Halloween will soon be here (my absolute favorite holiday).
That's it. That's the post.
No, but seriously, I've got a new book coming out on December 3rd, and it's a little bit different. It's still fantasy (though perhaps a bit darker than you're used to from me) but it's in the dungeon core subgenre.
Those of you not familiar with these fantasy subgenres should give them a try! They're relatively new, but already some great books have been written in them.
For both groups, it's important that you know I am a practical and also a deeply lazy man, so instead of spending lots of words defining these categories of fantasy, I thought I'd just include the first chapter here in this post (it already being written), so you can see if it's something you'd enjoy.
If it is, then you could pre-order it on Amazon here. For pretty much everywhere else (B&N, Kobo, Apple etc), this link should do the trick - but it might take a while to show up, so if it doesn't work for you right now, you could check back in a day or so.
On a final note, the chapter that follows is formatted for the blog. It will of course be in book format in the actual book. Right, okay, then. Onward!
* * *
The day that Anomus ip Garma died began, for him, hours before the sun rose. A sickle moon rode low in the cloudless sky above the Desert of Kings, and was reflected faintly from the gray stone face of the Targus Cliffs, and in the placid, black surface of the Great River as it slithered and twisted its long way through the desert to the capital, to the Delta, to the sea.
In the Subori Empire, it was known as a reaping moon, or a blood moon – not for its color, which was no redder than might be expected, but for its mostly forgotten connotations. To a few of the knowledgeable, it was known as the faceless moon, after the old god whose symbol it was. It was known as such, but it was not referred to as such. Not in the Subori Empire, on pain of death. The empire had its own gods, newer and more vital, and they did not countenance worship of their elders. Or at least their priests did not.
In the black night before dawn, Anomus, the greatest living architect of the empire, woke and rose from his cot at the touch of his servant. He made his ablutions, prayed briefly to his faraway household god for the safety of his family and then, letting a silent breath escape from his long nose, he cut his arm with a paring knife and let the blood flow into the clay ewer his servant held for him. His arms were scarred from a half-dozen years of such incisions; despite the desert heat, he kept his arms covered to hide the marks.
When he had bled enough, he bound the wound and wiped away the crimson rivulet from his brown-skinned arm with a rag while his servant Orthus mixed honey and fresh goat’s milk into the ewer to complete the offering.
“One way or the other, we’ll not be doing this again, Orthus,” Anomus said.
“I am glad of it, master,” Orthus replied. “A man’s blood should stay inside him, where it belongs.”
Anomus snorted softly. “The gods prefer it otherwise. Some of them, at least.”
“Subori gods do not demand human blood, master.”
“Do they not? Bris for one delights in battlefields, and He cares not whose blood wets the sand. Sometimes it seems to me the entire empire rests upon a bloody flood.”
“I beg you, do not speak so master. Soon we will return to the capital, where such words will find ears connected to lips eager to report them.”
Anomus gave his servant a small smile, and clasped him gently on the shoulder. “You have the right of it. I have been in the wilderness too long, away from scheming priests and their informants. My tongue has become too free. It is a habit I must break, lest it turns and breaks me.”
Orthus nodded and held out the ewer. “It is time, master, this last time.”
Anomus took up the ewer and Orthus checked to be sure the short walk to the tomb’s entrance was without spying eyes. When he signaled, Anomus carried the ewer into the Tomb. No hands but his could carry the ewer, the offering. No light could guide him down the immeasurably ancient steps that awaited him. No one save Orthus, with him since childhood, could be trusted to know what he was about, or why.
The consequence would be a grisly death, after prolonged torture.
His was the only tent on the tomb-side of the river, a half-dozen steps from its entrance. If he had had to walk through the worker’s camp, he would have been discovered long ago. He did not look up at the massive façade carved into the cliff. He knew it intimately. He had designed it, after all. Within a few steps the ever-present sounds of the Great River – the gurgle and splash of the water, the sigh of the reeds in wave and gentle breeze, the frog’s croak and night bird’s cry – all had faded to silence, and the only sound was the soft whisper of his own sandals on the marble floor. He made his way like a spirit through the main corridor to the Well – the massive, cylindrical chamber open to the sky above the cliff – and slipped through the concealed door to the lightless stairs that led down to the undertomb.
~ ~ ~
Anomus had never been a particularly pious man. The gods of the Subori demanded only acknowledgment of their preeminence, not slavish devotion. Anomus had made the required sacrifices at the required times to the gods of war, the river, the harvest and all the others, but no shrine other than the household altar was to be found in his villa in the faraway capital. Left to his own devices, Anomus would happily have left all gods, be they domestic, foreign, or elder, to theirs.
Such was not his fate.
The emperor’s beloved concubine had died ten years before. The emperor, in his grief, had ordered the construction of a tomb for her in the very face of the Targus Cliffs, one of the oldest sacred places in the empire, and one that was remote – far upriver from the capital, surrounded only by the vast Great Desert and scattered ancient monuments built by forgotten cultures.
The emperor had ordered Anomus ip Garma, greatest architect of the empire, to build a tomb for his lost love. What the emperor ordered, lesser mortals toiled upon pain of death to do. For ten years Anomus had labored to bring the emperor’s wish to fruition, while the dead consort, beauty of her age, lay ensorcelled and undecaying in the capital, waiting for her final resting place to be constructed. Nearly ten thousand workers had labored to hack Anomus’s vision out of the rugged, unyielding stone of the cliffs. They were watched, guarded, driven on by and imprisoned by a thousand unspeaking, unsmiling, tongueless soldiers of the emperor’s Eternal Guard.
For ten years, Anomus had not seen his home, his wife, his children. He had been absent at the birth of his daughter, and the death and burial of his son and father, for no-one who toiled on the tomb’s construction was allowed to leave before its completion, and the emperor’s approval.
None could leave before the task was finished, save by death’s gate.
Many had walked through it over the course of a decade; some by misfortune - for such an undertaking carried risks, even when managed by one as careful and conscientious as Anomus. Some had perished by serpent’s bite or scorpion’s sting, while others had been carried away by simoom or plague or crocodile or river horse. Some had died in pointless camp squabbles. And some had exited the mortal realm by their own hand.
Of all who labored to bring forth from bitter stone the emperor’s desire, only Anomus had been allowed word of his family, or of the world outside the microcosm of the work site. When he had been notified of his daughter’s birth, he had celebrated. When news came to him of the death of his father, he had wept. When he had been informed of the death of his son, he had raged. But even as he beat at the uncaring stone of the cliffs until his fists were bloody, he knew the only way out was through. And so the next day he returned, dead-eyed, to his work, hands bound in linen by the ever quiet, sad-eyed Orthus.
But such hardships were past. The Concubine’s tomb was complete; come the dawn, the emperor would arrive to inspect what he had demanded be brought forth. And if he was pleased by what he saw, Anomus and all those who had worked so hard for so long to bring the emperor’s desire and Anomus’s vision to reality would finally be rewarded and released.
Release would be reward enough, for Anomus at least. Gods willing, he had a wife and daughter waiting for him, and ten years of absence to try and fill. So he descended the stairs with extreme care, determined not to spill a single drop of the old god’s final offering.
The emperor had stipulated very few things regarding the tomb’s construction. One of the stipulations had been that there would be a large – a massive – chamber beneath the tomb proper, a sort of basement hewn into the living rock. When Anomus had learned of this requirement, his heart had quailed even as his mind calculated how long it would take to mine such a vast space out of the bedrock, and what sort of supports would be necessary to keep the tomb above from collapsing into it. He had not really wondered why the emperor would wish such a thing; in the Subori empire, it was not a healthy thing to question the emperor, even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts.
It was when they had begun the underchamber’s excavation that they had discovered the ancient cave system. It was when they discovered those caves that a rash of misfortunes began to descend upon them. Massive swarms of the black, biting flies and desert wasps, then locusts, then scorpions. Wild animal attacks increased tenfold, then twentyfold. Simooms, the deadly sandstorms of the upper desert, descended upon the worksite, halting nearly all progress for days at a time.
Anomus began to believe the gods themselves had cursed their endeavor. In that, he had been partially correct. Not all the gods had cast a disfavoring eye on the tomb’s construction – only one. The one he had spent years, now, placating.
In the fourth year of the tomb’s construction, after nearly two months of cruel, deadly misfortune, a four-man work crew had discovered a secret down in the dark. They were led by a grizzled old miner wise enough to keep it quiet. He brought the news straight to Anomus. The man knew exactly what sort of panic their discovery would cause in a work force already as unsettled as theirs was.
“We found something,” the man had told Anomus, eyes cast to the ground.
“Yes? What did you find?”
“Best I don’t say. Best you come and see, Architect.”
And so Anomus had gone down in the dark to investigate.
The entrance was concealed by folds in the cavern wall that hid it unless you were almost upon it. But once you stood before the narrow black maw, it was impossible to miss the sickle moon carved above it.
Anomus was a learned man. One of the subjects his tutors had drilled into his young mind was an overview of what the Subori empire chose to call the occult – the worship of the old gods. His father being a justiciar, Anomus had been groomed from a young age for the imperial courts. Knowledge of such things was necessary for one who might one day sit in judgment of a person accused of worship of occult gods. That he had not in fact followed in his father’s footsteps had not erased his knowledge of what he beheld – the sickle moon of the Faceless One, the old god of death, of retribution, of darkness.
“Can you trust your men?” he’d asked the old crew boss in a quiet voice. “Answer truthfully and be sure, because all our lives depend upon it.”
“I trust ‘em,” the older man had replied.
“Are any of them prone to talking when they are deep in their cups?”
“Only one. I’ll sort ‘im.” The crew boss did not elaborate, and Anomus did not ask him to. He hadn’t liked the hard, pitiless look in the man’s eyes.
“If word of this spreads, this site will have to be abandoned. That means-”
“We’ll have to start over somewhere else, aye, and four years wasted.”
Anomus put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “That would be the best outcome we could hope for. It is not the likeliest. Do you understand?”
He had. Anomus had altered the plans for the sub-tomb, shifting its footprint ten feet westward and having the crew build a concealed door to the cavern that held the Faceless One’s entrance.
“Do I want to know why?” the crew boss had asked.
“You definitely do not want to know why,” Anomus had replied.
“Aye, Architect. It will be as you say.”
They had never spoken of it again. Terrified, Anomus had used his occult knowledge to placate the old god during the next sickle moon. Goat’s milk was plentiful. Honey less so, but as the most favored of the emperor’s tomb-slaves, he asked for and received a small monthly allotment.
The blood came from his own body, as it must. But it was a small price to pay, to save himself and all the thousands who toiled on the tomb from the wrath of the old god – or, eventually, the emperor.
After the first offering, all the cruel plagues and attacks ceased. And so Anomus had continued to pay the Faceless One’s tithe month after month for six years, in secret, down in the darkness. The work proceeded, the tomb took shape. And now, in the deep dark between midnight and dawn, Anomus the Architect made one final offering down in the bowels of the earth, for the emperor would arrive in a few hours to judge his work. One way or another, Anomus would be shut of this damned place forever.
He navigated the undertomb blindly but confidently. Every step and flagstone had been conceived in his own mind, and a half-dozen years had only deepened his instinctual knowledge of the space. But once he passed under the Faceless One’s sickle sigil, such knowledge, such confidence, died.
Anomus descended these deeper, unimaginably older stairs slowly, carefully, blindly – after six years of monthly offerings, he still could claim no real familiarity with the lightless realm beneath the Concubine’s Tomb. No familiarity, and certainly no indifference. His heart beat too fast, and sweat covered him despite the unnatural chill that only increased with every downward step that he took. He was able to overrule his body’s inclination to tremble, if only just; he desperately did not want to spill a single drop of the offering. Too much depended upon the continuing goodwill of its recipient. Here, at the end, with so much at stake, he could not – would not – stumble, and put everything in jeopardy.
Eventually, Anomus’s questing foot found the end of the steps. Try as he might, he had never been able to count the number of steps that led down to the old god’s chamber. Eventually he had quit trying.
Only when he stood with both feet on the floor of the old god’s sanctuary did a glimmer of light relive the total darkness. It flickered, pale blue and small, ahead of him. Anomus could not say with certainty but he believed that, over they course of years and dozens of offerings, that light had grown stronger. It might have been his imagination.
Anomus carried the ewer towards the light.
The room was featureless, as far as he knew – the cold, blue-white flame illuminated almost nothing, and served only as a beacon. It danced in a bowl-shaped depression at the top of a rough-hewn block of black stone that was not native to the cliffs.
Anomus reached the stone and its flame and, as he had done dozens of times before, carefully descended to both knees while lifting the ewer above his head.
“Faceless One,” he whispered, “on this sickle moon, this blood moon, this reaper’s moon, I offer You a worthless token of my fear and desperation, in the hope that You will withhold Your wrath for the passage of another month.” Anomus carefully set the ewer on the floor, then bent forward and pressed his forehead to the cold, dusty stone for thirteen heartbeats. Then he rose and picked up the ewer once more, and poured the contents into the bowl that contained the flame.
The bloody concoction sizzled and evaporated before touching stone or flame, as it had every time before. The blue-white fire burned brighter, as it had for every other offering. But when the ewer was empty and Anomus bent forehead to stone once again, something happened that had never happened previously. Anomus suddenly felt a presence in the chamber, invisible, irrefutable.
The Faceless One spoke in a whisper made of shadows and dust.
You fear the Faceless, as you should. But today your fear has a face.
“What face, oh Dark One?” Anomus whispered, eyes tight-shut, heart hammering in his chest.
A face of gold, diamond tear sparkling. You should flee this place, mortal. I can offer you no protection from what comes. Such is not My nature.