THE TIME HAS COME. THE LAST WAR – SEKINOWARI – HAS ARRIVED.
Until the Last – the epic conclusion to Mike Shackle’s The Last War series – arrives this July, and we are thrilled to share the first snippet of what’s going to be a sprint to the finish. Expect blood, guts, grit and determination in abundance – the fight is truly on for Tinnstra and her allies to reclaim Jia from the Egril once and for all. But they are yet to face their ultimate test . . .
The Last Prayer
God or man, Death calls for you.
His Imperial Majesty Raaku, son of the mighty Kage, the one true God, walked through the caverns beneath his castle. Four monstrous bodyguards followed in his step, but he was barely aware of them. After all, they’d been his shadows for nearly a century now, from the very first days after he took control of his tribe. He gave them strength and long lives; they gave him their eternal loyalty and protection. Not that he needed it here, in the heart of his kingdom, at the source of his power. Servants fell to their knees and bowed as he passed, but Raaku paid them no heed.
The caverns spread out under his castle in every direction. Each cave had its own pool of holy water, used by Raaku in a different way. The largest was dedicated to the Daijaku. In that chamber alone there were hundreds of cocoons, half-submerged in the water, at various stages of development. Veksters, his most skilled workers, waded amongst the shells, checking the growth of the inhabitants, looking for cracks, making sure no harm came to their charges until they were ready to hatch. It took six months to turn a man into a Daijaku. And then a few more to train them to be lethal.
He passed chamber after chamber, pausing only here and there to check on the Veksters’ work, ensuring that they carried out their tasks meticulously.
Despite their trusted status, the Veksters heads were enclosed in iron bascinets and their bodies barely clothed to ensure that none of them could drink or steal the holy waters. He also insisted their tongues were removed to prevent them from talking about what they witnessed beneath the castle. Each Vekster served for a maximum of five years before they gave their lives to Kage in the Red Lake, lest prolonged exposure to the waters gave them powers they did not deserve.
One waited outside the iron door that marked the last chamber in the caverns, a tray laden with food and water in her hands. She did not bow as Raaku approached, merely waited, still as stone – the way she had been taught.
His guardians moved to either side of the door, taking up their positions. They were not allowed to follow him inside. As much as he trusted them, some conversations were not meant for ears other than his own.
Raaku waited while the Vekster’s key activated the runes en graved in the door. Red light danced across its surface as the locks slid free. The Vekster pushed the door open and stepped aside so Raaku could enter alone. Runes carved into the walls illuminated the interior, revealing the chamber’s sole occupant.
The man stared at Raaku, his bravery borne out of madness as he bared his teeth in greeting. His hair was long and his beard in need of a trim, but no doubt the Veksters would see to that soon enough. Chains trailed from his wrists to the walls, just long enough to allow the man to move around his cell. The man’s only comfort was a cot to sleep on. He was a heathen after all and deserved no more – not even after a hundred years of captivity.
The Emperor waited while the Vekster placed the tray to one side and retrieved the buckets filled with the prisoner’s waste. She returned a moment later with two fresh buckets and placed them beside the cot. Only then did she leave and shut the door behind her.
‘Hello, Laafien,’ said Raaku.
The Jian bared his teeth and growled. ‘I came to tell you it has begun.’
‘It began long ago.’ Laafien’s voice was full of anger and hate. Raaku smiled. ‘When you found me.’
‘A cursed day.’ The man bared his teeth once more and rattled his chains.
‘A blessed day. My father sent you to show me the way to eternal glory.’
‘So you believe.’
‘So I know. After all, Sekanowari is upon us and soon the False Gods will be no more.’
‘If you believe that, why are you here?’ The man jutted his chin towards Raaku, clicking his teeth. ‘Even you have doubts. Fears. Victory is not certain.’
‘What have you seen?’
‘Of the future? Not enough. Never enough.’ A flash of a sn1ile. ‘Otherwise I’d never have found you – and let you live.’
‘That was my father’s hand at work,’ said Raaku. ‘But you are also right. I want to know what you can see of the days ahead, the battles I must fight.’ He reached down to his belt and the gourds that hung there. The man skittered back as he saw Raaku select one and uncork it.
‘I won’t drink it,’ hissed Laafien with a shake of his head. ‘I won’t.’
‘But you must,’ said Raaku. ‘You have to drink the holy water if you are to have your visions and to prolong your life.’
‘I don’t want to live!’ screamed the man, but Raaku ignored him. After a hundred and twenty years together, the man was predictable.
He grasped the man’s jaws, squeezed his mouth open and poured the holy water down his throat. The man spluttered, tried to spit the water out, but Raaku held his jaw until enough had been swallowed. He then stepped back and waited for the water to do its work.
‘I hate you!’ The man thrashed against his chains. ‘I curse the day I met you. I curse you and all who follow you.’
Raaku smiled. ‘We found out long ago that your words have no power to harm me.’
‘Then why do you keep me here? Why don’t you send me to your father in the Great Darkness?’
‘Because you were his gift to me and I will always value you as such. You opened my eyes to my divine role in Sekanowari and helped guide me down the long road here. Now, you will help direct my victory.’
‘No. Noo … urgh … n … aaargh!’ The prisoner collapsed, convulsing as the holy water opened up his mind to the future.
Raaku watched him writhe on the ground, curious as ever regarding his father’s choice of this man – this Jian – as his messenger. One hundred and twenty years ago, Raaku had watched the dark-skinned heathen – the brother of Aasgod, the Jian’s Lord Mage – walk into his tribe’s camp on the northern steppes, his face unmasked, on a quest to find holy water. For some reason he did not know, Raaku stopped his tribe from killing Laafien for his trespass and instead, the boy who would become Emperor gave the man a seat by his fire and his food to eat and listened to his tales of magic. He heard how the holy water gave Laafien the ability to see the future, and it was at that point that Raaku began to dream of the future, too.
Raaku spent years then, serving first as the man’s guide and protector as they searched for the holy water, then as his assistant in exploring the caverns over which he later built his city. When Laafien drank the holy water for the first time, Raaku witnessed the Jian’s vision and, by his reaction, he knew the man had seen Raaku’s betrayal in his future. He’d tried to run but Raaku was a man by then and faster and stronger than some Jian mage. That was the first time Laafien had slept in this very chamber, his hands and feet bound, his legs broken, aware at last of who had walked beside him all those years. Aware of what Raaku would become.
The son of Kage.
The Emperor of an Egril Empire that stretched from north to south, east to west.
‘They come,’ gurgled the prisoner. ‘The Four. The light. The dark. The land. The sea. From far and near. She will kill you and you will kill her and she will kill you and you will kill her. Life. Death. They come from the water to fight you for earth. The Four will come. You will go, or you will die. To Aisair. That is where Sekanowari will be won.’
Raaku listened. He knew better than to ask questions. The man always spoke true and yet his words were never precise. ‘The Great Darkness waits for death. Death calls all. All death.’ The man grew still, then sucked in air as if he’d never breathed before. His head shot up, his gleaming eyes fixed on Raaku, a mad smile slashed across his face. ‘Victory can be yours if you can defeat death. Stop death. Then you will truly be a God.’
‘If that is my father’s will, it shall be done,’ said Raaku. ‘Thank you, Laafien.’
Raaku left the chamber and locked the door behind him. His guardians fell into step behind him as he made his way back through the caverns. He had much to do. He had the end of the world to plan.
The Best-Laid Plans
Tinnstra stood at the window in the library at the Jian embassy and watched the sun rise over the harbour. Ten days had passed since the utter defeat of the Egril and the city was slowly recov ering from the attack. The embassy itself was basically a ruin, but they’d managed to repair enough of it to make a small portion habitable once more.
Despite the early hour, a crowd had gathered outside the embassy grounds, kept back by a newly erected fence and a contingent of Meigorian soldiers. Some had been there since the morning after the victory over the Skulls, come to give thanks to Zorique for all she’d done, and their numbers had only swelled since then. They’d tied flowers to the railings and burned candles and incense in her honour. Some sat quietly, watching the em bassy for signs of the queen, while others were more vocal, sing ing their praise or uttering prayers. But they all reacted the same when they saw Zorique: screaming, shouting, crying, all begging her to come and talk to them, to bless them. They thought her a God made flesh.
Tinnstra wasn’t sure how that made her feel. On one hand, claiming divinity had done Raaku no harm. His army was more than ready to sacrifice itselffor the son ofKage. However, Tinnstra knew Zorique only had her powers because Aasgod had force fed her mother – her real mother – with Chikara water while Zorique and her brother were still in the womb. It had been a desperate gamble on the mage’s part and something she hadn’t forgiven the man for – even though the Aasgod with them now was his younger self, who she’d dragged kicking and screaming from the past, guilty of nothing.
In truth, Zorique was more a lucky experiment than a God. Tinnstra didn’t want Zorique to pretend otherwise, to live any sort of lie.
Zorique doesn’t need to cheat like I do. She has real power. It’s the rest of us – it’s me – who’s faking it.
Still, Tinnstra had to admit it felt damn good to have stopped the Skulls from gaining a foothold in Meigore. If she closed her eyes, she could still see Zorique burning the Daijaku from the sky. She could still feel the rush of pleasure she’d enjoyed as the last Skull was executed. Belief burned in her heart that they could end this awful war once and for all.
She’d lived with Raaku’s shadow hanging over her and Zorique for too long, losing friend after friend and ally after ally. Now she was the one sending souls to the Great Darkness. Meigore was free and Jia would be next.
Tinnstra just had to work out how to do it.
She turned back to the large table and the ancient map spread across it – the map she’d stolen from some Jian lord a thousand years in the past. It was unique in that it displayed not just the four nations of Meigore, Chongore, Dornway and Jia but also the Egril Empire to the north and the forgotten lands to the west. As far as Tinnstra was aware, it was the only map in existence that covered those territories. Whoever made it had explored further than anyone had thought possible before or since.
But it was Jia that occupied her attention now, as it had all night. How to invade? How to regain control? How to overcome the Skulls? And, more importantly, how to do it all without it costing countless lives?
She took a sip of tea and grimaced. It was cold and bitter from sitting too long and forgotten. Perhaps a fresh pot would help her think better.
Perhaps sleep would be best ef all. Worry about this another day.
Tinnstra laughed. When had she ever done the sensible thing?
She stood up and, teapot in hand, left the library to head for the kitchens. A few more hours and then she’d sleep.
Tinnstra was halfway down the stairs when she heard the voices: a man talking to the maid provided by Tian Galrin, the new ruler of Meigore. They were laughing together – flirting, even – and Tinnstra felt a slight pang of … what? Anger? Jealousy?
It was only Ralasis, after all. He flirted with everyone.
Tinnstra continued down the staircase, and as it curved towards the main hall she saw the sea captain and the maid, heads all but touching as she giggled at whatever joke he whispered.
‘Good morning,’ said Tinnstra before they were aware she was there. The maid jumped back, blushing, but Ralasis just turned his attention towards her, his smile broadening. He was wearing trousers tucked into high boots and a dark blue shirt open at the neck, a look that suited him better than the loose robes most Meigorian men chose to wear.
‘It certainly is now,’ he said, eyes twinkling with mischief
‘I was just explaining to Captain Ralasis that it was too early to call on you, ma’am,’ said the maid. ‘But he was insisting.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ said Tinnstra with a smile of her own. There was something about Ralasis that made it impossible for her to be annoyed with him.
‘I was explaining that it wasn’t too early as I knew a dedicated warrior like yourself would already be up and hard at work,’ said Ralasis, a slight slur to his words.
‘Are you drunk, Captain?’ asked Tinnstra.
‘Not drunk,’ he replied. ‘But I’ve been drinking. There is a significant difference. However, I’m not averse to trying to attain that state of inebriation. Perhaps you’d like to share a bottle of wine with me?’
‘Who drinks in the morning?’ Gods, he had her smiling even more.
‘Well, I’ve not been to bed yet so it’s still night as far as I’m concerned.’ He raised an eyebrow, probably thinking it made him look attractive. ‘What about you? Still last night or is it this morning?’
‘I’ve not been to bed yet if that’s what you’re asking.’
‘Yet!’ said Ralasis. ‘Then this is perfect timing.’ He turned to the maid. ‘Elise, if you please, fetch a bottle of your finest white wine.’
The maid looked to Tinnstra, horrified.
‘Do as he asks,’ said Tinnstra. ‘We’ll be upstairs.’ Both of Ralasis’ eyebrows shot up at hearing that and his grin … Gods. Tinnstra shook her head and tried not to laugh. ‘In the library.’
Ralasis gave her a sweeping bow as the maid scuttled off ‘Lead the way, my dear.’
‘Call me “my dear” again and I’ll break your arm,’ said Tinnstra, heading back up the stairs.
Tm sure you could do that quite easily,’ said Ralasis, following behind. ‘Ah, whatever happened to the nice young lady I rescued from a tiny boat in the Golden Channel?’
Tinnstra stopped on the stairs and turned to look down on Ralasis. ‘Rescued? I seem to remember that I rescued you from the Daijaku.’
‘That is true – so, in fact, we rescued each other.’ Again, he flashed that damn smile of his.
‘Stop that.’ ‘Stop what?’
‘Your flirting. I heard you trying it on with the maid and now you’re trying your luck with me. It won’t work.’
‘Flirting? I’d never do such a thing. I’m almost offended by the suggestion.’
‘I doubt anything could offend you.’ Tinnstra chuckled. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I wanted to make sure both you and Zorique were well and being cared for after the unpleasantries.’
He waved a hand in the air. ‘The scuffie with the Egril.’
‘Ah, those unpleasantries. I’d almost forgotten.’ Tinnstra en tered the library, seeing the mess she’d made of the place; books lay sprawled all over the floor and stacked haphazardly upon the table. ‘And that couldn’t wait till later?’
But it was as if she’d never spoken. Ralasis’ eyes had been drawn to the map. ‘What’s this?’
‘A map. I thought that was obvious.’
‘Is it real?’ He ran his hand over the parchment with a surpris ing tenderness. ‘Please tell me it’s real.’
‘The man I stole it from swore that it was.’
‘Thank the Gods.’ He bent down until he was all but sniffing the thing. ‘It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘It’s the only one of its kind, as far as I know.’
‘It is – as far as I know. You said you stole it?’ He looked up with a childish glint in his eye.
Tinnstra shrugged. ‘From some Jian lord a long time ago.’ ‘He must’ve been furious.’
‘He certainly wasn’t happy – especially after I stuck a sword in his leg.’
Ralasis roared with laughter. ‘Good girl.’
There was a knock at the door and Elise entered, eyes downcast, carrying a tray with a bottle of wine and two cups. Tinnstra moved some books from the corner of the table so she could place the tray there and gave her a nod of thanks. Elise all but ran from the room.
The wine at least made Ralasis look up from the map. ‘Shall I pour or … ‘
‘I can do it.’ Tinnstra filled the cups and passed one to Ralasis. ‘Thank you, my … Tinnstra.’ He raised the cup to her before taking a sip. ‘Delightful.’
‘What am I doing?’ Tinnstra muttered to herself before taking a sip herself The wine was light and chilled, with a sweetness to it that was, as Ralasis said, quite delightful.
Not that the Meigorian seemed to care. The map had his total attention. ‘The places I would explore if I owned this map.’
‘It’s yours, if you want it,’ said Tinnstra. ‘Once Jia is free.’
Ralasis looked up. ‘I couldn’t accept such a priceless gift. But perhaps I could have it copied?’
‘I won’t need it after the war. It’s yours.’ ‘You have plans?’
‘When we win? I’m going to find somewhere quiet, far from anyone, grow old and die in my bed of boredom.’
‘That would be a shame. A woman like you needs someone to spoil her,’ said Ralasis. ‘However, I will accept your generous gift – because when this war is over, I’m going to get on my ship and sail until I run out of sea to explore.’
Tinnstra raised her cup once more. ‘To your endless adventure.’ After taking another gulp of wine, Ralasis nodded at the map.
‘What are you planning here?’
‘I’m going over my strategy for retaking Jia. I have a meeting this afternoon with Tian Galrin’s new military leader to discuss our options.’
‘We have two possible routes as far as I can see – one that gives us a chance of winning the war within five or six days and another that could take months.’
‘Doesn’t sound like much of a choice. When it comes to war, I prefer it to be over as quickly as possible. There’s less chance of me getting killed that way.’
‘The quick option depends on certain factors.’
‘I thought you were more interested in the wine,’ said Tinnstra.
Ralasis examined his cup and then held it out to be refilled. ‘I can drink and listen.’
‘Of course you can,’ said Tinnstra, pouring more wine. ‘So, tell me.’
Tinnstra moved beside the Meigorian. ‘I’ve been told the only viable landing place for a fleet the size of ours is Omason Beach – here, near Kiyosun.’ She placed her finger on the location marked on the map.
‘That’s right,’ said Ralasis. ‘If we sail further up the western coast, we risk running into storms this time of year and the fleet could wind up scattered over a hundred miles or sunk beneath the waves. Omason Beach is a good landing place for us.’ As he tapped the map, his hand brushed hers.
‘But we come ashore at the very southern tip of Jia,’ said Tinnstra, ignoring the touch, ‘and the key to victory is retaking Aisair.’ She moved her finger up the map, tracing the route to Jia’s capital along the Northern Road.
‘That’s a long way.’
‘Three to four weeks if we’re walking. Probably fighting all the way.’
‘That doesn’t sound particularly enticing. Are there other roads?’
‘Only if we’re prepared to take months reaching Aisair, weaving our way through the mountains or following the eastern coast.’
‘But you said we could win in five or six days?’
‘When I escaped from Aisair with the queen, we were taken to a temple in the Olyisius Mountains. It’s three days from Aisair.’ Again, Tinnstra pointed out the location. ‘There’s a gate that connects to a counterpart in the Ascalian Mountains, a day from Kiyosun.’
‘A gate like the Torrin create?’ ‘Exactly.’
‘That sounds better.’
‘If we can use it, we might even take the Skulls by surprise. We can fight one decisive battle instead of only the Gods know how many taking the Northern Road.’
‘I’d be happy not to have to walk that far.’ Ralasis took another sip of wine, then looked Tinnstra in the eye. ‘So, what’s the problem?’
‘I don’t know if these gates still exist. When we escaped, a Chosen followed us through. If he told anyone about it, then it’s either in Skull hands or destroyed.’
‘And then we’re walking.’
Tinnstra nodded. ‘Then we’re walking.’
‘We have to assume he did. Why would he not?’
‘He got his head cut off a day after he discovered it,’ said Tinnstra, with a smile. ‘So he might not have had time to pass the information on.’
Ralasis laughed. ‘That would shut a man up. Did you do the cutting?’
‘No. That honour fell to a great Shulka named Jax, but I was there. I saw it happen.’
The sea captain poured himself some more wine and topped up Tinnstra’s cup. ‘We need to send someone to Jia to find out if we still have access to the gates and, if we do, to guard them until we arrive.’
‘I already have,’ Tinnstra said. ‘You have?’
‘One of my people left yesterday. We’ll have the information we need by the end of the week.’
‘And did you clear this mission with the new Meigorian military leader?’ Ralasis had his head tilted to one side in a way she found … uncomfortable.
‘I told you to stop the flirting.’ Ralasis laughed. ‘I’m not flirting.’
Tinnstra shook her head. ‘Gods. You probably don’t even know you’re doing it.’ That made her feel special. ‘Look, it’s been a long night. I’m tired. Thank you for calling on me but it’s best you go. I need to get some sleep before I see this great leader of yours – and no, I didn’t tell him about sending Wenna to Jia. Why should I? He’s probably another idiot in a dress like most of you Meigorians.’
‘Harsh,’ said Ralasis, ‘but fair. I must admit I’ve never liked those robes. Very unflattering.’
‘Have you met Tian Galrin’s man?’
‘I know him well – and you’re right, he is an idiot.’ Tinnstra leaned forwards. ‘Tell me more.’
Ralasis wagged a finger at her. ‘That would ruin the surprise. And besides, you might like the man when you meet him. I wouldn’t want to cloud your judgement any more than I have. Especially since I know he’s already very impressed by you.’ He stood up, downed his wine, glanced at the small amount left in the bottle and then smiled that smile. ‘And you’re right – we should both get some sleep. I want to be at my best later, too.’
‘You’ll be there?’
‘Of course. Some, most notably my father, would say I’m the biggest idiot of them all. How could I miss such a gathering?’
‘Well, I’ll have at least one friend there.’
Ralasis picked up Tinnstra’s hand and kissed the back of it. ‘You certainly will. Good night or good morning – whatever it is.’ He picked up the wine bottle and swaggered out of the library with a wave.
Immediately, the room felt like all the life had been sucked from it. She wasn’t sure she’d trust Ralasis with more than getting a ship from one place to another, but he made her smile. Not many people had managed that for a long time.
Her eyes drifted to the map once more, moving from Kiyosun to Aisair to Egril and lingered there.