Sins of the Angels is out in one week (30 October 2020). Read on for the next 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.)
Getting to the hilltop wasn’t easy. It required a trek down a thin path being worried at on both sides by overgrown brambles, which followed a winding route downhill to a pebble-dashed beach. There was a broad cave several kilometres along, more like a tunnel since there was a way out the back to where a sheer cliff rose out of the water.
There were steps carved into the cliff side, now guarded by steel rails but even still they were narrow and more often than not slippery. Slow and in single file was the only way to travel up. At the top, a shallower but no less arduous climb followed up to the crest of the hill, where broken stone walls marked out the area of the Rising Keep. What remained of it now was an open rectangle filled with overgrown grass, with three of the four walls built over drops as sheer as the one to the sea, except lacking any carved steps.
Piralael had given up trying to keep her hair out of her face even before they had started the climb, and the wind up here was so much fiercer than it had been down below. Her hair clung stubbornly to one cheek as she peered over the front wall, where the cliff face disappeared into the canopy of the forest below, which was lightly dusted with frost. The trees covered most of the land beyond the Rising Keep, the treeline broken only occasionally by the taller of Novalis’s early and middle monarchic era ruins, a chapel here or a tower there. Even the one still-inhabited village on the island, Denwinn, was invisible beneath the forestry, which only came to an end by the sea. From here she could see over half of the eastern coastline, the pebbles of the beach behind the Keep giving way to a grey-brown sand as her eyes moved south.
Her form were huddled together close to the front wall; Cristephan pacing in front of them. He had a ponderous frown on his face and gesticulated continually as he spoke. “At the height of the War of Twelve, the forest you can see below wasn’t there. All growth was cleared regularly and meticulously for several hectares around this keep, so that no army or individual could sneak up on it. That was important, because without the element of surprise nobody stood a chance of taking the ground on which we now stand.
“You’ve already made the climb up here yourselves, so you know it isn’t easy. Ask yourselves how much harder it would be not just without the metal rail that kept us from falling, but with all manner of bloody fury being rained down upon you. Arrows shot by highly trained and skilled archers. Flaming pitch which required no precision at all to send you diving into the sea for hope of some respite from the burning pain. Even rocks. It would take inept defenders indeed to know an enemy was coming and not be able to hold them back with such impassable fortifications.”
Kessimh nudged Piralael and leaned over to whisper in her ear. “The bad stomachs the team had last week wouldn’t need any precision either.” She said.
“Eww!” Piralael slapped Kessimh on the shoulder, but she was smiling.
“That cliff edge would also be a good spot for you to see if you can fly, don’t you think?”
“That’s still never going to happen.”
“On the fateful day that would become known as Keyon’s Rout, an army of ten thousand men emerged from the edge of the forest just as night was falling.” Cristephan went on. “Every one of them heavily armoured, bearing shields as tall as they were. The reaction was predictable, of course; beacons were lit to raise the alarm with the mainland, and the garrison were commanded to take their positions. A trough filled with burning coals was laid out in front of the wall here for the archers to dip their oil-soaked arrow-heads into, and barrels of pitch were brought out to the catapults positioned there and there.”
“Nichan says he’s found somewhere for us to go tonight.” Piralael said.
“Somewhere warm, I hope.”
“Maybe he wants us cold.”
Kessimh folded her arms across her chest. Piralael smirked and raised her eyebrows.
“The army advanced, against a rain of flaming arrows and burning pitch. Shields to the front, at their sides and over their heads protected them from the worst of it, yet still men died and their advance was a slow and painful one. By the time they had travelled even a single kilometre, their armoured shell was that much smaller, and close to a thousand men lay dead behind them.
“But those thousand dead, and their nine thousand still living comrades, they didn’t matter. Their only goal was to keep the attention of the garrison at this keep. At that, they unequivocally succeeded because nobody saw the ten men who arrived on the beach in a small boat just after nightfall, landing by the cave entrance we passed through on our way up here. They were free to make their way up the steps and into the keep unchallenged.”
Piralael raised her hand. “Even if they did, there were only ten of them and this garrison would have had at least fifty people in it. Probably more if Keyon’s forces were so close.”
Cristephan pointed forcefully at her and nodded. “Exactly right! Exactly right. Chief Nireth was a cautious man, not given to half-measures. Accounts from the raiding party suggest that he had a hundred men in the keep, making the odds far too long even with the element of surprise. But the ten weren’t there to fight, at least not in the conventional sense of the time.” He threw up his hands. “But far be it from me to spoil the surprise! I’m setting you a simple challenge as we sit up here; without using your one-cons, only the pens and paper you were handed as you reached the top of the steps, I want you to tell me the story of what they did. Five hundred words or less.”
He clapped his hands and with a grumble the students drifted in several different directions. Piralael and Kessimh moved towards the left wall, having spotted a space where the tumble of the ruins gave them somewhere to perch and enough of a gap in the walls to keep the sun on them while sitting down. Shortly, Nichan knelt on the grass next to them with pen in one hand, paper in the other and a chunky fruit bar in his mouth.
“Ithiffa –” He dropped the pen and took a bite out of the bar. “Is this a test of our knowledge on Keyon’s Rout or a storytelling assignment?”
“Both?” Piralael suggested.
“Right, so what happened then?”
“Oh, come on, Pear! Not all of us have your aptitude for this stuff.”
“History or storytelling?”
“Both.” Kessimh said.
As the two women laughed, Nichan let out a mock sigh of despair.
“Nick, if you’re not good at history, why are you taking this class?” Piralael asked.
“For your entertainment, apparently.”
“Oh, relax.” Kessimh punched him in the shoulder. “So where are we going tonight?”
He brightened at that. “Ah! You remember just before we got onto that narrow path down to the beach when we passed that rotten old wooden barn? Well, there’s a path behind it that leads to the ruins of a small village, no more than six houses all built of bricks. I stumbled on it yesterday evening after we’d unpacked and I think it’ll be perfect.”
“Perfect for what?” Cristephan asked as he knelt next to Nichan.
Piralael shared a look with Kessimh. “Studying.” She said.
“Of course. Of course.” Their teacher had the hint of a smile on his face to suggest that he not only didn’t believe them but that he knew what they were really talking about. Not that it mattered all too much, but it was inconvenient. “So how are you getting on with my challenge?”
“I think Nick’s is the best.”
“Really? Well, can I hear it?”
Nichan shot Piralael a dark look, as she and Kessimh leaned forward enthusiastically to hear what he had to say. “Sure. Err. I think Pear’s overselling it though.”
There was a silence.
“I’m sure I still want to hear it.” Cristephan said.
“Okay. Well, they got up to the top of the steps, and obviously they couldn’t take on a garrison of a hundred soldiers because of…that would be unrealistic. But they don’t have to fight with swords and bows and arrows and…any of that, because,” his eyes flashed with inspiration, “they had bombs.”
“Yeah. I mean, tiny containers of fire powder that they would throw once the fuse was lit.”
“Hmm. Not bad.”
Piralael’s eyes widened as she looked at Cristephan. “Really?”
“It’s not what happened, of course. Lightning casks were developed during the War of Twelve, but it was actually about a decade after the Rout. Well, I’ll save the rest until we regroup. But I’m sure this will be a source of intense debate in your late-night studies tonight.”
Piralael rolled her eyes. “Just don’t tell everybody, please.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure most of the other students will be more interested in finding out where there’s a party than where they can get extra study in.” And with that he stood up and moved on to another group.
At some point while they had been sitting around, they had been joined by two newcomers. Or more likely locals, since Piralael didn’t recognise them and it was unlikely that anybody else had arrived on the island in just the last couple of hours. As they regrouped, they moved to stand by the front wall next to Cristephan.
The first one that Piralael noticed was the old man, because she felt his eyes on her. He was average height and slimly built, with neatly trimmed white hair and beard, head covered by a brown, thick-brimmed hat. The thin sliver of a smile crossed his face as he met her eyes and he gave her the slightest of nods. A friendly gesture, perhaps, but instantly her feathers bristled, and she tensed up. She quickly looked away.
That was when Kessimh’s elbow caught her in the side. Her friend hissed, “Wow, look at him!” The tone was one she had heard many times before, and she knew that Kessimh wasn’t talking about the old man. She looked again. The old man was stood next to somebody else…
Her breath caught in her throat as she felt her heart speed up. Something leapt about in her stomach and heat rushed up her cheeks. She was staring, she knew, with her mouth hanging open. But she couldn’t help it, even as she mentally scolded herself for being ridiculous. He was just a young man, after all, and there were another eighteen of them on this hilltop alone. But, well, none of them really compared.
The first things that caught her were his eyes, a grey that in the way the light fell looked silver. They had a depth and intensity to them which held her captive for several long moments, calling to her.
He had a sharply defined face; high cheekbones, strong jaw, smooth, dark skin. His hair was about the same length as hers, a soft autumn brown that fell in thick waves around his face. There was a curl to his lips that hinted at a smile but never quite gave you one. Since his clothes were well fitted, she could see that his physique was one that he had spent a lot of time crafting, what her dad called ‘ornamental muscles.’ Not that she had ever shared his disdain for them.
“Do you think we can take him back as a souvenir?” Kessimh whispered.
Piralael giggled. Then he glanced in her direction, and the blood rushed to her cheeks so fast that she was certain they had caught fire.
“… so now I’m eager to see what you’ve come up with.” Cristephan was saying to the form. “Would anybody like to volunteer to read theirs aloud?”
In the silence that followed, as everyone hesitated in the hope that somebody else would come forward, Nichan spoke up. “Pear volunteers.” He said. When she cast an angry glance in his direction, he grinned and mouthed ‘payback.’ “I think she might have done a lot more than five hundred words, though. She was just writing and writing the whole time.”
Most of the teenagers were laughing, But Cristephan appeared oblivious to it. “Piralael? It only seems fair to let you go first since you’re the reason we’re all here.” He said. Resolved to get it over with, she cleared her throat and lifted up her paper, but it seemed he had other ideas. “Come up to the front, so everybody can hear you properly.”
“Better acoustics up there.” Nichan chimed in.
“I’m going to kill you.” She told him.
She was still blushing furiously when she pushed her way to the front of the group, and despite there being fewer bodies here to block the wind hitting her face the warmth showed no sign of going away any time soon. She caught the knowing smirks of her classmates, particularly Nichan and Kessimh, but the teachers still appeared blind to it all, while it was hard to read what the newcomers made of it. The old man’s stare still set her on edge, while she could hardly look at the young man for fear that she would completely lose her wits. Not a good combination.
Cristephan nodded to her. “Whenever you’re ready.”
She cleared her throat again. “Okay. Um, as Nick says I wrote a lot more than five hundred words…I guess I got a bit carried away.” Her nervous laughter fell into the silence like a condemned man into a deep pit. “But, err, I’ll just go with the relevant bit, which should be about the right word count anyway.” She focused on the paper then, on the words she had written. All at once, everything else melted away.
“The hilltop came as sweet relief, the soft grass under their feet a sign that they wouldn’t die that night. That the sheer drop wouldn’t take them. They could have kissed it then, lay down and pressed their faces to it in celebration, but the climb was the easy part. Their night’s work lay ahead of them, over the wall and through the keep to where they could hear men shouting and fire burning, the sounds of war. The sounds of the hell raining down upon their comrades far below.
“There were a couple of sentries on the back wall, just in case. But they were bored, expecting nothing and feeling left out from the real action, so they were sloppy. They didn’t notice that some of the shadows moved until they felt the cold steel biting at their throats. They died with screams still trapped in their throats, perhaps some vain hope that at least their killers couldn’t get too far and their deaths would at least be avenged.
“But no matter how big the garrison was, how many battles they had seen and how much blood-stained steel they had to hand, the soldiers of the Rising Keep never stood a chance. This wasn’t an accident, or luck, but fate that was set against them tonight.
“Much of the rest of the keep was deserted, all superfluous hands sent elsewhere if they could not fight. So the intruders passed through without incident or alarm, straight to the front where the full weight of the garrison was assembled. Where they hurled arrows, rocks, pitch and bloody ill will at the foe marching at them on the distant ground. None noticed the sudden arrival of ten additional bodies, strangers, in the midst of that murderous fervour. Their inner beasts had overcome them, peeling back the layers of civilisation and order to reveal the pure, animal savagery, and looking behind them was an unnecessary effort.
“But had they looked back, would it have mattered? Against knives, swords, or even explosive powder, perhaps. But not against these ten men. For their ultimate weapon wasn’t forged in a smithy or conjured in the mind of a man. It was something deeper, darker, more innate. They pressed their hands together, as if in prayer, and when they pulled them apart once more…flames roared to life in the empty space. And what use is an army, against men who command fire?”
For several moments, the silence hung thick in the air. Only once it was broken by applause, starting with a couple of people and rapidly growing to take in everyone, did she realise that she had been holding her breath. She let it go, smiling.
“Very good, Piralael. We’ll look forward to the comic book adaptation.” Cristephan said, earning a few laughs. “However, as interesting copy as it might make, pyromancy isn’t the explanation for Keyon’s Rout.”
“No? Then what was it?”
“Well, I want to give others the chance to read out what they’ve written first.”
“No, come on. What they’ve written isn’t going to change, is it? I want to know what you think really happened.”
A murmur rushed through the crowd of students. Piralael saw Kessimh roll her eyes. Even the handsome newcomer had a smile on his face, and noticing him again was like a reminder to blush once more, so that she had to struggle to keep giving Cristephan a look of defiance.
He raised his hands, giving in. “Okay. But only because I know you won’t rest until this is resolved.”
“She hates to be wrong.” Nichan chipped in, unhelpfully.
“Well then, fortunately for everyone, she’s only half wrong.” Cristephan said. “Because Keyon did have his clerks record that he had won with a detachment of men who could conjure and control fire. This was long accepted as the truth, an important part of his fame and of the legends that define Novalis. In fact, what won the day was invention, because the men who climbed the steps to this keep were armed with a rudimentary flame-thrower.
“A torch was attached to a pressurised cannister of natural gas, carefully stored using what were at the time brand new techniques. The cannister had a plunger on the end which would force the gas out in the direction of the torch, so that when it was lit…”
“That’s not true.” Piralael insisted, her voice rising a note. “Like I said, the men sent up were skilled pyromancers.”
“Yes, I admit that’s what the accounts of the time say, but people were more superstitious back then and –”
“My mum was actually alive back then and fighting a war with demons on earth. Not everything supernatural can be explained away.”
Cristephan gave the subtlest of shrugs. “Not everything, no.”
“Actually, there is another theory which I think affects this debate.” The young man’s voice was soft, low, but authoritative. A voice she could all too easily imagine whispering sweet nothings in her ear. “If I may…”
“Of course!” Cristephan said, eagerly. “Everybody, this is Zapheyr. He and Baijenh have volunteered to be our guides while we are here since they have an extensive knowledge of local history. I’m sure we would all be interested in hearing this third theory.”
Zapheyr moved so that he was next to Piralael, so close that she could feel the heat of his body. Her heart was beating at such a rate that she was sure he could hear it and the heat on her cheeks and up her neck all but cancelled out the wind. Kessimh caught her eye and gave her a wink, which didn’t help.
“Thanks.” He said. “Now, I’m not going to pretend that I can weave words anywhere as elegant as…Piralael? Mind if I call you Pear?” She shook her head, at that moment willing to let him call her whatever he wanted. “But even if I’m not the talented storyteller she is, hopefully you’ll still find this interesting.
“Actually, the theory I want to talk about isn’t another one on how a group of ten men overcame a hundred here. It backs up Pear on them being pyromancers. But the real question is why? The Rising Keep was the key to Novalis, and Novalis was the key to the most strategically valuable intercontinental trade routes at the time of the War of Twelve. But there were other strategically important locations being contested during the war and other battles being fought against long odds. So why were pyromancers only deployed here?”
Silence. Rapt attention. At that moment even Piralael had forgotten her cocktail of attraction and embarrassment and wanted to know what the answer was.
“The answer is that the Rising Keep itself wasn’t the target of the attack, but specifically the hundred men up here guarding it. They weren’t quite human. Like Pear, they each had a large pair of wings on their back and one parent who comes from a higher plane of existence.”
Again her breath caught in her throat, but now for a different reason. “Nephilim.” She said.
“Nephilim.” He agreed. “The first time that any had been seen on Avetana since the Independence Accord, and far and away the most that had ever been seen together. Rumour was that Chief Nireth had made any number of dark allegiances to get them on his side, and so the pyromancers came to Keyon to offer their services to capture Novalis and the Rising Keep, in order that the nephilim could be brought to an end.”
“But…but why? Who were these pyromancers?”
Zapheyr shook his head. “I’m afraid that detail is lost to history. All we know is that they were identified by their red cloaks.”
“Well that’s certainly an interesting angle to this whole event.” Cristephan interjected. “Though of course I would always encourage you all to look at any part of history using multiple sources and consider the evidence carefully in order to decide for yourselves what really happened. Now, who else would like to read their piece?”
Piralael couldn’t take her eyes off Zapheyr now, and hardly heard a word of what followed. He smiled at her, a flawless expression which not ten minutes ago would have given her something to dream about for many nights to come. Maybe it still would. But there was something far more pressing on her mind at that moment. Red cloaks, and the question of why people who were like her had to die.
The forest encroached closely on the old village, the trees stopping right at the back of the old brick houses. Because of how close they leaned together, even before the sun set the place was bathed in an eerie twilight. The houses were arranged in a loose oval around a dusty, empty space with a sealed-up old well in the centre.
It was a cold night, a stiff wind howling through the trees. But there was a plentiful supply of usable wood nearby and a fire built to one side of the well brought a lot of warmth back, though they still had to wear a couple of additional layers. They set up speakers around the edges of the oval and the music from Piralael’s play-list drowned out the howling. Blankets laid out around the fire provided a space to sit down without getting too much dust on their clothes. Most importantly they had enough bottles of beer and spirits as well as a whole array of snacks, which Nichan had already started on in earnest, for a good night.
For the moment at least, they had gotten their wish about not having everyone on the trip descend upon the place. They had invited a few people along, but this only brought their numbers up to nine in total.
“We should have invited Zapheyr down.” Kessimh said, with a glint in her eye.
Piralael did her best at a carefree shrug, willing herself not to blush as she had earlier.
“Oh, so you’re not interested at all?”
“Why would I be?”
“Pear, please! You pretty much groped him with your eyes. And the blushing…” She laughed as Piralael felt the flush in her cheeks. “There we go.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Come on, you can at least admit he has tract.”
“Kess…” She protested. But Kessimh held her gaze until she said, “Yes. He’s handsome, beautiful even. But I don’t know him.”
“Do you really need to though?”
Piralael gave her what she hoped was a disdainful glare.
“Don’t look at me like that! All I’m suggesting is that while we’re out here you have a little fun. That’s why we’re here isn’t it? It’s not just for the history lessons.”
She felt something then, as though someone was watching her. The hairs on her arms and neck stood on end. She looked up in the direction the sensation had come from but couldn’t see anything. It was probably nothing more than some animal lurking in the trees, but still it gave her a momentary chill.
“Sorry. Yeah, I’m not averse to having a little fun. But that doesn’t mean I’m looking for that kind of fun with a stranger.”
Kessimh gave her a sceptical look. Probably for good reason, given both how she had been looking at Zapheyr and how some of their nights out had ended in the past. But that was exactly what had led her to Mariel, who remained a mistake she was determined never to repeat again. That was without getting into the other issue that was still nagging at the back of her mind, the fate of her fellow nephilim so long ago.
Piralael had been drinking a beer called Mountain Black, a dark ale which had been brewed to have a sweet taste so that it was easy to drink despite its strength. After three bottles, the world was slightly out of focus and tinted with a rather warm and pleasant glow. However, she had never been one to stop there, even despite repercussions such as the effects on the whole handball team’s stomachs a week earlier when they were still back in Nellh. At the time it had been utterly horrendous to go through, but already it was just another incident to look back and laugh at. So right about then shots of Sand Rot, the extra strong spirit brewed by the desert nomad tribes, seemed like an inspired idea.
A little before midnight, what seemed like everybody else on the trip turned up at the party. Although by then Piralael was past the point of caring. The world was swaying back and forth in front of her, the sensation amplified when she stood up or moved, so she had relegated herself to sitting close to the fire with all the drink she needed around her.
That was the position she was in when Zapheyr appeared and sat down next to her. She stared at him, her brain taking several seconds to process who he was, then felt a big, dumb grin spread across her face. Taking a deep swig of her drink didn’t make it go away but did soften it slightly.
“Hi Pear.” He said, as casually as if he had known her for half her life. “Mind if I join you?”
“You already have. It looks like.” She replied, words slurring slightly.
“Yeah. So that was interesting on the Rising Keep today. You know your history. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable at all, though.”
She shook her head, perhaps a bit too vigorously. “No, it’s okay. I guess I was just surprised that I hadn’t heard about it. I like history, and I did a lot of research before we came here, but I’ve never heard anything about that. I don’t think I’ve come across anything to do with nephilim, actually.”
“No? Well, I’ve always found it fascinating. That’s the main reason I read your comic, actually.”
“You read Journey into the Unknown?” She pushed her hair back with one hand and adjusted her position to lean closer to him in a way that she thought was elegant. There was no blushing now, though. One extremely positive effect of lots of alcohol in her system.
“Yeah. It’s good, but I’m disappointed you never did any comics about yourself or people like you.”
“I already get too much attention for that.”
“Of course. Though it is warranted, given how pretty you are.”
She snorted. “I really hope that’s not your best line.”
“It’s the truth.”
“No. I’m just an exotic attraction, something people have never seen before. You wouldn’t think that if I didn’t have wings and blue-and-gold hair.”
“I could just as easily say you wouldn’t think I was attractive if I had one eye and a big red growth on my chin. It doesn’t matter because that’s not who I am. Your being a nephilim isn’t some added extra, it’s integral to who you are.”
“Uh-huh. But who says I think you’re attractive?”
It was his turn to laugh. “Nobody. I was just using that as an example.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” Somehow, they had gotten closer together in the course of that exchange, so that it seemed only natural to lean in and kiss him. Their lips brushed delicately, then pressed together hard, warm and wet. She reached out and put a hand through his hair. It was thick and soft, easy to grip as she pulled him closer and tugged gently at his lower lip with her teeth. A hot thrill ran up her body. She was slightly out of breath as the kiss ended and she said, “But really I don’t find you attractive at all.”
“No, of course not.”
“Which means you’re just taking advantage of a drunk sixteen-year-old.” She took his hand in her own and drew closer to him. “I don’t even know how old you are.”
“How old do you think I am?”
She weighed him up. “Twenty?”
He shook his head.
“Come on, just tell me!”
“Okay. I’m eighteen.”
“Oh, that’s not too bad. We’re not too different in age. You will have to drink up, though.” She thrust the bottle of Sand Rot at him. “So we’re on an even playing field.”
He gave her a dubious look, then shrugged and took the bottle off her. As he did, Piralael once more got the feeling that she was being watched. She turned and saw Kessimh looking in her direction. Her friend gave her a wink and made a lewd gesture at her before turning back to her conversation with somebody else. But that wasn’t it. Whatever it was, Piralael was certain that it was in the trees.