What follows is a short excerpt from my e-novelette “Sacred Charge,” now available from Skull Island eXpeditions and Privateer Press. The story is set in Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms setting, “A place where steam power and gunpowder meet sword and sorcery.” For those unfamiliar with the Iron Kingdoms, Privateer Press has posted a wonderful, in-depth introduction to the world on their website.
Here’s the “back cover” text for “Sacred Charge.”
Among the skorne, death and glory are often the same thing.
At the command of Archdomina Makeda, the great Army of the Western Reaches pushes further into the uncharted lands in the west. The skorne who fight for the archdomina face enemies stranger than any they’ve seen, but with each foe comes a chance at glory and exaltation.
When three warriors are cut off from the main army after an ambush by a new and deadly enemy, they become the sole protectors of a most precious cargo: soul stones containing the vital essence of skorne who died bravely in combat. These survivors must overcome their differences in rank and the rigid skorne caste system, band together, and fight their way back to safety. But one among them harbors a terrible secret, one that may cost them their honor, their lives, and even their very souls.
You can download “Sacred Charge” at the following sites:
Many thanks to Skull Island eXpeditions and Privateer Press for graciously allowing me to post this excerpt on my humble little blog.
608 AR, South of Scarleforth Lake
The enemy came in a wave of pale shadows, flickering silhouettes rushing through an alien forest on a tide of steel and death.
Senior Beast Handler Zoaxa cracked her whip, its barbed tip scoring the flesh of the basilisk drake in front of her. The reptilian creature hissed and snapped at the air, but the pain had the intended effect: it turned its scaly head toward a charging line of pale elves armed with long slashing swords. The basilisk’s eyes blazed crimson, and the air in front of it shimmered. Ten yards away, the elves, the toksaa, were struck by the creature’s gaze. Zoaxa smiled behind her mask as the enemy warriors’ bodies disintegrated, their flesh sloughing off their bones in a liquid tide.
“Cetrati! Battle line!” Tyrant Verthak’s voice rose over the din of battle, powerful and commanding. His Cataphract Cetrati, heavily armored warriors wielding long spears and stout shields, formed a line of armored flesh in front of the skorne scouting force.
“Venators! Cut them down!” came another command, this time from Dakar Isket. A dozen lightly armored skorne obeyed their commander and aimed their reivers, gas-powered rifles that hurled a shower of deadly needles, over the shoulders of the heavy infantry in front of them.
Zoaxa stood behind the Venators along with another paingiver beast handler. It was their task to manage the warbeasts, a basilisk drake and its mate, called a krea.
Tyrant Verthak was an imposing figure, a veteran Cataphract who had attained much glory fighting in the west. An ancestral guardian stood beside the tyrant, its obsidian body festooned with sacral stones to catch the fleeing souls of worthy skorne, saving them from the Void and ensuring their experience could be called on in the centuries to come. The guardian was a mighty combatant in its own right; the spirit animating it had once been a skorne warrior of rare skill and valor.
The buzzing whine of the Venators’ reivers sounded, and white-skinned elves fell beneath a hail of needles. More enemies streamed from the forest.
The blighted elves were known to be in the area, and there were reports that Master Naaresh had engaged a large force of them to the north of the Scarleforth. Lord Hexeris had sent Tyrant Verthak to seek out the enemy and determine their strength and numbers in the immediate vicinity. Neither Herxeris nor Verthak had expected to encounter a force of this size.
They were outnumbered; this much was clear. The ambushers were initially comprised of dozens of unarmored warriors wielding twin swords. Many of these had fallen, but now a group of hunched, leather-clad archers was emerging from the trees. Zoaxa had understood the elves to be blighted, warped by the fell energy of a dragon, but these archers confirmed it. Spines and horny growths jutted from their bodies, their legs bent backward at the knees, and their feet were clawed talons.
“S’ket!” Tyrant Verthak shouted, his voice thundering over the noise of combat. “Bring the krea to my position.” Nearby, the skorne the tyrant had called out to hurried to obey. S’ket was a mortitheurge willbreaker and could use her mystical skills to motivate a warbeast and tap into its power. She pointed at Tyrant Verthak’s position, and the krea loosed an irritated screech, but it moved. The beast’s latent magic ability could be harnessed to create an energy barrier that robbed the strength from missile attacks. The krea lumbered in Tyrant Verthak’s direction with S’ket behind it, silently driving it forward.
Zoaxa turned her attention back to the drake. She ran a hand along its leathery flank, making sure its pain hooks were in place. The creature’s rage was palpable, an aura of chaotic power that could be harnessed by a skilled mortitheurge such as S’ket. But left unchecked, the beast would lose control and attack both friend and foe. Zoaxa tugged lightly on a pain hook sunk into a nerve bundle at the base of the drake’s skull; its manipulation had a calming effect on the beast. There were no targets for its destructive gaze at the moment, and it would be needed when the enemy closed. The drake quieted, and Zoaxa looked to Tyrant Verthak. The krea had reached his position, and she could see the slight shimmer in the air that indicated S’ket had driven the beast to use its power.
Arrows fell like black rain.
The enemy archers were skilled and crafty. They did not target the Cataphracts, whose armor was thick enough to repel even the most powerful bows. Instead, their arrows fell among the Venators and the beast handlers.
Zoaxa ducked and rolled beneath the drake, using its body to shield her from the rain of missiles. She heard screams as the Venators were struck down, their light armor insufficient to turn aside the arrows. Beside her, the other beast handler, Kress, fell to the ground, an arrow protruding from his left eye. The drake writhed above Zoaxa as arrows thudded into its scaly hide, and she twisted its pain hooks to keep it calm and to accelerate its healing ability.
“Cataphracts, forward!” she heard Tyrant Verthak shout. She rolled out from beneath the drake and saw most of the Venators had fallen, including Dakar Isket. One of them was crawling toward her, possibly wounded, away from the battle.
“Coward,” she said and would have dispatched the Venator with her short sword had there been time. Instead she pushed the drake forward into a slow jog and ran beside it, keeping pace with the Cataphracts. She saw that the krea and S’ket still lived and were moving behind Tyrant Verthak.
More enemies were emerging from the trees, blighted elves in heavy, ornamented armor and armed with great two-handed swords. They formed a battle line, their discipline apparent in the speed and efficacy of their movements. The archers moved behind them and again filled the air with black-fletched arrows.
“Charge!” Tyrant Verthak cried, and the Cataphracts surged forward. They met the enemy swordsmen with a deafening crash of steel on steel. Blood plumed as Cataphract spears penetrated pale flesh.
The Cataphracts were now held in place by the enemy’s heavy infantry, but there were more unarmored swordsmen moving around the right flank of the Cataphract line. Zoaxa saw them; she whipped the basilisk drake forward, enraging the beast and spiking its physical strength with a surge of adrenaline. It charged eagerly, barreling into the elven warriors with tooth and fang. She left it to fight without her guidance; it would hold the right flank for a time.
More arrows fell, dropping the remaining Venators and a single Cataphract. The heavy infantry closed ranks around their fallen comrade, shortening their line. Zoaxa raced forward, unfurling her whip and drawing her short sword with the other hand. The krea’s animus had kept Tyrant Verthak and S’ket safe from the enemy’s arrows, but more swordsmen were moving toward them. The tyrant was shouting orders and hacking down any enemy that ventured within reach of his halberd. The ancestral guardian stood grim and still beside Verthak, the sacral stones on its body occasionally flashing red as they absorbed a worthy skorne soul.
More Cataphracts fell, and Zoaxa had nearly reached Verthak. The swordsmen approaching the tyrant were led by a tall female armed with a single blade. Her gait was predatory, and Zoaxa saw this was because she had the same bestial deformities as the blighted archers. The female warrior and her swordsmen fell on Verthak, separating him and the ancestral guardian from the Cataphracts. The tyrant cut down two swordsmen with his halberd, and the others streamed around him, slashing at the krea and S’ket. The krea shrieked as enemy blades cut into it. S’ket bravely urged the beast to fight, and it snapped its jaws closed on a swordsman, nearly biting him in two.
Zoaxa reached S’ket just as the krea went down, slashed to pieces by a dozen swords. She had begun her tutelage in the paingiver caste as a bloodrunner, a mortitheurgical assassin, and she was no stranger to battle. Her whip snapped out, slashing open the throat of the nearest swordsman, then she leapt forward and buried her short sword in the spine of another.
S’ket was doing her best to hold the enemy at bay with a sword snatched from a fallen Venator, but she had little martial training. A swordsman nimbly dodged S’ket’s first clumsy strike, stepped inside her reach, and removed the willbreaker’s head with a single stroke.
Two more swordsmen threatened Zoaxa, and she gave ground. Tyrant Verthak had engaged the tall female elf and was fending off a flurry of sword strikes with his shield. To the tyrant’s left, the Cataphract line had collapsed. Only four remained. They had taken a toll on the enemy, though. Dozens of pale bodies were heaped around them.
Zoaxa turned back to the immediate threat. The two swordsmen charged. She snapped her whip at the first, causing him to jerk back. The other raced forward, both blades slashing. She knew she wouldn’t be able to fend off both swords, and so she drew her arm back and hurled her short sword at the charging enemy. It was a clumsy weapon for such an attack, but she was lucky. The blade pierced the elf’s chest, stopping him in his tracks. He toppled, folding over the mortal wound.
A bright flash of red light drew Zoaxa’s attention to Tyrant Verthak. The great skorne warrior stood limply, the female elf’s blade transfixing his skull. She had thrust the weapon up under the tyrant’s helm, the precision of the strike denoting superlative skill. The flash of light was Verthak’s soul filling one of the ancestral guardian’s sacral stones. The massive stone construct was nearby, fending off more enemies with its glaive.
Verthak crumpled to the ground, his limp body falling among the mounting skorne dead. Zoaxa knew his death signified the end of any hope they might survive. Without his leadership and martial skill they stood little chance. At least his soul had been preserved, that he might fight once again for the archdomina in the stone body of an immortal.
Pounding footsteps broke Zoaxa’s attention back to the immediate threat. The remaining swordsman had taken advantage of her lapse in concentration to close the distance. She stumbled backward, knocking aside the enemy’s first sword stroke with the butt of her whip. But she was not fast enough to turn the second. The blade smashed into her mask just above her jaw line. The world went dark, and she was falling . . .
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