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