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Excerpt: The Unconquered City by K. A. Doore

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The final volume in K. A. Doore’s critically-acclaimed assassin fantasy series, praised by Publishers Weekly as “a hit with fans of Sarah J. Maas and George R.R. Martin” (starred review)

Seven years have passed since the Siege—a time when the hungry dead had risen—but the memories still haunt Illi Basbowen. Though she was trained to be an elite assassin, now the Basbowen clan act as Ghadid’s militia force protecting the resurrected city against a growing tide of monstrous guul that travel across the dunes.

Illi’s worst fears are confirmed when General Barca arrives, bearing news that her fledgling nation, Hathage, also faces this mounting danger. In her search for the source of the guul, the general exposes a catastrophic secret hidden on the outskirts of Ghadid.

To protect her city and the realm, Illi must travel to Hathage and confront her inner demons in order to defeat a greater one—but how much can she sacrifice to protect everything she knows from devastation?

Please enjoy this excerpt of The Unconquered City, on sale 06/16/2020.


1

The wind cut like broken glass across Illi’s cheeks, cold and biting and sharp. The carriage thrummed beneath her feet as she and her cousins soared down and away from the bright warmth of the platforms toward the shifting and treacherous sands below. Her eyes watered with the speed. She blinked away the useless tears; she needed to see what was coming.

This time over a dozen guul had emerged from the Wastes. The drums had cut through Illi’s dreams and raced her through the streets, across bridges and platforms, to meet up with her other cousins still bleary with sleep, but strapping on their belts, their swords, their knives. Or, in Dihya’s case, her machete.

Illi leaned against the carriage railing and picked out the guul below, little more than dark blemishes on the sand. Beside her, Zarrat grunted, a stray curl of dark hair escaping from his tagel. “They always look so small.” He held up a hand and brought his forefinger and thumb together. “Like I could just squish ’em.” Yaluz leaned next to Zarrat, but still managed to tower above everyone else in the carriage. Once, Yaluz had been the smallest and the fastest of Illi’s cousins. But after the healers had bal- anced out his blood, he’d grown long and angular. “If only it were that easy.”

Zarrat glanced at Yaluz. “What—I thought you enjoyed this.”

“I do,” said Yaluz. “But I’d enjoy it more if the guul’d had the decency to wait until I’d woke up properly and had my tea.”

“You could’ve stayed back with Hamma,” said Illi. “Four of us is more than enough.”

“What, and miss out on all the fun?” Yaluz’s eyes crinkled in a grin above his tagel. “Yeah but no. It’s just the decency of the situation I take issue with.”

Decency.” Dihya snorted. “Just be glad the call wasn’t at mid- night.”

“Oh, I would’ve been awake at midnight.”

“What in all the sands were you doing awake then?” Azhar sounded faintly horrified.

“Now what isn’t quite the right question—”

But before Yaluz could finish, the carriage hit the pole with a resounding clank and shuddered to a stop. Illi tightened her grip on the railing to keep her balance, then swung open the carriage gate and dropped the foot or so to the sands. Her cousins followed, a series of soft thumps right behind her as they landed on the ground. Before the carriage stopped swaying, Dihya hit the cable three times with the flat of her machete. A moment later, the ropes on the sides of the carriage went taut and it zipped back upward.

Illi rubbed her hands together, trying to bring feeling back to her cold-numbed fingers. It was only the beginning of winter, but this close to dawn the cold was at its sharpest. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, which was already stiff with snot.

Dihya’s way of keeping warm was to toss her machete from one hand to the other. “Watchmen said thirteen guul, right?”

Illi nodded. “Two each for you and five for me.”

“Hey, you can’t keep all the fun to yourself,” whined Zarrat. Illi shot him a grin full of teeth. “Then you’d better keep up.”

“Yeah we’ll see about that.” Zarrat fidgeted with his sword, glancing back up the cable. “First one who takes out a guuli gets a round from the rest of us.”

“Thanks,” said Illi. “For what?”

“For the round.”

Zarrat groaned and Dihya slapped him on the back with a laugh. “You walked right into that one, Zar.”

Azhar chewed her bottom lip, her already pale features some- how paler. She’d pulled her fine dark hair back into a tight bun, but she kept running her fingers through it, and now strands of hair floated free, softening her otherwise sharp features. “Is no one else worried that there’s so many this time?”

Silence was her answer. Illi peered up the cable as her cousins shifted uncomfortably. Thirteen was a lot. Thirteen was three more than they’d ever fought at one time. But Illi wasn’t worried about that; she and her cousins were more than enough against the guul.

The bellow of an unhappy camel cut the silence. A heartbeat later, the cable thrummed as it caught the weight and motion of the carriage once more. It was both mere moments and yet hours before the carriage returned, now bearing their mounts.

Then all worries were lost in a flurry of motion; there was no more time left to waste. Illi was the first to help her camel off the carriage. She checked its lead, tucked her soft leather charm beneath her wrap—even with all the guul about, they still had to worry about something as banal as wild jaan—then swung up. Zarrat started to call to her, but she’d already given her camel a hard kick and now leaned forward over its neck as it surged into motion.

Her braids beat a rhythm against her back in time with the camel’s loping stride. She tightened her grip on her sword hilt. Ahead, the dim, morning gray of the sands gave way and she could finally see her marks: a spread of dark blotches that soon resolved into erratic, unnatural monsters. Behind, her cousins fell in and caught up. All around, camel feet thudded like so many drumbeats.

Illi didn’t have to pick her mark. One veered away from its pack and charged on a course to meet her. The guuli was a mess of collected parts it had scavenged from corpses. Sun-bleached bones stuck out from its back like spines. Feathers and scales patterned its body as a vulture’s beak screamed angry recriminations at her.  But worse than any of those was the human skull  it wore like a mask. Eyes like coals burned in the deep sockets, slicing her bravery into ribbons.

She’d been hunting guul for years now, but they never ceased to send a thrill of fear down her spine. Fear—and resolve. The guul would have to get through her and her cousins if they wanted Ghadid.

Illi squeezed her knees tight and leaned forward as far as she dared. She yanked her camel to the side at the last moment. The guuli’s talons flickered and caught only air. Illi’s sword caught its neck. The human skull flew free, hit the sand. Its too-bright eyes flared like twin lanterns, but they didn’t go out. Illi could feel the guuli’s hate-filled glare as she yanked her camel around and into the path of the next monster.

But before she could reach the guuli, another camel cut her off. Yaluz swung his curved sword and the guuli’s head went fly- ing, its body collapsing to the sand. Yaluz pulled his camel paral- lel to Illi’s so they were charging alongside each other.

“That one was mine!” shouted Illi.

Yaluz’s only answer was a victorious smile.

To the right, Dihya cut down another guuli with her machete. To the left, Azhar chased down a guuli that was fleeing back west. Ahead, Zarrat let out a loud whoop as he circled his camel around a corpse. Illi was falling behind.

Illi flicked her lead and she and Yaluz broke off and curved back toward the city and the remaining guul. Ghadid loomed ahead, its metal pylons splitting the sky like stalks of grain in a glasshouse, straight and tall and strong. But unlike grain, each of these pylons was topped by a circular platform, which in turn held the stones and life that made up the city. Up there were all the people she was protecting, all the people that relied on her and her cousins to keep them safe. From guul, from bandits— and from themselves.

The sun flickered through those stalks, having just peeked above the horizon. The light dazzled her eyes and made it harder to pick out the hunched, loping forms of the remaining guul, made it more difficult to judge the distance between her and her next mark.

Then the guuli was all but under her camel’s feet. It gargled a cry and swiped claws short but sharp as razors. Her camel roared. Bucked. Illi’s knees lost their grip and she flew. She hit the ground with an oof. Grains of sand flew up her nose and into her open mouth. The wind blew more sand into her ears and eyes. Illi tightened her grip on her sword, but her fingers only closed on air. The sword was no longer in her hand.

A growl. Illi pushed herself up. Her camel was galloping back to Ghadid and safety, but it hadn’t gotten too far. She might still catch it. That was, if it weren’t for the guuli between them. This one had a shattered hip bone in lieu of shoulders and dry, tattered skin still stuck to it in patches. Its head had been taken from a gazelle. Horns as long as Illi’s arms twisted out of the skull.

A glint of metal was the only sign of her sword, a full camel’s length behind the guuli and half buried under the sand. The guuli lowered its head, too-long horns pointed at Illi’s chest. Illi checked her belt but all she had was a small dagger. The guuli charged.

Illi jumped to the side, slashing at the guuli with her dag- ger, but she might as well have spit at the monster. The guuli continued past, its momentum carrying it a few more feet before it could turn. Illi glanced at her sword, still out of reach. She’d have to chance it, though. Even if she could hurt the guuli with her dagger, only the sword could bind it.

She lunged. The guuli charged again. She heard the clack of its bones and the thin growl in its chest as it came for her. Her feet slipped through sand. The sword was still impossibly far. She wasn’t going to reach her weapon in time.

And then—a flash of green. A grunt. A wet sound. Of flesh.

Of blood.

The guuli never reached Illi.

She picked up her sword and turned but it was too late. Yaluz was between Illi and the guuli. His own sword dropped from limp fingers as a dark stain spread across the back of his wrap. A piece of white stuck out of the stain’s center: the guuli’s horn. Yaluz groaned and folded forward as his knees gave out from under him. The wind swept the coppery tang of blood to Illi.

Somebody  screamed.  Illi  wasn’t  sure  if  it  was  her  or  Yaluz. Her ears rang and her vision narrowed. It was happening again, it was happening again. She’d watched her cousin Ziri die the same way, gutted by a dead man with a spear. And now she was going to lose Yaluz.

But no—no she wasn’t. Illi forced herself to focus. The horn hadn’t gone through Yaluz’s middle, but his side. He could live. He would live.

The guuli’s horn was stuck. The monster tugged, jerking Yaluz back with it. The guuli’s hands came up, covering Yaluz’s head as if in an embrace, but Illi knew it meant to snap his neck. She wasn’t about to let that happen.

She freed a dagger from her belt with shaking fingers and sighted along the blade’s edge. Two steps back and a half turn. She breathed out. Threw. The dagger caught the guuli’s upper arm. With a shriek, the guuli let go of Yaluz’s head, but he was still stuck to its horn. Yaluz let out a low moan. He was still alive. As long as Illi could get to him and stabilize him, he’d survive. First, she had to remove the guuli.

The sand sucked at Illi’s feet, but she fought to cross the dis- tance between her and the guuli, trailing curses behind her. The monster pulled the dagger from its arm and tossed it away. Illi slid the last few feet and raised her sword. She brought it down hard. The blade bit through bone and flesh and something else, something sticky and resistant. The words carved into the blade’s metal flared with darkness, and cold bit into her fingers, deeper than winter. Illi held tight and then the blade was through and the guuli’s body fell away.

Unsupported, Yaluz sank to his knees. His fingers scrabbled at the horn piercing his side, but they slipped through blood, unable to gain purchase. His breathing was ragged and uneven and his wrap was torn. Illi kicked the guuli’s body out of her way and grabbed its severed head by the base of its skull. She pulled.

Yaluz screamed. The horn came out by a few inches, then all at once. Illi fell back, hitting the sand with the skull held in front of her. Its bright eyes met her gaze, unblinking. Disgusted, Illi tossed the skull away. She scrambled across the sand to Yaluz, trying and failing and trying again to unhook her water skin from her belt.

Yaluz’s wrap was soaked with blood, turning it from a vibrant green to a sickly brown. His breathing was shallow and strained, but Illi didn’t mark any gurgle or sounds of wetness. So his lungs hadn’t been pierced. But other organs might have been, which was secondary to the amount of blood Yaluz was currently pumping onto the sand. Already his soil-dark skin had an unhealthy gray sheen.

Illi dropped her sword and undid the knot of her water skin with trembling fingers. Dust, there was so much blood. She’d watched people bleed out from wounds both shallow and deep, and yet the amount of blood a body could hold always surprised her. She used a dagger to tear a long, wide strip from her wrap and pulled Yaluz’s wrap back. The fabric was already growing stiff with dried blood, but more blood just kept pumping out. She peeled the fabric away layer by layer until she reached skin. She wadded up one of the pieces of fabric into a ball and applied pressure to the wound.

It wouldn’t be enough. Yaluz’s eyes fluttered, now open and watching, now closed. He was fighting to stay conscious and los- ing. Time was hissing past and if Illi didn’t do something, now, Yaluz wouldn’t make it to the carriage, let alone to a real healer. He had to live, he had to, if only so Illi could berate him later for trying to save her.

Illi poured water into her palm, but she was shaking so badly that she spilled half of it. Yaluz sighed and closed his eyes. His breath rasped and hitched and his fingers twitched and—

Smoke stuck in Illi’s nose, burning through the stench of death. The stones were warm beneath her hands. Distantly, she heard yells, cries, and screams. Illi bent over another body, this one  already  dead.  Illi  hadn’t  been  fast  enough  and  now  those open eyes stared at her, an unblinking accusation. Illi closed those eyes. Stood.

Or at least, tried to stand.

The body spasmed. The fingers twitched, closed around her wrist. The eyes opened, but they were lifeless and glazed. The corpse dragged itself upright, a hiss gurgling in its throat. It wrapped its fingers around her neck.

Illi screamed. She kept screaming even as she remembered where she was—on the sands, far from that night of horror, safe, safe, safe

An arm wrapped around her chest and pulled her close. “Shh.

It’s okay. You’re okay. Breathe, Illi. Breathe. Be here.

The scream fizzled and died. Illi gasped for breath. She wanted to turn and bury her head in her savior’s chest, to let the fabric of their wrap muffle the world for a few precious seconds. But she didn’t have a few seconds. Yaluz needed her. Illi couldn’t let her cousin die because he’d been stupid enough to try and save her. She pushed the arm away.

“I have to—”

She looked up into honey-warm eyes and a broad face: Dihya. Her features had softened, but the grim severity would always be there, etched into the lines of her face by that same night seven years ago that was etched into Illi’s mind. Dihya had lost every- thing, too. Yet here she was, not falling apart. Why couldn’t Illi be that strong?

Deep breath. Focus. Yaluz needed her. Illi poured water into her palm and this time it didn’t spill. She breathed out and with the ease of years of practice, pushed all her thoughts away. It was just her, the water, and Yaluz. She closed her eyes and, with more than just her hands, reached out.

She felt the wound in Yaluz’s side like a gap in a weave. Natural-born and more experienced healers would have been able to close that gap, but Illi’s healing was as clumsy as a novice’s, even after years of practice. All she could do was stop the bleed- ing. That would have to be enough.

She opened her eyes. The water in her palm was gone. A blue haze still lingered on her arms and across Yaluz’s chest, but that vanished in another heartbeat. She met Dihya’s gaze.

Dihya stooped and picked Yaluz up, cradling him like a baby. “I’ll take him back,” she said. “You get those last guul.”

She didn’t wait for Illi’s response. Dihya turned, found the nearest cable, and started running, feet sinking deep into the sand with each step. Illi always envied Dihya’s strength and speed, but now she was also jealous of her cousin’s ability to keep it together. Not once in their years fighting the guul had Illi ever seen Dihya lose her composure. Not like Illi just had.

Illi took a deep breath, willing the shaking in her hands to cease. She stood and picked out the remaining guul. She wasn’t finished yet. She’d never be finished, not until every last guuli had been quieted. And the Wastes were yet full of them.

So until then—

Illi pulled herself back onto her camel and marked the nearest guuli. It never saw her coming.

Copyright © 2020 by K. A. Doore

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