Seven Kings

( 2 )

Overview

In the jungles of Khyrei, an escaped slave seeks vengeance and finds the key to a savage revolution.

In the drought-stricken Stormlands, the Twin Kings argue the destiny of their kingdom: one walks the path of knowledge, the other treads the road to war.

Beyond the haunted mountains King Vireon confronts a plague of demons bent on destroying his family.

With intrigue, ...

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Seven Kings (Books of the Shaper Series #2)

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Overview

In the jungles of Khyrei, an escaped slave seeks vengeance and finds the key to a savage revolution.

In the drought-stricken Stormlands, the Twin Kings argue the destiny of their kingdom: one walks the path of knowledge, the other treads the road to war.

Beyond the haunted mountains King Vireon confronts a plague of demons bent on destroying his family.

With intrigue, sorcery, and war, Seven Kings continues the towering fantasy epic that began with Seven Princes.

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Editorial Reviews

Rob Will Review
"One of the strongest epic fantasies I've read in a long time. My perfect epic fantasy novel looks a great deal like John R. Fultz's debut, Seven Princes"
io9.com
"What Seven Princes [offers] is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity..... It's epic with a capital EPIC."
RT Book Review
"Book two in Fultz's imaginative visionary tale is the epitome of fantasy. His world building is in a class by itself. His battle scenes explode with inconceivable actions, his imagery and descriptive narrative gives voice and life to his awe-inspiring characters and his heroes and nightmarish creatures give face to his epic tale.
RT Book Review (4.5 Stars) on Seven Kings
"Book two in Fultz's imaginative visionary tale is the epitome of fantasy. His world building is in a class by itself. His battle scenes explode with inconceivable actions, his imagery and descriptive narrative gives voice and life to his awe-inspiring characters and his heroes and nightmarish creatures give face to his epic tale."
thebookbag.co.uk on Seven Kings
"Tarantino and Tolkien have a literary love child and his name is John R. Fultz. A multi-layered world, beautiful description, break-neck action and appropriate brutality; it's wonderful stuff."
io9.com on Seven Princes
"What Seven Princes [offers] is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity..... It's epic with a capital EPIC."
From the Publisher
"Book two in Fultz's imaginative visionary tale is the epitome of fantasy. His world building is in a class by itself. His battle scenes explode with inconceivable actions, his imagery and descriptive narrative gives voice and life to his awe-inspiring characters and his heroes and nightmarish creatures give face to his epic tale."—RT Book Review (4.5 Stars) on Seven Kings

"One of the strongest epic fantasies I've read in a long time. My perfect epic fantasy novel looks a great deal like John R. Fultz's debut, Seven PrincesRob Will Review

"What Seven Princes [offers] is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity..... It's epic with a capital EPIC."—io9.com on Seven Princes

"A stand-out fantasy series from an author with an exceptional talent for characterization and world building."—Library Journal (Starred Review) on Seven Princes

"Tarantino and Tolkien have a literary love child and his name is John R. Fultz. A multi-layered world, beautiful description, break-neck action and appropriate brutality; it's wonderful stuff."—thebookbag.co.uk on Seven Kings

io9.com on Seven Princes
"What Seven Princes [offers] is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity..... It's epic with a capital EPIC."
Rob Will Review
"One of the strongest epic fantasies I've read in a long time. My perfect epic fantasy novel looks a great deal like John R. Fultz's debut, Seven Princes
From the Publisher
"Book two in Fultz's imaginative visionary tale is the epitome of fantasy. His world building is in a class by itself. His battle scenes explode with inconceivable actions, his imagery and descriptive narrative gives voice and life to his awe-inspiring characters and his heroes and nightmarish creatures give face to his epic tale."—RT Book Review (4.5 Stars) on Seven Kings

"One of the strongest epic fantasies I've read in a long time. My perfect epic fantasy novel looks a great deal like John R. Fultz's debut, Seven Princes"Rob Will Review

"What Seven Princes [offers] is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity..... It's epic with a capital EPIC."—io9.com on Seven Princes

"A stand-out fantasy series from an author with an exceptional talent for characterization and world building."—Library Journal (Starred Review) on Seven Princes

"Tarantino and Tolkien have a literary love child and his name is John R. Fultz. A multi-layered world, beautiful description, break-neck action and appropriate brutality; it's wonderful stuff."—thebookbag.co.uk on Seven Kings

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316187831
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Publication date: 1/15/2013
  • Series: Books of the Shaper Series , #2
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 331,166
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Weird Tales, Space & Time, Lightspeed, Way of the Wizard, and Cthulhu's Reign. His comic book work includes Primordia, Zombie Tales, and Cthulhu Tales. John's literary heroes include Tanith Lee, Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and Darrell Schweitzer, not to mention Howard, Poe, and Shakespeare. When not writing novels, stories, or comics, John teaches English Literature at the high school level and plays a mean guitar.

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Read an Excerpt

Seven Kings


By John R. Fultz

Orbit

Copyright © 2013 John R. Fultz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316187831

Prologue

Stories

The Storytellers of Uurz say that Man lived in the sea until the Gods taught him to walk on land, but Giants were born whole from the great stones of the earth. That is why the sea always draws Men back to its maternal depths, and why Giants are stronger and more durable than Men.

Those same Storytellers, for the price of a copper or a bowl of fermented grape, will speak of an era a thousand years ago when the land was ruled by Serpents. These monsters crawled among the hills and woodlands like colossal centipedes, breathing fire and devouring all that lived. Once the lands about Uurz were thick with forests, these raconteurs will insist, until the monsters burned the trees to dust, leaving the land parched and barren.

This was the Age of Serpents.

Nine human tribes roamed the wilds in those days, so the story goes, and the Serpents feasted on them all. Each of these Serpents could swallow a Man whole, and they often did, one right after another, until only four tribes were left. This was long before the walls of Uurz were raised; long before the secrets of smelting bronze and tilling the earth gave rise to civilization. Long before Men spread the first of their fragile empires across the earth.

If you return the next evening to that same corner of the bustling bazaar or mud-walled tavern of the night before, the Storyteller will continue the famous tale. He will sip wine gratefully from a clay bowl and tell how the four surviving tribes of Man fled into the heights of the Grim Mountains, there to accidentally rouse the race of Giants from their long sleep. The teller might even claim that the Gods had placed these Giants inside the mountain stones for Man to awake during such a crisis, but there are not many who believe this. He will surely tell you how the Giants chased the human tribes out of the mountains and so came upon the horde of Serpents whose breath had charred the lowlands.

The Giants took up boulders and fallen trees as weapons. They poured from the crevices and clefts of the mountain heights, thundering across the blackened earth. They fell upon the Serpents like an angry storm, smashing skulls and ripping legs from bodies. They crafted shields and armor from the scales of the dead beasts, used the great fangs as the heads of their spears. While the four tribes of Man took shelter in caves and remote ravines, the war between Giant and Serpent raged. The earth shook and rolled for eighty nights; some Storytellers will say a thousand nights, but Storytellers often exaggerate.

If you are willing to come back a third night, and if you have yet coppers or drink to bribe this narrator you have chosen, he will surely tell you how the Age of Serpents ended. The Giants destroyed all the Serpents but one, whom they called Omagh the Serpent-Father, greatest of all the scaly behemoths. Most Storytellers agree that the beast had one hundred and twelve legs, and all will tell you how the Serpent-Father swallowed five hundred Giants before the one called Hreeg wounded him deeply with a great spear carved from the heart of a mountain pine. The Serpent-Father slunk into a chasm in the Grim Mountains and fell into slumber at the heart of the world.

Some Storytellers here might pause to mention Vod the Giant-King, who was both Giant and Man, and how he finally slew the Serpent-Father when it awoke a thousand years later. Yet the Legend of Vod is too new a tale to join this story of ancient days. Vod’s tale, they will say, must be told some other night. You see, there is always another story to tell.

After Hreeg’s mighty battle, the four tribes of Man came from their sanctuary to beg mercy. The Giants chose Hreeg as their chieftain, and Hreeg said, “Your lands are burned and scalded. Your forests are gone. You tiny Men may keep the lands south of the mountains. We Giants will live north of the peaks, where the land is green and the water runs fresh and clear beneath the sky. We also claim these mountains. So if you want to live in peace, keep to your blackened lands. If we find any of you in the mountains, we will kill you and eat you.”

The four tribes followed the advice of Hreeg the Stoneborn. They came out of the mountains and wandered across the black sands. They went in four directions searching for water. The Magnahin Tribe found an underground river that had survived the firestorms of the Serpents, and they named it Uurz. They built a great city of green and gold above the river, with many wells and flowering gardens to replace the lost beauty of their forests. For ten centuries Uurz thrived, a golden oasis amid the Desert of Many Thunders, until Vod’s sorcery brought the green earth to life again. That is how Uurz went from jewel of the desert to capital of the Stormlands.

The remaining tribes founded other cities in distant climes, where they developed their own languages and cultures: Yaskatha, Shar Dni, and Khyrei. The unity of the four tribes was lost forever. That is why the race of Men often goes to war against itself.

Now the good Storyteller, having finished his tale, will rise and go to find another paying customer. Such Storytellers will often voice the same legends again and again, but only a few of them actually believe what they tell.

I am such a one, for I know my words are truth.

I tell only of true things, even those that never happened. I know tales drawn from lost ages and dim epochs. I know secrets and terrors, and the names of heroes and tyrants long forgotten.

I know the great Tale of the World that weaves the bright towers of Uurz into its dark fabric even as we speak.

Would you care to hear it?

1

Three Lives

The colors of the jungle were bloody red and midnight black.

Whispers of fog rustled the scarlet fronds, and the poison juices of orchids glistened on vine and petal. Red ferns grew in clusters about the roots of colossal carmine trees. Patches of russet moss hid the nests of red vipers and coral spiders. Black shadows danced beneath a canopy of branches that denied both sun and moon. Toads dark as ravens croaked songs of death among the florid mushrooms. Clouds of hungry insects filled the air, and red tigers prowled silent as dreams.

Death waited for him in the jungle. There was nothing else to find here. No refuge, no escape, no safety or comfort. This place offered none of those, only a savage end to suffering and a blinding slip into eternity. Tong expected to die here, and he welcomed it. He would die a free man, his knees no longer bent in slavery. He ran barefoot and bleeding through the bloodshot wilderness.

Yes, he would die soon. But not yet. He would take more of their worthless lives with him. This was why he fled the scene of his first murder and entered the poison wilderness. It was not to save himself from the retribution of his oppressors. He fled so they would chase him into this scarlet realm of death. The dense jungle and its dangers gave him precious time. Time to steal the lives of the men who chased him. He would survive just long enough to kill them all; then he would give his life gladly to the jungle and its cruel mercy.

Only then would he allow himself to seek Matay in the green fields of the Deathlands.

Already he had claimed a second life, leaping from the trees like a wild ape, plunging the blade of his stolen knife into a soldier’s throat. That first night the company of nine Onyx Guards had been foolish enough to sleep about a small fire. They had assumed their prey would be sleeping as well, somewhere ahead of them on the crude trail Tong’s passing had created. Some had stripped the plates of black bronze from their chests, arms, and shins. They had even removed the demon-face masks that hid their humanity. For the first time in his young life, Tong saw the raw sweat-stained faces of his oppressors, the masters of whip and spear and disemboweling blade.

Their flesh was as pale as his own, their eyes and hair the same black. As far as he could see, there was nothing that physically separated him, a slave, from these tormentors of slaves. Nothing except their actions. Far more than enough to damn them all. While the night watcher’s back was turned, Tong pounced. His short blade ripped the life from a sleeper’s chest as his hand clamped over the dying man’s mouth. His entire weight pressed against his victim’s chest, he watched the man die slowly. When his twitching eyes closed forever, Tong stole his curved sabre and a bag of rations. He slipped back into the night, ignoring the winged vermin that gnawed his skin and stung at his blood-smeared hands. He ran south, toward the mountains of fire at the edge of the world, making sure to leave an obvious and clumsy trail.

In the morning they found the dead soldier and followed Tong deeper into the jungle. He ran as he ate from the stolen food bag. Salted pork and dried apricots. The vegetation of the jungle was poisonous, as were most of the creatures who lived here. So finding anything edible was next to impossible. After days of starvation and pain, the meal sent waves of fresh energy coursing through his limbs. The fire of his hatred burned hotter, and he laughed as he leaped over a coiled viper that bared its dripping fangs at him.

O merciless Gods, let them follow me, he thought. I will lead them all into death.

He ran until exhaustion fell upon him like a black cloud. He slept in a hollow between two great tree roots, on a bed of ruddy lichen. He called Matay’s name in his sleep, and he dreamed she was near, reaching for him like she did on the day of her death. Rising from the jungle filth, he reached out and grabbed only a fistful of lichen. A colony of red ants crawled across his body, feasting on the dried blood coating his lacerated skin. His chest and back were a maze of fresh welts, the work of razor-edged fronds, biting insects, and patches of sharpgrass. He uprooted a fern and used it to brush the ants from his body, wincing at the pain of beating his own wounds.

Pain was good, he decided. Pain would keep him from sleep… keep him wary… keep him ready to kill.

He climbed a tree as high as he dared, not far enough to breach the lofty canopy, but high enough to see a great distance across the leagues of crimson undergrowth. He waited there until he saw his pursuers, just at the edge of his vision, cutting their way through the jungle. They reminded him of the marching ants he had wiped away, except these black ants were far more vicious and cruel.

The upper mass of the tree’s branches rattled. A great black bird flew from its nest and burst through the canopy. A ray of orange sunlight fell through the hole the bird’s passing had made. It warmed Tong’s face and shoulders. He recalled Matay’s love of the golden sun, how she watched it sink beyond the fields every evening. Sometimes she even halted her work, forgetting the harvest as the glory of sunset burned across the sky, amber and scarlet sinking into purple. More than once her sun-gazing had drawn the whip of the Overseer. Yet it was her daily ritual to watch the sun sink beyond the walls of the black city and into the Golden Sea, where ships sailed to and from mysterious lands. Somewhere in that walled hive of barbed towers the Undying One sat on his throne of blood and tears, dreaming new tortures for his people.

Matay’s eyes saw well beyond the ramparts of oppression. She discovered freedom in the splendors of dawn and dusk.

Tong recalled the morning after their first night together. She had awoken wrapped in his arms inside the wooden shack, only to slip away from him into the chill of dawn. He lay on his side on the woven sleeping mat and stared at her sleek body as she pulled on the rough-spun colorless garment that all female slaves wore. The blackness of her hair shimmered with silver as the first rays of morning peeked through the ragged window.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “We can sleep a while longer before the work horn blows.”

She paused before the door curtain and looked back at him with sparkling eyes. Her smile was the one she would wear in all his future memories. “I want to watch the sun rise,” she said. She held out her small hand, soft and warm. “Come with me…”

He joined her that day and nearly every day after for six growing seasons, staring into the gray sky as the face of the sun set it on fire, burning away the last shades of night and making way for the brilliant blue of morning. They sat on a log outside his narrow hut, enjoying the most precious part of the day, the part when they were not yet driven to toil and sweat in the fields, when the whips and clubs of the Onyx Guard and the Overseers had yet to appear between the rows of windswept corn. It did not take him long to understand why she valued the beauty of the sunrise, and why she stopped every evening to watch the sunset. Dawn and dusk. These were the only two things she possessed that slavery could never take or destroy. This awareness was a gift she had given to him, long before she gave him the more precious gift that grew inside her belly.

I wish I could see Matay’s sunrise one more time. Tong stared at the ray of light slicing through the red shadows. He climbed down to a lower position in his tree. The path he had so carefully laid would lead them directly below his perch. He need only wait. He may never feel the warm glow of sunrise on his skin again, but he would know the hot blood of his enemies on fists and fingers. He drew the long sabre from its scabbard and crouched like a panther on a wide branch above the trail.

Soon the noise of the masked ones rang through the glade, the swishing of blades, the falling of stem and branch, the tramp of metal-shod boots through mud and moss and rotting leaves. Tong’s own boots were mud-caked leather, torn in places by thorn and brush and stone. The boots of a slave. His feet were cold and his toes tingled against the red bark of the tree. He decided it would be good to meet his death in a pair of soldiers’ boots. Eight such pairs drew nearer to the tree that sheltered him.

He would wait until the last one passed below, then drop and kill the man, drag him into the undergrowth and steal his boots. Then he would march out to face the remaining seven at once and kill as many as he could before they brought him down. He was no swordsman, but his arms were big and powerful, the arms of a man used to laboring all day every day for twenty-three years. The masked ones had their armor, but they were frightened of him. They were cowards, impotent beneath their shells of black metal. Only black ants, marching.

His time in the jungle had made him wild and desperate, hungry for blood like the vipers and the tigers and the flying insects. All things here were hungry for blood. He was becoming one of them.

He could wait no longer.

Dropping from the wide branch, he fell directly toward the last soldier in line, sabre pointed down, hilt grasped in his clutched fists. His knees hit the man’s back, knocking him forward. He drove the sword’s point into that familiar soft spot between corselet and helmet, the same vulnerability his knife had discovered earlier. Half the blade’s length sank into the man’s body with a crunching of bones and a vertical spray of hot blood. The soldier cried out as he died, but his masked face was pressed into the mud. In the constant melange of jungle noises–crying birds, whirring insects, the cutting of foliage and tramping of armored feet–the sounds of this man’s death were lost to his companions. The last of them disappeared among the fronds as Tong twisted the heavy blade.

Dragging the body into the undergrowth, he exchanged his footwear as he had planned. The new boots were tight yet warm on his aching feet. He lifted the bronze helmet with its welded mask from the dead man’s head and placed it on his own. Let one of their own demon faces be the last thing they see as they die. He took what else he could from the body (a few more bits of dried food) and rolled it into a stagnant pool. A viper glided through the black water and wrapped itself around the corpse. Tong caught a glimpse of himself in the surface of the water. A pale broad-chested devil with a leering face of black death, twin horns growing from his temples. His mouth was a fanged grin and his eyes were invisible behind narrow slits. He grinned beneath the mask and walked back to the trail, the bloody sabre in one hand, his knife in the other.

He stalked after them in resolute calm, ready to face the triumph of his death. To find a better place among the spirits, where surely she waited for him. As for these Onyx Guards, they were city dwellers. Those who dwelled inside the walls of the black city did not share the beliefs of their slaves, who could only stare from afar at the ebony towers. The men Tong killed today, their souls would sink into the Hundred Hells that the city’s priests venerated, there to feed the ranks of true demons or be judged and made into demons themselves. Tong did not care what they believed. He only knew they would not be in the bright meadows of the Deathlands, where milk and honey fed the spirits of earth-born slaves.

There, in the glow of a new sunrise, he would meet her again. Matay. And the one she carried in her soft round belly. His son, who was never born into a slave’s life as his father was. At least he was spared that. Yet his son had also never breathed the fresh air of morning, never held the sweetness of the sun in his eyes, never known the touch of his father’s hands, his mother’s breast, the lips of a girl he would one day love. A slave’s life was not much, but even that mean gift had been stolen from Tong’s unborn son.

The Overseer on that day had been a youth himself. Tong heard it in the quavering voice that came through the mouth slit of the fanged mask. Perhaps nobody had told him that pregnant slaves should be given extra periods of rest in the latter half of their term. Tong was working on the far side of the field when he saw the glittering of the black-lacquered club rising and falling in the sunlight. He raced through the rows, kicking dirt behind him, ignoring the whips of other Overseers who tried to shout him down. He even knocked one of them over in his headlong rush to reach Matay before the fifth and sixth blows fell.

There was no sixth blow, however. The youth in the devil mask stood over Matay’s bloodied body. She lay still among the rows of green and yellow plants, lines of scarlet spilled like whip marks across her white frock. Her skull had been split open, the bones of her face shattered. A clump of her beautiful hair hung from the end of the dirty club. All these things fell starkly into Tong’s vision as he threw himself to the ground and took her in his arms. She was still warm then, though her heartbeat was fading. Her sweet face blurred as his eyes welled, and he called her name. Suddenly, as if she had turned to weightless mist in his arms, he knew that life had left her completely.

“Up, slave!” cried the young voice, ripe with nervous power. “Get back!” Now he applied the whip, striking Tong across the back. One, two, three times. Tong never knew how many more times it fell, leaving red trails across his back and shoulders. He stared into the slate eyes peering from within the mask. There must have been other Overseers, other soldiers, other slaves rushing toward them at that point. Yet Tong never knew.

His fist grabbed the whip that plied his flesh and he pulled the armored youth off his feet. The Overseer fell against the dirt with a heavy sound, his body squirming next to Matay’s still one. Tong did not remember climbing on the man’s back, or wrapping the leather whip about his exposed throat. He only remembered pulling, twisting, tightening. The sound of the youth’s gagging filled his ears. The metal helmet was knocked away in the struggle, but Tong’s weight held the Overseer against the earth. Pulling, gnashing teeth, squeezing, and snapping. The flesh of the neck gave way as boiled leather bit into it. Finally, an expulsion of breath as the Overseer died.

The next thing he remembered was the terrified face of his cousin Olmai, standing over him with arms full of green corn husks. His mouth was an open cave of darkness, like a tomb. “Run!” he begged Tong. “Run now! They are coming!”

He would have stayed there and taken Matay’s body in his arms again, but Olmai kicked at him, pushed him into the corn stalks. “Run, fool! Make for the treeline! Go!”

After that, there was only running… panting… bleeding… hunger.

Rage.

And the deep red jungle whose poisons were nothing compared to the venom in his heart.

Now he marched after the seven masked soldiers wearing one of their own fanged faces, carrying two of their own blades, wearing the solid boots of a man no longer a slave. He had killed three of them now, but it was not enough. He marched toward Vengeance and its smiling sister, Death.

The whir of a black arrow caught his ear and the shaft took him in the right breast, just below the collarbone. If he had run into a wall of stone head first, he could not have been more stunned. Two more shafts followed from the left and right, one taking him in the left leg, the other piercing his side. Now the masked ones came screaming toward him, sabres raised, horned helms grimacing in the red gloom. He fell on his knees in the muck as the rushing forms surrounded him. The blades of swords and spears gleamed dully as they pressed near to his skin, and a fourth arrow clanged off his stolen helm. The Onyx Guards laughed while Tong gasped for air inside his mask.

They had fooled him. They let him take their rearguard, then circled about to pin him down with arrows. The chase was over. He had thought he was stalking them, but they had snared him instead. Already he felt the poison of the arrowheads rushing into his blood, making his arms heavy. The sabre and knife fell from his numb fingers, dropping like useless stones into the mud. The weight of the helm was terrible, so that he could no longer keep his head up. He fell backwards to a chorus of metallic laughter. The circle of blades moved closer about him, sneering devil faces hovering behind.

One guard barked an order, and another reached down and plucked the stolen helmet from his head. A high-ranking Overseer stood above Tong, marked by the black whip with a golden handle that hung from his belt. “Stupid, stupid slave,” he said, though the demon lips did not move. His eyes blinked through the slits of the mask. “What did you gain from all this? A few more days of misery and starvation?” He kicked hard at Tong’s belly with a filthy boot. “Eh? What did you gain?”

Tong’s voice was a rasping groan, like the ripping of a delicate fabric.

“Three…”

“Eh? Speak up, slave!” said the Overseer. He kicked Tong again, striking near the arrow protruding from his side. A wave of agony made Tong shiver. The poison froze his blood and his limbs.

“Three…” he moaned again.

“Three? Three what?” The demon mask hung low before his face now, the Overseer kneeling to mock his prisoner.

“Three lives.”

Tong used the last of his strength to force his lips into a smile. He would die a happy man, knowing he had taken three of the Onyx Guard with him.

The demon face stared down at him, saying nothing. The Overseer rose and uncoiled his whip. “Tie him to that tree,” he ordered. “I’ll flay the life from him piece by piece. We’ll carry his carcass back in pieces to fertilize the fields.”

Hands gripped his arms and legs, hauling him up from the earth. They rustled him toward a crimson tree bole thick with russet moss. He had seen slaves whipped to death. He knew his demise would be a long and lingering process. Yet he wept with joy as the soldiers dragged him across the glade. Death was coming to greet him. He need only cross a river of boiling pain and she would welcome him into her domain.

Matay…

He wanted to call out her name, but his tongue would no longer move.

They slammed him chest first against the tree, rattling the three arrows still in his flesh. His cry of pain was a gagging moan. One man got some rope from a shoulder pack while the other two pulled Tong’s arms about the tree trunk.

Behind him, the Overseer cracked his whip, warming up his arm for a slow execution.

Now the men stopped, the rope gone slack in their hands. Masked heads turned to the left and right, and the sound of the whip fell into silence. The soldiers stared at something behind Tong. Something had come out of the jungle. No, there must have been several things, though they did not make a sound. The Onyx Guards were silent, but the sound of their metal blades sliding from scabbards filled the glade. The three archers, who had come into the glade after Tong’s capture, nocked fresh shafts and drew taut their bowstrings. Tong’s limp body dropped into the muck, his head fell back across his shoulders, and he saw the beasts.

They might have been hunched apes, long of arm and squat of haunch, yet they were entirely without hair or fur. They ringed the glade, at least thirty of them, though perhaps more lurked in the scarlet foliage. Their skins were white as bone, supple as leather. They crouched atop clumps of rock or fallen trees, lifting great flat hands that ended in claws, working silently in the air as if speaking with their fingers.

Most shocking of all, their heads were lizardine ovals with no eyes at all. Where eye sockets should have been grew instead a pair of white curling horns like those of a ram, tapering to points on either side of their skulls. Their mouths were impossibly wide and full of sharp teeth. Above the mouths sat slitted noses like those of bats, flaring and pulsing as they sniffed the jungle air. The beasts’ arms and legs were mightily muscled, their bellies lean and flat. It was not clear if they had dropped down from the trees, risen up from the ground, or simply lumbered into the glade. They moved quickly, silent as white mists.

The seven masked soldiers stood wrapped in a precarious calm before this strange audience. From his place among the gnarled roots, Tong saw a white blur leap across the glade, then another, and another. A helmeted head rolled across the ground like a melon and bumped against his shoulder. The men behind the masks were screaming. At first they bellowed rage and warnings. In a matter of moments, as clouds of warm red mist erupted into the air, raining down upon Tong’s face, their screams turned to cries of terror and pain. Soon a heavy silence replaced them.

Tong managed to raise his head a bit. He moaned softly at the pain of his pierced flesh. The white creatures crouched among the bodies of the dead men. Scarlet stained their long claws and bony chests. Tongues descended from their fanged maws to lick at the bronze faces of corpses. At first he thought they were lapping up the blood, that they would devour the dead men and himself. He only hoped they would kill him before eating him. Yet the eyeless ones seemed only to explore the men’s faces and armor with their weird pink tongues like curling tendrils. Their tongues moved more like curious fingers than organs made for tasting.

Now they gathered about Tong, sniffing at him and sliding their tongues across his skin. Tongues wrapped about each of the arrow shafts and pulled them from his body in quick, painful jerks. Fresh blood welled from the ragged holes. The eyeless faces drew near to his own, and he heard them sniffing. He must smell like a wild animal dying of infected wounds. Perhaps his stink would drive them away, and he would lie here and die at last.

The shadows of the jungle converged to flood his brain, and the beasts lifted his useless body. He hung weightless in the grip of their powerful hands, and their claws unavoidably pricked his skin. Blood spilled from his poisoned wounds as awareness spilled from his mind.

The creatures raced in bounding, graceful strides through the scarlet wilderness.

He did not believe they were carrying him toward the green fields of the Deathlands.

2

Sword and Scholar

Drought had come to the Stormlands. It lay dusty in the gutters like a dying beggar, parched and cackling. It crouched in the waves of heat rising from the stones of Uurz, while the green-gold city baked in the sun’s glory. The few clouds that dared the blue sky were wisps of memory, impotent ghosts gliding toward oblivion. After thirty-three years of daily rains, the earth had remembered its barren legacy.

In the roof gardens beneath the cool shade of palms the city’s noble elders spoke of the desert’s return. “The season of Vod’s magic is done,” they whispered, sipping at their gilded cups. “Eight years now the Giant-King has been dead. Vod of the Storms is gone and so is his power.” Even the meanest of wines was terribly expensive in those days.

The youngest of these privileged folk, confident in their robes of silk and silver, rolled their eyes and laughed at such talk. “The Desert of Many Thunders is little more than fable,” they said wrongly. “The old ones fear changing times. No season can last forever. We will learn to live in these dry times, as our ancestors did before us.” These young ones had never known the great expanse of black sand or the terrible heat and dust storms of the great wasteland.

In the marketplace at the city’s center, merchants grew rich on casks of water hauled up from the Sacred River still running strong beneath Uurz’s golden palace. The subterranean stream was the source of Uurz’s founding, and it had sustained the city for twelve hundred years. Uurz was a legend unto itself, a thriving paradise in the heart of the black wastes, until Vod cracked open land and sky with his power.

Vod, who slew the Father of Serpents three decades ago and changed the mighty desert into a verdant plain between two rivers. Vod, who was both Giant and Man, made the Stormlands an agricultural empire, with the City of Sacred Waters rising bright and proud at its heart. Then he turned his attentions across the Grim Mountains and rebuilt New Udurum, the City of Men and Giants, leaving Uurz to reap the profits of his world-altering sorcery.

Minstrels in the wine shops and brothels of Uurz still sang of colossal Vod’s journey south. Yet now they also sang of his madness, his death, and the fading of his magic. None sang of his return. Generous Vod was long dead, his mad bones swallowed by the Cryptic Sea.

The Giant-King had not truly destroyed the Desert of Many Thunders. It only slumbered beneath the emerald leagues of long grass and the twisting courses of new-made rivers. Like the Serpent-Father had done a millennium ago, the desert slept, dreaming of the heaps of dried bones it would one day rise to reclaim.

Uurz would suffer, but it would not perish. In this, the young dilettantes were correct. The Sacred River would sustain the City of Wine and Song as it always had. It was the newer settlements, the farming communities, the outlying hamlets and vineyards, the riverside villages, and the lone plains dwellers who would lose everything as the rivers sank low and the tall grass went from yellow to brown to blackened husks. Vod’s Lake sank in its immense crater until it stood no deeper than a stagnant pond, and the great waterfall that fed it with melting mountain snows diminished to a trickle.

From far and wide came the thirsty, the ruined, and the doomed to seek refuge behind the gates of Uurz. In the catacombs beneath the great palace, the Sacred River flowed steadily as ever, hidden from the sun’s burning vengeance. Far above the city’s burnished pinnacles and fortified walls, dry thunder rolled on hot winds.

Yes, the Desert of Many Thunders was returning.

And the Twin Kings of Uurz could do nothing to prevent it.

In the warm shade of his study Lyrilan awaited the sage’s arrival. His watery eyes stared past the rim of his goblet toward the final page of the manuscript. His right hand ached between thumb and forefinger, and the stains of ink marred his fingers like bruises. It was finished. His most important work and certainly the closest to his heart. For ten months he had lovingly crafted every word, every phrase, turning the threads of memory and the flavor of language into official history. Now it lay complete before him, a testament of love for his dead father.

A single window he kept uncurtained, and from the heights of his balcony the gardens and orchards of Uurz sparkled with evening light. A hot wind fell at times through the portal, raking his bare chest like the touch of a desperate woman. He had no time for such passions. Not yet. He missed the rain, the coolness of its breath, yet these dry days reminded him of the manuscript’s early chapters, which chronicled the desert years before his father had gained the title of Emperor. Long before Lyrilan or his brother were born.

In those days the Great Desert lay just beyond the city gates. Dairon was a soldier who survived two wars, a dozen battles, the Whelming of the Giants, and still he rose to sit upon the throne by public acclaim. He was the inaugural Emperor of a new bloodline, the old one having been destroyed to the last man by the enraged Giants before Vod calmed their savagery. There would never be another Man like Dairon the Liberator, Friend to Giants, Savior of Uurz.

All this and more lay within the scrawled pages Lyrilan had labored over for so long. The book had taken possession of his life while he was writing it, excluding practically everything else. Even sweet Ramiyah he had ignored, but he would soon make up for that. Now that the manuscript was finished, it was time to start a family. She had waited for him, and she would be pleased.

To compose the biography Lyrilan had interviewed every man still living who had known his father: grizzled soldiers who’d shared Dairon’s early years in the legions, brawny captains who had served beneath him in latter years, diplomats and legislators, merchants and chefs, sages and stable hands, dignitaries and dilettantes, venerable priests and powdered courtesans, even a pair of solemn magicians. The result was a thousand diverse views of the humble soldier who eventually became Lord of the Sacred Waters, Emperor of Uurz. To these accounts were added the intimate blessings of Dairon’s personal journals, the keystones of Lyrilan’s inheritance. These were the raw tools he used to sculpt a monument to his father’s existence, a memorial of ink and paper built on the foundation of a son’s most poignant memories.

He hoped the truth of his father’s life lay revealed among these scrawled pages.

The Life of Dairon, First Emperor of the New Blood was complete. Yet was it worthy?

Volomses entered the study in the company of Lyrilan’s personal servant. The purple of the sage’s robe matched the tapestries that rippled along the walls. The old man’s head was bald but for a few wisps of white hair, and his white beard was triple-braided with bands of bronze, like a trio of silent asps grown from his chin. His black eyes were keen in their wrinkled sockets, and his gnarled fingers anxious upon his walking staff. From his kneeling position, he greeted Lyrilan in the formal courtly manner. During the past year Lyrilan had grown accustomed to such enforced formality. The very air had grown thick with it.

“Rise, Volomses,” said Lyrilan. “The book is done.” The breath went out of his lungs as he said this, and he slipped down onto a cushioned divan. The sage’s eyes turned toward the writing table of ebony wood with its racks of ink and quills, and the thick pile of vellum pages stacked neatly at its center. Like a priest approaching a holy relic, he walked forward. His fingers extended to touch the papers, as if to verify their physical existence. He read the title aloud, and it sounded like a holy benediction.

“Majesty,” whispered the sage. “This is… outstanding.”

Lyrilan frowned, rubbing his sore quill hand. “How can you say this to me, old friend?” he asked. “You haven’t read a word of it yet.”

Volomses turned to stare at him, and his face swiveled into the look of a tutor addressing a student. It was a look he would never dare cast upon Lyrilan’s brother. Yet Tyro had not spent the better part of his youth lost in the lessons and riddles of Volomses’ scholarship. To Lyrilan the old sage was practically a second father. Even more so since the passing of Dairon thirteen months ago. For the first time Lyrilan wondered if Tyro had anyone who served this role for him. Someone who could ease the pain of losing a father simply by his presence. The thought troubled Lyrilan deeply. He did not know his twin brother. Not really. They shared the throne and a vast kingdom, yet they barely spoke these days.

Only in the midst of court duties, each on his high seat responding to civil cases and foreign diplomats, did they converse at all. Lyrilan had made the rift greater by cloistering himself in this lofty tower for the better part of a year to work on this book. Yet surely Tyro understood that this was Lyrilan’s tribute to the life of their father. Tyro had ordered a golden statue of Dairon erected in the palace courtyard, and another of bronze in the Great Marketplace. Yet Tyro did not create these works himself. Lyrilan’s ode to Dairon’s greatness was something he had created out of raw love, stubborn dedication, and blood-dark ink. Both of Tyro’s sculptures had been completed months before Lyrilan’s manuscript.

“One does not need to stare at the sun to understand its brightness, Majesty,” said the sage, tugging at a single braid of his white beard. “Have I not read your previous tomes, and every line of your inconstant poetry? I have no reason to believe that this volume will not be a masterwork. Your father would be very proud of you.”

Lyrilan shrugged his shoulders and poured wine into a crystal goblet for his guest. He refilled his own cup with more of the Uurzian vintage. Now that his head need no longer be clear, he could afford to get good and drunk. Then would come sleep, long and deep. After that, he would take his wife in the way he had so long denied himself.

Ramiyah, he prayed, please be able to forgive my long absence. Now I will give you children, as many as you desire. He knew there would come a day when another unwritten book would call out to him, possess his body and spirit, and demand that he write it into existence. Someday he would creep from his bed and find himself chained to the writing desk again, obsessed with some new work. Yet now he put the thought from his head. He must find a balance between this solitary work and his duties as husband, as King, and eventually as a father.

“Stay here,” he told Volomses. “The chamber is yours. Read it. It needs your eyes. Only when I have gained your studied endorsement will I have it bound and passed to the scribes for duplication.” Lyrilan waved to his servant, who opened a wall closet and brought fine new robes for the King as he shed his sweat-stained tunic.

Volomses gave a solemn half-bow. “I will not leave this chamber until I have done so,” he swore. Servants would bring the sage meals and wine, and even courtesans if he wished, while he inhabited the study and perused Lyrilan’s pages. This was a ritual Lyrilan had enacted with every book he had written for the past seven years. His first volume, The Perilous Quest of Prince D’zan, Scion of Yaskatha, was one of five such tomes to grace the shelves of the Royal Library of Uurz. Each of those volumes had benefited from the editorship of Volomses. This book of Dairon’s life would be the sixth. Lyrilan wondered if, someday when the old sage had passed away, he could ever write another book or have the courage to put it on public display. He put the thought from his mind.

“Thank you,” he said, embracing the sage as an uncle or cousin. “They are never finished until you read them.”

Volomses nodded. His gaze wandered to the manuscript as he drank from the goblet, then his head turned back to Lyrilan, who had donned a robe of green and gold, a cape of liquid-blue silk, and hose of black velvet. His wiry legs were far too thin for going bare, even in the long heat of the drought.

“Your brother expects you at the feasting,” said the sage, as if he muttered a warning.

Lyrilan nodded. “I will not disappoint him. In fact, I may drink more wine than he does this night.” The servant handed him a thin coronet of gold with a single emerald set at the center of the forehead. Lyrilan slipped it on to fit tightly about his brow and arranged the long, oiled curls of his black hair. “Tell my wife I await her in the Grand Hall,” he said. The page rushed off to summon his mistress.

Volomses still had not looked away from his King. “You know there will be gladiators? Khyrein spies in a duel of death.”

Lyrilan nodded, took a deep breath, and drained his cup of its red refreshment. Already he felt the pleasant sting of the wine between his temples. He sighed.

“I did not,” he admitted. “My brother’s command?”

Volomses stared out the window at the falling gloom of evening. Stars winked in the deep twilight. The sun was nearly lost beneath the flat horizon, and golden towers stood purple as wounds. “More than likely the idea came from Lord Mendices,” spat Volomses. “That one has a hunger for blood that is never quenched. Would that he were not so close in your brother’s affections.”

Lyrilan pulled on tall boots of black oxen leather. He felt as stiff and formal as he looked. The sundown had brought little relief from the day’s heat, and he looked forward to the great fan bearers at the feast, if not the blood sport.

“Or perhaps it was Talondra?” he asked. His brother’s wife was an olive-skinned Sharrian. Her vicious beauty was exceeded only by her absolute hatred of Khyrei, the nation that had reduced Shar Dni to rubble in a single day of sorcery and slaughter. Her presence fueled Tyro’s lust for war as oil fed a brazier’s flames. Perhaps it was that dark passion, that very eagerness to spill Khyrein blood, that so attracted Tyro to her above all other courtesans. Perhaps it was her keen ambition to revenge the dead of Shar Dni that had impressed Tyro enough to make her his Queen. Dairon would not have approved, but Lyrilan had never said this to his brother. It was not his place.

Lyrilan must be the Peace Speaker. He must provide the balance to his brother’s glory-seeking war lust. Dairon had refused to initiate or participate in a war of vengeance. Lyrilan understood why. At one time he had thought that Tyro also understood. Perhaps it did not matter anymore now that Dairon was gone. His influence over Tyro was no more.

Would Tyro deign to read the book his brother had written? Would he rediscover the principles and philosophies that had made their father a great soldier and a great ruler?

That is why you really wrote this book, a voice inside him whispered. You wrote it for Tyro. You hope it will reach him.

Lyrilan shook his head. The wine was strong.

He strapped a jeweled dagger to his belt, strictly for the sake of formality. Now he descended the spiral stairs toward the opulent heart of the Palace of Sacred Waters. A pair of wing-helmed guards accompanied him, mute but for the clatter of their boots and the jangling of scabbards.

He braced himself for the sight of tonight’s bloodshed, a gaudy entertainment staged in the guise of justice. Normally he would never attend such an event, and would even argue its legitimacy with his brother. But he had learned one thing above all others in his thirteen months of being a King. He had learned to choose his battles carefully.

Though he must endure watching a man die during the feast, at least he would know the comfort of Ramiyah’s presence. They might even finish the dining and depart before the combat began. This would no doubt irk Tyro, but Lyrilan enjoyed sending such subtle signals of disapproval. Where Tyro was blunt, Lyrilan was understated.

The Scholar King and the Sword King, they were called. While two Kings ruled Uurz, there could be no Emperor, for that was a single title, meant for only one man to bear.

Always in the back of his mind, Lyrilan knew what this meant.

One of them must eventually die before Uurz would again have an Emperor.

It was a sobering fact that he had taught himself to utterly ignore.

The Feasting Hall was a hive of activity. A hundred barefoot servants rushed about in white togas serving platters of roasted meat, towers of sliced fruits, brown loaves and steaming broth. The royal board lay heavy with delicacies contrived by a squad of clever cooks, and vintages dark as ruby from the palace cellars sat along the table in crystal decanters. Already a few dozen noble couples and lacy courtesans had arranged themselves along the board, sipping at sparkling goblets, toying with powdered curls, whispering heresies into bejeweled ears, and chewing the flesh of plump black grapes plucked from jade bowls.

Squat pillars of white marble veined with violet lined the sides of the hall, and high windows admitted the evening breezes. The flames of torches dances in their sconces. The smells of steaming provender and wafting perfumes filled the high chamber. The walls lay hidden behind tapestries of ancient weave set with scenes of past Emperors leading their armies to victory or battling fiery Serpents in apocalyptic scenes that probably never happened. Yet the jewel eyes of the tapestry heroes gleamed bright as stars in the hall.

The floor was inlaid with a mosaic representing all the great ages of the world, from the Time of Walking Gods to the Age of Serpents, on to the Scattering of Tribes, the Age of Heroes, and many others, ending with the Age of the Five Cities. Four of those great cities still stood in this the Modern Age, yet there were no depictions of New Udurum. That titanic capital of black stone lay north of the Grim Mountains and was not founded by the Tribes of Man, but by the fickle northern Giants. It was Vod of the Storms who had opened Udurum’s gates to Men, and the thousands of refugees from fallen Shar Dni. One city was annihilated by darkest sorcery; another was transformed by similar powers.

The people of Uurz were close allies with Vireon, Son of the Giant-King, who now ruled Udurum. Yet in their hearts they did not fully trust the Tall Ones; many living still in Uurz remembered the day when Giants conquered their city and crushed the bloodline of their aged Emperor. Those survivors of Shar Dni’s destruction who had not fled to the City of Men and Giants fled instead to Uurz.

In recent years, rumors of the Giants’ departure from Udurum had spread to the green-gold city. Merchants from Udurum said the Uduru went farther north to find a new home in the Icelands. Still, there were many in Uurz who never forgot the sight of a Giant host thundering against the city walls, and they half expected the Uduru to return one day and take back the city they had conquered then abandoned.

At the far end of the great table, on a raised dais of glassy marble, Tyro the Sword King sat staring into the eyes of his wife and lover, Talondra. She lounged at his side in her own gilded chair of velvet and silk, her ring-heavy hands caressing Tyro’s chest. Tyro was everything his scholarly twin was not: broad of shoulder, dusky of skin, heavily muscled, and radiant with royal power. His long black hair hung wild about his shoulders, but his heavy beard was tied into a single braid with hoops of golden wire. His scarred chest was bare in the heat, glimmering with a necklace of topaz and opals. He wore a plaited bronze kilt in the manner of a legionnaire, underscoring his status as the realm’s chief soldier, his strapping legs bare, jeweled sandals resting on a lush carpet. Bracers of silver and onyx sheathed the Sword King’s forearms, and a slim crown of gold and emerald (identical to Lyrilan’s own) sat upon his brow.

Tyro did not need the crown to evoke a majestic aura, yet he wore it as custom dictated. Against the right arm of his high seat leaned a broadsword in a scabbard crusted with emerald and jade, the Emperor’s final gift to his warrior son. Dairon had left his journals to Lyrilan, his sword to Tyro. The man knew his sons well.

The eastern wing of the hall was covered with black sand, forming a small arena where tonight’s combatants would shed one another’s blood. Four flaming braziers sat about the sandy area, each of them fronting two spearmen in polished breastplates. These eight guards would ensure the gladiators did not flee. It would be a fight to the death, the winner gifted with the Kings’ mercy. An ancient rite of justice, one that Tyro had revived only recently. Lyrilan’s protests had been powerless to prevent it. Now he must endure the blood spectacle.

Ramiyah waited between two pillars, standing apart from the mass of courtesans and revelers who streamed into the hall in their best satins and gemstones. A trio of serving girls stood at her back, having dressed her in a slim gown of crimson trimmed with amber thread. Her golden hair fell like a mantle of silk to the middle of her back, and her neck bore a collar of emerald and jet, a gift from Lyrilan on their wedding night two years ago. Diamonds hung from her seashell ears, and the nails of her fingers were perfect as red almonds.

She was Yaskathan, born and bred in that southern kingdom of tall ships, vast orchards, and year-long heat. The closeness of the drought did not bother her, only the dry spell of her husband’s attention. Yet that long season was over. Her eyes fell upon Lyrilan, blue as northern ice, yet warm as sunrays. She rushed toward him as he entered through the grand arch. The guards slowed their pace so as not to intrude upon the happy reunion.

Lyrilan wrapped his arms about Ramiyah with a sigh of relief. Her first look had said, I waited for you in perfect faith. Twice now he had abandoned her for his scrolls and inks and quills. Two books written and two periods of loneliness that his wife had borne with the patience of a Goddess. He inhaled the lilac scent of her hair, the jasmine sweetness of her neck. He kissed pink lips, caressed warm brown skin.

“Gods of Earth and Sky–how I’ve missed you,” Lyrilan told her.

“Is it finished?” she asked.

He nodded. “Volomses is reading it now. I am returned to the land of the living.” He smiled, and she caught his joy in her own face, sending it back to him like a reflection in silvered glass.

He looked beyond the bobbing heads and bared shoulders of the assembled courtiers. His brother had noticed his arrival. Tyro raised his right hand in greeting, while his left lay firmly in the grip of the Lady Talondra. The Brother Kings sent their smiles across the hall like messengers’ arrows aimed at one another.

“Let us dine,” said Lyrilan, leading Ramiyah toward the board. The horde of courtesans and fools spread apart like rainbow-hued water, and the royal couple walked between two aisles of bowing and kneeling nobles. Servants stopped in their tracks, food steaming on great oval trays, wine sloshing in fresh decanters, until Lyrilan approached his seat.

At the opposite end of the table, much farther from his brother than he would have liked, a second dais rose to support Lyrilan’s throne and its companion seat. He assisted his wife as she ascended the three steps to her chair. When she was safely nestled on a velvet cushion there, he sat himself unceremoniously upon the throne. Now he stared across the heaped board and the two hundred guests directly at Tyro. The Twin Kings sat above their courtiers on platforms of equal height. Like the identical crowns, the twin thrones showed the equality of the two monarchs. Pairs of servants cooled both of the royal couples by wafting great feathered fans made from the feathers of Mumbazan ostriches.

Talondra stared with tigerish eyes at Ramiyah. The two women were nothing alike. Talondra’s raven-black hair set her apart, as did her unrestrained curls. Her eyes, like Ramiyah’s, were blue, yet Talondra’s eyes were cold. They reminded Lyrilan of the glistening snowdrifts between the Grim Mountains, and the perilous crossing he and Tyro had made eight years ago.

Talondra was a child of Shar Dni, yet her family had sent her here a year before that city fell to horror and war. Her loathing of Khyrei and its pale peoples was already a legend among the court. Rumors said that she had tortured to death with her own hands a Khyrein spy found in the palace three years ago. Her constant influence had utterly ruined any Uurzian merchant families who claimed a trace of Khyrein blood. No matter that most of those hapless fools had never set foot in Khyrei themselves. Talondra would never be satisfied until Tyro led the Legions of Uurz south to conquer the jungle kingdom.

Tyro wanted war with Khyrei as a matter of honor; Talondra wanted vengeance, raw and bloody and bitter on the tongue. This made her far more dangerous than he. Lyrilan was not the only member of the court to recognize this uncomfortable truth.

The Brother Kings were seated just far enough apart that conversation would be impossible. If they wished to discuss some matter, they must send servants to carry their words around the table like honeyed pastries. Lyrilan noted the presence of Lord Mendices without surprise. The tall hawk-nosed warrior with the shaven skull and oiled beard was not dressed in his customary bronze mail and plate, but wore instead a nobleman’s green-gold toga, a wreath of grape leaves twined about his narrow skull. His dark eyes scanned the board, making mental note of all those present, assessing each personality for its usefulness in his palace schemes. Rubies glimmered on his fingers like drops of blood. Of all the courtiers at table, Mendices sat closest to Tyro, as he loomed large in the Sword King’s private councils.

A trio of musicians began to play on harp, pipe, and lute, signifying the start of the festivities. The assembled People of the Court fell to feasting with hearty abandon, staining their lips with red wine and greasy gooseflesh. Only the unmarried women held back, nibbling at dainty bits of food, filling their slim bellies with drink that made them lightheaded and prone to bouts of giggling. Servants brought Lyrilan and Ramiyah platters of food and goblets of wine, holding them steady as living tables while the Scholar King and his wife dined. Across the mass of feasters, Talondra fed Tyro strips of pink meat with her own supple fingers.

Ramiyah spoke of a trip to Murala, possibly a sea cruise to Mumbaza. Like Lyrilan’s mother, she loved to sail on the great Uurzian galleys. Lyrilan made no promises, but nodded. Perhaps it was time for a few days away from this court with its stifling formalities and increasingly barbaric entertainments. A page boy approached and brought him word from the table’s far end.

“Majesty,” the page bowed, “your brother bids you welcome. King Tyro rejoices to see you come down from your lonesome tower. His love for you has turned to worry over your well-being.”

Lyrilan smiled. “Tell my brother that I missed him too. But this night belongs to my Ramiyah. I will speak with him tomorrow, if he will, in the Garden of Memory.”

The servant bowed again and carried his message around the teeming table to the seat of Tyro. Tyro nodded and turned to share his thoughts with Talondra. The dark-haired Queen looked not in Lyrilan’s direction, but focused only on Tyro. She could exert an iron influence over his deeds. Lyrilan had learned this the hard way, as she pulled his brother further and further away from him during the last four years.

In some way the brotherly bond had been shattered on the day of Tyro’s wedding. Was this only natural for brothers? As twins, the two boys had shared a special intimacy while growing, one that endured despite their separate natures. Each supplied strength where the other displayed weakness. Lyrilan often prayed to the Four Gods that the bond of twins was not broken, only muted. Yet he, too, had often pulled away from his brother. When he was consumed in the research and composition of a new book, he turned away from all companions. Even his wife. He squeezed Ramiyah’s hand and silently swore to find a greater balance between his writing, his relationships, and his Kingship.

The servant returned with another swift bow, bringing the words of Tyro: “Majesty. King Tyro wills it. He bids you enjoy the evening’s spectacle.” Lyrilan frowned and offered no response. He waved the servant away, and the boy was gone, lost in the flurry of attendants hefting full salvers and porcelain dishes to and from the table.

Lyrilan enjoyed the touch of Ramiyah’s fingers, the taste of her lips flavored with dark berries, the warmth of her smile, and her soft words slipped into his ear. He soon forgot about the feast, the courtiers, and even his brother’s presence. Ramiyah had this effect on him: hers was the ability to consume his attention as nothing but a Great Idea could ever do. It was those Great Ideas that were her only competition as Queen and wife. They were the only things that could break the spell of her charms and draw him away from her. Now he reveled in her presence. The music of the feast, the voices of the celebrants, all sank to a dull roar. The sparkling wine sang in his blood, swam between his ears like dancing motes of starlight, and he found himself smiling and content for a timeless moment. That contentment was shattered by the voice of Lord Mendices.

The gaunt Warlord rose from his place at the table and with a gesture caused the musicians to cease their playing. All eyes turned upon the lord, and his lean face smiled in the manner of a wolf or jackal contemplating easy prey. Such was Lyrilan’s imagination, yet he knew himself to be drunk, or close to it, so he ignored his fancies.

Lord Mendices raised his cup. “A toast to the Twin Kings of Uurz, Lords of the Sacred Waters. Long may they run!” Every man and woman in the hall joined him. “In his grace and wisdom,” said Mendices, “King Tyro has revived our ancestors’ tradition of blood justice. Tonight we bring before the Brother Kings not one but two known spies from the poisonous realm of the south. Two Khyreins, marked not only by their pale skin and dark eyes, but by their own words, spoken during a righteous interrogation. They have confessed to being agents of Gammir the Reborn, whom they have the gall to call Emperor. Yet no spy can stalk the streets of Uurz for long. Our legions are vigilant! Our swords are sharp! Our walls are strong!” Another round of cheering, unasked for but triggered by the traditional evocation of Uurz’s triple strength. Mendices paused to bask in the effect of his words, and calm returned to the hall.

“As our ancestors knew, a warrior’s worth can be proven in battle by strength of arm and swiftness of foot. So that ancient principle lives again. Rather than face the headsman bound in mortal unity, these Khyreins have chosen to fight to the death so that one may be granted the Kings’ mercy. A stain of wickedness pervades the entire Khyrein race, which knows nothing of brotherhood. You will see it on display this evening, as one man of Khyrei willingly strikes down another. Let this combat remind you of what separates us from these fiends of the crimson jungles.”

Mendices turned to signal a guard. “The prisoners.”

Lyrilan’s stomach sank, sobriety returning like a lead weight upon his chest as the guard walked off to retrieve the captive Khyreins. Ramiyah’s hand squeezed his own, a silent message of support. He took a deep slow breath. It reeked of brazier smoke and greasy bones.

The points of naked spears herded the two Khyreins into the hall and onto the circle of black sand. The eight spearmen arranged themselves in a ring about the makeshift arena. The courtiers at the Kings’ table stood to have a better view beyond the guards’ bronze shoulders. Only the two Kings and their Queens would have an unobstructed view of the combat, sitting safely atop their platforms.

The Khyreins were nude but for loincloths of crimson silk. Their skin was pale as marble, their narrow eyes and unwashed hair black as kohl. The half-healed marks of torture and bondage were visible as crimson welts upon their wrists and feet. One was barely a man, little more than shaving age, his arms thin and chest sunken. The other was a man of middle age, with beefy arms and squat legs, a warrior who had seen pain and taken men’s lives. It was obvious who would win this combat. Unless the younger man proved far quicker than his elder.

A guard removed first the young man’s shackles, then the elder’s. They stood at the far ends of the ring. Two shortblades were tossed into the middle of the arena, hitting the sand with dull thumps. They were common blades, wide and honed to deadly sharpness, but without any flourish of design or jeweled accent. These were tools made only for one purpose: killing at an arm’s length. Both of the prisoners eyed the blades, rubbing their wrists that had suffered so long under the shackles’ bite.

Perhaps they thought of taking up those blades and cutting their way through the spearmen, maybe even leaping upon one of the Twin Kings’ platforms and spilling royal blood across the steps. Yet the spearmen were chosen for their size and ferocity. Any step toward the outside of the ring would bring an immediate impaling. There was no choice now but to fight one another. Lyrilan wondered if he would make the same choice in a similar situation. What if he were forced to choose between killing his brother or sacrificing his own life? He chose to think he would not fight Tyro, no matter the consequences. Yet he did not truly know the answer.

No man truly knows himself until he faces death. The words of Pericles, greatest philosopher of Yaskatha. These two Khyreins were on the verge of an ultimate self-knowledge.

The younger man leaped toward the blades, followed a half-second later by his countryman. The younger had barely wrapped his hand about the sword’s grip when the elder’s bare heel slammed into his skull. The elder grabbed up his own weapon. He stabbed down with both hands wrapped about the grip. The blade sank into sand as the younger rolled to his side and jumped to his feet. They squared off like crouching panthers.

The elder waited patiently, and the younger lunged, stabbing forward. The elder brought his knee up and cracked a rib or two, then felled his opponent with a stabbing blow from his elbow. Again the younger went down to the sand. But he did not lose the grip on his shortblade. He sliced it casually across the back of the older’s calf, just missing the great tendon that would have crippled him. The elder howled and leaped away. The courtiers cheered at the sight of first blood. Lyrilan’s stomach churned. He must not vomit. Not in front of all these eyes.

Once again the two Khryeins faced each other, the one clutching his ribs, the other streaming crimson from the back of his lower leg. The moment lingered, and the pale panthers circled. Someone yelled a curse upon them both from the table. As if incensed by this verbal abuse, the elder swept forward with his blade, keeping his body well back from the younger’s thrusting motion. A red weal appeared across the younger’s chest from nipple to nipple. The elder wasted no time, sweeping a leg beneath the younger and bringing him to the ground once more.

The older thrust his blade deep into the younger’s side. The younger’s blade fell from his fingers as he howled. It was not a killing blow, but he would not rise again. Scarlet streamed from both chest and side wounds into the black sand, where it became invisible among the grains. Now the older raised his sword again in both hands, blade pointed down and aimed at the younger’s heart. This would be the death stroke, the final mercy. He would put the gasping, quivering youth out of his misery at last.

A bronze spear snaked forward and dashed the sword from the older’s hands before the killing blow fell. Guards surrounded him as he stood panting and bleeding from the calf, a desperate hope burning in his black eyes. The guards removed both shortblades, and their captain carried the bloodied sword across the hall toward Lyrilan’s dais. Wordlessly he held the killing tool in both hands, arms outstretched toward the Scholar King. Lyrilan swallowed the dryness in his throat. He did not know what to do. As much as he knew the intricacies of courtly protocol, this was a situation entirely new to him. It was a custom that died out long ago, and it should have been left dead.

The wounded man gasped for air on the sand, grasping at his punctured flesh.

Lyrilan became aware of all eyes focused on him now. Lord Mendices threw his voice across the hall again. “Majesty. It is customary for the Emperor… or King… to claim the right of final execution.” He paused, and when there came no reply from Lyrilan, he added, “The death blow is yours if you wish it, King Lyrilan.”

Lyrilan shook his head. He waved the sword away with distaste, as if it were a platter of overripe cheese. His eyes turned toward Tyro, who watched without expression from across the long table. Did his brother enjoy seeing him squirm like this? Or did he feel Lyrilan’s pain? Was it Tyro’s idea to offer Lyrilan the killing sword first?

The guard walked about the table and offered the red blade to Tyro. The Sword King wrapped his hand about the grip and stood before the audience gathered about him. All there knew he would do the deed. There was no question. Tyro had no qualms about killing his enemies, as no warrior should.

Lyrilan avoided his eyes, and the eyes of the nobles that flickered back and forth between the two Kings. He stared at his own hands, cursing the jeweled rings on his fingers. He could not even look at Ramiyah, though her presence beside him was hot as flame.

Tyro stepped down from his dais while Talondra stood to watch him go. He approached the ring of sand, stood over the dying man, and said something in a low voice. Only the bleeding Khyrein could hear him. As easily as slicing a melon, he drew the keen blade across the young Khyrein’s throat, pressing it deep to sever the great vein. A fresh gout of red spilled among the black sand, and in a few moments the prisoner was dead.

The older prisoner stood nearby, still the focus of an octet of spears. Tyro would grant him freedom according to the custom of blood justice.

“I beg the Great King’s mercy,” said the prisoner in perfect Uurzian. He fell upon his knees before Tyro. Tears glittered in his eyes, perhaps shed for the man he’d killed, perhaps for himself, perhaps only a show to secure the King’s pity.

Tyro kept his own dark eyes focused on the face of the victorious prisoner. Yet his voice spoke to the assembled courtiers and to his brother behind him. “This man has won the trial of blood justice. By slaying his own cousin he has proven his worth as a soldier. Yet the Kings of Uurz will allow no mercy for the devils of Khyrei.”

The Sword King’s fist moved quick as a shadow, a dance of silver in the smoky air. The blade sank deep into the older Khyrein’s heart, stopped only by the curve of the bronze hilt. Tyro released the blade and stood quiet as the prisoner keeled over. Now both captives lay dead on the sand.

Lyrilan blinked and realized he had forgotten to breathe. Ramiyah whimpered softly once beside him.

Tyro turned to address his shocked audience. “No mercy for the devils of Khyrei!”

Now the crowd fell from shock to applause, and Tyro’s cry was repeated from many drunken throats. Even the guards of the hall joined in the chant. “No mercy! No mercy! No mercy!”

During the cacophony of applause Tyro walked back to his dais, sat himself upon the throne, and met Talondra’s lips with his own.

Lyrilan, sitting silently as the two dead men were dragged away, saw the faces of a half-dozen nobles staring at him. These were the sensible ones, the ones who feared war and supported his talk of peace. They expected him to balance his brother’s martial sensibilities. They looked to him now, deafened by the cheers of their fellows. But he could do nothing to stop the rising tide of Tyro’s bloodlust. It spread through the court like a virus, a contagion that could not be stopped.

This had all been planned. Tyro had called him out.

The true spectacle this night was not the slaughter of two Khyrein spies.

It was the weakness of the Scholar King.

Lyrilan rose from his chair and descended the platform, drawing Ramiyah after him by her hand. A quartet of legionnaires followed as they left the Feasting Hall, where the reek of spilled blood overpowered now the scents of meat and smoke and spices. To his surprise a half-dozen noblemen followed him as he exited. He only wanted to be alone with Ramiyah, to think. To figure out this problem dropped into his life like a bead of poison into a cup of wine.

He was not the only Peace Speaker among the court. Yet he was their leader, their Scholar King, their only chance. They did not want a war any more than he did. They feared Tyro the Sword King and the voices who guided him toward savage glory.

This was the beginning of something new and terrible.

Factions. The Sword and the Scholar.

Before there was war with Khyrei, there would be war in Uurz.

O Father, what have you done to us?

3

Born Into Shadow

It began with a dream of blood.

Vireon sank into a red sea, rich and warm as the ocean that had drowned his father. His great arms, his mighty thews, the Giant strength of his body, all these things were worthless as he sank deeper into the crimson depths. His iron-hard skin that no blade or arrow could break… useless. His limbs flailed like a child as the bloody tide invaded his mouth and lungs. At times he broke the surface, where a black sky sparkled with icy stars. He pulled against the current, yet always it pulled him back under, until he lost the stars completely. All was red and molten and weighty as a mountain collapsed on his broad chest.

The red sea turned to burning flame, and he awoke. The bedchamber was warm with orange torchlight, and his sweat drenched the silken bedding. Alua lay peacefully next to him, her arms wrapped about tiny Maelthyn. Vireon breathed the night air into his lungs, pulling the covers back. He stalked to the open window where the breezes would cool his dreaming fever. The King’s Chamber lay at the top of the palace’s highest tower, and the window opened on a view of Udurum’s northern quarter. The City of Men and Giants slept quietly beneath a harvest moon, only a few pale fires and flickering street lamps alive at this late hour.

Beyond the encircling wall of black stone stretched the wild forests of Uduria, ancestral land of Giants. The great Uyga trees rivaled the height of the city wall, which stood higher than even the tallest Giant. Vireon gripped the window-sill, and his thoughts turned to the stones of the palace itself. His father and the Uduri had rebuilt the palace when they rebuilt the shattered city some thirty years ago. Vod the Man-Giant had slept in this very bedchamber with Vireon’s human mother for more than twenty years. At times he could still smell his father’s scent upon the very walls. Could the curse have taken root deep within these very stones? No, he must not consider such a thing. He knew where the curse came from, and it was not his father’s doing.

He thrust his shaggy head out the window, breathing in the scents of the distant forest: pine, leaf, bark, soil, night blossoms, animal scents. It called to him, a balm for his troubled mind. Such thoughts of doom never assailed him in the depths of the woodland. He must escape his own palace to find peace in the hunt. And he must do so now, before the sun came up to remind him he was a King, no longer a boy who could run away and lose himself in the forest. How long had it been since he ran the Long Hunt? Too many years.

He returned to the great bed, moving silently across the carpet on the balls of his feet. Alua’s face lay beneath a tangle of golden hair; he brushed the locks aside and put his lips lightly upon hers. She moaned but did not wake. He would not leave his wife a scrawled message. She would know where he had gone and why. She always knew.

He turned to the curled form of his daughter, a miniature version of Alua, yet with hair black as his own. When her eyes were open they gleamed a fierce blue, another mark of her father’s blood. She was seven now and had her own room in the King’s Tower, yet every night this month she had climbed into bed between her father and mother. Vireon did not mind this. He loved Maelthyn as deeply as he loved her mother. Perhaps even more. He placed a rough hand on her small cheek, kissed her pale forehead. Lost in some pleasant dream, she took no notice of these things.

He stepped away from the bed and gathered up his tall boots, his buckskin leggings, a wide belt hung with a broad-bladed hunting knife, and a shirt of black ringmail. As he dressed in the glow of the brazier’s fading embers, his eyes caught the gleam of his greatsword where it hung upon the wall. Blue and silver hues danced across the length of steel, the metal of Giants. The blade was slightly longer than he was tall. He would not take it with him; it was a tool of war, not the hunt. It had taken the life of his own brother. Fangodrel leaped unwanted into his memory. Fangodrel with his sneering mouth, arrogant eyes, weak shoulders, and Khyrein-pale skin.

Vireon hesitated as he lifted the light crown of silver and onyx. It was little more than a tight-fitting circlet, a traveling crown, an alternative to the great crown he must wear when sitting on the throne. He placed the circlet upon his head, settling it snugly over his black locks. The charred face of Fangodrel floated before him in the gloom. Flesh curled back from a grinning skull, ruined lips flapping over yellow fangs, spitting words like poison: I curse you! Your children will be born into shadow…

Vireon had interrupted that curse with the sharp blade of the greatsword. So he had avenged his true brother, Tadarus, when he cut the head off his false one. His skin crawled as he recalled the crunch of the blackened skull beneath his boot.

He had rejected Fangodrel’s curse. It was no more than the raving of a dying man, a soul poisoned with obscene sorcery. Yet never could he forget the words hurled from those scorched lips. He looked once more at his sleeping daughter, admiring her small limbs, the rising and falling of her tiny stomach, the little pointed chin that so reminded him of his wife. Maelthyn had not been born into shadow, whatever that might mean. She was perfect and healthy and beautiful. Instead, it was Vireon who bore the curse. As his father had endured nightmares in this chamber that should offer a King his rest, so did Vireon. Was this dream of blood, this sense of unease, this constant worry for his daughter and his kingdom… was this the curse? Or was it simply the burden of being a King? He could not say.

In the heady embrace of the forest he would think more clearly. He could run and leap and climb until the earth itself gave him the answer to his question. The Long Hunt called to him as sweet water calls to a man dying of thirst. Stealing a last glance at his wife and child, he took a long spear from the wall and crept out of the chamber.

A cloak of black and violet flapped about his ankles as he departed. The door was guarded, as always, by two Uduri, the stern Giantesses who remained in Udurum. All of the city’s male Giants had marched north years ago to inhabit the realm of the Ice King. Vireon had been responsible for the uniting of these two Giant tribes, and for the emigration of the male Giants. Often he felt the sting of guilt over this, usually when he examined the face of a lonely Giantess standing guard in some corner of his palace. He had never asked the Uduri to dedicate themselves to his service. In fact, he had urged them to follow their menfolk northward, to find a new life together in the White Mountains.

Yet the Ninety-Nine Uduri chose to remain in the city. Barren, they could bear no children for the Uduru, unlike the blue-skinned Giantesses of the north, the women of the Udvorg. The Uduri had claimed their place here, inside the walls of New Udurum. “Let the Uduru go forth and spread their seed,” they told Vireon. “We do not condemn them. This is for the good of all Giants. We are Uduri. We will endure. We will serve.”

So they served, and Vireon appointed most of them as official palace guards. The rest of the world knew that the bulk of Giantkind had abandoned the City of Men and Giants, but Vireon made sure that word of the Ninety-Nine’s loyalty also spread far and wide. An army of twelve hundred Giants had once conquered Uurz in a few days. Even this small number of Uduri was enough to secure Udurum against any foe. In fact, tales of Uduri ferocity in battle helped keep any potential aggressors from the city’s walls. Even the brazen hordes of Khyrei dared not assault the Rebuilt City where Giantesses walked the earth.

Now he found himself accompanied by a pair of Uduri as he strode the broad corridors and descended to the palace grounds. Each Giantess stood nearly three times his height, greatspears in their fists, axes and greatswords buckled to their harnesses. Uduri hair was either sun-yellow or night-black, bound into a waist-length war braid by leather thongs. Their sun-browned legs were bare but for tall sandals, and their breastplates were black-lacquered bronze. Headbands of gold set with orbs of jet marked them as the King’s Guard, though not as overtly as their monolithic statures. The two Giantesses paced behind him like great, silent cats as he entered the palace courtyard and spoke with the Night Captain. He explained three times that no escort was necessary, but the captain insisted on sending a squad of horsemen to accompany his hunt.

Vireon shook his head. “The smell of the horses will drive away any game within three leagues of us,” he explained. “Let alone the scents of the Men themselves. No, I hunt alone.”

The flummoxed captain bowed and ordered the palace’s outer gate flung open. Even so, Vireon’s “alone” meant in the company of the two Uduri. They offered more protection than a platoon of human soldiers. The Uduri followed Vireon into the lantern-lined street leading toward the city gates.

Few citizens were about at this dark hour to note their King’s passing: a few restless youths well into their cups, a weaponsmith working late in his shop, harlots returning to their brothel after a discreet engagement. Folk from all over the continent came to Udurum seeking wealth and prosperity, and most of them found it. The forests of Uduria provided endless game, and the Grim Mountains to the south offered mining opportunities that industrious merchants had learned to exploit. After a flood of Sharrian refuges came to replace the missing Uduru, the City of Men and Giants had become one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Trade routes extended south through the mountains to Uurz and Murala, as well as west to the coastline, where the new settlement of Tadarum provided a harbor for southern merchant ships. It was Vireon’s decision to name the port after his murdered brother. Tadarus would have been the rightful King of Udurum if not for Fangodrel’s treachery.

Vireon gave a sign to the Gatekeeper. Seeing his King practically alone in the night, he scurried to rouse his wheelmen from their slumber. Soon he had them working at the main winches, and the mighty gates of Udurum swung open with a low thunder.

Vireon stepped forth onto the Giants’ Road. It ran west from the city into a vast green grassland, turning at length toward the south, where it ran to meet the misty peaks of the Grim. He took a last look back at the walls of sable stone and turned his eyes north to the deep forest. In that direction he ran, the massive gates shuddering to a close behind him, and the two Uduri ran after him. A pale mist wandered above the tall grass, and the dark sky glowed purple beyond the walls and pinnacles of Udurum. Dawn was still hours away. A golden moon splashed its glow across the leaping braids of the Giantesses.

In his man-sized body Vireon possessed all the terrible strength of an Uduru and three times the speed. He ran, legs pumping, feet pounding the damp earth, relishing the cool wind on his face, and the Uduri grew smaller behind him. They struggled to keep up with him because it was their duty. He did not grin at or mock their slowness, for it gave him no pleasure to abandon them. Yet he needed to be alone this morning. They would of course follow his trail without eating or sleeping until they found him. Eventually they would catch up, but by running he could put a day or two between himself and his escorts. He hurdled the massive roots of Uyga trees and plunged into the green hollows of the Giantwood.

His senses came alive to the perfumes of loam, leaf, and blossom. Nightbirds fled their branches when he passed below like a racing wolf. He leaped shallow streams and crested craggy tors, pounced from stone to stone across a rushing river, and lost himself in the maze of gargantuan tree trunks.

When the sun rose bright and fierce above the forest canopy, green-gold rays fell between the mossy boles and lit the secret glades full of cobflower, snowberry, and thornwhistle. He soon caught the scent of game, a herd of great elk. The odor filled him with renewed energy, and he followed the tracks of their hooves for league after league. North and west, then north again. The torn earth told him the herd was on the run, moving fast from some predator or threat. He planned to overtake them when they paused to drink from pond or stream.

Now a second set of tracks mingled with the great hoofprints. Another smell, pungent, laced with fury and desperation. The mud bore the imprints of an Udhog, one of the great boars that dwelled in the darkest thickets of the forest. They never preyed on the big elk, preferring to feed on grass, roots, leaves, or rodents. However, they were known to take down a young deer on occasion. For the Udhog to chase a herd of great elk this far was something entirely unheard of. And for the elk bulls to actually fear such a predator when their great numbers could most certainly bring it down… This was a mystery.

Vireon moved on, following the crude trail until he topped a low ridge lined with gnarled Uyga. Some distance below the ridgeline, near the ford of a shallow river, a black Udhog feasted on a fallen carcass. Vireon crept closer, using the tree roots to cover his approach. He smelled the blood and offal of the fallen elk, and the stink of the boar’s flesh. But there was something else here too. Something smelled unnatural. A nameless odor on the edge of his awareness.

The boar dug its tremendous head into the split belly of the great elk. Its tusks had ripped the flesh open and its front quarters were slathered in gore. Now and again it raised its pink snout from feeding and squeal-howled at the sky, as if challenging whatever spirits lived among the branches to come down and share its kill. Its flanks quivered, and its head jerked back and forth painfully as it devoured the fresh meat. Something was definitely wrong with the beast.

Across the shallow river the torn ground led Vireon’s eyes up a hill where the last of the elk herd were already galloping away from their tusked pursuer. Vireon might have followed them, taken down one for his own dinner, and brought its great spread of horns back to mount on the wall of his palace. But something about the Udhog’s strange behavior commanded his attention.

He crept nearer to the beast and halted when its bloody head swiveled about in his direction. He ducked behind an Uyga root as the Udhog squealed a challenge. A terrible quiet fell across the glade. Vireon wondered where the birds had gone.

A thunder of hooves drew his head above the root. The Udhog had forgotten its kill and raced directly toward him. Its spearhead tusks gleamed yellow beneath smears of gore and strings of dripping flesh. It stood larger than an ox at the shoulder, and either one of those mighty tusks might pierce his bronze-hard skin to impale him, or split him from groin to collar. Each of its cloven hooves was as large as Vireon’s head, which they would crack open like a melon. His head was harder than that of a Man, as was his skin, but he had no desire to test the density of his skull bone.

He bounded atop the root as the beast charged. Its tiny eyes were black with malevolence. It slammed tusks first into the barky flesh, knocking him back. He tumbled along the ground and found his feet in an instant. It charged again. Now he saw the white foam bubbling from its mouth, leaving a trail along the ground. It squeal-howled at him, tusks quivering as it galloped. The tiny eyes rolled back in its head; its tongue lolled green and spotted. The beast was mad. Some disease must have fallen upon it.

He sprang above the tusks and drove the point of his greatspear into its back. The steel head scraped bone and sank deep between the shoulder blades. At the zenith of his leap Vireon pulled the spear free and landed catlike behind the beast. It swirled around gracelessly with a reckless speed, spouting black blood. Its left tusk came near to ripping his belly open. Again Vireon leaped and again his spear found entry in Udhog flesh. Twelve times he stabbed it deep, and still it took no notice of the wounds. Any Udhog was difficult to kill, but half this many strikes should have done the trick. The madness made it strong. Oblivious to death.

It sprang forward, spilling scarlet from its terrible wounds, and mauled him with its front hooves. One struck his chest, one caught him a glancing blow to the forehead. He fell flat on his back in the mud, witchlights flashing before his eyes, thunder in his ears. He could no longer feel his hands or feet. Darkness fell upon him as the beast stamped across his body. The mighty tusks rose and the Udhog squeal-howled its triumph. Now it would finish him, either by crushing his skull beneath its hooves or by slashing open his stubborn flesh with fang and tusk.

Vireon struggled to raise his spear but found that he had dropped it. Where was the knife at his belt? His arm sought to find it, but hooves kicked at him relentlessly. The great bristly head lowered itself to stare at him, pale froth dripping across his black ringmail. For a moment that seemed forever, he stared into the depths of its brutish close-set eyes. A sea of torment and hunger boiled in the beast’s tiny mind. The stink of insanity filled Vireon’s lungs as the tusks lunged for his belly.

A sound like that of an axe chopping wood met his ears, followed by another exactly like it. Two meaty blows struck nearly at once. The black bulk fell away from him, squealing and spouting fresh gore as it toppled. Two hurled greatspears had found the beast’s neck and heart. The shafts quivered now like saplings grown from its dying bulk. Vireon rose to his feet as the two Uduri came forward with axes to finish the beast. He found his own spear lying an arm’s reach away. His knife was still in its scabbard on his belt. He simply could not reach it while the boar squatted atop him. He had come very close to death.

He shook his head as the Uduri quartered the beast, hacking it into four pieces. He watched, admiring their grisly precision.

“We’ll eat well this evening, eh, Majesty?” asked a Giantess.

“No,” said Vireon. He pointed to the white froth about the boar’s severed head. “See? This beast carried some kind of sickness. Go to the river and wash its blood from your skin.” He joined the Uduri as they followed his command, wading into the cold current. The chill of mountain-born water revived his numb limbs and cleared his head.

“Dahrima the Axe, Chygara the Windcaller,” he addressed them by name, “you have my gratitude.”

“Unnecessary, my King,” said Dahrima. “We have sworn. Even your great speed cannot outrun our vows.” She smiled at him, a warrior’s smile. It reminded him of his uncle, the Giant Fangodrim, who taught him the ways of the hunt.

They were not unpleasant to look at, these Uduri. Their lean faces were softer than those of male Giants, yet the line of their jaws was as firm. Their bodies, while carrying all the curves of a human woman, were tightly corded with muscle, and they were lithe as southern tigers. In fact their slimmer frames and lesser bulk made them quicker than male Giants, and thus often more deadly in battle. Hence the old saying: Uduru will crush your bones to dust; Uduri will hang them on her wall.

Vireon returned the smile and waded back onto the riverbank. He studied the split carcass of the great elk. Its heart was gone. The mad Udhog had burrowed through its belly into its chest specifically to eat that organ. Odd behavior for any animal.

“What could make such a beast mad?” asked Chygara, studying the segmented boar.

Vireon shook his head.

Mad, something whispered. Like my father.

He didn’t want to think this, but could not help it. Vod of the Storms had gone mad just like this boar, and that madness had driven him to his death. The first King of Men and Giants had walked into the Cryptic Sea and drowned himself. Vireon’s mother claimed it was the Sorceress of Khyrei, Ianthe the Claw, who sent the madness. Ianthe had also perverted Fangodrel’s jealousy and stolen his humanity. During Vireon’s confrontation with Fangodrel, Alua had unleashed the power of her white flame, consuming Ianthe utterly. So had Vod been avenged by Alua, even as Vireon avenged Tadarus by killing Fangodrel on that same day.

Vengeance had not been a sweet flavor in the mouth. It tasted like bitter tears. Even now, eight years later, he missed Tadarus as much as he had before killing their traitorous sibling. He missed his true brother even more with each passing year. And his father, too. Vengeance, Vireon had learned, was not a cure for grief. It was only a kind of madness. He rejected it as he had rejected his dying brother’s curse.

Yet what if a taint of that madness remained? Growing in him like some hidden disease, until one day it would emerge and poison him as this great beast had been poisoned. He hoped that, if this happened, there would be enough Uduri there to cut him down. Such mad things should not be allowed to live. They would only spread their sickness to others.

“Shall we follow the herd?” asked Dahrima, pointing toward the elk trail. “We still might take some good meat for tonight’s fire.”

“Yes,” said Vireon. “Go and take your kill. I will not go; I wish to be alone. You will find my trail and catch up with me again. Allow me some little portion of the solitude that Uduria can provide.”

They must have seen the ache in his eyes because they agreed without protest. After burning the diseased Udhog carcass along with the slain elk, Dahrima and Chygara ran north after the elk herd. Vireon walked west toward the deep glades, leaving the stench of the beast’s madness behind him. After a while he climbed a steep hillock and sat upon a fallen log. He gazed across the green roof of the forest, spreading like a carpet all the way to the black walls of Udurum. In the light of day the city’s towers seemed tiny as toothpicks. Far beyond them sunlight glittered upon the white crests of purple mountains. Birds sang baroque melodies, and the breezes played with his thoughts.

What did it mean to find such a mad beast so near to his home? He was no shaman or sorcerer to interpret such omens. He might ask Alua. Her magic was great, her wisdom deep. She often read messages in the subtle movements of nature. The pattern of fallen leaves in the courtyard told her the coming weather, and the shapes of clouds sometimes showed her the future. Yet he could not speak of his fears with her, his thoughts of this nameless curse that may or may not exist. She would only worry. Seeing her fret, Maelthyn would cry, for the girl was sensitive to her mother’s moods. He must remain aloof, silent, strong… ever the King… ever the Giant-Lord, the Son of Vod.

All day he sat upon the high rock, so deep in his own thoughts that he did not notice the sun eventually setting at his back. Elbows on his knees, chin on his crossed forearms, he sat well into the evening until the white fox came. It scrabbled up the hillside noisily so that he heard its coming. He knew its perfume before he ever saw it. The jasmine scent reminded him of cold snow and hot skin.

Starlight shimmered on the fox’s pale coat as it loped near to him, pink tongue lolling, black nose steaming in the night. Its dark eyes blinked as it rubbed its cheek across his outstretched hand. It licked his face and whimpered. A sudden mist rose from the hilltop and Alua leaned against him now in her true form. His lips met hers in a deep kiss, followed by a flurry of lesser ones. Freed from the prying eyes of the royal court, their passion danced like a flame stoked by burning winds. They spoke no words; their bodies said everything of importance. After the lovemaking they lay together in the moonlight, arms and legs tangled, blades of torn grass across their thighs.

“Why did you seek me here?” he asked.

She rested her head upon his brawny chest. “Why did you leave in the middle of the night?”

He sighed. What to tell her? “I was troubled,” he said. “I dreamed… a sea of blood.”

She stiffened against him.

“What have you come to tell me?” he asked.

She hesitated, pulling away from him, running hands through her thick blonde hair.

Suddenly his thoughts fell to their daughter. “Where is Maelthyn?”

Alua turned her narrow black eyes to him. “She is safe—six Uduri guard her chamber.”

He nodded, glad of it. Yet there was something she had not told him yet. Something that drew her from the child’s side and across the deep forest to this lonely crag. He felt it in his bones. He waited for her to say what it was.

“Your dream was true,” she said, staring at the silver disk of moon. Her voice was heavy with concern. “Last night in a tavern on the Street of Vines, eleven legionnaires were slain. They were off duty and enjoying themselves. Three serving girls and the taverner were also killed.”

Vireon’s brow knotted. Street violence was rare in Udurum. In such a prosperous city the citizens had little reason to kill one another. And the presence of the Ninety-Nine Uduri kept most Men in line.

“A quarrel with the sellswords of some foreign merchant?” Alua shook her head. “No. They were slaughtered by some kind of beast.”

Vireon stood and pulled on his mail shirt.

The madness spreads…

“What beast could enter my city?” he asked. “Do we have witnesses?”

“None,” said Alua. She rose to stare at him, her hand on his bare chest. “Somehow… nobody saw the killing.”

“Then how can you be sure it was a beast?”

“Or beasts,” she said. “I saw the remains. Nothing human could have… Their hearts were missing. Torn from out of their breasts.” She looked away to the south. The towers of Udurum were lost in deepening night. “Some new sorcery has arrived. I feel it.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “So do I.”

He said nothing of the Curse of Fangodrel, though he was sure it had begun.

They came down and met the Uduri camped at the foot of the hill. Vireon ran with the Giantesses while Alua kept pace as the white fox. Before sunrise they reached the gates of the city. Early crowds of laborers shuffled aside to make way for Vireon and his tall escorts. He went directly to the Street of Vines to inspect the scene of the massacre. The hinged sign hanging above the tavern’s wooden door depicted three white horses prancing on a green background. A squad of human sentinels stood about the wooden building in black bronze corselets and pointed helms gilded by the new day’s sun. The soldiers were haggard, having been on guard all night.

The torn bodies of the victims had already been removed for burning, yet the tavern still smelled like an abattoir. Blood and viscera stained the walls and floorboards. The marks of great claws were sunk deep into the brown wood. From the look of things, each talon was as long as Vireon’s finger.

Definitely more than one beast. A wild pack of gray wolves set loose in the drinking house would do less damage than this. If these had been wolves, they were large as Udhogs. Only the snow wolves in the Icelands grew to such a size, yet they never came south of the White Mountains. There was no trace of fur, or spittle, or any spoor that a forest creature might leave. These were unnatural beasts that killed in his city. Stolen or devoured fifteen human hearts and then disappeared. He found no tracks on the streets outside, and no drops of blood spilled by the slayers as they fled.

The Night Captain told him no more than Alua had. Nobody had heard screams or any sounds of slaughter inside the shop. Instead, the tavern had grown strangely silent. Eleven off-duty soldiers and no bawdy songs, no roaring voices. On a noisy street filled with crowded establishments, it took a while for anyone to notice. Sometime well after midnight a thirsty blacksmith wandered into the Three Stallions and found the mangled bodies. He reported it to the nearest constable and sought another alehouse to drown the memory of his discovery. The captain offered up a curled piece of parchment with the blacksmith’s name scrawled above the names of the fifteen victims.

Vireon dismissed the tired soldiers. There was little left to protect here. No one would ever drink or eat in this shop again. The stench of death would never leave its walls. Some new owner would burn it down and start anew.

The two Uduri waited patiently outside the scarred door. This was not one of those establishments sized for Giant patrons, although Giant-friendly taverns were once as common as fruit stands in the city. Since the departing of the Uduru for the Icelands, most of the “tall shops” had gone out of business. Only three such alehouses were left, and they catered to the Ninety-Nine Uduri. An exclusive clientele.

Dahrima and Chygara paced behind Vireon as he strolled down the street with parchment in hand. The air was bright and fragrant with morning smoke. The aroma of roasting sausage and baking bread filled his nostrils. Roof gardens in the Uurzian style were common in this quarter, and small trees grew at each corner in squat urns full of black earth. Tavern signs hung from a succession of doors. Foreign faces come to trade in the Central Market peered curiously from open windows. Vireon ignored the babble that followed him along the lanes and the random shouts of “Hail the King!” His thoughts were his own.

He avoided the sprawling market because the crowds would mill about him when he passed there, eager for a touch of his hand or a spoken blessing. The people loved their Giant-King even more than they had loved his father. Unlike Vod, this King carried actual human blood in his veins. Vod had often stood at his true Giant’s height when he walked about the city. And why not when his city was full of Giants? Vireon stood slightly taller than the brawniest laborer or legionnaire. He carried the power and density of a Giant in the body of a Man, and they loved him for that as well. His strength was their own. New Udurum was built by the hands of Giants, but it belonged wholly to Men now.

Vireon passed along the Avenue of Idols, where bronze effigies of Vod and a hundred other Giant heroes stood between columns of red marble smothered in ivy. The hulking statues were life-sized, forged by the world’s finest artisans. Passing by, he glanced up at the face of his father, as he had done a thousand times. The brazen stare was impassive as ever, offering no guidance to future Kings. Dead fathers gave little advice to their sons. He walked on toward the palace, the street traffic spreading again and again to let him pass.

Alua awaited him in the council chamber. She sat at a table of polished oak and studied an ancient text. Vireon dismissed Dahrima and Chygara, ordering them to seek rest. Four of their spear-bearing sisters stood at attention between the sculpted columns. A crowd of royal advisors dawdled beneath the stares of the towering Uduri, discussing in hushed tones the strange affair of the Three Stallions. Vireon always found their ornate robes, golden chains, and jeweled fingers quite distracting. Better to have the advice of plainspoken Giants than the prattling indecision of Learned Men. Yet he had learned to endure the counsel of such advisors, as well as the sages who visited the palace to discuss art and philosophy with Alua. He had even learned to enjoy such lofty discussions at times. But he was in no mood for conversation. The mystery of the curse lay heavy upon him. It gnawed at his gut, a black worm tunneling toward his heart.

A wave of his hand dismissed the courtiers. They left a cloud of cologne and exasperation in their wake. Vireon bent to kiss his wife’s lips. She offered him a platter of cheese and pastries. He found no stomach for such a breakfast, so he settled instead for a goblet of tart purple wine. The drink brought him a sense of calm. He sat brooding beside Alua, staring at the Night Captain’s list of names while she scanned the pages of the great book. He sent a guard to summon the blacksmith Trevius for questioning. An Uurzian name, not uncommon in the city.

A fire crackled in the hearth and sunlight slanted through open casements. At last Alua looked up from her study with a sigh.

“I’ve found nothing,” she said. “No mention of night prowlers who crave human hearts.”

“What is this tome?” he asked.

She flipped back to the book’s cover, showing him the engraved script. “A Thousand Beastly Shapes,” she answered. “One of many works by Iardu the Shaper.”

“My sister’s counselor,” said Vireon. Iardu was nothing less than the wizard who had taught Sharadza the art of sorcery. He thought of her now, so far away from him, no longer a precocious girl, but the Queen of Yaskatha. She dwelled in a fine palace near the wild southern sea. Four years since her last visit. Too long. She had been happy to marry D’zan, eager to leave her dreams of sorcery behind for a ring and a husband. Vireon liked the young Prince, had even helped him regain his ancestral throne. Yet in the end D’zan had fought his own battle and won it by himself. His first act as King of Yaskatha was to make Sharadza his bride.

No answers lay within the pages of the Shaper’s book. Alua would have found them. He wished Sharadza were here to help solve this riddle of blood. His sister was learned and clever in the arts of sorcery.

Alua closed the book. “There are several more volumes like this,” she said. “Perhaps I will find something in one of them. If not, I will ask the Spirits.”

Vireon nodded. He knew she would find nothing. This was all Fangodrel’s doing. He sensed it as surely as he sensed the sickness of the mad boar. His brother had learned to call the shadows… feasted on the blood of the living… took his power from it. Poor Tadarus had been the first to fall beneath Fangodrel’s blood magic.

A scream pierced the silence, echoing along the halls from some high chamber. Vireon ran with Alua beside him. He was certain the scream had fallen from the King’s Tower. Rushing guards darted aside as their King bounded up the stairs two and three at a time. When he passed by the King’s Chamber, sobbing sounds came from the next archway along the hall. The door to Maelthyn’s chamber stood open and without guards. He came near and looked inside. The two Giantesses stationed at the door were on their knees amid carnage and weeping.

The black marble floor and white pillars were drenched in crimson. The stench of blood lingered heavy in the air. The blood of Giantesses. The bodies of six Uduri lay torn and scattered about the chamber. Six Uduri lying dead on the rugs of his daughter’s room. The scream had come from a human serving maid who cowered in the corner and sobbed along with the Giantesses. Their big hands were bathed in the blood of their sisters. Their faces were pallid masks of horror.

“Maelthyn!” Vireon called her name as he stalked between the corpses. Stomachs and chests were torn open. He knew without even looking that every one of their hearts was missing. His own heart threatened to burst out of his chest.

Where is she? Where—

He found her sitting calmly near the open window, forgotten by the grieving Uduri. Her tiny face was dark with blood. It dripped from her fingers. She wore a fine little gown of green and yellow silks, now gone black and sticky with gore. Maelthyn stared at her father, as unblinking as Vod’s effigy of bronze.

“Maelthyn…”

She said nothing, as if she had momentarily forgotten that name altogether.

Vireon grabbed her in his arms, checking her skin for cuts or bruises. There were none. She stared at him with eyes blank as stones, dark blue and sparkling. Her soft little body was intact, despite the bloody baptism.

The wails of the two Uduri guards filled the chamber. How long had it been since one of them had perished? Centuries at least. And now six were slain in a single night. But by what power?

He squeezed Maelthyn close to his chest and whispered comfort in her ear.

The curse had reached its claws into his house, into the very bosom of his family.

Alua ran wide-eyed and fierce into the bloodstained room. She wrapped her arms about Maelthyn as a squad of guardsmen flooded into the chamber. Mother, father, and daughter stood for a while, locked in a terrified embrace, while Giantess tears fell to mingle with the expanding pools of crimson.

“We stood outside while our sisters died,” moaned a Giantess. “We saw nothing. The door would not open… ” Their dark eyes pleaded at Vireon for justice, or vengeance, or both.

Only when the Uduri ceased their wailing and began to gather up the bodies of their sisters did little Maelthyn begin to blink her eyes again. Alua removed her daughter’s bloody dress and carried her to a basin of water for washing. Vireon stayed close. Guards rushed about the chamber and the palace looking for signs of intruders that they would never find.

Alua looked at Vireon as she rubbed Maelthyn’s cheek with a wet cloth. He had never seen that look in his wife’s eyes before. Terror it was, but also accusation. You failed to keep our daughter safe. You, the Giant-King! Son of Vod! You failed! She said none of these things, but he heard them anyway. They echoed louder in his skull than the wailing of the Uduri.

“Father?” Maelthyn’s tiny voice broke the silence between King and Queen. Vireon lowered his face to hers, took her petite hands in his massive ones.

“Yes, Little One, I’m here,” he said. “You are safe now.”

How could he lie to her? He had no choice.

“The shadows…” said Maelthyn, turning her sapphire eyes at him. “The shadows came to play.”

Once more he took her in his arms. He squeezed her as tightly as he dared. She was so small and so very frail, his little Maelthyn. Alua wept then, but still her daughter shed no tears.

“They came for me, Father,” Maelthyn whispered in his ear. “I let them in.”

4

Wings

At night she was an owl, flying high above the tangled swamp. The full moon stared at itself in the pools and fens of black water. Darkness swelled and writhed in the morass of weed, mud, and moss. The great mire was thick with vipers, slippery and venomous. If she were a true owl, she might swoop and grab one or two of them in her talons and feast on the sour flesh. In the back of her mind such owl-thoughts swam like tiny fish in the murky marsh pools. Yet she only stopped her flight when her wings grew tired, resting for a while among the clawed branches of a dead tree.

She marveled that anything at all could live in such a stagnant bog. The sheer multitudes of swimming, crawling, thriving beasts infesting the marshland amazed her. At times she spied great lizards plodding through the swamp, pulling their scaled bulk along on fat, muscular legs, dragging tails thick as trees. She stayed well above their snapping jaws.

During the day she was an eagle, gray-feathered and keen-eyed, soaring across the blue, bathed in the sun’s warm gold. It was difficult not to miss the green fields and ripe orchards of Yaskatha. The winds above the Eastern Marshes were cold and reeked of rot. She recalled the warm ocean breezes that caressed the seaside kingdom. The forest of colored sails rising from a bay filled with trade ships, lean galleys, tall freighters, and pavilioned pleasure barges. Every morning for the past seven years she had greeted the day on the palace veranda overlooking that blue-green expanse of ocean. Every day she dined on the fruits and vegetables cultivated in royal orchards, and sipped elder wines from the finest crystal. Every day, every night, she and D’zan, together. The Southern King and his northborn Queen. Now, below her, lay only a sodden wasteland, a realm with no solid foundation, where the fertility of nature had turned to rot and decay. So it was with her marriage.

She put such thoughts from her mind as she plied the sky, gliding through low clouds and skirting the tops of swamp fogs. East and north she flew, across lands where no man ventured to travel. The great fens were the dividing line between the outlying territories of Yaskatha and Khyrei. Although Khyrei claimed the marshes, there was no sign of settlement, fortress, or habitation. The marshland was not a place for humankind. It offered a thousand deaths and very little in the way of resources or sustenance. Yet, in its own way, this gloomy land was a blessing for both kingdoms. Surely there would have been war after war over this middle territory if living here were not so impossible. A range of impassable mountains could not have divided Yaskatha from Khyrei so effectively.

On the third day the land itself rose higher and the marshes gave way to a dense crimson jungle. The great trees stood like towers of blood, blossoming with vermilion leaves and scarlet fronds. Now the eagle sailed above the poison jungles of Khyrei proper, and there was no denying it. A black tower, spiked and thorny, dominated a high hill. It rose from the livid undergrowth to rival the blood oaks, a testament to the power of the city-state that built it. Her eagle eyes watched sentinels walking the parapets of that tower, figures in black armor and fanged masks. Their spears were tall with curved blades of gleaming bronze. A black pennon flew from the tower’s summit, and she could not guess what purpose the outpost might serve this far from the center of Khyrei’s walls. Then it dawned on her: As unlikely as an attack from the marshes would be, Khyrei remained vigilant along its western border. Another such tower rose several leagues to the north, so that no force of arms could emerge from the sucking grip of the marshes without being sighted. The Khyreins did not trust their neighbors across the great swampland. How many more watchtowers stood along the border between marsh and jungle?

By midday she found the winding green ribbon of the River Tah. It glimmered like the back of a colossal viper winding through the scarlet wilderness. Its waters were sluggish and full of black serpentine creatures. They rose at times from the rank flow to display fin, fang, or tendril, perhaps to grab a stray bird or water lizard, then sink back into the deeper waters. Flocks of copper-colored bats flitted from bank to bank. Once she saw a great crimson tiger drinking from the river, a gorgeous beast as large as a pony. It fled into the shadows as she soared past, following the river’s course directly northward.

In late afternoon she spotted the spires of the black city on the horizon. It rose from the jungle like a gleaming mountain of jet, dominating the western banks of the river delta. Here the Tah flowed into the Golden Sea, dropping its green life into those depthless waters. There were few riverboats that dared to plumb the jungle’s interior, yet beyond the massive walls of Khyrei City the harbor was filled with black-sailed war galleons. They outnumbered the bright sails of trading vessels ten to one. She did not wonder at the sight, for there were few countries now that would actively trade with Khyrei. Its reputation as a haven for pirates and sea raiders had traveled the length of the continent. These triple-sailed warships with blood-trimmed hulls would as often sink a merchant vessel as allow it passage on the trade routes.

Most of the traders moored in the harbor flew the orange and yellow standards of the Jade Isles. She could not readily identify any other sails among the black fleet. Yet she did notice the image stitched onto every one of the black sails, the insignia of a scarlet crown bearing seven points. Years ago, when this fleet sailed north to lay waste the city of Shar Dni, these ships had flown the sign of the white panther, sigil of their sorceress Queen. The red crown had replaced the pale panther on the same field of black.

The sight of this new standard lent credence to rumors that the city’s old Emperor had returned from death. Gammir the Bloody. The Undying One. These were the names they called him, if Yaskathan spies were to be heeded. Ianthe the Claw was no more, annihilated at the Fall of Shar Dni by Queen Alua’s white flame. Just as Fangodrel the Kinslayer, heir to Ianthe’s dark power, was slain by the sword of his own brother Vireon. So Khyrei’s forces had retreated, and the wicked nation had lain quiet for years. Sharadza’s three brothers had finally stopped killing one another, leaving only one still alive. Unless…

Now an Emperor from decades past had returned to revive the power of the black city. Or had he? She had flown a long way to discover the truth for herself. She hoped it was indeed the Gammir of old returned from death, for if what she suspected was instead the truth… Best not to consider it until proof emerged.

The jungle subsided below her, replaced by a swathe of orderly fields. Thousands of pale slaves labored among the rows of crops. Green plantations encircled the city except on the north and east, which were claimed instead by river and ocean. Narrow roads ran among the sprawling farmlands, often busy with slave-drawn carts and yoked oxen pulling loads of produce. Unlike Yaskatha, where most growing lands were lined with fruiting trees, nearly every crop nurtured here grew close to the ground. She wondered if citrus trees would take root and thrive in this place, or only be poisoned by the sour soil. Then the black walls of the city reared before her, and she glided between the peaks of barbed towers.

The city walked in fear, moving in slumped clusters between buildings of low black stone. Even among the sprawling garden estates of noble families there was no single structure to rival the palace of onyx and obsidian. Its central spire rose above all into a vaulted crest surmounted by seven curving spikes, a manifestation in stone of the seven-pointed crown woven into the sails of the black warships.

Clusters of huge bats hung from the eaves and battlements of the tower. The beating of her eagle wings disturbed them, sent clouds of them flapping into the sky like dark fogs screeching with thirst. Fearing they might swarm her, she dived low into the heart of the city, gliding along a wide street where pallid laborers traded with gray-robed shopkeepers. A squad of demon-masked soldiers cut a path through the milling crowds. She flew into the shadows of an alley and settled there among the filth and debris.

She took the shape of a Khyrein woman, middle-aged, whose long dark hair had started to turn gray. Her feathers became a drab shift tied with a black sash, and her feet stood upon the wet flagstones in sandals of worn leather. Grabbing a crooked stick to serve as a support, she walked from the stinking alley into the crowds of Khyrein peasants. There was nary a smile to be seen or laugh to be heard among the shuffling multitude. The wrinkles of deprivation and exhaustion were etched deeply on these people’s faces. Even their clothing reflected this lack of vitality, wrapped as they were in tunics and togas of gray or faded black homespun. Their hems were worn, the soles of their sandals thin, and a few wore jewelry of copper, bronze, or tarnished silver rings on bony fingers. They smelled of sweat and fear and denial.

There were no beasts of burden allowed in the city other than soldiers’ horses, so workers from the fields carried baskets of produce on their shoulders or balanced atop their heads. There were no public musicians here, no great works of art lining broad thoroughfares, no poets spouting verse in the dismal dugouts that served as taverns. There was only a hushed murmur of voices, tinged with worry and suffering. She also sensed an urgency to conclude the day’s business as the sun sank beyond the city’s western wall. These people feared the night.

The clomping of soldiers’ boots drowned out the wheedling voices of merchants, and the black-armored squad strode by. Their captain kicked a small boy into the mud. In the dullness of his youth, the sickly lad had failed to yield the right of way. She feared to next see one of their curving spearheads pointed at the boy’s heart, yet the masked ones continued on their way. A starving child was obviously beneath the notice of their spears or their charity. She tossed the child a jewel from her purse as she followed the group of soldiers, a tiny yellow topaz. Drenched in mud, he snatched up the stone and ran like a frightened hare into the maze of booths and vendors.

Now she walked behind the guards as one of their own. Her body had grown tall, sheathed itself in blackened plates of bronze; her shoulders broadened and a mask rose like a black vapor to obscure her face in the manner of all Khyrein warriors. Her walking stick became a tall barbed spear like those of the soldiers she followed. The squad entered a great plaza ringed by more open booths and vendor stalls, yet dominated at its center by a single great effigy.

The statue was carved of black basalt, like most of the city’s structures. A man with broad shoulders and long legs, draped in a flowing robe flecked with tiny sprays of quartz. The effect was an imitation of the night sky itself, hanging about the figure’s body, shimmering against the purple of early dusk.

As she marched closer, safe in her disguise at the rear of the squad, she saw better the head and face of the idol. A lean wolfish face, its eyes represented by rubies set like bloody almonds in the sockets of the dark skull. A seven-pointed crown rising from its brow. One arm extended toward the west, a globe of crystal in its palm clutched by clawed fingers. The symbolism of the sphere was lost on her. The other hand was high above the crown, lifting a gigantic version of the Khyrein spear. This was an image of Gammir himself, there could be no doubt. It radiated an aura of conquest, war, and sheer defiance. An arrogant Godling giving challenge to the world.

She studied the stony face as well as she could without tripping over her feet as she marched. Could it be? The resemblance was… Yes, it was there. Distorted perhaps, or exaggerated to evoke the lupine qualities, the ferocious grace. Her heart sank. A quickening in her belly that was the first fluttering of genuine fear. Suddenly she understood the folk of Khyrei. She knew what they feared.

Still, she must see him with her own eyes to be sure. She would know if it were truly him. She could not fail to know her own half-brother.

On the plaza’s far side lay the disgusting spectacle of the slave block. Such brazen cruelty amazed and appalled her. Khyreins selling Khyreins to the highest bidder. Frail children in rags stood upon the platform, linked neck to neck by an iron chain. A crowd of nobles, merchants, and foreign traders cast their bids with raised hands as the slavemaster touted the physical features and beauty of his stock. A line of waiting slaves cowered behind the platform in the shadow of masked guards. Farther back among those unfortunates she saw darker skins, prisoners taken in sea raids from the galleons of peaceful kingdoms. Every sailor knew it was better to die spitted on a Khyrein blade than to be taken alive for torture and servitude.

A handful of gold changed hands and a small boy was led away by a tall slaver She turned her face from the scene. She was not here to confront this injustice now. That time would come, but it was not today. Swallowing her revulsion, she bent her mind to the march, focusing on the armored backs of the men she followed.



Continues...

Excerpted from Seven Kings by John R. Fultz Copyright © 2013 by John R. Fultz. Excerpted by permission.
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.

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