We fell in love with the debut novella lineup from Tor.com Publishing, the digital-first imprint from Tor Books that helped bring back shorter-length SF/F in a big way in 2015. Word has started to leak out about what’s in store for us next year, and it looks like more of the same in the best way: this just might be the future of publishing—slimmer books that can be read in a sitting or two, produced with less lead time and lower overhead, allowing for tighter, quirkier, or more daring storytelling than you might find in a full-length novel.
Best of all? Tor.com Publishing treats them like what they are: real books. Their taste in cover art has been impeccable, and we’re pleased they’ve given us the chance to premiere the cover for one of their upcoming titles, The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley, a celebrated author of Warhammer 40,000 titles as well as his own original stories. You’ll find the complete Chris McGrath cover art (designed by Christine Foltzer), along with an exclusive excerpt, following the publisher’s blurb.
Global war devastated the environment, a zombie-like plague wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.
Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.
And here’s the excerpt.
Chapter 1: Bridge of the Ancients
Quinn had two swords. One for killing the living, and one for killing the dead.
He wore them on top of each other on his left hip. On his right he had a sixgun.
A knight’s weapons.
You’ve probably not seen a knight. There’s not been one through these parts for a long time, not since just after Quinn, and that was fifty years back. Back then I’d never seen one neither. Truth be told, when we first saw him we weren’t right sure if he was what he said he was. There weren’t many knights left in those days, most had fallen in the war. Times like these we live in, you wonder at people. A knight’s weapons are hard to get hold of if you ain’t sanctioned by the Dreaming Cities, but not impossible.
My mom, she had her suspicions. But I knew from the start that he was a good man, I swear.
So this here’s the story of how I met Quinn, a knight of the angels. As it happens, it’s also the story of how I ended up here in the Winfort, and got involved with a dragon along the way.
First I got to say this. Time goes, it rubs away at your memory sure as the Kanawha river rubs at its banks. Memory moves. The river is still there, but the course is different, do you understand? I’m telling you this story, and I’ve told it before. Maybe it changes a bit every time I tell it, even when I’m sure that’s exactly what happened and it couldn’t be no other way. This is a wise thing, pay attention.
It’s the way people are. You never been in a heated argument that your recollection is right and that of your friend or brother is wrong? That’s how bad people are at remembering truly. The words my mom said to me on our journey that I’m going to tell you, they sure as hell aren’t the exact same words she used. Things happened that I forget, things happened that I remember a bit different every time I bring them to mind. Bits get dreamed up to join up the parts I do remember. And I’m getting older. Real old. My mind ain’t what it was. I open my eyes and everything is colored gray. I close them and it looks like the past is drenched in gold. The future is ashes, the past is treasure, seems to me, but do you think that’s really how it is? I’m not far from dead, is all. When you get where I am, I’m sure the past’ll look brighter to you as well.
Memory. Biggest traitor there is.
You get others involved, telling their memories of my memories, well, when I’m gone and you tell this story to someone else, then it’ll change some more. That’s how memories become stories, and everyone with a lick of sense knows stories ain’t the truth.
Saying that, there are some few things that never change, no matter how many times you think on them. Jewels in a box, you take them out from time to time to look at them and they never change. Some things stick in the mind unchanged forever. There were a lot of times like that on our journey.
One of them was seeing Quinn fight the first time on the edge of the Kanawha river, at the Emperor’s railroad bridge. If I close my eyes, I see it clearer than I can see now, like I’m there again and seeing it for the first time.
This is how it is: My mom’s got her arms around my neck, like that’d protect me from the dead and they’d not just rip me from her. The sun is warm, but the morning cold, like they get to be in fall. The trees are got up in their finery, yellows, reds and orange. A Virginian morning, a late October morning. My mom’s heart’s beating so hard behind my head. I’m twelve, not long that age and afraid I’ll not see thirteen. She is scared. I’m scared. But there’s no shame in fear, not at time like this.
That’s what it’s like. It’s happening in my mind right now.
There was the roar of the rapids downriver, water pouring over the leavings of the Gone Before. The moans of the dead. Quinn’s weapons hacking into flesh, meaty and workmanlike, not like I imagined a knight’s blade craft should be. Sight, sound; but the smells are the most important. That’s when you can tell it’s a true memory. I can smell the soap and the light tang of sweat on my mother, the road dirt and the leaf mould from camping in the woods. The weedy smell of the river, heavy and round. The horsey smell at our backs. Quinn himself, strong sweat, but clean and sharp, almost like lemons. Leather and iron.
And the stink of the dead. That ripe, rank stink, the shit on their hindquarters, old blood, vomit. All the hidden nastiness of the human body worn on the outside. They’re the devil’s affront to God.
The railroad bridge wasn’t like it is now, with the trains coming over four times a week. This is still wild country, but it was wilder then. The new bridge is big, but you got to imagine it when it was in the Gone Before. In those days it didn’t have a deck of wood for the trains, but a wide road of concrete for their miraculous carriages, tens of feet wide, and a road on that so smooth you could roll a marble clear from one end to the other with a little flick of your finger. That had mostly gone into the river by the time I saw it. But the piers stayed sound. That’s why the old Emperor had chosen it for his railroad, laying a new bridge over the old piers. Back then it was the only way across the Kanawha north of Charleston. Still is.
The dead came out of the trees as we’d come up to it. Eight of them, hop-scrambling towards us, arms out, hands grasping. They don’t have no sense, they started moaning as soon as they smelled us, and Quinn had his heavy sword out before they were up the bank. If they’d waited, showed a bit of cunning, we’d have come off a lot worse. But the dead aren’t people no more. One lunged up out of the brush, ripping a nasty gash down the shoulder of Quinn’s big white horse. Quinn chopped down, spilling its rotten brains on the grass. The others were a ways off, staggering up from the nearer the water.
“Watch the horses,” he said. He never shouted, and he was never scared. He slid off his horse, Parsifal it was called, and walked into the dead. He didn’t charge, or yell. He walked down to them calmly, then set to cutting them down like he was reaping wheat.
We didn’t have no weapons. Simple folks like us are forbidden the likes of what Quinn had, sharp steel and gunpowder. The dead lunged at him, clacking their teeth, raking at him with their fingernails.
These dead ones were hungry. There’d not been many folk up this way since the Emperor’s fall, what few there were were right here in the Winfort and did not venture as far south as the river.
With nothing to eat, the dead had chewed their own lips off. Their teeth were long and brown. Clotted blood was thick round their chins and on their chests. I hate the teeth the worst, I seen too much ill come from teeth like that. You watch me next mealtime, you’ll see I can’t be looking at anyone’s face, in case they forget their manners and chew with their lips open. Makes me sick because it makes me think on the unliving.
The dead were naked. When they’re long gone over like that the clothes rot off or fall. Not a stitch on them. The nakedness makes them worse, somehow, makes them seem more human rather than less. I’ve seen men that reckon themselves brave turn and run at the sight of a pack like that. Not Quinn. I knew for sure he was a knight then, right at that moment, badge or not.
One of them got a hold of him, made my mom gasp out over and over, “Oh God, oh sweet dear Jesus.” Mom wasn’t one for blaspheming. That made it twice in one week, the other time being when the Walter died. It never was a habit with her.
Fingers thin as twigs but strong as roots wrapped themselves round the top of Quinn’s off arm. The unliving’s head lunged for his bicep. It broke its teeth on his armour, but it didn’t let up, gnawing on Quinn’s arm like a hungry man on a cob of corn, blood pouring out of its gums. Quinn paid it no mind, burying his sword in the head of another.
His heavy sword, the dead-killing sword, he called that a falchion. Quinn had lots of fancy words for things; for bits of his armour, for the past, for what he’d done, but he did it in that sort of way that made me think he was laughing at himself. This is a tasset, he’d say, this a pauldron, this is a falchion. The falchion was like the machetes we use to cut back the brush and clear a field, but heavier and longer, because his falchion was for the kind of weed that bites back.
The man-killing sword was lighter, four feet long. Straight where the falchion was curved, a fancy basket round the hilt that shone so bright I was sure it was silver, not steel.
That long sword stayed in its sheath most of the time. He wore his swords atop each other, and the hilts knocked together sometimes when he walked. When that happened, his hand went down, did this little motion to reset them so they wouldn’t tangle when he drew. He did it without thinking. It was a movement he must’ve done it a million times before. His gun he wore on his right hip, because it’s different pulling a gun to a sword. Gun goes up, swords across. I only saw him use his gun the once.
We’ll get to that.
Quinn cut the dead man diagonally between the eyes. The skull made hollow noise, like a gourd split with a big knife. The dead man’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he died a second time. Quinn wrenched his falchion free. The other dead man was still at his arm, stumps of his teeth grinding themselves away on the mail. Quinn caved in the dead man’s skull with three blows from his pommel. This was mighty big, a falchion’s got a heavy blade, and needs balancing.
That left five of the unliving, shambling in that way they have. Two were pawing at him, the other three still coming on, slowly. Their ribs were all showing in their skin, arms like sticks. They didn’t have it in them to run. They were starved.
Quinn cut down both by him. One lost its head, the other the use of its legs. Then he marched up to the others, bold as you like. The first one lost its hand to his sword, then its brains. Quinn was away to slam the second down with his left arm. The thing drops, and he steps over it, killing the last one with a single chop that took his blade clean down through its shoulder, most of the way to the heart. Then he pivoted on the spot, smooth as a cat, and cut the head right from the neck of the one he’d slammed down as it tried to get up.
He pulled off his helmet as he walked back to us, then the leather breathing mask under it. “Curse on the air, you ain’t got a care, curse in the mouth, you’re headed south.” You know the rhyme. You got to get bit, or get a lot of blood in you, to turn. Quinn wasn’t taking any chances. He said he always wore his mask under his helmet when he was fighting the dead. He pulled out raw cotton pads from pouches in the breathing mask and threw them away. He was sweating, but he wasn’t panting. He wasn’t even out of breath.
He checked around the dead. The one that he’d cut the legs out from moaned and scraped at the floor, the bones shiny white in the wounds. Thick blood pumped from the cuts, each spurt showing less of vigor.
“You okay?” Quinn said. He didn’t say much, and what he did say was quiet.
My mom nodded. “Yes, yes. Thank you.” Her voice was breathy. She hugged me closer.
I looked at him. I was awestruck. “You are a knight,” I said. I was raised on stories of his kind. He was a hero to me.
He looked down at me, his expression unreadable. He had leathery skin, eyes narrowed by looking into the sun too much, a thick brown beard shot with gray. What I thought of as an old man’s face, and by that I meant he looked forty, forty-five maybe. He wasn’t like any man I’d seen. He was pale, really pale, and when he opened his eyes up, they were round. Not narrow like with a lot of folks. Knights are all funny looking, you ask me. Not long after Quinn I saw two more knights coming through here, one with deep brown skin, another with bright red hair. That’s a story for another day. The point I’m driving at here is that knights are surely people, but they look different than you or me.
I asked him once how old he was. “Older than you,” he said. That was that.
My mom tugged me in her arms, a hug with a rebuke in it. “Forgive my son, sir.” I was pretty sure she doubted he was a knight still.
“He’s a boy,” said Quinn, as if that explained something. He went to his horses. He had two. The white – Parsifal – was a tall, powerful stallion. He warned us against surprising it, but he let mom and me ride it while he walked. The other horse was a round little pony that carried his gear. Clemente, he called it. Clemente took two strides for every one of the stallion’s, but it never tired. Both of them were cropping grass, neither bothered by the blood and stink. Quinn went to his charger and checked its wound. Shallow scratches, it turned out.
“Is she going to die?” I said.
“It looks worse than it is,” said Quinn. It did look bad, three parallel grooves, deep and bright with blood. He pulled out a fingernail from the bottom of one and threw it aside. That’s how strong the dead can be, strong enough to tear through horse hide. They rip their own fingernails out, and they don’t feel a damn thing.
He cleaned out the wound with a rag and something that smelled like moonshine.
“Why’s he doing that mom?” I asked.
“Infection, got to clean it,” said Quinn. “The animals don’t get the sickness, but they incubate it. And those things can give you a bad case of blood poisoning even if you don’t get what they’ve got.”
There was a moan from the dead on the ground. I started and clutched at my mom’s sleeve.
“Mr Quinn…” my mom began.
“That dead ain’t dead! You gotta kill it mister.”
Quinn glanced at the dead man, slowly bleeding his way to his second death. Quinn went back to cleaning out the scratch on his horse’s shoulder.
“They aren’t dead kid, they just seem that way. That one won’t last long. He’ll die soon enough. Takes longer for them to die than a healthy man, but a wound that will kill you will kill them. Eventually.”
Half the time Quinn spoke like regular folks. But the other half he spoke strangely, old fashioned like; you might say educated. My mother wasn’t a poor woman, not to start with. She had some learning, and she passed it on to me. Some of the children at New Karlsville used to tease me for it. Mom said they were afraid of what I knew and they didn’t. They had to slap me down to make themselves feel better about themselves. I still know a few things that some don’t, and that ain’t all down to the teachings of the Lord. But Quinn, the way he spoke made me sound like the worst kind of wildman from the deepest woods, the ones that think giants built the world Gone Before, and sacrifice their kids to the angels. And the things he knew…
“How can you be sure sir?”
“Are you afraid of blood, kid?”
“No sir!” I shook my head hard.
“Then go see for yourself. It won’t have the strength to hurt you. It will bleed out in a few minutes.”
“Why don’t you just kill it?” I didn’t like the moaning, but I wasn’t going to say that.
“I won’t risk the edge on my blade.”
“Show some pity Mr Quinn!” said my mom. She had a way about her, she was used to people doing what she said.
“Why?” he said, not looking at her. “It can’t feel anything. The mind’s all gone from that one. There’s no man in there. There’s nothing but animal left.”
She took in a deep breath, and tried again. “Could you show a little mercy, please, for the sake of my son? You say you are a knight, you should behave like one in front of him.” I pulled away from my mom then. She was angry and didn’t notice. “That poor man was once like you or I. He deserves a little dignity. Is there not something in your code of honor sir?”
Quinn shrugged, and carried on cleaning out his horse’s cut.
By that point, I was over by the dead man.
Mom noticed where I’d gotten to and cried out. “Abney! Stay away!” Sometimes she could get a bit shrill, overprotective, I felt. I was that age where I always I knew better. I didn’t pay her no attention.
The dead man was on the floor, his head rolling back and forth. I was fascinated and repulsed. I couldn’t look away from it. Quinn’s cut had smashed the bones in both thighs as well as cutting them deep. That’s how heavy a weapon a falchion is. It couldn’t move. It looked at me hungrily with those pale blue eyes they all have. Its mouth and nose were bloody holes. A black tongue, sore with self-inflicted bites, ran over its teeth. I hate the teeth.
Quinn shoved me back. His leather glove was rough on my chest, even through my shirt. He had his falchion in his hand.
“Not that close,” he said.
Although it’s a heavy sword meant for chopping, a falchion does have a point. Carefully, Quinn put this against the dead man’s left eye. The dead man groped at Quinn’s legs, but Quinn paid it no mind. He leaned on his sword pommel with both hands, pushing the point down through the skull. There was a scraping noise and a crack of bone. A slow breath escaped the dead man’s lips, the sigh of a man sinking into exhaustion after a hard day in the fields, and he was still.
“Dead now,” Quinn said.
Another rag came out. He wiped his sword with it. The rag went into a different pouch to the one it had come out of. Then he held the weapon up in line with his eyes, sighted down the blade for nicks, then slid the sword back into its scabbard. Then he checked his shoulder and his hands, not so much for bites to his flesh, I think, but for damage to his armor. The leather and steel were filthy with the blood of the unliving, but otherwise unmarked. “Going to take a while to clean this off,” he said.
“We do not have the luxury-” began my mother.
“I didn’t mean now.” He looked down at the rushes between the bank and the first pier. The old road approaching the bridge had been raised up on some sort of causeway, where it had sagged it’d been filled in with rubble and spoil by the Emperor’s men for their railroad, but that had been twenty years back. The repairs were beginning to fail. The Emperor’s engineers did not have the skill of the Gone Before. Trees were growing up between the sleepers. In one place the bank had been washed out, leaving rusty iron rails hanging in the air.
From the embankment to the bridge’s first pier was a wide gap in the old road, it having fallen in the Good Lord alone knows when. Being close to the river like that kept the rubble free of dirt, so we could see the worn slabs of it draped broke-backed over the bank and stretch of water. Thick ivy clogged the pier’s upper part. A gust of wind made the leaves rattle, passing on to ripple the brown river with silver waves. Any sound in a place like that can make you startle, and I did.
The old bridge had been made out of concrete, the molding stone of the gone before, the new bridge from wood and iron. The Emperor’s bridge had been made on a grand scale by the standards of this diminished era. It was wide enough for a train, with good, broad walkways for the draft horses on both sides.
All this was carried up on a big old latticework of huge wooden beams. These were arranged in squares ten feet by ten feet, with a diagonal brace across each, all tied up with iron. It looked real impressive, but twenty cold Virginian winters and twenty humid Virginian summers do a lot of damage. The beams were the kind of wet that don’t dry easy, the wood splintery, rotted right through in places. Moss clung to every surface not directly in the wind. It being that time of year there were about ten kinds of fungus on it. Vines and briars trailed off into the water. The iron of the rails and the ties was bright orange, and streaked the wood. We looked nervously at it, but this was the only way to get to Cousin Matthew up at the Winfort, so we were crossing it, happily or not.
“Wait here,” Quinn said. He went down the bank, picking his way through the wooden supports of the Emperor’s bridge, right down to where the water was pale with fallen rubble and the river foamed over the weirs they made. There were concrete caves with flat roofs there, and he checked them for more dead. A duck burst from the water’s edge twenty yards downriver. Wings clattering, it blared an angry alarm. An uneasy silence followed. Quinn came back. He breathed out one long, thoughtful exhalation, and scanned the banks with those wrinkled-in eyes of his. I don’t know what he saw. I couldn’t see anything but woods and reeds and the Emperor’s Railroad.
“We’ll not cross all the way tonight,” he said.
“You have changed your mind?” my mother said.
“Dead slowed us down. There’s an hour of daylight left, not enough to find us a good camp ground,” he said. He was so sure of everything he said. When he said there was an hour of daylight, well, that’s what there would be, pretty much exactly. “It’s twenty miles further to Winfort. We have to cross slowly, the wood’s rotted all to hell and the Emperor never did build as good as he boasted. By the time we’re over, it’ll be dark. We’ll camp on the middle section, where the road from the Gone Before stands.” He pointed to the middle, one of two points where concrete deck still stood. The other being just across from us between the first and second piers. The railroad had been laid directly onto those parts. “We’ll finish the crossing tomorrow. We’d be better trying to get all the way to Winfort in one day anyhow.”
“What about the bandits?” my mom said. “You’ve had us near running through these woods, Mr Quinn, for fear of them. Are you not worried by them any longer?”
Quinn shrugged. “Not as worried as I am by the dead,” he said. “These are old, long turned, and near starved. But where there is one pack, there’re always more. In the middle we can see anyone coming, living or dead.”
“And they, Mr Quinn, will be able to see us!”
Quinn’s jaw set. “Truth is ma’am, we are not going much further tonight. Last thing I’m wanting to do is come down on the far side of the river when night’s drawing in. The dragon’ll be most active then. I took on your employment on the understanding you’d do what I said. These are dangerous lands.”
“You said they weren’t dead mister,” I blurted. I felt the tension rising between the adults. I had to say something on my mother’s side. I was the man of the family, at least for a day or so more until we got to Winfort. There was a contradiction in what Quinn said, one I could understand. I seized on it.
Quinn gave me a quirk-mouthed look, the kind that tells you you’re being dumb.
“How can you be sure?” my mother asked. She was a pretty woman, even when she was stern. She commanded a high bride price for it. I didn’t understand all the business of matrimony back when I was a boy. Not until I got older did I look back and understand what I’d seen. When she and my step-father Gern were going through the endless step and counterstep of the marriage dance with each other, I wondered if he’d been blinded by her prettiness, thinking she had no brains to match. He found alright that she had plenty. My mom was not a woman to take orders from anyone, least of all a man.
Still, that was all done. Gern was dead, along with everyone else in New Karlsville. All we had of Gern was the Bride Price she’d saved all them years, and she’d promised a deal of that to Quinn.
“I’m sure ma’am,” said Quinn. He never looked at my mother when he spoke to her. There was that reserve to him, more than him simply being formal. “If you don’t like what I say, stay here.”
“That is not our agreement.”
“Well then,” said Quinn, as if that settled it. He went for his horses. “You first. This bridge’ll bear you better than my horses.”
By way of comment on his judgment, the Emperor’s bridge creaked.
“Wind’s picking up.” He sniffed the air. “We best be on our way.”
A prolific freelance author and journalist, Guy Haley is the author of Reality 36 and the Warhammer 40,000 novels Valedor and Baneblade, among others. He lives in Yorkshire with his wife and son.