I again want to thank the readers out there so much for all your patience as I finish the final 3 chapters of Eaglebreaker. A surprise cancer diagnosis on Nov 1 along with ensuing complications and chemo slowed down my progress a bit, but after a month of treatment I’m thrilled to say that my cancer is on the run and the prognosis is excellent. I’m back in the writer’s chair now, and it feels great.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14 – Vethros, which finds the Eaglemasters in more dangerous territory than they realize, facing an enemy they can’t see…
Valeine and the Eaglemasters soared ten miles deep into the Wildland mountains, which extended about forty miles more to the southwestern coast. They had taken great care to never set down on even the safest-looking peak in the long weeks since they’d begun their assault on this teeming range. An electricity in the air grew more abrasive the farther they dared fly over the heart of their elusive enemy’s power, and they could not help but suspect it would leap out from the rock and wrap tightly around them like a paralyzing snake if they descended too close.
Messengers from the capital had recently brought word that Queen Elleth was expected to give birth in the immediate weeks, which bolstered the army’s spirit even as they spent every minute of daylight scouring heights that felt farther from the sun than the deepest valley. She wanted dearly for her brother to be present for the birth of his first child, and could often see that same sore yearning in his eyes behind a mask of bravado.
No word had come of the twenty-five Eaglemasters deployed to the Mountains of the Lost, and the prospect of their returning report was the one glimmer of solace she clung to when thinking of Morlen’s condition and whereabouts. But if that crushing, legendary net of obscure hostiles could hold him for all this time, she had no illusions that even her most seasoned countrymen would escape any sooner.
“To the Wildlands long ago he flew, Veleseus the Bold,” the Eaglemasters sang their battle song around her, waiting for their targets to emerge. “The fiercest king we ever knew, for his wrath is widely told.”
Captain Craed led one hundred men south of her position and dropped cascades of flaming oil pots to wall off nearly a thousand ferotaurs. He flooded every escape route with fire and smoke to herd them along widespread meandering channels, all of which flowed toward the canyon that she and her battalion flew ready to bombard.
“Together with his eldest son the Bold King felt no fear, and side by side, many battles they won with the mighty Crystal Spear.”
Like blood pumped through jagged veins, the ferotaurs had no choice but to follow the fatal course they imposed, pooling in the atrium from which they would never emerge.
“Alas, one returned, a prince no more, who to his sorry people said, ‘My father could not win his war; your beloved king is dead.’”
She launched her arrow, striking a creature through its left eye while the hundreds around her unleashed their clay projectiles with burning wicks to smash and explode on their trapped enemies below. The rancid sea of horns boiled and burst while molten waves crashed upon one another, finally flattening to a calm that baked beneath a charred, brittle crust.
“But in the Wildlands he still flies, Veleseus the bold. The king whose memory never dies while we stand in his stronghold!”
The Eaglemasters proudly beat their chest plates with hardened fists, taunting the shattered rabble beneath them for their next adversaries to hear. But they cut their cheers short when the surrounding mountains offered no echo, as if they were mere ghosts wailing over a land that had swallowed their dust in ages past.
Craed circled back to boast, and to check that she wasn’t straining herself as he often annoyingly did. “As mindless and easy to manipulate as they were on our very shores, and you expect me to fear some concealed power that guards them here!”
“Despite all your bluster, I’ve yet to see you disembark and prove our caution foolish,” she replied. “I’d have wagered you would relish being renowned as the first Eaglemaster to set foot in this range.”
Never one to back away from a challenge, Craed looked down with a playful expression that held clear regret for his bluff that she’d now called. Seeming about to follow through and demonstrate more than empty talk, he could not hide his relief when the king saved him from accepting the dare.
“There will be no disembarking here until I give the order,” Verald called out from behind her. “And rest assured that I will be the first of us to set foot here, but not because I crave the recognition. Let’s continue to maximize the effect of our projectiles, and delay that momentous occasion for as long as possible.”
“Aye, Sire,” Craed answered with a grateful smile. “I’ve got plenty more heads of cattle to drive for the slaughter.” He and his carrier rode the wind past them toward his battalion, and they proceeded deeper through the barren slopes that relentlessly tempted them to descend for just a moment’s recuperation.
Their southernmost city had faded to a tiny glimmer in the army’s wake, reflecting bright rays that seemed to evade this place entirely. Though Craed led his men only a stone’s throw out in front, it became increasingly difficult to see all of them, to the point that she had to squint even to make out his stout, muscular outline. She considered calling out for him to slow his advance, but a growing density in the atmosphere felt like a feather pillow crushing against her face to stifle every sound.
Then, suddenly, the sky began to stir in a broad confluence of colors, where blood red flowed through fiery orange, blue, and yellow, melding into a hypnotizing purple that intruded past her unblinking eyelids until it became all she could see. It enveloped and immobilized her completely, yet she felt no sinking feeling that would accompany a fatal plummet to the rocks. Totally vulnerable, held tightly in the grip of whatever sinister force lurked below, she could only brace for its wicked voice that had beckoned her here before.
But… just as no form or shape entered her blinding trance, no sound penetrated either, no urgent calls from the men around her, nor any touch from their overprotective hands. Perhaps they too were bound helplessly by the arms that had patiently waited for them to stray close enough for a final embrace. There was no way to know what course they were held prisoner to now, whether they were being swiftly delivered to thousands of slobbering mouths that stretched agape at their unwitting descent, or thrown into the open sea.
Her desperate urge to cry out in anguish began to course through the frigid numbness seizing her, slowly eroding the ice that choked her veins. One by one, she could feel her fingers wiggle feebly, and they became ten subtle points of light streaking across the dark canvas that saturated her vision. A furnace slowly boiled within her center, sending out a white-hot radiation that illuminated her hands, and as they clawed at the enchanted fabric they began to rip a thin sliver through which she could glimpse the outside world.
Wedging both hands together into this narrow rift with palms pressed tightly against its sides, she tremored violently in an effort to push her arms apart and pry it wider. Like opening lead curtains with dislocated shoulders, she moved them an inch, and then another, hearing her own frantic groans that seemed to reverberate in from the free air she tried to reach. The glowing heat pulsated at her fingertips, revealing her path forward, and with one last scream from the depths of her gut she poured it out copiously through the splintering gap until its walls finally cracked, collapsed, and melted away. A bright wave rippled through the open sky before her, restoring its dull color, and she breathed a joyous gasp while folding upon Lielle’s back.
“The darkness is potent here,” said Lielle under her weary head. “I felt as though indiscernible strings drew me forth against my will, until they were burned away.”
Soaked in sweat, and only beginning to grasp how taxed she was, she shivered in an effort to sit upright again, and noticed immediately that the sun had traversed a great distance in what had felt like a short time that the confounding spell was cast upon her. Evening had already fallen, though it was not yet noon when they’d carried out their latest attack. They would have to turn back immediately to reach their lightly-guarded camp before night. But, soon, she realized a far graver peril, one from which they could not turn away.
Captain Craed and his one hundred men were all gone, leaving no trace that could be seen for miles all around. And her brother, who had been behind her within the fold of his men, now flew alone far ahead. She knew it was him by the sight of the Crystal Spear, which barely gleamed in his hand.
Turning to the Eaglemasters around her, she found the burning torches they’d held to light their combustibles were all extinguished and cold. Each man shared the same stunned and disoriented expression as though waking from a drunken slumber, and she rattled her weapon vigorously against her armor to rouse them. “Protect the king!” she cried, ushering Lielle to dart forward while the men echoed her call and made haste.
Verald flew dangerously low, well within shooting range of several ferotaur packs that gladly held their fire and let him pass into the center of their domain. She and the army bellowed together in a frightful chorus to make him rise and turn around, but their loudest pleas only fell on deaf ears. He merely led them farther from any safe haven while the sun dipped beneath the horizon, about to strand them in the most hostile terrain they’d ever faced.