Sins of the Angels is out this Friday (30 October 2020). Read on for the penultimate 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.)
Piralael wasn’t on Novalis. The assembly had confirmed this using sky-watch, a live satellite image showing the entirety of the island from above which they had then switched over to infra-red. There was one concentrated heat source within the village hall, with everybody gathered, and innumerable spots too small to be human beings that frittered about the island’s forest, but nothing else. There was no other human being on the island beyond those in that room.
Anael had a grip on calm. She needed it, for the sake of her husband and her daughter’s friends, but most of all for her daughter. Panic wouldn’t get them any closer to finding Piralael. But it was a precarious grip, especially as she was told that nobody had entered or left the island in the last twenty-four hours.
“They must have.” She insisted. “Either somebody was able to get off Novalis without being detected, or they have found a way to block out sky-watch infra-red, or they’re hiding in plain sight underneath this hall while all of the heat signatures on the island are grouped together here.” When the man, a delegate to the Denwinn secretariat called Nineveh, opened his mouth she cut him off with a pointed finger. “Those are the only possibilities.”
“Yes.” He said, nodding. “But if anyone has left then we can’t find any evidence of when or in what direction. If someone is blocking the infra-red there’s no way to tell. And there is nothing under this building.”
“You’re certain that your daughter wouldn’t have disappeared of her own accord?” Someone asked, from the middle of the crowd.
She gritted her teeth. Nuadhu put his hand on her shoulder.
“We don’t think she would have, and nobody else here who knows her thinks that either.”
“I don’t think she would. As far as I could tell she was heading back to the party.” The boy, Zapheyr. He had bags under his eyes and appeared as worried as Kessimh and Nichan were, and he had been the only person in Denwinn who had seen her at all outside of the party. His parents had confirmed that he had come home alone, so there was no guilt to lay at his door, but still Anael couldn’t help thinking that her daughter wouldn’t be missing if it weren’t for him.
“So where does that leave us? We have no leads whatsoever, nothing to go on.” She wanted to scream, to rage at the top of her lungs. But what would that accomplish?
“We have already agreed to conduct another search tomorrow.” Nulveh said. “Using scent-hounds and ground scanners and going through every building in Denwinn as well as the forest and the ruins. If Piralael is on Novalis, we will find her.”
If they found her, it would be as a corpse. He didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to. There was nobody living to be found except for in this room, which meant either Piralael had been taken off the island or she was dead. And everybody seemed to be working hard to discount the former as a possibility. It was too much. Tears threatened, and her grip on calm was faltering. She had to get out of there.
A path cleared as she turned and walked out of the hall, nobody meeting her eyes. They didn’t have to. She was certain what they were all thinking, their pity and their condescension. She could almost smell it in the air.
When she got outside and the cold night air hit her, the tears came, and she fell back against one of the columns that fronted the building. Her hands were shaking, and she couldn’t seem to make them stop.
Nuadhu appeared a moment later, his face set. She had known him long enough to know that he was facing the same conflict that she was. She looked into his eyes for several long moments, then let him pull her into a hug. His warmth, his strength, the press of his body against hers wasn’t a solution to anything, but it was exactly what she needed at that moment.
“Our girl is out there somewhere.” He told her. “I know she’s not…” His voice wavered. “She’s not on Novalis anymore. Somebody took her away, and we’re going to find her.”
After Anael and Nuadhu left, the assembly didn’t so much end as disintegrate. A silence and stiffness prevailed for a short while, and then with what they were going to do the next day already agreed and nothing else to say, people started to drift away. Soon enough, the village hall was empty and Kessimh’s form were heading down the road in the artificial twilight towards the guest house and apartments.
Kessimh had hold of Nichan’s hand, and as they walked they fell further and further behind the crowd. Eventually, they were alone on an empty street and they stopped moving.
“We should do something.” She said.
“What can we do? We’ve got no way to find her that hasn’t already been suggested.” He pointed out.
“I know. But…” She let the thought hang there, unfinished.
Nichan gave her a gentle smile and reached out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. His touch sent a tingle down her neck. “She is out there, somewhere. Somebody will find her and she’ll be okay. We just need to wait.”
She chewed her lip for a moment, looking into his eyes. They were really beautiful. Had she noticed that before? She felt as though she ought to have. She shook her head. “Come on. Let’s catch up with everybody. Once we’ve had some sleep, we’ll be able to work out a way to track her down.”
“We’re doing this, Nick. I just need to recharge before we do, because I can’t think straight right now.” That wasn’t quite true. But the only things that she could think of were still the worst possible outcomes, a myriad of reasons why Piralael was lost to them forever and would never be found. It was getting worse as she got more tired, and it was making her more tired as it got worse.
“Okay. Let’s go and get some rest then.”
But as they reached the guest house, they were greeted by the unwelcome sight of Baijenh waiting for them just outside the door. He looked up as he saw them coming and greeted them with a thin smile. Kessimh tensed up and she gripped Nichan’s arm tight. She heard his breath whistle out through clenched teeth at her side and knew that he was just as alarmed at the sight of the old man as she was.
“Hello there.” Baijenh’s voice was low and calm, each word sounding as though spoken with great care and precision. “You are friends with Piralael, yes?”
Kessimh shared a look with Nichan, “Why?”
“You needn’t be alarmed. I want to help you.” They were both staring at him, wary, yet he held their gaze easily. “Your friend is still alive, but she is in great danger if you do not find her soon.”
“You should know; you took her!” Nichan blurted. Then, realising the error of his haste, “I mean, we saw you wandering through the woods first thing this morning…”
“You did, and I was. But I often go for walks through the forest. I did not take your friend, and I may be the only one who can help you find her.” He didn’t seem offended by Nichan’s accusation at all, but his tone was also clear that he wasn’t willing to indulge it either. “If you do want to find her, then we must go now.”
They glared at the old man. “Go…?”
“Your friend isn’t on Novalis anymore. She has been taken elsewhere. But we cannot wait too long if we want to catch up.”
“Catch up? No.” Kessimh shook her head. She shouldn’t have been even entertaining this notion. Although she wasn’t certain that Baijenh had anything to do with Piralael’s disappearance, like Nichan was, that didn’t mean she believed that he could help find her either. Not enough to run off in the middle of the night with a stranger. “No, they’re doing another search tomorrow and…”
“They will not find her.”
“Maybe not, but it won’t help anybody if two more of us go missing either!”
For just a moment, she thought she saw impatience flash across the old man’s face. Then it was gone. “Very well. But you must make your excuses before I return tomorrow, and even then, it may be too late.” With that, he turned and walked off down the road.
“Excuses? What excuses are there for disappearing off the island in the middle of a school trip while everyone’s looking for Pear?” Nichan asked once Baijenh had left.
Kessimh shook her head. “Never mind that. Do you believe him?”
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he couldn’t for the same reason as Kessimh couldn’t. It seemed incredible and highly suspicious; but what if they were wrong and they missed their chance to find Piralael?
Sleep wouldn’t come. No matter how hard she closed her eyes, and no matter how much she tossed and turned, it eluded her. The room was dark and quiet, but her mind was ablaze. Her thoughts were not linear; memories wrestled with fears and hopes with suspicions, all taking her down dark and drawn out paths as they jockeyed for position.
She would remember Piralael crying when she fell off her first bike and skimmed her knee, and then wonder if she was crying now. Why? Where was she? What was being done to her? Then the shadows in the corners of her mind would shape themselves into monsters. Or she would wonder about a certain person in the village, but before she could examine her suspicions and whether they held weight, she would see that person’s face leering over Piralael as she lay bound on the floor. Bloodied and scared, wondering what would come next. And on. And on.
Several times, Anael toyed with the idea of getting up, but how tired she was and the need to be sharp for another day of searching kept her trying to sleep. Only when she rolled over and saw that she was alone in bed did she force herself to sit up. The lights came on low as she sat up, and she slid out of bed.
After slipping on a dressing gown, she made her way through to the lounge. That was where she found Nuadhu, sitting in an armchair in the near darkness, staring at nothing in particular. When she entered the room, he turned towards her and offered a sad smile.
“Dark in here.” She said, pointlessly. Yet she made no move to turn the lights on. “How long have you been up?”
“Hmm. Fancy some coffee?”
“No, not really.” A pause. “Actually, go on then.”
She nodded and walked through to the kitchen to get a pot brewing. It wouldn’t help, either by making them feel more awake or by offering any kind of refreshment. At best it would give them several moments of warmth and buzz that would quickly fade. But it felt like the proper thing to do in this situation, somehow more useful than staring blankly in the dark, at least as far as appearances went.
Getting the drinks ready seemed to take longer than usual, the silence weighing heavy on her as she waited. Once she came back into the lounge and put the drinks down, that weight settled between them like a stone descending to the ocean floor. They met each other’s gaze and held it for several moments, before looking away to pick up their drinks and take a sip.
“Thanks.” Nuadhu said, perhaps just so as to have a word pass between them.
“Do you remember that day when we stood on that open grassland somewhere between Germania and Sarmatia, with an army of a hundred thousand at our backs?”
She raised an eyebrow. It was a memory that she hadn’t dredged up in a very long time. One that had been a defining moment of almost two millennia of her life, but one which she had thought she had put to rest two decades ago.
“I don’t think I’d ever felt fear before then. Not really, I mean. When I stood up to Judoc, the first time it had been with all the arrogance of a child and the last time in single combat it had been fuelled by fury and the need for vengeance. There were some scary moments on the way to that battle, but never anything like the crushing, almost paralysing fear before that charge. I faced up to my own death as a realistic proposition, then, and I think my war cry was more aimed at myself than the enemy. To shock myself into action.”
Anael remembered it clearly enough. “There have been battles since.”
“None like that. But that existential terror, the weight on your chest as you struggle to breathe, the feeling of helpless inevitability, I’ve not felt it in all the long years since…not until –”
“Don’t you dare say it. Don’t you fucking dare.” She found that she had tensed up, her hands clenched into fists and tremors running up her arms. She could feel the moisture building in her eyes.
“We’re going to find her. I don’t just hope that, though I do, with all my heart. I believe it. I believe it as an absolute certainty. We will find her. But I’m so scared, Ana.”
She reached over and squeezed his hand. It was clammy and shaking. When he looked at her, the tears had left clear trails down her cheeks. He had bags under his eyes and a weariness in them that could never be explained by a lack of sleep.
The last time that she had seen him looking so vulnerable he had been twelve and on the cusp of manhood, more lifetimes ago than she cared to count. After he had witnessed his parents murdered and she had barely gotten him and his younger brother Pwyll away safely, after the rage had subsided, all he had been able to do was stare blankly at the fire. Until she had put her arm around him, and the tears had come in floods.
“What do we do if tomorrow there’s no sign of her? If she has been taken off Novalis?”
She held his eye. “We look for her elsewhere. Like you said, we will find her.”
“We can’t go off with the old man.” Kessimh insisted, unsure if she was arguing with Nichan or with her own uncertainty.
“So what are we supposed to do?” His mind was made up, she could tell from his expression and his tone. He was certain now, so it was only her who was left needing to decide.
“We’re supposed to stay with everyone else.”
“But what if Baijenh is telling the truth?”
“What if he’s not? Come on Nick, you were the one who was most adamant that he had something to with Pear’s disappearance. If you’re right, then all we’d be doing is handing ourselves over to him.”
“No, but if he wanted to take us then why not just snatch us? It doesn’t make sense, and I don’t believe that he had anything to do with it anymore. I think he’s telling the truth.”
She leaned back in the armchair and gave him a long look. They were in her apartment, both with steam rising from hot long-berry teas in front of them. As soon as she had sat down, all the strength had gone from her legs and now she couldn’t contemplate moving ever again. But at the same time, she was as far from sleep as it was possible to be, and she couldn’t see the drinks helping.
She shook her head.
“You think he’s lying?”
“No. Well, I mean, I don’t know. But we’ve nothing substantial to say one way or another, have we? This is just going to be a big leap of faith.”
“Yeah, it is. But what other choice do we have? If he can’t help us and we go, then there’s nothing lost. But if he can and we don’t go, then we lose the chance to find Pear and are reduced to sitting and waiting with everyone else until we hear some bad news.”
She put two fingers to her temples, closed her eyes and blew out a long breath. It was hard to argue with Nichan’s logic, simply because he was probably right. But… But, what? Why was she trying so hard to talk herself out of this, to throw up obstacles? She couldn’t answer that, nevertheless she offered another one. “What about Pear’s parents? Shouldn’t we tell Anael and Nuadhu that…?”
“If Baijenh had wanted them to know, he would have gone to them.”
“We can’t not tell them. I mean, we have to say something about where we’re going so everyone doesn’t think we’ve been taken as well, don’t we? So we can tell them…something.”
“We’ll leave a note.”
“So, we’re doing this, are we?”
Nichan shrugged. “I don’t see any alternative.” That was the thing, wasn’t it? No matter how long she looked at the problem, and how many different angles she tried to come at it from, nor could she.