The World of Ruin is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. A massive magical war ravaged the world millennia ago, and the few humans who survived buried themselves in fortresses hidden beneath the earth. They emerged after centuries set out in the Prophecy of Return to a world full of monsters, barbarians, and hardships. The few civilized men and women erected Mage-Cities that have gradually fallen, one by one, to the ravages of Ruin, until finally only one remains: Tar Vangr, the City of Steel. It stands in the frozen north, a last bastion of civilization against a world on the verge of collapse.
Game of Thrones meets Fallout by way of Assassin's Creed: epic, full-metal fantasy in a broken world spiraling into its own doom, torn apart by political rivalry, besieged by death-mad barbarians, and polluted by the irresponsible use of magic. It is a new dark age in the making, and one that is not so far from our own world.
Erik Scott De Bie is best known for his contributions to the inedible Forgotten Realms universe but he is also is an author whose solo works and writing caught my eye. They promised a dark universe remiscent of R.A. Salvatore and the stunning character work of Final Fantasy. Did I mention he's also a well-known game designer, with work in the Dungeons & Dragons universe?
All of that experience came together in his novel Shadow of the Winter King, because I received all that I desired and more – an epic universe superbly crafted and full of magic, darkness, adventure, swords, and wizards. Did I forget to mention? The World Of Ruins series also has a post-apocalyptic bent that brings the darkness in spades. Get ready for a setting and a novel that will give you chills and thrills. – Terah Edun
Great fantasy stories are less about dragons and castles and spells than they are about great characters, people who leap into life off the page and make us care about them, and want to know what happens next.
Then the magic swords and sinister castles, the skyships and pirates and dark secrets become delicious icing on the cake.
SHADOW OF THE WINTER KING has all of these things, and witty repartee, and web upon tangled web of intrigues, and a desperate fight for the future of a darkening world, too. Or rather, lots of fights.
Or to put it another way, this one has it all. And a generous handful of characters I want to meet again, in many sequels to this one.
Lovers of fantasy, this one's a new epic.– Ed Greenwood, Creator of the Forgotten Realms, Best-Selling Author
SHADOW OF THE WINTER KING reminds me a bit of Rothfuss's THE NAME OF THE WIND. Both are complex ruminations on political and personal duty, which are more realistic than cut-and-dried good-versus-evil stories . . .The world-building is superior, the narrative moves forward with good momentum, and the story regularly poses interesting questions.– Peter de Smidt, Amazon Reviewer
Hold on and don't blink, you don't want to miss anything in this book. Really great story, fresh characters. Love knowing I'm not going to be reading the same old crap with Erik Scott de Bie.– Erica B, Amazon Reviewer
Five Years Previous—the Burning Man Tavern—Ruin's Eve, 976 Sorcerus Annis
Sizzling rain cut into the Burned Man's roof. The corroded metal held for now, but in time it would buckle under the acidic rain and collapse in a great sigh of surrender. Such was the way of Ruin.
At the table in the corner, the King's Shadow sheltered under his gray cloak and cut a ribbon of golden wood from a carved jackal that fit in his palm. The artistry that went into such a delicate piece was impressive, honed over decades of service to the City of Winter. Its snout curled almost in a smile, after the fashion of that beast, but he did not share its mirth. The figure was nearly finished, as was the task for which he had made it. He focused upon its rough fangs and let his mind and senses wander free.
Paeter Ravalis sat across the way, flushed and swollen, bristling with the red hair that marked his Blood. Around the crown prince sat four of his boon companions, lesser lordlings of weaker Bloods allied with the Ravalis: Saras, Rolan, Vortusk, and one he did not recognize. They had employed about a dozen fresh-faced lads and lasses for hire to blanket their laps and table in young, smooth flesh. It was hardly strange on a fate-cursed Ruin's Night to spend the darkness in revelry and celebration of continuing life. In hiding from Ruin on its own night, the living indulged in all those things that the Children of Ruin feared, and love was one such. The lordlings were pleased, one and all, but for Paeter Ravalis.
His smile once had commanded legions, but Paeter scowled more these days than he smiled. Perhaps a part of his once keen mind recognized how far he had fallen: a warrior prince become a beast, lounging among slaves and ale. The wrinkles edging his eyes that many had once thought intriguing had become sagging folds of weathered skin. Beneath his jaw, a livid ridge of scar glowed in the ruddy candlelight along the left side of his throat. Paeter would find no love this night, and from his face, perhaps he knew it. Outwardly, he cared nothing for his crumbling world, but inwardly, he was in pain.
Regel Frostburn—the King's Shadow—nursed a tankard of ale and watched through his expanded awareness. He took in the minutiae of Paeter's presence: his appearance, his depth of drink, which saleable flesh he eyed most. No—this was not even honest prostitution. The Ravalis had introduced slavery to Tar Vangr, and treated all who lacked a name as bodies they either owned or had yet to purchase. Even those who had bought a name through good works or earned one through bold action meant little in the Ravalis' eyes, and Paeter was the most contemptuous of the Blood. He insulted, belittled, and took anyone he wanted without consequence.
Regel's hands trembled, and he told himself he had come not to kill a man so much as put down an animal. A rabid jackal.
It was not long before the red-haired lordling selected one of the slaves to take upstairs: a blonde stickling who wore childish timidity like a mantle. She had a forgettable peasant's face, but her pale hair and her age reminded Regel of his beloved Lenalin—as she had been when Paeter murdered her.
Ten years, Regel thought. Ten years, and so he honors her.
Pity for the slave coiled in Regel's heart but he forced it away so he could focus. He counted their steps: twenty on the stairs, eight on the landing above. Regel heard the slave's nervous voice, and Paeter's deeper, commanding reply. A door opened and closed.
The memory came to him of Ovelia from not three hours earlier. He saw her, naked and pleading, her taut body framed against the sweaty, black-sheeted bed. He hated her, yes, but also—far more—he hated what this man had done to her.
"How many, Prince?" he asked under his breath. "How many must you take from me?"
He closed his hand around the jackal figurine and put it back in his belt pouch. He had needed it to feel out the room for a waiting snare. Now, he needed to feel nothing at all.
Regel counted to one hundred before he made his way up the stairs. The other powder-nosed noble scions were too interested in their wine and company to notice an old man shambling off to bed.
As he reached the floor above, he put his hand on the hilt of his ancient sword, shaped in the scythe-curved falcat style. The tales named the blade Frostburn, forged of steel so cold it seared flesh from bone. The magic was real enough: he felt the familiar chill within, drinking life from his flesh. Crafted for harvest, the Deathless called this blade—for reaping the yield of Summer. And that was exactly what it would do this night.
"Let this be the last life this steel ends," he prayed. "Let his be the last."
Upstairs, Regel could hear the slave weeping loudly enough to fill the hall. He slipped a dagger through the jamb of Paeter's latched door and lifted. The door creaked open.
Paeter stood over the slave in the middle of the room. In the years since Lenalin's death, much of the lordling's once impressive collection of muscles had gone to fat and wild red hair bristled in patches along his limbs. He was mostly nude, and Regel could see—with some satisfaction—that the brutish prince could not stand to the task at hand. He would be impotent in life and in death.
Instead, Paeter held aloft a weapon far more dangerous: his dueling sword, which he dangled over the cowering slave. A red slash cut across her cheek, dripping blood.
"Here's coin for you," he slurred. "Coin for all of you!"
There was no time for a proper challenge, and in truth, Regel was grateful. Letting his mind fall still, he darted across the room and smashed his elbow into the side of Paeter's head. The bigger man reeled three paces and collapsed to the floor.
Regel thought he had never stuck such a satisfying blow.
A whimpering sound reminded him of the slave Paeter had brought into that room. Blood streaked down her face from where the prince had cut it open, but her gray eyes were wide and attentive. There was power in those eyes. Fire. Her thin-lipped mouth seemed drawn inward in thought as she watched him, fascinated.
"No fear." Regel dropped to one knee and reached for the slave, but she cringed. He looked down at his black-gloved hand, a touch of sadness in his heart. He withdrew.
"Kill you..." Paeter half-rose, eyes red with drink and anger. "Kill..." His eyes rolled and he slumped back to the floor.
"Unlikely," Regel said.
The wounded slave drew in a sharp breath when Regel looked at her but did not otherwise flee. There was fear in her eyes, but strength too. Perhaps, as Paeter would be his blade's last victim... perhaps he could find a new path. They both could.
Regel's leather gloves creaked as he released the hilt of his blade. He held up two fingers. "There are two moments where a man is weakest. The first is when he takes a lover. You will remember?"
Her face showed first confusion, then a wary understanding. She nodded slightly.
"I am not here to free you," Regel said, "but you may free yourself if you will it so."
She nodded again, wide-eyed.
"You will say nothing of this." Regel knelt and put a pouch of coins into her left hand. "Walk out of this place and do not return. Do you understand?"
"What if—?" Her voice was soft but steady. "What if someone stops me?"
"None will stop you. You'll not let them." He drew a short knife from his belt, put it in her right hand, and curled her fingers around it. "Do you have a name, child?"
Marveling at the beautiful steel in her hand, she shook her head. Of course she had no name. Most of the poor of Tar Vangr had not earned one. She looked up, expectant, but he shook his head.
"It is not for me to name you. If you would have a name, you must name yourself."
"Serris," she said, her voice soft and crackling like embers. "For the angel."
Paeter moaned and swore. His wits were returning, and Regel knew the time had come for him to conclude his night's business.
"A fitting name," he said. "I will see you marked as well."
"I... I already have a mark." She reached up to the slash on her cheek. "Given me by a prince. You have a greater name than his?"
"No." Regel noted her obvious wits: to know the Crown Prince of Tar Vangr was no mean feat for a slave who had likely never set foot outside low-city. "Then you are named and marked. I take you for my Squire, Angel Serris, and I will be your Master, if you will have me."
She looked surprised, but not displeased. What he had proposed to this girl he had just met was a great intimacy and responsibility. She would be his Blood in all but name, and her life would be his responsibility until such time as she broke with him. He asked as much of her as he offered, but he knew he had not erred.
"You may not have a greater name." Her eyes locked on his. "But you are a greater man."
Regel nodded. "Now walk away. If the Old Gods smile, we shall meet again."
Silently, Serris disappeared out the door, glancing back over her shoulder at the last.
"How... dare you."
Regel turned slowly, watching Paeter Ravalis trying to climb to his knees. Slowly, Regel touched the hilt of his curved blade. It was a weapon of another world—of another time.
The man spat and mewled, his eyes wild. "You have no right to touch me, Denerre's dog!" His mouth frothed. "Beg forgiveness and I'll kill you before my father hears of this. Count it a mercy."
Regel drew Frostburn, bathing the room in the weird light of its wavy blue steel. His hand prickled as the blade sucked at the warmth from his arm. "Get up," he said.
"You think you have the advantage, don't you?" Paeter felt at the blood running from his face, and it made him smile. He tore open his tunic, revealing a red jackal tattooed across his flabby flesh, through which ran three scratches. "You've drawn my blood, and now it will prove your end."
Regel stiffened, but he sensed no attack coming. Had pain and drink driven Paeter mad?
Nothing happened for a long moment, and Paeter blinked down at the blood on his hand. Realization dawned on his face, then turned to anger. "That treacherous filth. He lied to me."
Regel didn't know what Paeter meant and didn't care. "Get up," he said again.
"You think you frighten me, old man? You and your fairy steel?" Paeter wiped his mouth, then tapped the scar on his left throat. "You didn't kill me ten years ago, and you won't kill me now. And how well that blade will look on my trophy wall—beside the portrait of that whore, Lenalin. Even after I shoved the whore through a mirror—and oh, she made a hideous corpse!" Paeter grinned wide. "Even then, you didn't kill me. You are a coward, Frostburn."
Regel held his sword high, cutting the space between them. The torchlight shimmered along its ever-sharp edge, which stood along the inside of the curve. He had to kill Paeter, if only to stop him speaking of Lenalin. The monster did not even bother to deny his guilt in her death.
"Get up," he said for a third time. "There is no honor in killing a man on his knees."
"You are ardent. You truly mean to kill me?" Paeter laughed and ran his fingers through his sweaty red hair. He got to his feet and drew his sword up clumsily from the floor. "You are a fool, then, if you think you are a match for the finest swordsman in Tar Vangr—in Luether—in all of Old Calatan."
Regel called upon the Old Gods to bless Frostburn's aim. He was not the sword's first wielder, and neither would he be the last. The strength of centuries filled him, burning fit to match his hatred.
"And even if you could kill me, you would not," Paeter said. "I am the heir of Ravalis, and the future king of Tar Vangr. Touch me, and you destroy all you love. I am the man you cannot kill."
"You are not a man but a beast." Heart thudding in his throat, Regel held his hand firm. "No man would do what you did to... her." He could not speak her name, for then he would lose all control.
"I see." A cloud passed over Paeter's eyes, and a wicked smile curled his face. He raised his sword. "Whose honor do you avenge, King's Shadow? Is it Lenalin or Ovelia—my whore or yours?" He snickered. "Do not answer. They are both my—"
Regel lunged forward and blew the life from Paeter in a single blow.
The strike cut open Paeter's neck so deeply it almost took off the man's head. Paeter's body slammed into the wall. It spun and seemed as if it might stay standing, then slumped to the floor. The corpse jerked and twitched in a widening crimson pool.
Paeter Ravalis died pitifully, just as Regel had wanted.
"Make it swift and ignoble," the Winter King had said earlier that eve, when he'd sent forth his Shadow. "Though do not be cruel. Despite his works, he is a prince of the realm."
Paeter Ravalis had become a corpse now, and held as little relevance as a haunch of meat. He had begun his path to Ruin long before he had ever met the King's Shadow, long before he had murdered his wife, and long before that lonely, sad night in the Burned Man, as his lifeblood ceased to flow.
Regel looked down at the chill blade balanced lazily in his hand. "Let this be the last life I take by this blade," he prayed. "No more King's Shadow—no more Regel Frostburn. Let me take a new name."
Cold teased up his arm from the hungry sword. He fought it back with a firm purpose.
"For you, Lena," he murmured. "For you."
Even as he said it, he found himself thinking not of Lenalin—his perfect, silver-haired princess, dead these ten years—but of Ovelia. He saw again her pleading eyes, her rough fingers, and her warm lips. He felt again his heart squeezing as though it would break under the strain.
Footsteps on the stairs broke his reverie. Paeter's lordlings, come to investigate the sound of their master crashing to the floor. Regel sighed. He drew the figurine from his pouch—a jackal for a jackal—and dropped it onto the corpse that had been Paeter Ravalis.
He was out the window of the Burned Man before the door burst open.
As cries of "Murder!" rang in his ears, Regel skittered spider-like up the mountain wall of the palace, trying to slow his raging heart. He could no longer hear the accusations, but only the wind that sang of his victory, so long overdue.
He drove his fingers into a handhold and pulled himself to the next, shoulders corded with effort. Breath came hard as he worked, so he found a perching dragon, wedged his calves inside, and leaned back to rest and gulp down the cold mountain air that rushed through his hair, chapped hands hanging. Thirty years had passed since he had first made this climb, and he had grown no younger in that time.
A thousand feet below him, low-city sparkled with a night sky's worth of candles burning in thousands of windows. From this distance, Tar Vangr looked peaceful, even though he knew the watch would be storming house to house, searching for the murderer of Paeter Ravalis. Fitting, he supposed, that he had dealt Paeter's death on this night of all nights. Doom stalked the streets on Ruin's Night, the last night of the year, visiting death and destruction where it wished.
He had ridden a skylift most of the way up to the palace, but ultimately he'd had to duck Ravalis guards at the gates. They were out in force, and had even rounded up ironclads to guard high-city for Ruin's Night. Any other route—even killing the guards, regardless of armament—would have been easier than the climb, but the effort quieted the fierce joy and anger that warred in his heart. Scaling the mountain gave him a chance to be alone and think.
Regel felt it before he heard it: stone trembled and cracked under his feet. He lunged out and caught himself on the dragon's wing, then leaped from there to the carved slit of a window. The dragon itself broke away from the mountain and tumbled down over low-city. Regel remembered the jackal figurine, falling on Paeter's body. The stone beast shattered into rubble on a lower ridge.
The whole city was falling apart, as Ruin encroached outside the walls.
Regel flexed his arms, swung about, and alighted on a high balcony that looked out over low-city and the bay. As a nameless child climbing and skulking in the passages beneath the palace, he had delighted in his skill. The palace had been his world, and these stones his kingdom. Now, as a man, he was tired and wanted nothing more than to find a warm place to rest.
He thought of the king. "We are all of us old men," he said to no one.
The darkness of Ruin's Night whispered in reply, but he thought that just the wind. Either way, it chilled him.
Before that night, Regel had expected to feel righteous or at least justified. Finally, Orbrin had loosed his hand, and Regel had avenged the only woman he had ever loved. Finally, Princess Semana was old enough to rule on her own without Paeter, and depriving her of her wretch of a father seemed like a service. Finally, the Blood of Winter could break free of these damned Ravalis of the summerblood.
So why did he feel no warm elation, but only cold dread?
Then Regel saw something afire in the ice-choked harbor. Ships were making their way toward burning hunks of metal that lay strewn across the harbor: the wreck of a crashed skyship.
Regel's stomach lurched. This very eve, Princess Semana had been returning to the city by skyship.
It took a moment for the horror to strike him—a moment wherein his chest heaved in increasing panic and he almost lost his grip on the window. He knew, with a frenzied, mad certainty, that something had gone terribly wrong this night, in part by his own hand.
Then he saw it: a dark shape framed against the moon, flying toward the king's balcony above. Not a bird, he thought—a man.
Heedless of the deadly drop below, Regel leaped up the outside wall and caught one of the nearly invisible handholds he'd cut years ago. He climbed, racing the flying man, and swung up over the banister onto the main balcony just as he landed. Inner light through the stained glass of the palace window cast scintillating colors over the two figures.
Before Regel stood a spindly creature wrapped toe to crown in black leather. Its arms and legs—the latter trailing smoke in the wake of the flight—looked more like black-swathed bones than the limbs of a living thing. It wore mismatched gauntlets: one of fire-blasted metal with talons, one a more elegant construction of silver and iron. Its face hid behind a leather mask that covered its head entirely, leaving only small slits for eyes and mouth. Regel might have thought the creature a manikin, but for the way its eyes flicked to him beneath the mask. The moonlight made the eyes seem blood red.
Regel knew this creature and his murderous powers. Frostburn was instantly in his hands, filling him with a cold hunger. "Mask," he said.
The sorcerer considered him a moment, as though pondering his presence. In his left hand, he held what looked like a hempen rope soaked in blood. "Regel, King's Shadow," he said, his voice both sibilant and rough-shod, like a snake slithering through jagged glass. "I always knew it would be you."
Regel found the words odd, but a surge of anger drowned out all thought. The ravings of a lunatic could not be credited. "What are you doing here?"
Mask hesitated a moment. "I slay the Blood of Winter this night—what of you?"
He thought of the destroyed skyship he'd seen in the harbor. "It was you," he said. "You crashed the Heiress. You..." He raised Frostburn. "You killed Semana."
He could not read Mask's expression, of course, but the sorcerer hesitated. "Why would you care? Were you not here to kill the king, slayer? Do you not kill all that you swear to love, by your hand or another's?"
Then Mask tossed the gory rope to the stone between them, and Regel knew it for what it was: a sticky mass of hair. It was Semana's silver-white braid, smeared with half-congealed blood.
Rage welling, Regel tensed to spring, but a cry from the throne room broke his concentration. His eyes flickered to the window for an instant, and something struck him from Mask's direction—sickly green magic that flared around the slayer's mask and surged forth to saturate him like a flood. His body felt hard as bone under Mask's power, every muscle afire. His insides churned and air would not come. He coughed, spattering the stones with blackish blood. He fell, nerveless beyond his inner agony, face turned so he could see into the throne room.
A score of guardsmen stood in a circle, weapons drawn, frozen. There, in the center of the ring, knelt King Orbrin, leaning against Ovelia. Regel thought at first that they were embracing, and found it strange. She was devoted to him, yes, but that embrace was too intimate—like that of a child and parent, or even that of lovers. Then she pulled away, and her sword wrenched free of Orbrin's chest. Blood smeared across her face. For a moment, her hazel eyes wet and gleaming, she gazed out at them—at him. Then she saluted with her bloody sword.
The guardsmen roared a chorus of anger and charged her.
Regel heard a sound like a choked gasp. Mask was looking into the throne room, hand at his obscured mouth. Was that laughter?
Then the creature strode away and leaped from the balcony to take flight.
The magic wracking Regel's body subsided, but he was too weak to move, too weak to defend his king or even himself.
The scalding rain returned, sliding across his face like burning tears as he lay helpless as a corpse.