For time out of mind, bloodthirsty demons have stalked the night, culling the human race to scattered remnants dependent on half-forgotten magics to protect them. Then two heroes arose—men as close as brothers, yet divided by bitter betrayal. Arlen Bales became known as the Warded Man, tattooed head to toe with powerful magic symbols that enable him to fight demons in hand-to-hand combat—and emerge victorious. Jardir, armed with magically warded weapons, called himself the Deliverer, a figure prophesied to unite humanity and lead them to triumph in Sharak Ka—the final war against demonkind.
But in their efforts to bring the war to the demons, Arlen and Jardir have set something in motion that may prove the end of everything they hold dear—a swarm. Now the war is at hand, and humanity cannot hope to win it unless Arlen and Jardir, with the help of Arlen’s wife, Renna, can bend a captured demon prince to their will and force the devious creature to lead them to the Core, where the Mother of Demons breeds an inexhaustible army.
Trusting their closest confidantes, Leesha, Inevera, Ragen, and Elissa, to rally the fractious people of the Free Cities and lead them against the swarm, Arlen, Renna, and Jardir set out on a desperate quest into the darkest depths of evil—from which none of them expects to return alive.
Look for Peter V. Brett’s complete Demon Cycle:
THE WARDED MAN | THE DESERT SPEAR | THE DAYLIGHT WAR | THE SKULL THRONE | THE CORE
Praise for The Core
“Thoroughly addicting . . . a thrilling adventure that is, without question, [Brett’s] greatest achievement yet.”—Bookreporter
“Rewarding . . . Congratulations to Peter Brett on completing a fantastic series.”—SFFWorld
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The cramping startled Leesha awake.
Ten days on the road with an escort of five thousand Cutters had gotten her used to discomfort. She could only sleep on her side now, something the carriage bench was not designed for. She had taken to curling on the floor like Amanvah and Sikvah in their carriage full of pillows.
Waves of pain washed over her as uterine muscles tightened and contracted, readying themselves for the task to come. Leesha wasn’t due for another thirteen weeks, but it was common for women to experience this.
And every one of them panics the first time, Bruna used to say, thinking they’ll birth early. Even me, though I’d smacked dozens of squalling babes into the world before I grunted out one of my own.
Leesha began breathing in a quick steady rhythm to calm herself and help endure the pain. Pain was nothing new these days. The skin of her stomach was blackened and bruised from powerful fetal blows.
Several times during her pregnancy, Leesha had been forced to channel powerful ward magic. Each time, the baby reacted violently. Feedback from magic could grant inhuman strength and stamina. It made the old young again, and brought the young to primacy before their time. It heightened emotions and lessened control. Folk in the throes of magic could be violent. Dangerous.
What might such power do to a child not fully formed? Not even at seven months, Leesha looked and felt full term. She anticipated an early delivery, even welcomed it, lest the child grow too large for natural birth.
Or punch through my womb and crawl out on its own. Leesha breathed and breathed, but she did not calm, nor did the pain subside.
All sorts of things can bring a set of contractions, Bruna taught. Like the brat kicking a full bladder.
Leesha found the chamber pot, but relieving herself did little to ease the spasming. She glanced at the porcelain. Her water was clouded and bloody.
She froze, mind racing as she stared at the pot. But then the baby kicked hard. She cried out in pain, and she knew.
It was coming.
Leesha was propped on the bench by the time Wonda came to report. It was nearly dawn.
Wonda handed off her reins, rolling off her horse nimbly as a cat. She landed on the lip of the moving carriage and opened the door, effortlessly swinging onto the bench across from Leesha.
“Almost home, mistress, if ya wanna warsh a bit,” Wonda said. “Gar rode on ahead while ya slept. Just got word back.”
“How bad is it?” Leesha asked.
“Bad,” Wonda said. “Whole staff’s turned out. Gar tried to stop it like ya asked. Said it was like trying to pull up a stump bare-handed.”
“Angierians and their ripping ceremony.” Leesha grimaced. She was beginning to understand how Duchess Araine could walk past a cloud of bowing and curtsying servants while pretending not to see them at all. Sometimes it was the only way to get where you meant to go.
“Ent just maids and guards,” Wonda said. “Half the town council’s turned up.”
“Night.” Leesha put her face in her hands.
“Give the word and I can have a wall of Cutters shuttle you right inside,” Wonda said. “Tell everyone yu’ll see them when yu’ve had yur rest.”
Leesha shook her head. “This is my homecoming as countess. I won’t begin it by shunning everyone.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“I need to tell you something, Wonda,” Leesha said. “But you must remain calm when I do.”
Wonda gave a confused look, then her eyes widened. She began to rise.
“Wonda Cutter, you keep your bottom on that bench.” Leesha swung her finger like a lash, and the girl fell back.
“The contractions are sixteen minutes apart,” Leesha continued. “It may be hours before the baby comes. I’m going to be quite dependent on you today, dear, so I need you to listen carefully and stay focused.”
Wonda swallowed heavily, but she nodded. “Ay, mistress. Tell me what ya want and I’ll make it happen.”
“I will exit the carriage at a stately pace and head for the door,” Leesha said. “I will speak to one person at a time as I walk. At no time do we stop or slow.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“I will openly appoint you head of my household guard,” Leesha said. “If everyone’s mustered in the yard as you say, that should be enough for you to take command and send Cutter women to secure the royal manse. Once they have the royal chambers secure, no one gets in save you, me, and Darsy.”
“Vika?” Wonda asked.
Leesha shook her head. “Vika will be seeing her husband for the first time in months. I won’t take that from them. There’s nothing she can do that Darsy can’t.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“You’re not to tell anyone what is happening,” Leesha said. “Not the guards, not Gared, not anyone.”
“But mistress . . .” Wonda began.
“No one.” Her words came out in a growl as Leesha grit her teeth through another contraction. It was like a serpent wrapped around her belly, squeezing. “I won’t have loose talk turning this into a Jongleur’s show. I’m giving birth to Ahmann Jardir’s baby. Not everyone will wish it well, and after the birth we’ll both be . . . vulnerable.”
Wonda’s eyes hardened. “Not while I’m around, mistress. Swear it by the sun.”
Wonda gave no sign anything was amiss when she exited the carriage, stepping easily into the stirrup of her moving horse.
The wardlight inside the carriage dimmed in the early-morning light, but it brightened as the door clicked shut. With it, the wards of silence reactivated, and Leesha let out a groan of pain.
She put one hand on the small of her back and the other under her heavy belly as she heaved herself upright. Heat wards had the kettle hot in seconds. Leesha poured steaming water on a cloth and pressed it to her face.
The reflection in the mirror was pale and hollow, dark circles beneath her eyes. Leesha longed to reach into her hora pouch, Drawing a bit of magic to give her strength through the ordeal to come, but it was too dangerous. Magic was known to send the child into wild fits. It was the last thing she wanted now.
She glanced at the powder kit, but she’d never had the skill painting her face that she had painting wards. That was her mother’s talent. She made do as best she could, brushing her hair and straightening her dress.
The roads of Cutter’s Hollow’s outer boroughs twisted and turned, following the curving shape of the greatwards she and Arlen Bales designed. The Hollow had over a dozen boroughs now, an ever-expanding net of interconnected greatwards that pushed the demons back farther every night. Leesha knew the shape as intimately as a lover, not needing to glance out the window to know they were passing through Newhaven.
Soon they would enter Cutter’s Hollow, the capital of Hollow County and the center of the greatwards. Just two years ago, the Hollow had been a town of less than three hundred souls—barely large enough for a dot on the map. Now it was equal to any of the Free Cities.
Another contraction took her. They were getting closer—just six minutes apart now. She was dilating and could feel the child sitting lower. She breathed. There were herbs that could ease her pain, but she dare not take them until she was safely ensconced in her chambers.
Leesha peeked from the curtain, immediately regretting it as a cheer went up in response. She’d hoped to keep her homecoming quiet by arriving before dawn, but there was no quieting an escort of such size. Even at the early hour, folk crowded the streets and watched from windows as the procession wound its way home.
It was strange, thinking of Thamos’ keep as home, but it belonged to her now as Countess of Hollow County. In her absence, Darsy had turned Leesha’s cottage in the Gatherers’ Wood into the headquarters for Gatherers’ Academy, hopefully the first of many establishments of learning in the Hollow. Leesha would rather be there training apprentices, but there was far more she could accomplish if she took up residence in the keep.
She wrinkled her nose as the fortress came into view. It was a blocky, walled structure, built more for defense than aesthetics—at least on the outside. The inside was worse in some ways, lavish as a palace in a land struggling to rebuild. Both problems would have to be addressed now that the place was hers.
The great gates of the keep were open, the road lined on either side by the remains of the Wooden Lancers, Thamos’ cavalry. There were barely fifty of them now, the others lost with the count himself in the Battle of Docktown. They were resplendent on their great Angierian mustangs, man and horse equally stone-faced at attention. All were armed and armored, as if expecting Leesha to command them into battle at any moment.
The courtyard, too, looked mustered as much for a war as a homecoming. To the left, Captain Gamon was mounted with his lieutenants before hundreds of men-at-arms, straight-backed with eyes forward, heavy polearms planted on the ground, points all at precisely the same angle.
Courtyard right, the entire keep’s staff—an army in its own right—lined up no less sharply than the infantry, uniforms clean and pressed.
It will be interesting to see what happens to those perfect ranks if I give birth in the courtyard. The thought was wry, but then the child kicked, and it ceased to amuse.
As Wonda warned, a knot of people stood at the base of the steps to the keep. Lord Arther was at their front, rigid in his dress uniform and spear. Beside him was Tarisa, the count’s childhood nurse who had become lady’s maid to Leesha. Gared was waiting with Rosal, his promised, and Rosal’s mother. With him were Inquisitor Hayes; Gatherers Darsy and Vika; her father, Erny; and . . . night, even Leesha’s mother, Elona, glaring daggers at Rosal’s back. Leesha prayed the early hour would succor her from that demon, at least, but as usual it went unanswered.
Wonda poked her head in the door. “Ready, mistress?”
A fresh contraction ripped through her. She felt hot, sweating even in the cold winter air.
Leesha smiled, showing none of it. Her legs shook as she got to her feet, and she felt the child inch lower. “Yes, dear. Swiftly now.”
Gamon dismounted as the carriage arrived. He, Arther, and Gared nearly tripped over one another in the scramble to offer their hands as she stepped down. Leesha ignored them all, clutching Wonda’s arm as she carefully descended the steps. It would not do to fall in front of the entire assembly.
“Welcome back to the Hollow, Countess Paper,” Arther said with a courtly bow. “It is a great relief to see you well. When we heard of the attack on Angiers, we feared the worst.”
“Thank you,” Leesha said as she steadied herself. All around the courtyard, there were bows and curtsies. Leesha kept her back straight, acknowledging it all with a dignified nod that would have done Duchess Araine proud.
Then she began walking. Wonda angled herself to take the lead even as she lent her support. Close behind, two meaty Cutter women followed.
Caught off guard, the men stumbled out of their path, but they recovered swiftly, scurrying after. Gamon was the first to match her pace. “My lady, I have prepared a roster of the house guards . . .”
“Thank you, Captain Gamon.” Leesha’s insides were churning. She clenched her thighs, terrified her water might break before she reached the house. “Be a dear and give it to Captain Wonda, please.”
Gamon’s eyes widened, and he stopped in his tracks. “Captain Wonda?”
“I hereby appoint Wonda Cutter captain of my house guard,” Leesha said loudly, continuing to walk. “A long-overdue promotion.”
Gamon hurried to catch back up. “If my command has been in some way unsatisfactory . . .”
Leesha smiled, wondering if she might vomit. “Not at all. Your service was exemplary, and your valor on behalf of the Hollow is without question. You will retain command of the Wooden Soldiers, but my house security will report to Captain Wonda alone. Order the men to fall out and return to their duties. We’re not expecting an attack.”
Gamon looked like he was trying to swallow a stone, but after months in Angiers not knowing if she was captive or guest, Leesha was tired of seeing Wooden Soldiers everywhere. Wonda had already hand-selected Cutters to take over the house guard, and signaled them to secure the entrance and sweep the manse.
Arther moved quickly to take the empty place as Gamon fell back, stunned. “The house staff . . .”
“. . . looks crisp and ready to start the day,” Leesha cut him off. “Let’s not keep them.” She whisked a hand, dismissing the assemblage.
“Of course, my lady.” Arther gave a signal, and the crowd began to disperse. He looked ready to say more, but Leesha’s mother pushed her way in front, Erny trailing after. Elona was six months pregnant, though she hid it well with low-cut gowns that masked her belly and drew eyes elsewhere. The men fell back like she was a coreling.
“My daughter, Countess of the Hollow!” Elona spread her arms, face glowing with . . . was that what pride looked like on her? It was terrifying if so.
“Mother, Father.” Leesha allowed each a brief embrace, trying to keep from shaking.
Elona sensed it, but she had the decency to drop her voice. “You look terrible. What’s wrong?”
“I just need to get inside and rest.” Leesha gave Wonda’s arm a squeeze, and they started moving again. Others might fear to impede Elona, but Wonda was implacable as a falling tree. Elona moved to follow, but pulled up as Erny held her back. She glared at him, but like Wonda Cutter, Leesha’s father was always on her side.
“Welcome home, Countess.” Rosal dipped a practiced curtsy, her mother following suit.
“Emelia,” Leesha said, careful to use the woman’s proper name. “Mrs. Lacquer. I’m surprised to find you here at such an early hour.”
Gared swept in, the three of them following Leesha up the steps. “Count had the ladies staying here in his keep on account of propriety. We can find another place . . .”
“Nonsense.” Leesha winked at Rosal. “We’ve plenty of room. How would it look for an upstanding young woman like yourself to move into the baron’s household before the wedding? A scandal!”
Gared blushed. “ ’Preciate it. Got some papers for you to look at when you have time . . .”
“Send them over in the morning.” Leesha was almost to the steps now.
Inquisitor Hayes appeared next, bowing deeply. His acolyte Child Franq, usually inseparable from his master, was conspicuously absent. “Countess. Praise be to the Creator that you are well.”
The next carriage in line pulled up and opened its door. Hayes’ eyes widened as Tender Jona stepped out. Vika gave a cry, breaking from the receiving line to hurry down the steps to her husband.
Hayes looked at her in shock, but even shaking with pain, Leesha’s smile was genuine. “You’ll be pleased to know, Inquisitor, that your interim assignment to the Hollow has ended. Jona will resume leading services in Hollow County.”