September Update

For September, here’s a preview of the first Elade PoV chapter in Retribution to tide you over.

Retribution: Elade Chapter

“He’s still out here somewhere, sir. I can feel it.”

Lieutenant Vulef Panarin sighed softly as he peered through his spyglass. This gloomy forest of wide, blue-green pines was relatively sparse, just like every other forest he and his squad had scouted so far in Glorinfel. Still, the trees did offer considerably more potential cover than the nearby gulch, and they hadn’t spotted anything for at least half an hour. He was becoming more and more convinced that his men were jumping at shadows.

“The locals couldn’t sneak up on us if we were suddenly stricken blind,” Panarin said in a hushed tone. “We haven’t spotted a competent scout since we landed in this bloody backwater.”

“If they were competent, we wouldn’t spot them at all,” his partner, Narjin, replied with a grunt. “Maybe they’re just better than we give them credit for.”

Panarin shook his head. “If any of the barons knew we were here, they’d have already thrown their armies at us. For as little good as it would do them…”

He pulled away from the spyglass and sighed again. Their expeditionary force had landed off the Crystal Coast almost eleven weeks ago at this point, but he still hadn’t gotten used to sheer size and emptiness of this “untamed frontier.” Calhara was a land of chaos, particularly here in the east. The various baronies and duchies of Glorfinel were so small and disorganized that they couldn’t hope to stand against an ordinary Imperial battalion, let alone a squad of elite soldiers like the Hands of the Archon. Every man and woman here had been hand-picked by Alexandra Damir, Sovereign of the Zarul. Panarin was reasonably confident they could conquer half the bloody continent before anyone raised an army large enough to stop them.

Regardless, the Archon wasn’t willing to take any unnecessary chances. Even a mild entanglement with the locals would threaten their advance towards the center of the God’s Wastes, and that was precisely why Panarin and his men were out here scouting a path through the wilderness. Now that the Hands had completed their primary mission, their only remaining objective in this gods’ forsaken land was to march on the Citadel and destroy the Knights of the Last Dawn once and for all.

Panarin had never looked forward to anything more in his life.

“If Regis doesn’t find any tracks by the time he circles back, we’re leaving,” he said. “We can tell the Imperators that it’s safe to march the chagari through this section of the forest. They can hug the rim of the gulch for a few days, then cut north across the—”

He cut himself off when an arrow suddenly whistled through the air and speared into a nearby tree. Panarin instinctively clutched at his bow before he saw the small piece of purple cloth attached to the shaft.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “Looks like they caught something after all…”

He hopped to his feet and gestured for Narjin to follow him. The two scouts skittered through the darkness back towards the rendezvous point with the rest of their squad. Regis and his two men were waiting for them when they arrived.

“Report,” Panarin called out.

“We caught him following our tracks down near the creek,” Regis said, smirking at the bound and gagged man sitting on his knees near the fire the other soldiers were building. “Surprisingly quiet for a big guy, but he’s still an amateur. If this is the best the barons can throw at us, we could probably march an army of screaming groll up to their gate before they knew we were coming.”

Panarin nodded and studied the man they’d captured. His frame was more befitting of a front-line soldier than a scout; his arms were thick enough that he’d obviously spent a great deal of time waving around the impressive broadsword resting harmlessly on the ground in front of him. He was relatively young—perhaps mid-twenties at most—but his cherubic face made him look even younger.

“He didn’t put up much of a fight, then?” Panarin asked.

“None at all,” Regis confirmed. “He surrendered the moment we popped out of cover.”

Narjin snorted. “Inexperienced and cowardly. You sure he’s not Solarian?”

Panarin chortled and took a step closer. “Has he told you anything?”

“We were waiting for you, sir,” Regis replied. “Though I was tempted to just kill him.”

“If the local baron notices that one of his men is missing, he’ll send soldiers to investigate. We can have the Imperators wipe his memory and send him back once he’s been interrogated.”

“Should we tie him up and throw him on a horse, then?”

Panarin pursed his lips in thought. He couldn’t imagine how this worthless Calharan dreg could possibly understand Crell, but there was a strange glint of recognition in the man’s eyes…

On impulse, Panarin stepped forward and removed the man’s gag. “You can understand us, can’t you?”

“Well enough,” the prisoner replied. He had an accent, but his words were understandable. “The average Imperial scouting patrol is five men, possibly six in an unknown frontier like this. I assume this is your whole squad?”

Panarin blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’d rather not repeat myself, so I want to make certain that all your men are here. Then again, you’re obviously in charge—speaking with you is probably good enough.”

“What?” Narjin blurted out as his hand abruptly dropped down to the sword on his belt. “Who in the void are you?”

“Someone who’s trying to figure out what a battalion of Imperial soldiers is doing half a world away in the middle of Calhara,” the prisoner said. “I don’t expect you’ll just come out and tell me, but it would save us all some time.”

Panarin opened his mouth to reply, but then his eyes belatedly flicked down to examine the broadsword lying in the dirt by the fire. The jeweled pommel, the detailed grip, the subtle runes along the hilt…no random scout of a pissant kingdom could afford an enchanted blade of such obvious quality.

“You idiots!” Panarin spat. “He’s not a scout. He’s a Knight of the Last—”

Panarin never finished the sentence. A flicker of movement from the forest drew his attention, and he turned his head just in time to watch the long shadow of a nearby evergreen writhe and twist like it was a living creature. Within the undulating darkness, he caught a glimpse of two humanoid figures silhouetted in the moonlight.

“Ambush!”

The word had no sooner escaped Narjin’s lips before one of the shadowy figures conjured a shimmering, blue-white shield of pure Aetheric energy onto her arm. She hurled the disc with enough force that Narjin didn’t even have a chance to move before it struck him in the face. The horrible crunch of his shattering nose echoed across the grassy knoll even as the rest of the squad scrambled for cover and readied their weapons.

Panarin didn’t bother drawing his sword. Instead he dove behind a nearby log and reached for the calling crystal in his satchel. The small device flickered softly at his touch, and he risked a quick glance over the edge of his cover while he waited for one of the Imperators to answer his signal. He knew he didn’t have long.

One by one, Regis and the rest of the squad were scythed down like a peasant militia. The bulky paladin they’d captured had retrieved his broadsword and chopped down two men, and his shadowy, shield-wielding accomplice was already carving through the others. But no matter how hard he tried, Panarin couldn’t seem to locate the second shadowy figure anywhere…

Nau ka’lith whol lil verin,” a strange voice whispered from beside him. “Nau seil whol lil dusqup.”

Panarin yelped as a nearly invisible blade whooshed through the darkness and smacked the crystal from his grip. Miraculously, his hand didn’t go flying off with it. Stifling a curse, he reached down to his belt to retrieve his sword—

At which point he felt a cold metal edge press against his throat. Standing above him was a tall man clad in a flowing black robe. He tiled up his chin, allowing a few scattered beams of moonlight beneath his hood, and Panarin gasped when he saw the gray-blue skin and faintly glowing eyes of a vaeyn.

“Sovereigns save me!” he pleaded.

He had no idea whether the dark elf could understand him or not, but either way the man obviously wasn’t impressed. He scoffed, then abruptly pulled back his blade and bashed the Crell man in the face with the pommel of his sword. Panarin had a vague recollection of his body crumpling to the ground, but an opaque, suffocating darkness washed over him before the pain could fully register. By the time his eyes finally reopened, he had no concept of how much time had actually passed.

“You should be able to breathe just fine. I set the bones, and the healing salve should minimize the inflammation.”

Panarin gasped for air and struggled to blink the fog from his eyes. He was lying on the ground with his back against a tree stump, and his hands had been bound behind him. A large fire crackled a few yards away, and the human knight they’d captured was calmly warming his hands over the embers as if nothing had happened.

“Your men are alive too, before you ask,” the knight added. “I am a paladin, remember?”

A belated spike of pain lanced through Panarin’s nose, and he grit his teeth and forced himself to take a calming breath. He couldn’t have been unconscious for more than an hour—the full moon had barely moved in the sky.

“What in the void is the meaning of this?” he blurted out. His voice sounded even more nasally than normal thanks to his broken nose.”

“I already told you, Lieutenant: I’m trying to figure out what a battalion of Imperial soldiers is doing half a world away in the middle of Calhara. Since you decided not to answer me, my friends and I had to take more extreme measures. They would apologize, but they don’t speak Crell.”

Panarin craned his neck to the side. Off to his left, he spotted the robed vaeyn man who’d knocked him unconscious. Standing next to him was the mysterious woman who’d conjured the Aetheric shield and humiliated his squad mates so thoroughly. Like the male, she was shrouded by the darkness and a flowing black cloak, but he could still make out the purple-black scales of her form-fitting armor. She was tall and lithe, and a single lock of silver-white white hair peeked out from beneath the cowl of her cloak. After seeing her friend, Panarin would have been able to identify her even before he saw her unmistakable luminescent blue eyes.

“Dark elf,” he croaked.

“Vaeyn,” the knight corrected with a smile. “She can understand that much, and trust me: you don’t want to get on her bad side.”

Panarin swallowed the sudden lump rising in his throat. Before the Hands of the Archon had set sail from Tracordia, he’d heard rumors about a vaeyn paladin assassinating their Breakers on the front lines of the war against Solaria. He’d been skeptical, of course; the Imperators had never confirmed the stories one way or the other, and none of the knights had ever been able to stand toe-to-toe with their Breakers. Besides, the very concept of a dark elf paladin was absurd—surely even the wretched hypocrites of the Last Dawn would never allow a demon-worshipping savage into their ranks.

“You won’t learn anything from me,” Panarin insisted. “You might as well kill me and get it over with.”

“I’m not in the habit of killing unarmed men,” the human paladin replied. “Even if I was, you wouldn’t get off that easily. We’ll return you to the rest of your unit once you’ve told us all about your mission here.”

“I won’t tell you—”

“I know, you don’t have to repeat yourself,” the paladin interrupted, raising a gloved hand. “Frankly, I wouldn’t believe anything you told us anyway, which is why we’re not going to bother asking questions. There’s another way to get what we need.”

Panarin turned towards the two vaeyn as they began placing several small, glowing violet crystals around the grass in front of them. After a moment, the male knelt down and began chanting something in his native tongue…

“I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of rumors about vaeyn shadow knights,” the paladin said.  “If you haven’t encountered any of them since you landed here, consider yourself lucky.”

As the male vaeyn’s chant intensified, the female slowly pulled off one of her gauntlets and tossed it on the ground. The gray-blue skin of her hand glistened in the moonlight, and when she pulled back her sleeve Panarin saw several strangle, glowing tattoos crawling up the length of her arm.

“They protect her from possession,” the paladin said. “I imagine that type of magic is pretty useful when you’re summoning demons.”

“Demons?” Panarin gasped. “But you’re a paladin!”

“An exiled one, actually. The Conclave didn’t care for my methods, but I still try and help out whenever I can.” The man shrugged. “Anyway, you’re getting worried about nothing. She’s only summoning one or two small demons. Once they possess you, they’ll be able to sift through your memories and tell us everything we want to know. It shouldn’t be too painful.”

The tiny crystals surrounding the vaeyn woman began glowing with an inner light, and the tattoos along her arm did the same. Her chanting intensified, and she thrust her palms into the air—

“Sovereigns forgive me,” Panarin muttered. “Stop this madness! I’ll tell you whatever you need to know!”

“That’s kind of you,” the paladin replied, “but how can I be certain you’re telling the truth? The demons won’t leave anything to chance.”

The female shadow knight said something, and a moment later the paladin nodded and took a step backwards.

“Looks like everything is ready,” he said. “Just try and stay still. She’s going to summon it directly inside you. It will hurt a bit more, but at least this way we’ll avoid making a mess.”

“What?” Panarin screamed as the vaeyn approached him with her hand outstretched. “Don’t let her touch me! I’ll tell you everything, I swear it!”

The vaeyn hovered her hand over his forehead, and Panarin grit his teeth and closed his eyes…

“Fine,” the paladin said, waving the woman away. “We’ll give you a chance—one chance—to do this the easy way. But if I suspect you’re holding back a single detail, I’ll hand you over to the vaeyn. Understood?”

“Yes, o-of course,” Panarin stuttered.  “I’ll tell you everything.”

The paladin smiled. “Good. Then we might as well get started.”

***

“You’re a much better actor than I would have guessed,” Elade Devarath said after the last Crell soldier had been bound and gagged. “What other skills have you been hiding from me all this time?”

“I’m a decent sejaak player, too,” Belek Talroy replied with a wry smirk. “I cleaned out half the barracks the night before your execution. I bet that irritated them just as much as me helping you escape.”

She chuckled softly and squeezed his wide forearm. The third member of their group, the lanky, robed vaeyn pacing back and forth across the grassy knoll, didn’t find the situation nearly as amusing.

“So you bluffed a bunch of self-righteous paladins who probably couldn’t even tell you how many cards were in the deck,” Mirvali Sathras scoffed in disgust. “Truly, you are a boy of many talents, Sir Talroy.”

Belek closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. One of these days, he was going to whirl around and punch Mirvali in the face. Elade hadn’t decided whether or not she would bother stopping him.

“Anyway, you did all the real work,” Belek said, glancing back towards the Crell soldiers. “He was so terrified of you I’m surprised he didn’t piss his trousers.”

“He did,” Mirvali replied, wrinkling his nose. “On occasion, your dull rivvil senses are actually an advantage.”

Elade chuckled despite herself and squeezed Belek’s arm again. “Seriously though, good work. There aren’t many other knights who could think on their feet like that. All those missions Alric sent you on to regain his favor must have taught you a few tricks.”

“Some I wouldn’t mind forgetting,” Belek muttered. He sighed, then crossed his arms and shot another glare at Mirvali. “I still think we could have done this without him. And we definitely don’t need any more of his ‘help.’”

Mirvali snorted. “You did hear this Crell wael say that his army is planning on attacking your precious Citadel, right? You would really turn away help from someone who has asked nothing in return?”

“You’re a confessed warlock and a member of the Adorei Kel,” Belek said. “And no one believes for an instant that you’re helping us out of the kindness of your heart.”

“I never said anything about kindness, Sir Boy. I merely wish to help an old friend caught in a difficult situation.”

“An old friend who’s the only thing standing between you and the wrath of the Watchers,” Belek growled. “Don’t try and mask your self-interest behind a veil of bullshit.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mirvali replied with a shrug. “Life is self-interest, my virtuous and almost assuredly virginal friend. But that’s really the point, isn’t it? We’re all helping each other here, and we obviously work well together. Why go our separate ways now?”

Mirvali continued smirking, and Belek continued glaring. All in all, it was a perfect summary of the past two days.

Elade ran a hand back through her hair and sighed. A week had passed since she and Belek had left Mirvali in his cave inside the Tarkannis Gulch, but after they’d first spotted the Crell army in the adjoining forest, she had decided to go back and ask for her old friend’s help. As it had turned out, she needn’t have bothered—Mirvali had been following them the entire time.

Belek didn’t trust him, obviously, and in all fairness he didn’t have any reason to—Mirvali had embraced demonology and joined one of the most despicable organizations in Calhara. But despite the fact Elade wanted to choke him sometimes, she knew Mirvali as well as she’d ever known anyone. He had served alongside her as a shadow knight for decades, and he’d been her friend longer than Belek—or his parents—had been alive.

And of course, there was the part of her that felt guilty about the fact Mirvali had been exiled from Sulinor in the first place, all because he had chosen to support her scandalous affair with Varess, a demon-possessed soldier. The Matriarch-Queen had taken everything from him, including the Aether. Elade couldn’t just ignore his sacrifice, no matter how much she wanted to slap him.

“I still can’t believe the Crell deployed over a thousand soldiers to Calhara when they’re in the middle of a war with Solaria,” Elade said into the pause, hoping to get the men back on task. “It’s even more amazing they’ve been able to travel this far without engaging any of the Glorinfel kingdoms.”

“Those rivvin may be terrified of vaeyn, but they’re not completely incompetent,” Mirvali said. “Besides, most of this frontier is essentially lawless. A clever commander could probably sneak a whole regiment of troops from here to Mavarinth without being noticed.”

Elade nodded and glanced back over her shoulder. They had left the tied-up Crell scouts right in the middle of the road, and with luck one of the baron’s daily patrols would pick them up and conduct their own interrogation. Mirvali may have been right about the breadth and lawlessness of the frontier, but she doubted that any land-owning noble would ignore the presence of a foreign army on his or her soil. At worst, they’d deploy more scouts and make it more difficult for the Crell to move around; at best, they’d deploy a whole army and force the Crell to delay their advance through the Wastes. Either way, it would buy the remaining knights in the Citadel more time to prepare an adequate defense.

Allegedly, Panarin and his men were part of an elite Crell expansionary force called the “Hands of the Archon.” Their initial goal had been to capture the Watcher temple in the Salt Peaks and gain control of the many portals therein, but Elade and Belek had destroyed it a few weeks ago. Now the Archon had decided to focus on his secondary objective: destroying the Dawn Citadel and shattering Maeleon’s Godstone. If the troop numbers Lieutenant Panarin had revealed were accurate, the Crell could very well succeed.

“The Sovereigns must have known that Highlord Alric was planning to deploy most of the knights in Torsia,” Belek said as if he were reading her thoughts. “They’d never stand a chance otherwise.”

“These soldiers set sail months ago, back before Alric had fully committed to occupying Galvia,” Elade reminded him. “I don’t see how they could have known the Highlord’s plans.”

“From what you’ve told me about these ‘Crell,’ they have a vast spy network,” Mirvali pointed out. “Perhaps one of your paladin friends is a traitor.”

Belek hissed and shook his head. “Impossible.”

“Why?”

“Because no one in the Citadel would ever betray the knighthood to the bloody Crell, that’s why.”

Mirvali glanced between them, both of his white eyebrows arched. “You have a remarkably high opinion of the people who cast you into exile and tried to execute Elade.”

“That’s different,” Belek insisted.

“I don’t see how. At your core, you rivvin are creatures of passion and ambition. The Sovereigns could have made your people an offer and—”

“How or if the Crell knew about the Highlord’s plan doesn’t matter at the moment,” Elade interrupted. “The point is that they’re here, and we still need to warn the knights about what’s coming their way.” She took a deep breath and shielded her sensitive eyes from the rising sun on the horizon. “Be honest: what are the odds that anyone at the Citadel has read the letter you sent them?”

“Higher than zero,” Belek said.

“How much higher?”

He shrugged. “Not enough.”

Elade nodded in silent understanding. Just over a week ago, Belek had reached out to some of his contacts in Westridge, a nearby settlement at the edge of the gulch, in the hopes of getting a warning letter delivered to the Citadel. There was a great deal the knights needed to know, both about the presence of a Crell army in Glorinfel and about Dathiel’s plan to absorb the remaining Godsouls. So far, however, she hadn’t been willing to take the risk of delivering that information herself. Riding up to the Citadel in broad daylight had seemed like a suicide pact given that the Conclave had sentenced her to death less than a month ago…

But now, given how dramatically the situation had changed since their escape, Elade wasn’t sure they had a choice. No matter how unfairly Alric and the others had treated her—no matter how much resentment she harbored for the way they’d treated Tevek—she still wasn’t willing to abandon them. The world needed the Last Dawn, perhaps now more than ever.

And even if it didn’t, she wasn’t about to stand by and allow the Watchers to pillage Maeleon’s Godsoul. According to Mirvali, Dathiel wasn’t just collecting the souls of his fellow Immortals for old time’s sake—he planned to use their combined power to destroy the Aether and plunge Obsidian into an era of darkness. Two thousand years of civilization would be eradicated in a heartbeat, all to stop Unbound channelers like herself.

“I could try sending another letter,” Belek suggested after a moment. “A courier from the Citadel stops by at least once a week. If we’re lucky, we might even bump into him.”

“If we don’t, the Crell army gets that much closer,” Elade replied gravely. “We’ve already wasted too much time. We’ll just have to warn them ourselves.”

Mirvali’s eyes gaped open wide. “Just a few days ago you said that going there in person was a terrible idea.”

“It still is.”

“Then what—”

Elade raised a pair of fingers. “If the Crell sack the Citadel and shatter the Godstone, it will destroy the Last Dawn forever.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t get weepy about a bunch of sanctimonious rivvin who’d rather—”

“If Dathiel sacks the Citadel and absorbs Maeleon’s Godsoul, it might destroy the world forever,” she added. “You worked for him. You should understand this better than anyone.”

Mirvali’s lip twitched. “Yes, well…fair enough,” he mumbled. “But I don’t relish the idea of strolling up to the gates of a castle filled with people who’ll want to kill me on sight.”

“In that case, you probably shouldn’t get anywhere near civilization again,” Belek snickered.

“Proud of yourself for that one, are you?” Mirvali sneered back. “Look, for all you’ve told me, I can’t imagine the Dawn will greet the two of you any more warmly. There must be another way. We could hire a rider in Westridge—we could hire a dozen riders in Westridge, actually. There’s no reason to keep any of this a secret, is there?”

“Not all of it,” Elade said. “But we could send as many riders as we wanted and there’s no guarantee anyone at the Citadel would actually listen. If I risk going there in person, however, they’ll know I speak the truth.” She idly tapped her left ear in thought. “Riding through most of the night, I could probably reach the Citadel by tomorrow afternoon or evening. At least then Alric might have a chance to pull back any knights left in Calhara. Perhaps he could even convince the druids to send some help.”

Belek sighed and shook his head. “You can’t go. I won’t allow them to pass judgment on you again.” He grimaced and glanced off to the horizon. “Let me go—alone. They might toss me in the dungeon, but they won’t consider me a threat. They’ll listen to what I have to say.”

“You don’t know that,” Elade said.

“No, but it’s still the right choice,” Belek insisted. “I’m not as important as you are. It’s not even debatable.”

“For once, we agree on something,” Mirvali said.

“You’re the only knight who can stand against the Breakers,” Belek went on, his teeth clenching as he tried to ignore the jibe. “You’re the only one Dathiel fears. If things are anywhere near as bad as we think they are, we can’t afford to let Alric take you out of the fight again.”

Elade sighed. “You know I’ll never agree to that.”

“But it’s—”

“No,” she said, grabbing and squeezing his hand. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll do it together. And that’s final.”

Mirvali glanced between them in confusion. “Living on the surface really has warped your mind, abbil,” he murmured. “I’ll just be standing over here trying not to wretch.”

“This offer applies to all of us,” Elade said, shifting her eyes back to him. “I appreciate your help here—truly—and I’ll completely understand if you don’t want to get anywhere near the Citadel. But Belek and I have to do this, and we’re going to do it together.”

Mirvali continued staring at her for a long moment, his face creased in confusion, before he finally turned away in disgust. “Wonderful. March the Adorei Kel warlock right up to the front door of the zealots who want to kill him. What could possibly go wrong?”

“Then don’t come,” Belek said flatly. “Go crawl back into your cave and hide.”

“And wait for Dathiel or his goons to track me down? I think not.” Mirvali grunted and crossed his arms. “If you really want to go and beg for forgiveness somewhere, why don’t we try returning to Sulinor? We can tell Her Pompous Majesty about what happened to Zereloth. We’ll save them months of trying to figure out where all the demons went. Who knows, perhaps she’ll even reinstate us.”

“You’re welcome to go if you wish,” Elade told him. “One day I might even join you. But this is too important to ignore. You can hate the Dawn all you like, but Maeleon’s Godsoul must be protected.”

Mirvali sighed and flicked his hand dismissively. “Fine, we’ll do it your way,” he grumbled. “I suppose I’ve always been curious about these paladins of yours. Perhaps I can give them some tips on how to actually fight demons. You know, from one knight to another…”

He flashed a final sardonic smirk before he finally sauntered back towards their horses. Belek watched him go, his hands curling and uncurling around the pommel of his blade.

“They’re going to kill him,” he said.

“They might kill all of us,” Elade countered.

“We never should have accepted his help.”

“You’ve said that before. At least ten times a day, by my count.”

Belek’s lip twisted. “I don’t trust him.”

“Because he’s a warlock or because he’s irritating?”

“Pick one.” Belek sighed heavily. “I still don’t understand why you tolerate him.”

“I owe him that much,” Elade said. “You may find it hard to believe, but he’s one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met. We fought side-by-side for many years. At one point we were even—”

“I really, really don’t want to know the details,” Belek interrupted.

She smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, the truth is that Mirvali doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The Kel won’t take him back because he worked with the Watchers, and the Watchers won’t take him back because he worked with me.”

Belek eyed her strangely. “I understand you have a history, but he’s a warlock. He’d be summoning demons again right now if we weren’t here.”

She closed her eyes and ran a hand back through her hair again. Belek may have been her friend—one of her only friends, in fact—but every once in a while she had to remind herself that they were almost literally from different worlds. He’d spent almost half his life as a squire or a knight training in the Citadel. Just because he’d become a bit more world-weary over the past year didn’t change the fact he’d grown up inside small, doctrinal bubble that viewed the world in stark shades of right and wrong.

Over time, Elade had learned to appreciate the Code and respect the Dawn’s mission, and she’d always been proud to call herself a paladin so long as the order had accepted her. But even the most traveled and experienced knights like Tevek still possessed a far narrower worldview than she would have liked. Few things in the world could truly be dissected and classified as good or evil. Not even demons.

“We’re not going to tell anyone that he’s a warlock, obviously,” Elade said. “All they need to know is that he’s familiar with Dathiel’s plans, and he’s a capable sword who can help defend the Citadel against the Crell if necessary.”

“They’re already going to look at us like escaped criminals,” Belek protested. “Do you really think dragging along another vaeyn is going to help?”

“No, but I doubt it will be a tipping point, either.” Elade shrugged. “Dame Najeen should have reached Galvia by now. If we’re lucky, she’ll be able to argue with Alric on our behalf. Hopefully he’ll order whoever he left in charge to listen to what we have to say. If they refuse our help after that…so be it.”

Belek studied her for a long moment, his thick hair tousling in the morning breeze. “And what if they do try to apprehend us?”

“I’m not just going to surrender outright, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“So we’ll fight back?”

“We’ll run first. If they force the issue…”

Belek grunted. “After what they did to you and Tevek, a part of me wants to attack them. I want to smack them around until they finally see reason.”

“Unfortunately, reason can’t be dispensed with a sword,” Elade said soberly. “They may not want us as allies anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to become their enemies.”

“You’d really trust them to keep the Godstone from the Crell? Or from Dathiel? You’ve said it countless times already—there’s more at stake here than just the future of the Last Dawn.”

Elade nodded soberly. She didn’t trust them, of course, and that was the whole point. She had touched Dathiel’s consciousness back in the Watcher temple; she had felt his rage at the world of the present and his yearning for the world of the past. In almost two thousand years, the Knights of the Last Dawn had never confronted an enemy like this. And if they weren’t able or willing to face it, then she and Belek would have to figure out a way to stop a rogue Immortal on their own.

“Come on,” she beckoned, grabbing his arm. “We need to get moving.”

August Update

Greetings again!

This month, I have draft of the Retribution prologue for you! Normal disclaimers apply: everything is subject to change, and there are likely spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up with Absolution yet.

Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think!

Retribution – Prologue

Betrayal!

The Aether was many things. An endless expanse of thought and emotion. A scintillating mosaic of light and shadow. A terrifying source of power for mortals who desired everything yet understood nothing.

But most of all, it was a graveyard for those who had tried and failed to stop these “Unbound” from poisoning their own world. And Orias, the last of the Immortals, had been hearing the echo of his people’s dying screams for so long he had forgotten the sound of silence.

Betrayal!

His consciousness was flotsam in the Aether, completely at the mercy of its whims and currents. The physical world was a pale shadow at the fringes of his mind, and no matter how hard he focused he couldn’t make himself manifest. Not yet.

“I haven’t betrayed you,” he insisted to the voices that refused to listen. “I have saved you. I have made us whole again.”

Their answer was the same as always: hollow cries of anguish followed by the vivid memories of their mortal worshippers turning against them. One by one his brothers and sisters fell, usurped by false gods and their boundless ambition. And the faster his people fell, the more powerful the mortals became.

“For an age I have watched them,” Orias insisted. “For an age I have destroyed them. But their avarice cannot be quenched, and their power cannot be contained. Our only chance is to unite in purpose as well as form. Division is their weakness—we cannot afford to make it ours as well.”

Betrayal!

Orias tried to turn away from the memories and ignore the voices, but there was no escaping either. He had no eyes to close or ears to plug. The physical world was a dark and dreary place, but there was a reason he spent so much time there inside a host. Sometimes, limitation meant liberation.

Before the recent destruction of his mortal shell, he had finally been able to merge the strongest of his brethren’s voices into one. Zerel, the goddess of long-forgotten wars and those who had been destroyed by them, had spent an eternity trapped beneath the earth bleeding her energy into the world; Anvira, the patron of the druids, had spent the same years locked inside a prison surrounded by fools. They were a part of him now, and their combined strength was nearly enough to destroy the false gods and end this war once and for all.

“Whatever happens, I will not forget you,” he promised. “Your memories will live on through me. Your powers will live on through me. And your pain, your suffering…I will forge them into a weapon. I will use them to cleanse this world and rebuild a new one from the ashes. The mortals will face justice for their betrayal.”

Orias expected them to protest. He expected them to scream and wail just as they had always done. But for the first time in an age, their only response was silence. A long, hopeful silence.

He wasn’t sure if they believed him or not. He wasn’t even sure if his words and feelings could even reach them anymore. His people were echoes now, not consciousness; they were shattered fragments of a whole rather than the whole itself.  But every once in a while, he swore he could feel them come alive again, if only for an instant.

Not justice, they whispered to him. Retribution.

“Yes,” Orias agreed. “Retribution.”

The word rippled through the Aether like an undercurrent, tugging all the fragments of his brethren back to him. Their thoughts and memories became one with his, and his consciousness transformed from flotsam to vortex. He was no longer at the mercy of the storm—he had become the storm. He shed the mantle of Orias and became something greater. The last god. The only god. The One God.

Dathiel.

His eyes fluttered open. Once again the mortal world sprawled out before him, and he drew a deep breath into the lungs of his host body. One by one his physical senses returned: hearing, touch, smell…and then finally sight. His eyes required several seconds to adjust to the near darkness; his ears, however, were instantly drawn to the muted cries and crashes of a nearby battle.

Another deep breath rattled through his lungs as he studied his surroundings. He was lying atop a cold stone slab, and he instantly recognized the engravings on the ceiling. This was Anubek Tor, the last standing temple of Orias in all Obsidian. But strangely, none of his supplicants were looming over him to aid with the transference ritual…

“My lord! Praise the Aether you’ve returned!”

Dathiel sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the slab. The rest of the antechamber was empty aside from a single black-robed man. He stumbled inside and sealed the door, a trail of fresh blood smeared along the wall behind him.

“You must leave quickly, my lord,” the man, High Priest Casadyn, pleaded between labored breaths. “They aim to destroy you before you can fully gather your strength.”

Dathiel concentrated upon the sounds of battle vibrating through the walls. He could sense almost thirty individual minds, including several that were near death. Normally he could identify them or even control them outright, but the transference ritual had obviously been interrupted. For the moment, he only had access to a small portion of his abilities.

“Who are they?” he asked. The voice of his new body sounded strange in his ears. “Minions of the Unbound?”

“N-no, my lord,” Casadyn said as he slowly sank down to his knees. His injuries were severe—it was clearly taking all of his effort just to remain conscious. “They are priests.”

“Priests? Whose priests?”

Casadyn grimaced. “Yours, my lord.”

Dathiel leapt down off the slab. “Explain.”

“When they heard of your defeat in Solaria, they decided to…” Casadyn closed his eyes and grimaced as he mustered the last of his strength. “You must leave now, my lord, before they breach the—”

A thunderous boom shuddered through the antechamber as the attackers attempted to smash their way through the door. The wood was thick and reinforced with an enchantment, but it still wouldn’t last for long.

“I will not retreat from my own temple,” Dathiel declared. He stepped over to Casadyn and helped hold the priest up. “Nor will I abandon my loyal supplicants.”

A burst of brilliant yellowish light erupted from his hands and encased Casadyn in a luminous cocoon. Divine energy coursed through the priest, mending his flesh and restoring his vitality, before the cocoon molted away and dissipated.

“My lord…” Casadyn breathed, his eyes gaping wide in awe.

“Remain here,” Dathiel ordered. “If your brethren wish my attention, they shall have it.”

Turning towards the door, he extended his hand and unleashed a seismic wave of telekinetic force. The stone splintered like glass beneath a hammer, showering the main chamber in a barrage of pebbles. The men outside the door were hurled backwards, and their battering ram soared through the air until it crashed down atop a row of wooden pews.

A low rumble echoed off the walls for several seconds as the attackers stumbled to their feet and realized what was happening. Dathiel stepped over the debris, his eyes sweeping back and forth across the men and women who had defiled his temple. He recognized each and every one of them; many had loyally served the Watchers for decades.

Scattered between them, their bodies pierced by arrows or swords, were Casadyn’s acolytes. They had died defending this holy place from their own brethren.

“What have you done?” Dathiel asked. His voice was barely a whisper, yet the temple foundation trembled at every word.

“No,” one of the attackers, a woman named Cyrel, breathed as she dragged herself back to her feet. “No, you’re not supposed to be here!”

“This is my temple. And you are my servants.”

“Not anymore,” another man, Revick, hissed from behind a shattered pew. His sword still dripped with fresh blood. “Not after you betrayed us!”

Dathiel took another step forward. “I have betrayed no one.”

“Except for the faeyn. And the knights. And the druids!”

“And us,” Cyrel added. “We served you loyally, and you repaid us by stealing away our magic and leaving us in darkness!”

Dathiel stopped at the center of the chamber. “I see,” he murmured. “Like all mortals, you believe you are entitled to that which doesn’t belong to you.”

“We earned the right to channel!” Revick snarled. “We gave you everything!”

Their rage burned like fire in the Aether, and Dathiel finally understood. For over a millennium he and his brethren had been party to a grand deception. In order to fight back against the Unbound, they had pretended to be Ascendants. The druids, the paladins, the Watchers—they had all captured a “divine spark,” a fragment of Unbound power, and used it to imbue their followers with the ability to channel the Aether.

It was a perverse form of pragmatism and sickening hypocrisy. Rather than continuing the fight on their own, the Triumvirate had successfully harnessed the energies of the very enemies that had destroyed them. This deception had allowed the Watchers to contain the Unbound and limit the scope of their atrocities, but it had never granted them enough power to actually win this Godswar once and for all. Only the combined might of the surviving Immortals could do that.

And only Dathiel could unite them.

“Your service has been exemplary,” he said, glancing between each and every one of the attackers. “But I have not betrayed you—I have liberated you from an unfair burden. No mortal should wield the power of the gods, not even their most loyal supplicants.”

“You expect us to fight the Sovereigns without magic?” Cyrel asked. “You expect us to kill the Unbound without protection?”

I was all the protection you ever needed,” Dathiel told her. “Even if your mortal shells had failed you, I would have shielded your souls for eternity.”

Revick hissed and twirled his sword. “And what about in this world? What do you offer us here?”

“Before today, I offered you the only sustenance mortals require: a clear and vital purpose. But now…” Dathiel knelt down over one of the corpses and retrieved the broken, blood-splattered mask from its face. “Now you have spilled the blood of the faithful. Now you have betrayed your oaths, your kin, and your god.”

He slowly rose back to his feet, the bloody mask clutched in his hand. “Now I have only one thing left to offer you,” he whispered. “Oblivion.”

With the flick a finger, Dathiel purged every breath of air from the chamber. The attackers realized what he’d done immediately. They clutched at their throats and waved their arms as their lungs seized. They tried to call out to their comrades as their eyes bulged in horror. But without the wind to carry their cries, they drowned in silence.

Some directed their final bursts of rage at the avatar they had once served. Swords, spears, arrows—they all pierced Dathiel’s mortal shell, but his wounds sealed before his flesh spilled a single drop of blood. In the end, the traitors died just as all mortals did, terrified and alone.

“Casadyn,” he called out once the last body had collapsed upon the floor. Air rushed back into the chamber and filled his nostrils with the scent of blood and incense.

“My lord?” the priest whispered from the antechamber doorway. He seemed unable to drag his eyes away from the corpses.

“You will acquire the necessary reagents to complete the transference ritual,” Dathiel ordered. “This shell is not yet at full strength.”

“Yes, my lord. Of course.”

“Do not weep for the fallen, my child. Those who died defending my name shall spend eternity at my side. And once this war is over, they shall bask in the glory of the One God.”

Casadyn nodded solemnly. “Your other subjects are ready to serve, of course. Since your defeat, we have been attempting to—”

“The enemy has a new weapon,” Dathiel said. “An abomination of great power.”

“A dragon, yes. Our agents report that it may only be the first of many.”

“It must be destroyed, and all knowledge of its creation must be eradicated. This is our first and only priority.”

Dathiel turned and strode up to the throne along the chamber’s northern wall. It was flanked on either side by two statues, each representing one of his dormant siblings: Anvira, Krosis, Maeleon, and Zerel. When he sat down, he could feel a tiny fraction of their power coursing through him. More importantly, he could sense the wayward souls of those he had yet to capture. They were still out there in darkness, yearning to rejoin him…

“We have located the Solarian breeding grounds, my lord,” Casadyn said after a moment, “but without an army we cannot challenge the Dragon Queen’s garrison.”

“We won’t need an army,” Dathiel replied.

Casadyn’s lip twitched. “Forgive me, my lord, but you cannot afford to risk yourself against this creature again.”

“I don’t intend to. We have other options.”

Lifting his arms from the throne, Dathiel reached out and tore open a rift between the Aether and the physical world. It only took a moment for a horde of his spectral servants to pour out into the temple.

“Demons,” the priest breathed.

“A word created by the ignorant to describe that which they do not understand,” Dathiel said. “They are echoes of the fallen, nothing more. And if we can no longer rely upon the soldiers of this world, then we shall summon aid from another.”

Casadyn nodded but remained silent. His eyes flicked about the chamber, but his mortal vision couldn’t even perceive the creatures.

“Take these bodies,” Dathiel said, gesturing to the bodies strewn across the floor. “Wear them to battle in my name.”

His servants eagerly obeyed. One by one the corpses twitched back to life as the “demons” burrowed in and seized control. Soon they were standing and awaiting his command.

“This may not be enough, my lord,” Casadyn warned. “And they will have to travel some distance.”

“My servants are legion, and distance is irrelevant,” Dathiel said. “The time has come for the Watchers to leave the shadows, my servant. I will not allow this girl-queen to imprison my sister, and I will not allow the false gods to ravage this world. We will find and destroy them.”

“Of course. As always, I trust in the infinite wisdom of the One God.”

“As well you should. There was a time when mortals considered faith a virtue.”

“Many still do, my lord,” Casadyn assured him. “And the rest…they’re simply confused. They don’t understand why you’ve been silent, and they’ve forgotten the extent of your power.”

Dathiel smiled. “Then it is time for us to help them remember.”

July Update

Hello again!

A few minor updates for July:

–I expect to pass 100k words on Retribution this month. I will also be handing the first several chapters over to my editor in a few weeks, so once she’s had a first crack at them I’ll post a chapter or two. I don’t have a release date yet, and history has taught me not to guess until the book is almost done. All I can say is that it will be out this fall!

–On my off-days I’ve been outlining a new series. This probably sounds crazy, given that I’m still writing two others, but that’s just how the brain works sometimes. At the moment, I can’t say much, but it’s a semi-apocalyptic fantasy setting that will have fewer PoV characters than normal.  I do have a cover for you, drawn by Reinbach – the same artist who did Elade a few months back.

More to come!