Authors: Marc Turner
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Many thanks to my editors, Marco Palmieri and Ali Nightingale, for having faith in the book, and for helping me to knock it into shape. Thanks also to the folks at Tor and at Titan who variously prepared, published, and publicized the book, and to my illustrator, Rhys Davies, for having the skill and patience to produce a map that fits with the words. I mean, have you seen all the islands on that thing? Rather him than me.
Special thanks to my agent, Andy Zack, for his tireless efforts in finding homes for my books around the world. Thanks also to Rebecca Josephsen for picking my manuscript out from all the others she had to read.
Finally, thank you to my dad for agreeing to read an epic fantasy book when I suspect he'd rather have been doing something else. Or anything else, for that matter. Thanks also to James for disturbing me when I needed to be disturbed, and to my wife, Suzanne, for giving me the support to start out on this writing road. And for carrying me along it a few times, too.
sworn never to return to this place.
He was not a man who gave his word lightly, yet here he stood, staring at the Sacrosanct through the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to its grounds. His gaze took in the boards across its windows, the tiles missing from the roofs of its turrets, the bleak lines of its walls that rose like black cliffs to seemingly impossible heights. Home sweet home. The place looked deserted, but there was light coming from the windows at the top of the First Guardian's towerâlike a beacon guiding him into harbor. He did not need its glow to tell him he had entered dangerous waters.
The scar running from the corner of his right eye to his jawline itched again, and he scratched it absently. He'd expected to feel something on seeing the Sacrosanct again. Had hoped to. But when he searched inside he found only emptiness tinged with disappointment. And he being such a cheerful soul normally. He took a breath. Two years ago he'd closed these gates behind him and walked away without looking back. The place had meant nothing to him then, he was a fool to have believed it would be different now.
I shouldn't have come back.
The gates were unlocked and guarded only by the twin statues of the Patrons, their grim expressions a foretaste of the reception Luker would no doubt receive inside. He pushed open the gates. Before him stretched a path flanked by rows of kalip trees, their branches casting long shadows in the half-light. Luker set off along the trail. To either side, the grounds of the Sacrosanct grew unchecked. Insects swarmed over shadowy shapes partly hidden in the undergrowth. From tangled grasses protruded the gravestones of the Lost, their epitaphs faded. Some of the graves had been disturbed, and soil lay heaped beside the stones. As an apprentice Luker had spent many evenings wandering the burial yard with his master, Kanon, listening to tales of the fallen Guardians and the sacrifices they had made. There was a time when Luker had known all their names, but not nowâthe ranks of stones had swelled while he'd been away.
Still, at least he now knew where everyone had got to.
The first drops of rain began to fall. A storm was blowing in from the south, the same storm that had buffeted Luker's ship into port earlier. Through the trees ahead, the Sacrosanct was a darker gray against the gathering gloom. The path ended at a flight of steps that Luker took two at a time. The door at the top was twice his height and made from a wood so dark it looked fire-blackened. It was set in a frame of stone engraved with runes that shone softly green. As Luker brushed his fingertips against them he felt only a faint tingling. The wards were failing.
Like every other damned thing round here.
Four years ago Luker had watched from one of the windows above as Emperor Avallon Delamar ascended these same steps. The door to the Sacrosanct had been shut then as it was now, but the runes had cast a glow that stained the emperor's face even in bright sunshine. Before entering, Avallon had taken off his coronet and set it on the top step. The gesture had brought a gasp from those watching with Luker, for its message was clear: The emperor left his sovereignty outside the walls of the Sacrosanct. He came to the Guardians to petition, not to command.
And yet the bastard still left with what he came for.
The Guardians' decision to side with the emperor that day had opened rifts in their ranks, leaving them vulnerable when Avallon came calling again, this time with poorly concealed demands for allegiance. Luker had known the episode would mark the beginning of the end for the Guardians, but he had never imagined they would be brought to their knees so quickly.
Not that he was about to get all tearful at their fall. It was too late for regrets. He had made his decision two years ago. There was no going back.
So what in the Nine Hells am I doing here?
He drew the sword on his left hip and used the pommel to pound on the door, then resheathed the blade and waited, head bowed in the rain. A while later he heard bolts being thrown back. The door opened inward. In the shadows beyond, Luker saw the weathered face of an old man, his white hair standing disheveled as if he had been disturbed from his sleep. Luker towered over him.
“What do you want?” the doorman asked.
“A little courtesy for starters,” Luker muttered. “My name's Luker Essendar. I'm here to see the First Guardian.”
The old man looked him up and down like he'd never before seen someone with honey-colored skin. Maybe he hadn't.
Luker reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a roll of parchment. The movement caught the doorman by surprise, and he stepped back, arms raised as if to fend off a blow.
“Relax.” Luker held up the scroll for the doorman to inspect. The wax seal was broken, but the stamp impressed upon it could still be made out. “Look hereâthe First Guardian's mark.”
The old man bent to peer at the scroll, his nose almost touching the parchment. After a handful of heartbeats he grunted and stepped aside to allow Luker to pass. Once Luker was inside, the doorman set his shoulder to the door, and it closed with a noise like rolling thunder. Luker waited in near blackness as the locks were secured. Water dripped from the hem of his cloak and collected in a puddle at his feet.
“Follow me,” the doorman said.
“Save your legs. I know the way.”
“Nevertheless. The First Guardian will expect me to announce you.” Without waiting for a response the doorman shuffled into the gloom. Luker fell into step behind.
They passed through a series of corridors and entered the Great Hall. A knot of shadows marked the Council table and the wooden thrones surrounding it. Gone were the rich rugs and tapestries, and Luker could hear the room's vastness in the echoes of his footsteps.
The doorman reached the far side of the chamber and entered the maze of passages beyond. Luker could have found his way through with his eyes closed. In his first years at the Sacrosanct he had spent countless nights pacing the corridors, fleeing the memories that sleep would bring. Every time, his footsteps led him to the Matron's shrineâthey passed it nowâwhere he'd sit huddled at the feet of her statue, waiting for the goddess to break the silence. And as each day dawned gray and empty he retreated to his room no closer to answers than he'd been the night before. He had lost his childhood somewhere down here in the darkness.
The doorman led him through an archway and up a spiral stairwell. There seemed to be more steps than Luker remembered, but then maybe that was down to the torturous pace his escort was setting. Reaching a door at the top, the old man turned and bid Luker wait, then knocked and went inside. Luker heard muffled voices before the old man reappeared and beckoned him to enter.