Free Fantasy Ebook — Ice Cracker II
Ice Cracker II is a stand-alone, high fantasy, short story featuring the main characters from my Emperor’s Edge series. I turned it into a free fantasy ebook that you can download from Barnes & Noble or Smashwords (Smashwords offers the Amazon Kindle format, as well as just about everything else). You can read an excerpt of the story below to decide if it’s something you’re interested in.
Thank you for looking!
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ICE CRACKER II
Amaranthe ran alongside the frozen lake, thighs weary, calves sore, ragged breaths steaming before her. The short sword belted at her waist felt ten times heavier than it was. An inch of fresh snow blanketed the trail, and thick flakes wafted from the steely sky. They stuck in her lashes and melted down her flushed cheeks.
The marker came into view, and she dug a pocket watch free as she passed it. She groaned at the time, shoulders slumping.
“Maybe I can blame the snow,” she muttered. “Or the cold. Or maybe I can blame—” She rounded a bend and almost tripped over two bodies sprawled across the path, “—the dead soldiers on the trail,” she finished, voice cracking as the breeze shifted and the butcher shop stench enveloped her.
The soldiers, recognizable by their black uniforms and military-issue pistols, had died recently: slit throats poured steaming blood onto the white trail. A tangle of scuffs and footprints trampled the snow around the bodies, but no trails led away from the scene.
Exercise forgotten, Amaranthe yanked her sword free. She crouched and surveyed her surroundings, wondering where the killer had hidden to launch the ambush—and wondering if that killer might be there now, waiting to do it again.
Without their foliage, the skeletal apple and maple trees lining the lake offered little cover. A hundred meters ahead, the industrial section of the city began. Deep, dark alleys ran between warehouses and factories whose smokestacks belched black ribbons into the low gray clouds. Anyone hiding in those alleys would have had to race across a field of snow to reach the soldiers though. Closer to her, a gas lamp sputtered at the head of the first of hundreds of docks lining the waterfront. The dark hollow beneath the boards held her gaze. Between the snow and the coming dusk, the lighting was poor; someone might well have hidden beneath the dock.
Even as she watched, a crunch sounded. Someone shifting weight on the snow? Her grip tightened on the sword.
The self-preservation part of her mind suggested returning to her jog and leaving this mystery to another. But thanks to a frame job by a late enemy, she was wanted for conspiring to kidnap the emperor. She wanted exoneration, and for that to happen she needed to seek out noble—and notice-gaining—tasks. This might be the opportunity she needed.
Amaranthe stepped off the trail. At first no footprints marred the bank, but, six or eight feet off the well-tamped path, fresh boot marks indented the snow. Quite a jump, but not impossible.
She followed the prints down to the dock. Anticipation quickened her heart, and quick puffs of breath appeared before her eyes. The snow muffled the city sounds; the waterfront stood eerily silent.
When she reached the dock, she crouched, half-expecting someone behind the pilings. Nobody was there. A couple of packs and bedrolls lay tucked in the shadows, however. Had the soldiers chanced upon this campsite and been killed for their discovery? She crept forward, intending to investigate.
Snow crunched behind her.
Instincts ruling, she lunged behind a thick piling. The sound of a sword whistled through the air inches behind her. But when she turned, using the piling for cover, she saw only the emptiness of the bleak white shoreline.
She kept her sword ready. Magic, it had to be. It was almost unheard of here in the heart of the empire, where imperial mandates hypocritically forbade its use and denied its existence, but she had bumped against it a time or two.
“What do you want?” Amaranthe did not know if she addressed a person, or some wizard’s minion, but it would likely not hurt to ask.
Clothing rustled behind her. She threw herself to the side, rolled, and came up as a chunk of wood sheared off the piling. Amaranthe swung at the spot the attacker should have been, but connected with nothing.
Her gaze slid downward, though she lowered her eyelashes so her foe would not see. Maybe she could spot prints being made, even if her opponent was invisible.
In the weak light, she had to strain her eyes, but the snow depressed in slow, deliberate steps. She drew some comfort from the normal boot-shaped prints; her attacker was likely human.
She stepped toward the piling and poked behind it, feigning clueless stabbing, even as she kept those footprints in the corner of her eye. The enemy circled toward her side, walking slowly enough not to make a sound. She continued jabbing in front of her until the prints grew closer. The invisible person lunged.
Amaranthe whipped her sword to the side, raking the air.
A man cursed in a foreign language. Drops of blood spattered the snow. Footsteps, loud and quick, announced a hasty retreat.
Amaranthe lunged out of the shadows, wondering how to stop the man.
A dark figure dropped from the top of the dock, landing beside her. She brought her sword up, her heart lurching, but she recognized the newcomer and almost laughed in relief.
He stopped her with an upraised hand. His other hand held a throwing knife, and, after listening for a second, he hurled it toward the trail. The steel blade zipped through the falling snow.
A cry of pain ripped along the waterfront, and a man appeared. He pitched forward, landing face-first in the snow, the knife hilt quivering between his shoulder blades.
“Nice aim.” Amaranthe nodded appreciation toward her comrade.
If Sicarius felt satisfaction from the throw or gratitude for her compliment he showed neither. As always, his aloof, angular features remained masked, suiting the grim black he wore from soft boots to wool cap. Only his armory of daggers and throwing knives broke the monotony of his wardrobe. He was not the type of person one wanted to run into in a dark alley. Unless he was on one’s team.
“You’re late.” His voice was as emotionless as his face.
“How’d you know I’d be running the lake trail?” Amaranthe asked.
“Books beat you on the obstacle course this morning.”
She grimaced. Though pleased he cared enough to come looking, she was chagrined she was so transparent. Did the other men know she trained extra to keep up with them at physical feats?
“I expect to lose to you,” Amaranthe said, “but if I can’t even beat Books, then how can I…” She stopped herself short of saying “presume to lead the group.”
“Your words are what convinced him to train harder.”
“Yes, and I’m pleased at his progress. I just wish his progress was a teeny bit behind mine.”
Too much, probably. If one whined about whether or not one was fit to lead, one probably wasn’t. She lifted a hand to dismiss her comments and headed up the bank toward the body. Sicarius walked beside her, somehow gliding across the snow without a sound. He retrieved his knife, slipped a folded black kerchief from his pocket, and cleaned the blade meticulously.
“Kendorian?” Amaranthe nodded at the body.
“Yes. A shaman.”
The foreigner wore buckskins rather than the factory-sewn wool garments Amaranthe had on, and the thick blond braid and pale skin were unlike the darker coloring of imperial citizens. Tattoos of snakes and rats adorned the side of his cheek and neck—the rest of his face was buried in the snow.
“He has a friend.” She waved to indicate the blankets and bags.
While Sicarius searched for other tracks, Amaranthe knelt and rifled through the Kendorian’s pockets. Nothing identified him, nor did a handy why-I’m-invading-the-empire-and-killing-soldiers note provide illumination. She checked the belongings under the dock but again found no identifying items. A small toolkit stirred her imagination though.
Sicarius returned. “No other recent prints.”
“Hm. Any idea what Kendorians would be doing down here?”
Other than the ice workers chiseling out blocks for the summer trade, little activity centered around the lake in the winter. The military’s ice-breaking ship kept the transportation lanes open for imports and exports, but the fishing boats and canneries lay dormant.
“Something important enough to warrant killing soldiers to avoid discovery,” Sicarius replied.
“Kendorians would kill our soldiers whether discovery was involved or not. The empire isn’t exactly loved by neighboring nations.” She stuck her hands under her armpits. Now that her body had cooled, she noticed the chill air probing her sweat-dampened clothing. “Still, most of them don’t travel a thousand miles in the middle of winter for random soldier-slaying.”
“We should go.”
True. With the bounties on their heads, being found loitering around murdered soldiers was not a good idea.
“Agreed.” Amaranthe picked up a jog again, heading for the broad street lining the waterfront. “We’ll need to hurry to have a shot at finding the second Kendorian before he does…whatever it is he’s planning.”
Sicarius matched her pace, but the long look he slanted her suggested that was not the “go” he had in mind.
As her mind whirred with possibilities, the weariness from her run bled away. If the second man could turn himself invisible, too, he could be anywhere. It would take some lucky guessing to suss out his destination.
When they reached the ice-free channel fronting the merchant and naval docks, she slowed. Could one of the trade vessels be a target? Most ships sat dark. The gathering night and the snowfall had sent folks home for the day. Only one pier was lit up, its great steel steamship sending a few black wisps from its stacks. The Ice Cracker II must be heating the boilers in preparation to leave in the morning. Soldiers paced the dock. Crewmen strode about the deck, stowing cargo, and—
Amaranthe halted so abruptly she almost tripped. “That’s it.”
Sicarius turned, watching her face.
“The ice-breaking ship,” she explained.
“You think that’s the target?”
“What else would a Kendorian be after at this time of year on the waterfront? The snow’s already too high in the passes for the locomotives to plow the rail tracks. If the shipping lanes freeze over, the capital city goes without imports for the rest of the winter. Not to mention we’d be unable to get more troops in if something happened to the city. It’d be especially bad this year, since the Ice Cracker I was decommissioned last month. There aren’t any other ships in the Seven Lakes that can break ice.” She hammered a fist into her open palm. “That’s it, it has to be.”
Sicarius pulled her into the shadows of a dark warehouse. “You have no evidence.”
“No, but I have this lovely hunch, and it’d be downright uncivil to ignore it.”
“We have no way of knowing the Kendorian is on board,” Sicarius said. “We do know there are a hundred soldiers and sailors. Maybe more. Men who would be duty-bound to shoot us if they saw us.”
“Even if the Kendorian is in there, he can turn invisible. We can’t.”
“I know that, too.”
Two soldiers marched along the street, rifles balanced on their shoulders. Amaranthe put her hand on Sicarius’s forearm and guided him into an alley.
“I know this is dangerous,” she said, “probably more dangerous for you than for me—my poster just says wanted, yours says shoot on sight—but this could be a chance for both of us.”
For years, he had assassinated politicians, warrior-caste scions, and wealthy entrepreneurs, never for the money, always for the challenge. While she had won many victories in her adventures, her greatest might have been in convincing him the most worthy challenge was in becoming a man the emperor might one day be proud to know.
“But,” Amaranthe continued, “you’re going to have to be seen doing some empire-saving heroics before the emperor will consider lifting that mountain-sized bounty on your head.”
“Heroics aren’t my specialty,” Sicarius said.
“No, but I’m partial to them.” She squeezed his arm. “And I know when the current’s too strong for my swimming level. I need your help for this.”
A trolley clanged in the distance. A clump of snow fell from the gutters. Pale flakes gathered on Sicarius’s dark shoulders.
“What’s the plan?” he finally asked.
She rubbed her hands together. “I’ll get on the ship, get some information, and get the crew hunting for intruders. You start looking for the Kendorian.”
“How do we get on?”
“I’ll go my way, you go the assassinly way.”
“You know, skulk under the docks to the ship, climb the dark side of the hull without so much as a rope, slip unnoticed onto the deck, ghost through the shadows without a sound, and surprise the enemy in the act.” Amaranthe quirked a smile at him. “Isn’t that your usual method?”
“I might use a rope,” he said mildly.
“You didn’t bring one. Also, make sure to come find me before you leave. I’m guessing getting on board will be easier than getting back off again.”
“One more thing,” Amaranthe said before Sicarius could disappear into the shadows. “You can’t kill anyone.”
A moment passed before he looked back at her, and she imagined an inward sigh despite the lack of expression on his face.
“Heroes don’t leave trails of dead soldiers behind, no matter how practical it may be to dispose of anyone who wishes to harm you.”
When he had disappeared into the shadows, Amaranthe shook the tension out of her limbs and strode toward the Ice Cracker II. On this section of the waterfront, frequent lampposts drove the shadows away, and soldiers spotted her long before she turned down the dock. The two privates standing guard at the base of the gangplank watched her coolly, rifles cradled in their arms, cutlasses hanging in their sheaths.
As she neared them, Amaranthe held her hands well away from her own blade. “I need to report an incident. Is your captain available?”
“Would the knowledge that two soldiers were murdered on the trail a couple miles down un-busy him?” she asked. “Oh, and there’s a dead Kendorian, too. Looks like he might have done the murdering.”
The two men exchanged concerned looks, but the speaker merely said, “You’d need to report that to someone at Fort Urgot. We’re detached to the Ice Cracker and don’t patrol the city.”
“It’s snowing and dark. I’m not running five miles to the fort. I just thought I’d try to help you boys out. It looks like someone inimical is around causing trouble.”
Amaranthe turned to walk away, but a hand clamped onto her shoulder.
“Who are you and what were you doing out there in the first place?”
“I was jogging,” she said, intentionally ignoring the first question. She doubted anyone was going to recognize her through the snow and wan lighting, but her name might set their steam clocks to whistling.
“With a sword?”
“One never knows when one might have to defend against…” Bounty hunters? Soldiers? Enforcers? “Opossums.”
Judging from the matching scowls that blossomed on their faces, they did not appreciate her humor. The soldier who had grabbed her arm shoved her toward the other.
“Remove her sword and take her to the LT. She’s all kinds of suspicious.”
Amaranthe tamped down a smile as she was marched up the gangplank. Step one, get on the ship, was complete.
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