Welcome back to Lozaria!
Yes, I'm alive. Yes, I'm plugging away at book three—REVELATIONS!!!! (another 'Re' word)—which I hope to have finished before the end of the year and out to you shortly after.
This is the big one. Halfway through, the end of the series' first arc, and the book that contains THE MOMENT I imagined when Divinity's Twilight originally popped into my head. I dearly hope you'll love it and that this prologue teaser will whet your appetite while you wait on the full release.
Like the title says, spoilers for Rebirth and Remnant abound, so steer clear if you haven't read the first two novels. ENJOY!
“To Kill a Mage”
Adamantele 18, 697 ABH
Resistance Base, Sarconian Province of Darmatia
Silence was a dreadful thing.
Corporal Laris Sayles could stomach the darkness, the cavern gloom broken only by the faintest glow of the illyrium panels on the ceiling high above her. She knew the path through the resistance camp like she knew her breath. Deep and labored when Laris lost track of her training, her punches, kicks, and strikes falling along with her blood and sweat. Calm and measured when repeating orders, short when dealing with fools, and completely erratic when Major Reev leaned over her shoulder to point out—
Laris stopped midstride, boot raised above a puddle of brackish cave water. Twelve steps, she chided herself. Twelve steps to the puddle, not thirteen. She pulled her foot back, straightened her uniform, and clapped her cheeks. Major Reev might not be here, but void-be-damned if Laris was going to fail the Ice Queen.
She had a mission, and nothing less than absolute precision would see it through.
Five more steps brought Laris to the end of the path, an intersection formed by a crumpled sailcloth tent and a splintered driftwood bench. She counted the clicks of her heels on the stone, then turned right onto the camp's main street.
No guards met her at the camp entrance. No hands raised in salute, no raucous mealtime cries or shouts of anger. Gone were the greasy aromas of "toss-it-in" stew. Even the eye-watering reek of the latrine had faded to a nose-crinkling whiff, and the odor of hundreds of unwashed bodies had all but melted into the stones at her feet.
Laris glanced up as more water droplets fell, glimmering like tiny stars dropping from heaven to earth. Yes, she could stomach the darkness. To rely only on her sight was to invite failure, and Laris would never fail the Major.
But the silence? Laris winced as one drop struck her cheek, its frigid fragments coursing over her lips, chin, and down her neck. She tried to smile at the sensation—the cheerful, disarming smile she used with everyone, superiors and subordinates alike. The one that made her blue eyes twinkle and set her blonde curls alight like strands of fire.
The corners of Laris' mouth didn't so much as twitch. She hated silence. The silence before battle, the silence of disapproval, the silence born from one's final breath.
Yet this silence was worse. It spoke to Laris from cold charcoal cookfires. Glared at her from vacant tent maws, flickering lamps, and dozens of discarded cans, bottles, and blood-crusted bandages.
It was the silence of failure, and Laris despised it most of all.
They should have sent word by now, an empty wooden bowl accused.
Laris walked on, counting her steps—three, four, five, six—and trying to ignore the voice. To ignore her own misgivings.
It's been a week. Whether the Ice Queen won or lost at Etrus, some news should have reached us. Unless, a smear of blood on a tent flap sneered at her, they all died. Every. Last. One of them.
"The Major wouldn't die," Laris whispered, too quiet for her words to echo.
A crooked bayonet pointed at her as she passed. Who are you trying to convince? Us . . . or yourself?
Laris smacked her cheeks again, letting the sting serve as her chastisement. Major Reev was alive. The Resistance had won the battle at Etrus, crossed into the Hue Ascendancy, and secured the alliance Darmatia so desperately needed. They would drive back the Sarconian Empire, reclaim their kingdom, and then . . . and then Major Reev would smile. Bright and warm and glowing, like the sun spreading its rays across a field of ice.
That was surely what had happened. What would happen. For now, Laris just needed to trust in the Major. Her strength. Her resolve.
Trust . . . and carry out her orders.
"Twenty," Laris counted. She climbed the stairs to the cavern's peak, each step creaking—jeering—at her as she ascended. Urging her to turn back, to reconsider.
The steps expired, and Laris marched forward. A water-slick wall rose to her left, while a rickety rail lined a ledge to her right. The path possessed but one destination: the marble-white pavilion at its far end.
Light streaked from the tent's seams, banishing the darkness, driving away the gloom. Where the rest of the cavern lay dead, here there was life—the clamor of clinking glasses and the cloying scent of too much incense. Two guards flanked the entrance, rifles on their shoulders, while another four sat around a nearby table.
Reaching behind her, Laris brushed her fingers along the sheathe hidden beneath her uniform. She smiled, her pulse quickening, her breath growing shorter. This mission was by Major Reev's order, but it would bring her immense joy all the same.
For today, General Hardwick Iolus, traitor to the kingdom, would die.
Draping her other hand at her side, Laris tapped each post of the sagging railing, counting them like she'd accounted for every possible outcome to the approaching execution. Slowly, carefully, she'd altered the guard rotations, sending Iolus loyalists to scout the coastline or watch the surface entrances. Now, all six of the general's guards belonged to her—no, to Major Reev.
She was the future of Darmatia, not this bloated drunkard who could no more master his swelling waistline than he could an army. Yet was Iolus truly a traitor? Was the Major's silence proof he'd sold them out?
Perhaps not, Laris thought, clenching her fist so tight she was sure she'd draw blood. But his incompetence has stolen more than enough lives to doom him.
Laris was the shadow to Major Reev's sun, and she would do what must be done.
Voices swelled as Laris neared the tent, leaking from the flap along with an almost blinding spray of lamplight. Two speakers, one loud and boisterous, the other curt and quiet. It was clear which was the general. He seemed to drone on, seconds stretching into years as he delighted at the squawking issuing forth from his own throat.
The other . . . was a whisper. Soft and sweet, yet strangely compelling all the same. Warmth flushed Laris' cheeks and neck, pulling her toward the sound, like an embrace wrapping her up and—
She shook her head, casting off the fog of contentment. Smoke seeped through the pavilion's seams, floating around the guards, curling up toward the cavern ceiling. Some sort of drug, surely, and yet another sign of Iolus' growing depravity.
Drawing within an arm's length of the soldiers flanking the entrance, Laris saluted. "Any changes since yesterday?" she asked. The general's barking laugh more than drowned her out.
The guard on the left, Dartyl, stared straight ahead as he answered. "Nothing to report, miss."
"How many are inside?" Laris glanced at the men gathered around the table. No cards littered the peeling wood. A full mug of thin ale sat in front of bearded Jas, and a pot of wild mushroom stew was hardening to grease between him and his best mate, Kreel.
"Nothing to report, miss."
Laris took a step back, hand drifting to her sheathe, legs bending into a crouch. "It's time," she hissed. "Grab your weapons. Let's finish this."
No one moved. Dartyl gazed past her—through her—his dark, clouded eyes fixed on some eternity deep within the cavern's darkness. No steam rose from the stew; their bowls and crooked utensils lay on the table, unused, unwanted. Not even their eyes twitched, tears welling in their corners as their chests rose just enough to draw in breath.
To keep them suspended in whatever mockery of life they'd been cursed into.
A single tear slipped down Dartyl's cheek. "Nothing to . . ." he wheezed, choking the words out through purpling lips, "report, miss."
Blood spurted from the guard's mouth. He staggered forward—one step, two—then straightened up, clutched his rifle to his shoulder, and continued to stare into the abyss. So tight were his puppet strings that Dartyl wouldn't fall, even as crimson stained his uniform coat, even as what little light remained fled his eyes.
Laris didn't try to help him. Nor did she shriek or vow revenge. She simply acted, tucking and rolling forward. Two more cracks rang out, piercing the tent flap, slicing through the air where she'd just been.
Her roll carried her into the pavilion. Whipping her short dirk free, Laris rose to a crouch, eyes darting, seeking, counting. Six people. Four were clustered at this end of the tent, hands going for their weapons, one with a smoking rifle trained on the entrance. Though all were clad in gleaming black leathers, only one seemed a match for the menacing garb—a great bear of a man who leered at her from beneath a wild mane of hair.
"Finally, some fun!" he cackled, spreading his gauntlet-sheathed arms and charging her.
The one in the middle tried to grab his companion, but it was too late. Grinning ear to ear, the brute closed the gap and started swinging, each blow so hard Laris felt the force of their passing. She ducked down, dodged left, then caught a chair leg with her foot and flipped it into Dar's path.
A moment to think. That was all the chair bought her. Laris couldn't fight them all. Even though the space was small, even though they risked hitting each other if they fired at her, Laris would lose this fight. She had counted her foes, weighed her odds, and they were not in her favor.
But dying and failing—those were two completely different things.
As Dar kicked the chair to pieces, Laris rushed the long table at the pavilion's center. Maps and tokens covered it from end to end. Tiny wooden airships, soldiers with rifles, mages with meticulously carved flames sprouting from their extended hands. It had to be an expensive set. Everything else in the tent screamed opulence, from the iron-wrought wine rack, to Iolus' Trillith-silk carpets, to his feather-mattress bed, so why wouldn't his toy soldiers also cost more than she made in a year?
Huh, Laris thought, grabbing the table's edge and heaving with all her might. Maybe killing the voided imbecile isn't just for Major Reev.
Lozaria went flying, overturned wine splashing across its kingdoms and empires, miniature airships shattering against the mahogany stained floorboards. Laris ignored it all. Her whole life consisted of a single tunnel, table on one side, blocking the three soldiers for a few precious seconds, and the tightly staked pavilion wall on the other.
And at the other end of that tunnel, his lips quivering, hands and rear pressed against his desk as if trying to melt into it, was General Hardwick Iolus.
"Corporal S-Sayles," he blubbered. "If this is a-about the Major, we can—"
Blade held before her, Laris charged.
One step, she counted.
Heavy footfalls pounded behind her. The demonic bear would catch her, but not soon enough.
Iolus shrieked and threw up his hands. Good. A cur like him should die without dignity.
The faintest hint of a whisper touched the smoke-choked air, cutting through it like a blade, slicing toward Laris' ears. She shifted her gaze. Beside Iolus stood a dagger of a woman, her black uniform crisp and pressed, her chestnut hair tucked up beneath her officer's cap until hardly a strand peaked through. Her eyes were cold—colder than Major Reev's ice, perhaps colder than the cutting gales of the Great Divide.
Crossed sabers emblazoned the patches on her arms, while a hooked claw emblem dug into the silver fabric of her collar and cap. A Rittermark, a high-ranking Sarconian officer. Iolus' treason was confirmed.
But none of that mattered. The woman inhaled, the sweet whisper of her breath tugging at Laris' eyes, turning her head to face her.
In that instant, Laris' objective changed. Killing Iolus was secondary. Right now, she
Laris flung her dirk straight and true, directly at the Sarc's sinful throat. Not a glint of panic marred her eyes. Up came her arms, crossing in an x before her. That would save her, but losing a limb would—
The blade bounced off her wrists, struck the desk, then clattered away beneath the corner wine rack. Through the ripped fabric, Laris saw a glint of silver. Hidden gauntlets? A prosthetic of some kind?
Before the woman could open her mouth, Laris was on her. Shaking her sleeve, she dropped a hidden dagger into her hand and thrust it at the woman's belly.
The Sarc blocked down, deflecting with her metal-clad wrist, shoving the strike wide. She countered with a hook to the ribs, which Laris caught in the crook of her arm. Latching down like a vice, she slid her right heel behind the woman's foot, ready to slam her head into Iolus' desk.
Grinning, the Sarc kicked backwards, rolling onto the desk and threatening to drag Laris with her. Metal scraped at her arm and ribs as they fought—the Sarc to escape, Laris to keep her trapped. The shards cut deep, tearing through her uniform, biting into her flesh. They felt like hundreds of little links, each bound to the next, each sharp as razors.
But Laris refused to let go. She stabbed at the Sarc as she twisted atop the desk, each strike closer than the last.
"Shoot her!" Iolus shouted.
Guns clicked, but no shots sounded. "Hold," the leader ordered. "We might hit the Rittermark."
How kind of them, Laris thought. Clamping down on the pain ravaging her arm, she drew back and rammed the dagger into the Sarc's side.
It never connected. The woman's boot found the side of Laris's head, knocking her to the side, loosening her grip. As her vision swam, the Sarc ripped her wrist free. Streaks of blood spattered the darkwood desk as searing agony blazed through Laris's side.
But she blinked aside the torment and dove back in. Chasing the woman across the desk, grabbing her collar and hanging on for dear life.
For as her master had taught her, there was but one way to kill a mage: don't let them speak.
Don't let her cast.
Laris swung wildly, carving a wicked gash across the woman's shoulder. She didn't scream, she didn't rage. Her cold eyes didn't so much as flinch, as if they'd long since suffered all the pain they could bear.
Don't let her think.
Their foreheads crashed together in a brilliant explosion of white, dashing Laris' thoughts to pieces. But she didn't need to think. She simply slashed and punched and bit. Somehow, some way, she knew that killing this one woman meant more than slaying a dozen tyrants like Iolus.
Snarling, the Rittermark lashed out with her right arm, silvery coils unwinding from beneath her tortured sleeve as she punched. Too slow. Laris jerked aside, the weapon—whatever it was—whipping harmlessly over her head.
Then she pounced on the opening, driving her blade at the Sarc's exposed throat.
Don't let her breathe.
Only . . . Laris was the one who couldn't breathe. Her hands leapt to her own throat, clawing, tearing at the force crushing her windpipe. Blood trickled over her fingers, down her neck. She couldn't get purchase. Couldn't get her nails beneath the hundreds of tightly bound links.
And finally, as she gasped for air, Laris understood what had been wrapped around the Sarc's wrists—what was now wrapped around her throat.
Chains. Thousands of chain links that would have torn and gouged and ripped at the Rittermark's pale flesh as surely as it was hers.
The pain spiked, and suddenly Laris was rolling across the floor. Tiny figurines and shards of broken glass dug into her stomach and legs, but those pinpricks were trivial compared to the fire choking away her life.
"You failed," the Rittermark said, voice seeming to come from all around.
Laris had, and somehow that hurt worse than any chain.
"But not to worry, my dear. You shall still serve. Just like Iolus, just like the rest of your comrades." The woman's words took on a melodic quality, falling not like a blade but like a spring rain. Soothing Laris' aches, removing the phantom needles lancing her skin one, by one, by one.
By the time she began to sing, Laris could scarce remember what pain was or what her mission had been in the first place. It was important, and it had been for an important person. Someone more precious to her than anyone else.
But . . . that could wait. Laris settled into the lullaby, letting it wrap her like a blanket. Letting it take away the pain and hardship and longing she'd known all her life.
"Sleep now, little one.
Sleep and forget.
The darkness can't claim you,
If it doesn't exist."
Laris counted the words. Then she counted the beats. And at last, as she drowned in the euphoric melody, she counted nothing at all.