Destroyer – Chapter One
Destroyer is out!
To say that we’re a wee bit puffed and chuffed is an understatement. Destroyer completes the Shifter War trilogy, along with Danil and Hafryn’s story. They go through a lot in this book, but we think their struggles are worth it in the end 🙂
We figured you’d like to have a preview of the first chapter, so here it is!
Kel & Kim
Shouts and the clash of steel rang out across the valley.
Danil hunkered amidst the towering grasses and wildflowers, moving at a cautious trot as shifters fanned out and followed. The Roldaerian border lay just beyond a gurgling stream, where a worn path meandered its way through the hills east to the village of Scara.
The fighting had to be a mile inland at least.
Danil glanced at Hafryn, noting the thin, worried line of his mouth as they sloshed through the chilly water. No Amasian shifters were supposed to be patrolling the area—not since the arrival of the Roldaerian battalion a week ago. Three hundred of King Liam’s soldiers, together with as many as ten magi, were camped now at Scara. It was clear they were waiting for the Roldaerian army to leave the royal city of Aqila. Danil’s only solace was that the Amasian shapeshifters were likewise gathering in Kailon to stop the Roldaerian invasion.
But that didn’t explain the nearby skirmish.
Beyond the softly rolling hill, the sound of fighting grew thin.
From the corner of his eye, Danil spied Blutark mutter a few soft words to awaken the glyphs lining his quiver of arrows. Soft light emanated from the large man’s bow as he pushed through a dense line of purple milkweed. The flowers shivered as Elania slinked beneath them in her snow leopard Trueform, her spotted coat blending with the dappled sunlight and damp loam. Ahead, a startled flock of wrens took flight when Sonnen neared the hill. He threw the birds a disgruntled look, golden eyes flashing.
The party squatted low and waited.
Hafryn tilted his head to listen. “Fighting’s over,” he muttered. He pointed at a lone pine tree on a nearby hill. “That way.”
They trekked along the shoulder of a hill and scarcely entered the shallow gully below before Danil spied crushed vegetation.
A horse lay slaughtered in the tall grass, arrows bristling in its side. A man lay sprawled facedown beside it. Moving cautiously forward, Danil spied more bodies, all vacant-eyed and still. The ground about them was churned up from the fight, with broken arrow shafts and abandoned swords in the dirt.
Hafryn gripped Danil’s shoulder. “Ambushed,” he whispered, pointing a series of spikes half-buried along the gully. Another dead horse lay skewered in the trap.
“Watch your steps,” Sonnen muttered as he navigated past a live snare. A waxy green substance covered the spiked teeth.
Blutark fired a bolt into the grass, setting off another snare of sharpened pikes.
They moved cautiously as they examined the fight. Elania nosed out of the undergrowth to sniff out the area beyond the dead animal. The air shimmered as she transformed. “Over here,” she called out, squatting beyond view.
Sonnen strode toward her, gaze moving about warily.
Danil reached them and suddenly slowed at the sight of a dead Roldaerian soldier lying prone in the clover. The soldier’s red tabard was blackened, his skin blistered and charred. The surrounding grasses were scorched as if struck by lightning.
“A mage curse,” Elania murmured, grimacing.
Danil’s brows drew together. “An accident, perhaps?” He gazed back toward the ambushed party. “Maybe the soldier was caught by a blast meant for those poor folk?”
Hafryn crouched beside the felled man, plucking a tuft of blackened moss from the soil. “I don’t think so. Likely the spell was retaliation from someone in the attacked party.”
Danil gaped. “Roldaerian soldiers ambushed a mage?”
“Appears so,” Hafryn said, frowning. He used a stick to pull loose the soldier’s pouch, where a handful of Roldaerian silvers and playing dice fell out. Finding nothing of note, he added, “We should search the area more thoroughly.”
Sonnen nodded. “No lingering. We might be miles from Scara, but we could find ourselves hip-deep in Roldaerian soldiers with little warning.”
Taking that to heart, Danil helped to search the hill. Disquiet settled in his bones as he counted twelve bodies plus horses. Judging from the barrage of arrows, the initial attack had been thorough and brutal. Only four had survived the first wave, only to be cut down by steel.
Blutark crouched over a patch of scuffed earth and broken milkweed. “Looks like two were taken prisoner.” He traced dark blood in the soil. “One’s injured.”
“Headed for Scara, do you think?” Sonnen asked.
Scrutinizing the surrounding hills, Blutark muttered, “Aye.”
Sonnen cursed softly.
Kneeling beside a dead woman, Danil took in the careworn state of her clothes and the dirt under her nails. A glint of metal caught his eye, and he pulled a dagger from its sheath at her side. “Hafryn, take a look at this.”
The wolf shifter trotted over and took the blade. “High grade Roldaerian steel,” he murmured, turning the dagger about. “Well cared for, too. Typical of the Magi Guard.”
Blutark looked skyward, gaining his bearings. “This close to Kailon, I’d say they planned to harvest kiandrite for themselves.”
“We’d have never let them past the border,” Elania growled.
It hardly surprised Danil that a mage had sought to get ahead of his cohorts. The mage caste of Roldaer needed kiandrite crystals to fuel their curses and spells. Having long since decimated the crystals in their own land, the magi had turned their insatiable hunger to Kailon and Amas.
Movement at the base of the hill caught Danil’s eye. A ghostly, blonde-haired woman in battle armor stepped out of the towering grasses and stared back at him. Fine symbols and scrollwork adorned the woman’s breastplate, her leg and arm bracers similarly inscribed with strange letterings. Sigils likewise painted her cheekbones and forehead. In one fist, she held a battle-axe with a kiandrite crystal embedded in the hilt.
No one else in the clearing noticed her.
The skin on Danil’s arms pebbled. A ghost…
As if knowing she had his attention, the ghostly woman turned and disappeared back into the swaying wildflowers.
Rising, Danil gripped his dagger and followed.
“Where are you going, fala?” Hafryn called out, shading his eyes from the sun.
“I’m not sure.”
The ghost waited as Danil shoved through a thicket of briars that tangled about his legs and cloak and pulled vengefully at his hair.
Danil stumbled to a halt.
A young woman lay sprawled deep in the grasses, so badly burned and bloodied that Danil knew she must surely be dead. A Roldaerian arrow sat lodged in her chest, its red fletching bristling in the breeze above her brown travel robes. She was blond and freckled, her face blackened and raw as if someone had mercilessly struck her with a fire curse.
The ghost stood over her, expression somber.
Cold rushed through Danil. Even with his unique abilities, he’d never seen a ghost before. He resisted the urge to make a warding sign, instead whispering, “May you find peace with the ancestors.”
The ghost raised her gloved fist, light seeping from between her clenched fingers.
On the ground, the burned woman suddenly gasped, her back arching in a rictus of pain. She gave a wretched, rasping gurgle.
Danil fell back with a startled curse.
The ghost dissipated like smoke.
“Fala?” Hafryn pushed through the wildflowers and stuttered to a halt at the sight of the injured woman. “Merciful gods—she lives?”
Danil managed a nod. His gaze flicked over the surrounding hills, where a mournful breeze made the grasses pitch and roll in waves. The ghost was nowhere to be seen.
Hafryn ran a quick gaze over the young woman’s injuries and swore. “Damned horse must have thrown her free of the fighting.” He turned and called out for others to join them.
Wading through the grass, Sonnen paused at the sight of the woman, a low rumble in his chest. “Elania, if you would lend your skills,” he asked.
Elania quickly knelt, grimacing as she studied the fletching wound and terrible burns. Blood appeared dark and thick as it dripped onto the soil. “The bolt has her heart.” Her hands weaved a glyph above the injured woman, only for it to drift apart like gossamer.
Danil threw Elania a dismayed look. “Can’t you help her?”
“There are limits to what can be healed, Danil, even with my talents.” Elania’s brow furrowed as she studied the burns. “Truly, it’s a wonder she lives at all.”
Danil thought of the woman’s ghost and wondered how it had achieved such a feat.
“Is she a mage?” Sonnen asked.
They all looked to Danil.
Shifting his vision, Danil saw a waning iridescent light in the woman’s belly that indicated she’d ingested the kiandrite tincture the Roldaerian magi used to power their spells. His chest tightened.
“Mage it is, then,” Hafryn muttered, reading Danil’s expression.
A glyph formed about Blutark’s fingers, dark with animosity. “Is she still dangerous?”
“Not this close to death,” Elania murmured, sweeping back the woman’s blonde hair. The charred, weeping side of her face made her features unrecognizable. “She’s barely holding on.”
Danil glanced about the surrounding hills, wondering why the ghost had gone to such effort if it was all for nothing.
“Let’s get her out of the brambles,” Hafryn said with a sigh. “Gently, now.”
They carefully lifted the mage out of the tangling undergrowth, setting her onto a cloak in the soft grass at the base of the hill.
Blutark folded his arms, eyeing the discolored tinge to the woman’s mouth. “She won’t survive the journey to Kailon.”
Sonnen rumbled. “Elania, if you cannot save her, may you extend her life for a time? There are questions this Roldaerian must answer.”
“Not without causing more suffering,” Elania said, mouth thinning. “I can only dull her senses in the hopes that her waking up won’t be in agony.”
Sonnen nodded, flames showing in his golden gaze. “Perhaps that is best.”
Frowning in concentration, Elania drew a fresh glyph. It flared gentle blues and pinks as it dispersed over the injured woman.
With a stuttering gasp, the mage woke. Eyes wide and panicky, she attempted to flail upright but quickly dropped back, chest heaving. Her limbs trembled, her blistered lips tight in a rictus of pain.
Danil knelt and gripped her shoulder. “Rest easy. You’re safe.”
The dying mage fixed him with a startled look, relief flaring. “Danil,” she gasped. “I found you at last.”