As we hit mid-May, we're quickly closing on the second part of the first Battleborn Trilogy.
On June 1st, Rageborn will hit the stores! I want to celebrate by giving you chapter one!
If you've picked up Fireborn, thank you! I hope you're enjoying your introduction to the people and creatures of the world of Oltari. I can promise you, there is so much more to come (there better be, with five more releases this year).
That begins with Rageborn. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but I will caution those of you who haven't finished Fireborn to proceed at your own risk... of spoilers.
With no further delay, here is chapter one of Rageborn, in-full!
1 - Gaeron
Gaeron slashed as he rolled underneath the giant scorpion.
It reared, screeching. Somehow, its rider remained saddled, keeping control of the beast that thrust its thirty-foot long tail at Gaeron. The ground shook each time the thick appendage pierced it. Importantly, the beast missed, leaving Gaeron alive to shout at his friend.
"Stab the damn thing!"
Behind the tail, Drulf Bural stabbed and slashed. His sword deflected off the beast's tough carapace as if the paladin was using a training stick.
Chali Danos, the most powerful Chaos Bender in Olma-Ka, had little to work with. Her magic depended on the environment. She could only draw on nearby elements. Being west of the Sweet Waters River, she could only pull from the endless sand. With Gaeron and Drulf near the beast, she couldn't devour the scorpion in a sandstorm or even a vortex, which forced her to target in her spells more accurately. So far, they were useless, and Gaeron doubted they could count on her unless he and Drulf could make a coordinated dash away from the scorpion, leaving enough space for her to attack. The way the fight was going, that wasn't likely.
If they made it back to Olma-Ka, he promised himself to get her on the training fields with a staff in her hand. At least a bow, though he wasn't sure she could use arrows since Benders had a strange affliction to edged weapons. Magic—too often useless.
The massive tail, broader than any boar back in Olma-Ka, thrust and he rolled. That attack was the closest yet.
The scorpion rider was a ranger. Whenever the scorpion allowed him the stability to load and fire his bow, he did, targeting Drulf more often than the Chaos Bender. The big Buk Toh, the Olmarian term for the pale people of walled cities, was the more immediate threat in the rider's eyes, which was fine with Gaeron. They needed Chali to attack, and soon. As long as she wasn't the one being attacked, she could concoct something to bring a victory. They harassed the beast so constantly and chaotically that it thrashed and spun, denying the rider more than a couple of shots, none of them clear.
"If you run, I have a spell that will end this," Chali shouted over the screeching.
"I don't run," Gaeron barked.
"Then you keep fighting," Chali said.
Gaeron growled. Not that long ago, he'd fought another scorpion rider. A large squad of riders had attacked an Olmarian squad, twice their size but exhausted from a long and treacherous journey from the city of Hastelle across the desert. Half the Olmarians died that day. No one came out unscathed but Gaeron's brother, Nevilan. While the few survivors came away with injuries, in body and mind, he came out with his second Mark, the Olmarian symbol of freedom and status. The Paramount had carved it into his forehead the night of their return. Nevilan celebrated as if the journey had been the greatest success in Olmarian history, even while the village mourned their dead.
Gaeron didn't plan for any of them to suffer at the hands of this rider, though. This journey was supposed to be a relatively simple mission into the Dark Sands meant to get him away from his older brother. At least until the leader of Olma-Ka could figure out what to do with the pair. Maybe it was naïve of them, but they hadn't planned on sneak attacks from Scorpion Riders.
Gaeron shouted to draw the rider's attention, lunging toward the scorpion. His sword shuddered against the beast, skipping off as if he'd struck rock. His hands tingled with vibrations. "You tough bastard," he said, shaking off the sensation.
"Move now!" the Chaos Bender shouted.
Both men complied. Drulf dove over a small mound of sand, sheering off the top. Gaeron swung his blade, connecting with the outside of the scorpion's pincer and spinning it in the opposite direction, before joining his friend.
Chali held a large ball of rotating sand above her, twice the size of the scorpion's head. The ball dwarfed the Bender. As soon as Gaeron and Drulf were clear, she blasted it at the creature and rider. The scorpion screeched; the rider yelled in a foreign tongue. The chains of gold weaving in and out of his thighs jingled. The human covered his eyes with his forearm, holding onto the reins with a single hand. The beast was too dumb and spun aimlessly.
The face full of sand confused it. Gaeron sensed nervousness from the rider and unsettled mount.
He raced forward, lowering his shortsword, diving and rolling underneath the beast's chelicera just as it snapped at him with a pedipalp. A loud clack told him the pincer had been close. Too close. With the giant above him and the dust from Chali's dissipating spell settling to the ground and tickling his nose, he stared up at the golden skin covered in long, brown hair. The pods of its thorax were out of reach. Its foremost claws snapped as they blindly reached to snag this new threat. Gaeron had a moment, nothing more, before the rider adjusted his arachnid mount and left Gaeron exposed and on his back.
He thrust his sword into the softer skin between its front and second set of legs. The blade bit deep. The surge of violence filled him, his chest burning with the desire to feel the heat of the beast's blood. Bloodlust born. He pushed as the arachnid screeched above him. His sword sank to the cross-guard. Black ichor spilled from the wound. Gaeron pulled his sword down even as the beast's life source covered him. He ripped and tore as his chest and arms were painted black in its death, ripping open the mount.
The giant scorpion reared, trying to pull free. When it did, Gaeron rolled out from underneath, and was on his feet before it settled back to the soft sand. He pushed against it as it reared. He howled as he called on his reserves and sprinted at the exposed underbelly. Jamming his sword into it again, Gaeron didn't wait for it to lash out or recover. Placing his hands on its skin, heated by blood and battle, he pushed. The raw strength, emboldened by his bloodlust, powered his back, his shoulders, his arms. He thrust.
The giant beast toppled onto its back, crushing the human rider.
The dying creature's eight claws swatted at the air as it tried to regain its footing. With a shake of his head, Gaeron climbed atop it and pulled his sword free. Raising the weapon, he plunged it into the wiggling scorpion and sliced open the length of its body. Innards sprayed from its cavity, some striking his face before falling to the desert floor.
He stood atop the dead scorpion, covered in its stinking blood and heaving deep breaths.
From below, Chali grinned, a playful twinkle in her eyes. "Well, I can't say you haven't looked better."
Gaeron snorted and jumped to the sand, scooping a handful and using it to clean as much of the black blood as he could. "We need to find water. This stinks."
"That's your normal smell," Drulf said, huffing as if he'd been the one to topple the beast.
Chali jerked her head at the corpse. A single human arm, tattooed with their culture's ceremonial sigils, protruded from underneath the scorpion. "Nice work tipping that over on him. Though, now I'm not sure how we're going to check for valuables, you big oaf."
"For every savage who dies, no Olmarian mother cries," Gaeron cited the old Olmarian saying, teasing her even though he only now realized she was right.
"Well, if you and Drulf can tip that thing over, I can try to push it with the sands. I just need more of its body surface to work with."
Drulf stepped forward. "Let me and the little man see what we can do. Come on."
The blistering sun was already cooking the contents of the scorpion's open cavity. The smell was sickly sweet. Gaeron choked. No telling what this beast would smell like in a day or two. Thankfully, they would be far away by then. Its blood ran in rivulets to form tiny pools in the sand, which were absorbed almost immediately.
Already, a distant vulture cried for its approaching meal.
The two men squatted, using the arachnid's legs for leverage, and heaved. They rocked the scorpion slowly at first, gaining momentum with each iteration. Drulf's pale skin flushed. Gaeron smirked.
"What?" the big Buk Toh said.
Gaeron cocked his chin. "Nice to see you gain some color, that's all."
Drulf grunted. "I'm. Working. This. Thing. Is. Heavy."
"Think I need to get you on the training field again."
"Not. All. Have. Strength. To. Move. Mountains. Ga—Ga"
"Stop talking, and actually start lifting," Gaeron said, already feeling the bloodlust flush from his muscles. Before long, he'd only have the strength of ten men. Best to finish this work now.
Behind them, Chali whispered a chant as she conjured. Just as they exposed the scorpion's back, it was flipped onto its stomach. In a flash, both men fell into the sand, nearly on top of the flattened rider.
Drulf yelped and rolled away, digging at his belt for his sword. Gaeron looked over his shoulder, toward the Chaos Bender. "Really?"
Chali laughed, a brown hand on her flat stomach. "My apologies. But you must admit, that was fun. I guess this is where you thank me."
Pushing himself to his knees, Gaeron gawked. "For what?"
"For helping, of course," Chali said, pointing at the scorpion. "Imagine how much longer you would have struggled with that had I not toppled the stupid creature for you. Now, let's see what he has on him. Maybe he's just robbed a caravan or looted some settlement. For your sake, let's hope your little squashing trick didn't bury anything good in the sands. I'm not digging, if so. That's on you."
Except for a few trinkets, the rider carried little. They took what they thought might have value, which was little more than coin and a dagger with more decorative than practical purposes. They then set out west again, this time with a more wary eye for anyone or anything the countless dunes might hold. Where there was one Scorpion Rider, there were others. The cowards never traveled far without their pack.
Without mounts the village could ill afford to lend them, the going was slower than he liked. They had covered another ten miles, nearly out of the dunes and to the eternal flat of the Olka-Fa desert, when Gaeron pulled up. "What's that?" he said, pointing to the western horizon.
Drulf squinted. "I don't see anything."
"I think I can," Chali said, moving slightly in front him. When she passed, her scent tickled his nose.
By the gods, how did she smell so good? Still?
"On the horizon."
Her head slid forward, as if along an invisible plane. Even with the awkward stance, she was stunning. "Oh, the cloud?"
The Buk Toh threw his hands up, letting them slap his thighs. "I don't see a thing."
"You're blind." Gaeron side-stepped to him, holding his arm level to the horizon. "A black cloud. There. See how far it stretches?"
"That's a cloud? I thought that was a mountain range," the Buk Toh said.
"Another sandstorm, probably." Chali's dark tone hinted she wasn't fooling herself or the two Bound Boys in the party. The most gorgeous woman in Olma-Ka put her water skin to her full lips and drank deeply. A trail of water ran from the corner of her mouth, down her cheek and neck. She pulled the water skin away, cupped her hand and filled it. She ran her wet hand through her hair, pasting a small band of it to her head.
Gaeron cast a sideways glance, and she gave him a coy look. "What?"
He shrugged, his massive shoulders rolling, stretching with relief as the bloodlust continued to dwindle. Unlike anyone in Olma-Ka, his bloodlust was resilient. Whereas most Olmarians felt the surge of power that drove their courage, Gaeron's supplied him with a sense of invincibility. When born, his bloodlust always threatened to override his senses, his mind. The Paramount had told him how he shared that with his mother. They had been friends, and she occasionally told him stories of her personality. Nydera Alethero said his mother often found trouble because of her bloodlust, and that he would too, if he didn't learn how to manage it. The problem was, his bloodlust was too strong to be managed. Too easy to be born to life. Too robust to fade easily.
After so long crossing the Olka-Fa, and the surprise ambush by the Scorpion Rider, a moment of levity felt good.
"I'm surprised to see you be so careless with your water considering we're heading into that," Gaeron said, pointing at the darkened sky. "My instincts tell me that does not bode well for us."
The three—a Chaos Bender, paladin, and warrior—fell quiet as they watched the wall of sky-bound black roll and swirl, never seeming to approach or retreat. No Olmarian had journeyed into the Dark Sands in at least a generation, definitely not during Gaeron's lifetime. In fact, Nydera, the Paramount of Olma-Ka who sent them on this journey, couldn't recall the last time one of their people had attempted the trek. Even Leonaime Nynar, the most knowledgeable Olmarian Gaeron knew, was clueless when the last Olmarian foot had touched the Dark Sands, and she knew everything.
Looking toward the ominous cloud hanging above the desert, Gaeron understood why. They had crossed the Sweet Waters River yesterday. As the desert stretched to the west, they might still have another one or two to go. As the flat land stretched away, and the storm over the horizon blocked out the world, distance was impossible to determine.
Desert life was a harsh life, but Olmarians had carved theirs out and established a vibrant settlement in the village of Olma-Ka. Their people were secure and stable, never wanting much as long as they were responsible with their resources. Theirs was a simpler life that provided freedom to roam and connect with the gods.
Looking at the expanding black hanging over the horizon, Gaeron couldn't think of any people living under that and having those very things he enjoyed. Though ancient peoples had lived here, they no longer did. No one did. The eternal cloud beckoned and repulsed life all at once.
A fat hand slapped him on the back, breaking his reverie. "Don't let it frighten you, little friend. I'm here to protect you. Plus, we just need to find the Crown of Spikes. Once we've done that, we can get out of here as fast as possible. Which," Drulf said, his chubby cheeks expanding as he loosed a breath toward the black cloud, "I am more than okay with, by the way. The sooner we find the crown, the better. For all the trouble that storm promises, the Paramount better raise us to Three-Marked, let me tell you."
"For one mission where you fought off a single Scorpion Rider and maybe a desert fox?" Chali said with a chuckle. She corked her water skin and slung it around her slender neck.
"We haven't found it yet," Drulf said with a jerk of his chin toward the storm. "Who knows what mysteries await. I, for one, think we will have plenty of chances to earn a Mark. Then we can enjoy becoming Freed." He pulled his own water skin around his neck and drank without bothering to pull the strap over his head.
"And what would you do as a Freed man, Drulf Bural?" Chali said, her lips quirking in a way that hinted she was ready to tease him regardless of his response.
"Careful what you say," Gaeron said.
Drulf's top lip expanded downward, pulling his nose thinner. "I well, uh, well. I—see—"
Chali burst out laughing. The sound of a bird's song to Gaeron's ears.
Chali looked north, toward the mountain range called the Spikes rising above the desert. "The way Nydera tells it, if we're successful, you might not receive your Mark and become Freed, but you won't be simple Bound Boys anymore. The crown will change the fortunes of all Olmarians. Forever."
Gaeron knew she was teasing, but the comment soured his mood. It reminded him how his undeserving brother was already a Two-Marked Freed man, while he was still bound. That made him, made all Bound Boys, a lesser status in the village, no matter what anyone said to the contrary. If he'd done anything over the past few moon cycles, he had proven himself as more than someone who was bound. Heat colored his words. "How can a simple crown do that? A crown is a crown. All queens and blasted kings have them. They're not that unique. If it was special, someone would have found it long ago. Even the Scorpion Riders have had hundreds of years to steal it, since they're the only ones dumb enough to come out here."
"Except us," Drulf said.
"We're blood in the sand," Gaeron said. Even though he knew Drulf was simply trying to pull him out of his darkening mood, no Olmarians should question the Paramount's orders. Even if executing them wouldn't bring a Mark.
"The crown of the Desert King is more than a simple crown," Chali said. "It's said to not only have the rarest of jewels embedded in it, but also magical properties."
"And you believe that?" Gaeron asked. "Magic, held in a crown? That sounds strange. Highly unlikely. Of anyone, I'd figure a Chaos Bender would be more skeptical."
She shrugged. "Possibly. How would I know for sure? At least until I set my eyes on it. But the stories say it is true. The Desert King's crown was the most glorious of its time and has been lost since his people fought the War For the Spikes."
"That war wiped out the first people of the Dark Sands," Drulf said.
Chali nodded. "The Bortellese. Their people, their culture, everything disappeared after the war as the Desert King claimed the Dark Sands as his."
"I remember my father saying something about this part of the desert not actually being dead like it is now," Drulf said, almost too cheerily. "That's why it's black, he said. Hadn't always been. Not until the Desert King. Not only did he kill the people of this region, but their land too."
"That's the way I understand it too," Chali said. "I guess it started during his reign."
"A hundred years, or something like that," Drulf said before turning to Gaeron. "Bet you didn't know that."
"No, because I'm usually too busy working or at weapons training. As a warrior should be. Not sitting around a campfire or the bathing pool, listening to stories. That makes you soft." Gaeron winked and poked Drulf's gut. His finger sank to the first knuckle.
Drulf returned the wink and poked, stabbing Gaeron's temple. "And always playing with blades and not reading makes you soft in the head. But then, I don't suppose a walking pile of muscle has much energy to feed his brain."
Gaeron laughed along with his quick-witted friend. "But, seriously. A hundred-year reign? Impossible."
"Maybe. But if the stories are correct about his magical abilities, then maybe not," Chali replied. "Plus, the day I listen to a warrior about the validity of magical properties of a crown is the day I give up bending Chaos and take up needlework."
"You'd probably be less annoying if you did," Gaeron teased.
Chali gave him a playful shove. But it was she who stumbled, unable to move his mass. Drulf guffawed.
"You just might need this warrior to help you find this crown," Gaeron reminded her.
"Oh, I don't doubt that. It is said the Dark Sands is a dangerous place. So I'm happy to have you along. For now."
"I'll be interested to see what actually lives in the dead desert," Drulf said. "I've read the stories and listened to the elders, but I'm not so sure we'll run into half the things they claim we will."
Chali wagged a finger at him. "Don't be too quick to come to that conclusion, my large friend. You're the only one among us with healing properties. If you are reckless or dismissive of what might be out there, you're screwed."
"He's screwed anyway," Gaeron said.
Though her wide eyebrows pinched, Chali continued, ignoring him. "The way I understand it, once the Bortellese were slaughtered by the Desert King, he died not too soon after. It's said his ghost never left the Black Palace."
"Ghost? No such thing," Gaeron said.
"I can't believe my fate rests in the hands of someone who believes in nothing," Chali sighed, only half–serious.
"I believe in things, though" Drulf said, drawing out the last word as if he was stumbling over a foreign tongue.
"Oh, I know. But, then again, you always were smarter than Gaeron"
"Sure, things like ammits, babites. Scorpion riders." Gaeron rocked his head. "Those are things to believe in."
"As opposed to?"
"Ghosts of dead kings."
Drulf nodded, the loose skin under his chin jiggling. "If I've seen them, then they're real. If I've read multiple accounts of something I've never seen, I'll at least entertain thoughts it could be real. But if I only hear stories? Well… I'll be much more careful. I mean, have you ever heard Bound Boys talk about what the first thing they'll do to a Freed woman once their bands are cut?"
Gaeron smirked, dropping and shaking his head.
"Exactly," Drulf said with a beaming smile. "Stories are just harder to believe. That's all. But I won't discount them."
"I might," Gaeron admitted.
"So, you're telling me that if you've never seen something, your default is that it cannot be real?" Chali asked.
Gaeron remained quiet. The Chaos Bender was leading him into a dangerous question, and he wanted no part of it. If Drulf decided to play along, that was on him. Gaeron would leave him on his own. Chali was more than a match for both of them, and Gaeron wasn't about to let her pin him down. She'd remind him of that every single new sun, if he did.
He only remained quiet for another half mile. "Come on, Chali. You can't honestly believe in fairytales and children's stories. You're a..."
Chali raised an eyebrow. "A what?"
Drulf gave Gaeron a shake of his head, pinching his mouth like he'd just been forced to eat a
Gaeron shrugged. "I just meant to say that, as a Chaos Bender, you should be careful what you choose to believe in. Have some proof or something."
He tapped the sword at his hip. "Blades. They're sharp and strong. They break, slice, and cut. Some are more durable than others. Some are blunt, while others could cut the air. Understanding the nature of the variety of blades could take a lifetime of study. As a Chaos Bender, wouldn't it be better to spend your time studying what you know is real instead of entertaining so many what-ifs and maybes? That's all."
"If I only believed in things I could touch, smell, taste, or see, I wouldn't be prepared for battle half the time. I definitely wouldn't possess a number of Chaos spells I enjoy, not any of those I've created myself," Chali said. She fell silent, her eyes on the growing dark cloud gripping the approaching horizon. Even though they'd set a demanding pace, that storm still appeared locked over the land where they'd first spotted it. "There are things we don't understand which hide in the corners of the world. The Paramount included you two in this mission because she knows you possess the skills all Olmarians should have. Should, not do. There's a difference. You set the example for others to follow. You are leaders, whether you want to think of yourselves as such or not."
"We're not leaders," Gaeron said. "We're Bound Boys. Nothing more."
Chali pulled up, grabbing Gaeron's forearm. Her touch was almost a caress instead of a grip. Her chasmal eyes were hard as they searched his, as if she were trying to read his deepest thoughts. The ends of her hair, pulled up in the Warrior's Embrace, wagged in the slight breeze that did nothing to cool the day. "Do you really see yourself as nothing more than a Bound Boy, Gaeron Andel?"
"That is all I am," he said.
She held his wrist for a moment before drawing a long breath and releasing her hold. When she spoke, her gaze went back to the dark cloud as if she were speaking to it. "Well then, I hope before we return to Olma-Ka, you have changed your mind. I have a feeling whatever waits for us at the end of this journey will change it for you if you don't. Not only you, but you as well, Drulf. All of us. I see it."
Drulf's face scrunched. "See what?"
She popped one shoulder up. "When they tell the stories of our lives around the Circle of Fire many sun cycles from now, I think the people they'll speak of will sound like strangers to us. Whatever the gods have planned to challenge us with, here, in the Black Palace, beyond the days when we returned to Olma-Ka, we'll need to change who we are to be ready to deal with it."
Continue Rageborn by grabbing your copy. You can even pre-order all the remaining books of the Battleborn Trilogy and the follow-on trilogy, Bonebreaker.