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Carcharodons: Red Tithe Free Extract

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My first full novel, Carcharodons: Red Tithe, is now up for preorder! To celebrate, here’s chapter 1, free of charge. If you like it, all support is greatly appreciated!

Chapter 1

The screaming marked an end to the day’s toil. The aching noise came from the gargoyle-mawed claxons that lined each of the narrow walls, tunnels, sub-surface lines and assembly points of Zartak’s vast mine works. Mika Doren Skell dropped his half-pick into its tool crate, his scrawny limbs trembling with exhaustion. His fingers ached as he uncurled them. The blisters had burst again, and blood was welling up in little, oozing patches to discolour the thick layer of dust coating his hands.

‘Move, inmate,’ barked the Arbitrator overseeing equipment reclamation. The armour-plated lawman gestured with the barrel of his heavy combat shotgun, motioning him back into line. Skell bowed his head and fell in behind Nedzy and the others, dropping his magnicled hands. The explosive-primed bonds chafed at his wrists, a constant, aching reminder of five months of captivity. Five months since the cowardly gang boss Roax had ratted him out. Five months since he had arrived in the subterranean hell of Zartak.

‘Argrim’s here,’ muttered Dolar as he dropped into line behind Skell. Even without turning, the presence of his big cell mate was reassuring. Without him, Skell would have died at least twice already, either in the burrow pits and excavation lanes or trudging back to the prison cells of Sink Shaft 1.

He had repaid his cell mate many times over.

A sudden pain pressed against Skell’s temples, as though the atmosphere in the low rock tunnel had suddenly changed. None of the other inmates showed any signs of discomfort. Skell’s bloody hands clenched into fists.

‘Argrim’s going to try something,’ he muttered to Dolar.

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah. I can feel it.’

Dolar said nothing, but Skell sensed him draw fractionally closer. The line ahead was beginning to divide as ragged prison groups were pulled from the column by barking Overseers and herded down the passages that would lead them back to their cell blocks and hanging cages. The pressure in Skell’s head increased. Argrim and his cronies would strike soon, once the mass of dirt-caked, dull-eyed labourers had been separated and divided. They’d tried it before, and Skell knew they’d try it again. They hated him. Not because he was from the sump-hive of Fallowrain, not because he was one of Roax’s old gang. Not even because he refused to bend before Argrim’s reputation and authority.

They hated Skell because he was a witch.

#

‘That concludes the session review,’ said Warden Primary Sholtz. ‘Are there any questions? Sub-Warden Rannik?’

The words dragged Rannik from the fug of boredom that had gripped her thoughts for the past two hours. The situation room was silent, the pict screen behind the Warden’s lectern blinking, the lumen strips still dimmed. The transcription servitor in the corner clattered to a halt as its auto quill finished taking minutes. The other Sub-Wardens were all staring at her.

‘No questions, sir,’ Rannik said. ‘A thoroughly comprehensive review, as ever.’

‘Was it indeed?’ ask Sholtz from his perch behind the aquila-stamped lectern. The man’s stony glare was as hard as the blunt-force sarcasm he so loved to inflict on new officers. ‘What a relief to have met with your approval. I shall be sure to tell Judge Symons of your weighty opinion next time we share a holo-briefing.’

The thirteen other Adeptus Arbites Sub-Wardens didn’t respond, but Rannik could sense their amusement. It made her bristle. She fought down her anger, channelling it into a deferential nod.

‘Perhaps,’ the grizzled Warden continued. ‘You could elucidate further upon the last point I raised?’

‘The last point, sir?’ Rannik repeated.

‘Yes, Sub-Warden. The one discussed barely a minute ago.’

Rannik said nothing. The silence in the situation room stretched to a painful, unnatural length. Finally, a bang at the hatch door broke it.

‘Not now,’ Sholtz snarled, his gaze not leaving Rannik. The banging sounded again. Scowling, the Warden deactivated the lock with a flick of his sensor wand. The hatch slid open and a youth in the pale grey uniform of the Precinct Fortress’s Augur Division ducked inside.

‘What?’ the Warden Primary snapped. The boy threw a hurried salute.

‘Word from Augur Chief Tarl, sir. The sensor relays just chimed. The augur outposts on the system’s trailward edge have detected a lone vessel breaking into realspace.’

‘Identity?’

‘We’re still running verification, sir, but initial scans of its keel tag and ident-codes show it’s probably our latest shipment.’

‘The Imperial Truth?’ Sholtz demanded. ‘That would make it over a week early.’

‘Yes sir, that’s what Chief Tarl said. We have tried to hail it but we aren’t receiving any response. Communications may just be choppy due to interference from the asteroid belt, but they’re definitely registering our messages.’

‘How far out is she?’

‘Just entering the belt, sir. Once she navigates it she’ll be three hours from high anchor.’

‘Gentlemen, we have a situation,’ Sholtz said to the assembled Sub-Wardens. ‘This session is formally adjourned. Come with me.’

Sholtz left the situation room. The Sub-Wardens filed out from behind their benches and swept after him in a buzz of sudden, nervous excitement.

‘Bit of good fortune, this,’ Sub-Warden Klenn muttered as they entered the corridor, just loud enough for Rannik to hear. ‘The Chief had her cold back there. She’s till making the same old mistakes.’

Rannik forced herself not to respond. She could feel the scorn of the older Arbitrators as they clattered along the Precinct Fortress’s darkened rockcrete tunnels, following in the Warden Primary’s footsteps. None of them thought she was fit to oversee her own Sub-Precinct, regardless of her exceptional Progenum training and indoctrination statistics, or the fact that she’d finished top of her class at the Schola Excubitos on Terrax. In their eyes, in the five Terran months since Rannik had arrived, she’d done nothing to prove she was worthy of holding the same rank as them.

She would prove them wrong.

The Warden Primary burst into the Precinct’s Centrum Dominus, buried deep within the fortress’s armoured depths. There was a scrape of chairs and a thud of combat boots as the two-tiered room came to attention, cogitators and scanner systems still humming.

‘Report,’ Sholtz snapped. Chief Tarl strode across from his station at the augur arrays, a yellow message chit in hand.

‘It’s definitely the Imperial Truth, sir,’ he said, giving the ident readout to the Warden. ‘Almost seven days ahead of schedule, and breaking from the warp in completely the wrong place.’

‘Comms?’ Sholtz asked, looking up at the vox banks ringing the Centrum’s gantries.

‘We caught a burst of transmission code less than sixty seconds ago, sir,’ said a ruddy-faced Vox Lieutenant, earphones in hand. ‘Unintelligible. There’s been nothing since. The contact is just clearing the asteroid belt now, so the signal should become stronger. We’re keeping all channels open.’

‘Sub-Warden Rannik,’ Sholtz said, turning to the officers who’d followed him into cogitator-ringed pit at the heart of the Centrum. ‘Operations manual 17, chapter 1, paragraph1. What is the foremost rule when faced with the unknown or the uncertain?’

‘Prepare for the worst,’ Rannik said. ‘And trust in the God-Emperor, sir.’

The Warden nodded.

‘There, you see, even the bluntest blades have some cut if you sharpen them enough. We are Arbitrators. We always assume the worst. Master at Arms–’ He gestured at Macran, the head of Zartak’s Combat Division. The big woman, her shaved skull twisted with old flamer burns, came to attention with a clatter of flakplate.

‘Warden Primary?’

‘Issue a priority broadcast throughout the fortress and to all Sub-Precincts across the planet. Code red, effective immediate. Stand to.’

#

Blood was dripping onto the floor, slowly. Dolar hadn’t noticed.

‘Dolar,’ Skell said. The older convict started, looking down at him with wide, worried eyes.

‘Your nose,’ Skell said, holding out a rag ripped from the hem of his grubby penal fatigues. Dolar stared at it, uncomprehending. Skell wondered if he was concussed.

‘Never mind,’ he said after a moment, stuffing the rag back into his pocket. Dolar’s eyes became vacant again, and he leaned forward over the edge of his shackle bunk. Blood continued to fall, drip by drip.

Skell rolled back onto his own bunk and grimaced. Around them the sounds of the prison intruded, drifting up through the cell’s mesh flooring and around the bars of the hatch window – raised voices, the slamming of doors, the buzz of active alarm systems and pict monitors, thudding boots and the rattle of magnicles.

Skell had only been here five months, and he already wished he was dead. At least then he wouldn’t have to dig and grub with his numb, bleeding hands any more. The requirements of the hundreds of mine works branching out from Sink Shaft 1 were without end. When prospectors had discovered that Zartak possessed a rich strata of raw adamantium-based minerals, the nearest consortium of hive worlds had acted quickly to forge a pact with the Adeptus Arbites, one that both relieved them of a good deal of their criminal underhive and enabled the tithing grade of the new mining colony to triple – much to the delight of the subsector’s Administratum officios. At some point the original miner colonists had vanished and been replaced by the lowest savlar – dregs, scum and the plain unlucky – of half a dozen miserable, industrialised Ethika sub-sector planets like Fallowrain or Nilrest. That was why Skell and tens of thousands of convicts like him were on Zartak. To drag raw material for the Imperium’s starships and armies from the hard, black earth.

Dolar had finally noticed his nosebleed, and was ineffectually trying to stymie it with his grime-caked fingers. He was two years older than Skell – sixteen, Terran standard, or so he claimed – yet most of the time he acted no more coherently than a ten-year-old. Only his solid build and his willingness to resort to his fists had kept him alive so far. That, and his partnership with Skell.

‘Something’s coming,’ Skell said, looking at the darkness beyond the hatch window.

‘Argrim again?’ Dolar asked vacantly. Skell shook his head.

‘Something worse. It wasn’t him I felt earlier.’ The pressure from the mine tunnel was still there, like a dull, ever-present headache, pulsing incessantly in his temples. He’d never felt it so strongly before.

‘Is it the things you see in the dark?’ Dolar asked. ‘The things that keep giving you nightmares?’

‘They aren’t nightmares,’ Skell said, scowling. ‘They’re just… I don’t know what they are.’

‘Nothing good,’ Dolar mumbled.

‘Well they can’t be worse than this place,’ Skell replied. He was speaking lightly, but in truth he was afraid. The things he had started seeing in his dreams recently – claws and talons spun from shadows, the crackle of lightning and bitter red eyes – had not brought him any comfort. Worst of all had been the face. It was a skull, a death mask, leering from a void of black. Whenever he saw it, it drew closer, grinning with savage, unblinking intensity.

‘They’re coming for me,’ Skell said, still gazing at the barred entrance to the cell.

‘Not me?’ Dolar asked. Skell shot him a look.

‘All of us.’

Dolar nodded. He always paid attention when Skell talked about the future. Theirs was a mutually beneficial partnership – the larger, older inmate protected the smaller physically, while the smaller guided the larger. Even for someone as slow as he was, Dolar had realised within weeks of their incarceration on Zartak that Skell had a special talent. It was the same talent that had made him such a lucky charm with the older gangmates back in the sump-sink of Fallowrain’s planetary capital, Vorhive. At least before Roax had ratted him out. It was the same talent that always earned him such regular beatings from superstitious inmates like Argrim, whenever the Arbitrators were looking the other way. Skell had the Sight. Nosebleeds, headaches, nightmares. Few appreciated it.

‘We need to be ready,’ Skell said. ‘It’ll start soon.’ His body still ached from Argrim’s last attempted murder. The ambush had been sprung just as he’d predicted, when the work gang had been returning from Lower 6-16 at the end of that day-cycle’s labour shift. Argrim, the big, brutal ex-smuggler from Shantry, would have staved his skull in with a concealed pick haft if Dolar hadn’t put him down before he could get swinging. When the Arbitrators had arrived, shock mauls buzzing, Dolar and Skell were still been on their feet while their three attackers most definitely weren’t. All thanks to Skell’s foresight.

The Arbitrators had beaten them all the same.

‘When are they coming?’ Dolar asked, casting a lingering glance at the cell hatch.

Skell didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. An ear-splitting wail made Dolar start, the magnicles binding him to his upper bunk clattering against its metal sides. The red emergency lumen over the aquila-stamped hatch bathed the small, dank space in angry light. There was a jarring thud as secondary blast doors throughout the honeycomb structure of Sink Shaft 1’s prison complex thumped shut on auto-hinges. Dolar stared down at Skell.

As the sound of heavy boots thumping past reached him over the screaming of the alarms, Skell swallowed and nodded. He shouted up to Dolar.

‘It’s started.’

#

The Centrum Dominus was buzzing with activity, operators clattering at their rune banks as they sought to update the data streaming in from the augurs. In the tunnels outside containment squads could be heard thumping past from the armouries. Sholtz was reviewing squad dispositions throughout the Sub-Precincts via the Centrum Dominus holochart, Rannik and the other officers still clustered around him. A shout from Vox Chief Hestel, seated on the upper communications gantry, disturbed the Warden’s assessments.

‘Sir, we’re receiving a transmission from the Imperial Truth.’

‘She’s just cleared the asteroid belt,’ Tarl added from his station at the augur array.

‘Put it on vox,’ Sholtz ordered, gripping the brass railing running around the holochart. The room went suddenly quiet.

There was a rush of static interference, rising and then dipping from an eerie squeal to a low grumble. Hestel bent over a frequency module, working a pair of sliders. A voice came and went, like a passing phantom. Eventually it snapped into focus.

… repeat, this is Captain Van Hoyt of the Imperial Truth to anyone who can hear me. We are code black.

‘Captain,’ the Warden Primary called out. ‘We read you. This is Zartak Arbitrator Precinct Fortress Alpha, Warden Primary Sholtz speaking. What is your status, over?’

Thank the God-Emperor,’ the voice of Van Hoyt crackled back. ’We have a situation here, Warden Primary. Multiple prisoner exfiltration attempts, a heavy security breach. I’ve been forced to seal off vital decks and open the air locks. I am currently barricading the bridge alongside the remains of my security detail.’

‘Is First Arbitrator Nethim there?’ the Warden Prime demanded.

Negative. He’s currently holding out in the enginarium. We have locked our course to Zartak’s high orbit. Emperor willing we can keep the scum at bay long enough to reach you.’

‘Standby, Captain,’ the Warden Primary said, signalling to Hestel to pause the connection. ‘Macran, are the Sub-Precincts mobilised?’

‘I estimate 85% readiness, sir. But my Shock Troop Squads can deploy immediately.’

‘Tarl, how long do we have?’

‘Going off the Imperial Truth’s current course,’ the Augur Chief said, bending over his screens, ‘and assuming Nethim manages to hold the enginarium, she’ll achieve high anchor in a little over two hours.’

‘Sir, should I forward a message to the choristrium?’ asked Hestel.

‘Negative, there’s no need to tax the Astropaths just yet. The situation is still developing. Macran, take your teams into the void via Divine Retribution. Intercept the Imperial Truth and contain the insurrection. I will continue to communicate with Van Hoyt while you are in transit and pass relevant intelligence on to you. After the suppression has been carried out and the situation is stable I will deploy detachments from the Sub-Precincts to support the cleanup operation. Use extreme prejudice.’

‘Of course, sir,’ Macran replied.

‘Warden Primary, I have a request,’ Rannik said from among the assembled Sub-Wardens. Sholtz scowled.

‘What is it?’

‘Let me go with the Shock Squads. I can provide liaison between you and Macran. Subordinate to her orders, of course.’ Rannik inclined her head towards the Master at Arms. She crossed her arms over her breastplate and glared back.

‘What makes you imagine she’d need you as an intermediary, Rannik?’ the Warden Primary demanded. ‘Macran is a veteran of twelve code black insurrections and a master suppressor. She is more than capable of heading up the operation and maintaining contact with the Centrum Dominus at the same time.’

‘If I may speak plainly, sir,’ Rannik said, taking a breath. ‘I want to be with the Shock Squads because I want to prove I’m capable. I understand my status as the youngest Sub-Warden in this room. Progenium training modules can only account for so much. I wish to show my devotion to the God-Emperor and the Lex Imperialis in the fires of an active suppression.’

‘You are impertinent, Rannik,’ the Sub Warden growled. ‘The Adeptus Arbites does not operate on such vain whims. You will be assigned to tasks I deem you worthy of. Macran will have enough to think about onboard that ship without your inexperience getting in her way.’

‘With respect, Warden Primary,’ Sub-Warden Klenn cut in. ‘Maybe it would be good to bloody her. This incident aboard the Imperial Truth should not be difficult to contain, and if we were to experience a security breach down here on the surface I’d rather know all my fellow Arbitrators have first hand combat experience. One compromised Sub-Precinct can have dire consequences for the safety of all of our facilities on Zartak.’

‘Let me prove myself,’ Rannik added. ‘The Progenium thought I was ready, ready enough to assign me here.’

‘The bowels of an Imperial prison hulk are nothing like the simulation exercises,’ Macran snapped, the faint red glow of the holochart giving her grizzled features a bloody hue.

‘Which is precisely why she needs to experience it,’ Klenn said.

‘Sir,’ called Hestel from the vox banks, transmission horn in hand. ‘Captain Van Hoyt is still on vox. I believe the prisoners are attempting to storm the bridge.’

‘We don’t have time for this foolishness,’ growled Sholtz. ‘Macran, I leave Sub-Warden Rannik’s assignment up to you. Just intercept that ship before it reaches high anchor.’

Rannik looked at Macran. The flamer-scarred Arbitrator glanced from the Warden Primary to Sub-Warden Klenn, then finally nodded at Rannik.

‘Draw Shock kit from the armoury. Shuttle bay 14, ten minutes. If you’re not there we’re leaving without you.’

#

The fore armoury of the White Maw, like every level above the slave decks, was almost completely silent. The only noise was the throbbing heartbeat of the warp drives that shuddered up through the decking plates. The air was alive with the static charge of the active Geller field, the chlorine tang of ozone warring with the familiar scents of bolter oils and preservation unguents.

Bail Sharr, Reaper Prime and Company Master, passed noiselessly down the length of the armoury hall, his bare feet making no sound on the cold metal deck. The few artisan serfs and repair savants still at work in the depths of the ship’s night cycle bowed as he passed, their gaze averted. Sharr ignored them, his void-black eyes focussed instead on the objects the malnourished humans were attending. He passed row after row of empty battle suits, ranked either side down the armoury’s long walls, every one mounted on a steel pedestal-brace.

Each set of power armour was different, each an amalgamation of patterns and designs. Many of them were ancient. The most common parts were from Mk. Vs, their surfaces studded with the gleaming brass orbs of the molecular bonding pins that held the worn plates of plasteel and ceramite together. Some bore the hook-nosed helmets of Mk. VIs, others the ancient, circular ceramite banding of Mk IIs, or the vertical faceplate slits and horizontal mono-lens of the Mk. III great helms. Only two features united the antique collection. All were painted with the same shades of deep grey, and all bore the same crest upon their right pauldrons –  a white shark motif, curling towards its tail fin to form a razor-toothed crescent set upon a void of black.

Despite the efforts of the repair savants, the majority of the suits were still visibly scarred, not only with the ancient, swirling honour patterns of exile markings, but with the blows of desperate, bloody and all-too recent battle. The artisans that laboured in the ship’s fore and aft armouries had been working for almost a month, Terran standard, to repair the damage done by the Great Devourer. Still Sharr saw the gleam of bare metal as he passed, noting where armour had been raked and scored by chitin talons and blades or pitted by bio acids and burrower beetles.

The toll the War in the Deeps had taken upon the Chapter’s venerable equipment had been high. The toll on the flesh of its warriors had been even higher. Sharr himself walked with a slight limp, the pale grey skin of his right leg still not fully recovered from a genestealer’s claws. He had refused the offer of an augmetic – the wound was bearable and, Void Father knew, high functioning bionics were in scarce enough supply as it was. He’d ordered Apothecary Tama to save the replacement for a void brother who needed it.

The Reaper Prime reached the end of the hall. Before him, mounted upon the naked rivets and bare steel of the high wall, hung the faded remnants of the war banner of the 3rd Battle Company. His Company now, Sharr reminded himself. Like the armour of the warriors that had fought to defend it, the heavy cloth bore fresh scars. Unlike the armour, the damage would remain unpatched, a ragged testimony to the fallen. Only the Company’s crest – the intertwining shark-and-scythe symbol mirroring the fresh tattoo on Sharr’s left temple – would be woven anew in white. The new honour scroll pinned to the banner’s ragged bottom looked fresh and out-of-place. The ink describing the Battle Company’s actions during the War in the Deeps was barely dry.

Sharr’s gaze lowered, to the object that had drawn him to the armoury during the dead hours of fasting and cryo-meditation. It was another suit of power armour, its hard plates the opposite of the plain white robe clothing Sharr, standing rigid and inert on its pedestal like the other eighty-six suits lining the hall. This one, however, was different. Mostly Mk. IV, its pauldron bandings were the colour of bronze, and the exile honour markings inscribed upon its dark grey surface were more intricate – they covered the suit’s gauntlets, vambraces and greaves in whorling, interlocking designs, mirroring the tattoos on Sarr’s own pale forearms and legs. The breastplate bore in its centre an embossed skull and twin lightning bolts, the crest of the ancient Terran Pacification War, the Chapter’s first battle honour.

The helmet was also more elaborate. A heavy, modified Mk. III great helm, the vox uplink strip running along the top had been fashioned into a high, jagged cermaite crest, while the visor plate around the vox grille was painted with the likeness of a yawning white maw. The 3rd Company’s shark-and-scythe sigil was inscribed over the helm’s left temple. Sharr felt his new tattoo, identical to the armour’s marking, throb. The helm’s inactive black lenses seemed to glare down at him in the armoury’s quiet, murky half light.

The looming suit had its gauntlets resting on the top of a great two-handed chainaxe, the adamantium haft locked to the bottom of the plinth. The flared head of the weapon was uncased, the metal-tipped shark teeth that edged the bare rotor gleaming wickedly. Sharr reached out and touched one jagged incisor. He half expected such a brazen violation to cause the inert figure to leap into motion. The weapon, like the armour, was what the Chapter refered to as tapu – for someone of lower rank to lay even a finger upon it as anathema. But Sharr was no longer of lower rank.

The armour and the chainaxe – Reaper – had belonged to Company Master Akia for as long as Sharr could remember. He had been leading the 3rd Battle Company through the Outer Dark since Sharr’s days as a voidborn Initiate. Like many senior figures within the Chapter, Akia had rarely been seen unarmoured, even among his closest brethren. Sharr himself hadn’t witnessed him fully without battle plate until the day Apothecary Tama had pulled his dead, white remains from its battered casing. Despite the ongoing repairs, the scars and rents of the Genestealer Broodlord’s claws were still evident across the armour’s grey surfaces.

For two and a half centuries the suit had been Akia. Now it belonged to Sharr. Even if tapu no longer applied to him, the thought of wearing it was an abomination. He withdrew his hand, gazing up into the eye lenses. He felt the soul of the dead Company Master glaring back.

‘He would not have approved.’

The voice startled Sharr. He turned to find Te Kahurangi approaching. Although the Chief Librarian was fully armoured, Sharr only now heard the thump of footfalls and the whir of sound-deadened servos. Had it been anyone else he would have worried at his own lack of vigilance. Te Kahurangi, however, had long ago established a habit of passing unnoticed.

‘He would not have approved of what, venerable Chief Librarian?’ Sharr asked as Te Kahurangi came to a halt beside him. The wizened psyker didn’t look at him, but gazed up at Akia’s old armour. Both Space Marines spoke in archaic High Gothic, the tongue used by their Chapter since its inception so many millennia before.

‘The former Company Master would not have approved of you standing and staring at his battle plate during the dead hours like some unbloodied Initiate. If meditation or cryo-sleep do not suit you then there is work to be done.’ Sharr felt a stab of annoyance. He suppressed it.

‘I came to pay my respects.’

‘There has been time enough for that. As Akia would have said, what’s passed has passed. You are our Company Master now. You must assume your full responsibilities.’

Sharr looked at Te Kahurangi – the Pale Nomad, Chief Librarian of the Chapter. His power armour was even more impressive than that of the Company Master’s. Its underlying surface was a deep blue, and every inch of it, from the boots to the cable-studded psychic hood, was inscribed with a dense knotwork of swirling exile marks. A heavy set of scrimshawed shark teeth hung about his gorget, and more old charms dangled from his vambraces. In his right gauntlet he grasped a force staff of carved bone, the head fashioned into a maw clamped around a sea-green shard of stone. The rock gleamed in the dim light.

‘The Tithing draws near,’ Te Kahurangi continued, turning to face Sharr. ‘The Tithing of a planet you once knew all too well. Are you ready, Reaper Prime?’

‘I am ready,’ Sharr replied forcefully, meeting the black void of Te Kahurangi’s gaze. The face that framed the unnatural eyes was a disturbing mismatch of colour. While much of it was as white as a corpse’s flesh, patches of skin around his eyes, jaw and neck were scabbed a rough, dark grey by denticles, lending his skin a scaly texture. Sharr had recently started to note the first outbreaks of the genetic anomaly on his own flesh, scabbing his elbows and shoulder joints. It was just one of the many afflictions suffered by the older members of the Chapter, and its degeneracy would only increase as time passed. With the exception of the slumbering Greats in their white suits of Dreadnought armour, Te Kahurangi was by far the oldest of member of the Chapter. Sharr had heard it said that he was only three generations removed from the Wandering Ancestors, the first to have gone into the void, alone, at the behest of the Forgotten One.

‘The Company needs leadership now,’ said Te Kahurangi. ‘Your leadership, Sharr. This will be no ordinary Tithing.’

‘So you have said.’

‘The boy must be found,’ Te Kahurangi continued, voice a dry, dead whisper in the armoury’s echoing vaults. ‘The Murderers in the Night have his scent. If the one called Kiri Mate sink his claws into him the suffering for all will be great. It is not enough to complete the Tithe. We must reach the boy before the heretics.’

‘We will find him,’ Sharr said. ‘And complete the Tithe, for the Chapter.’

‘It will be your first true test as Company Master.’

‘Then I welcome it, void brother.’

Te Kahurangi glanced back down the length of the armoury. ‘Eighty six functioning suits of battle plate recovered from the War in the Deeps. Seventy nine void brothers to fill them. And you yourself plagued by doubt at this dark homecoming. Are we enough for the Tithe, given what awaits us?’

‘On our shoulders rests the future of the Chapter,’ Bail Sharr said, looking once again at Akia’s power armour. His armour. He laid his hand once more upon the chainaxe’s head. ‘We are Carcharodon Astra, Chief Librarian. From the Outer Dark we come, and when the Red Tithe is over we will leave behind only darkness. Nothing more.’

#

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The Wild King – Free Extract

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Tomorrow sees the release of the final part of my serialised novel, Legacy of Russ. It’s still not too late to catch up before the finale though – part seven can be found here (with a free extract below), and if you’re just joining us then part one is here, free to download in its entirety!  

The void, Fenris System

In a surge of shrieking wyrd-light, Bran Redmaw and his Great Company returned to Fenris. The warp spat them out off-course, dangerously deep inside the system, trailward of Frostheim. As his flagship’s kaerls sought to triangulate their exact location, transmit ident codes and establish vox contact, Bran paced his bridge from one end to the other, bare, blood-encrusted fists clenching and unclenching.

He had thought they weren’t going to make it. The wyrdrealm’s maddening waves had mocked them, tossing and turning his fleet’s vessels with bows of gibbering insanity, scattering them and ripping them away from their destination. As his Navigators had battled to hold onto the beacon of the Astronomicon, Bran had been engaged in his own fight, with those he’d once counted as brothers.

They were still his brothers, he reminded himself. Regardless of the wounds they’d dealt him. Regardless of how they now looked, thought and acted.

‘Lord, we have established a vox connection with Lord Deathwolf,’ called a Vox Huscarl. ‘His signal is currently being rerouted from Svellgard via his flagship.’

‘Accept it,’ Bran said, pacing to the communications station. Harald’s lagging voice came through on a tide of static.

It’s good to see you on our sensors, Redmaw.’

‘And good to be home, Deathwolf,’ Bran replied. ‘How goes the fight?’

It’s a bastard. Young Bloodhowl and myself are on Svellgard. The place is crawling with wyrd-dung. Fenris is quiet, and we’ve heard nothing from Midgardia.’

‘My scanners are reading a large non-Chapter fleet in orbit above you,’ Bran said, glancing over the readouts flooding back over the monitors and occulus vidscreens from his fleet’s augur probes.

Aye, and that’s only the half of it. It’s a crusade fleet, elements from fourteen different Chapters along with Russ-knows how much Militarum and Navy support, all come to call us to heel. A lance strike by one of their ships nearly ended both Bloodhowl and myself. They refuse to communicate with us.

‘They’re here for the Wulfen,’ Bran surmised, fists clenching harder.

And more than reluctant to help with our little wyrdling problem. We’re hard-pressed down here, Redmaw.’

‘My warriors are hungry for a kill,’ Bran said. ‘If Fenris is indeed secure we will deploy in full to support you.’

That may turn the tide,’ Harald said. ‘Hurry.’

As the connection ended Bran gazed out of the viewing port. Its blast shutters were rattling back, exposing the glittering expanse of the Sea of Stars beyond. The ship’s bridge was reflected back in the thick layers of crystalflex, and Bran caught sight of himself towering beside the brass-edged vox banks. It was not a vision he was familiar with. His helmet was off and his dark hair lay unclasped, thick around his shoulders. He’d stripped off his pauldrons, rebrace, vambrace and gauntlets, revealing thick arms that were criss-crossed with a latticework of fresh cuts and sheened by a slick of sweat.

They only respected strength. Bran had shown it. Even that would not be enough though, if they were not released to the hunt soon. Bran had promised to reinforce Svellgard as though he had a choice – the packs would demand he struck out at the nearest enemy, whether he’d wanted to deploy them to the moon or not.

A crusade fleet. That made matters even worse. How his brothers would react to his return had been worrying enough. He hadn’t dared consider what the wider Imperium would do when they discovered what had become of Bran’s Great Company during their warp transit. Confronting the wyrdspawn would surely mean confronting those who had come to accuse the Wolves too.

But that was a risk he was going to have to take eventually. Battle called, and with it a release of the primal hunger that had been building among the Redmaws. He called up his helmsman, eyes still locked on his own savage reflection.

‘Set a course for Svellgard.’

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The Riddle of Writing Serials

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At the close of last year I received a phone call I’d always hoped for, but certainly never dared expect. Black Library, the publishing wing of wargaming giant Games Workshop, wanted me to write a novel for them. They’d been impressed by the work I’d already done for them – four short stories earlier that year – and wanted to take me to what one editor called “the next stage.”

There was just one twist. Before being released as a physical, printed hardback, the book – Legacy of Russ – was to be serialised into eight parts and released online over the course of six months.

Say “serialised novel” and some smart chap will immediately jump up and tell you that “that’s how Dickens did it.” And indeed he did. It was how I’d done it too, at least in novella format, for my Jukepop Serials hit Werekynd: Beasts of the Tanglewild. I strung that story out for almost a year. The perfect initiation, you’d think, for writing the eight parts of Legacy of Russ.

Except knowing that writing serialised novels was possible didn’t actually help with any of the problems inherent in such an undertaking. The difference between a “full” novel and serial installments is more or less the same as the difference between a television series and a feature-length film. There are a number of very important differences, most of which revolve around issues of plot and pacing.

In brief, a serial has to take into account considerations that don’t trouble a novel. Each “episode” has to be reasonably self-contained, and as gratifying to the reader as the last. The stakes are always high – one boring installment and readers will be lost. They’ll stop buying the follow-ups. There’s no danger of that after someone’s bought a novel. Because of this, writing serialised fiction can assume a somewhat frantic air. Not only must you spend at least a small amount of time setting the scene at the start of every installment (to jog memories that have lain dormant for a month or more), but the remaining word count is typically expected to fulfill the requirements of the genre, in this case set piece action and crunchy fight scenes. Dedicating an installment to calmer activity may work out, but it’s also a gamble. The loss of reader attention is a constant specter. Conversely, in a novel the writer can typically afford more coherent pacing – the ebb and flow around start, midpoint and ending give the reader respite and varies their experience. While this certainly isn’t impossible to achieve in serial form, it’s far trickier.

All this was compounded by the nature of the story I was trying to tell. It was  a contender for the title of “sweeping epic”, taking place on a grand total of three planets, two moons and more spaceships than I care to count, and viewed from the perspective of over a dozen point-of-view characters, including a shape-shifting daemon and a machine-man. Such feats would have been daunting in standard novel format, but getting it all into episodic installments meant I had to spend a lot of time in each story touching base with multiple characters and inching their individual development forward, all the while not exceeding the wordcount I’d been set.

If you’re thinking at this point that I had an unenviable task, you’d be wrong. It was still a privilege to be involved in writing something that was going to affect the universe I’d grown up reading about. I was more or less aware of all the challenges posed by serial fiction before I started writing. I made a decision early on to try and treat the project just as I would any other novel. I knew it would be released as a whole eventually, and that was the legacy I decided I should work towards – while the serials were fun, ultimately this was something that was going to be on people’s bookshelves.

If I had to choose between advising readers to follow the story in its serial format, or reading the whole thing as one novel, I’d have to go with the latter option. Hopefully, however, it’s enjoyable whichever way readers feel they wish to approach it.

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War Zone Fenris – The Lost King Extract

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From the first part of the Legacy of Russ, the continuation of the War Zone Fenris saga began in Curse of the Wulfen. If you like it, the entire first part is free here!

Logan Grimnar – the Fangfather, the Old Wolf, the High King of Fenris – was dead.

So the daemons said. They howled and shrieked and gibbered the news from warp-spawned throats that shouldn’t have been capable of intelligible words. But the servants of the Dark Gods had never concerned themselves with nature’s constraints.

Logan Grimnar is dead!

‘They lie,’ Sven growled. The young Wolf Lord was clutching his doubled-headed battleaxe, Frostclaw, with such intensity that his whole armoured body was shaking. ‘They lie.’

‘They are warp-scum,’ Olaf Blackstone said. ‘Lying is the sole reason for their existence.’ The white-pelted Bloodguard stood behind and slightly to the right of his lord, yellow eyes surveying the bleak hills that lay barely a mile across the icy sea. Those hills now undulated with a living carpet of daemons, like an infestation of lice swarming over a rotting skull. They had appeared not half an hour before, crawling like primordial nightmares from the depths of Svellgard’s oceans. They were massing for an attack, cohorts of lesser daemons marshalling beneath the nightmarish banners of their gods, and as they did so their deranged shrieks carried across the cold waters to Sven and the rest of his Firehowler Space Wolves.

‘They’re trying to provoke us,’ Olaf said. ‘Hoping we divide our forces.’

Sven Bloodhowl opened his mouth to reply, then paused as the hammering of bolter fire broke out behind him. His Great Company were still purging the last of the defences at the heart of the World Wolf’s Lair, burning the shrieking daemons from their holes with gouts of blazing promethium before mowing them down with bolter fire. Progress reports trickled back constantly over the vox as the noose tightened around the last wyrd-spawn left in the depths of the fortified missile control nexus.  Nine packs, the entirety of Sven’s Great Company, were stalking the bunkers, redoubts and weapon emplacements arrayed in concentric circles around the rockcrete keep dominating the island’s centre. They would not stop until they had hunted down every last creature from the first daemonic wave to have overrun the island.

‘I’m provoked,’ Sven said as the bolter echoes were snatched away by Svellgard’s cruel wind. ‘What’s the status of the Drakebanes?’

‘Ten of the pups still able to wield a chainsword.’

‘And the Firestones?’

‘Only five. Wergid is among the dead. The survivors are still hungry though. As are our Wulfen.’

‘Then you shall lead them, Olaf. Vox Torvind, Kregga, Uuntir and Istun. Have them return from the central bunkers and assemble here. And two thunderhawks.’

‘The Godspear and the Wolfdawn have both refuelled and rearmed. They are inbound from the fleet, expected arrival in ten minutes.’

‘Then they shall be the vehicles of our wrath. A wolf should never suffer a liar.’

In truth, Sven had not killed enough today. His heart still raced and his fingers itched. The thought of wyrdling filth defiling not just Svellgard, but all the worlds of his home system brought up an instinctive urge to lash out. He had not had word from any of the other battle-zones for hours – as far as he was aware Harald Deathwolf was still consolidating on nearby Frostheim, while Egil Iron Wolf and the Great Wolf were engaged on Midgardia. The daemonic taunts reached him again from across the narrow sea, and he shuddered.

They were wrong. Logan Grimnar was not dead. He couldn’t be.

‘To attack is unwise, my jarl,’ Olaf said, still watching the nearby island. ‘There are doubtless more such filth spawning from the rifts below the waves all about us. If we split our forces we invite annihilation.’

Sven turned to face his old packmate, and although rage still burned in the Wolf Lord’s grey eyes, his tattooed features and strong, stubble-lined jaw were clenched with a tight smile.

‘Are your fangs getting too long for all this, Olaf?’ he asked. The Bloodguard champion returned his gaze levelly, without expression, too old to be so easily drawn.

‘Don’t tell me a hundred-odd kills are enough to sate you for one day?’ Sven pressed. ‘If the Bloodguard aren’t with me I’m sure the Oathbound would take your place? Or the Firewyrms?’

Olaf still said nothing, but there was a chill whisper of naked steel as his wolf claws slid free from his gauntlets.

‘If you wish to teach monsters not to lie,’ the Bloodguard said. ‘Then I will be as happy as ever to assist with the lesson.’

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Four Days in March

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While the four days in March – specifically the 4th to the 7th – certainly don’t come close to the drama of those four days in June, on a personal level they’re undeniably significant. More so than any other time in the year, these four days give me a time to reflect on the differences that 365 days can make.

Today – March 4th – I am finishing the first draft of my second published novel. The first novel isn’t actually out yet, but that’s probably understandable considering I only put the finishing touches on it in mid January (publishing is at best a slow business, and at worst leads to all sorts of strange, warped release schedules). Tomorrow, March 5th, is going to be my 24th birthday. March 7th will be the first anniversary of the day I sent a cover letter to Games Workshop, hoping – yet scarcely believing – that they’d hire me as a tie-in fiction writer.

The latter half of 2015 and the early months of 2016 look to have been the breakthrough I’ve been working towards since 2011 kicked off with the horrifically cliched resolution, “I’m going to be a write.” Since April last year I’ve had four short stories, one audio drama and two novels published by Games Workshop’s publishing wing, Black Library. I should be getting the commissioning forms for a third novel in the next couple of weeks. Once the first two start hitting the shelves, at least one will be getting stocked in high street book stores like Waterstones – a personal dream come true. Breaking into the “pro” market has also meant that, for the first time in my life, I can say I’m self-sufficient. I can finally pay for food, rent and my University’s tuition fees without having to take out loans or lean on my parents for financial support.

March-to-March, it’s been a great year. Even more surprising is the realisation that all of the writing I’ve done for Black Library bar a single short story (so three shorts, the audio drama and the two novels) have all been written since November. Nor does the workload show any sign of slacking. For a budding freelance author, that’s a welcome realisation indeed.

These four days in March let me take stock and be thankful. I’m happy in the knowledge that, even if I haven’t written a single thing more when we eventually get to March 2017, I’ll still be able to say I’ve achieved things I’ve always wanted to do.

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