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Emma L Adams

Death's Disciple: Death's Disciple Book 1 (Hardcover)

Death's Disciple: Death's Disciple Book 1 (Hardcover)

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Book 1 of 2: Death's Disciple

Seven years ago, Captain Yala Palathar was a hero. She and her squad of close-knit dragon-riding warriors were Laria’s elite, fighting for their nation alongside the monarch and his magic-wielding Disciples. Seizing control of an unmanned island should have been a simple mission, but Yala’s squad was little prepared for the horror and tragedy that awaited. Instead of triumph, all Yala and her allies found was death.

Years on, Yala lives in seclusion in the deep jungle, ignoring the rumours of unrest in the capital following the end of the war. She little expects assassins to find her hideout - nor does she anticipate the mission that ended her career to have given rise to rumours that see her targeted by mercenaries vying to claim a price on her head. With the other survivors from her squad being picked off one by one, she has little choice but to return to the capital in the hopes of finding answers.

Whether the truth lies with the Disciples of the Flame - who refused to believe her stories of the monstrous beasts that haunted the island - or with the long-dead king who sent her squad to their doom, one thing is clear. Yala must finish the battle she started all those years ago… even if it brings her face to face with the god of death Himself.

You can buy a signed copy from the Broken Binding online bookstore here.

SPFBO9 Semi-Finalist.

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Blood sprayed across the wall of the cabin. Yala yanked her dagger out of the insect she’d impaled, rubbing the welt on her shoulder with her free hand. She’d heard the bloodfly’s strident whine in the background but hadn’t expected the bulbous insect would have the audacity to slip through the nets covering the windows and take a bite out of her while she’d been dozing in her hammock.

“Rather you than me,” she said, tossing the dagger back into its corner. At one time she would have reprimanded any member of her squad who treated their weaponry with such callousness, but those days were long gone.

Look at the state of me, talking to fucking wildlife. She’d been on her own for too long, that was the problem. Limping back to the hammock, she settled into the fraying fabric and let its gentle rocking carry her into a doze.

Not for long. A scraping noise sounded against the side of her wooden cabin, and she lifted her head. Her home was deeply enmeshed in the trees, an intentional choice on her part, but every so often a well-meaning local dropped by to offer her a basket of freshly picked sunfruit or baked bread. The scraping noise didn’t sound as if it belonged to a human, though, and it was too loud to be one of the mischievous kekins that occasionally snuck into her cabin and wreaked havoc when her back was turned. 

When a low growl followed, Yala swung her legs over the edge of the hammock, her heart racing. That’s no kekin. Nor a bird, either.

Her bare feet touched the wooden floor, prompting a familiar ache in her leg. The old wound liked to remind her of its presence every so often, though nothing remained but a curved scar a shade lighter than her brown skin. Wishing she hadn’t tossed her dagger aside, she reached for the whittled cane she kept beside her hammock.

Keeping one eye on the window—or hole, as Vanat would have called it, though she’d argue that the lack of glass was an aesthetic choice—she edged towards the corner where she’d thrown her dagger and retrieved the weapon. Then, Yala yanked back the misshapen piece of fabric masquerading as a curtain and found a giant eye staring back at her.

With an oath, she recoiled. A war drake? What in the hells is it doing this deep in the jungle? 

At one time, the sight of a large reptilian beast had been as familiar as her own squad, as had the mixture of anticipation and nerves that preceded a flight. Her mind brimmed with memories of sitting on a similar beast’s back and soaring above the waves, the wind in her hair and a squad to protect with her life. 

Now, her squad had scattered, and the war drakes returned to the wild from which they came. This was no trained steed but a mere animal, and from the way its nostrils contracted below its pitch-dark eyes, it smelled prey.

In one swipe of a curved claw, the wild drake ripped the curtain aside, exposing the inside of her cabin. Yala backed out of range of its curved claws and sharp teeth and tongue, gripping a dagger that seemed laughably inadequate, but she hadn’t brought any larger weapons with her when she’d left the capital. The walk had been arduous enough without the added weight of spears or swords, and she’d never been much of an archer.

The war drake pawed at the inside of the room, snagging her hammock, and yanking it to the ground. The blade-like claws missed her retreating form by a finger span, and she held her breath, weighing the odds of dealing a killing blow before its claws ripped out her throat. Not high, she had to admit. The beast could smell that she was just out of reach, judging by the guttural noises that escaped its throat, but sooner or later its claws would snag on her bad leg and reel her to her death.

Yala backed into the furthest corner of the cabin, uttering a silent reprimand towards her past self for her indifference towards security. Nobody ever came out here, and the room was the perfect size for one person who didn’t want to limp too far to reach anything—but now, her only means of escape was through the jungle. Despite the thick trees impeding the beast’s motions, the chances of evading its sharp claws were stacked against her.

Wood cracked and splintered as the war drake’s clawed foot delved further into the room. Yala threw herself flat to avoid being impaled, a motion that drew a protesting ache from her leg. Gripping the dagger, she drove the point of the blade upward and into the joint between two of the beast’s clawed toes.

A snarl escaped the war drake, but to a beast of that size, such a wound was little more than the prick of a needle. Yanking the dagger out, she bit back a gasp when the heel of the war drake’s foot struck her chin. Stars winked before her eyes like a fireworks display, and hot blood trickled down her chin. Staggering to her feet, she gripped the wall with one hand as she made her way around the beast’s flailing foot.

The scraping noises around the window grew louder as the beast shoved more of its huge body inside the cabin. The wood was sturdy enough, but it would eventually give under the creature’s weight; she’d once seen a rampaging war drake tear its way through a wooden fence when it had escaped its paddock. Such incidents were rare, but it wasn’t unheard of for one to escape into the countryside, indiscriminately slaughtering livestock and humans alike.

On the other hand, they didn’t generally wander into the jungle, and she’d moved as far as possible from the paddocks in which the military’s war drakes had once been kept. The beast couldn’t possibly know a former rider lived inside the cabin, but Yala had to admire the irony in meeting her end at the sharp claws of one of the beasts that had once been at the centre of her world.

Holding herself flat against the wall, Yala edged towards the wooden door and leaned against the handle until it gave way, enabling her to step out into the humid heat of the jungle. Hoping the constant sounds of insects buzzing and birds’ cries in the treetops obscured her clumsy feet, she backed out of the cabin’s shadow.

Yala could imagine how her squad members would react to her standing within reach of an enraged war drake without any means of defending herself, but despite it all, a curious part of her wanted to see if it had ever worn a heavy iron chain around its neck. War drakes weren’t loyal to a single rider—or anyone for that matter—but years of training left a mark that was not so easily forgotten.

She couldn’t tell if this one was old enough to have flown in the war; its wings were bunched behind its back, its rear claws digging into the undergrowth while its front claws ripped their way into the cabin like a child opening a gift. The reptile might never have been one of hers, yet she didn’t want to slay the beast if she could help it. It was only obeying its instincts, and after the king had dismantled the flight division, the war drakes might have found themselves as confused as she and her squad had been. They’d originally been from the vast plains and mountains of the northern continent, some five hundred years or more back, and the modern world contained few habitats suitable for beasts bred in captivity for war. 

Even the wilder jungle in Laria’s south could little accommodate their large wingspans and huge feet. Low-hanging branches scraped against the drake’s sloping, horned head as a growl slipped between its sharp teeth. Its pitted eyes were fixed on the cabin, but she knew that if she fled, its sharp ears would hear her uneven steps wading through the thick undergrowth. The ground in front of her cabin was flatter, softer, and enabled her to tread silently until she stood in the beast’s immediate shadow. 

Given its hunched position, she didn’t need a stirrup to mount the beast, and if she sat on its back, it would be less likely to take off one of her limbs. Her leg would be an impediment, but the motions were drilled into her bones. She moved carefully, the cool mud sucking at her feet and a thin sheen of sweat gathering beneath the curls on the back of her neck.

As the beast shifted, one of its wings opened a little and forced her to come to a sudden halt. The war drake’s sharp ears picked up on the sound, and its head swung to the side, pinning her to the spot.

Heart in her throat, she met its eyes as a rider would have. “I’m not your prey. This is my home, and I’d appreciate it if you left me in peace.”

The drake couldn’t understand her, of course, but the sight of the deep scars on either side of its neck—the marks of the chain it had once worn—sent a thrill through her. It had been trained by a handler, and despite the years that had elapsed, it would still recognise certain commands.

“Stay,” she warned, suffusing her voice with the steely calm she’d employed as a rider. “Stay.”

Yanking its claws free from the cabin, the beast roared. Or maybe not. Yala threw herself to the ground and rolled under its scaled body, then crawled into the thicker undergrowth on the cabin’s other side. She’d dropped her cane, but when she groped around in the bushes, she found a loose stone instead, which she palmed. When the beast began sniffing at the undergrowth in search of its escaped prey, she took aim and tossed the stone at a nearby tree.

The war drake’s head spun towards the noise, allowing her the chance to crawl into a more dignified position. Her leg protested the abuse, but no sooner had she reached for a low-hanging branch to pull herself to her feet than the beast swung its tail around, shaking the undergrowth and causing her to lose her footing. 

As she landed on her back, a wild impulse drove Yala to reach up and wrap both arms around the beast’s scaly tail, using the momentum to swing both of her legs off the ground. 

Clinging to the war drake’s tail like a sloth to a branch was the sort of reckless manoeuvre that would have earned her a week cleaning out the paddocks as punishment when she’d been a novice, but there was nobody here to shout recriminations or yank the war drake’s chain to stop it from biting off her face. Instead, a sideways clamber brought her into a sitting position upon the beast’s tail. 

The war drake snarled at its unwanted passenger and lashed its tail again, but she held fast, using the swaying motion to claw her way up the ridges lining its spine. In less time than she’d expected, she reached a sitting position with her knees on either side of its thick neck.

“This familiar to you?” she hissed into its ear. “You’ve had a human on your back before, haven’t you? Many times.” 

Scales scraped against her legs through the thin fabric of her trousers, reminding her that if the beast decided to take her for a flight, she’d suffer a lot of pain. Her old drakeskin trousers were somewhere in the mess the beast had left of her cabin, along with the gloves she’d worn to protect herself from its sharp teeth. A growl rippled through her mount’s heavy body, and it beat its wings as if to dislodge her.

Perhaps she’d put too much stock in its instincts submitting to the memory of its former handlers, but she had one last trick up her sleeve. Leaning forward, Yala pressed the point of the dagger to the vulnerable skin of the underside of its neck.

“Feel that?” she whispered in its ear. “It’s not easy to kill one of you on the battlefield, but everyone who’s ever fought in the flight division knows your weak spots.”

Unlike a war drake equipped for battle, this one wore no armoured plates. If she stabbed it in the neck, it would bleed out … eventually. Whether it’d perish before it ripped out her throat was debatable, but while the beast didn’t understand human speech, the sharp point of the dagger against its neck spoke for itself. 

“Keep still,” she crooned in its ear, affecting the tone she’d used when breaking in a new mount. “Hold.”

The beast shifted, its wings bunching behind its back as it sat to attention. A rush of triumph seized her, vanishing an instant later. She might sit on the back of a war drake as if nothing had changed, but she was older and achier, and the beast had ruined her fucking house.

“We’re the same, really,” she said to the war drake. “Sorry to say that I don’t have any of that fancy spiced meat Commander Sranak used to feed you. I won’t let you feed on the nice humans who live near me, so you’ll have to go and find prey somewhere else.”

The war drake’s body vibrated with a growl, but it didn’t move. Someone trained it well. She tentatively squeezed her legs around its neck but didn’t give the command to fly. As much as she’d missed the sensation of soaring over the open sea, it wasn’t worth risking a grim fall to her death for the sake of a cheap thrill.

The beast growled, wings bunching as if to take off despite her unvoiced command. Inspiration struck, and she hastily swung her good leg over its side before giving the order. “Fly.”

As Yala slid to the ground, she tried to angle herself so that her good leg took her weight. The impact jarred her wound regardless, but the war drake ignored her muffled oath and launched into flight.

Branches tangled in its wings as the war drake crashed through the canopy, leaving a trail of broken trees in its wake. The air currents stirred up by its flight broke through the humid heat of the jungle like sun through clouds, bringing the bittersweet memory of Yala’s first time watching a war drake in flight. She’d been unpacking her meagre belongings in the barracks on the day of her arrival when she’d heard the cry and stuck her head out of the window in time to catch the gust of wind rippling from the practise field. She’d laughed in delighted surprise as the cool air whipped her hair back, the majestic sight of the winged beast carrying its rider captivating her attention.

Even subsequent less-than-pleasant experiences of watching riders lose limbs to sharp claws or fall to their deaths hadn’t erased the simple thrill of the moment, which in hindsight, ought to have been a sign of her fate. Those who gladly walked in the jaws of death had no place in the current state of Laria. 

Yala returned to her cabin and swore at the mess the drake had left behind. The simple task of finishing her nap would be impossible until she disentangled what was left of her hammock from beneath her upended belongings.

Retirement, she reflected, was not as sublime as she’d been led to believe.

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