I am very excited to reveal the first two chapters of the in-progress Sworn To Victory: Courtlight #13 manuscript. Ciardis Weathervane is B-A-C-K baby! I can’t wait to release it this winter. You can read the chapters below and please note that pre-order links are available now.
Keep in mind that this is pre-beta readers and pre-edits, so content may change. Without further ado, the first chapters of SWORN TO VICTORY: COURTLIGHT #13. Hope you enjoy the first look! ^.^
Ciardis stared down at the once-in-a-century maelstrom with indecision written in every line on her face.
Sebastian’s toad advisor had made it abundantly clear—there was nothing the mages could do to bring down the defensive winds, the only thing keeping the breach in their defenses sealed, for at least another few hours.
“Not that it matters much anymore,” Ciardis muttered to herself as all around her warriors and mercenaries rushed to assume their positions. Rank after rank filled all around her and with a chill down her spine, all she could see was artillery fodder lining up to be slain.
It was hard to be optimistic when she saw fear on their faces as they all looked up at the same thing—a goddess on high.
Ciardis had to give the goddess of death and destruction credit. She certainly knew how to make an entrance.
Stomach in knots, Ciardis’ eyes trailed reluctantly from the maelstrom that was keeping Thanar’s body prisoner up to the female goddess floating mid-air above them all, waiting to make her move.
The defensive winds weren’t Amani’s fault, to her credit.
For that, Ciardis could lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Emperor of Algardis and his advisors in the field. He’d ordered the weather wardens gathered from across the empire to summon a once-in-a-century storm. A maelstrom so powerful that to be caught up in it was to be caught up in a wind tunnel of death that would, and had, stripped skin from bones and flung bodies like toys into boulders.
Several of their people had died when the storm had hit without any warning.
But it had done its job. The maelstrom had plugged the backdoor hole into the defensive shield the Algardis forces had put up to protect themselves in the face of unending attacks from the sky by Amani’s creatures.
Now that hole was plugged but looking up at the sky, Ciardis had to wonder if the attempt even mattered.
The goddess stood feet up, looking down at them all with a deceiving smile on her face. Biding her time. Ciardis wasn’t sure if that was because she was waiting for their shield to fail or she just had another hour left on her time limit before she could permanently wipe them all from the face of the earth.
Either way, Ciardis felt like a bug trapped under glass. Unable to do anything but stand and stare helplessly at Thanar lying down there on the floor of the valley or up at the goddess practically smirking at them from high up on her platform above. Neither visual made the Lady Companion Weathervane very happy.
Frustrated and needing to do something, Ciardis grabbed the robes of the nearest mage she could find.
Snapping at him before he could even catch a breath, she said, “Tell me what’s going on!”
Sweat poured down the mage’s back as the man looked over at her with an intense frustration on his face and seemed ready to snarl at the woman who had grabbed him by the arm. But he straightened up when he recognized Ciardis’ golden eyes and saw the grouping of bodyguards she always had at her back.
“The shield is failing,” the man said without preamble.
Ciardis’ eyebrows raised. “I’m surprised it’s still up with the daemoni prince unconscious.”
The man responded stiffly, “The daemoni prince was a mere component in its fabrication, not its linchpin.”
Ciardis didn’t have time for magical theorems.
“Just tell what you’re saying simply,” she begged.
“He made it so it was foolproof even without him,” her other former bond-mate said from behind her.
Ciardis stiffened but she didn’t turn around. She didn’t care if it was against protocol at the moment, she didn’t have anything good to say to Sebastian on a personal level.
Trying, however, to keep her voice even and professional, she asked quietly “Then why is it failing?”
The Emperor of Algardis didn’t answer.
The mage standing in front of her did.
With a quick bow to Sebastian, he asked, “If I may, Your Imperial Majesty?”
Sebastian must have given him an indication from behind Ciardis that he could speak because the mage continued while looking over at her.
“The power behind the shield was never intended to last forever,” the stressed-out mage said flatly. “With the addition of the maelstrom sucking the reserves of not just the weather wardens but every supporting mage lending them additional power, it’s failing faster.”
“Oh,” Ciardis said softly.
That, unfortunately, made sense.
Crisply behind her, Sebastian began to give orders.
“Have you and your company redeployed to help the south wing mages with their reserves,” the Emperor said. “I’m having relief forces moved to the front with the last roster of fresh mages who can keep the overall health of the shield optimal.”
The mage in front of her looked a tiny bit relieved.
“Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty,” the mage said, as he rapidly signaled to several other mages who had stopped when he had. Then without another word, they were on their way.
Ciardis looked after them for a moment before longingly glancing over at Thanar’s distant form with regret. She knew that there was nothing she could do for the daemoni prince at the moment, so she decided to do what she could.
Without turning around, she said to Sebastian, “I’m going with them.”
“No, you’re not,” Sebastian quickly said behind her before she could move.
He said it with efficient crispness. No heart and no soul in the words. It was a tone that said this was nothing more than business.
The trouble was her remark hadn’t been a request, merely a notification.
Though she supposed anything she did was now done at the pleasure of the Emperor. The trouble was the man behind her was the person she used to know and this new individual of the state. And Ciardis had decided she didn’t like the second person at all. It wasn’t something she wanted to do, but for the good of the imperial forces, she needed to do her part. Trying not to lash out at Sebastian since it wouldn’t just be her confusion at his current denial fueling the emotions in her words, instead, Ciardis cooled her temper and then spoke.
Without turning around, she asked, “But why? I’m not doing any good here. I can help those same south wing mages by bolstering their magic when needed.”
“You’re safe here,” was all Sebastian said from behind her. He even reached out a hand and touched her shoulder as he said it.
For once his voice went soft and it was almost like they were back inside the imperial courts—alone, just the two of them. But she knew they wouldn’t ever really be alone like that again and from the way Sebastian was acting—he wanted it that way.
Too insulted to acknowledge his attempt at reconciliation, Ciardis shifted away with a small step as she said, “I’m not defenseless you know. I have my gifts and I have my guards. If I’m not safe there I won’t be anywhere.”
“Nevertheless,” Sebastian replied. “My order stands.”
Ciardis rolled her shoulders with discomfort. She wanted to argue with him. But the truth was, he was the Emperor of Algardis now. He could order anyone in the empire to do anything he desired and they would have to do it. Including her.
“Ciardis,” Sebastian said in a strained voice behind her as someone else caught his attention.
He used to listen to me, Ciardis thought. Now he hears my words and lets them float out of his ears like they don’t matter. Like I don’t matter. The only people he listens to now are that snake and toad.
Unable to justify being rude any longer and knowing those odious advisors were whispering in his ears, Ciardis reluctantly turned around to face him.
Just as I thought, she thought as she mentally strengthened herself to take whatever nasty looks and abuse the two thought to hurl at her when Sebastian couldn’t or wouldn’t see.
She, of course, was referring to Lord Miles and Lord Anurbar, who never left the Emperor’s side on the justification that he was a new ruler and needed all the guidance possible during a transition in such a turbulent time. Which was true but Ciardis would have given the world to have someone level-headed and fair standing at Sebastian’s side right now.
Like the late lamented General Barnaren, she mused.
He had been strong, fair, a mage, and a wise counsel. Unfortunately, he had died during her Patron hunt and now Sebastian had two evil imp-like courtiers hanging on his every word who hated anyone different and most certainly hated her. Even now they eyed her virulently behind the emperor’s back although she wasn’t certain which they loathed her for more—her background, her powerful nature, or lately, her choices. The feeling was mutual. It was they who had advised Sebastian against a rescue attempt for Thanar. They’d only been whispering in Sebastian’s ear for weeks as far as she could tell, probably in those council meetings she had elected not to attend as she was busy with other things like dealing with a Kasten ship and rallying mage users for the portals, but now she regretted letting it get this far.
They were on the field of battle and she couldn’t displace them as easily as she could in the courts.
Whether she liked it or not, the Emperor of Algardis needed his advisors.
She just wished his two most prominent ones weren’t the two courtiers who hated her the most. She was surprised the engagement was still on after all they had done to sabotage her goodwill in Sebastian’s eyes. But Ciardis supposed Anurbar and Miles just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. They’d already forced her to admit the bond between herself, Sebastian, and Thanar had not just weakened—it had been broken.
Baby steps, Ciardis thought wryly. They’ll get to the wedding before I can blink. Probably whisper something about how I’m an unsuitable bride.
And it was true.
She was headstrong, powerful, and she didn’t like being messed with.
Precisely what a future Empress of Algardis shouldn’t be.
She’d grown a lot since she first joined the imperial courts of Sandrin that one, fateful day, but as she locked eyes with the new Emperor, Ciardis had to wonder if all she had accomplished would be for naught? They’d spent so much time trying to save the empire that they’d forgotten to save themselves.
Still pressing forward on the issue with teeth grinding in the process, Ciardis said, “If you don’t want me bolstering their magical reserves, at least let me do something. Even assist you if needed.”
Eyeing the courtiers who sniffed with disappointment behind him, Ciardis thought it was quite clear they didn’t want her anywhere near the Emperor.
The feelings mutual, you imps, Ciardis grumped in her head as she plastered a smile that was more barred teeth on her face.
Sebastian, however, said with relief clear in his tone, “Good, join us. We could use your analysis of the mage auras you mentioned seeing when the opening in the shield wall was briefly present.”
“Whatever my Emperor says,” Ciardis said sweetly—playing the darling Companion once again.
Sebastian eyed her mistrustfully then. He knew that this was an act. Her temperament wasn’t nearly as nice when she was being blocked from doing what she wanted but since she was agreeing with him this time, he couldn’t precisely object.
Dipping into an effective courtesy that wouldn’t have been out of place at court, Ciardis bowed her head then peeked up. Even the courtiers looked surprised, though as Ciardis stood she noted it was a happy surprise on toad and snake’s faces.
Joke’s on them, Ciardis thought gleefully. Because as soon as their backs are turned, I’m out of here.
She smoothly took her place among the jostle of courtiers and the regiment of guards solely assigned to secure the Emperor of Algardis’s presence. She was too far back at first for Sebastian to catch more than a few glimpses of her face by then. Before he could object and wave her forward, she let herself be pushed back further and further by minor courtiers eager to get closer to the advisors and the Emperor himself. Soon enough she was subsumed by the jostling crowd and she slipped out the back of the group.
No one else the wiser.
Except for her own personal bodyguards who followed her as silently as shadows, not tasked with judging her. Just in keeping her safe.
When Ciardis finally got far enough away that she was out of sight of busybody courtiers, none of which were looking at her way anyway, she turned and looked over at the Commander of her personal guard with a raised eyebrow.
Virge looked back at her without blinking—her face composed with a neutral expression.
“Nothing to say?” Ciardis asked gaily.
“Not a thing,” Virge assured her as they set off at a rapid pace towards the southern part of Emperor’s forces—where the mages needed her most.
Ciardis’ heart thumped harshly in her chest.
Nervous that she had defied the orders of a sitting Emperor and more anxious than ever to help those who were struggling to hang on to their last line of defense. That was why she went, not to get one over on Sebastian who couldn’t seem to get his head out of his courtier’s bums this time around.
At least that’s what she silently told herself as she raced to get down the footpath the troops had dug into the grassy terrain. To either side of her, wagonloads of supplies were being redeployed to what she supposed was strategic positions. Some looked like they were heading straight to the center of their frontlines, where the goddess hovered over them all like a benevolent fairy ready to wish them well.
Ciardis glanced over her shoulder with a shudder at the idea.
There’s nothing benevolent about that goddess, Ciardis thought ruefully as she caught a glimpse of Amani far, far above them. She hovered in the sky and even from here Ciardis could see her hard, shell-like armor shimmering with an opalescence in the high noon sky.
She looked like a star brought to life with body resplendent and close-cropped hair echoing the spikes of starlight Ciardis imagined from every celestial body high above in the heavens.
Amani’s beauty was about the nicest thing Ciardis could say about her. Her personality was ruthless and conniving, and her motivations as clear as mud. She seemed to want to kill everyone before her, and she had done so when she cleaved through the inner conclave chambers like a scythe. But she also played by a strange set of rules that only she and some scholars with an interest more in esoteric knowledge than fresh air seemed to know about.
Ciardis, Sebastian, and Thanar had tried to get up to date as they could on the restrictions that bound Amani in her game with the mortal kind but every hour some new disaster awaited and the goddess’s promised fate of bloody destruction loomed ever closer to its due date.
Now they were down one powerful member of the triumvirate, another one couldn’t seem to realize that they needed to work together to succeed, and she was darting off on a side quest to do what she could to bolster the resolves of the only mages who seemed willing to work in concert in the field.
It didn’t escape Ciardis’ amusement that those same mages were doing this under the orders of the Emperor of Algardis but she couldn’t get him to step up and work with her to not only save Thanar but their plans to defeat Amani.
Ciardis didn’t think Sebastian was blocking her attempts to be effective out of malice.
Rather, she thought he thought he was doing what he had too to save his empire and the people living within it. Ciardis knew that now that Sebastian was Emperor, he had to make strategic long-term decisions for the benefit of all, but she didn’t think that meant he had to sacrifice who he was an individual and the power that came with that to do it.
In Ciardis’ opinion if anyone on this battlefield had a chance against Amani now that Thanar was down for the count it was Sebastian with his connection and ability to draw from the empire’s soul if needed to mount a defense.
But he seemed hesitant to do that and she didn’t know why.
She would bet her last shilling however that Anurbar and Miles had something to do with it.
Mouth pursed in displeasure, Ciardis put thoughts of those two aside from a moment and walked straight up to the mage who’d been sent to marshal the south wind mages in the first place.
She called in her original powers as Weathervane as she did and waited a moment as he stood there eying her in shock. When the mage didn’t seem capable of finding the words to ask her what she was doing on the edge of the battle lines closest to failing, she decided to take the conversation in hand and make her abilities clear.
Without introducing herself, since there was no need, Ciardis strongly said, “I’m here. I can help the mages who are winding down in power. Just tell me where you need me.”
There was a moment of silence as the mage and the two others with him, both wearing badges of full Adepts, weighed her words. But to her relief and surprise, there was no rancor in his tone when he answered her and he didn’t reject her desire to help—either due to knowing the Emperor had explicitly ordered her to stay behind or because of his opinions on Companions who wielded magic.
Instead, he said, “Would everywhere be too much to ask?”
Then he flashed an ironic smile and Ciardis responded with a wry chuckle.
“Let’s start with your most abused mages,” she said in reply.
“Gladly, Lady Companion Weathervane,” the mage said as he pointed off to his right. “Let’s go this way.”
Ciardis shook her head, “Now that I know where they are, I’ll be able to see who needs me the most with a glance at their auras. I just didn’t want to wander around from collective to collective to do so.”
She turned and preceded to go.
Behind her, the lead mage called out, “We need all the boosting we can get.”
Feet flying Ciardis called back over her shoulder, “And you’ll get it!”
This time as Ciardis took off there was a grim look of satisfaction on her face. She was finally going where she was needed most, not where they thought to put her until the fighting was over. It didn’t take her long to round a small hill and find the first grouping of mages that the lead mage most likely would have pointed out. She’d been able to tell with a swift dip into her own mage pool that there were a bunch of small collection points all across the hills of this area, each hiding in small dips at the base of their prospective hill.
“Maybe I should have taken him up on that offer after all,” Ciardis stated as she got to the first grouping and noted there were only five to six here when she could sense at least thirty separate mages composing the south wind band of resistance.
Before she could turn and ask for any aid, Virge said in a clipped voice behind her, “You and you, find out where the next three collectives of mages are and pace out how long it’ll take to get there.”
As they took off, Virge called out after them, “And get some of those food pouches while you’re at it. I know those mages horde rations like chipmunks—they’ll have extras.”
Two runners, attached to Ciardis’ deployment of elite bodyguards, went running past and Ciardis had never been more grateful to have been issued a team by the imperial courts even though she’d resisted it at first.
With a grateful look at Virge but no words, Ciardis walked up to the five mages who were doing their best to ignore the intrusion into their designated space and keep up the magical tasks they’d been assigned. The strain on their faces was apparent and Ciardis had wondered initially why the groupings were all separated from each other but it made sense now. The ‘nodes’ as they were could do their work individually and it would probably decrease the odds of them all being wiped out in a single attack by the goddess’ forces.
Determined to help, she barged her way into the hand locked ring of power without so much as a by your leave and immediately started to boost their reserves—going from mage to mage mentally with a touch of her power thanks to the fact that they were interlocked.
None of them whispered a word of thanks.
They didn’t have to. She could feel their subtle relief wash over her as the strain on their bodies eased and Ciardis released her hold—magically and physically—on their node. Walking away as the two mages she’d interrupted returned to grasping hands, Ciardis turned to see the runners pacing back with supplies and news.
Virge swiftly passed out rationed food in slick pouches to every guard but herself, as she clearly wanted to keep at least one person with their hands cleared for battle, and then handed the second-to-last pouch to Ciardis.
Without waiting Ciardis dug into her ration of soup that she could just gulp down with gusto and then said, “We’re clear here. We need to move on to the next.”
Virge nodded sharply as she looked to the first of the two runners.
The boy quickly relayed everything he’d found out about the positioning of each node and how many mages were in every collective. Ciardis rubbed her chin as she thought which to go to first.
“If I might suggest,” Virge asked respectfully.
Ciardis looked to her quickly.
“Go ahead,” she urged.
“There are four more nodes here, here, here, and here,” Virge said briskly as she made marks in the dirt. “It’d be best to approach them all in a pattern west to east. We’ll be able to take care of those closest to the most dangerous point nearest the shield wall first and get it done quickly.”
Seeing that she was right, Ciardis didn’t argue.
She just nodded and replied, “Looks good to me. The ones who are at least half-strength are in that western portion so it’s good to arrive there first in any case.”
“Good,” Virge said. Looking around they saw that all of Ciardis’ bodyguards were ready and had already put their pouches aside into a debris pile.
Satisfied, the Commander of Ciardis’ personal bodyguard clicked her teeth and sharply stated, “Move out.”
As they left at a quick pace, leaving the first node behind, Ciardis noted that they were all energized. It turns out she wasn’t the only person longing for a sense of purpose, not by a longshot. When the second runner quickly led them to the next node, Ciardis did an initial assessment. This grouping happened to be towards the west but farthest away from those fraught battle lines so they were weary but not flagging. She took less time topping off three of their five mages and then moved on.
By this time, Virge, the last to partake in victuals was ready to go at a fast pace as well and they took off to their third node of the hour—urgency in everyone’s footfalls as they knew the closer they came to the battle lines the more dangerous it was and the greater the chance that the mages’ reserves would fail before they got there.
“Just hold on!” Ciardis muttered to these distant individuals as they crested a hill at a brutal run and saw them.
This time they were six sheltering under a rocky overhang as they desperately tried to stay standing. Ciardis could see exhaustion written into the bodies of every mage there as a runner positioned with them desperately watched them become close to failing but wasn’t able to help as their fatigue was a product of their magic being drawn down from their core and not just a body’s inability to adapt to wartime efforts.
Ciardis, shocked at all of their conditions, quickly said, “Virge they need water. All of them. This will take longer but I need to go from mage-to-mage. I’ll start with the worst off first.”
She didn’t bother turning to see that her request was followed through, she just walked up to a man who was so tall that Ciardis had to stand on the tips of toes to reach her shoulders. Placing her hands up on either side of his neck, she muttered to herself and got to work.
Ciardis pulled out all the stops to keep him from worsening as she saw his magic had lowered to dangerous levels. It was barely a flickering flame in his core when she reached out and with a tug of her magic, planted a direct line to her core within his own.
His magic leaped up like a tiny baby starved of sustenance and latched on to her string of magic with a ferocity that startled even her, but knowing this is what was needed she allowed him to draw on her magic with no restrictions. Before long, his little flame was a cheery glowing orb within his core and Ciardis felt his back straightened as the strain on his physical presence seemed to lessen as she watched.
Knowing it wasn’t enough to get him back to full strength, but that at least he wasn’t in danger of falling flat out now, Ciardis moved on to the next person.
Then the next.
Each mage was as worse off as the first, and Ciardis Weathervane gave them all that she had.
It wasn’t everything—not by a long shot.
Now that she wasn’t feeding Sebastian and Thanar’s cores continuously in the background, she had plenty of her own gifts to spare.
And she would gladly give it to keep these mages and their forces on their feet.