If you enjoyed the first two samples of Revenge of the Overlords (previously titled The Great Council), I have one last sample for you before the book is published!
A short conversation with his servants told Balhalumuut all he needed to know. The gold, blessedly, had similar taste in food to his own. Primarily meat with the occasional fruit, vegetable, or bark for added nutrition and to keep the teeth sharp.
The vision faded from Malyystrazza’s vision and she found her blood boiling with rage once more, just as it had all those years ago. How could her parents have been so stupid?
If you’ve been chomping at the bit for a taste of Revenge of the Overlords (previously titled The Great Council), I have just the thing for you.
Herein is an early version of the prologue. Just bear in mind that there may be factual and/or grammatical errors and the content of this text is likely to change before publication.
But without further ado, I bring you the prologue for your reading pleasure.
What a farce, the wyrm thought as he watched the endless procession of dragons of every size, color, shape, and description pass into the underground chamber.
To call the chamber immense would have been tantamount to calling the towering peak the humans had known as Everest a gentle hill. The size of the chamber defied all description. The wyrm couldn’t begin To guess how it had been shaped or, indeed, how it had the structural integrity to resist collapse.
The dark brown walls of the cavern were smooth and glossy, and pockmarked with an incredible array of alcoves of various sizes. They accommodated a staggering array of dragons, from the floor up to the high domed ceiling, which rose at least two-hundred wingspans above the floor.
Rising from the center of the cavern was the most blatant display of ostentation the wyrm had ever seen. A massive, gem-encrusted dais of what appeared to be solid platinum rose at least three wingspans from the cavern floor. The platform stretched out in a rectangular shape that was at least two leagues on its long side and almost half that on its narrow side.
The wyrm couldn’t help wondering just where in the name of Infernalis they had found so much platinum.
But then, he thought, if the rumors about the son are true, then perhaps they didn’t need to find it.
The desire to sneer was almost overpowering. He indulged in a mental sneer as he fought to keep his expression blank. With the sheer number of dragons milling about, it was unlikely any would notice such an expression on his face. His current form was among the most unassuming he could imagine, after all. And by design, of course. The last thing he wanted was to draw undue attention.
His form was of middling length and average musculature. His neck and tail were of average length. His silvery scales were glossy, but fell short of the mirror finish typically not attained until after a Silver’s second millennium of life. His teeth and claws had a slight grayish cast, indicative of older maturity but falling short of anything definitive. His eyes he had crafted to appear as though cast from aquamarine with a sliver of jade for the vertically slit pupils.
Forcing the tension from his body, he sat back in his shallow alcove at the ground level and tried to ignore the barrage of dragons who walked or flew past him on their way to their own places.
Not that any of them know where they belong any better than I, he thought with a mental chuckle.
Well, perhaps that was unfair. He knew precisely where the self-styled Speaker of the Council wanted him to be, after all. Or where the garnet fool wanted his natural form to be, at least. Not that he had any intention of ever doing what Graayyyavalll wanted him to do. Ever again. The arrogant fool had lost that privilege decades ago.
And before the day was out, the old fool would realize his mistake.
By the Lady of Chaos, he thought, I will make you rue the day you chose to do this.
Forcing himself to relax, the wyrm allowed his mind to wander into imaginings of the future— a future he would control —as the endless stream of dragons passed him by, most without so much as a glance his way.
Hours passed before the constant stream of Dragonkind so much as slowed, and at least another hour passed while the last of the stragglers filed in. Looking about, he could hardly believe the number of dragons present. Everywhere he looked, light glinted off scales of every color he had ever imagined. It was like looking into a box filled with chips of gems, jewels, and stone, and slivers of metal. Every substance he could imagine had at least one representative. “I hadn’t thought this many wyrms still lived in the whole of the word,” he said in awe, unable to fully banish the hunger from his voice.
He hoped none of those near him noticed.
“Where did they all come from? Where have they been hiding?”
The wyrm huffed a sigh. If he’d known about all these dragons he might not have needed to ingratiate himself to the pompous garnet. Here was all the arcane strength he ever could have asked for.
Gradually, the mutterings that formed a continuous roar throughout the immense cavern began to taper off and quiet. Judging by the content of the conversations flowing around him, the wyrm figured the dragons were growing restless as they waited for the arrival of their host.
He couldn’t help a touch of surprise that all those around him knew the identity of the great garnet. with how few of the negotiations the arrogant creature had conducted himself, the wyrm had expected most of the attendees would have no idea who he really was.
It seems that even now, he has the ability to surprise me.
But it mattered not. It would change nothing. For long minutes, the dull roar tapered further until it was little more than a buzzing murmur. The wyrm kept his eyes riveted on the platinum dais. He didn’t know what Graayyyavalll had in mind, but felt certain the ancient garnet’s arrival would be something meant to shock and impress all those in attendance.
Without warning, a booming sound like a clap of thunder reverberated around the chamber. A cloud of crimson smoke flashed into existence on the platinum dais and a collective gasp sounded around the cavern as the great garnet appeared amid the smoke, seemingly from nowhere!
How did he do that! the silver wyrm screamed inside his head, echoing hundreds, if not thousands, of spoken questions throughout the cavern.
All dragons knew that arcane travel was impossible. No power, no ability, no ritual, no talisman existed, or ever had, that could move a physical body from one location to another in anything other than the traditional manner.
As far as the wyrm knew, it wasn’t a matter of power. Surely, if one needed only acquire suitable power then one of these Overlords could have managed it by now. No, it had to be some immutable law of the natural universe. Not even a single coin, or, indeed, even a single hair, could be transported in such a way.
The best outcome for those who had tried had always been failure. The worst result, however, didn’t bear thinking about.
The silver wyrm had seen such a result once. It was more than sufficient to ensure he never attempted such foolishness himself.
All of which did not move him one iota closer to an explanation of what the garnet had done or, more importantly, how he’d done it.
Silence reigned Supreme as the crimson smoke dissipated to reveal the immense form of Graayyyavalll in all his shimmering garnet glory. With the natural shine of his deep red scales, one might almost have mistaken him for a ruby dragon rather than garnet.
Impossibly, the garnet Speaker of the Council took up more than half the dais! When had he grown so large? The silver wyrm had known the pompous creature was immense, but this was another matter entirely. It hadn’t been that long since he’d been in the garnet’s presence. surely he couldn’t—
The wyrm froze. No, he Thought. It isn’t Possible, is it? One of his key objectives is to abolish the thefts. He couldn’t be such a hypocrite, could he?
Any further speculation on the matter was cut off as the garnet turned in a full circle, presumably to meet the gazes of as many of the attendees as he could, and he started to speak in his deep, resonant voice.
Impossibly, the booming words easily reached every far alcove of the cavern without ever being loud enough to damage any dragon’s receptors.
“Thank you all for agreeing to be part of this Council, an event unlike any seen since the days preceding The long sleep.” He paused to glance around. Almost as though he were expecting applause.
Never mind the meeting just prior to the Great War, the wyrm thought snidely.
“But rest assured, wyrms. I will not be asking you to do anything of that sort. Please accept my most heartfelt thanks for being willing to set aside your differences and take this chance at building a lasting peace for all Dragonkind.’’
This time there were scattered cheers from a few different parts of the chamber. The silver wyrm struggled not to sneer at the fools. He would have wagered half his soul those cheering were among the young and all-but-helpless dragons of the new generation. He couldn’t understand how even dragons that young could be foolish enough to think this inanity had any chance of working.
“But enough pleasantries. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to think you came to hear the sound of my voice,” he said with a chuckle.
The wyrm scoffed, certain that was, in fact, exactly what the over-sized garnet wyrm thought.
“So without further ado, allow me to make you a promise.” The garnet stood up on his hind legs and turned in a slow circle. As he did so, the air throughout the cavern seemed to crackle with arcane energy.
The silver wyrm shifted his vision to Arcane Sight and his breath caught in his throat.
No glow permeated the cavern, nothing shone in the air. A few arrays of colored light flashed from a few wyrms throughout the chamber, many of which were likely Arcane Sight, the same as he, but otherwise the only power anywhere in the chamber came from the pulsing glare of silvery light within Graayyyavalll himself.
The garnet was a veritable beacon of arcane energy.
The silvery light at the garnet’s core flashed in a brilliant pulse that lit every dark corner in the chamber. The flash dimmed for a moment, then flashed again, even brighter this time.
Then a third pulse of light, this one so bright it hurt the silver wyrm’s eyes. But this one did not recede, it was sustained as though Ryujin’s Blaze had erupted from the garnet dragon’s core.
After several moments, the wyrm was forced to cancel his Arcane Sight lest the brightness permanently damage his eyes.
“I give you my oath… no, an oath is not strong enough.’’ The garnet turned in another slow circle, offering significant looks all the way around. “Wyrms of every breed from every land. Right here, today, before you all, I offer you all my solemn Heart-Bond—”
A collective gasp resounded throughout the chamber, from the silver wyrm as much as any other. He knew the unbreakable power of a Heart-Bond as well as any. On the rare occasions it was done, a dragon had to be extremely careful of their word choices when they offering such a vow. Sometimes the power that governed them did not interpret a dragon’s words in quite the way they were intended.
But it mattered not. There was no going back. Once the vow was spoken it became binding. It was irrevocable and unchangeable.
“Until the end of my life, I will remain dedicated to peace and equality among us. I will never stop fighting for it. I am committed to change. To turning the Earth into a living paradise where all dragons live in race and harmony, without fear of destruction purely to feed another’s power.’’
With the completion of the Speaker’s words, a deep warmth suffused the chamber as the power took hold and transformed them all into a Bond. A Bond that would kill the garnet if ever he tried To renege on it.
And now it makes sense, the silver wyrm thought. Except that it didn’t.
Oh, it explained the burst of power sure enough. That was so. But what in the name of Infernalis was the garnet doing? There were so many loopholes and gray areas in that oath, there was no telling just how the power would force him to hold to it!
He shook his head, no longer at all certain he knew what was happening here.
Wait, he thought as a new idea occurred to him. Is it possible those loop holes and gray areas are exactly what he’s counting on? It still seems like a foolish gambit, but it could pay off if it works out the way he wants.
Or, rather, it could have if the garnet was going to live to see this day’s end.
The silver tensed. It was time. He had to have the time to get into position and make this happen while there were plenty of witnesses here.
He stopped listening to the garnet’s words and delved into his Apex to draw forth the power he needed. He began the process of weaving together two separate and quite different patterns of power at once.
The Speaker of the Council droned on, occasionally interrupted by another dragon. At a few points, arguments erupted among those in attendance. At other times the immense wyrm was interrupted by cheering.
Finally, the silver completed his weave. The world seemed to expand around him, growing to immense proportions. It was a neat trick he had learned by listening to Balhamuut describe the method his sire had used to rescue him— what a joke! —From the agate dread, Vordillainsura.
Where he had been, a perfect replica of his silver form sat in the alcove, evincing the expected reactions to whatever words reached its receptors. In his tiny new form, he stood on the silver body’s claw. It felt real enough. He hoped it would be sufficient to fool any dragon who happened to look his way.
Now for the hard part, he thought and moved off the simulacrum’s claw and began the painstaking trek along the virtually unending wall of the cavern. With his new compound eyes, he saw hundreds of replicas of the wall within his view, each from a slightly different angle.
As much as he would have liked to spend some time getting used to his new senses, time was a luxury he did not have in abundance just now.
He ran as fast as his tiny, chitinous legs would carry him. He knew where his goal was, just five short alcoves to his right. He only hoped that in this new form he could keep his directions straight and get there with as little difficulty as possible.
The barrage of images before him made his draconic brain hurt. The booming sound of the garnet’s voice hammered at the strange sensory organs that functioned as ears, making his head spin and his stomach heave.
He struggled against the sensory overload, fighting to keep facing the right direction and keep moving. On numerous occasions, he caught himself turning away from the sounds, his body moving away of its own accord. Each time he caught himself, it was a little harder than the last to turn himself around and head toward the source again.
At long last, after what felt like years of running, he saw in the far distance that he was in the center space between the very four wyrms he meant to be between. He grinned a toothy, insectile smile.
Reaching down to his Apex once more, he found…
Confound it! he raged silently. Of all the possibilities to overlook!
There was a flaw to his plan. He could end his transformation, reverting to dragon form, but nothing more. In his present state he could not access his Apex. It seemed the insect body did not allow for it.
After only a moment’s thought, he allowed his body to shift in form until he was a dragon of dark topaz, his coloration almost identical to the earthy gloom of the walls, but in size he was no larger than a typical cave bat.
He touched his Apex and drew forth a stream of power, just enough to turn his body invisible. He drew forth more, to ensure a larger form would remain unseen, then allowed his body to grow into proportions to a little less than half the size of his silver wyrm disguise.
With a glance to ensure he was still invisible, he dived back into his Apex for a greater torrent of power.
It was good that none of these imbeciles knew of the existence of the power he was initiating. The near-disaster perpetrated by Chhry’stuulliound so many years ago had been bad enough, even though it was considered by many to be a lesser evil than the Essence Theft itself. This nameless power, however, was another matter entirely. Those sensitive to such things would think it the most dastardly power Dragonkind had ever created.
Pushing the thoughts away, he drew forth every drop of power he could and sent it forth as tiny threads of connection that touched the form, and Apex, of every one of the dragons present in the immense chamber.
Even Graayyyavalll himself. Oh, What delicious irony that was! To think that the great garnet’s own immense power would play a part in his own destruction!
The irony was a thing of beauty.
The tendrils connecting him to the multitude of wyrms throughout the chamber pulsated with power as more and more arcane energy flowed forth from the unwitting hosts into the wyrm’s dark topaz body.
As the first drop of foreign power touched his soul, the world seemed to spin at the conflicting sensations. He shivered as a chill ran down his spine, yet his muscles clenched against a sudden influx of heat.
The mingled fiery-heat and icy-cold permeated every cell of his being as his a Apex filled to bursting with the alien power of this multitude of dragons.
He knew his timing would have to be nigh on perfect to make this work. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t get a second chance at this.
A few moments before his Apex burst from the massive influx of energy, he began crafting his weapon. He weaved the incoming arcane energy into a lance unlike anything ever seen on Earth before. He gave it a core of pure adamantite, that oh-so-rare metal that was all-but-lost to humankind during the period in their history known as the Dark Ages. It was also, consequently, the only metal on Earth strong enough to pierce the scales of an ancient wyrm.
He couldn’t help wondering, briefly, what the dragon-slayers of old had used? They couldn’t all have used it. Not even all of the successful ones. Perhaps they had found success by somehow getting around the scales of those ancient wyrms?
He wrapped the adamantite core in a sheath of pure destructive arcane power. Around this he wrapped a film of liquid acid capable of burning though any substance, even dragon scale, in a nanosecond. Around The acid he poured a coating of virulent poison, the like of which had not been seen in millennia. Since the destruction of the last of the Merachnids, a grouping of dozens of species of spiders, scorpions, and other arachnida of immense proportions.
Just a drop of that Poison would have killed even the greatest of the ancient wyrms in the days before the discovery of Essence Theft. Hence the reason the Merachnids had been wiped out in their entirety.
Around the poison he crafted a layer of crackling, super-charged lightning. Around the lightning he formed a layer of super-heated liquid fire hot enough to melt rock in an instant. Over this he created a layer smoke as black as pitch and infused with negative energy, similar in effect to the life-draining of power in a shadow dragon’s elemental breath.
Atop the negative energy smoke he formed a layer of liquid ice that could freeze even a firedrake solid. Finally, atop the ice he poured a layer of kaleidoscopic light that would block any attempt to see, investigate, or Delve the lance.
Still pouring immense amounts of power into the various layers of the lance, he formed a metaphysical blade and slashed at an angle through the end of lance, leaving a sharp edge while also revealing every destructive layer in all their murderous glory.
Allowing the blade to dissipate, he continued to pour copious amounts of arcane energy into every layer of the lance, enhancing the potency of every bit of it.
He increased his draw of arcane energy from every wyrm he was connected to, funneling all that immense power into the lance.
Around the chamber, the younger dragons began collapsing from exhaustion. Their cohorts looked a around, confused. A few narrowed eyes were all the evidence the wyrm needed that at least a few had grasped, on same level, at least an idea of the danger they were in.
This was the tricky part. He could not afford to be discovered. He had plans for these wyrms.
A pulse of power flashed through the chamber. Energy shimmered around every wyrm present, sealing the Heart-Bonds of every one of them to whatever silly oath the garnet had demanded.
Now, he thought as he completed several weaves almost at once.
The first finalized the lance and brought it into physical existence, launching it at the pompous garnet atop the dais, who had his forelegs and wings raised and extended, as though he were accepting empowerment from the gods.
The second sent a massive backlash of power back to those he’d been siphoning power from, the force of which would knock them unconscious and remove all memory of the wyrm and his siphoning of power.
Those who hadn’t noticed would, at least in theory, suffer no ill effects beyond the unconsciousness.
And the third was… a curse of sorts. Albeit one that would affect himself as well as many others. It was a pattern that would seek out and identify any dragon who had ever made use of Essence Theft. Those it found guilty it would… mark. Those who had resorted to the use of such an ugly power would find their bodies and faces matching the ugliness of their souls. The more they used it, the more dramatic the changes.
On the dais, Graayyyavalll looked directly at The disguised wyrm, his eyes awash with… sadness, of all things. The glowing, kaleidoscopic lance plunged deep into the huge garnet’s chest, piercing his heart and melting away huge swaths of the flesh and scales surrounding it.
All around the chamber, wyrms writhed and shrieked in agony as their bodies were remade. Some few gained only a small potbelly, a twisted horn, a kinked tail, or strange lumps. Some acquired all of these things. Others gained all this and more in unbelievable profusion and to a grotesque degree.
Never again would anyone have to guess whether or not the dragon before them had partaken of another dragon’s essence. It could be known on sight.
The wyrm felt his own body twisting into grotesque angles as the form of the would-be Speaker of the Council slumped to the platinum dais, his garnet body disintegrating.
Fighting through the pain, the wyrm initiated the ritual to steal the great wyrm’s essence.
An agonized shriek above him almost distracted him enough to interrupt it, but he concentrated on the ritual and forced himself to casually acknowledge the shocking sight before him: the other son. The brother. The one that was supposed to have died years ago.
As he continued the ritual, the garnet creature flew toward him at ever-greater speeds and his agonized shriek became an angry wail and then a rage-filled roar.
“You!” The younger garnet roared in fury. “How Could you! After everything we’ve been through! He trusted you, you gutless son of a worm!”
As the ritual completed, the wyrm looked down at his terribly misshapen body with its shining silvery-blue scales. His natural form. His real body.
Blast it, he thought. That was an unexpected side-effect.
With an almost negligent wave, he sent the last of his power roaring toward the garnet an instant before the unspeakable hurricane of Graayyyavalll’s soul struck him.
The smaller garnet body flew toward the far wall of the cavern at impossible speed.
The silvery-crimson soul-stuff of the great garnet struck him a physical blow, knocking him from the wall to plummet toward the cavern floor.
In the instant before he struck the floor, be whispered, “I am sorry, my brother. There was no other way.”
Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying the excerpts. And do keep in mind that if you haven’t done so yet, you can pre-order the full book on Amazon at books2read.com/revenge-overlords
Today, I bring you the last 4 sample chapters from the original draft of Shadow of the Overlord before the book is published. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, lol, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Dargon lay in his cot with an icy cloth on his forehead. He hadn’t slept in what felt like days, but at least the pain was finally beginning to dull.
“I’m still waiting for that explanation about what this is, Trevan.”
The Trevan nodded, but kept silent.
Dargon sighed in frustration.
The older man touched Dargon’s cheek, feeling it with the back of his hand. “Fever seems to have broken. Finally.”
“Does that mean it’s safe for me to sleep now?” Dargon asked hopefully.
The Trevan considered. “Not just yet. When the headache is gone, I think.”
“Not yet. I will explain, but after you’ve slept. Your body has been excessively taxed. I won’t risk stressing you further.”
“I said no, your highness. When you’ve recovered.”
Dargon narrowed his eyes. “I’ll hold you to that.” His voice came out far more petulant than he was comfortable with.
The Trevan gave a slow nod.
“Can you at least tell me why trying to sleep makes it worse?”
The priest pulled his stool closer to the cot and sat, his gaze burning into Dargon’s eyes. He was silent a moment, then said, “Okay, Dargon. Understand, the sickness you are suffering has been afflicting men for millennia. It is rare, but when it strikes there is no avoiding it. Its victims have no choice but to suffer through the symptoms until they have run their course. The affliction, for whatever reason, I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer, insists on the sufferer experiencing every moment of its torment. It is the affliction itself which intensifies if you try to sleep during its effects.”
“It… insists?” Dargon asked with wide eyes.
The Trevan nodded. “I know of no better way to describe it. The affliction acts as though it has a will of its own. It will not allow you to sleep through its effects.”
“So, you are saying there is no physiological reason for the pain to intensify when trying to sleep, but it happens anyway.”
The older man shook his head. “I have no doubt there is a direct physical reason it happens. We simply do not have a way to identify exactly what that reason is.”
Dargon nodded. It sounded reasonable. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something— probably a lot of somethings —the Trevan wasn’t telling him, but then, the priest had promised to explain after the sickness had run its course. He contented himself with that.
“But,” Dargon said as the thought occurred to him. “The way you speak of it, seems to imply that the affliction itself has will and desire of its own. That it wants its sufferers to… well, suffer. Is it intelligent?”
“After a fashion.”
Dargon furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand.”
“In truth, I don’t either. But I’ll do my best to explain after you’ve rested. Fair?”
Dargon nodded. It was troubling that even the Trevan didn’t understand what this affliction truly was.
Or perhaps he is only saying that because he does not want to discuss it right now, he thought. That made him feel better about it.
“How are things in the city?” Dargon asked.
The Trevan grimaced. “Oh, I don’t think that’s anything for you to be worrying about.”
“Please. I’ve been cooped up in here for days. I’m bored-”
“Days?” The Trevan asked with a slight chuckle. “No, highness. It hasn’t even been a full day yet.”
Dargon’s spirits plummeted. How could that be? He felt as though he’d been suffering in bed for a week or two at least.
“Do not be despondent, highness. Time always slows to a crawl when one is in pain. It will pass.”
Dargon sighed. “Please. I’m bored. Tell me what has been happening. Anything exciting?”
The Trevan sighed heavily. “This city has been calm and uneventful, I’m afraid. There is interesting news from the testing grounds in Cuularan, however. That has been causing quite a stir.”
Dargon furrowed his brow in thought. “Cuularan? That’s a rather minor outpost, isn’t it? Aren’t the main testing grounds in Zenova?”
“That they are, highness. Until a few decades ago, Zenova was the only testing ground.”
“Oh? What changed?”
The Trevan cleared his throat and spoke in his ‘lecturer’ voice. “In the days before the founding of the smaller, more distant cities, it made sense to have the whole of the Free-States test in a single location. But as the Free-States grew, that became less and less viable. Today, it could be a three-week journey to the grounds in Zenova from some places. That is why the dragoons began allowing any city-state more than two days’ ride from Zenova to host their own testing. Paid for by the individual city-state and overseen by an approved dragoon officer, of course.”
Dargon nodded. “So what is this news from Cuularan?”
“Apparently, some girls entered the testing this year-”
“That’s not so strange, is it? There’s no rule against it, as far as I know.”
“No, highness, there is not. Their participation is not, in and of itself, so odd. There is commonly at least one at the larger testing grounds. But Cuularan is small. I believe it has been some years since they have had a girl compete. But again, that is not the oddity. What makes it odd is the two seem to be working together to defeat the challenges and are actually doing rather well.”
“Cooperation is allowed, isn’t it?”
The Trevan smiled. “Oh, certainly. In fact, without it completing the course is said to be impossible. Much of the point of the Gauntlet is to teach the young recruits the value of the team. Most go into the course more than willing to trample every other contestant to further his own position. However, they have been working in concert from the start and are doing so well that some are speculating we may see our first female dragoons in centuries.”
“It’s that rare?” Dargon was amazed.
The Trevan nodded. “No rare that most don’t believe it has ever happened. It has been suggested that women are intentionally excluded, but no proof of that has ever been brought to bear.”
Dargon narrowed his eyes, sensing something underhanded happening. “I see. But why exclude them?”
The Trevan leaned back, his eyes thoughtful. “Many reasons, highness. And none.”
Dargon’s brows shot up.
“We men are insecure creatures. Much of the dragoon command seems to believe that was is the province of men. There is a general perception of the physical weakness of women.”
“Apparently they never met mother,” Dargon muttered.
The Trevan chuckled. “Very true, my lord. There are always those who challenge the common perceptions.”
“Is that truly what it is about?”
The Trevan grimaced. “I don’t believe so, highness.”
“Then what is it about?”
“I believe it is about the dragoon leadership. None of them know how to deal with women. They don’t know the first thing about how to reach one. Or train her. Or even talk to her. So they take measures to ensure they don’t have to.”
Dargon clenched his jaw. “But… how can they…?”
“It is because there is no official ruling. Somehow, the girls who enter never do well enough to be considered. Thus it has been for generations. So, you see, Dragon, why these two girls in Cuularan are making such a stir with their performance.”
“Against all odds,” Dargon whispered.
“I want to help them,” Dargon said. “If they earn it, I want them to get in.”
“Commendable, highness. But how?”
Chapter 18 Dargon 6
Dargon leaned back against the pillows propping him up, deep in thought.
“Also,” the Trevan said, continuing the threat of the original conversation as though they hadn’t left it. “While this isn’t news, per se, it has been brought up again recently. We still have heard no word from any of the last three dozen expeditions sent across the strait to Thorutia. It is as if they have all disappeared without a trace.”
“How long since the last one came bac. Or at least send us word?”
The Trevan closed his eyes to think. The torch behind him seemed to flare, the light blazing brighter for a moment.
The light dimmed again and the Trevan opened his eyes. “The last confirmed missive form an expedition was… decades ago, according to our records. None now live who remember when it came and no one is certain we can trust the date listed on the missive itself.”
“Decades?” Dargon asked, incredulous.
“That is the supposition, Highness.”
“What was the date listed on the report?”
The Trevan grimaced. “It was dated the eighteenth day of highmark, in the year twelve-twenty-four.”
Dargon’s jaw slipped open. “Twelve-twenty-four?” he whispered in awe. “But that was almost three-hundred years ago.”
“Hence the reason we doubt its accuracy, highness.”
Dargon nodded. “What did the report say?” Silently, he added, what if the report is right? What if it has been over two-hundred years since the last time we made contact with the isle? What would that even mean?
“That the expedition was ambushed in a pincer attack between torthugra and teranthric.”
“And no further report came?”
“And we send a new expedition every year?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Dargon furrowed his brow. “Why?”
The Trevan shrugged. “We must.”
“But why!” Dargon almost shouted in exasperation.
“Please, highness, do not get worked up. It will make the headaches worse.”
Dargon nodded, noting the increase to the pressure at his temples.
“But to answer your question, we cannot afford to miss any information which might be gleaned from a voyage across the strait.”
Dargon shook his head in wonder. “Surely you see the inherent paradox here. We can’t learn anything from a voyage that doesn’t report back.”
The Trevan nodded. “I know, Highness. Alas, it is not within my control. Your father would be the better person to speak to in this instance.”
Dargon sighed. “So you cannot tell me why we continue to send dragoons to their deaths every year.”
“You know as much as I do, Highness.”
And there it was. For whatever reason, dragoons were sent across to strait to die every year and no one even questioned it. Why didn’t they? Were they truly so blind that they didn’t see what was happening?
“We need to find a way to learn what is happening over there, Trevan.”
“On that, we agree, Highness. But how? Without sorcery, our only source of information is men on ships. And they never report back. I expect they die before they get the chance.”
“Trevan,” Dargon said cautiously. “Why was sorcery outlawed?”
The priest took a deep breath and blew it out forcefully. His intense gray eyes seemed to delve into Dargon’s soul as he sat forward. After a moment, he leaned back again and narrowed his eyes. “Now, why would you ask a thing like that?”
Dargon shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “You mentioned it. I’ve never heard an explanation of why. At least, not one that made sense and wasn’t just a lungful of bluster from bigots or idiots. I guess I was just thinking that if there was something that could be done about it…”
“I see. Well, don’t waste energy thinking on it. You would have to have deep influence in every city of the Free-States, not to mention a damned good argument to even have a chance of being listened to. And even then, I think the prejudice is so ingrained into most of the people that you could never get rid of it.”
“But how did it begin?” Dargon sat forward in his excitement, and his head exploded in agony, his vision dimming. He immediately sat back, resting his head against the piled pillows. Hands at his temples, he rubbed gently as he took a deep breath.
“I think that’s enough excitement for today,” the Trevan said. His robes rustled briefly and his booted footsteps moved toward the door.
“Wait,” Dargon whispered. “Cold cloth, please.” Even the soft whisper hurt his head. It was as though his head were inside a wardrum, the vibrations deafening.
A moment later, an icy cloth was laid against his forehead and the pain diminished almost instantly. “Thank you,” he whispered.
A gentle pressure touched his shoulder for a moment, then the Trevan’s steps moved toward the door and stepped out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Dargon struggled to think through the sluggishness in his mind. The illness was bad enough on its own, but with this pain in his head, clear thought was almost impossible. He had to find a way to stop the senseless expeditions across the strait while at the same time he had to find an answer to what was happening to them. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something potentially disastrous was coming from Thorutia.
Why else would there be no report from any of them for so many years?
But there was one inescapable problem. He only had thirteen years. Not only would no one take his ideas seriously, Father included, but until he succeeded his father to the throne, he had no power to see his will done. What could he do?
He pushed the thoughts away. He would do something about the expeditions, when he could. But for now, being small in power himself, he needed to focus on small problems. The thought turned his mind back to his earlier line of thought.
There is something I can do right now, he thought, a smile touching his lips. The girls in Cuularan need help. Help I can provide. If I can get there in time, I can ensure they are treated fairly by the judges of the Gauntlet and the Combats.
His smile broadened to a grin and he summoned a servant to prepare his travel plans.
The wind tore at Taliesimon’s face as she fell, vines slapped at her while leaves whipped her skin and twigs slashed at her. She passed the outer foliage and kept falling. There was no net, no soft landing, no surprise catch.
Below, the forest floor rushed up toward her, its earth and stones looking harder and sharper than she would have thought possible.
We were wrong, she thought with a curious detachment. She couldn’t place how or why, but it seemed to her that she had thought or said these words before. The feeling of surrealism became almost overwhelming.
Faster, the ground rushed to meet her. Branches, vines, and dust bit into her flesh with surprising force.
Oddly, she recognized the damage to her flesh, but there didn’t seem to be any physical pain. She watched the ground rise up to meet her with calm acceptance.
I’m going to die, she thought, and closed her eyes to meet her end.
Abruptly, the falling sensation stopped and she registered the touch of something smooth and soft against her skin. Skin that burned. Every inch of it burned with something resembling heat, yet not. As though she lay in a pool of liquid fire, yet she also felt cool, as though the soft sheets around her had been drenched in a cold mountain stream.
She tried to slowly open her eyes, but her lids did not respond. Light appeared on the other side of her closed lids, bringing pink-tinged light into her vision to blot out the darkness.
Where am I? She wondered. Am I dead? She noted that the smaller hands of Okara and Jonah were no longer within hers.
She tried again to open her eyes. She put all the force she could muster into pushing her lids open. The effort proved far more exhausting that she had expected, but it worked. Her eyes cracked the tiniest sliver and she glimpsed the room she occupied.
The dark stone walls were seamless and the ceiling appeared to be dark mahogany. A desk stood across the room against the wall next to the open door and held numerous jars and bowls that seemed to contain various herb al remedies. To either side of her bed, at the other two walls, were two more beds, each containing a small form.
Standing in the doorway, watching her, was a tall figure robed in midnight blue. Beneath the dark cowl, she glimpsed dark skin with a short coat of glossy hair covering a face that was all sharp angles. His think lips curled up in a tight smile.
The torch in his left hand illuminated the room.
His eyes met hers and his smile widened. “You are awake, I see.” His voice held not a hint of surprise, as though he knew she had been awake for some time and was only waiting for her to openly present herself as such.
She tried to nod, but there was no movement. She settled for blinking.
He stepped toward her. “You three put on quite a show. You’ve been the talk of the city— and other cities, for that matter —for days now. It’s too bad, really.”
She opened her mouth to question, but no sound emerged. The robed man nodded and brought a carved elm cup from the desk and put it to her lips. The liquid was clean, clear, and wondrously cool in her mouth. She sloshed it in her mouth for several moments, savoring the sensation, then swallowed.
It was as though she had swallowed liquid fire. The burning brought tears to her eyes. But the moisture in her mouth and throat now was worth any pain. She greedily gulped down the rest of the cup. Thin streams of water dripped from the corners of her mouth to dribble down her chin and pool in the hollow of her throat.
Dropping the cup from her lips, Taliesimon huffed a deep, satisfied breath. She glanced back up to the robed man. “Thank you,” she gasped in a throaty rasp. She held the cup out to him. He nodded and took the cup. He dipped the cup into a large bowl. Dripping water to the floor, he brought it back to her again.
She drank slower this time, willing the water to moisten her throat so she could speak properly.
When she finished, her throat felt almost normal. Well, if one considered a throat coated in sand to be normal, at least.
She swallowed and smiled when the saliva made its way all the way down her throat.
“How long have I been here?” she asked, her voice clearer, though still raw.
“Two days,” the man said.
She narrowed her eyes. “How is that possible?”
He shrugged. “Your injuries were significant, if not life threatening. You ask me, though, you had it easy. Your little boyfriend there, he’s going to need a lot more time to recover than the two of you.”
She winced, then grimaced, and the man chuckled.
Clearing her expression, Taliesimon remembered what the man had said and cleared her throat, glowering. “What’s too bad?”
The man emitted a strange sound, something between a dry cough and a gasping laugh. “Oh, dear. Well, I suppose the goblin was bound to find its way out of the bag eventually. S’pose it might as well be now. I do hate to be the bearer of bad news, but evidently it’s falling to me anyway-”
“Get to the point,” she snapped. “What is it?”
He sighed. “It seems that you and your little friend were disqualified from the Gauntlet over a few of the stunts you pulled on the first and fourth challenges.”
“What!” she almost shouted, suddenly furious. “What do you mean, ‘stunts’?”
“Now, now. Don’t get upset with me. I’m just a Trevan. I had nothing to do with the decision. I’m just relating to you what I’ve heard from others.”
Taliesimon took a deep breath and released it slowly. “What do you mean by stunts? What did we do that was against the rules?”
“I don’t rightly know what all the rules are. The story I heard, though, is something about tearing apart the challenge area to bypass the first challenge and using each other’s bodies to defeat the river. I don’t rightly understand what it all means, but there it is. I do believe, however, that you are entitled to a full trial before you are formally disqualified from the testing.”
Those bastards! she thought in fury. No one ever said anything about rules! we even explained to the dragoon what we were doing with the raft and he approved it!
She did her best to keep her expression neutral and her eyes blank. “Obviously, I’ve never done this before. Do I automatically get this trial, or do I have to request it?” She felt proud for managing not to raise her voice.
“All are entitled to speak at a disqualification. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen one before. They’ll let you speak and anyone else present. If you know anyone with anything helpful to say, you may want to ensure they’re present the day of the announcement.”
She nodded. “Trevan, apart from my family, I don’t know anyone in the city. But there is a dragoon who witnessed part of it and I think he could help. Do you know how I might contact him?”
“Do you have this dragoon’s name?”
“I,” she faltered. “No. But I know where he was on the day of the Gauntlet.
The Trevan sighed. “I’m afraid that isn’t much help. If you had a friend within the dragoons, perhaps they could help you find this man. But as it is, there is scant help I can offer.”
She nodded again, doing her best to hide her frustration. “Could you find out if my family is still in the city? I’d like to see them.”
“Now that,” the blue-robed man said brightly. “I can help with. Your father and brother have been trying to force their way in here since you arrived.”
Taliesimon smiled. “Of course they have.”
Taliesimon stood by her own power. Even that was a feat to be proud of after the last few days. She stood before a long, white table behind which sat a full dragoon council, save the Grand Master himself. Three senior members of each of the three orders sat, each one staring down at her with displeasure.
Okara stood to her left and on her right, Jonah sat in a padded chair.
The senior officer, a bony, gray-bearded man call Austoryn, stood and looked down at the three of them. When his gaze drifted past Taliesimon to Jonah, his hard eyes softened a bit.
“Recruit Jonah, we have reviewed the evidence and you do not stand accused with the girls. It is clear that your part in the events was the result of coercion. However, on account of your extreme injuries, you cannot proceed to the Combats this year. Therefore, at next year’s testing, you will be automatically elevated to compete in the Combats. I’m sure you will do us all proud.”
“Thank you, my lord. But I-” A hand clapped over his mouth from behind.
“Let’s not waste the Scale-Commander’s time with over-gracious appreciations,” said a heavily muscled man behind Jonah’s chair.
Lord Austoryn nodded tot he man, then turned his attention back to Taliesimon. His expression darkened. “Now, as for you two. No further evidence is needed to process your expulsion-”
“My lord Scale-Commander,” Okara said forcefully. “It is my understanding that I have the right to speak and call others to speak on my behalf before a decision is made.”
Taliesimon wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the Scale-Commander’s expression darkened further. “Then speak!” he barked.
Taliesimon hadn’t thought the girl capable of being so gracious.
“Before I speak, I would like a detailed account of the accusations. What specific rules did we break? What precedent do these rules have?”
“You’re a girl!” cried a deep voice from the audience behind them. “Nothing more is needed!”
Another voice, this one distinctly feminine, called, “Why were they even allowed to enter? Girls can’t be dragoons.”
The Scale-Commander raised a hand. “There are no rules against females entering the Gauntlet. It has always been open to anyone of the proper age and desire, regardless of gender or social status.”
A few boos sounded, but they were soft and seemed to lack conviction.
That’s right, Taliesimon thought. Keep your mouths shut. There has never been any rule against women becoming dragoons.
Lord Austoryn waved his hand to a younger dragoon who sat the the far left end of the table. “Dragoon-Knight Thorien, the charges.”
The man stood, a sheaf of parchment in his hands. His blond hair was pale, almost white, and hung past his shoulders. His smooth face was freshly shaved with high cheekbones, a strong, angular jaw, and a slightly bulbous nose. He cleared his throat forcefully before he spoke.
“All charges apply equally to both girls, as both had an equal hand in their plans and their combined actions. First, is the subversion of a promising recruit, leading him into rule-breaking that was not his decision. Also, sabotaging him in challenge number three, ensuring he could not continue after the Gauntlet.”
Taliesimon fumed. How dare they accuse her of doing that to him intentionally!
“Second, is the subverting of challenge number four by the holding of hands. The purpose of that challenge is to test the mettle of a recruit by his own individual physical merits.”
Taliesimon bristled. “Nevermind that almost every one of your recruits needed help to get past it,” the muttered under her breath.
Thorien turned to the next sheet of parchment. “Third, is the intentional sabotage and assault of a recruit during challenge one.”
Taliesimon turned to Okara, who looked as baffled as she felt. She mouthed, what in the hells is he talking about?
Okara shrugged. Clearly, she was just as lost as Taliesimon was.
“And finally, the fourth charge, also during challenge one, is the intentional damage and defacement of the challenge itself for the purpose of subverting and circumventing said challenge.”
The Dragoon-Knight laid the parchment sheets face down on the table.
“The intentional sabotage and assault of a recruit,” Taliesimon said. “Please tell me I’m not the only person who thinks that is the funniest damned thing they have heard since winter broke! Very nearly every single recruit does exactly that right at the start of the Gauntlet every. Single. Year! To say nothing of the violence and sabotage during the Gauntlet. Why, we witnessed a boy throwing another boy into the boiling mud during that first challenge, intentionally cooking him to death!”
Several people in the audience behind her laughed and several more voiced their assent.
Okara stomped a foot. “And if that ogre will let him speak, Jonah himself will tell you that we did not at any point coerce, subvert, nor sabotage him!”
Jonah nodded emphatically, but his father’s thickly muscled hand still covered the boy’s mouth.
Taliesimon shrugged. “Where is it written that the river must be braved without help? There were-”
“You are expected to know the rules-” the Scale-Commander began.
Taliesimon’s temper flared. “I do know the rules! I did my research. Not only was the entire Gauntlet kept secret, but none of the information I could find was even accurate! And there were no rules written or spoken anywhere save one: Win. At. Any. Cost.”
“All of the boys who placed knew the rule-”
“Did they? Or were they just too thick to think of working together?”
The Scale-Commander’s face purpled. “They knew the Gauntlet is about personal achiev-”
“It is not!” she shouted. “The very first challenge is im. Poss. I. Ble. Without a team effort. It cannot be done alone, especially from the bedrock under the mud!”
“Were too caught up in personal achievement to think about working together. Perhaps that is why so many of your vaunted boys never make it past the first challenge! I didn’t see it then, but now I realize the numbers are so few that anyone who overcomes the first challenge is guaranteed to place so long as they finish the Gauntlet! You have it rigged by sending every boy in thinking that working as a team is somehow a bad thing-”
“You are out of-”
“No, Lord Commander!” Taliesimon screamed at him. “I am not out of line! I just see what you don’t want anyone to notice. I also see this hard truth: That what this is really about is keeping girls out of the dragoons!”
“SILENCE!” the Scale-Commander roared.
Taliesimon found her voice had fled her. Inexplicably, she now felt meek and vulnerable.
“Even if we were to assume your arguments were valid,” he said in acid tones. “We cannot overlook your defacement of the first challenge. That alone is enough ti disqualify any recruit.”
“Then it’s a good thing we had permission!” Okara almost shouted.
Several of the council chuckled and the Scale-Commanded laughed heartily.
Taliesimon’s face burned. “It’s true.”
Austoryn continued laughing as he said, “I’m sure, child. I’m sure.”
“There is proof,” she cried.
The Commander sobered. “What proof?”
Taliesimon stopped herself from smiling. “The man we spoke to, one of the dragoons who supervised the first challenge. He questioned what we were doing when we pulled the first stake from around the pit. We explained and told him of our idea, and he approved, saying we could proceed.”
The Scale-Commander’s face paled. “Who was this dragoon?”
Dammit, she thought.
On account of its longer than usual length, I only have one new chapter from the original draft of Shadow of the Overlord today. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Taliesimon tightened her grip on the two hands within hers and dashed forward before she could completely lose her nerve.
Jonah shouldn’t have any problems, she thought. With those thick, fancy boots the heat probably won’t even touch his feet. But Okara and I-
Okara grunted as they ran over the hot coals. Taliesimon’s feet were getting hot, but so far it was only mildly uncomfortable.
Jonah’s sweat slicked hand squeezed Taliesimon’s while Okara pulled away, speeding across the coals almost too fast to keep up with.
Then, then burning began.
It was a small thing at first. Something akin to a kitten repeatedly scraping the bottoms of her feet.
By her tenth step into the coals, however, it grew into true pain.
She likened the feeling to how she supposed it would feel to be dragged behind a galloping horse with bare feet scraping on the cobblestones.
Pushing her tired and sore muscles as hard as she could, she pushed her speed to the fastest sprint she could manage. Looking ahead, she found the bank and the cool water of the river a least half a hundred spans away!
Immediately, the pain in her feet intensified. The sensation was exactly as she imagined it might feel to have a hundred sewing needles plunged into her soles at once.
Growling in her throat, Taliesimon pushed her small legs faster, drawing on pain-induced strength she never new she had. Just as Okara dragged at her hand from ahead, she dragged Jonah by the hand behind her.
Sweat plastered her hair to her face, but her mouth was as dry as a six-day desicated lizard corpse. The pain in her feet was beyond anything she had words to describe and the only things that kept her moving was the knowledge that it was now farther to go back than to continue forward and in her thin leather sandals, Okara had to be in much greater pain than she.
With gritted teeth, she pushed herself harder. Jonah’s grunt of pain moved her to push even harder. With the intensity of the burning agony on the soles of her feet, it wouldn’t have surprised her to find her feet had melted off and she was now running on the stumps of her ankles.
She heard the misted droplets sizzling on the coals before she saw the edge of the bank. The agonizing burning had dulled to a dull ache, as though her body had lost the ability to process greater pain. When the sizzling reached her ears, she looked up and the misted droplets touched her face, cooling the streams of sweat blinding her.
All. Most. There, she thought, though she was too numb now to feel excitement.
She tried to shorten her last few steps in preparation for the jump, as she had earlier in the day, but found her body refused to cooperate. It seemed her feet decided of their own accord that they would not spent an instant longer than absolutely necessary on the hot coals.
Without warning, she was yanked back and down and an agonized shriek reached her ears. She turned, only just keeping her feet, to find Jonah on his knees on the red-hot coals, his flesh steaming as it began to cook. His shriek curdled her blood and the stench of his knees cooking brought bile to her throat. It was far to similar to bit-roasted boar. The flaming shine in his wide eyes brought tears to her own.
She fought back the tears, blinking furiously as she yanked Jonah to his feet.
He rose with a ripping sound and his screaming intensified. Red blood splattered onto the coals, brown steam rising instantly.
With Okara dragging on her other hand, she dragged Jonah the last few steps and pulled him into her arms as she fell off the ledge into the white-water rapids below.
The drop was longer than she had expected, being at least thrice her height. She expected this river to be a similar experience to the last one she’d tumbled into; a painful struggle, certainly, but perfectly survivable.
Okara wrapped an arm around Taliesimon’s waist just as they splashed into the frothing river and the shock almost made her release Jonah’s arms. The first river she’d swum had been cold, she’d thought. But this one was ice. Her flesh went instantly numb and her teeth chattered. She tumbled feet over head until she couldn’t tell which direction was up. Everywhere she looked, surging water and air bubbles obscured her vision and kept the surrounding fluid dark. No direction looked brighter than any other. There was no telltale purple highlights to hint at the direction of Kaustere.
With wide eyes, she stared in all directions and held on to her friends as tight as she could. She pulled them closer, using her head, she gestured all around, up, down, and everywhere in between, and shrugged.
The three tumbled with the current, Okara glaring at Taliesimon. Jonah shrugged, looking helpless. Air bubbles leaked from each of their noses.
Taliesimon’s chest started to burn. She exhales, letting the air bubbles flood from her mouth. They floated down fast her still burning feet and the solution smashed it’s way into her numb mind as though it were the stone spike of a war hammer: air bubbles always floated toward the surface!
Gripping the other two by the hands, she turned herself upside down and kicked as had as she could as she slowly released a bit more air from her mouth.
Okara pulled back on her hand and glared.
Taliesimon glared right back and as she breathed out another small breath, she pointed at the bubbles, now floating what seemed like down beneath her head. Realization seemed to down in Okara’s eyes and she nodded, kicking with Taliesimon in that direction.
Her lungs burned almost as much as her feet had on the coals. She kicked harder and yanked on the hands of the others as her desperation grew. She pushed the last of the air from her body and the burning intensified further. She kicked with all her might, following the last of her air bubbles toward the surface.
The urge to breathe in the water was fast becoming unbearable. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the surface. The water was every bit as dark as ever, and there weren’t any other indications of the passage of distance. Taliesimon started to think they weren’t moving at all. Or perhaps she was wrong about the direction of air bubbles under water. Or, most disturbing of all, perhaps somehow the rules of nature were different here?
The thought sent a chilling shiver down her already numb spine.
She kicked and kicked, refusing to give up. She fought the urge to breathe in. She fought against the dimming around the edges of her vision. She fought against the burning pain in her legs and lungs. Yet, no matter how hard she fought, it grew harder and harder to ignore the darkness around her, a darkness that kept whispering in her mind that it was a waste. It was over. She wasn’t going to survive this.
The black ring surrounding her vision grew, the burning in her chest felt as though she’d swallowed hot coals, and her muscles threatened to give out. She kicked and kicked toward the black depths which still felt like down.
At last she could take it no more and her lungs forced her breath in. She waited for unconsciousness to come, to put an end to her suffering.
But it didn’t.
Sweet, cool air entered her lungs. Icy fluid flowed over the molten rock of her chest, cooling the pain and freeing her from the clutches of death.
Then a wave crashed over her head and pulled her back beneath the surface.
A moment later, she was pulled above the surface again. The rapidly flowing river pushed against her, dragging all three of them down river. Okara led the charge, kicking her way toward the opposite bank where the steps of the vine rope net climbed out of the water.
Taliesimon and Jonah kicked their way after Okara, all three clenching hands to stay together.
The rapids pushed, pulled, and tossed them about repeatedly. For every span they moved forward, they were pushed or pulled three more in another direction. The going was slow and frustrating, the exhaustion in Taliesimon’s muscles threatened to overwhelm her. But Okara kept kicking and didn’t seem to slow at all.
How can she still have this much strength? Taliesimon wondered. She couldn’t understand how such a small girl could have so much strength and stamina. If we get through this if I end up having to face her in the combats, I don’t think I’ll stand a chance. If she has this much strength and endurance, I’d bet she has tremendous skill.
After what seemed an eternity of burning muscles and exhausted, rapid breath, Okara reached out and grabbed the rope net and pulled Taliesimon to it. With a hand securely on the vine rope, Taliesimon pulled Jonah to the net as well. She climbed up the rungs to be mostly out of the water and she entangled her arms in the net and let her body hang from it, limp.
Closing her eyes, she focused on taking slow, deep breaths and waited for the burning in her limbs to ease.
The net pulled next to her, torquing her shoulder. Ordinarily, she may have complained about the pain of it, but after what she’d already been through, the discomfort of a torqued shoulder barely registered in her mind.
Jonah’s heavy breathing next to her ear brought her back from the brink of unconsciousness and she popped her eyes open. The river foamed at her feet, eternally churning as water clashed from several directions at once.
But something wasn’t right.
The foam of the rapids was supposed to be flat white. Even with the light of Kaustere at noon, which it wasn’t, the foam should not have been so red. It was almost-
Oh, torthugra guts! she thought. At the exact moment she remembered what had happened to Jonah’s legs, she noticed the twin streams of blood dripping down into the water from above his boots.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” She growled as she disentangled her arms from the net and climbed down to get a better look at the wounds in the boy’s legs. The knees of his breeches had been completely burned away, making it much easier than she would have liked to see the wounds.
She couldn’t be certain what it was she was looking at. It was hard to see around the blood gushing from the wounds, but from just above his kneecap to just below it, there didn’t seem to be any skin. Several ropes of red meat crossed and weaved around one another with a few clumps of something yellowish.
She grimaced. What was that?
She was forced to admit she didn’t know nearly enough of healing or anatomy to be able to answer the question.
Then she pushed the thought to the back of her mind. She had much more important things to worry about just now.
Patting the pockets on the front of her breeches, Taliesimon smiled. “Today just happens to be your lucky day, Jonah.”
“Don’t feel very lucky.”
“What are you doing?” Okara asked as she sidled over across the net.
“We need to patch these up,” Taliesimon said as she pulled a small chip of stone from her pocket. It was far too small to be used as a weapon, she knew, but in this instance the rock’s small cutting edge would be invaluable.
Pulling Jonah’s breeches away from his legs, she used the rock chip to slash through the thick doeskin, keeping it as long as she could and cutting above the wounds on his knees.
After a few minutes of work shredding both legs of his breeches, Taliesimon came away with eight long strips of soft leather she could use to bandage the huge wounds on his legs.
She wadded two of them and dipped them into the river, then used them to clean the dirt and other, less identifiable filth, from his wounds. That done, she wetted the strips one at a time and wrapped three of the makeshift bandages around each of his knees, being careful to tie them as tightly as she could. If there wasn’t enough constant pressure on the wounds then the bandages wouldn’t stop the bleeding and wrapping them would be nearly pointless.
“How does it feel?” She asked, then added silently, idiot! How do you think it feels! Don’t be stupid.
“It still hurts,” he said, testing a slight bend of one knee. “But it’s better. Thank you, Taliesimon.”
“Where did you learn to do that?” Okara asked with a small smile of approval.
“Growing up on a farm, you learn how to take care of things on your own. We don’t have the luxury of running to a healer or Trevan when things happen, no matter how bad it is, we have to just figure it out.”
Okara’s expression tightened, but she nodded in silence.
Taliesimon turned to Jonah. “You you move? We need to get to the top.”
Gritting his teeth, the boy nodded. “I can do it.”
Taliesimon and Okara climbed the net to either side of Jonah to help with his first few steps. Below, a couple of older boys broke the surface of the river looking haggard and started slowly climbing the net.
“Move,” Okara said, her voice tight.
Jonah nodded and the girls each grasped him under one arm and helped him move upward. He grimaced and clenched his teeth as he raised his legs up to the next rung. With his second step, he clenched his jaw harder and a vein popped up on his forehead. Sweat broke out on his face with the third step and his lips compressed in a thin, bloodless line.
Taliesimon pulled him up with her as she climbed. How is he going to make it? she wondered. He already looks like he’s going to pass out.
But she kept silent and hauled him up the next rung. What could she do, after all? She wasn’t willing to leave him, no matter how much he slowed them. He had helped her, he had cared about her. He had sacrificed and gone out of his way to keep her in this thing, and keep the three of them together. She wouldn’t forget about that. Now it was her turn to be the strong one and keep the three of them together.
Okara, though. Would she want to leave him? Taliesimon couldn’t be sure. The younger girl was an enigma to her. Although Okara had seemed naive at first, she had made it clear she was willing to do whatever it took to succeed, including hurting or abandoning anyone who got in the way of what she wanted.
But what is her story? Taliesimon wondered. What had happened to the girls? What had made her so heard and heartless? And why was she here in the first place?
Taliesimon understood her own motivations. She had idolized the dragoons for as long as she could remember and from the first glimpse she had ever had of one of them, she’d known that it was what she wanted.
Of course, everyone had told her at every step that girls couldn’t be dragoons, but she refused to listen. There was not a rule against women dragoons, so she was going to do it. That was all there was to it.
Taliesimon glanced over her shoulder, down toward the water below and found, unsurprisingly, the boys were gaining on them. They weren’t moving fast, but they were steadily advancing. Over Jonah’s head, Taliesimon clicked her tongue and Okara glanced over. Taliesimon flicked her eyes down and Okara nodded, her fist tightening around the rung of the vine.
“Faster,” Taliesimon said through a gasp. She and Okara moved up a rung and hauled Jonah up. He did he best to keep up and show saw the toll it was taking on his body. The pain lines around his eyes and mouth grew deeper with each upward step. He didn’t bend his knees more than a fraction of a degree. She suspected the pain was too great, in addition to the leather strips around his knees making the bending difficult. Most of the work he did with arms, pulling himself up rung after rung.
The higher they climbed, the paler his flesh grew, the brighter the shine in his eyes, and the more the sweat on his face held in thick, beaded drops.. With each upward step, the trembling in the boy’s arms grew stronger, more pronounced.
Taliesimon glanced down. Dammit! she reached a shaky hand up to the next rung and pulled herself up, then helped Okara to haul Jonah up another rung. Below, the boys had closed much of the gap between them. Taliesimon clenched her teeth, grinding them together.
“Okara,” she grunted, and glanced downward when the smaller girl looked at her.
Okara looked down and her lips compressed in a bloodless line.
“What is it?” Jonah asked in a flat monotone.
Okara licked her lips and they pulled him up another rung. “We’re about to have company.”
For the first time, Jonah looked down and his eyes went wide. It seemed his gaze was going past the boys and focusing on the distance down to the surface of the river, however. His gaze brought Taliesimon’s attention to the distance as well. The river looked so small from up here, as though it were nothing more than a tiny irrigation ditch.
The world below started to spin beneath her and she slammed her eyes closed, turning her head back to face the net, she reopened her eyes and climbed up another rung.
Jonah grunted with his next upward step. “Maybe. They’re too. Tired. To have. A confrontation. Up here.”
Okara scoffed. “Yes. And perhaps Trevandor will come down and set us up as dragoon commanders.”
Taliesimon gave a light, mirthless chuckle. “Move.”
All three of them moved up as fast as they could. The boys beneath still gained on them. The first of to them was less than a span beneath Jonah’s foot now. The boys looked exhausted, the slenderest of the three had pasty white flesh, sweat dripping down his face. The dark circles under his eyes were almost as dark as bruises, his hands trembled with each rung he climbed. Once, he looked up to meet her eyes with a haunted look.
Jonah might actually be right, she thought. The other boys didn’t look any better than the first, if anything their shaking was worse.
Taliesimon looked up and almost shrieked with joy. They were so close to the top now! Less than a dozen spans above her was the top of the net. It ended at a solid, diamondwood platform which seemed to be above the treetops.
“Almost there,” she growled through clenched teeth as she dragged herself up another rung.
Somehow, they managed to stay ahead of the boys. Below, as they continued to climb. With each upward step, she felt the swaying of the net as the boys tried to race up the net to get passed them. Each time she felt sure the confrontation was happening. Jonah’s foot moved up an instant before the lead boy’s hand touched the rung. Still, she wondered if they were trying to grab Jonah to throw him down the rung? Still, she wondered if they were trying to grab Jonah to throw him down, get passed to overtake them, or if the boys were oblivious and just trying to get up the net. The boy hadn’t met her eyes again, so she had difficulty in trying to determine what their goal was.
The fact that they weren’t looking up at all certainly suggested they were oblivious to the presence of anyone else, but she didn’t think she could trust that.
Finally, she got a hand up onto the platform above, but an instant later Jonah called out, “Ahhhh!”
Her gaze shot down to Jonah’s feet, where a boy had a hold of Jonah’s ankle through his thick boot. Then a hand clasped around the heel of her own boot. She shrieked in fury and yanked her foot out of his grasp and slammed it down, trapping the hand between her leather sole and the vine robe. The boy called out in pain at the same moment another boy made a similar sound.
Taliesimon made a half-spin, grinding her foot on the boy’s hand. She glared down at the boy who had a hold on Jonah’s foot. The boy glared back at her.
She growled through gritted teeth. “I’ll give you to the count of three to release him before your friends take a very long dive. If they’re lucky, they just might go for a swim rather than splattering on the forest floor.”
The boy scoffed. “As if I would care.”
Taliesimon grimaced. “And it doesn’t occur to you that without them it’s three against one, and we have the high ground?”
“Two,” he spat.
Okara cackled like a maniac and the boy clenched his teeth.
“Even if you succeed, it will only be to fall yourself. You have no chance against the two of us.” The boy stopped her with a short, barking laugh. “How does wit help you to only fall yourself?” she added with deadly calm.
“I’m not worried.”
Okara shifted and the boy whose fingers were under her sandal cried out anew. “You should be!”
Taliesimon added a touch of compassionate gentleness to her voice. “You wouldn’t be the first to pay for the mistake of underestimating us.”
The hard look in the boy’s eyes did not diminish. He stared at her a moment, shifted to Okara, then back to Taliesimon.
She clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth.
The boy spoke slowly. “Say, for the sake of argument, that I believe you. What is your alternative? You obviously have something in mind.”
“Clever,” Okara muttered. “For a boy, at least.”
Jonah narrowed his eyes at her.
Taliesimon considered a moment, mostly to give him the impression she was doing so. When she spoke, her voice was ice. “I will not allow you to finish ahead of us. I’m getting Jonah through this. I don’t think there’s any way they’ll let him continue.” She turned to her friend. “I’m sorry Jonah, you must know it is true. With the damage to your legs, you could never stand against a healthy opponent in The Combats. They will commend you for finishing, perhaps even invite you to come back next year. But they cannot allow you to compete further.”
Jonah nodded. His expression was glum, but his eyes told her he already knew the truth of it.
“However,” Taliesimon said pointedly, returning her gaze to the boy. “I would not be opposed to all six of us crossing the finish at the same time. I can’t see how they could qualify some of us and not others, unless they have cause to disqualify someone.”
“How can I trust you?” the boy asked angrily, but the tone was bluster. She could tell that his belligerence was diminishing.
Taliesimon gave a small smile. “Simple. If I wanted to betray you, we would simply toss you all from the net now.”
The boy nodded glumly. “Fair point.”
“Understand,” Taliesimon said, a hint of steel to her voice. “I offer this out of compassion and generosity, but don’t mistake that for weakness. If you try to betray me and jump ahead of Jonah at the finish,” she paused dramatically. “I. Will. Kill. You.”
The boy stared at her. His eyes still hard, but with a flicker of uncertainty now. He nodded.
“I need an oath. From all three of you.”
The boys complied. offering oaths to be struck down by Trevandor himself if they betrayed her.
She nodded, satisfied, and lifted her foot from the boy’s hand. She hauled Jonah up another rung, then climbed up onto the platform. She waited for Okara to join her, then the pair took Jonah’s hands and hauled him the rest of the way up.
The two girls then helped the three boys up and turned to face the platform.
The platform was empty. She had half-expected this to be the end, to find a congratulatory welcome waiting there. She had realized some time ago that the information that was made public about what the Gauntlet entailed was kept intentionally sparse. They kept most of the details hidden.
So much for her vaunted planning.
Taliesimon and Okara led the way across the platform, Jonah limping between them. Nothing changed. It was, indeed, empty. It was an empty shelf of oak boards with nothing at the opposite edge.. The other boys reported nothing at the peripheral edges of the platform either.
Taliesimon leaned out over the edge, but there was nothing. No ropes. No net. No way down at all. It was a sheer drop into the trees.
Jonah stared, wide-eyed. “What in the nine hells?”
Okara shrugged. “No idea.”
Taliesimon huffed a frustrated sigh. “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do here. Any ideas?”
The oldest boy, the skinny one who’d had Jonah’s foot, stomped his foot. “Swing off the edge and climb down the other side of the net?”
“I find that unlikely,” Okara said.
Taliesimon swallowed a lump in her throat. “It isn’t a bad idea, but I think Okara is probably right. So far, the simple answer has never been the best one. I’m still convinced we were missing something with the coals.”
“There was a cool path through,” the slender boy said simply.
Taliesimon and Okara turned on him as one. “What?” they said in concert.
He nodded, and his companions did likewise. “The instructions were carved into a series of trees along the path.”
Okara clenched her fists. “Dammit!”
“It’s a leap of faith,” said the youngest boy in wonder. He might have been even younger than Okara, but while certainly the shortest of the group, he was thickly built.
Taliesimon turned to him. “What do you mean?”
“Well, do you remember the old story about the first dragoons?”
“I’m afraid my dragoon history is… underdeveloped.”
“Okay,” the boy said, narrowing his eyes as though her were annoyed. “They concise version is the ancient heroes, Moritz, Katharc, and Zenova, were forced to scale the Spine of the World at the peak of Allylura, and to prove their faith in Trevandor they had to leap off the other side with nothing but clouds and jagged rocks to catch them. The net and the platform, and nothing to catch us beneath it, seems like a metaphor for that story.”
“You don’t think that’s a bit of a stretch?” the oldest boy asked.
“What happened when they jumped?” Jonah asked, and Taliesimon smiled.
“No, Jhaarga, I don’t think it’s a stretch. See, here’s where it becomes relevant. It is said that when they leaped, the god himself stretched out his hand to deliver them to safety. As a reward for their unquestioning faith in him.”
Okara scoffed. “Don’t tell me you seriously think Trevandor himself is going to deliver every recruit who makes it to the end of a Gauntlet in every city that hosts it.”
“No, I do not.”
Taliesimon tapped her foot. “Well? What are you saying, then?”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “That too is a metaphor. In many ways, this whole thing has been one giant metaphor for the trials of the three heroes. Gods, don’t they teach you people anything?”
Okara growled. “I know the stories. I see the correlations. I just don’t agree with you about this platform being a metaphor for the Leap of Faith.”
The boy shook his head. “Look, they’ve gone to great lengths to infuse metaphor into every aspect of the entire Gauntlet. My guess is there’s something down there, just below the foliage, to keep us from falling to our deaths.”
Okara gritted her teeth. “Perhaps Jhaarga is right and we’re supposed to climb down the other side of the vine net.”
“And end up back in the river? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t relish the thought. We barely survived it the first time, and it looked like the distance to the other bank is even farther than it was from the bank to the net.”
“Is there a way to know for sure that we’ll survive jumping?” Jonah asked.
“I doubt it. That would defeat the purpose of the Leap of Faith. There is evidence for my argument, however.”
Jhaarga stared down at the boy scornfully. “And what would that be?”
“On our way up, or from across the river, did any of you see anyone climbing down on the other side? Anyone? Is there any other way off this platform?”
Jhaarga pursed his lips and Okara clenched her jaw.
“That’s… fair,” Taliesimon said.
“Does anyone have a compelling reason not to take that at face value?”
Taliesimon glanced around at the others, each seemed to have found something interesting at their feet.
“Is anyone not willing to jump with me?”
Okara and Jonah stared at Taliesimon, their looks hard and determined. Taliesimon nodded. If that young boy had the courage to go, then her companions would as well. And she was certainly not about to be outdone by Okara.
“We’re going,” Okara said unnecessarily.
Jhaarga glanced around nervously and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
The middle boy, who’d heretofore been silent, shrugged and nodded at once. “Honestly, I think I’d end up falling if I tried to climb down anyway, so I might as well do it on purpose. Better to die of stupid faith than weakness.”
“Who can argue with that?” Jonah said with a smile.
Taliesimon held out her hands. Jonah took one and Okara the other. After a few moments, the other three each grabbed someone’s hand and all five of them nodded to her.
She couldn’t help marveling. Somehow, they had all acknowledged her as the leader. She nodded back to them and stepped forward. She hesitated at the edge of the platform just long enough to close her eyes while she took a deep breath, then took a step and pushed herself off the edge of the platform.
The dense foliage below seemed to spin around her and in her mind’s eye she saw the multitude of sharp branches below the greenery and beneath that, at the surface of the forest, lay a plethora of bloody and broken human bodies, some of them so old that all that remained was a filthy skeleton with numerous broken and shattered bones surrounded by worms, maggots, and all the other carrion of the forest.
A fierce wind struck her face with the force of a hammer, then she passed through the dense foliage. Though she held her eyes tightly closes, she sensed there was nothing but empty space between herself and the forest floor hundreds of spans below.
Her heart leaped to her throat. She crushed the hands in hers and shrieked in terror…
Today, I bring you 3 more chapters from the original draft. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, lol, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Chapter 10, Taliesimon
Chapter 10 Taliesimon 4
The raft was ten spans from the tower when the boys struggling to get up the legs started to notice Taliesimon and the others. Dark looks, narrowed eyes, and grimaces greeted her on every face.
“Any ideas?” she asked. as she pushed the stake, turning the raft to angle around to the other side of the tower.
“Perhaps the raft will give us the reach to jump above the grease, assuming the legs are, in fact, greased.”
“Perhaps,” Okara said, sounding dubious.
“It’s worth a try,” Taliesimon said.
As the raft drifted by, a tall, hairless boy reached up to grab the raft as though he meant to climb up.
“No,” Taliesimon shouted and Jonah dropped to his knees, smashing them into the boy’s hand as he bashed his fist into the boy’s face. The boy fell back, limp. Jonah stood, releasing the boy’s hand. The inert form floated in the mud behind the raft.
Taliesimon blinked. “I hope he doesn’t drown.”
“Taliesimon,” Jonah said harshly. “Do you realize he would have killed us? For someone who seems to understand better than the rest of us what we were getting into, you’re awfully naive about what these others will do to you in the name of placing in the Gauntlet.”
She flushed, her cheeks and neck growing hot. “I understand the Gauntlet. I understand using violence to secure your spot. I understand being willing to do almost anything for a chance at becoming a dragoon. But killing each other seems extreme.” She plunged the stake into the mud to stop them under a strut between two tower legs. “Other humans are not the enemy. The torthugra are the enemy. Why would they kill to become dragoons?”
Jonah looked up, eying the strut critically. “Tally, you have a good heart. I admire that, I really do. But these others here don’t see this the way you do. They don’t care about anyone else here. Especially not the three of us. They’ll do anything to the three of us to get ahead. You need to accept that.”
Okara nodded as though agreeing and Taliesimon clenched her jaw, forcing down the angry retort. She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, pushing her anger out with it. He was right, of course. She didn’t want to admit it. She wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. But He was right. She was being naive and expecting those other boys to be as idealistic as she, when they had already proved several times that the only place that goodness existed was insider her own head.
“Do it,” Okara said, eyes on Jonah.
With a nod, he wiped his hands on his breeches and bent his knees. He dropped into a crouch and rose back up. He repeated the motion several times, then wiped his hand again and leaped straight up.
Just reaching the strut, Jonah’s hands grasped the strut and hung on. Okara and Taliesimon grinned at each other, argument forgotten.
Jonah slipped and fell back to the raft, rocking it to one side. The edge dipped into the mud and Taliesimon scrambled to hold on. She slipped down toward the edge.
Before she reached the middle of the raft, it tipped back the other way and leveled out.
She sighed in relief. “Everyone okay?”
The others grunted.
Okara pointed upward. “Look.” The wood of the tower glistened wetly, but only to a height of about four spans. Above that, the wood was dull and dry.
Taliesimon nodded. “Jonah, do you think the top of the strut is greased?”
He glanced at his palms, glistening with the sheen of oil, but the ends of his fingers were dry from the last knuckle to the tips. “I don’t think so.”
She nodded and glanced between her companions. Each nodded with a smile. They semeed to know what she was thinking and agreed.
Jonah beckoned to her with his hands. Nodding again, Taliesimon used his interlocked fingers to climb up onto his shoulders. With a foot on each shoulder, she almost fell, but reached up and grabbed the greasy strut above her head. “Okay, your turn, Okara.”
The small girl hopped up onto Jonah, as though her hands stuck to him without effort.
How does she do that?
Almost as though she were a spider climbing a sheer wall, Okara climbed up to share Taliesimon’s place on Jonah’s shoulders, then climbed up her back.
Jonah trembled with strain below them, but made no sound of complaint.
A moment later, Okara hopped up on the the strut. She wrapped one arm around the leg and reached the other down to Taliesimon and helped her up.
“How do we get Jonah up?”
Without a word, Okara wrapped her legs around the tower leg and lay down on the strut. She reached her arms down and took Jonah by the hands.
Taliesimon looked on dubiously. “Oh, no,” she said as she noticed a few of the boys had seen what they were doing and were moving around the tower legs to the raft.
Jonah glanced toward the boys, then nodded up to Okara.
Wrapping her left arm around the strut, the small girl gripped Jonah’s hand. He clasped both his hands around her small arm and hopped up as she pulled.
Taliesimon struggled not to laugh.
Inexplicably, the girl held on. She swung him toward the tower leg at her feet, then the other way. She repeated the motion three times, reaching greater height each them. Then on the fourth, as a tall boy climbed up on the raft while it drafted past the tower leg, she swung Jonah up to hand on the strut. He immediately wrapped his arms and legs around the strut.
From behind him, Taliesimon helped him to roll over and pulled him up to his feet. She turned to face Okara, who was back on her feet. “How did you do that?”
“Stronger than I look,” Okara said off-handedly.
Taliesimon shook her head in disbelief. There had to be more to it than that, but this was neither the time nor the place to press the younger girl for details. They had more important worries just now.
“Let’s move,” Jonah said, seeming unfazed. Taliesimon and Okara both nodded. The dry part of the legs were still two spans up, too far for any of them to get to and be able to hang onto.
Well, perhaps not, she amended. If Okara can swing Jonah up like that, then she could probably jump up and climb it.
“Turn around,” Jonah said. Confused, she obeyed and found herself rising up from a pressure between her legs. Startled, she glanced down and found Jonah’s head, his shoulders beneath her thighs.
How are these kids this strong? she wondered. To say nothing of their stamina.
Having been raised on a farm, she was no stranger to hard work. She was used to spending nearly all of the eighteen turns of daylight out on the farm working the land with Papa. And she was exhausted.
Perhaps she just wasn’t as tough as she thought she was?
With help from Jonah’s interlaced fingers, she got to her feet on his shoulders and reached up to grasp the dry wood of the leg as high as she could.
Oh, she thought as her fingers touched the wood. It was textured with roughly finger-shaped nubs. That’s handy.
She climbed up a few spans, then stopped to see how he would get up.
Okara pulled off her sandals and thrust them into the waist of her breeches, then climbed up on Jonah’s shoulders and climbed onto the tower leg. Gods, the girl made it look so easy!
Incredibly, once the bald girl got her feet just above the greased section of the leg, she stopped. As before, she wrapped her legs around the tower leg and seemed to lock her long toes into the finger nubs.
After a moment of securing herself, Okara fell backward and Taliesimon almost screamed. But the girl stopped. Her legs and toes were still secure on the leg and she stretched her arms down, lacing her fingers together for Jonah to use a a step to climb up.
“Come on,” Okara said, impatient.
Glancing down, Taliesimon found the other boys at the bottom were following their example and using the raft and each other to begin climbing the tower legs. They were running out of time.
From the tension in Jonah’s back, she could well imagine the expression on his face. He hesitated only a moment, however, before he stepped a foot into her laced hands and used the folds of her breeches as he climbed up Okara’s body. As soon as she was above Okara’s legs, he reached down and took her hand to help her up.
There were f few awkward moments as the two were in the same space on the tower leg, then Okara climbed up above Jonah and leg the charge upward.
It took only a few minutes for all three of them to get up the legs and climb up onto the platform at the top. Taliesimon fell on her back, breathing heavily.
“So,” Jonah panted. “There’s no. Way to. Get up. Here. Without. Working with. At least. One. Partner. right?”
“That’s right,” Okara said from where she stood. She didn’t even sound winded!
How is that possible?
Taliesimon finally caught her breath and stood. Okara was waiting at the open edge of the platform where vine ropes were secured.
“Ready?” Okara asked.
Taliesimon nodded and glanced at Jonah.
“Let’s do it.”
They each grasped vine. Okara offered an encouraging smile and Taliesimon pulled the vine tight, wrapped her arms and legs around it, and jumped from the tower at almost the same time as her companions.
The boiling black mud passed by below her and time seemed to slow again. The wind on her face was wonderfully cool, but brought with it a rotten, rancid smell unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Time resumed its normal speed and the drop leveled out, then she started swinging upward. After a moment, she passed over the sharpened stakes at the end of the pit, but kept rising and flying across the path.
Is there a way off this vine without dropping the thirty spans to the path below? she wondered with trepidation.
Chapter 11, Dargon
Dargon opened his eyes and jerked bolt upright. Looking around, he found he was on a wool-wrapped couch in a small, dimly lit chamber. A granite table with two oak chairs sat against the opposite wall near a closed door.
Where am I? he wondered. What happened?
He swung his legs off the couch and stood, his legs wobbled for a moment, but he maintained his feet. Glancing about again, he noted the smallness of the room. The stone walls were bare and it was just wide enough to house the couch and leave three paces of walking space between the couch and chair. There were no windows and no decorations.
The table was empty and the chairs unmarked and unadorned.
Dargon sighed and started toward the door.
His fingers were less than a handspan from the knob when the door swung inward. He yanked his hand back and stepped backward, away from the door.
A hooded figure stood in the doorway and seemed to be watching him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The figure chuckled. “You gave us quite a scare, your highness. How are you feeling?” The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
The figure reached up and pushed its hood back. Dargon knew somewhere in the back of his mind that he shouldn’t be able to to see. There was no light source in the room and no light came in through the open door. There were no windows. Therefore, there was no light whatsoever. There couldn’t be. Yet he saw the man’s features clearly.
“Trevan! Where am I? How did I get here?”
The Trevan smiled. “Your highness, by chance I was on my way to the library to find a recipe for burn relief, as there was a fire in the town this morning, and I found you passed out in the library doorway. I brought you straight here. I didn’t expect you would want your father to see you like this. What were you doing down there, my lord?”
“I,” he paused. Did he dare reveal this to the Trevan? The man’s true loyalty was to the king, after all. “I frequently go down there to… to read.”
“Ahhh,” the Trevan said, as though it explained everything. “Do you remember what happened down there? What were you doing in the doorway?”
“I don’t remember,” Dargon said. “Gah!” he shrieked, clasping his hands around his head as excruciating pain pierced his skull.
Through hazy vision, Dargon saw the Trevan pull a dripping wash cloth from just outside the room. He placed it on Dargon’s head and gently pushed him back to the couch and down to lie with his head on the arm of the couch.
“What’s happening to me?” Dargon whispered. His vision flared pure white, obscuring everything in the room. He sensed the Trevan still there, but couldn’t see him.
“It’s all part of the process,” the Trevan whispered, cryptic as ever.
“Part of the… what are you talking about?”
“You’ll understand when it passes.”
“When what passes?” Dargon growled.
“Dargon,” the Trevan said gently. “I know you have questions. But please, just trust me. The headaches will pass. Soon your body will ache as with influenza. You’ll be nauseated. It will all pass. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to speed the process nor avoid it. I will do my best to help you feel more comfortable while it runs its course. When it is done, we’ll talk about all this and I will do what I can for you.”
“But-” Dargon gasped, making his head hurt even worse.
“Shhh,” the Trevan whispered. “Just hush. We’ll talk when you feel better.”
Dargon tried to nod, but his head didn’t seem to move.
A strip of something colder than ice covered Dargon’s forehead and, amazingly, the pain in his head seemed to abate just a bit.
He said this would get worse! he though with trepidation.
He closed his eyes, hoping to sleep it off, but then the pain reflared and magnified to an ache in his shoulders came as well.
“Don’t try to sleep,” the Trevan whispered.
Chapter 12, Taliesimon
Her time clinging to the vine rope felt like an eternity of flying through a maze of trees, yet somehow she hadn’t struck a single one. At last, she had come to the end of the rope. The vine had snapped tight and though she hung on with all her might, the rope slip through her palms, burning them until she could no longer hold on.
The fall ended so abruptly, she didn’t even have time to scream. She clenched her teeth against the impact, but it never came. Her back struck something soft and water splashed around her. She sunk below the surface and only just stopped herself breathing in the blue water.
Angling her body around, she kicked toward the surface. The crimson light of Kaustere above turned the world above her a bright, beautiful purple.
Within moments, her head broke the surface and she sucked in a delicious breath of air. The rushing river dragged her along, white foam obscuring her vision and and threatening to push her back below the surface of the water.
Where are the others? she wondered, but keeping herself above the surface consumed so much of her focus that she couldn’t even try to seek out the others.
With each kick of her feet and paddle of her arms, she pushed toward the bank to her right. With her flagging strength, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she could no longer remain afloat. She had to get out of the river before that happened or she’d drown here.
Her muscles burned with every kick, ached with every stroke. Her lungs felt as though they were full of steam. From nowhere, a boulder appeared in front of her. She tried to push past it but it was too close. After a left stroke, her shoulder struck the rock and followed by the side of her head. Pain exploded above her ear and her vision was obliterated by a blast of bright white and she felt herself slip below the surface.
A moment later, she flew out of the water and breathed in. She seemed to be suspended in midair. What’s going on? she thought, and clenched her eyes shut.
When she opened them again, she found a roiling pool rising up to meet the wall of water cascading around her and a rough, rocky wall behind it.
Then she belly-flopped into the pool. A flurry of air bubbles surrounded her, obscuring her vision. She prayed the pool was deep enough to not be deadly.
Her feet struck the rocky bottom, jarring her knees painfully.
With what she hopes wasn’t the last of her strength, she pushed off the bottom and kicked toward the surface.
Within moments, she once again broke the surface. But this time, she found cool, calm water around her. With a sigh of relief, she looked around and found herself alone. She took a deep, burning breath, and swam toward the left bank as it was nearer than the others.
Finally, her feet touched the muddy bottom and she stood. After only a few steps, she stumbled and fell down to hands and knees. She crawled the rest of the way out of the later. Once her body fully cleared the water, she fell to her belly and rolled over. Asmodere partially covered Kaustere in the sky above. She cringed a moment before she relaxed her expression and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and released it slowly. Before her next breath, she was asleep.
Through a wonderful dream of being a regional commander of the dragoons, Taliesimon heard the brunch of boots on wet sand and knew instantly it didn’t belong. The dream vanished and her awareness returned to her battered, exhausted body. She still lay on her back. Her clothes were dry now, warmed by the burning cousins in the sky. She made an effort to keep her breathing slow and even. Whoever was there, she’d be better off if they thought her still asleep.
“Do you think she’s okay?” a familiar voice whispered.
“I’m sure she’s fine. Just exhausted. Her road here was rather more difficult than ours, I’d wager.”
“Do we wake her?”
“Unless you want to carry her or leave her. We have to move. There are still a lot of potentials ahead of us. It’s hard to say for certain, but I think it’s still too many for us to make it without overtaking more of them.”
He sighed. “Okay.” She heard someone kneel in the sand next to her. She counted out the seconds, then flashed her eyes open and shot her hand up to hatch his before he touched her shoulder.
With a grin, she caught his hand in hers. The startled, wide-eyes expression on his face brought a laugh of genuine mirth to her lips.
Jonah grinned at her and laughed as well.
“Yet another very touching moment,” Okara said scathingly. “But can we get moving, please? Our time is running out and we’re still behind.”
Sobering, Taliesimon nodded.
Jonah extended a hand, which she took, allowing him to help her to her feet. The two followed after Okara, who had already moved toward a trail leading away from the pool.
“How did you find me?” Taliesimon asked.
“Everyone passes this place,” Okara said.
Jonah flashed a mischievous half-smile. “You missed something. There was a new rope to rump to near the end point of the first. That one dropped us up there.” He pointed to a platform suspended between four trees next to the waterfall.
Taliesimon nodded. “Of course.”
Jonah raised his brows.
She sighed. “I always manage to take the more difficult path, somehow. So missing the easier route is in perfect keeping with my usual luck. Or lack thereof, to be more accurate.”
Jonah chuckled lightly and grinned. “At least we’re still together.”
Taliesimon offered a half-hearted smile.
“Right,” Taliesimon said, not even trying to disguise her sarcasm.
Jonah reached out and grabbed Okara by the arm. She tried to pull free, but he held her fast as he grabbed Taliesimon’s arm with his other hand. He turned her and Okara to face each other, his face set in a grim line.
He glared at them. “Now you two listen to me! Whatever this thing is between you two, you need to settle it. Do either of you think you could have gotten up the tower without the other?”
“Yes!” Taliesimon said, and was surprised to hear the younger girl say it with her.
“Excuse me?” she said, and again the words were reflected back at her. She glared into Okara’s glowering eyes.
“Really?” Jonah said, annoyed. “Tell me, Okara, would you have taken off your breeches to tie up the raft? Would you have even thought of using our clothes?”
“And Taliesimon. Without Okara’s idea with the stakes, I doubt I ever would have even thought of putting together a raft. And Okara was the one who thought of climbing on each other’s shoulders to get onto the strut and above the oil. Would you have come up with that without her?”
“And finally, if either of you think we could have gotten up onto the strut without all three of us, then you weren’t paying attention. Look, girls, my whole point here is it’s the three of us, all three of us, that has allowed us to make it this far, against all odds, against all that anyone else wants to see happen. It’s the three of us. Together. That is our strength. Unity. Teamwork. Any one of us alone would have failed already.”
“So I say again, whatever this is, settle it. We need to be a team to get through this.”
Taliesimon wanted to fight. She wanted to argue. She wanted to refute his words. To tell him he’d been sniffing too much mud. But she couldn’t. Jonah made too much sense. He was right, damn him. They had to at least put this… whatever it was, on hold until after the testing was finished. Right now, like it or not, they needed each other.
While she reached that conclusion, she watched a similar battle take place on Okara’s small face. The girl glared, then her face blanked, her eyes rolling upward. By the time Jonah finished speaking, her expression had turned thoughtful and she looked at Taliesimon with something resembling acceptance.
Taliesimon guessed her expression was much the same.
She nodded at the very moment Okara did, but while she smiled, the younger girl grimaced.
Is that what my forced smile looks like too? she wondered.
“Until the testing is done, then,” she said, and Okara nodded again.
“I suppose it’ll have to do,” Jonah said angrily.
Taliesimon shrugged and followed, letting the boy lead them for once.
For a time, Taliesimon limited her movement to a fast walk while she got her body used to the exertion again. Blood flowing through her warmed her hands and feet and slowly the aches and stiffness worked their way out of her muscles.
Judging herself ready, she picked up her feet in a measured jog and her companions did likewise.
Within minutes her thighs were burning again, but she ignored it and maintained her pace. The also ignored the pain beginning in her lungs.
Turning the fourth bend since leaving the pool, she saw the backsides of several boys jogging down the path ahead of them. Taliesimon glanced to her companions, who moved back even with her. With a nod to them, she took a deep, painful breath and pushed her body harder to increase her pace. She ran with all her strength.
Within moments, sweat broke out on her forehead, her pulse thundered in her ears, and the painful burning in her thighs increased and spread down into her feet and up into her sides and shoulders.
In spite of the pain, she smiled. They were gaining ground on the boys ahead of them, and quickly.
The pain in her thighs was approaching unbearability, but she did her best to push the sensation to the back of her awareness. Now was not a time for such weakness, they needed to push themselves forward. They needed to overtake these boys and keep moving. It wasn’t too late! They still had time to improve their standing enough to move forward past the Gauntlet, she was sure of it.
Now is not the time for sympathy, she thought. If I don’t take these boys out of the competition then Okara will.
And she’ll continue to think me weak.
So would Jonah. He hadn’t expressed such things before, but she felt it had to be true. Her already hot face flushed with more blood and heat at that thought. I will not be thought weak by some… boy! she insisted.
The boys were put a handful of paces ahead of her when she finalized her decision. She committed herself. She had to act.
A few more seconds passed and she leaped, her foot flying out ahead of her. It connected, all of her weight bearing down on the side of the boy’s knee. She felt the crunch beneath her foot before she heard it. The snap was a grotesque sound, much like the snap of a chicken leg at supper.
The boy shrieked in agony and crumpled. He tumbled through the dirt, raising a huge cloud of dust. Another snap came, but she didn’t look back to see what it was. A second voice joined the wails behind her.
At her right, another boy fell with a snap and a scream. Okara treated her with a genuine smile and, inexplicably, her spirits soared.
Within minutes, the trio turned another bend and found themselves alone once more. Taliesimon couldn’t help feeling optimistic for the first time since the Gauntlet began. It seemed she actually had a real chance now.
She let herself slow to a jog again as she turned another bend and found nothing more than another short straightaway, which led to another bend in the path.
She rounded the bend and skidded to a stop, dust rising around her.Jonah slammed into her from behind, nearly knocking her over.
Ahead was a wide patch of gravel, the tiny rocks glittering in the crimson light of Kaustere. At the edge of the rocky patch was a dropoff to a frothy stretch of whitewater river. At the far bank of the rapids, a long series of vine ropes were tied into loose hand and foot holds that stretched across the path from one broad tree to the other. The vines rose out of the water and reached as far up the trees as she could see.
“It looks like that goes all the way up over the tops of the trees,” Taliesimon whispered.
There were at least three dozen aspiring dragoons at various points of the vine netting ahead. Most were quite low, however.
A strange choking sound behind her made Taliesimon turn around. Jonah was down in a crouch with his head between his legs, dry heaving.
Okara slapped him on the back with decidedly more force that was necessary to offer support.
Jonah coughed and spat, then stood back up. He looked queasy still, but he set his lips in a thin, grim line. Taliesimon gave a single nod.
“You ready for this?” she asked, her eyes on Okara.
The smaller girl gave a slow nod, though her eyes looked uncertain.
Taliesimon held out her arms. “Until we are on that net, we hold to one another. As I see it, our only chance of getting through these rapids is together.”
Taliesimon looked to Jonah first. He gave a shaky nod.
Then she looked to Okara, who gave a curt nod.
She held out her hands, and each of her companions grasped one. She started toward the gravel field. Her first steps were shaky, her body seemed to be trying to argue with her determination to proceed through these obstacles.
We can do this, she thought.
We will do this.
We can do this.
We will do this.
She continued thinking the words over and over and over, as a mantra to convince herself that not only could she make it through this, but that she would. Not only would they make it, not only would they survive, but they would come through this unscathed and none the worse for wear.
By the time she reached the gravel, she almost believed it.
At her second stop onto the gravel, her feet began to grow warm and she almost lost her nerve. Those stones were not gravel, she realized. What were they?
With a swift downward glance she found the answer.
Beneath her feet, rather than gravel she found dully glowing, red-hot coals which distorted the air with waves of intense heat.
“Oh, torthugra guts,” Okara swore with something approaching despair.
Finally, please do remember that while the finished book will be available everywhere ebooks are sold, I’m not doing pre-orders on Amazon due to peculiarities of Amazon that make doing so not beneficial. If you’d like to pre-order on another retailer, you may do so here: books2read.com/calamity1-shadow
Today, I bring you 2 more chapters from the original draft. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, lol, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Chapter 8, Taliesimon
I’m going to die, Taliesimon thought as she flew through the air above the chasm, though certainly much to low to make the jump.
She felt as though she were hanging, frozen, over the sharp stakes at the bottom. Surely, in a jump like this a person shouldn’t have so much to think. So much time to dwell on her failure, to recognize her jump was much too low to make it.
In a near-panic, she arched her back and stretched out her right leg in front of her. She prayed to Trevandor to save her from her folly and let her survive this.
Her foot struck the edge of the pit and her leg crumpled beneath her. Her left knee crunched into the hard stone a pace back from the lip and she feel forward, he face striking the hard ground yet again.
Darkness began to encroach on the edges of her vision and she ground her teeth together, determined not to black out again. The sound of clapping next to her helped to keep her conscious. Driving her palms under her chest, she pushed up to get back to her feet. Blood dropped down her chin, darkening her tunic.
“you’re trying really hard ot mess up that pretty face,” Okara laughed above her. Taliesimon grimaced, supposing it was working, whether it was intentional or not.
With a grunt, she pushed her way to her feet. Her knee almost crumpled beneath her when she put weight on it, but the smaller girls caught her by the arm.
Taliesimon nodded. “I will be. Just have to walk it off.” Turning back to the chasm, she almost jumped. A hand gripped the hard clay at the lip of the pit.
“Gods,” she whispered as she limped toward the edge of the pit, where she dropped to her belly, wincing against the pain her knee. She reached down and grasped the boy’s forearm with both her hands. The blond boy jerked his face up and stared, wide-eyed, into her eyes.
“You’re… helping me?” he gasped.
She smiled. “Am I that transparent?” Before he could respond, she turned her head and called, “Okara, help me.”
The girl growled softly behind her.
“Okara, come on,” her voice was pleading now. She gritted her teeth and wanted to kick herself for allowing such a weak sound to come from her mouth.
“He’s one of them,” Okara growled.
Sweat slicked Taliesimon’s palms and the boy’s arm started to slip from her grasp. “Okara,” she called, desperate now. “He didn’t hurt us. The older boys hurt him as much as they did us! He can help us, Okara!”
This is hopeless, she thought. Does she just hate all boys? Why is she even here?
Soft footsteps to her right surprised her, and she smiled when Okara crouched and reached her hands down to the boy. “Give me your other hand,” she said.
The boy offered a grim smile and swung his left hand up to Okara. She pulled him up almost a pace, then held steady. Still gripping the boy’s arm, Taliesimon struggled to her feet and adjusted her grip on the boy’s arm.
Together, they pulled the boy up and over the edge of the pit. As him feet cleared it, Taliesimon fell backward in exhaustion, the boy lying on the ground half on top of her.
Okara cleared her throat pointedly and the boy raised his head from Taliesimon’s shoulder and flushed bright red, the rolled off of her. He panted for breath, which didn’t seem to come, regardless of how hard he breathed.
“What’s… your… name?” Taliesimon gasped between breaths.
“Jonah,” he whispered in a ragged gasp.
“This is very sweet,” Okara said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “But if we want to have any chance of moving forward in the testing, we need to move. Now.”
Taliesimon took a deep breath and nodded. She rolled onto her stomach and pushed her way to her feet. Jonah followed after her, his arms trembling with the strain. Okara turned away, but Taliesimon saw the disgust on her face.
So he’s weak! she wanted to scream. So what! After how long he hung there, from that ledge, you would be too! Wouldn’t be so bad if you’d helped him sooner!
She clasped the boy’s shoulder and gently pushed him forward. She limped forward herself, pushing her steps to a jog as often as she could handle the pain of it. She winced with the agony every time, but with each once the pain in her knee lessened a bit more and her steps grew a bit more fluid.
Unsurprisingly, Okara loped ahead easily.
Taliesimon clenched her teeth in frustration and tried to focus her mind. But try as she might, she couldn’t recall which part of the course came next. She still had the various obstacles in her mind, at least she thought she did, but couldn’t recall the order they came in.
“Jonah,” she gasped.
He nodded, but kept silent.
“Do you… remember which… which part of… of the course… comes next?”
He shook his head, and she clenched her jaw tighter.
What is wrong with these kids? Did they think they’d just come in and figure it out as they went?
By the time they turned the next curve in the path, Taliesimon’s knee had stopped hurting and she was back up almost to full speed.
Okara stopped her sandals skidding to a stop in the dirt path. Taliesimon slowed and stopped next to the smaller girl, Jonah doing likewise beside her. She stared at the shocked, wide-eyed look on the girl’s face for a moment before she turned to look at what had caught the bald girl’s attention and felt her own jaw fall open.
“Oh, gods. How could I have forgotten this?”
The other two nodded vaguely, as they though barely heard her. She supposed they probably did.
She gazed out over the field before them and only just repressed a shudder.
For hundreds of spans ahead was a huge mud pit, but it didn’t look right. The mud was too dark. If it wasn’t black, it was near enough as to be indistinguishable. How did mud get so dark? She couldn’t fathom it. Around the edge was a row of thick logs sharpened to points and angled into the inside of the mud pit. At several points across the center of the pit, the mud roiled and steamed, but everywhere else it was smooth and still. At the center of the pit stood an oak tower with smooth legs sticking down into the mud, which roiled more violently under the tower than anywhere else.
A number of braided vine ropes seemed to be tied to the other side of the tower and stretched up to the trees several hundred spans above, but there seemed to be no way to get up to the tower aside from walking the mud, as several boys were doing. The black mud coated their bare backs like nothing she’d ever seen. It glistened wetly in the crimson light, as though it had no intention of drying.
“Maybe we can go around?” Jonah asked.
Taliesimon shook her head. “It would take too long. And besides, they want us to ride out on those vine ropes.
“Are we even big to push through that mud?” he asked. “Look how deep they are in it. That would probably come up to my chest, and Okara’s chin.” He shivered.
Taliesimon nodded. “I’m open to suggestions.”
Okara stepped over to the stakes at the nearest edge of the pit. She rubbed her palm across her mouth several times, as though in thought. She ran a hand over her bare scalp, leaving it to rest on the back of her neck for a moment.
Jonah looked helpless and Taliesimon watched Okara. What is she thinking?
Okara reached out to grasp the stake and pulled on it, but it didn’t budge. She tried again, but with no more success. A third try, but still nothing. “Help me,” she said.
Taliesimon shrugged as she glanced at Jonah. He nodded. They moved around to either side of Okara and gripped the stake above and below Okara’s hands. “Ready?” she asked.
Taliesimon nodded, and Jonah did likewise.
Okara nodded in turn. “One, two three!” and the three pulled together, each grunting with the effort.
Slowly, excruciatingly, the stake began moving toward the trio. Taliesimon tried not to smile, but she couldn’t stop the grin spreading across her lips. The farther the stake moved, the easier it became to pull. After almost a minute, the log pulled all the way out of the mud and the solid earth beneath it. The suddenness caused the stake to flip toward them and all three stumbled back and fell. Taliesimon’s backside struck the earth with a numbing thud.
Okara held the stake tight to her chest, hugging it. Taliesimon giggled madly at the sight as the sticky, black mud clung to the girl’s bare chest and leather breeches.
After a moment, Jonah sat up, looking confused. Then he glanced from Okara to Taliesimon and joined her helpless giggling. Looking down at herself, Okara joined them as well.
“What are you doing?” asked a deep voice to Taliesimon’s right.
She froze. the silence was palpable. Slowly, she sat up and looked. There stood a dragoon clad is a diamondwood chest plate who carried a spear tipped in shiny black bone.
Okara cleared her throat. “I’m going to use the stakes to speed through the mud. Unless, of course, that is somehow against the rules?”
For a bare instant, the dragoon’s eyes widened. His lips remained a thin, grim line. “You are welcome to try. But,” he gestured to the boys who’d reached the legs of the tower in the center of the mud pit. “I’d suggest you hurry if you want to proceed.”
Taliesimon nodded, and found her companions nodding with her. as the dragoon withdrew, disappearing behind the treeline next to the pit. She turned to face her companions and found them looking at her, Jonah expectantly and Okara with wide, hopeful eyes.
“So what’s the plan?” Taliesimon asked.
“Let’s get one more stake, then we’ll see if it’s going to work.”
Taliesimon sighed. She didn’t like not knowing what the younger girl had in mind, but since she didn’t have a plan of her own, she stood and followed, repeating the process with the other two, pulling a second stake from the ground. Having already learned the process, the second one came easier.
Instead of answering, Okara stood with a stake in hand and stepped to the edge of the pit. Raising the stake in both hands, she plunged it straight down into the mud. It stabbed in deep. Okara leg go and turned back to grin at Taliesimon.
The stake held but a moment, then tilted to one side as it began to fall.
“Okara!” she snapped, pointing at the falling stake. The smaller girl jerked her head around and snaked her hand out, only just snatching the stake before it was lost in the mud.
“Well, so much for that idea,” Okara said, despondent.
“Let me try,” Jonah said.
Taliesimon nodded. “Me too,” though she still couldn’t see what the other girl intended.
Okara eyed her askance, then shrugged and sat down. She stared at her knees with narrowed eyes.
Taliesimon and Jonah each took a stake and stepped to the edge. She let Jonah go first. He thrust down with all his might. Without waiting to see if his stuck, she lifted her own stake, took a deep breath, and slammed down with all her strength.
She released her stake and it leaned a moment before Jonah’s did.
“Tevandor’s axe!” Okara swore.
“Other ideas?” Taliesimon asked, forcing the despair from her voice.
Jonah pawed at the ground with a sandaled foot. “I think… maybe I might have one.”
Taliesimon wished he didn’t sound so meek. What hope did his idea have if even he didn’t think it was good? But she nodded. “Go ahead. Let’s hear it.”
“I’m sure it’ll be better than mine,” Okara muttered.
Jonah shrugged. “Well…” he trailed off before he’d even begun.
“Come one, Jonah,” Taliesimon said. “Any idea is better than nothing, and we’re running out of time.”
“Okay,” he said with a tentative smile. “Well, even diamondwood floats, doesn’t it?”
Taliesimon thought for a moment. “I… think so. I think I remember hearing father talk about it once. About river rafts made of it. Maybe.”
Okara nodded, her face uncertain, though she kept silent.
“What do you have in mind?”
The boy stood a little straighter. “Well, assuming they do float, we could lash three or four stakes together and ride them across. Like a raft, as Taliesimon says. It’s the simplest water craft that might work here, I think.” He lowered his eyes to his feet.
Taliesimon considered, looking for any problems with the plan.
Okara stood. “What will we lash them together with?”
Jonah’s slight smile faltered. “Oh. I didn’t think about that.”
“Our shirts,” Taliesimon blurted without thinking. The other two turned to look at her, eyes wide and mouths agape. “What? Will it work?”
Okara’s face lit up. “You. Are. Brilliant!”
Taliesimon allowed herself a congratulatory smile.
Jonah pulled his shirt off immediately and started tearing it into strips for maximum length.
“Come on,” Okara said. “We need at least two more stakes, maybe three.”
“Right,” Jonah said. “We’ll need a pole.”
With a smile, Taliesimon went to the edge with her friends to work on the additional stakes.
When they finally pulled the fifth stake out of the ground, Taliesimon collapsed into the dry dirt near the edge and stared out into the pit.
The last of the boys in the mud were just reaching the stilted legs of the tower. A larger boy pushed a smaller boy into the violently roiling mud between the tower’s legs and the victim shrieked. He leaped up from beneath the mud, his flesh crimson.
His shriek ripped at Taliesimon’s heart, her soul wailed with the boy, and her eyes filled with tears.
“You okay?” Jonah asked from above her, somehow still standing.
“It just disgusts me. I understand hurting others in the competition. I understand violence.” The boy shrieked again, louder than before. “But that was just sadistic. There was no reason for him to do that! Cruel bastards.”
Okara sat up and shrugged. Clearly nothing about this bothered her.
Jonah nodded. “I understand, but this is the world we live in, Taliesimon.”
She grimaced. “I know. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
With a shake of her head, Okara leaped to her feet and rolled the stakes next to each other. That done, she collected the strips of Jonah’s shirt and started lashing the stakes together with them. She yanked on the strips as she tied the knots, color rising to her cheeks.
Jonah turned from Taliesimon and knelt at the end of the stakes opposite Okara. “We need your shirt, Tal.”
“Oh.” I didn’t think mine would actually be necessary, she thought. Hmm. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. “Um, are you certain you truly need-”
“Tally,” Okara snapped. “There’s nothing else we can use. Unless you’d rather lose you breeches. I sure don’t. Come one, we’re both shirtless. Stop being such a grauk and take off your damn shirt so we can get to that tower!”
Taliesimon nodded and gritted her teeth as she pulled the wool shirt over her head. The rush of blood warmed her neck and face and she imagined her flesh must now be the color of ripe strawberries.
She struggled against her instinct to cover her almost-flat chest with her hands as she tossed her tunic down to Jonah. She winced as he tore it into strips and began lashing the stakes together.
When the knotwork was finished, Taliesimon helped her companions push their makeshift raft into the black mud, with she and Jonah each carrying an additional stake to push the raft across the surface with.
The raft slid into the thick stuff without resistance. Jonah stepped onto it and plunged his stake into the mud. The raft seemed stable, He tested pushing and pulling the stake and the raft obediently moved forward and back, if a bit slower that Taliesimon would have liked.
Okara leaped the short stretch of mud and landed, cat-like, with bent knees in the center of the raft. The craft drifted a few spans out with her momentum, but was otherwise unaffected.
Taliesimon took a deep breath, stepped back a few steps, and ran toward the pit. At its edge, she leaped toward the raft.
Oh, no, she thought. It’s still drifting!
After a small eternity, she landed at the left edge of the raft with her feet only half of its surface. The raft dipped toward her with the added weight and a foot slipped off the raft. Her arms pinwheeled as she tried to maintain her balance, but she leaned farther and farther out of the raft. She shrieked as the bubbling mud came up to meet her.
The screaming face of the boy who was pushed in below the tower to boil alive flashed through her mind and she prayed it ended quickly. She slammed her eyes closed to wait for the end.
But that agonizing end didn’t come.
She hung, suspended. The heat of the roiling mud warmed her face and she became aware of the pressure on her right hand, an insistent squeeze.
Am I already dead? she wondered.
“Come on, Tally, you’re killing me here,” Jonah grunted.
Taliesimon snapped her open open and found the roiling black mud less than a pace from her face. She turned to her right in a daze. Jonah had a hold of her right hand and Okara gripped him around the waist, anchoring them all onto the raft.
“A little help here,” Okara growled.
Taliesimon blinked and finally comprehended what had happened. Glancing down, she realized her feet were balanced around the curve of the stake at the end of the raft. With a mental cringe, she turned her body and reached up to grasp Jonah’s hand with her other hand and pulled. With their combined effort, the three finally pulled her up onto the raft and all three fell to their knees, panting with exhaustion.
“What in the nine hells was that?” Okara spat, furious.
“Sorry,” Taliesimon panted. “I though. I was dead.”
Okara rolled her eyes and turned toward the front of the raft. “Let’s go.”
Taliesimon nodded and climbed to her feet. She reached down for her stake before she realized there was a problem. “Oh, torthugra fangs!”
Turning, she found Jonah with his stake in the mud, pushing the raft toward the center. More than a dozen boys were there now, struggling to climp up the tower legs. They tried to jump up, out of the mud, to grasp the legs, but slipped down. One boy gripped the leg leth his feet and struggled to pull himeslf up. He did well, pulling himself upward until just after his feet cleared the mud and he slipped back down to the laughter of his peers.
“Are the legs greased?” Jonah asked.
“So it would seem,” Okara said grimly.
Taliesimon nodded again and said distantly, “I’ll take over the paddling whenever you want, Jonah.”
Okara scoffed. “Why?” Her voice was bitter and deprecating. “So you can lose the other one too? We’ve wasted enough time already.”
Taliesimon’s mouth fell open. But… but I didn’t… Even her thought faded as her vision clouded with tears. She wiped at them angrily.
Jonah smiled at her, sympathy in his eyes, and nodded toward the tower. I’m a lot more worried about how we’re going to deal with that.”
Chapter 9, Dargon
Dargon’s rage cooled in an instant, and he stared at the raging flames in shock. Above the flames, a glittering image appeared of a winged serpent the color of lustrous, shining gold. It’s crimson eyes glared at him.
“By holy Trevandor,” he whispered in horrified awe.
The natural-looking flames flared up and turned bright red, then dimmed down to cobalt blue as it engulfed the metallic serpent which grinned at him, showing its long, sword-shaped teeth of ivory-white.
Then the flames flared even higher and burned pure white. Ina moment, the serpent vanished and the flames died. All that remained of the book was a pile of white ash in a roughly rectangular shape.
“No!” he wailed, tears filling his eyes. Several thoughts came to him then in rapid succession, so fast it made his head spin.
First, the tales of Veralon! Dammit! Now I’ll never find out how the story ends!
Then, how am I going to explain this? That book was older than grandfather!
Then, Wait, no one comes down here. I don’t have to explain anything to anyone.
And finally, but while we’re on the subject, just what in the name of all the gods happened here? How did that fire start in the first place?
“Sparks,” he said, seizing on an idea. “Father always says not to stand too close to a fire because the sparks can fly and light clothing on fire. If that can happen to a tunic, then surely a book is equally susceptible. Of course. That must be it.”
And what about the serpent? asked a small, insistent voice.
“My imagination. Brought on by the image carved into the library doors.”
And the leaping blue flames, followed by white? Have you ever even seen flames that hot before? How does fire go white, exactly?
“Look,” he said, frustrated with himself. “I don’t know. Maybe I imagined that too. I didn’t even feel the heat of the flames anyway!”
If you didn’t feel the heat, why is the book ash now?
Dargon growled. “Of course. This is me, sitting here arguing with myself because I can’t explain what in the nine hells I just saw.”
Not true, the annoying voice came again. You have an explanation that makes perfect sense. You just don’t want to think about that.
Dargon huffed an angry sigh. “No. Just no. I’m not a bad person. The gods would not curse me so. No. I refuse to accept that. It can’t be.”
Fine. Bury your head in the sand.
Dargon growled again, but otherwise ignored the thoughts. It didn’t happen often, but this was one of those times that made him wonder if there was another personality in his head. How can a person argue with themselves as strongly as he did? He couldn’t understand it.
Standing, he took the stone-handled hand broom from the mantle above the hearth and its matching ash pan and stooped to clean up the remains of the book. “Dammit,” he said again as he dumped the ashes into the hearth.
Replacing the tools on the mantle, Dargon rested his arms on the mantle and rested his forehead on his arms.
It seemed a long time passed while he stood over the hearth, alternating between watching the dancing flames and squeezing his eyes closed against the surrealism of the day.
Strange images danced in the flames, with his eyes open or closed, they continued. Images of armies of war, or numerous races uniting against… what? The creatures were strange, in many ways they resembled the torthugra. They were more or less serpentine, with long necks and tails and narrow, scaled bodies. But these also had four legs each and most of their heads were horned. And there seemed to be numerous types of them. Of different colors and shapes.
What are these things? he wondered. He closed his eyes and saw a battle between three of the creatures and an army of odd creatures that seemed almost human, but not quite. Almost like the mythical races of elves and dwarves, perhaps. The creatures were immense, easily hundreds of times the size of the humanoids.
“What?” he whispered. Such strange creatures, working together in battle. Even according to the myths, that never happened. But what were the things anyway? Everyone knew elves and dwarves weren’t real. But what were those strange winged creatures? He felt certain he’d never seen anything like them, the closest thing he knew of were the torthugra, and calling them similar was like saying trolls were similar to gnelwyn. Technically there were similarities, but they were so different they could have been from different worlds.
Opening his eyes, Dargon turned from the hearth to leave the library.
Raising a hand to the door, he froze. The torches, he thought. The room darkened behind him and a dozen sparks flew into his hand from all directions. They burst into bright azure flames around his hand.
“I am not a sorcerer!” he screamed vehemently.
Finally, please do remember that while the finished book will be available everywhere ebooks are sold, I’m not doing pre-orders on Amazon due to peculiarities of Amazon that make doing so not beneficial. If you’d like to pre-order on another retailer, you may do so here: books2read.com/calamity1-shadow