Excerpt: ECKO ENDGAME by Danie Ware (Titan)

WareD-3-EckoEndgameToday, we have an excerpt from Danie Ware‘s third novel, Ecko Endgame. Published by Titan Books, it’s the third volume in the author’s Ecko trilogy, a critically acclaimed blend of multiple genres. Here’s the synopsis…

Winter has come to the Varchinde – and with it, the fatal spread of the blight. The grass is dead, and the plains’ cities are falling to the loss of crops and trade.

Now, the Kas take their chance to rise from Rammouthe. Overmatched, betrayed and abandoned by his own forces, Rhan takes the ultimate gamble – he will abandon Fhaveon to lure the Kas into a final confrontation.

But the world’s memory is returning. And, as the battle rages round him, Ecko begins to realise that everything they have done has been for a purpose. If they can fit the pieces together, then they might just win the war. 

Yet, even if they do defeat the Kas, the blight is still there. And to save both the Varchinde and himself, Ecko must face the worst fear of all – the one that has come from his own world.

Read on for the first chapter…

*

1: THE COUNT OF TIME

AMOS

The grass was dead.

Across the huge emptiness of the Varchinde plain, the bright colours of autumn had faded and blown away, and the soil and stone were scoured clean, bared to a bleak sky. The trees were stark, hard angles against a rising bank of cloud; the wind was harsh, spiralling the last stalks into tiny tornado whirls. The chill made Triqueta huddle in her saddle, her hood drawn up and her heavy cloak wrapped tight. Desert-blooded as she was, she’d never felt the season bite this deep before. She found herself shuddering as the early winter seemed to crawl under her skin, sinking cold claws into muscle and bone.

Beneath the cloak her hands itched and she held them still, refusing to scratch them. She could feel her age this morning, whatever the rhez it was; feel the curse that the daemon Tarvi had laid upon her, and the weight of the whole damned Count of Time.

… dunno why she took your time and not mine…

Ecko’s words were in the wind, taunting her lean, lined face, her chapped hands. Tarvi’s kiss had taken ten – fifteen? – returns from her life. It had left her aged and self-conscious, bitter with regret.

By the rhez. Enough!

Beneath her, the mare snuffled and shifted. The horse was a city creature, spraddle-legged and hang-bellied, lacking in spirit. She didn’t like the empty plainland, or the cold, and her ears were flat-back, expressing her disapproval.

But Triq held the beast between her knees. They’d come out here, just as they did every morning, to look for something – hope, answers – and she wasn’t done searching. She tightened her thighs and the horse started forward reluctantly, her wide hooves dragging at the muck.

The wind gusted, blew Triq’s hood back and her hair across her face, white strands among the yellow. She freed a hand to hold it back, and there – there! – just for a moment, she saw it: a horizon shadow, dark against the southern sky. Her heart thundered. She was up in the stirrups, craning to see something, anything, even as her rational mind berated her for being so foolish. She’d seen the shadow before, half-man and half-creature; she’d dreamed it and danced with it over and again. It was the hallucination she’d brought from the horrors they’d faced at Aeona, the hope that ghosted constantly at the corners of her vision. Like her memory of Tarvi’s curse, it wouldn’t damned well leave her be…

Redlock.

She was out here looking for Redlock – on some damned fool quest for her lost lover.

Or what was left of him.

She knew how crazed it was, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t leave it alone. Every night, she saw those last moments: Aeona’s collapse as its alchemist master perished, the freed Kas, the daemon, as it fled north to its new host, the twisted red-maned monstrosity they’d glimpsed in the shattered tower. And every morning, she came up here to stare southeast along the coastline at the distant and unseen Gleam Wood, at the destruction they’d left behind them. They had won their fight, saved Ecko’s life, perhaps the life of the world entire – but the cost

Her hopes were folly and she knew it, but she came anyway, unable to let go of the hope, the fear, the shreds of denial that such a thing could have happened to him, to them. Day after day, she rode through Amos’s ramshackle outskirts and out into the chill; day after day, she returned to the taverns on the wharves and drowned herself in a blur of ales and spirits, and in the heated embraces of those whose names and faces she didn’t even care to remember.

She knew, she knew, how loco this was. Some part of her mind asked what the rhez she thought she was doing. Even if Redlock had survived Aeona’s collapse, there was no way he’d be – it would be – out here, when it had the whole dead Varchinde to run in. No way it’d know she was here and…

… and what?

Aeona had been a disaster. Its master had twisted Redlock into a beast, speechless and mindless and horrified, and he’d come within a moment of sacrificing Ecko and damning them all. They’d freed Ecko, but not swiftly enough – and the damage had been done. Kas Vahl Zaxaar, daemon possessor and the Varchinde’s long-feared foe, had loosed himself from the alchemist’s flesh to rage northward to Fhaveon, Lord city.

And now, Triq was afraid.

Afraid that their time was up, afraid the aftermath of Aeona would prove too much, afraid that the blight and the rising winter would finish them all.

Another gust caught her, and she shivered. It was cold as pure frost, sending tumbles of the dead grass across the hilltop. Though the Varchinde’s “little death” was a natural thing, a normal part of the cycling of elements and seasons, somehow it still all seemed like some Gods-damned portent.

Like the grass would die for good, and there would be no spring.

The mare shook her mane, snorted steam and scorn like some saga charger. The shadow, whatever it was, had gone.

The shadow had never even been there, for the Gods’ sakes, had never been more than Triqueta’s own hair, scudding across her vision. She pulled the mass back, retied it.

The mare was agitated now, ears flicking.

“Come on then.” She stroked the creature’s neck. “We’ll go home.”

They turned back to the city. Out over the sea, the sky had sunk to an ominous glower. The cloud was thick and flat, almost metallic. Even as they moved, the mass was flash-lit, and the grey water ignited to an instant of glittering fire.

The rumble reached them a moment later.

Triq gave one last look southward, but there was nothing there – by the rhez, there was never going to be anything there. Telling herself she wouldn’t come here again, she tightened her knees and urged the horse onwards – to the city, and to shelter. And as she went, she raised her face to the wind – was surprised to find it ice-cold on her cheeks, as if it dried water she hadn’t even known was there.

A dark sprawl between rising hillsides, Amos was a city changed.

With the onslaught of the blight, the Varchinde’s quintessential terhnwood crop had been devastated, and its absence damned the plains’ trade cycle and the lives of the cities that depended upon it. In Amos, Lord CityWarden Nivrotar had no intention of letting the resulting chaos assault the streets of her home, to gut Amos as it had done Fhaveon.

When the blight had first browned the crops and grasses that surrounded her, Nivrotar had sent teams to help the harvest and to tally and stockpile everything they could, to defend or burn where necessary, and to teach calm to the farmers and workers. Trust in your city, the Lord told her people, your city will hold her word to care for you.

And she did.

At the Lord’s insistence, her bazaars and tithehalls remained open – and guarded – while her craftmasters and bookkeepers were kept recompensed and busy, vital to the continued cycle. Terhnwood still came into the city, rationed and managed. A portion of it was still stored, and its equivalent weight and value in goods was still traded back to the farmlands, and beyond. Where Fhaveon had slammed shut her trade-borders and hoarded what crop she still had, so Amos tallied the absolute minimums she’d need to maintain herself and her farmlands, and then sent bretir outwards on various carefully plotted routes with offers of what little remained.

Around Amos, the trade cycle limped into motion once more. Control was merciless, violence inevitable, justice savage and swift. Local freemen and warriors were recompensed in food and kit, and they defended the city to her last.

The system was shaky, but it held. Perhaps due to Nivrotar’s power and reputation, perhaps to her ruthless Tundran intellect, Amos was still in business.

Seeking the work, more warriors came.

And more traders came.

And after them, in a steady trail of hope, came the refugees.

Amos was a city changed.

Her inherent darkness had become a beacon, a flag of stained hope. About her walls a new life had grown, a patchwork of fabric slum, swollen with life and colour. Here, gathering for shelter against the blight and the fear and the “little death”, had come the people who had nowhere else to go.

When Triqueta had first ridden from the city’s southernmost gate, the area had been a trade-road bazaar, loud and rough and muddy, a haven for smugglers and pirates. Now, it was a crazed tessellation of scents and shouts and smoke, tents and lean-tos, all growing one into another like lichens in the wet. There were old hangings and tacked-together cloaks, scavenged parts of stalls, salvaged pieces of wood and stone, all carbuncled against the buttresses, or collaged in corners as if they had been flung there.

The main roadway was puddled and rutted, strewn with garbage – and seething with people, some directionless and underfoot, others purposeful and frustrated. As Triq tried to shoulder the mare through the mass, beggars crowded about her, held out dirty bowls and dirtier hands; they owned only what they stood in and crying children clung to their legs. In a moment, she and the horse were surrounded by voices and pleas, by the stink of piss and urgency.

She dismounted, found herself walled in by flesh – the refugee village seemed to have swelled even since the birth of the sun. For a moment, she thought of her own crazed wealth – the hoarded metal from the Elementalist Maugrim’s peculiar treasure chamber. Even if she’d had it with her, it would have been useless – some ludicrous jest of the Gods.

The rain grew heavier, cold from the sea, and the lightning flashed again. As she came closer to the dark rise of the gate itself, the roadway grew clearer and the crowd began to drift away, back towards their makeshift homes, and whatever hope they could find.

She wished she had some of her own to spare for them.

Amos was a city changed.

At the open southernmost gate, Triq found a cluster of freemen and women gathered round a firebox. Their weapons were close but not in hand, and they bore their colours with the casual attitude of soldiers who’d not worn them in training.

They eyed her as she came near but they seemed unworried, grumbling among themselves with affable discontent.

“Breakfast?” She grinned at them, and they grunted in return.

To the landward of where they stood, spreading all the way back to the city wall, there was a cleared plaza, thick with caking mud. Here, there was a square of more regular tents – a hospice, a foodhall, a tithehall – all makeshift but functioning. Smoke curled into the air, and cloaked figures scurried.

Above them, the black wall rose like the end of the world.

“Triq!”

Through the scattering rain, the sound of her name startled her – it had come from the front of one of the tents.

“Triq!”

There – was that someone waving?

At the far side of the square there was a wide sprawl of greenish tent, its awning bulging with water and its guy-lines strained tight. Triqueta blinked, wiped her eyes. Under the awning was a slim, pale-haired figure.

Amethea.

Friend and apothecary, with a resilience that had faced down Aeona’s nightmare figments, she was tired and filthy-faced, stained with mud and fluids. Her pale skin was flecked with darkness like the missing pieces of lives.

As she saw Triqueta look, she ducked out of the doorway and ran, the mud clinging thickly to her boots. It was sheltered from the wind here, and Triq could hear her shouting, words falling over themselves.

“Triq! Oh, thank the Goddess you’re here! She’s – Gods! – you have to see her for yourself. I can’t even think… been awake for a day and half…” She caught up, panting, and stopped to speak, stroking the walking horse’s nose. The mare snorted at her smell. “Gods, this is so crazed—!”

“Whoah!” Triqueta put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

“Start at the beginning. I have to see who?”

Amethea blinked water. Rain ran down her face like tears; her garments were soaked through, bloodstains blossoming into sodden flowers of pink. She gestured back at the tent. “I can’t… You have to come and see her for yourself.”

“See who?” Alarmed now, Triq’s heart was thumping, echoing anxious like the distant, thunderous rumble. “Thea. Make sense.”

The teacher shook her head. “Look, Taegh’ll take the horse.” She nodded at a sodden, tow-haired lad, his own shirt spattered with the Gods-alone-knew-what. “I’ve… Gods, I didn’t know what else… I’ve had to put her right at the back of the tent ’til I can work out what to do with her.” Amethea was striving not to cry, but whether from panic or horror or pure exhaustion, Triq couldn’t tell. “We have to get her to the Palace. To the Bard. He was her friend, he has to see what happened to her—”

“Amethea.” Triqueta put the other hand on the other shoulder. “What the rhez are you talking about?”

“Come on. You have to see.”

Amos was a city that would never be the same again.

The two women splashed through the mud, then ducked under the swollen awning.

And Triqueta stopped dead, her hands covering her face. Dear Gods.

The tent was closeness and reek, layers of blood and rot and shit and panic, of herbs and horror and hope. Over their heads, the rain faded to a steady drumming, claustrophobic and ominous; under their boots, the mud was covered in old matting that was mouldering in the wet, stamped into mulch.

And the people…

Triqueta didn’t deal well with illness – like her hard-jesting Banned family, she faced incapacity with a bravado that picked despair up by the throat and shook it, daring it to do its worst.

This clustered mess of hurt, this helplessness – it scared her to the core of her soul.

By the rhez.

Closest to her, almost under her feet, was a young man, a soldier by the look of him – pale-haired and pale-skinned, his face contorted round a harm she couldn’t bear to witness, but couldn’t tear herself away from. As she watched him, he bunched, folding in on himself, knees to his chest, and began to shudder, spasms racking his body. Triq looked for help, for someone to come to him, but Amethea shook her head.

She turned away. Drew Triqueta with her.

Something in that movement was fatal, final – whatever was the matter with him, there was nothing she could do.

And she knew it.

For no reason, Triqueta saw the dying Feren, Redlock’s kinsman slain by the centaurs. It seemed like a lifetime ago, when the Varchinde still blazed with both hope and summer, when she and Ress had ridden from the Bard’s fears in The Wanderer to Maugrim’s swelling power at the centre of the plains. The boy’s memory was shadowed like a figment, deep in the skin of the soldier’s face.

The thunder sounded again, laughing at her.

Helpless, she followed Amethea’s tug, picking her way carefully to one of the tent’s long, rounded ends. As they came though the crush to a makeshift curtain, Amethea paused and glanced back.

“I hope you skipped breakfast.”

“Skipped…?”

The question died as the curtain came back and Triqueta saw who – what – Amethea had found.

No.

The denial was inevitable, reflexive. Triqueta found herself backing away. The thing in the tent was shrivelled and shrunken, lined and cracked; its face was a hollow, and it was curled in upon itself as if it had tried to carry the entire Count of Time upon its thin shoulders.

It – she – was dead.

Dead of vast age, of returns beyond number.

Unspeaking, tense with a nauseous roil of memory and horror, Triqueta stared, her hands to her mouth and her mind roaring wordless. Refusal knotted in her belly, rose in her throat, burned hot at the backs of her eyes. She couldn’t pull her gaze away; the woman’s face was a mapwork of life’s experience, now stilled.

Skipped breakfast.

It took a moment for Triqueta to realise – she knew who this was.

Had been.

Dear Gods.

As the full understanding hit her, she was on her knees in the mulch, swallowing hard, burning her throat with bile. Shocked tears were hot on her skin. She knew exactly what she was seeing – knew it, by the rhez, knew it intimately. She wanted to shake herself, to wake up, to cry denial, to realise that this was one of Aeona’s damned figments, something from the Gleam Wood, some nightmare they’d found or brought with them…

It had to be. Didn’t it.

Didn’t it?

But when she blinked, the aged thing was still there.

Triq swallowed again, acid and horror. Her heart was already pounding from the storm, from the hovels outside – now it shuddered like the unsettled sky. Her throat afire, she said stupidly, “No… This is some jest, some coincidence. It can’t…”

“I wish to every God it was.” Amethea’s voice caught and she staggered, caught herself on Triqueta’s shoulder. She didn’t let go, and Triq put a hand over her friend’s, both of them transfixed by the rotten thing that lay on the pallet.

Then Amethea rallied, stood up straight.

“Triq,” she said, “I really need your help. I know this is hard for you, but I need to understand what’s happened to her, what’s…” Amethea gestured helplessly, seeking words. “It’s like what happened to you. With Tarvi. Like her time was… just… sucked away.”

“No.” Triqueta was shaking. “No.” When Amethea didn’t respond, Triq glanced sideways at her friend. “It can’t be, it can’t be. I killed that damned daemon bitch Tarvi myself. And Vahl Zaxaar—”

“Was defeated,” Amethea said. “He went raging to Fhaveon and Rhan threw him down, Nivrotar told us.” Her eyes met her friend’s. “But, Triq, think. If that’s true, then who did this? What did this?” Her eyes shone with the horror of it. She blinked moisture, took a long and shaking breath. “And to Karine?”

Karine.

Capable, outspoken, no-nonsense Karine. The heart of The Wanderer, the Bard’s ward and word and organisation…

Triqueta stared at the shrivelled thing.

Karine.

If the Bard himself had been The Wanderer’s motivation, the tavern’s soul and purpose, then Karine had been its fire, its sheer efficiency. Her vibrancy had been palpable; she’d been a constant whirl of energy, equally good-humoured, annoying and relentless. To see her like this, her returns literally sucked from her skin…

Triqueta’s throat burned; figments of other memories taunted her.

Tarvi’s kiss. Glorious. A moment of absolute passion, incredible. And a cost beyond words, beyond comprehension.

But Tarvi was gone: she’d killed that damned bitch-thing herself. What else was there that could do this, could drain the very Count of Time from the flesh of a friend? Vahl Zaxaar? The – what were they called? – the “vialer”? More of Aeona’s flesh-crafted creations?

For the tiniest moment, Triqueta wondered if they should suspect the Bard himself – the change in him was chilling. Since the loss of The Wanderer and his return from Ecko’s world, he was a lean, savage shadow and nothing like the man he had been.

The whole damn world’s gone loco. Really this time…

She swallowed again, trying to rid herself of memory, of clamouring fear, of the awful, awful burning in her throat.

Karine.

The tent side strained against the harsh wind. Water dripped from the bottom edge and seeped under their feet.

“Triqueta.” Amethea gripped her shoulders, looked into her face. The girl’s blue eyes were as dark as the storm-ridden sky, and then it was all there in the air between them. Not only Karine and the Bard and the lost Wanderer, but Tarvi’s kiss, Maugrim’s flame, the figments at Aeona, Redlock’s monstrous transformation – everything they’d seen and shared, everything they’d lived through and fought for and been helpless to prevent. The summer had left them, the autumn had faded; the winter had come and the grass had died. The vast and empty plainland stood barren, scoured to the bone.

Everything that’d brought them this far had gone, or changed beyond the telling of it.

Distantly, the thunder grumbled again – some creature defeated, and waiting.

“You know what this is,” Amethea said softly. She shook her friend gently. “You do, don’t you? You know.” Her face was grey as parchment; there were shadows under her eyes. “You’ve felt this.”

“No, I haven’t, this is crazed, this is loco.” Triqueta broke her friend’s grip, almost snapped it at her. “Look at her, Thea, look! How could I know? How could anyone? How could anyone understand… that? Karine…” Her voice cracked. “Dammit, Karine doesn’t hold some secret, any more than… any more than Redlock did…” Then she lost it, and she was really crying, coughing as she spoke, tears mingling with the rain on her face. “Thea.” She spoke through sobs, almost unintelligible. “This is all crazed. I can’t do this any more, I can’t do this, it’s too much. I want…”

I want all this to never have happened. I want the summer, I want The Wanderer. I want the plains to be free and the figments and the horrors all gone. I want to ride, and laugh, and know that we have a future ahead of us…

I want my damned youth back!

The last thought caught and tripped her, made her look back at the shrunken thing.

Youth, by the rhez.

At least I’m still here. Still fighting.

Still able to fight.

Amethea put her bloodied arms around her friend’s shoulders and they held each other for a moment. But the teacher did not bow her head, did not flinch or cry.

Her voice tinged with stone, she said, “We’ll see this through to the end. For Karine. For Feren. For Redlock. For The Wanderer and all of her people, for Roderick’s vision. For Ecko. For our damned selves.”

On the other side of the curtain, a voice cried out; there were echoes of panic. The rain, slackening now, pattered on the top of the tent.

After a moment, Triqueta stood, rubbing her hands over her face. She nodded, understanding settling on her like ash.

Amethea said, “We’ll take this to Nivrotar. And you’ll have to tell her, Triq, tell her everything. What it felt like, if you could’ve stopped it…”

Don’t you think I would have?

Triq’s face must have changed because Amethea flushed, her cheekbones bright against her pale skin.

She said, “We need to understand. Tarvi said she was Kas, like Vahl Zaxaar, and that they needed time to live. Whatever did this, we need to know. Because I don’t think this is over.”

***

Ecko Endgame is out now, published by Titan Books. The third in the series, it follows Ecko Rising and Ecko Burning. For more on Danie Ware’s novels and writing, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

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