A couple things are in the plans to celebrate the new launch of the Chronicles of Aesirium; a Goodreads giveaway will be forthcoming (expected start: St Patrick's Day), but to whet your appetite, I'm going to share here the new opening chapter.
Chapter 1: Rom
Rom leaned close, hugging her friend. “Count to a thousand. If I’m not back by then, run home.” Rain pelted the tattered umbrella just loudly enough to mask the chattering of the two girls’ teeth; Rom wiped away a clump of her unnaturally white hair from her face so she could look directly into her friend’s eyes. Finally, Kari’s head bobbed in as much as shiver as a nod. Leaving before either one of them could talk her out of it, Rom pressed the umbrella into Kari’s hands and vaulted the fence into the unknown beyond. She didn’t like the idea of leaving Kari there, but they needed to move fast if they didn’t want to be late, and the rainfall was slowing them down. Plus, Rom reminded herself for the forty-seventh time, there were monsters out here past the fields.
Facing a choice between slow caution and fast defensiveness, Rom chose the latter. The orphanage’s standard issue long dress and jacket protected her against the hundred small whips of the thorns and sharp leaves as she first began to make her way through the plants. After only a few moments of it, she grew annoyed with the many slight stings and pushed off from the ground, using her unnatural degree of skill to cover ten, twenty, as much as thirty meters in a leap. She was never able to really push herself like this: the rooms at the orphanage were small, and the tiny courtyard used for their afternoon constitutional was only barely big enough for the children’s daily game of “try to hit ratgirl before she gets away”. Plus, Rom didn’t like to jump as far as she knew she could, if any of the other children were around to make fun of her. Her hair was unique enough; no reason to give them any other excuse to tease. For a few moments like this, it felt like flying. They said that there were animals out in the Wild that could fly too, far from Oldtown-Against-The-Wall, where the sort of thing like being different could get you punished; but flying was said to be a “challenge to the Wall itself”, and was a crime listed among the worst of them.
Five hundred meters out, a distant lightning flash lit up the area near the landmark drawn on the map they’d been given – the wrecked remains of one of the large Machines, left partially-submerged in the ground. She’d seen drawings of them in the daily class sessions, and a few of the larger and simpler constructs were still left rusting around the edges of the fields, but this was the first time she’d seen one of the latter generations of them with her own eyes. They probably looked less unsettling in the daylight, she told herself. Or when it wasn’t raining. Or both.
The actual constructs which had been built to tend to the fields had been simple – designed for the functions they required. Thus they were boxy, blatantly mechanical things – but when the constructs began to make their own machines, their designs took on a much more organic look. They had never known why the Machines began building new Machines, much less why they had built them so unrestrained by the tenets of apparent efficiency; but one thing was certain. When the Machines began to create other Machines, they made them look like people.
All the historical lessons the matrons had taught her came back to her with that single strike of lightning as she looked upon what could only be described as a face – albeit one which had to be ten meters in height – half-submerged in the dirt and dramatically overgrown with the brush and plant life left unattended and wild this far out beyond the fence line. As her eyes readjusted to the darkness, she could make out the darker shadows of what must be a shoulder, an arm, and so on. The Machine had to have stood more than ten times as tall as she was, she decided. She shivered, but was pretty sure it wasn’t from the rain. She wished Kari were there to see it: this was old Science, and there were few things her friend loved more than that.
Her eyes caught a smaller patch of darkness near the face, a slight movement, roughly boy-shaped.
“Cousins?” she yelled. “Is that you?” Rom growled, spitting out a mouthful of rainwater. With the rain crashing down on the metal shell of the ruined Machine, there could be someone yelling right into her face and she probably wouldn’t hear it.
She took a half-step closer when there was a great commotion from behind her; it registered only briefly what a wonder it was that she could hear it, but a growing ache in her stomach seemed to be accompanied by a strange enhancement of all her senses, as if time were slowing down. She’d felt this before in the orphanage courtyard; her body seemed to react to certain situations by seeing everything more clearly, more distinctly, making her more aware of everything as it was happening.
And now, in spite of the rain, she could make out three sets of footsteps – one the hurried run of a girl, and the other, two pairs of feet, most definitely not human. Kari’s voice rushed at Rom even more quickly than her feet.
“Rom!!! Help!!” her friend screamed, from somewhere still beyond her in the overgrowth.
Rom stood in the center of the clearing, and her eyes looked quickly around her for anything she could use as a defense or a weapon – a rock, a stick, anything – but in the falling rain, all she could see was mud and water, pooling up around and leaking into her tattered boots. Whatever it was out there, Rom hoped it was small enough that she could kick it until it went away.
Cupping her hands to the sides of her mouth, she called to her friend through the darkness. “Over here!”
A moment later, Kari burst through the branches, still clutching the battered umbrella. Right behind her by a scant breath, a large feline creature jumped into the clearing as well. Lightning crashed somewhere far behind the girls, but momentarily coated the clearing in a silvery brightness that gave them both a clear look at what had been chasing Kari. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them both, its grey fur matted by the rain, with yellowed horns emerging from just in front of its ears and curling back around to angle slightly outwards past each side of its jaws. Across its back was what looked like a black leather folded shell, extending from just below its neck and down to its long tail. From its belly down, it was coated in mud, and its golden eyes were rimmed in red, and a sickly green foam curled around the corners of its fanged mouth. It reared back at the flash of lightning, but Rom could still see it silhouetted in place when the darkness once more engulfed them all. Though the lightning might have disoriented it, it evidently realized that a second potential prey stood before it, and it paused to adjust for its next attack.
“Get behind me,” Rom said. “When I tell you, run to the Machine back there.” Her eyes glanced to the umbrella, and, without thinking, took it from Kari’s hands. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.
“M-machine?” Kari said, her curiosity threatening to overcome her fear.
“Don’t study it; you need to hide in it!” Rom hissed. “Please, Kari, just think of this like another game of hide from Milando!” she added, referring to one of the larger bullies also living in the orphanage.
“Hide?” Kari repeated.
“Yes, I need you to wait for me over there while I go box his ears, nothing to worry about.”
She could sense, somehow, the creature preparing to make its move. The beast seemed to recognize her confidence and crouched, she thought, preparing to jump at Rom. It was basically predatory, and it saw her as getting in the way of what it wanted to eat.
“Get ready, Kari,” she whispered above the sound of the rain. Rom could see, even in the darkness, its back muscles and hind legs shuddering, tensing. The horns would be a problem, she figured, so a strike for the head was out; the ends of the horns would keep her from getting to its throat, and that shell was going to make it impossible to get at from above. It was an impressively made monster; Rom thought that if it wasn’t trying right now to kill her, she’d probably think it was brilliant.
She spun the umbrella over in her hand, feeling its balance. The handle might be strong enough to use as a weapon – it was metal with a solid wooden handle, and came to a metal end the length of her hand. Absently, she considered that it was a poor choice to bring out into a lightning storm, but she would hopefully be able to regret that later. That was one nice thing about regret, Rom thought, you can always do it later if you’re too busy.
The creature tensed one last time and pounced. Even before the creature’s paws left the ground, Rom was telling Kari to run, even pushing her back with her left hand to make sure she moved. Rom ducked slightly to draw the beast’s eyes down and away from her friend, hoping as well to create a smaller target for her much larger opponent.
Time seemed to drag even more – the monster looked like it was jumping almost comically slowly. Rom looked closely; she could somehow perceive the angle of its jump, and knew instinctively that by shifting her weight to the right and rolling down and back across its path, she would avoid its front paws and bring her up in a position to land the first strike. With its weight, claws and teeth as its obvious advantages, she would have to play on its disadvantages – its size and desperation for food meant she might be able to out maneuver it, and hopefully outthink it. The rain, mud and darkness, she hoped, would keep everything else even for them both.
She dove under the angle of its jump and stabbed upwards as it passed harmlessly past her, feeling a warm streak of its blood spray across her face and arms. It let out a loud cry and hit the ground unsteadily. Instantly, she felt a pang of remorse. It wasn’t the beast’s fault it was attacking her and Kari. It was just trying to get food, and…
“You’ve got babies!” Rom breathed. “Oh no.”
The animal was between her and Kari, and she could see Kari making her way quickly to the machine’s head. But the creature must have decided that Kari would make a less difficult catch. It quickly spun away from Rom and was after Kari in a heartbeat.
“No!” Rom yelled, leaping up after the creature. “Run, Kari!” she screamed.
She landed on the animal’s back, just above the shell and behind the horns. She grabbed on to one of the horns with her right hand to both secure herself and to try to somehow steer the cat from her friend. The animal stopped running, and turned its attention on trying to rid itself of this unwanted rider. It leapt backwards in a completely circular flip, Rom somehow managing to keep herself from falling off. It spun its head from side to side, raking the girl’s legs with its horns.
But then, with a snarl, it opened what Rom had mistakenly believed to be the shell on its back – and two great leathern wings unfurled. Before Rom could jump free, the cat leapt into the air, and they flew up into the night sky. She dropped the parasol so she could hold onto the horns with both hands, and gripped the cat tightly above the shoulder blades with her legs. Higher, higher, they flew, up towards the clouds themselves.
Below her, she could see the distant blue glow of the town’s defensive barrier, mirrored by flowing sheets of lightning in the clouds above. She could feel the creature’s panic and fear – it wanted to run, but it was conflicted by a need to acquire food for its young. Rom clung to the creature, however, hoping they would soon descend to a low enough altitude that she might safely drop off without injury, but they continued to ascend higher and higher. The rain crashed against her, a sensation washed away by a single thought: I’m flying.
The momentary exhilaration lasted only thus; replaced by the realization that it was not so much flying as it was riding; but for a sudden jolt and the ground would break her into small pieces.
She frowned, blinking against the falling rain. “Hang it,” she grumbled.
Just as she thought her situation couldn’t get any worse, a light – brighter than any she had ever before seen – filled her vision with a thunderclap that stopped her heart and burst her ears.
Distantly, she felt as if she was falling, slowly, insubstantial like a snowflake, drifting down towards the far away ground; helpless on the winter breeze.
Reaper's Return - and the following three books in the Chronicles of Aesirium - are available in paperback and ebook format at Amazon.com.