Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wherein I post an early excerpt from Chapter one of my novel...

**Warning** This is an unedited sample. Poor Grammar, bad language, worse punctuation, and violence ahead.

In a suburb of Vancouver, a woman named Elanor was dying. This came as a huge surprise to her for a couple of very good reasons. First, she was, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Second, the one who was responsible for her demise was, in her valued opinion, a complete tool.

Knox was attempting to act suave and collected as he sat on the edge of her mahogany desk, and was failing spectacularly at either impression. A layer of sweat beaded and glimmered across his bald head, and his frantic eyes bulged behind round lenses reminding Elanor of an overly-excited rat terrier doing a bad impression of John Lennon.

Off to one side, watched Knox’s long-time companions, Mister Bone and Madame Rag. Mister Bone was a huge man with a face like an abused meatloaf and the physique of a hyper-steroidal gorilla. Madame Rag, by contrast, was a blonde wisp of a thing who looked as though she could be swept away by the breeze of a desk fan. The only thing that the two seemed to have in common were the avid smiles they each wore pasted onto their faces as they watched her die.

Elanor, for her part, lay slumped and confused on the floor behind her desk in front of Knox’s well-polished shoes.

“So, here we are Elanor,” Knox said in a voice, too tight to sound casual. “It’s strange, and you might not believe me, but I think I’m going to actually miss you. I’ve spent nearly three whole centuries waiting to kill you, and watching you die was one of those things I knew I could always look forward to. To use a modern term, you were on my bucket list.” An idea lit up his face and he took out a smartphone from his pants pocket.

“And while we are on the topic of modern…” He twiddled and tapped the screen a few times and a light shone from the back of the phone next to a small white piece of fruit. He pointed the miniature camera lens at her, “So I’ll be able to look back at our final time together,” he explained.

Elanor looked at him uncomprehendingly. Her confusion wasn’t due to shock, or from any lack of recognition of the man who sat before her. She knew more than she really wanted to about who and what Knox was. Her bewilderment arose from the impossibility of what he’d done. If the cats of the world had suddenly revealed to humankind that they had a secret space program and that they would soon be sending a Calico to the moon, she couldn’t have been more surprised. Knox shouldn’t have been able to find her here, and even if he did, there was no way he should have been able to kill her. It simply should not have been an option.

For thousands of years, humankind worked to discover the secret of immortality through alchemy - everybody knew that. What wasn’t widely known though, was that a little over five centuries before, they’d succeeded. Alchemists were successful in creating a substance which not only stopped physical ageing but healed all but the most grievous injuries. They called the substance, Panacea. The guild that sprung up to foster Alchemical training, was extremely picky about who it chose to advance to the top of its ranks, and Knox was not one of those people.

To his credit, Knox was intelligent and ambitious, even if those traits were most often exercised at the expense of others. Elanor always thought that Knox’s biggest stumbling block was his simple lack of a moral compass. Ruthlessness was a trait that was sometimes called for and necessary, but it was only one tool among many. Knox was ruthless when it was neither necessary nor called for.

In an age when witnessing death was as simple as a walk to the gallows, Knox had appalled an entire nation with his disregard for life and had nearly been lynched for it. He had, in fact, been burned in effigy and forced from his home by the angry crowd. She’d been present at the near-mobbing, and unknown to Knox, had actually drawn his trademark round spectacles on the dummy before it was fired.

     Only police intervention and a quick dash out the back door of his home while disguised as a soldier had saved his life. It was his genuine confusion over why people would do such a thing that finally convinced Elanor that Knox was a sociopath long before any such term had entered the language.

     Anyone acquainted with Knox for any length of time grew to recognize this fundamental lack, and his advancement in the Guild slowed, stalled, and eventually stopped over a century before. No master would continue his training beyond a certain critical point, and over the years, his frustration and sullen anger at his lot had grown. Knox had become a bitter little footnote in the history of Alchemy. At least he should have been. It seemed Knox had other plans, apparently including the heretofore unthinkable act of murdering her.

     The crap part about the whole thing was that it should never have worked. Finding a way to circumvent Panacea was nearly as big a breakthrough as finding it in the first place. Outside of decapitation, or burning a body to fine ash - which was a task surprisingly harder to do than it sounded - it was a near-certainty that if you had Panacea in your veins, you would live to see the another day.

     For five centuries she’d trained, studied and sacrificed for her knowledge. As a ranking alchemist of the Red, Elanor was a master who could sublimate the very anima of life out of empty air. It infused her to her bones, and the simple knife that Knox stabbed into her forearm a few moments before, should have been nothing more than a painful, but momentary, distraction. The whole point of putting all the hard work and sweat into becoming immortal was to avoid situations exactly like this one. As she’d always suspected, dying sucked.

     The knife, which still protruded from her arm like some horrible metallic parasite, was tricked, it had to be. No normal poison could overcome Panacea. She’d felt the cold consuming agent rush into her body the moment the knife’s point parted her skin. The trick felt familiar, like hearing a new song for the first time from an artist you knew well. There was alchemy there, she knew that without even needing to think about it, but there was something else too. Something cold and dead. Then it hit her. Death Magic. Necromancy.

     Elanor’s mind skittered over centuries of learning and research. She struggled to bring up every fact she’d ever heard of about magical poisons, every rumour and mention. Moments of her life drifted away like the last few clinging pieces of dandelion fluff to a naked stem. There was nothing, no knowledge, no last minute plan that would save her life. It seemed this ambulatory shit was right. She would die, and from the speed the poison was working, it would be soon. Her mind kept working as Knox continued to record her final moments.

     If she had to die, was there anything else she could do to hurt Knox, to spike his wheel? An idea crept in, a horrible ghastly thing that sent a shudder down her poison-wracked body. Her mind recoiled from it, as though reaching through a darkened cupboard she’d suddenly felt an abnormally large spider caress her hand.

     “Tell me how it feels to die,” Knox prompted, bringing her attention back to him. Looking at him, she suddenly knew, knew in her heart that he wasn’t the one to have discovered the poison. Knox always considered himself a scholar par excellence, and if he’d been the one to discover a way to get around Panacea, he’d be crowing about it from the rooftops. He’d be gloating over his discovery, not simply her impending death. There was no question, Knox was someone’s cats-paw. “How does it feel to know that I’ve killed you?” he continued peering at her through the phone.

     “Knox,” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady, “is it possible you’re suffering from mercury poisoning?”

     Mister Bone snorted, and Knox’s cool, urbane, mask instantly shattered.

     “Shut up! Shut your foul mouth!” He screamed. Spittle flew from his quivering lips and veins bulged on his reddening head. “I’ve killed you, you will die, and I’ll still be here to piss on your rotted corpse! You don’t get to make jokes out of this!”

     “I always though,“ she gasped, ignoring him “that poison was a woman’s weapon, Knox. Perhaps there is something that you need to tell us all?” She let her eyes linger on his crotch.

     Knox was one who had difficulty keeping up with shifting social norms. Equality between the sexes being one he’d never been able to fathom. During the course of a normal lifetime, it wasn’t too big of a deal. Outdated racist or sexist attitudes would eventually die with their owners. A lot of people had grandparents who made embarrassingly inappropriate comments at family dinners. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing, but also par for the course. Knox hadn’t changed his tune in three hundred years, and it was almost astoundingly easy to push his old-fashioned buttons.

     Knox screamed in rage, swung his leg back and kicked her hard in the hip. It went numb for a few moments before the pain came. She shuddered, but fought against the burning ache, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how much the kick had hurt. There was no way, no way in Hell that Knox would get the best of her in her final moments.

     In that instant, Elanor came to a decision. She had studied, researched, and sacrificed for five centuries to be where she was, and there was no way a foul stain on the bed sheet of history like Knox would be the end of her, not without violent, bloody, payback.

     Blood dripped steadily crimson down her arm and a consuming, cramping, pain ground through her like a straight razor scraping against rusted barbed wire. Elanor could feel the poison spreading through her limbs burning and eating up the Panacea in her blood as it progressed. It was working so quickly! She wouldn’t have thought it was possible if it hadn’t been happening to her. Her fingertips were numb and blackened visibly at the tips as she watched. It was time for hard decisions, and in a kind of horrified dispassion, she examined the one terrible plan she’d been able to come up with.
     “Come on Elanor, you must have something to say,” Knox cajoled in a mocking voice squatting close to her with that damned phone in her face. “You’ve never been afraid of talking in the past, even when you should have kept your fucking mouth shut.”

     It was time, she made up her mind. Despite what Knox’s knife had done, she was still an alchemist of the Red and had the skills to prove it. He’d even given her the tools she needed to put her travesty of a plan into action.

     Carefully, deliberately, she gripped the handle of the knife and pulled it free from her left forearm. The pain made her want to vomit. Then she did vomit, yellow bile, bitter and acid splashed to the polished stone in front of her. Blood flowed faster down her arm to join the pool on the floor. She could tell from the feel of the blade that its trick was gone, nothing was left but an echo of resonance.
     Knox backed up and stepped away from the expanding puddle of blood and sick with a look of revulsion. It was clear from his expression that her death was not living up to the billing he had in mind. That didn’t surprise her, Knox liked his killings to be sanitary, accomplished with a minimum of fuss, and usually at the hands of his hirelings.
     “Knox,” she rasped, grinning bleakly and preparing herself for what was to come, “if you thought that was gross, watch this.”

     With a trembling arm, she dipped a blackened finger into a puddle of her own warm blood and quickly sketched a symbol on the stone in front of her. She couldn’t feel it when her fingertip touched the floor, all sensation had left her limbs, but it was a simple enough shape and she completed it easily. The next part would be harder. She made the necessary mental preparations, then with a short violent spasm, she plunged the knife into her own abdomen. The symbol on the floor flared blue briefly like a hundred arc welders flashing at once, then the light faded away leaving an indistinct blackened mark burned into the polished stone of the floor.

     “What are you doing?” Knox asked shakily blinking his eyes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” He asked again his voice pitched higher and panicked.

     Elanor could feel herself beginning to drift away as pain and numbness wrapped her up in welcoming arms. She spent all of her remaining energy to keep her mind focused. She’d be able to let it all go soon, but first… but first… but first… Her mind began to spiral down into stillness, only a diamond-hard shard of self remained, calmly completing her last great work.

     For several rasping breaths nothing happened, then, at last, a gasp escaped from Elanor. Her head snapped back and her eyes opened, the whites had turned completely red she turned her head and gave Knox a smile that would make nightmares flinch and look away. Knox peered at her, still partly blinded from the flash of her working, then scrambled backward over the desktop at the sight of her. He joined his companions who were watching the gruesome spectacle uncertainly.

     Cramps gripped Elanor's body, she screamed, but it lasted only a moment before it aborted in a horrible gurgle. Her mouth opened wide, wider than it should have been possible, like a snake unhinging its jaw. Knox expected another scream, to see more vomit, maybe blood. What he didn’t expect was for her to begin emptying herself. Flesh reached out and poured from her in a torrent. It convulsed out of her mouth, and as it did, Elanor’s body became less and less, like a balloon slowly deflating.

     Knox's nerve broke and he dashed to the exit of the workshop, Rag and Bone stayed where they stood, watching the spectacle in a kind of rapt fascination. Knox turned at the exit in time to see Elanor's form continue to empty itself onto the floor. It made a horrible liquid noise, and Knox had to clench his teeth and swallow to avoid emptying his own stomach.

     When it seemed that her body had no more flesh to give, and the horrible process must end, her legs and trunk began to be convulsively drawn up into her torso. There was a horrible crackling noise as the process reached its climax. When it was done, there was no evidence that the pile that lay on the floor had been a person mere moments before.

     There was a sudden and profound quiet in the room. Knox swallowed, breathing hard. He’d expected the death to be more… sanitary. He glanced briefly at the mass that had been Elanor and shuddered. Whatever she’d been trying to do there at the end clearly hadn’t worked. His eyes flickered, examining the floor around what was left of the body, avoiding the corpse itself whenever possible. No knife was worth digging through that to retrieve.

     “What was that?” Asked Rag breathily into the sudden silence.

     “Something you don’t see every day,” answered Bone, apparently not affected in the least by the scene.

     Knox didn't reply, but mopped his pale forehead with a shaking hand and looked up to see his two charges staring into each other’s eyes.

     “Madame Rag,” Knox managed to get out, his voice unsteady, “Mister Bone, we are here for a purpose. Let’s be about it”

     The three moved from the door, around the desk and its scattered papers, and into the workshop.
     Behind the desk, unnoticed and avoided, the mound of flesh on the floor began to quiver. Slowly, gradually, the movement became coordinated. It undulated, stretched, and contracted in on itself in an unsettling manner, then lay almost completely still.

It was hours after Knox and his crew had left before the crunching sound of boot heels on broken glass was heard again in the workshop. A woman of singular appearance walked through the door. She moved into the room as though her presence there was as natural and as expected as the air.
Her hair was a shade too black, and her skin too bone white, but either of these things could have been mistaken for cosmetics. She wore black jeans, a crimson knit scarf, and a fitted leather jacket that squeaked when she moved. Dark glasses covered her eyes, but she moved through the room with confidence and purpose.

She made her way toward Elanor’s desk and bent down to touch the blackened sigil on the stone floor. Her eyes moved to regarded Elanor’s remains with a critical eye. She reached out a hand to the flesh that lay on the floor, it was warm and shivered at her touch. The polished wood and metal handle of a knife sticking out from under the half-formed flesh caught her attention. She gently rolled the boneless flesh aside and carefully extracted it.

It was stained down its length with half-dried blood, without hesitation, she brought it up to her face, her eyes closed, her nostrils flaring. After a beat, she pulled back and gently puffed her breath across the knife. As her breath came into contact with the surface, a heavy dry ice mist momentarily formed and trickled down its edge.

She frowned at the knife and pulled a phone out of her pocket. She activated an app, and after a brief chime, a face appeared on the screen. Like her, the owner’s skin was unnaturally light, but unlike her, his features were a half-step too far removed to be exactly human. The eyes in his lined face were just a bit too wide apart, too green, and when he smiled, his teeth were fine and pointed like a predatory fish.

“Penhold,” she greeted him.  

“Aleph. So?” he asked in a dry baritone.

“You were right. Knox of the White figured it out, he’s killed Elanor.” She scanned the room with her phone’s camera stopping at the burned sigil and the vaguely human-shaped mound of flesh next to the desk. “Well, mostly,” she amended, pointing her phone’s camera at the fleshy lump on the floor.
“This has gone far enough. Pieces are being taken off the board. The carver needs to be either killed or sponsored. If Knox is able to get to him…”

“It could be very bad,” he said over her, “but it’s too good of an opportunity to miss. He’s been able to avoid notice for long enough that he’s actually taught himself rough control over his talent. Anyone who can do that has at least a chance against Knox.”

“Don’t talk to me about chance. Just because I’ve listened to your arguments doesn’t mean I agree with them. I give this plan a five percent chance of actually working, and a fifty percent chance of blowing up in your face.”

“What about the other forty-five percent?”

“That’s the percent where you and the carver both end up dead.”

He mulled that over. “Those are workable odds.”

“Maybe for you, but it would be a disaster for Senak and The Market. I remember what it was like before you showed up. Back then The Market wasn’t worth the effort for the Guild to step in and save it. Now, the Guild would be there the same day swooping in to ensure ‘stability."

“Probably, but the world would continue to turn. The Guild isn’t exactly evil, and I’m not young. I won’t live forever.”

“That could be altered,” she suggested.

“No, it couldn’t,” for the first time in the conversation there was a hard edge in his voice.

“This game has run ninety years,” Aleph continued, choosing not to start up the old argument. “The time to fight the war was when it was being fought, not now that it’s been lost. I owe you, but I don’t owe you another ninety years of waiting for things to be just right. You need to wrap it up soon or continue on without me.”

The face on her phone looked back at her without expression. “Keep an eye on the carver. They’ll come for him soon.”

“He’ll die,” she predicted.

“Yes, that’s possible,” he agreed, “and if he does, I’ll release you from your obligations. I think it’s far more likely though that Knox will try to use him. He’s a greedy old egomaniac with a lot of grudges. For the first time in four centuries, the carver has given him a means to settle them.”

“I noticed,” said Aleph dryly, not looking toward the desk and what lay under it. She had some pretty strong suspicions where the White alchemist had learned this new trick of his.

Penhold smiled at her through the small screen of her phone. “I think between Knox’s ambition, and the carver’s intelligence, there will be an opportunity for us.”

A small noise echoed in the empty workshop and Aleph raised her head toward it. It was probably just one of the smashed pieces of equipment settling.

“I need to go,” she said into the phone.

“Is something wrong?”

“I don’t think so, but I don’t want Knox coming back and finding me here. It would be awkward.”
Aleph turned on her heel and walked quickly to the door, when she got there she glanced back over her shoulder to look at the room one last time.

Knox had done more than kill Elanor. He’d destroyed what had taken centuries of effort to gather in, create, and discover. In minutes of casual destruction, all of her work was reduced to nothing more than torn pages and smashed equipment. Aleph had seen worse, it was more of the same old, worn, story, but it still had the power to sadden her.

That old Churchill quote about how “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” couldn’t be more wrong. It supposed that people could change basic human nature by learning from the mistakes of the past. No, history would never stop repeating itself because basic human nature would never change. It was biology. History was just elevator music playing for people who would tune it out until it was too late.