Friday, 20 May 2011

Windchaser Character Bio: Darkmalian

Darkmalian was born on the island Shire of Riis off the southern coast of Coriathir. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by a grizzled old soldier who he knew only as Uncle Athartes. Growing up in the foothills of the mountain range known as Magg's Spine, Darkmalian knew peace only in his early years.

Athartes taught him many things as a child, from basic fisticuffs and woodsmanship, to reading, writing and arithmatic. However, at the age of seven, Darkmalian's Jhi ignited, attracting the attention of a daemonic xavant and the Wraithlord Aesric.

Aesric arrived to collect the boy in the company of the Windchaser Arius Jhaydn, but too late. The xavant had already killed Athartes and was about to kill the boy, but Arius saved his life - an action that would form the basis of a lasting friendship.

Taken by Aesric into the Half-Realm of Na'ath, Darkmalian's Windchaser training was harder than most. Constantly harangued by the Loro'cai fledgling Luhzael Nu'Madryn and unable to control his fiery, unpredictable rage, Darkmalian struggled to unlock his potential. A Windchaser's power comes from Jhi, and Jhi is most poten when summoned in rage - making the ability to control and tap into one's rage of the utmost importance.

After 7 years, Aesric was forced to put Darkmalian through the "Trial of Rathrock", a Loro'cai training technique that forces a prentice to rely entirely upon their rage to survive. As a result, Darkmalian was "darkened", his soul infected with ethereal shadow. Three years later, his feud with Luhzael reaching a dark and unexpected conclusion, Darkmalian was banished from Na'ath without being taught the final meditations that would allow him to heal his soul and replenish his stamina.

Shortly thereafter he met the Windchaser Shara Belayn, whom he fell in love with; and Warwick Munmartyr, a young Windchaser who became his best friend. When Munmartyr fell to Havoc and turned Rogue, he took Shara with him and the two embarked on a debauched, blood-thirsty affair. The betrayal led to Darkmalian severely wounding Munmartyr, forcing the latter to flee with Shara and not return to Darkmalian's life for several years.

After an altercation with a daemon inside the walls of Lothos Par led to the accidental death of a young woman named Marni Valentine and Darkmalian's banishment from the city, he went south, becoming a bounty hunter for the Snike spymaster Val Khali. However, when the bounties turned to assassinations and the targets became personal and not political, Darkmalian left Khali's service and journeyed north once again - a course of action that led to him returning to Lothos Par in breach of exile, directly before the events of The Heartstone Chronicles.

During the events of Windchaser, Darkmalian is described as tall and lithe, his body balanced and powerful but slim - the body of an athletic dancer or martial artist. His hair is jet black, his jaw angular but strong. His eyes are of such pale green that they give the impression of ice, and are so cold and remorseless that they earn such a comparison. He fights daemons with twin shadowsteel blades, and mortals with a pair of ornate shortswords named Malice and Torment.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Typos Ate My Manuscript (and Other Issues)

Polish, polish, polish... That's the advice they give you when you're planning to submit a manuscript to anyone. And you should, too. Whether you're planning to show it to an agent, publisher or the drunk guy who keeps playing with your underwear while it hangs on the wash line.

It's good advice, but it's like saying to someone "Cut me a piece of string. I won't tell you how long it's got to be, but you'd better get the right length." I originally began sending Windchaser to agents in the winter of 2009. Of the nine I approached, eight replied. Of those, six were full of praise and encouragement and "please do try other agents" and the usual nonsense auto-printed on pink slips.

I decided not to attempt sending out unsolicited manuscripts to publishers or even to lay myself on the bloodstained altars of anymore literary agents. Instead I opted for the indie route. Eek! To cut a long rambling a little shorter, that meant editing, editing, editing, all on my own.

Thankfully a good friend of mine, and an editor of some experience, stepped into help guide me through the minefield of past perfect tenses, dreaded colon / semi-colon conundrums, the occasional "I before E" cock-up and more than a few plotholes. What neither he, nor I, nor anyone who has read it since was able to do was spot all the typos.

Typos are like muggers waiting down dark alleys to jump out at you and ruin your evening; they're ketchup stains down the front of your best tie that you didn't see because you were too busy enjoying your meal; they are flesh-eating parasites contracted during a wonderfully-romantic sexual episode in a tropical waterhole; they are a pain in the arse.

They remind me of that optical illusion: It dosen't mtater wihch odrer you put wrdos in as lnog as the fnort and bcak lettres are in the rgiht pcale. Your brain just doesn't pick up missing words like "a" and "of", or the accidental use of form instead of from. You can read sentence over and over again and not spot what's wrong with it.

So instead you over-polish. The more you read your own work, the more you spot the odd word or phrase here and there that you don't like, which in turn leads to removing entire sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters... You alter, snip, cut, prune, and if you're not careful it becomes an obssession - a desperate longing for the perfect manuscript which, in all likelihood, doesn't exist. Seriously, read a couple of commercial large-press titles and count the number of tiny little glitches in them.

The only advice I can offer, right or wrong, is to do what I did: pick yourself a deadline for publication and stick to it. Say you give yourself 6 weeks from finsihing the novel to self-publishing it - if you can't spot a typo in 6 weeks, you ain't never gonna spot it. Then get hold of either a professional editor (often expensive) or a friend with a good editorial eye (rare) and let them give it a once over. You read and polish a chapter, they read it and polish it and then you move on to the next one, accepting that no one is perfect and errors may remain, but you've done your level best.

Otherwise you can end up in a horrendous circle of correcting typos, rewriting and adding new typos, correcting those typos, rewriting and adding ne.... You get the picture. Far more important than the aesthetics are things like character, plot and atmosphere. Nail those, if you can, and people will forgive the occasional faux pas.

A Map of Coriathir

And here's a close-up of the Coriathir subcontinent, the main setting of Windchaser, the first Volume of The Heartstone Chronicles.

Known as a "Sceptery", the kingdom of Coriathir is envisioned as around the size of Western Europe. Seperated into 11 Shires, each one governed by a Mace, the country proper is ruled by the High Sceptre.

Roughly based on the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, Coriathir is home to the Coriathi, a diverse and multicultural people.

Again, I hope to include this image in the digital copy of Windchaser as well as the print version at some point in the future.

A Map of Lor

A map of the world of Lor. This map is published in the print version of Windchaser, but due to complications and my small brain it's not in the digital versions.

I drew this from snippets of short stories and ideas set on Lor over the last few years. I'm no artist, as you can see, and it's certainly not to scale, but it's a fair indication of the geography of the world in which Windchaser is set. This, along with the dramatis personae and glossary help to add a great deal of depth to the world. I would definately recommend producing a map to any author / writer of high, epic or heroic fantasy.

In a few weeks when I've finally got the ISBN sorted, I will find a way of including this map and the map of Coriathir in the digital version, too - possibly in the appendix.

Windchaser - An Excerpt from Chapter Five

Once, Dockend had been the merchants’ quarter of Lothos Par, before the then-struggling crafters and traders who flocked to the new capital had begun to make anything but a meagre living from their wares. Almost as soon as the money began to come in to Lean Way, those who earned it moved out, heading for the shining, glorified new district on the opposite side of the city’s central island, once called High-Crescent but now renamed Farend.

What they left behind was, among other things, space. Yard upon square-yard of warehousing, lockups and workshops crowded around the docks and wharfs like empty-bellied urchins waiting to be fed. After years of standing unused, disrepair began to creep through them like a cancer, eating at their walls, dragging down their foundations until their floors sagged like warped, grimy bowls. The sea wind thrashed them, bleaching them with spray, rubbing thin the poor-quality shipboard walls. Holes opened up and were repaired with sheets of rusted tin or shards of driftwood, and upon the district settled an aura not of poverty, as might have been expected, but of struggle – of survival. If the wind blew it down, someone would stand it back up again; if the rain and lashing waves tore rusty wounds in it, someone would patch over them. For all the effort poured into destroying the squat, grey-white flesh of Lothos Par’s docks by time and nature, the district endured.

The poor settled, despite the dank clamour of the area, drawn to the atmosphere of resilience, of stubbornness in the face of crushing adversity. There were homes that needed filling and warehouses that needed occupying, and so the Concordance had no reason to impede such migrations, instead opting to monitor Dockend’s citizens as they did in the other districts. Taxes were demanded and – for the most part – paid, and there was now a citizenry in the docks to maintain repairs and man the waterfronts.

In recent decades though, the district had become almost synonymous with crime. The design of Lean Way – once merely a street name but now a colloquialism for the rat’s nest of cul-de-sacs and narrow, shadow-steeped alleyways at the district’s centre, hidden behind a mesh of shoulder-wide, litter-strewn aisles and balcony-shaded huddles – made it the ideal skulk for cutthroats, beggars and ruffians of every ilk. A day never passed that did not see blood spilt somewhere upon Lean Way’s un-cobbled roads. Those who were smart stayed well away, keeping their distance towards the riverside and steering clear of the shadows and grime, while the poor who were forced to take up residence shuttered their doors at curfew and took false comfort in the fact that they possessed nothing worth stealing.

Tonight the streets were characteristically quiet and an air of creeping menace clung to the thick, damp mist that wound through the matchbox network. Here the squeal of an alley cat baying for mates pierced the sepulchral silence; there the clack and rattle of a shutter reverberated through the cramped darkness.

Through the cloying shadows a figure strode, seemingly out of place in the garb of a Gentran noble. It was an appearance that would endure only a momentary glance, however, for a closer inspection would reveal that grease and sweat slicked the man’s fire-red hair to his skull, oil and blood soiled the laced cuffs of his billow-sleeved shirt and his cracked leather boots were caked in mud and slime. Across his shoulder was slung a heavy object wrapped in burlap, both ends hanging past his waist. A dark stain spread through the material like the blooms of a pressed flower, leaking wax-thick liquid that rolled too lazily to drip. Warm steam danced around the burlap, fading into the fog.

Coming upon the high, wide double doors of what had once been a warehouse for Delad spices and sweetmeats, Warwick Munmartyr shifted the weight of the object he carried and rapped twice upon the rotted wood. The street smelled of damp and decay, mixed with the repugnant odour of several dozen southeastern spices that had saturated the knots and weather marks of the shipboard walls. The Rogue wrinkled his nose at the sickly scent before reminding himself of his own current condition; he probably stank worse than any of the buildings in Lean Way.

He waited almost sixty heartbeats before raising his hand and knocking again. A sound came a moment later, the dragging of a heavy bulk across rubbish-strewn floorboards. An almost invisible shutter slammed open to reveal a huge narrowed eye, rheumy and off-green, framed by thick dark lashes and grey, leathered skin, pockmarked and rough. The eye stared for a moment, then blinked and vanished. A hollow rattling sounded as a lockbar slid out of rusted grooves.

Munmartyr smiled to himself. So much for pleasantries.

The door was pulled open, piling up filthy rags and shards of smashed crates as it went, to reveal a vision that put the undanoi reputation as peaceful giants to shame. The pachyderm was over seven feet tall and almost half as wide across the shoulders, dark grey all over. The thick skin around his neck and hairless head was crisscrossed with pale scars, and his clothes – a long oilskin kilt and a sleeveless black surcoat – were tattered and stained. There was a weapon hanging from his belt that Munmartyr would only loosely term a sword: the blade was almost a foot wide and three feet long, flaring at one end and razor-sharp on either edge.

The Rogue observed as the pachyderm made his way back to the table and seated himself upon an iron chair large enough to be a throne for some inglorious king. It had always seemed somehow unnatural to Munmartyr that the undanoi should walk upright, but long ago in the evolution of the species, their front hooves had split into three-fingered hands as wide as shovelheads. The giant moved slowly, even gracefully, despite his considerable size.

As Munmartyr entered the warehouse and closed the door, the one-horned undanoi watched him steadily over the curved beak of his mouth, his narrow eyes barely visible due to the curvature of his skull. His left ear, standing out from his head horizontally, fluttered twice; of the right, only a ragged flap of scar tissue remained. A candle thicker than a man’s forearm guttered upon the table, casting a frantic orange glow across the undanoi’s right side.

Munmartyr glanced around, eyeing the litter and refuse scattered on the floor: shattered packing crates, strips of mouldy paper, and a dead seagull lying prone in one corner, a feast for maggots and flies. The table and chair were the room’s lone furnishings and the only light beside the candle flame oozed through a grime-caked square window in the back wall, thick and pale and blue.

‘Well,’ the Rogue said, ‘I see you’ve moved up in the world, Rhaat’Arat’Khu.’

The undanoi snorted and twin plumes of steam rose above his sloping head. ‘And Munmartyr, as ever, does no better for himself,’ he retorted, his voice a deep rumble that hissed and laboured around the shape of his mouth.

‘Now, now, Khu,’ the Rogue warned with a false smile. ‘Don’t get personal. We don’t want a falling-out, do we?’
Khu answered with a second snort. ‘Without Rhaat’Arat’Khu, who to supply Munmartyr’s trinkets? Who to wipe blood from Munmartyr’s careless treads?’

‘Very true, very true.’ He crossed the room, heaved once and tipped his cargo onto the table. It slapped down with a meaty thud and continued to steam.

The undanoi leaned forward, not taking his eyes from the Rogue, and sniffed twice. ‘Preserved in cantus oil, Rhaat’Arat’Khu thinks. Costly.’

‘And thawing quickly – so get on with it.’
‘Munmartyr preaches haste,’ Khu said absently, now inspecting the burlap-wrapped object with questing fingers. ‘Much time yet. Rhaat’Arat’Khu sees no plats.’

Munmartyr reached into the doublet he wore over his once-fine shirt and produced a clanking bag full of slim, knuckle-sized platinum bars, each one worth a hundred copper ren. He dropped it onto the table. ‘I thought your people traded in sand and stars.’

‘Sand and stars have no power in Coriathi lands. Plats have power.’
Munmartyr smiled. ‘Now can we get on with it?’

‘How long since shell was emptied?’

‘You mean how long ago did I cut the bastard’s throat? A few weeks. And I had to follow him around for several moons beforehand, reading him like a student with an encyclopaedia. Why?’

‘Smells funny.’

‘Well, what did you expect?’

The undanoi ignored him and sniffed the body again. His beady eyes widened and he sat back. ‘Munmartyr said man.’

‘It is a man. Well, it was a man.’
‘Not man. Windchaser.’

Munmartyr laughed, hopping up to perch on the edge of the table. He slapped a hand down on the sack-wrapped corpse between himself and Khu. ‘What’s the difference? And please spare me the mystic mumbo-jumbo you people wax so lyrical upon.’
‘No mumbo. No jumbo. Simple. Dead Windchasers bring live Windchasers.’
‘Then hurry up and torch the body. I killed him out on the Middlesea, twenty leagues from land. He’s been hidden for a while and none of the House’s puppets have come anywhere near him. I doubt he’s been mourned at all.’

Khu’s unconvinced gaze lingered upon Munmartyr a moment longer, then he reached under the table and produced a simple, unadorned square box. Setting it down he flicked the catches on its front side and swung back the lid. Munmartyr peered inside to see a bundle of muslin, tied with twine.

‘And you are sure it still functions?’

Another grunt rumbled from the undanoi. ‘Why does Munmartyr question Rhaat’Arat’Khu? Has the second ever failed the first?’

‘I don’t think you have ever sold me anything this old. Where did you find it?’

The undanoi issued a series of clicks that Munmartyr knew to be tutting. ‘No stories. Munmartyr knows the rules.’
Reaching into the box, the Rogue removed the muslin-wrapped contents and laid them down. He loosened the twine and smiled. The object within was a piece of mesh comprised of hundreds of hair-thin metal strands, shaped like a theatre mask. The inside was bare metal, whilst the outside was painted red with decorative eyes of black.

‘It doesn’t look like much,’ he observed.
Khu gently took the mask from Munmartyr’s fingers. ‘It is same for all artefacts of great power – uglier it is, more it is worth. Now Munmartyr must stand back. Rhaat’Arat’Khu summons ancient Craft.’

The Rogue stood up and took a step away, watching intently. The undanoi were a fascinating race; they were only mortal species to retain a powerful affinity for magic after the Cataclysm. Where the Windchasers relied upon the severely limited capabilities of Jhi, and magickers used the weakening Essa, the undanoi were still able somehow to combine both, enabling them to practice Old Realm Crafts lost to all other mortal races since before the Cataclysm. It was, in Munmartyr’s belief, a skill wasted on the desert-dwelling pachyderms. They were too peaceful to truly make use of such a gift, too passive to glory in their power, and too guarded to share it with other races. Even Khu – pirate, thief and swindler that he was – was unwilling to use such crafts against other living mortals or impart the secrets thereof; and Munmartyr had personally witnessed him smashing in more than one head with that brutal blade of his.

A sudden penumbra formed around the undanoi, a sharp-edged aura of pale blue that rose and dipped in time with an unheard rhythm, dragging Munmartyr’s focus to the magery taking place before him. Unlike some, the Rogue had never felt uneasy around the arcane. Daemons had a power all their own, not spawned from anything as pedestrian as magic, while Essa was merely the manipulation of Allarei and a Windchaser’s Jhi was internal – but the concept of magic, perhaps a memory of the arcane power that still throbbed and swirled beneath Lor’s crust, had never frightened him. Munmartyr was interested only in power, and cared not whether it was knowledge, standing, money or magic that brought it to him.

He watched with interest as the undanoi laid the mask upon the face of the dead Windchaser. The glow deepened, covering the corpse, brightening and pulsing; then it faded, the shimmering halo around Khu and the cadaver dropping away like a discarded shroud to vanish amongst the dingy shadows. The undanoi looked up, his exhaustion showing in the ripples of black and pale grey that crawled over his skin.

‘It is quickened,’ he announced, raising the mask.

Munmartyr grinned, reaching out to accept the offered device. He hefted it, eyeing it suspiciously as its icy coldness seeped into his skin. ‘How long will the effects last?’

‘Seven sunsets. Then power curdles, and Munmartyr finds himself trapped and maddening.’

‘Maddening, eh? Interesting. If official reports are to be believed, I am already mad.’

The undanoi shrugged. ‘Munmartyr’s risk now. Rhaat’Arat’Khu has completed his task.’

‘Indeed you have,’ the Rogue agreed, rewrapping the mask and placing it back in the box. He looked sideways at the undanoi. ‘Usually, it is customary for me to kill anyone who has helped me as you have. Old habits and all that, you know. But you have always been useful, Khu, so I shall let you live to prove such usefulness again.’

The undanoi seemed unconcerned by the threat. ‘Rhaat’Arat’Khu says nothing of Munmartyr’s business – Munmartyr pays too well.’
‘That he does, Khu. Now finish the job for which you were paid – and burn that stinking corpse.’

Friday, 6 May 2011

Are you using that adjective? I collect them.

Purple prose is what happens when a writer overwrites. Characterised by a use of unneccessary or surplus words, using too many adjectives and descriptors and generally waxing poetic when there's just no need. It's apparently frowned upon, viewed with disdain, about as popular as a lerposy-stricken masseuse.

But I've got to be honest: I love it. I'm a fan of Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft, writers who knew their craft and revelled above all else in the use of imagery to convey atmosphere. Was their prose purple? Arguably. Not a viewpoint that will make me popular, I imagine.

Anyway, before I begin to sound like someone who knows what he's talking about (I'm not, and don't), I'll get to the point. I like describing things, I like to tell my readers that the sunset is painting the distant horizon in deepening shades of pastel violet; I like to play with commas and punctuation, crack open a thesaurus once in a while and avoid the mundane. I love imagery, I love carving a story from a hunk of unformed language with the grace of a sculptor. Or trying to, at least. 

Succinct sentences have their place. Like there, for example. And there. But what makes authors stand out is individual style: Steven Erikson and Robert Jordan are famous for writing in the same blanket genre (which fantasy undoubtedly is), but they're very different scribes. The late, great Jordan was a perpetrator of the "info dump", often accused of spoon-feeding readers with info and exposition, where as Erikson will likely be buried with the cliff notes to The Malazon Book of the Fallen. The point is that one man's purple prose may be another man's perfect pitch, one man's info dump is another man's welcome elaboration.

Again, not pretending to know what I'm blathering about, just tossing out some jabberwocky in the hopes that some of it makes sense. What I think I may or may not be trying to say is that I will be accused many times throughout my career (I say career on the off-chance that I eventually have one) of using purple prose, info-dumps and being generally far too free and easy with the adjectives, and if that shrinks my target audience, so be it. I feel that working too hard to change my style would be to remove the positives (of which I hope there at least an equal amount) as well as the negatives.

Instead I'm trying not to focus on such concerns and instead worrying more about the content of the story, the characters, the thread of the plot, the flow of the narrative (purple or not). Will overuse of imagery and adjectives put off critics? Undoubtedly. Will it put off readers? Perhaps. But only perhaps. Some readers just want a good story, regardless of the colour of the prose.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sporadically Proactive

Fired off a round of review requests today... I don't know why but I always feel as though I'm slinking up to these websites, cap in hand, begging for a scrap of attention. That's probably what I'm doing wrong (he says, with the clarity of reflection).

Maybe I should instead be cartwheeling up to them like a child of divorce working his ass off for some genuine attention from his estranged parents. Swinging my arms and raising my voice like the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world my generation apparently is (according to Tyler Durden, anyway).

Self-promotion is turning out to be harder than I expected. I've had some wilder ideas, like sky-writing the name of my book over London on a busy day, or maybe ninja-mailing a copy to every single publisher, agent and coffee shop within a hundred miles of my home - maybe tattooing the entire manuscript on my body and going on Britain's Got Talent as the Human Novel... No, that's a bit silly.

The whole point, though, is that when I think of self-promotion I think of grand gestures as opposed to the more understated options. I didn't even think of posting an ad on goodreads, for example, when thoughts of full-body tatts and skywriters were going through my mind. It's the old "hear hooves, think zebras" problem. Half the time you can't see obvious solutions cuz you're too busy thinking of intricate, elaborate plots to advance your claim to world dominance.

Which is kind of the crux of my problem. I'm clueless. Mostly uneducated (a senior-school education superceeded by reading as much good literature as I could stomach, as much violent heroic fantasy as I could find and as many comic books as my eyes could take), mostly unconnected (I write for a couple of gaming websites, but none of us is taking paycheques home of a month) and mostly inexperienced (I've been writing for years and years, but whether any of it is any good, whether I'm making consistent improvements or steadily getting worse, is beyond my ken), I'm not exactly poised to hit the industry like a ten-tonne bomb. I don't even have that many friends who read.

So I muddle on, people. I send out sporadic requests for reviews, sporadically post on the Amazon forums, and update my blog, well, sporadically, I guess. I imagine I'll pay for sporadic ad campaigns, too, and hope that somehow happy happenstance conspires with funny fortune to make George Martin, Rihanna Pratchett or Bono stumble across my work and say "Hey, this kid (I'm 30, but they don't know that) needs a break - he's got a surefire hit on his hands!" and drop me a life-changing email.

Until then, I'll carry on being sporadically proactive and consistently clueless.

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…