Changing of the Guards comes out April 1. You can pre-order it now from Amazon in e-book and paperback. The e-book is only $0.99 if you pre-order it. For now, check out the gorgeous cover by Pablo Fernandez and read the first chapter here:
Severen never quite lost consciousness on the way to the enemy camp, through the steep, rising hills. His captors wouldn’t let him. Neither would his cramped, dehydrated legs which he kept pumping forward, no matter how much his boots came to feel like leaden weights, especially with all the mud collecting on them. His twisted ankle screamed at him worse and worse. His throat and guts felt dry. He kept wanting to shout – no, plead – for water, but he couldn’t catch enough breath for it. He tried to trace the way they took, but he couldn’t keep his mind or his vision clear enough. Besides, who was he kidding, what good would that do?
Sometimes he thought, Why am I not dead yet? Most of the time, though, all he could think was, One way or another, I’m gonna kill that fucker Rorkaster. Beyond that, he no longer formed coherent thoughts. He just knew that his skull hurt so bad that it must be cracked somewhere, so his brains were probably leaking out of his ears and nose.
The dip and climb of the mountainous trail grew steeper and sharper, so the ropes on his wrists and ankles tugged and scraped crueler, like they were about to wear straight through to the bone. Finally, his body insisted that he slow down. One of the Schomite bandits hit him with a stick, then kept hitting him till he made his feet pump faster again.
The long, prickly rope tethered him and the rest of the prisoners, a marching line of long, lean, cleanly muscled bodies, with marble-smooth, pale-purple skin that gleamed in the high-altitude light, where it wasn’t caked in rancid gore and mud… all Imperial Spirelight agents like himself, the ones his dumb ass had led to this hellish end, he reminded himself. Best he could figure, he was somewhere in the middle of the chain. He couldn’t tell how many of the others were left, in front of him or behind. The rope connecting them kept scraping his wrists all to hell.
A thump sounded somewhere behind him. His bonds pulled tauter, jerking him about, and everything got heavier. His knees felt like they’d shatter as he kept them from buckling.
“What’s the holdup?” someone shouted from ahead, in the sharp, raspy voice of this breed of Schomites of the deep ranges. Severen wondered blearily how many of his fellow captives knew it, or even had the properly adapted vocal cords with which to speak it. Few if any of them, probably. The poor bastards were probably better off that way.
“One of these glowsticks just crapped out on us,” answered another of the blurry, stocky shapes, in a slightly rougher dialect.
“So get ’em back up and keep the line movin’!”
A rough-shod boot echoed against a meaty trunk. “Ah, shit, this one’s dead.”
“Ain’t one of the important ones, is it?”
“How the fuck should I know? It’s another dead glowstick. I been lookin’ at dead glowsticks all day.”
“It dressed up fancier than the others?”
The first Schomite brave barked out a short, sharp laugh. “None of ’em look fancy to me anymore. It just looks like another dead glowstick.”
“Fuck it, just get the others movin’ again, will you? We’re burnin’ daylight here.”
That was true, Severen noted, even though his eyes were too swollen shut to tell. The high mountain sun wasn’t roasting him in his uniform like it had been earlier. The sweat that soaked him went cold. Even the blood drying on his face and hair made his head feel heavier. The gash in his side might be deeper than he’d first thought. He still felt its cooled wetness, sticky inside his shirt and vest. The longer he trudged, the more it felt like a hot, engorged sack shoved beneath his skin, sending sharper flares of pain with every jostle of movement. It bit into his exposed skin, while he sweated under his gear, chilling him deeper through the bones.
“Want I should cut the carcass loose, Chief? Pitch it over the side?”
A pause followed. “Nah, fuck that. Let the dead asshole drag. You’d waste too much time re-tyin’ the rope. Besides, might as well see how many of ’em can take the dead weight. It’s what these glowsticks deserve, anyhow.”
Severen heard one of the captors give a muted shudder and whisper, “I swear, what’s the point of takin’ all these prisoners if we’re just gonna work ’em to death on the way back to the camp?”
From the front of the line, Severen heard Chief Rorkaster shout, “’Cause that’s how we narrow it down to which of ’em are worth our while. Now get ’em movin’!”
Someone struck Severen across the back again. Behind him and in front, the smack of the stick echoed off the backs of his fellow agents. Severen lurched forward with the rest, so his guts jostled and rolled against his cracked ribs and he vomited all over the guy in front of him.
A while later, someone jerked at the rope so Severen stopped in his tracks. So did the one in front. The one behind him must have taken a hair longer to get the message, ’cause that one collided against his back. For an instant, he felt a woman’s breasts against his back. Ella wasn’t the only woman in the company, but that felt like a body almost as tall and muscular as his own, so it was probably her. He said her name, or at least tried. By now, he couldn’t even tell if any sound came out of his sore throat and dry mouth. At least these assholes let him stand still for a moment. He felt thick, soft grass beneath his boots. He lifted his head and blinked deliriously.
Before him, there rose the old wooden stage in the woods from his childhood, the one he and the other kids used to play on. Brecca had just swiped a bag of old spare-part clothes from behind the local tailor’s shop. He’d run giggling with it downhill through a lightly wooded area behind the big barn and dumped it out across the old flat wagon, the one all the kids climbed around on and called a stage while they played dress-up. They tried on whatever grown-up persona they believed came with what they grabbed, so they interacted with each other accordingly. Things got unbelievably goofy and crazy sometimes, on that old stage.
The sky was deep gray… late afternoon. Soon, the younger kids would be called in for dinner or bedtime by their parents. Was that Shrira on the far edge of the stage, half-clad like a scullery wet-nurse, playing with the baby doll? That didn’t seem like her style. By that age, Shrira was usually more interested in burying her nose in some old scroll, or eavesdropping on the grownups while they talked about the latest troublesome news…
Someone slapped Severen across the face. No, he wasn’t a kid playing with his friends in the woods. He was Captain Severen Gris, an International Police Agent of the Spirah Empire, and here he was, captive of the Schomite bandit chief Rorkaster. Those kids on that faraway, long-ago stage had all been Spirelight kids. The only Spirelights here were prisoners of war like himself. One of the Schomite bandits untied him and shoved him forward. His legs gave out and his knees hit the grassy dirt.
“Good a place to start as anywhere, boys,” shouted the chief. “Get the others on their knees and line ’em up around him.”
Severen’s companions were shoved down next to him, on either side. A moment later, someone grabbed him by the wrists and yanked them backwards. He clenched his teeth for how it pulled at the gash in his shoulder. They bound his hands again, this time behind his back, with a shorter cord, along with his ankles.
Severen blinked crust from his eyes. Rorkaster strode by, in front of him. For the first time, Severen got a look at the man up close. He stood almost a head shorter than Severen, which put him taller than a lot of people, taller than any of the local Schomites… but Rorkaster wasn’t a local, Severen reminded himself, not by birth. He stood out from his more wiry Schlogmire cohorts, with his stocky upper body, lean hips, thickly knotted arms, his ears slightly pointier, his tense, gnarled, long-fingered hands that looked sculpted and wired for the exclusive purpose of inflicting pain. Before, at a distance, he’d looked bald as a Spirelight Priest King. Up close, Severen now saw dark, bristly stubble on the crown, cheeks and chin. His skin was a collage of light and dark green patches on ashen white, like lily pads floating in milk.
“Okay, feeding time, come and get ’em, everyone,” shouted the bandit chief. He flung a palm back, indicating Severen and the other prisoners, then he turned to them and smiled. “Just kiddin’, guys. You glowsticks sit tight for a second, hear?”
Severen blinked his eyes clearer. They were in a wide, sunken clearing, surrounded by thick, towering trees. Off to his left, he still saw that old wagon he and his childhood friends used to play on. He blinked again. No, it definitely wasn’t, and these Schomite bandits weren’t kids playing the bad guys in a children’s war-game. Rorkaster grinned down at Severen like a loon.
Severen’s pounding head kept swimming, between one time and place and another. The other kids climbed on and off the stage in various clothes he’d never seen them in. All the malicious hooting and hollering brought him back to the reality of the moment.
Was he in trouble because of what he’d been up to with Shrira, and the other kids knew before he did, so they weren’t talking to him? Here came Shrira’s little brother Chardi, dressed like a Schomite forest bandit. Chardi always loved getting to play the bad guy, when he wasn’t playing pretty songs, when he didn’t know he was serenading his older sister while she made out with Severen in the barn.
Severen wished he was back in that barn with Shrira. He wished he was back in the city-state of Trescha, waking up in her arms.
“So if we ain’t gonna execute ’em, what are we gonna do?” Chardi asked Rorkaster. Today, Chardi sounded a lot like an actual Schomite bandit. That’s because it’s not Chardi, you idiot. Chardi’s been dead for years. It’s the dirt-worshiping prick who whacked you on the head with a sling, back in the gully, earlier today, remember? Not-Chardi said, “Just leave ’em tied up out here to rot alive?”
“You kiddin’?” said Rorkaster. “Fuck no! That’d bother the little kids around here. Can’t have little kids runnin’ around, steppin’ in blood, guts, hair, teeth an’ eyeballs rollin’ all over the place, can we? Plus they’d stink the whole camp up. That’d draw more animals we don’t wanna have to chase off. That, and there’s shit I need to talk about, with this one.” His eyes narrowed on Severen.
“Don’t look like you’ll have much luck. Looks like it’d be nicer to just cut this one’s throat. Otherwise, he’s just gonna live out his days as some brain-dead simpleton, pissin’ and shittin’ himself in back alleys till one day some drunk glowstick goes out to take a piss and trips over his corpse.”
“No thanks to you,” said Rorkaster. “Damnit, Chess, the one interestin’ Spirelight we get alive, and you gotta go give the fucker brain damage!”
“Just hold your shit for a minute, will you?” said Chess. “I’ll go see what the blend lady’s got fresh-brewed.”
Someone nearby shouted, “You don’t quit tryin’ to get up, glowstick, I’ll cut your fuckin’ ankle tendons.”
It took Severen a moment to realize the threat hadn’t been directed at him. His eyes cleared a little. Rorkaster crouched in front of him and grinned. “Anyone still in there, friend?”
Severen tried to snarl venomously at the dirt-worshiping bastard. The sound came out as a pathetic grunt.
“I’ll take that for a yes,” said Rorkaster. “Captain Severen Gris, am I right? Man, I’ll give you this much, you know how to wrangle a crowd. That’s a lot of glowstick agents to keep organized, especially spread out to hold a whole village. More than I like to work with at once, anyhow. You take charge of too many guys at once, gotta tell ’em all what to do, it’s just one more chance for one idiot to fuck it all up for everyone. That must be more of a glowstick skill, am I right? Or maybe not so much, considerin’ how easy it was for my little pack to take out your whole damn command. We ain’t here to talk tactics, though. Naw, what I wanna know is your thoughts on what’s been happenin’ to the livestock in these parts.”
The one called Chess reemerged from the shadows and handed something to Rorkaster. “This is what the blend lady has whipped up. Your boy there, let’s see how much more useful it makes him, or if he chokes to death on it.”
Rorkaster gave Chess a nod, then crouched in front of Severen. He grabbed Severen by the jaw, forced his head back and pried his mouth open. Cool, syrupy, minty-sweet liquid poured into Severen’s mouth and down his throat. Eventually, Rorkaster let go, somehow with more violence than with which he’d grabbed. Severen choked down the strange homespun Schomite medicine, then nearly collapsed forward onto his face. His head bobbed around as though on a loose spring as the concoction rolled through him. Before he knew it, he already felt it flooding his brain. His eyes rolled up, almost all the way back into his skull. He caught the outline of the treetops sharper against the dimming sky.
“That’s it, that’s it…” Rorkaster grabbed Severen’s shoulder in a weirdly friendly way. “Give it a few minutes. After that, I got all sorts of questions for you, and you better remember how to speak honesty. Me, I speak honesty fluidly, so I know how to spot a liar.”
Severen’s head swam as the medicine did its work… back through worlds and ages. Little by little, the Schomite sorcery did its work, repairing his brain, so he finally remembered how he’d wound up here… how it had all started back in the city-state of Trescha.