War of Light

For those waiting for the final Raven’s Wand book, War of Light, I’ve posted the first chapter here – enjoy!

War of Light

The Fifth and Final Journey of Albright’s Boat

Chapter One

Prologue

Before

Rain came from nowhere the day she met him – she always remembered that: blue turning to black, then whip-crack lightning and endless liquid orbs spinning down, marrying sky and earth. She always remembered that. . .

Valonia hadn’t slept and her worries were starting to feel more and more real, like they were taking over, the way moss obscures letters on stone. Four days ago, one of her witches had gone missing, and everyone knew the Illuminata was to blame. Now in her late thirties, Valonia’s position as Wildwood’s coven-mother wasn’t just firmly cemented it was hallowed, and locating Peggy, her missing friend, depended on her leadership. And so, she stood warring her inner doubts while planning yet more search parties, under a cloudless July-blue sky as innocent as it was indifferent, that is until he’d walked into the coven and like stage scenery changing, the skies darkened. That was the day Thomas Hobby walked into her life from nowhere and the sky wept lightning, but by the grace of Hethra and Halla he’d not only found Peggy, but rescued her and returned her safe and well, and the thunder and torrential rain seemed like a celebration.

That witch – Peggy Brown – had taken a small party on a gathering to Kendal but they’d been revealed as witches and Peggy had drawn the sheriff’s mob away to give her fellows chance of escape. Despite searching, none of Valonia’s coven could locate Peggy but they could easily guess her fate. And very likely she would have surely completed that journey to Lancaster Gaol and been hanged as everyone feared, if lone, wandering witch Thomas Hobby hadn’t come along, literally from nowhere. Valonia never got the full story of his incredible rescue, and even Peggy was hazy on the details. She always maintained that one moment she was chained in the trundling waggon and next he was there: the guards incapacitated and the chains broken. Everyone agreed it was a miracle, and Hobby always let them think so. And with that wild, summer storm also began an intense romance between the cool coven-mother of fire and ice, and the mysterious yet charismatic Hobby, the vagabond witch without a thunder-sprite even. He came and went but remained a familiar presence around Wildwood.

Almost a year later, on the day he asked her to marry him, he departed the coven to the tune of another July storm, promising he’d return in three days, yet she never saw him again and Valonia went to her grave unmarried and still in love with him. It was raining the day she met him, and it was raining the day he left her forever. The scant year between those two summer storms was the happiest of her life.

For Hobby it was the happiest of his many lives, even if his hard taskmaster disapproved. . .

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

A holy abomination

“Imagine it!” Durrant was finally rounding off, “The prefect weapon, laddie: an abomination so exquisite it is rightfully considered holy!” He finished with a husky rumble of respect and clasped his meaty hands behind his back and stood staring at the plain, black cylinder.

His fifteen minute speech had been impressive, Sawley thought, and delivered in his somewhat theatrical accent sounded prophetic. Yet Sawley Campbell was left feeling more terrified than impressed, and he also stood staring at the black cannister wondering at the nightmare child imprisoned inside it. Beside him, Steward Durrant Mackenzie was breathing hard, not from age, being only fifty-one, but from the occasion. As the silence descended, Sawley knew he ought to say something appropriate, after all, he’d be working here the rest of his life if he was lucky enough to be chosen. Sawley, being neither a youth nor an adult in the way only an eighteen year-old can be, thought the idea of being stationed in a remote Scottish castle as part of an elite household, safeguarding the Illuminata’s most hallowed and deadly weapon was stirring and privileged – and guaranteed to impress no end of girls. But as more drips from the vaulted ceiling splashed onto his neck and the smell of damp stones and the cellar’s echoes trampled his sense, he began to nurture second thoughts. BIG second thoughts. He’d be stationed most of the time at this virtually derelict castle, itself built on a measly spit of land extending into a deep loch surrounded by mountains, in Sutherland, the most extreme north-west corner of Britain, famed for its dire weather and even more dire summer midges. The main castle was comfortable enough, but located five miles away and most of his time would be spent here with ‘Drake’, the holy child-abomination that put the fear of God into every Illuminata bloodline on Earth: every bloodline. Drake was an assassin so totally accurate and infallible that he had gone from a weapon to a peacekeeping global deterrent. No bloodline would dare use him for his fingerprints were too well known. Hence, he remained here in the cellars of this small castle under the Stewards’ guardianship, where his existence alone was enough to ensure his perpetual non-use.

“So, laddie, tell me the year Drake was born,” Durrant tested when Sawley failed to speak.

Now here’s the interview, Sawley quivered, nervous more about passing than failing. “The child was born in 1256, sir.”

“To whom?”

“To the Drake bloodline of France, sir.”

“And when was the child interned?”

Durrant’s voice echoed and water tapped Sawley’s neck like thieving fingers. The black cannister seemed to gather in mass and presence, and Sawley wondered if the child entombed within was listening to him. No, Durrant says he sleeps always, Sawley reassured himself. He can only be awoken by a handler, and that’ll never happen because he could kill anyone anywhere on the globe without even leaving this cellar.

“Laddie?” Durrant hurried.

“Erm, sorry sir, Drake was three years-old when he showed signs of being aware of his power, and in an emergency measure the child was entombed and put to lasting sleep.” As he recited the answers, Sawley stared at the cannister’s hammered, black surface, not wanting to picture the little boy tucked and packed within. They ought to have put the wee bairn down for good, he thought privately.

“And when did Drake arrive at Castle Ardvrek?” Durrant curled his lip in a way that made his glossy moustache bunch impatiently.

“1293, sir, for safekeeping after the English sacked the French port of La Rochelle.”

“And when did Drake last awaken?”

“1393, sir, he was used to kill Sir Thomas Cotton.”

“And how did the bloodlines know Drake was responsible?”

That’s easy, thought Sawley – Drake’s kill technique was so ghastly and unique that the prefect assassin was perfectly obvious. “Sir Thomas was found in his bed chamber by his servants, sir. His entire skin, head to toe, had been bleached clear as glass.”

“As if?”

“As if he’d been confronted by a light so bright that it turned him transparent – sir,” Sawley shivered and the cannister gained a few more tons of presence in his mind.

“And what did I say about the maid’s attempts to feed him?” Durrant leaned closer, ghoulishly amused.

“Sir Thomas Cotton lived two days in a state of grave health, sir. The maid said she could see right through his skin, to his blood and tissues below, sir.”

“Aaaand?” Durrant drew out.

“And she saw his guts squeeze and wriggle like worms, sir, as he was forced his medicine of eggs and brandy.”

“Aaaaaand!” Durrant wanted to hear the best bit.

Sawley gulped. “She saw ‘his turds before they even left his arse’, sir,” he quoted verbatim.

“Huh!” Durrant huffed at the vulgarity he himself had encouraged. “Quite so, quite so. Now, trot yourself back upstairs, laddie, back to captain Forest. He’ll show you the rest of the grounds and castle.” Durrant was already heading to turn out the paraffin lamps.

“And you, sir?”

He looked over his shoulder, indignant. “Why, I’m putting the wee laddie to bed or course,” he said with paternal piety. “Now trot you off I say.”

Dismissed, Sawley headed back to the flight of stone steps.

Durrant circled the cellar, turning the paraffin lamps off one by one, leaving the last one flickering in his hand and taking a final look around. He would return for a last inspection just before nightfall as he always did. Satisfied that all was correct he made to turn and leave Drake in darkness when one of those numerous drops from the ceiling alerted him to something awry down here. He stood still and listened, like the engineer aware of a bad cog in his machine. It came again, one drop that sounded like a dried pea tapping a drum: tapping something hollow. Scowling he turned to locate the sound. A third drop and he’d homed in on it. It was coming from Drake’s cannister. His scowl was joined by a suspicious squint as he approached the cylinder. Perched on its squat column of Hebridean gneiss, the top of Drake’s miniature tomb sat eye-level with him. He stood and waited, fixed on the target like an ambushing tiger in the grass. Another drip splashed down on the cannister. That alone was cause for concern about the state of the masonry, but the drip’s tune was alarmingly wrong. “Hollow?” He now scowled, squinted and pursed his lips at the same time. The fifth drip confirmed what was until just one second ago a total impossibility and a sign that the very world was about to fall apart: Drake’s cannister was empty and the holy abomination was gone.

Sawley was thinking about his parents when he heard the scream. His overly protective mother and father hadn’t wanted him to be a Knight and instead arranged this position for him. It was prestigious enough to garner respect while making sure he’d never pilot a kraken in combat. At first the idea had captivated him, but in the last days, as he’d toured the Ardvrek Estate and got to know the bloodline of Stewards entrusted with guarding Drake, he’d begun to long for the cramped and oily confines of a kraken steam-suit. Durrant’s scream from below reached him just as he grasped the cellar door’s circular iron handle, and he immediately turned and raced back down the steps.

He found Steward Durrant Mackenzie standing with his dropped lantern spluttering on the floor and holding that black cannister in his arms – the one not ten minutes ago he’d proudly told Sawley that no human hand had touched in over six centuries. Thinking this another example of the Steward’s morbid sense of humour, and not wanting this post at all now, Sawley decided to scupper his chances and get out while he could. “Rocking the laddie to sleep, sir?” he grinned stupidly, seeing how Durrant cradled the cannister like a baby.

The large man blinked at him through an expressionless face, as if his shock had blasted his senses back the Stone Age. “He’s gone you stupid, bloody ninny! GONE! GONNNE!” The accusation rang around the chamber in triplicate.

Sawley looked at the cannister then back to Durrant, and then totally destroyed his interview, “Did you see him go, sir?”

Durrant’s disbelief was now joined by incredulity. “Are you as stupid as your father’s gutless, boy!” he screamed. “The bairn didn’t just climb out and toddle away, he was sto –, he was sto –,” The cannister dropped from his arms and Durrant swayed then dropped on top of it.

“Stolen?” Sawley tried helpfully, but Durrant was too busy having a heart attack to answer.

*********************************

Eight days later, on July 1st, the picturesque sands of Gruinard Bay in Ross-Shire, Scotland, were discreetly ringed with soldiers and given over to an Extraordinary Gathering of Illuminata Heads, although the group of eighteen men and four women appeared less extraordinary and more surreal. All of them decked either in black top hats, suits and frock coats, or black dresses, parasols and veils, they paced the expanse of sand like a host of mourners lost on their way to the cemetery, but this was a necessity. Coastal areas like this were ancient neutral zones in Illuminata doctrine, being neither sea nor land and thus subject to no bloodline. Nobody here would kill anyone else, even if they wanted to. Upon closer inspection the men all walked with canes and seemed not only to represent their bloodlines but all be descended from the same stock too: uniformly laughter-less faces, marble-hard eyes and steely hair. The women were little better, except for the young Duchess Olivia Brochet the youngest head of any bloodline in Europe. Coming from a family with a strong penchant for family assassination she was left as family head aged just seventeen. Secretly, nobody expected her to see her 21st birthday.

Yet for all their similarities, in any group of predators there remains a hierarchy. Some are blustery and forceful, others are moody and watchful, some pose as passive to gain trust before striking, others pose as domineering to conceal weakness, and so on. . . Sir Edmund Michaels used his six-foot-six height and senior status to bully the rest, and some played along because it suited their own, more subtle, agenda. He swished his cane in anger, “Blast it! First Krast gets himself killed and decapitates the Illuminata with that infernal cyclotron device, then the tournament disaster at Salisbury last month leaving the bloodlines open to a challenge from American half-breeds! And now Drake is stolen – Good God! Tell me some better news, Rodgers!”

Steward, Oliver Rodgers, was their liaison and chaperone, and at this precise point in time snake-charmer to the vilest bag of serpents ever collected: one way or another the people here controlled the globe and the lives of all on it. “I have the letter here, Sir Michaels,” he waved it regretfully.

The crowd first glared at the now infamous letter and then at one another. If genuine, the letter proved that Drake’s theft was not the doing of one Illuminata bloodline stabbing the rest in the back – not even Americans – but something far, far worse. “Open it, Rodgers,” Michaels ordered.

“Wait!” The voice was incongruous in its youthfulness. Duchess Olivia stepped forwards and unhooked her veil, fighting the boisterous wind and losing a touch of dignity but looking ravishing nonetheless. The face beneath the black netting was beautiful but doomed.

Saucy little filly will be dead by twenty, Michaels thought smugly.

“Rodgers,” she began, still learning to wield power but intoxicated already, “parade the letter for all to see, the seal in particular.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” Rodgers did as was told and made a careful circuit of the gathering holding the letter up for all to see, notably the white seal on the back. It had been found in Drake’s empty cannister and hadn’t been opened yet. Today’s Extraordinary Gathering was here to discover the contents.

It’s genuine! God’s Grace – it is real? A forgery? No – it’s real! These comments and others like them were accompanied by lifted spectacles or monocles, and peering eyes that turned to outraged orbs when the recognition hit home.

“I am afraid,” Rodgers drew out, “that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity. The seal not only bears the forbidden symbol but has been tested.”

“And?” Michaels demanded. “Is it?”

He nodded gravely. “Not wax but fat, tallow. . . from a unicorn no less.”

“Unicorn? Then that means. . .” Novice though she was, Olivia knew not to show fear before these people, but she felt a ghostly threat, formerly extinct, re-enter the world: The Knights Illustria. “Unicorn remains? How did they obtain such a relic?” she wondered. “Why, the very gesture is an insult to the Illuminata coat-of-arms!”

Michaels twitched his cane dismissively, “They could have obtained it from any bloodline treasury! And insult is the whole point, my dear! What we need to focus on is how they have returned without us knowing and how they managed to steal Drake from right under our noses.” At this, all eyes darted towards Rodgers.

But the grim Steward stood tall scenting battle, and wearing kilt and a face sculpted by years of service, he looked more than up to the job. “The House of Stewards,” he began loudly over the wind, “was founded by your bloodlines to your requirements. Drake’s sanctum was crafted and guarded as deemed fit by all of you.” Rodgers set his glare against every face, daring them to further besmirch his Household. “Steward Mackenzie remains yet in his hospital bed,” he went on, “such was his devotion to the Household that the shock of Drake’s theft stunned his heart to momentary stillness and almost killed him!” He raised a testimonial finger with yet more to say, but feeling his face redden he caught his breath, just in case these people decided to stake him to the sands and let the tide drown him: it had been done before. “No bloodline would ever steal the bairn Drake, on this we all agree – hence we are Stewards, not gaolers,” he finished more evenly.

“May I?” Michaels ignored the rebuke and took the letter. “It has not been opened, you say?”

“No – sir,” Rodgers forced. “The seal is quite intact as all can see.”

Michaels stabbed his cane into the sands and held the letter in both hands, while the rest closed in. The wind pushed at bonnets and veils, parasols, top hats and coat-tails, and they all waited for some insight from Michaels while formulating their own private stratagems. “Then I shall open it,” he decided, “are we agreed?”

“Open it,” Dowager Barnes agreed, her voice as restless as the sand.

Michaels checked the old woman’s face but could see nothing behind the black veil other than the glint of crooked teeth. “Very well, after all, that is why we made such long journeys to come here today – I shall open it.” He left a gap, inviting contradiction but nobody accepted, and after a further second’s delay he extracted the letter-opener he’d brought from his coat and slit the envelope, leaving the seal intact. Before looking inside it he returned the letter-opener to his pocket with domineering relish, and then slowly teased the envelope open with further enjoyment, but the wind cut short his act when it instantly flicked the scrap of paper within past his left ear and sent it fluttering to the sands by Olivia’s feet.

“I have it!” she cried and bent for it.

Michaels was hungrier though. “No need.” He almost barged her aside and snatched the note from the sands, and then made them all wait as he dried his sandy fingers on his handkerchief before examining the note.

The young duchess fumed. “How gracious,” she served with acid.

“At your service, Duchess Brochet,” he smiled back. Maybe dead by twenty? He re-evaluated privately. “Now then,” he returned to the note, “our mysterious thief speaks. . .” He opened what he expected to be a ransom or blackmail note, or some other explicit threat, but instead found it was merely a portion of a neatly cut map about four inches square. “Fascinating. . .” he muttered, “our thief is enamoured with games it seems. . .” There wasn’t an eye there that wasn’t pinned on him – and he knew it. He spun out his pleasure, pretending to study the map but in truth making them beg.

“Sir?” Rodgers wasn’t in a gaming mood.

Michaels, chasing control more than comprehension, missed it. “A map,” he scoffed, “’tis a clipped portion of a map, nothing more!”

“Is it where they’ve taken Drake?” Olivia tried to impress.

“I doubt they’d tell us his hiding place, my dear Duchess,” he smirked and held the map out for all to see.

She again fumed, but not for long. Although old and veiled in black, Dowager Barnes saw it first. “The map – it shows here – Gruinard!” Already she was shuffling back.

“Sir,” Rodgers warned, seeing she was right, “drop it!” Overhead, trilling curlews competed with rising panic from the gathering. “Sir – drop it I say!” Even Rodgers was now backing off.

Youthful but cunning, Olivia proved she might live to top the Dowager’s age, “They know we’re here! DRAKE knows we’re here!” She stumbled back as she tried to run but only staggered in her long dress and crashed onto the sand arse-first with a shallow splash.

Michaels enjoyed a split-second of fun at her ungainly flop – plus the flash of her legs – and then a moment of crypt-cold dread when comprehension finally overtook power-play. They know I’m here – they know I hold the map – they –,

That thought remained unfinished as suddenly everyone was blinded by a light so bright that it had weight; it had hunger; it had substance as real as the incoming tide, and it rushed through them all as if riding the wind and its epicentre was fixed on Michaels. If only he’d let Olivia pick up that note. . .

The blast hurled Dowager Barnes onto her back and she too fell beside the young duchess. Incredibly, terror made the pair join hands: quite a feat for sworn rivals.

Michaels felt something like subzero teeth rip through him and then the insatiable brightness turned to black as his eyes were seared and hollowed by acid illumination. The light ate all it could and then vanished in a blink leaving a cloud of agony. Michaels felt his entire body scream with exposure as delicate blood vessels, tissues and organs were dragged into the sunlight and left bleached under a skin now as clear as glass. Even Gruinard’s relatively weak sunlight felt like a furnace.

The effect on the rest was no less horrific – for they had to bear witness. Olivia blinked her vision back and through the blur she saw Michaels still standing there holding the note. Her ears were useless, ringing only with screams, and she joined them when she saw how Michaels now looked like a skinned cadaver dressed in a black suit and top hat. He too was screaming, and she saw how the arteries in his neck pumped in panic like fighting hose pipes, and his tongue gulped in his throat like a toad in a well. She was first up, and after checking her own hands and seeing healthy, normal skin, she fled, leaving the rest. The screams receded and the sands raced by, and after falling again and then tearing off her dainty shoes, she ran barefoot with her dress lifted high. Across the glossy sands she saw a red light flash and play and looked back to see Rodgers had fired a signal flare to summon medics and soldiers from shore, but the tiny scrap of sanity couldn’t stop her feeling like she was just a tiny ant running across a very large target and that Drake’s handler was watching from the clouds, ready to slam a giant boot upon her at whim. So it’s true then, she grappled the thought, the Knights Illuminata’s sworn enemies have returned: the Knights Illustria, and with Drake they could kill whom they wished whenever they wished. Duchess Olivia Brochet decided right there and then to abandon power and riches and step down as family head. Better to live a peasant life than be eaten alive by the light. She sprinted back to shore and an impoverished life, and subsequently to her 21st birthday after all.

“It’s true, merciful God, it’s true!” It was the Dowager. Rodgers tried to help her up but the old woman seemed to cling to the sands like a frightened plaice trying to hide. “Leave me, leave me!” she screamed, “He sees all, Drake sees all!”

Grovelling on the ground won’t make you less of a target, you daft bat! Rodgers wanted to say. “Please, My Lady, we must get back to shore!”

“They’re back, they’re back!” she continued to rant, and Rodgers saw how her upper dentures had fallen out and were hanging netted inside her veil like a skeletal fish. “The Knights Illustria have returned!” She clawed the sands and fought him, “Leave me, leave me!”

“Sod it!” Rodgers cursed, dropped the smoking flare gun, and obeyed and turned to see if there was anything he could do for Michaels instead. He wove through a stampede of senior dignitaries who were charging back to shore at impressive speed for their age. “Sir, sir!” he reached Michaels, who was now blindly crawling over the sand like a wounded crab plucked of legs by gulls.

“Rodgers? Rodgers, I can’t seeeee!” he screamed to the sand. In his hand he still clutched the map, now just a ball of tattered paper. Rodgers took his shoulders, knelt beside him and turned him. As soon as Michaels’ naked face met the sunlight he screamed again in agony and his hands retracted into protective claws over his useless eyes. “Rodgers,” he gulped, speaking through lips as clear as aspic and showing teeth, gums and jawbone, “is it. . . tell me. . .”

Rodgers was already sweeping his coat free to shield him from the sun, like a man become a vampire, and half-expecting him to smoulder and turn to ash. “Forgive me, sir, but yes – it is true,” he said with genuine grief.

Michaels’ eyes rolled in their expanded sockets as white and featureless as snowballs. “Then thank God I cannot see,” he panted, failing, aware and glad of it. “Rodgers, listen!” he suddenly clawed at him and hooked his shirt front. “Listen – The Knights Illustria have returned, swear to me – swear – you won’t let them win!”

“I swear it sir!” he boomed. “On my oath and on my own kin, I swear it!” Rodgers gazed down at the monster in his arms and felt tears of horror, regret and occasion warm his cheeks. “I swear, sir,” he finished gently and took the man’s hand and gripped hard. Michaels gripped back, took a tiny, sharp breath and his body ceased quaking. This is it, Rodgers thought gladly.

“War of Light. . .” Michaels whispered, and then died.

“Aye, sir. . .” Rodgers cried then, for all the Illuminata, for just as witches feared them they in turn feared their ancient nemesis, The Knights Illustria, and Rodgers felt no shame at the lie he’d just told the dying man – victory was not certain at all. Not far away, the envelope skipped brightly over the sand under a playful breeze, scratching to a stop close by and Rodgers could see the white seal of unicorn fat embossed with the symbol of a blazing lantern: The Knights Illustria. He slackened his grip and looked down and saw that the hand he was holding to be virtually skeletal but still clothed in translucent flesh. He stayed that way until first medics and soldiers arrived, while behind, he heard the tide creeping slowly over the sands, hissing softly as it came, once again turning land to sea.

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