SOUL STEALERS, BY ANDY REMICFrom the Paperback edition.
Book 2 of The Clockwork Vampire Chronicles
It was an ink-dark dream. A razor flashback. A frozen splinter of time piercing his mind like a sterile needle. Nienna, beautiful Nienna, his sweet young granddaughter; they stood by the edge of a wide, sweeping river, spring sunshine warming upturned faces and glinting like diamonds amongst swaying reeds. Kell was teaching her how to fish, and he guided her hands, her long tapered fingers a contrast to his wrinkled, scarred old bear paws, hooking the bait (to which she pulled a screwed up face) then casting out the line. They sat, then, in companionable silence, and Kell realised Nienna was watching him intently. He turned, scratching his grizzled grey beard, eyes meeting her bright gaze, and she smiled, face radiant.
“Yes, little monkey?”
“Isn’t fishing… you know, unfair?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like a trap, isn’t it? You dangle the worm on a hook, and the fish swims along, unsuspecting, and you whip him out and eat him for supper. It’s not fair on the fish.”
“Well, how else would I catch him?” said Kell, frowning a little. He chuckled. “I could always throw you in – you could swim after all the little fishes, catch them in your teeth like a pike!” He moved as if to grab her, to toss her into the deep waters, and she squealed backing away fast up the bank and getting mud on her hands and clothes.
Nienna tutted. “Grandfather!”
“Ach, it’s only a little mud. It’ll wash off.”
What Kell had wanted to say was that all life is a trap, a deceit, a bad con trick from a clever con artist. Life leads you on, life dangles tantalising bait on a dulled hook of iron – the bait being happiness, good health, wealth, joy – and you reach with both hands, mouth gaping like a slack-brained jester in the King’s Court but Life is a bitch and just when you think you’ve found it, found your dream, the line snags and you’re yanked by your balls, guts and brain. Hooked, and slaughtered. That was Life. That was Reality. That was Sobriety. But Kell kept his mouth shut. Kept it shut tight. He didn’t want to spoil the moment, this simple joy of fishing with his talented, optimistic granddaughter beside the Selenau River.
Now, Kell and Saark stood on the high rooftop of the shattered, teetering towerblock in Old Skulkra. This was their trap. The bait had been laid by General Graal, his Army of Iron, his disgusting twisted cankers, and they had been snagged like fools, like naïve hatchlings, cornering themselves in Old Skulkra with an impossible task and a terrible fight.
Kell clutched his black axe Ilanna to his chest, gore-spattered knuckles white, face iron thunder, and Saark was tense, slim rapier wavering before him, his face a shattered silhouette of half-broken fear.
Below, in the bowels of the old stone block, something ululated, high-pitched and keening and far too feral to be human. It was followed immediately by a flurry of snarls, and growls, and heavy thuds and a scrabbling of brass claws clattering and booming through velvet black.
It was the cankers… and they were coming for fresh blood.
Kell’s face was a thunderstorm filled with bruised clouds. Saark’s face was hard to read, battered from a beating at the hands of Myriam’s men, and his blood seeped through a torn and dirt-smeared shirt from a recent stab wound. Kell took a deep breath, nose twitching at fire from distant funeral pyres in the wake of the recent battle; and he lifted Ilanna, and seemed, for a moment at least, to commune with the battered axe.
The cankers grew close. The two men could hear the beasts’ heavy breathing on the stairwell.
Suddenly, a pulse seemed to pound through the ancient, deserted city; through the world. It was subsonic, an esoteric rumble; almost an earthquake. Almost.
Saark allowed breath to hiss free between clenched teeth. His fear was a tangible thing, a stain, like ink. He glanced at Kell.
“We’re going to die up here, aren’t we?”
Kell laughed, and it contained genuine humour, genuine warmth. He slapped Saark on the back, then rubbed thoughtfully at his bloodied beard, and with glittering eyes said, “We all die sometime, laddie,” as the first of the cankers burst from the opening in a flurry of claws and fangs and screwed up faces of pure hate.
With a roar, Kell leapt to meet them…
As the first canker leapt, so Kell’s mighty axe slammed down in a savage overhead blow, splitting the head in two right down to the twisted spine-top. Flesh, brain and skull exploded outwards, and mixed in there with muscle and bone shards were tiny, battered clockwork machines, wheels and cogs twisting and turning, clicking and shifting, clockwork gears clacking, and in a blur Kell stepped back, dragging his axe with him as the first canker corpse hit the ground and Kell swayed from a swipe of huge claws from the second snarling beast, Ilanna singing as she hammered left now, butterfly blades horizontal, cutting free the canker’s arm with a jarring thud and shower of flowering blood petals. The beast howled, but a third heaved and shouldered past, huge and bulky, the size of a lion, a disjointed, twisted lion with pale white skin bulging with muscle, like overfull bowels pressing against maggot flesh in an attempt to break free of a pus-filled abdomen. The canker was covered with a plague of grey fur, tufted and irregular, and the canker’s forehead was stretched right back, its huge maw five times the size of the human mouth which had formed its template, skull open like an axe-chopped pumpkin showing huge brass fangs which curled down from rancid gleaming jaws and were decorated with knurled swirls, like fine etchings in copper. The canker’s body was covered in open wounds, and within each wound thrashed clockwork, a myriad of tiny, spinning wheels, gyrating spindles, meshing gears, but whereas the pure vachine was perfect, and noble, and secure in its Engineer-created arrogance, this canker this deviation this corruption showed bent gears and levers and unmeshed cogs and in a blur Kell leapt sideways, Ilanna carving a parting line of muscle across the canker’s neck, like an unzipping of flesh, but despite pain and squirming unreleased muscle its sheer weight and bulk carried it forward across the scattered concrete beams of the tower-block’s flat roof, where it slammed into Saark as his rapier stabbed frantically, slashing open more huge curved wounds. They both staggered back, fell back, and Kell turned from Saark allowing the wounded man to deal with the dying canker in a hiss of steel opening flesh and a gush of severed arteries.
A fresh flood of cankers burst through the opening, forcing Kell towards a grim-faced Saark, and the two men stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder, faces grim and splattered with gore, weapons flickering skilfully to open savage wounds as the cankers formed an expanding wall of flesh, an arc of solid muscle, as more and more surged through the opening to reinforce their ranks until there were ten, fifteen, twenty of the huge beasts ranged against them hissing and grunting.
Kell gave a sardonic snarl, teeth grinding, and rubbed his grey beard. At his feet lay five dead cankers, a feat for any mortal man – for each canker was a terrible foe. Kell’s eyes glittered, dark and feral, and his gore-slippery axe lowered a little as he realised, realised with a bark of laughter, that they were waiting.
“What’s the matter, lads?” he boomed. “Left your bollocks at home with your pus-ugly wives?”
The cankers growled, huge puddles of drool descending from wide stretched maws where brass fangs curled like scimitar blades. Behind Kell, Saark was panting, long curly hair in lank strips filled with bits of bone and flesh, his beautiful face now a tapestry of agony.
“What are they waiting for?” he whispered, as if afraid his voice would accelerate them into action.
Kell shrugged. “I reckons we’ll find out soon enough.”
Within seconds, the line of quivering flesh, of tufted fur and deviant clockwork was heaved aside, and a massive canker forced its way through the throng. Kell could smell hot oil, and fancied he could hear the steady, tiny tick tick tick of off-beat clockwork.
“Now we die,” muttered Saark.
“No,” snapped Kell, “for if we die, then Nienna dies, if we die, then we cannot hunt down her kidnappers, we cannot seek justice and revenge! So, Saark, will you shut up and focus!” Kell fixed his gaze on this new creature, this towering beast, eight feet tall, heavily muscled, with glowering red eyes and an accompanying stench like desecration. It’s skin was terribly pale, corpse-flesh waxy and entirely without hair. Kell’s eyes narrowed. It was almost like… almost like this beast was merged with the albino soldiers from Graal’s Army of Iron. Kell’s glittering gaze scanned the wounds in the canker’s flanks and chest, where deep inside brass clockwork spun and meshed. He grinned, but his eyes were dark and unfriendly. “Gods, lad, you stink like a ten-week corpse after dysentery and plague. What the hell’s wrong with you beasts? Don’t answer that. It’s nothing my axe can’t put right.” He gestured flippantly with Ilanna, eyes watching, and perceived the canker’s understanding.
Snarls and growls echoed up and down the line, and Kell knew these unholy beasts could comprehend. They were intelligent, and that frightened Kell more than any display of corruption. It was when this huge, dominant creature suddenly spoke that Kell took a step back, boots thumping the concrete beams, surprised despite himself; although he fought well not to show it.
“I am Nesh,” said the canker, forming its words with care; despite impedance from curved fangs, its accent was Iopian, and that shouldn’t have been possible. The whole mass of corrupted flesh and clockwork shouldn’t have been possible. It was nightmare made real. “My General, the Warlord Graal, requires the honour of your presence. Indeed, he grants you life in exchange for your cooperation. You may agree now, little man.” The canker grinned, more saliva pooling to the shattered, ancient beams of the high roof.
Kell took another step back. Saark was beside him, and Kell glanced at his friend with hooded brows. He muttered, “Have you found an escape route yet?”
“There’s no way off this roof!” said Saark. “We’re trapped!”
“We’re going to have to fight our way free, then.”
Saark eyed the twenty or so cankers, and could see the shadows and hear the snarls of more on the stairwell below. He shuddered, fear a dry dead rat in his throat, a snake of lard in his intestines, a fist of iron in his belly. Saark, ever the dandy, a lover of life, women, wine, and any narcotic that could swell the hedonistic experience of all three, knew deep down in his darkest most terrible nightmares that he was going to die here, knew he was to be ripped apart by those huge fangs, torn into flesh shreds, into streamers of muscle and skin spaghetti, and there was nothing he could do to avert this fate.
“You’re joking, right?”
Kell threw him a dark glance, and growled, “I never joke when it comes to killing. Now! Follow my lead! You understand, boy?”
Saark nodded, sweating, hands gripping his rapier tight.
Nesh, growing impatient, moved its angry red gaze from one warrior to the other, then back. Kell moved his own eyes over the waxy, pale flesh; he shivered. The creature had hints of humanity in its twisted corruption of skin and bone; but there, any similarity ended. It was a distortion, not just of humanity, but of albino and vachine; a creature of no place, despised by all. Strangely, a thread of sympathy wormed into Kell’s mind. He cut it savagely with a mental blade. This beast would show no mercy, nor compassion. It was here to kill.
“So, man? Will you come?” growled Nesh, and Kell could see other cankers straining at the leash; they could smell blood, and fear, and even remnants of Saark’s distant flowery perfume. Kell grinned, baring his teeth as his face screwed into a ball of hostility.
“Tell Graal he can shove my axe up his arse!”
Saark groaned… and readied himself for attack…
Winter had finally come to Falanor.
Snow fell in blankets from iron clouds beneath a pale, albino sun. Violent storms flung folds of white to cover Falanor’s valleys and rolling hills, her forests and rivers and ragged, towering mountains. From the savage flanks of the Black Pikes to the north, down through recently conquered cities, from Jalder to Skulkra, Vorgeth, Fawkrin and the southern capital of Vor, winter knew no obstacle and arrived early, with a ferocity not seen in the world for two centuries.
Within three days all northern passes were blocked; an ideal situation in the normal running of the country, for it meant many of the brigands, deviants and Blacklipper smugglers who oft troubled northern towns were trapped like bears in their mountain hideouts until the following spring.
It also meant General Graal, and his albino Army of Iron, were trapped in Falanor, blockaded far from their homeland in the heart of the Black Pike Mountains, severed from the vachine civilisation occupying Silva Valley, seat of power for the High Engineer Episcopate and Engineer Council, the Engineer’s Palace and revered resting place for the Oak Testament.
Graal had successfully brought his vachine sponsored army of albino subordinates south, seizing the cities of Falanor, kidnapping Queen Alloria, murdering the heroic Battle King – Leanoric, and routing his armies, including the previously unconquered Eagle Divisions. He had done this using cunning and a merciless swift descent. And by utilising blood-oil magick.
In the wake of the successful invasion, and within hours of snow blocking the Black Pike Mountain passes, Graal’s Harvesters had brought forth the Blood Refineries, huge angular machines not unlike siege engines, pulled by teams of horses and cankers and using, in a twist of final irony, of calculated mockery, the fine, wide roads built by King Leanoric for transportation of his own military divisions. Graal camped his army outside Old Skulkra, and the great Blood Refineries had come to rest on the plain before the deserted city just hours before heavy falls of snow rendered further transport from the north impossible.
Graal sat in his War Tent, cross-legged before a low table of ivory and marble, a scatter of parchments laid out before weary eyes. The tent flap opened allowing a swirl of snow to intrude, and a Harvester stooped low to enter. For a moment Graal stared, the uniqueness of this race never failing to occupy and twist his curious mind; and he watched the tall, heavily robed figure of the Harvester with its flat, oval, hairless face, nose nothing more than vertical slits, fingers not so much fingers as long slender needles of bone used for the delicate extraction of blood from a human carcass… he watched the Harvester settle down in a complicated ritual. Satisfied, the Harvester finally lifted tiny, black eyes to focus on Graal.
“The roads are closed. We are severed from the vachine,” spoke the Harvester, voice a sibilant hissing.
Graal nodded, and returned his gaze to his parchments, reports detailing the final military approach on Vor by three of his albino Divisions. “Then we have months before they discover the… reality of the situation. Yes?”
“Has the vachine bred Engineer Princess Jaranis managed to cross the mountains south in order to inspect our situation? Although, what she expects to find other than a jewelled dagger in her guts I have no idea.”
“She arrived, General. An hour ago, in fact, with her military entourage. That is why I am here.”
“Entourage?” He showed interest, now. “How many?”
The Harvester chuckled, a disturbing noise deep in its long, quivering throat. “As I previously made clear, the vachine in all their pious arrogance are wholly trusting of your endeavour. Jaranis, damn her clockwork, travelled with ten men only, a unit commanded by a lowly Engineer Priest. I have taken the liberty of immediate slaughter, and even now their corpses have been added to the frozen pyres of recent battle. Even now,” he paused, black eyes glinting, “their clockwork halts. However. With regards Jaranis herself… I thought it wise to allow you counsel with this twisted Princess. After all, despite her pretty skin and innocent ways, she may have an inkling of our plans.”
“Summon her,” said Graal, without looking up from his papers.
After a few minutes there came a sudden commotion outside the War Tent, and two albino warriors dragged a shackled woman into the cosy interior. Although, upon closer inspection, it was clear she was not entirely human for she sported the tiny brass fangs of the vachine – the machine vampires of Silva Valley. The vachine were a blending of human and advanced miniature clockwork, a technological advancement of watchmaking skills evolved and developed and refined over the centuries until flesh and clockwork merged into a beautiful, superior whole. The vachine relied on the narcotic of blood-oil, a concoction of refined blood, in order to keep their internal clockwork mechanisms running smoothly. Without blood, and more importantly, blood-oil, a vachine’s clockwork would seize; and they would die. Hence the necessity of vampiric feeding.
Jaranis was thrown to the ground, where she spat up at Graal, eyes blazing with fury and shocked disbelief. Her fangs ejected with a tiny pneumatic hissing. She climbed smoothly to her feet. She was tall, elegant, with a shower of golden curls. She was beautiful beyond the human, and as she spoke Graal could see the tiny clockwork mechanisms in her throat, miniature gears and cogs and pistons working in a harmony of flesh and clockwork. Like a well-timed vampire machine. A vachine.
Graal smiled, some curious emotion not unlike lust passing through his mind; through his soul.
“Graal, you excel yourself with stupidity and arrogance!” snapped Princess Jaranis. “What, in the name of the Oak Testament, are you doing?”
Graal smiled, slowly, and stood. He stretched himself and gave an exaggerated, almost theatrical, yawn. Then his cold eyes focused on Jaranis and she could see there was anything but pantomime in that shadowed, brutal gaze.
“I admit, O princess, that it has been considerable time since I sought to pride myself on the baser concept of… stupidity,” said Graal, handling the word like an abortion, and as he spoke he moved smoothly to a rack of armour and began to buckle on breast plate and forearm greaves fashioned from dull black steel. “Rather, my sweetness, I seek to pride myself on the twin lusts of betrayal and dominion.”
“You would betray the vachine?” whispered Jaranis, stunned. “A society you helped build from a mewling wreckage of primal carnage and bestial prorogation?”
Graal smiled, and halted midway through buckling a greave. His eyes seemed distant, and as he spoke his voice was lilting, a low growl, almost musical in its harmony. “Allow your mind to drift back, like drug-smoke, for a millennia, my sweet; there were once three Vampire Warlords, maybe you have heard of them? Their names are written in iron on the Core Stone of Silva Valley, carved into the back cover of the Oak Testament with a knife used to slit the throats of babes.” His eyes grew hard, like cobalt. “They are Kuradek, Meshwar, Bhu Vanesh – Kuradek, the Unholy. Meshwar, the Violent. And Bhu Vanesh, the Eater in the Dark.” He glanced at Jaranis, then, head tilting. With tight lips Jaranis shook her head, and frowned, seeking to understand Graal’s direction.
“These Warlords,” continued Graal, “were, shall we say, All Powerful. I am surprised you have limited knowledge of their prowess, for they are a pivotal part of baseline vachine history.” He smiled. “That is, your vachine history. For as we all know, the Engineer Council seek to strongly enforce a true vachine culture in which nobody corrupts from a pure and holy path. Is that not so?”
“That is so,” said Jaranis, voice little more than a whisper. She was trembling now, and Graal felt a trickle of lust ease through his veins like a honey narcotic. Sex, fear and death, he thought, went hand in hand, and were always a turn-on.
“The Warlords, they had clockwork souls,” said Graal, eyes blazing with a sudden fury. He calmed himself with intricate self-control, and finished strapping on his armour with tight, sudden little jerks. “But then, you may not know this, for the High Engineer Episcopate practice and preach rewritten histories and a fictional past.”
Jaranis shook her head, and Graal gestured to the two albino soldiers, who stepped forward, grabbing the young vachine woman and dragging her out into the freshly falling snow. All through the war camp tumbled jarring sounds, the snort and stamp of horse, cankers snarling, the clatter of arms, the low-level talk of soldiers around braziers. Jaranis was thrown to her knees, her fine silk robes stained with saliva, and just a little blood.
Graal emerged, striding with an arrogant air that made Jaranis want to rip out his throat. Her fangs ejected fully, eyes narrowing and claws hissed from finger-tips. They gleamed, razor-sharpened brass. She considered leaping, but caught something in her peripheral vision; two figures, both female, both albino subordinates. She snarled in disgust, and turned to stare at these… soldiers.
They were tall, lithe, athletic, and wore light armour of polished steel unlike the usual black armour of the albino Army of Iron. Both women wore sleek longswords at hips, and one had her long white hair braided into twin, wrist-thick pony-tails, whilst the second had her hair cropped short. It was spiked by the snow. Their skin was white, almost translucent, and they had high cheekbones, gaunt faces, and crimson eyes. When they smiled, their beauty was stunning but deadly; like a newborn sun. And when they smiled, they had the fangs of the vachine.
Princess Jaranis hissed in shock. Albinos could not be vachine! It was not permitted. It was illegal. It was unholy.
Graal stepped forward, and touched one woman behind her elbow. She smiled at him. “This is Shanna, and this is Tashmaniok. Daughters, I would like to introduce the vachine princess, Jaranis.” The two albino vachine warriors gave short bows and moved to stand erect, one at either side of Graal. They took his arms, as if enjoying a stroll down some theatre-lined thoroughfare in one of Silva Valley’s more respectable cultured communities, and their eyes glowed with vampire hate.
“You will not get away with this… blasphemy!” snarled Jaranis, voice dripping poison and fury. “Not for giving White Warriors the clockwork, nor for betraying the vachine!”
“But, my sweetness, I think I already have,” said Graal. He smiled down at Jaranis. “You vachine are so trusting, and so beautifully naïve. These girls, they are not some simple blending. Some back-street black-market clockwork abortion!” His voice rose, a little in anger, blue eyes glinting as his focus drilled into the vachine princess. “Don’t you understand to whom you speak? Don’t you recognise the birth of your death?”
“The Soul Stealers?” whispered Jaranis, in horror.
Graal smiled. He gave a slight, sideways nod, and Shanna detached from his linked arm and in one smooth movement, drew her sword and decapitated the vachine princess.
Jaranis’s head rolled into the snow and blood, and blood-oil, spurted from the ragged neck stump. The body paused for a moment, rigid, then toppled like a puppet with cut strings. As blood-oil ran free, so clockwork machinery grew noisy, it rattled and spluttered until it finally faltered, and came to a premature clattering halt with a discordant note like the clashing of swords in battle.
Graal knelt in the snow, ignoring vachine blood which stained his leather trews. He stared into the severed clockwork face of the murdered vachine; in death, she was even more beautiful.
He glanced back. The Soul Stealers were poised motionless, beautiful, deadly.
“I had a mind-pulse from Nesh,” he said, voice low and terrible. “He says Kell and that puppet, Saark, are cornered in the maze of Old Skulkra.”
“Yes, father,” said Tashmaniok.
“Bring them to me,” he said, and shifted his gaze to the Soul Stealers’ bright, focused eyes, “It is the Soul Gem that matters, now. You understand?”
“We serve,” they said, voices a harmony.
With the stealth of the vampire the Soul Stealers vanished, like ghosts, through the snow.