Cauldron of Fire, book five of the Blood on the Stars series, will be released next Tuesday, October 3.  I know a lot of you have been waiting anxiously, so I wanted to give you all a sneak peak of this book, the longest in the series.  Here is the first chapter…and a week from today, you’ll be able to get the whole book, and if you buy it in the first few days, you can get the special discounted price of $2.99, my way of saying thanks to all of you.

And check back this weekend…I’ll be posting chapter two on Saturday!

Chapter One

Excerpt from the Funeral Missive for Katrine Rigellus

It is with the gravest respect and honor—and a grief I can hardly describe—that I stand before you today on this solemn occasion.  Commander-Altum Katrine Rigellus was a hero of the Alliance, a warrior for us to emulate.  She represented the ideal of the Palatian warrior.  But she was more to me than that—more than a comrade in arms, more than an inspiration to those of us who had the fortune and honor to follow her into battle.  She was my friend.

Katrine and I were friends, despite the great differences in our stations and the fact that she was my commanding officer.  Though we were born into vastly different realities, never once in all the years I knew Kat did she treat me as anything but a close friend and companion.  All I have achieved, all I aspire to one day attain in service to Palatia and the Alliance, I owe to her.

I could regale everyone here today with a recitation of her many victories and honors, but I will leave that to others more suited to such tasks.  I shall, instead, indulge in a display of affection and loyalty, one perhaps beyond that common between warriors and comrades in arms.  I will dwell not on the many battles Katrine won, but instead on the final one…the one she lost.  The one that took her from us.  The one I was compelled to miss.  The one that has gone unavenged.

My words are not those spoken in acclamation by the men and women who served under her, nor the language of admiration and respect from the senior officers who commanded her.  No, I speak rather as a childhood friend, and my message is a personal one, sworn with all the intensity that resides in my soul.

I, Optiomagis Jovi Grachus, speak now, to this august body of mourners, and swear this oath to all of you, and to the shade of she who was as a sister to me.  I shall not rest.  I shall avenge my friend.  I shall destroy those who took her life, and no force or power will stop me.

Interplanetary Space

Athenae System

Year 62 (311 AC)

“Dragons, pattern Epsilon-2.  We’re going in, cutting around the fringe of that attack formation.”  Jovi Grachus sat wedged into the cramped and uncomfortable cockpit, directing the moves of her Palatine fighter as though the sleek, eighty-ton craft was an extension of her own body.  The Palatines were powerful ships, but sometimes treacherous to fly, at least for inexperienced pilots.  But Grachus was an ace, and she worked her fighter the way a virtuoso coaxed melodies from a violin.

“Acknowledged, Optiomagis.”  Her second-in-command answered first, but Optio Gillus won that race by only the slightest of margins.  Every pilot in Red Dragon squadron snapped out his or her reply within a second or two, the efficiency of the small war machine Grachus had built evident in both the tone and speed of the acknowledgements.  She was proud of her people.  Damned proud.

She rolled her head around on her shoulders, trying to force out the knots.  Fatigue was creeping in from the edges of her mind.  This was her peoples’ second sortie of the battle, and she already had two kills to add to her roster.  Illustrious’s flight crew had turned her ships around in what had to be close to record time.  She’d been breathing down their necks the whole time, of course, but that didn’t take away from the good work they’d done.  And nothing changed the fact that Grachus had been going full bore for twelve hours under combat conditions.  She’d popped a small handful of stims to keep her going, but that wasn’t the same thing as being fresh.

Fresh isn’t in the cards now…

“I’m going to count down.  On one, we’re going to overpower our thrusters.  I want reactors at one hundred ten percent.”  The extra burst of thrust would allow her small attack force to reach the enemy’s bombers before their interceptors could interfere.  Then her people could swing about and meet the fighters coming back at them on something like even terms.  And at even odds, the Red Dragons didn’t lose dogfights.

Grachus leaned forward, bringing her lips closer to the comm.  The unit extended out from her console on a small telescoping arm.  It was a special setup, one she’d gotten Illustrious’s crew chief to rig up for her—a special accommodation for the ship’s top pilot.  She hated the normal headsets.  Her head was small, and she’d never managed to get one of the things to stay put on her, especially during the wild maneuvers she pulled in battle.  Just one small privilege of her rank and notoriety.

“Three,” she said, coldly, with the almost-monotone delivery that told her pilots even their celebrated commander knew she was pushing things to the limit.

She tightened her hand around the throttle, feeling the rough, slip-resistant material under her slightly moist fingers.  She had a reputation as a stone cold warrior, one who was afraid of nothing, and she’d done all she could to encourage that useful fiction.  Such foolishness had its uses, of course, certainly in terms of career advancement in a service like that of the Alliance, but still, it was nonsense.  She was afraid in the cockpit, as scared as any other pilot who climbed into a fighter and blasted off into battle, and she had the clammy hands and sweat on her neck to prove it.  She just never let it interfere with her actions.

“Two.”

She centered herself, banishing the fear, the doubt, pushing it all back into the place she kept it in combat.  She’d resolved long ago that duty would always come first, and she’d sworn, to herself at least, she was willing to die in battle without complaint if that was her fate.  It was who she was at her core, but even more, it was a debt she owed to her mentor.  Grachus knew she would still be on the estate now, working in a menial job, or at best serving as a bottom grade trooper in a garrison legion, had it not been for her unlikely childhood friend, Katrine Rigellus.

“One.”  She moved the controls with her right hand, even as her left dropped down to the small lever that regulated her ship’s reactor.  Her fingers moved lightly, pushing it to the side and then up, ignoring the AI’s almost immediate warning that the system was now operating beyond its rated capacity.

She could hear the familiar hum behind her grow louder.  It wasn’t an enormous difference, probably nothing most pilots would even notice, but Grachus was painstakingly familiar with every aspect of her fighter.  She’d tried to train her people, even intimidate them into following her lead, but for all their skill and aptitude, she’d never had much success getting them to emulate their leader’s almost uncanny connection to the Palatine craft.  There was a rhythm to a fighter’s sounds, and more than once her singular affinity for her ship’s idiosyncrasies had saved her life.  But that gift was one she’d found difficult to share effectively with comrades who didn’t naturally possess it.

She glanced over at her scanner, confirming what she already knew.  The vector change her people had just executed was taking them around the enemy interceptors.  Her adversaries were good, she knew that much.  She’d served with some of them before, in the Alliance’s many battles with its enemies.

But now it is Alliance warriors who are the enemy…

The opposing interceptor squadrons were already adjusting, attempting to match the maneuver her people had just executed.  She nodded, a perfunctory acknowledgment that the squadron lined up against her was likely almost as good as her own.

Almost…

Grachus checked her ships, making sure they were all in the tight formation she’d ordered.  Her maneuver, and the risk she was taking abusing the reactors of the squadron’s vessels, would buy her people a jump, but only a short one.  Those were Alliance pilots out there against them, even if they served the false Imperator, and they wouldn’t be so easily fooled again.

Imperator Tarkus I.  Once, the very idea of Tarkus Vennius in the Alliance’s highest office would have thrilled her.  Vennius had been a frequent visitor to the Rigellus estate, and a good friend to Kat—even somewhat of a father to her after Lucius Rigellus was killed in battle.  Vennius had even been respectful to Grachus, accepting her as Kat’s friend when most others of rank and privilege either barely acknowledged her existence or actively shunned her.

Katrine had been at the pinnacle of the estate’s ecosystem, the sole heir to her patrician family’s vast wealth and power.  Grachus, on the other hand, had been near its bottom, the child of a once moderately prosperous Prob clan that her grandfather’s disgrace had reduced to poverty and Pleb status.  But despite the enormous gulf between the young girls, they had grown up together, and as an adult, Katrine had not forgotten her friend.  She’d used her considerable influence to obtain a place for Grachus in the Ordeal, and then later at flight school.  On graduation, Kat’s sponsorship had resulted in a commission for Grachus, and a chance at a real career in the Alliance’s military.  Years later, when Katrine took command of Vindictus, she’d had Grachus transferred to her wings, where she’d groomed her ward for eventual squadron command.  In due course, Kat had even managed to secure Grachus’s advancement to Citizen status, an almost unheard of leap for the scion of a disgraced Pleb family.

But Grachus’s respect for Vennius was gone.  It had become shaky as she wondered what role the old man had played in the decision that led to Kat’s mission to Santis, and to her death.  But when word had reached her that Vennius had allied with the Confederation—not only the Confederation, but with the very officer that had killed Kat—her shaken respect turned quickly to hatred.

She hadn’t wanted to believe, at first, that Vennius had started the civil war with his grab for power, nor that he’d abducted and later murdered the Imperatrix, but seeing him consort with the Confeds who’d killed Kat had convinced her.  She had sworn to avenge her friend, and she would do whatever it took to fulfill that oath.  Even side with a pig like Calavius, and acknowledge him as Imperator.

“We’re coming in now, Dragons.  Let’s do what we do best.  I want this bomber formation shattered, and I want it done before those interceptors get to us.  That gives us…”  She glanced down at the chronometer to check, though she already knew the answer.  “…ninety-five seconds.  That’s not long, so make your shots count.”

She gripped the throttle tightly and took a deep breath.  “Break,” she said into the microphone, as she jerked her hand hard to the side, bringing her fighter around and angling the vector of its thrust.  There were almost forty bombers on her display…and twelve interceptors in her squadron.  But the heavy assault kits slowed the attack craft, and denied them any weapons beyond the large-payload plasma bombs.  They were sitting ducks for a force of ships fitted for fighter to fighter combat, especially one as tight and capable as the Dragons.

Grachus angled her ship again, continuing to alter the vector of thrust, closing on her first chosen target.  She thought for an instant about holding her missiles, attacking the bombers with lasers only and saving the heavier weapons for the interceptors she knew were coming.  But strafing runs took time, especially for ships burdened with bulky missiles, and her people had to take down as many bombers as possible in a very short time.  Twenty-four missiles would go a long way toward getting the job done.

“Missile attacks…now.”  Her pilots had no doubt considered the same facts she had, but she figured a few of them might have held back the heavy weapons anyway, at least without a clear command to launch.

Her eyes were focused on the scope, tapping the throttle gently, locking her first missile on one of the bombers.  Her finger tightened on the firing stud, and the fighter bucked hard as the weapon blasted out of its cradle, streaking toward the enemy ship, accelerating at 25g and adjusting its thrust angles every few milliseconds in response to its target’s maneuvers.

She swung her hand hard to the side, feeling the g forces slam into her again as her engines blasted with one hundred ten percent of her reactor’s standard energy production.  The dampeners absorbed some of the force, but not enough to avoid a considerable amount of pain, especially in her chest, where the two ribs she’d broken weeks before were still tender.  But pain meant even less to her than fear, and she gritted her teeth and powered through.

Her eyes were fixed on her second target, even as she saw out of the corner of her eye that her first missile had claimed its victim.  She felt the usual burst of excitement at the kill, if a weak one.  Shooting down bombers was almost child’s play, at least to a pilot of her skill.  Something about it had always felt subtly wrong, and she much preferred going up against other interceptors, despite the increased difficulty and danger.  Alliance culture was based on victory at any cost, but there was a heavy adherence to honor as well, and little of that was to be gained destroying nearly-helpless targets.

She pressed the firing button again, sending her second missile on its way, looking almost immediately afterward at the long-range display.  The enemy interceptors were inbound, about fifty seconds from entering range.  Her hand tightened on the controls, and her mind shifted to the coming danger even as she fired her lasers, destroying a third bomber.  Most enemies would have broken and fled by now, but she knew her former Alliance comrades would fight to the end.

This civil war will be the bloodiest conflict in history.  The very thought of two sides fighting each other, each raised and trained to Alliance ideals, adhering to the way, was terrifying in its implications.  The way is the way.  How many times had she said it, thought it?  But never against fellow Palatians.  Never before now.

But she didn’t care.  The cost was irrelevant.  She had one goal, and one goal alone.  To avenge her lost friend.  To kill those responsible for Katrine Rigellus’s death.  And Tarkus Vennius and his Gray Alliance followers had become the proxies for her vengeful rage.

She brought her ship around, nodding approvingly as the scanner confirmed her people had taken out almost half the bombers.  The rest were trying to move away, breaking their formations and expending massive amounts of fuel to do it.  The evasive maneuvers would cost the survivors their chance at completing their attack runs.  By any measure, the mission was a success.  Her people had done their duty for Illustrious and the other battleships.  Now they would be fighting for themselves.

“Enemy fighters coming in.  Let’s go get ‘em.  And watch yourselves…they’ve got missiles and we don’t.”  She stared ahead, eyes narrow and focused.  The lead wave of interceptors had launched their heavy weapons.  Grachus watched as three streaked toward her, their onboard AIs adjusting the missiles’ vectors to home in on her fighter.  But she was already responding, blasting hard to port, putting every bit of thrust her ship could produce into a series of wild evasive maneuvers.  Missiles were no joke, and she concentrated hard, knowing one of the deadly drones could finish her in an instant.  But she knew every aspect of the Alliance’s weapons, their acceleration capacity, tactical programs, range.  There were dangers in fighting other Alliance warriors, but there were advantages too, familiarity with their systems being one.

She brought her ship around hard, watching as, one by one, the small dots on her screen began flashing—missiles that had exhausted their fuel.  Those weapons were still deadly, but with no more thrust, they were stuck on constant vectors and velocities, and thus were easy to avoid.

She spared a quick glance at the screen.  She had lost one ship to the barrage.  No, two.  But Sestus had managed to eject, and his beacon was transmitting.  So, only one dead.  So far.

“Let’s go, Dragons.  It’s down to lasers against lasers.”  Her tone was cold, focused.  This was a knife fight…and she almost pitied the pilots coming up against her pack of ruthless killers.  “Let’s do what we do best.”