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 Five 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…
When Ayae awoke, she was in flames.
They flickered without heat, hitting glass as if she were trapped inside a bubble, and they were searching, probing, trying to enter her. Fingers curling she grabbed sheets, exposed toes following, her panic subsiding as her consciousness registered the lamp directly above. Rising, Ayae pushed a hand through her hair and gazed around her. She was in a long, wide room, with dozens of empty single beds. The emergency ward of Mireea. There were guards at the door and windows at the top of the wall that showed the night and the moon— the remains of a dead god, the thought came unbidden.
She was in no pain. Pushing back the blanket, she saw her bare legs and arms beneath the simple shift she had been dressed in. Outside of the taste of smoke in her mouth, there was no indication that she had been in a fire.
The same could not be said about the room’s other inhabitant. Wearing clothes stained by smoke and burned by flames, he was a man of medium height, pale-skinned with long auburn hair. On the floor beside him sat a pair of ash-stained boots and a canvas duffle bag, a long, leather cloak resting over it. The strangest thing about him were the thin chains wrapped around his wrists, the bands a mix of silver and copper threaded with tiny charms made from gold, copper, silver, glass and leather. The charms were not isolated to his wrists, for she could see thin chains tied through his hair and one pierced in his right ear.
“So you wake.” His voice had a strange accent, one she could not place. “I think they were going to bring a prince, eventually.”
“Have I been here long?” Her voice sounded smoky and harsh. She coughed to clear it.
“Since this morning.”
“You—you pulled me out of the fire?”
His right hand touched a chain on his wrist. “It was luck. I heard screaming and went in. I found you in need.”
Footsteps emerged outside the door. Ayae hesitated, then said, “Did you—did you kill the man in there?”
“No.” He had dark-green eyes, darker than any she had seen before, and they met hers evenly. “You want to avoid him,” the man littered with charms said. “If you can.”
The door opened and Reila, the small, gray-haired, white healer, entered. “There will be guards coming for you soon, Zaifyr,” she said, though her gaze was not on him. “Pull on your boots.”
“They have holes in them.”
Ignoring him, the healer’s small hands pushed aside Ayae’s hair, and pressed against her forehead. “How do you feel?”
“You’re warm,” she said softly. “Still warm. Like you’re smoldering beneath your skin.”
“Don’t say that,” Ayae whispered.
The healer’s words were too close to suggesting something that, beneath her skin, in her blood and bones, was a touch of a god, that she was cursed. It was the name that men and women in Mireea used for people with a god’s power in them, the name repeated up to Faaisha aloud, but the name that was whispered in the streets of Yeflam behind the Keepers’ backs. It was the name that implied countless horrors, stories told of men and women who, since birth, looked normal, acted normal, until one day they split down the chest as arms grew from their body, or their skin began to melt.
To be cursed meant that, inside you, was part of a dead god. Their very beings broke down around you, their blood seeping into the land, into the water, their last breaths polluting the air, each act freeing their divinity, leaving it to remake the world without restraint, leaving tragedy in its wake, creating madmen such as the Innocent and terrible empires such as the Five Kingdoms. The remains of the dead were nothing but pain and suffering that ordinary people had to endure.
Before Ayae could say more, the door opened and Illaan entered, flanked by two guards. At the sight of him, she dared a smile; but if he saw her, he gave no indication. His gaze was focused on Zaifyr as he pulled on his boots.
“Is he able to be questioned now?” Illaan asked.
“The only thing hurt is his clothes,” Reila replied. “Both of them are extremely lucky.”
With a nod, Illaan indicated to the two guards. Standing, Zaifyr stamped both feet, a cloud of ash rising as he did. In the corner of her eye, Ayae was aware of him trying to catch her gaze, but she kept her eyes on Illaan. He had turned to her now, his lips parted in what might have been the start of a smile, or even, she thought for a second time, a frown.
“She needs rest,” Reila told him. “She’s going to be here for the night, Sergeant, no matter what she says to you.”
Illaan nodded, just once.
At the door, the healer turned to Ayae, a hint of sympathy in her lined face. Before it had any time to grow, she stepped out of the room, following the guards and the charm-laced man, leaving the two alone. Leaving Ayae to turn to Illaan and smile faintly. “We should be happier,” she said. “I avoided death today.”
“I know. You were in a fire.” In the awkward silence that followed his words, Illaan moved to the bed next to her. “The shop looked awful,” he said, finally. “It was gutted on the inside. All those maps just lit up.”
“The other shops?”
“A little damage.” He rubbed the top of his thigh gently. “Orlan’s shop is a total loss, though. We couldn’t save that.”
“Do you know why it was started?”
“It’s strange,” he continued, ignoring her. “The fire was all around you in there. You were thrown into it. Your clothes—Reila was afraid to cut away the clothes, thinking they had melted so badly into your skin, but when she did, it was as if you had just been born.”
She shook her head.
“It’s good, yes? Lucky.” She reached out for him, but he drew back. “Please, Illaan, I do not know why any of this happened. The man who came into the shop making threats—he made the fire, not me.” There was a hint of hysteria in her voice and she quelled it. “What do you want me to say?”
“What if I had not woken you up last night?”
Ayae’s eyes closed.
“I thought it was a dream,” he said quietly, the words twisting inside her.
“But it was not a dream. Your eyes did burn and you stood in a room full of flames and emerged without a scar on you. You’re cursed, Ayae.”
No, she wanted to yell. No. She wanted to deny the word, deny everything that came with it, but the words stuck in her throat. She reached for Illaan. Her fingers found air and, opening her eyes, she saw him standing away from her, his face cold. “There will be a Keeper here soon,” he said quietly. “That’s why the room is empty. He wanted to speak to you, privately.”
“Could you—” She swallowed. “Could you stay?”
But he was already walking toward the door.
The Godless © Ben Peek, 2014