This preview is limited to avoid giving any spoilers for Shaper of Stone.
The full version of Chapter 1, Shaper of Air is included with each copy of Shaper of Stone.
The hunt of the Thralkin: A preview of Shaper of Air, a Novel by Keith Keffer.
The creature crouched low. Its gray hide and black hair blending perfectly with the rocky hillside. While motionless it would remain invisible. Except for the flair of its nostrils as it breathed and the blinking of its eyes it had not moved in over ten minutes.
A fine ash, easily stirred by the slightest breeze, covered the ground choking all but the sturdiest of grass and shrubs. In the short time the predator waited a light coat had fallen, improving its camouflage. At times volcanic vents spewed the ash into the air where it fell like winter snow but not today. Today only the wind disturbed the ash, the wind and the passing of other creatures.
A cloud to the west heralded the arrival of men on horseback. Not just men, they were treasure hunters from the northlands. Like the bands before them, they sought their fortune in the shadow of Mount Dartorca. Like the bands before them, they rode to their doom.
Ten horses crested the rise but only seven riders. In defiance of the heat the leader wore a breastplate beneath a hooded cloak. His men chose not to follow his lead, having stripped down to sleeveless tunics. They traveled in a staggered line with the last man leading a train of spare mounts.
A stone rolled down the hillside, but it was ignored by the hunters who were busy sharing tales of past exploits. All but the leader, who rode ahead to distance himself from their lewd stories, and the last men, who stopped when the spare horses became jittery and refused to move forward.
“Terrance, what the hell are you doing back there! Get your butt moving!”
Terrance made a hand gesture without looking back. It didn’t matter which of his companions had shouted at him. They were all asses as far as he was concerned. Every morning they had drawn lots to see who would lead the spares, and every morning it was Terrance who came up short. He didn’t know what bothered him more. The fact that he got stuck with the horses every day or that he hadn’t been able to figure out how they were rigging the draw.
The delay drew the attention of their leader, Sir Lawrence Tanzin. Sir Lawrence was the youngest son of an old and noble family that produced far too many older siblings. With the treasure they expected to find, he planned to buy his own estate and title, but first he needed to get his men back in line. Like him they were men with little prospects of their own. They lacked discipline, but made it up with their enthusiasm. At least that was what Sir Lawrence kept telling himself each time he had to stop to get them moving again.
Turning around, Sir Lawrence started to ride back.
“Alright you slackers,” he called out, “What is the problem this ….”
Before he could finish the rider closest to him was ripped from his mount. A spear the size of a small lance buried in his chest. In the time it took to acknowledge the first death, three more men were dead.
To Sir Lawrence’s left and right ash rained down as four hulking creatures erupted from the ground. Each was easily eight feet tall and well over 400 pounds. Their incredibly long arms ended with boulder sized fist that hung to the knees. Having thrown their spears, they appeared weaponless, but a blow from one of those fists could be as deadly as any mace.
Sir Lawrence wheeled his horse as he fumbled for his sword. The damn cloak was in his way. He grabbed the blade and almost cleared the scabbard when one of those massive fists smashed into his chest. Without his breastplate he might have been killed instantly. With it, he was thrown from the back of the horse and hit the ground hard.
His lungs were on fire, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. The sword clenched in his right hand gave him no comfort. Someone was screaming. It sounded horrible. Gods he hoped it wasn’t him.
The horses Terrance led panicked. Already nervous, they bolted at the first sign of movement. They would have pulled him from his saddle except his horse bolted too. Terrance clung to it with both hand and never looked back. Not even when the screaming finally stopped.
Urat, leader of the hunt, towered over the fallen knight. It was his spear that killed the first human, and it was his mighty strike that brought their chieftain down. It was he who waited without motion while the prey approached, and it would be he who dealt with the cub who failed to follow his example. He was Urat, chieftain of the Long Fang, mightiest of the thralkin packs. He was Urat who one day would unite all thralkin under his banner.
Urat, chieftain of the Long Fang, admired the armor worn by Sir Lawrence. Venom dripped from the fangs of the coiled serpent emblazoned upon the breastplate. So similar to Urat’s own banner that he knew it could not be coincidence. The shaman, Kartac, would know what to make of it. Urat, leader of the hunt, would claim this armor and the man who wore it and deliver both to the shaman
The last thing Sir Lawrence saw before falling into darkness was Urat towering over him. Two horns little bigger than thumbs protruded from the thralkin’s pale, gray forehead while fangs the size of small knives extended over its lower lip.
Urat, leader of the hunt, kicked the sword from the knight’s grasp, then without effort heaved the still form over his shoulder. Carrying his burden like a sack of grain he moved through the carnage.
“Tarog! Here! Now!” Urat shouted. His voice was a deep growl capable of shifting the ash by volume alone.
Urat did not wait for the thralkin named Tarog to reach him. “There are only six bodies. Where is the other one?”
Tarog ran to his leader and stood defiantly before his rage. To cower or show fear would only make it worse. Tarog had failed. He had failed to remain hidden and had alarmed the horses. A man had escape, and now the blame would fall to him. Tarog knew his life was in Urat’s hands.
“He is gone, Kai Urat. His horses bolted as we attacked. Allow me, and when I capture him, his skin will make a fine belt to honor you.”
The cub had courage, and it pleased Urat, leader of the hunt. Tarog’s fate would not be decided this day.
“Go! Find the northman. You have until the sun sets in two days.”
“It will be done,” answered Tarog. Without waiting for further instructions the lone thralkin snatched a spear from a corpse and raced after the fleeing rider.
Urat waited in the center of the bodies as the remaining two members of the hunting pack staked the capture horses upwind of the site of the ambush. It would not do to have the horses run off a second time when the thralkin dressed their kill before returning with it to their camp.
Thank you for reading this preview of Shaper of Air.