ANDY REMIC claims to have a love of extreme sports, kickass bikes and happy nurses. Once a member of an elite Combat K squad, he has retired from military service and claims to be a cross between an alcoholic Indiana Jones and a bubbly Lara Croft, only without the breasts (–although he’d probably like some). Remic lives in Lincolnshire and enjoys listening to Ronan Keating whilst thinking lewdly about zombies.
You can find out more about ANDY REMIC at www.andyremic.com.
The wind howled like a spear-stuck pig. Black snow peppered the mountains. Ice blew like ash confetti at a corpse wedding. The Black Pike Mountains seemed to sigh, languorously, as the sky turned black, the stars spluttered out, and the world ceased its endless turn on a corrupted axis. And then- the Chaos Halls flickered into existence. Like an extinguished candle in reverse.
A sour wind blew, a death-kiss from beyond the world of men and gods and liars, and smoke swirled like acid through the sky, black and grey, infused with ancient symbols and curling snakes and stinging insects. The smoke drifted down, almost casually, to Helltop at the summit of the great mountain Skaringa Dak. The Granite Thrones, empty for a thousand years, were filled again with substance. With flesh.
The three Vampire Warlords, as old as the world, as twisted as chaos, formed against the Granite Thrones where they were summoned. Almost. Their figures were tall, bodies narrow shanks, limbs long and spindly and disjointed, elbows and knees working the wrong way. Their faces were blank plates on a tombstone, eyes an evil dark slash of red like fresh-spilled arterial gore, and yet their worst feature, their most unsettling feature, was in their complete physical entirety. For in appearing, they did not settle. Did not solidify. Their nakedness, if that was what it was for the Vampire Warlords wore no clothing, was a diffusion of blacks and greys, a million tiny greasy smoke coils constantly twisting and writhing like an orgy of corpse lovers entwined, cancerous entrails like black snakes, unwound spools of necrotic bowel, and their flesh relentlessly moved, shifted, coalesced, squirmed as if seeking to strip itself free of a steel endoskeleton forged from pure hate. Their skin coagulated into strange symbols, ancient artefacts, snakes and spiders and cockroaches and all manner of stinging biting slashing chaos welcomed into this, The Whole. They were not mortal. They were not gods. They were something in-between, and oozed a lazy power, terrible and delinquent, and none could look upon that writhing flesh and wish to be a part of this abomination. Their skin and muscle and tendon and bones were a distillation of entrapped demons, an absorption of evil souls, an essence of corrupt matter which formed a paved avenue all the way back to the shimmering decadence of the vanishing Chaos Halls.
The Vampire Warlords turned their heads, as one, and stared down at the two men... the two vachine, who had summoned them, released them, cast them into ice and freedom.
And the Vampire Warlords laughed, voices high-pitched and surreal, the laughter of the insane but more, the laughter of insanity linked to a binary intelligence, a two-state recognition of good and bad, order and chaos, pandemonium and... lawlessness.
“You,” said Kuradek, and this was Kuradek the Unholy, and his skin squirmed with dark religious symbols, with flowing doctrine oozing like pus, with a bare essence of hatred for anything which preached the word of GOD upon this decadent and putrefying world. In the history books, the text claimed Kuradek had burned churches, raped entire nunneries, sent monasteries insane so that monk slew monk with bone knives fashioned from the flesh-stripped limbs of their slaughtered companions. Kuradek’s arm lifted, now, so incredibly long and finished in long fingers like talons, like blood-spattered razors. General Graal, mouth hung open in shock and disbelief, hand pressed against his face where Kell’s axe had opened his cheek like a ripe plum, nodded eagerly as if frightened to offend. Fearful not just of death, but of an eternity of writhing and oblivion in a tank of acrid oil.
“Yes, Warlord?” Barely more than a whisper. Graal bent his head, and stared in relief at the frozen mountain plateau beneath his boots. Anything was better than looking into those eyes. Anything was better than observing that succulent flesh.
“Come here, Slave.”
General Graal straightened his back, a new anger forcing him ramrod stiff and his eyes narrowed and he stepped up onto the low plinth where the Granite Thrones squatted like black poisonous toads. Kuradek was standing, and the other Warlords, Meshwar the Violent and Bhu Vanesh, the Eater in the Dark, were seated, gore eyes glittering with an ancient, malign intelligence.
“You sought to control us, just as the Keepers controlled us,” said Kuradek.
Silence flooded the plateau, and all present lowered heads, averted eyes, as a wind of desolation blew across the space, chilling souls. Graal, teeth gritted, did well to maintain that gaze. Now he was close, he could make out finer details. The skin, the flesh of coiling smoke, of writhing symbols, of constantly changing twisted imagery, was glossy – as if wet. As if oiled. And now he could see the Vampire Warlord’s vampire fangs. Short, and black, like necrotic bone. Not shimmering in gold and silver like the vanity of the vachine. Graal ground his teeth. Oh how they must have laughed at the narcissism of the vachine sub-species. How they must now be revelling in such petty beauties the vachine had heaped upon themselves.
Graal stopped. Kuradek was staring at him. Foolish. He could read Graal’s mind. Kuradek made a lazy gesture, and for a moment his entire being seemed to glow, the smoke swirling faster within the confines of its trapped cell, Kuradek’s living flesh. General Graal, commander of the Army of Iron, was punched in an acceleration of flailing limbs across the granite plateau. He screamed, a short sharp noise, then was silent as he hit the ground and rolled fast, limbs flailing, to slap to a halt in a puddle of melted snow. He did not move. Kuradek turned to Kradek-ka, who half-turned, as if to run. He was picked up, tossed away like a broken spine, limbs thrashing as he connected with a rearing wall of savage rock. He tumbled to the ground, face a bloody, smashed mask, and was still.
Now, the other Warlords stood. They moved easily, fluid, with a sense of great physical power held in reserve. All three gazed up as the Chaos Halls gradually faded and the stars blinked back into existence, one by one. Now, the wind dropped. Total silence covered the Black Pike Mountains like a veil of ash.
“We are here,” growled Meshwar, and as he spoke tiny trickles of smoke oozed around his vampire fangs, like the souls of the slain attempting escape.
“Yes,” said Bhu Vanesh. Also known as the Eater in the Dark, Bhu Vanesh was a terrible and terrifying hunter. Whereas Meshwar simply revelled in open raw violence, in pain for the sake of pain, in punishment without crime, in murder over forgiveness, Bhu Vanesh was more complex, esoteric, subtle and devastating. Before his imprisonment, Bhu Vanesh had prided himself on being the greatest vampire hunter; he would and could hunt anything, up to and including other Vampire Warlords. Before their chains in the Chaos Halls, Bhu Vanesh had sought out the greatest natural hunters in the world and let them free on forests and mountain landscapes, himself as bait, himself as hunter. When the hunt was done, with his captured victims staked out, he would gradually strip out their spines disc by disc, popping free of torn muscle and skin and tendons, and he would sit by the camp fire as his hunted victims screamed, or sobbed, or simply watched with stunned eyes as Bhu Vanesh savoured his trophy, licked the gristle from the spine in his fist, sucking free the cerebrospinal fluid with great slurps of pleasure. Bhu Vanesh was the most feral of the three Vampire Warlords. He was the most deadly. An unappointed leader...
Bhu Vanesh was the Prime.
Meshwar pointed, to an albino soldier. “You. Soldier. Get Graal.” The man gave a curt nod, and crossed to the General, helping him wearily, painfully, to his feet. Graal leant on the albino soldier, panting, blood and snot and drool pooling from his smashed mouth, his battered face. His pale vachine skin was marked as if beaten by a hammer.
Kuradek strolled across the clearing, and a cool wind blew in as the world was restored to normality, as blood-oil magick eased from the mountains like a back-door thief slinking into the night. Kuradek climbed up a rocky wall, his thin limbs and talons scarring the rock. Pebbles rattled down in the wake of his climb. Then he stood, on a narrow pinnacle of iced slate, and gazed out over Silva Valley, once home to the vachine civilisation, now flooded, thousands of vachine drowned to seal the magick that would return the Vampire Warlords to the mortal realm.
Shortly, his brothers joined him, and the three tall, spindly creatures, their shapes a mockery of human physiology, their flesh constantly shifting in chameleonic phases of smoke and symbols, stood tall and proud and surveyed the world like newborns.
“The vachine are dead,” said Kuradek.
“Mostly,” observed Meshwar.
“Those that live need to be hunted,” said Bhu Vanesh, a smoke tongue like a rattlesnake’s tail licking over black fangs. He anticipated the hunt in all things. It was what gave his existence simple meaning.
“Not yet,” said Kuradek. “We are new again to this world. We are weak from escape and birth. We need strength. We need to build the vampire clans. Like ancient times, my friends. Like the bad old days.”
“Suggestions?” Meshwar turned to Kuradek, narrow red eyes glowing with malevolence.
“I remember this country,” said Kuradek, looking back over hundreds of years, his mind dizzy with the passage of time, coalescing with images of so many people and places and murders. “This is the homeland of the Ankarok.”
Bhu Vanesh made a low, hissing sound.
“They were imprisoned,” said Meshwar. “Just as we.”
“Yes. We must watch. Be careful. But until then, I feel a stench in the air. It is an unclear stench. It is the stench of people, of men and women and children, meat, unhealthy and unclean, with no pride or power or natural dignity. We must separate, my brothers, we must head out into the world and,” he licked his black fangs, eyes glinting by the light of the innocent moon, “we must repopulate.”
“So we go to war?” said Meshwar, and his voice held excitement, anticipation, and... something else. It took little for Meshwar to become aroused.
“Yes. War. Against all those deviant of vampire purity!”
Events were a blur for Saark, the rich dandy, the flamboyant womaniser, for all that interested him in life was fine wine and raucous sex, silver platters of finely carved pig-meat, juicy eyeballs soaked in thin apple sauce from the figarall fish caught in iron traps under the Salarl Ocean. He was obsessed with pleasure, with joy, his own unstoppable and unquenchable lust; Saark was a hedonist, a narcissist, a nihilist, and unashamed of his open succulent fire. And yet now, now it was a blur. His life was a blur, and everything in it filled with a dreamlike quality, a haze of misunderstanding, of confusion – and more importantly, of
Pain. The knife cut into his chest and he may have screamed, his kicking limbs lurching in epileptic spasms. The knife was burning hot then ice cold, burning, burning as the tip skewered his skin, and his muscle, and sawed rhythmically and with razor-eagerness through his breast-bone leaving him gasping, teeth clacking repeatedly, fingers flexing as he begged begged to make it stop make it stop, but the face over him was hard and brutal, the face of the vachine Watchmaker Kradek-ka and Saark’s blood flushed down his chest, his belly, and he felt something removed from him.
Saark lay there, gasping, flopped like a fish on the Granite Throne and black snow fell and a cold wind whistled, disturbing his long black curls. The wind smelled good, smelled of ice and freedom beyond the mountains, beyond this imprisonment of the blade which had sundered his pale weak brittle flesh. The mountains. The Black Pike Mountains. Skaringa Dak. Helltop.
These names were distant, now, tails of smoke, and his blood pounded in his veins and he was different. Saark had been infected by the bite of the Soul Stealer, her venom pumping round his veins and infusing him with the toxin of the vachine, the vampires, a second-rate disease for a second-rate hero... Saark laughed. Blood bubbled around his lips from punctured lungs. He felt like he was dying. And he knew: surely he was.
Saark could ascertain noises, shouting, the clash of weapons, but they were all gone and lost to him. Consciousness fled like a startled kitten, and when he awoke the cool granite of Helltop was pressing his face like a lover. He heard more shouts, and sobbing, and one eye could see the dark sky filled with a portal into the Chaos Halls, the Blood Void, the Bone Graveyard, and a fist of fear punched through Saark as he listened to the steady thump thump of his heart, open to the world, and slowly his hand crawled across the ground. His fingers crawled across his own slick flesh, slick and cold, drenched in iced blood, and he found a hole gaping over his heart, and his fingers could feel the trembling of his heart within because he was open to the world, carved up like a pig on a slab, and that was so sweet, so ironic, so frightening.
A hand soothed his brow. Beyond, he could feel a terrible presence, of death and hatred and omniscient rage. The Vampire Warlords had arrived. And Saark, even in his disorientated state, knew desolation.
“It will be all right,” soothed a voice in his ear, and he recognised Nienna and he smiled, and her hands were stroking his face. He could see fear in her eyes, though, and knew then he would die. What could she see? How could she save him?
Saark tried to speak, but could not.
Saark tried to move, but could not.
Distantly, through a mesh of fractured thoughts, words came to him, all tangled, interlaced, like the stranded threads of cotton his mother used to repair his trews. We must go. We must! We cannot! He’s dead. Bring Saark. Bring Saark. He’s dead. They echoed backwards and forwards, reverberating as if they were a drunk’s uneven song in the bottom of a sediment layered tankard. Bring Saark! Bring him! A woman’s shriek. Oh how he longed for a woman’s shriek, but that was a different world, a different Age.
Movement. Ice. Cold. Wind. And then–
Plummeting. A feeling of weightlessness. And Saark remembered no more.
On the icy plateau of Helltop, with the Vampire Warlords solid and real behind him, newborn demons and dark gods and vampires from the Chaos Halls, Kell, with Saark over one shoulder and dragging Nienna behind him, his mighty axe Ilanna in one huge fist and rage and fear pumping through his breast like molten hate, Kell leapt for the hole in the mountain’s summit, leapt for the vertical tunnel so recently brimming with waters which spilled out, were forced out under awesome pressure to flood Silva Valley and drown the vachine living within...
Kell’s logic was simple. Leap down the vertical tunnel. Escape! It had water, down there, somewhere, spoke his desperate mind; and that would cushion their fall. If not? Well, a grim side of Kell’s soul decided, if not then sudden impact, sudden death, it would be better than living as slaves to the vampires.
Kell blinked. General Graal was in his way.
Nothing stood in Kell’s way.
In reflex, Ilanna flashed up, smashing Graal’s sword aside as if wielded by a tottering toddler, and in the same movement singing blades sliced Graal’s left cheek apart as if paring tender braised beef from bone. Graal stumbled back with a shriek, and Kell and Saark and Nienna tumbled into the hole, into the ancient tunnel worn through rock by a million years of probing melt-water. In that instant, Kell glimpsed three figures on the Granite Thrones. They were fashioned from black smoke. Their eyes were blood red. And they were watching him.
Gravity caught Kell in its fist and flung him downwards, separating him from his companions. All thoughts and fear were smashed aside like a blow from a helve. Acceleration became his mistress, fear glued his teeth shut, and Kell fell into a headlong dive that seemed to last forever...
The tunnel was long. White. Images flashed and blurred before Kell’s eyes. He tumbled occasionally, hitting the sides of the vast tunnel wall but they were smooth, worn by floods and ice and a raging torrent. His hair and beard streamed behind him. Tears eased from old eyes. He dragged Ilanna, his axe, his sweetheart, to his chest and lowered his chin to his chest and waited for a terrible impact…
It never came. Gently, the tunnel curved and Kell was sliding, then free again and falling, diving, and he heard a distant scream but could do nothing. He glanced back, and saw only darkness. Again, he was cradled by a curve in the tunnel, and friction slowed him, burning the flesh of his hands and he yelped, in surprise, in shock at sudden raw agony but it told him one thing, one certainty: it hurt like a bastard, and that meant he was alive. This was no dream. Kell narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth and fell through Skaringa Dak – dived, through the heart of the mountain.
Tunnels flashed past. Some lit with mineral deposits. Some were huge, caverns dissecting the tunnel through which Kell fell and he thought, where is all the water? And he realised, a flood, a flood of magick, drowning Silva Valley, drowning the vachine civilisation... and then he hit another curve, which slowed him, and he was sent tumbling through air and darkness and plunged into water so cold he gasped, ice-needles driving through his eyeballs and brain and numbing him. He was deep under, and he clung to Ilanna. I will not let you go, I will not lose you, my love. With a sudden spurt of anger Kell punched for the surface, powerful legs kicking, and he broke the summit with a splutter and desperate intake of air. He went under again, but fought for the surface and as he gasped and breathed, he saw the nearby glow and kicked out for it, his strokes urgent, cold battering through his old bones.
It was a beach, of sorts. Kell kicked and struggled, then flopped uselessly onto his back, great chest heaving. Kell had never been one for swimming, and he hated the water with a vengeance.
Pain and fear ran rampant through his blood, and Kell pushed himself to an upright position and cleared his nostrils with snorts, head spinning. He heard something then, a crying, a thrashing in the underground lake. Nienna!
Dropping his axe, Kell surged back towards the freezing lake. “Nienna!” he boomed, and his voice reverberated back a hundred times more powerful, a cackling of demons.
“Grandfather!” shrieked the young woman, “I’ve got Saark, help, he’s dragging me under!”
Kell kicked off his boots, muttering darkly, and with the surreal and ghostly glow behind, leapt back in to the freezing waters, powering over to Nienna and taking the dead-weight of Saark’s body from struggling hands. Kell struck back for the shore, Nienna following, and they lay there on the black sand panting, exhausted, shivering with core-biting cold, and Kell rolled Saark to one side and growled and said, “You should have let him sink. What sense, Nienna, in rescuing a corpse?”
“He’s not dead,” panted Nienna.
“I watched them carve out his heart!” snapped Kell, weary now, and crawled and stood, and rubbed his hands together. “Of course he’s dead! Now we need a fire, girl, or we’ll also die in but a few short hours.”
“Nienna! Stand up! Get moving. Keep moving.”
She stood, and they looked around. The shore of the vast underground lake seemed to stretch off for eternity. The cavern was vast, endless, and the glow came from eerie stalactites and stalagmites which sat cloaked in some kind of fungus. Kell moved to one, and peeled back a little. He sniffed it. He touched it to his tongue. “I hope it burns. Because,” he gazed around, long grey hair plastered to his shivering scalp, “if it doesn’t, we’re going to die down here.”
The beach was littered with stones and rocks, of a million different descriptions, all washed up over millennia. Kell set Nienna to gathering the glowing fungi, and he found several rocks, striking them together until he found a combination that gave a spark. Back from the water, near a cluster of flowstone and stalagmites, Nienna piled the scraped fungus and Kell knelt, feeling foolish, shivering violently. He struck sparks in the fungus, and on the fourth attempt it glowed, and flames flickered. An odd smelling smoke rose and heat blossomed from glowing flame-petals. Kell glanced up. “Get more,” he said.
“Bring Saark to the fire,” said Nienna.
Kell ground his teeth in annoyance, but gave a nod. He moved back down to the lapping shore. He bent, and lifted the dandy, and retrieved his axe. He carried both back to this odd subterranean campsite and threw down the axe. He laid Saark out. Saark’s eyes opened.
“Thanks, old man,” he said, voice a hoarse whisper. “Thought you were going to leave me out there to die.”
“Saark! Gods man, you tough little cockroach!” Kell moved Saark closer to the flames, and stared in awe at the savage chest wound. He could see Saark’s heart beating within, pulsating with very, very slow thumps. Kell shivered. Saark was a hair’s-breadth from death.
Nienna returned, and they piled more fungus on the fire. Flames roared and within minutes steam was rising from their sodden clothes. Saark’s eyes had closed, and Kell gestured to Nienna. They stepped away from the fire.
“There is nothing I can do for him,” he said, sadness buried his eyes, in his voice. “I wish there was, Nienna, truly I do. It is a miracle he has lasted this long. He must have lost a lot of blood.”
“Can you not stitch him? I’ve seen you sew wounds before!”
“No, Little One. It is too wide. It’s straight through the bone. We must... sit with him. But when it is time to move on, well…” Kell gripped his axe tight, trying to convey understanding through gesture.
Nienna understood clearly, and she punched Kell on the arm. “No!” she hissed. “You’re not going to kill him! I won’t let you.”
“We cannot take him with us, girl. Look around you! I doubt very much we will survive. How foolish, to try and drag a guaranteed corpse.”
“He may be a guaranteed corpse to you,” said Nienna, eyes cold, voice in the tombworld, “but he’s a fine friend to me, and I will not leave him. You go if you wish, grandfather. But I will find a way to get Saark back to the sunshine.”
Kell sighed, and watched Nienna return to Saark. He ground his teeth, and rubbed at his temples, and moved back to the fire as the chill of the underground cavern bit him with tiny fangs. She has the stubbornness of her mother in her, he thought bitterly, but that only led to further painful memories, of ancient days, and Sara, and Kell closed that door with a violent shove.
Saark moaned, and his eyes fluttered open. “Where am I?” he murmured.
“You should be dead,” growled Kell.
“Nice to see you, too, you old bastard.”
“I’m simply being honest,” prickled the aged axeman.
Saark coughed, and Kell rubbed at his beard. “I reckon we’ll need to be moving soon. Don’t want those Vampire Warlords ramming claws up my arse.”
“How long have we been stranded?”
“A day, maybe.”
“If they wanted us, they would have found us,” said Saark, voice a croak, eyes watering. “Is there anything to eat?”
“Anything to drink?”
“Just brackish, oily water. At least the lake will sustain us.”
Saark laughed, then grimaced in pain. “You bring me to the finest places, Kell.”
“Yeah, well, we ain’t married yet, are we?”
“At least you acknowledge there might still be time. Ha!”
“Not whilst I’m breathing, lad.”
“Gathering more fungus. It burns well, but with a strange smell.”
“I recognise that smell, Kell. It’s drugsmoke. You’re keeping us all high. Well done, that man. I thought my pain had receded; it’s because I’ve been inhaling a natural narcotic for the last few hours. Don’t you feel the buzz?”
Kell bared his teeth, face eerie by the light of the fire and the glowing, fungus-covered stalagmites. “Yes. But what you’re feeling – that may be the smoke, I agree, or it could just be the vachine blood which now runs through your veins in a torrent.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Listen,” said Saark, finally, eyes shifting uneasily.
Kell placed his hand on Saark’s, and patted him. “Don’t you worry, lad. I know you think I’m an insane vachine killer... well, I am an insane vachine killer, but you’re one of us. You’re a friend. I promise to you, here and now, on my honour, on my blood, on my axe, that I will not kill you – vachine, or no vachine. That settle you?”
Saark coughed. Blood rimed his lips. “Thank you. But you do not know what you promise. You do not know how it feels.”
“Explain it to me.”
“Wait. Somebody’s coming.”
Saark grinned. “Vachine senses. They are good, Kell. Very good.”
Kell rose, Ilanna in his great fists, and scanned the black shoreline with narrowed eyes. If it was the Vampire Warlords, immortal deities or no, Kell would give them a taste of his axe they’d never damn well forget!
And if it was General Graal come sniffing around after blood and violence? Kell smiled, a nasty smile on such a wise, old, ravaged face. Well, Graal had it coming from a long way off.
A figure picked its way carefully along the shoreline, gradually materialising into a woman. She was tall, limbs wiry and strong, but whereas once she had sported short, cropped black hair, now it was long, gently curled, and luscious like the pelt of a panther. Whereas once her features were gaunt, ravaged by cancer, sunken eyes and narrow bloodless lips, her flesh stretched like ancient, oil-stained parchment, now her skin was smooth and pale like marble, her face proud with high cheekbones and glittering dark eyes. She was a striking figure. A beautiful woman. She had the tiny, pointed teeth of the vachine. The gentle, slow tick tick tick of the machine vampire. A clockwork vampire.
“Myriam!” snarled Kell, and readied himself for battle.
Myriam approached, warily, both hands held wide to show open palms, no weapons. Her eyes met Kell’s, and she knew there was death waiting there; but then her eyes met Saark’s, and a smile touched her lips.
“He is still alive,” she said, voice no longer the croak of the dying.
“No thanks to you, vachine bitch. Arm yourself, Myriam, because by all the gods I’ll cut you from head to quim, whether armed or no.”
“I have not come to fight,” she said, stopping, boots crunching on the stones of the dark beach. “If I’d wanted you dead, I could have picked you off from five hundred paces with my bow. And you know that’s true, old man.”
Kell grinned. “Yeah. Well. I don’t die easy.” He moved forward, lowering his head, face full of rage and thunder, Ilanna lifting a little and seeming to glow black in anticipation of battle. Myriam had betrayed them, allowed Kell and Saark and Nienna to be caught by the Soul Stealers, aided in their capture by the Soul Stealers and delivered to General Graal trussed up like festival turkeys for summary execution. She was the enemy, through and through. She was a vachine contortion. A puppet. She must die.
“No!” screeched Nienna, dropping her armfuls of fungus and racing across the beach to stand before Kell. She held her arms wide. “No, Kell, no! Don’t do this.”
“Get out of my way, child, or you’ll feel the back of my hand.”
“Hard brave words from the Black Axeman of Drennach!” she sneered. “Such heroic spit to threaten a little girl.”
Kell focused on Nienna for the first time. “She will betray us. She is enemy. She must die. Have you forgotten so easily what happened on the bridge? I have not.”
“Hear her out, grandfather.” Nienna’s voice softened. “Please? She has her bow. I’ve seen how incredible she is with that weapon – devastating! She could have easy killed us from afar – all of us.”
“Girl, you are fast becoming a thorn in my side!” Kell snapped, but lowered his axe, aware he was putty in her fingers, and knowing deep in his soul he would regret allowing Myriam to live.
“Yes, but surely I’m a thorn on a rose?” she said sweetly, and turned to Myriam. There were tears in Nienna’s eyes. “Myriam? You have come to help?”
“Yes, child,” said Myriam, and smiled, and there was love in her eyes. “Kell released me. From imprisonment. From thrall. From slavery.”
“Explain,” growled Kell.
“When you killed the Soul Stealers, Kell. They infected me with their blood-oil, their disease, and used clockwork to change me into a full vachine. I was theirs to command, not just through words or gratitude, but by – it is hard to explain. They took a part of my soul, and I took theirs. We were joined. I could not refuse them; Shanna and Tashmaniok were a drug for me. I was their marionette. But when you killed them, I was dazed for a while, and then their essence faded back to the Chaos Halls and I was set free. And then I saw the Vampire Warlords, I listened to their words, and I was filled with an absolute terror. I ran, Kell. I was frightened. I slipped away from Helltop and came looking for you. Believe it or not, you people are the only family I have.”
Kell grunted, and slumped down beside Saark, who was panting heavily. “Well, you’ve found us in a sorry mess. I hope those bastard vampires don’t come after us, for we are in no real state to defend.”
Myriam moved forward, keeping a wary eye on Kell and his axe. “May I examine Saark’s wound?”
“Go ahead. The lad will be dead by tomorrow.” He fixed a beady eye on Myriam. “And you had a great part to play in that, girl.”
Myriam knelt, and peeled back the torn linen pad which Kell had placed over the wound. “It has begun to heal,” said Myriam.
“Nonsense,” snapped Kell. “And even if the flesh healed, I’ve seen wounds like that before on the battlefield; he’ll surely be riddled with infection. Gangrene will set in turning his flesh into a stinking putty. He will die, horribly, there is no doubt. And in a great amount of pain.”
“Kell, shut up!” breathed Saark, scowling. His eyes fixed on Myriam’s. “What’s happening to me?”
“It is the vachine blood-oil in your veins. You have changed, Saark. You already know this. You now possess accelerated healing powers, and no infection will touch your tainted blood.” She glanced at Kell. “The old man is wrong. There will be no gangrene for you; no maggot-filled infections. Your flesh is clean, because no bacteria can face the vampire parasite.”
“Why so?” asked Kell, intrigued.
Myriam gave a small smile. “His flesh is cursed. No infection will touch him. Nienna! Bring me some of the fungus; the more yellow, the better.”
Nienna carried some to the hunter and knelt by her side, watching carefully. “Can you help save him?” she said, voice soft, eyes wide. Nienna was in a permanent state of shock; she had seen too much death. Her childhood had been stripped away like bark from a tree, leaving her scarred and naked.
“Watch.” Myriam tore the fungus into pieces, and taking a flat rock, began to crumble it between her brass vachine claws. “Mulgeth weed, it also grows in the Stone Lion Woods – in the cold, dark, damp places. It has many precious properties for those who live in the wilds.”
“It burns well,” said Kell, “although I wouldn’t smoke it in a pipe, that’s for sure.”
“Some physicians use it,” said Myriam. She opened her pack, now at her side, and removed a tin cup. “Nienna, run down and gather water from the lake,” she said, handing the cup. She turned back to Kell. “Mulgeth weed removes pain, aids in healing, and yes, we can even eat it. But if one was to use it for too long, it would destroy a person’s brain from the inside out; it delivers a slack jaw and permanent yellow drool. Soon, any such over-indulging individual would be down the Shit Pits at the docks shovelling fish-heads for a living.”
Kell leaned close to Saark. “Hear that, lad? No downsides for you, then.”
“Kiss my rosy arse, Kell,” he coughed, wincing in agony.
Nienna returned, and dripping water into the crushed Mulgeth weed, Myriam kneaded it into a thick paste. Then, she leant forward and packed the hole in Saark’s chest with gentle fingers. He groaned, a low sound of agony, and once Myriam had filled the hole she covered the wound with a bandage taken from her pack. She took another pouch, and from this a small, brown glass vial. She unstoppered it, and dripped a single drop of clear liquid into Saark’s open mouth. Within seconds, he was snoring.
Myriam turned to Kell. “Now we must discuss Falanor. We must stop these Vampire Warlords.”
Kell snorted. “We are trapped under the mountains, lass. What would you have me do? Topple the damn peaks on their heads?” Then his eyes turned dark. “And your words are fine and brave, coming from one who fled the enemy. Fled from them, yes, or maybe, instead, you are still in league with Graal and his bastards?”
“No,” said Myriam. “The Vampire Warlords, they are terrible indeed. Dark creatures from the Chaos Halls. They were banished there once before, but Graal and Kradek-ka brought them back using blood-oil magick to open a portal! But I know their plans, Kell. I heard enough, before I was able to slip out down the passages into Skaringa Dak. I heard enough to bring the information to you!”
“Go on,” said Kell, listening, brows furrowed. “But that part of your story where the mighty Kell saves Falanor and rides home on the arse-flanks of a pig carrying the severed heads of three Vampire Warlords in a tattered old onion sack, and sucking on the honeyed teat of a rescued virgin, well it needs to be excised right at the start.”
“Grandfather, listen to her,” said Nienna, sitting cross-legged on a stone. “What have you got to lose?”
“All our lives?” suggested Kell, but muttered something unheard and scratched his beard. At least the oily lake had sluiced him clear of blood, gore and vachine brains, vachine clockwork. He was feeling barely human, for a change. “Go on girl, let’s hear it. Then I’ll focus on getting my granddaughter clear of this unholy shit-hole, and back to some semblance of sanity.”
“Not in Falanor, you won’t,” said Myriam, voice soft. She glanced down at Saark, face now relaxed in peace, then back to the old, grizzled warrior. “There are three of them. Kuradek the Unholy, with a passionate hatred for all human religions. His favourite pastime was slaughtering monks and ladies of the cloth; or even worse, changing them into vampires and letting them loose on their colleagues. He burned churches and temples to the ground, then would eat their ashes, laughing that his shit would be baptised in holy fire. Now, he intends to return to the northern city of Jalder. He will control the northern half of Falanor, and build up his army of albinos and... and vampires.”
“They killed everybody in Jalder,” said Kell, voice cold and hard. “I was there. I saw it.”
“No, Kell. They killed many in Jalder. But men are more resilient than you give them credit. They hid. In cellars, and attics and warehouses. In the sewer systems, in the shit cauldrons of the tanneries. Kell, many survived, trust me. Kuradek knows this, and he will hunt them down, turn them into his vampire slaves. Into parasitical puppets he can control.”
Kell took a deep breath. He thought of his few friends in Jalder, old men, old warriors from back at Crake’s Wall, Jangir Field, the Siege of Drennach, and the Battle of Valantrium Moor. If any could have survived the ice-smoke, then surely these were the men?
“I don’t know,” said Kell, slowly. “It was a miracle I survived the invasion. If it had not been for Ilanna...”
“This is what Graal told Kuradek. This is what I heard.”
Kell nodded. “And what of the other two bastards? They going to set up a nursery and wean baby vampires with bottles of blood?”
“No, Kell. Meshwar the Violent will head south, rule Falanor’s Capital, the city of Vor. There, Graal believes even more rebels survived the ice-smoke invasion. There are thousands of tunnels beneath the city, a huge and sprawling complex. When Graal’s murder began, many fled into the tunnel and sewer network. Many hid. And Vor is vast, as you well know. It is Meshwar’s job to hunt down these people, weed them out, turn them into his vampire horde.”
“And the third?”
“Bhu Vanesh. The Eater in the Dark. He is a hunter, from the old days,” said Myriam, and she rubbed at her eyes, weary now despite her vachine blood. Terror edged her words, and Kell noticed a slight tremor to her hand. If she was faking her fear, then she was a very good actress. But then, Kell had met many a good actress in his years of battle across Falanor. He’d killed a few, as well; on stage, and off.
“And what is his wonderful plan?”
“He will seek to take control of the Port of Gollothrim.”
“Ship building?” said Kell darkly, brow furrowed. “He would seek to expand their dirty little Empire west? He wants transport for his army, doesn’t he, Myriam?”
“Yes. His albino slaves and vampires will take the existing navy, and also build him an extended fleet of ships. With this new, mammoth navy they will head west across the Salarl Ocean – expand their Vampire Dominion across the world!”
“What of Graal?”
“He will go with Bhu Vanesh. Oversee the ship-building. One could say he has been... demoted. Graal thought he could control the Vampire Warlords. But they are all-powerful. They have other plans.”
“Graal always was an arrogant bastard. And I didn’t get to carve my name on his arse with my axe. Not yet, anyways. Still, l at least carved him a new cheek flap.”
“Graal was less than complimentary about that,” said Myriam, flashing a dark smile. Her eyes met Kell’s. “You understand what all this means, axeman? You do understand?”
Kell sighed. It was a sigh from deep down in a dark place weary of carrying the weight of the world. “I’m a retired soldier,” he said. “I’m a simple man, a man of bread and cheese, of coarse wine and nostalgic memories of battle. It was never meant to be this way. I was supposed to live out my final years in Jalder, see this young lady through university, maybe travel the Black Pikes one last time before Dotage crushed my rotten teeth in his fist, and watched my mind dribble out my ears.”
“We have to stop them,” said Nienna, who had been listening, quietly, head to one side. Her eyes flashed dark.
“We cannot,” said Kell.
“You can!” snapped Nienna. “If anybody can halt this madness, Kell the Legend can!” Hope was bright in her eyes. Her hands and lips trembled. Her focus was complete.
Kell shook his head. “I’m an old man, Nienna,” he said gently. “My back hurts in the cold. My knees hurt on stairs. My shoulder is an agony every time I life the damned axe. And, and this will amuse you, Myriam, for it is your damn fault... the poison is still in my bloodstream. The poison you put there. Lingering, like a maggot under a rock.”
“I gave you the antidote,” said Myriam, her lips narrowing.
“Which does not always work?” Kell raised his eyebrows. Myriam remained silent, chewing her lip. “I thought not. With your eagerness to become a vachine, you killed me, woman, as sure as putting a dagger through my heart. Your antidote bought me time. But the evil liquor is still there; in my veins, in my organs, in my bones. I can feel it. Eating me, slow and hot, like an apothecary’s acid.”
“I am so, so sorry about that,” said Myriam, but knew her words meant nothing. She had been dying, from a cancer riddling her every bone. To coerce Kell into helping her, she poisoned him with a rare toxin from a breed of Trickla flowers found far out west beyond the Salarl Ocean. Her antidote, however, had not been enough; or maybe the poison had been rampant in Kell’s system for too long. What did he have now? Weeks? Months? A year? By saving herself, Myriam had effectively condemned Falanor’s greatest hope. Falanor’s last true hero. Myriam felt this irony slide through her like honey through a sponge, and she smiled a dry smile, a bitter smile. By her actions, Myriam may have condemned the world.
“I do not believe it,” said Nienna finally, placing hands on hips. Her eyes were narrowed, brows dark with thunder. “Are you sure, grandfather? Sure about all this? I watched you fight those Soul Stealers. You killed them! Like they were children!”
Kell laughed sharply. “Oh, how the young do so romanticise. They almost had me, girl; if it had not been for Skanda’s help, I would be slaughtered horse-meat on a butcher’s worn wooden slab.” His gaze transferred to Myriam. “You came here for help. To help yourself, yes, through fear of your new masters; but to help Falanor as an after-thought. I am sorry, Myriam. Battle weighs heavy on my old body, and my twisted mind. There is nothing I can do. For once, Falanor must help Herself.”
Myriam bowed her head. Tears lay like silk on her cheeks. “So be it, Kell,” she whispered.
They travelled for hours down narrow tunnels barely wide enough to accommodate Nienna. Eventually, when exhaustion crept upon Myriam, the hardy and seemingly tireless vachine, and Nienna was like the walking dead, they called a stop in a small alcove. It was cold, and damp, but then so were all the tunnels under Skaringa Dak.
Nienna lay, wrapped in a thin blanket, her finger stump throbbing. After an albino soldier amputated her finger in retaliation for Kell’s defiance after they had been taken prisoner, events had moved so fast, so frantic, she had barely a moment to consider her new severance. But now. Now, despite her exhaustion, sleep would not come. Her eyes moved through the darkness lit by strange mineral lodes, and came to rest first on Kell, snoring, lost in the realms of distant dreams and memories and battles; then on to Myriam, breath hissing past her small, pointed fangs. Vampire fangs. Vachine fangs. Nienna rubbed at her finger, and winced as pain flared up her hand, up her arm. Kell had expertly stitched the wound, the amputation, slicing a flap of skin and pulling it over the neat cut bone. He had tears in his eyes. Tears of sorrow, but also of guilt. He blamed himself. He felt completely responsible. And Nienna supposed he was, to a large extent; but then, if he was to blame for the loss of Nienna’s little finger, he was also to blame for saving her life time after time after time. She could forgive him one small mistake, if mistake it was. She grimaced. In war, they all had to make sacrifices. And at least she was still alive.
Nienna rubbed her finger. It had been the most painful moment of her life, and the act of butchery, the look on the albino soldier’s face – well, it was something she would never forget. Just like Kat’s murder was something she would never forget. The vachine, the cankers, the soldiers, the battles – her grandfather striding with axe in hand, with Ilanna in hand, and turning from an affectionate old soldier, a retired old soldier, white-haired, funny, loving, ruffling her hair, cooking vegetable soup, polishing her boots with spit and polish and hard elbow grease, chastising her for neglecting her studies, nagging at her to smarten up her clothes, eat better food, be nice to her mother even when her mother shouted at her, neglected her, allowed her to starve. Nienna laughed bitterly. Oh yes. Her mother. A good strong woman, everybody said. A religious woman. Pious. When she died, she had earned a place in the Bright Halls. But Nienna remembered a different aspect to her character. Nienna’s mother, Kell’s daughter – Sara, the daughter who had disowned Kell and swore never to speak to him again. Well, to Nienna she was a cold woman. A hard woman. A woman of iron principles. A woman who made Nienna’s flesh creep, made her hackles rise, a woman who’d made her life a misery with constant religious studies, muttered prayers and the eternal, submissive worshipping of the bloody gods!
Damn the gods, thought Nienna.
Let them burn in the furnaces of the Blood Void!
Let them rot in the Chaos Halls!
Yes. Kell might be a hard man, a drinker of whiskey, a pugilist, he might be a butcher and all the other things people called him – and what she had seen. But he had a core of goodness, Nienna knew. He had a kind heart. A kinder soul. And to her, no matter how others tried to deviate matters, he was still a hero. He was Kell. Kell, the Legend.
Sleep finally came.
And with it came a dream, a dark dream, a dream in which Bhu Vanesh hunted her panting and giggling through a dark, deserted city, through empty streets and temples and cathedrals, running over slick greasy cobbles. And as he caught her, his fangs gleamed and he reached fro her succulent throat…
As Nienna tossed and turned in her sleep, so Myriam’s eyes flickered open. She uncurled, like a snake unfurling from the base of an apple tree. Myriam stood, and stretched, revelling in the feel of new muscles, new bones, and the death of the cancer within. How could cancer survive in a being which was itself a predator? A cancer on civilisation? How could cancer cells eat her own, when her new vachine cells were far more aggressive and vicious and violent than anything Nature could possibly conjure? Where Nature had failed, man had stepped forward. Myriam’s eyes narrowed. In her opinion, the vachine were the pinnacle of evolution. It could get no better than this.
Gently, she reached down. Beneath Kell’s arm was sheathed his Svian, his reserve blade for when Ilanna was lost. It was also, according to ancient, esoteric legends (although Kell would never admit it as such), a ritual suicide blade. For when times got bad. Real bad.
Myriam withdrew the Svian. The pattern of Kell’s snoring altered, then he snorted and relaxed again, and she toyed with the blade for a few moments, running her finger up and down the razor edge. A bead of blood appeared on her pale white finger. She licked it clear, tongue stained berry-red for just an instant. Then it was gone, the blood-oil was gone, and she gave a little shiver.
Inside Myriam, something went click. She felt the rhythm of springs and counter-weights. She felt the spin of gears. She felt the stepping of advanced clockwork mechanisms, entwined with her flesh, her bones, her organs. And Myriam revelled in her advanced evolution.
Could she let anything get in the way of her vachine existence?
Could she let Kell get in the way?
Of course not.
And something pulsed deep in her mind. In her heart. In her clockwork.
She felt the need growing. Growing strong. And Myriam did so need to feed. It burned her, like a brand. Like birth. Like death. Like existence. Existence.
Myriam lifted the Svian blade. It glinted in the reflected luminescence of the mineral-layered walls.
Her eyes shifted to Kell.
And her smile was a cruel, bloodless slit...
(C) Andy Remic 2011
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.