Sneak Preview: Age of Dawn Series Prequel
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.