By Sam Sykes
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The great demon Khoth-Kapira has broken free of his prison and taken his first step upon the mortal world. And he owes it all to Lenk. Believing that the demon will heal a broken world that the gods have abandoned, Lenk serves as reluctant champion to Khoth-Kapira’s cause. But as the desperate and fearful flock to Khoth-Kapira’s banner, begging for salvation, Lenk begins to doubt his patron’s great designs.
The city of Cier’Djaal, meanwhile, has become the field for the last great battle of mortals. And as humans, shicts and tulwar prepare to tear each other apart, none are aware of the ancient horror that marches upon their tiny wars.
At the tip of a spear or beneath the heel of demons, the reign of mortals ends.
A SERMON OF STEEL
HIS GLORIOUS REIGN
The barest choke of a gasp whistling through a ragged hole.
Chains rattled, shook flakes of rust free to fall as red motes in the rising light of dawn.
Her jugular shifted beneath the emaciated stretch of her flesh, laboring to push another breath out through the jagged tear in her throat.
And a drop of blood oozed out.
It traveled downward, staining a red path across the length of her jaw. It slid affectionately across her cheek, past her temple, and down a strand of tangled hair. The thick red droplet hung there for a moment before falling upon the scale-and-feathers of one of the two great wings that hung limp from her back. It hung from the tip of emerald plumage, quivering, as though reluctant to leave her.
But, like all the others, it finally fell.
And, like all the others, Lenk watched it disappear into the pristine blue waters over which she hung. And when he could no longer see it, he looked up into her face.
If she was in pain, the emotionless silver mask that was her face did not betray it. If she could beg for reprieve, the choked noises she made did not sound like it. And if there was anything he could have done to stop her agony, he could not think of it.
Or perhaps he wasn’t trying hard enough.
In the days since it had all happened—since he had been betrayed by Kataria, since had betrayed Shuro, since he had released hell upon the earth—he had often come to this spot. For a dead city, Rhuul Khaas had become noisy of late, and the reservoir at its eastern edge was one of the few places that was still relatively quiet.
One would have thought that, by now, he would have known more about the poor creature that hung over it.
Her name was Kyrael. She was an Aeon. Once, both those names had meant something. They were the names of a trusted adviser, a friend, a lover. They were the names of a herald of the gods, sent to shepherd men and watch over the earth. They were the names of one who had betrayed heaven and duty and been betrayed by the same.
But to Lenk, she still looked like a corpse.
She was tall and slender, even chained upside down as she was, and the elegant musculature of her naked body was still apparent, if withered. She hung with long arms and long wings drooping down over the reservoir. And even the way the chains wrapped about her ankles, holding her over the great pool of water from four cardinal pillars, was almost dainty, like jewelry rather than shackles. And her face—that pristine polish of silver carved in unfeeling, tranquil expression—was still unmarred by time and strife.
She was probably beautiful before Mocca had torn her throat out.
Punishment, Lenk had been told, for her betrayal. In the last days before Mocca had been cast down by the armies of heaven and thrown into hell, she had done him a final kindness by leading his worshippers away that they need not be caught in the battle that would see him thrown down. And, denied the masses that had adulated him, Mocca had responded by condemning the immortal Aeon to forever bleed into the waters.
He’d had another name back then. Mocca might have forgiven her. But Khoth-Kapira, the God-King, did not suffer betrayal.
She had loved him, Lenk had been told. She would have done anything for him. She had given up the bliss of heaven and the love of the gods for him.
And he had still done this to her.
Perhaps Lenk just came here every day only to remind himself of the fate of those who stood at Khoth-Kapira’s side.
And yet, in all the days he had watched her blood feed the waters, he had yet to leave. He was still here, watching another cold dawn rise over the dead city. She was still here, bleeding out as she had done for centuries now.
And they had no idea how to help each other.
Kyrael, the perpetually bleeding angel from beyond the stars, was the closest thing to a kindred spirit he had.
And that probably said something about him.
Too damn late to do anything about that now, though, he thought with a sniff.
A sudden tang of acidic reek hit his nostrils. And above the rushing waters of the reservoir, he heard the sound of heavy feet dragging on stone. Behind him, a wet, guttural hiss boiled out of a mouth thick with saliva.
That had once alarmed him. Less so, these days. But as he turned to see his newfound company, he feared he would never get wholly comfortable around the creatures with whom he shared this city.
The man’s back was bent, weighed down by the mass of tumorous flesh growing out between his shoulder blades. His arms hung so low that they scraped the stone floor. One leg was limp and dragged behind him; the other was thicker than his arms and hauled the great mass forward.
His face was a mass of molten flesh. One eye had sealed shut; the other was wide and unblinking. His lips had split open to make way for a serpentine snout that burst out of his mouth. A long, slimy tongue flicked out between two jutting fangs.
Lenk cringed. The man did not seem to notice.
“The master commands you to—” the creature began in a thick, slavering voice, but caught himself. “The master requests your … your presence. Urgent. Come. You must come.”
Lenk sighed, knowing the statement to be a farce. Mocca hadn’t requested he come. God-Kings did not “request” anything.
“Come,” the man insisted again. “Come, come … you must—”
“I heard you the first time,” Lenk said.
He trudged to a nearby pillar. His sword was right where he left it: leaning against the stone, the dawn’s light glinting off its hilt and catching him right in the eye. Almost like it was staring at him expectantly.
Remember when you wanted to get rid of me? it seemed to ask. Remember when you were going to leave me behind and go off and live a peaceful life? Remember how you were going to settle down with a nice young lady and stop surrounding yourself with bloodshed?
Lenk glanced over his shoulder at the abominable creature staring at him. Then he looked back to the sword. And the sword looked back.
How’s that working out for you, champ?
“Shut up,” Lenk muttered. Ordinarily, talking to a sword might seem crazy. But given his circumstances, it didn’t feel quite so bad.
He hefted the scabbarded blade and buckled it over his shoulder. It settled with a familiar, comfortable weight that galled him. He did remember wanting to leave this weapon behind.
If only he could remember what it felt like to not have it on his back.
The abomination stalked away. Trying his best to ignore the sound of Kyrael forever choking on her own blood, Lenk followed.
The gray streets of Rhuul Khaas wound their way through rising buildings and sprawling courtyards. Towers and homes stared down at him through empty window eyes, their doors open in gaping yawns. Statues of learned robed men smiled upon him as he passed. Fountains long dried up sat beneath frescoes of weathered tiles depicting scenes of bustling markets and people bowed in worship.
Aside from a few marks of age here and there—loose stones and the occasional foundational crack—Rhuul Khaas was in remarkably good shape for a city dead for centuries.
Kyrael’s doing, Lenk knew. When the city had fallen to the mortal armies, she had evacuated the people to spare them the slaughter. The city had escaped the ravages of war. When Lenk had first arrived here, it had stood empty and silent, a massive tomb for only a handful of people.
Not so anymore.
A flicker of movement at the corner of his eye. He didn’t bother looking. He was never quick enough to see them.
But he could hear their throaty hisses slithering out from the mouths of alleys and empty doorways. He could feel their unblinking eyes peering at him from the shadows of windows and rooftops. On occasion, he could see a serpentine tail or flaccid limb being dragged around a corner, or the shadow of an emaciated, spindly body slip away.
Abominations? Horrors? Sins against heaven and mockeries of men?
Lenk had no idea what to call them. He could barely stand to look at them. Their own names, they had given up long ago, and any word he might have had for them seemed somehow insufficient to describe them.
Except the one leading him.
He had decided to call this one Jeff.
It just seemed polite.
“Wait,” Lenk said as he looked up at suddenly unfamiliar buildings. “This isn’t the way to his quarters.”
“Not quarters,” Jeff hissed. “Not today. The master is in the square. He has something you must see. He has something he must show. We must watch. We must know. We must …”
The creature’s voice trailed off into a witless burble that Lenk strove to shut out. He hated listening to these fiends, hated looking at them, hated being reminded what they were.
And what he had done to aid them.
Their path wound them through the city streets, up a long staircase and into the city’s upper levels. A stone walkway circled a great plaza. And what lay within it, surrounded by great statues of benevolent robed men, Lenk could not ignore so easily.
A wound in creation, a scar that could never heal, a hole that stretched below the streets of Rhuul Khaas, beneath the earth itself, and into some place much darker. It stretched across the plaza in a jagged scar, a gaping black hole around which the dawn could not touch.
Lenk could not look at it.
And Lenk could not look away from it.
Every time he looked upon it, his mind slipped away from him, back through the days to the fateful night he had stood before it. Back to the night when it had bled a red light and stained the black sky. Back to the night when he had looked into a woman’s eyes, as blue and deep and full of fear as his own, and made his choice.
His choice that had made Shuro try to kill him.
His choice that had summoned these abominations here.
His choice that had freed the beast trapped in that dark scar.
He turned away, hurrying to catch up with Jeff as the creature shambled across the walkway and between nearby buildings. But he could not outrun his thoughts.
Often, he wondered if Shuro had escaped, if she had made it out of Rhuul Khaas. Only rarely did he wonder if she hated him for his choice.
He already knew the answer to that.
But he could not think on this for long. For it wasn’t long before he couldn’t think over the noise.
A distant burble. A formless wail. A verbal poison that seeped past his clothing and into his skin, echoing in the deep sinew.
Voices. Hundreds of them. Straight ahead.
“Ah,” Jeff murmured as he led Lenk down another staircase. “They have come.”
They emerged out from between two buildings and into a great, sprawling square. The buildings here sat lower than in the streets, giving way to the towering stone statues of the same robed man with elegant features and a warm smile, arms extended out in benediction over those gathered below.
And they were many.
Hundreds. Maybe thousands. It was hard for Lenk to tell how many there were. They boiled together in a stew of deformed flesh and black cloth, each face running together, each body melding into one another.
Some had misshapen limbs: spindly, desiccated legs and arms hulking with bloated, tumorous tissue that erupted out their back in flesh mountains. Others had eyes that did not blink or move of their own volition, mouths with jaws that hung all the way to their knees, tongues that slid out between jutting fangs and coiled around their necks. And many more had scales, tails, black claws, and yellow eyes.
Men and women. Young and old. Large and small and hale and infirm and desperate and scared and writhing and squealing and wailing and screaming. Whatever they had been before, Lenk didn’t know. Whatever monsters they were now, Lenk finally had a name for.
Their eyes—mismatched, misshapen, many—were all turned in the same direction. Their limbs—hulking, withered, flaccid—all reached toward the same spot. Their voices …
Their voices …
“—it hurts. It hurts so much, master, please—”
“—I came so far, all for you, please help make it—”
“—look upon me, master, bless me, help me—”
Their voices were everywhere.
“Come,” Jeff gurgled, shambling forward. “Come with me. He wants you. He needs you to be here … he needs you to see …”
Lenk glanced over his shoulder, as if wondering if he could flee from this. But he knew he could not. This city was not his home. And one did not reject an invitation from its master.
And so, keenly aware of the sword on his back, he followed Jeff into the crowd.
He lost his guide within moments, the misshapen creature disappearing into the hundreds of other misshapen creatures as their fleshy throngs closed in around him. Yet for all the glistening flesh and molten deformities pressing in on him, there were deeper horrors.
“—master, please, master, help me—”
“—it hurts! Oh gods, what have I done, it hurts so—”
“—told me I was foolish, I was insane, they never listen, they NEVER—”
Their words clawed at his ears, at his flesh, burrowed into his sinew. Their every letter was racked with agony, with fear, with desperation. It hurt to listen to, hurt to be around, like their every word poisoned the air around him and made each breath like agony.
And in the space between each word, he could hear his thoughts.
You did this.
Between his ragged breaths, he knew.
You brought them here.
And when he shut his eyes, he heard it.
You let him out.
A single word, spoken softly. Yet it rang out over the square as clear as a note from a glass bell. And the reverent and their wailing fell silent at it.
And in a shuffling, awkward mass, they did. A great curtain of flesh parted, leaving a long wake of stone that stretched between Lenk and the center of the square where a dais rose.
Lenk wasted no time in hurrying down it, keeping his ears shut and his eyes down at the street. He only knew he had reached it when he saw the shadow stretching out upon the stones before him.
The shape of a stately robed man.
Whose beard writhed.
“Did my child find you all right?”
Lenk looked up and the first thing he noticed was Mocca’s smile.
Set beneath gentle eyes and framed in a face with elegant, dark-skinned features, it was a warm, fatherly smile. The kind that perfectly complemented the soft white robe that Mocca was garbed in and matched his thin arms outstretched in benediction. Still, Lenk thought it odd that he should notice that first.
As opposed to the beard of serpents coiling out of Mocca’s jaw.
“It’s not your child,” Lenk replied.
At this, the serpents hissed, offended on behalf of their host. Mocca merely smiled and shook his head.
“Do they offend you, my friend?” he asked.
Lenk stepped up onto the dais beside Mocca and turned and gazed over the assembly. And they, with their thousand terrified eyes, stared back. It wasn’t long before Lenk cringed and turned away.
“They’re monsters,” he said.
And they’re here because of you, he added.
“You lack respect.”
An ancient, rasping voice reached Lenk’s ears. A darker shadow loomed over him.
He looked up into eyes that were black, as though someone had scribbled over them with coal. An old man’s face, skin gray and fraught with wrinkles, scowled down at him from its position in an elongated head. Withered limbs ending in black claws stretched out as its old man’s body, flabby and emaciated all at once, leaned forward. In lieu of legs, a great serpent’s coil brought the demon closer to Lenk.
“It is the burden of the layperson,” the Disciple hissed, a long purple tongue flicking out of its withered mouth. “Come, let us show you what we have sacrificed.”
Mocca raised a hand. The demon froze, inclined its massive head, and settled back upon its coils. Lenk shuddered—it hadn’t been so long ago that he was killing demons like these, wiping their stain from the earth. Now he stood alongside them.
And their God-King.
“I suppose they are hideous to you, as they are to me,” Mocca said, looking over the crowd. “But then, I suppose you only see the flesh: the twisted muscle and jagged bone.”
“Do you not?” Lenk asked. “Can’t you hear them? They’re in pain.”
“They were in pain long before my Disciples changed them into what they are now,” Mocca said, gesturing to the demon. “The ugliness I see here is the fear and desperation that drove them to this. The ugliness is the city that cared not a bit for the mother whose children were killed in a thieves’ war, the people who would not lend a man a shovel that he might bury his father.” Mocca’s expression grew cold. “It’s the world, Lenk. It’s the fear and hatred and terror they were given that drove them here, to me.”
He spread his arms out wide over the crowd. And they raised a hooting, gibbering, wordless screech at his gesture.
“And it is I who shall cleanse it.”
Admittedly, Lenk didn’t intend to snort. It wasn’t a good idea to back-sass a man with snakes growing out of his face.
Yet it wasn’t rage that painted Mocca’s face when he turned to look at Lenk. Rather, it was a decidedly unamused frown.
“I’ve had centuries to rehearse this, Lenk,” Mocca said. “Don’t rob me of the drama.”
“You just make it sound so simple,” Lenk replied, shaking his head.
“Is it not?”
Lenk stared at him flatly for a moment. “Not a week ago, you crawled out of a hole to hell. I’m standing in the middle of a city that shouldn’t exist, surrounded by ungodly monsters who look at you like a god, hanging around a demon and, if that wasn’t fucked up enough, you’ve got snakes growing out of your face. There is no part of this that is fucking simple, Mocca.”
“Khoth-Kapira,” Mocca said, correcting him. “And do not forget why you are standing here, why you helped me out of that pit. You know as well as I do that this world is ill. Its plagues are wars and violence. You have seen them up close.”
Lenk could only nod weakly. So many weeks later, so many miles away, he could still remember it all: the battles between the Karnerians and Sainites that had driven him here, the brutality of the shicts and the tulwar in the tribelands that had harried him. Just thinking about them made the sword on his back feel heavier.
As if to remind him that this was not a world where it could be dropped so easily.
“Mortality is defined by its brevity, Lenk,” Mocca continued, folding his hands behind his back as he looked over the crowd. “By its very nature, it is in a headlong rush to end itself. The wars you have seen, the wars that will yet come, are but a symptom of a base plague that wracks this world.”
“You sound so certain,” Lenk said.
Mocca hesitated. “Should I not be? When I speak of a war of wars, a time of strife and of suffering so great and so vast as to boggle the minds of gods, do you truly believe such a thing could never come to pass?”
Lenk closed his eyes. His scars ached. His shoulders sagged with the weight of his sword and all the weight of the blood it had spilled.
“The people I will save here, Lenk, are nothing compared to the people I will save by preventing this cataclysm. So many will owe their lives to you, Lenk.” Mocca paused, glanced over his shoulder, and regarded Lenk out of the corner of his eye. “Or perhaps you would be satisfied with just one?”
All other pains in Lenk’s body fled at the sudden chill that swept through it. Mocca’s words sank into him deeper than the abominations’ ever could. And as they settled in Lenk’s flesh, he knew what Mocca spoke of.
She was still out there, somewhere. Somewhere in that wasteland, filled with its countless people and their countless bloodthirsts. Wherever she had disappeared to, Lenk did not know. But he knew she needed his help, as he needed her.
He needed her to live. And Mocca was the only thing in this world that could make that happen. That was why he had to be freed.
He told himself this.
He shifted his feet. The weight settled on his back.
The sword didn’t believe him.
Something touched his shoulder. Mocca squeezed his arm gently. With a hiss, his beard of serpents slid away, retreating back into his flesh. What was left was just a man with dark eyes and a gentle smile.
“We will save her, Lenk,” Mocca said. “Her and so many others. I have the power to help them, to prevent so much bloodshed. But I cannot do it without you.”
“A God-King shouldn’t need my help,” Lenk replied.
“Gods are nothing without faith.” Mocca shook his head. “And I am nothing if you do not believe in me.” He fixed his eyes intently on Lenk’s. “Do you?”
Dark eyes. A gentle smile. A neatly trimmed goatee and perfectly manicured fingernails.
Funny, Lenk thought. Look at him in the right light, he looks just like a man.
And in the golden rising dawn, Lenk could almost believe it. He could almost forget that there had just been a beard of vipers a moment ago where flesh was now. He could almost pretend he hadn’t seen this man crawl out of a pit so dark that light feared to tread there.
But this was not a man. And this was not Mocca. This was Khoth-Kapira, the God-King, cast down from heaven to earth and from earth to hell for sins ancient and countless. This was a demon. Foe of man. Enemy of the gods.
And yet …
Man was intent on killing himself and everything around him. And the gods did not answer their prayers.
And when gods were silent, demons spoke.
Lenk placed a hand on Mocca’s. He felt flesh. Warm and alive.
“I do,” Lenk said.
Mocca smiled, nodded. “Then let me show you.”
“Show me what?”
Mocca released him and turned back to the crowd. “How I will fix this.” He leveled a finger at the crowd. “You. Child. Step forward.”
Somehow, they knew to whom he spoke. The crowd of abominations shuffled aside with a murmur, revealing a misshapen creature. No more horrifying than the others, Lenk thought; this one had thin spindly legs, a long flaccid arm that dragged behind it, a mouth rimmed with fangs, and a single unblinking eye focused on Mocca as it shuffled forward.
A man? A woman? Lenk couldn’t tell. Not even when it approached the dais and sank to its knees before Mocca.
Mocca sighed, then laid a hand on the molten scars of its brows. He stroked its head, pity playing upon his features. The creature leaned into his touch, a pet deprived of attention.
“You poor soul,” Mocca whispered. He shut his eyes, breathing deeply. “I see them. Your family. I feel your hatred.” He shook his head. “But you mustn’t hate them, child. Their cruelty was driven by their fear. The same fear that drove you to the embrace of my Disciples.” He ran his fingers down to the creature’s gaping jaws. “Alas, they are but pupils. Their methods are … inelegant.”
The abomination loosed a sound halfway between a groan and a whimper. Mocca simply smiled and took its face in both his hands.
“In such a short life, you have felt so much pain. I can ease it.” Mocca tilted his face toward the sky. “If only you accept … just a little more.”
A single breath. His eyes snapped open. And the light of the dawn paled before the golden light that burst from Mocca’s stare.
That same light poured out of his fingertips and into the creature. It let out a squeal, struggling to escape Mocca’s grasp. But his fingers sank deeper into its flesh, white smoke sizzling off his knuckles as the golden light seeped out of his digits and into the creature’s flesh. A dark voice from a deep pit tore free from Mocca’s mouth.
“A little more,” he said. “Witness my miracle.”
The creature’s shriek was lost, as was its form, bathed in a light so bright that Lenk had to shield his eyes from it. And when that was insufficient, he shut them tight and looked away, trying to ignore the terrified wails of the crowd.
Only when they stopped did he dare to open his eyes. The light was gone. The screams had quieted. And in their wake, Lenk’s curse seemed woefully insufficient for what he saw.
“Gods …” he whispered.
“No,” Mocca said. “Me.”
The creature was gone. No, not gone. Changed. It no longer stooped, but stood tall and proud. Its molten flesh had tightened across the broad muscle of a body, hale and whole. Its flesh was dark and warm, its hair was black and lustrous, its face was square and handsome and terribly human.
It was …
He was a man.
No, more than a man.
Lenk saw it in the length of his fingers, the strength of his naked body, the height and the hair and the bright yellow eyes. His face was angular and beautiful, too much for any normal human. This was … he was something else. Something more. Something powerful.
The man looked down at himself, at his long fingers and his thick legs and his nakedness. His face brightened with a childish disbelief as he took himself in. And when he finally found breath to do so, he screamed. Not the terrified, agonized scream of the damned, but the joyous, bright wail of the living.
“Master!” he screamed, falling to his knees before Mocca and coiling around his feet. “Master, you have saved me!”
“I have, child,” Mocca said, nodding. “And I have so much more work to do.” He stepped over the man, toward the crowd, and extended his arms. “And who among you shall also witness?”
They let out a feral, animalistic screech. In one surge of glistening flesh, they rushed forward: monstrous limbs outstretched and mouths gaping in wails.
And once more, Lenk had to cover his ears. But it did no good.
“—master, save me! Save me! I have been faithful! You promised—”
- "Insouciant, unrepentant and irrepressible adventures in a powder keg of a city. And that's just how the story begins."—Robin Hobb on The City Stained Red
- "Action fantasy with soul -- albeit a small, dirty, funny soul."—Brent Weeks on The City Stained Red
- "Sam Sykes continues to reinvent the fantasy adventuring party in a vibrant world of rude magic and good intentions gone bad. Bold and exuberant, never cynical, Sykes fights the good fight on behalf of rich fantasy that nonetheless refuses to apologize for being kick-ass fun."—Scott Lynch on The City Stained Red
- "Sykes has put the fun back in fantasy with fantastic creatures and a lovable crew of malcontents. The City Stained Red is like David Eddings meets Conan the Barbarian."—Brian McClellan on The City Stained Red
- "Excitement, vivacity, and sly wit... simply impossible not to enjoy."—RT Book Reviews (4.5 Stars) on The City Stained Red
- "An entertaining blend of classic adventure and inventive inspiration."—Juliet E. McKenna, author of The Thief's Gamble, on The City Stained Red
- "Playful language, distinctly drawn characters, and a cavalcade of action."—SF Signal on The City Stained Red
- On Sale
- Dec 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 704 pages