No Safe Haven by James Lloyd Dulin
Genre: Dark Coming of Age Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: October 24, 2023
Publisher: G&D Publishing (Self Published)
Anger will not be quenched by blood alone.
The Missing, a rebel army that is little more than a rumor, may be Kaylo’s only path to exact his vengeance against the empire that claimed his home and killed his family. If it means a chance to balance the blood he owes, he will steal spirits and become the Missing’s tool, as long as they aim him in the right direction.
Eighteen years later, a war is raging between factions for control of Ennea. With Tayen, Kaylo, and Nix caught in the middle of a power struggle—Kaylo will have to find a way to fulfill the promise he made to Tayen, Nix must face the consequences of her betrayal, and Tayen will have to choose between vengeance and her spirit. When blood is owed, virtues will be challenged.
Author Bio & Information
James is a nerd with a head full of stories and limited time to put them on the page.
He grew up in Grand Rapids, MI, spending an excessive amount of time at a local community theater where he developed his affinity for storytelling. This affinity grew into a deep admiration for language and spoken word poetry while studying mathematics and education at the University of Michigan. A few hundred mediocre poems and lackluster performances later, he decided his dream of writing a novel might not be as ridiculous as he once thought. He firmly believes that art—even silly books about magic, or maybe especially silly books about magic—has the ability to tell stories that sink beneath the surface.
Author website: https://www.jamesdulin.com/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/JamesLDulin
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/jameslloyd27/
TikTok – https://www.tiktok.com/@jamesldulin
Current Day Ennea
If the archer loosed her arrow, the bolt would tear through Tayen’s flesh and find the softest parts of her—mix and mingle her bile and blood.
A singular point to the left of Tayen’s spine burned as if the arrowhead had already pierced her flesh. Of course, she could never predict where the arrow would hit. But after two days of the purple- clad warrior training her sights on Tayen, her imagination had picked a spot as likely as any other.
Her life belonged to the discipline of a stranger.
Yet again, she had lost control over her place in this world. Her body screamed at her to run, or fight, to do something other than submit. Instead, she marched north, bound to the rest of the sorry sods the Lost Nation had stolen from Dasoon.
The whistle Tayen’s sister had carved for her brushed against the skin under her shirt. This small length of wood tied around her neck with twine was all that remained of her family.
She had to persist.
Gashes and cuts marred the tanned leather vests the warriors wore over their purple robes, like proof they had survived the raging war. Whereas Tayen’s threadbare robes wouldn’t even protect her from the snow-dusted north.
If only Kaylo had allowed her to fight, they might have had a chance to escape. Instead, the rope binding her to the others rubbed back and forth over her wrists, scraping away another layer of skin.
Every step brought her closer to the unpassable forest of towering stormwood trees—their majesty tempered only by their foreboding. The dark wood took over the horizon, accented by the light layer of snow dusting the empty branches. After today, any hope of escape would fade, like a dream in the morning light.
It’s real, she thought as she stood in the shadow of the forest that had become a myth.
If the stories could be trusted, the forest grew so dense that anyone who entered without the spirit of The Seed to guide them would be trapped amongst the trees forever. It sounded like a daemontale, but looking on the immensity of it, she couldn’t help but believe.
Two warriors strode towards the tree line. A shimmering green light broke through the gaps between their fingers as they each stopped and pressed an empty hand to a tree. The wood cracked. Black bark lightened and brittle branches broke, falling to the surrounding ground. Limbs above turned to dust and debris, then the trunks collapsed inward. Two crumbling columns fell and the ash of what
had been unbreakable giants swept up into the air, erasing the warriors from view.
As the cloud settled, the warriors remained, but the trees had vanished. The living giants had done nothing to deserve their fate.
“Is that really the only way through?” Tayen asked.
“Forget the stories. There’s nothing mysterious about the Lost Forest,” Kaylo said. “The Lost Nation built a maze of stormwoods with no path through to the other side. Plenty of entrances, but no exits.”
“Couldn’t the Empire just burn the forest to the ground?”
“They’ve tried,” Wal said from atop an immense horse covered in leather armor.
How did the boy from Kaylo’s story become a smug bastard in command of a Lost Army regiment? Tayen wondered.
Wal looked like he could have been an uncle, which only made him more despicable. Most of the Lost Nation warriors were northerners, with golden-brown skin and closely cropped curly black hair. But
Wal’s skin bore the same shade of cedar brown as Tayen and Kaylo, his tight gray braids mapping his head in an intricate pattern before falling over his shoulders. If not for the series of small shapes tattooed in rows over each cheek, he could have been kin.
Every time she glared at him, she filtered all her hatred into a look. But in case he was completely oblivious, she regularly told him she hated him to clear up any confusion.
“Stormwood doesn’t burn easy. Even if they burned down one tree, the fire wouldn’t spread like a typical forest fire,” Kaylo said.
“By the time they burned three or four trees, we had taken position and rained arrows on their garrisons,” Wal said. “It was before my time in Astile, but the stories still bring a certain joy to my heart.”
The jackass could call the land beyond the forest Astile or the Lost Nation. It didn’t matter. Either way, the forest would trap her in a land that wasn’t hers.
She waited for Wal to meet her eyes. “I hate you.”
He smiled and drove his horse to lead the procession into the Lost Forest.
“You shouldn’t antagonize him,” Kaylo said.
“You’re right. I should thank him and the archer with an arrow aimed at my back for their hospitality,” Tayen said. “What would I ever do without you to guide me?”
“The arrows are to keep me in line. They won’t do anything to you.
They want us alive.” “Comforting.”
“Can you two stop bickering? I’m trying to enjoy my death march in peace,” Nix said from over Tayen’s shoulder.
Nix never should have tried to defend Tayen and Kaylo. For her trouble, the lost bastards bound her wrists and threw her in line with the rest of the conscripts.
Only The Mother knew how many times the Lost Nation had rounded up conscripts from Dasoon before Tayen and Kaylo came along. And Nix had never interfered once. The protection and supplies the Lost Nation provided Dasoon kept it standing. Yet, for some reason, Nix intervened on their behalf.
It made no sense. In two moons, Nix had never shown a hint of care for either of them.
Another set of trees collapsed into nothing as the small opening in the forest wall slowly became a cavernous tunnel. The light from Sokan, the sun and Ennea’s First Daughter, died under the thick canopy of stormwood trees. The warriors wielding stolen fragments of The Seed disappeared into the darkness, the sound of ash collapsing to the forest floor calling back.
If only Kaylo could call The Seed, they could escape into the chaos of the forest, but of course, he could no longer hear The Song.
Another omission he had kept from her. The prick stowed away an endless supply of secrets, revealing them long after they would have been useful.
In theory, he could steal the fragments of The Seed trapped within the warriors’ crystals, but if anyone noticed, Tayen would be littered with arrows. She would fall to the ground looking like a bloody porcupine.
The remaining warriors struck up torches, and the light stretched into the darkness. A large, antagonistic lost bastard grabbed the rope binding the captives together and yanked them forward to begin the long march through the narrow corridor.
As the forest enveloped them, the shadows snuffed out any lingering hopes.
Something moved at the edge of the light, high in the trees. A warrior peered down from a wooden platform wrapped around the tree, tapping his bow on the platform’s edge like an invitation to test his skill. The rhythmic clicking echoed in Tayen’s head.
If the floorboards broke beneath him, the archer would tumble to the ground and break open like a melon. The thought of it warmed her ever so slightly.
“The Lost Nation doesn’t take risks. Even if the Gousht tried to push through with spirit crystals, their presence would be known,” Kaylo said.
Tayen nodded absently. There is no escape, she thought.
As she turned back towards the entrance, a warrior went to work regrowing the trees that had been felled. No escape at all.
When the last trees crumbled away, the light of the falling day rushed into the forest. Kaylo blinked away the sunspots in his vision, and the first glimpse of the Lost Nation came into focus. White snow clashed against the dying green grass. The land rippled with rolling hills as far as he could see. Sokan lowered, and the sky became a dark blue ocean, as wind blew a soft cold through the evening air.
In the days before common tongue, Astile meant serene. The name fit. No wonder the rest of Ennea felt like they had lost something when the nation cut itself off from the rest of the continent.
Large clay-brick buildings interrupted the picturesque scene— outposts for the border guard. The gray-wash facades dulled the landscape. No doubt the outposts spread out over every stretch of the tree line.
There is a reason their borders have held against the Gousht for over twenty-five turns, Kaylo thought.
The warriors went about their business, building fires and setting another pot of gruel to cook over the flames. They erected tents for Wal and his coterie. The rest—warriors and captives alike—would sleep in the grass and dirt and snow another night, hoping the fires would burn hot enough to keep the winter at bay.
At least the warriors had blankets without holes.
Kaylo sat with the other conscripts. His feet had grown used to the long days of travel, but his wrists stung from the constant drag of the rope. The same thick red circle burned the skin of each stolen body, like a marker of ownership.
Warring had a way of changing people. Before the Gousht, this had never been the way of Enneans.
Tayen sulked, sitting as far away from him as their wardens would permit.
Since he met her, she had taken a life, been hunted by the Gousht, and been conscripted by the Lost Army. He should have never gotten involved. Tayen was a smart girl with enough guile and glib to carry her through life on her own.
Beside her sat the former captain of the Dasoon city guard, a slow rhythm moving through the rise and fall of her shoulders. A sour luck followed those who came across Kaylo’s path.
On the other side of the firepit, the warriors milled about. The big dull one—though that hardly narrowed down the group—sat smiling and picking his nails with Kaylo’s knife, the knife his father had given him.
The warrior’s northern complexion looked even brighter in the firelight. Young, sharp jawline, warrior’s physique—he would have been pleasant to look at had he not been such a jackass. Only two small rows of tattoos marked his left cheek, fewer than most in the regiment. The prick found every opportunity to antagonize Kaylo ever since he had broken one of the warrior’s ribs back in Dasoon during their capture.
The knife ran through the grime under the warrior’s dirty nails. He had no way of knowing the knife’s significance. And yet, each swipe added to the disrespect.
A scraping sound stuck in Kaylo’s ear. The warrior sat too far away for it to be the knife, but nonetheless, the scraping persisted.
Better to ignore it.
Tired and settled as they may have been, each of the thirty-two warriors carried well-kept blades. Knowing he was a spirit dancer, none of them would be foolish enough to reach for a crystal without training an arrow on Tayen first. Fighting wouldn’t help anyone.
Kaylo dug his nails into the meat of his palm to ignore the scraping.
Then the bastard lifted the knife to pick his teeth. “How’s the rib feel?” Kaylo smiled wide as he could.
“Shut it, conscript.” The warrior’s hand fell to the injury on his right side. “In a fair fight, I’d break you like a chicken bone.”
“You mean one in which I’m not tied up, unarmed, and on my knees?” A quiet claimed the camp, and Kaylo had everyone’s attention. “You’re right, I took advantage. Would you like to blindfold me as well?”
The young warrior jumped up, stalking over to where Kaylo sat, white-knuckling the knife. It was too easy. Kaylo waited for him to get closer, brushing off his compatriots.
Big, mean, and quick-tempered, Kaylo thought. Fun combination.
“Don’t do it, Kaylo,” Nix said. “Kill yourself if you want, but leave me out of it.”
Kaylo stood up despite the warning and matched the warrior’s glare, though he had to look up to do so. An impartial observer would likely guess the younger man had the advantage. He had a knife in one hand, and Kaylo barely stood past his shoulder. However, most observers don’t look down.
The warrior stood flat-footed, while Kaylo bounced slightly on the balls of his feet. His bad knee was stiff, as always, but he didn’t feel any pain. He waited for the bigger man to move first.
“What is going on here?” Wal called from the opening of his tent. The warrior turned towards his commander.
That will do.
Kaylo jabbed his forearm into the larger man’s throat before kneeing him in the stomach. When the warrior buckled in half, Kaylo brought the force of his locked fists down on his opponent’s back.
Over two dozen swords scraped against their leather scabbards like a collection of whispers, as the young warrior collapsed to the ground.
Kaylo stepped away, smiling, with his bound hands high above his head.
Despite their youth, the warriors in Wal’s regiment were well- trained—for the most part. They wouldn’t kill him unless ordered to
or if he presented an immediate threat. At least, that was the gamble Kaylo had taken.
“Why can’t things ever be easy with you?” Wal said, the exasperation thick in his voice, as he walked towards the commotion with a large Tomakan woman on his flank.
Kaylo held up one finger before bending slowly to pick up the knife.
Several warriors shifted anxiously, but he turned the knife in his hands so the blade filled his palm. “Would you mind holding onto my father’s knife?”
Wal looked at him curiously, then down at the groaning warrior. “For an old friend?” Kaylo said.
“Old friend indeed.” Wal smiled. “You still have this old blade?”
With a simple motion from their commander, every warrior in his regiment sheathed their weapons. “I’ll take care of this. You have my word,” he said as he took Kaylo’s knife.
“As for you,” Wal said, rounding on the downed warrior. “Unarmed?
Wal toyed with Kaylo’s knife as he bent down to the level of the young northman, whose head hung like a scolded child. “This regiment isn’t for the weak. Maybe the front lines will help you prove your mettle.”
The young warrior lifted his head, his eyes begging for reprieve while he remained silent. All his unearned confidence vanished as Wal gestured for two warriors to escort the young man away.
Ever the performer, Wal opened his arms wide, turning to his audience. “Rest. The morning brings us another journey.”
Kaylo’s old friend cast him one last glance before strolling back to his tent with his guard in tow.
“Was that necessary?” Nix asked in a hushed tone.
For a moment, it had been the most necessary thing in the world. The turns had whittled away at his pride until only a sliver remained, in many ways, embodied by his father’s knife. However, protecting one’s pride could quickly sour to self-indulgence.
He did not answer Nix. Instead, he closed his eyes to lie on the patch of frozen earth beneath him.
Myanack, the capital city of Astile, sprawled out from a single mountain jetting up out of the flat earth. The mountain had no place in a land of rolling hills and grassy plains. It must have taken a dozen dancers a hundred turns or a hundred dancers a dozen turns to mold the earth into a city such as this.
Kaylo simply stared. The structures surrounding the mountain paled in comparison to the magnitude of the mountain hallow. The sheer scale alone humbled other structures manifested through the power of the spirits, no matter how ornate or unique.
A trail spiraled from the base to the peak, with tunnels burrowed into the mountain along the way. How many people could live in a hollowed-out mountain? Kaylo thought. Several hundred? A few thousand? Ten thousand?
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Wal asked with an earnestness that struck Kaylo as peculiar.
“It would be under different circumstances.” Kaylo motioned to his bound wrists.
“You do know how to spoil a moment, old friend.” Wal turned to his unit and shouted out his orders. “You four, see to the horses. The rest of you, take the new recruits to their training barracks. Take care with these two ladies. I am rather fond of them.”
Tayen spit at Wal’s boots, flashing him a rude hand gesture. Wal winked at her with a smile as a warrior restrained her.
“Be careful, Tayen. Do what they tell you. I will fix this,” Kaylo said. “Haven’t you done enough?” Her eyes were sharp, and her mouth
flattened into a straight line.
“Kids—The Mother’s blessing, am I right?” Wal smiled at his own quip as he cut Kaylo’s bindings from the rest of the conscripted.
As the warriors took the line of newly enlisted conscripts to the barracks at the base of the mountain, Wal guided Kaylo up the spiral mountain path. “I suppose I don’t have to remind you that if you do anything rash, Tayen will suffer the consequences?”
“Subtlety was never your strength. If you’re going to threaten me, do it. If not, why don’t you show me to my cell?”
Wal smiled his characteristic, full-toothed grin while he continued along the path in silence.
The higher they climbed, the clearer the view of the countryside became. Farmland outside the city stretched for days in every direction—some plots dormant for the winter, others fielding barley and other sturdy cold-weather crops.
These bastards could have fed the entire continent.
Wind blew in over the ocean cliffs to the west. High walls and steep drop-offs shielded the nation from the rest of the world. Give the Gousht a hundred turns and they would still be on the outside looking in. Kaylo had little chance of escaping.
“Welcome to the Citadel,” Wal announced before stepping into the mountain hallow.
As Kaylo stepped into the entrance, a shiver ran through him, shaking the last of the winter wind from his skin. Oil lamps, hung every twenty paces or so, lit the hallway. As dim and gray as the outside of the mountain was, the inside felt warm and welcoming. Vibrant tapestries hung along the walls, light flickering over the bright colors.
It brought Kaylo back to the days training in his first kana’s hallow. Munnie made her underground home a sanctuary. He forced himself to look straight down the tunnel. The comfort of those old memories had spoiled with age.
They passed several doors before they arrived at their destination, where Wal opened a stormwood door, gesturing Kaylo into his cell.
It was by far the nicest prison he had ever seen. A plush purple rug covered most of the flattened stone floor. The table was set for
guests, freshly cut winter honeysuckle in a vase. A bed of braided hay covered with a quilt lay waiting for him in the corner.
After almost four days of walking, the bed seemed to serenade him.
Two decorative sconces held unlit oil lamps on opposite walls. Kaylo ran a finger over the smooth stormwood. The filigree was ornate. Practiced hands matched each detail between the two
sconces. Only a master crafter could carve such hard, dense wood with this level of precision.
“You always had a thing for whittling,” Wal said from the doorway. “Calling this whittling is like calling Sokan a bright light. This is art.” “I’m glad you like it, old friend.”
“Come off it, Wal. What am I doing here?”
“This is one of our guest quarters, and you are a welcome guest.” Wal leaned against the wall and sighed heavily. “We don’t have to be enemies, Kaylo.”
“Then let me go.”
“I think you know I can’t do that. Ennea’s at war, and we have to win her back, no matter what it takes. You’re going to help us do that. After all, we have a responsibility to the people.”
“Your king isn’t my king, Wal.”
“Oh, don’t be shortsighted. Astile is the only hope Ennea has left. You once spoke of freeing the people, and this is the way to do that. Ennea needs to be united under a strong leader. We both know what happens when leaders fail.”
“And what will happen to those who refuse to be led?”
Wal dropped his smile as he met Kaylo’s eyes. His face settled, the tattoos on his cheeks underscoring his soft brown eyes. “Get some rest, Kaylo.”
When the door closed, Kaylo walked over to the bed. Small slits in the stone allowed daylight through, while venting the smoke from the brazier that heated the room. He sat on the braided hay, and Sokan’s light crossed the room as he considered his circumstances.