“Outstanding...one of the most uniquely layered and complex universes since Frank Herbert's Dune.”
Kholster, who only recently became the god of death, must work together with other new deities to bring balance to the heavens and stop Uled. Can he prevent Uled's undead army from ravaging the world in time to save Rae'en and those he still loves in the mortal realm?
Child tucked firmly against his chest, Striappa ran, his sharp black talons gouging furrows in the tile floor. Chaos erupted about them in a tortured reflection of the battles raging in the Guild Cities, outside the walls of the Long Speaker’s tower. The manitou’s fur-covered ears rang with the clamorous din within and without, raised voices combining to form another voice, a meaningless babble of aggression and fear . . . the dying, the injured, and the aggressors all becoming one cry. Music, he imagined, to the war god’s ears.
Clutching Caius Vindalius, the winged little son of the crystal-twisted young woman Kholster had entrusted to the Long Speakers’ care, even more tightly to his feathered and furred chest, Striappa shivered both at the tickling touch of the babe’s tiny hands on that warm band of thick fur where breast feathers met belly feathers and at the recalled sharing of his grandmatron. His surroundings, the sound of them, drew out remembered tales of the great wars before most manitou left the lands of the shape-locked and founded the Gathering Isles, far off to the west in the grand expanses of the Cerrullic Ocean, away from the violence of those melded sounds.
Noona shared the vibrations of this third voice, taught the clutches of her family and those who nested with them to recognize it, and, when they heard it, to migrate home. “The voice of war is one the manitou no longer wish to hear,” she’d told Striappa and his siblings as they’d curled near the fire pit, snatching at the flames with their claws to harden them and to learn the strength of the fire, how to resist it, how to let it move through them, how to feel the way it changed and flowed and perhaps apply that to their shapeshifting, if they could.
“But fighting is glorious, right, Noona?” Striappa had asked.
Noona’s face had morphed from the friendly beaked and feathered visage that had spat scrumptiously softened foods into his maw when he had been too young to hunt for himself to a spiny face of leathery skin, a mouth of sharp fangs. Great curling horns had erupted from her
brow, as tusks had sprouted from her morphing muzzle. The bands of alternating fur and feathers of her body had flattened into bony plates of armor, jutting spikes rising up from the ones she chose. Talons had become claws and seized him, forcing him down, head close to the flames. Solid black eyes like those of a shark had glared at him from a face no longer warm or comforting, making him ill inside.
“Am I glorious or terrifying?” Noona had growled, in the harsh tones of a non-avian throat.
“Both,” he’d answered squawkily.
“Yes.” She’d smiled, still ghastly in her aspect. “Both is right, my little one.” Releasing him with a grunt, she had turned her back to the flames, leathery wings stretching out to take flight.
“Where are you going, Noona?” Clohi, one of Striappa’s sisters had asked, but Striappa had known, even before Noona had spoken the words.
“To hunt, my lovelies.” The barb at the end of her long tail caught the light as she flew. “All change has its price, and most amount to blood in the end. I’ll be back soon.”
“Run, Striappa,” a grizzled voice snapped in his ears, “or fly or whatever it is you manitou do the quickest.”
“I am running, Master Sedric,” the manitou squawked back at the hazy smoke-formed image of the Elder Long Speaker. Sedric might know everything there was to know about Long Speaking—Striappa certainly could not send his mind out across hundreds of miles as a being of smoke—but he knew more about shapeshifting than Sedric ever would, and it was hard to move quickly and change at the same time. Sedric was right, though; if Striappa was going to get Caius to safety, he knew he was going to need his wing-arms free at some point, so he was trying to create a belly pouch to hold him. “Pouches are hard.”
“You weren’t thinking about pouches, child.” Sedric’s smoky lips pursed. “You were brain-fogged by tales your Noona told you as a cub.”
“Hatchling,” Striappa corrected, before he could stop himself. He darted for the open doorway through which Sedric’s smoky sending had emerged, but Sedric waved him off toward the far stairway.
“Too much fighting that way; you’ll need to fly out of here.” Sedric groaned, then vanished, eyes ablaze with inner light, a ball of burning, crackling red manifesting at the center of his brow. He reappeared when Striappa paused halfway up the stairwell to get the pouch right. It had to be easier for girls, or surely they would never bother. Striappa kept losing the opening or making something more mouth-like, into which one would not want to place any infant one wanted to keep.
“Oh for Torgrimm’s sake, Streep. Why are you stopping now?”
Streep. Striappa’s hackles rose at the barb. Even a single-shaped human as enlightened as Master Sedric thought it was okay to drop in a nickname, despite how insulting that was to—
“I know exactly how insulting it is,” Sedric said with a sigh. “You keep stopping, and I can’t guide you much longer. The fighting at Castle-guard is getting worse, and Cassandra and I—”
“Then shut your changeless maw, ’dric, and let me finish!” Striappa growled, beak giving way to fang-filled muzzle. The anger, the desire to prove Sedric wrong, gave Striappa the extra bit of inner energy needed to complete the change, and he slid the quiet, almost contemplative, baby into his belly pouch. The weight took a brief adjustment to muscles and bones, so he wouldn’t be off balance when he flew or, Gromma and Xal-istan both forbid, if he needed to fight. He let the start of a barbed tail begin to sprout . . . just in case.
“Master Sedric,” Striappa began.
“Yes, yes.” Sedric waved away his comments with hands of wispy smoke. “We’re both sorry for insulting each other. Well, you regret insulting me in any case. Now move!”
At the top of the stair, the manitou looked out into the hallway. Near the top of the spire now, close to the Apex Chamber, there were supposed to be guards: at least one Far Flame and a Long Fist, plus a Master Long Speaker. Striappa was none of those things, just a Long Speaker, and a weak one by human standards, though quite strong when compared to the scant gifts most manitou Long Speakers possessed.
Two screams rang out, preceding a female Long Speaker in master’s robes, who poked her head down into the stairwell that opened up in the center of the chamber above.
“Striappa?” She ran down to meet him. Her face was wide and strong and well-fed. “I’m Arin. Master Sedric said I was to allow you access to the Overview.”
She held her hand out, calloused palm up so he could scent her if he wanted. Or was he meant to take it? He did, impressed by the strength of the muscles coiled beneath her skin. Exceptional for a human.
“What happened to the other guards?” Striappa asked, as he followed Arin up the stair and out into the Overview. From inside the walls of the vaulted chamber a thinly applied layer of mirror-smooth Aldite crystal allowed initiates of the Guild a panoramic view of the city below and granted them the option, if necessary, to focus and amplify their abilities . . . a secret the leaders of the surrounding cities had, in the opinion of the Long Speaker’s Guild Leadership, no need to know . . . and exactly the reason why no Long Speaker (or Far Flame, in particular) was allowed unaccompanied access to the Apex.
On a normal day, the top of the spire served as the point from which the strongest Long Speakers relayed messages from other Long Speaker schools and outposts, acting as hubs of information, collecting, recording, and relaying data as needed. A single door broke the seamless expanse, allowing access to a circular balcony where two more guards should have stood.
Striappa spotted the interior Far Flame and Long Fist guards, his neck feathers ruffling at the sight. They lay dead at the exterior doorway, each with a knitting needle poking out of their skulls. One still twitched, prompting Arin to kneel next to him with a gentle clucking of her tongue as she adjusted the angle of her knitting needle and stilled him forever.
“Poor things,” Arin explained, when she noticed his gaze lingering on the bodies. “I hope whomever is the god of death today is kind to them. They were loyal to the city rather than the Guild . . . and Master Sedric insisted there wasn’t time to argue the point with them.”
Striappa eyed her, still studying her scent, tail barb twitching. “Come. Come.” She straightened with a limberness better suited to a manitou her size than a human and gestured at the open exterior door. “Hurry along now.” Arin shooed him. “I can’t take my full attention
from the transmission flow, or I’ll miss something and risk a resend.” “Don’t resends happen all the time?” Striappa asked.
“Not when I’m on duty.” Arin’s eyes sparkled with pride and, perhaps, a trace of gentle madness. Or was that loyalty? It could be hard to tell with humans. “I have a perfect transmission record.”
“Ah.” A movement at Striappa’s belly drew his attention. Baby Caius peered over the pouch edge, looking at the dead men with inhuman blood-red eyes.
“Oh.” Arin beamed, eyes alight with delighted appraisal. “What I wouldn’t give to have an apprentice come to me with a look like that in his eyes.”
“You could take him,” Striappa offered. “You have a Matron Guard’s scent about you. You could—”
“He has no outward reach,” Arin told him. “He has gifts, but he’s thrifty with them, keeps them all directed inward. His body will be his weapon and his mind its architect. Reach out to him. Can you feel his thoughts?”
“No,” Striappa answered. “I thought it was because he was so soon out of the egg and my abilities are not very—”
“I can feel them.” The large woman reached out to the child and cooed at him, but the child’s eyes followed hers, ignoring the hand as if it were of no import. “But give him a few years and a little practice and to those of us with the Long Ways, it will be as if he doesn’t exist.” Her smile did not falter when she added, “We should kill him.”
“But Master Sedric told me—” Striappa bared his claws.
“Put your claws away, little manitou.” Arin laughed, too. “I’ll abide by Sedric’s will because I am so sworn. But you mind what I said. That one should have never been brought here. He’s a little sponge and they took him to the center of the Guild Cities where all manner of knowledge could slip into his mind and stick there. What seeds have been planted in that fertile brain amid all of this bloodshed, I shudder to think.”
At a loss for words, Striappa squawked a challenge at her, but Arin made no move to impede him. Fluffing up his feathers, the manitou walked out onto the scant balcony. The cities of Loom and Lumber were burning. Rioters streamed through Commerce, the central city. The standing guard of Warfare could be seen deploying throughout the conjoined Guild Cities, working in tandem with various members of the Long Speaker’s Guild. Bridgeward, the great Southern Gate stood closed,
its walls manned by Dwarves and the Aernese Token Hundred. Even if the Guild Cities fell, the Bridge would stand fast.
Mason, to the southwest, seemed quietest of the embattled metropoles, so Striappa flew in that direction. Once he was clear of the city, he could find a tree or a cave and sleep until dusk. He preferred traveling at night, particularly at the rising and setting of the suns, when he was more comfortable and his sight was better. He wasn’t alone in the sky. Bat-like Cavair swooped from place to place in the city, some assisting the guard, others taking part in the looting. Ignoring them as best he could, Striappa flapped toward the strong stone walls of Mason. As he drew closer, he could see the massive ever-open gates had been secured. Archers manned the arrow-slitted walls, taking shots at any who drew too near.
Turning circles in the sky, Striappa surveyed the flow. He didn’t like the look of those bowmen, and flying too high might endanger the baby. Humans did not do so well at high altitudes. Still . . . A few more revolutions took him higher and higher until he felt certain he was out of bowshot. It would have been stupid to die in the open having already escaped the Long Speaker’s tower and the violent divide that had, in the Guild Cities at least, spread even to those of the Long Talents. Initiate versus initiate in the absence of Master Sedric. How fared Sedric? he wondered. If Master Sedric and Mistress Cassandra fall at Castleguard, what will become of the—?
Bands of multicolored light filled the air, blinding him mere heartbeats ahead of the explosion. The mind lash accompanying it nearly took the thought out of him. Protected by his weakness in Long Speaking, Striappa felt the gift burn out (not for good, he hoped) and fade, rather than experiencing more drastic results. Striappa dropped a double handful of wing-lengths in the air, but flapped, beak bloody, back to a safer altitude soon thereafter, concentrating on the feel of the infant breathing in his pouch to ensure they did not travel high enough to cause him harm.
Striappa looked back long enough to watch the spire fall in a flicker of slow motion, fading in and out of sight as if—
No. There was no time to speculate.
Master Sedric had given him a mission: get the child out of the city. Get the child to safety. Await further instructions once the child was safe. And so he flew and tried not to think of the body he’d seen in the after-image, arms wide, amid the wreckage and the falling chaos, eyes closed in concentration as she kept the transmission river flowing on the swift trip down.
Burned out and abandoned, the farm looked safe enough to the young manitou. The dead—and there had been dead—lay cold in the ground, yet no rebuilding had begun, and the barn seemed vacant enough despite the smells clinging to it. Best of all, it was out of the rain. Water falling from the sky did not bother Striappa. A manitou of his clutch could easily shift from feathers to leather wings if flying lightly-boned, but the lightning disconcerted him. When his Long Skills were functioning he would have risked it, but the infant didn’t like flying through it all, and though the child did not cry, Striappa was mildly concerned about keeping the boy warm and dry.
So, once the water had risen too much for him to shelter under the small, well-built bridge he’d found (and he didn’t much like sheltering that low to the ground in any case), he’d circled back to perch in the loft of the barn.
Striappa had not meant to doze, but he had been tired and not entirely certain the bloody beak and the fading of his powers was not a sign of a head injury. He was surprised to hear little Caius’s burbling coo.
Pain came next, sharp and sudden, burning him through the back and lungs.
He slashed back reflexively, talons catching a dirty ragged shirt instead of finding purchase in the meat of Striappa’s killer. Shifting into a more land-friendly form hurt, but he had to defend Caius against—
“Name’s Hap,” spat the hard-looking human with murder in his eye. He wore a coat of plates, with a layer of rags sewn over the top to make it look less like armor. Angry hanging-scars at his throat burned red from recent exertion. Little Caius hung in a sling looped under the coat, but over Hap’s shoulders. In either hand, Hap held cruel-looking daggers. Both bore blood. “My boy’s name is Caius. Where’s his mother?”
“Hap?” Striappa squawked numbly.
“Happrenzaltik Konstantine Vindalius.” The man gave a slight nod.
“I have been your murderer this evening. Now where is Cadie? Slight little thing, three-colored hair. A crystal twist. Burned down that house fighting whoever killed my crew. She wouldn’t have left the child behind, and you’re here with the child. It doesn’t take a scholar to know one sun rises right after the other.”
“Murderer?” Shifting came too hard. Things which should have melded together ripped and tore.
“Shifting won’t do you any good now, you dumb squawker,” Hap snarled. “I cut you nice and proper cross your core muscles. What you’re doing will only make the wounds hurt worse and you die faster.”
“Why?” Striappa managed, as the world began to blink in and out of focus, field of vision narrowing.
“I was hoping you could tell me where the boy’s mother is. Cadence Vindalius.” Everything went dark, and Striappa felt himself drop to the dirty straw. “And barring that, a man has to eat.”
Striappa gasped as the pain vanished and he found himself back in the family nest he had missed since the great storm had wiped it away when he was little and they’d had to rebuild. When he’d been a hatchling, there had been no warsuit-clad Aern standing in it. Removing a helm that bore the likeness of a horned lion’s skull, the Aern looked down on him with a stern face, made less frightening by eyes with black sclera and jade-rimmed amber-colored pupils, which, though unusual, possessed and conveyed a sad understanding.
“You’re an idiot, but you’re a well-meaning one, and you died in the keeping of an oath, so I have no particular disdain for you.” Kholster, the new god of death, ran a hand over his red hair, his forearm bending his wolf-like ears down each time he did so. “Do you want to go back and try things again, or do you want to be judged by the Bone Queen?”
“I’m dead,” Striappa said, more awe in his voice than fear.
“Yes.” Kholster bared his teeth, showing off his upper and lower doubled canines in a sarcastic grin. “And you aren’t the only one who will be dying tonight. If it helps at all, you seem a nice enough soul to me. Minapsis will not likely find you wanting.”
“What will happen to the baby?” Striappa asked.
“I don’t know, and you never will.” Kholster’s tone sang to Striappa of barely constrained impatience.
“Is something wrong, sir?” Striappa asked. “You seem to have greens down your gob about something, if I’m using that phrase correctly.”
“Yes.” Kholster held out his hand. “There are a great number of things going wrong right now. Come along. I fear one of me will be required in some tunnels very soon now, and if I’m needed I would like to go myself.”
“You were mortal until recently, weren’t you?” Striappa obediently took the god’s hand. It felt like he had taken the hand of a statue that had decided not to crush all of the bones, but only just.
“The people who might need you, in the tunnels, were they friends of yours?”
“One was,” Kholster said, as the world went all to stars and Striappa felt himself begin to flow from one place to another. “The others are friends of my daughter.”
Worldshaker will be available in stores on February 21.