Kingdoms of Death
- Book info
- Author updates
The fourth novel of the galaxy-spanning Sun Eater series merges the best of space opera and epic fantasy, as Hadrian Marlowe continues down a path that can only end in fire.
Hadrian Marlowe is trapped.
For nearly a century, he has been a guest of the Emperor, forced into the role of advisor, a prisoner of his own legend. But the war is changing. Mankind is losing.The Cielcin are spilling into human space from the fringes, picking their targets
with cunning precision. The Great Prince Syriani Dorayaica is uniting their clans, forging them into an army and threat the likes of which mankind has never seen.
And the Empire stands alone.
Now the Emperor has no choice but to give Hadrian Marlowe—once his favorite knight—one more impossible task: journey across the galaxy to the Lothrian Commonwealth and convince them to join the war. But not all is as it seems, and
Hadrian’s journey will take him far beyond the Empire, beyond the Commonwealth, impossibly deep behind enemy lines.
Release date: March 22, 2022
Print pages: 544
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
Kingdoms of Death
Night had fallen on Eikana and clung about the rooftops and bristling antennae that crowned the old refinery like weathered tombstones. No light of moon was there, and the stars kept silent vigil, distant and cold as the gray sands that flatly stretched to the horizon all around.
“The Pale won’t know what hit them,” Crim said, whispering despite the relative safety of the ship around us. I sensed the anticipation in the man—sensed it in all the men about me, the soldiers huddled like the Achaeans in the bowels of their wooden horse. Each one of them seemed to be holding his breath.
“They better not!” groused Pallino. “The fleet’s still three hours behind.”
“Heat sinks are holding, my lord,” said the pilot officer, reassuring. “Only way they’ll see us coming is if they sight us out a window.”
I knew the pilot was right. The Ascalon was the fastest ship in our fleet, a Challis-class interceptor whose massive heat sinks made it possible to mask its sub-light emissions for days, thus making it invisible to heat and light detection and perfect for such stealth missions as ours. It was a small ship, a mere five hundred feet from end to end, its hydroponics and life-support systems designed to support an active crew of perhaps ten men and fugue creches to sustain another forty. A small complement, but enough—I prayed—for our task.
We had three hours to secure the Yamato Fuelworks at Virdi Planum.
Peering out the slit window, I could clearly see the silver line of the bundled hadron colliders. Fully operational, the machines produced kilotons of antimatter a day, iron hearts synthesizing the volatile substance from the collision of the smallest quanta to fuel the sector’s starships. In the distance, I could make out the silvered domes where containment silos waited to be hauled from Eikana’s surface to high orbit.
Without antimatter, our starships could not travel faster than light’s slow speed.
Without Eikana, the local capital at Nessus—and by extension, the great mass of the Imperial navy in the Centaurine provinces—was as good as crippled. It was a cunning target.
It was not like the Cielcin to choose cunning targets.
Not like most Cielcin.
Something of my disquiet must have registered on my face, for Pallino asked, “You all right, Had?”
I snapped my attention to the other man, found him watching me with shrewd eyes. When I’d first met Pallino on Emesh centuries before, he’d been a grizzled old soldier, one-eyed and scarred. Decades of loyal service to myself and to the Imperium had won him a new eye and a second youth, while I—whose palatine genetic advantages promised me centuries—had grown older. Pallino had slept for more nearly a hundred years on ice aboard the Tamerlane while I had served as counselor to the Magnarch on Nessus. I had passed him by, but even still there was a spark of almost paternal concern in the once-older man’s face.
“This attack has Dorayaica’s name all over it,” I said, sure I was right. The Scourge of Earth, they called it. The Prophet. Prince of the Princes of the Cielcin, great enemy of man. While most of the great Cielcin war fleets migrated from system to system, burning and pillaging entire worlds as they went, Dorayaica moved deliberately. Its alien mind had grasped our own strategy with a vision none of its fellows possessed. It burned shipyards, disrupted supply chains, captured legionary transports.
Pallino made a face. “You don’t know that.”
“I do,” I said, eyes flitting over the masked and armored soldiers of our cadre. My Red Company. Raising my voice, I addressed them all. “I want the refinery cleared before our fleet arrives!” I leaned away from the bulkhead, one hand grasping the loop on the padded arch above my head to steady myself. “I want clean knife-work, lads. We must not alert their ships to our presence.” It was imperative we seized the Fuelworks by hand. It took one errant shot from a ship’s tactical maser or misplaced photonic explosive to detonate the huge AM reservoirs beneath the outlying domes, and there was enough antimatter on Eikana to transform Virdi Planum from plateau to crater and crack the planet’s crust.
“Clean as can be, lord,” said Crim, one hand checking the set of knives in the bandoleer he wore.
The Ascalon banked into a low arc, its knife-like body cupping the air as we slid lower. The silver line of the foundry’s colliders swung into place beneath us.
“Prepare yourselves!” I exclaimed, and pressed the trigger on my suit’s neck flange, which triggered the helmet to rise. Metal panels rose about my face, unfurling like the petals of a flower, and closed about my head. The suit’s augmented vision flickered on a moment after, twin cones of light projected onto my retinas. Pallino and Crim had done the same. A sea of armored soldiery stared back at me: featureless ivory masks with the pitchfork-and-pentacle of the Red Company painted over the spot where their left eye should be.
We had to move fast. The few seconds where the Ascalon hovered above the top of the collider were the most risky. It would be all too easy for any of the xenobites in the refinery ahead to spot the vessel crouching like a vulture above the pipeline.
“Venting the cabin in five, four, three . . .” The end of the pilot officer’s countdown vanished beneath the rush and thunder of blood in my ears. Almost seventy years I’d been trapped on Nessus, my punishment for surviving the trial on Thermon. That trial had cost another twelve years. It had been more than a century since I’d faced the Cielcin in battle.
So long . . .
The shudder of my own heart was drowned by a violent hissing as the Ascalon’s rear compartment was vented of air. Eikana had none, and so the ramp opened on grim silence. All the better—there would be no wind to carry our voices or the clangor of our feet.
I led the way down the ramp, Pallino close at my side. Ahead, a few hundred yards of covered pipeline marched toward the squat and brutish buildings of the refinery complex. Not far ahead to either side, the rails of ladders rose, and with a gesture I ordered that my men should fan out. I paused to let them filter past, and turning back, watched the black blade of our starship rise on silent repulsor fields, ramp closing. Then it was gone, a darker shadow against the dark of night.
The man who had spoken was a common trooper, the last in line.
I realized then that I’d been standing atop the collider for far too long. My gaze lingered on the silver expanse of the machine where it marched out to the horizon. The refinery’s hadron colliders girdled the entire planet, so if I’d wanted I might have followed the track of that machine about the planet’s equator until I came upon the complex from the far side. A single road, unbroken—a ring around the world.
“Lord Marlowe?” the man said again.
Stirring at last, I followed him down the ladder.
The men ahead of me moved in triases, in knots of three darting cover to cover. We progressed quickly along the ramparts that ran along the outside of the great machine, and for the better part of a minute the only sound in my universe was the noise of my own bootheels reverberating through my armored suit.
“Contact,” one of the soldiers said. “On the left.”
A horned figure stood upon the roof of the nearest building, black against the darkness, an unearthly gargoyle crouched upon the heights above. It had not marked our approach, and I caught myself wondering if our inhuman adversary had fallen asleep at its watch.
One of our hoplites raised his lance. Invisibly, a laser flashed, smote the gargoyle. No sound. No cry. The horned figure toppled, fell.
“Two more,” came the voice of one soldier over the line.
“Nice shot, one-three!”
“They’re down,” came the first voice again.
“Sure seems like they weren’t expecting us,” said another. “There’s almost no guard!”
And why would there be? The Cielcin were counting on their long-range sensors, were counting on us to launch a full-frontal assault on their orbital blockade. They were not expecting the attack to come from men on the ground—and therein lay our advantage and our hope.
Ahead, the central building loomed. There the newly created antimatter was extracted from the collider and funneled through magnetic coils to storage in one of the outlying silos. There too were the controls for the whole refinery. Our goal. If we could shut down the collider and clear the refinery of the volatile substance, we’d be able to bring ships and troops down with impunity when the fleet arrived.
We would need them.
A hatch cycled on the wall to our right, and a figure in gnarled black stepped out. Eight feet tall it was, and it had to stoop to clear the airlock. At a glance, the xenobite might have been human. Two arms, two legs, a slim torso. The horns atop its head might have been only some feature of its cruel helmet. But I knew the Cielcin well, knew the subtle differences, the way the uncanny horror of the creatures unrolled itself the longer one looked at them. The arms were too long, with grasping hands possessed of too many fingers with too many joints. The legs were bowed and crooked, the torso at once too slim and too short. And the crown of horns was not a feature of any helm, but a part of the inhuman creature’s own flesh.
It hadn’t expected us, betrayed surprise in the way it flinched as its white-masked face turned and saw us, the circular black lenses over its eyes wide and staring. Crim’s hand flashed, and a moment after, the creature folded, ichor black as ink spraying from a wound in its throat. Crim leaped upon the body, tugging the slender blade free with a motion that tore the inhuman neck open.
Crim hardly broke stride, signaled two knots of men to retrace the creature’s path into the still-open hatch. “Check inside. There may be more,” he said, voice void of expression. We’d studied schematics of the Yamato refinery on route to Eikana, and a three-dimensional projection of the plans floated in the periphery of my vision.
“I don’t like this, Had,” Pallino said, speaking over a private connection so as not to upset the men. “It’s too bloody quiet.”
“That’ll change soon enough,” I said. “Door’s not far.”
Crim had reached the door as I spoke, a heavy, square portal of solid steel. Not an airlock. The areas of the refinery surrounding the hadron collider’s collection ports were kept in vacuum to better isolate the antimatter in the event of a leak. Another layer of security, futile though it perhaps was. One of the men hunched over the control panel and in a moment had the entire unit off the wall. He drew a thin wire from his armor’s gauntlet terminal and inserted it into the new hole he’d made.
“Can you open it?” Crim asked.
I could hear the tech’s frown through his mask. “Yes, sir, but they’ll know the minute we do. Working on override.”
“We should backtrack through that side hatch that one came out of,” Pallino suggested, jerking his head in the direction of the creature dead upon the catwalk behind.
“No good,” I said, double-checking the map to be sure. “We’ll get tangled up in fuel collection. We need to get up to central control, lock the building down.”
The tech swore. “No good. I can’t cycle the door without lighting up security.”
“Can you disable the sensors?” Crim asked. “We’ll burn our way in.”
“They’re sure to pick up the temp spike,” the fellow said.
“Then we’ll have to cut our way in,” I said, shouldering men aside. My hand went to the magnetic hasp at my right hip, armored fingers finding the familiar Jaddian leather grip of my sword. “Stand aside, soldier.”
The technician did as he was told. “All clear, my lord.”
Fingers tightened on the dual trigger, and the highmatter blade flowered like a ray of moonlight on that world that had never known a moon. The exotic material rippled like quicksilver in the air, gleaming like a spike of liquid crystal. I checked my advance, sword casting ghostly highlights on the catwalk beneath us and the metallic wall rising at our side. My left hand went to the catch that activated my suit’s body shield, and I prepared myself for whatever was to come. I had been so long removed from the fighting that I’d forgotten the charge of it, the harp-string tension in the air. Almost, I felt a boy of thirty again, not a man of three hundred thirty.
I plunged the point of the sword into the door. The metal cut easily. The atom-fine edge of my weapon sheared between molecules, and in short order I’d carved a ragged hole in the steel. I stepped back, blade humming in my grip as Crim and two legionnaires stepped in and pushed on the door. It fell with a muted bang that reverberated up from my boots, a noise felt—not heard.
Crim went first, one hand still clutching his bloody knife, the other grasping the hilt of the ceramic sword in his belt. He moved like a stalking panther, head down between his shoulders, footfalls delicate. The men behind moved like chess pieces, stiff and precise, sweeping the gray hall with the points of their short lances, ready to fire at the first signs of life. No alarm sounded, no guard sprang to alert.
“All too easy,” I heard Pallino say. I silenced him with a look and followed our men across the threshold, my shadow stretched before me by the torch beams of the men at my back. The moment I entered the hall I saw a flash of light reflected on the polished walls and heard the hoarse shouts of men.
One of the men staggered back into the hall from a side passage, lance raised as he wrestled with something silver that wound itself snakelike about his weapon arm.
“Nahute!” I exclaimed, lurching forward.
The alien drone coiled tight about my soldier’s arm. He screamed, panic flooding the comms channels as the metal serpent tightened. I saw the man’s arm break as the snake bent his elbow backward. The soldier hit the ground, his cries turned to shrieking.
“Hold still!” I said, trying to straighten the ruined arm.
Nothing in the man’s response indicated he had heard me. He screamed as I steadied his arm. The serpent drone twisted its tail around my own wrist. Lifting my sword, I slashed the snake in half, felt the machine die and tumble to the floor.
“Can you stand?” I asked, offering my hand to the injured man.
I never heard his answer. Two more of the silver drones spiraled out of the dark from the side passage, drill-bit teeth whining. One shot over my head as I turned and the other caromed off my shield—so fast did it travel in its eagerness to reach me. The second fell in the flash of my blade, and I stood square to face the dark opening of that side passage, waiting.
A white face hovered in the gloom, sharp-chinned and featureless but for its gaping black eyes. Horns. Talons. A wicked white sword. The Cielcin berserker launched itself at me, elongated body seeming to materialize as if condensed from the shadows. I knew then who had thrown the serpent drones at us and lunged forward to meet it, praying the beast had not put out the alarm. The white sword flashed over my head as I ducked, alien ceramic notching the steel of the door frame. The creature had not seen highmatter before, I guessed, for it seemed not to realize its danger. Nothing would stop a highmatter blade short of the long-chain carbons of adamant of which starship hulls are made, unless it was highmatter itself. The rubberized polymers of the inhuman’s body suit were no obstacle.
Rising from my crouch, I dragged my sword through a rising arc that sliced through door frame and foe alike. The creature fell in two pieces.
“They must know we’re here by now,” Pallino said, coming to my side, weapon raised.
I kicked the fallen xenobite’s sword from nerveless fingers, spurned the body with my toe. Dim red lights flickered from pockmarked recesses in the slashed breastplate, made black blood shine. Suit diagnostics? Or the indicator of some distress signal? I knew Pallino was right. “We have to move.”
The first half hour of our window was gone, and our secrecy with it. I told myself the Cielcin had no way of knowing if they faced an army or a last desperate survivor of the refinery work crew, but that did little to allay my concerns as we climbed square spiral stairs. Nearly five hundred workers had lived on-site—the only permanent inhabitants of airless and arid Eikana. I shuddered to think of the fate that had befallen them.
Refinery control was not far, up several levels and along a gallery overlooking fuel collection and the maintenance tram. The chamber itself lay at the end of an accessway that ran out above the refinery floor so that the techs might peer down at their complex machinery.
It was sure to be guarded.
As I mounted the third landing the stairs shook, and above I saw the flash of energy-lances as men shouted over the line. The lack of air may have afforded us silence as we entered the fortress, but it had its disadvantages, too.
We had not heard them coming.
“Stay back!” Pallino said, throwing an arm across my chest to stop me climbing. Above, I saw the horned shapes of the enemy vying with our men in the entrance, a half dozen at least. The steel runners rattled beneath my feet, and looking down I saw more horns behind, black shapes moving on the stairs.
“No good!” I shouted.
The whole stair fell by inches, its bolts torn loose. Pallino and I lurched against the rail, and looking down I saw the white-and-silvered jewel scarab shape of a Cielcin chimera. The alien brain inside the machine regarded me a moment through optic sensors. Little of the creature it had been remained, and the body the Cielcin’s human allies had built for it was stronger than any flesh. Its jointed iron hand clutched the bottom of the stair, rail crushed like paper in its fingers.
“Climb!” I shouted, shoving Pallino on. We made the landing just as the creature tore the steps free. They tumbled a dozen feet and hit the steps below with a resonant boom that echoed up my feet. Two men fell with them. They’d been too slow.
The chimera flexed its mighty thighs, pistons firing, and leaped. Pallino fired, but his lance was absorbed by the monster’s shield. The magi who had crafted the thing’s new body had lavished all their art upon it. Jointed white fingers closed on the lip of the landing at our heels, but the beast had forgotten elementary physics. The tremendous weight of its body bent the metal of the platform, and I felt a grinding beneath my feet as mighty bolts scraped against the poured stone wall of the stairwell.
We ran, spurring our men ahead of us. I followed them through the open door onto the gallery above, stepping over the bodies of man and xenobite alike. Crim’s sword drew a black line across the throat of one attacker and moved smoothly to parry the strike of the next. Flowing like water, the Norman swordsman punched his assailant under the arm with one of his knives, drew it out wet. The ink-dark substance boiled in that airless place, and the desperate creature tried to return the favor, only to be skewered on the bayonet of the nearest soldier’s lance.
The gallery ahead was filled with horned devils, white-masked, black-armored, wielding scimitars the color of bone or else grasping nahute coiled in hooked hands like silver whips.
Nothing for it.
No way out but through.
“Seal the door!” someone called, and the bulkhead closed behind us. Through sloping windows at our left a man might look down upon the cluster of hadron colliders where they passed collection and the magnetic siphons that channeled the volatile fuel out towards the silos. I had a fleeting glimpse of the control room through the window, hanging like an inverse mushroom above the refinery floor, but the shouts of men over the comm line filled my ears, and I came crashing back to myself.
There must have been a score of them in the hall between us and the airlock to access refinery control. The space between us was filled with the snarling of flying drones and the slashing of blades. Energy lances fired, shield curtains gleamed. Men died and Cielcin, too. Crim’s sword sketched a bloody maze through the bodies of those who fell upon him until his red and white armor was stained black. I slew two of them myself. The sword Sir Olorin had given me so very long ago made short work of the enemy. A nahute had gotten through the shield of one of our hoplites and chewed between the plates of his armor. Red blood ran and boiled like the black, and I saw three men cut down where they stood.
But we were gaining ground.
The floor beneath us shook, and looking back I saw the heavy steel of the bulkhead warp inward as though some mighty fist were knocking. The chimera had reached the door.
“Into the airlock!” Crim shouted. Those doors were double the strength of the ones we’d just closed and electromagnetically shielded, for what little good that would do in the event of a critical failure to the refinery systems. With antimatter—there is no containment, no shielding. Annihilation will out.
Another blow dented the far door. I stood on the threshold of the airlock, looking back across a river of dead men and monsters. We were almost there.
“Close the door,” I said.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...