Here's the blurb:
Relentlessly advancing towards Collegium, the Empire is again seeking to break down its walls. The mighty imperial armies have learnt from their failures, and Empress Seda will brook no weakness in her soldiers. However, Stenwold Maker has earned his title, and the War Master has strategies to save his city. His aviators rule the skies – but the Wasp Kinden Empire has developed a terrifying new aerial weapon.
Yet the campaign may be decided far from marching armies and the noise of battle. In an ancient forest, where Mantis clans pursue their own civil war, the Empress Seda is seeking lost magic. Some dangerous shadow of old night is locked up among these trees and she is wants its power. Cheerwell Maker must stop her, at any cost, but will their rivalry awaken something far deadlier? Something that could make even their clash of nations pale into insignificance...
He had never seen the sea, but the vast expanse of green beneath him was what he imagined the sea to be like.
Back home in the Empire there were no forests like this. The Wasps had no use for them: such places were grown to harbour sedition and inferior kinden. Trees in the Empire behaved themselves, planted in neat rows ready for axe and saw.
For Hanto, this endless wind-rolled canopy reminded him only of the war in the Commonweal; he was just old enough to have seen the last years of it. There had been so much wasted land up in the north, untilled and uncut. There had been forests like this, where the Mantis-kinden lurked, against which the armies of the Emperor had broken when they first marched forth.
Only the first time, though. After that, they had destroyed each knot of stubborn resistance with fire and the sword, with the ingenuity of war machines and the cunning infiltration of the Pioneers. And that was where Hanto came in.
He had been barely more than a boy, in that war. Now, he was a veteran, and the army had called him up to take on this new challenge.
He had been flying for too long, letting that unrelieved green ocean pass beneath him, and now he let himself drop, coming down lightly in the top reaches of the canopy, still without any useful intelligence to bring back to his masters. Crouched in the branches, beneath the shadow of the leaves, he scanned the ground far below with his strung shortbow at the ready. Not a snapbow, not for Hanto: he was of that minority of Fly-kinden, the Inapt. Crossbows and all the other paraphernalia of the modern war were a closed book to him. His early life had been a hard one, all taunts and closed doors, but there were compensations. A place like this, an old place, an Inapt place that had preserved its secrets for centuries – his Apt comrades would never get this far, not for all their craft. Stealth here was a matter of blending in, and any of the Apt would stand out by a thousand years of hostile progress.
Not that Hanto was feeling particularly welcome right now. This was a bad place, he knew it in his bones. This was a magic place. All his life he had laughed at the idea, and always a little louder than his fellows, to cover the fact that he knew full well it was real. His mother had whispered it to him from his youngest days, to beware a place like this. He wished he had the option, but the Eighth Army desperately needed an eye within these trees.
The precise military situation was somewhat confused to Hanto – intelligence that a scout could never quite get hold of always concerned the doings of his own side. General Roder’s proud Eighth had made fierce and fleet time on its westward march. Myna had been beaten into submission by superior technology, Helleron had opened its legs like a whore, and the Sarnesh fortress at Malkan’s Stand had been reduced to rubble. Roder had fast been writing himself into the history books as one of the most successful generals the Empire had ever known.
And then . . . what? They had been skirting the southern edge of the forest, fending off constant angry attention from the Mantiskinden who lurked there, but the army were making strong progress towards Sarn itself, one of the Lowlands’ two key cities. And then they had stopped. And then they had actually retreated for a bit, as though some army was just past the horizon that even General Roder didn’t fancy clashing with. And they had set up camp and sat around – had been doing so for some time now – and nobody knew why except, presumably, Roder himself.
Some said it was to do with the way things had gone to the south. Solid scuttlebutt claimed that the Second Army under General Tynan had been pushed back from Collegium with bad losses: the “Gears”, as they were known, suddenly breaking their teeth against the hard walls of the Beetle city. What precisely had gone wrong was harder to pin down. Some said that Tynan’s Spider-kinden allies had betrayed him and, though this would hardly be much of a surprise given the reputation of that race, other reports suggested that the Grand Army of the Aldanrael – or whatever they were called – was still beside the Second in the field, its treacheries undischarged as yet. Some aviators Hanto had overheard were saying instead that Collegium had won the air war, smashed Tynan’s pilots over the city. That made halfway sense of Roder’s halt, to Hanto. It seemed unlikely that a Collegiate column was about to come marching out of the south to take Roder in the flank, but the skies suddenly playing host to a mob of Beetle-kinden orthopters was entirely more probable.
So, there’s a jolly thought, Hanto considered. Perhaps it was jollier than the other rumour, which was that Roder’s suddenly arrested progress had been ordered: that the Empress herself had sent one of those new Red Watch types – cockier and far more dangerous than the old secret police of the Rekef had ever been – and just told the entire army to back up and then sit tight. For what reason? Does the Empress need to explain herself to you, soldier? No? Didn’t think so.
Still, Roder was doing his best with the limited opportunities. They were going to make a fight of it soon enough and, although no doubt the general would have preferred that fight to be closer to Sarn’s gates, he was going to be ready for it when it came. Hence Hanto’s presence as a mote in the vast green eye of the forest.
Out there to the west the Ant-kinden of Sarn were mustering, no doubt, good soldiers but behind the Empire in artifice, mobility and imagination. Alone, Hanto would have bet two months’ wages on the outcome and not sweated much over the chance of losing. Sarn had its allies, however, and here was where they dwelled.
The Mantis-kinden: savages, superstitious and barbaric, but nobody ever said they weren’t dangerous. Hanto knew that Tynan’s Second had clashed repeatedly with the Mantids of the southern coast, and destroyed swathes of their forest home, tree by tree. Well, here to the north of Roder’s Eighth were far more trees and, presumably, far more Mantids – two entire communities of them – invisible beneath that green shade, organized and swift and deadly.
The Pioneers were out in force right now. It was plain that Roder was already bracing himself to send soldiers into that killing tangle of trees to suppress his unseen enemies. Every ragged fragment of information that men like Hanto could bring back would mean Wasp lives saved.
Except it wasn’t as easy as that, and Hanto knew why. Most of the other Pioneers didn’t. Most of them were Apt, or the Inapt who had fought their heritage so hard that they had learned not to listen to it. Hanto had seen a dozen Mantis holds in the Commonweal but nothing quite like this. He didn’t like to think about the word ‘evil’, but this was no healthy place to be. This was a place that ate Pioneers, a place of more than just killer natives and killer beasts. Roder wanted maps, but Hanto knew in his heart you could not map a place like this any more than you could map the mind of a maniac.
It spoke to him.
When he heard that whispering voice, he wished he had not listened to his mother. He wished he did not believe in magic. It spoke to him and sometimes it spoke a name.
He was a veteran and he had a job to do. No Wasp, but he was a soldier of the Empire even so. He had come here, further than any other Pioneer, seeking signs of Mantis dwellings, of war-musters, of Sarnesh Ants already within the trees. He had ranged far, looking for landmarks and reference points for the cartographers of the Intelligence Corps. By now, he had a feeling that the topography of the forest was twisting and writhing every time he turned his back, like a nest of worms.
He wanted to go back, but he had spotted something on his last pass: something that looked like a building, perhaps. One little shard of intelligence and he could surely return to the Eighth: if he had something to show for himself then he could at least pretend to have done his duty.
The wind-tossed canopy was an exercise in misdirection, so now he descended, a branch at a time. He moved as the tree moved, arrow nocked and ready and his wings shimmering for balance. The forest beneath the branches was eerily quiet. The trees were densely grown here, roots entangled, swollen trunks fighting each other for space. Hanto’s eyes were good enough to cut through the gloom, but still he could see no more than a dozen yards before the forest closed him out.
Everything around him was too still, too silent. It was slowly winding the fear up tighter inside him. Find it, get out, but easier said than done. He flitted from tree to tree, trying to get his bearings, then hopping back up past the canopy for another look from on high. Back up there, battered by the wind, he felt he was in a different world.
Again there was that glimpse of something. Stone – natural or worked? Either way it would be something for the Empire’s maps. He cast himself through the turbulent air towards it, but lost it almost immediately, passing over where he was sure he had seen something, seeing nothing but more of the same.
Cursing, he fell back into that green abyss, plunging past the surface to the stifling silence.
He saw it. For a moment, just as he broke through, there was something there, off between the trees. He saw a mound plated with a carapace of great stones. Did Mantids build like that? Not in the Commonweal, they hadn’t. And old, it had looked old and cracked and moss-grown. A fort, perhaps: some ancient Mantis strongpoint. Now that was something to go back and tell his superiors.
He let himself drift forwards carefully, keeping an eye out for traps or webs or any movement that was not of the forest itself. He kept catching glimpses of the place, and then losing it, and he was unhappily aware that the comings and goings of that mound were not particularly accounted for by his own movements or by the placement of the trees. Magic. But his superiors would not accept ‘magic’ as a reason for failure.
The utter stillness all around him was becoming a horror. He could not even hear the wind, that had been so insistent up above.
There: he had it. He froze, seeing it clearly for the first time, and only then realizing that the whisper, the little insidious voice that he had been trying to ignore, had been calling to him all that time, and calling from here.
It had a name, that voice. It called itself Argastos.
He saw the place now, that stone-clad barrow, and the sight sent a chill chasing through him, because he would swear this was no fort, no haunt of living men. It was a tomb.
That was it: he’d had enough. He’d report this thing, and his superiors would have to be happy with that, because there was no way that Hanto was staying a moment longer.
He turned, wings flurrying, and toothed, raptorial arms plucked him from the air in one swift motion. His last sight was of vast, coolly intelligent eyes and the blades of its mandibles as it brought him towards them.