A remarkable story of power and friendship, of trust and betrayal, and of the families we choose.
We’re thrilled to share an extended excerpt Witch King, the first new fantasy from author Martha Wells in over a decade—available May 30th from Tordotcom Publishing. Read an excerpt below, or check out the first three chapters here. You can also download a sneak peak preview for your preferred ereader!
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.
The Past: The Fall
The mountain and hill lands that surround the Grass Plains are said to be the first birthplace of the Witch. They are born of the union of mortals and demonkind in mortal form, who came forth during the great war between the legions of the underearth and the Grass Kings. From there they spread, or fled, through the east and south.
—Night-Tales of the West, transcribed by various hands
Kai was with the other demon scouts, lying on his stomach and propped up on his elbows in the dirt. They were under the cover of a small tent-shelter, to prevent any wind damage to the map and to hide it, if it was true that the Hierarchs could use birds and spirits as spies, like the Witches said. “I told Treris he was too far west,” Dae-Fera from Raneldi Saredi said for the third time.
Kai, making his additions to the dirt map, threw a pebble at her. “We know! At least think of something else to complain about.” He ignored the groans of agreement and the chorus of protests. It had taken several long days and nights to assemble this new information and they wouldn’t be able to rest until the plotting was done.
Someone kicked his foot. Before he could kick back, Arn-Nefa of Kanavesi Saredi said, “Kai-Enna, Captain Kentdessa wants you.”
Kai wriggled backward away from the map to keep from disturbing the edges. The mortal chroniclers were waiting outside to memorize the finished version and transfer it to cloth maps to be shared with their borderlander allies. “Up on the ridge?” Kai asked Arn-Nefa. The ridge was where the commanders were meeting. “Am I in trouble?” He had been pushing his luck, leading his scouts close to the Hierarch camp. Closer than the captains had told them to go.
She snorted and pulled one of his braids. “You probably should be. But that’s not what they said. They want to talk to you and Dae-Fera.”
As Arn-Nefa continued on her way, Kai caught Dae-Fera’s eye and signed come with me in Witchspeak.
Dae-Fera wriggled away from the map and they ducked out of the tent. It was surrounded by scraggly trees, tucked down among the rocky slopes of the hills; a large part of the allied force was camped through here, with new groups from the borderlands arriving all the time.
Kai followed the path that wound up slope in the shadow of stunted trees and brush, pebbles skittering under their boots. It was warm but the morning sun was weak, hidden behind clouds. At the top of the hill the view opened up to the plain, and the Hierarchs’ camp toward the eastern side.
Most of the enemy activity was hidden behind trenches and a tall earthwork made out of sandy dirt, though the sheer size of the encampment and the smoke of hundreds of cooking fires made it obvious how numerous their troops were. Past the rough wall, Kai could make out the sea of peaked red tent tops, the furry backs of the wallwalkers stabled among them, and some ornate wooden structures that the borderlanders said were probably siege engines. Which didn’t make a lot of sense, because the nearest borderlander walls were to the west, up in the mountains; all the people of these lands were nomadic, like the Saredi.
The assembled warriors of the grassplains alliance had been fighting skirmishes for days, driving the Hierarch forces away from the central plains back toward the Erathi coastlands. The older demons had been leading war parties, while the younger ones acted as scouts. Kai had been scouting and organizing scouts from Kentdessa and the other clans, and had been shot with a lot of arrows. He had been drawing heavily on his body in the underearth to repair the damage, and had had about an hour of real sleep in the past day. Dae-Fera, younger and with a less responsible position, bounced with energy.
Kai had never relied this heavily on his connection to the underearth before and he knew his reserves weren’t limitless. It was something he should talk to Grandmother about, but there was just no time.
He and Dae-Fera followed the flattened grass of the path down a short slope and around to a flat rocky space sheltered by the cliffs of the higher hills. Erina had said she had heard it was the remains of an old fort, and that the circular hill blocking it from the view of the plain was actually a buried tower. Whether that was true or not, a path ran up the side to a vantage point on top.
On the rocky flat, a meeting was underway. There were a dozen or so commanders from the borderlanders, from the different territories along the edges of the grassplains. Some wore metal armor over silk robes, some bright-colored headscarves and tough leather clothing, others in hooded garments with wooden face masks. Joining them now were Erathi leaders in the loose cotton pants and tunics and jackets of sailors’ gear. Their ships had landed at the cove to the west a couple of days ago and their fighters had joined the growing coalition last night. The Erathi coast had been hard hit by the Hierarchs, many of the towns and ports utterly destroyed. Kai had never seen or heard of anything like it, and the shock lingered.
Witches were scattered through the group, dressed in dark draped fabrics and veils, their feet bare on the rough ground. Grandmother, who knew a lot of Witches, said the story was that they wore the veils and the concealing drapery so that they could take them off and walk among mortals without anyone knowing.
But since that would work for just about any kind of distinctive clothing, she doubted it was true.
Everyone was in groups talking or listening, with translators whispering or signing Witchspeak to those who couldn’t understand. Dae hesitated, but Kai tugged her coat sleeve to follow him and wove his way through the fringe of the group. He found the Saredi and stopped behind Captain Kentdessa, who was a different Captain Kentdessa from the one that Kai had known since being given Enna’s body. When the Saredi had decided to create the alliance against the Hierarchs, a new captain, someone thought better suited for leading fighters, had been selected by vote. This captain was older, her braids more iron gray than black. She was part demon herself, descended from one of the first demons to take Grandmother’s bargain and come to the mortal world in a Saredi body. The borderlander commanders probably didn’t realize it; her demon blood was visible only in the darkness of her eyes. She wore her Kentdessa antelope sigils wrapped around the buckle of the belt cinching her leather coat.
She listened to a Witch, a stocky person only a few inches taller than Kai, their veil draped over a black broad-brimmed hat. The Witch broke off as Kai and Dae appeared, and said, “Children.”
Kai ducked his head in a salute. “Kindred.” Dae, having only been in the mortal world less than a season and still shy, hurriedly copied him.
In a light voice, the Witch said, “Kaiisteron, Prince of the Fourth House, Daevavopta, Knight-Guardian of the Seventh House.”
Captain Kentdessa said, “Kai-Enna leads our clan scouts. He assembled the map of this area and came closest to the camp’s walls. Dae-Fera was with him.”
The Witch turned to face Kai and their almost undivided attention felt like a warm fire. “When you were near the walls, did you feel anything?”
He knew the Witch meant anything from the underearth, or other powers. “I could tell there were expositors.” By now, Kai and most of the Saredi fighters had seen enough dead bodies to become experts in the effects of expositors’ intentions, but they hadn’t known what expositors were until the first attack on the Erathi. That was when refugees arriving in the grassplains had described the way the invaders seemed to draw power from the death of mortals.
It had sounded like a story at first, something heroic Saredi ancestors encountered in their adventures. Grandmother had to travel to the underearth to find demons who had encountered expositors before and could describe their abilities. The way they drew power from death, the more death the better, and shaped this power into intentions and designs that were entirely different from the Witches’ spirit workings. Grandmother was still there now, negotiating with Kai’s mother and the principals of the other Houses to get passage for demons in mortal bodies to use the underearth to get behind Hierarch lines. Once they were able to do that, the mortal forces would push forward and the Hierarchs would be trapped between them. The Witch seemed to expect more, and Kai added, “They’ve set their intentions all along the walls, to keep us from getting through, but they weren’t pushing past that, as far as we could tell.”
The Witch said, “Not the expositors. Something else.”
“You’ve had omens?” Captain Kentdessa said, her brow furrowed.
“Not enough.” The Witch made a gesture of displeasure. “We need more information.”
Captain Kentdessa turned to Kai. “The Witches want you to speak to Grandmother.”
Kai glanced around. There were a lot of mortals who were not-Saredi standing around, watching the conversation. The borderlanders had been allies with the Witches for a long time, as long as they had been living in the fringes of the grassplains. But the Saredi didn’t get many visitors to their tents, and most borderlanders would never have seen demons before the war. Kai had encountered some in the field who were afraid, and it had made him feel uncomfortable and awkward in Enna’s body. “Here?”
“Here,” Captain Kentdessa said. Then she smiled a little, deepening the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth. “It’s not a secret.”
Kai sat down on the packed earth and pebbles, folded his legs, and breathed out to relax. Dae sank down into a crouch beside him.
He closed his eyes and rode his connection to the underearth down to his real body.
He was curled up in a bubble of water deep in the protective rock, the darkness warm and comforting on his scales. He uncoiled his tails and focused on finding Grandmother. He shifted the underearth around him, followed the spark of her presence. As he drew closer he could tell she was with others of the Fourth House, their shadows in the underearth long and defined. It meant he wouldn’t be able to talk to her in private, which was disappointing. He slid into the space they all occupied and opened his eyes to a large chamber.
He knew the Overlord was here too so he dropped to his knees on the floor, which was softened with heavy furred skins. Tusks and massive bones lined the walls, arched inward as if they supported the weight of the curving roof. Openings between the bones looked out onto a landscape of forested hills, not unlike the area around the Saredi-borderlander camp, but these trees were much taller, with long waving fronds of black and red.
Mother and Grandmother sat nearby, having tea out of the skulls of favored ancestors. A few dozen of Kai’s siblings sat back along the walls. His brother Veditiron hissed, “Honored Mother! Kaiisteron is here!” in the sort of tone normally used to announce an intruder.
“I can see that, Veditiron,” Mother snapped, her horns flaring in impatience. “Kaiisteron, you’re interrupting. I hope you have a good reason.”
He said, “Captain Kentdessa wants to speak to Grandmother.”
Grandmother’s spirit was here in a body that had been made for her, part of the long-ago treaty she had forged with the underearth. It was as malleable as everything else here, so she looked the same as the last time Kai had seen her, before Kentdessa’s fighters had left to join the southern clans at the meeting point. Her white hair was braided back, silver-bright against her dark brown skin, and she wore the elaborate embroidered coat of a Saredi ancestor, the antelope sigils of Kentdessa repeated on the cuffs and across the back. She motioned for him to come to her. “Come here, Kai. What does the captain want?”
Kai scooted over, his tails making it a much more elegant motion than it would have been in his human body. “The Witches have questions.”
Disgruntled, Mother gestured. “We all have questions.” She added impatiently, “We still haven’t been able to see these creatures closely. They have protections against us. That hasn’t changed from the last time the mortals asked.”
Kai knew all the Houses under treaty with the Saredi had been searching for clues to the origin of the Hierarchs. Grandmother and the captains thought it might be possible to attack their homeland or supply chain through the underearth, the way the demons had attacked the grassplains in Grandmother’s youth. But searching the upper earth from the underearth was about as easy as searching the sky or the ocean. Grandmother’s expression was dry as she said, “If you were as all-knowing as you think you are, this would be over by now.” She told Kai, “Tell them to ask what they will, little one.”
Kai’s perception of the mortal world was dim and fuzzy now, narrowed to nothing but the darkness behind his eyelids. He made Enna’s body say, “She’s here. Ask.”
Captain Kentdessa’s voice came to him as if he was at the bottom of a canyon. Kai repeated, “The wooden towers inside the Hierarch camp. The Witches say they may be structures for a kind of long-distance weapon.”
Grandmother frowned. “I thought the borderlanders said they were siege engines.”
Kai had Enna’s body repeat her words, the lips of his original body moving silently as he spoke aloud for Captain Kentdessa and the Witch. Kai translated their answer, “The remains found in the destroyed Erathi cities did look like siege engines, but the Hierarchs have also built them in this camp, where the only walls are their own.” He heard wind in the distance, rising over the plain. Enna’s body didn’t smell rain, so it probably wouldn’t affect the attack plan.
Mother looked bored. The structures of the underearth were constantly moving and malleable; she probably didn’t understand what they were asking. “What does it—”
Grandmother held up a hand, her brow furrowed in consternation. “But there were patterns of destruction that looked as if they radiated out from those towers. I was told they were supports for battering rams.”
“That was wrong,” Kai repeated. “They think now . . .” The voices cut off and he shook his head a little. “I’m sorry, Grandmother. They stopped talking.” The wind had risen to a howl. Maybe it would be a storm. “The wind came up—”
Kai slammed back into the mortal world so hard it turned his vision black and Enna’s body fell into the dirt. He shoved himself up, got his eyes open, and saw something terrible.
The howl wasn’t the wind, he wasn’t hearing it with his ears. It was a pressure, something that staggered every mortal in the fort. Bodies sprawled in the grass. The Witch had turned away, their hands lifted, an invisible force ripping at their veils. Beside Kai, Dae rocked back and forth, hands clapped to her ears. That pressure was inside Kai, pressing the air from his lungs, tearing the strength from his limbs, filling his body like water, like it would burst him like an overfull barrel.
Captain Kentdessa grabbed his collar and dragged him to the path, dirt and grass catching in his clothes. She shoved him away and tossed Dae-Fera on top of him, and then death rolled over the hills.
Kai came back to himself choking on blood. He shoved himself up to his hands and knees, and spat out a red mouthful. He was on the path below the hilltop fort, in the shelter of the stunted trees. Dimly, as if there was something wrong with his ears, he heard screams, moans. Dae huddled in the roots of a tree next to him. He grabbed her shoulder and she fell, her small limp body uncoiling. “Dae! Dae.” He shook her and her head lolled back and he saw her eyes. Brown, mortal eyes. Dae was gone, Fera’s body was empty. Reflexively he tried to touch the underearth to find her, to make sure she had gone back to her original body. There was nothing.
It was like groping for something with a phantom limb. An empty hollow, like when he stood in running water. There was no connection to the underearth. Just a dead cold nothingness.
The mortal world had never felt this unreal and this raw. The air was heavier, Kai’s skin too sensitive. He staggered to his feet and struggled back upward, toward the hilltop. The others would be hurt; he had to help them, he had to find the captain and tell her Dae-Fera was gone, that something was terribly wrong. But when he climbed the path there was no sound of groaning or outcries.
He reached the top and saw nothing but tumbled bodies. No movement, no gasp of breath. The Saredi, the borderlanders, the Witches in their tangled veils, all lay as limp as discarded heaps of clothing. The faces he could see were stained with blood. Their eyes had bled, their ears, noses, mouths. Like something had gotten inside their veins and forced the blood out.
He realized his boot was against something solid and looked down. It was Captain Kentdessa.
She sprawled at the top of the path, facedown in the dry grass and pebbles. She must have turned back after pushing Kai and Dae down the hill, gone back to try to get someone else. He dropped down beside her and rolled her over. Her eyes were as blank as Dae’s, her nose and mouth filled with blood.
Kai didn’t know how long he sat there, looking at her. Then footsteps pounded up the path. He managed to lift his head and saw Tahsia, a Kentdessa sub-captain. She said, “Kai-Enna, get down to the camp,” and climbed past him up the slope.
Sick and cold, Kai pushed to his feet. He stumbled down the path. When he reached the bottom, familiar bodies sprawled in the dirt outside the tent where they had constructed the map. He crouched to feel for breath on the mortals, to look at the demons’ eyes. They were all gone.
He found his way through the trees from one clearing to the next, where the Kentdessa had pitched their round tent-shelters and lean-tos. There were bodies everywhere, mortals huddled in unmoving heaps. Horses in the pickets had fallen where they stood, birds had dropped dead from the sky. He spotted other moving people, running frantically. He tried to look for his cousins, for his aunts and uncles, but there was nothing but death. He could still hear yelling, screaming, but when he followed it, everyone was dead.
He reached the clearing where Captain Kentdessa’s tent stood. It was on fire; someone must have knocked over a brazier when they fell. The smell of smoke and sudden death choked him.
He sank to the ground near the burning tent. His connection to the underearth was still silent, cold, severed.
He sat there until Tahsia and two fighters with Raneldi sigils came from the direction of the hill fort. Arn-Nefa staggered after them, blood dripping from her ears. It should have been a relief to see that not everyone he knew was dead, but he couldn’t feel anything right now. Kai watched Tahsia and the others stride by, but Arn-Nefa grabbed his arm. She dragged him to his feet and shook him like a rattle. “Kai-Enna, are you still here?”
Being touched made his skin crawl. He jerked his arm free, snarling, “Get off me.”
“Kai-Enna!” she snapped. “Find a horse and ride to the landing. Tell the Erathi boats to flee. The mortals they sent to stand with us are dead, the rest will be slaughtered if they wait. Here.” A Raneldi demon he didn’t know ran toward them and stumbled to a halt, holding out the black and green Erathi totem. Arn-Nefa snatched it and shoved it at Kai. “Give them this.”
He took it automatically. Arn-Nefa said, “Now go! Then follow us to the last meeting point.”
Kai stumbled away from her. He searched until he found a horse either too stunned to dislike his scent or just so grateful to be led away from all the death that it didn’t resist him, and rode away from the ruin of the camp.
He reached the cove in time to warn the Erathi ships. On the way he ran into a lost band of Hierarch legionaries, and proved to himself that even without the underearth, he could still drain the life from mortals. But when he got to the meeting point, only a few demons were there among the mortal fighters, and Arn-Nefa and the Raneldi demon who had been with her never appeared. Tahsia was the highest in rank and so, with her leading, they rode on through the plains back to the main camp.
When they arrived, the Saredi clan tents were already burning.
Excerpted from Witch King, copyright © 2023 by Martha Wells