“Free SF In The Form Of Uncorrected Sample Extracts”
Samples Listed In Order.
Jim Butcher: Storm Front
James Clemens: Shadowfall
Jennifer Fallon: The Lion Of Senet
Ken MacLeon: Learning The World
K. J. Parker: Devices And Desires
Charles Stross: Accelerando
Following this brief writeup, there is the full extract for James Clemens’ Shadowfall; my personal favourite.
Nowadays it is unusual to get anything for free. While perusing a bookshop in Eastbourne we came across a small black book with the word ‘FREE’ emblazoned across the front. It is entitled ‘THE FUTURE IS NOW, Essential Science Fiction And Fantasy’. Contained within it as six extracts across 153 pages, of up and coming books from Orbit Books. It has been a long time since I’ve seen anything like this.
There isn’t really much to review, but I feel this is an excellent way of pushing SF outside of the group of readers who are into SF; into the mainstream so to speak.
The extracts are wonderful and really do leave you wanting more.
Well worth a read. There are also free extracts on Orbit Books’ site which you can see here.
James Clemens: Shadowfall (Uncorrected Sample Extract)
In Darkness . . .
It glides, a shadow seeking the light.
Its true name cannot be spoken within the logics of flesh and breath. It is no more than a trembling, a dark vibration along the plane that lies beneath rock and storm. It has no form, no shape, no substance.
That is its being, but not its name. It is a creature of the naether, that vast and empty void.
It glides up to one of those rare places where its existence overlaps into the world of substance. Few know of these moiety points. But they exist. Just as the sea rides up onto a rocky shore, so do the tides of the naether roll against the world above.
The naethryn finds a hidden estuary, an opening where its world and the upper world blend and shift. Rising, it swims up a choked channel, silty with substance, into the world above.
Abandoning the naether far below, it enters the depths of a black sea, birthing into the icy waters. Light never reaches these depths. Here is eternal darkness, blurring where one world ends and another begins. But the naethryn knows its way. It’s been told, instructed, willed.
The shadow creature rises through the cold, dark sea. It shudders and gains form, drawing bits of luminescent life from the ocean. The deaths are small, but they thrum through its being, vibrations of pleasure. It sails upward. More and more life is drawn. Substance builds, layer by layer, like barnacles on a ship’s keel.
Form and shape bloom out of nothingness.
Pressure lifts as aquamarine moonlight bleeds down, bathing the naether creature’s new form. As it nears the surface, schooled fish flee in clouds of scale. Even a monstrous rill shark flicks its muscular tail and vanishes.
Unconcerned, it allows them to escape. It has all the structure it needs for this world. It tests its black limbs, its long snaking tail, and swims upward out of the dark womb.
At last, the naethryn breaks the waves with a crested head and breathes the night’s salt-soaked air, testing its lungs. Lidless eyes shine with a light that does not belong to this world. It stares across the foam-limned waves toward the distant shore.
Islands breach the waves: shoals, reefs, atolls, volcanic peaks.
The Summering Isles.
A hiss escapes the broken fish bones that make up its teeth. It swims toward its destination, the largest island of the archipelago. Eyes reflect the flickering lights that sparkle from the isle’s crowned peak and spill down its slopes to the sea, describing homes, streets, and ramparts. A few lamps even skip out into the waters, marking moored fishercraft and masted deepwhalers.
The naethryn ignores all, knowing its purpose.
As it crosses the ring of reefs, none note its undulating passage. Even the lesser moon hides her face behind fog and cloud. The naethryn moves through the seawater as easily as through the insubstantial reality of its home.
Land rises beneath the waves. The naethryn resists touching such solidness, gliding through the shallows, remaining in water for as long as possible. But soon, force and blood and promise drive it from the waves.
Clawed feet dig into sand. Climbing upright, it balances with a long tail. Though it wears flesh and bone, edges blur with the shadows of the dark beach. It does not belong here.
It steps forward.
Water sluices from the assassin’s shoulders as it lurches forward. Steam rises from its scales. Claws drip with more than water. It moves across the sand, turning each step to molten glass behind it.
It has come here to slay.
To slay a god.
Some nights simply never end.
Tylar de Noche rolled to one knee atop the broken cobbles and wiped blood from the scrub of dark beard under his chin. A moment ago, tossed out of the Wooden Frog, he had landed hard on an arm that was more club than limb. His support had given way, slamming him facedown onto the unforgiving street.
As he kissed the stones, he was reminded of an old adage concerning the Summering Isles: A good night can last forever, but a bad night lasts even longer.
On his knees now, Tylar prayed for this particular evening to end. Forget raising a pint and acknowledging, if only to himself, the thirtieth pass of his birth year. He wished only for his lone bed in the garret over the fishmonger’s shop.
But that was not to be. He would be lucky to see sunrise.
Tasting blood from his split lip, he swept his gaze right and left as he sought any means of escape.
Upstreet spread the terraces, palacios, and gardened heights of those with enough wealth to enjoy the cooler breezes of the isle’s cliffs, leading up at last to the white castillion that blazed atop the Summer Mount. Guarded heavily, there would be no escape in that direction.
Nor downstreet. That direction led to the crooked alleys, whored corners, and dark narrows of Lower Punt. Safety never lay in that direction.
So, trapped in the middle, he faced his adversaries.
Bargo and Yorga.
The pair of bulky Ai’men bore matching tattoos on their shoulders. Two halves of the same slave ring. Once bonded and linked combatants in the blood circuses, they were now freemen.
Only their sport hadn’t changed.
Yorga fingered ebony guild beads woven into a lock of his mud-brown hair. Tavern shield beads. Marking him as a hired guardsman to the alehouse.
At his side, Bargo, the one still with his tongue, barked, ‘Goodly Master Rind don’t take to Punt scabbers crawling into his tavern a’beggin’.’
Tylar, his eyes narrowed, kept his post in the street, knowing better than to protest his innocence. He’d come to the tavern with two brass pinches, plenty for a pint. But it seemed he had chosen the wrong tavern. He knew better than to risk the establishments of the high city. This wasn’t his place. Yet sometimes he forgot himself. Sometimes he simply sought some memory of a different life.
He shut out such thoughts and crouched on the cobbles as a warm black rain misted from the dark skies. It was not the pleasant, cleansing downpour of a true storm, but more of a fog that trapped the day’s heat and held it to the islands.
Still, it wasn’t the weather that pebbled Tylar’s brow with sweat and made his ragged clothes suddenly seem too tight.
Yorga balled up a fist, and a garbled sound flowed from his scarred throat. Laughter.
The pair of Ai’men strode out from under the creaking sign of the Wooden Frog. Tylar was to be their amusement this night.
Yorga came first, all fist and muscle. Little finesse. But skill was not needed against Tylar - at least not any longer. Once a Shadowknight, Tylar previously could have taken both with hardly a wind.
But the Graces had been stripped from him, along with rank and title. Additionally, the empty vessel left behind had been broken by a half decade spent in the slave rings of Trik. His sword arm was a callused club, numb from the elbow down. His legs had fared no better - one knee was a knot of locked bone from an old hammer blow, the other slow and painful. Even his back was crooked, tightened by scars from the whip.
He was no knight.
Not any longer.
Yet his Shadowmaster at Tashijan had taught him not to depend on the Graces. A cuff usually accompanied his instructor’s gruff words: Remember, the deadliest Grace comes not from a God, but from the heart and mind of a cornered man.
It seemed a small lesson compared to the size of the combatants here.
The hulking Yorga, bare chested and sweating of ale, outweighed Tylar by half.
‘When we’re done with you in the streets,’ the Ai’man warned, roughly grabbing his crotch, ‘we’re going to finish you in the alley. We always wanted to bugger a Shadowknight.’
Tylar narrowed one eye. Finally it was clear why these two had chosen to harangue him. It wasn’t his shabby attire, nor even his broken form. It had been the stripes tattooed on the sides of his face, running in jagged lines from the outer corner of each eye to ear, heralding his former rank, forever marking him. Three stripes. One for page, one for squire, one for vowed knight. What he had once borne with pride was now a mark of disgrace.
A fallen knight.
He kept the stripes hidden as much as possible, letting his black hair grow long and ragged, hanging over his storm-gray eyes. He kept his head bowed away from the sight of others.
Still, anger burned deep behind his ribs, a fire that never dampened. Though it might smolder to embers, it was always there. Always ready to flare.
Yorga lunged an arm at him, meaning to grab a fistful of hair.
Tylar rocked out of the way, pivoting on his clubbed arm. He lashed out with his other, swiftly, bringing his elbow around to strike the bridge of Yorga’s nose as he leaned down.
Tylar didn’t feel it - but he heard it, along with the howl that followed. It wasn’t a cry of pain so much as outrage. Yorga lurched backward, blood spraying from both nostrils.
Bargo roared, coming around his partner’s side.
Tylar rolled to his scarred back, kicking out with his legs. He knew where to strike. The heels of his boots smashed into the larger man’s knees. Bargo’s legs flew out from under him. He toppled forward, toward Tylar, arms outstretched, face a mask of rage, spittle flying.
Tylar, still on his back on the cobbles, rolled to the side, wrapping himself in his tattered cloak. Bargo crashed to the stones beside him, landing as Tylar had a moment before, face-first.
But the slave fighters knew how to work together.
Yorga’s fingers clamped onto Tylar’s ankle. With blood flecking from his snarled lips, Yorga hauled Tylar toward him. As a squire, Tylar had once fallen off his horse, tangling a boot in the stallion’s stirrup, and had been dragged behind the beast. Yorga was stronger.
With a grunt, Tylar flipped from his back to his stomach. The Ai’man had a grip on his mangled leg, the one with the frozen knee. It was like holding a bent shepherd’s crook. The twisting forced Yorga to loosen his grip, lest his own wrist be broken.
Partially free, Tylar slammed his boot heels together, catching three of Yorga’s fingers between them. Yorga half-lifted Tylar and tossed him away.
He rolled on a shoulder and allowed the momentum to put distance between himself and his attackers. He stopped in a half crouch, back to his enemies, glancing over his shoulder. He ached everywhere, his small reserves of strength ebbing.
Yorga helped up Bargo. Fire burned in both men’s eyes. Tylar had caught them by surprise. That was over. Together the Ai’men approached, stepping to either side to flank him.
‘Hold!’ The voice froze them all.
It came from farther up the street.
Bargo and Yorga parted to reveal a single figure in a black surcoat trimmed in silver, with a matching cloak, standing still. No chain, no armor, no shield. Only a sheathed sword hung at his waist. The black diamond on the hilt’s pommel glowed with its own light. That was all the protection needed here. The figure had been blessed in Grace.
The same light from the diamond shone in the eyes of the warrior.
Tylar could not match that gaze. He turned askance.
A wind caught the edge of the knight’s cloak, willowing it out. Maybe it was a trick of moonlight, but as the cloak swept across the knight’s form, darkness consumed the figure, vanishing him half-away.
Tylar knew it was not a trick of the light . . . but a blessing of shadow. The Grace of such knights: to move unseen, to shirk into darkness and away. At night, there was no greater foe.
Bargo and Yorga knew this and bowed out of the way, heads lowered, backs bent. Yorga dropped to a knee as the knight stepped past him.
‘What is the mishap here?’ the knight asked, his heavy gaze settling on Tylar.
Rather than looking up, Tylar maintained a focus on the knight’s boots. There was much to tell from a man’s boots. Calfskin and mullerhorn. Fine tooled leathers from the Greater Coast. Worn well at the arch from riding hundreds of reaches in the stirrup. Since none of the Summering Isles were more than five reaches across, the knight must be an outsider to this sea-locked realm. Perhaps a blessed courier from another god-realm. Or perhaps a new conscript called in service to the god here, Meeryn of the Summering Isles.
Either way, he’s new to his cloak, Tylar concluded, or he wouldn’t scuff his boots on such a petty street brawl.
Bargo finally coughed loose his tongue. ‘This scabber were a’beggin’ in Goodly Master Rind’s tavern house. We were bending his arm a bit to send him back down to Punt.’
‘Is that so?’ the knight asked. Tylar heard the wry amusement in the other’s tone. ‘From my vantage, I’d say he was the one doing the bending.’
The boots Tylar had been studying stepped closer. ‘Your name, sirrah?’
Tylar remained silent. He didn’t bother to look up. There was no need. The knight’s features would be hidden behind a wrap of masklin, a facecloth cut from the same blessed material as the knight’s cloak. All that was ever seen of a knight’s face were the eyes and the triple stripes that blended into the masklin.
‘Is what they claim true?’ the knight continued. ‘You are aware, sirrah, that begging of coin is not allowed after sunset.’
As answer, Tylar reached into his pockets and tossed the pair of brass pinches on the cobbles before the knight’s toes.
‘Ah, so it seems the scruff here has a coin or two. Sirrah, perhaps your pinches are better spent in a tavern of the lower city.’ A toe nudged the bits of brass back toward Tylar.
Such rare kindness earned a curious glance toward his benefactor. The knight was tall and lithe, a willow switch in a cloak. His face was indeed wrapped in masklin. Eyes glowed at him. Tylar saw them pinch in surprise. A step was taken back.
‘He’s a stripped knight,’ Bargo said. ‘A shiting vow breaker.’
Tylar pocketed his coin and gained his feet. He stared the knight up and down, anger burning away shame. He read the disgust in the other’s stance. He met the other’s gaze fully for the first time. ‘Fear not. Disgrace is not contagious, ser.’ He turned swiftly away.
But not swiftly enough . . .
‘Ser Noche . . .’ The knight spoke his name with raw shock. ‘Tylar ser Noche.’
Tylar’s step faltered. A thousand reaches from his homelands and he still could not escape his cursed name.
‘It is you, ser, is it not?’
Tylar kept his back to him. ‘You are mistaken, ser knight.’
‘Curse my blessed eyes if I am!’ Boots scuffed closer. ‘Face me.’
Tylar knew better than to disobey a Shadowknight. He turned.
Beyond the knight’s shoulder, he spotted Bargo and Yorga slinking back to the Wooden Frog, happy to escape the knight’s attention. They knew their game had ended, but Bargo stopped at the threshold. He wiped blood and snot from his lips and cast a murderous stare toward Tylar, a promise of pain to come, a debt he meant to collect. Then the brawlers pushed back into the tavern.
Tylar’s attention focused back to the fellow before him. ‘As I was saying, you mistake me for someone else, ser.’
As rebuttal, the knight reached to the clasp at his throat. A shadowy waft of masklin fluttered free.
Tylar instinctively glanced down. Only a knight was allowed to see another knight’s features.
‘Face me, ser.’ Command lay thick on the other’s tongue.
Tylar trembled and obeyed.
He found a familiar countenance framed within the cloak’s hood. Tylar knew those features: high cheekbones, white-blond hair, amber eyes. The young knight was all sunlight and autumn fields, in contrast to Tylar’s stormy and dark countenance. Time sailed backward. Tylar recognized the peach-faced boy behind the bearded man who stood before him now.
‘Perryl . . .’
The last time he had seen this face there had been only two stripes. Perryl had been one of his three squired lads back in Tashijan, under his tutelage before . . . before . . .
He glanced away, his heart aching.
The Shadowknight dropped to one knee before him. ‘Ser Noche.’
‘No,’ Tylar refused. ‘No longer ser Noche. It is simply de Noche.’
‘Never! To me you will always be hailed as ser.’
Tylar twisted and stumbled away. ‘Get off your knees, Perryl. You shame yourself and your cloak. It seems even in this small task I have failed the Order . . . training you so poorly for your station.’ He continued down the street.
A scuffle sounded behind him as his former squire gained his feet and fled abreast of him. ‘All that I am, I owe to you.’
The words cut like poisoned daggers. Tylar hurried on, knowing he could never flee a blessed knight, but perhaps he could escape his own memories.
Perryl kept beside him. ‘I would speak to you, ser! Much has changed back at Tashijan. If you will meet with me on the morrow-’
Tylar stopped and swung toward Perryl. His chest heaved on swells of shame and misery. ‘Damn your eyes! Look at me, Perryl.’ He held up his crooked arm. ‘The knight you knew is gone, long buried. I’m a scabber out of Punt. Leave me to my hole and seek me out no more.’
His outburst thrust the other back a half step.
In the knight’s face, he saw the boy again, wounded and at a loss for a response. The young man stared up at the lesser moon’s glow. ‘I must be away,’ he mumbled apologetically, fixing his masklin back in place, then met Tylar’s eye firmly, a knight again. ‘Whether it bring you pain or humiliation, I would still speak with you.’
‘Leave me be, Perryl,’ he begged with all his heart. ‘If you ever loved me, leave me be.’
‘For now . . . only for now.’ He swung his cloak and backed into shadow, blending away. Only a pair of eyes glowed back at Tylar. ‘A dread and perilous time is upon us . . . upon all of us.’
Then Perryl was gone, moving with the speed born of Grace.
Tylar stood a moment longer. His fingers clutched the pair of brass pinches in his pocket. Would that he had a silver yoke to drown away this night. But he doubted that even a pouch of gold marches would wash this pain away.
He let the pinches slip between his fingers into his pocket as he continued down the street. He skirted around the darkest alleys of Punt, aiming roundabout for the docklands and his lone bed.
On the morrow, he would seek a boat to another island. He did not want to be known or remembered. He would lose himself again, sinking into the solace that came with anonymity.
Still, Perryl’s words stayed with Tylar as he hobbled along. A dread and perilous time is upon us all. A streak of dark humour cut through his pain and shame. A dread and perilous time? That fairly summed up his state of affairs since he was stripped five years ago. How was any of this a new tiding?
With a shake of his head, he shut out such thoughts.
It was none of his concern.
As the night wore thin, Tylar walked from streets lined in cobbles to those simply worn from the natural sandy rock. Here the houses were shuttered and dark, hiding their faces.
Off to his left, the alleys and narrows of Punt echoed with cries, shouts, and sounds to which it was best to be deaf. But one could not escape Punt’s smells. It shat and sweated and pissed like a living creature, ripe with corruption, pestilence, and decay.
One never developed a nose for it. It was too changeable - by day, by season, by storm, by fair weather.
Tylar kept his shoulders hunched, skulking through pockets of gloom. One learned the value of being inconspicuous in the lower city. He crept along shadows. Though now Graceless, he was not without skill at moving unseen.
He rounded past Gillian Square with its empty gallows and cut through Chanty Row with its tanners and dye works.
Still, he could not fully escape Punt’s gaze. It leered at him as he crawled home. It screamed and laughed and watched him from a hundred dark windows.
He hurried over Lumberry Bridge as it stone spanned the stagnant canal that drained the upper city, carrying away its refuse and bile. Beyond the bridge, the canal dumped into Lower Punt, the island’s chamberpot.
Past Lumberry, Tylar had his trickiest traverse. Here the boundary between Lower Punt and the more stable dockyards blurred. Taverns and wenchworks occupied every corner. Dark alleys crisscrossed blindly.
Tylar entered the gloom, and while shadows had always been his home, here there was no safety. The very air was heavy and thick, moving sluggishly, a fetid exhalation from Punt. It was a common lay for thieves seeking a quick slice and run or hard-pricked roughers looking for a bit of alley rutting, willing or not. Neither was much threat to Tylar. He seldom carried enough coin to be worth the effort, and his bent, scarred form hardly fired anyone’s loins.
So he hurried through these last alleys, already picturing his straw-filled bed. But as he rounded out the darkest patch, entering a small square of derelict buildings, his feet suddenly stopped as surely as if he had run into a wall. A waft of scent had almost dropped him to his knees. Not foul, but the sweetest bouquet, lavenders and honeybloom, bright against the darkness.
It was silk and a child’s laugh.
Tylar stood, planted on the sandy stone of the square. How could he walk away? He doubted he could even be forced away. Tears welled in his eyes. The darkness scintillated with the sweet-water scent. All he could do was search for its source. What beauty could bloom in such shite?
Then a scream shattered the night, startling him back to the dangers that lay in the shadows of Punt. It was a man who cried out, and Tylar had never heard such terror, not in all his years.
There followed the bright sound of sword on stone. Shouts accompanied in chorus. Panicked. Close. The neighboring alley. Footfalls echoed, running away-
No . . . toward him.
Tensing, Tylar twisted around. He was momentarily unsure where to flee. Then a figure unfolded from the darkness before him. A silvered sword, held aloft in his hand, split his dark form like lightning. Above the blade, eyes matched the shine.
Instinctively, Tylar knew it was not Perryl. The form was too broad of shoulder. The man dropped to his knees - not in supplication as Perryl had moments ago, but in prostration.
Tylar stepped toward him, a hand rising in aid. But he was too late.
As the knight’s body struck the street, his head rolled impossibly from his shoulders, bouncing obscenely to Tylar’s toes.
Slain . . .
Gasping, Tylar stumbled away.
Other bits of darkness fell out of the shadows. More knights, wrapped in masklin and cloak, appeared. They fared no better than the first, seeming to come apart at the seams. Limbs dropped away, bloodless but dead. Innards burst, pouring in tortuous loops from bellies. One knight collapsed in on himself as if his bones had suddenly jellied.
Horrified, Tylar fell back. What deadly Grace was at work here? He found his back pressed to the mortared stone of a burned-out structure. He huddled into a doorway’s alcove, seeking refuge inside, but the entrance was boarded tight.
Trapped, his eyes widened, seeking any clue, any answer to the slaughter. Something shared the shadows with the knights - but what?
Across the alley, a fog of light swelled between two soot-painted buildings. A glowing vessel flew into the square. It was a mekanical flutterseat, an open carriage held aloft by a pair of blurred wings. It bore a lone woman, crouched on the single seat. Other knights flanked the carriage and trailed it.
But one after another, they fell, afflicted like the others, until there were none.
Alone and unguarded, the carriage canted, struck the cobbles, and spilled over. Broken wings shattered against stone. The passenger, a wisp of a woman, flew free of the wreckage and landed spryly. She twirled in the center of the shimmering mist. A dance of panic and wildness.
Tylar was again struck by a swell of sweet-water scents, stretching from some distant spring. But now it held a touch of winter’s frost, too.
Tylar knew the woman was the very bloom of this bouquet. She was also the source of the glow, a living lamp. The cold sheen of terror on her skin cast its own light. She must be richly blessed in Graces to shine with such power. Perhaps a noblewoman, or someone of an even higher station . . . Her dress was snowy finery and lace, her hair loose to the shoulder, as dark as her skin was pale.
Somewhere deep inside, he knew he should go to her aid. But he remained in place. He was no longer a knight, but a broken man. Shame burned as bright as his fear.
The woman fled to the center of the dark square, still dancing warily, eyes flashing with glowing tears. She was indeed powerfully blessed, rich in humoural Graces. The blessing of the gods flowed from her every pore, misting from her body as she whirled. But with whom was she dancing?
The answer was not long in coming. Darkness took form at the edge of her glow, coalescing out of shadow.
It stood upright like a man - but was no man. It was scale and snake and shattered teeth. A crest trailed from crown to whipping tail. As it approached, a mist of Gloom steamed from its skin, a contrary Grace to the bright glow of the lone woman.
She faced her enemy, stopping her dance. ‘You will not win,’ she whispered.
As answer, a hiss of fire licked from its burned lips. There were no words, but a sound accompanied the flame, distant, yet still reaching clearly to Tylar in his hiding place. It pierced and ate at his will. His legs shook. He knew it to be a voice, but no throat could utter such a noise. It was not a sound that belonged anywhere among the Nine Lands, nor anywhere across all of Myrillia. It was a keening wail, crackling with lightning, laced with the scurry of dark things under the ground.
Tylar covered his ears, but it did not help.
The woman listened. Her only response was a paling of her snowy skin. Bone shone through. Her eyes dimmed. She uttered one word: ‘No.’
Then the beast lashed out, moving faster than the eye could follow. Darkness crested like a wave over the bright well of Grace that shielded the woman. Lightning flashed across the darkness, lancing out and striking the woman.
She fell back, arms outstretched, momentarily impaled between her breasts by the stroke of brightness. It was not lightning, Tylar realized, but something with substance . . . yet at the same time not completely of this world.
Pierced through the chest, the woman cried out, a wail of a songbird, sharp and aching.
The beast pursued, leaping. Darkness swallowed the woman away, rolling over her. Both vanished in the steaming gloom of the creature’s shadow.
Tylar held himself clenched.
Then like storm clouds roiled away by swift winds, the blackness swirled outward, becoming a tempest trapped between stone walls.
It struck all around, tearing at mortar. Glass shattered.
Tylar clutched the walls of his alcove, nails digging for purchase. He fought to hold himself in place, but he also felt a tug on all that held his spirit in place. His sight was taken from him - or perhaps it was the world that had been stolen away. He teetered at the edge of an abyss. His skin both burned and iced. His heart stopped beating in his chest. He knew his death.
Then he was let go. He fell back against the boarded-up door. Before him in the square, darkness roiled into a great vortex as if draining away down some unseen well. The darkness whirled, growing smaller - then it swept down and away.
Across the ravaged square, the beast was nowhere to be seen.
All that was left was the woman’s form sprawled in the center of the square. Her limbs still glowed, only weaker now. Rivers of brightness ran and pooled out from her form. Blood, shining with the richness of powerful Graces, flowed from her. She did not move.
Tylar stumbled from the alcove. He sensed in his bones that whatever had entered Punt had vanished away. Still he dared approach no closer. He headed away, past the bodies of the slain. Sprawled in their blessed cloaks, the knights seemed like ghosts, blending with the shadows. Though the wearers were dead, the cloth still maintained its Grace, working to hide its owner even in death.
As Tylar skirted the square, the scent of flower petals and warm sun swelled around him. He turned, knowing the source. The pale, misty beauty remained unmoving on the stone. From this angle, he spotted the black hole pierced through her chest, as wide as a fist, blackened and wisped with curls of smoke.
He sensed it was down that hole that the darkness had vanished away, the well through which the enemy had escaped.
Though the forces at work here had nothing to do with a fallen knight, nor a broken man, he found his feet walking him toward the woman.
As he approached, he attempted to keep his feet from her glowing blood, but there was too much. He moved into her light, careful of the slick stone. She surely was a noblewoman of high stature. It was seldom someone was blessed with such a degree of Grace. Perhaps she was even one of the eight handservants to Meeryn, the god-made-flesh of these islands. Such servants dwelled in the god’s castillion, harvesting and preserving the humours from the god they served.
Tylar eyed the castillion blazing atop the isle’s highest point, Summer Mount, the seat of Meeryn. If he was right, if the lass had indeed been in service to this realm’s god, he pitied the hand behind this attack. A god’s vengeance knew no pity.
He reached the woman’s side. He stared down into the wan beauty, brought low here. She was young, no more than eighteen. Her face glowed with a fading brilliance, gone to embers. The blank eyes, as blue as the seas, stared skyward.
Then those same eyes twitched in his direction, seeing him.
Tylar clenched back a step in shock.
She did indeed still live! But surely not for long . . .
‘Child,’ he whispered, not knowing what words he could offer at this last moment.
He crouched, soaking his pant leg in blood. As the dampness reached his skin, he realized his mistake. The blood burned his flesh - not like fire, but like spiced wine on the tongue, as much pleasure as pain. It was a burn to which he was well familiar.
Crying out, he fell backward.
Fingers latched onto his wrist, holding him, squeezing like the iron manacles that had bound him for five years.
He gaped in horror. The woman was not dead. Then again, how could she be? She was not a woman at all.
Tylar knew who lay before him now, who clutched him.
It was not a handmaiden.
It was Meeryn herself . . . the immortal god of the Summering Isle.
Fingers squeezed and drew him closer. Her other arm rose and reached toward him. The palm was bloody. Tylar had neither the strength nor the will to fight.
The reaching palm struck his chest as if to push him away, while the clutching fingers pulled at him. The blood on the outstretched hand blazed through both the rough-spun cotton of his shirt and the soft linen of his underclothes. It touched the flesh over his heart. This was no spiced wine. He smelled the smolder of seared skin. The pain was excruciating, but at the same time, he never wanted it to end.
The god at his feet pushed deeper, stretching for his heart as it fluttered, a panicked bird in a bony cage. He gasped out fire as burning fingers entered his chest. The stone of the square vanished from his eyes, snuffed away like a pinched candle. The small sounds of the night blew out. The hard grind of stone fell away under his legs.
Only now did he understand the lack of substance behind reality.
Yet sensations remained.
A palm pushing at his chest, a hand dragging him down by the wrist.
He spun in these contrasts, but here, where there was no substance, both were possible. He felt himself shoved up into a brilliance that blinded, while dragged down into a darkness that was somehow just as bright. Where a moment ago he had stood at the edge of a bottomless abyss, now he hung over the same. But as he spun, he recognized his mistake. There was not one abyss, but two - one above and one below.
Both stared at him as he hovered between, his bones burning like a torch.
This was more than death.
I am undone, he thought, knowing it to be true.
Then a wash of coolness drenched his form, drowning him, driving him back to the slaughter of the square, back into his own body. He struck it like he had the broken cobbles outside the Wooden Frog: hard and abrupt.
Sensations filled him again - but the palm on his chest no longer burned. From the god’s hand, a chilled wash spread out and through him.
He knew this sensation, too.
In a different life, he had bent a knee to the god Jessup of Oldenbrook. Then, too, he had been filled with Grace. And like Meeryn, Jessup had borne the aspect of water. To many, this aspect was the weakest of the four. Most of his fellow knights had sought out gods of fire, loam, or air. But not Tylar. He had been born as his mother drowned aboard a sinking scuttlecraft off the Greater Coast. Water was his home as much as shadow.
So he knew what filled him now.
‘No!’ he gasped. Grace flowed into him, drowned him, a hundredfold richer than when Jessup had ceremonially blessed him. He didn’t deserve this honor. He could not face it. But he also could not escape it.
Grace swelled in him, stretching him.
No . . . too much . . .
His back arched. He remembered his birth, shoved brutally and lovingly out of the warmth of his mother’s womb and into the cold seas of Myrillia. Then too he had breathed water, momentarily one with the sea - until salt burned and lungs fought to cry. He would have died had not the net of a lobsterman hauled him from the waves.
But who will save me now?
Water surged through him. He could not breathe. He craned, stretching for air.
Too much . . .
Something gave way deep inside him. The swell of water spouted up and drained down, spewing from him in racking spasms. He felt part of himself given away with it, released, stolen, shared - and at the same time, something entered, swimming up the flowing channel and into his chest, settling there, coiling there.
Then the water finally emptied from the broken vessel that was his body. Tylar collapsed in on himself, spent and drained. The momentary blessing was gone.
The hand on his chest fell away. His wrist was released.
He stared down again into Meeryn’s face.
Her soft skin no longer glowed, but her eyes still stared at him as dawn finally broke over the island, taking the edge off the gloom. Meeryn would recover. Like all the gods, she was immortal, undying, eternal.
Her lips moved, but no words were spoken. He thought he had read the word pity on those perfect lips, but maybe it was just something in her eyes. What did she mean?
‘Lie still,’ he urged, leaning closer. ‘Help will come.’
A small movement. A tiny shake of the head and a sigh. Her lips parted again. He cocked his head, bringing his ear closer. Her breath was cherry blossoms on a still lake.
‘Rivenscryr,’ she whispered. It was not fragment of thought, but a simple command.
Tylar’s brow pinched at the strange word. Rivenscryr? He faced her, a question on his lips.
Then he saw the impossible before him. It took all breath from him.
Meeryn lay as she had a moment before, but now all light faded from her - not just the glow of her Graces, but all that separated the living from the dead. Her eyes, still open, went empty and blind. Her lips remained parted with her last word, but no breath escaped them.
Both as a Shadowknight and as a slave, he had come to know death.
But here it was not possible.
Gods do not die.
A strident burst of horn startled him, driving him to his feet. He twisted around to find a dark shadow sweeping at him with the swiftness of a black gale. He fell back, fearing the beast had returned.
But glowing eyes stared down at him; shape took form, a familiar one. The cloak billowed out, then settled to narrow shoulders.
‘Perryl,’ Tylar said, relieved that his former squire had not been a part of the slaughter here. In the distance, the horn blared again. Shouts now could be heard. The castillion guards were closing in.
The young knight took in the scene. ‘What have you done?’ he asked in a rush.
Tylar frowned at such a strange question. ‘What do you mean?’
Tylar glanced down at himself. He was covered in blood - Meeryn’s blood. In the center of his chest, a perfect palm print had been burned through his shirt and linens. The skin beneath was as black as the scorched edges of his clothing. He touched the flesh. No blistering. Just a black stain.
He was marked.
Tylar lifted an arm. ‘You can’t think I-?’
‘I saw you earlier.’
‘And I you . . . so?’
Perryl eyed him from head to toe. ‘Look at yourself.’
‘Why-?’ Further words died as he finally understood. Perhaps he had been too numbed by the events. Or perhaps it was like a pair of well-broken boots, easy to forget once donned. Either way, he finally noted the straight hold of his back, the breadth of his shoulders, the strength in his arms and legs.
Before he could react, castillion guards pounded into the square, bearing pikes and long swords. Cries arose as the bloody sight struck them. Many fell immediately to their knees; the stronger fanned out to shield the square and attend to the night’s victims.
A full complement surrounded Meeryn, driving Tylar away at the point of a blade.
‘Do not say a word,’ Perryl hissed in his ear, staying at his side.
Tylar stared at the many drawn weapons and obeyed.
A fresh cry erupted from the crowd around the fallen god. ‘She’s dead!’ one man shouted.
Another, bearing the oak sprig of a healer, stumbled free of the group. His face had drained of all color, his eyes bright with shock. ‘Her heart . . . her heart is gone . . . ripped away!’
All around, guards stared hard at Tylar, many weeping, others swearing. He knew how he must look: the lone survivor, covered in Meeryn’s blood, her palm print burned into his chest as if she had attempted to thrust him away.
And on top of it all, he was healed, cured, made new again.
A cadre of castle guards approached with swords drawn, murder in their every step.
Perryl stepped before Tylar, facing the men. ‘Under the edict of the Order, this man is arrested under my name.’
Shouts met his words, angry.
Perryl yelled to be heard. ‘He will not be harmed until the matter here is attended and the truth be known.’
The guards stopped, hesitant. Swords remained drawn.
Their captain took another step forward and spat in Tylar’s direction. He uttered one word, both curse and accusation: ‘Godslayer.’
©James Clemens and Orbit Books