Evil has triumphed. The Eternal War rages, devouring the lives and passions and dreams of everyone it touches.

Society is corrupted after centuries of carnage. The rebels take action, but after a botched assassination attempt, even more than their lives are at risk.

Yet even in the darkest of places, and the most hopeless of times, there’s a spark. A chance for love to bloom, for hope to be renewed. The rebels will take a stand, will unite against the forces that control them.

Only history can say if they will triumph.

A dark steampunk fantasy novel for adults.

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Chapter 1

The rattle of machine-gun fire along the endless trenches of the Eternal War’s frontier was constant. If it wasn’t happening nearby, Sergeant Levek heard it coming from further up or down the line instead. Soldiers grew used to it, along with the countless other nuisances and plagues that came with life at the front.

Ticks and fleas, the hacking cough of illness that spread so fast through the ranks, the various flesh-rot diseases which got a plethora of colourful names from the men. Just a taste of the miseries they endured day after day, until one day it ended.

And that day was always their last.

Sure, Levek knew men who had escaped. The man had served long enough at the front to have witnessed deserters running off. Most of those were shot before they ever got out of sight of the great barrier of trenches and pillbox bunkers. Most of the rest starved in the barren, cratered wastes beyond. Those who made it to the forests past that… they mostly starved too. Though a few—a lucky few—he knew…

It didn’t matter. Levek was a man of commitment. He didn’t believe in the war, but he valued the lives of his men. He was better than most enlisted officers; that wasn’t ego speaking. The tall, swarthy man had just survived longer than most any other, and it was because he was cautious. Both with his life and the lives of those he was in charge of. He’d learned the ins and outs, not only of combat, but of trench politics, and that last part was most important of all.

As dreary as life was for him at the front, however, one day that usually brightened the moods of the men was the arrival of the new conscripts. They got little to no training, but their arrival meant forces were shored up and duties were alleviated, if only a little, for a brief amount of time. And since news from home was rare, the bright young faces of new fodder tended to perk up the men.

For Levek, though, it was a bit of a bittersweet moment. For he knew what awaited those young fools.

The horse-drawn carts arrived over what was once railroad track. The old rails long deteriorated from lack of use. They were too expensive to maintain, machine parts far too rare, and with the war being a slow slog that never shifted lines more than a couple of miles in either direction, a steady rather than fast flow of goods was important.

Watching the young faces disembark from the carts, though, Sergeant Levek couldn’t help but notice one in particular.

She certainly didn’t blend in with the others. Her body was too tiny, her face too youthful, her eyes far too hopeful for being in such a horrid place. With her flaxen hair held up in a bun she stretched as her feet touched solid ground.

Her clothes were ill fitted, the simple brown colour blending against her tan skin, and she looked around her with such wonderment. Her wide, hazel eyes found him staring at her, and it was the warmest, gentlest smile he had ever seen. It was innocent and pure unlike anything else he’d known as she drank him in.

Women were so rare at the front, especially ones like her. Usually when a family was forced to offer up a daughter for service because they had no or too few sons, they offered up the biggest or homeliest of daughters they had. The ones least likely to make a life for themselves behind the front. But her?

He swallowed, suddenly feeling oafish in his big brown military trench coat, having not shaved in a few days. He was over six feet tall, with a handsome, rugged look to him. Black hair and brown eyes, he would’ve been a handsome man back home if not for the grime of the front and the harshness it’d put to his face. He was in his thirties, though even he’d lost count of where exactly, and the beautiful young woman looked too good to be true.

His heart wept for her then and there. She should not be here, he thought. It was a crime.

He’d found himself approaching her without even realizing it. He wanted to turn away, for he knew it’d be painful to talk with her, to know what her fate was here. But it was too late.

“Ya lost, miss?” he asked in his dark voice, a bit scratchy from the smoke, fumes, and worse of the front.

That bright smile never faded and she glanced around the area once more. “Uhm, yep.” She paused, her hands knitted behind her back as she looked up at him. “The medic station? That’s where they told me to report.”

Figures, he thought. She was too small, too delicate for even the callous commissioned officers to assign to combat duty. Not that it’d save her. It was only a slower death sentence at best.

He raised a hand and pointed towards a large wood-and-tarp structure. “That’s the place ya lookin’ for, lil’ miss.” He caught himself. “I mean, Private.” He cracked a light, wry smile. He was her superior of course, the pips on his collar marking him as a Sergeant, but still, it wasn’t appropriate from his perspective. Even if he was near alone on that mark.

The joy that bubbled forth was surreal. It simply wasn’t possible for one person to radiate such feelings of warmth and tenderness just because they smiled. Just because of the way she looked at him. It was as if she’d given him something so remarkably special with simply her facial expression.

One of her hands came from behind her back, the tanned flesh looking so soft and supple despite the fact that she must have spent a lot of time in the sun. “I’m Caslian.”

“Levek,” he managed, though his voice nearly trembled saying it as he held her soft, delicate hand. “Here’s hopin’ I don’t need to see you again,” he said with a wry, good-natured smile, “but here’s hopin’ I do all the same.”

So long at the front being hard and formal, yet this one woman managed to lure out the man within just like that. Got him talking like he was a real, honest-to-goodness person once more, and not the grimy trench rat he’d become.

She squeezed his hand, and for a moment it was just the two of them, smiling and bonding on death’s stoop. They were both goners, sooner or later, but the moment seemed to stretch out for eternity until she finally retracted her hand. “Well, maybe a little boo-boo, then,” she offered with a musical giggle. “A little scrape and I’ll patch it up real good.”

He found himself grinning toothily almost immediately. “You’ll be the one I ask for.” Not that they allowed such things, of course. “You’ll be under Corporal Dren,” he said to her, “watch out. He’s not bad as they go, but he’ll work you to the point of passing out if you don’t fight back.”

That was the least of her worries, he thought. But how could he tell her that?

“Don’t worry, sir! I can look out for myself.” Her voice was so teasing, that sparkle in her eyes infectious as she took a step back, glancing towards her little neck of the woods. “I hope to see you again, Levek.”

He nodded to her sharply then gave her a crisp salute. A more precise one than he’d given a superior officer in years. “Carry on, Private. Look after yourself. Can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.”

“You worry a lot, don’t you?” she teased. “I’m as healthy as an ox!”

She took another step backwards, then another, her hands once more entwined behind her bottom. “You just make sure you come see me for something minor, that’s all.”

“Guaranteed,” he said with a soft smile.

There was so much more he wanted to say as she walked away, but how could he? Warning her didn’t change anything. It never did. She could arm herself, be on guard, but what would it do? At best it’d delay the inevitable and make the men who finally came for her more foul tempered.

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