The Imperial Legion is about to launch its campaign to wipe out the Karkatim people, whose only hope are the elite but hopelessly outnumbered Keshu Deathmen. The Keshu are a force of assassins sworn to following an ancient death cult, and their leader is Takuri, an ancient but deadly warrior and political powerhouse. Takuri is about to make one last effort to convince the Legion commander to turn back.
The night was clear.
Only the watch fires marred the perfect darkness. Not a single star was veiled from sight – the constellations were stretched out in the sky as if in a painting.
It was very cold.
The legions had been force-marched for weeks, finally reaching the Southern borders in a weary wave driven by terror, rage, and the twin promise of revenge and spoil.
“We’ll give those Southern pagans a whipping they’ll never forget,” the coarse veterans promised trembling recruits. “They’ll never know what hit them.” Alcohol and hashish had eased the young men’s fears, filling them with foolish bravado. Shiny breastplates, newly forged swords, and young blood now lay below the stars in a great mass of humanity. Tomorrow, they would be marching deep into Karkatim territory, and war would be unavoidable.
General Valerian was hardly concerned with great thoughts, however, for he had just received word that his camp was about to receive a visitor. The Sixteenth Legion, vanguard of battle, had been notified by Karkatim outriders that a delegation approached. Whether spies or negotiators, the General hardly cared. His response would be the same in either case – his orders were clear.
He stood straight as a statue in the semi-darkness of his tent, the fire burning gently in its brazier. Reports lay scattered on his desk, and bodyguards stood at attention next to the door of his tent. Footsteps crunched in the dirt outside. Taking a deep breath, Valerian stood to attention.
A gigantic Karkatim warrior entered the tent, tall enough that his linen turban scraped the top of the tent.
“His Greatness, Lord Takuri,” the man rumbled as he turned and bowed deeply.
A short man entered behind him, richly robed. The small man wore many rings on his fingers. Valerian had to suppress a gasp – the famous man before him was the Viceroy of the Parvai himself. The small man had the ear of the Supreme Ruler, the Chief Priest, and the Prophet. It was rumored that his wealth and power rivaled that of the disappeared Lord Tyrian himself during his days of power. His age was unknown, but it was said that he was a strong warrior in the days of Ytrian the First.
Takuri returned Valerian’s deep bow. When they were seated, Valerian took a bottle from an attendant.
“Wine, my lord?”
Takuri denied the offer with a courteous gesture.
“We sit together on the edge of a precipice, General.” The old man’s dark eyes glittered. “It is my intention to offer a solution before either of us chooses to jump.”
Valerian sipped at his wine, shrugging.
“Neither of us is entirely free, old man. We both serve the whims of those who are greater.”
Takuri’s laughter was brittle.
“Speak for yourself, child. I have lived longer than you think, and take my word for it, this war is even now not unavoidable. If you finish your mission, the hammer blows of God will shake the earth itself. At least,” the old man sighed, “that’s what our dear Prophet keeps telling us. Frankly, few of us really believe him, but the results of your little campaign would be catastrophic nonetheless.”
Valerian finished his wine and tossed the goblet aside.
“You’re starting to bore me, friend.” He knew he was in the presence of a far greater man, but was determined not to show it. “You know we won’t turn back, and you know we’re stronger than any current force you could possibly have mobilized in such a short time. What will you fight us with, camel herders? If you sue for peace, perhaps we can come to terms, but otherwise, I’m quite busy annexing our new kingdom.” Valerian gestured at the cluttered desk. “Actually, I’m still working out a dilemma. How many wives shall I take from the daughters of your people? Or should I do as the ancient warriors and take a harem?”
Takuri smiled coldly. His bodyguard growled, hand rising to the hilt of his scimitar.
“Child, we both know you are less than my shadow on the ground. Were I to say the word, you would be killed before the night was over. I possess powers that you cannot even begin to imagine, and my people remembers the ancient arts of Takur and all his servants. Have you no understanding of my land? The Desert itself rises to defend her children, and the ghosts of the past breathe fear and death into the hearts of invaders. I am old enough to remember your predecessor, if you can believe it.” The old man smiled. “Would you like to meet him?”
Valerian shook his head uncomprehendingly.
“Ninety years ago, before your grandfather was done sucking at his mother’s teat, Ytrius Noventus invaded these lands in a final bid for victory in the Great Wars. He was defeated, and he retreated, leaving mountains of the dead to lie rotting in his wake. His great commander, the mercenary Urbus, was taken prisoner. My father personally crucified him there, in the desert. But the desert has magic, child Valerian, and he was preserved. Do you believe me? He still lies as he lay almost a century ago. I warned him, as I warn you, on a night long ago that was not unlike this. But he was a fool, and he did not believe me when I warned him of the Keshu, the Wrath of the Night.”
Valerian narrowed his eyes and half rose from his seat, pointing angrily at the door, but before he could speak, Takuri rose and beckoned.
“Come with me, General! The night is beautiful, and you want to see me on my way! Or do you wish to order your men to ambush me?”
Valerian, gripping the hilt of his blade, rushed after Takuri into the night – and skidded to a stop. The watch fire burned brightly, but his compound guards were nowhere to be seen. Before the fire, a wooden cross was erected. On the cross, illuminated by the yellow flames, a dried corpse hung from its wrists, nailed to the wood. The horrible creature’s leathery flesh was twisted in a frozen grimace of absolute suffering. The naked body’s hide was completely tanned, and holes had been torn all over it by vultures over the decades. Dried guts bulged through the holes. A legion tattoo identified the man as an Imperial, but the mark was too faded to tell anything else of his identity.
And the mouth moved.
“Kill me,” the creature croaked.
Trembling, Valerian drew his blade and swung at the back of old Takuri’s turban, a scream on his lips. Before he could utter it, the old man whirled with inhuman speed, a fierce smile on his slips. Swatting the blow aside, his hand came out in a blade and chopped Valerian on the throat, depriving him of breath and speech. Gasping and choking, the general fell to the earth with the momentum of his own strike, falling to the feet of the cross. The barely living corpse was dripping gore, and some of it fell in his face.
Takuri swooped down, pinning the general to the ground, his smile never wavering.
“This man is you, General, if you continue your invasion. Don’t worry, I and my men will see ourselves out. If you continue your attack, I will drive the nails into you myself and I will watch as you mummify on the highest hill in the desert. Have you heard the legends of the Keshu? How they stalk the night, and eat the hearts and drink the blood of their still-living victims? Believe them, General, for I am Keshu. Let me help your faith.”
And with those words, Takuri reached up to the body and drove his hand into the corpse, driving a final shriek from the twisted form. Up through the belly, he gripped hard and pulled. In a shower of fluid, the heart came free. Keeling face to face with Valerian, the old man raised the heart to his lips. It was still beating as he took a large bite. Above him, the now dead body gave an unearthly groan as the lungs distended of their own accord.
“Bland. Like all imperials’ blood. I warn you, my lord, do not tempt the wrath of God.”
He spat the meat out and threw the heart into Valerian’s petrified face.
“Come! Gather the brethren! We prepare for battle!” Takuri cried as he rushed into the night with his men.
And then there was no sound but the whistling of the wind, and Valerian knew true fear. They had left him alive, had left him in command of an army.
Because they were having fun.
And there by the dying fire, under stars that had already seen so much of war and death, General Valerian wept like a child.
Starshadow Part I: Dreams and Shadows is available on Kindle. I'll be sharing more excerpts here in the weeks to come. Free copies of the novel are available in return for online reviews. Cheers!