I’ve yet to finish the copy edit, but here’s a flavour of City of Ruin. The prologue was first posted elsewhere, but chapter three hasn’t been seen yet. It’s new and shiny, and introduces a new character.
It entered the deep night, a spider reaching taller than a soldier. Street by street, the thing retched thick silk out of itself to cross the walls, using the fibrous substance to edge along improbable corners. Two, then four legs to scale a wall – six, then eight to get up on to the steps of a watchtower, and it finally located a fine view across the rooftops of Villiren. Fibrous-skin tissue trapped pockets of air and, as tidal roars emerged from the distance, the creature exhaled.
A couple walked by, handy sized enough to slaughter perhaps, their shoes tap-tapping below – but No, not them, not now, it reflected – and it slipped down off the edge of a stone stairway to stand horizontally, at a point where observation took on a new perspective. Snow fell sideways, gentle flecks at first, then something more acute, adding to the brooding intensity of the streets.
Within this umbra, the spider loitered.
As people sifted through the avenues and alleyways, it sensed them by an alteration in the chemistry of the air, in minute vibrations, so no matter where they were they couldn’t hide. With precision, the spider edged across to a firm overhang constructed from more recent, reliable stone. Webbing drooled again, then the creature lowered itself steadily, suspended by silk alone, twisting like a dancer in the wind. Lanes spread before it, grid-like across a plain of mathematical precision. The frequency of citizens passing below had fallen over the last hour; now only a handful of people remained out to brave the extreme cold.
It could almost sense their fear.
One of them had to be chosen – not too young, not too old. The world collapsed into angles and probabilities as the creature made a controlled spiral to the ground.
Scuttling into the darkness, the spider went in search of fresh meat.
* * *
That was a shitting scream all right, Haust thought. Unlike a banshee’s, this one was cut off so suddenly, it sounded almost as if it had been stolen from someone’s throat. Maybe a last gasp for help? His senses were provoked wildly, his fear grew extreme. Pterodettes flapped and squawked eccentrically as the little reptiles carving circles through the night sky.
Fucking hell, last thing I bloody want on a night patrol. And here was the deal: he should have already been in bed – no, better still, in the officer’s mess, necking cheap vodka – but it was all the bloody commander’s fault, him and his public-security nonsense. Patrol the streets, maintain a sense of control and authority, reassure the populace, reduce their scepticism regarding the army.
At the moment, Haust didn’t care if he was a Night Guard, therefore a man with advantageous augmentations – he was freezing his balls off, and no amount of augmentations could stop that.
Torches flared up the underside of snowflakes, conferring upon them the appearance of sparks from a blacksmith, an enhancement the snow didn’t need these days, not in an ice age when everyone was sick of it.
Few citizens were loitering at this hour. The last figure he’d seen was a hooded man picking at his teeth assiduously as he ran through the passageways. There was a deviant psychology generated from the regularity of these surrounding buildings, from their sheer modernity. Bland labyrinths. When you turned one corner you thought you had just come from there, and before long you began thinking you might never leave. Buildings in this particular neighbourhood had been constructed without much desire for aesthetics, and he was glad he didn’t live here.
Haust had only been one of the Night Guard for a few months, but already thought himself a hero. Brought in from the Thirteenth Dragoons, Wolf Brigade, because of his flair with a bow, he now found himself in the Empire’s elite guard deployed far across the Boreal Archipelago, in a city preparing for a war. Tall, blond, handsome – he thought he was invincible. And why not? After all, being a Night Guard, you practically are. The albino commander had selected him above others, to fight alongside them. It was a promotion that set his career in stone, gave him recognition as one of the best. When he dreamed at night, voices came and told him that he was a chosen one. You can’t ignore facts like that.
He pulled his black cloak around him while tromping an exploratory path through the alleyways. He was somewhere about a mile from the Ancient Quarter, towards the centre of the city, which lay beyond the bad hotels and closed bistros. Bone archways from large whales were embedded in the cobbles, totems to the thousands of lost fishermen across the ages, and it was one of the few remaining features that suggested the ancient city had once been something grander. Also in that quarter rose three pair of massive reptilian onyx wings, two hundred feet tall and positioned in a triangle about a hundred yards apart on each side.
Another scream, but he couldn’t tell where exactly it had come from. Devil take me, this is a creepy place. Something moved above his head, maybe one of the garudas? Why was he so scared? He was in the military, for Bohr’s sake: a man meant to be at the top of his professional form.
Cats suddenly began to spill into the passageway, two, four, then countless numbers, all pouring through the streets like it was a mouthpiece, their claws tapping stone, occasionally lashing out at each other, before they spread out in exploratory arcs into the distance.
‘Anyone there?’ he offered.
Only his own voice came back at him, and he experienced something like vertigo – the very fabric of the streets changing in that same moment. He seemed an awfully long way away from a comforting bottle of vodka right now.
Around the next corner he spotted something and moved closer – it was a young body on the stone, severed down the centre, the ribcage split, organs spilling out into the night. Curiously, this body looked as if it had here dead for a while, certainly somewhat longer than the gap in time between now and when Haust had heard the terrible scream. More detail he detected: the wound wasn’t clean, and there were loose hairs around the edge of it, fine but firm, and the length of a thumb. To one side lay a butcher’s meat cleaver, silvery and bloodied. The public torches nearly exposed steam as the under-city heating system bled warmth into the icy evening air above.
Who’d done this?
A scuffle of boots on stone approaching from somewhere behind him, and he immediately unsheathed his sabre. He couldn’t see anything yet, so he followed the symmetrical line of the buildings to one side. Stone crumbled up from a corner – Fuck was that? – but there was still nothing evident. He stood perfectly still to gain the most from his heightened senses. A cat padded down an alley to one side, but a hundred paces away. There was the glint of a broken, discarded sword up ahead. One of the Jorsalir priests was chanting, his voice carried on the breeze from some distance way to the south of the city.
A blow to his head and Private Haust blacked out…
* * *
The sound of metal woke him eventually, a grim shudder of sharp surfaces being raked across one another, and quickly he discovered that he was lying flat in a dark chamber. For some reason it felt as if it must be situated beneath the city itself, although he couldn’t tell why – something about the air, perhaps, or maybe the vaguely domed ceiling that reminded him of a tomb. At the periphery of his vision, light defined the edges and flat surfaces of blades and knives and small swords hanging along the perimeter wall.
A clear voice spoke up suddenly: ‘Welcome to my abattoir.’
‘The hell are you?’ Haust gasped. The man wore a top hat, white shirt, waistcoat, black breeches, the kind of outfit normally bedecking eccentric figures found in underground theatres of Villjamur. Slender, with a thin moustache, and smiling – always smiling. To his right loomed something rather like a spider, but with two almost-human eyes. Now and then it would rear up on its two hind legs, rubbing the other six limbs together, while clicking the lower pair sharply on the stone.
‘Me?’ replied the man in the hat. ‘I just run this little show. I suppose, technically, I’m therefore your killer.’
‘But I’m not dead… Am I?’ Another glance around the room, just to make sure – but still, none of the signs might encourage him to believe he was in a safe world any more.
‘Give it time, dear boy,’ the man said. ‘A grammatical amendment: I will be your killer. We must be correct on such points! You really did pick the wrong night for a stroll, didn’t you?’
Haust felt himself being lifted up, confirming the presence of a rope around his waist – then it occurred to him that the rope wasn’t tight, wasn’t connected to anything else. As if noting his expression of confusion, the well-dressed man said, ‘Oh, it’s for hanging you up to drain and cool afterwards. Procedures, procedures, I do tire of them occasionally… you know how these things work.’
Thin smoke trails took the shape of arms, forming faint outlines of bodies, mere wisps of figures smothering him, touching him, caressing his hands, his neck, his face – in a faintly erotic manner – and he noticed how their eyes were suggested by featureless holes.
‘What are they?’ Haust was petrified – his body shuddering within the resolute grip of these wraiths.
‘You’re being lifted by what we call Phonoi,’ the man told him. ‘Grand creatures, aren’t they?’
A whisper emerged from one of the apparitions: ‘Shall we dump him now, sir…? Shall we?’
‘Sir, what will you have us do with him, sir?’ another murmured. ‘What now?’
‘Shall we break his bones?’
‘Shall we rip him first?’
‘Spill his offal?’
He was hauled through the air towards a massive cauldron, with fire licking up its sides, steam skimming across its surface. Haust began to shout again, as the smiling-faced man in the top hat offered him a wave and a bow.
A sudden drop, a desperate scream – and for the second time that night, everything faded to black…
‘My sweeeeetheart is a soldier, as handsome as can be-e-e,’ sang Arletta, stage vixen of Villiren, forty- six years old, broad about the beam, and still making the most of those curves. From the unrevealing sanctuary of his red bauta mask, Malum watched her sashay about the stage in a bulging sparkly size-too-small gown, while fetchingly wrapped in lantern light and candle glow. The guitarist struck another bum chord, and she shot an angry glare at him. ‘My daaarrrhling, I’ll tell you what toooo dooo.’
Another night in the Partisans’ Club, and it was essential that Malum be seen here right about now. His presence was his alibi, confirming to others that he wasn’t responsible for the forthcoming crime.
An unusual spirit of solidarity had come upon the city. Rumours of impending war blossomed, and it seemed in such times that anyone with any money in Villiren just wanted to piss it all away in clubs like this one. He had heard that Arletta was doing a roaring trade, and she now flashed him a smile caked with make-up before bowing to her audience’s thunderous applause and whistles. She knew who he was all right, as did most of them in here. Any who wanted to further their careers, or even their lives, that was, and he was fine with this reputation he had built up. The waiter was about to bring Malum his tab until someone spoke a word in the waiter’s ear. And there was that ‘Oh, him’ expression on the waiter’s face, and the man retreated back into the shadows behind the bar.
Malum had to go. He removed his mask and placed it on the table ready for JC, who was waiting just behind him and surprisingly sober tonight. The man quickly slid on an identical hat and surtout to Malum’s, then put on the red mask as he took the seat just vacated by Malum, at his usual table against the wall near the left of the stage, and conveniently in the half-light.
And Malum slunk away to collect his coat, before he headed outside into the cold.
* * *
Malum lingered, in the frozen night. Now wearing a white mask, a few paces from the corner or Ru Nár – a little too close to home for comfort, but he had to get this business out of the way. A hundred lanterns and the occasional biolume shifted around the city streets, like the heavens at night swirling around here on the ground. Fiacres were still passing carrying night-goers to illicit destinations. Two blonde girls in cloaks walked by, laughing, bottles clinking, heels clacking, a sight so typical of this area in Villiren. A redhaired woman shuffled in his direction, heavily pregnant, then stumbled and dropped her bag to the cobbles. She obviously couldn’t afford to buy a new coat to suit her condition so her belly ballooned beneath her present one, forcing it to part. He wondered what babies thought, cocooned in all that sticky warmth? Does this one have any instinct of the hell it’s about to be born into?
He stepped forward, thinking, Sod it if my cover’s blown – to help her collect her scattered cuts of meat from the ground. At first she might have thought he was there to rob her, but then she murmured a grateful ‘Thank you’ as he handed her back the possessions. As they exchanged quick glances, Malum could smell the deep scent of her… her blood.
He hadn’t felt like this for so long because he could usually control the urge. Immediately he turned aside and the pregnant woman continued on her way.
He needed to get back in the zone, that certain mental space he needed to inhabit – in order to do what he was about to do.
It was one of dozens of public squares in Villiren, but one of the few districts to forgo the monotony of incessant redevelopment of the city. Amazing how quickly things had changed all around, he contemplated; how the wooden houses had inexorably given way to stone. Money from the mining industries fed the prosperity of the smiths of the city, propagating an urban expansion so speedy that if you sat on a street corner long enough they’d build a shop around you.
Check the knives: one in his boot, one up his sleeve, slick messer blades, the kind of gear he needed to get this job done. Scarf around his mouth, a heavy surtout keeping out the fine mist of sleet, tricorne hat pulled down and a white mask to cover the upper half of his face. With his heart pounding, he could almost taste his own anxiety.
Forwards yet again. A few traders were still here, some frying food, or selling thick clothing, or jugs, pots, plates. He noticed a kid he thought he himself had sold a pirated relic to, and was surprised to see he was still alive. Inevitably a few youths were milling around with nothing better to do, such was the way of things around here. Never anything sufficient to occupy them despite the hundreds of distractions on offer, the hundreds of market stalls during the daytime, the eclectic mix of peoples, the nightly entertainments. No, they just seemed to want to lounge around.
A rectangle of light signified a doorway, his destination, the shadow of a man standing inside, bulky in his heavy coat. As soon as their vision connected, they knew each other, though they also knew not to show it. Malum slipped him a few silver Lordils, and went inside, downstairs to the relative warmth, where musky smells added to the sudden claustrophobia. These jobs did not get any easier, but this was one he felt he had to do himself.
* * *
Tindar Lesalt managed a few bordellos around Villiren’s smarter areas, limited though were. He ran a few scams, too, not a great deal more than gambling operations, and these latter didn’t bother Malum much. You could find him, if you could get near him, every other night, in the basement rooms of a bordello that provided women trafficked from the local tribes – and that disgusted Malum rather more. These women had been ripped from their native communities and forced to open their legs to business men and gang members who would drink imported vodka, fuck the women on offer, talk about fucking them, and laugh together about the good old times.
Malum was certainly not one of those customers, they were simply not his kind, and he reckoned they gave the gangs a bad name.
Some people suggested that Tindar ran a side-operation that involved cultists augmenting human bodies for extortionate amounts of cash. The more esoteric buzz concerned people being fitted with animal parts, that it was Empire-sponsored, and that communities of such adaptations currently persisted across the archipelago. Malum could believe it – he’d seen artificially messed-up examples from time to time, including cases much more severe than the hybrid beasts he often fought underground. There were remote villages on Dockull and Maour, outside of Empire territory, where such half- and quarter- breeds manage to frighten even themselves as they shambled with alien movements from shack to shack.
These dubious activities were just a selection of things that Tindar got up to, but they weren’t the main reason Malum was going to kill him.
* * *
Three doors along the corridor, and the last on the left. Noises coming from the other side: exalted chitter-chatter, squeals of laughter. Malum headed straight in, sliding himself sideways through the doorway. Old masked men sat playing cards under the light of a green biolume. Other clients drank at a bar where a dodgy cultist was busy trying to persuade punters to buy into a relic, conning people into losing limbs or even their lives to his broken magic. Malum walked halfway across the room, as if to sit down at an empty table, then paused. Over to one side there were dogs set to fighting in cages: gargantuan breeds crossed with gheels or something else, some with two heads and massive fangs – which seemed to substantiate all those outlandish rumours. Money passed hand quickly in the shadows, quicker even than in the city above. Down here it just evaporates. Glances were towards him, some of them familiar, others he had never seen.
There, over there. Two fully clothed, red-haired hookers were practically straddling a wealthy-looking muscular man, Tindar himself, who was slumped in the corner, wearing brown breeches and nothing but the very finest of waistcoats. He regarded Malum with a smile that may or may not signified that he knew who he was. For a moment there was an absolute silence in the room.
Malum called off the poor girls, giving a gesture they would understand, which sent them running to the bar. He shook the messer blade from his sleeve. Rage bared his teeth so that his fangs became prominent – control yourself, control yourself – and meanwhile the man tried to retreat back into his chair, nearly spilling himself onto the floor. ‘Fuck you doing?’ he spluttered.
Malum raked the messer across his victim’s chest, a wide cut from hip to shoulder; blood blossomed invitingly in its trail – but he wouldn’t be drinking this, not the blood of this bastard. He raked another line diagonally to scribe an X across his entire torso.
Tindar’s eyes bulged as he feebly gripped his opening gut.
A skinny, handsome man in all black, maybe the victim’s son, leapt forwards yelling, ‘Get him,’ to the others. Malum swiped twice, hissing, bearing his fangs, further tracing fine wounds on the assailant with his blade. He grabbed the man’s wrist and head-butted him savagely, drawing blood from above one eye. Then Malum embedded his messer in his open mouth, snapped it back sharply so that he crumpled to the floor with a permanent scream on his face.
Malum prepared to run for it, but no one else got up to stop him.
Others made out they hadn’t witnessed see this; they focused instead on the fighting dogs or the cards or just their drinks, shifting uneasily in the dull lighting. Only the girls showed any concern on their faces.
Back up the stairs, then back out into the cold, almost slipping on the ice, quickly around two corners – and Malum was clear.
Hand against a wall, he threw the mask clattering across the streets. He inhaled deeply, and then slumped forward with his head resting against cold stone.
Everything inside of him was pounding with adrenalin.
He put a hand to his mouth and felt his fangs, as if trying to push them back inside with his thumbs, thus denying that he was half-something else rather than human. When the rage set in he could become uncontrollable – and that made him a danger even to himself. He suffered torments from being a half-vampyr but could always just about restrain his darker urges. For years a state of human normality was something he had craved. After a kill like this one, when he assessed his state of mind, all he could think about was being normal.
Malum headed with purpose back towards his home, littering an alleyway with the distinctive scarf and hat. I’ve three thousand men to do my bidding, but there are certain things you have to do yourself.
Tindar had dared to boast to members of the Bloods about running a child-abuse racket – dozens of innocent lives ruined, young minds subjected to the cruel perversions of influential citizens.
And that was why Malum had needed to kill Tindar himself.
* * *
Malum nodded curtly to two shaven-headed ex-military men, hired guards without uniforms, brutish-looking and efficient.
‘Sir.’ They eyed him carefully, then the surrounding streets. Always wary, just as Malum had trained them, because there would always be someone who wanted him dead.
‘Night.’ Malum emitted a barely mumbled reply, the words drying up in his throat because he was still hung-over from recent the kill. He was certainly relieved to be back on Ru Una, a wealthy street at the further end of the Ancient Quarter under the moon-cast shadow of one of the great onyx wings.
He hoped she wouldn’t ask questions, not tonight.
A large, white-washed building, now presented itself to him. Home. It was practically a palace by Villiren standards – the real ones had been demolished decades ago by property developers with no sense of the city’s heritage. Sometimes he even felt like an aristocrat: he had his own private militia in the Bloods, men and women who would do anything for him, no questions asked – and commanded more loyalty than any land owner could ever hope for. Money flowed through across his hands daily, and he was married to a smart, talented and beautiful woman.
But things weren’t what they used to be.
He entered and, sighing deeply, he shook off his cloak. Pain shot up his legs as he hauled himself up the staircase. He slumped into a burgundy-upholstered chair in a large room the second floor, studying his luxurious home with casual pride. Two tall vases glittered in the moonlight slanting through the skylight. He’d bought them some years back, when the Bloods had reached five hundred members. The ornaments themselves were said to be from the time of King Hallan Helfen, the man who had completed the initial construction of Villjamur eleven thousand years ago, before the series of emperors began. He was the first ruler to sign a treaty with the cultists, so as to stop their warring, and it was even suggested that some relic technology had been used in the construction of the vases.
Truth be told, Malum didn’t give a fuck about that. They just looked nice with the rest of his house. And who said crime didn’t pay? He had been hoping for some antiques from the Shalafar era, forty thousand years back – just to say he had some. Something to indicate, I am better than you. Máthema items were even harder to come by, but that never stopped him looking.
He poured some Black Heart rum into a crystal glass, and used the respite to contemplate the coming days. There were rumours that the street gangs had been invited to liaise with the Night Guard about providing help with the expected war. There was talk of good money, too, not just bribes, but the sort of cash that would see most of his guys eating well for years to come. Payments in Jamúns, no less. And via the portreeve, it transpired that private companies had expressed an interest in hiring Malum’s expertise to deal with masses of their employees. That could get messy.
‘I thought I heard you come in.’
Beami was standing in the doorway to their bedroom, cocooned in thick blankets like some giant woollen insect. She shouldn’t need to do that, and it annoyed him, because he had paid a great deal of money for the finest craftsmen in the city to install a new firegrain system in their house. Her sleek, boldly fringed hair shimmered even in the poor lighting, which also did wonderful things to the angles of her face. Her eyes absorbed darkness, shadows pooled against her collar bone, under a softly rounded nose, fully defined lips. He adored her.
Do I? She was his sole reason for being normal, a reason for him to at least try. Beami was smart and tall and good-looking. So I should feel something, shouldn’t I? I should and, yes I want to.
Beami sighed, ‘What’re you doing up at this hour? Or was there a combat this evening?’
‘Yeah,’ he lied. The fight was last night; tonight had been business. ‘You never invite me along these days.’ ‘You never ask.’ Discreetly, and with great thoughtfulness, he had managed to keep his dealings largely to himself. She knew about the fights he engaged in for sport – it would have been impossible to avoid her noticing the occasional scars. But it seemed important to him to keep these aspects of his life compartmentalized, as a crucial factor in making his daily existence as normal as possible. He could not hope to explain his needs.
‘I won though,’ he declared.
‘What a champion,’ Beami yawned. Her habitual sarcasm was once something he admired, but these days he hated her dismissive attitude towards him. Funny how the little things you like at the beginning often become the things you ultimately abhor. ‘You coming to bed?’
As if to highlight the ensuing silence, the heating system wheezed like an old man dying of pneumonia, indicating firegrain caught up in the piping somewhere. Cheap shitting hack workmen. The whole house suddenly shuddered like a living thing.
‘I’m just unwinding. I’ll be there in a moment.’
Beami gave him a forced smile, then uncoupled her gaze from his face. It took her a while to say it: ‘You want to try again tonight?’
She left him then, with only his rum and costly possessions for comfort. The last time he’d tried… hadn’t ended well. Their attempts never did.
And afterwards I get overcome by rage, and try so hard to transform in front of her…
It took him a while to get out of the chair, through laziness, tiredness, whatever. Then painfully slow strides to the bedroom. And there she was, lying in that huge bed, looking so small amidst all those coverlets and blankets, her hair spread out across the pillows. Boots off first, then clothes off, he climbed in next to her, the sounds of the city muffled in the background.
Warmth and soft skin.
He pressed against her, wondering if she was still awake or not, and when Beami turned towards him, the dread hit him, like it always did. Kisses didn’t do much for him, though she tried – along his neck, his jaw line, and she made those noises, the ones she thought he liked to hear, little groans to indicate he might be satisfying her, as if to rebuild his confidence. Her hands skimmed across his bare skin.
Nothing, no sensation.
He made efforts too; he did not simply lie there. He felt for the heat of her stomach, tentatively explored her wetness. As he moved his mouth across her neck he resisted the urge to bite. He concentrated on the kinds of things he imagined he should be feeling. This went on for a while, duplicating gesture after gesture, and when she finally touched his cock he held his breath in anticipation…
Nothing. No reaction.
Time became less abstract and more relevant, and this added pressure to react pushed him over the edge. Rage had been flaring beneath the surface, and he didn’t want to express it, but he did… ‘Just leave me the fuck alone.’
And he shoved her aside, and turned over; he felt if he didn’t see her, it wouldn’t happen. He was now seething with anger, wanted to strike out at anything… But he held back, somehow. It wasn’t that easy, but he managed not to turn in front of her.
And he lay there, in the darkest of nights, unable to get an erection, wondering about something he dared not mention in public, not even to her. A question that couldn’t be said out loud to any of his gang, because it came loaded with shame and embarrassment.
Am I even a man anymore?