Night Shade Books have made a name for themselves by publishing quality titles that often go against the grain of what is being published by the genre powerhouses. In a few weeks they'll release another SFF novel that could continue that trend. And to give you a little taste of what it's all about, here's an excerpt from Zachary Jernigan's No Return. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists--only what his intentions are.
Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon--a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle--warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun's only inhabitable continent.
From the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.
On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas--which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo.
Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him? Gritty, erotic, and fast-paced, author Zachary Jernigan takes you on a sensuous ride through a world at the knife-edge of salvation and destruction, in this first installment of one of the year's most exciting fantasy epics.
For more information about Zachary Jernigan, check out his official website.
The 18th and 19th of the Month of Soldiers, 12499 MD The Town of Basec, Nation of Casta
The old men of Basec thrust their staff-ends into the unfinished wooden stands of their small theater. They did not smile or stand in respect, and the weak sound of their applause drifted away with the dry breeze. Several of the torches had gone out during the fight, but no one had moved to relight them. Money changed hands quietly as the crowd of old men climbed the stands—white-robed figures disappearing over the hillock like undead returning to graves.
Churls lowered her tattooed arms and looked down. The boy’s body lay broken on the blood-spattered dirt at her feet, a vertical dent running the length of his pulped face.
“Peace,” she said, expressionless.
She patted herself down and rubbed her bare skin, checking for unnoticed injury and letting several grams of dirt float free from her leathers. Her eyes felt scratchy in their sockets. She pulled a torch from the perimeter of the fighting floor and searched the ground for thrown coins.
“Coins,” she muttered. “Fucking savages.”
A quick search found seven, barely worth the effort. One beer’s worth, probably. She dropped the torch and retrieved her sword from the ground. Its pitted surface came clean with a little gritty dirt. Lastly, she clipped the coin belts free from her and the boy’s waists, and cut each bag open. Sixty-four bona, as she had been promised. At the expected exchange rate, it would get her two grams of heavily contaminated bonedust. Hardly worth the effort of conversion.
She was tired, disappointed with the fight’s outcome. The boy had been trained well, and killing him had not been her intention. He never stopped attacking, though, even after she broke his left femur and kicked the flail out of his hand. Grunting through a mouthful of blood, he crawled after her. No one in the crowd called it done. Resigned, she had finally flipped him over and crushed his skull.
Still, one had to live somehow. In her own estimation, Churls possessed no other skills to speak of. Gambling had gotten her in quite a bit of trouble a year previously, so it would be some time before she could return to Onsa, where the real money was. Shame the men of the badlands had so little money. Shame they had so little talent. They took what entertainment they could from watching their boys fight, watching them die.
There were good reasons so few fighters made it out here, Churls knew. One had to be in dire straits to scrounge in the dirt for coins.
Leaving the body where it lay, she climbed the shallow steps of the theater. An odd feeling, as if she were being watched, made her pause at the top. Her heart pounded against her ribs.
“What do you want?” she asked. She tried to make her body move forward, and failed.
She turned. A pale figure stood next to the boy’s corpse: A white-skinned child, dressed in a white school tunic. Her hair, her slippers, her socks—all white. Her face could not be seen from the top of the theater, but Churls did not need to see it. She would have recognized the girl’s posture anywhere. Few children had ever communicated world-weariness so well, or at such a young age.
Churls had not seen her daughter for at least three months. A decade had passed since she had seen the girl alive.
“Hello, Fyra,” Churls said.
The girl nodded, gaze never leaving the body at her feet.
You killed him, she said.
“Yes.” Churls sighed. “I killed him.”
Fyra disappeared and reappeared next to her mother. Involuntarily, Churls flinched, just as she had done when the girl surprised her by popping out from behind a corner when she was alive. Fyra had lived with her grandmother, and as a result Churls never became accustomed to children. Not even her own daughter. The fact that the girl had become a ghost did not change matters overly much.
Fyra looked up at Churls with eyes far older than a ten-year-old’s. They alone were not a shade of white, but clear and blue like her mother’s.
Did you like it? Fyra asked.
Churls took a step backwards just as Fyra reached for her hand. It was a coincidence, Churls reasoned to herself, yet she stared at the little hand the way one might stare at a live scorpion.
“No,” she answered. “I didn’t like killing him at all.”
Are you sure? Fyra said. You liked killing the last man. You told me you did.
Churls frowned. She knew the man her daughter referred to. The last time Fyra appeared, Churls had just killed an infantryman of the Castan Third in a fair fight. He had nearly bested her, and she had enjoyed every moment.
“That’s true.” Churls smiled awkwardly, like a person trying on an expression for the first time. “But that was a very different situation. You do see the difference, don’t you, Fyra?”
The girl looked down at her hand, and slowly let it fall back to her side.
She said, There’s no difference, Mama. This one’s just as dead as the other one.
Churls shook her head. “You’re not seeing what I mean. The man I killed in Donda was a trained warrior. He and I both knew what we were getting into. The difference is clear. I know you’re old enough to see it. And you can, can’t you, now that I’ve explained it?”
Fyra disappeared and reappeared next to the boy’s corpse. For a long while, she simply stared at him. Churls grew uncomfortable and tried to think of something to say. Surely, the child could tell the difference. She was not, after all, a child.
Fyra cocked her head like a dog, then cocked it the other way.
No, she finally said. I don’t see the difference at all.
Their eyes met from across the theater. Churls formed the old words in her mind, working up the nerve to speak. I wish you wouldn’t watch me when I fight. I wish I’d been there when you died. I’m happy I wasn’t. I love you. I hate you. Why don’t you leave me alone? Don’t leave, sweetie. Stay. Though the words were true, none of them sounded right, and her lips would not move no matter how hard she tried. Nonetheless, a raw lump formed in her throat, as though she had been speaking for a long time indeed.
“I...” The word was a croak. “Fyra, you...”
I don’t want to talk about this boy anymore, the child said. And someone is waiting for you in your hostel.
She disappeared, back to the land of the dead.
Churls finished her fifth beer, worried that the evening might result in a bad decision. Frankly, the situation felt out of her hands. The young men in the bar, none of whom had been present at the fight but had heard of her victory—young men who were nothing like their fathers, who knew the price of killing—would not let her pay for her drinks. And as the fight and Fyra’s appearance had not stopped troubling her, she decided to keep drinking.
Last but by no means least, she had no intention of returning to her hostel.
Someone is waiting for you.
Fuck that, Churls thought. Probably trying to collect on her debt. She owed nearly sixty ounces in gambling losses. Onsa was only eight hundred miles away, and she had not been overly attentive while covering her tracks.
As if on cue, a hand fell on her shoulder. She did not tense up, but let her right fist drop into her lap like it had fallen. Closer to her sword, better position for an elbow to the groin.
“Thought I’d find you here,” a familiar voice said. There was garlic on his breath. “Another drink?”
Churls closed her eyes and smiled into her empty glass. “This is a bad dream, then, isn’t it? Of all the people I wanted to see, in all the world, you’re the last.” She turned to the speaker and winced theatrically. “You look like shit, Gorum. You know you look like shit? You woke up and told yourself, I’m going to look like shit today?”
The man grinned. “I’m one of the only friends you got left in the world. Better be nice to me.”
They laughed and embraced. She held the contact longer than usual.
Over his shoulder, Churls saw scowls on a few faces. We bought you a beer, the expressions said. And now you’re running off with him?
She had experienced their kind of attention many times before. In the badlands, miles from anything resembling civilization, she became something of an exotic treat. Her freckled skin and short-cropped brown hair, her muscles and tattoos and scars, marked her as a different species from the long-haired, slate-skinned local women. Their thin hands and feet barely peeked out from folds of draped cloth while Churls walked about in leather halter and brass-pleated skirt.
The men of the badlands thought her small breasts were cute. They thought the gap between her two front teeth was cute.
They could get possessive very quickly.
“Boys!” she yelled, disengaging from Gorum. “The round’s on my friend here!”
Still no smiles, but they took their drinks while Gorum scowled and paid. He understood such things, though Churls knew his preference was to push his luck as far as it would extend, and then break some bones. He had been a fighter once, before discovering how much money could be made representing other fighters. He arranged matches for them and took a percentage of the cut.
She had been a disappointment to him of late. She had lost too much money gambling, started drinking too much, and started losing fights. As things got worse, she took to fighting easier opponents. Less money, less respect. Soon the strongarms were knocking on her door, leaving threatening messages at her haunts. She left Onsa the autumn of ’98 and kept a low profile, avoiding city centers as much as possible. Gorum had not contacted her, presumably because she was no longer bringing in any real money.
They had been lovers once, what felt like a long time ago.
“How did you get here?” she asked as soon as the beer was distributed, the bill paid. They sat together at a corner table, close but not touching. His fingernails were dirtier than she had ever seen them. The tops of his forearms were sunburned. He did not like horses or camping, and never strayed far from cities. Something extraordinary had brought him to her.
“Construct horse, if you can believe it.” He rubbed his thighs and grunted. She imagined the cost of such a thing and whistled. He continued. “I was actually finishing a tour of the Five Sisters, looking for talent. Not much luck. In Dunn, I received a message and knew I had to get to you. Fortunately, you were easy to find.”
“Well then, that’s that. What’s this message all about?”
He wiped foam from his mustache. “An opportunity, Churli. Have you heard about the tournament in Danoor?”
“You can’t be serious.” Of course she knew about it. What else occurred at the end of every decade and attracted every madman in the world? Of course, this year’s would be even madder, falling as it did halfway through the millennium. “It’s a thousand miles away, through places I’d rather not go. Besides, I try not to mix religion and killing. Liable to get you killed.”
“I know, but hear me out. I hadn’t considered Danoor a possibility, either, but everything just fell into place.” He paused to take a drink. “I looked at the bracket structure, and the odds are good—better than good, Churli. After that I concentrated on finding suitable travel companions. Of course, I can’t guarantee anything.”
“You never could. No one can call a fight that large. And shit, Gorum, you know I don’t like being set up. No, shut up. I don’t want to hear about them yet. Before I consider anything, and I’m not saying I’m going to, I need to know what’s at stake. How much will this tournament win me?”
“There’s two hundred and fifty pounds of pure-grade bonedust in it for you if you make it to the winners’ bracket, not to mention your cuts from the preceding fights.”
Churls shook her head. “Holy hell. What’s the winner get?”
Gorum smiled. “One thousand—drawn on the royal reserve bank of whichever government you choose. And this is separate from the Adrashi and Anadrashi bullshit. They compete against each other for only two days, white against black. I don’t even think they’re fighting for dust. The real fun starts on the first day of the new year.” He held up a finger. “But because the sects are hosting the whole thing, it’s their rules.”
“What does that mean?”
The smile broadened. “The eight fighters who make it to the winners’ circle may opt out with their cuts.”
Churls felt mildly insulted. “Are you saying I can’t win?”
“Yes.” His hand fell over hers. “The gambling houses are going mad with the news. Berun registered before leaving Golna. Even at your peak, you couldn’t have taken him.”
She felt more insulted, but knew he spoke the truth. “How, then,” she asked, “do you know I won’t be matched against him in the lower rounds?”
Gorum shrugged. “I don’t, obviously. The odds, though, are in your favor. One in eight isn’t bad, and they’re trying to organize the groups geographically.”
That kind of bracketing would not work out well, Churls reasoned, because more than a few fighters from Dareth Hlum would have dropped out when they heard Berun was fighting. Still, she could count on many people using Gorum’s rationale, hoping to avoid Berun and drop out once they made it to the winners’ circle. Adrashi fighters with backers, especially—men who could afford to travel across the continent in luxurious wagon trains, assured of their safe passage through Nos Ulom—would still find a way to attend.
“Still,” she said. “How do I get there? Nos Ulom’s not the friendliest place in the world, and I sure as shit won’t go through any part of Toma.”
“The people I want you to travel with aren’t taking that route.”
Churls looked at him, hand raised to signal another round. “What other route is there?” It dawned on her. “Lake Ten? I suppose that solves a problem, but it’ll cost going through Tansot. And Bitsan isn’t the friendliest city in the world, either. You stopped that fight with Hoetz just because his people had scheduled it there, remember—even though I had arranged for a...” She curled her upper lip. “Chaperon.”
“Regardless, that’s where you’ll sail from. Oh, and one other thing. Neither of your companions are trackers. Somehow, you must convince or fool them into going over the Steps.”
This was too much. Churls slapped the table. “That’s five hundred miles out of the fucking way! What kind of fool would travel over the Steps when they could walk in a straight line through Stol?”
Gorum looked torn between wanting to grin and wanting to duck his head under the table.