The action-packed start to a thrilling new epic fantasy series from award-winning author Brian McClellan, set in the same world as the Powder Mage trilogy
Privileged Robson paused with one foot on the muddy highway and the other on the step of his carriage, his hawkish nose pointed into the hot wind of the Fatrastan countryside. The air was humid and rank, and the smell of distant city smokestacks clung to the insides of his nostrils. Onlookers, he considered, might comment to one another that he looked like a hound testing the air—though only a fool would compare a Privileged sorcerer to a lowly dog anywhere within earshot—and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Privileged sorcery was tuned to the elements and the Else, giving Robson and any of his brother or sister Privileged a deep and unrivaled understanding of the world. Such an understanding, a sixth sense, provided him an invaluable advantage in any number of situations. But in this particular case, it gave Robson nothing more than a vague hint of unease, a cloudy premonition that caused a tingling sensation in his fingertips.
He remained poised on the carriage step for almost a full minute before finally lowering himself to the ground.
The countryside was empty, floodplains and farmland rolling toward the horizon to the south and west. A salty wind blew off the ocean to the east, and to the north the Fatrastan capital of Landfall sat perched atop a mighty, two-hundred-foot limestone plateau. The city was less than two miles away, practically within spitting distance, and the presence of the Lady Chancellor’s secret police meant that it was very unlikely that any threat was approaching from that direction.
Robson remained beside his carriage, pulling on his gloves and flexing his fingers as he tested his access to the Else. He could feel the usual crackle and spark of sorcery just out of reach, waiting to be tamed, and allowed a small smile at the comfort it brought him. Perhaps he was being foolish. The only thing capable of challenging a Privileged was a powder mage, and there were none of those in Landfall. What else could possibly cause such disquiet?
He scanned the horizon a second and third time, reaching out with his senses. There was nothing out there but a few farmers and the usual highway traffic passing along on the other side of his carriage. He tugged at the Else with a twitch of his middle finger, pulling on the invisible thread until he’d brought enough power into this world to create a shield of hardened air around his body.
One could never be too careful.
“I’ll just be a moment, Thom,” he said to his driver, who was already nodding off in the box.
Robson’s boots squelched as he followed a muddy track away from the highway and toward a cluster of dirty tents. A work camp had been set up a few hundred yards away from the road in the center of a trampled cotton field, occupying the top of a small rise, and a small army of laborers hauled soil from a pit at the center of the camp.
Robson’s unease continued to grow as he approached the camp, but he pushed it aside, forcing a cold smile on his face as an older man left the ring of tents and came out to greet him.
“Privileged Robson,” the man said, bowing several times before offering his hand. “My name is Cressel. Professor Cressel. I’m the head of the excavation. Thank you so much for coming on such short notice.”
Robson shook Cressel’s hand, noting the way the professor flinched when he touched the embroidered fabric of Robson’s gloves. Cressel was a thin man, stooped from years of bending over books, square spectacles perched on the tip of his nose and only a wisp of gray hair remaining on his head. Over sixty years old, he was almost twenty years Robson’s senior and a respected faculty member at Landfall University. Robson practically towered over him.
Cressel snatched his hand back as soon as he was able, clenching and unclenching his fingers as he looked pensively toward the highway. He was, from all appearances, an awfully flighty man.
“I was told it was important,” Robson said.
Cressel stared at him for several moments. “Oh. Yes! Yes, it’s very important. At least, I think so.”
“You think so? I’m having supper with the Lady Chancellor herself in two hours and you think this is important?”
A bead of sweat appeared on Cressel’s forehead. “I’m so sorry, Privileged. I didn’t know, I . . .”
“I’m already here,” Robson said, cutting off the old professor. “Just get to the point.”
As they drew closer to the camp Robson noted a dozen or so guards, carrying muskets and truncheons, forming a loose cordon around the perimeter. There were more guards inside, distinguished by the yellow jackets they wore, overlooking the laborers.
Robson didn’t entirely approve of work camps. The laborers tended to be unreliable, slow, and weak from malnourishment, but Fatrasta was a frontier city and received more than its fair share of criminals and convicts shipped over from the Nine. Lady Chancellor Lindet had long ago decided the only thing to do with them was let them earn their freedom in the camps. It gave the city enough labor for the dozens of public works projects, and to lend out to private organizations including, in this case, Landfall University.
“Do you know what we’re doing here?” Cressel asked.
“Digging up another one of those Dynize relics, I heard.” The damned things were all over the place, ancient testaments to a bygone civilization that had retreated from this continent well before anyone from the Nine actually arrived. They jutted from the center of parks, provided foundations for buildings, and, if some rumors were to be believed, there was an entire city’s worth of stone construction buried beneath the floodplains that surrounded Landfall. Some of the artifacts still retained traces of ancient sorcery, making them of special interest to scholars and Privileged.
“Right. Quite right. The point,” Cressel said, wringing his hands. “The point, Privileged Robson, is that we’ve had six workers go mad since we reached the forty-foot mark of the artifact.”
Robson tore his mind away from the logistics of the labor camp and glanced at Cressel. “Mad, you say?”
“Stark, raving mad,” Cressel confirmed.
“Show me the artifact.”
Cressel led him toward the center of the camp, where they came upon an immense pit in the ground. It was about twenty yards across and nearly as deep, and at its center was an eight-foot-squared obelisk surrounded by scaffolding. Beneath a flaking coat of mud, the obelisk was made of smooth, light gray limestone carved, no doubt, from the quarry at the center of the Landfall Plateau. Robson recognized the large letters on its side as Old Dynize, not an uncommon sight on the ruins that dotted the city.
Robson felt his stomach turn. The sorcery crackling at the edges of his senses seemed to shy away, as if repulsed by the very presence of the obelisk. “It looks entirely ordinary,” he said, removing a handkerchief and blowing his nose to hide the tremble in his fingers. “Just another old rock the Dynize left behind.”
“That’s what we think, too,” Cressel agreed, adjusting his mud-splattered spectacles. “There is very little unique about this artifact, except for the fact that it is so far from the ancient city center.”
“If there’s nothing special about it, why are you bothering to dig it up?” Robson asked petulantly.
“It sank into the soft soil of the floodplains. Aside from the water, we thought it would be a very easy dig.”
“And is it?”
“So far,” Cressel said. He hesitated, and then said, “Until the madness set in, that is.”
“The workers.” Cressel gestured toward the stream of laborers hauling baskets of rubble up the wooden ramps at the edges of the excavation site. “We estimate the artifact is about eighty feet tall—probably the longest of its kind in the city. Last week, about sixty feet down, or rather twenty feet from the bottom, we found some unusual writing. That very day, one of the laborers went mad.”
“Correlation is not causation,” Robson said, not bothering to hide the impatience in his voice.
“True, true. We assumed it was just heatstroke at first. But it happened again the next day. Then the next. And every day since. By the sixth we decided to call on you because, well, you’ve been very keen on the university and we thought . . .”
“I could do you a favor,” Robson finished sourly. He made a mental note to make his annual donations to the university a few thousand krana smaller. Best not to let them think him overly generous. He liked the university, was fascinated by their search for knowledge both past and future, but they’d overstepped their bounds this time. He was a busy man. “What do you mean by ‘unusual writing’?” he asked.
“It’s not written in Old Dynize. In fact, no one at the university recognized the language. Here, you should come down and see it.” Cressel immediately began descending one of the ramps leading into the excavation pit. “I would appreciate a Privileged’s perspective on this.”
Robson’s skin crawled, and he remained rooted to the ground, dread sinking to the pit of his stomach like a ball of lead. He couldn’t quite place the source of his misgivings. Ancient ruins on this continent were always marked with Old Dynize. Finding a different language written on one of these obelisks might have historical significance, but surely a matter of translation shouldn’t leave him with such trepidation.
He wondered if his senses were trying to warn him off from something. It would be easy enough to tell Cressel no. He could order the dig closed, the obelisk destroyed by gunpowder or sorcery.
But Privileged didn’t maintain their reputations by being timid, so he followed Cressel down into the depths of the dig.
Laborers scurried out of their way as Cressel led Robson across the rickety scaffolding until they were standing beside the obelisk, staring at a spot only a few feet from the bottom of the pit. One of the stone’s smooth faces bore an intricate inscription. It had been meticulously cleaned of soil, revealing an almost-white face covered in flowing letters entirely unfamiliar to Robson’s eyes.
He peered at the letters for several moments. “Have there been any patterns in the madness?” he asked absently. Behind them, the soft thumping sound of laborers hacking at the soil with mattocks and shovels reverberated through the pit.
“It appears to affect only those who spend the better part of the day down here,” Cressel said. “When the third case happened, I suspended faculty or camp guards from descending into the pit unless it was an emergency.”
But not the laborers, Robson noted. Oh well. Someone had to suffer in the pursuit of knowledge.
Robson tilted his head to one side, beginning to see repeated patterns in the flowing letters. As Cressel mentioned, this was indeed a script of some kind. But what language? A Privileged of Robson’s age was as learned in a broad selection of studies as most professors were in their own fields but Robson had never seen anything like this.
The writing was ancient. Older than the Dynize script surrounding it, which was one of the oldest languages known to modern linguistics. Slowly, hesitantly, Robson lifted his hand. He reached out for the Else, grasping for the wild sorcery from beyond this world. The sorcery once again shied away, and he had to wrestle to keep it close at hand in case he needed it in a pinch. There was something sinister about this obelisk, and he would not be caught unawares.
When he was certain he’d prepared himself against any sort of backlash, he touched his gloved fingertips to the plaque.
A vision stabbed through Robson’s mind. He saw a man, a familiar face wreathed in golden curls, hands held out as if to cradle the world. Whiteness surrounded the figure, brilliant and unforgiving, and Robson was not entirely sure whether the man was creating the whiteness or being consumed by it.
Robson jerked his fingertips back and the vision was gone. He found himself shaking violently, his clothes soaked with sweat, as Cressel looked on in shock.
Robson rubbed his hands together, noting that the fingertips of his right glove were gone, seared away, though his fingers were unhurt. He left Cressel standing on the platform, dumbfounded, as he ran up the ramps and through the camp, sprinting all the way back to his carriage.
The snoozing driver jolted awake. “My lord?”
“Thom, I need you to take a message to the Lady Chancellor. Give it to her in person, without anyone else present.”
“Yes, my lord! What is the message?”
“Tell her that I’ve found it.”
Thom scratched his head. “Is that it?”
“Yes!” Robson said. “That’s all you need to know for your own safety. Now go!”
He watched the carriage cut across the highway, nearly running a train of pack mules off the road and leaving a cursing merchant in its wake. Robson pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed his forehead, only to find that his handkerchief was also soaked with sweat.
Robson turned to find that the old professor had caught up.
“Privileged,” Cressel wheezed. “What’s happening? Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Robson waved him off and began striding back toward the camp. Cressel fell in beside him.
“But, sir, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Robson considered the brief vision, his brow furrowing as he let it hang in his mind for a few moments. “No,” he said. “Not a ghost. I’ve seen God.”