Adventurer. The term has long been synonymous with cutthroat, murderer, savage, zealot, and heathen. And Lenk, an errant young man with only a sword and a decidedly unpleasant voice in his head, counts all five among his best and only associates. Loathed by society and spurned by all merciful gods, he and his band are recruited for only the vilest of jobs.
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Sam Sykes is the author of the acclaimed The Aeons' Gate series, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. He lives in Arizona with two hounds in a small, drab apartment and has eaten at least one of every animal on earth. You can visit his website at www.samsykes.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I n the span of a breath, colour and sound died on the wind.
The green of the ocean, the flutter of sails, the tang of salt in the air vanished from Lenk’s senses. The world faded into darkness, leaving only the tall, leather-skinned man before him and the sword clutched in his hands.
The man loosed a silent howl and leapt forwards. Lenk’s sword rose just as his foe’s curved blade came crashing down.
They met in a kiss of sparks. Life returned to Lenk’s senses in the groan of the grinding blades. He was aware of many things at once: the man’s towering size, the sound of curses boiling out of tattooed lips, the odour of sweat and the blood staining the wood under their feet.
The man uttered something through a yellow-toothed smile; Lenk watched every writhing twitch of his mouth, hearing no words behind them. No time to wonder. He saw the man’s free hand clutching a smaller, crueller blade, whipping up to seek his ribs.
The steel embrace shattered. Lenk leapt backwards, feeling his boots slide along the red-tinged salt beneath him. His heels struck something fleshy and solid and unmoving; his backpedal halted.
Don’t look, he urged himself, not yet.
He had eyes for nothing but his foe’s larger blade as it came hurtling down upon him. Lenk darted away, watched the cutlass bite into the slick timbers and embed itself. He saw the twitch of the man’s eye – the realisation of his mistake and the instant in which futile hope existed.
And then died.
Lenk lunged, sword up and down in a flashing arc. His senses returned with painful slowness; he could hear the echo of the man’s shriek, feel the sticky life spatter across his face, taste the tang of copper on his lips. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the man knelt before his own severed arm, shifting a wide-eyed stare from the leaking appendage to the young man standing over him.
Lenk’s sword flashed again, biting deeply into meat and sliding out again. Only when its tip lowered, steady, to the timbers, only when his opponent collapsed, unmoving, did he allow himself to take in the sight.
The pirate’s eyes were quivering pudding: stark white against the leather of his flesh. They looked stolen, wearing an expression that belonged to a smaller, more fearful man. Lenk met his foe’s gaze, seeing his own blue stare reflected in the whites until the light behind them sputtered out in the span of a sole, ragged breath.
He drew a lock of silver hair from his eyes, ran his hand down his face, wiping the sweat and substance from his brow. His fingers came back to him trembling and stained.
Lenk drew in a breath.
In that breath, the battle had ended. The roar of the pirates’ retreat and the hesitant, hasty battle cries of sailors had faded on the wind. The steel that had flashed under the light of a shameless staring sun now lay on the ground in limp hands. The stench ebbed on the breeze, filled the sails overhead and beckoned the hungry gulls to follow.
The dead remained.
They were everywhere, having ceased to be men. Now they were litter, so many obstacles of drained flesh and broken bones lying motionless on the deck. Pirates lay here and there, amongst the sailors they had taken with them. Some embraced their foes with rigor-stiffening limbs. Most lay on their backs, eyes turned to Gods that had no answers for the questions that had died on their lips.
His thought seemed an understatement, perhaps insultingly so, but he had seen many bodies in his life, many not half as peacefully gone. He had drawn back trembling hands many times before, flicked blood from his sword many times before, as he did now. And he was certain that the stale breath he drew would not be the last to be scented with death.
‘Astounding congratulations should be proffered for so ruby a sport, good sir!’
Lenk whirled about at the voice, blade up. The pirate standing upon the railing of the Riptide, however, seemed less than impressed, if the banana-coloured grin on his face was any indication. He extended a long, tattooed limb and made an elaborate bow.
‘It is the sole pleasure of the Linkmaster’s crew, myself included, to look forward to offering a suitable retort for,’ the pirate paused to gesture to the human litter, ‘our less fortunate complements, of suitable fury and adequately accompanying disembowelment.’
‘Uh,’ Lenk said, blinking, ‘what?’
Had he time and wit enough about him to decipher the tattooed man’s expression, he would, he assured himself, have come up with a more suitable retort.
‘Do hold that thought, kind sir. I shall return anon to carve it out.’
Like some particularly eloquent hairless ape, the pirate fell to all fours and scampered nimbly across a chain swaying over the gap of quickly shifting sea between the two ships. He was but one of many, Lenk noted, as the remaining tattooed survivors fled back over the railings of their own vessel.
‘Cragsmen,’ the young man muttered, spitting on the deck at the sight of the inked masses.
Their leviathan ship shared their love of decoration, it seemed. Its title was painted in bold, violent crimson upon a black hull, sharp as a knife: Linkmaster. And in equally threatening display were crude scrawlings of ships of various sizes beneath the title, each one with a triumphant red cross drawn through it.
Save one that bore a peculiar resemblance to the Riptide’s triple masts.
‘Eager little bastards,’ he muttered, narrowing his eyes. ‘They’ve already picked out a spot for us.’
He blinked. That realisation carried a heavy weight, one that struck him suddenly. He had thought that the pirates were chance raiders and the Riptide nothing more than an unlucky victim. This particular drawing, apparently painted days before, suggested something else.
‘Khetashe,’ Lenk cursed under his breath, ‘they’ve been waiting for us.’
‘Were they?’ someone grunted from behind him, a voice that seemed to think it should be feminine but wasn’t quite convinced.
He turned about and immediately regretted doing so. A pair of slender hands in fingerless leather gloves reached down to grip an arrow’s shaft jutting from a man’s chest. He should have been used to the sound of arrowheads being wrenched out of flesh, he knew, but he couldn’t help cringing.
Somehow, one never got all the way used to Kataria.
‘Because if this is an ambush,’ the pale creature said as she inspected the bloody arrow, ‘it’s a rather pitiful excuse for one.’ She caught his uncomfortable stare and offered an equally unpleasant grin as she tapped her chin with the missile’s head. ‘But then, humans have never been very good at this sort of thing, have they?’
Her ears were always the first thing he noticed about Kataria: long, pointed spears of pale flesh peeking out from locks of dirty blonde hair, three deep notches running the length of each as they twitched and trembled like beings unto themselves. Those ears, as long as the feathers laced in her hair, were certainly the most prominent markers of her shictish heritage.
The immense, fur-wrapped bow she carried on her back, as well as the short-cut leathers she wore about what only barely constituted a bosom, leaving her muscular mid section exposed, were also indicative of her savage custom.
‘You looked as surprised as any to find them aboard,’ Lenk replied. With a sudden awareness, he cast a glance about the deck. ‘So did Denaos, come to think of it. Where did he go?’
‘Well . . .’ She tapped the missile’s fletching against her chin as she inspected the deck. ‘I suppose if you just find the trail of urine and follow it, you’ll eventually reach him.’
‘Whereas one need only follow your stench to find you?’ he asked, daring a little smirk.
‘Correction,’ she replied, unfazed, ‘one need only look for the clear winner.’ She pushed a stray lock of hair behind the leather band about her brow, glanced at the corpse at Lenk’s feet. ‘What’s that? Your first one today?’
‘Well, well, well.’ Her smile was as unpleasant as the red-painted arrows she held before her, her canines as prominent and sharp as their glistening heads. ‘I win.’
‘This isn’t a game, you know.’
‘You only say that because you’re losing.’ She replaced the bloodied missiles in the quiver on her back. ‘What’s it matter to you, anyway? They’re dead. We’re not. Seems a pretty favourable situation to me.’
‘That last one snuck up on me.’ He kicked the body. ‘Nearly gutted me. I told you to watch my back.’
‘First, when we came up here.’ He counted off on his fingers. ‘Next, when everyone started screaming, “Pirates! Pirates!” And then, when I became distinctly aware of the possibility of someone shoving steel into my kidneys. Any of these sound familiar?’
‘Vaguely,’ she said, scratching her backside. ‘I mean, not the actual words, but I do recall the whining.’ She offered a broader smile to cut off his retort. ‘You tell me lots of things: “Watch my back, watch his back, put an arrow in his back.” Watch backs. Shoot humans. I got the idea.’
‘I said shoot Cragsmen.’ Upon seeing her unregistering blink, he sighed and kicked the corpse again. ‘These things! The pirates! Don’t shoot our humans!’
‘I haven’t,’ she replied with a smirk. ‘Yet.’
‘Are you planning to start?’ he asked.
‘If I run out of the other kind, maybe.’
Lenk looked out over the railing and sighed.
No chance of that happening anytime soon.
The crew of the Linkmaster stood at the railings of their vessel, poised over the clanking chain bridges with barely restrained eagerness. And yet, Lenk noted with a narrowing of his eyes, restrained all the same. Their leering, eager faces outnumbered the Riptide’s panicked expressions, their cutlasses shone brighter than any staff or club their victims had managed to cobble together.
And yet, all the same, they remained on their ship, content to throw at the Riptide nothing more than hungry stares and the occasional declaration of what they planned to do with Kataria, no matter what upper assets she might lack. The phrase ‘segregate those weeping dandelions ’twixt a furious hammer’ was shouted more than once.
Any other day, he would have taken the time to ponder the meaning behind that. At that moment, another question consumed his thoughts.
‘What are they waiting for?’
‘Right now?’ Kataria growled, flattened ears suggesting she heard quite clearly their intentions and divined their meaning. ‘Possibly for me to put an arrow in their gullets.’
‘They could easily overrun us,’ he muttered. ‘Why wouldn’t they attack now, while they still have the advantage?’
Largely, he told himself, that we’re going to die and you’re going to be the cause. His thoughts throbbed painfully in the back of his head. They’re waiting for something, I know it, and when they finally decide to attack, all I’ve got is a lunatic shict to fight them. Where are the others? Where’s Dreadaeleon? Where’s Denaos? Why do I even keep them around? I could do this. I could survive this if they were gone.
If she were . . .
He felt her stare upon him as surely as if she’d shot him. From the corner of his own eye, he could see hers staring at him. No, he thought, studying. Studying with an unnerving steadiness that exceeded even the unpleasantness of her long-vanished smile.
His skin twitched under her gaze, he shifted, turned a shoulder to her.
Stop staring at me.
She canted her head to one side. ‘What?’
Any response he might have had degenerated into a sudden cry of surprise, one lost amidst countless others, as the deck shifted violently beneath him, sending him hurtling to one knee. He was rendered deaf by the roar of waves as the Riptide rent the sea beneath it with the force of its turn, but even the ocean could not drown out the furious howl from the Riptide’s helm.
‘More men!’ the voice screeched. ‘Get more men to the railing! What are you doing, you thrice-fondled sons of six-legged whores from hell? Get those chains off !’
Not an eye could help turning to the ship’s wheel, and the slim, dark figure behind it. A bald beacon, Captain Argaol’s hairless head shone with sweat as his muscles strained to guide his bride of wood and sails away from her pursuer. Eyes white and wide in furious snarl, he turned a scowl onto Lenk.
‘What in Zamanthras’s name are you blasphemers being paid for?’ He thrust a finger towards the railings. ‘ Get. Them. OFF!’
Several bodies pushed past Lenk, hatchets in hand as they rushed the chains biting into the Riptide’s hull. At this, a lilting voice cut across the gap of the sea, sharp as a blade to Lenk’s ears as he pulled himself to his feet.
‘I say, kind Captain, that hardly seems the proper way to address the gentlemen in your employ, does it?’ The helmsman of the Linkmaster taunted with little effort as he guided the black vessel to keep pace with its prey. ‘Truly, sirrah, perhaps you could benefit from a tongue more silver than brass?’
‘Stuff your metaphors in your eyes and burn them, Cragscum!’ Argaol split his roar in twain, hurling the rest of his fury at his crew below. ‘Faster! Work faster, you hairless monkeys! Get the chains off!’
‘Do we help?’ Kataria asked, looking from the chains to Lenk. ‘I mean, aren’t you a monkey?’
‘Monkeys lack a sense of business etiquette,’ Lenk replied. ‘Argaol isn’t the one who pays us.’ His eyes drifted down, along with his frown, to the dull iron fingers peeking over the edge of the Riptide’s hull. ‘Besides, no amount of screaming is going to smash that thing loose.’
Her eyes followed his, and so did her lips, at the sight of the massive metal claw. A ‘mother claw’, some sailors had shrieked upon seeing it: a massive bridge of links, each the size of a housecat, ending in six massive talons that clung to its victim ship like an overconfident drunkard.
‘Were slander but one key upon a ring of victory, good Captain, I dare suggest you’d not be in such delicate circumstance,’ the Linkmaster’s helmsman called from across the gap. ‘Alas, a lack of manners more frequently begets sharp devices embedded in kidneys. If I might be so brash as to suggest surrender as a means of keeping your internal organs free o...
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