An Excerpt from CROWN OF ASH

Here’s an action-packed snippet from CROWN OF ASH, Book 4 of the Blood Skies series, coming in late August!

*****

Gouts of steam erupted into the air.  Human traffic packed lanes filled with caged animals, livestock, tables of linens and knives, fruit stands, watch vendors, fortune-tellers and soothsayers.  People were dressed in a motley assortment of loose clothing, tunics or capes, sandaled feet or combat boots, exotic and colorful cloaks that looked like peacock’s feathers or somber grey and green work fatigues.  Small dirigibles loaded with goods soared overhead.  Rickety wagons barreled down the street.  Mutated horses and homunculi servants brayed and keened in the background.  The team passed through drifts of tobacco and alcohol, fruit vapors and burning meat.  Danica smelled linseed oil and beeswax, smelted copper and roasted corn.

Her spirit kept to the background and quietly skirted the periphery of her thoughts while they passed through the bustling city-state.  Kane and Ronan kept their eyes alert.  They were all exhausted and on edge, but everyone was ready.  They were in dangerous territory, and she knew she could count on them.

Blacksand was a port-city.  It was a crossroads – a means to getting elsewhere.  Travelers of all sorts stalked the corridors of Blacksand looking for buyers or wares: Rakzeri merchants, Vuul pirates, nomads from the distant islands of Nezek’duul with their filed teeth and frost-white eyes.  Waters lapped against dark pylons in a bay filled with iron and steel ships weighted down with weapons and slaves.  The sandy streets were awash with liquor and blood.

Danica, Kane and Ronan moved through the streets with determination.  They’d left Maur back at the hotel with Cross, and plenty of guns.  The one thing they hadn’t left there was Cross’s weapon, the mysterious fused blade Soulrazor/Avenger, arcane swords forged from opposing energies.  They knew little about the blade save for the fact that the separate pieces had been forged from the power of two opposing deity-like forces, and that it had somehow allowed Cross to survive long after he should have been dead.  Danica carried the hybrid blade concealed beneath her armor coat.

They came to an open market, a junk station filled with piles of refuse: old engines, batteries, scrap metal, hoses and tubing, mounds of ball bearings and rubber tires.  All of those goods had been pushed into monstrous mounds next to wide wooden tables, where scruffy and grease-stained men with goggles and workman’s aprons haggled with mechanics and metal-yard workers.  Some of the negotiations were closer to screaming matches.

A small building made of stone and steel stood at the far end of the junkyard.  The door opened as Danica and the others approached.

Her spirit boiled against her skin.  She sensed presences above, fast-moving figures with razored jaws and iron-capped wings.  Shadows came into view.

“Incoming!” Kane yelled.

A trio of grey-skinned gargoyles unfurled their wings over the scrapyard.  Steel harpoons and straps of dark armor reflected the dull light of the orange sun.

Kane fired at them with an M14A, and Ronan dodged to the edge of a pile of debris and shot up at them with his MP5.  The gargoyles were startlingly quick, and somehow dodged the barrage of bullets with ease.  The roar of gunfire was deafening.  Shell casings clattered in the dirt.

Danica smelled hex fumes in the air.  Whispers came at her with the force of an iron wind.

The gargoyles weren’t alone.

She narrowly avoided a blazing missile of shrapnel.  Metal wreckage exploded in hex flames behind her, and heat washed over her body.

Danica’s spirit moved around her wrists and fused into a shield of force.  A second missile exploded against the barrier. Bits of smoking steel rained to the ground.

A mercenary warlock unfolded out of the shadows.  His spirit camouflaged him, made him fade in and out of sight.  He seemed two-dimensional, a paper enemy.  His eyes glowed like burning cinders.

Kane brought one of the gargoyles down with a stream of gunfire.  Another darted forward and clawed at Ronan.  It flew back and came in again, and the swordsman deflected its attacks with his katana.

The merchants and shoppers in the scrap-yard had fled.  Panicked noise echoed everywhere.

The warlock turned and vanished again.

Damn it!

Danica’s spirit coiled around her like a hungry serpent.  His touch chilled her skin.  She shuffled her feet in the dirt, and moved careful so as to avoid tripping on any debris.  The yard felt wide open, and she realized how exposed she was.  Her back tensed with anticipation of an attack.

She heard the stone breath of the gargoyle moments too late.  The warlock had masked the creature’s presence.  It suddenly loomed over her with outstretched claws and massive teeth.

The moment Danica turned around the mage shifted into focus just off her right flank.  Light caught on his dark cloak, and she saw a bandolier filled with explosives and knives.  His spirit coiled into an ice stake that he held like a spear.

Danica ignored the gargoyle and launched her spirit at the warlock.  Red energies exploded in a shower of razor sparks.  The warlock’s cloak caught on fire, and the spirit missile he’d prepared to cast at Danica detonated in his own hands.  His body exploded in a blaze of ice, flame and blood.

A sharp crack sounded, and the gargoyle fell to the ground at Danica’s feet.  She looked up and saw a handful of armed soldiers who’d emerged from the small building.

Jade, a young and attractive woman with vaguely Asian features and incredibly long and silken dark hair, stood at the head of the party.  She wore a simple blue-black cloak and riding pants, a loose white shirt and a number of rings.  Her eyes sparkled with magic, and Danica immediately took note of the witch’s spirit, a hostile male force that circled her like a caged tiger.  Black’s spirit bristled, and though the two tensed and tested one another, Danica held hers back and used him to make sure there weren’t any more threats approaching.

The only other newcomer that Danica recognized, Sol, stood with his gun still smoking from when he’d shot the gargoyle.   He was a mountain of a man, a half-Doj with dark skin and dark eyes, short cropped black hair and muscles like iron.  He wore a tight armor vest and flak pants, and even though he smiled wide his eyes burned with malice.

Sol and Jade were enforcers for Klos Vago, a member of the large cartel of slave traders and smugglers known as The Shard.

“Mr. Vago sends his regards,” Jade said politely.

“Who the hell were these guys?” Kane asked angrily as he gestured at the corpses.  Gargoyle blood covered his chest.

“Bounty hunters, would be my guess,” Ronan said.  He wiped his katana off on the one of the bodies.

“Again?” Kane said.

“Yes,” Jade answered.  “Again.”

“Which means we need to get out of Blacksand,” Danica said.  “I trust that’s why Vago wants to meet with us?”

“Actually, he sent us to give you the details of the last job he’d like you to do before he helps you get home,” Jade explained.  “Listen…we should really get indoors…”

“What do we have to do?” Kane interrupted.

Jade hesitated, and looked at Sol.  He shrugged.

The city around them had more or less returned to normal.  Minimal damage had been dealt to the scrap yard, and automaton slaves moved forward in a rush of whirs and buzz to scrape up the debris.  The sky drowned in thick red clouds, and Danica smelled sea salt on the wind.  People outside the scrap yard went about their business – if the battle had bothered them, they didn’t show it.

“You two,” Jade said to Kane and Ronan, “will fetch your friend Maur and come with me and Sol.  We’re going to investigate some trouble near the arcane barriers north of the city.”

“What are we looking for?” Ronan asked quietly.

“Vampires,” Sol said with a smile.  “Ebon Cities forward patrols.  We don’t want them around, and they can’t seem to take the hint.  You help us out with our problem, and the boss says he’ll help you out with yours.”

“Wait a second…” Black said.  “Where am I going to be during all this?”

“Mr. Vago fears it would be too great a risk to send you out with your teammates,” Jade explained.  “Especially since the soldiers of Black Scar are here in the city looking for you.”

Damn it.

“Black Scar…” Kane said.  “Dani…”

“Wouldn’t it make sense to send her away from the city if she’s the one they’re looking for?” Ronan asked.

“Mr. Vago doesn’t think so.  We’re certain they’re watching anyone who leaves the city, and they’re…”

“Probably tracking my arcane signature,” Black said bitterly.  She looked at Kane and Ronan.  “And if they’re doing that, there’s a good chance they’re also giving my signature out to the mercenaries they’ve hired, which explains why both these guys and those Vuul were able to find us once I got out in the open.”  You shouldn’t be surprised.  You knew your past would catch up with you sooner or later.  “Shit.”

Jade hesitated.

“He has ways of masking you from their presence,” she said.  “But you’ll have to remain close to him.”

This keeps getting better and better, Black thought.  Surprisingly, though, she thought Jade sounded truly encouraging, maybe even sympathetic.  I’ll keep that in mind.

“This is a crap idea, Dani,” Kane said.

“Don’t be scared, Blondie,” Sol said.

“I wasn’t talking to you, Beefsteak,” he said.

Ronan looked at Danica.

“It’s your call.”

Danica looked at her friends, and then at Jade.  This was worse than she’d thought.

Why are you looking for me now?she wondered.  Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone, Rake?

She tapped her foot.  They had to get home.  For all they knew, Cross’s life depended on it.

“Give us an hour,” she said.  “We’ll meet you back here?”

“Of course,” Jade nodded.

“Dani…” Kane said as they left, but she put a reassuring hand on his arm.

“We don’t much of a choice, Mike.  You guys go, help them out.  I’ll make sure Cross is secure and try to keep us both out of sight.”

They moved a few distance away from Vago’s men before she stopped and looked at them both.

“We need to play this bastard’s game, at least for now,” she said.  “You guys take Maur and go with them, do the job, and I’ll try to keep any more of my old friends from finding me.  Right now it’s just important that we get home.”

*****

If you like what you see, get caught up on Books 1-3 of Blood Skies, available at Amazon or Smashwords!

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