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Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world in the start of Django Wexler's new epic fantasy trilogy.
Twelve Years Later
It was hot, and Maya was watching an empty house.
She sat on a rickety chair, staring out a second-story window through the gap between two stained, threadbare curtains. It gave her a perfect view of the alley below, which contained nothing more obviously interesting than a midden aswarm with flies, and a mangy old dog, huddled miserably in the shrinking shadow of the building to try to keep out of the sun.
There was also the front door of a single-story shack that, as best as Maya and her mentor had been able to determine, was the lair of a monster.
Watching this was Maya’s assignment, which was all well and good, except that she was convinced the monster wasn’t actually home. There had been no movement through the one visible window of the little shack. No movement in the alley, either, aside from the drone of the flies, the panting of the dog, and the heat haze dancing above the baked-mud road.
The city of Bastion seemed designed for misery. It was surrounded by a Chosen relic, a rectangular unmetal wall stretching nearly a kilometer on its long sides and thirty meters high. The human city was jammed inside, like a wasp’s nest daubed between joists in an attic, the taller buildings around the edges leaning against the indestructible unmetal for support. All well and good for defending the city against bandits or plaguespawn, but it made for a tangled rat’s warren of streets, and the wall kept the air fetid and stagnant. The whole place smelled like a cesspool.
Her vantage point was a second-story room in the sort of flophouse that rented by the hour. At the moment, the room was only slightly more interesting than the alley. There was a bed whose stained sheets Maya had flatly refused to touch under any circumstances, a chamber pot, two rickety chairs that had been smashed and repaired so often they were more nail than wood, and a thirteen-year-old boy lying on his back and tossing baked nuts into the air to try to catch them in his mouth, surrounded by the evidence of his repeated failure at this task.
Maya glared at the boy, whose name was Marn. Against all appearances, he was also an agathios, another student of her mentor, Jaedia, and bearer of the same gift Maya wielded: deiat, the power of creation, the Chosen’s desperate legacy to humanity.
I refuse to believe the Chosen had Marn in mind, though. They would have taken one look at him and said, “Well, that’s it. Might as well close up shop and let the plaguespawn eat everyone.”
A nut caromed off Marn’s nose. Sensing her stare, he tipped his head back and looked at her upside down.
“What?” he said.
“You’re supposed to be studying chapter fifteen of the Inheritance,” Maya said.
“And you’re supposed to be watching the street, not paying attention to me,” Marn said, with thirteen-year-old sophistry. “So if you’ve noticed I’m not studying, then by definition—”
“Shut up.” Maya glanced guiltily back at the alley, but nothing had changed. The old dog rolled on his back, panting. “Hollis probably isn’t even there.”
“Jaedia thinks he is. Why else would she go to the Auxies for backup?”
“I don’t know why she bothers with the Auxies in the first place,” Maya grumbled. The local authorities were usually worse than useless. “Whatever’s in there, we can handle it.”
“If I had a haken, I could help,” Marn said, fumbling for another nut.
“If you had a haken, you’d blow your own head off.”
That was about the level of discourse she and Marn achieved, most days. Jaedia told her to forgive Marn for being thirteen, but Maya had been thirteen only four years ago and she was reasonably certain she’d never been that stupid. Or stubborn. She turned back to the window with a sigh.
If Hollis is there, he’s staying out of sight. The dhakim known as Hollis Plaguetouch had eluded the Order this long. Maybe he’s already cut and run. In which case…
Maya froze. Shadows moved on the wall of the alley. A moment later, three people came into view, walking single file. Two were large men, in the sleeveless white shirts and canvas trousers of common laborers. One was shaved bald, and the other wore his dark blue hair in a long queue. Between them walked a young woman in a colorful dress, long golden hair unbound. There was something off about the way she moved, but Maya didn’t catch it until she’d walked directly under the window. Oh, plaguefire.
“Ow!” Marn rolled over. “Plague it, you made me drop that one in my eye!”
“They’re taking someone to the house!”
“Who is?” Marn got up and shuffled over to the window. The two men had reached the end of the street, one of them standing with the girl while the other unlocked the door.
“You think they’re with Hollis?” Marn whispered.
“The men are,” Maya said. “The girl’s a prisoner.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s gagged and her wrists are tied behind her back.”
Marn looked over at her nervously. “So—”
“Shut up and let me think.”
The door in the alley opened, and the trio went inside, one of the men pushing the girl along by the arm. She looks terrified.
Maya’s hand came up, unconsciously, and touched the Thing. It was a bad habit, calling attention to something that was supposed to stay secret, but she’d never been able to break it. The little piece of arcana, like a rounded crystal surrounded by a ring of smaller faceted stones, was embedded in Maya’s flesh just above her breastbone. It had saved her life as a girl, banishing the coughs and fevers that had nearly killed her, and ever since, she found herself tapping it when she was anxious, as though to make sure it was still there.
Jaedia won’t be back for another hour, at least. Her mentor had assigned her to watch for Hollis trying to leave, not people arriving. And she’d made it very clear that Maya wasn’t to do anything more than observe. But she didn’t consider them bringing in a prisoner, did she? Maya didn’t want to think about what might happen to a bound and gagged girl dragged into a nest of dhakim, but the images came all too readily to mind. Oh, fucking plaguefire.
Not much of a choice.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Marn, who’d been watching her expression.
“I’m not being stupid.” Maya checked her panoply belt, threaded under her shirt around her midsection. Her haken was concealed at the small of her back, instead of in its normal place at her hip, but she could still draw it quickly. “Chosen know what they’re going to do to her.”
“Jaedia said to stay here!”
“Jaedia wouldn’t stay here and let some poor girl have her skin torn off,” Maya retorted. “And neither will I.”
“But you’re not a centarch!”
Not yet. Maya gritted her teeth. “I’m still going in. You go and find Jaedia, tell her to get back here as soon as she can.”
“How am I supposed to find her?” Marn said. “All I know is she’s somewhere—”
“Fucking figure it out!” Maya snarled as she turned from the window and ran for the door.
The flies scattered into a buzzing cloud as Maya emerged, and the ancient mutt cringed against the wall. Bad as the heat had been in the room, it was worse out here, the air baked dry and stinking of rot. Maya hurried to the end of the alley and paused in front of the door to the shack. Every instinct told her to knock, but under the circumstances it felt ridiculous. Excuse me, Master Dhakim, but I couldn’t help but notice you kidnapped a girl?
She touched her haken with one hand, and the power of deiat opened inside her. Heat flashed across her body, like sparks landing on her flesh. The sensation passed in an instant, replaced by the steady pressure of waiting energy in her haken. Maya threaded a thin strand into her belt and felt the panoply field activate, throwing a very slight blue haze over her vision. Thus protected, she stepped forward and tried the door latch, her other hand brushing against the Thing for reassurance.
The door clicked open, swinging inward on rusty hinges to reveal the filthy interior of the shack. There was no furniture, just a cold hearth against one wall surrounded by a few pots and pokers. Dirt was smeared across the floorboards, as though muddy livestock had been driven through. A small window in the back wall looked out onto a brick-lined carriage yard, but there were no other doors, and no sign of the dhakim or their prisoner.
They must have a hiding place somewhere. Maya looked over her shoulder. No wonder we couldn’t spot anyone inside.
The door swung closed, and only dim light came in through the curtained windows. Maya opened her hand and tugged another tiny strand of deiat, conjuring a cool flame that danced blue-white across her fingers. In that harsh glow, she paced in a circle, searching for some sign of the residents. There were bootprints in the dirt, but they ran in every direction.
Where in the Chosen’s name did they go? Maya’s jaw clenched as she imagined the two thugs dragging the girl through some secret passage, only meters away. Come on, come on.
Something made the hairs on her arm stand up. She stopped pacing and paused until she felt it again—a chill draft, lovely in the stifling, dead air. Not from the windows, but from the floorboards. Underground. Maya stomped her boot, hard, and the sound was hollow. Got you.
With a terrific crunch of shattering wood, a ropy thing studded with yellowing spikes smashed up through the floorboards, spraying splinters in all directions. It lashed itself around Maya’s ankle, and before she could reach for her haken she was yanked downward. The floorboards gave way under inhuman strength, and she felt the panoply field flare as she fell, blunting her impact a moment later. Generating the shield pulled power from her, which she felt as a sudden chill, her heart abruptly hammering loud and fast in her ears.
She’d hit stone, about three meters down, light spilling from a broken circle of floorboards overhead. The tendril-thing was still gripping her ankle, and Maya snatched her haken from the small of her back. She drew on deiat, channeling it through the Elder device. The haken, shaped like the hilt of a sword, grew a blade, a meter-long bar of liquid fire that lit up the underground space and threw shifting, hard-edged shadows.
Every centarch manifested deiat differently—as lightning, ice, raw force, or subtle energies. For Maya, it had always been fire. Deiat was the fire of creation, the raw power of the universe. When Maya swung her haken at the gripping tentacle, water on the damp rocks spat and flashed into steam, and the fleshy appendage parted with no more resistance than a damp sheet of paper. The end wrapped around her ankle spasmed and went limp, and Maya shot to her feet.
By the haken’s light, she could see the rest of the tendril, and the creature it was attached to. It was a hulking, heavyset thing, the size of a very large dog or a small pony. There was no confusing it with any natural animal, though. Plaguespawn.
It walked on six legs, asymmetrical, one dragging and one extra-jointed. The thing had no skin, its grotesque musculature on full display, red-gray flesh twisting and pulsing as it moved. Bones protruded from its body, apparently at random, sharpened to yellow, hardened points. A skein of tangled guts hung loose beneath its belly, dripping vile fluids.
And yet the worst part was not what was alien about the creature, but what was familiar. Here and there, pieces of other animals were visible, incorporated whole in the fabric of the monster’s flesh. Half a dog’s snout, upside down, made up what passed for its jaw, with a dozen dangling, wriggling protrusions like the tails of rats. One of the legs ended in a five-fingered hand that looked disturbingly human. The tendril that Maya had severed was its tongue, a muscular rope at least four meters long, edged with canine teeth. A dozen eyes of various sizes stared at her from across the thing, all blinking in eerie unison.
Jaedia had once described plaguespawn as the product of a mad taxidermist, given the run of the contents of a butcher shop and a morgue. That was close, but Maya thought that no human mind, however mad, could have matched the awfulness of the real thing. And, despite all its deformities, the thing functioned. When it stepped forward, the play of muscles in its flanks was smooth and powerful. Its long tongue coiled under its half jaw, dripping black blood from the severed tip.
In the shadows behind it, Maya saw more of the creatures. They were smaller but no less horrific, each a unique amalgamation of rats and cats and dogs and whatever other flesh they’d been able to catch. Fangs, claws, and shattered, repurposed bones gleamed razor-sharp.
Maya straightened up, forcing a grin. Bravado was wasted on these monsters, of course, but…
“Well?” she said. “Are you coming or not?”
They came, the small ones first in a wave, with the larger creature lumbering in behind them. Maya gave ground, drawing power through her haken, and drew a half circle in the air with her off hand. A wall of flame blasted up from the stones, cutting in front of the plaguespawn with a crackle and a wash of heat.
Maya didn’t expect that alone to stop them. The first of the creatures came through only moments later, scorched and smoldering. Its claws scrabbled on the wet stone as it leapt for her, sideways jaws dripping slaver. But it was alone, the others being slower to dare the flames, and Maya was able to sidestep smoothly and pivot to cut the thing in half. Her haken blade went through muscle, bone, and sinew like a wire through cheese, and the separate parts of the thing splashed to the stone behind her, twitching spastically.
The next one appeared in a rush, a crest of hair on its back aflame, and Maya separated its head from its body with a sweeping downward cut. Two more emerged together, coming at her from opposite directions. She intercepted the one that looked more dangerous, smashing it to the ground in a smoking ruin, while the other scored against her hip with a pair of raking strikes. Its claws of splintered bone stopped a few centimeters from her skin, the panoply field flickering blue-white, and she felt the bone-numbing cold of a rapid drain of energy. A gesture with her free hand blasted the thing with a bolt of fire that tossed it backward, burning fiercely.
She had barely a flicker of warning as the long tongue of the largest creature lashed out again, this time for her throat. Maya ducked, swiping upward and missing, the tongue vanishing beyond the curtain of fire. She closed her fist, and the flames died, revealing the creature gathering itself for another strike. Maya didn’t give it the chance; she charged through the burning, shattered corpses and dodged when the tongue slashed again. Her haken licked out, a horizontal cut that severed one of the thing’s legs and sliced the hanging ropes of guts, spraying the ground with vile fluids. The plaguespawn staggered, eyes rolling wildly, and Maya delivered another blow to its head, slicing the dog’s muzzle in two. It retreated, wobbling like a drunk, and she sent a wash of fire boiling over it. Eyeballs exploded in the heat, and after a few moments the increasingly blackened plaguespawn collapsed, settling down to burn with an awful stench.
For a moment, nothing moved, and the only sound was the crackle of dying fires. Maya straightened up from her fighting crouch, haken still held in front of her. Her free hand touched the Thing, just for a moment, and she let out a long breath.
“I did it.”
Her heart was hammering in her chest, the adrenaline of the fight rapidly turning to euphoria. Not that she hadn’t fought plaguespawn before, of course. But never without Jaedia looking over my shoulder. She’d been telling her mentor for months now that she could handle things on her own. Maya felt a wide grin spread across her face.
“I fucking did it!”
Someone hit her very hard from behind.
She didn’t pass out, in the normal sense. The panoply belt was Chosen arcana like the haken, a tool that used deiat, albeit a far more specialized one. It drew power from the user to protect them, heedless of how much energy the user actually had to offer. This drain, rather than the actual impact, was what made her lose consciousness, and so when she awoke it was not to a pain in her skull but rather with the trembling, sore-muscle sensation of deiat exhaustion. After suffering that kind of abuse, her connection to her power would take hours before it could be used again.
Okay. Maya shook her head, trying to clear the lingering muzziness, and looked around. So where am I?
A single torch burned in a wall bracket, illuminating a circular brick room she guessed had once been a cistern. The open ends of pipes protruded from the walls at irregular intervals, some capped off, others broken and jagged. Maya herself was propped against one wall, her hands tied to a pipe above her head with rough hemp rope. Her ankles were bound as well, and a few brief tugs assured her that whoever had done the binding knew their business.
Her haken was nowhere in sight, though she could sense that it was still nearby. They hadn’t stripped her of her panoply belt, but without a connection to deiat it was just so much silvery fabric.
All in all, it doesn’t look great, does it?
On the other hand, she wasn’t dead. Not being dead always opens up possibilities.
She took a moment to berate herself for letting her excitement get the better of her, but only a moment. Maya tried standing up a little straighter, putting some slack into the rope at her wrists, and was craning her head back to see if this could give her any advantage when a door in the side of the cistern opened.
She knew the man who came in by sight, though they’d never met. Tall, pale-skinned, with a bald dome of a skull. He wore a leather coat with a high fur lining, too hot by far for this time of year, and there was no mistaking that bulbous nose and those bushy eyebrows.
“Hollis Plaguetouch,” she said, settling back down.
“They still call”—he paused for a fraction of a second, then tilted his head and continued in a slightly different intonation—“call me that, do they?”
“I am seizing you on the authority of the Twilight Order,” Maya said. “You stand accused of practicing dhaka. You will have an opportunity to present evidence in your defense.”
Hollis laughed, loud and sudden. Maya set her jaw, waiting stoically until he’d finished.
“You are a bold-bold little thing, aren’t you?” His voice was a rich baritone, but he had a strange nervous tic—not an ordinary stutter, but an odd pause that made him sound like a machine with a broken cog. Hollis stepped closer, bushy eyebrows rising as he studied her. “Shall I untie you and submit, then?”
“That would be a good start,” Maya said. “Though I can’t promise leniency.”
“What a pity-pity.” Hollis raised an eyebrow. “Let me offer a counterproposal. You tell me how the Order found me and how many of you they have looking.”
“And what?” Maya said. “You’ll let me live?”
“No, I’m afraid not-not. But I can promise you won’t be conscious as I tear your body into pieces for spare parts.”
“Tempting.” A drop of sweat rolled down Maya’s forehead.
“You will refuse, of course-course. Such a brave girl.” He rested two fingers on her cheek, and Maya fought the urge to lean away. “Fortunately, your cooperation is not necessary. I can change-change you until you want to tell me. Memory and desire are only matters of the flesh-flesh, after all.”
“That’s a bluff.” Maya swallowed hard. “You may be dhakim, but you’re not a ghoul.”
“Do not presume to tell me what-what I am.” Hollis’ fingers moved in a line down her chin, forcing her head up and tracing the hollow of her throat down to her collarbone. There was no crude lust in his touch, only a cold evaluation, a butcher turning a cut of meat and deciding how to carve the first steak. “You’ll find out soon-soon enough.”
Maya’s heart was slamming against her ribs, so hard she thought it might tear free. He can’t do it. He can’t. She could face the prospect of pain, even death, as inevitable risks of service to the Order. But what Hollis described—being turned into something else, something that was her but not—
Would I remember? Would I still be inside somewhere, the real me, screaming?
Peasants invoked the Chosen as though they were gods, begging them for favor and protection. The Twilight Order knew better. The Chosen, powerful as they had been, were gone, and there were no gods to answer. But at that moment Maya understood the impulse. Help me. Someone. Jaedia, Marn, anyone, just don’t let him do this.
The dhakim stopped, his finger in the center of her chest, resting against the Thing.
“Interesting.” A cold smile spread across his face. “Very inter-interesting.”
There was a long silence. Maya tried to think of something to say, some last defiance to spit in his face, but her throat seemed to have swollen shut.
“I think…” His hand fell to his side, and he stepped back. “I think it is not-not worth risking a disruption. Not now, when we have come so far.” The dhakim shrugged. “I will see you again, never-never fear. And perhaps we will have a more… thorough conversation.” He tilted his head, as though listening to something Maya couldn’t hear. “It appears that our time here is nearly up in any event. Until next time, sha’deia.”
Next time? Maya stared, uncomprehending, as Hollis spread his arms and smiled beatifically.
There was a crunch, like breaking bone. Hollis stood stock-still, but something moved behind his head, hidden in his high collar at first, then scaling the top of the dhakim’s bald skull. It was black, spiderlike, with four spindly legs, muscles exposed like a plaguespawn but bones that looked like dark iron. A long bundle of thin tendrils, their barbed tips dripping blood, rapidly retracted into its underside.
It gathered itself and leapt, reaching the wall of the chamber and hanging from it like an insect. After a moment’s pause, it scuttled upward into an open pipe, feet tink-tinking against the metal as it skittered away. At the same time, Hollis collapsed face-first to the wet stones. There was a large, ugly hole in the back of his neck, flesh peeled away as though something had torn its way out.
What the fuck is going on? None of it made any sense. Why would a plaguespawn hurt its master? Why would it flee? And what Hollis had said—
There was a new sound from outside the room, a whistling howl like a rising gale. Jaedia!
The door slammed open, and one of the thugs she’d seen outside stumbled through. It was the bald one, a short sword in one hand, bleeding heavily from a gash across his thigh. He backed up, lashing out with the weapon. It was intercepted by a line of swirling clouds, condensed into the blade of a haken. When they met, wind screamed a rising note, and the steel sword was sheared into two neat pieces. A moment later, a dozen blades of hardened air swept across the thug, and he exploded in a shower of bones and gore, blood splashing the wall of the cistern.
Jaedia Suddenstorm stepped into the chamber. She was tall and thin, lithe and flexible as a snake, with sparkling blue eyes and short, spiked hair the color of young leaves. The howl of the wind gradually died away as she lowered her haken, taking in the sight of Hollis’ motionless body.
“Maya,” she said, in her lilting southern accent. “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” Maya managed. Though I’m not sure why.
“Good.” Jaedia turned on her heel, eyes blazing. “Because I am going to skin you alive.”
After a few moments, Jaedia calmed herself and helped Maya down from the wall, though her expression still promised dire retribution.
“Honestly,” she said. “How could you be so stupid? I explicitly told you—”
“There was a girl,” Maya said, rubbing her wrists. “Two men brought her in here, bound and gagged. Did you see her?”
“Aye,” Jaedia said. “She’s scared to death, but she’ll be fine.” She held out Maya’s haken, and Maya took it gratefully. “What happened to you?”
“I got caught up fighting those plaguespawn, and one of those men got to me from behind,” Maya said, feeling blood heat her cheeks.
“A centarch of the Order, knocked down by a twopenny thug?” Jaedia glared. “You have to do better, Maya. When you get your cognomen, I’m not going to be here to pull you out of the fire.”
“I know.” Maya took a deep breath and blew it out. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t—”
“I understand.” Unexpectedly, Jaedia stepped forward and wrapped Maya in a hug, something she hadn’t done for years, not since Maya was old enough to be a proper agathios instead of merely a child in her care. Her voice was soft, and for a moment Maya thought there were tears in her eyes. “You have the heart of a proper centarch. I just need to knock a little more sense into your head.”
Maya said nothing and hugged her back. It felt like a long time before Jaedia finally pulled away, scratching her spiky green hair.
“What happened to Hollis?” she said, looking down at the dhakim. “You didn’t look like you were in a position to take him on.”
“I’m not sure,” Maya said. She shuddered at the memory of his exploratory touch, cold and clinical. “He… talked like he recognized me.”
“When he saw your face?”
Maya shook her head and told the story from the beginning. Jaedia’s frown deepened as she went on, then turned puzzled as Maya explained about the plaguespawn that had—attacked the dhakim? Escaped from him?
“I don’t know,” Jaedia said when Maya asked. “Never heard of anything like it, in all honesty. You’re sure it stopped when it found…”
She trailed off, gesturing at Maya’s chest. Maya nodded.
- "Ashes of the Sun is fantasy at its finest: deliciously inventive, brimming with ancient evils, fallen empires, mysterious technology, and devastating magic. Best of all, however, are its characters, each one crafted with deliberate care and developed in meaningful ways as their story unfolds."—Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld
- "Magic, mutants, and mayhem abound in Django Wexler's Ashes of the Sun, but there's also plenty of brain food to be had in this tale of a post-catastrophe world suffering under the yoke of unbending authoritarian rule. A fast-paced and highly entertaining ride through a compelling and original world"—Anthony Ryan, NYT bestselling author of Blood Song
- "Reminiscent of Final Fantasy, Masters of the Universe, and Moorcock's The Jewel in the Skull, ASHES OF THE SUN is a science-fantasy adventure brimming with everything that is weird and wonderful about a world where magic and technology have fused in the fires of a fallen civilization."—Jonathan French, author of The Grey Bastards
- "Ashes of the Sun shows that Wexler is a master of high fantasy. His plotting and this post-apocalyptic setting will warp your mind!"—S. M. Stirling, NYT bestselling author
- "Gorgeous writing, powerfully-drawn characters, and an exciting storyline!"—K.D. Edwards, Author of The Last Sun and The Hanged Man
- "Exciting. Immersive. Epic. A perfect page turner and a phenomenal start to a new series."—Peter Clines, author of The Fold and Ex-Heroes
- "This is a book whose characters and world will stay with you well after the last page. Do yourself a favor and read it. Now."—Douglas Hulick, author of Among Thieves and Sworn in Steel
- "Ashes of the Sun uses awesome worldbuilding and complex, diverse characters to fuse the aesthetics of Star Wars with the brainfeel of Fullmetal Alchemist. Ancient secrets! Queer ladies! Snark! I demand a TV adaptation ASAP!"—Foz Meadows
- "Ashes of the Sun is the best sort of fantasy. With fascinating characters, a richly realized world, and romances both steamy and adorable, Gyre and Maya are epic heroes you'll want to know."—Robyn Bennis, author of The Guns Above
- "Ashes of the Sun brings to life an ancient world of magic broken by war. It's a simmering post-apocalyptic fantasy that feels like the literary equivalent of a ticking time bomb. The book lights a fuse in its first few pages, slowly setting up stakes and a conflict big enough to break the bonds of love, loyalty, duty, and even family, all before the full burn of its last few chapters and the finale's thunderous explosion."—Evan Winter, author of The Rage of Dragons
- "Django Wexler writes with a range and breadth seldom seen in fantasy. He pushes the envelope of what the genre can do, and readers are lucky for it."—Myke Cole, author of The Sixteenth Watch
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 592 pages