<em>Black Halo</em> (Excerpt)
Tue
Mar 22 2011 9:30am
Black Halo (Excerpt)
Sam Sykes

Black Halo by Sam SykesPlease enjoy this excerpt from Sam Sykes' Black Halo, the second installment of the Aeons' Gate series, out today from Pyr Books. These chapters are available exclusively through Tor.com for one full week.

* * *

 

Prologue

The Aeons’ Gate
The Sea of Buradan . . . somewhere . . .
Summer, getting later all the time

 

What’s truly wrong with the world is that it seems so dauntingly complex at a glance and so despairingly simple upon close examination. Forget what elders, kings, and politicians say otherwise, this is the one truth of life. Any endeavor so noble and gracious, any scheme so cruel and remorseless, can be boiled down like cheap stew. Good intentions and ambitions rise to the surface in thick, sloppy chunks and leave behind only the base instincts at the bottom of the pot.

Granted, I’m not sure what philosophical aspect represents the broth, but this metaphor only came to me just now. That’s beside the point. For the moment, I’m dubbing this “Lenk’s Greater Imbecile Theory.”

I offer up myself as an example. I began by taking orders without question from a priest; a priest of Talanas, the Healer, no less. If that weren’t impressive enough, he, one Miron Evenhands, also served as Lord Emissary for the church itself. He signed the services of myself and my companions to help him find a relic, one Aeons’ Gate, to communicate with the very heavens.

It seemed simple enough, if a bit mad, right up until the demons attacked.

From there, the services became a bit more . . . complicated should be the word for it, but it doesn’t quite do justice to describe the kind of fish-headed preachers that came aboard the vessel carrying us and stole a book, one Tome of the Undergates. After our services were required to retrieve this—this collection of scriptures wrought by hellbeasts that were, until a few days ago, stories used to frighten coins into the collection plates—to say that further complications arose seems rather disingenuous.

Regardless, at the behest of said priest and on behalf of his god, we set out to retrieve this tome and snatch it back from the clutches of the aforementioned hellbeasts. To those reading who enjoy stories that end with noble goals reached, lofty morals upheld, and mankind left a little better for the experience, I would suggest closing this journal now, should you have stumbled upon it long after it separated from my corpse.

It only gets worse from here.

I neglected to mention what it was that drove such glorious endeavors to be accomplished. Gold. One thousand pieces. The meat of the stew, bobbing at the top.

The book is mine now, in my possession, along with a severed head that screams and a very handy sword. When I hand over the book to Miron, he will hand over the money. That is what is left at the bottom of this pot: no great quest to save humanity, no communication with the Gods, no uniting people hand in hand through trials of adversity and noble blood spilled. Only money. Only me.

This is, after all, adventure.

Not that the job has been all head-eating demons and babbling seagulls, mind. I’ve also been collecting epiphanies, such as the one written above. A man tends to find them bobbing on the very waves when he’s sitting cramped in a tiny boat.

With six other people. Whom he hates. One of whom farts in her sleep. I suppose I also neglected to mention that I haven’t been alone in this endeavor. No, much of the credit goes to my companions: a monster, a heathen, a thug, a zealot, and a savage. I offer these titles with the utmost respect, of course. Rest assured that, while they are undoubtedly handy to have around in a fight, time spent in close quarters with them tends to wear on one’s nerves rather swiftly.

All the same . . . I don’t suppose I could have done it without them. “It” being described below, short as I can make it and ending with a shict’s ass pointed at me like a weapon as she slumbers.

The importance of the book is nothing worth noting unless it is also noted who had the book. In this case, after Miron, the new owners were the Abysmyths: giant, emaciated demons with the heads of fish who drown men on dry land. Fittingly enough, their leader, the Deepshriek, was even more horrendous. I suppose if I were a huge man-thing with a fish-head, I would follow a huge fish-thing with three man-heads.

Or woman-heads, in this case, I’m sorry. Apologies again; two woman-heads. The third rests comfortably at my side, blindfolded and gagged. It does have the tendency to scream all on its own.

Still, one can’t honestly recount the trouble surrounding this book if one neglects to mention the netherlings. I never saw one alive, but unless they change color when they die, they appear to be very powerful, very purple women. All muscle and iron, I’m told by my less fortunate companions who fought them, that they fight like demented rams and follow short, effeminate men in dresses.

As bad as things got, however, it’s all behind us now. Despite the fact that the Deepshriek escaped with two of its heads, despite the fact that the netherlings’ com- mander, a rather massive woman with sword to match, escaped, despite the fact that we are currently becalmed with one day left until the man sent to pick us up from the middle of the sea decides we’re dead and leaves and we really die shortly after and our corpses rot in the noonday sun as gulls form polite conversation over whether my eyeballs or my stones are the more tasty part of me . . .

One moment, I’m not quite sure where I intended to go with that statement.

I wish I could be at ease, really I do. But it’s not quite that easy. The adventurer’s constant woe is that the adventure never ends with the corpse and the loot. After the blood is spilled and the deed is done, there’s always people coming for revenge, all manner of diseases acquired and the fact that a rich adventurer is only a particularly talented and temporarily wealthy kind of scum.

Still . . . that’s not what plagues me. Not to the extent of the voice in my head, at least.

I tried to ignore it, at first. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t speaking in my head, that it was only high exhaustion and low morale wearing on my mind. I tried to tell myself that. . . .

And it told me otherwise.

It’s getting worse now. I hear it all the time. It hears me all the time. What I think, it knows. What I know, it casts doubt on. It tells me all sorts of horrible things, tells me to do worse things, commands me to hurt, to kill, to strike back. It gets so loud, so loud lately that I want to . . . that I just—

Pardon.

The issue is that I can make the voice stop. I can get a few moments respite from it . . . but only by opening the tome.

Miron told me not to. Common sense told me again. But I did it, anyway. The book is more awful than I could imagine. At first, it didn’t even seem to say anything: its pages were just filled with nonsensical symbols and pages of people being eviscerated, decapitated, manipulated, and masticated at the hands, minds, and jaws of various creatures too awful to re-create in my journal.

As I read on, however . . . it began to make more sense. I could read the words, understand what they were saying, what they were suggesting. And when I flip back to the pages I couldn’t read before, I can see them all over again. The images are no less awful, but the voice . . . the voice stops. It no longer tells me things. It no longer commands me.

It doesn’t just make sense grammatically, but philosophically as well. It doesn’t speak of evisceration, horrific sin, or demonic incursion like it’s supposed to, despite the illustrations. Rather, it speaks of freedom, of self-reliance, of life without a need to kneel. It’s really more of a treatise, but I suppose “Manifesto of the Undergates” just doesn’t have the same ring.

I open the book only late at night. I can’t do it in front of my companions. During the day, I sit on it to make sure that they can’t snatch a glimpse at its words. To my great relief, none of them have tried so far, apparently far more bothered by other matters.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a relief to see them all so agitated and uncomfortable. Gariath, especially, since his preferred method of stress release usually involves roaring, gnashing, and stomping with me having to get a mop at the end of it. Lately, however, he just sits at the rear of our little boat, holding the rudder, staring out at sea. He’s so far unmoved by anything, ignoring us completely.

Not that such a thing stops other people from trying.

Denaos is the only one in good spirits, so far. Considering, it seems odd that he should be alone in this. After all, he points out, we have the tome. We’re about to be paid one thousand gold pieces. Split six ways, that still makes a man worth exactly six cases of whiskey, three expensive whores, sixty cheap whores, or one splendid night with all three in varying degrees, if his math is to be trusted. He insults, he spits, he snarls, seemingly more offended that we’re not more jovial.

Oddly enough, Asper is the only one who can shut him up. Even more odd, she does it without yelling at him. I fear she may have been affected the worst by our encounters. I don’t see her wearing her symbol lately. For any priestess, that is odd. For a priestess who has polished, prayed to, and occasionally threatened to shove said symbol into her companions’ eye sockets, it’s worrying.

Between her and Denaos, Dreadaeleon seems to be torn. He alternately wears an expression like a starving puppy for the former, then fixes a burning, hateful stare upon the latter. At any moment, he looks like he’s either going to have his way with Asper or incinerate Denaos. As psychotic as it might sound, I actually prefer this to his constant prattling about magic, the Gods and how they’re a lie, and whatever else the most annoying combination of a wizard and a boy could think up.

Kataria . . .

Kataria is an enigma to me yet. Of all the others, she was the first I met, long ago in a forest. Of all the others, she has been the one I’ve never worried about, I’ve never thought ill of for very long. She has been the only one I am able to sleep easy next to, the only one I know will share her food, the only one I know who wouldn’t abandon me for gold or violence.

Why can’t I understand her?

All she does is stare. She doesn’t speak much to me, to anyone else, really, but she only stares at me. With hatred? With envy? Does she know what I’ve done with the book? Does she hate me for it?

She should be happy, shouldn’t she? The voice tells me to hurt her worst, hurt her last. All her staring does is make the voice louder. At least by reading the book I can look at her without feeling my head burn.

When she’s sleeping, I can stare at her, though. I can see her as she is . . . and even then, I don’t know what to make of her. Stare as I might, I can’t . . .

Sweet Khetashe, this has gotten a tad strange, hasn’t it?

The book is ours now. That’s what matters. Soon we’ll trade it for money, have our whiskey and our whores and see who hires us next. That is assuming, of course, we ever make it to our meeting point: the island of Teji. We’ve got one night left to make it, with winds that haven’t shown themselves since I began writing, and a huge, endless sea beneath us.

Hope is ill advised.

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