Hey there, readers.
D.K. Bussell’s brand new fantasy series, Trolled, goes live November 28th, so to celebrate, we’re offering a free Chapter One preview. Have a read below, or if you’d prefer to download it to your reading device, get your copy HERE.
If you like what you see, the book is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Chapter One: Time In
The Peak of Durkon, The Broken Lands, Tordocia
BENEATH A LEAD grey sky, shrouded in a fog as thick as curdled milk, rose the Peak of Durkon, its jagged cliffs capturing the surrounding winds and transforming them into a sound like a chorus of frostbitten infants.
Atop this brooding peak, protected by fortified battlements and patrolled by a garrison of guards that need never sleep, squatted the Citadel of Durkon.
Within this Citadel was an ink-black keep, and inside its shadow-drenched minaret resided Drensila the Black, a sorceress of bottomless evil and the scourge of all she surveyed.
Chipping Ongar, Essex. England
BENEATH AN ALTOGETHER different lead grey sky, shrouded in a fog of exhaust fumes as thick as dirty dishwater, lay the parish of Chipping Ongar.
Once a thriving Saxon market town, Chipping Ongar had come to function as a traffic bottleneck for motorists commuting to their office jobs in the city. Motorists who—five days a week—found themselves stuck crawling by a ghastly procession of high street pound shops, grubby fast food takeaways, and a lone fancy dress store still somehow clinging on despite two recessions.
Would that these poor souls had a choice but to suffer this grim vehicular cattle drive, but since Ongar’s only Tube station was closed in Nineteen Ninety-Four, they could only grin and bear the congestion as it wound all the way to the faraway M11. Such was the story of Chipping Ongar, a lonely little place, beached by shoddy transport planning and human indifference. And yet, residing within this unremarkable patch of Essex suburbia, lived Nat Lawler: A Level student, left winger of her local under-eighteen girls’ hockey team and the future leader of the rebellion against Drensila the Black.
OVER THE YEARS, Drensila the Black had seen off dozens of would-be usurpers, and though many had waged war on her, none had succeeded in laying siege to her domain. A wartime strategist would tell you that Drensila’s superiority over her enemies was threefold. Her first advantage was the Citadel of Durkon itself, an impregnable redoubt built by master craftsmen that could survive even the most brutal military assault. The second was the citadel’s location, surrounded on all sides by a yawning chasm and connected to the mainland only by the thinnest of mountain ridges. The third was her army, a ferocious breed of soldiers that were invincible, inexhaustible and altogether inhuman. Drensila’s men arrived in droves to serve her, surfacing from the bowels of a blighted pit that lay across the chasm, emerging into the light broad and bow-legged, their skin like black mould, sucking in fresh air and breathing it out with an odour like hot, rancid mulch.
To understand the nature of these creatures—these abominations—one must dip lightly into history, to a decade past when Drensila’s mother, Carnella the Cruel, sat upon the Durkon throne. Back then the pit was a functioning iron mine that provided the raw materials required to advance Carnella’s war effort. The House of Durkon was at odds with anyone who dared contest its rule, and had earned a reputation for dealing with its adversaries swiftly and mercilessly. Consequently, a time came when it had crushed all opposing forces, and so the House set its sights on the elves of the Whispering Woods, who refused to bend a knee to the wicked Queen.
Carnella’s army had been human in those days, a witches brew of barbarians and mercenaries that fought by her side for pillage and plunder. Given the order to eradicate the renegades, Carnella’s horde ransacked the woodlands, razing settlements and slaughtering the elves like cattle. Soon a leader named Gilon emerged to seek retaliation, consolidating the survivors of the decimated elf clans and mounting a blistering attack on the Citadel of Durkon that was as close as any came to unseating Carnella from her throne. Though Gilon’s forces were eventually thwarted by the bottleneck ridge that was the fortress’s only entryway, the elves claimed five times their number before they were driven back into their native woods.
Carnella’s anger at her near defeat was legendary. Instead of sending her remaining forces in pursuit of the routed elves, she ordered her men to clear the battlefield of corpses. Not just the bodies of their own fallen either, but of the rebels also. The troops weren’t to question her methods, nor were they to complain when they were instructed to drag the vulture-pecked cadavers from the field of conflict and toss them unceremoniously into the shaft of a nearby iron mine. Friend and foe alike were sent to the depths this way, piling up like rotten garbage, the swell of their combined stench drawing swarms of flies and assaulting nostrils for miles around.
Late one moonless eve, a coruscating vermilion light was seen to flare up in the uppermost turret of the citadel’s keep. The Night Queen had been performing blood magic it was said, and her soldiers could only wonder at the nature of her foul sorcery. After the magic came strokes of lightning, painting the sky silver and illuminating the terrified, upturned faces of the soldiers below. The clouds opened, pouring down a deluge of ink-black rain that fell like darkness made solid. The rain settled as pools of tar before soaking into the ground, corrupting the earth below. When a wan sun rose the next day, disturbing reports arrived from the soldiers attending to the battlefield. Noises had been heard emanating from the pit it was said. Terrible noises. Screams as dire as a banshee’s wail, and worse than those, moans. Moans so pitiful they made the hardiest of men weep just to hear them. Stories began to spread. Stories of subterranean horrors, of angry spirits seeking vengeance for their unjust deaths and ignoble burials. The stories sent a shiver through Carnella’s ranks, there was even talk of mutiny, but the revolt never came. It was never given the chance. Once the sun had gone down that day, the horrors below came to the surface. Not phantoms or wraiths or shuffling corpses, but something else. Something new. Carnella hadn’t raised the dead. Carnella had given birth to a whole new breed of evil.
The Night Queen called her creation trolls; hideous, snout-nosed monsters that stood eight feet tall, with charcoal-coloured flesh and mouths full of dripping yellow fangs. They weren’t a race so much as a pestilence, a fungus sprouting from the bodies of the dead like pungent blossoms. A cankerous infection born of black magic and decay, wriggling from a rancid cocoon. A fermentation of evil distilled into its purest form.
The trolls grew quickly, germinating and multiplying until soon they were legion. Cowed by Carnella’s sorcery, the creatures carried out her first command at once. Their order was simple: to kill her men, each and every one of them. All her soldiers were sentenced to die—slowly and painfully—and the trolls went about the task with gusto, ambushing their victims in their cots and subjecting them to savage, unspeakable deaths. Carnella had no use for men who would fail her in battle, and besides, what was left of their bodies would make good compost to further grow her troll army. Soon she would wield an unstoppable army of these foul beasts. Driven to serve. Driven to conquer.
NAT LAWLER’S MOTHER had known her share of foul beasts, at least if the noises Nat heard coming through her bedroom wall were anything to go by. Nat’s mother had welcomed a horde of them into her bed since the divorce eight years ago. Caroused with the creatures into the small hours, then laid back while they bounced her from her headboard so hard it made Nat’s hockey trophies rattle. It happened so often that Nat had started to wonder if the woman’s bad parenting was born of alcohol abuse or concussion. Nat didn’t care though. She wasn’t long for Chipping Ongar. She was going to get her A Levels and she was going to get out of this town and she was going to live happily ever after in a land far, far away.
It was a sunny Sunday morning and Nat was at home, a two-up two-down, semi-detached squatting opposite the Esso garage. Presently, Nat was sat in her bedroom, tucked under a desk and drafting a Biology paper. It was the same desk she’d had since she was seven years old, and her thighs had grown large enough in the meantime that they chafed against its underside. “Thunder thighs,” her mum called them, which was a bit bloody rich given that they were brought about by the tyranny of her own DNA. Thick thighs, a dusting of unwanted freckles and crop of red hair that never quite sat the way Nat wanted.
To look at Nat Lawler you’d think she was a nerd—and you’d be right—but a nerd in the classic, studious sense, not the wasp-waisted, cleavage-baring selfie-taker you’re presented when you Google “nerd” nowadays; all cool tattoos and faux coquettishness. Nat was nothing of the sort. Nat was a serious girl. The kind who wore sunscreen every day and drank plenty of water and had absolutely no idea how a person could drop a phone in a toilet. The kind that had a paper round by the age of ten and kept at it all the way into her teens, reporting to the newsagents at 5:30 am while her friends slept off their hangovers, all because she didn’t want to let down poor old Mister Chaudry. Nat was fastidious too. If she’d have been at Houston Control when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, she’d have been the one walking around with a bin bag collecting the rubbish as the flight controllers cheered and threw their charts in the air. It was Nat’s scrupulous work ethic that had her sitting indoors writing a biology paper on a balmy Sunday morning, despite it only being the first week of the summer holidays. Because Nat was never one to leave things until last minute. Nat didn’t believe in thriving on pressure, she believed in hard work and being prepared. Of course, some things you simply can’t prepare for.
SINCE CARNELLA THE Cruel’s passing, the trolls obeyed the command of her daughter, Drensila the Black. The beasts continued to rise from that same cursed pit to fight for the House of Durkon, conveyed across the chasm and delivered to their new queen by a complex apparatus built to transport iron ore. By repurposing this mechanical gondola system, Drensila was able to further swell her ranks without the need to open the citadel’s gateway and risk a breach of her defences. Once inducted into Drensila’s dread legion, new recruits were equipped with crude weapons and taught the ways of war. After that, most were sent to march across the Broken Lands to enforce her iron rule, for the loyalty of Drensila’s people was not given willingly. Others were dispatched to the Whispering Woods to locate the remaining pocket of elves and exterminate their kind once and for all. A number remained at the citadel to man its battlements and keep watch on the thin crease of rock that bridged the Durkon Chasm. Only those who proved themselves especially worthy of this task were granted the honour of crossing the chasm for another, very specific purpose. Their job was to stand guard at the foot of the gondola system, ensuring that none used the transport as an infiltration point. Those assigned this task would quickly learn that the duty was a ceremonial one, since when not in use, the gondola was parked at the top of the lift’s climb, far out of reach of any would-be invaders. Nonetheless, despite being a most unlikely inroad, the lift system was attended to by a detail of elite soldiers who guarded it from dawn till dusk. It was an extreme measure to be sure, but then Drensila the Black had never been one to take chances.
THERE WAS A knock on Nat’s bedroom door. This was no good at all. Nat had work to do, and any interruption to her studies was entirely unwelcome. Okay, so yes, she had spent the last twenty minutes scrolling through a BuzzFeed page entitled “37 Things Only Millennials Know,” but that was entirely beside the point.
The door pushed open and a young man stuck his head around the jamb. “Hello lover,” he chirped.
Nat didn’t bother to turn from her studies to look at him. She already knew what she’d see; her boyfriend Terry—doughy, uncoordinated, slow on his feet—an easy catch in every sense of the phrase.
“I love you, Tel,” Nat told him, “but if you don’t let me get on with this paper I’m going to stab you in the face.”
Terry chuckled, mistaking her statement for a joke. “But I came to invite you to a party,” he said.
“Is that right?” replied Nat.
“Well, not that kind of a party,” Terry admitted, “a party like a group of roleplayers. A party of adventurers.”
Nat shook her head. “You know I hate all that Dungeons & Dragons crap. I hear one person say “I’m Lord Such-and-Such of the House Whatever,” and I’m a mile away.”
“You shouldn’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
Nat ran a highlighter pen through a line of notes. She’d pretty much highlighted the whole page at this point, making the process utterly worthless. “Just so I’m clear,” she said, still not turning around, “is this the roleplay where you sit around a table pretending to be an elf, or the roleplay where you go to the woods and actually dress up like an elf?”
Terry balked at the oversimplification. “Actually, it’s a lot more nuanced than that.”
Nat swivelled in her chair to find him wearing cotton stockings, a suede harlequin patch tunic and a pair of pointy rubber ear tips poking from his mess of curly brown hair.
“Jesus wept,” she responded, understandably.
“What’s the matter? Is it my bow?” He unhooked a plastic shortbow from his shoulder and drew back the string. “It might not look like much but let me tell you, I’ve cut down armies with this bad boy.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, I call him Widowmaker.”
“And how did your wife die exactly? From shame?”
“That’s not why it’s called—” Terry started, then sagged his shoulders. “You’re mean.”
Nat had a sudden thought. “Wait, how did you get in here? Did my mum let you in dressed like that?”
Terry stood up straight. “Yes she did, and she loves my weapon.”
“I’ll bet she does,” thought Nat. It was only a matter of time before she got tired of chasing scrubs at the local Wetherspoons and started going after her boyfriends.
“Come on, hon,” said Terry, throwing up his arms. “It’s a beautiful day out there. You can’t spend the whole summer in here with the curtains drawn. Come LARP with us!”
LARP. Live Action Role Play. Four words that—as far as Nat were concerned—went together like “Bad News, It’s Cancer.”
“Please leave me alone,” she begged him. “I have to write this paper.”
“You’re not doing yourself any favours cramming for hours at a time, you know? I read this article about study and the brain once and—”
“—Don’t you think I know about the brain?” Nat cried, waving a fistful of papers at him. “I’m training to be a doctor.”
“Well… I thought maybe you hadn’t gotten to the brain bit yet.”
“Is that how you think studying medicine works? That we start at the feet and work our way up? Podiatrists aren’t just doctors who took one class and ducked out for the next seven years.”
Terry folded his arms defensively. “Look, are you coming out or what? Because you know I’m just going to stand here talking until you say yes.”
Nat placed her forehead on the desk. She knew Terry wasn’t going to leave until he got the answer he wanted. It was just as she was lamenting this sorry fact that something caught in her nostrils. “Is that… urgh, did you track dog mess in here?”
Terry lifted a calf-length leather boot, peered at the sole and winced. “See, now there’s another good reason to get out of the house.”
ACROSS THE CHASM from the Citadel of Durkon were the fossilised remains of a forest. Perched atop the blackened skeleton of one of its trees, creaking in the night breeze, squatted a slender figure. His owlish gaze landed on a structure a short way ahead: the ground-level departure point of Drensila’s gondola system. A cable threaded through its pulley and led all the way across the chasm to the citadel’s highest battlement. It climbed at an impossibly steep incline, reaching almost into the cloudline. No man could scale an obstacle so treacherous. No man could keep his head at such dizzying heights, or stay his footing among the chasm’s screaming winds. And yet Gilon Redsky was no man.
Gilon the elf had arrived by cover of night with one purpose in mind: to single-handedly infiltrate the Citadel of Durkon, kill Drensila the Black, and end her cursed bloodline for good. Though her army had yet to locate the elven domain—disguised as it was by a powerful cloak of enchantment—her incursions into the Whispering Woods had drawn ever closer these last few years. Elven huntsmen had been ambushed by troll scouts, and acres of woodland had been desecrated in search of their prey. Hiding was no longer an option. The elves had to fight back.
From his position in the treetop, Gilon spied on a half dozen elite soldiers standing guard of the ground-level gondola station. The elf’s perfect stillness made him invisible to Drensila’s men, though his superb eyesight was able to make them out in the smallest detail. Their armour, built from the bones of fallen enemies, the barbed jewellery that pierced their unfeeling black flesh, their eyes small and yellow, like marbles of frozen piss.
The trolls talked to one another, communicating in a tongue that sounded like two rough stones being ground together.
“…Most of all I miss action,” said the larger of the creatures, who had the stripes of a group sergeant carved into his shoulder. “Back on patrol you’d see some things, I tell you.” He smirked at a recollection. “Did I ever tell you boys about the time I found that elf girl in the Whispering Woods?”
The other trolls leaned in, eager to hear their superior’s story.
“Found her alone and with her ankle caught in one of our snares, I did. Bit to the bone.” He snapped his clawed hands together like the jaws of a mantrap and laughed, coughing up a spray of grey spittle.
One of his lackeys scratched the top of his skull and dislodged a scab. “What did you do with her?” he growled.
The sergeant grinned, exposing a row of fangs set within a mouth like an infected wound. “I told the bitch, “tell me where your village is or I’m gonna eat you alive.””
“So?” begged a lackey, licking his lips. “What did you do?”
“I followed through is what I did. Started on her fingertips and worked my way up from there. Ate her hand, her wrist, her whole bloody arm.”
The rest of the trolls were salivating by this point, silvery drool streaming down their jaws. “And did she talk?” one of them asked.
“Nah,” said the sergeant, slapping his knee. “She gave me the cold shoulder.” He roared with laughter. “Geddit? The cold shoulder?”
They all laughed then, a cruel, braying cackle that drifted up to Gilon and caused his hand to tighten on the hilt of his blade. The sword pulsed in its scabbard, purring at his touch like a stroked kitten. Gilon had intended to dismount his perch and dispatch the trolls quickly. That was before. After hearing their heinous tale, he was going to make their deaths something altogether different. Something loud. Something agonising.
Gilon dropped from the tree and set down behind the trolls as softly as a butterfly with sore feet. The stealthy landing hadn’t been performed for any covert purpose though, simply as a matter of habit, for Gilon had no intention of keeping his presence a secret. He pursed his lips and whistled a tune as he sauntered towards the trolls, causing them to whirl about in his direction.
“You’re a long ways from home, elf,” remarked the sergeant, drawing a scimitar from his back.
His five accomplices did likewise. Gilon said nothing, just continued to advance towards the trolls, slow and steady.
“I take it you heard my little story back there,” said the sergeant, showing those fangs again. “I wonder if you’ll be as brave when you’re slipping down my gullet morsel by morsel.”
With his weapon still in its scabbard, Gilon froze. The trolls stared at him quizzically.
“What’s the matter, elf, did I say something to upset you?” teased the sergeant. “Go ahead and cry if you want to, I like my meat salty.”
He hawked a gobbet of phlegm at Gilon’s feet, but before it could strike the ground, the elf’s sword sprang into his hand and struck out like a reaper’s scythe. There was a savage stench of ammonia as the head of one of the group sergeant’s lackeys tipped back suddenly, revealing a gaping neck wound that vented a cloud of pungent spores. A second troll went to retaliate but his semi-decapitated brother—head draped over his back like a hunchback’s hump—hadn’t cottoned to the fact he was dead and came out swinging also, accidentally sinking a rusty blade into his would-be avenger’s gut. Gilon killed him too, and he didn’t stop there. Gilon kept killing until there was only one troll left, the one who’d eaten his kin.
“Please,” the troll pleaded, salting his face with hot, wet tears. “Let me go, I’m begging you.”
Gilon killed him too.
NAT SAT ON the steps of her porch next to what was—according to the dictionary at least—a man. Currently this man was wearing yellow ochre tights, a quiver of corked arrows and latex Spock ears. The dictionary had a lot to answer for, Nat thought. Still, Terry gave her plenty to be thankful for. Though he wasn’t exactly “man candy” in the Tom Hiddleston sense, he was good for her. Less “man candy” than “man broccoli” really. Certainly not as tasty, but altogether wholesome.
“The guys should be here any minute,” he said, tapping his pocket watch. Of course he had a pocket watch.
“Who’s driving?” asked Nat.
Nat made a face. Most of Terry’s friends she got on with fine—even if they did spend their spare time charging around the woods with rubber swords—but Clive Snyder had always given her the creeps. Clive was a querulous edgelord so charisma deficient that he wasn’t even welcome behind the counter of a Games Workshop.
“I think maybe I’ve changed my mind—” Nat started.
“—No!” pleaded Terry. He’d taken to whining now. A whiny elf. “Come on, Nat, you’re always moaning about how you work too hard. Here’s your chance to get away from it and have a bit of fun.”
He had her there. In the future she would be more careful with her words, if such a thing were even possible.
To pass the time, Nat took a makeup kit from her pocket and gave her cheeks some colour.
“What are you getting all dolled up for?” asked Terry. “Are you making yourself pretty for your boyfriend?” He made a kissy kissy face.
“No,” she replied, pushing him away. “I just don’t want to look crappy in front of the other girls.”
“Girls?” said Terry.
Nat narrowed her eyes “Please tell me there are going to be other girls there.”
Terry laughed. “Ha, good one,” he said. “Girls!”
He laughed some more.
GILON WIPED A stain of ink-black troll spores from his blade and the weapon reciprocated with a gentle hum of appreciation. The elf saw the Citadel of Durkon looming in the distance high above, and the keep rising atop it, higher still. He saw the razor-thin ridge that crossed the gulf separating him from his quarry and remembered a half-century ago when he’d ordered soldiers across that same causeway. It was his biggest regret—a rash uprising that had led his people to endure defeat and exile—and yet here he was, ready to mount another perilous attack.
The causeway bridged the chasm and climbed towards a single entry point, a giant, reinforced door surmounted by the banner of the House of Durkon, a spider embroidered in silver silk onto a background of midnight blue. Even if Gilon were to make it to those doors and pass beneath the sigil, he’d surely alert a spotter and find himself showered with boiling oil or pincushioned by crossbowmen. He’d learned the hard way that the ridge simply wasn’t a viable point of attack. Thankfully, he had other plans.
The gondola cable. A single length of wire no more than three inches thick that rose from the base of the transport system at a sharp, forty-five degree angle and terminated beyond the citadel’s battlements. To the casual observer, it offered nothing by way of approach. Even the strongest of men, holding tight to the cable with their arms and legs, would face an impossible climb, yet somehow Gilon Redsky had arrived with an altogether less likely method. Stood proud, he placed his bare feet upon the cable and began to place one in front of the other, beginning a diagonal tightrope-walk of nearly four-hundred feet. He did this without even breaking a sweat, as though instead of scaling a mountain he were merely taking a leisurely Sunday stroll. Truly his strength was legendary. His balance preternatural. His will indomitable. Unforgiving winds lashed at his body, the cold turned his breath to gun smoke. But despite it all he continued to climb, his jaw set with grim determination.
NAT SAT IN the back of a trundling van, as black on the inside as it was without. This wasn’t some cool, A-Team battle bus though. Clive’s mode of transportation was less 1980s pop culture icon than serial strangler’s murder wagon.
“This is gonna be great,” Terry shouted over the thrash metal that blared from the van’s single, tinny speaker.
A blue fug of weed smoke—which billowed from a pipe Nat had just said no to—filled the van’s cramped cabin from grubby floor to yellowed ceiling. “Great” was not the word that sprung to mind when Nat took stock of the situation she’d found herself in.
Sharing the polluted vehicle were three of Terry’s fellow anoraks; all boys. A Fellowship of the Wang if you will. Nat recognised their faces from the campus common room, a place she only visited sporadically because she’d read somewhere that being a teenager was supposed to be fun. What it was that made dossing about playing ping pong and eating bad food “fun” was a mystery, but she felt compelled to show her face there from time to time, if only because that’s where Terry spent most of his hours. His whole crew spent more time there dissecting the Monday morning torrent of Game of Thrones than they ever did on their studies.
After a while the terrain shifted from tarmac to dirt and the van began to bounce about, juggling its passengers to and fro. The sound of traffic gave way to the scraping of wood against metal as tree branches tickled the van’s exterior walls. Eventually, the vehicle came to a halt and Nat blasted through its rear doors like a bullet from a pistol, escaping the smoky confines to suck on her asthma inhaler. She got a look of her surroundings. Apparently she’d been shanghaied to a dirt car park buried in a scrubby woodland clearing. What had Terry talked her into? She shot him daggers, but all she got back was a pinched smile.
One by one, the rest of the intrepid adventurers spilled from the shabby van. First came Clive, the driver, who had the appearance of an albino stick insect. His wiry frame and sharp shoulders made him look as though he’d put on his shirt without taking the time to remove the hanger first. His anaemic skin was pitted and clammy like a feta cheese, and his facial features—while perfectly symmetrical—were all bad. Though Nat prided herself on not judging others by their appearance, it was hard to find the positives with this specimen. She watched as he cleared his throat and gobbed a bilious green nugget onto the dirt. Ugh. It wasn’t just Clive’s looks that made him ugly, he was ugly on an empirical level.
Ashley was next out of the van, grinning as his Size 14 shoes thumped onto the car park. Ash was very much the anomaly of the group, not to mention the roleplay set in general. A six and a half foot black guy with an athletic physique and a manicured beard, Ashley stood out like a sore thumb next to his milksop companions.
“This is gonna be off the hook, fam,” he declared.
Despite living in rural Essex, Ashley spoke with a distinct “street” patois. To many of his contemporaries this came across as somewhat affected, especially given that the “street” he lived on was named Honeysuckle Lane. That said, few had the guts to accuse this giant youth of being a phony. Indeed, Ashley’s physical maturity was such that on campus he was sometimes mistaken for a lecturer, though more often a cleaner, much to his annoyance. Perhaps it was Ashley’s genes that propelled him to early manhood, or maybe it was the sheer volume of calories he consumed. Even now, with lunchtime hours away, he was gobbling up a doorstop-thick egg and mayo sandwich like Pac-Man on his cheat day.
Next out of the van was Neville. Nev was a peculiar looking young man with a round, flat face that looked as though it had been made of pink plasticine and pushed forcibly into a wall. It was a wonder he had enough of a profile to hang his glasses on even, his features were so bald. As well as having very little in the way of a nose, Nev had absolutely nothing in the way of legs. This made his exit from the van rather more complicated than for his companions, who did their best to lower him into his wheelchair despite exhibiting the coordination of The Three Stooges after a three day bender. On ice.
“Gently,” begged Neville.
Though he looked fragile in that moment, the effect wasn’t to last. Not once he’d been set into his custom-built wheelchair, which he’d personally tricked out to look like a one-man war chariot. All told, it was less a piece of mobility furniture than it was a siege weapon. The chassis had been fitted with a curved metal surround that supported a fierce battering ram, the all-terrain wheels looked like they could tackle the Matterhorn, and the axles had been extended with a pair of deadly scythe blades. Well, deadly rubber scythe blades.
Nev blinked at the sunlight with bloodshot eyes, a haze of weed smoke hanging over him like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud. “Nice,” he wheezed, and took another drag on his pipe.
GILON REDSKY ARRIVED at the summit of his arduous climb. Stepping from the gondola cable, he circumvented its winch mechanism and dug his fingertips between the cracks of the citadel keep’s black, stone wall. The thump of his heartbeat rang loud in his ears, so he meditated a moment until it beat as calm and steady as a metronome. His acute hearing uninterrupted, he picked out a patrol of guards and timed his final ascent to slip between their scouting pattern. Hugging the shadows as he circled the outside of the turret, he found his way to an arrow slit window. He attempted to squeeze through the ingress but the opening was too small, even for his lean frame. Wide enough to fit a head through and not much more. In order to make it to the other side, Gilon would need to make some adjustments.
Butting his arm up against the keep’s outside wall, he applied pressure until he heard a pop and felt his shoulder dislocate from its socket. He neither hesitated nor flinched at this, even as he repeated the excruciating process with his other arm. Squeezing his compacted body through the slit, Gilon arrived on the other side and carefully set his arms back in place, then onwards he crept to the keep’s minaret, softly as the approaching dawn.
He climbed a spiral staircase and pushed open a wrought iron door to find himself in a bedchamber furnished for a queen. Shafts of wan light from the moon outside cast pastel colours through a circular stained glass window. Presenting its back to him was a wingback chair, and within this chair—her arm dangling over one side—was Drensila the Black, her fingers idly twirling a jewelled rod. Gilon took a breath. He’d travelled many miles to get to this place. Risked his life many times over to make it into the inner sanctum of the evil queen’s domain. Bypassed an army to cut the head from the snake and end the House of Durkon’s regime once and for all.
He recognised the object the sorceress held in her hand. It was the Durkon rod of power, an ancestral artifact that granted her dominion over the troll horde. It would be of no use to her now though. Gilon would snatch Drensila’s life away before she could so much as draw a breath. The soles of his bare feet padded soundlessly against the chamber’s flagstone floor as he drew his weapon and swiftly ate up the distance to the sorceress. Such was his thirst for revenge that he ignored the dull tingle that itched at the corner of his senses. The tingle warning him that Drensila had been watching his reflection in the stained glass window from the moment he’d entered her chamber.
NAT LOOKED ON in morbid fascination as the gang of misfits she’d thrown in with suited up in their roleplay gear. It hadn’t escaped her attention that her boyfriend Terry was the only one among them who’d gone to the trouble of getting dressed at home. Even Clive, an outsider through and through, had more self-respect than to go out in public dressed like an extra from The Hobbit (and one of the padding-out-the-background, barely-inside-the-frame extras at that).
Ashley strapped himself into a suit of plate armour. It was really rather impressive looking, Nat thought, at least so long as you were squinting. A keen eye would note that the armour wasn’t made of metal, as is traditional with such things, but constructed from cut-up grey carpet tiles. This dampened its majesty somewhat, and the woollen jersey he wore underneath—the one spray-painted silver in a vain attempt to make it look like chainmail—didn’t exactly seal the deal either. As a knight, Ashley commanded about as much respect as Sir Alan Sugar.
Neville’s costume was certainly more on point. Just as he had with his wheelchair-slash-war-chariot, Nev had pulled out all the stops with his wardrobe. Up top he wore a jerkin made of expensive, hand-tooled leather, and on his fists, a matching set of studded leather gauntlets. Though he didn’t have any legs, he’d still taken the trouble of dressing in a pair of hand-me-down pleather trousers; a byproduct of his dad’s regrettable Tom Jones phase. He grimaced and striped his cheeks with war paint, readying himself for battle. It might have looked fearsome, had Nat not recognised the makeup as belonging to a Snazaroo Kid’s Party Pack.
Clive was straight-up dressed like Halloween. He wore dark clothes draped in a black cloak with crushed velvet lining. He stank of patchouli oil and wore round, silver sunglasses that shielded his indoor eyes from the daylight. The boy was a goth’s wet dream. It was as though he’d trudged up to a market stall in Camden Town, placed the back of his hand on his forehead and begged, “Make me look as sad as I feel!”
“Alright everyone, form up,” Clive announced, his nasal voice a perfect match for his rat-like features. The rest of the gang did as asked, eagerly clustering around. “We’re going to split up into heroes and monsters now,” Clive went on. “Terry, it’s your turn to pick a party, so go ahead.”
Terry sucked in some air. “Right then,” he said. “Let’s start with Neville.”
“My boy!” roared Nev, rolling over in his wheelchair.
“Who else do you want?” asked Clive. “We’ve got small numbers today so you only get one more.”
Terry scanned the remaining candidates. He had a choice of Ashley or Nat, and the decision seemed pretty obvious. At least it did from where Nat was standing.
“Hmmm,”he said looking left and right.
Nat did her best to meet his eye but he skimmed right by.
He clucked his tongue. “I think I’m gonna go wiiiiith… Ash.”
Ashley did a fist pump and launched himself into Terry’s arms. “Respec’, bruv.”
Nat was irked to say the least. “What the hell?” she seethed. “You dragged me all this way just to reject me in front of your friends?” She felt like she’d been picked last for the hockey team, except that would never happen, because she played hockey like a goddamn boss.
“It’s not that,” Terry explained. It’s just that you’re… well, kind of a newb.”
He’d been careful to explain the term to Nat in advance. Apparently the sobriquet was reserved for newcomers to the game, who were paradoxically considered less cool than a guy dressed like an oversized pixie.
Clive moved things along. “Alright then,” he said, “we have our players. That leaves me and the girl to monster.”
“I have a name,” Nat declared. Again she looked to Terry, who she found checking his rubber ear tips in the van’s wing mirror, utterly oblivious to her plight.
Clive sneered. “What’s the matter, Yoko? Do you need to be on your boyfriend’s team?”
This was obviously his way of getting under her skin, and Nat was buggered if she was going to give him the satisfaction. Reaching into the back of the van, Nat selected the largest weapon she could find: a vicious double-headed battleaxe.
“Let’s do this,” she said, slapping the weapon against her palm, eager to deal out some well-deserved drubbings.
DRENSILA THE BLACK whirled from her chair and blasted Gilon with a bolt of lacerating frost. Every synapse of the elf’s body screamed in protest as a glacial chill like hornet stings and shark’s teeth cocooned his body in ice. He tried to cry out, but all that emerged from his mouth was a frigid, ghostly vapour.
From the prison of his body, Gilon could do nothing but silently scrutinise his quarry. This was the first time he’d seen Drensila the Black in the flesh, and it surprised him how harmless she looked. Though she wore the attire of a wicked sorceress—dressed as she was in a cobweb-patterned gown, with jet-black hair piled atop her head and fixed in place with a pair of onyx pins—a casual passer-by would hardly have regarded her as a threat. Despite her fearsome reputation, Drensila the Black was a mere slip of a girl, doe-eyed and south of thirty. Gilon was puzzled. How could a guileless face such as hers possibly belie the foul temperament for which she was infamous?
Drensila shook her head, disappointed. “Honestly, this must be the worst assassination attempt in the annals of murder,” she joked. “You really do put the “s” in “hitman.””
Gilon attempted a grimace but failed. He tried to flex his fingers but they remained cemented to the hilt of his frozen blade. Drensila reached out a hand. “I like your sword,” she said. “Why don’t you let me have it?”
Gilon felt the enchanted weapon slipping from his hold, pulled by an unseen force. As Drensila worked her sorcery it began to wriggle free, working its way from between his fingers. Soon it would be lost for good. He summoned everything he had. Every fibre of strength left in him. Just as the sword was about to pass by his fingertips, Gilon let out an almighty roar and his icy shell cracked apart. He grasped hold of the sword, vice-like, and stepped from the shattered remains of his polar shell. “Shut your mouth, witch,” he yelled, his husky-blue eyes boring into Drensila like skewers. “I’m going to make you pay for what you did to my kind. Driving us from our homes. Massacring us like animals. Bringing us to the brink of extinction.”
“There is that,” Drensila admitted. “Though in truth, my only crime was carrying on the family business. It was my mother who started all the massacring.”
Gilon found her levity repugnant. “Your mother rots in hell,” he spat.
“Close, but no cigar,” Drensila replied.
She stabbed a thumb at the chamber’s stained glass window and Gilon saw the image of the Night Queen frozen in the leadlight pattern. Carnella the Cruel, trapped as if in an invisible prison, her paralysed fists pounding unheard against the other side of the glass.
“Family can be such a bother, can’t they?” confided Drensila. “My mother tortured me all through my childhood. Maybe it’s why I turned out this way. You know what she told me one time? “I should have dragged you out of me before you were born and strangled you with your umbilical cord.” That’s what she told me.” Drensila threw up her hands. “Mothers!”
Gilon’s fist gripped the hilt of his sword and the weapon hummed keenly.
Drensila went on, unperturbed. “People think my mother died of old age, but do you know what really happened to her? I’ll tell you. I waited until I was old enough to get my revenge and I took it. I didn’t kill Carnella the Cruel. Death was too good for her. I trapped her in that window using the magic she taught me—turned her into glass as a basilisk turns its prey to stone—and there she remains, sealed in The Nether. Trapped in a pitch-black, ice-cold nothingness.”
Drensila regarded the window with pride, brightening at the memory of damning her mother to eternal torment.
“Enough,” ordered Gilon. “You will suffer for the atrocities you have committed.”
“That’s a shame,” muttered Drensila. “It was so nice having someone to talk to.”
Her magic was depleted, but that didn’t matter. In a single, smooth motion she tugged one of the onyx hair pins from an airtight sheath in her topknot and flung it in Gilon’s direction. The elf struck out like a cobra but he was too slow. The pin tunnelled through the air and embedded itself in his chest. He pulled the dart free but the damage was already done.
“How do you feel?” asked Drensila, grinning ear to ear. “Is the venom working its magic already?”
Gilon’s felt his muscles go slack and his mind begin to fog. As he staggered to and fro, Drensila moved over to the wall and tugged on a chain. An oubliette slid open on the floor, and from the hole emerged a giant scorpion, five feet tall.
“This is Stinger,” she announced, stroking the creature’s amber-coloured carapace. “Stinger was my mother’s pet, but I took him as mine the day I claimed her throne.” She delicately touched the needle tip of the scorpion’s tail, flaunting his tameness. “Stinger donated the venom that’s working its way through your veins as we speak. Well, as I speak…”
Gilon’s throat tightened and he found himself unable to respond. His thighs turned to jelly and he became quite unable to move.
“Next comes the fever,” remarked Drensila. “After that there’s blurred vision, paralysis… then comes the really bad stuff.” She opened a drawer in a bedside dresser and produced a tiny crystal vial. She held it in her palm and let it rock there precariously, causing the philtre within to slosh from side to side. “Without this antidote you’ll soon begin sweating blood, then finally the poison will react with your bones and dissolve your skeleton from the inside out. By the time you hit the floor you’ll look like a big pile of red porridge.” She smiled again, replacing the vial in its drawer and sliding it shut. “Sorry about that.”
Gilon’s vision swam. Red sweat beaded his brow. He was dying.
“Go fetch me his sword,” Drensila commanded of her scorpion.
On her order, Stinger began to scuttle in Gilon’s direction, his monstrous claws clacking as he went.
The elf’s knees buckled and he felt himself about to fold. “Drensila,” he croaked, forcing a few last words from his windpipe.
“Yes?” she replied, cocking her head to one side.
Gilon managed a smile. “Say hello to your mother.”
And with that, he forced himself to full height, took a dive and went crashing head-first through the minaret’s stained glass window, freeing the angry soul within.
Drensila’s scream followed him all the way to the ground.
END OF SAMPLE CHAPTER
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