The final volume in this acclaimed epic fantasy series from the co-author of the New York Times bestselling Expanse series
The Second Apostate
The heart of the goddess, her new temple—her true temple—had neither the grandeur of the cities nor the simple dignity of the Sinir Kushku. In Camnipol, it was said that her banner hung from the great tower of the Kingspire, goddess and throne made one. In Kaltfel, the temple was ancient stone, and had been dedicated to some false god before the Basrahip had sent Ovur to remake it as the center of her truth in the new-conquered land. All through the world, the banner of the goddess flew above great pillars and windows of colored glass. And one day, they would be true temples, untainted by lies and error.
But that day had not come.
Here, in the lands to which Ovur and his priesthood had fled, the pulpit was not ancient granite adorned with gold, but a low platform of rough wood rimed with frost. Here, the pews were not carved oak upholstered with silk, but stones and logs stinking of rot and cold. For candles, they had smoking torches of wrapped grass and fat. For the altar, a mound of frozen earth. The air smelled of decay and winter, and the ruddy, early sunset bled across the wide sky.
Ovur looked out from the pulpit over the men who had come to his call. The pure. The few who had heard the truth of his voice and thrilled to the echoes of the goddess with him. At the front, the newest initiates swayed, their eyes glassy and their jaws slack, still rapt with the awe of her transformation, their blood still thickening with the mark of her favor. Three dozen men in a winter swamp at dusk, cold, shivering, and hungry. If it were not for the presence of the goddess within each of them and the glory of the purification they carried, it would have been a sad, squalid scene. Instead, it was like looking upon a rough seed and knowing the vine that grew from it would one day cover all the world.
“For years, my friends, we followed the Basrahip,” Ovur said, his hands lifted to them. “Some of you knew him of old as the voice of the goddess. Others of you saw him first as a conqueror at the side of the Severed Throne when your nation was lifted up from its corruption and ignorance.”
The men in the pews lifted their hands and their voices. Some spoke praise for the power and beauty of the goddess, some their hatred of the false priest who twisted her teachings from his glorified seat beside Antea’s throne. Ovur felt his heart warmed and reassured by both, and the spiders that dwelled in his blood shifted and thrilled. He spoke the truth to his people, and they spoke it back, and with every living voice his certainty grew.
“I stood in his shadow too, as did we all,” Ovur went on, his breath ghosting in the cold. “But even as her voice spread across the world, the Basrahip fell into darkness. As she rose in every temple, her light peeling back the ancient lies of the dragons, the Basrahip was made corrupt. He claimed that of all the temples, only his was true. As if a spider had only one true leg to which all others answered.”
Now none of the responses were of praise; all were of anger and condemnation. Ovur breathed them in, smiling and nodding as if his affirmation was also comfort to them. The threats against the Basrahip were justified by the power of the voices making them.
“Yes, once the Basrahip led straight. Once, his voice was hers. It is a tragedy that his strength was too little to withstand the lies of the world, but it is only a tragedy for him. Not for the goddess, for she is perfect and incorruptible. And we few are her true voice, welling up even in this place, as others shall all across the face of the world. Our brothers Eshau and Mikap have gone to spread our truths to the great powers of the world and shall return soon with an army that will cast down the false Basrahip and break his lies like ice upon stone. What has begun cannot be stopped, not ever, and—”
A horn blew, three rising notes. Two more answered. Ovur felt a tightening in his throat. Not fear. He was chosen of the goddess, and so protected by her power and her grace. If the quickness of is heart and breath imitated that base feeling, it was only that the man he had once been would have felt fear. Or if not that, surprise. Ovur grinned. In the rough pews, his priests looked to one another, unsure what the noises meant.
The men who came looming up from the swamp’s shadows were a sad, sorry lot. Thin and ragged. Some very old, some very young, and few enough between. They wore the armor of Imperial Antea and the eightfold sigil on their shields. Some carried swords before them, the blades catching the light of torches and fading sunlight. More had pikes braced in two hands, as if to stave off a cavalry charge. Ovur’s laughter rolled out through the wilderness, warm and delighted and thick with threat to the impure. In the pews, one of the new initiates seemed to notice for the first time that something odd was going on. He rose unsteadily to his feet, looking as astounded by the surrounding enemy as if they had woven themselves into being from the grass itself.
The mud-muted steps of horses followed. A dozen men in the saddles. They wore the brown robes that Ovur once had, before the Basrahip had fallen from grace. It was the uniform of the fallen now, and Ovur looked on them with pity. The swords they carried would have been green in the full light of day. In the red light of torches and sunset, they seemed black. The false priests drew the poisoned blades, and the fumes from them gave the air an astringent bite. The spiders in Ovur’s blood, restless, seemed to vibrate and squirm from beneath this thinnest skin down to the pit of his belly.
“I do not fear you,” Ovur said. “You cannot win against the power of the goddess!”
“We do not seek to,” a familiar voice boomed. And there, arriving last among the priests, was the Basrahip himself, his massive body astride a thin-framed pony. And at his side, another rider sat a nobler horse. This man wore a robe of thick grey wool and a hood pulled over his head against the cold. His lips were pressed thin, and his shoulders hunched.
“Prince Geder!” Ovur said. “I praise her light that you have come.”
“I’m not a prince,” Geder Palliako said, his voice high and peevish. “I’m Lord Regent. That’s better than a prince.”
“He has come to see the beginning of her reign,” Basrahip said, and his voice rolled through the growing darkness. “We have brought him to this final battle against lies that he might witness the place where the great age begins.”
In his blood, the spiders shuddered with something like delight. The truth of the Basrahip’s words was like honey on the tongue, and Ovur’s laughter grew almost gentle.
“Yes, old friend, so you have,” Ovur said.
The new initiate moved toward the soldiers, his stepsunsteady. The pikemen looked at one another anxiously. The new priest tittered, stumbling toward them. One soldier reached out with his weapon gently enough to push the man back without making it an attack.
“Ovur,” the Basrahip said. “We need not come to a violent end here. Once we were brothers in her light. We can be again.”
“This is so,” Ovur said, and for an instant, his heart filled with joy at the power of the goddess. “Even now your living voice carries truth in it.”
“Does that mean we can go back to camp?” the Lord Regent said, his voice tentative but light, like that of a boy trying to joke among men. “It’s getting cold.”
“Do you renounce your apostasy?” Basrahip asked. His mount shifted, uneasy. The red-lit clouds in the heavens cooled to a sudden grey. Ovur felt a qualm, uncertain not of his faith, but of how the Basrahip who only a moment before seemed to have come to the edge of absolution from his error could now say this.
“I cannot,” Ovur said. “I am no apostate.”
The Basrahip grunted as if he’d been struck. Around in the growing darkness, the brown-robed priests held their blades at the ready. The rickety soldiers of the empire grew more solid in their ranks.
“The goddess speaks through one voice,” the Basrahip said, his tones rougher now. “And that voice is my own.”
In Ovur’s blood a strange thing happened. The spiders, gifts of the goddess, told him that the Basrahip’s words were true, even as he knew that they were not. For a moment, the world seemed to shift under him, the landscape itself heaving a great sigh beneath his feet. And then, rising up from his belly like the heat of a fire, came the rage.
“The goddess speaks through us all!” Ovur called back, his voice hard as gravel. The power of the goddess shook the words, and his throat ached with it. “No one temple holds her truth. All temples are hers, all priests are hers, and all voices are hers!”
In the pews, Ovur’s priests rose as one, their balled fists at their sides. The brown-robed priests in the shadows shifted, moving forward, outrage in their eyes. Only the third group—the Lord Regent and his awkward soldiers—appeared hesitant.
In the back of Ovur’s mind, a small, still voice told him that there was a way, that there had to be a way to reconcile. But the anger in him was like a storm breaking against cliffs. He heard the blood rushing in his ears, felt the indignation in his belly like a dragon breaking from its shell full-grown and terrible.
“You are in error!” Basrahip shouted, and Ovur’s blood filled with the spasm of a thousand spiders. Truth and not-truth ripped at him. Any thought of brotherhood, of being reconciled, was forgotten.
“No! You are apostate!” Ovur shrieked. “You are a thing of lies!”
There was no plan to the attack, not on either side. Goaded beyond his tolerance, Ovur ran forward, through his priests and toward the thick shadow of the Basrahip. His fists were clenched to the point of pain, and he felt his battle yell more than heard it. The skittering of his blood and the heat of his anger were like boiling, but without the pain; as if he himself were not the flesh and the blood but the act of boiling. Where once there had been a man, there was now only the vessel of her vengeance. With him, the others came, throwing their bodies at the apostates with abandon and faith. The Basrahip and his servants of lies would fall before them, grass before the scythe.
Frozen mud slipped under his foot, and he stumbled. The ragged pikemen fell back, their torchlit faces masks of confusion and astonishment. But the others, the brown-robed priests, leapt to battle, mouths twisted in an answering rage. Ovur lost sight of the others, enemy and friend alike, as he sprinted toward the Basrahip. He swung his knuckles at the huge man’s mount as if he might knock the horse back by brawling with it. The animal shied, fixing him with one affronted brown eye. Ovur grabbed the enemy’s great branch-thick thigh, yanking at the Basrahip. Pulling him down.
Something happened, and the noise of battle seemed to grow both more pitched and distant. He was on his knees without any recollection of falling, and a bloom of pain was coming to the back of his head. He glanced over his shoulder to see the Lord Regent of Antea staring down at him in fear and horror, a mace in his hand. The man had struck him. Ovur struggled to his feet, but the battle was past him. The gloom was a chaos of bodies. Men and horses were screaming.
She will protect us, Ovur thought. We are her chosen.
Something bit at his side, harder than teeth. Ovur fell forward, away from the blow, and twisted. The pikeman who’d stabbed him was dancing back as if the semi-prone enemy were more dangerous than snakes. Ovur slipped.
He could not see the Basrahip, but he heard the great ox‑strong bellow of his voice. You cannot win! Everything you love is already lost! You have lost! You cannot win! Each word struck him, filling him with anger his body could not support. He scrabbled at the frozen mud with clawed fingers. Blood poured from his side, soaking his rude clothes. A voice he knew cried out and was cut off. A torch fell near him, smoldering in the grass and illuminating nothing beyond its own death. Ovur gasped and panted. Tiny legs flickered over the backs of his hands, the spiders spilled with his blood skittering in miniature panic. He wanted to say something to reassure them, to comfort them in the confusion and agitation that mirrored his own.
The sounds of the battle began to calm. Someone was screaming in panic nearby, but only one. Other voices moved through the night, some in the tones of conversation, others in a kind of hushed awe. The Basrahip had ceased his shouting. Ovur rested his head against his outstretched hands. In a moment, he would rise. Pull himself to his feet and carry the battle on to the end, however bitter, until his strength and his anger failed him. It would be only a moment before he gathered his strength . . .
Footsteps in the dead winter grass. The vicious stink of the poisoned blades. A gasp. Ovur rolled to his side, aware of the pain of his injury but unmoved by it. It was only pain.
The Lord Regent had lost his horse. In his hand, he held one of the venomous blades unsheathed. The tool of the dragons. How had Ovur lived so long knowing that the Basrahip wielded the weapons of the great enemy and not seen him for what he was? He had been blind. His strength was failing him. He felt his body growing heavier. Growing numb. Something like sleep tugged at his mind. Like sleep, but not.
“He’s here! I found him!” Palliako shouted.
Tiny black bodies skittered in the dark, moving quickly at first, but then slowing. Even before the fumes of the sword could shrivel them, the cold of the ground and of his drying blood was deadly. Palliako looked over his shoulder, the tip of the dragon’s sword wavering as his attention to it slipped. It was the opportunity. Ovur imagined himself leaping forward, wrestling the blade away and carving through the man’s throat. Using the tools of the enemy against it. He barely had the strength to smile at the thought.
“I said I found him! He’s over here!”
“Listen!” Ovur hissed, and the Lord Regent turned back to him, alarmed. “Hear me!”
“You be quiet.”
“You think that we can be stopped by swords? You think we can be stopped by slaughter?”
“Yes,” Geder Palliako said. He stepped forward, and the spiders nearest him withered. “I think there’s some pretty good evidence for that.”
Even dying, Ovur felt the great leader’s doubt. “You kill men. Only men. The truth that lifted us up will lift others too. In all the cities, in all the temples, the faithful will find the truth. All will turn against you. All.”
“No they won’t,” Geder said, and the doubt within him had grown. “You’re the liar. You’re the one who turned against her power.”
“I am not,” Ovur said, and the Basrahip loomed up from the darkness. The wide face looked almost serene. Sorrow welled up in Ovur’s heart, vast as oceans. “We are not to be reconciled after all, then.”
Ovur nodded, then rested his head against the ground. The cold didn’t seem so terrible now. The pain in his side was vicious, but distant. Something deep in his belly felt heavy and wrong. Others were coming close now too. Soldiers and priests. Men holding lanterns and blades. Some few were familiar, but none were his own.
“Her voice,” Ovur said, then lost the thread of his thought, coughed, and began again. “Her voice is heard in all her temples. Her light shines from every torch. You, Basrahip, are only another torch. You’re not the sun. And I am no apostate.”
The large man’s eyes widened and his mouth became a scowl of rage. He snatched the green blade from Palliako, stepped forward, and, roaring like a storm, sank the blade deep into Ovur’s chest. The pain of the strike was surprising and fierce, but worse was the burning. All through his body, even those parts he’d thought numb, the spiders seemed to take fire. Acid and venom filled him. His flesh pulsed with death throes not his own. And then with his own. He was only vaguely aware of Basrahip’s voice, continuing to denounce him. Of the terrible nausea that seemed to center in the envenomed wound. For a moment, he had a sense of profound clarity, but it brought him neither insight nor comfort.
Ovur, born of Sana and Egran of the Sinir Kushku, offered to the temple in his sixth year, and pilgrim under the Basrahip to the great world beyond the mountains, closed his eyes for the last time. The thing that was not sleep pulled at him, and he let himself be drawn down into it, certain that the goddess he had served with his full heart and whole life would be in that darkness to receive him.
As it happened, she was not.