Today, we have a short excerpt from Sun and Serpent by Jon Sprunk. The fourth and final book in the author’s Book of the Black Earth series, it was published by Pyr Books in December. Here’s the synopsis…
THE WAR CONTINUES, AND THE UNDEAD RAVAGE THE LAND. JIROM, HORACE, AND EMANON BEGIN TO HOPE THEY MIGHT FREE THE EMPIRE. BUT CAN THEY MANAGE TO DO SO BEFORE THE DARK KING CONQUERS THE WORLD?
Horace has come a long way from his days of slavery. Now he, Jirom, and their companions think they just might glimpse victory ahead, and the triumphant end to what began as a mere slave rebellion. But first Horace must recover from the loss of his beloved Alyra. And Jirom finds himself asking if even victory will be worth the cost–how can he be sure he and the other winners of this war will rule more justly than the Akeshians did? Meanwhile, a mysterious mass murder-suicide in a temple in Thuum hints that they have more foes than they knew of. And as they advance upon the capital, they find strange obstacles barring their way. Obstacles that suggest the barriers between worlds are growing dangerously thin…
Now, on with the excerpt…
Sun and Serpent
Thunder crackled. A cold wind blew across the empty plains surrounding the capital. A scant mile to the southeast, the sky above Ceasa was blotted by a cauldron of black storm clouds. Flickering green lightning etched their underbellies, erupting every few heartbeats in a jagged lance that reached down to stab the ground. A palpable presence of malice rode the wind.
Three Moons shivered and pulled his cloak closer around his body. He suddenly felt his age again, as if all the vigor he’d found in the Otherworld had been stripped from him. He had seen how these storms appeared in that mystical realm — a hundred massive, amorphous limbs surrounding a hungry maw. The image appeared in his mind’s eye every time he blinked, like a scar on his soul that would never fully heal.
Three Moons bent his head to spit on the ground, but his mouth was as dry as the desert breeze. It was no fun pondering existential questions while sober. He’d been up most of the night communing with the spirits. Just like at Omikur, the spirits were reticent this close to the imperial capital, but he’d been able to coax a few into talking. As they’d sipped from the bowl of fresh blood he set out, they told him of the evil doings inside the walls. Their words didn’t bring him any comfort. Death. The imprisonment of many souls in cold shells. Power beyond imagining.
By morning, he’d been tempted to open his wrists. Instead, he decided to face one last battle, to stand with the men and women of this self-styled rebellion. One last spit in Death’s baleful eye. And then, I pray I don’t feel anything else. Gods, just let me sleep.
The low hill on which he stood was the only spot of elevation on the plain for miles around. Plots of black earth — deserted farms — stretched along the banks of the river to the east, all the way to the city. Empty houses and storage hives dotted the landscape like rotting teeth amid the expanse of withered crops. The capital’s walls rose from the plain in concentric rings. Seven walls, it was said, though Three Moons could only see two from this vantage. Those broad curtains were pitted and stained black as if the stone had decayed, their jagged ramparts reminding him of rotting teeth, like a titan’s jawbone thrust up through the earth.
Soldiers talked about Ceasa like a thing out of legend. The center of the world, impregnable and eternal. To Three Moons, it looked like just another city. He’d seen big cities fall before. But never to a force so paltry.
The rebels were divided into two armies, positioned to the north of the capital. Eighteen hundred men and women sounded like a lot of people, until you saw them lined up for battle on such a vast plain, saw them dwarfed by the magnitude of the task set before them. If they had ten times as many fighters, he still wouldn’t feel confident. The eight hundred troops from Thuum were on the left flank with their outside shoulders against the river.
Doing his best to mask his unease, Three Moons walked over to where Emanon stood with the Thuumian pradi. Emanon had been in a black mood ever since Jirom left with the strike team. It was a point of honor with him to be in the heart of every battle, to throw himself into every perilous endeavor. Personally, Three Moons suspected the man had a death wish, but he kept that to himself. They were all in dark moods these days. Who can blame us, after all we’ve seen? It’s a wonder we can even function.
“Are you ready?” Emanon asked him. The rebel leader’s eyes were surrounded in dark circles as if he hadn’t slept in days. Yet, there was no fatigue in his gaze, only feverish intensity.
Three Moon shrugged under his cloak, feigning nonchalance. He’d been doing the act for so long, he saw Emanon accept it at once. More’s the pity. “As best as can be expected. I can raise a little ruckus out here on the plain. But once we get inside the city, there’s not much the spirits will be able to do for us.”
Emanon nodded as if he expected nothing more, still staring at the capital. Then he asked, “What if we made a sacrifice?”
Three Moons started to shrug again but stopped himself. This deserved a proper answer. “I don’t know if it would get the spirits’ attention. At least, not enough to stick out their necks. They’re terrified of what’s inside those walls.” And we should be, too. Damn you, Jirom. Why didn’t you let us run when we had the chance?
“What would it take to get them to fight alongside us? All the way to the end.”
Three Moons looked to Thuumian, but the pradi had turned away. “Are you suggesting human sacrifice? Hang up a few of our men by their heels and open their throats? Sure, that would get some serious attention. It might also draw out what’s inside those walls—” He paused a moment as it sank in. “I see.”
Yes, I see all too well. Draw the enemy out from behind those walls and fight them here. But would that be any better?
Three Moons didn’t fancy himself an expert strategist, but the plain before them was flat and largely featureless. Their smaller force would be dwarfed by the armies of undead inside, surrounded and devoured in short order. Fighting inside a city, house to house, was as ugly and dirty as it got, but at least the cover of walls gave them a chance of surviving long enough for Jirom to achieve his goal. After all, we’re just the diversion.
“I’ll take care it,” Three Moons said. “When the time comes.”
Jon Sprunk’s Sun and Serpent and the rest of the Book of the Black Earth novels are out now, published by Pyr Books in North America. The novels are available in the UK, published via JABberwocky.
Also on CR: Interview with Jon Sprunk (2011); Guest Posts on “Lessons I Learned While Stumbling Through the Looking Glass” and “On Change, Blood and Iron”; Reviews of Shadow’s Son and Shadow’s Lure