In the absence of anything interesting happening in my life at the moment – Lockdown Rules and all that – here’s an extract from my latest WIP for your delectation. It marks the start of the climax and is – and I can’t stress this enough – a first draft. I already know things that are wrong with it (too much detail in the descriptions, slowing down the narrative; a too-long break in the action to describe the gunfighters; too much (and too bad) French) and it might change dramatically before it’s finally ready for publication, should it ever be so.
The WIP in question is still unnamed, though Our Kind of Bastard is getting a good examination, as is the simple Claws. Suggestions always appreciated. It’ll be a long time before it sees the light of day – the first draft isn’t finished yet, and I’ve two novels before it in the work queue.
This piece is set in Brittany and is a rurban fantasy (an urban fantasy set in rural areas). As the extract title suggests, this section features rats. Consider this a content warning if you have particularly strong feelings about the wee beasties.
‘Relentless Rats’; Johann Bordin
Saira came back to the centre of the Devil’s Mouth after having a pee in the nearest ditch. There by the portal dolmen she found Cartwright standing with Eloise, barely talking. Indeed, through all the long watch, all that long day, Cartwright had said barely a word. A damaged man, Saira reflected. But then, weren’t they all damaged in one way or another? She thought of Alex, that aching hole in her heart where she still resided.
“Hi, Eloise,” she said. “Not performing?”
“I’ve finished for the night. We’re past the point where alcohol is under control – the crowds get a bit too rowdy for my liking past eight o’clock at an event like this. Mark’s back asleep in the caravan so I thought I’d come and join you here.”
“Well, thank you. Though I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.”
Eloise frowned, the newly-risen moon casting shadows almost as deep as midday. “I thought the bombers–”
“Oh yes, I know that. I just mean… Well, we don’t know when they’re coming, or from what direction, or whether they’ll be armed–”
“That’s why we’re keeping watch,” Cartwright said. “If we knew all that we wouldn’t have to wait, would we? As for them being armed, I think we have to assume the worst.”
“Then what are we doing here?” Eloise asked. “How can we hope to stop them?”
“We have to do something,” he said simply. “It shouldn’t have been like this. We should have had Jazz, and Mark, and – and Dashwood. A proper team. Now thrre’s just us – but still, we have to try.”
“Besides,” Saira said with a confidence that she didn’t feel, “we’ve got me.”
“What do you mean?”
Saira opened a hand and let a little ball of amber particles coalesce into something akin to a crystal ball. Then she blew on it and let the thing dissolve. It was so easy here, as if the Devil’s Mouth was a sort of sink for dark matter – or if it produced the stuff itself. She wished Twitch was here. There was so much Saira didn’t understand.
“To absent friends,” she muttered.
“Nothing. Ne rien.”
“Hey, who’s that?”
Saira turned to see two figures bending under the police crime-scene cordon that had been extended in the aftermath of George’s death. The whole monument had been taped around – pointlessly, as no officers had been assigned to patrol it so anyone could simple shimmy under it, as they had.
“That’s Caron,” Cartwright said.
“The sergeant in the Gendarmes I’ve been dealing with. I don’t know the man with her, though.”
Saira felt Eloise stiffen beside her; the carny’s wariness of the police, she assumed. Then the two gendarmes were marching over to them, the man leading the way, bearing an aura of impatience with him.
“Tu ne devrais pas être ici,” he snapped.
“Monsieur, c’est M Cartwright, la personne dont je tu ai parlé. He says you shouldn’t be here.”
“Evening, Caron. Who is he? What are you doing here?”
“This is Commander Felix, my boss. I – I told him about the murders and the possibilities of the bombing–”
“Qu’est-ce que tu dis? Tu as mentionné la bombe? Où est-il alors? Je ne vois rien de dérangé, juste ces gens qui se cachent ici.”
“Monsieur, je viens de vous présenter et d’expliquer pourquoi nous sommes ici.” Caron spoke with deference but, Saira thought, there was a little exasperation in her tone, or perhaps a tiredness.
“Nous n’avons pas besoin de nous expliquer, Caron. Pourquoi ces gens ici?”
“He wants to know why you’re here,” she said.
“We’re waiting for the bombers,” Cartwright said.
“To stop them?” Caron asked.
“Ils disent qu’ils sont là pour arrêter les bombardiers, monsieur.”
“C’est juste une perte de temps–”
“What’s that?” Cartwright asked suddenly.
“What?” Caron asked.
“That – over there.”
Saira followed his outstretched arm but she couldn’t see anything – just the deep greens of the twilit grass lined against the deep blues of the sky; pools of black shadow in the lee of the bank and movement – what was that?
Something was moving through down the bank, something low to the ground, flowing like a whispering river through the dusty grass. Its leading edge disappeared into shadow and then re-emerged only thirty paces from where that were standing.
“What–” Cartwright began.
“Rats,” Eloise said.
And they were. Rats – hundreds, thousands of them, charging through the grass.
Each one had a tiny rider upon its back.
“C‘est quoi ce bordel?” Felix said.
It was hard to make out details in the shifting twilight, in the ever-moving flow. But the riders seemed to be armed with miniature lances and were topless but for leather straps and harnesses and for expressions of mad war-lust.
Saira just had time to gape for a moment before the tide was upon her. She heard Cartwright yell in pain and then felt a prick, a dozen pricks in her feet – pricks that became stabbing pains and she too was gasping as the lances bit into her shoes, dug through the light fabric of her summer wear and pierced the flesh beneath.
Instinctively she hopped, then jumped. She felt blood running from her feet – and then she landed and the ground had become a floor of vermin. She felt bones breaking and lances snapping beneath her; she was vaguely aware of an amber haze as dead rats and riders dissolved under her feet but there were more, more more – her feet were being cut to ribbons and she could tell from the sounds that her comrades that they were in no position to help.
Saira desperately tried to think of something she could conjure to rid the Devil’s Mouth of this vermintide but her mind was trapped in glue. She could only imagine a sword – but what use would that be? She just kept hopping, jumping, kicking – and desperately trying to keep her feet because falling into that mat of rats was unthinkable.
Somewhere, close at hand, a wolf howled.
And then she became aware of the prick and scratch and dig of tiny feet running up her ankles, of teeth and sword-blades cutting up her shins and calves and crawling up over her knee onto her thigh and the blood ran down her flesh as the vermin crawled over itself, a great mass eating her alive, threatening to strip the flesh from her bones.
A desperate act, she conjured up a sickle and held it tight in her right hand, as the rats and their riders ran up over her waist, teeth, claws and blades digging into her pubis and her bum as they went, her whole lower half a mess of blood and dirty, dirty wounds; she slashed down and cut away a handful of the vicious creatures, saw them turn to their component molecules as they fell away.
But by swiping down she’d allowed the survivors to make the leap onto her hand; now the tiny claws were scratching at her fingers, the lances burning into her wrist, sword-blades slashing at tendons. She shook her hand desperately, felt some riders fall away, before her muscles gave way and she dropped her weapon into the carpet of monsters.
Skipping, dancing, shaking like a victim of St Vitus’ Dance, she saw Eloise and Cartwright and the gendarmes were doing the same, and they were all screaming in pain and fear, and they were all going to be dragged into the mire and consumed. It was just a matter of time – of moments… and there were people there who hadn’t been there before – two of them, a man and a woman, on the edge of the pool of vermin. But no time for them.
Glue. It was all Saira could think of. Glue. Gum. Ooze. She concentrated, tried to push the bites, the injuries from her mind, kept her body moving as the rats scratched their way up past her navel, up to her breasts – she concentrated; forget all that. Conjure. Call a haze of amber particles around her, absorb the energy of this place, of all the dead rats and riders. Thicken the cloud until it’s almost solid, an accretion disc around her head like she was a star. Try for liquid, though that doesn’t come naturally. Glue. And drop the mass down her body, let it cling to her and trap the rats, suffocate the riders (and don’t imagine that they’re human-shaped and may have thoughts, feelings and desires of their own; this is pure survival).
Take the energy of the dead and increase the mass. Feel it hardening on her skin; use it, wear it like a suit, sealing her wounds and pushing away the vermin; a suit made of dead rats – better, easier to form than the fluid.
Saira breathed. She was calm, now. The suit she wore kept the vermin at bay. She stopped her desperate dance, let the rats crawl up her legs; they could do no harm.
There was a crack and a whistle and something flew past her head – she felt the wind of it. She spun round, turning away from her friends who were still desperately fighting not to be dragged down by the vermintide.
There she saw the man and the woman – Paul Girin and Erica Henry, Saira guessed. The woman was holding a shoebox-sized wooden object with a glistening golden lozenge set in its front. They both wore heavy-looking backpacks, but only hers looked big enough to contain a bomb.
In front of them stood a posse of four gunfighters; they looked as if they’d come straight from the set of a Western, complete with black bowler hats and six-shooters; two held rifles and all wore ruffled-up suits, jackets open to reveal pocket-watches and waistcoats.
Time to worry about them later; first she had to save her friends from the rats. She lurched into the closest figure – Eloise, it was, and fell on her in some kind of excuse for a hug. As she touched the rats that were struggling to get into the Frenchwoman’s mouth they became stuck in the glue of Saira’s verminsuit, their struggles soon subsiding as they became part of the energy shield she wore. Soon Eloise was free of rats, gasping and bleeding, and Saira had enough death-energy to start seeping her glue-trap across the floor–
There was another crack and a man’s yell – Felix. Saira turned to see him fall to one knee – she thought it was him, the others were so covered in rats that it was hard to see who was who. Another crack and Felix fell to the ground. With the rats crawling over him it was impossible to see if he was still moving or not.
Saira looked up to see the gunfighters had raised their rifles, their pistols, and were aiming right at her.