Hey everyone, as an early Christmas present of sorts, I’ve decided to post the first chapter of Kaltor’s final novel, ‘DIRE’. The finished product will be up for sale very soon, but in light of the holiday season I wanted to make a special post for you all until then. Enjoy!

DIRE – Chapter 1

 “Go back to Levarion, he said,” Honmour grumbled, a terse imitation of Kaltor. Granted, Honmour was currently standing alone in the coffin sized crate, so no one else could appreciate the quality of his performance. “Here’s some gold, treat yourself, you’ve earned it. Oh and, by the way, there’s a psychotic murderer on the loose we accidentally released from prison, handle it, won’t you?”

Once again, the powerful temptation to punch a hole in the crate assaulted him. Thankfully, despite the squelching’s effects on his powers, his self-discipline still functioned well. It was bad enough standing around in full armor all the time, but immersed in a shipment of feathers, his skin felt slick with sweat against his leathers.

Taking a deep breath to reign in his temper, Honmour focused on centering himself on the moment. The convict hunted women, not men, so Delena was the obvious choice for bait. That left him in charge of the ambush. A nervous shiver skittered through his insides. His altered armor would grant him the most protection possible, but he was still powerless, and about to take on a raving lunatic.

A flicker of movement through his knothole caught his attention, little more than a shadow among the other crates of the docks. Honmour knew the look of a hunter though, the tense but patient stance, waiting for the perfect chance for the next kill.

With any luck, Delena would offer him that chance. It was her powers that allowed Honmour to track this madman in the first place. Granted, she wasn’t recovered enough from Pelorum’s treatment to actually take a life with her powers. That task was left to Honmour.

A minute later, Delena walked into view. A thin shawl covered her face and the candle held out before her left the madman with a perfect opening from behind. Honmour tensed, waiting patiently. Of all the prisoners who had escaped due to Kaltor’s antics, this one was likely the most violent.

Men like Honmour and Kaltor couldn’t go on with their lives knowing such animals were on the loose as a result of their actions. Therefore, the charge fell to them to deal with the threats they’d just unleashed on the population. Delena paused, the shadow stepped up behind her, dagger at the ready. The convict had taken three women in as many nights, it had to end now.

Honmour dove through the crate wall with a roar, chicken feathers flying in all directions. The madman whirled in surprise, raising his dagger instinctively. Honmour’s armor covered his entire body, with only thin slits of thin cloth to cover his eyes. He parried the murderer’s dagger with his short sword, going in for a quick thrust at the man’s belly.

The madman twisted aside in a flash of Varadour speed. He barked out a laugh when he saw Honmour’s lack of such power. He didn’t recognize the feint though, as the Honmour’s leather-armored fist rushed towards his head. It was a skillful blow, for a squelched man.

In a burst of enhanced speed, the convict caught Honmour’s wrist and twisted hard. The blow threw the Battleborn to the side, keeping him off balance.

“Fool, squelch,” the convict muttered, lunging in before Honmour’s relatively slow reflexes could compensate. He rammed his dagger into the Honmour’s gut. “You’re already dead.”

The madman’s dagger snapped in two.

Honmour took the man’s brief second of shock to smash his elbow into the convict’s face, blinding him with an instant of pain. Warm blood burst from his broken nose. Delena’s reinforcements in the armor worked well, sage-crafted stone over leather.

Taking a step back, the convict dropped to the ground and kicked out as hard as he could with his Varadour strength. The low blow caught Honmour’s ankle, jerking his weight out from under him. The man crashed to the ground with a grunt of pain, his short sword clattering away.

Suddenly, the madman lunged atop Honmour, drawing on his sight seeker power. Blue energy surged from his eyes, through his hands and into Honmour’s mind. The feeling in Honmour’s limbs vanished in an instant, leaving him limp as a corpse.

“Try fighting me now,” the madman whispered, holding Honmour’s senses in check through his left hand, while raising the broken dagger in his right. He trembled with rage. The earth beneath them trembled. Protective slits of gray stone slid over Honmour’s eyes, concealed them beneath his armored mask.

“My turn then,” a cool, feminine voice said. Something grabbed the convict from behind, jerking him into the air by the neck of his cloak.

Twisting against her grip, he spun and kicked. The blow smashed against a solid stone arm reaching out from the ground. The resounding snap of his breaking ankle echoed through the docks. Despite the pain, he still managed to maintain the constant deluge of sight seeker energy keeping Honmour immobile.

Delena was shorter now, sunk into the earth up to her knees. It was an odd scene, for she stared at the cobblestones beneath her like a rat would a ravenous eagle. A sage terrified of the earth? Like seeing a fish desperately wishing to avoid the sea.

Terrified or not, she knew her business with stone. The conjured arm reaching from the earth acted like an extension of her own body, holding the convict fast. The madman laughed openly at it all.

“A fine night for breaking my record. A sage and a woman to boot? Perfect!” he cackled maniacally. “You’ll be mine as well.”

Extending his right hand, he tossed the dagger aside and sent a wave of sight seeker energy into her mind.

The assault hit—and poured around Delena’s head like a flood rushing around a boulder too large to immerse. She smiled, her lips illuminated by the candle before her, raising her hand. The stone arm’s hand wrapped around his neck like impossibly strong fingers. He flailed against her strength, managing a whimper of pain before she closed his throat entirely.

“Convict, the only one of us breaking anything tonight, is me,” Delena hissed.

In a panic, the madman sent all his Sight Seeker energy at her through both his hands. The cobblestone flickered blue and purple from the sparkling energy. The assault didn’t penetrate her skin. But it did extinguish her candle.

Delena screamed in the darkness. The stone arm holding the convict in place sagged lifelessly. Like a wounded animal blinded by fear, she scrambled on all fours to the nearest torch post. She babbled incessantly, scrambling into the light. “Not again, not again. Pel, oh Pel, what have I done?”

The madman laughed, as he watched her, twisting against the stone arm’s firm grip. He didn’t see Honmour stand up behind him. “A sage scared of the dark, who would have thought such a thing existed,” the convict said.

“True,” Honmour whispered in his ear. “but she did her part.”

Sight seeker energy leapt from the convict’s eyes, slicing behind him in panicked blast. Honmour expected such a counter however, ducking and spinning around the madman’s side. Honmour’s words were a feint in themselves to send his defensive attack up high.

Honmour rammed all three feet of his short sword into the murderer’s belly with deadly finality, twisted and retracted with a slurping sound. Gasping, writhing in pain, the convict reached out with his Sight Seeker powers for revenge. Honmour knew a killing blow when he dealt one though, already sprinting off to Delena’s side further down the dock.

“No. No!” the madman squealed, coughing up blood. But his screams were already fading as death settled in to claim its next victim.

“Not exactly the attack I was expecting,” Honmour muttered, kneeling down next to Delena. His head ached from the sight seeker energy and his ankle and ribs burned from the man’s enhanced blows. He felt the stone slabs sown into his armor shift under Delena’s command, retracting from beneath his eye cloths. “The other escapees couldn’t do something like that. Varadour and Sight Seeker in one, I mean.”

Delena didn’t respond at first, clutching the base of the torch post with her stone fingers. She trembled in terror, eyes unfocused, muttering too softly for him to understand. Others thought her insane, beyond help. But Honmour also knew the dark catacombs where Pelorum tortured her, if there was anyone who could save her, it was him and perhaps Selene.

“It makes sense, when you think about it,” Honmour said quietly, gently stroking her shoulders and speaking aloud. It was how he comforted Stunts during a test, to keep them focused on the matter at hand. “Other escaped prisoners were arrested for smuggling and thievery. Aerlinth was much closer to the Abyss, living to pleasure himself off the pains of others, so Gereth’s tampering had unexpected side effects.”

He clutched his side and hissed in pain. His armor had three layers, leather, stone and more leather. It still wasn’t enough to cushion the blow. “His Varadour strength was definitely enhanced too. Did he crack the armor?”

Delena glanced at his chest, eyes narrowing in concentration. The stone sewn into his armor at various parts of his body was connected with a thin latticework, allowing her to access and adjust the armor at will. His skin itched as she pulled and pushed on it, making minor adjustments.

For some reason he could always pull her from those dark tirades. She glanced up at him, eyes focused on the real world again. “No. But you might want to see a healer about those ribs, just in case.” She spoke shakily. The torch post sank into the earth until she could reach the flames at the top, retrieve a fresh candle from the pocket of her cloak. With the steady light source before her, she calmed and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths.

“I’ll be alright.” Honmour replied grumpily. They walked back to the executed murderer hanging there in the middle of the docks, a puddle of his own gore dripping against the cobblestones. The large, human-looking arm of stone held his neck fast, making the scene look particularly—inhuman. “I’m sorry I wasted your time.”

“What are you talking about?” Delena asked, hoisting the corpse into the air as if it were a doll made of straw. She tossed it into the river disdainfully. An impressive feat since the body had to clear a ten foot tall schooner to reach the cold current. A distant splash soon followed, as if the river were applauding her.

“I couldn’t take him on my own,” Honmour admitted with a deep breath, looking down at his reinforced armor. “I’d hoped with these kind of defenses I could make up for the squelching, but I can’t.”

“I wasn’t exactly at my best either,” Delena said with a shaky sigh. “I try to move on. But, there are things that—” She stopped talking suddenly, waging some kind of internal battle.

“A part of your mind never leaves that place. You hear a noise, see a flicker of something familiar or a lack of something, and it’s like you never left,” Honmour finished, wiping his blade clean before sheathing it. Delena sighed in relief, nodding to him wordlessly.

Honmour patted her shoulder warmly. Well, he tried. It was difficult to feel genuinely supportive when slapping a block of rock so hard his hand ached. Otherwise, she wouldn’t feel the gesture at all. “I couldn’t have done it without you. He would have taken my eyes if you hadn’t stepped in. We managed.”

Delena didn’t say anything for a moment, staring up at him. He felt her will stretching through his armor, or the effect of it at least. The stone grew malleable for a brief moment, making minor changes to grant him maximum protection and flexibility.

“Honmour,” she said intently, eyes alert.

It was the most responsive he’d ever seen her, since their escape from Pelorum’s lair.

“You squelched yourself to get Selene and I out of Pelorum’s clutches,” she said. “That was the most selfless thing I’ve seen since joining the sages. I will not leave you defenseless.”

She cocked her head to one side, staring into his eyes. Well, at his eye patches. He felt his armor shift as extra metal ran up his leg, chest and neck pieces. A thousand tiny strands stretched out over his eyes like interlocking fingers, admitting enough light to see by through tiny holes, while covering them completely.

Running his fingers over them, he hesitated a moment and then rapped his fist against them. Once, twice, then he took off his helmet and pushed on them from the outside. They didn’t budge.

“Could a regular Varadour break these?” he asked, staring at the mesh in astonishment. “They look like they’re made of metal.”

“It’s the closest I can get,” Delena said offhandedly. “Granite is a mixture of many elements. I pulled iron out of the granite and hardened it into something like steel. I wouldn’t stand under a blacksmith’s hammer, but it will stop fingers and blades at least.”

“Amazing,” Honmour murmured, staring at the eye guards.

“The least I could do,” Delena echoed with a soft smile.

Honmour gulped, suddenly aware he stood in the torchlight, his face clearly visible. Pelorum’s cage left deep ugly scars across every inch of his body, making his Zulak’s scars look like a minor cut. The healing used to save his life, also solidified the wounds. No healer could ‘heal’ scar tissue. He quickly slipped the helmet back on.

“Why do you insist on hiding your wounds?” Delena asked. Not a shred of remorse in her eyes about making Honmour uncomfortable, just unabashed curiosity. It was odd how she flipped from one state-of-mind to the other, a five hundred year old sage to a scared little girl. “The men respect you just the same, and you didn’t hide your previous scars.”

“The Zulak scars made me stronger,” Honmour admitted, turning the helmet until its sage-made metal clasps clicked into place. “They taught me to be ever vigilant. I saved many men from Zulak ambushes with what I learned. They made me a better Battleborn.”

He glanced down at his leather hands, clenching them into fists. Sheets of tempered metal creaked against leather. The madman’s blood still glistened on one hand. His hands stank of urine, excrement and vomit, the madman’s scents. He wiped the blood onto his leather armored leggings, though the gesture did little about the smell. “These scars cost me my power,” he admitted bitterly. “They took my strength, my speed, my skin vision… everything I lived by.”

Delena laughed. It sounded like bells clattering in the distance. Amazing what the more experienced sages could do. “Correct me if I’m wrong. But you are no longer blood broken, so in the literal sense, you’ll live a long life to old age. This sacrifice of power actually gave you countless years back.”

“Years spent doing what?” Honmour asked with a hollow shrug, sheathing his sword. A chilled wind cut through a small tear in his armor, sending a shudder through his torso. “If I can’t do something meaningful with my life, then-”

“Meaningful to who?” Delena asked, glancing back at the road. The stones shifted and bubbled as if boiling. Scared rats bolted from cover, fleeing the scene. Aerlinth’s blood and bodily fluids sank into the ground. The arm of cobblestone returned to earth as well. She was very thorough. Not a sign remained of the gory struggle, except the madman’s faint scent of excrement.

“I… People I guess?” Honmour offered weakly.

She considered him carefully from head to toe. “I suppose that’s the real question then.” She said. “Let’s head back to Layohne. Kaltor needs to know about Aerlinth’s—gifts. There may be more like him coming after us.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Honmour agreed, heading down the road towards his inn. He paused, glancing back at her, half-way immersed in the cobblestones. “Remind me again why we aren’t destroying Gereth’s lab right here and now? We’re in Levarion after all. The prison is right over—”

He regretted his words immediately. Delena fell silent with a puppy-like whimper, hugging her candle. She hurried down the street with a muffled cry, forcing Honmour to run after her. “Delena, I’m sorry!” he shouted. Then, in a muffled whisper. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Deep, painful regret settled in his stomach as they hurried down the street. She ducked into their inn, pushed her way passed a few confused patrons and, in a flash of muffled tears, disappeared into her room. Through the door, he heard tearing floor boards and screeching nails. She’d sleep atop the stone, without wrapping herself around it. How terrible an existence like hers must be, to feel terror from the one thing you need in order to survive. Honmour leaned against the door, groaning in self-recrimination.

“Let her sleep it off, young man,” a wizened old voice said. The cook passed him, offering a pint of warm tea. “Whatever you did to her, I’m sure you can make up for it tomorrow.”

With a cold chuckle, Honmour took a small swig. “What makes you so sure of that, old man?”

“I seen the way she looks at you,” the cook observed with a smile, straightening out his stained apron. He looked more like a butcher, large shoulder and thick hands taking the place of the expected pot belly of an inner city chef. The kitchen behind him bubbled and hissed with tempting aromas. “Just be patient, she’ll come around. You can keep me company in the back if you’d like.”

Honmour smiled and shook his head, half tempted to tell this old man the complete story. That would likely endanger him and his family. At the least, Taleveer’s eyes and ears would be watching for anyone matching his or Kaltor’s description. At the worst, the King’s spies would hunt down everyone they spoke to for interrogation.

The serene scene of bubbling cauldrons and the scents of dried spices sent his mind back to his father’s inn and the night long cooking ventures the day before a large gathering. Judging by the lateness of the hour, this man was in well over his head against tomorrow’s quota. He couldn’t fight demons anymore, but he could serve in some small way. “I’d be happy to lend a hand.”

They went back to the kitchen, each taking a knife and starting at the opposite end of a large pile of potatoes stacked atop the center table. After a few quiet moments, Honmour asked. “You can’t see my face when I look at her.” Pointing at his masked face. “How can you be sure she’s in good hands?”

The cook smiled. “I’ve heard how you talk to her. That kind of sincerity can’t be feigned. If she’s any sense, she’ll realize that by morning and come running back.”

“If not?”

The old man shrugged. “Everyone grows up at their own pace. Just give her time.”

Honmour laughed at that one, drawing weird looks from the chef. “Time is definitely on her side,” the Battleborn said bitterly. “Much as I want to help, I’ve a feeling she could outlast me easily.”

“Best make each moment count then,” the cook replied.

“Yes,” Honmour agreed. “I must indeed.”