Trevor H. Cooley Author of the Bowl of Souls Series.

Author Archives: Trevor Cooley

The Ogre Apprentice – Chapter One

Howdy folks!

Well I was hoping to have the book finished by now, but I am still working on the ending. There is so much potential in it and I want to get it right. Unfortunately this means that the release is being pushed back a little bit more.

“How much?” you ask.

As little of a delay as possible. Once I finally have the book completed, my wife and I will do our final editing pass and we will release it immediately. When that happens I will let you know right here.

There have also been some delays in getting the cover finished. I hope to be able to reveal that soon.

So in the meantime, I thought I would try to tide you over with chapter one.

SPOILER ALERT if you have not finished Protector of the Grove, you should stop reading here. Otherwise, enjoy!

 

Chapter One

Fist’s dreams were disturbing and violent. This wasn’t unusual for the ogre. He had lived a life often filled with violence. It was part of him, something at odds with his gentle nature. What made these dreams stand out tonight was how vivid they were.

They began with a recurring dream. It was one that Fist had dreamt dozens of times since leaving the Thunder People tribe. It was always similar with only minor variations, and had become so commonplace to Fist that it didn’t cause him anxiety anymore.

He was wearing his apprentice robes and reclining, floating peacefully on a bed made of cloud, unafraid of being so high in the sky above the earth below. Life was perfect. After all, he was learning so many things and he had friends now and Justan had survived his meeting with Jhonate’s father. Fist relaxed in the fluffy softness, content just feeling the hot sun on his body.

His peace was interrupted by a thudding noise. He sat up and turned his head to see his father Crag running at him, his large feet obliterating the clouds beneath him with every step. Fist didn’t know how his father had gotten up there, but following closely behind Crag was an army of winged beasts, dark and terrible.

Crag yelled at him to stand up and fight, but Fist didn’t want to. He laid back on the cloud and closed his eyes, focusing on the warmth of the sun, the part of him that knew this was a dream willing the darkness to go away. But it didn’t work. The sounds of his father’s footsteps and the approaching army grew louder until Fist opened his eyes and Crag stood over him, blood running down his body from several open wounds. His face was as pummeled and swollen like it had been the last time Fist had seen him; beaten nearly to death by Fist’s own hands.

“Go away father,” Fist said sadly. “You’re dead.”

“Toompa!” his father yelled and swung his arm down in a mighty punch. Crag’s fist caught Fist in the chest and knocked him through the cloud. Fist watched his father’s disappointed face get smaller and smaller as he fell unprotected through the sky towards the earth below.

Normally Fist would plunge into water at this point, but this time the dream shifted and he never struck the ground. Instead, he was back in the mountains of his youth, at the edge of the Thunder People territory. His robes were gone and he was wearing only fur wraps like he had in the old days, but he was carrying the mace Lenny had made for him. It was a good thing too, because he needed it for the horde that approached him.

It was at this point that he forgot it was a dream. It was real and Fist was angry; angry and fearful because his tribe was under attack. His face contorted with rage as he swung his weapon back, its magic enhancing his speed. The mace was long and heavy with a spherical head. One half of the head was covered in wicked spikes, the other half with rough ridges and Fist put it to good use.

He punctured and tore through flesh with the spikes and bashed in the heads of the enemy with the ridges. He couldn’t identify the assailants right away. Their faces were blurry. But what did it matter? They fell around him as if they were made of melons, smashing and splattering to pieces, showering him with gore.

Fist exhulted. The battle was easy. The enemy’s attacks were weak, leaving nothing but superficial wounds on his skin. Why had he been so fearful?

He looked around for the rest of his tribe and found himself battling alone, surrounded by the enemy. Had the others fallen to the enemy or had they abandoned him? He didn’t know the answer, but he fought on, destroying the enemy with tireless strikes.

Then something caught his eye. A lone boulder rose above the enemy ranks. The faceless horde clawed at the rock, trying to climb it. Sitting atop the boulder was Squirrel’s leather pouch and by the way it contorted, Squirrel was still inside!

Fist shouted and began forcing his way towards his friend, but the enemy resisted. Something about them had changed. No longer did they burst apart and yield before him. They held firm, each one of them taking several strikes to bring down. Their weapons improved too. Several times Fist felt daggers pierce his flesh.

He ignored the wounds and fought on, bellowing for Squirrel to flee. The pouch continued to move as the enemy climbed toward it, but Squirrel did not come out. Fist arrived at the boulder and started to climb, pulling the enemy climbers down as he went, ignoring the fierce stabbings of the assailants behind him. Finally he reached the top of the rock and stood exhausted. Blood dripped from his body, some of it his, but most of it the enemy’s.

He looked down at the crowd surrounding the boulder and a haze lifted from his mind. The enemy was no longer faceless. To Fist’s horror, they were men and dwarves and elves and even ogres. These were people he recognized. Many of them he had met during the war. And he had mown so many down.

Fist shouted apologies, but their familiar faces didn’t seem to recognize him. They screamed mindlessly, clawing at the rock. Shaken, he picked up Squirrel’s pouch and peered inside.

Squirrel wasn’t there. In his place was a monster. It was a huge thing, a mix of wild beasts, and way too large to fit in that small space. Before Fist could drop the pouch it leapt out, increasing in size and bowling Fist over, sending him plummeting off of the rock into the howling masses below . . .

 

Fist’s legs spasmed and his eyes flew open as he awoke with a gasp. Breathing heavily, he realized that he was in his room in the Mage School dormitories. He was lying on his side in the oversized bed Darlan had procured for him and his head was pressed into his honstule flower pillow. He was also sweating profusely.

With a groan, he threw back his blanket and sat up. As he did so, a pile of seeds fell out of his ear, striking his shoulder and cascading down his hairy torso in a tiny avalanche.

“Squirrel!” he grumbled, brushing the seeds off of his body. Several of them had fallen onto his bed and he swept them off of his mattress with one large hand, knowing that he would have to sweep them off of the floor later, but preferring that to returning to a bed with little seeds in it.

This was a constant game Squirrel played. He had started it the day they had first met. Whenever Fist was asleep, Squirrel would hide nuts and seeds somewhere on the ogre’s body. In the beginning he had done it because he felt safe with Fist and it was his way of claiming Fist as his new home. But along the way as Squirrel’s mind had grown larger and more complex, his reasons for the little game had changed. For awhile it had become a test of his stealth as he tried to see how many seeds he could hide on Fist’s body without being caught.

Now Squirrel’s game was more of a prank, made all the easier because of large variety of food available at the school. People were giving Squirrel nuts and seeds all the time and as a result, Fist found them everywhere. Not just when he woke up in the morning, but everywhere he looked. Squirrel left them in the pockets of his robe, in his books, in his coin purse, and in every drawer Fist used. Squirrel thought it was hilarious.

Fist yawned and, from the stuffy sensation in his ear, he knew there were more seeds in there. He leaned over and shook his head, fumbling at his ear with one thick finger, trying to get them out but he was only able to dislodge a few. He smacked the side of his head, but to no avail.

Squirrel! he grumbled again, this time through the bond, not wanting to wake his roommate. Fist looked around for his bonded, knowing that the mischievous creature was close by.

A sliver of early morning light peered in the room through the one small window, illuminating a tidy place with two beds, two desks, and two wardrobes. Out of necessity it was the largest room in the dormitories and Fist shared it with his friend, Jezzer.

To Fist’s relief, he hadn’t woken the man. Jezzer had already risen, making his bed before leaving. The old man had a habit of waking early and was often up and gone before the ogre. Jezzer was sixty five and the oldest cadet at the Mage School in centuries. He claimed that the older he got, the less sleep he needed. Fist envied the man that ability.

Knowing that he was alone, Fist reached up and palmed the light orb that was mounted in the sconce above his bed. Wincing at the sudden brightness, the ogre’s eyes fell on Squirrel’s pouch. It was sitting on Fist’s desk where he had left it the night before, the runes stamped into it’s deerskin surface glowing softly to Fist’s magesight. It was a gift from Beth and she had made it well. It was nice and roomy, silk-lined, and had extra pockets for storage. The large lump in it told him Squirrel was still inside. The beast was ignoring him, pretending to be asleep.

Squirrel!” Fist commanded both aloud and through the bond. “I see you in your pouch. Come here.”

What? Squirrel replied innocently. His little head popped out of the top and he yawned, pretending that Fist had just woke him.

“You’re not fooling me,” Fist chided him. “Now get these seeds out of my ear.”

Squirrel let out a chattering laugh and exited the pouch, leaping from the desk to the bed to Fist’s shoulder in a series of bounds. His little laugh was an odd thing, sounding more like a snicker than anything else. He had just developed it in the months after the war. He was wearing one of the small vests Darlan had made for him. This one was red with tiny gold trim.

My seeds! Squirrel exclaimed, peering into the ogre’s ear.

“Yeah, you put them in there. Get them out,” Fist complained. His ear canal was itching now. “Why did you do it anyway?

It is funny, Squirrel said.

“No. Not funny,” Fist said. “And not nice.”

Though Fist couldn’t see him, he knew Squirrel was rolling his eyes as he reached one dexterous paw into the ogre’s ear. He messed around for a moment, pulling out seed after seed. It tickled horribly and Fist winced as he tried to stay still, hoping that the animal wouldn’t scratch him with his little claws. Finally Squirrel stopped.

“Did you get them all?” Fist asked, turning his head to look at him.

Squirrel stared back at the ogre, his mouth hanging open in a parody of disgust as he held out an arm caked up to the shoulder with clumps of ear wax. A small black seed was clutched in his hand. He let go of the seed, but it remained stuck to his hand. He shook the seed off and looked around for something to wipe his arm on, worried that he would stain his vest.

Fist could feel his irritation through the bond. The ogre snorted. “Don’t look at me like that, Squirrel. It’s your fault for sticking them in there.”

Sill stiffly holding his arm out to the side, Squirrel began walking down Fist’s arm towards the bed.

“Don’t wipe that on the blankets,” Fist warned. Squirrel let out a little grumble and hopped down to the floor, then went under the bed to wipe his arm on one of Fist’s dirty socks.

Fist stood and stretched. It was an abbreviated form of a stretch instead of the full stretch he wanted to do. When fully erect, the ogre was eight feet tall and the hair on his head brushed the ceiling. His morning stretch now consisted of arching his back and rotating his shoulders, his arms sticking straight out to the sides. His back popped in a series of cracks as he did so.

“I had such a bad dream, Squirrel,” Fist grunted and walked to the wardrobe to retrieve his clothes. “It felt so real.” Indeed, he had been able to feel the blood of the enemies sticking to his body. He’d smelled their viscera as it spilled to the ground. He felt a wave of nausea at the memory and swallowed. “Why did I have a dream like that?”

Squirrel didn’t respond directly, but Fist felt a trickle of sympathy come through the bond. This was often the way they communicated with each other. Even with the growth of Squirrel, many of the things Fist felt and experienced didn’t make complete sense to him. Yet the animal always tried his best to understand. Sometimes he even surprised Fist with his observations.

Fist tried to shake the dream from his mind as he dressed, putting on a button-up shirt and linen pants before donning his apprentice robe. The robe was voluminous and made of a light material so that it wasn’t too warm for comfort. The colors represented Fist’s magical strengths. The main color was black representing Fist’s strength in earth magic, while the blue and gold trim work on the sleeves and hem represented his secondary strengths in air and water. Darlan had even modified it, further since he was training to be a war wizard. She had added a runic symbol to the back, a large blue circle with a lightning bolt through it.

Fist looked at himself in the room’s lone mirror and shook his head. He had been wearing student robes for nearly six months and still didn’t feel natural in them. While wearing the robes he didn’t look like an ogre at all. Someone who had never seen an ogre might think him just a giant of a man with a brutish face.

He waved a dismissive arm at the mirror and turned to look at the large shield and breastplate that stood next to the wardrobe. Now those were the things he felt most comfortable wearing. Despite everything he was learning at the Mage School, Fist was a warrior at heart. At that moment he wished that he was in Malaroo with Justan. There were battles going on there. He could have been making a difference.

Frowning, he sat back down on the bed to put on his socks and boots. The boots were a gift from his half-orc friend Bettie and were runed to keep the leather strong and supple despite the punishment he put them through. He liked them. They were quite comfortable. The socks, on the other hand, were something he wore at Darlan’s insistence.

That thought reminded him of his first business of the day. He needed to tell Darlan what Justan been through the day before. He had spent the first part of the night talking to Justan about it through the bond and the ogre had promised Justan that he would let his mother know.

Fist stood and moved to the window. The dim light outside had told him it was early and a quick glance at the clock tower confirmed it. Darlan had told him she had a council meeting this morning and it would be at least an hour, maybe two before she was done. He scratched his head. What to do until then?

“What do you think, Squirrel? What should we do this morning?” Breakfast was being served at the Dining Hall. He could eat first, but then what? “Should we go to the library and study?”

No. Squirrel jumped back atop the table and shook his head, pulling a nut out of his cheek to chew thoughtfully. Boring.

As much as Fist enjoyed the library, Squirrel became stir crazy after just a few minutes. Lately this meant that the creature spent his time messing with people. The gnome librarian Vincent was his favorite target.

“Hmm.” Rubbing his itching ear, Fist opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a thin book. On the cover, written in Justan’s staccato handwriting was the title, Fist’s Book of Words. Justan had given it to him as a gift before leaving with Jhonate to work on rebuilding the academy. The pages were filled with complex words and their definitions, each word marked with a date.

Fist’s new word of the day was a tradition that had started back during their time at Coal’s Keep. It was a way for the ogre to expand his vocabulary and Fist enjoyed it. Justan hadn’t wanted the tradition to end while they were separated, so he had added enough words in the book to last the ogre a year.

“Let’s see,” Fist mumbled while flipping through the pages to find the current date. He ran a finger down the page. “My word of the day today is . . . skullduggery. Ooh. It means, ‘Underhanded and devious dealings. Trickery and scheming’.” He tucked the book away in one of his robe’s many pockets, a wide smile splitting his face. “That sounds like you, Squirrel!”

Squirrel cocked his head at him wryly.

“I know what we’ll do this morning,” Fist said, thinking of something that better fit his current mood. He pulled Squirrel’s pouch over his shoulder and held it open. “Let’s go visit Charz.”

Okay! Squirrel replied. He climbed to the top of the pile of books on the desk and dove inside.

Fist reached back into the pockets of his robes and withdrew a supple leather glove that he pulled over his large right hand. Then he used that hand to grab his mace from its resting place leaning against the desk. Protected from the weapon’s magic, he rested the haft of it on his shoulder and headed out the door.

The ogre didn’t get to carry his mace with him very often at the school. Though the increase in academy soldiers at the Mage School since the end of the war had led to a loosening of weapon restrictions, it was generally frowned upon for students to walk around armed. Darlan had arranged a few exceptions for Fist since he was training to be a war wizard, though. He was allowed to carry the mace with him when practicing war spells with her at the Testing Center or when sparring. This morning he planned to do both.

Fist smiled as he exited the building. It was the tail end of winter now and most of the region round about was still starting out each morning with a hard frost, but not here. Fist breathed in the fresh and balmy air of the Mage School and sighed. What a beautiful morning. He looked up into the blue sky and raised his arms, letting loose the mighty stretch he had wanted to do earlier.

One perk of staying at the Mage School was that it never got too cold in the winter. Or too hot in the summer, for that matter, thanks to the magic of the Rune Tower. Darlan had explained it to him once. Evidently, in a time long past, the Rune Tower had been infused with a special weather spell. Throughout the year it absorbed any excessive heat or excessive cold. It stored this energy, expelling it when needed to counteract the ambient temperatures and keep the Mage School grounds at comfortable levels. This allowed their gardens to continue producing food even in the harshest winters.

Charz’s quarters were located across the center square in a building next to Professor Beehn’s cottage. It was only a five minute walk from the dormitories, but Fist wanted to stop by the Dining Hall first and that would take him out of his way and all that walking around was going to suck away his time. Smiling, he switched the handle of his mace to his unprotected left hand and ran.

The magic of the mace increased his speed, helping him to run nearly twice as fast as usual. It had been an awkward feeling to get used to in the beginning, but he’d had the mace long enough by now that he was used to it. The downside of using the mace was that the increase in speed was tiring, which was why he carried it in the gloved hand most of the time.

Fist sped around the edge of the dormitory building and cut across the green towards the Dining Hall. The ogre made a fearsome sight, running at high speed with his wicked mace in hand. Luckily, it was still early enough that the area wasn’t crowded with students. Those few that were up and about took a few wary steps back when they saw him coming.

Fist switched the handle of the mace back to his right hand and slowed down just as he reached the open doors. He stumbled inside, his mace held high, causing several students to gasp. Breathing heavily, he lowered the weapon.

One old wizardess stood from her table and wagged a finger at him. “Be careful, ogre! Don’t you know that thing’s dangerous!”

“Sorry, Professor Landrine,” he said sheepishly.

“I don’t care what the new rules are. Weapons do not belong in the Dining Hall,” she grumped, sitting back down.

“Sorry,” Fist said again, bowing his head and hoping that she didn’t demand he leave and return without the weapon. Rules were one thing, but he was an apprentice. If Landrine told him to do something, he would have to do it. To his relief, she returned her attention to her breakfast and the open book beside her plate.

“Fist!” said a younger voice and the ogre turned to see his friend Neau sitting at a table nearby. Neau was a portly young cadet wearing a red and blue robe, showing his strengths in water and fire. Jezzer was sitting next to him in his gray robe. The two men had half-eaten plates of food in front of them. “Come sit with us. ”

“Oh, I can’t,” Fist replied. The two men were part of a small group of friends Fist had cultivated at the school along with Charz and Antyni the elf. He reached up and rubbed at his ear again. “I’m just grabbing something quick and then I need to go to Charz’s place.”

“He won’t like that,” Jezzer warned in his aristocratic tenor voice. “You know how he is about his mornings.”

“I know,” Fist said. The giant liked to sleep in. Some days he wasn’t up before noon.

“Then stay here instead,” said Neau. “We were talking about what happened last night. Did you hear about the newest council member?”

Fist’s ears perked up at that. There had been a lot of speculation over who the last member would be. The rest of the council had been silent on the matter, including Darlan. “Sorry. I’ll meet you at the library later for study. You can tell me then. I have stuff to tell you, too. You won’t believe what happened to Justan yesterday.”

The two students nodded and Fist went to stand in line. To his relief, the queue was fairly short and he didn’t have long to wait. He grabbed a dozen boiled eggs and all the cheese-filled rolls he could stuff in his pockets. The manager of the kitchens, Chef Richard, gave him a dour look and Fist explained that he was taking food for Charz. With a resigned grumble, the man stuffed a stack of sausages in a bag of waxed paper and handed them over.

The moment he left the Dining Hall, Fist switched the mace to his left hand and ran away, the sack of sausages clutched in his gloved hand. The quickest way to Charz would be to cut across the center square and head between the class buildings, but he knew there would be too many people there. So Fist took a more circuitous route, sprinting around the main part of the square.

He enjoyed the run. Moving at such a fast speed was the closest thing Fist could imagine to flying. He laughed as the wind whipped past his face, ignoring the stares of the passersby.

As he passed the buildings, the wide expanse of the grounds opened before him and he looked past the manicured lawns with their winding paths, to the wall that surrounded the school. Fist’s laugh faltered. If there was one obvious thing that showed the Mage School was different after the war it was the wall.

What had once looked like a fifty-foot-tall cliff hanging over the grounds was now only half its original height. Earth wizards worked on raising the wall higher every day, but it was slow going. The taller the wall became, the heavier it was and the more magic it took to get it to rise. In the beginning it had risen several inches a day, now it only rose a few inches a week. Some of the wizards predicted that, at the current rate of decline, it would take years to bring them to their former glory.

The other major change at the school was the academy presence. As Fist crossed the main road he could see the new cluster of buildings and barracks at the base of the wall. Until work on the new academy was finished, students were being taught here. It was part of a bold new relationship between the warriors and wizards, one that was hoped to be beneficial to all. Fist couldn’t see why it wouldn’t be.

Once he had bypassed the main square, he curved towards the storage buildings. While the class buildings were finely built with ornate trim work, these were little more than squat warehouses. Charz’s place was actually a section of one of the storage buildings that had been walled off for his use.

By the time Fist stopped at Charz’ door he was breathing heavily, his energy drained by the use of the mace. The last few months he had spent focused on magical studies had really reduced his stamina. Fist knew that Justan would have had him training more. He made sure never to bring it up during their late night talks.

He didn’t bother knocking. Charz would never have answered. So, his mace gripped in his gloved hand, Fist pulled open the heavy warehouse door and walked in, leaving it to hang open behind him to let some light in.

The interior of Charz’s place was dark and dank, almost cave-like. Wizard Beehn had built in a few windows, but Charz had boarded them back up. The light from the open door illuminated a room quite different from Fist’s. For one thing it was much larger, a necessity when housing a ten foot giant, with ceilings twice as high as Fist was tall. It was also a mess.

There were multiple dressers and wardrobes and desks around the room for the giant to use, but they were mostly empty. Charz was what Darlan called, ‘a pile person’. He kept his clothes piled on top of one table, his other various belongings piled on top of other various pieces of furniture. Scraps of garbage were cast around everywhere else.

As for the giant himself, Charz was sleeping in the corner of the warehouse farthest from the door. He was laying face down on a pile of fine mattresses that Beehn had hauled up from somewhere deep inside the Rune Tower. Charz thought the mattresses a hilarious waste since, with his thick rocky skin, he would have been just as comfortable sleeping on straw or wood shavings or gravel. Fist figured that the giant would have been fine with anything, as long as it was a pile.

The ogre walked up and prodded the giant with his foot. “Charz! Wake up.”

“Mpf,” The giant mumbled and planted his face more firmly into a mattress that looked to be covered with pink silk. The wide wet spot under his face told Fist that Charz had been drooling in his sleep. Fist nudged the giant again, but he refused to respond. The ogre pursed his lips, pondering the best way to wake him, preferably without getting beat on.

Me! said Squirrel and the fuzzy beast exited his pouch, a chunk of bread clutched in one hand. Fist raised an eyebrow. He didn’t remember putting a roll in Squirrel’s pouch.

Squirrel jumped down and scrambled across Charz’ back, heading towards the giant’s head. The little beast let out a little snicker of anticipation and Fist took a couple steps backward, knowing what was coming. “Careful, Squirrel. He might squish you.”

Squirrel crept in close, sneaking over Charz’s neck to press his furry face into the giant’s ear. He then let loose with a loud high pitched, “Chi-chi-chi-chi-chi-chi!”

Charz rose to his knees with a roar. Squirrel skittered away just in time to avoid the rocky hand that slammed into the side of the giant’s face with a thunderous crack.

“Gah!” echoed his booming voice. His mouth was wide open, his eyes confused.

“That’s enough!” Fist said in alarm. But Squirrel was already at the giant’s other ear.

“Chi-chi-chi-chi!”

Charz yelled again and grabbed for him. “Die, you fur-covered mosquito!”

One thing most people underestimated about the rock giant was his speed. Charz’s body was enhanced by magic and despite his size, he moved as fast as a man. Luckily, Squirrel was faster. The little beast darted out of his grasp, then slid down the giant’s back and skittered across the floor of the warehouse to hide behind one of the piles of trash.

“Calm down, Charz!” Fist said, holding out a pleading hand. He hastily began preparing a spell in the back of his mind.

“What the hell was that, Fist?” Charz demanded. He jumped to his feet, towering head and shoulders above the ogre. He was wearing nothing but a tight pair of small clothes and a heavy iron chain with a crystal pendant that hung around his neck.

“I came to ask for your help with something,” Fist said.

“Well that was a stupid way of doing it!” The giant growled, his lips twisted with rage.

“I didn’t know what Squirrel was going to do,” Fist lied.

“Yeah, right.” Charz said and some of the anger left his voice as he let out a wide yawn. “What time is it, anyway?”

Fist knew the giant wouldn’t be happy about the hour. He shrugged and generalized, “Morning time.”

“Morning? You woke me up early and you brought your mace?” Charz asked, eyeing the weapon. “You know better than this.”

“I know you like to sleep longer, but-!”

“And I was up late last night, too! The new council historian arrived and I had to carry all her heavy stuff into the tower!” Charz complained. “Blasted old lady with her trunks full of books . . .”

“I brought breakfast.” Fist lifted the paper bag. “Sausages and eggs and cheesy rolls.”

Charz sniffed at the savory smell rising from the bag and jerked it from the ogre’s hand. “I guess I do usually miss breakfast.” He stomped over to the nearest table and shoved a pile of empty liquor bottles off of an oversized chair. He plopped down onto it, causing the chair to creak in protest as he looked in the bag. “There ain’t that many sausages in here.”

Fist rubbed at his ear again. It really was itching something fierce. Maybe Squirrel had scratched him somewhere deep in there. “I was kind of hoping we could share them.”

“Don’t push your luck,” Charz grumbled, tossing a handful of sausages in his mouth. He spoke while he chewed, “You said something about eggs and rolls?”

Fist dug a half-dozen eggs out of his pockets as well as several rolls and set them down on the table next to the giant. He grabbed another roll out and bit into it himself. As with all Mage School food it was really good. The bread was crusty and the cheese was savory and, as he swallowed and took the next bite, he could already fill the stirrings of extra energy that only magic could provide.

Charz looked at the food in front of him and snorted. “More of a snack, really,” he said and tossed two eggs into his mouth, not even bothering to peel them.

Fist heard it crunching in the giant’s teeth and wondered what it was like? He had never tried eating them that way before. Did the shells have a flavor of their own? He pulled one out of his pocket and bit into it. He chewed, grimacing at the way the shell shattered under his teeth. Not pleasant.

Charz finished off another egg and bit a large roll in half. “What are you doing here, anyway? Ain’t you supposed to be studying with Sir Edge’s mom in the mornings?”

“She’s in a council meeting, so I thought I would come and get you to spar with me,” Fist replied. He took out another egg, but shelled it this time.

“Spar?” The giant raised a hairless rocky eyebrow as he chewed some more. “You mean you want to try out your new spells on me.”

Fist looked away from Charz and chewed the egg, wishing he’d had some salt and pepper. “While we are sparring, I will use my magic. So, yes. That too.”

The thing that made Charz an ideal sparring partner for Fist was the giant’s unique ability to shake off damage. The crystal pendant that hung from the iron chain the giant wore allowed him to heal from most types of wounds. Fist had seen huge holes blown into the giant by Justan’s bow. He’d even seen the giant half melted to glass. Both times, the magic had healed him back to normal.

“But you’re not supposed to be practicing those spells without Sherl around,” Charz said. He pointed a finger at Fist. “She says they’re ‘too dangerous’.”

“I know,” Fist said, rubbing his ear against his shoulder. “But we’re going to do it anyway and hope she doesn’t find out. It’s called, ‘skullduggery’.”

Charz frowned. “I don’t think that’s what that word means.”

“Yes it is. It’s my word of the day,” Fist replied. “It’s in my book if you want to look.”

The giant rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say. Still, you’re crazy if you think I’m gonna just stand there and let you shock me with lightning spells.”

“It’ll be more than that,” Fist promised. “We’ll fight, too. I need the exercise.”

“Yeah, right. If you really wanted to fight, you would have brought your shield and armor.” The giant upended the paper bag into his mouth, knocking in the rest of the sausages.

“I know you like the challenge,” Fist said in a tempting voice.

Charz’s attitude was quite different from the way it had been when Fist first met him. At one time, the thrill of the fight had been the only thing the giant cared about. That mindset had gotten him into trouble and he had spent a century imprisoned next to a cave. He was reformed now and wasn’t a danger, but the thought of a good battle still excited him.

“Hmph,” Charz said, his mouth full. He gave Fist a sideways glance, then swallowed. “You are one of the best fights in this place, I’ll give you that much.”

“Then you’ll come?” Fist said.

“I guess so. I-.” He slammed a heavy fist on the table, barely missing Squirrel, who jumped out of the way at the last possible moment. “Don’t you even think of eating my food, you little weasel!” He swung his hand, causing Squirrel to jump over to Fist and scurry into his pouch. Charz gestured at the ogre. “You tell him that I’m not forgiving him that easy. He’ll have to make it up to me.”

“He hears you,” Fist assured him. He dropped a roll into the pouch. Thanks for waking him. He received a satisfied chuckle through the bond in response.

“Alright, let’s go then,” Charz said. He stood and walked towards the door.

“You’re not going to get dressed?” Fist asked.

Charz’s shoulders slumped and he walked over to the table piled with clothes. He shuffled through them and pulled out a torn pair of pants and a shirt that wasn’t too badly stained. He began pulling them on. “I’m tired of these stupid wizards, insisting I walk around dressed all the time. I’m terrible on clothes.”

“I know what you mean,” Fist said. And he did. No matter how well humans tried to tailor clothes for him, they usually ended up damaged in some way. “Better material is what we need.”

“I know!” Charz replied. “I keep telling Alfred that all I need is a pair of pants that stretch.”

He bent over beside his pile of mattresses and picked up his trident. The three-pronged weapon was large and frightening, as tall as the giant was. The two outer prongs were sharpened like swords while the taller center prong was shaped like a spearhead. The metal had been etched with water runes and Fist knew wounds it made were slow to heal. His goal for the day would be not to get hit by that thing.

They left the warehouse and headed west towards the Magic Testing Center. It wasn’t too far away. Just a quick stroll and they were there. It was a large rectangular building consisting of rows of rooms specifically made for the purpose of testing out dangerous types of spells.

Fist stopped just outside the main door and opened Squirrel’s pouch. “You should get out, Squirrel.”

Squirrel didn’t argue. He usually liked to watch when it came time for Fist to fight, but this time he knew what kind of spells the ogre planned to use. He left the pouch and darted over to the nearest tree.

Fist and Charz entered the building. The female mage on duty saw the two of them approaching and smiled as she handed out a key. “Try not to break the place, you two.”

“Thank you,” Fist said as he took the key from the woman.

It wouldn’t be a problem. Each wall in the place was reinforced by multiple runes protecting them from magical or physical damage. They headed down the hallway and soon arrived at their assigned door. The rooms were all pretty much the same.

Fist opened the door to a space slightly larger than Charz’s place. It was wide and open and empty with a dirt floor. Perfect for the ogre’s purposes.

Charz walked to the center of the room and turned to face him, his trident at the ready. “Let’s get started.”

“Just a minute.” The ogre stabbed the spiky tip of his mace into the ground, then took off his glove and removed his robe. He then placed both the robe and Squirrel’s pouch into a rectangular trunk next to the door where it would be protected from his spells.

Fist picked up his mace, feeling the quickness of its magic overtake him.

“You ready?” Charz asked with an eager smile.

Fist sent out threads of earth and air, wrapping them around his body. He started the strands vibrating. Shimmering sparks of electricity flared up all around him. “Let’s fight.”

Charz laughed and charged.

The Ogre Apprentice Update

Howdy folks!

I’m sorry that updates have been a bit sparse lately. October has been a rough month. My grandmother died and after I came back from the funeral it was difficult for me to get back into the flow of writing. It really sucks and writer’s block is something that I have had difficulty believing in in the past. For me it is usually just something that I can power through, but this time it was a bit different.

As a result, I am afraid there is going to be a delay in the release of The Ogre Apprentice.

I am up and writing strong again, but it looks like the release will be pushed back to mid November. I hate to do it, especially after posting here that it would be finished by the end of the month, but I have no choice. Fear not, there will be more upcoming news regarding the adventures of Fist and Squirrel soon. I will be posting chapter one later this week for your reading pleasure and I will be revealing the cover as soon as it is completed.

In the meantime, here is the back cover blurb: SPOILERS if you have not read Tarah Woodblade and Protector of the Grove.

Fist is the only ogre ever to train at the Mage School. Yet he forces himself to learn faster than the other students knowing that Justan will soon need him. Justan is far away in Malaroo, struggling to win over Jhonate’s father while a deadly shape-shifting assassin seeks his life, endangering those around him.

Fists plans are derailed and his burgeoning powers tested when he receives a visit from the tribe he had long thought dead. An army closes in on the grove, a new race of beasts emerges from the swamps, and a great evil grows in the mountains. The survival of the known lands may depend on the strength of The Ogre Apprentice.

Here is more information I can give you about the storyline. Like with Protector of the Grove, this will focus on two storylines. Mainly, that of Fist and Squirrel and that of Justan and his adventures in Malaroo. There is not much else I can tell you without spoiling a lot of fun revelations, but stay tuned.

Thank you for your patience,

Trevor H. Cooley

 

In the meantime, please check out the audiobook for Eye of the Moonrat, available on Audible, Amazon, and Itunes! Please give it a listen and leave a review. I need reviews!

 

Eye of the Moonrat Audiobook is available now!!

Hey folks! Great news.

Eye of the Moonrat is available on Audible right now! I had approved the audio files just over a week ago and I was just waiting to hear back from Audible. Well, surprise! It’s here.

Here is the link: http://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Eye-of-the-Moonrat-Audiobook/B00OGHSQ54

EOTM-ebook
It will show up on Amazon and Itunes in the next few days.

EDIT: It is on Amazon and Itunes now. http://www.amazon.com/Eye-Moonrat-Bowl-Souls-Book/dp/B00OI2HPO0 and https://itunes.apple.com/nz/audiobook/eye-moonrat-bowl-souls-book/id929809441

I have already listened to it and James Foster, Audiobook Narrator does a fantastic job narrating it. Please listen. There is a sample on the page.

For those of you unfamiliar with Audible, here is how it works. It is a monthly subscription service. $14.95 a month and you get one audiobook a month at not additional cost, plus discounts on all the other books they have available. (Which is almost every book that has an audio form.)

They offer a one month free trial, so if you start the trial and get Eye of the Moonrat, you get it for free! In addition I get a bonus each time Eye of the Moonrat is someone’s first book as a member, so please go for it. I should note that I only get credit for it if the person who gets it stays a member for three months.

At any rate, IT’S HERE. Please share, especially if you have friends that only do audiobooks. I know there are many people that told me it is the only way they read.

Thanks,

Trevor H. Cooley

 

Early October Update and Eye of the Moonrat FREE This Weekend!

What a crazy month it has been since my last post. I have some cool news to share.

First, The Ogre Apprentice release will be late this month. I have been delayed a bit by the passing of my grandmother. She was a great woman and very important to me. I’ll miss her.

Second, I have received the finished audiobook files for Eye of the Moonrat. I am reviewing them right now and they sound great. James Foster did a fantastic job. You guys are going to love it. I will update you again when I am sure of the release date. As soon as I have finished my listen through, I will pass it on to Audible and their quality control review could take another week or two. I am hoping it is out by the end of the month but since this is my first go around with them we will just have to wait and see.

Third, the lovely and talented Renu Sharma is already at work on the cover for The Ogre Apprentice. I love the idea for the cover and I think you will too. I will reveal it as soon as it is finished.

EOTM-ebook

Lastly for now, Amazon is running a promotion for Eye of the Moonrat. The kindle edition will be offered for FREE from today, October 3rd through Thursday, October 7th. Please if you have not yet started the series, pick it up now. This is also a great opportunity for you to share the series with your friends. Please let them know that the book is free. They can pick it up and read it through the Kindle App on their phones, laptops, or tablets if they don’t have a Kindle. Link HERE

Thank you so much. You guys are going to love this new book. So much great Fist and Squirrel interaction!

Trevor

Book Eight Title Announcement and Audiobook Narrator

Howdy folks.

It has been a full month since the release of Protector of the Grove and the response was been wonderful.

August 20th was also the one year anniversary of the day I quit my day job of fourteen years to write full time. I really want to thank all of you for taking your valuable time and actually spending it on reading my books. And for those that tell their friends about them, thank you even more. It is crazy to think that this is my job. I still get a thrill every time I think about someone new reading about these characters that have occupied my mind for so long.

Now to the promised announcement. When I finished Protector of the Grove, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to name the next book. I knew the general plot, of course, but my wife and I argued back and forth about the title. There were several that I liked, but for one reason or another, they didn’t quite fit. Finally I came up with one that both my wife and I could agree on.

Book Three of the Jharro Grove Saga will be titled, THE OGRE APPRENTICE.

If you haven’t read Protector of the Grove yet, MINOR SPOILERS BEGIN

Yes, most of you have guessed what the title means. Fist has a major role in the next book. Somewhat like Protector of the Grove, it will mainly follow two parallel story lines. Fist’s and Justan’s, with Tarah’s adventures taking somewhat of a minor role for now. The release date is planned for October. (Sorry I can’t get more specific than that.) Stay tuned for more details as we get closer to the release.

END OF SPOILERS

Announcement number two has to do with the audiobook for Eye of the Moonrat. After going through many auditions, we found the person we felt best suited the job. His name is James Foster. He has a number of other books under his belt and he is professional and great to work with. You can read more about him and listen to samples on his site http://jamesnarrates.com/ or at Audible. Please contact him and tell him how excited you are to listen to Eye of the Moonrat.

He should be finished with the narration by the end of October and then we will need to submit it to Audible for approval. Again, stay tuned here for updates as we get closer.

Thanks,

Trevor

Mid-August Update and Kindle Unlimited

Howdy folks!

A lot has been going on since the release of Protector of the Grove. I have a couple minor announcements and one major one.

Auditions for the audiobook of Eye of the Moonrat are closed now. I will announce the narrator soon.

Work on book three of the Jharro Grove Saga is underway. I plan on an October release. I have a few titles in mind that my wife/editor and I are still debating about. I hope to announce that some time in the next week or so.

My major announcement has to do with Kindle Unlimited. As most of you know, Kindle Unlimited is a new program introduced by Amazon that is their attempt to create a Netflix-like program for ebooks. It is basically an online library where, for 9.99 per month, you can rent as many books  as you want for no additional cost. The program began last month and I have been unsure whether or not to join the program. LINK HERE

There is a lot of controversy in the independent author community about this program for a few reasons. In order for their books to be eligible, an author has to make their books exclusive to Amazon. This means that we can’t have our books available on any other platform. But since Amazon sales make up about 98.5% of my sales, that isn’t so big of a loss as it seems. The other concern is how much money an author makes from these rentals. The way it works is that Amazon budgets a certain dollar figure and puts this money into a big pot. This amount is divided up equally to all rentals where a consumer reads at least 10% of the book. So if Amazon budgets two million for the program and there are two million rentals, authors get paid one dollar for each time their book is rented.  This is good for writers that sell their books for 99 cents, but not so good for those of us who sell our books for 2.99 or more.

What writers get in exchange for putting their books into the program is added exposure. Hopefully readers that normally wouldn’t take a chance on an independent writer’s books because of the money cost involved will now download the book and give it a try. In addition all rentals count towards Amazon’s sales rankings and so far books that are in the program have been getting a nice boost.

Now I made Protector of the Grove and Tarah Woodblade part of the program a couple weeks ago to see what would happen and both books have been doing quite well. So after weighing the options, I have decided to make the entire Bowl of Souls series available starting today. I am giving this a 90 day trial at which point I will decide whether to keep the books in KU or not.

What does this mean for you, dear reader? Well, the only downside is that for the next 90 days my books will not be available on any other platform but Amazon. I apologize to those of you who prefer other devices, but there are kindle apps for your phones and tablets as well as your desktop computer. This will NOT effect books you have already downloaded (they won’t disappear) and it will also not affect the sale of physical copies. They are still available everywhere they once were.

The good news is that anyone who wants to give the series a try can do it for free as part of the Kindle Unlimited program. So please spread the word. If you have any friends that are fence sitters, this is the time to nudge them off. The downloads made using KU are rentals and not permanent purchases so keep that in mind. I think the most rentals you can have on your kindle at any time is ten.

I am excited to see if this helps increase the visibility for my titles.

Here is a link for those interested.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’ll be sharing more news soon. Thanks!

Trevor H. Cooley

 

Post Book Release Update and Audiobook Auditions

Howdy folks!

So cool stuff is happening. Protector of the Grove came out last week. It is currently climbing the charts over at Amazon. Please spread the word, buy a copy, and post a review when you’re done. It’s how I stay afloat. Also feel free to contact me in the comment section (non spoiler please) or using the contact page (If you want to talk spoilery details or ask me a question)

I will get started on the next book soon, but in the meantime I am taking auditions for narrators for Eye of the Moonrat on audiobook. In order to qualify, you need to have your own recording equipment and go to ACX.com to sign yourself up as a producer. Then you can submit an audition recording to me there. I have a script segment you can download which is a scene from the beginning of the book. I’m not sure how long I will be taking auditions. It could be a couple weeks or days if the right fit comes along. https://www.acx.com/titleview/A3J0WX6LUKN6IQ

This means that hopefully we will be getting the Moonrat Saga books in audiobook format one by one starting this fall. Obviously several things have to come together before then, but I’m optimistic.

I will post more details here as they become available.

Thanks,

Trevor H. Cooley

Protector of the Grove has been released!

Howdy folks.

Awesome news! I just uploaded Protector of the Grove to Amazon.  It could take up to twelve hours for the book to appear but I often have readers tell me they see it within four to six. Please tell me in the comments below when you get it. I’ll come back and post a link when I know for sure the book is live.

UPDATE: It’s live. http://www.amazon.com/Protector-Grove-Bowl-Souls-Book-ebook/dp/B00M3I5EU8/

I have also already uploaded the physical copy of the book to Createspace. It should be available on Amazon within a day or two.

Whoo! This has felt like a long haul. The last month has been especially crazy with all the work I had to do. Twenty page days. Writing from noon to 3 AM. Exhausting.

POTGebook

Please tell your friends! Share on Facebook, Twitter, whatever. Get the word out. We need this one to be a hit!

Thanks for your support,

Trevor H. Cooley

 

Protector of the Grove: Chapter Two

Hey folks. I am getting closer and closer to releasing Protector of the Grove. I am working on the ending and doing some editing work. It is still on schedule for release later this month. I will let you know here and on my Facebook page when I am ready.

In the meantime, here is chapter two of Protector of the Grove to help tide you over. If you haven’t read chapter one, it is HERE.  Also SPOILER ALERT if you have not read Tarah Woodblade yet, stop reading this post and get it now. What the heck have you been waiting for? The events in these two chapters happen after the events of Tarah Woodblade.

Here is the back of the cover blurb for Protector of the Grove as a reminder:

“Jhonate’s reprieve from her father has been cut short. She is forced to return home to Malaroo, bringing Justan along with her. The journey she has avoided for so long has become all the more difficult because someone wants Justan dead.

The rogue horse Esmine, a mythical beast of remarkable power, has been captured by a troupe of dwarf smugglers. They are taking her to the nation Alberri where a gnome scholar awaits with a vicious plan to sacrifice the beast and bind its powerful soul to make a weapon of mass destruction. Tarah Woodblade must gather a group of warriors and rescue Esmine before she is taken to Alberri.

Evil stirs. Darkness is building. But can anyone trust Xedrion, The Protector of the Grove?”

Now that that’s out of the way, here you go:

POTGebook

 

Chapter Two

Jhonate ran away? Fist asked in surprise. Though the ogre was over a weeks’ travel away, lying in his oversized bed at the Mage School, his thoughts were clear in Justan’s mind. Their bond had a long range when they were both able to fully concentrate on the connection. It also helped that Justan’s magic was particularly strong. That doesn’t seem like her.

No it doesn’t. She was offended when her brother put it that way, Justan sent as he lay in his cot in the warehouse at the edge of Reneul’s ruins. The building used mainly to store equipment and rations, but the council allowed him a little corner to use as his own.

Justan had been offered a bunk in the officer’s quarters, but he had refused it. He didn’t feel comfortable there. He had never really been a student at the academy, much less an officer. Besides, Jhonate slept there and with the way she tended to listen to his thoughts, what if she listened to his dreams? Justan found the possibility shudder-inducing.

But Jhonate is good at running, Gwyrtha commented from her spot at the side of his cot. That was another benefit to sleeping in this place. The rogue horse could stay by him instead of sleeping in the stables with the horses. The more intelligent she became, the less she liked being housed with the animals.

Not like that, Gwyrtha, Fist said. The ogre could hear her from his side of the connection, though her thoughts were faint.

Ohh. You mean running in fear, Gwyrtha said. No, Jhonate doesn’t run like that.

Jhonate didn’t see it as running away at the time, Justan explained. At least that’s what she told herself. The way she explains it, she was just taking advantage of an opportunity. Sir Hilt had regaled her family with tales of the Battle Academy for years. So when she overheard her father and Sir Hilt talking about the possibility of sending one of his children to the academy, she decided to volunteer.

She ‘volunteered’? Fist said, his amusement rolling through the bond. By sneaking off into the night and pretending to be an envoy from her father?

Pretending? Why didn’t she ask her father first? Gwyrtha wondered.

She knew he never would have let her go, Justan replied.

Oh. Then she was running, she said matter-of-factly. Justan couldn’t refute the rogue horse’s logic.

What was so bad there that she wanted to leave? Fist wondered.

I don’t know, Justan said. I’ve gotten the picture that her father is overbearing but, knowing her, there has to be more to it than that. He shrugged. I’m sure I’ll find out more as we go.

When do you leave? Fist asked.

Justan could feel a hint of unease coming from the ogre. The day after tomorrow. I haven’t asked Hilt which route we’re taking yet, but I’m assuming we’ll stop by the Mage School on the way. That way you can join us. Fist’s anxiety rose and Justan paused. That is, if you want to come.

I do! The ogre said. It’s just . . . I have a lot to learn here right now and . . . Mistress Sherl might not let me.

Justan frowned. Do you have to refer to her as ‘Mistress Sherl’?

She says I have to, Fist said emphatically. She may be Darlan to you, but she’s Wizardess Sherl to the wizards and she says since the other apprentices have to address their masters properly, I do too.

Justan’s mother had taken Fist on as an apprentice when it was found out that he had elemental magic. Justan understood the logic, but it still felt strange.

Alright, but I think I can convince mother to let you come with me. Justan said and he could sense the ogre’s wince. Wait, you’re just making excuses, aren’t you? You must be having a good time there.

I am. See, Mistress Sherl made the other wizards let me bring Squirrel to class. Also . . . I have some good friends here now. We sit at lunch together every day and they even study with me at the library.

That’s good, Justan said, trying to sound enthusiastic, though he felt a sense of unease rising within him. Why did he feel that way? It was good for Fist to have friends. Who are they?

There’s Antyni. Fist pushed an image of the elf girl through to Justan’s mind. She looked odd wearing a student robe instead of her normal forest garb. They made her apprentice real fast. Somehow she remembers a lot of what Qyxal learned while he was here and her elemental magic’s real close to his too.

Justan nodded, remembering Qyxal’s funeral and the way the elf’s twin sister had linked with him before his spirit had passed on. That’s good for her. I’m glad you two are friends.

There’s also Neau. The ogre sent Justan an image of a portly young man wearing a blue robe with red trim. And Jezzer. This one was a thin older man wearing spectacles. His robe was gray. He’s new. He came here to learn how to use his spirit magic. The wizards say he’s good at blessing and binding magic.

That’s great for you, Fist, Justan said, pushing his unease away. You know, you really don’t need to feel bad if you don’t want to come with me to Malaroo. I understand.

No! It’s not like that, the ogre replied. I do want to come. I just . . . I’m not sure what to do. If you needed me to fight at your side I wouldn’t hesitate.

I know. And that shouldn’t be necessary, Justan said. I mean, it won’t be necessary. No fighting this trip.

You don’t sound sure, the ogre replied.

No. I’m sure. It’s-. It’s okay. Justan sighed. Look, we won’t make it down to the Mage School for another week yet. Think about it. Talk to my mother about it. See what she thinks. I’d love to have you with us, but I understand if you can’t. Do what’s best for you. Justan paused. This was the most awkward he had ever felt during a conversation with Fist. So, um, is there anything else interesting going on?

The new fire wizard on the High Council came today, Fist replied, glad for the change of subject. He’s named.

Really? Who is it?

The Mage School High Council had lost five of its seven members during the war. A staggering loss, but while the Academy had replaced its fallen council members within days, the wizards were still dragging their feet.

Master Barthas. He came from the Mage School in Alberri. Mistress Sherl knows him. She says his fire magic is just as strong as hers.

Barthas. The name sounded slightly familiar to him, but Justan couldn’t recall anything about the man. There were many named wizards he hadn’t met. The wizards he’d known were Mage School professors and most wizards didn’t stick around the school for long once they’d been named.

Oh! And there’s something else. Something big happened, Fist said excitedly.

Something big? Justan’s curiosity perked up.

But it’s a secret, Fist said mischievously.

Justan chuckled. So you’re going to bring it up and then not tell me?

I can’t. I promised, the ogre replied. But I can tell you that it’s good news.

A good-news-type secret. You’re going to leave it like that?

Yes, Fist said. You can see when you get here.

Justan sighed. All right. Well, good night. I’ll contact you again tomorrow and tell you what Sir Hilt says about our plans.

Good night, Justan. I . . . good night.

With that, their contact ended. The bond between them thinned until all that was left in Justan’s mind was a general knowledge of the direction the ogre was in. Justan put his hands behind his head and laid there in the darkness of the warehouse, his mind digesting the conversation he’d just had with Fist.

Of all the people in his life, Justan found Fist the easiest to talk to. Yet this time he hadn’t been able to put his thoughts together. Why had he been so unhappy with Fist’s good news? They were the things he’d wanted for Fist all along, weren’t they?

When he’d first bonded with Fist in Ewzad Vriil’s foul dungeon, the large ogre had been almost childlike in the ways of humans. Justan had wanted nothing more than to share everything with him and it had torn at him whenever Fist had faced adversity because of his race. Now Fist was finally gaining acceptance for who he was. Why had Justan’s first reaction to the news been to dislike it? Was it because these new friendships were keeping the ogre away from him?

A pang of guilt struck him. How petty and selfish his emotions had been. To make things worse, he knew that Fist had felt his reaction through the bond. The ogre was probably feeling terrible about wanting to stay at the school. Justan promised himself that he would apologize to Fist the next time they spoke.

He should be with us, Gwyrtha said. The rogue horse was, as usual, listening in.

I would prefer that too, Gwyrtha. But what’s important is Fist’s happiness. He needs to do what’s best for him.

But we are his tribe, Gwyrtha replied in confusion. He said so.

And we are, Justan sent. They were more than a tribe. Their bond gave them a closeness that couldn’t be found elsewhere in life. That doesn’t change no matter how far apart we might be. But we can’t force him to stay by our side.

The last four months being apart from Fist had been hard. Justan hadn’t realized how much he’d depended on his friend. Despite his relative newness to life among the goodly races, Fist had a surprising amount of insight. Justan knew that when he went to Fist with his problems the ogre would somehow help him find the answer. Now there was only a short amount of time during the day that they could talk and long-distance communication just wasn’t the same as speaking in person.

It had gotten even harder two months prior when Deathclaw had left with Hugh the Shadow on a mission for the academy. If Fist was Justan’s moral compass, Deathclaw was his best strategic advisor. Justan closed his eyes again and reached into the bond to find that bundle of awareness that was his connection with the raptoid.

Deathclaw was far away, farther than Fist, yet their link was nearly as strong. Justan fed his thoughts through the bond. Deathclaw. Can you speak with me?

Justan received a faint acknowledgement, telling him that Deathclaw had heard his request. He waited for the raptoid to be in a situation where they could speak. Hugh the Shadow was head of the assassin’s guild at the Battle Academy and he had his men do much of their work during the night. This made finding a good time to communicate a difficult prospect. Sometimes it would take hours before Deathclaw was in a position to reply.

Luckily, this time was an exception. Justan only had to wait for a few minutes before he felt the raptoid reaching towards him through the bond. Justan joined the raptoids thought with his own and their connection strengthened. The bond opened up until Justan could feel it solidify like a thick cord, bridging the hundreds of miles between them.

It has been a week since you contacted me, Deathclaw began and, though the raptoid tried to keep his thoughts free of emotion, there was a reproachful tone in his voice. I was beginning to wonder if you were well.

Justan was surprised at the disapproving note. The bond would tell you if something happened to me.

True. If you died, I would fall to the ground helpless, Deathclaw replied with a hint of sarcasm. Other than that, you could be in harm’s way and I would remain unaware and unable to help.

 I’m sorry. We’ve been quite busy around here and you haven’t been easy to reach lately.

Hugh the Shadow’s current mission was to hunt down the various remnants of Ewzad Vriil’s army that had become roaming bands of brigands. It was a task requested by the current leader of Dremaldria, Lord Commander Demetrius himself. They already had at least two other groups out doing similar missions.

Nevertheless, I ask that you try harder, Deathclaw replied. We have many periods of rest between raids. We could communicate then.

You’re right, Justan said. I promise to try harder. How are the raids going?

Hugh the Shadow’s ways are strange to me. His behavior is too relaxed, but I must admit that he is an efficient leader, Deathclaw sent. His men work together in a precise manner. They are eager to please him and do their killing well.

That’s good to hear, Justan replied, smiling to himself. When Hugh had approached Justan and requested Deathclaw’s aid Justan had pushed the raptoid to do it, thinking that working with the famed assassin would be good for him. How many bands have you hunted down?

We have destroyed seven. Deathclaw did a quick count in his mind. I have slain thirty of these men on my own.

Impressive, Justan said. And how are your lips? Are they working for you?

They are much better. I have . . . become used to them.

When Deathclaw had asked Justan to give him lips, Justan was trepidatious. He had known it was possible. After all, he had altered Gwyrtha’s body and Deathclaw’s cellular structure had a similar makeup. But the changes Justan had made to Gwyrtha were modifications to body parts that were already there. Deathclaw was asking him to create something new. Ewzad Vriil had transformed Deathclaw’s head into a humanoid shape, but his reptilian face had not been made for lips.

In addition, Gwyrtha had vast reserves of energy for Justan to draw on to make the changes while Deathclaw did not. When Gwyrtha’s body changed, she had to use massive amounts of energy to keep them in place. Gwyrtha hadn’t minded letting Justan draw energy from her to create Deathclaw’s new lips, but he hadn’t known what would happen if he succeeded. Once the energy was gone, would these new lips remain stable? Would they just wither away?

When Justan had brought his concerns to the raptoid, Deathclaw had wanted to go through with it anyway. The change had not been easy. Justan had been forced to create new skin, muscle, and nerve pathways, so that Deathclaw could feel with his new lips and control them.

A lot of experimentation had been involved. The process hadn’t been painful for Deathclaw, but sometimes Justan didn’t get the nerves right and the sensations were disturbing. After several days of modifications, Deathclaw finally had a set of lips that worked.

Then came the true test. Would they stay? When Justan withdrew Gwyrtha’s energy from the raptoid’s new lips, the tissue stabilized. Somehow, the blood magic from Deathclaw’s dragon heritage allowed his body to adapt and accept his lips as part of its new structure.

Then it had been up to Deathclaw to learn to use them. In the beginning it was hard. They got in his way and he kept accidentally biting them. But Deathclaw had a special talent for controlling his body and he soon figured them out. By the time he had left on his mission, he had even been able to use them in speech.

Evidently they were working even better now because Deathclaw seemed pleased. They feel like a true part of me. Sometimes I forget that I didn’t always have them. I am . . . grateful.

I’m just glad they worked for you. There were so many ways that could have gone bad.

But it did not, Deathclaw said. Was that the reason for your contact tonight? I sense there is something else you need to say.

Yes. Actually, something very important happened. Sir Hilt showed up here today. Justan brought the raptoid up do date, telling him everything that had happened since the named warrior had arrived with Jhonate’s brothers in tow.

You will leave immediately? Deathclaw asked, his mind calculating.

Yes. The day after tomorrow.

Then I should come right away and join you, Deathclaw said, coming to a decision. If Jhonate’s father is fierce enough to injure Hilt, he is quite dangerous. You will need me by your side.

Good, but-. We aren’t going there to fight with him, Justan said with a sigh. Why did everyone have to talk like he was heading off to war? I am just going there to meet him and Jhonate’s people. Nevertheless, I would feel better if you were with me. How far away are you from me now?

We are on the far side of your large city, Dremald. Hugh the Shadow calls it The Five Hills region.

Justan bit his lip. He was familiar with the area. That was near Castle Vriil. You are at least three weeks away by foot. Hugh the Shadow hasn’t taught you to ride horses, has he? he asked teasingly.

Deathclaw gave him a mental snort. Those animals would not wish me on their backs. Deathclaw was the height and weight of a man, but one look at his reptilian appearance and fearsome claws unnerved most creatures. Besides, I can run faster than you humans like to travel by horseback.

I’m faster, Gwyrtha remarked.

Even so, you might not catch up to us until we are already in Malaroo, Justan said. Deathclaw was indeed fast, but he wasn’t tireless. He’d have to stop and sleep.

I’m faster! Gwyrtha insisted.

Yes you are, girl, Justan sent in an attempt to mollify her, but then an idea hit him. She really was fast. Faster than any horse and with a nearly limitless stamina. Gwyrtha could run nonstop and meet Deathclaw along the way.

I do not wish to ride her, Deathclaw said, sensing where Justan was going with his thoughts.

Oh! I will get him! I will go and get Deathclaw and bring him to you! Gwyrtha said with enthusiasm. She leapt to her feet in excitement, nearly knocking Justan’s small cot over.

Whoa! Hold on, girl! Justan exclaimed, nearly losing his connection with the raptoid. You’re not leaving just yet. With a grumble, Gwyrtha settled back down and he returned his attention to Deathclaw. I think it’s the best choice. It’s the only way you could catch up to us in time. I can keep you two linked together and she’ll be able to find you along the way.

Deathclaw let out his equivalent of a frustrated groan, something which sounded like a hiss with a low gurgle on the end. Very well. I shall ride her. I will tell Hugh the Shadow I am returning to you. I leave in the morning.

We will speak again tomorrow night, once I have the details of our journey, Justan sent to Deathclaw.

Farewell, then, Deathclaw replied. He withdrew his thoughts from the bond and their connection faded.

I could leave now, Gwyrtha pressed, her thoughts restless.

Justan could sense the eagerness for a long journey within her. I know. But I want to wait until after I’ve spoken with Hilt. He may say something that alters our plans.

She laid her head down on her reptilian front claws. Waiting is boring.

I know, Justan said again. But for now just try to sleep. Time passes faster that way.

Sleeping is boring, she grumped, but obediently closed her eyes.

Justan yawned. He needed to sleep as well, but there was one last thing he needed to do first. He let his mind slip back into the soft whiteness of the bond and centered his thoughts. He reached out to sift through his bonds. He moved past his connections to Fist, Deathclaw, and Gwyrtha, ignoring his smaller bonds to his naming swords and his Jharro Bow.

Finally, he settled on his first true bond; the soul of his great grandfather Artemis. Artemis had been a powerful ice wizard and when he’d died his soul had become the Scralag, a terrifying ice elemental. This creature was sealed within a frost-covered scar on Justan’s chest.

Justan reached for the connection, feeling a chill breeze blow through the bond. He sent his thoughts inside to find that, as usual, the way was blocked. Justan switched to mage sight and saw the blockage clearly. It was a thick web of blue and gold strands; frost magic.

He felt along the blockage until he found what he was looking for. There was a crack. It was small, but larger than it had been even a few short weeks ago. The prophet’s suggestion was bearing fruit. As he had every night for the last four months, Justan pushed his thoughts close up to the crack and called out.

Great grandfather! Artemis! It is Justan. I’ve come to speak with you again.

There was no response at first. Then Justan heard movement behind the blockage, followed by a whispering hiss that vibrated with power. GO AWAY. I AM NOT NEEDED.

Though Justan knew he should have been used to it by now, the eerie sound still sent a shiver through him. The Scralag wasn’t evil, but it was harsh and unpredictable. His grandfather’s mind had very little control over its actions. Artemis! I want to speak with Artemis.

Justan saw a beady red eye peer back at him through the crack. LEAVE US!

The voice was insistent, but Justan didn’t move. He was encouraged by the fact that the frost elemental was actually speaking to him. This was an improvement. In the beginning all it would do was hiss threateningly. Now, after months of persistence, it conversed with him. He had even heard the faint sound of Artemis’ voice a few times.

Please let Artemis speak with me.

WE ARE RESTING!

Justan thought for a moment. How could he coerce his great grandfather to battle the elemental for control? What did Artemis need to hear? Perhaps the family angle would work. Please speak with me. I want your advice. I am traveling to Malaroo to meet the family of my betrothed and her father is not happy that we wish to marry.

Malaroo, said the Scralag, but its whispery voice sounded more human somehow; less terrifying. A dark place . . . Full of spirit magic . . . Home of the holy grove.

Justan grinned. He was there! Artemus was exerting control of the creature. The grove, yes! My betrothed is one of the Roo-Tan. They protect the grove.

Ah, the grove . . . to speak with the trees again . . . the trees . . . The whispery voice sounded wistful. Then a harsh tone interrupted the voice. GIVE THEM ICE! FROST THE LEAVES! . . . Ahh the grove.

Justan! Gwyrtha interrupted. Wake. Listen!

Not now, Justan told her. He needed to hold his great grandfather’s soul there as long as possible. The grove, Artemus, tell me about it.

The leaves . . . FREEZE THEM! . . . They never fall.

Justan, someone is coming! Gwyrtha insisted. Her head was up, her ears perked.

Justan felt her concern through the bond and knew better than to ignore her when she was so insistent. Whatever she wanted, it was important. I’ve got to go, Artemus. Please, continue to fight. Win control of the elemental. Be yourself again!

The voice softened again. The mother . . . Beware the mother.

Justan withdrew his thoughts from the bond and sat up. He extended the heightened senses given to him by his bond with Deathclaw. There were no light sources inside the warehouse, so he couldn’t see anything but a sliver of moonlight shining in through the crack at the front door. His ears picked up the tiniest of scuffling sounds from outside. Someone was walking around the edge of the building. Just one person.

What can you tell? He asked Gwyrtha. The rogue horse’s senses were far more detailed than his. Is it Jhonate?

No, Gwyrtha replied. Her steps are softer than this. She slowly stood and crept into the darkness towards the front doors. She sniffed, but there was no way for the scent to come into the warehouse. There are two sounds. Two someones.

Justan sat up, his eyes barely able to make out Gwyrtha’s form creeping in the darkness. It was probably nothing, but the intensity of her interest caused him concern. These people couldn’t be academy guards. They patrolled in groups of four and rarely came this close to the warehouse. It could be a couple workers out late for some reason, but it wasn’t common for workers to be out at the edges of the site at night, especially with how cold it was.

The soft noises moved around the edge of the warehouse wall and slowly approached the doors. Justan reached for the small light orb in the stand next to his cot, but paused. The sudden brightness would momentarily blind him. Instead, he pulled his blankets back and slid his feet into his boots. He was only wearing his padded winter underclothes, but he didn’t waste time dressing completely. Making as little noise as he could, Justan grasped his sword sheathes at the foot of his cot and slung them over his shoulders.

Gwyrtha crept around the wagons and boxes of stores and headed towards the door. Justan followed, making sure to keep to her path so that he didn’t bump into anything. The sounds had reached the front door and stopped. Justan saw the small pinprick of light that was the crack between the doors go dark as something passed in front of it.

Were they thieves, perhaps? Some of the workers deciding to make off with rations? The war had been hard on farmers all over Dremaldria and food was scarce. The vast number of hidden stores the academy had unearthed in the area after the war was one of the main reasons they had attracted so many to help.

The shadow stayed in front of the doors and made a slight noise. Gwyrtha suppressed a growl and Justan realized that the person outside was sniffing at the crack. What kind of person did that?

Not a person, Gwyrtha sent and she started a chant in her mind as she transformed her body. I am fast. I am hard. I am strong. I am fast. I am hard. I am strong . . .

She ducked behind a wagon as she changed. Justan couldn’t see her form in the darkness anymore, but he knew what the transformation was like. Gwyrtha’s patchwork body and tail were shrinking, her reptilian snout shortening. The scaled patches on her body were becoming harder, like armored plate, and the hairs on her body were lengthening and becoming stiff like wires. Her claws would lengthen, as would her teeth, making this smaller form truly formidable.

The doors creaked slightly as one of the figures outside grasped the handles. Justan had locked the doors as he did every night, but he reached up over his shoulders and gripped the pommels of his swords anyway just in case. He felt the power of his swords overtake him. The magic of his left sword, the one he called Peace, sucked all of his emotion away, leaving his mind in a state of pure calm. His right sword, Rage, stored those leeched emotions and converted them into energy, eager to unleash it as explosive power.

The doors gave a brief shudder as hands outside tried to pull them open, then found that they were locked. Next came a scraping noise as something was inserted into the lock. A lockpick? These did seem like thieves after all. Justan considered crying out and scaring them off, but thought better of it. Better to catch them in the act now then have them cause trouble at a later date.

Not persons, Gwyrtha insisted, then continued her chant. I am Fast. I am hard. I am strong . . .

Are you sure? Justan asked as he heard the lockpick manipulating the tumblers within the lock. They sure are acting like thieves.

They aren’t breathing, she replied.

Justan’s hands tightened on his swords. Not breathing? What could they be? All living creatures had to breathe didn’t they? Are you saying they’re some kind of magical constructs?

Don’t know.

There was a small click as the lock released. Then the doors opened outward, pulled by two figures wearing winter furs. Moonlight poured into the warehouse illuminating the objects nearest the doors.

The invaders certainly looked like regular workmen, one of them with thick blond hair and a downy beard, while the other one had short black hair and a goatee. They cocked their heads in unison and peered into the darkness where Justan and Gwyrtha hid.

Justan pulled his swords from their sheaths and stood, knowing that the moonlight wouldn’t reach far enough into the warehouse to reveal him to them yet.

Get ready to cut off their escape, he sent to Gwyrtha. Then he shouted with a commanding voice, “Stop! What are you doing here this time of night?”

He fully expected the men to react with surprise. Instead, both of them gave him a reassuring smile. If Peace hadn’t been draining his emotions, Justan would have shuddered. There was something wrong with their faces. Their smiles were a bit too wide, their teeth a bit too large.

See their mouths? Gwyrtha said. The rogue horse wasn’t feeling fear, just excitement at the prospect of a fight. No steam.

Justan realized that she was right. With temperatures this cold, everyone’s breath frosted in the air. No such steam flowed from their gleaming teeth. They stepped towards him.

“Stop, I told you! Lie down on the ground!” Justan said, readying himself to attack.

The two men said nothing. They raised empty hands, showing him their lack of weapons, and continued towards him, their steps slightly jerky, almost bird-like. Their overlarge grins stretched even further in an attempt to be reassuring, but Justan wasn’t fooled. Even if Gwyrtha hadn’t warned him, he’d have known something was wrong.

Justan crouched and slid silently to the side in the darkness, hoping to catch the things by surprise. But their heads swiveled to follow him and, as they stepped out of the moonlight, he saw their eyes glow softly. Justan swore inwardly. They had him at a disadvantage. These things could see in the dark. His preparations had turned on him.

Now! he sent to Gwyrtha.

Her dark form leapt from behind a wagon and bore one of them down under her. The thing collapsed under her weight without so much as a gasp of surprise. The second thing didn’t even look back at its companion, but continued towards Justan with its arms raised.

Gwyrtha pinned the strange thing to the ground, her front claws gripping its arms. Her rear claws snapped bones in its legs as her weight crushed them beneath her. Her sensitive eyes saw the creature clearly in the dark and it perturbed her that its expression didn’t change with the pain she had given it. It cocked its head at her and Gwyrtha finally heard a sound coming out of it. A wet noise issued from its abdomen and she felt something sharp strike her in the belly.

Justan felt Gwyrtha’s surprise and pain through the bond and launched himself at the thing in front of him, hoping to end the fight quickly. His mind shifted into the battle state that Deathclaw had taught him and time slowed. The creature’s pace didn’t change as Justan approached. He swung his right arm, bringing Peace down between its softly glowing eyes.

Peace cut through the skin of its forehead and struck bone. Time slowed to a crawl as the sword passed a sudden understanding through Justan’s mind. There was no emotion for the sword to steal from this foe. Its thoughts were strange and alien, but one thing became clear. The creature had but one purpose in being here. It had been sent to kill Justan.

Peace cleaved through its skull, but the thing felt no pain. There was no brain or vital organ within its head, just a knot of unformed flesh. The sword split the head in half, its edge wedging into the top of the thing’s spinal column.

Justan was still processing the information he had received when the thing’s arms shot forward. They made a squelching sound as they extended longer than should be possible. Then its hands grasped his shoulders. Only they weren’t hands any longer, but thick talons instead.

Justan jerked back, but Peace was still bound in the creature’s spine. The talons tore through the flesh of his shoulders, scoring bone and sinew. Luckily, Peace sucked the pain away and Justan was able to bring Rage to bear. His eager sword swung under its arms and pierced the thing’s belly. Justan felt a brief jolt of fear from it just as he released the sword’s energy in a concussive blast.

The explosion made no light, but there was a heavy thud as the creature’s body was hurled from Justan, separating into two pieces before colliding with crates and barrels of supplies. Its claws ripped free and Justan stumbled backwards, striking his hip on a handcart in the darkness.

Justan! Gwyrtha called out in anger and pain. Hurry!

Justan saw her form struggling with another in the blackness and darted for the side wall. The bond told him that she was hurt. Something had pierced the armored plates in her belly and more things were digging into her sides.

He couldn’t help if he couldn’t see. He stumbled over a piece of wood and was unable to raise his arms in time to brace himself before slamming his wounded shoulders into the wall.

He knew he was bleeding profusely. Blood ran over the backs of his hands as he struggled to raise his arms high enough to press the rune on the wall that would light the warehouse. If he hadn’t still been holding Peace in his hand, he wouldn’t have been able to do it, but the sword leeched away his pain.

He fumbled at the wall for a few long moments before his forearm struck the iron plate the rune was on. He was forced to drop Rage to the ground so that he could press his hand to the rune. A row of light orbs hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse glowed to life, bathing the area with white light.

Justan turned towards Gwyrtha’s struggle. She had the thing’s head in her mouth and its arms and legs pinned, but several long appendages like spider’s legs had grown from its torso and dug at her body. He bent and grasped Rage’s pommel just as Gwyrtha reared back, wrenching the creature’s head free from its neck.

She spat its head to the side and leapt back from the thing, but it refused to let go and she ended up dragging its body with her. Gwyrtha clawed at its appendages, knocking several of them away, but the one piercing her belly was stubborn. She gripped it and pulled at it, but it wouldn’t let go.

It won’t die! she exclaimed as the thing stood and pulled back, its legs having healed and its feet splitting into gripping claws.

“I’m coming!” Justan lurched towards her, hoping his arms had the strength to swing Rage at the thing. The sword’s stored energy had been depleted by the force of the blast, but Justan’s pain was rapidly filling it.

Gwyrtha spun and whipped her tail around, striking the thing in its side. The scales of her tail had formed spikes that raked the thing’s body as she knocked it back to the ground. The appendage finally tore free from her belly and she backed away from it, growling as blood poured from the wound.

Justan reached her side as the creature came quickly back to its feet. Several more clawed arms grew from the creature’s body and a new head began to form from the torn stump where the other head had been. This new head had large hawkish eyes and a wicked beak.

You are hurt! Gwyrtha said.

So are you, Justan replied.

Is your one dead? she asked.

“I hope so,” Justan said aloud. His eyes darted to the place where the pieces of the creature had struck and saw no movement.

The thing standing before them reached out with an appendage and speared the ruined mess of a head that Gwyrtha had torn from it. The flesh of the old head turned black and long spikes grew from it.

It doesn’t smell like one of the wizard’s monsters, Gwyrtha said, her eyes focused on the monster as it continued to change.

No. I don’t know what it is, but this is something different, Justan said. We’ll have to tear it to pieces like the other one, but I won’t be much use with my arms like this.

I’ll do it, she promised, her growl increasing.

Okay, here’s the plan, Justan said. You attack it. I’ll go through the bond and focus on healing you. The ability to heal his bonded was one of the few useful things his elemental magic gave him.

Good, she said, preparing to leap. The creature was even more of a nightmare now, its various limbs grasping, an amalgam of teeth and claws.

Suddenly there was a soft whistle as something darted in from outside the open doors, striking the creature’s side. The thing spasmed as arcs of electricity flashed across its limbs. It collapsed to the ground, jittering.

A short elf bounded into the warehouse, another arrow notched on his gray bow. He was old and weathered, his skin dark, his hair short and stubbly, and he wore nothing but a leather loincloth and a quiver slung over his back.

“Yntri Yni?” Justan exclaimed, glad to see the elf.

The ancient elf scowled at him and let out a series of reprimands in his odd language of clicks and whistles, all the while gesturing at the convulsing monster.

They watched in stunned silence as the Yntri bent over the creature and placed his head on its chest. Then he stood back and unstrung his Jharro bow in one smooth motion. The wood of the bow straightened, one end forming a spear-like tip. With a grunt of satisfaction, Yntri Yni stabbed his weapon into the creature’s thigh.

A brief squeal exited the thing’s bird-like mouth as it slowly turned to stone.

THE END OF CHAPTER TWO

Protector of the Grove comes out soon. It’s like days, maybe a week away. Tell me what you think in the comments below. I want to hear from you.

Thanks,

Trevor H. Cooley

 

A sample chapter of Protector of the Grove

 

Hey folks! I know a lot of you have been wondering what Protector of the Grove would be like, especially since Justan and Co had such a small part to play in Tarah Woodblade.  I’m including the first chapter of Protector of the Grove here and, as you can see, in book two Justan is back to being front and center as we follow both his and Tarah’s storylines.

SPOILER ALERT if you have not yet read Tarah Woodblade. This starts off right where the Tarah Woodblade epilogue ended. For those of you that bought the physical copy of the book, you have already seen this chapter as I included it in the back of that version.

Here is the back of book blurb:

“Jhonate’s reprieve from her father has been cut short. She is forced to return home to Malaroo, bringing Justan along with her. The journey she has avoided for so long has become all the more difficult because someone wants Justan dead.

The rogue horse Esmine, a mythical beast of remarkable power, has been captured by a troupe of dwarf smugglers. They are taking her to the nation Alberri where a gnome scholar awaits with a vicious plan to sacrifice the beast and bind its powerful soul to make a weapon of mass destruction. Tarah Woodblade must gather a group of warriors and rescue Esmine before she is taken to Alberri.

Evil stirs. Darkness is building. But can anyone trust Xedrion, The Protector of the Grove?”

Here’s the chapter. Protector of the Grove comes out later this month!

Trevor H. Cooley

 

POTGebook

 

Chapter One

As far as winters in Dremaldria go, this was a mild one. The rubble that remained of the city of Reneul and the Battle Academy was covered in a thin blanket of snow and ice. The area was a hive of activity despite the chill. Laborers in winter clothes climbed over the site, clearing rubble and rebuilding important areas.

The workers were a mix of war refugees and tradesmen from all around Dremaldria. The mood of these people was high. The academy paid well and the rebuild was moving along far quicker than anyone had hoped. With help from Mage School wizards and the dwarves from Wobble, the structures of the new academy buildings grew at a rapid rate.

Justan ran around one completed structure at the edge of Reneul’s ruins. The long rectangular building would eventually be a town government office. For now it was just in his way as he hurried to catch up to his future wife.

“Jhonate, wait!” Justan shouted as she came into view. Jhonate wasn’t wearing her usual hide armor, but was instead dressed for the cold, with a stiff coat over a thick woolen sweater and padded leather pants. Her breath frosted in the air and her cheeks were flushed pink. With the determined way she was walking, Justan was surprised she didn’t slip. It took him several long strides to catch her. “Where are you going?”

Jhonate didn’t answer right away and he fell in at her side, noticing how tightly she gripped her staff. Justan could feel the slow burn of her anger through the Jharro ring she had given him. The gift was a precious one, for it allowed them to communicate privately over short distances. Unfortunately it also meant she could listen in on his thoughts, something that had led to many uncomfortable conversations.

Jhonate’s strides were leading them through what used to be Reneul, heading down one of the roadways that had been cleared of rubble. He was pretty sure that she was heading towards the main camp, but Justan didn’t push her, content for the moment to walk along beside her. A smile touched his lips.

She was as fierce as ever, their betrothal hadn’t changed that. Her jaw was set in determination, her lips pressed into a thin line. A smile broadened Justan’s face. Ah, but she was beautiful. Her green eyes were striking even when they were burning holes into the world around her.

Those eyes darted at him to show that she was not in the mood to be admired. “I must speak with my brothers,” she said.

“Why didn’t you just tell Sir Hilt and my father that?” Justan asked.

“Must I tell them every thing I am thinking?” she replied.

“Well, no. But you did turn and leave while Hilt was mid-sentence.”

“I was done speaking with him on the subject,” Jhonate said, but slowed down, her glare turning to a frown. “Do you think I was rude?”

“Incredibly,” Justan said, though his smile didn’t fade. Jhonate was straight forward and honest in her conversations, a trait which often led to rudeness, but those that knew her were used to it. In fact, Justan found it endearing when it wasn’t complicating things. “He did come all the way here from Malaroo to speak to you, after all.”

“Hilt came to undermine me and deliver an ultimatum,” she clarified, picking her pace back up.

Less than a half hour earlier, Justan’s father had shown up with Sir Hilt at his side to announce that the Roo-Tan people were forming an alliance with the academy. As part of the agreement Jhonate’s contract was being severed. Her father had commanded that she was to come home with Justan in tow.

“He was your father’s messenger, yes. But you know that he didn’t have to come.” Justan replied. Sir Hilt was friends with Xedrion bin Leeths, but he didn’t work for him. “The only reason Hilt would come back so quickly, leaving Beth and their baby at home, is because of the affection he feels for us both.”

They quieted for a moment as they strode past a large group of workers. The men were laboring to clear the center of Reneul where the large arena had once stood. Justan had tested to join the academy in that very arena. Little but the foundation remained now. Justan felt a shiver as he was reminded of the sheer power of the explosion that had destroyed the academy. He had been working at clearing the rubble for four months and still it affected him.

“This is the third time he has come on my father’s request to fetch me,” she replied finally. “He has reasons beyond simple affection to come all this way.”

“Maybe,” Justan said, though he didn’t know what Hilt’s other reasons could be. “Listen, I know you are upset, Jhonate, but to tell you the truth, I’m relieved. Finally we can go to your father and get this over with.”

“Get this over with?” she asked, dumbfounded. This time she stopped completely and planted her staff into the ground before turning to face him, her hands on her hips. Several workers stopped their work to observe the conversation.

“Yes,” Justan replied, not backing down despite the intensity in her eyes. “We have been betrothed for over half a year now and I’m tired of the threat of your father looming over us. Now we can face him and get on with our lives.”

“Do you think I am foolish, Edge?” Jhonate asked, her eyes narrowed at him. She usually called him Justan when they were alone, but she found it disrespectful to call him anything other than his title when in public.

“No,” Justan said slowly, realizing that he was treading a thin line.

She raised an eyebrow. “Do you consider me a coward?”

Justan winced. “Of course not. Why would you-?”

“I am well aware of how much time has gone by,” Jhonate said. “And I am also fully aware that I could have cut my contract short at any time just by asking. Each delay I have made has been deliberate.”

“Okay,” Justan said, confused at where she was going with this. As far as he had known, her contract was the only thing keeping them from traveling to Malaroo. He had assumed that her reasons for staying out the year at the academy and fulfilling her contract was out of a sense of honor.

“No!” Jhonate said and Justan was reminded that her close proximity to him allowed her to sense his thoughts through the ring. “My original purpose for coming here was brought to an honorable conclusion months ago.”

“Then why have we been waiting?” Justan wondered. Everyone seemed so fearful of her father’s wrath.

She turned and strode forward again. I have not delayed out of a fear of my father!

Justan scratched his head and followed. Why hadn’t she talked to him about this earlier? Why couldn’t she just come out and declare her reasons instead of keeping them bottled up for so long?

“There is still just so much that needs to be done,” she said.

Justan still had no idea what she was talking about, but he let it go for now. If they were traveling all the way to Malaroo, there would be plenty of time for talk along the road.

Where are you going? Gwyrtha asked through the bond. The rogue horse sounded confused. Justan sensed that she was still back at the work site where he had left her and there was a bit of a commotion. He sensed laughter around her as well as frantic cries.

Gwyrtha, why is someone beating you about the head? he asked.

This old elf is tired of riding. Gwyrtha replied with a very un-horselike chuckle.

Justan rolled his eyes. Then let him down, for goodness’ sake! When he had last seen her, Yntri Yni had been clinging to her mane for dear life as she galloped past. Justan felt guilty for letting her continue her little joke. The elf truly was ancient; little more than wrinkles and bones. Surely such a rough ride wasn’t good for him.

He is stronger than he looks, Gwyrtha replied, but she slowed down enough that Yntri was able to leap down. She sent Justan an image of the elf tumbling quickly to his feet and shaking his fist at her, all the while berating her in his language of clicks and whistles. Gwyrtha chuckled again. This elf really likes me.

Justan sighed. She had changed a lot over the last few months, her mind sharpening quickly as if, by learning to transform her own body, she had somehow overcome some great hurdle in her development. Be nice. I’ll get back to you later.

She sent him an irritated grunt. I’ll see if Hilt wants to ride then.

Justan turned his attention back to Jhonate. He had fallen a few steps behind her and hurried to catch up. “You have to admit that this alliance between the Roo-Tan and the academy is a good thing.”

“Perhaps.” Jhonate’s brow furrowed. “I would never have believed father would agree to such a thing. At least not so quickly. My contract with the academy was a starting point, but I had imagined that, even with steady negotiations, our children would be fully grown before my people consented to an alliance with outsiders.”

Justan stumbled. “Uh, how many children did you expect we would have?” She didn’t answer the question.

They were quickly approaching the main camp. It sat at the base of what used to be the academy’s main gate and consisted of a long cluster of winterized tents and hastily constructed buildings. Smoke rose into the air from hundreds of cook fires and burning piles of scrap.

The partially-built walls of the academy rose high above the camp. Stoneworkers set large blocks of stone hewn from nearby quarries into place while wizards runed the completed sections with earth and fire magic. The dwarves and wizards had approved the plans together and everyone was confident that the new academy would be far superior to the old one.

Soon they were at the barracks; a long hall erected by the wizards when they had first arrived at the site. The building was two stories tall, its walls made from stone pulled up from the ground directly beneath it. The different coloration of the various layers of strata in the walls made it stand out from the buildings built by regular means.

Jhonate spoke to a guard and was directed to the room on the second floor where their new guests were housed. They headed up right away, but Jhonate stopped Justan just outside the wooden door at the top of the stairs.

“Before we enter there are things we should discuss,” Jhonate said, her eyes focused.

“Okay,” Justan replied.

She pointed a finger at his chest as she spoke. “I have things to say to my brothers and you are not to interfere. I wish I could ask you not speak to them at all, but unfortunately my brothers are likely to ask you questions.”

Justan smiled and shook his head. “You’re that worried about what I might say?”

“My people can be . . . prickly. It will be all too easy for you to say something that could offend them or bring down my father’s ire.”

“Jhonate, I have spent enough time around you to learn how to deal with someone ‘prickly’,” Justan said.

“That may be true, but I am easy to talk to in comparison,” Jhonate replied and Justan frowned at the implications. She added, “My siblings do not like the way my father dotes on me. They have often enjoyed finding ways to make him angry with me in the past.”

“Very well,” Justan said. “Then why don’t you just use the ring?”

“The ring?”

“Yes. If they ask me a question, simply tell me what to say to them,” he explained. “That way I won’t offend.”

Her eyebrows rose and she gave him an approving nod. “I had not thought of that. It is a good idea, Justan.”

“Thanks,” he said. She still had much to learn about the way their connection could be used.

Jhonate opened the door and they stepped in to a wide open room. The first half of the floor was taken up by rows of bunks and small chests where the academy soldiers could store their goods. Most of the soldiers were out working but there were multiple guard shifts during the day and several men were sitting at their bunks in various stages of undress. A few smiled as Jhonate brazenly strode through, but the ones that recognized her scrambled to cover themselves. Some of them saluted Justan. He smiled and nodded in return.

At the end of the main room was a short hall leading to the officer’s quarters. The rooms were small and consisted of little more than what the rest of the soldiers were given, but at least there was a bit of privacy. Jhonate’s brothers were being housed in the back, for the time being, in rooms that were held for visitors. These were more spacious, but just as starkly furnished.

Jhonate moved to the last door on the right and knocked. It opened a moment later and a tall man answered the door. He looked slightly older than her, but Justan could tell right away that he was one of Jhonate’s brothers. He had the same long black hair and his braids were interwoven with green ribbons, though they were pulled back from the side of his face in a different style than Jhonate’s. He wore an academy-standard winter coat but looked uncomfortable in it. The laces in the front were tied unevenly.

His chiseled face formed a frown. “There you are, sister lost.”

“Fullbrother Jhexin,” she said, returning his look. “Are you the best father would send?”

She strode past him into the room. Three other men were inside sitting on cots, each of them wearing similar clothing as the first.

Jhonate raised an eyebrow. “Qurl and Xendrol. I thought this was a joke before, but now I see that father is serious about this.”

One of the brothers uncurled, coming quickly to his feet. He looked to be older than Jhonate and wore black ribbons in his braids. He darted forward, his hand lashing out to deliver a ringing slap across her face. Jhonate didn’t bother to block. Her head was rocked back, but she did not stagger.

“You bring us dishonor!” he declared.

The blow caught Justan by surprise. His hands balled into fists and he took a step forward, his arm swinging.

Stop! Jhonate demanded through the ring, halting Justan’s fist inches from her brother’s face. I deserved the blow.

She stepped in front of Justan and met her brother’s angry gaze. “Are you one of those staying behind, Xendrol?”

He glared and shoved past her towards the door. Justan stood in his way, his bulky form crowding the door. Xendrol snarled and his hand moved to the wooden hilt of a Jharro sword belted at his waist. “Move, ‘dry foot’!”

Justan, several inches taller than the man, refused to back down. He ached to strike at this Xendrol. Brother or not, how dare he slap Jhonate?

Let him go, Jhonate sent to Justan and she said to her brother, “This school will be good for a man like you.”

Reluctantly, Justan stepped aside. Xendrol brushed past him and stormed down the hallway, muttering something about ‘father’s pet’.

“Who else did father bargain away?” Jhonate asked, looking at the others. “Sir Hilt says that two of my brothers are remaining behind to join the academy. Surely not you, Qurl. Father would not send away both his fourth and fifth born sons. Or have you fallen from his favor?”

“Your tongue is sharp as ever, Jhonate,” the man replied. Qurl looked to be the oldest of the brothers and had the bulkiest build, stretching the seams of his winter coat. Red ribbons were woven into his braids. “Father sent me here to make sure you don’t find a way to slither out of this.” He glanced at Justan. “Is this your betrothed?”

Jhonate turned to look at Justan and he saw the red welt that was already forming on her cheek. “Yes. This is Sir Edge, named at the Bowl of Souls. He is a great warrior and bonding wizard.”

Qurl stood, giving Justan an appraising look. He was just as tall as Justan and carried a Jharro staff slightly smaller than Jhonate’s in his right hand. “I have heard that you have a Jharro bow, Sir Edge.”

“I do,” Justan replied.

“May I see it?” Qurl asked.

“It is in my quarters,” Justan said, knowing instantly that he had already made the kind of mistake Jhonate had warned him about.

“Do you often let the tree’s gift gather dust?” Qurl replied, his voice tinged with contempt.

Justan saw Jhonate’s jaw clench. He realized that he had never seen her without her staff at her side. Justan kept his voice level. “I usually keep it with me, but I was clearing rubble when we heard of your arrival. I haven’t had time to retrieve it.”

“You leave your bow behind when you labor and yet you carry your swords?” Qurl snorted and gave Jhonate a wry look. “How low. Are you always so lax when teaching your pupils?”

Jhonate winced. He is right. I am sorry, Justan. I should have prepared you better before coming in here.

What should I say? he asked, wanting to make things better.

Nothing, she replied.

“You are being harsh, brother,” said the youngest of the brothers in the room. He was lounging on his cot, his winter coat unlaced down the front revealing a simple deerskin shirt underneath. His hair was more dark brown than black and he wore ribbons the same shade of green as Jhonate’s. “The trees do not require this.”

“This is true,” Jhonate said. “Father may require that the Leeths Clan keep our weapons at our side, but Sir Edge is not of our family.”

“It is about respect!” Qurl said through gritted teeth. He shot a promising glance at the younger brother.

Justan wanted to say something but kept his jaw shut. Instead he folded his arms, making sure the rune on the back of his right hand was clearly visible, and gave Qurl a level gaze.

“He is my betrothed,” Jhonate said. “I would not be with him if he did not respect his gift.”

Qurl snorted. “Perhaps. We have a long road ahead of us in which to determine the manner of your betrothed. Come, Jhexin. Let us see what these ‘dry foot’ warriors have to eat at this time of day.”

Jhexin nodded and the two Jharro wielders moved past Justan into the hallway.

“Wait, Qurl,” Jhonate said. “I have questions for you!”

“Ask the yearling,” the other brother said with a dismissive wave and they continued down the hall.

“Yearling?” Justan wondered.

“They are remarking on my youth, dry foot,” said the youngest brother, still laying back on the cot.

“Dry foot?” Justan said, confused.

“It is a derogatory term,” Jhonate said, frowning. “My people come from the marshes and most outsiders that come there fear to get their feet wet.”

She nudged her brother’s leg with her staff. “Sit up, Pelgroth, and show my betrothed more respect than the others!”

Pelgroth sighed and swung his feet over the edge of the cot. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “Sorry, fullsister. And I apologize, Sir Edge. If Jhonate likes you, your feet must be at least partially damp.”

“And do I not warrant an embrace, fullbrother?” Jhonate said, raising an eyebrow.

A cautious smile appeared on her younger brother’s face. “Well, I suppose the others are gone.” He stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I missed you, Jhonate.”

“And I you, Pelgroth,” she said with a smile, returning his embrace. She placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him back at arms-length. “You have grown much since I last saw you.”

“That happens when one is gone for over three years,” he said reproachfully. “With you gone, the clan’s clod-head ratio has been out of control.”

Jhonate’s smile faded a bit. “My one regret has been leaving you and Trincy behind.”

He shrugged. “We were quite angry with you about it at first, but that was just because we wished we could do the same.”

Justan found himself smiling. He liked this brother. “So you’re the other one staying behind here at the academy then?”

“I am,” he said, turning an appraising gaze on Justan. “And I am glad of it, too. Anything to get out from under father’s thumb.”

“Pelgroth!” Jhonate said reproachfully. “Do not disrespect father.”

“Come on,” he said. “It is not about respect. It is about freedom. You of all people should know that.” Jhonate pursed her lips, but didn’t disagree with him. Pelgroth spoke to Justan. “So, Sir Edge. You are the one who won my sister’s heart. How did you do that when she does not have one?”

Justan chuckled. “We both know that isn’t true.”

Pelgroth raised his hands and tucked them behind his head. “I think I like you, Sir Edge. Too bad. I think father plans on killing you.”

Justan’s smile faltered. Jhonate grabbed Pelgroth’s arm and sat, pulling him down to sit on the cot next to her. “You must tell me what has been going on since I left.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

“You mean over the last three years?” Pelgroth looked incredulous. “Do you know nothing?”

“Very little, fullbrother,” she replied. “Sir Hilt told me a few things but I did not ask for more.”

“What does it mean when you call him fullbrother?” Justan asked.

“We share the same mother as well as father,” Jhonate replied.

Pelgroth wrinkled his nose. “Have you told him nothing of our people?”

“Just tell me what has happened,” Jhonate said, refocusing him. “All I know is that father is still Protector of the Grove and that he has refused to take another wife from the Prath Clan.”

“The Prath Clan is pretty soaked about it, too,” Pelgroth said, shaking his head for emphasis. “But they never have liked father anyway and he says he is done taking wives. I, for one, am glad of it. Our clan is enough of a snake pit as it is with seven surly women about. Besides, father has become too fixated on Tayle women. Can you imagine the outcome if he took on another wife from their Clan?”

“The Prath might take up weapons against us,” Jhonate said.

Pelgroth laughed. “Sure, they would arrive just in time to find that our other mothers had killed him in his sleep.”

“Do not be ridiculous,” Jhonate said dismissively, but her brow was knit in thought. Justan could sense her mind churning. “I suppose that means no more siblings then.”

“Did Hilt not tell you?” Pelgroth said. “Liz had a daughter about six months ago. Father named her Lizbeth.”

“So you have another sister?” Justan asked. That made twenty six children. When you had that many did another one even matter? Being an only child, he found the concept of having twenty five siblings a difficult one to grasp.

“Possibly two,” Pelgroth replied. He looked Jhonate in the eye. “Our mother is pregnant again.”

“At her age?” Jhonate said, her eyes wide. “Is that safe?”

“The nurses were worried, especially after what she went through with Trincy. The other wives wanted to stop the birth, but Listener Beth said she had a vision that both mother and the baby will live,” Pelgroth said. “The baby will be born some time this spring.”

Jhonate sighed in relief, one hand on her chest.

“Your people seem to have a lot of respect for Beth,” Justan remarked.

“She did save the grove, after all,” Pelgroth said. They gave him surprised glances and his nose wrinkled in confusion. “You are Hilt and Beth’s friends are you not? Did you not know?”

“I saw that she had a Jharro dagger, but I never asked her why,” Justan replied. “What did she do?”

“What did she-? She only fought her way to the top of the highest mountain and brought down a bag of Jharro seeds!” Pelgroth said, his face animated. “You should ask Hilt about it. Both he and Yntri were there when she did it.”

“New seeds . . .” Jhonate raised a hand to her mouth. “Then-.”

“A whole new section of the grove has been planted! Over a hundred saplings have grown and the old trees have wakened with new life! If not for the Roo-Dan, life couldn’t be better!” he said enthusiastically.

“The Roo-Dan?” Justan asked.

“Rag-tag villages to the east of the grove, full of witches and sorcerers,” Jhonate said, pulling on her lip thoughtfully. “A constant annoyance, nothing more.”

“More than an annoyance now,” Pelgroth said. “There are rumors that they have been banding together. Even father is worried. People are going missing.”

Jhonate dropped her lip and looked right at her brother. “Witches’ work?”

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “No one knows for sure, but whole villages of our people have disappeared. There is no sign of battle. It is as if they just wandered off.”

“That would take one powerful witch. Even Mellinda couldn’t do that,” Justan said. Bewitching magic could control lesser minds, but for a witch to take over a human mind, the victim would have to be a willing participant.

“Is this why father is making the alliance with the academy?” Jhonate asked.

“I do not know,” Pelgroth said with a shrug. “Father acts as if he is not worried about the Roo-Dan, but he sent Xeldryn and Sen along with two score warriors to investigate.”

“Then he is worried,” Jhonate said. She looked at Justan. “Xeldryn is the first-born son. Father prefers to keep him at his side.”

Justan shook his head. “If he was setting up this alliance to get the academy’s help right away, this is a bad time to do it. There is little we can do. We are stretched far too thin as it is with the rebuild. Besides, if he was sending for help, father and Hilt said nothing about it.”

“Then why would he go to such lengths for the alliance?” Jhonate asked. “Why send four of his sons away at a time like this?”

Pelgroth gave her an incredulous look. “Seriously, Jhonate? After all that father has gone through to bring you home, you still don’t believe?”

“What are you saying?” she asked, squinting in confusion.

“It is about you!” Pelgroth shouted. “By the marshes, why else do you think our brothers are so angry? With each successive time you rebuffed his requests to come home, father has gotten more and more angry. You saw what he did to Hilt the last time he came back empty handed.”

Justan swallowed at the thought of the new scar that ran from Hilts ear down his neckline. The dread he’d been feeling grow in his stomach at each mention of Xedrion’s fury reached a new depth of intensity. Jhonate was worth any obstacle he would have to overcome, but he was realizing just how much he didn’t know about the situation he was about to walk into.

“I am just one of his daughters and an unimportant one,” Jhonate said, though her voice was uncharacteristically weak and unconvincing. “He has ten now, after all, and I am number six.”

“You are and always have been his favorite, and you know it. Everyone knows it!” Pelgroth said. “Among all of us, besides maybe Xeldryn, he loves you best.”

“I don’t understand,” Justan said to Jhonate. “If he wants you home so badly, why did he send you here in the first place?”

“You have not told him?” Jhonate looked down sheepishly and Pelgroth laughed. “Father did not send her here. She stole off in the night and came on her own.”

END OF CHAPTER ONE

Chapter two can be read HERE