Sins of the Angels is out today! (30 October 2020) Read on for the last sample chapter, and if you like what you read then order the book in hardcover, paperback or e-reader format via the Universal Book Link.
There was air coming into the box. But that didn’t mean it was easy to breathe. Her chest was tight, her breaths coming in shallow and rapid, and her head swam. The time in which she was jostled about by movement felt endless while it was happening, then appeared to have taken no time at all once it was done. After that she was laid down flat somewhere, the only accompaniment to her own ragged breaths being the occasional low murmur of voices.
Time passed, but she had no way to measure it. The light didn’t change whether her eyes were open or shut, and when she got up the energy to do it her shouting and banging and kicking at the box got no reaction whatsoever. Soon she gave up.
In the darkness, grey would pick itself out from the black and take shapes. Shapes would become memories and she would drift away from this place. Once she was playing with her dad, the two of them running about the garden and throwing a handball to each other. She was five, and already excelling at the sport, but still prone to clumsiness however and in one fumble the ball knocked her on the head so that she fell to the ground. However, she blinked too long and before her dad could run over and comfort her, she was back in the box.
Later she was walking along the waterfront at night, holding hands with a boy. Her first boyfriend, Layemh. The stars were bright in the sky and there was a crisp coldness to the air which meant they had to wrap up warm, but which felt good to be out in. He was a year older than her, tall and handsome with an easy wit which kept her laughing. Eventually they had stopped, looking out over the shimmering black of the sea at night and he had gently caressed her cheek with his hand. A tremor ran through her, her heart feeling like it would burst. He closed his eyes and leaned in, and she did the same.
Then she was back in the box and she wanted to cry, to scream, to rage, but she didn’t have the energy. How long was she going to have to endure this? How long before she was dragged out and shown whatever fate awaited her? Part of her would at least have welcomed it as respite from this feeling. Being tied up with rope, but at least somewhere where she could see her surroundings and move a little, would have been a welcome step up.
When she was nine, the first night after she had gotten her period, she had a nightmare about being buried alive. Eventually, that was. First she had struggled through hours where she couldn’t get comfortable at all, where despite the chill in the air outside due to the wind and managing to adjust the climate in her bedroom to match she had been too hot, her skin too clammy and the bed clinging to it as though for dear life. Her reward for enduring that was a dream where she had been laid down into a box not too dissimilar from this one and lowered into the ground. She could hear the words of the ceremony above her, going on heedless of her cries and struggles, and then heard the crash of the dirt being thrown on top of her coffin.
Though now she thought about it, that hadn’t been the worst dream of the night. Due to her discomfort, she had drifted in and out of sleep several times over the course of the night and been plagued by weird dreams for her troubles.
In one, she had been a child of only six years old, wearing a thin white shift and standing alone in a tall, draughty building. There were rows of benches behind her, an aisle running up the middle of them. She was stood on it, the line of red carpet running down it offering her feet respite from the cold stone of the rest of the floor. Ahead of her, several wide steps led up to an altar surrounded by candelabras, the orange flames burning atop them the main source of illumination. She had moved to the first step and dropped to her knees, with her hands clasped. That was when she had become aware of a man behind her, his hand now pressed firmly upon her shoulder.
“Pray, child. You have done no wrong in yourself, but your form is an affront to the Father. Pray so that though you cannot be allowed to remain on mortal soil you may be taken into His embrace in Elysium.”
Then the sound of steel scraping against leather, a flash of sharp metal out of the corner of her eyes and the cold, biting at her side. At nine, she had screamed and then cried in her mum’s arms once she came running into the room. Now, she gasped and cursed her memories for dragging her back to that awful dream.
But was the man with the sword wearing a red cloak? That could be a detail that her mind had added in response to her current situation, but she wondered. After all, nothing of that dream made sense until now, knowing that people like her were killed just for the crime of being born. Nephilim. Abominations. Had the dream been a muddled premonition, or the memory of somebody who had already suffered this fate? She shook her head. It was probably just her mind tormenting her, playing on her fears. None of it was helpful, either way.
Eventually, long past the point when she had given up hoping that it ever would, the lid on the box opened. Piralael blinked against the light, so bright and intense for a moment that she could make out no detail in it. Then her eyes adjusted, and she saw that there was a shrouded face looking down at her.
Hands reached in and after unlocking her shackles they gripped her limbs, lifting her up. She found the energy then to thrash and kick and scream once more, but it hardly mattered. They lifted her from the box and dumped her unceremoniously on a surprisingly comfy chair. Her hands, feet and wings remained bound so that she had a limited range of motion. Looking around, she saw that she was in a shuttle flying over open water. That meant that they were off the island, but gave no real clue as to what their destination might be.
The nearest of the Red Cloaks was still staring at her, quite intently. It made her skin crawl, but she forced herself to meet his gaze levelly and ask, “Where are you taking me?”
She blinked, surprised that she had gotten an answer at all, before composing herself. “That I gathered. Where?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me, since I’m being taken there against my will.” It was an effort, keeping her voice calm. One moment she wanted to shout and rage, the next to whimper and cry. “Where are you taking me?”
The Red Cloak looked at her, opened his mouth to speak. Then a hand touched his shoulder and he closed it again. The standing Red Cloak’s stare was harder, with far more threat behind it, and his voice was so low and deep that it was almost a growl.
“You are going where we are taking you, abomination. That is all you need to know.”
She wanted to remain defiant, to spit and swear in his face. But all she could do was cringe from the voice and struggle not to show any fear. She was still sure that she had failed, but it hardly seemed to matter once he had turned away and returned to his seat. Deflated and defeated, her limbs itching where the rope bound them, she turned to watch the ocean as they travelled, her destination and her fate still unknown.
Long after she had given up trying to measure the passage of time, given up trying to get answers, given up anything but staring listlessly out of the window, she saw land. Though she had known logically that it wouldn’t be, she still felt her heart sink with the confirmation that it wasn’t Nellh or anywhere close.
The sea swelled and crashed in a white froth against a sheer wall of black rock. It rose from the water some three thousand meters, pocked with smoking crevices. The top of the cliff was almost entirely obscured by a dense, sulphurous fog. It was midday, with the sun at its height, yet as the shuttle made its way over the land the light retreated from them as though it feared to follow them. A ridiculous notion, yet one that seemed all too plausible as they glided silently between black land and grey sky, flashes of orange piercing the monochrome when geysers of flame erupted around them.
“Pyriphyx.” The word came out of her mouth as a whisper.
“Yes. The great Fire Rock, the forge of Our Father’s wrath.” The Red Cloak with the growling voice gestured sharply at her. “On your feet.”
Her chest felt tight and her stomach lurched. “What?” She glanced down again at the inhospitable ground below them. “You can’t mean – we’re not going down there?”
The grin she got in response did nothing to calm her down. “What’s the matter, nephilim? Surely an unholy creature such as yourself should expect to walk through fire?”
She said nothing to that, only looked again down at the rock below. Would they just open a door and throw her out? Or would they find somewhere relatively safe to land, so that they could set her down safely and then abandon her to find her own death? Or would they lead her directly into a fire geyser? She clenched her fists and sat back further in her seat, as though simply refusing to stand up would avert any of those fates.
She was disabused of that notion very quickly, with the younger Red Cloak grabbing her wrists and dragging her to her feet. An involuntary yelp escaped her mouth. He winced at the sound, but then his face hardened and he dragged her towards the front of the shuttle.
“Please, no. Don’t. Please.”
A backhand caught her across the cheek, the shock of it silencing her. Her feet shuffled forward still, and in a moment she was standing by a door close to the pilot’s cabin at the front of the shuttle. This was it then; they would simply open it up and shove her out. She tensed, waiting for the push on her back.
It never came. As they sunk lower, the fog swallowed them up and she could see nothing at all. They must have been moving forward, still, but with the shuttle’s silent propulsion and the wall of grey outside it felt as though they were floating in a void.
There was a jolt as, presumably, they landed. It was still impossible to see anything outside but fog, however, and the Red Cloaks appeared in no hurry to move. She looked at each of them, but neither betrayed any hint of what might happen next.
“What are we –”
Thud. A shape appeared outside the door and Piralael let go a scream. She was hit by a blast of heat as the door opened, the air thick with the smell of sulphur. Her skin prickled and sweat beaded on the back of her neck and under her arms. The figure outside was another Red Cloak, and he looked her up and down before grabbing the rope at her wrists to drag her outside.
Within moments, the shuttle disappeared in the fog. She couldn’t see beyond the Red Cloak pulling her forward, and when she craned her neck to look the other two were just on the edge of her vision. The heat was the only thing heavier than the fog, and her chest heaved as she struggled to breathe properly. The lumbering steps she took as she was dragged forward were as difficult as sprinting might have been in a normal climate. Her legs burned, her throat was raw and her breath came ragged.
Maybe fifteen feet away, fire tore through the fog as a geyser shot towards the sky. She jumped, but the Red Cloaks hardly reacted at all. Did they not see it? Did they know where the geysers would be so that they could avoid them? No answers offered themselves to her.
Shortly, she saw the Red Cloak ahead of her sink into the ground. Then she felt the steps and half-stumbled as she found her footing to go down them. They appeared to have been carved through the black rock, a hole in the ground. The fog came with them as they descended, but soon she couldn’t see it as the last traces of light vanished. All she had was the apparent evenness of the descent, four sets of echoing footfalls, and the pull of the Red Cloak leading her on down.
How many metres she descended below the surface she wasn’t sure. But eventually the heat subsided and it became easier to breathe. Soon after that it could even be described as cool, the sensation pleasant on her skin after such high temperatures above. She knew that this shouldn’t have been the case, that it should have been much hotter underground. Perhaps uninhabitable. The cause of the lower temperature couldn’t have been natural. But she was grateful for it, either way.
When a dim light reasserted itself, it painted everything in grey hues, including the cloaks of her captors. Gradually it got brighter, allowing her eyes to adjust to it slowly, and she could once more see everything in full colour just as the stairs ended.
The tunnel, burrowed through the rock, widened into a white-walled room. Bare and empty but for the steel gate at the end and the two Red Cloaks who stood guarding it, both holding long halberds and carrying pistols holstered at their sides. Piralael wondered who might come here besides them to warrant such security, but they took it very seriously and crossed their halberds in front of the gate when they saw her and her escort approach.
“You know the drill. Show your faces.” One of the guards said, sounding weary rather than cautious.
All three of the Red Cloaks lowered their hoods. The one who had met them when they landed, she was surprised to see, was female. In her mid thirties at least, with short, dark hair and a hard face, but still striking. The older one with the growling voice had close-cropped white hair and a scar running down the left side of his face past his eye. The younger one had straw blond hair, pale skin and a thin face; he looked nervous, chewing on his lower lip.
A couple of seconds passed, then the guards drew back their halberds and the gate raised up. “Biometric scan clear. Go on through.” The one who had made them lower their hoods said. “The prisoner is to go to room three-oh-seven.”
Hoods were hastily pulled up once again. Piralael made a note of it, wondering why they hid their faces even amongst their own people. But before she could draw any conclusions one of them shoved her in the back, and the woman dragged her on. There was nothing for it but to go through the gate to whatever waited beyond. At the very least, she knew that she wasn’t going to die. Not just yet, at least.
Room 307, it turned out, was a cell. No windows, barely big enough for a hard bed, a wash basin and a toilet, and just enough space to move between them. What she saw of the rest of this place was just corridors; she could hardly recall all the turns they had taken to follow almost identical, bare passageways to get here. The only features were the airlock-style door that led into the last and shortest corridor, and the triple-locked door into what was apparently her new home, the only door that she had encountered since the steel grate with guards outside of it.
She had been left alone some considerable time ago, after the binds on her hands and wings had finally been cut. With nothing else to do, she had decided to try and get some sleep. But the bed might as well have been a slab of rock, and on top of everything else she was developing a headache, the pressure growing on her temples. With sleep out of the question, though, she couldn’t get comfy either lying down or sitting up. So she had ended up pacing, trying vainly to order her thoughts and draw something, anything useful from them.
It was obvious enough that they had taken her because of her heritage. Even without their identifying clothing, the use of the word ‘abomination’ to address her made it clear enough. But why had they taken her? The Red Cloaks that Zapheyr had told her about had killed the nephilim on the Rising Keep, not taken them prisoner…
Zapheyr. He had hardly entered her mind since she had realised that she had been kidnapped. But they had spent half the night all over one another, overtaken by drunken lust. He was possibly drunker than her, in the end, since she had forced him to catch up to her and he had done so far too fast. By the time that they had decided to leave the camp fire and head back to Denwinn, he had been leaning on her, slurring his words and unable to walk in a straight line.
What had she expected of him if she had been able to get him into bed, in that state? But then, she had been drunk herself so she probably wasn’t in any position to think it through. In either case, she remembered them reaching his house. He had fallen over in front of the door, which had provoked high-pitched laughter from her, even as she tried to shush herself.
That was when the Red Cloaks had appeared, the first she saw of them being a hand clamped firmly over her mouth. She had kicked and struggled, but there had been too many of them. They had dragged her away easily, she remembered now.
Still, Zapheyr had been there. Drunk or not, he must have seen them. Which means that he would have told others, so whoever was looking for her now couldn’t be too far behind…
But then she remembered one of the Red Cloaks approaching Zapheyr, leaning over him as he scrambled on the floor. She had thought they would take him as well, or worse, kill him. But he had looked up and the Red Cloak had slapped him hard across the face so that he fell over onto his backside.
“You disgrace yourself! What were you going to do if we had not arrived, defile yourself with the abomination?”
“I delivered her, didn’t I? You have her…”
The words had faded as she was dragged away. But the meaning was clear enough, even when dredged up in half a memory two days later. Zapheyr was the reason she was here now, facing whatever fate it was that awaited her. Bile rose in her throat. She yelled at the empty room, no words, just raw anger, then dropped to the bed and put her head in her hands.
That was how she was when the door finally opened again, and somebody stepped inside. She looked up, and her breath caught in her throat. Who else but Zapheyr, with the hood down but nevertheless wearing the Red Cloak?
“Funny. I was just thinking about you.” She said, proud that her voice stayed level.
He flinched as if she had roared in his face. “I’m sorry…”
Now her voice did rise. “You’re sorry? Really?” The laughter that escaped her mouth was bitter, harsh. “Well, thanks. That makes up for being dragged away against my will and shoved in a cage on an island of fire.”
“Pear.” She gave him a sharp look and he swallowed. “Piralael, then. You have to understand –”
“I don’t, and I won’t. But if you’re so intent on salving your conscience by justifying yourself to me, get it over with so that I can enjoy the rest of my kidnapping in peace.”
She saw his fists clench, then, and flinched. But he blew out a long breath and relaxed his hands before going on. “I was raised in The Service of Our Father – that’s our proper name, the Red Cloaks. My parents were part of the faith, and theirs before them, and on back. Over thirty generations. I was always taught that nephilim were abominations, the result of the sins of the angels. It was our sacred duty to intervene when we found out that one of you had been born, and that refusal to do so was a betrayal of He who created us.”
“Okay. Is there a point to that spiel?” She cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes. It’s that I had this drummed into me since I could barely walk and talk. It was the truth, because I’d never been told anything to the contrary. But until you I’d never actually…I spoke to you, meaning to gain your trust so that we could take you…but I never realised that you were just like everyone else. That you were an ordinary person, and that the wings on your back didn’t make you evil. So, I’m sorry.”
“Okay.” She shrugged. “That it?”
He bit his lip, looking pained.
She laughed in his face. “What? You thought you’d tell me how conflicted you were, how bad this made you feel, and I’d forgive you? Maybe even let you pick up where we left off the other night as a reward for how bad you feel?” She spat at him, hitting his cloak.
“I just wanted you to know that I was sorry.” He said, his voice now very small.
“Yeah, well…” A thought occurred to her, and she softened her voice. Hoping that she hadn’t scuppered her chance to at least get some answers. “Can you at least tell me what’s going to happen to me?”
Hesitation. No matter how sorry he may have been, Zapheyr was still clearly bound to the teachings of his cult. But he did relent. “Okay. Well, The Service has hunted nephilim since before the Independence Accord. There have been far more of them than you might think, in that time, and they – we have pursued them not just on Avetana but throughout the Ring of Worlds. But it’s been over a century since the last time a nephilim was captured.”
“Kidnapped and murdered, you mean.”
He winced at that. “At any rate, because you’re the first for so long they want to make an example of you. A spectacle.”
Her skin prickled cold at that. “A spectacle? What does –”
“My son talks far too much.” A low, rumbling voice said. The Red Cloak with the scar, stepping into the cell as the door opened once again. “But for now that will be the end of it.”
Zapheyr didn’t protest or put up a fight, just lowered his head and slunk out with one last sorrowful look at Piralael, which she met with as hard a glare as she could muster.
“So you’re his dad? Really is nothing going for him, then, was –”
The slap stung her cheek, making her vision flash with stars and her ears ring. She clutched her face and fell back, teeth gritted so that she didn’t cry out.
“That is more than enough from you. You know too much already, when the only thing you need to know is that you are an abomination. You are a thing that should not be, and once you have served our purposes you will not be.” Then the door closed, and she was left alone. She was shaking from the adrenaline rush, tears running down her face and the urge pulling at her to run at the door and kick and punch at it until her fists bled. She resisted it, telling herself that she needed her strength, but at the same time worrying that all she was conserving it for was to meet her own death well.