Being labeled as a killer is every Upakan’s dream.
Being labeled as the killer of your chieftain’s son . . . not so much.
Banished from his home at thirteen, Ayrion makes his way to the capital city of Aramoor in hopes of starting a new life. With high aspirations of making a name for himself, he soon discovers how dangerous and unforgiving those streets can be.
Can he learn to navigate Aramoor’s treacherous underbelly before it reaches up and swallows him whole?
The Street Rats of Aramoor series is an offshoot of the Aldoran Chronicles saga.
Street Rats of Aramoor Series
(Read in this order)
Book 0 | Banished
Book 1 | Hurricane
Excerpt: Chapter 1
MY JOURNEY was nearing its end.
After nearly six months of traveling from one side of Aldor to the other, I found myself bouncing along in the back of a wagon I’d been sharing with half-a-dozen large melons and a barrel of cucumbers that smelled of last week’s pickings as opposed to the “fresh cut” label on the front.
A farmer and his wife and son had been good enough to give me a ride. They told me no thirteen-year-old boy should be out on these roads by themselves. There could be highwaymen just waiting to snatch me up. Their son, who was seated across from me on a small crate of lettuce, was several years younger and definitely not shy about speaking his mind.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” he asked, his head cocked slightly to the side. “They look funny.”
“Hush, Enon. That’s rude.” His mother was trying her best not to stare herself.
Enon reminded me of my younger brother, Jorn. He was about the same age, and just as feisty.
The little boy folded his arms. “Well, they do.”
I smiled. Having passed through as many cities, towns, and villages as I had on my way to Aramoor, I’d grown accustomed to the stares. It would seem colorless eyes were something of a rarity. Growing up in the Lost City of Keldor, I’d never known any different. I was just as amazed at the variety of color I’d seen.
“All of my people have the same eyes.”
The farmer’s wife twisted in her seat. “Your people?”
The woman’s expression darkened and her husband threw me a sharp look over his shoulder. “Upaka?” There was a hint of concern in his voice. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in quite some time. What are you doing this far south?”
“It’s a long story,” I said, not feeling in the mood to share the tale of my banishment with strangers, even strangers kind enough to give me a ride.
They got the hint and didn’t pry further. I doubted their silence had anything to do with common courtesy. After all, my people were well-known as mercenaries for hire.
A gust of wind caught my hair and sent it whipping behind me. It had grown long enough to tickle my shoulders, nearly half as long as my sister Rianna’s, which would have earned me some time with mother’s shears, were I at home.
We crested a small rise and I could see Aramoor looming in the distance. It was larger than anything I had imagined. The capital city of Elondria was the home of the High King. It was also the largest city in the known world. Nothing in the five kingdoms came close to its magnitude. The thought of calling it “home” both excited and terrified me.
“So, this is your first time to Aramoor, is it?” the farmer asked. He’d turned his attention back to his team as the horses plodded down the main road leading toward the city.
He smiled. “Bet you’ve never laid eyes on the likes of it before.”
“That wall is one of Aldor’s great wonders, if you ask me.”
I stared off into the distance at the protective barrier surrounding the city. Its white stone could be seen for miles in all directions. The city itself seemed to stretch on forever.
“Aye. They say it was built by wizards after the defeat of the Kuhl hordes. It was probably one of the last great feats of magic before the Purge.” The farmer shook his head. “It’s hard to believe something as evil as magic could create such beauty.”
I bit my tongue. Magic was no more likely to make someone evil than having too much gold. I’d seen the lust for wealth have more of an effect on people than magic. And since I happened to be one of those wielders who kept their abilities hidden for fear of being imprisoned within the White Tower, I felt like I could speak from personal experience.
The road grew more congested the closer we got to the city’s eastern gate. It was as though the townsfolk from the surrounding communities had decided to make a sacred pilgrimage to the capital, all at the same time.
We passed a number of other wagons toting wares to sell to those living within the protection of the great wall.
Our pace slowed as we reached the first of two gatehouses leading in. This close, I could see that the blocks used to build the fortification were as wide as the farmer’s wagon. I wondered at the amount of magic it must have required. The wizards from that age must have been truly powerful.
A sentry waved the cart in front of us on through and we pulled forward to the first checkpoint. “State your name and purpose,” the guard said. He bore the insignia of the Elondrian Lancers—a high sun overshadowing a golden crown.
I’d seen pictures of that emblem in my studies back home. As an Upaka, I had been required to learn of the various militaries within the five kingdoms. Their crests and colors had been just as important to memorize as their styles of combat.
“The name’s Neelan, from Cadwyn. This is my wife and my two boys. We have fresh produce to sell at the lower market on South Avis.”
The guard passed a quick glance our way, not overly worried with a young mother and her two boys. He stepped over to my side of the wagon and looked in. Thankfully, my back was to him so I didn’t have to worry with hiding my eyes. One quick glance and he was walking back around to the front. He waved us forward. “Move on through.”
We passed a second guard station once we were through the gate, but no one bothered stopping us. The lancers at that station were concerned with traffic leaving the city.
“Where would you like us to drop you off?” Neelan asked as we started down the main thoroughfare leading into the heart of Aramoor.
In the distance, I could see great domes and spires rising above the dwellings we were passing between. They reminded me of the snowcapped peaks of the Northern Heights back home.
With this being my first time inside the city, I needed to get my bearings before attempting to explore any deeper.
“I’ll get off here, thanks.”
“Here?” The farmer’s wife turned in her seat. “Do you have family nearby?” She looked at the closest buildings as if expecting to see some nice couple standing there waiting on me.
“Uh, yes,” I lied. “Uncle Fen . . . der . . . stad.” Of course, I didn’t have an uncle, and if I did, his name certainly wouldn’t have been Fenderstad, but when asked to produce a name with no time to consider my options, it was the first thing out of my mouth. I wished I’d given it a little more thought.
The farmer directed the horses over to the edge of the road and stopped the wagon. “Are you sure? It’s easy to get lost in here if you don’t know where you’re going.”
“I’ll be fine. He doesn’t live far from here.” I grabbed my travel bag and slung it over my shoulder before hopping down from the back. “My parents gave me directions. Thank you for the ride. It was most kind.” I waved, not giving them a chance to argue. I was too embarrassed to tell them I was homeless with nowhere to go.
“Well good luck to you, lad,” Neelan said with a slightly worried look and a polite wave. “If you change your mind, we’ll be on South Avis. It’s off of King’s Way East.” He pointed at the wide cobbled road in front of us leading into the heart of the city. “Just follow this to the main square and then turn left. You’ll find us somewhere near Marrow Lane in Cheapside. You can’t miss it. We usually sell out before dusk, so if you can’t find us by then, just wait for us at the east gate.”
“Thank you. I will.” I waved once more and casually walked down the first street on the right. I hoped it looked like I knew where I was going. Behind me, I could hear the farmer snap the reins and the wagon wheels thump over the cobblestones.
I stopped at the corner of the next building and listened as the wagon blended into the cacophony of noise coming from those on their way to market. I took a deep breath and slowly scanned the street, mesmerized by the flow of the crowd. I was surrounded by more people than I’d ever seen in my life, and yet I had never felt so alone.
After being banished from my home for breaking Shal’Noran, my father had given me as much coin as he could afford to help me make a start of it. He said it would be enough to help me purchase an apprenticeship with a local merchant wherever I ended up. I hoped it would be enough to last me until I was able to find some work.
At the thought of my father, I lifted the thin chain from where I had it safely hidden under my tunic and stared at the ring hanging from its end. The black onyx band had a single white rune at its center, the crest of my clan. It represented my clan’s place within the greater Upakan society. The ring was only given to those who had earned the right to be called Warrior. My father had given it to me as a way to remind me of who I was. I had repeated his words over and over in my mind since leaving the Lost City: “You are still Upaka. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
After tucking the chain back into my shirt, I pulled the hood of my black cloak up to hide my eyes and made my way north up the street. I let the natural flow of the people move me along. The farther I walked the more the crowds began to dwindle. I kept an eye out for a place to stay. I didn’t want to get too far away from the eastern gate in case I needed to take Master Neelan up on his offer.
I was looking for somewhere reputable, but not too reputable. A respectable establishment came at a cost. One I wasn’t too keen to pay, considering my limited funds. I would have been fine with four walls and a mattress, as long as it came with clean sheets and an owner who wouldn’t try mugging me in the middle of the night, unlike the first small town I had stayed in after leaving home. I had learned very quickly what to look for when choosing a place to stay.
The further I traveled from King’s Way East, the more dilapidated the buildings became, not to mention the people mingling around them. I generally judged a location by the hairs on the back of my neck. So far, they hadn’t risen, which meant it was a reasonably safe place to find a room, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that someone was watching me.
Across the street, a sign swung back and forth with a rusty moan. The faded gold letters under the painting of a large buck proclaimed it as: THE WHITE STAG. It seemed a typical name for an Elondrian Inn. Many carried the label of wild animals—The White Stag, The Wild Boar, The Dancing Bear—though I found the thought of a bear dancing hard to imagine.
The building looked reliable enough. A couple of windows on the upper floors were lit, letting me know it was in use, so I headed across the street. I reached for the front door, but a sharp cry kept me from entering.
“Help!” Someone please help!”
A young boy, several years younger than myself was being dragged by two older boys into a narrow alley a few buildings away. The bigger of the two slapped the kid across the face. “Shut your mouth or I’ll slit your throat.”
I looked to see if anyone was going help, but the few people I saw didn’t seem to care enough to stop what they were doing. For most, that meant sitting around smoking pipes and nursing drinks while pretending nothing was amiss.
I knew I shouldn’t get involved. I looked away, but the boy’s desperate pleas stopped me and I turned back.
What kind of citizen would I be if I just let this kid be taken without trying to help? My father’s voice answered from somewhere in the back of my mind. “A smart one.”
I sighed, dropping my hand to caress the hilt of my dagger. With a quick readjust to my travel sack, I took off for the alley. “It’s just a way to test my training,” I told the voice in my head. “Don’t want my skills to get rusty.”
I didn’t believe that for a minute.
Excerpt: Chapter 2
BY THE TIME I reached the small opening between the buildings, the boys were gone. Whoever they were, they were moving fast, probably spurred on by their victim’s loud outcry.
I pulled my dagger and started through the narrow alleyway, keeping my eyes open for anything suspicious. I picked up speed the closer I got to the other end.
The buildings in this part of the city looked older than those near the gate. They rose up like a gnarled forest, blocking out the sun and paving the streets in eerie shadows. For once I was thankful for my Upakan eyes.
The alley ended in a split. I looked both ways and spotted the kidnappers to my right. They were racing for the next street. I took off after them. The boy had been slung over the larger of the two’s shoulder. He wasn’t moving. I hoped he was just unconscious.
They turned left at the next street. I was gaining on them. I stopped at the corner and found they’d only made it a couple buildings up. This was my chance. The vacant road was wide enough for me to move freely, so I tightened my grip on my dagger and took off.
I kept to the balls of my feet, softening the noise of my approach. They seemed unaware of me and I willed them to remain so.
Apparently, I was in good standing with the Creator. Not only did they not turn around, they actually stopped and the larger boy deposited the small kid from his shoulder.
The boy didn’t seem to be unconscious after all. Neither did he seem to be all that scared. I slowed. Something wasn’t right.
The boy turned and smiled.
I skidded to a halt. The hairs on the back of my neck weren’t just standing on end, they were hopping around like jackrabbits in a trap. I felt foolish. I had chased the cabbage leaf straight into my own apple-scented cage.
I started to back away.
“Get’s ‘em every time,” the small boy said with a disturbing chuckle.
“Yeah,” the boy who’d done the carrying said. His own smile revealed he was missing most of his front teeth. “I can always spot the heroes.”
I took another couple steps back, but at the sound of footfalls behind me, I realized the cage door had been shut.
“What’s your rush?” the gap-toothed boy asked.
I turned. There were kids moving in behind me, cutting off my escape. They were armed, most with rough looking bludgeons.
More kids filed in from nearby alleyways.
Their weapons were a mismatched assortment of clubs, poles, wrapped pieces of glass, and a few knives. One boy had a long dagger hanging out the back of his trousers, while the kid with the missing teeth wore a rusty looking shortsword.
I shifted my travel sack around to the front. Everything I owned in the world was in it, except my coin pouch, which I kept tucked in my boot for safekeeping.
For the last eight years, I had been training to become an Upakan warrior. I guessed it was time to prove those skills.
Toothless, as I decided to call the gap-toothed boy, smiled. The sight of him made me want to laugh, if I hadn’t already been too preoccupied with devising a way to get myself out of this situation. I scanned the faces surrounding me, searching for a weak spot. Their eyes told me I wasn’t going to be able to talk my way out.
Along with my training, I was also a wielder. It was something my family had kept hidden from the clans. Wielders were considered a danger to society. Possessing any form of magic earned you a one-way trip with the Black Watch to the White Tower. Most who went there were never heard from again.
Even more unusual than being born a wielder was the fact I had been born with two separate gifts.
“How about you give us a look-see inside that bag?” Toothless said, stepping forward and reaching for my satchel. He clearly felt he had nothing to fear with his fifteen-to-one odds.
I clutched my bag close to my chest and pulled back my hood. “Don’t you recognize what I am?” I was hoping my eyes would be enough of a warning. Most people feared the Upaka.
“What you are is alone, and completely surrounded.” He smirked. “Now are you going to hand over that bag, or am I going to have to pry it from your dead fingers?”
This was just my luck. I hadn’t made it a single morning inside of Aramoor and already I was being accosted by a gang of rabid hooligans.
“You take another step and you’ll be sucking soup for the rest of your days.”
Toothless stared at me and then turned to the others, confusion written on his face. They seemed to share his bewilderment. A few of the kids shrugged and the large boy turned back around. “What?”
I rolled my eyes with a frustrated sigh and pointed at my mouth. “Your teeth. I’m going to knock out the rest of your teeth.” Not only was I being robbed, I was being robbed by a gang of imbeciles.
His puzzled look quickly turned to anger.
I responded by tightening my fingers around the leather grip of my dagger. My eyes darted from one kid to the next, waiting to see who’d make the first move. I slowly slid my right leg back and shifted my weight to stabilize my stance.
I was about to lift my blade when something washed over me. I’d never felt anything like it before. It was as though something inside of me had died. I panicked when I realized what it was.
My magic was gone.
“Who do we have here?” someone called out from behind the blockade of kids surrounding me.
They parted far enough for me to see the girl standing behind them. She had black hair like mine and a red vest.
Up until this point, I had assumed Toothless was their leader, but even he retreated far enough for the girl to see me. She didn’t seem to want to get any closer.
“New arrival,” Toothless said. “Seems to think that bag belongs to him.”
Things were getting worse by the minute. Taking on five or six kids was one thing, but those numbers had tripled and I couldn’t reach my magic. I was going to have to do this the hard way.
You don’t realize how much you depend on something until it’s gone. My abilities were a part of me. I’d only ever had to fight without them once before, and that was a personal choice, unlike now. One of my gifts was pre-sight. It was the ability to see things before they happened. I wasn’t a seer or anything. I couldn’t prophesy future events. It just gave me a few seconds of warning when something was going to affect me in a physical way.
With this many kids, I could have really used that additional help.
“Stand back,” Toothless said, drawing his shortsword and waving for the others to give him some room. “He’s mine.”
Most of the belongings in my sack were clothes, so I held it out as a padded shield against strikes while gripping my dagger with the other hand. The sack wouldn’t do much good against a sword, but it might stand up against the clubs if it came down to it.
I raised my blade.
Toothless roared and charged. He swung directly for the top of my head. Even without magic, I could see it coming. He clearly had little experience using the weapon. I didn’t even bother trying to block. I sidestepped and rammed the butt of my dagger straight into his mouth. There was a loud cry of pain followed by blood. Lots of blood.
Toothless dropped his sword and covered his face with both hands, trying to hold in what was left of his front teeth. He stumbled backwards, tears coursing down his cheeks. “Kill him!”
The others came at me at once.
I didn’t have time to worry about my bag. I dropped it and grabbed the discarded sword. I’d barely turned around when the first wave hit. They were about as skillful with their weapons as Toothless was, but with their numbers, proficiency didn’t really matter. All it would take was one lucky strike.
I blocked with the sword and cut with my dagger. Kids began dropping all around me. I took a hit to my right arm and nearly dropped the knife. I hadn’t seen it coming. I was off-balance without my magic.
I pushed through the thinnest point in the lines to keep from having to fight everyone at once. I managed to keep two or three of the kids between me and the rest as I fought my way closer to one of the buildings. I needed to keep my attackers from flanking me.
Toothless was still screaming at them to kill me. Even their leader shouted her disappointment. “What’s wrong with you? He’s just one boy, you pack of pathetic weaklings! Are you going to let him embarrass Wildfire like that?”
Their leader’s shouts seemed to spur the kids into an even greater frenzy. I dodged left, twisted and spun right, fighting to stay clear of their clubs. Going for the legs worked best. Once a kid was down, they were less likely to get back up.
My movements felt sluggish, forced. I had to devote most of my energy to compelling my limbs to respond, something I’d never had to do before. For the first time, I felt what it was like to be normal.
My second gift allowed my body to remember coordinated movements and replicate them. While others had to spend hours training every day in order to master a particular skill, I only had to do it once. My mother said I was a repeater, a very useful tool when you found yourself being robbed by a herd of bloodthirsty thugs.
I kicked a boy to my right in the knee. He screamed and went down. I parried a club strike with the shortsword, giving me time to stab a lanky kid in the thigh with my dagger. I twisted to block an attempt at my head.
I couldn’t keep this up. There were just too many of them.
One of the girls got too close and I head-butted her in the face. She squealed and swung wide, clubbing the kid beside her, who took two more down with him. A wild swing with a knobby table leg struck me in the thigh. The muscle cramped. I was barely able to put weight on it.
I blocked two more swings trying to keep from being completely overwhelmed. I kicked off the stone wall behind me and shoved my way into the middle of the pack. It was a lot harder for them to swing their clubs in close. They were just as likely to hit each other as me. I stabbed three legs. Three cries followed. Three more kids went down.
I pushed toward the open road, but something heavy struck me from behind and I tumbled to the ground.
I tried to get up, but whatever it was, it was still on top of me. I was pinned. I tried wiggling free, but the remaining kids grabbed my arms and legs and held me down.
I twisted my head around just enough to see Toothless sprawled on top of me. The blood from his mouth dripped down the side of my face.
“I’m going to kill you . . . slowly.”
It was over. All my dreams of making a name for myself in Aramoor, of winning back my spot in the clans, were gone. I was never going to see my family again. They would never know what happened to their son. Considering the circumstances, that was probably a good thing.
Toothless rolled off me. They pried the weapons from my hands and pulled me to my knees.
“Move aside!” The girl in the red vest pushed her way through the kids, nearly tripping over the injured still sprawled on the cobbles. Her face was as red as her vest.
“Hold him still. It’s my turn.”