We are thrilled to announce that The Seventh Guardian will be published on July 22, 2022! Preorders are available now.
We are so grateful for the enthusiasm and support we've received, and to celebrate, we would love to share with you the first chapter of The Seventh Guardian. Spoilers ahead!
But first, another thank you. Thank you for sticking with us and thank you for your continued interest in the Tales of the Seventh Empire. We are so excited to share the conclusion of the trilogy and hope that you enjoy!
THE SEVENTH GUARDIAN
A demon’s blade descended but Iruchayo darted to the side before it could cleave his skull. Iruchayo efficiently hamstrung the hulking creature, which appeared more beast than man, with fangs, claws, and sharp spines along its back. With a roar the demon crashed to the ground and Iruchayo separated its head from its neck.
From first-hand accounts of the Imperial City, Iruchayo knew that these had once been men like himself. Some reported that there were still human souls trapped behind the glowing red eyes. At first that knowledge had made him reluctant to kill. It went against the warriors’ way to slay the innocent. If he were to betray the fundamental rules of war, even here with the fiends of hell bearing down on all sides, Iruchayo would become nothing. It could not be.
Not that it mattered in this case. The Lords of Lubai had held council after demons had erupted from the Imperial City. The demons had been collectively classified as enemies of all human beings, a true threat against Lubai and the Seventh Empire. The way was clear. The demons must be kept out of Lubai at all costs.
Iruchayo thrust his rokiro, or long sword,into the belly of a smallish demon. Its ensuing scream made the hair on Iruchayo's arms stand up. The demons were fierce creatures, all of them. Iruchayo beheaded the demon. That was the only way to be sure they would not rise and come after him again, or so the shamans maintained.
Iruchayo stepped back, letting another warrior take his place in the front rank. Then he turned to see a messenger wearing blue weaving through the melee toward him. “What is it?” Iruchayo demanded.
The young man snapped a salute and reported, “Demons have taken the southern fork of the imperial highway and are pressing against the Yashida-sadul and his men.”
Iruchayo immediately responded, “Send Nashito Matsuo’s unit to reinforce the Yashida-sadul.”
The messenger saluted again, “Yes, Taimiko!” and hurried away.
Iruchayo summoned one of his lower-ranked officers. “Have Kyung Jinsook pull his crossbowmen up behind the eastern flank; see if they can regain some ground.” The officer bowed and strode away with his hand upon the hilt of his rokiro.
Iruchayo looked around. Here in the thick of the fight it was difficult to gauge the battle as a whole. He repressed a sigh and scanned the field until he saw his second-in-command.
“Samusan-sar!” he called, “Take charge here!”
Iruchayo trudged a little further behind the lines then stopped for a moment to clean his sword. Once sheathed, the rokiro rested just above the ugisayo, a shorter sword that was rarely used in combat. The two swords worn together indicated that he belonged to a noble house of Lubai, the easternmost province of the Seventh Empire. The right to bear both the rokiro and ugisayo was granted by the Lords of Lubai, and was a high honor indeed.
Both of Iruchayo’s swords were engraved with many markings, called sae-ja, which matched characters tattooed across Iruchayo’s arms and shoulders, presently hidden under his clothing and armor. Each sae-ja had been consecrated by a shaman in Lubai. All warriors sought the honor, earned through battles won. It was a noble tradition dating back to the founding of Lubai. Iruchayo wore his sae-ja with quiet pride.
Pride will not help us now, he thought grimly. The highway was the last holdout. Demons had taken the southwestern gate of Ju-Longnak two days previously; since then it had been a slow but steady retreat for his men. Demons now controlled the entire western half of the city. The men of Lubai had maintained control of the highway—until now.
Iruchayo found his horse in the next street over. The reins were held by Tiro, a young attendant from Iruchayo's home estate. The lad had seen his first battle only last month. He had been pale and trembling then. Now Tiro’s face was stoic as he proffered the reins. The horse quivered with anticipation. Iruchayo ran a calming hand over his stallion’s shoulder.
“Where do you need me, Taimiko?” Tiro asked.
“I’m heading down to the southern fork.” Iruchayo moved up into the saddle with the ease of long-familiarity. His lamellar armor creaked as he settled. The stallion tossed his head and stamped a single hoof. “Make your way there; stay safe.”
“Yes, Taimiko,” Tiro said with a bow.
Iruchayo rode hard through the back roads of Ju-Longnak. Everywhere he heard the sounds of fighting, loud enough to drown the clack of hooves against paving stones. Iruchayo could feel the pulse of battle in his veins. It was an awareness that few men had. People from the western provinces called it Radiance, but the men of Lubai called it by the ancient name, Sai-aman. It was the spirit of a man or woman Awakened and alive. Iruchayo could feel the battle as though it were heat upon his skin from a nearby flame. The warmth grew stronger as he approached the rearguard. Warriors made way for him until Iruchayo could see the battle with his own eyes.
Demons frothed against the lines of spearmen, their red eyes mad with the Hunger. The men fought valiantly but they were being driven back, step by grudging step. Demons died in unthinkable numbers but the remaining ones did not stop. Could not stop. The Hunger drove them forward into the spears of the Lubai warriors.
Iruchayo acknowledged the Yashida-sadul as the young officer approached. Yashida SungHwa was only twenty-five years old but he had proven himself well before demonkind had invaded the land and he had continued to prove himself every day since. His skill was evidenced by an unusual number of sae-ja tattoos for one so young, matched by those on his rokiro and ugisayo. He saluted then turned to stand beside Iruchayo to look over the field of battle.
“I’ve sent orders to have a squad of crossbowmen join you,” Iruchayo told the younger man.
“They will be too late,” SungHwa replied.
Iruchayo raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never known you to accept defeat.”
SungHwa rubbed his face, leaving a reddish-brown streak he did not seem to notice. “I’m older now than I was before,” he stated simply.
Screams of the fighting and the dying filled the air. SungHwa’s men had already been pressed a full block east of the highway. It would not be long before they reached the southeastern side of the fork. That was the last route out of the city that was still held by the men of Lubai.
Iruchayo lowered his voice. “If we do not hold here, demons will press against the Wall of Erubai itself!”
SungHwa looked him straight in the eye. “We have held Ju-Longnak long enough to give our people the chance to flee. Why do you try to hold this place still? The Wall will hold better than our crude fortifications here. All that there is left to do in this place is die. But if you command it, Taimiko, my men and I will shed our lifeblood here.”
Iruchayo knew that it was true; SungHwa was not one to be sardonic nor to second-guess his commander. He was as loyal a man as Iruchayo had ever known and he inspired similar loyalty in his men. If they received such a command, Iruchayo knew that the Yashida-sadul and his men would fight here to the last man standing.
That was not a choice that Iruchayo would make. Reluctant though Iruchayo felt at the idea of giving way to the demons, SungHwa was right; there was no purpose in holding Ju-Longnak any longer.
“Call the retreat,” Iruchayo ordered. “We will fall back to the Wall.”
“Yes, Taimiko.” SungHwa strode away and in moments orders were being passed through the ranks.
Iruchayo looked over the streets. Blood stained the paving stones as far west as he could see. Bodies lined the streets. While some of them were clearly demonic, with twisted features, others were indistinguishable from the men of Lubai. The demons did not seem to care who they took as their captives. Men, women, even children had become red-eyed fiends—any that the demons could, they took.
And now demons would pour eastward in massive numbers to prey upon all the people they could find until reaching the Wall of Erubai, the last great defense of Lubai.
Iruchayo remembered the stories of his honored grandfather, who had himself once been Taimiko—commander of Lubai’s armies. According to Iruchayo’s grandfather, the emperor Kamgue had desired to see the Wall of Erubai dismantled. The Wall was a relic from the days before Lubai had joined the Seventh Empire, when the two nations had warred against one another. The Khudang-yun had reasoned that there need not be such a barrier between their confederate lands. But Iruchayo’s grandfather and all the Lords of Lubai had withstood the emperor’s wishes. Though the gates of Erubai had remained open these two hundred years, the Wall remained—and due to the diligence of Lubai—in good order, protecting one of the few reliable paths through the mountains into Lubai.
All praise be to my honored ancestors and their wisdom, Iruchayo thought with deep respect. Though he doubted the Wall of Erubai would protect his home from demons indefinitely, it provided a measure of safety upon which the people of Lubai would now depend.
“Retreat!” the call sounded. “Retreat!”
The demons roared as the humans withdrew. The sound shivered across Iruchayo's Radiance as he turned his stallion’s head and led his men eastward into the mountains.