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2016 – A Writing Review

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For developing my writing – in terms of both style and as a profession – 2016 has been the busiest and best year of my life. To that end, I thought it would be worth a review of the past 12 months, if only for my own train of thought, so I can establish where I’ve come from and where I’m going.

January: The new year started with me halfway through writing Legacy of Russ. Whether or not it can be called my first true novel or a collection of short stories, it was certainly fun to write, not least of all because it included characters I’d grown up reading about and who are loved and revered by tens of thousands of fans the world over. For an introduction to writing professionally, I couldn’t have asked for either a better or more intimidating assignment!

February: This month saw me wrap up Legacy and write my first audio drama, Vox Tenebris. It was tricky acclimatising to the differences between standard short stories and audio script writing, but it was a lot of fun to do.

March: Saw the second release of my first Black Library story. Deathwatch 4: Redblade originally appeared online as a Black Library ebook in October 2015. It was now repackaged in a print anthology to support the release of the new Deathwatch board game. It was certainly exciting being involved in another set of stories that linked directly to a miniature release, and all the hype that entails. This was also the first time I got to see my own Black Library work in print. On the writing front, I was given the green light to start Carcharodons: Red Tithe.

April: This month was spent writing Red Tithe. The first of Legacy’s short story serial format came out as well. At the end of the month I also received word that my editors wanted me to write the novelisation of Dawn of War III. As someone who’d been playing the Dawn of War games since the age of twelve, that obviously blew me away.

May: Mostly spent finishing Red Tithe’s edits, and included more of Legacy’s short story releases. These continued, roughly two a month, all the way until August.

June – September: Towards the end of June, and until the first week of September, my time was taken up writing and redrafting Dawn of War III. A lengthy post about the complexities of liaising with a gaming company over script and storyline will likely be forthcoming in the future! In between Dawn of War I also wrote a short story prequel to Red Tithe, entitle The Reaping Time. The start of July also saw the release of Heartwood – my first Age of Sigmar short story, written in November 2015, in the Sylvaneth anthology.

October: saw the release of Vox Tenebris, while I wrote my first Blood Bowl short story, Fixed. It was a lot of fun, in a wacky kinda way, and it was a privileged to get to visit the “Old World,” sort of.

November: was spent starting on The Last Hunt, my first White Scars novel.

December: A glut of releases to coincide with the ongoing Scars work. Firstly Fixed and then The Reaping Time were released as part of Black Library’s advent calendar program, then Red Tithe itself got an early Boxing Day e-premier. It became an Amazon bestseller about 36 hours after release – a fitting end to the year!

Overall I really couldn’t have asked for a more productive or fulfilling 365 days. In that time I wrote four novels, two short stories and an audio drama, a total of an estimate 320,000 words, or 877 words a day. All of it would have been meaningless without the hard work of my editors and everyone else on the Black Library team, the support and understanding of my friends and family and, certainly not least of all, the incredible contributions in time, money and enthusiasm from everyone out there who’s ever read one of my stories or interacted with me, here or elsewhere. Thank you for helping to make this year such a success.

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So I’m currently painfully close to breaking into the Amazon bestseller’s list

Granted the “Amazon Top 100″ of just about any genre isn’t exactly prestigious when it comes to the “real” bestsellers, but it would still be the biggest thing I’ve achieved to date. If I can sell just a few dozen copies more of the ebook in the next 12 hours, I might be in with a shot.

To that end, if you’re from the UK and you have a kindle, or you know someone with one, and you can spare £9.99, I’d ask you to consider Carcharodons: Red Tithe.

Also, a friendly reminder that you don’t need a kindle per-se – you can download the “kindle app” for free on almost any device, and read it from your laptop, PC, ect. If you’re not buying from Amazon UK or you can’t spare the money then liking or reblogging this post would still be a major help. The support I’ve received has really been phenomenal so far, so even if we don’t break into the 100, we’ve gotten further than I expected on release day.

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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.’

#

Preorder the whole book here.

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How to Write for Black Library

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If there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s “how do you become a Black Library author.” That’s totally understandable, given that at the time of writing I’m one of Black Library’s newest recruits, and until I was chosen I’d been trying via the selection process for a full decade. Older and wiser scribes than I have already provided some top tips on bringing your writing up to a publishable standard, so I’ll keep this post focused the specifics of the submissions process itself.

To my knowledge, since the Cold Hand of Betrayal anthology back in 2006 there have been three ways to submit your unsolicited work (a.k.a. without requiring the services of a literary agent) to Black Library. The first method is via a fixed anthology format. Black Library comes up with a subject for a collection of short stories, for example, Planetkill, and new writers are encouraged to submit within the guidelines.

The second method allows authors a little more creativity. Black Library sets broader parameters, and allows writers to submit their own work. For example, last year the only rule of thumb during the submission period was that all short stories had to focus on characters belonging to the Imperium of Man.

The third and rarest method of selection is via a standard job advertisement on Games Workshop’s recruitment site. Those who impress sufficiently with their cover letter are asked to complete a few brief writing tests, and those who do well enough with those are admitted to the author team. That was how I got in, after a decade of hammering away at the open submissions.

All three of these processes generally happen just once every year or two, normally in the springtime. If the method being used is the first or second one described above, Black Library typically offers a two month window for people to submit their stories. No stories outside of that time frame, at any other time of year, will be considered, and those who submit also have to adhere strictly to the rules (so, for example, don’t submit a novel if they only ask for short stories).

That’s really the long and the short of it. Beyond waiting patiently for the next open  window and sticking to the rules, the next best thing you can really do is keep reading and writing. And remember, don’t give up!

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Fate Unbound – Free Extract

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 The final part of my serialised novel, Legacy of Russ is now out! As ever, read on for the free extract…

The Rock, in high orbit above Midgardia

The bridge of the Rock was a scene of chaos, and the Changeling rejoiced. It had done its work well. Azrael was locked into a dead-end argument with Egil Iron Wolf, and his underlings were at his mercy. Or, more accuracy, the mercy of the bridge’s comms. chief, Vox Mendaxis.

The communications pits heaved with activity as vox serfs attempted to contact the crusade fleet, the channels overlaid with orders to cease fire and demands for clarification. The augur banks were still picking up the occasional lance strike as Navy Captains continued to respond to the Space Wolf barrage, in defiance of the confused messages emanating from the Rock. Amidst the disorder the Changeling sent out codes that further distorted what was happening – little blurts of static that cut up vital messages, contradictory targeting data-speech, new heading requests.

Through it all he listened to the conversation crackling back and forth between Azrael and Egil Iron Wolf. Each was demanding that the other stand down, the Dark Angel ordering the Wolves to withdraw to Fenris, while the Wolf was ordering the crusade fleet to disengage and leave the system. Neither appeared to be listening to the other. The Changeling cut and chopped the link at opportune moments, fighting furiously not to burst into laughter.

Such games amused it. They were a distraction, it was true, but for now the thing wearing Vox Seneschal Mendaxis’ flesh had nothing better to be doing. The plans were in motion, turning and changing within themselves. The actors necessary for the play to begin were on their way, but until they arrived the Changeling would have its idle fun. It sent fresh firing coordinates to a squadron of Navy Sword-class escorts, locking them onto their Wolf counterparts. A flurry of clarification requests came back. Grinning, it ignored them and broke the data-link.

The air around the figure of Mendaxis shimmered for a moment, the blemish on reality visible only to those with attuned warp-sight. The Changeling shuddered in its false skin, feeling the swirling skeins of Fate around it constricting. Of the thousandfold paths laid out by its master, more and more were slipping away, the few that remained yawning like the maws of hungry parasites as they sought latch onto the present and take their place as the future.

The air shuddered again. It was drawing nearer. On a distant world, a ritual the Changeling had first set in motion a century before was reaching its climax. The Rock was bound with powerful wards, but the Changeling had done its work well, breaking the necessary ones with the help of its master. The Fortress Monastery was still a difficult place to be, the sacred seals long ago woven by the Lion’s Librarians making the daemon’s borrowed flesh crawl, while the incense that filled the bridge’s air caught in the back of its throat. The games were a pleasing distraction from such discomforts. Soon, however, its patience would be rewarded. Soon they would be here – the Silver Fool, the Young King, the Angel Hunter – and then the real games could begin.

#

Svellgard

Svellgard’s oceans died, and its islands churned with battle. As the three Imperial strike forces forged towards the trio of warp rifts sucking away the moon’s seas, only one faltered. The Wolves were alone.

Sven’s jump pack carried him up onto one of the Soul Grinder’s segmented, arachnid-like limbs. His auto-stabilisers whirred as he cut the pack’s turbo, using its momentum to throw himself along the twisted warp-steel and up towards the daemon engine’s cockpit. The metal there was bent and deformed with growths of pulsing purple skin, sprouting at the top into a mouth-like cannon. The daemonic war machine’s fleshy upper arms snatched for him, one vast meat-fused mechanical claw carving overhead. Sven ducked the swing and then triggered Longleap again, bounding up onto the top of the machine’s pulsing turret.

His boots dug into skin as he landed, the thing’s pistons shrieking like tortured voices as it attempted to twist its bulk and throw him off. Face contorted with hatred, Sven began to hack at it with Frostfang. He started with the maw cannon, the axe’s ever-keen edge hewing through metal and the meat entwined around it. The engine emitted a machine roar, trying to reach him with its vast claws, but the Wolf made the angles impossible. He began to beat at the top of the turret itself, hacking through thick folds of muscle and chitin growths to reach the corrupt metal beneath.

The rest of his Sky Claws were assaulting the Soul Grinder simultaneously, chainswords striking sparks from its mechanical limbs. One of the young Wolves was snatched up in its claws, his scream cut brutally short as the huge blades scissored shut, bisecting him. Sven hacked harder, a howl building in the back of his throat.

Below he was dimly aware of the arrival of the Deathwolves, Harald’s ichor-soaked warriors pitching into the melee alongside his own. A second Soul Grinder took a Vindicator’s demolisher shell to its turret, blowing out in a blizzard of twisted wreckage.  Below Sven Frostclaw finally bit into metal, scarring the black steel. He swung again, with all his strength, fangs gritted. The frame shattered beneath him, and an ear-splitting shriek, like steel scraping along steel, rushed from the machine’s wound. Sven smelt rotting meat and burning copper. He triggered Longleap.

The Soul Grinder stumbled and finally collapsed, its infernal bulk crushing a Sky Claw too slow to leap backwards. The air above the rent in the machine shimmered as the daemon possessing it escaped, vanishing back into the immaterium with one last piercing shriek.

Sven touched down beside the twitching wreckage, shaking and panting. The daemons had recoiled at the engine’s death, massing their strength near the foot of the dune the Firehowlers were battling across. Harald pulled Icetooth to a stop beside the staring young Wolf Lord.

‘We need to consolidate,’ the Deathwolf said. ‘Our losses have been too heavy.’

Sven said nothing, still staring into the distance, jump pack idling, streams of black gore slipping down his armour.

‘Take up position on the brow of this dune,’ Harald said. ‘Let the Wulfen and the Claws hold them back long enough to reform the packs.’

‘You yourself said we can’t hold then,’ Sven said. ‘If we stop going forward, we die. All of us.’

‘But we can buy time,’ Harald said. ‘And right now, no matter how hard you fight pup, time is our only true hope.’

#

Holmgang, in high orbit above Midgardia

The bridge of the Holmgang was hushed and tense.  It was immediately apparent, the moment vox contact with established with the ships above Midgardia, that Ragnar’s fleet was too late. Amidst the total breakdown in communications discipline, one thing was made clear by the fleets anchored in high orbit – Midgardia was burning.

Ragnar said nothing. Madox’s vision had been true – before him, beyond the crystalflex ports, the death world was smeared with great whorls of black ash, its once purple surface now a barren grey shot through with the flickers of fires so vast they could be viewed from orbit. More flames flared nearer, in the void between the ships already clustered above the planet. The crusade fleet and the Wolves defending Midgardia had turned on each other. The realisation made the Young King sick to the pits of his stomachs. He had failed.

‘Lord Egil Iron Wolf is hailing us from his flagship, Wolftide,’ Ragnar’s Vox Huscarl said quietly. He motioned for the Chapter serf to accept the link, not taking his eyes off Midgardia.

Lord Blackmane, well met.’ Egil’s voice came through choppy and distorted, the range still extreme for ship to ship uplink communication.

‘Lord Iron Wolf,’ Ragnar said. ‘Tell me my eyes deceive me.’

They do not, Blackmane. The Lion has burned Midgardia.’

‘And now you burn the Lion?’

They must be stopped.’

‘And they will be,’ Ragnar growled. ‘I swear it to you. But this may not all be their doing. There is dark maleficarum at work here, Iron Wolf. I have seen it.’

I have no doubt, Blackmane. There are wyrdspawn everywhere.’

‘And closer than we may think. I have enlisted the help of the Grey Knights. They will put a stop to all this.’

You would trust the daemonhunters?’ Egil asked. ’What of our Wulfen? Recall they sought us out on Absolom not so long ago in order to persecute us.

‘Krom saved their lives above the Wolf Moon, and I fought alongside them on Mjalnar to purge the wyrdtaint that had taken root there. They have had the chance to condemn us, but they have not.’

Not yet. Perhaps they are not strong enough to right now.’

‘They could have joined the crusader fleet against us. They know more than just the Wulfen are at stake here.’

And how can they be of any help to us?’

‘They will lend weight to our cause when I enter the Lion’s den,’ said Ragnar. ‘Even the Angels cannot ignore the sons of Titan.’

#

The Rock, in high orbit above Midgardia

Azrael glared down at the holochart auspex from his command throne. For hours the runes representing the crusader fleet assets and those of the Wolves had remained largely static, overlaid with intermittent trajectory paths. Now however the Rock’s augur ports, already busy trying to track the spluttering half-engagement playing out with the Iron Wolf’s fleet, were blinked red with warning lights. New sigils were appearing within the chart’s sphere, multiplying with each static-wash update. Another Space Wolf fleet was approaching combat-effective range. The initial scans said it belong to the Great Company of Ragnar Blackmane.

Azrael knew the name. The impetuous young Wolf Lord had encountered the Unforgiven on a number of occasions in the past century. Few of those occasions had been positive in nature. Azrael had read the reports.

Nor was Ragnar’s fleet alone. Azrael saw the sigil representing Allsaint’s Herald blink into existence, and had to suppress a surge of rage. Of course de Mornay would return, with a pack of tamed hounds to do his bidding.

‘The meddling fool has brought pups for his dirty work,’ Asmodai hissed from beside Azrael’s throne, reading his Chapter Master’s thoughts.

‘I should have know he would. It makes no difference. We shall break from orbit and make for Fenris. That should sharpen the minds of these animals.’

Lord, we are being hailed by Allsaint’s Herald,’ said Vox Seneschal Mendaxis, cutting in. ’Shall I accept?’

‘Negative,’ Azrael said. ‘We have no time for -’

Greetings, Supreme Grand Master,’ crackled de Mornay’s voice before he could finish.

‘Mendaxis, I said -’

Before you break the link, you should be aware I have members of the Ordo Malleus’ Chamber Militant onboard this vessel. Just in case you were considering firing on us as well as the Wolves.’

‘We are not the traitors here, de Mornay. You are the one parlaying with mutants.’

Enough of your thunder, Azrael. Even you can’t deny this situation has gotten far out of hand. You have lost control of your own fleet. Let us speak, face to face, and resolve all this before it degenerates any further.’

‘I do not see how you can help. You will simply seek to further your own misguided agenda, as ever.’

You will receive us aboard the Rock, Azrael. I have the power to declare you excomunicate traitoris, you and your whole Chapter. Don’t believe I won’t use my Inquisitorial edict.’

‘Your threats are as ridiculous as they are ill conceived, de Mornay. But we have come to expect that.’

Lord Azrael.’ The voice on the other end of the vox was suddenly different – heavy and leaden with grim, restrained power.

‘Who is this?’

I am Captain Arvann Stern of the Grey Knights Third Brotherhood. I am here on the business of my Chamber Militant. I would speak with you in person, Supreme Grand Master.

For the first time since entering the Fenris system, Azrael felt a flash of uncertainty.

‘You are accompanying de Mornay?’

‘We are with the Lord Inquisitor, yes. He has our protection, naturally.’

‘You may come aboard, but he may not.’

If we are to resolve this situation without shedding the blood of any more of the Emperor’s servants, I strongly suggest he comes as well. As does a representative of the Wolves. This madness has gone on for long enough.

‘They will try and intimidate us,’ Asmodai muttered. ‘It is ever their way.’

We will come alone,’ Stern said. ’No retinues. We seek only to discuss what has happened here.’

‘If there is any attempt to censure my Chapter -’

There won’t be. The destruction wrought here has been the work of the Archenemy. Together we shall root out their taint and banish it back to where it belongs.

Azrael was silent, watching the markers blinking on the holochart below him, and the occulus viewscreens scattered across the bridge’s expanse. Even with Ragnar Blackmane’s arrival, the Wolves above Midgarida were still heavily outgunned by the crusade fleet. The Rock alone would have been a match for them. But the presence of the Grey Knights had pierced the fug of confusion and recrimination that seemed to be shrouding Midgardia’s orbit as thoroughly as the ash clouds now choking its atmosphere. Azrael could not deny that since unleashing the firestorm, matters had been spiralling out of control. The freefall had to be arrested, even if that meant having to court the Wolves and rebuff de Mornay’s latest misguided accusations in person. He keyed the transmission rune in his throne’s arm rest.

‘I shall expect you within the hour,’ he said, and cut the link.

Below, Mendaxis-thing smiled.

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