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Tales of Engines & Demons


Volume 1



Matt Parker


Smashwords Edition


Copyright © 2017 Matt Parker


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only, and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


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Tales





Rourke – Siege’s End

Demon Hunted

Lost Love – Introductions

Rourke – Deceitful Drunkard

A Long Ago Incident at Ryazan

Lost Love – Liaison

Rourke – Bloodhawks

Lost Love – Dreaming

Rourke – Shattered Demon

Lost Love – Memorial

The Charlatan

Rourke – Vomit & Fire

Lost Love – Discoveries

The Father, the Son, the Hallowed Uncle

Rourke – Three Axe Duel

Lost Love – Waiting

Rourke – Brutal Needlework

A Banquet of Corpse-gulls

Lost Love – Arrangements

Rourke – Human Properties

Lost Love – Betrayal

Rourke – Start Praying

Lost Love – Reunion

From an Absent God

Rourke – Honour’s End

The Next Generation of Trouble Makers

ROURKE

Siege’s End




Once upon a time there was a long and brutal war.’

Communicant Krome looked down at the line he’d just written on the otherwise empty sheet of paper, and sighed. He was a man of god, not a teller of tales, and he had no idea how stories were supposed to be written. That opening line seemed like a good one, but the problem he had was the fact that tales starting with ‘once upon a time’ were wont to end with a ‘happy ever after’, and the story he’d been ordered to inscribe did not, in actuality, have one of those.

“Write me a story about the wars with the Predation,” Grand-commander Morath had said. “Write me a story about the demon scourge that came out of the west, and how it was defeated by the bravery and skill of the holy Orders of knighthood.”

Communicant Krome set down his chamber pen, picked up the small metal box he had received from Engineer Drasneval that morning, and placed it in the centre of the circle of brightness being cast by the glow-light above his head. He triggered the box’s lock, opened it, and looked down at the thing inside.

He sighed again.

He had been told to write the story of the Predation wars, but the truth, as proven by the box’s contents, was that the wars had never really ended. Out in the world beyond the sleepy comfort of the Provinces, they were still being fought, but not by the knights of the Orders. Those doing the fighting were not the valiant and honourable heroes of old, but at that dangerous moment in time, they were the only heroes the Provinces had.

Communicant Krome closed the box, and then his eyes, to say a silent prayer to his god, because the world’s new heroes were going to need all the help they could get.



* * * * *



The exploding war-engine tore the ancient façade from the houses of the Crescent, and threw an expanding ball of fire across the park. The trees there had long since been burned to stumps, but the flames clung to their edges, while the burning marionettes of the engine’s crew staggered among them, before falling down and dying. Smoke from the burning city discoloured the sky, turning it from the cold blue of the fallows season to a flat grey, its surface scored by the pencil stroke thin lines of falling natha-bombs.

From his position high on the fortress’ battlements, Templar Rourke lowered his duo-noculars and reached inside his coat for his notebook and chamber pen. The city’s war-engines were indeed as decrepit as Warvitch’s initial assessment had suggested, and he would have to include that confirmation in his report. As his fingers found the edge of his notebook, a grinding rumble of collapsing masonry interrupted the explosive rhythm of the siege. Rourke lifted his duo-noculars to his eyes again, and focussed them on the city’s outer fortifications.

His view of the north gate was blocked by a cloud of thick dust. As he watched, it tumbled in twin waves along the city’s encircling wall. He took the tumult of masonry debris as a sign that a substantial section of the wall had fallen, and shifted his view to inspect the ground beyond it. Sure enough, the forward earthworks that Warlord Parus’ forces had spent the last few weeks digging were already beginning to fill with attackers. The closest trenches, parallel to the city walls, were too heavily buttressed to see into, their depths hidden from view, but he could see things pouring towards them along the feeder trenches. A chance shaft of weak sunlight pierced the overhead murk and flashed on sharpened blades, the polished domes of helmets, claw armour, and tail scythes.

The city’s war-engines should really have been directing their own natha-bombs onto those trenches, but Rourke suspected that New Broker’s defences were no longer being co-ordinated by anyone substantially qualified to undertake such a duty. That judgement was confirmed when he swung his noculars down to view the suspected breach, and saw the city’s defenders forming up in the surrounding streets. He tutted loudly and shook his head. The city may not have the foresight to drench the impending attack in natha-fire, but the enemy forces would not spare Broker’s defenders from the same fate.

The soldiers down there were lining themselves up for slaughter, and the bombs that would soon begin to fall on them would not be fired by antiquated war-engines leftover from the Predation wars. Rourke was sure of that fact because, on the day the enemy engines had appeared on the field, he’d studied them closely from the city walls and had confirmed Warvitch’s suspicions. Warlord Parus had rogue Engineers in his employ, and his war-engines were all newly built.

The broil of masonry dust soon cleared enough to reveal the breach in the wall; a savage V of emptiness where half its height had fallen. A ragged slope of stonework filled the road below it, leaving a two metre gap between its highest reach and the lowest point of the breach. Rourke guessed that the slope of rubble on the breach’s far side would reach a similar height.

The attacking forces would be bringing up siege ladders, and New Broker’s archers were already streaming along the wall from the safety of the northern gate’s fort in anticipation of that first wave of attack. It looked as though whoever was in command of the walls knew what they were doing, because he could see two units of spearmen, and another of swordsmen, climbing to the battlements to support the archers at the breach. If they held their nerve, there was a possibility that they would be able to hold out for a time, and if whoever was commanding the city’s war-engines got their act together…

His thoughts were distracted by a sudden movement at the rear of the attacker’s line. He swept his duo-noculars up to focus on its source.

“By Fortak’s light!”

Two grim shapes had climbed from the crevasse of the attacker’s rearmost trench. Four metres high at their shoulder, they loped across the earthworks, crossing trenches as though they were nothing more than pavement cracks. Riveted armour plates at their shoulders and backs slid back and forth as they moved. Their scaly hides beneath were slickly green in the sky’s shrouded sunlight, and venom dripped from their exposed fangs, to smoke on the churned earth between the trenches. They reached the first tumbled stones of masonry below the wall and began to climb.

It looked like Parus had run out of patience, and did not want to waste any more time in the capture of New Broker and its secrets. Rourke slipped his noculars into an inside pocket of his coat.

“Time to go,” he said, brushing grime from his elbows as he stood.

Pain cramped up his right hip, and he was forced to support himself against one of the battlements’ stone merlons until it had passed. He had been kneeling for far too long, and his aging body was rebelling. Limping until the pain in his muscles subsided, he made his way along the empty battlements of the fortress as, on the city walls below, the screaming began.

DEMON HUNTED




“By Terra’s tits, I’m hungry!”

Scurge pulled open the flap of his back-sack again, and peered hopefully inside.

There was still nothing in there apart from the half crushed bags of smoked whitestep. The stuff was a delicacy in the Provinces, and Scurge had thought he’d struck it lucky when they’d come across the farmhouse, stuck up in its arse-crack valley in the hills above the jungle. Spending the five days since then eating little else but the fragrant fungus had soon changed his mind. It was fine for the good knights and ladies of the Orders to eat, sliced thin on a wafer of bread, but eating vast chunks of it had soon bunged up his insides, and the thought of eating any more of the stuff made his stomach twist violently.

From where he hung in the tree across the fire from Scurge, Kreelipu grinned, his too large teeth catching the orange flame-light.

“Stillgotmolusmeat.” “We killed that molus a week ago, you fart brained scrounger!”

Scurge closed his back-sack with a grunt of disgust. Kreelipu scratched at the filthy fur on the back of his ear, his face folded in a look of stupid concentration.

“Youthinkweshouldleaveitanotherweek?”

“No, I don’t think we should leave it another week you shit wit! If you keep it any longer the maggoty stuff will crawl away on its own!”

A loud tutting came from the other end of the fire pit.

Scurge turned away from Kreelipu’s stupid expression to look at the third member of their group. Peemish was writing. The scrawny little clerk had his hand-ledger on his knees, angled towards the fire so that he could see as he scribbled with his chamber pen. His hand-light had died two days before, its valve, when it was turned, doing nothing more than making the liquid behind its lens ripple sluggishly.

Scurge continued to glare at Peemish in silence, though in truth there was no silence. There never was in the jungle. The sound of things clicking and buzzing and screeching in the damply dense vegetation that surrounded them was a constant reminder that he was a long way from the civilised city of his birth. As he watched the clerk, Scurge let his fiercest expression fall over his face, because pretty soon Peemish would realise he was being watched and would look up, and Scurge wanted to make sure that he would have the arse vomit scared out of him when he did.

Peemish didn’t notice, and continued writing.

Scurge felt his mask of promised violence twitch, and he reached down and pulled his axe out of the ground. He ran his thumb along its edge and found that it was becoming blunt from chopping too much damp firewood. He scowled in annoyance, but it didn’t really matter. His axe didn’t have to be sharp for what he had in mind. He stood and walked behind the clerk, who remained oblivious to his presence. From his position in the tree, Kreelipu grinned.

“Always scribbling, aren’t you, clerk.” At the sound of his savage voice, Peemish stopped writing. “Scribbling and tutting.” Scurge rested his axe on his shoulder. “Scribbling and tutting.” Peemish remained frozen, his chamber-pen poised at the end of the last neat line he had written. “It’s like our company’s not good enough for you or something,” Scurge went on.

“Your company causes me no discord,” said Peemish, still not moving. “I have been in much worse.”

“But what’s with all this scribbling then? You ain’t stopped since we set out from Balboa.”

“I am chronicling our journey. It is how we preserve events.”

“Seems like a waste of time to me.”

Scurge nudged the clerk’s elbow with his foot, and the chamber-pen skittered across the page.

“Scurge…”

“What you gonna do, clerk? Tell his lordship?”

Scurge nodded to where Sir Burgess knelt; a dim shape at the limits of the firelight. The edges of the knight’s armour caught the orange glow, but the black material of his tabard absorbed it. The knight never took his armour off now. He fought in it, travelled in it, and slept in it, and as a result the man stank worse than Kreelipu’s breath.

Though the truth was that, after two turns of the Taqi moon trekking through the suffocating heat of the Cusp Jungle, they all stank. All except for Peemish, who would bathe in any stream or pool that they came across. The man should have known better after what had happened to Sir Burgess’s squire.

Scurge saw Peemish glance over at Sir Burgess, but the kneeling knight remained immobile, his head bent in prayer. The man was always praying. Scurge slung his axe from his shoulder and placed its blunt blade at the clerk’s neck.

“I don’t know why we have to bother keeping you alive if all you do is scribble.”

“Manknowswherewegoing,” said Kreelipu.

“Only because he’s got the map. Maybe we should relieve him of the burden, and that clever little leading device of his with it.”

“And are you capable of interpreting the map and reading the device, Scurge?”

The grin left Scurge’s face as he raised his head to peer across the clearing. Sir Burgess stood, the edges of his ungreased armour issuing a pitched scraping. When the man turned, his eyes glinted in the firelight; twin sparks in the harrowed shadows of their sockets. His hair was lank and fell down over his worn features, and the mark of Fortak emblazoned on his tabard was similarly dulled, from bright orange to mud brown.

The man was a wreck, and Scurge wasn’t about to show any signs of being intimidated.

“Reckon I could read this here map,” he said. “And it don’t take a genius to work out which way is west. This skinny streak of piss don’t have to come back alive for us to get the reward.”

“I believe that his mistress would see things differently. Besides, it is not the reward I am interested in.”

Sir Burgess stepped forward into the firelight, and Scurge straightened up, removing his axe from Peemish’s neck to rest it on his own shoulder again.

“No. It ain’t, is it?”

“MorefoolyouKreelipuwantssparklies.”

The knight glanced at Kreelipu with undisguised distaste.

“My desire in the purpose of this mission goes beyond the acquisition of wealth.”

Scurge went to the log he had been sitting on, and swung his axe to thud back into the ground beside it. Then he glared at Sir Burgess. The man was a self-righteous git; typical of the pious idiots who made up the holy Orders of knighthood. His kind had served their purpose well enough two hundred years or so before, when the Predation and their demons had descended on the Provinces, but now he was just a relic.

The Orders had done their job, defeated the Predation, and then retired to their fortresses to guard the borders of what was left of the Provinces, but not all of them were content to sit around on their arses doing nothing. Knights like Sir Burgess could always be found around the lands that the wars had turned to shit, looking for evil to smite and rights to wrong and all that dross. Scurge spat on the ground, and slumped back down onto the damp log.

“What do you care about more, Sir Berk?” he said. “Rescuing the girl or killing the demon?”

“Both goals are of equal importance to me.”

“Don’t reckon it’s a demon anyways. There’s no one alive no more that’s ever seen one. The thing we’re hunting’s probably just some shit eating swamp sponge.”

Peemish had started writing again, but he stopped briefly to chuckle to himself.

“Something funny, clerk?”

“It was that last statement of yours that was the cause of my amusement.”

“Which one?”

“I was referring to your assertion that no one alive has ever seen a demon.”

“What’s so funny about that?”

“Well, you see, if any living person had ever seen a demon, then they would doubtless not remain in a state of being alive for very long, so your logic of the lack of demonic sightings being proof that there are no demons left in the world is wholly flawed.”

“HahegotyouthereScurge.”

“Shut it, arse face!”

“Enough!”

Sir Burgess had been standing close to the fire, seemingly oblivious to the stinging smoke that twisted from its damp wood, but he suddenly turned his hollow gaze on Scurge.

“I have heard enough of your language this night! We will reach our goal tomorrow, and sleep is needed if we wish to have success. Both of you; go to your rest.” Scurge met the knight’s gaze, and then spat into the fire. Peemish wrote a few more words before closing his hand-ledger. “Kreelipu will take first watch.”

Sir Burgess turned and went back to the blanket he had laid on the ground, his helmet and his sword lying beside it.

“KreelipuwilltakefirstwatchKreelipuwilltakefirstwatchKreelipualwaystakesfirstwatch.”

Still muttering to himself, Kreelipu swung from his perch in the tree and clambered upwards, until his green tinged fur disappeared into the canopy above. Peemish lay down on the far side of the fire and bundled himself up in his blanket.

Scurge grunted, pulled his axe from the ground again and lay down beside the log, cradling the weapon in his arms. His stomach was still bloated from hunger and whitestep. The sooner this business was done, and he was out of the company of these knob-wads, the better. He grimaced as he watched the filthy fire. Maybe he should wait for his watch to come around, then slit all their throats and take the map for himself. More reward for him then.

In the darkness of the jungle beyond the firelight, something screamed. It was the scream of something dying, and doing it in brutal agony by the sounds of it.

Then again, thought Scurge, maybe killing his companions could wait until after they had rescued the girl and got out of this shit stinking jungle. After that… Well, after that was another matter.

He closed his eyes.

Despite the constant screeching and skittering in the surrounding darkness, it didn’t take him long to fall asleep.



* * * * *



The mist thickened the already rank air at the bottom of the slope. Sir Burgess was standing still, ignoring the grey tendrils that covered the ground and the surrounding jungle. The man had his helmet on, so it was impossible for Scurge to tell what he was thinking. He could have been asleep for all he knew.

He took a few steps backwards, away from the decrepit knight, and peered up the slope again.

“Where’ve those pair of turds got to?” Sir Burgess made no reply. “We should have all gone.”

“Our comrades will make better speed.”

Scurge scowled. He knew the real reason the knight had sent Kreelipu and Peemish on alone. His festering knee was probably playing up again, and he didn’t want the trouble of climbing the slope if it was going to be another dead way.

“That sodding clerk had better be right this time.”

“Have patience with the man. The map you stole is not the best.”

Scurge’s hand tightened on the handle of the knife at his belt.

“That’s the thanks I get for risking my cocking neck!”

“I would hardly call sneaking into the bedroom of a drunken acolyte as taking a risk.”

Scurge glared at Sir Burgess’ back, and imagined the pleasure he would feel when he finally got the chance to bury his axe between the pious sod’s shoulder blades.

“The clerk’s mistress had better live up to her side of the deal, that’s all I can say.”

“Be assured that she will. Peemish claims that she cares greatly for her daughter’s safety.”

“Not enough to stop her husband selling her to the Brotherhood in the first place.”

“I assume it was an event that she could not prevent.”

Scurge grimaced, and glanced back up the slope.

“The girl’s probably been eaten by now.”

“The Sladin moon has not completed its passage. We still have time.”

A branch cracked somewhere in the veiling mist. Scurge reached for his axe, but it was Peemish who emerged out of the greyness.

“I have found it!” he whispered, his excitement barely contained as he pointed back up the slope.

“Where is Kreelipu?” asked Sir Burgess.

“He is back up there. Keeping watch.”

“And the girl?”

“She is there! She still lives!”

“Let us go then.”

The knight began to climb the slope, his armour grating and his movements stiff as he negotiated the jungle’s low branches and entwining vines. Scurge scowled at the noise, and then followed, consoling himself with the knowledge that he would soon be out of the pompous git’s stinking company.



* * * * *



Scurge noticed the change in the jungle as they pushed their way through the final slick wall of leaves and prickling vegetation. The screeching, whirring and sighing that pervaded the surrounding damp undergrowth must have been fading while they climbed the slope, but once they stood together on the basin’s edge the silence before them was absolute.

He had never been one for poetic observations, but for once the scene before him caused his brain to work hard to make sense of it. It was as though a vast round space had been hollowed out of the jungle’s foliage. Its bottom was flattened by layers of half rotten leaves, but the surrounding jungle curved upwards and over, held back by arching metal ribs, interlaced with twisted angular struts. The metal was dark and mossy, wrapped in vines and crawling plants, and sunlight pierced through the structure in misty shafts that lit the jungle floor.

“There she is!” whispered Peemish, pointing to the basin’s far side.

The girl was hanging with her head drooping to her chest, her arms stretched above her and her wrists tightly bound. The rope that secured them was tied to a piece of dark metal that protruded from the curved wall. Hand-lights had been strapped to stakes in a circle about her, and their rippling light was pale in the vaporous shafts of sunlight. The light played over the girl’s arms, and on her naked legs where they showed beneath the rag she had been clothed in, making them seem pallid and ashen.

Scurge unslung his axe and peered around the basin’s space.

“Brotherhood’s probably long gone. Too shit scared to be around here once the moon rises.”

Sir Burgess was once more standing unmoving, and his manner might have seemed calm if it wasn’t for the laboured breathing that Scurge could hear echoing inside his helm.

“Where’s shit breath?” Scurge asked.

Peemish pointed upwards to the curving foliage above the girl, but Scurge could see no sign of Kreelipu. He wasn’t surprised. Hiding was the thing the piss poor critter did best. He had better be ready with his knives. That’s all Scurge was bothered about.

“So what’s the plan, Sir Berk?” The knight did not move, but his breathing had slowed. “You think the big bad beastie might be away?”

“There is only one way we can find that out.”

The knight drew his sword and stepped down into the silent basin. Scurge grinned and watched him go. Peemish was still standing beside him, studying the girl on the basin’s far side.

“You'd better stay here, clerk. Out of our sodding way. Watch carefully now, see how a real man earns his pay, and try not to crap yourself.”

Scurge followed Sir Burgess down into the basin, smiling at the sound of Peemish’s tutted objection. The ground beneath his feet felt spongy with accumulated humus, but nothing grew in its pungent depths, and the way down was easy. Ahead of him, Sir Burgess was making his way cautiously towards the girl, who didn’t stir, despite the noise the fool’s armour was making. Scurge hung back and kept quiet. If there was a demon here, it would be sure to attack the knight first. It’s what they did. Or so he had heard.

He gripped his axe and looked around at the jungle’s strange curving walls. The shape of the leafy chamber wasn’t perfect. Now that he’d moved down the slope, he could see that one vast section of the domed roof was disfigured. The curving girders were twisted or missing, and the jungle had pushed and tangled its way inside so that the space was not completely round. It was shaped more like a cooking pot with one side caved in by a spiked mace. The tumble of intruding vegetation cast a dark cave of shadow beneath it.

Scurge grinned and began to edge around the clearing towards the cave’s unruly mouth. Not too close, though. If there was something lurking in the darkness, he didn’t want to disturb the beast. Leave that to Sir Burgess. Once the creature was out of its hiding, he could bury his axe in the back of its head. That was always the best way of doing things. He crept back up the slope a little way and crouched down in a triangle of darkness, cast by one of the jungle chamber’s curved girders, and waited.

In the basin below, Sir Burgess had almost reached the girl. From where he crouched, Scurge could not tell if she still breathed, but as the knight stopped in front of her, she stirred and raised her head. Even from the other side of the clearing he could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying. Typical woman!

“Are you harmed, my lady?”

The knight’s voice cut through the silence and the mist. The girl’s reply was weak, and Scurge had to strain to hear it.

“Are you...? Are you here to rescue me?”

“I am, my lady. Hold fast, I will cut you down.”

Sir Burgess reached up to the rope that bound her wrists, and lifted his sword.

“Wait!” sighed the girl, her voice still barely audible. “Wait! It’s here!”

Scurge stood and tightened his grip on his axe.

“What is it, my lady?” said Sir Burgess.

“There!”

The girl’s eyes were wide as she looked over the knight’s armoured shoulder. He lowered his sword and turned.

“Where?”

“Everywhere!” moaned the girl.

The ground exploded.

Half rotted leaves and damp soil burst upwards in lines that criss-crossed the basin’s floor. Dirty brown tentacles, barbed and supple, whipped about, sending filth into the air. Sir Burgess’ legs were smashed from under him, and the knight went down with an ugly clatter.

“Fortak’s balls!” Scurge hissed, and charged.

Deadly sinuous limbs slashed towards him. He caught one with his axe and it split apart, spraying thick orange pus.

“Kreelipu!” he screamed. “Kreelipu, where are you, you shit stinking…”

Something lashed upwards. Pain punched his chest and sent him sprawling on his back. He raised his head and saw another tentacle striking towards him, low over the ground so that its grim barbs ploughed through the damp leaves, scattering dark soil. He rolled and leapt, striking down with his axe as the thing passed beneath him, but his blade missed and thumped into the ground. As he got to his knees and strained to tug it free, banded muscle wrapped his legs, and he was lifted into the air, his sweaty palms pulled from their grip on the axe’s haft.

“You crap chewing, shit brained son of a whore born...!”

From where he hung upside down, he saw the ground beneath him suddenly split apart. Something reached towards him, its body like three intertwined blades wreathed in more tentacles, pink and writhing like so many lashing, pointed tongues. The body of the thing twisted apart as it reached for him, opening a red veined maw, surrounded by the three twisted blades, like the petals of Terra’s ugliest flower.

Scurge stared down into the hungry orifice, his eyes wide.

For once, he was lost for an obscenity.

“Oh, mother!”

He reached for the knife at his belt.

“Die, Predation spawn!”

Sir Burgess’ cry echoed around the verdant chamber.

Scurge looked down to see the knight attack. His sword sliced through pink writhing tentacles, then scraped along one of the creature’s opened mouth blades. There was a piercing shriek, and the mouth screwed itself closed. Scurge stared, his eyes still wide, as the knight fought beneath him. All signs of diseased weakness seemed to have left him as he turned to the creature’s counter.

Barbed, twisting limbs lashed at him. He severed one with a stroke, and sick looking pus sprayed across his dark tabard. Another whipped from behind him, and rather than avoid its strike, he turned and barged himself towards it, encircling it with his metal-sheathed arm. It pushed him along the basin’s floor, his armoured feet gouging into the earth, but his strength held it and he brought his sword around again to split it apart. He released its severed end and it flopped away, scattering more orange vileness.

Before the knight could turn to the next attack, a whipping tentacle struck him. His armour was too strong for the barbs to pierce, but he was thrown forwards onto the creature’s writhing body, and the pink tongues that cloaked it entwined his arm and pulled him close. He was held in the beast’s embrace, his armour slicked with saliva and orange secretion as more wet and pointed tentacles reached for him.

‘Time to piss off,’ thought Scurge as he bent at the waist and plunged his knife into the flesh that wrapped his legs.

He twisted it, but the thing’s grip only tightened. He looked over his shoulder and saw Sir Burgess fully entwined. The creature’s tri-bladed mouth had twisted open again, and the knight was being hauled upwards, passed between the flicking tongues.

Scurge pulled the knife out, thrust it back in, and began to slice. The tentacle whipped him about. He lost his grip on his weapon as his body was snapped straight, and he was swung back and forth above the basin’s floor. Then he was dangled once more over the red veined mouth, and he could see Sir Burgess below him, about to be delivered into that gaping maw.

‘Hope the stinking fool chokes you!’

But that was not to be.

As the knight was passed towards the mouth’s slick rim, his arm was released, and in it he still clasped his heavy broadsword.

“Fortak accept me!”

He plunged it over and down, and the sword sliced deep into the creature’s mouth. Another shrill shriek was emitted, and the three twisted blades snapped shut on the sword’s hilt. The knight was released and fell crashing backwards to the ground. The thing’s body stood rigid, and then collapsed, the barbed tentacles falling limp around it.

Scurge dropped with them.

He rolled as he landed, then scrambled to his feet, kicked off the thing’s unresisting hold, and looked around for his axe. He found it close by and tugged it from the ground.

“That went well!” he said as Sir Burgess pulled himself to his feet, his armour and tunic still slick with slime. He took the hilt of his sword in both hands and pulled, but it was held fast in the creature’s dead grip.

“Give me your knife.”

Scurge pulled his knife from where it was still stuck in the creature’s flesh and then, stepping over severed and limp tentacles, he crossed the basin’s floor and handed it to the knight.

“You’ll have a job cutting it out of there.”

Sir Burgess didn’t reply. He turned his back on the dead demon and went to the girl, who still hung from her bound wrists.

Her eyes were wide as she watched him approach.

“You… You killed it!”

Sir Burgess wrapped an arm around her waist and then reached up to cut her bonds.

“You have nothing to fear now, my lady. You are safe.”

The rope parted, and the girl fell into his arms. He lay her on the ground, and cut away the rest of the rope that still bound her wrists.

“Thank you!” the girl sighed. “I have never seen such skill.”

“It was nothing, my lady. Rescuing you was my duty.”

Scurge stepped up behind him, his axe in his hands.

“Least now we get some cocking pay!” he said, then he frowned and glanced up at the curving canopy above him.

The girl placed her hand against Sir Burgess’ mired black tabard.

“Good sir knight. Will you allow me to see the face of my rescuer?”

Sir Burgess reached up and pulled his helmet from his flattened, greasy hair.

“Of course, my lady.”

The girl smiled, and reached up to touch his lined face.

“You have been so brave.”

Scurge glanced around the clearing again, his face still creased in a frown. Where the cock was Kreelipu? Then he looked back down at the kneeling knight and the rescued girl.

“Shit! The bitch has got a…”

But his warning came too late.

Sir Burgess seemed to sigh as the knife in the girl’s hand slit his throat. His blood soaked the dark fabric of his tabard, turning the faded sign of Fortak a deeper orange, then he slumped down and was still.

The girl looked up as Scurge stepped towards her, his axe raised.

“Why in the name of shit did you do that!”

The girl smiled at him.

“It’s what I do.”

“Well not to me!”

Scurge took another step forward, but then pain sliced his body. He looked down to see the bloodied point of Sir Burgess’ sword protruding from his chest.

“Oh, crap!” he said, before he coughed once and vomited blood down his front.

He rolled his eyes upwards, to see the girl still smiling sweetly at him.

“Bitch!” he spat between his bloodied teeth, and then he died.



* * * * *



The girl wiped the blood from her knife on the cleanest part of Sir Burgess’ tunic she could find, and stood up.

“I swear by the Predation that this one smells worse than all the others combined.”

Peemish grunted with effort as he put his foot on Scurge’s back and pulled the knight’s sword free.

“I must admit, my lady, that his companions were a particularly obnoxious bunch of miscreants.”

The clerk looked at the bloody sword, then dropped it on the ground. The girl slid her knife back into its hiding place beneath her ragged dress, then she looked over Peemish’s shoulder, and an expression of pity fell over her face.

“Poor Skriptik!” She crossed the clearing, tiptoeing carefully over Scurge’s body and his fallen axe. As she passed, a dirty brown tentacle rose up from the floor and caressed her cheek. “I know,” said the girl, running her hand gently over one of the tentacle’s barbs. “Did the horrible man hurt you?”

The creature’s body had raised itself from the floor, and its bladed mouth hung open, orange fluid dripping from the wound the knight had given it. The girl climbed carefully up its side, enfolded and welcomed by the tentacles that wreathed it.

“You will recover,” she said when she was level with the mouth, and ran her hand gently over the wound before leaning down to kiss it, leaving an orange stain on her lips. “And now we have a feast to give you your strength back. Isn’t that right, Peemish?”

Peemish left Scurge’s body where it had fallen, and climbed the basin’s side.

“Absolutely right, my lady.” He crouched down and reached with both hands under a tangle of undergrowth, and with another grunt of effort, pulled Kreelipu’s body from beneath it. The stinking creature’s too large teeth were displayed in an expression of fearful surprise. A fist sized hole had been punched in his chest, and his black blood was soaking into his green tinged fur. “Though I myself would not fancy eating this one.”

“Skriptik can have it. He is partial to a little vileness.”

Peemish sat down at the top of the slope beside Kreelipu’s body. He pulled his back-sack over to him, before rummaging around inside for something.

“So who is next, Peemish?” called the girl from where she still perched in Skriptik’s embrace.

Peemish took his hand-ledger from his pack, and opened it at a page marked by a piece of tanned material. He ran his finger down the list of names that he found there. Then he took out his chamber pen and neatly crossed one of them out.

“There are plenty left to choose from, Lady Diofrasse.” He smiled across at the girl. “Take your pick.”

LOST LOVE

Introductions




Yosh Morrina sits beneath the shade of the sagging veranda and watches the brutger as it makes its ponderous way around the township’s dusty square. The odd shaped black barrel, high on the creature’s wide shoulders, sways as it moves, and the small metal cups that hang from it swing and clank on their hooks. Its proto-mowmok familiar jumps and capers about its body, using its six prehensile limbs to clamber up and down. It leaps agilely from one of the brutger’s thick knuckled hands to the other, and occasionally it swings itself around the tall water barrel on the cup-chains.

The day is typically hot, and the brutger water seller’s wares are proving popular. Whenever a customer approaches, the tiny mowmok takes a cup from its hook and fills it from a tap at the barrel’s bottom before proffering it to them. Each time a cup is filled, a wisp of cold vapour escapes with the clear liquid. The proto-mowmok then chitters excitedly and holds the cup in two of its small hands until a coin is received in payment, whereupon it hands the cup over and scurries up to its master’s neck to drop the coin into the bag that hangs from its collar. After that, it swings back down and chitters angrily until its customer has drained the small cup and returned it.

While these noisy transactions take place, the brutger stands and watches the view in front of it through its gently vacant eyes, while nodding its head amiably. Its expression, provided by its wide, strangely curved mouth, seems to be of permanent private amusement, though anyone who would attempt to steal the money from around a brutger’s neck would soon see a swift change in its expression, although not many of those people would survive for long enough to describe it.

Yosh Morrina smiles to himself. Despite his skills, not even he would be foolish enough to attempt to steal from a brutger.

The smile doesn’t stay on his face for long.

His eyes are drawn back to the desert; to the empty vastness where his love has gone.

The veranda where he sits, and the drinking hole it is barely attached to, face the township’s south road, though there isn’t much of the road left to be seen. Only a few scant metres of the sloped surface are still visible, before it disappears beneath the sands. Even at the top of the hill the sand fills the gaps between the road’s cobbles, and collects itself in small drifts about the doorsteps of the close packed buildings on either side. Lower down the hill, the buildings are slowly being engulfed. The sand has reached the handles of their blocked doors, and not far beyond that, it is half-way up the houses’ first floor windows.

The more optimistic of those buildings’ residents have raised ladders against their walls, or built rough stairways of stone to their second story windows, abandoning the lower levels to the sand archapids and veinweed. The owners of the buildings lower down the hill have given up entirely. The sand has reached their rooftops, and only the slanting, sand blasted pitches remained visible, new sloping dunes building up on the southern faces of their chimneys. The only substantial structure visible further down the hill is the tall smoke-stack of the township’s foundry, long since abandoned by the Engineers. Beyond that, the desert rolls away into shimmering heat.

Yosh Morrina is half blinded by its brightness. He continues to stare, though he no longer sees. He is remembering a different veranda, in a different place; a veranda cloaked in fragrant narcali, not strangled with the skeletal remnants of dead olap vine.



* * * * *



It was dark. The thick scent of the climbing flowers filled his nose, and the distant murmuring laughter of the party guests reached him from the other side of the villa, but he was filtering their noise out, listening for closer sounds of threat.

He always worked better in the dark. Locks were teased open by touch, by the scant feeling of the tumblers’ resistance against his picks, and the night presented little cause for distraction. He smiled as he felt the last tumbler move a fraction. Yosh repositioned his fingers on his other picks, applied the required pressure in just the right places, and smiled again as the locking bolt slid silently from its housing.

He removed each of his picks and, again by touch, replaced them back in the correct places in their wallet, before slipping the thin hide folder inside his waistcoat. He stood, pulled his shirt straight, turned the handle of the veranda door, and slipped inside.

The room beyond seemed empty, and his senses relaxed, but then a quick indrawn breath and a sudden movement made him freeze. A woman had stood swiftly from behind the desk that sat in the centre of the room. A single glow-lamp was positioned on the desk, and in its light he caught sight of her face. It was a beautiful face, bordered by tumbling dark curls of hair, but it was not the beauty of it that he noted. The face held a look of surprise, but also one of guilt.

He had never been one to ignore some detail that he could turn to his advantage.

“And what are you doing in here, my lady?”

He kept his voice friendly, but edged it with authority.

“I, ah…” The lady flattened down the front of her dress with one hand, clearly stalling to regain her composure. “I was looking for the washroom.”

“In Merchant Cleidbeck’s desk drawers?”

Yosh stepped forward into the light, and the lady frowned. Then she tilted her head to one side to regard him. It seemed her confidence had returned, along with her composure.

“Are you one of the good merchant’s guests? I do not remember seeing you at dinner.”

He looked down at himself. The rich frax and moon-thread embroidered coat he had worn to blag his way into the party would have been far too much of a hindrance for his night’s business, so he had left it hanging on a tree in the gardens. The clothes he wore beneath it, though practical, were hardly suitable attire to attend a reception held by one of the Association’s richest members.

“I am a guest, of sorts,” he said as he looked up and met the lady’s eye. He took another step forward and leant on the wide desk, so that his face was level with hers. He smiled. “Let’s just say that I’m the thirteenth at the table.”

The lady raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow, and returned his smile.

“I believe that you, sir, are a rogue.”

“That is one of the more polite things I have been called in my life.”

“Do you mean me harm, rogue? If so then I should warn you, I am quite capable of screaming very loudly, and Merchant Cleidbeck’s guards are not very far away.”

Yosh drummed his fingers on the desk and rolled his eyes upwards as though in thought.

“But if you do that, my lady, your own presence here may well be questioned.”

“True enough,” said the lady. “It seems we have reached a point of Conquest’s Impasse.”

“I have never played Conquest. It is a game with too many rules.”

He straightened up and walked around the desk, watching the way she turned so that she remained facing him, and also noting how she kept her right hand hidden behind her. He purposefully turned his back on her, once he had rounded the desk, and stood looking up at one of the tall shelves that lined the room.

“So what is it that brings you into Merchant Cleidbeck’s most mysterious library under the premise of finding a washroom?”

“As an invited guest, should it not be me asking that question of you?”

“Where are my manners?” he said as he turned back to her and gave her a bow. “Ladies first.”

She raised an expectant eyebrow.

“Well?”

Yosh smiled again as he turned and made his way across the room, to an impossibly large cabinet stacked with shelves and shelves of thick bottles. Their contents glowed various shades in the glow-lamp’s light, from pale earth to deep russet.

“I shall tell you why I am here, my lady, but I shall only do so while we share some of the good merchant’s hospitality.”

He took a bottle from a shelf and lifted it to his eye. The lady came from behind the desk.

“Is that not stealing?” she said.

“How can it be stealing? You are a guest, and I am a guest of sorts.” He removed the stopper from the bottle and sniffed its contents. Satisfied, he half-filled two heavy crystal goblets, which were sitting among an army of glassware on the cabinet’s lowest shelf. “This paltry sample won’t be missed. We could bathe in the stuff and Merchant Cleidbeck wouldn't notice.”

He turned to find the lady standing behind him, an expression of acute amusement on her face.

“I am beginning to wonder, rogue, if we have both come to this most remarkable room in search of the same thing.”

“That could well be so,” he replied as he offered her one of the heavy glasses. “But before we discuss that possibility further, may I ask you for your name?”

“My name,” said the woman as she took the glass and raised it to her perfect lips. “Is Eliza Grey.”

ROURKE

Deceitful Drunkard




Templar Rourke shoved open the door to Warlord Mosgrove’s intel-room, as another natha-bomb dropped into the courtyard outside. Its burning fall cast his shadow across the room, before it exploded, shattering the remains of the highly ornamented window behind him. The explosion threw shards of fire-lit glass across the hallway, and he felt it fall across his back and shoulders like hot hail.

One malevolent fragment cut a bloody path across his knuckles, where he had his hand pressed against the wood of the opened door. He cursed silently, took a kerchief from an inside pocket of his coat, then pushed his way into the room, kicking the door closed behind him and shutting off the sounds of warfare.

“Peemish!” He pressed the kerchief to his bloodied fist and stepped further into the clutter of the room. “Peemish, where are you, you wretch? Your friends have taken the city.”

The door behind him shuddered as more explosions shook the fortress, then there was silence for a few seconds.

“I told you, they is not my friends.”

The voice came from the recesses of the room; somewhere behind one of the many heavy desks that filled the space. Stacks of books and loose sheets of paper littered every spare surface, and where their excess had proven too much, they had toppled and drifted onto the floor. Rourke crossed the room towards the voice, kicking shabby volumes out of his way as he went.

“You’d like them to be your friends, though, wouldn’t you, clerk?” he said as he reached the desk. He placed the palms of his hands on its writing surface and leant over to look over its far side. A single glow-lamp sat at the edge of the desk, its green glass shade casting a sickly light on the figure slumped on the floor behind it. “You’d better have found something useful, you demon whore!”

Peemish’s normally pristine state was severely marred. His hair was uncombed, his shirt untucked and specked with dark liquid, its empty right sleeve unpinned and hanging loose by his side.

“Tell you what I foun’, you sanctimonious old thug,” he said, looking up at him with unfocused eyes. “This!” He held up a square bottle, its meagre dregs sloshing about inside it. “Looks like his late great warlordiness had secret stash of the finest stuff hidden down here.”

The drink-possessed clerk lay his head on the floor and peered under the desk, as if the fool expected to find more of the evil drink hidden there.

“By all things under Fortak’s sun!” Rourke stepped around the desk, pulled the bottle from Peemish’s fist, and threw it across the room, where it shattered in a corner.

“Hey, that belongs to me!”

Rourke bent down, grasped a handful of the clerk’s rumpled shirt front, and pulled him to his feet. The man may have been scrawny, but the effort still sent a blunt lance of pain through his spine. He grimaced at the discomfort, but Peemish didn’t seem to notice. He had his face turned away, craning his neck to look into the dark corner where the bottle had been thrown.

Rourke sighed. He’d spent the last twenty years of his life hunting down the demons that the Predation’s fall had left behind; a task beset with dangers, certainly, but there had also been a simplicity in the duty. Demons of flesh and blood were not too difficult to track down; they had a tendency to leave a trail of death and destruction behind them, and there was very little subtlety to them. The same could not be said about the nature of the thing he’d been sent to New Broker to find. A more specific understanding was required, and he found it galling that it was this deceitful, alcohol addled clerk who currently held that knowledge.

He shook Peemish to regain his attention.

“Have you found out where it is?” he asked when Peemish turned his bleary eyes towards him.

“Foun’ where what is?”

“The corpus-demon, fool! The thing we’ve dragged you halfway across the Lost Lands, to this god forsaken city, to find.”

“Oh, that.” Peemish smiled happily. “Yeah, I foun’ that.”

“You’ve discovered where it is?”

“Not only where,” said the clerk, a slyness coming over his features. “But also what it is that makes it so much more dangerous than all the others.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean, your holy thuginess, is that the thing you’re so eager to locate is not just any ol’ corpus-demon.” The odious clerk’s grin grew wider. “Its exact nature is somethin’ quite terrible. Even I, who know so much ‘bout them, am something staggered by the Predation’s audacity in what they created when they created it.”

Peemish gave a wheezing cough, and Rourke averted his face from the alcohol reek of the man’s breath. He cursed again the fact that it was this man he’d been burdened with. Drasneval could have sent anyone with him. Any half competent scribbler would have done, but she’d given him Peemish, because the treacherous clerk was their best source of information on the corpus-demons. The corpus-demons were the most insidious of the Predation’s creations, conceived towards the end of the wars in a last desperate bid for victory. A victory they had very nearly won. All of the Predation’s demons were created for a purpose, but the corpus were like nothing that had gone before.

With his fists still gripped in his shirt front, he hauled the clerk around the desk and dropped him into the nearest chair.

“Tell me what is so significant about this particular corpus-demon. Why should it be of such interest to Warlord Parus?”

Peemish held up his hand and wagged a finger at him.

“I’m not tellin’ you. Good chance that Parus’ll be catching us, and making you dead. Good chance that Parus’ll welcome a man with my knowledge. Done all his work for him now, findin’ out what I’ve found out. Someone like me could be invaluable to someone like him, and he won’t take it kindly if he thinks I’ve already let you know the things I know.”

Rourke decided to suffer the man’s foul breath, and leant over him, resting his hands on the arms of the chair to bring their faces level.

“You know the deal, clerk. I’ll kill you before I let you fall into Warlord Parus’ hands.”

Peemish’s devious grin dropped from his face. It was replaced by a look of confusion, then uncertainty, then realisation tinged with fear. Rourke would have taken some satisfaction in that final expression, but just then the door to the room shuddered, as though a great weight had been thrown against it. It sounded like something more severe than falling natha-bombs.

Rourke turned around and drew his narrow bladed sword from beneath his coat. The door trembled again, and this time the wood at its hinges gave way with a splintering crack, and it fell flat into the room, the wind of its downward passage scattering sheets of paper and sending them spiralling. The light from the burning courtyard outside was blocked by a huge figure, which had to duck beneath the door’s high lintel to gain access to the room.

“The door wasn’t even locked, Warvitch!” snapped Rourke, sliding his sword back into its scabbard.

“I am knowing this,” rumbled Warvitch. “But I was having my hands full.”

The Forge-guard held up his hands. In one was his double-bladed axe, and in the other was his smaller, single-bladed weapon. Both of them were mired with blood up to their hafts. His bandolier, what could be seen of it beneath the greying mass of his half-braided beard, was crowded with an odd selection of wide-bladed hurling-knives.

“Are Parus’ forces in the fortress already?” asked Rourke, eyeing his colleague’s bloodied weapons.

“Not yet,” Warvitch replied as he crossed the room, his metal-banded boots kicking more books across the floor. “I was running into a few of New Broker’s soldiers. They were asking me what I was doing roaming the corridors of the fortress while the fighting was going on in the city below. I was disinclined to be providing them with an answer, and as a result our pretence at being humble mercenaries is at an end.”

He slipped his blood smeared double-axe into its loop at his belt, and dropped the other on the nearby desk, making the green shaded glow-lamp jump.

“We’d better be leaving,” said Rourke. “There will be more of them taking sanctuary in the fortress soon enough.”

“Has our clever little demon friend been finding the information we were looking for?”

Warvitch leant over Peemish, and the clerk cowered further into his chair.

“He has, but he is refusing to divulge the information at this time. I’m afraid we’ll be burdened with his company for a little while longer.”

“It’s in my brain,” said Peemish, tapping his head with the knuckles of his one remaining hand. “An’ it’ll be staying there for now.”

Warvitch straightened up, his unruly greying hair close to the ceiling. His massive fists, the knuckles of one of them bound with hide and studded with metal, were clenched, their thumbs hooked into his belt.

“The information may be in your brain, but you will have been writing it down.” He turned and plucked a hand-ledger from the desk, where it sat beside his bloodied axe. “You are always writing everything down.”

Peemish struggled to his feet and made a grab for the book, but Rourke seized him by the collar and pushed him back into the chair.

“Maybe we could just kill you now and take that for ourselves,” he said.

“Good luck readin’ it,” said Peemish. “You’ll never be able to decipher my scribble.”

“Let me be seeing,” said Warvitch. He opened the ledger, and frowned. “You are having an atrocious handwriting for a clerk.”

Peemish held up his hand.

“Wrong hand, see,” he said. “Your holy friend here took the right one from me in the jungle, remember?”

“Which is less than I should have taken from you for the things you did there,” said Rourke.

“Never goin’ to let me forget, are you, Templar,” said the clerk.

“The blood from a hundred dead knights is on your hands. I will not forget that fact until the day one of us dies.”

A distant explosion shook the furniture. The green lamp vibrated closer towards the desk’s edge, as centuries of dust swirled in the cone of light beneath its shade.

“It is time for us to be leaving,” said Warvitch, looking towards the door.

Peemish took the opportunity to stagger to his feet and make another grab for the ledger in the Forge-guard’s hand. He overbalanced, rebounded from the desk, and landed in an unruly pile on the floor. Rourke rolled his eyes, and beseeched Fortak to save him from drink ridden fools.

“Bring him,” he said, then turned back to the door.

Warvitch leant down and waved the hand-ledger in front of the clerk’s nose. “I shall be keeping this little book,” he said, before tucking it away in a hidden pocket at the back of his hide waistcoat. “But I shall be happy to be giving you another one.” He picked up a heavy tome from a nearby desk. “I am liking books,” he said. “I am liking them for the knowledge they contain, and for the understanding they are having the capability of imparting. But, most of all, I am liking them for their weight.”


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