It was an ink-dark dream. A razor flashback. A frozen splinter of time piercing his mind like a sterile needle. Nienna, beautiful Nienna, his sweet young granddaughter; they stood by the edge of a wide, sweeping river, spring sunshine warming upturned faces and glinting like diamonds amongst swaying reeds. Kell was teaching her how to fish, and he guided her hands, her long tapered fingers a contrast to his wrinkled, scarred old bear paws, hooking the bait (at which she pulled a screwed-up face) then casting out the line. They sat, then, in companionable silence, and Kell realised Nienna was watching him intently. He turned, scratching his grizzled grey beard, eyes meeting her bright gaze, and she smiled, face radiant. 'Grandfather?' 'Yes, little monkey?' 'Isn't fishing… you know, unfair?' 'What do you mean?'
'Well, it's like a trap, isn't it? You dangle the worm on a hook, and the fish swims along, unsuspecting, and you whip him out and eat him for supper. It's really not fair on the fish.'
'Well, how else would I catch him?' said Kell, frowning a little. He chuckled. 'I could always throw you in – you could swim after all the little fishes, catch them in your teeth like a pike!' He moved as if to grab her, to toss her into the deep waters, and she squealed, backing away fast up the bank and getting mud on her hands and clothes. Nienna tutted. 'Grandfather!' 'Ach, it's only a little mud. It'll wash off.'
What Kell had wanted to say was that all life is a trap, a deceit, a bad con trick from a clever con artist. Life leads you on, life dangles tantalising bait on a dulled hook of iron – the bait being happiness, good health, wealth, joy – and you reach with both hands, mouth gaping like a slack-brained jester in the King's Court, but Life is a bitch and just when you think you've found it, found your dream, the line snags and you're yanked by your balls, guts and brain. Hooked, and slaughtered. That was Life. That was Reality. That was Sobriety. But Kell kept his mouth shut. Kept it shut tight. He didn't want to spoil the moment, this simple joy of fishing with his talented, optimistic granddaughter beside the Selenau River.
Now, Kell and Saark stood on the high rooftop of the shattered, teetering tower block in Old Skulkra. This was their trap. The bait had been laid by General Graal, his Army of Iron, his disgusting twisted cankers, and they had been snagged like fools, like naive hatchlings, cornering themselves in Old Skulkra with an impossible task and a terrible fight.
Kell clutched his black axe Ilanna to his chest, gorespattered knuckles white, face iron thunder, and Saark was tense, slim rapier wavering before him, his face a shattered silhouette of half-broken fear.
Below, in the bowels of the old stone block, something ululated, high-pitched and keening and far too feral to be human. It was followed immediately by a flurry of snarls, and growls, and heavy thuds and a scrabbling of brass claws clattering and booming through velvet black.
It was the cankers… and they were coming for fresh blood.
Kell's face was a thunderstorm filled with bruised clouds. Saark's face was hard to read, battered from a beating at the hands of Myriam's men, and his blood seeped through a torn and dirt-smeared shirt from a recent stab wound. Kell took a deep breath, nose twitching at fire from distant funeral pyres in the wake of the recent battle; he lifted Ilanna, and seemed, for a moment at least, to commune with the battered axe. The cankers drew close. The two men could hear the beasts' heavy breathing on the stairwell.
Suddenly, a pulse seemed to pound through the ancient, deserted city; through the world. It was subsonic, an esoteric rumble; almost an earthquake. Almost. Saark allowed breath to hiss free between clenched teeth. His fear was a tangible thing, a stain, like ink. He glanced at Kell. 'We're going to die up here, aren't we?'
Kell laughed, and it contained genuine humour, genuine warmth. He slapped Saark on the back, then rubbed thoughtfully at his bloodied beard, and with glittering eyes said, 'We all die sometime, laddie,' as the first of the cankers burst from the opening in a flurry of claws and fangs and screwed up faces of pure hate.
With a roar, Kell leapt to meet them…
As the first canker leapt, so Kell's mighty axe slammed down in a savage overhead blow, splitting the head in two, right down to the twisted spine-top. Flesh, brain and skull exploded outwards, and mixed in there with muscle and bone shards were tiny, battered clockwork machines, wheels and cogs twisting and turning, clicking and shifting, clockwork gears clacking, and in a blur Kell stepped back, dragging his axe with him as the first canker corpse hit the ground and he swayed from a swipe of huge claws from the second snarling beast, Ilanna singing as she hammered left now, butterfly blades horizontal, cutting free the canker's arm with a jarring thud and a shower of flowering blood petals. The beast howled, but a third heaved and shouldered past, huge and bulky, the size of a lion, a disjointed, twisted lion with pale white skin bulging with muscle, like overfull bowels pressing against maggot flesh in an attempt to break free of a pus-filled abdomen. The canker was covered with a plague of grey fur, tufted and irregular, and its forehead was stretched right back, its huge maw five times the size of the human mouth which had formed its template, skull open like an axe-chopped pumpkin showing huge brass fangs which curled down from rancid gleaming jaws and were decorated with knurled swirls, like fine etchings in copper. The canker's body was covered in open wounds, and within each wound thrashed clockwork, a myriad of tiny, spinning wheels, gyrating spindles, meshing gears, but whereas the pure vachine was perfect, and noble, and secure in its Engineer-created arrogance, this canker – this deviation, this corruption – showed bent gears and levers and unmeshed cogs, and in a blur Kell leapt sideways, Ilanna carving a parting line of muscle across the canker's neck, like an unzipping of flesh. Despite pain and squirming, unreleased muscle, its sheer weight and bulk carried it forward across the scattered concrete beams of the tower block's flat roof, where it slammed into Saark as his rapier stabbed frantically, slashing open more huge curved wounds. They both staggered back, fell back, and Kell turned from Saark allowing the wounded man to deal with the dying canker in a hiss of steel opening flesh and a gush of severed arteries.
A fresh flood of cankers burst through the opening, forcing Kell towards a grim-faced Saark, and the two men stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder, faces grim and splattered with gore, weapons flickering skilfully to open savage wounds as the cankers formed an expanding wall of flesh, an arc of solid muscle, as more and more surged through the opening to reinforce their ranks until there were ten, fifteen, twenty of the huge beasts ranged against them, hissing and grunting. Kell gave a sardonic snarl, teeth grinding, and rubbed his grey beard. At his feet lay five dead cankers, a feat for any mortal man – for each canker was a terrible foe. Kell's eyes glittered, dark and feral, and his gore-slippery axe lowered a little as he realised – realised with a bark of laughter – that they were waiting.
'What's the matter, lads?' he boomed. 'Left your bollocks at home with your pus-ugly wives?' The cankers growled, huge puddles of drool descending from wide stretched maws where brass fangs curled like scimitar blades. Behind Kell, Saark was panting, long curly hair in lank strips filled with bits of bone and flesh, his beautiful face now a tapestry of agony.
'What are they waiting for?' he whispered, as if afraid his voice would accelerate them into action. Kell shrugged. 'I reckon we'll find out soon enough.' Within seconds, the line of quivering flesh, of tufted fur and deviant clockwork was heaved aside, and a massive canker forced its way through the throng. Kell could smell hot oil, and fancied he could hear the steady, tiny tick tick tick of off-beat clockwork. 'Now we die,' muttered Saark.
'No,' snapped Kell, 'for if we die, then Nienna dies, if we die, then we cannot hunt down her kidnappers, we cannot seek justice and revenge! So, Saark, will you shut up and focus!' Kell fixed his gaze on this new creature, this towering beast, eight feet tall, heavily muscled, with glowering red eyes and an accompanying stench like desecration. Its skin was terribly pale, corpse-flesh waxy and entirely without hair. Kell's eyes narrowed. It was almost like… almost like this beast was merged with the albino soldiers from Graal's Army of Iron. Kell's glittering gaze scanned the wounds in the canker's flanks and chest, where deep inside brass clockwork spun and meshed. He grinned, but his eyes were dark and unfriendly. 'Gods, lad, you stink like a ten-week corpse after dysentery and plague. What the hell's wrong with you beasts? Don't answer that. It's nothing my axe can't put right.' He gestured