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The Secret of the Sunstones

Book 1: The Wanton Kingdom


wan·ton (wŏn-tən)

adj.

1. Immoral or unchaste; lewd.

2. Gratuitously cruel; merciless.

3. Marked by unprovoked, gratuitous maliciousness; capricious and unjust: wanton destruction.

4. Unrestrainedly excessive: wanton extravagance; wanton depletion of oil reserves.

5. Luxuriant; overabundant: wanton tresses.

"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods? They kill us for their sport."

- William Shakespeare


I : Spawn

Morning of Quartus, Twenty-Eighth Day of Harvestmoon


Bram Morrison strode across the lower deck of his ship, the Heron, paying no heed to the creaking floorboards. He had awoken hours before sunrise, a habit borne out of necessity during the Ten Years War, now known as, "The War," for short. Even in the dead of night, he had no problem finding his way through his own ship. He knew every inch of the vessel, and the stroll itself had become a sort of ritual performed each morning following a new mission.

His route led to a particular room, one which had been unoccupied for several years. Even though every scrap of space on his craft was precious, Bram kept this room untouched and in pristine condition. It had once belonged to his lover, Rosalyn Reynolds, back when she had fought by his side during the War. Bram liked to imagine her still there as he reminisced of good times.

He glanced upon a set of strange gadgets still mounted to the wall, which she had used to predict the weather. He then approached an empty wardrobe in the corner, where she had kept her silky soft robes. Lastly, he ran his hand along a barren bookshelf, now buried under layers of dust. It had once bulged full with old log books and journals. She used to stay up late at night, scrawling down ideas for new spells along with notes and observations tracked through meticulous experimentation. Such was the life of a sorceress and a scholar.

Sadly, Rosa had given up studying her art when the War ended. She chose instead to return to civilian life, at the behest of her father. Now, Bram and his crew of nine carried out their missions without her. They were all capable warriors, part of King Richard's elite corps. But only Bram held the top rank of Gnostic Knight. His jet-black darksteel armor blended in with the darkness, only showing its sheen when the first rays of sunlight peeked through Rosa's cabin window.

All of a sudden, an ear-splitting siren penetrated the room. Bram's heart leapt, and his hands raced to cover his ears. He was quite familiar with his battle horn: that shrill, high-pitched shriek with deep, thunderous undertones. It was louder than a banshee, and it signaled that his ship was being attacked.

His hand went to his sheath as he charged to the main deck at breakneck speeds. As soon as he burst outside, high-altitude winds pummeled him through his helm's face plate. A vivid sunrise painted the deck a golden coat, while wisps of cloud curled over the railing like melted marshmallow.

"Captain, watch out!"

Bram sidestepped as soon as he heard his lieutenant's warning, successfully dodging a mouthful of disease-ridden teeth. Using reflexes honed through years of combat, he recovered and drew his sword. His target, a mangy ball of fur and leathery wings, had no hope of evading his thrust. His blade's magical enchantments surged to life, in tandem with his battle lust, creating a purple glow of emotion-driven energy. Bram channeled the strength of fifty men and cleaved right through his target. Both halves of the creature landed harmlessly, splattering foul-smelling ichor all over the deck.

He offered his lieutenant an appreciative salute with his gauntleted fist, twice tapping his opposite shoulder. "Well done, Biggs. I should've expected it was gorm."

He had hardly finished his praise when two more of the creatures appeared and dove right toward him. Biggs stabbed with his sword, but Bram used a different set of magical enchantments embedded within his Gnostic armor to leap dozens of feet into the air.

From this better vantage point, he saw that his ship was being attacked by an entire colony of the mutant bats. At least a hundred swarmed and gnashed at his crewmen, outnumbering the soldiers ten to one. Bram grinned as he completed his back-flip. It was time to even the odds.

Before he even hit the ground, his sword arm glided through the air like an opera conductor's baton. A magnificent song of violence flowed through his veins, building with each swing toward an awe-inspiring crescendo. Five sets of wings departed from their gorm bodies, leaving only writhing balls of fur that twitched on the deck like fish out of water.

As soon as Bram landed, he plunged his sword into another and used it as a club to bash two more. He spun quickly, building enough momentum to send the carcass flying into a third. His sword was laced with the vilest magical toxins known to man. A mere scratch could kill, and he used this to his advantage by spinning and grazing the flesh of everything in his path. Dozens of beady-eyed bat-creatures seized in mid-air and crashed onto the deck in lifeless heaps.

Bram continued in this fashion, hacking his way through the swarm. The battle was a frenzy, a blur. But he was energized, vitalized, and pressurized. The gorm were slow and clumsy, but he was a trained Gnostic, the most famous order of knights in all of Gaia!

Within moments, his deck was littered with corpses. The gorm colony was decimated, and fortunately, Bram's crew had been spared from serious injury. Of course, they panted from the workout, as did he. His armor was an oven, and he needed fresh air. So he removed his helm, the iconic skull and horns that marked those of the Gnostic order. All who gazed upon it knew that its bearer was as lethal as he was merciless.

He took a deep breath and let the breeze cool his skin. His platinum-colored hair had become matted to his scalp with sweat, but he released the strands with a stiff shake of his head. The silver locks were a mismatch to his youthful, clean-shaven face, confident smile, and muscular build, as was the copper skin tone that marked him as a non-native of Angkor.

He had actually grown up as an orphan, unaware of his birthplace, but keenly aware of the differences that marked him as an "other". Angkorians tended to have brown or blonde hair, paler skin, and rounder eyes. Even so, it hardly mattered how he looked now. Hidden behind his Gnostic armor, he was no less Angkorian than anybody else. It was one of the things that made being a Knight so special.

Biggs was still out of breath and wiping the sweat from his brow when he wandered back to his captain. "Spawn … again? Dammit! That's three times in a row now."

Spawn were a blight upon Gaia, and gorm were merely one species. The menace was only first sighted in recent years. Like the monsters of bards' tales, they came in numerous shapes and sizes. Some resembled birds or animals, but all were ferociously aggressive. They fed on the corpses of fallen soldiers, devoured farmers' livestock, and attacked unprepared travelers. The famous chronicler James Holmes had once described them has having 'spawned' from the battlefields. Henceforth, the name stuck.

In each of three recent missions, Bram had encountered these creatures. And the increasing frequency of sightings was making more than just the crew of the Heron worry. Earlier on, spawn were so rare that most people in Angkor didn't bother to take them seriously. But in recent months, travelers seemed to run into them on a regular basis. Certainly, the skies above the Great Ocean seemed to be breeding grounds for the abominable beasts.

Bram grunted. He knew his lieutenant was looking for reassurances, but the Knight had nothing to give him. The threat was worsening, and everybody knew it. Before Bram could think of a good response, he caught a whiff of something foul. Even Biggs turned a few shades of green.

"It's the carcasses," Bram concluded, forcefully repressing his gag response. "Gorm carry a stench worse than death itself. We need to clear these off the deck before they attract more spawn."

Biggs covered his nose and mouth and retched. He spoke in between dry-heaves. "I'll gather … the other men. We'll have it … done within the hour."

Bram shook his head. "And how do you expect to do that, Biggs? Jettison the bodies overboard? There's over a hundred of them, and each one's heavier than a sack of flour. We'll be here all day tossing bodies over the banister, and hungrier spawn will be here looking to feed before we're finished."

Biggs clearly struggled to find an answer. His eyes contained unspoken apologies for keeping his captain waiting. "I … uh … um."

Fortunately, a commotion on the other side of the deck gave Biggs a quick escape from Bram's scrutiny.

"Get your hands off of me!"

The shout came in the direction of one of Bram's crewmen, who was being badgered by the king's chancellor, a man who also happened to be Bram's top-secret passenger. The Knight rushed over to defuse the situation.

"What's the problem, Mister Garvey?" he asked the flustered politician. "And why have you wandered out of your quarters at a time like this? Did you not hear the battle horn? We were just under attack."

Virgil Garvey was a middle-aged man dressed in dark silken robes covered with golden embroidery. His long blond hair was pulled back and slick, and his high cheekbones and carefree expression suited his role as a high-ranking official. Bram's orders were to transport Virgil across the Great Ocean to a distant landmass called Minoa. However, due to the mission's top security clearance, few other details had been portioned out.

"Ah, Captain!" Virgil's face brightened considerably. "I was hoping you could explain who I am to this … this brute here." He gestured rudely to Bram's crewman. "I wanted to get some information about the current delay, yet he tried to force me back to my chambers. As if I were a prisoner!" He straightened his Councilmember's robes. "Honestly, Captain, you should assert some control over your men."

Bram bit his tongue, but it was an effort not to roll his eyes. The elitists on the King's Council seemed to grow more pompous and out of touch with each passing week. And Bram didn't want this chancellor thinking his title granted him any kind of privileges aboard the Heron. Bram dismissed his crewman, who looked desperate to return to his duties. When the Knight was sure the discussion was private, he turned back to Virgil.

"There shall be no delays, Chancellor. We had a minor skirmish, that's all, and we've already dealt with it. I vow to maintain our original schedule. By my word, we'll arrive in Minoa by tomorrow morning."

Virgil grinned, seemingly more aware of the situation than he had originally let on. "Are you sure about that, Captain? What about the spawn out yonder?" He jerked his head in the direction of the horizon, where a half-dozen dark shapes hovered like wraiths in the distance.

Bram squinted against the rising sun to get a better look, but very soon his eyes widened. He muttered curses under his breath, having recognized a threat that made the gorm seem like stuffed children's toys.

Virgil chuckled, looking rather amused at having contradicted the ship's captain. "I hear endrakes are quite dangerous," he teased. "Some even say they can swallow a man whole."

Bram's eyes narrowed. He didn't know much about Virgil's credentials, but the man was clearly not as stupid as he looked. Even so, he was a fool if he didn't take endrakes seriously. Bram had seen too many experienced soldiers die because they had underestimated these fiends. One time, he witnessed a single beast go through thirty elite swordsmen before it was taken down. Bram needed a solution. And fast!

"You had better retreat below deck, Chancellor. I can't ensure your safety if—"

Virgil was quick to cut him off. "Stop shooing me away, Captain! I can help."

Bram gathered his patience. The last thing he needed was one of Richard's sycophants micro-managing him. He had always held a certain disdain for Angkorian bureaucrats. They always seemed to think they knew more than they actually did.

He spoke through clenched teeth. "Mister Garvey …."

But he stopped short when the chancellor raised his hand and pinched the air with his thumb and forefinger. Whatever the gesture was, it seemed like it was meant to silence him. Him! The captain of the vessel. And a Gnostic Knight!

Suddenly, Bram felt a fire under his collar. Perhaps keeping the chancellor on deck with the endrakes was a fine idea. Although Bram detested the idea of failing his first mission, he wanted very much to see this toady politician get swallowed whole.

"I'll have you know that I have training in wizardry."

Bram raised his brows. The chancellor's response came as a surprise.

Virgil continued. "If you're able to handle the endrakes when they get here, I can lure them over."

Now the Knight was intrigued. His ship carried a broad array of magically charged munitions. If Virgil could coax the endrakes within range, it would be most useful. The lightning round in particular came to mind. Its accuracy was shoddy at best, but endrakes generated a great deal of charge between their feathers. Bram figured his crew could aim the cannons in their general direction, and the bolts would find their targets naturally.

"Tell me how," he pressed.

Virgil's smirk crept even wider. "As you know, endrakes have a keen sense of smell. The gorm carcasses no doubt lured them here initially, but I can concentrate the scent and send it directly to them. I'd wager they won't be able to resist."

Bram was impressed, though he didn't want to appear too excited. "Fine then. Make preparations. Once they break formation and make a go at the ship, we'll open fire with lightning rounds."

Virgil nodded, his oily grin well earned. Although, Bram wondered how a mere chancellor could train in wizardry and still find time to compete with his peers for a seat at the king's table. In order to wield magic at all, a person needed to dedicate a lifetime to study and practice.

Nevertheless, Bram decided he would put Virgil's claims to the test. No doubt King Richard had good reason to appoint this cocky Councilmember to the mission. Perhaps his skills would even come in handy once they reached Minoa. Besides, Bram had no better ideas. It was worth letting things play out … for now.