Skysworn is coming out in two days, and I've been so busy that I have neglected you! I should have been talking to you more and more as release approached, and I've instead isolated myself to work on the book.
But no more! Following the "Read More" break, you'll find the first half of Skysworn: Chapter One! This is the first scene in the story, and I've shared a few lines from it already.
If you'd care to avoid spoilers, no problem! Simply don't click "Read More" below.
The beta readers have agreed that there were no major plot changes necessary, so I'm ready to release! Well, there was one change: I had to get rid of the storyline in which Lindon adopted a young orphan girl, he and Yerin grew to raise this child as their own daughter, the girl died of cancer, and Lindon abandoned his quest and spent the rest of his life in mourning.
Otherwise, we're good to go!
And I hope you're as excited to see Skysworn released as I am!
EDIT: Some of you are asking a few questions about the book's release, and they're great questions! Instead of responding to everyone individually, I thought I'd pop an answer up here where everybody can see it (for the chapter, skip to the bottom and click Read More)!
FAQ #1: "What time Sunday will the book be available?"
Answer: Early Sunday morning, but check back here and I'll post a link as soon as it goes live!
I expect to begin the upload process late Saturday night, with the hopes that it will be available shortly after midnight (Pacific time, because that's Amazon's time zone) on Sunday morning. Usually the book is available for sale about 1-2 hours after I upload it, but I have no control over that. It's in Amazon's massive, many-fingered hands.
As for the other regions, which don't use Amazon.com, my guess is as good as yours. Amazon.co.uk usually takes another hour or two, but sometimes it has been up before Amazon.com. So I can't be sure.
Regardless, I'll send out an email to the mailing list, a post on Facebook, a blog post, and a message in a bottle as soon as I get a live link!
FAQ #2: "When is the next one coming out?"
Answer: After Elder Empire is finished, so next year!
I've already gotten some emails about book five, so let me nip this in the bud right now.
Here's my current release plan:
1.) Of Kings and Killers / Of Killers and Kings
2.) City of Light audiobook (may be out before OKAK, depending on how long it takes me to finish those books)
3.) Cradle #5
4.) Something else, probably Traveler's Gate (but I promise nothing!)
5.) Cradle #6
6.) The moon turns red as blood and we are all devoured by an ancient beast from the world's beginning
7.) Cradle #7
FAQ #3: "Do you have any more news about Elder Empire, the series that time forgot?"
Answer: I do! I'm planning a big re-launch of the series to coincide with the release of books five and six.
Basically, as I was working on OKAK, I realized that my writing style has grown and evolved over the last year or two. So in order to avoid a huge stylistic mismatch, I'll be doing an editing pass on the previous four books.
I'll use a light touch, don't worry. Characters and events will stay the same, so if you're familiar with the stories you won't be thrown off, I'm just going to polish up my prose and dust off my dialogue.
Also, the old covers were...made on a budget...though I have a special place in my heart for the Shadow cover.
As a result, I'll be re-covering the first four to match the new style of Killers/Kings, cleaning up the writing, and launching/re-launching all six either simultaneously or close together. Paperbacks for OSAS and ODAD will be updated at launch, and I expect OKAK paperbacks will be available at the same time as the ebooks (though I can't be certain).
But when, though?
Not too much longer. I will not write another book between now and OKAK, and that is a soul-oath between me and you. However, doing six covers at the same time has its challenges, and this is a very complex story. So when will it be released? Not sure.
I have to finish writing OKAK (which is underway) and then make sure the books match up not just to each other, but to the first books in the series as well; if you've read them, you know that the flashback storylines have to wrap around to the beginning of the first books. It gets complicated.
More detailed answers coming after Skysworn! Hopefully quickly!
(And now, it's time for Skysworn...)
Jai Daishou hiked up the sharp peaks alone, madra trickling through his body in a weak stream. The white metal strands of his hair flogged his back with each step as he pressed against the wind, moving higher with every step.
Remnants blacker than the night sky lined his path. They were voids against the stars, their caws like shattering glass, their feathers drifting down like shredded shadows. The feathers hissed as they landed on the rocks, eating into the stone. They had dissolved his shoes already, but an Underlord’s flesh was not so easily seared away.
He felt his weakness in every step, as agony traveled up his ankles and into his spine like lightning. His spirit was no longer strong enough to prop up his fragile body.
A month ago, he could have made this journey without pain. But back then, he’d still had hope. Options. Many plans in play, many pieces on the board. He had already been dying, but not so quickly.
Now, he only wanted his clan to outlive him. Anything that prolonged the life of the Jai clan was a virtue. No matter what it cost.
As raven Remnants screeched at him, he climbed toward a gamble he never would have made, had he any other choice.
This was the first of his last hopes.
He reached the end of the road, a sharp cliff overlooking an ocean of clouds. It stretched out before him as though he stood before the end of the world, and overhead the stars glared down at him.
Mist swirled before the cliff as something moved beneath the cloud’s surface. An instant later, wings of shadow rose from the gray cloud. Each of these wings was the size of a ship’s sail, and the head that followed was bigger than a horse. It looked like a bird formed from living ink.
The vast raven filled his vision, floating in the air with still wings. It remained motionless, not disturbing the icy wind with a single flap, drifting like a ghost instead of a living thing. Curls of darkness rose from its feathers.
Jai Daishou inclined his head. As a supplicant, he should have bowed, but his back had locked up so tight he thought he might fold over backwards. His lack of respect might kill him, and that thought chilled him as much as the Remnant’s presence. No matter how much he had prepared to throw his own life away if necessary, nothing could prepare him to come face-to-face with a spirit of death.
“I greet you, Lord of Specters, and I come with an offering.” From his robes, he produced an ebony box, holding it out in both hands. He could only hope the spirit heard him over the screeching of its flock.
Not all those who sought the Remnant’s services brought an offering, but the wise did. It was quite separate from the raven’s price, but a freely given offering bought a measure of protection. Returning a gift with betrayal incurred a soul-debt, which the Remnant should want to avoid.
This would not save Jai Daishou if he truly offended the Lord, but it couldn't hurt his chances.
Two of the raven Remnants fluttered down from their rocky perches, landing on his arms. They radiated a cold that infected him, stealing his warmth, seeping even into his spirit.
With an identical motion of two beaks, they flipped open the box.
A severed head lay on a bed of stained velvet, its skin waxy and blue, its tongue swollen out of its mouth. This was a servant of the Arelius family whose name Jai Daishou had never learned—he had needed a head, and so he had taken one. Better to steal from his enemies than from his friends.
The great raven opened its beak and inhaled. In the Jai Underlord’s sight, a dark and nebulous mist lifted from the corpse’s head like smoke from a fire. Death aura had once been difficult for him to see, until he had learned the trick of it. Until he had become accustomed to its presence.
Once the Remnant had its mouthful, Jai Daishou threw the box—head and all—out over the cliff. It would have been more polite to kneel and place the container on the ground, but his knees were giving him almost as much trouble as his back.
The Lord of Specters opened its beak once more, and a voice issued forth like a distant chorus singing a dirge. “Tell us the name of your enemy.” The screeching bird-spirits grew louder, their discordant song scraping his ears.
In the Blackflame Empire, when you wanted an Underlord dead, you had precious few options.
There were weapons that could do it, but killing an Underlord yourself risked reprisal from their family and friends. And most assassins were Truegold at best. Any poisons that could affect a body forged in soulfire would cost a fortune, and the refiners with the skill to make such poisons were difficult to silence.
Still, there were a few specialists, if you had the resources and the fortitude to hire them. Among them, the Lord of Specters was the most…palatable.
“The feud between us cannot be solved except by blood,” Jai Daishou said, raising his voice over the smaller, squawking Remnants. “I cannot kill him, and I fear that when I die, his family will tear mine apart.”
The raven remained silent, listening. Some legends said that if the Lord found your reasons insufficient, it would feed you to its flock.
“His name is Eithan Arelius.”
Instantly, the broken-glass screeching of the ravens died. The night was silent but for the wind, which gasped across the spear-sharp peaks of the mountain.
“Eithan Arelius will not be taken,” the Lord of Specters sang. “Choose another, or be gone.”
Jai Daishou stood in shock, like he’d taken a step forward to find his foot poised over a chasm. He had come prepared for a failure of negotiations, or for hostility, or for the Lord of Specters to demand a price too high. But not for an immediate, flat-out refusal.
“Lord of Specters, your servant can prepare a handsome price. Blood essences from life-Remnants more than a century old. Spirits sworn to your service by oath. Scales of death and shadow from the Path of the Twisting Abyss. Name any wish, and if it is within your servant’s power, I will fulfill it.”
The Lord finally flapped its great wings, and ice crawled along Jai Daishou’s spirit. His madra pulsed brightly in his channels, fighting against the darkness—a weaker sacred artist might have withered in that one gust.
“Eithan Arelius is a friend to the flock. He has given us great gifts.”
“Only to protect himself,” Jai Daishou insisted. “He wants to tie you down so that none can hire you against him; he has no loyalty to you.”
“Even so,” the great raven said. “To act against him would bind our soul with chains of debt. You may name another, but not a feather of ours will harm Eithan Arelius.”
“Let me tell you something about that family,” Mo She said, slamming his clay mug back down on the tavern table. “You don’t ever take a contract against an Arelius. Not a real Arelius, anyway. They always see you coming.” Mo She looked like a desiccated corpse someone had unearthed from an ancient tomb: a skeletal, shriveled man with skin tight over his bones and hair like drifting scraps of mist.
His eyes were mismatched; one a blind, milky white, and the other a statue’s eye carved of green jade.
“And then there’s this Arelius in particular,” Mo She continued. “He doesn’t just see you when you strike. He saw you when you got up this morning.”
Jai Daishou stiffened in his chair. He may be on the last leg of his mortal journey, but he was still an Underlord. He had enough power to punish insolence. “You speak of him as though he were above me.”
In the half-empty tavern, quite a few eyes turned to Jai Daishou. The barkeeper, polishing his counter with a towel, chuckled. A one-legged boy in the corner grinned at him, mocking.
They knew exactly who he was. They knew of his pride, but they showed open contempt for him anyway.
You did not join the Path of the Last Breath if you cared about staying alive.
Mo She held up his hand for peace, taking another drink as he did so. “Me and my boys would take a contract out on the heavens themselves, if the price was right. Worst that could happen is we die, right? But going up against somebody who knows you’re coming and can do something about it…well, there’s a difference between gambling and throwing your money down a well.”
From his robes, Jai Daishou withdrew a gilded box the size of his palm. He clapped it down onto the table, then slid it across to Mo She.
With his thumb, Mo She cracked the lid. As he did so, a gust of wind pushed the box all the way open, along with a pale green light. Wind aura gathered around the box, a gentle storm of green, and air rushed and spun all around the box. Mo She’s brown robes rippled in the wind, and his hair blew away from his face.
“A top-grade scale,” Jai Daishou said. “Forged by the Emperor himself. I have collected seven of these over the years, for my services to the Empire.” He had never meant to use them as currency, carrying them instead as badges of honor. But when the enemy was at the gates, you used any weapon you could get your hands on.
Mo She didn’t have anyone who could swallow the scale directly—it would take an Underlord to process even a fraction of this scale’s energy—but it could be used to power weapons of wind madra, to fuel a massive boundary formation, or to nurture wind-aspect sacred herbs. Failing that, Mo She could just sell it. This was the most valuable coin in the Blackflame Empire.
With clear reluctance on his face, Mo She forced the lid shut. “It’s a pretty offer, but you’d have to prove to me that he’s not watching us right now. You want somebody for a suicidal mission, sure, we're your guys. But this is just suicide.”
Even in the depths of night, the jungle air was still hot and choking. Water aura swirled in Jai Daishou’s spiritual sight, almost equal to the power of wind. But brighter than both was the vivid green of life aura, which made the dense mesh of vines and trees around him look like an emerald bonfire.
The trees loomed over him, swallowing the sky, filtering the sunlight through their wide leaves. The noise from the jungle's inhabitants was like a force itself. As ever-present as the heat, that mass of chirps, growls, screeches, and screams crushed his ears.
At the southern edge of the Blackflame Empire, this lush green expanse had once belonged to the Tanaban clan. Before they had been driven to extinction by the mad Blackflames.
Now, this was the home of a thousand squabbling families, none large or important enough to be called a clan. If the heavens provided, he could enter and leave without anyone ever knowing he'd been here.
A crash echoed through the jungle, and he tightened his veil: the technique that hid and contained his power as an Underlord. He forced his body to hurry despite the sharp pain in his knees, huddling behind a thick bush.
A tree lifted one mass of roots like a leg, taking another step forward, wading through the foliage like a man through shallow water. It crushed a sapling underfoot, and a panicked squeal cut through the noises of the jungle.
A plump creature the size of a dog shot away from the walking tree, whimpering loudly. A tenderfoot scurried off, thankfully not in Jai Daishou's direction. If he had to unveil himself and destroy one of these ancestral trees, the Underlady of the southern jungles would sense him in a blink.
Tenderfoots were like wild pigs with the long, floppy ears of rabbits. They bred quickly, fed on roots and leaves, and served as prey for most of the jungle.
A hand of vines reached down from the tree and snatched up the tenderfoot, which kicked its legs wildly as it was shoved into a widening gap in the bark. When the tree crunched down, blood and one severed leg fell to the ground.
There were thousands of ancestral trees in this jungle, and most of them fed on blood and flesh. When Jai Daishou had flown in on his Thousand-Mile Cloud, he had seen a dozen of them circling the ocean of leaves like sharks in the surf.
He had to withdraw his spiritual senses in order to maintain his veil, but he estimated this tree was only Jade. The Lowgolds could move faster, and some of them had developed eyes. The Truegolds could be crafty, in their way. Above that...
This was a vast and wild land. Some of these trees were truly ancient, and truly powerful.
When the tree had finished feeding, a flock of colorful birds fluttered down from its branches, fighting over the bits of flesh that had fallen from the plant's meal. They tugged the meat between their beaks, glaring at one another. As they fought, the nearby soil swirled up as though caught in a sudden wind.
Sacred beasts. They lived in the branches of the ancestral trees, feeding on leftovers and the occasional spirit-fruit the tree produced. In return, they helped defend their tree against rivals.
When the tree had finally gone, Jai Daishou progressed. The scripted eight-sided plate in his hands glowed softly blue to the north-northwest, so he headed that way.
He wasn't supposed to know the exact location of this prison, and it would go badly for him if anyone knew he'd marked it for later return. The Deepwalker Ape had killed thousands before it was finally subdued by the previous Empress, and officially it had been executed.
Unofficially, the bloodthirsty creature had been given to the Underlady of the south to imprison. One did not simply throw away an Underlord-level sacred beast. Not when it could be turned to the good of the Empire someday.
Jai Daishou intended to turn it to the good of the Jai clan instead.
He finally reached his goal in a clearing: a massive boulder the size of a house, dropped into a ring of trees as though it had fallen from the sky. Now that he was out of the shade, the sun beat down so hard that even he began to sweat. A human without a robust Iron body might have been killed by that heat.
The Underlord struck one unremarkable knob of rock, and a hidden circle lit white. He repeated that process six times in different places, and finally the aura in the area shimmered and dispersed.
A formation designed to lock the boulder in place. If he hadn't helped design this prison, he would never have been able to remove this lid. And only careful interrogation of some of his old friends, who had actually placed the seal, allowed him to find its location.
He braced his hands against the blistering hot rock, Enforcing his body with madra. The flow of power strained against his veil, almost revealing him, but he limited himself to the level of a Truegold. Even so, his soulfire-forged body had advantages no Gold could ever hope to imitate.
Jai Daishou shouted, both to chase away the pain in his joints and to focus his attention. He pushed against the rocky soil, shoving the boulder forward.
His feet started to dig down into the ground, and he used a quick Ruler technique to add force aura to his push. Force was not quite his chosen Path—sword aura was a specific adaptation of force aura, but in practice, they were cousins at best—but his mastery was such that it was enough. The stone slid away from its resting-place, slamming into a pair of trees with a crunch and knocking them over.
The lid's removal revealed a wide, circular pit ten yards across. A stench billowed up from within, like blood and sweat and carrion left to rot in the sun, but its contents were shrouded in absolute darkness.
Jai Daishou drew himself up despite the aching in his back, Enforcing his lungs. “Ape!” he shouted down. “Jai Daishou, Underlord of the Jai clan, brings you freedom!”
Except for the buzz of insects and scream of a distant cat, silence reigned.
He looked to the edges of the hole, where chains thicker than his wrists were still securely anchored. They were steel with veins of halfsilver, and they should anchor the ape's madra as well as its massive strength.
The last he'd seen the creature, it was half-mad with rage, and had sworn bloody revenge against the Imperial clan and every Blackflame Underlord. This beast would be a disaster, one that he was reluctant to unleash on the Empire, but it shouldn't be too hard to steer it toward the Arelius family first. Afterwards, it could be dealt with.
But he had expected it to howl and rage at the sight of him. Instead, it was quiet. Was it dead? Or had it learned patience in its long imprisonment?
Jai Daishou reached out to the power of the sunlight around him. There was no light aura in the pit, but it was strong up here. He gathered the light with his Ruler technique, focusing it, shining it down into the pit as though he were magnifying it through a telescope.
The beam shone down, revealing the distant bottom of the pit. The prison was a long cylinder, many stories deep, its walls circled with security scripts. The Deepwalker Ape should have waited at the bottom, staring up at him in rage. Or its body should have lain there, broken after decades of isolation.
Instead, the floor was spotlessly clean. No fur, no muck, no blood. Nothing.
Only two characters scratched into the stone floor, so large that they were visible from the entrance so far above.
Two words: “Nice try.”
Jai Daishou didn't need to have seen the characters before to recognize Eithan Arelius' handwriting.
He staggered back from the edge of the pit, clutching his stomach. All his life, he had heard of people coughing up blood in anger. He had always thought of it as an expression, an artistic way of illustrating the toxic feel of anger.
But now, he really felt as though he were choking back blood. It had taken him weeks to reach this jungle, far from his lands. And it cost him a small fortune to keep it secret.
All the while, he had been nothing but a fool dancing in Eithan's hand.
Jai Daishou actually did cough then, and he spat into his palm. The saliva was stained red.
So you could cough up blood in rage. Or perhaps his time was even closer than he'd thought.
In a fury, Jai Daishou tore away the veil over his core, uncaring of the consequences. He cycled his madra to its limit, and white blades of light shredded the trees, tearing apart the forest in time with his rage.
The Deepwalker Ape had been the last piece he could play with only one life on the line. The last weapon he could buy so cheaply.
But now? Now, he would see Eithan dead at any cost. If his clan had to burn, if the Empire itself did, Eithan Arelius would burn with it.
(2nd in length)
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