Hey, folks, the book is in editing, so I don’t have the usual update for you. My work on Aftershock is pretty much done save for any questions the editors might have for me as they go through the manuscript. What I do have for you, though, is the first full excerpt from the novel. Yep, no 200-word mini-excerpt this time. I’ve got 2,700 words of Ashlynn d’Elyse action for you.
So, without further ado, let’s head to the city of Rynyr and check in on our favorite Llaelese warcaster.
Rynyr, Occupied Llael
How do people live here? Ashlynn d’Elyse thought as she approached the outer walls of Rynyr and the smothering heat and smoke that poured from the city. Calling them walls was not really accurate, though; Rynyr’s foundation was a deep volcanic chasm, crisscrossed with catwalks and gantries that connected clusters of buildings, constructed on jutting rocky outcroppings or directly into the side of the chasm. The lowest point in the city was still an arduous climb up the side of a mountain where she knew a garrison of Khadoran soldiers awaited her.
The way up was steep and narrow, and though it was wide enough for the battalion of soldiers she’d brought with her to walk three abreast, her warjacks—especially the heavy Mules and Nomads—seemed in constant danger of plummeting from the mountainside. She kept in nearly constant contact with the ’jacks, guiding their steps when necessary.
The Khadorans wouldn’t expect an attack from this direction. The pass was too narrow for a sizable army to assault, but it presented one advantage. Just before the plateau, an enemy would have an unrestricted field of fire if they could lob their artillery high enough. In addition, the canyon walls would prevent the Khadorans on the plateau from returning fire effectively. The angle was wrong, as the plateau hung over the pass, and targeting those on it would mean firing straight down, something multi-ton warjacks and artillery emplacements were not designed to do.
“We’ll be fish in a barrel when we make the plateau, Marshal,” said a tall man in an officer’s uniform standing next to Ashlynn. Major Heward Cocteau had been part of the Llaelese Army before the occupation, and he carried the same rank now that he was part of the Llaelese Resistance.
“We’ll lose some men,” Ashlynn agreed. “But if the reports are accurate, most of the Khadoran troops were pulled to Laedry when they evacuated Rynyr. We should encounter only a small force. And we can hurt them before they can shoot back.”
Major Cocteau pulled aside the thick and water-soaked black cloth he’d wound around his mouth. The fumes that permeated Rynyr were nearly unbreathable. He grimaced but nodded. He was not only a veteran soldier, he’d also been part of the Resistance for a long time. When in the army he’d been a friend of her father’s; Benoir d’Elyse had inspired many to throw off the yoke of Khadoran oppression, and Ashlynn had been following in his footsteps for over a decade. Cocteau was similarly committed to her leadership.
The squat garrison buildings were now visible, their slate grey tops peering over the horizon. Behind them, Rynyr loomed, miasmatic clouds of dust and ash hanging like globs of phlegm in the sulfur-yellow sky above the city. The late summer heat was tolerable, even to soldiers in armor, but it would be like fighting inside an oven once the battle began in the city.
She called a halt and glanced back at the force she was leading: five-hundred infantrymen armed with rifles and short swords, two hundred halberdiers, and two hundred heavy horse armed with blunderbuss and long axe. The horsemen and halberdiers were drawn entirely from the ranks of the Steelhead chapter in Merin. While the Steelheads were good soldiers, she was hesitant to use men not completely loyal to the cause. Yet she and the other leaders of the Resistance had had little choice. Her greatest asset was two squads of Thorn gun mages drawn from the old Loyal Order of the Amethyst Rose. Each was the equivalent of five ordinary soldiers and utterly dedicated to Llael. Lastly, she had her warjacks: two Mules, a Nomad, and a pair of Vanguards. They were old warjacks—in fact, the Mules and Nomad were positively ancient, each more than a century old. Despite their age, all were in good fighting condition.
“Let’s get the Mules up here,” she said to Cocteau. “The Khadorans have to know we’re here, and I want to start shelling those barracks so our infantry can advance under their fire.”
“A sound plan, Marshal d’Elyse,” Cocteau said. “Shall I have the horsemen charge up first to make a hole for the infantry?”
She nodded. “Go pass the order along.”
It sometimes felt strange to give orders to men who had served with her father. She remembered them as larger-than-life figures who had helped begin the rebellion, the military of which she now led. Her warcaster ability and her many victories spoke for themselves, so the men who once followed Benoir d’Elyse now gladly followed her. Major Cocteau was no different.
Cocteau left to dispense her orders, and she reached out to the pair of Mules towering over the column of soldiers behind her. Their minds were old and slow; it was like pushing through a layer of mud to reach their cortexes. They were reliable machines, but the technology on which they were built was nearly two hundred years old, and they lacked the speed and precision of newer warjacks. Still, these two had served her well for many years. She called them Soldier and Crash—the former for a strange habit of seeking her permission to enter combat and the latter because it liked to use its body more than its mace to smash enemy warjacks and the occasional building to pieces.
The two Mules made their way up through the ranks with no small amount of her direct guidance. They were careful, and she could feel a faint trepidation through her connection with them; they wanted to avoid hurting their brothers in arms. The soldiers in their way did their best to move aside, flattening themselves against the canyon wall or ducking between the warjacks’ legs to avoid their passage.
When Soldier and Crash reached her, Soldier brought its mace up to its head in something like a salute. That was a new quirk, though it fit the old warjack’s regimented personality. Crash vented steam in an irritated rumble. She could feel its aggression like an old attack dog kept in its pen too long. It wanted to break something.
Each of the Mules was armed with a primitive cannon that used pressurized steam to launch an explosive projectile. Usually, the range was very short, certainly not enough to reach the Khadoran barracks above them. Given time, though, the steam could be allowed to build and a shell launched farther, but the steam cannon’s primary benefit was that it could lob artillery at a very high angle. She mentally ordered the two Mules to aim their cannons. The steady hiss of building pressure was audible, and Crash’s frustration that it wouldn’t see the carnage it was about to inflict on the enemy was like a hive of bees in her mind.
“Don’t worry, old man,” she said out loud. “Plenty of opportunity for close work ahead.”
The cannons had reached the correct pressure, and she saw a line of horsemen behind the warjacks, ready to advance, all of them veteran mercenaries. They would fight hard, but she’d need to get her infantry up to the plateau as soon as possible to bolster them. Mercenaries would not fight a losing battle.
The steam cannons weren’t as loud as traditional cannons blasting powder munitions, but they still made a deep choonk! sound as they released their cannonballs.
She had guided the Mule’s aim with her magic, and the two projectiles sailed high and at the arc she wanted. They were loaded with two pounds of blasting powder each, and when they hit, the resulting double explosions sent shockwaves through the ground.
Screams and shouts from above followed, and now the horsemen moved past the two Mules—there was just enough space to let them through—and up toward the enemy. She pushed Soldier and Crash to fire their cannons again, and two more explosives sailed up and over. She estimated she could get three volleys launched before the horsemen reached the plateau.
She was right.
After the third round of explosions, she heard the telltale clash of steel on steel. The horsemen had made contact.
She drew her mechanikal sword, Nemesis, and held it aloft. “For the Resistance! For Llael!”
She charged up the steep pass, Soldier and Crash pounding along behind her. As she did, she made contact with the rest of her warjacks, the sword-wielding Nomad and a pair of Vanguards armed with guisarme and shield cannons. They were a bit farther back with hundreds of infantry between them. She’d planned it that way: to hit the Khadorans in waves.
Soldier and Crash were excited, as excited as two ancient warjacks were likely to get. They were about to do what they had been built to do, and the likelihood of battle filled them with something akin to joy. They vented steam in long angry blasts as they thundered along.
She made the plateau and saw something she did not expect. There were Khadorans here. Ranks of Winter Guard poured out of the barracks, six squat buildings pressed against the wall of the canyon. Another steep pass rose behind them, this one leading to the city proper.
There weren’t enough enemy troops to hold their position, and they seemed to possess only a single warjack, a Juggernaut that looked to have seen better days, judging by the condition of its hull, which was cracked and warped in many places.
She realized her force outnumbered the Khadorans by two-to-one at least. She’d expected a roughly even fight and had hoped her surprise attack would give her the advantage. But it had done more than that: it had put her in a position to annihilate the enemy.
Ashlynn didn’t stop to wonder at her good fortune. There was still a battle to fight. Ahead of her was roughly a hundred yards of open ground, and the Steelhead horsemen roaring across it turned it into a dustbowl.
The Winter Guard fired their rifles, and she saw horsemen tumble from the saddle. The Juggernaut was controlled by an officer, a man with a black fur hat and a saber. He was no warcaster but a ′jack marshal, directing his machine’s actions with shouted commands and hand signals. The Juggernaut waded into a knot of horsemen, its ice axe glowing bright blue as it simultaneously cut and froze. Limbs snapped off or shattered, as if the warjack were dismembering lifelike ice statues.
That was where she needed to be.
She summoned her magic, the spell runes forming in swirling gold around her sword blade. She directed the spell at Crash, quickening the old Mule’s movement and reaction time with sorcerous augmentation.
“Get him, old man,” she said, directing Crash to do what it wanted to do: to slam into the enemy warjack as an eight-ton battering ram.
She directed Soldier to fire its cannon at the Khadoran buildings. If more enemy were inside, she could delay them from coming out, perhaps even kill or trap them in the barracks.
Soldier’s cannon fired, and the explosive whistled into its target, blasting apart the roof of one of the barracks.
She ran behind Crash, and the Juggernaut’s ’jack marshal saw her coming and began screaming orders. The Juggernaut turned just in time to catch Crash’s armored shoulder in its chest. Sparks and scraps of metal flew in all directions. Crash’s joy reached almost human levels of ecstasy as the Juggernaut slammed backward, trampling a Khadoran soldier beneath it. The enemy warjack did not go down, however, and in a straight-up fight, a Mule was at a disadvantage against a Juggernaut. Not that Crash knew or cared about this.
Ashlynn forced Crash to use its mace, and it reluctantly stepped forward to engage the Juggernaut. Behind her, the infantry had arrived—she could hear Major Cocteau shouting orders and then the staccato rattle of rifle fire.
The Juggernaut’s ice axe smashed into Crash’s hull, nearly severing its left arm and the steam cannon attached to it. She guided the return stroke and crumpled the Juggernaut’s hull above its cortex, knocking it back again.
She needed to remove the Juggernaut’s ’jack marshal before Crash took more damage, but half a dozen Winter Guard stood in her way. That worried her little. She advanced slowly with measured steps, keeping her sword in long point, hilt at shoulder level, blade projecting toward the enemy. She called forth her magic again, and runes formed once more around Nemesis. This time she used the spell on herself, so when she reached the Winter Guard, she was a blur of silvery death. She took one soldier through the throat, pulled her blade free, and slashed open the chest of the man next to him. The Khadorans tried to bring their axes to bear, but they moved as if trapped in thick mud, unable to intercept or ward off her flickering sword. She knocked an axe aside with the strong of her blade, raised her hands high over her foe’s guard, and rammed Nemesis through his chest. She then lunged forward and skewered the man behind the one she’d just killed. The final two Winter Guard gave ground, allowing her to finally reach the ′jack marshal.
The Khadoran had drawn his short heavy saber and was waiting for her. He’s a brave one, she thought. Yet he was at a severe disadvantage; his weapon was shorter and slower, to say nothing of her years of training and her warcaster ability.
Ashlynn drove forward with a thrust at the ′jack marshal’s throat. He knocked it aside with a short crisp parry, binding Nemesis with his heavier blade. It was good form but not good enough. She allowed her blade to be pushed away before snapping Nemesis out of the bind. The Khadoran had been using too much pressure, and his blade dropped for a split second without her weapon to resist it. The opening was small, but she was quick, and Nemesis removed the top half of the Khadoran’s skull in a fountain of blood.
She leaped back, blade up in a defensive guard. Even mortally wounded men could strike one more blow before death claimed them. But she needn’t have worried. The ′jack marshal’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he toppled over.
The battle had ebbed around her. With the infantry and the rest of her warjacks behind them, the remaining Khadoran troops were being slaughtered. There was still that Juggernaut to deal with, however.
She turned her attention to Crash, quickly checking the Mule’s condition through her link with it. It was suffering. Its hull was torn in many places, and it was leaking fluid from multiple ruptures in its hydraulic system.
Soldier had reduced most of the barracks to rubble, and Ashlynn pulled it away to help Crash. Her Vanguards began to pepper the remaining structures with their smaller shield cannons while her Nomad brought its battle blade to bear against the remaining Winter Guard.
Something like concern flowed back through her connection with Soldier, concern for its fellow Mule, which was in real danger. She pushed Soldier into a charge, and the big warjack came hurtling across the battlefield, its mace whistling down with earth-shattering force. The Juggernaut had raised its axe to deliver a finishing blow to Crash, but without a ′jack marshal, it was operating purely on instinct and didn’t see the peril it was in.
Soldier’s mace smashed into the Juggernaut’s head, tearing it off and sending it sailing away. The loss of its head was not fatal to the warjack, though it was now blind and deaf. The Juggernaut stumbled, swinging its axe wildly, cutting in half a Winter Guard soldier not quick enough to get out of the way.
Ashlynn urged Soldier forward and aimed the next blow with its mace at the Khadoran warjack’s chest. The weapon hammered down, crushing the hull and the cortex beneath it. The Juggernaut collapsed to the ground, nine tons of smoking wreckage.
“Good work, Soldier,” Ashlynn said and moved up next to the warjack, taking cover behind its huge frame as she surveyed the battle. It was over; it had been a complete rout.
The remaining Khadorans threw down their weapons and surrendered. Now that the adrenaline rush of battle had faded, she could analyze the situation.
Why was this pass so poorly defended? It was a question that demanded answering before she committed her troops to anything else in Rynyr.
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