The Blood Debt (Books of the Cataclysm #2)by Sean Williams
In a remote city on the edge of two worlds, where blood has power and water is more precious than freedom, three far-flung friends unite on a quest to save their families. Sal Hrvati’s estranged father has brought more into the world than the woman he loved. Instead of saving her from the Void Beneath, he has summoned an unknown creature—a creature with a mission of its own and a past that stretches back to the beginning of the world. The quest to find both of them entangles Sal and his companions in a hunt for magical treasure on the floor of the Divide, a mighty crack in the earth inhabited by creatures that are not remotely human. Desert landscapes and dirigibles feature in a fast-paced fantasy that combines romance, adventure, and humor with an original take on magic.
The Books of the Cataclysm take inspiration from many arcane and mythological sources. In positing that this world is just one of many "realms," three of which are inhabited by humans during various stages of their lives, it begins in the present world but soon propels the reader to a landscape that is simultaneously familiar and fantastic.
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THE BLOOD DEBT BOOKS OF THE CATACLYSM TWO
By Sean Williams
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Warden
"On the matter of the ghosts, we find that their presence comprises no direct threat to the citizens of the Haunted City. Only when summoned can they do any harm. In order to deter such a summoning, necromancy will remain a Category A crime, punishable by expulsion from the Haunted City. "Therefore, on the matter of Shilly of Gooron, we find her guilty of necromancy and recommend that she be punished accordingly. She may live freely in the Strand provided she does not attempt to practise or teach the Change, or reenter the Haunted City. Any deviation from this course will result in exile beyond our borders." JUDGMENT OF THE SKY WARDEN CONCLAVE IN EXTRAORDINARY SESSION, YEAR EIGHT OF THE ALCAIDE DRAGAN BRAHAM
The young man looked out to sea.
As far as days went, this one was almost perfect. The sky hung overhead in a marvellous blue dome, marbled with clouds. The sea sighed with easy, patient rhythms. An effervescent breeze blew directly into his lungs from the grey expanses of the ocean.
He should have been content. But he wasn't. His skin tingled from more than just the salty spray. He would have been sunburned hours earlier, but for the protective charms daubed on his shoulders and back. The smell of rotting fish came strongly on the breeze. The pounding of the surf was relentless, day and night.
A seagull cawed in the distance, and he looked up sharply, feeling eyes on him.
I'm not here, he projected. He imagined the beach as it would look from the air: a ribbon of cream-coloured land separating the blue from the brown; him alone along its length-shoulder-length dark hair waving in the wind, an oval face with unremarkable features, apart from his eyes, which were shades of blue mottled with white flecks. His mother's eyes; and his adopted father's hands, weathered and calloused from plenty of hard work.
The seagull cawed again. Sky Wardens sometimes used seagulls as spies along the Strand. Whether this was one of them or not, he couldn't tell, but it paid to be careful. The beach he stood upon was a part of their endless, linear empire, and for Sal the sea had never been a friend.
Gently, so as not to raise more interest than he might already have, he painted himself out of the picture.
Just a fisher. Not Sal Hrvati.
Wheeling and diving, the seagull resumed its hunt for lunch.
Sal was hungry, too, but that wasn't the source of his discontent.
Something's wrong, somewhere, he thought. I've been feeling it for days. But what does it have to do with me? Now?
He closed his eyes and let the world rush into him. He forgot the seagull and the wind and the heat on his temples and the sea's stealthy creep. He exhaled, then inhaled deeply. A vibrant buzz passed through his bones. The Change was powerful and raw on the beach, where earth and ocean met. He could feel it in everything around him, as wilful and nebulous as air. Sometimes he would sit for hours and let his thoughts drift beyond the ephemera of everyday life. In the ebbing and flowing of the Change, he felt vitality and vigour that was equally beautiful in life and in death.
But not any more. There was a tear, somewhere-a tripping of the cadences of the Strand. It nagged at him, maddening in its ability to pull out of reach when he tried to pin it down. He couldn't tell if it was a person or a thing, or something he feared to see in himself. As much a part of the Change as anything else, he knew he was far from infallible.
Sal glanced to his left at a grave marker on the edge of the beach line. The weatherworn post was inscribed with charms and encrusted with salt. What would you tell me, Lodo? Am I imagining things or beginning to see clearly at last?
He returned his attention to the sun and the sand and the sky. The wind danced fitfully around his legs, as though sweeping the way clean for a storm, but he could smell no rain, no thunder. The stone pendant around his neck, a weather charm called yadeh-tash, was silent.
Then it struck him-at once both physically and mentally. He cried out at a fierce stab of pain between his shoulder blades, and spun to look behind him. The beach was empty, except for him and the birds, but his eyes saw beyond them, through the rough fringe of scrub and into the gracefully towering folds of sand dunes that marched effortlessly inland. In the long moments he had been gawping at faraway fractures, he had completely overlooked something nearer and infinitely more precious. Close to home someone had tripped a trap.
"Carah." He called the name as loudly as he dared. "Carah!"
His toes clenched in the sand and he began to run.
The sound of her heart-name propelled Shilly out of a deep sleep she didn't remember entering. She had been dreaming of an outline of a face, or something very much like a face, although it seemed to have too many eyes and maybe an extra mouth. It belonged to something buried under the sand, something that was trying very hard to surface. It frightened her, and with her hands she had tried to sweep the impression of it from the sand. But sweeping the grains away only brought it to the surface faster than ever ...
She sat up with a jerk. Sal had called her, and he had sounded panicked. It had been a long time since the last false alarm. Although they knew theoretically that they could be found at any time, it wasn't possible to live in a state of perpetual dread. Their jitters in the early days had settled down to a constant, low-level vigilance. Hiding was second nature to them now.
She didn't dare take the chance that he was jumping at shadows. Struggling free of her rabbit-skin coverlet, she shook off the lingering veils of sleep. The underground workshop, their home, was warm but not stuffy, ventilated by a chimney leading up through the compacted sand to fresh air far above. Kidney-shaped and high-ceilinged, the workshop had been fashioned decades earlier by a renegade Stone Mage who had come to Fundelry in search of new ways to master the Change. Instead of peace and quiet he had found Shilly, a girl with a knack for the Change but without the talent to use it. He had taken her as an apprentice and, on his death, left Shilly all his possessions. The workshop contained the trinkets he had made or gathered to himself down the years. Some she understood perfectly, grasping their purpose the moment she studied them, even though she didn't have the spark that would make them work. Others remained a mystery despite many hours of contemplation.
A flawed metal mirror caught her in its depths as she shrugged into the cotton dress she had worn the previous day and slipped on her sandals. Her dark hair stood in total disarray, bleached at the tips by sunlight. The same light had burned her skin deep brown, darkening what nature had given her still further. A series of thin white scars marred the skin of her right leg. The mirror had been dropped and was now warped on its left side, giving her a compressed, foreshortened aspect, as though she was walking into an invisible barrier. She didn't linger.
She grabbed the workshop's pole-shaped latchkey from its usual place and hurried through the tunnel which led her from the main room to an antechamber. There was a wicked hook at one end of the latchkey and, on reaching a cave barely large enough for her to stand upright, she poked this into the sandy soil and twisted. Half of the latchkey vanished into the wall, as though tugged at by hands on the far side. She hung onto her end and firmly twisted the pole again. The charm had come with the workshop, one of those she hadn't quite fathomed, but she understood its operation well. Something clicked under her hands, and she raised her eyes to look into the dull, sandy wall.
A faint echo of the dunes outside the entrance to the workshop came to her, as misty as a dream. She didn't see the shape of the dunes so much as the form of them: the lines they made against each other, against the spindly grass that grew in their shadows, against the blurred horizon. She swept her attention along those lines, looking for any recent change. Birds appeared as swooping vortices, dimples in the sky; crabs were asterisks leaving complicated ellipses in their wakes; humans stood out like giant, dead trees on a fallow field.
There. She focused on a new feature of the dunes: a line of footprints marred the smoothly changing symmetry. Past them, just touching the low hills beyond the sand, were several parallel tracks that looked hauntingly familiar. Made by wheels, she realised. No hoofprints, horse or camel. Self-propelled, although she couldn't see the machine itself.
A chill went through her. The view flickered. While the reservoir in the latchkey lasted, she followed footprints into the dunes, seeking the person who had made them. Her gaze skidded over a discontinuity and lost the trail. She backtracked, and skidded again. The person making the tracks was deliberately hidden from her sight.
She had just enough time left to see Sal hurrying from the beach. His trail was hidden, too, subtle and barely visible but as familiar to her as the dunes themselves. He angled around the interloper, coming up from behind.
Be careful! she thought, even though she knew he couldn't hear her.
The latchkey gave out, the store of the Change within it consumed by the wall's charm. She was left on the wrong side of the exit, anxious and blind. What to do? She couldn't just sit in the workshop like a rabbit in its hole waiting for the trap to spring.
She had seen enough, though. The interloper was approaching from a point near the outer edge of the dunes. That left him or her, most probably, with no line of sight to the workshop's entrance. If she was quick, she might just get through without being spotted.
She took a deep breath and withdrew the latchkey. It slid freely from the sand, unhindered by the arcane mechanism it operated. Turning to another section of empty wall, she outlined a figure eight in the soft soil. With a sigh and a shower of sand, the wall collapsed, leaving a metre-wide hole in its wake. On the other side of the hole was the back of a bush. Beyond that, sunlight and the dunes.
Shilly hurried through, carrying the latchkey with her. The white sand glared bright in the daylight. The smell of salt and spear grass was sharp in her nostrils. She squinted to check around her before running away from the exit, erasing her footprints with her free hand as she went. She ducked out of sight at one end of a wide dune-valley just as a flash of blue fabric appeared at the other.
A Sky Warden? So far from the Haunted City? It wasn't Selection time for months, when the young of the village were examined for Change-sensitivity or talent. There was just one other conceivable reason for a warden to be in the area. Shilly forced herself to confront the awful truth: that she and Sal might have done something to give themselves away.
She held her breath and hoped Sal would stay out of sight. The last time Sky Wardens had come to the dunes, her life had been turned upside-down. Pain shot along her right leg, from hip to ankle, and with a worried look she reached down to rub at it.
Unnatural silence had fallen over the dunes. Sal's hearing seemed muffled as he moved to catch up with the person who had triggered the early warning charm on the dunes' northeastern perimeter. Just as thick fog could dampen sound, so, too, could sufficient skill deaden the Change.
That thought sobered him. The chances were that this person was better trained than himself; not someone from Fundelry, then, or a wandering weather-worker, foraging for driftwood. For all the natural talents he possessed, subtlety was not one of them. He couldn't just rush in and hope for the best.
He inched around the outstretched limb of a dune and caught his first glimpse of the person he pursued.
A thin young man with black, curly hair and ebony skin strode confidently towards the workshop entrance. He wore the bright blue robes of a Sky Warden. A crystal torc hung around his neck-a sign of rank, Sal remembered. Over his right shoulder drooped a black bag shaped like a teardrop. Its contents swayed heavily from side to side.
Whoever he was, he crossed the sand with long-legged strides, making no obvious attempt to conceal himself.
The bush camouflaging the entrance to the workshop stood out against the wall of sand behind it, a suddenly pathetic hiding place, even though it had served Lodo well for many years. Sal had felt the entrance open and Shilly scurry for freedom, so he was spared the worry of her being trapped inside. But that wasn't the limit of his concerns. If the Warden found their home and reported it to the Syndic, they would be forced to run again. And he wasn't ready to leave the one place he had felt at home-not yet.
Sal reached out through the Change, fighting the interference radiating from the trespasser, and touched the second line of defence. The buried traps stirred, awaiting his command. They had grown in the years since he had placed them in a series of concentric semicircles around the entrance to the workshop. They throbbed with readiness, swollen and angry like bees ready to defend their hive.
The Warden stopped in his tracks and looked around.
Sal ducked out of sight and slithered to a new position. The Warden turned his head from side to side, as though seeking the source of a faint sound. His expression, when Sal got his first good look at it, was one of intense concentration.
Sal went to duck again, but froze. There was something familiar about that face, those long features and dark eyes. He had seen them before. Or had he? He'd met only a few Wardens during his ill-fated stint at the Novitiate, five years ago, and none since. Would he remember any of them from that far back, even if his liberty depended on it?
The Warden straightened upon one last inspection of the dune valley. He swung the pack off his shoulder and put it on the sand by his feet. By accident or not, he had stopped just before the concealing bush.
The Warden raised his empty hands and turned in a full circle.
"Come out, Sal and Shilly," he called, speaking slowly and loudly. "I know you're here."
Sal rolled over and flattened himself hard against the sand, staring desperately up into the sky. Sky Wardens didn't necessarily need their hands free to cast charms any more than he did. The Warden's gesture of peace was purely symbolic and therefore meaningless, but symbols had power. So Lodo had tried to teach him years ago, and Shilly had reinforced the lesson many times since.
Silence choked the air over the dunes. The wind had died completely; not even the seagulls dared brave the sudden stillness.
Sal didn't know what to do. "Who are you?" came Shilly's voice from the other side of the Warden. "What do you want?"
Sal peered over the dune, alarmed by the thought that Shilly had put herself in danger. He reached out for the buried traps as the Warden turned to address the area that Shilly's voice had come from. It wasn't too late. She was far enough away not to be hurt.
"What's the matter?" the Warden asked, his words echoing from the walls of sand. "Don't you know who I am?"
"I know what you are. That's enough."
"No, it's not." The Warden made no move, except to sag a little. "I dreamed last night that you and I were riding a ship of bone up the side of a mountain, into a cave of ice. Something dark and ancient lived there, under the ice, and it knew we were coming. It had slept for an eternity, but was waking now, and it was hungry. We had to stop it, you and I, before it ate the world."
Sal listened, hooked by the same odd sense of familiarity he had felt on seeing the man's face. The Warden's voice had changed while talking about the dream; it was higher pitched, and had a childlike rhythm. Sal had heard someone talk like that before, under very different circumstances.
For the first time, Sal noted how dusty the Warden's robe was, his scuffed and worn boots.
The name, when it came to him, was as unbelievable as it was a relief.
"Tom?" Sal stood up on the crest of the dune. "Is that really you?"
The Warden turned away from Shilly's hiding place to look at him. Now that Sal knew the truth, he could see the resemblance. Gone were the awkward ears and lack of height. Gone were youthful uncertainties and baby fat. In their place was a lean, almost ravenous, sense of concentration that hit Sal like a physical force as Tom's gaze fixed on him.
Excerpted from THE BLOOD DEBT BOOKS OF THE CATACLYSM TWO by Sean Williams Copyright © 2006 by Sean Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Sean Williams is the author of numerous works for adults, young adults, and children, covering new space opera, science fiction thrillers, fantasy, and horror. He has also written for Star Wars and Doctor Who, two franchises he has loved since a child. A winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, recipient of the "SA Great" Literature Award, and a New York Times best seller, he lives with his wife and family in Adelaide, South Australia. You can visit his website at www.seanwilliams.com.
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In the distant future Earth is a vastly strange different place in which magic is the energy source of choice in isolated enclaves. With this energy source comes unwelcome byproducts living humans uneasily share the area with ghosts, golems, and other paranormal creatures that run the gamut of myths including living statues. --- Separately friends Sal and Skender become concerned over their respective missing parents who apparently vanished due to some unexplained esoteric disorder. Each without consulting with the other decides on a quest to find and if need be rescue their parents from whatever void that traps them. However, neither is quite ready to learn about a dangerous homunculus pseudo human that apparently Sal¿s dad brought back from the Void Beneath which may lead to death and destruction of more than just their parents: a world is at risk. --- This tale somewhat suffers from the middle book syndrome even though plenty of action occurs, but for practical purposes nothing is resolved. As testimony to the spellbinding writing skills of Sean Williams, fantasy readers will still enjoy the latest Book of the Cataclysm as the lead duo Sal and Skender return (see THE CROOKED LETTER) to embark on a new quest. Readers will root for the pair whose adventures are exciting, dangerous, and fun to follow as they anchor the exhilarating story line of THE BLOOD DEBT. --- Harriet Klausner