The third day of the preview of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. Helpful pages: Angry Robot Books, Review of Kell's Legend, Interview with Andy Remic, Part One, Part Two.
NOTE: KELL’S LEGEND HAS CONTENT NOT SUITABLE FOR YOUNGER READERS, INCLUDING VIOLENCE AND LANGUAGE.
A Dark Shroud Falls.
Kell reached Jalder University’s huge iron gates and stopped, panting, wiping sweat from his eyes. He listened, eyes darting left and right. Screams echoed, distant, muffled by ice-smoke. And more, off to the right, down the hill from where he’d emerged. Kell’s teeth clamped tight, muscles standing out along the ridge of his jaw-line; the bastards were murdering everybody! And for what? What petty purpose of slaughter? Invasion? Wealth? Greed? Power? Kell spat, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
I thought I’d left the Days of Blood behind?
I thought my soldiering was done. He smiled, a grim bloodless smile with coffee-stained teeth. Well, laddie, it seems somebody has a different plan for you!
Hoisting his matt-black axe, Kell glanced momentarily at the twin butterfly-shaped blades, like curved wings. It would have been a very dark butterfly: poisonous, deadly, utterly without mercy. This was Kell’s bloodbond. The Ilanna. Sister of the Soul, a connection wrenched from him by ancient rites and dark blood-oil magick, flowing with his lifeblood, his very essence. Ilanna had many tales to tell. But then, the horror stories of the axe were for another day.
Kell moved warily up a well-kept path. He could barely see past low bushes and winter flowers which lined the walkway beyond neatly trimmed grass. He stopped, as something loomed from the mist: it was a circle of corpses, young women, each a shrivelled dry husk with faces stretched like horror masks, skin brittle like glass. Kell’s heart-rate increased and his grip tightened.
If they’ve hurt Nienna, he thought.
If they’ve hurt Nienna…
He reached the entrance, past more corpses from which he averted his eyes. Up stone steps, he rattled the large oak doors. Locked. Kell’s gaze swept the mist, his senses singing to him; they were out there, the soldiers, he could feel them, sense them, smell them. But… Kell frowned. There was something else. Something ancient, stalking the mist.
Shivering with premonition, Kell moved warily around the edges of the building. He found a low window, and using his axe-blade, prised the jamb and struggled inside. It was cool and dark. Ice-smoke swirled around the floor. No candles were lit, and Kell’s boots padded across thick rich carpets, past fine displays of silverware and ceiling-high shelving containing an orgy of books. Kell seemed to be in some kind of office, and he reached the door – with its ornate arched frame – and eased out into a carpeted corridor lined with small statues. He listened. Nothing… then a scream, so loud and close-by it rammed Kell’s heart into his mouth. He whirled, around the nearest corner, to see a young woman on her knees, hands above her face, palms out, skin blue with cold. An albino soldier stood over her, a short knife in his hand. He turned as Kell’s eyes fell on him… despite Kell making no sound.
The albino smiled.
Kell launched his axe, which sang across the short expanse and thudded through armour and breast-bone, punching the soldier from his feet to sit, stunned, a huge butterfly cleaving his heart. His mouth opened, and milk-blood ran over pale lips and down his chin. Kell strode forward and crouched before the albino.
‘But… you should be powerless against us,’ whispered the man, eyes blinking rapidly.
‘Yeah, laddie?’ Kell grasped the axe-haft, put his boot against the soldier’s chest, and ripped the weapon free in a shower of waxy blood. ‘I think you’ll find I’m a little different.’ He bared his teeth in a skull smile. ‘A little more… experienced, shall we say.’
Kell turned and crouched by the woman, but she was dead, skin blue, eyes ringed purple. Her tongue protruded, and Kell touched it; it was frozen solid, and he could feel the chill through his gloves.
A distant memory tugged at Kell, then. It was the ice-smoke. He’d seen it, once before, as a young soldier on the Selenau Plains. His unit had come across an old garrison barracks housing King Drefan’s men; only they were dead, frozen, eyes glassy, flesh stuck to the stone. As the cavalry squad dismounted and entered the barracks, so tiny wisps of mist had dissipated, despite sunlight shining bright outside. Kell’s sergeant, a wide brutal man called Heljar, made the sign of the Protective Wolf, and the inexperienced men amongst the squad imitated him, aware it could do no harm. ‘Blood-oil magick,’ Heljar had whispered, and they’d backed from the garrison barracks with boots crunching ice.
Kell rubbed at his beard through leather gloves, and glanced down at his axe. Ilanna. Blessed in blood-oil, she would protect him against ice-smoke, he knew. She would allow him to kill these magick-cursed men. Allow? Kell smiled a bitter smile. Hell, she would encourage it.
Now. Where would Nienna be? The dormitories?
If under attack, where would she run?
Kell, following instinct, following a call of blood, eased through long corridors and halls of the university building, past corpses and several times past soldiers intent on their search. Up to the second floor, Kell found piles of bodies, all frozen, all arranged as if awaiting… what? What the hell do they want, wondered his confused mind?
A scream. Above.
Kell broke into a run, past lines of bodies laid out with arms by sides, faces serene in cold and death. His hands were tight on Ilanna, his breathing ragged and harsh, and he could sense his granddaughter close by. Up more steps, growing reckless the more he grew frantic with rising fear. Through a dormitory, beds neatly made, wooden chests unopened, and up another tight spiral staircase, taking the steps two at a time, his old legs groaning at him, muscles on fire, joints stabbing him with pain, but all this was washed aside by a surge of adrenalin as Kell slammed into the room –
There were four dead girls, lying on the floor, with long hair seeming to float behind pale chilled faces. Nienna and two others stood, armed with ornamental pikes they’d dragged from the walls during their flight. Before them stood three albino warriors with long white hair, all carrying short swords, their black armour a gleaming contrast to porcelain skin.
The soldiers turned as one, as Kell burst in. With a scream he leapt at them, axe slamming left in a whirr that severed one soldier’s sword-arm and left him kneeling, stump spewing milk blood. Nienna leapt forward, thrusting her commandeered pike into an albino’s throat but he moved fast, grabbing the weapon and twisting it viciously from Nienna’s grip. She stumbled back nursing injured wrists, and watched with mouth open as the skewered albino stubbornly refused to die.
‘Magick!’ she hissed.
The albino nodded, smiling a smile which disintegrated as Kell’s axe cleaved down the centre of his skull and dropped him in an instant. The third soldier turned to flee, but Ilanna sang, smashing through his clavicle. The second strike severed his head with a savage diagonal stroke.
The world froze in sudden impact.
Kell, chest heaving, moved forward. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Grandpa!’ She fell into his arms, her friends coming up close behind, their faces drawn in fear, etched with terror. ‘It’s awful! They stormed the university, started to kill everybody with swords and… and…’
‘And magick,’ whispered a young woman, with short red hair and topaz eyes. ‘I’m Katrina. Kat to my friends. You are Kell. I’ve read everything about you, sir, your history, your exploits… your adventures! You are a hero! The hero of Kell’s Legend!’
‘We’ve not time for this,’ growled Kell. ‘We have to get out of the city. The soldiers are killing everyone!’
Katrina stooped, and hoisted one of the albino’s swords. ‘Normal weapons won’t kill them, right?’
Kell nodded. ‘You catch on fast, girl. The soldiers are blessed – or maybe cursed – with blood-oil magick. Only a suitably blessed and holy weapon can slay them. Either that, or remove their heads.’
‘Will this kill them?’
‘There’s only one way to find out.’
Nienna and the third young woman, Volga, armed themselves with the dead soldiers’ swords. Kell led them to the spiral stairs, moving cat-like, wary, his senses alert, his aches and pains, arthritis and lumbago all gone. He could sense the women’s fear, and that was bad; something dark flitted across his soul, something pure evil settling in Kell’s mind. He didn’t want the responsibility of these women. They were nothing to him. An inconvenience. He wanted simply to save Nienna. The other two? The other two women could…
I can kill them, if you like.
The thought came not so much as words, as primitive, primal images, drifting like a shroud across his thoughts. For a decade she had remained silent. But with fresh blood, fresh magick, fresh death, Ilanna had found new life…
They halted, and Nienna touched his arm gingerly. ‘Are you well, Grandpa?’
‘Yes,’ came his strangled reply; and for a moment he gazed at his bloodbond axe with unfathomable horror. The Ilanna was powerful, and evil, and yet – yet he knew without her he would not survive this day. Would not survive this hour. He owed her – it, damn it! – owed it his life. He owed it everything…
‘I am well,’ he forced himself to say, words grinding through gritted teeth. ‘Come. We need to reach the river. We can steal a boat there, attempt to get away from this… horror.’
‘I think you will find the river frozen,’ said a low, gentle voice.
The group had emerged like maggots from a wound, spilling from stairs into a long, low hall lined with richly polished furniture gleaming under ice-light from high arched windows. The whole scene appeared grey and silver; a portrait delicately carved in ice.
Kell stopped, mouth a line, mind whirring mechanically. The man was tall, lithe, wearing black armour without insignia. He was albino, like the other soldiers, with long white hair and ashen skin; and yet, yet – Kell frowned, for there was authority there, integral, a part of his core; and something not quite right. This was the leader. Kell did not need to be told. And his eyes were blue. They glittered like sapphires.
‘General Graal. This is my army, the Army of Iron, which has forcibly taken and now controls the city of Jalder. We have overrun the garrison, stormed the Summer Palace, subdued the soldiers and population. All with very little loss to my own men. And yet – ’ He smiled then, teeth bared, and took a step forward, the two soldiers flanking Graal remaining in position so the general was fore-grounded, set apart by his natural authority. ‘And yet you, old man, are fast becoming a thorn in my side.’
Kell, who had been eyeing other corridors which fed the hall in the hope of an easy escape route, eased to his right and checked for enemy. The corridor was empty. He turned, fixing a steel gaze on the general who seemed to be observing Kell with private amusement; or at least, the disdain a piranha reserves for an injured fish.
‘I apologise,’ growled Kell, eyes narrowed, ‘that I haven’t rolled over to die like so many other puppies.’ His eyes flashed dangerous with a new and concentrated form of hate. ‘It would seem you caught many of the city-folk by surprise, Graal, with the benefit of blood-oil magick at your disposal. I’m sure this makes you feel like a big cock bastard down at the barracks, Graal, the whore-master, joking about how he killed babes in their beds and soldiers in their sleep. The work of a coward.’
Graal was unfazed by insult. He tilted his head, watching Kell, feminine face laced with good humour. ‘What is your name, soldier?’ His words were a lullaby; soft and enticing. Come to me, that voice whispered. Join with me.
‘I am Kell. Remember it well, laddie, ’cause I’m going to carve it on your arse.’
‘But not today, I fear. Men? Kill them. Kill them all.’
The two albino soldiers eased forward, bodies rolling with athletic grace. Kell’s eyes narrowed. These men were special, he could tell. They were professional, and deadly. He knew; he’d killed enough during his long, savage lifetime.
The two soldiers split, one moving for Kell, the other for Nienna, Kat and Volga. They accelerated smoothly, leaping forward and Kell leapt to meet his man, axe slamming down, but the albino had gone, rolling, sword flickering out to score a line across Kell’s bearskin-clad bicep that saw the big man stagger back, face like thunder, teeth gritted and axe clamped in both hands.
‘A pretty trick, boy.’
The albino said nothing, but attacked again, swift, deadly, sword slamming up then twisting, cutting left, right, to be battered aside by the butterfly-blades of Kell’s axe. The albino spun, his blade hammering at Kell’s neck. Kell’s axe slammed the blade aside with a clatter. A reverse thrust sent the bloodbond axe towards the albino’s chest, but the man rolled fast and came up, grinning a full-teeth grin.
‘You’re fast, old man.’ His voice was like silver.
‘Not fast enough,’ snapped Kell, irate. He was starting to pant, and pain flickered in his chest. Too old, taunted that pain. Far too old for this kind of dance…
The albino leapt, sword slamming at Kell’s throat. Kell leant back, steel an inch from his windpipe, and brought his axe up hard. There was a discordant clash. The soldier’s sword sailed across the room, clattering from the wall.
‘Kell!’ came the scream. He whirled, saw instantly Nienna’s danger. The three young women were backing away, swords raised, the second albino warrior bearing down on them, toying with them. But his stance changed; now, he meant business. Even as Kell watched, the man’s sword flickered out and Nienna, face contorted, lashed out clumsily with her commandeered sword; it was batted aside, and on the reverse sweep the albino’s blade cut deep across Yolga’s belly. Cloth parted, skin and muscle opened, and the young woman’s bowels spilled out. She fell to her knees, face white, lips mouthing wordless, her guts in her hands. Blood spilled across complex-patterned carpet. ‘No!’ screamed Nienna, and attacked with a savage ferocity that belied her size and age. And as the albino’s sword slashed at her throat, in slow-motion, an unnervingly accurate killing stroke, Kell heaved his axe with all his might. The weapon flew, end over end making a deep thrumming sound. It embedded so far through the albino that both blades appeared through his chest. With spine severed, he dropped instantly, flopping spastically on the ground where he began to leak.
Kell whirled back, eyes sweeping the room. The first soldier had regained his sword. Of Graal, there was no sign. The man, eyes locked on his dead comrade, fixed his gaze on Kell. The look was not comforting, and the arrogant smile was gone. He stalked towards the old warrior who realised –
Bastard, he thought. He’d thrown his axe.
Kell backed away.
You should never throw your axe.
‘Graal said nothing about a swift death,’ snapped the albino, and Kell read in those crimson eyes a need for cruelty and torture. Here was a man with medical instruments in his pack; here was a man who enjoyed watching life-light die like the fall of a deviant sun.
Kell held up his hands, bearded face smiling easily. ‘I have no weapon.’ Although this was a lie: he had his Svian sheathed beneath his left arm, a narrow blade, but little use against a sword.
The albino drew square, and Kell, backing away, kept his hands held in supplication.
‘Your point is?’
‘It’s hardly a fair fight, laddie. I thought you were a soldier, not a butcher?’
‘We all have our hobbies,’ said the albino with a delicate smile.
Nienna’s sword entered his neck, clumsily but effectively, from behind, smashing his clavicle and embedding in his right lung. The albino coughed, twisted, and went down on one knee all at the same time. His sword lashed out in a reverse sweep, but Nienna skipped back, bloodied steel slipping from her fingers.
The albino coughed again, a heavy blood cough, and felt blood bubbling and frothing in his damaged lung. He felt the world swim. There was no pain. No, he thought. This wasn’t how it should end. He felt tingling blood-magick in his veins, and his fingers twitched at the intercourse. He dropped to his other knee. Blood welled in his throat, filled his mouth like vomit, and spilled down his black armour making it gleam. His head swam, as if he’d imbibed alcohol, injected blood-oil, merged with the vachine. He tried to speak, as he toppled to the carpet, and his eyes traced the complex patterns he found there. Darkness was coming. And weight. It was pressing down on him. He glanced up, unable to move, to see boots. He strained, more white blood pooling like strands of thick saliva from his open maw. Kell was standing, his axe, blades stained with blood and tiny flutters of torn flesh, held loose in one hand, resting on the carpet. Kell’s head was lowered, and to the albino his eyes looked darker than dark; they appeared as pools of ink falling away into infinity. Kell lifted his axe. The albino soldier tried to shout, and he squirmed on the carpet in some final primitive instinct; a testament to an organism’s need to survive.
Ilanna swept down. The albino was still.
Kell turned, glanced at Nienna. She was cradling Volga’s head and the girl was mumbling, face ashen, clothes ruined by her own arterial gore. The other girl, Kat, was standing to one side, eyes wide, mouth hung loose. As Kell watched, Volga spasmed and died in Nienna’s arms.
‘Why?’ screamed Nienna, head snapping up, anger burning in the glare she threw at Kell.
Kell shrugged wearily, and gathered up one of the albino’s swords. This one was different. The steel was black, and intricately inlaid with fine crimson runes. He had seen this sort of work before. It was said the metal was etched with blood-oil; blessed, in fact, by the darkness: by vachine religion. Kell ripped free the albino’s leather sheath, and looped it over his shoulders. He sheathed the sword smoothly and moved to Nienna.
‘Get your sword. We need to move.’
‘I asked you – why?’
‘And my answer is because. I don’t know, girl. Maybe the gods mock us. The world is evil. Men are evil. Volga was in the wrong place at the wrong damn time, but you are alive, and Kat is alive, so pick up your sword and follow me. That is,’ he smiled a nasty smile, ‘if you still want to live.’
Nienna moved to the fallen soldier. She took hold of her embedded sword, and tugged at it until it finally gave; it squelched from the corpse. She shuddered, tears running down her cheeks, and followed Kell to the corridor. Kat put her hand on Nienna’s shoulder, but the young woman shrugged off the intimacy, displacing friendship.
‘How do you feel?’
Nienna snorted a laugh. ‘I think I’ve lost my faith in God.’
‘I lost mine a long time ago,’ said Kat, eyes tortured. Nienna stared at her friend, then.
‘Now is not the time.’ Kat hoisted her own stolen sword. ‘You did well, Nienna. I froze. Seeing Volga like that…’ She took a deep breath, and patted her friend once more. ‘Honest. You did brilliant. You… saved us all.’
‘That soldier would have killed your grandpa. Without a weapon, he was just meat.’
Nienna looked at her friend oddly, then transferred her gaze back to Kell, whose eyes were sweeping the long, majestic hall. He glanced back, bloodied axe in his great huge paws. And with his thick grey beard and the bulk of his bearskin, for a moment in time, a sliver of half-glimpsed reality, he appeared to be natural in that skin. A warrior. No, more. A bestial and primitive ghost.
‘Follow me,’ he said, breaking the spell. ‘And stay silent. Or we’ll all be dead.’
Nienna nodded, and with Kat in tow, they followed Kell out to the hall.
Saark stared, transfixed, as the Harvester stooped and bobbed, striding forward with a rhythmical, swinging gait, ice-smoke trailing from its robes, black eyes like glossy coals drawing Saark into a world of sweetness and joy and uplifting mercy –
Come to me, angel.
Come to me, holy one.
Let me savour your blood.
Let me take you on the final journey.
Let me taste your life…
The long, bony fingers reached for Saark, who stood with every muscle tense, his body thrumming like the string on a mandolin. Saark’s eyes flickered, saw the hooded man creeping up behind the Harvester even as those long points of white reached for Saark’s chest and his shirt seemed to peel away and five white-hot needles scorched his skin and he opened his mouth to scream as he felt flesh melt but there was no sound and no words and no control and pain slapped Saark like a helve to the skull, stunning him, his legs going weak as an ice-wind whipped across his soul–
The hooded man screamed a battle-cry and charged, a large meat-cleaver held clear above his head, his bearded face, red and bitten savagely by the ice-smoke, contorted into a mask of frenzy.
The Harvester turned, smooth, unhurried, and as the cleaver lashed down the Harvester’s arm lifted in a sudden acceleration, and the cleaver bounced from bone with a clack and spun off, lost from the man’s flexing hands. The Harvester’s finger slammed out, puncturing the man’s chest above his heart. He screamed.
Saark fell to his knees, choking, coughing, and released from the spell, grappled wildly at his burning, melting chest. He glanced down, at five deep welts in his skin, deep purple sores surrounded by concentric circles of heavy bruising. Saark continued to cough, as if slammed in the heart by a sledge-hammer, and he watched helpless as the Harvester lifted the brave attacker high into the air kicking and screaming, impaled by the heart on five spears of bone. Body thrashing, the man screamed and screamed and Saark’s eyes widened as he watched the man sucked and shrivelled, arms and legs cracking, contorting, snapping at impossible angles as the skin of his face was drawn and shrivelled until it was a dry, useless, eyeless, husk.
The corpse hit the ground with a rattle; like bones in a paper bag.
The Harvester turned back to Saark, flat oval face leering at him. Thin lips opened revealing a black interior ringed with row after row of tiny teeth.
Saark grunted, rolled onto his hands and knees and accelerated into a sprint faster than any man had a right to. He powered away, chest on fire, heart pounding a tattoo in his ears, mouth Harmattan dry, bladder leaking piss in squirts down his legs. Down long alleys he fled, with no sounds of pursuit. He turned, and almost choked. The Harvester was pounding after him, so close and silent Saark almost fell on his face with shock. He slammed right, twisting down a narrow alleyway, dropping ever downwards towards the river. He skidded on icy cobbles, turned again, and again, ducking into narrow spaces between carts and stalls and wagons, squeezing past boxes, and suddenly shoulder-charging a door to his left and barging through a deserted house, past still bubbling pans and up narrow stairs to the roof –
He halted, listening.
His terrified eyes roved the staircase below, and he moved to the window and stared down into the street. Had he lost it? He tried to calm his breathing, and climbing out of the window, he reached up to the eaves of the house and with frozen fingers, ice-smoke swirling around his boots, he grunted, hoisting himself up onto slick slate tiles. Carefully, Saark climbed to the ridge-line and without waiting moved swiftly along the house apex, leaping a narrow alleyway with a glimpse of dark cobbled streets encased in ice below. Scary, yes, but not as heart-wrenchingly terrifying as the creature that pursued him; the monster that sucked life and blood and fluid from bodies, the beast that drank out people’s souls. Saark shuddered.
What hell has overtaken the world? he thought.
What law did I break, to be so cursed?
From house to house, from roof to roof, Saark leapt and slithered, many times nearly falling to cobbles and stalls far below. Through drifting mist he ran, a rooftop ghost, a midnight vagabond; only this time he was on no simple errand of theft.
This time, Saark ran for his life. And for his soul.