Here is chapter one of Seven Kings, the second instalment of a magnificent story of an age of legends – where the children of giants do battle with ancient sorcerers, and no less is at stake than the fate of the world.
The colors of the jungle were bloody red and midnight black.
Whispers of fog rustled the scarlet fronds, and the poison juices of orchids glistened on vine and petal. Red ferns grew in clusters about the roots of colossal carmine trees. Patches of russet moss hid the nests of red vipers and coral spiders. Black shadows danced beneath a canopy of branches that denied both sun and moon. Toads dark as ravens croaked songs of death among the florid mushrooms. Clouds of hungry insects filled the air, and red tigers prowled silent as dreams.
Death waited for him in the jungle. There was nothing else to find here. No refuge, no escape, no safety or comfort. This place offered none of those, only a savage end to suffering and a blinding slip into eternity. Tong expected to die here, and he welcomed it. He would die a free man, his knees no longer bent in slavery. He ran barefoot and bleeding through the bloodshot wilderness.
Yes, he would die soon. But not yet. He would take more of their worthless lives with him. This was why he fled the scene of his first murder and entered the poison wilderness. It was not to save himself from the retribution of his oppressors. He fled so they would chase him into this scarlet realm of death. The dense jungle and its dangers gave him precious time. Time to steal the lives of the men who chased him. He would survive just long enough to kill them all; then he would give his life gladly to the jungle and its cruel mercy.
Only then would he allow himself to seek Matay in the green fields of the Deathlands.
Already he had claimed a second life, leaping from the trees like a wild ape, plunging the blade of his stolen knife into a soldier’s throat. That first night the company of nine Onyx Guards had been foolish enough to sleep about a small fire. They had assumed their prey would be sleeping as well, somewhere ahead of them on the crude trail Tong’s passing had created. Some had stripped the plates of black bronze from their chests, arms, and shins. They had even removed the demon-face masks that hid their humanity. For the first time in his young life, Tong saw the raw sweat-stained faces of his oppressors, the masters of whip and spear and disemboweling blade.
Their flesh was as pale as his own, their eyes and hair the same black. As far as he could see, there was nothing that physically separated him, a slave, from these tormentors of slaves. Nothing except their actions. Far more than enough to damn them all. While the night watcher’s back was turned, Tong pounced. His short blade ripped the life from a sleeper’s chest as his hand clamped over the dying man’s mouth. His entire weight pressed against his victim’s chest, he watched the man die slowly. When his twitching eyes closed forever, Tong stole his curved sabre and a bag of rations. He slipped back into the night, ignoring the winged vermin that gnawed his skin and stung at his blood-smeared hands. He ran south, toward the mountains of fire at the edge of the world, making sure to leave an obvious and clumsy trail.
In the morning they found the dead soldier and followed Tong deeper into the jungle. He ran as he ate from the stolen food bag. Salted pork and dried apricots. The vegetation of the jungle was poisonous, as were most of the creatures who lived here. So finding anything edible was next to impossible. After days of starvation and pain, the meal sent waves of fresh energy coursing through his limbs. The fire of his hatred burned hotter, and he laughed as he leaped over a coiled viper that bared its dripping fangs at him.
O merciless Gods, let them follow me, he thought. I will lead them all into death.
He ran until exhaustion fell upon him like a black cloud. He slept in a hollow between two great tree roots, on a bed of ruddy lichen. He called Matay’s name in his sleep, and he dreamed she was near, reaching for him like she did on the day of her death. Rising from the jungle filth, he reached out and grabbed only a fistful of lichen. A colony of red ants crawled across his body, feasting on the dried blood coating his lacerated skin. His chest and back were a maze of fresh welts, the work of razor-edged fronds, biting insects, and patches of sharpgrass. He uprooted a fern and used it to brush the ants from his body, wincing at the pain of beating his own wounds.
Pain was good, he decided. Pain would keep him from sleep . . . keep him wary . . . keep him ready to kill.
He climbed a tree as high as he dared, not far enough to breach the lofty canopy, but high enough to see a great distance across the leagues of crimson undergrowth. He waited there until he saw his pursuers, just at the edge of his vision, cutting their way through the jungle. They reminded him of the marching ants he had wiped away, except these black ants were far more vicious and cruel.
The upper mass of the tree’s branches rattled. A great black bird flew from its nest and burst through the canopy. A ray of orange sunlight fell through the hole the bird’s passing had made. It warmed Tong’s face and shoulders. He recalled Matay’s love of the golden sun, how she watched it sink beyond the fields every evening. Sometimes she even halted her work, forgetting the harvest as the glory of sunset burned across the sky, amber and scarlet sinking into purple. More than once her sun-gazing had drawn the whip of the Overseer. Yet it was her daily ritual to watch the sun sink beyond the walls of the black city and into the Golden Sea, where ships sailed to and from mysterious lands. Somewhere in that walled hive of barbed towers the Undying One sat on his throne of blood and tears, dreaming new tortures for his people.
Matay’s eyes saw well beyond the ramparts of oppression. She discovered freedom in the splendors of dawn and dusk.
Tong recalled the morning after their first night together. She had awoken wrapped in his arms inside the wooden shack, only to slip away from him into the chill of dawn. He lay on his side on the woven sleeping mat and stared at her sleek body as she pulled on the rough-spun colorless garment that all female slaves wore. The blackness of her hair shimmered with silver as the first rays of morning peeked through the ragged window.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “We can sleep a while longer before the work horn blows.”
She paused before the door curtain and looked back at him with sparkling eyes. Her smile was the one she would wear in all his future memories. “I want to watch the sun rise,” she said. She held out her small hand, soft and warm. “Come with me . . .”
He joined her that day and nearly every day after for six growing seasons, staring into the gray sky as the face of the sun set it on fire, burning away the last shades of night and making way for the brilliant blue of morning. They sat on a log outside his narrow hut, enjoying the most precious part of the day, the part when they were not yet driven to toil and sweat in the fields, when the whips and clubs of the Onyx Guard and the Overseers had yet to appear between the rows of windswept corn. It did not take him long to understand why she valued the beauty of the sunrise, and why she stopped every evening to watch the sunset. Dawn and dusk. These were the only two things she possessed that slavery could never take or destroy. This awareness was a gift she had given to him, long before she gave him the more precious gift that grew inside her belly.
I wish I could see Matay’s sunrise one more time. Tong stared at the ray of light slicing through the red shadows. He climbed down to a lower position in his tree. The path he had so carefully laid would lead them directly below his perch. He need only wait. He may never feel the warm glow of sunrise on his skin again, but he would know the hot blood of his enemies on fists and fingers. He drew the long sabre from its scabbard and crouched like a panther on a wide branch above the trail.
Soon the noise of the masked ones rang through the glade, the swishing of blades, the falling of stem and branch, the tramp of metal-shod boots through mud and moss and rotting leaves. Tong’s own boots were mud-caked leather, torn in places by thorn and brush and stone. The boots of a slave. His feet were cold and his toes tingled against the red bark of the tree. He decided it would be good to meet his death in a pair of soldiers’ boots. Eight such pairs drew nearer to the tree that sheltered him.
He would wait until the last one passed below, then drop and kill the man, drag him into the undergrowth and steal his boots. Then he would march out to face the remaining seven at once and kill as many as he could before they brought him down. He was no swordsman, but his arms were big and powerful, the arms of a man used to laboring all day every day for twenty-three years. The masked ones had their armor, but they were frightened of him. They were cowards, impotent beneath their shells of black metal. Only black ants, marching.
His time in the jungle had made him wild and desperate, hungry for blood like the vipers and the tigers and the flying insects. All things here were hungry for blood. He was becoming one of them.
He could wait no longer.
Dropping from the wide branch, he fell directly toward the last soldier in line, sabre pointed down, hilt grasped in his clutched fists. His knees hit the man’s back, knocking him forward. He drove the sword’s point into that familiar soft spot between corselet and helmet, the same vulnerability his knife had discovered earlier. Half the blade’s length sank into the man’s body with a crunching of bones and a vertical spray of hot blood. The soldier cried out as he died, but his masked face was pressed into the mud. In the constant melange of jungle noises – crying birds, whirring insects, the cutting of foliage and tramping of armored feet – the sounds of this man’s death were lost to his companions. The last of them disappeared among the fronds as Tong twisted the heavy blade.
Dragging the body into the undergrowth, he exchanged his footwear as he had planned. The new boots were tight yet warm on his aching feet. He lifted the bronze helmet with its welded mask from the dead man’s head and placed it on his own. Let one of their own demon faces be the last thing they see as they die. He took what else he could from the body (a few more bits of dried food) and rolled it into a stagnant pool. A viper glided through the black water and wrapped itself around the corpse. Tong caught a glimpse of himself in the surface of the water. A pale broad-chested devil with a leering face of black death, twin horns growing from his temples. His mouth was a fanged grin and his eyes were invisible behind narrow slits. He grinned beneath the mask and walked back to the trail, the bloody sabre in one hand, his knife in the other.
He stalked after them in resolute calm, ready to face the triumph of his death. To find a better place among the spirits, where surely she waited for him. As for these Onyx Guards, they were city dwellers. Those who dwelled inside the walls of the black city did not share the beliefs of their slaves, who could only stare from afar at the ebony towers. The men Tong killed today, their souls would sink into the Hundred Hells that the city’s priests venerated, there to feed the ranks of true demons or be judged and made into demons themselves. Tong did not care what they believed. He only knew they would not be in the bright meadows of the Deathlands, where milk and honey fed the spirits of earthborn slaves.
There, in the glow of a new sunrise, he would meet her again. Matay. And the one she carried in her soft round belly. His son, who was never born into a slave’s life as his father was. At least he was spared that. Yet his son had also never breathed the fresh air of morning, never held the sweetness of the sun in his eyes, never known the touch of his father’s hands, his mother’s breast, the lips of a girl he would one day love. A slave’s life was not much, but even that mean gift had been stolen from Tong’s unborn son.
The Overseer on that day had been a youth himself. Tong heard it in the quavering voice that came through the mouth slit of the fanged mask. Perhaps nobody had told him that pregnant slaves should be given extra periods of rest in the latter half of their term. Tong was working on the far side of the field when he saw the glittering of the black-lacquered club rising and falling in the sunlight. He raced through the rows, kicking dirt behind him, ignoring the whips of other Overseers who tried to shout him down. He even knocked one of them over in his headlong rush to reach Matay before the fifth and sixth blows fell.
There was no sixth blow, however. The youth in the devil mask stood over Matay’s bloodied body. She lay still among the rows of green and yellow plants, lines of scarlet spilled like whip marks across her white frock. Her skull had been split open, the bones of her face shattered. A clump of her beautiful hair hung from the end of the dirty club. All these things fell starkly into Tong’s vision as he threw himself to the ground and took her in his arms. She was still warm then, though her heartbeat was fading. Her sweet face blurred as his eyes welled, and he called her name. Suddenly, as if she had turned to weightless mist in his arms, he knew that life had left her completely.
“Up, slave!” cried the young voice, ripe with nervous power. “Get back!” Now he applied the whip, striking Tong across the back. One, two, three times. Tong never knew how many more times it fell, leaving red trails across his back and shoulders. He stared into the slate eyes peering from within the mask. There must have been other Overseers, other soldiers, other slaves rushing toward them at that point. Yet Tong never knew.
His fist grabbed the whip that plied his flesh and he pulled the armored youth off his feet. The Overseer fell against the dirt with a heavy sound, his body squirming next to Matay’s still one. Tong did not remember climbing on the man’s back, or wrapping the leather whip about his exposed throat. He only remembered pulling, twisting, tightening. The sound of the youth’s gagging filled his ears. The metal helmet was knocked away in the struggle, but Tong’s weight held the Overseer against the earth. Pulling, gnashing teeth, squeezing, and snapping. The flesh of the neck gave way as boiled leather bit into it. Finally, an expulsion of breath as the Overseer died.
The next thing he remembered was the terrified face of his cousin Olmai, standing over him with arms full of green corn husks. His mouth was an open cave of darkness, like a tomb. “Run!” he begged Tong. “Run now! They are coming!”
He would have stayed there and taken Matay’s body in his arms again, but Olmai kicked at him, pushed him into the corn stalks. “Run, fool! Make for the treeline! Go!”
After that, there was only running . . . panting . . . bleeding . . . hunger.
And the deep red jungle whose poisons were nothing compared to the venom in his heart.
Now he marched after the seven masked soldiers wearing one of their own fanged faces, carrying two of their own blades, wearing the solid boots of a man no longer a slave. He had killed three of them now, but it was not enough. He marched toward Vengeance and its smiling sister, Death.
The whir of a black arrow caught his ear and the shaft took him in the right breast, just below the collarbone. If he had run into a wall of stone head first, he could not have been more stunned. Two more shafts followed from the left and right, one taking him in the left leg, the other piercing his side. Now the masked ones came screaming toward him, sabres raised, horned helms grimacing in the red gloom. He fell on his knees in the muck as the rushing forms surrounded him. The blades of swords and spears gleamed dully as they pressed near to his skin, and a fourth arrow clanged off his stolen helm. The Onyx Guards laughed while Tong gasped for air inside his mask.
They had fooled him. They let him take their rearguard, then circled about to pin him down with arrows. The chase was over. He had thought he was stalking them, but they had snared him instead. Already he felt the poison of the arrowheads rushing into his blood, making his arms heavy. The sabre and knife fell from his numb fingers, dropping like useless stones into the mud. The weight of the helm was terrible, so that he could no longer keep his head up. He fell backwards to a chorus of metallic laughter. The circle of blades moved closer about him, sneering devil faces hovering behind.
One guard barked an order, and another reached down and plucked the stolen helmet from his head. A high-ranking Overseer stood above Tong, marked by the black whip with a golden handle that hung from his belt. “Stupid, stupid slave,” he said, though the demon lips did not move. His eyes blinked through the slits of the mask. “What did you gain from all this? A few more days of misery and starvation?” He kicked hard at Tong’s belly with a filthy boot. “Eh? What did you gain?”
Tong’s voice was a rasping groan, like the ripping of a delicate fabric.
“Three . . . ”
“Eh? Speak up, slave!” said the Overseer. He kicked Tong again, striking near the arrow protruding from his side. A wave of agony made Tong shiver. The poison froze his blood and his limbs.
“Three . . . ” he moaned again.
“Three? Three what?” The demon mask hung low before his face now, the Overseer kneeling to mock his prisoner.
Tong used the last of his strength to force his lips into a smile. He would die a happy man, knowing he had taken three of the Onyx Guard with him.
The demon face stared down at him, saying nothing. The Overseer rose and uncoiled his whip. “Tie him to that tree,” he ordered. “I’ll flay the life from him piece by piece. We’ll carry his carcass back in pieces to fertilize the fields.”
Hands gripped his arms and legs, hauling him up from the earth. They rustled him toward a crimson tree bole thick with russet moss. He had seen slaves whipped to death. He knew his demise would be a long and lingering process. Yet he wept with joy as the soldiers dragged him across the glade. Death was coming to greet him. He need only cross a river of boiling pain and she would welcome him into her domain.
Matay . . .
He wanted to call out her name, but his tongue would no longer move.
They slammed him chest first against the tree, rattling the three arrows still in his flesh. His cry of pain was a gagging moan. One man got some rope from a shoulder pack while the other two pulled Tong’s arms about the tree trunk.
Behind him, the Overseer cracked his whip, warming up his arm for a slow execution.
Now the men stopped, the rope gone slack in their hands. Masked heads turned to the left and right, and the sound of the whip fell into silence. The soldiers stared at something behind Tong. Something had come out of the jungle. No, there must have been several things, though they did not make a sound. The Onyx Guards were silent, but the sound of their metal blades sliding from scabbards filled the glade. The three archers, who had come into the glade after Tong’s capture, nocked fresh shafts and drew taut their bowstrings. Tong’s limp body dropped into the muck, his head fell back across his shoulders, and he saw the beasts.
They might have been hunched apes, long of arm and squat of haunch, yet they were entirely without hair or fur. They ringed the glade, at least thirty of them, though perhaps more lurked in the scarlet foliage. Their skins were white as bone, supple as leather. They crouched atop clumps of rock or fallen trees, lifting great flat hands that ended in claws, working silently in the air as if speaking with their fingers.
Most shocking of all, their heads were lizardine ovals with no eyes at all. Where eye sockets should have been grew instead a pair of white curling horns like those of a ram, tapering to points on either side of their skulls. Their mouths were impossibly wide and full of sharp teeth. Above the mouths sat slitted noses like those of bats, flaring and pulsing as they sniffed the jungle air. The beasts’ arms and legs were mightily muscled, their bellies lean and flat. It was not clear if they had dropped down from the trees, risen up from the ground, or simply lumbered into the glade. They moved quickly, silent as white mists.
The seven masked soldiers stood wrapped in a precarious calm before this strange audience. From his place among the gnarled roots, Tong saw a white blur leap across the glade, then another, and another. A helmeted head rolled across the ground like a melon and bumped against his shoulder. The men behind the masks were screaming. At first they bellowed rage and warnings. In a matter of moments, as clouds of warm red mist erupted into the air, raining down upon Tong’s face, their screams turned to cries of terror and pain. Soon a heavy silence replaced them.
Tong managed to raise his head a bit. He moaned softly at the pain of his pierced flesh. The white creatures crouched among the bodies of the dead men. Scarlet stained their long claws and bony chests. Tongues descended from their fanged maws to lick at the bronze faces of corpses. At first he thought they were lapping up the blood, that they would devour the dead men and himself. He only hoped they would kill him before eating him. Yet the eyeless ones seemed only to explore the men’s faces and armor with their weird pink tongues like curling tendrils. Their tongues moved more like curious fingers than organs made for tasting.
Now they gathered about Tong, sniffing at him and sliding their tongues across his skin. Tongues wrapped about each of the arrow shafts and pulled them from his body in quick, painful jerks. Fresh blood welled from the ragged holes. The eyeless faces drew near to his own, and he heard them sniffing. He must smell like a wild animal dying of infected wounds. Perhaps his stink would drive them away, and he would lie here and die at last.
The shadows of the jungle converged to flood his brain, and the beasts lifted his useless body. He hung weightless in the grip of their powerful hands, and their claws unavoidably pricked his skin. Blood spilled from his poisoned wounds as awareness spilled from his mind.
The creatures raced in bounding, graceful strides through the scarlet wilderness.
He did not believe they were carrying him toward the green fields of the Deathlands.