DiscoverEpic Fantasy

Last of the Exalted

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An action-packed epic fantasy with phenomenal characters and dialogue that is off the chart!

Synopsis

Civil war.
Hidden hands that pull the strings.

And four unlikely heroes:

Caelin Claver, Wayist Priestess

War. Always she dreamed of war. Blood everywhere, and no hands as red as hers.

Shadrak the Unseen, Assassin

He’d lurked in the shadows of political society as long as anyone alive. Longer. A party here, a fundraiser there, public ceremonies, dodgy meetings. Shadrak never forgot even the smallest detail, and what with his dealings with the wealthy merchants who bankrolled those in high office, it wasn’t exactly hard to put names to faces.

Nyra Sahtis, Skald

Her father had used every tool in his considerable arsenal to beat the human out of her and force her Slathian nature to grow. He’d been a monster, but now…. She tried not to imagine what secrets he might have brought back from Tho’Agoth. Hopefully, he never made it home alive.

The Nameless Dwarf, Once a King

What had started out as an overnight shelter in the Southern Crags was going to end up his tomb. The Nameless Dwarf had always known that. Something about the cave at the foot of a fissure reminded him of Arx Gravis, where he’d grown up. T

Last of the Exalted by Derek Prior is an action-packed epic fantasy with phenomenal characters and dialogue that is off the chart! This book is actually a continuation of The Nameless Dwarf Chronicles by the same author, but even without having read any of the prior stories featuring Nameless, I didn’t feel left behind or confused. The author allows the reader to jump into this world smoothly and efficiently.


The world-building in this book was great, but that wasn’t the main aspect that blew me away. The characters did that. The way they interacted with others and their dialogue did that. Additionally, this book was filled to the brim with epic battles and action scenes and while some authors can make even this seem tedious and long winded, those particular scenes in this book kept me on the edge of my seat and simultaneously yearning for more. I was never bored for one second of this book. In fact, I found myself really sad when it was over because I just could not get enough of this story.


I know this might be going off the rails for a moment, but I also want to mention just how freaking fantastic that cover is. I know we as readers are not supposed to judge books by their covers, but you know we all do it anyway. Or at least I know that I do. In any case the cover was what grabbed me right off the hop. It is very reminiscent of lots of other fantasy series that I know and love, and it was impossible for me to scroll past without taking a further look. If it did that for me, I guarantee it will do the same for bookstore wanderers.


I would highly recommend this to readers are looking for their fantasy stories to be intense, fast, and character driven. The world-building is excellent but honestly this book really shines the brightest when it comes to their characters, their interactions, and dialogue, so any fantasy fan who loves the work of John Gwynne, R.A. Salvatore, and Mark Lawrence is absolutely bound to also love this book as well. I would venture to say that this might be one of the best fantasy novels I have read so far this year. 

Reviewed by

I am a librarian and a voracious reader with a never ending appetite for books! I read a variety of different genres, though my favorites are fantasy, LGBT fiction, science fiction, and YA. Last year I read over 350 books and there is nothing I love more than reading books and talking about them!

Synopsis

Civil war.
Hidden hands that pull the strings.

And four unlikely heroes:

Caelin Claver, Wayist Priestess

War. Always she dreamed of war. Blood everywhere, and no hands as red as hers.

Shadrak the Unseen, Assassin

He’d lurked in the shadows of political society as long as anyone alive. Longer. A party here, a fundraiser there, public ceremonies, dodgy meetings. Shadrak never forgot even the smallest detail, and what with his dealings with the wealthy merchants who bankrolled those in high office, it wasn’t exactly hard to put names to faces.

Nyra Sahtis, Skald

Her father had used every tool in his considerable arsenal to beat the human out of her and force her Slathian nature to grow. He’d been a monster, but now…. She tried not to imagine what secrets he might have brought back from Tho’Agoth. Hopefully, he never made it home alive.

The Nameless Dwarf, Once a King

What had started out as an overnight shelter in the Southern Crags was going to end up his tomb. The Nameless Dwarf had always known that. Something about the cave at the foot of a fissure reminded him of Arx Gravis, where he’d grown up. T

One


Silence struck like a direct hit.

But it was only a momentary lull in the bombardment. Ennoi, smallest of the three moons, shivered in the winds gusting off the northern Steppes. Red Charos and silvery Raphoe had long since dipped below the city walls. Across Jeridium, windows were shuttered and the glowstones that lined the roads shed no light. The stink of corruption permeated every inch of every street. No one had collected the refuse for more than a week, the sewers were backed up, and rats were everywhere—rodents and the looting kind. People were starving. Gold, jewels, family heirlooms were handed over in return for something to eat. Those with their heads screwed on had gotten out as soon as it became clear the Senate’s policy of appeasement had failed. Not long after, the dwarven army of Gitashan, Queen of Arx Gravis, laid siege to the city.

On the roof of the Brenitch and Cawdor Bank, a cloaked figure, so small he could have been a child, hunkered down beside a chimney breast. When a flash in the sky made him look up, moonlight revealed white stubble on whiter skin, and eyes the color of blood.

Another glowing missile arced over the city walls, only a block away this time. Close enough for the albino assassin, Shadrak the Unseen, to make out what it was: a severed head, lips still moving in a ceaseless scream of torment.

That was the twelfth such missile so far tonight—day twenty-two of the siege. Most of the cowherds and market gardeners who worked the land outside the walls had believed the appeasers on the Senate and thought war would never come. Others hoped to profit by selling food to the invaders, or by stockpiling it till the siege was lifted, when they’d make a fortune from marked-up prices. Instead, they’d ended up as ammunition for the catapults, and their precious crops and flocks had simply been taken from them.

But the real worry was that the enemy were using heads at all. Dwarves weren’t exactly known for their cruelty, and they certainly didn’t need scare tactics. They would have found the idea dishonorable. And sorcery—the heads blazed in the darkness, and they screamed—most dwarves didn’t know the first thing about magic, and those that did had an innate revulsion for it. Shadrak had said as much all along: there was something very wrong about this war.

His stomach growled. The last few days he’d been reduced to stealing from thieves who’d stolen from thieves. The food was... worse than stale. Word on the street was that Brenitch and Cawdor had a wine cellar and a cold room stocked with cheeses and meats that they plied their best customers with. Even so, Shadrak was going off the idea of breaking in. He knew things about the bank, about the shadowy figures said to govern it.

Another head whistled through the air and hit the street below. There was an ear-splitting boom. The building shook. Flames billowed into the sky.

“Shog it,” Shadrak said, slapping at his smoldering cloak as he pushed away from the chimney breast and leapt for the adjacent rooftop.

He was going to do what he should have done weeks ago. He was getting out of Jeridium.

And he knew just how.



At the top of the metal stairs that spiraled around the outside of the tower, Shadrak knocked on the door, glancing over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He was still jittery from the near miss atop the bank.

Usually, the Palidius District was lit up through the night by glowstones atop iron posts, but given the Senate’s call for total blackout during the bombardment, the lights had all been extinguished. Half a dozen steps below Shadrak’s position, the tower was shrouded in darkness.

For a long while he listened, picking out the occasional barked

command of a dwarf carried by the wind from beyond the city walls, the thud of a mallet striking the release pin of a catapult, the yowl of another flying head. At least this one was farther off, targeting the foundries to the west of Jeridium.

The odd thing was, there was no sound from within. That was unusual. The rogue wizard, Nalkus, seldom if ever left his rooms at the top of the tower. He’d had a scare that he’d never recovered from. Same thing had happened more than two-hundred years ago to Nalkus’s ancestor, Magwitch the Meddler. Shadrak remembered the old mage babbling about faces in the shadows as if it were only yesterday.

Worried now, he unraveled his leather toolkit and took out a torsion wrench and a slender pick, but when he set to work, he discovered the lock was broken.

He eased the door open a crack and slipped inside, running his fingers over the blades in his baldric.

The first thing that hit him was the stench—sulfur and shit. Through the gloom, he could make out the shapes of tables and chairs. There was a muffled drip, drip, drip coming from beyond the curtained opening opposite.

Edging around the furniture, Shadrak parted the curtain and entered a wood-paneled hallway. Lamplight flickered from the open doorway at the far end. As he crept closer, he could see scorch marks on the walls—still warm to the touch. Evidence of Nalkus’s favorite fire-trap sorcery. The mage always said you could never be too careful.

The windows inside the room—Nalkus’s bedroom, judging by the cot with the straw mattress and crumpled blankets—were shuttered as per the Senate’s siege-time instructions. Against one wall there was a writing desk with a high-backed chair, beside which were shelves crammed with books and scrolls. The dripping was louder here, and Shadrak looked up at the vaulted ceiling to locate the source:

Nalkus, strung up by his wrists, blood and filth splashing from his opened guts to pool on the hardwood floor.

“We figured you’d come here sooner or later.” The scrape of the high-backed chair as it turned around. A man sat upon it. Long black coat. Broad-brimmed hat that drenched his face in shadow. “Shame for Nalkus, I got tired of waiting.”

“Shame for you, you killed him,” Shadrak countered. He flicked his cloak back and skimmed a razor star at the man on the chair. His aim was true, but rather than a spray of blood, there was a dull thud as the razor star passed through the man’s face and embedded itself in the backrest.

“Don’t tell me you’re a shogging Maresman!” Shadrak said as he took a step back toward the door. He’d not had a run-in with the Senate’s enforcers since he’d given up smuggling husks across the Farfall Mountains for sorcerers with dark intentions and deep pockets.

Shadrak froze at the sound of a click close to his ear.

“He is.” A woman’s voice from behind. Something cold and hard pressed against the back of his head. “We both are.”

“That a pistol?” Shadrak asked.

The man in the chair chuckled. “They said you knew a thing or two about ancient weapons.”

Shadrak had seen his fair share of relics from the heyday of the Vanatusian Empire, even owned a few guns himself once upon a time. He still kept his first in an oiled rag back home. It had been out of bullets for years.

“Who the shog’s they?”

The man stood and plucked Shadrak’s razor star from the backrest, rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. “You’ll see.”



The male Maresman went ahead of Shadrak down the winding metal stairs outside the tower, the woman with the pistol following.

The man chuckled and wagged a finger at the night sky. “Nalkus told us you’d come for his air-raft.”

Shadrak looked up to see a rectangle of darkness riddled with glowing veins of green drifting farther and farther away. He swore under his breath. There went his way out of the city.

As they headed east, Shadrak fought down the urge to make a run for it. Where would he go, save back to his attic room to slowly starve to death? Besides, he was angry at what the Maresmen had done to Nalkus. The sorcerer had been a paranoid fool, but he’d done right by Shadrak over the years. Someone was going to pay for his death. He just needed to find a way. His razor star had passed harmlessly through the Maresman’s head, but one thing experience had taught him was that no one was invulnerable. You just had to be patient, keep a close eye, and act when the opportunity presented itself.

And then there was the fact that he wanted to find out what this was all about. Maresmen didn’t run errands for just anyone. If these two had been sent to find him, it was by order of the Senate.

His suspicions were confirmed when they passed through the silent streets of Smithgild, the main business district. In the grey pre- dawn light, Shadrak could make out the looming edifice of the basilica that had long ago been confiscated from the Church of the Way and adopted as the seat of Jeridium’s government. That was during the times when the Wayists had been suppressed. Good old days, he reckoned. Not like now, when the Church had representatives on the Senate and a hand in every lucrative deal.

As they drew near the Senate Building, a cloaked figure stepped from behind one of the pillars that supported the covered portico. A woman, judging by her gait, the glint of a dagger in one hand. Even in the midst of the siege, the guilds were still active. Same as everyone else, they needed to eat, and anyone walking the streets was fair game. The woman smirked with over-confidence as she sauntered toward them. That only told Shadrak she wasn’t alone.

Three hard-looking men emerged from an alleyway to the right. The door of the boarded-up old priests’ house beside the basilica flew open and four more men spilled out, armed with clubs and staves.

The scuff of boots on cobbles came from behind, followed by a grunt of effort. A rock flew past Shadrak and struck the Maresman in the back of the head. He stumbled, hat falling to the ground and revealing a bald scalp covered with blisters. The Maresman turned and bellowed. A shadow spewed from his lips, taking on substance as it soared toward his attacker in the form of a raven. A man screamed, followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground.

The rogues scattered, and in the same instant Shadrak spun and snatched the pistol from the female Maresman. Yellow eyes wide with shock, she was crimson-skinned—a Zawalian. An uncommon sight in Jeridium, and even rarer for an employee of the Senate, most of whom bragged about their Vanatusian ancestry and considered everyone else inferior. Her hair was wound into thick ropes, and a silver ring pierced her bottom lip. What was visible of her neck above her coat was inked black with tattoos of jagged lines and spirals.

The male Maresman snatched up his hat and covered his blistered head with it. “Enough,” he growled. “Give her the gun back.”

“Or what?” Shadrak said. “You think your bosses will thank you for killing me, like you did that poor scut?” He nodded toward the already putrefying corpse of the rogue. “I’m guessing they need me alive, else why go to all this trouble?”

The woman flicked a nervous look at the man. “Yanos...” she started, but Shadrak doubled her over with a punch to the stomach, then shoved the tip of the pistol in her mouth. For a second he relished the sight of her squirming, then grinned at the man.

“You want to be more careful, Yanos,” he said. “We’ve only just met, and I already know your name and how to kill you.”

“How to—?”

“Oh, don’t worry, mate.” Shadrak took the gun out of the woman’s mouth. “I ain’t gonna do nothing. Not yet.”

But at least now he knew that he could. The thrown rock had hit Yanos in the back of the head. The Maresman hadn’t seen it coming, like he had the razor star that had passed right through him. A weakness uncovered.

Shadrak snapped open the butt of the pistol and shook a slender cartridge out onto his palm before handing the woman the gun back. “My payment,” he said. “For coming along quietly. You got any idea how hard it is to find bullets these days?”



“You can wait outside,” a fat man in the white toga of a senator told the two Maresmen. “We’ll be quite all right with Shadrak the Unseen. Or do we call you something else these days, now that everyone knows who you are?”

The door clicked shut behind Shadrak.

The fat man shoved a weedstick in his mouth, sending up puffs of smoke. There was an open wine bottle before him on the table, a half-empty glass beside it.

The room was windowless, lit by a glowstone set into the ceiling. There were three other senators at the table, two men and a woman. Shadrak let his cloak fall open to reveal the blades in his baldric. “What makes you so sure you’re safe all the way down here in the bowels of the basilica? None of you looks stupid. You know what I

do for a living.”

The fat man rolled his eyes, grunting around the butt of his

weedstick, “Magical defenses.”

Figured. The Senate had a long history of pardoning rogue

sorcerers in return for undisclosed services. Of course, the fat man could have been bluffing, but there was no way of knowing. “I take it this meeting’s off the record.”

“Most of what we do here is off the record,” the woman said. She was moon-faced, with a double chin that melted into her turkey- wattle neck.

The man beside her shifted in his seat. Greased-back hair, trimmed mustache. He flicked a look toward the head of the table, where the fourth senator was frowning at a crystal sphere nestled in his hands.

This last was a big man, older than his colleagues. Bad hair—it looked as though duck down had been glued to his scalp and given a side parting. Mouth like a rat’s arse. Without looking up from the crystal, he said, “We are the Special Select Committee for War.”

There was a clink as the fat man topped up his wine glass. White wine. Sparkling. The preferred tipple of wealthy elites.

“Does the First Senator know?” Shadrak asked.

“As much as she needs to,” the man with the mustache said. “We are in a parlous state.” The fat man popped his weedstick

out of his mouth just long enough to take a slurp of wine.

“Because you were too busy appeasing the dwarves instead of preparing for war,” Shadrak said.

“A strategy that would have worked,” Mustache-Man said, “with even a modicum of support from the opposition party.”

“Bah!” The fat man sent up another puff of smoke.

“Your refusal to face facts cost us dearly, Senator Dudley,” the woman said. “Even a blind idiot could see what Queen Gitashan was up to the minute her army walked into Portis and took control of the Chalice Sea.”

The inland sea was vital to the region. Most of Jeridium’s fish came from there, after the guilds of Portis had taken their cut.

Dudley flew into a fluster. “You gave him my name!”

“If it makes you feel better,” Shadrak said, “I could take a stab at the identities of your colleagues.” He knew none of them personally, but he’d lurked in the shadows of political society as long as anyone alive. Longer. A party here, a fundraiser there, public ceremonies, dodgy meetings. Shadrak never forgot even the smallest detail, and what with the gossip on the street, and his dealings with the wealthy merchants who bankrolled those in high office, it wasn’t exactly hard to put names to faces.

The fat man threw a coughing fit, which only stopped when he slugged down more wine.

Shadrak pointed at him. “Crannock the Warmonger.” To the man with the duck-down hair: “Welsus Volpadine, head of Volpadine Holdings”—a company Shadrak had stolen from on more than one occasion. “And Ilarion Cletchin, wife of the former First Senator, who was forced to resign due to a conflict of interest involving the Brenitch and Cawdor Bank.”

“A malicious lie that has been discredited,” Cletchin said.

Volpadine self-consciously ran a hand over his hair. “Whatever you think you know about us, rest assured, we know much more about you. I for one would sooner not deal with a crook, a former guild lord, and the man who assassinated First Senator Mal Vatès.”

“Before you were born,” Shadrak said.

“Yes, about that,” Volpadine said. “How come you’ve lived so long?”

“I exercise. And I don’t drink.”

Volpadine gave a humorless chuckle. “Or you’re a faen, not a human. Do I need to go on? I have an entire list of things our... researchers put together about you.”

“Just get to the point.”

“Of course. These are desperate times, and we only have a slender window in which to act. The army of Arx Gravis is encamped outside our walls. They’ve bombarded us day and night, and their infernal missiles sow terror wherever they fall. But the walls have not been breached—a testament to the masons who built them. The dwarves of old, it seems, possessed secrets our enemy lacks. Nevertheless, the city is dying. Food is growing scarcer by the day—”

“It is?” Crannock said.

“There’s looting, disease, an epidemic of rats. An epidemic of Wayist priests too, for that matter, preaching that the siege is divine retribution for our sins.”

“As I’ve been saying all along,” Cletchin said, “we should never have lifted the ban on their insipid religion. Round them up, like in the old days. Bring back the guillotine.”

“Steady on,” Crannock said. “The Bishop’s not so bad.”

Volpadine raised a finger for quiet. “My point is that the enemy only needs to hold on for a few more weeks and there will be no one left alive in Jeridium.”

“Unless we send our boys outside the walls to fight!” Crannock said.

Volpadine gave a weary shake of his head. He’d no doubt heard the suggestion a hundred times.

“Sounds like good advice to me,” Shadrak said.

“I disagree,” Volpadine said, Cletchin and Dudley nodding their agreement.

“Why’s that, then?”

“Because there’s a second dwarven army on the way.”

“A second—?”

Shadrak was cut off by a deafening blast from a trumpet right

next to his ear. He spun round, but there was no one there. Crannock’s weedstick hung limply from his mouth. The other

senators exchanged nervous glances.

“Citizens of Jeridium!”—a man’s voice with the force of thunder. Outside, muffled by the walls of the basilica, people were shouting and screaming.

The door flew open and the red-skinned Maresman entered. “That voice,” she said, “it’s from beyond the city walls. Some kind of sorcery.”

The crystal in Volpadine’s hands began to glow. “Yes, we gathered that. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to concentrate.”

Shadrak raised an eyebrow. Behind him, the door clicked shut once more.

“Wizard eye,” Dudley explained. “Above the city. We can see what the enemy is up to.”

Crannock snorted. “And still do nothing!”

“Your leaders have let you down,” the voice from beyond the walls said. “Your Senate was given every opportunity to avoid this siege, but greed and self interest have blinded them to the truth. Jeridium is outmatched. The only reason you still live is because Queen Gitashan is merciful.”

Shadrak didn’t know about that. He’d met Gitashan long ago. Met her sister Thyenna, too, now Queen of Arnoch. He doubted they understood the concept of mercy.

“Got you!” Volpadine said, holding the glowing crystal out in front of him. Scintillant rays burst from its center, fanned out, then converged into a beam of white light. Where the beam struck the tabletop, a blurry picture formed.

Shadrak squinted, trying to make sense of what he saw. It was a living image of the dwarven camp: tents, wagons, catapults, a mountain of headless bodies.

“Closing in,” Volpadine muttered, face a mask of concentration.

Orange light flashed in ribbons as the view panned across the night fires dotted about the camp. The picture veered sharply the other way, bringing into focus armored dwarves formed up in phalanxes.

The image jumped again, and this time settled on a clearing amid the massed troops. Four figures stood there: Gitashan the Queen, armored in black ocras, a slender coronet holding back her silver- streaked hair; a dwarf in the bright livery of a herald, trumpet held at his side; another dwarf, armored head to toe in plates of ocras, just the merest of slits in his great helm to see out of. The last was too tall to be a dwarf: a robed man, lean and angular, face and hands scaled and grey, ears like a bat’s. An open book lay on a stand before him, a smoking brazier illuminating the pages.

“Is that a Slathian?” Crannock asked, ash dropping from the end of his weedstick.

“Citizens of Jeridium,” the herald said, “this is not your fight. You have been brought to this day by the scheming and arrogance of your politicians, and by the powers who pull their strings. If you would spare your families and save yourselves, consider carefully our Queen’s gracious offer. Choose a warrior brave enough to leave the city and do battle with the champion of Arx Gravis, Lord Beogrun.”

The ocras-armored dwarf raised his axe.

“If your champion is victorious,” the speaker continued, “our army will withdraw for seven days. You can use that time to evacuate, or to resupply, if you are foolish enough to stay and fight.”

“And if we lose?” Cletchin muttered.

“But if Beogrun should win—and he always does—” the herald continued, “you will open your gates to us. Accept the challenge, and no one else needs to die. You have Queen Gitashan’s word on that.”

“Pah!” Crannock said. “The word of a dwarf!”

The door opened. This time it was an official in a grey tunic. “Forgive my interruption, Senators,” she said, “but your presence is required. Emergency meeting of the full Senate.”

The image from outside the walls dissolved as Volpadine covered the crystal with his hands. “Tell them we’re on our way.”

“Senator.” The official backed out the room and closed the door.

“Does no one have the spine to face Beogrun?” the herald’s voice boomed once more. “Then, the Queen gives you three days. If the challenges remains unanswered at the end of that time, we will tear down your walls and Jeridium’s streets will run with blood.”

Dudley glanced at Shadrak.

“Piss off,” Shadrak said. “I don’t do fair fights.”

“If they could tear down our walls, they would already have done so,” Crannock said.

“Either way,” Volpadine said, “we’ll still starve to death.”

“And the dwarves must know that,” Shadrak said. “So why the

sudden hurry?”

Crannock relit the stub of his weedstick. “Because the second

army is from Arnoch. We’re caught in the middle of a dwarven civil war.”

“That makes no sense,” Shadrak said. “Thyenna and Gitashan are sisters.”

“Siblings fall out,” Cletchin said.

“You’d know all about that.” Crannock said, emptying the last dregs of wine from the bottle into his glass. “Still no regrets? You don’t miss your brother?”

Cletchin was on her feet so fast her chair tipped over and crashed to the floor. “Why, you fat, slanderous—”

“Senators, please,” Volpadine said.

Crannock raised his weedstick in apology. Cletchin remained dangerously still, white knuckles pressed into the tabletop, chin quivering with barely suppressed rage.

Dudley stood and righted Cletchin’s chair. She lowered herself into it and let out a long slow breath. A serene mask settled over her face, and she even managed a half smile for Crannock’s benefit.

“Nothing was proven,” Volpadine said as Dudley resumed his seat. “And, as you well know, Crannock, the board of inquiry agreed that the evidence against Senator Cletchin was not admissible.”

“When her husband was still in charge,” Crannock muttered. But Cletchin was back in control of herself. She refused the bait. “If we could return to the matter in hand....” Volpadine said.

“Time is no longer on our side. Goodness knows what the full Senate will decide if we miss the meeting. Why don’t you three go on ahead? I’ll finish up here.”

“But—” Dudley said.

“I insist.”

Volpadine waited for his colleagues to leave then gestured for

Shadrak to take a seat.

“You knew the last dwarven king, Shadrak. You were friends,

I’m told.”

“Maybe.”

“Before he became King of Arnoch,” Volpadine said, “he was briefly the ruler of Arx Gravis. That was the first time the dwarves attacked Jeridium. What was it he used to call himself? The Corrector, wasn’t it?”

Shadrak clenched his jaw. The Nameless Dwarf had been possessed by the black axe he’d found in the underworld, Aranuin. Shadrak had been the one to stop his old friend’s reign of terror— with a bullet between the eyes. If not for the power of the black axe, it would have killed him.

“How was it,” Volpadine said, “that one minute the dwarves were terrified of this Ravine Butcher, as they called him, and the next they made him king?”

“They forgave him.”

“For the slaughter of thousands of their people? I don’t believe that.”

“Neither did he, but it was Nameless who saved the dwarves from the Lich Lord when they fled Arx Gravis and crossed the Farfall Mountains.”

“Yes,” Volpadine said, “and he found the lost city of Arnoch for them.They say he was a half-decent king, for as long as it lasted. But when he abdicated, the dwarves quickly divided into factions. Those that sided with Gitashan returned to Arx Gravis.”

“She was probably pissed her sister was made Queen of Arnoch,” Shadrak said.

“For decades, we heard nothing out of the dwarves. Arnoch was too remote, and Arx Gravis resumed a policy of isolationism. We had hoped, under a new ruler, things might improve.”

“Gitashan’s too proud for that,” Shadrak said. “We’re scum to her. Even other dwarves, those who aren’t lords.”

“As far as we know,” Volpadine continued, “Queen Thyenna and the dwarves of Arnoch went back to the age-old task of their ancestors: defending Medryn-Tha against the husks of Cerreth. But when Thyenna’s army came storming through the Malfen Pass a few days ago, there were reports of husks fighting alongside the dwarves.”

“And you think Thyenna’s coming against Gitashan?”

“I do. But not to aid us. News coming in from Malfen makes that abundantly clear. It was a bloodbath. Want to know my theory? Thyenna learned of her sister’s expansionism and got worried Arnoch was next. It’s not looking good, I tell you, what with Gitashan’s forces occupying the south and Thyenna now harrying the north. Refugees are all over the place. The only good thing about this siege is that no more of them can come here.”

“You’re all heart,” Shadrak said.

“Where would we put them? And those refugees we took in when this all started were just fodder for the guilds. Think of that before you cast judgment.”

“I’m not with the guilds,” Shadrak said. “I’m a free agent.”

“And you’re telling me you haven’t taken advantage of the refugee crisis? Helped yourself to what they brought with them?”

“Would that be before or after the Senate confiscated their goods in return for asylum?”

Volpadine pushed himself to his feet. “Let’s cut to the chase before I miss the full meeting of the Senate. I’d appeal to patriotism, but I assume I’d be wasting my time. So, with much difficulty, I persuaded the bursars to agree to a sizable payment for your services.”

“How sizable?”

“Ten thousand shekels.”

“You’re shogging me!”

“You could retire on it,” Volpadine said. “Preferably far away

from here. I’ve had the contract drawn up. You’ll have a chance to peruse it before you accept.”

“What do you want me to do? Assassinate Gitashan? Thyenna? Both of them?”

Volpadine chuckled. “Wouldn’t that make life easier? Even if you succeeded, though, there are plenty of other dwarf lords who would take their places.”

“But Thyenna and Gitashan aren’t just dwarf lords,” Shadrak said. “They’re the elite of the elite. They’re Exalted.”

“As was their former king. If anyone can bring this senseless war to an end, it’s him. We need you to find him, Shadrak, and get him into the city. You must find the Nameless Dwarf.”

“Are you having a laugh?”

“Were my sources wrong about you being his friend?”

“It’s been so long, I wouldn’t know where to start looking.” “Then, let me help you. Last year, before the first signs of trouble

from Arx Gravis, a dwarf was spotted in the fledgling settlement in the foothills of the Southern Crags. He was old and decrepit, they said. Half-starved.”

The thought of Nameless as an old man somehow seemed worse than him being dead. The dwarf Shadrak had known had been indomitable. There was something seriously shogged up about a world in which heroes faded away, while a scut like Shadrak—he knew what he was—hadn’t aged a day since reaching adulthood.

“He came down from the peaks for food,” Volpadine said. “Entered the fight circles to earn the money to buy some. Gave a good showing too, until he reached the final and took a beating from a Zawalian that should have killed him.”

Shadrak shook his head, hoping it was a case of mistaken identity. “I’ve never seen him lose.”

“So, you’ll go?”

Could it really be him? And if it was, would Nameless welcome him as a friend? The friend who’d not been there when he’d lost it all—the crown, his people, but more than that, his wife, his precious Cordy.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Volpadine said. “Someone will meet you at the Settlers’ Graveyard in two hours. You can inspect the paperwork there.”

Shadrak turned to the door, then spun back and flung out his hand. Volpadine gasped as the razor star embedded itself in the wall behind his head.

Shadrak held up a finger for silence and made a show of looking around the room.

“Magical defenses, my arse.” 

About the author

Derek Prior excels in fast-paced, high stakes epic fantasy adventure stories in which good ultimately triumphs, but always at a cost. view profile

Published on May 14, 2020

Published by Homunculus

140000 words

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Reviewed by

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