IN THE SHADOW OF THE ROOK
The world is crumbling...and no one knows how to stop it.
Eons ago, the Lastborn Son, a god incarnate, saved the world from complete destruction at the hands of his brother, the Firstborn. Now, the world seems set for the Firstborn's return, with his army of dead rising at the hands of necromancers.
Erik didn't think it had anything to do with him. Grown complacent on his home island near the edge of the world, he is torn from routine when his closest friend suddenly murders him and a necromancer reanimates him. He has a second chance--but for what, he hasn't the faintest idea.
What he does know is he wants resurrection, true resurrection. And there is one person who might lead him to it, a mysterious man or woman known as the Rook. Erik will stop at nothing to find the Rook. He's already lost his life--what more does he have to lose?
But the foundations of the world are falling apart...for the last time.
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Want a sample? Read the beginning below!
Excerpt of in the shadow of the rook
The silence of the years bears down
The silence of the years wears down
Still I cast my doubts into the Void:
Can a god know so little of being a man?
The Sons Incarnate looked over the lands
All they saw, they claimed as their birthright
But no god can share a throne for long
Pride ever triumphs over brotherly love
Circling each other, they shone like comets
Their eyes were burning suns
Their hands were crushing mountains
Their hearts were full of shallow silence
One seized the Moon as his hammer blow
The other claimed the hard anvil of the World
One fell, one rose, and came on the crushing blows
While all that laid between fell broken
You, Friend, have called them saviors
You, Friend, have called them gods
But tell me, what good fruit grows
From roots drowning in reddened waters?
- The Sons Incarnate, “Plea of the Witness,” first cantus
Witnessed and recorded by Sanct Eckard, the Living Testament
192 IY (Illuvian Year), Second Year of Our Broken World
“Locked lips,” Oslef had said to Erik. His voice was loud in Erik's ears, louder than the howling wind as he ran through the forest. “Locked lips, and if I unlock them, that’s two dead men, see?” Oslef had a gleam to his eyes—beer tears, like always. “Though you know how I’d love to gossip with an old friend.”
Erik ran, the trees and brush smearing into a oily blur. He barely noticed the creatures scattering beneath the decaying leaves, the birds fluttering away as he passed. He didn’t look for lurchers hiding in shadows, who might be waiting for the next hapless passerby. A different scene played out in his mind's eye.
“A bird asked after you. Wondered about our relationship. And asked about my prospects. My prospects—we both know those are complete and utter fek, don’t we? And as for us, well, that’s a bit more… complicated.”
Erik’s breathing came fast. As he stumbled over roots and underbrush, a hand went to his chest, to the ribbed flesh where it had been stitched after the hot knife had welded his skin back together. It seemed to burn under his fingers, and he rubbed at the dull echoes of pain.
“I explained the whole history to the bird, line by line. Fast friends we were, despite you having fek for family and lineage and being ‘fidel to boot. But I saw something in you, and I stuck around, didn’t I? Then we chased the same girls—girl, really, it was always just the one. We had our fights, but what boys don’t? But when that bird asked how far I was willing to go to get what I wanted, how far I would push our friendship, do you know what I said?”
“What did you say, Oslef?” Erik whispered to the woods.
“I said, ‘Anything for an old friend.’”
At first, it had been no more than a strange feeling, that something in his chest, no more painful than seeing an arrow in a stump. Even as his heart pounded hard near the metal tip, Erik felt numb, helpless to do anything but stare at the dagger in his ribs. His shirt darkened in a widening circle, like watching a drop of ink spread in a pool of water.
Then numbness gave way to the red wave, and it washed over him and carried him down.
His foot caught, and Erik tumbled to the ground, memories ripped away. His knees and hands scraped against the twigs and dirt, and almost as soon as he fell, he was pulling up the legs of his trousers and peering at his hands, desperately looking for red lines breaking through the skin. But they were whole. He wasn’t bleeding.
He sat back against a tree trunk, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes, and a different scene pressed in on him. Stale air in his throat, stiff and cloying as a tomb. Pale light flickered from thin tongues of piston lamp fire on stone walls. Before him, an old man’s eyes bulged, milky white tingeing pink, then the deep red of the setting sun on storm clouds. Strands of thin, pale hair fell over the unnaturally smooth, onyx face. The throat, thin as a starved doe, trembled with gasps, the only sound in the room as a pair of hands tightened about it. Then the noises stopped. There was a stillness, a silence, a sigh of relief—his own sigh—as he loosened his hands from the limp body.
Erik opened his eyes and resisted the sudden urge to slam his head back against the trunk, if only to alleviate the pressure building behind his temples. He rose and pressed on.
He couldn’t stay here, so close to Zauhn. Not with what he was. He had to leave as fast as he could, and not even because the town watch might come after him, or that he felt guilty from the blood on his hands. He didn’t know where he needed to go, not yet. And his father, who surely knew, who might have saved his son from what he’d become, wouldn’t tell him.
As his breath whistled through his clenching jaw, Erik tried to put thoughts of his father from his mind.
A bush rustled next to him, and he jerked away and scanned the woods, but the sparse moonlight showed nothing between the leaning trees. Still, his hand traveled to his belt knife and stayed there as he peered into the darkness and slowly found the source of the sound.
A shadow emerged from around a tree, and Erik flinched back, hand clenching hard. As the figure moved forward, the moon reluctantly revealed it. First a shoulder, barely more than tendon and bone. A foot followed, seemingly disconnected in the darkness, its long, purplish nails curling back and stabbing into the toes. Then the face; it hovered above the black body, the skin loose over the skull, with the jaw hanging slack around its few remaining teeth. And the eyes, lolling to the sides, irises bleached of color so even the thin light of the broken moon seemed to fill them.
Erik swallowed hard and shuffled back even as his grip relaxed. It was an old lurcher, probably two or more months past fresh. What flesh hadn’t rotted off its body had likely been picked by carrion creatures, the thing too feeble to prevent it. It would have been dangerous when it was first made, fast as a live man and twice as furious, but now it was less than harmless. Erik even pitied it.
The lurcher shuffled forward, coming clear of the tree line. He could see it was once a woman from its skeletal hips. It favored its back foot as it approached, the end of the leg little more than a pulpy club.
It was far from the first lurcher Erik had seen. He and the count’s son, Oslef—that betraying bastard—had followed many tracks throughout the woods, hunting for the dragging feet that had made them. The pair would follow them through rain and mud, deep into the forest, until they saw the creature before them, walking slowly towards the shore of the island, always towards the shore. They had quietly drawn their blades and crept through the low ferns until the dead beings were close enough to rush. Erik had laughed as the steel cut through the flimsy skin and brittle bones.
He didn’t want to laugh now.
It kept coming, quiet but for the dragging of its foot and the creak of its bones. It didn’t wheeze like he expected, didn’t breathe at all. One day you’ll stop breathing, that devilish part of him taunted.
Did the lurcher know him? Could it tell they were the same, that he was one of them now? Its arm reached out, fingers splayed—to welcome? To harm? Or just to touch? Had it felt the loss of another’s touch longer than the decay of its own body? Perhaps it was the worst of the two pains.
But why did he think of it as an it? It had been a woman once, just as he’d once been a man. Why not she?
Her fingers grasped at the air before him.
Erik grabbed them, crushed them, and the bones became dust, too brittle even to cut. The lurcher made a guttural sound and fell forward, and Erik helped it, propelling its skull to the ground, and it smashed into wet grass and mud with enough force that even the soft earth could not stop the bone fracturing beneath his hand. Something oozed between his fingers.
One of its arms reached back, and he pulled it, breaking it at the shoulder. Its scream, already thin and weak, was muffled in the mud. But still its body pushed up, still its legs fought. A stomp to each femur put an end to that.
Erik rose and stepped away from the corpse, breathing hard. The forest was quiet, not even lunegazers clacking their wings, silent as before a storm.
His stomach roiled, then he was heaving onto the grass. There was clumpy blood and bile on his hands, and the mangled body still moved in the mud before him.
Isn’t it a bright future? The devilish voice gloated.
He stumbled back into the dark woods, leaving the lurcher broken and tearlessly crying. He wished he could curl up and sleep and never have to wake again. He wished he didn’t have to move.
But he did. For lack of anything else, Erik set his course on the hundred glowing pinpricks of lunegazers ahead, following them like a ship might follow the stars during a dark sea voyage. He soaked in their light hungrily, like they might nourish him of something he had lost.
The lights blinked out as one, extinguished like gust-smothered candles.
Erik dropped his gaze. He kept moving forward.
How long had he been running? Since Erik could remember, his father and he had wandered Vestoria, living among their fellow copper-skinned Sudenians to hide away from the scornful looks of their light-haired countrymen and their accusations of ‘infidel’ and ‘savage.’ But they never stayed long. There always came a day when his father would wake him, their bags packed, and lead him out of the door to never return.
They had run all the way to Erden Isle in the far corner of Vestoria, where they wereforced together with people for nothing more than the color of their skin, into the slum of Tar Court in his hometown of Zauhn. Even they of Tar Court only accepted him grudgingly, for having a father as an alchemical formulaist came with its own set of biases and fears, and for good reason.
But his father caused plenty of good and little harm, and slowly Erik settled in. For the first time since he was seven, they stopped running, and little by little, friendships and infatuations tied him down to Zauhn. He did not strive to learn so much formualism as before, content to do only as much as his father asked him. He grew closer to a local girl. The old wanderlust did rouse when he thought of growing old and dying in that backwater place, but only enough that he made distant plans to one day depart.
But as Sanct Eckard had written, plans were ashes awaiting the first spark.
It should have been the end, that day in the tower. But when Erik had escaped, he knew it was finally time to run, if only because he had to. He had to run as long as his legs would carry him. As long as his lungs kept breathing. Heart kept beating. Mind kept spinning.
As long as he could still fool himself into thinking he was a man.
* * *
Erik was in control. He was steady. He was back to looking at the world, and playing whatever fek-hand it had dealt him.
Starting with this town.
It was the next evening, the sky turning pig pink, when Erik arrived in front of Lienze’s gate, or what barely qualified as one when it hung on by one rusted hinge. Its fence was nearly as decrepit, a few feet of tied trees limbs, apparently sufficient for the protection of the western side of town.
They either had very fierce farmers, or something else kept the nautded away. But then, he already knew that. It’s why he was here.
Could be worse, he thought with a sardonic twist of a smile. Could be I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
In Lienze—named after their main crop, the lentil—it wasn’t hard to find his destination. Brunnen’s Brews & Beds the sign read, painted in a sickly brown substance he hoped wasn’t what it looked like. As he looked at the wooden shack with the thatched roof, he wished to lose himself in a pint. A spinning, beer-logged head would match the mad spin he was in.
Before he thought better of it, he walked up to the double-braced doors and stepped in.
The half-lit room was nearly empty of customers. Five men were scattered across it, all at separate tables but for one pair. There was also a woman behind a counter, rag in hand, who watched Erik as he approached.
“Evenin’,” she said, pulling a mug from the counter and resting it on a belly swollen as if she were with child, though she looked too old for it. She wiped the mug for a long moment, then asked, “Get you somethin’?”
Before Erik could answer, a voice said from behind him, “Now there’s a sight you don’t see often `round these parts.” He spoke too loudly for the quiet murmur of the alehouse.
“What’s that?” Erik said, keeping his voice even.
“A man’s face that don’t look like an ass’s ass.” The man burst out laughing, his drink sloshing across the table.
Erik relaxed and turned to the man. He had brown hair like leather, wavy and barely contained in a loose ponytail that extended well past his shoulders, while a strong jaw emerged from under a thick, rust-red beard. His frame, solid as it was, implied a profession of hard work, a blacksmith perhaps, while his eyes betrayed a sharp intelligence, or at least a wit that refused to dull despite his obvious intoxication. That was good. Much as Erik despised—or envied—the man’s drunkenness, he needed a sharp, talkative man.
From the far corner, one of the pair said, irritated, “Damn you, Wil Tanner, always goin’ on like that—” His companion gripped his arm, and the man shook his head and said no more.
Or he’s a tanner. That just meant he had the right blood for it; Dagathode, the lineage of most peasantry, and some northern Seafolk with that red beard.
Erik, ignoring the alemistress, sat down at the joker’s table. “So, you’re the chatty one around here.”
“Better than being chitty like warty Ilnuk back there.” The man named Wil looked back at the men in the corner, and as his victim flashed him the vulgar circle, he laughed again.
Erik didn’t know what to say, but his companion had plenty of words.
“I tell you, it’s from all the inbreeding `round here,” Wil said, keeping hold of his stool while it tipped back dangerously. “The warts and ugliness, you know, not to mention the sheer idiocy.”
“Alrigh’, alrigh’,” the weary alemistress said. But, instead of actually managing her unruly patron, she slipped away through a curtained doorway. A wise woman, Erik thought. He wished he could slip away himself.
“So,” Erik started, then stopped. How to approach what he wanted indirectly? “You don’t seem to have much in the way of defense,” he finished lamely.
“What, you don’t like our wall?” Wil ran a hand through hair matted with sweat despite the relatively cool weather outside. “Ah hell, you’re right. Didn’t keep Ilnuk’s goat from escaping last week. What could it do against a determined deadwalker?” He looked back again at the man in the corner, but his victim seemed to find better entertainment inside his flagon.
“Speaking of attacks,” he continued, turning back to Erik, “you heard anything about that standing mooneyes? Eerie thing, that.”
“Haven’t heard anything at all,” Erik said. Despite himself, a small chill crept down his back. He was sure it was nothing, like most of the talk spread about Voidic creatures, but to have something new spotted just as he escaped that tower… He didn’t like to think that the rumors might be about him.
“As to that, I don’t know. And just the one, so far—Talstalker’s what they call it. But they say he’s as nasty as any of those damned cats he runs with. Maybe that’s where Ilnuk’s goat went to, eh?”
He looked back hopefully at the corner, but soon gave up.
“Ah well,” he continued, “always new things popping up on this island, every damn one of them trying to kill goodmen like ourselves.”
When Wil took another long drink, then said bluntly, “So, you’re a darkie. Haven’t seen many of you.”
There it is. There it always is. Still, could be worse, he could have started with it. “Yes. Happen to be born that way.”
“They didn’t spread tar on you as a babe? `Cause that’s what happened to my cousin Nyla’s child. That, or she found herself a darkie to ride.” Wil chortled to himself.
Erik refused to get angry. The comments on his color used to rile him up when he’d been a child and adolescent, but he’d found if he spent all his time fighting, his skin would only be darker for the bruises.
“I’ve lived most my life in Zauhn,” Erik said, hating how much it sounded like justification. Then he realized what he'd admitted: how easy would it be for someone to find him now that he’d said where he was from?
But it didn’t set off bells in Wil’s mind. “Yeah, I’ve got some trade over there,” he said, his hands leaving his mug for the first time to fold atop his head. “Used to be schooled there, too, in my wilder years.”
Wil’s face twisted into a wry smile. “Of course,” he said. “I was to be a scribe, if you can believe it.”
“Ah. That’s… unorthodox.”
Wil laughed. “All the more considering I was such a poor fit for it. Got kicked out my third year, finally. Should have been done with me the first. The old man wasn’t too pleased, anyhow. When he got through hiding me, I never thought I’d be able to see leather without breaking down and bawling on the spot.”
He laughed again, but cut off when Erik didn't join in. “Of course, that’s what my father set me to: leather and tanning. That’s my trade.”
“Right. Though it seems like you’ve got another profession now.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and he winced in anticipation.
But Wil just chuckled. “Aye, you could say that, though a man can’t sustain himself on drink, nor his family, neither.” He grew more sober at the thought. “No, I’m a tanner, no changing that.”
They lapsed into silence, and Erik glanced around the alehouse for a more hopeful prospect. One of the lone drinkers glared at him, while the other rose, bent and swaying, and made a meandering path to the door. Erik once again wished he could leave. His palms were sweaty, and his stomach hurt, and he couldn’t keep his leg still. He also felt strangely guilty speaking with the tanner, as if he were committing a crime by acting human. But he needed information, and this tanner looked to be his only option.
“Well, what brings you here?” Wil asked.
Erik said the first thing that came to mind. “Looking for a tanner, actually.” The devilish part of him mocked the words: How convenient. You just happen to be looking for a tanner.
“Really?” Wil said, his eyebrows shooting up. “My reputation outruns me!” But he didn’t look as if he believed it as he pointed at Erik’s waist. “But why need me when you have whoever made that fine craft around your belly?”
Erik looked down, blinking. He’d forgotten about his belt. His fingers traced over the familiar etchings as he struggled for a response. It had been made by a tanner in Zauhn who’d died three years back, but it wasn’t him Erik thought of. You’re still all about me, aren’t you, Ilyse? he thought. As if she could hear him.
He was pulled from the thoughts as Ilnuk and his companion rose from their table, and Wil turned for one final shout after them. “Keep your niece’s bed warm for me tonight, eh, Ilnuk?” He looked at Erik. “Man took his niece to wife if you can believe it.”
Erik scraped for something to say, but Wil was already somewhere else. “Speaking of my leather, I had the damnedest order come in the other day. I shouldn’t say this probably, but who in the blighted Void’s going to stop me? Order comes in, dunno who he was, all cloaked and such, and you know what he orders? Do you?”
Wil kept waiting, eyes wide, so Erik shook his head.
“Leather made of lurcher skin. Can you believe it! Now what the hell would a man need that for, eh?”
Erik perked up. Lurcher skin was a more hopeful strand.
Wil continued before he could speak. “Live human’s skin would be hard enough to tan, but lurcher? It’d fall apart in your hands and make for a ragged dress. Imagine that! A man, walking about in that tattered thing, balls swinging for the world to see. No, if you want leather that wears, horsehide’s the thing for you. Sheepskin’s one thing, cowhide’s another, and calfskin sure feels nice, but if you’re needing leather and want it to last, en’t nothing better than horse.” He finished his ale, froth streaming down his beard, and slammed it empty to the table.
He gazed intently at Erik for a moment, then glanced down at the empty table before him with exaggerated shock. “But here I am talking, and you never got a drink!” He turned and yelled into the backroom, “Clot, one for my friend here, and another for me!”
“No, that’s all right.” He’d thought he wanted a drink, but his roiling stomach convinced him otherwise, as well as a vague remembrance of Vodrun telling him eating and drinking would no longer be necessary after his… transformation.
But Wil was not easily dissuaded, and he shouted until the hapless Clot came out with two full mugs, mumbling about her sleeping daughters. But she leftthem alone quickly enough when Wil taunted, “I’ll wake one of them if you really want!”
Erik’s throat throbbed painfully as he looked at the drink in front of him. His tongue scraped against the sides of his mouth. Perhaps a sip wouldn’t be so bad. He took one, and savored the refreshing malt and hops, the wetness on his throat. But the immediate pain in his gut took the sweetness out of it.
“Not bad, eh?” Wil said. “Clot’s beds are shite, but her brews en’t bad, and that’s the Mother-sent truth.”
“Hm.” He massaged his belly with one hand, debating whether it was worth another sip and wondering how to get back on lurcher leather.
“I nearly forgot!” the tanner suddenly exclaimed. “Any news us family-town folk might not have heard yet?”
“News?” Any news he might know would be weeks old—two weeks, at least, if he was right in his estimation—but in a backwater place like Lienze, that might be the freshest they had. He had to try, anyway. Sharing news was the surest way to earn a stranger’s favor. “Let’s see… There were rumors that King Arnuf is sending a legion to the isle.”
“A legion? That young beaver?” Wil dismissed the notion with a wave. “I’d sooner bet on a hoofless goat in a footrace! Our king hasn’t the loins to take down his logs and sail over here. Come now, I didn’t ask for fairie stories! What else do they say?”
Erik thought harder, taking an absent sip and regretting it as his gut throbbed. “Someone said a duke was murdered. Down in Brav’Stradt, I think.”
“In the foothills of the Este’Tors, I know it. The Spire of Stars is there, en’t it? Where the first Arnuf held back the Thousand?”
“Right,” Erik said, confident at least in that. “But it’s said it won’t hold back any armies now. It went up in flames.”
“In flames? The Spire? That damn watchtower stood the whole of the last Ennish war, and it falls when all we’re doing is exchanging arrows with the savages across the Moat? Smells of fairie stories again, goodman.”
The pain in his stomach had Erik on edge. “But if it’s true, that’s a sight more than arrows, isn’t it, assassinating a duke and destroying a national monument? And this, as nautded attack more and more towns and cities, and not just here on Erden. I can’t say I blame the Beaver King for damming where he can.”
He tried ignoring the irony, but the voice in his head didn't: Aren't you part of the reason it would be dammed?
Still, he continued. “Besides, that’s not all. Strange things happened there it’s said. A giant lizard appeared from nowhere in the castle’s courtyard and brought down half the entrance with it. And where did the flames come from? Some say—” He hesitated, anticipating Wil’s response. “Some say Recarnates have returned.”
“Myths!” Wil seemed disgusted with the caliber of his news. “Listen, goodman, I can tell you mean well. But I’ve had an education. There may be small workings of magic these days, but nothing like what the tales tell. No man can rend the earth apart, or break the moon, or make towers burst into flames. Leave that to the Sons Incarnate, and them alone.” He returned to his drink, looking morose.
But Erik saw his opportunity. His mouth felt immensely dry as he leaned in close. “Small workings of magic, you say?” He couldn’t help licking his lips. “Is there someone around here like that? An herbalist, perhaps?”
Wil’s eyes were suddenly sharp and considering. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Er—Kirik.” He couldn’t remember if Wil had asked before.
“Kirik? Strange name, that.” Wil he leaned forward as well, so that Erik inhaled his sour breath. “Let me tell you something, Kirik: You don’t want to be asking that question here. Not as dangerous as some places, true, but still not what a smart man should do.”
“I have to find him. I need him for something.”
But Wil drained in his mug in silence and rose. “Good meeting you, Kirky,” he said. “But I’ve told all I will.”
Then Wil left the alehouse—without paying.
Erik shrugged and rose as well, slipping out before Clot could emerge from the backroom and stop either of them. He moved into the moon-touched darkness and followed the faint shadow of the tanner down the road.
What counted as Lienze’s main thoroughfare was a dirt road just wide enough for a single-horse cart, if the cart was narrow and the horse didn't miss a step. Along it ran numerous dirt patches where vendors could set up shop on market days. This late at night, the lane was quiet and deserted with few houses in the immediate vicinity. Most of the small, clay huts with thatched roofs were spaced widely so their gardens could stretch between them. Erik wondered if they actually grew lentils, or if, like other places named around here—say, Mt. Brunnen and Grim’s Woods—there was some lost story explaining the whole thing. Maybe they were magic lentils that gave you gas enough to fly. It was a sad, desperate attempt of levity that made him glad he had no one to say it to.
He sniffed, noticing a smell worse than gut gas, an odd stench lingering in the air. Yes, there was the ever-present manure, wafting in from the fields and stables, but something else lingered beneath, something like—
Lashed to crossed beams, his head strapped between the planks, the cold blade cutting red hot as it slit down the back of his neck, screaming flesh—
Shivering, he put a hand to the scar on his neck. It didn’t ache like his chest, but the skin was ridged with stitches. Another wound that won’t heal.
He spent a moment imagining all the things he’d do to Oslef if he ever saw him again.
But the stench brought him out of it, and with all those morbid thoughts in his head, he thought he finally recognized it: decay. His stomach throbbed again. No wonder he’d thought of Vodrun’s tower.
But Wil hadn’t stopped plodding ahead of him, so Erik had to walk fast to catch up, making noise enough that the tanner looked around. But after a moment, the big silhouette moved on, ambling down the road to the other end of town, and Erik continued after him, slow and careful as a stalking mooneyes.
As little as he wanted to, curiosity compelled him to sniff the air again. There was another scent mixing in with that of cloying flesh, another sickening smell, but in a different way. It bothered him. He knew all the plants around and what would be blooming this midsummer, as his father had commonly used local flora in his formulae. Including the elixir coursing through Erik, keeping him… alive.
The world settled into twilight and drained to shades of slate, alleviated partially by the half-lit moon. He just kept his eyes on Wil’s figure, still swaying before him. Can’t be much further.
An animal sound erupted from the woods, and Erik stopped dead. It sounded like a dog’s howl, but spinning to find it, he knew he must be wrong. It was the eyes that did it. They seemed to suck every bit of moonlight from the night and flare it out like stars in a clear sky.
They weren’t called mooneyes for no reason.
Erik, heart hammering, breath rasping, watched the deadly nekros approach, and knew his second ending wasn’t long in coming.