Shadow of an Empire is an upcoming Fantasy-Western Epic from author Max Florschutz, releasing on June 1st 2018 and available for pre-order now. Enjoy this free look at the first chapter of the novel, and come back next Tuesday for a look at chapter two!
Chapter 1 – Salitore Amazd
It was warm out. Not hot. No, not with his gifts. But it was warm. Salitore lifted a hand against the brim of his hat, further shielding his eyes against the bright, noonday sun as he checked the sky once more.
There. There was no mistaking it now. The small, twisting ribbon of haze was definitely smoke. Thin, yes, and almost invisible, but smoke nonetheless. It was just his luck it was a windless day. Otherwise spotting the barely visible wrinkle would have been almost impossible. As it was, it had been difficult.
He pulled back on the reins, his mount slowing with a soft snort, hooves scuffing the worn trail and sending a loose collection of gravel skipping across the path. He leaned down and patted the animal on the neck, giving it a soft murmur of reassurance. It wasn’t needed; his horse knew what was coming. But he liked to reassure it all the same. Let it know that it was all part of the plan, and everything was going as expected so far.
Better than getting shot at. He gave the reins another gentle tug, and his horse came to a stop in the middle of the trail. Up ahead, the small, twisting column of smoke had taken on a new, almost black tinge. The fire feeding it was low, probably going out. Was it intentional? Or was his quarry aware of his presence?
No. Sali shook his head as he dismounted, swinging one leg over the back of his horse and dropping to the trail with a dull thump. Keeber’s a decent muffler, but not that good. He was still a ways out from the campsite. No, odds were the man was just nervous, keeping the fire as low as possible while he cooked whatever meal he’d whipped up. Given what people said, he shouldn’t be able to hear me this far out.
Ahead of him the trail wound through the desert, following the gentle rise that led into the collection of low hills Keeber had made his camp in. Low scrub brush dominated much of the tan rock, fresh with green in the late spring, but Sali could make out a few trees scattered here and there, their branches showing off freshly budded leaves.
He gave Brey a pat on the shoulder as he turned to his saddlebags and the rifle secured next to them. “Easy, boy,” he said, his voice low and quiet. The Karober Penetrator slid out of its holster easily, the long rifle’s barrel coming free with barely a whisper. “You just stay here.”
Brey would stay where he’d left him, unless something forced the animal to move. He’d been well trained.
He checked the Penetrator’s internal magazine, then flipped one of the saddlebags open. Gleaming brass shone under the bright sun, bright cartridges fresh from their manufacturer almost blinding at the right angles.
He grabbed four, sliding them into specially-made pockets on the side of his duster. The rifle’s magazine was full, and the odds weren’t high that he’d need more than those four shots, but on the other hand, it paid to be cautious. Even with the comforting weight of the Chybl revolver next to his hip, it was always good to carry a little extra.
He closed the pouch and cinched it shut, then gave Brey another little pat on the neck. The horse took his meaning and immediately stepped to one side of the trail, his eyes drawn to the fresh green on some of the shrubs. A moment later there was a faint pop as the animal bit down with its long jaw, tearing a clump of leaves away from the scrub brush.
Sali turned away. Brey was taken care of, and would come when called.
Now he had to take care of Keeber. The Penetrator let out a sharp clack-clack in his hands as he racked the lever forward and then back, moving the first round into the chamber. Weapon loaded, he set off.
The slow rise of the trail leveled off before he’d gone far, its original forgers content to wind between the rising hills rather than cut straight across them. Which was fine by him. A straight path would have necessitated a crawl through the brush, or some other means of staying out of sight. Meandering as it was, he’d be able to take the easy route until he was almost on top of the small gully in the middle of the hills where his quarry had no doubt made camp.
Overhead, the sun continued to beat down, wave after wave of heat that neither his duster nor the wide brim of his hat could completely disperse. A trickle of sweat was starting to work its way down his back, and he frowned slightly in annoyance, reaching out for his power and pulling ever so slightly at the surface of his body, specifically the area around his upper back and shoulders. The heat faded almost immediately, settling to warm, but far cooler temperatures as inside of him, his power reserves began to ever so slightly increase.
It was a nice perk, being a boiler who lived in the desert. The heat of the sun was never too much when you could simply absorb it at any time, saving it to be re-emitted later.
Of course, he could still be blinded by the sun’s light. He wasn’t a glimmer, able to absorb and emit light the way he could heat. Or a muffler, to do the same with sound.
But all things considered, that was all right by him. The bright light he could stand, especially with a nice hat, and sound he didn’t care about, though he had to admit it would have had its uses. But the gifts he had been blessed with were more than enough.
He tilted his head back once more, eyeing the distant smoke. It was closer, now. He couldn’t be too far from the gully, and his quarry.
One more bend, he thought as he continued down the trail. One more, and I’ll cut into the brush. He’d be close enough then, close enough to get a good shooting angle on the campsite, and, hopefully, on the criminal the town of Hayt’s Junction had sent him in pursuit of.
It wasn’t anything unusual. It was, after all, his job. Out in the Outlands, on the fringes of the Indrim Empire, crime was different than it was back in the cities. There weren’t always stations full of peacekeepers at the ready when a criminal act was reported. There were few enforcers walking the streets—in some of the smaller communities, none at all—and what few did exist sometimes found themselves outmatched or ill-prepared for the task of thwarting a dedicated criminal. Or couldn’t afford to go chasing after one when they skipped town, heading out into the dangerous country between the few and far settlements. Country filled with wild chort, Wanderer tribes, and rough, hard terrain that could prove almost as deadly as their quarry on some occasions.
That was why there were adjudicators such as himself. Wandering, roving judges and upholders of the law, supposedly appointed by the distant empire itself, at the behest of the Imperial Inquisition, but more often-than-not simply passed from one adjudicator to the next like father to son or a guildmaster to his apprentice, with only the slightest of looks from the distant capital. Serving at the behest of the peacekeepers of the communities they were responsible for to honor and uphold the law. Or as close as it got out in the Outlands, anyway.
Sali slowed as he rounded the next bend, letting his pace fall off gradually rather than come to a sudden, jarring halt that could prove as alarming as a sharp and sudden noise. If his memory served well—and to be fair, it had been almost three or four years since last he’d seen the gulley—he only had a turn or two more before the trail found itself at the nexus of the hills, the campsite where all five of the various paths leading into the lowlands collided.
He turned off of the path and into the brush, making each step with caution as he began to climb up the hillside. The last thing he wanted to do was disturb some animal, or worse yet, send a pile of loose stone sliding downward in a spray of dust and noise. The scrub brush around him tugged at his clothes, the scraggly branches sliding off of the leather, and he crouched, trying to put more of his body out of sight amongst the flora.
Underfoot, the upward incline of the hill began to flatten out, and he slowed, dropping his body further and moving forward almost in a crawl, the barrel of the Penetrator held out in front of him like an extension of his arm, easing the thinning brush out of the way. The hill leveled out, the brush growing scarce as he reached the top, giving way to larger-but-still-small trees, a large collection of boulders, and there, just down the other side, a thin wisp of smoke rising from behind a stone bluff.
Or someone’s, he thought as he dropped to a crawl, easing his way forward through the last vestiges of brush and up against the back of a small boulder. Keeber came this way, but just because you’ve tracked him to this gulley doesn’t mean that it’s him sitting down there around that campsite. It could be a traveler, or even another adjudicator.
The last one was extremely unlikely. He was the only one assigned to this region of the Outlands. For another adjudicator to be around, someone would have had to have been pursuing their quarry quite far out of their own way.
Still … he frowned as he eyed the smoke seeping up into the air. It’s not worth giving away the element of surprise to shout out and check, so … He eyed the nearby surroundings, taking in the scene. The gulley the campsite was located in was surrounded on all sides by steep berms of earth, save for the paths cut between each of the hills by both nature and decades’ worth of travelers’ use. From the look of it, the side he was facing was the most sheltered, which meant he’d need to move if he wanted to get a clear view.
Why can’t things ever be simple? he wondered, eyeing the surrounding hills. They looked much like his own, covered in scrub brush, small trees, and scattered piles of large rock that stuck out of the tan desert soil like ancient monoliths. Each offered plenty of places to hide.
Still, he’d have to move. He eased himself back, rough gravel biting into his palms as he pushed himself out of sight and into a recess behind another large stone. He paused for a moment and took a swig of water from his canteen, the warm fluid unappetizing but still necessary. Even a boiler, for all their gift let them do with heat, still needed water.
His canteen stowed, he began to crawl around the top of the hill, his body low to the ground, his eyes alert for any sign of movement from either the direction of the camp or the hills around him. A bead of sweat worked its way past the rim of his hat and began to slide down his forehead. Its cause wasn’t anything being a boiler could prevent.
He had to be far enough now. He began to move left, easing his body forward over the rough ground and up alongside another boulder. Then, slowly, gently, he slid himself across one side, pressing his chest up against the hot stone, his rifle at the ready.
The campsite was in clear view now, and it was definitely inhabited, though there was no one in view at the moment. In the center of the gulley the remains of a small fire still smoked, the embers long since grey with age. Sali took in the rest of the camp, his eyes cataloging every detail. Several small logs and stones that had been set up around the fire pit long ago, one of them with a lightweight, metal cooking pan set on it. A small, almost minuscule tent, barely more than a simple piece of waterproof cloth thrown over a hastily assembled frame. A pair of saddlebags resting on the ground nearby. And a horse, tied up near one of the berms, slowly grazing on what looked like already well picked over scrub brush.
But no owner.
Maybe they’re getting water or relieving themselves, Sali thought as he lifted his rifle to rest against his shoulder. If memory served, there was a small spring just down one of the other trails—part of the reason why the camp existed in the first place.
But no … He could see water pouches sitting on the ground alongside the saddlebags, their sides swollen. Unless whoever had made camp needed an inordinately large amount of water, they weren’t getting more.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Instinct was shouting out now, years of experience warning him that something was amiss. Even if someone was off doing their business somewhere in the bushes, the odds were that they’d be making some kind of noise. Instead, the camp was abandoned, completely quiet.
Silent, in fact.
He rolled back just as the faint pop echoed across the hills, the sound completely drowned by the faint hum of a bullet shooting through the space where his head had been before crashing through the brush.
Sands! he thought, mentally cursing himself as two more shots ricocheted off of the boulder he was crouched behind, their firings as muffled as the first. Of course it’s too quiet, idiot! Man’s a muffler!
He’d been overconfident. And he’d almost paid for it. Even if his information had said the man was a weak muffler, that was still enough reason to exercise caution. Even a weak muffler could quiet a gunshot.
Another shot pinged off of his hiding place, rebounding off into the hills, and a silence settled over everything. Then a voice rang out through the air, echoing all around Sali.
“You shouldn’t a’ followed me!” Keeber’s words had a slight drawl to them in addition to the echo, stressing each vowel and making his voice seem more drawn out than it already was. “Should a’ just left me alone!”
Another shot rang out, the crack of the rifle now far less muted than it had been before. Keeber apparently wasn’t skilled enough to both draw in with his power and manage a controlled release. The bullet hummed by overhead, slicing through foliage before snapping into the trunk of a tree with a sharp pop.
“No can do, Keeber!” Sali shouted back. It was a risk to talk, since even a weak muffler would likely be able to sense his position based on the sound of his voice. He’d just have to move. “You know the penalty for trying to steal another man’s cattle, much less shooting a ranch hand that was just trying to do their job!”
Another bullet shot by above, barely missing the top of his head, and Sali scooted his shoulders down lower, digging them into the dirt at the base of the stone. His hat tugged at the back of his head, almost falling free. Talking had definitely given away his position.
“He got in the way. Wasn’t my fault!”
“You were stealing cattle!” Sali shouted back, turning his head to his left and sliding across the ground on his back. “That’s a crime even if you hadn’t shot a man!”
“His own fault for trying to stop me!” Keeber’s voice came back, echoing all across the hill and coming from multiple sources so as to confuse Sali. “His own damn fault!”
“You know the penalty for thieving cattle!” Sali shouted back, still sliding to his left on his back, around the side of the boulder. He raised his voice, letting it ring loud and clear out of his chest to mark his position. “I’m Adjudicator Salitore Amazd, and you know what that means; what I’m here to do. You can either come back and face justice in Hayt’s Junction, or I can pronounce sentence right here! You know the drill! Dead or alive, Keeber! Dead or alive!”
“They’ll hang me anyway!” Two more shots rang out, and Sali tried not to flinch as a small branch, cut apart by Keeber’s fire, dropped down to land on his face. “You know they will!”
“Of course they will!” Sali shouted, tightening his fingers around the grip of his rifle. “That’s the penalty for killing a man! And stealing bovals!”
“I ain’t going back to die in that piss town, adjudicator!” Another shot rang out. “You hear me! I ain’t!”
“Then I guess there’s only one way for this to end, Keeber!” Sali said, resting his finger against the trigger guard and bracing one leg. “And you aren’t going to like it!”
I gave him his chance, Sali thought, closing his eyes and running over the view of the opposing hills he’d gotten before he’d been ambushed. He took a deep breath. It was time to do his job.
He kicked out, throwing his body up and to the right in a roll that took him back behind his boulder once more and then out on the other side. Two shots rang out as he moved, bullets tearing through the brush he’d just disturbed as he dropped onto his chest on the opposite side of the rock, his rifle already in a firing position.
He didn’t even have to look hard. Keeber was standing on the far hill, his rifle already tracking left towards Sali’s new location. But it was too late. He sighted in and squeezed the trigger.
The Penetrator kicked against his shoulder, a sharp crack far beyond that of Keeber’s meager armament echoing across the hills. The bandit let out a cry of pain, collapsing as the bullet slammed into his thigh with a spray of blood. It was a good, clean shot, the bullet passing right through the meat of the leg and out the back in a crippling injury that wouldn’t kill if he treated it quickly enough.
Good, Sali thought as he rose, his rifle still at the ready though his quarry had dropped his. He swept the lever forward and back, spent brass arcing out into the air. All the better to bring him back alive.
He moved down the hill and up towards the other, pausing only to fire a warning shot into the ground when Keeber’s outstretched hand began reaching for his fallen armament. His hand snapped back, the man instead pushing himself away from the gun and toward a nearby tree. Even so, Sali didn’t lower his gun until he was close enough to hear the man’s labored breathing.
He’s not using his power, Sali thought. His control isn’t tight enough to overcome the pain. Keeber was small time, a somewhat indifferent man who’d always been a bit disreputable—at least according to the residents of Hayt’s Junction. His getting fired for sleeping on the job and the disagreement that had followed had led to the man’s attempted thieving of a few of his old employer’s bovals, as well as the shooting of three of them and a ranch hand that had preceded the man’s mad dash into the desert.
And now we’re here, Sali thought as he moved closer. Keeber had almost propped himself up against the base of the tree now, and Sali could see anger mixing with pain in the man’s eyes. His clothing was dirty, almost ragged; covered by a weathered, beaten, grey Wanderer’s cloak. And adding attempted murder of an adjudicator to his list of crimes.
“You … you …” the words were labored, Keeber clearly fighting against the pain of the bloody wound in his leg. “Abyss take you, adjudicator. Abyss take you!”
Then the man’s hand twitched, fingers seizing at something underneath the half-cloak and drawing it. A revolver, its barrel rising towards Sali as Keeber brought it up.
The Penetrator kicked once more, the sharp crack of its firing echoing across the hills as Sali squeezed the trigger, and Keeber screamed as the bullet tore a chunk of flesh from the side of his bicep. The revolver fell from his hand, clattering to the ground, and Sali kicked it away with a quick thrust of his boot.
“You—!” Whatever Keeber was going to say next cut off with a groan as Sali brought the butt of his rifle down in a sharp blow against the man’s temple, the force of the impact resonating up his fingers. The bandit slumped back, unconscious.
Sali sighed as he crouched by the man and examined his handiwork. The two shots he’d taken had carved out large chunks of flesh, and both were leaking blood profusely. If he wanted to return the man alive for his punishment, he would need to act fast.
He crouched, setting his gun to one side as he examined first the wound on Keeber’s arm, then the one on his leg. Of the pair, the one on the leg was worse. The backwards crawl had pressed dirt into it, but it was still seeping quite a bit of blood. It would need to be treated before the arm.
“Damn fool,” Sali muttered as he opened his canteen and dumped some of his water across the back of the leg, washing the dirt away. “If you’d just surrendered, you might have been able to talk yourself out of getting the worst of it. Might of just been sent to prison, rather than hung.” But now? There was no chance. The shootout would seal his fate with the peacekeepers.
The wound clean, Sali reached inside himself and pulled his gift forward. The air around his hands rippled as waves of heat rolled off of them. He gave the wet blood seeping from the wound a grimace, then shoved his hands down.
The sizzle of flesh cauterizing almost turned his stomach, to say nothing of the smell, but a moment later both wounds on the man’s leg were sealed, closed to the elements. He repeated the process on Keeber’s arm, the man whimpering in pain as the intense heat seared the wound closed.
Still, he stayed unconscious. Sali rose, eyeing the blood baked into his hands and shaking his head. He’d have to use the rest of his canteen to wash it off. He didn’t want blood getting baked into his clothes. Especially blood that wasn’t his.
He pursed his lips and let out a sharp, shrill whistle that echoed off the hills around him. From down the trail came a distant whinny, followed shortly by the sound of Brey galloping up the trail.
Salitore glanced down at his quarry once more.
“Damn fool,” he muttered, eyeing the fresh wounds that had been his handiwork. He shook his head. The desert was full of those. That had been one of the first lessons his old teacher had taught him.
“Outlands are full of damn fools,” the man had said often. “Damn fools trying to live here, damn fools trying to travel here, and damn fools trying to steal here.” Sali hadn’t ever bothered to point out that both of them were trying to live there. He knew the man knew, and in some way was calling himself a fool along with all the others.
Still … Brey moved around the curve in the trail, spotted his master, and slowed to a trot. As many fools as there have been over the years, it’d be nice if some of them started learning.
He moved down the hillside, toward the camp. His quarry was secure. It was time to take him back and collect his bonus.
And then, most likely, there would be another crime for him to follow.
Shadow of an Empire will release Friday, June 1st, and is available now for pre-order!
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