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Storm and Steel

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Storm and Steel

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Author: Jon Sprunk
Publisher: Pyr, 2015
Series: The Book of the Black Earth: Book 2

1. Blood and Iron
2. Storm and Steel
3. Blade and Bone

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The Magician. Horace has destroyed the Temple of the Sun, but now he finds his slave chains have been replaced by bonds of honor, duty, and love. Caught between two women and two cultures, he must contend with deadly forces from the unseen world.

The Rebel. Jirom has thrown in his lot with the slave uprising, but his road to freedom becomes ever more dangerous as the rebels expand their campaign against the empire. Even worse, he feels his connection with Emanon slipping away with every blow they strike in the name of freedom.

The Spy. Alyra has severed her ties to the underground network that brought her to Akeshia, but she continues the mission on her own. Yet, with Horace's connection to the queen and the rebellion's escalation of violence, she finds herself treading a knife's edge between love and duty.

Dark conspiracies bubble to the surface as war and zealotry spread across the empire. Old alliances are shattered, new vendettas are born, and all peoples--citizen and slave alike--must endure the ravages of storm and steel.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

It was a night of bad omens.

The mutton they'd eaten for dinner had dripped blood even though it appeared fully cooked. Brother Kelkaus, the house's sergeant-at-arms, broke his foot when the yard bell fell from its yoke. And a black bird had gotten inside the rectory during the evening's vespers, making an awful racket with its cawing and flapping before it could be chased away. So when Captain Appan-Amur left the warm confines of the main keep to perform his first rounds of the night, he was not surprised to see the crimson orb hovering above the city.

A blood moon.

Bats carved through the swarms of nightflies hovering above the grounds of the Chapter House, their leathery wings flapping at the end of every dive to regain altitude. Torches along the compound walls held the night at bay as sentries walked their posts.

Captain Appan pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Winter had arrived early this year, bringing a brittle crispness to the night air. Out in the yard, a squad of his soldier-priests huddled around a flaming brazier. He angled his path to meet them.

"Good evening, Captain," one of the soldiers called out.

"Be at ease, brothers," Appan answered. They made a space for him, and he held out his hands to the flames in a show of camaraderie. "How goes this night's watch?"

They answered in a muffled chorus. No trouble so far, but he could see the tension in their expressions, the wariness in their eyes. Appan took note of it, and then pushed it to the back of his mind where his worries resided. Many of these men were campaign veterans, and they knew how to weather a siege.

With a nod, he left to continue his rounds. His knees creaked as he climbed to the battlements. He would be forty-four this coming spring.

He stopped at the top to gaze out over the parapet fortifications. Fires flickered in braziers spaced along the streets surrounding the Chapter House where units of the Queen's Guard stood behind wooden mantlets. The siege was going into its third month. The Temple of the Sun destroyed, brought down like a child's sandcastle. Amur's cult evicted from the city by the queen's command. He had burned that decree in the courtyard in front of the entire cohort. He half-recalled a speech about never abandoning their post, and afterward he'd sent a report to Ceasa explaining the situation. His last report, as it turned out. An hour later the first royal troops had arrived outside the house, and the waiting began.

Appan went along the wall-walk, stopping to greet each man on watch with

a few words. They were tired, but he was impressed by their morale. He tried to reflect it back to them, although he felt the fool. Their situation was dire. He'd lost more than half his roster when the Temple fell. He barely had enough full-rank brothers left to man the walls, and it was taking its toll. On top of the long shifts for everyone, they had another problem. The Chapter House hadn't been provisioned for an extended siege when the queen's fiat came down. Every morning he went over the inventory with Sergeant-Provost Urlunn. Even cutting back to half rations, as he'd ordered just days into the siege, they had less than a month left before they starved. He had faith they would be relieved before that happened. And if not... then we will die like true soldiers of Amur.

Appan paused at the northwest tower. Across the street stood the town home of Lord Nidintugal, which had been requisitioned as the headquarters for the queen's forces. Somewhere inside were the scheming lackeys who commanded the siege in Her Majesty's name. He stretched out with his zoana, allowing it to trickle through his senses. Through the Kishargal dominion, he could feel the solidity of the stone rampart under his feet and the deep flows of energy that passed under the streets, the hidden lifeblood of the city. He followed those currents to the foundation stones of the enemy headquarters, as he had done a hundred times over these past couple months. All it would take was a few nudges in the right places, and the house would come down like the wrath of the Sun God upon their heads. But he resisted the temptation as he had many times before.

Appan glanced northward out of habit and winced as his gaze searched the empty space in the city skyline where the temple had once stood. He still found it difficult to believe. The temple had been so sturdy and dependable, like the love of a parent. Yet it had been brought down in one night by the queen'

s pet devil, an evil spirit in human guise if there ever was one. He had never met this "Lord" Horace, though he'd heard enough from the late Menarch Rimesh to know the westerner was the tumor infecting Erugash.

"G'evening, Captain."

Appan nodded to the soldier passing by on his rounds. "Evening, Brother Lurrag. How goes the watch?"

"All's quiet, sir."

Lurrag coughed into the crook of his elbow. He was a big man. Built like an ox, and he possessed a strong gift for wind magic, one of the strongest they'd seen in this Chapter House since Appan took over seven years ago. Some of the brothers whispered that Lurrag might be almost as powerful in the Imuvar dominion as the queen herself. If he had a dozen more like Lurrag, they could scatter the curs skulking outside their gates and break this siege. And then march on the palace to bring the Harlot Queen to heel.

Appan nodded. They didn't use salutes during armed conflicts, especially where the enemy could see and pick out the officers. "Carry on."

As the soldier continued on, Appan headed over to the gatehouse. He checked on the brothers on duty before descending back down to the bailey. Everything looked to be in order, and yet an uneasy feeling turned in his stomach. The same sensation he usually felt when a fight was imminent. He glanced along the walls one last time as he walked toward the central keep, half-convinced his nerves were playing tricks on him. No good allowing my imagination to run—

He halted in mid-step as one of his sentries on the south wall disappeared. The moon shone down on the city, its screen of clouds temporarily lifted. But he had seen a shadow move to engulf his soldier as if it had come alive and eaten him. The hairs along the back of the captain's neck stood up, tickled by the subtle itch of sorcery in the air. For a brief instant, the urge to run toward the safety of the keep nearly overwhelmed and unmanned him. Then he drew the sword at his side and called upon the full might of his zoana. Its power bolstered his courage. But what was his target? Shadows dancing on the walls?

He shouted for lights over the south wall. A few seconds later, spheres of golden light appeared, throwing the house's fortifications into stark relief. The wall-walk was vacant, no sign of the soldier who had been standing there only seconds before. Searching the ramparts for his missing soldier as shouts called out across the compound, Appan ran toward the nearest stairway. He was about to shout the alarm-sign when he felt a burst of magical power. A rent in the immaterial fabric of the Other world, followed by a quaver in the air as if a vast presence had just arrived inside the house. He turned at a flicker of movement on the edge of his vision and watched in dread as the sentry atop the southeast tower vanished inside an undulating wall of shadow. Appan could not stop the curse that whispered from his lips. "Gods' blood..."

By Amur's holy name, what deviltry is this?

At his call, more light-orbs appeared all across the bailey. The repaired yard bell began to ring. While his men focused on banishing the darkness, he scanned the walls. The south and west wall were bare. Priest-soldiers emerged from the barracks, many of them only half-dressed, but every man carried a weapon. He directed them to take up the empty sentry positions as he climbed to the top of the wall. By the time he reached the top he was sweating under his armor despite the coolness of the night.

He spared a quick glance over the wall. In the street, the queen's troops were watching, but he was surprised to see they weren't massing in formation. He'd assumed this shadow-play was the prelude to an attack. Don't be lulled. This could be the work of the foreign devil. The Gods only know what cursed sorcery he possesses.

Mindful that the lights made him an inviting target to all the archers below, Appan kept his head down. He was calling out to his men to be vigilant when an icy chill ran down his back. A light-orb over the eastern wall fizzled out like a snuffed candlewick. Darkness rushed over that section of the wall. He started to run in that direction, pressing past his men who watched with uncertainty, when another ball of magical light disappeared over the southeast tower. The captain stopped as all the light-orbs between him and the tower vanished, plunging half the compound into darkness.

Sweat cooled on his forehead and down the back of his neck. The tide of fear he had beaten down began to rise again, inching up from his stomach. He reached down with his zoana, into the very bones of the stone ramparts beneath his feet, but he had nowhere to go with the energy. Nothing to fight. Then he noticed things in the darkness as his night vision returned. Gray figures shambled like hunchback wraiths along the battlements. They appeared in several places at once, and every priest-soldier they touched fell senseless at their feet. Appan focused his wrath. With a prayer to the Sun Lord on his lips, he unleashed his power.

The parapet shuddered as the shockwave ran along its length. The cracks of shattering stone nearly deafened him as the battlements of the southeastern tower exploded. A cloud of dust filled the sky. One of his soldiers summoned a new light-orb in the heart of the shadowed area. Its sudden luminance showed the extent of the devastation. The allure atop the wall had collapsed for twenty paces on either side of the tower. Tattered crimson uniforms were strewn amid the rubble below. Appan said a silent prayer for his fallen brothers and commended their souls to paradise as he looked for the gray ghosts. His chest tightened as he found no trace of them. They had vanished as quickly as they arrived. The earth groaned as the tower shifted.

A muffled cry made Appan turn. The brothers on the wall behind him lay slumped at their posts. He started to call out for reinforcements when his gaze swept across the grounds. Priest-soldiers littered the courtyard, sprawled and slumped over each other. None of them moved. Not a sound broke the silence over the Chapter House, except the whisper of the breeze. Appan swallowed. He was alone.

A rush of cold air blew over him. It smelled faintly of old rot like a moldering tomb. Shivering, he tried to extend his zoana around him in a tight cocoon of protection, but it was gone. He reached for the power that had been a part of him his entire life, which he had painstakingly cultivated under the tutelage of his superiors until he became a living weapon consecrated to Amur. There was nothing inside him, as if something had reached inside and hollowed him out. Only his decades of training and rigid self-discipline kept him from screaming in frustration. And then he saw it. A shadow in the courtyard. Not gray, but black like a spike of darkness fallen from the night sky. Then it moved, and Appan saw the ripple of fabric. A long robe, its hem brushing the ground. A deep cowl that obscured the face. No regalia or sigils on its clothing, nothing that reflected a sliver of light.

Appan pointed his sword. "Begone from this holy house, spirit of evil. In the name of Amur, I cast you out!"

The figure stepped forward. Its voice slithered across the yard in a whisper like silk sliding over bare steel. "The time for posturing is over, Captain. I have come with a message for your hierarchs."

Appan clenched his jaws until his teeth ached. At the critical hour, he had failed the men under his command. It was a shame he knew he would never forget or forgive, but he swore to himself that he would one day have vengeance. "Speak, and I shall deliver your message, demon-spawn."

"Yes, Captain. You will."

A sudden pain sliced through Appan's midsection like he had been cut open by a knife. He clutched his stomach but found only the unbroken bronze scales of his outer armor. There was no blood or sign of injury. With a grimace, he took a step toward the figure in black but halted as another line of agony ripped through his innards. He bent over, gasping for breath. Lord of Light, shield your servant from this creature of darkness!

The torment moved through his body in sudden, excruciating bursts. He felt like his guts were being shredded by some unseen torturer. Sticky wetness filled his throat, forcing him to cough, and he stared in shock as a stream of blood poured from his mouth. It spattered on the stones at his feet, as black as tar in the moonlight. His sword dropped from his hand, clattered on the parapet, and fell over the side. Then his balance vanished, and he followed the weapon, tumbling forward through the air. His head spun past his feet and around again.

He landed on his back. Multiple bones shattered on the impact from his ankles all the way up to a meaty crunch at the back of his head. He had no idea how he remained conscious. The pain flooded his brain, too vast to comprehend. He squeezed his eyes shut as he rode the tide. He wanted to scream, but a great weight pressed down on his chest. Blood trickled from his mouth, his nose, and drenched the padded tunic under his armor.

Copyright © 2015 by Jon Sprunk


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