Meet Rhaif in James Rollins’ The Starless Crown

Who will claim the Starless Crown?

An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in a captivating new series from author James Rollins. We’re thrilled to share excerpts all this month from The Starless Crown—publishing January 4, 2022 with Tor Books. Read on below, or head back to the beginning.

A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.

Fleeing into the unknown she is drawn into a team of outcasts:

A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he’s forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.

A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother’s shadow and claims a purpose of his own.

An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact—one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.

On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.

But with each passing moment, doom draws closer.


 

 

4

Rhaif would have died if his bladder hadn’t been so full.

The only warning came from the cloud of dust shivering into the air from the chalky floor of the tunnel. Rhaif would’ve liked to attribute this unusual phenomenon to the strength and fury of his stream splashing against the nearby wall. But he knew better. Fear crimped off his flow and drove him to his knees. He propped a hand against the large boulder behind which he had sought privacy. The surface vibrated under his palm.

He glanced to the lantern hanging from his leather waistbelt. The oil flame jiggered and snapped behind the pebbled glass.

His chest tightened to a hard knot.

Down the tunnel, the other prisoners hollered and screamed, accompanied by a rattle of chains as they tried to flee. But it was too late. Stone groaned with an ominous intensity—followed by a thunderous clap. The ground jolted up, throwing Rhaif into the air. The boulder next to him bounced high, rebounded off the roof, and crashed to a floor now riven with cracks.

Rhaif landed hard on his rear and scuttled backward as the tunnel continued its collapse. His lantern, mercifully still intact, bobbled atop his knee breeches. Before him, a massive slab of the roof broke free and smashed to rubble and dust. More fissures chased him down the tunnel, coursing across roof, walls, and floor.

A choking black cloud rolled over him, heavy with sand and chalk.

He coughed to keep from drowning in that silt. He hurriedly rolled to his feet and rushed away. The flickering flame at his thigh looked like a lone fireflit lost and bouncing through a dark bower. Its light was too feeble to pierce the thick veil of dust. Still, he kept running, both arms out. His ankle chains rang with each step, giving strident voice to his distress.

In his haste to escape, his hip struck an outcropping. He spun, and glass shattered at his hip. A few pieces pierced his roughspun breeches and sliced his leg. He winced and slowed, taking great care not to lose his lamp’s flame. Only the overseer had a flint to relight it if it should go out.

That must not happen.

He had witnessed other prisoners punished with darkness. Poor souls lowered into pits without lanterns, sealed down there for days on end. They often came out frail, maddened creatures. It was Rhaif’s greatest fear: an eternal darkness without end. How could it not? He had lived all his three decades up in the Guld’guhl territories on the eastern edge of the Crown, at the fringe of the sun-blasted world, where night never fell and the lands were a sandy ruin, where heinous creatures made their home, alongside tribes of savages who eked out a meager, violent existence. Having lived all his life under a Guld’guhl sun, he held night to be no more than a rumor, a darkness to be feared.

As he hobbled free of the worst of the dust cloud, he finally stopped. He unhooked his lantern and lifted it high. He took care doing so, fearing too much jostling might knock the flame from its oiled taper.

“Just stay where you are,” he warned the pale flicker.

As the dust thinned, he listened to the settling of rock behind him. The pounding of his heart grew quieter, too. He checked the passageway. The cave-in had stopped a hundred steps away, completely collapsing the tunnel. A few stray rocks fell from the roof. A timber support shattered with a loud pop, enough to make him jump back.

Still, it looked like the worst was over.

But what now?

He sneezed loudly, startling himself, then turned and searched around him. He did not know this level of the mine, not that he hadn’t heard stories. Earlier, roused from their piles of hay in the mine gaol, he and a dozen others had been kicked and threatened with cudgels to this remote area of the chalk mine. There, they had been lowered on hempen ropes tied to an empty ore cart, winched down by the ox-driven windlass somewhere outside the pit mouth. It was said this section of the mine had been long abandoned. Some said its shafts and tunnels had dried out centuries ago, but most believed it was accursed, haunted by spirits, plagued by malicious ilklins.

Rhaif hadn’t placed much stock in such tales. He knew some miners who snuck crusts of bread into crevices in the rocks; overseers who did the same with coins, mostly brass pinches, once even a silver eyrie. All to appease such spirits.

Not him.

He had learned in the back alleys of Anvil to trust only that which he could touch with his hands or see with his own eyes. He took no account of gods, of stories of ghostlies and spookens. Living in Anvil, he’d learned there was plenty enough to be afraid of. What went bump in the night in Anvil was not some haunting, but someone trying to steal what was yours.

Then again, he was often the one doing the bumping.

Anvil was the territory’s main port. It hunkered along the sea, a squalid pisshole, if ever there was a place. It was a city of cutthroats and rogues of every ilk. It shat and sweated like a living creature, ripe with corruption, pestilence, and decay. By season, by storm, by fair weather, it never changed. Its bay was constantly festooned with the sails of a hundred ships, its dockside a continual brawl.

The saying went that no one lived in Anvil, they only survived it.

Rhaif sighed.

How I miss it…

Not that he held out any expectation of ever seeing it again. Betrayed by his own guild, he ended up being buried a hundred leagues to the south, sentenced to spend the rest of his life in the mines. His offense: crossing the wrong thief, the master of their guild, Llyra hy March. He thought it ill-fitting a punishment for simply stealing from the woman’s former lover, the archsheriff of Anvil. The man was too tempting a mark, and Llyra was not someone prone to pining, let alone loyalty. In fact, Rhaif himself had shared the warmth of her bed many a time.

He shook his head.

Even now, he remained stymied. To be so harshly punished, he suspected there had been more afoot than he had been privy to.

No matter, here I am.

But where was here?

As the dust settled to a haze, he reached a free hand to the secret pouch sewn into his breeches. He removed the wayglass, an item he had pilfered from an overseer of another crew and quickly hidden away. The loss was blamed on those other prisoners, who each lost a finger until someone confessed to stop the torture and claimed he got scared and threw it down a privy shaft. No one bothered to search the filth.

Rhaif lifted the wayglass to the flicker of flame. The sliver of lodestone shivered back and forth. It refused to settle. Strange. He had stolen it in the vague hope of one day making his escape. Though truth be told, he had noted the opportunity to nab it—and could not resist. After he had been buried down here for nearly two years, the thought of freedom was always on his mind. And a wayglass could prove useful. He figured if he ever had the opportunity to escape the overseer’s eye and take flight through some deserted section of mine, such a tool might point him in the right direction.

Like now.

He turned in a circle. He had come to a stop at a crossroad of tunnels. He tried to fathom the best path. He dreamed of his freedom, but he also valued his own hide. If it meant living, he would happily return to the whip and cudgel. Death was an escape he would rather avoid.

He decided on one tunnel, choosing it only because the lodestone shivered a little less in that direction.

“Good enough.”

 

After several hundred paces, Rhaif was thoroughly lost.

By now, he sensed he was going in circles, slowly traversing downward, as if marching into his own grave. As to the wayglass, it only confounded him. The lodestone now spun round and round the glass, as if as baffled as him.

Maybe this place is accursed.

He turned at another tunnel, growing frantic. His heart pounded in his throat. He had at best a half-day of lamp oil left. His ears strained for any telltale sign of the mine proper: shouted orders, the ring of hammers, the cries of the whipped. But all he heard was his panted breath and his occasional mumbled curses.

He had to duck his head from the low roof—which itself was disconcerting. Like all Guld’guhlians, he was bowlegged and hard-headed in all manners of that term. It was as if the sun had beaten all of them into squat shapes, maybe all the better to work the thousands of mines that spread the breadth of the territory’s coast, from the stone forest of Dödwood to the north to the endless southern Wastes.

He ran a hand along the wall, feeling the cracks in the chalk. Here the timbered supports had long turned to stone, hardened by the centuries in the mineral-rich air. As he continued, those fissures widened and grew in number.

He craned his neck, noting the fractures along the roof.

Distracted, he tripped over a pile of loose stone and fell. He came close to smashing his wayglass, but he caught himself with his other hand. His lantern swung wildly from his waistbelt. He held his breath, fearing the flame would snuff out.

It flickered wildly but held true.

He checked the stones on the floor. Their edges were too sharp and a gap in the roof suggested they had recently broken from up there. If he had any doubt about circling toward his doom, he had proof in hand.

“Gods be,” he muttered. “I’m straight back under the section that caved in.”

He shook his head, pushed up, and dusted himself off. He glanced down to the wayglass. The lodestone had stopped spinning round and now pointed down the tunnel. He sighed and placed his hopes that it meant something.

“So be it.”

He headed along the narrowing passageway, only to discover in another hundred steps that the tunnel had shattered into a slide of broken rocks and sand that cut even deeper. He checked his wayglass. The lodestone still pointed straight ahead, down the precarious ramp of scree and sharp boulders.

His fingers gripped the wayglass with frustration.

“My arse if I’m traipsing down there.”

Exasperated more than scared, he swung angrily away. As he did so, the feeble flame at his hip blew out. Darkness collapsed onto him.

No, no, no…

The blackness drove him to his knees, then to his palms. He gasped and quaked. He squeezed his eyes closed, then open again, struggling to see, refusing to accept his fate.

“Not like this,” he mumbled.

He rolled onto his backside and hugged his knees.

Though godless, he prayed to the entire pantheon. To the Mother Below and the Father Above, to the silvery Son and the dark Daughter, to the shrouded Modron and the bright Bel, to the giant Pywll who held up the skies and the lowly Nethyn who hid deep in the Urth. He continued, leaving no one out, begging everyone in the Litany. He stuttered this way across every prayer taught to him on his mum’s knee.

Then, as if someone heard him, a faint glow rose ahead. He rubbed a knuckle against his straining eyes. At first, he thought it was some figment dredged up by his fear. But it did not go away. Maybe it had always been there.

He shifted to his knees and crawled forward. As he reached the edge of the chasm, his hands knocked loose a rock and sent it tumbling down the slope. The shine—a faint pearlescent blue—rose from the bottom. He did not know what created that glow. All that mattered was that it was a haven from the darkness, a bright port in a dark storm.

With a jangle of his ankle chains, he swung his legs forward into the chasm, gritted his teeth, and set off down the steep slope. The way was treacherous, the descent precarious.

Still

Anything is better than this infernal darkness.

 

5

Bloody and bone-bruised, Rhaif slid down the last of the rockfall. He dug in his sliced heels and drew himself to a stop at a towering fresh-cracked slab of black brimstan. Ten times his height, it rose from the white chalk floor like the fin of a monstrous Fell shark.

The glow rose from its other side.

As he gulped down his fear, he swiped away strands of sweat-plastered auburn hair and tucked them under the felt hat that protected his head. He rose into a wary crouch. He did his best to pull up his breeches, the bottom all but ripped away, and tightened the short leather vest over his roughspun shirt.

He did not know what awaited him ahead, but he did his best to ready himself.

An acrid odor filled the lower reaches of the chasm, like burnt chalk and oil. He took short whiffs, fearing it might be poisonous. He had witnessed miners being lowered into a deep shaft—a pit that was safe the day before— only to fall into a stupor or die from air gone bad.

After several breaths, all seemed well, so he continued ahead.

He edged around the brimstan outcropping and peeked at what lay beyond its shoulder. It took him several blinks to make sense of it. The raw chalk wall ahead looked like a shattered mirror, the cracks all radiating out from a crumpled copper egg near its base. The egg appeared to have been cracked open long ago, its edges blackened and torn.

The shine rose from inside it.

He squinted but could make out no details from this distance.

“Just go look,” he told himself.

“Maybe I’d better not,” he argued just as forcefully.

He chewed his lip, then nodded and set out toward the mystery. With each step, the bitter burnt odor grew. He gaped at the wall ahead of him. His gaze followed the cracks into the darkness overhead. A worry grew.

Could this be the source of the earlier quake?

If so, he feared any misstep could bring it all crashing down atop him. His pace slowed but didn’t stop. Curiosity drove him forward. He could not resist knowing the truth. It was that or retreating into eternal darkness.

So, he kept going.

As he neared the shattered opening, the walls of copper looked polished and seamless and over two hands’ breadths thick. Cringing, he noted something at the edge of the egg. A skeleton lay sprawled just outside, half buried in chalk, as if drowning in the rock. The hue of the bone was not white or a hoary yellow, but a dull greenish blue. He knew the color was not a trick of the glow, but some alchymy of pyrites and minerals that had infused into the bone over untold centuries.

He skirted the dead, touching fingertips from forehead to lips to heart in solemn respect, lest he wake the spirit trapped here. He reached the blasted opening of the egg, wanting—no, needing—to know what cast such a sheen in the dark.

He bowed his way under the copper lintel, all twisted and scorched, and pushed into the glow. What he saw froze him in place.

Gods below…

The inside of the egg was the same seamless copper, like a glass bubble blown by the subterranean goddess Nethyn. Its inner surface shone from a complicated web of glass piping and copper joinery. A golden fluid bubbled through those tubes. But the true source of the glow was on the far side, where it seemed all that contrivance led. A shape stood within a glowing glass alcove, like a shining bronze spider in a web.

What manner of god or daemon is this?

Despite the cold terror, he could not look away.

The figure was a woman, sculpted of bronze, as seamless as the copper shell. Her face was a handsome oval, her hair a smooth plait of the same bronze. Her limbs were long and shapely, with hands clasped at the belly, hiding her privacy. Her breasts, though mere suggestions, added a subtle beauty.

It was a masterwork of a skilled artisan.

But it was the expression that captured his attention. Her closed eyes hinted at a hidden grace, while the shape and fullness of her lips suggested a profound sadness, as if somehow Rhaif had already disappointed her.

“Who are you?” he whispered.

With his soft words, eyelids parted, revealing—

A shout rose behind him.

He ducked and searched around. As a thief, his first instinct was to hide when exposed. He followed that instinct, hurried out of the egg, and dove behind a nest of chalk boulders to the immediate left. The rocks were unusually warm, hot to the touch. Still, he tucked himself in tight. A glance to the side revealed that the chalk that rimmed the egg was blackened and scorched. He lifted a hand toward the surface. His refuge was close enough to the side of the egg that he could touch the curve of copper on this side. With his palm raised, he felt no heat wafting from the metal. He tested a fingertip, then the rest of his hand against the cool copper, confirming the same.

Strangeness upon strangeness.

Under his palm, he felt a faint vibration. More shouts drew his attention back up the slope, where a score of lamps and torches now lit the upper tunnel. Orders were barked. The lights began to descend down the rockfall. As Rhaif waited, the vibration of the egg faded to his touch. Even the faint glow ebbed into darkness.

His hiding spot did not allow him to see inside any longer.

Still, he pictured the bronze statue in its glass alcove. He would’ve sworn it had responded to his voice, its eyelids opening. He gave a small shake of his head at such nonsense.

Just a trick of the light.

In short order, the searchers descended to the bottom of the slope. After so long in the gloom, Rhaif had to blink away the glare of their bright lamps and flaming torches. He kept low, tight to the shadows. But all focus appeared to be on the egg. No one seemed to be looking for him, an escaped prisoner, as he had initially feared. In their haste, they must have missed the telltale signs of his trespass.

At their forefront strode a pair of thick-muscled overseers, dressed in their hooded blue cloaks with short-whips at their belts. They carried lanterns high. Behind them came a clutch of enslaved miners. A few held torches aloft, but they all had pickaxes and hammers strapped to their backs.

But it was the last member of the party that nearly drew a gasp from Rhaif. The figure shoved to the front. The man was far taller and thinner than the others. His long silver-white hair had been braided and tied in a noose around his neck. He wore a long gray robe with its hood tossed back. His exposed eyes were banded by the stripe of a black tattoo. It was said to imitate a blindfold, representing such men’s ability to see what all others were blind to. Across his chest, he wore a thick leather bandolier, studded with iron, and lined by square pouches, each etched with symbols.

Rhaif hunkered lower.

None of the chained miners even dared look in the man’s direction.

How could they?

Here stood a holy Shrive.

It cannot be.

Rhaif had only heard rumors of such a secretive sect. They were rarely seen. It was claimed most of the Shriven were hundreds of years old, though this figure looked no more than a decade or two older than Rhaif.

“Stay here,” the Shrive ordered, and went alone into the now dark egg.

The overseers flanked the opening, while the miners in tow nervously shuffled their ankle chains.

The Shrive entered with no lamp, lantern, or torch. Still, from inside the egg, strange lights flared. A soft chanting echoed out—then an eerie high-pitched cry set Rhaif’s teeth to aching. Everyone outside cringed and covered their ears as best they could.

With Rhaif’s palm still resting on the copper shell, he felt the metal momentarily vibrate—then go quiet again.

A white smoke billowed out of the egg, reeking of bitter alchymies. It drove the others away from the opening. From that cloud, the Shrive reappeared. His features were dispassionate, but sweat pebbled his brow.

He stepped to one of the overseers, a man Rhaif now recognized as the head maestrum of the mines. “Have your team remove the statue and come with me.” Those tattooed eyes hardened. “And take great care.”

“Your will is ours,” the man promised.

Before the Shrive swept past, he leaned closer to the maestrum. His next words were meant only for the man’s ears, though Rhaif eavesdropped from his hiding place. “Afterward, none must know.”

The Shrive’s gaze swept over the chained men.

The maestrum bowed his head, a hand coming to rest on the hilt of the curved dagger sheathed at his waist. “It will be done.”

Rhaif sank deeper into hiding, confused but knowing one certainty.

I should not be here.

 

By the time the bronze goddess was hauled out of the shell and up the treacherous slope, Rhaif’s knees ached from crouching for so long. It took all six prisoners, three to a side, to carry her to the mouth of the tunnel. The Shrive kept alongside them, while the maestrum trailed, whip in hand.

A second overseer remained behind to guard the copper egg and its secrets. Rhaif sneered. He knew Overseer Muskin all too well. In Rhaif’s pocket, he carried the man’s wayglass. The overseer had taken clear pleasure in removing the fingers of his crew as punishment for the theft, searing their stumps with a smoldering brand. The prisoner who finally confessed—false though it was—had his throat slit.

Rhaif felt the press of the wayglass in his pocket. While his thievery might be partly to blame for the others’ suffering, he carried no guilt for the torture and death. Such harsh punishment was ill-fitting for a petty crime. Even down here. Rhaif had thought Muskin would’ve simply believed he’d misplaced the wayglass or lost it. Rhaif had not accounted for Muskin’s pleasure at inflicting pain, of burning his mark on those beneath him.

From his hiding place, Rhaif watched the lights vanish into the tunnel above, one after the other, until the world shrank again down to the single pool of light from Muskin’s lantern on the floor. The overseer stalked back and forth before the egg, clearly not happy to be left behind, even less so about the press of shadows. From the man’s nervous glances and how he jumped with every rasp of sifting sand or tumble of loose rock, Muskin was similarly afflicted as Rhaif by the threat of darkness.

Rhaif waited for his chance.

It was not long in coming.

The man’s tenseness worked its way down to his bladder. The warning signs were evident enough from the growing agitation to his pacing, the occasional clutch at his privates. Finally, Muskin swore and headed to the far side of the egg. He grumbled as he unhooked his breeches to free himself.

Rhaif waited for the splashing and relieved groan. He then slipped from his boulders, and with all the stealth gained from his many years as a thief, he crept up behind Muskin. Without even a single clink of his chains, he stopped in the man’s shadow.

He eyed the hilt of Muskin’s sheathed dagger.

Quick now, he urged himself.

Still, Rhaif hesitated. He had never killed a man before. Yet, he knew only death would free him from here. He could not risk a shout drawing the others back.

He gulped and reached out a hand.

As he did, a rumble sounded behind him. A trickling avalanche skidded down the slope. Muskin flinched and swung around. His stream splashed wildly, even more so when he spotted Rhaif standing there.

The overseer snatched for his whip, and Rhaif lunged for the man’s dagger. They both gained their weapons. Muskin’s face purpled with anger, his chest swelling toward a bellow. Rhaif could not wait. Nimble and fast, he sprang at the man. Muskin, still addled, tried to block him and failed. Rhaif drove the blade through the overseer’s throat. The point burst out the other side of his neck.

The damage done, Rhaif jumped back.

Muskin dropped his whip and pawed at the impaled knife—then he fell to his knees with a gurgle that turned bloody. His eyes went huge, both surprised yet knowing the truth.

Rhaif backed away, horrified and shaking all over.

“I’m sor sorry,” he mumbled.

While the overseer deserved a harsh end, Rhaif had not wanted to be the one to deliver it. He had witnessed countless deaths, but none by his own hand.

Rhaif took another step away.

Muskin’s end took far longer than Rhaif would have wished. Long after the man toppled on his side, blood continued to pool and spread. His chest rose and fell. Rhaif stared unblinking until all movement stopped with a last rattled sigh.

Rhaif took another three breaths of his own before finally approaching the body. To the side, the bluish skull on the floor stared its empty sockets at him. He touched his fingertips from forehead, to lips, to heart. It was less this time to ward off spirits than it was to settle himself to the task at hand.

With this death, Rhaif had committed himself to one course.

Escape or suffer a worse fate than Muskin.

“Get on with it,” he whispered.

Working swiftly, he searched Muskin’s body and found the keys to his ankle irons. As miners were commonly shifted from one crew to another, the locks were typically the same. Still, he huffed with relief when the chains fell from his legs. He felt a hundred stone lighter.

Encouraged, he stripped Muskin of his blue overseer cloak and used the man’s waterskin to rinse away the worst of the blood. Once satisfied, he set about trading clothes with the dead man, including the short boots to hide his scarred ankles.

Lastly, he hauled on the overseer’s wide belt and secured the whip and dagger. He inspected himself one final time and pulled up the cloak’s hood to shadow his features.

He started to collect the lantern from the floor, then remembered.

He returned to his pile of clothes and fished out the wayglass. He was about to return it to the same pocket from which he had pinched it when he noted the lodestone no longer pointed toward the egg. Instead, it pointed in the opposite direction, toward the tunnel where the bronze woman had been hauled away.

Strange.

Rhaif set back along the same course, climbing the slope with care.

He reached the tunnel and followed the scuff of bare feet and boots. It was an easy trail to follow. He knew this path would eventually lead him to the mine proper. Still, he did not hurry. He had no intention of catching up with the others. He knew—once he got his bearing—he would split along another course. Using his disguise and keeping his face hidden, he would do his best to escape the mine and flee.

If he failed, it would mean his death—and an end far worse than the one Muskin had suffered. Like all prisoners, Rhaif knew the punishment for a prisoner who tried to escape. When he had first been dragged into the mines of Chalk, he had noted the rows of decaying, bird-plucked bodies, all impaled from arse to mouth, that lined the entrance.

His pace increased with the memory. He had to force himself to slow. Overseers—the lords of the mines—did not rush about. And now was certainly not the time to be hasty. Even when disguised, it would take stealth and artifice to safely make his escape.

As he hiked the tunnels, he pictured his freedom and all that it entailed— but the serene face of the bronze goddess kept intruding.

“It’s not my concern,” he intoned.

But deep down, he suspected he was wrong.

 

Excerpted from The Starless Crown, copyright © 2021 by James Rollins

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