The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.
But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all—Valyn, Adare, and Kaden—come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.
The trilogy that began with The Emperor’s Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley’s The Last Mortal Bond—available March 15th from Tor Books and March 24th from Tor UK. Read the prologue and chapter one below, and check back for further excerpts throughout the month of February!
The dogs were closer.
Axta closed her eyes, unbraided the tightening knot of sound into the individual threads of canine baying: three dozen beasts a quarter mile off. She ran the angles—half a hundred of them—mapping the memorized terrain against long-established patterns for the propagation of sound.
“They have taken the bait,” she said. “Four groups.” She pointed back the way they had come, through the shattered boulders, thigh-high ferns, and the mossy trunks of the great, rotting pines. “There and there. There and there.”
Sos didn’t look. His eyes were fixed on a break in the trees, where the gleaming tower bisected the sky. If Axta had set her snare correctly, there would be fewer than forty humans left to guard the base of that tower, forty mortal women and men, and behind them, somewhere inside that inexplicable artifact, their gods, trapped in their mortal skins.
In the branches above, a jay notched four strident notes on the sky, then fell silent.
Axta unlimbered her bow, her few remaining arrows.
If she had known earlier what was happening here, if she had known that the gods of the humans would converge on this one point at this one time, she could have built a better, surer trap. But, of course, she had not known. She and Sos—on a different mission altogether—had stumbled across the convoy purely by accident. There was no time to go back, to try to bring to bear the feeble force of Csestriim that remained. There wasn’t even time to make more arrows.
“I will cover your attack,” she said. “But they have bows of their own.”
Sos nodded. “I will go where the arrows are not.”
The claim seemed implausible, but Axta had watched him do it before. She was the better tracker, the better general, the better stones player, but no one navigated battle’s labyrinth more readily than Sos. Alone, he had slaughtered the human garrison at Palian Quar. In the dark woods of the winterlong battle at First Pines, he held together the whole western flank of the Csestriim force, ranging through the trunks and shadows, carving apart his human foes day after day, week after week, until they crumpled, fled. Sos fought like a cartographer following his own perfect maps through a world of the blind, baffled, and lost.
He slid his twin swords from their scabbards.
Axta studied the moon-bright arcs.
Alone among the Csestriim, Sos had named his weapons: Clarity, he called one sword; the other, Doubt. She had watched him stand against three Nevariim once, thousands of years earlier, bearing those same blades.
“How do you tell them apart?” she asked. The weapons looked identical.
“One is heavier, one sharper.”
A few feet away, a butterfly landed on a fern’s serrated leaf, flexed indigo wings. Axta had spent a century, thousands of years earlier, in the study of butterflies. This species had escaped her catalogue.
“Which blade is which?” she asked, turning her attention back to the warrior.
“I have not decided.”
“Strange, to let the names come so untethered from the world.”
Sos shrugged. “It is what language does.”
Axta calved off a portion of her mind to consider that claim. Had there been more time, she would have pressed Sos on the point, but there was no more time. Behind the dogs’ baying she could hear the men with their blades. She turned back toward the tower.
“If we kill the gods today, we win. This is what Tan’is believes. If we carve them from this world, we carve away the rot that blights our children.”
The butterfly twitched into flight.
“What will you do,” she asked, “if there is no more war?”
In all his long years, the swordsman had kept no catalogue of butterflies. “Prepare.”
“The next war.”
Axta cocked her head to the side, wondering how he could miss such a simple point. “If we defeat them here, today, the humans will be gone.”
Sos considered his own ancient blades as though they were strange in his hands, artifacts of unknown provenance, farming implements, perhaps, or instruments.
“There is always another war.”
* * *
He cut through the shocked human guards in moments, stepping from safety to safety as though he had studied the whole battle in advance, as though he’d spent a week charting his course through the bloody scrawl. Axta followed him—slit a woman’s throat, a bearded man’s hamstring—and then they were inside.
The Csestriim had studied the tower, of course. In the long years before the war, it had been empty, a gleaming, indestructible shell from some age antedating all recorded thought. It was empty no longer. The humans had built a massive wooden scaffold inside the space, huge pines notched and pegged one to the next, framework for a rough staircase spiraling up and up into the light.
Behind Axta, soldiers poured through the doorway bellowing, screaming. Sos, like a careful craftsman about his masterpiece, killed them. Axta started climbing. Somewhere up there, in the dazzling light, were the gods—Heqet and Kaveraa, Eira and Maat, Orella and Orilon—whose touch had polluted her people, whose corruption had turned the Csestriim into beasts like those broken creatures below, hurling themselves into Sos’s defense, parting their soft necks on his blades.
Axta climbed like an insect trapped in the sun’s amber, her constant movement a form of stillness. Why the gods had come here, she had no idea, nor why the humans had spent so much time building the scaffolding and the winding stair. As her hot heart shoveled blood through her veins, she tried to parse the probabilities. Reason bucked, buckled. Inference and deduction failed. At root, all knowledge required witness, and so she kept climbing.
When Axta reached the tower’s top, stepping from light into light, Sos was a pace behind her. Clouds scoured the sky’s blue bronze, polishing it smooth. On the tower’s wide summit, the gods—all six of them: Heqet, bullshouldered and carved with scar; hiss-thin Maat; Orella and Orilon, one bone white, the other dark as storm; Kaveraa with her long fingernails; Eira, huge-haired, who might have been a girl—lay closed-eyed and still.
Wind fileted its invisible flesh on Sos’s naked blades.
Axta didn’t move.
Finally, the swordsman slipped one of the weapons into its sheath and knelt, pressing his fingers to Heqet’s neck, then to each of the others in turn.
“Dead,” he said finally, straightening from the corpses.
Dead. Axta revolved the notion in her mind, tested it as though it were late-winter ice. For decades and more these gods had walked the world inside their chosen human shells. Tan’is had managed to take two, to kill them, but the others had survived, had eluded all attempt at capture. The ongoing existence of the humans was predicated on that survival.
“No,” she said.
Sos arched an eyebrow.
“These are human bodies,” Axta continued, “but the gods that lived inside them are gone.”
The swordsman sheathed his other blade.
“Wherever it is they came from.” She studied the flawed, lifeless flesh. “Strange. Just when they were winning.”
Sos shook his head. “Not winning.”
Axta turned to him. “They’ve taken every important fortress, seized every road. There can’t be more than a few hundred of us left. Some of the humans have even learned to use the kenta.”
“They are not winning,” Sos said again. “They have won. This is why their gods have departed.”
They have won.
Axta studied the proposition for flaws, found none.
At her feet, the broken bodies that had carried those broken gods—just so much meat—were already turning to rot in the afternoon sun.
Men the size of mountains plowed waist-deep through the world’s oceans. Polished blades—each one long enough to level cities—flashed sunlight. Boots crushed delicate coastlines to rubble, obliterated fishing towns, gouged craters in the soft, green fields of Sia and Kresh.
This is the way the world ends. This was Kaden’s first thought, staring down on the destruction from above.
A city, after all, was only stone; a forest, no more than sap-wet wood. What was a river’s course, but a slash carved through the land? Apply enough force—the world itself would deform. The shapes of ridge and valley meant nothing. Bring enough power to bear, and you could split cliffs, tear down mountains, rend the very bedrock and see it scattered across the waves. Bring fire, and the world would burn. Bring water, and it would sink beneath the deluge. The old forms of sea and stone could be remade in flood and deflagration, and those other shapes, the desperate, petty lines that men and women dreamed across the dirt to indicate their kingdoms, their little empires, those, too, would be annihilated with all the rest in a heartbeat’s armageddon.
No. This was Kaden’s second thought. It is not the world. It is just a map.
A vast map, true, the size of a small parade ground, the most expensive map in all the world, commissioned by a vain Annurian Republic for their council chamber, but still just a map. Legions of craftsmen had labored day and night for months to complete the project; masons to carve the mountains and seaside cliffs, gardeners to cultivate the myriad grasses and perfect stunted trees, hydraulic engineers to guide the rivers in their courses, jewelers to cut the sapphires for the mountain tarns, the glaciers of glass and diamond.
It stretched the full length of the hall, some two hundred feet from end to end. The granite of the Bone Mountains came from the Bone Mountains, the red stone of the Ancaz from the Ancaz. Pumps hidden beneath the surface fed the great rivers of Vash and Eridroa—the Shirvian, the Vena, the Agavani, and the Black—along with dozens of streams whose names Kaden didn’t know, those flowing between high banks and around oxbows, over miniature cataracts and through wet swamps built up from soft green moss, emptying finally into the small world’s seas and oceans, oceans that, by some clever contrivance, rose and fell with the orbit of the moon.
One could stroll the catwalks above, staring down at astonishing replicas of the great cities: Olon and Sia, Dombâng and the Bend. Annur itself sprawled over a space the length of Kaden’s arm. He could make out the sparkling facets of the Temple of Intarra; the great avenue of the Godsway, complete with diminutive statuary; the tiny canalboats swinging at anchor in the Basin; the stark red walls of the Dawn Palace; and, stabbing like a lance up past the catwalk, so high that you could reach out and touch the tower’s top without stooping, Intarra’s Spear.
Like the men and women who sat day after day bickering above it, the massive map was both magnificent and petty. Until that moment, it had served a single function: to make those seated above it feel like gods. To that end, it had showed nothing more than a dream world, one unmarred by all their failures.
No fires raged unchecked in the northern forests. No towns burned in the south. No one had churned the grass fields of Ghan to mud or blockaded the desperate port of Keoh-Kâng. Small, painted soldiers indicated the location of field armies. Tiny men representing Adare’s treacherous legions and the council’s own more numerous Republican Guard dotted the terrain, swords raised in motionless postures of challenge or triumph. They were always standing, those false men. They never bled. Of war’s ravages and destruction, the map bore no trace. Evidently Annur lacked the craftsmen to sculpt starvation, or terror, or death.
We didn’t need craftsmen, Kaden thought. We needed soldiers with heavy boots to remind us what we’ve done, to grind this little world of ours to mud.
The sudden, unexpected, undeniable violence made the map more accurate, more true, but these men with their steel had not come to bring truth to the world’s most elaborate map. Kaden shifted his gaze from the destruction playing out below to another knot of armed men surging across the catwalk. Aedolians. The men charged with guarding the rulers of Annur.
Despite his own training, Kaden felt his stomach lurch. Something had obviously gone awry. Maut Amut—the First Shield of the Guard—would not have ordered his men into a sealed meeting of the council otherwise. This was no exercise. Each soldier wore half his weight in gleaming armor, and all had broadblades drawn as they spread out through the hall shouting orders, taking up positions at the perimeter, guarding the doors to keep someone out… or in.
Half the members of the council were trying to stumble to their feet, tripping on their long robes, spilling wine over carefully cut silk, bellowing questions or crying out in dismay. The rest sat rooted in their chairs, eyes wide, jaws agape, as they tried to make some sense of the unfolding madness. Kaden ignored them, kept his own gaze trained on the Aedolians.
Behind these men in steel, the memory of other soldiers filled Kaden’s mind, Aedolians hacking their vicious way through Ashk’lan, murdering the monks, hounding Kaden himself through the mountains. He had spent months after his return to the Dawn Palace reviewing the records of the remaining guardsmen, scouring their personal histories for any hint of treachery, of allegiance to Adare or to Ran il Tornja. The entire guard was placed on parole while hundreds of scribes investigated thousands of stories, and in the end, the council had dismissed more than a hundred before reinstating the rest. Kaden reminded himself of those measures, but he could feel the tension in his shoulders all the same.
See the world, he told himself, taking a long breath then letting it out, not your dream of the world.
Two dozen Aedolians charged over the suspended catwalk, then surrounded the council table.
Kaden rose to his feet, discarding his own fear as he did so.
“What is happening?” Despite his misgivings, his voice was steady.
Maut Amut stepped forward. The furious motion of the Aedolian entrance was finished. Waves lapped at the shore of the map, tiny tsunami. Sun streamed through the skylights overhead, warm and silent, playing over the armor of the soldiers, glinting off their naked blades. The members of the council went suddenly silent, frozen, like statues littering the catwalks, caught in the various postures of their own unreadiness.
“An attack, First Speaker,” Amut replied grimly, eyes scanning the walls, the doors, “inside the palace itself.”
Kaden glanced around the room.
Amut shook his head. “We are not certain.”
The First Shield grimaced. “Someone fast. Dangerous.”
“Dangerous enough to enter the palace, to get inside Intarra’s Spear unnoticed, to subdue three of my men, three Aedolians, and then to disappear.”
Excerpted from The Last Mortal Bond © Brian Staveley, 2016