The Ghoul King

The Knight, Quinn, is down on his luck, and he travels to the very edge of the civilized world—whatever that means, any more—to restock his small but essential inventory.

After fighting a series of gladiatorial bouts against the dead, he finds himself in the employ of a woman on a quest to find the secret to repairing her semi-functional robot. But the technological secret it guards may be one truth too many…

The second novella in the Dreaming Cities series, Guy Haley’s The Ghoul King is available July 12th from Tor.com Publishing. Read an excerpt below, or check out a preview of the first book in the series, The Emperor’s Railroad.

 

 

Quinn and the Angel

 

We are an angel of the Lord, and we will not be denied our vengeance.

The Knight Quinn is framed in the lenses of our eye. He lies upon the hard earth, curled up like a child. Men are helpless when they sleep. Still we are wary. Quinn is devious, a killer of men, beasts, and machines. The continued existence of the knights is anathema to the Pax Angelica. They are tolerated nonetheless, a condition of the treaty. To harm him is to defy that peace and bring war to the continent. And yet we wish so dearly to harm him.

We have our chance. Here, in the Ohio Badlands he is exposed, alone, lost in a dead space not easily observed by the servants of God.

Our triad decoheres partially, enough to debate. In the etheric nonspace laid atop the world by the engines of the cities, we are one mind with three voices. We are the Merciful, the Wrathful, the Conciliator. We are an angel of the Lord.

“If we are to have our revenge, we must be swift,” says our Merciful. Whether from mercy or pragmatism she does not reveal to we other two. We are momentarily divorced enough for her to hide her thoughts from the triad.

“We cannot kill him, no matter our desire. What we are about to do goes against the treaty,” says our Conciliator.

“We cannot hurt him. Directly, but we can set events in motion that will lead to his death,” says our Wrathful.

“We court disaster,” our Merciful reminds us. “The consequences of discovery would threaten the Eastern League.”

Our Wrathful will not be dissuaded. “He must be punished for what he has done.”

“He must,” agrees our Conciliator. And so the balance of fate tips toward wrath. Two of the triad agree, so all agree.

“Punishment is his just reward for the death of our agent,” says our Merciful.

Our brief discourse done, we flow back into one another, one mind one voice. We reengage with the vulgar plane of matter and sin. We send our eye lower.

The device descends on silent gravitic motors, halts at one hundred meters, and performs a tight sweep of the knight’s camp. The detail view of the eye zooms in on his face. Subtler instruments extrude from the eye’s casing to taste the man. Dirt. Blood. Sweat and the secretions of gross anatomy. Screeds of data rush from the eye’s simple, autonomous brain into the palaces of our minds where they might be properly understood. We see his autonomic core drives his existence, forcing air into his lungs and out, heart mechanically pumping, pumping, pumping. His consciousness is inactive, his somatic centers disabled. He is vulnerable.

Quinn is asleep, deep asleep. Arrogant! Were we in his position we would never sleep again. We command our eye to descend lower. The altimeter ticks down. Twenty-five meters. We halt it.

The knight shifts slightly in his dreams. Such is the danger he represents we recoil within the ether, though he cannot possibly sense the eye.

“The time for revenge is now,” we say, our Wrathful is dominant. “Five men of rough aspect camp not far from the hated Quinn. It is time to alert them.”

We do not know who they are. They are slavers, they are bandits, they are murderers. Any and all are possible. We care not which other than that they are suitable to be the instrument of our vengeance.

“We shall manifest!” we say, and set in train tumbling paths of light-carried information. The eye opens, and we are born again into the world of men. “Let him see whom he has angered!”

We are a seed of blue light, cold as revenge and more terrible than the stars, illuminating the wasted lands around Quinn’s camp with a ferocity that divides everything into searing white and night-black shadow. From this ball of lightning we grow. Tall lines spread up and down and open, blazing our majesty across heaven as they widen out to sketch the glorious outline of our form. With a rushing fanfare we materialize—an angel as an angel should be, tall and powerful, mercifully free of gender, blessed with broad white wings and a raiment of light so radiant men must turn away.

Quinn’s horses buck and whinny. Their tossing heads yank at their pickets. One is the mount of knight, engineered for courage, but even the likes of he are not inured to the majesty of an angel incarnate.

This takes less than a second. Quinn awakes. We note the rapid shift in his mental state, straight from dreaming to full awareness. Truly, we made these creatures well. He is on his feet and has his gun in his hand in the time most men would take to open their eyes. He aims into our light and discharges a round. It passes through our body harmlessly. We sneer at his efforts to injure us.

Hubris is a disease of angels. He was not aiming at our manifestation. He was aiming for our eye.

The bullet grazes the eye’s shell. Our datafeed buzzes painfully in our mental junction, and for a millisecond we, Wrathful, Conciliator, and Merciful, split into separate loci of being. This is not the gentle easing of the quorum, but a wrench, a dagger parting. The agony as our minds come unstuck from one another for the first time in four hundred years is unspeakable.

We feel panic. We clutch for each other, panicked until we flow together and are one again.

For that he will pay twice.

We send our eye skyward with a thought, out of range of his pistol. Our light-spun form descends toward Quinn, treading an invisible stair. We halt at the height of a man so as not to profane our sanctity with the touch of unhallowed ground. Blessed by our effulgence, the land lights up for hundreds of meters around us. Animals flee into the brush. The white barkless skeletons of trees shine. This landscape is much abused, devastated in the Time of Wrath, again in the conflict between Columbus and Pittsburgh. Twenty years have passed since that war, only now does it begin to recover. The young trees growing at the feet of their elders’ corpses are sickly and malformed. Residual radiation here is great enough to call forth slow death. Only a desperate man would travel this land. Or a knight.

“Quinn! I have come for justice!” we announce. Despite our eye’s coherent sonic projection cone, the volume of our divine voice is lessened by the distance demanded to keep the eye safe. This irritates us. Quinn’s expression, a mix of indulgent humor and pity, irritates us more.

“I wondered how long it would take,” he says. So insolently calm! He must quail.

“You destroyed the dragon of Winfort. You acted against us.”

“I did nothing outside the laws. Nothing against the treaty,” he replies. His attention is not upon on our magnificence. He searches behind us. He is seeking our eye. He wonders if he can kill it and banish us. This stirs us to greater wrath.

“You defied the will of the angels!” we proclaim, our voices singing in terrible concert.

Quinn smiles at that. He looks around him, shakes his head. “Angels? I see only one here. This looks kind of personal to me. They even know you unplugged yourself? Affairs must be bad in heaven if the angels’ choirs are singing out of step.”

“Insolence! Blasphemy!” The Wrathful in me acts too quickly for the Merciful to stop. We blast Quinn backward with an energy loop. The Conciliator is disappointed. That part wished to hear Quinn beg.

The knight gets himself up and shakes his head, as if we are an unbroken mount that has thrown him, and he is disappointed! We unleash our displeasure again, carrying him head over heels to slam into the bleached trunk of a scarlet oak. Something cracks. We pray to the Lord God that it is his bones.

Quinn gets to his feet. He spits blood into the dry earth and aims high with his pistol. Our displeasure turns to his weapon, heating it until he drops it. He throws it aside before the powder ignites in the casings of the bullet. We stop it from doing so. The men coming will want the weapon whole. Temptation must be put in their way, or they may not act as we wish.

“You’re the one in trouble. How long can you keep this up before the others in your choir notice you have gone? They’ll shear you of your wings,” he says, quietly now, speaking into the buzzing crackle and blinding light of our manifestation, his eyes narrowed, hand up to shade his face. “Get on and kill me, if you dare. We both know you can’t, not if you like being an angel.”

“We do not need to overstay, much as it displeases us,” we say. “And we do not need to kill you.”

At our command, our eye emits a carefully modulated EM-burst. It rips into his skull, disrupting the firing of the knight’s neuronal network. Quinn drops hard. We hope it hurt.

Our radiance dims, we fold our image back into itself, drawing away to the privacy of our eye.

“You killed our dragon, Quinn. We will not abide that. You are to be punished.”

We leave him spasming. The sight of his drool wetting the ground is particularly pleasing.

For long moments little happens. We begin to anger again. The men must come soon. Knights are hardier than the run of mortals. Quinn will recover quickly, and then they will be no match for him. It must be now!

We are about to depart, disappointed, unavenged, when our eye detects movement. We switch modes of vision to infrared, revealing men skulking behind a fallen tree and a pair of boulders some distance away up the slope.

“What was making the light?”

“Dunno, Molo, but there’s a man down there. He looks hurt.”

“Who is he?” says one, a cruel-looking villain.

“He’s down, that’s for sure. We should take him.”

“It might be a trap, Jons.”

They stick their heads up and down and duck back and forth, their feeble human eyes confounded by the dark. They dare not approach, but gawk like apes at a snake. We experience the urge to blast them all to ashes.

“There’s a horse down there, a good-looking one,” says the one named Molo.

“Yeah?” says Jons.

“I see two,” says another.

One of them comes out from behind his boulder and makes his way down the slope to Quinn’s camp. He has a heavy crossbow and looks like he is well versed in its use. He pokes Quinn with the toe of his boot. Quinn’s hands flop about uselessly. How delightful.

The man peers at Quinn’s gear, leans down and pats over the fallen knight’s chest. He draws out something from within his mail. We see a platinum glint. We detect the short-range emanations of a knight’s badge. The man recognizes this for what it is. He steps back, crossbow covering Quinn.

“Hey boys, boys!” shouts the man. “You’re not gonna believe this. This guy’s a knight!”

“Get his gun!” shouts Jons.

They all come down. Their mental states change from caution to excitement. Once they have tied Quinn’s hands and feet, they spend much time playing with his weapons, congratulating themselves on their haul, and how much money they will make from it. They are sluggish in thought, motivated by greed. It is easy to plant the suggestion in the mind of their leader Jons that they take him to Newtown Columbus.

“We’ll sell him there to the Pit,” says their leader. “Ain’t no angels coming to Newtown, not ever. Knights like him still ain’t popular in these parts.”

“And his gear?”

“Trickier, but we can do it. Sell the weapons to the Seekers, horse to the Indians.”

“I don’t like it, boss,” says Molo, a weaselly, twitchy little man in filthy buckskin. Like the others he wears a broad-brimmed hat, but his is clean, new, a hat band made of fine silver links circles it. Stolen, almost certainly.

“They’ll not trace it back to us.”

The taste of their minds is bitter. We feel soiled by our contact. Thankfully it is done. They cut the bonds on Quinn’s feet, and run a line from his hands to his steed’s pommel. Then they are on their way, fearful of discovery.

Our eye tracks the bandits as they drag Quinn staggering away behind his own horse. We enjoy the spectacle of his humiliation for half an hour, but even this grows tedious. Revenge is done. We have other business to attend to. The Pittsburgh choir will miss our input soon, and so we depart.

So suffer all who would cross the angels.

Excerpted from The Ghoul King © Guy Haley, 2016

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