A Thunder of War – Chapter 1
It’s only a few short weeks until the final chapter of the Avalon Chronicles, A Thunder of War, is out. If you plan on buying it, but haven’t yet pre-ordered, please do consider it, as it really helps with the release of a book:
Now that bit is out of the way, below the wonderful cover is the full first chapter. I know some people like to wait until the book is released, but for those of you who want to read it, I hope you enjoy.
It was meant to be an easy mission for Layla Cassidy and her team. Get into the realm of Norumbega, move her team to the prison where Mammon’s frozen body was being kept, and, after retrieving the body, get out again without any trouble.
The mission had not gone entirely to plan.
“Well, this sucks balls,” Remy said as he sat up against a large tree. He was three-and-a-half feet tall, and part man, part red fox. He stood on legs that were more human than animal, but his entire body—from the tip of his bushy tail to his fox muzzle—was covered in fur. Remy had crossed a witch’s coven several centuries earlier and they’d decided to kill him by turning him into a fox and handing him over to a hunt master. The spell had gone wrong. It had turned him into a fox, but only partially, and it had also killed all twelve witches and deposited their souls in his body, essentially giving him twelve lives. Last Layla knew, he was on life eight.
Beside him, Layla nodded. “It’s not been our best day ever.”
The team had gotten into Norumbega without a hitch. Felicia Hales, a powerful vampire who lived in New York, arranged for them all to go through the realm gate and meet up with Mayor Issac Eire. Unfortunately that was where the good news ended. Issac’s people turned on him, revealing that they’d been working with Avalon all along. They killed anyone who tried to stop them, and Layla’s team were given the choice either to cease fighting, or watch more innocent people in Norumbega die. They chose the former.
The team had been taken to the prison that was their original target and put beneath the trees at the edge of the massive clearing in front of it. The ground was hard and cold with snow still covering large parts of it. Layla was grateful for the warm clothes she’d put on before coming. Her team wore thick jackets over their leather combat armor, with dwarven runes scribed on them. None of them were impervious to the cold, although Remy’s fur probably meant he needed fewer clothes than most, but the runes on the armor meant they wouldn’t freeze to death.
“At least we’re not tied up,” Harry said. “You’d think that, considering I’m the only human here, they’d be a little more concerned with the fact that you could actually kill them.”
“That’s why,” Chloe said, pointing to ten townspeople kneeling at the opposite side of the clearing. Each one had an Avalon soldier behind them. If any of Layla’s team made a move, they would die.
Harry turned toward the frightened men and women. “I didn’t see them. Shit.”
Layla looked over at the prison and caught Zamek—one of the last remaining Norse dwarves—staring at it. “What’s up?” she asked him.
“They’re trying to get inside,” Zamek said, pointing to half a dozen people attempting to force the massive metal doors apart. He was shorter than Layla’s own five-foot-four height, although not by too much as he was just under five feet tall himself, but he was broad. To Layla’s mind he was his own wall. Short, muscular, and unmovable unless he wanted to be moved. He was stronger, faster, and could heal more quickly than a human. Like all dwarves, Zamek was also an alchemist, able to alter the shape of natural matter so long as he had physical contact with whatever he wanted to change. Zamek’s long, brown beard was plaited with various colored beads, and, aside from a long, plaited ponytail, his head was shaved.
The prison itself was huge with fifty-foot white columns outside the front entrance and massive glass domes atop several parts of the roof. Built into the side of the mountain, there was no telling how far into the rocks the gray and white stone building went, or how deep it was.
“So, why are we still alive?” Mordred asked.
Everyone turned to Mordred.
“Seriously?” Irkalla replied. “That’s your big wonder?”
“Well, they’ve captured us, and we went quietly to spare more innocent blood from being spilled, but if they can get in there and get Mammon, why are we here still? What purpose do we serve?”
“They can’t get in there,” Zamek said. “Not unless they happen to have a dwarf working for them. That’s dwarven architecture filled with runes. And I placed my own runes on top of those. They manage to get that door open and everyone in a fifty-foot radius is going to be turned to ash.”
Layla mentally calculated the distance between the prison and her and found that she was okay. “Not to mention the giant,” she said.
“There’s a giant?” Harry asked. “Why is this the first time anyone has mentioned a giant?”
The flame giant had been a surprise when, six months ago, Layla and several allies had chased Kristin to Norumbega. They’d stopped her from freeing Mammon, but she’d woken the flame giant before they could get there, and Layla had been forced to drop an avalanche on him. After dropping the avalanche, the group had dragged him back into the prison, and Zamek had reapplied the dwarven runes. It was not a scenario she wished to repeat anytime soon.
“Sorry, there’s a flame giant inside,” Remy said. “There, now you’re caught up.”
The team watched as the Avalon soldiers gave up on the door, and two of them grabbed a beaten and bloody Mayor Eire and dragged him over to the group, dropping him on the ground next to Chloe.
“You make me wish that guns could be taken through realm gates,” Remy said. “Or tanks.”
The man smiled and patted the two custom-made black swords that hung sheathed from his hip. “These are fine weapons, little fox-man. I think I’ll use them to skin you with when I’m done here.”
“Good luck with that,” Remy said, flicking him the middle finger. “Drako,” Mordred said. “What do you want?”
“Kim and I are becoming impatient at our inability to get into the prison. You will help us.”
Layla looked between Drako and Kim. Drako was the taller of the two, with a bald head and scarring over his nose that looked like someone had slashed him with a claw. Kim had short, dark hair, and tattoos around her exposed neck. Both wore combat armor and used bladed weapons. Guns and ammunition didn’t always survive the travel between realms and had a tendency to explode after making the trip.
“You give me my ax back, and I’ll help,” Zamek said, pointing to the double-edged battle-ax Kim carried in one hand.
While everyone in the team had been disarmed, only Zamek and Remy had any emotional attachments to the weapons they’d lost. Layla looked down at her metal arm and wondered whether she could turn it into a sword and run Kim through before the innocent people across from them died. No, she decided, there had to be another way.
Drako waved to the soldiers by the hostages, and two innocent people lost their lives.
“No,” Irkalla shouted, moving to stand, but she was kicked back down by Kim.
“You want more to die?” Kim asked, a slight sneer to her voice.
“I open that door and a flame giant is going to come out,” Zamek said.
The concerned glance between Drako and Kim didn’t go unnoticed, but Drako shrugged. “We’ll deal with that when it happens.”
“You have fifteen armed people here,” Mordred said. “I’m pretty sure the giant will get a few of you before you stop it. Simple numbers. There’s more of you than there were when it last woke up. And it might not be happy to see us again.”
“Then you’ll have to deal with it,” Kim snapped.
Drako tapped his colleague on the shoulder, and she turned as Abaddon entered the clearing. She was of average height with brown skin and long, plaited brown hair that touched her waist. She wore black combat armor that looked more military in design than any of Layla’s team. Like everyone else who worked for her, she wore a small wooden bracelet with runes carved into it. Layla had no idea what they were for, but she was certain it wasn’t good.
“Devils don’t feel the cold, I assume?” Zamek asked as Abaddon reached them.
She looked down at her lack of jacket and smiled. “No, extremes of weather aren’t something I’m concerned with. But I think that’s a conversation for a time when we’re not on the clock.”
“We’re not getting Mammon for you,” Irkalla said. “You might as well just kill us all and be done with it.”
“Not quite what I had in mind,” Remy said.
Abaddon picked up the mayor by his hair and slit his throat. The white snow quickly turned red as his body was pushed onto the ground. Abaddon put her boot on his back. “Silver dagger,” Abaddon said, absentmindedly cleaning the blade on Drako’s sleeve. “The mayor is dead. Very sad. I will go back into town and pick every child under the age of eight and butcher them all. Want to rethink your position?”
“As we tried to explain to your friends here, there’s a flame giant in there,” Layla said.
“How’s the hand?” Abaddon asked Layla.
Layla flipped her the middle finger of her metal hand. “Works okay.”
Abaddon laughed. “You’ve gotten harder than last time we met. It wasn’t that long ago, was it?”
“Where’s Elizabeth?” Layla asked, hoping that the longer she could keep Abaddon talking, the more time they had to come up with a good enough plan to get away without more people being killed.
“Your mother is murdering people who deserve it. She’s quite good at her job. I have plans for this realm, and you’re getting front-row seats to see them come to life.”
Layla knew that Elizabeth was not really her mother. Not anymore. Her mother had died in a car crash years earlier. But Abaddon had forced Elizabeth’s spirit back into her broken body, and then forced her to become an umbra, utterly fracturing her mind and allowing the drenik in the spirit scroll to take permanent control. Elizabeth was a killing machine, someone who lived for violence and bloodshed. She reveled in it. It was one of many reasons why Layla wanted to kill Abaddon, even if she wasn’t sure it was possible.
“Hey, crazy,” Remy said. “How’s tricks?”
Kim kicked Remy in the chest, sending him sprawling to the ground. “Disgusting half-breed creature.”
“I like her,” Remy said, receiving another kick for his trouble.
“If she does that again, I will kill her,” Mordred said. His words were spoken very matter-of-factly, and Kim froze mid-strike.
“The great Mordred,” Abaddon said with mock applause. “You finally regained your faculties. I did enjoy ripping your mind apart day after day. Baldr, Arthur, even your own brother, Gawain, got involved. It was a lot of fun.”
Mordred stared at Abaddon for several seconds. His expression was completely calm, but Layla knew he would have tried to kill Abaddon right there and then if he’d been able to.
“You murdered my friend,” Irkalla said.
“Probably lots of them. Which one in particular?”
Abaddon almost flinched at the name. “He killed Ares, Helios, and Deimos. He didn’t submit to the methods we used to turn him to our side, so he had to die. The funny thing is, I don’t even know where his body is. Just in a field somewhere. Did you weep for him, Irkalla? Did you weep for Nergal? He was your husband, after all.”
“Ex-husband,” Irkalla corrected.
“This little catch-up was nice, but you’re going to retrieve my brother now. Drako and Kim will accompany you into the prison.”
“All of us go,” Layla said. “If that flame giant wakes up, whoever goes in there is going to have to fight. And we don’t even know where your brother is.”
Abaddon clicked her fingers and a soldier walked over, passing her a scroll, which she gave to Layla. Layla unrolled it, revealing a map of the prison interior.
“How did you get this?” Zamek asked.
“Is this really the time for your questions?” Abaddon asked him. “I’ve written where Mammon is being kept. Retrieve him. Now.”
Layla slipped a tiny hypodermic needle into Zamek’s hand, and he nodded. “I’ll be back soon. Irkalla is coming with me,” he told Abaddon. “Shockingly, I don’t trust your people.”
“Fine. The rest of you get comfortable,” Abaddon said. “Once Mammon is back, I don’t want anyone to miss the show.”
They were left alone as Drako and Kim escorted Zamek and Irkalla to the prison. Zamek opened the prison doors, and they went inside. Abaddon spoke to her soldiers by the entrance before walking off into the nearby forest.
“What is going on?” Chloe asked.
“You noticed the bracelets?” Mordred asked.
“They look like sorcerer’s bands,” Harry said. “Except they can’t be, because they’re all wearing them, and I’ve seen several of them use their powers.”
Sorcerer’s bands stopped the wearer from accessing their power. Layla had worn one on occasion, although never by choice. She hoped never to wear one again. They essentially turned even the most powerful being into something no more resilient than an ordinary human.
“Let’s ask,” Remy said. “Hey, numbnuts,” he shouted to the nearest guard.
The woman looked confused for a moment, before her expression became irritated and she walked over. “You shout out again and I’ll have your tongue,” she told Remy.
“Sure. Hey, Abaddon said you guys were all going to do something awful here, and you have to wear those bracelets so it doesn’t affect you, but you do know that the runes on them are wrong, yes?”
“What?” the woman asked, slightly concerned.
“Yeah, that’s not a dwarven rune,” Harry said. “It’s just a squiggle. I’ve noticed it on some but not on others.”
The woman looked genuinely concerned and walked over to talk to another soldier. Layla watched the pair look at each other’s bracelets. They in turn went on to another one.
“They don’t trust Abaddon,” Mordred said.
“She’s not exactly shy about wasting lives,” Chloe said.
Over by the prison, Abaddon had returned from the forest and was giving orders for the remaining hostages to be taken away. The soldier walked over to Layla’s group and hit Remy in the side of the jaw, knocking him to the ground. “Next time you think to sow dissent between us, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Why don’t you trust Abaddon?” Layla asked.
The soldier stepped toward Layla, who got to her feet.
“You punch me, I’ll take your hand, and then your life,” Layla told her, her voice utterly calm and devoid of anything that suggested she was lying. “Your leverage just walked away, so what are you going to do, exactly?”
The soldier considered her options. Layla was pretty sure that her reputation as a fighter had drifted to Abaddon’s soldiers. The last six months had been hard on Layla, and she in turn had become harder. She knew she was still capable of laughing and joking with her friends— when she saw them—but in a fight, she no longer second-guessed her- self. She’d had excellent teachers, and she knew without hesitation that she would take the soldier’s hand off. There were nearly thirty soldiers in the clearing, and Layla wasn’t certain that her group would be able to take them all, but the woman in front of her would die. She would make sure of it.
The soldier took a step back, then turned and walked away, allowing Layla to sit down again.
“You okay?” Layla asked Remy who rubbed his jaw.
“It’s been a long day,” Layla said.
“It’s about to get longer,” Harry said, pointing to the entrance of the prison as Zamek emerged with Irkalla followed by two soldiers carrying an unconscious Mammon.
Mammon was a huge man. At nearly seven feet tall with a short, black beard and long, dark hair that fell freely over his shoulders, he cut an imposing figure. He wore red robes that were emblazoned with dozens of runes.
“I don’t think they can remove the robes,” Harry said.
Abaddon and Zamek argued, and she motioned for her soldiers to retrieve Layla and the rest of the team.
Zamek walked out in front of them, striding across the clearing toward the group. “Abaddon wants us all together.”
“When it all goes to shit, get inside the prison,” Mordred said. “Move fast, don’t stop.”
“What about the prisoners in the realm?” Harry asked.
“They’re dead,” Zamek said softly. “Drako was bragging about how we’ll get to see some new weapon they have. Apparently the death of everyone in this realm is just the start. Those bracelets protect them from the effect, or something like that. I’ve seen similar runes before.”
“Hurry the hell up,” Drako shouted.
Zamek made a big deal about helping Harry to his feet. “He’s only human,” he said.
They walked over to Abaddon, where they were forced back to the ground at sword-point.
“My brother,” Abaddon said in a loving tone. “Once the others are reunited, we will kill Lucifer for betraying us, and then Asmodeus will be without equal.”
“You mean Arthur?” Mordred asked. “I know you used Asmodeus’s spirit and power to ensure Arthur was conceived, but you don’t really think Arthur and Asmodeus are one and the same, do you?”
Abaddon went to strike Mordred, but stopped. “We will crush you all,” she whispered, lips curling in anger. “Arthur and Avalon are, at this exact moment in time, on their way to Greenland to destroy your little rebellion. They’ll break your leaders and kill everyone else. You’re all done.”
Fear filled Layla. Her friends, people she loved and cared for, were still in Greenland. They had to warn them somehow, had to get out of the realm. She forced herself to be calm. Hopefully Avalon hadn’t started their attack yet and they still had time. The fact that time moved slower in Norumbega than it did on the Earth realm might work in their favor.
“So, this whole thing was a setup?” Layla asked.
Abaddon nodded. “I was advised not to open the prison while there were dwarven runes on it. No one was sure what they did since it’s ancient dwarven we’re talking about. I knew that eventually you’d send your expert here to get Mammon out—he’s too dangerous to let loose, although I didn’t expect him to be so placid.”
Layla knew that Zamek had managed to inject Mammon with the syringe she’d given him. It had been made by Persephone and Hades to ensure that Mammon stayed quiet for long enough to get him out of the realm.
“And Felicia?” Mordred asked.
“Felicia’s people have worked for me for some time now, so it wasn’t hard to make them realize that I am the person they need to back. Felicia is dead, by the way.”
The news caused anger to bubble up inside Layla. She’d liked Felicia. Abaddon and her people would pay for what they’d done.
“No one wants to be on the losing side,” Remy said. “Especially not people who sell their allegiances.”
Drako tried to kick Remy, but he leapt on him and drew one of the blades out of his belt as he scrambled up his torso. Drako screamed as Remy drove the sword into his throat. With one hand still on the hilt of the sword, he vaulted up onto his head, dragging the sword out as he went. Remy dropped to the ground and removed the second blade from Drako’s belt.
Blood poured from Drako’s wound as Remy kept moving. He ducked Kim’s blade and got close enough to drag Zamek’s ax free and toss it to the dwarf, who was already running toward them. Zamek caught the ax in midair and changed direction at the last moment, driving it toward Abaddon, who blasted him in the chest with her necromancy power.
Dozens of soldiers attacked the group, and blood magic poured out of Kim’s hands, smashing into Harry before he could avoid it. Chloe dragged him away toward the prison entrance as he screamed in pain. Irkalla tackled Kim to the ground, punching her in the face, before rolling off her and running up the steps to the doors.
Mordred blasted Abaddon in the chest with a torrent of air before she could do anything to aid her soldiers. Layla was blocked from get- ting to the prison by the soldier who had threatened to hit her. The soldier drew a curved knife, and Layla’s metal arm instantly changed shape into a broadsword. She drove the blade up toward the soldier’s chest, causing the woman to dodge back briefly before darting forward with her dagger. Layla moved to the side and grabbed the silver blade, absorbing the metal into her limb. The silver content in the blade caused her a modicum of irritation as it merged with the titanium and steel of her arm; it felt as though she were holding hot rocks. She swiped her arm-blade across the soldier’s chest, bypassing the runes on the armor, cutting through the leather as if it wasn’t even there, and killing her.
Layla avoided a blade-swipe from a second soldier as Mordred shouted at her to hurry. He’d created a shield of dense air that he was using to keep people back, but it wouldn’t last forever. Magical power was being flung around the clearing with reckless aplomb by those few soldiers who were sorcerers, and while Mordred was one of the strongest sorcerers the world had ever seen, his power was not infinite.
Layla ran up the stairs with Irkalla behind her, and a few seconds later Zamek and Chloe shut the doors. Killing Drako and getting everyone into the prison had taken moments, but to Layla it had felt like a lifetime. And yet they still weren’t safe.