In the third gritty installment of the Raven's Mark series, Blackwing Captain Ryhalt Galharrow finds that all power comes with a price...
A sorcerous cataclysm has hit the Range, the final defensive line between the republic and the immortal Deep Kings.
Tormenting red rains sweep the land, new monstrosities feed on fear in the darkness, and the power of the Nameless, the gods who protect the republic, lies broken. The Blackwing captains who serve them are being picked off one by one, and even immortals have learned what it means to die. Meanwhile, the Deep Kings have only grown stronger, and they are poised to deliver a blow that will finally end the war.
Ryhalt Galharrow stands apart from it all.
He has been deeper into the wasteland known as the Misery than ever before. It has grown within himchanged himand now the ghosts of his past, formerly confined to the Misery, walk with him everywhere.
They will even follow himand the few surviving Blackwing captainson one final mission into the darkness.
About the Author
Ed McDonald studied ancient history at the University of Birmingham and holds an MA in medieval history from the University of London. He is a keen martial artist and specializes in the Italian longsword.
Read an Excerpt
Blackwing and Ravencry: What Has Gone Before
The Nameless and the Deep Kings have been at war for longer than anyone remembers. The Deep Kings seek to enslave humanity and turn them into drudge-enslaved, deformed creatures that worship them. The Nameless, cruel and caring only for the final victory, stand in their way.
It has been ninety years since Crowfoot unleashed the Heart of the Void against the approaching enemy forces and, in doing so, created the Misery-a toxic, mystic wasteland where ghosts walk and mutated creatures scavenge the sands, and neither distance nor direction are ever quite what they seem. It can only be navigated by specialists taking readings from the three moons.
Ryhalt Galharrow is a Blackwing captain, magically bound to serve Crowfoot, one of the Nameless, and charged with rooting out dissenters, traitors, and spies. With the help of Ezabeth Tanza-a Spinner, able to manipulate light energy into magic, and a woman he'd loved and lost twenty years before-the Nameless were able to destroy one of the Deep Kings, Shavada, and save Valengrad. Ezabeth burned in the process, but her spirit was cast into the light where she lingered on as a spectral figure, seldom seen.
Four years on, an old enemy arose-Saravor, a flesh-shaping sorcerer who had once healed the swordswoman Nenn. Saravor planned to empower Shavada's Eye atop the Grandspire, and ascend to become one of the Deep Kings. With the help of Ezabeth's spirit and Valiya, his head of intelligence, Galharrow managed to prevent the catastrophe. In the final battle, Nenn was killed, and Shavada was blasted from the Grandspire's roof by a colossal beam of energy.
Though the city was saved, Galharrow's ward, Amaira, took on a raven's mark of her own, and began her servitude to the Nameless. Valiya, seeing that she and Galharrow's affection for one another was bringing only pain, chose to leave, a painful parting for both of them.
The years have turned.
The moons are aligning.
I threw myself down in the sand. I hadn't been seen, and I wasn't certain how many they were, but I was going to have to kill a lot of them.
"What's the plan?" Nenn asked. She sat cross-legged on a rock, picking at the threads of blacksap in her teeth.
"Disappear or keep silent," I said quietly. "If they see you, this is going to go backwards pretty fast."
"You taught me not to fight outnumbered," Nenn said. She found the strand of gristle and tossed it away into the sand, where it disappeared into nothing.
"I taught you to fight smart," I growled. "For all the good it did either of us." Nenn considered that, then snorted derisively.
"At least we had fun."
"For once would you do as I ask, and shut the fuck up?"
I crawled forwards to get a better view of the desolate, rocky landscape at the foot of the slope. Wavy brown fronds grew from the red sand, but they seemed more like wool than plants. The Misery got confused about what used to be what, but the clumps of false vegetation provided a bit of cover for me to lie in. I took out my scope and twisted it, focused on the troop ahead. Made a quick count. Didn't like what I saw.
A troop of drudge and a train of spare mounts and baggage approached from what was currently the east. Neither the Grand Alliance nor the drudge sent soldiers this deep into the Misery-not until the last couple of months-as the magic rose thick here, soft and malleable. It drew the big things, or maybe they were born here, where the reek of poisoned energy soured the stagnant air with its chemical tang. The first patrol to come this way might have been lost. The second might have been lost too. The third had found me, and three patrols was too many.
A quick count said thirty drudge.
"What you going to do?" Nenn asked. She rubbed at her guts as though she were tempted to slice them open and see what lay beneath the skin. Sometimes she did. Sometimes it didn't make me sick. You can grow used to anything if you live with it long enough. I was living testimony to that.
"I'll do what I always do," I said, although Nenn wouldn't remember. Ghosts had no capacity to learn.
I eased my matchlock from its canvas bag. There wasn't much about me that wasn't shabby and fraying, but I kept the gun in good working order. She came out to be fired and got wrapped when she wasn't needed. I bit the end from a powder charge, poured, tamped, spat. I only had three matchlock balls left. How long had it been since I'd been back to town to resupply? I couldn't remember. But for what I had in mind, one shot would be enough.
The drudge patrol were of a new breed. Drudge came in a lot of shapes and forms, from the swollen Brides to the waxy-grey skinned fighting drudge, but these had a bluish tint to their skin and little of their former humanity remained. Through the scope, even at this distance, I could make out the lack of facial features and the smooth planes of glistening flesh. Their eyes were wide black orbs, mouths little more than slits. Noseless. They rode in a tight formation on shaggy, four-legged beasts that no Dortish scholar had named. They were taken from some distant conquered land, heavy bodied and slow. I called them hurks, after the noise they made. The drudge had heavy crossbows and lances, good armour, blades and hammers. Well-equipped.
And they were hunting me. There was nothing else out here to find.
I fixed the scope over my matchlock's barrel. There weren't many scopes like mine in the world. Maybe no others at all. Maldon had worked some of his art on it so that it adjusted itself for distance and recoil. I had no idea how that worked, but it had turned me from an average shot to a match for any sharpshooter. I sought out the right target.
The leader was easy to identify. He wore more prayer strips around his muscular arms than the others, dozens of the things hanging down to display his faith in red and black ink. His face was corpse-blue and as blank as the rest of them, but he had a mark stamped on his breastplate in gold leaf. Deep King Acradius' mark, a slaver's brand worn like a medal. I sighted between the captain's eyes, then tracked on. I could kill him, but there'd be a second to take his place, and I'd only get one shot off. I had to make it count.
I found my target in the middle of the plodding column. He was slighter than the warriors around him, warped differently. There was still a remnant of humanity about him; in the nose, lips, hair. He wore antiquated, lavishly decorated bronze armour, a mark of honour from his master. I couldn't be certain that my matchlock had the power to punch through it at this range. He was probably the least dangerous in the whole column, but he was the one that would make a difference. It was the instrument that he carried that singled him out: an astrolabe for measuring lunar positioning. A tangle of brass wheels and lenses, thick and thin. He was the navigator, who used the device to take readings from the moons, the only things constant enough in the Misery to plot a course by.
"You'll only get one shot," Nenn said. "They'll hear it."
"Thanks. That hadn't occurred to me," I said. "What do you care anyway?"
She grinned and shrugged.
I hated Nenn's ghost. I knew she wasn't real, but I couldn't help but respond as though it were the woman I'd known. I hated that too.
I got my match-cord glowing, ready to fire the flashpan. The acrid smell greeted me, an old, familiar friend. I breathed it in. I barely noticed the sourness of the Misery-air anymore. Something else that I'd adjusted to, given enough time. And I'd given it time. I'd given it six years.
"You think they'll come kill you when you shoot?" Nenn asked.
I drew the sighting bar over my target. Considered putting my lead ball through the navigator's head, but the drudge had thick skulls and not every hit was a killer. I had a better target. A bead of sweat rolled down my cheek. I breathed out slowly until I was empty, and listened to the beats of my heart.
The trigger clicked, the powder flared, the gun roared, and the brass astrolabe in the navigator's hands exploded into twists of shredded metal and shattered glass. The shot went on, tore through his bronze chest-plate and ripped out the other side. The beasts of burden around him brayed, the ruined tangle of brass dials, hoops, and bars falling in pieces from spasming fingers, and the navigator fell from the saddle.
They were all dead from that moment, sure as if I'd put a ball through every head. The one thing you can't risk in the Misery is your navigator. The endless sands, the twisting of the points of the compass, the way landmarks can grow legs and crawl off someplace else. This deep in the Misery, the drudge had less chance of getting back to Dhojara than I did of winning a beauty contest.
"What if they have another navigator?" Nenn asked.
I sighted on the fallen drudge, but the others had swarmed over him, trying to shield him with their bodies.
"They never do," I said. "I don't know what breed the blue ones are, but they won't find their way home without him. Look at that captain. He's just realised how fucked he is." I glanced right, but Nenn had reappeared on my left. She returned my savage grin.
The drudge were not grinning. They raised their voices in a single, furious funeral-wail and drew steel. Their armour was ornate, engraved with prayers of adulation to their god-Kings, wrapped with streamers carrying their pleas on the wind. I was prepared to bet that none of them had prayed hard enough.
"You sure you thought this through?" Nenn asked.
"You always ask that."
"How are you going to kill them all?"
"I won't have to," I said.
The drudge had spotted me now, blank white faces and amber eyes focussing on the rising trail of gun smoke. They knew their chances of sending a crossbow bolt through me were slim at that range, and besides, I was just one man. I stood up so that they could get a better look at me while I began to reload. I tore the end from a second powder charge and loaded another ball.
The drudge kicked at their horned mounts, and the hurks started an uneven amble towards me, hooves thudding against grit and sand as they drove up the incline. They were angry, and surprised, and those two things make both men and monsters stupid.
"Bad odds," Nenn's ghost said. I shook my head. The drudge charging me were already dead, they just hadn't understood it yet. I gritted my teeth and wiped the sweat from my brow. I was confident, and I had a plan, but nasty plans have the worst habit of backfiring.
"Come on, you bastards," I snarled. "Come and get me." I sighted through the scope, which kindly adjusted itself for the diminishing range as the drudge ploughed up towards me, sand churning beneath driving hooves. The rider at the fore was snarling, his lipless mouth emitting a droning buzz as he heeled his mount towards me, a curved sword held above his head. My gun spat smoke and fire and the back of his skull exploded, spraying brain and bone across the following troops before his body fell from the saddle.
It was a waste of ball and powder. I didn't need to kill him, but being under fire made the drudge whip their beasts harder. They roared with anger, the need to feel anything but hopelessness forcing them on. The drudge are not like us. They measure the passage of time in the great thoughts of their masters rather than by the passage of years, but even they must have understood that with their navigator dead, they'd never hear their god's voice again.
The herd crashed straight through the fronds that lay silent and flat against the sand, translucent as glass and just as sharp. The beasts were halfway across it when the Misery grass leapt to attention, tinkling like tiny festival bells. A rare sound of beauty in the black wasteland, but a beauty that lasted only a moment before the screaming obliterated it. The lumbering beasts crashed to earth as the razor edges slashed through their legs and within moments the glassy fronds were drenched in red. The drudge behind drove into those ahead, the impetus of the charge ploughing them on and into the ground.
The grass had waited until they were all within its clutches. I knelt and put a hand down against the sand. Felt the Misery, the power, the taint on the world. Silently I thanked her.
Shrieking. Screaming. All the right sounds from the drudge. Bellowing and braying from the animals that had carried them, the poor stupid creatures. The Misery grass made short work of drudge and beast alike. I didn't know whether it was sentient or whether it even counted as a plant, but the flexible glass fronds snapped and lashed at the wounded. Legs were severed, and wherever a drudge placed a hand against the ground the blades thrust upwards, spearing palms and severing fingers. Once the fronds pierced flesh, barbs hooked and there was no escape. I sat back, passed my last matchlock ball from hand to hand. I didn't think I'd need it.
At the foot of the slope, the captain stared up at me as his soldiers wailed and died. You can always trust a leader to go in last.
I thrust my fingers into the sand. Something that was part of me, something alien and foreign that had slithered up inside me to live, linked with the corruption below. I barely felt the wrongness of it anymore as it tingled along my hands, my spine. The grass on the slope below was busy feasting, wrapping the last pieces of drudge and drawing them down into the sticky red sand, but it listened. I told it that I needed to pass and the Misery heard me. She warred over it, but only briefly. There was still a part of me that was not hers, still part of me that was foreign, and she wanted it. But I was something else to her now, whatever that was, and in the silent dark where my soul had once lain I felt quiet assurance that the grass would leave me be.