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SNEAK PEEK | Sword Of Audantei | Chapter 1

Updated: Jun 12

Danilo never understood the phrase ‘from man to monster’, though it may have more to do with the black stain of his misdeeds than his understanding of literature. Or lack thereof. Staring down at the near-unintelligible inky scratch across the confiscated page, Danilo figures its more distraction than cipher.


He pushes aching fingers through the blond strands tickling his brow, the early morning on the dry desert biting at the tender skin of his old scars. The tent flap flutters in the hostile tearing winds of an incoming sand storm. A comfort in these unfamiliar regions. Danilo tenses, the incessant noise silenced at the entrance of another. He settles his palms on the makeshift table and waits for the intruder to state his intentions.


“H’eh, Lieutenant.” Deandro—the second-youngest soldier in their camp—sidles alongside Danilo’s table, his helmet tucked beneath his arm. “The General is asking for you.”


Danilo nods, a sigh escaping his nose at the apprehension building within him. Deandro mimics the nod and claps a hand down on Danilo’s unarmored shoulder. No soldier wanted the heat of the General’s undivided attention. The man was reputed for his anger as much as his dominance in the battlefield.


Danilo places a foot on the chair and corrects the pant leg inside of his leather boots before following Deandro from the open tent flap. They march at a hurried pace. The grey horizon disguises the sand lifting in the growing breeze.


Deandro abandons his friendly persona as they pass the soldiers huddled around a dying fire. His frigid conduct joins the heads casting icy stares Danilo’s way. Danilo refuses to meet their eyes, instead focusing on the path Deandro weaves through the encampment to the large tent in the middle. When Deandro pauses, Danilo rounds him to approach the secured tent flap. Danilo nods at him before pulling the cord to enter.


Deandro scrambles away at the casual dismissal and Danilo stares after him, the facade of bravado sloughing from his bones, leaving him hollow in the chilly air. With a choked sigh, he enters the tent.


Lit candles surround the map table, wax sprouting from an array of colorful saucers. It’s a meager light compared to the encampment’s torches, and growing dimmer in the rising day. The General sits on the table’s far side, one hand clamped over a wooden mug that he pushes into the surface. Shearing ice-blue eyes drag up to watch Danilo enter.


“Secure it.”


Danilo nods curtly, his shoulders in a stiff line, and turns to secure the cord to the pole. He approaches the table with clenched fists tucked at his sides. The General doesn’t look up again.


Danilo glances at the map.


“I am sending you under your old title.” The General’s fat finger points to the little town on the map. “They have the vined chasms of the Untamed North closing in on the dunes. The abandoned jewel mines lay to the east. Best not to rush in, else they vanish in those caverns. Won’t waste my men chasing them.”


His ‘old title’ refers to the adulterated position of an Audanteian scout. Because of his habit of do-or-die early in his training, the role became something of his own. Not unlike an assassin.


Danilo yearns for the times he operated free of the General’s command, eradicating vermin as he saw fit, with men he could trust to follow his orders. Alongside the General, his word means little. Even less to the soldiers beneath him. The tasks the General gave him set him further apart from their respects.


The General continues on, in great detail, about the surrounding terrain, as if Danilo had not thought to survey it himself. As if he had not sent Danilo out the preceding day to scope the commandeered town on the distant horizon. Danilo keeps his jaw clamped shut, his breathing shallow through each driving remark falling from the General’s lips.


Danilo only dares to respond when the man finishes speaking and gazes at his face from beneath thick brows.


“Sir, may I speak freely?”


The General’s eyes lower to the scar splitting the left of Danilo’s lip, cleft lightly from the skin raised beneath his nose. It lingers, along with the following words.


“This once.” He lifts his mug, swirling the liquid before taking a swig.

Danilo nods but doesn’t relax.


“I would prefer the initiative be given to Turniuk or Deandro. The men despise my authority, believing it bias or privilege rather than skill. A Lieutenant wouldn’t do these minor tasks.”


“Minor.” The General scoffs, slamming his mug down with his hand atop the opening. Liquid sloshes audibly over the lip, droplets rolling across the General’s calloused hand, a red tint evident within the low light. Never in excess, but always enough to have an edge. The General wipes the spill from his fingers with the hem of his shirt, cold blue eyes tracing Danilo. “What bias?”


Danilo’s lungs ache as he swallows each breath within him.


“You know.” It comes out quiet, barely discernible over the wind slapping against the tent’s sides.


The General stands, his chair falling back into the sand with a soft thud drowned out by the snarl laced into his sudden movement. Every muscle in Danilo’s body clenches, holding back the flinch shuddering beneath his skin.


“What bias, Lieutenant?” The patch on Danilo’s shoulder burns with the slur of his latest title.


“That I’m your son.”


General Llodis straightens, the red in his blond hair shining as the first rays of sunlight cut through the fabric overhead. Danilo’s blood rushes in his ears. Distantly, the General continues on about the task Danilo is assigned, ignoring the comment despite the fire burning behind his eyes. When the General leans over the table, grinding the parchment beneath his knuckles, his next words are all Danilo hears.


“If you don’t come back covered in their red, you’ve failed. Am I understood, Lieutenant?”


Danilo wheezes out his next words as clear as he can manage, shoulders tense and back aching.


“Yes, Sir.”


***


The enemy’s ‘fort’ is a pathetic, vandalized heap of an old town. Partial stakewalls act as the lone indication of Stormthrower presence. Danilo slides closer on his stomach, ignoring the sand pouring into his boots. His beige military uniform blends in with the surrounding long-grass. Tufts of his hair fight for freedom as the face wrap slides further into his vision. Wind tosses sand into his face and he blinks through the grit clawing beneath his eyelids.


Closer to the wooden pikes, Danilo can make out charred pathways and the removed doors of abandoned buildings through the churning sand. Stormthrowers burn the brush in apprehended towns to keep their view of the area clear, a trick they learned after years of casualties by Danilo’s hand. When he sidles next to the wall on the inside of the stakes, he drags the fabric away from his neck and buries his face within its folds, cringing at the dirt he inhales. There he remains, listening.


Stormthrowers—even with unconfined, impure power—are as predictable as sands in an hourglass. Few of the skud have military knowledge. If they do, it’s a pathetic half-done alternative. With one exception.


Enzo Sapienti is the most dangerous Stormthrower in the whole of the Gentled East; wanted throughout the regions for heinous crimes against the Royal Beseecher and his military. And he is the sole man, in all the Stormthrower vermin, who has tactical wits about him.


Hearing nothing, Danilo crawls forward. He scales the brick wall. Fast and cautious. Because despite the contaminated winds, he’s still visible.


The impact of his weight causes the sand to spray. A brown dog leaps to attention in the empty door across from him, teeth bared and hair raised. They stare at one another; the dog crouched and poised to charge, Danilo with a hand on the knife at his waist. His breathing is slow. Steady.


With a growl, the dog lunges forward. He looses the knife. The dog sags to the ground with a muffled whine, the knife protruding from its throat. Danilo stares at the creature, the pang in his heart muted like his numb fingers.


A whistle cuts through the choppy wind. Danilo lurches away from the wall, leaping over the smoke-stained path and bleeding fur. He settles inside the building, a vigilant ear to the source of the sound. When the whistle strikes the air a second time, the faint beat of footfall carries with it. Danilo clambers into the rafters of the rickety cottage as the Stormthrower’s third whistle halts abruptly.


Without as much as a shout, the Stormthrower runs upon the scene. The man’s brief cooing echoes into the hut and stops—Danilo guesses he found the knife embedded in the dog’s throat. He waits, perched on the thin beam, hunched against the sloping thatched roof with a second knife in hand. His eyes linger on the doorway as he practices shallow breaths.


The Stormthrower steps inside, leaning to peer through the open windows on the opposing wall of the confining main quarter. His short, dark hair glistens when white light crackles up his bare arms, moving within his veins. Lightning.


Over the years, Danilo has learned characteristics of certain forms of Stormthrowing. Lightning, for instance, is volatile and hard to control, especially within tight spaces. Except for a few talented users, they make for an easily controlled opponent.


The Stormthrower beneath him foolishly drops his defenses once he believes the building to be empty, the fractured lines in his arms fading from brilliant to chalky. Dust rains from beneath Danilo’s boot. He looks up and Danilo lands on his shoulders, driving the knife down the column of his throat. The man chokes, fingertips glowing white while his knees collapse beneath him. Shock lances his dark complexion, sun-dried hands dancing across the knife’s edge. With the Stormthrower’s final breath, lightning cracks across the inside of his eyes and he sags to the floor.


Blood slicks Danilo’s fingers as he removes the knife from the corpse. He wipes them on the hem of his shirt. As he moves from the cottage to retrieve his second knife from the dog, the pile of torn down shutters bursts aflame in the center of the otherwise barren main room.


Without knowing how many Stormthrowers there are, Danilo has no means of being prepared for the potential advances he faces. But with what little magic they show to him, he can ascertain their power. And the trust they give their leader. A trust Danilo is honored to shatter with every kill.


He steps out into the dust storm with a palm over his face covering. Shouts echo in the wind. The hollers grow in anger until his undiscovered whereabouts turn them into something more sinister. More desperate.


He hops in and out of windows and counts each walking step from doorway to doorway while he moves between the houses.


He circles them on the outskirts of the little barren town, waiting for them to divide. He doesn’t wait long. Untrained men have a tendency to split up. For what reasons, Danilo is unsure. But it makes his game—his task—simpler.


The second lone Stormthrower he comes across is sickly pale in the harsh desert sun, a bright, blistering burn across his freckled nose. Danilo follows him through the sparse shadows inside the house. He doesn’t sense Danilo’s eyes, and it grows more apparent when he turns directly into the building and Danilo’s knife.


The dagger plunges into the underside of the Stormthrower’s jaw and he chokes around it, gripping Danilo’s wrist with fading eyes. He dies as ordinarily as any other man, sagging into Danilo’s arm. Danilo grimaces. His knuckles slip with blood. He turns to drop the body off the blade, lessening the blood dripping down the inside of his sleeve.


A woman’s ragged cry breaks the air, echoing within the hollow bones of multiple buildings. Danilo struggles to trace the sound’s direction. Instead, he squints at the puddle spreading over the floor’s ashen surface. His eyes tick back and forth while he connects the events in his mind.


She barrels through the doorway, hair as frenzied in color as the flames rising up her arms, clad in a purple cloak. Her freckles and pale skin are identical to the dead man at Danilo’s feet. The smoke of her anger blinds her, and she throws the flame in Danilo’s direction. He ducks. Flame plumes across the mud-brick wall, its reaches blazing the straw roof to life.

Fire is vengeful. Cleansing. Like the forest fires on the dried borders of the Gentled East and the jungled Untamed North. Though a fire mage has more control than that of a lightning-bringer, their rage is unbound.


Danilo drops onto the dead man and pulls the body atop of him when the woman aims again. The inferno bursts around the dead magic-user, setting the floor aflame. He hooks the dead man’s middle on his shoulder and leaps to his feet, using him as a shield. His sibling chokes down a sob, throwing again for good measure. Her fire splits like before. With a gritted, watery cry, she rushes forward. Before she can draw her sword, Danilo deflects her arm and buries his knife between her ribs. He tears the blade from her, wrenching to gape the wound. She drops faster than the others had. Without a struggled breath.


Danilo rolls the brother at her side, stepping over his head as it bounces. A snap signals the roof’s collapse. He doesn’t care. There’s no repair for a dead town.


Spitting the tang of blood to the sand, Danilo saunters toward the town’s center. The noise lullsthe snap of the wood under heavy flame, the plume of smoke, the shrill wind cutting around his ears. He pauses, gulping steadying breaths through the fabric. A hot sensation rises within his chest and he swallows it down, coughing at the familiar burn in his throat.

With the smoke billowing overhead, he has little time before Audantei’s High General, Llodis Altamura, leads his best troops into the area. And while Danilo struggles to keep his stomach contents where they should be, his fear of the General forces him forward. He’ll double over once he’s alone.


An old well marks the end of the path. When he enters the square, another Stormthrower rounds into view, his eyes nothing more than a bright yellowish glow. Danilo knows who he is, though they’ve never met during any battle or raid. Magus Sohn. The soldiers claim his blood-lust rivals only the Lieutenant Commander of Audantei.


Magus has seen enough action to approach Danilo slowly, with his magic ready for the strike, and smart enough to be prepared for Danilo, despite his dying comrades. Orange flames dance up one arm, blue on the other. The mess of black curls fanning over his eyes does nothing to diminish the light shining from them.


Magus throws his arms to the ground, palms down. Fire consumes the area in a perfect half-circle. A show of skill. The playful, devouring grin morphs into a sneer. Danilo knows Magus has the strength and the skill to leave him as a heap of seared muscle. So when Magus steps forward, drawing his sword, it’s for the same reason Danilo pulls one pitiful, bloody knife from his waist. Magus’ lip quirks.


When Magus swaggers forward, the twinkling coins and pendants on his green shawls become a target for Danilo’s eye. He flings the knife. It sinks two inches from the large medallion sitting over Magus’ heart, deep in the man’s shoulder. Magus grunts, grips the knife, and vanishes into the fire.


Danilo stands in the rising flames, wondering if the Stormthrowers’ blood-lust maniac is as much a coward as he is wanted. And he stands there until he’s certain Magus is not returning.


He never worried about the vengeance of fire, anyhow.


Stepping around the growing half-circle, Danilo finds the anomaly Magus had been tasked to guard: one house in the town with all of its doors and windows battened down and boarded. Danilo drives his wide shoulders into the door at the lock. Tarnished metal snaps away. He doesn’t pause to wonder why it had been easy.


It’s quiet in the manor house. The battened windows seal out all light except the spectral glow casting over Danilo’s cheeks in slits; an illusory cage in the tight confines of the foyer. His stilted breath disrupts a fine layer of dust in the air. A creak rises from the rotten floorboards beneath his weight. Its echo is endless in the vast ceiling overhead. He breathes once. Twice.


Nothing. And it’s the nothing that causes Danilo’s heart to stutter.


He toes into the dark dining hall. Enzo is still here. There’s a foreign sensation Danilo cannot explain burrowing into his lungs. As he continues through dusty and dark rooms, the demand of his mission becomes increasingly poignant. His cautious steps croak through the small entertaining area.


A narrow hall connects the small space to the kitchen. A yellow glow slips from around the sealed exterior servant’s door and reflects against steel atop the prep table. He charges through.


The kitchen door cracks off the wall as the winds tear it from the newcomer’s hands. It caroms in time with Danilo’s erratic heart.

Sunlight sears his unadjusted eyes.


A young man stumbles in, the contents of his bag tumbling onto the floor. Wide hazel eyes linger on Danilo, flicking over the sand dusting his forehead and falling to his blue eyes. The Stormthrower’s hair cowlicks in every other direction, unearthed by his hood. Pots clang together near Danilo’s ear.


Danilo tosses his only knife—gleaming as if made for this purpose—and watches it pass through the intruder. Like a stone in water. Embedding in the wall with a thunk. Red magic coils around the Stormthrower’s chest like a snake. He didn’t flinch at the knife, his scared eyes trained on Danilo.


Danilo shrinks back, the air blown from his lungs, unable to categorize this kind of magic. He remains unmoving until the Stormthrower’s eyes tick past Danilo’s shoulder.

Before Danilo can draw his sword, he’s pinned to the wall. A sharp blade hovers at the base of his neck and a familiar shade of ice blue seizes the room like a hurricane. Water flicks against his face despite the surrounding desert wasteland.


Enzo Sapienti is a powerful man. He has faced off against the General for as long as Danilo can remember. Long before he became the Lieutenant of Audantei. Danilo knows his skill is slim compared to Enzo’s vast years, and his inexperience makes him eager for a fight. But the haunting memory of a soldier’s head, blown off against his leg on the borders of the Untamed North, settles the reality of the situation.


Enzo cages Danilo’s throat in an iron grip. Danilo swallows his need to breathe and meets Enzo’s glare with a sneer of his own. It pulls his notched lip beneath the fabric. Enzo’s steely gray eyes are unchanging through the curtain of brown hair, temples graying where it’s pulled back from his face.


Danilo blinks away the spots in his vision when Enzo’s grip tenses. Magus appears in the doorway. He grips the young Stormthrower’s sleeve at the elbow.


“Easton,” Magus warns, shifting a blood-stained shoulder. His displaced smile glints at Enzo’s failing control.


Danilo takes an involuntary breath in when Enzo releases, the man’s fingers pressed into either side of his neck in warning. His gaze remains locked with Magus in the silent air. Magus drags the young man closer to him, the red leather coat bunched in his fist. The young man jolts when his back bumps into Magus, a trembling hand forcing through his untamed hair.


Enzo rips the fabric away from Danilo’s face. Danilo wheezes shallowly, hand tensed on his sword’s hilt. Enzo’s gaze flickers before falling still. Danilo’s unable to chart the emotion.


“How old are you?”


His voice sounds akin to the General’s when he enters an interrogation. Danilo clacks his jaw tight, prepared to die in his next moments by Enzo’s hand rather than the General’s. There’s a familiar, fiery threat which darkens Enzo’s expression. Enzo presses closer.


“We’re overrun.” Magus’ bored gaze lands on the blood staining the tunic beneath Danilo’s armor.


Enzo speaks over his shoulder. “Take Easton.”


Magus nods, readjusts his grip, and hauls Easton from the dingy kitchen. Neither man acknowledges Easton’s chattering complaints.


Danilo inhales once his feet leave the floor, vision tilting as he’s forced through the kitchen wall. Shards bite into his back and the remaining air is blown from his lungs. His head drives against the compact sand outside.


The amber sun engulfs the smoke-filled sky, mocking the lands with its greedy devour. It joins the skirmish of black spots dancing in his sight until the blue sun-sear encroaches on his vision.


He’s allotted little time to wonder how he’s alive before being swallowed by unconsciousness.

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