PROLOGUE

The Aeons’ Gate

Island of Teji

The Beginning of Fall

No matter what god he believes in, a man is not entitled to much in life.

The Gods gave him breath. Then they gave him needs. Then they stopped giving. Society affords him only a few extra luxuries: the desire for gold and the demand to spend it.

And the choices he has for himself are even more limited. If he lives well, he gets to choose to die. If he doesn’t, he gets to choose to kill. And the men who kill are small men with small pleasures.

The Gods have no love for those who don’t kill in Their name. Society loathes a man who doesn’t fight under a banner. A small man doesn’t get to choose who or how or when or why he kills.

But sometimes he gets lucky.

And then he gets to sit behind Gevrauch’s desk and see what the Bookkeeper sees. He sees how they die.

I’ve never considered myself a lucky man until now.

I’ve made poor choices.

I chose to accept the job posed to me: to guard the priest that guarded the book that opens heaven and hell. I chose to follow the book when it was stolen by those who would use it to open the latter.

I chose to kill for this book.

I am an adventurer, after all. No god, no banner.

And for the Gods and for society, I killed to retrieve the book and keep the Undergates closed that the misbegotten servants of the Gods, the Aeons, might be kept shut tight in the bowels of the earth.

Most of what happened next was out of my hands.

We retrieved the tome from the demons from a floating tomb and set out to return to civilization and claim our reward. I suppose I could be blamed for thinking that things would be somehow simpler with a manuscript used to open up hell in my possession.

But that’s beside the point.

We were shipwrecked upon a graveyard masquerading as an island. Teji: the battlefield where Aeons rebelled against heaven, where the seas rose to swallow the world, and where mortals fought to preserve the dominion of the Gods. Teji was born in death, killed in battle, and we found more of both there.

The island became a new battlefront, one that raged among three armies. All of which had equally strong desires to kill us. Some men are just popular.

The Abysmyths, the aforementioned demons, came searching for the tome, hoping to use it to return their hell-bound mother to an earth she could drown alive.

They-and we-found the netherlings instead. No one knows where they came from or what they are beyond four major qualities they share: they are led by a sadist calling himself Sheraptus, they are mostly women, they are purple, and they want everyone, demon and mortal, dead.

It might seem a bit gratuitous to add a race of tattooed, bloodthirsty lizardmen to the mix, but like I said, out of my hands. And they added themselves to a growing list of people eager to kill over this book.

Anyone reading this might be sensing a pattern developing.

And still, we escaped them all. We found sanctuary with the natives of Teji: the Owauku and the Gonwa. More lizardmen, though these ones at least had a king. I suppose that made them more trustworthy than the ones that wanted to chop off our heads. We were welcomed with open arms. We were feasted, elebrated. I was offered an opportunity, a decision. I took it.

I gave up.

The tome had been lost in the shipwreck. I chose to let it stay lost. I chose to turn around, return empty-handed but for a sword I dearly wanted to put away. I wanted to be a man who didn’t have to kill. I wanted to be a man who had a life.

A life with my companions.

Former companions, excuse me.

I made my choice. I was denied. And we were betrayed.

Togu, their king, had his reasons for handing us over to the netherlings, bound and helpless. Those are irrelevant. His reasons for finding the tome and delivering it to them are likewise meaningless. What matters is that they came for us, led by Sheraptus, and took the tome. He took the women. He left the rest of us to die.

We didn’t.

He had taken Asper, though. He had taken Kataria. At the time, I couldn’t bear that thought. At the time, I couldn’t let that happen. I should have. I know that now.

But then, I made another choice.

We came to rescue them. Bralston, an agent of the Venarium that had been tracking Sheraptus, aided us with an impromptu arrival. And together, we fought.

When the netherlings came, I killed them. When the demons came after them, I killed them. I fought to save my companions. I fought to save Kataria. I fought to protect them, protect our new life together.

I chose again.

I was betrayed again.

They abandoned me. To the netherlings’ blades and the demons’ claws, they abandoned me. Gariath leapt overboard. Denaos took Asper away. Dreadaeleon fled with Bralston.

Kataria looked into my eyes as I was about to die.

Kataria turned away.

I survived. Because of something inside me, something I used to be afraid of, I survived. The Shen, the demons, the netherlings, my own companions. . I survived them all. I will continue to do so.

And I will be the only one left.

On Teji, I found something. Ice that spoke. Ice that had a memory. It talked to me of betrayals and liars and killers. And I listened.

That thing inside me. I can hear it clearly now. It tells me the truth. Tells me how we will survive. I wonder why I never listened to it before. But now it makes so much sense. Now I know.

Everyone must die.

Starting with my betrayers.

Denaos and Asper are at odds with each other. That’s never been anything to note since they returned from Sheraptus’s ship and their obnoxious quarrels became silent ones. She does not pray. He does not stop drinking.

Dreadaeleon does, though. He looks to them with envy, as though he resents not being a part of that frigid silence. When he is not doing that, he wallows in self-pity. He keeps company with Bralston. I have heard him pleading with the agent, begging him for petty things that I don’t care about.

We thought Gariath lost to us in the shipwreck. He is the one that caused it, after all, the one who had always been eager to die. When we found him alive, I thought it a sign that we were meant to return to a normal life. But now he speaks of the Shen, our enemies, in almost reverent tones. Fitting. Obvious. Clear.

And Kataria. .

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I wanted too much. Maybe I wanted it badly enough to overlook the fact that she was a shict and I was a race she was sworn to slaughter. Maybe.

But she betrayed me. Like the others. She has to die. First. Slowly.

. . or so I think.

It gets hard to think sometimes. It’s hard to remember what that night was like. I never asked her why she abandoned me. I never asked her why she was speaking with a greenshict, those killers of men.

She has her reasons. . right?

But are they good? If I asked her, maybe she’d tell me. Maybe we could still do this.

Sometimes, I think about it.

Then the voice starts screaming.

The Shen took the tome and fled to their island home of Jaga. We follow them there. The demons will, too, and the netherlings. I’ll kill them all.

This is what we were meant to do.

This is why we live.

We kill.

They die.

Our choice.

Our plan is to go to Jaga. Our plan is to find the tome, to keep it out of the hands of the Shen and everyone else. The island is far away. The way is treacherous. That doesn’t matter.

The traitors are coming with me.

I’m going to bury them there.

Contents