Shadows of Illyria
Fantasy Fiction for a warrior generation.
The Shadows of Illyria series is a new fantasy fiction trilogy from author JM van Zuiden. This unique series departs from traditional fantasy novels by its gritty realism in the portrayal of war, mythical creatures and even magic.
Book 1 of this 3 part series puts you into the shoes of Captain Aldric Herboren of the Imperial Legion, as he struggles with his inner demons, all the while battling an invading army of orcs and rogue humans. Joined by a half-human female elf, Lady A’yala, Ambassador of the Llyvenwood Kingdom, our hero soon suspects that the phantoms of war inside him may be more real than he could have ever imagined.
As you drift into the darkness of your insanity, ripples from a terror of the past grow into a haunting wave of dread. This tsunami of horror builds and builds, coming to overshadow your soul. In a final tumultuous moment, you scramble to flee the impending destruction, but to no avail. With the inevitability of pending doom, the clash with your unconscious is lost as the wave crashes down in a thunderous roar. Torn from all rational thought, you clamber desperately to find the surface but are driven deeper and deeper into the abyss. A maddening cyclone of lights and sound swirl around you, seeming to tear at your very being, until the blue of the sky begins to merge with the torrent of colors, finally solidifying into an image your broken mind can process.
Crashing to the ground, you are mated to a body which feels almost foreign, yet somehow familiar. The physique is one of a young and virile soldier. Years of campaigning and the injuries which accompany such a chosen profession, have yet to take a toll on this fledgling Ranger.
A long-forgotten voice fills your consciousness…
“Corporal Herboren, you are on point.”
“Aye, Lieutenant,” you respond.
The youth of the speech is shocking at first as reality settles on where you are and whose body you occupy. At twenty-two, you are still an idealistic and energetic young Corporal with the Rangers.
Scanning the surroundings, you find only warm sunshine illuminating emerald blades of grass dotted by a rainbow of spring flowers. Wrapped under this blanket, small hills and valleys are dotted with bushes and a healthy variety of trees, creating an idyllic scenery. Furthermore, an invigorating bouquet of aromas fills your nostrils with the sweet smells of spring all the while being serenaded by birds singing cheery songs as they flitter about.
You are in the northwest corner of the Empire, near a city called New Hyllande. Your unit had been dispatched to hunt a group of draken which had apparently migrated from beyond the mountains and taken residence in the hills east of the town. The beasts had already killed dozens of livestock and seriously injured a farmer who was fortunate to escape with his life. The entire event had caused quite a stir in the Province as draken sightings within Imperial borders are rare, with many years elapsing between such events.
“Move out,” your Lieutenant orders.
As the platoon ambles forward on their horses, you reminisce about the faces of these men with much fondness. This unit was the first group of legionnaires you had served with, earning it a special place in your memories. Lieutenant Ostten, Sergeant Millen, and Rangers Loft, Herrick and Ustley. Danvin Ustley was an Initiate in your Ranger class, and you knew him well, in-fact, the two of you were quite a duo, spending most of your off-duty time together, terrorizing whatever bars happened to be nearby.
Snapping the reins, your mount comes to life, putting distance between you and your comrades. Scouting was always an exciting, albeit dangerous affair, but at twenty-two and part of the elite Order of Rangers, you felt invincible.
This day, however, you were apprehensive as the beasts you pursued were the monsters of legends. Everyone had heard the tales; intelligent, fast, and elusive, the draken were renowned for their group tactics, making them a true apex predator. Though not much taller than a large horse, a full-grown adult is three times the length, making for a formidable opponent. Typically, they would hunt livestock and other large game, however, it is said that once a pack had overcome the fear of man, they would actively pursue him as prey.
Draken by themselves were not the real issue, it was their use as vehicles of war that made their very existence forbidden in the Empire. Too many wars had been fought on the backs of these reptiles, and the last Dragoon Regiment was disbanded over four hundred years ago when these ancient creatures were hunted to extinction on most of the continent. Were it not for the wild lands north of the mountains being out of reach of the Crown, these impressive saurians would likely no longer exist on Illyria.
The journey is peaceful for several hours as you continue scouting ahead, finding no sign of your quarry. Around noon, you stumble upon a recently slaughtered elk which had been torn apart, only the neck and head remaining. The rest of the body evidently carried off by whatever killed it. An untrained individual might assume the culprit was a mountain lion, wolf, or aachen, but you are able to deduce the distinctive draken kill from sketches in a book you studied before departing on the mission, not to mention the lack of any nearby tracks other than elk.
Perusing the surround anxiously, there is no sign of a draken pack, but you note a large rock outcropping jutting from a hill in the distance. You decide to target this as a potential nest site but hold for the time to allow your unit to arrive.
After a short wait, your squad comes into view, led by your Lieutenant. They pick up the pace when the notice you, assuming you have news to report.
“What do we have here, Corporal?” he inquires upon arrival.
“Draken kill, Sir. I believe that is where we should start,” you respond, pointing towards the hill.
Your leader pauses, inspecting the elk remains from the seat of his mount before responding, “Sounds good. Make it happen, Corporal.”
With a salute, you reply, “Aye, Sir.”
Immediately departing, the journey to the distant mound takes about an hour. You move expeditiously but stay cautious as you approach the target. Upon reaching the base of the hill, you locate a little group of trees near a small knoll and dismount. After leaving your stallion concealed in the grove, you sprint to the tree nearest the suspected den and blend into the brush.
Time ticks by slowly as you wait in silence whilst remaining hidden in cover. The intensity of the search strains your eyes… and your patience. It is now about mid-afternoon, and you resolve to shake things up and waste no more daylight on a potentially empty site.
Grasping a stone from the ground, you step away from the tree and launch the missile toward the cove above. Several thuds break the silence as the rock bounces around the cavern. Much to your surprise, a draken alert rings out, but the sound is weak and high-pitched. A second fledgling replies, also in the same puny voice. They bicker back and forth excitedly for a few moments before returning to silence.
Must be two juveniles.
Draken live in groups dominated by one or two adult males accompanied by a harem of between six and ten females. Reports from locals indicated this pack was as large as ten and as few as two. Your Lieutenant had said, divide the largest figure by the smaller and you will find a more accurate answer.
After investigating potential ambush positions for your platoon, you return to your horse and head towards your waiting team. After a short distance, you locate the group in a fair-sized cluster of trees laden with bushes, making it ideal for concealing a camp. Taking advantage of the downtime, all but Corporal Ustley are napping, having evidently drawn the short straw.
“‘What word have you, Aldric?” asks Danvin as you approach.
“I have located the nest, two juveniles are present, but I believe the adults are out hunting.”
The Sergeant, a seasoned veteran and light sleeper, sits-up at the sound of your voice and shakes the Lieutenants shoulder who lays nearby him.
“Sir, our scout has returned, and in one piece,” he cracks with a sideways smile.
Clearing his throat, the Lieutenant rises as he inquires, “Status, Corporal.”
“Aye, Sir,” you acknowledge, dismounting your stallion. “The nest has at least two juveniles, but I was unable to observe any adults. I believe they must be on the hunt. According to my research, we should expect them at dusk.”
“Very good, Corporal, I concur.”
The others have now awoken and watch their leader intently whilst he stares in the direction of the den, calculating his strategy. After several moments of silence, he addresses the squad.
“Okay, Rangers here is the plan,” he pauses, looking around at every man to confirm they are paying attention. “Corporal, yourself and Ranger Ustley will stay here and guard the horses. Those damn draken love the taste of horse-flesh and gods knows this old soldier will not be walking back to New Hyllande!” After a brief laugh with the Sergeant, he continues, “Loft, you will be with me; we will assume over-watch. Sergeant, yourself and Herrick will enter the lair and slay the juveniles before concealing yourselves within. We shall wait until the pack lands and hit as many as possible with draken arrows before advancing on foot. Sergeant, you will launch spears before attacking on foot. Everyone is to equip shields. Corporal, when I sound the alarm, you and Ustley mount-up and make haste to join us.”
“Aye, Sir,” replies a chorus of voices.
Pausing with his arms crossed, the Lieutenant looks over every face again, searching for uncertainty.
The Sergeant answers for all, “No, Sir. I think your orders are clear.”
“Very good. We depart in ten mikes for our positions. Corporal, come give me the layout.”
Walking a short distance, you detail the terrain of the nest. After your brief discussion, the Lieutenant returns to the camp to equip his gear. Rejoining Danvin, you chat quietly together until the group departs a few moments later. Once they pass from sight, you both find opposing positions and good seats to settle in for a potentially long watch.
Time ticks by slowly until the sun has fallen into the horizon, illuminating the distant hills in a soft orange glow. From your position at the edge of the camp, you sit at ease with your back against a tree. Your eyes are fixed on the sky, casually observing the birds fluttering about, searching for nighttime perches. The cheerful songs of the little fliers fill the dusk air with their exploits of the day.
Suddenly, they all scatter and become silent. Usually, this means an eagle is on the approach, but given the circumstances, you suspect something much larger spooks them.
“Draken!” Ustley reports from across the cluster of trees in a loud whisper.
Without thinking, you swing behind the tree and begin searching the skies intensely. Only a few seconds later, three draken come into distant view, heading toward the den. Your heart races at the site of the majestic beasts, followed by concern for your comrades who are hiding in ambush. The mere sight of the legendary animals brings a flood of memories about boyhood dreams of flying with the dragoons of old.
Arriving at the den, the draken begin to orbit like vultures in the fading light, never breaking formation. After this continues for a while, you become nervous they have discovered the waiting ambush below. Just when it seems the tension will break your resolve, one of the draken abruptly departs, soaring from eyesight.
The time passes painfully slow as you strain to keep sight of the remaining pair in the waning daylight. Inevitably, the sun abandons your vigil and the lingering duo merges into the twilight, vanishing from view altogether.
With the draken no longer visible, you remain anxious and alert, as the last evidence of the sun evaporates into the horizon. The shadows have now completed their transformation into darkness, preventing you from seeing the predators even if they were to come close. Of this fact you are keenly aware which serves to increase your apprehension, leaving you paralyzed where you stand with a dense knot in your stomach.
“Did you hear that?!” Danvin suddenly questions in a muffled voice from across the camp.
“No… what did you hear?”
Instantly, adrenaline surges through your veins whilst terror fills your heart. Your ears peak, desperately searching for the sound he is referencing, but discover nothing other than spring crickets.
“There it is again!”
This time you catch it; A whoosh close by… too close. Then a ghostly blur flashes before you in the dark, a splash of air striking you in its wake.
Panicked, you retreat to the center of the trees near the horses and frantically begin striking your flint at the kindling the others prepared earlier.
A heavy sound suddenly impacts the ground alarmingly close. Spinning towards the noise, you search in desperation for the source, but cannot discern anything in the darkened foliage.
Then another whoosh comes from your left followed by the snapping of twigs and crunching of grass. Terror grips your mind along with the hopelessness of isolation. The sensation that ice had entered your veins is nearly paralyzing. Fortunately, the instinct to survive jolts you back to life, prompting frantic striking at the kindling as if your life depended on it. Just as the smell of burning twigs is beginning to fill your nostrils, a single word that will haunt you until your dying breath is heard.
Stopping mid-sentence, Danvin’s final word in this life echoes in your mind as the hairs on your arms stand whilst your heart feels like it will burst. Every sense heightens beyond anything you have ever felt. At first you want to run, but your training tells you to draw your sword and face death. Then you want to hide, instead, you position yourself toward the sound of falling feet.
After several seconds of soul-wrenching silence, you kneel and resume furiously striking at the tinder. Then, as if by Jovan Himself, a flame leaps into the air as the tinder catches the twigs in a burst of color. In that ephemeral moment, a reptilian head with teeth rippling like fire as they reflect the erupting flames, consumes your vision. Time stands still as a numbness creeps over your body. Death feels imminent and unavoidable, leaving your mind scrambling for a response.
Then a screech tears through the silence, only to stop as quickly as it had begun. You blink to reality as warm blood sprays onto your face, causing you to shutter. Only then, do you realize the headless form of the aggressor lays convulsing on the ground, thrashing wildly.
A strange sensation alerts your brain to the presence of your sword, grasped tightly in your hands. Perplexion leaps across your thoughts, as you do not even remember drawing it, yet the glimmer of crimson parting over the metallic surface testifies to its use.
However, these thoughts are but a splinter in time, before your senses scream to life. You begin moving with terrific speed and certainty you never imagined possible. Every sound becomes distinct, each image intensified. You dart through the thicket, slashing and blocking at the assaulting reptiles. Everything turns into a blur of steel upon flesh as you attack like possessed, detached from your very mind.
When the carnage ends, the flames have transformed the surroundings of the grove from intense darkness to a hazy green of flickering color. Stunned and suddenly exhausted beyond all reason, you stumble over to the campfire and stare blankly into the depths of the blaze. The orange and red dance in reflection upon your blade which remains in a fierce grip. Trickles of blood slowly form together into a single stream, seemingly penetrating through the rolling flames as it travels to the tip of your sword. Your gaze locks with the drop, fixing on the slowly stretching fluid of life. Finally, the globule breaks-free, falling to the earth below. The droplet hits the ground with an imaginary clap of thunder, snapping your mind back to reality.
Scanning around, you discover the corpses of three draken as if seeing them for the first time. Just then, a human form, slumped at the edge of the trees grabs your attention.
“Danvin!” you exclaim rushing to his position.
Your heart sinks as you fall to your knees by his corpse.
“By the gods, no!”
The adrenaline seems to instantly leave your veins, replaced by an unnatural cold which radiates through your muscles. A tear rolls involuntarily down your cheek, whilst a sudden dizziness overcomes your mind, and then nothing.
With a powerful jerk, you are suddenly awake, shivering away the sense of panic that grabs you by the gut. After a moment of disorientation, you gain reality again and realize you are laying on the ground by your fallen comrade. Still numb, you struggle to rise and stagger over to the crackling campfire at the center of the camp. Haphazardly you fall to your knees, driving your sword into the soil before the blaze. Your mind is blank as you stare into the white of the flames for what seems like hours.
The voice of your Lieutenant suddenly breaks the vigil, “Corporal!”
At first, he is unable to break the quiescence of your stupor, and you remain motionless, barely registering his speech. Then you realize a hand is upon your armored shoulder.
“Corporal, can you hear me?”
Slowly you look up at him, still stupefied, and respond reflexively, “Danvin is dead, Sir. I eliminated three draken.”
The Lieutenant strolls away, surveying the surrounding carnage. After a brief investigation of the corpse of your comrade, he returns to your side and kneels, replacing his hand on your shoulder.
“By the gods… you killed three draken, Corporal!”
“Ranger Danvin is dead, Sir.”
The rest of the evening turns into a foggy dream. When you eventually lay down, you stare vacantly into the trees above, glimpsing the few stars which peak through the branches. Finally, exhaustion overcomes your shattered mind, and you drift off into the tempest…
Join Aldric on an epic adventure in Shadows of Illyria: Phantoms of War
Book One of this ground-breaking new trilogy features over 500 pages and multiple illustrations. Order today!