Read the beginning of Caine Black Knife, the third instalment in New York Times bestselling author Matthew Stover's action fantasy series like no other.
RETREAT FROM THE BOEDECKEN (partial)
You are CAINE (featured Actor: Pfnl. Hari Michaelson)
MASTER: NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION, UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.
© 2187 Adventures Unlimited Inc. All rights reserved.
The dirt-colored cloud spreads wide, hugging the horizon, draining into hollows of the distant hills. “That’s them,” I say to no one in particular.
The bloody sun behind my left shoulder stains cloud and hills together, and the shadow of the escarpment overhead spreads like oil across the badlands.
Tizarre stares. Her face goes pinched, and her knuckles whiten on the scabbard of her broadsword. “You’re sure? How can you be sure?”
I could quote Sun Tzu at her: Dust high and sharp will be chariots. Dust low and wide is infantry, but instead I shrug and hand her the monocular. If Sun Tzu had ever seen infantry like this, he would’ve crapped his silk fucking pajamas.
Tizarre puts the monocular to her eye, and what’s left of her color drains out of her cheeks. “Shapes in the cloud . . .” A whisper. “A lot of them.”
I nod at Rababàl. “Maybe you want to have a look, huh?”
Platinum flashes in the flick-flick-flick of the coin-size disk that appears, disappears, and appears again between Rababàl’s stubby fingers: this is what he does instead of thinking. His jowls, gone slack and sweat-streaked through the grey-coating dust, belie his carelessly nimble hands. “We have only a tendays’ supplies. We cannot afford any delay; our backers—”
“Aren’t about to get assboned by a couple hundred ogrilloi. Unlike, say, us.” I lean on the parapet and look down into the rumpled badlands. “If that band weren’t coming here, we could have maybe broken camp and scattered into the wadis. Maybe.”
“Get away? You mean retreat? Run? Flee?” Marade gives me a reproachful stare I can see upside down in her impressively curved cuirass. Must have caught her at prayer: she’s in full armor, and I can’t pretend I don’t like the look. She gives whole new meaning to the word breastplate. The twist of scorn on her face favors her—S&M cheesecake on steroids. “I would dislike to use the C-word—”
“My name’s a C-word.”
Her sudden booming laugh spills blond hair down her back. The hair’s almost as shiny as her armor, and I can’t help thinking one more time that I could really kinda get into her if she ever gave me look one. Those thighs . . . man. She could crush my pelvis like a biscuit. “But we cannot let them simply drive us like woodcocks, can we? Without a single engagement?”
“You’d know more than me about wood cocks.” Her smile slips a little. Sure: dyke jokes. Brilliant. That’ll make her like me. “One engagement is all we’ll get.”
“We have more than two dozen men under arms—”
“Porters with swords.”
Pretornio, fumbling within his cassock: “With the Skills of Dal’kannith Wargod, those porters—”
“Sure. Those porters.” I make a face. “You think they’re looking to fight ogrilloi on five royals a month? They’re just hired labor.”
The platinum disk suddenly stills. “Need I point out—” Rababàl’s scowl probably used to really impress teenage apprentice necromancers. “—that you, Caine, are yourself ‘just hired labor’?”
“Shit, no. You remind me twelve times a fucking day.” This work-for-hire stuff sucks dogshit. The best boss in the world is still only a butt-whisker this side of a collar and a whip. “So if you ignore my advice, you’re not exactly getting your money’s worth, huh?”
“Perhaps—” Pretornio coughs a wad of dust out of his throat, and wipes sand from his lips with the back of one bloodstained sacramental glove. “Perhaps we should, um, pray. For guidance—?”
“Maybe he’s right.” Dark swipes underline Tizarre’s eyes when she lowers the monocular. She’s talking about me, not the Lipkan priest. Out of all of them, she’s probably the only one who buys what I’ve told them. A close-up view—courtesy of Mr. Zeiss—of a few hundred ogrilloi converging on you in that twenty-mile-an-hour grizzly-bear lope can make a believer out of anybody. “Maybe we need to run. Right now.”
That gets the partners squabbling again. Everybody’s worried about their fucking money.
I let them argue for a little, then I break it up with a sharp “Hey. Nobody said run now. We can’t run. They’re coming here.”
They stop and stare at me like I just blew tentacles out my nose. I swing an arm over the parapet at the fever-tossed bedsheet of the Boedecken badlands. Wadis spray out from the base of the city in a sagebrush tangle that used to drain off whatever dead river once fed this hellhole. Though a thousand folds cover you from pursuers at ground level, from this high up the cliff wall you can see the bottom of every twist. Probably why those millennium-dead elves built a city here in the first place. “Once they hit these ruins, where are we gonna hide?”
Rababàl’s gallowglass Stalton nods toward the dusk-shadowed lip of the plateau that eclipses half our sky. “What about upland?”
“You’ve seen it. A tabletop for five days’ ride. Rising to the mountains. We can’t even hide over the horizon.”
He nods, understanding. Grim. “At least we’d have a head start.”
I could get to like him. We working stiffs oughta stick together. Except I keep wanting to smack the crap out of Rababàl, and if I try it Stalton’ll stomp me into a Caine-shaped grease stain. Not personal. Just his job. But it puts a cramp in our friendship.
I give him a shrug. “Nothing outpaces a hunting ogrillo. Especially not us.”
“A Cloak.” Tizarre’s looking a little wild around the eyes. “I can do a Cloak—”
“No, you can’t.”
“It’s just grassland, right? Right? Grassland’s easy. It all looks alike anyway. Easy. Even all of us. Even the horses. I could—I really could—”
“—waste your time,” I finish for her. “Ogrilloi are scent hunters. How good’s your nose?”
“How do you know they’re coming here?” The platinum disk vanishes again, and Rababàl heaves himself off the stone-cut bench. He joins me at the parapet. “They could just be—I don’t know, following a herd of bison. Migrating. Something.”
I open my hand toward Tizarre. She puts the monocular in it, and I pass it to Rababàl. He hefts it appreciatively. “Nice metalwork. Dwarven?”
“Yeah. Dwarven.” Like I’d tell you even if I could. “Pick up the vanguard just below that double notch.”
He puts the monocular to his eye. He flinches, and has to swallow twice before he can say, “Yes.”
I don’t blame him for the flinch. “Now track straight down, about halfway from them to here. See the two riders?”
He smothers an indistinct curse. “They look human.”
“That’s what the ogrilloi are chasing—?”
“They’re leading them straight here!”
I spread my hands silently: quod erat demonstrandum.
Everybody goes quiet, and their gazes all turn inward while they calculate what that might mean. I flash my teeth at Pretornio. “You want to pray? Pray the grills catch those guys.”
He stiffens, and color flares high on his cheekbones. “I will not! We should be trying to find a way to help them—”
“I’d help them, if I could. I’d help them to a couple arrows through their skulls.” I get the monocular back from Rababàl and squint through it again. “But my bow doesn’t have the range. And anyhow I’m a crappy shot.”
Thunder gathers on Marade’s face, and her eyes go colder than her Ice Queen cheekbones. “Caine—” She leans toward me. “I shall decide that was a joke.”
The chill in her eyes reminds me that for all her bluff good-natured piety, you don’t get ordained a Knight of Khryl unless you really kinda enjoy killing people.
“Decide whatever you want.” I can do that I like to kill look too. “If those guys make it here, the grills’ll come after them. Here. Looking around. Searching. Sniffing. Hunting humans.”
I let them roll this around their mouths for a second or two. They seem to find the flavor bitter.
“There’s two of those guys. There’s thirty-eight of us. There’s a couple hundred ogrilloi. At least. Do the fucking math.”
They turn on each other and everybody starts to talk at once. I shouldn’t have mentioned math: they’re arguing about their sonofabitching money again.
Ever wonder what the gods think of money? Just look at the people they give it to.
I bring up the monocular. One horse is down, struggling, vomiting bloody foam. The other rider has turned back, whipping his horse to reach his partner, but his own horse is stumbling already, barely even carrying itself—it’ll never manage a gallop with them riding double—then the horse stumbles again and pitches into a face-first roll, the rider sprawling from the cliff shadow into the bloody sunset, and he comes up limping but still humping ass for his partner who’s pinned under his dying horse, and maybe they might get him free before the ogrilloi get there, but even if they do they’re on foot now and they don’t have a chance of reaching even the scrub-covered fold of dirt that was once the city’s ringwall. They don’t have anything like a chance, and I have this sinking knot at the bottom of my throat and a cold twist in my guts and I—
I lower the spyglass and stare at it in the palm of my hand: an abstract shape of brushed steel that no longer makes sense to my eye. I looked into the distance and got a twenty-power view of myself. What a sick, sick sonofabitch I am.
I hate that those guys are on foot now . . .
Not that I was rooting for them. No. Not even that I don’t really want to see what the ogrilloi will do to them. If I don’t want to see it, all I have to do is put away the Zeiss.
I’m disappointed . . .
What the fuck is wrong with me?
In some shit-rotten depth of my cesspit heart, I want the ogrilloi to trap us here.
I want them to hunt us through the ruins. To catch and kill and eat these men and women with whom I have eaten and drunk and joked and slept. To catch and kill and eat even me.
In this stark mirror, I finally recognize my face.
Things just aren’t ugly enough yet.
I want this to get all the way worse. To go so dark it erases the memory of day.
It’s got nothing to do with balancing on the bubble between Hot Prospect and Never-Was. Nothing to do with slipping backward into the second half of my twenties, trailing three years of hit-challenged Adventures. Those are only surface images. Reflections on a black pool.
A deep one.
I put the monocular to my eye again, unable to believe I actually want to see what I want to see—but I do. I do. God help me.
I want maximum bad.
The guy’s out from under his dying horse. He’s got a rotten leg, limping raggedly, leaning on his partner, shin pouring blood: compound fracture. Poor bastard doesn’t have a chance. Now it’s just a question of whether the grills’ll take them before they can kill themselves.
That sick greasy slime is back in the bottom of my throat, though I am relieved. I really am. I know too well what’ll happen to us if we’re taken by ogrilloi.
But at the same time, y’know . . .
“It’s over,” I say, glass still to my eye. “This has all become academic.”
The discussion behind me breaks off and Rababàl’s breath starts to warm the back of my right ear. “They’re caught? Let me see.”
I don’t move. “You really want to?”
I can’t help thinking of Dad: he used to tell me praying is only talking to yourself. A useful form of meditation, nothing more. But that was back home. Things are different, here.
So if my prayer is to be granted, I should probably figure out what the hell I’m asking for.
Tyshalle? You listening?
The humans crest a spine in the badlands and go skidding down the slope into a wadi. They sprawl on the sand-dusted rocks; the uninjured one manages to sit by pulling himself up a scrub joshua hand-over-hand. He leans on it for a second or two, watching his friend’s blood soak into the thirsty earth. He says something, and his partner casts his arm across his eyes, lies there like he’s not going to answer—and a strange light kindles between them, an insubstantial liquid iridescence scattering prismatic splinters that spreads to touch them both, crawling their bodies in a halo of rainbow—
And they are gone.
In the dusty creekbed, only scuffs in the dirt and a black splotch of drying blood shows they were ever there.
I hear my own voice, dry as that empty creek. “How about that.”
“What? What’s happening?” Now they all cluster around me, demanding answers that my conditioning won’t let me give. Those guys were in my line of work.
They got pulled home.
Funny. I should tell Pretornio: the trick to getting your prayers granted is to ask for something that’s gonna happen anyway.
Okay. Not funny.
The ogrilloi are still coming at a gallop, following a trail they’re going to lose . . . on a straight line with the ruined city where we’re standing right now, which kindles a strange hot black anticipation down somewhere around my balls.
They’re coming. Here. They really are.
Hunting humans. Humans they’ll never find. Humans who no longer exist in this universe.
They’ll have to settle for us.
I raise the lens to take another look at their approach.
On they come: part bear, part gorilla, all predatory leather-skinned dinosaur with warthog tusks and fighting claws as long as the knives in my rib sheaths. They run with spear and shield and bow strapped across their hogshead-size backs, their long gnarled arms becoming front legs for that ground-eating lope. It’s almost enough to raise a smile.
For a second or two.
Then one big bastard pauses for a second to rear up on his haunches for a better view of the land ahead, and I get a good look at the blazon, the clan sign, painted on his chest, and all at once that anticipation in my balls goes ice cold and my scrotum’s clenching hard enough to squeeze tears from my eyes. Because the blazon’s a single swipe of obsidian angled from left shoulder to right rib, gleaming as though the paint’s still wet, curved and wickedly pointed in the shape of an ogrillo’s fighting claw.
I know that design. Everybody knows that design.
Okay. I take it back. I take it all back. Fuck all the way worse.
Now I’m fucking scared, and I want to go home, and that’s not gonna happen, it’s never gonna happen because those guys got pulled exactly there to do exactly this to exactly us, and my guts dissolve into water chilled by the column of ice that is my spine, and all I can say is—
I shake my head and start to laugh. I can’t help myself. Out of all the clans in the whole fucking Boedecken—
Those are Black Knives.
I never even knew what maximum bad looks like. That’s why I can’t stop laughing.
Because I guess I just found out.