Sins of the Angels is out in four days (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.)
Kessimh’s neck was stiff and her toes were cold. She opened her eyes and blinked up at the trees which loomed over her, the small oval of open sky letting through just enough pre-dawn light to cast the world around her in a sickly grey colour. It was an effort to force herself up into a sitting position, and her reward was a nauseating pulse in her temples.
At some point during the night’s revels she had abandoned her boots and socks, explaining the cold feet. The sore neck came from sleeping on the hard ground without even a substitute for a pillow. Even without the scattering of empty bottles around her it wasn’t hard to guess the cause of the headache and nausea. From what she remembered, it had been a good night, and this was the price for it.
The fire had died down to embers, and even though she was right by it she could now feel the cold creeping up her body. She quickly grabbed the blanket that had ended up in a ball a little way from where she had slept and wrapped it around her shoulders.
She was far from the only person to have fallen asleep here. There had to be at least twenty people dotted around the remnants of the fire, unlike her all still asleep and oblivious to whatever discomforts waking up would throw at them. Several of them had fallen asleep in one another’s arms and at least one couple had fallen asleep just as they were getting more familiar; one woman still had a firm grip on her boyfriend’s now flaccid penis. Kessimh covered her mouth to suppress a laugh.
Nichan was laid out a little way from her. He was on his back, arms and legs spread wide and mouth hanging open, snoring rhythmically. She watched him for a moment, half-tempted to wake him up by holding his nose, half-tempted to curl up by him with her head on his chest. The latter might at least give her brief respite from the hangover which had now added a quailing stomach to its arsenal.
Piralael was nowhere to be seen, however. The last clear memory Kessimh had was of seeing her kiss Zapheyr, so she could only presume that they had opted for somewhere more private and a bit warmer than the ruin of a village which died several thousand years ago. She would have to make sure that she got all of the details later on.
Nichan must have swallowed something as he snored, because he made a sound halfway between a honk and a squeal and shocked himself awake. This time Kessimh couldn’t suppress the laughter, and as he got his bearings and heard her, he gave her a dark look. Nobody else appeared to have stirred.
“I could have swallowed something horrible and died.” He said, before spitting out a leaf. “You’ve got no compassion whatsoever.”
“I’d have helped you if you were dying.” She protested. “Probably while still laughing, sure, but I’d at least have helped.”
“I love you too.”
She pulled him close and kissed him on the cheek. “Is that better? Anyway, that’s love.” She pointed out the tight grip she had spotted earlier.
“I won’t stop you, you know.”
“You’ll never have to.”
“Spoilsport. Where’s Pear?”
“Somewhere comfy with Zapheyr, I’d guess. Lucky girl. Anyway, how about we go and get breakfast somewhere we can warm ourselves up?”
Nichan’s face brightened. “That sounds like a plan. Let’s –”
The sound of leaves and twigs crunching underfoot was really loud in their ears. They turned away from the fire to see the old man from the Rising Keep, Baijenh, walking past. His gaze lingered over-long on the prone bodies of the sleeping students, and when he saw Kessimh and Nichan looking at him he gave them the barest of nods and a thin smile as he continued on his way. Shortly, he was out of sight.
Kessimh tensed up as a shudder ran down her spine. “That guy is so creepy.”
“Yeah. But if we go back to the guest house he won’t be there, so…”
“Yes. Yes. We’ll go and get breakfast. Come on.” She rolled her eyes, before standing up and leading him through the maze of sleeping students in order to get out without waking anybody else up.
Denwinn was a half hour’s walk away from the old village, along a deep but uneven dirt trail. The only thing to see along the route was trees, the copse thick on both sides the whole way, the main variation being when it widened out so they could walk two abreast and when it narrowed so that they had to go in single file and still the thin, sharp branches cut at them. Occasionally, a small mammal would race across their path, but that was about as exciting as it got.
Still, Kessimh didn’t particularly care for exciting at that moment. All that she knew was that the movement was making her feel seasick and the sooner that it ended the better for everyone. Twice she contemplated stopping to vomit by the side of the trail but managed to swallow the bile down so that she could push on. Trying to slow down or wait would only prolong the agony, and the sooner she could sit in the warmth and enjoy some fried food, the better.
“How bad is your hangover, then?” She asked Nichan.
“I’m fine.” He said.
“You weren’t fine last night.”
“I know that. But honestly, I’m not hungover.”
“Really. No headache, no nausea, nothing. I’m a bit thirsty, though.”
She shook her head. “There’s no justice in the world.”
There was a commotion in the trees, a rattling followed by a squeak and a high bird call. A small rodent leapt out onto the ground and darted ahead, only for a hook-tailed harrier to swoop down and snatch it up.
“See, could be worse.” Nichan said, before throwing his arm around her and pulling her into a hug. She leaned her head on his chest as they walked along.
Denwinn was much larger than the village where they had spent the night. The forest had been cleared in a neat line around the settlement so that it stood as a hub of modernity on an island steeped in history. Electric cars moving silently down smooth roads, robots working in restaurants and goods outlets, spacious houses, green spaces geometrically arranged at intervals and digital signposts offering up the temperature, weather, distance to various sites and selected other information. Everything was cleaner, brighter, louder and neater, making Kessimh blink as she stepped out of the trees and making the pounding in her head speed up.
Zapheyr came up the road, walking towards them. His hair was dishevelled, sticking up and out like a hedge caught in a tornado, and like them he was still wearing the same clothes as yesterday. He didn’t look any worse for it, though. In fact, Kessimh thought he looked even better a bit rough. She could imagine her hands being responsible for his hair looking so wild, her body being the reason he had gotten hardly any sleep.
“Pear really is a lucky girl.” She muttered. Nichan gave her a wounded look, so she patted him on the head. “Aw, you’re pretty too.”
“Thanks.” He didn’t look too thankful.
“Zapheyr! Hi! Where’s Pear?”
Zapheyr stopped and gave her a puzzled frown. “She’s not back at the old village?”
“No, why would she be? I thought you two had…you know…”
“No, we…I was over-eager, and she slapped me and walked away. It was my own fault, for being too drunk and lacking proper judgement, but…but I thought she would have gone back to the party.”
Kessimh went cold. She shared a look with Nichan, her skin prickling.
“She probably went back to the guest house. We’ll find her in the communal dining room.” He said.
She nodded. It was plausible, but she already knew that it wasn’t true. There was a part of her hoping that it was just her hangover and how unnerved she had been by the old man staring at them earlier that made her think this, but the rest of her was certain that something had happened to Piralael. She was missing. But either way they would have to confirm it before they could do anything, so Kessimh said, “Yeah, probably. Let’s go and find her.”
They headed in the direction of the guest house, a little way down the wide main road that had overtaken the dirt track, Zapheyr tagging along. Kessimh wondered if he was worried too, but he didn’t know Piralael like she did. He was probably more worried about whether she would still be mad at him when they found her.
But when they reached the guest house, they found the communal dining hall empty except for the robots moving about to lay out food on the buffet.
“Nobody’s up yet. We should get something to eat, and by the time we’ve done that they should start showing up.”
If Kessimh was surprised that Zapheyr beat Nichan to that suggestion, she was utterly astounded when Nichan said, “No, we can’t think about food now. We have to find Pear and make sure she’s okay.”
She looked at him, saw the lines on his forehead and how his mouth was drawn into a thin line of a frown. She took hold of his wrist and looked him in the eye. “She’s okay.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“Well, we won’t find out until people come down to eat, will we? So we might as well have breakfast.” Despite the rich, inviting smells now filling up the room and how empty her stomach felt, she was sure that she wouldn’t be able to keep so much as a single morsel down. But still she looked to Zapheyr for assurance.
He shrugged, seemingly oblivious to their worries. “Let’s eat.” He agreed.
Over the next two hours, everybody on the trip came into the communal dining room. The teachers, the few students who had either not come to the party at the village or who had made their way back to the guest house before going to sleep, and the majority who had slept around the fire. Everybody except for Piralael.
Her one-con was unreachable when Kessimh tried to call it and must have been completely shut down as it even steadfastly refused to offer up a location. Her room was empty and undisturbed, having remained unused last night. Nobody had seen her leaving the party or spotted her anywhere else. There was absolutely no trace of her, and now not only Zapheyr but all of the students and teachers shared Kessimh’s and Nichan’s fears.
“I’ve let Piralael’s parents know.” Cristephan told them. “They’re worried, of course, but they’ll be out here by tonight in order to help us in trying to find her. The local secretariat says that they are convening an assembly tonight, but so far anecdotally it appears that nobody from Denwinn has seen her since she left for the old village last night. They’re reaching out now for volunteers to form a search party, and I would suggest that we start at the old village and work our way outwards in groups, systematically.”
Nobody disagreed. It was a sensible plan and all that they could do in the circumstances. But that didn’t mean it would be enough. Kessimh stood, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and back again, hands clenched at her sides.
“Pear wouldn’t get lost or run away.” She said to Nichan. “That’s not her at all. She’d tell us if something was up, and the way we can’t reach her one-con…”
“She was taken.” Nichan finished.
“Yeah. We just need to figure out why. It had to be someone from Novalis, from Denwinn, because we’re the only visitors on the island right now.”
Zapheyr had gone to speak to Cristephan after he had finished telling the students about the search. Now, he came back over to them, a sour look on his face. “I’ve volunteered to help with the search,” he said. “I feel like this was my fault. She wandered off because of me.”
“Pear wouldn’t run away.” Kessimh told him. “We think she was taken.”
He looked scandalised by the notion. “By who?”
“We don’t know. But are we the only visitors on the island?”
“As far as I know. But nobody in Denwinn would –”
“Is there anyone who lives on the island but not in Denwinn?” This was Nichan.
Zapheyr shook his head. “No. There was an old legend about the Old Man of the Forest, but that’s just a myth. Everyone on Novalis lives in Denwinn, and I can’t see why any of them – well, I can’t see why anyone would have any reason to kidnap Pear. To kidnap anyone.”
“Are you certain that this Old Man of the Forest has no basis in fact?”
Zapheyr gave Nichan a look like he had suggested they all drink fire. “The Old Man was an immortal mystic who could talk to the animals in the wild and take on spirit forms. Despite Pear’s insistence yesterday that not everything supernatural can be explained away, I’m certain that he isn’t real.”
“No, okay. But there are still people on Hhingar who follow the old ways, aren’t there? They believe we should follow the rules of life set down by the archangels and all that. So maybe there’s someone on this island who believes the same, and maybe they aren’t a mystic or immortal, but they are following some old code – like those Red Cloaks in your story who climbed up the steps of the Rising Keep because those at the top were nephilim.”
Nichan’s theory did nothing to help Kessimh calm down. “Pear’s not dead!” Her voice rose in a squawk as she said it, making several other students turn to look at her. She forced her voice down to a whisper. “She’s not! I know it!”
“I don’t believe she is either.” Zapheyr added, though he looked somewhat paler now. “Your theory is…interesting, but nobody knows much at all about the Red Cloaks and they certainly aren’t part of the ancient laws set down by the Archangel Michael –”
“Who is Pear’s grandfather, anyway.” Kessimh cut in.
“Really? Well, anyway, even if there is someone on Novalis who follows the old ways and likes to spend time in the forest, that doesn’t mean at all that they’re responsible for Pear’s disappearance!”
“The old man!” Nichan said. “I mean, not The Old Man, but the old man who was with you yesterday; we saw him walking past us at the old village this morning. The way he stared as he wandered past, it was…creepy.”
“Baijenh? I’ve known him for most of my life. Most of the people in Denwinn have. He likes to spend a lot of time out walking in the forest, but you’ll never meet a kinder or more friendly man. I can guarantee that he’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Well do you know who might? You’re not really helping us to find Pear.”
Zapheyr looked angry now. “No, because this pointless speculation isn’t helpful! What will help is once more volunteers arrive and we can go out searching. Ah!”
The doors of the dining room opened and a number of people from the village walked in, the volunteers for the search party. There were about fifteen of them, all told, and Baijenh was one of them. When they saw him, Zapheyr turned to give Kessimh and Nichan a pointed look.
She sighed. She still couldn’t shake the certain feeling that Piralael had been taken rather than had disappeared of her own accord. But for the moment at least, Zapheyr was right that speculation wouldn’t help them find her. They had to go out and look.
When Piralael first awoke, she had a headache. A dull throb in her temples but nothing too serious. Still, it was too early, and she felt nowhere near awake enough to even contemplate getting out of bed. She rolled over, pulling the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Within seconds, she was asleep again. By the time the thought rose in her mind of how she had got into a bed and where exactly she was, sleep had overtaken her.
The next time she woke up, her headache was gone. The sheets felt cool underneath her, and there was a light breeze on her face. She blinked several times as her eyes adjusted to the low light of the room. The window was frosted over, grey light seeping through to illuminate bare walls and a largely featureless room, the bed the only piece of furniture.
She sat up, and that was when she realised that she was naked. Casting about, she couldn’t see her clothes on the floor anywhere. With a groan, she fell back on the bed and put her hands over her face.
“Great judgement Pear…” she muttered. She had spent half the night with her lips locked on Zapheyr’s, and the last thing she remembered was walking away from the fire with him.
There was no point dwelling on it, however. She needed at the least to find out where her clothes had ended up and what time it was. She forced herself to sit up again and swung her legs off the bed. The carpet was thin and the floor hard under her feet. The room was immeasurably colder once she let the covers fall away, her skin prickling. She wrapped her arms and her wings around her body, and it made her a degree or two warmer, as well as largely covering up her nakedness, though it was more awkward to move about like this.
She reached the door and turned the handle, but it wouldn’t open. She rattled it, thinking it might be stiff, but it soon became apparent that it was locked. Another rattle, and even a shoulder barge, but all she ended up with was a sore shoulder.
Another glance around the room was no help. The window was a possible way out, but there was nothing at all that she could use to smash it with. Her dad might have been able to break it with his bare fists, and the door too for that matter, but even if he had given her Iarraindorn as a family name she didn’t have the iron fists that the name might have suggested.
Panic gripped her then. With the realisation that there was no way out of the room, no way to contact anybody and for that matter no suggestion of where she might actually be, she could feel her heart speeding up and tremors in her arms that were nothing to do with the cold. She was trapped. There was no way out. Somebody had kidnapped her, and who knew what they were going to do with her…
Footsteps, making their way down a metal staircase, getting louder as they got closer. Her heart was in her mouth now, and she swallowed down the urge to vomit. She stepped back towards the bed, lowering her arms to her sides and clenching her fists but for now keeping her wings wrapped around her body.
There was a click as somebody unlocked the door and a rusty creak as it swung open. She tensed up, ready to leap, or charge, or something…but all she could do was let out a cry as the stranger stepped into the room, their face shrouded in shadow by their hood. They were wearing a red cloak, a deep, bloody crimson colour that only accentuated the grey all around her.
They were here to kill her, then. At the least, she hoped that they wouldn’t feel the need to use fire to do it. She was only one, after all, unarmed and defenceless. No threat. No hope.
“Who – who are you?” She managed, keeping her voice as steady as possible.
The Red Cloak didn’t answer, only advanced upon her. She retreated from him, but only two steps before the bed caught the back of her legs and she fell into a sitting position. The Red Cloak carried on until they were standing over her and produced a bundle from one wide sleeve, dropping it on the bed next to her. It was a long, plain tunic and a pair of plain leggings.
“Get dressed.” A male voice, low and menacing, a command.
“Those aren’t my clothes.”
“Get dressed.” He repeated, before turning and making his way out of the room.
She stood up and ran after him, for a moment forgetting about her lack of clothing and opening her wings so that she could move more freely. “Wait. Who are you? Why are you doing this? Where am I?” She placed a hand on his shoulder.
Without hesitation, he spun and elbowed her in the face. There was an explosion of pain in her cheek and she fell to the floor with a cry. She couldn’t see anything beyond streaks of white and yellow light. The pain spread out across her whole face.
“Get dressed.” The Red Cloak said again. Then the door slammed, locked, and she was alone.
Still on the floor, Piralael lowered her head and fell sideways, pulling her knees up towards her chest. She closed her eyes to shut out the light and let the tears flow.
By the time night came, Kessimh’s head was pounding so relentlessly that she was seeing spots in her vision. Her stomach wouldn’t stop roiling, despite her having vomited three times and dry-heaved several more times since she had run out of things to throw up. Her legs ached, her arms were as heavy as tree stumps and her cheeks were stained with tears.
The search had been thorough. The island wasn’t all that big, and with the search party growing to eighty people they had been able to cover almost all of it across the course of the day. The old village had been empty, the only sign that anyone had been there at all being some tracks and a partially buried fire pit. All of the other ruins were empty too; the burnt out skeleton of a large cathedral, the town that had been almost entirely swallowed up by the forest so that trees grew even out of broken roofs and empty doorways, the circle of stones which was almost like a miniature of Parchilyorn, and a number of hovels which stood alone in the wilderness. There was no sign of her in the forest, even though it felt like they had picked over every hectare of trees. The Rising Keep was empty. Piralael was nowhere to be found.
Kessimh’s mind was drawn, irresistibly, to dark possibilities. No matter how much she tried to turn her thoughts away, she couldn’t stop herself from wondering if her friend had been killed by some fanatic who thought they were continuing the work of Zapheyr’s Red Cloaks. Or if she had been too drunk when wandering alone and unable to stop herself being washed out to sea. Or if she was being held somewhere by a kidnapper, subjected to who knew what tortures.
Nichan’s strong hand on her back helped. The rhythmic up-and-down motion helping to calm her stomach if not her nerves. She closed her eyes and swallowed down the bile, trying to focus on Nichan’s warmth and not on any of the horrible things that could have happened to Piralael.
They were on the steps outside the village hall, a grand, column-fronted building whose elegance contrasted sharply with the clean utilitarianism of all the other buildings around it. A statue of Keyon sat on the back of a rearing horse, drawn sword pointing down towards the sea, loomed over them as they sat there.
Kessimh managed to compose herself by the time people started arriving for the assembly. She still felt shaky and ready to vomit at a moment’s notice, but she was pretty sure that it wouldn’t be obvious anymore. At least to people who didn’t know her. She stood up and watched the people of Denwinn file inside. She scanned the faces, not looking for anyone or anything in particular, just trying to take her mind off what was happening. It didn’t have that effect, though, when people looked back at her and she saw sympathy or concern in their eyes.
Piralael’s parents stepped out of the crowd towards them. Anael pulled first Kessimh and then Nichan into a hug. Nuadhu greeted them with a firm grip on their shoulders. Then they stood facing each other, and it was about half a minute before anybody spoke.
“I’m so sorry. We don’t know what happened.” The words came out of Kessimh’s mouth in a rush.
Anael took her hand and squeezed it. “It’s okay. We’ll find her.”
Kessimh felt the tears threatening again and blinked them back. It was Anael’s daughter who was missing, so Kessimh should be offering her comfort rather than the other way around. She nodded. “We will.”
The tunic had been cut so that she could pull it on over her wings, like her own clothes, but it was rough and uncomfortable. Once she finally forced herself to get up off the floor, her whole face still on fire, she put it on and sat on the bed. She could feel the bruise spreading across her cheek even as she sat there, wincing at the flare of pain when she touched it but unable to resist doing so again.
She had no way to judge how long she sat there in silence, waiting, before she heard footsteps again. There was no change in the light through the window, no sound from outside, nothing at all until all of a sudden, her captor was here again. There was a click as the door unlatched, but it didn’t open. She heard voices beyond it, low murmurs that she couldn’t quite make out the words of. She pushed off the bed and crept closer to the door so that she could hear properly.
“…you aren’t needed here. You need to make sure you are above reproach.”
“No arguments! Go. Make sure you are seen at the assembly and are above reproach, or we are doomed before we have even begun!”
There was a sigh, and then footsteps leading away. Another moment of silence. Then a sigh, and the door was shoved open with a bang. Piralael cried out and scrambled backwards. The Red Cloak stalked towards her, grabbed the front of her tunic and pulled her to her feet. She caught a glimpse of his face, then. Light brown skin with bright blue eyes, his mouth set in a sneer.
He forced her hands together in front of her, ignoring her cries and futile struggles, and bound her hands tightly with rope. She yelled and swore at him, and he responded with a slap. As she clutched her face, he grabbed at her wings and pulled them back, making her scream. Then he bound the tips of her wings together, bottom and top. Evidently, he was unaware that she couldn’t use them to fly anyway. He shoved her towards the door and barked, “Go!”
“Where are you taking me? What do you want with me?”
“I said, go!” Another shove.
She walked out of the door and into a bland corridor with a set of metal steps leading upwards. She stopped at the stairs and looked back, but the Red Cloak was a few steps behind her and gestured brusquely upwards.
The stairs carried on straight up beyond the next floor, and she wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to stop there or carry on upwards. But when she paused, she was met with a shout of, “Up!” She carried on until she reached the next floor. Another empty corridor but no more stairs. There was a single door at the end.
Through it, she found a large, darkened room with strange lettering daubed across the walls and ceiling in a paint that made them glow. There were tall candelabras in the four corners, each holding seven candles, and in the centre of the room a round table marked in the same ink; a five pointed star with more of the letters inside and outside of the symbol and a lit candle at each point. There were six Red Cloaks around the table, all facing her when she entered. She tried to back away, but backed into the Red Cloak behind her, who shoved her into the room.
“What is this?” She asked.
“Are the preparations made?” One of the Red Cloaks around the table asked the one who had brought her, ignoring her question.
“Everything is ready.”
“Good. Then we can move.”
“Move? Where? Where are you taking me?” She cried out.
Again, she was ignored. “Prepare the nephilim for transport.”
Two of the Red Cloaks left the table and went over to the back wall, where they pulled out a hidden compartment which turned out to be a large trunk. With some effort, they lifted it up and carried it around the table to place it down next to her, where they opened the lid. There were manacles chained to the inside of the box.
“No! No, you can’t please!” She struggled as they grabbed her, kicking and waving her bound arms about. But it was to no avail, as she was lifted up off the ground and dropped roughly into the box. She landed awkwardly and screamed as a jolt of pain shot up her wings when they bent. Tears streamed down her face, but that wasn’t the last of it as she was jostled into the correct position, the manacles locked around her wrists once her rope bounds were cut. Then the lid closed, and she was left with only a pitch blackness she could feel the closeness of.
She kicked at the wood and screamed until her throat was raw and her chest burned. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and she was convinced that they would be her last. This was a coffin. They would bury her alive and that would be the end of it, revealing the burning of her fellow nephilim on the Rising Keep so long ago as a mercy she wouldn’t get. Her screams died down to sobs and whimpers as she realised that there was nothing she could do to stop it. Then she felt the world about her rock as the Red Cloaks picked up the trunk and carried it who knew where.