The following is an excerpt from The Vacant Throne by Joshua Palmatier, book three of the Throne of Amenkor series, available from DAW Books, Inc. © 2008.

Chapter One

I stood in the middle of a field of wheat, the bristly heads of grain pattering against my outstretched hands. The breeze that rippled through the stalks tugged at my hair, at the folds of my sweat-stained shirt. In the moment before dawn, the world was quiet, expectant.

Then, far ahead over the fields, near the road that snaked down from the city of Venitte into the hills, a flare of light lit the darkness. Harsh and orange, the fire arched up into the sky and I felt a tug of grief, a pain that bit deeper every time I felt it, still new and raw and fresh. It twisted in my chest, burned at the edges of my eyes, but I clenched my jaw as I watched the fire crest, begin a long descent, fall down and down--

And explode amongst the trunks of olive trees. In the burst of light when it struck I saw an army marching through the fields. A moment later I heard screams, faint with distance.

The pain in my chest writhed.

I’d moved before I’d made a conscious decision to move, pushed through the wheat toward the road. As I ploughed forward, grain rattling against my legs, catching, holding me back, more fire bloomed and I marked its source, marked my targets. Then I reached the road, broke into a sprint, the screams from my fellow Venittians amongst the olive trees growing louder. Heart thundering in my chest, I stretched out with my mind, drew the Threads around me, wove them tight, bound them, twisted them, prepared. Ahead, the screams intensified, grew heated, broke into a rumbling roar of challenge and hatred and fear as the two armies met. Sunlight touched the surrounding hills and fields with a patina of gold, although I didn’t need the light. Through the Threads, I could see everything. The Venittians charged through the low, flattened branches of the olives, fire lancing out, roaring through their ranks, leaving behind charred bodies and burning trees, and in the backwash of light. . . .

The Chorl--skin tainted a faint blue, like winter sky, tattoos black in the dawn, faces contorted with rage. The Chorl--curved steel swords raised to the sky as they screamed in a harsh, ululating language.

The Chorl--who had killed my wife and two daughters.

Cold, hard, edged rage tingled through my skin, rippled out on the Threads I’d bound around me, and I slowed as I came at the battle from the side. No need to run. There were plenty of Chorl to kill. They’d invaded the Frigean coast two weeks before, invaded the city of Venitte. They’d come from the western sea with no warning, had attacked the port and overrun a significant portion of the city before anyone had known what was happening.

But the Chorl themselves were not my targets. I would have attacked with the rest of the Venittian army if they had been. No, the attack was a diversion, the army bait. I wanted the Adepts, the ones wielding the Threads, the ones who’d thrown the fire that had killed so many in that initial attack on the city.

The ones that had killed Olivia, who’d killed five-year-old Jaer and her elder sister Pallin.

I slid past the first of the Chorl, moving slowly, calmly, their piercing howls surrounding me as they tried to surge forward to the front of the battle. They broke around me as if I were a stone in their currents, not consciously realizing what they were doing, the Threads shunting them to one side while concealing me from their sight. I angled toward the back of their forces, focusing on the source of the fire that still arched up out of their ranks. The Chorl thinned. The road ended and I was once again among wheat, the stalks trampled into the earth, broken and shattered. Ahead, a Chorl woman in a mud-splattered dress wove the Sight into a tight blazing fireball and hurled it high into the air, her face strained with effort, sweat streaming down her cheeks, down the cold blue skin of her throat, where corded muscle stood out in stark relief. She was surrounded by ten Chorl warriors and two Chorl priests. The warriors were dressed in a riot of colors--blue, red, orange, green--over crude leather armor. Their eyes were locked on the battle behind me, their bodies tense, hands on the hilts of their swords. The priests were dressed in vibrant yellow and red robes and wore necklaces of shells. One carried a scepter of some type of reed and feathers. All of the men were covered in tattoos; on their faces, their necks, their hands. The woman wore five earrings in each ear, the gold glinting occasionally through the long strands of her black hair. She had no visible tattoos whatsoever, her skin flawless.

I slipped through the ring of warriors without them noticing, one sidling away from me as I passed, and halted in front of the woman, looked up into her dark eyes, a surge of regret passing through me that there was only one Chorl Adept in this attack. This close, I could smell her sweat, could hear the priests chanting under their breath on either side of her, could feel the tension coursing around me on the Threads. It reeked of fear, of blood, of trampled wheat.

I glared up into the woman’s face.

Someone like this had stood on the Chorl ships that had entered Venitte’s harbor and attacked the fishing and trading ships, catching them unaware. Someone like this had flung fireball after fireball up onto the cliffs and houses that surrounded the harbor, had flung the fireball that had killed Olivia and Jaer and Pallin.

Jaer. I felt again her charred skin as I clutched her small body to my chest, felt it flaking off beneath my touch.

Only five years old.

The pain stabbed into my chest again and tears seared the corners of my eyes. The queasy rush of emotion closed off my throat with the hot, sickening taste of phlegm and I flung out my arms to both sides, gathering more Threads to me as bitter rage flooded my mouth, stained my tongue. I could kill them all with a touch of my hand, could stop their hearts in their chests. They’d drop to the ground, dead before they even knew what had happened. I could send invisible needles of pain into their skin and flay them where they stood. I could call down lightning from the clear morning sky, or open up the earth beneath them and bury them alive. I could kill them all in a hundred different ways, using any or all of the Five Magics.

I chose fire.

In the moment before I ignited the Threads I’d woven around them all--the priests, the warriors, the Adept--the Chorl woman tensed. Through the tears blurring my eyes, I saw her frown, a fireball half formed before her. She sensed something. A ripple on the Threads, a disturbance on the ether. Or perhaps she’d heard the sob that had escaped me.

It didn’t matter. I didn’t give her a chance to react.

I let the fire loose, roared as I ignited the Threads that bound the twelve Chorl men and the Adept together. A roar of grief, of pain that would never end, formless and harsh and guttural. Eyes clenched shut, I felt the shock of the priests and warriors and the woman in the single breath before the fire struck them, before it consumed them, flinging them back with its force, scorching through clothing, through flesh, through bone, as the fire that had charred the flesh from Olivia and Jaer and Pallin had done. I poured all of my sorrow into it, all of my rage, all of the feelings of uselessness and despair I’d felt in the last two weeks as the peace of the Frigean Coast collapsed under the Chorl onslaught. And when I felt the last breath of life flee, when the thirteen charred bodies lay around me in a grisly circle, I collapsed to my knees, panting, head bowed, tears still streaming down my face, hands clenched in fists at my sides.

Because the pain still beat with my heart. It burned through my veins, prickled in my skin.

I sobbed.

I should have died with them. I should have died protecting Olivia, my body shielding her from the fire, not the other way around.

I lifted my head, stared at the blackened bodies, felt the rage boil up again, bitter as ash, then turned to gaze up into the lightening sky.

It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

I stood slowly, rage settling around me. A calm rage filled with nothing but grief. With nothing but visions of Olivia on the veranda, held in my arms. Of the scent of her hair, the smoothness of her skin. Of the sounds of Jaer and Pallin shrieking in delight as they played around us.

I turned, cloaked in memories, and waded into the Chorl forces from behind, trailing fire and death behind me.

All contents are copyright of Joshua Palmatier, 2017.