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They came for me and Barnabas while we were walking through the city, on our way back to the Strength of Morgan from an errand at the Scholar's prison, the Library Desolate. Well. Mostly they came for Barnabas. I just happened to be there, escorting him. It was me. I'm the girl who let the old man down.
He looked good that morning. Healthy. He always looked better out of the monastery. Those old, empty stone halls did little more than weigh him down. Open air, even the dirty air of a crowded street in the city of Ash, always put a smile on his face. He was smiling that morning. This was before the hidden deaths, before the murders and betrayals. Before we knew what was happening. He was the first one they came for, and we didn't know they were coming. Not yet.
We walked down the road, and the crowd parted for us. Barnabas was in his formal robe, a deep maroon hemmed with gold thread, and carrying the staff of his office. Symbolic armor clattered on his shoulders, and the cuffs of his robe were stamped with golden scale mail that shimmered in the morning light. His knuckles bore the calluses of a life spent fighting and working, the twin paths of the scions of Morgan. White hair and wrinkled face sat on a frame thick with muscle and iron hard. Even in the waning days of our Cult, there was glory in the office of the Fratriarch, and Barnabas Silent looked every inch the part.
As proud as I was, I wished he'd left the formal robe at home. I was dressed in my battle-day simples. Pride was fine, and glory was better, but both of those things were bought with attention. As the Fratriarch's only guard, I could have done with less attention. Of course, whatever attention I avoided by dressing simply, I gave up with my holster and sheath. But a girl shouldn't go out half dressed.
"It's a matter of state, Eva," Barnabas said, his voice as gentle as mist at the foot of a waterfall.
"I said nothing, my Elder."
"You did," he said, nodding. "In the way you stand, in the movement of your eyes. In the weight of your hand upon your bullistic. You do not wish to be here."
"It's not my fault you like to get dressed up, old man. No, no, I'm happy to be here. Thrilled to be walking through the city with the holiest man I know, just me as a guard. Not like we have any enemies, Barnabas. Not like the Rethari are massing at our borders, or their chameleon spies have been dredged up in the collar countries. No, not at all. This is ideal." I sped up a little to intercept a group of children who had blundered into our path. The Fratriarch smiled and patted their heads as we passed. They stared at us, whispering. "I just wish you'd brought more guards. Maybe an army or two?"
Barnabas watched the children, his face equal parts gentle happiness and melancholy. He turned back to me.
"The Rethari are always massing. It's what they do. And as for their spies? We used to make stew of their spies. Besides, we have no other guards, Eva. It's a matter of state. We go to seek the aid of our godbrother. Only Elders of the Fist and Paladins may attend. Among the Elders, Simeon was busy, Tomas and Elias are napping, and Isabel cannot be more than ten steps from her library, for fear that one of her books go unread."
"I saw Tomas, just before we left."
Barnabas nodded absently. "Yes, yes. Not napping. Tomas does not ..." He smirked and shrugged. "Tomas will not be involved in this. And of the Paladins, Eva?"
I grimaced and looked around at the passing crowd. A pedigear weaved past us, its clacking engine momentarily drowning out the perfectly good awkward silence.
"You are the last Paladin of the dead god Morgan, Eva. There are no more, and likely never will be," he said, patting my hand. "I am the Fratriarch, and you are the Paladin. Let us attend to our business."
He walked off. I sighed and followed.
"Yeah, let's just make a parade of it. You and me," I said quietly, adjusting the hang of my revolver at my hip. "Maybe I should have rented an elephant."
"Elephants don't belong in cities, Eva," the Frat said, gesturing broadly to the crowded streets and towering glass buildings all around. "It's not humane."
"To the elephant? Or the city?"
He laughed deeply, and I smiled and caught up. In younger years he would have pinched my cheek or patted me on the head, as he had those children. But now he was the Fratriarch and I was the Paladin. We walked side by side through the city of Ash.
"If it's a matter of state, then we're going the wrong way. Alexander will be at his throne today, in the Spear of the Brothers." I pointed across the road. "That way, in case you've gotten senile."
"It is," Barnabas nodded, "and we are not going there."
"Morgan had two brothers, Eva. We are going to visit the scions of Amon."
I stopped walking, frustrating the crowd. Barnabas continued on, nearly disappearing into the throng before I snapped out of my shock.
A whole column of elephants wouldn't be enough, nor stone walls. Nothing would make me feel safe in the halls of Amon the Betrayer.
* * *
Ash is a funny city. Not funny, like rag clowns and puppet shows. Funny like it shouldn't exist. Funny like it should collapse in on itself in a cloud of shattered glass and burning streets. My kind of funny.
It goes back an Age, back to when the Feyr were the race-ascendant rather than mankind, when the Titans ruled the skies and the earth and the water all around. Before there were people, maybe. I don't know. But it goes back to the Feyr.
What is today the city of Ash was once the capital city of the Titans. Their throne, their birthplace, a city of temples and totems and grand technology. The name of that city is lost to us, but it nestled in a crater, like a giant bowl of stone sprinkled with buildings and roads and carved riverways. We really don't know why the Titans and the Feyr fought their little war, but they did, and that war came to the city in the crater.
The Feyr were masters of the elements. They made water out of nothing, fire out of air. They could sink mountains and freeze the sun in the sky. That's the story my momma told me, at least. Scratch that. That's the story my nanny told me. So the Feyr came to the crater, to the city of the Titans.
They burned it, then they drowned it. Two deaths for one city. It was enough to win the war, and more than enough to scar the Feyr forever. They filled the crater with a lake of cold, black water, and that lake was choked with the slick ash of the dead city below. It was a wound on the soul of their kingdom, the greatest sin they ever committed. In time they tried to atone. They built temples of wood that floated on the lake of ash, trying to suck the sickness out with their prayers.
And when war came to them, when mankind rose up and named their gods and came marching with swords and totems of their own, this was the last place the Feyr stood. Afterward, mankind made a city on that lake, built up from what was left of the charred temple-rafts of the Feyr. Amon the Scholar crafted engines that supported more and more structures, more buildings and roads and people. It became the capital of the Fraterdom, the impossible engines always churning against the lake to keep us dry.
It's a crazy way to build a city. Three hundred years, and that lake is still black as night.
* * *
I escorted the Fratriarch into the shadow of the Scholar's ominous prison. The Library Desolate was a dark wound on the city, its stone and steel walls still blackened from the arcane battle that washed across it generations ago. Whenever rain or time cleaned off some portion of its edifice, the citizens of the city of Ash would gather to ritually scorch the stone black again, as it had been burned when the outraged legions of Morgan descended upon it to slaughter the priesthood of Amon the Betrayer, for the murder of their god. That was a tradition we kept. The roof sprouted a cancerous rash of glass domes, their panes smeared with ash and chipped black paint. The last House of Amon the Betrayer lived in permanent night. The Cults of his brothers Morgan and Alexander saw to it.
We were met at the gate by a servitor of Alexander. Morgan had held this guard a century ago, until our numbers dwindled and the godking Alexander stepped in. He had ordered all records of our time in the prison destroyed. Security, he insisted. As though a scion of Morgan would sell those secrets. As though he couldn't trust the servants of his own brother. Though trust is what got Morgan killed, so I suppose it wasn't without reason.
The servant was a pale man, whiter than his robe, his bald head shinier than the dull silver of the icon around his neck. Not the cream of the crop, here at the prison. He looked us over with lazy interest, then spun up the clockgeist beside him and pulled the speakerphone to his mouth.
"Names?" he asked over the clockgeist's quiet howling clatter. I stepped in front of Barnabas.
"Eva Forge, Paladin of Morgan and sister of the Fraterdom. I demand entry to the house of my brother by my right as scion of Morgan."
He looked up from my breasts, then down to my holster, then up again to the two-handed sword slung over my shoulder.
"You'll have to leave your weapons at the gate."
I sneered and snapped out the revolver, flipped it once in my hand, and spun the cylinder open. I presented the clacking wheel of bullets to him and began to invoke.
"This is Felburn, heart of the hunter, spitting fire of the sky. Morgan blessed the revolver as a weapon of his Cult at the towers of El-Ohah, when the storm cracked the stones of that place and the cannons of his army cracked the sky. This weapon was beaten from the iron of the mountain of the Brothers, the land of their birth. The bullets are engraved with my soul's name, and blessed by the Fratriarch of Morgan on an altar of war." I snapped the cylinder shut, passed the barrel across the pale man's heart, and slammed it into my holster. "I carry it, whether I live or die, through fire and fear and foes. I leave it nowhere."
"Well, I ... uh." The Alexian grimaced and shuffled his feet. Barnabas leaned out from behind me.
"Don't ask her for the sword," he said, then banged his staff against the narrow stone walls all around. "It's a much longer show, and there's not really enough room for the full production. If we step outside for a moment, though, I'm sure she'll be happy to demonstrate. Eva?"
I reddened and chewed my jaw, then glanced over my shoulder at the old man. He was beaming. He stepped around me and tapped his ceremonial staff to his forehead, like a fisherman hailing a passing boat.
"I'm Barnabas, Fratriarch of Morgan and First Blade of Alexander's dead brother. If you don't know who I am, then you can be damned. I have an appointment."
The color, what little of it there was, left the servitor's face. The clockgeist chewed out an answer that he didn't really hear. He nodded and the gate opened.
The pale-headed man locked the gate behind us, shuttered the cowl on the clockgeist, and escorted us into the library-prison of Amon the Scholar. We followed a long brick tunnel deep into the complex, the way lit by the Alexian's gently humming frictionlamp. There were no other guards, no other gates, but suddenly the tunnel opened up into the mitochondrial complexity of the Library's stacks. We were among the Amonites. I bristled, and the articulated sheath on my back twitched with insectile anticipation, like a spider testing its web. Barnabas sensed the change and put a broad hand on my shoulder.
"Silence," he whispered. "These are the tame ones."
"It's the tame ones I don't trust," I answered, but left my blade where it was and tried to relax.
They moved among the stacks in absolute silence. Their black robes looked like wrinkled shadows, and they kept their heads down. A few paused in their grubbing among the books to turn our way, but the sight of a Paladin of Morgan sent them scurrying.
"They wander around like this?" I asked. The servitor nodded his bald head, though he did not turn to look at me.
"They are bound to this place, my lady. Their books, their equipment. The shrine of their god, fallen though he may be. They would not leave."
I looked around at the close walls, the wooden ceiling, and the stinking, pulpy stacks of books on their sagging shelves.
"I would. First chance I got."
"Well. Perhaps they don't have that, either." The servitor fingered a loose coil of chain that hung from his belt and chuckled. It looked like a woman's necklace that had lost its stone. There was carving on the links, but I couldn't make out the pattern.
"I would prefer they wore the chains, servitor," I said, resting my hand on my revolver. The stacks were narrow and close, like a maze of wood and leather. It felt like an ambush. "Better to have them in cages. If we still ran things, it'd be cages."
The servitor stopped walking and faced me. The Fratriarch walked another half-dozen steps then idled to a halt. He flicked a hand through a book that was resting on a nearby podium, his eyes distracted. So old, in that moment. He looked like a forgetful grandfather. I pushed the thought aside and faced the servitor. He stared at me with barely veiled contempt. No, not veiled at all. Just contempt.
"In chains, madam? In cages? Tell me, are all the scions of Morgan so nuanced in their approach?" He whipped the coil of thin chain from his belt and held it at shoulder height. "What was the escape rate when Morgan held these halls? Do you know, even?"
I held the smaller man's gaze, leaving my face as dead as possible. He fingered the chains with idle malice. The Fratriarch ignored us. When it became clear that I wasn't going to answer, the servitor continued.
"We have had none, my lady. Not one. Chains rust. Cages can be shattered. The bonds of this world fail us. Faith in metal and stone is inevitably faith squandered." He sneered, his tiny eyes wrinkling over his ugly nose. "You should know that, Morganite."
I would have struck him, if the Fratriarch hadn't been there. The flat of my blade or the barrel of my bullistic, he deserved nothing less. Patience. It was a speech I heard a lot from the Fratriarch. From all the Elders. Patience. I put my hand flat against his chest and prepared to invoke. He grimaced and clenched the chains in his fist, then spat out something arcane. The stacks erupted in screams, all around, echoing between the rows of books like thunder in a canyon.
My sword was in my hands without a thought, the pistons and hinged arms of the articulated sheath pivoting it over my shoulder and into my ready grip. I dropped into a guard position and began invoking Everice, Mountain among Streams. The servitor laughed. The Fratriarch looked on with grim disappointment.
Black-robed Amonites stumbled from the stacks, spilling to the floor in shrieking agony. They writhed at the servitor's feet, their eyes wide with terror and pain. I stared at them in horror, then fascination. The Amonites had chains of their own, thin and flat, made of some dull gray metal and arcanely etched. Our guide loosened his grip on his chains, and the screaming stopped.
The servitor stood over them, the coil of chains dangling loosely from his open palm. The Amonites lay in a heap, panting and mewling. The room smelled of offal and disgrace.
"Cages rust. Metal fails." He returned the coil to his belt. "We bind the soul, my lady."
He turned and walked away. The Fratriarch looked sadly down at the pile of Scholars. There were old men among them, and children. He gave me a look, then followed the Alexian. I surrendered my sword to its sheath, then left the Amonites to struggle to their feet and disperse. There would be words from Barnabas for that provocation.
"Not my fault he's a jerk," I muttered. He ignored me.
The small corridors and tight stairways continued for a while. I lost track of our turnings, though it felt like we were going higher. Groups of Amonites watched us from the shadows, eyeing the heavily armed woman and the old man with his fancy staff. The servitor they ignored. He hurried ahead of us, opening doors and securing locks. Well, at least they used locks sometimes.
Excerpted from THE HORNS OF RUIN by Tim Akers Copyright © 2010 by Tim Akers. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted October 24, 2010
The three brothers were Gods until Amon betrayed and murdered Morgan. He also died leaving the sole surviving sibling Alexander as the last god.
A Morgan Paladin Eva Forge provides security for Barnabas the Fratriarch of the Cult of Morgan as he travels on a mission into dangerous sectors of the city of Ash to bring out an Amon Librarian Cassandra. Confused by the assignment, Eva knows the remaining Cult of Amon want revenge against the Morganites; as they blame their enemy for the fall of their God while choosing to ignore who initiated the betrayal. However, as Eva rides the monorails through she skies over Ash and journeys into underground lairs where the Amonites scurry like rats, she begins to uncover unnerving truths about her perceptions of past and present at the same time Alexander operative Owen investigates Barnabas' activities.
The keys to this refreshing fascinating fantasy are the city and its three prime interrelated siblings' cults. The story line is fast-paced and vivid as the intrepid trio treks through Ash though they are unsure why and Owen and Cassandra are uncertain whether to trust the brusque cantankerous follower of a different God. Although the ending feels more like a set up to the next thriller than a wrap up of the first adventures, fans will enjoy the investigation into the homicide and abduction that has the already despondent Morgan supporters in further disarray.
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