Black Halo (Aeons' Gate Series #2)by Sam Sykes
The Tome of the Undergates has been recovered, and the gates of hell remain closed. Lenk and his five companions set sail to bring the accursed relic away from the demonic reach of Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen, but their ship crashes upon an island made of the bones left behind from a war long dead. And it appears that bloodthirsty alien warrior women, fanatical… See more details below
The Tome of the Undergates has been recovered, and the gates of hell remain closed. Lenk and his five companions set sail to bring the accursed relic away from the demonic reach of Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen, but their ship crashes upon an island made of the bones left behind from a war long dead. And it appears that bloodthirsty alien warrior women, fanatical beasts from the deep and heretic-hunting wizards are the least of their concerns. Haunted by their pasts, plagued by their gods, tormented by their own people, their greatest foes may yet be themselves. The reach of Ulbecetonth is longer than hell can hold.
"Holy freaking bottle rockets, people! This book ROCKS!"
-Elitist Book Reviews, on Tome of the Undergates
"Sam Sykes does blood and noise in the liveliest tradition of contemporary fantasy, with all the brash vigor of youth, and with a sly, penetrating sensitivity all his own. Not many writers can give you fireworks and subtlety at the same time like he can."
-Scott Lynch, author of The Lies of Locke Lamora
"If you like your fantasy dark and twisted . . . The Aeons' Gate is a series tailor-made for you."
"Recommend[ed] for people who enjoy fantasy with some dark humor, violence, and chaos."
-Night Owl Reviews (four stars)
"I do not wish Sam Sykes dead."
-John Scalzi, author of Redshirts
"Epic, crude, dark, silly, scary, violent, and surprisingly tender."
-Rob Will Review
Read an Excerpt
Black HaloThe Aeon's Gate Book Two
By Sam Sykes
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Sam Sykes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSTEALING THE SUNRISE
Dawn had never been so quiet in the country.
Amid the sparse oases in the desert, noise had thrived where all other sound had died. Dawn came with songbirds, beds creaking as people rousted themselves for labor, bread and water sloshed down as meager breakfast. In the country, the sun came with life.
In the city, life ended with the sun.
Anacha stared from her balcony over Cier'Djaal as the sun rose over its rooftops and peeked through its towers to shine on the sand-covered streets below. The city, in response, seemed to draw tighter in on itself, folding its shadows like a blanket as it rolled over and told the sun to let it sleep for a few more moments.
No songbirds came to Anacha's ears; merchants sold such songs in the market for prices she could not afford. No sounds of beds; all clients slept on cushions on the floor, that their late-night visitors might not wake them when leaving. No bread, no water; breakfast would be served when the clients were gone and the girls might rest up from the previous night.
A frown crossed her face as she observed the scaffolding and lazy bricks of a tower being raised right in front of her balcony. It would be done in one year, she had heard the workers say.
One year, she thought, and then the city steals the sun from me, too.
Her ears twitched with the sound of a razor on skin. She thought it odd, as she did every morning, that such a harsh, jagged noise should bring a smile to her lips. Just as she thought it odd that this client of hers should choose to linger long enough to shave every time he visited her.
She turned on her sitting cushion, observing the back of his head: round and bronzed, the same color as the rest of his naked body. His face was calm in the mirror over her washbasin; wrinkles that would become deep, stress-born crevices in the afternoon now lay smooth. Eyes that would later squint against the sunset were wide and brilliantly blue in the glass as he carefully ran the razor along his froth-laden scalp.
"I wager you have beautiful hair," she said from the balcony. He did not turn, so she cleared her throat and spoke up. "Long, thick locks of red that would run all the way down to your buttocks if you gave them but two days."
He paused at that, the referred cheeks squeezing together self-consciously. She giggled, sprawled out on her cushion so that she looked at him upside-down, imagining the river of fire that would descend from his scalp.
"I could swim in it," she sighed at her own mental image, "for hours and hours. It wouldn't matter if the sun didn't shine. Even if it reflected the light of just one candle, I could be blinded."
She thought she caught a hint of a smile in the reflection. If it truly was such, however, he did not confirm it as he ran the razor over his scalp and flicked the lather into her basin.
"My hair is black," he replied, "like any man's from Cier'Djaal."
She muttered something, rolled up onto her belly, and propped her chin on her elbows. "So glad my poetry is not lost on heathen ears."
"'Heathen,' in the common vernacular, is used to refer to aman without faith in gods. Since I do not have such a thing, you are halfway right. Since gods do not exist, you are completely wrong." This time, he did smile at her in the mirror as he brought the razor to his head once more. "And I didn't pay for the poetry."
"My gift to you, then," Anacha replied, making an elaborate bow as she rose to her feet.
"Gifts are typically given with the expectation that they are to be returned." He let the statement hang in the air like an executioner's ax as he scraped another patch of skin smooth.
"If it was to be returned, you would just give me the same poem back. To recompense the gift means that you would give me one of your own."
The man stopped, tapped the razor against his chin, and hummed thoughtfully. Placing a hand against his mouth, he cleared his throat.
"There once was an urchin from Allssaq—"
"Stop," she interrupted, holding a hand up. "Sometimes, too, gifts can just be from one person to another without reprisal."
"In this case, I believe my word fits better." She drew her robe about her body, staring at him in the mirror and frowning. "The sun is still sleeping, I am sure. You don't have to go yet."
"That's not your decision," the man said, "nor mine."
"It doesn't strike you as worrisome that your decisions are not your own?"
Anacha immediately regretted the words, knowing that he could just as easily turn the question back upon her. She carefully avoided his stare, turning her gaze toward the door that she would never go beyond, the halls that led to the desert she would never see again.
To his credit, Bralston remained silent.
"You can go in late, can't you?" she pressed, emboldened.
Quietly, she slipped behind him, slinking arms around his waist and pulling him close to her. She breathed deeply of his aroma, smelling the night on him. His scent, she had noticed, lingered a few hours behind him. When he came to her in the evening, he smelled of the markets and sand in the outside world. When he left her in the morning, he smelled of this place, her prison of silk and sunlight.
It was only when the moon rose that she smelled him and herself, their perfumes mingled as their bodies had been the night before. She smelled a concoction on him, a brew of moonlight and whispering sand on a breeze as rare as orchids. This morning, his scent lingered a little longer than usual and she inhaled with breath addicted.
"Or skip it altogether," she continued, drawing him closer. "The Venarium can go a day without you."
"And they frequently do," he replied, his free hand sliding down to hers.
She felt the electricity dance upon his skin, begging for his lips to utter the words that would release it. It was almost with a whimper that her hand was forced from his waist as he returned to shaving.
"Today was going to be one such day. The fact that it is not means that I cannot miss it." He shaved off another line of lather. "Meetings at this hour are not often called in the Venarium." He shaved off another. "Meetings of the Librarians at this hour are never called." He slid the last slick of lather from his scalp and flicked it into the basin. "If the Librarians are not seen—"
"Magic collapses, laws go unenforced, blood in the streets, hounds with two heads, babies spewing fire." She sighed dramatically, collapsing onto her cushion and waving a hand above her head. "And so on."
Bralston spared her a glance as she sprawled out, robe opening to expose the expanse of naked brown beneath. The incline of his eyebrows did not go unnoticed, though not nearly to the extent of his complete disregard as he walked to his clothes draped over a chair. That, too, did not cause her to stir so much as the sigh that emerged from him as he ran a hand over his trousers.
"Are you aware of my duty, Anacha?"
She blinked, not entirely sure how to answer. Few people were truly aware of what the Venarium's "duties" consisted. If their activities were any indication, however, the wizardly order's tasks tended to involve the violent arrest of all palm-readers, fortune-tellers, sleight-of-hand tricksters, and the burning, electrocution, freezing, or smashing of said charlatans and their gains.
Of the duties of the Librarians, the Venarium's secret within a secret, no one could even begin to guess, least of all her.
"Let me rephrase," Bralston replied after her silence dragged on for too long. "Are you aware of my gift?"
He turned to her, crimson light suddenly leaking out of his gaze, and she stiffened. She had long ago learned to tremble before that gaze, as the charlatans and false practitioners did. A wizard's stink eye tended to be worse than anyone else's, if only by virtue of the fact that it was shortly followed by an imminent and messy demise.
"That's all it is: a gift," he continued, the light flickering like a flame. "And gifts require recompense. This"—he tapped a thick finger to the corner of his eye—"is only given to us so long as we respect it and follow its laws. Now, I ask you, Anacha, when was the last time Cier'Djaal was a city of law?"
She made no reply for him; she knew none was needed. And as soon as he knew that she knew, the light faded. The man that looked at her now was no longer the one that had come to her the night before. His brown face was elegantly lined by wrinkles, his pursed lips reserved for words and chants, not poems.
Anacha stared at him as he dressed swiftly and meticulously, tucking tunic into trousers and draping long, red coat over tunic. He did not check in a mirror, the rehearsed garbing as ingrained into him as his gift, as he walked to the door to depart without a sound.
There was no protest as he left the coins on her wardrobe. She had long ago told him there was no need to pay anymore. She had long ago tried to return the coins to him when he left. She had shrieked at him, cursed him, begged him to take the coins and try to pretend that they were two lovers who had met under the moonlight and not a client and visitor who knew each other only in the confines of silk and perfume.
He left the coins and slipped out the door.
And she knew she had to be content to watch him go, this time, as all other times. She had to watch the man she knew the night before reduced to his indentation on her bed, his identity nothing more than a faint outline of sweat on sheets and shape on a cushion. The sheets would be washed, the cushion would be smoothed; Bralston the lover would die in a whisper of sheets.
Bralston the Librarian would do his duty, regardless.
"Do you have to do that?" the clerk asked.
Bralston allowed his gaze to linger on the small statuette for a moment. He always spared enough time for the bronze woman: her short-cropped, businesslike hair, her crook in one hand and sword in the other as she stood over a pack of cowering hounds. Just as he always spared the time to touch the corner of his eye in recognition as he passed the statue in the Venarium's halls.
"Do what?" the Librarian replied, knowing full well the answer.
"This is not a place of worship, you know," the clerk muttered, casting a sidelong scowl at his taller companion. "This is the Hall of the Venarium."
"And the Hall of the Venarium is a place of law," Bralston retorted, "and the law of Cier'Djaal states that all businesses must bear an icon of the Houndmistress, the Law-Bringer."
"That doesn't mean you have to worship her as a god."
"A sign of respect is not worship."
"It borders dangerously close to idolatry," the clerk said, attempting to be as threatening as a squat man in ill-fitting robes could be. "And that certainly is."
Technically, Bralston knew, it wasn't so much against the law as it was simply psychotic in the eyes of the Venarium. What would be the point of worshipping an idol, after all? Idols were the hypocrisy of faith embodied, representing things so much more than mankind and contrarily hewn in the image of mankind. What was the point of it all?
Gods did not exist, in man's image or no. Mankind existed. Mankind was the ultimate power in the world and the wizards were the ultimate power within mankind. These idols merely reinforced that fact.
Still, the Librarian lamented silently as he surveyed the long hall, one might credit idolatry with at least being more aesthetically pleasing.
The bronze statuette was so small as to be lost amid the dun-colored stone walls and floors, unadorned by rugs, tapestries, or any window greater than a slit the length of a man's hand. It served as the only thing to make one realize they were in a place of learning and law, as opposed to a cell.
Still, he mused, there was a certain appeal to hearing one's footsteps echo through the halls. Perhaps that was the architectural proof to the wizards' denial of gods. Here, within the Venarium itself, in the halls where no prayers could be heard over the reverberating thunder of feet, mankind was proven the ultimate power.
"The Lector has been expecting you," the clerk muttered as he slid open the door. "For some time," he hastily spat out, dissatisfied with his previous statement. "Do be quick."
Bralston offered him the customary nod, then slipped into the office as the door closed soundlessly behind him.
Lector Annis, as much a man of law as any member of the Venarium, respected the need for humble surroundings. Despite being the head of the Librarians, his office was a small square with a chair, a large bookshelf, and a desk behind which the man was seated, his narrow shoulders bathed by the sunlight trickling in from the slits lining his walls.
Bralston could spare only enough attention to offer his superior the customary bow before something drew his attention. The addition of three extra chairs in the office was unusual. The admittance of three people, clearly not wizards themselves, was unheard of.
"Librarian Bralston," Annis spoke up, his voice deeper than his slender frame would suggest, "we are thrilled you could attend."
"My duty is upheld, Lector," the man replied, stepping farther into the room and eyeing the new company, two men and one visibly shaken woman, curiously. "Forgive me, but I was told this was to be a meeting of the Librarians."
"Apologies, my good man." One of the men rose from his chair quicker than the Lector could speak. "The deception, purely unintentional, was only wrought by the faulty use of the plural form. For, as you can see, this is indeed a meeting." His lips split open to reveal half a row of yellow teeth. "And you are indeed a Librarian."
The stench confirmed the man's lineage long before the feigned eloquence and vast expanse of ruddy, tattoo-etched flesh did. Bralston's gaze drifted past the walking ink stain before him to the companion still seated. His stern face and brown skin denoted him as Djaalman, though not nearly to the extent that the detestable scowl he cast toward Bralston did. The reason for the hostility became clear the moment the man began to finger the pendant of Zamanthras, the sea goddess, hanging around his neck.
"Observant," the Lector replied, narrowing eyes as sharp as his tone upon the Cragsman. "However, Master Shunnuk, the clerk briefed you on the terms of address. Keep them in mind."
"Ah, but my enthusiasm bubbles over and stains the carpet of my most gracious host." The Cragsman placed his hands together and bowed low to the floor. "I offer a thousand apologies, sirs, as is the custom in your fair desert jewel of a city."
Bralston frowned; the company of Anacha suddenly seemed a thousand times more pleasurable, the absence of her bed's warmth leaving him chill despite the office's stuffy confines.
"As you can imagine, Librarian Bralston," Annis spoke up, reading his subordinate's expression, "it was dire circumstance that drove these ... gentlemen and their feminine companion to our door."
The woman's shudder was so pronounced that Bralston could feel her skin quake from where he stood. He cast an interested eye over his shoulder and frowned at the sight of something that had been beautiful long ago.
Her cheeks hung slack around her mouth, each one stained with a purple bruise where there should have been a vibrant glow. Her hair hung in limp, greasy strands over her downturned face. He caught only a glimpse of eyes that once were bright with something other than tears before she looked to her torn dress, tracing a finger down a vicious rent in the cloth.
"Of course, of course," the Cragsman Shunnuk said. "Naturally, we came here with all the haste the meager bodies our gods cursed us with could manage. This grand and harrowing tale the lass is about to tell you, I would be remiss if I did not forewarn, is not for the faint of heart. Grand wizards you might be, I have not yet known a man who could—"
"If it is at all possible," Bralston interrupted, turning a sharp eye upon the Cragsman's companion, "I would prefer to hear him tell it. Master ..."
"Massol," the Djaalman replied swiftly and without pretense. "And, if it is acceptable to you, I would prefer that you did not address me with such respect." His eyes narrowed, hand wrapping about the pendant. "I have no intention of returning the favor to the faithless."
Bralston rolled his eyes. He, naturally, could not begrudge an unenlightened man his superstitions. After all, the only reason people called him faithless was the same reason they were stupid enough to believe in invisible sky-beings watching over them. Not being one to scold a dog for licking its own stones, Bralston merely inclined his head to the Djaalman.
Excerpted from Black Halo by Sam Sykes Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sykes. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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