Survival is just the beginning.
Blaine McFadden endured six long years in the brutal Velant prison colony, exiled for murder. War devastated his homeland of Donderath and destroyed the magic on which the Ascendant Kingdoms relied. Now Blaine and a small group of fellow exiles have returned to a lawless wasteland, where unrestrained magic storms wreak havoc and monsters roam free.
Yet, amidst the chaos, rumors persist of a new magic that could restore the kingdoms. But the key lies with a dangerous, ancient ritual and a group of vanished survivors. Now McFadden's only hope is a small, desperate, quickly rallied army. Together they must make one last stand knowing that if they fail, the civilization of the Ascendant Kingdoms dies with them.
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin discovered her passion for SF, fantasy and ghost stories in elementary school. The first story she wrote - at age five - was about a vampire. Her favorite TV show as a preschooler was Dark Shadows. At age 14 she decided to become a writer. She enjoys attending SF/Fantasy conventions, Renaissance fairs and living history sites. She is married and has three children, a Himalayan cat and a golden retriever.
Read an Excerpt
Reign of Ash
By Gail Z. Martin
OrbitCopyright © 2014 Gail Z. Martin
All rights reserved.
Watch your back!" Blaine McFadden brought his sword down hard on his opponent's blade, deflecting a killing blow.
Piran Rowse wheeled at the warning, muttering curses under his breath. Two dark- clad men were heading his way, swords at the ready. Piran ran toward them with a battle cry, a sword gripped in each hand, driving his enemies back with the sheer ferocity of his onslaught.
A force of at least twenty-five men, all dressed in black, had attacked them. Where their allegiance lay, Blaine could only guess. Why they had come was clear. Blaine had no doubt the fighters had been sent to track and kill them. To kill him.
Their battleground was the deserted barnyard of a ruined farm. Not far away, Dawe Killick caught his breath in the shelter of a tumbledown chicken coop that barely held his tall, rangy form. He dodged out to fire his crossbow, taking advantage of its reach to fell one of the dark-clad men.
Kestel Falke had grabbed the sword of one of the fallen attackers and pulled a dagger from the bandolier beneath her cloak. She circled one of the dead man's comrades warily, holding him at bay. From the top floor of the rickety barn, Verran Danning, expert thief and sometime musician, lobbed anything he could find at his opponents, striking one of the men in the head with a chunk of wood.
Four of the eleven guards they had brought with them were down, and while the remaining guards were fighting valiantly, Blaine knew the odds weren't in their favor. After narrowly escaping death the night before, it seemed a mockery to die so needlessly come sunrise.
Blaine's opponent came at him again, sword raised shoulder-high for a death strike. Blaine brought his own blade up inside the strike as he stepped aside, dodging the blow and managing to score a gash on his attacker's arm. At more than six feet tall with shoulders broadened from years of hard labor in the Velant prison colony, Lord Blaine McFadden could hold his own in a fight. Despite the cold late-autumn temperatures, the heat of the fight had plastered Blaine's long, chestnut brown hair against his head. His sea-blue eyes glinted with anger, focused on the man he intended to kill.
Blaine's body protested every jarring parry. Just the previous night, the wild magic he had sought to bind had nearly killed him, nearly killed all of them with its unharnessed power. They had lived through the assault, wearied and bloody, only to face a new danger. It had been sheer luck that the old tunnels had not collapsed around them, that they had been able to evade the dark-clad warriors, at least for a while. Not long enough.
"Who sent you?" Blaine shouted as his attacker came at him again, raining down a series of two-handed blows that nearly drove Blaine to his knees. Blaine knew he couldn't take much more—none of them could. Not after the toll the magic had taken last night. Their attackers were fresh to the fight. He'd traveled half the world to die here, in the middle of nowhere, without even coming close to achieving his task.
"Lord Pollard wants you dead," the black-clad man replied through gritted teeth. "Thought you'd have figured that out by now."
"Tell Lord Pollard he can—" Blaine's words died in his throat as an arrow zipped past him, narrowly missing his shoulder, and thudded into the rotted wood of the barn behind him.
"Incoming!" Dawe shouted, dragging a hand back through his straight, dark hair. He looked like a scarecrow, all angles and bones. "We've got new players." A hail of arrows fell, and several of the black-clad fighters went down, shot in the back. Kestel cried out as an arrow grazed her arm, but she kept on fighting, though blood colored the sleeve of her tunic.
"I think you and your men might want to run," Blaine said, a cold smile crossing his features. "Seems to me whoever's out there is aiming for your people, not mine."
For just an instant, Blaine took his eyes off his attacker to confirm the new threat. The yard was ringed with archers, all within bow range, but too far away from Blaine to make out any markings on their gray uniforms. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Blaine thought. And other times, he's just a bigger, badder son of a bitch.
Blaine's opponent spared no glance toward the archers. He came at Blaine ferociously, teeth bared and eyes wild. Blaine parried the first of the man's powerful strikes, but the second blow crashed down on his sword with enough force to numb his sword arm and send him staggering backward. The tip of his attacker's sword sliced into his right shoulder, and Blaine's sword fell from his numb hand. His enemy reared back, sword at chest height, to drive the point home, aiming for Blaine's heart.
An arrow sang through the air and Blaine's opponent stiffened, his face drawn in a ghastly mask of pain and fury. He lumbered forward, intent on his quarry, but the delay was just enough. Blaine dove for his sword, grasping it in his left hand, and lunged forward, ducking under his opponent's blade, expecting to feel the bite of steel against his neck at any moment. His sword plunged deep into the man's belly and his opponent fell forward, dropping his sword to the ground. Pinned under the man's body, Blaine felt hot blood seep over him as it poured from the dying man's wounds.
It took all of Blaine's waning strength to throw the man off, and more resolve still to make it as far as his knees before he saw that the battle had turned. Most of the black-clad fighters lay skewered by arrows, and the rest had run for their lives. Only six of his own guards remained standing, along with Dawe, Piran, Verran, and Kestel. But the soldiers who ringed the yard had not moved, nor had they lowered their bows.
"Surrender. Throw down your weapons. You can't win but you can die, and you surely will unless you drop your weapons now and raise your hands," a man's voice called from the line of archers.
Piran let out a barrage of creatively vulgar curses, but he let his swords fall. Dawe tossed his unloaded crossbow out into the open and emerged, his hands behind his head. Kestel dropped her sword and dagger, looking toward the archers with a baleful expression.
"You in the barn. Come out, or so help me Torven, we'll shoot the others," the voice called.
"Hold your fire! I'm coming down," Verran shouted, contempt thick in his voice.
"Let's stick to our story and see if they go for it," Blaine replied under his breath, just loud enough for his friends to hear.
"We mean you no harm," he called out to the archers. "We're tinkers and peddlers. We took shelter overnight and woke to find ourselves under attack. We'll be on our way, and no bother to you."
A half dozen men from the line of archers were moving toward them now, bows drawn and arrows at the ready. The archers still on the edge of the yard quashed any thoughts Blaine's group might have had of fighting their way free.
"You look well armed for tinkers," one of the archers replied. "Your bodyguards outnumber the rest of you," he said, with a nod to the Glenreith guards who, though wearing neither insignia nor rank, were conspicuous in their military appearance. "That's suspicious."
"These are dangerous times," Blaine replied. "We hired guards to protect us. We mean no harm. Just let us be on our way."
The leader looked as if he was considering Blaine's suggestion, then shook his head. "Not up to me. That's for the captain to say." He gestured, and more fighters joined him. "Get on your knees, and put your hands on top of your head. We'll see what the captain makes of you."
For a moment, Blaine feared from the expression on Piran's face that his friend might charge their captors. At a nod from Blaine, they knelt, hands on heads, and Blaine waited to feel a quarrel in the back.
More fighters moved forward, binding the captives' wrists with strips of leather. One of the fighters moved to bind Blaine's wrists. He paused. "Sir," he called to the leader. "You should see this."
The leader walked over and frowned when he saw the brand on the inside of Blaine's left forearm, an "M" for murderer.
"You're a convict," the leader said, eyeing Blaine.
"I was a convict. Did my time in Velant. Earned my Ticket of Leave."
"Velant's up in Edgeland, at the top of the world," the leader said. "No one's supposed to come back from there."
"Just like there's supposed to be a king and magic's supposed to work," Blaine replied evenly. "Nothing's the way it's 'supposed' to be anymore."
"Got another one over here," the soldier said, lifting Dawe's arm to show the brand. Blaine sighed. He'd deserved his exile, but Dawe had been framed. And while the others bore no brands for their crimes, Verran for theft, Kestel for espionage, and Piran for court-martial-worthy insubordination, it wouldn't take too much for the fighter to figure out they were likely all 'escaped' convicts.
"Get on your feet," the leader said. "You can explain it to the captain. You're coming back to camp with us."
"What of our horses?" Blaine asked. "We'll bring them," the leader replied. "If you can convince the captain to let you go, you can take them with you. If not," he said and shrugged, "we can put them to good use." Blaine got to his feet, moving toward the barn's wide door. The others fell in behind him, while several of their captors moved to secure the horses and wagons.
"Who is your commander? What lord do you serve?" Blaine asked.
A bitter smile touched at the corners of the leader's mouth. Now that Blaine got a good look at the man, he saw he was in his late teens or early twenties. The face was youthful, but there was a world-weariness in the man's eyes that seemed much older. "There are no lords left to serve," he replied. "No lords, no law, no liege. The war's over. Welcome to what's left."
The archers commandeered one of Blaine's group's wagons and horses and directed Blaine and the others to climb in. Two of the archers drove, while more archers walked beside the wagon.
"If I believed in the gods, I'd say now would be a good time to pray," muttered Piran.
"Our luck isn't looking good," Kestel replied with a sigh.
Piran snorted. "What? Just because wild magic ripped through some old, forgotten chamber and laid us all out flat as corpses, you think we're not ready for a good fight?" Piran probably would be up for a brawl, Blaine thought; at least, he had never shied away from one in the past. Shorter, stocky, with a bald head that Piran had kept shaved even in the bitter cold of the Edgeland wastes, Piran looked every bit the soldier he had been before his court-martial.
Blaine rubbed his temples, trying in vain to ease the throbbing headache that had begun the night before. When the warring kingdoms of Donderath and Meroven destroyed each other, the Continent also lost its control over magic. Without king, law, or magic, chaos followed. Tracking a series of clues that suggested magic might be restored, Blaine and his friends had made a failed attempt to harness the wild magic, an effort that had left several of their party, including Blaine, badly bruised and battered.
"Neither side was wearing any colors," Kestel murmured. "But this group has some kind of uniform, although it's hard to tell; they all look rather ragged." She paused. "I heard what the man you were fighting said about Lord Pollard. If the archers aren't Pollard's men, who do they belong to?"
Before her exile to the Velant prison colony in Edgeland, Kestel had been a sought-after courtesan, a spy in the court of King Merrill, and an assassin. Like the others, she'd followed Blaine back to Donderath on the scant hope that magic could be restored. Today, her red hair was bound up, and she wore a tunic, trews, and boots borrowed from Glenreith's guardhouse. Anyone who had seen her gowned and bejeweled for high court would have had difficulty recognizing Kestel as the same woman.
"Anyone else who wants to kill you, Mick, that you forgot to tell us about?" Verran asked, glancing nervously at the archers.
Blaine let out a long breath. "Not that I remember. But as you've seen, things aren't exactly the way they were when we shipped out."
"So we just sit here?" Piran's tone made his opinion clear.
Blaine rubbed his pounding forehead. Every muscle and joint ached as if he'd been beaten by the sheer, wild power of the magical backlash. "For now," he said.
They had tried to raise the magic at Mirdalur, a three-day ride from Blaine's family's manor at Glenreith. Geir, their vampire guide, had left them before dawn to find shelter from the daylight. Blaine and his friends, along with eleven of Glenreith's manor guards, had planned to sleep through the day and move out again once it was dark to avoid the bands of robbers and vagabonds that wandered the Donderath countryside.
"It's mid-afternoon, still daylight. That means this group is mortal," Kestel said. "That's one good thing."
Piran gave her a sidelong glance. "If that's the 'good' news, we're shit out of luck."
"I wish we knew who they were," Kestel said, bending closer to the gap in the wall for a better look. "They look like a bunch of vagrants but fight like a unit."
"I'm afraid we'll get an answer soon enough," Dawe Killick said, his head bowed and his face obscured by a hank of dark, lanky hair. Dawe was tall and slender, with a hawklike nose and piercing blue eyes. Despite the bonds on his wrists, Dawe's long-fingered hands clenched in frustration.
They rode for half a candlemark, away from the direction they had come. They were going north, as close as Blaine could reckon from the sun. Away from Mirdalur, and no closer to Glenreith. The odds weren't in their favor, despite the fact that Geir had escaped capture.
The wagon rolled into a camp of fighters, who regarded it with wary curiosity. Whoever's army the archers represented, it was a motley one. From what Blaine could see, only about half the men had tents, and those were stained and patched. Many had only the shelter of lean-tos or pieces of canvas held up by posts.
"How many do you figure are out there?" Kestel asked.
"Too many," Blaine replied.
The fighters' camp was as hard worn as the men themselves. A hodgepodge of moveable structures greeted them. Cook fires dotted the encampment, and in the rear, Blaine spotted mud-spattered horses and several wagons. No doubt the fighters would be glad to gain use of the horses and wagons his group had brought with them.
When they reached the outskirts of the camp, their Glenreith bodyguards were directed into two tents ringed with guards. Blaine, Kestel, Piran, Dawe, and Verran were ushered to a large tent in the center of the camp. By the tent's size, Blaine guessed it to be the captain's, but if so, then the group's leader was an ascetic. A bedroll lay to one side, and a small brazier in the middle did little to drive out the late autumn chill. A soldier's satchel lay near the bedroll, and there was a small shrine to Charrot, Torven, and Esthrane at the foot of the bedding. Otherwise, the tent was empty.
"Wait here." The young man who seemed to be the leader of the archers spoke in low tones to two of the fighters, who remained by the tent's entrance. Then Blaine and his friends were left alone.
"Best odds we're going to have," Piran muttered. "Five against two."
"And more than two score on the other side of the doorway," Kestel replied in a whisper. "I knew you couldn't read, but I thought you could do figures," she added with a hint of a smile that softened her words.
Blaine sighed. "With luck, these men will see we've got no quarrel with them and let us go."
"I'd put the odds of that as slim to nil," Piran sighed. "If nothing else, they'll want the horses. And maybe Kestel." Despite their situation, Kestel grinned. "Let 'em try," she replied, palming a dagger from somewhere on her body.
"Shh," Dawe warned as footsteps drew closer.
Muffled voices sounded outside the tent. One was the voice of the man who had brought them to the camp. The other voice, deeper and more mature, was muffled. The tent flap swung back and a tall man entered, flanked by two guards. The man was broad-shouldered, with short-cut, dark blonde hair. Several days' worth of stubble shadowed gaunt, high cheekbones. He wore a woolen coat over what might have been gray uniform pants, and his clothes looked as if he had been roughing it for quite some time.
"My officer says he's got a bunch of escaped convicts," the man said, not bothering to look up as he entered. Then he lifted his head and stopped in his tracks, staring at Blaine.
"You're supposed to be dead," he breathed, and his face had gone pale as a ghost.
Excerpted from Reign of Ash by Gail Z. Martin. Copyright © 2014 Gail Z. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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