Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
The Mortal Tally
By Sam Sykes
Formats and Prices
- ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $16.99 $22.49 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 29, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
The heart of civilization bleeds.
Cier’Djaal, once the crowning glory of the civilized world, has gone from a city to a battlefield and a battlefield to a graveyard. Foreign armies clash relentlessly on streets laden with the bodies of innocents caught in the crossfire. Cultists and thieves wage shadow wars, tribal armies foment outside the city’s walls, and haughty aristocrats watch the world burn from on high.
As his companions struggle to keep the city from destroying itself, Lenk travels to the Forbidden East in search of the demon who caused it all. But even as he pursues Khoth-Kapira, dark whispers plague his thoughts. Khoth-Kapira promises him a world free of war where Lenk can put down his sword at last. And Lenk finds it hard not to listen.
When gods are deaf, demons will speak.
Table of Contents
A Preview of God's Last Breath
A Preview of A Crown for Cold Silver
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at email@example.com. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
WHERE DEAD MEN TREAD
PAPER MEN, FOLDED
When the pale light of dawn finally found Lenk, he was staring into the eyes of a dead man.
It was not a killer that he had studied for the past evening. The angles of the dead man's brow, chin, and jaw were sharp, but they lacked the tension that belonged to men who killed for any other reason than a very good one. Or what they thought was a very good one.
Rather, in the scars on his face and the coldness of his eyes, Lenk saw a hard man. Not a desperate criminal; here was a man who had drawn steel enough times that he had simply forgotten why he'd started. Or even when he had ever begun.
Granted, it had been days since Lenk had seen a bath—or a stream or a mirror—but he had to admire the detail of the man. It was a rather good likeness of himself, he thought.
The words dead or alive framing his face, however, were new.
The sound of sloshing water caught his ear. He crawled quietly to the slatted window of his room and peered out. Farmers, their Djaalic skin made darker by years of honest labor, were just now emerging from their huts. They rolled up their breeches, picked up their tools, and waded into the murk of their rice paddies.
The Green Belt, as it was known, was home to such people. So named for its position beneath the city, the narrow valley had proven the only place in the region capable of sustaining agriculture. In years past, it had fed Cier'Djaal. Now it made rice to sell. But year in and year out, the farmers had remained the same. Good folk, honest and hard.
How many of them had seen a wanted poster like the one in his hands? How many of them knew his face belonged to the dead man called "the assassin of Cier'Djaal"?
How many of them, he wondered, had relatives back in a city in which he had left behind so many corpses?
Pain shot through his stiff muscles. These weren't the thoughts of an innocent man, he knew. But even the most devout priest, after six days in a tiny room with no contact from anyone, would start to wonder what he'd done to deserve such isolation.
Lenk felt tempted to go out there, into the mucky fields, and talk to the first farmer he saw. He'd tell them who he was, what he had done, all the people he had killed—or supposedly killed—and simply wait for their response. Whatever happened next would have to be better than the isolated waiting, the paranoia, the wondering.
He told himself this.
Yet when one of the farmers glanced his way, toward his tiny room, he ducked away from the window and let the slats fall shut, plunging the room back into darkness.
He took a deep breath, rose to his feet. He walked to the single door and stared, for the fiftieth time that morning, at its handle. He hesitated to call his quarters a cell—he could leave anytime he wanted, assuming he was willing to face the consequences alone.
And for a man, even an innocent one, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, there were many.
True, he had been there when the riot had been touched off. True, he had climbed over the dead bodies to escape the carnage. True, he had fled the city just as riot became war and war became massacre. True, the circumstances under which this had all happened, it could be said, did not make him seem innocent.
But he was.
He told himself this.
And, for the fiftieth time that morning, he laid a hand on the door's handle.
A shudder ran down his spine at the sound of the voice. Lenk expected he should have been used to it by now, considering how often he heard it.
Yet when he turned around and saw Mocca standing there, he forgave himself for his alarm.
He merely resigned himself to the ire he felt at the sudden appearance of the man in white—for it was still less disturbing to think of him as a man.
"Six days," Lenk said. The sound of his own voice was a rasping, grating thing to his ears. "Six days I've watched fires burn over the city walls. Six days I've watched people carrying bodies out on the road. Six days of waiting with stale bread and drifting cinders and distant screams. Six days…" His eyes drifted back to the door. "And I have heard nothing from Kataria."
And there, leaning against the wall as though it had been waiting all this time for him to arrive at this conclusion, was the sword.
"I'm not going to survive a seventh," he said, reaching for the weapon.
"What, pray, do you expect to do?"
Lenk was so accustomed to Mocca's voice that he didn't even need to turn around to know he was wearing that half-delighted, half-arrogant quirked eyebrow. As though he knew something Lenk didn't and was just waiting for the young man to stumble around long enough to be amusing before telling him. Lenk resolved not to give him the satisfaction.
"There's a lot you can do with a sword, even without knowing what you're doing," Lenk replied. "That's how I got here."
"A point," Mocca replied. "Rather, what do you expect has happened to her?"
At this, Lenk cast a glare over his shoulder. "Maybe she was captured. Killed. Trampled to death, speared, gored, branded, whipped, burned, I don't fucking know. There's a war going on not five miles away from here. If I went through every possibility I'd be here all fucking day."
"Possibilities are easy to live with," Mocca replied. "They're distant things, cold breezes on warm days. Certainties are harder." Beneath shadows cast by his white hood, his smile looked sinister. "Certainties crush people."
"Look, I know being able to appear wherever and whenever you want permits you a certain degree of crypticism, but if you could kindly get to the point."
"It's possible she has been captured. It's possible she has been killed." Mocca shrugged. "There are a lot of people out there living with the possibility they might die and the certainty that you"—he pointed a finger at Lenk—"are to blame for it. Thus I can say with certainty that they will flay you alive for the possibility that they might not have to live with that fear."
If there was anything more aggravating than a bastard who could appear out of thin air, it was a bastard who could appear out of thin air and who insisted on always being right.
And because Mocca was that kind of bastard, Lenk took a moment to draw in a deep breath before letting the blade slide out of his hand and clatter to the floor.
Mocca was right.
That thought settled upon Lenk's shoulders, bore him to the ground as he pressed his back against the door and slid down to the floor. A shot of pain flared up in his side in protest. His fingers brushed against his tunic; beneath the cloth and the dressing beneath it, the wound felt tender.
That number seemed real only when he felt the pain. Because only when he felt the pain could he remember how it had all happened.
Two powers had sat down in Cier'Djaal with the intention of making peace. It didn't matter that both had brought their armies with them: the black-armored, fanatic legions of the Karnerian Empire and the reckless, beast-riding louts of the Kingdom of Saine. The people of Cier'Djaal naïvely believed that the negotiations would prevent their homes from becoming battlefronts.
And they just might have, had he not been there.
Lenk wanted to say it was just bad luck that had brought him to the window overlooking that meeting. He wanted to say that it was an elaborate series of circumstances that had made it look as if he had shot the bolt that had killed the negotiator and caused the two armies to accuse each other of having him do it. He wanted to rail against the gods who had put him there, bleeding from a wound as the city and his life fell apart around him.
But six days was a long time. Long enough for him to realize that there was no such thing as luck, nor circumstance, nor even gods so petty. There were only moments in which men like him had a choice to put down the blade and walk away or not.
He glanced sidelong at his sword.
Sometimes those moments lasted longer than six days.
"If you're bored," Mocca suggested with a tone that might have sounded sympathetic coming from someone less horrifyingly arrogant, "we could always return to our last discussion. I hope you've been giving some thought to my proposal."
"I'm not bored." Lenk leapt to his feet, ignored the pain, and strode toward Mocca. "I'm impotent."
Without even looking up, he walked straight into Mocca. And without even blinking, he walked straight through Mocca. The man's entire body shimmered, his white robes quavering like water that had been struck by a stone. When it resettled and he was whole again, his dark brows knitted in disapproval.
"You know I hate it when you do that," Mocca said.
"I don't know anything." Lenk whirled on him, deliberately walking through him once more. "I don't know how this all happened. I don't know what to do. I don't know where Kataria is. I don't know if she's coming back."
He turned to walk back through Mocca, but halted. He regarded the man—even though he knew Mocca was definitely not a man—through narrowed eyes.
"And I don't know why you're still here or even what kind of crime against heaven you are."
Any man would be angry at those words, and Lenk desperately hoped that Mocca would be furious. He searched the man's face for it: a scowl, a baring of teeth, a curse boiling behind his mouth. Anger would be something human, something understandable.
But it was a calm face that stared back at Lenk, a smile tugging at the corners of slender lips.
Mocca was not angry.
Mocca was never angry.
And Lenk suddenly found himself staring at the door again. But even if he could escape Mocca's stare, he could not escape his voice. It was calm. It was confident. It was so very cold.
"You know who I am," Mocca said. "You know my name."
"Names," Lenk replied without looking up. "Names. You have so gods-damned many." He threw his hands up, tossing each one into the air. "God-King, Flesh-Shaper, Heretic, Murderer, Slaver." He paused before spitting the last one: "Demon."
He turned to face Mocca. And he saw it. One last ripple across the water, one more twitch of the lip, one final flash of light behind eyes that became all the darker for its absence.
"One more," Mocca said softly.
Lenk opened his mouth. Silence.
The name fell from Lenk's mouth. And in the deafening silence that followed in its wake, Mocca changed. His body was firmer, his phantom flesh was more solid, and his smile was something altogether more sinister.
"Before I was sent to hell," he whispered, "that name burst from every mortal mouth from where we stand to where the sun rises. God-King, Flesh-Shaper, all those other titles were merely words. My name… was heavy with meaning. My name built cities. My name united people. My name"—his smile grew broader—"was everything."
Demons, unfathomable though legends portrayed them as being, were not horrifyingly complex. Possessed though they once had been of heavenly grace, they were creatures of straightforwardly mortal ambition. They plotted, true. They schemed, yes. But above all else, they wanted. They craved.
And Mocca's craving was etched across his face in his smile.
"No," Lenk said.
"What have you got to lose?"
"To a demon?" Lenk laughed, a shrieking, breathless sound. "Every—"
"No," Mocca interjected. "Do not finish that word. Do not finish that thought if you can help it." He pointed to the slatted window and the world beyond it. "That city, and any life you hoped to find in it, is dead. You stand in this room, alone, pining after a woman who may not even be alive. You have had six days to come to this fact, but out of respect for you, I shall make it perfectly clear."
Lenk blinked. When he opened his eyes, Mocca stood but a hairbreadth away. And with a breathless voice, he spoke.
"You do not stand to lose everything. You had precious little on this miserable little stain of creation to take and it has all gone. All you are left with is ash and darkness and thousands of people who want you dead if it'll distract them from the truth."
"Demons don't know truth. Demons lie."
"No one but a demon would know what it is to look upon creation and see nothing but flaws. When I gazed upon mortalkind, I saw suffering, disease, war, hatred." He vanished, reappeared at the window. "Heaven charged me to watch creation." He raised a hand to the slats, watched it disappear, immaterial, through the wood. "And I watched it wither.
"The view from on high is absolute. The sound of a spider's legs skittering toward a squirming fly is deafening up there. I saw everything. Every rape, every murder, every fire, every gorged cannibal, every orphaned child, every starving creature straining to remember it was once a man even as it pawed through offal for scraps."
Something within the man—if he could still be thought of as that—changed in the moment he turned to face Lenk. His eyes drank the darkness of the room and became black as night, and his words took the weight of his name.
"Demon," he said. "The swine that rutted in the muck I beheld called me that. I heard their words clear as any. But to my people…" He threw his hands out wide. "I was KING."
And that weight, that terrible weight, struck Lenk like a hammer. The air rippled, a gale from nowhere howling out from behind Mocca, sending his robes whipping about and casting Lenk to the floor with its force.
The walls of the room fell away. The floor split apart. From somewhere deep in the earth, pillars began to rise: great columns of golden stone, each one carved in the image of a robed man with a short beard and a halo of serpents, granite eyes staring down upon Lenk. From between them, banners of white and red and gold flew, depicting encircled bands of snakes. And behind Mocca, the last wall of the room was swallowed by a great golden light.
Lenk shielded his eyes. He heard footsteps. He felt a shadow upon him. When he looked up, it was not Mocca who stared down at him. It was not the man he knew. This man stood taller, prouder, wrapped in a robe of the most pristine white and crowned with a halo of golden snakes that writhed and twisted and held themselves aloft with regal bearing, with ruby eyes glistening with an intensity reflected in the man's own gaze.
"And I was," the king that Mocca had been said. "I called the water that cleansed the filth and blood from the earth. I wrote the laws that made the animals civil. I abolished war. I cast out sickness. I healed the wounded and fed the hungry." His smile was broad, triumphant. "Demon, they call me? I wear the title with pride. If it was a demon's hubris that made beast into man, then it was a god's vision that made it possible. I built heaven on earth, Lenk. And I can do it again."
He held his hands out in benevolence, his skin painted gold by the light flowing from behind him.
"All you need to do… is…"
"Is what?" Lenk didn't even hear himself, so weak and small his voice was against the splendor before him. "Is what?"
A small word. Fraught with confusion. The barest exhalation to summate the profoundest ignorance.
Yet it was enough to banish everything. Lenk's eyes fluttered, and when he saw clearly once again, Mocca was gone. The golden light, the pillars, the banners, and the warm wind had all followed, leaving four lightless walls and a solid floor upon which Lenk sat.
But not for long. The door shuddered on its hinges with a pounding whose urgency suggested that it had been going on for an appreciably annoying time. Lenk glanced at the window, saw the silver dawn light turning to golden day through the slats.
How long had it taken for what had just happened?
What had just happened?
Questions concerning demons, though pressing, were hard to focus on when the sound of wood rattling filled one's skull. Lenk clambered to his feet and reached for the lock, then paused and recalled something that had been established when he had first arrived here.
"Ah." He paused, trying to remember it as he spoke through the door. "Is it raining outside today?"
"It's going to be raining red after I stab you and throw you off the fucking roof if you don't open this door."
That was not the password.
And considering the fury with which the threat had been delivered, it was a little alarming how quickly Lenk undid the lock and threw open the door. He could scarcely help it, though. No more than he could help the wild-eyed look of need that crossed his face when he stared at his visitor.
Bright-green eyes framed by dirty golden hair. Long pointed ears poking out between braids, flattening against her skull in a show of aggression. Lips curled up in a sneer, overlarge canines left threateningly bare.
It was decidedly more alarming that this sight should relieve him so much.
"Where the hell have you been?" he asked.
Kataria held up a dirty burlap sack with a moist brown stain.
"Getting breakfast," she grunted.
"For six days?"
"For a few hours," she replied, shoving him out of the way with her free hand and stalking into the room. "The other six days were spent taking care of some things."
"And you didn't send word? Didn't stop in?" Lenk shut the door behind her, followed her to the center of the room. "You couldn't be bothered to stop by and relieve me from wondering if you had been captured, executed, or—"
He caught her movement only in glimpses. First the whirl of her hair, then the thrust of her gloved hand as it shot out to grab him by the collar of his tunic. Finally he saw her teeth flashing bright white as she drew him in and pressed her lips to his, pushing past his teeth with her tongue.
After a few breathless moments, they parted with heated exhalations. She sighed, pressed her forehead against his as she ran a hand up behind his head, fingers coiling through his silver hair.
"There's got to be an easier way to make you shut up," she said.
"You punched me the last time," he said.
"And what did you learn?"
He laughed. It wasn't funny, of course; few of her jokes, which mostly revolved around violence and flatulence, were. And this wasn't the sort of situation that lent itself well to humor.
But he couldn't help it. It had been so long since he had spoken to anyone who wasn't Mocca, so long since he had felt his hands touch warm skin that wasn't his. He breathed her in, the scent of dust and leather, and felt the sweat of her brow kiss his flesh.
But she did not return his laugh. When she pulled away from him, her eyes were hard and her mouth tight. And he felt his own lips pull into a frown in response.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She opened her mouth as if to say something. Then sighed and shoved the burlap sack into his arms.
"Eat first," she said. "If we're lucky, you might choke and you won't have to worry about it."
For close to an hour, they sat on the floor and ate in silence.
Or at least they ate without words. The food Kataria had brought was a chunk of unseasoned and mostly cooked ox—it was the only edible animal this side of the Green Belt—and crunchy black bread. And they were people used to eating quickly and without utensils.
Some of us more than others, Lenk noted as he watched Kataria rip off a string of ox flesh with her teeth. The half-cooked blood dribbled down her chin and onto the lean muscle of an abdomen left exposed by her half shirt.
His eyes lingered there, upon her pale flesh and the blood staining it, stark against the absence of other grime. He squinted hard as he bit off more bread and chewed it.
Six days, he noted. And yet she wore no dust, no mud, no stains of travel upon her skin. Her shirt was dirty, as always. Her doeskin leggings were caked in dust, her boots likewise muddied. But her skin was clean, pristine.
She had washed recently.
A hand went to her belly, wiped the blood off with her glove. He looked up and caught her fixing him with a hard stare. She swallowed her food, took another bite, and only then started to speak.
"The bad news," she said through a mouthful, "is that the wanted posters are everywhere. Every village and farmhouse out here knows what happened in Cier'Djaal. And they all know that they have you to thank for all the refugees, vagrants, and bandits that have started crawling along the Green Belt."
He nodded, only half-listening. His thoughts were otherwise occupied. Had it really taken her six days to find that out?
"The good news is that the posters aren't too accurate," she continued, swallowing. "I've listened to some conversations, asked those who didn't mind these." Her pointed ears twitched in demonstration. "No one's quite sure what you look like beyond the obvious: male, human… short."
At this he finally looked up. "Short? How short?"
"Like, shorter than average or short like a child or—"
"The one thing everyone knows about you, though," she interrupted, "is the very obvious." She pointed to the top of his head. "Namely, the fact that you've got a pelt like an old man."
"It's hair," he muttered, touching his silver locks. "Not a pelt."
"I've talked to Sheffu about it."
"What the hell would Sheffu know?"
"Considering he's paying to save you from whoever might want to take advantage of whatever reward is offered by those posters?" Kataria asked. "Anyway, he says we can still proceed with the plan, just so long as we do something about it."
"Something," Lenk repeated, echoing her ominous tone.
"Yeah." She rose to her feet, pulled a slim-bladed hunting knife from her belt. "Something."
With the shearing of a blade the only sound to disturb his thoughts, Lenk watched another lock of hair fall to the floor before him. He reached down, took it between his fingers, and held it up. There, shorn from his head, dull and gray, he supposed it didn't look so unlike a pelt.
Just a piece of fur that could have come from an animal.
Any animal, really, so long as it had fangs and claws.
For what else was he?
Certainly not a man. Men were creatures of desire, of reason, and, most importantly, of choice.
Two weeks ago he might have called himself a man. He had wanted a new life, free from the bloodshed that had followed him ever since he had picked up his blade and called himself an adventurer. He had sought it in Cier'Djaal's walls, looking for the perfect place to lay his sword to rest; maybe in the corner of a dusty little shop, or over a mantel, where he would one day point it out to grandchildren when they asked for stories.
Desire and reason he understood.
It was that last part, choice, that he always had trouble with.
Everything he had found in Cier'Djaal, he'd found with the blade. He'd found war between the gangs of the Jackals and Khovura. He'd found war between the Karnerians and Sainites. He'd found war between rich and poor, shicts and humans, tulwar and humans, all with the blade.
And with the blade he'd found himself in the middle of it, unable to put it down and walk away.
What could one call a man who couldn't let go, even for the sake of his own life, but an animal? What could one call a man who was turned loose at the whim of another but an animal?
That was what Sheffu wanted. An animal. Any animal, really, so long as it had claws and fangs. Lenk just happened to be the one that needed something from him.
Of course Sheffu didn't see it that way. He used big words like righteousness, savior, necessity to describe what he called a "duty that must be served to preserve mortalkind's right to sovereignty."
And he'd used these words to convince himself—if not Lenk—of the necessity of going to the Forbidden East, to the last known holdings of the demon known as Khoth-Kapira, to find any and all information that could be used to stop the demon's return to the mortal world.
Lenk glanced at the spot where Mocca had stood.
If only he knew.
But for all that he didn't know, Sheffu knew enough about men and animals alike to know what they'd do when cornered. He had promised Lenk that, if he would do but this one task, Sheffu would clear his name. He was a member of the aristocratic fashas of Cier'Djaal, and such a thing wasn't entirely outside his power.
What could Lenk do, he asked himself, but hold on to the sword?
What choice did he have?
Another shearing sound filled his ears. Another lock of hair fell into his lap.
"What if we ran?" he asked.
"Ran?" Kataria seemed nonplussed by the suggestion, taking another clump of hair and lightly cutting it away. "Where to?"
"I don't know," he said. "Back north, maybe. Or further south. Somewhere where I'm not wanted for the murder of hundreds."
"That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"We could move back with your parents, maybe."
"My parents." Her voice was flat. "My tribe, as well?"
"My tribe that's warred with human scum for centuries?"
"There'll be tensions at first," he replied, a grin touching his face. "But I'm likable scum. They'll come to love me."
"Firing their homes? Eating their livers? Hanging them up by their feet in trees and cutting their throats so that they might water the—"
"You could have just said no," Lenk said.
"I didn't want to sound pessimistic," she chuckled. "Past the Green Belt, it's nothing but desert. To get out of here, we'd have to have help. To get help, we'd have to talk to people. To talk to people, we'd have to—"
- "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
- Mar 29, 2016
- Page Count
- 688 pages