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Chapter 3

Heart of Steel

Uzial Steelheart strode along the overgrown path at the edge of the Great Frond forests in Northern Shara. He reveled in the beauty that lay all around him. Lush shades of green interspersed by the yellow bloom of magnolias, lavender snapdragons, and the glossy reds of hibiscuses lit up the forest around him. Almost as beautiful as the Poporia forests far to the southeast of Arun. Carried on the shoulders of a stiff southern breeze, the scents of the tropical flowers tickled his nostrils. He shook his horn-plated head, chasing away the insects, not that they could breach his scaled skin but the way they gathered about him was bothersome none the less. The small cretins buzzed to and fro across his path, traversing from one species of flower to the next, in their ritual of cross pollination.

The forests abounded with the twittering of birds and the call of beasts among the massive frond trees. Here and there, he could just make out monkeys flitting from branch to branch, snagging fruits and berries among the smaller trees decorating the fronds.

Shifting his shoulder to reposition the ropes tied to the feet of the two bucks whose heads hung down to his waist, Uzial reveled in the memory of another good hunt. The two huge deer would provide well for the next week. He still couldn’t get used to the hunting bow slung on his other side, but on days like this, it served its purpose well. If not for the years he’d spent learning the skill in his early days as a cadet, the bow would have been pretty much useless. At least, he didn’t have to bring the great crescent axe, although he did miss the feel of his favorite weapon’s haft.

Some had advised him not to settle his family this close to the Great Rift. Spouting stories of massive beasts that lurked within the forests for the unwary traveler. As if they forgot that even exiled he remained one of the greatest generals and warriors in the history of the amani people. He would rather be here among the natural aggression of these forests than trapped among the many deceits and intrigues of the war and politics in Kaiator.

Yet, that story belonged to another time, another life. Those thoughts always brought a measure of regret and sadness for Uzial, tempering the joys he found in his new life. He’d managed to move most of his clan here and set up a thriving outpost at the very edge of the Great Frond. The burdens of his old duty were a welcome sacrifice in return for his freedom and his family’s happiness.

He took a deep breath, savoring the scents around him again before he cut it short with a snort. Something didn’t smell right. He put his nose to the air and sniffed once more.

Snarling, he flung the carcasses to the side, ignoring the immediate thrashing that occurred when the bodies hit the bush, and took off down the trail in great leaping bounds. He veered off the path through the frond trees, smashing through foliage and branch alike.

The scent had been one of smoke and ash. The smell of a burning stockade.

He raced through the brush, ripping branches out of his way as he ran, leaping over those too big to tear from his path. Sunlight filtering through the canopy highlighted the way ahead as massive roots attempted to trip him, and snarling vines snagged at his legs. Entwining his mind with the forest around him, he mapped his path through the obstacles, flowing down dips and up rises along the undulating ground. He had one singular mission in mind. To get home.

The scent of smoke became clearer as he drew nearer, and ahead through an opening, he saw the lazy tendrils as they drifted into the air, adding to the ominous grey clouds above. He burst out from the undergrowth among the wavering shadows of the evening sun, and the grey pall of woodsmoke, flames still licking hungrily at the walls and buildings of the outpost. His outpost.

He roared at the sight, his massive legs churning as he bounded forward, his claws ripping rents into the soft pasture which led to the gates. As he neared the wooden entrance, the smell of blood thick in the air, Uzial slowed for a better view. His guards came into sight. Males he knew, warriors one and all, who’d followed him here.

They were dead, impaled to the wood, their bodies colored pincushions. Spears and arrows were the pins.

“Oh merciful Lok,” Uzial whispered. “Hold them in the embrace of the earth and free their souls.”

From a distance, he noted the small size of blue and green arrows and their fletchings. In contrast, the spears were massive lances of steel with a fist at the end. His men had died at the hands of men and giants?

Using the smoke to mask his approach, he sneaked to the wall, lightly stomped one foot and waited. The sound waves rebounded, rolling back to his ossicones on either side of his head. He calculated the shifting weights and varying sizes his echolocation provided. The guards had been the only casualties. His people were alive, but held prisoner inside by thirty humans and…and two giants.

Uzial gritted his teeth against the shudder that rolled over him. A quick chilling tingle passed through him as he considered his adversaries. His people had all but destroyed the last of the giants with the help of the god Lok and the castanics, freeing themselves from centuries of slavery. Why would these creatures reveal themselves now from whatever hole they’d crawled into? Why would the humans consort with them despite the price the amani had paid in blood so long ago? Was this the Federation’s doing? No, not even their schemes would risk the fury of his people.

His vision filmed red with the thought of enslavement. My people shall never suffer such again.

With deep breaths to force his body and mind to calm, Uzial eased around the backside of the outpost, using his echolocation to stay out of sight and away from the positions of the human guards. When he reached level with the main hall, he felt around for the grooves that marked the trapdoor he’d made for emergencies such as this. He used a finger to trigger the switch and slipped inside, the trapdoor sliding closed behind him.

After a quick sniff to check the air and another tap of his foot, Uzial waited. Sure of his relative safety, he crossed to the hidden weapon cabinet. He felt along the wall for a similar switch, and this time he used the heel of his hand to trigger it.

A panel slid open to reveal his weapons and armor gleaming bright within the dark confines. He wouldn’t have time to get into his armor, so he eased out the great crescent axe, hefting it as he did so. The weapon alone would have to do.

He ducked back into the hall and aligned himself with the front door, the axe lowered behind him, its keen crescent moon blade inches from the floor, the haft poking above his shoulder and head in perfect balance. The humans he could overpower as he stood almost twice their size and that much stronger. The giants, though, were in turn bigger and stronger but much slower. The battle would have to be quick. With a deep breath, he curled his claws into the ground and braced himself.

White-hot anger boiled deep within him as he allowed the images of his dead men and the pictures of enslaved amani to play through his head. The emotion filtered up through his blood, its heat spreading from his heart through the rest of his body, begging for release. A rush of rage-heated blood ran up and down his body in small charges, shackled to his will, touching his toes, his fingers, and his arms. He released the breath he held and sprung forward toward the door ahead, a flowing mass of steel and muscle as quiet and swift as a whispering wind.

He crashed into the door with his shoulder, and it exploded in a shower of timber. At that same moment, he snapped the shackles holding his rage. White bloomed to red across his sight as energy seared within him. A rush spilled through his body as his speed and strength increased. He began to count fifteen heartbeats.

The entire world slowed before him. He picked out each target in that split second.

His axe swiped from left to right shearing through the abdomen of the giant on the left like a piece of cloth. Blood spurted followed by a screech as the creature crumbled, its hands covering the gash.

Three heartbeats.

Uzial’s momentum propelled him forward, and he used the movement to bring the axe above him. He smashed the weapon down onto the ground among the human warriors standing with the creature. The earth reverberated with an echoing clang as the shockwave created disoriented and stunned the men. Not waiting for them to recover, Uzial swept by.

Six heartbeats.

The other giant began to raise his warhammer, but before he could throw it, Uzial pivoted and pushed off his axe with a roar. He used the pent up rage to increase his speed yet again. He dashed forward, slammed into the creature’s massive body, and knocked it away. Uzial spun as the blow landed and used the weight of the axe head to propel the spin, hitting the creature with the broadside of the blade. The giant whipped around when struck, its broad back and head exposed.

Ten heartbeats.

Without slowing, Uzial twisted. The axe blade swung around in a full revolution and slammed into the skull of the giant with a sickening crunch. The giant flew crashing into the outpost’s walls, its skull a bloody mess.

Instantly, Uzial swung toward the incoming charge of ten Federation-uniformed men. He spun wildly in a whirlwind of movement, knocking them off their feet.

Fifteen heartbeats.

As they fell, Uzial braced himself, ended his spin, and drew air into his lungs with a deep devouring breath. He released the breath with a scream, but this time to calm his rage, pushing it back down into his body, and closing it off, stabilizing the energy within him.

“Stop!” A shockingly familiar voice shouted in amani with a garbled accent. “Or Deborah dies.”

Uzial spun to the voice. His breath caught at the sight of his wife’s pale face. A third giant held her helpless form. He hadn’t sensed this one. He looked down to see the giant stood on a cushion of air in the identical location as the first giant he’d killed. The creature held a large knife to her throat and several humans had spears within range of his wife’s stomach and heart.

Massive shudders wracked Uzial’s frame from the exertion. “P…Prefect Tuitis? Or should I say High Priest?”

“Prefect and High Priest no longer. Legate Tuitis,” said the short wrinkle-faced man from where he levitated next to the prisoners. The silver, blue, and burgundy of the Valkyon Federation’s uniform and the eight golden knots of his new rank stood out.

Uzial ground his teeth. “I chose exile when they made you High Priest and still you haunt me. Have you not cost me enough? I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.” Uzial’s fist tightened on his axe. His body trembled as he fought against the urge to strike at the man now.

“Tut, tut, Steelheart, my old friend. I see you still hold grudges,” Sidra said, waving his hand callously. “Hence, my current actions. I have a proposition to make. I fear you wouldn’t have agreed if I simply asked.”

Chapter 4

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