Tuesday, 12 April 2011

An Excerpt (taken from Chapter Twenty-Three)

‘Cauldrons!’ Windchaser-General Rackyard called, wondering if it was wise to use all of their tricks on this first assault. With one glance she acknowledged the speed of the horde’s ascent and realised that if they did not, there would not be any need for a second. The men obeyed, dragging the reliquaries to the crenels and upending their consecrated contents upon the advancing Hellspawn. Daemons fell away from the walls, dragging their fellows with them to splash into the deadly moat. Many avoided the downpour and continued their climb, and Rackyard knew it was only moments before they reached the parapet. Cursing was becoming a bad habit tonight.

At the other end of the crenellations, Jharek Doon was beginning to doubt his ability to make sane decisions. He and his men stood with frightened anticipation, clasping windcannons and blades as though the weapons might save them. He sighed, inwardly cursing himself: he could have been halfway to the Wastes by now. There might be a good deal of nothing there, but at least every daemon in Hell and its brother wouldn’t be so keen to get their claws on it. He chuckled to himself – if he made it through tonight, he’d be gone come the morning.

As he awaited the landing of the first claw like a grappling hook on the parapet, Rueger nudged his side. ‘Sire? What the Hell are those?’

Jharek followed the footpad’s pointing finger and his eyes widened with shock and fear. From among the seething mass below, several creatures were lifting into the night sky on leathered wings. Jharek pushed through his men and waved his arms to get the General’s attention.

‘Eyes up, beauty! The bastards’re flyin’ an’ all!’

Rackyard looked up and swore: varls, several score of them, had taken flight and were hurtling towards the Greathouse. ‘Aim for the wings!’ she roared, levelling her long-barrelled cannon and squeezing off two shots. The bolts tore through the wings of the lead daemon and the beast pitched into the moat below. Crossbows and windcannons swept up, peppering the varls with a volley of silver death.

The men at the walls fell back aghast as the first of Gothmarok’s foot soldiers swung up onto the battlements. The beast was seven feet tall, long arms ending in sharp claws over a foot long. Its face was flat, bat-like, its skin scaled and red and slick with viscous, oozing perspiration. The claws swung out at the nearest marshal, tearing his face apart with one stroke. Galleo leapt forward, dipping under the belkor’s next swing and ramming his left-hand, talon-like shadowblades into its chest. The beast roared and Galleo tore his blades free, spinning and slicing its head from its shoulders. Before the body had a chance to fall he kicked it back over the wall. The man beside him staggered back in fear as another belkor came into view, but was plucked from his feet by a swooping varl.

All became chaos and Rackyard swung towards the vestibule where the Gathering of Ten were huddled. ‘If you ladies and gentlemen have anything terribly clever up your Saints-damned sleeves and you’re waiting for the right moment – this is it!’

Behind her three varls landed on the farthest catapult and began to tear the weapon apart, slaughtering the four-man crew who stood around it. A volley of windcannon fire hurled them back over the walls, but several more took their place and the weapon was destroyed, the crew swept to their deaths.

‘Luveers!’ Rackyard shouted.

A moment more, Lorena!’ Gennen hissed, his voice betraying his fatigue, and Rackyard realised the awesome physical and mental toll that such high-level magicks drained from the Luveers. For good measure, she swore again, then swung away from the vestibule and levelled her windcannon. The bolt she launched tore another varl from the sky.

A daemon alighted beside her, black wings shimmering in the air. Rackyard let her cannon drop to swing from the leather carry strap she wore; her hands flicked out, unleashing two crescent shadowblades that opened up like Shojinese fans. The varl’s double jaw opened wide, revealing four rows of blackened teeth, and Rackyard swung both weapons, ripping deep gashes in the daemon’s abdomen. As noxious vapour pumped from the wounds, Rackyard retracted her right-hand blade long enough to toss a Rhynn Prism onto the toppling corpse...

An Excerpt (taken from Chapter Two)

Mal struggled to control his breathing, wishing he had never locked eyes with the lurking prowler yet unable to look away. He arose shakily, the huff of his knees lifting from the dust seeming as loud as the crash of angry thunder. He backed away, half-crouched, afraid to stand up straight, hoping that staying low might somehow make him invisible. He reached the door and pushed it open, wincing at the screeching protest offered by the rusty hinges. Cold, grey half-light spilled into the shed, chased the shadows into the corners, scared the spiders into their lairs, fell upon the beast in the blackness, and the boy staggered back, his face shocked white by a debilitating terror, a primal fear that transcended thought and action.

The abomination unfolded itself, four legs stabbing against the floor, lifting a bulk that was more mouth than body, a great white maw of muscle and sinew that flexed unnaturally, gaping open like a chasm dropping into the black centre of Hell. The beast seemed to pull back, legs tensed, jaws clamped closed – then it suddenly sprang forth, its cavernous mouth stretching open, emitting a terrible shriek that made the boy cry out in horror. Its spider-like legs caused it to move with a disjointed, insectoid motion made even more unsettling by its terrifying speed.

As the beast hurtled forwards the boy acted on instinct, stumbling back and slamming the heavy wooden door with all the strength he could summon. The beast smashed through it, tearing out the hinges in a shower of splinters. The boy was pinned beneath the door and the creature’s legs speared the ground either side of his small body as its maw slammed against the wooden barrier between them. Unable to sink its teeth into the flat surface, it skittered backwards, clamping onto the door’s edge and ripping it away, sending the shattered piece of wood spinning to the ground behind it.

Again the snapping, shrieking, spitting beast came forward, jaws chomping at the boy’s leg. He rolled away, but then cried out as he felt the full weight of the creature upon his back, pressing him against the ground and blasting the air from his lungs. Hot breath covered him like a wind, fetid with a stench unlike anything he had encountered, and he tightened his eyes, willing himself to wake from this nightmare, refusing to believe that the abyssal mouth stretching wide above him would complete its grisly work.

He heard his uncle bellow his name as the weight of the creature lifted from his back.

He turned his head, grazing his chin on the dry ground to see the beast on its side, legs whirring frantically as it tried to rise. A long spear was thrust into the side of its great face, but as it shook and kicked and barked the spear came loose and clattered to the ground. Another took its place and the beast howled again as the boy felt his uncle’s hands grab his shoulders, dragging him away and up onto legs too weak with fear to hold him steady.

The monster’s legs found purchase and it pulled itself upright, skittering around to face them. Uncle Athartes held a long-handled wood axe in his hand and he hefted it, forcing the boy behind him. The beast seemed to be in pain, dancing in a circle, attempting to dislodge the second spear. Unable to do so, it locked its eyes on the boy and his uncle once more and bellowed at them in frustration.

Then it charged.

It closed the distance so fast that the boy thought it would swallow them both in one mouthful before either had a chance to move, but his uncle dropped the axe, lifting him by the waist and hurling him away. He rolled onto his back in time to see the beast crash into the old man, its great, saliva-coated jaws closing upon him, tearing away his left arm and half of his torso with a single bite. Blood sprayed the ground as Uncle Athartes twitched and gurgled, and the beast spat out the morsel. Not enticed by the warm blood of its kill, the monster swung its bulk away from the mauled corpse to face its intended prey once more.

The boy watched the death of his uncle, his carer, his only family, with a sense of detached dread, as though he were observing from a safe distance and not standing less than ten yards from the shrieking, manic, blood-soaked nightmare that had so brutally deprived him of all that he loved. Something inexplicable stole over him as he witnessed his uncle’s final moments; a fire flowed into his veins, burning hot, lighting a flaming path to his frantic heart. He sprinted forwards, snatching up the fallen spear, black blood sizzling and spitting on its point, and turned to face the beast.

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he braced himself, one foot forward, knee bent, spear outstretched. The creature shrieked again, launching itself towards him. He leapt sideways, his timing somehow perfect, turning as he did so to plunge the spear into the small mound above the creature’s mouth that held its horrifying eyes. Unable to stab with an adult’s strength, the boy nonetheless managed to tip the creature over.

It scrambled up, legs scrabbling in the dirt, exuding an atmosphere of desperate aggression, a need to kill that seemed to go beyond animal instinct. The boy stood defiantly, his fear all but gone. He had done all he could; he had not fled, had not abandoned his uncle. He had stood his ground and would do so until either he or the beast lay dead. Eyes flicking toward his uncle’s abandoned axe, the boy wondered if he had the strength to lift it…

He steeled himself.

The monstrosity braced, coiled, sprang…

An Excerpt (taken from Chapter Twelve)

Darkmalian moved slowly into the village, listening intently. The sunlight cast a bright patina over the smouldering buildings as wisps of smoke floated by, twinned with soft shadows. Although, as his eyes drifted over the squat wooden buildings of the empty settlement, he could not sense the presence of daemons, he knew they could come at any time. Most broods were weakened by sunlight and many were destroyed completely by it – but not all. Like tangible life, the Fell had many forms and evolutions, and even against the bane of a thousand broods there were those that were immune.

His nose caught a scent upon the air, a noxious reek that all Windchasers recognised instantly: brimstone. Ordering Pagan and Merrick to wait beside the stone-built well, Darkmalian moved to the opposite end of the village. He noticed splashes of congealing blood on the hay-strewn ground, as well as other signs of the massacre: here a gnawed limb hung from a doorway, the body to which it belonged concealed by a broken building; there a torn strip of cloth – the hem of a dress doused in blood – was caught on the window bar of a small house, flapping in the breeze. The bodies were most likely indoors, where the daemons would have taken them to feed. This brood were blood-drinkers then, Darkmalian reasoned, and – given that the coagulation of the spilled blood indicated that the slaughter had taken place around six to seven hours ago – they feared moonlight rather than sunlight. The Windchaser swore: without further immediate evidence, this deduction still left over fifty possible broods.

Following the acrid stench, Darkmalian came upon the treeline and knelt to examine the scorched ground. It was still warm to the touch and the sulphur stung his eyes. He lifted his black hood over his hair and pulled the mask of his threft up around his mouth and nose, the specially woven mesh lining blocking out the stink. He found three more Hellsprings upon the ground, which meant at least four daemons but possibly as many as twelve; the tracks in the dirt suggested the latter. The brood still eluded him, but out of the fifty or so species singled out by aversion to moonlight, less than a dozen moved in packs. Standing, he returned to where the scribe waited with Pagan. Merrick seemed visibly shaken but the Amberchild looked almost angry.

‘Where are the villagers?’ the scribe asked, his tone indicating that he already knew the answer.

‘Dead,’ Darkmalian told him anyway, his eyes sweeping the still, silent buildings. ‘We should move on – with haste.’

‘What is happening, Merrick?’ Pagan asked, sensing the tension.

‘I don’t know,’ replied the scribe. ‘Was there a battle, Darkmalian?’

‘A slaughter. Bring the girl.’

As he turned to walk away he caught a sound in the air, carried to him on the high wind. It was a male voice, quiet, broken. He froze, holding up a hand to halt his dependants. Looking to the eastern side of the village, beyond the high chimneys of the smithy, he located the source of the noise. His eyes widened and he raced forwards, rounding the large stone building and halting as he beheld a vision from nightmare.

A single tree grew here, gnarled and ancient, rising into the sky like a titan above the forge. Cut into the trunk were runes that Darkmalian recognised, each archaic glyph glowing with a faint red light. The leaves of the tree were rotten, the branches scorched and curling upwards so they pointed to the bright sky like the spikes of a perverse crown. Thick roots had burst through the earth and now writhed like fornicating lovers, intertwined and pulsating with false life. The very air around it was dark, crackling with flashes of crimson and white energy, and upon the tree, a splinter of oak speared through each black wrist, hung a creature as insubstantial as shadow, slowly burning under the murderous afternoon sun.

The roots became alert as the darkling approached, rising up from the ground as though regarding him hungrily. He extended his shadowsteel blades, stepping lightly, just beyond the tree’s reach. Pagan and Merrick halted near the side of the smithy and the scribe gasped, his hand flying to his mouth. ‘Saints!’ he breathed. ‘What the Hell is that?’

‘It’s a Cano Tree,’ Darkmalian told him, looking back. ‘Once used to imprison and execute sinners, but now corrupted beyond even that.’

‘Corrupted how?’

‘Well, look at it, scribe.’

Signalling for silence, Darkmalian focused on the tree. He had read of Cano devices in the Kade Bestiaries, though they were not actually daemons at all. Traditionally stones were used, but there were instances in Old Realm lore of mirrors, orbs, animal-corpses or plants serving as alternatives. The object would imprison a soul until the owner performed whichever duty the controlling Old Realm deity desired, then the soul was released in payment – absolved of all transgressions – and the sinner’s physical body was executed. What stood now before Darkmalian, however, was a perverse incarnation of that ancient device. Instead of taking the offered soul of a willing and repentant servant, whoever had constructed this device had unleashed the spiritual residue of all the sinners who had ever been executed upon the tree’s branches. Its purpose was not to contain a soul for bargaining, but rather to keep its Loro’cai prisoner held fast in the bright sunlight – and to hold any would-be rescuers at bay.

The darkling edged forward, testing the reflex speed of the sentient tree. As he moved closer, one of its roots lashed out and he sidestepped to avoid it. He refrained from counter-attacking, instead turning his eyes away for the briefest instant. Immediately all eight roots speared towards him and he jumped back out of reach. He had learned what he needed to: the abomination was fast, but he was faster; it was aware, but he wouldn’t give it the chance to surprise him. He darted forwards, rolling his left wrist, his shadowsteel blade cutting a cold arc in the air. One of the roots rose up as though studying him and suddenly split, its tip flaring open like the head of a horrific flower to become a fang-lined mouth that chomped hungrily at the air. A moment later the other seven roots underwent the same transformation.

Darkmalian retreated a step, slashing his blades in front of him, loosening his shoulder muscles. There was only one way to do this: he spread his arms and leapt forwards...

A Small Taster (taken from Chapter Nineteen)

The wind blew acrid smoke towards Jean Corano as he crossed the street to the rubble-strewn alleyway. His stomach churned and his limbs seemed to almost hum, the energy in his blood heightened and active in the presence of so many Fell daemons. The roads around him were empty, eerily so; Soldiersfar had the atmosphere of a ghost town.

No, he decided, it was more like an open wound, bleeding and sore. Prince Dannan was the blade that had torn into the flesh of the city, his daemonic brood the infection that now poisoned her. Perhaps such a taint could be eradicated, but she would sicken for years – possibly never to return to her former glories.

Slipping into the alleyway, Corano nudged broken, blood-spattered furniture from his path and popped the clips on two of his utility compartments. Inside were two of his last three Ignus Orbs and he withdrew them, holding one lightly in each hand. Moving swiftly through the alley, over broken glass and smashed carpentry, under a ragged strip of blood-caked material that might once have been a dress but now resembled a discarded bandage, he reached the open square opposite. He found himself staring across a wide expanse now filled with carnage and debris at the high gold and ebony walls of the Great Library. Fire had charred the near flank, leaving streaks of soot as tall as a man upon the surface.

Picking his way across the square, Corano saw two wagons, the oxen that had pulled them lying in bloodied heaps, heads thrown back, ribs splayed open. The wagons were ravaged, the goods they once carried now spread across the square in a mess of splinters and shattered pottery. No human, dru’un or taromaani bodies were visible but evidence of them was, in pools of drying viscera and bright splashes of crimson and azure. Off to the left a small building still burned, pumping thin streams of darkness into the air. The silence was oppressive – even the crows were keeping their distance. Above these grim surroundings, the Library loomed like some ancient tomb and Corano approached it cautiously, his breathing shallow and his steps light.

Raising his right arm he squeezed the Ignus Orb, willing a tiny spark of Jhi into it. Immediately he felt it flare to life in his palm, swelling and burning.

‘You’d better be in there, you son of a bitch,’ he muttered, before hurling the orb high. The device soared like a rising comet, dragging a trail of red fire behind it to sail through a shattered stained-glass window. There came a loud, soft sound, like the drag of air into a vacuum – and then a thunderclap echoed across the square. The rest of the windows blew out, spilling twinkling, glinting glass to the ground. Flames licked up instantly, and for a moment Corano felt a terrible remorse for the hundreds of books he was condemning to the fire, many of which had never been copied and would be destroyed forever. He moved back and, as a horrifying high-pitched keening emanated from within, hurled the second orb.

An almighty wave of flame erupted within the Library’s interior as the power of both orbs combined and the near wall of the building sagged under the incredible heat. The gold coating on the metalwork peeled back like rotting skin, the wooden supports exploding in flames.

Suddenly a score of hakrids burst from the roof, raining smouldering wreckage onto the square below. Corano sprinted away, one arm raised protectively above his head. Hot rain fell as steaming metal shards and wooden embers zinged down around him. A white-hot splinter of steel slashed by his shoulder and he turned, dropping into a crouch to survey his reluctant destruction. A hakrid, its spindly limbs ablaze, smashed down beside him, skidding to a halt some way away. The daemon writhed and snapped, attempting to rise, but the fire was too intense. Corano ignored it, watching as several more did the same, crashing through buildings and careening into the ground. More followed them from the building, these untouched by the flames, squealing as the bright rays of sunlight cut through the clouds and stabbed at their ethereal flesh.

Corano raised his left arm, allowing his shadowsteel scythe to extend, first the haft and then the wide, curved blade. Holding the shimmering weapon two-handed, his almond eyes peered across it at the approaching daemons.

A hakrid dropped before him, its maw stretching open. He stepped smoothly to one side, spinning, arcing his terrible weapon through the air and slashing the beast in two. As it fell, Corano caught the attention of several more and turned to face them squarely. Their grouped attack was no match for his speed and he diced them into twitching pieces. Glancing towards the Library, he cursed. His plan hinged on leading them back to the inn, their Master with them – but so far Dannan had not emerged. As Corano turned to race back towards the alleyway the ground beneath him heaved and cracked.

He stumbled to one side, rolling on the ground and scrambling up. ‘You read my mind!’ he growled as the ground rippled and bucked. The Windchaser steadied himself, holding his arms out horizontally for balance as a gaping hole appeared before him. The hakrids pulled back, waiting, and he regarded them with a calm, patient stare.

The ground suddenly split, spewing rock splinters into the air. Corano pitched to the right, a terrible cramp knotting his stomach as he hit the flagstones. He came up on one knee as a vision of Hell incarnate appeared before him.

Shaking loose blocks of solid stone from his glistening hide, Dannan of the Pentuliche arose from the earth. His body was a pulsating mass of chitinous scales and his wide, wedge-shaped head sat upon a long, muscular neck, crowned with a mess of razor sharp thorns. As the Daemon-God dragged free his segmented bulk, Corano saw a score of thick, insect-like legs that stabbed at the ground with blurring speed. The Ulgathan’s arms were long and powerful, ending in snapping claws that bit at the air like greedy jaws.

Prince Dannan cleared the hole and towered above the Windchaser, three tails poised above his glowering face as though to strike like a scorpion, tendrils of raw energy wreathing his body and crackling like lightning. The abomination spread his six membranous wings, lifting his great body from the ground and blowing up a cloud of swirling grey dust. He regarded the Windchaser with cold, reptilian eyes, and Corano almost cursed at the folly of his decision – but he was committed now to facing this beast and he would see it through. As Dannan came close, he hurled himself to the left, racing back towards the alleyway. The Daemon-God bellowed something in Ulgathan and his hideous flies became instantly alert, speeding after the fleeing Windchaser, the burning sunlight ignored.

Corano burst from the alley mouth at full sprint, a hakrid hurtling out behind him to be blasted away by a whizzing windcannon bolt. The Windchaser’s eye caught Preya resting on the roof of the inn and he waved his thanks, silently urging her not to wear out the converter before those all-important shots. If we get that far… he thought, as around him the hakrids swarmed, shrieking their rage...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Windchaser Overview

The Allarei Heartstone has sustained the world of Lor for two thousand years. But now, as natural disasters ravage the lands and Hellsprings manifest with alarming frequency, spewing murderous daemons into the mortal realm, one thing is becoming clear…

The Heartstone is dying.

And with it, the world will die, too.

As an ancient evil stirs in the bowels of Hell, hope is borne from the Heavens in the form of an angelic saviour whose very touch will heal the Heartstone. However, if she is to reach her destination before the world is swept away by the terrifying might of an army of Daemon-Gods, she will have to rely on a man whose soul teeters upon a blade’s edge between darkness and light.

And in doing so, she may be placing the world in even greater peril, for he is the Windchaser, Darkmalian – dispassionate, violent and unpredictable, his very soul may be the key to the destruction of the mortal races…

Windchaser is the stunning first volume of The Heartstone Chronicles, introducing the myriad races of Lor as they prepare to undergo a testing: a terrible, all-consuming conflict is coming to the Mortal Realms, and only a handful of reluctant heroes will stand fast to decide the fate of Heaven & Hell – and all that lies between…

Windchaser now available!

The Heartstone Chronicles: Windchaser is now available from lulu.com, Smashwords and Amazon's Kindle Store.

Follow the links at the bottome of the page to buy it, or follow it on Facebook.