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Authors: Nathan Garrison

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Dark Fantasy, #Action & Adventure

Veiled Empire

BOOK: Veiled Empire
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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Dedication

To Kathryn

 

Acknowledgments

F
IRST
AND
FOREMOST
, I want to thank my wife Kathryn, who stood by me with endless support and patience as I set out on this crazy journey into authorhood. Truly, this book would never have been written if not for the countless times she looked me square in the face and said, “Go write.”

I’d also like to thank my family: My sister Rachel, whose strength and determination served as inspiration for turning the females of my early drafts from caricatures into actual characters. My sister Emily, who was my sounding board for ideas and gave me someone to pace against on our race to the publishing line. My father, for always believing in me and providing encouraging yet useful feedback on my novel. My mother, for instilling in me a love for the written word. And my cousin Christy, for turning a passing interest in fantasy into a lifelong obsession.

Thanks also to my agent, Nicole Resciniti, and my editor, David Pomerico—two tiny “yeses” amidst an ocean of “no’s”—for taking a chance on me and my book, just when I had all but given up hope.

And finally, thanks to Randy Ingermanson, Larry Brooks, K. M. Weiland, and numerous other writers and bloggers, whose advice and insight helped demystify the whole storytelling and publishing processes one piece at a time.

 

Chapter 1

B
LOOD
HAD
ALWAYS
made him smile, but not today. The girl had ruined it for him.

He tore his gaze from her crumpled form, bringing his hands up before his face. Sunlight cut through the trees, illuminating the warm red life of his enemies as it streamed down his forearms and dripped from his elbows. The surge of satisfaction he normally felt at such a sight turned sour in his gut.

Abyss take you, sorceress.

As the cacophony of battle raged on all sides, he closed his senses to it all, clenching his hands into fists.

“I am Hardohl,” he whispered. “A void. Anathema to sorcery. I have trained since the cradle to fight, to bring justice to those who abuse their power.”

The mantra was meant to comfort him. But even as the words left his lips, they rang hollow, meaningless. For before his very eyes, he’d seen the truths by which his entire life depended put to the lie.

Impossible. . .

He forced his gaze upon her. With eyes closed, she lay sprawled on the stony ground, breath labored yet steady. She seemed, now, so small, so frail, so powerless.

Yet . . . he shook. It was not the quiver of anticipation. It was something different. Something new. Something he had not felt in so long that he’d forgotten what it was. It took him a moment to even remember what to call it, and when the word finally came to mind, he recoiled.

Fear.

I
N
THE
GLOOM
before dawn, Mevon Daere knelt onto the corpse’s chest. Ribs crunched beneath his weight like trampled kindling. He dipped a hand towards the sentry’s neck to check the knife wound, which still oozed warm and wet, slick and red. Not his kill—Mevon had no taste for silent work—but it was enough to whet his appetite for what soon would come.

Mevon craved blood, but he did not lust for it. Many of his male peers grew even more aroused by blood than by the sight of a naked woman. And the female Hardohl were worse. Most seemed to thrive on inflicting unnecessary agony. A symptom, no doubt, of a lifetime spent in opposition to their feminine natures.

Mevon was not burdened by either form of perversion. It was not the blood itself that brought him satisfaction, but what it represented: justice delivered, order restored.

Still,
he admitted,
life is never sweeter than when ending it.

A flicker of movement brought his head up. On the cliffs three hundred paces above them, darkwisps fled from dawn’s first light, seeking deep fissures in which to wait out the day. The hovering swarms snapped and crackled like caged lightning. So, too, did a storm stir inside of him. His whole body shook faintly as he struggled to keep it contained. The effort would soon be unnecessary, a fact that brought a smile to his lips.

A shadow stepped out of the fog to stand beside him.

“Well?” Mevon said.

“They’re right where we expected, Hardohl,” Idrus said, his voice muffled behind a veil. “No change in routine. No hint they know we’re here.”

“And their casters?”

“They’ve yet to stir from their tents.”

Mevon nodded, eager, as they all were, to end this weeks-long hunt. The bandits they tracked were hardly worthy of their time. He and his Fist wouldn’t even be here on the edge of nowhere were it not for the special pair that had taken refuge among these criminals.

Sorcerers.

Not one had ever escaped him in twelve years of active duty though hundreds had tried. The pair today would make it a score this year alone, and it was only the end of summer. Each catch impressed his mierothi masters all the more. With luck, his request for a transfer out of this forgotten corner of the empire would be pushed towards approval.

Anticipation leaked out of every pore. Mevon ached for it to begin.

Still. . .

“Why here?” whispered Mevon.

Idrus silently lifted an eyebrow.

Mevon rose from his crouch, pushing back dark hair from his face. Idrus, though tall, still had to tilt his head back to make eye contact.

“Do their actions make sense to you? They are corralled here. The cliffs at their back, the falls to the south, and there . . .” Mevon pointed north. Two hundred paces distant, the land cut away, as if cleaved by a god’s giant axe.

The Shelf. The end of the world.

“Aye,” Idrus agreed. “Something feels . . . off.”

Mevon grunted and crossed his arms. “It
feels
too easy. Why should that put me on edge?”

“Most things that appear too easy are often traps.”

“Exactly. Yet you’ve seen no such signs?”

Idrus sighed. “No. Nothing.”

“If you’ve not seen it, then it doesn’t exist. We’ll just have to do what we do best.”

“Lay the trap ourselves.”

“And kill every last rat we snare.”

“Aye.”

Mevon stared sideways at Idrus, just now noting the touch of bitterness that had been in his voice. “Don’t worry. After today, my promotion is all but guaranteed.” He laid a hand on Idrus’s shoulder, leaning close. “And we’ll all get a chance to let our blades drink.”

Idrus looked away, shrugging from Mevon’s grip.

Mevon pulled back. “What is it?”

Idrus took a long breath. “Progress, Mevon. Must it always be accompanied by the crunch of skulls underfoot?”

Mevon felt a chill at these words, like an icy mountain wind slashing across a summer day. The storm inside demanded blood, and these fools were thrusting their exposed necks at him. He had never hesitated to do his duty.
Never.
Why now, should Idrus’s words disturb him?

“They’ll soon notice that the sentries haven’t reported back in.” Idrus switched tunes suddenly, as he often did. The unspoken suggestion of urgency was not lost on Mevon.

Yet. . .

Idrus must have sensed his hesitation. “Should we nail the last plank on this bridge, or what?”

Mevon clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. The storm threatened to break.
Too soon.

“Even when it’s burning,” said Mevon, completing the catechism. “Let no man say I don’t finish what I start.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Idrus dashed past Mevon, joining the dozen other rangers concealed behind a copse of oak trees.

Mevon put aside all thoughts and breathed deeply, catching a salty scent from a Shelf-borne breeze. He stretched, feeling his thick yet flexible leather—once grey but now stained a mottled brown—conform to his muscles like a second skin.

He grasped his weapon and lifted it from its scabbard, fixed across his back. Bringing it forward, Mevon twirled the double-bladed staff in rapid, whistling figure eights. Black and glossy, like obsidian, and adorned with thorns corkscrewing around the thick rod, Mevon’s
Andun
came alive in his hands. Its twin edges, keen and bent into the shape of diamonds, bore the engraving of its name.

Justice.

Which it always delivered.

Mevon launched forward—walk into run into dash. Rocky soil passed beneath him in a blur, his boots pounding with each step. Speed brought him to his first victims.

Two men sat on a log, eating breakfast. Mevon slashed. His outstretched blade passed cleanly through both necks. Surprise masked both faces as the heads sailed through the air. The metallic scent of fresh blood drowned out the musk of sweat and the savor of fried sausage.

He followed through, blade drinking as it passed through the gut of a woman. Her entrails spewed upon the ground. Pained screams, like the shrieks of a mountain cat, broke the silence.

Two bandits swung axes at Mevon. He jabbed, impaling the first, then swept the rod up and caught the second man’s haft. Mevon shot out a hand, closing it around the man’s throat like a vise. The flesh crunched between his fingers like mud and broken twigs, and the body went slack. Mevon hurled the deadweight forward twenty paces, where it crashed into a tent, collapsing it.

Mevon looked down into the stone bowl carved out of the cliff’s base.

Three hundred bandits looked back.

Come and get me.

With a cry, they brandished weapons and rushed at him.

He counted four heartbeats. Then, after forcing a look of panic onto his face, he whirled away into the forest. Somehow, he managed to keep the storm in check.

Only a little while longer. . .

Mevon zipped behind the first trunk thick enough to hide his bulk. He strained open his ears, anticipating that haunting sound of—

~snap-hiss-scream~

—his most cherished refrain. The Elite of his Fist, positioned in pincer formation, firing their first volley. Their enemy dying by the score.

The charge towards his position stalled as the mob turned, without order, to face these new threats. Mevon knew he was forgotten. Eighty men in full armor now commanded the bandits’ attention. He spied his Fist’s lines of dark green armor to the north and south, the front ranks a wall of heraldic shields, the back wielding crossbows fit for bringing down armored horses.

Mevon, once more, raced towards his enemy. Ten paces from their line, he finally unleashed the storm.

The world slowed. Mevon’s acuity sharpened. Every breath, every flick of an eye, every muscle twitch—he could see it all.

Now, time to do what I was born for.

Thirteen arrows sped past his shoulders, released from the bows of Idrus and the rangers at a hundred paces. Each found a throat or eye or heart. The line of bandits wavered just as Mevon stepped among them.

He slashed at an upward angle, bisecting a bandit from hip to opposite shoulder. He watched in glee as great swaths of blood filled the air, coating his face, arms, and chest.

Step.

His
Andun
twirled in a vertical arc and sliced off the faces of men on either side of him.

Step.

He spun and eviscerated two on his left. Mevon smiled as they dropped their weapons and wrapped hands around their abdomens in a futile attempt to hold in their gushing organs.

Step.

He chopped downward, breaking an overhead block and cleaving through skull, neck, and breastbone. He vaulted over the falling corpse and tugged free his blade.

Step.

Three bandits lunged at him, the first coordinated assault yet. Mevon circled around their blades in half a breath, swiping to hack off their legs at the knee. He left them writhing.

Their screams joined others, a dissonant chorus that filled the rocky enclave. The battle became like a song. No—a symphony! His blades sang the melody, ringing out in a low, buzzing roar that grew in intensity with each severed soul, while cries of panic and agony from his enemies created a bittersweet harmony, all backdropped by the pounding rhythm of his Fist’s relentless advance.

Beautiful.

Then, he felt it: a tingling, like a cloud of insects on the edge of perception, pulling his attention forward. The two casters were energizing. Soon, they would begin flinging sorcery at his Elite.

He sprinted, stepping on or through any who stood in his way and swinging his
Andun
in wide arcs. Blades scratched across his limbs, but few managed to pierce both armor and skin. He barely noticed the pain.

He came free of the crowd as the first spell flew.

An orb of blue flame exploded into the southern rank of his Elite. Two of his men staggered at the impact, and one fell. Men from the second rank pulled the injured man back. Another took up the downed man’s shield and assumed the spot in front within two beats.

Despite this setback, his men held their lines on both sides. Crossbows continued to fire, and longswords snapped like wolf’s teeth, devouring those rushing into their jaws. Their shields, without exception, were smeared with blood. Already, both sides had advanced a dozen paces, each step behind them a blanket of shredded flesh.

Mevon raced forward. The casters stood apart and he made for the leftmost one, a male. The other, a female, seemed to be struggling. Her hands moved, but she had yet to cast a single spell.
What holds you? Fear, perhaps?

It doesn’t matter—your time will come soon enough.

The male saw Mevon and waved a hand in his direction. The ground between them began to churn and crack as threads of darkness snaked towards him. They reached up towards Mevon, like black claws closing onto prey—

—and vanished.

The caster jolted from the backlash, fear and panic sprouting on his face. Mevon laughed.
Never encountered a Hardohl before, have you?
He had no idea what went through sorcerers’ minds the moment they discovered their magic was useless against him.

Mevon closed. The sorcerer aimed his palms at his own chest and gestured towards himself, dashing backward twenty paces in an instant. A strange residue, like dust the shade of midnight, marked his passage.

Mevon was almost impressed. Almost. Most of his targets simply folded up helplessly once they realized what he was. This one, at least, promised to make it sporting.

Good.

The caster raised his arms wide. Rocks and pieces of strewn camp equipment lifted into the air and careened towards Mevon. He ducked, dodged, and smacked away every makeshift projectile, never ceasing his forward momentum.

Face flushed with effort, the sorcerer waved towards a man-high rock, nudging it into motion directly in Mevon’s path. Then, he turned and began gesturing backwards once more.

Mevon leapt. The boulder tumbled beneath his feet. In a single motion, he released his
Andun
, grabbed a pair of heavy-bladed daggers at his belt, and flung them forward. He aimed not for the sorcerer but for a point directly behind him.

The man appeared from out of his shadow-dash exactly where Mevon had anticipated. No—not exactly, but a hand’s width to one side.
Scorch me!
Mevon had intended for the twin blades to pierce the man’s arms, rendering them useless. Instead, one dagger missed entirely.

The other struck deep into the caster’s heart.

BOOK: Veiled Empire
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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