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Dead Country

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Dead Country

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Author: Max Gladstone
Publisher: Publishing, 2023
Series: The Craft Wars: Book 1

1. Dead Country
2. Wicked Problems

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Since her village chased her out with pitchforks, Tara Abernathy has resurrected gods, pulled down monsters, averted wars, and saved a city, twice. She thought she'd left her dusty little hometown forever. But that was before her father died.

As she makes her way home to bury him, she finds a girl, as powerful and vulnerable and lost as she once was. Saving her from raiders twisted by the God Wars, Tara changes the course of the world.

Dead Country is the first book in the Craft Wars Series, a tight sequence of novels that will bring the sprawling saga of the Craft to its end, and the perfect entry point to this incomparable world.



Tara walked out of the Badlands to her father's funeral, trailing memories and dust.

The last stars failed and the sky hung blue above her and the ground cracked underfoot. She kept to the path, a sunbaked run- off trench left by the thunderstorms that scoured the land each season. Black-green moss clustered in the shade of the rocks be- side the trench. The moss grew slowly and did tender work, turn- ing the bones of the world to something livable. One false step could erase a century of progress, so Tara followed paths already destroyed.

Years ago, after the Hidden Schools kicked her out, she had followed this same path, half-blind and half-dead, caked with sand and her own blood and the blood of the carrion birds she'd caught and killed to make it through the desert, home, to Edge- mont. Home to the town she'd run away from, years and a lifetime before.

She had left an eager angry witch-girl, drunk on sweet hope and intimations of power that would have soured if she stayed. She had returned a sorceress and a shell, betrayed by her teachers and by the world of Craft she'd hoped to master. They used her and cast her out, but she refused to die.

She had walked across the flats for weeks, alone. Each step hurt. She'd remembered that walk many times in the years since, in the life she'd built back east in the great metropolis of Alt Coulumb as a necromancer and counselor to gods. There, on the sidewalk, in her small apartment, in boardrooms and at cocktail bars, the memories felt safe, like a story that was over. She had told dates about this walk over drinks--she was bad at dates--told them how many miles she'd crossed, how she dealt with blisters, how she used to fake death to lure scavengers in reach of her hands and knife. Two Aviations into the night, she was tipsy enough to laugh about it all. She held the story as lightly as a student might hold the answer to a thaumaturgy problem she'd memorized off flash cards. Bloodless.

Her dates didn't take it the same way.

Here, now, with dirt shifting underfoot, the memories did not feel safe, did not even feel like memories: the agony of her raw throat, her cracking skin, her swollen tongue. In pain there had been a clarity of purpose. The desert was not dead. It was honest. Every- thing here--the cactus, that circling vulture above, the dune rat whose tracks she passed, the bugs that sang at dusk--moved to survive. Just like her.

Forward. Farther. In the end she'd made it home. To her family, who did not understand her but pretended they could. To a life she never understood, either.

Then the world took her up. The job offer came through. She left again.

And now her father was dead.


She had packed in a hurry. Clothes, toothbrush, tools of the trade, and, of course, the black folder tied with black string that she brought everywhere these days. The room was dark, as dark as Alt Coulumb ever was, the great city sprawled outside her window and the letter a moonlit ghost on her end table. Her mother's pen had worked the paper in fine angled whorls of measured black. If she turned on the light the ink would have had a color, but the light hurt her eyes.

Just that afternoon Tara had been helping Cat with mortgage paperwork. Cat, punchy after too much coffee and more sitting than she tended to do when she wasn't on stakeout, poked fun at Tara's handwriting, schoolhouse-mannered after all these years. Why can't you just scribble like a normal person?

Her mother was why.

When she got home, she found the letter waiting.

She felt sick when she saw it on the desk. She felt sick when she looked at the jackets, slacks, and shirts folded in her suitcase, between the little brightly colored organizers she had bought to keep her clothes from wrinkling, which she always used even though they never worked.

If she had to pack and make it to the airport by will alone, she would not have made her flight. But she wasn't a teenager any- more.

On the night she'd snuck away from home to join the caravan that would take her to the Hidden Schools and a life of sorcery, she'd held violent debates with herself about each object she might bring. Would this knife help more than that? How much dried meat would she need for the trail, which books? By the time she used, gods help her, a rope of knotted blankets to climb down from her bedroom window, she'd given more thought to her kit than most surgeons she had met in the years since gave to theirs.

She could pack by habit now. Habit had filled the suitcase, habit used those stupid brightly colored organizers, habit snatched the letter from the end table and stuffed it in her inside pocket without reading it again.

City lights burned too bright. She sat beside her suitcase and did not remember what was in it or how she'd reached the curb. She looked away from the moon, from Seril who was its goddess. The Silver Lady wanted to talk to her, but she did not want to talk back. Habit hailed a cab.

As Tara's cab passed the Ashen Quarter, something heavy landed on its roof, with as much delicacy as possible. The horse whinnied in terror; Tara pretended not to notice. When she looked down she realized that she'd clenched her hands into fists, and the glyphs cut into her arms were glowing.

A stone talon tapped the window.

"Go away, Shale," she said.

The talon reached down and opened the door, and limb by limb a lanky winged statue coiled himself into the cab. His furled wings pressed against Tara's shoulder. He watched her out of the corner of his faceted emerald eyes.

The first time she'd met Shale, in human disguise, she'd thought he was cute. Not long after, she had stabbed him in the stomach and cut off his face. He'd saved her life since, and she'd saved his, and somehow they'd ended up something quite like friends.

He said, "You don't have to tell me what's going on."

"I know."

"But whatever this is, you don't have to do it alone."

Shale's eyes were clear, brook-like, as if he'd never met a task that was not easy. She had seen him hurt. She had hurt him her- self. When he felt pain he showed it.

She shoved the letter toward him. Her grip crumpled the paper, already creased by its slow passage from hand to hand across a continent. He pressed it flat between his palms. Her mother's red wax seal winked as he opened the flap.

"I," she said, and stopped herself before her throat could betray her, and took a breath. "I should be gone a few days, a week at most. Can you tell--" Abelard and Cat and my ten o'clock and my one o'clock and, hells, tell all my appointments and tell Aev and tell that woman from the Two Serpents Group and Cardinal Bede and Matt and the Rafferty girls and Ms. K and Kos and, and Seril, and everyone, tell everyone, otherwise I'll spend the next year, the next rest of my life telling them my pa is--

His arm settled around her shoulders. His talon-tipped fingers were long as her forearms and his flesh was stone and his muscles steel, but there was a warmth to him and a weight greater than the weight of his body testing their carriage shocks. He was older than her. She always forgot that, because age hung so easily on him, while for her it was the muddying of a pool and the knotting of a body with scars.

But a goddess had carved him before the world was marred, and he had seen so many of his fellows die.

He got her to the airport. Habit took her across the dragon- bridge to her cabin, and the beating of great wings lulled her to an approximation of sleep, and late at night when the dragon's porter woke her to ask how she'd prefer to descend--they had opter- ans and balloons and short-flight Craftwork to let off passengers whose destinations fell outside their usual landing route--habit helped Tara wave off the porter's aid and roll her suitcase to the hatch.

The desert spread beneath, endless and unbroken as ever, stippled here and there with gnats of light.

Just like old times.

She stepped out of the hatch and fell.

Falling was the best teacher. The ground never lied to you.

Neither did the desert.

She lay coughing beneath the deep stars as the dragon flew west. Then she stood, slapped dirt off her suit, popped the handle of her rolling bag, and started to walk home.


Dawn came.

The sky was clear, save a dark smudge eastward, and the sun was vicious. Tara wished she'd brought a hat.

When she closed her eyes she saw the Badlands with a Crafts- woman's sight, all the outer lies peeled away to reveal the souls of the place and their relationships: a black expanse hung with loose dusty cobwebs of life, the tiny threads that were mice and cacti and insects, microorganisms in the soil, and that one circling vul- ture far up. A dry and lonesome sight. Back in Alt Coulumb, she could walk the streets with her eyes closed, guided by the light of the gathered masses' souls, by the obligations and contracts that bound them together. Life here was spread out, desperate, and small.

She followed the runoff bed east and south. Soon the Badlands would ease into scrubgrass herding country and then farmland, and she'd make the post road, and Edgemont by nightfall. Camel Bluffs rose dead behind her, and she could just see the Needles to the north, limestone formations worn vertical by ages. Around this bend and another mile along she should find Blake's Rest, four farmhouses and a few hundred goats near a brackish spring, settled by a bitter family who did not answer to the name Blake and claimed they'd never known anyone who would. Their cistern and the irrigation stonework bore ancient Quechal glyphs, so perhaps Blake's Rest was an echo of an echo of a lost name. She'd fill her canteen there and buy breakfast if they were selling.

Her suitcase wheel caught on a rock as she rounded the bend, and she cursed and knelt to set it right. When she looked up, she saw the smoke.


Impossible, was her first thought, before a calmer, older voice cut in. Ms. Kevarian's voice: her old mentor, her old boss. Don't trouble yourself with what's possible, Ms. Abernathy. Analysis proceeds from observation, not preconception. Even from this distance she could see blackened farmhouses still smoldering, the soil carbon-scored, rotting hoofprints torn in the yellowed grass.

Yes, the sun was up. Yes, Raiders seldom left such a wreck behind--Raiders preyed on settlements, they stole and menaced and killed, but you could not raid next month a farm you razed today. But the signs were right. Raiders, and recently.

She'd been so scared of them when she was a child: bandits infected with rotten misfired God Wars ordnance, half-shadow and half-bone, riding out of the dark wreathed in curses. They were villains in fireside stories at first. Later, when she began to explore her interest in the Craft, they were everything she'd feared she might become. The other kids used to chant rhymes in the village schoolyard, Raiders gonna call you, Raiders gonna get you, Raiders gonna turn you inside out.

She could walk on. This did not have to be her business. But the farm was burning, and she was not a scared child anymore. She had power, and she was bound to use it.

She left her suitcase behind a gnarled bush. She brought her purse. She wasn't dressed for this. Road dust streaked her char- coal suit. She shuffled sideways in her flats down the scrubgrown hill to the dry yellow plain that used to be pasture for the goats. Wind rolled back past her, out toward the Badlands. Grasshoppers ticked.

The farmers had built a rough stone wall around the pasture since she was last here. The Raiders had toppled it as they rode through. Dead goats lay scattered on dry soil. Skulls and ribs showed through broken skin. The bodies should have been dead a year, but if the farm had been raided a year ago the buildings wouldn't still be smoking.

The goats weren't all here--or if they were, the herd had shrunk while she'd been gone. Tara hoped some of them had fled through the hole in the fence. A Raider's curse was a bad way to go. She'd never met a goat that deserved it.

Down past the ruined farmhouse, she heard a woman scream.

Tara ducked behind a wall and peered out. The yard was still. Another scream, from the barn, this time cut short--a slap, a roar of pain almost like a man's, followed by a third scream.

A space inside her chest turned sharp. She didn't know why the Raiders were here. Her mother had been so clear on the when and the what of the funeral, but she had not bothered to say how, or why.

Tara was supposed to feel confused and shaken and scared. She was not supposed to feel furious, so she went with that. She rounded the collapsed barn, mad and ready.

There was a Raider in the yard--a man, or what was left of a man. Half his body rippled with the slick black oily shadow of his curse, the darkness writhing with maggoty white thread. He had three arms, the extra grafted on his left side below the ribs, and here and there bone showed through gaps in his skin; one of his arms was half-cursed, the remaining flesh plump with rot, the skin split in places.

The Raider was dragging a girl by her hair from the barn--a young woman, seventeen or so and blond in a homespun dress, twisting against his grip. She recovered her footing to kick him hard in the knee, and tore free as he stumbled. He caught her by the wrist with his black right hand, and his curse bit her flesh. She crushed her scream between her teeth, and clawed for his eyes as he heaved her toward the assembly of bones and metal in the shape of a headless horse that he'd left waiting near the well.

Tara reviewed her options. They were alone: Tara in the shadow of the barn, and the Raider and the girl. Nothing stirred for miles save wind and this growling barnyard fight, tiny figures against endless ground. The Raider was close to the girl. If Tara scared him, he'd kill her. Drawing her work knife, invoking her Craft, gathering shadows for the kill, that would scare him. She had her suit, her sweat, the contents of her purse, and an anger so strong that she shuddered as it stretched inside her.

Tara stepped into the light.

The Raider swung to face her. One of his eyes was a pit of black with a white dot, the other bloodshot red around a dark pupil. He had no lips in the half of his face the curse covered. His teeth burned white as facts.

The girl saw her, too. "Help!" She strained against the Raider's grip but could not break free again. He tugged her back against his body, caught her neck in the crook of his cursed arm, and wrenched her wrist behind her. The girl's eyes were wide and star- ing and cornflower blue. She writhed against him but she might as well have fought cold iron.

The Raider snarled. Those white threads pulsed within the curse, thin as piano wire. She didn't remember the threads. Had the curse always looked like that, and she just never noticed be- fore? Or had the curse changed?

She held out her hand, palm down. "She doesn't want to go with you."

"Walk on, stranger." The Raider leveled his extra arm at her, and the bones of its hand clicked open. A cursethrower barrel nestled in the wrist where the nerves should have been, its mouth round and hungry. "Walk away."

He tightened his grip on the girl's neck. She gasped, but no air came.

"It's okay," Tara told her. "I can help you." The girl was so scared. What had she seen, in the last few hours? What had she done to survive? "I need you to trust me." Tara tried to seem stable, in control, a pillar for the girl to lean against. The clouds of panic parted. The girl nodded. Tara, to the Raider, then: "Let her go. I can cure you. I can break the curse."

His rot-pale face went slack with hope.

No one was born like this. Where had he come from? Who had he been, before he wandered into the Badlands, before he listened to the whispers on the desert wind and found the curse and gave himself over to the slick and eager promise of a dying weapon?

Whatever was left inside him, the curse would not tolerate rebellion. Little wisps of black smoke rose from his skin, and he bent over mewling as black tendrils corkscrewed deeper into his flesh. The girl gagged for air.

Tara took a step closer. Her hand dropped into her purse, to the knucklebones she carried there. The Raider's will broke then, and the curse raised him up, still and sharp and alert, rigid and loyal. "Stay back."

"The souls I have on me will feed your curse for weeks. You won't get half so much from her." She drew her hand from her purse, clutching a knucklebone she hoped the Raider could not see. She did not like working Craft in the daytime. The stars were set, the soil barren. She had no power but her own reserves. She could only afford one shot.

She couched the knucklebone in the crook of her forefinger like a marble, tensed against her thumbnail. "It's a good trade." She hoped she wouldn't need the bone. Say yes, she told him with her eyes.

His face twisted in scorn. "No deal, Craftswoman." The curse on his arm sharpened and serrated, its hundred tiny points bit- ing the girl's throat. But the girl did not seem to notice. When he said, "Craftswoman," the way she looked at Tara changed. She was scared, yes--gods, Tara was tired of that fear--but she was hungry, too.


"Last chance," Tara said--then, before he could answer, she woke the glyphs in her hand. The knucklebone flew. There was a flash and a crack of thunder and a scream.

The girl lay bleeding on the ground; the Raider had fallen, bleed- ing, too, the curse's black oil mixed with the normal sticky red stuff. But the blood, to her, looked gray, and so did the desert and the ruined farm. The sun was cold. Tara had pushed too much of her soul into that knucklebone. But she did not have time to faint.

She forced herself from her knees to her feet, and scrambled to the girl.

Just one shot. Couldn't afford to miss. So she'd shot through her, to get to him. Her, she could fix. Probably.

The girl lay curled around the wound in her shoulder. Tara's aim had been true, and she knew the inside of a human body better than the inside of her apartment--but an error of arcsec- onds, the slightest flinch, could mean the difference between life and death. Tara checked her vitals frantically, six pulses, tempera- ture, airways.

The girl was alive.

The exit wound was well clear of the spine. Tara wadded gauze from her purse against the bloody gap, and rolled the girl onto her back. The girl whined, but pressed her hands against the wound. Good. Her face was all teeth now. The pain cut fresh lines onto smooth features. So young, even for seventeen.

Shock is the first enemy.

"I need your help," she said as she turned out the contents of her purse. The Raider wasn't dead yet. If she could stabilize the girl, she might save him, too, find out what was happening. What had changed. Raiders in daylight. Those white threads. "Can you hear me?"

The girl's face creased with pain. Her eyes were slits. The sun glinted off her tears. She was afraid, and not of death. "Crafts- woman." A whisper, a rumor, a ghost story. Raiders gonna turn you inside out.

"I'm Tara Abernathy," she said. "What's your name?"

The girl growled when Tara reached for her wound. Her eyes focused on the sky, the sun, Tara's face. She seemed confused by the question, but her lips twitched and she found breath, and a voice. "Dawn."

"Dawn. Good. It's nice to meet you, Dawn. You're very brave."

"Gone," she growled, or something like it, "all gone."

A better world would have let her mourn without bleeding. "Stay with me, Dawn. You're so good, so brave, I need you to hold on a little longer. I can close your wound and stop the pain. I need you to take your hands away." In her youth, Tara would have par- alyzed the girl, or seized her mind and moved her hands for her. But times changed, and so did people. "Can you do that for me?"

The girl managed to nod, and pull her shaking hand away. Dawn could barely breathe, taut with pain, but Tara could reach the wound. She slid on silver bracelets from her purse, sparked them together, and let the surgical shadow cover her hands. Dawn trembled.

Tara drew her work knife from the glyph above her heart, and cut a bloodied pane out of Dawn's dress. Dawn whined through her teeth when Tara peeled away the fibers stuck to the blood; the knucklebone had dragged one long thread a finger's depth inside her. "Just a little more."

Dawn bucked against the ground, and lines of muscle shifted in her jaw and neck. Her hands, balled to fists, struck the soil. Tara's knife blade split to tweezers, and she drew the thread out.

It was done. Dawn went limp, ragged, panting.

"You're great." Tara banished one of her gloves and wiped sweat from the girl's forehead. "The wound's clear. Now I'll close it up. This will hurt more, a cold heat. Then we're done."

Dawn shook her head. "I can't."

"You can, Dawn. Just a little more."

"I need." She drew breath. "I need something to bite."

Tara took the pocket square from her jacket and twisted it into a rope. "It's clean."

Dawn's hands trembled as she pressed the cloth between her teeth and bit down. Fear tightened into resolve. She nodded once.

Tara woke the glyphs in her wrist. They drank light, glowing as she gathered power. The Badlands sun still shone overhead, but the shadows of the burned farm deepened as color left the world, leaving blinding cutouts of white and black. Tara could only draw on the light to power her glyphs; the soil here was dry and nearly dead and the Raiders' curses had hurt it enough already. An in- stant's careless Craft might turn it all to ash.

She made a small sphere of searing light and held it above Dawn's wound.

Craftwork wasn't made for healing. It killed what it touched. It would be easier, cheaper to end Dawn's life and raise her from the dead. But Tara could knit severed veins and tissue, give skin a lattice to regrow. It was a mortician's art more than a healer's, but it would keep Dawn whole until they reached Edgemont, and every- thing else Tara had spent the last few minutes ignoring. Like the letter in her pocket.

Focus. You can only do one thing at a time.

Not Ms. Kevarian's voice, this time. Her father's.

"Are you ready?" Tara asked.

Dawn wasn't, but she nodded, thumbs-up, and bit down on the handkerchief.

Tara pressed her Craft into the wound. Dawn's eyes snapped open, and they were full of silver-blue flame. That, Tara thought, was not supposed to happen.

Then Dawn screamed through the handkerchief, and the world went wrong.

Darkness slammed out from her with the force of a crashing wave. The sun vanished and Tara could not feel the world underfoot, could not feel gravity, could feel only an immense weight pulling her down and in toward the wound beneath her palm, her heart drawn like a splinter from her chest, her breath torn from her lungs, the Craftwork light she'd made pried from her grip. Her wards and glyphs strained to guard her soul from this desperate hunger, but their light was drawn, too, down and down.

"Stop!" The words flew from her and were devoured. She could not breathe. With agonizing effort she pulled her hand from the wound, and glared into the silver-blue flames that were Dawn's eyes. "Stop it, Dawn." She put what little she knew of the girl into that name. The strength of her kick; the lines of muscle in her jaw when she bit down. Her tears. Dawn, that specific person, a shape greater than this weight of need. "Please."

The weight eased, and the darkness and Tara collapsed at once. She wasn't sure which of them had won. When she opened her eyes, she was lying on top of Dawn; the girl's hand rested on Tara's neck at the line of her hair. She was breathing. They both were. Dawn repeated, softly and over and over, "--sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm--"

Tara pushed herself off the girl. Dawn's wound was closed. The ground crumbled beneath her as she moved. The soil was dead and ashen gray.

Tara forced herself to her knees.

The barnyard was an ashblow, and the barn and stable and houses dust, the Raider a skeleton. The parched trees were ruins now, the wind dead, and there were no grasshoppers anymore. White splinters rained onto the ash: bones that had been a vulture once.

Tara closed her eyes and saw, for the first time in years, noth- ing. The gray stippling life of the Badlands was gone. As far as she could see, the world was black, the pressing, present weight of a cavern underground. There were only two lights: Tara, and the girl curled now onto her side, stammering, "--sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry--"

She was terrified, and she was powerful. She was a Crafts- woman. Or she would be.

Unsteady, Tara knelt, set her hand on Dawn's shoulder, and breathed with her until she stopped trembling.

How long had the girl kept it secret? Tara looked down at Dawn and saw herself, unsure and thirteen, afraid of the power she sought. What had she needed to hear then, that no one was there to tell her? Tara herself had left her home and fled across the world and mortgaged her soul to evil men in high towers to learn the Craft. What could she say, now that time had brought her back around to this?

"It's okay," she lied. "You're going to be okay."

Copyright © 2023 by Max Gladstone


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