Book 3 of the Battleborn Trilogy is almost here!
We're very close to putting the final touch on the first Battleborn trilogy. 2022 will see two full trilogies released in the series, but July 1st will mark the first complete one readers will have in their hands.
To prepare readers of the trilogy for the third and final installment, I've selected the entire first chapter of book 3, Battleborn, for your pleasure. If you haven't finished the first two books, this may contain spoilers.
With that, here's chapter 1 of Battleborn, book 3 of the Battleborn Trilogy.
1 - Gaeron
Gaeron Andel stretched, bending until his lower back burned. He squinted against the blinding sun.
"You're not supposed to look at it, stupid," Chali Danos, the most powerful Chaos Bender in Olma-Ka, snorted from her seated position along the banks of the Bitter Rivers.
Gaeron was not in the mood to laugh. They were losing time. His back hurt. The day was so hot he swore the sun was descending on the desert. And he had spent the entire morning burying the dead. Laughing was difficult when you started your day staring into unblinking eyes. Eyes of those you had grown up with. Eyes of those you had trained. Eyes of those who had never experienced becoming Freed.
Each one of them dead because of his brother's betrayal.
Gaeron ground his teeth, looking south as the desert stretched away toward the greenlands.
Nevilan Andel was out there somewhere, and Gaeron would find him. When he did, he could not be sure he would follow the Paramount’s orders to bring his older brother home. The bloodlust to break Nevilan grew with each Olmarian he buried in the sand.
"Apologies, Gaeron," Chali said, getting to her feet and brushing her hands on her red traveling robe slit open to her hip. "I was trying to lighten the mood, but I fear my timing was poor."
Gaeron nodded, his eyes still holding the southern horizon where the light blue sky darkened to a rich royal before meeting the rising dust of desert sands.
"I think I've buried the last ones. Do you--" Drulf Bural said, appearing around the mound of blackened wood that had once belonged to the dam that choked off the waters of the Bitter River.
He halted, glancing between Gaeron and Chali. "Is everything okay here?"
"Everything is fine," Gaeron said. "I'm almost done, and then we can take our leave."
"Let me help," Chali offered.
"Me too," Drulf said.
The pair dug graves for the last few corpses rotting under the desert sun, large chunks of their bodies missing, signs that the carrion birds had feasted.
A feast born by treachery.
Time and constant exposure to the scorching sun had toughened the remaining parts, the only evidence of the spirits these Olmarians once were.
Gaeron had insisted on finishing the burials. His brother was responsible for this. According to Freha Olton, the only survivor of the battle at the dam, Nevilan turned his back on his fellow Olmarians after the fight with the Hastelli. She didn’t know how, but she knew he and Rercan Pyard had survived. Most horrifying and enraging was the last comment she made to him before he left Olma-Ka to find his brother. Freha said she saw Nevilan and Rercan kill the Paramount’s most-trusted friend, Karadehti Tiaso. Gaeron did not know Nevilan’s justification for betraying his people, and he did not care. He was going to right wrongs and preserve the Andel name.
This was Gaeron’s to finish, starting with honoring the dead by following Olmarian burial traditions so they could reach the Land of Plenty Waters to join their ancestors.
His large friend argued that leaving the Hastelli dead would attract carrion birds if left to rot under the sun. Those birds would find them unless they dug graves for the foreigners, which Gaeron could not have done on his own in a single day. Though it was important to honor the dead, it was more important to get to the city of Hastelle and find his brother. So he caved and carried the added weight of the resulting shame.
But what was more shame when you carried an entire family’s burden? Two of the Bound Boy archers they buried were so young they probably hadn't sprouted their first pubic hairs yet. Karadehti, the Paramount’s own sword sister, missing, likely carried off by a carnivorous beast, depriving the warrior of her journey to the eternal realm Olmarians lusted to see upon death. So much shame.
Once each was returned to the desert, Drulf fell into silent prayer over the graves.
"Let's go," Gaeron mumbled when his paladin friend finished.
The party left the river region, marred by the scars of the dead. They moved south along the same route they had taken less than two moon cycles before. Toward the city of the enemy, new and old. Their last time here, they had been on their way to the city to abduct Taowen Isock, a rich merchant who had been the target of the Paramount. The aim of that mission was to force the Hastelli man to repay a debt he had to the Olmarian people. This journey was designed to force an Olmarian to repay his debt.
Each step fell agonizingly as the trio moved further south. The desert sands slowly faded to parched vegetation, which then gave way to thicker desert grasses. Green shrubbery choked those out and were themselves defeated by colorful fields of flowers. A thin forest rose from the ground a few new suns after burying the dead.
In the shade of the trees, the trio had stopped to rest. A long valley stretched out below, slowly sloping away toward the massive green sea, hazy on the horizon.
A small hump on the edge of the world signaled them.
"I want to be in Hastelle tomorrow," Gaeron said, his eyes locked on the ugly city of Buk Toh, where the walls were gray and rose to touch the sky.
Chali nodded, not voicing her opinion.
"We will have to start out early and set a hard pace, if that’s what you want," Drulf said cautiously.
There was a warning in his voice. He knew his best friend well enough to understand that such an aggressive aim would be received with scrutiny. Drulf was not only a strong paladin, but he was one of the most patient people in the village. Drulf's counsel was usually one of caution, which provided a helpful balance to Gaeron's own, admittedly, hard–charging attitude.
"We leave at first light," Gaeron said, ripping a piece of tack with his teeth while he fisted the remainder.
Drulf chuckled, his head dipped toward his chin.
"What's so funny?"
"You," Drulf answered simply. "The way you eat, you could chew through scorpion hide."
"Best to pace your anger, Bonebreaker," Chali said, using the nickname she had developed for Gaeron after their recent trip into the Dark Sands, where they had twice fought an army of skeletons. Both times, Gaeron had slaughtered nearly a hundred of the Skinless. "Should you not, you won't have any left for when we get to Hastelle and find Nevilan."
"Trust me, I have plenty of anger in reserve for Nevilan."
Chali had counseled him that brute force would not always win the day, but he had proven her wrong so far. He wasn’t fond of the nickname, but it was a reminder to her that the world could be won with ferocity. A reminder to him he could be the fire that purged.
"Let's follow the Paramount's orders. Our mission is to return Nevilan and Rercan to Olma-Ka, not to tear them to pieces in the middle of a Buk Toh festival." Chali spread her legs, dropping her hands between her knees. She held a piece of tack as large as the hand that held it. "I think we can honestly say we would love nothing more than to drag out their torture all the way back to the village. But the Paramount's justice is hers alone. We need to remember our place."
She was right, of course, but hearing the words did not make it any easier. "I know. Unlike my brother, I will not betray her or our people."
"I was not implying you would. You are not of your brother's blood, Gaeron. Everyone in Olma-Ka knows that. You have nothing to prove to anyone."
"If only that were the truth."
Drulf, kneeling at the small fire pit he had dug, had sparked the kindling to life. He watched the nascent flames. "Who do you think you have to prove yourself to?"
"Plenty," Gaeron said shortly.
He couldn't put names to the answer because he did not have names. Instead of specific Olmarians, Gaeron possessed a sense. He’d seen how his fellow villagers cast sideways glances in the short days following Freha’s admission about Nevilan’s crimes against the Olmarian people. Only by the grace of the gods had the time been short between learning of Nevilan’s actions and the party leaving Olma-Ka. But in that time, Gaeron came to see how differently others regarded him.
Even though he’d done nothing, his brother’s actions were Gaeron’s own. They would remain until he redeemed his name.
Gaeron had not helped himself by defending his brother before and after Nevilan’s Freeing. But Nevilan was blood. What kind of warrior would he have been if he did not defend blood? Gaeron had lost sight of what the Olmarian belief in blood in the sand meant. The greater good was the Olmarian people, requiring the greater allegiance. A lesson Gaeron had fooled himself into believing he had balanced. But he hadn't. He failed his family's name, and the Olmarian people because of his misguided servitude toward the Freed man who shared his family name. All Olmarians were his people. But none of them were direct blood. If he couldn’t defend direct blood, what was his worth? How would they have seen him? Had he not, he’d be as distrusted as Nevilan. And now he was proving he was blood in the sand. Defending Nevilan was no longer possible, and Gaeron was going to eradicate any lingering doubt. Until he did, he would have to prove himself.
He was thankful when Drulf did not want to pursue the matter, focusing his attention on the small fire.
Later, the trio passed the night sharing what they were most looking forward to once they reached Hastelle. As Sun Skinned, they did not live behind walls. The last time he had been in Hastelle, Gaeron felt suffocated by the crowded streets and tall stone homes. As if the houses that rose above him didn’t choke out the beauty of Oltari, the towering walls did. Even so, being surrounded by thousands of Buk Toh, the pale people, was stimulating. The sights and sounds were overwhelming, complemented by the smells of bakeries, butchers, taverns, and even the spices and scents of Merchant’s Row. He looked forward to smelling and tasting the offerings he never got the chance to enjoy. Drulf said he hoped their search would take them to at least one house of worship. On their previous trip, the big Buk Toh had noticed them, he said, and they were aesthetically pleasing. Chali said she’d noted a few merchants selling interesting items of antiquity. She wanted to confirm her feelings that a few possessed magical properties.
The conversation lifted his dark mood, and Gaeron allowed himself to fall into a quiet contentment as they shared their last meal before they broke camp to enter Hastelle. As night fell, and Gaeron drifted toward sleep, he fought off the haunting images of his brother's face.
They made good time as they navigated through the thin vegetation of the sloping valley. By midday, they reached the dip, where the land bent upward just as slowly as it had descended. Here, they paused to refill their water skins at a creek.
On the other side of the creek, the pine trees thickened. Wood cracked somewhere in the shadows off to their right. Gaeron's hand flashed out, grabbing Chali's arm.
"Don't move." He scanned the tree line.
"What did you see?" she breathed.
"Nothing. Right now."
"Maybe we need to move upriver, just in case," Drulf said.
Before the big Buk Toh or Chali could decide for the group, Gaeron waded across the creek to the rocky shore on the other side. Without a word, he reached over his head, his hand wrapping around the grip of his battleax, and pulled the weapon free.
"Curses," Chali whispered behind him, barely audible over the trickle of water running downstream.
"Come on, let's join him before he gets himself in trouble."
Rocks clinked together as Chali and Drulf moved to join Gaeron. He winced. They were so loud that whatever was hiding in the trees would have been scared off or warned of their approach.
Together, they moved up the bank. Chali and Drulf stayed close behind, but at a distance that allowed him to listen for any sounds that might indicate the location of whatever lurked in the forest’s shadows.
Gaeron paused, the two following him doing the same. Only the wind greeted his ears.
His friends both held weapons now. Chali held a quarterstaff instead of keeping her hands free to cast. He hoped that would prove a wise decision. Should they need one or two spells to save their skins, which was typical of their adventures together, they were already in trouble. Drulf gripped his shortsword, twisting it in half-circle rotations. A sign of nerves.
The tree line swallowed them, and the air cooled under the canopy of green. There was little foliage. Each tree was mature, well over forty feet tall. Bark was stripped from the first ten feet of every one he could see, their branches well out of Drulf's reach. Dried pine needles laid a carpet on the floor of the forest. The lack of obstruction made it easy to see deeper into the dulled forest. It also allowed whatever was out there to see them.
To his left, something dashed across his periphery. He spun, battleax at the ready. The empty forest was quiet. He waited. Pine needles whisked as Drulf fidgeted on his feet. A hawk squawked above, sounding similar to the carpenters in Olma-Ka planing planks. A moment later, its mate answered. Both songs stopped and an absolute silence fell over the forest once again. Even the breeze didn’t reach this deep.
As he searched the length of the long, haphazard rows of thick pines, the darkened forest prevented him from picking up on any subtle signs that might point at a threat. In the desert, he could see for miles. In that environment, it was rare to be taken by surprise. This forest was different. Unsettling. Still, Gaeron knew they were not alone.
"Stop moving," he ordered, listening. The thick silence revealed no secrets. He tipped his battleax in the shape's direction he had seen darting from tree to tree. "This way."
With their weapons ready, they crept among the rows of pines, spread out enough so they couldn’t be taken out with a small volley of arrows or a sorcerer’s spell.
From his periphery, Gaeron noticed a large shape dart across an opening.
Darting through the forest, battleax held at his side, Gaeron closed the distance on the creature, unsure what he was running toward.
The trees parted, giving way to a small clearing. Stunned, he faced a pair of aqrabuamelu, both of which turned to face him.
Both stood on two legs and were at least seven feet tall. Stripped of fur, their exposed legs were ringed every half–hand, from the tips of their clawed toes up above their digitigrade knees. Legs that reminded Gaeron of the chickens he'd seen whenever a merchant brought them through Olma-Ka to sell. Except these aqrabuamelu were far larger. Thicker. The three–toed claws ended in talons as sharp as daggers. Up past the muscular legs, hanging above the aqrabuamelu's waists, long, curled scorpion tails twitched. Both stingers dripped yellow toxin.
Unlike the aqrabuamelu of his childhood stories, neither of these had identifiably human upper torsos. Instead, just above their waists hung an extra pair of arms that ended in large pincers the size of Gaeron's chest. Two more pairs of arms flexed between the pincers and the creature's heads. By the way they moved, the shortest pair of arms acted as forearms. Each arm ended not in hands, but pincers.
As unnerving as facing creatures with six pincers and poisonous stingers was, Gaeron grimaced at the sight of the placid skinned skulls and featureless faces. The creatures had no hair, just wrinkly white skin, as if neither had ever stepped out of this forest into the sun. Their skin stretched as they opened their wide mouths, filled with flat teeth, and snapped them shut repeatedly. Where a half-human aqrabuamelu would have a nose and eyes, these had empty sockets for eyes and cavities for noses.
Almost like the skulls of the Skinless, Gaeron thought.
"Gods!" Drulf said as he stumbled to a halt upon entering the clearing.
"Aqrabuamelu?" Chali said, sounding more fascinated than frightened. "I thought they were just stories."
"As did I," Gaeron agreed. "But I didn’t think they were this ugly."
Behind the pair of aqrabuamelu, a human corpse lay in a pine needle nest. Its body, Gaeron couldn’t tell if it was male or female, had been torn open, split into strips of flesh. A meal.
"Bastards!" Gaeron snarled, hefting his battleax and creeping forward.
The aqrabuamelu shifted asynchronously.
"Stupid creatures," Gaeron said.
Drulf came to his side. Behind him, Chali began to chant.
Gaeron moved forward, taking the creature on the right as Drulf occupied the one on the left. The aqrabuamelu lunged, snapping with flat teeth that made a clacking sound.
Before it attacked, Gaeron punched it in its noseless face. Even though the large creature weighed at least three times what he did, his punch rocketed it backward.
It landed and scrambled to its feet with surprising speed. It stretched its neck, its mouth wide in a hostile hiss. Scurrying on two hairless legs, the largest arms spread apart. It was a ploy to distract; he realized too late. As he focused on those large pincers, the half–scorpion creature swiped with its small forearms. The attack cut through his leather vest, opening his skin. Hot pain seared as the sharp pincer separated muscle.
Drulf moved from side to side in a constant attempt to avoid the other aqrabuamelu.
Between them, a swarm of pine needles swirled in the air, forming a large ball. Chali gave the command and the ball of brown raced through the air at Gaeron's aqrabuamelu. When it struck, it knocked the creature onto its side. It screamed. The beast was more enraged than pained, but on its side, it was at a distinct disadvantage.
Gaeron was on it before the creature could right itself. Drawing his battleax, Gaeron sent the blade flashing, severing through the aqrabuamelu's neck in a single swipe. The moment steel bit into flesh, Gaeron felt the searing intensity of violence. A hunger that suddenly burned in his stomach. The creature's head rolled away from its still twitching body. Its teeth snapped as if the stubborn creature insisted on feasting even in death.
The solitary aqrabuamelu had its back turned to Gaeron as it pushed Drulf toward the tree line. The large man darted behind trees, only to come out on one side for a fresh attack. By the looks of the blood on the creature's arms and torso, Drulf had landed a few strikes. But it was a fight that didn't look to be ending soon.
"Can you do that again? What you did with the needles?" Gaeron asked Chali.
"Of course," she said, and jogged away to get a profile perspective on the towering creature and not put Drulf in the line of fire. Even though they were only pine needles, the mass of millions of them crushed together into a magical ball as big as the aqrabuamelu would devastate his pale friend.
As Chali moved and began her chant, Gaeron drew a dagger from its sheath at his waist. He shifted his ax into his weaker hand, switching it with the dagger. Holding it by the blade, he took aim. Flinging the blade, it struck the aqrabuamelu’s curled tail.
The aqrabuamelu hissed and rotated on its ringed legs. Clawing at the ground, the creature prepared a charge. Gaeron held his battleax, ready.
Chali's ball of pine needles formed. She flung it at the second creature as it closed on Gaeron. The massive ball missed, striking a tree behind the aqrabuamelu and exploding in a spray of needles which fell to the ground in a soft rain.
Hissing, the aqrabuamelu was on him, snapping. Gaeron deflected its bite with the pommel of his battleax and rotated, swinging as he did. The blade sank deep into the creature’s forearm. It reared back, taking his battleax with it.
His bloodlust screamed for another bite of flesh.
Gaeron rolled, barely avoiding the creature as it swiped at him with its large rear arms, the pincers snapping empty air. On his feet, he scrambled to find something to use as a weapon.
"Here!" Drulf tossed his shortsword.
The aqrabuamelu charged, its curled tail straightening above its head as it prepared to strike. A large glob of yellow poison dripped from its stinger. It stabbed just as Gaeron caught Drulf’s sword. He rotated just in time to deflect the stinger, throwing the aqrabuamelu off-balance.
Chali was behind the creature, swatting at it with her quarterstaff. The wood knocked, but her efforts were fruitless.
The aqrabuamelu kicked back with one long leg, hitting the Chaos Bender's arm, spinning her.
Chali collapsed in a spray of pine needles.
"No!" Gaeron lunged, raising the shortsword.
The aqrabuamelu bit, catching the tip of the blade and pinching it even as it clawed with its pincers. The creature was strong, but Gaeron refused to allow the beast to yank the blade out of his grip.
Drulf raced to Chali's side, lifting her with an arm draped around her waist. Chali nodded, but Gaeron could not hear what was said. Either way, the aqrabuamelu’s kick hadn’t done any real damage.
The aqrabuamelu heaved backward, still pinching the sword between its flat teeth. Gaeron refused to release it as the creature raised its rear arms. Both pincers snapped repeatedly. Another moment longer and Gaeron would have to decide between relinquishing the weapon or taking a chance of being caught between the pair of large arms. Those pincers were large enough to snap his spine in half.
Growling, Gaeron shoved the sword forward with as much force as he could muster with his distinct height disadvantage. The aqrabuamelu screeched as the blade slipped through its pinchers, forcing it to let go. But Gaeron did not stop. He pushed again. Over and over. Each movement pushed the blade deeper, filling him with the intense joy of the creature’s burning pain. The blade sank between the creature's pinched teeth. One more thrust against the ugly beast and it stopped fighting as the blade cut through its skull. Not done, his body filling with blissful joy, Gaeron pushed until the guard was against the creature's teeth. Roaring, he lifted the sword skyward, raising the large aqrabuamelu's body from the ground. He felt the friction between teeth and steel, and didn’t care. The warm innards of the aqrabuamelu filled his soul, heating it. The weight of the creature slid forward as gravity pulled it back toward the ground like the tempting embrace of a lover. When the corpse could no longer push toward Gaeron, he shifted, forcing the creature's neck to snap just above the first set of shoulders.
The body tumbled onto the disturbed clearing’s floor. Drulf’s shortsword fully punctured the skull, the mouth nearly wrapping around its guard. Gaeron shoved the point of the sword into the soil and kicked the dismembered head down the blade, cracking its jaw. The head toppled down the rest of the blade.
He pulled it free, wiping it with a handful of needles before handing it to the Buk Toh. "That's as clean as I can get it."
Drulf took his sword back with a playful grimace. "Did you really have to do that last bit? This is expensive steel."
Gaeron looked at the aqrabuamelu head before answering. "I figured the sword needed to see a real fight before you named it. At the rate you were going, your cock will shrivel before that happens. You're welcome."
“And you’re an ass.” Then Drulf winked. “Come here. Let me heal those wounds.”
Gaeron decided to not argue against his friend, allowing Drulf to place his large hands on his chest.
Chali watched from the side as Drulf mumbled in prayer.
“Should I take this off?” Gaeron asked, tapping his leather vest.
Drulf shook his head. “I can do this through your leather.”
True to his word, the leather warmed. Slowly, at first, but then, undeniable. Under the vest, Gaeron’s skin itched. Drulf shook his head again when Gaeron moved to adjust his vest.
“Don’t touch it.”
Drulf’s lips curled. “That’s what happens when wounds heal. Leave it alone and let me finish.”
Gaeron dropped his arms to his side, trying to ignore Chali's smiling face over Drulf’s back as the Buk Toh returned to his mumbled prayers. The itching was annoying, but far more preferable to the rot that would set if he couldn’t clean the wound.
“There. Done.” Drulf dropped his hands to his waist and untied his water skin. “And I need a drink. Consorting with the gods is hard work.”
Chali giggled, walking past the pair.
"Are you okay?" Gaeron asked after her.
"Absolutely," the Chaos Bender said, raising a hand as she walked away, toward the human remains.
"What are you doing?" Drulf asked.
Chali walked all the way to the needle nest before answering. She squatted once she reached it, her hands digging through the pine. "Checking to see if this person was carrying anything when they stumbled upon this couple." She continued searching, even digging into the torn strips of cloth that were once the clothes that adorned the human. "Not much, but this should help," she said, standing and turning, smiling as she bounced a small bag in her hands. The rawhide creaked in her grip, but a distinct metallic clanking came from the bag each time it struck her palm.
"Gold or silver? Don't tell me it's only coppers?" Drulf asked.
Chali loosened the string cinching the bag and stuck two fingers inside, feeling around. "Looks like a good mix. It won't buy us transport to and from Hastelle, but we will eat well while in the city."
Gaeron moved to the second aqrabuamelu, placing his foot on its shoulder. With the leverage, he pulled his battleax free. He wiped it with pine needles, as he had done with Drulf’s blade. "Then let's get going. I don't know about the two of you, but I am ready to eat something besides tack."
Chali raised a single eyebrow. "Who said I'm sharing?"
The pair of Bound Boys shot her inquisitive looks, drawing a laugh. "A joke. Calm down. Plus, you two need to eat. You're getting too skinny, and you’re not even full men yet. You look as if you have the Flaw. Won't be of any use to me if you waste away before we get to Hastelle."
"Then why aren't we already heading in that direction?" Gaeron teased, his bloodlust already faded. There would be time to embrace it again. In Hastelle. The moment he laid eyes on his brother.
The Battleborn Trilogy is the first trilogy of the Battleborn Series. The Bonebreaker Trilogy will be released one-book-per-month from Aug-Oct, 2022.