Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Peace of Mind

Got another piece of Iron Kingdoms fiction you today. This one is called “Peace of Mind” and it also comes from an issue of No Quarter magazine. It features members of the Searforge Commission, a mercenary company drawn from the dwarven empire of Rhul. This story centers around a group of miscreants and unfortunates stationed at a backwater fort where they can’t get into much trouble. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

New to Privateer Press and the Iron Kingdoms? Check out this link for an introduction to this war-torn world of steam power and sorcery.


Peace of Mind

By Aeryn Rudel

Valkar rubbed his hands together and shivered. The sun was sinking on the horizon, and the tolerable cold of the day gave way to the unbearable chill of the long winter night. His watch didn’t end for another two hours, and he looked longingly back through the gates of Baram Fort toward the light and noise from the barracks. He shook his head and turned his gaze back to the small winding road that led up to the small fortress. Warmth and food would have to wait. Although the High Shield Gun Corps stationed at Baram Fort was not exactly known for following the rigid guidelines set forth by the Searforge Commission, Captain Vornek Blackheel considered dereliction of watch one of the few actionable offenses.

Drinking while on duty, fortunately, was not on the captain’s list of punishable activities. “Ecken,” Valkar said to his fellow guard, a much younger dwarf standing on the other side of the wide gate. “Give me a bit of that. These old bones are aching something fierce.”

Ecken had been dozing on his feet, a skill at which he was quite accomplished. The young dwarf came awake with a start and fixed Valkar with a hazy stare. “What did you say, Valk?”

“I said gimme a swig of uiske.”

Ecken looked down at the battered metal flask he’d been clutching to his breastplate and smiled. “Sure, Valk.” He walked across the short space between them, swaying slightly. He wasn’t quite falling-down drunk yet.

Ecken held out the flask. Valkar reached for it, but before he could take it, Ecken dropped it. The young dwarf stooped to retrieve the container, and his helmet tumbled from his head, revealing the huge scar above his left ear. The surgeons had removed a portion of Ecken’s brain after a Khadoran bullet had plowed through his skull. The hair hadn’t grown back over the wound.

Valk grimaced. “I’ll get it, Ecken.” He bent down and retrieved the flask and Ecken’s helmet, wincing as his aching knees popped.

“Sorry, Valk.” Ecken put his helmet back on.

Valk took a drink from Ecken’s flask, letting the cheap uiske burn a path of warmth down his middle, then handed it back. “You’re a good lad, Ecken. When our watch is over we’ll get some food, hey? You need more in your stomach than that Khadoran fire water.”

Ecken frowned. “I’m not hungry. I just want to go to sleep. My head hurts.”

Valkar put a hand on the younger dwarf’s shoulder. “I know. But I got my orders, and one of them is make sure Ecken eats.” Captain Blackheel had placed Ecken under Valkar’s care shortly after the wounded dwarf arrived at Fort Baram. It was the only place the Searforge would allow him to serve, a high mountain fortress in the middle of nowhere filled with the dregs of the Gun Corps: drunks, thieves, and miscreants. Ecken’s wound gave him near constant headaches, and it made him prone to violent mood swings, leaving him largely unfit for anything but guard duty at a fort that rarely saw visitors. It was a mercy, Valkar supposed, the Searforge had let Ecken remain in the corps, draw pay, and receive something resembling supervision and care.

A black look fell across Ecken’s face, and Valkar thought he might explode into one of his rages. They came on with little provocation, and Ecken would shout and bellow, even physically assault anyone who came near. The rest of the dwarves at Baram Fort knew to avoid their injured compatriot during these times, and only Valkar could calm Ecken down, usually. Last week, Lieutenant Murgan, the fort’s ogrun second-in-command, had to restrain Ecken, holding him immobile while he thrashed and cursed. After that, he’d fallen into a black depression that lasted days. The only thing that seemed to give him some measure of peace was drinking, and though Valkar knew inebriation wasn’t doing anything but masking the pain, he couldn’t begrudge the young dwarf his one escape from a grim reality.

“Okay, Valk,” Ecken said, and his face softened. “I’ll eat some porridge. I think I can keep that down.”

Valkar smiled, relieved. “Good lad. Now back to your post.”

Ecken nodded and returned to his side of the gate. Valkar didn’t mind looking after the young dwarf; it gave him something to do, a purpose. He’d come to Baram Fort not because he was a drunk, a coward, or even a bad soldier. His only crime was growing old. He’d served in the Gun Corps for fifty years, never rising above the rank of sergeant because he was happiest in the trenches, wading through the mud and blood with the grunts. Then they’d told him he was too old to serve, that it was time to set his rifle and axe down. They offered him a fair pension, but what would he do with it? He had no children, no wife, and only distant relatives. He’d get older, grow decrepit, and then die alone. He’d refused to retire, so they granted him one final post, a place where the Searforge Commission could forget about him. He accepted and found his place among Baram Fort’s group of misfits. At least he wouldn’t die alone.

“There’s a wagon coming, Valk,” Ecken said, pulling Valkar out of his thoughts.

Valkar looked down the narrow road, a nameless and little-used trade route that ran from the Rhulic city of Drotuhn and climbed through the Thundercliff Peaks, eventually connecting to Hellspass, the more conventional route for traders travelling between Khador and Rhul. Fort Baram was positioned to guard this all-but-forgotten route from the few travelers and merchants who used it—mostly to avoid the steep tolls of Hellspass.

A large wagon pulled by two huge Khadoran draft horses rumbled toward the fort. The driver wore a heavy black cloak with a hood, and eight men in chainmail hauberks with axes on their belts and rifles over their shoulders walked alongside the wagon.

Valkar frowned. He’d never seen a wagon so heavily guarded pass through Baram Fort. He glanced back through the gates; there were a few other dwarves moving about in the yard, on duty, and two or three more manning the walls, but they were coming up on a watch change and most of the troops were in the barracks.

“Ecken, let me do the talking here. Alright, lad?” Ecken nodded and took another drink from his flask. “And put that away.”

The wagon drew to a stop twenty feet from the gate. It was Valkar’s and Ecken’s jobs to speak with all those passing through and to check their goods for contraband. Valkar picked up his shield, a heavy square thing with a notch at the top that served as a rifle rest, and approached the Khadorans. His breastplate and chainmail felt heavier than usual, and his joints ached with every step. Ecken followed him.

“Good day, friend,” the driver in the wagon called down in passable Rhulic.

Valkar looked up at a weathered, bearded face and blue eyes that glinted like chips of ice from the depths of a hood. “What’s your business, and where are you headed?” Valkar asked, beginning their standard line of questioning.

“I am a dealer in exotic animals, and I have purchased one of your famed white bears from a trainer in Drotuhn.” He looked back at the payload of his wagon. There were three cages there, covered in a tarp. The tarp was rimed with ice. “We are travelling back to Skirov, where I run a menagerie.”

Valkar nodded. “Bear, huh?” He’d visited Drotuhn on many occasions, and they were known for quarrying stone, not training dangerous beasts. “Why are there three cages?”

The Khadoran merchant smiled. “I was hoping to buy a few other beasts, but the deals fell through. Two are empty.”

Valkar looked over at Ecken. The young dwarf was standing on the other side of the wagon, closer to the cages. His brows were furrowed in puzzlement, “I don’t smell bear, Valk,” he said. “I’ve smelled them before. Something stinks over here, but it’s not bear.”

The Khadoran’s guards had moved closer, four on each side of the wagon. Their faces were hard, weathered, experienced. They were professional fighting men.

“Do you have a bill of sale?” Valkar asked. He could feel the tension in the air. Something was wrong here, and he felt exposed, vulnerable. He had a horn at his belt he could sound to alert the fort of an attack, and his hand crept down to it.

“Of course,” the Khadoran said. He rummaged through the inside of his cloak. It took a little too long, and Valkar’s hand closed around the horn. But the Khadoran produced nothing more threatening than a thin sheaf of papers. He handed them down to Valkar.

Valkar ran his eyes over the first page. The Khadoran’s name was Dima Glukhov, or at least it was the name he’d put on the bill of sale. Everything looked in order. The man had purchased a bear from the market in Drotuhn and paid one hundred gul for it—more money than Valkar would see in a year. He handed the papers back to the Khadoran. “This looks in order, Tradesman Glukhov.”

“Excellent. Then we can be on our way and pass through your fortress?”

Valkar considered that. The papers were in order, but it was their job to confirm the goods stated by a merchant were actually what they were carrying. He could let them go. Captain Blackheel wouldn’t care. But something bothered him, a curious sense of dread that seemed to hang over the Khadoran and his wagon. He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then said to the Khadoran, “One more bit of business. I need to verify if your cargo is what you say it is.”

A black look fell across the Khadoran’s face, and his eyes became flat and hard. “I hardly think that is necessary.” His voice was low, measured. “Perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement.” He reached again into his cloak and pulled out a small sack tied with a drawstring. It clinked. “There is fifty gul here. Take it and let us be on our way.”

It was a lot of money, and almost every other member of Baram Fort would have taken it and let the Khadorans through. It just made Valkar angry. He opened his mouth to say something, but Ecken’s voice cut him off.

“Valk, there’s a man in this cage . . . with swords on his hands.”

Ecken had lifted the tarp on the closest cage and was peering beneath it. Valkar had been a soldier for over fifty years, and in that time he’d developed something like a sixth sense when it came to violence. He could almost taste it in the air. He knew the Khadorans were going to attack, but he was too slow to shout a warning as the guard nearest Ecken unlimbered his axe and smashed it into the young dwarf’s helmet. Arcane runes formed around Dima Glukhov’s fist and he unleashed a blast of freezing air at Valkar, smashing him to the ground and robbing the strength from his limbs.

Valkar’s hands were gloved against the chill, and they had kept the worst of the Khadoran sorcerer’s spell at bay. He fumbled for the horn at his belt, hearing Khadoran thugs moving toward him. He brought the horn to his lips and blew a single sharp note.

***

Mindslaver Orixus came awake to the sound of the human and dwarf speaking. He could feel their minds at the edge of his consciousness, but he couldn’t touch them yet. The alchemical mist the human had used on him was crude but effective; it dulled his mental abilities, made his thinking sluggish and uncoordinated. But his faculties were returning to him, and as they did, they brought cold anger and shame. That this pathetic human had managed to ensnare him and four drudges stung him. He’d taken a risk by leaving the hive with such a small guard, but the wounded soldiers on the battlefield near the hive offered a tantalizing collection of raw materials, and he wanted them before his rivals could lay claim.

The human had been waiting for him, expecting him. Orixus had been hit with the sorcerer’s freezing spell and unable to move or think. They’d stuffed him and his drudges into cages, treating him—Mindslaver Orixus, second of five in the Terxat Hive—like a mindless beast.

Rage flowed through his body, and its heat steadily burned away the fog in his mind. He could feel the human’s alchemical tranquilizer fading, like a melting iceberg. He would soon be free. The sounds of combat erupted outside his cage, and the cephalyx was pleased. His enemies would be distracted, long enough for him to regain full control of his abilities. He gathered all the mental force he could muster and pushed against the poison restraining him, hastening its dissipation.

Soon.

***

Valkar climbed to his feet, his legs heavy and slow. Ecken had gone down, and he feared the young dwarf had been killed, but he had more pressing concerns. He could hear the dwarves in the fort responding to his horn. The sound of many voices and the clatter of armor drifted through the gates.

One of the Khadoran thugs bore down on him. The man was big, maybe twice Valkar’s height, and he was swinging a two-handed axe. Valkar brought his shield up and the heavy axe cracked into it, biting deep into the top edge. This is just what Valkar had wanted. He let go of his shield, and his opponent had twenty pounds of iron and wood dangling at the end of his now-useless weapon. The human tried to pull the axe free, but Valkar brought up his carbine with practiced ease and shot the man through the chest. The heavy dwarven slug ripped through the man’s chain mail and shredded his heart.

Loud cursing in Khadoran drew Valkar’s attention back to Dima Glukhov. The Khadoran had jumped down from the wagon and held a single-bitted war axe in his right hand, its head encircled with runes. Glukhov was heading for Valkar, and a ring of azure light formed around his fist.

Valkar backpedaled, heading toward the open gate. He stood little chance against the Khadoran spellcaster. The loud cracks of dwarven carbines sounded behind him, and he heard one voice rising above the din. “What in the name of Ghor’s bleeding ass is going on out here?!” Captain Blackheel had a drill instructor’s volume, and everyone turned in his direction. Looming beside him was his second, Murgan. The ogrun was armored head-to-toe in chain and plate and had his warcleaver and shield in hand.

A line of gun corps riflemen had formed before the dwarven commander, and they parted to let Valkar through. Glukhov stood in front of his wagon, his men around him. The spell runes had disappeared.

“What happened, sergeant?” Murgan asked as Valkar drew near.

“We were checking their goods, and they attacked. One of ‘em knocked Ecken down. He’s still out there.”

Captain Blackheel grunted in irritation. Then he settled his helmet on his head, hitched his breastplate into a more comfortable position, and took hold of his axe. He stepped through the line of dwarven riflemen, his face a black cloud of anger.

“Alright, you bloody Reds,” he began, looking directly at Glukhov. “You can lay down your arms and tell me why you attacked my boys, or I can give the order and shoot you until you stop twitching. What’ll it be?”

The captain was black-tempered, surly, and frequently drunk, but he was also one of the bravest dwarves Valkar knew and a skilled battle leader. He’d always meant to ask the captain how he’d ended up at Baram.

Glukhov lowered his axe and smiled. “You seem a reasonable sort. I need to get through your fort, and I’m willing to pay to do it.”

“You killed one of my boys,” Blackheel said. “I can’t let that stand.”

Valkar didn’t know if Ecken was dead, but he dared not say anything.

“And you killed one of mine, so we’re even on that score.”

Captain Blackheel spat out the wad of sourleaf he’d been chewing, reached into his pouch for another, and stuffed the dried leaves under his bottom lip. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t like it. You’re gonna put your weapons down, let us take you into custody, and then we’ll see what the Trademaster at Hellspass has to say about your cargo. Whatever the hell it is.”

Glukhov’s eyes went wide, and something that looked like fear flashed across his face. The runes formed around his fist again, and Blackheel raised his hand, signaling to the twenty rifles behind him to take aim. “I mean it, Red.”

Valkar felt the air grow thick with tension, but then something else appeared in the back of his mind, a presence, looming and dark. He heard the telltale metallic clatter of locks falling away, and then something rose up over the wagon, hovering like a grim black wraith.

Dread speared Valkar’s guts as the thing came into the light, drifting through the air behind Glukhov. It was man-shaped and clad entirely in black leather, but its head was a swollen orb from which five blue lights shone, eyes maybe. Worst of all, four metallic limbs jutted over the creature’s back, each tipped with a hooked blade.

“Captain,” Valkar called out, but it was too late. The creature descended on Glukhov like a great black spider, its metallic limbs scything forward. The Khadoran spellcaster’s head came away from his neck in a spray of blood, and he collapsed to the ground twitching.

“Fire!” Captain Blackheel called.

Nothing happened.

Valkar looked down the lines of riflemen and saw blank stares, their weapons hung limply in their hands.

Valkar then felt the creature’s presence grow in his mind, and he heard its voice, an irresistible whisper. Come to me. His feet moved at the behest of another, and he saw he was not alone, the rest of Baram Fort had lowered their weapons and shuffled toward the spindly black horror

Valkar tried to fight it, to push away the monster’s influence, but he couldn’t. He was a prisoner in his own head, watching his body move and react as if it belonged to someone else. The Khadoran thugs were enthralled as well, moving closer to the creature.

From behind the wagon came four more abominations. They were men, or might have been once, but their bodies had been altered, augmented. Each wore a heavy helmet that covered the head and neck. Yellow light glowed from the visor slits. Their arms ended in a curious array of blades, clamps, and saws, like something you might see on a warjack.

Yes, this is your future, you pathetic worms, the creature whispered into Valkar’s mind, maybe into all their minds. He was shown images of dark caverns filled with terrible apparatuses where men became monsters, where flesh was replaced with steel and wire, and where the soul and will were scrubbed clean from mortal minds.

Movement to Valkar’s left caught his eye. He couldn’t turn his head, but, on the periphery of his vision, he saw Ecken stand up. He was relieved the young dwarf had survived but horrified he would be subjected to the same terrible fate as the rest of them.

Ecken was closer to the black-shrouded monster, and he shuffled up to it. It glanced down at him, and Valkar felt its curiosity ripple through his mind . . . then, shockingly, fear. The creature tried to move away, but Ecken had his axe in hand. He swung it, buried the steel in the creature’s midsection.

A piercing psychic wail of shock and agony burst through Valkar’s mind and he fell to his knees, clutching his head. The dwarves and humans around him did the same.

Ecken yanked his axe free in a spray of blood and brought it around again, this time in an overhand strike at the creature’s misshapen skull. The blow landed true, and the monster’s head burst like an overripe melon, splattering gore in all directions.

The presence in Valkar’s mind winked out, and he was once again in control of his body. He climbed to his feet and broke into a stumbling run toward Ecken. The young dwarf stood over the corpse of the alien creature, a puzzled look on his face.

“Are you okay, lad?” Valkar said and took Ecken by the shoulders.

Ecken smiled and pushed his helmet off his head. It had a big dent in it where the Khadoran thug had struck him. He let the helmet fall to the ground, reached up, and touched the gruesome scar above his ear. “I felt it, Valkar. It was in my head, but it couldn’t make me do what it wanted.” He laughed softly. “I think the surgeons cut that part out.”

Valkar pulled the injured dwarf into a tight embrace. “Thank the ancestors,” he said then gently pushed Ecken back and looked into his eyes. “You’re still a soldier, lad. And you did a soldier’s work today. Saved us all. Don’t you forget that.”

“Put these bastards in shackles,” Captain Blackheel bellowed behind them. The rest of the gun corps collected the weapons of the remaining Khadoran thugs, who had lost all interest in fighting and handed them over without a fuss. “Now put ‘em in cold storage until we figure this mess out.”

The captain walked over to Ecken and Valkar and looked down at the corpse of the black-clad creature at their feet. “What in the name of all that is good and green is that bloody thing?” he said. “Never seen anything like it. What about you, old man?”

Valkar shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Well put it into cold storage with the rest of these Khadoran fools,” Blackheel said. “And, Ecken, good work, soldier.” He walked away, bellowing more orders.

Ecken pulled his flask from his belt and shook it, but he didn’t take the cap off.

“Go on, lad. You’ve more than earned yourself a drink,” Valkar said.

Ecken looked up at him, his eyes filled with a deep and abiding sadness. The clear understanding of all that Khadoran bullet had taken from him was overwhelmingly evident on Ecken’s face. It hurt Valkar to see it. “Not now, Valk,” Ecken said, putting the flask away. “Maybe I should eat something.”

Valkar looked away and wiped at his eyes, but he showed Ecken a smile when he turned back. “Right, lad; let’s get some food into you.”

***

Originally appeared in No Quarter #67, published by Privateer Press


If you’d like to read more about the dwarves of Baram Fort, you can do so right here on this blog. The story “Wayward Fortunes” features another adventure with the misfit Rhulfolk and their captain, Vornek Blackheel.

A Week of Writing: 7/23/18 to 7/29/18

Monday has arrived, and it’s time to share my weekly writerly report card.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from Elmore Leonard, whose “10 Rules of Writing” is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

—Elmore Leonard

This quote is the abbreviated version of rule ten in the aforementioned “10 Rules of Writing.” I’m currently trying to figure out which parts of my novel might fall into this category and then remove/rewrite them.  A difficult task, and one I’ll ultimately need my critique partners to help me with, but I think I made some headway this week.

The Novel

Last week was very productive. I didn’t finish my initial revisions, but I’m three-quarters of the way done. I removed a problematic plot point, and I’m in the process of reworking the rest of the novel to match. It’s going pretty well, though I definitely have some plot and character motivation holes to shore up.

Short Stories

Finished revising one story and had just enough time to submit it to an anthology that closed to submissions on July 29th. I’m still working on one more revision I need to get out by the 31st.

Another fairly slow week for submissions.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0

Two submissions this week and only four for the month. Disappointing, but the shorts have to take a backseat to the novel right now. I plan to send out a lot more short stories in August while my critique partners are caving up my manuscript.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

7/9/18: A Week of Writing: 7/16/18 to 7/22/18

The usual weekly writing update.

7/12/18: Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

A free Iron Kingdoms story published last year in No Quarter magazine. Privateer Press gave me permission to post this one in its entirety (plus a few others).

Goals

One big goal – finish the initial revision of the novel and get it off to my critique partners. Everything else is secondary.

Story Spotlight

The spotlight story is the piece I mentioned above. As some of you know, I’ve been writing for Privateer Press for a long time, and I’ve published two novels and a whole bunch of shorter works in their Iron Kingdoms setting. Anyway, they’ve given me permission to post some of my old stories on the blog, the first of which you can read by clicking the illustration or link below.

“Confirmed Kill”

 


That was my week. How was yours?

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

Got something neat to share with you today. Privateer Press has granted me permission to host a few of my published Iron Kingdoms short stories on the blog. Most of these come from old issues of No Quarter magazine, and this first one, “Confirmed Kill,” ties into the Acts of War novels, Flashpoint and AftershockThe story features two of my favorite characters from the series, the trollkin sniper Horgrum and his spotter Sergeant Sharp. “Confirmed Kill” is the story of how these two came to work together in the Cygnaran Army.

New to the Iron Kingdoms? Check out this link for an introduction to this war-torn world of steam power and sorcery.


Art by Néstor Ossandón.

Confirmed Kill

by Aeryn Rudel

Northern Thornwood, 606 AR

“Take them and go!” Horgrum’s father shouted, pointing his axe at the tree line. Vargal Oakheart was an aging trollkin, but still mighty, and his voice boomed over the din of gunshots and battle cries.

Horgrum shook his head. “No, I will fight.” He had his own axe in hand, but its blade was clean, unlike his father’s, which was stained red with the blood of the invaders.

Vargal glanced behind him, where their village burned, where humans in crimson armor slaughtered their people. He turned back to Horgrum and put a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder. “We are lost, Horgrum,” he said, his voice thick with sorrow. “Take your brother and sister and flee.” Solissa was thirteen and Kolor only ten, too small and too young to fight. They cowered behind their older brother, wincing at each booming report of an enemy rifle.

“And go where?” Horgrum demanded. He was twenty years old and a seasoned fighter, and the thought of leaving his village and kriel sickened him.

“South, to Cygnar,” Vargal said. “You will be safe there.”

Horgrum opened his mouth to challenge his father, but the sound of hooves cut short his protest. A human in bright red armor astride a great black horse emerged from the smoke and flame.

“Go!” Vargal shouted and shoved Horgrum backward. He took his axe in both hands and turned to face the enemy.

Horgrum pushed Solissa toward the trees, and she took Kolor’s hand. They ran.

Before he entered the woods, Horgrum turned back to see the human warrior barreling down on his father. Vargal twisted aside from the Khadoran’s lance and lashed out with his axe at the passing horse. The great blade hewed through one of the animal’s legs, and it crashed to the ground, throwing its rider. Horgrum smiled as his father closed on the enemy and split the human’s skull with a short overhand strike.

Horgrum’s grip tightened around his own axe. These humans, these Khadorans, were not so strong. The kin could defeat them. He took a step toward the clearing.

“No, Horgrum.” Solissa’s hand on his arm stropped him.

Vargal had pulled his weapon free from the corpse and turned back toward the battle. Through the smoke Horgrum could see more trollkin and humans fighting. He could help his people. He could defend them.

He took another step, and a single sharp report rang out. His father stopped midstride, and blood poured down his back from a fist-sized hole that had blossomed between his broad shoulders. He collapsed to his knees, and then pitched over into the dirt.

Horgrum shook off Solissa’s hand and raced toward his father, screaming in rage. He made it five paces before another shot rang out. The bullet struck his axe, smashing it from his grip. He dove to the ground. Bodies lay everywhere, human and trollkin. His hand fell across the butt of a rifle as something huge loomed out of the smoke, a human warrior encased in steam-powered armor that made him nearly as large and powerful as a full-blooded troll.

Horgrum picked up the rifle. It was big by human standards, long-barreled and finely machined. He had never used such a weapon, but he’d seen them fired. He rested the butt against his shoulder and curled his smallest finger around the trigger; the others would not fit inside the guard. The armored man charged, and Horgrum stared down the rifle’s barrel. A sense of calm flowed over him, his rage and fear drained away, and only the enemy and the rifle remained. He drew in a breath and aimed as best he could, peering through the attached scope and adjusting until he felt centered over the enemy’s heart. He pulled the trigger, and the gun bucked and spat smoke.

The armored human stumbled, and Horgrum couldn’t tell if his shot was the cause, or if he’d even hit his target. Then the man faltered again, blood sluiced down his helmet from the visor slit, and he fell over backward. Horgrum had not hit the spot he’d intended, but Dhunia had graced him with a bit of luck.

Horgrum had no time to celebrate. Another shot rang out and dizzying pain lanced through his right shoulder. Another soldier appeared. This one wore no armor, but he carried a rifle like the one Horgrum had taken from the enemy corpse. He was an older man, with graying hair falling beneath a red cap. A livid scar marred his angular face and ran from his right brow to the middle of his nose. This had to be the human who killed his father.

Despite his wound, he wanted to find a way to kill this man, but Solissa’s voice from the tree line called him back to reality. “Horgrum, more soldiers are coming!”

He turned and lurched toward his sister, expecting the human to shoot him in the back as he ran. No shot came, and he made it to the trees, the enemy rifle gripped tightly in his right hand.

* * *

Ceryl in Cygnar, autumn 609 AR

“Is that a Vanar Liberator?” the soldier asked incredulously, rising up from behind his desk.

Horgrum looked down at the rifle in his hand. He hadn’t known it had a name. He’d brought it to the Ceryl recruitment office because he thought human soldiers supplied their own weapons, just as the warriors in his kriel had.

“I took it,” he said, unsure how to respond. He’d waited in line for an hour. The army in Ceryl, his home for the last year, was looking for volunteers to serve in the trencher corps, the name for warriors in Cygnar that had a reputation for being tough and capable. Regular folk seemed to look up to them, at any rate.

The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “Took it from whom? These are pretty rare.”

Horgrum glanced around the small, square room. There were two other men here, both wearing the same blue uniform. They stared at him. “One of the Khadorans who attacked my village carried this weapon. I took it from his corpse to defend myself.”

“You don’t say?” The first soldier’s expression changed from suspicious to approving. “When and where?”

“Three years ago, in the northern Thornwood,” Horgrum said. Maybe what had happened to his kriel would strengthen his chances of acceptance. He needed what the army offered. He, Kolor, and Solissa lived in one of the squalid trollkin slums, and though he often found work on the docks—his strength made him a good laborer—it paid little. The army paid more and consistently, and with that money, he could take better care of his brother and sister.

“If he killed a Widowmaker and took his gun, you should pin a bloody medal on him,” someone said from the long line of others hoping to join the trenchers.

The soldier chuckled at that. “Experience killing the reds isn’t a requirement, but it doesn’t hurt. I’m Corporal Newsome. What’s your name?”

“Horgrum, son of Vargal Oakheart.”

“Well, Horgrum, the trenchers can always use someone of your size, strength, and, uh, durability, and we’ve recruited a number of trollkin in the past . . . ” He paused and looked down at Horgrum’s rifle again. “You any good with that thing?”

“I have become skilled with this weapon,” Horgrum said. He’d practiced with the gun as often as possible. It was difficult to get ammunition, but he hunted game outside the city whenever he could to put more food on the table for his siblings. The gun was not designed for a trollkin, but over the years he’d traded work with a gunsmith who had modified the stock and trigger guard to fit his frame and thicker fingers. He’d developed a knack for the weapon, finding if he was patient, he could usually make his shot. He enjoyed stalking his prey and taking it down with a single, perfectly placed shot.

“Well, if that’s the case, maybe lugging around a chain gun in the trenches isn’t the best spot for you,” Corporal Newsome said. “Stay here for a second.” He turned and walked through a door behind him. Horgrum could hear him talking to someone else, and then Corporal Newsome and another human appeared. The second man was older, gaunt-faced, and of middling height. Rather than the simple uniform Newsome wore, this man was attired in partial trencher armor and gear, including a nicked and much-repaired steel breastplate that suggested combat time. He carried himself with the ease of someone well accustomed to the weight and encumbrance of his gear.

“Sergeant Sharp, this is Horgrum Oakheart. He’s got a Vanar Liberator he took off a dead Khadoran,” Corporal Newsome said. “Says he can use it too.”

Sergeant Sharp approached. “Fought some Reds, have you?”

“They attacked my kriel in the northern Thornwood. Killed my people. I took one of their weapons and killed one of them before I . . . fled. I’ve been practicing with it ever since.”

Sergeant Sharp frowned, and Horgrum saw something on the man’s face he did not expect: sympathy. “I’m truly sorry to hear that,” he said. “Can you shoot well?”

“I can,” Horgrum said confidently.

“Show me.”

* * *

The recruitment office was part of small garrison near the Ceryl docks. Behind it were barracks for some of the trenchers stationed in the city, and behind that a rifle range. The soldiers here used the ocean to their advantage, and their “range” was a series of targets attached to floating buoys at various distances.

“Those targets are at 100, 200, 300, and 500 yards.” Sharp pointed to the target buoys as they approached the firing line. The other soldiers in the recruitment office and some twenty of the potential recruits had followed them, all eager to see a trollkin fire a Khadoran rifle. “That Liberator has the range to hit any one of them.”

Horgrum nodded. He’d taken a deer at a distance greater than the farthest target—once. The man-shaped targets on the buoys were smaller, and the wind here would affect a shot at the longer ranges. “If I show you I can shoot this gun. You will let me be a trencher?”

Sharp smiled. “Oh, you’ve already got that locked. Trollkin never have any problems meeting trencher physical requirements. We take ’em whenever we can, but I’m looking for snipers. If you can shoot that rifle well enough, there could be a better place for you, one more suited to your talents and with better pay.”

Better pay. That got Horgrum’s attention. Solissa and Kolor would not go hungry on a trencher’s salary, but if he could make more, he could provide more: better food, a better place to live, and more opportunities to make a good life for themselves.

“What must I do to prove I can use this rifle?” Horgrum asked.

“I’ll give you six shots. Two each at 200, 300, and 500 yards. If I like what I see, we’ll talk further.”

“No,” Horgrum said. “I will put a bullet through the head of the farthest target. If I do, you make me a sniper. If I miss, I will ‘lug a chain gun’ for Corporal Newsome.” He hated to gamble this way with the future of his brother and sister, but his need was too great for empty promises. This Sergeant Sharp seemed an honorable man who respected such a challenge.

Sharp said nothing for a moment, then grinned. “Okay, Horgrum. You hit that target, with one shot, and you’re in.” Behind them, the assembled soldiers and recruits began making wagers.

Horgrum nodded, put the rifle to his shoulder, and pulled back the firing pin. He set the front sight on the head of the target buoy. It bobbed up and down on the water, and he felt a breeze blowing in from the south—and it was shifting. It would slow his bullet, and he would have to adjust for that. All in all, this was a much harder shot than he had let on. Why had he promised it all on one shot? It now seemed reckless. He gritted his teeth and put doubts aside. He needed this, for his kith, and the buoy was not running away from him at top speed through the brush. He drew in a breath, letting the silent calm of rifle and target settle over him. The voices of the men around him faded away, and his world became the wind, the sight, and the target in the water.

He waited, getting used to the rhythm of the target’s movement on the waves. He curled his finger around the trigger. The target bobbed down, up, down, up. He squeezed. The rifle bucked his shoulder and the explosive report drowned out everything.

He looked back at Sharp.

“Pull it in, private,” Sharp said, and one of the soldiers ran forward to pull at the thick rope connected to the target buoy.

As the target neared the dock, all were silent until the hole just left of center in the target’s head became visible. Then, laughter and cheers, plus a few groans from those who had bet against him, rose from the crowd.

Sharp held out his hand to Horgrum. “Welcome to the trenchers, Private Horgrum. We’re going to need to get you a bigger rifle.”

* * *

The Black River in Occupied Llael, summer 611 AR

Horgrum cradled the Raevhan Express prototype in his arms and crouched low to the ground near the river’s edge. Designed for a trollkin’s frame, the massive rifle, with its oversized trigger guard, enlarged stock, and weight of nearly thirty-pounds, was engineered to propel a gigantic projectile with force and accuracy unequaled by any other military rifle. Since passing basic training and gaining a position as a trencher sniper, he’d become intimately familiar with the gun. He’d named it Dhunia’s Mercy. Sometimes he missed his old Vanar Liberator, especially on long, grueling hikes.

“What do you see, Corporal?” Sergeant Sharp asked and squatted down next to him. He’d been assigned to the sergeant soon after basic, teaming up as one of the first Trencher Express Teams, each consisting of a trollkin sniper and a human spotter. Sharp was his commanding officer, but more than that, he was a brother in arms and one of the only true friends he had among the Cygnaran military. He had come to think of Sharp as an extension of his kith.

“Boots, soft,” Horgrum said. “Moving north toward Riversmet.” They were in Khadoran territory, scouting along the Black River for Lord General Coleman Stryker, who had quietly led an invasion force into occupied Llael.

“Not Man-O-War or Winter Guard,” Sharp said. “How many?”

Horgrum studied the tracks again. “Three—two men and a woman.”

“Widowmakers?”

Horgrum nodded.

Sharp rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “They usually travel in groups of four. They must have lost a man somewhere.”

“Greywind Tower isn’t far from here,” Horgrum said. “The Resistance may have gotten one of them.”

Sharp grimaced. He didn’t like that answer. “Maybe. Suggestions?”

“Follow the tracks, find them, and kill them.”

Sharp frowned. “That simple, eh, Corporal?”

Horgrum shrugged. It was simple, just very dangerous.

“You know hitting a Widowmaker team, even with a man down, is risky,” Sharp said. “You look me in the eye and tell me you want to do this because of our mission in Llael and not because you’re looking for Red Cap.”

This had been a bone of contention between them since the beginning. He and Sharp were often tasked with counter-sniper operations, and they’d killed dozens of their Khadoran counterparts. Each time, Horgrum had looked for Red Cap, the name he’d given the sniper who’d killed his father. Several times they had gone out of their way to seek out Widowmakers, sometimes pushing against the limits of their orders. The thought of his father brought back memories as vivid as the day they had happened. Sharp was familiar with the destruction of Horgrum’s kriel, and though he sympathized with his partner’s desire for vengeance, he did not approve of Horgrum’s singular pursuit of it.

Horgrum could not look Sharp in the eye, but he said, “Widowmakers are also scouts, and if they’ve come this far south, they may have seen the army. We can’t let them return to report.”

Sharp’s frown deepened, but Horgrum knew his reasoning was sound, even if it wasn’t his primary motivator. The sergeant let out an irritated sigh after a few moments. “Bloody hell. Then let’s hope we spot them before they spot us. I’d like to keep my head on my shoulders for a few more days.”

* * *

“He’ll have heard the shots,” Sharp said, staring through his spyglass at the small Khadoran camp at the bottom of the hill.

Horgrum viewed the darkened camp through the scope on his rifle. Two corpses lay splayed out near the river, illuminated only by soft moonlight. He could only tell the gender of the first corpse. The top two-thirds of the man’s head had been torn away by a bullet the size of a shot glass. He’d taken the Khadoran sniper from nearly six hundred yards—a good shot—but he frowned as his scope moved to the second body. The woman had moved from a crouch to standing just as he fired, and the bullet had struck her neck. She’d bled out quickly, but it was not a clean kill.

“Yes, he will have heard,” Horgrum said. There was no ignoring the thunderous report of the Raevhan Express.

“I can see tracks moving away from the camp,” Sharp said. “Looks like he went off for a piss or something, heard the shots, and decided to stay gone.”

“He will look for us,” Horgrum said. They knew a third sniper lurked nearby, but they hadn’t seen him yet. They’d found the camp and taken the opportunity to eliminate two of the Widowmakers, figuring they’d eventually track down the third.

“Agreed,” Sharp said. “And if he’s any good. We’re going to need to flush him out.”

Horgrum didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”

“I think he’s in those trees there. By the river. Good cover and sight lines. He’s waiting for one of us to stick our head up so he can shoot it off.”

“Likely,” Horgrum said.

“Well, we can’t just bugger off and leave him to hustle it back to home base. So, one of us needs to draw him out, and since you’ve got the big gun, that’s me.”

“No, Sharp,” Horgrum said. “I can take a bullet. You can’t.” Trollkin healed quickly and could survive wounds that would be fatal to softer-skinned humans.

Sharp chuckled. “One of these days you’re going to figure out I’m in charge, and you do what I say, not the other way around. Now, keep your rifle on those trees. I’m going to work my way down the hill on my belly. It’s dark, and a man on his stomach is a bitch of a target. He’ll need some time to aim properly, which means you’ll see him before he shoots.”

Horgrum took his eye away from the rifle’s scope to protest further, but Sharp had already left, and Horgrum could hear him wriggling through the leaves on his belly. “Dhunia, protect him,” he said under his breath and put his eye back on the scope.

The copse of trees where the sniper likely hid was dark, and it was difficult to make out individual trees. He waited, knowing Sharp’s peril grew with every moment that passed.

Then, something moved. A spot of color in the black, illuminated briefly by the full moon overhead–a red cap. The sights and smells of his burning village came roaring back to Horgrum. Fear and rage mingled at his inability to protect his father and kriel from the enemy.

He drew in a deep breath and set his cross hairs in that spot of crimson. He would protect Sharp. He saw the glint of moonlight on the enemy’s scope as his rifle came up, and Horgrum squeezed the trigger. The thunder and fire of the Raevhan lit up the night for a split second, blinding him. When he could see through the scope again, the red cap had disappeared. He hadn’t heard another shot, but if they’d fired simultaneously he wouldn’t have.

“Sharp?” he called out.

Silence. And then, “You get him?”

Relief poured over Horgrum, and he took the rifle away from his shoulder. “I got him.”

* * *

“This one’s been around awhile,” Sharp said, squatting over the body of the dead Widowmaker. “That red cap means one-hundred confirmed kills. Could be him.”

Horgrum frowned. His bullet had all but disintegrated the Widowmaker’s head. He thought he’d seen a flash of silver hair beneath it just before he pulled the trigger, but he couldn’t tell if this red cap was his Red Cap. “I didn’t see his face.”

Sharp’s snatched the red cap from the ground and waved it at Horgrum. “This is the second marksman we’ve killed with a red cap. Do you know how many marksmen like that there are in the entire goddamn Khadoran army?”

Horgrum stared at his feet, rage and shame warring for control of his emotions. “Not many.”

“And you’ve killed two of them,” Sharp continued. He held the cap out to Horgrum. “Send this back to your brother and sister, and tell them you killed him. Let them put your father to rest in their hearts, even if you can’t.”

Horgrum accepted the hat, trying to recall the face of the sniper who had killed Vargal Oakheart. He recalled a scar and white hair, but nothing else. The man had become a symbol of the vengeance he craved and little more. It ate away at his heart, and he was letting it. He loosed a long, steadying breath and said, “Red Cap had one-hundred confirmed kills?”

“A lot of them good Cygnaran soldiers,” Sharp said. “You’ve put a stop to that.”

Horgrum stuck the cap beneath his breastplate. “I’ll send this to Ceryl, to Solissa and Kolor. They’ll know what it means.”

Sharp smiled. “Sounds like a confirmed kill to me.”

Originally published in No Quarter #72, June 2017


Want more Horgrum and Sharp? You can read about their adventures alongside Lord General Coleman Stryker and Asheth Magnus in the Acts of War novels.

   

2017: A Writing Rearview Review

Another year come and gone, and it’s time to wrap up my writing endeavors for 2017. I set some writing goals at the end of last year, and as these things usually go, I accomplished some and fell short with others. Still, 2017 was mostly positive yardage, but I’ll get to that at the end of the post.

And now . . . STATS!

Fantasy/Horror/Sci-Fi Submissions

Total Submissions Sent: 75

I really improved my overall submission output this year, beating last year’s number by 21 submissions. I’m pleased with that, and it works out to about 6 submission per month. I’ll try to improve on it 2018, and I’d like to hit the 100-mark.

Acceptances: 5

Even with more submissions, the number of acceptances and my overall acceptance rate dropped in 2017. I certainly don’t feel the quality of my submissions fell off; in fact, I think they improved. But, as always, acceptances are often about right time, right market, right editor.

Form Rejections: 32

With more submissions invariably comes more rejections. I received 32 garden-variety form rejections. More than last year, but again, the more you submit, the more you get rejected.

Higher-Tier Form Rejections: 13

I received more higher-tier form rejections this year than last, and most of these were from top genre markets. I only counted the ones I was fairly sure were higher-tier, using the criteria I covered about in this post.

Personal Rejections: 6

Fewer personal rejections than last year, but a number of these were the heart-breaking short-list personal rejections (two for the same story).

Privateer Press

I didn’t write quite as much for Privateer Press in 2017, though I did finish another novel and a novella for them.

Novel – Acts of War: Aftershock

My big project in 2017 was the sequel to last year’s Acts of War: Flashpoint. I blogged about the writing process for Acts of War: Aftershock on a weekly basis, and you can see those blog posts right here.

Novella – “Shadows over Elsinberg” 

My novella “Shadows over Elsinberg” was published in the collection Wicked Ways, alongside the works of many of my old pals from Privateer Press.

Short Story – “Confirmed Kill”

I wrote a story called “Confirmed Kill” based on characters from the Acts of War series. It was published in No Quarter magazine #72.

Rejectomancy

Even though I wrote fewer posts than I did in 2016, my number of visitors and views almost doubled. I wanted to hit two posts a week in 2017, but I fell a little short of that goal. I think two per week is reasonable for 2018, though. Much of the increased viewership came from blogging about writing my second novel for Privateer Press, Aftershock. I’ll likely do something like that again this year

Here are the raw stats for the blog.

  • Total Posts: 79
  • Total Visitors: 13,148
  • Total Views: 23,000

Total Output

Here’s what my total output for 2017 looked like in general words written. Even though I published more in 2016, I wrote more in 2017. I’d like to increase both numbers in 2018. These numbers include part of a new novel I’m working on and a completed novelette that will likely be part of my initial foray into self publishing (I’ve wanted to dip my toe in that pool for a while).

  • Words Written: 201,916
  • Word Published: 143,840

2018 Goals

Like last year, my goals basically amount to write and publish more. This year it’s more of the same, with a few specific goals.

  • Increase short story submission total to 100.
  • Finish at least two novels: one for Privateer Press and one (or more) based on my own IP.
  • Self publish at least the first novelette/novella in a series of three or more. If I do this, I’ll likely blog about this whole process.
  • Blog more. Two blog posts a week.

2017 Free-to-Read Published Stuff 

Here are the links to the free-to-read (or listen to) short stories I published in 2017.

1) “Scare Tactics” – Published by Dunesteef (audio)

This is a quaint tale about a woman, her pet demon, and her budding parapsychology career. It’s a prequel of sorts to a series of novelettes/novellas I hope to self publish this year.

2) “An Incident on Dover Street” – Published by The Molotov Cocktail

A flash disaster story with dinosaurs! 

3) “Cowtown” – Published by The Arcanist

A horror/sci-fi/comedy mashup set in my hometown of Modesto, California.

4) “Reunion” – Published by The Arcanist

A Lovecraftian horror story about a touching family reunion.

5) “Little Sister” – Published by The Molotov Cocktail

A flash horror story about a little girl and her lab-grown sibling.

In Summation

Looking back over the year, I’m relatively happy with what I accomplished. There are always ups and downs and all the things you wanted to do but didn’t, but here’s my take away from the year. In 2017, I got better. I worked hard on my writing, taking to heart the good feedback I received from beta readers and editors, and I strove to improve in areas I sometimes fall short. I’m still very much a work in progress, but I feel it in my bones that I took a step forward this year. I hope that’ll pay dividends down the road.


And that, my friends, was 2017. How was yours? Tell me about it in the comments.

Which Work Do You Read? – A Poll

As some of you know, my current published works reside in two very different camps. First, there’s the work I do for Privateer Press, which includes two novels, a handful of novellas, and a whole bunch of short stories. All that fiction is set in Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms setting, a steampunk-esque fantasy world. Then there’s my other work, which is, of course, my own IP, and is primarily horror (with a smattering of sci-fi and fantasy). That’s mostly short stories, though I’m currently working on a novel.

I’m just curious who reads what. Do my IK readers read my stand-alone work, and do my horror, sci-fi, etc. readers read my IK work? If you’ll indulge me, I’ve created a little poll here to get something of an answer to that question. No judgment either way. I completely understand that horror or fantasy may not be someone’s cup of tea. I’m just thrilled anyone reads anything I write. Period. 🙂

 

Okay, now that you’ve answered the poll. Here’s some free stuff to read.

If you’re interested in checking out the Iron Kingdoms writing I do for Privateer Press, there’s a bunch of links to various published works here. There’s also a couple of free stories on the blog published when I was still on staff with Privateer. Links below.

  1. Tomb of the Deathless
  2. Wayward Fortunes

Finally, if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership, you can read one of my IK novellas, On a Black Tide, for free. Otherwise, it’s .99 cents.

If you’d like to check out the other stuff I write, mostly horror, there’s a whole bunch of that free on the internet. There’s a fairly comprehensive list on the blog with links right here, but I’ll list a couple of my favorites below.

  1. “Night Games” – This is a story about vampires and baseball. Yep, you heard that right. Read it from Devilfish Review or listen to Pseudopod’s awesome audio version.
  2. “Scare Tactics” – A parapsychologist and her pet demon get up to some supernatural hijinks in this one.  This is another one you can read at Devilfish Review or check out a fun audio version from Dunesteef.
  3. “Cowtown” – My most recent publication, “Cowtown” is a flash fiction piece (1,000 words) that mixes horror and comedy. You can read that one at The Arcanist

Anyway, please vote in the poll if you’re so inclined, and if you have any questions about any of my work, ask away in the comments.

Acts of War: Aftershock – Crucible Guard in Acts of War

Last weekend Privateer Press held its annual convention Lock & Load in Bellevue, Washington, and announced a whole bunch of exciting things for the Iron Kingdoms, the setting for the tabletop miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES. I was at the convention signing copies of my new novel Acts of War: Aftershock, and perhaps not too surprisingly, the novel serves as a bit of a preview to one of those exciting announcements.

If you watched the keynote from Lock & Load, then you saw Privateer Press announce next summer’s new faction, the Crucible Guard. For those of you familiar with the Iron Kingdoms, you’ve no doubt realized the Crucible Guard are connected to the guild of alchemists called the Order of the Golden Crucible.

So, if you’re excited about the Crucible Guard (I sure as hell am), and you’d like a preview of what some of them can do, check out Acts of War: Aftershock, which features two upcoming models from the new faction, including one of their warcasters, Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray.

Here’s a little taste of Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray from Aftershock.


Lukas moved to a stand near the back of the armory where a suit of armor hung. Outwardly, it looked like a simple breastplate of yellow enameled steel with pauldrons, vambraces, and greaves. As Magnus got closer, he noticed the network of thin tubing that ran from the breastplate to the other pieces.

Magnus lifted the breastplate from the stand and set it on Lukas’ shoulders. He then noticed the strange contraption that occupied the same space as an arcane turbine on a traditional suit of warcaster armor. It consisted of half a dozen empty tubes, each about six inches long that jutted from the back plate in two rows of three.

Alyce stepped forward to help her husband with the rest of his armor. “There, on that table, you’ll find a case with twelve vials,” she said to Magnus, pointing at a low wooden table covered in ammunition crates.

Magnus found the case she’d indicated. Inside were a dozen vials of clear liquid with attached syringes. They looked like they would fit in the tubes across the back of Lukas’ armor. More of his serum.

Magnus watched as Alyce placed the syringes into the armor, pushing each one in firmly. Lukas grimaced as the needles punctured his flesh.

“They’re in,” she said.

Lukas took a deep breath and turned his right arm over, exposing the underside of the vambrace. A row of three studs or buttons rose from the steel plate, and he pushed the first one. A soft hiss arose from the back of his armor. He sighed like a man who finally had the one thing he most desired. The flesh on his face grew firmer beneath his beard, as if the weeks and months of his captivity had simply not happened. His back straightened, and his chest seemed to gain breadth and power. Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray was beginning to look like the war leader they had risked so much to free.


If you’d like to learn more about Aurum Legate Lukas di Morray and his wife Aurum Omnus Alyce di Morray, check out Acts of War: Aftershock, available below:

 

Get it in Print – $15.99
Get an eBook – $7.99

Acts of War: Aftershock – Excerpt #3

The release date for Acts of War: Aftershock is right around the corner, and here’s one more excerpt to whet your appetite before the book drops on July 12th. This time, we’re going to focus on one of the primary antagonists for the novel, Assault Kommander Oleg Strakhov, and a mysterious new character who has a big role to play in this book and the next.


Rynyr, Khadoran-Occupied Llael

Lukas di Morray had never known such pain. At least that’s what his mind told him; it insisted his suffering was worse than any he had ever endured. His muscles were stone, drawn tight against his bones, and they sent ragged shards of agony through his body with even the slightest exertion. His skin itched and burned, and though he had torn away all his clothing save for a bare strip around his loins, he sweated rivers, and the warm stones of his cell offered no respite.

But it was his mind that pained him most, his mind that conjured specters of friends and family now lost, dead or captured by the enemy. It dredged these memories from his subconscious to torture him, to remind him of his failings, of his dereliction of duty. Most of all, his mind howled with incessant need, the all-encompassing want of the serum to which he’d become addicted. He’d been without it for weeks, ever since his capture, and each day that passed, he grew weaker, withering without the alchemical concoction that granted him strength, vitality, and some semblance of sanity.

The serum was like no mundane drug. There would be no torturous period of withdrawal and then improvement, possibly even freedom from the addiction. No, the strength his serum granted him damaged his body each time he used it, pushed him one step closer to death, and he was much more likely to die if denied it.

He rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. The heat from the volcano permeated the stone, turning his cell into an oven that slowly baked the moisture from his body. They would bring water soon, and it would offer some fleeting respite, but then the questions would begin, and he still clung to enough of his self to resist them.

He heard footsteps, heavy and purposeful, coming down the hall toward his cell. It would be Strakhov again, coming at the appointed hour to question him. Perhaps he could endure another beating and resist. Or perhaps not.

The barred door of his cell opened with a metallic squeal, and a shadow fell across him. He could smell the smoke from the Khadoran’s warcaster armor trickling into his cell, making the heavy stale air all the harder to breathe.

“Would you like a drink before we begin, Legate di Morray?” Strakhov’s voice was deep, and his Llaelese was practiced and precise with no trace of an accent.

Lukas let out a shaking breath and closed his eyes, fighting tears at the mere mention of water. He could hear it sloshing in the bucket carried by the guard accompanying Strakhov, and though it was undoubtedly warm and would taste of sulfur, it would be a single moment of relief he desperately wanted.

“Today, you can drink as much as you like,” Strakhov said. “Come now, sit up, drink.”

Lukas sat upright, his muscles screaming in protest, and bit down on his lip to keep from crying out. Strakhov and his guard came around to the other side of the cell. The guard, a man in black armor wearing the gas mask of an Assault Kommando, carried a metal bucket from which the handle of a ladle projected. The sloshing inside that bucket was the music of heaven, and Lukas knew he was staring at it like a starving man stares at a crust of bread.

Strakhov was a large man, made even larger by the bulky warcaster armor he wore. His face was square, handsome, though severe in a way that made him less attractive and more threatening. A long jagged scar ran down the right side of his face, crossing his lips and ending above his chin, and he wore an eye-patch over his left eye, a starburst pattern of scars blooming out at its edges. He oozed threat and power, both of which he had in ready supply.

The guard set down a sturdy stool in front of Lukas, and Strakhov sat down on it. He leaned forward, smiling, showing his straight white teeth like a shark just before it bites. “Now, come and have your drink.”

Strakhov held out his hand, and the kommando gave him the bucket. He set it on the ground between him and Lukas. Strakhov dipped the ladle in and pulled it out, dripping water, and lifted it to his own lips. He took a deep drink and smiled.

“It is good,” he said. “We found a water purification system, so this is clean and pure.”

Lukas watched Strakhov drink. He would have drooled uncontrollably if he’d had enough moisture in his system to do so. “Please,” he croaked.

“Of course, Legate, come forward,” Strakhov urged. The distance between them was only a few feet, but it seemed a world away to Lukas.

He crawled toward Strakhov, his body shuddering with the pain. When he reached the bucket, he sat up again. Strakhov offered him the ladle. “Drink.”

Lukas took the ladle, the muscles in his arm spasming at the weight of it, and dipped it in the bucket. He pulled out a full dip, his shaking hand spattering with water as he brought the ladle to his cracked lips. He gulped the water down, the liquid burning the sores that had formed inside his mouth, but he didn’t care. It was exquisite, and Strakhov was right: the water tasted pure and clean.

He plunged the ladle back into the bucket for another drink, but Strakhov shot out a hand and caught his wrist. There was no denying the iron strength in that grip, and Lukas whimpered with fear and pain. Strakhov clicked his tongue.

“You can have another drink when you answer a question. One drink for one question. This is a fair exchange, no?”

Lukas nodded. His lips trembled, and total mental collapse was not far off, but what choice did he have? “Ask.”

“Good,” Strakhov said. “Very good. First, I want to know the primary ingredient of your serum.”

They had been down this road before. Strakhov had seen the effects of what the serum could do, but he didn’t understand it, didn’t understand how dangerous it was, didn’t know how many men had died horribly testing it, and didn’t grasp that Lukas and his wife were the only successful experiments—and that success was a debatable term in either case.

“I told you before,” Lukas said, “the serum is a failure. It can’t help you.”

“A failure?” Strakhov said. “I find that hard to believe. When we took you in Laedry, you killed eight men and destroyed a warjack by yourself. You are no warcaster, yet this serum made you the equal of one.”

“Yes, it made me strong before, but look at me now. I am withering away without it.”

“Improvements could be made, certainly,” Strakhov said. “But if the serum is truly a failure, what harm is there in telling me its main ingredient?”

“You asked about the inner working of this citadel before, how the lava is controlled and dispersed throughout the city. I helped design the system. I can tell you how that works instead.”

Strakhov smiled. “We will get to that soon enough, Legate, but today, I have different questions, and certainly you want that drink.”

The serum was a failure. Lukas knew it, and if he gave it to Strakhov, the warcaster would take it back to the Greylords Covenant, and they would attempt to unlock its secrets. Maybe they would improve on it, and such a thought was terrifying. If Khador could create warcasters at whim, even those with a third of the power Lukas commanded, they would gain an overwhelming advantage in battle.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lukas said. “The serum doesn’t work.”

Strakhov put the ladle back into the bucket and motioned for the guard to take it away. “We are reasonable men, you and I. Yet you would force me to use methods I find…distasteful to get what I require.”

Lukas braced himself for another beating. Strakhov was expert at delivering painful blows that did not leave lasting damage to the head and body. Lukas would soil himself and wail in pain, but he would survive, and the serum would stay a secret.

Strakhov got up and went to the cell door. “Bring them in,” he called down the hall.

The sound of footsteps, many footsteps, echoed off the stone. These were not the strong deliberate treads of soldiers; it was slow, dragging, the sound of men and women walking to their deaths. Four men and three women entered the cell, two Assault Kommandos behind them, carbines at the ready. The prisoners wore tattered rags, and they had likely been taken from the citizenry of Rynyr before the city was cleared out. Lukas looked at each of them, not recognizing anyone, until he got to the last woman in the group. There, his heart caught in his throat. Both fear and joy seized him.

Alyce. No.


Got a question about the book? Fire away in the comments section below. And if you’ve missed any of the Aftershock articles and updates for the previous weeks, you can find them right here:

Week 1 Update Week 8 Update Week 15 Update Week 22 Update 
Week 2 Update Week 9 Update Week 16 Update Week 23 Update 
Week 3 Update Week 10 Update Week 17 Update Week 24 Update  
Week 4 Update Week 11 Update Week 18 Update Week 25 Update  
Week 5 Update Week 12 Update Week 19 Update Week 26 Update  
Week 6 Update Week 13 Update Week 20 Update Week 27 & 28 Update  
Week 7 Update Week 14 Update Week 21 Update 

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