The Immortal Words
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To defeat an immortal evil, a young warrior must enter the land of the dead in the spellbinding conclusion to Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler’s epic Grave Kingdom trilogy.
As kingdoms fall, brave young warrior Bingmei fights to fulfill a prophecy and save what’s left of the world from the coming darkness. Should she fail, Echion, the diabolical Dragon of Night, and his queen will hold sway over the next thousand years. With Echion comes his unstoppable army of dragons—powerful, vengeful, and under his control.
Accompanied by her loyal friend Quion, Bingmei journeys toward her last hope. It lies among the savage beasts just beyond the ancient Death Wall—an uninhabited realm from which no one has ever returned alive. Bingmei’s mission is to find the phoenix shrine and learn the Immortal Words that will allow her to harness eternal magic. With Echion and his legions in pursuit, Bingmei must choose her words wisely to break Echion’s spell and accept her fate.
Bingmei knows what she must do. She must join the ranks of the dead as well. For a fearless and selfless warrior, it’s the ultimate sacrifice. But Bingmei is about to discover that even in death, the greatest sacrifices are yet to come.
Release date: September 22, 2020
Print pages: 341
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The Immortal Words
The Last Sunrise
General Tzu knew they would lose. There really hadn’t been much of a hope for victory anyway. The sky roiled with smoky fumes, and a bloodred sun had ascended over the expanse of the Death Wall. At least the darkness had lifted and they could see the rubble in the shattered streets of Sihui. The dragon had, perhaps, wished to show them their doom. The general knew another attack would come soon. And this one would spell the end of Zhumu’s reign. After he fell, only three independent kingdoms would be left. Or had some of them already fallen? They’d received no outside news since the first day of the attack.
One of his underlings approached hastily, soot sticking to the sweat on his brow.
“General, the third bridge has fallen,” he said with panic in his voice. “It crumbled into the river during the night.”
“Draw our forces back to the final bridge,” General Tzu replied coolly. “That is where we will make our final stand.”
“But will it be enough?” asked the desperate underling. “Can we hold back the Dragon of Night’s army?”
“Oh, we will,” the general replied with bravado. “We will hold it with every last man. Today is the day that Echion’s army will retreat. I’ve received reports that some of his ships are full of disease. Yes, we will win this day. Gather to the final bridge.”
The man’s face brightened. “We’ve nearly won?”
“One last push,” General Tzu said confidently. “We’ve lasted this long. It’s almost over.”
“Thank you, General! Thank you! I’d nearly given up hope.”
General Tzu clapped the man on his armored shoulder and turned to walk to the palace. Everything he’d told the man was a reassuring lie. Under Echion’s rule, the Qiangdao were more united than they had ever been, and they were chafing with impatience to loot Sihui. Just as he’d done in the other kingdoms, Echion would choose loyal governors to administer the Iron Rules once Sihui fell. King Zhumu would be executed. His daughter had already been abducted and spirited away to the dragon’s palace at Fusang. An ensign had been sent to free her and the phoenix-chosen, Bingmei, but no word had ever returned. General Tzu might lie to his troops to bolster their morale and courage, but he’d not lie to himself. Bingmei and the rest had probably died before they completed their mission. Which meant there was absolutely no chance of victory at all. Sihui would be destroyed like the other kingdoms. And there wasn’t anything in the world he could do to stop it from happening.
As the general rounded the corner of the rubble-strewn street, he saw the palace ahead and dreaded the news he would bring Zhumu. Clenching his fists as he walked, he thought about the defense of Sihui and was amazed they had lasted as long as they had.
All winter, he had prepared for the siege. He’d allowed his countrymen to be practically enslaved so they might build the complicated, layered bridges that were central to his plan. He’d hoped they would repel the huge ships Echion had used to destroy his people at Sajinau. In the end, Echion himself had arrived in the form of a giant dragon made of smoke. He’d tried to snatch General Tzu with his claws, but Bingmei had shouted a warning just in time. The general had jumped into the water moments before the great dragon opened its maw and spewed an impenetrable darkness. For three days, the entire city lay under a shroud so dark that not even a single flame could be lit.
The darkness had caused terror and despair. It had blinded the Eagle Throne. And that was when General Tzu realized the reason for it—Echion was planning to attack from the rear, not from the sea. Despite the darkness, the general had marshaled his defenders to the swamps behind Sihui and hidden them in the woods. He’d put fake armor on ordinary citizens and sent them to man the bridges. If he had guessed wrong, they would all have died.
But when the darkness had finally lifted, the army of Qiangdao was spotted coming in from behind. His troops lay in wait for them and ambushed them when they reached the river. It was a slaughter on both sides, but his strategy had worked, and they’d sent the invaders fleeing into the wild.
On the second day of battle, the killing fog came.
But General Tzu had already learned one of the fog’s secrets from Muxidi, a Qiangdao who had shifted his allegiance. In battling the first round of invaders, the general’s men had discovered sigils written in blood on their backs. It was this sigil that protected them from the fog. General Tzu had ensured every soldier and citizen had the mark before the next attack. On his instructions, his soldiers had dropped to the ground, one by one, as the fog touched them, pretending it had done its evil work. But that trick could likely only be used once, for Echion could change the sigil and had done so in the past.
When the Qiangdao arrived on their ships and began to enter the streets, General Tzu gave the command to fight. The dead sprang to life and attacked, surprising Echion’s army and winning the day.
The taste of victory was sweet. But General Tzu had known even then that each day would bring its own challenges. Past success meant nothing about the future. While the armies of Sihui rejoiced, he paced and worried. His concern was well founded.
The enemy wasn’t disheartened at all. In fact, they were enraged. The next day, they attacked on both sides at once. The first bridge came down, and the second crumpled quickly thereafter, opening one side of the river. All the survivors had been evacuated to the palace side of the river, but many innocents had perished due to the brutality of the Qiangdao.
General Tzu had been wounded on his thigh during the fighting that day, a wound that still grieved him days later. He felt it now, in particular, as he arrived at the palace. The building swarmed with soldiers and townsfolk. People shouted at him, demanding answers, the fear in their voices scraping down his spine. Guards with spears pushed the swelling crowds back, allowing him to pass.
The captain of the palace guard, Captain Shan, reached him through the masses. “What news, General?” he asked. The rust of blood was still on his armor. He was a huge man, one of the strongest in the city, and had joined in the fighting at critical moments.
“We’ve lost the third bridge,” General Tzu said curtly.
Captain Shan’s face darkened. “Is it the end?”
“Hush, man. Too many ears. Bring me to the king. I’ll give you both the news.”
The interior of the palace smelled of sweat and cinders. When General Tzu had first arrived as a refugee, he’d been impressed by the splendor of Sihui’s wealth. But such things mattered very little in the thick of war. Gold couldn’t delay a sword thrust. And silk didn’t mop up blood very well.
When they reached the throne room, he saw Zhumu dressed in his ceremonial armor, a two-handed blade strapped to his back. The usually confident king looked rattled. His eyes were feverish with worry. Despite the crowds elsewhere in the castle, he was alone.
“Well, General?” he asked. “Has there been any word yet? Any word at all from my daughter, Cuifen?”
“None, my king. Getting word through the defenses would be difficult. Do not succumb to fear.”
The king gave him a haughty look. “I already know I’m a dead man, Tzu. But my heart groans for my daughter. I’d rather her drink poison than become one of that foul monster’s concubines.”
General Tzu clasped his hands behind his back. Captain Shan shut the door. “We’re alone. What news, General?”
“Today we fall,” he said solemnly. “I’ve done everything within my power. We’ve lasted longer than any of the other kingdoms. But our fate was assured as soon as Echion revived. We’ve prolonged our fate. But we cannot prevent it.”
Zhumu frowned. The gray streaks in his black beard had become more plentiful in recent days. “I will not concede defeat, General. We must prevail. You must find a way.”
General Tzu’s shoulders sagged. “I have done all that I can do, my lord. It is a simple deduction. If we had banded together all of the kingdoms, as King Shulian had suggested, we would have had ten times the resources. Instead, each kingdom has defended itself. Even with the men I brought from Sajinau, we cannot match the number of soldiers that Echion can throw against us. Right now, I have more wounded men than hale ones. Yet still they fight on, knowing most of them will be executed if we fail.”
“Then we cannot fail!” Zhumu barked.
Captain Shan looked at his king worriedly.
“My lord,” General Tzu said, stepping forward. “There is nothing more I can do but rally the soldiers and defend the city to the last man. This is it. It ends today. When they attack us, we will all die. We cannot leave the city, for they’ve trapped us from behind. Every effort to break through their ranks has killed more men. There is nowhere left to go. Nowhere to hide. We fight and we die in Sihui. Come, my king. Fight with us. It will embolden the men.”
One of the muscles in Zhumu’s cheek twitched. General Tzu stared at the king hard, trying to will him to make the right decision.
And he did.
When the enemy came, they arrived in wave after wave like the surf hammering the rocky shore during a storm. General Tzu watched as his wounded brothers fell and died, taking as many enemies with them as they could. Corpses floated down the river beneath the bridge. The last bridge was the final defense. It prevented the enemy boats from docking directly at the city, forcing the invaders to attack them across its narrow length. There were still attackers striking from the rear of the city, which meant there was no possibility of retreating into the hinterlands. As men died, their bodies were thrown over the walls to clear the path for more warriors. King Zhumu’s sword was streaked in red. His presence on the bridge, along with Captain Shan’s, had indeed increased the vigor of the defense. And Zhumu was highly skilled with his sword.
Each rush of Qiangdao had been repulsed, but more kept coming. General Tzu gulped for air. He wondered why Echion hadn’t arrived in person. Every day, they would all look to the skies in fear, wondering if the Dragon of Night would return to lay waste. He dreaded that moment, knowing it would herald his death. Or, worse, he would be compelled to serve the monster.
Screams of rage sounded as another rush of enemy soldiers stormed up the bridge. General Tzu watched as Captain Shan met them himself, battering them back with a meiwood glaive. The Qiangdao who made it past him were cut down by King Zhumu, who led the surviving guards. An enemy struck Captain Shan in the leg, and General Tzu watched the big man sag to one knee, still fighting. They battered his helmet and shoulder armor, shrieking in glee as their enemy foundered. General Tzu rushed forward, ignoring his own injury, and invoked the power of his meiwood weapon. They needn’t fear the killing fog—each of them still wore the protective word. The sword lifted out of his hand, spinning on its own and attacking those who crowded around Shan. King Zhumu attacked, slicing through armor, causing death with every stroke as he fought to free his honored captain from the Qiangdao.
This is it, General Tzu realized, holding out his hand. The hilt of his weapon came flying back into it as if bound by an invisible rope. This is the end. He could feel the ridges and swirls of the glyphs under his fingers, and it struck him that he had never known, and would never know, what they meant. Were they some archaic words from a dead language?
The general’s mind was sluggish with fatigue. An enemy rushed at him, and General Tzu dodged to the side, bringing up his blade and disarming the fellow in one move. The man howled in pain, backing away.
The only laws Echion cared about were the Iron Rules. The ones that he had deemed fit for the people. Surely there were better laws. More just ones. King Shulian had been a just king. His laws were merciful. But where had that gotten him?
“General! General! Look!”
He turned around, seeing a soldier pointing downriver. Dread licked up his spine. Were the ships finally coming, then? He forced himself to look. Haze obscured his vision. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped a gloved hand across his face, trying to understand what he was seeing.
Coming up the river, he saw junks. Dozens. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand. He couldn’t comprehend it. Echion had attacked in huge wooden barges that could carry masses of troops. These looked like fishing boats. Then he saw a larger boat bearing a flag with the ni-ji-jing on it, the large black-and-white man-eating whale. It was the flag of Dawanju.
What was going on?
And then, as the smaller boats began attacking Echion’s larger vessels, he realized what was happening. The Dawanjir were joining the fight.
“Zhumu!” General Tzu shouted.
The blood-spattered king turned, looking at him in confusion. General Tzu pointed just as his soldier had. “Help has come!”
Shouts of joy bubbled from the throats of the defenders. In an instant, the mood changed. Wounded soldiers staggered to their feet to join the fight once more. General Tzu found himself, the injured Shan, and King Zhumu pressed ahead of the ranks to the other side, where they led a fierce attack on the Qiangdao. The enemy fell back, but they were trapped. One by one, their massive ships were commandeered by sailors from the fishing boats. Fresh soldiers from Dawanju joined the fight, spilling from the fishing boats into the streets of Sihui. Many of the surviving defenders wept with joy at the sight of their liberators.
General Tzu felt his own emotions surge, though he maintained a calm demeanor.
Then he saw the underling whom he’d spoken to earlier that day. The man approached him with a triumphant smile. “You were right, General! You were right!”
General Tzu felt like lying down on the broken street and sleeping for three days. Weariness and exhaustion slammed him like a runaway cart. He kept his feet, though his sword arm drooped.
“See?” he said to the grinning underling. “I knew we would win.”
And that was a lie too.
A Sister’s Whisper
The sweet fragrance of freedom filled Bingmei’s lungs as she ran for her life through the aspen wood. The magic of the meiwood cricket shot through her legs, and she soared through the trees, away from the Death Wall, away from Echion and Xisi. The dragons had fought over her, neither yielding to the other, allowing her the briefest chance to escape. Even so, she wouldn’t have made it if not for the cloud of birds that had rushed from the trees and engulfed her, obscuring her by filling the air around her with their flapping wings and shrieks. The sight had filled her heart with wonder, something that had not yet faded as she landed deeper inside the thick grove of white-barked aspen trees, so thick and flush with leaves they would surely conceal her. Still, she sensed the dragons searching for her, could feel the tingle of Echion’s presence go down her spine.
The ground was covered with dead leaves, an undisturbed carpet, which was why she didn’t see the cleft in the ground until it swallowed her.
The whispered thought was featherlight and brushed against the walls of her mind. She wasn’t dead, for she could feel stone crushing her ribs. It felt like being squeezed in a giant’s arms. Her legs dangled, nothing beneath them, and they felt as if they would stretch until they popped out of her body. Her hands and face still ached with pain from the splinters created when the meiwood staff shattered.
There it was again, the sound as soft as the drone of a mosquito. She tried opening her eyes, but something wet and gooey prevented it. Blood? Mud? Both? Her throat burned for a drink of water. She tried twisting her neck and felt shivers of pain shoot down her spine.
“Help,” she croaked, the word coming out garbled.
I’m here, Bingmei. Help is coming. Hold on.
It hurt to breathe. As she rose to consciousness, memories began to trickle back into her mind. She’d crossed the Death Wall. She’d used the meiwood cricket to reach the wilderness of quaking aspen, only to fall into a hidden pit. She was still there, trapped in shadow. Panic flared in her heart. How long had she been down here?
It’s all right, Bingmei. Be patient.
The voice was not one she recognized, but the tone was comforting. At least it made her feel less alone.
Each breath she took was agony. “Help.” She tried again, but it came out as a whisper. She had no strength to speak aloud.
Help is coming. It’s coming. Soon.
Her hands were both above her head, cushioned in dead leaves, her fingers tingling from lack of blood. She tried to wiggle them, and they responded. It wasn’t the death feeling, then—just cramped circulation. With effort, she tried bending her elbow and managed to plant it on a piece of earth in front of her. It eased the pain in her ribs a little. But there was nothing to push off of, the ground was too soft. She felt herself slide a little lower, and the pain became worse.
Hold still, Bingmei. Or you will fall farther. Rest.
“I . . . can’t . . . breathe . . .” she gasped. The pain intensified, each attempt at breathing sending daggers of agony through her.
She heard the trilling of a bird that sang in soft, sweet tones. It was perched in the trees above her. The melody was beautiful, so she tried to calm herself by listening to it.
Her heart leaped at the sound of crackling twigs, approaching bootfalls. The birdsong increased in volume and eagerness. Another bird chirped nearby in response. The bootfalls kept coming closer, crunching through the detritus.
Then she heard Quion’s voice. “Bingmei?”
She grinned at the sound. “Here,” she called in her whisper-like voice.
The sound of Quion tromping through the woods stabbed her ears with its noise. He was coming her way. She sighed, which sent a shard of pain into her chest, and tears of gratitude welled in her eyes.
She heard the noise begin to fade, heading off to the left.
Her thoughts became desperate. No! I’m over here! Right here!
He’ll find you, Bingmei.
The sound of his steps faded. She heard him call her name again, and try as she might, she couldn’t answer loudly enough. The smell of mud and mulch pressed in against her, masking all other scents. He hadn’t even gotten close enough for her to smell his fishy scent.
The trilling bird grew louder, and she heard the boots stop. Relief washed over her as they started coming back her way.
The birdsong was directly above her. Her lips tasted like dirt. Her throat screamed for water.
Gratitude swelled in her heart. Thank you! Who are you?
A sister. I will see you very soon.
“Bingmei?” She heard the crunch of leaves, and some of the shadow surrounding her grew darker. The trilling bird whistled joyfully.
“Bingmei!” he gasped.
“Can’t . . . breathe,” she whispered.
But Quion was there. He’d found her. Her world brightened as he began clearing the leaves away from her head and arms. Brightness burned against her eyelids. Everything seemed impossibly green. The sensation of the dragons, watching, hunting, had dissipated.
“I only saw your muddy hand,” he said. “I almost didn’t see it at all. You’re wedged in a crevice.” She smelled him now—that familiar, honest smell of fish—and felt a throb of relief. Her ability to smell emotions more often felt like a curse than a boon. She already felt different because of her winter sickness. But she enjoyed the way Quion smelled. He was the most honest and steadfast person she’d ever known.
“Here, let me get a rope around you.” Of course. Quion could solve just about any problem with rope.
In a few moments, he’d squirmed down to her location and tied a rope around her chest. He cinched it tight, then clambered back up to the edge of the crevice.
“Get ready,” he warned. She felt the rope tense and dig into her armpits. It hurt, and she groaned in pain, but Quion wrenched her up, and—instantly—she could breathe. Fresh, sweet air filled her lungs. The tingle in her arms and legs began to fade, and she felt dizzy, but she reached out with one hand, clawing at the dirt and mud, and helped pull herself out.
Bingmei’s flesh had been embedded with splinters from Kunmia’s meiwood staff, which had exploded in her battle with Echion atop the Death Wall. Most of them could be removed with fingernails, but some of the bigger pieces required the use of Quion’s dagger. It was a painstaking process, even with both of them working—Bingmei focusing on her hands and arms, and Quion delicately plucking the wood shards from her face and neck.
They sat amidst the quaking aspen, near a trickling stream that fed into a gully. Quion had carried her there after pulling her out of the hidden place. If she had fallen all the way to the bottom, he would have never found her.
A little chirping noise sounded to her left, and she turned and saw the tiniest siskin finch. Its plumage was yellow with flecks of green and darker blue splotches, and it sang a lovely song. It perched on one of the smaller branches of the aspen.
“There’s that little bird again,” Quion said, smiling. “A siskin, I think. It perched on a branch right over where I was trapped, and it kept crying out like it was warning me or something.” He shot her an intent look. “I think it led me to you. The birds seem to . . . recognize you somehow.”
“Maybe they do,” she said softly. Bingmei felt a small throb of gratitude in her heart. The birds had helped her, and so had that voice. She’d claimed to be a sister, but Bingmei had no sisters.
She held out her hand to the colorful bird, half expecting it to perch on her finger, but the siskin flew away in a panic, warbling again.
“Birds are skittish,” Quion said. “Except seagulls. My father and I would have to shoo them away from our nets. They’d come flapping in, easy as you please, and start pecking at the catch, ruining the fish.”
Bingmei grinned at his little story as she continued to pick out the splinters. Quion sat very close to her, his fingers carefully examining her face for more splinters. Periodically, he’d gather water from the river in his hands so he could wash away the blood and get a better view of her injuries. He’d brought along her pack, which she’d thrown off the edge of the wall earlier. It held a change of clothes and some supplies to help them survive in the wild, but no doubt they’d need to forage for food. From what she could tell, they were in a completely unpopulated land. Perhaps no humans had ever lived there.
Sitting in the aspen grove, Bingmei could sense the phoenix shrine in the distance, beyond the twisting path carved by the river. The phoenix had shown it to her in a vision, and now that she was beyond the wall, she felt guided toward it. Once she found it, she would go to the Grave Kingdom. And that was the one place Quion couldn’t follow her. The smell of sadness struck her nose, but this time it was her own scent.
“You’ve been a dear friend to me,” she said, looking at him. “Part of me still doesn’t want to do this. But I must. When we reached the Death Wall, and I touched it . . .”
“It looked like you died,” he said somberly. “I thought it killed you.”
“Maybe it did,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s been happening more and more often. Like my body has become slippery. My souls keep falling out.”
He sniffed. “You’re a person, not a shoe. Hold yourself together until we get there.”
“I will try. Whatever happens, Quion,” she said, touching his arm so she knew she had his attention, “I want you to survive this. We’ve lost . . . so many already.” She didn’t know what had happened to any of their friends. To Rowen, Eomen, or Jidi Majia. To Liekou or Cuifen. To Mieshi or Marenqo. But knowing Echion’s disdain for the living and his ability to control the dead, she suspected they might all have already perished.
“A somber face,” Quion said. “What are you thinking?”
“When I left my body at the Death Wall, I had another vision. The whole wall was built on the corpses of Echion’s slaves. He used so many people to build his palaces, this wall—and their lives, their sacrifice, meant nothing to him. He cares for no one. Not even his queen.” She felt her insides twist. “How they hate each other, Quion. It goes beyond reason. They could have easily killed me on top of the wall, but neither of them would yield to the other.” She pinched her tongue between her teeth. “They won’t stop hunting us.”
Quion sniffed again. “I suppose not. Let’s finish cleaning you up. You’re like a porcupine with all these quills.”
Later, much later, after Quion had slid most of the slivers out of her skin, they continued their hike through the aspen, moving as quickly as they could. Every now and then, Bingmei caught sight of a flicker of yellow weaving through the trees. A siskin, or maybe the siskin. She felt the tugging of the phoenix shrine in the distance, leading her forward. She’d explained as much to Quion before they left the river.
He dodged a tree in their path. “Are you nervous?”
She was walking toward her death, yet it no longer bothered her. “I feel calm.”
“I’m nervous for you,” he said, sighing. “This isn’t what you wanted.”
“I know. But all of us die eventually, Quion. Maybe my death will have greater meaning. Maybe I can finally stop Echion.”
Prince Juexin of Sajinau had offered to build her a shrine should she agree to sacrifice herself. But now he was dead, and his kingdom belonged to Echion. Her death would be more of a whimper—the only person who would know what she’d done was Quion. Yet it felt right. It felt inevitable even.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, and she smelled the sadness coming from him, seasoned by the spiciness of his pride in her.
She looked over and smiled at him. “I’m glad you’re my friend, Quion.”
He tugged at his collar and removed a bit of fishing twine. Fastened to it, she saw the little scorpion charm she’d bought in Wangfujing. After being shunned by those people because of her winter sickness, she’d ripped it off in disgust.
“I’m glad you didn’t throw it in the water,” he said. “At least I’ll have something to always remind me of you.”
Another of the walls guarding her heart fell down.
Eventually they reached the edge of the woods. Looking back, the forest blocked sight of the imposing Death Wall, but she knew it was there, hidden behind the veil of green leaves and pale bark. The ground dropped lower, revealing a lush valley thick with tall, straight trees. The branches swayed a little in the breeze. A hawk cried out in the distance. She heard a song and saw the pretty little siskin perched on a branch, trilling away. Although it seemed unlikely, she knew in her heart it was the same one.
“There’s that bird again,” Quion said. “Maybe it’s a good sign.”
“Look at those trees. I wonder what kind they are?” Bingmei said, pointing down at the valley. On the other side, she saw the jagged peaks of mountains. Beyond them, she knew, lay the maze of canyons and ravines leading to the shrine. If only she could cross the distance in the air like the hawk crying overhead.
Gazing up at the sky, she saw the great bird swooping lazily, riding the currents. A wistful feeling throbbed in her heart. It was followed by a tingle of danger. The siskin screeched at them, and Bingmei felt the presence of a dragon.
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