04 September, 2014

The Ace of Skulls (Tales of the Ketty Jay #4) by Chris Wooding - Exclusive Excerpt

The Tales of the Ketty Jay, beginning with Retribution Falls, is one of those series often mentioned on forums in the same breath as Heroes Die and The Lies of Locke Lamora. It's a highly acclaimed series and yet not nearly enough people are reading it.

It doesn't help that after the first two books in the series were released, Retribution Falls and The Black Lung Captain, the series lost its US publisher. Luckily for us, Titan publishing came to save the day and we now have the last two books published in the US this year. In fact, they were published just in the last few months and here's the entirety of the series:

Tales of the Ketty Jay:
1) Retribution Falls
2) The Black Lung Captain
3) The Iron Jackal
4) The Ace of Skulls

What brings us here today is the recent release of that final volume and I have an exclusive excerpt from that latest, The Ace of Skulls. Enjoy!



The Intruder – Sentinels – Crowd Control – MarindaPinn Receives a Prophecy

From the darkness, a monster emerged. It loomed into sight, filling up the passageway: a shadowy hulk, hunched and massive. The crash had shorted out the lights of the Awakener freighter, but emergency backups flickered fitfully, providing horrific glimpses of the intruder.
It was an ogre of tarnished metal and chainmail, standing eight feet high and five broad. Its face – if it had a face – was set low between its enormous shoulders and hidden behind a circular grille. Two malevolent and inhuman eyes peered out, cold chips of light shining in a void.
The Sentinels crouched in doorways or took what cover they could find. They were the guardians of the Awakeners, soldiers for the cause. They wore grey cassocks with high collars and the emblem of the Cipher emblazoned in black on the breast.
They aimed their rifles and let fly. Bullets sparked off the creature’s armour. It flinched, bellowed, then came stamping onward with a roar. The foremost of the Sentinels broke cover and ran. Seeing him falter, others followed, backing away in fear. One man, full of the zeal of the faithful, stepped bravely out into the centre of the corridor.
‘Stand your ground!’ he cried. Tor the Allsoul!’ And he fired his rifle at point-blank range through a gap in the creature’s face-grille, right between its eyes.
He hit nothing. There was a series of sharp, metallic echoes as the bullet ricocheted about inside the monster’s body. The Sentinel had only an instant to wonder how an empty armoured suit was storming an Awakener freighter, before he was backhanded into the wall with the force of a steam train. The other Sentinels lost all taste for the fight then, and they fled shrieking. The monster thundered off in pursuit.
When the coast was clear, Frey and his crew stepped into the passageway, revolvers and shotguns in their hands. They followed warily in the monster’s wake, pausing only for the captain to examine the spread-eagled form of the dead man, who was still embedded in the wall in the midst of an artistic splatter-pattern. He was wearing a startled expression, as if surprised to find that he was a corpse.
‘Good or Bess,’ Frey said approvingly.
‘She ain’t subtle, but she gets the job done,’ Malvery agreed.
Grayther Crake, the Ketty Jay's daemonist and the man behind the monster, felt vaguely sick. Bess’s rampages never failed to distress him. It wasn’t the sheer ferocity with which she maimed and crushed her opponents. It was because she took such childish glee in the carnage.
The whole crew was here, with the exception of Harkins, who was even more useless with a gun than Crake was. Leading the way was the Cap’n, sporting a daemon-thralled cutlass and a surplus of charm to hide his many and varied flaws. Next to him was Malvery, a man of great size and enormous mirth, with a ring of white hair and round, green-lensed glasses perched on his wide nose. Silo, the Ketty Jay's Murthian first mate, walked alongside. Bringing up the rear was Jez. Jez, half Mane and getting more so every day, in Crake’s opinion.
There was a jostling at his elbow, and Pinn pushed past him down the corridor. Oh yes, he’d forgotten Pinn. He had warm feelings for the rest of the crew, even the cowardly Harkins, but Pinn he didn’t like at all. Crake was a man who valued intelligence, and Pinn was only slightly more intelligent than yeast.
‘Are you coming?’ Pinn asked impatiently, eager to shoot something.
‘After you,’ said Crake, barely concealing his disdain.
Pinn went off up the passageway. Behind him, the man embedded in the wall peeled away and slumped into the corridor. Crake focused all his concentration on keeping his supper where it was meant to be.
He found Ashua at his shoulder, the ginger-haired, tattooed girl from the slums and most recent addition to the crew. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘You know Awakeners. They’re pushovers.’
‘Unless they’ve got Imperators on board,’ Crake said.
‘On a craft like this? Doubt it,’ she said. She gave him a pat on the shoulder. ‘Besides, that’s what we’ve got you here for, isn’t it?’
Crake laughed nervously and stepped over the dead man, doing his best not to look.
They caught up to the others just as they were preparing to burst into a room off the passageway. The door was shut, and Frey and Malvery had taken position on either side. Bess was around the corner, terrorising those Sentinels who hadn’t run far enough the first time.
Frey gave the nod to the doctor, who pulled the sliding metal door open. Screams of fright came from within. Frey peered inside, then relaxed and waved to the others. Silo, Ashua and Jez covered the passageway while Frey, Pinn and Malvery went in. Once Crake had judged it was safe, he followed.
It was a small assembly chamber, with' benches arranged in rows and screwed into the floor, facing a low platform. Huddled against one wall were a group of Awakeners. They were mostly women and old men, wearing the beige cassocks of Speakers, the Awakeners’ rank-and-file preachers. Each of them had the Cipher tattooed on their forehead.
‘Calm down,’ Frey was saying, as he checked between the benches. ‘No one’s getting hurt. We’re just after, your stuff.’ He had one hand held up reassuringly, while the other pointed a pistol at them. It was a rather contradictory message, in Crake’s opinion.
‘We don’t have anything!’ protested one young woman. ‘We’re Speakers. We only spread the word of the Allsoul.’
‘Really?’ Frey cocked his head. ‘Word has it you lot have been transporting all your relics and valuables from your hermitages to a hidden base on the coast, ’cause you’re afraid the Archduke will get hold of them. You wouldn’t have any on board, would you?’
The group stayed quiet. Frey and Malvery slipped between the benches and approached them.
‘Listen,’ said Malvery, in a friendly fashion. ‘We’re gonna ransack the place anyway. Save us some time, eh?’
‘Those relics are the property of the Allsoul!’ snapped one old man, bald and wrinkled like a turtle.
Frey grabbed him by the collar and pulled him out of the crowd. ‘And you just volunteered to tell me where they are.’
‘I’ll never tell!’ he declared shrilly.
Malvery cranked his lever-action shotgun and pressed it to the side of the old man’s head.
‘Follow the corridor! Third door on the left!’
‘Thanks,’ said Frey, giving him a slap on the shoulder. He turned to Pinn. ‘Keep an eye on ’em. We’ll go get the loot.’
Pinn looked appalled. ‘Why me?’
‘Because you’re who I asked. Just do it. Can’t have them running about all over the place.’
Pinn cursed and kicked one of the benches, then went very quiet, bit his lip and tried to pretend he hadn’t almost broken his toe. Frey and Malvery headed off out the door. Crake moved to follow them.
‘You!’ said the old man suddenly. Crake realised that the Speaker was pointing at him. ‘Are you responsible for that thing out there?’
If only you knew how responsible, thought Crake. But the old man’s tone inspired defiance and a quiet anger. He turned calmly to face his accuser. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am.’
The crowd muttered in horror. The old man sneered. ‘I thought so. None of these others had the look. How do you live with yourself, daemonist? What bargains have you made with the unnatural?’
‘Your own Imperators are daemons,’ Crake said. ‘Haven’t you heard?’
‘Lies, perpetrated by daemonists like you,’ said the Speaker, waving a gnarled hand to brush the words aside. ‘You’ve always despised and feared the Awakeners.’
‘You have hanged quite a lot of us,’ Crake pointed out. Then he grinned nastily, and his gold tooth glinted in the faint glow of the emergency lights. ‘Unfortunately for you, you missed one.’
Pinn listened to the distant gunfire with a resentful scowl on his face. The others were all out there having fun while he was stuck with guard duty. On top of that, his toe hurt like buggery. It was all so bloody unfair.
He leaned against the wall of the assembly chamber, shotgun cradled in his arms. The Speakers watched him fearfully, huddled together like sheep. He glared at them, blaming them for the whole woeful situation.
One of them, a man in his sixties who still had a full head of blond hair, cleared his throat. ‘We’re not men of violence, friend,’ he ventured.
‘Well, maybe you should learn,’ said Pinn. ‘Stop people like us robbing you.’
‘What I mean is, there’s no need for the gun. We won’t cause any trouble.’
Pinn hefted the shotgun in his arms and made a show of studying it. ‘What, this? You want me to put it away?’
The blond Speaker nodded hopefully.
‘But what if I want to shoot one of you?’ Pinn asked.
The Speaker’s face fell, and some of the women gasped. Pinn’s lips curved into a nasty smirk. He wasn’t above enjoying a little cheap bullying now and then.
‘I’ll tell you why you won’t give me any trouble,’ he said. He brandished the shotgun to show them, patting the barrel for emphasis. ‘Because this little baby will put a hole in you big enough to—‘
He was interrupted by a deafening boom as the shotgun went off in his hands, blowing a chunk, out of the bench next to him. The Speakers all began to scream at once, falling over each other in their desperation to get away from him. Pinn was no less panicked. He chambered a new round and pointed his weapon at the crowd.
‘Stop screaming!’ he screamed, desperate to shut them up. But all they saw was a pudgy red-faced man waving a shotgun at them, and that made them scream all the more. They scattered across the room, scrambling for cover, tripping over their cassocks.
Not knowing what else to do, Pinn ran away. He fled clumsily over the benches, through the door, and yanked it shut behind him.
Out in the passageway, he leaned against the wall, catching his breath. He needed a moment to get over his fright. The freighter was quiet and deserted in Bess’s wake. Even the gunfire in the distance had stopped. He listened as the screams from the assembly room gradually died down.
A movement to his left made him bring up his shotgun sharply. But it was only Silo, sauntering round the corner. He regarded Pinn with a long, slow stare. Emergency lights reflected in dim arcs from his shaven skull.
‘Cap’n asked me to check on you,’ he rumbled.
Pinn raised a hand. ‘All under control,’ he said breezily.
Silo stared at him a moment longer, then turned and disappeared without a word.
Pinn blew out his cheeks, waited a few moments, then opened the door again. There were yelps of fear from the cowering Speakers. He held up one hand as he entered the room, the shotgun dangling from the other.
‘Everybody calmed down a bit?’ he said. ‘Good.’
He shut the door behind him, then walked over to the low platform where he could command a good view of the room. The Speakers’ eyes followed him from their hiding places behind the benches.
‘Now, as I was saying,’ he continued, in a soothing tone suitable for explaining things to infants and particularly dull domestic animals. ‘This shotgun here, it’ll put a hole in you big enough to fly a frigate through. So if everyone will just—’
Someone shrieked in the audience, and one woman slumped to the floor in a dead faint. Pinn looked down and realised he was patting his shotgun again.
‘Oh, right.’ He stopped patting it and held it up instead. ‘Hair-trigger. Very sensitive. Better watch out.’
At the far end of the room, one of the Speakers slowly stood up, her hands in the air. She had a cloth satchel hanging from one shoulder. ‘May I approach?’ she asked.
Pinn had never had anyone ask him that before. It made him feel rather grand. ‘If you like,’ he said.
She made her way out from the benches and walked up the aisle on one side of the room. As she got closer, Pinn got a better look at her. She was young, about his age, with chin-length strawberry-blonde hair and wide, honest eyes. Despite her lack of make-up and the unflattering cassock she wore, Pinn decided she was really quite attractive. It was a pity she had a great big Cipher tattooed in black on her forehead. It seemed like a waste of a good face.
She lowered her hands as she came closer, and spoke softly. ‘What’s your name, brother?’
‘I’m not your brother,’ Pinn replied. Mostly because it would make the things he was imagining into incest.
She smiled anyway. ‘We are all brothers and sisters in the Allsoul. Each of us is connected, each a part of its great code, its wonderful communication.’
Pinn meant to tell her to shut up, that he couldn’t stand the Awakeners’ religious babble and he wasn’t interested in becoming a convert. But she was cute, so the words came out as: ‘Really? Tell me more.’
‘I’ll show you,’ she said. She laid a hand on the cloth satchel she carried. ‘If I may?’
He waved his assent with the barrel of his shotgun. To her credit, her flinch was barely noticeable.
She stepped up onto the platform and joined him. ‘My name is Marinda,’ she said.
‘Artis Pinn,’ he replied absently. He was curious to see what she was going to do next.
The other Speakers watched from behind the pews as Marinda drew out a small, shallow wooden saucer, a metal flask and a long needle. She knelt down and poured some of the flask into the saucer, until it was full of milk.
‘A saucer of milk?’ Pinn asked, confused. ‘Is your god a cat or something?’
‘Silly,’ said Marinda indulgently. She picked up the saucer and held it in one hand, fingers spread underneath. In the other hand she held the needle. ‘The Allsoul isn’t a god. Gods belonged to the old, primitive religions, in the days before King Andreal dictated the Cryptonomieon. The Allsoul is the wind and the water, the harmonies of song, the flight of butterflies and the stirring of the earth. The Allsoul is the great system of interconnectedness, a being formed of all the processes of the world. It is the planet we live on, and we are its greatest triumph.’
‘Not a cat, then?’
‘No. Well, yes, I mean, cats are part of the Allsoul too, just like birds and—’
‘So your god is a cat?’
The slightest hint of frustration crept into her voice. ‘Not just a cat.’
‘So why the saucer of milk?’
She took a deep breath. Pinn had the distinct impression that she was silently counting to ten. When she was done, she smiled sweetly and held up the needle.
‘I need a drop of your blood.’
Pinn was startled. ‘What for?’
‘The will of the Allsoul makes itself known to us through signs. Things that seem random are not random at all. A Speaker has learned to interpret those signs. Some do it by calculating important numbers in your life. Some do it by turning cards. The Allsoul speaks to me through the swirl of blood in milk. Give me a drop of your blood, and I will tell you your future.’
Pinn snorted. ‘You’re gonna tell my future?’
‘You don’t believe me,’ she said, with a knowing quirk of her mouth. ‘That’s alright. You will.’
The confidence in her voice unsettled him. ‘Listen, right. You’re pretty and all, which is the only reason I’ve listened to you this far, but if you think I’m going to let you stab me with a—’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
That stumped him. ‘Thank you for what?’
‘It’s kind of you to say I’m pretty.’
‘Well,’ he shrugged. ‘Still, I—’
‘It’s a pity you have someone waiting for you.’
Pinn gaped. ‘How did you know about Emanda?’ He felt almost guilty to be reminded of his sweetheart when he’d just been thinking deviant thoughts about the woman in front of him.
Marinda just gazed at him with those wide, honest eyes, letting him draw his own conclusion. Then she held up the bowl and the needle. ‘Give me your finger,’ she said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ he scoffed. She waited expectantly. Pinn realised that, having said so, he was now required to prove it.
‘Fine,’ he sulked. He looked out over the assembly room. Suddenly he felt like the unwilling victim of a stage magician. He brandished his shotgun in one hand. ‘Don’t anyone try anything! Remember what this gun can do! Big enough to fly a frigate through!’
Once he was satisfied his audience was sufficiently cowed, he held his finger out to Marinda. She positioned the wooden saucer beneath it and aimed the needle at the tip of his finger.
‘Hold still,’ she said, and jabbed him.
Pinn had never been stabbed in the fingertip by a needle before. The pain was unexpectedly enormous. He yelled an elaborate curse at the top of his lungs, and only just managed to rein in the impulse to shoot her.
She ignored him, stepping back, her eyes fixed on the saucer. There was considerably more than a drop of his blood in the milk. His finger was squirting enthusiastically. He stuck it in his mouth.
‘You pierced my damn artery!’ he cried, but she couldn’t understand him because he was sucking his finger at the time. She held up a hand and Pinn shut up. Half of him was convinced he was dying of a mortal wound, but the other half wanted to know what kind of prediction she was about to make.
‘You’re going on a journey,’ she said, studying the saucer. ‘Somewhere you’ve never been before.’ She frowned. ‘I see death.’
‘The good kind, or the kind that happens to me?’
‘Don’t interrupt. I see death. That’s all.’
‘Okay,’ said Pinn, although privately he was a little put out. The specifics were sort of important.
‘I see a stranger with dark hair.’
‘Is she hot?’
‘It’s a man.’
‘You will find something. Something important. Something you never knew was there.’
Pinn was relieved. ‘I reckon I can’t be dead, then. Not if I’m busy finding stuff.’
Her face turned grave. ‘Tragedy will fall on someone you hold dear.’
He was suddenly worried again. ‘Is it Emanda?’
‘The signs are unclear. But one thing is certain. When all these things have come to pass… you will believe.’
Their eyes met. Pinn felt himself held, caught by the certainty within, the challenge he saw there.
Then the door of the assembly chamber was suddenly pulled open, and someone called his name: He jumped and discharged his shotgun into the platform at his feet with a terrifying roar. Marinda recoiled from him with a shriek, blood and milk spilling everywhere. The Speakers disappeared behind the benches like rabbits into their holes.
Frey was standing in the doorway. He surveyed the scene with one eyebrow raised. Pinn became suddenly aware that he was standing at the head of the room as if he was the leader of a congregation.
‘I won’t ask,’ Frey said. ‘We’re done here. Let’s go.’

UK version