top of page

Item List

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 001 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress


The meadow on either side of the road was painted with russet and brown-black rotted splotches of gore in the golden early morning light. There were flies; many, many flies. They rose in droves where the scavengers and gore birds disturbed their orgies. Clouds of them sometimes blotted out the frozen sky. The stench…. Gods the stench made Lyla’s bile rise and her already empty stomach tried to relieve itself of contents that it had already lost.

As the healer’s apprentice, Lyla had been sent to investigate when the smoke of fires had stayed for more than one day hovering out in the distance along the caravan route. Old Reane was too ancient to make the trip quickly, so her young apprentice had been sent instead.

No one had really seemed concerned. It was common for a caravan to stay out on the main roadway instead of proceeding through the passes to the village if there were those ill among them. No trader worth his salt would want to be known for bringing sickness, even if it were a harmless sickness like a cold, to a village.

So off Lyla had popped like the good young woman she was to do the bidding of the healer, the Chief, her father, and all the elders. Not until the young woman had reached the carnage, did she realize the reason so many individuals of authority had gathered to give her the instructions.

She’d thought it was just because it was her first trip outside the passes alone. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been sending her to neighboring villages by herself for the better part of a decade. But…leaving the highlands and going below the passes that kept them separate from the rest of the world? 

That was a different matter.

“Not that there’s likely to be anything beyond your ability to heal...” The crotchety chief had assured her hastily. “…But, if it seems as if the trouble is beyond us, don’t stop. Head to the city of Balast and give this to the Magistrate.”

This had been a wax-sealed oilskin courier canister. The Imperial seal, a golden branching tree encircled with intricate designs shone gold from either end of the courier case. Light reflected from the shining metal as if enchanted. She’d been mesmerized by the little glints of light as they flitted past the trees flanking the road on her trek.

Now that she’d arrived, the beautiful dancing lights of her passage were no longer fun. There was no distracting the dark-haired young woman from the horrible sight before her. It wasn’t just illness that had waylaid the traders on their way through the passes to more remote villages.

Knowing better than to turn back or touch anything, Lyla held in her sobs the best she could and ran. She had to get to Balast. The smoking remnants of the wagons meant that this site had already been looted. The way the women’s clothes were tugged and twisted to expose indecent views let Lyla know that it would be worse than terrible if she was discovered by the brutes who had ransacked and pillaged this group.

There were guards, dead guards. Soldiers who had been stronger and more skilled than she could ever hope to be lay cut down with their limbs strewn across the beautiful landscape and their guts dripping on the wildflowers of early spring. What could one girl hope to accomplish against the brutes who had committed this act of abomination? What hope did she have of reaching the safety of Balast where the Emperor’s cargo ships brought trade from every corner of the globe to the deep turquoise harbor? What hope did her village have if she didn’t reach help in time?

Only once she had been there, as a young girl. Ten years it was now since the view from the ridge overlooking Balast took her breath away and made her chest tight with the wonder of it. Just as this moment, the horror of her current surroundings made her terrified and stole the wind from her lips. Flying through the carnage, with a speed that only came from great fear, Lyla ran.

She’d never run so hard in her life. Cold spring mountain air whistled painfully in and out of her raw chilled throat. All the while the smell of rotting, burning flesh coated her lungs and sinuses with nauseating, searing pain.

The rotting was what made her feet take such flight. These bodies were old. Days, maybe weeks old, but the fires were just dying. This was a trap. These bodies’ murderers had returned to burn the wagons after the bodies had been dead for days. After there was no more plundering to be had from these dead. Lyla had nothing save her healer’s satchel of herbs, a water skin, and the courier canister with its secret message.

How many heart-pounding miles she ran, Lyla didn’t know. But where she could run no more, she jogged, and when she could jog no more she walked. When she could walk no more she crawled, scurrying along on her torn hands and knees, less concerned with the possibility of infection than she had ever been in her life.

And when she could breathe again and the stitch in her side let her stand, she hobbled and stumbled slowly into a standing gait. The pattern held through the day, and into the night when she stumbled more frequently and once found she had disastrously left the road which was hardly more than a track, overgrown as it had become in the spring bloom.

Far as she had come, the fresh night air was incapable of washing the scent of blood or the crisp sharpness of blackened putrefying flesh from her mind. Lost and disoriented, Lyla shuddered with the knowledge that her village could be gone at this very moment.

That trade caravan had been large. As large as her village! Maybe? They’d had more weapons to a single soldier than she was certain she had ever seen in her entire village. Her village didn’t even have a name. They were just the mountain village. One of many nameless places deep in the high valleys that could only be reached by days and weeks of slow treacherous travel in the warmer months. And they were completely isolated in the winter.

How could they have sent her? How could the village elders have sent her? She was nineteen! She raged at the unfairness of it all. She was angry at their betrayal. That they would have sent her instead of one of the young men. If they’d suspected foul play they could have sent someone through the game trail.

But to send her? On the main road. Alone? She was weak. She was just a healer’s apprentice. She was… she was… she was the only person in the village under the age of sixty who had ever been to Balast. Because she was the healer’s apprentice and had needed to have her magical ability tested by the city Magi as a child before she could be considered for entrance into the school when she was old enough.

Lyla cursed in an inaudible whisper between ragged searing breaths. The very magic that had saved her from being forced into an arranged marriage, the magic that was going to let her leave her small village for the temples of the Lord of Healing later this spring was the very thing that may have condemned her to death.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 002 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

They Knew

Oh, Gods. They knew! The elders knew that there was nothing for her to do but run. Any young man sent would have been seen as a challenge by the ones who set the trap and the men wouldn’t have had the sense to keep running. A man would have gone home to report. They would have rallied the rest of the men and doomed an entire village to a senseless fate of trying to fight an unknown force.

The night was cold; colder than the day had been. But not so cold as it would be in her village or the caravan meadow where the corpses were now freezing with their charred bones. The stars were beautiful though.

This high up in the mountains, the air had a kind of clarity that was painful to the uninitiated. For once Lyla let the natural beauty of her world that she took for granted wash through her and purify her bruised mind. It was horrible, but there was nothing she could do to unsee what she had seen, let alone undo what others had done.

And Lyla knew that if she let it seep out from the deep dark place she had hidden the knowledge, it would overwhelm her. As it was it tried to creep and crawl and weave its way out of its loathsome hole with every insidious trick it knew. Knowledge, in all its forms, had a life much of its own. Terrible knowledge had a much more dreadful power than any other form of knowledge and its life grew in leaps and bounds that could not long be contained.

Mangled corpses danced before Lyla’s eyes and each one wore a familiar face she had known since childhood. Some of the caravan had been relatives, they came each year. Traders that married, had children and spent their lives traveling. Some came from the village, and some only had wives from there.

Retching again brought up nothing more than water and sour bile. Lyla tried to lose her stomach as silently as possible. There was no telling if there had been any pursuit, nor how far it might be if there were.

Turning resolutely uphill Lyla trudged back against the easy slope she had inadvertently worked her way down when she left the road in the darkness. Gravity was at least a consistently bitchy mistress. 

The generalities never changed, just the specifics.

Finger-like branches grasped at her and pulled her hair, scratched her eyes, and left slimy half-frozen trails through her being. Like remnants of ghosts that snatched at her soul, Lyla felt her spirit had been left behind in the caravan meadow. How could she go back there if she ever made it to help?

The road returned with the suddenness of a dropped coin. Lyla fell into the deep muddy ruts left by the dozens of wagons that had passed that way untold days before. There was no moon and every rustle in the night could have been the end of her. Darkness gave way to darkness, then the grey-green predawn twilight which was the time when all bad things which happened were to happen.

Quickening her pace Lyla was certain that she would make it to Balast without hindrance. Hope withered swiftly when the first brute stepped out of the shadows. He didn’t even try to speak to her. The murderer was hasty though and left himself unbalanced with his first swing. His partner was not so clumsy though and Lyla found the searing slice through her side was hot and sudden.

There was no time to do anything more than hope that the injury had not completely severed the transverse abdominal on her left. Dodging between the two Lyla grabbed the nearest forearm and threw her weight into the effort.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 003 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

Please Don’t Lose Consciousness

The first man came toward her and the one she struggled with. Her only hope was that in the dark neither would notice her movements fast enough to react. As the blade came down on her she released the arm she held and fell to her knees.

One powerful arm shot up while another barreled down and the two comrades delivered their blows to each other. Luckily shadow nemesis two was able to impale shadow nemesis one before the first removed his arm. The first gurgled over and pinned her beneath him. One Arm was too busy cursing the forsaken gods to consider finishing off her, helpless girl trapped as she was at the moment.

Wriggling free, the shot of adrenaline left her running with spurts of blood flowing furiously down her hip. But she had the oilskin courier’s canister. No water, no herbs to stem the flow of blood, but the message, the message would make it through. Though she didn’t know what it was, Lyla was certain that it was a request for help from the Imperial Army.

There was a garrison at Balast because it was such a large shipping port. Father had said so just last week. Was it last week? Or last year? Or had he pointed it out to her on the one and only trip she’d taken there all those years ago?

Please don’t lose consciousness. The desperate litany chanted through her mind. Despite knowing that it was unlikely to do much good, Lyla pled with herself beneath the brightening pink and gold sky. Bargaining had stopped working once the water skin she had bribed her body with ran dry just before midnight. Maybe begging would suffice.

Fresh rivulets of sweat mixed with the stale dried perspiration of the day before leaving muddy trails along her cheeks. The drops which hung off of her eyelashes and burned her eyes were nearly as annoying as the drops that clung tenaciously to the tip of her nose or pooled in that divot just below it. Time flowed in fits and spurts.

If Lyla had still been capable of raising her hands above waist height then she might have made the effort to wipe the droplets away. It wasn’t just the mid-day heat, it was fever. Part of her mind still functioned even if her body was trying to shut down. There was blood. So much blood. And the smell of it as the morning warmed brought with it the memory of the dead floating back into her vision.

Haunted by a dual vision; one the road before her, one the caravan dead, Lyla plodded on. Dimly she was aware that the track had become a paved road and too far below her for her to think about, was the sparkling port of Balast. A few farmers on the fringe of town were passed by as they plowed their fields. Peripherally, Lyla was aware of the increasing number of people and the ever-downward pull of gravity dragging her down the cobblestone slope.

Her unsteady gait drew attention and the blood-soaked tunic and trousers sent as many running away from her as toward her. But it was not till she was almost at the gates that someone actually sought to stop her. Through blurred eyes, she struggled to lift one-handed the sword which was meant to be wielded by two while the fingers of her left hand clutched tightly at her precious ward; the oilskin courier canister.

Where the sword had come from she wasn’t sure. From the men she had fought before? Perhaps? But it must stay between any approachers and the message she carried. The message, the message was for the Magistrate.

No one could have the message. All the terror and anguish of the past two days tore from her throat with the fury like only one of the swan maidens could muster when protecting their charges. Her whole village was her charge. This message was all of their lives.

The first attacker never had a chance by himself, but more were coming.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 004 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress


Imperial Crown Prince Rengard Lan, was ready to throttle the officious Magistrate which had allowed these attacks against Imperial Citizens for so long. The reports of the caravans and convoys lost to brigands in the High Passes had been alarming and had been hidden artfully in the standard paperwork sent back to the emperor. This sycophant was a good friend of his father’s, after all, and Rengard Lan had to treat the son-of-a-Necromantic-louse with respect until he had permission to execute the creep. So, Rengard had forced himself to take a walk instead of taking off the bastard’s head.

When the commotion started, Rengard was already near the city limit. The first sign that there was trouble was when a mixed patrol of city garrison blue and imperial red uniformed guards went running past his location as he fumed silently to himself. Curious, Regard Lan followed. Perhaps a bit of a scuffle would settle nerves that the crisp sea air or the azure waves could not. Off he trotted after the troops as they hurried to the scene of the problem.

Arriving not long after, it was impossible to see what was going on. Whatever the problem was it was blocked from view by a ring of red and blue uniforms. “Stand fast men.” The officer in command bellowed. “Don’t hurt the lass, but don’t let her through without disarming her first.” Lass?

“Sir,” One of the men called urgently. “There’s no way to stop her. She’s carrying an Imperial Courier’s case and the spell’s been activated!” Really? Mused Rengard. That was terribly interesting.

“Shit!” The commanding officer swore as the circle suddenly expanded to the sound of clanking hobnails and jingling mail. “Stay back.” His voice cut through any other sound.

“Clear a corridor to the Magistrate’s, and stay clear of that case, it’ll suck the life right out of you to feed its deliverance spell. No one touch her. No one stop her.” Rengard Lan quite suddenly found himself face to face with the most wildly crazed and ferociously beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life as the circle of soldiers followed their new commands and cleared the way.

Her long auburn curls sparkled in the bright morning sun with glints of ruby and gold and a frizzy halo around her head that even the oil and grime of many days could not tame. Blood and sweat made her clothing cling to her curves. Even her lean face and the sharply defined bones that spoke of prolonged illness…or was perhaps a result of the deliverance spell feeding off her, could not hide her beauty.

It was a pity that whoever she was, she was going to die. The spell had forced her beyond her limits as the blood-drenched clothing and the trail of pooling burgundy puddles she left behind attested to. Once the magic which kept her alive long enough to deliver the message was discharged, she would die. This girl might as well be the walking dead, as was anyone whom she perceived to be a threat.

Slowly Rengard Lan raised his hands’ palms facing out and fully opened, in a sign that he did not intend to attack, and backed out of her way along with all the other uniformed men.

“Get the best surgeons in town to meet us at the Magistrate’s.” The young prince bellowed at one of the men off to the side. While his military rank might not be impressive yet, everyone recognized the importance of the signet ring the young lord wore and heeded his orders without question.

Knowing that his Imperial signet ring and the mage’s blood which ran through his veins would protect him from this girl’s wrath or harm from the case’s deliverance spell, Rengard Lan fell into step beside the woman with an almost nonchalant grace. It was a miracle that she had made it this far. How many others had not? A wound like that should have prevented this young woman from executing her mission. Behind him, his commanding officer and the troops brought up the rear. Some ran ahead to clear the streets.

It was possible for Rengard to turn off the spell that kept the woman on her feet and take the message canister from her trembling hands. Part of him wanted to so that he could see what the problem was that brought her here. But prudence tempered his patience. Whatever danger there was, the message would not contain it all.

The courier case spell turned the courier themselves into a message. Because the Imperial failsafe had not been activated by his presence, it was safe to assume that this woman was not beyond saving. He realized her condition was not so dire that her message had to be delivered at once.

It meant that Rengard Lan could save the mysterious woman. There had been so many he could not save. So many lives had been lost because of the Magistrate’s greed. But this one person the prince must save. It was time for things to change in Balast and the High Passes. This was one citizen in danger and one problem that the Magistrate could not hide from his Imperial superiors. This woman must live.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 005 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

A Little bit of get the heck away from me!

Everything was grey and blurry. There was no distance, no focus. Sounds were muted and indistinct while being too loud to understand at the same time. And everywhere there was pain…. so very much pain in this dark and floating no place. Swallowing caused her dry and rasping tongue to scrape cruelly against the blister which was the roof of her mouth.

Something cool, much too cool; shivered raggedly over her aching eyelids. Unable to control herself Lyla let out a pathetic whimper of agony.

“Hush, beautiful.” The deep voice was unfamiliar, but the large hand which cupped her cheek tenderly warmed her comfortingly. But comfort or no, Lyla had to keep going. The message had to be delivered. 

To the Magistrate.

Leaning close Rengard Lan strained to make out what the girl was saying. Carefully he dabbed her lips with the corner of a cloth dipped in water. Reflexively she swallowed the first drops which tentatively found their way between her lips. Still, she struggled to speak, her sightless eyes staring at memories that were not there.

“The Magistrate.” The girl mumbled. “The message.” Despite being at death’s door only hours before, the woman tried desperately to move. She had not fulfilled her duty so far as she knew. To ease her struggle and keep this brave lady from pulling out her stitches, Rengard Lan leaned close and whispered in her ear.

“Your message has been delivered. You have told the Magistrate what he needed to know. He has the message and the courier’s case.” Instantly her feeble efforts lessened as his Imperial Chaos magic soothed her and she became pliant on the couch. She smiled softly with relief.

Whoever she was, this messenger was beautiful to the young prince. There was something about her. Something that grasped at his soul and made him want to protect her. It was more than her just being another citizen of his empire. More than the genetically imprinted conditioning of every Imperial Mage to protect human life.

Now that she wasn’t frantic, her eyes seemed to focus on the prince for the first time. He liked her eyes. They were pretty. A soft color between gold and brown. Like the toasting on meringue deserts. She assessed his face and gazed up at him with an almost dreamy trust as if being so close to him were the most natural thing in the world. As if she felt that tingling connection to him that he felt for her.

She’d been through so much. He could feel how horribly her strength had been sapped by the deliverance spell, and the poison that suffused her body, probably from the wound she had sustained. Now that she’d been stabilized and her life was no longer in danger, it would be so easy…

Just a touch of magic would be all it took to heal her completely. While Rengard Lan did not have the great and terrible ability of a fully trained Imperial Mage, he was more than capable of passing on a healing spell. Leaning over he brushed the woman’s lips lightly with his own.

A wave of energy seemed to pass between them. Like electric poles magnetizing and aligning. His heart stuttered and he gasped with the realization of the terrible mistake he’d made. Unable to stop himself and not wanting to even if he could, Rengard Lan breathed his life and health into the injured woman he didn’t know with all the ability he could muster.

From a great distance, Lyla felt the heat that filled her body. It had started as tender warmth but had grown to an inferno that seared her lips and melted the sluggish blood which sat torpid within her arteries. Soon it was a torrent, a flood, a roaring, deafening, blistering rush that pulled and tossed her up, up, up out of the dark cold waters of death.

Awake! Alert! Lyla was back and conscious. She had been gone. Thatshe absolutely knew, that she had been gone on the cusp, further from her body than her mind had ever been. Gods it had hurt. Where was she? The message. The Magistrate.

“Your message has been delivered.” She remembered being told this. Comforted by the words she instantly relaxed. And in that moment of relaxation, she noticed the man, whose face was inches from her own.

His masculine scent surrounded her and filled her nostrils to the exclusion of all else. Deep kind eyes in a broad face with a strong jaw and agile expressive lips blocked her view of what else there might be in this room. Those blue eyes, the color of the sky on a clear day in the highest peaks, crinkled at the corners as the man smiled down at her.

“Good morning, beautiful.” A voice like roasted apples gave her delightfully warm tingles as she listened. And it seemed completely natural when the hand which had been cupping her face traced a callused thumb along her cheek. Lyla didn’t blink as this strange man leaned closer and slid his tongue between her parted lips. His kiss was slow and careful.

There was no struggle, no fight, and no surprise. Lyla melted as the warrior’s fingers slid slowly into her tangled locks. She felt weak at his touch and was certain that she would have fallen down if she had not already been lying on her back.

A throbbing heat and desire she’d never known before began to build within her. She moaned as a second hand cupped her face before sliding down the side of her neck and over her breast. An erect nipple straining tautly in his palm and she gasped with shuddering delight before the hand reached back up to her face. The kiss became deeper, fiercer, and more passionate.

Unable to stop herself, Lyla felt her back arch her body up to the stranger. Her lips moved of their own accord and parted further, her tongue flicked hesitantly against his…Then the fire came again, filling her lungs with life and breath, and sweeping all weakness and the muddling of her thoughts away before it like wildlife fleeing the forest ablaze.

With shock, Lyla realized that there was an unknown man kissing her, in an unknown place. It could not be allowed to continue. Mustering all her strength she shoved him away forcefully and slapped the stranger across the face.

“Get your hands off of me or by the Gods you will rue the day that you were born.” To Lyla’s complete astonishment, the man laughed. Not cruelly, or with malice, but with a genuine, hearty, deep belly laugh. Tears leaked from his eyes and Lyla was quite certain that she might try to murder him if he didn’t stop soon.

She glared at him and cradled the hand she had slapped him with. It had hurt. Kind of a lot. His stupid face was stupid hard. Lyla’s breath was rushed and her heart raced as she glanced around assessing her surroundings.

“You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that.” Her host fairly bellowed through guffaws. 

“Welcome back to the world of the living, Beautiful.” When he called her beautiful, Lyla felt a fresh wave of heat wash over her already flushed face. And her breath caught with a slight gasp.

The man noticed it. She could tell he had noticed it. The way he looked at her as if he wanted to resume their closeness. His eyes were like an open gash in his soul and they pled for her to let him into her heart. Then that doorway closed and the wistful sensitivity she thought she saw there was replaced with a sly smirk.

“I am very glad that you are alive.” His voice was cocky. His smile was cocky. And he had a cocky tilt of his head that nearly earned him another slap. This accoster-of-sleeping-women infuriated Lyla beyond reason. Abruptly, he bowed and backing away, left her side with a smile gracing his face pompous, stupidly handsome face.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 006 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress


Lyla recovered quickly and within moments was sitting up and gingerly exploring the extent of her injuries. The slice to her side had scarred over to nothing more than a thin puckered line. Though the stitches were still in and should have been removed ages ago.

That couldn’t be right. How could she have been asleep for so long? Who would have been caring for her bodily needs? And why would she still be in the same mud-caked and blood-stained clothes?

Yet she wasn’t completely still in her clothes. The bottom half of her tunic had been cut away to make it easier to treat the injury and when she lifted her arms the new “hem” rose indecently high. Some of the hip had been cut out of her trousers, but only enough to see if the blood there had been from further hidden injuries. A fairly professional job all in all if one ignored the fact that she had woken up with someone’s tongue in her mouth.

Okay, that wasn’t quite fair. She should have stopped the poor bloke before his lips touched hers. But, in her defense, her brain had been fairly addled at the time. And…she’d kissed him back. She gazed down at the dried blood crusting her hands as she mulled that thought over.

Lyla’s head jerked toward the door when it opened, grateful that it had interrupted her thoughts. She didn’t have time for illicit kisses and handsome strangers. Outside she could hear someone; two someone’s, at least, discussing something. Probably her, she mused at the cracked open door. One voice was tense and whiney; the other was deep and sweetly jovial. A third interjected a gravelly comment which cut off the two other voices. Hopefully, they were discussing a suitable punishment for whoever had been kissing girls without permission.

“I understand your concerns My Lord, but why is it necessary to keep your identity secret from the girl?” Oh, Gods. The Magistrate was a whiney little shit. “And honestly, all I want to do is speak to her and find out what happened. The message said that the village needed help, but she had obviously been wounded. Did the attack occur before the message had been written or while she was on the road?”

His long skinny nose and greased-back hair gave the impression of a weasel or some other slick and wet rodent. Rengard’s immense dislike of the man had created an irrational desire to run him through. That desire was causing an itch in the palm of his sword hand. Deep calming breaths and controlled rhythmic flexing of the affected fingers were all that kept the Magistrate alive and Rengard Lan from being disinherited.

“I’ve already explained that no one is to know that I am here. I’ve not more than twenty men with me. It was just a reminder to not let it slip.” The Magistrate had a habit of letting things slip when he felt it would be advantageous to his position. He let things slip a lot. It was how he became Magistrate.

“If I may, My Liege…” The elderly doctor interjected and Rengard nearly sighed with relief. “I understand the delicacy of the situation. I will go and explain to the girl about her injuries and her condition. I will simply tell her that there is a mage with healing powers in the city and that once the spell had been cast one of the warriors on hand at the time,” The old man gestured to the Imperial prince nervously “youself, volunteered to breathe his own life into her.”

“Thank you.” Tension dropped out of Rengard’s shoulders and the prince’s anxiety was eased a little for the first time since his arrival that someone in this Gods’ forsaken city actually understood prudence. Pausing before the door, the doctor turned back with a question.

“What should I tell her your name is when she asks?” The old man queried. With a guilty start of surprise, the prince jolted out of himself a bit.

“What makes you think that she’s going to ask what my name is?” The doctor chuckled with the knowing hindsight of experience.

“She’ll want to thank the man who saved her life. Though from the slap she gave you, it is likely not to be an enthusiastic thank you.”

If, she asks,” Rengard offered hesitantly “Tell her my name is Lan. It’s what my men call me.” The doctor shrugged and wandered into the Magistrate’s opulently appointed office and approached the girl on the lounge. In the sumptuous dark wood-paneled hallway Rengard Lan leaned back against the wall and bashed his thick head against it a few times in self-castigation.

“Gods, how could I be so stupid?” She was an Ordered Magic wielder, the perfect complement to his Imperial Chaos blood. The young prince had inadvertently exposed himself to her magic and now the only thought which burned in his mind was to possess her body, heart, and soul. Lan didn’t even know her name.

“Whatever is the matter Sire?” The alarmed Magistrate stepped back from this most unroyal behavior.

“I should have cast the spell and had one of the other men breathe life into her.” He explained miserably. “She’s never going to trust me now. How am I supposed to get her to help me protect her people if she thinks…?” He didn’t finish the sentence and instead continued with a different ending. “…If she doesn’t trust me?” It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but Rengard knew the Magistrate could not be trusted to know the whole truth.

“If it is any help…” The Magistrate volunteered tentatively. “When I first began in this post, none of the outlying villages trusted me. But by working hard for them, and responding quickly to their requests, I was able to earn their trust. While you might not think much of me, these people do. Enough so that they would send a young woman on her own with a Courier’s Case.”

Rengard Lan conceded that the Magistrate had a point. The people here fairly worshipped the Magistrate. There was little respect from outsiders who did not give much consideration to the people of the port city or their administrators. But the citizens this obnoxious fluff-brained administrator looked after? They adored him. Even if he let them die in the wilderness by the dozens.

Huffing a non-committal possible agreement with the man just to get him to shut up, Rengard just leaned against the wall once more and brooded.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 007 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

I Was Right; He Deserved to be Slapped!!!

After a few minutes of hushed and…maaaybe… angry-sounding whispers outside the door of Lyla’s room – it appeared to be a study of some kind and she’d dripped blood and filth all over the sumptuous leather sofa she was on – the door opened, and someone entered again. It was an elderly gentleman which approached Lyla. He had the quiet competent air of a man used to dealing with stubbornness and firmly getting his way.

“You must be the healer.” Lyla greeted the man warmly, yet the wary light in her eyes had to have been quite evident.

“Doctor, actually.” The gentleman corrected her. “There is a significant difference. Healers,” the doctor informed her as he knelt beside her lounge “…can perform miraculous feats of healing with magic.” Gingerly he probed the freshly healed wound in her abdomen and carefully felt the stitches as he continued.

“Doctors, unfortunately, are only able to use stitching, surgery, and medicines to keep a patient alive. Sometimes it is enough to save someone. Sometimes, all I can do is try to keep a patient alive until a healer or Mage can save the patient for me.”

“Is that what happened in my case?” The doctor smiled kindly, glancing briefly up at her as he worked. His fingers were careful and professional, removing her stitches with only slight discomfort. 

Though she had performed the task many times herself, she had never had to feel the particular sickening sliding pull of thread slipping through her flesh. It stuck and tugged occasionally.

“Yes, child.” Lyla nodded to herself. She had been right. She was certain that she could not have been in this room longer than a few hours.

“Was that what….?” The doctor paused in his work, waiting for her to continue. With an effort, Lyla continued the humiliating question. What should she say? Was the pervert that kissed me while I was unconscious doing it to save me or does no one know that he was prone to taking advantage of women who couldn’t defend themselves? Did she even want anyone to know that had happened if that were the case? “Was that what… that man… who was in here before? Was he the healer?”

“No!” Emphatic. “He was not a healer.” With stern and honest eyes, the doctor held her gaze. “No healer and no doctor should ever abuse their position by kissing a woman who could not consent, and most certainly not by using the very act of healing as an excuse to be close to her.”

“Oh.” Lyla let her lips compress angrily. “I knew I should have hit that jerk harder. I bet he wasn’t even supposed to be in here.”

“That’s not entirely true.” Her physician corrected quietly. “Do you understand how magical healing works?” With a sigh of understanding, Lyla closed her eyes before reciting by rote the information she’d had to memorize in her training.

“The healer performs the spell which tells the body to speed repair…” Nodding, the doctor silently encouraged her to continue. “Then a donor, man or woman, sometimes even the healer breathes into the mouth of the ill or wounded person and the donor’s own life force feeds the healing spell. 

Otherwise, the injured person’s own body can be significantly cannibalized in the healing process, and they die anyways.”

“He was just a soldier who volunteered to breathe life into a dying woman.” The doctor explained. “He shouldn’t have kissed you, but he may not have understood that it was not entirely necessary. After all, the process is referred to as…”

“The Kiss of Life.” Lyla finished for him. “I suppose that explains his reaction after I slapped him.” Chuckling, the doctor smiled as he pulled the last piece of thread from her side.

“Good for you. He definitely deserved a slap.” Sitting back on his heels the doctor gathered up his supplies and stood. “The Magistrate will be coming in to speak with you momentarily. As soon as that is finished a group of soldiers will be taking you home to safeguard your village and protect any other caravans that will be coming over the mountain as the season progresses.”


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 008 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

I’m Not A Princess

The conversation with the Magistrate had felt like hours even though it had lasted mere minutes. She’d never spoken with someone of such a high rank before, but mindful of the good manners her parents and village had drilled into her, the shell-shocked young woman kept her gaze lowered respectfully.

Lyla was eminently cognizant of the fact that she was not to look directly at individuals of importance until the Magistrate threw his hands up in exasperation in the middle of the discussion.

“By the absent Gods, girl, I’m not going to bite you.” His exclamation was one of frustration and disgust. At first, she thought it had been at her, but no, his ire was directed at the customs of her people, which Lyla realized with instant clarity was not the way civilized people outside of the High Passes behaved.

“I hate the way the men of the mountains teach their women to not look people in the eye. How am I to sufficiently judge your character or honor if I can’t see into your eyes? Makes you look to the rest of the world like every mountain woman is a conniving sneak thief trying to hide the truth from everyone. Please just look at me.”

It had been unexpected and made Lyla jump guiltily. She was telling him the truth. She was telling him everything she knew. Every question she had answered to the best of her abilities. Never in her life had she been instructed to look a man in the eyes.

Hesitantly, Lyla lifted her bowed head to glance up at the Magistrate. Then she remembered the way she had brazenly gazed into the eyes of the soldier who had given her The Kiss of Life and flushed violently with embarrassment. Her whole face reddened as she remembered that she had wondered if maybe the young man had gotten the wrong idea about her because she’d met his eyes so unabashedly.

Not for the first time since those moments, Lyla felt the phantasmic touch of a mouth brushing gently against her own. Her lips trembled with the memory and the Magistrate sighed and she was startled out of the remembrance as his hand reached for her face. She leaned back as he paused to explain.

“Forgive me girl…, Lyla…,” he amended kindly, “…but I must look directly into your eyes to use the truth-scrying spell correctly. I understand that cultural conditional can be strong, so let me help you.” He placed one thin clammy hand on her chin and turned her face up towards him. “Now look me in the eye and answer this question. Does anyone in your village know who or has suspicions of who may have harmed the caravan?”

Looking the man in the eye was just about the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. Harder than the run through the mountains. Harder than fighting with the men who had attacked her. It was harder than looking at the dead bodies of friends and family. Her eyes slowly, very slowly it felt like, focused on the huge pore of his damp flesh clogged with makeup.

Time felt like it slowed as her vision flew over the landscape of moles and pimples covered with powders and creams. His breath smelled like brandy. His skin smelled like nervous sweat sweetened with perfumed toilet water. And eventually, her eyes had traversed, what felt like, the great distance from his cheeks to the Magistrate’s hollow eyes and answered his question.

“Not as far as I know, My Lord Magistrate.” Her words brought a pleased predatory smile to his lips. It was nasty and thin.

“That’s all I needed to know.” He clapped his hands and stood quickly. The room was suddenly flourishing with movement as servants entered and came and went and Lyla was ushered to the soldiers who were hard at work themselves preparing for their journey.

Things moved quickly after that. A group of Imperial soldiers twenty-one strong and one nineteen-year-old woman set out for Lyla’s home village within an hour. Lyla was washed and dressed in a fresh tunic and trousers. The men were all mounted on their own horses, except for the ones which drove the carts. In Lyla’s cart, pillows were piled around the high walls with blankets engulfing her as in a nest.

It felt so stupid to be treated like one of those wannabe princess waifs that she had always loathed. Those spoiled tiny girls who kept their delicate figures by not doing anything for themselves. They came through the village every year with the trade caravans. Now she was being treated like one of those pampered fluff brains.

Every time Lyla had tried to pick something up to help load the wagon one of the men had snatched it away from her and tisked her for not listening to the doctor’s orders. Didn’t she remember that she was to take it easy and rest? Eventually, one came over, huge and powerful, and lifted her bodily into the cart full of pillows. Lyla had been loaded like a sack of potatoes.

Full of indignation, she tried to scramble around the brute and escape. It was sheer stubbornness on her part, but she would not be treated like she was breakable. All the man had to do to block her was to shift his weight from one foot to another. His dark hair and mountain sky blue eyes sparked a memory that infuriated her. He was the one. Lyla’s eyes narrowed.

Out of anger, Lyla lunged for the end of the wagon and if her guardian had not caught her in mid-flight, she would have probably killed herself accidentally by breaking her neck upon impact with the ground. At the very least it would have hurt. Being handsome did not work in this man’s favor as it only pissed her off even more that she was attracted to him. Helplessness caused her to lash out at him who had tried only to help her. The tears that she had been trying to hold back and ignore rained against his broad chest along with her ineffectual blows.

After a few moments, he caught her hands and pinned them behind her back. One hand was all it took for the large man to hold her there against him. The others pretending that they did not notice her minor breakdown turned their heads away and did not “see” what her captor did.

“We cannot fix the past Beautiful.” Her warrior assured her kindly, murmuring his hot breath into her hair. It both calmed her and excited her and her breath caught as his warm masculine scent reminded her of what his lips tasted like. The feel of that mouth against hers. Her breath returned, deep and hard so she kept her face pressed into his shoulder in the hope that he wouldn’t notice the unexpected change in her emotions that had her heart hammering and a warm tingling in her abdomen.

“But we will try to protect the future.” He continued speaking, hopefully, unaware of how she felt. “And I will protect you. Even from the harm you inadvertently would do to yourself.” Leaning back, he looked down at her as she kept her eyes lowered.

With his free hand, he stroked her face as he had done in the Magistrate’s mansion before sliding his fingers backward into her hair. That familiar sensation made her heart flutter and she half hoped and half dreaded that it meant he was about to do what had followed the last time he’d done that. “I cannot take away your pain. But I can help you in other ways.”

Slowly enough that she saw it coming the warrior lowered his face toward her own. Oh, Gods. He was. He did intend to kiss her. No. The prim and proper part of her mind thought furiously at herself. But his arms were firm and though she backed against them with all her might, Lyla could not get away from him.

Yet, a less tiny than she would have preferred part of her mind screamed. YES! Yes, yes, yes. And wanted to feel his lips fill her body with fire and passion to chase away the pain, and fear, and sadness. Inexorably his lips drew nearer hers and knowing that she couldn’t get away, she took the chance to look into his eyes.

This man wasn’t of the High Passes. He would think it was normal. And, they were beautiful eyes. Full of sweet and tender affection. Maybe, just a tiny…a little bit of lust. Something that tugged at her soul and twined it with his.

What was she thinking? Why was her brain behaving like a hussy? This wouldn’t do. Her parents would be so disappointed if they knew. The village would have yet another thing to justify calling her a slut with. With the realization that this kiss was inevitable, Lyla sagged in his arms and ceased her struggles. What was the point? Resisting wouldn’t change anything.

But instead of kissing her he simply held her and rested his forehead against her own. They stood there what felt like a long time as the shuffle and bustle of the other soldiers continued around them. An island of calm and stability in an ocean of motion.

After a while, Lyla realized that she felt safer in his strong arms now that she understood they were there to protect her and not to hurt her. He wasn’t intending to take advantage. He wasn’t intending to use her. Gradually the frantic beating of her heart slowed. Just right now. Just this once, Lyla let someone support her and hold her up, something that hadn’t happened for as long as she could remember. Lyla let someone hold her and comfort her.

A great lassitude came over her. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, her mind so bruised from the events of the last few days, Lyla might have struggled and screamed as this strange man lowered her onto her back in the wagon bed. But that was all he did, lay her down to sleep so that she could rest on the journey back to her home.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 009 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

A Morbid Flower

Lyla did not wake again until the next evening. The wagon was still and the sounds of other people were distant and far off. A soldier she did not know but recognized from the loading stood guard at the end of her wagon. From the smells of rotting flesh and stale fires, Lyla knew that they had reached the meadow. The distant sounds she heard were men digging graves. It was quiet out of respect.

Shakily, Lyla worked her way out of the wagon. Her guard did not dispute her getting up and walking around in the failing light so she guessed she was considered recovered enough to relieve herself after the long sleep. She stumbled groggily around a tree in the opposite direction of the main caravan and the soldiers.

“Don’t wander too far.” Her guard called after her and the young woman waved a hand in acknowledgment as she picked her way among the moss and deadfall of the previous year to find a suitable place to do her business. She was sighing with relief squatting against a tree trunk and trying to hold her unfamiliar garments out of the way from getting soiled when she spotted the body not more than ten feet from her.

Lyla’s quick shriek jerked Lan’s head around and had him sprinting over bodies, past his fellow soldiers, and into the woods lining the road before the soldier he left to guard her had time to call out. 

“Miss Lyla, are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Her reply was strangled a little bit. Partly from embarrassment for having her knickers around her ankles and partly from catching her breath from the surprise of seeing yet another dead face she knew. Lan slowed his headlong rush into the brush but continued toward her hesitantly.

“Lyla?” Her name rang out tentatively from behind her in a warm masculine voice that sent a shiver of desire through her even in her indelicate state. Shame flamed through her, and she shook herself off before hurriedly covering herself up. “What’s wrong?”

Oh, Absent Gods. It was him. She scooched away from her mess, using her shoe to push some leaves and soil over the wet spot. Then she leaned against the tree, resting her head and closing her eyes as she fought to ground herself from the tumult of emotions coursing within her.

This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that her first kiss happened because she had almost died. It wasn’t fair that she thought the guy was handsome in a way that she didn’t think had been humanly possible before meeting him. Because one thing she’d had plenty of time to do in the last day was to dream about those moments before she had slapped him, and those moments he had held her before putting her into some kind of magical sleep.

She’d dreamed about the way every part of her tingled delightfully when he touched her. The way her heart raced when she heard his voice. Heck, she had dreamed about the way she could sense his location ever since that polarizing moment their lips touched and her whole existence began to be invaded by her awareness of him.

“It’s fine.” Lyla called out to keep the soldier away for just a few more moments. If she had to be close to him right now…she couldn’t be close to him right now. “I just found another body.”

“All right. Do you need help?” He sounded so concerned and kind.

“For the Gods sake.” Her vicious whisper was under her breath but apparently, it wasn’t quiet enough because the soldier called back to her almost immediately.

“What was that?”

“Just found another body. I’m fine.” Then she started grumbling under her breath. “You nosey busybody who can’t let a girl just have a moment to herself.”

“I can come and help you.” Oh, now he was just being obnoxious. Sighing, the girl rubbed the bridge of her nose and pushed off the tree with her shoulders.

“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Coming out from behind the tree she held up her hands and gestured at herself. “Was just a little surprised to find someone so far from the main group. I hadn’t realized there had been any bodies off this far.

“Mmm…” He gave his head a sheepish scratch then rubbed his very strong chin thoughtfully. “That is odd. I’ll get someone over there to look at it. In the meantime, I’ve got a waterskin for you. Would you like something to eat?”

It had been said almost nonchalantly, but there was a tenseness to the soldier’s shoulders and an intensity to the way he looked at her as he spoke that set off alarm bells in Lyla’s head. Maybe she had eyed him askance too obviously but he smiled nervously and opening the waterskin, poured some into his mouth and swallowed without touching it to his lips. Lyla snorted at that. Like it mattered if the waterskin touched his lips considering that his tongue had been all over the inside of her mouth yesterday. But she appreciated the effort anyways.

“Thank you.” She’d been approaching him cautiously and took the offered drink. “I’m not hungry right now.” Originally, Lyla had just meant to reject the offer so that she wouldn’t be an inconvenience and interrupt the soldiers’ messy and unpleasant work for her own comfort.

But as she spoke her stomach roiled in memory of the rotting bodies and she realized that, no, now was not going to be an acceptable time for nourishment no matter how much her insides were growling for food. Maybe she should limit how much water she drank also. Frowning, Lyla stoppered the water skin and handed it back to Lan with a grimace.

His blue eyes assessed her as if he were trying to stare into her soul and see if she was telling the truth. Lyla shrugged and made shooing gestures at him so that he would go back to whatever he was doing before he was distracted by her. The look on his face indicated that he didn’t believe her and could, in fact, hear her stomach making unpleasant sounds.

Afterward, she wandered around trying to take a tally of whom she knew. Of course, it was almost impossible to recognize the victims based on their faces. Most no longer had faces, only caved-in spaces of mush where faces had once been. She forced herself to look anyways. Their families needed to know who was dead and an accurate accounting was the only way to know if anyone had been…kept alive and…taken…by the bandits.

It was the least that was expected of her.

Horror. Horror everywhere she looked, until suddenly, out of the carnage rose beauty. These flowers were so lovely and delicately translucent that they pulsed with the dark blue glow of their own life force. As if these plants had hearts that pumped luminescent blood through their veins. A flame flickering with glints of tiny lightning within it rose from the central cup.

Thank the absent Gods. It wasn’t too late. The flame that fueled the flower hadn’t gone out yet. There was still time to destroy them before they reached the dangerous dispersion of seed spore part of their lifecycle. The flowers became…explosive…at that point.

Agony tore through her heart as Lyla realized that her relatives would be denied even a burial. What was left had to burn. There was no other way. The bodies had to be destroyed before any of the blood orchids released their seeds.

Though she had only ever seen them described in books, Lyla recognized the dangerous invasive species that was hosted in living bodies and then spouted upon the body’s death. The spores carried in the lungs migrated toward the heart and rooted there. Taking over the heart’s function and using the muscle to pump glowing magical sap through the plant.

Carefully, Lyla backed away from the area and retraced her steps to the wagon and the horses.  The guardian who had watched her in the absence of her warrior stood to attention as she approached. He looked as if he were about to ask her a question so she put a finger to her lips for silence before shaking her head. Luckily the young man heeded her warning even as she drew next to him.

“Blood Orchids.” The youth stiffened at her whisper. They were an infestation that no one wanted in their graveyards. Feeding on the dead, any freshly deceased corpse could become a breeding ground for this species. The seeds had to be carried by a live host until the person died. It would not harm them nor sprout until the body died, supposedly, but…the infected died earlier than they should. 

“We need fire.”

Quickly the young man, who was barely more than a boy, went to the forward wagon and rummaged through the supplies. Slow careful movements were necessary to prevent any seed pods from being disturbed and sending spores into all of their lungs.  “Slow down.” Lyla reminded him. “Get the blankets and the lamp oil.” Covering the plant before lighting it on fire would prevent spores from escaping into the air before they were hot enough to burn.

“Is there a signal you can use to call the others back? We need to get them away from the bodies and to get the bodies covered so that we can burn them all. Has anyone been buried yet?” The boy shook his head, his face pale and strained. The parasite was harmless at this stage. It would kill no one even if they got infected.  In theory.

But it was the principle. This thing should not be here. It was supposed to be confined to the Necromancer’s homeland. Death followed the blossom even if it were not the cause. It was a curse. And if it were allowed to reach maturity it would cause death.

The young guard whistled a specific series of notes, and the others carefully picked their way back. Silent and alert, like a pride of lions on the hunt, the twenty men returned. The younger guard walked over to the grizzled veteran she recognized as their leader from the last time she was awake while loading the wagons. As the boy relayed her discovery, her protector and savior noticed Lyla alone and walked over to her, his blue eyes trying to be kind and inquisitive.

Against her wishes, Lyla’s rebel body responded to his presence. Her heart thudded in her chest, and she wished that he was just a tiny bit less sure of himself. And her palms dampened nervously. Lan. That was what his comrades called him.

Lyla hugged herself tightly. She was numb from everything. And then she hurt more than she ever thought she could hurt. And then she’d be numb again. It was the same crests and troughs of emotion that she had ridden for the last few days while conscious. She began shaking.

Without asking her, her self-proclaimed protector wrapped his own cloak around her shoulders. He didn’t hesitate to pull her into his arms and warm her further with his body. Too cold, Lyla didn’t bother fighting. She didn’t even have a harsh remark or sarcastic defense to push him away with.

The commanding officer was good. He didn’t waste time doubting Lyla’s words just because she was female. That was nice. A refreshing change from the way that men normally treated her. Soon, every carcass which could be found had been covered in an oil-soaked blanket. When the soldiers ran out of blankets, they took to using canvases from the carts and the deceased caravan’s wagons.

Dead wood was gathered, and trees were felled. Fires were lighted. And then the mages of the group burned the dead as if they were risen by necromancers. Arcane symbols flew from their fingertips as their hands manipulated energy and their voices formed the holy words of their Gods ordained birthright. The Chaos Mages rested those poor souls whose hearts would have been enslaved by the plant as they had rested untold numbers of corrupted dead for centuries. The members of the caravan were given eternal rest.

Once again, the smell of burning flesh filled the air. The glow from the flames would be visible over the peaks and valleys that separated this pass from her village. It would be impossible to go through this pass from now on. To be safe, a new route should be forged around it anyways.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 010 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

The Climb

The group of soldiers stayed until the embers of the fires died. Not to prevent forest fires. The mages could have smothered the fires with their magic anytime they wanted. They stayed to make sure every remnant of the caravan was burned. Bodies, belongings, dead horses, the grass and trees… everything.

The site of the massacre was a dark gash of ash and carbon in the surrounding mountainside.

They reversed their journey down the mountain under Lyla’s direction toward an alternate route. Once the group had made it to the village, they would need to return back along the original road to block off travel through it from the other side to avoid any exposure to the flowers in case they hadn’t all been destroyed as intended. For now, a new route needed to be forged over the mountains into the High Passes.

Instead of sitting in a bumpy wagon slowing the whole procession along as she directed the group, Lyla was sitting upon a horse in front of Lan. Their horse walked with careful steps in the night beside the commander’s horse. They were at the head of the column winding through the forest. A circle of blue-black light shone down on them below the bubble of mage fire Lan had conjured. It bobbled along following them and lighting the way, impossibly bright for such a dark color.

Additional bubbles of mage fire lit the length of the group casting the somber soldiers in the blue-black light of Chaos magic. They were concentrated around the other mages in the company. To ensure everyone had light to see by, the mages had been spread out among the column of soldiers.

Commander Wroth glanced over at the young couple beside him and rolled his eyes discreetly. Lan just happened to be the first mage in the column and therefore the logical person for Lyla to sit with. You know, in case she needed some kind of magical support. And if anyone believed that, there was some lush desert land Wroth was going to sell them to pad his retirement fund. The boy hadn’t neglected his duties once, yet somehow, Rengard Lan hadn’t been more than a few dozen yards from the girl since the moment he’d first laid eyes on her.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it sure as hell wasn’t good. Not because Lan was royalty. This was a problem because he was a mage. An Imperial Chaos Mage. Regardless of the fact that Lan had refused to pursue the profession and only had the bare minimum required training necessary to maintain his place in the Line of Inheritance and not have his powers bound, the Chaos Magic flowing through his veins meant that any relationship he might want to have could be very…complicated.

Wroth watched his prince for signs of such complications carefully, and nodded grimly to himself.

Lan had been alternating between the somber reflection of the tragedy they’d just left behind, and grinning like a fool as Lyla’s warm scent tickled his nostrils. He’d been careful, so very careful to avoid holding on to the woman in front of him too tightly. The prince had been so lucky to end up in this position that he didn’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to be close to her and risk the commander ordering him to have Lyla ride with someone else.

It was just a coincidence that he’d put himself at the front of the column. Spending untold hours with the woman he’d saved with his kiss pressed against his body was just an accident of how the column had formed up. Lan hadn’t used his position or authority and subtle intimidation to keep every other man away from Lyla. This wasn’t something he’d arranged at all.

His commander cleared his throat and Lan glanced that way. The glare he received from Old Man Wroth, made it clear that the grizzled soldier didn’t believe for one second the line of horseshit that the prince had been trying to feed himself. It was obvious that he’d noticed what was happening to Lan.

For a moment, Lan’s smile faltered as his commander raised an eyebrow inquiringly at him. Lyla, oblivious, continued guiding the horse with his hands on hers over the reins. The prince bit his lip and shrugging, gave a helpless hapless grin. Wroth sighed deeply with disappointment and bowed his head shaking it. It was an action that Rengard Lan was eminently familiar with from the commander’s time as a palace guard when he was once one of many guards responsible for an impetuous young Prince Lan and his siblings. Their silent conversation of facial expression was interrupted by Lyla’s soft words.

“We’ll have to take the deer trail.” Lyla mused aloud to her living comforter, unconsciously snuggling back against him as a chill wind blew up from the ocean far below.

Lan nuzzled Lyla’s ear from behind as he relished the feel of her soft curves in his arms. It had to be the spell, he had done the spell wrong and now he was obsessively drawn to her. This couldn’t be permanent. He’d be in so much trouble if this feeling of delighted possession didn’t go away. It would pass…had to pass… but….ah…Gods…he wanted this feeling to last.

“If that is what we need to do then that is what we need to do, love.” Madness!  Rengard Lan had let himself fall into the Imperial Madness. It was temporary. Please let it be temporary. But if this woman fell for him while he was out of his mind for her because of magic, Lan would not abandon her when his sanity returned.  His sanity would return. Wouldn’t it?

“Halt.” Commander Wroth called out to the company. “Well make camp here tonight and start up the game trail in the morning.” Lan hopped off his white horse from behind Lyla and caught her by the waist to lower her gently to the ground.

They worked quickly, Lyla insisting on assisting where she could, and soon the few tents left after the burning were assembled. Cookfires were set to crackling merrily and hot food and mulled beer was passed around. Lyla demurred when handed the cup of ale.

“I don’t drink.” She admitted sheepishly and glanced away with embarrassment.

“It’s mulled.” Wroth told her, “The alcohol’s been cooked out of it. It’s just for calories and warmth. But we’ve got some herbal tea if you prefer.” The girl’s face brightened at the mention of tea and the commander handed her a cup he’d been holding in his other hand just in case.

“Thank you.” She grinned from behind the rim of her mug already downing the welcoming warmth. The mood in camp gradually warmed as well. Talking grew a bit louder as the already late night grew later. Occasionally someone would make a joke, and a few would laugh. The soldiers had been respectful of the dead while they’d been around them, but now they were gone, the men were getting back into themselves. The ribald way soldiers joked among each other was returning.

Lyla ate, first one, then a second mug of stew made from dried rations of meat and vegetables. She dipped her only slightly stale day-old bread into the thick broth greedily. Lan had draped his cloak around both of them during the ride and now it continued to warm them as they ate in closer proximity than was strictly necessary. This was not a coincidence. Lan had definitely arranged it.

They were sitting together on a log beside one of the cookfires. Though he had a second cloak in his belongings, Lan had studiously ignored its existence and used warming Lyla with the cloak he wore in addition to her own cloak as an excuse to stay within her proximity for most of the night. All that time Lan held Lyla wrapped up snugly; until she fell asleep once more supported in his arms.

Lan honestly would have continued sitting on the log staying awake all night long to hold her if he’d been allowed to.

“You should let the poor girl have a proper rest, Lan.” Wroth’s gravelly voice chided softly from across the fire. The prince nodded acceptance of the gently worded order.

“Lyla.” He’d nudged her to a bleary-eyed wakefulness.  “Let’s get you to bed.” Just enough for her to not fall over as he pulled her up with him to stand. She nodded wearily and let out a little gasp when he picked her up like he was about to carry a new bride over the threshold.

“Lan.” The prince paused at the warning tone in his commander’s voice. “Return here as soon as she is safely in a bedroll by herself.” Lan nodded. He’d deserved that. It was right that he be reprimanded for the way he’d been behaving.

Wroth hadn’t emphasized the words ‘by herself’ in any way, yet there was a subtle undercurrent to the order and the tilt of Wroth’s head that made Lan certain that those were the most important words in the sentence. Then the young man carried the barely conscious Lyla back to the cart and nestled her into her blankets and tucked his cloak around her with proud tenderness so she could rest before they continued their journey.

A few of his men nudged each other’s sides with elbows and called attention to the fact that their prince seemed quite taken with the young woman whose life he’d saved. They were under strict orders not to reveal his true identity while out here on the wild edges of the Empire. But no one had said anything about not gossiping about what was going on with their prince. Or making fun of him for it.

The attention which Lan paid to Lyla, meant that the other men had found reason to talk to her as well during the evening. If Rengard Lan cared for this woman, there was a possibility that she could one day be their empress. A slim possibility since he was a second son. And yet…the possibility was there, nonetheless.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 011 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

The Climb - Part 2

Lyla was roused by birds singing at daybreak. There were few soldiers up yet besides those who had been set to guard duty. They swayed unsteadily as they tended the cookfires. She approached one of the fires and the man tending it, smiling tentatively. He smiled back with a toothy but tired grin.

“Hi.” It was a cheerful rested word and the apprentice healer immediately felt guilty as the man she had addressed yawned in the middle of his mumbled return greeting.

“Morrrorning…” He rubbed a tearing eye with the back of a fist and grinned back at her. Lyla couldn’t help it. She giggled. It was the young soldier who had been guarding her when she woke up the previous evening. “Finally managed to get away from your guardian, hey?” His question immediately sobered her.

“Yes. I guess.” There was an unusual feeling tingling at the back of her mind. Her guardian. A darkness settled over her thoughts and made a home in the pit of her stomach whenever she paused to think about how abnormally comfortable she was with that man touching her. And that realization, that she didn’t notice when he sidled up to her – or wrapped his arms around her, or nuzzled her ear – that realization she’d had while she was sleeping last night brought with it a heart-pounding terror.

Because she didn’t know why.

Why? What made this guy different from every other man she’d ever known? Lyla sure as hell would smack the shit out of the grinning young soldier across the fire from her if he tried to wrap his arms around her without permission. So why in the name of the Absent Gods was she letting jerk-face that kissed her without permission continue to touch her body in, well, not intimate wayssss….no…


He was trying to be intimate. That pompously sexy kissy-face soldier who’d been like…like a tumorous shadow since she woke up to the raging fire of attraction and desire from his kiss…. That guy, he was definitely trying to be intimate and she wasn’t going to fall for it.

Lyla hated men. Okay. Not all men. But she wasn’t attracted to them. She wasn’t interested in dating. At least, not yet. Maybe in the future. Absent Gods! She was supposed to get her life sorted before things like boys started distracting her. And men were just gross pigs in the village she came from.

Any guy who wasn’t a family member was trying to get her to run off into the forest to ‘get to know each other better’. And Lyla knew better than to take them up on the offer. A girl couldn’t spend any time alone with a man in her village without someone noticing and assuming that things had happened. Heck, Lyla already had a reputation for being willing to do…things…and she’d never even accepted any invitation from anyone to do anything despite the fact that the persistent rumors meant that nearly every man, married or not, in her village had propositioned her at least once. Lyla had to be extra careful with her reputation.

So, this kisser-of-sleeping-woman that she’d been salivating over needed to back the hell off of her before they got to her village or things were going to be even worse for her. The more she turned men in her village down, the angrier they got since each one assumed that he was the only one she’d turned down and therefore must have something personally against just him. The whole lot of them could go suck an egg.

“Did I say something to offend you?” The timid kind soldier who she was not in the least bit angry with questioned nervously. Lyla realized that her expression had turned to a furious glower and smoothed her face with a conscious effort.

“No.” She reassured him with a hasty smile. “No. I’m just thinking about…I’m not looking forward to returning home.” She surprised herself with her correction. Lyla had just wanted to make sure she didn’t say anything about her ‘protector’ that might offend his comrades. He had, after all, saved her life and they were about to risk theirs to protect her village and others of the High Passes. But now she realized that she really wasn’t looking forward to returning to the stiflingly patriarchal community.

“Ah. I can relate to that.” His worried concern melted, and his timid smile returned. “For a moment I was afraid that maybe Pr…erm…Lan had done something that I’d have to get my butt kicked trying to rectify.” A sheepish laugh escaped his mouth as he ran a hand nervously through his hair.

“Noooo.” Lyla reassured him. “Not…yet…?” The young soldier perked up at the slow hesitant way the young woman spoke and bristled indignantly on her behalf.

“If he ever does something that you told him not to do, you let one of us know. The Commander…that’s Wroth…will put him right in his place. That sort of thing isn’t tolerated from people in Lan’s station. If he even makes you nervous, you speak up and it will be dealt with.” She had to smile as he went on, a timid nervous soldier filled with righteousness for a damsel in distress. “Probably not by me as I’d most likely die in the trying if I ever challenged Lan. He’s quite good with his sword never mind all the mage-y stuff, you know.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” It was a bit absurd picturing this slight young man in a fight against the tall, strapping, and very robustly muscled Lan. She could hear the laughter in her voice and immediately hoped she hadn’t insulted the boy she was talking to. “Not that I wouldn’t be honored for you to defend my honor, but….”

“Hey, I know I’m no match for one of the Im…for someone of Lan’s caliber.” That was the second time the soldier had changed what he’d intended to say about Lan, and Lyla’s eyes narrowed only slightly with suspicion. Interesting! There was something about the handsome mage that she wasn’t supposed to know. “Oh! I just realized I never introduced myself to you. I’m Caleb. Caleb Von Notten the third. Duke of Terrace Mons currently serving my mandatory term with the Imperial Army to maintain my Right of Inheritance.”

“Really?” Excitement shot through Lyla and she immediately forgot all her suspicions. Not excited because she was sitting with nobility, but because she had heard of Terrace Mons and was terribly excited to someday see it for herself. “Is it true that the farms of Terrace Mons really do produce the finest medicinal herbs? The village healer says nothing the world over compares in quality.” Caleb grinned.

“Oh, Madam. You have not lived until you have seen the great terraces of cultivated plants on the Mons. I daresay nothing the world over can compare to any plant our Druids sing to.” And so the conversation progressed as the young Duke extolled the virtues of his home, its exports, its beauty, and its people.

Climbing through the steep game trail was difficult and slow. Many times, the wagons needed to be levered over large boulders and deeply creased but tiny streams. When Lan had seen the terrain that the group would have to traverse to reach the village, he had immediately known that Lyla would again not be able to sit in a wagon. She was the only one who knew the way into the labyrinth of mountain passes that connected hers, and all the other little hidden villages of this land in the clouds.

Taking Lyla by the hand he pulled her to the front of the file where his horse was picketed. Was it wrong to feel such joy that he could be near to her for any reason? A better man would have had the woman he desired ride with another man so as to avoid the temptation to take advantage of her trust in any way. But Rengard Lan was not a great man, most of the time he wasn’t even sure if he was a goodman. He was just a man who tried his hardest to do right by the majority of his people.

It would have been a physical pain to let another man near her. With undeserved satisfaction, Lan mounted his stallion with the ease of many years of practice. Knowing that Lyla watched his every movement with her solemn golden eyes, brought a smile to Lan’s lips as he reached his hand down to her. The large sturdy Imperial White took Lyla’s added weight without complaint.

As she settled tentatively in the saddle Lan reached around her to grasp the reins. Then Lan pulled her almost slight (compared to his) body back against his chest. Relieved that Lyla didn’t protest, Lan let his lips rest against her ear and kept her head snuggled in the crook between his neck and shoulder.

With years of familiarity, Lyla pointed out the way to forge the path. Sometimes it seemed as if there were easier ways to go, but patiently following her instructions showed that while her way might seem more difficult, ultimately, she was right. There were hazards in these mountain passes that could only be known from years of travel.


Unlock for: $

Text in gold writing on a green background reads "Empire of Man, Book 1 - The First Empress".  Behind the text is a golden tree surrounded by an intricate design.

Chapter 012 Empire of Man - Book 1: The First Empress

The Madness

“Leave it to Lan to fall for a superwoman,” Cristoff commented to his commander Wroth.

“We’ve yet to determine that she’s a superwoman,” Wroth smirked at the couple on the horse before him. Though privately, he had to admit he was impressed by the girl’s resilience.

When the way became so overgrown that it was necessary to stop and chop their path through the forest, Lyla didn’t hesitate to pick up an axe. The woman tried to work as hard as the men and the prince frequently had to take away from her whatever task she was trying to overexert herself with. 

Lan’s ridiculous possessive pride in Lyla grew over the course of the day. Near lunch, Lan had to drag his darling away from her furious slashing to force her to rest. As he drew her to him Lyla pulled away.

“Please, Lan.” She pleaded. “I’ll slow down I swear. Just please don’t make me sleep again. Please don’t take control of my body away from me again!” With a frown, Lan realized that he had been horribly abusing his power over her. His heart dropped down to his gut and wrenched his innards about.

Lyla’s eyes pleaded with him, blinking back tears as she tried to hold his gaze. He’d been an ass. Even as he chastised himself, he was distracted by the enchantment between them. Gods, she was beautiful. And defiant. And beautiful. Sigh.

It was good. Lyla needed to be strong to deal with what she had seen and to recover from the magic that had almost killed her while bringing news of the heinous crime to Balast. She needed to be strong because she didn’t know if her village was still there or if it had been burnt to the ground. And she needed to be strong to remind Lan that he was under the influence of magic…magic that didn’t seem to be affecting Lyla nearly as much as it was influencing Lan’s judgment. Magic Lan had not informed Lyla of. Yep! I’m definitely an ass. Mother would be so disappointed.

“Of course.” Lan tried not to grimace as he realized that he’d been losing his mind. “I…” Leaning very close to her face to look directly into her eyes, “…I… never want to hurt you. Your body is your own. I will never take your free will from you.” Lyla nodded but the wary light of a feral creature rested in her eyes. Like a kind of subdued panic that she tightly controlled. “I’m so sorry.” It hurt him to his core to know he’d done that to her. He had never meant to make her fear him.

Turning away from him Lyla picked her way over the uneven ground to one of their campfires and sat for a midday meal. Absurdly, Lan felt a tidal wave of jealous rage as Lyla smiled with genuine brightness at the young warrior who handed her a bowl of stew. For the first time since he was five, 

Rengard Lan started to lose control of his magic.

He had never been considered the most powerful in the family by far. But he had more than enough magic to kill every one of these men in his company, even his fellow mages, and then some. Lan had never tested his limits. He’d chosen soldiering over sorcery.  It had been a very deliberate decision on his part to avoid using his magic. The taste and feel of magic use was, for him…, intoxicating. And he’d understood that it wasn’t normal for a mage to feel that way, to crave the next spell, to want to push dangerously closer and closer to the edge of ability.

“Get it under control.” The prince whispered fiercely to himself. In the distance, Wroth watched him warily. The commander was more than aware of the danger Lan could be if he lost himself. Rather than face the older man with his insecurity, Lan stalked off alone. Lyla was just smiling at another man. 

That was it. It.  Was. Just. A. Smile.

A beautiful smile…oh Gods… she had such a beautiful smile. He wanted it to be his smile, for her to smile at him. There had to be some part of her that was special just for him. Some sign that she felt the gut-twisting need to be close that he felt. The overwhelming obsessive force of nature that pulled his soul to her, couldn’t she feel even a tiny little bit of it?

As if to flaunt Lan’s desire to be alone, Wroth stalked up behind him. Lan ignored his father’s man with intense concentration. But the officer was determined to speak his mind.

“It’s happened, hasn’t it?” It was the madness Lan was currently experiencing. Being born of Chaos magic, members of the imperial family weren’t the most stable when something they wanted was out of their reach.

“Yessss.” Rengard hissed through clenched teeth. “She’s mine, but she’s smiling at him!”


Unlock for: $

bottom of page