The Shadow Age (The Age of Dawn Book 7) – Coming Soon!
This cover is an homage to our first and original prime villain, Asebor in his true form. This is yet another amazing piece by Sebastian Horoszko.
This cover is an homage to our first and original prime villain, Asebor in his true form. This is yet another amazing piece by Sebastian Horoszko.
I’m just about done with the first round of my edits of The Shadow Age – Book 7 of the Age of Dawn. I’m pretty happy with the book and just have a few details to “paint” in. It’s been tough to keep track of everything, as this book has many characters and moving parts to account for. I think most of it’s in good shape now.
I’ve been obsessed with this song from the video game NieR: Automata. I find it calming, despite the sadness woven into it.
I just read a fantastic book with a really original premise. It’s called Scythe (Arc of a Scythe Book 1). It’s up there with one of my favorite fiction reads for the year and highly recommend it. From the book’s description:
A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery: humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now Scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.
Here’s another sneak preview of the first chapter from The Shadow Age, the last book in the Age of Dawn series. Please keep in mind this is UNEDITED. Much may change with the finished version.
Time to read: 20-40m
Chapter 1 – Salvaged
A line of light sprung to life, vertically cutting the air. The line twisted clockwise from each end, opening into a warbling portal forged from the Phoenix’s gift. The portal hummed as wisps of bluish-white light curled from its edges like smoke, lacerating the sand where its bottom most arc touched the earth.
Nyset Camfield, Arch Wizard of the Silver Tower, stepped through.
Her foot sank down to her ankle into the powder sugar sands of the Nether, granules scrambling to climb over the tops of her boots stopping mid-thigh. She could do a lot with the power of the Dragon and the Phoenix, but one thing she couldn’t do was keep sand from wriggling its way between her toes and under her arches. It was a reminder that she was mortal. It was a reminder that she could die. Like Walter.
Being the Arch Wizard, one of the most esteemed positions in the realm of Zoria besides the king, meant she was frequently sought for guidance from travelers near and far and her word taken as the Dragon god’s own voice. For a time, Nyset was lost in that cloying hubris. She saw it in herself. It needed correction before it consumed her and she became no better than the bastard king Ezra.
Nyset traversed far down the path of humility and into the arms of paranoia after discovering the Shadow Princess’s whereabouts in Tigeria. It was an obsession. She had to fix her mistake, letting the Shadow Princess escape the Shadow Realm after Walter had slain the Shadow god. Her mistake wasn’t resolved, but at least the problem was known. It felt surreal. The Shadow Princess had remained hidden for so long Nyset had almost started to believe she imagined watching her fly away from the Silver Tower during the Shadow War. A ruinous fight gone horribly wrong.
About three months had passed since Isa and Senka had returned from Tigeria with the king’s sniveling heir, Greyson Rogard. She had managed to emotionally right herself, discarding her worries like a moldy blanket and pulling herself together to focus on the Shadow Princess’ ever looming figure. No, Nyset wouldn’t allow herself to once again be swallowed by pride with the constant reminder that she could die. Everything ended.
She wiggled her toes and blinked away tears birthed of the whipping wind. The wind carried the desert’s acrid air, heated to a horrible degree by the naked sun. The wind ran its burning fingers over the tops of dunes, spiking the landscape with strange vacant notes. She grasped at loops of scarlet scarf tugging at her neck and worked the soft fabric around her face, leaving only her narrowed eyes exposed.
The sand shimmered and glowed like a sea of gold, the backs of dunes cast in forbidding shadows. The desert formed into mountainous waves, not unlike that of a tsunami, engulfing all in its wake. Clouds fled the white sun, shredded into threads in the infinite gradients of blue.
She stood atop a dune, peering down at the barren landscape. Twin rivulets of sand hissed down its side where her feet disturbed the continuous surface. The valley was dotted with few cacti. Some were short and flat and others towering and round. All were lined with bright white thorns and all had their flesh blackened and showing signs of disease.
Everything was rotting here. No animal prints, no signs of life.
Among the cacti were a few remnants of shrubs, their leaves long dead and gone, branches wind-worn, and roots choked. As her eyes adjusted to the shadow of the valley she saw things. There were a few peaks from thatch roofs, likely once huts, perhaps a village, all but buried by sand. She supposed that was a good sign because Death Spawn were not using them.
Her carmine dress hung from one shoulder, the other bared, flapping in the wind. Nascent sweat was torn away before it could make her dress cling. Around her reedy biceps were Milvorian circlets, one ornamented with carvings of the Dragon and the other the Phoenix. Circling her waist was belt woven of gleaming silver threads, below it a sword belt carrying her Breden stamped long sword. Her golden hair was tied back into a bun, fluttering bits of hair secured by a thin diadem.
On her fingers were a series of rings, each unique and each a magical artifact imbued with great powers. They once belonged to Malek, a member of Asebor’s Wretched, the name once used for his dead generals. She twiddled her fingers, making the rings click together. One was topped with a long eagle’s talon, another a silver circlet with fat ruby in the center, another a dull gray alloy that covered her entire index finger.
Velsa, her assistant, had given them to her as a token of her appreciation for her station at Nyset’s side. She claimed she found them outside of Midgaard, attached to a pair of severed hands, apparently Malek’s hands. Velsa once worked in the palace and for the king, but left Midgaard due to fearing the Purist uprising. The Purists hated all things magic and had grown so brazen that they would rove the streets in groups, assaulting unsuspecting wizards. Vesla found refuge in Helm’s Reach, a safe place for wizards, and eventually recruited for the Silver Tower. She was one of the few apprentices who had survived the Tower’s assault and takeover by Asebor. She fled at Nyset’s side and was there as a witness when Nyset pronounced herself Arch Wizard.
Nyset had the poise of a queen and the flesh of a warrior. She curled her hands into fists, but then made them relax with a slow exhalation, raising her chin at the lashing wind. The scars running up and down her arms flexed and quivered with the action. Some were pinched from Death Spawn dagger stabs, others long from their claws, some raised from sword slices, and others twisted by ragged burns. She was fortunate that her narrow face had managed to get through it mostly unscathed, save for a few nicks, a notch taken from the top of her ear, and an ugly scar that curled around her throat.
She peered about and blinked until her tears gave her clarity, wondering if her portal had been woven in the correct location. In the distance about thirty or so feet away from the village’s remains was a hole in the ground taking the rectangular shape of a freshly dug grave. Strands of sand tunneled into the uncertain abyss like a mouth inhaling all that came near.
She stared at that spot, searching for the footprints that would validate the need for coming here, but found none. Nyset’s full lips pulled into frown.
What was taking them so long? She looked over her shoulder and back at the portal, expectant. The sun warmed the side of her face.
A bald man bearing a distrustful scowl ducked through the other side of the portal and into the desert. His cheeks and nose were pinked from sun, likely from training yesterday’s new Armsman recruits. There was a menacing axe laid across his giant’s shoulder and loosely held by two fingers with enough strength to crush a man’s skull. Great slabs of polished Milvorian steel shrouded his enormous shoulders, broad torso, and tree-trunk legs. His armor had an opalescent sheen, the breastplate’s center embossed with the Tower’s sigil, an interwoven depiction of the Dragon and the Phoenix.
Grimbald gave his square cut beard a tug as he scanned the vast expanse of sand. He stepped to her side to give the others room to come through. “What are we doing here, Ny? There’s nothing here,” his deep voice managed to somehow reverberate.
“Hopefully nothing,” she grunted, licking her lips. Nyset turned to face the portal, hands planted on her hips, waiting to release her hold on the Phoenix so she could close it. The longer she held it open the more of her constitution it would sap. If they found what she suspected they may find, given the state of the surrounding flora, she would need every bit of strength.
Grimbald snorted and produced a soiled handkerchief, tying it around his mouth as a makeshift mask. He staggered further away from the portal, sending plumes of sand cascading down the dune’s face. He hefted his wicked axe, Corpsemaker. The flat of it was inscribed with a concentric pattern like ripples produced from a dropped stone. It was a versatile weapon with a broad rounded blade and on one side of the haft and a grisly spike on the other. The base of the haft terminated with a grinning metallic skull whose eyes were inset with a pair of glimmering rubies. Grimbald had grown into a fearsome warrior and most importantly, he was man she could trust. She couldn’t think of a better person to head the Silver Tower’s Armsman.
“Couldn’t have picked a cloudy day?” he muttered his distaste.
Nyset arched a thin eyebrow at him. “You know, you’ve grown awfully cranky for such a young man.”
Grimbald shrugged, head swiveling about, tongue working at his cheeks. “Twenty-eight name years, not all that young anymore Ny. Even my knees creak when I get out of bed.”
She gave the slightest of frowns, forehead creasing. That would make her twenty-six. Time did have a frustrating way of making haste.
A figure moving with the grace of a dancer and the languid surety of a lion slipped through the portal. He was silhouetted in midnight leather armor. His skin was blanched and stretched over a hairless face that betrayed no humor. On his back was a short sword, across it a short bow and a full quiver, the fletchings shimmering raven’s feathers. Hanging from obsidian belt loops was a dented hatched and a well used hammer, both seeming to be lined with ancient bits of blood in the crevasses of their leather wrapped hafts. He was a man entrenched in dark work, capable of doing what few could do.
“Isa,” Nyset nodded at him, guts briefly clenching with the fear she could never fully stifle in his presence.
The Swiftshades were a fearsome sect of killers and he their leader. They were at her disposal and loyally followed her every command. She was glad they were on the Tower’s side. They were a tool she seldom used due to their ruthless efficiency, laying waste to all who stood in the path of their goal. Men, women, children, the sick and dying were seemingly all the same to them. How they remained so cold, spirits hard as iron, was lost to her. She thought perhaps she should try to change that aspect, but thought better of it. They were a tool to be employed when the sturdiest of stones needed breaking and the loudest of voices needed silencing. And there were matters of greater import to attend to.
“Mistress,” he nodded back, dragging a strip of dark fabric around his mouth, marking his pointed chin and sharp cheekbones. “Please do your best not to die. We have very little water and the trek back to the Tower spans more than three-hundred miles. She might be able to handle it,” he nodded at the portal, “but not us… and I’ve come to enjoy living.”
“I shall try my best,” she said, forcing her lips to regard him with a genuine smile. Those had finally started to come more easily, the weight of losing Walter finally lessening.
“You know you can still turn back? There would be no shame in it.” Isa tightened the buckle for his sword, bright cobalt eyes meeting hers then taking in her figure.
“No,” she said, voice resolute, eyes unblinking despite the wind. “I need practice. The time for peace dwindles.”
He gave a stoic nod. “The only future for peace—”
“Is war,” Nyset said over him.
Isa sucked at his cheeks. “Glad to see you brought your sword. Always pays to prepare.”
“Never be caught without it, not in a place like this.” Nyset said. Her eyes were once again drawn to the hole in the earth, swimming with casket blacks. A flicker of movement. She slitted her eyes. “Did you…” she trailed off as a soft footfall came from behind her.
“Mistress, I apologize for the delay. I dropped my dagger,” an apologetic voice said, Senka’s voice. She loved this woman, her loyalty boundless and humility refreshing.
Senka, like Isa wore blacks and a mix of well worn leathers. Over her head was an oversized hood that ruffled with folds below her round chin. Beneath her hood short jagged cuts of hair swept across her brow. A black mask clung to one ear, opened to show her mouth. Flapping against one shoulder was a thin cape, the other uncovered and showing a leather shoulder pauldron with overlapping plates. Around her abdomen, forearms, and legs was riveted leather armor secured by rows of buckles, all likely hiding poisoned needles and a blowgun or two. Hanging from an ornamented belt were two long Dragon headed daggers, their grips metallic and carved with scales. Further along her belt were pouches and vials, their contents unknown.
“That’s unlike you Senka. Are you well?”
“Mhm. I’m well, mostly. I increased my dosage on a few poisons today, I fear I may have given myself a bit too much Windroot oil.”
Nyset scratched her throat. “Do you wish to return to the Tower? We could perhaps do this another time.”
She gaped, deep brown eyes widening. “No— no, of course not, Mistress. Working under new stresses is what made us who we are.” She shook her head, pillowy lips pressed into a hard line. “Who we were, I meant. It’s what made the Scorpions so hard to kill, made our reputation spread among the sands. I must carry our memory in my heart, in my blood.” She winced at windblown sand and drew up her mask, securing the other loop over her ear.
“I see.” Nyset gave her an appraising glance. Was it just her poison or had she once again fallen into the iron embrace of Angel’s Moss? She didn’t appear sick, round cheeks glowing, skin a beautiful of shade of espresso.
Senka, apparently sensing her thoughts muttered, “It’s not what you think, Mistress. I assure you.” Her eyes slitted.
Isa watched Senka’s face as she said it, trying to lip read as her voice was torn away in the wind.
“I believe you,” Nyset said with a smile. She placed a hand on Senka’s hard shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She plodded through the sand to stand a few steps before the group, allowing her Phoenix portal to close with a sizzle and a parting spark. Where it had materialized the bottom of it touched the sand, turning it into a razor thin line of glass from its energy, reflecting the sun like a blade of light. “Everyone just about ready?” she asked.
Grimbald dragged his knuckles across his brow and regarded her with a solid nod.
“Always,” Isa said, widening his legs and resting his hands on the deadly instruments lining his hips. She wondered for a moment how many hidden weapons were strapped about his body.
Senka pressed her clasped hands between her firm breasts. “Thank you. Thank you so much Mistress for doing this for me, for my people, our legacy. My father’s name remembers you.”
Nyset slowly shook her head. “No, Senka. And please, call me Nyset, both of you. Though I know you won’t and yet I am unsure why I keep saying it,” She grinned, casting her gaze between Isa and Senka.
Isa smirked and produced a sound that might have been a laugh had she thought him capable of such a thing.
Senka gave a sheepish smile and a series of nods.
Nyset continued, spreading her arms and meeting Senka’s eyes. “I should be the one apologizing. You’ve taken great risks for the Tower, Senka. I’m grateful for you, for giving us a chance to repay you for all you’ve sacrificed for us.” She swept her eyes over the group. “We may find nothing in the Black Furnaces. We may find bandits, looters, perhaps squatters. Either way, let’s go take back what’s yours, Senka.”
Nyset turned to face the downward slope of the dune. She flexed her fingers open and embraced the powers. The Dragon always came first, rushing past the Phoenix in a a torrent of rage. It swept through her limbs, burned like acid in her gut, and swelled her heart with the urge to destroy. A second after came the tempering energy of the Phoenix. It was an icy wave, muting the Dragon’s mindless thirst for ruin. A shiver tunneled through her from neck to toes. Disjointed thoughts shattered by the Dragon’s rage were mended together in the Phoenix’s calming touch.
She was the world’s last dual-wielders, a rare wizard gifted with the ability to embrace both the Dragon’s power of destruction and the Phoenix’s healing and protective energies. She felt all her worries slide away among the swirling tempest in her chest. The Dragon and Phoenix flashed in her mind, a pair of dueling animals intertwining and configuring into a circlet of power.
Halos of flickering fire surrounded her wrists like floating bangles. Her eyes sparked to life with a cool blueish light, her pupils Dragon fire torches. She was the harbinger of death and life, giver and taker, the end and the beginning.
She marched down the dune and heard everyone fall in behind her. Her legs sank deeper into the sand, thankfully stopping at her knees. Each step whispered secrets of what lay in that dark hole. Demons. Ancient gods. The Shadow Princess. But no, none of those things could be there, but one. Death Spawn. The one thing she suspected might be here but feared mentioning it for mentioning might make it real.
Senka once told her of the horrors that had occurred here just shy of four years ago. There was a Death Spawn raid lead by a member of Asebor’s Wretched, Dressna. Her father was slain upon the floors of the Black Furnaces by Dressna herself, Asebor’s winged bodyguard. Along with Senka’s father’s death came the majority of her clan’s by the ravages of Death Spawn.
Thinking of it reminded her of her first experience with Death Spawn in Breden countless cycles ago, when her parents lived. Walter lived, before her memories of the Festival of Flames were tainted by the Shadow’s touch. When one of her best friends, Juzo Pulling wasn’t doomed as a Blood Eater. She wondered how he was in the western wilds. Show wondered how he managed to stay sane with such social isolation. She understood though. Some temptations could not be resisted and conditions had to be put in place to make certain assurances.
Nyset closed her eyes in a particularly strong gust, sending bits of sand scraping at her eyelids. She let a long breath escape pursed lips, shaking her head, turning her thoughts back to Senka.
Nyset only saw Dressna once and as a mangled corpse in the Tower’s training yard. She was a fearsome creature, reaching a height of almost seven feet with a quartet of horns emerging from the back of her dismembered head and curling around her face. Senka got her revenge, her daggers bloodied, but had to use Angel’s Moss to survive the encounter. She did what had to be done and Nyset couldn’t fault her.
Senka’s father had sacrificed himself so she could live. He gave her an opportunity to escape the Black Furnaces. She fled to Helm’s Reach where she found Nyset as the newly self-proclaimed Arch Wizard of the Silver Tower. Nyset realized then that returning to this place might be hard for Senka.
“Senka,” Nyset said, voice drawing out as a whisper and stolen in the wind. She said her name again, louder this time. “Senka, come join me,” Nyset took long plodding steps through the yielding sand.
Senka shuffled up beside her. “Yes Nyset?” She said, using her name coming out forced.
She gave her a warm smile and gestured at the nearly buried village. “Are you… okay with this? Being here? I know it must be hard for you.” She watched her carefully, searching her expression.
Senka’s mouth yielded the flicker of a frown, but then steeled herself with a hard nod. “Yes. I want to be here. This was my home, my oaths left unfulfilled. I need to be here,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I know…” Nyset trailed off as a familiar odor brushed her nose. The scent, yet identified made her halt, grit her teeth and clench her fists. It was a stinging mix of ancient urine and rotting mushroom-covered logs. Her heart hammered against her chest, spine tingling with a surge of electricity. That horrible smell raised the corpse of a long dead memory. “Wait!” Her voice cut the wind like a blade.
Senka froze at her side. “What?” She gasped. Isa and Grimbald staggered on a few more steps, both stopping to look up at her where the dune went flat. Behind them not more than twenty paces away lay the start of what remained of Senka’s village. Hardly an arm’s length of thatch roofs showed above the merciless sands.
Grimbald raised his meaty hand to shield his eyes from the sun, squinting down at her. “What is it?”
She stared into that darkness, waiting and braced for war. “Do you not smell it?” she asked with a wan smile. How? Why? Her mind searched for the reasons. They should all be dead, gone with the Shadow God’s demise. She knuckled her forehead and closed her eyes, searching her mind for answers
Isa turned his ear toward the steps, eyes slitted, and sucked in a long breath. His eyes snapped open, breath hissing out and eyes burning with alarm. He ripped his sword free from the scabbard, twisting around to face the cavernous steps leading into the earth. “Death Spawn,” he growled, hammer ringing out from the loop and clutched in his second hand. The sun glinted like white stars from his weapons.
Grimbald mirrored him, Corpsemaker dragging down into a two-handed grip and stance widening. His forearms muscles wriggled under a gallery of scars, fingertips white against the wooden haft. “Where are they? Could be anywhere, a trap.” Sweat beaded on his head and trickled down his neck, head swiveling.
“Not anywhere. There.” Senka pointed with a drawn dagger, the pommel a masterwork Dragon’s head. “The Black Furnaces.”
Nyset understood now. “A strong source of magic. The forges tirelessly burn with Dragon fire, the same fire that’s used to produce Dragon forged weapons. The proximity to magic must preserve them… like the cluster you encountered in Tigeria at the Dread Temple.” The words flowed out of her, a missing puzzle piece finally snapping into the appropriate spot. “That was why Walter’s Sid-Ho trainer Noah had found them in the Yellow Caverns long after the sealing of the Age of Dawn,” Nyset said with an affirmative nod.
“Another Black Furnace?” Senka made a face, dagger casually twirling in her grip.
“Yes, another. There’s a twin Black Furnace near Breden, buried deep in a treacherous cavern. It too must have possessed enough magic to keep them alive.”
“No.” Isa shook his head, staring at that dark rectangle in the ground. “Why they were there in the Dread Temple… that was something else entirely.”
Nyset’s eyes flicked to the swirling script on Isa’s forearm, the edge poking out from his studded leather bracer. It was a curious story that had occupied most of her recent research. Isa received a brand from a creature, quite possibly a god, who had apparently called itself Prodal. He claimed he’d gone by many names in different times. The stories told by he, Senka, Juzo almost impossible to believe. But then again, there was a time when she thought a woman holding fire in her palm and her flesh, and even stranger her clothing, remaining unscathed was a child’s fantasy. The world continued to surprise her.
Grimbald cocked his head at her. “Certainly no magic expert Ny, but if the Black Furnaces are a creation of the Dragon, why would they keep Death Spawn alive?”
“I…” She blinked, pushing away the endlessly branching paths of thought whose trunk started at Isa’s mark. “I’m not sure. That’s a good question. Perhaps their magical energy was all the handle they needed to cling to life. Maybe they were weak like the ones you found in the Dread Temple. Noah had supposedly felled over thirty of them on his own, a practically insurmountable feat for a Norm.”
Grimbald and Isa shared in mocking glances, Grimbald chuckling. Isa raised his chin to regard her. “Just remember Mistress, a well trained Norm with an Equalizer crystal can make a bad day for a wizard. A wizard whose sole method of self-preservation is granted in the ovarian lottery,” he said with a wink.
“And that is precisely why all wizards now train the sword,” she said, slapping the crosspiece mounted on her hip. She narrowed her eyes, meeting his stare until he finally averted his gaze, likely out of respect than anything else. He was bold man, toeing the line of recklessness. She only had a small measure of the things he’s done, the things he’s seen. She knew they could change a man. The things he did required one to disconnect from empathy, discarding compassion, and pitying weakness.
“They come!” Senka barked. Grimbald growled and hunched his posture while Isa spread his arms in a taunting gesture.
Nyset swiveled her stance as a roiling mass of nude figures poured out the stairs and into the light. Ruby eyes flashed. Ashen limbs whipped. Death Spawn. They whooped and shrieked their fury. They were mostly unarmed, bearing makeshift weapons such as clubs and stones. Their bodies were gangling wastes. Flesh sagged and swayed from their bones, mouths pinked, lips peeled back to reveal blackened gums. Black forked tongues darted, lapping at the air in ravenous anticipation.
Some part of her pitied them. Hunger betrayed us all, laying waste to even the best of traps. Had they only waited a moment longer for them to enter the furnaces, this might not have been the killing ground it would soon become.
Nyset waited, stilling her mind and finding within the dense forests of the Great Retreat. Her patience was the cresting wave, never rolling over, rooted deep in the ocean floor, its depths containing a mountain of frozen fury. It was a patience forged in the trials of her life, mortared in death, fang, and claw. She went deep into her sorrow, a place where babies were gutted by Death Spawn blades, their mothers watching in wild-eyed terror, bodies trembling. It was a place where all was lost and nothing could hurt her. Deep in this place, fear dared not tread.
Her alliance with the Dragon’s flame burned bright in her eyes, flaring up with tongues of fire over her forehead. She pressed herself deeper, away from all the realm’s burdens precariously balanced on her back. In here, she was as fearless as new mothers and fathers. She was as fearless as love’s first kiss. Her spirit rose like spring buds, yielding to the yawning blue and the crush of careless boots.
And she waited. Her wave bubbled with gurgling white tips. A buzz crawled across her throat, stomach tightening, a great sense of knowing her every cell while similarly in a place far outside her body. Far outside time, wondering why these beasts came to die.
Her wave fell, pressing her fists together and a second set of fists of flame thrust from her hands, growing into head sized boulders and colliding with the group’s leaders. There was a series of wet pops, red spray, flames gouting over the back of the group and bathing their flesh in Dragon fire. Headless bodies crumpled, tripping those pushing on behind them. A few whose torsos had been sheared away flopped to the welcoming sands. More fell with agonized screams, rolling in a futile attempt to put out the fire that could not be snuffed.
Grimbald charged at the mass’ flank, axe whirling through one torso and traveling onward to hack through another, black blood filling the air around them. Corpsemaker begged to be used, made for one thing alone: violence. He carried in his every limb the countless hours of his training, limbs flashing and metal gleaming in a brutal dance. His arms were iron, legs worked into the hardness of wood, gut as tough as stone. Anyone foolish enough to brave his strength was doomed. Nyset grinned as her friends worked.
Isa ducked under a thrown stone, arm snapping like a whip, sword stealing an arm from its owner’s body. His hammer followed the sword’s whisper, possessed of its own ferocity, rising up in a sick parabola and turning a Death Spawn mouth into a place of ruin. His movements mirrored a dancer’s grace. Isa’s every cut was precise, every smashed limb and shattered jaw a thing of beauty. Splintered teeth tumbled across the sand, followed by a pair of severed fingers and spattering of blood. Up and down went his savage hammer, tearing an eye free from a socket, crushing an elbow, and shattering ribs.
Senka was a storm of blades, spinning a determined course through the squirming limbs. She gave her daggers life, set them plunging in and out of thighs, armpits, slashing through biceps and throats, severing major arteries. She gave her blades more direction than even the most dedicated of mothers. Her blades winked like stars when they caught the sun, gleaming behind a patina of blood, charting a path through the black heavens. Death Spawn mindlessly charged onward toward Nyset, felled before they could manage more than a few steps. Senka’s daggers drew cries of pains from their sordid throats.
Death Spawn clubs were dropped from hands whose tendons had been cut. Clutched stones went wide of their targets and struck their compatriots. Nyset carefully chose her targets, well aware that the gifts of the gods could murder her friends. She conjured arrows of fire, cutting clean holes between the centers of Death Spawn brows, leaving smoking holes and spurting wounds behind.
They were all heroes of legend and these sad creatures merely a warm-up for the quartet. Nyset stood before their withering charge, a stark and irresistible target in bleeding red. Raising her arms and splaying her fingers, she drew on both the Dragon and the Phoenix together. She wove their energies into a single spell. A series of blinding white tendrils sprung from her back, each lengthening and darting through the air, homing in on Death Spawn targets. Where they met Death Spawn bodies they formed spirals around their torsos and then constricted, butchering their forms into dozens of slabs of sliced meat.
One Death Spawn, black blooded, bull-eyed and full breasted, snarled as she hurled a jagged rock at Nyset. The Arch Wizard drew upon the Phoenix, manifesting an oval of blue light forming a shield just big enough to surround her upper body, sending the stone bouncing harmlessly away. The shield vanished a second after, still holding her dual-spell. A tendril of light punched through its bull eye out the back of its skull, shattered bits of bone and brains hanging on the air. Another came behind it, hands raised and in position to choke her if it could conceivably bridge the ten or so paces. She pulled on one of her ten tendrils, shearing its head from its body, legs carrying it onward for two steps before it crumpled.
About two dozen of the Death Spawn possessed wounds born of her dual-spell, some sprawled and trampled by their kin, choking on their blood as the others finished them off. A few hunched at the side of the battle, clutching at gaping wounds, all the fight drained out of them and replaced by pain. On and on they came from that dark abyss until their numbers finally dwindled with the last few squinting into the day.
Three Death Spawn dashed for her, trampling over the dead. They were surprisingly smart enough to come all at once, briefly bathing her in their rotting shadows. Their clawed feet left crimson tracks in the sand. The middle of the three slowed, its dead eyes staring at her unblinking. Nyset’s boots were rooted to the sand, purposefully and brutally stilled as she reveled in the god’s gifts. She drew on more of their strength, gathering the raw power to both heal and to destroy. Her body was all but motionless, the tendrils of light from her back working through enemies trying to assail the flanks of her friends. The power that built within her narrow frame made her flesh tremble. Her dress flapped, the air around her quivered, and the light shifted.
The Death Spawn paused to watch her. One even tilted its head, spots of mold covering the bones showing through its cheeks. Cracked lips peeled back to show their teeth, wildly panting with a sudden need for violence. She saw one of the three was spattered with the blood of its brethren, and yet it went on. Curious. Death Spawn jaws creaked like wood rubbing together, muscles twitching, bodies moving.
Perhaps they had never seen a human stand before them. Perhaps they were only used to seeing men run. They advanced and she smiled. With a great surge of release, she let the brewing spell go. Her skin burned as lightning sprang from each of her fingertips, crackling through the air, and forming chains of lightning through each and every remaining Death Spawn. Their bodies were hurled at least twenty feet into the sky, wisps of dark smoke trailing behind their paralyzed forms. Their nerves were charred crisps, bodies thumping like stones and limbs violently twitching. Words were spoken, cries voiced, but they were just noise in her ears.
Nyset raised her chin to regard the ruin around her. A thin smile formed behind her scarf, filling her chest with a lost joy. She missed combat. The sands were littered in drying pools of blood, but not a drop of it was hers. The combined powers of the Dragon and the Phoenix in one woman allowed her to produce such a slaughter that has never been seen in the realm of Zoria. She had far more time to work with the combined powers than Walter ever had, and thus her strength had grown to surpass any wizard before her since the sealing of the Age of Dawn.
She thought of that day the Shadow Princess escaped the Shadow realm, giant leathery wings carrying her over the currents of the Far Sea. She would fix her mistake and make it right. The Shadow would be obliterated from the future histories.
Nyset knew what would come next as she let the powers go. She panted and sweat trickled down her neck, tickling her back. She hadn’t felt it until now, but her face was spattered in globs of stinking blood. If there had been any Death Spawn remaining in that cavern, they would’ve finally understood the meaning of terror. They would have not approached for it would’ve only meant ruin.
Grimbald, Isa, and Senka stared at her, all mouths agape. Isa was the first to close his, giving his head a quick shake. He cleaned the blood from his sword on a rag, dropped it, then sheathed his weapon. “Well done,” he muttered.
Grimbald frowned. “You couldn’t have saved some for the rest of us?” He heaved out a great sigh, setting his axe to rest across his back. “Was just starting to enjoy myself.”
“Impressive, Arch Wizard,” Isa said in an appreciative tone. “Your control…is remarkable.”
“Mistress— Nyset. You’re incredible!” Senka beamed, sheathing her daggers and running over to her. Before Nyset could react Senka had her wrapped in a hug, released before Nyset could hug her back. Her body felt like a piece of hardened wood, hardly a strip of fat on her figure.
Senka grasped one of her hands in both of hers, slicked with blood, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you Mistress. I’m sorry, Nyset just feels far too improper for me.”
“That’s fine Senka, say what makes you comfortable then,” Nyset said with an approving nod.
Senka smiled, releasing her hand, eyes going wide at seeing she had covered Nyset’s hand in blood. “Oh no, I’m sorry!” She produced a small cloth from her pocket and started vigorously rubbing her hand.
Nyset let her, not overly pleased at the tacky feeling between her fingers. “That’s alright, Senka. Let’s see to the Black Furnaces.”
Senka bit her lip, stuffed the soiled cloth back in her pocket, and nodded as she turned to face the stairs.
“Lead the way,” Nyset offered.
“Right.” Senka froze for a moment, steeling herself for what may lay in the depths.
Beside Senka, Grimbald peered about, scanning the tops of dunes and shimmering shadows. Isa rubbed at the back of his neck, staring down at a Death Spawn corpse.
She saw there were maybe fifty corpses strewn about the wastes. Narrow plumes of dark smoke curled from the bodies slain by Nyset’s chain lightning, filling the air with the stink of bad meat. Some had been thrown farther than she could’ve imagined. A few were almost at the peaks of the surrounding dunes. Scores were missing limbs. Many were heaped upon each other. They were twisted wrecks, once men before being converted by the Shadow’s curse.
Senka started onward toward the stairs. She stretched her arms out to her sides and traced the walls of the sandstone entrance with her splayed fingers. As she traveled further into the Black Furnaces she held her fingers there, caressing the rough hewn walls. Senka faded to a shadow and Nyset came in after her, a soft hiss of her finger meeting her ears.
The wind was lost in the darkness and trapped in the world of the sun. Her boots crunched through ancient stones, turning them into dust. Nyset summoned an orb of fire to float by her shoulder, casting the narrow stairway in a flickering glow. She saw the stone was a beautiful pattern of alternating reds and whites, forged from countless millenia of sand and water cementing together.
Isa followed after her and Grimbald took the back, grunting as he compressed his form to fit through the narrow space. The edge of Corpsemaker squealed against rock. “This place is fit for no man. I am curious to see the furnaces…but that smell, by the Dragon it could kill a hog.”
“You can wait outside if you’d like,” she threw over her shoulder. Nyset had successfully ignored it until then. The stench of Death Spawn became a weight on the air, so thick it felt as if you should’ve been able to see some evidence of its presence. Her stomach spasmed with the urge to gag. It took all of her focus to press it down.
Isa snorted. “Smells like they’ve been shitting down here for years.”
“Likely have, though how they survive this long with nothing to eat is a wonder,” Grimbald replied.
Senka reached the bottom of the stairs, slowly raising her hand to peel off her mask. “They found things to eat.”
“They did?” Nyset reached the bottom of the stairs, eyes following Senka’s gaze to find weapon racks not filled with weapons but scores of writhing Death Spawn. “Each other,” Nyset breathed. They were secured in a haphazard manner, some properly bound with rope at the wrists and ankles to the racks, others pinned through the wrists with daggers and swords. All bore some manner of bites, most with gangrenous limbs chewed to the bone. How they didn’t bleed out or die of infection was a mystery. A few started moaning, one shrieked with the Dragon’s rage, teeth thick with slime, the others wordlessly slumping in their bonds.
Grimbald and Isa fanned out from the stairway, taking the flanks around Nyset and Senka.
“It seems men and beast are not unalike when it comes to survival,” Isa said, sheathing the sword he had apparently drawn.
Grimbald shook his head and spat out the corner of his mouth. “We should put them out of their misery. Care to do the honors Ny? Could use a bit more light in here.”
“No. If you think it smells now it’ll be far worse with their flesh roasting in this oven. Isa, Grim, make it quick.” She flicked her fingers towards the racks. “They’ve suffered long enough.”
Grimbald grunted in annoyance while Isa sighed.
Nyset drew on a bit more of the Dragon, conjuring four more balls of fire. She set them to float a few feet above everyone’s heads in the shape of a pentagram, dispelling some shadows and darkening others.
The floor was all interlocking stones littered in towers of feces, refuse, discarded weapons, and bones picked clean. There were mouldering rags, broken swords, pitted spears and ruined heaps of armor. The Black Furnaces formed an expansive cavern, roof stretching beyond the reach of light. The yawning mouths of the sputtering furnaces dimly lit the room, twelve in all, two columns of six. They crackled and burned with white hypnotic Dragon fire. The fires were cast by a group of twenty wizards working in tandem, long before the Age of Dawn and at the end of the Age of War. The fires exhausted into iron piping reaching into the darkened ceiling, and out the sands high above. Their thin plumes of smoke were quickly dissipated by the desert’s winds and thus invisible to the untrained eye.
“At last, the famed Black Furnaces. Remind me again why the wizards thought it was a good idea to put a bunch of forges below a mountain of sand? Not exactly a robust structure,” Grimbald mused. He sauntered around the glow of a forge’s mouth, kicked a bone and sent it skittering into undulating shadows.
Nyset opened her mouth to respond but Senka beat her to it. “You do recall the manner of weapons which can be forged here?” Senka with hands on hips, sounding as if she were trying to mute her anger.
“Magical weapons and armor, I know. But all that sand…” Grimbald pointed at the ceiling with the pick side of his axe. “What if it clogged the ventilation pipes? The whole of the chamber would be filled by smoke and you’d never find the stairs. Not to mention any invading force could easily block the only exit. If they had the numbers, and well… that’d be a bad day for you.”
Nyset watched as Senka’s throat started to work in response, mouth opening and closing, lips pressed into a line. For the briefest moment her eyes bulged, glassy in the firelight. Her expression went limp and finally her posture sagged with a sigh. Wearing a half-smile she bent down and snatched up a length of wood, setting it ablaze on the edge of one of Nyset’s crackling fireballs. She met her eyes, cheeks wet with tears, and turned away, marching into the shadows.
The men predictably missed all of it. Nyset frowned at her back, thinking it prudent to give her some time alone.
Isa was scowling down at a pile of bones intertwined with a shredded shirt. “I think this was a man once,” he said to himself. He raised his head to regard Grimbald. “Swords are safe in their scabbards, but that’s not what swords are made for.” Somewhere a stone fell from the ceiling, tumbled across the floor in an echo that stretched for too long. He made to follow Senka’s fading figure when Nyset laid a hand on his arm to stop him. Lowering her voice she said, “Give her a moment alone, would you? Her father. You remember, don’t you?”
“I— of course.” Isa nodded at her, brow creased. She thought if he could’ve blushed he would be scarlet. She released his arm and mouthed ‘thank you,’ but he didn’t see it, turning back to face the towering furnaces. A long breath hissed through his nose. “I need to go to her.” And before Nyset could respond, he was marching into the shadows.
“Did you understand his meaning? About swords in scabbards?” Grimbald asked with a grunt, one hand rummaging in a belt pouch. He produced a golden honey cake, stuffed half into this mouth and offered Nyset the other half. She shook her head, but less at the food and more in disgust at eating with hands soiled with Death Spawn juices.
Nyset popped the cork on her waterskin and gulped. “What Isa was trying to say Grim is that sure, there are great risks to working these furnaces, but they needed to stay hidden because of the quality of weapons they can produce. Given the state of things here, it doesn’t seem this group of Death Spawn had any penchant for working the forges.”
Grimbald pressed the other half of his honey cake into his bulging cheeks, speaking around the bolus. “Got lucky, Ny. The fight might’ve been worse had they waited here. As the Captain of the Armsman,” he swallowed, then started speaking while he chewed. “I said it before and I have to say it again. This was an unnecessary risk. The Tower needs you, now more than ever. You going to tell me why I couldn’t send the Armsman to do this?”
“I have my reasons,” she said with more bite than she’d wished. She crossed her arms, squinting at all those flickering eyes of white flame in the forges. A frown touched her lips. She sighed, regarding him as he brushed golden crumbs from his beard.
“Grim. I’m sorry. There would be no talking me out of this. I owed Senka and it’s the least I could’ve done for all she’s done for me— for the Tower. All her sacrifices, her time in Tigeria… I’m sure you understand that she needs closure.” She bit her upper lip. “She hasn’t been back since she fled from here, her home. If you didn’t know, her father gave up his life so that she could live, gave her the time she’d need to escape this very room.” Nyset trailed off and thought of her own parents, their lives rent too early by Death Spawn. But this wasn’t about her.
Grimbald grunted with a nod. He stared into the fires, stroking his beard, eyes growing distant. The waving light marked the deep scars and pocks lining his face. She remember when she first met him in the Hissing Gooseberry in Shipton. His skin was as flawless as a new babe’s, confidence always wavering. How he had changed. She wondered then how his life would have been if she, Walter, and Baylan had stopped in a different tavern. Would he still have his Pa’? Would Juzo still have converted half of the village into Blood Eaters, forcing Grimbald to slaughter his own? These were paths that lead to nowhere.
“There are other reasons too,” Nyset cleared her throat, irritated from smoke that hadn’t found its way up the ventilation shafts. “I want to avoid unrest in New Breden and the realm at large. If an adventure made his way here and survived the encounter, returning to tell of what he saw. If the denizens knew there were Death Spawn in the world after they thought it safe… well for now I see no reason to dispel the illusion of safety. People are still healing. All that tragedy from the Shadow War has left a scar on the world. It’s hard to believe four years has passed since the Shadow God’s fall, but it feels like only months.”
Senka identified the remains of her father by a notable dent in his skull and by the length of his figure. They were mostly intact, the only bones missing the ribs where Dressna had driven her hand through his torso. Senka asked for solitude while she collected his remains. She worked his bones into a large leather sack for what was apparently a ritual of respect for the deceased. She said no one but her should see his body, ensuring his spirit was peaceful in the Shadow Realm.
While his remains were collected, the others trudged their way to the surface. The desert had already reclaimed the majority of the dead. Small dunes formed over their withered bodies and the occasional limb rebelliously stood against the mounting sand. It wouldn’t be more than another hour before all evidence of their passing would be erased. The Nether was life accelerated.
Nyset traveled via portal to the Tower and back to the Nether, retrieving a sun shelter in the Tower’s stores to shield them from the weather. Isa and Grimbald pitched it, beige and constructed with a heavy canvas weave. Nyset drew on the Dragon and channeled wind to carve a hole in the sands large enough to accommodate Senka’s father. She did her best to make it symmetrical, but gave up as the sands continuously collapsed inward.
Nyset, Isa, and Grimbald gathered under the shelter, silently waiting for Senka to emerge from the Black Furnaces. Grimbald gave the shelter an appraising glance, adjusting one of the support poles. The shelter looked like a curved dome that had been sliced in half, its walled side flapping against the wind.
Some time passed, maybe twenty minutes by Nyset’s guess. Senka finally emerged from the Black Furnaces a moment before Nyset was going to go in after her, wondering if she was well. She stopped where the threshold of stone met the spiraling sands, one arm clutching the leather bag and the other grasping her collar. Her eyes were downcast, cheeks red as if she’d been rubbing them.
“Mistress,” Senka said, voice a whisper in the wind. She raised her eyes to meet Nyset’s, her tears dry now. The wind sliced fire from the east and sun burned crimson, filling the air with heat. Nyset felt her own eyes pooling with wet. She could only stand there, rooted to the shelter. The piece of her that would’ve known what to do to comfort Senka had been lost with Walter’s death, replaced by a glacial wall. To endure that pain again, having her heart torn beating from her chest, was something she could not bear. Sealing away that part of herself, it seemed, had unintended repercussions.
Nyset got herself to leave the shelter and embraced Senka. She knew the action, but did it without heart. She knew that she should say some consoling words, but couldn’t settle on the right ones. Perhaps they had gone with Walter too. So she said nothing. Nyset held her.
Senka didn’t move to hug her back, but made no effort at getting away either. Nyset felt arms on her shoulders, the scent of cedar. Grimbald wrapped them both in a great bear hug. “We’re all so very sorry for your loss Senka,” Grimbald said soberly. “I know I can’t say exactly how you feel, but I know it hurts.”
Senka sniffed back new tears. “No. I thought… I didn’t know what I would I think. I’m sorry— I can’t.” She shook her head, pulling away. “Let’s be done with it.” She adjusted the bag on her shoulder, clattering the bones within. She marched from Nyset and Grimbald, unceremoniously dropping the the bag of bones into the hole. She gazed at the hole with a few nods, licking her lips.
Isa remained back in the shelter, massaging his temples as if this was delaying him from an important meeting.
For a reason Nyset couldn’t place, this scene brought back the day of Walter’s funeral. She’d watched countless funerals since then. Why was this one any different? Nyset numbly watched as Senka proceeded to sprinkled vial after vial of poison into Sinred’s grave, mumbling words she couldn’t discern. Nyset was paralyzed by grief, breaths only coming in with conscious effort. Her stomach hurt. Her lips contorted into a fierce grimace. There was something about seeing her friend in so much pain that reached deep inside of her and wrenched at something crucial.
Senka drew a dagger, bringing it high to catch the light, then drove it down into her own arm. Senka winced and Nyset reached, mouth falling open. Senka dragged the blade onward, carving a line of red from her wrist to her elbow.
“Senka!” Grimbald shouted.
Isa raced toward her. “No! Senka! What are you—”
“Don’t. Please, Isa. I must do this, the ways of the Scorpions.” Senka’s face was streaked with tears, bloody palm raised to stop him.
Isa’s fingers fluttered at his sides, neck muscles twitching. He complied with her wishes and then rubbed at something that had apparently landed in both of his eyes. Grimbald tried to stride past him, but Isa caught him by the wrist. “Let her be,” Isa growled through clenched teeth.
“You’re going to stand here and let her die?” Grimbald circled his wrist to break Isa’s grip, scowl showing behind his beard.
With the speed of a viper, Isa re-gripped Grimbald’s wrist as he marched for her. “Grim. She needs this. We have to respect her wishes.”
Grimbald’s mouth opened to protest, but then closed with a reluctant nod. “Why? This is mad,” he breathed, lowering his head.
Senka watched Isa as she made to move, letting her gushing blood spatter onto the bag. She walked around the grave, drawing a ring with her blood on its perimeter.
Through blurred eyes Nyset watched Senka complete the ritual, a part of her knowing her friend must carry on her culture’s tradition, despite the risks. It was enough to make her heart burst. The pallor of Senka’s cheeks went ashen as the thirsty sands swallowed her blood.
Senka openly wept as she started on her third revolution. Ruby beads of red fell from her wound, catching the sun with an ethereal brightness. Fat tears fell from her jaw. Once the ring of blood was thrice completed, she collapsed on her side with a sickening thump.
“Senka!” Isa ran to her and scooped her up, her cries becoming a moan. He carried her to Nyset. “Heal her! Not her, not you. I can’t lose another. Please, Arch Wizard.” Isa stared at Senka wide-eyed, face creased with pain.
“As if I wouldn’t,” Nyset snarled, trudging through sand to meet him and placing her hands on Senka’s shoulders. She drew on the healing light of the Phoenix, simultaneously directing it to stitch Senka’s wound and to restore her lost blood volume. Nyset watched as thousands of tiny Phoenix tails worked like sutures, drawing the folds of her flesh back together, the scar forming and then smoothed away as if never there. Gooseflesh formed on Senka’s throat as the cooling sensation of healing took her.
“Utter madness,” Grimbald hissed, shaking his head at Nyset’s side.
Senka’s cheeks flushed with a hint of red. Her eyes briefly opened and found Nyset, settling to half-closed. Nyset’s lips tugged into a sad smile. Senka’s long eyelashes were thick with tears. “Have to carry the ways, carry the ways. I’ll carry the ways father. Won’t forget us, won’t let us die,” Senka mumbled.
Isa slowly raised his head to meet Nyset’s eyes, swimming with glassy blues. “Thank you, Arch Wizard.” He swallowed, eyes peering up at the sun as if searching for words. “She said she wanted to stay here, after this was done. To spend some time in with the forges. I think she had planned to tell you herself, but perhaps was expecting her constitution to better withstand the Scorpion’s ritual of passing. Do you mind if we stay?”
“Of course not,” Nyset sniffed, gathering her emotions back into that iron box where they wouldn’t interfere with her decisions. “I’ll send Claw with provisions. How long will you stay?”
“I’m not sure. She wanted to make me a sword and teach me how to do it.” He grimaced as he adjusted her in his arms. “We’ll have to clean it out before we can start of course. I would wager maybe two weeks.”
Nyset pressed her index fingernail into the pad of her thumb. “At this juncture, I see no reason why you can’t stay. Very well. If I need you… and I may need you soon, maybe in a few days. I’ll summon you via a Phoenix portal. You must not forget what transpires among the realms out there, what looms.” Nyset flicked her eyes from the brand on Isa’s forearm and back to his eyes, hopefully making her message painfully clear. He winced and she continued. “There are many unresolved things which must be resolved.”
“My edge is always yours, Mistress.” Isa managed a partial bow with Senka cradled in his arms.
What did you think? Please let me know, I love hearing from you.
I grabbed The Sociopath Next Door while it was on sale because it sounded interesting and it certainly was. The book starts by describing what sociopathy is and the mindset of one possessed with this disorder. Stout stresses that the condition has a spectrum, like most things, where the traits of the sociopath may be pronounced in one person and subdued in another. Apparently the most telling sign of a sociopath is the need to be constantly pitied.
What is most intriguing about the book are the sections where you’re guided from a first-person perspective into the heads of sociopaths in various scenarios. You get to see how they think and the decisions they would make in different contexts. In one example a corporate employee left his dog at home without enough food before embarking on a business trip. The sociopath would think something to effect of “he should be able to survive a few days without food” and proceed on the trip, whereas a conscientious person would abort the trip, or ensure the animal was properly cared for.
Near the end she touches on a theory for the evolutionary need for sociopathy. I wish she expounded on this further. The theory is that sociopathy is an adaption in the warriors of the tribe to enable them to kill their enemies without remorse. This makes a lot of sense to me and why this state has persisted. If they perhaps had guilt or second thoughts before executing a foe, maybe they wouldn’t live to survive the encounter. Being able to kill and still sleep soundly seems like it would be advantageous in a time where you never knew when a warring tribe may raze your home.
Sociopaths tend to be charming, but on the inside find everything trite. It’s a facade to gain the trust of those around them, using it as a tool to undermine those who they find a threat and destroying them when the perfect opportunity appears. They tend to kick people when they’re down. They seek status and power to the demise of everything else. They’re truly dead inside and nothing is off bounds.
Overall, I think The Sociopath Next Door has given me new tools to assess the characters of people I will meet in the future.
More and more people have discovered the awesomeness that is intermittent fasting (IF). The main idea is that either once a week you take a full 24 hours off from eating, or alternatively compress your feeding window to an eight hour span and skip a meal or two. There are of course multiple permutations of these ideas. Some people combine daily IF with alternate day fasting. The purpose of this paradigm is to simulate our ancestral periods of feast and famine.
Having a refrigerator and supermarket stocked with every conceivable foodstuff is a novel construct relative to our biological evolution. We weren’t made for this world. Storing fat for periods of famine is an adaptive mechanism. The problem is we’re stuck in an endless period of feast.
What I do: skip breakfast (black coffee only, hey I have to produce) and have a big lunch and dinner. It has made staying lean quite effortless, despite having pizza and ice cream every single weekend. I’ve been experimenting with longer duration fasts as well. Every six months I’ll fast for three days. This sounds way worse than it is. Anyone can do this. The longer (3 days+) fasts have taught me that hunger is a conditioned response. Once you’ve gone over a day and your body has finally resorted to raiding its fat stores, hunger fades into the background for a while. As an added bonus, it frees up tons of time you spend eating and thinking about what to eat.
You become resilient through fasting because you’re better able to handle a missed meal or two. If you’re traveling and unable to find anything but junk in an airport, though this is finally getting better, you can simply skip a meal and fast. You’ll save money on overpriced food and likely not feel like crap from eating something low-quality.
Fasting can be hard and you develop resilience by doing hard things. It gives you a reference point for future challenges in life. I feel like most people’s days are far too easy. The average person doesn’t challenge themselves enough to go beyond their current state. I’m not saying everyday should feel like a grind, but there should be a little struggle. When you fight through adversity in whatever form it may take, you grow. As Tony Robbins says: “We’re all either growing or dying, there’s no in-between”
The thing you have to keep in mind about fasting is that it is a stress on your body. There are loads of modern stresses our ancestors didn’t have to contend with such as commuting in traffic, mortgage/rent payments, working in cubicles, finding/keeping a job, saving for retirement, pollution, etc. Stress is a force on opposite side of the scale of good health. Too much stress and things start breaking. If you’re going to give fasting or IF a try, make sure you listen to your body. If you find yourself thinking about food every five minutes I’d say it’s time to eat.
The prevailing theory is that our bodies are adapted to this method of eating. Our ancestors would likely go long periods without food and once finding it, binging.
Fasting has anti-aging benefits helps you to better regulate blood sugar. Monkeys and other animals have demonstrated that caloric restriction increases longevity. These factors most importantly affect humans.
The reason I like the longer duration fast is that there is research showing that long periods of suppressed eating switches on a cellular process called autophagy. When your cells encounter an environment of lower than normal blood sugar, they are forced to use fatty acids as an energy substrate. This spools up the usage of mitochondria to process these fats (aside: this is another benefit of consuming a ketogenic diet). Your cells will destroy damaged or dead mitochondria and replace them with healthy versions over time.
If you’re interested in trying this I suggest starting small. Skip a meal and then add more as you feel good. Or you could do what I do and just dive the fuck in.
READERS: Let me know if you’re interested in giving fasting a try in the comments. Or maybe you’re already fasting and having an awesome time with it, let us know how we can do it better.
I recently spent a week relaxing in the French territory St. Barts near St. Martin. Here are some of my favorite photos from that trip.
Here is a “behind the scenes” look of the cover creation process for the cover redo of The Shadow Realm. The main goal of this cover is to depict Grimbald going to war against some Cerumal. I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Sebastian is an amazing artist. Find his work here
First he usually sends me some concept work based on the character’s description like this:
Then he proposed some positions for Grimbald and we decided after some discussion to go with number II.
Next Sebastian sent me the following iterations:
This was an amazing book that essentially distills the wisdom from Tim’s hundreds of podcast guests. I further distilled it for this blog post with the lines/quotes that I found most personally impactful. I hope this sample encourages you to pick up a copy of the book, it’s an amazing read and well worth your time. Today I am grateful for Kindle highlights.
“More than 80% of the interviewees have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice”
“Life is short. Put another way: A long life is far from guaranteed. Nearly everyone dies before they’re ready.”
“If I sleep poorly and have an early morning meeting, I’ll cancel the meeting last-minute if needed and catch up on sleep.”
“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
“Suffer a little regularly and you often cease to suffer.”
“If you can’t seem to make yourself happy, do little things to make other people happy. This is a very effective magic trick.”
“Ketones have an anti-catabolic protein-sparing and anti-inflammatory effect.”
“If you don’t have cancer and you do a therapeutic fast 1 to 3 times per year, you could purge any precancerous cells that may be living in your body.”
“There is also evidence to suggest— skipping the scientific detail— that fasts of 3 days or longer can effectively “reboot” your immune system via stem cell– based regeneration. Dom suggests a 5-day fast 2 to 3 times per year.”
“The most important thing I’ve learned about nutrition is you need to deserve your carbs . . . to deserve [hundreds of kcal of carbs] post-exercise, you need to be sub-10% body fat. And the quickest way to know if you have sub-10 body fat as a male is: Can I see the lineal alba [vertical separation] on your abs? In other words, can I see all ab rows? One ab row doesn’t count; you’ve got to see them all. In other words, you have to have penis skin on your abs.”
“I think the best magnesium out there is magnesium threonate, if I were to pick one.”
“Men, if you wake up and you don’t have a boner, there’s a problem. Yes or no? One or zero? Boner, no boner?”
“Even if it was to get on a bike and ride for 15 minutes to reset things. I learned early that it seemed any time I did that, I didn’t get jet lag.”
“Once an hour, every hour, randomly identify two people walking past your office and secretly wish for each of them to be happy. You don’t have to do or say anything— just think, “I wish for this person to be happy.”
“Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
“If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” TF: It’s not what you know, it’s what you do consistently.”
“I would make a billboard that says, ‘It Won’t Make You Happy,’ and I would place it outside any big shopping mall or car dealer.”
“If you don’t have 20 minutes to delve into yourself through meditation, then that means you really need 2 hours.”
“I like to study what Seth doesn’t do as much as what he does. Seth has no comments on his blog, he doesn’t pay attention to analytics, and he doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook”
You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle . . . it’s your brain trying to protect you from harm, from coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain. The way you shut [this] off is by forcing [the brain] to come up with bad ideas.
“When You Complain, Nobody Wants to Help You”
“My parents always taught me that my day job would never make me rich. It’d be my homework.”
“It’s only real if it’s on the calendar.”
“When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.”
“The biggest mistake you can make is to accept the norms of your time.”
“In the wrong environment, your creativity is compromised. At 30, I assumed my strengths would always be with me regardless of where I applied them. I was wrong. Truth is, your environment matters.”
“If you have two of something, you will break or lose one and end up with one remaining; if you have one, you will break or lose it and be screwed.”
“If you want to be tougher mentally, it is simple: Be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.”
“If she [my daughter] does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience . . . a life without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable.”
“If I give you 5 grams of mushrooms or 300 micrograms of LSD and tell you to sit on that couch for an hour, you are guaranteed to have a radical transformation of your experience. It doesn’t matter who you are. A freight train of significance is going to come bearing down on you, and we just have to watch the clock, to know when it’s going to happen.”
“To not do something because you might get injured is a terrible reason not to do something.”
“And in order for art to imitate life, you have a life.”
“And I think ultimately, sometimes when we judge other people, it’s just a way to not look at ourselves; a way to feel superior or sanctimonious or whatever.”
“The difference between the people you admire and everybody else [is that the former are] the people who read.”
Alain de Botton
“Advice to your 30-year-old self? “I would have said, ‘Appreciate what’s good about this moment. Don’t always think that you’re on a permanent journey. Stop and enjoy the view.”
“The best art divides the audience. If you put out a record, and half the people who hear it absolutely love it, and half the people who hear it absolutely hate it, you’ve done well, because it’s pushing that boundary.”
“A successful writing day is a day that I suffer in the morning, and I have fun in the evening, fun by writing. [I should] not describe this as fun. It’s also painful . . . I’m in a kind of trance.”
“Trust your reader. Understand that he or she can fill the empty spaces. Don’t over-explain.”
“When you sit down to write, there is this process of purging, this process of cleansing, where only the important things remain.”
“Try smelling with your mouth open, as you’ll get more information.”
“Josh has no social media, does no interviews (except my podcast, for which he often says to me, “You fuck!”), and avoids nearly all meetings and phone calls. He minimizes input to maximize output, much like Rick Rubin. Josh says: “I cultivate empty space as a way of life for the creative process.”
Here’s a sneak preview of the first chapter from the prequel I am working on for the Age of Dawn series. This story will mainly follow Lillian Thorne and Baylan Spear in the continent of Tigeria. My goal is to give these characters an interesting backstory before they met Walter and to do a bit more “painting” about the world’s lore. Please keep in mind this is UNEDITED. Much may change with the finished version.
Time to read: 10-15m
Chapter 1 – Brenna
The country was vast, treeless, and red. Jagged hills rolled past like the spines of ancient beasts. The earth flowing beneath Lillian Thorne’s barefeet was studded with stones worn smooth, the only relic that there had once been water in this wasteland. The arcing contours made her foot bones ache, but it was a welcome relief from the miles of stabbing gravel that made up the path over the last ridge.
With every step she left ruby footprints. Her blood smeared over the blood and sticking sand of someone marching in the line before her, blotting out their perfect tracks. Blood mixed with blood mixed with nothing. That’s what they were now, nothing, merely tools to be used and discarded once they no longer functioned.
It wouldn’t be long until she fell from infection. She didn’t have Ribwort oil to cleanse her wounds. She had nothing. She was nothing. She had trousers and chains.
The chains never stopped tinkling with her every plodding step. They were all bound at the wrist with a pair of manacles joined to another length of chain binding their ankles. Each set of chains was bound to the man in front and the man behind, making fleeing on foot impossibility. Every slave gang always had at least a pair of elders in the group. They were dead weight. The Tigerian’s were far more intelligent than she thought.
She loathed her enslavement and her Tigerian slavers, but what she hated more was how the chains prevented her from making a proper squat so streams of hot piss didn’t run down her legs, burning at her wounds. Then it would dry and the odor was so foul it made her wretch when the wind blew back it in her face. It felt as if everything in this world was against them.
She’d been enslaved for well over six months by her estimate. Now she welcomed the Shadow Realm’s warm embrace with a stoic smile. A gale tore a curtain of sand from the from trackless plains, whipping it over the marching men and producing groans of discontent.
The sun was a relentless orb of hate, casting its rage upon the backs of the enslaved. Sweat trickled down the furrow of the muscular back marching in front of her. She watched the way his pinched scars fluctuated and twitched under slabs of leathery muscle. They were a map that only lead to a grim future. It was a future that told of turning big stones into smaller stones, toiling over farms, mining, or perhaps if you were lucky becoming a Tigerian’s pleasure toy. At least then you could spend some time inside, out of the heat. The price of disobedience was lash strikes to the back so hard they cut through flesh and rent muscle, stopping at bones.
Lillian raised her arms, her once porcelain skin raw and red with sunburn. The chains sang with the tireless clinking of metal on metal. She swept a length of obsidian hair out of her eyes and behind her ears, her hair brittle with sweat, dust, and sand. Her upper lip was a bit fuller than the bottom, both wilted and scabbed, the act of smiling all but lost.
No one spoke to her and she spoke to no one. Every slave kept to themselves, deep in their own personal forms of torture.
One of their two captors circled the marching line and Lillian watched him in her peripheral vision, never looking directly at him. She learned her mistake the hard way and had the lash wounds to prove it. Tigerian’s didn’t take defiance lightly, stomping the sparks down before they became a fire.
She had read much about the Tigerians before arriving on the realm, but it didn’t prepare her for their cruelty. She knew they enslaved men, but never would she have guessed that she could possibly be captured. Her arrogance and pride lead her here. She’d been a fool.
Lillian and Baylan Spear, her betrothed, were sent by the Arch Wizard of the Silver Tower to take the pulse of the Tigerian realm. Bezda Lightwalker, the Arch Wizard, said they were to observe only and act like they were slavers. It would be a simple task, she said.
They left the realm of Zoria a little over seven months ago, spent weeks on the Warwick traversing the black waters of the Far Sea, only to be lead into the arms of an awaiting band of slavers on the shores of Tigeria. They had been betrayed by Captain Derwood, a man’s whose loyalty to the Silver Tower apparently only went as far as the highest bidder for his cargo. They were bought and sold, their bodies exchanged like a commodity into the hands of countless slave masters. She no longer kept track who owned them now. It didn’t matter.
The awaiting slavers shouldn’t have been a problem for Lillian, for she had been blessed with the Dragon god’s strength. There were two known gods in the world, the Dragon and the Phoenix. The Dragon granted women, and rarely men, the ability to conjure fire from the air, control the nature of the winds, call stone from the earth, and for those particularly blessed, summon lightning from a cloudless sky to strike down their enemies. The Phoenix granted men the ability to mend the most grievous of wounds, summon impenetrable shields of light, telekinesis, and for those of the most advanced blessings teleportation through portals.
The slavers however knew they were from the Silver Tower and thus guessed correctly that they could use magic. The Silver Tower was where the wizards of Zoria went to cultivate their talents with like-minded peers. To Tigerians, they were a rare form of human that would fetch a mighty sum of coin with the right auctioneer. The Tigerians had countermeasures prepared for their powers.
Equalizer crystals were a forbidden artifact in the Silver Tower. They could nullify a wizard’s powers, rendering their strengths to that of mortal men untouched by the gods. They were supposed to have all been destroyed or lost, according to the Silver Tower’s scholars. It seemed their knowledge had been severely lacking in truth.
She had reached for the Dragon, planning to turn the awaiting slavers into pillars of ash. They laughed. Then they slapped chains on her arms, legs and neck, the locks clicking with a deadly finality. No.
Baylan was sold into a separate slave gang, both screaming as they were torn from each other with cheeks glossed with tears. She watched him fade away until he was speck cresting a sand dune, watched until there was nothing more to be watched.
She clung to life with the fire of revenge and the ever-fading love in her chest. She tried to keep her love bright, but it was invariably beaten out of her, spirits crushed under the crack of their master’s lashings. She had all but given up, fate accepted. Why she continued to fight to live was still a mystery. She came to the grim realization that she would never see him again.
She gazed down at the Equalizer crystal, suspended from a heavy chain from the iron collar around her throat. The Equalizer pulsed with a pinkish glow as she tried to reach for the Dragon but found only a wall of glass, blocking her from its power, always just out of reach like an unrequited lover’s grasp. She stopped trying and the crystal once again became colorless, resting between the valley of her firm breasts.
She peered down at her bare breasts, trying to remember how much larger they had been before her body started cannibalizing what little fat stores remained on her figure. She couldn’t remember. Her mind was muddled from the ravages of malnutrition and crippling exhaustion. She thought they were nice once. She watched as strip of dried skin peeled off the edge of her right breast, flitting away in another stinging gust. She ran her tongue along her mouth searching for some vestige of moisture, dragging at her inner cheeks, mouth always filled with the tang of her bleeding gums.
Toshi, one of their two captors, swayed from the back of his Tougere mount. Tigerians had humanoid bodies, though that was about where their similarities started and ended. They had feline heads with all the features of a cat, eyes gleaming and wide as saucers, teeth like razors. Their bodies were lithe and covered in pelts in every pattern from spotted blacks to striped browns. They were typically shorter than men, but there were a few who towered over them. The facet of cats that they most seemed to embody was their pitiless cruelty.
She watched him watching her from under the slits of a swathe of hair that had fallen over her brow. There was no way he could’ve known he was watching her, but to be safe she quickly averted her eyes. More fearsome than the Tigerians themselves were their Tougere mounts.
They’re much like mountain lions found in the Mountains of Misery from her home in Zoria, except about ten times as large. They were more than sturdy enough for a man to ride, their heads as big as a torso with enough crushing power to hew a man into halves. She only knew this because she’d seen it happen to a disobedient captive. From their mouths emerged pairs of canines as long and sharp as short swords and from their enormous paws were talons keen enough to disembowel a man with a single swipe. She’d seen this too.
Toshi’s coat was jet back with a few smears of white as if someone had inverted a cup of cream over his head. He wore a burnished breastplate that he polished every night, though dented and marred with the signs of hard use. Along his waist and bouncing against the edge of his saddle were ornamented pairs of scimitars. They padded away, every step of the Tougere thumping at the earth. They dwarfed horses in weight and power, though their legs were squat, making them easy to mount for Tigerians.
Leading the gang was Taji, his coat the pattern of tabby cat and Tougere’s mirroring his coat such that at times they appeared one in the same. He preferred the spear and shield, both resting across the back of his saddle. Curled among them was his lash, mostly used not as a weapon but as punishment for malingers.
All she wanted was a comb to straighten her mess of hair and a knife to slit her throat with. Was that too much to ask?
Night fell and with it came bone chilling cold. The path became a forest of dead trees, all bark and leaves stripped away and leaving only ivory skeletons behind. They marched onward, huddled under threadbare blankets providing just enough warmth to keep them alive. A woman fell from the cold one too many times, halting the gang as she staggered into the nameless face in front of her. The man grunted with annoyance, jabbing an elbow into her ribs.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
The man replied in Tigerian, a language she was only starting to glean words and phrases. “Careful,” he said. His hair was curly and an oily black, cascading down bony shoulders.
The gang came to halt and with it came blessed silence. For a moment, the chains didn’t jingle. She smiled the broadest of smiles.
Toshi dismounted with a growl, setting his golden eyes at the back of the line. Lillian stared down at her feet, eying her toes white with cold. She knew what fate would befall this unfortunate soul. She didn’t have to look.
Toshi’s sword slipped from its sheathe with a murderous ring. She saw the mirror bright finish passing under the edge of her vision, reflecting a sliver of the grinning moon. His paws scraped at the earth, toenails clacking on stones. The sound of metal chopping into bone. The woman let out a gut twisting shriek. Toshi continued chopping, first through her wrists and then through her wrists and finally her head.
It was apparently more efficient than simply unlocking their manacles. Or perhaps Toshi simply enjoyed this method of killing. She would become tonight’s stew and one did not resist what little food you were given. If you did, you were force fed.
There was a time when she resisted consuming the flesh of men. Even that was squashed down. She remembered her mouth being pried apart and throat squeezed by fur lined hands. Her eyes were hot with resistant tears. Spoonfuls of human stew were shoved down her mouth and they forced her to swallow. The punishment for vomiting was steep. It was difficult to sell slaves on the verge of death.
The dead woman’s manacles were stowed in a saddlebag and her body strapped to the Tougere’s rump. Blood trailed from her wounds, streaking its hind legs and matting in its fur. Lillian lifted her eyes to regard the woman’s face, but gave a grim snicker at seeing she had been beheaded. She wondered which part of her she would be forced to eat. She seemed to have a fair amount of fat on her buttocks and legs.
Lillian’s throat worked in tremulous waves, jerking her head away before her guts betrayed her. She saw the tree limbs were coated in a thin layer of ice, the weight of it making them bow. She let out a long controlled breath, mastering her body.
Taji growled and waved his paw for them to continue. “March,” he said in Common.
Their chains rattled to life, stabbing at her ears with renewed ferocity. Everywhere she went chains jingled. Even in her sleep she heard their rattle, a constant reminder of her captive state. When a man shifted by the campfire, they whispered of new tortures. They were always jingling.
They took no rest tonight. It was unusual and sharpened her senses from the stupor of endless marching. They must be behind schedule, or perhaps drawing nearer to their next destination. Lanterns sputtered from poles clutched in Toshi and Taji’s hands, gently creaking as they swung. Toshi padded along at the side of the main body of the gang and Taji as usual, lead from the front.
The sun crested the horizon, showing the sinuous path winding among the dead trees. Their white skin became the colors of fire as the sun started to warm her cheeks. Their shadows stretched out like demon’s claws raking at the scorched ground.
Something approached from the north. It was a black speck at first, materializing into what she guessed was a wagon. Then came the gentle creak of wheels spinning on greased axles, confirming her suspicion. A pair of lanterns burned at its corners, illuminating a human driver. She used a horse to pull her carriage, which was strange. Strangest of all was that the driver appeared to be female. Lillian wrinkled her brow and found herself giving a nervous swallow. She turned to look further down the line of captives, seeing everyone else in a nervy state of shuffling feet and licking sunburned lips. A few even met her eyes for the first time.
Mutters passed over the group, some wondering if she would be their new master. Was their anything more despicable that one willing to enslave their own race for coin? Lillian thought not.
Toshi drew up from their flank and joined Taji at the front to welcome the wagon or perhaps slay its owner. The Tougere’s fat tails lashed at the earth as they were made to halt, waiting for the carriage to arrive. One of them let out a rumbling growl, triangular ears twitching at the echoing sound of stones crunching under wheels and hooves clopping at the earth.
Taji drew his barbed spear and laid it across his lap and Toshi placed his hands on his ornamented hilts. It all looked perfectly natural with a sprinkle of caution, the way anyone would greet someone on the road. She wanted to tell the unsuspecting traveler that they were killers. Taking another man’s life meant nothing to them. One wrong word and the driver’s blood would meet the earth.
A woman traveling alone in this Dragon forsaken country. How had she survived this long without managing to become enslaved or worse? She had to be a slaver, Lillian reasoned.
“Hello there!” the driver called, voice filled with hearty mirth. She gave an eager wave, slowing her carriage to stop about twenty paces away. A genuine smile spread up her face. The expression seemed so foreign. She stood in her chair and gave a slight bow, though never lifting her eyes from the Tigerians.
She was stunningly beautiful. And clean. So wonderfully clean. There were few times when Lillian had felt even a measure of attraction for another woman and this was one of them.
The traveler’s eyes were a hard gray, face narrow with a small nose and lips full. Her hair was a silky black with silver highlights that spilled over a jet black corset trimmed with violent reds. Not very practical attire for the road, more appropriate for the bedroom. Lillian’s eyes traced down between her full breasts and to her hips, eyes locking onto a sheathed long sword with an ornamented guard. No ordinary traveler. What was her play?
Her arms were latticed in an intricate opalescent armor that had to be Milvorian steel, the only metal capable of withstanding the onslaught of Dragon fire without melting. Shrouding her hands were gauntlets perfectly forged to their shape as if her hands had been used as a mold, the fingers tipped with talons that appeared very functional. Lillian’s eyes drifted to her legs, lingering between them, then stopping at rings of throwing daggers wrapped around her thighs. From her mid-thighs to her feet was a swirling line of Milvorian steel wrapping them in a protective shell. A Tower Assassin? Perhaps a Scorpion from the far reaches of Zoria?
“How does the road treat you?” The traveler said in Common, gesturing while she beamed. She dropped the reins and vaulted over the edge of her cart, landing with a deft thump.
The Tougere’s raised their hackles, dropped low to pounce and faintly growled. Taji hefted his spear under his arm, directing it at her. Toshi followed his lead, half-drawing a scimitar from its scabbard.
“Who are you?” Taji said brusquely, like every past word that emerged from his cat-mouth.
The traveler raised her hands in a show of innocence, metallic talons gleaming in the fire of the rising sun. “Please, please, friends. I come in peace. Your weapons offend my good tastes. Is this how you greet a fellow traveler?”
Taji leaned forward in his saddle, peering into the traveler’s eyes for a long minute.
She inclined her head and bobbed her eyebrows, never once breaking from his stare. Taji let out a satisfied grunt and leaned back in his saddle.
The traveler came forward, lowering her hands to rest easily at her sides. The closer she came the more wealthy she appeared, her clothing and armor possessing layers upon layers of fine textures. The slaves huddled together at Lillian’s back, in fear or for warmth she couldn’t be certain.
“My name is Brenna and this is Stanley,” she said, turning back to gesture at her horse who pawed at the ground in response to his name. His coat was almond and he had a luxurious cream colored mane that had been braided and tied off with intricate knots at the end. Who was this woman?
“And you are?” She offered her hand to the Tigerian’s, neither of them taking it, regarding her with deadly stares. A Tougere snorted out a breath, torso flexing like a smith’s bellows. “Very well, I see formalities and pleasantries are beyond you so I shall cut straight to business. I seek a pair of Tigerian slavers who are known as the Taki brothers. Do you perhaps know where I can find them?”
The Tigerian’s drew their mounts a bit further apart, creating a space between them in what might be the start of a pincer attack.
“I know not of these brothers,” Taji said, each word coming out in a strained effort.
“That is rather unfortunate,” Brenna said, boldly sweeping between the space they created. Her gaze flicked from each of their faces as she passed. “I am told they are moving a slave I seek to purchase. They were coming from the Golden Hill estate, not too far from here I think.” She lifted the chin of the first slave in the gang, peering into his eyes, then turning his jaw to inspect his face like he was merely horseflesh. “Do you mind if I have a look?” She didn’t wait for an answer, moving on to the skeletal woman chained behind him.
“These slaves are not for sale,” Toshi rumbled, voice laced with threat.
Brenna stopped, dropping her metallic hand from the second slave’s jaw and turned to look at him. “Well, everyone has their price and I have no shortage of marks. May I?”
Toshi opened his mouth to speak, but before he could Taji answered with a nod and gesture for her to go on.
“Thank you, you are most kind,” she said with a pleased smile. Brenna made her way further up the line, whispering questions to each slave that Lillian couldn’t hear.
Brenna approached Lillian, finely manicured eyebrows arcing up as she met her eyes. Her eyes were large, swimming with grays and flecked with bits of gold. They almost looked kind had they not been on a slaver.
Lillian found her jaw involuntarily flexing, fists balling up tight and taking every measure of her self-control to avoid reaching for the Dragon. She crossed her arms and drew her blanket tight against her lithe form.
Brenna brought her face within inches of Lillian’s, inspecting her. Brenna’s skin was flawless and without a single smear of dirt. She smelled sweet, like cinnamon and vanilla. “Calm, I mean you no harm,” Brenna whispered, voice raspy.
Lillian noticed how foul she smelled next to her, the strong tang of weeks old urine wafting up from her nether regions. She didn’t want to remember how long it had been since her last bath. Back in Tower she bathed everyday. She smelled good then. She would spend an hour combing her long hair and pinning it back with a diadem. But now she was a stinking slave.
“Slavers,” Lillian growled then spat on her boots. It was a waste of precious water and would likely earn her a few lashes from Taji’s whip. It was still worth it.
Brenna peered down at her boot and scoffed. She slowly raised her hand and grasped Lillian under the jaw, the metal on her hand cold as ice and making her skin prickle. The metal of it was certainly Milvorian steel. “Are you Lillian Thorne?” she breathed.
“Maybe,” Lillian grunted.
“For the sake of your freedom, it is critical that you speak the truth.” Brenna said, turning Lillian’s head to expose her ear and speak into it.
Lillian glowered at her. She sucked snot from her sinuses and into the back of her throat, preparing a nasty glob of spit for this one.
“I’ll ask one more time. Are you Lillian Thorne?”
“Yes,” Lillian hissed.
“Do you know the Kuro brothers?”
She gave a few quick nods. They were her former masters on the Golden Hill estate. Why did she want to know? She and Baylan were together for a brief time there, before she was once again torn away before she could say goodbye. It was one of many times where she was sold to a new master. Perhaps there was an opportunity to return to Baylan with this slaver.
“What are you doing?” Toshi growled from the front. Brenna turned to give him an appeasing smile and a raised index finger, dropping it when she turned back to Lillian.
“Can you tell me what they look like?” Brenna whispered into her ear.
Lillian nodded again, biting her inner cheeks to prevent herself from screaming. She could never forget them.
“Tell me,” Brenna prompted.
Lillian stammered, throat dry and unfamiliar with this much use. “The youngest is missing his middle finger, the oldest has a long scar over his right eye, the middle one… an arrogant shit.”
The corners of Brenna’s lips rose in a gleeful smile. “I have searched long for you.”
Toshi was padding up the line on his mount, sword whispering from its sheathe and hanging loose from his hand. He stopped a pace from Brenna. “Tell you. These not for purchase.”
Brenna’s hand was like lightning, sword ripping from its sheathe and slicing across Toshi’s neck with a wet click. Blood poured in a wave from his throat, spilling on the Tougere’s head. In one continuous motion her sword traveled onward like an artist’s brush, finding home in the Tougere’s gaping mouth and out the bottom of its throat. She withdrew her sword from its maw before its bear-trap mouth could slam shut.
Slaves yelped and gasped, shuffling back as far as their fetters would allow.
Toshi tumbled from the saddle, hands uselessly trying to staunch the flow of red from his throat. His Tougere slumped down onto its face, haunches raised into the air.
That’s all you get for now! Stay tuned for more.