The #1 New York Times bestselling start to Brandon Mull’s new fantasy series is now available in paperback!
Jason Walker has often wished his life could be a bit less predictable—until a routine day at the zoo ends with Jason suddenly transporting from the hippo tank to a place unlike anything he’s ever seen. In the past, the people of Lyrian welcomed visitors from the Beyond, but attitudes have changed since the wizard emperor Maldor rose to power. The brave resistors who opposed the emperor have been bought off or broken, leaving a realm where fear and suspicion prevail.
In his search for a way home, Jason meets Rachel, who was also mysteriously drawn to Lyrian from our world. With the help of a few scattered rebels, Jason and Rachel become entangled in a quest to piece together the word of power that can destroy the emperor and learn that their best hope to find a way home will be to save this world without heroes.
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March 01, 2011
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Excerpt from A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull
The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep. The chains prevented him from lying down. Whether it was truly light or dark he could not say, for his enemies had stolen his sight.
In the distance he heard screaming--the unrestrained wails of a man trying and failing to escape the deepest agony. The unnerving cries echoed from higher corridors, dampened by intervening barriers.
After untold weeks in the dungeons of Felrook the prince could guess what the man might be feeling. Never had the prince imagined anguish so diverse and exquisite as he had experienced here.
He stood up straight, taking some of the pressure off of his wrists. If they kept him chained here much longer, he felt certain his arms would detach. Then again he preferred his current accommodations to the previous room, where the floor bristled with sharp, rusty spikes, and lying or sitting required bloodshed.
The unseen, wretched prisoner continued to scream. The prince sighed softly. Throughout his tortures, no matter what toxins they had forced down his throat, no matter what questions they had asked, he had not yet uttered a single word. Nor had he cried out in pain. He knew that some of the potions devised by Maldor and his minions had power to loosen his tongue and cloud his judgment, so after he was captured, he had firmly vowed to make no sound.
His captors had hounded him expertly. They had tried to bribe him with food and water. They had tried to compel him with pain. Some had come and spoken to him calmly and reasonably. Others had made harsh demands. At times he had faced several inquisitors in a row. Other times hours or days crawled past between interviews. He could not name the array of toxins administered to him, but no matter how they endeavored to blur his mind and weaken his resolve, the prince had focused on one necessity: silence.
Eventually he would speak. He quietly clung to the hope that he would ultimately be brought before the emperor. Then he would utter a single word.
Vaguely, gradually, the prince began to recognize that his mind felt uncommonly clear. A headache persisted, and hunger gnawed at him, but he found himself capable of directing his thoughts deliberately, an ability he had taken for granted before all of his food came laced with mind-altering additives. Aside from holding to his governing rule of keeping silent, his thoughts had meandered hazily over the past weeks, and his identity had felt indistinct.
Without warning, the door to his cell creaked open. He tensed, braced for anything. Keep silent, he warned himself. No matter what they do or say.
"Well, well," said a warm voice that he had heard before. "You're looking worse every day."
The prince said nothing. He heard other men entering the cell. Three besides the speaker.
The friendly voice hardly paused. "If you're going to host a visitor, we had best get you cleaned up."
Rough hands unlocked the manacles. The prince felt perplexed. He had never been cleaned since arriving at the dungeon. Perhaps this was a ploy. Or perhaps he might finally enter the presence of the emperor!
Large hands gripped his arms. The hands led him forward, then down to his knees. Coarse rags scrubbed his bare flesh. Before long, unseen hands began trimming his whiskers. Minutes later a straight razor scraped across his cheeks.
A man held him on either side, which gave the prince a good sense for how he might attack them. He could use his legs to take out their knees, then get the razor, and add four corpses to his count. Since his capture, he had already slain six guards.
No. Even if he defeated these guards, without his eyesight he would never escape the dungeon. But he might ruin his chance for an audience with Maldor. The prince shuddered faintly. Some of his best men and closest friends had given their lives, and despite their sacrifices he had failed. His only chance for redemption was to come before the emperor.
"You seem especially docile today," the warm voice commented. "Could it be you have finally resolved to become a model prisoner?"
Biting retorts sprang to mind. His consciousness had felt muddy for so long, the prince felt tempted to answer. Surely there could be no harm in responding. No, even if his mind felt clear, even if this particular question were innocent, if he broke his pattern of silence, eventually his captors would coerce him into revealing secrets. He only had one word to share, and it would be in the presence of Maldor.
"Ready for a stroll?" the voice asked.
The men on either side helped the prince rise, then escorted him from the cell. He took shuffling steps. As always he wished for his eyes, but he resolutely reached out with his other senses, noting the direction and temperature of a draft, the acoustics of the corridor, the smells of rot and burning torches.
After some time he heard a door open, and the prince entered a new room. His escorts forced him to his knees--locking him there with shackles on his ankles and wrists--and then placed a heavy iron collar around his neck. Without another word the guards left. Or at least some of them left. One or more could have covertly remained.
Minutes passed. Hours. Finally the cell door opened, and then closed.
"We meet again at last," a familiar voice said.
Chills raced across the prince's shoulders. Maldor had visited Trensicourt years ago, trying to negotiate an alliance. As a boy the prince had studied his every move, this man who his father claimed was so dangerous.
"I promised that one day you would kneel to me," the emperor said, his tone dry.
The prince moved his arms slightly, enough to jangle his chains.
"I would have preferred voluntary reverence," the emperor admitted. "Perhaps in time. I understand you have lost your tongue."
The prince hesitated. He had to be sure. He had learned this word of power at great cost. The emperor could not possibly suspect that he knew every syllable. Otherwise he would never have come here in person. But could the speaker be a trick? An imitator? The prince knew he would only get one chance at this.
"I had no interest in addressing your underlings," the prince said, surprised by how hoarse and weak his voice sounded.
"The heir to Trensicourt speaks?" Maldor exclaimed. "You inhaled a caustic substance. I had begun to suspect you had lost the ability to vocalize. Truly you possess a will of steel. Had I known you merely required my presence, I might have visited you earlier."
If he was an impersonator, he was a very good one.
"What brings you down to the dungeon?"
The emperor paused. "I am here to celebrate the end of my worries."
"You have many kingdoms yet to conquer," the prince protested. "I am one man."
"And a keystone is a single block," the emperor murmured, "yet when it is removed, the structure collapses."
"Others remain," the prince insisted. "Others will rise."
"You speak as though you are already gone," Maldor chuckled. "My friend, I have never meant to kill you. I only needed to prove that you cannot stand against me. The way to confirm this reality was to defeat you. It pains me to see you like this. I would prefer to clothe you in finery and bind up your wounds. You may recall, I have extended my friendship in the past. Not only did you deny me, but you have fought against me, and urged others to do likewise."
"You will never have my loyalty," the prince pledged.
"I wish you would be reasonable," the emperor lamented. "I am fully aware that none of my servants are your equal. You could be my chief lieutenant. I would make you Lord of Trensicourt, and more besides, free to govern as a king in all but name. I could restore your sight, extend your lifespan. You could accomplish much good."
"And all of Lyrian would fall under your dominion," the prince replied. "How do I know this is really you? My eyes are gone."
"Surely you know my voice," the emperor said, amused.
"Years ago you spoke to me in the parlor at Trensicourt. I showed you a toy."
"Has this become a game of riddles?"
"Do you remember the toy?"
"A windup carousel with removable horses. You removed an enameled horse--mostly blue, I believe--and asked me to join you."
The prince nodded in silence. Only the emperor would know that detail. It was too obscure. With hardly a pause he spoke the Word that he had kept secret since his capture. He could taste its power as it escaped his lips, a true Edomic key word.
The prince waited in darkness.
"What a peculiar exclamation," the emperor remarked.
Dismay and confusion left the prince off balance. That word should have been the emperor's undoing! Frantically the prince struggled to recall the Word, but uttering it out loud just once had abolished it from memory.
"You look troubled," Maldor commented knowingly.
"That word should have destroyed you," the prince whispered, the last of his resolve withering, his inner world dimming into a cold place where only the ashes of hope remained.
The emperor laughed. "Come now, my stalwart prince, surely you did not imagine me ignorant of your quest! We are conversing, in truth, but not in person. I am using an intermediary. After all, being a wizard should include a few advantages! My emissary can speak with my inflections, and we can readily communicate from afar. But since he is not me, that perilous word can have no effect on either of us. Now that you are divested of your final weapon, why not reconsider my offer?"
"Never," the prince whispered. All he had left was the fact that he had never let the emperor entice him to switch sides. The prince owed that, at least, to all who had believed in him.
"I am very impressed that you learned the Word," the emperor went on. "You are the first. I have long promised myself that he who learned the Word would be invited to join my inner circle. You have no more options. Do not perish without reason. Further resistance will bring no reward. Work with me, and you can still accomplish much good. Respond with care this time, for you will not receive another opportunity. After all, you just tried to kill me. This introduction to the hospitality of my dungeon has been gentle compared to the horrors that await."
Head bowed, the prince remained silent for a moment. After all the planning, the maneuvering, the bold alliances, the narrow escapes, he had failed! He had said the Word to a decoy! He had even anticipated the possibility, but in the end Maldor had fooled him, had ruined him, as happened inevitably to all of his foes. The prince searched inside for hope or faith and found nothing. Perhaps he should accept the inevitable. He was unsure how much longer he could retain his sanity in this unspeakable place.
The prince raised his head. "I will never serve you. You have defeated me, but you will never own me." He owed these words to those who had died for him. He owed the words to himself. To be destroyed was one thing. At least he had not surrendered.
"Very well. You were my finest adversary, this I acknowledge. But you will break here. You know this. You have my admiration, but not my pity." Footsteps retreated, and a door clanged shut with the finality of a tomb.
Over the centuries individuals have crossed from our world to Lyrian in a variety of ways. Although some travelers have journeyed between universes deliberately, normally the sudden voyagers are caught by surprise. They become lost in deep caves and emerge into an unfamiliar landscape. They pass through the natural stone arches that occasionally link our realities. They sink into deep wells, enter passageways near mountaintops, or, less often, crawl through petrified logs. But nobody has ever passed from Earth to Lyrian in a less likely way than Jason Walker.
At the age of thirteen Jason resided in the town of Vista, Colorado. Since his father was enjoying a prosperous career in dentistry, and his older brother had just been accepted to dental school, most of his acquaintances expected Jason would one day become a dentist as well. His parents openly encouraged him in that direction. The expectations had rubbed off, and Jason's vague plan for life included earning a baseball scholarship to a university where he could begin his quest for a dental degree.
He could not recall ever deliberately choosing this course--he had no real passion for tooth repair. The routine struck him as dull and monotonous. Scraping teeth. Taking X-rays. Applying fluoride. Deep down Jason craved something else.
Ever since he could remember, Jason had felt drawn to animals. He read books about them, watched nature programs, and begged for pets. After he consulted with his father, this passion inspired his interest in a zoology major on the way to his dental degree. Unlike many prospective zoology students Jason actually worked in a zoo. Understandably, he had never imagined that his volunteer job might lead him to an alternate universe.
During an unseasonably warm week in late February, Jason leaned against the railing outside the fast-pitch batting cage at the local sports park. Tim stood in the cage, knees slightly bent, chipping a lot of foul balls as he struggled to regain his timing. Matt, the best hitter on their club team, had gone first, blasting nearly every pitch to the back of the cage with his fluid swing.
"Don't try to murder the ball," Jason suggested.
"I'd settle for assault and battery," Tim grumbled.
On the next pitch Tim crushed a hard ground ball to the left side of the cage. Jason alternated glances between Tim and a labeled image in his biology textbook. He was memorizing the human skeletal system for a test.
"Get your nose out of that book," Matt murmured to Jason as Tim fouled the next pitch back into the netting.
"I have to head to the zoo after this," Jason apologized. "I won't have much time to study today."
"Trust me," Matt said, nodding toward their left.
Jason turned his head to find a pair of girls coming toward them. They were April and Holly Knudsen, fraternal twins in his grade at Kennedy Middle School. The girls were not much alike in appearance or interests, especially for twins. Prettier and more studious, April was in three of Jason's honors classes, including biology. Louder and sportier, Holly held a softball bat in one hand and a batting helmet in the other.
Only two girls at school made Jason feel queasy and self-conscious: Jen Miller and April Knudsen. They were pretty, and smart, and seemed down-to-earth. Jason harbored secret crushes on both of them.
"Hey, guys," Holly called.
Jason tried to smile. He was suddenly very aware of the textbook in his hands. Would it make him look like a nerd, reading a biology book at the batting cages?
Matt said nothing. He seldom spoke much around girls. Jason tried to make his voice casual. "Hi, Holly. April."
"Getting ready for your last season before high school ball?" Holly wondered.
Tim whacked a hard fly ball.
"Coach Thayer is already scouting Jason," Matt said. "He might end up pitching for varsity as a freshman."
It was true. Jason had hit a growth spurt at the end of sixth grade. His hitting had initially fallen apart as he'd adjusted to his height, while his pitching had started to gain some real speed. He now stood almost six feet tall. His hitting was recuperating, and his fastball was up into the eighties, but his control had suffered.
"Wow, freshmen boys almost never play varsity," Holly admired. "They almost took state last year."
"I'm not sure how much I impressed Thayer," Jason confessed. "My pitches were all over the place."
"Only one guy on next year's high school team throws faster than you," Matt said. "When you throw your best stuff, I can't hit you."
"I tense up lately," Jason admitted with a grimace. Over the past year, during games, he had started to feel very self-conscious, and erratic pitches had been the result. He had blown some games by giving up too many walks, and he'd lost a key game with a wild pitch. He had also hit a few batters, and at the speeds he was throwing, that was a big deal. No opposing batters had been seriously hurt, but they could have been.
At first Jason had assumed the increased speed of his pitches had caused the problem. But then Matt and Tim had begun to notice that he routinely threw better during informal games or practices. It bothered Jason to think that he had lost games because he lacked the guts to throw well under pressure. Maybe the problem came from dwelling on how much others expected from him. Maybe he was expecting too much from himself, fixating on perfection. Or maybe his skills were simply fading.
His friends on the team expected him to overcome his control issues and carry them to glory. But he was not yet the star others expected him to become. He sometimes wished his friends would brag about him a little less.
April pointed at Jason's textbook. "Are you getting ready for the bio test?"
"I'm trying," Jason replied.
"What's the name of your cheekbone?" she quizzed.
He resisted a grin. "The zygomatic arch."
April raised her eyebrows. "Not bad."
Holly rolled her eyes. "You guys are such geeks."
"Geeks rule the world," Jason countered.
Holly grabbed her sister. "We better get over to the softball cage."
Jason wanted to ask them to grab a snack or something. Well, specifically, he wanted to ask April, but asking both of them would be less intimidating. They were two girls; he was with two other guys--it would just be a small group hanging out. There would never be a more perfect moment to casually approach April. Who knew, they might end up with a study date for the biology test.
But he couldn't make his lips move in time. The twins were walking away.
"Hey," Jason called, feeling awkward, squeezing his biology book. "Do you guys want to grab some food when you're done?"
Still moving away, Holly pushed her hair back over her ear as she apologized. "We can't. We have to go to our uncle's birthday party. Maybe some other time."
"Okay, that's cool," Jason said, even though nothing about it was remotely cool.
Behind him Tim exited the batting cage. "You like April?" Tim asked.
Jason winced, stealing a glance over his shoulder. Was he that obvious? "Not so loud. A little, I guess."
"I think Holly seems more fun," Matt mused.
Tim tossed Jason the batting helmet. "You're up. Here's your chance for back-to-back strikeouts."
"You're a riot," Jason said, sliding on the slightly oversized helmet. A red light glowed near the pitching machine. Jason adjusted the strap on his batting glove, grabbed his bat, entered the cage, and took several practice chops, overswinging at first, then settling into his regular stroke.
"You ready?" Matt asked.
"Go for it."
The light turned green. Jason crouched into his batting stance, bouncing a little, anticipating the first pitch, trying to ignore the possibility that April was watching. He tended to swing late on the first ball. It hissed out of the pitching machine and blurred past him. He swung way too late.
"He's a lover, not a hitter," Tim kidded.
Jason focused. The next ball zipped out of the machine. His timing was right, but he swung too low, and the ball skipped up and back off the bat.
On the third pitch he made a solid connection. The ball rocketed to the rear of the cage, a high line drive.
Matt whistled. "Not bad."
Jason glanced back at his friends, grinning. Shifting his gaze, he noticed that April was watching her sister enter the fast-pitch softball cage. When he turned to face forward, a ball was streaking toward him. Jason twisted his head just in time to prevent it from striking his face, but the hard sphere thumped against the side of his helmet, knocking it off his head and sending him sprawling.
Artificial turf prickled against his cheek as Jason tried to fathom what had happened. Suddenly Tim and Matt were at his side, asking if he was all right.
"I'm fine," he muttered, standing up and swaying into Tim, who steadied him.
"You're out of it," Matt warned. "You got tagged hard."
"I'm just a little rattled," Jason protested, shaking Tim off and heading out of the cage. The ground seemed to be teetering, as if he were balancing at the center of a seesaw. "I just need to sit down."
Jason plopped onto the bench outside the cage and put his head in his hands. "I should have warned you," Tim said. "Some of those balls were coming inside for me too. Somebody needs to recalibrate that thing."
"It isn't your fault. I wasn't paying attention. Just bad luck." He put his face in his hands and massaged the sides of his forehead.
"Maybe we should get you to a doctor," Matt suggested.
"No, I'm good. It just shook me up a little. Take some swings; I'll be fine."
"Yeah. Go avenge me. Knock the covers off some balls."
Jason concentrated on his breathing, trying to ignore the clanging of aluminum bats. He began to feel more centered. He made eye contact with April, who squinted sympathetically. By the time Matt left the cage, Jason could stand without the ground tilting much.
"I want to snag some grub before I hit the zoo," Jason said.
"Sorry, I'm supposed to meet up with my cousins," Matt said. "I'll already be a little late."
Tim checked his wristwatch. "I can't go either. You would have been on your own with the twins. My brother is picking me up in about five minutes. We could give you a lift."
"I have my bike. I'll catch you guys later."
Tim and Matt returned the helmets to the counter, while Jason went to the parking lot and claimed his bicycle from the rack. A string of warmish days had melted the snow, even most of the roadside drifts, leaving the streets unseasonably welcoming to cyclists. Although the sky was currently overcast, the temperature remained much too warm for snow. If anything it might rain.
As Jason pedaled up the hill to Anderson's grocery store, his head began to ache, and he started to feel unbalanced. Rather than push through the discomfort, he opted to walk his bike the rest of the way.
Leaving his bike chained near a soda machine, Jason entered through the automatic door and went to the Chinese food counter off to one side. He ordered the lunch special, and the guy behind the counter spooned orange chicken, beef and broccoli, and chow mein onto a compartmentalized Styrofoam plate. The broccoli was a bright, fluorescent green--a color that would seldom occur in nature. The broccoli always looked that color here, as if it were spray-painted or made of plastic.