Ancient legend tells of an army of knights that will remain sleeping until the last days. The knights are waking up.
—C.J. Darlington, TitleTrakk.com; author of Bound by Guilt
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THE REALMS THEREUNDER
By ROSS LAWHEAD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Ross Lawhead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOxford Is Not Safe
Eight Years Ago ...
Manhunt for missing kids ends in Scotland.
Daniel Tully and Freya Reynolds, the two schoolchildren who went missing 72 days ago, have been found near Kilmarnock, in East Ayreshire, Scotland. Alex Simpson, the son of a farm owner, discovered them yesterday at 5:04 p.m. Both were covered in mud and displayed signs of severe shock and were disturbed mentally but were otherwise in good health when examined at St. Bride's Hospital by Peter Tavish, MD. No statement has yet been made by the children. A joint statement by the parents and the police describe themselves as "joyful and relieved" at the return of the children, who will be driven to Glasgow to undergo further examination.
Daniel Tully, 13, and Freya Reynolds, also 13, went missing on a class trip to a church in Abbingdon in the British Midlands over two months ago. Criminal experts are at a loss to explain. (continued on page 5)
Daniel Tully sat unmoving and unnoticed—just another gargoyle on Broad Street. A paper cup in front of him held fifty-six pence in small coins and there were two pounds in his pocket. That meant either a proper meal or a bed in the night shelter. He really wanted both. He could try blagging his way into the homeless café—the Gatehouse—even though he was too young at only twenty years old. That would give him a meal and he could buy the bed and keep the fifty-six pence for tomorrow.
"Spare change, mate?" he asked a pair of business trousers.
The legs continued without breaking stride. Two other pairs of legs coming the other way stopped in front of him and he looked up.
Two girls, students, stood in front of him and one of them was digging around in her purse. She hastily fished out a couple of coins—her friend gazing sourly at her all the while—and dropped them into his cup.
"God bless you," Daniel said. "Both of you, God bless you."
They hurried away, the sour one berating her friend for—what, exactly? Daniel sat stoically until they dashed between the columns of the Bodleian Library. Then he leaned forward and inspected the latest windfall. There looked to be seventy-eight pence now. That meant she only gave him twenty-two.
Sighing, he got up, shouldered his overstuffed rucksack, and started walking to St. Michael's Street. The bodies in front of him shifted, opened, and closed in their usual manner. And through the ebb and flow, a figure was suddenly revealed and then hidden again—a small, lean, heavily tattooed figure that walked with an animalistic gait, wide and lurching.
Daniel froze, his heart racing. He pushed his breath out in a low whistle, his hand instinctively rising and clutching at an object hanging under his jacket along his rib cage. He gripped it so hard that his knuckles went white.
With an effort he opened his fist and started walking again.
He strode quickly this time, weaving deftly through the crowd, trying to close the gap between himself and the tattooed head. He still had not caught sight of it by the time he stood underneath Carfax Tower, the intersection of the town's busiest foot traffic. He stood, turning slightly as he rapidly scanned the faces of those approaching from four directions, hoping—but dreading—to see the squat, hairless head.
Underneath Carfax Tower was another homeless man selling magazines—Scouse Phil. Daniel approached him with a nod. "Alright, Phil?"
"Eee, our Dan. How's yourself?"
"Yeah, not bad, not bad. You ain't seen a short bloke, kind of thin, shaved head, tattoos, that kind of thing? Passed by about ten minutes ago?"
"That who you were looking for over there? Can't say I've seen him that recently, but yeah, I've seen him about. Tattoos all swirly like, but with lots of edges. Nasty business he is. Largin' himself up, throwin' it around like God Almighty. Violent. Got thrown out of the Gatehouse a few times. You got business with him?"
"Not as such. He was at the Gatehouse? He's on the streets? Where does he hang out?"
"Dunno. I've seen him a few times around the canals down near Hythe Bridge Street. Doesn't keep regular with any company I know. Independent like."
"Don't know a name. Best left well alone in my opinion. Wide berth, Danny, wide berth. Listen, if it's some horse you want—"
"Nah, see you around, Phil. Cheers."
"Cheers, then. Be well."
Daniel turned and joined the crowd. A glance up at the clock tower showed the time to be twenty to five. The Gatehouse would be open now. He stroked his beard and turned his feet in that direction.
It was the busiest time of the day. People crisscrossed in front of him, ducking into shops, doing after-work errands before going back to their homes and dinners with their loved ones. Groups of tourists—students on school trips, all of them with matching yellow backpacks—stood in clusters outside the fast food restaurants, yelling at and flirting with each other. And for the second time that day Daniel caught a glimpse from within the swarm of faces of someone he recognised.
He stopped in his tracks. "It can't be ..."
He turned and looked at the sea of people. She wasn't there anymore; the tide had closed. Lurching forward, he ducked into Ship Street, a long, narrow, fairly empty side road. There were two people at the far end and a solitary one walking away from him. This person was young—his age—female, slender, with black hair that was tied up loosely—and she carried a bag that looked to be bulging with books. A student, then. One hand dangled at her side and he could see that it was a light creamy brown.
He found his voice and shouted, "Freya!"
She didn't turn around or even break her stride but kept walking. He shouted her name again.
"Freya, come back!"
Without turning around she broke into a run, sprinting away from him.
He chased after her. He was only halfway down the street when she had reached the end, and by the time he finally made it to Turl Street, she was out of sight.
For the second time that day—that hour—he stood bewildered, searching the faces in the crowd. He wasn't surprised that she ran. If she was a student, then it may not be too hard to find her again, but what did it mean? First one of those creatures, and now Freya—two people he'd nearly given up ever seeing again. The fingers of his right hand stroked the edge of a notebook that was tucked in his jacket pocket. He would have to record these incidents later. No time now.
He retraced his steps and cautiously approached the Gatehouse, spending a futile ten minutes trying to convince the lady at the door that he was over twenty-five when they both knew he wasn't. In the end he asked for a plastic bottle he had to be filled with water and then he went across the street and waited, slunk against a low brick wall. He passed the time by trying to get his nerves under control but was unsuccessful in doing anything more than slowing his breathing.
The Gatehouse closed at six, its patrons trickling out singly or in pairs. If the tattooed man was in there, Daniel knew that he would be noticed but almost certainly not recognised. He hoped that would be enough of an edge.
Fewer and fewer people were coming out now and Daniel was about to get up himself when the tattooed man appeared. He got a good, clear look at him this time. Hairless, dressed in a loose-fitting T-shirt and black leather trousers. It didn't look like he was carrying any weapons except perhaps a knife in his pocket. Swathes of ink covered his body so broadly it was possible to think that he was naturally blackish-blue with only patches of white. His face was lumpy and swollen in the way that a continual scrapper's usually are; his features doughy and slightly formless. His lips were curled into a thin, cruel line and his ears were ragged, torn. He wore sunglasses that comically humanised him, like a dressed-up pet; for there was now no doubt in Daniel's mind about the creature's true identity.
It walked towards him on the opposite side of the street. Although Daniel couldn't see its eyes, it must have spotted him, though it gave no sign. It continued walking and turned the corner.
"Okay, okay ..." Daniel rose and followed but kept to his side of the street. He didn't know how ruthless the creature would be, how heedful of public places it would be, so it was best to keep his distance for now.
He caught sight of his quarry again as it turned down George Street, towards the canals that led to Jericho. Daniel followed, lagging far enough behind to keep the thing in sight, not caring if he was seen. Although it never turned or threw a glance behind, it knew it was being tailed.
The sky had dimmed but it was not yet dark. This was a time of the day that excited Daniel, but he willed himself to stay calm. He tried to turn that nervous energy into a taut, controlled tension and awareness. If it was to be now, then it was to be now. Whatever must follow, must.
He stepped into the doorway of a boarded-up corner shop to quickly adjust his clothing. He unzipped his coat so it was just done up about an inch and hung loosely together in front of him. He pulled his arm out of its sleeve, which he tucked into its outer pocket. Shrugging and hunching forward, he tucked his forearm into his stomach and gripped the handle of the thin, cold object that hung at his side.
If he walked carefully enough, he'd give the impression of having both hands tucked into his jacket pockets. It wouldn't fool anyone who looked closely, but it would do for someone who was only giving him the briefest of looks.
Stepping out from behind the abandoned shop, he saw the shadow creature crossing the bridge ahead of him, still en route to the canals. He walked as quickly as he could without giving himself away, briskly crossing the street and cresting Hythe Bridge.
He was just in time to see the thing take a right turn along the canal, passing through a cycle gate. It took him some time to get across, due to traffic, and when he did, the tattooed man was nowhere in sight.
He slowed his pace and scanned the area. The canal ran just a few feet to his left. Houseboats were moored intermittently along the side, and to the right was wild scrubland, not very deep, but thick enough with brambles and tall grass to adequately hide someone in this low light undetectably. Right now Daniel's best shot was to keep himself out in the open and wait to be attacked. He kept walking.
"Steady," he whispered. "Steady now." As he inched forward, he tried to hide his fear, but then decided that it would be better for the one hunting him if he didn't hide it. He tried to keep his breath even.
The seconds dragged on until he heard, with a relief that nearly chilled him, a faint scuffle on the path behind him. He turned carefully, keeping his left shoulder most visible, and saw the creature standing off at a distance of about thirty feet. It had discarded its sunglasses and T-shirt and was crouching on the footpath, half naked and wreathed in shadows, leering at him.
"Lonely little light," it said. "Dim light, faint light. All alone in a city of one hundred and fifty thousand. A fraction so infinitesimally small, it's hardly worth expressing. Statistically insignificant, equivalent to nothing."
Daniel wanted to reply, to try to deflate its gloating pride, but he was depending on the creature's conceit to survive the fight—he had to play the role of unsuspecting prey. He set his jaw and narrowed his eyes, bracing himself for the attack.
The thing opened its lips in a sneer, revealing teeth sharpened into spikes. "It has been eighty-one days," it said, "since I've had a decent meal." It raised its hands to show that it gripped two spring-loaded knives in its hands. "Eleven and a half weeks; one thousand nine hundred and forty-four hours. I will savor you, I guarantee."
It licked its lips and then broke into a low, frantic run. Daniel crouched, waiting for it to leap. It had to leap; they always leapt. If it didn't leap, he wasn't sure of his chances.
Daniel crouched even lower as the creature drew closer, and just when he thought it was too late, it pounced nearly twice its own height up into the air where it arced perfectly, on course to land right on top of him.
He waited until it reached its peak, perfectly silhouetted against the evening sky, and then with a smooth, lightening-fast motion, Daniel's right arm came up through his open jacket, grasping the hilt of a sword with a wide blade just a few feet long. It stuck in the air, unwavering, perfectly placed to pierce the creature's chest as it fell.
The thing had only a fraction of a second before it descended upon the blade. Its eyes widened in surprise while its mouth was still twisted in hate. As the sharp, thin metal penetrated its torso, the beast spasmed and dropped its knives. In a smooth movement Daniel brought his left hand up and struck the creature on the pelvis, using its own momentum to carry it up and over his head, flipping it over onto the pathway behind him.
It fell squarely on its back, and as it fell, Daniel moved his arm in such a way that his sword was pulled automatically out the thing's chest. He held it poised for another strike but one was not necessary. There was a gaping, steaming wound in the thing's chest that gurgled and spewed thick, black lifeblood. Its throat worked, desperately trying to breathe. Its eyes gazed distantly into the sky.
Daniel kicked it in the head with his foot and then crouched down, pressing his left hand on the side of its skull and putting his mouth near the creature's tattered ear.
"Listen to me carefully," Daniel said in an even, clear voice. "If, when you reach the dark, smoky pit where you will surely burn in unending agony, you are able to send a message to your friends through whatever infernal back passages exist, tell your vile brethren this:
"Oxford is not safe."
He stood and with his free hand grabbed his slain victim's leg, dragging the body into the tall grass, far enough so that it almost certainly wouldn't be discovered until the next day, if not much later. Once hidden he bent and slit its throat, just to be certain. He wiped his sword as much as he could on the weeds around him—he'd have to go into a toilet somewhere and clean it more thoroughly when he had the chance—and replaced it in its sheath underneath his shirt. Then he went back and kicked around the dirt and gravel on the footpath to mask the blood.
All that done, he walked briskly back the way he came, feeling himself still glowing with adrenaline and triumph. Not too far from where the killing took place, he found the thing's discarded T-shirt and sunglasses, which he casually kicked into the dark waters of the canal. Then he stepped out onto the busy pavement and the flickering yellow light of the street lamps, which were just coming on.
When the body was discovered, he thought, they would not be able to identify it, "it" having no identity. The weapon that made the wounds upon the body was odd enough to be unique, and unknown to anyone but himself, so no one could possibly connect him to it. The business looked fairly airtight.
Still, it was prudent to keep a low profile the next few days and perhaps steer clear from the night shelter, where enquiring minds usually dropped by at some point. His stride broke slightly as he recalled that he had talked to Scouse Phil about the thing, and he chided himself. But there was little he could do about that now.
A man coming towards him on the pavement fixed an odd stare at Daniel's forehead as they passed, and then quickened his step. Daniel slowed and put a hand up to his face, then held it out.
Blood. Not his, but the creature's.
He turned to the wall and rubbed every inch of his face with his palms, drying them in his hair, until he judged that he had probably removed as much of it as he could, or at least smeared it to a thin red film. Yet another reason to find a stall in a toilet soon.
Then he had to find a place to sleep that night.
Then he had to find Freya.
Excerpted from THE REALMS THEREUNDER by ROSS LAWHEAD Copyright © 2011 by Ross Lawhead. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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