The Skull Throne Page 1

Author: Peter V. Brett

Series: The Demon Cycle #4

Genres: Fantasy

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PROLOGUE

NO VICTOR

333 AR AUTUMN

“No!” Inevera reached out, clutching empty air as the Par’chin pitched himself and her husband over the cliff.

Taking with them all the hope of the human race.

On the opposite side of the circle of combat, Leesha Paper let out a similar cry. The strict ritual laws of Domin Sharum were forgotten as witnesses from both sides rushed to the precipice, crowding together to peer into the darkness that had swallowed the combatants.

In Everam’s light, Inevera could see as clearly in darkness as brightest day, the world defined by magic’s glow. But magic was drawn to life, and there was little below save barren rock and dirt. The two men, glowing as fiercely as the sun a moment ago, had vanished into the dull gloom of ambient magic as it vented to the surface.

Inevera twisted her earring, the hora stone within attuned to its mate on her husband’s ear, but she heard nothing. It could be out of range, or broken in the fall.

Or there might be nothing to hear. She suppressed a shiver as a chill mountain wind blew over her.

She glanced at the others clustered at the edge, reading their expressions, searching for a hint of betrayal, a sign one of them had known this was coming. She read the magic that emanated from them, as well. The circlet of warded electrum coins she wore did not let her read spirits as fluidly as her husband did with the Crown of Kaji, but she was getting more and more skilled at reading emotions. Shock was clear throughout the group. There were variations from one to another, but this was not the outcome any of them had expected.

Even Abban, the smug liar, always hiding something, stood horrified. He and Inevera had been bitter rivals, each attempting to undo the other, but he loved Ahmann as much as an honorless khaffit could, and stood to lose more than any, should he prove dead.

I should have poisoned the Par’chin’s tea, Inevera thought, remembering the guileless face of the Par’chin the night he appeared from the desert with the Spear of Kaji. Pricked him with a venom-dipped needle. Put an asp in his pillows as he dozed before alagai’sharak. Even claimed offense and killed him with my bare hands. Anything but leave it to Ahmann. His heart was too true for murder and betrayal, even with the fate of Ala in the balance.

Was. Already she used the past tense, though he had been gone only seconds.

“We must find them.” Jayan’s voice sounded miles away, though her eldest son stood right beside her.

“Yes,” Inevera agreed, thoughts still spinning, “though it will be difficult in the darkness.” Already, the cries of wind demons echoed off the cliffs, along with the deep rumble of the mountain stone demons. “I will cast the hora to guide us.”

“Core with waitin’ on that,” the Par’chin’s Jiwah Ka said, shouldering Rojer and Gared aside as she dropped to her belly and swung her legs over the edge of the cliff.

“Renna!” Leesha grabbed for her wrist, but Renna was too fast, dropping quickly out of reach. The young woman glowed brightly with magic. Not so brightly as the Par’chin, but brighter than any other she had ever seen. Her fingers and toes drove into the cliff face like a demon’s talons, cracking stone to create her holds.

Inevera turned to Shanjat. “Follow her. Mark your trail.”

To his credit, Shanjat showed none of the fear that ran through his aura as he looked at the cliff. “Yes, Damajah.” He punched a fist to his chest and slung his spear and shield over his back, dropping to his belly and swinging over the edge, picking his way carefully down.

Inevera wondered if the task might be beyond him. Shanjat was as strong as any man, but he had killed no demons this night, and did not possess the inhuman strength that allowed Renna am’Bales to claw her own path.

But the kai’Sharum surprised her, and perhaps himself, using many of the fissures the Par’chin’s wife made for his own holds. Soon he, too, vanished into the gloom.

“If you’re going to throw your bones, do it now, so we can begin the search,” Leesha Paper said.

Inevera looked at the greenland whore, suppressing the snarl that threatened her serene expression. Of course she wanted to see Inevera cast the dice. No doubt she was desperate to learn the wards of prophecy. As if she had not stolen enough from Inevera.

None of the others knew, but the dice had told her Leesha carried Ahmann’s child in her belly, threatening everything Inevera had built. She fought the urge to draw her knife and cut the babe free now, ending the trouble before it began. They would not be able to stop her. The greenlanders were formidable, but no match for her sons and two Damaji sharusahk masters.

She breathed, finding her center. Inevera wanted to heap all her anger and fear upon the woman, but it was not Leesha Paper’s fault that men were proud fools. No doubt she’d attempted to dissuade the Par’chin from his issuing his challenge, much as Inevera had tried to dissuade Ahmann from accepting it.

Perhaps their battle had been inevitable. Perhaps Ala could not suffer two Deliverers. But now there was none, and that was worse by far.

Without Ahmann, the Krasian alliance would crumble, the Damaji devolving into bickering warlords. They would kill Ahmann’s dama sons, then turn on one another, and to the abyss with Sharak Ka.

Inevera looked to Damaji Aleverak of the Majah, who had proven the greatest obstacle to Ahmann’s ascension, and one of his most valuable advisors. His loyalty to Shar’Dama Ka was without question, but that would not stop him from killing Maji, Ahmann’s Majah son, that he never supplant the Aleverak’s son Aleveran.

An heir could still unite the tribes, perhaps, but who? Neither of her sons was ready for the task, her dice said, but they would not see it that way, nor give up interim power once granted. Jayan and Asome had always been rivals, and powerful allies would flock to them both. If the Damaji did not tear her people apart, her sons might do it for them.

Inevera moved wordlessly into the ring where the two would-be Deliverers had fought mere moments before. Both men had left blood on the ground, and she knelt, pressing her hands where it had fallen, wetting them as she took the dice in hand and shook. The Krasians formed a ring about her, keeping the greenlanders at bay.

Carved from the bones of a demon prince and coated in electrum, Inevera’s dice were the most powerful set any dama’ting had carried since the time of the first Damajah. They throbbed with power, glowing fiercely in the darkness. She threw and the wards of foretelling flared, pulling the dice to a stop in that unnatural way they had, forming a pattern of symbols for her to read. It would have been meaningless to most. Even dama’ting argued over the interpretations of a throw, but Inevera could read them as easily as words on parchment. They had guided her through decades of tumult and upheaval, but as was often the case, the answer they gave was vague, and brought little relief.

—There is no victor.—

What did it mean? Had the fall killed them both? Did the battle still rage below? A thousand questions roiled within her and she threw again, but the resulting pattern was unchanged, as she had known it would be.

“Well?” the Northern whore asked. “What do they say?”

Inevera bit back a sharp retort, knowing her next words were crucial. In the end, she decided the truth—or most of it—was as good an answer as any to hold the plotting of the ambitious minds around her at bay.

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