The Infernal Lands (The Aionach Saga Book 1)

BOOK: The Infernal Lands (The Aionach Saga Book 1)
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The Infernal Lands

Book One of

The Aionach Saga

J.C. Staudt

The Infernal Lands
is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents either
are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely
coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 J.C. Staudt

All rights reserved.

Edition 1.0

For Sarah, who keeps me going.

Contents

Title
Page

Copyright

Dedication

Map

 

1. Catch

2.
Council

3.
The Mulligraws

4. Detail

5.
Preparations

6. Found

7.
Claybridge

8.
Electing

9.
Feeding

10. The
Shepherds

11. Kept
to Stay

12. The
Lane Natives

13.
Embarking

14.
Escort Services

15.
In Violation

16. Like
Nomads

17.
The Underground Sea

18.
Wrapped

19.
Father Kassic

20.
Lightsick

21. To Get
Lost

22.
Rowers

23. The
Priest and the Acolyte

24. Orbs
in the Outskirts

25.
Strokeplan

26.
Comings and Goings

27. The Way

28.
The Prisoner

29.
Audience

30.
The Healer’s Grandeur

31.
Jailbroken

32.
Research

33.
Migration

34.
The Darkness Through the Doorway

35. The
Scarred Child

36.
Visited

37. The
Blind-World

38.
Coming To

39. The
Garden Grotto

40. Into
the Wastes

41.
Gris-Mirahz

42.
Squall

43.
Springs

44.
Living Away

45.
Escape From Belmond

46. Where
It All Began

47. Eh-Calai
Phylecta

48.
Banishing

49.
Toward Home

50. The
Crimson Thread

51. The
Slaver’s Guests

52.
Aezoghil

53. To
the Deeps

54. A
Strike in Two Parts

55.
Aftermath

56. Sniverlik’s Marauders

Epilogue

Afterword

CHAPTER 1

Catch

On the night Vantanible’s men rode into town, Daxin
Glaive left home and made for the Skeletonwood without waking his daughter to
say goodbye. He was still pushing his mare hard when morning blazed over the
scrublands, shedding trails of dust through rough country spotted with
sagebrush and brambles and tufts of dry brown grass. Daxin had braved these
lands many times for love, but this was the first time he’d done it to settle a
score.

They first appeared as dark specks over his shoulder,
apparitions rippling in the
mirari
woken with the day’s heat. Their
horses were in fine trim for the scrubs, but Daxin’s chestnut mare was old and
out of shape, so it didn’t take long for the specks to grow into real things
with the forward lean of bloodthirst in their backs and the same fire in their
eyes. Their javelins glistened in the daylight as they fanned wide and sprinted
to outpace him.

The first of the javelins sailed true and sank deep, throwing
Daxin sideways and snatching the breath from his lungs. He reined up and
wheeled to defend himself, but the pain washed over him, and vertigo took hold.
When his body slammed to the hardpan, he could hear his pursuers’ triumphant
shouts above the rumble of their approach. Dust the color of dead autumn leaves
billowed around his shape, the hot metal spearhead burning in his ribs while
the ground shook with the nearing of hoofbeats.

Boots thudded in the dirt. Daxin’s mare whinnied and tramped
backward at the unfamiliar hand that took hold of her reins. The horse stumbled
over Daxin’s legs, and there was the briefest sensation of pressure before he
heard his ankle pop like wet firewood. Red swarms came buzzing over him. He
sucked in his gut, but no breath came, leaving his urge to scream unsatisfied.
Writhing in the dust, clutching the ankle, he waited for the most excruciating
moments to pass.

There was a voice, clear and familiar.

“Didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again so soon.”

Daxin had always loved his brother’s voice, laced as it was with
that sharp enunciation that made every word ring like polished metal. It was
the voice that ran parallel to every significant memory Daxin had formed over
the most recent half of his lifetime. The fourteen years of age between them
had led Daxin to think of Toler more as a son, at times, than a brother. But
there was a difference, and Toler was keen on reminding Daxin of that every
chance he got.

“I noticed some tracings on my route map,” said Toler Glaive,
anger brewing beneath the surface of his calm. “You know anything about that,
Dax?”

Daxin made no reply, unsure whether he would’ve spoken if he
could have. Pain is a problem that shrinks every other, and just now the
prospect of answering seemed small in comparison.

“Okay,” Toler said, one word brimming with impatience. “You
can come right out and tell me what you did. Or we can take a look in your
bags. How’s this gonna go?”

Daxin knew his brother’s charms too well.
He doesn’t want
to accuse me, so he’s baiting me instead
. Daxin’s pain was so bad it made
him retch, though he would’ve had Toler believe this was the reply he intended.
When he felt something obscene burn in his throat, he turned to let it slide
down the inside of his cheek. It was the dry spiced jerky he’d eaten a few
hours before, only it didn’t taste as good this time.

Toler shrugged. “Alright then. Blatcher, search his stuff,
will you?”

Saddlebags whispered against the mare’s flanks, their
contents clunking and rustling as the men rifled through Daxin’s possessions.
Strokes of pain were bolting up his leg and his vision was going flat and gray,
and every sound was tunneling into the distance, from the faint wind across his
face to the stamping and whinnying of horses and the men pillaging his
belongings. It was all happening horizons away, faded and crackling like the
noise from an old record. For a moment Daxin thought he might pass out, but he
wasn’t that lucky.

One of the pillagers handed Toler something over the saddle. Daxin
heard the paper
whisk
open when Toler unrolled it, saw the inked lines
and the texture of the page when he held it up toward the light-star for
inspection. After a moment, Toler let the page curl back and gave a deep sigh.
“I can’t believe I let you pull this shit on me three times before I figured
out it was you. This is an
exact
copy, Dax. Your handwriting. Coffing
unbelievable. Anything you want to tell me now?”

Daxin was starting to wish he’d passed out. He didn’t know
which was worse—being put to shame this way, or not knowing what his brother was
going to do next. “I don’t know, how about
‘sorry’?
Any chance that’ll
do any good?”

“Nah. I don’t reckon it will.” Toler pressed the heel of his
boot into Daxin’s cheek, branding his skull with hot rubber. Taking the javelin
in both hands, he leveraged himself and yanked.

The pain was so sharp it made Daxin cry out. Torment was in
his side, and a warm wet seeped through his tunic.

The light-star’s gaze cast Toler in silhouette as he crouched
and let the javelin clang to the dust. He was young and sturdy and dressed in
brown leathers. His dark hair was pasted to his face with sweat, lines of grit
gathered along the creases in his skin. He pulled his ragged hood-scarf down
from where it covered his nose and mouth, looking Daxin over with a mixture of
hatred and pity. Even at his dirtiest, Toler was square-jawed and good-looking,
with scathing dark eyes and just the right amount of nose for his face. He
leaned in, so close Daxin could smell the stink of his breath, a precarious
medley of moonshine and grilled glowfish. As their eyes met, half a lifetime’s
memory awoke again in a deluge.

“Poor Dax. You’re looking so thin and gray these days. You
really thought you could keep this up, didn’t you?” Toler tapped the paper.
“Well, this wasn’t the only thing that brought me back to town. I know what
else you’ve been up to. There was a rider, night before last. Said some savages
got loose in Unterberg and hurt my lady. I know how friendly you like to get
with them savages. Now imagine how I’m feeling, way out here in the scrubs,
working a train with weeks left to go before I can get back to her. You sorry
to hear that, Dax? Or are you glad about it? Tell me you had nothing to do with
this.”

Daxin cleared his throat, pain biting at him still. “I had
nothing to do with it,” he said. The words came out thick and forced. He looked
away, unable to meet his brother’s stare.

“That’s what I thought,” Toler said, and with knowing in his
eyes—knowing like only a brother could know—he sighed, as though it was the
last breath he ever meant to take. “Shit, Daxin. The whole time I was home you
acted like you didn’t have a care in the world. What, did you think screwing up
my life was gonna win you some kind of moral victory? This is low, even for
you. I know you don’t agree with my choices, but I’m getting real sick of you trying
to force me over to your side. We’re not on the same side, Dax. Not after
this.” Toler’s voice quavered, and he stood with a grunt. “You’re
such
an asshole. Look at you and that sad-sack, sorry-for-yourself, mopey look you
always get. You really
did
want them to kill her, didn’t you?”

For a moment Daxin thought he saw tears in his brother’s
eyes, but Toler blinked them away, and the heat dried what was left.

In the clarity after the tears, something dark and terrible flashed
in Toler’s eyes and took hold there. “Dax. I’ve had enough.”

Daxin’s heart fluttered. He struggled to lift himself, but
the pain was too much. “I told you I had nothing to do with it. I’m your
brother, for Infernal’s sake. Don’t do something you’re going to regret.” He’d
meant to sound reasonable, to call Toler’s bluff, but even he could hear the
note of dread in his voice.

“Aw. Don’t go getting all sentimental on me,” Toler said,
with more than a hint of dour sarcasm. “Blood only gets you so far.”

Steel
shwipped
across rawhide, and Daxin squinted
against the daylight long enough to see the machete in Toler’s hand.
He’s
actually doing it. He’s going to kill me
. In that moment, terror wasn’t the
first thing to strike Daxin Glaive. What struck him was that, of all the
dangers that might’ve befallen him, he was about to meet his end at the hands
of the person who knew him best in the world. In the scrublands, the only ones
who would care about his death were strangers; the lurking scavengers who would
thrill at the scent of his blood and fill their bellies with his remains.

There was a gap in the trees, a path where the road had once
been. Asphalt beneath the dust, worn and rubbled.
I was so close to the
road,
Daxin thought
. So close to the road
. A weather-beaten
billboard squatted beside the gap, an ailing old thing from before the Heat
that proclaimed in chipped red and white paint: For the Finest Cheer, Drink
Schteinman’s Beer. A buzzard was perched there. It cocked its wrinkled pink head
and looked at him.
Lunchtime for you, my friend
, Daxin thought bitterly.

Toler nudged Daxin onto his back, grabbed him by his mop of
dusty gray hair, and lifted him until he thought it might come out in a
handful.
“Let’s be clear on this,” Toler said, clenching his jaw as his
composure flashed to rage. “After what you just tried to pull, I have no second
thoughts about sending your soul to Infernal.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Daxin said, struggling to free
himself from Toler’s grip. “You’re serious about this? What are you going to
tell Savannah when I’m dead?”

The mention of Toler’s niece seemed to take him by surprise.
“I’ll tell her the truth,” he said. “You got what you had coming. After all
these years, and all the time you spent away from her, the scrubs finally took
you. It won’t take her long to realize she’s better off without you. You belong
out here, Dax. We both do. Me on two feet, you in the ground.”

“Toler, don’t do this. Not here. This is too cruel.”

“Wherever you are is too cruel a place, Dax.”

“Toler… please. Taking me away from Savvy isn’t the way to
get what you want.”

A puzzled smirk came over Toler’s face. “Since when do you
care if I get what I want? You never gave half a squeeze about what I wanted
when I was trying to find my way in this world. All you care about are your
ancient grudges and a bunch of sour history that no one besides you even
remembers anymore.”

Daxin resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was the same old
argument he and his brother had been having for years. There was no new ground
to cover here. “I don’t know what to say. I didn’t do anything to Reylenn. It’s
just… hard for me to believe you resent me this much.”

Toler scowled. “Don’t try to twist this around on me. We both
know exactly what you did. I’ll make sure Savvy knows it too, when you’re gone.
There are lots of things she ought to know about you.”

“You think any of that’s going to make her happy I’m dead?”

Toler paused to consider this. “The best gifts are the ones
you never knew you wanted. Isn’t that what you told me? Wise words from a true
manipulator. Well, this is my gift to Savvy. She doesn’t know she wants it now,
but someday she will.”

Daxin sighed his disdain.
Turns out you’re too wise for
your own good, old dway
.

“You remember what else you told me, Dax? You said ‘
some
things are too terrible to forgive
.’ I could’ve forgiven you for just about
anything but this. There are certain things you just don’t
do
to
somebody, and this is one of them. Reylenn is my girl, Dax. Doesn’t matter if
you hate her family’s guts—she’s still my girl. Thank goodness she’s alive, or
you can’t imagine the kind of hurting you’d be in for right now. You’ve earned
yourself the merciful way out. I can just imagine Savvy being with some young
man you don’t like, and you sending a couple of savages to cut him up. I’m
making sure that day never comes.”

You still don’t understand
, Daxin wanted to say
.
You don’t even care enough to take pride in your own family, after all the
times I’ve explained to you what they did to us
. But that, again, was the
same old argument; those words would only fall on deaf ears. “You’re out of
your mind,” was the only pathetic half-insult he could manage.

Ever methodical, Toler set about the business of slaughter
the way a man laces up his boots. He lifted the machete, a motion that seemed
too smooth and slow and surreal. Daxin felt like he was falling off his horse
again, fighting gravity, though it was merely the last seconds of his life he
was battling this time. The blade glinted as it rose, until a blaring wash of
daylight swallowed it.

“Wait,” Daxin said.

Toler ignored him.

Daxin’s pulse was running off the rails. He focused on trying
to take in every facet of his surroundings, seeing what he could, and hearing
what he couldn’t see. His horse, still standing two fathoms away; the men on
the other side, still searching his bags for loot; the endless, cracked expanse
of scrubland that lay behind; the line of leafless trees that guarded the dead
forest like scarecrows, and the patch of splintered asphalt that had once been
the road through. He arranged the position of every man, animal, and object on
a neat mental plane, for whatever good it might do him.

The blade began its descent with little warning, except that
Toler’s grip twisted to crane Daxin’s head back just before he committed to
swing. Daxin waited until the last second before he raised his arm to shield
himself. He felt the steel slice through the padding in his forearm bracers
like paper, crack the hard plastic, and bury itself in flesh. Bone halted
blade, and a shock went through him from shoulder to fingertip. When Toler
tried to shake the blade loose, another twinge of pain radiated through Daxin’s
arm. By some devilry, the steel held fast, snagged in plastic or bone or both.

BOOK: The Infernal Lands (The Aionach Saga Book 1)
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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