Souldancer Chapter 1

From the Amazon reviews for Nethereal:

"I look forward to the next book, and will buy it on kindle when it comes out."

"The story of Nethereal is a bold and memorable first step into the Soul Cycle series, and I will be eagerly awaiting the next instalment."

"After much travail and derring-do, the story's climactic battle is mind-blowing - and a good set up for the next book in the series."

"I look forward to the next installment."

"I'm definitely looking forward to the next."

"Brian Niemeier has woven a very complex and interesting space epic and I can't wait to see more."

You guys have been good, so here's a little present to tide you over.

Chapter 1 of Souldancer: Soul Cycle Book II


Xander imagined the trail winding through the dunes as a golden road flanked by heaps of gold dust. Perhaps the heat inspired his daydream. More likely it was his mother’s tale—one of the few she’d told only in his father’s absence, and even then only in whispers. Her claim that Zadok had made the world in such a marvelous place was not contrary to Nesshin lore. But the rest of her story had seemed heterodox to him even as a child.
Xander recalled his mother’s words, if not her voice. God divided his body to make the whole universe. The spheres, the stars, and the White Well’s light are all parts of him. He divided his mind to make all lesser minds—humans, Gen, and malakhim. By learning from one another, each of us would teach God something new about himself.
The lesson that God most hoped to learn was how to destroy evil. So corruption entered the once pure world. Everyone suffered, but since God himself had been corrupted, he was powerless to save them.
Despite the passage of years, the tale’s bleak implications still troubled Xander. If the creator could not save creation, what cause was there for hope? His mother had smiled when she’d answered his objection.
You must never lose hope, my son. A man lost in the desert may look to the empty sky and, despairing, succumb to his thirst. But in so doing he may miss a peal of thunder that signals approaching rain. If he could see the clouds over the horizon, he would not need hope, for he would know. If we could see beyond our own minds; beyond the One Mind that contains us all, perhaps we would know the reason for our hope.
Xander sighed. Sometimes he envied his mother’s belief that each person carried a spark of the divine and a unique, God-given destiny. Though blasphemous, her way seemed more merciful than living as a servant bound for judgment.
But where is my destined place, if not here? The question had practical merit. Though he’d seen eighteen summers, Xander’s failure to prove his worth consigned him to extended childhood with no personal status in the clan.
These dreary thoughts woke Xander from his daydream. The street of gold faded, leaving only the well-worn path upon which his tribe’s caravan toiled. From Xander’s place in the rearguard, each wagon with its escort of tanned men in faded cloaks looked like one segment of a huge plodding beast—a beast that smelled of sweat and horse and iron.
Accustomed to lighter duty, Xander’s lungs burned and his muscles ached. He shaded his eyes with a plump hand to check the sky for the hundredth time. The sun’s distance from the horizon told him that three hours had passed since noon.
Past the hard part. The lead driver would soon call a halt, and the clan would make camp for the bitter cold night. Another late summer day on the Nesshin trade route through the Desert of Penance.
At least summer is what Father calls it, Xander thought. He wrapped a brown scarf around his shaved head to keep out the sand-laden wind. With Highwater two weeks behind, the mountains at the desert’s end—and Medvia beyond—would be only a few days’ journey east.
Xander trudged beside the rumbling wagon and dreamed of the oasis town with its verdant parks for sport and its dimly lit gambling parlors. Something struck his head, rudely shaking him from his second reverie.
Xander reflexively straightened and returned his spear to its proper angle perpendicular to the ground. His steps lengthened into the gliding stride favored by his people. He turned his bruised head in the direction of the blow, expecting to find one of the van wardens calling him to task with a disapproving frown. Instead he found…no one. Only an empty spot where his fellow guard Sem had been walking.
Another blow stung Xander squarely between the shoulder blades, originating from the formerly unoccupied space to his left.
Not wishing to be caught off guard again, Xander cautiously peered over his left shoulder and saw the tall, rust-cloaked form of his younger companion.
Sem’s grin failed to brighten his dull face. “Pardon me. I must be heat-addled to mistake the quartermaster’s son for a lazy ass. Perhaps it is for the best. A touch of the rod seems to work whether the ass is lazy or just fat.”
Xander rubbed the solid lump of his belly. Shame burned in his chest, calling to mind the kitchen of his childhood home, where his mother had been telling her last tale before…
Do not let memory cloud your thoughts! Xander urged himself. Fond memories hide the pain of the past.
“My girth is no hindrance on the field in Medvia,” Xander said as he fell in beside Sem.
“That was before. I’ll beat you this year!”
“It is time you gave up sport,” Xander said. “I could recommend you to my father. He always needs new ass-herds.”
Sem sneered. The butt of his spear swept down toward the bridge of Xander’s nose. Xander blocked. Sem thrust the spear point at his rival’s face.
Xander’s body couldn’t react to the blow in time, but his will responded by reflex. He stood unflinching as the spearhead stopped within an inch of his eye and slid away as if the air were a sheet of greased steel.
His balance upset, Sem fell to the ground. He was just regaining his feet when a blocky figure stepped between the two boys.
Xander tilted his head to peer at the newcomer. The broad-shouldered man bore a thick unpolished staff. His shapeless nose proved his experience with it. He wore a many-patched long coat that appeared to be washed regularly in mud. The original color of Azil’s coat was a perennial topic of debate among the drivers who served under him.
Azil growled as he hefted Sem level with his coarse bearded face. Sem interposed his trembling spear between himself and the lead driver.
Azil’s grin flashed from under his beard, managing to appear menacing and amused all at once. “Has no one shown you how to hold a weapon, boy?” he asked, peeling the spear from Sem’s grip with his free hand.
“I am no child!” Sem croaked through clenched teeth. “The Council of Merchants will declare me worthy when they convene in Medvia.”
Azil canted the spear over his shoulder and roughly set the youth on his feet. “Well, boy, bring a grievance against me at the next meeting.” He enveloped both spear and staff in one massive fist. “Meanwhile, I will hold onto this until you learn the difference between a fat human and a death worm. Now, go and see that Meiron’s horse is shod when we make camp.”
Sem turned his frustration on Xander one final time, checking the older boy’s shoulder before storming off on his errand.
Xander muttered his people’s vilest curse. “Thera emitte sherrad!
“If Thera shares his bed, I know not whom to pity,” said Azil. “It is a blessing that I came along, son of Altor; though none deny that you are blessed. If not for your father, I doubt you’d enjoy life so well.”
Xander inclined his head and spoke flatly. “Thank you for praising my father’s vital role in the clan. I will pass your remarks on to him. Perhaps your place in the market will be more favorable this year.” Raising an eyebrow he asked, “Is that why you came to my lowly post?”
“I have no need of a laggard child’s favor,” Barked Azil. “I was sent to bring you to your father’s wagon. ‘Unharmed,’ he said, as if afraid you would faint along the way!”
“He was probably more concerned about your ham-fisted wrath,” Xander mocked.
“Anyone else would have cause for concern. Now come, I have more pressing work than playing swineherd.”
Xander held his tongue and followed. Though he feigned indifference, being called weak stung worse than his bruised head. It was true that he lacked the raw strength and hardihood of his peers, but he had other virtues—subtler, yet no less useful.
Even Xander didn’t fully understand his gift. It had been bitter to receive, but he’d turned the ability to his advantage. Sem’s failed attempt to skewer his eye was proof of that.
Xander’s gift had other merits. Though only eighteen, he enjoyed renown as the tribe’s most lucrative sportsman and gambler. Not even the strange games played in distant towns could deny him victory. Darts, balls, and dice alike seldom went astray.
Azil marched Xander to the back of the lead wagon. “I trust you can find your way from here,” the driver said before moving on to the front.
Xander wondered why his father would summon him away from guard duty. None of the possibilities were pleasant. Except…perhaps the quartermaster would finally declare his son an adult.  Xander yearned for a place in the clan, but each year his rivals advanced while he remained behind.
Eldest custom required a Nesshin to demonstrate his worth as a mark of adulthood. Custom also excluded gambling proceeds, but that was the clan’s loss.
He’s probably found me a woman. Xander winced as past candidates sprang to mind.
Thank God he couldn’t be forced into marriage. Nesshin courtship law bound the suitor to approach the prospective bride’s father. After an exhaustive interview, the family patriarch would either give his blessing or irrevocably veto the union.
However, tradition didn't stop most grooms’ parents from voicing their opinions—a right that Altor Sykes often exercised.
Very well, Xander decided. I will hear my father out, nod when appropriate, and ignore his advice.
Glad to be free of Azil, but anxious over what awaited him inside, Xander hopped onto the lumbering wagon. He stepped through the back door as he had a thousand times. But somehow this time felt different.
            “You wish to see me, Father?” Xander asked as he entered the quartermaster’s cramped chamber. Dry sterile air gave way to the tang of spices, sawdust, and hot metal.
Altor sat cross-legged on a Thysian rug clutching a piece of silvered glass and a file in his callused hands. Xander sat down before his iron-haired sire without waiting for an invitation. Of all the Nesshin, he alone had that privilege.
The quartermaster worked in silence.
Xander glanced around the room. A jumble of heirlooms adorned the walls—relics of a vanished life. Most prominent were the mirrors, resplendent in frames of exquisitely carved hardwood. They were his father’s masterworks, testaments to a man who’d lost everything only to start again. He’d learned the trade to support a family—a son, and for a time, a loving bride.
            For far too short a time.
            At length, Altor set the silvered pane aside. “Yes, I sent for you. I’m surprised Azil brought you so soon. I didn’t expect you until after we made camp.”
            “You are still busy with the mirror,” Xander observed. “I’m sorry I interrupted you.”
            A smile made its way onto Altor’s weathered face. “Interrupted? Not at all. There is never an end to work. There is always time to speak with one’s son.”
            Xander studied the gleaming square at his father’s feet. Only then did he notice fine traceries in the polished surface: ethereal towers, birds, and people frozen in silver. Reflected lamplight filled the mirror’s sky with flickering stars.
That must be the world as it was before the Cataclysm, Xander thought. But never having seen Mithgar before its fiery chastisement, he couldn't be sure.
“You seem well suited to your new post,” Altor said. “Guarding the caravan is a vital task—especially now, if rumors among the trading camps have any substance.”
Xander seethed. He’d endured more than his share of humiliation already. “Why did you call me, Father? Was it to judge my worth as a guard, or have you another heavy-handed plan to make me a proper Nesshin? Should I betroth an obnoxious girl from a minor house desperate to win your favor? I know I can trust you to make the right match. What about Galia, Azil’s daughter? She has the perfect mix of frivolity and blind slavery to tradition!”
Altor’s head sagged. “So,” he sighed, “a deluded old man, enslaved by tradition and blind to his son’s wishes—is that how you see me, Xander?”
“No.” Xander lowered his eyes as regret stirred inside him. “But I often suspect you think me just a boy whose decisions must be made for him.”
Altor chuckled halfheartedly. “What irony that you should confess such feelings now, considering the offer I've chosen to make you.”
Taken aback, Xander weighed his father’s choice of words. “An offer? Is there a reason you use business terms with me?”
Altor nodded. “Business is precisely what I wish to discuss.” He took up his tools with shaking hands. “You see, my skill is leaving me. This piece will be my last. It’s my penance, perhaps—the price Zadok demands for sparing me from his judgment. Nevertheless, I doubt that God would begrudge an old man’s desire to pass on his life’s work. I would like to entrust my craft to you, Xander. If you agree to learn, I will teach you to fashion mirrors as the Highwater smith taught me.”
Xander brooded in silence. At last he spoke. “I respect what this offer means to you Father, but you know I cannot accept. I’m not like you. I do not wish my future laid out for me. I want to find my own way; to build my own life. Like you did.”
Altor shook his head. “I see. Somehow I knew your answer.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“As a mercy,” Altor said. “God made the land. Those whom he calls may walk it unafraid. That is the Nesshin way, and it saved us when the cities became tombs. Better to eke out a living in the wasteland than to die in the old world’s shattered remains.
“I know, my son, how you long for a place in the clan. But you have always sought something nameless; intangible. That’s why our customs chafe you so. It pains me to do this, but it is my duty as a father.”
“To do what?”
Altor swallowed; then looked at his son. “You cannot stay with us, Xander. For your own sake, and for the love of God, you must leave the Nesshin.”
Xander gaped. He’d expected criticism, rebuke, even punishment, but not exile! The choice between banishment and an offer that his father knew he could not take seemed monstrously unjust.
“We will reach Medvia in six days,” Altor said. “Once our goods are sold, we’ll decamp for the harvest in Vale. You will remain. You’ll get along with the townsfolk, unless they find out your secret.”
Xander stared wide-eyed at his father. The old man knew about his hidden gift?
Altor’s mouth curved in a sad smile. “You keep no secrets from me, my son. Your mother called it God’s touch. This world is coming back to life, but too late for me.” Moisture rimmed his eyes. “I hope and pray son, that one day a woman will bless you with her love. Your mother gave me my most precious gift before she left us.”
Xander sat stunned, incredulous at what his father had said. His mother’s death was an open wound that time had never healed.
Tilting his grey head to peer at his son, Altor gave his final advice. “I thought that God’s wrath had stripped me of love,” he said. “Then He sent my Sarel, and we taught each other to survive. Don not grow cold, my son. Perhaps you need no one else, but you may find someone who needs you.”
Xander had entered the lead wagon as a favored son. Now he stumbled out as an exile. How dare he invoke the memory of my mother? Would he stoop so low to have the last word?
He didn't realize that he’d strayed from the caravan’s path until he heard the guards’ cries. Their voices became thin and strained as if emanating from a great distance, but distorted and stretched like the call of a rider on a speeding mount.
          Xander strained to see what was going on, but all he could make out were the dim figures of the caravan guards, who gestured frantically at the sky. A deep hum pounded in his head as the world dimmed and went black. Then blazing white. Then black again.

Big thanks to all my readers--especially the reviewers. I hope you enjoyed your first real glimpse at Souldancer. You've probably noticed that it's not just a rehash of Nethereal, and I'm pleased to report that no one (except a few close confidantes who already knew my plans for Book II) has foreseen the direction I'm taking the story in. You won't have to wait much longer to find out.

Saying that I put a lot of work into Souldancer is a huge understatement. I actually started it before Nethereal, and as of this writing I'm about 70% done with final revisions. In the meantime, if you haven't read Book I yet, there's no time like the present to start.

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