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A Wizard’s Sacrifice by A. M. Justice – Cover Reveal and Excerpt

Although my name—A. M. Justice—might imply I write detective fiction or Westerns, my particular authorial wheelhouse is science fantasy. I also contribute reviews of film, TV, and books to Fantasy-Faction, and I’m honored to lead the Faction’s SPFBO6 judges’ group. For all these reasons and more, I’m doubly honored that Fantasy-Faction is hosting the cover reveal for A Wizard’s Sacrifice, book two of the Woern Saga, which will be released on October 6, 2020.

I’m especially excited to reveal the cover for A Wizard’s Sacrifice here on Fantasy-Faction because some of the inspiration for the imagery came from the film Annihilation, which I reviewed on this site in March 2018.

Annihilation - Tessa Thompson

In the film, an invasive alien species causes a merging of plant and animal DNA, which turns people into human topiary, the beginnings of which can be seen here on Tessa Thompson’s arm.

In the Woern Saga, mergings between human plant life also occur, and intelligent, sentient trees frequently shape human destiny on both a personal and a societal level. In A Wizard’s Forge, book one of the Woern Saga, these sapient trees give Victoria of Ourtown a glimpse of her destiny during a vision quest. In the sequel, A Wizard’s Sacrifice, Vic’s arboreal interactions reveal the truth about her fate.

All these ideas—as well as branding considerations—went into the cover design of A Wizard’s Sacrifice. Fortunately, the same team behind the cover for A Wizard’s Forge was available: photographer/designer Steven Meyer-Rassow and model Michelle Duckett. In this first book, Vic’s empowerment comes after a lot of suffering, which we illustrated with fire, sparks, and molten metal on the cover:

A Wizard's Forge (cover)

The second book’s themes are equally dark, but the travails lead to not only death but growth and renewal, which we illustrated with an Annihilation-like union between Vic and her environment.

Conquering Fate Takes Sacrifice

Victoria of Ourtown believes two things: that the bright, wandering star in the heavens is an abandoned spacecraft which brought her ancestors to this world and that destiny and the will of gods are nonsense. Vic used to scoff at stories of wizards too, until she acquired their powers. Once a warrior, now a secret wizard, she just wants to live an ordinary life and find a way to atone for the mistakes she’s made.

Ashel of Narath knows that the wandering star is the god who created humanity, but this difference of opinion doesn’t stop him from loving Vic. All that keeps them apart is a thousand miles and a tragic loss.

Lornk Korng needs Vic and Ashel to execute his plans for conquest. The fact both want him dead is but a trifling snag in his schemes. A bigger problem are the world’s indigenous aliens and an ancient enemy whose victory could wipe out humankind.

As plots and counterplots clash across time, Vic and Ashel must choose their allies carefully, or risk losing not only each other but everything they know.

A gripping tale of wizardry, warfare, and moral dilemmas unspools in a breathtaking blend of fantasy and science fiction.

If the cover and blurb catch your attention, I hope the following excerpt will pique your interest. If it does, A Wizard’s Sacrifice is available for pre-order here, and you can check out the Goodreads page here.

For more information on me and my work, please visit my website or follow me on Twitter.

– – –

The set-up: Kiareinoll Fembrosh is the name of a vast forest that occupies most of the nation of Latha. In this chapter, Latha’s queen has ordered Vic (a former soldier) to go to the city of Mora and find Ashel, the queen’s son and Vic’s former suitor. They have received a message that Ashel is in trouble, but they don’t know the nature of the problem. Meanwhile, the queen’s enemy, Lornk Korng, has just escaped from prison with the help of the planet’s indigenous alien species, the Kragnashians.

Kiareinoll Fembrosh

A strange giddiness skipped alongside Vic as the road wound east through the Kiareinoll. Worry for Ashel shadowed her steps, but each footfall took her closer to a second chance. Despite all the ways she’d failed him, her heart thudded in anticipation of his dark eyes and the smile that would light them up. Whatever his trouble, they’d settle it, and then they could start over. She had the means, now. When she had stopped by the Cobblestone to say goodbye, Helara had surprised her with a Guildbond.

“That should buy you a good-sized house.”

Her eyes widen. “I’ve only been your apprentice for a few months!”

Helara winks. “Innkeeping isn’t magic. Keep the sheets clean, the tankards filled, and the books straight, and you’ll do fine.”

With the bond, she could buy an inn and a life. With Ashel. Anxious to reach Mora and find him, she searched the road for travelers. It was empty. Her feet left the ground. Warmth spread through her blood. Eyelids fluttered; her tongue kissed the edges of her teeth. The sweet decay of humus, the sharp tang of cerrenil flowers filled her lungs. The hues of the sky deepened, like a summer ocean overhead, and she rose above the canopy. A blue-green sea spread before her. Butterflies flitted among leaves and blossoms. The wind whispered a music of leaves, drummers, and gizzards. She felt alive, and she wanted a life. She shot forward, skimming treetops. Roosting birds squawked out of hidden nests, and her laughter whirled among the leaves in her wake.

The miles fell swiftly behind. She flew until a temple throbbed, walked until the pain eased, then flew again, straight across the expanse of Fembrosh, reveling in the unhindered use of her power and the speed it gave her. On the third day, a fiery dawn revealed the distant edge of the Kiareinoll and the yellow grasslands beyond. At this pace, she’d arrive in Mora in another day, two at most. A bank of storm clouds rolled toward her from the plains, but the Woern thrilled through her nerves, and she flew straight into the iron-colored mist. Thunder boomed, and lightning branded white shadows into her vision. Wind bailed rain. Clothing clammed to her shoulders, but the hairs on her arms stood straight and her cells brimmed with elation.

That the source of her power was an infection, not some mystical empowerment, reinforced everything she’d learned as a child. Humans had not emerged from an absurd union between a god and his harem of trees, but from the spacecraft Elesendar, the name nothing more than shorthand for the ship’s registry. Their arrival here the result of sabotage, the marooned Ancients had regarded their future with despair. Over time, the machines they brought from the spacecraft broke down and couldn’t be repaired. The technology disappeared. But the words—quantum mechanics, micromolecular manipulation—remained. In her youth as a Logkeeper, Vic had memorized them in hundreds of documents—her purpose to preserve them, not to understand them. As she rose now through the cold, blinding mist, electricity crackled around her. Quantum mechanics, micromolecular manipulation. Now she understood the words’ magic, if not their meaning.

Bursting into the sunlight, she sailed through a shifting maze of charcoal-colored hulks. It was cold as death, and each silver claw that jagged out of a thunderhead jolted pleasure through her flesh. Thunder shattered her ear drums, but the sizzle down her spine numbed the pain. She flew all day, fed by the storm, delighting in the electric thrill. Only when the sun slipped below the easternmost clouds did she descend to the forest floor. Suffused with bliss, she curled beneath a cerrenil and sank into oblivion.

A sledgehammer inside her skull woke her, and an evil brew bubbled out of her belly and spewed onto the moss. Wan daylight dribbled through the canopy; rain cascaded through sagging cerrenil limbs. She needed a dry place to rest until the pounding faded from her temple. Shivering in sodden garments, she stumbled through the trees, gathering fallen limbs and hoin fronds. A heaving stomach doubled her over; firewood tumbled across roots and grass. Panting, shaking, she erected her tent and piled branches over soggy kindling. Sparks from her tinder box fizzled in the soaked moss. Steeling herself, she drew upon the Woern. Pain seared her temples, and she fell back onto a cold, wet blanket.

The hammer blows to her temple held her stranded, and for a week, every drip through the waterlogged shelter saturated her heart with dread. Ashel was in trouble, possibly in danger. She needed to go to him. But all she could do was shiver and moan while the long, dull, lonely hours stoked her longing. She didn’t love him, but she loved his world of learned people who stayed up until dawn, banging fists on tables, pointing fingers, raising voices while they argued over minutia. Those debates were ridiculous and wonderful, and she loved how every evening ended with fond farewells, no matter how heated the arguments. She loved how he could make her giggle like a nitwit and how with him, she never felt foolish, even when acting the fool. She loved that he easily trounced her when they played chess or stones. She loved the tingle that raced to her heart when his fingers laced through hers, and when their lips met in a kiss . . .

That’s just the Woern. Shrinejumping parasites! An infection of the nervous system—the source of her power and her desire for a man she’d betrayed and abandoned.

You don’t love him, dammit. But she wanted him, and he needed her, and she was stuck in the mud because she’d thoughtlessly indulged in the transient pleasure conferred by the same parasite that drove her desire for him, and which would kill her sooner than later. The Elesendar was just an old abandoned spacecraft, but she prayed to it or fate or sheer damn luck that Ashel’s trouble wouldn’t bring him to harm before she could find him. For a week, in the rain, that was all she could do.

At last the throbbing in her temples receded, and she climbed a nearby promontory to get her bearings. Greens and blues carpeted the land in every direction. Dundlehead! She’d lost herself in the bloody storm and let it push her west, back into the middle of the Kiareinoll. She’d been almost to the edge of Fembrosh, and now she was hundreds of miles deep in its wilds. On foot, it would take a month to reach the forest edge. “A month!” she screamed aloud. A flock of warblers burst from a nearby tree, squawking and scolding, but that was the only answer to her frustration.

Trek east. That was all she could do. She slogged through soaked humus, clawed up slippery hillsides, slid down gullies into swollen streams. Her longing for dry feet rivaled her desire to find Ashel safe and sound, but the empty hulk circling the planet did absolutely nothing to stop the rain. Or fill her belly as one day flooded into another. Her provisions gone, she scrounged roots and sour green berries, hunted lizards and birds with her sling. Every attempt to use wizardry—for flight, fire, or forage—knocked her into the bush, retching up what little there was in her belly, so she relied on woodcraft as the weeks wore on.

And a little thievery. Wild cats prowled the forest, leaving well-stocked prey caches in sheltered hollows. The harrier she snagged was well worth a few red, angry scratches from wet, angry cats. After securing her prize and throwing off her spitting rivals, she climbed a tree to escape the muck, settled into the crook of a branch, and cracked the arthropod’s shell. Her fingers dug into sweet, buttery flesh, and she sighed with pleasure as the first mouthful slid down her throat. Harriers were damn good eating. Hard to hunt, though. A clutch of the buggers could strip your flesh from your skeleton faster than you could scream—Vic had to admire the cats for finding a way to catch and kill even one.

A nearby patch of hoarsgrout stirred, and the bugs streamed across the rocks and shot into another hedge, squeals echoing over scrabbling claws. A whole pride of wild cats couldn’t stampede that many harriers. Ears sharp for lupears, Vic pulled herself onto a higher branch, putting a screen of leaves between herself and the ground. Knownearth’s deadliest predator mostly ranged the Semena plains, but a few packs hunted in Fembrosh. She’d never encountered a lupear and certainly didn’t wish to meet one alone. Not without wizardry.

The brush rustled. Her pulse quickened. A Kragnashian’s triangular head pushed out of the hedge, and her breath stopped. Tattooed mandibles clacked together; a harrier-stuffed net hung over a gleaming carapace. Antennae twitching, the creature cocked its head, antennae pinwheeling as it stopped beneath her tree. Raindrops splashed between bulbous, multifaceted eyes. She blanked her mind, just as she would in an enemy’s camp. Her lungs burned as she held her breath for a minute, then two.

A squeal pierced the air; the Kragnashian’s antennae snapped toward a scrabble of claws, and it dove into the woods. There was a clipped scream, and then only the pattering rain.

Drawing in a deep, shuddering breath, Vic waited several dozen heartbeats before she climbed cautiously down. A Kragnashian in eastern Latha. A Kragnashian crossing her path in all the thousands of square miles of the Kiareinoll. A hint of spice and tease of citrus flared her nostrils, drawing her toward a cerrenil’s flower-laden branches. During the war, she’d become so used to the Kia that she often forgot the forest sometimes altered the terrain, bringing parties together or separating them. The changes were usually too subtle to be noticed, but she’d found enough impassible hedges suddenly blocking familiar paths to know the Kia was real. The heretical question wasn’t whether the Kia existed, but why and how it came to be.

And why it always helped her. Crouching, she found a harrier’s wing cover and two of its spindly legs snagged in tangled roots. A lure for the Kragnashian, to reveal it to her, then draw it away. “Thank you, Mother,” she breathed, hand firm on the white trunk.

But was the Kragnashian hunting more than a meal? Was it hunting her, or merely escorting Lornk and the Caleisbahnin into the east? What ploy could have brought his party out here instead of west toward an escape by sea?

Ashel’s in trouble.

Elesendar.

“That wasn’t for you, my dear,” Lornk had said when she found them in Olmblablaire. Insight knocked her to her knees. Lornk’s obsessions extended beyond her to Ashel’s family. Sashal and Lornk had been friends, she remembered. Good friends, before a falling out had led to a decades-long war and Lornk’s vengeance, painted in Ashel’s blood, at the end of it.

Pressing her palm onto the cerrenil’s cold, white bark, she called to the Kia for help. “I cannot let him hurt Ashel again. Please, Mother, show me the way to save him.”

Leaves shivered, shaking water into her face. She swiped the drops out of her eyes, and there was a path, sandy and free of roots and leaves, arrowing away into Fembrosh.

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