Dust jacket illustration by Didier Graffet.
ENTER THE EXECRATION,
WHERE THE DAMNED AND THE DESPERATE
COME TO PRAY TO THE MAD GOD…
It is two hundred years since the deity known as the Absolved went mad and destroyed the Kingdom of Alnachim, transforming it into the Execration, a blasted wasteland filled with nameless terrors. For decades, desperate souls have made pilgrimage to the centre of this cursed land to seek the Mad God’s favour, their fate always unknown.
Now a veteran warrior known only as Pilgrim, armed with a fabled blade inhabited by the soul of a taunting demon, must join with six others to make the last journey to the heart of the Execration. Allied with a youthful priest, a beast-charmer, a duplicitous scholar, an effete actor and two exiled lovers, Pilgrim must survive madness, malevolent spirits, unnatural monsters and the ever-present risk of treachery, all so that the Mad God might hear his prayer and, perhaps, grant redemption. But can sins such as his ever be forgiven?
Set in a world where demons and gods walk the earth, A Pilgrimage of Swords is a dark and exciting fantasy adventure from the New York Times bestselling author of the Raven’s Shadow and Draconis Memoria trilogies.
From Publishers Weekly (Starred Review):
“Ryan (The Empire of Ashes) introduces a monster-riddled fantasy world with a perfectly balanced novella, including just enough backstory to create a cohesive story line and flesh out the characters… Fans of quick, descriptive tales built around shadowy figures with murky motives will enjoy this quest-based story and come away craving more (and longer) works set in this fascinating world.”
From Library Journal:
“Ryan (‘Raven’s Shadow’ series) populates his newest fantasy novella with a curious group of characters, each thinned down to their singular motivations in seeking out the Mad God, and thrown together like Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.”
A Pilgrimage of Swords
The Valkerin Road
Why do you hate me so? Do we not do wondrous things together?
The questions were accompanied by a small pulse that coursed through the sword’s handle into his palm, combining heat with an electric thrill that spread from his arm to the rest of his being in an instant. The sensation it provoked caused as much pain as it did delight and, no matter the countless times he had experienced it, had never become familiar.
A few yards away the raider spent his few remaining seconds staring at the tall man with the sword. The dying bandit swayed on his knees, one hand clutching the gaping wound in his throat whilst the other swished his scimitar about in automatic reflex. He seemed particularly transfixed by the tall man’s sword, staring at the untarnished gleam of the blade, lacking the smallest speck of blood despite having just spilled so much of it onto the sands. The raider’s horse, a fine wild-bred stallion, trotted back and forth in confused distress before coming to an abrupt, shivering halt as the tall man pointed the sword at it.
He loves his master, the voice observed as the tall man strode towards the animal, the sword handle pulsing again, this time with a sense of contrived compassion shot through with poorly conceal amusement. Found him alongside the corpse of his mother when just a colt and raised him. Together they rode the fringes of the Execration for years and much booty did they garner from pilgrim and priest alike…
“I have few thoughts to spare for bandits,” the tall man cut in. “Regardless of how nice they may be to orphaned animals.”
He jabbed the sword point into the raider’s chest as he passed by. The pulse this time was full of the ravenous, raw need of something inhuman at feast. The raider’s blood had completely faded into the steel by the time the tall man took hold of the horse’s reins.
Hearing a scream from the direction of the caravan, he slid the sword into the scabbard on his back and mounted up. The stallion responded to his touch as if the man on his back had been riding him for years, spurring into a swift gallop. The caravan had been partially scattered by the raiders’ initial charge, a dozen camels strung out along the verge of the old Valkerin built road, either baying in alarm or nuzzling at the inert forms of slain owners. The tall man was surprised to see the corpses of several raiders amongst the fallen, some pierced by arrows, others evidently claimed by a blade, but one so gruesomely disarranged they were barely recognisable as human.
Ahhh, the voice said as the sword emitted a sense of pleased recognition. There’s are other hungry souls here. Though, not so hungry as you, my liege…
“Don’t call me that!” the tall man snapped. It was by now an old admonition, one he knew the voice would continue to delight in ignoring.
He slowed the horse to guide it through the remnants of the caravan, passing plundered bundles that leaked silk, oils, spices and sundry other wealth onto the sands. There were more corpses here, but also some survivors. A portly man scrabbled about on the road’s edge, gibbering barely comprehensible entreaties as he scraped coins from the dust. Further on a woman and child stared up at him from the shadow cast by the bulk of a slaughtered camel, eyes bright and unblinking in the gloom. A thin man with a ragged wound on his forehead stood guard on the pair, brandishing a long knife, the blade red down to the hilt. From the stricken but resolute expression on his lean features, the tall man divined him as being fully expectant of death. But still he stood, unwilling to abandon the woman and child.
Hearing the ring of steel on steel, the tall man spurred on, passing through a pall of displaced dust to draw up short at the ugly scene before him. The beast was about seven feet long from nose to tail, with long shaggy fur that covered its torso but left the legs bare. Raising a broad snouted head from the open chest cavity of a raider’s corpse, it snarled, triangular jaws widening to emit a high pitch yip of warning.
Oh my, the voice sighed in admiration as the hyena slunk away from the corpse, eyes still locked on the tall man. He recognised it as hailing from the crags near the northern coast, a far larger breed than its plains dwelling cousins to the east, also notoriously vicious and intolerant of human company.
Aren’t you lovely? the voice cooed, letting out a faint thrum of annoyance as the tall man reached over his shoulder to draw the sword clear of the scabbard. Won’t work,the voice chided as he levelled the blade at the hyena, hoping to see the same shivering immobility it had wrought upon the horse. She’s too aware of the world, I’m afraid.
The beast’s eyes narrowed then, the snarl fading from its lips as it drew back, head shaking in confusion. She senses me, the voice noted with a delighted giggle. Wonderful. I always wanted a pet.
The hyena suddenly spun about as the sound of ringing steel peeled out once more. The tall man’s gaze snapped to the sight of vague figures dancing in a haze of raised dust thirty paces on. His experienced eye knew this dance to be deadly, watching as one figure tumbled to the sand with a pained shout. The hyena immediately let out another yelp and surged into a loping sprint, closing the distance to the fallen figure in a few strides whereupon she clamped her jaws around the raider’s skull. The crack of sundered bone was audible even above the tumult of clashing blades.
The tall man dug his heels into the stallion’s flanks, sending him into a fast gallop. The dust thinned as he closed on the dance, revealing the sight of a woman whirling amidst a circle of five raiders. She lashed out continually with a scimitar as she spun, the triple braids of her hair trailing. He saw her score a hit on a bandit’s over-extended arm, the scimitar biting deep and sending the man’s tulwar to the sand. He reared back, cursing in the language of the plains tribes as he reached with his uninjured hand for a hatchet on his belt. The tall man’s sword took his arm off at the shoulder as he galloped past then reined the stallion to a halt before bringing him about and charging once more. Only one raider made the mistake of trying to oppose him, his three surviving companions opting for the far wiser course of taking to their heels.
Yuk! the voice complained as the sword clove the unwise bandit’s face in two. A drunkard and a poppy fiend with a bad case of the pox to boot. Still, it added as the blood faded into the steel. A meal is a meal.
The tall man watched the trio of raiders flee into the desert, pondering the notion of riding in pursuit. The sword’s hunger, as ever, remained unabated, but he felt he had indulged sufficient distraction from his goal for one day.
“Chena!” the woman shouted. The hyena instantly rose from gorging itself on the raider’s brains to sprint off in pursuit of the runners. The tall man watched them crest a dune and disappear from view, the hyena doing the same a few second later. The screams started soon after.
“Your help is appreciated, but was not required.”
He lowered his gaze to see the woman retrieving a bow and an empty quiver from the sand. Her triple-braided hair had given him a large clue to her origins, but the bow confirmed it. The weapon featured a composite stave of ash and buffalo horn affixed to a central grip formed of intricately carved black ivory. This was a beast charmer from the lands bordering the Second Sea.
Far from home, the voice noted, the tone laden with weary irony. What could possibly have brought her here, I wonder?
- Didier Graffet
- Anthony Ryan