QSFer Riley S. Keene has a new lesbian fantasy book out, Heroes by Necessity book three – Destiny:
To fulfill her destiny, Athala Dohn must slay the dragon of the God of Night.
There’s just one small problem: everyone is trying to stop her.
The city of Jirda is under the control of an interloper known as the Prophet. They have convinced the people of Jirda that Athala and her companions are the enemy, and they’ve sworn to stop Elise, Ermolt, and Athala from carrying out Ydia’s plans to bring about the Age of Mortals.
Athala has never heard of the Prophet before coming to Jirda.
But she has a sinking suspicion she knows who they are.
With a whole city against them, will Athala and her companions have any chance of taking on the dragon Undyt, or will the Prophet’s darkest desires be filled?
Riley is giving away an eBook copy of the first two books in the series, “Ancients” and “Bargain.” Comment on this post for a chance to win.
Shadows stretched long and lean, turning the copse of trees from a delightful wood to something out of nightmares. It was still relatively early in the evening, and anywhere else on Neuges there would still be plenty of light left in the day. But the sun had dipped below the giant stone monolith of Grunith on the horizon, and so everything between it and the coast had been bathed in deepening darkness.
Ermolt was alone.
It had been so long since he’d been truly alone. There was no bustling city filled with thousands of southerners to judge him just for existing. No cramped beds cut to human heights, or doors that threatened to knock his head from his shoulders if he didn’t duck through them.
He was alone, and the feeling was both unnerving and welcome.
Logically he knew his companions were less than a kren away on his right flank. He also knew the woods were alive with thousands of Dasis’ fauna, and they watched him cautiously from the long shadows. But after months in the crowded cities of the southern lands, he was alone enough that a knot of tension between his shoulders finally released.
He breathed a quiet sigh of relief, basking in the new chill of the evening while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The scent of trees and sap and dirt filled his nostrils with their intoxicating smell. It was like returning home.
For the most part, Ermolt enjoyed his new-found life, especially the part that allowed him to slay dragons and be the hero he always wanted to be. But a part of him missed home. He hadn’t returned since his youth, and he wondered how Klav fared these days. Eventually, he and his companions would travel to the city on their quest to bring about the Age of Mortals.
Whatever that meant.
He assumed he’d have to fight and kill Airael, the green-scaled Dragon of Dasis, but he wasn’t sure. And Athala and Elise avoided his questions as if they hid some sort of secret.
Perhaps it was partially the source of their arguing.
Ermolt observed the trees around him. Everything was a shade of gray, from the deep near-black of the trunks of the trees, to the lighter shades of the leaves. It wasn’t full dark yet, but it was getting there rapidly.
Time to hunt.
They had brought more than enough food from Jalova to get them to Lublis, the halfway point to their destination in Jirda. But as they approached the massive capital of Neuges, Athala had wavered in her determination to enter the city. Elise had eventually convinced her to set up camp outside of town while one of them undertook the trip to the floating market to resupply. But as soon as the Rises appeared on the horizon like miniature versions of Grunith confined to the city limits, she started to panic.
Athala’s panic attacks were usually pretty subdued, and Elise or Ermolt were able to talk her through them.
Not this time.
Elise and Ermolt had decided a trip to the city just wasn’t worth the hassle. They gave Lublis a wide berth, even avoiding the road to travel through farmlands and eventually along logging paths just to keep the wizard calm.
And so, as their food supply dwindled to a few crusts of five-day-old bread and a handful of dried fruit, Ermolt hunted.
Ermolt had followed an old logging trail from their camp down into a swampy area of the forest. The soil was slick but not quite mud. It sucked at his boots as he crept through. Another month and the ground would be frozen enough for even him to walk through the reeds without disturbing the muck.
The most obvious sign of life in the woods was the high-pitched whine of nearby dilray. The deeper he got into the swamp, the louder their mating call became. The purple amphibian was slimy on the outside and wasn’t terribly appetizing, but they were relatively easy to prepare for eating, if all other attempts at hunting failed. The dilray had an internal carapace, a chitinous endoskeleton that was the source of its whining mating call. It protected the creature’s organs from damage, but also let them be gutted and cleaned for cooking with very little effort.
Ermolt knew he’d need to argue with Athala to get her to eat one. Their flesh was slimy, even after it was cooked, and it had a chew to it that would turn the stomach of even a starving man. He had seen Athala eat dilray before, but it was always pickled. They just didn’t have the time, or the supplies.
It also didn’t help that he couldn’t supplement them with vegetables.
If they were in the northern lands, he would have no issue pointing out the various types of edible plants, and perhaps even some herbal flora for Elise to restock her supplies. But the south was different, with its strange roping vines and bushes with brightly colored berries and flowers. He just didn’t know enough about them to feel safe feeding them to his companions.
But preoke. If he could find preoke, he knew he could convince Athala to eat a bit. Before the sun had set, Ermolt had seen some markings on trees to indicate that they were present in the area. The furry creatures were wily and quick, but they were large enough to provide a good meal for three, and their flesh was sweet and tender when roasted.
Ermolt crept out of the swamp, allowing the chittering of the dilray to fall behind him. He moved deftly through the woods now that his feet no longer sank in the boggy mud.
Two days ago he had seen sign of deer and boar. He had tried to hunt them, as the larger creatures would feed them for the entirety of their trip, but when he had no luck after a bell he gave up. That was when they still had rations, so there was no urgency. He regretted the choice now.
They were only a half-day from Jirda—maybe three-quarters-of-a-day if they continued a lagging pace driven by empty bellies and arguing. He had to hunt them down a good meal, or he risked them arriving in Jirda in two days as husks of their former selves.
A marking on a nearby tree caught Ermolt’s eye and he paused. Near it lay a pile of droppings, too small to be from a deer, and not the right consistency for a predator. Another tree to the right was covered in similar scratches, and so Ermolt turned that way, moving forward in a crouch.
Preoke’s only real defenses were their fur coloration and speed. In the gloom of the evening they would just be another gray lump among gray lumps. Their extra appendages made running and climbing a breeze. They could be a half a kren away in the time it took a hunter to realize it was missing from the brush at their feet.
Ermolt felt the presence of something nearby before he saw it. It was like fingers along the hairs on his neck.
He couldn’t see anything standing out against the terrain due to the dark shadows of Grunith. Frustration boiled but Ermolt turned away from the useless emotion. Instead, he focused. Something was here. If it saw him first, it would run before he could react.
But if he saw it first, it was dinner.
There was a long moment of stillness as Ermolt surveyed the small area before him. An insect landed on his exposed neck, likely supping on his sweat and blood, but Ermolt suppressed the urge to slap it away.
A trilling noise above him caught Ermolt’s attention and he snapped his head up sharply. Two eyes stared down at him from a nearby branch. The dark owl ruffled its feathers and filled its tiny lungs for another call. Ermolt rolled a sling bullet between his fingers for a moment, considering it as a target. Owls were more feather than meat. And he’d never eaten one before, so he questioned his ability to convince his friends it would be a meal worth ingesting.
Ermolt turned away from the bird and took a deep breath.
His eyes snapped to the spot, just ahead and to his left. The bushes still swayed with the aftereffects of the creature that had disturbed it. Against the darkness he spotted a tuft of lighter fur, twitching as it observed the crouching barbarian.
Ermolt didn’t even breathe.
He met the round, dark eyes that stood out sharply against the lighter fur. Its nose danced, sniffing the air to ascertain the threat.
His sigh had alerted it, but not startled it enough to run.
Ermolt moved so slowly, he wasn’t even sure he was actually moving. His arms screamed with the effort. He slipped the metal sphere of his bullet into the pouch of the leather sling. Drawing the sling would be a mistake, as the leather would creak and spook his quarry.
So instead he waited. Waiting for it to move first, either to return to what it was doing before he’d spooked it, or for it to look in another direction.
One clear shot was all he needed.
Silence hung between them. Nearby, the owl trilled again, filling the night air with a song. Ermolt allowed himself to breathe again.
The preoke jerked and fled into the forest.
Ermolt swore and took off after it.