For hundreds of years, the flame-wielding Embers have been the last line of defense against the nightmare creatures from the World Apart, but the attacks are getting worse. Kole Reyna guards Last Lake from the terrors of the night, but he fears for his people’s future.
When Kole is wounded by a demon unlike any they have seen before, the Emberfolk believe it is a sign of an ancient enemy returned, a powerful Sage known as the Eastern Dark.
Kole has never trusted in prophecy, but with his people hanging on the precipice, he reluctantly agrees to lead the Valley’s greatest warriors in a last desperate bid for survival. Together, they will risk everything in search of a former ally long-thought dead, and whether Kole trusts him or not, he may be the only one capable of saving them.
Today on The Tattooed Book Geek I am pleased to be bringing you all an extract from Valley of Embers by Steven Kelliher.
Linn woke with a startled yelp, her heart throbbing so hard it hurt. She was sweating, and now she was embarrassed as she took in the five pairs of eyes regarding her over the white smoke of a small cookfire.
“Dream?” Baas Taldis asked.
“Morning,” she answered without warmth. She stood and stretched immodestly, the Riverman’s eyes roving all the while. Linn was not en-tirely sure how she felt about him. Baas had always been a quiet sort at the Lake, but the open road seemed to agree with him—or disagree— depending on your perspective.
Aside from the familiar sights and now-familiar smells of her traveling companions, the ache in her joins returned to Linn her sense of time and place. It was day four of their magnifi cent, heroic, utterly ridiculous quest. By their looks, she guessed at least half of her companions felt the same. If there was a bright spot, it did not follow any of the three Embers in their company, but rather the fi sherman’s son.
Nathen Swell’s boyish enthusiasm clashed oddly with his impressive forest lore. The same attitude that threatened to drive Larren Holspahr to quiet violence resonated with Linn, Baas and Jenk Ganmeer. Even Kaya Ferrahl shot her glances at him when she was sure none were looking. In truth, Nathen was likely the only member of the group they could all agree on liking, or at least not openly disliking.
“I, too have had dreams these last nights,” Baas intoned gravely, as if Linn had not summarily ignored him a moment earlier. “I thought the sun would burn them all away, but it has strengthened their resolve in an attempt to weaken my own.”
“Sun’s losing today,” Kaya said, indicating the gray skies.
“What sorts of dreams?” Jenk asked, sounding genuinely curious. He displayed a keen and unwavering interest in each of them. Linn had yet to decide if it was the politician in him or the heroic leader. Perhaps he was just a curious sort and she had never taken the time to notice before.
“No matter,” Baas answered after a time. He scanned the trees suspi-ciously. “Some spell of the Faey, I think.”
Larren scoffed at that as he worked over a piece of dried venison. It was no secret that Baas was Rockbled. The Landkist of the Fork were not as overt in their power as the Embers, but they were impressive in their own right. Incredibly strong, tireless and blessed with natural resiliencies to weapons of the earth—most weapons—they might not be as offensively potent as the Landkist of the Emberfolk, but they were exceedingly difficult to kill.
Of course, Linn had never seen those powers in action. Her mother had, but there had rarely been cause for Ember to fight against or along-side Rockbled in the decades since the early conflicts, no matter how many demons the World Apart sent into the Valley.
Their makeshift camp fell into a silence that each of them worked to cover with the checking of gear, the washing of teeth and the pulling of strap and buckle. There was a grim mood about. In place of the shining sun that should have been greeting their backs through the filtering branches, they had woken to a pall hanging about the sky, which was punctuated by the echo of distant thunder.
Linn was thankful that the twins had decided not to accompany them. Taei was fine enough, and certainly useful in a pinch, but she could do without Fihn, whose mood as often as not resembled the gray skies above. It was all about small victories in the Valley, and Linn would take them where she could find them.
While Linn had assumed the Second Keeper would be the de facto leader of the group, it was Jenk Ganmeer taking the center of the clearing to address them now.
“We’ve had our discussions, and now we’ve had the night to sleep on them,” he said. “Hearth is barely a league to the east. We’d be able to see the walls from here if it weren’t for the trees. We could re-stock our supplies, get some more fitful rest and maybe even recruit some woodsmen who know the lay of the land up north. On the other hand, if Doh’Rah’s contacts make us, we’ll be quartered and sent back south before we can have a cup of milled wine in the first tavern.”
Linn cleared her throat.
“It’s no real question to me,” she said. “We continue on, or we can be bundled up like children caught stealing from the baker and sent back to the Faey Mother.” She shouldered her pack, and the others did likewise, Jenk last.
If the forests to the south were dense cloisters, those further north were sparse by comparison, the trees growing taller as the canopy thinned to pine. Nettles littered the forest floor and cushioned their footfalls. Sap leaked from the rough bark in patient rivers, giving the woods a sour and pleasant odor. It was amazing how varied the lands of the Valley were, like a world unto itself. For Linn and the other members of her party, it always had been.
Linn did not fear an attack by the Dark Kind, even in the gloom the gray skies cast. With each passing day, the World Apart drifted further, making their intrusions less likely by the hour. Still, the Deep Lands were bathed in constant shadow and magic still seeped up from the ground there. If they could find a way around those chasms, it would be well worth it.
Lost in thought, Linn nearly smashed her nose into a sheer wall of blue—Baas’s shirt; the hulk had stopped dead in his tracks.
He hushed her with an upraised hand, neck rigid as he stared intently ahead.
Linn craned her neck in an attempt to see beyond the Riverman—a considerable effort—and noted Larren crouched beneath the lip of a small rise. Jenk and Kaya flanked him, weapons in hand. Nathen touched her on the shoulder and motioned toward the branches above. He held a finger over his lips and then touched his ears with a shrug.
The forest was silent. Even a week ago, that would not have seemed strange, but the birds had been calling from dawn to dusk since the Dark Months had begun to fade. It was a wonder how quickly one could get used to the change, and how quickly its absence could be forgotten.
Linn unloosed her bow from around her back and followed Nathen east, curling around the road from the opposite direction as Baas and the three Embers bunched up in a copse to the west.
There was a sound like the screech of a drake, and Linn nocked arrow to string, leaning against a trunk. She spared a glance to her right, where Nathen stood taught as the arrow he pulled, sinuous arms locked and straining with practiced ease. His eyes, normally a welcoming blue, now bore the unmistakable glint of ice. If not for the slight rise and fall of his chest, you might think him a still image. Seeing him thus, it was no wonder many hunters had attributed Bali Swell’s most legendary kills in the Untamed Hills to his son, despite his miss on their recent hunt.
When the ass first rounded the corner, Linn’s mind had cast it in the image of some demented beast out of nightmare, shadowed as it was by low-hanging branches over the road. She heard Baas’s laugh and the scene resolved itself into a farce as the brown cart trundled toward them, an old man and his daughter hunched over the reins.
The archers moved to rejoin their Landkist vanguard, which had already taken the road, Jenk conversing easily with the pair of ear-ly-season travelers.
“There’s no wind,” Nathen said, grabbing Linn by the elbow and pulling her back. He looked unsettled as he indicated the swirling clouds overhead.
Linn shivered but pulled her arm away.
“It’s a high wind,” she said, but the hunter did not look convinced. As they approached, Jenk was speaking amiably with the old man while the young woman watched nervously from her place on the bench.
“It’s early yet to be traveling the roads through the woods,” Larren cut in, eyeing the old man reproachfully.
“My daddy always told me there isn’t no better place to be but first,” the old man said with a toothy grin. “Dawn’s here.” He swept out his hands and then pulled his cloak tighter about him as he noted the overcast sky. “Well, nothing you can do about the odd storm, eh?” He laughed.
“From which village do you hale?” Baas asked.
“Mirax,” the girl said, blushing when the Riverman looked her way. “And they let you out to travel the roads this early?” Larren asked, and now it was the old man’s turn to blush.
“What are you looking at?” Kaya snapped at the girl, who nearly fainted.
“Leave her, Ferrahl,” Jenk said. “She has every right to be nervous. It isn’t every day you come across four Landkist armed for war.”
“Landkist?” the girl’s mood did a full turn. “I thought it felt warmer around you.” She blushed again, looking at them each in turn. “You are Embers of Hearth?”
“Three Embers,” Jenk said with a bow, indicating Larren and Kaya with nods. “And—
“And only three,” Baas said, his tone broaching no argument. Jenk merely shrugged and shared a conspiratorial wink with the girl, who giggled.
“Speaking of,” the old man said, “what business have you in the western woods?”
“We’re not going west,” Baas said before wilting under a sharp, cutting glance from Jenk. It was a look like steel, and it disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“We are heading west soon,” Jenk said, adding, “but not right now. Before we check on Mirax, we need to see how the folk of the Fork have done through these Dark Months.”
“Isn’t that what the Runners are for?” the girl asked.
“It never hurts to be thorough,” Jenk said. “After all, this was a difficult period.”
“But we’re glad to see you and yours have made it through all right,” Linn put in, smiling warmly. She was eager to be on the move. Luckily, Kaya had none of the others’ decorum.
“We need to be going,” the Ember clipped, and the old man nodded sagely.
“I’m afraid my compatriot is right,” Jenk said, shaking the old man’s hand. He went to do the same with the girl, but she sat stock-still, rigid with fear.
Jenk, Linn and the others followed her gaze up to the pine canopy, where the great boughs creaked oddly.
“Girl!” The old man shouted, and not for the first time, but she was focused on a particularly dense bunch of swaying green.
“A forest cat?” Baas asked, bringing his great shield to bear.
Linn ignored him and nocked the arrow she had only just put back in its quiver, Nathen doing the same. She peered into the shifting shadows and was dimly aware of the others fanning out on the road beside her. There was a darker patch that seemed too dense for the canopy, and when a dark cloud overhead brightened with heat lightning, she saw the thing crouched there.
“There!” Baas yelled, breaking her concentration as he pointed in the opposite direction. An arrow whizzed by her cheek as Nathen let fly and an unnatural shriek pierced the sudden dusk. Linn took aim and fired, but another flash from the sky above made it difficult to track her mark, and she heard the shaft bury itself in the bark.
At first, Linn thought she had missed, but the shaft had been well placed and well launched. The dark form fell with a lifeless thud next to the mule, which exploded into panicked motion. Kaya screamed as the cart rolled over her foot, the bones snapping like birds’ wings. She fell, dropping her staff before she had it lit.
The forest came alive with shadows. These were not the Dark Kind, Linn recognized with mounting dread. They moved in the lurching shapes of men, silent but for the crunching of twig and the rustling of brush as they poured from the woods. Linn loosed another arrow that dropped another shadow and spun. She saw the cart careening around the far bend, the hood of the old man thrown back as he struggled to regain control of the panicked mule.
Her decision was made in the next beat, as Linn ducked under the slashing claw of the nearest shadow and got her legs churning, taking off after the runaway cart. She heard Larren shouting orders and felt the atmosphere explode with sudden heat that shocked the back of her neck. She looked over her shoulder as she ran and witnessed the uneven line of nightmare soldiers crash into the formidable wall of fire formed by Larren’s spinning spear and Jenk’s slashing sword, the Everwood blades lighting the trees with their own sun.
Baas Taldis launched the shadows back one by one as they attempted to get around the Embers, and those that got between his stone shield and one of the flaming blades died writhing in scorched agony. Larren backed up to defend Kaya, who was struggling to rise. He spitted a shadow as it leapt for the prone Ember and sent a jet from the tip that immolated the featureless face of the next.
Linn tore past Nathen, who loosed shaft after shaft, picking off the shadows that managed to dodge the smashing shield or burning blades. He nodded to Linn as she ran, sweat standing out on his brow as another blast of heat set the air to shimmer like water, the work of Holspahr’s latest torrent.
An avalanche of needles and black earth announced her presence as Linn leapt and slid down the far bank of the bend. She landed at the bottom and came up sprinting, bow clutched tightly as she carved a diagonal path toward the bouncing cart. A few of the shadow men gave chase, but she was too fast for them. When one impeded on her path, she rewarded it with an arrow to the neck and it fell gurgling, flailing hands catching on her ankles as she cleared it in a bound.
She broke through the last curtain of brush, the branches tearing her face and arms, and affected a controlled fall onto the rocky road below the bank. As she rose and shook the dizziness away, she focused on the charging mule as it made directly for her, mouth frothing, each step more haggard than the last.
Linn pulled back the feathered shaft and eyed the gray beast, sighting it between the eyes. She exhaled and then heard the impact more than felt it. The black form slammed into her from the side and bowled her into the ditch as the wild-staring mule trundled past with its bouncing cart.
She felt her bow snap beneath her and the air was forced from her lungs, but she went to work with her knife as soon as she was pinned, taking the shadow’s fingers and a good portion of its opposite hand. The mangled limbs gripped her around the jaw and she saw that this one had eyes that shone red. It glared hatefully, its fellows rushing past her after the cart and toward the fields before Hearth
She bucked, but the demon was too strong. A skinny thing, but its weight was like a mountain on her chest. Those red eyes bored into her, and she felt more than heard a voice in her head, urging her to stillness. But Linn Ve’Ran was not one to be cowed, so she fought with what her mother and father had given her, launching a barrage of tooth and claw that had the creature reeling.
A struggle that felt as though it spanned weeks likely lasted a minute, and the demon forced her back down. It was then that a clear note broke the sky, drawing the red eyes away, the horn’s blare carrying from the fields beyond the trees. Linn felt her questing fingers brush something metal, and she seized it, breaking her skin on the blade of her knife and spearing the shadow through jaw and skull. The light went out from the demon’s eyes before she had even pushed it over. She retched, adding her own bloody mix to the mud.
Linn knew her victory was short-lived, but as the dark forms streaked past her in the woods beside the road, none spared her a backward glance. The horn rang out again, driving them on, and Linn stumbled back onto the broken path she had carved between the branches.
The woods stilled around her as she made her way back toward the road, fearing what she would find when she arrived. Though the sight that greeted her upon rounding the bend was macabre, she saw none of her friends mixed among the corpses. Many of the shadow men had lost their faces under the press of Baas’s shield, and Nathen must have spent all of his shafts clearing the borders of the road. In the center, scorches in the shapes of men scarred the road, and the heat of the Embers’ ex-pulsions still lingered, the air crackling with ozone.
As she walked among the bodies, Linn noted that the shadows had faded, draining away like ink to reveal the garish faces of men and women beneath. They were not Emberfolk, nor Faey, and they had not the bulk or sinew of the Rivermen. These were foreigners, pale as light and sick with dark. She thought of the red-eyed attacker she had im-paled—a Sentinel, she knew—and shuddered when she realized there had been nothing beneath its blackness but thicker shadows.
She spun toward the harsh whisper, knife whipping, and nearly collapsed when she saw Jenk standing beneath the boughs, light hair crusted with red. He grabbed her by the wrist and led her stumbling through the rolling nettles.
“The others,” Linn managed through a cracked tongue and pounding headache.
“Alive,” he said, though it sounded strained. “Jenk.”
He glanced at her as he supported her, his skin burning like the blade that still glowed at his hip.
“We were lucky,” he said, and then, to her continued staring, “I don’t know what they are. But there was a Sentinel.”
“I fought one,” Linn said, stopping and standing still. Jenk looked stunned.
“How did you survive?”
“Luck.” And she knew it to be the truth.
“Larren was distracted.” He looked at the ground. “He killed it, but it did something to him, left him screaming in the dirt.”
“It seems we picked the wrong time to leave the Lake,” Linn said, but Jenk shook his head.
“Maybe it was the perfect time, Ve’Ran. The Dark Months are ending. The World Apart is too far for chance to send a force like that through. Someone sent those shadows for us, and they came from the north.” They came to a trench between boulders, the trees silent around them as Baas stood vigil. Kaya clenched a piece of leather between her teeth as Nathen worked over her foot. A spear rested in the crevice, and below it, Larren Holspahr breathed shallow and slow. She supposed it could have been worse.
Well, there you have it, thoughts on the chapter?? When Steven contacted me through Facebook he said that he had selected a chapter approximately 40% into the book and dubbed it ‘the shit hits the fan‘ chapter!!!! 🙂 I thought it was great and while I have lots to read and had to decline Steven’s very generous offer of a copy to read, the book has certainly now been added to my TBR list!
Valley of Embers is out now and until the end of January Steven is running a special promotion where the e-book is only £0.99p in the UK and $0.99 in the US.
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About the Author:
Steven is a fighter turned writer who resides in the Boston area. He wishes all disputes were still settled with a friendly game of hand-to-hand combat, is a fan of awesome things, and tries to write books he’d want to read.
His debut novel, Valley of Embers was released in 2016 and is the first of a planned series known as The Landkist Saga.
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