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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