Ghost: A Star Runners Universe Novel is now available!
Would you like a sneak peek? Read on!
A woman carrying a small child ran from the trees at the settlement’s edge, her eyes bulging. She yelled at an old man standing at the well. He grabbed the child, and they disappeared. Panic swept through the huts. Two teenage boys sprinted through the huts and scurried up the mountain in the direction of Tanyo’s hunting party.
Taffman backed away and turned to the waterfall. Should they take their chances and jump? How far was the water below?
“Don’t even think about it,” Jacob said. “That’s not the way.”
Taffman made an attempt to slow his breathing. “Jacob—”
“That’s not my name,” he said, pushing Taffman against the cold rock. “Look at me. Stay here until it’s over. You hear me? Do not move from this spot.”
A machine-gun rattled in the distance. Single shots from a rifle responded. A ragtag group of villagers formed a broken battle line. Mostly old men, young boys and a few mothers all armed with black and red rifles or swords. One woman held jagged rocks within her apron.
An explosion ripped through the camp and sent Taffman’s ears ringing. Another blast tore apart a small hut near the cave, hurling thousands of splinters. The guard outside the cave stood upright, a large wooden shard penetrating his neck near the jugular.
“Guard!” Jacob yelled.
The guard gurgled and fell.
Another rumble hit the mountain above them. Rocks tumbled on the dying guard, shattering the gate to their makeshift prison. As the dust settled, Jacob tossed their guard’s rifle to Taffman and disappeared into the smoke.
The village burned. Fires reached into the treetops. Gusts twirled the flames. Villagers fought the blaze with water buckets and blankets, struggling to save their homes. Others remained hidden, trying to return fire at the unseen enemy lurking in the trees.
And then he saw them.
Warriors clad in black emerged from the forest like shadows, their skin covered in a tar-like pitch. Red stripes ran down their faces from their eyes to their jaws. It had to be the forces of the Ronhal Clan. The men leading the war party carried compact machine-guns. The line of villagers attacked with their primitive weapons, hurling rocks and unleashing single blasts from muzzle-loading rifles. Taffman braced himself as the two forces clashed in the burning village, bullets zipping through the air. One attacker gunned down a woman and her child as they fled. An elderly man stood from behind the well, hurling a spear at the warrior. The spear struck harmlessly on the armored shoulder, but the elder fled before the soldier returned fire.
The remainder of the paltry village defense melted under the relentless assault. Ronhal Warriors poured from the forest, murdering anyone who stood their ground. Other villagers withdrew, firing as they retreated.
Taffman glanced at the dead guard. The piece of wood remained in his throat as a growing pool of blood mixed with puddles of mist.
I must do something, he thought.
He kneeled and took aim with the ancient rifle. A Ronhal Warrior paused at the well, screaming at his men, directing their efforts toward Taffman’s side of the camp where the only opposition remained. The warriors hurried up the incline, firing endlessly into the villagers’ desperate attempt at a reformed battle line. The woman wielding rocks from her apron appeared in the tall grass, striking the leader in the head and knocking him to the side. Two warriors fired and the woman fell.
Taffman swore and fired, the rifle recoiling as it sent a cloud of smoke into the air.
Despite the villagers’ attempts at defense, the invading horde powered forward. Some hurled flaming projectiles toward the villagers to add more fire to the forest.
Taffman fired until the rifle clicked. He searched the guard for more ammunition. To his surprise, he found the Zahlian pilot’s pistol in the guard’s belt. He activated the gun and crawled through the path filled with rubble.
The Ronhal Warriors formed a line at the settlement’s edge, taking cover behind the fences lining the field. They fired into the defenders. Survivors withdrew up the mountainside as their numbers dwindled. Two women who hadn’t fled spun and twirled as machine-gun blasts tore into them. No one remained inside the village to return fire. Old men and women cowered behind rocks and fallen trees, holding children in their embrace as they awaited certain death.
Suddenly, a man covered in soot rushed out of a burning hut, sprinting through the decimated village toward the Ronhal Warriors. Taffman couldn’t see his face, but the man wore no shirt, his skin covered in ash. Using throwing knives, he dispatched two warriors before they knew he was there. A third, standing nearby, dropped when a sword plunged into his throat and pulled upward.
In the midst of the fire threatening to ignite the entire forest, Taffman remained on his stomach, unable to do anything but watch. The ash man spun through the warriors. Three fell in a heap by a single shot from a recovered rifle. Two more died in a flash from their machine guns. The man flipped, rolled in the grass, appeared from behind a burning building, split throats and withdrew before the warriors could return fire. Before Taffman realized it, a dozen warriors had fallen just past the center of town.
And the soot-covered man disappeared again.
Standing between the main battle line and the village, the Ronhal leader held his hand high as he stared in disbelief at his force lying on the ground behind him. Four warriors continued away from the settlement, their fire trained on villagers higher up the mountain. The leader and his five remaining men walked back to town, their weapons raised. They paused near the well and formed a perimeter around their leader. Taffman couldn’t hear, but he saw the leader speaking to his people.
Rising from behind the Ronhal leader, a hand emerged from the well and slapped around the man’s mouth. A knife thrust deep into the leader’s left eye, sending blood streaming. While straddling the well’s entrance, the ash man dropped three more attackers with a pistol and dropped the spent weapon. As the remaining two warriors spun around, the man hurled a knife into one’s throat and pushed the dead leader onto the last surviving attacker. The two tumbled into the mud around the well.
The man jumped to the ground as his sole remaining enemy crawled away in the mud, his machine-gun forgotten under his leader’s twitching body. The ash man strolled toward the crawling warrior pleading for his life, begging for mercy as he cried and pulled himself away on his stomach. The man placed one foot on the warrior’s back, yanked the head back, and cut his throat. Releasing his victim, he kicked the machine-gun into his hands.
Breathing heavy, the killer looked at Taffman. Blood mixed with gray ash over his face and body. Familiar cold, steel gray eyes stared back.
Taffman’s jaw dropped as they peered at one another across the flaming landscape. The man he had trekked through the forest with was more than a killer—he was the grim reaper himself.
In the distance, the firefight continued at a higher elevation as the remaining warriors hunted the last of the fleeing villagers. Taffman turned to see the flames spreading out into the forest. When he turned back to the well, Jacob was gone.
Taffman shook his head. It had happened so fast. The attack. Jacob’s lethal response. It had been over in less than a few minutes. He had fired but hadn’t hit anyone. Jacob might have killed as many as two-dozen men in minutes. Who was he?
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