Monday, November 30, 2009

A Very Short Review of New Moon

Hey everyone, hope you all had an enjoyable weekend! :-) Mine could have been much better, but hey, you take the good with the bad, right?

Anyway, so I went to go watch New Moon. I really should have waited for DVD, as well as listened to @mattlibrarian; it was a waste of time and money.

We sat down to watch it, thinking that the hype must be deserved - after all, other than Harry Potter, this is the biggest movie-series to hit the cinema in recent history, and millions of poor girls lose their minds every time the simple word, 'Edward' is uttered aloud. An d I will admit, in many cases, this mania towards The Twilight Saga is deserved - it takes a sharp eye to notice when the masses are ripe to exploited, and the teams of people behind the marketing drives have gone well above the call of duty in making sure that everyone alive (practically) knows about the movies.

I'll also freely admit that I liked the first movie; Twilight was not only not as soppy as I thought it would be, but it also succeeded in making Vampires interesting again - at least for me. (I still believe, though, that Lestat, Marius and even poor Louis would put a huge smackdown on the Cullen-family, in terms of both power and pure style) I walked out of that movie thinking, "Okay, not bad, I'll be watching New Moon when it hits the screen." I wasn't hooked on Stephanie Meyer's books (I have yet to read any of her work) but I was on the front lines, working in a bookstore as I do. So seeing the mania grow did its part in insulating me from its effects, you could say. :-) But yes, I did enjoy Twilight, the movie.

But New Moon... It really was a waste. First of all, the director of Twilight should have been kept on to direct New Moon. Twilight flows where it must, speeds when needed, and had a palpable atmosphere of danger when Bella was being targeted by the rogue vampires (including Victoria). New Moon supposedly upped the stakes, pushing Bella into more danger, but you couldn't tell. And that, I'm afraid, was mostly due to the acting of Ms Stewart. The only time there was any real emotion from her was in the sequences when she was having nightmares, and then we didn't even get to see her face, just heard her screaming. I've never been so frustrated by an actor before, honestly. There was no variation at all in her acting, and Bella (as far as I can tell from friends who have read all the books) was ripped to shreds. She seemed like an Emo-chic that I would just as soon frown at and ignore than have to rely on her to tell a tale that'll keep me interested.

Another aspect of the movie that dragged it down even further into the muck was the pacing - I was literally waiting for something to happen that might push my heart-rate up a bit, even during the (I have to admit) excellent fight-scenes involving the Wolves Vs Vampire and Vampire Vs Vampires. The movie dragged too much. And someone please explain why it seemed that no-one could speak coherently? Or at a steady, normal pace? Why did it take 30 seconds to say three words?

Anyway, suffice it to say that I did not enjoy the movie at all. But I will say this - I'll be reading the books. Often, an adaptation is terrible because it's difficult to adapt it to the screen, and that usually implies that the book itself is excellent. Case in point, Thomas Harris' Hannibal. So I'll read the books, sometime, and offer my thoughts on them - hopefully before Eclipse hits the screen. :-)

Until then,

Be EPIC!

Friday, November 27, 2009

New Projects Coming from Stephen King

Now, I hope most of you have read Under the Dome and have given yourselves over to a King-fest (I know I would like to!), but if you've read of Stephen King's work and are starved for new material, you'll have to still wait a bit. :-)

The King has announced one project, and the web is a-buzz with rumors of another - the projects being a return to the worlds of The Dark Tower and a sequel to The Shining.

The King has said that he'll be writing either a novel or a series of interlinked stories set between Volume 4: Wizard and Glass, and Volume 5: Wolves of the Calla, and that these stories (or the novel) will have the title The Wind Through the Keyhole. There has been much debate on this, with some saying, basically, Leave It Alone, and others foaming at the mouths for more Dark Tower material; I'm of the latter - The Dark Tower saga is such an incredible tale that I would love another addition to it - goodness knows that the worlds King created for the series (worlds which link to his body of work in many ways) have almost limitless tales waiting to be told! :-) (Thanks to Piotr for the info!)

I'll keep you updated on news concerning The Wind Through the Keyhole, though, :-)

Now, concerning a sequel to The Shining, King hasn't yet decided whether to actually write the book or not. The story might focus on Danny, he who has the Shine, as a 40-year old, and might be titled Doctor Sleep. It'll be interesting to see in which direction King takes the character and events, and I for one am, of course, itching to read it! :-) (Thanks to Lood for the info!)

What do you think? Return to the Dark Tower or write a sequel to The Shining or both?

Be EPIC!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Quick Update...

... of absolutely bugger-all. :-) I have nothing specific to blog about today, but I will tell you that I'm reading The Gathering Storm - Brandon was an excellent choice! The book, while a bit jarring in the beginning because of it not being in the voice we know, has grown to be an absolute page-turner; Brandon really knows the world, the conflicts and the characters, and I'm really happy with what he's done so far. :-)

I also started reading Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld (coming in Jan 2010 from Angry Robot), and as I said on Twitter, this is definitely going to be a memorable book! Imagine an urban fantasy set in ancient Mexico and you've got a good idea of what you're in for. :-) Expect that review up soon, too!

I'm also reading plenty of other books at the moment, jumping around as the mood takes me, but more on that after my Wheel of Time and Angry Robot review. :-)

Be EPIC!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Novels in-Coming!

News from TOR (thanks to Chloe Healy) and John Jarrold!



Some great news for all you Hard-SF / Space Opera lovers out there (like me): Gary Gibson (who's Nova War should be on shelves everywhere, so get on Exclusive Books' case if it isn't) has signed with TOR for three more novels! :-)



"Gibson has already begun work on the first book in the new contract, the working title of which is Final Days. The second will be a sequel and the third a standalone novel set in the same world as The Shoal Sequence, the second book of which, Nova War, has just been published to rave reviews."

Julie Crisp (Mark C Newton's editor, too) says of Gibson and the incoming novels: "Gary is easily considered one of the up-and-coming stars of, not only the Tor UK list, but space opera in general and is constantly aligned with Alastair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton and Neal Asher as a leading name in British hard SF. So I’m thrilled to continue working with him on his very exciting books."

What does gary have to say about the news? Taken from his blog, "I just got an offer for Tor for three new books, starting with Final Days, which I've blogged about in the past. The other two books are a sequel to Final Days, called The Thousand Emperors, and Core (very much a working title), a standalone story set in the same world as Stealing Light and its sequels. Off to a restaurant to celebrate."

Awesome news! I'll have to get my ass in gear and get some Gibson's under the belt! :-) As I've said, Nova War is already available in SA, and I'll keep you updated on the paperback-release date, as well as release dates for Final Days, The Thousand Emperors, and Core. :-)



Now for news from John Jarrold:

Eric Brown's new deal with Solaris!



PRESS RELEASE – NEW SOLARIS DEAL FOR ERIC BROWN

Jonathan Oliver, commissioning editor of Solaris Books since the imprint’s acquisition from Games Workshop by Rebellion earlier this month, has commissioned a new SF novel from Eric Brown, GUARDIANS OF THE PHOENIX. The agent was John Jarrold, and the deal was for UK/US rights. The book is due for publication late in 2010.

“Eric has been a mainstay of Solaris since their very successful publication of his novel HELIX,” said John Jarrold. “This proposal looks fascinating, and I can’t wait to read the finished novel!”

Great news, especially considering the fact that, for a while, everything was so up in the air with Solaris. :-)

And great news for Jaine Fenn fans!



PRESS RELEASE – TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR SF NOVELIST

Jo Fletcher, Associate Publisher of Gollancz, has acquired two new novels by British SF author Jaine Fenn. The agent was John Jarrold, and the deal was for World rights.

These novels, titled BRINGER OF LIGHT and QUEEN OF NOWHERE, are due for delivery in 2010 and 2011 respectively and will be published under the name J N Fenn, as will all the author’s future novels.

Fenn’s first novel, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was published to critical success by Gollancz in 2008, with CONSORTS OF HEAVEN following this year and GUARDIANS OF PARADISE forthcoming in 2010.

***

Awesome stuff all round! Long Live SF! :-)

Be EPIC!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Trailer: Sherrilyn Kenyon's Born of Ice

Hey everyone, I've got another awesome book trailer for you! :-)

Enjoy!



Check out this link for the site dedicated to The League, this link for Sherrilyn's official site, and this link for the Official Sanctuary site. :-) Wanna get your hands on the book? It'll be available from the 1st of December, so you'll have to pre-order your copies! Click here for UK, here for USA, and for those in SA, please use the link at the top-right of the blog.



Click here if you'd like to read an excerpt from Born of Ice, and, as always,

Be EPIC!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Awesome Books, Awesome Covers!

Hey everyone, thought I'd let you all have a look at some covers that have recently seen the light - some are for new books, some are rejackets, but they all deserve a spotlight. :-)


First up we have the new jacket of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold; I have to be honest and say that I like the original cover more - I've supplied it, too. :-)


Next up, the preliminary (i.e. not final, so don't go nuts yet) cover for Brent Weeks' next novel:


I have to say I like this - it shows that a brand is definitely being created for Brent's work, and it'll always make his books leap off the shelves, visually. :-)

Then we've got the much-debated US paperback-cover for Mark C Newton's excellent Nights of Villjamur - not my favourite cover but a a pretty cool cover nonetheless!


Next up, some more striking cover art from the forthcoming Angry Robot title, Servant of the Underworld by Aliette De Bodard!


And now, the US cover art for Robert Redick's sequel to The Red Wolf Conspiracy: The Rats and the Ruling Sea. As you see, the title has been truncated somewhat. :-)


Next up, the cover of Jasper Kent's sequel (and book 2 in the series) to the excellent Twelve:


Hopefully all the covers are kept the same for the UK releases - more author branding is never a bad thing, though I'm interested to see what happens with the US covers. :-)

Next up, I've got a new cover for Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth. It's the Czech translation, and I quite like this! Wouldn't mind a copy on my shelf! ;-)


What do you think of the covers?

Be EPIC!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Angry Robot Free Fiction: Kell's Legend Part 4!

Hey everyone, here's the fourth and final excerpt of Andy Remic's Kell's Legend, Book One of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, from Angry Robot; enjoy!





‘Wait.’

Kell’s hushed whisper, despite its low tone, carried with surprising clarity. Nienna and Kat froze instantly in place. Both young women were walking a high-rope, skating thin ice, breathing the tension of the besieged and sundered city. Again and again they passed corpses, shrivelled husks, sometimes piles of men, women, heaps of disjointed child corpses, huddled together as if for warmth; in reality, all they craved was a chance at life.

Kell lowered his hand, half-turned, gestured for the girls to join him. They scampered down the cobbled road, gloved hands holding cloth over the freezing skin of their faces, swords sheathed at waists more as tokens than real weapons. Both girls understood that in real world combat, their lives hung by a thread. And the thread was named Kell.

‘See,’ he hissed, gesturing towards the Selenau River, flowing like ink beneath swirling tendrils of ice-smoke. ‘The enemy have a foothold here; now it’ll be damn impossible to steal a boat.’

Nienna watched the albino soldiers, streams of them in their hundreds, marching down the waterfront. Many dragged prisoners, some kicking and screaming. These, they locked in huge iron cages which had been erected beside the sluggish wide river. Many dragged corpses, and these they piled in heaps as if… Nienna frowned. As if they were waiting for something?

Nienna’s eyes searched as far as the false horizon. Sometimes, ice-smoke parted and she got a good glimpse down a length of the river. Huge black and red brick factories lined the water; they were mainly dye-works, slaughter houses and tanneries. The sort of place which Nienna had been destined to work before her ‘nameless benefactor’ stepped in with university fees. Huge iron cranes stretched across the river for loading and unloading cargo. Wide pipes disgorged chemical effluence, dyes and slaughterhouse blood and offal into the river. Even in winter, the place stunk to high heaven; in summer, vomit lined the waterfront from unwary travellers.

Kat edged forward, and crouched beside Kell. She met the old warrior’s gaze and he had to admire her edge. ‘What about another way out of the city? There’s too many of the bastards here.’ She spat on the ground.

‘They will have the gates covered. This whole situation stinks, Kat. I’ve seen this sort of… slaughter, before. The Army of Iron don’t want anybody getting out; they don’t want anybody to spoil their master plan. If somebody was to get word to King Leanoric, for example…’

‘That is our mission!’ said Katrina.

‘No girl. Our mission is to stay alive. Anything else – that comes later.’

In truth, Kell still felt deeply uneasy. What sort of conquering army simply committed murder and atrocity? It didn’t make sense. Slaughter all the bakers, who would bake bread for the soldiers?

Murder the whores and dancers, who then to provide entertainment? Soldiers marched on their stomachs, and fought best when happy. Only an insane general went on a pointless rampage. Kell had seen it once before, during the Days of Blood. Bad days. Bad months. Kell’s mouth was dry at the thought. Bitter, like the plague.

The Days of Blood…

A dark whisper. In his soul.

A splinter. Of hatred. Of remorse.

You took part, Kell. You killed them all, Kell.

Visions echoed. Slashes of flashback. Crimson and shimmering. Diagonal slices, echoes of a time of horror. Screams. Writhing. Slaughter. Whimpering. Steel sawing methodically through flesh and bone. Worms eating skin. Eating eyes. Blood running in streams down stone gutters. Running in rivers. And soldiers, faces twisted with bloodlust, insanity, naked and smeared with blood, with piss and shit, with vomit, capering down streets with swords and knives, adorning their bodies with trophies from victims… hands, eyes, ears, genitalia…

Kell swooned, felt sick. He forced away the terrible visions and rubbed a gloved hand through his thick beard. ‘Damn you all to hell,’ he muttered, a terrible heaviness sinking through him, from brain to stomach, a heavy metal weight dragging his soul down to his boots and leaking out with the piss and the blood.

‘You look ill.’ Kat placed a hand on his broad, bear-clad shoulder.

‘No, girl, I am fine,’ he breathed, shuddering. And added, under his breath, ‘on the day that I die.’ Then louder, ‘Come. I can see a tunnel under the tannery.’

‘That’s an evil place,’ said Kat, pulling back. ‘My little brother used to collect the piss-pots used in the tannery; he caught a terrible disease from there; he died. I swore I would never go inside such a place.’

‘It’s that, or die yourself,’ said Kell, not unkindly.

Kat nodded, and followed Kell and Nienna down the street, all three crouching low, moving slowly, weapons at the ready and eyes alert. As they approached the tunnel, an incredible stench eased out to meet them: a mixture of gore and fat, dog-shit, piss, and the slop-solution of animal brains used in the bating process. Kell forced his way inside, treading through a thick sludge and coming up grooved and worn brick steps into a room hung with hides still to be stripped of hair, gore and fat. They swung, eerily, on blood-dried hooks. There were perhaps a hundred skins waiting for the treatment that would eventually lead to water-skins, armour, scabbards and boots. Kell stepped over channels running thick with disgorged brains.

‘What is that?’ gagged Nienna.

‘When the skins arrive, they need to be scraped free of dried fat and flesh. The tanners then soak skins in vats mixed with animal brains, and knead it with dog-shit to make it soft.’ He grinned at Nienna, face demonic in the gloomy light where shadows from gently swinging skins cast eerie shapes over his bearded features. ‘Now you can see why you were so lucky to be accepted into the university, girl. This is not a place for children.’

‘Yet a place where children work,’ said Kat, voice icy.

‘As you say.’

They moved warily between swinging skins, the two women flinching at the brush of hairy hides still strung with black flesh and long flaps of thick yellow fat. At one point Kat slipped, and Nienna grabbed her, hoisting her away from a channel filled with oozing mashed animal brains and coagulated blood.

‘This is purgatory,’ said Nienna, voice soft.

Kat turned away, and was sick.

As Kell emerged from the wall of hung skins, so he froze, eyes narrowing, head turning left and right. Before him stood perhaps twenty large vats, four with fires still burning beneath their copper bases. This was where excess flesh and hide strips were left to rot for months on end in water, before being boiled to make hide glue. If nothing else, this place stunk the worst of all and Kell was glad of the cloth he held over his mouth.

Then Kell turned, frowning, and strode towards a vat containing the foul-smelling broth and hoisted his axe. ‘Are you coming out, or do I come in axe-first?’

‘Whoa, hold yourself there, old fellow,’ came an educated voice, and from the shadows slipped a tall, athletic man. Nienna watched him, and found herself immediately attracted; something the dandy was no-doubt used to. His face was very finely chiselled, his hair black, curled, oiled back, neat above a trimmed moustache and long sideburns that were currently the height of fashion amongst nobles. He wore a rich blue shirt, dark trews, high cavalry boots and a short, expensive, fur-lined leather cloak. He had expensive rings on his fingers, a clash of diamonds and rubies. His eyes were a dazzling blue, even in this gloomy, murky, hellish place. He had what Nienna liked to call a smiling face.

Kat snorted. Nienna was about to laugh as well, so ridiculous did the nobleman look in this evil-smelling tannery from hell; until she saw his sword. This, too, had a faint air of the ridiculous, until she married it to his posture. Only then did she consider the broad shoulders, the narrow hips, the subtle stance of an experienced warrior. Nienna chided herself. This man, she realised, had been underestimated many times.

‘Why are you skulking back there, fool?’

‘Skulking? Skulking? Old horse, my name is Saark, and Saark does not skulk. And as for fool, I take such a jibe as I presume you intend; in utter good humour and jest at such a sorry situation and predicament in which we find ourselves cursed.’

‘Pretty words,’ snorted Kell, turning back to Nienna and Kat. He turned back, and realised Saark was close. Too close. The rapier touched Kell’s throat and there was a long, frozen moment of tension.

‘Pretty enough to get me inside your guard,’ said Saark, voice soft, containing a hint of menace.
‘I think we fight the same enemy,’ said Kell, eyes locked to Saark.

‘Me also!’ Saark stepped back and sheathed his blade. He held out his hand. ‘I am Saark.’

‘You already said.’

‘I believe it’s such a fine name, it deserves saying twice.’

Kell grunted. ‘I am Kell. This is Nienna, my granddaughter, and her friend Kat. We were thinking of stealing a boat. Getting the hell away from this invaded charnel house of a city.’

Saark nodded, moving close to Nienna and Kat. ‘Well, hello there, ladies.’ Both young women blushed, and Saark laughed, a tinkling of music, his eyes roving up and down their young frames.

‘Saark!’ snapped Kell. ‘There are more important things at play, here. Like the impending threat on our lives, for one.’

Saark made a tutting sound in the back of his throat, and surveyed his surroundings. And yet, despite his smile, his fine clothes, his finer words, Nienna could see the tension in this man; like an actor on the stage, playing a part he’d rehearsed a thousand times before, Saark was enjoying his performance. But he was hampered, by an emotion which chipped away at the edges of his mask.

Fear.

It lurked in his eyes, in his stance, in a delicate trembling of his hand. Nienna noticed. She enjoyed people-watching. She was good at it.

Saark took a deep breath. ‘How did you know I was here?’

‘I could smell you.’

‘Smell me?’ Saark grinned then, shaking his head. His face was pained. ‘I cannot believe you could smell me amidst this stench. I like to think I have better grooming habits.’

Kell had moved to a window, was standing back from the wooden shutters and watching soldiers down by the river. He turned and eyed Saark warily. ‘It was your perfume.’

‘Aaah! Eau du Petale. The very finest, the most excitingly exquisite…’

‘Save it. We’re moving. We can escape via the pipe which dumps tannin and slop out into the river. If we head down into the cellars, I’m sure…’

‘Wait.’ Saark brushed past Kell and stood, one manicured hand on the shutters, the other on the hilt of his rapier. Suddenly, Saark’s foppish appearance didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.

‘What is it?’

‘The carriage. I know it.’

Kell gazed out. A carriage had drawn alongside a cage full of weeping prisoners; all women. The carriage was black, glossy, and had an intricate crest painted on the door. The horses stomped and chewed at their bits, disturbed either by the stench of the tanneries or the moans of the women. The driver fought to keep the four beasts under control and their hooves clattered on ice-rimed cobbles.

‘Well, I know him,’ snarled Kell, as General Graal stalked towards the carriage and folded his arms. His armour gleamed. He ran a hand through his long white hair, an animal preening. ‘He’s the bastard in charge of this army. He called it the Army of Iron.’

‘You know him?’ Saark met Kell’s gaze.

‘The bastard sent a couple of his soldiers to kill me and the girls.’

‘He was far from successful, I see.’

‘I don’t die easy,’ said Kell.

‘I’m sure you don’t, old horse.’ Saark smiled, and turned back to the distant performance. The carriage door was opened by a lackey, and a man stepped down. He was dressed in furs, and held a cloth over his face against the chill of ice-smoke, which was dissipating even as they watched – its job now done. The man had shoulder length black hair, which gleamed.

‘Who is he?’ said Kell.

‘That,’ said Saark, staring hard at Kell, ‘is Dagon Trelltongue.’

‘The King’s advisor?’

Saark nodded. ‘King Leanoric’s most trusted man. He is, shall we say, the King’s regent when the King is away on business.’

‘What about Alloria?’

‘The Queen?’ Saark smiled. ‘I see, Kell, you have little schooling in nobility, or in royalty. It would be unseemly for a woman to rule in the King’s absence; you would have her meeting with common-folk? Doing business with captains and generals? I think not.’

‘Why,’ said Kell, ruffled, ‘would Trelltongue be here? Now?’

Saark transferred his gaze back to the two men beside the carriage. ‘A good question, my new and aged and ragged friend. However, much as I would love to make his acquaintance at this moment in time, I fear your escape plan to be sound – and immediately necessary. Would you like to lead the way, Kell, to this pipe of disgorging effluence?’

Kell hoisted his axe, looked at Nienna and Kat, then tensed, crouching a little, at what appeared behind the two women.

‘What is it?’ hissed Nienna, and turned…

From the hanging wall of skins, moving leisurely, gracefully, came a Harvester. Its flat oval face seemed emotionless, but the small black eyes, coals in a snowman’s face, searched across the room. Vertical slits hissed with air, and the creature seemed to be… sniffing. The Harvester gave a grimace that may have been a smile.

‘I followed you. Across the city.’ The voice was a dawdling, lazy roll, like big ocean waves on a fused beach.

Saark drew his rapier, and gestured to the two women to move. He took a deep breath, and watched as the Harvester lifted a hand. The embroidered robe fell away leaving five long, pointed fingers of bone…

‘I thought I explained, sweetie. You’re just not my type.’ But terror lay beyond Saark’s words, and as he and Kell separated, Kell loosening his shoulders, axe swinging gently, Saark muttered from the corner of his mouth, ‘Watch the fingers. That’s how they suck the life from your body.’
Kell nodded, as the blast of terror hit him. He stood, stunned by the ferocity of fear which wormed through his mind. He saw himself, lying in a hole in the ground, worms eating his eyes, his skin, his lungs, his heart.

Come to me, came the words in his head. A song. A lullaby. A call stronger than life itself.

Come to me, little one.

I will make the pain go away.


The Harvester drifted forward, and with a scream Saark attacked, rapier moving with incredible speed; a lazy backward gesture slapped Saark a full twenty feet across the tannery, where he landed, rolling fast, to slam against a vat with a groan.

Five bone fingers lifted.

Moved, towards Kell’s heart.

And with tears on his cheeks, the old soldier seemed to welcome them…



CHAPTER 3
A Taste of Clockwork.


Anukis awoke feeling drowsy; but then, the ever-present tiredness, like a lead-weight in her heart, in her soul, was something she had grown to endure over the years, something which she knew would never leave her because… because of what she was. She stretched languorously under thick goose-down covers, her long, curled, yellow hair cascading across plump pillows, her slender white limbs reaching out as if calling silently across the centuries for forgiveness.

Anukis glanced at the clock on the far wall. It was long, smooth, black like granite. Through a glass pane she could see tiny intricate cogs and wheels, spinning, turning, teeth mating neatly as micro-gears clicked into place. A pendulum swung, and a soft tick tick tick echoed through the room. Anukis’s eyes stared at the clock, loving it and hating it at the same time. She loved it because her father, Kradek-ka, had made the clock; and just like his father before him, he had been one of the finest Watchmakers in Silva Valley, his hands steady, precise, incredibly accurate with machining and assembly; his eye had been keen, not just with the precision of his trade, but with the delicate understanding of materials and what was perfect for any machine job. But it had been his mind that set him apart, indeed, highlighted him as a genius. Anu’s grandfather had accelerated and pioneered the art of watch-making, turning what had once been a relatively simple art of mechanical time-keeping into something more… advanced. This way, Kradek-ka had upheld the family traditions, and helped to save, to prolong, and to advance their race. The vachine.

Anukis rubbed at her eyes, then stood, gasping a little at the cool air in the room. Naked, goose-bumps ran up and down her arms and she hurried into a thick silk gown which fell to her ankles. She moved to a porcelain bowl and washed, her long, dainty fingers, easing water into her eyes, then carefully, into her mouth. She rubbed at her teeth, cold water stinging, then moved to the window of her high tower, gazing out over Silva Valley, eyes scanning the high mountain ridges which enclosed the huge tiered city like predator wings around a victim.

Anukis smiled. A victim. How apt.

Maybe they’ll come for me today, she thought. Maybe not.

A prisoner of the High Engineer Episcopate since her father had died (had been murdered, she thought hollowly), she was not allowed out from a small collection of rooms in this high tower suite. However, what the high-ranking religious Engineers and Major Cardinals did not realise, was that Anukis was not a pure oil-blood like the majority of the city population lying under a fresh fall of snow below, pretty and crystalline, a pastel portrait from her high window.

The smile faded from Anukis’s face.

No. She was far from pure. She carried the impurity seed within her. Which meant she could not drink blood-oil. Could not mate with the magick. Could not… feed, as a normal vachine would feed.
Anu could never enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

There came a knock at the door, and a maid entered carrying a small silver bowl which she placed by Anukis’s bed. With head bent low, she retreated, closing the door on silent hinges, hinges Anukis herself had oiled for the purpose of freedom. Anu moved to the bowl, glanced down at the tiny, coin-sized pool of blood-oil that floated there, crimson, and yet at the same time streaked with rainbow oils. This was the food of the vachine. Their fuel. That which made them unholy.

Anukis could not drink blood-oil. In its refined state, such as this, it poisoned her, and made her violently sick. She would be ill for weeks. To the Watchmakers, the Major Bishops, the Engineers, this was heresy, a mockery of their machine religion; punishable by exile, or more probably, death. Anu’s father had gone to great pains to protect his daughter for long years, hiding her away, dealing with the amoral Blacklippers of the south and their illegal import of Karakan Red, as it was known. Only this unrefined, common source – fresh from the vein – would, or could, sustain Anukis. And, she was sure, it was this subterfuge which had led to her father’s untimely death…

A face flashed in her mind. Vashell! Tall, athletic, powerful, tiny brass fangs poking over his lower lip. He was prodigal, a powerhouse of physical perfection and one of the youngest ever

Engineer Priests to have achieved such a rank. Destined for greatness. Destined for leadership!

One day, he would achieve the exalted rank of Major Cardinal; maybe even Watchmaker itself!

He had asked Anukis to marry him on two occasions, and both times her father had rejected Vashell’s advances, fearing that for Anukis to marry was for Anukis to die. But she saw the way Vashell looked at her. When he smiled, she glimpsed the tiny cogs and wheels inside his head, saw the glint of molten gold swirling in his eyes. He was true and pure vachine; a wholesome, blood-oil servant to the Vachine Religion. Vashell, a spoilt prince, an upstart royal, had got everything he ever wanted. And, she knew with a shudder, he would never stop until he possessed Anukis.

And… when that happens? She smiled sadly to herself.

Well, she would have to kill him. Or failing that, kill herself.

Far better death than what the Engineers would do to her if they discovered her tainted flesh…
Anukis opened the window and a cold wind gusted in, chilling her with a gasp and a smile. Far below, the sweeping granite roads shone under fresh snow, most of which had been swept into piles along the edges of the neat, gleaming thoroughfares. Buildings staggered away, maybe six or seven storeys in height, and all built from smooth white marble mined from the Black Pike Mountains. The architecture was stunning to behold, every joint precise. Arches and flutes, carvings and ornate buttresses, many inlaid with precious stones to decorate even the most bare of Silva Valley’s buildings – gifts from the all-giving Pikes. And the city itself was huge; it drifted away down the valley, mountains rearing like guardians to either side, for as far as Anukis could see. And her eyesight was brilliant. Her father had made sure of that.

The scent of snow came in to her, and she inhaled, savouring the cold. The vachine had a love affair with cold, but Anukis, being impure, and contaminated, preferred a little warmth. This, again, was a secret she had to jealously guard. If the Engineers discovered what she was… and the things she did when darkness fell…

Despite its well-oiled silence, Anukis caught the sound of the door opening. She also sensed the change in pressure within the room. Her eyes shone silver with tears and still gazing out over her beloved city, the one which her grandfather, and father, had given so much to advance, she said without turning, her voice a monotone, ‘What can I do for you, Vashell?’

‘Anukis, I would speak with you.’ His voice was soft, simple, almost submissive in its tone. But Anukis was not fooled; she had heard him chastise servants on many occasions, watched in horror as he beat them to death, or kicked them till they bled from savage wounds. He could change at the flick of a brass switch. He could turn to murder like a metal hawk drops on its prey…

‘I am still in mourning. There is little to say.’

‘Look at me, Anu. Please?’

Anukis turned, and wiped away a tear which had run down one cheek. With the tiniest of clicking sounds, she forced a smile to her face. Ultimately, her father would want her to live. Not sacrifice herself needlessly for the sake of sadness, or misery, or impurity. She took a deep breath. ‘I’m looking, Vashell. You have picked a bad time to intrude on my thoughts. And I am barely dressed. This is an unfortunate time to receive company. But then, if the High Engineer Episcopate keeps me a prisoner, I suppose my body is theirs to do with as they please…’

‘Hush!’ Vashell stepped forward, but stopped as Anukis shrank back, cowering almost, on the window-seat. ‘If anybody hears you speak so, your life will be forfeit! They will drain your blood-oil. You will be husked!’ For a vachine, there was no greater shame.

‘Why would you care?’ Her voice turned harsh, all the bitterness at her father’s death, all the poison at being kept prisoner rising to bubble like venom on her tongue. ‘You are a party to all this, Vashell! You said, twice, that you loved me. And twice you asked my father for the gift of marriage. Yet you stand by the Engineers whilst they keep me locked here,’ and now her eyes darkened, the gold swirling in their pupils turning almost crimson in her flush of anger, ‘and you collude in the capture of my sister.’

Vashell swallowed, and despite his mighty physical prowess, he edged uneasily from one polished boot to the next. ‘Shabis is fine, Anu. You know that. The Engineers are taking care of her. She is well.’

‘She is a young girl, Vashell, whose father has just died and whose sister has been imprisoned. When can I see her?’

‘It will be arranged.’

Anukis jumped down from the window-seat and strode to Vashell, gazing up at him. He was more than a head taller than the slender female, and she herself was nearly six feet in height. ‘You said that a week ago,’ she snarled, staring up into his eyes. Vashell squirmed.

‘It is not easy to arrange.’

‘You are an Engineer Priest! You can do anything!’

‘Not this.’ His voice dropped an octave. ‘You have no idea what you ask. So many in the High Council outrank me.’ He took a deep breath. ‘But… I will see what I can do. I promise.’

‘On your blood-oil soul?’

‘Yes, on my eternal soul.’

Anukis turned her back on him, moved to the window. She gazed across the city, but the beauty was now lost on her; decayed. A sudden wave of hate slammed through her, like a tsunami of ice against a frozen, volcanic beach. She would see it destroyed! She would see the Silva Valley decimated, and laid to a terrible waste…

‘You came here to ask me, didn’t you?’

‘I can help you, Anu.’

‘By marrying me?’

‘Yes! If you become the wife of an Engineer Priest, you will be sacrosanct. The Engineers cannot keep you prisoner! It would go against the Oak Testament. You know that.’

‘And yet, still I choose to say no.’

Anukis felt Vashell stiffen, without turning to look. She allowed herself a small smile. This was one thing she could deny him. But when he spoke again, the smile slowly drained from her face like bronze from a melting pot.

‘Listen carefully, pretty one, when I say this. For I will speak only once. Your father was found guilty of heresy by the Patriarch; I do not know what happened to him, but we both know, without seeing the corpse, that he is dead. The Engineers wanted you and your sister dead, also; I am all that stands between the two of you, and the Eternal Pyre. So, think very carefully before offering a facetious answer… because, if I choose to withdraw favour, the last of your worries will be your separation from your sister.’

Vashell swept from the apartment, door slamming in his wake so hard it rattled the oak frame. Dust trickled from between well-machined stones. Echoes bounced down the stairwell.

Shivering, Anukis turned and stared at the elegantly carved portal, then back out over the city. She shivered again, and this time it was nothing to do with the cold. Above her, her father’s clock ticked, every second reminding her of a melting life.

Anukis licked ice-cold lips.

She thought about blood.

And that which was denied her.

Tonight. Tonight, she would visit the Blacklippers.



The sun set over the mountains casting crimson shadows long against granite walkways. Anukis listened, acute hearing placing guards down in the tower entry. She could hear muted conversation, the flare of a lit pipe, the laughter of a crude rude joke. Anukis pulled on her ankle-length black gown, belted the waist, and lifted the hood to obscure her golden hair and pastel features.

She moved to a heavy cabinet beside the door, lifted it with ease, carrying it across a thick rug and tilting it to wedge under the door handle. Moving back to the window, she watched the sun’s weak, crimson rays finally die like spread fingers over the jagged peaks of the Black Pikes; then she leapt lightly onto the window seat and prised open the portal.

An ice wind whipped inside. Anukis climbed out, finding narrow handholds in the marble and stone, and easing herself over the awesome drop. ‘Don’t look down,’ she murmured, but just couldn’t help herself. It was a long fall to hard granite ruts polished smooth by brass wheels. Anukis eased herself along the narrow crack, moving only one hand, or one boot, at a time, so she always had three points of contact. The wind snapped at her with teeth. Away from the window, darkness fell like molten velvet. Anukis felt totally isolated. Alone.

For perilous minutes she eased herself around the flank of the tower, to where she’d discovered a worn vertical rut. Above, tiles converged into a marble trough which had grown a leak, probably a hundred or more years previous. This in turn had allowed water to groove the marble facade, giving slightly deeper handholds, almost like steps, down which Anukis could climb several storeys to a sloping ridge of tiles.

Several times she almost slipped; once, gasping, she swung away from the wall and her boots scrabbled on marble as sweat stung her eyes, and she felt a finger-nail crack. But she calmed her breathing, stopped her panicked kicking, and hauled herself up on bloody fingertips, regaining her handhold, saving her life.

Down, she eased, an inch at a time, as the wind mocked her with brutal laughter.

Below, Silva Valley spread away, some sections well lit, others deep dark pits of intimidation. Despite Watchmaker rule, not every vachine was equal; a complex religious hierarchy existed which sometimes led to murder and civil unrest. Royal torture was delivered for gross acts of sacrilege, but the vachine were powerful, proud, and physically superior. The illegals took some ruling. Only the Machine God kept them sane.

Anukis hit the tiles lightly and dropped to a crouch. Her eyes scanned, swirling with gold, finding the patrolling Engineer Deacons and their minions and watching them as she had watched from her cell window. With care, she eased across sloping tiles on her carefully plotted route, and dropped down to a second storey balcony. She knocked a plant-pot, which clattered, and swiftly she scaled the rails, hung, and dropped to a lower balcony as light emerged above her, muttering voices casting curses on the wind.

Anukis landed on the smooth granite road, and checked herself. Tugging her hood tight, she hurried down the dark street, winding downhill to the Brass Docks.

Silva Valley was just that, a valley; but at its heart, a dissection, lay the Silva River, which emerged from a complex core of caves and vast subterranean tunnel systems beneath the Black Pike Mountains, and named the Deshi Caves. In his youth, Anukis’s father Kradek-ka had explored the tunnels in detail, had been part of several professional vachine expeditions to map the labyrinth beneath the mountains. But something odd had occurred which the more religious of the vachine called bo-adesh. Occasionally, the tunnels moved, altered, shifted within the infrastructure of the mountain vaults. Some said it was down to blood-oil magick; some said the Black Pike Mountains were alive, had been alive longer than Man, and were in contempt of vachine deviation and intrusion. Whatever, many of the under-mountain routes were mapped and used for travel on long brass barges, or even to reach other distant valleys; but some were prohibited. Dangerous. Death to those that travelled…

In those early days of exploration, many had been lost to the Deshi Caves. Anukis remembered long cold evenings, sitting on her father’s knee, staring into dancing flames as he recounted some of his travels, how they used blood-oil markers on the stone, ropes under the water, magick fires by which to see. And still many had died; hundreds had died, lost, drowned, or simply vanished.

Sometimes, an empty brass barge would drift from the mist of an early morning, a single bell chiming. Empty. No signs of struggle. It had been Kradek-ka’s view that terrible beasts lived under the Black Pike Mountains; creatures nobody had ever before seen… or at least, seen and lived thereof to speak.

Anukis shivered; and not just with the cold.

She stopped at an intersection, easing into shadows beyond the pooled light from a swinging brass lamp. Two guards passed and stopped beneath the yellow orb, lighting long pipes and exchanging pleasantries. Anu watched them carefully; these weren’t real Engineer Deacons; they didn’t have the shaved heads and facial tattoos of the Royal; but they were as near as damn it. And certainly authorised to kill Anukis beyond curfew. She smiled, her smile a crescent in a bloodless face. And the reason for curfew?

The vachine were running out of blood-oil.

The vachine had bled the cattle dry…

Oh, the irony!

The guards moved on, and so did Anukis, loping across the road and delving into more darkness. Down she strode, cloak pulled tight, breath emerging in short gasps of dragon smoke.

She rounded a corner, and the Silva River opened before her, vast, wide, and glass-still at the base of the Silva Valley. Buildings staggered in staccato leaps far down the steep descent before her, right to the ebony water’s edge. Anukis hurried on, down narrow back-streets of this vast and beautiful city, down ill-advised routes. Three times she spotted thieves before they spotted her, and circumnavigated their positions. Even so, she knew, she would have needed no weapon to deal with their kind. Outcast. Impure…

Like me, she realised.

But then, despite her disabilities, she was… special.

Her father had made sure of that.

Anukis reached the long flanks of the Brass Docks and halted, a few feet from the water, listening to the lilting slap against brass jetties. She waited patiently, searching out more guards; finally, she moved down a wide curving walkway which followed the crescent of the Silva River towards… The Black Pikes. And the Mouth, which disgorged ice-pure mineral-rich waters from deep beneath echoing mountain halls. She felt the Breath before she saw the river’s ominous exit; it emerged, hissing and singing sometimes, to wash cool mineral-scented air over those who stood within five hundred yards. Anukis walked into the breeze, which tugged annoyingly at her hood, and stopped by the Brass Docks warehouse block. She glanced right, where huge brass and bronze freighters bobbed at anchor, trade vessels and smaller navy vehicles, many unmanned and silent, some showing tiny yellow glows from fat-oil lamps. Carefully, she stepped down a narrow alley and entered a maze, skilfully negotiating a complex route which led her to a steep, dark stairwell.

From the depths, a cold breeze blew, and Anu skipped down slick granite, slowing as she reached the bottom. The crossbow appeared before the Blacklipper, strung and tensioned, and his teeth gleamed behind the black-tainted scarring of his lips.

‘Going somewhere, my pretty?’

‘I have business with Preyshan.’

The Blacklipper moved from the shadows, and she saw he was what they called a Deep Blood; not only his lips were stained black from the powerful narcotic, even the veins beneath his skin had taken the taint, showing a diffused map of web-strands beneath his pale white skin. Anukis shuddered inside; he had to be close to death to look like this. Ready for the Voyage of the Soul.

Seeing the shudder, the man smiled. ‘Don’t you be worrying about me, pretty one. I’ve had a good life. My Paradise awaits.’

‘One filled with blood-oil?’

The crossbow jerked towards her, and his eyes narrowed. ‘One such as you shouldn’t readily condemn, pretty, outcast vachine.’

Only she wasn’t an outcast.

Because – they didn’t know… yet.

And if the Watchmakers discovered her impurity?

She heard they had special chambers for just such occurrences.

Anukis shuddered, and squeeze past the leering Blacklipper, feeling his fetid rigor-mortis breath on her face, his body pressed close to her own, its muscles surprisingly iron-hard beneath his web-traced skin. She hurried on, down more and more steps, and deep into a maze of brass-walled corridors which eventually gave out to smooth-hewn tunnels, some flooded. Several times Blacklippers challenged her, and several times Anukis used her magick card. The name: Preyshan. One of the three kings of the Blacklippers.

As she entered the maze beneath the Silva River, so she could discern a distant booming sound. It was said to be the noise made by the souls of the drowned, banging on the river bed for spiritual release. Anukis moved on, hand touching the smooth wall where lode-veins of crystals and blood-red mineral deposits could be traced, glittering, in the glow of irregularly placed fat-lamps.

The corridor ended in an iron gate. She gave her name, and the gate swung open revealing a long, low chamber filled with perhaps fifty men, and only a handful of women. Many were Blacklippers, some from the south, over the mountains; Falanor couriers who had sworn an oath to keep from using blood-oil and its deviants in order to turn huge profits smuggling. Money, not blood-oil, was their own particular narcotic.

‘Anu!’ boomed Preyshan, striding forward, towering over the vachine and beaming her a generous smile. His lips were jet black, riddled with blood-oil, his eyes blue and wide. He wore a bushy black beard, and his size was prodigious beneath cheap market clothing. ‘So long since you last visited! How is your father?’

‘My father is dead,’ said Anukis, voice soft, her eyes lowered to the ground lest she fill with tears and betray her weakness here, of all places. ‘I think the Engineers murdered him.’ Preyshan reached out, a huge, black-nailed hand cupping her chin and lifting her eyes to his, where there came a spark of connection.

‘Truly, Anukis, I am sorry. He was a great man.’

‘And now he’s a dead man.’

‘You have escaped their machinations?’

‘For now. But I must return. I have come for…’ She did not say it. Could not say it. But Preyshan understood; after all, the only vachine who visited Preyshan and his underground minions were those in need of the impure, and the illegal, Karakan Red. Smuggled in from beyond Black Pike.

Fresh blood.

Preyshan gestured, and could sense the need in Anukis. A man ran forward with a small brass cylinder. He passed it to Anukis, who took it gratefully and unscrewed the top. Carefully, she consumed a small amount of the contents, and the Red glistened on her lips. As Preyshan watched, the blood shone against tiny, elongated canines of the female vachine before him, and he caught a sense of movement deep within her mouth; of whirring wheels, tiny cogs meshing and integrating, balancer shafts lifting, rotating cylinders and pumping pistons. He smiled, and it was a dry smile.

Paradoxical, thought the large Blacklipper, that as the vachine feed from man, so here, and now, in an ironic twist of fate and science, so men feed from the vachine to become Blacklipper. A twisted symbiosis? Ha! He could debate the philosophy all night.

Anukis gave a deep, drawn-out breath. Gold clouds, like golden oil, swirled in her eyes. She glanced up, a swift movement, lethargy gone as energy infused her, as blood infused her. ‘I’ll need to take more,’ she said, quietly.

Preyshan nodded. ‘Why not stay here, with us? You will be safe here, Anu. You know that.’

For an instant she saw the longing in the big man’s eyes, but then it was gone, a neat mask replaced, the portcullis gate closed. Anukis licked her lips, tracing the last of the Red and swallowing. Inside, she felt greased. Oiled. Whole again.

‘I cannot. The Engineers have Shabis…’

Preyshan nodded, and taking the woman’s elbow, guided her to one side of the low chamber. Here, where a breeze blew in from deep subterranean mountain tunnels, where they could not be overheard, Preyshan leant against the wall and interlaced his fingers.

‘If you stay, Anukis, I will fetch Shabis for you.’

‘How…’

He reached out, placed a finger against her lips. ‘You vachine are powerful, yes. But you do not understand my heritage; or my history.’ His eyes glittered. ‘The Engineers hold no fear, for me. Nor does Vashell.’

Anukis shook her head. ‘If I allowed you to do this, I would place you all in great jeopardy. Your whole world…’

‘I know this. We know this. Our existence is a dangerous one at best. But still…’ He touched her arm. ‘You know I would do this for you. For your father, the great man, but mainly… for you.’

‘I understand.’ Anukis stepped forward, reached up on tip-toe, and kissed him on his black necrotic lips. ‘You are a great man, Preyshan. I am lucky to be… loved, by such as you.’

Preyshan opened his mouth to speak, but his eyes narrowed, shifting over Anukis’s shoulder.

‘Breach!’ screamed a voice, followed by a metallic screech and a twanging sound as five crossbows disgorged industrial quarrels. Three vachine, tall, athletic, hands curved into gleaming metal claws, skin peeled back from faces revealing long, curved steel fangs bared and growling, screaming, leapt from the tunnel. Crossbow bolts riddled them, and one vachine was punched back, slamming the wall, body a torn and twitching marionette of tattered flesh and twisted, bent gears; savaged clockwork. The others leapt amongst the men in great bounds, claws slashing left and right sending severed limbs flying, and long fangs descending on throats, ripping out windpipes in a sudden harsh attack. Swords hissed from sheaths as the two vachine paused, hunkered on all fours like beasts, heads rotating, eyes glittering, tiny cogs and wheels humming in their skulls. The Blacklippers converged, sword and axes drawn, spears held in clammy hands, faces grim with a need to kill these invaders –

Preyshan ran forward, his own sword held in one great paw, his face merciless in the cold glow of brass lamps. The vachine leapt, fangs tearing at arms and throats in a mad flurry of ripping flesh and savagery and inhuman speed; swords slammed, spears stabbed, and Preyshan, as if with some primeval instinct, turned back towards the iron gates – open, now, with this sudden breach of violence.

His soul fell from his world.

In the tunnel, more vachine eyes glittered. And with a roar they flooded the chamber, ten, twenty, fifty of the clockwork vampires, bowling over and through the Blacklippers ripping at flesh tearing heads from bodies steel fangs and brass claws tearing easily through unprotected flesh and succulent raw bone…

Preyshan skidded, turned, sprinted back towards Anukis who stood, shocked, mind not registering what her eyes could see. ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ he screamed at her, pounding across stone, but as he reached her he faltered, and his eyes met hers, and there was confusion there, and sudden pain, and he glanced down at the brass blade emerging from his chest. Blood bubbled around the wound, and his mouth opened allowing blood to roll through his thick beard. He reached out towards Anukis, and their fingers met, but Preyshan carried on falling to the floor and hit with a heavy slap. He lay still.

Anukis fell to her knees amidst the sounds of slaughter, tears on her pale cheeks, and she stroked Preyshan’s beard. Gradually, a presence drifted through her confusion, and into her consciousness. Sobbing, she glanced up.

Vashell smiled, placed his boot on Preyshan’s back, and pulled free his short brass sword, weighing the weapon thoughtfully.

‘What a surprise, finding you here in this den of iniquity. And I see, you’ve drank your fill of Karakan Red. And left none for me? Tut tut, sweetheart.’ He shook his head, eyes mocking. ‘No wonder you could never marry me, Anukis.’ He squared his shoulders. Took a deep breath through fangs stuck with torn flesh. ‘I see now, with your impurity, with your taint, with your fucking sacrilege, how we could never be compatible.’

‘Damn you, Vashell! What brought you here? Why kill these…’

‘Blacklippers? Why? You ask me why?’ He pressed the heavy brass blade against Anukis’s throat and lifted her, panting, from her knees using the point. ‘Because, my darling, they are illegal smugglers. Because, sweetheart, they undermine our core vachine society. And because, my beautiful little Anukis, they are the unholy, the impure, and the damned.’ He glanced over his shoulder, where savage vachine warriors had finished off the last of the Blacklippers in a bought of savagery that had sprayed the walls with blood. The chamber was littered with mangled corpses. The vachine started a low, metallic keening, and with fangs ejecting, savoured the kill. Vashell leant close. His breath was sweet. ‘Just like you,’ he said.





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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Angry Robot Free Fiction: Kell's Legend Part 3!

Hey everyone, here's the third excerpt of Andy Remic's Kell's Legend, Book One of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, from Angry Robot - enjoy!






Chapter 2
A Dark Shroud Falls
.

Kell reached Jalder University’s huge iron gates and stopped, panting, wiping sweat from his eyes. He listened, eyes darting left and right. Screams echoed, distant, muffled by ice-smoke. And more, off to the right, down the hill from where he’d emerged. Kell’s teeth clamped tight, muscles standing out along the ridge of his jaw-line; the bastards were murdering everybody! And for what? What petty purpose of slaughter? Invasion? Wealth? Greed? Power? Kell spat, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

I thought I’d left the Days of Blood behind?

I thought my soldiering was done. He smiled, a grim bloodless smile with coffee-stained teeth. Well, laddie, it seems somebody has a different plan for you!

Hoisting his matt-black axe, Kell glanced momentarily at the twin butterfly-shaped blades, like curved wings. It would have been a very dark butterfly: poisonous, deadly, utterly without mercy.

This was Kell’s bloodbond. The Ilanna. Sister of the Soul, a connection wrenched from him by ancient rites and dark blood-oil magick, flowing with his lifeblood, his very essence. Ilanna had many tales to tell. But then, the horror stories of the axe were for another day.

Kell moved warily up a well-kept path. He could barely see past low bushes and winter flowers which lined the walkway beyond neatly trimmed grass. He stopped, as something loomed from the mist: it was a circle of corpses, young women, each a shrivelled dry husk with faces stretched like horror masks, skin brittle like glass. Kell’s heart-rate increased and his grip tightened.

If they’ve hurt Nienna, he thought.

If they’ve hurt Nienna…

He reached the entrance, past more corpses from which he averted his eyes. Up stone steps, he rattled the large oak doors. Locked. Kell’s gaze swept the mist, his senses singing to him; they were out there, the soldiers, he could feel them, sense them, smell them. But… Kell frowned. There was something else. Something ancient, stalking the mist.

Shivering with premonition, Kell moved warily around the edges of the building. He found a low window, and using his axe-blade, prised the jamb and struggled inside. It was cool and dark.

Ice-smoke swirled around the floor. No candles were lit, and Kell’s boots padded across thick rich carpets, past fine displays of silverware and ceiling-high shelving containing an orgy of books.

Kell seemed to be in some kind of office, and he reached the door – with its ornate arched frame – and eased out into a carpeted corridor lined with small statues. He listened. Nothing… then a scream, so loud and close-by it rammed Kell’s heart into his mouth. He whirled, around the nearest corner, to see a young woman on her knees, hands above her face, palms out, skin blue with cold.

An albino soldier stood over her, a short knife in his hand. He turned as Kell’s eyes fell on him… despite Kell making no sound.

The albino smiled.

Kell launched his axe, which sang across the short expanse and thudded through armour and breast-bone, punching the soldier from his feet to sit, stunned, a huge butterfly cleaving his heart. His mouth opened, and milk-blood ran over pale lips and down his chin. Kell strode forward and crouched before the albino.

‘But… you should be powerless against us,’ whispered the man, eyes blinking rapidly.

‘Yeah, laddie?’ Kell grasped the axe-haft, put his boot against the soldier’s chest, and ripped the weapon free in a shower of waxy blood. ‘I think you’ll find I’m a little different.’ He bared his teeth in a skull smile. ‘A little more… experienced, shall we say.’

Kell turned and crouched by the woman, but she was dead, skin blue, eyes ringed purple. Her tongue protruded, and Kell touched it; it was frozen solid, and he could feel the chill through his gloves.

A distant memory tugged at Kell, then. It was the ice-smoke. He’d seen it, once before, as a young soldier on the Selenau Plains. His unit had come across an old garrison barracks housing King Drefan’s men; only they were dead, frozen, eyes glassy, flesh stuck to the stone. As the cavalry squad dismounted and entered the barracks, so tiny wisps of mist had dissipated, despite sunlight shining bright outside. Kell’s sergeant, a wide brutal man called Heljar, made the sign of the Protective Wolf, and the inexperienced men amongst the squad imitated him, aware it could do no harm. ‘Blood-oil magick,’ Heljar had whispered, and they’d backed from the garrison barracks with boots crunching ice.

Kell rubbed at his beard through leather gloves, and glanced down at his axe. Ilanna. Blessed in blood-oil, she would protect him against ice-smoke, he knew. She would allow him to kill these magick-cursed men. Allow? Kell smiled a bitter smile. Hell, she would encourage it.

Now. Where would Nienna be? The dormitories?

If under attack, where would she run?

Kell, following instinct, following a call of blood, eased through long corridors and halls of the university building, past corpses and several times past soldiers intent on their search. Up to the second floor, Kell found piles of bodies, all frozen, all arranged as if awaiting… what? What the hell do they want, wondered his confused mind?

A scream. Above.

Kell broke into a run, past lines of bodies laid out with arms by sides, faces serene in cold and death. His hands were tight on Ilanna, his breathing ragged and harsh, and he could sense his granddaughter close by. Up more steps, growing reckless the more he grew frantic with rising fear.

Through a dormitory, beds neatly made, wooden chests unopened, and up another tight spiral staircase, taking the steps two at a time, his old legs groaning at him, muscles on fire, joints stabbing him with pain, but all this was washed aside by a surge of adrenalin as Kell slammed into the room –

There were four dead girls, lying on the floor, with long hair seeming to float behind pale chilled faces. Nienna and two others stood, armed with ornamental pikes they’d dragged from the walls during their flight. Before them stood three albino warriors with long white hair, all carrying short swords, their black armour a gleaming contrast to porcelain skin.

The soldiers turned as one, as Kell burst in. With a scream he leapt at them, axe slamming left in a whirr that severed one soldier’s sword-arm and left him kneeling, stump spewing milk blood.

Nienna leapt forward, thrusting her commandeered pike into an albino’s throat but he moved fast, grabbing the weapon and twisting it viciously from Nienna’s grip. She stumbled back nursing injured wrists, and watched with mouth open as the skewered albino stubbornly refused to die.

‘Magick!’ she hissed.

The albino nodded, smiling a smile which disintegrated as Kell’s axe cleaved down the centre of his skull and dropped him in an instant. The third soldier turned to flee, but Ilanna sang, smashing through his clavicle. The second strike severed his head with a savage diagonal stroke.

The world froze in sudden impact.

Kell, chest heaving, moved forward. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘Grandpa!’ She fell into his arms, her friends coming up close behind, their faces drawn in fear, etched with terror. ‘It’s awful! They stormed the university, started to kill everybody with swords and… and…’

‘And magick,’ whispered a young woman, with short red hair and topaz eyes. ‘I’m Katrina. Kat to my friends. You are Kell. I’ve read everything about you, sir, your history, your exploits… your adventures! You are a hero! The hero of Kell’s Legend!’

‘We’ve not time for this,’ growled Kell. ‘We have to get out of the city. The soldiers are killing everyone.!’

Katrina stooped, and hoisted one of the albino’s swords. ‘Normal weapons won’t kill them, right?’

Kell nodded. ‘You catch on fast, girl. The soldiers are blessed – or maybe cursed – with blood-oil magick. Only a suitably blessed and holy weapon can slay them. Either that, or remove their heads.’

‘Will this kill them?’

‘There’s only one way to find out.’

Nienna and the third young woman, Volga, armed themselves with the dead soldiers’ swords. Kell led them to the spiral stairs, moving cat-like, wary, his senses alert, his aches and pains, arthritis and lumbago all gone. He could sense the women’s fear, and that was bad; something dark flitted across his soul, something pure evil settling in Kell’s mind. He didn’t want the responsibility of these women. They were nothing to him. An inconvenience. He wanted simply to save Nienna. The other two? The other two women could…

I can kill them, if you like.

The thought came not so much as words, as primitive, primal images, drifting like a shroud across his thoughts. For a decade she had remained silent. But with fresh blood, fresh magick, fresh death, Ilanna had found new life…

‘No!’

They halted, and Nienna touched his arm gingerly. ‘Are you well, Grandpa?’

‘Yes,’ came his strangled reply; and for a moment he gazed at his bloodbond axe with unfathomable horror. The Ilanna was powerful, and evil, and yet – yet he knew without her he would not survive this day. Would not survive this hour. He owed her – it, damn it! – owed it his life. He owed it everything…

‘I am well,’ he forced himself to say, words grinding through gritted teeth. ‘Come. We need to reach the river. We can steal a boat there, attempt to get away from this… horror.’

‘I think you will find the river frozen,’ said a low, gentle voice.

The group had emerged like maggots from a wound, spilling from stairs into a long, low hall lined with richly polished furniture gleaming under ice-light from high arched windows. The whole scene appeared grey and silver; a portrait delicately carved in ice.

Kell stopped, mouth a line, mind whirring mechanically. The man was tall, lithe, wearing black armour without insignia. He was albino, like the other soldiers, with long white hair and ashen skin; and yet, yet – Kell frowned, for there was authority there, integral, a part of his core; and something not quite right. This was the leader. Kell did not need to be told. And his eyes were blue. They glittered like sapphires.

‘You are?’

‘General Graal. This is my army, the Army of Iron, which has forcibly taken and now controls the city of Jalder. We have overrun the garrison, stormed the Summer Palace, subdued the soldiers and population. All with very little loss to my own men. And yet – ’ He smiled then, teeth bared, and took a step forward, the two soldiers flanking Graal remaining in position so the general was fore-grounded, set apart by his natural authority. ‘And yet you, old man, are fast becoming a thorn in my side.’

Kell, who had been eyeing other corridors which fed the hall in the hope of an easy escape route, eased to his right and checked for enemy. The corridor was empty. He turned, fixing a steel gaze on the general who seemed to be observing Kell with private amusement; or at least, the disdain a piranha reserves for an injured fish.

‘I apologise,’ growled Kell, eyes narrowed, ‘that I haven’t rolled over to die like so many other puppies.’ His eyes flashed dangerous with a new and concentrated form of hate. ‘It would seem you caught many of the city-folk by surprise, Graal, with the benefit of blood-oil magick at your disposal. I’m sure this makes you feel like a big cock bastard down at the barracks, Graal, the whore-master, joking about how he killed babes in their beds and soldiers in their sleep. The work of a coward.’

Graal was unfazed by insult. He tilted his head, watching Kell, feminine face laced with good humour. ‘What is your name, soldier?’ His words were a lullaby; soft and enticing. Come to me, that voice whispered. Join with me.

‘I am Kell. Remember it well, laddie, ’cause I’m going to carve it on your arse.’

‘But not today, I fear. Men? Kill them. Kill them all.’

The two albino soldiers eased forward, bodies rolling with athletic grace. Kell’s eyes narrowed. These men were special, he could tell. They were professional, and deadly. He knew; he’d killed enough during his long, savage lifetime.

The two soldiers split, one moving for Kell, the other for Nienna, Kat and Volga. They accelerated smoothly, leaping forward and Kell leapt to meet his man, axe slamming down, but the albino had gone, rolling, sword flickering out to score a line across Kell’s bearskin-clad bicep that saw the big man stagger back, face like thunder, teeth gritted and axe clamped in both hands.

‘A pretty trick, boy.’

The albino said nothing, but attacked again, swift, deadly, sword slamming up then twisting, cutting left, right, to be battered aside by the butterfly-blades of Kell’s axe. The albino spun, his blade hammering at Kell’s neck. Kell’s axe slammed the blade aside with a clatter. A reverse thrust sent the bloodbond axe towards the albino’s chest, but the man rolled fast and came up, grinning a full-teeth grin.

‘You’re fast, old man.’ His voice was like silver.

‘Not fast enough,’ snapped Kell, irate. He was starting to pant, and pain flickered in his chest.
Too old, taunted that pain. Far too old for this kind of dance…

The albino leapt, sword slamming at Kell’s throat. Kell leant back, steel an inch from his windpipe, and brought his axe up hard. There was a discordant clash. The soldier’s sword sailed across the room, clattering from the wall.

‘Kell!’ came the scream. He whirled, saw instantly Nienna’s danger. The three young women were backing away, swords raised, the second albino warrior bearing down on them, toying with them. But his stance changed; now, he meant business. Even as Kell watched, the man’s sword flickered out and Nienna, face contorted, lashed out clumsily with her commandeered sword; it was batted aside, and on the reverse sweep the albino’s blade cut deep across Yolga’s belly. Cloth parted, skin and muscle opened, and the young woman’s bowels spilled out. She fell to her knees, face white, lips mouthing wordless, her guts in her hands. Blood spilled across complex-patterned carpet. ‘No!’ screamed Nienna, and attacked with a savage ferocity that belied her size and age. And as the albino’s sword slashed at her throat, in slow-motion, an unnervingly accurate killing stroke, Kell heaved his axe with all his might. The weapon flew, end over end making a deep thrumming sound. It embedded so far through the albino that both blades appeared through his chest. With spine severed, he dropped instantly, flopping spastically on the ground where he began to leak.

Kell whirled back, eyes sweeping the room. The first soldier had regained his sword. Of Graal, there was no sign. The man, eyes locked on his dead comrade, fixed his gaze on Kell. The look was not comforting, and the arrogant smile was gone. He stalked towards the old warrior who realised –
Bastard, he thought. He’d thrown his axe.

Kell backed away.

You should never throw your axe.

‘Graal said nothing about a swift death,’ snapped the albino, and Kell read in those crimson eyes a need for cruelty and torture. Here was a man with medical instruments in his pack; here was a man who enjoyed watching life-light die like the fall of a deviant sun.

Kell held up his hands, bearded face smiling easily. ‘I have no weapon.’ Although this was a lie: he had his Svian sheathed beneath his left arm, a narrow blade, but little use against a sword.

The albino drew square, and Kell, backing away, kept his hands held in supplication.

‘Your point is?’

‘It’s hardly a fair fight, laddie. I thought you were a soldier, not a butcher?’

‘We all have our hobbies,’ said the albino with a delicate smile.

Nienna’s sword entered his neck, clumsily but effectively, from behind, smashing his clavicle and embedding in his right lung. The albino coughed, twisted, and went down on one knee all at the same time. His sword lashed out in a reverse sweep, but Nienna skipped back, bloodied steel slipping from her fingers.

The albino coughed again, a heavy blood cough, and felt blood bubbling and frothing in his damaged lung. He felt the world swim. There was no pain. No, he thought. This wasn’t how it should end. He felt tingling blood-magick in his veins, and his fingers twitched at the intercourse. He dropped to his other knee. Blood welled in his throat, filled his mouth like vomit, and spilled down his black armour making it gleam. His head swam, as if he’d imbibed alcohol, injected blood-oil, merged with the vachine. He tried to speak, as he toppled to the carpet, and his eyes traced the complex patterns he found there. Darkness was coming. And weight. It was pressing down on him. He glanced up, unable to move, to see boots. He strained, more white blood pooling like strands of thick saliva from his open maw. Kell was standing, his axe, blades stained with blood and tiny flutters of torn flesh, held loose in one hand, resting on the carpet. Kell’s head was lowered, and to the albino his eyes looked darker than dark; they appeared as pools of ink falling away into infinity. Kell lifted his axe. The albino soldier tried to shout, and he squirmed on the carpet in some final primitive instinct; a testament to an organism’s need to survive.

Ilanna swept down. The albino was still.

Kell turned, glanced at Nienna. She was cradling Volga’s head and the girl was mumbling, face ashen, clothes ruined by her own arterial gore. The other girl, Kat, was standing to one side, eyes wide, mouth hung loose. As Kell watched, Volga spasmed and died in Nienna’s arms.

‘Why?’ screamed Nienna, head snapping up, anger burning in the glare she threw at Kell.
Kell shrugged wearily, and gathered up one of the albino’s swords. This one was different. The steel was black, and intricately inlaid with fine crimson runes. He had seen this sort of work before. It was said the metal was etched with blood-oil; blessed, in fact, by the darkness: by vachine religion. Kell ripped free the albino’s leather sheath, and looped it over his shoulders. He sheathed the sword smoothly and moved to Nienna.

‘Get your sword. We need to move.’

‘I asked you – why?’

‘And my answer is because. I don’t know, girl. Maybe the gods mock us. The world is evil. Men are evil. Volga was in the wrong place at the wrong damn time, but you are alive, and Kat is alive, so pick up your sword and follow me. That is,’ he smiled a nasty smile, ‘if you still want to live.’

Nienna moved to the fallen soldier. She took hold of her embedded sword, and tugged at it until it finally gave; it squelched from the corpse. She shuddered, tears running down her cheeks, and followed Kell to the corridor. Kat put her hand on Nienna’s shoulder, but the young woman shrugged off the intimacy, displacing friendship.

‘How do you feel?’

Nienna snorted a laugh. ‘I think I’ve lost my faith in God.’

‘I lost mine a long time ago,’ said Kat, eyes tortured. Nienna stared at her friend, then.

‘Why?’

‘Now is not the time.’ Kat hoisted her own stolen sword. ‘You did well, Nienna. I froze. Seeing Volga like that…’ She took a deep breath, and patted her friend once more. ‘Honest. You did brilliant. You… saved us all.’

‘How so?’

‘That soldier would have killed your grandpa. Without a weapon, he was just meat.’

Nienna looked at her friend oddly, then transferred her gaze back to Kell, whose eyes were sweeping the long, majestic hall. He glanced back, bloodied axe in his great huge paws. And with his thick grey beard and the bulk of his bearskin, for a moment in time, a sliver of half-glimpsed reality, he appeared to be natural in that skin. A warrior. No, more. A bestial and primitive ghost.

‘Follow me,’ he said, breaking the spell. ‘And stay silent. Or we’ll all be dead.’

Nienna nodded, and with Kat in tow, they followed Kell out to the hall.



Saark stared, transfixed, as the Harvester stooped and bobbed, striding forward with a rhythmical, swinging gait, ice-smoke trailing from its robes, black eyes like glossy coals drawing Saark into a world of sweetness and joy and uplifting mercy –

Come to me, angel.

Come to me, holy one.

Let me savour your blood.

Let me take you on the final journey.

Let me taste your life…


The long, bony fingers reached for Saark, who stood with every muscle tense, his body thrumming like the string on a mandolin. Saark’s eyes flickered, saw the hooded man creeping up behind the Harvester even as those long points of white reached for Saark’s chest and his shirt seemed to peel away and five white-hot needles scorched his skin and he opened his mouth to scream as he felt flesh melt but there was no sound and no words and no control and pain slapped Saark like a helve to the skull, stunning him, his legs going weak as an ice-wind whipped across his soul–
The hooded man screamed a battle-cry and charged, a large meat-cleaver held clear above his head, his bearded face, red and bitten savagely by the ice-smoke, contorted into a mask of frenzy.

The Harvester turned, smooth, unhurried, and as the cleaver lashed down the Harvester’s arm lifted in a sudden acceleration, and the cleaver bounced from bone with a clack and spun off, lost from the man’s flexing hands. The Harvester’s finger slammed out, puncturing the man’s chest above his heart. He screamed.

Saark fell to his knees, choking, coughing, and released from the spell, grappled wildly at his burning, melting chest. He glanced down, at five deep welts in his skin, deep purple sores surrounded by concentric circles of heavy bruising. Saark continued to cough, as if slammed in the heart by a sledge-hammer, and he watched helpless as the Harvester lifted the brave attacker high into the air kicking and screaming, impaled by the heart on five spears of bone. Body thrashing, the man screamed and screamed and Saark’s eyes widened as he watched the man sucked and shrivelled, arms and legs cracking, contorting, snapping at impossible angles as the skin of his face was drawn and shrivelled until it was a dry, useless, eyeless, husk.

The corpse hit the ground with a rattle; like bones in a paper bag.

The Harvester turned back to Saark, flat oval face leering at him. Thin lips opened revealing a black interior ringed with row after row of tiny teeth.

Saark grunted, rolled onto his hands and knees and accelerated into a sprint faster than any man had a right to. He powered away, chest on fire, heart pounding a tattoo in his ears, mouth Harmattan dry, bladder leaking piss in squirts down his legs. Down long alleys he fled, with no sounds of pursuit. He turned, and almost choked. The Harvester was pounding after him, so close and silent Saark almost fell on his face with shock. He slammed right, twisting down a narrow alleyway, dropping ever downwards towards the river. He skidded on icy cobbles, turned again, and again, ducking into narrow spaces between carts and stalls and wagons, squeezing past boxes, and suddenly shoulder-charging a door to his left and barging through a deserted house, past still bubbling pans and up narrow stairs to the roof –

He halted, listening.

Nothing.

His terrified eyes roved the staircase below, and he moved to the window and stared down into the street. Had he lost it? He tried to calm his breathing, and climbing out of the window, he reached up to the eaves of the house and with frozen fingers, ice-smoke swirling around his boots, he grunted, hoisting himself up onto slick slate tiles. Carefully, Saark climbed to the ridge-line and without waiting moved swiftly along the house apex, leaping a narrow alleyway with a glimpse of dark cobbled streets encased in ice below. Scary, yes, but not as heart-wrenchingly terrifying as the creature that pursued him; the monster that sucked life and blood and fluid from bodies, the beast that drank out people’s souls. Saark shuddered.

What hell has overtaken the world? he thought.

What law did I break, to be so cursed?

From house to house, from roof to roof, Saark leapt and slithered, many times nearly falling to cobbles and stalls far below. Through drifting mist he ran, a rooftop ghost, a midnight vagabond; only this time he was on no simple errand of theft.

This time, Saark ran for his life. And for his soul.







Stay tuned for more! :-) And remember, you can order your copies; click here for US, here and here for UK, and for those in SA, please use the Kalahari link at the top-right of the blog. :-)

Be EPIC!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Announcing: Hyddenworld: Spring



Thanks to Pan Macmillan in the UK, I've got some great info for you regarding a new series from the author who brought us The Duncton Wood series of novels, William Horwood. :-)

Here's some info about William and the first book in the new series, publishing in February 2010, Hyddenworld: Spring:

"Famous and treasured for the 1980’s classic bestsellers, The Duncton Wood novels, about a civilisation of warring moles, William’s work sparked a multitude of anthropomorphic spin-off tales and earned him a devoted fanbase. Sixteen years after the sixth and final Duncton book was published, with a memoir, a historical thriller and a host of sequels to The Wind in the Willows under his belt, William introduces us to the world of the ‘hydden’: the little people existing on the borders of our world. The journey begins with Spring and an epic journey undertaken by two brave and captivating young heroes, who must cross into the Hyddenworld to save both worlds from environmental destruction.

Hyddenworld: Spring is the first of four books, to be published annually from 2010. William’s research for the series—he's about to hand in the second, but knows how the fourth and final book will end—has included marching up Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham to see if it was doable (it isn't), and taking a course in Old English to help create the book's mythology."


For some extra info about the new series from William, check out this link on The Bookseller.

And here, as a taster, is the cover:



I can honestly say that I've yet to read any of William's work (the reason might be that I was still in diapers when The Duncton Wood novels were bestsellers!) but I'll be fixing that - as soon as Hyddenworld: Spring is in my hands I'll be diving in! :-)

If any of you out there have any questions for William, as I'm sure great fans always do :-) then get those questions ready - William will be doing an interview next week, and Pan Macmillan are calling for questions from readers all over the world. :-) All you need to do is send your question through to publicity (at) macmillan (dot) co (dot) uk , and put “Questions for William Horwood” in the subject line.

As soon as the video interview is available I'll be sure to post it on the blog, so keep an eye out for that. :-)

Meanwhile, you can pre-order your copies of Hyddenworld: Spring right here! :-)

Be EPIC!