The Gods are dying. Fifteen thousand years after the end of their war, their bodies can still be found across the world. They kneel in forests, lie beneath mountains, and rest at the bottom of the world's ocean. For thousands of years, men and women have awoken with strange powers that are derived from their bodies. The city Mireea is built against a huge stone wall that stretches across a vast mountain range, following the massive fallen body of the god, Ger. Ayae, a young cartographer's apprentice, is attacked and discovers she cannot be harmed by fire. Her new power makes her a target for an army that is marching on Mireea. With the help of Zaifyr, a strange man adorned with charms, she is taught the awful history of ‘cursed' men and women, coming to grips with her new powers and the enemies they make. Meanwhile, the saboteur Bueralan infiltrates the army that is approaching her home to learn its terrible secret. Split between the three points of view, the narrative of Godless reaches its conclusion during an epic siege, where Ayae, Zaifyr and Bueralan are forced not just into conflict with those invading, but with those inside the city who wish to do them harm.
The first installment in Ben Peek's exciting new epic fantasy series, The Godless is a fast-paced page turner set in an enthralling new world.
About the Author
BEN PEEK’s previous works include the autobiography Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, the dystopian novel Black Sheep, and the flip novel, Above/Below, co-written with Stephanie Campisi, which was nominated for a Ditmar Award. His last short story collection, Dead Americans, is comprised of fiction that was published in anthologies and magazines such as Polyphony, Clarkesworld, and various Year's Best collections. He lives with his partner, and their cat, in Sydney, Australia.
Read an Excerpt
Children: Book One
By Ben Peek
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Ben Peek
All rights reserved.
"Your eyes," Illaan said to her, before the sun rose. "Your eyes are made from fire."
At the edge of sleep, tangled in their sheets and shaken by his rough hands, a deep fear was awoken again in Ayae. It took her back to the age of five, a month after her arrival in Mireea, when the matron of the orphanage said that rooms were warmer when she was in them. The large, red-faced woman had died days later when the oil lamp in her room overturned and, with a child's logic, Ayae had blamed herself for her death. For years she feared she would awake surrounded by flames or suffocating in smoke, the cause igniting from her own skin. Such an offhand comment that had resulted in years of paranoia. She had never forgiven the unfortunate matron her ill-timed words. Life was hard enough without thinking you were a freak: she was small, brown-skinned and black-haired, born in Sooia and a minority among the tall, mountain whites who lived and traded in Mireea. Her dark brown eyes were a map of hardships that only a child from a continent torn apart by war could carry.
A child, now an adult, who was seeing war again.
Mireea was being raided. Villages were gutted by flame and sword, an event unforeseen by anyone. To a degree, it was unfathomable. Strewn across the mountain range that was referred to as the Spine of Ger, Mireea was the city that had begun as a trading post before turning into the capital of a borderless trade empire. In the North, where the Kingdoms of Faaisha sprawled, Mireea was the gate by which half their wealth emerged; in the East, the Tribes of the Plateau had for generations been pacifists and rarely traveled over the Spine of Ger, stopping there instead to buy and sell; everything they wanted they purchased in the stalls and fairs that ran in all but the wettest days; while in the South, the Floating Cities of Yeflam and the home of the Keepers Enclave claimed a quarter of their wealth came from trade with the Spine; and in the West, in Leera, the wooden kingdom of vine-covered fortresses and hot, steaming marsh, Mireea had funded the birth of the nation after war-torn refugees from icy mountain ridges had been forced across the world, to a new climate, and a new life.
But it was from Leera that the raiders came.
At first, Ayae believed that the attacks were minor, nothing more than robberies on the roads. There had always been bandits, she knew. Others had thought the same and there was reassurance in each others' denial of the truth. But then trade stopped, letters between cities went unanswered, and the stories of priests, of churches, began to circulate.
The aging Lord of the Spine, Elan Wagan, moved to stop the raids — by treaty first, and then force; but his ride into the sweating swamps had left Mireea's small army decimated by the enemy and he had returned haunted and blind. His wife, Muriel, petitioned for aid from the Enclave, from the body of men and women who were thousands of years old, who claimed to be in ascendancy to immortality and godhood, but who in the meantime were the most powerful of Mireea's allies. In response, they sent two Keepers of the Divine, Fo and Bau, one old and one new. If any but the Lady Wagan had seen the pair since their arrival Ayae had not heard of it, but as Lady Wagan had begun to build huge gates around the city while also hiring mercenary armies to supplement her own, Ayae suspected that the Lady had been told to expect the worst from her visitors.
Composing herself in the warm quiet of the night, Ayae whispered to Illaan that he had only dreamed, that the horrors he had seen the day before had dug into his subconscious.
It was one of the last raids that had seen Illaan return to her, the shadow in his already dark gaze haunted with memories. He was a soldier who — though Ayae would never tell him — was best suited to the mundane: organizing those under him and training new recruits, and then coming home to children and dinner. He was not a man who led soldiers to pick their way through charred buildings and the bodies of men and women he knew, one of whom was no more than a child. On his first night back, he sat in the stuffed cushions on the floor of her tiny house, silent, his long fingers flicking periodically at nothing. Now he'd woken her with a harsh whisper about her burning eyes.
"It was just a dream," she told him, stroking his shoulders as he shuddered. "Nothing but a dream."
When he slept, he was cold to her touch.
In the morning she awoke to an empty bed, the sight of the rumpled sheets bothering her. It felt as if Illaan was barely in her life lately, a crease in sheets that could be straightened. Rising, she found him with his long body bent over the fire that stifled the room, turning iron tongs as he cooked the last of her bread. It didn't need to be cooked, but Ayae bit back her words and dropped her hand to his still cool shoulder. He smiled, but it was narrow and did not touch the rest of his pale face.
"There are mercenaries arriving in the city. They meet where the markets were held," he said. "They sell swords instead of cloth, blood instead of corn."
"Are they not employed, then?"
"They will be. We are expecting a new group called Dark. Lady Wagan has hired them, though she won't tell us if they number a dozen, or a hundred." Brown cloth wrapped around his long fingers, Illaan turned the tongs. His voice, when he spoke, was heavy. "Do you know what kind of people sell their swords from one war to another for money?"
"They're just the kind of —"
"People we don't want," he finished. "They're not their stories."
She squeezed his arm, said nothing for fear that the spark of anger in her would work its way out. What he had seen had been terrible, but she also knew that once the memory of it started to fade, his cynicism would follow. Ayae would not be the first person to welcome another company of men and women who arrived road weary, with glints of metal in boiled leather. But she was not the last person to acknowledge their importance, either: without them, the raids from Leera would have escalated into a full-fledged attack, and the city would have already been under siege.
Illaan pulled out the toast, smoke trailing from the burned edges. With a rueful smile, he said, "I was going to surprise you, to apologize for last night."
She ruffled his hair, made her way to the tiny kitchen. Beneath the floorboards was a small chute of hard ice, where she kept juice, milk, butter and occasionally meat. They froze on the edges when the rainy season came, but mostly they were kept only chill.
"Maybe we should go out for dinner tonight?"
He dropped the burned toast on the board before her. "Tonight?"
"Just ..." He poked at the burned edge. "I was thinking I might go home tonight."
"You're not still thinking of this morning?"
"Yeah." Illaan shrugged, rubbed at his narrow face. "I'm sorry. I'm trying, but it was just so vivid. Your eyes. I swear the iris was alive. I could see each line in it, burning."
An angry reply was on her lips, but she pursed them together.
"I'm sure you're right, though," he continued. "It wasn't — the bodies. I mean, I knew — one of them was only sixteen. They cooked him after they killed him. After they killed all of his squad. I just need some time to get it out of my head. That's all."
"You've been gone two weeks," Ayae said, softly. "I missed you."
"I just need some time to myself." He did not meet her gaze. "That's all. Just a night. A night so I can wash out what I saw from my head, get away from burned bodies and Keeper talk."
"They hide in rooms all day for fear that we will see them and have hope." Illaan picked a burned edge from the toast, held it between his fingers. "In Yeflam they're no different. They sit inside that giant white monstrosity they call the Enclave and rule by their so- called power, by their curse that makes the rest of us nothing but animals. They are not here to rescue the animals."
"Was one there with you?"
She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "Then you shouldn't let talk bother you."
Illaan shrugged, crushing the burned remains between his fingers. "Sometimes," he said quietly, "talk is true."CHAPTER 2
After the door closed, a low, frustrated breath escaped Ayae. She had not wanted to argue with him after he had just come back, but it was difficult.
Leaving the half-eaten burned toast in the kitchen and walking to her wardrobe, Ayae considered that maybe it was for the best he wouldn't be returning tonight. She knew that she was quick to attack verbally when frustrated, and Faise — a plump, brown-skinned girl who had grown up in the orphanage with her, her best friend now living in Yeflam — once told her that no one cut as hard and sharp as Ayae when she was angry.
She dressed in brown leather trousers, a light black-buttoned shirt, and boots made from thin, hard snakeskin — her standard outfit when huddling over a large table, working on a new map for Orlan. She was very rarely seen in the front of his workshop and the elderly white man had no strict dress code, so Ayae dressed for comfort rather than style. It was also perfect for the morning's martial training. When the lessons had begun over a month ago, Ayae had been initially reluctant: she could remember all too well the sway of the old ships on the black waves as they left Sooia, the country of her birth. The scrappy, flame-ridden, walled compound she had spent her first years in had slowly receded, the marks of battle scars she could see miles out, and for a moment she felt as if that ship were returning to it. As if she would wake and find the Spine of Ger similarly pitted and ruined. Yet, after a few days of the training, she found that the morning exercise focused her mind and alleviated the anxiety she felt about the raids. Exposure to the soldiers also made her realize that the Lady of the Spine's plan to train her populace as a last-minute army was as much about empowering the people as it was ensuring that the Lady could protect her home, a notion that Ayae had begun to appreciate more and more as the training continued.
She opened the door and stepped into the warm morning's sun. Lady Wagan's decision to train the Mireeans had come weeks before the first refugee camps on the north of the Spine of Ger had been established. On the day the ground was broken for the camp, the first company of mercenaries, Mirin, had arrived. By that night, however, the story of one Mirin soldier attempting to rape a young teacher was made known. His victim, one of those trained alongside Ayae each morning, had fought back and managed to stab him. Despite Lady Wagan's swift retaliation against the culprit, Ayae felt as if the previous security she had found in the city as a dispossessed child, was suddenly lost. That night, she had dreamed again of the refugee camps in Sooia, something she hadn't done since she was a child. She dreamed of fire catching on the fabric of the tents, of the faceless figure of the Innocent, the immortal general Aela Ren, who had decimated her country and whose fear and reputation had spread where his armies did not. In the morning, she awoke to the news that Lady Wagan had dismissed the entire company outright and, on the following day, Ayae had stood at the window of Orlan's shop as the mercenary troop were escorted out of the city, the body of their rapist left swinging on a gibbet over the main entrance.
Along with the training, there had been further announcements that she was less enthusiastic about. Her house was in a modest neighborhood, one built around narrow, cobbled paths that looped around blocks of four or five, and were hidden beneath a thick canopy of the trees lining the streets. It meant her house and the road had shade in the hottest parts of the day. Or used to have. As Ayae follow the cobbled path, she could see the empty sky and the morning's sun — the first sun — above the single-story, red and brown brick houses, a new, harsh sight after the dense canopy had been brutally cut back. The lumber from the trees had been taken into the main streets and used to build a series of walls and gates, blockades designed to cut off a section of Mireea a piece at a time if it was breached. It left the newly exposed skyline of the city jagged, as if an ancient fortress made from roughly hewn wood had raised its shadow amid the bricks and mortar and struggled to assert dominance over its modern descendant. Ayae guessed that it was supposed to be reassuring, a promise that the city's populace would be defended, cemented by the straight figures of the Mireean Guard patrolling the wooden barriers in chain and leather, pikes and crossbows in hand.
That saddened Ayae. With an adopted child's logic, she had loved Mireea from the day the refugee wagon had entered the city, led in by representatives of an aid group that owned the orphanage and had brought the children across continents. It was so different from Sooia. There, the land was ravaged, the ground so hard that the bodies of her parents, like so many other parents, had lain above it in cairns of stone, a site still in her earliest memories: a pilgrimage made in a child's act of disobedience that she could no longer remember the reason for. The hardship of the camps had made it an easy trip to begin with, a difficult one to endure, and by the end, her four-year-old self had learned no more of the people who sent her to safety as the Innocent's conquering forces emerged on the plains. In contrast, Mireea, untouched by war, had been a place of security and peace after the death and bloodshed she'd been born into. She'd even found comfort in the stories her rescuers had entertained the children with, about the dead god Ger and his bones which lay buried deep in the mountain beneath them. It had been a campfire story, part horrifying, part amusing, part comforting, and she had taken solace in it. If a god lay beneath them, surely nothing could harm her. Even now, looking upon the Spine of Ger, the huge monolith that ran along the entire mountain range, gave her a sense of calm, a barrier to the rising tensions surrounding her. It was said that the Spine followed the broken back of the god, that the stone sank into his vertebrae and that its path altered only as Ger's bones sank further into the ground. After Ayae had walked up the two hundred and thirty-three steps to the top of the wall, the sight of the mountains around her and the empty blue sky left her with the feeling that she was standing on the back of a god.
Today, however, what awaited her on the top of the wall were rows ten people deep made up from men and women, young and old. Ayae's spot was behind a thirteen-year-old bakery apprentice, Jaerc, and next to two women, Desmonia, who worked in the bar Red's Grin, and Keallis, one of the city's planners.
Shielding her eyes from the sun's glare, Ayae saw Captain Heast, a lean, gray-haired man with his left leg made from steel, make his way slowly to the platform in front of everyone. It still surprised her that the old soldier joined them every day and led them in the stretching and light exercise. Once, she had seen him walk past her with a ring of blood seeping through the leg of his trousers.
Behind him, two men took up positions by large drums, beginning a slow beat, accompanied by Captain Heast's voice directing exercises. After thirty minutes of synchronized movements, the drums stopped and soldiers emerged in front of each column, wooden swords at their feet. She did not like sword practice: it reminded her too much of the camps, of the empty-eyed men who walked the walls, but she had come to accept it. In part, it had been made easier by the fact that she was paired with Jaerc, who was slim and quick and made a game out of it that did not begin to approach the reality of what real weapons could do. They had even begun to joke that it was a duel of apprentices, and that their masters gambled on who performed better; but she had seven years on him and a little more speed, and the contest invariably ended in her favor.
With a grin, Jaerc broke the line and rushed forward to grab a pair of swords and a rope. The pair were seldom bothered in sword practice. Both were quick, did not fear a bruise and required no guidance from the soldiers who walked along the lines, helping others with basic instructions: how to hold a sword, how to thrust, how to block. Despite her reticence with the acts of war, Ayae had never had any trouble learning the first steps.
Excerpted from The Godless by Ben Peek. Copyright © 2014 Ben Peek. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Map of the Known World,
Map of Mireea,
Beneath the Skin,
The City Beneath,
The Boy Who Was Destined to Die,
In the Blood,
A Small Kindness,
In a Town Called Dirtwater,
The Woman Made from Fire,
The Important Garden,
The Circumstances of Birth,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Intriguing story line although a bit confusing at times with the details provided and sometimes unclear direction. Overall it is a fantasy adventure taking place in a world where their pantheon of gods has died or are dying in seclusion while most of the world has forgotten about them or disbelieves they ever truly existed. The neighboring country is marching to a holy war against their neighbors who have lost belief. The story focuses on three individuals, a mercenary hired to stop the holy war discretely, a young woman who has been "cursed" with the power of one of the gods, and a man of (at first) unknown origins and unknown being who may be the solution to everyone's problems. The story is compelling with plenty of plot twists and subterfuge from all sides, the unique mythology of this world is quite intriguing. The main reason I did not give the book 5 stars is several times being quite lost in the exposition and flashbacks without realizing what was the point. Overall though a great book and definitely looking forward to the upcoming series.
Had some good moments. Mostly waiting for the action the moment when things come together.