The fifth Battleborn book in five months is above to be released!
War Of Bones is the second book in the Bonebreaker Trilogy, and takes you deeper into the mystery that is the Black Palance, the magic that keeps the Desert King alive, and what nightmares the people of the village face if the heroes can't stop the march of the undead.
War Of Bones releases on September 1st, and is available in ebook and paperback (pre-order is available now). CLICK HERE TO GRAB YOUR COPY.
With this being the fifth book in my first dark epic fantasy series, it'd serve you best to check out the start of the series to see if it's your kind of dark, epic fun. Fireborn is book 1 of the Battleborn Trilogy, the first in the series, and takes you to the start of this six-book series featuring kick-ass warriors and the dark magic that threatens all they hold dear.
With no further delay, let's get to the full first chapter of War Of Bones. Enjoy!
War Of Bones, Chapter One
1 - Gaeron
Gaeron Andel’s muscles had recovered, no thanks to the undead. He owed his recovery to his paladin friend. The attack had nearly cost him his life. Now, he would break the horde.
All around the camp, the desert people worked in silent teams. Gaeron could have sworn they had just begun their rest, taking time to eat and drink and heal wounds and bandage cuts served by the skeleton army of the Desert King. But it was time to move.
Gaeron saw the fatigue in the way warriors dropped piles of bones they hauled from the place of battle to distant pits. He saw it in the way those digging the pits with their swords sometimes faltered as their blades cut into the packed sand. Others stumbled. Too many stopped to stretch before the corpses of broken skeletons, working out kinks and stiff muscles, before resuming their work.
Though the perpetual storm swirled overhead, enough heat from the sun got through that Gaeron had to brush sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. Before him, the black sand was littered with undead. No matter how fast they worked to separate and bury the skeletons, there always seemed to be more bones. Still, these graves would slow the reanimation of the skeletons when the sun slept, buying the living precious time.
“I’m going to break the scrawny neck of this mage when we find him,” Shel Grat, the only half-orc in the army, said as she flung a nearly intact skeleton over her broad shoulders. Its bones clacked.
“Not if I get to him first.” Gaeron added a skull from another skeleton to the growing pile
in his arms.
Shel stopped, ogling him up and down the way she always did. Two tusks jutted from the bottom row of teeth, curving up above her top lip and almost touching her broad nose. They bounced as she chuckled. “With those little legs of yours? Doubt it. I’ll be halfway across this dead desert before you take your first step.”
Gaeron’s laugh hardly made a sound, he was so tired. And if he was, the rest of the army was suffering.
After a pause, Shel turned serious. “You should probably rest.”
He shook his head. “No. There’s too many of the Skinless to bury before the sun sleeps if we want to slow them down. Even though Drulf’s healing helped, I’d rather delay another fight.”
Had it not been for Drulf’s strong paladin abilities, Gaeron might not have seen the end of the day. During the fight against the Skinless, he’d waded into the middle of their swarm in an attempt to save the human army. Instead, countless skeletons attacked him, burying him under a pile he only escaped because of his raging bloodlust. Escaped, but not without severe injuries that almost had him bleeding out.
“You’d just get yourself killed, anyway.” She snorted and walked away. The skeleton’s head and drooping arms bounced against her back.
“Don’t forget to break that one before you bury it,” he called after her.
She waved a large pale green hand in the air. “I might just hide him and bring him around to greet you the next time you decide to sleep half the day away.”
He waved her away with his free hand, even though she couldn’t see him, and got back to work. There was much to do before they found the mage who kept the Skinless alive. According to what the strange new Sun Skinned people told Chali, the mage was secure in the Black Palace. Before they killed the Desert King and brought an end to his nearly thousand-year reign, his mage had to fall. The work of burying the undead now was like trying to dam a river with kindling, but every advantage helped.
To stop the skeletons from reanimating, they had to separate and bury their remains. Hundreds of skeletons to be broken apart and their bones scattered around the fifteen pits still being dug. The work had to be done quickly so the army could be away long before the sun slept again.
As Gaeron trudged to the different pits, spreading out his collection, he watched the Olmarian army work alongside the Bortellese. No one spoke except to ask for help from time to time. The different people showed no blatant tension, even if they were wary of one another.
Venturing into the Black Palace with these strange people was going to be interesting. Both Sun Skinned tribes had their reasons for wanting to kill the mage named Vadar Stalus. He served the Desert King. His magic was the reason the Skinless terrorized both their people. Could their commonalities make them an effective fighting force, capable of standing together in the face of this powerful mage and the Desert King? For the hope of all desert people, it had to be.
“That won’t stop them,” Dokka rasped later at Gaeron’s side as the armies drifted back to their central camp.
“What makes you say that?”
The red-scaled kobold had to turn almost fully for Gaeron to look into the yellow eye not covered by a patch. “There’s too many of them, Gaeron. How many did Chali kill when she snuffed out that pit?”
Gaeron bent to roll up his mat and finish packing his bag. Dokka stood over him with his arms crossed. “I don’t know. A few hundred.”
“And wasn’t that how many the pit held the last time you came across it? Isn’t that what you told us?”
“I don’t know, Dokka. Approximately.”
“My point,” Dokka said with an air of finality. “With all those in the pit, the groups we’ve run across inside the ruins, and with the size of the force we just broke”—the kobold’s thin but muscular arm shot out at an arbitrary nearby point to reference the graves—“that means this Desert King either has tens of thousands of Skinless.”
“I’m trying not to think about that.”
“Think on it or not, we have to be ready.”
Gaeron stopped packing at Dokka’s morbid tone. Still squatting, he turned to take in the foreigner who had given so much to the Olmarian people. “We’ve done all we can at this point, and we’re preparing to journey into this...” He didn’t know what to call the city under the ruins the Bortellese called home. “Their home. From there, we’ll plan out the attack on the Desert King and this mage of his. What do you propose?”
Dokka straightened his back. He was quiet for so long Gaeron finished packing. He stood, slinging his bag over his shoulders, before Dokka said a word. “I’d rather take my time with that.”
“Because you don’t have an answer?”
The kobold’s long snout pulled back in a smile, one that never looked humored to Gaeron. “Because I don’t have a suitable answer.” One long, red finger extended. “But once I do, you’ll be among the first to hear it.”
“Just among the first?” He winked.
“Well, Chali is smarter and prettier than you,” Dokka said, his smile never slipping, “so I’ll most likely tell her first. You understand, of course?”
Gaeron chuckled. “I do. And I don’t blame you. I would too.”
Dokka jerked his head at the trickle of warriors, Olmarian and Bortellese, stepping down into the mouth of the ruins. “Shall we join them?”
Gaeron sighed. “Best time to get started.”
“You don’t look excited about the prospect of going back underground.”
“I’d rather fight them up here, where I can see their bones fragment into the black sand.” He pointed at the mouth of the ruins, where the light ceased. “Plus, it smells down there.”
“Until you’ve spent one of your sun cycles in a prison cell with Shel, I don’t want to hear you talk about smells.” He jumped down into the rectangular hole and turned. The rim of the hole came up to his neck. “Coming?”
“I’m going to stay up here and wait until everyone is inside.”
The vertical pupil of Dokka’s exposed eye expanded, looking like a chest swelling with a breath.
“There is no danger here, Gaeron. Not for a while. We’re safe as we can be. Though this Bortellese mage has me nervous with all his warnings about the Desert King’s power and reach.”
“Me too. That’s why I’m staying up here.” The army was collapsing on the entrance to the ruins. Toward the rear of the gaggle, a beautiful, tall woman with her hair released from the Warrior’s Embrace and tumbling over her shoulders, supervised the exodus from the desert. Slim in build, Chali Danos was a Chaos Bender of great power and the leader of the Olmarian forces. Powerful, but he was not about to walk into the ruins while she was exposed on the surface. Though he wouldn’t tell her that. She’d throttle him.
Dokka sounded like he’d deciphered a secret code when he said, “Ah, I see. Okay, well then, if you don’t mind, I’ll start the journey to this city under the desert. I’m quite interested to see what it looks like.”
“Be my guest. I’ll catch up.”
“Sounds good. Just don’t start any more trouble up here, okay? I’m tired of saving you.”
With that, Dokka disappeared beneath the ruins. Gaeron made his way to Chali’s side, where she watched over the combined armies like a protective mother.
“I think they can pack up for themselves,” he said.
She blinked as if she had been awake with her eyes open. “Oh, Gaeron. Hi. Sorry. I was… thinking.” Her impassive mask brightened, the skin around her small nose crinkling with her smile.
“And I know they can. I want to make sure no one runs into any problems or nasty surprises.”
“Dokka says we’re safe for now,” Gaeron said, deciding not to take the conversation any further.
“Yes, well, that’s fine. But until everyone is inside the ruins, I’ll stay here. You’re free to head in.”
He shook his head. “No. I’d rather stay up here…” He almost said ‘with you’ before catching himself. “To make sure everyone is safe, too.”
“Oh? Really? Aren’t you the one we had to save?”
He snorted and shook his head. Chali, a few sun cycles older, and a far-more decorated warrior, was giving him shit. The fact he sacrificed to save the rest of the Olmarian army from being ripped apart was not lost on her, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t pretend it was.
“That’s why I want to stay up here, in case I need to be saved,” he said instead.
She laughed, light and pleasant, like a bird’s song. “Always in the way of the warrior, Gaeron. What would we do without you? But seriously, head inside if you want, though I don’t mind the company.”
The sun was falling from the sky toward its next sleep by the time everyone had filed into the hole. A chill crept into the air. Chali had moved to the rear of the entrance. Gaeron had jumped into the mouth and helped take the loads born from those entering the ruins. It kept him busy and expedited the process. The number of Olmarian and Bortellese, plus the injured, made it slow going. Any way he could help, he would. They had to be in the Sun Skinned city before the sun slept.
The storm that had swirled over the Dark Sands since the time of the living Desert King undulated above, growing darker as the sun it hid began to fall from the sky. Gaeron feared nothing, but he wasn’t interested in being out in the open like this. Not when darkness fell. So he barked at those who didn’t move fast enough, injured or not, until everyone clumped against the mouth. The sense of urgency seemed to spread. Soon, the Sun Skinned returned the desert to the undead.
“You didn’t have to scare them like that,” Chali said quietly as they moved deeper into the ruins.
“We’d still be up there if I hadn’t. Plus, you’re smiling.”
“You would have done the same if I hadn’t done it first.”
“Maybe, my ass.” He laughed, craning his neck to look down the long tunnel until it wound around a corner.
He looked away, trying to cover the urgency gnawing at him. “Yes. I was… just…”
“You’re wanting everyone to sprint through the tunnel, get to Olta-Hei, and rest so you can break the first set of bones you see until there are none left standing.”
His stride hitched. She laughed and shook her head.
“That obvious, huh?”
Something that could have passed for a sad smile curled her lips, barely perceptible. “Most times? Yes, you are. But don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. Not yet, at least.” Her warm hand, small and calloused, wrapped around his thick forearm as far as she could reach. “Some of us understand your need to return home to find Nevilan. But this is our mission, and we must finish it. I know you understand. I need you to show patience to those who lack your motivation. Take me to the side if you need to vent when the pull of wringing your brother’s neck is too strong. By the gods, grab Drulf. He’s your best friend. He understands too. But you need to promise me something.”
He found it hard to swallow. “Okay?”
The small hand gripped. “You will not go charging into any mess and get yourself killed.
Understand? The Paramount assigned me to lead this army, so you have to listen to me.”
“Oh, do I?”
“Yes,” she said, releasing her hold. He missed it immediately. Using her free hand, she tapped her forehead, marred with two rows of pyramid-shaped scars. Marks of an Olmarian warrior. Each, a sign of her accomplishments and the honor given to her by the Paramount of Olma-Ka. “Plus, I’m Eleven-Marked. You’re One-Marked. You have to do what I say.”
“You’re really pushing your luck now.” He laughed at her reddening cheeks.
“And you weren’t when you jumped into that throng of Skinless?” Her hand was back again, this time, squeezing with something other than fierceness.
“Chali, I had to. You weren’t there. We were being overrun and there was no end in sight to those bastards. If I hadn’t, we would have lost everyone.”
“You don’t know that for sure. But we almost lost you, and that would have been too great a loss for Olma-Ka.”
Now she squeezed again. “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
“I can’t do that. Sorry.”
“I’ll bind you with Chaos if you don’t.”
“Want to test me?”
A brief silence fell between them before Chali burst out with laughter and slapped him on the arm.
“Just don’t do that again unless we have lost all hope. I mean it.”
They talked no further about it during the long trek deeper through the tunnels and passages underneath the dead desert. It never came up when the leader of the Bortellese, Bevan Tenebris, guided them away from the main route and through narrow tunnels Gaeron hadn’t noticed before. The Bortellese shortcut took half a day off their journey and soon delivered them to the city.
“Stunning!” Drulf shouted as he came to a stop. A Bortellese man half his size bumped into him and grumbled. Drulf apologized and stepped out of the way.
Gaeron stopped alongside his friend, looking up into the reaches of the ruins and the desert floor above. A vast hole opened to the dark sky, delivering fresh air and making the chamber feel more open. The chamber was massive, stretching away in an asymmetric circle. But it was the waterfall that Gaeron fixated on. It thundered into a lake from two hundred feet above.
“That’s twenty times the size of the one at the Bitter River,” Drulf said.
The roar of the waterfall drowned out the warriors marching away. The waterfall was wider than the Circle of Fire and tumbled into a lake half as broad as Olma-Ka itself. White mist rose into the air where the falls met it. Around its banks, women, men, and children worked, lounged, and played.
“Look up there,” Drulf said, pointing to a cliff. A couple sat on its ledge, their feet dangling in the open air. “What are they doing? That’s dangerous.”
As if they could hear the Buk Toh’s question, the couple leaned toward one another and locked their mouths.
Drulf looked away. “Oh. Nevermind.”
“Don’t be a creep.” Gaeron chuckled, relishing in this turn of fortunes.
The sight of this underground city couldn’t do anything but encourage him. This was not what he expected. With this sprawling underground world, he saw their potential. The lake provided a source of fresh water. Stables and a series of small barns housed farm animals. Far to the left, under the hole in the ceiling, blossoming fields reached toward the dark sky. Even though he couldn’t hear a thing over the waterfall, the city was vibrant. Homes and shops were clumped into segments across the vast chamber. Beyond a tent that shot high above everything built by the Bortellese, white smoke rose from squared buildings. Far behind that, black smoke wafted up from what might be a metalworks.
“We call that Lover’s Point,” a short and stocky Bortellese man said through a trimmed beard of curly hair as he passed. Across his back, he’d slung an ax made of bone. “If you’re looking to relieve some stress from the fight with the Skinless, that’s a good place to start.”
“Uh… thanks,” Drulf said, even though the man was almost out of ear-shot. Turning to Gaeron, he said, “Good to know, I guess.”
“Like you’d even know what to do with a woman,” Shel said with a bark of a laugh as walked beyond the pair.
Gaeron patted him on the back. “Let’s find something to eat.”
As the made their way into the Bortellese city, Gaeron assessed its defenses. Above, on the cliff sides, he saw warriors stationed in boxes that clung to the stone. Ladders reached toward the ceiling, wrapping over the ledges. Racks were built into the sides of businesses and homes. They held a diverse range of weapons, all made of bone. Swords, maces, spiked clubs, halberds, and more. Even bows, somehow fashioned from curled bones, made up the arsenal.
These were a people who knew how to fight.
“You’re smiling,” Drulf said, now that they could hear each other over the waterfall.
“Yes. With these people, we have a real chance, my friend.”
“You didn’t think we did before?”
“Remember what Nydera said when she went into the Black Palace?”
Drulf gulped. “Yes.”
“We would have done what we could. I’m not saying we couldn’t have destroyed the Desert King and his army, but now?” Gaeron nodded at a pair of men sitting on chairs framed with metal bands, working blade edges with a stone. The pair looked up at the newcomers and returned the nod. “I’m even more encouraged that most of us will make it home.”
“Well, that’s good to know. For a moment, I thought you didn’t believe in us.”
“I always believe in us. Everyone Chali brought is blood in the sand.”
Gaeron snorted at the sudden image of the One-Marked warrior who thought himself Chali’s suitor. “Even Tik.”
The Bortellese led the Olmarian army between blocks of buildings and into an open circle around large circular fire pits.
“Welcome,” Bevan Tenebris said. Spreading his arms wide, his voice carried over the crowd. “This is our Circle of Fire. I understand from Chali that your people have something similar, so you should find comfort here. Find a place to rest and stretch out. I’d recommend spreading your cots by the river. Its flowing waters cover the noise of the city and can be quite recuperative. I’ll have the cooks put something together since it’s already past the last meal. They will fill your stomachs. Until then, rest.”
The Bortellese congregated around him once he finished his announcement. The Olmarians did the same around Chali.
“I will talk with Bevan,” she said. “Until then, do as he said. Rest. When the food is ready, eat. Then sleep. We won’t move until the new sun, so use this time wisely. That means no fucking, for those of you too dense to infer my meaning.” More grumbling than laughter followed that, mostly from the Freed women, only making the Chaos Bender’s smile light her face, emboldening her bold cheeks even more. “There will be time for that when we return home. Back in Olma-Ka, you can fuck until you dry yourselves out or you men can no longer stiffen. For now, keep your legs closed or your cocks hanging.”
A tall Olmarian with long black curls hanging nearly to his waist moved beside Chali. Once in position, Tik crossed his arms. His mouth turned.
“Gaeron,” Drulf whispered, elongating the name. “Behave.”
“He’s an ass.”
“Let him prove it. Chali can handle herself.”
“I know. Still.”
Gaeron couldn’t stand the One-Marked man. He was superior in no way except that he wore the Mark of a Freed man longer than Gaeron had. Tik seemed to enjoy imposing himself, too. Which was what he was doing now, being close to Chali even though she returned no signs of interest.
Gaeron didn’t trust him. He had enough trust issues with his brother betraying their people, killing innocents in his bid to rule Olma-Ka. Tik was another to watch. Nevilan had Bound Boys who’d allied with him. Why not Freed men? It wasn’t unthinkable, even though the Paramount trusted Tik, and Chali seemed to have no problem with him.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take Bevan’s advice and find a place at the river before everyone has clogged it up,” Gaeron said. “Maybe I’ll actually get some sleep.”
“You’re not going to stay away to eat?”
“Not hungry,” he said.
Drulf’s gaze slipped from Gaeron to the tall warrior standing near Chali. His lips turned up.
“No, I’m not jealous. I’m tired.”
“If you say so.” Drulf scoffed. “But I’ll catch up with you later. I’m too hungry to take a chance of lying down and falling asleep. I can’t miss a meal.”
Gaeron walked along the river until he found a small alcove to tuck into. A pile of large boulders loomed just downriver, leaning against the chamber walls as if they had slid from its heights. He was half-tempted to climb up the rubble and see if he could find enough space to stretch out in solitude but decided against it when he tested the water. It was the perfect temperature. By the time he stripped down for a cleansing swim, other warriors had moved along the river, spreading out and claiming their spots.
Clean, he returned to his cot and thought about what came next as the air dried his skin. After so long in the Dark Sands, his fellow Olmarians seemed to wash the wear of battles and the dead desert with ease. He flicked pebbles as he watched them frolic in the river. The new sun would arrive soon. They needed this. They all did.
Dried, he dressed and laid down. Soothed by the distant rumble of the waterfall, his eyes grew heavy. The flowing river was seductive. Sleep came heavily. Gaeron woke himself once with a loud snore, adjusted on the pebbly surface, and then drifted away to the only place in Oltari without worry.
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