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How Do You Pick up the Broken Pieces?

A good question. Imagine being almost slaughtered in an ambush and trying to recover. I wouldn’t want and am thankful it never came to that. The same can’t be said for our heroes. I hope you all are enjoying their journey. Remember friends, it always gets darkest before the dawn.

TWO

Broken Pieces

Dusk settled in on the day after the Imperium’s worst defeat in one hundred and fifty years. Morale was virtually nonexistent. All told, the division lost over fourteen thousand troopers in the ambush. Two hundred more were in critical condition and not expected to last the week. Billions of credits’ worth of equipment and countless lives were lost. Word of the defeat had already been forwarded to command, and it was widely believed that the division was going to be disbanded upon its return to Amicir. Soldiers were going to be given the opportunity to go home or be reassigned to new units. Other wars had to go on.

There seemed little doubt that this travesty would smear Pierce’s once grand name. It was a shame, for Pierce had been of the best leaders the Imperium military had ever had, despite his seeming ignorance of the planetary situation. No one was going to learn how things actually happened or why. His name would be disgraced and crucified for incompetence rather than lauded for his sacrifices.

Medical support was already on its way up from Trusgar and Fort Evans. Major Gregorson received word of Russell’s retirement and was forced back to the southern post to ensure things flowed. Helscape was fast falling apart. Gladak was down with fever, and doctors said he wasn’t going to be up to full strength for some time. The upside to all of that, from Gregorson’s perspective, was there weren’t many troops left to seek guidance.

Outlying villages along the Frontier quickly learned of the disaster, and hysteria surged across the lands. People fled for fear of what the Berserkers might do next. Growing concern over Kargosh and his army of marauders drove them from their homes in record numbers. Most tried to find a way to the safety of Draken, leaving the Wastes wide open to invasion. Total defeat was but a breath away.

But none of that was a concern for Nathan.

The hot water was the best he remembered ever slipping into. He must have stayed there for close to an hour before the heat cooled. The water was nearly black from grime and battle. A part of him hoped the bath was the first step to recovery from the horrors of the battle. Nathan closed his eyes and tried to forget the ordeals of the battle, of the beautiful woman he’d rescued. Of Snake Eyes riding down on him and carrying them all safely back to Black Tide. Of the dozens of lives he’d personally taken. It was all too much for one soul to bear.

Two months of his life had already been wasted on this rock of a world, and he honestly didn’t see it ending any time soon. Hire was going to be hard to find if he wanted to go back out into the deep desert. He wanted to go home — or did he? Too many thoughts were going through his head to distinguish themselves. Despite his best efforts, the tragic events in the Gorge continued to play out.

His recent thoughts often carried him full circle and always centered on the strange redhead he’d pulled from death. Emerald. Who was she? Where was she from, and why did she want to fight the Berserkers? He may never know those answers, making the mystery of her attractions all the more potent. His final thought before drifting asleep was of Kane and if the man was still alive.

 

Some men truly believed the gods clung to a perverse sense of humor, laughing at the expense of trials constantly heaped upon mortals. For himself, Yonash Hosking wasn’t sure. Nor did he particularly care. He’d never seen a god. Never felt their blessed presence standing just behind his shoulder. As far as Hosking was concerned the gods could go screw themselves. He was in control of his own life- at least until the Berserker ambush cast his world in flames.

He died at that moment. His will evaporated, the drive to fight on captured and in ruins. Hosking dropped his helmet and waited for the minions of the Seven Hells to take him away. Tired and without hope, Yonash Hosking sank to his knees.

“Why did You do this to me?” he asked the heavens. “Have I been so wrong in my life as to deserve this?”

Hosking’s arms dropped lifelessly down, and his chest slumped. “I had such promise,” he whispered. “Such promise, and You took it all away from me. Left me alone in this Hell with my failure to keep me warm. How could You do such a thing?”

It was then that Yonash Hosking refused to believe in the Old Gods. There weren’t any Gods, and there wasn’t any force controlling his destiny. He was alone and abandoned in a cruel world where he could only count on himself. He didn’t need the Gods after the truth of self-preservation became evident. That unforgettable moment when the realization of only two possible outcomes was possible. You either lived or you died.

Yonash always had been alone, not only now. And he’d always came through. So why should this time be any different? He’d risen from the ash and sand a new man. A machine with newfound purpose. Hosking finally learned what he was always meant to be. There, at the fractured end of sanity, Yonash Hosking knew he was a reaper of souls.

A fresh spark ignited in his soul and brought changes through his mind. The darkness suddenly became clear. I will not die like this, he told the crusted Gods. I will not die like this! Purpose and direction became aware of the future. They told him it was time to exact revenge for the countless numbers of companions who could not. They had laughed at him. Mocked him for his inexperience and insecurities. Now it was his turn.

Glory and reward would be heaped at his feet. Then the world went black.

The concussion Hosking had suffered in the final critical moments of the battle did little to strip him of his self-appointed mission. He awoke in a hospital bed with the same inner fire discovered during the war. His life had become a monument to the fallen, and he was content with it. Friends and family back home would learn of his death shortly, no doubt shattering the illusions held by his father. He laughed at his imagined secrecy. Laughed because he was alive. No one else did. The newfound joy was almost too much to bear. Tempting images of grim-set Berserkers haunted the gray areas in his mind. They poked and prodded his inner corners. Goaded him into a preemptive strike.

“I’m going to find you,” he whispered. “I’m going to find you and kill you all.”

Pain subdued him to unconsciousness with the oath still wet on his lips.

 

Emerald was surprised she managed to wake up. She was alone in a private room and disorientated, but alive nonetheless. Moans and sorrowful gurgles seeped through the walls. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before. Frail wooden crutches were over by the door. The pain in her leg hit before she had time to figure out what was wrong. She barely recalled surgeons resetting her leg and binding it in a cast.

Her only clothing was the hospital gown, drab grey and shifting. Emerald smiled once she found her own clothes, washed and mended on the table across the room. A full-length mirror hung on the wall next to it, so she decided it was time to see how bad the damage was for herself. Her reflection wasn’t as kind as she was hoping, but she was still alive.

Bruises littered her body, leaving no cause to wonder how brutal the fighting had been. Bandages covered her forehead and rib cage. Her right leg was in a cast below the knee, and she looked worse than she felt. Rather than having those damned orderlies come in and bathe her again, Emerald opted for getting dressed and moving back to her hotel room. She hoped she was still in Black Tide.

The gown fell in a pile at her feet. She slid her shirt down over her head, flattening it out in a vain attempt at making herself feel better. It wasn’t until she tried slipping into her pants that she realized her leg wasn’t going to fit. Determined not to spend her entire recovery in this room, Emerald cut the pants at the knees and wiggled her way into them. The style wasn’t to her liking, but they were on, and she wasn’t anywhere near as exposed as she’d been in that gown.

Content but not satisfied with the way she looked, Emerald hobbled her way into the sunlight and back to her hotel.

 

Some people were born lucky. Some weren’t. Snake Eyes had never considered himself to be a lucky man despite his nickname. Still, he was about to be cited for the highest medal of heroism the Imperium had, and he just couldn’t see why. He’d done what he was trained to do, what any good noncommissioned officer should do: take charge in the absence of orders. Sure, his actions had saved hundreds of lives, men and women he was never going to see again. It was a small thing, but no matter how many medals he received, they weren’t going to be enough to bring back those friends he’d lost in the Gorge.

It was just past noon, and he was standing in the hospital tent’s open doorway staring at the rows of wounded. Klausky was in there. Seli T’lain was too. Others weren’t as fortunate. The Slayer was missing and presumed dead, along with Lieutenant Hosking. Thirty-six others were dead and gone; his platoon had deployed with forty-five and came back with nine. That was war.

Having seen enough, Snake fished out a native cigarette and enjoyed the flavor. The division was still in shambles, and there was no duty roster. He had nothing to do but mope around or make sure everyone else was getting better. A leader always opted for the second choice. Stuffing his hands in his pockets and shifting the smoke to the corner of his mouth, Snake went back to his tent.

Xill was the only one up. He’d volunteered to guard the weapons so the others could get some of their strength back. Snake was glad to have him along. Crendaphidians were good in a fight, but Xill was the only true friend he had. Having him in the squad made things a lot easier than they should have been.

“How are you holding up?” he asked his three-eyed friend after taking up a stool next to him.

“A little sore, but not too bad. How about you?”

Snake Eyes snorted. “Do you have to ask?”

“I suppose not. Is there any word on Kane or Nathan yet?”

“Bourne moved into the Inferno downtown, and no one’s seen the Slayer since we left. He’s probably dead.”

Xill shifted uneasily at the word. “I don’t think so, Sarge.”

“What gives you that idea?”

“He doesn’t seem like the sort to die easily. My money is on him. We call men like that qruxliam. Chosen. My people have a sense about them. Kane’s alive. I can feel it.”

Ancient myths and cultures were beyond Snake’s ideas of reasoning, and he wasn’t about to consign himself to their beliefs now, no matter how good a friend Xill was.

“No one has seen him, Xill. He wasn’t with the main body. You could have overlooked this in the middle of the fight.”

“Possible, but unlikely,” Xill shrugged. He wasn’t about to give up. “I want to go back out there and look for him.”

Snake Eyes choked on the smoke in his lungs. “You know they’re not going to approve that. Hells, they won’t even think about it. No one gets in or out of here without the commander’s authorization.”

“He’s alive, Sergeant Kimel. I know it.” Xill was normally passive unless in the middle of combat, but his voice was raised to the point of anger.

“There’s a lot of good people dead out there. The Imperium doesn’t give squaffa about one local who volunteered to come with us. I really think you should reconsider the notion that Kane’s dead and focus on the rest of the platoon.” Snake Eyes got up and left without saying another word. He didn’t have time or inclination to give in to Xill’s superstition. So many were lost it was next to impossible to gain accurate accountability. The only things he knew he could trust were himself and his weapons. Everything had to be proved.

But still, there was a certain fondness for the lost man in him. Kane was a good fighter and a wise man. They might even have become friends in another time and place. Helscape’s fresh, bitter air stung him. Smoke from earlier battles burned his lungs.

The cigarette dropped away, and he cursed. He owed the man at least one honest effort. Finding him was going to be a pain in the ass, especially among so many bodies.

“Aw, Hells,” he cursed and stalked off in search of something he still had no idea of.

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Why Do We Stop Reading a Book?

Great information for any author.

Richie Billing

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Last week I shared an article by writer Chuck Wendig in which he set out his twenty-five reasons for putting down a book and banishing it to the pits of hell. That got me thinking. What about everyone else? What are the main reasons people stop reading a book?

Reliving my old university days, I undertook a bit of research. I wrote to several book reviewers and launched a few polls on a number of Facebook groups: AmWritingFantasy (693 members), Fantasy Writers Support Group (5,447 members), The Phoenix Quill…

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Who’s ready for more?

I like doing what I do. I like it even more as I am continually bombarded with great comments, reviews, and well wishes from so many people I might not have ordinarily met. Last year we ran through the first volume of Tomorrow’s Demise. This year let’s tackle the conclusion. Its going to be a strange, wild ride filled with monsters, pirates, and political corruption. I’m excited, are you?

ONE

Jailbreak

The impossibility of reason seldom factored into Leggis Fint’s personal decisions. A con man on good days, killer on others, he and his specially crafted team of mercenaries roamed the galaxy in search of quality paychecks. He wasn’t amoral, though some of his work was beyond questionable. Fint was a man of practicality. He never took a job he wasn’t sure he could accomplish.

Arrogance and pride took him to Helscape and now it threatened to undo everything he had strived for. Sometimes, he reluctantly admitted, life just sucked. Fint closed his eyes and dreamed of that fateful moment he wished he could take back.

The clandestine meeting with what he determined as rogue military leadership went well enough. Once he fulfilled his contractual obligations he and his team would be set for the rest of their lives. Never before had he dreamed of so much money. It should have set off warning bells but the demon greed managed to snake into his mind much quicker than he’d ever felt.

Leggis Fint stalked back to his ship. Every step was with purpose. He’d done his homework on the Berserkers. Perhaps not as much as General Gulluette but enough to know what he was getting the others into. His team also knew there were individual bounties on each of the genetically created monster’s heads. A man just might be able to get rich off the endeavor without backdooring the Imperium. Not that he cared much about that. The Imperium was a bureaucratic nightmare with too much on its plate already. They’d never suspect what he intended, at least not until it was far too late to matter. Smiling, Fint boarded the back ramp.

Kreegin Faul stood waiting on the ramp, watching as Fint returned. Fint’s body language told him much, but it was the chagrin on his face that left Kreegin feeling suddenly uneasy. His coal black skin and pasty white hair blended perfectly with Neen’s darkness, a fact he was suddenly grateful for. He didn’t want Fint to see his unease. His red eyes glowed hotly in the semi-darkness, giving his spiked hair an uncanny appearance. The blaster on his hip seemed natural, as did the long blade knife tucked neatly behind his back.

“What’s the word, boss?” Kreegin asked with naturally slurred speech.

“Recon op. We have one month to prepare for insertion.”

“Recon? Again? Squaffa. When are we finally going to get the chance to kill someone?” He didn’t feel the need to explain to Fint just how much he hated recon.

Fint grinned. “You’ll like this one.”

An eyebrow arched. “Where are we headed?”

“Helscape. Seems the Imperium is interested in the Berserkers all of a sudden.”

“Those monsters? What could possibly make them want to get involved?” Kreegin asked.

Fint shrugged. “That’s not our problem.”

“We considered this once before and decided it was too dangerous to go after the Berserkers on our own. I hope the price you agreed on is worth it.”

“I think you’ll find it more than any of us could ever spend,” Fint said.

Kreegin shook his head. Once Fint got an idea stuck in his head it was next to impossible to displace. “I hate deserts.”

“How do you feel about joining the Imperium?”

Kreegin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I don’t look good in silver and grey.”

Fint shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I think we both know the perfect man for the job.”

“He’s going to love you.”

Fint slapped him on the back playfully. “Come on, let’s take off before those officers change their minds and shoot us out of the sky.”

“I really need to settle down and find a good woman,” Kreegin groaned.

“That’s assuming any woman would have you.”

The ramp slid closed and the small team of mercenaries blasted into orbit, leaving the brooding Imperium generals in the darkness of Neen.

Revelries hadn’t stopped since the division first left Minion. Streets were crowded with merriment and partiers on a nightly basis. There were doubters still, sure, but they stayed home where there was no risk. Alcohol and women were selling just as fast as people could pay for them with no end in sight. Minion stood on the verge of freedom for the first time in two hundred years.

Leggis Fint wasn’t normally one to shy away from a good party. He and his team enjoyed fighting hard and playing even harder, but tough times had befallen the mercenary. There was still no word of their third man, Ardn Kelg, or even any information on the Imperium’s extinction campaign, for that matter. These civilians were behaving too brashly to know better.

Securing the Imperium uniforms from the local underground had been an easy accomplishment compared to having papers forged. Any fool could procure a uniform, but no one was getting on post unless the ID checked out. They’d already been to a handful of petty con men, all of whom would have done a less than superior job for too much money as far as Fint was concerned. Still, no other choice was presenting itself.

“I’m pretty damned tired of this place, Boss,” Kreegin growled. He looked ridiculous in a uniform — not to mention the fabric was chaffing him terribly.

“Will you quiet down already? You’ve been trying to get the point across since our shuttle was blown up. I can take a hint.”

“So when can we get the Hells out of here?” the mercenary asked, stepping over a sleeping dog.

“Just as soon as we rescue Kelg and kill the maggot who set us up,” Fint replied. “Not that those two tasks should be difficult,” scoffed Kreegin. “We’d have a better chance at actually joining the Imperium.”

Fint’s eyebrow peaked with interest. “Funny you should mention that.”

“Squaffa!” the black skin mercenary grimaced. “I did the army thing once, remember? It wasn’t any fun then either.”

“Will you relax? I have a plan, my friend.” Kreegin Faul kept walking.

“I was afraid of that.”

The insistent laugh was almost as bad as hearing him say it.

They eventually tracked down a man whose work was good enough to pass the gate guards but still not up to Fint’s personal standards. Posing as rear detachment troopers from the division, Leggis and Kreegin roamed the majority of Fort Evans for the morning and part of the afternoon. Satisfied with the layout of the base, they left to finalize their plans. Fint figured on only getting one shot at this, and he aimed at making the most of it.

“I still don’t like it,” Kreegin told him for the tenth time.

Leggis set his binoculars down and shook his head. “You get pretty annoying, do you know that?”

“So my mother keeps telling me,” he with a shrug. “Now what?”

“Now we wait for the shift change. I sneak back on post, and you drive our handy little jeep to the back wall. If everything goes right, Kelg and I will be up and over the wall before any of them know what’s going on.”

“Of course, if everything goes wrong, you’ll have two shifts of military police hunting you across their base,” Kreegin concluded with a grim smile.

“You always know the right things to say, don’t you?”

The moons were already rising, not leaving them much time. Standard Imperium procedure called for the guard change in a few minutes.

“Well, here I go. Give me thirty minutes, and then hit the wall.”

“Good luck.”

Leggis offered him his sincerest smile and said, “I don’t believe in luck. Don’t be late.”

He was off and running back towards town before Kreegin could respond. They always had worked well together, though Kreegin often felt his boss made bad decisions when it was on the line. Then again, none of them had gotten them killed to date. Sure, there’d been a few times….

Kreegin smiled to himself and hit the timer on his watch.

 

“Almost didn’t make curfew, Trooper,” a gnarled sergeant said through a puff of smoke. “That’s a day in the slammer, you know.”

“Sorry, Sarge,” Fint hiccupped. “But I was drinking and met this woman.”

The Sergeant held up his hand. “Save it, Trooper. I hear the same thing a hundred times a night.”

Fint hoped he didn’t have to kill the man.

“Go ahead on, then. But don’t ever let me catch you late again.”

Fint smiled. “That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about, Sarge.” And he meant that with sincere honesty.

The mercenary passed through the gates at a brisk pace, wanting to put as much distance between them as possible in case the guard changed his mind. He laughed at the thought of him and Kelg sharing the same cell. The amusement quickly faded the deeper he went onto post. There was little way of knowing how many of the people milling about worked for Menzel, or even where Menzel was at that moment. Part of him hoped to run into the weasel, though caution dictated otherwise.

There was little to gain with a direct confrontation amongst so many other soldiers, but the thought persisted. Fint desperately wanted Menzel to pay for his treachery, and one way or another, he would. He found himself entering the jail with dark thoughts of murder racing through him.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk without looking up from her duty log.

“Captain Menzel sent me to check on his prisoner,” Fint said with authority.

She scanned her paperwork quickly and said, “I don’t have any visitors expected. I think I should call this in.”

“Trooper,” he snarled, leaning forward. “Are you sure you want him messing around down here anymore than he has too?”

“You’ve got a point,” she said. “However, I can’t let you in without authorization.”

“Are you sure you want it this way, trooper?” Fint asked, his words slow and precise.

She looked up from her terminal to see the barrel of a Thidum power blaster pointing at her chest.

“Now be a good girl and open the door.”

With some small clicking noises, the reinforced titanium door slid open. “He’s in the third cell on the right,” she told him as they stepped into the cell bay. Fint pushed her in ahead of him, just in case they had a dual security system. He almost laughed at the thought. The majority of soldiers were either north fighting in the campaign or downtown drunk right now. Security across the post was considerably lax.

“You don’t really expect to get away with this,” she whispered.

The rounded tip of the barrel prodding her back was the answer.

Fint leaned close and said, “Just be glad we’re not taking you with us. Now open the cell.”

They kept the bay partially dark, as if the prisoners weren’t deserving of light. There were various murderers, rapists and other petty criminals locked away, all awaiting transport back to the Imperium prison world for sentencing. Some of them were top-notch soldiers in the field, but alcohol running through their system helped suppressed urges rise and assume control. Such was the way of life.

“On your feet, traitor,” Fint snarled once he stopped in front of Kelg’s cell. His friend and partner was facing away from the door.

“Or you’ll do w’at?”

Leggis smiled. “Or I’ll leave you in this stinking cell for a long time,” he whispered.

The giant mercenary got to his feet and stretched. Muscles expanded and swelled, he was nearly twice Fint’s size. “Like you could actually keep me in ‘ere. W’ere in the ‘ells ‘ave you been? I’ve been sitting in this cell for almost a week.”

“We’ve had some technical difficulties lately. Kreegin’s waiting on the other side of the wall, but we can stay here and talk all night if you wish. I’m sure this lovely young lady wouldn’t mind,” Fint said.

Ardn looked over at the guard and smiled. Somehow, he doubted Fint had managed to charm her so quickly. Leggis edged her into the back of the cell and smiled at her.

“I can’t exactly say I’ve enjoyed the company, but we do have matters to attend to. The next shift will let you out. Just hope we get to Menzel before you do.”

The door hissed shut as Fint and Kelg left the building. One down, one to go.

You Wanted it- You Got it!

Well friends, February is here and- even though that darn woodchuck saw his shadow and cursed us with another 6 weeks of winter- spring is coming. That doesn’t give our heroes from Tomorrow’s Demise an respite however. War is hell, my friends. Thank you all for the positivity over the past year as I rolled out chapter after chapter of my tale. Because of that, I have decided that it just wouldn’t be cool of me to leave you hanging. So, that being said, let’s dive back in to the world of Helscape and see how the survivors pick up the pieces. I present to you chapter one of Tomorrow’s Demise: Paths of Salvation.

LONG BEFORE

It is said that the greatest stories of heroes are wrought from the ashes of tragedy. But where, if anywhere, do villains come from? Historians dither, bickering back and forth over the origins of evil without conclusion. For the people still brave enough to attempt a life in the Wastelands of Helscape their villains were born from the delusions of a madman…

The first whispers of sunlight stretching across the vast sands warmed Aeginion Xurilious as he stood atop the eastern battlements looking down onto his beloved city. It was the one time of day he felt in tune with his kingdom. He was the desert king, lord of Regwin Hold and the thousands of surrounding leagues of open desert. Guards dressed in blue and tan patrolled the walls all around, each knowing better than to disturb their liege.

Aeginion was already approaching his mid-sixties. He wore his shoulder length hair, now white from age, tied behind a simple band of silver. Crowns were for kings of stories and ceremony, not working monarchs struggling alongside their subjects. His skin cast a bronze hue from decades of exposure under Telgeise’s twin suns. It was wrinkled and leathery. Aeginion was slightly overweight but managed to carry it well enough to not be a burden.

Knuckled fists rested on the crenellation. Below sprawled Regwin Hold. The pride of the desert empire, the city was a beacon for hope and peace. Thousands flocked to her walls in search of a better life. Marble towers jut high into the sky, their bulbous crowns painted dark blue. Brick and stone buildings stretched for endless miles in every direction. Palm trees lined the hardened sand roads along with a variety of drought resistant shrubs. Wells and fountains fed off the main canal running all the way to Northern Ocean, lending majesty to the city.

Regwin Hold was the bearer of hope, yet it stood ready to fall.

Aeginion was the last in a long line of men who had once dared to dream of turning the empty desert into a paradise folk would be proud of for generations. Five hundred years of history and it was all crashing down around him. He closed his eyes and thought back to the heroic tales of Curtinix Xurilious. Called pioneer by some, heretic by others, he left the plush grasslands of Kierienan to found a place where man might truly be free. If ever such a place existed it was in the Wastes of Telgeise.

When Curtinix was felled in battle with the invaders from the Northlands, Hrolgrat took up the family mantle and began the foundations of immense gardens and cultivated sands. Groves of fruit trees began springing up throughout the empire as the desert slowly began the transformation process. The king was proclaimed a hero, a sentiment now lost on Aeginion.

But it wasn’t always so. When Aeginion first assumed the mantle of leadership he had dreams of making the Wastes into so much more. His popularity grew over the decades as the work of his ancestors neared fruition. He snorted. It all seemed like a dream now. The golden age of his family’s name was gone. Broken like waves upon the shore. He’d sired only daughters, and though he loved them more than life, they would never be tolerated as legitimate heirs to his kingdom.

Aeginion watched each sunrise with renewed interest, the knowledge that so few remained to him weighing heavily on his soul. He’d briefly thought of fleeing. Of taking his children and leaving the Wastes. But such cowardice wasn’t in his character. He was king, and a king needed to stand when all others broke.

“Why do you wear that long face, father?” asked a soft voice from behind.

Aeginion smiled warmly, recognizing his eldest daughter from the soft sounds of her slippered footsteps. The smell of her perfume was a welcome change from the grunge of his military advisors. She was the one thing he found more enchanting that the dual suns of his beloved world. And he lacked the heart to discuss the source of his lament.

His tired eyes continued to look over his kingdom. Down into the once flourishing community built around grand halls. Past the hundreds of acres of orchards and irrigated fields, and on into the open desert beyond. Beyond where the great Northern Army massed.

Jiena Xurilious smiled at her father. She was the vision of beauty. Raven dark hair spilled over her shoulders to mid-back, accenting her sun darkened skin. She had eyes so brown, so dark they appeared black in the right light. High cheek bones and angled features came from her father.

Finally, when he couldn’t stand ignoring her any longer, Aeginion turned. “Jiena, my heart, you should still be sleeping. A proper heir to the empire needs her rest.”

She offered a timid laugh in reply. “Father, you know full well I can’t succeed you. The Council of Governors won’t permit it.”

She moved to him before he could further protest, slipping her arms around his waist with a loving hug. “Besides, why can’t a daughter share her father’s most cherished time? I miss the days of my childhood where I used to sit upon your lap and watch the world go by.”

“Those were…simpler times.”

He looked deep into her eyes and saw so much of her mother locked within it brought a tear to his eye. That now familiar lump formed in his throat. This one truth he had to tell was a much harder deed than any he’d ever been forced to commit since his coronation.

“Jiena, there are forces in this world no man can explain. We live and die on the whim of faceless gods. Even then I think we are no more than playthings for their sick amusements.”

“It’s about the invasion, isn’t it?” she asked, being no stranger to his word games. The northern invaders had forced their way across the river and three quarters of the desert and now stood on the verge of conquering Regwin Hold. It was impossible not to know.

Still, Aeginion was slightly shocked. “How could you possibly know? We’ve taken precautions not to let any of you know until the threat was dealt with.”

“The walls have ears, father, and the servants are rare to hold their tongues when it comes to matters of state. And besides, I am the daughter of kings. I too have my sources.”

She beamed at this last, knowing his pride would shine through. It was a rare deed to outwit her father.

His smile was warm and filled his heart. “You always were the brightest. Very well. Our forces are no match for the Northern armies. We are attempting to raise a suitable defense with each new engagement yet they manage to cut through us like a sand dragon’s breath.”

Jiena shuddered at the thought of what had thus far turned out to be a faceless enemy. Like most people, she’d never seen one of the pale skinned invaders. The knowledge of their stark appearance however, was ingrained in her mind from countless tales from the walking wounded and refugees flooding west. Taller than the desert folk, the northerners were heavily muscled with cruel facial features and long, black hair. Their skin was so pale it appeared white. Not as advanced as other tribes of humans, their natural aggressiveness threatened to consume the world under the heels of their foul empire. No one knew what they wanted, for they took no prisoners.

Regwin Hold was all that stood between them and total domination of the world.

The darkness fell upon them in waves just over a year ago, catching the local population unawares. Grim was the tide that first struck the southern shores. The invaders attacked with alarming precision and quickly advanced west. When word had finally reached Aeginion the barbarians were already halfway through his kingdom. He personally rallied his armies and led the counter attack down past Rook Mountain to sweep around the enemy, meeting them in the city of Helgscroft. A great and pitched battle ensued but victory fell to the invaders. Aeginion limped back to Regwin Hold with the tattered remains of his army and began to despair.

His enemies were close now. He turned from his daughter to recheck the horizon. A force of habit. Each dawn he prayed there was no sign of the enemy advance. Scouts were streaming in and out of the city hourly with news of battles and losses. Little hope remained. The king knew that now, though it pained him to admit. Endless nights were spent wondering where he went wrong and how, if possible, to correct his errors.

Jiena placed a hand upon his shoulder and squeezed. “Father, I know your worries and share them, along with every other man and woman under your banner. Take heart, I beg you. We shall find a way to win the day.”

“How can you be so sure, daughter? These Northerners fight so aggressively. I have not seen their equal. Will you still hold to hope when they storm these walls?”

Her smile turned fierce. “Even should the break down the gates and sack the Hold.”

“Would that I truly commanded the deserts I would summon forth an army of sand dragons and cast my foe away under a hail of fire and doom.” He slammed a meaty fist down. “These are dark days in which we live.”

“Keep hope, father. We may yet again rule the Wastelands.”

Her words were inspiring to his failing heart, empty as they were. Aeginion knew what was going to happen when the enemy captured Regwin Hold. The males would be taken as slaves and the females raped or beaten until they wound up dead. He couldn’t allow that to happen. Couldn’t.

An idea struck him, and he secretly hoped it might work.

“Fair Jiena, I must go now and summon the council to session. There is…a task I must attempt to accomplish before this day is done.”

“I understand, father,” she replied without catching his true meaning. “If I can be of any help please don’t hesitate to call upon me.”

Aeginion embraced her again. “You grow more like your mother by the day.”

 

Three months passed before the last scouts reported the Northern Army was just leagues shy of Regwin. When that fateful dawn arrived Aeginion and his best general, Krinson Haddle, stood atop the highest point in the city and watched for signs of movement. To their disappointment, the enemy force was much larger than either recalled, and this was but the vanguard.

Confident there was at least another full day before battle was joined, Aeginion hastily ordered the evacuation of the city. Everyone but the soldiers and those volunteers willing to lay down their lives was to go northwest to the city of Bastion and then escape to Daelin Isle where his wife had already established a small colony. By the time the sun set Aeginion and his valiant army were finishing last minute preparations.

Catapults were locked and loaded. Every man had a bow and a hundred shafts, still far too few to stop the horde. Traps were being constructed around the gates and walls. Aeginion knew there was no way to save his entire population but this was the best he could do. No ever had really believed the Northerners would get this far.

The enemy was close now, close enough for him to make out ranks of individuals as the vanguard marched nearer. His heart raced, much as it had during his younger years of conquest and battle. The bitter truth that he was but a fraction of that man remained hidden from his army.

Krinson stood patiently at his king’s side. His promotion was one of necessity, coming when the previous general was slain along the banks of the Angril River in the opening stages of the war. His skin was extraordinarily dark, his hair pure black. Krinson watched the enemy with the sharp eyes of a desert raptor. His pencil thin moustaches twitched in anticipation.

“Milord, the enemy is posting their picket lines. I deem they will not move before the morrow,” he said.

Aeginion agreed. “What would you do to disrupt that? They muster far more than we can muster in time to save the throne yet they choose to wait. I would crush this city with one fell swoop and yet they choose to wait.”

Krinson grimaced. “I would do the same, sire. They are in no hurry for good cause. The lands behind them have been pacified, leaving us the only real threat. If they are as smart as they have proven to be in the past they will take their time and encircle the city, slowly letting fear build. They will crush the life from us long before storming the ramparts.”

“Tell me again Krinson, why I even bother talking to you?” the king asked with wry smile. “With words like that I might fancy a jump from these walls.”

The rustle of soft wind was his only reply.

 

Aeginion choked on the smoke filling his lungs. His face was smeared with soot and ash. His armor stained with blood. A brilliant flash blinded the defenders, followed by an explosion dropping all to their knees. Even from his position atop the southern walls Aeginion heard the screams of those burning alive. The Northern Army had breached the outer walls and were marching on the last set of gates between them and their prize.

Krinson helped the king to his feet and together they looked towards the enemy. Bodies littered the sands, now dark red, for as far as they eye could see. Trains of dead and the dying were being conducted back across the desert and still the body count rose. Aeginion admired the ferocity with which his enemy fought, knowing that no amount of casualties were going to keep them from total victory.

“Sire, we have a problem,” Krinson said. “Jiena is still in the city.”

Aeginion felt his strength sap as his world crashed down around him. His heart instantly filled with dread. The most precious thing in his life was about to be slaughtered right alongside him. It was a pain he wasn’t willing to accept. She deserved better. He wiped at the trickle of blood running from his temple. Black smoke rose from various spots in his city, blocking his vision. Destruction beckoned them yet they fought on, buying precious time for the last few still attempting to escape. Suddenly none of that mattered. He focused solely on his daughter.

The king clasped his friend’s shoulder and said, “My friend, I have one final request for you.”

They ducked as a flaming missile from a barbarian catapult screamed overhead to explode against the tower. With the barbarian artillery in range there would be little time left.

“Anything, sire.”

“Take Jiena east. Get her out of the city and to Furnace Island.”

“That island is filled with the scum of the planet, sire. She will not…”

“She will not be noticed should these monsters decide to keep looking,” Aeginion countered swiftly. “Use the access tunnels to sneak out the back. Take as many house guard as you need. Press hard to reach Black Tide. Once there you should have little trouble finding safe passage to the Island. Do not fail me in this, Krinson.”

His heart pulled in opposing directions. Krinson knew his first duty was to king and land yet he held a burning passion for fair Jiena. He needed to be with the king however. Unwilling to disobey, he offered his best salute.

“I shall do my best, sire. That is all I can offer.”

“It is all I am willing to accept.”

The general made his leave but stopped a few paces from the stair. “What of you? What shall I tell Jiena of her father’s fate?”

“Tell her he met it with the strength of the gods. Farewell, friend,” he said.

“Farewell, Aeginion Xurilious.”

 

That was the last Krinson Haddle ever saw of his king, though history would later record those fraught, final moments of Regwin Hold. They would tell of a fair haired stranger, some claimed a wizard, come under the guise of night to meet with the king. Whatever he said seemed to satisfy Aeginion, for the king later led a final assault into the enemy ranks where his body was riddled with arrows.

Of Krinson Haddle and Jiena a fair amount is obscure. They reached Furnace Island and began a family. Life was hard but they fared well. Their bloodline was strong, stretching down through the generations to give birth to a baby girl with flame red hair and the legacy of royalty just waiting to be reborn.

But those are tales for another time.

New Release- Free this week

Greetings friends, one and all. I like you guys and gals. I really do. So, in the spirit of being nice. I’m giving you my latest: Dreams of Winter, for free this week on Kindle. The first in a series where I don’t know where its going to end up, Dreams is a little Star Wars, a little Dune, and a whole lot of adventure.  Someone claimed this was one of the best books he’s read. I don’t know about that, but you might. Please share with friends and join me on this adventure.

dreams of winter2

Whew…we made it!

Alas- all journeys end and this is no different. Ok, maybe a little since you’ve convinced me to throw up the 2nd half of the story. The division has been routed. Kane looks dead. Nathan is trapped on Helscape. I don’t know how they’re going to get out of this one. (Ok, I do, but you don’t…yet)

EPILOGUE

Reports streamed in to the forward command center. Broken. Impossible. Shock filled the hearts of those soldiers on duty. Some wept openly, unafraid of baring their raw emotion. Others sucked in their breath. Of them all only one could have anticipated such an outcome. Only one could have predicted what had just happened. And he had failed to do so.

General Paedian Gulluette clasped his clawed hands behind his back. Dark fur bristled angrily beneath his uniform as he stalked away. Clouds of frustration filled his eyes. All of his plans, all of his dreams, threatened to crash down around him.

“General, what should we do?”

He paused in midstride. What do I tell them? Do I join them in false grief? Worrying over names on data sheets that bear little meaning to any of them? His teeth ground with the menace of a natural predator.

“We carry on. This was one battle, not a war. Losses are to be expected in combat,” he snarled.

“But an entire division, sir?” blurted out a faceless aide from the back of the room.

Rage twisted his animalistic features. When next he spoke it was a roar. “This is war! Losses are part of war or perhaps you have all forgotten what it means to be on the front lines? Let me know now. I can easily have transfers by the end of the day.”

The stunned silence that fell over the command hub was briefly satisfying, enough Gulluette felt his nerves calm enough to think clearly again.

“With the 76th gone we need to focus on the Xempsarillian’s. News will travel swiftly and this sector is now woefully underprepared. Call up the 83rd and 125th for immediate deployment. Our enemies must not muster the strength to break through our lines. Not one single starship. Not one. Am I clear?”

The resounding shouts of affirmative were enough for him. The General stormed out, his mind already focused on the next task. The more important one. It wouldn’t take long for those higher and, potentially, jealous of him to make their move. He needed to get to his co-conspirators before anyone else. As he walked Gulluette found it odd how life managed to curve when least expected.

Time was now his enemy as well.

 

Braxton Skrapp was in the middle of cleaning glasses, his hand shoved down one with a well-worn towel as he tried to reach the bottom when news reached Black Tide. Never before in recent memory had such news thrown the entire community into raw panic. The Imperium ambushed. An entire Berserker army poised just a few leagues away. Black Tide was sure to be the beginning in the final campaign of human extermination for the monsters. Time was finally up. It was the end at last.

Glass shattered, the mug slipping from his grasp as he managed to piece together bits of information. So many dead and missing. His thoughts immediately turned to Kane. His longtime friend and student now lost to the ages. Guilt assailed him. Braxton couldn’t help but feel responsible for Kane’s death. He wanted to cry, to break down and release so many years of pent up shame and frustration. But no. Crying served no purpose whatsoever. The weak resorted to tears when matters got too much. Braxton Skrapp had seen too much, done too much to succumb to such petty weakness.

Instead he ordered Rolf to clean up the glass and did what any sensible man with experience in the Wastes would: he began to prepare for what he knew would be the influx of survivors and stragglers as they wormed back into town. Nothing calmed a veteran’s nerves after being rattled than a stiff drink. Braxton offered a silent prayer for his friends and held on to hope that at least some yet lived.

Hope, as any man knows, if fragile in the best of times.

The Evolution Continues

the madman on the rocks1Good morning good friends! (Or whatever time of day it is where you are) I am proud to present to you the redone and (in my opinion) kiss-ass cover for what is my favorite series to write: The Forgotten Gods #2: The Madman on the Rocks. Book #1 was just republished: Dreams of Winter and will be free next week if you are interested.

This is a complex tale spread across 700 worlds, involves a race of gods from 3000 years ago, and the politics of betrayal on many levels. I won’t say more- rather let you figure it out- but it is one heck of a ride so far.