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Dragon Rider: Chapter 1

| Posted in Ebook News, Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks |

7

My Beginnings boxed set, which bundles a new adventure (Dragon Rider) with four of my existing Book 1s, has been uploaded to the various stores, but won’t be live until the 28th. I thought I’d post the first couple of chapters on my site for anyone who’s been patiently waiting for some dragon action.

Dragon Rider is set approximately one thousand years before the events in the Dragon Blood series, when the Cofah first came to conquer what was then known as Iskandoth. In that era, the sight of a dragon in the sky was not uncommon.

Dragon Blood fans have met Bhrava Saruth, the dragon who thinks he’s a god. (Interview here.) It takes a couple of chapters before he appears in Dragon Rider, but once he’s there, I assure you (or perhaps he assures me), that he’s the star.

Chapter 1

Magic flared, making Taylina squint and look away from the glowing emerald at the end of the scepter. Heat radiated down the shaft, making it grow uncomfortably warm in her hands.

“If you make this explode, I’m going to club you over the head with the handle.” Taylina lowered her voice to a mutter. “What’s left of it.”

Raff, her lone colleague in the tool shop, grinned at her over the glowing gem, his shaggy blond hair dangling in his eyes. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a lowly woodworker to threaten a powerful sorcerer.”

“I’ve known you since you danced in the front yard, wearing your smallclothes like a headdress and proclaiming yourself a powerful clansman chief. I don’t feel you have the right to tell me what’s appropriate.”

“I’ve matured a lot since then.”

“Did I mention that, with the exception of the smallclothes hat, you were utterly naked?”

“I have no recollection of that event.”

“I’m sure your aunt Veyluis could fill you in on the forgotten details. She paddled you afterward, as I recall.”

Raff grimaced at her. “Your memory is good for a lowly woodworker.”

“Yes, it is. And if you call me lowly one more time, I’ll definitely club you.”

“Such violence. It’s no wonder the handsome bachelors in town haven’t come a-courting.”

She scowled at him and shifted her weight, aware of the dull ache in her hip that always came when she stood too long—aware, too, that her awkward gait and limp were the more likely reasons men didn’t come a-courting. It had certainly been the reason for much childhood teasing.

“Sorry,” Raff said, touching her arm. “It was a thoughtless joke.”

“That’s creepy, you know.”

He blinked and withdrew his hand. “My touch?”

“No, when you get all sensitive because you’re reading my mind empathetically. Or telepathically. Whatever it is you’re able to do now. You used to be obtuse.”

“Oh, I think I’m still that.”

“Maybe a little.”

They shared a grin. They’d known each other far too long for any slips of the tongue to seriously offend. Taylina was glad that he hadn’t changed much in the years he had been away on the mainland, studying to become a sorcerer and a toolmaker. Back when he’d first been accepted to that fancy mage academy, she remembered fearing that she would lose her best friend.

Disturbed by the heat, she shifted her grip farther down the scepter’s handle. She worried that an explosion was a real possibility. It wouldn’t be the first wooden handle she had painstakingly turned on her lathe, only to later watch it blow up when Raff tried to imbue it with magic.

“Raff, maybe we should—”

A distant boom interrupted her. The emerald lost its glow as Raff lost his concentration, turning toward the front window. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes grew round with horror.

“What is it?” Taylina asked, laying the scepter on a table.

From their spot in the back of the tool- and clutter-filled shop, she couldn’t see much outside, but Raff had powers that she did not.

He closed his mouth, shook his head grimly, and jogged toward the window. Taylina grabbed her staff and limped after him, skirting the big planing and cutting tools without trouble. She had spent almost as much time up here as she had in her family’s woodworking shop, and she could have navigated it even in the dark.

“It’s the Cofah,” Raff said, gripping the windowsill.

Dread curled through Taylina’s gut as she joined him to look out the window. Their island, way down in the southeast panhandle of Iskandoth, had thus far been ignored by their country’s would-be conquerors, but judging by the four huge imperial warships floating in the harbor, that had changed.

The tool shop was a half mile up the slope above town, so Taylina had no trouble seeing over the whitewashed buildings and flat rooftops to the protected harbor and the sea beyond. The cheeky Cofah had sailed right up to the docks. Her stomach clenched when she spotted several of their fishing ships wrecked, the masts broken, the craft tilted onto their sides. Flames leaped from the devastated hulls of more than one. Seven gods, how had she missed hearing the battle? Or had the Cofah caught everyone by surprise and done this with lightning speed?

“Look.” Raff pointed skyward with one hand and gripped her arm with his other.

Clouds grayed the sky, and twilight wasn’t far off, so it took her a moment to see what he was pointing to. But as the village bell tower started clamoring a warning, she saw it. No, she saw them.

Three dragons soared in the sky, human riders in black Cofah military uniforms astride their backs as if their mounts were horses instead of massive, scaled creatures with wings that stretched thirty feet or more. Reptilian tails streaked out behind them while long, sinewy necks snaked about, their lizard-like heads peering at the landscape below, sword-length fangs waiting to chomp into man or beast. Oh, Taylina couldn’t see those details well from her spot more than a mile away, but she had seen the dour man-eating dragon that claimed the back half of their island before. The great creatures were agile and strong, but also magical and nearly impossible for a human or even an army to defeat in battle. The idea that human beings, even if they were powerful sorcerers and sorceresses, had talked some dragons into working with them—and allowing themselves to be ridden—boggled her mind.

Another boom sounded, one that started a chain of many. Cannonballs soared from the warships and crashed into the docks and the buildings on the waterfront. The dragons, two golden and one silver, arrowed out of the sky, straight for town, and Taylina stepped back, fear flooding her body even though the creatures weren’t yet close to the tool shop. One breathed fire, doing little damage to the stone structures, but the others must have launched some magical attacks, for an invisible force greater than the fiercest hurricane seemed to strike the large two-story town hall near the docks. The entire building exploded into thousands of pieces of rubble.

Taylina stumbled back as screams made their way up the hill, mingling with the gongs from the bell. As loud as the booms of the cannons were, they could not drown out those cries.

“Mother, Father,” Taylina whispered, their faces leaping to the forefront of her mind. “Jessa and Morlin,” she added, naming her little sister and older brother. They were all down there now, most likely still at the woodworking shop. The woodworking shop right in the center of town. She hoped Jessa was with their parents. Her sister had been simple of mind and easily confused since enduring a childhood illness, and wouldn’t know what was going on. “I have to get them,” she whispered.

“Tay,” Raff said, not releasing his grip on her arm as she turned toward the door. “What can we do?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t stand here and watch our homes burn, and our families—” Taylina broke off, not wanting to contemplate what might happen to everyone. Would the Cofah keep attacking until the town was leveled? Or were they trying to take over without destroying everything? Would people be captured? Imprisoned? Killed?

Taylina jerked her arm out of Raff’s grip and limped for the door, ignoring the dull ache in her hip. She thrust it open, and the scent of smoke hit her like a slap to the face. The screams were louder outside, and she spotted people fleeing town, running up the brushy slope in the direction of the tool shop and beyond. Hiding in the hills might be the best way to avoid invaders, even if it meant the townsfolk had to leave their homes and everything they owned behind. Taylina couldn’t head in that direction, though, not until she found her family.

She started down the winding dirt road that led through the juniper and oleander, but paused when one of the dragons veered inland. It seemed to be coming straight at her. Before, she had only noticed one rider on each dragon’s back, but this one had picked up three more, men in soldiers’ uniforms.

“Get off the road,” Raff whispered, touching her arm.

She hadn’t realized he had been following her, but she was glad for his presence now. As someone trained to use magic, he would know more about dragons—and how to avoid them—than she did.

Using her staff to navigate the uneven terrain, Taylina stepped into the shadow of a stray olive tree that had grown up far from the cultivated groves in the flatter land above the town.

The dragon, its magnificent form visible even through the branches, soared in their direction. Even from a distance, its sheer size and the power of those wing beats inspired awe—and terror. Taylina’s knees weakened, and she felt herself a fool for contemplating running down into the town.

“It’s not after you, is it?” Taylina asked.

“I haven’t done anything to irk any dragons lately,” Raff said, hiding under the tree with her.

“But it might sense your power.”

“My power is insignificant compared to that of a dragon. It might be coming after you.” He gave her a worried frown. “The males are known to shape-shift and take human lovers.”

The dragon coasted low over Chay Jarffle’s house, the medicine woman’s small home perched along the same road that led to the tool shop. Its massive jaws opened, and fire blasted from its throat. Unlike most of the stone buildings in town, the house was made from wood, and it burst into flame as if it had been doused in alcohol first. A scream erupted.

“But I don’t think love is what’s on their minds now,” Raff added grimly.

Tears sprang to Taylina’s eyes, and she gripped the tree’s gnarled trunk. “Why are they doing this?” she whispered.

Again, she felt the urge to race down there and confront the intruders, to drive them away and protect her family and friends. But what could she do? Limp ferociously at them and beat them with her staff?

“I’m afraid this means Iskandoth lost the war,” Raff said. “I’m surprised there wasn’t word from the mainland, a warning, but we’re so far out of the way. Maybe nobody thought to warn us.”

“They should have. We’ve been the ones supplying the magical tools to help the army and the sorcerers over there.”

Raff sucked in a concerned breath, and Taylina looked at him.

“I wonder if— What if that’s why they’re here?” he asked. “Because of the tools. Maybe they want to keep us from supplying them to—” His eyes widened as he broke off.

The dragon had landed. In the center of the dirt road, less than a quarter mile down the hill, it lowered its body to the ground, and three of the four riders slid off. Fierce-looking, shaven-headed men with maces, bows, and swords, they immediately strode up the road. The dragon leaped into the air, banking back toward the town, or perhaps the harbor where longboats full of Cofah troops were being rowed toward the docks. In each one, a man or woman in sorcerer’s robes stood at the prow, some soulblade or magical staff at the ready.

Two of the soldiers striding up the road carried empty canvas bags over their shoulders.

“They are coming for us,” Raff whispered.

“Us or the tools?”

“The tools most likely. Damn it, Tay, there are dozens of powerful artifacts in there that we’ve made. Since the supply ship was delayed, they’ve been stacking up and…”

Raff grimaced, perhaps thinking now of why the supply ship might have been delayed these last months. Was the capital, way over on the western side of Iskandoth, embroiled in fighting? Or had it already fallen?

“Come on.” He gripped her shoulder. “We have to get away from the road. This tree won’t hide us from their eyes when they’re right next to us.”

Taylina knew he was right, but for a moment, her legs wouldn’t move. Numbness had crept over her entire body.

The soldiers paused, lifting their bows toward the side of the road to their right. A handful of townspeople were running up the slope, no doubt trying to escape. The scrubby brush only partially hid them, and the soldiers were able to target them. Arrows flew, and screams—women’s screams—came from the slope.

Raff cursed. “I’m going to have to try something. I wish—no, it doesn’t matter now. I’m not a warrior, but I have to do what I can. Tay, get up the slope, up to the grove and beyond. Hide up there. If I can, I’ll find you later. And I’ll check on your parents.”

Taylina wanted to object to running and hiding, especially if he was going out to risk himself, but Raff did not give her time to argue. He slipped away from the olive tree, ducking into the brush alongside the road, soon disappearing as he worked his way down the hill.

Taylina took a step after him, but her heel came down on a rock, and she slipped, an awkward jolt running up her leg to her hip. Pain throbbed deep in the joint. Reminded again of what a pitiful warrior she would be—unlike Raff, she didn’t even have magic to call upon and use cleverly—she turned and pushed through the brush back toward the shop.

A startled shout came from somewhere behind her. She hoped it was Raff using his power to hurl those men all the way back into the ocean. Unfortunately, she knew that was unlikely, since he was, as he had said, a tool-making specialist and not an elemental mage, but maybe he could come up with something.

She started to walk past the tool shop, intending to continue up the hill toward the olive groves, but she hesitated, her gaze drawn to the front door Raff had left wide open. As if in invitation to the Cofah.

“No,” she whispered. “You’re not getting the tools we made.”

Taylina looked back down the road, but the terrain hid those three men from view. Hoping that meant she had a little time—or that Raff was buying time—she veered toward the door. She grabbed a few tools from the cabinet full of finished projects, but soon realized she couldn’t carry that many of them, not when she needed her staff to lean on. She only took small items and ones she believed extra valuable because of their traits, stuffing them into a bag much as the Cofah had planned to do. Others, she moved to a storage vault under the floor tiles in the back. A sorcerer would have no trouble sensing their power and finding them. She hoped none of those men had such talents.

She limped back toward the front door, but halted abruptly. She hadn’t closed it, and the road was visible with two of the three men walking straight toward her. There was no sign of Raff. She ducked into the shadows behind a worktable. Had the men seen her? She hoped not. There weren’t any shouts.

With her bag over her shoulder and her staff in hand, she darted around tools and half-started projects, angling for a side window, one that wasn’t visible from the front of the building. She opened it, smoky air flowing inside, and crawled out. She had barely landed on the ground when the thud of the front door hitting the wall sounded behind her.

A man spoke in the Cofah language, which she did not understand at all, but she could imagine the words: “Take everything that’s magical or worth anything.”

Clangs and crashes followed on the heels of the words.

Taylina crawled away on her hands and knees, tears pricking her eyes at the sounds of destruction in the shop where she had spent the last two years working, in the shop that her father had helped her build when it first became clear that they needed to assist in the war effort, to help Iskandoth stay free. It seemed that their assistance hadn’t been enough.

As she crested the top of the hill, the olive groves spreading out before her, her eyes had even more reason to tear up. A dragon and rider flew over the trees, raining fire down onto the branches, destroying everything. She paused beside a boulder, hiding from the sky and also looking back behind her. More of the town was burning or destroyed now, and those boats full of soldiers had reached the docks. Troops raced everywhere, attacking or capturing the people who hadn’t run, those who were fighting back. Who were trying to fight back.

Gray plumes of smoke came from a familiar spot halfway up the hill, the tool shop. The bastards had lit it on fire.

Dashing tears from her eyes, Taylina picked a careful path around the grove. Frustration boiled inside her. She hated that there was nothing for her to do but hide and run—and avoid the fire leaping from tree to tree, hazing the sky with smoke that seared her nostrils and made her cough. She wanted so badly to help, but what could one lame girl do against dragons with fire and magic, and professional soldiers with blades and bows?

“You’d need a dragon of your own to fight back,” she grumbled, again wiping tears from her smoke-beleaguered eyes. She froze halfway through the motion, an idea leaping to her mind, startling her with its intensity.

“The dragon,” she whispered, looking in the direction of the southern half of the island, the half that belonged to Bergethor the Bleak.

The dragon was old, grumpy, and prone to eating sheep, dogs, and even humans foolish enough to walk into his territory. Not that anyone from town strayed onto that side of the island. An old treaty a past chief had made with Bergethor kept him from coming to this side of the island, and the locals were careful to heed the boundaries. Bergethor wasn’t a dragon that anyone bothered—certainly, nobody had ever asked him to join forces with humans to fight off the Cofah Empire. Or if they had, they had never been heard from again.

But what choice did Taylina have? Only a dragon had the power to fight another dragon. Of course, Bergethor was only one dragon, and she had seen three, not to mention sorcerers, but he was supposed to be very old. Weren’t older dragons more powerful than the young? Maybe he could drive the Cofah away.

“Just have to figure out how to get him to help,” she muttered.

The task sounded daunting, if not impossible, but she turned toward the south half of the island. Bergethor was the only one with the power to help, and one way or another, she intended to talk him into it. Before it was too late.

~

Chapter 2, coming soon… 🙂

If you’d like to have a copy of the story, you can pre-order it (it releases on Feb 28th) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Deathmaker Now Available — Preview Chapters Here

| Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks |

26

Deathmaker, the new fantasy/steampunk adventure in the Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, world is ready to go.

It’s available at Amazon | Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iBooks

DeathMakerWeb Steampunk Fantasy AdventureWhen Lieutenant Caslin Ahn joined Wolf Squadron, she was prepared for the reality that she might one day be killed in the line of duty. She was less prepared for being shot down, assumed dead by her own people, and dragged off to the Cofah Empire as a prisoner of war. As if being thrust into a dungeon and interrogated wasn’t bad enough, the sadistic commandant decides to give her a cellmate: the notorious pirate Deathmaker. Given the crimes he’s committed against Iskandia, Cas owes it to her people to try and kill him.

Part warrior and part scientist, Tolemek “Deathmaker” Argoson has not only slain thousands with his deadly concoctions, but he has a special loathing for Iskandian pilots. It was Ahn’s commander, Colonel Zirkander, who ruined his military career, forcing him to leave his country in shame and join a pirate organization. Years later, he uses his dreadful reputation like a shield to keep people away; all he wants is to be left alone to work in his laboratory. But when fate lands him in a cell with Zirkander’s protégé, he sees a chance for revenge. Why kill the lieutenant when he can use her to get to his old nemesis?

There’s just one problem: it’s hard to plot against your enemies when you’re in prison with them. Cas and Tolemek will have to work together if they hope to escape the Cofah dungeon. In the process, they may find that neither is what the other expects, and that they have far greater problems to worry about than ensnaring each other…

Opening chapters:

Chapter 1

Cas didn’t like her new cell. After having spent two weeks jammed into a dark locker on a Cofah warship, the space so confining that she couldn’t stand up or stretch out straight, she probably should have considered this an improvement. But she wasn’t one of those irritatingly cheerful optimists. She hadn’t liked the last cell, and she didn’t like this one either. The window might let in the ocean breeze, but it was too small to climb through, not to mention barricaded with iron bars. The cries of parrots and the yowls of monkeys beyond it were a reminder that she was in a strange land, far from home, without hope of rescue.

Heavy footsteps and the jangle of weapons sounded in the hallway.

Cas bared her teeth, hoping the guards would only stroll past on their way to attend to another prisoner. It had been scarce minutes since her welcome-to-the-Dragon-Spit-prison-and-here’s-a-thorough-beating-to-make-you-feel-at-home greeting. She was still lying on the floor and recovering, so she flinched at the idea of another round with those bone cudgels. For all her vows to stay strong, she had spent most of her first beating curled in a ball on the ground, clutching her gut, and doing her best not to whimper. Whimpering wasn’t expressly forbidden in the “Survival, Evasion, and Recovery” chapter of the army field manual, but the line about the “inherent stoicism of soldiers” seemed to discourage it.

The footsteps stopped, and the door opened. Yellow lantern light spilled in from the hallway, making Cas realize that twilight had fallen outside. Not that the time of day mattered much.

A guard scurried inside carrying a stool. He set it down, the legs scraping against the hard sandstone floor, then he stood beside the door. Thanks to the shaven head, scarred face, and broad shoulders, he would have been ominous and forbidding even without the bone cudgel and short sword secured on either hip and the shotgun gripped in his hands.

Another shaven-headed man walked in, this one older and wearing a tiger fur cloak over his brown uniform. It didn’t look particularly climate-appropriate. The man wasn’t carrying any visible weapons, but Cas assumed he was in charge. If the Cofah military was anything like her own, only important people got to tinker with the dress code. For a moment, she thought of her own commander, Colonel Ridge Zirkander, and the way his non-regulation cap was always tilted at a rakish angle, but she hurried to push the image away, lest tears form in her eyes. She could be tough while they questioned her, but only as long as she didn’t let herself think of comrades—friends—back home… and whether she would ever see them again.

“Lieutenant Caslin ‘Raptor’ Ahn,” High Lord Cloak said, settling on the stool. “Wolf Squadron.”

Cas searched for something cocky to say, something to show that she wasn’t intimidated by him or this situation—Zirkander would have had a witty riposte for this statement of the obvious—but all she got out was a muffled, “Yeah?” Her lips were split and swollen from the beating. Even that single syllable hurt.

“Raptor?” Cloak made a point of eying her up and down, or rather, since she was on the floor, forward and back. Then he smirked. “Truly?”

Cas would have liked to stand up and tower threateningly over him, but she had to wear her thick-soled combat boots to brush the five-foot-two mark on a measuring wall. So far, she hadn’t managed to tower over anyone older than ten. It would have hurt too much to climb to her feet anyway.

“I didn’t give myself the nickname,” she grumbled. Not that she minded it; most of the squadron had embarrassing nicknames, especially the other young lieutenants. Pimples and Snuggles came to mind.

“Well, Raptor, our latest intelligence confirms that your people know your damaged flier sank during the skirmish in the Seven Tides Strait. They believe you’re as dead as the other pilot.”

The other pilot—Dash. Her eyes threatened to water again. She had seen the fire in Dash’s cockpit, seen him burning, his skin charred, his mouth open in a scream of pain right before his flier plunged into the ocean. There was no chance he had swum away as she had, having survived by clinging onto a piece of a wing until someone pulled her out of the water hours later. The wrong someone.

Cloak leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped as he regarded her. “That means nobody’s coming for you.”

A monkey howled in the distance. Cas wouldn’t have minded making a similar screech. She muttered a, “No kidding,” instead. Maybe she shouldn’t be saying anything. But if she responded to him, she might get a scrap or two of information in return. Though she wasn’t sure how she could manage it at the moment; escape had to be her priority. That was specifically mentioned in the field manual. Escaping and reporting back, that was her duty.

“That means we can keep you here as long as we need to.” Cloak smiled. Someone who found joy in his job. What a soul to be treasured.

“Oh, good,” Cas said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get to thoroughly appreciate this hot, humid-as-spit climate before getting shipped somewhere else.”

“We’ll interrogate you, of course,” the man continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. Maybe he was used to talking to himself. “I doubt you know much. What are you, a year out of the academy?”

A year and three months, thank you, but she kept the thought to herself. No need to start giving away intel before they began the interrogation; no matter that they already seemed to know more about her than she would like.

“But you are Wolf Squadron,” Cloak went on. “If you’ve served under Zirkander for a year, my emperor will want whatever information you can supply on him.

Cas had been beyond proud when she had been selected for Wolf Squadron straight out of the academy—she had done her best to live up to the prestigious unit’s reputation—and she would never regret that choice. But, for the first time, she realized her position might not serve her well. Everything that made her commander a lauded hero in Iskandia would make him a loathed enemy here.

“Zirkander?” she asked, licking her lips—odd how dry her mouth had suddenly grown, humid air notwithstanding. “His favorite color is green; his favorite meal is pot roast; he prefers beer to straight spirits; and, when winter comes, he’ll throw a snowball at anyone, even officers who outrank him. If that’s enough intel, you can leave my cell door open, and I’ll be happy to show myself out.”

Neither the guard nor Cloak seemed to find her sarcasm amusing. Given how much saying all that had made her mouth hurt, she shouldn’t have bothered.

Cloak pulled a dagger out of a sheath that his furry garment had hidden. Cas tried to draw back, or at least manage a sitting position, but he moved quickly for an old prison commander. The blade came up beneath her chin, the sharp point digging into tender flesh. She froze, but that didn’t keep a drop of warm blood from welling and dripping down her throat.

“I’ve sent a communication to the emperor,” Cloak said. “It’s possible he’ll simply want to hurt Zirkander by sending him your head. As a sign of his failure.”

Cas lifted her chin, part defiance, and part an attempt to put some air between her and that blade. “The colonel wasn’t even in command of the squadron at Seven Tides. He didn’t fail at anything.” Although Cas couldn’t help but feel that she had failed. Due to her inability to dissuade a Cofah diplomat from groping her, the colonel had stepped in and punched the man, a move which had resulted in disciplinary action. It was Cas’s fault the colonel hadn’t been flying with the squadron that day. The man who had taken over, Major Pennith, was a good officer, but Zirkander never would have accepted the mission, one that ultimately cost the squadron four fliers and Dash’s life. The colonel would have known the odds were too poor and would have pushed back against the general, maybe even the king, or he would have changed the situation, changed the odds somehow. As he always did. As Cas should have done in facing that diplomat. She shouldn’t have needed rescuing. Her father would have been embarrassed for her. Rightfully so.

“Yes,” Cloak purred, “we’ve heard that he hasn’t been flying of late. Care to tell me where he’s been?”

“Not that I would tell you anyway, but I have no idea. You’re right that lieutenants fresh out of the academy don’t get told much by generals and colonels.”

Zirkander had barely had time for more than a goodbye wave to all of them before disappearing to who knew where. Reassigned, he had said, his face almost ashen. Cas had never seen that expression on him before, and it had alarmed her. But he’d told them he couldn’t say more, simply giving everyone pats on the back and encouraging words before collecting his lucky charm from his flier and walking out of the hangar.

“You’re sure you’re not anyone’s bedroom confidant? You’re young and pretty enough. Under the blood.” Cloak traced her jaw with his dagger, his dark eyes growing thoughtful.

For a moment, rage replaced fear, and Cas spat at his face. It was stupid, but it felt good. She found the strength to pull away from him, too, not that she could go far. All he would have to do was get off that stool. If he couldn’t corner her on his own, the guards surely would.

Cloak snorted and wiped his face. “It’s unfortunate there are rules against jailers raping prisoners. If the Iskandians are stupid enough to put women in their military, they’re asking for it, after all. Besides, after all of our men your flier squads have brought down—killed—you deserve it.” He looked at the soldier standing next to the door.

Cas gripped the sandstone bench lining one cell wall, pushing herself into a standing position, bruises and pain notwithstanding. Rules were good, but if Cloak wanted to break them, she meant to face him on her feet.

“If you want me to shut the door and see nothing, I will, sir,” the guard said.

Loyal to his commander, was he? How sweet.

Cloak’s thoughtful expression returned to her. There was far too much consideration on his face.

Cas dug through her mind, looking for a way out of this mess. To distract them, if nothing else, and make them forget about her for the night. “Since you seem to know quite a bit about me, you might have heard of my father. He wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss me as dead when he heard the news. He could be over here, hunting for me already.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of your father, and my research tells me that he hasn’t spoken to you in three years. I understand he didn’t approve of your decision to join the army and serve the king instead of going into the family business.”

Cas swallowed, disturbed by how much intelligence the Cofah had on specific Iskandian personnel. They couldn’t know this much about every soldier in the army, could they? Maybe the flier pilots had been singled out because they were particularly irksome.

“I doubt he’ll be looking for you,” Cloak finished. “No, you’ll stay here with us for a while. We’ll break you and get every iota we can out of you while waiting for word from the emperor.”

Break you. That did not sound promising.

More footsteps sounded in the hallway.

“Any chance that’s dinner?” Cas asked, hoping this chat was over. “They didn’t feed me regularly on that glorified tug. As you can see, I’m getting a little waifish.”

“You missed dinner. I’ll be sure to tell Captain Trivolt that you called his warship a tug though. I’m sure that will make him more hospitable to the next prisoner he captures.”

A guard jogged into the cell and whispered something into Cloak’s ear. Cas took the opportunity to move farther from him and his dagger. She put her back to the window wall, her canvas prison smock little insulation from the cool, coarse stone against her shoulder blades. Coarse or not, she liked having it behind her and putting as much distance between her and the men as she could.

“Yes, I’d heard about his capture,” Cloak said when his man straightened. “An even more intriguing prisoner. Yes, I’ll question him immediately.”

As he stood up, Cas allowed herself a hint of relief. Good, someone else for the commander to harass.

Cloak paused before walking out the door though. He looked thoughtfully back at her, his hand on the door jamb. Then he threw back his head and laughed, a deep hollow laugh that reminded her of the big bell clanging in Sky Tower back home.

“Sir?” the new guard asked. Judging by the way his mouth dropped open, his commander didn’t laugh like this often.

Oh, good, that meant he had come up with something special. Cas prayed it had nothing to do with her. Would the seven gods hear her prayers over here in enemy territory? Or did they think her dead too?

“Bring him here, Corporal,” Cloak said, his lips still stretched with mirth. Mirth Cas couldn’t help but find alarming, especially when he turned that smile toward her. “I believe we’ll save space by having our two new prisoners share a cell.”

The guard’s brow wrinkled. “But there are plenty of empty cells, sir.”

“Ah, but nobody hates Zirkander and Wolf Squadron more than the Deathmaker.”

Cas stared for a stunned moment as the words sank in. Deathmaker. Cas closed her eyes. She would have liked to scoff at the overly dramatic name—pirates couldn’t ever call themselves Thon or Jed, could they?—but she had been to Tanglewood Peninsula, seen the memorial there, the graves. Six years earlier, the entire village—every man, woman, and child—had been slain by a horrible biological agent that melted their lungs and other organs, killing them from the inside out. There was nothing about the Deathmaker that should make one scoff. The evil scientist belonged to the Roaming Curse, one of the biggest pirate outfits flying the Targenian Sea. Wolf Squadron had battled with them just that past summer, taking back a pair of dragon-flier energy sources the pirates had stolen during a raid. Zirkander hadn’t been lenient, and Cas had been along on that mission. She had helped bring down their flagship. She shouldn’t be surprised that Deathmaker had gotten away. He was one of the few pirates who had a reputation even more horrendous than that of his bloodthirsty leader, Captain Slaughter.

But what would he be doing here? Why would a nefarious pirate scientist be roaming about where he could be captured?

“But won’t he kill her, sir?” the guard asked after scratching his head a few times.

“Possibly. Though I’m hoping he’ll want to prolong her torment a bit.” Cloak turned his unfriendly smile back onto Cas. “The rules say nothing about what prisoners may and may not do to each other.” Cloak laughed again. He even wiped tears from his eyes. What a dung flinger. “If nothing else, she’ll be less lippy in the morning, I’m sure.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get him.”

Cas stared at the floor, trying hard not to feel defeated… and failing.

Deathmaker. Fate was hating her this month. When she had gone to flight school and joined Wolf Squadron, she had known she would make enemies. Even if Iskandia merely defended its homeland and rarely looked for trouble beyond its borders, the Cofah believed her people were rebels who should be reconquered. Hundreds of years may have passed since her ancestors had killed their externally imposed rulers and cast the Cofah off their continent, but the empire had a long memory. The Cofah had never stopped wanting Iskandia, and they would always believe themselves the righteous ones. When Cas had started shooting down their dirigibles and attacking their ocean warships, it had been inevitable that she would become a target herself.

Well, she didn’t have to be an easy target.

Cloak and the new guard had gone.

Cas eyed the remaining guard. He was watching her right back, his shotgun aimed in her direction. Surprising him and escaping would be difficult, but the door was still open, and he was alone. This might be the only chance she got.

She subtly slid her hands along the wall behind her, hoping to find some crumbled piece of rock that she might hurl as a weapon. There were such chunks in the corners of the floor, but he would notice if she bent to pick one up. Oh, what she would give for the powers of the sorcerers of old, the ability to convince one of those noisy parrots out there to swoop through the window and claw this man’s eyes out. She would have to settle for a more personal attack.

She shifted her weight and found one of those rocks with her toe. She nudged it away from the wall, thinking to kick it across the room. If she could distract him for a second, maybe she could wrestle that shotgun free from him. She might not be much more than a hundred pounds, and little more than salt and vinegar in a fight, but with a projectile weapon in hand, the odds should shift in her favor.

The footsteps returned in the hall. Out of time. She cursed under her breath.

The guard glanced toward the doorway. Cas kicked the rock.

It skittered across the room, banging him in the toe. Not much of an attack, but he looked down, and she leaped across the room. Her wounds protested the sudden movement, but her nerves flooded her limbs with fire to compensate. She grabbed the barrel of the rifle, trying to yank it free before he recovered.

He snorted. His eyes met hers, and there wasn’t a glimmer of concern in them. He lunged at her, bowling her off her feet, and slammed her into the side wall so hard that it knocked her breath away. She tried to knee him, but he thrust her against the wall again, the back of her head thumping the stone this time. Blackness rimmed her vision, and dots of light floated through the air before her. She was vaguely aware of her feet dangling several inches off the ground.

“Women make pathetic soldiers,” the guard said. “That you’re here is a sign of how desperate the Iskandians are.” He rammed her against the wall again.

“That’s enough, Sergeant,” Cloak said from the hallway.

He had returned, along with more guards, a lot more guards. And another man.

Cas blinked, trying to clear her eyes. The man standing in the doorway, his hands shackled before him, appeared more warrior than scientist, with a hide vest leaving his muscular arms and part of his chest exposed. She had expected a crazy old man with spectacles or magnifying goggles and white hair sticking out in all directions. The figure in the doorway appeared to be about thirty, and his long black locks fell down his back in matted ropes. In contrast to the tangled hair, his mustache and goatee were trimmed, and his bronze Cofah skin was clean of grime, but nothing about the dark scowling eyes, the shark-tooth necklace, or the spiked leather wrist cuffs invited one to venture closer. Amazing that the guards had been able to get his shackles on over all that pointy metal.

They were watching him now, far more warily than they had watched her. No less than four pistols were aimed at the pirate.

“Deathmaker,” Cloak said, extending a hand toward Cas, who was still pinned by the guard. “Allow me to introduce your new roommate.”

The guard stepped back, letting Cas drop to the floor. She braced herself against the wall. Her heart was beating a couple thousand times a minute, and she needed the stone for support. So much for her grand escape attempt.

The pirate stared at her. Full darkness had fallen outside, and she doubted he could see much in the shadowy cell, but she didn’t see how that helped her.

Out of some sense that she shouldn’t let him know she feared him or that he had any power over her whatsoever, she said, “How come you got to keep your trendy pirate clothes, and they forced me to put on this potato sack?”

The prisoner turned his dark glower onto Cloak. If he found anything amusing about her question, it didn’t show on his face.

“Ah, are introductions in order?” Cloak grabbed a lantern from the wall and hung it from a hook in the cell—Cas eased back into the shadows near the window again. “Deathmaker, this is the Iskandian, Lieutenant Ahn. From Wolf Squadron.”

That got a reaction. The pirate’s nostrils flared, and his head jerked back toward her, his hair whipping about his face.

Cloak waved to one of the guards. He stepped forward warily and unlocked the pirate’s shackles. The metal fell away, clanging to the stone floor. The pirate lunged inside, springing toward Cas like a lion taking down its prey.

She could only take a step before her back smacked into the wall. She tried to duck and dodge away, but even in the darkness, he anticipated which way she would go and grabbed her. Much as the guard had done, he slammed her into the wall. Her already battered body betrayed her, and a gasp of pain slipped out. She wanted to fight, to spit curses if nothing else, but a calloused hand wrapped around her neck.

Cloak’s dark chuckle came from the hallway, then the door thudded shut, leaving Cas along with the pirate. The hand about her neck tightened.

Long-Established SF Author AC Crispin Goes Indie with StarBridge Series

| Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction |

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When I was in sixth or seventh grade, before I found my way into fantasy, I picked up my first major geek cred by reading Star Trek books. A lot of Star Trek books. At one point, it was a source of pride that I’d read every single Trek book out there, even the hard-to-find short story collections from the 70s. I’d even read some of those upstart Next Generation books that was starting to proliferate on the SF shelves (I was well into adulthood before I developed an appreciation for Captain Picard). As I’ve confessed before, Mr. Spock was my favorite character, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a couple of Trek books that I re-read several times were A.C. Crispin’s Time For Yesterday and Yesterday’s Son. I later read Ann’s Star Wars novels too (more geek cred for the jar).

I drifted away from series tie-ins as I got older, but Ann’s name has come back on my radar again of late, due to the fact that she signed on with small press Ridan Publishing last winter to create ebook versions of her original-world StarBridge series. Ridan had a lot to do with Nathan Lowell’s e-publishing success and has turned Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War into a bestseller all over again. Ridan also launched Michael J. Sullivan‘s career, turning him from a small-time self-published author into someone who earned a lucrative publishing deal with Orbit books.

Apparently, things didn’t go well with Ridan this last year, though, with the owner going MIA for long periods of time, at least insofar as communicating with authors and readers went. Ridan didn’t do any marketing or promotion for Ann’s books, nor did it fulfill orders from Crispin fans who ordered the ebooks from the publisher’s site. For those who want more details, they’re up in their ugliness over at the Kindleboards. Last week, Ann announced on her Facebook page that she’s parting ways with Ridan. She’s since reached an agreement with the owner, and her Starbridge series is now up under her own name. In other words, she’s one of us now!

I’ve picked up the first book and will be giving the series a try. Ann has long maintained the Writer Beware blog, a helpful resource for up-and-coming authors, and I hope she does well with this first foray into independent publishing.

If you’re a fan of science fiction and are interested in checking out her work, here’s the blurb for the first book:


WE ARE NOT ALONE, AND WE’RE ABOUT TO MEET OUR NEIGHBORS.

After more than a hundred years of space travel, a stray radio signal indicates the possibility that alien life might exist. The crew of the Désirée has no training in interstellar diplomacy and a minor dispute turns to disaster that could escalate into a full scale war.

Can the bond formed between two very different friends be strong enough to bridge their differences and save their people? Come along in this first book in the StarBridge Series in an exciting journey across the stars in a desperate gamble to save both their worlds.

StarBridge at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

http://www.accrispin.com/

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Emperor’s Edge Fan Art? Oh, Yes…

| Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction |

14

As I’ve mentioned before, the awesome Amanda Findley started a forum for Emperor’s Edge fans, and there’s a thread on there where people are posting fan art. I’ve been told, though, that you have to be registered for the forum to see the pictures, so I thought I’d share a few of them here. I’ve already posted some of these on my Facebook page, but these may be new for some of you. I get a huge kick out of them. If you’re a reader, I hope you enjoy them!

Amaranthe scheming something new… by Alex Baird

Sergeant Yara by Rebekah Kjos

Sicarius by Heather

Amaranthe and Sicarius by Catherine

Maldynado and Yara by Alex Baird

The team survives another explosion… by Cam

Amaranthe by SketchingBarefoot

Sicarius by Alex Baird

10 Free Fantasy Ebooks to Check out

| Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction |

5

You guys probably already know The Emperor’s Edge is free at Amazon (and Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords), but there are lots of other fantasy authors with free offerings right now too. You can browse the Top 100 Free Fantasy category at Amazon at any time, but I’ve picked out ten that have good reviews to get you started. They’re a mix of epic fantasy and urban fantasy titles.

Note: The prices may change at any time; they’re free as I write this post. Tomorrow may be a different story!

Note 2: These ebooks are free in the U.S. — if you’re in another country, Amazon may have tacked 0n some fees. Since many of these are indie authors, you may be able to find the books at Smashwords as well (sans fees).

Free Fantasy Ebooks

The Black God’s War (Splendor and Ruin, Book I)

Against the backdrop of epic warfare and the powers of ten mysterious gods, Lucia struggles to understand The Black One. Her father-king wants war. Her messianic brother wants peace. The black god wants his due. She suffers all the consequences. King Vieri is losing his war against the lands of Pawelon. Feeling abandoned by his god, he forces his son Caio, the kingdom’s holy savior, to lead his army. Victory ought to come soon.

To counter Caio’s powers, Pawelon’s prince enters the conflict. Rao is a gifted sage, a master of spiritual laws. He joins the rajah to defend their citadel against the invaders. But Rao’s ideals soon clash with his army’s general. The Black One tortures Lucia nightly with visions promising another ten years of bloodshed. She can no longer tell the difference between the waking world and her nightmares. Lucia knows the black god too well. He entered her bed and dreams when she was ten. The Black One watches, waiting to see Lucia confront an impossible decision over the fates of two men–and two lands.

Opal Fire (A Reluctant Witch Mystery: Stacy Justice Book One)

Stacy Justice did not expect to be set on fire that night, but being raised by witches prepares one for life’s little surprises. When her cousin is accused of arson, Stacy is determined to clear her family name–until something cryptic is discovered in the rubble that changes everything. Now, someone wants her dead and she finds herself dodging angry motorists, exploding chickens and a very creepy man lurking in the shadows. As she begins to dig up the past, Stacy learns that even those closest to her have something to hide–and she’s about to discover a destiny she never imagined. Suddenly, she finds herself running from a killer that will stop at nothing to keep a secret.

The Last Elf of Lanis

Wealdland is being overrun by troops of vicious garonds, led by the 900 year old, evil lord of magic, Deifol Hroth. Humanity is on the brink of extinction. Iounelle, last of the elves, embarks on a dark journey of revenge for the eradication of her race by the garond army. One of the humans she rescues from the small village of Bittel knows how to find the sword of power, the Mattear Gram, the edge in the coming battle.

Now if they can only stay alive long enough to get it…

The Winds of Khalakovo

Debut novelist Beaulieu paints a detailed and realistic portrayal of individual fates bound up in social responsibilities as well-grounded cultures clash. Prince Nikandr Khalakovo, facing an arranged marriage, also suffers from a wasting disease plaguing the Anuskaya islands. When the rebellious Maharraht loose a fire elemental and kill the visiting Grand Duke Stasa Bolgravya, civil war erupts, and all factions seek to capture a mysterious autistic boy who straddles both the spirit and the material worlds. Beaulieu skillfully juggles elements borrowed from familiar cultures (primarily Russian and Bedouin) as well as telepathy, airborne ships, and magical gems. Viewpoint shifts are occasionally confusing, but the prose is often poetic—airborne skiffs under attack “dropped like kingfishers” and “twisted in the air like maple seeds”—and the characters have welcome depth.

Casting Shadows

Edward Kelley wants to destroy the world. His family is dead and his odd habits have made him a pariah in the small town of Hurst, Ohio. After the unexpected arrival of an anonymous package, Edward quickly discovers the tools to forge his malevolent fantasies into reality. Yet, he soon finds that he is not the villain of his own story and, with the help of a surrogate grandmother, an undead servant, and a foul-mouthed cop, he is fast on the road to becoming an unlikely hero. Casting Shadows is a quirky amalgamation of Contemporary Fantasy and Magical Realism, with a sprinkling of Classical Literature, Necromancy, and Russian Folklore added for good measure.

The Book of Deacon

Myranda is a young woman more interested in staying alive than being a hero. Orphaned by a continent-spanning war that has gone on for decades too long and shunned for failing to support it, she has been on the move since she was only a child. One can hardly blame her when she thinks that the chance discovery of a fallen soldier’s priceless cargo is the moment that will change her life. No one could predict just how great that change would be. It will lead her through an adventure of rebels and generals, of wizards and warriors, and of beasts both noble and monstrous. Each step of the way will take her closer to the truth of her potential, of the war, and of the fate of her world.

Child of the Ghosts

For fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Sword & Sorceress”, Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Jennifer Roberson, here is a new story of a woman’s fight against an ancient evil.

When her life is torn apart by sorcery and murder, young Caina Amalas joins the mysterious Ghosts, the legendary spies and assassins of the Emperor of Nighmar. She learns the secrets of disguise and stealth, of assassination and infiltration. But even that might not be enough to save her. For the evil that destroyed her family seeks to devour the entire world…

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, Book 1: Embers

Imagine a darker, more adult Narnia, populated by complex, morally ambiguous characters on a high seas adventure. The Guild of the Cowry Catchers is a nautical fantasy for anyone who loves George R. R. Martin, Stephen R. Donaldson, or Robin Hobb. The characters inhabit a chain of island kingdoms called Wefrivain. The kingdoms’ querulous lords are united only by religion, a wyvern cult ruled by an eccentric High Priestess. The Temple is under attack by a gang of pirates, known as the Guild of the Cowry Catchers. They’ve been preying on Temple treasure ships. The Temple Police charged with eradicating this menace keep disappearing.

Enter Gerard, a young prince who was exiled from his small island kingdom for marrying the court minstrel. Chosen by the High Priestess as the new Captain of Police, Gerard is smart, honorable, and a little naïve. To break the pirate ring, he must cooperate with a wily, amoral admiral—who has already tried to kill him twice. As Gerard struggles to protect his talented wife, obey his seductive employer, and forge a complicated friendship with his dangerous coworker, he becomes increasingly aware that the pirates have a legitimate quarrel with the wyverns. Dark secrets lurk in the Temple dungeons, and solving them will cost Gerard far more than his honor.

Shadowbloom (Rhyme of the Willow)

When Axton and Aniva Rhyme were three years old, their parents disappeared. There were no letters, no bodies, no explanations of any kind – they had just vanished. All that remained was their car: a vehicle crashed against a willow tree.

Now, thirteen years have passed, and with the appearance of a woman with lime-green eyes and emerald vines for hair, Axton and Aniva are drawn back to that same willow. A place awaits them through a veil of foliage, full of plant wonders unlike anything they have ever imagined. The twins will find a Garden full of thought-carrying Linkroots, bone-crushing Tanglervines, spore-filled Pumpershrooms, and berries from crimson Bloodvines . . .

Berries that will change a human into a fearsome Wild with just a single drop of juice.

Unicorn Bait

Naomi accidentally goes to another planet thanks to a unicorn horn. Unfortunately, the horn doesn’t come with her. She doesn’t know how to get home, but that’s not her biggest problem. That would be her brand new husband, and he’s kind of scary. Her only hope is a crazy witch who knows something about catching unicorns. Which would be fine and dandy except, it’s the crazy witch who introduced her to her husband. And then RAN OFF. She’s going to get her for that.

Unicorn Bait is a fun romp through a magical world filled with adventure, humor, and a little naughtiness.

There you go: ten free fantasy ebooks to check out. Let us know if you give any of these authors a try and enjoy their work.

Also, if steampunk is more your vibe, you can also check out the list of free and 99-cent steampunk ebooks I made a couple weeks ago.

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