Promise of Wrath: Chapter 1
I said that I’d be posting the opening chapter of Promise of Wrath soon, but hadn’t quite imagined it would be this soon. Any spelling or grammar errors are because this isn’t a final copy. Enjoy. Links to pre-order are at the end.
September 1195. Kingdom of Jerusalem.
I do not like the feeling of being hunted, of being pursued by some unknown force. I do not like that itch in the back of my shoulders where I can almost feel someone staring at me. It’s not a feeling anyone should ever get used to, but I more than most knew not to ignore it.
And I was being hunted. I knew that for a certainty. In fact, I’d known it for the better part of the last three days and nights, ever since we’d arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem on my way to Acre. I wanted to turn around and confront whoever—or, as was more likely, whatever—happened to be behind us. But my guide pushed me on, forcing me to follow or get lost behind.
“Not far now,” my guide said, as the first rays of the morning sun broke over the horizon.
We’d been walking through the night and resting during the day, ever since we’d met four days earlier. He’d explained that the night was when our hunter friend would be active, and that it wasn’t capable of following during the day. I still didn’t know what “it” was, but it was enough to scare my guide, and I took his concerns seriously. When a demon is scared of something, you damn well listen.
Technically my guide wasn’t a demon, although those who used to worship the pantheon he followed certainly thought his kind was. His name was Enlil, and he was one of the utukku, a species the ancient Mesopotamians considered to be demonic. Unfortunately, their short, slender appearance, the two small horns that adorned their head, and their long red tails did little to help dissuade otherwise. Still, they were no more demonic than a werewolf or sorcerer.
“We will need to rest,” Enlil told me as the sun continued to rise, and with it a respite from having to keep ahead of whatever was coming for us.
“Do you ever plan on telling me what it is?” I asked after we’d found suitable shade in an old building that had seen far better days. One of the walls had all but collapsed, and the sands had taken most of the lower floor, but the upper was mercifully barren from both sand and the multitude of small animals that lived in the area.
“This used to be an outpost,” Enlil said as he settled in a corner. “It was destroyed during the last crusade.”
“Enlil,” I said, keeping my voice calm, “no more changing the subject. What’s hunting us?”
Enlil sighed. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Yet you clearly are. So you either tell me, or I’ll go back there myself and find out what it is.”
Enlil sat upright. “No, you must not do such a thing. It will kill you.”
“What is it?” I asked again, keeping the fact that I wasn’t exactly easy to kill from my tone. It wouldn’t do to mock his concern.
“You’re scared of someone like you?” I asked. “I find that hard to believe.”
“There are two types of my people. I am shedu. As a rule, the shedu are children of the light; we believe in peace, harmony, and balance within all things. The one hunting us is an ekimmu.”
I’d heard the word before, but had never come across one of its kind. “And they’re not the peace, love, and happiness that the shedu are?”
“They are monsters. Whereas both shedu and ekimmu use elemental power, the ekimmu also use a dark, twisted power—a power you would call blood magic. The one hunting us is named Asag. He is a being of considerable power. A being who has allowed the use of blood magic to turn him into a hideous creature.”
“They’re blood leeches?” I asked, genuinely interested and wanting to understand more about something that was trying to hunt me.
“No, the utukku are not sorcerers, nor are we elementals. The use of blood magic in our kind has different repercussions from yours. It makes them incredibly powerful, much more so than any shedu could hope to combat. But with that power comes insanity, and a twisted appearance.” Enlil looked down at his feet. “I pray you never come across their kind.”
“Why is he—” I started.
“It is male, yes.”
“Why is he hunting us?”
“You. He’s hunting you, not us. He cares little for my kind—or anyone who isn’t him, to be honest. Hellequin’s arrival appears to have sparked some interest from people you would rather not deal with.”
I looked out across the terrain behind us; the constant hills and rock formations made it easy for someone to stay hidden and out of sight. Why did this monster stalk me? What was his purpose? And how had he discovered my being here? “My arrival was meant to be unknown.”
“Then you have a leak that needs plugging. We will reach Acre tonight. Asag will not pursue you into the city.” Enlil laid down, his red-tinged skin becoming darker as he fell asleep.
I dozed on and off for a few hours until dusk once again brought a need for Enlil and me to move.
There was more speed now, being so close to our destination, and I felt a surge of relief when the lights of Acre shone in the distance, but after a short while Enlil stopped and looked behind me. “Run.”
I didn’t need telling twice and the two of us were soon sprinting toward Acre, but there was a low roar that caused me to stop, and freeze while the safety of the city was close in the distance. We weren’t going to make it.
“Enlil, stop moving.”
Enlil did as I asked, looking at me with a mixture of concern and realization.
“You hear that?” I asked as the low rumble that appeared to come from all around us grew in size.
“Asag is here,” he told me.
I risked a look behind me and saw something standing on top of a hill only a few hundred yards away. Its massive shape was masked by the darkness, but I knew it was what had been hunting us.
“Asag, I presume?” I asked.
Enlil looked up at the hill and nodded once. “He must have ignored the pain of daylight traveling.”
The earth around our feet exploded and a dozen creatures tore free, standing just out of reach. Each of them was about two feet high, and appeared to be made of solid rock.
“An extension of Asag’s power. These creatures are a part of him. Destroy these, and it weakens him.” He drew a sword from the sheath on his hip.
I stared at the relatively small creatures. Asag must have been pushing them in front of us while he chased from behind, it was a smart move, and now we were trapped only a short distance from the city.
“Hellequin,” the voice of Asag boomed through the night as the monster began walking toward us. “You are not welcome here. None of your kind are.”
“My kind?” I asked Enlil.
I unsheathed the jian, a Chinese sword, and held it toward Asag, ignoring the small creatures between us. “Feel free to come remove me.”
Asag screamed in rage and charged toward us as his creatures pounced. I knocked one into another using my air magic, trying to ensure they didn’t swarm over us. Enlil stabbed his blade into one of the creatures, and was forced to leave it there, using his natural strength to throw the creatures around, as he made his way toward Asag, where his battle began anew.
I was too preoccupied with keeping the smaller creatures busy to watch them fight, but after a short time the creatures vanished back into the ground, and I turned to Enlil and Asag, moving toward the pair to help my guide.
Enlil was holding his own against the larger Asag, but that soon turned when the small creatures burst from the ground, grasping hold of Enlil. I was flat out sprinting when Asag punched a hole through Enlil’s chest, tearing out his heart and tossing it aside as if it were nothing.
Asag picked up Enlil’s lifeless body and threw it at me, forcing me to dodge aside, right into the path of his minions, who quickly swarmed over me, dragging me down as I threw magic around, trying to give myself a fighting chance. Asag stalked over until he towered above my kneeling position.
“Hellequin should have stayed at home.”
He raised his hand, and I ignited my fire magic, pouring everything into it. The magic forced the creatures off me, and caused Asag to scream out in pain. He staggered back as I got to my feet, ready to tear him apart. But the noise of a horse galloping behind me made Asag’s eyes widen with shock. I didn’t dare risk a look as the huge monster turned and fled.
The first I saw of the horse or its rider was when it passed me and was brought to a halt. The black warhorse was massive—which was for the best, considering the size of its rider. A mountain swung off the horse and walked over to me. He was close to seven feet tall, with a long beard that touched his chest. His bare, muscle-laden chest looked more like an immovable wall. Frankly he looked like he could have juggled horses, not just ride them.
“Hellequin,” the man said, his voice deep and commanding, used to having people do as he said. And for good reason: this man had once been a king, and some things are not easily forgotten.
“Gilgamesh,” I said, grasping his forearm. “Thank you for the timely intervention. Unfortunately, Enlil didn’t make it.”
Gilgamesh picked up Enlil’s body, cradling it in his massive arms. He walked over to his horse, and heaved the body up onto the animal’s back. “He was a good man—a brave man. We will sing songs about him.”
“Asag knew I was coming,” I told Gilgamesh as we walked back toward the city.
“Maybe those who requested your presence will know more. I am but a soldier.”
As we reached the first guard post just before one of the sets of gates to the city of Acre, I began to wonder if I’d imagined that I’d heard a tone of displeasure in his words.
The guard waved us past the checkpoint and toward a second checkpoint posted just outside the huge gates that signified Acre’s entrance proper. The second set of guards consisted of a dozen heavily armed men, all of whom were trying to get people into the city in an orderly fashion. It usually meant shouting at people until they stopped talking, and/or demanding money from them.
Gilgamesh merely walked through the group as if they weren’t there. Those around us stared at the body. Some recoiled in horror, while others quickly moved their gaze toward the ground. Gilgamesh didn’t speak as we walked down small alleyways and through a courtyard, until we eventually reached a large house overlooking the sea below.
The smell of the fresh sea air was a welcome break from the desert of the last few days and I found myself wishing I’d just taken a ship to arrive here. Gilgamesh opened the door without knocking, leaving the horse and Enlil outside. I used my fire magic to give me night vision, casting everything in an orange hue, but it meant I could see no more than a few yards ahead.
Gilgamesh took me further down the staircase until we came to another door. He opened it with a small key and motioned for us both to enter.
“Where are we?” I asked, as I stepped into what appeared to be a huge cavern beneath the city.
“Old catacombs,” Gilgamesh explained. “Been abandoned for a long time. We think they used to belong to smugglers.”
I looked around at the ornate columns and rune work on the walls. “Smugglers didn’t make these.”
“Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “I’m sure you have probably seen a great many things that rival our small efforts.”
“Gilgamesh, the last time I saw something as impressive as this, the dwarves had made it. It’s stunning.”
He stared at me for a moment, before bowing his head in thanks. He took me to the left of the cavern, where a huge iron door had been built, almost as if it were part of the rock that surrounded it. Gilgamesh knocked twice and opened the door, motioning for me to enter.
I had no idea what the room looked like, or who else was in it; all I saw sat in one corner was Mordred. He was chained around the wrists and tethered to the ground, a sorcerer’s band—a metallic bracelet with runes inscribed into it that removed his ability to use magic—sat on one wrist. He was powerless and I could have killed him without thinking twice about it: a fact he knew exceptionally well. He smiled.
“Glad you could make it,” he said. “I’d wave, but my hands are fastened to this seat.”
I stepped forward, my hand instinctively dropping to my sword that hung against my waist.
Gilgamesh stepped in between us. “You will not touch him,” he told me.
“Gilgamesh—” I protested.
“I said no,” he repeated, this time crossing his arms over his chest as if to signify that the conversation was over.
I weighed my odds. Could I get past Gilgamesh toward Mordred before the former killed me? Gilgamesh’s maul was leaning up against a wall a few yards away, but I’d also seen the man punch out a troll, and I doubted Asag would have been able to hold off the old king’s advances for long. I relaxed and took a step back.
“Good man,” Gilgamesh said with a slight smile.
“Someone had better explain why Mordred is here, why he isn’t dead, and why I can’t kill him. Enlil died to get me here. I’ve been attacked by a rock monster. I’m in no mood to play games.”
“I can explain everything,” a woman said from beside me. She looked at Gilgamesh. “Enlil died?”
Gilgamesh nodded. “Asag.”
The woman closed her eyes and breathed out slowly. “Damn it. Damn them all for doing this.” She turned toward me. “For all of the awfulness that has happened, I’m glad you’re here, Hellequin.”
I looked at the young woman who regarded me with such warmth, and felt guilty about even considering killing Mordred in her presence. I’d met her a century ago in Camelot, when she was a guest of Elaine’s. In Sumerian mythology, she’d been known as a goddess of social justice, prophecy, and fishing. She was loved by her people, and trusted by Elaine. I’d liked her immediately, and found her an interesting and warm person to be around.
“Nanshe,” I said, with a bow of my head, “this man sullies your presence.”
“Now that’s unfair!” Mordred shouted. “She hasn’t given me a chance to sully anything yet!”
“Be quiet, Mordred,” Nanshe said.
Astonishingly, Mordred actually shut up. “We need his help,” she said, regarding me once more. “We need your help too.”
“Mordred was involved in a plot to attack Avalon personnel here in Acre.”
“That’s not a surprise; he’s always involved in something. And that tallies with what Asag said about Avalon personnel not being welcome. I assume they’re friends?”
“It would appear that any flame of friendship between them is long since extinguished. Unfortunately, we don’t know what their plot is. When I told Merlin, he insisted he send you along to help.”
I got the feeling she hadn’t been too impressed with Merlin sending me, but I ignored her irritation. “Can’t you make Mordred talk?”
“He doesn’t know the plot itself, just the players involved. And once he learned that you were on your way here, he decided he’d only give those names to you.”
I was stunned. “Wait. Mordred asked for me?”
Nanshe nodded. “We found him in the city and had him arrested, but he will only talk to you about those involved.”
I stared at Mordred. “Why?”
“Why?” he asked. “Because I want to watch your face when you fail. I want to see your expression when thousands die because you couldn’t stop it.”
I looked back at Nanshe, determined to ensure that Mordred’s words didn’t come to pass. “Right, let’s get started then.”