Today we revisit Valamine by Jane Stoker. Valamine is an InD'Tale "crowned heart of excellence" recipient and former Rone nominee. Don't miss this wonderfully fantastical and romantic book.
Please enjoy this sample chapter from the book . . .
NYLE ROLLED DEFTLY aside as yet another creature lashed at him. Fierce heat burned his skin as the muscular whip grazed his neck. He flinched—he’d not been fast enough. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the pain and sliced at the feeler. The whip-like instrument fell to the ground still twitching. The daemon screeched and dropped to its knees, black blood pouring from its shoulder. Beetle-black eyes squinted up at him, pieces of flesh clung to rows of splinter-sharp teeth. It screamed and unfurled its wings, launching itself to escape, but the warrior’s sword flashed, and the creature dropped at his feet, dead. Another daemon landed a few feet away. Nyle planted his feet in the mud and readied himself.
Fighting was what he lived for. Even now, with the odds against him and a horde of daemons bearing down, he relished the rush of battle. He was the best swordsman, the shrewdest leader; his warriors were the strongest from all the clans. It was to him the chieftains turned when creatures found ways into the Shaman lands, desperate to escape their own hellish Gehenna. However, this was not normal. Today they’d been fighting for hours, fending off feelers, teeth, claws, but the daemons just kept coming.
How had so many found a way through at the same time? He hated not knowing. He needed to capture one of these hellions and pry the truth from it with the tip of his blade. But for the first time he was beginning to consider the unthinkable, the possibility of rounding up the other three warriors and calling a tactical retreat.
The snarling daemon advanced. Nyle turned slightly to meet it to find his second in command, Sabre, was just behind him facing down another daemon from the opposite direction. Nyle smiled grimly; Sabre was a good man to have at your back.
Sabre tilted his head back and spoke in his usual gruff tone. “I thought we were just going to head off a few troglets, then spend the evening with a harem of grateful Shaman witches,” he paused to parry a blow, “not fighting an army of ażote.” He wiped something dark and pulpy from his cheek with the back of his hand.
Nyle grimaced as he dodged a claw. “I’d rather be here fighting, Sabre, than cooped up in a dusty library with a bunch of high-bred bookworms.”
A whip-like feeler struck out as the daemon attacked again; Sabre turned and caught the feeler in a massive leather bound fist as Nyle lunged for the creature’s heart.
Nyle took a breath and rounded on the next creature. “University women? They’d probably think themselves way above your rank, my friend.”
Sabre snorted and raised his massive blade, cleaving an approaching creature in two. “In my experience, Captain, educated Shaman witches have much lower standards than one might expect.”
The onslaught eased for a moment. “You sound like Torin,” said Nyle, wiping the sweat from his brow. Torin was Nyle’s archer, a warrior who had the power to shoot fire from his hands, as well as the seemingly magical ability to bed any woman he desired.
Sabre heaved his broad sword from the decimated daemon. “I can’t compete with Torin on that score, nor would I want to. It must be exhausting. So where is old firefingers?”
Nyle looked around over the carnage. At least twenty daemons lay slain. Yet another was circling readying to land. “Torin!” he called. A white light crashed into the creature above them causing it to burst into white-hot flames. A blond warrior came into view through the smoke, rubbing his hands together. “Well . . . this was not what I was expecting.”
Nyle groaned and wiped his sword on a patch of grass. “Yes, I know. You were hoping for more pretty witches, less death-wielding ażote monsters . . .” Nyle grunted as another ażote came into view. “Well, this is the life you signed up for. Where’s Alyssa?”
Torin reached for a regular arrow and nocked it, giving the power in his hands time to recharge. He let a shaft fly; the thunk of arrow meeting flesh confirmed he’d found his mark. The monster hung its horned head and looked at the arrow protruding from its chest before collapsing with a snarl. The archer nodded to a clearing a few yards away; a large pile of daemon bodies lay bleeding into the earth, and the screams of dying ażote could be heard bouncing off the trees. “She’s working out some issues.”
Alyssa, the only woman he’d ever trained, hated ażote over any other being from Gehenna. She’d dived into the fray without hesitation; her usual icy demeanour replaced by something that had looked to Nyle suspiciously like bloodthirsty glee.
Nyle looked up and took in a quick breath. Twenty or so ażote were darting through the air towards them. It was as if every azote that had escaped into the land—from his mountain home in the north to the southern isles—had suddenly converged in this place. But why? He gripped his sword firmly and concentrated on relaxing his shoulders. Kill daemons now, ask questions later.
Suddenly the creatures stopped as one and hung in the air.
Alyssa ran over to them, her preferred choice of weapon, a braided whip, coiled in her hands. Her long, pale plaits hung in clumps, black with blood, and her face was streaked with gore. Her eyes, however, shone with a fierce blue fever. “What are they doing?” She uncoiled her whip. “Why don’t they attack?” then louder, “Come here, you base wretches. Come here so I can flay the leather hide from your bones.”
Nyle raised his hand and Alyssa fell silent. Of all the weird things he’d seen these last few weeks, the increased incursions and the patterns in the attacks, this was the weirdest. A trickle of sweat ran over the base of his spine, and he suppressed a shiver.
All four warriors stood in the muddy clearing watching the creatures hover.
“Why don’t they attack?” whispered Sabre.
Nyle frowned. He’d spent years tracking creatures like these, through this realm and the hellish Gehenna. Daemons fought each other, often ate each other; they were chaotic and violent and consumed with hunger. But these winged horrors looked like they were listening to something—but to what? Another bead of cold sweat traced down his back. If something, someone, could organise these beasts . . .
The ażote stayed twenty feet up in the gloaming sky, floating in a perfect circle with just a slight movement in their scaly wings to keep them airborne.
A thud to his left made Nyle wrench his eyes from the eerie sight.
Torin was kneeling in the mud, his hands over his ears. Nyle bent down towards his archer. “What is it, Torin? Speak to me.” He touched Torin’s face; the archer was a cold as ice. Was this a spell, some kind of magic the ażote possessed but had never shown? No they would have felled him and his brothers many times over if they could have. “What is it, warrior? Speak!”
“A voice . . . it’s talking to the ażote. I can hear it. Ahh, it’s like I can feel it speak—as if it’s inside me.” Torin’s voice was strained, and he twitched as he spoke. “It says . . . the herb witch . . . at the university. Her magic holds the rift . . . closed. The pack make for her . . . we . . . the ażote are . . . summoned.” He looked up, as did the other three warriors. The creatures above, as one, turned to the east and sailed silently into the night sky.
“Who, Torin, who’s talking to you?” asked Alyssa, a worried edge to her tone.
But Torin didn’t answer. He raised his head and met Nyle’s stare. Torin’s eyes were pale and blank, like the eyes of a baked fish. The archer grinned, not the handsome smile that usually came so easily, but a wolfish grimace twisting his face into something ugly. But it was his voice that made Nyle take a step back, a bitter rasp that did not belong to his archer.
“The brethren are coming! They will own you, use your women, and feed your children’s hearts to us.” Torin snarled and pushed his hand out towards Nyle. A white light flashed, and the captain ducked. A shot of pure energy went just over Nyle’s head, scorching a nearby tree.
Sabre fell on Torin pushing him into the mud and kneeling on his back. Torin struggled a moment then stilled.
“Torin?” Nyle barked. “Torin, look at me!” He gestured for Sabre to release him. Sabre hesitated before reluctantly getting up, but he stayed close to the archer, poised and ready.
Torin groaned and rolled over. He faced Nyle, his eyes now back to their usual deep green. He sat up and looked at the smoking tree behind his captain then down at his own hands. “I . . . oh goddess, I’m sorry. What did I . . .? I remember but . . .”
“Don’t worry about it now.” Nyle stood, and Alyssa helped Torin to his feet. The archer was shaking.
Nyle would need to get Torin looked at by a healer, but that would have to wait. “When you were entranced, you said something about a herb witch?”
Torin ran his hand over his face and nodded. “The voice . . . it told us . . . I mean it told the ażote to kill her . . . that she was protecting something . . . something important . . . a rift.” Torin rubbed his forehead and winced.
Nyle turned to Sabre. “You and Alyssa get the horses. We need to find this herb witch.” And we need to make it to the university before monsters, organised monsters, overwhelm it!
“We can’t ride as fast as they fly,” said Sabre as he led the horses into the clearing.
“They may stop to feed.” Alyssa’s voice was grim as she mounted.
Nyle nodded, taking his horse’s reins from Sabre and shifting himself into the saddle. He’d seen the aftermath of an ażote feeding frenzy; such horror would haunt him until his death.
“And if they don’t?” asked Sabre from his horse.
Nyle didn’t answer, but as he worked his mount up into a gallop, he hoped that there might be a few magic makers at the university whose power was of the more battle ready kind—ones that could fight off a horde of daemons.
He doubted it.
VALAMINE WATCHED the old woman’s features become less pained as she sipped the broth. Her teacher’s migraines were becoming more frequent and this worried her.
“This is good. You’ve made it perfectly.” The Elder-Sha smiled and leant back in the chair.
Valamine took the empty mug from her teacher and frowned. “You should let me do a proper analysis. If you just let me lay my hands on . . .”
“No.” Elder-Sha Ameena closed her eyes as she spoke. “I will stick to herbs and preparations—your gift is better used elsewhere.”
Valamine shook her head but kept quiet. It would take little effort on her part to use her goddess-given power to find the root of these headaches and cure them for good, instead of messing around with thistle milk and dried thyme. Her teacher’s mistrust of healing magic was frustrating.
Elder-Sha Ameena sighed. “Have I failed to teach you anything over the last seven years, child? You must learn your preparations, Valamine, and they will serve you as well if not better than your magic. Healing power has its limits.”
Valamine sighed. “Yes, Elder-Sha, but if I could only . . .?”
“How is Layla? Resting, I hope.”
It was a blatant change of subject, but Valamine let it slide. “I think so. She went off to bed after supper. She was tired from the trials today.”
“Good. She will need all of her strength for the advanced trials tomorrow. Elder-Sha Paulo will not have made it easy for her.”
Valamine nodded. Her best friend was expected to gain the highest level possible in physical magic. For a year now, her power had outstripped even what the Elder-Sha had taught her, much to his ill-concealed annoyance. Valamine, on the other hand, hadn’t even been entered into a basic trial. She’d dropped it all together in her first year, without regret, due to the fact that she didn’t possess the physical magic required to boil a pan of water. So what if she couldn’t lift a boulder. She could mend a knife wound. Not that there were many stabbings at the university, none actually; the closest she’d got to actual battle healing was salving the burned fingers of hapless kitchen maids, but she could—in theory at least.
Elder-Sha Ameena yawned. “Valamine, be a poppet and bring me that blanket.”
Valamine spread the quilt over her teacher and dimmed the light. She would miss her most after graduation. The old woman’s love had turned her from a surly, miserable child into a confident healer. Valamine looked down at her dark, creased face, so familiar, so unchanging; the face she turned to for council, for encouragement.
“Goodnight, Elder-Sha,” she whispered and left her snoring softly in the darkness.
She left Ameena’s chambers and stood on the landing, torn on which direction to go. Layla was no doubt tucked up in bed in the room they shared upstairs. That was where she should go, Valamine thought, to get some sleep and be well rested for her medical exams tomorrow. But something kept her alert.
The wind whined through the old stone walls of the university, and the rain beat down on the shutters. She thought she detected a soft hum behind the wind, a single breath waiting to be exhaled. She turned, half expecting to see someone hovering in the gloom, but the corridor was empty, just the soft glow of a few, low hanging, light spheres. She shivered.
She would never get to sleep in this storm. Turning right, she descended a curving flight of stone steps. At least she could get in some last minute revision, she thought as she made for the library. Tomorrow’s exams would be the hardest ones yet. She would make sure she was as prepared as possible—no matter what tests she might face.
NYLE IGNORED the exhaustion cramping his shoulders, he ignored the biting rain that stung his face, and kept riding, driven by the echo of the daemon’s words—the brethren are coming . . .
The bulk of the university loomed darkly on the horizon. The airborne creatures hadn’t stopped to feed and would get there before him. Regardless, he rode harder, motioning for his company to do the same.
After what seemed like an age, the great edifice grew larger before him. Columns and spires rose high against the lightening skyline. A flash of red illuminated the landscape; whether the source was inside the university or outside, he couldn’t tell. Red was the colour of witches’ magic. Could they hold the gates against the hoard? A handful of teachers and untrained youths?
Sabre rode up alongside the warrior and shouted to him over the beating hooves; his friend’s usual relaxed expression was gone, replaced with a grim scowl. “The Shaman are putting up a fight! There may still be time.”
Nyle kept his eyes on the track. “Healers, stone-smiths, academics. No, Sabre, the Shaman magic does not lend itself well to battle. We’ll be lucky if the creatures haven’t laid waste to the whole place.”
Another flash of red reflected off the clouds.
Sabre nodded. “I believe some can raise shields. She may still be alive.”
“Our best hope is that the ażote are distracted by the students and do not go straight for her.” It was a grim affair when your most likely chance of success depended on the slaughter of juveniles. Nyle put the thought from his mind. “Tell Torin and Alyssa—our priority is to find the witch.”
Sabre nodded and fell back.
Nyle could just about make out a number of winged shapes circling the highest turret. Hoping fervently that the Shaman were, indeed, able to hold out a short while longer, he crouched farther down into the saddle and quickened his pace as dawn tinged the indigo sky.
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