Fireborn, Chapter One
It's almost here!
Friday, April 29th, the first book in the Battleborn Trilogy will be released in ebook, paperback, and audiobook.
For a taste of the book, check out chapter one!
1 - Gaeron
The creature moved with an awkward languidness Gaeron found beautiful. Its gray-scaled skin flexed on its four long appendages, as if each were an external muscle helping the beast to lift and shift as it ate.
An eagle, its wingspan twice Gaeron's height, screeched high above. A warning, maybe?
Gaeron wondered if any of the party's weapons would penetrate those scales.
"We'll have to get closer," he whispered to Meda Rynore.
The black-skinned woman, at least ten sun cycles his senior, nodded without taking her eyes off the creature pacing in front of the Hastelle dam that rose above the river. "All of us," she replied pointedly.
Gaeron looked at his brother, Nevilan, and Rercan Pyard, his brother's best friend. Both men, a few sun cycles older than he, stared at the beast with varying expressions of apprehension. Gaeron knew his brother and wasn't surprised to see his trepidation peeking through. He was less surprised by Rercan's, who said nothing and kept the disappointment from his face forever draped in shadows of ghosts.
Nevilan swallowed, the ball in his throat bobbing noticeably. "I… I didn't think ulterons grew… grew so large."
"That's an adult," Meda snorted. "Which is more than I can say for you three."
"I realize it's an adult," Nevilan said, and Gaeron noted a waver in his voice. "And we'll be Freed soon enough. Wait and see. Then, you won't talk to us like that."
"After we free the waters, I bet," Rercan said, his dark eyes, too close together, swiveled from the beast to Meda and back. "The Paramount will make us Freed men then."
"That's not how it works. You should know that. Kill a human enemy, and then maybe you'll have a chance. Though, looking at you lot, I doubt it," Meda said with a wink at Gaeron and a shake of her head at the other two. The ball of oily hair wobbled in the Warrior's Embrace. "Now, shut up."
Gaeron couldn't blame his brother for his nervousness. He could blame none of them. The ulteron was the biggest he had ever seen. Not that he had seen many. In fact, this was one of less than two fists he had hunted, and it was frightening. Were he to stand beside it, the creature would tower over him by a half. The nails at the end of each thick-toed paw were as long as dagger blades and thicker still. Its hind legs rose at a bend, slightly higher than the creature's front legs. All four shouldn't hold the bulbous body that swayed to the rear and forward again as it moved around the bank near the dam. Its black abdomen stood out against its gray thorax, deepened further by the black mane partially obscuring the beast's face. Its paws thudded into the riverbank rock with each purposeful step. Even at this distance, its nails clicked on the river rock as it moved in front of the resolute dam built by the Walled Ones to the south rising ten warriors-high above it. Those nails would rip skin from bone with a lazy swipe.
Gaeron was grateful they were too far away to see behind the beast's black mane hiding its flat humanoid face. He'd seen a juvenile ulteron's face three sun cycles ago and he would never forget the pale, almost green, face, its open cavities that rippled as it sniffed at him even as he plunged his dagger into it. Even in death, its dark eyes still teased awareness.
Nevilan shifted down the slope, rolling onto his back. Bright sand dotted his brown skin. "Let's leave the cursed beast. It looks to be hunting. Let it eat and move on, I say. We can destroy the dam then."
They had a task, an important one that required three new suns of travel. One that the people of Olma-Ka depended on them to succeed at, regardless of the threat posed by the massive beast that prowled the riverbank. Nydera Alethero, the Paramount of the village, ordered them to move upriver and discover the cause behind the lowering waters of the Bitter River.
The beast moved to sniff at the base of the dam, knocking away rocks the size of small pigs, and didn't look in a hurry to find a meal somewhere else.
They had enough food and water for a few more new suns, but the longer they waited, the higher the risk they might run out of one or the other. Both Nevilan and Rercan lacked the fortitude to handle a quick retreat to the village if it was their only option. Gaeron would never put voice to that thought. Nevilan wouldn't forgive him for doing so, reminding him saying something like that would shame the Andel name.
The ulteron needed to die, and die soon.
That was the way.
"It smells something around the dam," Gaeron said, shaking his head. "It won't move on until it eats."
"We aren't waiting," Meda said, shifting to her side and pulling a bone dagger from its sheath. She pinched it between her teeth, her dark orbs for eyes narrowing as she adjusted to free her edged boomerang. Speaking through steel-edged teeth, she ordered, "We move."
The party's leader slid down the slope without waiting for the Bound Boys to follow. She crouched as she rounded the slope. Gaeron knew the plan. They all did. They were to flank the beast, keep it confused and scrambling. Ulteron were stupid creatures. Powerful, dangerous, but dumb-witted beasts that mostly kept to themselves when not hunting for their next meal. They didn't usually bother travelers, and never ventured near settlements. But the four of them were neither, and the beast was stopping them from their mission. The party's three-pronged approach would keep it thinking, and if the beast was thinking, they could keep it one step behind.
Gaeron moved around the opposite side of the rise from Meda's position. Before rounding the corner and disappearing from sight of their observation point, he stopped and eyed his older brother. "Are you moving?"
Nevilan's long, sun-lightened curls swayed as he shot Gaeron a look of frustration. "I will. But I will not rush into this. This is irresponsible."
"We should use caution," Rercan agreed.
"We have been cautious," Gaeron said, waving a hand toward the large animal sniffing out its meal around the riverbed. "Now, we fight."
"We move too soon and we die," Nevilan spat with equal measure of a sharp tongue, something he was much better at, Gaeron admitted.
Gaeron grunted, unsure how to respond. Fear of the unknowable was a waste of time. Blood in the sand demanded they free the Bitter River of this wall damming its waters, built by the cowardly Walled Ones from the city of Hastelle. To do that, the beast had to die unless they wanted to out-wait the animal. Maybe it would never leave the area if the dam provided a steady source of pooled water and food.
Moving forward, he used the knolls and rocky formations leading down to the river as cover. From his periphery, Meda neared the banks, completely exposed. The honor was hers as was her station as a Freed woman. Bound Boys rarely received that privilege unless it was given by one of the Freed, and Meda wasn't the type to give up honor. Ever. He suspected that even after he was no longer bound, if they went on future missions together, she would have the honor. That was the way of Olmarians. The Freed women had earned that right over a thousand generations of fighting against threats to preserve Olma-Ka and their way of life. They were elevated above all Olmarians, the girls who were born into freedom and even the Freed men who earned theirs. Especially over Bound Boys. Freed were always charged with the glorious tasks. Always got the glory. Got the Marks carved into their skin.
Gaeron wanted the Mark, wanted to be free. To be Freed. Unlike the other two Bound Boys, he knew this mission wouldn't bring it. But if he was the one who killed the ulteron and freed the waters of the Bitter River, the Paramount would entrust him with more tasks in the future. Her trust would grow once they returned from this mission. Meda would be sure to report his feats accurately and honestly. Then the Paramount would know, and she would have to give him more opportunities. When those future tasks came, the chance to earn the Mark would come with them. Patience. He had to be patient.
The rock slipped underneath his leather-booted feet, but Gaeron shifted and maintained his balance, thankful neither Nevilan nor Rercan had taken the slope ahead of him. They had a nugget of his fighting skills, and less balance. Either slipping would set in motion things that might cause one of them a dishonorable death.
Meda crouched, still in the open, along the river far enough away from the beast that the moving water covered her steps. Glancing up at the observation point, Gaeron saw Nevilan's bow. Growling, he sent a silent curse to his brother. They had discussed the ulteron's scaled hide. An arrow, especially at this distance, would do nothing to the animal. Nevilan already knew that. They had spent years out beyond the Olmarian stables at the village's archery range, improving his skill. Nevilan wasn't the best in Olma-Ka, but he could hold his own. He would probably hit the ulteron. But that was it. A quiver-full of arrows wouldn't kill the cursed thing at that range. Nevilan was using a ranged attack as a way to hide from engaging the beast in a melee, just as Gaeron worried he would when the Paramount assigned his brother to the task.
Yanking his spear sling from around his neck, Gaeron neared the beast, which was still rutting around in the rock. It was too distracted by its meal to hear his approach.
Meda closed in from the rear.
Up the slope, Rercan held his shortsword with both hands. Gaeron stifled a laugh. The scrawny man-boy couldn't trim the ulteron's nails with a hundred swings.
Close enough to hear the beast snort into the rocks to blow out insects hiding underneath, Gaeron raised his spear, bladed at both ends, when an arrow zipped by his head. It passed close enough to hear the air move around its fletching. Instinctively, Gaeron jumped to the side. The arrow came from Nevilan's direction, not some hidden enemy defending the dam.
Zipping through the heated air, the arrow found its mark, striking the ulteron's hide and clanking to the stone.
Gaeron found Meda's eyes as hers found his. The advantage was lost.
Another arrow cut through the air as the ulteron ambled to face Gaeron. The creature's legs were fluid even though they were nearly half his thickness and a full body's length. Each movement appeared to require the animal's full mental and physical attention, which then would shift to the next limb.
The ulteron pounded a front leg, bent at an impossible angle, into the riverbed, spewing rocks as big as Gaeron's head everywhere. One tumbled at Gaeron's feet as he crouched and lowered the spear.
Another step, more flying river rock.
"Hah!" Meda shouted, taunting the beast as it turned on her.
Gaeron flanked the ulteron. It shuffled, its abdomen thumping against the dam, spooking it. It sent a high-pitched screech into the hot day. Rercan yelped, even though he was still too far away for the quadruped to reach him.
The beast lunged as Meda closed in. An arrow pierced the shallow river with a plunk.
"Fool!" Meda spat as she shifted foot-to-foot, ready to avoid the ulteron. "I'll snap his neck if he strikes me down. Even if my ghost is forced to return from the Land of Plenty Waters."
"Not if I get to him first," Gaeron half-joked.
The ulteron snapped at Meda who hopped backward, lifting the boomerang high. The beast slammed a front leg into the rock, sending up a spray of fist-sized rocks. Gaeron made his move, stabbing the beast. The tip skipped off a scale as if he'd tried to shove it into a mountainside, and he stumbled.
The ulteron raised its long, front leg and swung backward. Gaeron ducked just in time, only to see the hind leg thrusting forward. The scales of the thicker hind leg dug into his leather jerkin, biting through the protective covering and into his skin. The air was knocked from his lungs as he flailed backward as if he wasn't over two hundred pounds of solid muscle. He landed, lucky to miss the bank's larger rocks. Still, breath was difficult to draw. Gaeron looked for his spear, finding it a short distance away, snapped in half.
"Nevilan," he shouted up the slope, "we need you."
His brother didn't appear.
The ulteron ambled toward Meda, who backed along the riverbank. The beast's angular ankles sank into the muck.
"Nevilan, look," Rercan called, now down at the river.
Gaeron hadn't noticed either move closer. Nevilan held his onyx sword in his right hand and the dagger in his left, not looking ready to use either. Rercan was behind the ulteron but not close enough to strike. Instead, he crouched near the dam, looking at the base.
Tucked against the junction of the riverbank and dam was a large, circular structure made of twigs and driftwood. At a glance, the wreckage blended in with the foot of the dam. With a closer look, the truth was apparent. A nest. The ulteron's.
"Meda! It's a mother. Rercan found a nest by the dam." He swallowed. To the other Bound Boy, he asked, "How many?"
Rercan tentatively approached, his sword tip shaking in unsteady hands. Precious time passed as the scrawny man climbed up the driftwood and peered over. He pivoted, and he looked like he was trying to choke down an entire chicken in one bite. "Three."
"Curses!" Gaeron said.
The powerful angled legs of the ulteron separated the water with a splash, shooting sprays thirty feet into the air and twice as far out into the deeper reaches of the Bitter River. The long mane on its head hung.
"Circle it!" Gaeron ordered his older brother and Rercan. "Meda won't be able to out-run it now. We've got to help." To Meda, he yelled, "Get out of the water!"
"I thought you wanted me to go into the water?"
"Don't be a pig's ass," he said as he continued harassing the ulteron.
"Do you always speak to one of the Freed in such a way, Bound Boy?" Meda laughed, dancing up the riverbank to the blind side of the beast as if they weren't in a fight. "Watch for the—" Meda's warning came too late.
The ulteron came down onto all fours, slamming into the riverbed. Its legs crashed deep as it spewed mucus in a web-pattern.
Gaeron dove over a row of knee-high river boulders, barely escaping the acidic spray. Where the mucus landed, rock sizzled and smoked. Another breath slower and the attack would have stripped him of his leathers and skin.
"Now! Move now! It will need to regenerate to do that again. Move!" Meda commanded.
Gaeron acted. Nevilan and Rercan moved more tentatively. Fanning out, the four surrounded the ulteron. It swiveled and snapped at whoever came closest.
"Go for its legs," Meda said. "We have to take it down."
Jumping over the sizzling boulders, careful not to touch them, Gaeron sprinted at the ulteron. Waiting until the moment before he was within its long reach, he dove forward and thrust the half-spear into its foreleg.
The beast screeched and yanked its injured appendage away.
Gaeron pulled his sword from his back, spun and swiped at the other leg, cutting through the beast's calf. The sensation of opened scales was raw. Visceral. Deep in Gaeron's core, he felt the violence. Hungered for it.
He rolled out from underneath its abdomen. The muscles in Gaeron's thick forearm flexed as he gripped the hilt of his sword. Adrenaline surged through him and the only thought he had at the moment was to kill. Break. Destroy.
Clear of the ulteron, he blinked away the shock at seeing Meda take a running leap onto the beast's thorax. She latched. The ulteron bucked, trying to free itself of the human parasite. Meda clung to it, her legs bouncing as the beast's protests manifested in violent jerks of its body. She stabbed at its thorax, covered in gray scales like most of the rest of the body.
"Hit its head. Cover me," Gaeron screamed to Nevilan and Rercan. "Keep it busy. I'm going under."
Gaeron dove forward, just under the swing of a foreleg that shattered a smaller boulder. Under her abdomen. A gurgling sound, like the small, trickling inlets of the Bitter River close to home, came from her insides. The ulteron was recharging. Another acid attack was coming. And Nevilan was in the spray's path.
Scrambling for his belt, Gaeron dug out his bone dagger. The blade was short. He used it to carve hares they were lucky to find from time to time. Never as a killing device.
Gaeron growled, fisting his dagger and jamming it into the ulteron's underbelly, the only part of her besides her legs that wasn't impervious to his earlier strikes.
The blade sank to the dagger's crossguard. He struck again, lost in the lust of violence. And again. And again.
The wounds gaped as the ulteron fought on, stretching her rough hide with each lunge and retreat. Black blood seeped from her, falling to the wet sand around him and onto his leathers. The caustic smell made him gag.
Blood flowed over his hand as he jabbed. Again. And again. Covering his hands, dripping down his thick forearms, over his bulbous biceps and shoulders. The more energy he spent stabbing the monstrosity, the stronger he felt. Pushed on. Encouraged. Fed. The dagger's grip became slick. He was more likely to lose the grip and slice his own hand open than do any more damage to the raging beast.
Plunging the dagger its full length in, Gaeron reached with bloody hands and grasped the dangling folds of gray skin that felt very much like the rough leathers he wore. Growling, he jammed his hands into the warm innards, holding tight, and tore.
The ulteron did not screech. It did not roar. It screamed.
And pulled away.
Up, it carried Gaeron as it reared. One arm slipped, and he almost fell, but held strong to resume tearing at her stomach. He never saw the foreleg swinging in his direction until it connected.
The strike was lucky but true. Gaeron flew into the river, hitting the water and sinking. Dots of white popped into his vision. Too stunned to think about drawing a deep breath before he went under, he sank into the Bitter River without breath or clear vision. In a panic, he kicked and pushed in the direction he hoped was the surface.
Gaeron broke the surface, gasping. His leathers felt heavier as they took on the waters of the Bitter River.
The ulteron had separated Nevilan and Rercan, who had backed nearly to the dam. It now stalked Meda. The Freed woman who led this party, her thick, black hair plastered to her face, was on her back, holding her head. Blood streamed from underneath her hand. She leaned to one side to wretch.
"Curses of Ion," Gaeron barked at the god of water and lunged through the last of the river. His heavy thighs burned. His leathers pulled.
The ulteron stumbled forward, almost collapsing closer to Meda. Its head hovered above the fallen warrior for a moment. Long enough for Gaeron to scream.
The ulteron struck, crumpling its entire body down on her. Meda only had time to look up, the black orbs of her eyes widening as death bore down on her. It widened its mouth and drove its head down on Meda's.
Half of Meda's body, down to her waist, was inside the ulteron's maw. It snapped its jaws and Meda's lower torso flopped to the ground with a thunk.
The three Bound Boys were on their own. Meda would suffer in shame in the afterlife if they didn't kill the ulteron.
Gaeron roared, unsheathing his secondary dagger. The ulteron turned, her black eyes focused on this new threat. It stomped forward, Meda's gore dripping from the beast's gray lips, stumbled and regained its balance. Her left side appeared weakest.
Digging the blade under his jerkin strap, he cut it free and threw it to the sand. The wet leather could be repaired if he survived this fight. If he didn't, it wouldn't matter.
"Come on, you bitch." He snarled, pushing up the shore as she wobbled toward him.
The ulteron brought one of her forelegs down at Gaeron, but this time, he was ready. The heavy limb of the beast stopped in his hands, arms raised above his head. She had nearly bashed the dagger from his hands, but he held true. Though she was suffering from her injuries, the ulteron pushed. Gaeron pushed back. His arms burned. His shoulders throbbed and popped the few times her strength temporarily surpassed his. Gaeron's body, though, did not fail.
He pushed up against the longer and thicker appendage of the ulteron even as she tried to press back.
He strained to keep the ulteron off-balance. He had no idea how long he could last or where Nevilan and Rercan were.
His feet slipped out from under him in the muck. Gaeron fell on his stomach and rolled to his back as the ulteron's front two feet smashed down on the spot where he'd fallen. She was over him now, as she had been with Meda, looking down with those black eyes and blood-stained teeth. Chunks of pink meat were caught in between her fangs.
Meda. Not meat. Meda.
When the ulteron slammed its head into the muck, Gaeron dodged and plunged his dagger into its black eye. It squelched, showering his hand with black goo.
The ulteron pulled up and away, screeching so loudly the sound bounced off the dam.
Gaeron lunged to his feet and sprinted to his dropped sword. Snatching it out of the sand just as the ulteron gurgled. Her rumbling grew.
The ulteron screamed, tossing her flat, gray face skyward, her mouth wide. Black ichor dripped from her maw, mixing with Meda's life blood. But before he could bring an end to the beast, she crumbled to the river muck. A shortsword stuck out of the base of the ulteron's skull.
Nevilan stood atop the creature's thorax, bent with his hands on his knees, huffing in exhaustion. A blank expression crossed his face. He scrambled to the riverbed as the ulteron wobbled and collapsed. When Rercan slapped him on the back, he blinked stupidly.
Gaeron was as shocked by his brother's actions to get that close to the ulteron as he was the fact he was still alive to be shocked.
"You did it! You did it!" Rercan said. "You killed the ulteron! You saved us."
Nevilan only gave a conservative dip of his head in return of the praise.
"The Paramount needs to hear about this," Rercan said.
"By Ion's teeth she does," Gaeron said, hunching over. "He did nothing."
"I saved you," Nevilan said.
"You hid and let it kill Meda. Let it almost kill me. You attacked it from behind." Gaeron paused and turned to look at the fallen ulteron. "I appreciate that you didn't wait for it to kill me, but let's not fool ourselves. The pair of you hung back and now Meda is dead. We let a Freed woman be killed by this thing." He kicked its flat face for good measure. Bone crunched and one of the ulteron's eye sockets collapsed.
"Meda fell because she broke the bond. She failed as a warrior," Nevilan said. "She is a bond breaker. No Freed should fall to a… to a beast."
Gaeron narrowed his eyes. "You dishonor her."
"She dishonored herself by dying. Do you think Nydera will be okay with any of her Freed women falling to a simple beast?"
"The Paramount," Gaeron said, slamming his dagger in its sheath. "Refer to her by her title. And she wouldn't have fallen if you two had fought the damned ulteron instead of hiding."
Nevilan flicked his hand in the air as he moved to the dead ulteron, bracing his foot against the back of its neck to gain leverage while he worked his sword free. Twisting and turning, flesh ripped, loosening the sword. Once he had it free, he submerged the blade in the river to clean it of her black blood. "Had I not been here, had I not fought in my way, Gaeron, you would be no better than our supposed leader." Nevilan said that last bit while lowering the point of his sword at the half–corpse of Meda. "Now let's finish what we came here to do."
Nevilan and Rercan handled the ulteron's offspring while Gaeron cleaned Meda's gear the best he could for her journey. After the other two tossed the ulteron's offspring into the river to drown, they set about destroying what they had actually come to destroy.
The sun was low on the horizon by the time they had broken through the dam wall and freed the waters of the Bitter River. As it rushed through, the gap in the wall widened, slowly at first. By the time they packed their axes, the water gushed through the expanding hole. The precious, life-sustaining water was returning to their people. The dam became brittle and crumbled toward the hole they'd created.
Gaeron stepped back and watched as the top of the dam collapsed. Much of the material was carried downstream as the sacred waters grew. The sun had sunk underneath the horizon. "We will have to make camp on the ridge tonight and begin our journey back to Olma-Ka in the morning. We need to bury Meda."
"Leave her for the crows and scavengers," Nevilan said, giving Rercan a jerk of his head and starting away.
Gaeron watched him go, dismayed. Nevilan was halfway up the slope when Gaeron called out. "She was our leader. We must bury her."
"Why?" Rercan asked with a laugh.
Gaeron stared at him until the thin man looked away. "To preserve her honor. She must be buried so she can enter the Land of Plenty Waters."
Without turning around, Nevilan said, "Damn her honor. We're going to set up camp and get some sleep. You'd be wise to do the same. The journey home will be fast."
Gaeron watched his brother and Rercan disappear over the ridgeline, grinding his teeth. Better than grinding their bones. If he was anything, he was blood in the sand, the Olmarian value of putting other Sun Skinned before yourself. If that value ever slipped…
Plus, there was the journey home. Nevilan was still going to answer for his actions that contributed to the Freed woman falling. They both would. Then he set to the task of doing the honorable thing for Meda's spirit. The sun was fully asleep by the time she lay, buried, near the scars of the dam.
Between April 29, 2022 and October 1, 2022, six books in the Battleborn Series will be released. You can pre-order all of them now, and have them delivered to your as soon as they drop. Just click the button below.