The Last Mortal Bond - Brian Staveley

PROLOGUE

The dogs were closer.

Axta closed her eyes, unbraided the tightening knot of sound into the individual threads of canine baying: three dozen beasts a quarter mile off. She ran the angles—half a hundred of them—mapping the memorized terrain against long-established patterns for the propagation of sound.

“They have taken the bait,” she said. “Four groups.” She pointed back the way they had come, through the shattered boulders, thigh-high ferns, and the mossy trunks of the great, rotting pines. “There and there. There and there.”

Sos didn’t look. His eyes were fixed on a break in the trees, where the gleaming tower bisected the sky. If Axta had set her snare correctly, there would be fewer than forty humans left to guard the base of that tower, forty mortal women and men, and behind them, somewhere inside that inexplicable artifact, their gods, trapped in their mortal skins.

In the branches above, a jay notched four strident notes on the sky, then fell silent.

Axta unlimbered her bow, her few remaining arrows.

If she had known earlier what was happening here, if she had known that the gods of the humans would converge on this one point at this one time, she could have built a better, surer trap. But, of course, she had not known. She and Sos—on a different mission altogether—had stumbled across the convoy purely by accident. There was no time to go back, to try to bring to bear the feeble force of Csestriim that remained. There wasn’t even time to make more arrows.

“I will cover your attack,” she said. “But they have bows of their own.”

Sos nodded. “I will go where the arrows are not.”

The claim seemed implausible, but Axta had watched him do it before. She was the better tracker, the better general, the better stones player, but no one navigated battle’s labyrinth more readily than Sos. Alone, he had slaughtered the human garrison at Palian Quar. In the dark woods of the winter-long battle at First Pines, he held together the whole western flank of the Csestriim force, ranging through the trunks and shadows, carving apart his human foes day after day, week after week, until they crumpled, fled. Sos fought like a cartographer following his own perfect maps through a world of the blind, baffled, and lost.

He slid his twin swords from their scabbards.

Axta studied the moon-bright arcs.

Alone among the Csestriim, Sos had named his weapons: Clarity, he called one sword; the other, Doubt. She had watched him stand against three Nevariim once, thousands of years earlier, bearing those same blades.

“How do you tell them apart?” she asked. The weapons looked identical.

“One is heavier, one sharper.”

A few feet away, a butterfly landed on a fern’s serrated leaf, flexed indigo wings. Axta had spent a century, thousands of years earlier, in the study of butterflies. This species had escaped her catalogue.

“Which blade is which?” she asked, turning her attention back to the warrior.

“I have not decided.”

“Strange, to let the names come so untethered from the world.”

Sos shrugged. “It is what language does.”

Axta calved off a portion of her mind to consider that claim. Had there been more time, she would have pressed Sos on the point, but there was no more time. Behind the dogs’ baying she could hear the men with their blades. She turned back toward the tower.

“If we kill the gods today, we win. This is what Tan’is believes. If we carve them from this world, we carve away the rot that blights our children.”

Sos nodded.

The butterfly twitched into flight.

“What will you do,” she asked, “if there is no more war?”

In all his long years, the swordsman had