The Godless, book one of Ben Peek’s exciting new epic fantasy series, publishes August 19 from Thomas Dunne and Tor UK. A new chapter of the book will appear on Tor.com every morning from Monday, June 9 to Friday, June 13. Keep track of them all here, and dig in to Chapter Four below!
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…
The inside of Orlan’s Cartography smelt faintly of incense. A decidedly religious odor for a man who, Ayae knew, viewed himself as anything but that.
She let the door close, the chimes sounding as it did, and did not bother with the lock. Ayae crossed the warm wooden floor, the maps on the walls around her a recollection of past and current events. Each was a finely detailed study of roads, borders and names, both current and obsolete, all of which fetched tidy sums. Ayae had still not gotten used to the money involved, especially for the older maps, and she doubted that she ever would. It was the oddities in these prices that struck her: how the slanting script of an Orlan two hundred years ago was worth far more than the initialled maps six hundred years old. She had been told—lectured, she remembered with a smile—that the younger Orlan’s maps had been mostly lost in a fire a century and a half ago and their scarcity therefore increased their value.
Samuel Orlan was an important symbol. To say that there had always been one was not quite right, for the original Orlan had lived and died before the War of the Gods. He had been famous, but had become more so after the war, when the world had been so different. But a second Samuel Orlan did not emerge until early in the Five Kingdoms, where in the huge libraries of Samar, a slim man had stumbled across the original maps and taken it upon himself to make new ones. Since then, there had always been a Samuel Orlan—male and female, with the cartographer’s final apprentice taking over the name, the legacy and the work of ensuring that the world remained mapped. Ayae was still constantly amazed at the stream of men and women, wealthy and famous, who came from afar to the shop to look for a particular map, or to contract the current Samuel Orlan for a specific job for fees of such amounts that she could scarcely judge them real.
The first time such a customer had come and left, Samuel had laughed at her expression. “You can make a fortune with the name, if you take it on after me. If not, well, you’ll still likely make a fortune, just without the necessity to grow a beard. It is tradition, you understand.”
A part of her felt guilty when he said that, for both of them knew that she would not be the next Samuel Orlan, but the guilt was not long lived. She did not have the dedication that Orlan had, did not have the sheer skill he displayed. But she loved the work, deeply appreciated the time that Orlan took to teach her his skills, the growing skill her own hand had, and the joy that came in seeing a piece of land or a continent come together on the parchment she worked upon. Both she and he knew that he had given her a skill that would enable her to live comfortably for the rest of her life, to fund her while she followed the other paths of her art, to the portraits and illustrations that were her first love.
Behind her, the door chimes sounded.
Ayae turned from the parchment she was examining, her hand resting on the large table that dominated the room. A man of medium height stood in the doorway. For a moment she did not recognize him, until the sheer ordinariness of him, the plainness of his white skin, close-cut brown hair and loose white shirt and trousers, sparked a recognition:
This morning. The Spine.
“We’re not open yet,” she said, her voice so soft that she was forced to repeat herself. “You’ll have to wait half an hour.”
“The door wasn’t locked.” The man’s voice was polite, easygoing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to just walk in.”
Yet, her hand gripped the table tight. “The sign was on the door.”
He smiled, a faint, half curve of his lips. “That’s quite the work you’re standing next to. The masterpiece of an artist.”
The map across the table she gripped was easily three times her width and a foot taller. Kept under glass, it showed the world as it was commonly known, with Orlan’s confident, strong lines and use of color as much a signature as the one in the corner. What set this map aside was that the corpses of the gods had been worked into the landscape: the Spine did not follow the spine of Ger, but was the spine, with Mireea the connective vertebrae to the neck and shoulders.
“I asked you to leave,” Ayae said, a flicker of annoyance alighting in her stomach. “Don’t make me ask again.”
“You’re not going to ask again.”
Anger sparked. “Leave now. There are strict penalties for thieves. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Lady—”
“Lady Wagan does not interest me.” Stepping up to the table, the man gazed down at the map. “What is beautiful about this map—other than the craft that is, and we must always admire craftsmanship, child—what is beautiful is the gods. So many maps, so many lives are empty of them now. But not here, not on this mountain, not where Samuel Orlan lives. No, he understands that we sail upon the blood of the Leviathan, as sailors say.”
“You need to leave,” Ayae said, releasing the table, her anger strengthening her resolve as she walked to the door. “I don’t appreciate being followed. I don’t appreciate you thinking you have a right to come in here uninvited.”
Unconcerned, he ran his hands across the glass.
“I heard you.” He turned to her. “Don’t you feel uncomfortable here?”
The table began to smoke, as if deep in its frame there was a flame, a single spark that was struggling to get out. With his hard, gray eyes holding her gaze, the oh so ordinary-looking man who was clearly not so ordinary, left the table.
Ayae whispered, “Who are you?”
“I have no name,” he said softly, his pale hand closing around her arm—
Her free hand slammed heel first into his chest.
It was a desperate blow, but it caught him off guard and caused him to stagger back. Yet he did not release her. Quickly, Ayae drove her foot down onto his. The man made no sound and fear threaded through her unlike any she had felt before. Behind her, the wood in the table ignited, and flames began to rush along the edges, spreading like burning pitch across broken tiles.
The flames jumped, leaping from the table to the wall, and Ayae panicked at the sight. She broke free and turned for the door, grabbing the handle; a hand grasped her hair and wrenched her back. Twisting, she slammed the heel of her hand into the nameless man’s arm, hitting the forearm hard. Behind them, the flames found parchment, ink, paint, chemicals, and glass and black smoke ripped out. The man flinched, caught in the blast. Horrified, she tensed to strike out again, but the man turned and threw her against the wall—threw her into the flames.
Ayae screamed and slapped at her clothes, at her body—unable to feel pain, but sure, more sure than anything that her flesh was peeling, turning dark, that the fire was devouring the air around her, thrusting its smoke into her throat, and aiming to choke her. The fire leaped and twisted around her and the nameless man, his hands black, reached for her. Through watering eyes, her body twisting to get out of his way, out of the fire’s way, she could do nothing—nothing but scream as, behind him, the fire took form, and a hand reached out and grabbed the head of her attacker, wrenching it back as a smoldering blade ran across his throat.
There was no scream.
Flames roared, but Ayae had gone still. She had to move, she had to get out, but she could not. Flames cascaded across the ceiling, a mix of orange and black. She heard glass pop. A part of her screamed. A young part, a child’s voice.
Then hands were on her roughly, were dragging her like a heavy weight to the door. Smoke hid the sky, and she felt a cloak drop over her, felt it smother her, wrap around her tightly as she sank to the ground, the trembling setting into her deeply before unconsciousness took her.
The Godless © Ben Peek, 2014