The final novel in Mike Shackle‘s excellent Last War series, Until the Last, is one of my most-anticipated novels of the year. The first in the series, We Are the Dead is one of the best fantasy debuts I’ve read: it did everything a modern fantasy novel should do, and I was hooked from very early on. Today, Gollancz has provided an excerpt to share. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
SEKINOWARI – THE LAST WAR – HAS ARRIVED.
The breakneck conclusion to the trilogy that started with We Are the Dead. To beat the ultimate evil, sometimes the price is more than you can pay…
The war with the Egril has changed Tinnstra forever. A coward no more, she’ll go to any length to defeat every last one of her enemies.
Zorique has grown into her powers. It’s time for her to lead her army into Jia and spearhead the fight for her homeland.
But at what cost? The Egril emperor Raaku – the Son of Kage himself – is waiting for them. And he intends to destroy Zorique, Tinnstra and all their allies.
They will need to put everything on the line if Jia hopes to see the dawn.
And now, on with the excerpt…
His Imperial Majesty Raaku, son of the mighty Kage, the one true God, walked through the caverns beneath his castle. Four monstrous bodyguards followed in his step, but he was barely aware of them. After all, they’d been his shadows for nearly a century now, from the very first days after he took control of his tribe. He gave them strength and long lives; they gave him their eternal loyalty and protection. Not that he needed it here, in the heart of his kingdom, at the source of his power. Servants fell to their knees and bowed as he passed, but Raaku paid them no heed.
The caverns spread out under his castle in every direction. Each cave had its own pool of holy water, used by Raaku in a different way. The largest was dedicated to the Daijaku. In that chamber alone there were hundreds of cocoons, half-submerged in the water, at various stages of development. Veksters, his most skilled workers, waded amongst the shells, checking the growth of the inhabitants, looking for cracks, making sure no harm came to their charges until they were ready to hatch. It took six months to turn a man into a Daijaku. And then a few more to train them to be lethal.
He passed chamber after chamber, pausing only here and there to check on the Veksters’ work, ensuring that they carried out their tasks meticulously. Despite their trusted status, the Veksters heads were enclosed in iron bascinets and their bodies barely clothed to ensure that none of them could drink or steal the holy waters. He also insisted their tongues were removed to prevent them from talking about what they witnessed beneath the castle. Each Vekster served for a maximum of five years before they gave their lives to Kage in the Red Lake, lest prolonged exposure to the waters gave them powers they did not deserve.
One waited outside the iron door that marked the last chamber in the caverns, a tray laden with food and water in her hands. She did not bow as Raaku approached, merely waited, still as stone – the way she had been taught.
His guardians moved to either side of the door, taking up their positions. They were not allowed to follow him inside. As much as he trusted them, some conversations were not meant for ears other than his own.
Raaku waited while the Vekster’s key activated the runes engraved in the door. Red light danced across its surface as the locks slid free. The Vekster pushed the door open and stepped aside so Raaku could enter alone. Runes carved into the walls illuminated the interior, revealing the chamber’s sole occupant.
The man stared at Raaku, his bravery borne out of madness as he bared his teeth in greeting. His hair was long and his beard in need of a trim, but no doubt the Veksters would see to that soon enough. Chains trailed from his wrists to the walls, just long enough to allow the man to move around his cell. The man’s only comfort was a cot to sleep on. He was a heathen after all and deserved no more – not even after a hundred years of captivity.
The Emperor waited while the Vekster placed the tray to one side and retrieved the buckets filled with the prisoner’s waste. She returned a moment later with two fresh buckets and placed them beside the cot. Only then did she leave and shut the door behind her.
‘Hello, Laafien,’ said Raaku.
The Jian bared his teeth and growled.
‘I came to tell you it has begun.’
‘It began long ago.’ Laafien’s voice was full of anger and hate.
Raaku smiled. ‘When you found me.’
‘A cursed day.’
The man bared his teeth once more and rattled his chains.
‘A blessed day. My father sent you to show me the way to eternal glory.’
‘So you believe.’
‘So I know. After all, Sekanowari is upon us and soon the False Gods will be no more.’
‘If you believe that, why are you here?’ The man jutted his chin towards Raaku, clicking his teeth.
‘Even you have doubts. Fears. Victory is not certain.’
‘What have you seen?’
‘Of the future? Not enough. Never enough.’ A flash of a smile.
‘Otherwise I’d never have found you – and let you live.’
‘That was my father’s hand at work,’ said Raaku. ‘But you are also right. I want to know what you can see of the days ahead, the battles I must fight.’ He reached down to his belt and the gourds that hung there. The man skittered back as he saw Raaku select one and uncork it.
‘I won’t drink it,’ hissed Laafien with a shake of his head. ‘I won’t.’
‘But you must,’ said Raaku. ‘You have to drink the holy water if you are to have your visions and to prolong your life.’
‘I don’t want to live!’ screamed the man, but Raaku ignored him. After a hundred and twenty years together, the man was predictable.
He grasped the man’s jaws, squeezed his mouth open and poured the holy water down his throat. The man spluttered, tried to spit the water out, but Raaku held his jaw until enough had been swallowed. He then stepped back and waited for the water to do its work.
‘I hate you!’ The man thrashed against his chains. ‘I curse the day I met you. I curse you and all who follow you.’
Raaku smiled. ‘We found out long ago that your words have no power to harm me.’
‘Then why do you keep me here? Why don’t you send me to your father in the Great Darkness?’ ‘Because you were his gift to me and I will always value you as such. You opened my eyes to my divine role in Sekanowari and helped guide me down the long road here. Now, you will help direct my victory.’
‘No. Noo … urgh … n … aaargh!’ The prisoner collapsed, convulsing as the holy water opened up his mind to the future.
Raaku watched him writhe on the ground, curious as ever regarding his father’s choice of this man – this Jian – as his messenger. One hundred and twenty years ago, Raaku had watched the dark-skinned heathen – the brother of Aasgod, the Jian’s Lord Mage – walk into his tribe’s camp on the northern steppes, his face unmasked, on a quest to find holy water. For some reason he did not know, Raaku stopped his tribe from killing Laafien for his trespass and instead, the boy who would become Emperor gave the man a seat by his fire and his food to eat and listened to his tales of magic. He heard how the holy water gave Laafien the ability to see the future, and it was at that point that Raaku began to dream of the future, too.
Raaku spent years then, serving first as the man’s guide and protector as they searched for the holy water, then as his assistant in exploring the caverns over which he later built his city. When Laafien drank the holy water for the first time, Raaku witnessed the Jian’s vision and, by his reaction, he knew the man had seen Raaku’s betrayal in his future. He’d tried to run but Raaku was a man by then and faster and stronger than some Jian mage. That was the first time Laafien had slept in this very chamber, his hands and feet bound, his legs broken, aware at last of who had walked beside him all those years. Aware of what Raaku would become.
The son of Kage.
The Emperor of an Egril Empire that stretched from north to south, east to west.
‘They come,’ gurgled the prisoner. ‘The Four. The light. The dark. The land. The sea. From far and near. She will kill you and you will kill her and she will kill you and you will kill her. Life. Death. They come from the water to fight you for earth. The Four will come. You will go, or you will die. To Aisair. That is where Sekanowari will be won.’
Raaku listened. He knew better than to ask questions. The man always spoke true and yet his words were never precise.
‘The Great Darkness waits for death. Death calls all. All is death.’ The man grew still, then sucked in air as if he’d never breathed before. His head shot up, his gleaming eyes fixed on Raaku, a mad smile slashed across his face. ‘Victory can be yours if you can defeat death. Stop death. Then you will truly be a God.’
‘If that is my father’s will, it shall be done,’ said Raaku. ‘Thank you, Laafien.’
Raaku left the chamber and locked the door behind him. His guardians fell into step behind him as he made his way back through the caverns. He had much to do. He had the end of the world to plan.
Mike Shackle’s Until the Last is out now, published by Gollancz.
Also on CR: Interview with Mike Shackle (2019); Review of We Are the Dead