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BLOOD STORM Preview

Tomorrow is BLOOD STORM's release day! To celebrate, we have a preview of Chapter One:

  The orc woman flew backward and landed in the cave pool with a great splash. Danr didn’t even have time to shout before a great tentacle slammed into him and swept him aside like a toy. He crashed hard into the tunnel wall. Air burst from his lungs and stars danced before his eyes. Vik! It was always monsters, always fighting.

  “To the left!” Talfi shouted. “Aisa! It’s going to the left!”

  The great squid at the back of the cave pulled in its tentacles and struck again, this time to the left.

  Aisa ducked, and for a heart-stopping moment Danr thought the creature had hit her, too, but the tentacle went over her head and smacked the stones with a nasty, rubbery sound. The tunnel rumbled. Bones and skulls from the squid’s previous victims tumbled about the cave floor. Maybe this was the reason Death had sent them after the creature—she was tired of collecting its prey.
Ribs aching, Danr yanked himself upright. The body of the squid was enormous, at least fifteen feet long and twice as high as Danr, who himself topped nearly seven feet. It filled the rear of the tunnel with writhing tentacles and a fishy, salty reek that turned Danr’s stomach. The creature made no sound when it attacked—tentacles whipped through the air like gristly lightning and no noise at all emerged from a wicked beak that was easily big enough to crush a human skull. The creature took up the entire rear wall of the tidal cave, which was damp because the tunnel rose a little here. Opposite the squid, hard daylight filtered in from the distant—much lower—mouth of the tunnel, which was filling with sea water as the tide came in. Damn it, they had to move.

  Danr caught the sound of Kalessa, the orc woman, splashing about, probably looking for her sword. If she was disarmed, they were in trouble. Although Danr’s troll half made him feel perfectly at home in caves, the confined space gave the squid a definite advantage.

  “Ranadar!” Talfi shouted from the edge of the water. He had brown hair and sky-blue eyes and didn’t look more than seventeen, though Danr knew he was much older. “Twist in there with your knife and—”

  The squid snatched up a large rock and flung it at Talfi. Shit, shit, shit, Talfi didn’t see it coming. Danr shouted a warning, but the rock caromed across the cave straight for Talfi’s head at lightning speed.
There was a flash of light. Next to Talfi, an elven man with longish red hair flicked into existence. He tackled Talfi, shoved him to the ground, but the rock clipped the side of the elf’s head. He staggered and rolled, gasping, into knee-deep water.

  “Ran!” Talfi shook the elf’s shoulder.

  The squid threw another rock, this one at Danr. He ducked. It exploded against the stone wall where his head had been. His heart pounded, and he could barely think. The squid’s beak snapped between its enormous eyes, eyes that looked strangely human, but also cold and hungry.
Water continued to rise higher in the tunnel and lap Danr’s toes. In a few minutes, the squid would win by default. He cast about in desperation. His club was gone, knocked from his hand in the first moment they had found the squid, and he hadn’t gotten around to learning sword work. He felt slow and out of his element.

  Kalessa emerged from the tunnel, water streaming from the weave of her armor. She held a small knife in her hand. Her orcish yellow eyes and faintly greenish skin created a striking contrast with her long auburn braid. Kalessa charged the squid, and her battle cry echoed off the walls. The squid flung a tentacle at her. Kalessa dodged neatly to one side and swung at it with her little knife. In midswing, the tiny blade flickered into a full-length broadsword. It sliced neatly through the tentacle, spewing purplish ichor across the tunnel floor. The severed tentacle, easily as thick as Danr’s leg, writhed like a dying serpent. Kalessa gave another high-pitched shout. A second tentacle flanked her and caught her hard in the solar plexus. Kalessa’s shout died in a burst of air. Her sword clattered to the ground and changed back into a knife as she dropped beside it.

  “Sister!” Aisa ran to her. The squid pulled back its tentacles again, ready to strike at both of them. Oh no, it didn’t. Danr snatched up a rock of his own and threw it as hard as he could. It bounced off the squid’s rubbery head near the beak.

  “Hey!” he shouted. “Over here!”

  Both eyes focused on Danr, and he saw his own reflection in hungry pupils the size of dinner plates. He looked both big and tiny at the same time, and he swallowed. Maybe that hadn’t been such a good—

  The two tentacles snapped at him. Danr waited until the last second, then jumped. His leap carried him above both tentacles, and he pointed his toes to land straight on one. Danr’s weight was considerable. His mother might have been human, but his father was a troll, and even as a child, he had been heavy. As an adult, he used that weight to his advantage and crushed both squirming tentacles to the cave floor.

  “Do something!” he barked. “Ranadar! Twist closer and get it in the eyes!”

  “He’s hurt,” Talfi yelled back. “No Twisting!”

  Talfi’s shout got the squid’s attention. It flung out another tentacle, and this one wrapped around Talfi’s neck. He gasped and clawed at the thing, but the squid jerked hard. Bone snapped. Talfi went limp, neck broken. Vik! But no time to deal with that now. The tentacles squirmed beneath his bare feet like angry worms, and he danced on them, trying to keep them under control.

  Aisa produced a vial from her pocket and was fumbling with the stopper. It was probably something to wake Kalessa. He felt a swell of pride at her skill as a healer, and a simultaneous stab of fear that she might get hurt. Before he could consider the situation further, both tentacles freed themselves from Danr’s weight and wrapped around him. It was like being engulfed by a pair of muscular, smelly snakes. The cold suckers pulled at his neck and bare arms. He struggled, but could barely move.
The squid snatched up another rock. Where in all Vik’s realm had it learned to do that? It didn’t seem fair. It threw one at Aisa, who was just rolling Kalessa over.

  “No!” Danr shouted in horror.

  Aisa ducked, but the squid threw a second rock in quick succession. Time slowed. The rock spun lazily through the air. Even though he was too far away, Danr reached for it. It cracked the side of Aisa’s head and she went down.

  Danr’s world went red. Rage swept him into a bloody storm, and a roar burst from his chest. The muscles on his arms bulged with new strength. He tore the tentacles away from his body. One of them he ripped in two, and cold ichor gushed over him. With another roar, he grabbed the other tentacle and heaved. The surprised squid slid forward several yards from its lair at the back of the tunnel. It focused all its attention on Danr now, trying to brace itself with some of its tentacles and whipping at Danr with the others. Danr barely noticed. This thing had injured Aisa. This thing would pay. He pulled and pulled. The squid, wriggling and writhing all the way, skidded across the rocky tunnel toward Danr with dreadful inevitability. Its beak snapped and its cold eyes stared. Danr wrapped the squirmy tentacle around his free arm and reached for the squid’s head. How many people had this thing eaten? How many fisherman had it devoured? And it had hurt Aisa.

  The beak snapped and caught Danr’s fist, but it couldn’t close entirely. Danr’s fist was too large. Terrible pressure crushed his hand. The pain broke through the bloody rage, but only for a moment. Grimly, Danr shoved forward. He thrust his hand, his arm, his shoulder straight down the squid’s throat. It made a gurgling sound. With his other hand, Danr let the tentacle go and punched straight through one of the cold eyes. It burst in an explosion of jelly.

  Danr braced himself and yanked. Both his arms came free, tearing a large part of the squid’s head with it. A huge chunk of smelly flesh came free with an awful ripping noise. The squid went into convulsions. Its remaining tentacles lashed in random directions, slamming against the walls and ceiling. The tunnel trembled. Rocks fell from above.

  “Hamzu!” A hand touched his arm. Danr whirled, expecting another attack, but it was Aisa. Blood ran down the side of her face, but she looked otherwise fine. Relief drained his rage, and the strength left him. The cave trembled beneath his bare feet. “We do not want to be here!”
“Are you all right?” He reached out to touch her face.

  Aisa closed her eyes for a small moment beneath his hand, then took his wrist. “Sweet as you are, we should save this for when there is less danger. As one example: squid!”

  Danr spun. The squid was still convulsing, and it was bringing the tunnel down. A stalactite smashed to the floor near them like a giant’s leg. Kalessa was getting to her feet, knife in hand, and hauling Ranadar up. But they couldn’t leave. Not yet.

  “Kalessa!” Danr shouted. “Your blade! Ranadar, get Talfi!”

  Kalessa tossed her knife across the cave. Danr snatched it out of the air and used it to slice through flesh and gristle until he found the black bladder that made up the ink sac. In seconds, he slashed it free, and with another stroke cut the squid’s beak away. The squid convulsed once more and died.

  “Now!” Aisa said. “We have to leave now.”

  The tunnel was trembling, and almost entirely dark. The rising tide had nearly filled the exit. Cool seawater was knee deep in the cave. More rocks tumbled from above and splashed into the tide. Kalessa and Ranadar had Talfi’s dead arms around their shoulders and were dragging him toward deeper water.

  “For you.” Danr thrust the sac and beak into Aisa’s hands.     

  “Hmm. Most men give flowers,” Aisa remarked.

  “You’re glad I’m not most men, admit it.” He waded over to Ranadar and easily hauled Talfi over his own shoulder. The young man hung there like a warm rag doll. The water was waist high now. Danr flinched away from another falling boulder that exploded into the water only a pace away. At least the sea was washing off the smelly ichor, though Danr hoped the stuff wouldn’t attract sharks. He waded fast for the tunnel mouth with the others in his wake.

  “Ranadar, can you Twist us out yet?” Kalessa demanded.

  “Not enough power,” Ranadar muttered. “Will Talfi be all right?”

  “He is dead,” Aisa said. “What do you think? I will have some choice words for Death after this.”

  The others were swimming now. Danr was up to his neck, grimly trying to keep Talfi’s head above water, more out of habit than necessity. The tunnel mouth and dim daylight were only a few yards away, but the exit was now submerged, and a current pushed against Danr’s body. It wasn’t going to be easy, especially carrying Talfi. Danr wasn’t a skilled swimmer, and already Talfi was starting to drag him down.

  “We’ll have to swim underneath,” he said. “It’s only about ten feet, but the current’s stiff.”

  “Do not think,” Kalessa advised. She had the beak now, along with her knife. “Just do.” And she dove.

  The tunnel rumbled again. Ranadar breathed deeply and dove. Aisa clasped Danr’s hand in the darkening cave, though his trollish eyes saw her lovely face perfectly well. It was a face he had only recently come to know. When they first met, she had hidden herself behind rags and scarves. Over time, she had come out of hiding, but the novelty of her beauty, like a new-risen star, hadn’t worn off. Her deep brown eyes and tan skin and arched eyebrows and lovely mouth made his heart swell, and he wanted to touch her face, even here, with the cave coming down around them.

   “I know what you’re thinking,” he said quietly.

  “There are no mermaids this close to the city,” she replied. “And not at this time of year. I will see none.”

  “But you’re still hoping.”

  “You worry about the wrong thing, my strong one,” she said, still clutching the ink sac. “Bring Talfi home.” And she dove as well.

  The sea rose farther and Danr’s feet left the floor. Above him, the ceiling splintered with earsplitting cracks. Danr shifted Talfi across his shoulder, took several deep breaths, and dove. Rocks exploded into the water behind him, but he swam and swam through the soft light. Hard stone hemmed him in overhead. The current tried to push him back, but he used all his troll’s strength against it. Ahead was brightness. His lungs were bursting within his chest and Talfi’s body grew heavier. Blood pounded in his ears. Oh, he wanted air. Just one breath. The water was a great hand, shoving and pressing, trying to hold him down. He could let Talfi go and make it easily. Then he felt ashamed that the thought crossed his mind. He cleared the tunnel, and the light grew brighter. Danr kicked upward hard, and suddenly he broke the surface. Sweet air filled his lungs. He hung there, just breathing, while his dark hair plastered his skull.

  The golden sun burned bright overhead, drilling his eyes and giving him an instant headache, the downside of being part troll. He treaded water with Talfi over his shoulder. He was at the base of a low cliff. Away to his right, the rocks went off into the ocean, but to his left the cliff came abruptly down to a sandy beach. The water swirled and vibrated—the last of the tunnel collapsing. Vik’s balls, he’d gotten out just in time. Talfi had damn well better appreciate this.

  Danr swam alongside the cliff toward the beach. The ocean was shallow here, and it didn’t take him long. Aisa, Kalessa, and Ranadar were waiting for him, and they helped drag Talfi across the damp sand until he was above the tide line. Talfi’s tongue protruded, and his head lolled at an angle that turned Danr’s stomach. They all flopped down on the beach.

  “My Talashka,” Ranadar said sadly, stroking Talfi’s slack face. Ranadar was handsome, even for an elf. His cheekbones were sharp enough to strike flint on, and his emerald eyes gave quick contrast to his sunset hair. He avoided the usual overly embroidered robes and vestments other elves wore in favor of rough silk in forest brown and green. Talfi was no slouch, either. Even soaking wet and . . . well, dead, his brown hair and fair skin and molded face created a handsome picture. Kalessa was striking, in her own way, with her lithe build and alien skin and hair. Danr felt the odd one out—tall and blocky, with shovel hands and coarse black hair and a jaw that jutted pugnaciously forward. Aisa said his eyes—brown—were deep and rich and that she could fall into them, but Danr always felt a pang of jealousy at Aisa’s beauty, Kalessa’s exoticism, Ranadar’s sharp features, and Talfi’s fine ones. It came of being a half-blood, caught between races, and there were times he hated it.

  “He still looks dead. This is disappointing.” Aisa dropped the ink sac on the damp sand with flopping noise. She wore a loose-fitting red tunic and trousers instead of a dress, done in the style of her homeland across the Iron Sea to the west. Although she bared her face these days, she usually wore a hood or scarf over her hair. Right now everything was sticking to her, and Danr forced himself not to stare at the outlines of her body, though he still peeked. She caught him, and shook a mock finger at him.

  “Never mind Talfi,” Danr said, flushing a little. “How’s your head?”

  “Achy.” Aisa touched the spot where the stone had hit her. The sea had washed the blood away. “I will have a bruise beneath my hair, and it would be best if someone woke me at least twice tonight, but I will be fine.”

  “I am fine as well, in case anyone wants to know,” Ranadar complained. “Only my Talashka is dead.”

  “You are a prince among elves,” Kalessa said. “Surely your head is harder than any rock. Talfi’s is another matter.”

  “You know, sister, Slynd would have been an enormous help back there,” Aisa said. “A wyrm would have destroyed that squid without trouble.”

  Kalessa shrugged. “It is mating season back home in Xaron. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t keep salmon from the spawning grounds, and you can’t keep wyrms from the mating nests.’ Slynd will find me when he is finished.”

  “My Talashka,” Ranadar repeated, and kissed Talfi on the lips. Danr shifted uncomfortably and glanced away. Learning that his best friend was regi—not a nice word, but Danr had never learned a polite one—had caught Danr off guard, but he had finally forced himself to realize it was foolish for anyone, especially a half-blood, to judge someone based on who he fell in love with. Still, it looked weird to see two men together like that, especially a human and an elf. Danr supposed eventually he would take it in stride, but for now he had to remind himself not to flinch. And he would remind himself. Talfi was his best friend, and Danr wasn’t going to give that up over a few strange kisses.

  “What is taking him so long?” Kalessa drummed her fingers on the squid beak. “Usually he’s—”

  Talfi gasped hard in Ranadar’s arms. He jerked once and sat up, blinking in the sunlight and the surf.

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