Sunday, November 1, 2009

FREE FICTION: Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic, Day Five

The final 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, Part Three, Part Four.


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.’


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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