.

The splashing grew louder. Another dozen steps, he discovered the source.

A stream cut into the ground, splashing over a rocky bed as it poured down into the plain. Kov fell to his knees and dipped his hands into the cool water. He cupped them and lifted the sweet liquid to his lips. It was blessedly clean. He drank more and more. He leaned over and shoved his face into the flowing water, sucking mouthfuls down.

His stomach rumbled.

Well, I’m not going to die of dehydration,” sighed Kov. “I guess I need to find food.”

He looked forlornly at the leathery, tough plants and pictured his teeth wearing away to painful stubs trying to eat the flora. Everything was dim and indistinct in the gloom, but he didn’t spot anything that could pass as fruit.

Maybe the roots.

Kov pried up one of the leathery plants. Its roots were long and stringy, clinging with dirt. They looked less edible than the leaves. Kov sighed and dropped the uprooted plant.

There was that beast I saw drinking. Kov patted his thunderbuss. It could kill a beast as easily as a man.

Kov stood and decided to follow the stream and discover where it led.

He hadn’t expected to discover a girl.

After what Kov had figured was an hour following the stream, he took another break to drink. The stream seemed larger now, picking up small brooks as it tumbled down into the plain and on its way to a full river. He sat his thunderbuss beside him as he bent down to drink.

A woman spoke in a harsh language that sounded almost like Agerzese.

Kov froze. He looked up and saw the girl. She was slim, crouching across the stream. Her face was ghostly, almost glowing in the near dark. Her skin seemed paler than even the whitest Agerzak Kov had witnessed. Her black hair fell in thick braids about her face, and her eyes were almond-shaped and almost entirely black from her dilated pupils. She wore clothing made of reddish fibers that seemed slick to the touch, clearly made of the local vegetation.

She barked again in her languages Kov frowned. He almost could understand it. He thought he heard the Agerzak word for “who” and “you.”

His heart beat. She was a Stormrider. What do I do? The Stormriders were the enemy of everyone in the skies. They sent their Cyclones to attack the skylands, riding in the maelstrom on steeds of clouds. Their attacks were rare, but always devastating.

The Stormrider girl spat out another sentence. Kov caught a single word—“above.”

Her hand whipped out a dagger, long and sharp. It wasn’t made of bone but of metal. In the skies above, metals were rare. The only source was the looted armor and weapons of slain Stormriders. It was precious. Her dagger was worth entire villages above.

Her brows furrowed. She gripped her dagger and spat more in her language.

Kov glanced at his thunderbuss.

The girl straightened up. She was taller than she looked, almost his height, and older. Not a girl but a young woman. Lightning flashed, reflecting off her blade. Kov’s heart hammered. He reached for his weapon.

The Stormrider screamed and charged across the stream, water splashing about her boots. Kov grasped his weapon. He had drilled over and over during training. His body reacted without thought as he brought his thunderbuss to bear. His charge gathered in his left hand. His skin tingled as the electricity raced to his palm.

Kov discharged.

The lightning bolt lit up her stunned face. The arcing thunderbolt struck her in the chest. She screamed out once and fell limp, crashing onto the bank at his feet. Kov’s hands shook as he stared down at the girl, her braided hair splayed out around her head.

I…I killed her.”

A burnt, acrid scent stained the air. Kov stepped back, his legs shaking. He didn’t even think of using a nonlethal charge. That was not how Marines were trained in the Autonomy Navy.

Riasruo above, I killed her.”

The Stormrider groaned.

Kov gaped. That’s not possible. No one can take a lethal charge and live. Not even Stormriders. He had trained to fight the armored riders. He knew his lightning would kill them.

The girl moved. Her face lifted up. She spoke in her languages, her words slurred.

Don’t move,” Kov said in Agerzese, aiming his thunderbuss at her.

The Stormrider froze and looked up. Mud smeared her pale cheek. She spoke in her language. It almost sounded like, “What are you?”

I fell. From above.” Kov pointed up as he spoke Agerzese. “I’m stuck down here.”

Her face hardened. “Above.” Her accent was strange. Her words made with slightly different sounds, but Kov was beginning to understand it. Her language wasn’t much different than Agerzese.

Yes. I’m from above. I’m Kov.”

She sat up. A hole was scorched into her red clothing. Kov jumped as fire suddenly danced on her fingers, burning with a soft, red light, far more crimson than any flame. She brought it to her wound, illuminating a puckered burn marring her flesh. She grimaced as she rubbed at her singed clothing.

How did you make the fire?” Kov gaped. It danced upon her fingers without hurting her pale skin.

How did you throw lightning?” she asked. Her words were getting easier and easier to decipher.

Riasruo’s Blessing.”

Reeasur?” she said, stumbling over the world.

The sun goddess.”

The sun is a lie,” she spat. “You stole it from us.”

Theisseg stole it from you.”

Who is Theisseg?”

The Storm Goddess.” Kov pointed up. “The Dark Goddess that wants to destroy the world. You Stormriders serve her.”

Stormriders?”

Whatever you want to call yourself. You send your damned Cyclones to attack us.”

No one called Theisseg sends our crusades.” She stroked her burned flesh. Only it wasn’t burned any longer Smooth, pale skin gleamed through the scorched hole in her clothing.

Kov’s jaw dropped.

What?” she demanded. “You look like a horse kicked you in the head.”

You healed yourself.”

And you threw lighting. I have Dheissech’s Second Gift of Fleshknitting and the Second Gift of Firedrinking. You? What gifts did your false sun give you.”

Moderate Lightning and Minor Wind.”

Are you going to point your weapon at me all day?” she asked.

I…I don’t know.” Kov’s shoulders slumped. “What’s the point. I’m stuck down here.” He lowered his thunderbuss and sat down on the mud.

The girl glanced at her dagger fallen in the mud. She snatched it. Kov didn’t move. I guess this is a cleaner death than starving down here.

She held the dagger clutched in her fist. She stared at Kov, nibbling on her lip. The fire burned brighter, climbing up her arm, shedding crimson light everywhere. She looked wild and fierce.

You’re like a pale Aibthuirni,” Kov muttered.

Aebtuurnee?”

My little sister. You remind me of her. She was fierce, too. Always running about pretending to be a pirate.”

The girl furrowed her brows.

If you’re going to kill me, just do it,” Kov sighed. “What does it matter? I’m never going to see Aibthuirni, my parents, or anyone else I know. I don’t even know if my ship won the battle.”

Ship? I don’t know that word. It sounds like…my word, but…you speak strange.”

It’s Agerzese I’m speaking. Anyway a ship is a big, um, wagon that flies through the skies. I served on the Valiant. We were fighting when I slipped and fell.”

Her eyes widened. “From your ship? Does horses pull it. Can you Skydance?” An eagerness crossed into her lips.

What was Skydancing? “No. We conjure wind and catch it in sails.”

She shook her head.

Umm, big sheets that we stretch across the rigging. It catches the wind and the ship travels along with it.”

Her dagger lowered.

That’s how we get about up there. Moving from skylands to skylands. I guess down here you don’t need to fly to get around.”

No. We can walk or ride our horses. But it’s dangerous between the holds.”

Kov looked around. “It just seems muddy.”

Dangerous. Quick bogs, wolves, storms, centipedes.”

Wolves?”

What is this?” She pointed at the thunderbuss. “You threw lighting through it. You said it has to do with your gift.”

My blessing.” Kov frowned. “If you’re not going to kill me, then what’s your name?”

Nreissa.”

Nreissa. That’s a pretty name,” Kov smiled.

She frowned. “I may still kill you, Kov.” Nreissa’s smile returned. “So what is it?”

My thunderbuss. I can’t throw lightning without it. I can only deliver it by touch.”

So if you touched me, you could zap me again?”

Kov nodded. “But this is an engine. It has a gem inside of it. The gem enhances my power. Let’s me shoot the lightning like I had the Major Blessing.”

It’s not made of metal.” She stroked the barrel. “It’s like stone, but it’s not. It doesn’t feel right.”

It’s clay.”

No it’s not.”

Kov grinned. “If you have the right type of clay and heat it, it hardens.”

Her fingers moved down and touched the wooden stock. “Is this also clay?”

Wood.”

Wood…yes. I can feel the grains. Sometimes we find wood on the plain, remnants from your world above. Crashed…ships, yes? It is so precious. Every bit is needed. In the stories, it comes from from trees.”

She said the word with such awe.

Yeah.”

They say there were trees, once. They didn’t survive the murk.”

Murk? Like dim light?”

Nreissa nodded. “Look at it. Murk. We were abandoned to it. Your sun left us behind.”

You were our enemies,” Kov answered. He swallowed. She didn’t feel like an enemy. His eyes cast about. It was oppressive down here. Hot, muggy, and dark. The openness of the skies was gone. No vibrant blue and glowing sun.

I guess we’re still your enemy. You fight off our heroes and crusades. Stormriders. That’s your word.”

Kov nodded. “We don’t want to die. Your first…heroes dragged down the eastern skylands. You plunged the skies into war and suffering.”

A vicious smile crossed her lips. It made her face ugly. “Good. You all deserve it.”

Kov’s face scrunched. “It was your ancestors that started the war. You tried to enslave us. So of course we fought back. And it was your mad king and your dark goddess that created the Storm.”

Lies,” Nreissa leaped to her feet and shouted. “Why would we create the murk? Look what it’s done to the world. The songs all talk about grass and green plants. Cool forests. Blue lakes. The sun.” She threw her arms up. “They talk of moons and stars like they are the most beautiful things in the world. All we have is this.” She scooped up a handful of mud and threw it at Kov.

It splattered on his shirt. Kov swallowed. He had no idea what to say. She’s never seen the stars. Riasruo above.

So we try to end the murk. We send our heroes in mighty crusades. So what if some of you die. One day we’ll end it. We grow stronger. We’ve learned to survive, to prosper. Despite the Murk.”

I…” Kov closed his mouth. “I’m sorry.”

Sorry?” Nreissa hissed. “Your people crushed us. You slaughtered us. With your Blessings. We were butchered.” She paused. “Maybe Kaltein summoned the Murk out of madness as some claim, but it was because you and your false sun drove it to him. Did we deserve this?” She stood forward. Tears burned in her eyes. The fires burning on her hands danced brighter, the red turning into yellow. It hurt his eyes. “Did we, Kov?” A shudder racked her body.

I…maybe not.” He looked around. “No. No one deserves to live without the sun. The stars.”

Mud and mire,” she groaned and her flames died away. The world plunged into darkness. Nreissa vanished before him. A bright, blue blur covered his vision.

Nreissa?” he gasped. “I can’t see anything.”

I ruined our night vision when I let the fire go yellow,” she hissed. “It’ll be awhile before we can see again.”

Red flame doesn’t.”

I don’t know why, it just doesn’t.”

A shape resolved. Nreissa was a few feet away, pacing back and forth.

Why don’t you make your red flame again?” Kov asked.

I shouldn’t use it. It attracts notice. We’re not the only creatures out on the plain. Wolves hunt it. They’re always on the look out for prey.”

What’s a wolf?”

It’s a wild dog. Vicious. Teeth.”

Dog? Maybe my Agerzese isn’t good enough. I only know the names of domesticated animals. Is it like a shark?”

Shark?”

Kov snorted in laughter. “Riasruo above, we’re really from different worlds. Sharks have sharp teeth. They’re big and vicious. They sometimes attack children or livestock. In the deep skies, they can grow big enough to attack men.”

Yes. Those are wolves. They’re…”

The howl Kov had heard earlier rose. He shivered. “What’s that?”

Wolf. No time to wait for our vision to return. We need to follow the stream to get back to the hold.”

Hold? Your home?”

Yes.” Her voice was a whisper. “Ready your lightning thrower. If they have our scent…”

A second wolf howled. It was closer. The sound drifted on the air. Primal.

Kov’s vision improved as they followed the stream. It started out as a walk, but soon Nreissa was jogging. Kov’s heavy boots splattered through the mud as he struggled to keep up. He barely could see what he was about to step upon. His heart hammered in his chest. He gripped the thunderbuss, his charge ready.

Every few steps, he threw a look behind him. He could only see a few ropes, perhaps the height of two men. The world was swallowed by the murky darkness. He sucked in breaths, the thick, muggy air almost choking him as he ran.

A glow appeared on the horizon. It was faint, yellow, almost wavering as it barely fought to keep back the darkness. It grew brighter as they jogged. “Is that your hold?”

Yes.”

Nreissa stopped. She turned and bit her lip. “Kov, maybe—”

The darkness moved. A shaggy beast slammed into Nreissa, snarling in triumph as it bore her to the ground. She screamed in pain, the beast’s jaws ripping her guts open. She landed in the mud as the beast snarled.

The wolf was vicious, lean, the size of a large hog. It’s bloody maw was filled with sharp teeth as it snarled at Kov. He brought his thunderbuss to bear and fired. The lightning lit up the night. Eyes reflected around Kov as the wolf howled in pain and fell dead on Nreissa’s shuddering body.

Her breathing was wet. Blood bubbled out of her lips.

Kov remembered the other eyes in the gloom. He turned and fired lightning bolts into the darkness. His bolt snapped arch, snaking across the sky and striking the mud. The wolves howled, their bays high-pitched. They bolted into the darkness.

Anger gripped Kov. The first person he had met down here had been gutted by the foul beast. He discharged again and again, the charge draining from his body. The air burned and cracked. The wolves howled in terror.

He didn’t hit any of them.

Kov was plunged into darkness after his last bolt fired His night vision had been ruined by the bright lightning. He stood in absolute darkness. “Nreissa,” he yelled, looking around, struggling to get his bearings and remember where she was. “Nreissa.”

Fear clutched his heart. Her guts had been ripped out. She had healed from his lightning bolt, but could she survive disembowelment? He had two shots left with his thunderbuss. He aimed it high and discharged towards the Storm.

The world was painted blue-white for a moment.

Nreissa sprawled to his left.

Darkness fell and he rushed to her, slipping on the muck. His hands reached out, searching for her. He brushed the thick fur of the dead beast. The wolf was warm on top of her. His fingers sank into the fur, and he heaved the beast to the mud.

Kov had to work in the dark. His hands slid along her body until he found her ragged wound. He grimaced as he touched her slimy, ropy guts. Kov took a deep breath. He had received basic field medicine. This wound would kill a regular person, but Nreissa could heal herself.

I just have to help her out.

He worked by feeling, shoving her intestines back into the ragged tear across her guts. Her breaths were wet wheezes, and she uttered the occasional whimper as he manhandled her intestines. Once he felt confident her innards were back inside, Kov ripped off his jacket and prayed. “Riasruo, shine your feathery light down on us. I know a little big makes it through. Please, help her. She’s not bad. Please.”

The sun’s warmth didn’t caress his shoulders. Sighing, he wrapped his jacket around her torso, tying the sleeves into a tight knot.

The glow on the horizon beckoned. Her hold.

Come on, Nreissa,” he whispered as he picked up her slim body. He almost slipped on the mud as he stood up.

Walking towards the light on the horizon gave Kov purpose. He wasn’t just lost beneath the Storm. He had Nreissa’s life cradled in his arms. A Stormrider. A Wrackthar. The bogeymen his mother had terrified his childhood with had been distilled into a scared, wounded, dying young woman.

You’ve never even seen the stars,” Kov muttered as he walked. He ignored the growing strain upon his shoulders and back. “They’re beautiful, Nreissa. You’d love them. Twinkling above like diamonds. They form patterns. We call them constellations.”

Nreissa groaned. Her breathing seemed a little clearer. She must be healing herself. What an amazing Blessing.

My favorite constellation is Aernigk. He was white lion. I’m not really sure what a lion is, but they were said to haunt the old world below. Big creatures, proud and mighty. Feared by all. Maybe you know them as wolves.” A smile crossed Kov’s face, his eyes glancing up at the Storm. “But Aernigk was the biggest, proudest lion. He slew all that tried to hunt him. He was smart and noble.”

Kov sighed. “But finally one hunter was strong and crafty enough to slay him. Nmiozhn. It was a great hunt. The pair went back and forth, attacking, stalking, and ambushing. Their hunt and struggle was said to last for a whole year. Can you imagine that? A year hunting and being hunted. But Nmiozhn finally prevailed and slew proud Aernigk.

When Nmiozhn stood over his fallen foe, grief moved his heart. He had never hunted a fiercer beast before. He skinned Aernigk and threw his white hide into the sky so all could see it. The hide became the constellation and now Aernigk forever hunts in the sky.”

Nreissa stirred in his arms. Kov froze, glancing down at her face. His vision had adjusted to the gloom. He could make out he features of her face. Her eyes were still closed, and no more blood bubbled from her lips.

You would love Aernigk. I think you must be a lot like him. I can’t imagine leaving the lights of your home to stalk through the murk alone on the plains. Fearless and proud.”

The lights were brighter. They hurt his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The world seemed to grow darker as he neared the hold, shrinking in around him. “I guess my eyes are adjusting to the light now.”

Kov’s next step didn’t sink into the mud, but landed on hard rock. A road stretched out before him, leading to the hold. It was made of carefully cut stones, the sides angled so the rain water ran off into the mud.

The hold’s light began to flicker and waver as he marched down the road. It wasn’t one light, but many lights. They burned bright as they separated and grew distinct, each driving back the darkness from the tops of buildings. A city sprawled before Kov. Figures moved in the city and the houses, leading horses hauling wagons. Eyes peered at Kov from either side of the road. There were people working farm fields growing red, leathery plants or tending pools of glowing algae.

Kov swallowed. Stormriders surrounded him.

Children appeared on the edge of the road, their faces pale and eyes almost black. They cried out in fear, racing back to their parents in the fields. I must be the monster to them. The people that live in the skies so dangerous they have to send their heroes to slay us and set them free of the murk.

Nreissa stirred in his arms. She groaned, “You’re not speaking anymore.”

I…I guess not.” Kov swallowed, looking around. “We’re almost to your city. Your hold.”

She shot her eyes open and sat up in his arms. She winced, but not nearly as much as Kov would have expected. “What did you do, Kov?”

I carried you to the light. So your people would heal you.”

I heal myself. You have to flee.”

Kov blinked.

Set me down and run. Back out into the murk.”

Boots thudded down the road. Something clanged and jiggled. Nreissa groaned.

Once you’re safe with your family, I’ll leave,” Kov said, his back stiffening “I won’t offend them.”

You don’t understand. You’re hardly the first person to fall from above.”

Hope beat in Kov’s heart. “There are others down here like me.”

No. We kill them.”

But..but…I saved you.”

I know, but…” Nreissa shook her head. “You need to run.”

The boot steps grew louder. Shapes emerged out of the gloom, marching the quick step. Men and women clad in gleaming metal. Real Stormriders armored and coming for Kov.

But…but…” Fear spiked through Kov. “I saved you. That has to count, right?”

Nreissa squirmed in my arm. “Run, Kov. Just run!”

Kov couldn’t hold her as she writhed. She spilled from his arm and landed onto the road with a thud. Kov swallowed. The armored figures were close. They held weapons. Their pale faces grim. Kov stepped back, fear growing in his breast.

He ran.

Fire exploded before him.

You have to stop,” Nreissa shouted behind him. “You cannot hurt him.”

The fire raced around Kov, blazing hot as it impossibly burned on bare stone. Kov flinched. His clothes grew dry as the water steamed out of the wool. Kov raised his thunderbuss. One of the figures channeled the fire. But Kov couldn’t see past the flames. He had no idea where to aim.

Nreissa screamed over the fire.

Kov’s face grew hot. He flinched. He had nowhere to run. He was completely trapped by the flames. Every breath burned. His wool smolder as the flames pressed in. Kov closed his eyes. Is dying by fire better than dying out there on the plains alone?

Nreissa rose in his mind.

At least I saved her.

The fires died. Kov fell to his knees, sucking in the cool air. Nreissa hugged him tight. “He’s my husband,” she screamed. “My husband.”

What?” Kov croaked. That can’t be the word she said.

Her lips were cool as she kissed his cheek.

He’s my husband. He’s my husband. You can’t kill him.”

What are you talking about?” Kov groaned.

It’s your only chance,” she whispered.

But…we just met. I mean… You can’t…” She can’t love me. It’s ridiculous.

Nreissa kissed him on the lips, her mouth hot. Kov’s mind whirled. One of the armored guards yanked Nreissa off of him. A second placed a sword at his throat. The metal was cool and sharp. Kov froze, the pulse in his throat throbbing against the gleaming edge.

What are you talking about, Nreissa?” a guard growled, shaking her arm. “He’s from above.”

He’s my husband, Yeiss,” she stubbornly repeated. “I’ve lain with him many times.”

Kov’s cheeks burned.

Rusted iron,” snarled the Yeiss. “You were supposed to be scavenging. What am I supposed to tell your father?”

That he has a son-in-law,” Nreissa declared Her eyes were fierce. She faced down the armored man without flinching.

Muck and mire. Cuff the skyers hands.”

Nreissa nodded her head. Kov had no idea what was going on. Why would her declaration spare my life? How could we even be married? Wouldn’t some sort of priestess have to perform the ritual? In the skies above, a Luastria priestess—a race of bird-people and the most favored children of Riasruo—would marry a couple in the name of the Sun Goddess, uniting their flames.

Metal bands were snapped around Kov’s wrists, the bands connected by a rope made of linked loops of metal. The cuffs, as Yeiss called them, bit into his flesh and the metal rope clinked with his every movement.

Yeiss and his soldiers marched Kov into the Wrackthar city. Rain began to fall, matting his hair. It was full of the same grit as last time. Brackish puddles formed, swimming with a reddish sediment. The rain sputtered in the flames that danced from the end of metal posts evenly spaced down the stone streets of the hold.

What do those flames burn?

Nreissa marched at his side. He wanted to question her, but he feared exposing her ruse. Kov didn’t want to die. Pretending to be married was a far preferable fate. His eyes studied Nreissa in the full light. She had a strong profile and a grace to the sweep her neck. Rust seemed to stain her pale skin, the grit left behind by the rain.

The grit reminded Kov of krill, the small life that drifted in massive, red blooms through the sky feasted upon by fish and fowl. Could it be krill? Could those little creatures get sucked down into the Storm and then rained upon the ground.

Wagons pulled by shaggy horses, the wingless pegasi the Agerzak used as beasts of burden, rumbled past carrying rocks to an open buildings. Fierce fires burned with harsh-reds. The rocks were dumped into huge puddles of glowing liquid. Men and women were covered from head to feet in thick leathers with heavy goggles set with smoky glass worked the pools.

What is that?” Kov gaped. The liquid glowed so hot the heat rippled out into the street.

Iron smelters,” Nreissa answered. “The pig iron will be taken to other smelters and turned into various types of steel. We also smelt tin, nickel, and copper.”

What are those?” The words were so strange. Iron. Copper.

Metals.”

There’s different types?”

Nreissa shook her head. “Don’t you have metal up there?”

No.”

Then how do our crusades always fail? How do you beat us, Kov?”

I…” Kov swallowed, glancing at the guards.

Your husband’s still loyal to the skies above,” Yeiss snarled.

We’re desperate,” Kov answered. “We know what will happen if your…crusades win. We don’t want to die. So we train to fight your armor.”

Like with your thunderbuss?”

Kov nodded. His thunderbuss was slung over one of the guards shoulders. Another had his bone sabre. “Your armor has weak points at the joint. The weight slows you down. Our fighter are nimble. We attack at the joints. And we sail our ships into your Cyclones and destroy the Eye.”

You know about the heart?” Nreissa gasped.

It’s the engine powering your Cyclone. I’m part of the military, like Yeiss and his men. We fight to defend our lands. We keep ships stationed on our skylands to fight your crusades.”

Yeiss snarled. “What were you thinking, Nreissa? Why would you choose him?”

Because he has a kind heart.” Nreissa eyed Yeiss

Kov swallowed. “Wait, is he…”

One of my suitors,” Nreissa sighed. “My father is the chief of Metsak Hold. I should have made my choice of husband a year ago.”

But you’re a willful brat,” Yeiss growled.

I see why you didn’t choose him.

You have a duty to our people.”

Nreissa rolled her eyes. “I’m well aware of my duty. I will bear strong sons and daughters, heroes to join the crusade and ensure we survive in defiance of the false sun and her murk.” Nreissa touched my arm. “See how strong of a husband I have chosen. His skin has been burnt black. He’s a warrior.”

Our enemy.”

He stopped being our enemy the moment he fell from above.”

Yeiss reached out and seized Kov’s shoulder. His eyes were fierce as he glared at Kov through his armor’s visor. “You will always be our enemy. Your ancestors left us to die in the muck. But see how we have survived. Every year, new holds our founded. We have mastered the world again. We have survived. Across the world, our crusades are readied, and we shall end your weak, cowardly peoples.

We shall end the murk.”

Kov looked down. “Does the Storm, the murk, have to end at the cost of my people?”

What other way is there?” Nreissa asked. “The song sustains both.”

Song.”

One of the Songs of Creation.” Nreissa frowned. “You have the gifts of your false sun. Didn’t the shaman’s song give it to you.”

Kov furrowed his forehead, remembering his Blessing. He had descended down beneath the newly-built temple at Felis. There the Bishriarch of Isthia had sung a song and agony had filled his body. When the pain left, he had Riasruo’s Blessings.

Yeah. I guess the Church of Riasruo doesn’t like to talk about the songs.”

The group entered a large square. At the center was a half-constructed object, a frame of wood, built from the scavenged lumber of crashed ships. The frame’s reminded Kov of a cut gemstone, though this artificial gem stood twice the height of man. Panels of cut, smoky quartz were inserted into the frame like panes of glass set into an window.

An engine?” Kov asked as they marched past.

Engines were gems that, when combined with the right wood, could channel a blessing in different ways. Kov’s thunderbuss had an engine hidden between the stock and barrel. The gem took his Blessing of Lightning and channeled it out as a lightning bolt.

The heart of our crusade,” Yeiss said, awe in his voice. “In a generation or so, Metsak Hold will be ready to launch its first crusade. Maybe one of my children will be a hero and find glory in the skies above.”

Kov’s blood chilled as he stared at the half-construed Eye. How many of my countrymen will die fighting the Cyclone birthed from here? He looked up at the darkness. The skyland of Rhogre lurked up there. Would they pull it from the sky? The famed University of Rlarshon resided on the western edge of Rhogre So much knowledge would be lost.

But what can I do? They’ll probably kill me. And if they don’t, what? Will they let me live here? Would I want to? But where else would I go? And I have a wife now.

Kov’s eyes drifted over to Nreissa. She was attractive, in a wild, aggressive way. Like his younger sister. But he didn’t know her. He certainly didn’t love her. How could he? Kov had thought he loved before, but his intense emotions for Chassei had waned not long after bedding the Agerzak maiden. When he was drafted, he wasn’t sad to part with her. Last he heard, she had married another farmhand.

Nreissa smiled at him. Some of Kov’s fear faded. He had to trust her. She was his only friend down here.

Kov was surprised where he was led. Not to some grand government building or too a large dwelling fit for the important leader of Metsak hold. He was led to a house that looked no different than the other stone residence on the street. Yeiss marched up and rapped on the door with his metal gauntlet. The door was made of beaten iron boomed hollowly with each rap. After a few heart beats, the door groaned as it opened. A young boy stood there, his hair a thick, curly mop of black.

What’s goin’ on, Yeiss?” the boy asked, peering around the armored man. “Nreissa. You’re back so soon?”

With her husband,” growled Yeiss, seizing me and hauling me up.

The boy’s eyes widened and he stepped back. “He’s one of them?”

Don’t be like that, Yovein,” snapped Nreissa. “Run and fetch Dad.”

Dad,” Yovein shouted as he raced into the house. “Dad. Nreissa back. And she’s in trouble.”

Nreissa grimaced and a smile almost flitted across Kov’s lips.

Kov tried to move closer to her and and ask her a whispered question. Yeiss’s gauntleted fist grabbed his shoulder. The man squeezed. Pain flared. A reckless part of Kov wanted to discharge his lightning. Part of Yeiss’s gauntlet touched Kov’s bare fleshed. But cuffed, he couldn’t fight against the rest of the soldiers.

They were all itching to cut him down.

A man strode out of the depths of the house. He was tall, strong, and barrel-chested. Unlike most Agerzak men, Nreissa’s father was clean-shaven, his black hair short. His fists clenched, scarred by tiny burns.

Daddy,” Nreissa smiled, sounding far more girlish than Kov had ever heard.

The man didn’t answer, his eyes locked on Kov. “Yeiss, why has this skyer been allowed to live?”

Your daughter claims she married him, Wacheits.”

Yes,” Nreissa seized my arm. “Daddy, this is my husband, Kov. I’m sure you must be thrilled that I’ve finally done my duty and selected a husband.”

Wacheits’s right eye twitched. “What?”

I met him a few weeks ago. He had fallen from the sky. I know I should have killed him, but he speaks a form of our language and we started talking and, well, I love him.”

Kov nodded his head “Yeah. For weeks. We love each other.” The lie tumbled from his lips as his heart raced. How can this save my life?

Wacheits tensed his jaw. “Yeiss, bring him.”

The stern man turned and walked deeper into the house. Yeiss shoved Kov into the house, his grip never softening.

The house was made of stone bricks mortared together. Metal was everywhere, and came in different colors. Burning lamps made of an orangish, gleaming metal were bolted into the walls. Things that would have been wood or pottery up above were made of stone or metal down here. Shelves made of stone slabs were held up by metal braces nailed to the walls. The shelves were lined with leather-bound books.

Kov gaped. They’re supposed to be savages living down here. How can they have books?

There was no furniture in the house, instead pillows were strewn across the floor. Wacheits lead them to a low table made of stone surrounded by pillows. Wacheits sank down on one side, Nreissa on the other. Kov stood behind her, Yeiss’s metal fist on his shoulder.

The fist squeezed and pushed him down; Kov sat awkwardly down beside Nreissa, his metal rope clinking.

Yeiss dropped Kov’s sword and thunderbuss on the table. “He’s a soldier, Wacheits. He’s been trained. I can tell by how he carried himself. He’s dangerous. Kill him, sir.”

Wait outside, Yeiss,” Wacheits commanded.

But…”

A look from Wacheits silenced him.

Armor clinked. “Yes, chief.”

Yeiss withdrew, clanking down the hallway.

Wacheits touched the thunderbuss, his eyes narrowing. “I saw one of their crashed vessels as a child. It had weapons like these.”

It’s a thunderbuss,” Nreissa said, her tongue stumbling over the foreign word. “He can shoot lightning from it.”

The false sun’s Gifts?” Wacheits asked.

Riasruo’s Blessings, yes,” Kov nodded. “I saved your daughter’s life with it.”

He did, Daddy,” Nreissa added, showing her bloodied, torn shirt. Kov had missed her removing his bandage. Her flesh was unmarred. She had healed all the damage. “I was gutted by a wolf. He killed the beast and carried me back. I would have died without him.”

So that’s why you told this lie about marrying him.”

Kov’s blood chilled.

It’s no lie, Daddy.” Nreissa leaned against Kov. “I have lain with him many times. I may even be carrying his child. I have announced it before witnesses. He is my husband.”

Kov’s cheeks burned. She spoke so openly about such private, intimate talks with her father.

Even though you must have just met him today? You would claim an skyer as your husband?”

Nreissa squirmed. “I’m telling the truth. That’s why I’ve been so eager to go scavenging lately.”

This man hasn’t spent weeks living out in the muck. His clothes are too clean. He has only the shadow of a beard growing. He shaved this morning. With what? This sword?”

He…um…lost his knife, Daddy.”

Wacheits slammed his fist down on the stone table. “I will have the truth from you, Daughter.”

Nreissa flinched.

What does it matter how long it’s been since I’ve known him?” Nreissa insisted after a few heart beats. “I have proclaimed it before witnesses. That makes him part of our clan.”

He’s a skyer.” A wild look burned through Wacheits eyes. “Our enemy. He lived up there. He enjoyed peace and tranquility.”

Peace and tranquility, father?” Nreissa asked “He’s a soldier. If it’s peaceful up there, why do they have soldiers?”

Wacheits made a dismissive snarl. “What does that matter? He’s free of the murk. He lives with the sun. He’s not stuck down here in the muck. So why do you want to save his life?”

He saved mine twice.”

Twice?” Kov asked.

When I met him, I tried to kill him,” Nreissa declared “He could have killed me when he disabled me with his weapon.”

Kov squirmed. He had tried to kill her, she just didn’t die.

And then the wolf attacked, and he carried me back to town. He didn’t know I would heal myself, but he wanted to protect me. How could I let him die?” Tears beaded her eyes. “We’re supposed to be better than the skyers. We don’t leave people behind to die. We care for every member of the clan. I can’t let him die. This is the only way you can spare him. The laws are clear. I have made my choice. He’s a member of your clan, Daddy. Will you let him die?”

Rusted iron.” Wacheits leaned back, bracing himself with an extended, left arm. “They will hate him. They will despise him. They will shun you both.”

Kov swallowed. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what words would help. He barely understood how marrying Nreissa would make him part of this clan. How are we even married? No one has performed the ceremony.

I can banish him,” Wacheits nodded.

For what?” Nreissa gasped.

Being a skyer.”

That doesn’t sound so bad,” Kov said.

No. He’ll die out there. He doesn’t know how to survive down here.”

I’m no worse off than I was when I first fell down here,” Kov said.

I’ll join him,” Nreissa declared. “Will you banish your own daughter?”

You would give up everything for a skyer?”

If it will make you stop and think. Kov doesn’t deserve to die. He’s a good man. I’ve made my decision, Daddy. He’s my husband. I can join him in banishment instead of choosing divorce.”

Muck and mire.” Wacheits glared at her. “I can see it in your rusted eyes. Why did you have to have you’re mother’s stubbornness?”

Because she was a wonderful woman,” Nreissa said, lifting her chin. “And you know that, Daddy.”

Wacheits wrapped his fingers on the table, his eyes falling to the weapons “So you are a soldier?”

A Marine,” Kov nodded.

Marine?” Wacheits slowly spoke the word.

A soldier that serves on a boat.”

Have you ever fought?”

In training.” Kov swallowed. “I fell while trying to board an enemy boat.”

Did you discard your armor on the plain?”

We don’t wear armor,” Kov answered.

Look at his sword, Daddy, it’s made of bone. They don’t have metal up there. But, despite that, he knows how to fight our crusaders.”

Wacheits eyes flashed to Kov. The young man groaned, wishing Nreissa hadn’t mentioned that. \

Is this true?”

Yes, sir. We train to fight your, um, crusades.”

Wacheits went silent for a moment, his fingers rapping on the table. Then his eyes flashed to his daughter. “And you have not actually consummated your marriage, dear daughter.”

Nreissa froze. “Why?”

Because he hasn’t proven his worth to the tribe,” Wacheits said. “If you haven’t consummated your marriage, then I can annul it if he fails to prove his worth.”

He’s strong,” Nreissa insisted. “He carried me out of the wilderness.”

I disagree.” Wacheits eyes bore down on Kov. “ He doesn’t look strong enough to me to be your husband. He will not sire strong children. For the good of the clan, he must be tested. We cannot have him be a drain on our resources.”

Nreissa’s face fell. “He is strong, Daddy. I know he is.”

If you want me to accept this face and let your stray skyer live, then he needs to prove himself.”

How?” Kov asked.

You say you’re a soldier.”

He wants you to fight Yeiss,” Nreissa hissed. “Right, Daddy?”

Wacheits smiled. “Yes. With your bone sword. You’ll prove how strong you are by defeating him and show your worth to the clan.”

Will Yeiss wear his armor, Daddy?”

Of course.” Wacheits smile grew. “By your own admission, Kov, you know how to fight an armored foe.”

Kov’s stomach twisted. “I do, sir.”

Then let’s get this farce over with.” Wacheits stood and seized Kov’s sword. “Follow, boy. If you’re smart, you’ll try to run.”

So you can hunt him down?” snapped Nreissa.

It would simplify things. He might even escape.”

Kov swallowed and shook his head. I’ve trained to fight Stormriders. “I can do this.”

Of course you can,” her father sneered. “You’re strong. All you skyers are.”

Kov’s fist clenched. He wished he wasn’t cuffed so he could punch the man. Wacheits seized Kov’s arm. One discharge and I could kill you.

But that would just earn my death.

Is this a fight to the death?” Kov asked as he was lead through the house.

It’s a formality. Normally.” Nreissa glared at her father. “Every youth at fifteen demonstrates their worth to the tribe with whatever skill or trade they’ve learned. In the past, right after the murk, those that failed were exiled. Now it’s just an excuse to celebrate adulthood.”

But Yeiss will try to kill me?”

He’ll try to make you yield,” Nreissa said. “You have to do the same.”

And if I yield?”

You weren’t strong enough for the clan,” Wacheits laughed. “I’ll annul your marriage and cut your head off.”

Kov’s stomach clenched. His body shook as his heart hammered faster. The fear before battle coursed through him. It was familiar, reminding him of the Valiant’s careening charged towards the Zzuki warship.

I was prepared to fight a hulking Gezitziz. This isn’t any different.

Kov recalled his training. A Stormrider was armored, slowed by his attacks. But their weapons could swing fast. A bone sabre could not parry one of their strikes. The Stormrider’s blade would sheer through the bone. With skill, the bone sabre could deflect attacks. Their armor was impenetrable Attacks had to be made at the joints. His task was to weaken and wound Yeiss, to make him collapse under the weight of his armor or to kill with lightning charges.

No, just stun. Nothing lethal if I can void it.

The rain hammered outside. Yeiss stood with his soldiers. The street was crowded with more Wrackthars. They all wore the same reddish clothing, though a few wore tan leathers. The women dressed in skirts or trousers, many clutching parasols to keep the rain off. The men wore open vests, their pale arms folded and ignoring the hammering rain. Children gasped at the sight of Kov, the youngest hiding behind the skirts of their mothers while the older yelled and jeered with their parents.

They want to tear me apart. Kov fought the trembles threatening to overtake his body.

Wacheits held up his hand. “My willful daughter as claimed the skyer as her husband.”

The crowd roared.

Wacheits bided his time, letting their passions pour out. “I know. She is young and foolish. Love had blinded her. She has made her choice, and the clan must respect it.”

Hussy,” someone in the crowd shouted. Another screamed, “Traitor.”

However, Kov the Skyer must first prove he is strong enough to aide the tribe. He is a soldier. He shall duel Yeiss to prove his worth. If he fails to defeat Yeiss, then he is not strong enough to be a Metsak. He is not strong enough to marry one our clan’s blood.”

The crowd roared for blood. Kov’s blood. Their screams buffeted the young man. The fight against his trembles grew harder.

Nreissa threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. He stood stunned. She broke the kiss and whispered, “You have to kiss better than that. Make them believe we’re in love. My people love their songs and stories. We have many tales of ill-fated lovers from vying clans.”

Right,” Kov whispered back.

Kov put more effort into the second kiss, imagining she was Chassei. When Nreissa broke the kiss, she declared, “My husband is strong. He shall defeat Yeiss and prove his worth and the strength of our love.”

Unmanacle him,” Wacheits barked.

One of the other soldiers pulled out a metal key and removed the iron cuffs from Kov’s wrists. Wacheits thrust his bone sabre into his hands. Kov drew the blade from his sheath, discarding the leather on the wet street. His charge crackled in his left hand as he fell into his stance, holding the bone blade before him.

Yeiss clanked forward. The rain hammered his armor, leaving reddish streaks behind. Kov took a deep breath. He struggled to think, to remember how to fight as Yeiss roared and rushed forward, clanking with every step.

Kov’s mind was blank with fear. But his body remembered the hours of training at Camp Chubris. He moved to the right, his boots gripping on the wet stones of the road. Water flicked from the end of Yeiss’s gleaming blade and splattered across Kov’s face as the armored man missed his attack.

Stormwall,” Kov shouted in his native tongue of Vionese, the battle cry of the Autonomy’s Navy.

He flicked his blade at the exposed joint at the back of Yeiss’s knee. But the Wrackthar moved. Metal rang as Kov’s sabre struck the plate. Yeiss’s blade hissed through the air. Kov ducked and took another swipe at Yeiss’s exposed knee.

You’re blade will break on my armor, Skyer,” bellowed Yeiss Fierce, dark eyes stared through the slits of his visor. “Nreissa’s mine.”

A roar issued from the crowd. Nreissa’s words filled his mind. “It’s not you she loves,” Kov spat out, his heart thudding. “She chose a stronger man. A better man.”

Yeiss roared and the crowd cheered him on.

The Wrackthar’s attacks were hard and sloppy. He swung with great energy. Kov dodged to the right, the blade streaking by. Sparks flared as the metal weapon struck the paving stone. Kov thrust his blade at the exposed joint on Yeiss’s left side where a gap in his metal skirt exposed his hip.

Yeiss howled as the tip of Kov’s sabre came away red with blood.

The Wrackthar’s backhand caught Kov in the face. The metal gauntlet sent Kov reeling, his head swimming. Kov fell onto his knees and spat out a bloody tooth. His skull rang with pain. He shook his head, struggling to focus. Some in the crowd cried out in fear.

Are they rooting for me?

Nreissa’s voice called his name.

Yeiss stumbled towards him, blood streaming down his hip. “Nreissa’s mine, Skyer. You shall never touch her with your filthy hand.”

The blade slashed down. Kov rolled out of the way and came to his feet. The crowd drank it in, cheering and clapping. Yeiss’s back was to him. Kov lunged in with his left hand, ready to discharge a non-lethal blast of lightning.

Mine,” snarled Yeiss as he spun about, his blade slashing.

Kov saw they attack. His feet slipped on the wet road as he tried to stop his lunge. His sabre flashed up in a futile attempt to parry. Yeiss’s metal blade cut through bone. Pain burned up Kov’s side as the Wrackthar’s weapon buried into his side.

Kov,” Nreissa shouted. “No, no.”

Yield,” Yeiss snarled, seizing Kov by the shoulder.

Kov’s body went cold. His legs weakened.

Yield Nreissa to me.” Yeiss’s eyes were wild.

No,” Kov shouted. His charge tingled his body.

Fire engulfed Yeiss’s gauntlet gripping Kov’s shoulder. Kov screamed as his flesh burned. A charred scent of roasting meat filled his nose. The crowd’s cheers were feverish. Names were screamed, most for Yeiss, but there were those who called Skyer.

Kov,” Nreissa shouted.

Yield,” bellowed Yeiss “Give her to me.”

She made her choice,” Kov shouted and discharged his lightning through his shoulder.

Sparks flared. Electricity conducted through Yeiss’s armor and into his flesh. The man convulsed. His fire snuffed out. He crashed forward into Kov and carried the wounded man to the ground. Kov screamed as Yeiss fell on him.

The world swam about him. Nreissa rushed forward, stroking his hair. She yelled something, but it was hard to understand. The world was cold. The rain mixed with his blood. Kov looked up into the clouds, trying to see through to the world he lost.

Aibthuirni ran across his parent’s plantation, her red hair streaming loose behind her as she raced to her favorite palm tree to climb. Sergeant Dahl and the rest of Kov’s Marines celebrated on the deck of the Zzuki warship. Kov’s mother cried and his father held her as they received the notification of Kov’s death. The sun shone with all her feathery warmth.

Will my soul reach Riasruo from down here? Or will I be trapped by Theisseg’s foul Storm?

A youth joined Nreissa, his face pale. He seized Kov’s hand. Warmth flooded through Kov

Riasruo above,” Kov gasped as his body convulsed. The pain in his jaw, shoulder, and side vanished. The charred flesh of his shoulder repaired, muscles reknit and a new layer of unmarred, ebony skin covered his shoulder.

What?” he groaned.

Third Gift of Fleshknitting,” Nreissa smiled. The youth moved off. Already Yeiss was on his feet, his helmet off and a glower creasing his lips. “You knocked him out. He lost.”

So I guess we’re still married, huh?”

Nreissa nodded. Then she kissed him. It made his heart race even though he knew the passion was a lie.

Take your husband inside,” Wacheits barked. “He proved his strength.”

Yes, Daddy,” Nreissa smiled and helped Kov to his feet.

Exhaustion wearied him. He leaned on Nreissa as she led him back into the house. She moved deeper and climbed up a set of stone stairs to a second floor and to a bedroom. A mattress lay on the floor covered in blankets woven from the same reddish fibers as her clothing.

We’ll be staying here until we build our house,” Nreissa said, moving to a metal box. She lifted the lid and revealed neatly-folded clothing. “I don’t have any clothes that will fit you.”

Kov nodded. He stripped down, glad to be out of the wet clothes, and wrapped a blanket around him. He looked away as she undressed. She was his wife, and yet it felt wrong to watch.

Nreissa giggled. “You’re a gentleman, huh?”

Kov shrugged. “So now what?”

She wore a thin, reddish nightgown that fell to her knees. She sank down on the bed, a wide space between them. Kov stared down at his hand and she looked at hers. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I guess we…consummate our marriage.”

Kov’s cheeks reddened. “I guess.”

He scooted closer. She leaned in and kissed him. Her lips were dry. All the passion she had faked was gone. Kov pulled away. “This doesn’t feel right.”

No.”

We don’t even know each other.”

Nreissa fidgeted and the space widened between them. The silence was profound. Kov swallowed. He had no idea what to do.

Maybe we should just talk,” he suggested. “I’m Qovthuimn Aabsaizhnigk, but everyone just calls me Kov. I come from the skyland of Isthia. My parents own a plantation and…”

Nreissa smiled and asked questions as the hour grew late. All in all, Kov found it far preferable to dying alone beneath the Storm.

END

If you want to stay informed on my writing, sign up for my newsletter!

If you enjoyed this story and like to support my writing, you can leave a review or buy  Reflections of Eternity from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon GermanyAmazon Japan, Amazon Italy, Amazon Spain, Amazon France, Amazon NetherlandsAmazon India, Amazon Brazil, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashword!

Beneath the Storm takes place in the universe of my novel, Above the Storm!

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

Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

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

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

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

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

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

Get it today!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

Reread Update and my Books!

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

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

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

Death rides in the Cyclones!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

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

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

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

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

Get it now at Amazon!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

Snippet 3 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter Two

The Skyland of Vaarck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And back to your wine?”

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

Uickthio snorted. “Liberated, remember?”

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

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

The man’s smile grew.

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

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

“To the Navy, or to you?”

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

“I disagree.”

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

“He does.”

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

“That should suffice,” Uickthio said.

“Then I shall deliver—”

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

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

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

It was the only virtue Uickthio respected in her leader.

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

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

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

I look upon you with pride!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we can win?

Pride in her countrymen sang in her heart.

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

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

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

*

The Skyland of Tlele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mustering out can wait, right?

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

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

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

“His tale reminded me of my dreams.”

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

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

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

“I’ll hurry back.”

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

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

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

“I won’t be for much longer.”

“You’ll always be a marine, sir.”

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

“Would you like any assistance, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He feared it wouldn’t.

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

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

“Ary.”

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

“Mustered out?” Estan asked.

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

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

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

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

Estan chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Rlarim dwells in exile on Thunely.”

*

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

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

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

“Esty?” Estan called.

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

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

“I just . . . had a dream.”

“Your brother?”

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to talk?” he asked.

Esty shook her head.

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

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

Her intelligence, however, had captured his heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

Snippet 2 – Storm of Tears

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

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

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

Ary stared at her. “Estan?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Tell me, Lena,” Ary said.

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

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

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

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

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

Estan knew too much about Ary’s past.

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

There was a secret concealed by Riasruo’s Church.

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

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

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

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

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

She knew he would.

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

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

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

As if sensing her pain, Ary held her tight.

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

“I hope they do.”

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

Right into an Agerzak arrow.

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

A new day dawned.

*

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

His fingers touched no flesh.

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

Groaned into full memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad we understand.”

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

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

*

Lheshoa 21st, 399 VF (1960 SR)

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

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

It mostly worked.

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

She was a scout.

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

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

And she had Dancer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She burst out into the daylight.

*

Buttons proved a challenge for Ary now.

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

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

“Fine,” Ary growled.

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

“Maybe,” Ary said, his back straightening.

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

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

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

Then the Cyclone had struck Vesche.

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

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

Ary feared Riasruo now.

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

And they almost killed Chaylene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

Ary cleared his throat. “My Eyia.”

After one more desperate heartbeat, they broke apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish, sir.”

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

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

“Private,” Ary said when Estan arrived.

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

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

His marines understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zori was taking the chance.

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

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

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

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

“For an eleven-year-old.”

“Eleven?”

“Sorry, eight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ary’s leaving.”

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

“Onhur. He’s leaving Onhur.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zori held her friend until the horns blew.

“Time for the funeral,” Zori whispered.

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

Zori blinked. “It’s pretty early.”

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

Zori ached to banish it.

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

The Captain’s Mad Plan Audiobook

The Captain’s Mad Plan Audiobook

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

If you like to hear it for FREE, then email to get a promo code! I have 25 of them! First come, first serve!

Can he survive his captain’s madness?

Once again, Varen’s flighty captain has plunged him into danger. In a den of smugglers, Varen and Captain Charele will need their wits about them.

Varen groans as Charele unveils her mad plan. With carefree enthusiasm, she throws herself into danger.

Varen is sure they’re doomed because they’re outnumbered. Facing the talons and claws of the deadly Luastrian smugglers, Varen is armed only with his fist and magic.

How can they escape a flock of deadly killers?

You have to read this exciting, fantasy adventure to find out!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

Isamoa 14th, 399 VF (1960 SR)

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

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

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

The Bluefin Raiders prowled these skies.

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

Only Nrein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arshion’s speed died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue flame, Lroff!” Nrein ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stepped onto the blood-soaked deck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“B-Bring Grioch!”

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

“Collar him,” ordered Nrein.

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

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

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

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

What a disgusting eel, Nrein thought, sneering.

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

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

“What conse—”

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

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

Grioch nodded his head, face darkening towards puce.

“Good.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The young man nodded and released her arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cleared her throat.

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

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

She swept past him and labored down the narrow stairs.

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

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

The sounds of Philosopher Duthan’s research.

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

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

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

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

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

Shock needles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he had arranged to study her.

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

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

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

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

Archene furrowed her brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-yellow blazed. Nianie screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter Two

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

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

Free me!

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

He flinched away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End the pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

Ary realized he’d never see his ma again.

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

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

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

The dawn of his new life with Chaylene.

~ * * ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her ma had suffered being a sailor’s wife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But . . . not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like your ma.

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

She loved Ary most for understanding that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He comforted her at the cost of his own pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

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

For all my amazing fans…

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

Their weapons cracked together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary couldn’t wait to enlist at seventeen.

“Relent, you mangy sow,” Ary snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brelyn says I have a handsome face!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vel laughed so hard he almost dropped his stick.

“Shut it,” Ary muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second beat thudded through the air.

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

A third beat.

A fourth beat.

A fifth beat.

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

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

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

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

“What do we do?” Vel gasped.

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

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

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

Chaylene’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you stupid?” Vel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never had he prayed so hard, so desperately.

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

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

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

~ * * ~

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

I was struck by lightning. This is death.

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

I’ve been good. Mostly.

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

He shivered. Or he imagined he shivered.

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

“A Luastria,” Ary whispered.

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

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

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

He let go.

“Free me!”

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

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

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

“End the pain.”

The void shattered into light.

~ * * ~

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

He pushed those away. “Chaylene?”

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

He surveyed Vesche in stunned horror.

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

The Cyclone had ravaged Vesche.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wish I had that sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His thoughts faltered at the sight of the valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ary struggled to think. No marines.

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

They couldn’t all be dead.

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

Fear clutched his stomach.

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

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

How could such a beautiful day turn into this horror?

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

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

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

A crimson sun.

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

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

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

Ary spotted only broken branches.

Everyone is fine!

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

Where’s Pa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t stop dragging him.

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

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

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

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

“No,” Ary groaned.

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

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

Nothing came out.

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

It wasn’t worth it, thought Ary.

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

What an ostrich-brained fool I am.

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

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

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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

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

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

If you want to stay informed on my writing, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather

Snippet 1 – Above the Storm (Book One of the Storm Below)

For all my awesome fans…

Here is a snippet of Above the Storm, my new dark epic fantasy novel!

Prologue

Jyuou Skyland, 1025 SR (Year of Skylands Rising)

Despite access to the greatest apothecaries, age finally afflicted Xaiutwoa III, Empress of the Dawn. She gasped for breath as she leaned against the hulking form of her bodyguard, Tezl, solid form for support. Every bone in the avian Empress’s body ached. As a Gezitziz of the Ethinsk Tribe, he towered above the tallest of the Luastria, and Xaiutwoa stood short for her avian race. His crimson scales blended into the blushing-red sandstone walls of the Tower of Morning.

“Thank you, Tezl,” Xaiutwoa chirped, looking up at the fierce, wedged snout of her bodyguard. He’d served her the last twenty or more years.

“It is my honor, Your Radiance,” he hissed, a deep, dry sibilant. Every few heartbeats, his pink tongue flicked out, scenting the air.

Xaiutwoa clucked her beak in amusement. “I’m hardly so radiant any longer.”

Her eyes glanced at the dull-brown plumage, mottled by age, peeking out from the sleeves of her robes. In her youth, her feathers had possessed a sleekness, her scaled feet a fetching shade of purple-black, and her tail feathers straight and proud. Now, mud discolored her feet and her tail drooped.

“The setting sun is just as beautiful as the rising,” Tezl answered.

Xaiutwoa’s feathers ruffled in embarrassment. It was easy to think of the Gezitziz as unemotional with their dead, reptilian eyes. She let her distal feathers at the end of her wing stroke his scaled forearm. Then she made the last ascent alone. Letting Tezl assist her up the tower this far had violated tradition. But not even she could allow him to reach the top of the tower, no matter how much age had weakened her. Not even the caretaker ever stood at the holy tower’s prominence.

Xaiutwoa’s breath wheezed as she struggled up the stairs, leaning against the tower’s walls. Her sun-yellow robes, made of the lightest Sowerese silks, dragged at her wings as if soaked by water while the golden Crown of Dawn—the largest, single collection of metal in the entire Empire—weighed upon her brow.

Her strength failed. She sucked air through her beak, her heart fluttering too fast. “Come on, you old hen,” Xaiutwoa clucked. “The Rosy Prayer needs to be sung.”

She forced herself to climb, ignoring age’s burdens. She wouldn’t have to bear them much longer. But would her daughter, Niiwa, have the strength to withstand the Book’s truths? Gentle Niiwa had struggled to escape her shell at her hatching. And when Yriitwao, Xaiutwoa’s second daughter, poked her head out of her shell, she’d withdrawn, scared to escape. Both so unlike headstrong Opiixu, who’d burst free of his egg. Her heart fluttered at the pain of his memory. Her beautiful hatchling, so sure he could fly.

Xaiutwoa wiped a tear away with a distal feather.

With a clucking sigh, she rejoiced in the cool, predawn air atop the tower. A gentle breeze blew in from the southeast. A school of silvery red-banded minnows, sleeping in the protection of the tower’s crenellations, scattered into the sky at her appearance, their small tails swishing. Her eyes focused on the plinth. On it rested a transparent, crystal case protecting a slender book bound in faded, red leather.

On her coronation, the first time she’d climbed the Tower of Morning, she discovered the case. No one had told her of its existence. Curious, she’d opened it to read Iiwroa’s Book. The words had shattered her soul with their weight.

Xaiutwoa walked to the battlements to survey the sky. The Tower of Morning rested upon a Jyuou, a small skyland no larger than a prosperous house. Her functionaries and hangers-on crowded the base of the tower and her moored barge like a colorful flock of birds. She glanced to the west where the greatest skyland in the Empire, Swuopii, hung above the Storm. The larger of the two moons, Twiuasra, set fast behind Swuopii, framing the skyland with his soft, blue face. The Sky Tower’s crystal face warped the moon’s light, intensifying the colors into a deep azure thrusting above her palace. If she possessed the sharp vision of her youth, Xaiutwoa would have witnessed her subjects crowding the eastern shore of Swuopii, awaiting the dawn and for their Empress to sing the Rosy Prayer in thanks to Riasruo. More citizens crowded boats hovering in the gulf between Jyuou and Swuopii.

Xaiutwoa turned to the east where the Storm Below spread out like a mottled black-and-gray blanket, curving off into the horizon in a fuzzy haze. Beneath those churning, imperturbable clouds lay the mythical ground. A thousand years ago, so the Talesingers proclaimed, her ancestors dwelled on the ground, living with the Humans, the Gezitziz, and the Zalg. Peace had reigned until Kaltein and his Wrackthar Humans made a pact with Theisseg, the dark Goddess of Storms and bitter rival to her sister Riasruo, Goddess of the Sun. When Kaltein summoned the Storm, its dark face blotting out the sun forever, the Goddess shone her mercy on her children, lifting the skylands above the eternal tempest.

The Storm grew lighter as sunrise approached. Blushes of pink and orange spread on the horizon while the stars above faded. Xaiutwoa took a deep breath, preparing herself to sing the Rosy Prayer, the most vital duty of the Dawn Empress. The Book was explicit. As she readied herself, she noticed a turbulence upon the Storm’s surface.

Instead of the usual boil of clouds in a random, chaotic pattern, they instead rotated slowly about a dark spot. She squinted, detesting that age made her see only as keen as a Human, and realized it wasn’t a spot, but a hole in the Storm’s clouds. She studied the Storm Below with nervous curiosity. In all her long years, she’d never observed a pattern form in the chaotic Storm.

The clouds rotated faster about the hole. The sight reminded her of water swirling down a drain. The first golden rays of dawn dazzled her eyes. Her gizzard tightened in realization. Pay attention, old hen, she thought. She’d nearly missed beginning her Song on time.

Xaiutwoa sang the complex, wordless melody of the Rosy Prayer, trying to pull her attention away from the strange pattern. Power hummed in the music, passing through her from something . . . else. Creation vibrated the Crown of Dawn upon her brow. A lullaby to soothe Her pain.

She continued to study the Storm as she sang, the Song’s harmony coming unbidden to her beak. The rotation moved faster now, the clouds streaking as they swirled about the hole. Thunder rumbled from below while a low, roaring sound filled the air. Xaiutwoa wracked her memory, straining to recall her lessons as a hatchling.

Has the Storm ever behaved so strangely? Unease settled in her gizzard as peals of thunder growled again. Something’s greatly wrong.

Indecision filled her thoughts. Her gizzard warned her to assemble her scholars at once to determine what strange madness swirled before her. But the Prayer was too important to stop. She had to channel the energy into the Storm. What if this is just a rare behavior of the Storm? What if it is only some vagary of winds and currents, and I doom us all with my panic?

She sang louder to drown out her unease.

The cyclonic pattern burst from the surface of the Storm, bulging like a bubble rising from the depths of a dark pool of water. The Rosy Prayer faltered, a crackle of static washing across her feathers. Xaiutwoa let out a chirp of surprise. The maelstrom swelled higher and higher. A wall of swirling grays and blacks thrust out of the turbulent Storm, occulting the rising sun.

Darkness fell, night replacing dawn.

Horror churned in her gizzard. What is happening? I sang the Prayer every solstice. I followed the Book!

Has She grown more powerful? Or more desperate?

Shock rooted Xaiutwoa to the spot. She was too stunned to do more than watch the Cyclone rush forward, winds howling with rage. The wall of clouds filled the horizon. Inside the chaotic turbulence, shapes appeared. Dark blotches moved through the maelstrom. They resolved into figures on impossible mounts.

“They’re riding in the storm,” she chirped to herself.

The riders moved through the maelstrom untouched by fierce gusts as if they possessed the Blessing of Wind. Lightning flashed, the figures reflecting the light. But what could make them . . .? Her gizzard churned in violent terror. “Goddess Above, they have metal.”

Lanii’s golden feathers. How have the Wrackthar survived a thousand years without the sun? It’s impossible.

Tears ran from her eyes, matting the downy feathers of her cheeks. Xaiutwoa turned to the west, towards her Empire. The roaring of the Cyclone pressed like weights on her ears, so loud she couldn’t think. The boats in the bay turned, flying back towards the shelter of Swuopii’s docks.

Realization struck Xaiutwoa. A thousand years of peace. We’ve forgotten how to fight.

She turned to face the maelstrom, winds ripping at her feathers and billowing her robes. She swayed, a thin branch in a tempest. The wall of swirling clouds rushed towards her, a terrible blackness hungering to swallow her Empire. The riders in the tempest raised weapons, long and straight, flashing deadly in the pulsing lightning.

“Mother!”

Niiwa, her eldest daughter, beckoned from the stairwell. A moment later, Tezl rushed past the princess. The red hulk raced across the parapet towards Xaiutwoa, fighting the screaming winds to reach her. Certain she would not survive, a single thought crystallized in the Empress’s mind: Niiwa will need the Book.

Xaiutwoa wrenched open the crystal case and scooped Iiwroa’s Book up into her wings. Tezl reached her, towering over the Empress. She thrust it into his chest. “Protect this Book! It cannot be lost! Niiwa will need it!”

“What?” Tezl asked as he grabbed the Book.

“The Truth!” she shouted with every breath in her aged lungs. “Niiwa will need it. You need to protect her now. She’s the Empire’s future.” Xaiutwoa caught her daughter’s green eyes. Love and fear reflected in the mirrors of Niiwa’s soul.

“I’ll protect you and the Book,” Tezl said in his deep, rasping voice. His cold, scaled arm wrapped around Xaiutwoa’s frail form, lifting her. She felt safe in his arms, her loyal guard. He would protect Niiwa and the Book. He was too loyal to fail. As Tezl turned, she witnessed the Cyclone over his shoulder, the raging maelstrom almost upon them. The riders in the tempest possessed pale, Human faces, black braids streaming behind silver helmets as they galloped upon beasts of boiling clouds.

We have forgotten how to fight.

The Cyclone crashed into the tower.

~ * * ~

The Sun set upon the Age of the Dawn. The Great Cyclone swept across Swuopii and pulled the heart of light down into darkness. The Dawn Empire shattered, splintering into petty Kingdoms ruled by vain despots warring over the scraps. Ambition and blood wrote the next thousand years of history.

Excerpt from History of the Skies, Volume 4 by Uolvaex Zhnoagsick.

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

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, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free fantasy story!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmailby feather
Facebooktwitterrssby feather