Sins of the Angels is out on 30 October 2020. Read on for the latest sample chapter, and if you like what you read then pre-order the e-book via the Universal Book Link. (From 30 October, the same link will also allow you to purchase hardcover and paperback editions.)
At nine years old, Piralael’s hair had reached halfway down her back, at the time its length and unusual colouring being her most outstanding features. When she was playing handball, she wore it in a tight braid, the majority of its length covered in mud and grime a state she found herself in more often than not when playing the game.
They played six-a-side handball on the octagonal pitch at the far end of the primary school playing fields. Piralael was one of the two runners whose job it was to throw the ball across the opposing goal line. They had an audience in the stands which backed onto the walls marking the edge of the school grounds; a couple of teachers and those pupils who either had free periods or had opted out of whatever lesson they were supposed to be at.
The opposing team, wearing red shirts and leggings against Piralael’s blue, had just scored. Kessimh had weaved through the bigger, heavier defenders and thrown the ball too fast and low for the goalkeeper to catch with the steel nets on sticks that they used. As she ran back past Piralael, she stuck her tongue out at her.
Piralael narrowed her eyes, a smile still on her lips. She turned around and raised her hands in the air, waiting for the ball. The keeper, a wide backed and large bellied boy called Falveh, flicked it into the air in a high arc and each team’s centre went for it. The boy from Piralael’s team, wearing blue, caught it. But the girl from the reds shouldered him in the ribs and he fumbled.
Piralael darted forward and skidded on her knees in the mud to catch it. The red girl lunged at her, but she leapt up and dodged. She broke into a sprint, running first left, then right and finally left again in order to get past the remaining centre and the two defenders. She then ran toward the red keeper at an angle, throwing the ball to her right at the last minute so that it crossed the goal line beyond the keeper’s reach.
A cheer went up from her team, but Piralael stooped over and clutched at her stomach. Cramps. Not for the first time this week, and if this one was anything to go by then they were getting worse. Still, it was already beginning to recede, so she gritted her teeth and forced herself to stand up.
“Are you okay, Pear?” Kessimh asked as they crossed on their way to their own halves of the pitch.
Piralael nodded, then as an afterthought she stuck her tongue out at her.
There were no other chances to score for most of the rest of the match. Most of the play was between the defenders and the centres, with neither Piralael nor Kessimh getting hold of the ball for much time. Piralael got a couple of shots at the goal line, but not very good ones and they were easily saved.
Stomach cramps kept nagging at her at intervals. She was worried that she might be coming down with something, what with the intense fatigue that had plagued her for about the same length of time as the cramps, meaning that she had to drag herself out of bed in the morning where previously she was as a rule up and bouncing around before sunrise. League matches were due to begin in less than a month, and from them the cup competitions, and she wanted to be at her best for them.
When the last of them subsided, there were only a couple of minutes left in the match. The reds were still winning by four goals to three, and Piralael was determined to at least force them to a draw if she couldn’t win.
Her chance came when Kessimh charged for the blue goal line, only to have a defender tackle her legs from behind, dragging her to the ground. The ball bounced backwards, and a blue centre snatched it up and slung it in Piralael’s direction. She caught it easily but was nearly brought down by a red defender grabbing her around the midriff. She dropped to her knees but kept hold of the ball and pushed forward to escape the grip.
No sooner was she free than another defender and a centre charged at her. In a split second, she deduced that she could escape their initial tackle but wouldn’t get close to the goal line. She turned around and ran in a circle to avoid the charge, before making a wild throw from a distance.
It was heading in the right direction, and the keeper was reaching for it with his net, when another cramp hit her. This one was enough to make her cry out and fall to her knees. She doubled over, clutching her stomach and squeezing her eyes shut.
“Pear! Pear!” Kessimh was at her side, an arm around her shoulders. “Are you okay?”
Piralael shook her head. She stayed where she was for several more moments before looking up. The match was over now, and everyone was crowding around her. Staring, asking if she was okay or what was wrong. It was all too much. She forced herself to her feet, despite the increased pain her body offered in protest, and ran in the direction of the shower block.
She went straight into a toilet cubicle, thinking that at the very least being able to fart freely might relieve some of the pressure she was feeling. But when she pulled her trousers down, she noticed that her underwear was stained with blood.
A minute or more passed as she stared down at it. She knew what her period was, from both conversations with her mum and reproductive health classes, but she hadn’t been expecting it. That was why she hadn’t added up the symptoms (although now it seemed perfectly sensible that several days of stomach cramps and feeling tired and sluggish were indications that it was coming on). Surely she was still too young?
She sat down, catching her breath and willing the cramps to subside. They weren’t going anywhere for the moment, though, and she was tempted right then to just stay there hugging her knees. At least while she was doing that the pain couldn’t get any worse, she hoped.
There was a knock on the cubicle door. “Pear, is that you? You need anything?” Kessimh.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
In class, they had been told that it was nothing to be ashamed of and that it would help to talk about it with one another. “I got my period.”
“Yeah. It’s not fun, Kess.”
“Well it could’ve been worse. I heard that Deyonh Vogiella from two forms above got hers during a stage rehearsal when she was wearing a skirt and bled all over the floor.”
Piralael cracked a smile. “No, she never!”
“I swear! Nichan said he was there and saw it!”
They both laughed. The pain didn’t feel like it had subsided any, but she felt slightly better for being able to joke with Kessimh. Still, she supposed that she couldn’t hold a conversation over a toilet cubicle door for the rest of the day. She asked Kessimh to go the nurse in order to get her some sanitary towels, then had a shower and cleaned herself up. When she was drying, the feeling of the towel rubbing against the growths on her shoulder blades gave her a shock. Not pain exactly, but an unpleasant sensation that sent a shiver down her back. She examined them in the mirror but, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, dismissed it and got dressed.
She felt better once she was clean and dressed again. She had on a violet knee-length hooded tunic, her favourite item of clothing because when she wanted to, she could just pull the hood up, bury her hands in the pouch and cushion herself from the world.
There were more cramps through the rest of the day, but although they hurt, they didn’t seem quite as bad as they had before. Later in the afternoon, however, she felt twinges in her back. These started in her lower back as part of the cramps and then spread upwards until it felt as though something was pulling at the growths on her shoulder blades. Or, more accurately, pushing at them but from inside her body.
It became too much, and she had to excuse herself from her second to last class halfway through in order to go home. She had to sign out so that the school knew she had left voluntarily, and then she picked up her bike.
Before setting off she took her one-con out of her pouch. It was in a small hard case, about two finger-widths thick and as long as her index finger, purple with yellow stars. She pulled it apart to reveal a transparent rectangular surface the length of her full hand, now lighting up with the image of a starburst. A flick of her finger from the screen up projected the star-burst into the air in front of her, where it erupted into an image of a star filled sky, some stars brighter to form a constellation in the shape of a unicorn.
Touching the star at the tip of the unicorn’s horn brought up her music selection. She picked a particularly fast and bouncy play-list, before closing the one-con and putting it back in her pouch. Then she put on a pair of headphones and rode away with the music playing loud.
The school was in an outer district of Nellh, while her house was three kilometres outside the city. She rode through the neighbourhood next to the school, the streets running in a neat grid lined with relatively uniform two-storey houses. A few cars passed her on her way through, making no sound as they rushed along. Out of the grid and along the curving country lane that led out of Nellh, the traffic became non-existent.
Piralael’s shoulders, lower back and stomach were all aching now. But as long as she was riding she could push the pain to the back of her mind, focusing on the wind in her hair and the music playing.
The lane ended in a T-junction, with several dozen hectares of farmland beyond it. On the near side of the road, each house here was half a kilometre apart and separated by empty fields. She turned right and rode till she reached the third house along. Once she was there and she dropped her bike on the path, her pain flared up and she had to run into the house doubled over.
Nobody was home yet, and as soon as she got through the door, she was greeted by Longtooth hooting excitedly. The susca was upstairs but darted downstairs, a blur of bristly brown fur on four legs, her long, curved tail wagging so hard that Piralael wouldn’t have been surprised if the animal had taken off. He jumped at Piralael’s legs and she had to push him back down to the floor to avoid being tripped over.
Not to be put off, Longtooth followed her upstairs, and was through the bathroom door before she could close it behind her. Piralael grunted in frustration, but the pain was too much now and it would have been too much effort to force the animal out. So instead she ignored him and turned her attention to the mirror.
When she was pulling her tunic off over her head, it snagged and she couldn’t get it to move any further. Her head was covered and she couldn’t see, but when she pulled at the material a twinge shot through her shoulder blades. Confused and panicking slightly, she didn’t think to pull the tunic back down so she could see, instead reaching behind her back and trying to lift it over the snag. It was the protrusions from her shoulder, or one of them at least, which her clothes had caught on. It felt longer than it had been only a few hours earlier when she last looked at it, but she thought that she must have been imagining it because she couldn’t see anything. She pulled the material of the tunic over it and was finally able to get it off.
She stared at the mirror for several minutes, mouth agape, not able to believe what she was seeing. She turned around several times, looking at herself from a number of different angles, but that didn’t help.
The protrusions from her shoulder blades had indeed grown, and quite substantially too. They now reached out from her back about the same length as from her wrist to her fingertips, starting to curve upwards towards the end. As well, she could see membranes of skin stretched between the protrusions and her back. Still small and useless, there was nevertheless no doubting now that the growths marked the beginnings of a pair of wings.
She was distracted by a furious snuffling sound and looked down to see Longtooth worrying at something on the floor. She knelt down and stroked the susca’s head, putting her other hand under his chin in order to lift his head up. He struggled, pressing his round, flat snout firmly against the floor.
Eventually, Piralael was able to overpower Longtooth and force his head up. In response the animal gave a wide grin, the short tusks on either side of his mouth pointing outwards and honked.
“Stupid creature,” Piralael said, smiling.
She reached down and swept up the thing that Longtooth had been sniffing and stared at it incredulously. It was a small white feather.
Piralael woke with a headache and stomach cramps. She groaned and shifted across in the bed before looking under the sheets to see spots of blood in the spot where she had been sleeping. This elicited another groan. Of course she would come on today. She stretched her wings as she stood up out of bed, trying to get some feeling back in them after sleeping on them for half the night.
The reason for the way she’d slept, of course, was Longtooth. He had been curled in a comfy little ball halfway up the bed, having forced her to surrender her own comfort so he could get there. As soon as her feet touched the ground, however, he was awake and at her feet with his tail wagging frantically.
She stepped over the animal and grabbed her old violet tunic. It had long strips cut out on the back, like all of her clothing now, so that she could fit her wings through. Once it was on, with the hood up, she went to the window and waved her hand so that the thick frosting over it disappeared to show outside, the world still pitch black. With Longtooth still at her feet, she left the room and went to the toilet to put on a sanitary pad before making her way downstairs.
There were lights on in the kitchen when she got there, and she found her dad sitting at the table with a large mug which had steam rising from it. Even sitting down, it was evident how big he was; wide arms, barrel chest, broad shoulders. He had short, neat hair and a square jaw, clean shaven. He was staring off into the distance and looked startled by Piralael’s arrival before recovering himself to offer her a smile.
“Hi Pear.” He said. “Sorry, I was miles away.”
“It’s okay. So you couldn’t –”
She was interrupted by Longtooth hooting, then nudging her leg with his bowl in his mouth. She rolled her eyes, then snatched the bowl and filled it while the susca danced around her.
“So you couldn’t sleep again?”
Nuadhu shrugged. “I’m fine, honestly.”
She gave him a look but thought better of saying anything. Her dad had periodically suffered with nightmares for as long as she could remember, and though he had never talked about it to her she had more than once overheard him talking to her mum. It was memories that haunted him, of the things he had done during the long years when he had been a vampire.
“So, what about you?” He asked her. “Excited for going away?”
“I am. But that wasn’t what woke me up. Period pains.”
“Ah.” He nodded, doing his best to look like he wasn’t uncomfortable with candid talk of menstruation and as ever failing. “Bad timing.”
As she placed the food bowl on the floor, Longtooth stuck his snout straight into it. He made snuffling, snorting sounds as he sucked up the food.
“Yeah, you could say that.” She sighed and flopped down into a seat facing her dad. “Is ice cream a suitable breakfast, do you think?”
Her dad laughed and stood up. “There’s no rule against it, but I’d recommend a coffee instead.” He moved over to the counter to make her a drink and get himself a fresh one. “What time does your flight leave? Are you all packed?”
“Eleven, and yes.”
“Okay, good. Now, when your mum gets up, she’s gonna give you a whole talk about how she’ll miss you and making sure you’re careful. There’ll probably be tears and hugging.” They shared a smirk, knowing that this wasn’t quite how it would play out. “All I want to know are two things…”
“Okay. One, I’ve got more than enough booze for the week we’ll be away. Two, I’ve only just finished the latest issue, so you’ll have to make do with the print copies. I’ll bring them down before I go.”
Piralael wrote a comic called Journey Into The Unknown, an anthology of unconnected mystery and adventure stories in a variety of settings. This latest one was about the crew of the Pathfinder being lost in deep space, suffering hallucinations and cabin fever as a result of long-term isolation. Nichan’s insistence that it was extremely unlikely they would encounter alien civilisations had been the inspiration for the tale, though she hadn’t told him yet. The cover, an image of the spaceship in full against a black backdrop, had been the most difficult and time-consuming part to draw, using footage of the launch and other pictures to get every detail perfect.
“I’m looking forward to this one. Seeing what perils you’re going to put the crew in and how they get out of it will be fun.”
“Yeah, I think everyone is looking forward to this one.” She was looking forward to the reactions from her subverting expectations. She thought of the words on the final page, ‘The worst fear isn’t the twisted monster chasing you, or the shadow looming around the corner or the stranger who means you harm. All of these fears are of things that are ultimately tangible. But the great empty void cannot be fought. It cannot be killed. And the deeper you go, the less likely it becomes that you can ever leave it.’ “I hope they like it.”
“I’m sure they will. I will. I know I’m always saying it, but I’m really proud to have such a talented daughter, both an artist and an athlete.”
“Don’t get mushy on me now, dad.”
“I’m serious, Pear. The only talents I ever had were destructive, to fight and kill. To be frank, I never deserved to get a happy ending with your mother. But you have the power to create, and that’s worth so much more than anything I’ve ever been able to do.”
The sun was just coming up when her mum made her way down the stairs. She had golden brown hair, her face the same shape as Piralael’s and her olive skin just a shade darker. Despite her daughter inheriting her wings, Anael had none, since she had given up her grace in order to transform Nuadhu back from a vampire to a human. Though Piralael was the proof that despite surrendering her grace and thus her immortality she was still an archangel.
As Anael came into the kitchen, Longtooth snatched up his bowl in his mouth and ran over to her, tail wagging. However, it wasn’t a new trick, so she only gave her husband and daughter a questioning look. When they both shook their heads, she looked down again at Longtooth. The susca looked back at her hopefully, still wagging his tail. However, he got the message when she looked away and walked past, and dropped his bowl so that he could offer a derisory hoot before shuffling back to Piralael’s side.
“I feel left out.” She said. She cast a quick glance at Nuadhu before turning to Piralael. “What got you up so early?”
“I came on.”
“Today of all days? You gonna be okay?”
“It’ll probably be a couple more hours until the lack of sleep and the blood make me a threat to anybody who rubs me the wrong way.”
“Oh, that’s fine. You’ll be Kess and Nick’s problem by then. Anyway, since you’re up…” She walked over to the kitchen counter and opened one of the cupboards above the cooker. She had to stand on her tiptoes to reach behind the tins, in order to pull out a small parcel wrapped in purple paper with a violet bow on top of it. “I stumbled upon this a while back when I took that trip to Hhingar, and I thought it would make a good present for you. You going away seems as good a time as any to give it to you.”
“Thanks mum.” Piralael said as she took the parcel off her mum. She pulled the wrapping off and saw it was a hard black case, which she opened to reveal a delicate golden chain resting on the soft padding inside. At the end of the chain was a pendant, two angel wings flanking what looked like a letter but in no alphabet she had ever seen. “It’s beautiful.”
Anael lifted it out of the box and leaned forward to fasten it around Piralael’s neck. “The letter is the Enochian symbol for ‘unlikely.’” She said. Piralael had been told that her name meant ‘the unlikely one.’
“Thanks mum.” She said again. “I love it.” Anael hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m glad. Now, you’d best go and get yourself ready if you want to leave on time. Plus, you probably want to get the whole business of your dad getting teary-eyed out of the way before your friends turn up.” She said, with a wink.