A Preview of The Secret Kings
Soul Cycle Book III
The Theophilus touched down on Crote just in time to prevent Teg from painting the cramped tub’s walls with his brains.
As Teg debarked into the damp chill air, he thought of the weary survivors huddling in the passenger pod—which, like the ship’s two other sections, was basically a big steel drum—and contemplated the improbable; one might say miraculous, chain of events that had brought them together.
His memory of the golden city had faded like a childhood dream. The deaths of Jaren and Deim, Nakvin’s heartbreak, and whatever had happened to Elena felt like tragedies witnessed by someone else.
They were, in a way. Teg had worn Sulaiman’s body back then. His rugged good looks had since been restored by the same demonic regeneration that had ensured his survival over these wretched years.
Too many years.
The temple door had led to a cave system that he’d been surprised, but not relieved, to learn ran beneath the mountains of Tharis. Teg had thought that the desert planet couldn’t get any uglier. Then he saw what the fire had done to it. The grey dust plains lay under a sheet of black slag. Noxious fumes filled the once dry air, and soot clouds hid the suns.
Even more surprising, Teg wasn’t the only one to survive. A reclusive Nesshin cult had lived and worshiped in those caves for generations. The years had thinned their ranks, and the fire killed off half the remnant. Disease, starvation, and suicide reduced them to a number that the Theophilus could accommodate—barely.
Fifteen years toiling on a world of toxic asphalt to cobble a ship together. Five years more confined to the cluster of damp reeking barrels they’d shot into space in the hope of finding somewhere decent to live.
Hoping that such a place even existed seemed vainer with each barren rock and charred moon they found. If they’d known beforehand about the ether—that only a patchy, mostly unnavigable residue remained—they’d probably have stayed put and died.
Instead, they’d salvaged what they could from Melanoros, crammed themselves into an ether-runner with little to run in, and lived.
Hopeful signs appeared just when all seemed lost. For instance, last month the ether had gradually begun thickening. The leading theory was that the universal medium was spreading out from the fire’s origin point at Mithgar, and would replenish itself in time.
In any case, the survivors had made more progress in the last four weeks than in the previous four years. They’d found a world whose brown and grey atmosphere looked like the clouds of heaven compared to the blasted skies of Tharis. Now they’d landed, and Teg praised the only god he knew.
“You look like you have seen a ghost.”
Teg turned from the daunting view—a double ridge of dark, ice-flecked rock girding a lake that filled the narrow trough between peaks—and faced the man who’d spoken. Black gravel crunched as Yato Freeman approached along the shore, barefoot. Why not? It wasn’t as if his feet, or the simple brown habit that befit his priestly station, could get much dirtier.
“This is the right place to find them.” Teg pointed toward the lake. Under the murky sky’s reflection, the bones of drowned buildings were clearly visible.
Yato’s grimace tugged his gaunt face down toward his scruffy goatee. Teg unconsciously ran a hand across his own beard, which had grown rather unkempt itself.
“That used to be a valley under an ice dome,” said Teg. “Local traders ran a port down there. Doesn’t look like anyone survived when the fire fell.”
Yato’s dark eyes stared into the cold, silent depths. “May Zadok judge them worthy.”
An icy wind blew down from the ridge, reminding Teg that Crote’s glaciers may have retreated, but its northern latitudes were hardly paradise.
“Did you see any signs of life from the Wheel?”
Yato shook his bald head. “The equatorial settlements felt the full brunt of the fire before the seas covered them. If the ice failed to save this port, then none were spared.”
Five crewmen loitered about the landing site. None had strayed far from the ship, and all beheld the broad mountain vista with wary fascination.
Teg waved to them. “Spread out and search. If it’s useful and portable; grab it. We meet back here in an hour.”
Teg’s foray along a glacier-carved gully turned up nothing besides scattered ice formations like fragile abstract sculptures; not that he’d hoped to find anything but an hour’s solitude. The light was fading when he sat down on a boulder to remove pieces of the pervasive black gravel from his boot and rub some warmth back into his toes.
Is this all there is to look forward to—flying from one dead sphere to the next; scrounging to survive?
The scream echoed from the mountainside, followed by the sounds of something that Teg knew well—violence. He sprang to his feet and made it several yards before realizing that one of his feet was bare. After a hobbling sprint back to the rock and a moment of fumbling with his boot, he raced back down the gully.
The Theophilus came into sight below. Along with the ground, the two spars connecting the ether-runner’s three pods formed an equilateral triangle. But it wasn’t the ship’s rusty grey hull that stopped Teg in his tracks at the edge of the landing site.
A figure was lurching about the otherwise deserted landing site. No, there were two—a Nesshin scout who’d come back early or never left, and something hairy that clung ferociously to his back.
Teg watched the pair’s thrashing with grim fascination. He took the aggressor tearing at his shipmate’s back for a wild animal—until the victim fell motionless onto the gravel, and his attacker set upon him with something that gave off a metallic glint.
Deeply ingrained reflex put Teg’s gun in his hand. The revolver’s greater weight and poorer balance compared to his lost zephyrs offended his sensibilities, but accuracy wasn’t a factor here. He’d have balked at shooting into a brawl, even if he hadn’t been years out of practice. Luckily, power and accuracy now took a back seat to noise.
Teg scanned the hillside above the landing site, judged it to be clear, and pointed the gun’s muzzle upslope away from the ship. The recoil jolted his wrist and the report made his ears ring when he pressed the trigger.
The aggressor reared back, stopping its attack short. Other men charged onto the scene, but Teg’s eyes were riveted on the creature that sat astride his shipmate.
It wasn’t an animal, but a man with ragged pelts covering his scrawny frame. His left hand clutched a length of crudely sharpened metal. His right forearm ended in a cauterized stump. A matted red mane and beard framed cloudy eyes that had once been emerald green. Teg knew those eyes, just as he knew that they could no longer see him.
The crude blade stabbed downward as its wielder gave a bestial cry.
Teg’s boggled mind would only let him yell, “Stop!”
There was a dull crack like someone hitting a leather sofa with a broom handle. The would-be killer slumped forward and rolled onto the coarse ground beside his intended victim.
Yato stood over them, a wooden club in his hand. His rapid breath sent up clouds of mist.
Teg holstered his gun and ran toward the priest. Reaching the unmoving pair, he knelt to check their vitals.
Yato nodded at the unconscious Nesshin. “Is Ehen badly hurt?”
“He’ll be fine. Probably just blacked out.” Teg brushed aside the copious beard of Ehen’s attacker and felt relief wash over him when he found a pulse. “Frankly, I’m more concerned about this one.”
Confusion colored Yato’s voice. “I doubt I gave him worse than a concussion. What is this savage to you?”
“He was my boss,” said Teg, unable to take his eyes off Jaren Peregrine’s ravaged face. “The worst I ever had.”