Orbit Loot

Orbit Books

Join the Orbit Newsletter

Read a sample from CHASING EMBERS by James Bennett

For fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Jim Butcher and Benedict Jacka comes a fabulously fun and fast-paced new contemporary fantasy series about a world of myth and legend that's about to break loose . . .

ONE

East Village, New York

Once upon a time, there was a happy-ever-after. Or at least a shot at one.

Red Ben Garston sat at the bar, cradling his JD and Coke and trying to ignore the whispers of the past. The whiskey, however, was fanning the flames. Rain wept against the window, pouring down the large square of dirty glass that looked out on the blurred and hurrying pedestrians, the tall grey buildings and sleek yellow taxicabs. The TV in the corner, balanced on a shelf over the bar’s few damp customers, was only a muffled drone. Ben watched the evening news to a background of murmured chatter and soft rock music. Economic slump to the Eagles. War in Iran to the Boss. The jukebox wasn’t nearly loud enough, and that was part of the problem. Ben could still hear himself think.

Once upon a time, once upon a time . . .

He took a swig and placed the tumbler on the bar before him, calling out for another. The bartender arrived, a young man in apron and glasses. The man arched an evaluating eyebrow, then sighed, poured and left the whole bottle. Ben could drink his weight in gold, but Legends had yet to see him fall down drunk, so the staff were generally tolerant. 7 East 7th Street was neither as well appointed nor as popular as some of the bars in the neighbourhood, verging on the dive side of affairs, but it was quiet on weekdays around dusk, and Red Ben drank here for that very reason. He didn’t like strangers. Didn’t like attention. He just wanted somewhere to sit, drink and forget about the past.

Still Rose was on his mind, just as she always was.

The TV over the bar droned on. The drought in Africa limped across the screen, some report about worsening conditions and hijacked aid trucks. Strange storms that spat lightning but never any rain. What was up with the weather these days, anyway? Then the usual tableau of sand, flies and starving children, their bellies bloated by hunger, their eyes dulled by need. Technicolor pixelated death.

Immunised by the ceaseless barrage of doom-laden media, Ben looked away, scanning the customers who shared the place with him: a man slouched further along the bar, three sat in a gloomy booth, one umming and ahhing over the jukebox at the back of the room, all of them nondescript in damp raincoats and washed-out faces. Ghosts of New York, drowning their sorrows. Ben wanted to belong among them, but he knew he would always stand out, a broad-shouldered beast of a man, the tumbler almost a thimble in his hand. His leather jacket was beaten and frayed. Red stubble covered his jaw, rising via scruffy sideburns to an unkempt pyre on his head. He liked to think there was a pinch of Josh Homme about him – Josh Homme on steroids – maybe a dash of Cagney. Who was he kidding? These days, he suspected he looked more like the other customers than he’d care to admit, let alone a rock star. Drink and despair had diluted his looks. No wonder Rose didn’t want to see him. And in the end his general appearance, a man in his early thirties, was only a clever lie. His true age travelled in his eyes, caves that glimmered green in their depths and held a thousand secrets . . .

That lie had always been the problem. Since his return to New York from a six-week assignment in Spain, his former lover wouldn’t answer his calls or reply to his emails. When he called round her Brooklyn apartment, only silence answered the buzzer on the ground floor. Sure, he’d hardly been the mild-mannered Englishman, leaving her high and dry, dropping everything to run off on the De Luca job. And it wasn’t as if he needed the money. He’d been around a long time. He got bored. He got restless. He went into his cave, as Rose would’ve put it. The jobs were a way of keeping in shape, and of course, his choice of clientele meant that no one was going to ask too many questions. Now he was paying the price for this diversion. A week back in the city and Rose was another ghost to him.

But once upon a time, once upon a time, when you didn’t ask questions and I could pretend, we were madly in love.

Outside, the rain lashing the window, and inside, the rain lashing his heart. April in Insomniac City was a lonely place to be. Ben took another slug of Jack, swallowed another bittersweet memory.

A motorbike growled up outside the bar. The customers turned to look. Exhaust fumes mingled with the scent of liquor as the door swung wide and the rain blew in – with it, a man. The door creaked shut. The man was dressed completely in black, his riding leathers shiny and wet. His boots pounded on the floorboards, then silenced as he stopped and surveyed the bar. His helmet visor was down, obscuring his face. A plume of feathers bristled along the top of the fibreglass dome, trailing down between his bullish shoulders. The bizarre gear marked him out as a Hell’s Angel or a member of some other freeway cult. The long, narrow object strapped to his back, its cross-end poking up at the cobwebbed fans, promised a pointed challenge.

As the other customers lost interest, turning back to their chatter, peanuts and music, Ben was putting down his tumbler of Jack, swivelling on his stool and groaning wearily under his breath.

The man in the helmet saw him, shooting out a leather-gloved finger.

“Ben Garston! This game of hide-and-seek is over. I have some unfinished business with you.”

Ben felt the eyes in the place twist back to him, a soft, furtive pressure on his spine. He placed a hand on his chest, a faux-yielding gesture.

“What can I say, Fulk? You found me.”

The newcomer removed his helmet and thumped it down on the end of the bar. It rested there like a charred turkey, loose feathers fluttering to the floor. The man called Fulk grinned, a self-satisfied leer breaking through his shaggy black beard. Coupled with the curls falling to his shoulders, his head resembled a small, savage dog, ready to pounce from a thick leather pedestal.

“London. Paris. LA.” Fulk named the cities of his search, each one a wasp flying from his mouth. Like Ben, his accent was British, but where Ben’s held the clipped tones of a Londoner, the man in black’s was faintly Welsh, a gruff rural borderland burr. Ben would have recognised it anywhere. “Where’ve you been hiding, snake?”

Ben shrugged. “Seems I’ve been wherever you’re not.”

Fulk indicated the half-empty glass on the bar. “Surprised you’re not drinking milk. I know you have a taste for it. Milk, maidens and malt, eh? And other people’s property.”

“Ah, the Fitzwarren family wit.” Through the soft blur of alcohol, Ben looked up at the six-and-a-half-foot hulk before him, openly sizing him up. What Fulk lacked in brains, he made up for in brawn. Win or lose, this was going to hurt.

The whiskey softened his tongue as well. He made a half-hearted stab at diplomacy. “You shouldn’t be here, you know. The Pact—”

“Fuck the Pact. What’s it to me?”

“It’s the Lore, Fulk. Kill me, and the Guild’ll make sure you never see that pile of moss-bound rubble you and your family call home again.”

But Ben wasn’t so sure about that. Whittington Castle, the crumbling ruins of a keep near Oswestry in Shropshire, was in the ancestral care of a trust. The same trust set up back in 1201 by King John and later bestowed on the Guild of the Broken Lance for safe keeping. The deeds to the castle would only pass back to the Fitzwarren estate when a certain provision was met, that being the death of Red Ben Garston, the last of his troublesome kind. The last one awake, anyway. Of course, the Lore superseded that ancient clause. Technically, Ben was protected like all Remnants, but he knew that didn’t matter to Fulk. The same way he knew that the man in front of him was far from the first to go by that name. Like the others before him, this latest Fulk would stop at nothing to get his hands on Whittington and reclaim the family honour, whether he risked the ire of the Guild or not. Vengeance ran in Fulk’s bloodline, and his parents would have readied him for it since the day he was born.

“The Lore was made to be broken,” Fulk Fitzwarren CDXII said. “Besides, don’t you read the news? The Pact is null and void, Garston. You’re not the only one any more.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Before he could enquire further, the man in black unzipped his jacket, reached inside and retrieved a scrunched-up newspaper. He threw it on to the bar, next to Ben’s elbow.

It was a copy of The New York Times. Today’s evening edition. Warily lowering his eyes, Ben snatched it up and read the headline.

STAR OF EEBE STOLEN

Police baffled by exhibition theft

Last night person or persons unknown broke into the Nubian Footprints exhibition at the Javits Center, the noted exhibition hall on West 34th Street. The thieves made off with priceless diamond the Star of Eebe, currently on loan from the Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. Archaeologists claim that the fist-sized uncut gem came from a meteor that struck the African continent over 3,000 years ago. Legend has it that the Star fell into the possession of a sub-Saharan queen.

According to a source in the NYPD, the thieves were almost certainly a gang using high-tech equipment, improvised explosive devices and some kind of ultra-light airborne craft, a gyrocopter or delta plane. Around midnight last night, an explosion shook the Javits Center and the thieves managed to navigate the craft into Level 3, smashing through the famous 150-foot “crystal palace” lobby, alighting in the exhibition hall and evading several alarm systems to make off with the gem. The police believe the thieves took flight by way of another controlled explosion, fleeing through the Javits Center’s western façade, out over 12th Avenue and the Hudson River, where police suspect they rendezvoused with a small ship headed out into the Bay, across to Weehawken or upriver to . . .

God knows where. Ben scanned the story, plucking the meat off printed bones. The details were sketchy at best. Between the lines, he summed them up. No fingerprints. No leads. No fucking clue.

The bar held its breath as he slapped the Times back down. No one spoke, no one chewed peanuts, no one selected songs on the jukebox. The rain drummed against the window. Four-wheeled fish swam past outside.

“Clever,” Ben said. “But what does this have to do with me?”

“More than you’d like.” Fulk grinned again, yellow dominoes lost in a rug. “You’re reading your own death warrant.”

“If this is a joke, I don’t get it.”

“No, you don’t, do you?” The man in black shook his head. “I’ve travelled halfway around the world to face my nemesis, and all I find is a washed-up worm feeling sorry for himself in a bar. Is it because of your woman? Is that why you returned? She won’t take you back, you know. Your kind and hers never mix well.”

“You came here to advise me on my love life?”

Fulk laughed. “You’re asleep, Red Ben. You’ve been asleep for centuries. The world holds no place for you now. You’re a relic. You’re trash. I only came here to sweep up the pieces.”

“Yeah, your glorious quest.” Ben rolled his eyes at their audience, the men sat in the booth, the guy with a palm full of peanuts frozen before his mouth, the one shuffling slowly away from the jukebox. “You need to get over it. Mordiford was a very long time ago.”

A storm rumbled up over Fulk’s brow, his deep-set eyes sinking even further into his head. Obviously it was the wrong thing to say. The ages-long river of bad blood that ran between Ben and House Fitzwarren was clearly as fresh to the man in black as it had been to his predecessors, perhaps even to the original Fulk, way back in the Middle Ages.

Muscles tense, Ben sighed and stood up, his stool scraping the floorboards. Despite his height rivalling the slayer’s, he still felt horribly slight in Fulk’s shadow. The whiskey could make you feel small too.

He didn’t need this. Not now. He wanted to get back to the Jack and his heartbreak.

“It was yesterday to us,” Fulk said, the claim escaping through gaps in his teeth. “We want our castle back. And Pact or no Pact, when we have it, your head will hang on our dining room wall.”

The bartender, cringing behind the bar, guarded by bottles and plastic cocktail sticks, chose this moment to pipe up.

“Look, fellers, nobody wants any trouble. I suggest you take your beef outside, or do I have to call the—”

The sword Fulk drew from the scabbard on his back was a guillotine on the barman’s words. The youth scuttled backwards, bottles and cocktail sticks crashing to the floor, panic greasing his heels. He joined the customers in a scrambling knot as they squeezed their bellies out of the booth, tangling with the other guys pushing past the jukebox to the fire exit at the back of the bar. In a shower of peanuts and dropped glasses, they were gone, the fire exit clanking open, a drunken stampede out into the rain.

Ben watched them leave in peripheral envy. He grimaced and rubbed his neck, a habit of his that betrayed his nerves. Then his whole attention focused on Fulk. Fulk and the ancient sword in his face. There was nothing friendly about that sword. They had met before, many times. Ben was on intimate terms with all fifty-five inches of the old family claymore. Back in the Middle Ages, the Scots had favoured the two-handed weapon in their border clashes with the English, and while this one’s saw-toothed edge revealed its tremendous age, the blade held an anomalous sheen, the subtle glow informing Ben that more than a whetstone had sharpened the steel.

“Who’re you having lunch with these days? The CROWS? That witchy business has a nasty habit of coming back to bite you on the arse.” Ben measured these words with a long step backwards, creating some distance between the end of his nose and the tip of the sword. “House Fitzwarren must be getting desperate.”

“We are honour-bound to slay our Enemy.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re delusional, Fulk – or Pete or Steve or whatever your real name is. Your family hasn’t owned Whittington Castle since the time of the Fourth Crusade, but you dog my heels from Mayfair to Manhattan, hoping to win a big gold star where hundreds of others have only won gravestones. And as for this,” Ben nodded at the gleaming blade, “tut tut. Whatever would the Guild say?”

“I told you, snake. The Lore is broken. The Guild is over. And now, so are you.”

The sword swung towards him, signalling the end of the conversation. The step Ben had taken came in handy; he leaned back just in time to avoid an unplanned haircut. The blade snapped over the bar, licking up the tumbler and the bottle of Jack, whiskey and glass spraying the floorboards.

Fulk grunted, recovering his balance. The weight of the claymore showed in his face. His leathers creaked as he lunged forward for another blow, the blade biting into beer-stained wood. Only air occupied the space where Ben had stood moments before, his quick grace belying his size as he swept up his bar stool and broke it over the man in black’s head.

Cracked wood made a brief halo around Fulk’s shoulders. His strap-on boots did a little tango and then steadied as he regained his balance, his shaggy mane shaking off the splinters. He grimaced, his teeth clenched with dull yellow effort. The sword came up, came down, scoring a line through shadow and sawdust, the heavy blade lodging in the floorboards.

The stroke dodged, Ben rushed through his own dance steps and elbowed Fulk in the neck. As the man choked and went down on one knee, Ben leapt for the bar, grabbing the plumed helmet and swinging it around, aiming for that wheezing, brutish head.

Metal kissed fibreglass, the sword knocking the helmet from Ben’s grip. Sweat ran into his eyes as Fulk came up, roaring, and smacked him with the flat of the blade. If this had been an ordinary duel, Fulk might as well have hit a bear with a toothpick. The Fitzwarrens’ attempts to slay their Enemy had always remained unfairly balanced in Ben’s favour, and over the years he had grown complacent, the attacks an annoyance rather than a threat. Now his complacency caught him off guard. This was no ordinary duel. Resistant to magic as he was, bewitched steel was bewitched steel, and the ground blurred under his feet moments before his spine met the jukebox. The air flew out of his lungs even as it flew into Jimi Hendrix’s, a scratchy version of “Fire” stuttering into the gloomy space.

The song was one of Ben’s favourites, but he found it hard to appreciate under the circumstances. He groaned, trying to pull himself up. Stilettos marched up and down his back. His buttocks ached under his jeans. He tasted blood in his mouth, along with a sour, sulphurous tang, a quiet belch that helped him to his feet, his eyes flaring.

Across the bar, Fulk’s eyebrows were arcs of amusement.

“Finally waking up, are we? It’s too late, Garston.” The man in black stomped over to where Ben stood, swaying like a bulrush in a breeze. “Seems like my granny was wrong. She always said to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Fulk shrugged, dismissing the matter. Then he brought the sword down on Ben’s skull.

Or tried to. Ben raised an arm, shielding his head, and the blade sliced into his jacket, cutting through leather, flesh and down to the bone, where it stuck like a knife in frozen butter. Blood wove a pattern across the floorboards, speckling his jeans and Doc Martens. They weren’t cheap, those shoes, and Ben wasn’t happy about it.

When he exhaled, a long-suffering, pained snort, the air grew a little hot, a little smoky. He met Fulk’s gaze, waiting for the first glimmers of doubt to douse the man’s burgeoning triumph. As Fulk’s beard parted in a question, Ben reached up with his free hand and gripped the blade protruding from his flesh. The rip in his jacket grew wider, the seams straining and popping, the muscle bulging underneath. The exposed flesh rippled around the wound, shining with the hint of some tougher substance, hard, crimson and sleek, plated neatly in heart-shaped rows, one over the over. The sight lasted only a second, long enough for Ben to wrench the claymore out of his forearm.

Hendrix climaxed in a roll of drums and a whine of feedback. The blood stopped dripping random patterns on the floor. The lips of Ben’s wound resealed like a kiss and his arm was just an arm again, human, healed and held before his chest.

“Your antique can hurt me, but have you got all day?” Ben forced a smile, a humourless rictus. “That’s what you’ll need, because I’m charmed too, remember? And as for my head, I’m kind of attached to it.”

Flummoxed, Fulk opened his mouth to speak. Ben’s fist forced the words down his throat before he had the chance. The slayer’s face crumpled, and then he was flying backwards, over the bloody floor, past the bar with its broken bottles, out through the dirty square window that guarded Legends from the daylight.

Silvery spears flashed through the rain. Teeth and glass tinkled on asphalt. Tyres screeched. Horns honked. East 7th Street slowed to a crawl as a man dressed head to toe in black leather landed in the road.

Somewhere in the distance, sirens wailed. Ben retrieved the newspaper from the bar, thinking now was perhaps a good time to leave. As he stepped through the shattered window, he could tell that the cops were heading this way, the bartender making good on his threat. Who could blame him? Thanks to this lump sprawled in the road, the month’s takings would probably go on repairs.

Stuffing the Times into his jacket, the rain hissing off his cooling shoulders, Ben crunched over to where Fulk lay, a giant groaning on a bed of crystal. He bent down, rummaging in the dazed man’s pockets. Then he clutched the slayer’s beard and pulled his face towards his own.

“And by the way, it isn’t sleeping dogs, Fulk,” he told him. “It’s dragons.”

Then he took flight into the city.

About the Author

James Bennett is a British writer born in Loughborough and raised in Sussex, South Africa and Cornwall. His travels have furnished him with an abiding love of different cultures, history and mythology. He’s had several short stories published internationally and Chasing Embers is his debut fantasy novel. James currently lives in west Wales and draws inspiration from long walks, deep forests and old stones . . . and also the odd bottle of wine.