So, I’ve been working hard on a new fantasy novel (what else is there to do during the pandemic?). There are lots of engaging characters, personal conflicts, and political developments, as well as some heart-racing action to spice things up. Here’s the basic premise: While the Carian Empire wages a war to eradicate all magic, rumors surface about otherworldly beings who steal warriors of great power. Titus Blackburn couldn’t care less, however. Although a skilled warrior with magic runes tattooed on his body, Titus’s only concern is finding his parents, who abandoned him as a child. Yet, as Titus chases a new lead, he learns the great threats of his time are intimately linked with his parents’ disappearance.
For those of you that want a little taste for what’s in store, I’ll let you take a look at the prologue below. Stay tuned for the rest. I have plenty of edits to do before I release the full story. But I am working as fast as I can!
At the top of road, where the hill met the horizon, a fire burned down to its coals. Thin trails of smoke rose from its flames as twilight thickened. Nikos was supposed to meet his new company there before dusk, but the way was long and the days grew shorter as winter neared. Now he was late. As if he needed another reason to be nervous.
“Well, look what we have here,” a bearded man said as Nikos approached the fire atop the hill. “What did I tell you, Cornell? I knew the precocious twat would show.”
Cornell studied Nikos with piercing, gray eyes as he honed his sword against a sharpening stone. “Come here, boy. Let me look at you in the light,” he said.
Nikos stepped forward and bowed. “My apologies, sirs,” he said. “The lieutenant did not tell me until late, and I—”
“Save it for the captain,” a woman said. “You won’t get anything from Cornell or Zeno.” Her tone was pleasant, her appearance less so. A patchwork of scars marked her face. Battle wounds no doubt. In her hand was an ax bigger than any Nikos could carry.
“He looks weak,” Cornell said.
“Boy’s green as grass,” Zeno said, stroking his beard. “But I’ve heard stories. Cut down a whole Eskium company himself he did. Isn’t that right, boy?”
“Bullshit,” Cornell said.
The woman slapped Nikos on the back. “I’m Dione.”
“Nikos,” he said. “Is…uh the captain upset?”
Having led eight successful missions into enemy territory, Captain Proteus Augur was renowned across the Carian Empire for his stealth and strategy. Even more impressive were his skills with the sword. Some said he had traded his soul to the Ones Below for godlike abilities. Among enemy ranks, Proteus was known as the Harbinger, for any who saw him were sure to see the grave. Needless to say, the captain was not one Nikos wanted to anger.
“Aye. He’ll skin you alive and string you up by your entrails,” Cornell said. Zeno snickered.
Dione shrugged. “Don’t worry about Proteus. The captain is only ever focused on the job,” she said.
“That is comforting,” Nikos said. He shifted from foot to foot. “We have all heard tales of the captain’s valor. I want him to know I appreciate being selected for a place in this elite troop.”
“Sounds like the boy’s got a crush,” Zeno said.
“Ready to swallow his sword I think,” Cornell said. Even Dione snickered. Nikos scowled as blush covered his face.
A small, wiry man stomped up the hill. “About bloody damn time,” he said. “You were due here before sundown. I will not have this mission go to waste because of some tardy, ill-mannered boy with grass growing out his ears. And the rest of you. Laughing? Is this not serious to you?”
“Just having a bit of fun, Cepheus,” Zeno said.
Dione leaned towards Nikos. “Our scout is a bit of a head case,” she said.
“I heard that,” Cepheus said. He tensed his fists and grimaced menacingly at Dione. Twice his size, Dione would not be intimidated. She slung her ax over her shoulder and laughed earnestly.
Just behind the scout, a man of average height and average build appeared. Shallow wrinkles marked his forehead, and sparse, salt and pepper hair covered his head. “He’s here then?” the man said. “Nikos, a pleasure to meet you. I am Proteus, your new captain. I see you have met the others.”
Nikos hesitated. He had expected someone with rippling muscles and an imposing brow, not someone so…ordinary. “A pleasure to meet you as well,” he said with a bow.
“A word of advice,” the captain said. “Don’t take this lot too seriously. They like to tease, but it’s all in good fun.”
“On the contrary, we haven’t made a single joke,” Zeno said with a smirk. “Have we, Cornell?” Cornell shook his head.
Proteus rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. A swollen, red gem shimmered on the pommel. “If what I’m told is correct, Nikos has great potential. Glad to have you.”
“Thank you,” Nikos said.
“Did the lieutenant tell you about our mission?” Proteus said.
“A little,” he said. In fact, the lieutenant had told him nothing. Cepheus guessed as much and groaned with irritation.
“Five Eskium soldiers have slipped across the border near Shroudhollow,” the captain said. “We are to find them and learn what they are up to.”
“What’s to learn? Lord Blackburn let them slip through,” Cornell muttered. “Never should’ve left that cunt in charge.”
“Unlikely,” Proteus said. “Our reports suggest Blackburn spends more time in Venusian taverns than in his own city. The emperor does not see him as a concern, so neither do I.”
“What does it matter how they got here? They’re here.” Cepheus said. “I spotted them in an abandoned village just two miles ahead. We sneak in while they sleep, learn what we can, and dispose of them. Easy.”
As simple as it sounded, Nikos knew it was less so. There was still a serious question left unanswered. He cleared his throat. “The soldiers. Do they have…?”
“Scared, boy?” Cornell said. He chuckled.
“I didn’t see anything,” Cepheus said. “But they can be easily concealed, so gods know.”
Captain Proteus nodded. “Keep your eye out. The most dangerous weapon is the one concealed,” he said. “These men are on some mission of their own. For the time being, we have no idea what they are up to or what they are capable of. However, if all goes well, we will subdue them before they can react. Alright?” Nikos nodded. The others grunted in reply. Night had fallen, and the fire had died. They had waited long enough. It was time to go.
While Cepheus guided them north through the woods, Proteus walked beside Nikos. He watched the new recruit awhile without saying anything. He studied the boy’s movements, his musculature, and the conviction in his eyes. Over the years, a variety of soldiers had left his company in a variety of manners. By now, Proteus knew which would survive just by looking at them.
“Captain?” Nikos said, noticing his gaze.
“I want you to know something,” Proteus said. “This company is more a family than a military unit. Given all that we have gone through together, I can say not only that we should care for each other but also that we must. And in every sense. Do you understand me?” Nikos nodded. It was not the first time he had heard a captain call his company a family. Indeed, he didn’t think it would be his last either. “We each have a duty to support one another. That is how we survive. They will depend on you just as you will depend on them.”
“You can trust me,” Nikos said.
“When the time comes, you will not hesitate?”
The captain stared off into the distance. Stars twinkled faintly through the forest canopy. “And this mission. I trust you understand what we must do to the Eskium soldiers. The emperor takes no prisoners.”
“A soldier’s job is to kill,” Nikos said. “It is what we are trained to do. I expect no less.” The wind was in the trees, and the leaves shivered. One by one they fell.
“Have you killed before?”
“And how do you feel about it?” Proteus asked. Nikos cocked his head with confusion. “Carian or Eskium, a man is a man. It is not easy to stare into his eyes as you strike the life from them.”
Nikos stiffened his back. “I pledged my service to the empire. I promised to protect it from heretics.”
The captain chuckled to himself. “They trained you well,” he said with a wry smile.
“Would you guys quiet down?” Cepheus said in a murmur. “We’re close.”
Quite close in fact. After only five minutes, he held up his hand to signal they were there. Through a break in the trees, Nikos spotted several ramshackle homes clumped together in a small glade. Their roofs were caved in, their doors battered, and windows shattered. No one had lived there for some time. However, in front of one of the decrepit buildings stood two tents and a fire still flickering.
“What magic is this?” Zeno said. There was no one there.
“No magic,” Cornell said. “They’re not here.”
Cepheus shook his head in disbelief. “That’s not possible. They stopped here at midday. I watched them set tents and settle down. I returned twice before sundown to make sure they did not leave.”
“Perhaps you should’ve returned a third time,” Cornell said.
“The tents are still there,” Dione said. She frowned deeply, making her scarred complexion twist in unnatural ways.
Proteus stroked his chin and turned to Nikos. “What do you think?” he said.
His first test. But Nikos’s wits were as quick as his hand. “The fire is still burning, so if they did leave, it was not long ago. However, if they planned to leave at this hour, they would have put out the fire and packed away the tents instead of leaving them behind for someone to discover. Either they are still here or they did not plan to leave.”
“Clever boy,” Dione said.
“Didn’t plan to leave?” Zeno said. “What does that mean? Someone else got to them first?”
Nikos shrugged. “That is one possibility.”
“Perhaps Cepheus gave himself away, and they’re waiting for us,” Cornell said.
“Impossible,” Cepheus said. “I have never been spotted.”
“We have our mission. We cannot turn back,” Proteus said. “Although I trust Cepheus, we should proceed as if they are still here. If indeed they are gone, let us gather clues to see where they might have gone.”
Weapons drawn, the company slunk out of the forest. They listened close and watched without blinking. But they heard only the crackle of flames and saw only the flutter of the tents in the wind.
Not two paces out of the forest, the captain stopped. “Cepheus, did the company have a horse?” He knelt to the ground. The dirt was sunken in by a row of massive hoofprints.
“No,” Cepheus said. “They traveled by foot.”
“The prints are coming from the forest,” Zeno said.
“That makes no sense,” Cornell said. “The woods are too thick for a horse.”
The captain frowned. He stared awhile at the hoofprints but could make no sense of them. Without a word, he followed them to the campfire. His company trailed behind him with weapons ready to attack or defend.
As the tracks neared the fire, they disappeared among a series of footprints. Although jumbled, the marks told a story all the same. There was a short scuffle, and a mad rush from the campsite. Proteus followed the prints around the side of the building until he saw a splatter of blood. It was still warm to the touch.
“Zeno. Cornell. Around the other way,” Proteus said. “The rest of you. With me.” Zeno and Cornell nodded. As they circled around the crippled, gray homes, the rest of the company followed the trail of blood. It wasn’t long before they found the source.
Four bodies were thrown in a heap. Their vacant eyes stared into the night while their swords lay useless by their sides. Blood and gore oozed outward from the pile. The air tasted of iron.
“They’re dead,” Nikos said.
“Someone did our job for us,” Dione said with a smile. No one shared in her amusement. On the contrary, Proteus furrowed his brow, Nikos stared open-mouthed, and Cepheus backed away slowly.
“Five soldiers slipped across the border. There are four here,” the captain said.
“I saw five when last I checked,” Cepheus said. He chewed on his fingernails and glanced around at the night. “Do you think he did this? The fifth man?”
Proteus grumbled and sheathed his sword. “Dione, go find Cornell and Zeno. I want you to search the houses,” he said. An amused smile still on her lips, Dione jogged after Cornell and Zeno.
Ears to the wind, Proteus turned around to survey his surroundings. Did he sense something the others didn’t? Nikos listened, but he heard nothing.
After a long pause, Proteus returned his attention to the piled bodies. As he examined them, he motioned for Nikos to join him. Lodged deep in the back of one corpse was an arrow with spotted black and brown feathers. Proteus yanked it out and brought the head to his face. “What in god’s name…” The arrowhead was neither iron nor steel. Instead it was crafted of blue crystal.
“What is that?” Nikos said.
Proteus said nothing. He touched the glass-like tip and winced as the keen point drew blood. Running his hands down the shaft of the arrow, Proteus turned his scrutiny towards the fletching. “Have you seen any feathers like this before?” he asked Nikos and Cepheus. They shook their heads.
Just then a shrill scream split the air. Proteus dropped the arrow and drew his sword in a motion almost too swift to see. “That was Dione,” Cepheus said, stepping back a few paces, back to the forest.
Nikos whirled around while his hands hung limp by his side. Something stirred in the trees, but the night was too thick to make it out. “Draw your sword, boy,” Proteus said. His voice trembled, but his sword remained deadly still. Nikos followed his captain’s order. He meant what he had said. He would protect his company as he would his family. And when the time came, Nikos would not hesitate. Something told him that time had come.
“Dione!” Cepheus called.
“Shh,” Proteus said.
“Cornell! Zeno!” Panic-stricken, the scout’s eyes bulged. “They’re not answering,” he said, more to himself than to the others. “They’re dead. They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“Cepheus, collect yourself,” Proteus said in a murmur. “We do not know—”
Before the captain could finish his sentence, a colossal, steel gauntlet grabbed Cepeheus by the neck. Its fingers were so long they wrapped completely around the scout’s throat. Cepheus froze. His eyes called for help, knowing they would receive none. And just as he opened his mouth, a sword erupted through his chest. Silent, the steel hand tossed Cepheus aside and then receded back into the shadow.
“Show yourself,” Proteus said. “There’s no sense in hiding in the dark.”
“We can take him,” Nikos said. Two against one. He liked those odds. But those were not the odds.
From out of the darkness appeared a gangly figure with a long, black cloak, and a sword dripping with blood. And the figure was not alone. Ten of them emerged from the trees, each seven feet tall at least. They closed around Nikos and Proteus from all sides. Swords and spears hung in their hands. And as one figure stepped into the light of the campfire, Nikos saw its face. It was ghostly white with sharp, skeletal features. A satisfied smile spread between its cheeks.
Nikos had only one idea who they might be. His nan had told him stories when he was just a kid. In times of war, they came with cold steel and cloaks of night. Death was with them, and Death was them. Wherever they stalked, catastrophe was sure to follow. And all who saw them died within a day. But the Wraiths of War were just a story, weren’t they?
The figures stopped. Behind them rode a pale man atop a black destrier. In one hand, he held a dagger engraved with runes. In the other, he dragged a man with a chain around his neck. No doubt, he was the fifth member of the Eskium party. Now he hung limp from his restraint with eyes sunken in misery.
Peering at Nikos and Proteus from under his hood, the wraith atop the horse took a long sniff. In a cold, metallic voice, he spoke. “Ahh…I sensed more power in the area than this little plaything.” He shook the dagger. In his hand, it looked like a child’s toy. “You are what called me here.” He pointed at Proteus and smiled a crooked grin. “Take him. Kill the other.”
“Wait. He’s just a boy. Let him go,” Proteus said.
But the figure atop the horse merely snickered. A moment later three wraiths grabbed the captain from behind. Their ghoulish limbs held him still no matter how hard he struggled, and no matter how much he begged.
While the wraiths pulled Proteus away, a fourth brandished a great sword and strode confidently towards Nikos. He wielded the massive weapon in one hand and advanced with movements too quick for someone of his size. Nikos was outmatched, but he would not give in. He had a duty to his captain.
The wraith slashed at Nikos with force and speed he couldn’t hope to parry. Still, the boy could read the wraith as well as any man. He slid under the creature’s sword and stabbed him just below the ribs. His thrust was strong. It was a fatal wound for any creature, natural or otherwise. However, beneath the wraith’s cloak, a suit of armor shimmered faintly. Nikos had only dented the steel plate.
“Impressive,” the figure atop the horse said. “Take him as well.” The wraith pushed aside Nikos’s sword and slapped him with the back of his hand. At once, Nikos’s knees fell from under him. He felt the wraith grab his shirt and drag him towards the forest. Half-conscious, Nikos watched the campfire recede into the distance and the starry night fade to black. But his eyes were still open.