DISCOVER THE EPIC SERIES
This dark and gritty sword and sorcery series from Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Jean Lowe Carlson explores a complex world of treachery, passion, sex, and magic.
Readers who enjoy Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series will love this fantastic adventure.
An epic tale.
“An epic tale of love, heartache, horror, lust, hope, death, and redemption. I cried, laughed and had to stop myself from chewing my nails!”
— Jennifer Manning, Amazon Reviewer
Breathtaking 'till the last page.
“Breathtaking 'till the last page, full of twists and turns, political intrigue and traitors galore! Puts me in mind of Brent Weeks and the Dragonlance epic series.”
— Lana Turner, Amazon Reviewer
Like Martin and Rothfuss.
“Like George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, JL Carlson brought forth emotions in me that books from my youth never could.”
— RonC, Amazon Reviewer
The Kingsmen Chronicles Book 3
Blood soils the hands of the righteous. Darkness fills the hearts of the brave. Now, bitter enemies must rise as one under a terrifying magic that could destroy them all, as nations fall to an ancient and ruthless power.
Dreams will die and legends will be born in this epic conclusion to The Kingsmen Chronicles.
Castellan Lhaurent den’Karthus has betrayed the Khehemni Lothren, annihilating all who would oppose him. Seizing the Menderian throne, he wages war to fulfill ancient prophecy and unite the continent under his rule. But an alternate Uniter has been Goldenmarked – Kingsman Elohl den’Alrahel. Captured during a mission for the exiled Queen, Elohl languishes under the dark and powerful magic of the Valenghian Vhinesse. To win back the nation, Elohl must now escape, and lead an army of Kingsmen in the most brutal war the continent has ever seen.
EXCERPT FROM GOLDENMARK
PROLOGUE – THEROUN
All around, General Theroun den’Vekir watched men fall. The battle for Lhen Fhekran was not combat; it was destruction. Annihilation of a nation, of a city, of everything and anything that made a person human. Theroun could only watch from atop his mean black ronin cat, roaring out commands to shore up this barrier, to put more men on that avenue, to follow him to the next breach or the next. But despite Theroun’s desperate strategy, the army of Alrou-Mendera walked right into Lhen Fhekran.
And tore the Elsthemi Highlanders apart.
With a wave of their hands, Kreth-Hakir mind-benders at the head of the Menderian army marched into Lhen Fhekran, the capitol and most prosperous city in Elsthemen, causing Elsthemi to take their own lives in droves. Blood washed the cobbled avenues as Elsthemi slit their own throats. Lime-whitened red braids scattered crimson blood as Elsthemi fell. Battle-cats yowled in rage for their falling riders, going rogue with no one to command them and racing into the burning chaos. Ferocious Highlanders turned against each other to the unspoken commands of the Kreth-Hakir – gutting their comrades with horror in their eyes, that their body was no longer theirs to command.
Theroun wheeled his black ronin cat, knowing that continued defense of the city was useless. Burning engulfed the rear of the column. Flames took the night as the sun died over the western mountains. Homes caught fast, Elsthemi straw and thatch flaring high in the gloaming. Stout ironpine and yitherwood went up like matchsticks, popping from resins. A sea of brown and cobalt-clad Menderians advanced with Kreth-Hakir in their herringbone-black leather armor – toward Theroun’s failing knot of Elsthemi with their bloodstained furs and snarling cats.
“To me!” Theroun roared, coughing into his sleeve, his throat bedeviled from the black smoke that towered into the crimson sky. A wretched light cast down from the underbelly of the night, revealing a ferocious knot of keshari fighters around Theroun, death in their pale blue eyes. General Merra Alramir in her ruined white battle-armor flanked Theroun, her elite keshari riders holding their fall-back position at the palisade gates of Fhekran Palace.
The Menderian column advanced before billowing towers of red smoke. Like an army of ants they came, not a man faltering. Their eyes were dulled, reflecting the bitter sky, too uniform to be men in charge of their own minds. They were a hive tonight, not a trace of fear or bloodlust or any human emotion in their faces. Ten thousand Menderian soldiers, mind-fucked just like the Elsthemi who succumbed to their own blades. Held by a force of eight Kreth-Hakir now advancing upon the timbers of the Fhekran Palace gates.
Mind-controlled by the black arts of the Kreth-Hakir Scorpions.
A familiar face walked at the head of the column, a dark twist of dominance upon his smooth lips. A lack of emotion poured through High Priest Khorel Jornath, leader of the Kreth-Hakir Brethren, as he stalked Theroun down in the roaring night. Hulking of stature, the man stepped over the fallen as casually as a lion in a field. Rather than riding his glittering black scorpion into the red night, he came afoot at the head of Lhaurent den’Karthus’ cursed army. His scorpion was dead from its encounter with Theroun just a day ago at the Elsthemi-Menderian border. But the man who’d ridden it was very much alive. He had a bloody bandage around his upper chest, stained nearly as black as his silver-studded armor in the burning dark.
But where his Kreth-Hakir comrades assessed the three hundred vengeful Elsthemi and their battle-cats amassed before the palisades, this man held a cold stare only for Theroun. Khorel Jornath halted his comrades with one upraised hand, and raised his rumbling baritone. “General Theroun den’Vekir of Alrou-Mendera! General Merra Alramir of Elsthemen! I have terms for you!”
“Terms!” General Merra sat astride her blood-slick white battle-cat to Theroun’s right, her two remaining Captains, the brothers Rhone and Rhennon Uhlki, mangled from battle and riding roan cats just behind her. Merra turned her head and spat, her lips lifted in a ready snarl. Blood and soot ruined her white armor, her wild red braids and high cheekbones feral. A woman of battle, Highland defiance sat proud in every vicious gesture as she gave a nasty laugh from atop her mount.
“Fuck ye an’ yer terms! Fight and face yer death!”
A dominant sneer twisted Khorel Jornath’s lips. Towering over his taller-than-average comrades, his icy blue gaze regarded General Merra with disdain. His haughty features and cutting cheekbones were cast in fire and shadows, the silver studs on his armor glittering in the night, as much as the flat black weave devoured the darkness.
“You will die as I tell you to die, whelp.”
He raised two fingers. Merra’s hands suddenly spasmed to her belt-knife, pulling it from its sheath. She cried out as her hand spasmed to her throat. Jornath held her, her blade pressed so close to her sooty skin that it drew a line of blood. He stared into her eyes, his grey gaze empty. Showing her that her life was utterly his. And Theroun knew enough of the bastard to understand that he wanted to see fear in the eyes of Elsthemen’s finest commander.
“I’ll hear your terms!”
Theroun barked it as casually as he could, interrupting the scene. Jornath’s gaze flicked to him. Every gaze in the Kreth-Hakir battalion flicked to him. Every gaze in the Menderian army. Theroun felt the weight of that mass mind, like the crush of an ocean a hundred fathoms into the black. His breath came hard under that great weight. It hammered his chest and spiked pain through his body, but Theroun did not break his gaze from the Kreth-Hakir High Priest.
A subtle urge washed into him like a smooth rip tide. To raise his blade. To rip it across his own throat. So nice. So smooth. So good, to die by the blade as a commander should.
Holding onto his rage, focusing it into a black spear so vicious Theroun could almost see it, Theroun forced his hand to grip the hilt of his blade. Holding it steady and not raising it. Shivering from the crush of minds, Theroun’s body blazed with a pain so bright he saw stars. Chin down and eyes focused, he held onto that black lance in his mind, barbed like a scorpion’s tail. Forming the essence of his hate, even though it was just imagination. He had nothing but his will against these men, his determination. But if that had power, if he could use it to keep Merra alive, to keep even the tiniest fraction of the Elsthemi forces intact, he would.
He would do what he had to, to keep Queen Elyasin and King Therel’s people alive.
“I’ll have your submission, General.” Jornath’s cold gaze pummeled Theroun, rolling him in the deep. “The rest can go their way if you agree to my terms. Personally.”
Fear slid through Theroun’s gut, tight and cold. He’d never really felt fear when faced with an enemy before. Even so long ago, staring into the jaws of madness upon the Aphellian Way. But this was an enemy he couldn’t fight. Not bound as they were into a mass consciousness; all of it focused upon Theroun’s demise. Certainty shone in the Kreth-Hakir High Priest’s gaze. This was not about warfare, but about lessons. Jornath was here to see to Theroun’s education – that the Kreth-Hakir Brethren were impossible to oppose.
Days ago, Theroun had gotten his blade into Jornath when they’d faced off in single combat. He’d left Jornath bleeding out in the grasslands. But to think a man dead and to know that he was dead, were two very separate things. It had been a fatal mistake. One that might mean death to the Elsthemi people, not to mention what was left of Theroun’s defected Menderian forces.
Somehow, Jornath had survived the Black Viper’s strike. And though one Scorpion alone upon the grasslands had not been able to take down the Viper, there were now nine. Nine herringbone bastards to reflect Jornath’s commands through an entire army, bolstering the aggressors while breaking those who defended. Until Lhen Fhekran was nothing but black ash and cold blood upon broken stone.
Theroun saw that reality in the High Priest’s level gaze. Theroun hadn’t been many things in his bitter life, but he was a good General. And a good General always knew when the day was lost.
“I will give you my submission, personally,” Theroun barked, beginning the negotiations, his hand yet upon his blade. “And you will release the remainder of the Elsthemi forces. Immediately, and without damage of any kind.”
General Merra’s gaze flicked to him from atop her battle-cat, but she kept silent. The keshar-cats behind Theroun were still as ghosts in the roaring red night.
“We’ve taken five hundred Elsthemi captives,” Khorel Jornath’s baritone was flat, his gaze level. “Five hundred of your best warriors, the ones that impressed us with their mind-resistance tonight. They are to be tribute to my Order. We would take the last three hundred here,” his thick lips turned up in a smirk, “but my people enjoy a challenge. If you can fight me in single combat, Theroun den’Vekir, and best me a second time mind-to-mind… I will allow these three hundred and their cat-rider General to go free. Immediately and without molestation.”
“And the defenders behind the palace gates?” Theroun pressed, digging into the negotiation.
The Kreth-Hakir smirked, his blue eyes amused. “Yes. We feel your five hundred fighters inside the palisades. Trembling as they watch our slaughter.” His gaze roved the fortress-wall. Some of that oceanic press lifted from Theroun. A thoughtful smirk lifted one corner of Jornath’s lips, and his gaze returned to Theroun, along with all its weight.
“You drive a clever bargain, General Theroun. How much do I want the glory of capturing eight hundred of Elsthemen’s best fighters versus how much I want the satisfaction of breaking you? But I am a reasonable man. The fighters behind the palace walls may go with your Elsthemi battle-General and her retinue. I give my word.” He nodded to General Merra. “However, Lhaurent den’Alrahel was specific as to my appointment upon this campaign. To uphold my end of our alignment, I must remit the King of Elsthemen and the Queen of Alrou-Mendera into his custody. Alive, preferably.”
“Naturally,” Theroun growled.
His mind raced. He was out of options. Khorel Jornath would storm the palisades of Fhekran Palace with or without Theroun’s bargain. It was just a matter of how many lives would be lost. Theroun set his jaw, hoping he’d stalled long enough to give King Therel Alramir and Queen Elyasin den’Ildrian Alramir enough time to escape through the tunnels beneath the palace, into the mountains.
To enact their plan for the survival of their nations in this time of madness.
Theroun took a deep breath, feeling the crushing weight of the minds Jornath wielded. Setting his jaw, Theroun swung a leg back over the rump of his keshar-cat, dismounting with grace and keeping his exhausted body from twitching. Theroun’s Black Bastard cat yowled in a kind of forlorn rage, lashing its tail. Stepping up to its blocky skull, Theroun let the mean beast butt heads with him. It opened its mouth, putting Theroun’s entire head in its jaws, though it didn’t bite, only marking him with an inundation of saliva. Pulling back, the black keshar raked the stones with dark claws, swinging its jaundiced yellow eyes to Khorel Jornath.
Strangely, the Kreth-Hakir leader nodded to the great beast. The cat gave a nasty growl, raking the paving-stones to blue chips with its claws. “Your beast claims you, Theroun.” The herringbone-clad man chuckled. “But you must surrender to me if you wish your warriors to live.”
At his words, the eight Kreth-Hakir raised their hands. A shearing sound rasped the air, swords and axes and knives drawn from leather scabbards. The keshari defenders behind Theroun cried out. Theroun saw from the corner of his eye that all those drawn weapons had been put to throats. But Theroun heard no gurgles, no screams. The man before him was playing a game of dominance and submission, not of life and death.
It was Theroun’s debasement Jornath wanted.
Stepping from his ronin-cat, Theroun walked forward with steady strides. Khorel Jornath’s haughty eyes watched him, a pleased smile twisting his thick lips. He lowered his hand and the rest of the Hakir did also, in a smooth unison like a hive of bees.
An eerie silence held the ranks as Theroun approached.
“I agree to your terms.” Theroun stopped fifteen paces from Khorel Jornath. “Single combat. And all the men and women behind me go free, including those behind the palace gates. But single combat means you take no other minds into yours while we do this, just as I would let no other fighter into the ring with us for a duel of swords. Break your word to me, and lose your honor.”
Theroun had made an astute guess. Jornath’s eager eyes darkened suddenly. Not in rage, but a quiet thoughtfulness, his head tilting as if regarding Theroun anew. Slowly, his lips curled up in a smile of pure pleasure. The press of a thousand minds lifted from Theroun’s body, the ocean rolling back. Standing tall, Theroun twisted his neck to crack it, then took in a deep breath and let it out.
“Then let us begin.” Jornath spoke.
“Let us begin.”
A roaring silence filled Theroun ears. The fighters around him were spectrally quiet, though burning filled the city. Red flames scorched the night, casting a diabolical glow over the black company of the Kreth-Hakir and the Menderian army. Through drifting char Theroun watched his opponent. Khorel Jornath did nothing at first. Only eyed Theroun, a watchfulness in his gaze. He made no move to draw the two-handed broadsword that rode his back, nor to claim the knives at his belt. Only crossed his arms over his herringbone jerkin and stood there, waiting to see what his opponent would try.
Had it been a battle of swords, Theroun would have let the man wait. Watching Jornath’s feet, his posture, his readiness. The first warrior to charge in a duel was often the first to become dismembered.
But this was a duel waged inside their minds, a terrain not foreign to Theroun, only utilized in a different way. He knew how to judge a commander’s will from a bloody field, and he could read Jornath’s utterly at-ease posture. Every expression the man had was known, every grip of muscle in his lips and cheek, and at the corners of his subtly-creased eyes. Theroun could read the tense attention of Jornath’s comrades as they watched, feigning indifference but too rigidly eager, anticipating this duel.
A duel which was clearly off-tactic for the Kreth-Hakir. Jornath was stepping out on a thin blade, going after Theroun in personal vendetta, and without the mind-support of his Brethren. But what Theroun didn’t know, was why. And what Theroun also didn’t know, was just how this duel was supposed to begin.
Or what would happen once it did.
This heavy waiting would have broken most men by now. But it only pissed Theroun off, making him go still, to a place that knew only the strike. Theroun made no move, matching Jornath and doing him one emptier. A vast nothingness flowed between them. Theroun could almost feel it swirling around him; a place where emotion should have been. Where one man should have hated the other, snarling for his enemy’s death.
And yet, Theroun felt nothing. No animosity. No wrath. No brimstone and fire, though it burned on all around them. Here, facing this herringbone-clad commander, all he could see was his own posture before him. His own face, impassive upon the battlefield. His own arms crossed at his chest, a mirror to himself but taller, broader. Theroun’s own empty-ready eyes staring back in a face with thick lips, cutting cheekbones, and heavy eyelids.
Shock snapped Theroun, cracked his ready equilibrium. He’d felt no mental attack, it was only the surprise of seeing his own self in this other commander. And in that moment, something ripped out from Theroun, lashing like a serpent’s strike, swift. Thrusting the full weight of the barbed black spear he had previously imagined straight to Khorel Jornath – as if it was a real weapon and not just willful intent.
Jornath flinched. The man’s big face twitched aside and opened in surprise, as if a snake had actually struck at him. The dominance dropped from his lips. A leaning press upon Theroun’s psyche lifted in that moment, something Theroun had not even known was there. As if the weight of a mountain had evaporated from Theroun’s shoulders – the solid strength of Jornath’s own mind.
A subtle trick, that Theroun had not known was there until he’d broken it. Somehow, the Black Viper of the Aphellian Way had bested Jornath for a second time in as many days. But it didn’t last. Theroun could no more wield the black spear in his mind than he could control a wild snake. And when Khorel Jornath’s expression of dominance returned, it came like a hurricane, his gaze cold as death.
“Kneel, Theroun den’Vekir.”
The force of his command hit Theroun like an avalanche. It wasn’t a mountain, it was the upheaval of the earth. It was a pummeling of sand and stone, river and chasm, oceans and thunder. It was the sound of wreckage and the feel of ruin, of the plates of the earth grinding together and shaking everything into obliteration.
Theroun’s resistance snapped. His black mind-spear was shattered beneath that utterly dominant force. Driven to his knees, one hand slapped the cobbles to keep himself from being plowed down altogether. His jaw snapped closed, teeth hitting each other so hard he clipped a piece from the side of his tongue. The iron tang of blood filled his mouth. Pain blossomed in red streamers from his old injury. Pain devoured him, a ripping agony that had no end, only the horror of the now. Head hanging, eyes tight, spasms ripped through Theroun’s body.
“Fight him, Theroun!” Merra’s roar cut the burning night.
Somewhere in his annihilation, Theroun felt Khorel Jornath take a knee before him. The big man whispered at his ear, “Fight me, Black Viper. Show me you are better than I am. Show me your willful defiance, and I will let your fighters go free.”
Pain was no stranger to Theroun. For years he had lived with it, struggled with it – managed it. Daily, he had kept an arrangement with his war-maimed body, practicing the breathing and stretching that made his hours livable. He used that now, drawing slow breaths, sending it deep into his injured side. Using his chest’s bellows to work out the gripping agony. Gradually, he re-learned how to think. He remembered that he was a General among men. He remembered that he had killed over five hundred fighters in combat over the decades. He remembered that he was the Black Viper of the Aphellian Way, ruthless and utterly cold.
And he remembered that if he’d fucked Khorel Jornath twice, he could do it again.
Slowly, Theroun’s spasms came under control. Fighting the weight of Khorel’s enormous attack, Theroun’s head came up. Cold rage filled him. A darkness so vast he couldn’t even begin to see the edges of it. A darkness so terrible that a part of Theroun ran screaming, to see what lived inside himself. A cold uncaring that devoured the hearts of men.
The Scorpion had stung, but the Viper was far from beaten.
A bloody snarl split Theroun’s lips. “No matter how you send me to Halsos’ Hells, I’ll be waiting – for when you arrive.”
And then he laughed.
He laughed and laughed, his body bright with a sensation he didn’t understand. It wasn’t pain, more like a terrible pleasure. Something of heinous power searing every limb, it rushed through him, exhilarating. A hot fire like poison in his veins, like zephyrs in a burning desert. A liberation that was part of his very core – a man who had nothing left to lose. It filled Theroun, taking him into madness and pushing back the pain. And with it came an image of searing red eyes in the center of his mind, willing him to take it in.
To take it in, and obliterate the world.
“Stop!” Khorel Jornath commanded, his grey eyes wide in horrified surprise. “Cease!”
But his commands had no effect. The bright poison that had taken Theroun was all-consuming, and the pressure of Khorel Jornath’s mind evaporated like mist before a falling star. The burning eyes grew in Theroun’s mind, wild, incalculable in their horrors and unimaginable fury. Theroun doubled over, laughing, mad. And with it came freedom as those burning eyes rushed up to take him – to swallow him whole.
A boot kicked out, connecting with Theroun’s face. He sprawled to the paving-stones, his vision blacking out. The red eyes were struck from his mind as his body seized. Theroun lost time, flicking through unconsciousness. Some part of him felt the Kreth-Hakir Brethren surge in, clamping manacles about his wrists, manacles that carried the thrusting weight of their combined minds. Pain lanced Theroun’s body, tripled, quadrupled. Agony left him unable to think as he was cuffed and forced up, dragged over the cobbles with his knees scraping.
“Theroun!” Merra’s shout behind him was raw. “Get off him, bastards!”
“Take your warriors and go, woman! Now!” Theroun heard Khorel Jornath snarl. “Take your lives and go!!”
But Theroun could not even growl a response through his strangling throat. Screams rose inside him as another wave of spasms hit, as he choked them back with clenched teeth. Through the skirling ash, he felt the mass of Elsthemi heel away, marked by the strangled roars of cats and the whinnies of horses yanked by hard hands. Theroun heard the groan of the palisade gates crank open, rattling their chains like bones of the damned.
A mass of cats surged out of Fhekran Palace as Theroun was dragged into the grounds – fleeing out through the gates. Cat-musk flowed by Theroun, the rank sweat of men and horse departing the palace like ghosts before the torch. Some sane part of him understood that Khorel Jornath had kept his word. That he allowed what was left of the Elsthemi and defected Menderians to go free. That Jornath wielded the Kreth-Hakir to urge the Elsthemi into departing without any further loss of life, even though they would have fought and died to the last man or woman.
There were no words. There was no resistance. Just the yowls of cats and the jingle of metal as the last of the Elsthemi army fled Lhen Fhekran – leaving only the roar of fire in the night.
Copyright 2018 Jean Lowe Carlson. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or used without the author's written permission.