Insider 05-27-2016

Sneak Preview: Flashpoint
The next offering from Skull Island eXpeditions takes you into a new era. With the release of the new editions, we jump forward to 611 AR, to a time when the lay of the land is changing quickly. In this exclusive excerpt from the first book in the new Acts of War series, Aeryn Rudel’s Flashpoint , old enemies threaten a new peace.

Flashpoint will be prereleased at Lock & Load GameFest 2016, June 10–12, and available in both print and digital formats in late June!

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Author Aeryn Rudel will attend Lock & Load GameFest 2016, June 10–12, to sign prerelease copies of Flashpoint! He joins author Douglas Seacat (The Blood of Kings) for this limited engagement!

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North of Corvis

The Glimmerwood was a thick tangle of gnarled oaks and elms, stretching far to the east. It was a wild place between the nations of Llael and Cygnar and the barren stretches of The Bloodstone Marches to the east. Tribes of trollkin still lived in these woods, and the proud warrior race had had a patchy history with Cygnar, but Stryker didn’t expect an attack from them. Other, more feral creatures were said to dwell in the Glimmerwood, but Stryker’s forces were too large in number to present a tempting target for a raiding band of Tharn. What, then, had him so unnerved? He couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something as they approached the edge of the woods.

The king and half his Storm Knights had extended the distance between them and Stryker’s portion of the column, though they were still too close for Stryker’s liking. If there was an attack, he wanted to take the brunt of it before the rest of his men arrived.

The road they were following, hard-packed earth that provided stable footing for both soldiers and warjacks, ran close to the Black River. It narrowed considerably against the encroaching presence of the Glimmerwood, as if the ancient forest were trying to devour the road.

Soon enough, they’d be forced into a narrow column, no more than thirty feet between the river and the edge of the forest. All eyes were on the gloom amongst the trees, searching for movement. Stryker let his senses drift into Ol’ Rowdy, giving himself a better vantage point from ten feet off the ground.
There was nothing . . . then a flash of white, and Stryker’s muscles tensed. What came next was no surprise, and he swiftly summoned his magic to cast a protective field of energy over himself and the Storm Knights nearest him. The sight of the runes forming around his body was more than enough to alert his men that battle was imminent, yet he shouted the order anyway. “ Storm Knights, form ranks!”

There were fifty Storm Knights in the forward part of the column and another fifty farther back, guarding the king. The men around him quickly formed a line, their storm glaives projecting toward the trees, a deadly hedge crackling with voltaic energy. Stryker was at its center with Rowdy next to him, the big warjack pounding his hammer into his open fist, nearly quivering with excitement for what was coming.

“Steady!” Tews called out from where he stood near Stryker.

The forest suddenly came alive with white shadows and the telltale snap of crossbow strings hitting their prods, then a hail of bolts burst from the trees.
Stryker had expected the Storm Knights nearest him would be protected by his spell, but the bolts were neither slowed nor deflected by magic.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of his knights fall forward. A crossbow bolts had found its mark. Whoever was attacking them was skilled enough to find the weak points in a Stormblade’s armor.

“Fire!” Stryker shouted. His Storm Knights thumbed the firing studs on the hafts of their storm glaives, and bolts of electricity arced into the trees. They were firing blind, but Stryker still heard screams of pain from the forest.

The wooded area then disgorged dozens of white-armored warriors wielding wide slashing swords and carrying shields bearing the loop and cross icon of the Menofix, the holy symbol of the god Menoth. These were knights of the Protectorate, the theocratic nation east of Cygnar, which had recently expanded into northern Llael. Stryker had no time to consider their presence here as they slammed into his line of Storm Knights with a clatter of steel on steel.
Rage and disgust boiled up within him. He’d fought these zealots many times, and their blind and violent adherence to their religion had cost many lives.
He met a charging knight with Quicksilver, knocking askew the Protectorate warrior’s sword thrust with his much-heavier blade, then riposting and bringing Quicksilver down in a powerful slashing arc. The heavy blade ripped through the enemy knight’s breastplate, splitting him to the breastbone. The knight was dead on his feet, and Stryker shoved the body away.

He reached out to Rowdy and sent the warjack charging into the middle of the enemy, swinging his quake hammer in wide arcs. There was no deflecting such a blow, and Protectorate knights were smashed away, their armor crushed, their bodies broken. Stryker glanced to both his left and right; his Storm Knights were not faring well. The Protectorate warriors were skilled, and their light quick blades were finding the gaps in Stormblade armor.

Tews was shouting and slashing with his storm glaive. He cut down a Protectorate knight then killed another with a blast of electricity.
Rowdy was taking damage, but so far it was light, and armored corpses were piling up around the big warjack’s feet.

Stryker was about to move to Tews’ position when two thin, curling plumes of smoke appeared above the tree line. That meant only one thing: warjacks. The Protectorate ’jacks burst from the forest some thirty yards from Stryker’s position. They were smaller than Rowdy, their armor painted white and red, Menofixes prominent on their hulls. The two warjacks gripped long slashing blades in each fist and moved quickly and gracefully. Worse, they were not alone.
The man who emerged from the forest behind the warjacks wore little armor, and his massive upper torso was naked, exposing slabs of muscle and scar tissue. His face was obscured by a golden mask, and he carried a long, heavy flail in one hand, the bulk of its chain wrapped around his arm. Stryker knew him: he was Amon Ad-Raza, a warcaster like himself and one of the Protectorate’s deadliest fighters.

The reason for the attack was painfully clear. Peace between Cygnar and Khador would mean either or both nations could turn their attention to a mutual foe: the Protectorate of Menoth. This would threaten the Protectorate’s holdings in Llael. Cygnar had considered that the Protectorate might answer the treaty in some way, but an attack on the road, so close to the border of Cygnar and against the king himself, had been the least likely.

Stryker had listened to his instincts, which had led him safely though more danger than he could remember. The king was not in the forward part of the column where Amon-Ad Raza had likely assumed he would be. The Protectorate warcaster had tipped his hand too early, and it gave Stryker a chance.
He looked back to where the king was positioned about fifty yards from Stryker’s own position; the storm knights had formed a protective ring around him, storm glaives in a lethal wall.

Stryker focused his attention back on his immediate surroundings, cut down another enemy knight charging at him, and summoned Rowdy to his position. He’d need the big Ironclad to handle the enemy warjacks. He felt Rowdy’s eagerness and then the warjack’s thundering footfalls as he raced toward Stryker.
Amon Ad-Raza had engaged the nearest Storm Knights, and his warjacks scythed through them in a flurry of steel and blood. Stryker charged forward, heedless of the enemy, cutting them down when they got in his way or letting Rowdy smash them aside.

Amon looked in his direction as Stryker approached, and bright yellow spell runes formed around the Protectorate warrior’s heavy fist. Scorching heat surrounded Stryker as the spell took effect, and his power field flared as it tried to compensate. His warcaster armor ended up taking the brunt of it, and the heated steel scorched the skin on his arms and legs. He gritted his teeth through the pain and ran, summoning a spell of his own. Lightning shot forth from his outstretched hand, a fan of blue-white energy that lanced toward his foe. Amon was unencumbered by armor, and his training with the monastic Order of the Fist made him incredibly nimble. He leapt away from the lightning, avoiding the bolts with what looked like childish ease.

The Storm Knights behind Stryker were still battling the Protectorate knights, and those ahead were trying to fend off Amon’s warjacks. Stryker ordered Rowdy at the enemy ’jacks while he pursued Amon. The thrilling sensation of the Ironclad’s first blow with his quake hammer came through their connection, followed by Rowdy’s satisfaction as the first Protectorate warjack’s hull crumpled.

Stryker was twenty feet from his enemy when Amon snapped his flail forward, the heavy ball at the end coming at Stryker like a great golden meteor. He twisted to the side, and the weapon missed him by mere inches. Amon snapped his arm back. The weapon returned to him.
Stryker was now close enough to lash out with Quicksilver. He was fast and skilled, and he’d channeled his will into the blow, but Amon danced away. Quicksilver struck empty air.

Again, Amon’s flail whipped toward him. This time Stryker attempted to knock it away with his weapon. He succeeded—partially. He smashed the head of the flail off line, but it still struck him a glancing blow and sent him staggering back, his breastplate dented above his abdomen.

Amon looked to where the rest of the Cygnaran forces were advancing up the road. He clearly realized his target was not where he’d initially thought. Stryker attempted to close again, and Amon sent his chain flail arcing in his direction. This time, Stryker stood his ground and held Quicksilver up in front of him. He sidestepped as the head of the flail sped toward him, and he slashed at the chain connecting it to Amon. The consecrated steel was too strong to cut, but the blow changed the direction of the flail’s head so that it wrapped around Quicksilver. The force of it nearly tore the weapon from Stryker’s grasp. But he had Amon’s flail pinned, though the Protectorate warcaster would yank it free any second. Stryker depressed the firing stud on the base of Quicksilver’s hilt, triggering its voltaic blast. Lightning arced up into the sky and along the flail’s chain, its metal haft held in Amon’s right hand.

Amon’s body went rigid as the galvanic energy raced through his body. The effect would not be enough to kill the warcaster or even cause him lasting harm, but it gave Stryker the opening he needed. He shook free of Amon’s flail and charged forward, leveling a wide, sweeping cut at his foe. Amon had recovered enough, but his reactions were slowed. He tried to spin away from Stryker’s blade a fraction of a second too slowly. The tip of Quicksilver bit into Amon’s side. Though Amon wore no armor, Stryker’s blow encountered resistance as if he were. The strange ways of the Order of the Fist protected their bodies from harm. Still, the blade connected, cut flesh, and ribs snapped beneath its impact.

Amon stumbled away, jerking his flail behind him. Blood ran down his side, but Stryker could not tell the extent of the injury. He took a moment to check on Rowdy. Through the warjack’s eyes, he saw that both Protectorate ’jacks were down, destroyed by Rowdy and the concentrated attacks of the remaining Storm Knights.

Stryker turned back to Amon, ready for another attack, but the Protectorate warcaster inclined his head toward Stryker.
“Do not think this is over, Lord General,” he said, his voice deep but still distant behind his mask. “You cannot stem the tide of those who follow the True Law, no matter what alliances you make.”

Before Stryker could reply, Amon turned and sprinted back into the Glimmerwood, one hand clamped to his injured side. He disappeared into the tangled gloom of the forest in seconds. Amon had confirmed the reason behind the attack, as Stryker had suspected. Yet there was nothing he could do with the information now, and what remained of the Protectorate knights were falling back. He heard Tews giving the order to let them go.
Stryker drew in a deep breath and let his body relax, let the adrenaline rush leak out of him. Tews moved to join him. “How bad?” Stryker said to the Stormblade captain.

Tews shook his head. “Hard to tell yet. At least five dead, ten more wounded. I assume the scouts we sent ahead are dead as well.”
“Damn it,” Stryker said under his breath. It was the price of command. Even victory cost you something.
The rest of the Cygnaran forces had reached them, led by Captain Kara Sloan. The warcaster was tall and thin, with short- blonde hair and a spray of freckles across her nose. She carried a mechanika long rifle in both hands. Stryker had fought alongside Kara many times, and he knew she could be relied on to wreak havoc with her weapon.

“Lord General,” Kara said, “the king is safe. I advised he stay behind.”
“Thank you, Captain Sloan,” he said. “I think we’re done here. Bring more men up to see to the dead and wounded.”
“Was that Amon Ad-Raza?” she said, her eyes wide.
Stryker nodded. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
“What in Morrow’s name was he doing here?”
Stryker offered her a tired smile. “Failing to kill our king.”