As I mentioned here, Wizards of the Coast has authorized me to post monthly excerpts from my forthcoming novel, The Godborn (book II of the Sundering Series), in the lead up to its October 1 release. I’m posting this excerpt a couple days early because we just had a new addition to our family and my schedule over the next few weeks is very hectic. I have the time now so what the Hell.
This is the final of six excerpts. Now, I said I’d save the best one for last, and here it is. This contains what some may consider a spoiler, but it occurs so early in the book that I don’t think of it as such. Still, you are warned.
So, what follows is the sixth excerpt (the first is here, the second is here, the third is here, the fourth is here, and the fifth is here). This bit features Riven. This scene provides the frame of the novel, summarizing and at least partially explaining the various divine machinations that have occurred throughout the Cale novels to bring matters to this point.
I hope you enjoy.
Riven stood in the uppermost room of the central tower of his citadel—a fortress of shadows and dark stone carved in relief into the sheer face of a jagged peak.
The plaintive, hopeful prayers of Mask’s few remaining worshipers in Toril bounced around in his head, the background noise of his existence, a din that made him want to dig out his remaining eye with his thumbs.
Lord of shadows, hear my words . . .
From the darkness, I speak your name, Shadowlord . . .
Return to us, Lord of Stealth . . .
“I’m not your damned god,” he said, and drew on his pipe.
As best he could, he pushed the voices to the back of his consciousness. There’d been many such voices a century earlier, but they’d gradually faded and there were only a few now. He wondered, not for the first time, if Rivalen or Mephistopheles—who also possessed some of Mask’s power—also heard them, or if the fading hopes of Mask’s faithful were his burden alone to bear. He suspected the latter, and he wondered what that meant.
Annoyed, he exhaled a cloud of pungent smoke and let his gaze follow it out the tall, narrow window and down to the shrouded land beyond his citadel.
The starless black vault of the plane’s sky hung over a landscape of gray and black, where lived the dark simulacra of actual things. Shadows and wraiths and specters and ghosts and other undead hung in the air around the citadel, or prowled the foothills and plains near it, so numerous their glowing eyes looked like swarms of fireflies. He felt the darkness in everything he could see, felt it as an extension of himself, and the feeling made him too big by half.
The Shadowfell had been his home for the past one hundred years. More his home now than Faerûn, he supposed, and the realization annoyed him further. He’d never wanted to be a god, never wanted to spend his days in shadow, listening to the whines of the faithful, caught up in the machinations of beings he hadn’t even known existed when he’d been only a man. Back then, he’d wanted only to drink and eat and gamble and enjoy women, but now . . .
Now he still wanted to drink and eat and gamble and womanize, but the divinity squirmed within him, a toothy thing that chewed at the corners of his humanity, eating away at the man to make room for the god. And unless he did something soon, it would consume his humanity altogether. He hated it, hated what it had done to him, and for what it insisted he hear and know.
For as the divinity opened holes in the man, knowledge not-his-own filled the abscesses. The fractional divinity within him revealed its secrets only gradually, a slow drip of revelation that had been unfolding over decades, a plodding education in godhood. He wondered if that, too, was his burden alone to bear. Because if Mephistopheles and Rivalen did not experience it the same way, well . . . what did that mean?
At the least it meant that new memories bubbled up from time to time, popped in his mindscape, and loosed their stinking contents into his consciousness. Riven consulted them not as a man looking back on his own experiences but as a scholar would a scroll written in a language in which he was barely fluent. Mask kept his secrets even from Riven, letting him in on the game only a little at a time.
And the game, it turned out, had been a long con. Mask had played them all, including his mother, Shar.
Mask had been Shar’s herald on Toril, the prophet who started her Cycle of Night, a divine process that had repeated itself countless times across the multiverse, and had, in the process, destroyed countless worlds. And each time, on each world, the cycle ended the same way, had to end the same way—with Shar consuming the divinity of her herald. The divine cannibalism of her own offspring allowed the Lady of Loss to incarnate fully, and once she did, she reduced everything in the world to nothing.
Cycles of Night had left the multiverse pockmarked with holes. Voids of nothingness were the footprints Shar left as she stalked through reality. Riven knew the amount of life she’d destroyed in the process, and it nauseated even him. And apparently it had been too much for Mask, also, for when it came to Toril, he hadn’t played his part.
“The cycle must be broken,” Riven said, the words exiting his mouth, but not feeling at all like his own words.
On Toril, Shar had consumed only a portion of Mask’s divinity, for he’d hidden the rest away, and what she’d consumed was not enough to finish the cycle, not enough to allow her to incarnate. Mask had trapped his mother halfway through her incarnation. She existed now within a hole in the center of the Ordulin Maelstrom, raging, gazing out through a window of nothingness at a world that had defied her, at least temporarily. Mask had frozen Toril’s Cycle of Night.
But Shar was still hungry, and she wanted the rest of her meal.
Riven possessed some of Mask’s divinity, Mephistopheles possessed some, and Rivalen Tanthul, Shar’s nightseer on Faerûn, possessed the third portion. The divinity could only come out of them one way—with their deaths. And as much as Riven hated godhood, he hated being dead even more. He wouldn’t be feeding himself to Shar anytime soon.
He’d learned more as Mask’s memories showed him the game. He finally remembered what he’d done—what Mask had done—to Cale’s son, Vasen. And he’d learned of Mask’s plan to return.
“To end the cycle, resurrect the herald,” he said, the words once more like foreign things on his lips.
Mask had changed Vasen in the womb, given him a very special ability, and pushed him forward in time to hide him. Vasen was the key. Vasen could release the divinity in Rivalen, Riven, and Mephistopheles, and do it without killing them. But he had to do it with all three of them present, and he had to do it while Shar looked on. That meant it had to be done in the Ordulin Maelstrom.
If it went right, Mask would reincarnate. If it went wrong, the Cycle of Night would re-start and run its course.
“This should’ve been Cale,” Riven muttered.
Riven had never had Cale’s mind for plans, and he struggled to keep everything straight in his head.
“I should’ve died, not him.”
But then again, Cale wasn’t dead.
Mask had seen fit to reveal that bit of information to Riven recently. Riven had wrestled with the implications for days. He didn’t quite see how it fit into the rest.
All he knew at this point was that Cale was alive. Alive and trapped under Hell’s ice for a century.
“Damn, damn, damn.”
Mask had either kept Cale alive somehow when he should’ve died or brought him back to life immediately after his death. Riven didn’t know which, and didn’t understand why. He didn’t even understand how. He presumed that Cale, too, must have still had some of Mask’s divinity, a tiny sliver that Mephistopheles hadn’t taken. That was the only explanation.
Riven’s head spun as he tried to think through all the players and their plots. Everything was complicated, wheels within wheels, plans within plans within plans, and somehow Riven had to sort it out and end up on the right end of things.
Yet he suspected that Mask had kept still more secrets from him. Riven could spend a decade planning, then learn something new tomorrow that changed everything, put everything in a new light.
He put it out of his mind for the moment, looked out on his realm, and tried to enjoy his pipe.
Flashes of viridian lightning periodically knifed through the dense churn of low clouds, painting the landscape for a moment in sickly green. Gusts of wind summoned dust as fine as ash from the foothills, whipped through the plains and caused the twisted grass and oddly angled branches of the Shadowfell’s trees to hiss and whisper. The miasmic, gloomy air, soupy with shadows, thronged with undead, pressed down on Riven’s mood.
He’d long ago had enough of the Shadowfell, but he left the plane only when absolutely necessary. His close connection to it meant that he was strongest when here, weaker when away. He knew Mephistopheles and Rivalen both would kill him if they could, each for their own reasons, and he dared not give them a moment’s weakness to exploit, not unless he must. They’d both tried to scry him from time to time. He felt their divinations pawing at him, making the air around him charged and itchy, but the spells never quite latched onto him. His divinity allowed him to slip almost all scrying.
But the Lord of Cania and the nightseer knew where he was. And he knew where they were.
“The three of us,” he said. “Stalemated.”
His voice drew one of his dogs, bitches he’d had for decades. She pushed through the door behind him, padded over, and plopped down at his feet with a tired exhalation.
His mood immediately improved. Her short tail beat against the smooth stone floor. When he looked down and smiled around his pipe, she flopped on her side to show her age-fattened belly.
Shadows slipped out of her flesh. She’d been a tan, white, and brown mutt once, but years in the shadows, years with Riven, had turned her dark. The Shadowfell had seeped into her, the same as it had into Riven, turning them both into shadows of themselves.
She whined for attention, tail still thumping, and Riven took the hint. He scratched her chest and stomach and she answered with happy sighs and more wags. He tried not to follow the implications of her graying muzzle and labored breathing. Unlike Riven, she was not divine, not immortal. Shadowstuff had extended her life, but it would not keep her alive forever.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” he said, and she just wagged happily. He should have let his girls die in peace in Faerûn, still themselves, still normal.
Her sister, also as black as ink, caught wind of the petting and ambled in. She plopped down and showed her stomach, too, and Riven surrendered fully. He set his pipe on the floor and vigorously scratched and petted each of them. They rolled over and put their heads on his legs, licked his hand. Shadows spun around all three of them. He smiled, thinking how they must look, the dark god and his fat, tail-wagging shadow hounds.
“You’re good girls,” he said, patting their heads, stroking their muzzles.
He would have been dead inside without them, he knew that. He sometimes felt that they were the sole thread connecting him back to his humanity. And he missed his humanity. He missed need, the satisfaction that came from striving for ordinary things and achieving them. Divinity had expanded his mind but dulled his body to pleasure. He could partake of food, drink, and women, but he experienced all of them at a distance, almost as an observer, not a participant. The curse of a divine mind, he supposed. For some reason the pleasure he felt smoking his pipe remained sharp, so he smoked often. Jak Fleet, an old companion of his, would have smiled to see it.
“All right, girls,” he said, and patted them each one last time before grabbing his pipe and standing. They watched him stand, forlorn, as dogs do.
He’d drawn on his pipe, thinking, planning. He’d put things in place as best he knew how. Now he had to wait for Vasen—he’d be over thirty by now—to come to him, for he dared not visit Cale’s son again. After that, he had to rescue Cale. Then he had to resurrect a god or destroy the world, one or the other.
“Damn,” he said.
He thought of his old life, thought of Cale, Jak, and Mags.
He made up his mind. He’d need Mags, someone he could count on, someone he could trust. He’d risk leaving the Shadowfell one more time before all the pieces started to move.