The stunning conclusion to the Books of the Shaper series that began with Seven Princes and Seven Kings...
The Almighty Zyung drives his massive armies across the world to invade the Land of the Five Cities. So begins the final struggle between freedom and tyranny.
The Southern Kings D'zan and Undutu lead a fleet of warships to meet Zyung's aerial armada. Vireon the Slayer and Tyro the Sword King lead Men and Giants to defend the free world. So begins the great slaughter of the age...
lardu the Shaper and Sharadza Vodsdaughter must awaken the Old Breed to face Zyung's legion of sorcerers. So begins a desperate quest beyond the material world into strange realms of magic and mystery.
Yet already it may be too late...
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
By John R. Fultz
OrbitCopyright © 2013 John R. Fultz
All rights reserved.
Those Who Listen
Beneath an arbor of fig trees they lay at sundown, discreet as any other pair of lovers. Above their tender exertions starlight kissed leaf and blossom. The interplay of lean arms and legs mimicked the woven branches of the trees. An age-old dance of heat and flame, stoked by the friction of supple bodies.
How many eons had passed since they learned the glorious secret of joining without subsiding, giving without loss, sharing without weakening? Nations had risen and fallen and risen again since the gaining of that mortal skill. A savage continent had grown into a bright empire since that primeval day when they took on fleshly bodies and learned to share them.
Only the stars themselves were more ancient, blinking above the gnarled branches, casting no judgments on the lovers. During such rare moments they recalled for a time the ancient truth of those stars and the freedom of the dark gulfs between them.
Sungui had taken her female aspect this evening, knowing that Mahaavar scorned its opposite. From lips to breasts to hips, even to the tips of her toes, he praised her womanhood with kisses and soft caresses. As a male she could only have been his comrade, a fellow philosopher, and perhaps a drinking companion. There were many who felt a keen desire for Sungui's male aspect; yet the masculine form did not lend itself to intimacy in the same way.
So many of the Seraphim did not understand this: To assume any form was to endure its intrinsic vitality, to the point where form and purpose might be blended beyond all hope of separation.
So had the Old Breed been Diminished.
The lure of the world was strong. The temptation to join the realm of flesh and stone and soil was what had brought them here so long ago. It drew them downward, welcoming them into its deep folds and valleys, the churning depths of its seas, the rolling emerald of its forests, the pristine wastes of its desert lands. The beauty and power of the world itself had Diminished them all.
Zyung the Almighty had not been mastered by the earth. Instead, he had mastered it. Or so most of her kind believed, and his Living Empire proved it. The greatest among them had avoided the snare of the earth and its wonders. Zyung did not assimilate, he conquered.
Yet the empire that he built–that all of them helped him to build–even now drew him into itself, calcifying his existence, his very identity, like nothing else ever could.
Zyung was his empire; the Living Empire was Zyung. On the altar of his supremacy she had found the black shard of hope that was her deadliest weapon. She kept it hidden for generations, like a dagger tucked into the robe of a patient yet ambitious slave. No one else had seen the dark glimmer of its blade.
Soon she would show it to them.
The Garden of Twenty-Seven Delights lay in an obscure corner of the temple- palace complex, a labyrinth of trellised walls, sculpted avenues, and fountained walks. Orchards, arboretums, vineyards, and cloistered parks surrounded the garden. A white tower of five sides rose above the sparkling domes to block the view of the temple-palace proper.
The Holy Mountain, the faithful called it. Yet the citadel was not carved from any existing mountain; it was built by the hands of Men to stand as high and magnificent as any natural peak. The work of a million slaves, their tiny, broken lives scattered across the centuries. The stones of the soaring walls were mortared with their blood and bones.
Sungui recalled them swarming like ants across the unfinished ramparts of the flat-topped pyramid, swinging like a clutch of spiders from ropes as they sculpted the gargantuan face of Zyung on its southernmost façade. The last stone had been set, the last chisel laid down, more than five hundred years ago, yet the vision lived as clearly in her mind as if seen only yesterday. She avoided looking at that titanic face, both in the light of day and in the silver gloom of night.
In the same way that she avoided the carven face, she had learned to avoid the true face of the Almighty when it suited her purposes. The trick was to focus his attention elsewhere, as it had been for centuries now. The Almighty dreamed of the ripe, untamed lands beyond the Outer Sea. His growing obsession with the expansion of the Living Empire gave her the opportunity she had awaited since the City of Celestial Truth had been a mud-walled village alongside a stinking river.
Sungui arose from a carpet of grass and petals, donning a robe of iridescent silver. Mahaavar did the same, brushing purple blossoms from his shoulders. His shimmering vestment was identical in every way to her own. There were no distinctions among the High Seraphim. Another way in which Zyung reinforced their Diminishing: Making them equal.
All save himself.
None were equal to the Almighty.
She smirked at the moon, which the earth's shadow had divided precisely in half. Could there be an omen in that particular astronomic event? She had not consulted the moon charts when planning tonight's gathering.
They did not need to speak, Mahaavar and she. Their bodies had expressed everything in the ciphers of touch and sensation. The earthly manifestations of their eternal spirits. The complimentary nature of their bodies was their most effective communication. Mahaavar kissed her lips once again before leaving the garden; his were still hot and tasted of cinnamon.
Along the Path of Contemplation they walked, two silver-robes strolling in the unhurried way common to those in power. Slaves tending the nightflowers scurried from the path, prostrating themselves; the clacking of shears resumed as they passed. Guards in hawk-faced visors stiffened as the two High Seraphim walked by their stations upon garden walls and bridges. A nightingale sang sweetly among the clustered vines that hemmed the pathway. Sungui's bare feet on the polished marble made no sound; Mahaavar moved as quietly as she.
They passed through an arch of jade carved into a parade of winged children, and so came into the Grotto of Sighing Flowers. A breeze stirred the hems of their garments, the naked breath of great, pulsing blossoms. At the nearest of the Inner Walls, they paused while an alabaster gate rose to admit them. They entered the courtyard of the Thirty-Ninth Tower and crossed a lawn where white- barked trees harbored flocks of nesting doves. Only here, away from the ears of passing slaves and functionaries, did Mahaavar speak to her.
"How many do you expect?" he whispered.
"It does not matter," she said.
"Will they listen?"
"They have always listened," she said.
He said nothing, stifling his confusion.
"Yet they never—"
"Not yet," she said. "Such things take time. Longer than you could guess." She stopped in the middle of the courtyard, where the sound of cooing birds filled the branches. "Do you even remember how long it took to build the Holy Mountain? Do you remember–truly remember–how old you are?"
Mahaavar looked at the shadows swimming about the tree roots. A holy viper crawled through the grass, its white scales speckled with a pattern of scarlet diamonds.
"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I recall ... another life ... or lives."
She smiled and caressed his cheek. "They were all you, Beautiful Mahaavar."
Sungui turned and the pace resumed. Through a second gate of whitewashed oak and iron they entered a narrow corridor with recessed candles lining the walls. A slave carrying a bundle of cloth paused before them, lying flat upon the floor so that they might walk upon his back. Sungui and Mahaavar stepped across the man's bony frame one at a time. He neither groaned nor complained, although she did hear the complaint of his brittle bones. As they proceeded down the corridor, the slave was up again and carrying his burden in the direction from which they had come.
"Why here, in this mean place crawling with slaves?" Mahaavar asked. "It stinks of sweat and fear."
She breathed deeply the close air of the Slave Quarters. She smelled only sweat, soap, and the exhalations of simple cuisine. Slaves' cooking. Mahaavar was her spoiled lover, unaccustomed to walking in the lower precincts of the Holy Mountain. He was much like a boy, and she loved him for that as much as for their ancient and bloodless kinship. She allowed herself a lingering glance at his handsome face: high-set cheekbones, ebony hair, eyes blue as sapphire, the petulant mouth of a princeling. A lost and doddering God of the ancient world might look as fetching, were there ever any such beings. Adoring the beauty of his face, recalling the hot embrace of his body, she could understand why humans had created this notion of Gods.
Yet that was long ago, and all those imaginary deities had been slain, forgotten, or suffused into the essence of the High Lord Celestial himself. Zyung was their only God now. The one God they could believe in because he walked among them working miracles, casting dooms, spreading his gifts of pain and death. For thousands of years it had been so. And it might be so for thousands more.
"Relax, my love," she told Mahaavar as they descended granite stairs. "Do you predict the Almighty's eyes will turn from dreams of western conquest to search out the catacombs where his slaves dwell?"
Mahaavar grinned. "Your cleverness amuses me. His Holiness would never expect to find a single one of his High Seraphim in such a place." Sungui nodded, strands of her dark hair whispering against the flared shoulders of her vestment.
Curtains of steam wafted in the damp air. A corridor of unadorned stone led them into an underground gallery dominated by a great, square pool of murky water. Young slaves tended two hearths where flames licked about hot stones. As the two High Seraphim entered, a terrified boy dropped a burning rock he was lifting with a pair of iron tongs. It fell steaming to the floor between his feet, glowing like a miniature red sun.
Several adult slaves were bathing in the pool. Their faces lit with surprise, then abject fear. They rushed up out of the pool, grabbing towels to wrap themselves and shuffling the bath-tenders out of the chamber with a series of bows, prostrations, and nervous words. In a few seconds the chamber stood empty but for the two High Seraphim in their glittering robes, perspiring in the steam.
Sungui raised a finger to her lips, ensuring Mahaavar's silence. They did not have long to wait. Four dark archways glimmered silver as ten more High Seraphim entered the chamber to stand about the abandoned pool.
Sungui's eyes greeted each of them in turn. Damodar with his shaven skull and large ears, nose pierced by a hoop of sacred platinum. Eshad, whose impressive physique shamed even that of Mahaavar, cords of muscle coiled beneath the bright skin of his robes. Myrinhama, whose golden hair fell to her waist, and whose almond eyes were golden as well. Gulzarr and Darisha, who had been lovers for centuries, ageless and inscrutable behind faces of serene beauty. Durangshara, portly as any spoiled merchant, who took his joy from the fruits of the earth and his pleasure from the howls of slaves. Johaar and Mezviit and Aldreka, who could be triplets they were so alike in form, taste, and bearing. And finally Lavanyia, whose hair was a mound of sable silk piled atop her lovely head. She reminded Sungui of the great lionesses that roamed the Weary Plains to the south. She could also be as dangerous, as bloodthirsty, and as unforgiving as one of those proud beasts.
Of them all, Lavanyia would be the hardest to convince.
They used to be so much more. So much greater. Some of them remembered this. Others Sungui had to remind. A single decade or less was all it took for the world's allure to smother and calcify these spirits who lingered in its fertile bosom. Yet Sungui had long ago found an advantage over her fellow Seraphim. Each of them had chosen a gender long ago and embraced it. She refused to do so. The flux of her aspects and the shifting of her form was her last defense against the tide of earthly influences that threatened to rob her of her true self.
"Brothers and Sisters," Sungui began. "The time has come to remember." She nearly sang the words, so soft and melodious was her tone. She had learned how to charm them, imitating the ways of comely humans. It was partly why they all loved her. She catered to their whims, their secret delights, their hidden natures. She knew them better than they knew themselves. They knew her as two beings, twin aspects, and so she carried mystery and beauty with her like precious stones.
She raised her hands as if to embrace them all. They took graceful steps about the edge of the pool, gathering into a close circle. Mahaavar stood at Sungui's left hand, staring at the faces of the conspiracy he would join.
Sungui sensed his eagerness. Mahaavar did not understand that there was no real sedition yet. No blasphemy. There was only this small group. Those Who Listen. There were only her words and these listeners' undeniable need to hear what she would say. They had not gathered like this in several years. Yet years passed like days for their kind. There were a thousand more High Seraphim across the Living Empire who knew nothing of these assemblies. Yet an idea must take root in the minds of the few. Later it might spread like wild vines across the ranks of the Celestial Ones, and they might finally awaken from this worldly dream.
These listeners were enough for now. The early seeds of a future forest.
The contracted circle gleamed with curious eyes. A ripple of light flashed across the silvery robes. Sungui bowed her head.
"In the time before time's advent, we moved between the stars," she said. "They were our mothers and fathers, our blazing progenitors. We sailed the vast ether and swam the oceans of eternity. Now we gather once more to recall the truth of what we are. We look back. We look inward. We listen once more to the music of our ancient selves, that it may remind us, reshape us, restore us."
"Hold," said a liquid voice. Sungui raised her eyes to the leonine face of Lavanyia. Never before had a listener interrupted her guided meditation. The lioness stared at Sungui, as did the rest of the circle. Even Mahaavar's eyes were upon her now. A chill crept up Sungui's spine.
"There is an Ear among us," said Lavanyia. Her onyx eyes did not leave Sungui's own. The eyes of the others darted nervously from face to face, peering into the shadows for any slaves that might be eavesdropping. There were none.
"I am aware of this," she said.
"Then speak not another word until it has been removed," said Lavanyia. Sungui stood transfixed by her imperious beauty. She longed to turn her back on them all and so reassert her dominance of the gathering. Yet she only stared at Lavanyia and blinked.
"Now is not the time," she said.
Durangshara chuckled, his loose jowls quivering. "Shall we wait until His Holiness hears of this and annihilates us one by one?"
Mahaavar laid his hand upon Sungui's shoulder. His touch was firm yet gentle, as his lovemaking had been earlier. "A spy among us?" Mahaavar asked. "Let me kill him, Sungui. To prove my loyalty."
Sungui ignored the tightening of her stomach, the quickening of her pulse. She did not want this. Not tonight. She had hoped this ceremony would turn the Ear to her own purposes. Yet she knew the danger of such a gamble. The Almighty saw all there was to see in his realm, and the only way to avoid his gaze was to hide in the lowest of places, nooks and crannies that were beneath his attention. Hence the Slave Bath, where her listeners stood at odds in the fading steam.
Her eyes narrowed as she leaned toward Lavanyia. An unspoken challenge beamed in the eyes of the lioness. Lavanyia would take control of this revolution before it ever grew to fruition, if only she could recall the truth as well as Sungui. Yet Lavanyia could not. How she must envy Sungui's retention of identity while all those around her continued to Diminish. Perhaps Lavanyia even suspected that it was Sungui's double aspect which made her less susceptible to the Almighty's dominance. The lioness could not control the listeners, so she sought instead to control the speaker.
The moment of challenge seemed endless. Sungui might have turned away, but she did not. Her upper lip curled. A ripple ran across her body beneath the bright vestment. A familiar passion rose from her groin into her stomach, nearly burst from her throat. Her jaw-line shifted, her nose grew hawkish, her shoulders expanded, and the muscles of her arms, legs, and chest swelled. Manhood rose like a granite obelisk, rushing through flesh like angry blood, and she grew somewhat taller. At the same time she drew from the left sleeve of her robe a dagger of black metal, hilt crusted with rubies, blade etched with dread sigils.
Excerpted from Seven Sorcerers by John R. Fultz. Copyright © 2013 John R. Fultz. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A beautiful novel written in detail yet filled with action. Worth every single cent