Novel extract – the rats

scary-rat

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

‘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.

Pardon?”

“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.

“Who?”

“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.

“Of course.”

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.

She screamed.

Carl Frank

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.

 

Urban Fantasy – just say no

cyberpunk-work

In last week’s post I brought you ten magnificent reasons why Urban Fantasy is awesome and why you – yes, you! – should write it. ‘But’, I hear you cry, ‘aren’t there two sides to every argument?’ Why yes, there are. So, without further blitheration, I give you the counter: ten reasons why writing UF sucks a big ‘un.

Duality

If UF has a defining characteristic it’s that two worlds exist at the same time: a surface world that’s (more or less) identical to our own; and a second, hidden, reality. How do they interact? Who knows about the second and how have they exploited their knowledge? Is there a Rowling-esque Ministry of Magic? Do vampires have representation in parliament? Or are they entirely separate? You need to have the answers

There are no rules

As I repeatedly banged on about in last week’s blog, UF is a young genre. Thus we have to establish our own world. If we play with magic, or shapeshifters, or vampires or whatever, we have to tell people how they operate in our world. The tropes that have built up in other genres don’t exist here yet. So everything has to be worked out from scratch

History

For how long has this duality existed? Where has influence been exerted? You, as author, need to know these things. Are we dealing with a threat – and, if so, what’s brought it to a head now? Is Theresa May a wizard? Donald Trump a warlock? Have the Illuminati lapped up all the cream – and if not, why not? Hitler was, I’m told, obsessed by the occult: if so – and these secrets existed in your world – why didn’t he win the war? These questions might never crop up directly in your work, but you still need to know the answers

Society and politics

This ‘second world’ has its own rules; it must do, right? In Highlander the immortals fight to the death whenever they meet: are there similar customs/habits/prejudices in your world? Working this out takes thought – and, as you must have realised by now, I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly you have to work out your structure of government; are we dealing with an essential anarchy or is there a hierarchy to be devised and constraints developed?

It requires absolute, complete and total cohesion

The real world is full of complications. It’s messy, unpredictable and incredible. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. You need to obliterate all potential loopholes: one loose thread and your whole tapestry unravels. Your world must work. It may be fantastic to the nth degree, but unless you’ve worked out why, for example, your dark-demon lord didn’t conquer the (human) world in centuries past, then you’ve got nothing. Suspension of belief relies on coherence. You must not let your readers down

If everything can be anything, why isn’t everything something?

Last week I wrote about the magnificent ability for phone boxes to be portals, typewriters mystic demon-conjuring devices and so on. Which is great, but begs the question: when do you stop? If the advantage of UF is that the world is essentially normal then the more ‘normal-abnormals’ you have the less the reader can get a grip on your world. If you’re not careful the very anchors of reality slip away and you have to explain absolutely everything. In great, crunching, deathly-boring detail

It’s wish-fulfilment

And that (nearly) always leads to bad writing. Who wants to read about you? Even with supernatural powers, you’re still nobody

Urban fantasy still has a ‘fringe’ reputation

There are some magnificent authors out there. There’s also some really shoddy writing. Most of the hoi polloi still equate UF with the outer limits of erotica, horror and the like. Which is not to say that there aren’t amazing writers in those genres – there most certainly are. But UF still has an image problem. At least people know what erotica is; you’ll have to explain what urban fantasy actually is on a regular basis

It’s already passé

Remember when everyone was writing conspiracy-theory novels a la Dan Brown or Sam Bourne? Remember when you couldn’t move for sparkly vampires? And zombies? Urban fantasy might be a new genre but novelty doesn’t last; you, my friend, have missed the boatwagon. Those great authors I wrote about last week have already got it nailed down. Anybody who now writes UF will look like a coat-hanger, a populist, an unimaginative dullard. Too late, sweetheart, too late

I saw it first

It’s mine. Hands off.

 

Why write Urban Fantasy?

uf2

Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.

Act One Scene One (Draft One)

Gilly leant on the concrete balcony and stared at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. Rosenkrantz was by her side. He touched her arm.

“There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and street lamps, burst into the bowl created by the squat circle of tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Big – not especially tall, but broad-shouldered, well built – he sighted the girl and made for her.

Rosenkrantz, at Gilly’s side, hissed and drew his sword. His muscles tensed as he turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What?” The word carried urgency, impatience. Below the girl was running as fast as she could for the far exit, where the towers failed to slam shut and the main exit to the complex was to be found. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly.

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably but the sword remaining unsheathed.

Another glance back and the girl realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out an object. As the man approached she held it between them – a flick-knife, Gilly realised, as the blade sprang forwards, street-lights reflecting off the deadly metal.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them but he barely hesitated, now only a step out of range of her trembling arm.

“Gil –” Rosenkrantz began, fiddling with his sword-hilt, rocking the scabbard back and forth.

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time – almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. Numbed fingers jolted open and the blade skittered across the paving stones to rest against a wall.

The man spoke again and this time, to judge from the slight tilt of the head, it was definitely a question.

The girl had backed up against one of the stunted, bare trees that seemed so out of place. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until, Gil realised, she was actually taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo had been hiding beneath the skin and was now coming out to play –

The man stepping forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against one of the stunted trees but didn’t seem to feel pain. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades down to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid…

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have the man calmly extended a boot and planted it in the woman’s neck. And he pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boots. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she or Rosenkratz could move there was another crunch of cartilage giving – and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase, still watching as the man kept his boot on the throat for another minute – making sure, Gilly thought, that she was dead. Then, as they reached the harsh grey steps, he stepped back, let go of her arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

He was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“What about you?” Rosenkrantz asked.

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 *          *          *

This is the opening scene from my current work in progress, Oneiromancer. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and there’s a good chance this will be either heavily rewritten or cut completely as the inexorable tide of Editing swamps the novel. But, for now, all I can say is that I hope you enjoyed it. Or at least that it didn’t make you vomit coffee at the screen in disgust.