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Dragon Rider: Chapter 1

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

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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.

Fallen Empire Reading Order (and Book 8 is out)

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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I’ve just released End Game, the 8th and final book in my Fallen Empire series. Now that the series has grown to eight novels and several short stories, some folks have been asking about the best reading order, so here’s the list in chronological order. They can be read this way, but with the prequels, you may enjoy them more after you’ve read a couple of books in the series and know the characters.

Fallen Empire Series in Chronological Order:

Remnants — A short story that takes place 2-3 years before Star Nomad. It’s the adventure where Alisa and Mica first meet, and it’s currently only available in the You Are Here SF/F anthology.

Last Command — A novella that takes place 6 months before Star Nomad. It’s from Leonidas’s point of view and shows him carrying out his last mission before the fall of the empire. It’s currently available as a free bonus to those who sign up for the Fallen Empire newsletter.

Star Nomad — The first book I wrote and where the main adventure begins! The ebook version of the series is currently exclusive with Amazon (but if you’re reading this after Spring of 2017, it should be out everywhere), but the paperbacks can be purchased at Barnes & Noble and other online bookstores. Also, the audiobooks are being produced by Podium Publishing and are available through Amazon, Apple, and Audible.

Saranth Three — A short story that takes place between Star Nomad and Book 2, Honor’s Flight. It’s currently a bonus for newsletter subscribers.

Honor’s Flight — Book 2 in the series

Starfall Station — A short story from Leonidas’s point of view. It takes place between Book 2 and Book 3. It’s currently available through the free Star Rebels anthology. (This is available on Kobo, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, as well as Amazon.)

Starseers — Book 3

Relic of Sorrows — Book 4

Cleon Moon — Book 5

Arkadian Skies — Book 6

Perilous Hunt — Book 7

End Game — Book 8

 

 

Star Nomad (Fallen Empire, Book 1) Available: Read Chapter 1 Here

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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The science fiction adventure series I’ve been talking about for the last few months is finally out! Book 1 (with 2 and 3 soon to follow) is available on Amazon. For the first couple of weeks, it will be 99 cents (you can also borrow it if you’re a part of Kindle Unlimited).

I’m trying KDP Select (which requires exclusivity) for the first 90 days, so it’s just available on Amazon, but I plan to go wide with the series later in the year unless the results over there are mind-blowing. I know you don’t all read on Amazon, so I thank you for your patience.

StarNomadWebSmallHere’s the blurb and the first chapter of the novel:

The Alliance has toppled the tyrannical empire. It should be a time for celebration, but not for fighter pilot Captain Alisa Marchenko. After barely surviving a crash in the final battle for freedom, she’s stranded on a dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her young daughter. She has no money or resources, and there are no transports heading to Perun, her former home and the last imperial stronghold.

But she has a plan.

Steal a dilapidated and malfunctioning freighter from a junkyard full of lawless savages. Slightly suicidal, but she believes she can do it. Her plan, however, does not account for the elite cyborg soldier squatting in the freighter, intending to use it for his own purposes. As an imperial soldier, he has no love for Alliance pilots. In fact, he’s quite fond of killing them.

Alisa has more problems than she can count, but she can’t let cyborgs, savages, or ancient malfunctioning ships stand in her way. If she does, she’ll never see her daughter again.

Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1

Chapter 1

A dark shape scurried through the shadows ahead, disappearing under the belly of a rusted spaceship. Alisa Marchenko halted, tightening her grip on her old Etcher 50. Rustling sounds came from beneath the ship, along with a low growl. Alisa hoped it was just another of the big rodents she’d seen earlier. Those weren’t exactly friendly, but at least they didn’t endanger anything higher up than her calves—so long as she remained standing.

Mica, her fellow scavenger on this self-appointed mission, bumped into her back, jostling her. Alisa caught herself on the hull of the rusty derelict and grimaced when her palm smacked against something moist and sticky. She wiped it on her trousers, glad for the dim lighting in the cavern.

“Sorry,” Mica whispered, the shadows hiding her face, but not the fact that she carried a toolbox almost as big as she was. Alisa ought to have her leading the way—she could sling that box around with the authority of an assault rifle. “Can’t we risk a light?” Mica added. “We might trip over some unexploded ordnance down here and blow ourselves up.”

“I see your pessimism hasn’t faded in the years since we served together.”

“Pessimism is an admirable quality in an engineer. Pessimistic people check their work three times, because they’re sure something won’t be right. Optimistic people check once, trust in Solis-de to keep the ship safe, then blow everyone up.”

“I think you’re mistaking the word optimistic for inept.”

“They’ve got a similar ring to my ear.”

Alisa looked past Mica’s short, tousled hair and toward the mouth of the massive cavern. The skeletons of dozens of junked ships stood between them and the harsh red daylight of the desert outside. She was tempted to say yes to Mica’s suggestion of light, but the sounds of punches and grunts arose less than fifty meters away. A guttural male voice cursed in one of the Old Earth languages, and someone cried out in pain. A juicy and final thump followed, making Alisa think of a star melon splatting open after falling from a rooftop. Men laughed, their voices rough and cruel.

“No light,” Alisa whispered.

Mica shrugged, tools clinking faintly in her box. “You’re the captain.”

“Not unless this works, I’m not.”

“I thought you got promoted at the end of the war.”

“I did, but the war’s over,” Alisa said.

The war was over, and the Alliance had forgotten about her in the aftermath, leaving her in the hands of the dubious medical care available from the local facilities. Alisa had eventually recovered after spending a month in a dilapidated turn-of-the-century regeneration tank and two months learning to walk again, but she had little more than the clothes on her back. Worse, she was stranded on this dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her home—from her daughter.

Her fingers strayed toward a pocket with an envelope in it, one of her few possessions. It contained a letter from her sister-in-law Sylvia, a letter written by hand in a time when most communications were electronic, a letter that had taken weeks to find her in the hospital, a letter that explained that her husband had died in the final bombings of Perun Central. Only knowing that her eight-year-old daughter still lived and was staying with Sylvia on Perun had given Alisa the strength to endure the months of rehabilitation and the weeks of scrounging and planning to reach this place, to come up with a way to get back home.

Mica started to respond to her comment, but Alisa turned her back to end the conversation and continued picking her way through the junk piles. Talking was not wise, not down here.

More noises came from the wreckage all around them, including a chewing sound that Alisa found unnerving. A few more steps, and she heard something being dragged through the fine dust on the cavern floor, dust that drifted upward with her steps, teasing her nostrils, making her want to sneeze. She pinched her nose, having no delusions that the men hiding in here were anything but criminals, criminals who wouldn’t care that she had helped free them from the oppression and tyranny of the empire.

As they drew farther from the entrance, the smell of the junk cavern grew stronger, scents of rust and oil and burned wires, but also of butchered meat and carcasses left to the animal scavengers. Alisa was tempted to keep pinching her nostrils shut.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Mica whispered.

“I know where I left the ship six years ago.”

“That’s a no, right?”

“The engine was smoking by the time I made it in here. I doubt anyone fixed it up to move her.” Another clunk came from the darkness, and Alisa added, “Talk later.”

Soft growls and snarls came from the path ahead. Alisa made herself continue onward. The creatures making the noises did not sound large.

She caught herself reaching toward the side of her head, to tap on the earstar that had hung there like jewelry for so much of her life. Assuming the satellites were still in orbit on Dustor, she could have used it to call up a map of their surroundings, but she had lost it in the crash. Mica did not wear one, either—she’d said she sold hers for food. Apparently, computer and communications tech was easier for her to give up than her tools.

Alisa’s toe bumped into something on the narrow path. It did not feel like a rock or piece of debris. She started to step over it, not wanting to know the details.

A beam of light flashed up ahead, someone heading down the path toward them. Alisa stepped back and grabbed Mica’s shoulder, pushing her toward wreckage to the side of them.

“Hide,” she breathed.

The light was definitely coming in their direction.

Mica found something to crawl under. On the opposite side of the path, Alisa patted around a pile of dusty reels of cable of all different sizes, the mound rising well above her head. She squeezed between it and something large, poky, and metal. There wasn’t room to get more than a couple of feet off the path. She hoped that whoever had the light did not look around.

The beam of light approached, angled down toward the ground from someone’s earstar. The footfalls of several people accompanied it.

Alisa squeezed more tightly into her spot, turning her head from the path, not wanting her eyes to reflect the light. A few male grumbles and curses reached her ears as the men navigated the route, bumping into things, kicking dented cans out of the way.

Before the group reached her, their light played across the thing she had bumped into on the path. A human body, that of a woman. The clothing was ripped, flesh torn away by some hungry animal, but the sightless eyes remained open, an expression of utter terror frozen in them.

Alisa closed her own eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to wonder if she, too, had been driven down here by desperation, searching for a way off this world.

The men with the light continued down the path without slowing. A faint tink came from the other side, and Alisa winced. She didn’t think Mica had been foolish enough to make noise—there was probably another rat poking around behind her—but the sound might cause someone to look in that direction.

The men stepped over the body without slowing. Alisa watched them out of her peripheral vision, noting the scarred, bearded faces, the greasy hair, the tattoos, and the weapons they carried, a mishmash of daggers, shotguns, BlazTeck energy particle weapons, and rifles collected from who knew where. One carried an e-cannon that looked like it had been torn off one of the ships and modified for hand use. Alisa reminded herself that she, too, was armed, with the Etcher she had traded for, but it carried bullets rather than battery packs, and if she fired it, everyone in the cavern would hear.

The greasy men continued down the path, and she allowed herself to relax an iota. She waited until the light had disappeared and the sounds of footfalls had faded before easing out of hiding. Her long braid of dark brown hair got caught on a protruding piece of scrap, and she resolved to have it cut as soon as she had money. Whenever that would be.

“Blessing of the Suns Trinity,” she whispered for the fallen woman’s soul, then stepped past the corpse. “Mica?”

“I’m here.” Her voice sounded subdued, perhaps because she, too, had seen the body.

The path opened up as they continued down it, hurrying in the opposite direction from the men. An old conveyer belt stretched across a cleared area, with the skeletal shape of a crane rising up from the shadows. Alisa’s heart sped up with anticipation. She remembered walking past this spot on her way out of the cavern years ago.

A gasp came from behind her, followed by the sound of something clunking to the ground.

Alisa whirled around, raising her gun. The darkness lay thick along the path, towers of junk stacked high to either side, and she couldn’t see much.

“Mica?” Alisa risked whispering. That had sounded like her gasp.

A flash came from the side, followed by the scent of burning tar. A homemade fire starter had been thrown to the ground, and flames leaped up, bright enough to reveal Mica—and the big man holding her with his hand around her neck. A wiry man stood at his side, his hand blazer pointed at Alisa. Mica’s toolbox lay on its side in the dust at her feet. She struggled briefly, then grew still as her captor’s grip tightened. An utterly pissed expression contorted the angular features of her face.

Alisa admired her lack of fear, but felt a twinge of disappointment that her comrade had let herself be captured so easily. As a pilot, Alisa had fast reflexes in the sky, but she doubted she could shoot both men before the one with the blazer shot her.

“Thought I heard something,” the big man holding her crooned. He was one of the ones who had walked past them, with so many scars on his bare arms and face that they must have been self-inflicted. Despite his height, his features were gaunt, with no fat under the stringy flesh of those arms. “Got some pretties to add to our collection. This one feels good. Be fun to cut on her a little.” He leered and shifted his grip so he could grope Mica’s breast. “Spider, get that one’s gun. Can’t be having some girl shooting at us while we’re working our art.”

Mica radiated fury, and she tried to bash her head back and hit her captor in the face, but he was too tall. She stomped on his foot, but he wore hard boots and didn’t seem to feel it.

The wiry man grinned, displaying a mouth of missing teeth, and bounced up and down. He did not speak but took a step forward, holding out his free hand as he kept his blazer pointed at Alisa’s chest. She kept her Etcher pointed at his chest, too, assessing him in the dancing firelight. His chest looked stockier than his narrow frame would have suggested. Was he wearing body armor under his clothes? On the chance that it might deflect bullets, she shifted her aim to his eye. He halted, squinting at her, and twitched his free hand toward his big comrade.

“Why don’t you release my engineer and let us go about our business?” Alisa asked, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “We fought for the Alliance. We’re not your enemies.” Or your playthings, she added silently, horrified at the idea. She doubted talking would do any good, but maybe it would buy her a moment to think of something better to do.

“Alliance doesn’t mean worm suck down here,” the big man said. “Empire, Alliance, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. None of them make it easier to find food around here. Spider, a girl’s not going to shoot you. Get her damned gun.”

Alisa didn’t want to shoot them, not when it would alert everyone in the cavern to their presence. She was also well aware that she wasn’t wearing body armor or anything else that would deflect attacks.

“Oh, she’ll shoot you,” Mica wheezed, not as daunted as one might expect by the hand around her throat. The big man had her arms pinned, but she eased her fingers toward her shirt pocket so she could reach it. “She likes shooting people. Mostly imperial asteroid kissers, but I bet she’ll make exceptions for greasy troglodytes whose only memories of bathtubs come from their ancestors who colonized this hole.”

Spider had started toward Alisa, but he paused at Mica’s words. More the part about Alisa’s willingness to shoot him, rather than that bathtub insult, she wagered.

“Enh, just blow her away, Spider,” the big man said. “Ain’t worth getting killed trying to steal a veruska’s stinger.”

The wiry man nodded firmly, his hand tightening on his trigger. Seeing the determination in his eyes, Alisa fired first, then flung herself to the side. She rolled under the conveyer belt as a crimson blazer bolt streaked through the air where her head had been. Spider shouted in pain, but Alisa knew she’d only struck a glancing blow, if that. She prayed the hulking man wouldn’t break Mica’s neck as she scrambled into the shadows, expecting Spider to fire again.

Instead, a boom erupted from nearby, the noise hammering at Alisa’s eardrums. One of the men yowled, the sound a mingle of frustration and agony.

Alisa couldn’t tell which one it had been. She rose to a crouch behind a support under the conveyer belt, using it for cover as she sought a target. Acrid blue smoke filled the air from whatever explosive had been detonated.

Spider rolled about on the ground, almost smothering the flames from the fire starter. He clutched his ear, blood streaming between his fingers, his mouth open as if he were screaming, but nothing came out. Alisa had landed a better shot than she’d thought.

Despite his pain, Spider hadn’t dropped his gun, and even as Alisa lined up her aim for another shot, he glimpsed her through smoky air. He fired wildly in her direction.

She ducked back and targeted him through the support legs. Though a blazer bolt slammed into the belt a few feet away, sending shards of the machinery flying, she forced herself to find the calm in the chaos, to take a careful second to ensure her aim was true. She fired once.

Her bullet slammed into Spider’s forehead, and his head flew back, striking the earth and sending a puff of dust into the air. His arm fell limp, landing in the flames. He didn’t move it, and the smell of burning clothing and flesh soon scented the air along with the acrid taint of the smoke. Alisa grimaced. The war had taught her to kill, but she would never find it anything but horrifying.

Mica and the big man had disappeared, only her toolbox remaining, along with a dark smudge in the dust next to it. Alisa hopped over the conveyer belt to investigate, aware of shouts coming from all parts of the cavern. Most were inarticulate, a few in languages she couldn’t understand, but an enthusiastic call of, “Fresh meat!” made her shudder.

She couldn’t stay around here, but she couldn’t leave Mica, either. She was cursing herself for not seeing which direction they had gone when she glimpsed the remains of a warped casing on the ground. She picked it up, sniffed it, and dropped it immediately, the pungent scent familiar. Her fingers tingled from the brief contact.

A shuffling came from piles of scrap, and Mica walked into view, rubbing her neck and grimacing. “Animal.”

“Was that a rust bang?” Alisa asked, remembering the explosives the ground troops had often led with when assaulting imperial ships and fortifications. The acidic smoke could corrode even state-of-the-art combat armor. It was not as deadly to skin, but she’d seen people horribly disfigured and even killed from close contact.

“Sort of a homemade version.”

“That you kept in your pocket?”

“I keep lots of useful things in my pockets.” Mica picked up her toolbox, and they moved away from the body and the still-burning fire starter. “Don’t you?”

“I have half a chocolate bar and three tindarks in mine.”

“How’d you get chocolate in this hole?”

“I traded the painkillers the hospital gave me before kicking me out.” The medicine was highly coveted out in the lawless streets of the backwater planet, and Alisa had gotten her Etcher and a multitool out of the deal too.

“You didn’t need the painkillers?” Mica asked.

“Not as much as I needed the chocolate.”

“You’re an odd woman.”

“Says the engineer who carries rust bangs in her pockets. How did you manage to use one of those on that big brute without being hurt yourself?” As they walked, Alisa waved at Mica’s rumpled overalls, as faded and stained as hers—it hadn’t been an easy five months for either of them. Those overalls weren’t any more damaged, however, than they had been when they’d headed into the cavern. “You appear remarkably un-corroded.”

“The rust bang was insulated.”

“How?”

“It went off in his pants.”

“Ah. How did it get in there?”

“Must have fallen in.” Mica’s typically dour expression faded for a moment as she winked. “You rolling around in the dust and shooting people was a suitable distraction for it to do so.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Alisa managed a brief smile, amused that she had been worried her ally couldn’t take care of herself.

Lights flashed on the rocky ceiling far overhead, and the sounds of excited shouts grew closer. Shoes pounded in the dust nearby, reminding Alisa that they had made a lot of noise.

She turned her walk into a run, veering toward an aisle choked with piles of parts and some kind of vine that had no trouble growing in the dark. Though she worried that the half-starved brutes who called this place home would catch up with them, she felt more sure of her route now. The aisle had been a road the last time she’d been in here, with the place slightly more organized back then, and with fewer corpses along the way.

A gun fired behind them, and the sounds of a squabble broke out. Alisa hoped the scavengers would be satisfied that they could search—or eat—Spider’s corpse and wouldn’t look further, but she didn’t slow down. She couldn’t count on that, nor could she count on safety once she reached the Star Nomad. It had been inches from derelict status when she’d seen it last; the Suns Trinity only knew what condition it was in now. She was probably delusional to believe that Mica and her toolbox could fix it.

As they neared the back of the massive cavern, the shouts growing distant behind them, Alisa finally slowed down. Her lungs forced her to, even if her brain didn’t want to acknowledge the need. It was just as well. They ought to return to proceeding with caution.

“Is that it?” Mica whispered, pointing past Alisa’s shoulder.

They had reached another clearing, this one with a slender beam of daylight slashing down from a hole in the cavern ceiling. It provided just enough illumination to make out the hulls of four ships parked around the area. Grease and oil stains smeared the dusty ground in the open space, suggesting a fifth ship had rested there once. If one craft had flown out of here, Alisa hoped that meant another one could.

She stopped to stare at the familiar shape on the far side of the clearing, a tangle of emotions and memories washing over her. This ship had been responsible for her mother’s death, and six years hadn’t changed Alisa’s feeling of aversion toward it. Aversion and resentment. The clunky old freighter was even less impressive than she’d remembered.

The Nomad hadn’t been a beauty even in her heyday, and now dust dulled it further, coating every inch of the boxy hull while cobwebs draped the twin thrusters. Shadows hid the top and the front of the craft from her view, but she knew they would be equally neglected. She and Mica would have to assess the hull carefully, see if it was possible to make the craft spaceworthy again. Alisa ought to be able to advise her engineer on that. She certainly knew the Nomad well enough. Long before her mother’s death, Alisa had grown up on the ship, learning to fly and helping her mother run cargo from planet to moon to space station throughout the system. Under the empire’s rule, her mother had been forced to pay taxes and tolls at each port and had barely eked out enough of a profit to keep her ship in the sky and her daughter fed. But through sheer determination, she had kept Alisa fed. She had been a good mother—a good person—and emotion thickened Alisa’s throat as the years seemed to slip away, and she missed her anew. And she once again resented that the old ship had given out without warning, life support disappearing, her mother unable to—

“Captain?” Mica asked.

Alisa stirred, pushing aside the memories. “Yes. That’s it.”

She took a deep breath and walked through the dust toward the craft. She went slowly, looking left and right as she crossed near the light of the sunbeam. Just because they had left the other scavengers behind didn’t mean there couldn’t be more back here. The hatch was closed on the old freighter, the wide cargo-loading ramp folded away inside.

A bronze plaque had been bolted to the hull next to the hatch. It was too dusty to read, but she knew what it said: Property of Finnegan’s Scrap and Holding Company.

She had been there the day old Finnegan had affixed it, the day she sold the ship to him. Even if she had been grossly underpaid by the unscrupulous businessman, Alisa hadn’t been in the mood to argue back then, not with her mother’s death fresh in her mind. Still, she knew she couldn’t use that for justification of what she meant to do now. Steal it.

But Finnegan had died in the bombings of Dustor’s nearby capital—she’d researched that when formulating this plan—and nobody had come out to claim this junkyard in the year that had passed since then. People had likely been stealing from it for months, ever since the security guards had quit patrolling and the lowlifes had moved in.

As she neared the hatch, a growl came from under one of the other ships. As she turned to look, something furry with a spiky ridge along its back burst out of the shadows. A sand badger. Forty pounds of fangs, fur, and bad temperament. It sprinted straight at her, snarling.

Alisa whipped her Etcher toward it and was an instant from shooting when she remembered the need to be quiet. If she fired, the noise would only draw more scavengers, and she couldn’t simply run and hide now. They had to stay here long enough to fix the Nomad and get it flying.

Jerking the gun up, Alisa met the giant badger’s charge with a side kick instead of a bullet. She pivoted on her left foot, launching her right toward the thing’s bristly snout, glad the hospital had returned her sturdy boots to her upon release. The sole crunched into the badger’s face, halting its charge but not its ferocity. It twisted its neck, snapping at her leg as she retracted it. She launched a second kick without setting down her foot. This time, it saw the attack coming and scuttled to the side more quickly than something with such short legs should have been able to.

As she danced away from another charge, Alisa yanked her multitool off her belt, flicking it to extend the laser knife. Mica ran in behind the creature, an oversized wrench in hand. When Alisa kicked the badger in the snout again, Mica lunged in and clubbed it in the back. The blow probably didn’t do much harm, but it made the sand badger spin around, its spiked tail nearly whipping Alisa in the leg. The creature snarled and charged toward Mica, who scrambled back as she waved the wrench back and forth like a fencer’s foil.

Alisa sprang after the badger, slashing with the laser knife. It cut through the spiked tail, lopping it off and eliciting a squeal of pain from the animal.

She winced at the noise and darted in, hoping to finish it off, but the badger was done fighting. It scurried back into the shadows, leaving a trail of blood in the dust.

Alisa let it go, doubting she could have caught it anyway. As she stood, gun in one hand and multitool in the other, she tried to slow her breathing so she could listen and hear if anyone was coming. All that filled her ears was the sound of her own ragged breaths. She hadn’t recovered her stamina yet, and it annoyed her how long it took for her breathing to return to normal.

Mica returned her wrench to her toolbox and joined her. “Remember how skeptical I was when you told me that if I joined you, we’d find a ship that could take us back to civilization?”

“Yes.” Alisa flicked the multitool again, retracting the laser blade and sticking it back in her belt sheath.

“I wasn’t skeptical enough.” Mica curled a lip at the bloody stump of badger tail lying in the dust, then looked at the freighter and curled her lip even further. “A Nebula Rambler 880? They stopped making those fifty years ago.”

“That just means it’s a classic,” Alisa said, though she couldn’t help but remember how her mother had died and shudder. The ship had gone from feeling like home to a cemetery overnight for her.

But it was the only ship she was going to find that nobody else had a claim on and that might still be spaceworthy. Assuming they could fix it. And assuming it had enough juice left in the battery to open the hatch so they could get in. She wondered if it would still recognize her as an authorized entrant.

“Yeah?” Mica asked. “Does it have shag carpet?”

“Just in the rec room.”

Mica snorted.

Alisa reached for the sensor panel beside the hatch.

A shadow dropped from the sky.

She sprang back, jerking her gun toward the figure that landed beside her. A hand, an impossibly strong hand, clamped onto her wrist, squeezing until she gasped, her fingers loosening. Her gun was torn from her grip, and she was thrust backward before she could contemplate a kick or a punch.

The force of the thrust stole her balance, and she tumbled to the ground. Though she managed to turn the fall into a roll and come up in a crouch a few feet away, it didn’t matter. She’d lost her Etcher, and she was too far away to use the laser knife. Not that it would have mattered. Dread filled her as she recognized her opponent—and the fact that he was pointing her own gun at her.

~

Pick up the book now: Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1

Snake Heart (Chains of Honor 2) Available Everywhere

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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SnakeHeartWebFor those of you following along with my Chains of Honor series (a spin-off set in the same world as my Emperor’s Edge series), the second book, Snake Heart, is now available. If you haven’t checked out the first book, you can read the first few chapters on my site: Warrior Mage preview.

Here’s the blurb and the store links for Snake Heart:

Tasked with an impossible mission, hunted by the very people he wants to protect, Yanko White Fox is the only one who can save his nation from famine and anarchy. Armed only with his fledgling skills as a wizard and accompanied by allies he’s not sure he can trust, he must track down an ancient relic before his enemies find it first. But countless obstacles stand in the way, including his mother. The deadly and infamous pirate Snake Heart cares nothing for the family—or the son—she abandoned, and wants the artifact for herself.

You can grab the novel at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo, and Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

Patterns in the Dark Audiobook Available

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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patterns-in-the-dark-audiobookHello, audiobook fans!

As you may already know, Podium Publishing is producing my Dragon Blood series. If you haven’t grabbed it yet, the first three books are available in one collection (a crazy good deal if you buy with Audible credits or if you already own the ebook, since you can add the audio for only $2.99 through Amazon).

Now, the fourth book in the series, Patterns in the Dark, is also available.

You can pick it up at Audible, Amazon, or iTunes.

Thanks for listening!