Apex Rising (Talker, #1) by Tom Wright - Read Online
Apex Rising (Talker, #1)
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Summary

An action-packed action book of action, Apex Rising is a popcorn fantasy with a hard-magic system.

Revenge, power, and love in a world where men and women commune with animals.

Revenge: After a treacherous attack, former spymaster Katria promises to find who betrayed her. The thought that keeps her going, night and day, is vengeance.

Power: Unbeknownst to Prince Neru, Katria still lives. In her absence, he struggles to help a far-off village in his kingdom. He placates his father, the king, but knows his people live under the brutality of the Apex.

The Apex movement gains ground, openly recruiting and openly attacking.

As Neru races to stop the Apex, Katria moves against her past enemies. Political turmoil erupts into bloodshed. Constant danger looms over the kingdom.

Love: Against the odds, each must complete their deadly tasks to ever see the other alive again.

Check the back of the book for a link to a free short story in the Apex Rising universe.

Published: Moonlight Crew Publishing on
ISBN: 9781498910309
List price: $2.99
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Apex Rising (Talker, #1) - Tom Wright

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Chapter 1

I knew you’d come, Katria, said a man holding a torch. He drew his massive shoulders back and puffed out his chest, drawing up to his full, impressive height. He stood in the middle of the torch-lit building, a cocky smile on his face. The sounds of water lapping against the docks whispered through the walls. You never could leave a secret alone.

Lor, Katria said, startled. Here goes nothing. Looks like I’m early. I meant to listen in on you and whoever’s planning to kill the king. Unfortunately, I’ll just be reporting on you tonight. You’ll never leave the city alive. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn yourself in, said Katria.

Lor grunted a laugh as he stepped nearer the walls of the shed. Why would I want the king dead? He laughed again, humorlessly. I don’t want to kill the king. Just his spymaster.

Katria narrowed her eyes, as a spike of fear pulsed through her insides.

I won’t leave the city alive? Lor laughed softly. You’ll be dead before the night is out.

Katria fixed her face into a calm, amused smile to keep her fear from showing. She never trained in combat; she worked in the shadows. When she faced danger before, her rats had always known what to do. Her strength was strategy, like the mchezo board. Images of the game swam through her thoughts as she resolved on a strategy. A simple swarm of rats would solve this problem, despite any snakes Lor had at his disposal.

Lor, you can’t win here. My rats will overpower your snakes. This place is suited to my familiars, and we will carry the day. Give it up. Or better, run away. Maybe you do stand a chance of fleeing the city alive.

Her mind raced as she tried to talk her way out of a fight. Initially, she wanted to arrest Lor. Her plan was to interrogate him for information on conspiracies against the king. Now, she only cared to leave alive.

Lor edged around her, moving toward the wall. When he blocked the door, Katria sent rats to look for other ways out of the warehouse. They treaded carefully to avoid the wet pitch that covered the walls and ground. The straw strewn all about did little to soak the pitch up.

She stepped over a puddle of the black liquid while keeping an eye on her enemy.

I don’t need to fight you, just keep you from getting away, said Lor.

***

From the roof of the building across from the warehouse, two men and a woman waited. They dressed in dark, form-fitting clothes, blending in with the night. The woman struck a piece of flint over pitch-covered straw, sparking a small fire to life. The men dipped their arrows into the pitch, then held them into the flame, catching the tips alight. The arrowheads flared brightly, casting out the shadows on the men’s’ faces. They kept the arrows low, so only flickers would be visible from over the lip of the roof. One of the men whispered through his crooked jaw, running his hand through his thin hair. Why don’t we just kill her? We can go down there right now with Lor and see to the job ourselves.

The other man spoke in a quiet but firm tone. We are seeing to this job ourselves. You don’t need to know the details, just that it’s safer this way.

The first man grunted. The woman pocketed the flint, her dark face showing easily in the fire’s light. Her eye gleamed as she spoke. Have you ever faced a cornered rat? I saw a rat kill a grown cat once. Frankly, it was terrifying just how vicious it got when it realized it was trapped. It’s better this way, and there isn’t a chance of anyone seeing something they shouldn’t.

After a moment’s hesitation, the first man nodded.

The other man growled in his throat when he saw motion out of the corner of his eye. There’s the signal. Shoot the grain, now!

He whispered the last in a hoarse voice as he raised his own bow, sighted, fired, and reached for another flaming arrow.

***

Katria thought quickly as she listened to Lor, assessing the situation. Why a torch? Why not a lamp? As her rats continued their search for an exit, Lor suddenly waved his torch overhead. Katria squinted, trying to see past the light of the torch into the darkness beyond. A flickering movement was her only warning as two burning arrows came from above. One struck a bale of hay next to a grain shed, and the other pierced through the back of Lor’s neck, sprouting out the front. Lor shuddered and dropped, his torch rolling out of his hand, lighting the hay strewn about the floor.

Katria looked to the door to see if she could flee, but more arrows came shooting into the door frame, their flames licking up the sides and spreading as she watched. She crawled over to Lor, keeping a low profile so she did not meet the traitor’s same end. She pulled Lor away from the doorway, using the shed wall for cover against the incoming arrows. Lor’s snakes writhed wildly, sensing their Talker’s impending doom. They lashed about, even biting each other.

A dark thought entered Katria’s mind. Lor. Lor! Who is behind this? Did the king send you? Lor? Lor!

It was too late. Even if he were conscious, Lor would not have been able to speak with his throat destroyed. Katria felt a stinging pain in her arm. She swatted at a biting snake, hoping it was not poisonous. She received sendings from her rats; the only exit was the way they came in. Their terror filled her thoughts, terror of the fire, and the madly slithering snakes, biting at any moving thing. Her rats’ lives blinked out in her mind, awash with the agony of flame.

The whole building caught fire, not just the entrance. Her thoughts raced wildly. The building is catching way too fast. Must’ve lit the sides of the warehouse, too. But even then it should not have lit so fast. She cursed as she realized: The wet pitch covered with straw. Someone prepared this place to burn.

Ladders and stairs leading up to the walkways above caught fire. She hacked and coughed, smoke filling her lungs, making her lightheaded. She cut a piece of her tunic, holding it over her nose and mouth, breathing through it to keep the smoke out. Her thoughts came together only disjointedly now. Lor was a guard, too low ranked to be a large part of any conspiracy. The king. The king set me up. Her mind flashed to the king’s words earlier that day, asking Katria to look into a plot against him. But who else? The king could have just killed me, instead of staging… all this.

The snapping snakes got her thoughts back to the present. Through hard experience, she learned not to assume that each familiar belonged to the Talker she could see.

She could not see through the thick, black smoke, and her rats were not in any condition to help. She could barely control her own mind through the waves of her rats’ terror as they ran from flames and snakes. She knelt down, stretching her hands out desperately, blindly. The cloth fell from her face. It wasn’t doing much good anyway, she thought, as she started coughing anew. She grabbed at anything she could find, hoping to come across a rope or ladder still intact enough to help her climb to the second story. If I can get to the roof, I’ll jump into the water from there.

Katria caught several snakes by accident, feeling their tiny fangs prick her while they continued the dance of death. Even the pain of fire did not stop the madness of Talker death. She ventured further into the boiling building. She could not use the flaming ladders. Even if they did not burn her, they would break now that they were weakened by the fire. Amazingly, miraculously, she saw what she needed: a coiled rope, longer than a man’s height, sitting in front of her. Taking her only chance, she picked it up with both hands to swing it over a railing above. Her shouts of exhilaration turned to yelps of pain when the rope struck her suddenly. Her hazy vision did not register that the rope was instead a snake until it was already coiled around her leg, sinking its fangs into her side. The monstrous snake bit at her repeatedly as she pushed it frantically away.

I need a window or opening or grain chute… something… anything, she thought. The snake stopped fighting, going limp around her leg as the searing heat proved too much for it. Katria dropped to the burning floor as the snake flopped away, burns spreading up and down its sinuous body.

Several of her rats pushed through the walls despite the fire, chewing frantically. She saw through rats’ bulging eyes the flames surrounding the warehouse, catching fire to neighboring buildings. Whoever set her up certainly knew what they were doing. Rats that normally could not be kept in an enclosed area burned and died where wet pitch coated their little forms. She found hope in the few that escaped to the street. She considered trying the front entrance again, making her way back through the flames, using quick, jerky movements. She discarded the idea when her rats reported incoming flaming arrows. Her gaze darted about, searching for any hope of escape.

A sharp pain filled her lower leg, dropping her to the ground. Flames licked out, burning her clothes. Agony coursed through her, sheets and waves of it. She ripped off her tunic, kicking it away as it burned brightly. With no air left and no hope, Katria half-crawled and half-stumbled forward. She managed to stand briefly, then pitched forward into a wall. She could not feel the pain of crashing through it, nor the exhilaration of the quick fall through space. She could only feel instant relief as she toppled into the water below the docks, and then she could not feel anything.

***

The attackers stood panting on the rooftop, winded from running and jumping from roof to roof, firing blazing arrows at each side of the building.

Let’s get back. I don’t want anyone seeing us.

The other warehouses are burning, too. Look, even a ship caught fire! The man with the crooked jaw spoke between quick breaths. And that whole dock is caught up.

The other two glanced at each other, the woman nodding to the man. He drew his dagger silently. In a single, fluid motion, he slid it across his companion’s throat. The man with the crooked jaw reeled for a second before slumping to the roof, clutching his hands around his throat.

Like I said, let’s get back. No one’s around yet, but they’ll show up soon.

Lor won’t tell anyone about this, and now he won’t either. The woman indicated their fallen companion, who struggled to breathe. Let’s go report to Fala.

The fire blazed along the street like a beacon in the night sky. Shouts of alarm sounded from all directions. No one heard or saw two people leap from a rooftop to an alleyway, and then disappear into the darkness.

Three years later

Chapter 2

I will not court Fala, Neru said to his father. It would be a disservice to the kingdom. Not to mention myself. He picked up his Apex piece on the mchezo board, but set it back down, choosing to move his flanker instead. I can’t tell if he’s serious, or trying to distract me from the game.

King Marak shook his head. And how is that? Fala is a powerful woman. Just look how fast she rose to captain the Red Swords unit. She can be queen over a people. Her service to this kingdom, and our family, is unparalleled.

She is not a leader, father. She is a boor, and would lord over this people. You with your elephants created roads, making the world a better place for our people. Fala is more likely to destroy things than create.

Being a Lion Talker doesn’t cause aggression. He studied the board while they talked, and he moved his Apex piece out of danger. He was a brilliant tactician. Playing the game with him was like coordinating troop movements in a battle against a master general. Neru was hard-pressed for any victory against him.

It’s not her familiar. It’s her. She is as oily as an eel, and slimier than a snake.

Snakes aren’t slimy. Eels aren’t oily. And neither is Fala. Consider my advice. Perhaps with her familiars, an heir you produce will have a strong familiar.

Hours later, Neru’s conversation with his father was still replaying in his mind as he sat amongst his hummingbirds, watching them flit between the buds and flowers of his father’s garden. He felt their presence in his mind. He tried to wall off his own emotions from them, but was not always successful. They responded to his annoyance with his father.

His connection to hummingbirds was difficult to explain to others. Everyone perceived their familiars differently. Some claimed a measure of control over the animals bonded into their minds. For him, an omnipresent sense of the hummingbirds played in his mind, receiving their sendings as a collective whole of information. He could not control them, but they typically responded to his sendings. His thoughts communicated specific desires to them. Unfortunately, that meant he could not hide his feelings from them. So they felt his intense frustration at his father.

Neru cleared his mind. Sitting cross-legged, he ran through practice drills with his familiars, sending each where he willed. Only after Katria disappeared had he taken his father’s advice to train with the palace weapons master. He did not have much time to pursue his training, but three years was long enough to develop an aptitude for his own style. He did not have martial skills; instead, he used his familiars as weapons. His hummingbirds harried opponents, or stabbed with their beaks. Luckily, he had never needed to use his training in a real-life combat situation.

He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, while his familiars reverted to their natural behavior. Sometimes I wish I had trained with weapons. It must be pretty satisfying to take out your frustration on the training grounds. And maybe Father would take me seriously then. He smiled ruefully and shook his head, standing to walk under the hot sun. Probably not. But I do need to act, and not wait for something to react to.

It was not just the king. It seemed everyone felt like he needed to be sheltered, taken care of. He would be king one day, the most powerful man of the realm, but his father kept him from making his own choices now.

His thoughts wandered while he paced the length of the gardens. Has it only been three years since Katria and I played mchezo here? He still felt a pang of sadness when he came to the gardens. He and Katria had been best friends for years while she worked for his father. He had fallen in love with her, but never had the courage to say so. He would often meet Katria to play mchezo, depending on how busy she was, and whether or not his father was around. The king largely disapproved of him spending time with Katria, but he assured him repeatedly that they were only friends, despite his feelings.

His father planned a political marriage for Neru. Any of the neighboring kingdoms would do. To avoid an argument, Neru tried to ease the king’s concerns that he would marry elsewhere. Whatever happened to that plan? His mother and father married for political alliance, so Neru expected the same his whole life. So why the push to consider Fala? he mused.

Katria used to match wits with him those few years back. A large part of his upbringing was based on mchezo, and his father taught him to study the game until he mastered it. Even though Katria did not have the formal training of the game, she won nearly half of the time. And she never let me win. She never felt like I needed any sheltering. He missed her, not realizing until she was gone how deeply his feelings had developed.

Neru courted different women from time to time, mostly to appease his father. It helped that it kept Fala from approaching him, sometimes. If Katria were here now, would we have tried something together? Father would have put up a fuss, but common people have married into the royal family before. Not very often, but it’s happened. As spymaster, Katria commanded the respect necessary to make such a move. But she was probably dead. He had not seen Katria since the day of the massive fire on the docks. He had engaged in long, drawn-out arguments with his father for weeks over searching for Katria, but the king had immediately appointed new spymasters. Neru couldn’t help but feel suspicious of his father for dismissingKatria’s disappearance so readily.

He pinched his lips together, focusing. Fala was the problem now. It was not too hard to see her interest was not only in him, if she was interested in him at all. No, in marrying him she would become the next queen when his father passed on to Asili. She did not have the abilities of an Elephant Talker like Marak, but she was a formidable opponent in battle. Additionally, Fala had the support of her fellow Red Swords, all of whom were combat trained as warriors. Their familiars were fierce as well and could be counted on in a fight.

Fala could be a capable queen, he thought. But a terrible companion.

Chapter 3

Do you yield? Katria rasped, breathing heavily, rivulets of sweat running down her body. She was so damaged that parts of her body could not sweat at all. That she sweated this much was a testament to the difficulty of her training.

I yield, said Nalia. Katria lowered her staff and moved to help Nalia. Suddenly, a flurry of spitting anger set upon Katria. Nalia’s cat attacked and Katria whirled her staff defensively, but too late. The cat was inside the reach of her staff, racing up her clothing, claws tearing through and sinking into flesh. She could barely feel them at all, but that did not stop the danger. A flash of rage built up in Katria. She roared while trying, unsuccessfully, to knock the deranged animal from her body. She tried to calm her rage, but was too late; another cat joined the fray.

I yield, called Nalia again, but my cats don’t. At this, the cat stopped short of clawing at Katria’s face. Both of the fierce animals leapt down to the ground. Had the cat hit any faster, Katria might have fallen to the ground. Wild cats of the savanna were small, but packed a punch. They could leap higher than Katria’s head from a sitting crouch. They blended in with their surroundings, moving invisibly at their whim. Her rats had constant problems with Nalia’s cats.

Katria heard scuffling and noticed more cats around her, cats who would have made short work of her had Nalia not impressed upon them to lay off. Nalia was already on her feet, approaching Katria.

Katria.

I know, I know, she said.

Then you should practice it. What do I always say?

Katria sighed. People in a hurry make mistakes?

Nalia chuckled. Nice try. What else do I always say?

Angry people make mistakes.

Rage gives you power, but steals your focus. Focus, precision, the ability to think, all of these are more important than power.

I know, Nalia. I’m sorry. Already, Katria’s rapidly beating heart slowed, even though she was still mad about Nalia’s cats’ surprise attack.

You know I can tell when you’re still angry. Well, here’s another lesson you need pounded into your head: Your opponents will not yield. They will not fight fairly. And they will use their familiars. You must use yours, too.

They aren’t a match for wildcats.

You talk like someone from the Apex. Your rats-

I do not talk like anybody from the Apex. I am telling you a fact, not some crazy political nonsense. My rats-

Can do amazing things, interrupted Nalia. Amazing things. Your rats are very capable. Or they would be, if you’d allow them to train. If you’d take some risks with them.

This was a familiar argument for Katria, but she could not change. After the attack that left her scarred forever, barely able to speak above a harsh, grating whisper, she awoke to loneliness. To the bitter, absolute silence in her mind. There were people around, but her mind was empty. She had bonded rats since then, hundreds of times. But in that first conscious moment after the attack, all she felt was a great nothingness in her mind. It changed her. She feared the change. She felt like a crazy woman must feel, a woman who sees things that are not really there, a woman who talks to people no one else can see.

Since the attack that left her so scarred, she tried to train with her rats again, as she had done for years in her service to the king. But something held her back. She had flashbacks of waking up on the fisherman’s boat, her voice practically destroyed, the agony of burns all over her body, and no rats around at all. Her nerves would get the better of her, and she lost every fight with Nalia then.

Your rats are fierce fighters. A cornered rat is a terrifying opponent. She is cunning and vicious. As are you, Katria. We can spar day after day, but your training is done. I haven’t been taken like that in years. With or without familiars involved.

Done? Katria asked, missing the high praise Nalia just gave her.

When you came here, you were a burnt husk of a woman, barely able to move. I have studied swordplay and combat for my whole life, but you beat me soundly. You are a match for me with the sword, with the spear, even with the bow and arrow. I admit you are better than I with the staff. Although I can still take you with daggers. We can train more with daggers, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need more training.

I’m… I’m not ready. Three years, and she still was not confident. The fire and attack were only partly to blame. The all-consuming silence when she reached out to her rats after the attack shook her more than