I want to open with a wave and a grin to my new friends in Canada.
Sales of the Markhat Files via Kobo are picking up, and Canadians are leading the pack. I hope you all enjoy the books, and welcome to the blog.
I visited Canada once. It was a brief visit, but I loved the place.
The new Markhat book is chugging along. So far, I've thrown Rannit into chaos, as the Summer of Monsters sees every kind of supernatural beast imaginable wandering the streets by night.
Of course, the Rannites are enduring this onslaught in traditional Rannite style by greeting the new arrivals with determined mayhem. Then they go about their business by day, because most of them simply don't have the option to leave. The Churches are in a frenzy, the Watch is outnumbered and close to collapse, and the Army has been assigned to defend the wealthy neighborhoods while the poor are left to stave off werewolves with butter-knives.
All of which may or may not reflect certain situations close to home. But that's irrelevant -- it's going to be a good book.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter One. It doesn't contain any spoilers the title doesn't already hint at. Hope you enjoy it!
THE DEVIL'S HORN
I sent Slim off with a cab to accompany Darla home. Slim travels these days with a steel club in his furry right hand and a shiny black scattergun strapped across his back. The new arrivals to Rannit’s streets and alleys give an armed Troll wide berth no matter how many teeth or claws they themselves have.
I took another cab back to Cambrit.
The street outside my office was empty, save for a few people hurrying home. Even Mr. Bull was tucked safely inside, though I did see him peek out at me as I arrived. Someone had slipped half a dozen letters under my door. Each was sealed with red wax and the imprint of a fancy ring.
I threw them all out in the street.
Three Leg greeted me with a brief glance and a switch of his crooked tail. There was a note from Gertriss on my desk asking what I’d done to anger so many priests.
I put my hat in easy reach and settled into my chair, curious as to what the masks at Wherthmore might try next. Thunder grumbled, distant but filled with threat.
An hour passed, and full dark fell, before a soft polite knock sounded at my door.
“Mr. Markhat,” said a familiar voice. “Might I have a moment of your time?”
I was so surprised I forgot to put on my hat.
Standing out there in the dark was old Father Wickens, the aging priest who’d married Darla and I when we thought the world was ending.
He was alone. No carriage waited at the curb. No Church bullies loitered at his heels.
“Father Wickens,” I said. I flung open my door. “Come in.”
He did, with the careful gait of the old.
Wickens was the only priest I’d ever known who eschewed the mask of the Church. He needed a walking stick but didn’t carry one of those, either, and I wondered if it was because he didn’t want a stick confused with a church man’s staff.
He’d seen a few years since my wedding. His back was stooped a bit lower, his forehead lined with a few more wrinkles. But his blue eyes were bright and sharp.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling and crossing to my client’s chair. He didn’t sit immediately, instead turning to face me as I latched my door.
“I must first offer my apologies, as a man of peace,” he said. “My brethren were arrogant and rude. I am sorry for that.”
I bade him to sit. It was dawning on me the man had walked the whole way from Wherthmore.
“You aren’t responsible for their actions,” I said, sitting. “I was no model of decorum myself.”
He guffawed. “So I hear. I’ve never liked Father Chide, Mr. Markhat. Goodness, no. So I suppose we have that sin in common.” His eyes twinkled. “Sadly, though, I find myself bent upon completing the very same task as the unfortunate Father Chide.”
I nodded. “You’re here to hire me?”
“I am. On a matter both urgent and dire.” He sighed, slumping in my chair. “I am torn, my son. Ordered by my superiors to engage you in this task. But directed by my conscience to suggest that you refuse it. I believe even hearing my plea may place you in grave peril.”
I’d have laughed at anyone else for saying that. But not the slight old gentleman before me.
“You came a long way to talk to me, Father. You’re the only priest I’ll listen to. If I refuse, they’ll just keep sending you. Spill it.”
He sighed. “I feared as much.” Thunder rolled again, closer this time. I lit a pair of lamps as the storm waded in, bearing who knows what new terrors in its skirts.
“It all began in the catacombs,” said Father Wickens. “The excavations beneath Wherthmore,” he added.
“I didn’t know we had any,” I said.
“Nor did I, until today,” replied the Father. “They’ve been kept secret for the better part of a thousand years. The digging never ceases.” He shuddered. It wasn’t cold.
“Father, I realize I’ll probably go to ten or twelve Hells just for saying this, but can I pour you a drink?”
“Damned right you can,” replied the Father. Even Three Leg looked up, his slitted yellow eyes suddenly alert. “Not one for a nervous old priest, either. Pour me a man’s drink. A frightened man’s drink.”
I did just that. Whiskey, dark and strong. He gulped it down without blinking, and waited a moment for it to get settled in his gut.
The storm lit up my door’s glass with flashes. Thunder followed, lingering and ominous. Something with hooves ran past in the street, gibbering and hooting. I hoped Slim and Darla were safely aboard Dasher, with Cornbread curled up at their feet.
“You know the Book, do you not?” he asked, in a pause of the storm. “The story of Creation?”
I nodded, took a companionable sip of my own whiskey. “God and the Devil create Heaven, the world, and Hell, then get into a slug-match over who did the best job,” I said. “When the dust settles, God and the Devil are both dead. Only Angels and lesser devils survived.”
“I was never a literalist,” replied Father Wickens. “I maintained, privately of course, that the stories were mere allegory. Told to teach, to reveal wisdom.” He pondered his empty glass. I helped him avoid the sin of asking for more by pouring it unbidden. He didn’t argue, but he did drink it down.
“They’re just that, Father,” I said. “Stories. Maybe there’s wisdom there. I don’t know. But talking snakes? Flaming swords?” I shook my head. “Just stories.”
The old priest regarded me solemnly in the lamplight. “I have seen things today that cause me to wonder,” he said, at last. “Do you know why Wherthmore, and the other four Church mainholds, chose to build where they did?”
I shrugged. Mom had dragged all us Markhats to Wherthmore twice a week, but I’d spent more time pondering what lay beneath lady Angel’s robes than I had listening to the priests drone on. “Cheap land?” I said.
He barked out a single dry snort of laughter. “No, Mr. Markhat. Each site was chosen because each Church was sure they were building directly atop the spot where the final battle of Creation took place.”
Something bumped my door. I hadn’t heard footsteps. Didn’t see anything through the thick glass. But outside, claws began to scratch at the oak, and something began to breathe heavily from its exertions, the sound of it wet and eager.
I put my revolver down on my desk with a thump. Father Wickens offered up a quick prayer.
“That door has stopped Trolls, and worse,” I said. “Whatever is out there isn’t getting in. Go on.”
“The excavations began immediately, of course,” said the Father. “I am told the first finds were discovered by Wherthmore some seven hundred years ago.”
“The first finds,” I said, keeping my voice steady, though I felt the tickle of magic crawl up and down my spine. “Seven hundred years ago.”
He nodded. “Bones. They were not human, Mr. Markhat. Not even remotely. Some were human sized, more or less, oh yes. Some were gargantuan. I saw –”
The thing outside began pounding at my door. It screeched, more birdlike than lupine or canine.
“Beat it,” I yelled. “We’re closed.”
Damned if it didn’t emit a short piercing screech, as if struck, before scrambling quickly away.
The good Father regarded me warily.
“There are rumors you have been soiled with sorcery,” he said.
“There are rumors I’m everything from a vampire to the Regent’s illegitimate son,” I snapped. “I’ve made a lot of enemies. People love to talk. You were talking about bones, of the gargantuan variety.”
He nodded. His hand shook. More whiskey found its way to his glass.
“Today, I saw a skull,” he said, wiping his lips. “I tell you this true, Mr. Markhat. I saw a single skull, three stories high.”
“Whoah there, Father.” I corked the whiskey bottle. “Let’s maybe take a minute to clear our heads.”
That pissed him off. He slammed both his bony hands down on my desk and shot to his feet.
“As the Angel Maria, patron of lovers and fools is my witness, finder, I saw a skull three stories tall,” he shouted. “I know it sounds insane. I would not have believed it either, had I not descended. Had I not seen.” He slumped back down in his chair, his hands on his face. “Oh, would that I had not seen.”
I let him catch his breath. It took a few minutes. One thing I’ve learned, from watching people relive horrors while seated in in my chair.
You don’t push. You don’t rush.
“The excavation has cleared approximately four hundred acres of battleground,” he said, at last. “Some three thousand sets of skeletal remains have been revealed.”
“Devils?” I asked, softly. “Angels?”
He shook his head. “Both, they believe. Alongside creatures we cannot begin to name. It’s all true, Markhat. The battle. The Fall. God slain, the Adversary dead. Creation left adrift. All of it.”
He cried then.
I sipped whiskey.
The storm raged on, unperturbed by gods or devils or sad old priests.
“I’m still not clear on what all this has to do with hiring a finder,” I said, after a time. “Sounds like the Church, at least the high levels, has known about this since the rise of the Old Kingdom. Even if it is news to you and me.”
“Oh, it was news to me, Mr. Markhat. I’ve spent my life in the Church. I had no idea. None at all.” He blinked, trying to clear his head, I guessed. “They told me only because they believed you might speak to me.”
“I’m sorry for that,” I said. “So. You believe the Church has located the buried remains of the Creation Battle. The Church wants to hire me – to do what? Go down there and come trotting back up with God’s Own Sword? What?”
He shook his head. “Twenty years ago, Mr. Markhat, archeologists began work on revealing the occupant of parcel nine-ninety-four,” he said. He bit his lip for a moment. “Heaven help me, Mr. Markhat, but they unearthed the remains of the Devil himself. Not a devil. The devil. The Horned One. The Adversary.”
I bit back whatever I was about to say.
“I know it sounds incredible. Especially to man outside the faith. But Mr. Markhat, I have reason to believe it is fact. The Devil’s remains were discovered.”
“Horns and pitchfork and barbed tail too?”
“The fork was reduced to a molten puddle.”
I leaned back.
“I know full well the struggle to believe a word I’ve said, Mr. Markhat. I didn’t believe it either, when I was summoned to the Primate’s chambers.” He shook his head. “I didn’t begin to believe until I saw it all for myself, just a few hours ago. Which is why I’ve come to fetch you. To accompany you, into the deep chambers. Show you the excavations. The remains. All of it.”
“So far you’ve told me what you’ve found,” I said. “Now quit stalling, Father. Tell me what you’ve lost.”
“The Devil’s horn,” he said, without hesitation. The words came spilling out. “The left was missing, just as the Book said, crushed by God with his final blow. The right horn was intact, when the remains were discovered. It has been removed, by parties unknown.” Thunder blasted, and the old man jumped.
“So. The Church found what appears to be the actual site of some battle from the Book. Including Old Scratch’s bones. And now one of them is missing.”
“This is no mere bone, Mr. Markhat. The horn retained a shadow – perhaps more – of the power of Hell. The Church was preparing to move it to a place of safety, where its influence would never be felt in our world, where it would never be rediscovered, or fall into the wrong hands.”
I whistled, imagining the scuffle that would result if any of our nut-case sorcerers from the arcane side of town got wind of a devil’s horn for the taking.
“Someone stole it?”
Father Wickens nodded a yes. “Stole it. Slaughtered the entire company of soldiers and priests guarding it. Murdered forty-six excavators and an equal number of scholars, all in the space of a single hour. All our divine protections negated. Every physical and magical safeguard circumvented or destroyed. Whomever stole the horn commanded resources that rival, or perhaps exceed, those of the Church itself.”
That shiver made another circuit up and down my spine.
“Another Church, then.”
“No. I do not believe so. Our misguided brethren of the other Churches would not act with such wanton disregard for life.”
I snorted. Father Wickens scowled. “We are not all of us Father Chide,” he retorted.
“Sorry, Father. You’re right. But tell me this – why would anyone outside the Churches or a sorcerer want the horn? You said it retained some power. What kind of power?”
“The power to command the infernal. Finder, you know the story, do you not? That the chief minions of Hell fell beside their stricken master, with the survivors being entombed far below the surface?”
“I know it. You telling me that part is real too?”
He gestured toward my door. “What everyone is calling the Summer of Monsters began a few days after the theft of the horn,” he said. “You tell me, finder. Has not Hell been loosed upon us? Does not evil walk now, in numbers that swell each night?”
“Can’t argue with that.” I could, of course. My knowledge of the magical seasons told me the rise of wild magic was no more related to devils or horns than was the weather. But revealing that would also reveal my tainting by sorcery, and I decided the good Father had endured enough surprises for one stormy evening.
“We must locate the horn, finder. Our own efforts have failed. The Church spent months pouring every resource at its disposal into the search. We have learned nothing. Now, Hell is opening beneath us, only a crack now, but soon a chasm. We fear a flood of devils, one that will wash across the lands and leave nothing living in its wake.”
“So tell all this to the Regent. If you’re right, he might be the only creature alive capable of actually laying hands on the horn. I’m just a man, Father Wickens. I’ve got an impressive collection of hats and I can hit what I shoot at about half the time, but if the Church can’t throw enough money and people at finding this old bone, what makes you think I can?”
I’ve seen that look before. It’s the look people get when I ask them that one question they simply aren’t willing to answer with anything except a bald-faced lie.
Bless dear old Father Wickens, though. He was so unskilled at deceit he didn’t know what to do or say next.
“Father. Last I heard, lying is a sin. As is lying by omission,” I said. “So whatever it is you’re trying to avoid telling me is probably the very thing you ought to tell. Spill it. Let’s not ruin a wonderful friendship.”
“We went to the Regent,” he said, his voice pitched so low I could barely hear him over the storm. “Yes. The Church is just that desperate.”
“And the Regent turned you down?”
“I am told he had only two words to offer the Primate,” replied the Father.
“I can guess what they were,” I said.
The old priest shook his head. “No. You can’t. Because what he said was ‘Hire Markhat.’”
It was my turn to freeze.
I will get this book out by Fall. I'm typing as fast as I can...
IMPROVED BOOK COVERS
Here are a few more improved book covers for your amusement. People seem to like these, so I'll keep desecrating timeless works of literature.