I’ve had some questions about what I’m working on (what, three books in two years IS NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU??), so here’s a peek at the (still a tad rough) prologue to Forging the Mirror Darkly, the first book in my Worldbreaker Saga, which I’m on track to complete by the end of April.
After that, it’s off into the big, bad world to find it a home. Wish it luck!
Because ruin came so often from the sky, no on one in Saiduan watched the sea as the invaders came in on the morning tide. The dread dealers drove before them a swarm of seething, mindless vegetal flesh – a massive black surge of death that slithered up the coastline like ravenous snakes of acidic kelp, devouring all it touched.
Everything on the world called Raisa began and ended with the sky. Armies fell and cities burned under the light of the ascendant satellites that blazed across the heavens, flaring brighter than Raisa’s triad of moons. Families devoured their dead to satisfy the blazing, erratic satellite called Sina, the soul-stealer. Generals sacrificed children under the green light of Tira. And when Para was ascendant the blasted mountain peaks from which it drew its name became a place of pilgrimage, drawing hundreds of thousands of Para’s worshippers from across the world to prostrate themselves beneath Para’s blue essence.
In the billowing blue folds of the sky, the cracked face of vegetal flesh the invaders had summoned moved and multiplied as if Para’s sister Tira, the life-bender, were the dominant body, instead of four years into its descent. Those who used Tira’s influence to unmake and remake the stuff of life were brought to the Saiduanese beaches to destroy the horror that the invaders had wrought before it reached the city.
But Tira’s weak conjurers failed, and were devoured.
The city called Araduan was next.
And for a time, the Saiduan forgot about the sky.
Maralah secured Aaraduan’s inner and outer gates with shimmering skeins of air and soil summoned by a parajista. The parajista had far greater control of the air than she and her perpetually descendant star, and she seethed at her own impotence. She cursed the invaders for not coming ashore fifteen years earlier, when she was the most deadly power in Saiduan.
She marched into the hold to watch the burning of the archives. A half dozen sanisi assassins tossed ancient records of bamboo, human skin, carnivorous plant exoskeletons, finger bones, and the pounded carcasses of winged insects – most of them long since extinct – into the roaring hearth. On some other day, one not so mad, Maralah imagined the Patron of Saiduan himself sitting beside the hearth with one of the records, tracing the columns of text with his worn fingers as some sinajista conjured a flame for him to read by. But the Patron would never sit here again. The room itself would be eaten soon, and the sanisi along with it.
What records they could not save, they destroyed. Better than leaving it to the invaders, who would spill into the hold in an hour, maybe two, drawn to the archive room like dung beetles to fresh shit. How the invaders so intimately knew the layout of every hold on the Saiduan coast; how they were able to dismember their defenses with seething plant life that should not have existed while the heavenly body Tira was descendent, was still a mystery. All she could do was delay them in an effort to ensure the Patron and his broodguard outran the onslaught and found some safety further inland.
Like the other sanisi, Maralah dressed in a long black coat that touched the heels of her boots. She wore a knee-length padded tunic and long trousers. The hilt of her ensoulede blade stuck up through her coat. She kept two more blades at her hip. She was not beautiful, which was a blessing. Men and women alike had turned away from her face from the time she was small, with or without the veil Saiduan families wrapped their children in until they reached maturity. Those who did not see her did not anticipate her wrath. It had given her a great advantage. Now that she carried the ensouled blade of the sanisi, they had another reason to turn away. The blade marked her as one of Sina’s soul stealers. It still meant something, even in decline.
The youngest of the sanisi, Aahra, looked up from the stacks. His dark hands were smeared darker with soot. As a boy, it was she who put the sword in his hand, and taught him to channel their shared ascendant star to unmake the flesh of those around them. It was she who took responsibility for his fate now.
“We’re nearly done here,” Aahra said. “Let me die on the wall with the others. I beg you.” Maralah saw the fire reflected in his bright eyes. Oh, to be twenty again. And foolish.
“The ones at the wall will be dead in an hour,” Maralah said. “Killing a single biting tendril achieves nothing. You must burn out the weed’s nest. So keep burning.”
He dropped his gaze. “I spoke out of turn.”
“You did,” she said. At another time, she might have cut him for it, but the day was too short for punishment. She wearied of blood. Maralah watched him take up another stack of records.
The heat of the room became oppressive, and she turned away. In the corridor, she heard a great yawning sigh move through the hold. Maralah let her fingers tarry to one of her shorter blades and walked out into the long mirrored hall that faced the coast. She gazed across the jagged black city, still bundled in a husk of spring snow, to the harbor where the invaders anchored their fantastic bone and sinew boats. The boats blanketed the harbor – one hundred deep, one hundred across. The Saiduan Patron, the city’s civilians, and the most valuable documents from the archives had been evacuated the night before. Maralah had seen to that herself, and hand-picked the Patron’s broodguard. Everyone left in the city would die here to delay the invader so the Patron and remaining records survived. Without them, little hope remained of salvaging their people from this darkness.
She looked for the source of the sigh, but saw no evidence of it, and from this vantage, the sound of the slithering plant life devouring the walls was indistinguishable from the thrashing of the sea. In the strangling silence of the hold, she could almost pretend the end had already come.
She rested her hands on the warm railing. The holds this far north were ancient things, grown and manipulated by long-dead tirajistas, back when they had been called something else, something far more fearsome. Those sorcerers had since become priests, torturers and engineers, because their work still breathed and grew; it lasted. But something that was grown could be eaten, and the spongy carnivorous plants were doing a fine job of it below.
A dozen cities had fallen this way over the eight long months of summer, and all of Albaaric – Saiduan’s only commonwealth state, its farthest northern outpost.
Maralah heard the low, keening sigh again. She pulled at the collar of her coat. Some may have thought it was just the wind blowing through empty corridors, creeping through wounds in ancient living walls, stirring paper lanterns whose flame flies had long since died. But she knew better.
Maralah drew the short blade at her hip, pivoted left, and thrust into the deep shadow of the curtained balcony behind her. The blade met resistance. Slid through flesh.
A man hissed, and yanked his body from her blade.
“Tierna,” she said as he pulled out of the shadows, clutching at his bleeding side. She sheathed her blade. “You have gotten soft… and noisy.”
“I wanted to see how it ended,” he said. He took his bloody fingers from the wound. She watched as the bleeding tapered off, then ceased. The blood around the wound began to bubble and hiss as he repaired himself. She smelled burnt meat. If only he could replace his filthy, tattered clothing the same way. She wrinkled her nose. This close, he stank. Maralah expected the Patron would have killed Tierna long ago, if killing him was possible.
Tierna dressed in oiled leather and a padded brown dog hair coat. He carried no visible weapon. Tall and dark, his hair was shorn short, and he stooped awkwardly; wreckage from a wound she had inflicted on him, one he could not repair himself, not unless he persuaded another sanisi with her talents to assist him, and only when Sina was again ascendant. When the Patron stripped Tierna of his title, he became dead to the other sanisi; just another ghost in the hall. A pity she still felt compassion for him, after all this time… compassion tempered by a visceral understanding of how valuable he could be to her, and the Saiduan, now that he was no longer bound by the same warded obligations.
“Was she the one?” Maralah asked.
Tierna shifted his weight as another cold wind curled in through the windows, bringing with it the smell of the sea, and the tangy acrid stink of the plants. “No,” he said. “She died in the ruin of a tattered gate. Maybe all of those who can call on Oma to open the gates are dead, here. Maybe we’re too late.”
Maralah went back to the rail and watched the invaders disembark from their bloated boats. The men’s chitinous armored forms rippled up the beach. All men. She had yet to see a woman among them. They rode no dogs, brought with them no pack animals or siege engines, only the burbling plants and fungi and red algae tides, and those they tugged with them from coast to coast, like fish dragged along in great nets.
As she watched, a bit of the sky tore, like something from a fantastic nightmare. She had a glimpse of some… other place where the sky was a murky orange, as if on fire. A rippling shadow crossed the sky there; a black mass that made her skin crawl and her breath catch. The sky shimmered again, and the seams between her world and… the other closed. She let out her breath.
They had started seeing those mad tears in the sky four years before, in the far, far north. She had not believed the sightings at first; thought it was just some drunk rural simpleton enchanted by especially brilliant northern lights. But no. Oma, the dark star, was creeping back around toward the world, and chaos was coming with it. The doors were opening, far sooner than anyone anticipated, and she had no way to stop them.
A belt of sanisi stood along the parapets of the hold, waiting for the invaders to come within range. Eight hundred more sanisi and thirty thousand warriors waited inside the walls. The walls themselves were beginning to heave and shimmer as they deployed their own natural defenses against the invaders.
“I want you out of this city in a quarter of an hour,” she said. “There is a worldbreaker among the Dhai who can channel Oma. There always is. You don’t have that many Dhai to pick through, these days. We only need one.”
“They’re a bunch of petty pacifists and maggot eaters and cannibals. And weak, besides. You did not see how easily that girl died.”
“You were a girl once. Take pity.”
“That was a long time ago,” Tierna said. “Let them take that maggoty country, and the worldbreakers with it, for all I care.”
Now he was just baiting her. She faced him. He shrugged, knowing he was caught out. They had danced together too long. She knew his real intent.
“I did not agree to murder children,” Tierna said.
Maralah gestured to the coast. “You think they care about murdering children? They have murdered mine, and a good many others. How long until the Saiduan are a myth, like the talamynii before us? Like the empire of Dhai two thousand years ago, before they became slaves and refugees? I won’t lose this world.”
“I cannot see all futures,” he said. “Nor can you. We make wild guesses. Nothing is certain.”
“No,” she said.
“Is the city really fallen?” he asked. Softly, now, but not contrite. Never contrite.
She’d fought the invaders on every coast. When she sought out her father’s house in Albaaric, after the fighting, she found only a weeping ruin and the slimy remnants of red algae smearing the walls at knee height, where the highest tide had reached. She had not spoken to her father or sisters in twenty years, but she went to the house in search of living kin – an aunt, a cousin, a nephew – despite the silence. She found nothing but the taste of smoke. They never left the bodies, these invaders. What they did with them… Maralah did not want to guess.
“The city is done, Tierna,” Maralah said. “Now you must decide if you’ll stay and perish with it, or do something to stop it. If I have to murder a hundred thousand children to stop these things, I will. It’s time to make your choice.”
Maralah watched the water. In an hour, the tide would go out, pulling the boats well over two miles from this shore. The boats would recede and resupply and come back with more men and more seething plant-based weapons.
“May your roads run long,” Tierna said, neatly sidestepping her.
“And yours,” Maralah said. “Don’t come back without a worldbreaker.”
Tierna pulled away from the window and turned lightly. “They’ve reached the walls,” he said.
Maralah looked. They had. Brown, slithering plant flesh swarmed the shimmering blue walls, even as the structure spat and hissed at them. The sanisi standing at the top of the walls raised their hands to call on the ascendant Para, Lord of Air, for protection.
When she looked back, Tierna had gone.
Maralah drew her blooded blade. The room cooled, and she watched blood seep from the blade, gather at its end, and fall to the stones. The blade sang to her, the voices of hungry ghosts, all Saiduan, all collected fifteen years ago when Sina was at its height. The invaders did not have ghosts. They did not have souls. A pity, that. Instead, she would defend another city with the souls of her own dead, knowing it would not be enough.
Without Sina’s full power, she had only her hungry blade, her training, and some cunning. She had lived a good life. She had outlived her children. She did not wish to outlive her Patron.
Maralah swept her blade over her head and slammed it into the living flesh of the hold. Her blade keened. The hold wailed. Thick, viscous green fluid gushed across her forearms, her boots. Her blade licked greedily at the soul of the hold.
She prayed to Sina it would be enough to survive to see the triple-dawn.