Excerpt from C. S. Friedman's WINGS OF WRATH

I feel that C. S. Friedman's Feast of Souls (Canada, USA, Europe) was probably one of the most underrated fantasy novels of 2007. Too bad it flew low under the radar of so many readers, for it's the opening chapter of what appears to be a great new series from the author who brought us The Coldfire trilogy.

I'm currently reading the sequel, Wings of Wrath (Canada, USA, Europe), and thus far it's even better than its predecessor!

The book will be released in a few short weeks, but here's a teaser to whet your appetite!;-)
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The gods were coming.

The boy pressed himself down against the hot ground, clinging to the mountain with blackened hands. Broken bits of lava and clumps of ash came loose beneath his fingertips, searing his skin like hot coals, but he hardly noticed. His attention was fixed upon the view overhead, in particular those few places where the thick clouds parted and the sky itself was visible.

They were coming soon. They must be.

They would not refuse the offering.

Beneath his vantage point, in the vast grey bowl of the caldera, a half dozen girls whimpered in pain and terror. They were small things, his age or younger, and bright red blood streamed from cuts on the backs of their legs. The priests had decreed they should be hamstrung before being cast into the caldera, lest they do what the last group of sacrifices had done: flee to the lava pit at its far end to throw themselves in, rather than embrace their destiny. The gods were not pleased when the offerings died too quickly. And when the gods were not pleased the Sleep came, and children died, and crops stood untouched in the fields until they rotted, for lack of strong men to harvest them.

The girls were terrified -- of course -- and the boy winced as one of them screamed, unable to see which one it was, trying not to wonder about it. The Land of the Sun was a small place and he knew the name of everyone in it...but once a girl was chosen to be sacrificed she gave up her former name and identity and became only Tawa, a handmaiden of the gods. It was too terrifying to think of them as anything else, to remember that the girls who had once run with him, jested with him, and played “show me yours and I will show you mine” in the shadow of the great mountain, were now set out like lambs for the slaughter, awaiting the gods who would devour them.

Food. The priests never called them that, though that was what they were. Everyone in the Land of the Sun knew it, but no one ever said it aloud. A man could offer up his daughter to be a bride of the gods and feel there was honor in the act, but once he admitted that she was little more than a herd animal being staked out for slaughter, that honor died a cold and miserable death. The flowers woven into the girls' hair ceased to be bridal circlets, no longer crowns of communion but simply a macabre garnish; their cries were no longer the songs of welcome a virgin bride might offer to a majestic and powerful bridegroom, but simply squeals of primitive, overbearing terror.

Little wonder none of the villagers ever stayed behind to see if the sacrifice was accepted, the boy thought. The illusion of sanctity might not survive such close inspection.

Suddenly the clouds overhead seemed to stir. The boy drew his breath in quickly, which made the sulfurous smoke burn his nostrils and set him to coughing. He shut his eyes tightly as his chest spasmed, tears streaming down his soot-blackened cheeks as struggled to keep silent, lest the gods who were surely approaching turn their attention to him before he was ready. And perhaps mistake him for a sacrifice.

Then the fit passed, and the last cough was swallowed, and he opened his eyes again.

And they were there.

They were clean -- so clean! -- cool, clear colors against a blazing sky, ice against fire. Their wings were like the finely veined wings of insects, but broad beyond measure, and so strong that every stroke of them raised whirlwinds of dust and ash from ground beneath. Their bodies glistened like the ocean at moonrise, with sparks of blue and purple and colors that the boy did not even know the names for playing across their skin. Their wings were sheets of blue sea ice that cooled the smoky wind with every stroke, and they slid through the filthy sulfurous air like seals through water, poisonous clouds frothing in their wake.

The priests taught that any man who looked upon the gods directly would perish. The boy stared at them despite that warning, naked in his hunger to witness the magnitude of their power, to understand it, to possess it.

One by one the vast creatures dropped down from out of the clouds, banking low beneath the hot smoke as they glided over the caldera. The girls had stopped screaming now. They still trembled in fear, and one moaned softly in pain as the broad wings beat the smoky air into whirls and eddies all about her, but otherwise they were eerily still, transfixed by the sight of their winged bridegrooms. Even from where the boy crouched he could feel the sheer power of the gods' presence, and it made his blood run cold with fear ...yet at the same time it stirred his flesh -- strangely, uncomfortably -- as if he were watching those same girls bathe naked in a hot spring. Unable to move, he watched in silence as the creatures swooped low over the girls, one after the other. The young brides appeared to have forgotten their pain now, and lay back to the last one upon the hot earth, arms reaching out to welcome the creatures as one might welcome a lover. It was a grotesque scene to be sure, but also fascinating, and he could not look away from it.

None of the gods had noticed him yet, or if they had, they did not deem him worthy of their attention. Had any of the boy's people ever seen the gods like this, ever been this close to them without being offered as sacrifice? For the first time since leaving home, he began to think he might really live long enough see his plan through to the end.

And if it worked...if it worked...

He didn't even dare think about that.

One of the girls was dead now, it seemed, but he could not tell what had killed her. A great god with wings of cobalt and amethyst had swooped down low, as if it intended to strike her, but then pulled up suddenly to join its fellows in the sky, letting out a cry as it did so that filled the caldera. There had been no physical contact; he was sure of it. Yet the girl was strangely still now, motionless in the way that only dead things are motionless, as if all the living strength had been sucked from her limbs. So silent had her death been that the other girls did not even realize she was gone. Or perhaps, in their efforts to offer themselves up to their bridegrooms, they simply did not care.

And then the boy saw what he had been waiting for.

It sat astride the back of one of the gods, a rider more insect-like than human to his first glance. Its limbs were sheathed in a blue-black substance not unlike the skin of the great beast itself, making it hard to distinguish where one creature began and the other ended. Lesser wings from the god's upper body were wrapped backwards about its rider, creating the illusion of a glistening chrysalis. Even as he watched, the surface of that cocoon slowly parted, its occupant revealed like a locust in season.

The boy's heart skipped a beat. For a single moment the world seemed frozen in time.

So the legends are true.

The creature seated on the back of the god was a man. Not one of the boy's own people, no, but similar enough that he could not mistake it for anything but a human being. The rider's skin was pale, unlike his own, a strange and unwholesome hue that reminded him of clotted milk. His hair was long and matted with dirt and oil, and his close-fitting armor appeared to be slick with oil as well, so that every beam of light which fell upon him caused dark rainbows to dance across its surface. It was a chilling image to be sure, but it was also undeniably a human one. And that was what mattered most.

Girding his courage, the boy drew in a deep breath. Now, he thought. Now is the time.

He stood.

His legs were shaking, moreso than they should have been even from his strenuous climb. For a moment he thought he could not manage to stand at all, and the landscape swirled dizzily about him; then, by sheer force of will, he managed to make the world stand still, and forced his shaking legs to bear his weight. What other choice was there? The gods were watching now, and if he showed any sign of weakness in front of them he might as well just cast himself into the caldera along with the other sacrifices and let them devour him.

When he thought that he had his legs securely under him he drew in as deep a breath as his constricted lungs could manage, shut his eyes for a moment to focus his spirit, and then let out a cry no living creature could miss. Wordless, it echoed across the caldera, and into the fuming clouds beyond it.

The gods did not stop their circling, but he knew that they had heard him.

Opening his eyes once more, he looked for the one that had a man astride its back. That one alone had not come low to feed, but was circling high above the others. Had it seen him? If he cried out to it, would it hear his words? The volcano beneath him rumbled, and the fragments of pumice beneath his feet seemed to shift slightly in response. Did the gods speak in sounds, like animals and men, or did they use volcanoes as their mouthpiece? So little was known about them!

Then the rider's eyes fixed on him -- undeniably human, maddeningly scornful -- and he knew that he must seize this moment or lose it forever.

"Take me with you!" he demanded. "I would serve the gods!"

For a moment it did not seem that either the human or his mount had heard him. So he yelled the words again, even louder.

The mountain rumbled again beneath his feet. A whiff of hot sulfurous smoke stung his nostrils.

"I'm strong!" he cried out. "I have survived the cold of the ice and the heat of the testing stones! I've have hunted the sea lion and faced down the snow bear! I am brave enough to face the anger of the earth --"

To come here, he wanted to say. Brave enough to climb the Mountain of Sacrifice and stand here before you with no weapons, no armor, nothing at all to protect me from the gods' wrath save my own stubborn belief that I can be of value to them.

The man's eyes were cold, unblinking. Like a lizard's.

Then he turned away.

The boy howled in rage. It was an animal sound, that welled up from the primitive part of his soul without human urging or sanction. One of the girls looked up to see what the source of the noise was, then quickly turned her attention back to the winged bridegrooms. Did she recognize him as a boy she had run with, played with, shared secrets with? Or did she see only a soot-blackened animal howling hoarsely at the sky, as a seal might howl while some predatory beast crushed the life out of it?

Then the talons of one of the gods closed around her and she was jerked off the ground, her neck snapping backwards with an audible crack. Apparently the gods did want fresh meat after all.

Not one of them acknowledged the boy's presence.

Not one.

"Take me with you!" he screamed, his voice hoarse with frustration. "I belong with you!"

The gods were rising now, heading back toward the clouds. Several held small girls clasped in their talons, dangling like broken dolls. The sacrifice had been accepted.

The single rider glanced back at the boy, then turned away. His mount circled higher and higher as the glassy wings folded back about him once more.

"TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!"

Then the breath was knocked from the boy's body as something hit him hard from behind. He would have plummeted down into the caldera had not sharp claws grabbed hold of him; with a suddenness that left him reeling, he was jerked off his feet and into the air. Fragmented images from the world below swam in his field of vision, disconnected, unreal. Whirlpools of poisonous smoke. Blue-black wings that beat the air above his head, driving the ground down and away, stroke by stroke. In the distance, beyond the Land of the Sun, he could now see a vast field of white stretching from horizon to horizon. It had no end. It knew no mercy.

I will serve you, he promised the gods. Better than any other. You will see.

The gods did not answer.

5 commentaires:

ELIZABETH said...

Found and read the first of the series and really enjoyed it. Can't wait for the story to continue.

Her books can be hard to find in my area both at the library and the bookshops.

ediFanoB said...

I'm still working on my 2009 book list.
Now I think I have to add C.S. Friedman.

cedunkley said...

I have the first book in paperback in my TBR pile. I've been looking forward to it. After reading this excerpt for book two all I can say is: Wow!

Thanks for the snippet.

Maia said...

What a great excerpt! I imagine that it is from the future Magister Colivar's POV.
Interesting, how humans apparently always provided some direction to these monsters and unlike what we were told in the previous volume, certain degree of co-existence was possible.

I have to say that I can't fathom why "The Feast of Souls" slipped under the radar of most readers. It is a very good book and the setting is quite intriguing.

sbp said...

Tasty excerpt. :)