Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Eden's Revenge - Origins

For some time I've been thinking of writing about the origins of the Eden series, showing how it came about when the Q'Roth first visited Earth a thousand years before the first book starts. While I don't plan to write a 'prequel', I have included some material in Eden's Revenge which goes back to the 16th Century, focusing on the struggle between the fledgling Alicians and the Sentinels, as viewed through the eyes of a character who will need no introduction to those who have read either of the first two books.

Here's a taste of what's to come. The writing here is a little 'old stye' compared to The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial; thats intentional, since the perspective is 16th century. After the Prologue, the rest takes place in 2081. I'm hoping the book will be available digitally in March.

Prologue - Origins

1563 AD, the Himalayan Kingdom

No birds ever approached the Fortress of Alessia. This was the second thing Esma noticed when she arrived after her long trek. The first was the architectural precision of this gothic castle, its steep black ramparts, towers and spires rising skywards, as if uprooted from the earth by the stars themselves. Its cruel beauty went beyond anything she’d ever heard of or seen, especially in the barren Tibetan foothills, hundreds of miles from the nearest village. Although it was over four hundred years old, Alessia’s Fortress looked as if it had been built yesterday.
Archers’ slits in its three tall towers stared out over the surrounding land, unblinking eyes daring anyone below to step onto the path to its iron gates. The guide had left her a mile earlier, unwilling to proceed further, and in the end had begged her to return with him to the safety of his village. But Esma turned her back on him as she had the rest of humanity, and continued alone towards her destiny.
A savage wind scoured her sheepskin coat, leather face-mask and gloves as she walked with a measured gait under anvil-shaped clouds threatening the winter’s first snowfall. Atop the towers, red and gold pennants displayed blooded eagle’s claws and, as they whipped and crackled, the emblazoned talons seemed to grasp at the air. Prayer wheels, adapted from na├»ve Buddhist intentions to worship another entity, one altogether more sublime and not of this world, whistlled like banshees across the bleak countryside.
Esma had left her family for good this time, after one beating too many, and had not told her bitter mother or sickly brother where she was going. They would not understand. For two years Esma had secretly followed the Order of Alessia as an acolyte-in-waiting, after being noticed by a wandering monk visiting her home city, Padua. He had addressed her school class, and asked what they all saw when they raised their eyes to the night sky. Most had talked of God and his marvels. Esma had waited till recess and then approached him on her own; she had often looked up, craving an alternative to the misery she and others endured.
“Our star, the sun, has worlds around it,” she said. “I believe, and I pray, that other worlds are up there too, better ones.”
Within a year she had a job with a printer, a cover for her induction into the Alessian Order. Esma had to endure two more years at home, but each time her father’s hand raised above her, she knew that revenge would come, and never once cried out in voice or with tears, which only angered him further. On the night she left, Esma slit his throat where he lay snoring, drunk, in the kitchen, and left a note for her mother and brother that simply said, “My parting gift.” 
Now she would finally meet the High Priestess herself, or at least glimpse her. As she strode against the wind, up the winding cobbled pathway and endless granite steps, she spied something from the corner of her eye – a blue-black beast, its carapace shining like that of a beetle. It had a strangely shaped head, not a rectangle, more like the silhouette of a half-open book. But this creature was the height of two women, and moved so fast it was gone almost before her mind could paint its picture. Esma had heard the rumours. So, it was true, they were here. She quickened her pace.
When the great gate opened, uncreaking and seemingly of its own accord, three men in full-length cloaks faced her, their hands hidden in long sleeves, their eyes grey and uncompromising. While the tallest asked questions concerning the Order’s scripture that Esma had to answer without reflection or error, the other two walked and stood close behind her. After what felt like half an hour of relentless examination, she faltered, unsure of the answer, and rather than give a wrong one, bowed her head. She heard a blade slipping from its sheath behind her. The man in front paused. “And what if you are called upon to kill those of your own flesh, Esma, your family?”
She raised her head high as she slowly pulled out the curved knife from her coat pocket, showing him the dried blood on its blade. “I already started.”
The lips of the man before her stretched outward, if only a fraction.

Life in the fortress was tough and thankless, but Esma endured it, doing whatever was asked no matter how menial, without question or complaint. When she had a spare moment she would approach the narrow windows where the wind howled by, and she stared out, hoping to catch sight of the beast, but to no avail. Esma told no one what she had seen; knowing more than one should in the Order was dangerous. She did however catch rare glimpses of Alessia, easily recognised by her mane of flowing red locks as she swept across the inner courtyard from the base of one stone tower to another.
Once, early one morning, Esma had to fetch a bucket of water for her master, Tilgar, for his morning ablutions. Ice with a dusting of snow covered the surface of the well, and she had to lean down precariously and hack at it with her knife. Chopping hard till it suddenly cracked, her foot slipped and she lost her balance, falling forward, arms flailing as she tried to grab onto anything to save her from an icy death. A firm hand seized the back of her thigh, then another yanked her back out of the well’s embrace by the shoulder, turning her around with deft ease and power. Esma landed on the frosted ground, panting, by Alessia’s feet. Aghast at her mistake, she got to her knees in front of the High Priestess of the Order, though she maintained eye contact: in the Order deference was never blind. “I am sorry for my foolishness, Your Eminence.”
Alessia said nothing, the hint of a smile playing across her lips. Her jade eyes fixed on Esma, the smile dissipating. “Once is a mistake, twice is a fault.” Alessia turned and continued in her whirlwind fashion towards the principal tower where the Order’s Council met regularly. Esma watched Alessia go, feeling as if she had just been touched by an Angel of God.
Esma had never been interested in boys, or in the sinful pleasures of the flesh, but she was still young, and that night she found herself unable to sleep, and with a gnawing sense of disgust she exorcised the bad thoughts in the only way she knew how. But it was different this time. Instead of trying to conjure up enthusiasm in her mind’s eye for the stable boy other girls fantasized about, Esma imagined Alessia’s wild and beatific face, her slim but strong hands caressing her. In her ecstasy Esma almost cried out in the female dormitory. But in the morning her shame at this profane, animalistic activity bubbled to the surface like acid on skin. She had been disrespectful to Alessia, and Esma vowed never again to demean herself or another by proxy. She threw all her energy into her work.
Months passed, and Esma progressed in her duties – she could write well, and Tilgar had been teaching her a challenging new script, one with serifs, barbs and sharp points, like an aggressive rune alphabet covered with bloodstains. But she didn’t just copy, and learning more, she began to translate, occasionally finding herself staring at these words and their unfolding concepts like none she had ever heard, even inside the Order. Her ability to fathom meaning behind the alien language didn’t go unnoticed by Tilgar. Esma did not know if this was good or bad news.
One night Tilgar woke her quietly – she had been summoned to a room at the top of the second tower, where the elite lived. Once there, Tilgar ushered her inside and sealed the oak door behind her. A flaxen-haired knight in chain mail armour sat upright in a high-backed wooden chair. Silburn: she had seen him occasionally in the fortress, often with Alessia. He was second-in-command. Silburn stood up.
“Come,” he said, walking out to the balcony where flurries of snowflakes swirled, in no rush to reach the ground. She stood a little behind him but he gestured for her to stand at the edge, a knee-high stone wall separating them from a sheer drop into darkness. Silburn’s hand went to the small of Esma’s back. She stiffened. One small shove and she would depart this world.
“Look up, girl, and tell me what you see.”
Esma’s heart raced. “Stars,” she said, the word barely escaping her lips, her mind trying to ignore the hand that could end her life so easily. A snowflake entered her left eye, ice cold, making her blink rapidly. Not dressed for outside, the chill air bit through her woollen shift-dress. She ignored it, tried to focus, unsure what was required of her, which answer would spare her life. But the Order was not about closing minds; that was why she had joined. She remembered Alessia saving her from a messy, futile death in the well, and cleared her throat. “Stars,” she said again. “But they do not circle us, for we are not the centre of the universe.”
The hand remained firm, a judge deciding her fate. “Continue.” Silburn’s voice was as unfeeling as the stone wall at her sandaled feet.
Esma tried not to shiver. “Somewhere out there is another life, another way, more than us.” She paused, then decided to say it. “I saw one. When I first arrived. Barely a glimpse. But what I saw… impressed me. Such grace and power.” She waited, then continued. “I know they are not gods, yet it seems to me – from what I have read – that they are closer to God than we.” She dared to glance across to see Silburn’s reaction, but his face was as unmoving as the granite walls, and her own face turned downwards, to the oblivion below.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No,” she said, a shiver breaking through despite her best efforts.
“Not even Tilgar?”
Esma didn’t want to get her master into trouble; he had been kind to her. She shook her head. Esma knew that words held deadly power in the Order, secrets even more so. Sometimes acolytes disappeared, and no one asked questions afterwards. The line between savant and heretic was a hair’s breadth. 
“Esma, would you die for the Order?”
The words echoed in her head, like the eddies of snow before her, making her feel giddy. “Yes,” she said, swallowing, realising she had over-stepped the mark. For the first time in weeks she visualised her mother, sneering, saying that she had always had too much to say, had never accepted her place, and would now pay the price. She would end her life gashed open on unforgiving rocks, leaving carrion birds and insects to pick her bones dry. Esma thought of her sickly brother, Arnault, surely by now taken by the plague ravaging the land. At least he might be sad for her fate. So be it, she and her sibling would comfort each other in whatever came after.
Silburn’s face turned to her. “Then will you die for the Order, Esma?” He removed his hand from the small of her back.
Esma found her hands shaking, her lips quivering. She stared into Silburn’s eyes, but they were pitiless, they had probably seen and dispatched such death that there was no mercy remaining in his soul. Bracing herself, she squeezed her lips together, clenched her fists against the biting pain in her fingers. She lifted one foot on top of the low wall, then pushed up and stood atop the slippery, uneven stone. Her mind, awash with fears and inner cries, suddenly cleared, as if she had broken through its surface ice to clear water underneath. The shaking stopped, and she felt at peace. She wanted to say some last words, and then it came to her, the only two things she cared about. “I do this for Alessia, and for the truth that cannot yet be known or spoken.” Eyes wide open, she sucked in a deep breath, leaned forward and took a step.

to be continued...

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