Our epic fantasy novel, The Best Weapon, is due for release on 19 February on kindle and paperback. Until that date, you can still enter our giveaway for the chance to win a free paperback copy by going to Goodreads. Below is an excerpt from the book:
THE BEST WEAPON
Every faith in the living world had a different notion of Hell and the Lords who ruled over it.
The Lords of Hell were commonly thought of as brothers, twin demons embodying all the human vices. Men named them Screwfate and Lockjaw, the Lord of Crows and the Lord of Lies, Scraper and Biter, Baron Foul and King Claw, the Pickers of Carrion…these titles and many more, for the Lords were known and feared in every part of the inhabited world.
Some said they sat beneath the roots of the Tree of Life, spinning webs of deceit. Others had it that they lurked in the depths of the painted caves from which men first emerged. One bizarre minor faith taught that they lived inside an underwater grotto constructed from their mother’s bones, playing chess and bickering over whose turn it was to make the tea.
All these things were true, depending on what a person believed. For their part, the Lords had their own idea of what Hell looked like, and so dwelled in it.
In the lowest circle of Hell, below the unmentionable caverns where the very worst of human souls were kept, stood the Chamber of Twin Thrones. There, in a cavern lit by eternal fires, were two mighty chairs forged of iron and decorated with sheets of human skin. The chairs faced each other, and between them sat a table constructed of human bones. Nothing went to waste in Hell.
Carved into the tabletop was a map of the living world, known to gods and men as the World Apparent. Beside the map sat boxes of unused chess pieces, representing humans who had died and, thus, were no longer in the game.
The Lords were occupied with a game, and had chosen to be vaguely man-shaped for the day. For the sake of variety, Screwfate wore a face resembling a pig, while Lockjaw looked something like a carnivorous monkey.
For the first time since their exile from the Celestial Sphere, the brothers were frightened.
“We cannot run, and we cannot fight,” mumbled Screwfate through his tusks. “What are we to do?”
Lockjaw wrinkled up his nose and thought. “We could stay here and die,” he grunted in reply, “but I do not want to do that. Not pleasant would be the manner of our deaths.”
Screwfate nodded. “But what can we do to avoid the grisly fate, the snapping bones? What weapons are left to us?”
Lockjaw held up one clawed hand and reached into the velvety fabric of space, drawing out a handful of wet clay.
“The last of our clay,” said Screwfate. He picked up the end of his long tail and chewed on it nervously. “Are you sure? We swore never to create any more man-things. The other man-things kept killing them.”
Screwfate spoke truth. He and his brother had only a certain amount of clay with which to shape life. But the creatures they made were tainted by the evil of their creators and brought nothing but ruin and misery to the world. Witches, they were called by men, and every one of them had been hunted down and executed.
“We must take more care this time,” said Lockjaw. “We should give our children pleasing shapes and the ability to win affection. Their true nature will remain hidden, even to them, until it is time.”
At that moment the walls of Hell shuddered and there was a rumble of distant thunder. Screwfate dropped his tail and began to weep in terror.
“Give me some clay,” he begged.
And so the Lords shaped two human embryos with their clay. They chose to make them male, for men were easier to control and deceive than women. Then they baked the embryos in the searing heat of their hands and breathed life into them.
The Lords studied the board. After some argument, punctuated by grunts and snorts, they decided that the embryos should be placed inside the wombs of two women living on opposite sides of the map.
“Their true natures shall not be detected by the other man-things,” said Lockjaw, “until fate draws them together.”
“And we shall be saved,” said Screwfate.
The Lords snickered at their own cleverness and sent the last of their children into the world.
Eighteen years passed.
PART I: TRIALS
In the vast tropical rainforest which lay in the warm lands to the south of the Girdle Sea lived the Djanki.
The Djanki were a warrior tribe who believed their gods created them for their own amusement and that, if they didn’t keep them suitably entertained, the gods would abandon them as a child discards a toy. Firm in this conviction, the Djanki made war on everyone around them.
They fought the Sharib, who dwelled in the Southern Sands, the desert to the west of the jungle. They fought the wild savages to their north-east. And they bullied the smaller jungle tribes who lived further south
The Djanki believed that, on a certain day every fifty years, the gods would place a child in the belly of a Djanki woman. Every boy born on that day, when he reached his eighteenth year, would be marched to the great temple where the tribal shamans lived. There the shamans would take a potent hallucinogen called tunka, and dance and writhe around the line of young warriors until they converged, with shaking fingers and loud shrieks, on just one.
Thus the Djanki found their living god.
The Chosen Son, as they called him, would be washed and painted, then worshipped for ten days, during which time the tribal elders would celebrate and the young warriors would undergo a series of dangerous trials.
On the tenth day, the Chosen Son was washed and painted for a final time, then set loose in the forest and hunted to his death. His body would be brought back to the Djanki chief and burned, releasing him to join his fellow gods.
* * * *
Naiyar awoke to the sounds of the tribes-people preparing for the most important day of their lives. As he stirred slowly in his hammock, stretching, yawning, and rubbing his eyes, all around him was a hive of activity.
“Did you sleep well? Are you ready to face the gods? Are you hungry?”
Naiyar blinked up at his father, Lokee, who was offering him a breakfast of barbecued tarantulas, figs, and a steaming pot of tea.
“No, I did not sleep well. Torches lit. People chattering and cleaning and chanting all night.” He sat up, took the wicker bowl from his father, plucked a tarantula from the charred pile and bit off a leg. “I am hungry though, thank you.”
“And what of my second question, boy? Are you ready to face the gods?”
Naiyar stuffed a piece of arachnid into his mouth. “I am ready to face the shamans.”
Lokee shook his head. “The shamans are but the receptacles of the gods. If someone hands you a gourd of mead, you do not think, ‘Oh look, a gourd.’ No. You take the gourd with gratitude because it is full of a sweet, heady liquid which will fuzz your head and tingle your balls. You do not even consider the gourd.”
“Gourds don’t foam at the mouth and flash their members at people.”
Lokee raised his eyebrows and gasped in mock surprise, gave a snort of laughter and ruffled Naiyar’s hair. “It is natural that you do not take the ritual seriously—you are too young to understand its importance. But when you stand on that platform with the whole tribe watching and see the hope and awe in their faces, you may feel differently. I was not lucky enough to be born at the right time, so I had to be content with being a warrior. Perhaps it is easier to be a warrior.”
Lokee paused and said thoughtfully, “Today, Naiyar, you may become a god. At the very least you will witness the making of a god. Either way, today will be the most important day of your life. And mine. And every one of us.” Lokee looked at the hand which had ruffled Naiyar’s hair and wrinkled his nose. “And right now you’re filthier than a sloth’s ass. I have my work cut out if I am to make you presentable by noon.”
Naiyar rolled his eyes and stood so his mother could begin fussing over him.
She washed him, painted his face with intricate orange and blue patterns, drew his hair back and braided it, all the while raving about the gods, calling it a blessed day for the tribe, reminding him to follow ceremonial etiquette.
“You must be silent when you are led to the temple,” she said, fastening a cape to his shoulders, “and contemplate what it is to even have the chance of becoming a god. You must remember to walk upright and not let your headdress drop or your cape snag—that’s very important. And you must—you must, Naiyar!—look the shamans in the eyes, no matter how wild they seem. Today,” she handed him a cumbersome headdress and sniffed loudly, “is the most important day of your life.”
Right, thought Naiyar. The most important day of my life.
On and on she talked, not so much a conversation as a monologue. Another annoyance Naiyar had to endure until the day was over and he could get on with his life, safe in the knowledge that if he did live to see this ceremony again, he would be an elder and expected to do nothing but eat and drink and make dirty jokes.
He did wonder, as he attempted to balance the headdress atop his head, what it would be like to be a god—to gaze down on his own people and have the power to do whatever he liked for his own amusement. He would listen to no one…except, of course the shamans with their endless prayers and chants.
Would he get no peace? Would it be like lying in his hammock at night listening to the frogs? Or sitting here now, listening to his mother, Salla? (He wondered when she would take a breath. If he was a god she would never be out of ear-shot. Would he still be powerless to answer back?)
He flinched. It was a hollow, unearthly voice—distant but clear.
A different voice, but with the same thin, lucid quality.
He glanced around but no one else seemed to have heard it. Salla continued to chatter.
Suddenly, the sound of many voices at once boomed in his head like a group of people chanting in unison, echoing in a great hall. The voices called to him insistently, filling his mind so he could hear nothing else.
His head reeled.
He felt dizzy. His heart beat fast and cold sweat formed on his skin.
Salla was speaking.
“How do you expect me to get this great headdress on straight if you do not sit still? Of course, your father could help, but what is he doing? Smoking with his friends and scratching himself and pretending to be important. Honestly, if it weren’t for the women in this tribe, there would be no food, no mead, and no boys ready for the ceremony. Then where would we be?”
Naiyar looked around as Salla launched into another lecture. The voices seemed to have stopped as suddenly as they had begun.
He felt his heartbeat slow and he gradually took control of his senses. What had he heard? Did no one else hear it? Even Salla should have heard such an earth-shattering cacophony. He felt queasy now and unsure of what had happened, whether it had been his imagination or the result of nerves he didn’t even know he had.
Nerves. That was it. He was more nervous than he thought.
He took a deep breath and calmed himself. Just nerves. Nothing more.
Suddenly, he could not wait until this day was over.
* * * *
Naiyar walked silently in the procession of teenage boys to the temple, the permanent abode of the tribe’s shamans. There were thirty and they spent all their time inside the temple, bending their minds with the drugs they concocted from ingredients gathered from the jungle and, so they said, sending their souls on journeys into the spirit world.
The twenty boys walked slowly, encumbered by their ceremonial headdresses and capes, sweating in the humid jungle heat. The journey seemed endless. The path to the temple ran steadily uphill, getting steeper as they went. The whole tribe lined the path on either side in a chorus of intense spiritual fervour. Naiyar had never taken this ceremony seriously, but now he understood the power of his tribe’s beliefs.
The noise was deafening as he and the others trudged up the long, muddy path toward the temple. Everywhere he looked there was an expression of profound worship and joy. To his right, a leather-faced old lady, withered bosoms hanging to her waist, her head tilted back to face the sky with her eyes tightly shut, chanted rhythmically as she bobbed and swayed. To his left, a younger woman on her knees, her back arched and her arms flung wide, seemed to scream her song at him, tears streamed down her cheeks. Next was an elder, his knotted grey dreadlocks hung to his ankles as he played a beat on a set of drums with his palms.
And so the procession finally approached the temple, where the shamans waited.
Small wonder the shamans behaved so strangely, when they spent all their time in limbo between this world and another. They held none of the values of the “normal” members of the tribe. They didn’t wash, they shunned daylight, and they had none of the comforts of the elders, such as flowers, women, and mead. They survived on the daily delivery of food from the tribe’s women, but they were painfully thin, with papery skin stretched over pointy ribs and hollow, drawn cheeks smeared with all manner of paints.
And they stank. The smell of the temple was overpowering. It was the smell of decay—indeed, to Naiyar the shamans looked like corpses animated by some clumsy magician. Their movements were jerky and erratic. Their faces were contorted into hideous, toothless grimaces with lolling tongues and glaring eyes which rolled back into their heads. Their emaciated bodies performed a convulsive dance which looked more like a seizure, or the death-throes of the victim of some nerve toxin, shaking and foaming at the mouth.
As the boys laboriously made their way up the steepening path, the temple came into view between the trees, towering above them. The very sight of that timeless, colossal body of stone was intimidating.
No one knew how long ago the temple had been built, or by whom. It was truly huge, each stone twice the height of a man. Moss covered the surface; vines and creepers wrapped themselves around it many times over, creating nooks and crannies and bowls which filled with rainwater, platforms where bromeliads, orchids, lichens, and ferns clung and dripped with moisture from the humid air.
The temple reared up from the side of the hill and reached high into the sky. It seemed a very simple shape from the outside: a wide base, twenty blocks high, which leaned back to allow for a long set of steps which zigzagged its way up to the platform at the top. Beyond the platform was a great archway leading into the temple, which no one but the shamans could enter.
The incessant clamour of the tribe grew as the boys reached the steps leading up to the platform, and it felt like the whole world shook. Naiyar’s ears were filled with the roar of thousands of people in a state of hysteria. The ground vibrated with drumming, chanting, clapping, and the pounding of feet. The boys began to climb the steps to the platform where the shamans and the elders waited.
Naiyar’s ankles and feet ached from the march, and the heat and humidity were beginning to take their toll. As they slowly ascended, the sound of the tribe below them grew more distant and the air a touch fresher. That at least was a relief.
The boys finally reached the platform and were greeted with the solemn faces of the elders and the potent stench of the shamans, who were already beginning to work themselves into frenzy. The tribal chief, Kelta, watched from his litter at the edge of the platform, his beady black eyes studying the proceedings without a hint of emotion.
As they were lined up by the elders, facing the front of the temple to look down on the tribe, Naiyar gazed out across the jungle canopy.
He had never been up this high, for he had spent his life on the jungle floor or in the lower canopy. His mind was filled with a sudden wonder, a burning curiosity of what lay beyond the edges of the jungle. He had never before considered that there may be more to the world. Suddenly he felt claustrophobic at the thought of leaving the temple and going back into the dark, close jungle—whether as a warrior, a god, an elder, or whatever else they might tell him to be.
How big was his home? He had never even considered an end to the giant trees, the humid closeness, the heat, the rains, the floods, and the relentless sounds of frogs, insects, and birds. The space which opened out before him awakened something in him. He didn’t know what. All he knew was that he had suddenly been struck by desires he had never had, desires that did not include either of the two possibilities life had presented him—be chosen to join the gods he had never truly believed in, or avoid death and head back down into the jungle to spend the rest of his life yearning for something he had only just glimpsed, something beyond the deep blue sky and an endless carpet of green.
He had seen the horizon for the first time in his life—and with it, endless possibilities.
Once again Naiyar was stirred from his dreaming by the voices, whispering, calling him. He looked around as though he might be able to find the source. Was it his imagination that called him, or the manifestation of his own desires?
The voices persisted, and each time it seemed as though a different voice called him. A different personality. Sometimes more than one voice.
They will choose you, Naiyar.
He felt a shiver run up his spine. Was he hallucinating?
They will choose you, but you are not a god. Nor are you a man.
The shamans were well into their eerie dance, convulsing, foaming, gibbering, babbling in strange tongues, eyes rolling into their skulls, backs arching and faces contorting. They shuffled and writhed and spat, shrieking and gurgling. Up and down the line they walked.
Naiyar was sweating now, not just with the heat but with fear. It wasn’t that he had taken the voices at their word; it was more that they had planted in him the seed of a strange sort of knowing. Gradually, that seed grew so that as the dance went on he became increasingly certain that he would be chosen.
The shamans’ dance went on until they surrounded the line of boys, moving slowly and unnaturally around them like badly-made puppets.
Suddenly one shaman turned and glared at Naiyar, pointing with his shaking, bony hand, his deep-set eyes wide and flecked with red. The shaman’s other-worldly, unseeing grimace flickered with a glint of awareness as his eyes regarded Naiyar, who felt a pang of fear and disgust. But in that moment of awareness, it was the shaman who showed fear, not Naiyar.
The shaman’s jaw went slack, tears welled up in his eyes, and he shrieked and wailed as piss streamed down his legs. He let out a second, blood-curdling scream, still pointing at Naiyar, turned and leaped from the platform, still screaming as he plummeted to his death.
Naiyar heard him hit the ground far below with a wet thud.
The rest of the elders stood, aghast. The shaman should not have shown such fear, he should have rejoiced in finding his god.
One by one, the shamans came jerking and drooling towards Naiyar. In each pair of eyes he saw the strange and unexpected glint of awareness, that there was someone in there looking at him. Someone gripped by fear and amazement.
Gradually, all the shamans congregated around Naiyar, wailing and shrieking and pointing their scrawny fingers at him. When they surrounded only Naiyar, the cries suddenly fell silent.
The elders seemed unsure of what they had witnessed. The shamans were supposed to present the Chosen Son to the tribe and rejoice. There would be ten days of feasting and drinking, and then one night the Son would be set loose in the jungle. The best hunters in the tribe would chase and kill him, releasing the god within him to join the others in the stars.
Eventually, one old man stepped forward.
“The shamans have chosen,” he said in a loud but still uncertain voice. The sound echoed from the temple and descended to the now silent tribe waiting below.
As they heard his words, the sound of the tribe’s celebrations grew again until it was louder than ever.
Naiyar’s father gave him a worried look, but said nothing as he took his arm and led him to the front of the platform and showed him to his people. The tribe roared, an immense wall of noise that made Naiyar’s blood run cold.
The voices were right. He was being chosen.
But not as a god.
Naiyar heard a shout from behind him.
“No! This cannot be!”
Grizzal, one of the tribal elders and his father’s implacable enemy, stood with his hands on his hips. “The boy was not chosen. You all saw the shamans. That is not how they are supposed to react—they are closest to the gods, they do not fear them.”
Lokee turned to Grizzal with a mildly amused expression on his face. Grizzal raised a scrawny arm and drew himself up to his full height. “The shamans must choose again!”
“You’ve decided that, have you?” asked Lokee.
“I am the chief here, Grizzal,” cried Kelta from his seat, “and not even I can tell the shamans what they must do! They are the vessels of the gods. Do you question their actions?”
“I…no…I…He’s done something! This is not right! I’ll find out what you have done, Lokee.” Grizzal spat the name like it was a turd in his mead. “And when I do I’ll have your skin!”
“My skin?” said Lokee. “So that is what you have wanted all this time? And there I was thinking you were in love with my personality. I didn’t realise it was a purely physical attraction.”
A few of the elders sniggered.
“I am sorry, Grizzal,” Lokee continued, “but I am not that way inclined. I would offer to swap skins but I fear yours may be a little tight around the crotch. Tell you what, throw in your wife’s skin, then I’ll have enough to clothe myself, my wife and children, and some left over for a good-sized rug and some drums. I bet I’d even have enough left to make hammocks for the whole tribe! They’ve all lain on your wife so I’m sure they would be comfortable.”
“Just you wait, Lokee—”
“Wait?” Lokee smirked. “I’m afraid you have got yourself confused again. It is you who must wait on me. Because my son is a god. Come, Naiyar.”
He placed his hand on Naiyar’s shoulder and led him through the congregation of elders, most of whom were still struggling to suppress their laughter.