Andy Peloquin

I am an artist – words are my palette

Category: Book Excerpts

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A Sneak Peek at Gateway to the Past

The Last Bucelarii (Book 3): Gateway to the Past will officially be launching TOMORROW!!! Hooray!

In anticipation of the launch, I want to give you a sneak peek at the first chapter so you can get a taste of what’s to come. Spoilers: IT’S BLOODY AND AWESOME!

Chapter One

Fire and agony filled the Hunter’s world.

So this is what it means to be helpless. He was dying, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.

Blood and soot stained his face, hands, and tunic. His lungs burned from the thick, dark smoke that billowed into the night sky and blotted out the stars. Horses screamed in the near distance, the terror in their voices echoed by the cries of the men, women, and children around him. The clash of steel rang out above the roaring blaze that consumed the camp.

“Bring them down, lads!” A strong voice cut through the chaos of the night. Sirkar Jeroen, rallying what few men remained. The half-dozen caravan guards would be outnumbered by the bandits, but that didn’t stop the caravan master from fighting back. He had to protect his retinue at all costs.

A gust of wind carried the smell of burning flesh, hair, and cloth. The Hunter groaned as a fresh wave of pain washed through his torso. He could no longer feel his legs. Not even the crushing weight of the wagon atop him registered through the agony. Immortality or no, he would succumb to the effects of the iron-tipped arrows in his chest, shoulder, and leg. The metal was poisonous to his kind; it would kill him in minutes.

I…I can’t!

The twinkling stars above danced in time with the flames engulfing the nearby tents.

The tents!

Hailen had been in his tent. He’d sent him there after the events of the evening, unwilling to let the lad see him kill. But had he condemned the boy to a fiery death?

It can’t be. I won’t believe it.

‘Look around you, Bucelarii. Trapped, dying, nothing to save you but that which you reject.’ The Hunter hated the voice that whispered in his head. It belonged to his inner demon, the thing that drove him to kill. The creature within him demanded death, heedless of who suffered at his hands.

A gentle throbbing filled his mind. Soulhunger, hanging at his hip, begged to feed. The dagger ached for blood; it would not give him peace until it had been satiated.

‘To break free, Bucelarii, you must kill.’

As much as the Hunter hated it, the demon was right. He’d spent months fighting to keep the blade’s voice at bay, struggling to take only those few lives he had been forced to. But now he needed Soulhunger’s aid, needed the power it would provide when it consumed a soul. To save Hailen, he had no choice. He would do what he must to protect the boy he’d cared for since that night in Malandria. The Hunter had shattered the boy’s life when he killed the Cambionari, Father Reverentus, and the demon Garanis. He wouldn’t let Hailen share their fate.

The arrow in his right shoulder sent waves of icy fire radiating down his arm, and a scream tore from his lips as he reached for Soulhunger. His fingers, numb from the iron’s poison, fumbled at the dagger’s hilt. Pulling the blade free required his last reserves of strength. The pain was a small price to pay to save the boy.

“Hardwell,” a weak, gurgling voice called out.

Beside him, Bristan slumped against the overturned wagon, just out of arm’s reach. Faint traces of the man’s scent—the lard in his hair, the hemp of his clothes, and the musky odor of a working man—penetrated the smoke. “Hardwell…are you…alive?”

“Y-Yes, Bristan,” the Hunter said. His tongue was thick, as if he had emptied a barrel of mead.

Bristan’s legs, splayed out on the ground, refused to move. He stared at them stupidly, with dull, unfeeling surprise written on his face. His tattooed hands clutched the loops of intestine spilling from the gaping slash across his belly, and suffering contorted his fierce, bearded face. The reek of ordure and blood hung thick in the air.

“C…Come here, Bristan.” The Hunter swallowed. His throat was parched, his lungs burning with the reek of smoke.

Bristan tried to move. “Can’t,” he mumbled. “Gotta hold on until Ayden gets here.”

The Hunter tried to speak, but nothing came out. Slim, pale Ayden had been one of the first to fall beneath the onslaught. An iron lance had caved in his bony chest and pierced his heart. The healer would never arrive.

He swallowed again. The numbness spread through him, far too quickly. He needed to move before the iron did its vicious work. He had to live, no matter what.

“Come here, Bristan. Let me take a look at it for you.” His words came out slurred, but the wounded Bristan was in no condition to care. The bearded man tried to move again, his gaze unfocused, features slackening. Exhausted from the loss of blood, he slumped—within reach of Soulhunger.

The Hunter stared into the man’s eyes. What choice do I have? It’s a necessary sacrifice to save Hailen. He tried to rationalize it to himself. He’s a heartbeat away from the Long Keeper’s embrace!

“I-I’m sorry, Bristan.”

Weakened by the iron’s poison, he struggled to raise Soulhunger above the dying man’s head. He had no strength, but the weight of his arm drove the dagger between Bristan’s ribs. With a scream muffled by pain and blood loss, Bristan shuddered and lay still.

Soulhunger shrieked in delight as it consumed the man’s life force. Crimson light leaked from the gem set in the dagger’s pommel. The blade, still embedded in Bristan’s neck, fed on the man’s soul and sent waves of power washing through the Hunter.

“May the Watcher have mercy on you.”

The Hunter spoke the ritual words every time he took a life with Soulhunger, but Bristan was not like the others. He hadn’t been paid to kill the man, hadn’t even wanted to. He’d had no other choice.

I’m sorry.

The momentary stab of sorrow was drowned beneath a torrent of power. Soulhunger drank deeply, suffusing him with energy and life. He reveled in the sensation, but in the back of his mind, he felt disgust at his weakness. He had given in. Again.

The demon crowed in triumph. ‘In the end, you always give in, Bucelarii!’

Why had he fought it for so long? The power coursing through him was as addictive as any opiate. Without hesitation, he seized the arrow embedded in his chest and yanked it free, uncaring that it tore flesh and muscle. Vigor pushed back the poison of the iron in his veins. Strength returned to his right hand, then the arm, then his shoulder and chest, and down his torso, to his legs. Blood pumped into his limbs as his body tried to heal the wound.

The wagon had pulverized both legs and cut off all sensation, but now he could feel the searing pain of his crushed bones. He screamed and though each twitch of his limbs brought a fresh wave of torment, struggled against the weight atop him. He had to get out from under the wagon, now.

His cries of suffering added to the chaotic din around him. Gritting his teeth, he repeated the agonizing process with the remaining two iron-tipped arrows and hurled them away. A few moments longer, and they would have killed him. Blood gushed from the wound in the Hunter’s leg, but he paid it no heed. With the iron cleansed from his body and Soulhunger’s power, he would heal quickly. Only the raw, jagged scars across his chest would remain—a reminder of every life Soulhunger claimed. Tonight, a new scar joined the others marring his flesh.

He studied the wagon atop his legs, trying to find a way to lift it. At least enough to squirm out from beneath.

“Hardwell?” The Sirkar’s voice reached his ears. “Where are you, Hardwell?”

Relief flooded him. “Here! I’m trapped beneath the wagon!”

“Over here, lads! Kellen, Graden, help me.” The sound of pounding feet drew nearer.

The Hunter froze. Soulhunger! His numb fingers closed around the hilt of the dagger, still buried in Bristan’s neck. Ripping it free of flesh, he slipped it into its sheath. Not a moment too soon. No one could know what he’d done.

“Help me, lads.” The caravan master’s strong, confident voice sounded shaken. His sun-darkened face looked pale in the flickering firelight. Blood leaked from a slash across his forehead and a jagged cut down his forearm. The hand he touched to Bristan’s neck showed bloody stumps where his pinky and ring finger had been.

Kellen, limping from a wicked gash in his left leg, and Graden, appearing unharmed, came into view. Together with the Sirkar, the three heaved on the wagon. The Hunter felt the pressure on his legs easing, and, ignoring the agony of the shattered bones, dragged himself free in the heartbeat before the wagon slipped from Kellen’s grasp and crashed to the ground.

“How bad is it, Hardwell?” Sirkar Jeroen stared down at him, genuine concern in his eyes.

“I’ll be fine, Sirkar.” The pain of his healing body threatened to overwhelm him, but he gritted his teeth against the fire coursing through his legs. He had no time for weakness. Hailen needed him.

From amidst the smoke and chaos came a woman’s scream.

“Arealle!” Sirkar Jeroen cried. He glanced down at the Hunter.

“Go!” The Hunter waved them away. “Help your wife! Give me a moment, and I’ll join you.”

Sirkar Jeroen stared at him skeptically. His eyes flicked to the Hunter’s legs, to the blood-stained holes in his tunic. The cry came again. Without hesitation, the caravan master sprinted away, Kellen and Graden following. The Hunter was alone. Alone, save for the still, silent corpse beside him.

He stared down at Bristan’s unseeing eyes, slack features, bloodstained hands and fingers, skin pale in death. Remorse would come later. Right now, he could only think of one thing. He stumbled toward the tents, his legs protesting with every agonizing step. He had to find the boy, had to make sure he was unharmed.

The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. Not his own. Marin’s blood. Something resembling remorse nagged at the back of his mind. The old man had been nothing but kind to him and Hailen. Until tonight. Until the Hunter had plunged his blade into Marin’s chest.

A fist squeezed his heart as he approached the section of canvas where his tent had once stood. Nothing but a towering inferno and smoldering ashes remained. The blaze had carved a fiery swath through the hastily-erected shelters, leaving death and ruin in its wake.

Something smoldered at his feet. The scent of charred meat assaulted his nostrils, setting the world spinning around him. He fell to his knees. The pain of the embers singeing his flesh paled in comparison to the sorrow that twisted a knife in his heart.

A child-sized corpse filled his vision.

 

Want to know what comes next? Pre-order your copy on Amazon now: https://www.amazon.com/Last-Bucelarii-Book-Gateway-Past-ebook/dp/B06XDKVD47/

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In the Days by Andy Peloquin FREE on Amazon

Prepare yourself for an epic adventure set in a land forgotten by time: the mythical realm of Atlantis.

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The Empire of Atlantis is the most powerful nation in the world. Peace reigns across the continent, and an age of prosperity and enlightenment has made the Empire the center of the globe.

Empress Tatho reigns, with her Historian and Chancellor Deucalion by her side. Their world is rocked when a mysterious figure predicts doom and destruction. Can they avert the disaster that is soon to strike, or will they be destroyed along with the rest of the continent.

To complicate matters, assassins hired by a mysterious hooded figure plague their steps. Hoping to avoid a knife in the dark, the Empress and her most trusted travel to discover the secrets of an outpost in the middle of the barren, desolate Province of Bermuda. Could it lead to their deaths, or will they uncover a secret that many have died to protect?

They hoped to escape the threat, but it follows them on their journey. Will they return to the Capital City in one piece? Can they escape the plots that promise only death?

Coming Sunday, April 13th, In the Days: A Tale of the Forgotten Continent is FREE. Get your hands on it while you can, and let your friends know about this glimpse into what could have been the end of days for the civilization of Atlantis. The epic fantasy thriller is one you cannot miss!

 

Click here to check out the book on Amazon

 

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Part 1: Chapter 3 Cont…

My stomach was in knots as I quietly returned to my seat. The heavy ceremonial robes felt like protective armor, and I donned them gratefully—trying my best to ignore the gnawing disquiet in my stomach.

What the hell had happened out there?

My limbs felt numb, and I could scarcely feel a thing as I lounged in the hard, straight-backed chair.

Where had the massive figure gone? How had he disappeared like that?

“Are you alright, Historian? You haven’t looked this wretched since that night at Lord Allegorn’s party.”

“I am…I am…fine, Empress. Just feeling the heat of these robes.” That much, at least, was not a lie.

Orgas’ droning voice continued in the background of my thoughts, his priestly words falling on unheeding ears. He spoke in the secret cant of the Priesthood of Togan, taught to the acolytes and only heard in ceremonies. And yet, despite my fascination for the forbidden tongue of the priests, I could not keep my mind off what had happened outside.

I felt awestruck by the ease with which the giant man had passed us—freezing us with nothing more than a look.

The air around me felt charged. I sensed a subtle change in the atmosphere below, and forced my eyes to focus. Somehow, I knew what was going to happen before it ever did.

The massive figure was striding down the aisles towards the stage. Temple Guards rushed to intercept him. The huge staff swung, and crumpled bodies flew through the air. The path before him was clear. Calmly, inexorably, his shambling led him ever closer to the stage.

And then he stood on the stage, towering over the fat High Priest gibbering unintelligibly in his rage and the acolytes surrounding the altar.

I felt my chest burn as his eyes fell on me, heard the Empress gasp when they turned to stare at her. The room fell deathly silent as those piercing eyes roved from one side of the room to the other.

The voice that boomed from the massive chest was superhuman, even for a creature of this size.

“People of Atlantis, listen to the Word of the God.

Because you have forsaken Me and went awhoring after other gods, because you have forgotten your first love and have defiled yourselves with other lovers, because you have left My ways and followed in your own path…I will destroy you utterly from the face of the earth!”

I felt as if I had been stabbed in the heart.

“You are the architects of your own destruction. Your fathers searched after worthlessness, and became worthless in their turn. Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you.

Know that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the One God Over All. Long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yea, upon every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down as a harlot.”

His eyes seemed to take in the entire crowd—melting them like silver in the fire of his words.

“You have all rebelled against Me, says the God. You have polluted the land with your vile harlotry. Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart.

Hear the word of the God of men, oh ye rulers of Atlantis. What is the multitude of your sacrifices when they are burned in My name? Says the Creator of All; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. Burn no more vain offerings to your false gods, for they are an abomination to Me.

New moon and Beltane and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the God. ‘I will vent My wrath on my enemies, and avenge Myself on My foes. I will turn My hand against you.’

The giant’s outstretched hands pleaded with the crowd.

“Yet, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then I shall spare you from the impending judgment that is about to fall. O wicked Atlantis, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?

Thus speaks the God of the Sun, the Moon, and the Heavens.

If you do not heed, I shall destroy you with a great destruction. I shall abolish your cities, lay desolate your fields and homes, and take even your lives. Only those who turn to Me and beg for forgiveness will be spared. Thus I have spoken, and thus it shall be.”

 

Silence reigned in the Temple for an eternity.

 

??????????????????????

 

“My lady, I believe you wished to speak with me?”

The oily voice of the fat High Priest cut through my reverie. The empress seemed just as startled as I.

Had it all been a dream? I dimly recalled the huge man and his message. Could Phoris and the other Imperial Guards actually manage to haul off the giant?

The tumult that had arisen in the temple of Togan upon the departure of the prophet of doom had barely penetrated the haze that had settled over my mind. From the look on her face, the Immortal Empress Tatho, Ruler of Atateide, the Lesser Eastern Isles, and the provinces of Atlantis had been just as shaken as the men and women sitting in the commoners row.

The priest’s acolytes flanked him like dutiful sheep, and even through the fog in my mind I felt sick at the obsequious nature of the rotund little priest.

“Wh-what?”

The empress was finding it hard to snap out of the trance-like state.

“You mentioned earlier that you wished to speak with me.”

For just a moment, the Immortal Empress was a woman, a woman as lost and confused as any in the temple.

Then the moment passed, and the empress returned from the place in her mind where she had been wandering. Once again, she was the regal, powerful ruler of Atlantis once more.

“Good Orgas, I do recall wishing to speak with you. However, I feel unwell at the moment, so I will put off the discussion until I have had a night of rest.”

Disappointment flashed across Orgas’ face almost too fast to notice.

“Of course, Imperatrix. If I may offer her Immortal Majesty a word of advice, don’t let the events of this evening cause you alarm. The gods smile down on Atlantis—no matter what some doomsayer would have you believe.”

“You don’t put stock in the words, Priest?”

“Truthfully, Immortal Empress, I have heard countless madmen rage on about doom and destruction—and never have their predictions come true. Men like him worship false, powerless gods. None can stand before the mighty Togan.”

“Yet, could you honestly say that this was like all the others that you have heard? Was there nothing…different…about this one?”

The sweat-slick face of Orgas convulsed into a grin.

“My Empress, the ramblings of madmen are all alike to a believer in the gods of Atlantis. With your permission, Immortal One, I will be at your disposal should you choose to call upon me.”

“Good night, High Priest.”

His retinue of worshipful acolytes scurried after him.

“Gods how that man repulses me!”

An elbow in the ribs from the Empress was the reward for the remarks I aimed at the High Priest’s rotund, disappearing rear.

Surrounded by the Imperial Guards that separated us from the nobility leaving the Temple alongside us, the empress and I strolled into the cool night air.

The breeze seemed almost chilly after the warmth of the temple—and the raging heat of the giant’s words.

“Walk with me, Historian. I would have your company. It will occupy my mind in a less…worrisome manner.”

“As you wish, Immortal One.”

I could sense she wished to escape the prying eyes and listening ears of not just the spies Orgas no doubt had prowling around the temple, but also in her own retinue.

The principal thoroughfare of Atateide opened before us, and we walked in the soft light of the lamps bordering the street. The empress had ordered her servants to return to the Imperial Palace without her, and only the Nightstalkers protecting her were visible as we strolled.

“My empress is surprisingly pensive tonight.”

Her sharp eyes scanned mine for a fraction of a second before turning back to the street ahead.

“Look up, Deucalion, at the stars.”

“What of them, Immortal One?”

“Count them.”

“I cannot, Empress, for they are beyond numbering.”

“Are they truly? Could no man ever count all of the stars?”

“Perhaps if he dedicated his life to it, it might be possible.” I glanced at her questioningly.

“I often feel as if I am just one star among many.” Her look silenced me. “I tire of hearing sycophantic remarks such as ‘The Immortal Empress outshines even the sun.’ Do me the courtesy of talking to me as Deucalion the companion rather than Deucalion the Chancellor and Imperial Historian.”

“As you wish, Empress.”

“The stars. They are beyond number, and yet they are so small in size. We are like the stars—just one small being among many others.”

“A fair point.”

“Don’t interrupt your Empress, Deucalion.”

I said nothing—not wishing to be scolded again.

“Every star is like the other, just as we are. But examine the human body. It is a complex creation, with myriad functions that all of our science has never come close to reproducing. For all of our advances, we cannot create even a single leaf. And yet, as with the mind behind the creations we have become accustomed to, there must be a mind behind the creation of the stars, behind the creation of man. Are the gods of Atlantis are the true gods, or are there others?”

“Whence come such deep ponderings, Empress?”

“Answer the question, Deucalion.”

Her tone was sharp—she was in no mood to be patient.

“My lady.” I bowed as I thought. “You know my thoughts on the matter. I place little stock in the existence of deities such as Togan and Eliana and Cronos. Of course, I cannot espouse these beliefs in public, lest I be shunned by the more religious lords of Atlantis. Yet, given the events of tonight, I must say that my personal beliefs have been somewhat shaken.”

“Explain.”

“Well, could there be a mind behind the world around us? If not, how does the world around us exist? Does it cease to exist once we die? Do we return to the dust from which we were formed? Death—that is another question to which I have no answer.”

“For once we are in agreement, Deucalion. If self was the highest form of deity, why does the world not cease to exist every time one more person passes from this realm? What is the meaning of death if we are the gods?”

“Unfortunately, dear Empress, I am completely at a loss for words. I have no answer to the questions posed by my insightful ruler. Perhaps we ought to seek the counsel of the madman prophet from the temple.”

The look on her face showed that she had detected my mocking tone.

“I did notice that your Captain-General had him hauled away before the Temple Guards could lay hands on him. That was rash—pulling him from the clutches of Orgas before he could sink his fangs into him. It is not something Orgas will forget in the near future. Your future could be very bleak should you find yourself on the wrong side of the High Priest’s favor.”

“And yet, my Empress, if what the brute said was true, if we do not turn back to ‘The God’ as he claims, the future would seem to be bleak regardless of the state of our rotund High Priest’s temperament.”

We walked in silence for long moments—both had run out of words. The silence was broken by the quiet voice of the empress.

“I wonder, Deucalion, which is ‘The God’ of which he speaks.”

“I too wonder at that, my Empress.”

 

 

Want to read more? Check out the book on Amazonor go to the My Books page to see what happens next…

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Part 1: Chapter 3

Gods how I hate these ceremonial robes! They chafed in all the wrong places, and I could swear that they weighed more than I did. So much sweat had soaked into the robes that they felt soggy every time I moved. Nor was their color a saving grace, for they were the garish orange worn by those attending the religious ceremonies of Atateide.
The chair next to me sat empty, the empress still conspicuously absent. The rotund High Priest Orgas cast frequent glances towards the empty throne, obviously impatient to begin the ceremony.

Derchon stood just within the private box reserved for the empress, thankfully in earshot of my whispered question.

“Where is the empress?”

“She should be arriving any moment.”

I nodded my thanks, but no reply was forthcoming. The man had turned into a statue, his eyes scanning every face in the crowd for any sign of danger.

The heat mounted as the long minutes passed.

“Historian, I didn’t believe you would attend this evening.” The voice of the empress was imperious as she entered the box behind me.

“The Immortal Empress commanded my presence, so here I sit in acquiescence to Imperial demand.”

“You are nothing if not a model citizen, Historian. If only all of my vassals were as obedient as you.”

“Do I detect a slight mocking in my empress’ words?”

“The Immortal Empress, mocking her loyal Chancellor and favorite model citizen? Never! The empress does not mock.”

Her face struggled to hide a grin that threatening to break out.

I was about to retort, but the din of ceremonial horns being blown cut off my words. The ceremony was about to begin.

“Those men must have superhuman lungs to sound those things.” The horns were nearly half the height of the men blowing on them—apparently cut from the heads of giant rams.

The empress shot a scolding glance at me for my comment. “Enough talk, Historian. People should be watching the ceremony below, not some loud-mouthed buffoon sitting next to his empress.”

I returned my attention to the temple laid out below.

It was a truly impressive structure, the golden-domed roof towering high into the sky. The glass at the pinnacle of the dome allowed the fading light of day to provide scant illumination, while torchlight glittered in the reflections of thousands of gems set into the stones of the walls.

Massive tapestries hung on the walls of the temple—pictures of horrible sacrifices and ceremonies that had long since been abandoned. The Emperor Vaspin—founder of the House of Tah—had built this structure, and his descendants had made additions. It had taken hundreds of years and an incalculable amount of Imperial gold, but the temple had become a monstrosity—in appearance as well as in practice.

My attention was drawn towards the massive ceremonial stage below as the fat figure of High Priest Orgas strutted out, bedecked in finery potentially worth more than the robes of the empress herself.

The fat little man was as pompous as he was obsequious, and he conducted the ceremony with all the formality he so loved. An event that should be over in a matter of minutes could drag on for hours were Orgas to be given free rein—as he was in the Temple of Togan.

The empress noticed a sardonic comment forming on my lips.

“Keep it to yourself, Historian. The least you can do is don the mask of sincerity.”

“As the Immortal Empress commands.”

Her look would have boiled steel.

The fat High Priest waddled towards the altar, holding high an ornate jeweled dagger—obviously a ceremonial weapon.

“People of Atateide, rejoice!”

He flung his arms wide, and the crowd filling the temple stood to their feet and cheered for a long, loud minute.

“Today, we come before the great god Togan, god of war, god of justice, god of Atlantis. This day, we beseech the radiant Eliana, goddess of love, embodiment of beauty.

On this even, we offer sacrifice unto the gods and goddesses of Atlantis—entreating them for prosperity, health, and wealth.

People of Atlantis, prostrate yourselves before our gods!”

The crowds below followed his commands, lying prone on the floor as he droned on.

“Oh great gods of Atlantis, we beseech you for your protection from the savage heathens beyond our borders—the foul Mexica, the evil Norse, and the ungodly Egiptos. We call for your blessing on our great city of Atateide, for we offer to you the sacrifice that you demand.”

At these words, two priests emerged from the curtains behind him. The young bull they led chewed its cud as it plodded towards the altar.

“We humbly beg you, oh great Togan, god of gods, that you protect us from the wrath of Cronos, thy father, god of death, decay, and desolation.”

His words turned to a bellow as he addressed the crowd below.

“Pray, oh unworthy mortals. Pray for your very lives! Togan walks the face of Atlantis this night—judging all. None are worthy! Beseech the great gods to turn their face away, lest ye be devoured in their wrath.”

“Great Togan, ruler of gods. Gentle Eliana, mother of all. Accept our humble sacrifice this night, and smile upon us as we prostrate ourselves before you.”

The acolytes by his side fell to the floor, but the High Priest remained standing. No doubt his impressive bulk would make it difficult to remain dignified while assuming the prone position. I wonder if he would be able to get up again if he did attempt it.

“With the blood of this sanctified animal, heed our prayers.”

The knife flashed, slicing through thick flesh. The bull remained motionless, the blood dripping from its neck into the golden brazier held by the two acolytes. Slowly, quietly, the animal sank to its knees, dying as its blood fed the religious fervor of the ceremony.

“Bring me the blood!”

Orgas’ face was joyful. He enjoyed this part of the ceremony far too much.

As he raised the brazier high above his head, I noticed his free hand snaking into a pouch hanging from his waist. The hand emerged a heartbeat later, flashing a magical symbol in the air as the High Priest splashed the blood over the altar.

In a moment, the altar was a mass of flames—seemingly out of nowhere. The crowd gasped, and I could see that even the Empress was startled by the sudden conflagration.

I kept my laughter to myself as I watched the reaction of those around me. I had seen it before—at a street mummer’s show, no less. It was all theatrics, and Orgas was master of the theater.

The rotund face of the High Priest seemed to glow in the light of the fires, and even I couldn’t help feeling awe at the sight. His face was contorted in the ecstasy of the ceremony, the sway he held over the crowd below obvious as they chanted along with the ritual words emanating from his mouth.

“Hail Togan, god of all. Turn away your face from us, for we are not worthy. Hail Togan, god of all. Turn away your face from us, for we are not worthy…”

He was nothing more than a charlatan, a trickster, but a very convincing one nonetheless.

The sacrifice was placed on the altar, and another handful of the powder in Orgas’ pouch set it instantly alight. Within minutes, the entire carcass was nothing more than charred bones—and yet still the fire blazed impossibly high.

And then something changed. The ceremony below conveyed a sense of power, but a crawling sensation at the back of my neck set me instantly alert.

Something is coming this way—something that blazed with true power.

 

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I couldn’t explain the sensation. All I knew was that something was about to happen, and I was responsible for keeping the Empress out of the way of harm.

“If you will excuse me, Immortal One, I must take my leave of you for a moment.”

It took her long seconds to tear her gaze away from the ceremony below, and I could see the awe still written on her face as she forced her eyes to focus on my face.

“Of…of course, Deucalion.”

She seemed to be in a trance—the hypnotic power of the High Priest drawing her in as easily as the crowd of commoners and nobles below. The fact that she had called me Deucalion—she only ever did so when we were alone—showed just how disoriented she was.

“I will return shortly.”

I was incredibly relieved to shrug off the voluminous ceremonial robes, walking comfortably in the simple clothing I had donned earlier. A quick signal to Derchon relayed my orders. Stay at your post and guard the Empress.

A tunnel led away from the Empress’ private section in the Temple, directly onto the main avenue outside. Murgen and Angrion stood guard by the entrance to the corridor, Phoris and Eirin standing a few paces away. I knew Traga and Carrt loitered in the shadows should I need them.

“Phoris.” I had a hard time keeping the urgency out of my voice.

“What is it, Deucalion?”

“I can’t say that I know precisely what, but I feel that something is…”

I couldn’t put into words what I felt. Something was…

“I thought it was just me. I feel it, too.” He looked around nervously, unsure and uncomfortable—just like I felt.

“Captain!”  Traga came running towards us, the look on his face mirroring the one I had no doubt showed on ours.

“Chancellor.” A curt nod from me, and he continued. “You’re going to want to see this—both of you.”

“See what, Traga?”

“Look.” Our eyes turned in the direction he pointed. The street was empty, the falling dusk casting shadow on the unlit streets.

“What…?”

I could make out a hazy shape in the near darkness, a shape that towered taller than any creature I had seen before.

The darkness must be playing tricks with my eyes, for I saw the shaggy shape of a bear walking calmly towards us.

“How…?”

The shadows were thrown back as the street lights were lit, and even Phoris gasped as he saw the approaching figure.

It was a man—a huge man. His beard was as thick as the fur on the bear skin wrapped around his massive frame, and his hands grasped a staff that could only have been a young tree—so thick and heavy it was. And yet, he carried it with ease.

I had no idea where beard ended and fur began—hair of all types dragged on the floor as he walked. The man stood close to twice my height, and easily twice my width. I could almost feel the ground shaking as he took each step, but it may have just been my imagination.

I heard Phoris issue a terse command behind me, but my senses were entirely focused on the towering figure approaching. Breath caught in my chest as he stared directly at me, and I was rooted to the spot by the raw power I felt in his eyes. Every muscle in my body constricted, but my every effort to move was for naught—my body remaining frozen as he walked towards me.

His bulk came to a stop a handful of paces from where we stood, his gaze encompassing each of us in turn. Where his eyes fell, motion stopped. My men were as unmoving as I, their bodies numbing with the same sensations that coursed through my veins.

It was as if fire and ice flowed through me, and I burned as I stared at the power filling the very core of this man’s being. It called out to me, reaching into my soul and yearning to fill me. It wanted to claim me for its own, and I had no way to stop it.

And then the massive figure was gone. I hadn’t seen him move, but I suddenly awoke as if from a trance. I heard myself gasping as I released the air I had been holding in. I heard the gasps of Phoris and the others. They had been under the same spell as I.

Blood rushed into my limbs, and my arms and legs felt weak. It took all of my willpower to stand straight when all I wanted to do was sag to the floor. What just happened?

“What the fuck was that?”

Traga was as dazed as I was, yet far more colorful in his wonderment. Phoris looked around anxiously, incomprehension written on the faces of the other Nightstalkers as well.

“I have no idea.”

I felt an insistent urge to return to my place by the Empress’ side. I had to get back in the Temple now.

I could hear Phoris just a step behind me as I sprinted back down the tunnel towards the throne where the Immortal Empress of Atlantis sat—guarded by two professional killers who would stand no chance against the power that had just slipped past us.

 

 

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Part 1, Chapter 2 Cont…

The Captain-General of the Nightstalkers and I walked side by side, striding quickly to escape the sweltering heat of the crowded amphitheater.

Once free of the oppressive crush of bodies, I was finally able to take in a deep breath of air untainted by the smell sweat, body odors, and other scents I was determined not to decipher.

“Thank the gods you came when you did, Phoris. That spectacle sickens me, and I hate to sit there for even a moment longer than I must. Any longer, and I don’t know what I would have done. I hate to think of what horrifyingly bloody event will take place next.”

He grunted noncommittally. Was he even listening?

“You seem troubled, Phoris. Is all well?”

“Troubling news from home, Deucalion. My mother is unwell, and my sister is worried that she will soon go to join my father.”

I had met his family on a number of occasions when I was younger, but my duties in the capital had prevented me from making the journey to Ducasia for nearly a decade.

“That is troubling indeed. Perhaps you should take a few weeks to visit them. I know Angrion is more than capable of handling your duties here in the city, and I have been promising you leave for months now.”

“Thank you, Deucalion, but I believe it will not be necessary quite yet. I still have a few tasks that need my personal attention, but I will hold you to that promise when the time comes.”

“Don’t put off the visit too long, my friend. You will want to see your mother before she passes from this realm.”

“Aye, I know. It’s just…”

He was obviously struggling to get out the words. I let him think as I handed a few khadi to a nearby beggar child.

It was hard not to notice the poverty that had crept into the capital city. Men, women, and children dressed in ragged clothing hawked their wares, and beggars crowded the stream of patrons leaving the stadium.

Phoris’ words took my mind off the world around me.

“It’s hard to go back home and see the state to which Ducasia has been reduced. Carnalia is an ever-increasing threat to the north, and the Mexica to the south are becoming more daring with their incursions. What used to be prosperous, fertile land has now become arid desert, and my family is falling on hard times.”

The worry on his face had me concerned.

“It is hard for me to fulfill my obligations to my people when my presence is needed here, but the Empress’ safety is my first concern.”

“Which is why I am telling you to take some time off to visit Ducasia. A visit to your old stomping grounds will do you good.”

“Aye, you have the right of it, Deucalion. Very well, after tomorrow night’s ceremony is complete, I will take a few weeks’ leave to visit my family. Thank you for being a friend.”

“Of course. After all, it is the very least I could do after you rescued me from that horrible stadium.”

My small mansion was just around the corner.

“You can be about your business, Phoris. I’ll be safe in the short walk to my house. No doubt Derchon is still standing guard, with Traga slinking around nearby?”

“Of course, Lord Chancellor.” He rarely passed up an opportunity to poke fun at me.

“Oh, off with you. Will you be in attendance tonight?”

“If I can attend to the last few…complications…preventing my leave, I believe I will see you there.”

We embraced briefly, and he disappeared into the crowd in moments.

The stroll to my mansion was peaceful, the street empty. I saw no sign of Traga, but Derchon greeted me at the front entrance.

“Quiet day at the Imperial Games, Lord Deucalion?”

“It’s only Lord Deucalion in public, Derchon. Yes, everything was fine. Though the games were particularly unappealing this year.”

“That seems to be the way of things, sir.”

“At ease, Derchon. I’ll be going out much later tonight, but for the rest of the afternoon, I want to remain undisturbed. Is that clear?”

“Very good, sir.”

His face showed how difficult he was finding it to keep a smile hidden.

I discarded my robes of office, opting for a comfortable tunic instead. The scent of something pleasant and familiar wafted from the open door of my bedroom, bringing a smile to my face.

“My lord has returned?”

The delicious voice of Acacia accompanied the enticing scent.

“Yes, my dear, your lord has returned. I have a bit of time until I have to prepare for tonight’s ceremony.”

“Wonderful. I can think of a few ways to pass the time.”

The doors to my room swung open as I strode through, revealing the scantily clad form of a beautiful woman lying in my bed. Within seconds, the form of the beautiful woman was not clad at all—my robes soon joining hers on the floor.

Dressing for tonight’s ceremony would have to wait.

Part 1: Chapter 2

The Province of Ducasia, 15 years ago…

“And stay out!”

The tavern keeper’s hands were rough and his arms brawny, and the slim figure he propelled from his establishment flew a surprising distance.

Mud splashed on fine robes as he fell into the muck of the innyard, but the lad was far beyond caring. He had spent a hefty portion of the coin in his purse on drinks the previos night, and he was left with little to pay the bar tab he had racked up ordering rounds of ale and wine all night long. Finally, the tavern keeper had ejected him—less than gracefully—and the lad had little choice but to stumble over to where his horse stood placidly.

Mounting was only accomplished by a supreme effort of will, as the young man was seeing in triplicate after the wide variety of alcohol that he had consumed. He tottered as he rode, barely managing to stay upright in the saddle.

Swaying down the road, he was oblivious to the world around him. He hardly noticed when, a few miles from the inn, a group of rough-looking brigands barred his way.

“What…what…whatsh going on?”

His words were slurred and barely coherent.

“Look at the little lad, Trosco. So drunk he can barely sit up straight.”

“Seems almost a shame to relieve him of his val-yoo-bulls, don’t it Fragg?”

“Aye, but better he starve than us, eh?”

The larger thug—named Fragg by his comrade—had barely stepped forward to loosen the straps of the inebriated youth’s saddle when the thunder of hooves sounded nearby.

Down the road charged another youth, sword drawn and yelling loudly. So startled were the brigands by the sight that they actually took to their heels, scattering into the brush alongside the road.

“Well, that’s done and ended. I say there, are you alright?”

The concern on the second youth’s face was lost on the inebriated rider, who barely managed to cough out a few words.

“Shiny…sword…”

It was with a very dull “Thud” that the first youth hit the hard paving stones of the highway.

“Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark…”

 

??????????????????????

The pounding in Deucalion’s head was terrible—reminding him of the Norse war drums he had heard as a child.

“Ohh… gods be damned, my head.”

The second youth—the one who had saved him—stood up from where he sat tending the fire.

“You might not want to move too much, friend. That hangover is going to be a nasty one. What did you drink?”

“What didn’t I drink? Oh gods, turn off the light!” The standing youth smiled as he saw the prone figure, trying desperately to block the firelight from his eyes.

“We need the fire to keep away the night’s chill. Just turn away from it if it hurts your eyes.”

He carried a small clay cup over to the prone form of the moaning lad.

“Here, drink this. Tastes like donkey balls, but it should help with the head.”

The drink was even fouler than the youth had described, and the quickly-sobering lad barely managed to avoid retching. “By the gods, this is worse than the swill that inn pretended was ale. What is it?”

“Azalea tubers, oak bark, a few other plants. It works wonders for hangovers. I’ve had a good many of them myself, and that poison is the only thing that cures a pounding head.” The second youth smiled as he watched his companion wipe the taste of the concoction from his tongue with muddy shirtsleeves.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Any time. What’s your name?”

“Deucalion. Yours?”

“I’m Phoris. Your clothes mark you as a stranger. Where are you from?”

“The capital. You?”

The odd clothes worn by the youth named Phoris were tailored in a style foreign to the young Deucalion, his skin darker than those native to Atateide.

“I’m from Iqbal, the capital of Ducasia.”

“That’s where I’m headed. Got a message to deliver for my mother.”

“The road takes me home as well. Want me to accompany you? Looks like you might need it—at least until you recover from that pounding in your head.”

“I’d welcome a traveling companion. I’m tired of drinking alone anyways.”

“Well then, Deucalion, come morning, we ride to Iqbal!”

In the way of youth, a friendship was formed on the spot.

 

??????????????????????

 

True to his word, Phoris’ remedy worked wonders for hangovers, and the two resumed their journey at the break of dawn.

Scarcely had they traveled half a league when the brigands from the night before accosted them once again.

“Looks like we’ve got ourselves some repeat customers, eh boys?”

Phoris looked unconcerend as the bandits moved towards him. The leader waved a rusty sword threateningly, while the rest hefted a ragged assortment of knives and cleavers.

“Give us your money, horses, and valuables boys, and we’ll let you run back to mommy unbuggered and unharmed.”

A smile grew on Phoris’ face.

“As pleasant as that sounds, friend, I too have an offer to make you fine gentlemen. Turn around and run back into that forest there, and I will let you off with nothing more than the beating your wives will give you for turning up with empty hands.”

The leader seemed puzzled for a minute at the steady stream of words spilling from the youth’s mouth. Phoris guessed he wasn’t the brightest of the bunch, nor the one with the most teeth. What few he had were crooked and rotting, making it easy for him to spit through them as he finally responded.

“The whelp wants a lesson, eh boys? Let’s give him something to cry to mama about.”

They advanced menacingly on Phoris, who remained calmly seated on his horse.

“Gentlemen, please don’t force the issue. I would have no choice but to use the flat of my blade on you—staining it with blood would dishonor the noble steel.”

“Be careful how you speak with your elders, lad. We may have to give you a good hiding before we’re done with you.”

“Well then, fine brigands, if you will permit me but a moment to dismount…”

He removed his coat once he had jumped from his horse, drawing his sword with a flourish.

“At your leave, gentlemen.” The genteel bow and salute of his sword mocked the snaggle-toothed leader, who responded with a vicious cut with his rusted sword.

Deucalion’s mouth dropped open as he witnessed the marvelous swordplay that followed. Phoris certainly had earned a right to his confident attitude.

The bandit’s rusted blade clanged loudly against Phoris’ weapon, and a flick of the young man’s hand sent the brigand staggering off to one side clutching at his wrenched wrist. The blade slapped against the back of the man’s legs with a resounding “thwack”, and the man yelped as he felt the sharp pain above his knees.

He rounded on the men watching the scene, their mouths agape.

“Well, what are you waiting for, you idiots? Get him!”

None of them moved until the bandit leader growled at them—rubbing the backs of his legs while yelling curses that would blister a sailor’s ears.

“Gentlemen, if you please, I don’t have all day. I do have quite a way to travel this day, so if you’d please hurry up with the lesson.”

Phoris’ mocking tone was too much for one bull-necked ruffian, who waded into the fray swinging a hefty meat cleaver. A few deft strokes of Phoris’ blade, and the man staggered away—wiping tears from his eyes at the painful stinging in his legs.

“You little cunt…”

The bandit leader had evidently regained his composure and fought off the pain, for he lunged forward with the rusty sword.

It was obvious to Deucalion that he had hoping to impale Phoris on the dull blade, but the lad simply flicked it away. The slap he dealt to the man’s face was hard, the flat of his sword causing the florid face to redden further.

“Please, gentlemen, I implore you to let us be on our way before things turn nasty.”

Phoris took a quick step towards one of the bandits standing a few paces away, but the little man dropped his short knife with a screech. Soon, nothing could be seen of him but the back of his cloak disappearing into the woods.

“What an excellent choice your friend has made! I wonder if anyone else would like to heed his wise advice and join him in the forest?”

Two of the more timid bandits scurried off in pursuit of their fellow, leaving three of their dim-witted comrades standing there gawping at the young man with the bright sword.

“Very well, then. Let’s finish this.”

Three quick dancing steps took him within reach of the nearest bandit, who received a hard slap across the jaw with the flat of Phoris’ blade. The large man who had rushed Phoris with a cleaver was dealt a blow on the nose. It set his eyes watering, breaking the already-crooked part in the process. The third man simply dropped his blade and ran when he saw Phoris coming.

“And then there was one.”

Phoris turned his attention on the remaining brigand, holding his sword like a severe schoolmaster preparing to give an offending pupil a switching.

The bandit leader approached cautiously, wary of the flashing sword that had dealt such stinging pain in the past. He knew the lad was toying with him, but there was nothing he could do that would enable him to escape now with his dignity intact—much less with anything of value.

Still, he thought, there’s always a chance I can get a lucky blow in and put an end to this stupid youth and his damned sword.

He renewed his attack, which lasted all of three sword strokes before he found himself lying on his back. The blade pointing at his neck was long and sharp, and it was held with casual ease by the young man with the menacing smile.

“Now, if I was you, I would start running, fast. I would keep running until I couldn’t run any more, and then I’d keep right on running. Let’s hope I never see your face again, friend”—the word was a threat in itself—”or else I might forget how to avoid spilling blood.”

The point of the sword dug into the bandit’s shoulder.

“Up you get. Nice and easy. And you’re off!” A swat to the back of the bandit’s legs sent him scurrying, stopping only for the moment required to gather up his friend with the broken nose.

Phoris and Deucalion had a hard time quelling their laughter until long after the bandit was well out of sight.

“I haven’t had this much fun since the last time I traveled through this region. There was a different idiot leading the bandits back then. I wonder what happened to him? All I did was take part of an ear—nothing too permanent.”

“So you travel through here often?”

“Oh yes, all the time. My father is the Duke of Ducasia, and he has me traveling around the province frequently to check on his holdings.”

“You mean you’re the son of Duke Eidus?”

“Did I forget to mention that? Sorry. Must have slipped my mind. Anyways, we must be off. Father is expecting me home within a few days, so we’ve only got enough time to stop at a few inns on the way there. Let me tell you about this one in Eredos. My friend, you will love the pies they have there…”

 

??????????????????????

 

The trip to Iqbal was all too short for the young men, who were forced to bid farewell to each other at the city gates. Each had their own lives to lead, and their paths would take them in different directions. At least for the next few years.

Phoris continued serving his father, becoming a Captain in the Ducasian Imperial Guard. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the title of Duke of Ducasia—a title he adopted with little relish.

The lad Deucalion—me—had returned home upon delivery of my mother’s message, and began training with the finest swordsmen Atateide had to offer. My education in the martial arts was soon to end, as I was sent off to travel the world.

The day came when the old Emperor Tathiros died, his loyal Chancellor and my mentor Lord Adret following him soon after. Whispers around the city hinted at a poison that had led to the madness of the Emperor and the death of my mentor.

The daughter of the old Emperor took the Imperial throne, raising me to serve by her side. The fact that I had no interest in politics made me the perfect person to serve the strong-willed, self-assured young woman.

When I was made Chancellor to the Immortal Empress Tatho, I was to discover that my old friend had been made Captain-General of the Imperial Guard. He was my immediate choice when I was tasked with creating a new unit to act as bodyguard to Her Imperial Highness, and his training has made the Imperial Guard the envy of the known world.

The thirty men comprising the Empress’ bodyguard were the finest men from around the world, each handpicked and trained by Phoris—the finest warrior on the continent. It was said that few in the world could best him with a sword, and none had tried in nearly a decade. His talents had been invaluable in training the thirty Imperial Guards, turning them into a band of professional of killers unrivaled skill.

The Legion of the Night was the name given to them by the Protectors of the Imperial Body—the guards that held the Imperial Palace. The name had been meant as a mockery, for the handful of men in the Legion spent their nights roaming the city on missions for their Captain-General. It soon became a name to inspire fear, for the men in the Legion were some of the deadliest warriors the world could offer.

Amongst themselves, however, they were called the Nightstalkers.

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Part 1, Chapter 1 Cont…

“Do you even believe that the gods exist, Historian? Is it possible that mankind is truly controlled by a higher being—either male or female—that forces them to submit and do as ordered with no argument?”

“The gods provide mankind something to aspire to.” My logic was simple and sound—or so I thought.

“But is it really necessary to aspire to become something that destroys, maims, or kills?”

I had to agree.

“The gods of Atlantis are sanguinary in nature, I do admit. I have always preferred the Oriental belief in reincarnation according to one’s actions in life.”

“It does seem much more humane, Historian. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to submit to the practices made popular by the masses. Those promoted by that repulsive creature, Orgas.”

She shivered in disgust at the thought of the corpulent high priest. I had to admit that he was no favorite of mine, either.

“So, we are left to follow the polytheistic teachings of the masses, and the empress must be a devout follower for appearance’s sake. And yet, I question what is truly in the heart of the Immortal One when she is alone.”

“That is for your empress to know, and her Historian to wonder.”

“My liege.”

We both enjoyed these exchanges greatly.

“I question what you believe, Historian. You say you prefer the Oriental beliefs, but do you believe in the deities worshipped in the far off lands?”

“I must admit, Immortal Empress, the thought of a deity or deities having rule over me is unpleasant. I much prefer the unlimited power bestowed upon the ruler of Atlantis. I would rather receive commands from her wise lips than from some unknown being that I can neither see nor feel.”

“You have a tongue of honey, Historian, yet beware lest it becomes cloying. Were I not so fond of you, your head might find itself removed from your body.”

Her smile showed the emptiness of the threat.

“As you wish, Immortal One. To be completely honest, I do not believe in any deity. I believe that I am free to choose my own actions, choose whether they are right or wrong. Gods and deities are for those who think themselves less, thus they demand something to elevate themselves above their fellow man. The only being worthy to be called my ruler is my Immortal Empress, and seeing as I cannot worship you, I have none worthy of my adoration.”

“Historian, you are as egocentric a man as an empress could ask for. You serve me because it is in your best interest to do so.”

“Nonsense, my Empress. I serve only the Immortal House of Tah in their infinite wisdom.”

“Leave off the flattery, Deucalion. If I wanted cloying words, I would have installed Lord Armark in your place.”

I saw the man himself approaching.

“Speak of the devils, and they will find you. Here comes Atlantis’ most beloved noble as we speak.”

The empress followed my gaze, rolling her eyes as she saw the lord in question.

“Greetings, Lord Armark!” I called out cheerily to the heavily sweating man, who was just being admitted past the guards protecting the empress’ private booth from which she enjoyed the spectacles in the stadium. “What brings you to the stadium on such a fine day as this? Surely it is more enjoyable for you to be in comfort at home rather than amongst the sweaty crowds watching this barbaric spectacle.”

The man did not smile as he addressed me. “Your jests are as meaningless as you are, Historian. Beware, lest one day you try my patience beyond its breaking point.”

Rebuke complete, he turned his attention towards the figure seated next to me.

“Salve Imperatrix Immortalis. I apologize that you find yourself in the company of such a boor, when one so lovely as yourself outshines the sun.”

And thus began the fawning of Lord Armark—Lord Aardvark as I loved to call him thanks to his prodigious nose. His remarks lasted for a few minutes—each dripping with more honey than the last. By the time he had finished, the forced smile on the empress’ face looked to be paining even her. I knew it took every ounce of her self-control to restrain herself from calling for her Protectors to drag off the obsequious lord.

“Greetings, Lord Armark. You seem to have much on your mind, but I have little time to spare. I must be about my preparations for this evening’s ceremony if I am to arrive on time.”

“I had always thought your Immortal Highness greeted the day with such beauty without the need for adornments.”

Lord Armark truly was adept at pressing his thin lips to the backsides of those in power.

“What might I do for you, my lord?”

Her voice was tired and had an edge to it—a fact completely lost to the self-absorbed Lord Armark.

“I would request an audience with her Immortal Highness on a matter of urgency. I must resolve the issue with haste, therefore I humbly beg for your ruling.”

The Empress made a supreme effort to hide her distaste for the man as she turned to me.

“Chancellor Deucalion, when does the Imperial Court next convene?”

“Empress, you will be in attendance at the next turn of the moon—just three days hence.”

“Then you have your answer, Armark.”

“But, Immortal One, it is an important matter that must be resolved immediately.”

“Very well, Lord Armark, I consent to attend you immediately upon the rise of the sun. At the turn of the moon three days hence.”

“But, Empress-”

“Armark.” There was steel in her voice. “Push the matter further, and you may find yourself in my disfavor.”

He fought to keep the anger from his face as he bowed deeply.

“You are most gracious, Immortal One. Until the morning of the turn of the moon.”

Struggling to control himself, he backed out of the empress’ box. When he turned around, I saw the vitriol on his face as he pushed past the guards standing at the entrance.

Unfortunately for him, just as he forced his way between the motionless Imperial Guards, he bumped into another figure making his way towards us. The collision had disastrous consequences for the retreating Lord. He rebounded off the solid metallic form standing in front of him, and crashed unceremoniously into the wall.

He reeled from the impact, but managed to retain his feet as the commanding figure strode past. If looks could kill, Lord Armark would have impaled the man on thousands of poisoned daggers. He regained his balance—but not his composure—and straightened his clothing as he set off down the stairs angrily.

The smile playing at the corner of the empress’ lips mirrored my wide grin.

“It does the heart good to see Lord Armark, doesn’t it, Immortal One?” My whisper was low and mocking.

“Enough, Historian. You have a visitor, I believe. Captain Phoris.”

She nodded by way of greeting to the figure entering the box, and turned her attention back to the spectacle below.

“Salve Imperatrix Immortalis.” The salute was crisp and done with military precision. “My Lord Deucalion, we have matters that require your attention immediately.”

“My Empress, if you will excuse me…”

“Something you would rather do than spend time with your Empress?”

“Unfortunately, gracious ruler, my other duties beckon.”

“Working behind my back again, Historian? What secretive duty to attend to now?”

“Nothing of an urgent nature, Immortal One. Private business between old friends.”

“As you say. Now, do be sure to prepare adequately for tonight’s ceremony, as you will be accompanying me. I’m sure the High Priest will have an apoplectic fit if we arrived late.”

“You can be sure the rotund Orgas will have a fit over anything her Immortal Highness does that causes any interruption to his plans.”

The Lord Orgas, High Priest of Atateide was a notorious schemer—almost as adept at political intrigue as Lord Armark of Carnalia.

“Be wary of speaking your thoughts out loud, Historian. Should someone else overhear your kind remarks towards our high priest…” She trailed off with a wry grin.

“As you wish, Empress.” I sketched a deep bow, and had turned to leave when her voice stopped me.

“Oh, one more thing. I wish to speak to the High Priest in private after the ceremony tonight, and I would have you in attendance. Bring along a few of your Imperial Guard if you would. I never feel at ease around that man, and-”

“You can be certain nothing good ever comes from the scheming brain of the High Priest.”

“You can be certain interrupting me is never good for your health, Historian.”

“Your pardon, your Imperial Majesty. It is a mistake I shall never make again.”

I bowed low, but the sarcasm in her voice showed just how much she believed me.

“Of course, Historian. Now, don’t you have business to attend to?”

“I depart chastened and humbly ashamed. Until tonight, Empress.”

She had already turned back to the spectacle below as I strolled from the amphitheatre.

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Prologue–Part 2

They were but a few hundred paces from the tunnel through which they had entered the temple when the outcry began.

The voices of shouting guards could be heard, and the slap of sandaled feet on the hard stone floor grew louder.

The little man swore as he ran.

“Gods damn it. They probably found the dead guard.”

One last turn in the passageway, and they would find the tunnel and their way out of the pyramid.

A warrior screamed out in pain, a spear transfixing his thigh. He collapsed to the ground, blood rushing from the wound in his thigh.

“Eirin.” There was concern in the leader’s voice as he bent over the injured man.

“It’s bad, Captain.”

With a glance, the leader saw the artery on the inside of the leg had been sliced through. The man would bleed out in minutes.

“Leave me be. I’ll hold them off.”

A moment’s indecision was all it took.

“Gods be with you, Eirin.”

The leader grasped the wounded warrior’s forearm, his final farewell.

The last thing he saw as he rounded the corner was the bleeding man rip the spear from his leg. The man turned its sharpened edge on the guards that surrounded him. An honorable death.

The escape was well under way, with half of the party already crawling through the tunnels. Just a handful remained, and they were entering the hole as quickly as they could. Still, he wouldn’t breathe easy until they were completely out of the pyramid, out of the city, and out of the Gods damned jungle.

When finally only one other warrior remained beside him, he felt elation rise within him. We’ll make it. He motioned for the other man to enter the tunnel ahead of him.

That was when the group of guards rounded the corner.. Their war cries echoed loudly in the stone corridors, and they charged towards the lone figure standing in the middle of an empty passageway—a figure dressed in the robes of their ancient enemies

His orders had been clear. “You are Tepaneca warriors, carrying their weapons and wearing their clothes. No one can know who you really are. Kill all in your path.”

He squared his shoulders, his face set like flint as he stepped forward to meet the oncoming savages.

One guard made the mistake of being the first to reach him, and a crushed throat was his reward. The next guard received a bone-shattering blow from the blunt end of the Atlantean’s spear, and he fell screaming to the ground—clutching at his useless knee. A quick thrust from the spear’s blade opened the vein in his neck.

This was Captain of the legendary Nightstalkers, and the poorly trained, pitifully armed natives in front of him stood no chance. He was merciless, implacable.

A quick slice of the spear hamstrung the one nearest him, and a sharp blow from the spear’s butt shattered the collarbone of a second temple guard.

He slipped out of the path of a wild swing aimed at his head, and slammed the point deep into the eye of an attacker. A hard chop to the base of another guard’s neck caused him to flop limply to the floor—spinal cord severed.

The remaining guards saw only death in the eyes of their attacker, and they tried desperately to retreat. Their wails were cut short as the Captain’s spear mowed them down like a scythe through wheat, and within moments he stood alone in the passageway.

A noise from behind him caused him to whirl around. The wounded warrior—Eirin—barely stood, leaning on the broken spear for support.

“Captain.”

It was all the heavily bleeding warrior could say—every ounce of his effort was focused on staying upright.

“Eirin.”

“Get in there. I’ll make sure the passage is closed.”

The Captain nodded, allowing the dying man his final wish.

When he emerged from the other side of the tunnel, he knew the warrior had bled out in the tight passageway. His lifeless body filled the small tunnel, preventing any from following—a soldier’s last contribution to his commander.

He panted a prayer as he navigated the halls of the massive mansion.

Gods grant that the others have escaped.

He saw no signs of their passing, and he hoped they had escaped the city undetected. If his luck held as well, he could melt into the jungle to find his unit.

He was armed with nothing more than his short bow and a handful of arrows. The spear had been left in the heart of the final guard to fall beneath his onslaught. It will have to be enough.

His feet felt leaden as he ran through the city towards the gate leading to freedom. His group had been traveling for days, sleeping on their feet and pushing their bodies as hard as humanly possible. They had had to reach the captives in time to prevent their being sacrificed, and even so, they had only just managed to make it in time.

But days of marching with no sleep were catching up to him, and he felt his strength flagging. Water was scarce around the city—every creek, river, and stream had been channeled to irrigate the crops grown by the Mexica. His muscles ached, and the sweat streaming down his body had begun to wash away the dye.

Just…a…bit…more.

He was panting now, succumbing to the fatigue resulting from nowhere near enough sleep, food, or water.

The arrow that ripped by his head forced him to push himself even harder. The gate lay open in front of him, and he sprinted for the opening—missiles flying around him.

A lucky arrow slammed into the shoulder of the fleeing man, eliciting a growl of pain and bringing a sudden clarity to his fatigue-numbed mind.

Only one warrior stood between him and freedom. One very large warrior, carrying a very large club. One brave warrior that wanted to make a name for himself.

The bravery of the guard earned him an arrow in the gut, and a second one slammed into his paunch a moment later.

The sprinting figure barely slowed as he leapt over the slumping guard and raced through the gate towards the edge of the jungle. The pain in his shoulder was spreading, and he felt every ache and pain as he ran.

The jungle loomed, and he pushed into the thick foliage ahead. Not caring where he ran and unable to navigate through the dense vegetation, he forced himself to keep running in the one direction he knew: away from the city.

He could find his unit once he had escaped. It would be easy to–

His head snapped back as it collided with a thick tree branch, sending him sprawling to the floor. He tried to fight for consciousness, but the exhaustion, wounds, and lack of nourishment pushed him deeper into the haze.

The comforting embrace of unconsciousness claimed the captain.

Book Cover - alt

Prologue–Part 1

Yucatan – Land of the Mexica

The 10th Year of the Reign of Her Immortal Majesty Empress Tatho of the House of Tah

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The small group of warriors ran through the jungle, camouflaged in the colors of their surroundings. Their destination loomed ahead of them, the pyramid towering high above the tall trees around it.

A hand signal from the leader slowed the pack. Silently, the men hunkered low to the ground.

They fanned out quietly as they crept near the city wall. They scanned the area for alert sentries, but the only figure in sight was the sleepy form of a lone guard. No problem getting in.

One of the stealthy figures clapped a pipe to his lips. A thin dart shot out, embedding itself in the sentry’s neck. The sound of his rotund body hitting the floor was dangerously loud in the silence,  and the chair on which he drowsed clattered as it collapsed beneath his unconscious bulk.

Wincing at the noise, the leader gestured for the warriors to move from concealment and take position against the adobe wall that lay between them and their destination. They flattened themselves against the wall to avoid detection, but there were no patrols in sight.

Their clothes blended with the jungle around them, small bows held nocked and ready in their hands. They looked every inch the native, complete with dark skin dyed by the juice of the gerre nut.

At a signal, the warriors sprinted through the open gate, ignoring the prone form of the unconscious guard as they spread out inside the wall.

No guards awaited them inside—all were at the temple for the sacrifice. Their way was clear.

A door opened from a nearby hovel, a young boy emerging from within to chase a small into the street. He stopped dead at the sight of the warriors, his eyes widening as he opened his mouth to cry out in surprise.

The huge blond warrior clamped a hand down over the child’s mouth, the other hand striking the back of his head hard enough to render him unconscious. Even the slightest clamor could spell doom for their mission.

The small body of the unconscious boy was tied, gagged, and stowed inside a nearby hovel in seconds. He would be found, eventually.

The warriors waited in silence, eyes scanning the area to find any signs of life. All was calm. Cautiously, they slipped between the houses. Their steps led them towards the pyramid dominating the city.

The hovels soon turned to simple houses, which eventually became fancy mansions. The wealth of the city was evident here. They searched for a particular house, one they had been told offered secret access to the pyramid. The native had died screaming, but he had given them the information they needed.

Finding the house they sought, they pushed through the flimsy door to enter the empty building.

It was the only building on this side of the city built against the massive pyramid that was their destination—their only way in undetected.

The balcony on the second floor of the mansion gave them a clear view of the temple’s interior.

The sacrifice was about to begin, and they had little time to waste.

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The priests officiating the ceremony were bedecked in elaborately ornamental robes. The features, skulls, bones, and diverse paraphernalia that made up their costumes were meant to be threatening to the masses huddled at the steps of the pyramid, but to the warriors huddled on the balcony the outfits just looked foolish.

The only truly threatening part of the costume was the sacrificial weapons wielded by the priests. The stone blades were dyed red with the blood of the thousands of victims whose lives had bled out on the temple altars.

It was said by the superstitious Mexica that the weapons were possessed by spirits and demons, or by the souls of those sacrified to Huitzilopochtli—the bloodthirsty deity of war worshipped by these savages. The Mexica god thirsted for blood: Mexica blood, Mayan blood, any blood that would flow red and bright down the stone stairs of the temple.

Of the many gods worshipped by the Mexica, only this deity demanded sacrifice. This was the god that led them to battle, that required them to die a glorious death at the hands of their enemies, and that demanded that they raid the Atlantean mainlands to capture beautiful women to sacrifice.

The Mexica were warriors at heart, and they died as bravely as they fought. Despite the fact that they faced superior technology, weaponry, and tactics, they continued their incursions into the kingdom of Atlantis. On those rare occasions when they did manage to haul off victims for their sacrificial altars, the women and children were never seen or heard from again—a fate shared by those that attempted a rescue.

Most would have considered this a suicide mission, but the women captured by the latest Mexica raid were no ordinary victims. This, too, was no ordinary group of warriors sent to retrieve the captives.

A high priest emerged from the shadows within the pyramid, strutting onto the balcony overlooking the crowds below. Blood stained his ceremonial robes, a testament to the hundreds that had met their end at his hands.

A signal was given by their commander, but it was unnecessary. They all knew they had precious minutes left.

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The basement room they entered was dark and dusty, cobwebs covering everything after long months of disuse. It made the perfect exit.

The heavily muscled blond warrior grunted as he wrestled a massive casket away from the far wall, revealing a hole barely large enough for him to fit his broad shoulders through. He stepped aside to let the rest of the group enter the hole first, guarding the rear as the warriors crawled for long minutes through the stifling darkness around them.

Nothing but scuffs, grunts, and curses were heard as the small party inched forward. The warrior in the lead—a short, rat-faced man—held a small device in front of him. The palm-sized object emanated a thin beam of light, illuminating just enough of the tunnel for him to see where he was going.

“Move quickly,” the little man breathed as he crawled. “The light won’t last forever.” He hoped it would be enough.

The tunnel ended abruptly, a blank wall of earth and stone barring their way.

“Watch where you’re going, idiot,” the little man cursed. The warrior immediately behind him had planted his face into the leader’s unmoving posterior, an experience neither relished.

“Signal a halt next time, Traga,” the man following him complained.

“And how am I supposed to do that, Derchon?”

“Shut up and get on with it.” The third voice was commanding. The man to whom it belonged gave orders, and all obeyed.

The lead warrior’s fingers scrabbled around the blank wall of stone impeding their passage, and he smiled as he found what he was looking for.

He adjusted the device, twisting the small lens at the front to shine a pinpoint of light directly at a particular spot on the wall.

For long seconds, nothing happened. Then, with the ponderous sound of stone grinding on stone, the wall slid to one side—revealing an empty corridor beyond.

“Secret passages,” the man named Traga grinned broadly, “you’ve got to love them.”

One by one, the warriors slid into the torchlit hall, checking their weapons and adjusting their costumes. Their eyes darted up and down the various passages, scanning for any movement.

The one with the commanding voice spoke again. “They must all be at the sacrifice. We have little time left. Move.”

“Yes, Captain.” The one named Derchon saluted, motioning for the rat-faced man to lead the way.

They held their weapons awkwardly, unaccustomed to wielding the crudely-made clubs, spears, and arrows tipped with stone. Their bows were the sort used by the locals for hunting—nothing a true warrior would carry—but they would suffice. All of the poorly-crafted weapons were a necessary part of the ruse.

The weapons, garments, and body paint worn by the warriors bore the markings of the Tepaneca, the ancient enemies of the Mexica. Their garments were the bright purple favored by the Tepaneca tribe, and they had dyed their skin with the dark brown gerre nut native to Yucatan. The eagle masks covering their faces obscured their obviously Atlantean features—allowing them to pass through the wild lands of Yucatan in their native disguise.

The leader pictured the map of the pyramid in his head. The outer courts were no doubt filled with the bloodthirsty natives watching the sacrifice, and the outer temple would be empty of all the priests. The inner temple would be guarded, but the attention of the entire city would be on the high priest as he prepared for the sacrifice. Their objective lay near the pinnacle of the pyramid—a long climb that they had but minutes to make.

Thankfully, the stairs and corridors were empty, and the warriors began to relax as they realized that it could be easier than they had expected.

A shout behind them reminded them of where they were. An arrow took the single guard in the throat before he could do more than cry out in surprise, and he went down soundlessly. The thump of his body hitting the floor was eerily loud in the silence of the corridors.

Seconds dragged painfully as the group waited for more guards to flood the corridor, but the silence was unbroken.

“We got lucky, but let’s get this over with while we’re still undiscovered.”

The leader’s voice was the only command the men needed, and they quickly sprinted up the stairs—careful to remain quiet despite their speed. They had to reach the apartments at the top of the stairs before they were discovered, and the body on the floor would alert any passing guards to their presence. With nowhere to hide the body, it was a matter of time.

A door at the top of the stairs was flung open, and a priest leapt headlong down the stairs towards them. The manic grin on his face indicated massive quantities of peyote flowing through his veins. He had no doubt heard them running up the stairs, and the primitive spear he carried was poised to impale the rat-faced man through the heart.

The little man in the lead was too fast for the befuddled priest—but just barely. He threw himself against the wall, the spear grazing the outside of his thigh as he smashed into the hard stone with bone-jarring impact.

The priest’s momentum carried him down the stairs, past the little man still wincing from the pain, and straight onto the spear carried by the man in the second rank. Blood burbled from his lips as he fought to cry out, but the stone blade through his throat prevented him from making noise as he slipped lifelessly to the floor.

A quick glance at the rat-faced man showed the leader that the wound wasn’t serious, and he signaled for the ascent to continue. A few heartbeats later, they stood in front of a heavy door—no doubt barred from within.

“Derchon.”

The single word was accompanied by a tilt of the head, a message received by the burly soldier close on his leader’s heels.

The well-muscled soldier nodded and stepped forward. A second later, the heavy club he carried smashed through the door that impeded their progress. The flimsy wood used by the natives was unable to withstand the powerful impact, and the door crashed inwards—the warriors a heartbeat behind it.

The guards behind the door had been surprised, but they recovered quickly—though not quickly enough to prevent three of their number from being impaled on stone-tipped spears. The other guards reached for the weapons they had left discarded on the simple tables and chairs around the room, but they too died in seconds.

A massive figure hurtled through the doorway at the far end of the room. He had fingers the size of bananas, and his arms were banded with impressive quantities of muscle.  The little rat-faced man let out a half-squeak as the jailor rushed towards him.

Two arrows to the throat dropped the giant in his tracks. The little man nodded his thanks to the men who had loosed.

“Traga, Eirin.” The commands were crisp. We’re running out of time, the leader thought.

The two men slid through the doorway, weapons at the ready. The room beyond was empty, save for crowded cells filled with the captives they had come to release.

The leader motioned for the women to be silent as he entered the room. Any outcry now could bring the priests on the balcony outside rushing into the room. Thankfully, the torture of a native occupied both the sadistic priests and the bloodthirsty crowds below.

The rat-faced man thumbed a button on the little palm-shaped he carried, and within seconds the lock to the cells had been opened.

“Go!”

The words were spoken with quiet urgency, and the women followed the leader’s orders immediately. The command in his voice was obeyed without question.

He signaled for the one named Traga to take point, and his men ran alongside the captives as they fled from the prison where they had been held for sacrifice.

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