A few weeks ago I had an idea for a sequel to my novel The Crow Journal after a creative dry-spot that had lasted a couple of years. I’ve been working on that ever since. Naturally as soon as I started work on Bluejay (working title, etc etc) another idea roared up out of nowhere. Today I decided to jot some ideas down and in the space of an hour or so I’ve written more on that than I’ve managed on Bluejay.
I present the opening chunk of Draklyn Storm, which may end up getting polished, reworked and over-thought into oblivion but I hope you like it:
The city was going to fall. Anyone with any sense knew that. The die-hard optimists and denialists who had refused to evacuate had now abandoned their homes and havens and were jamming up the streets and roads leading westward way from the onslaught of invaders. Yesterday they were die-hard optimists, today they were likely to just die hard. The stark grey stone that made up most of the city’s architecture was now dyed red by the unnaturally crimson sky, the city itself bloodied by the assault. The screams of the terrified, the wounded, the desperate almost drowned out the unholy screeching of the invaders as they advanced inexorably from the direction of the dawn that had not come.
It had been called Vanguard, this city on the edge of civilisation. The name now seemed a hollow boast. First-to-Fall it would be better named. Hopeless. Abandoned. Cut-Off. Not names chosen by some vainglorious imperial official but more true than the name carved over the great stone gateways in the walls that separated the inner city from the outer. The walls protected the nobility of the city from having to see and mingle with the common folk. From the invaders they offered only the illusion of protection and everyone knew it.
Not quite everyone actually. In a chamber in the heart of the Imperial Ministry of Prosperity an old man who should have been wiser glared down at a map of the city on the table before him, and at the flickering pawns of coloured light, red and blue and white, that cluttered its surface. At each corner of the table a small thurible was fixed, acrid incense smoke rising from them for only a few inches before fading away to nothing.
Opposite the old man, two other people stood waiting anxiously. They wore the silver-grey uniforms of the Imperial Ministry and expressions of terrified passivity, awaiting the next declaration of doom. The old man, bald-headed and with a neatly trimmed squared off beard of white hair took his time, considering. He extended one finger toward an area of the map where the blue and red pawns pressed against each other.
“Send a strix to General Bolevin,” he said, “instruct him to fortify the Wintergate and defend it at all costs. We can then use the Lady Marina’s Boulevard to advance upon the central district and take the invaders in their flank.”
The two listeners knew better than to question their superior, and on any normal day in any normal situation the thought of doing so would have sent each of them into a cold-sweating panic. Today though was not a normal day and they could both hear the distant endless shrieking as a relentless undertone to everything else. One of them swallowed hard and spoke up, voice cracked in her dry throat.
“Minister. Minister, forgive me. General Bolevin’s forces are here, at the Sonne Plaza. They are pinned down and cannot reinforce the Wintergate. And if they could, they are too few.” She fell quiet under the sudden angry glare of her superior and lowered her head. What she said was true, and clearly displayed there on the living map of the city. The red pawns outnumbered the blue and pressed in at all angles. The entirety of the eastern ward of the outer city was theirs and they spread like blood on cloth toward the inner city.
“The General has been foolish to be so encircled,” the Minister said with cold emphasis, as though this rebuke would change the truth. “Very well. Order him to withdraw along these routes here, here and here. Form a defensive line at the river’s edge and hold the enemy there until we can reform our reserve.” His finger drew out the three routes he had decided upon, but before he could withdraw it the seeping red stain of enemy pawns filled each of the roads, racing inward. The blue cluster in Sonne Plaza shrank visibly as one by one the tiny pawns winked out of existence. The two aides saw it too, and saw the slow inward curl of the minister’s index finger as though it was the sniffing nose of a pet dog shrinking back from some unpleasant smell. They looked at each other, these two aides, and knew everything was lost. When Sonne Plaza fell, and it would surely fall, the many encroaching lines of enemy approach would meet and press more firmly inward and the ministry district itself was directly in their path. The aide who had remained silent remained so no longer. He was a young man, clean-shaven and now wild-eyed, who had shown great promise in his examinations and the first few years of his career, but he was utterly unprepared for this.
“We should have left a week ago, we knew this was coming. It’s your fault, yours!” He backed away from the minister, shaking his head and gesturing wildly around. “You stay here and die. I won’t. You can’t make me!” He turned at that and ran to leave the room, pulling open one of the great double doors whose size and grand decorations now seemed nothing more than a testament to hubris, like a molded crown on a tombstone. His colleague gritted her teeth. She’d felt the same instinct but had, she hoped, more self control.
The minister’s glare followed the fleeing bureaucrat until he had slipped through the half-open door. Then he sighed and turned to his only remaining aide.
“What do you think, Parial?” he said, his voice cold and angry, “Do you think this is a lost cause? That we are a lost cause?”
Parial looked down at the map, which had changed for the worse in the short time their attention had been diverted. General Bolevin would never receive another strix message, unless strixes somehow managed to find a way into the afterworld.
“I think we have no chance of victory, and almost no chance of survival,” she said in tones as calm as she could make them. “If any of our troops are to have any hope of survival it is only by a full and complete retreat.”
They both looked at the map and knew that was a futile thought. The white pawns of the civilians jammed up the entire western half of the map. If the troops were ordered to retreat they had no way to do so. And even if they had, the civilians would be slaughtered. Lost cause, the minister had said, and he had been right, for the first time in weeks. The minister did not reply. He closed each of the thuribles in turn shutting off the smoke, starving the coals of air to burn their precious incense. The ruddy glow of many red pawns, and the other dim lights, faded away to nothing leaving only the outline of Vanguard as pristine and unblemished as it had ever been, giving the lie to what they both knew was happening beyond the walls.
“Send for the captain of the ministry guard,” the minister said. “He will escort me to the Draklyn Storm. I will bear our final report to the Imperial Court.”
The screeching of the invaders was everywhere and it was almost deafening. A high pitched assault on the senses that made the hearer feel like they were being scraped over rough stone and broken glass. It made the head pound and the teeth ache and it drove terror into the souls of the unprepared.
Karol Perdov prided himself on rarely being unprepared and he was coping with the auditory onslaught albeit with an ill grace. He hadn’t considered joining the rest of the populace in the streets, realising immediately that the city’s roads and avenues would soon simply be different paths through the slaughterhouse. Grabbing his sword and a few other basics he’d decided to head upwards. In the poorer regions of Vanguard the buildings were so close together in the interest of maximising the amount of profitable property in the space available that a careful planner with a modicum of ingenuity and nerve could make their way for some distance before they’d have to descend. He kicked open the shutters of the window on the highest floor of the boarding house he’d been lodging in and looked out. Down below there was a pushing shoving tide of panicked people. Here and there among them he saw the royal-blue tunic and gleaming helm of one of the Imperial Guard. They were as lost as the others, flotsam on a futile tide, poor bastards. Clambering out through the window he perched with surprising grace for a man of his muscular build on the narrow ledge and looked upward. The wall was rough stone and the edge of the roof was only a few feet above him. It should prove no problem under normal circumstances. What then? He would trust himself to figure that out once he was on the rooftop, and he shifted his balance, stretched and felt for a handhold and then began, trusting his weight to the rough stonework and the grip of his fingers. He reached the lintel of the roof easily enough and pulled himself over, crouching down on the gently sloping slate and looking around.
Things did not, he decided, look good. The sky was a bloody ruin of deep red and there was no sign of the sun though it should certainly have been high in the eastern sky by now. He saw the dark winged beasts of the enemy rising and swooping over the city, descending with triumphant screeches below the rooftops before rising again clutching and rending at talon-grabbed victims before letting them fall again out of sight as little more than bloodied bundles of rags and flesh. The ground-borne enemies he could not see from here but they were there, he knew, in vast numbers and drawing closer.
This was hopeless, he knew. He’d seen enough conflict in his life to have an instinct for such things, and in an instant he knew that Vanguard was done for. The people down there may as well be dead already. The Imperial Guard would do their best, but they were like well armed and highly trained men standing on the shoreline with spears nicely polished, demanding that the tide stop approaching in the name of the Imperial Crown and all the high and mighty gods. The tide cared not at all, and nor did this enemy. The sane and sensible thing to do, Karol knew, was to go as fast as he could and as far as he could away from here.
“What bullshit,” he muttered to himself, not even sure in his own mind if he meant the situation or the solution. Why not be sane and sensible for a change? What did the Empire mean to him? Or Vanguard? Or anybody here. The owner of the boarding house had treated him like dirt and called him a vagabond and a sell-sword. The class-conscious Imperial citizens, even the lowliest of them, knew an outcast when they saw one and knew exactly where people like Karol fitted on the social pyramid, and that was somewhere beneath the foundations. He owed them nothing.
“What bullshit,” he said again. Turning westward and keeping low he ran along the rooftop as surefooted as an unobserved cat, holding his sword and scabbard in his left hand, ready for action just in case.