Starting with a space pirate raid of Hell, Brian Niemeier introduced us to the universe of the dead gods Thera and Zadok in the Dragon Award winning Soul Cycle as it wound down like clockwork towards its end. To cataclysm and rebirth, and to the Souldancers, wounded men and women with fractured souls and great power. Now, in THE OPHIAN RISING, the Soul Cycle weaves its way towards its conclusion.
The Zadokim healed the cosmos from the ravages of the Cataclysm, and the survivors made them kings. Now the Ophians, a ruthless insurgent movement, wage a vicious uprising against their immortal rulers’ two hundred year reign.
Xander and Astlin have transformed the desert world of Tharis into the hub of a flourishing trade empire. Their Nesshin subjects spread a new faith promising true freedom in another universe. But when Astlin seeks forbidden knowledge to resurrect her long-dead family, sinister forces exact a terrible price from those she loves.
With the Ophian threat engulfing the spheres and a primeval terror rising from its prison, Astlin must turn to a shiftless gambler, the outlaw squire of a fallen knight, and a mismatched pair of smugglers to escape the ghosts of her past and save all souls from eternal death. But can mortals succeed where even gods have failed?
In anticipation of its imminent release, CastaliaHouse.com is pleased to bring you a preview of THE OPHIAN RISING, the concluding volume of the Soul Cycle.
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“Which ether-runner should we go to for help?” Will asked.
“Not an ether-runner,” Astlin said the moment she set eyes on the angular black hull of Night Gen nexus-runner parked at the two o’clock position of the circular landing strip below.
They made their way down to the field and crossed to the obsidian ship. True to her word, Astlin let Will take her place propping up the stabilized but still weak Brell. The Night Gen ship’s general design reminded Astlin of her lost Kerioth, but it was of much newer construction with five knife-edged tines fanning out from the central hull instead of three.
Xander and I had that ship for over two hundred years, she thought bitterly. Another debt the Ophians owe me.
When she and her companions had approached to stand before the nexus-runner’s tapered spike of a nose, Astlin projected her thoughts to the ship’s telepathic comm system. We’re survivors of the recent Ophian attack. One of your people is with us. He needs a medic.
“Did you signal them?” Tallon asked when a minute passed with no sign of activity from the ship.
“Yes, I did,” said Astlin.
“Are you sure they heard you?”
Astlin didn’t respond, but Brell answered Tallon for her. “My people have reason to be cautious, especially after tonight. They are most likely attempting to determine if we pose a danger to their ship.”
“The only one they’re endangering is you,” said Will.
A floodlight cast a blinding white beam on the five supplicants. The familiar whirring of a descending nexus-runner boarding ramp sounded from the darkness behind the light. A wary female voice spoke in the Night Gen dialect. Brell answered. The conversation went back and forth until Brell spoke to his friends in Trade.
“Her name is Niz,” said Brell. “She is the navigator and medic of the Emat. We have permission to board, but you may not bring your weapons.”
Will gripped the hilt of his sword. “As the queen’s protector, I cannot go unarmed in her presence.”
“It’s alright, Will,” Astlin said. “These people won’t hurt us—not here; not tonight.”
“Give your pieces to me,” said Tallon. “I’ll wait here and stand guard.”
Will reluctantly unfastened his sword belt and handed it and the attached sheathed blade to Tallon. Serra showed no less hesitation. “This sword is an ancient imperial heirloom,” the Temilian warned Tallon. “You already owe me my wage. Don’t add a priceless artifact to your debt.”
“Just give me that already,” Tallon said as he snatched the curved sword from Serra’s extended hand. “Every second we stand here yapping gives Lasker more of a head start.”
“You’re helping us make war on the queen’s enemies?” Will asked hopefully.
Tallon rolled his eyes. “No. I’m getting even with the guy who tried to kill me. Now get on that ship and get Brell patched up so we can get Lasker.” He turned Serra’s sword over in his hand. “You probably got this from a catalog.”
“You’ve all done more than I have any right to ask,” said Astlin. “I can handle Lasker.”
Will’s cheerful expression turned serious. “If you didn’t want my help, Your Majesty, you shouldn’t have accepted my Ostiary oath.”
“I may not be sworn to your service,” said Serra, “and I may be a criminal, but I am loyal to High Magist Dran and to you. And as Tallon said, the attempt on our lives must be answered.”
Reduced to silence by her friends’ show of loyalty, Astlin led the way up the boarding ramp. The scents of lightning and old wine casks flowed down from the ship. A woman stood atop the ramp, backlit in the soft glow of dim green lights.
“I am Niz,” she said in heavily accented Trade. Up close, she was revealed to have a willowy frame clad in a grey jumpsuit. Her typical jet black hair was tied up in a loose bun secured with slim sticks of purple crystal. She had pale eyes, but their exact shade was impossible to make out in the emerald light. “Identify yourselves.”
“You’ll understand if we don’t want to give names,” said Astlin. “Our friend was shot in the attack, but his wound isn’t serious. If you’d be kind enough to treat him, we’ll be on our way as soon as he’s mobile again.”
Niz’s colorless eyes darted to Brell, who nodded. “Bring him,” she said before turning and striding briskly back into the ship.
Astlin and her friends followed Niz through close, gloomy corridors to a station about the size of Astlin’s dining room back on Keth. Sterile white lighting activated at Niz’s verbal command, revealing racks and drawers of medical equipment surrounding an examination table. The female Night Gen’s eyes were also shown to be amber yellow.
Will and Serra helped Brell up onto the table. Astlin stood outside so as not to overcrowd the small room. Niz retrieved a box of surgical tools from a drawer, including a pair of shears with which she cut away Brell’s pant leg above the knee. She removed the improvised tourniquet, uncovering the entry wound in his calf.
The medic spoke to Brell in their native tongue as she worked. Since Astlin didn’t wish to telepathically violate the woman’s privacy, all she could glean from the conversation was the weariness and hints of sadness conveyed by Niz’s tone.
After cleaning the wound, Niz took a red crystal rod from the box and waved it back and forth over Brell’s calf. The ragged puncture closed a bit more with each pass. She kept talking to him but suddenly lowered her voice, and he raised his in audible anger and shock.
“Does it hurt?” asked Serra.
“It does,” said Brell, “but that is beside the point. Niz was making small talk to distract me from the pain. The conversation turned to her and the captain’s business, and she told me this ship’s destination.”
A chill ran down Astlin’s spine, though she couldn’t have said why. “Where are they going?”
“To Palannar,” said Niz.
It took Astlin a moment to place the name, but when she did, her apprehension deepened. “That’s the planet where the Guild finally crushed Almeth Elocine’s Resistance.”
Niz didn’t look up from her work. “Yes. It is where my people’s long exile began.”
“Why would you want to go there?” asked Will.
“To answer the Ship Master’s call,” said Niz.
Serra’s brow furrowed. “The Ship Master? I’ve never heard of him.”
“Your people fought long and hard to return from the outer darkness,” said Astlin. “Will asked a good question. Why go back to a sphere that holds such bad memories?”
“Because the reward for our long hard struggle turned out to be hollow,” said a guttural male voice to Astlin’s left. A burly male Night Gen dressed similarly to Niz approached the infirmary from down the hall. His hair was trimmed down to a dark bristle that caught the green light like an emerald halo.
“This is Vantse,” said Niz, “the captain of the Emat,”
“For now,” said Vantse. “Soon I will be the master of my own world, as Aesham Daeva has promised.”
The name drove a cold spike of fear into Astlin’s heart. “Aesham Daeva?”
“He is the Ship Master who waits at Palannar,” said Vantse. “The Night Tribe spent millennia plotting to reconquer our rightful home from the Steersmen’s Guild. When we finally returned, there was no longer a Guild to fight. Instead we made common cause with necromancers and fiends.
“We bargained with the clay tribe for Mithgar, but without new enemies; new conquests, my people lost all ambition. Our birth rates have collapsed. More of us have succumbed to suicide than to war in the past two centuries. Mithgar is a tarnished prize, but the Ship Master offers all who would join him worlds of their own.”
An expectant look passed between Brell and Niz. Vantse lowered his eyes.
Every fiber of Astlin’s being urged her to steer the Night Gen away from their chosen course. “Whoever he is, this Aesham Daeva can’t give you new worlds. Zadok wouldn’t allow it.”
“The Ship Master serves an old god more ancient and powerful than Zadok,” said Niz. “He assures us the All-Father will not interfere.”
“Even if that’s true,” argued Astlin, “you’ll eventually get just as tired of your new worlds as you are of Mithgar. But there’s another world—another creation in the light beyond the Nexus. If you can reach it, you’ll be given your own souls apart from Zadok’s. You’ll be truly free.”
Niz packed up her medical kit and turned away. Vantse kept staring at the deck plates. Only Brell met her eye.
“Please,” said Astlin. “Don’t go to Palannar. Aren’t souls worth more than worlds?”
Silence fell. At length, Vantse broke it. “We have taken on supplies, and we had planned to leave for Palannar at dawn. Instead we will leave tonight.” He looked to Brell. “You are welcome to join us, brother.”
The captain’s words struck Astlin like a blow to the stomach. “I’ll go check on Tallon,” was the only excuse she could give for her sudden need to flee the ship. Will came after her. A moment later, so did Serra. The three of them descended the boarding ramp and found Tallon smoking a cigar in the brisk night air.
“What happened to Brell?” Tallon asked. “Don’t tell me he didn’t make it.”
Astlin struggled for words against the strange turmoil in her soul. As it turned out, she didn’t have to.
“Here,” Brell called from the top of the ramp. He strode down to join the others with only a slight limp in his step.
Astlin’s spirits rose. She nodded toward the Emat. “Aren’t you going with them?”
Brell’s blue eyes stared into hers as if he saw a compelling riddle reflected there. “I know the desolation of which Vantse spoke, and I have never believed in anything—until now. You know the Kings’ Road. Guide me. Save my soul.”
Astlin took the Night Gen’s hands in hers. “I promise,” she said.
The boarding ramp retracted. With a deep hum, the Emat rose up and vanished into the night sky.
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If you haven’t read Nethereal, Souldancer, and The Secret Kings yet, now is the perfect time to get caught up on this exciting, action-packed, and often chilling series.