The Hounds of Avalon (Dark Age Series #3)by Mark Chadbourn
The Hounds of Avalon are coming... For these are the twilight days, when eternal winter falls and the gods destroy themselves in civil war... when an invasion force of ghastly power threatens to eradicate all life. Humanity's last chance lies with two friends, as different as night and day, but bound together by an awesome destiny. Hunter: a warrior, a rake, an assassin; Hal: a lowly records clerk in a Government office. They must pierce a mystery surrounding the myths of King Arthur to find the dreaming hero who will ride out of the mists of legend to save the world. But time is running out, for when the Hounds of Avalon appear, all hope is lost...
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THE Dark AgeTHE HOUNDS OF AVALON
By MARK CHADBOURN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Mark Chadbourn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE
"These are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Paine
The final days of the human race started as they would end, with sapphire lightning bolts lashing back and forth across a stark hall. It appeared to the assembled group that a furious electrical storm was raging within the room, the air suffused with the smell of burned iron. Eyes shielded from the glare by sunglasses, the four men and one woman stood in awe behind the Plexiglas screen. They had the universe in their hands and they knew it.
Standing at the back of the group was Hal Campbell, at first ignored, now forgotten. Twenty-eight years old, bag carrier, coffee maker, officially titled chief clerk to the Ministry of Defence. Bookish, quiet, and always watchful, sometimes Hal was happy in the obscurity with which nature had blanketed him; at others, he yearned to be involved in the great affairs he saw around him every day. But he knew it would never happen; there was no bigger barrier to this than his character, which shunned risk, wallowed in nostalgia, was overly sentimental and romantic, and found security in the routine. After seven years climbing the career ladder in a world of quiet voices and filing cabinets, he knew he had now reached as high as he could go.
Another bolt of energy almost crashed against the Plexiglas window and the front line of viewers took a step back as one, before laughing nervously. Hal observed their faces, transformed into fantastic visages by the shifting shadows of the flashing blue light.
At the front, exuding authority, was the General. He was known simply by that title as if there was only one, but his full name was Clive Parsifal Morgan. Though in his late fifties, he still maintained the boyish, floppy haircut and superior demeanour he had developed at public school, honed at Welbeck College, and turned into a fine art at Sandhurst. "He's coming," he said simply.
"How can you tell? I can't see anything past all that damned flashing." David Reid pressed his sunglasses against the bridge of his nose and leaned toward the protective window. As he did so, his jacket fell open and Hal caught a glimpse of Reid's handgun in its holster. Slicked-back black hair, piercing blue eyes, expensive dark suit.
Still thinks he's James Bond, Hal thought.
Next to Reid, Catherine Manning stood icily aloof. Hal knew she'd been an investment banker in the city before the Fall; not much call for her occupation since the crash, but somehow she'd managed to find a place in the re-formed government. Hal was impressed by her always impeccable appearance, long black hair gleaming, lips and eyes made-up despite the increasing rarity of any beauty products. She wore a smart pinstripe jacket and skirt, and standing next to Reid, Hal noted how alike they were in manner and dress.
The final observer was the government's chief scientist, Dennis Kirkham. Hal knew little about his past, but Kirkham was certainly well respected in current government circles. He was a grey-faced man, quiet and intense, his thick glasses magnifying an unblinking stare that made Hal uneasy.
All eyes were fixed on the giant bluestone that dominated the hall. Proud and inspiring even torn from its context, it was still covered in lichen and clods of earth from Stonehenge. Hal couldn't help feeling a twinge of sadness to see it there. For around four thousand years it had stood guard over Salisbury Plain, but once the higher authorities had decided that they had another use for it, it had been uprooted and transported unceremoniously to its new location.
His attention was suddenly jerked from the megalith to the depths of the light display. In the infinite blue, he could have sworn he fleetingly saw a face looking back at him. Even more disturbing, it appeared to have his own features. Hal knew it was just a trick of the coruscating energy at play, but even so it left him with cold sweat trickling down his back.
"He's there, I tell you." The General tapped forcefully on the Plexiglas shield. "Can't you see his outline coming through? Over there?"
Everyone turned their attention to the few pieces of electrical equipment that had been used to jump-start the bluestone's residual energy. The red and green lights of a computer terminal were just visible through the sizzling blue glare.
Hal still couldn't see anything, but Catherine Manning had become animated. "Yes-I see him! He's made it!"
"Let's not get too excited yet," Kirkham cautioned, his face set. Of all of them, he was the one who most understood the risks. Hal recalled Kirkham's briefing when Glenning had been selected. They had laughingly dubbed Glenning "the Psychonaut," a name that had since buckled under the weight of its own accumulated mythology.
"The chances are you may not be coming back," Kirkham had warned Glenning as they stood before the lecture hall whiteboard covered with Kirkham's convoluted diagrams. "The knowledge encoded in all the old stories makes it quite clear what will happen to mortals who venture where they shouldn't."
Hal was jolted from his memory by a shimmer of blue light in the shape of a man near the spot the General had indicated.
"Yes!" Catherine said, her fists bunched in triumph.
"Phasing in," Kirkham muttered to himself. He checked the set of monitors on the desk next to him. "Ozone level high. Ultrasound. EMF spiking. This is it."
"So you don't have to be at one of the nodes after all," Reid mused. "As long as you can manipulate that energy, you can do it anywhere. Think of the implications."
"Yes, just think," the General said sardonically, "all you need is a four-ton megalith strapped to your back."
A soundless explosion of blue light forced them to shield their eyes despite their sunglasses. When it cleared, the crackling bolts of lightning had gone and Glenning was standing near the bluestone, still wearing his RAF thermal flight suit. Hal could instantly see that something was wrong. The pilot was shaky on his feet, disoriented, his skin as pale as snow. But it was his eyes that would haunt Hal in the coming months. Buried in their depths was a terror so vast that it appeared to be consuming Glenning from within. This was a man who had personally seen the very depths of hell, someone who knew that his life was already over and that what was to come would be worse.
Glenning stared at them all through the Plexiglas window and desperation carved its way into his face. He reached out one arm, opened his mouth to plead, and then he simply ... disintegrated. It was as though, Hal mused later, he had been a statue carved out of sand, collapsing under its own weight. A pile of grey dust was all that remained in the sterile atmosphere of the hall.
Hal couldn't quite believe what he had seen. One second Glenning had been there, living and breathing and human, and then, unbelievably, he wasn't. Hal's mind rebelled at what his eyes were telling it. Gradually, though, his incredulity became dismay at the loss of a man in such an inhuman way.
"Another failure," Kirkham said levelly, checking his monitors.
Jubilation drained from Catherine Manning's face, leaving behind a sickened horror. "Oh my God," she said, her voice dry. "What's happened to him?"
"The only way we're ever going to cross over is by defeating that fatal flaw in our makeup that self-destructs whenever we try to pass through the barrier," Kirkham continued, ignoring the question.
"We know that some people can do it," the General said. "We need to find out what they've got that we haven't."
"Gladly," Kirkham said, "if we had one I could examine."
"What about Glenning?" Hal couldn't take his eyes off the pile of dust.
"Yes, poor bastard," Reid replied. "Somebody is going to have to tell his wife."
In his office filled with antique furniture and books that had not been opened for many a year, the General lit a small black cigar and offered the others whisky from a crystal decanter. Hal distributed the drinks on a tarnished silver tray.
"I don't believe we can afford to wait any longer, General," Reid said once they were all seated around the large desk. Hal retired to a shadowy corner, invisible but watching.
"I agree." The General swirled the amber liquid in his glass and then inhaled the honeyed fragrance. "Thought so for a while now, to be honest. But as you know, the PM is a cautious man."
"There's no great urgency," Catherine Manning said. "They've left us alone in recent months. In fact, intelligence hasn't reported any sightings of them anywhere." She looked to Reid for confirmation.
"Make no mistake, the Tuatha Dé Danann are still out there." Reid had a file filled with the latest briefings from his men and women out in the communities. "And the things that came along with the old gods are certainly still a threat. Villages in the Yorkshire Dales being terrorised by some creature that turns people to stone. Something with blades for hands cutting people up in Liverpool. The National Parks, the fells and fens-whole swathes of the country inaccessible unless you've got a squadron of heavily armed men-"
"The Tuatha Dé Danann are the root of it all," the General said firmly. "Without them, none of these other things would be here."
"But we're still not adequately equipped to fight them," Manning protested. "How can we be expected to go up against gods-"
"They are not gods," the General stressed. "Uneducated, barbaric peasants centuries ago might have thought them gods when the Tuatha Dé Danann first ventured here, but we're above such primitive nonsense. Yes, they have immense power. Yes, they can do things beyond our current understanding. But they are not gods. And they can be defeated. We have to use our intelligence, our resilience, and the other abilities given to us by Himself. The real God?"
Manning sipped her drink quietly, but Hal could tell that she was not convinced.
The General turned to Kirkham. "Review what we know."
"Einstein postulated the idea of a parallel universe ... other dimensions. Of course, they've always existed in myth. The home of the gods. Asgard. Avalon. Now we know, in this as in so many other ways, that the old stories have a greater degree of truth in them than we suspected. But the roots are also there in solid science-"
"You're not about to go off on one of your interminable incomprehensible rambles, are you?" Reid said wearily. The General waved him quiet.
Kirkham was unperturbed by the interruption. "It all comes down to string theory. Complicated physics, I know, but bear with me. In nineteen ninety-five, Edward Witten at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study came up with what he called M-theory, which implies the existence of higher dimensional shapes called membranes, or branes for short." Kirkham, as always, was not about to be rushed-or deterred. "Branes can be as large as a universe. Indeed, a brane might even be a universe, and we could be living in one right now."
"And the point is?" Reid enquired rudely.
"The point is that reality is not as clear cut as we were taught growing up. Witten described string theory as 'twenty-first-century physics that fell by chance into the twentieth century.' We're at the cutting edge of science here. Is the Otherworld of Celtic mythology another brane? Are the gods the inhabitants of that brane, as we are of this one? Is it possible to leak between the two in the same way that M-theory suggests happens to excess gravity strength?"
"Bottom line: you still believe we can find a way through to their homeland?" the General asked.
"We know that the Tuatha Dé Danann can cross over at will," Kirkham replied. "We also know that some human beings can pass back and forth, albeit only at certain locations. The mechanism is not clear at the moment, but with enough time and resources-"
"You'll get all the resources you require," the General said. "Time is a different matter. The Tuatha Dé Danann may have left us alone since the Battle of London, but we have still been invaded. The country is under enemy control, and we have no idea when they will attempt to begin cleansing. We've waited long enough already."
"Sir?" Hal ventured. The others looked up sharply-they'd forgotten he was still there. "Shouldn't we be working alongside those who fought off the original invasion at the Fall ... the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons? From the intelligence we've gathered, we know they can cross over without any harm."
"I've been asking for one of them to question for a long while," Kirkham said to the group, his frustration plain.
"Are we sure they're not just urban legends?" Manning asked. "I mean, five men and women-in what, their twenties?-who somehow mysteriously banded together and stopped the invasion from crushing us completely?"
"How do you think the invasion was stopped at the Fall?" the General said. "It wasn't us. Our forces were paralysed ... decimated. Why did the gods decide to sneak off into the woodwork after the Battle of London, when they'd already demonstrated that they could wipe us out any time they wanted?"
"Yes, but five people," Manning continued incredulously. "I've heard the stories the same as you-"
"Oh, they exist all right," Reid said. "We had two under surveillance at Salisbury, but they've since eluded us. The Five who fought at the fall were Jack Churchill, an archaeologist; Ruth Gallagher, a lawyer; Ryan Veitch, a career criminal; and Laura DuSantiago and someone who went by the name of Shavi, two aimless drifters, no more than that as far as we can tell. Not exactly hero material, is it? They were empowered in some way by that blue energy we saw down in the lab."
Kirkham nodded in agreement. "Can't explain that at all. It seems to have come with the Fall."
"After the Battle of London," Reid continued, "the ones who survived disbanded, drifted off. The information I have is that a new Five is now in the process of being formed-the two we were observing in Salisbury were the first of the new group." He paused, choosing his words carefully. "Apparently that blue energy is supposed to ... choose these ... champions. Seems to have a thing about the number five, too."
Manning snorted at the implication in Reid's words.
"What about the original Five?" the General said.
"Two of them are believed dead," Reid replied. "The two women are missing. The fifth is located at some college for mystical loons in Glastonbury."
"So why haven't you picked him up if you know where he is?" Manning asked. Hal noted her barely restrained pleasure at Reid's discomfort.
Reid set his jaw. "We've sent out several operatives to contact the individual, but none has returned."
Excerpted from THE Dark Age by MARK CHADBOURN Copyright © 2010 by Mark Chadbourn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the critically-acclaimed author of sixteen novels and one non-fiction book. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, working on a production line, and as an engineer’s ‘mate’. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands. Visit him online at www.markchadbourn.net.
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Since the Fall devastated earth with the return to magic as the prime power source, governments are collapsing around the world and with their breakdowns civilization as we know it no longer exists. Optimistically the future is bleak; realistically there is no future. That assessment was even before the pandemic plague struck. As mankind is on the precipice of extinction, the potential for survival has diminished much further for the Void has emerged. The Void lives for all other essences even its armies to die. Desperately trying to regroup and find a resolution to prevent the Void from nullifying all life, the British government leaders try a Hail Mary ploy by going after one of the Brothers and Sisters of the Dragons. They abduct Mallory to use as their counter weapon against the forces of the Void. However, in their naivety they leave behind a critically wounded and perhaps dying Sophie; weakening the already waning strength of the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. With insider help, Mallory escapes and joins his brethren in a last stand against first the Void's invincible armies and if miraculously successful and still somehow alive then they will battle against the Void; human existence is at stake. The final The Dark Age fantasy is a great ending to a complicated mythos as the world appears to be blinking out. The story line is fast-paced from the onset while the focus is somewhat different from that of its predecessors (see Devil in Green and Queen of Sinister) as the reader obtains a deeper look at pillars of civilization like government imploding. The Void is a terrific unique end of life essence as it devours the world with only the Dragon siblings sort of like a team of David (or the fantastic Four against Galactus) the only slim prayer. To appreciate fully the Chadbourne Dark Age, readers need to start at the beginning; it is worth the journey. Harriet Klausner