In the vein of Kevin Hearne, Burning Ashes is the third book in the Ben Garston series, a contemporary fantasy tale of dragons and ancient magic hidden within our own world.
There were giants on the earth in those days. Someone had written that down long ago. And apparently, in these.
Snout curling with the thought, Ben Garston veered low over the Thames, one old serpent reflected in another, the September wind rushing through his under-wing gills. A red-scaled dart, his arrowhead tail zipping over power cables, bridges, railways and masts, the one-time Sola Ignis, six months retired, sped in pursuit of a monster. His passing bulk, lizardine, streamlined, left a v-shaped wake in the waters below, waves slapping against the embankments on either shore, a passing storm rattling the jetties and the masts of boats at moorage. The stench of the river, a heady brew of factory fumes, dead fish and diesel, blustered in his nostrils, a pall he’d have gladly avoided if he’d had a choice, preferring the damp of his lair, deep under the charred remains of his townhouse on Barrow Hill Road.
Gold and forgetfulness. The times have denied me the luxury of both.
When rubble had come clattering down from the stalactites, bouncing off the rune-carved pillars and his slumbering snout, Ben had awoken with a roar that embodied his mood. Leaving the sanctuary of his underground cave, he’d made the journey to the city above, his swelling shoulders shoving at the tunnel walls, his curses held behind his teeth. Emerging from the depths of the West Hampstead interchange, ignoring the screams and the stalling traffic (it’s too late for modesty, folks), he’d launched himself into the sky to investigate, saddling the wind for a decent view.
He didn’t get one; the vista only presented the bad news, dark, smoky and to the east of him.
A towering shape rose from the urban sprawl. For all the unorthodox angles and curves of London’s skyline he could tell that the newcomer wasn’t a skyscraper simply by the fact it was moving. A distant cannonade boomed through the streets from Blackfriars to Belsize Park. The sky cringed with the echoes, the sound of crumbling brickwork, shattering glass and wailing people all too familiar, a dissonance that he’d come to know.
Ben greeted the sight with a grunt.
The devil is loose, all right. You knew it was only a matter of time . . .
Crusty-eyed, horns tipped, he shot after the Sleeper – who, at present, was wide awake and bellowing to deafen England – by force of habit more than anything else. No one but Ben was going to save the panicking masses that were pouring out of doorways and stalled cars, pushing and shoving up, down and across the roads in their urge to escape, some of them falling in the flood, never to emerge. The screams and shouts made a harsh accompaniment to the calamity, the echoes shuddering over Limehouse. The sound pricked his shame, his heart going out to the humans.
Always playing the hero. That’s what Von Hart had said, all those months ago in China. But there is only one thing I need from you here. You’re too late for anything else.
As things stood Ben knew that he’d been making a pig’s ear of heroism of late, sinking up to his neck in chaos, bitterness and guilt. In the past two years, the city below had seen more than her fair share of trouble, including an African goddess, an undead priest, Texan witches, a vengeful knight, a battle dragon, a shit-stirring vampire, a holy assassin and a murderous saint cult, not to mention a treacherous fairy. The resulting damage to London landmarks, to London scepticism . . . well, it was beyond belief.
And that didn’t touch on the turmoil caused by the breaking of the harp. Six months ago, far from here – far from anywhere, really, in the depths of the nether – the Cwyth, the mnemonic harp, had shattered, torn apart by the envoy extraordinary Blaise Von Hart. Like a fool, Ben had believed the warrior monk Jia Jing when she’d described the Ghost Emperor as an otherworldly menace hell-bent on forcing its way into Creation. In truth, Von Hart had summoned the giant Lurker himself, empowering the thing with spells and his fragment of the harp, drawing destruction to the door of the world. Beyond that door, the gate of the Eight Hand Mirror, the tragedy had played out. The Ghost Emperor – or as it happened, Von Hart – had stretched out a tentacle and wrenched Jia’s fragments from her grasp, reforging the artefact anew.
And then ripping the harp apart. The following explosion had sent the sin-you tumbling to her doom, lost to the blackest eternity. Ben had managed to escape with the envoy, although “escape” probably wasn’t the right word for it.
What do you call it when you jump from one shitstorm into another? Oh yeah. Life . . .
In that blinding moment of truth, the Long Sleep had come undone, the enchantment of centuries violently broken. Of course, the repercussions followed. The Remnants, long ago lulled and lured, slumbering, buried beneath the earth, were slowly waking up.
And of course, Ben thought with the same old sneer, I’m the one left cleaning up the mess . . .
Somehow, he’d survived all that, his bullshit “happy ending”. But not without certain breakages himself, in his mind, his body and soul. He had lost so much. The love of his life, for one. His trust in his friend, for another. And his faith in the Pact. By the skin of his teeth, and like the butt of some cruel god’s joke, he was alive and kicking.
The giant on the skyline, however, could easily put an end to that. Put an end to all of them, perhaps. The situation was scaling into a crisis of cataclysmic proportions. The Pact was undone. The Lore was over. Exploding oil refineries, butchery in Beijing – these events had not gone unnoticed. Some had started to seriously question the slew of shaky camera footage and the wild reports of monstrous creatures around the globe. In the past six months, the frequency and detail of these reports had surpassed the level of mass hysteria and, according to the news, the military was on high alert. Intelligence agencies were investigating the sightings from the Sahara to the South China Sea. Rumours abounded, whispers about strange discoveries, scales the size of dinner plates that didn’t conform to any known DNA. Inexplicably shattered museum roofs. Massive craters on Hampstead Heath . . .
More than likely, the National Enquirer and the Fortean Times were facing bankruptcy, forced to compete with the mainstream media now that the paranormal and the unexplained flickered across the TV screen in the daily headline news. World religions, of course, all screamed Armageddon, heralding an imminent Day of Reckoning – Doomsday, Ragnarok, you name it – with a renewed and palpable delight.
At street level, it was getting harder for the humans to shrug off these reports as hallucinations, photoshopped fakes and suchlike, when the damage was plain for all to see, from claw marks in an aeroplane’s fuselage to a derailed bullet train. A little video analysis from internet geeks suggested that some of the clips could even be real. Dragons were fucking real! And with no Guild of the Broken Lance, no Whispering Chapter in place, the carefully constructed wall between the Remnant and the human world was crumbling. In short, there was no longer anyone available to explain away these events, put them down to earthquakes, tidal waves, visions inspired by gas leaks and potent street drugs.
In the Middle Ages, we spread tales and songs, the more unlikely the better. Throughout the Enlightenment, we cast doubt on your existence, put it all down to superstition, ignorant reactions to storms, comets, the aurora borealis . . .
Yeah. Sir Maurice Bardolfe had told him about the Guild’s “tireless work”, all right. Explaining him and the few others like him out of the world . . .
And even now, that world rumbled on, although humanity’s blindness, he believed, was currently due to mass denial rather than outright scepticism. Even as a giant crashed his way through the city, people had got up, brushed their teeth and caught the train to work. Some, he imagined, had switched off the morning news. Or shaken their heads at the footage of smoke rising from the heart of the city.
He envied them. Bleary-eyed, half regretting the bottles of Jack that he’d chugged the night before, Ben soared onwards, following the curve of the Thames. His quarry rose directly ahead, and he was drawing ever closer, close enough for the giant’s shadow to fall across him, rendering him a mere red-winged bird in comparison. Dwarfed, helpless, he flapped through the clouds towards the giant’s shoulders, a barricade of brawn that was currently smashing a cascade of steel and glass from Canary Wharf as he waded further downstream.
Cormoran. He’s Cormoran. Shuddering, Ben put a name to his dread. Bane of the Summer Country. Town Crusher. Or, to put it another way, a two-hundred-foot-tall pain in the arse.
Ben recognised the giant from his past, rather than legend. The building of St Michael’s Mount and the hurled rocks that had formed the Scilly Isles had happened long before his time, back in the Old Lands. But he remembered the giant who’d lumbered his way to the Remnant gathering at White Horse Hill, Uffington, in 1215, the night he’d signed the Pact. Like the other creatures who had trembled in that moonlit vale, the giant, one of the last Gog-men of Albion, had come to discuss his place in the grand scheme of things, to find some way to resist the relentless march of civilisation, the onslaught of knights that craved his territories and treasures for their own.
But, of course, it had been too late. A matter that even now made Ben uncomfortable, because the offered reconciliation, the dangling olive branch from the humans, had drawn a desperate rabble into the valley that distant midsummer night. And only to bring them within the ambit of the Cwyth, the spreading music of the mnemonic harp. The lullaby had sent giant and all down, down into the ground. Into the dark. Into memory.
Ben, an unwelcome guest that night (to say the least), had tried to tell them, the gathered Remnants. We cannot fight time nor tide. It’s a matter of survival. Some had listened. Some had turned away. And even as the ink from his quill was drying on the scroll and the music came spilling into the valley, most had cursed him, spitting words like traitor and coward and milk-drinker. To most of the gathering, he had simply been a royal pet, a wyrm in cahoots with humans. A snake among apes and therefore not to be trusted. He’d found himself unable to reassure his fellow Remnants. And in the end, he was wrong. King John, in typical fashion, had shown no compassion for the “fiends” standing in his way. He had deemed giants too big and too dangerous (not to mention the odd one or two having a taste for the blood of Englishmen) for the Pact to spare them, to let even one such creature remain awake and unfettered in the world. And so, Cormoran, and every last one of the Gog-men across the land, had gone into the Sleep, slumbering under hill and dale, the grass growing over their temporary graves.
Airborne, slowing, Ben took in the giant’s earrings, each copper pendant about the width of an Underground tunnel. He took in his topknot of hair and his dreadlocks, as tangled and grubby as a thicket in Epping Forest. Cormoran’s loincloth, made up of innumerable pelts, covered the hairy humps of his buttocks, sparing the people gawking in the surrounding office buildings at least that terrible sight. Ben saw the club in the giant’s fist too, a yacht-sized chunk of wood studded with rocks, the weapon swinging back and forth, tossing up silt and foam as it lashed the surface of the water.
What hole had Cormoran crawled out of? Ben knew exactly. Rousing, he’d have shrugged off an Oxfordshire hillside, rising from some black-as-pitch cavern hollowed out of music and molten rock eight hundred years ago – a cave recently made molten again by the breaking of the harp. The giant’s awakening, however, had come as a surprise. It wasn’t in the schedule. Or rather, in the prophecy, spoken centuries ago, or so the story went, by the Lady Nimue, the Queen of the Fay, upon her departure from Earth.
Yes. It was in all the old books, wasn’t it? The Queen’s Troth, ringing in his skull these past few months along with the echoes of the alien music.
One shining day, when Remnants and humans learn to live in peace, and magic blossoms anew in the world, then shall the Fay return and commence a new golden age.
Well, nothing about the present situation looked golden to him.
The return of the Fay was meant to signal the fulfilment of the Pact and the end of the Long Sleep – an event that Ben had come to see as far-fetched, to put it mildly, a fairy tale cooked up out of Remnant hope and King John’s coercion. Miles and months away in China, Von Hart had told him, in a wide-eyed, breathless fashion that could’ve been shock or could’ve been triumph, that the Fay were coming back. It was a strange thought and an alarming one. All his life, Ben had believed that the long-vanished masters, the creators of all the Remnants, remained aeons away in the nether. A memory. Ancient history. Gone. It struck him as both ironic and cruel to now discover that he hoped so.
I should be cheering at the news of their return. Not shitting myself.
The only word that fitted the knot in his guts was “dread”. It was an old story and an old score. Prophecies and fancy words aside, the Fay, known in the oldest of tales as fickle, had abandoned the Remnants, leaving their magical children to crawl on their bellies through the shadows of the ages. Besides, Von Hart’s double dealing had hardly convinced him of Fay benevolence. He had no reason to trust the creatures at all, let alone their promises.
But he had learnt to trust his instincts. Wasn’t the giant ahead of him stark proof of the trouble to come?
Cormoran loomed. Christ, he could smell the fucker, an earthy fetor that put the city’s pollution to shame. It was the stink of an ancient bed, unkempt, magical and rank, sour as all the spells were sour these days, in these End Times of enchantment. The giant was up to his knees in the river, his massive boots sinking into metres of junk and filth, the wreckage of countless centuries. Ships, bridges, dragon bones . . .
The width of the Thames allowed Cormoran free passage through London, and Ben, having surveyed the damage caused by the giant’s feet through Clerkenwell, could only feel grateful that he’d chosen this route. Foot-shapedcraters peppered Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, the shops, pubs and offices crushed as if they belonged in a model village, pulverised by the passage of mammoth boots. At the top of the hill, the giant’s club had cracked the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral as though it was a boiled egg, the giant grumbling and turning, stamping down on Queen Victoria Street, a tower of sinew heading for the river.
The road had cracked like a liquorice stick, buses and trucks ramming into a descending foot. A church steeple went tumbling through the air, splintering apart on Mansion House tube station, blocks of stone choking the entrance, burying commuters. Trees shook, shedding branches and birds. Pigeons, squawking, fluttered through the invaded sky. A furrow of rubble – most of it smouldering, sparking or aflame – marked the course of Cormoran’s journey, a broad thoroughfare of ruin. The Monument to the Great Fire had toppled in his wake, the Doric column thumping down on the adjacent buildings, its golden crown shattering, riddling the crowds with debris. HMS Belfast, the navy museum battleship, had capsized at moorage as the giant’s boot splashed down in the Thames.
Tower Bridge now rose snapped and crumbling behind the brute, and several barges and boats had run aground, hurled by the displaced tide. Lightermen and tourists milled on the shore, bedraggled, shell-shocked, but alive. Ben didn’t want to think about the people in the city, how they’d fared under the march of leather soles with who knew how many tons behind them. With a familiar twist in his guts, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to save everyone. As ever, this was a game of damage limitation.
And you’re losing ground. You’ve been losing ground ever since the breach in the Lore . . .
Somehow, he had to draw the giant away from London, lure him further downriver into the marshes, into the deepest mud, let the estuary tides close over his head . . .
Wishful thinking. The only kind you know.
Still, he had to try. The giant shrugged off Canary Wharf in splinters and crashed onwards past Millwall, the river flooding Surrey Docks Farm and Sir John McDougall Gardens. Mud and trash went washing into the Isle of Dogs, wrecked boats, stunned seagulls, fishing nets, dislodged crates and shopping trolleys swirling down the streets towards the inner docks.
With eyes as keen as a hawk’s, Ben watched as people below wrenched open their front doors, Sunday papers in hand, to see what all the fuss was about. Men in boxers and women in nighties looked up at the sky. Teenagers dropped their mobile phones. Children squealed and pointed. On the corner, a bearded gent clutched his turban and hurried inside to lock his shop door, as if that was any defence against the huge and impossible creature barging its way into the day.
Ben, who knew the city like the back of his claw, watched as the panic multiplied throughout the Docklands, hordes hurrying down Westferry Road, some of them clutching badly packed suitcases. Others, youths, went shouting and swearing by on bicycles, on skateboards, or stumbling on discount store high heels. Over eight long centuries, Ben had seen London grow and spread out from a huddle of houses around the Palace of Westminster – and seen no end of the city’s troubles from the Black Death to blitzkrieg bombs – but he had never seen anything like this before, the populace screaming, running scared from a monster.
The usual empathy, reluctant, foolhardy as it was, tugged at him. Down there, the human medley of ages and cultures for which the capital was famous had become united in terror. And, in the shadow of the giant striding down the river ahead, Ben couldn’t deny that he was part of the threat, a red-scaled, leather-winged freak that should not be, that belonged in fairy tales and big-budget movies, not in the skies above modern-day London.
A buzzing in his ears, mechanical and way too close, reminded Ben that his concerns for secrecy were pointless. The helicopter was an example of the dangerous state of play. Flanks emblazoned with the logo of a popular and utterly bullshit national tabloid, the chopper swooped in alongside Ben like a mosquito, the whirling rotors and humming engine as annoying as any sting. He spared the craft a weary glance. In the cockpit, a slack-jawed pilot took in the behemoth ahead, Cormoran’s wading bulk currently making a sewer of Deptford. In the cabin, a journalist was alternately taking snapshots of the giant and the dragon coasting beside them, although the wind and his trembling hands made the chance of decent photographs unlikely.
Say cheese. Ben gave the pilot a glimpse of his fangs, warning him to keep his distance as he climbed for greater altitude, racing after the giant. The press, in typical fashion, ignored him, the increased whine of the chopper’s engine informing him that it meant to stay glued to his tail.
Fine. It’s your funeral.
Despite his cynicism, Ben knew that this wasn’t good. The press he could handle. He didn’t give a shit about his five minutes of fame – it was much too late for that – but an airborne craft would soon bring others. Perhaps Royal Air Force jets armed to the teeth with machine guns and missiles, if experience was anything to go by. And maybe Tornadoes could even stop the giant. Maybe not. Maybe Cormoran would bat them out of the sky, King Kong style. All the same, Ben was sure that the pilots wouldn’t draw a distinction between the giant and himself. A monster was a monster, after all. A threat was a threat. Besides, where the hell were they? The military response was tardy, to say the least. Every step the giant took meant more trampled and drowned people, more casualties, more structural damage. He had to act fast or forget this latest, ill-advised attempt at heroism.
He zipped upward, venting flame, trying to catch Cormoran’s attention. Comparatively bird-sized as he was, he might as well have pecked at a statue’s head. What the hell did the giant want? Eight hundred years underground hadn’t left him rested and in a good mood, that was for sure. And no wonder. Judging by the shambling mountain before him, his shaggy head and shuddering groans, Ben reckoned that Cormoran was more dazed and confused than anything; the needling harp song – a melody that Ben recalled with a cramp in his balls and an ache in his skull – must’ve been a rude awakening. And that didn’t even begin to account for the giant’s arrival in modern times.
Giants weren’t exactly known for their brains. Nevertheless, on the whole, they’d been smart enough to steer clear of King John’s new cities and towns, preferring the open reaches of the countryside, the Cornish moors, the Cumbrian hills and the Scottish Highlands. Back then, London would’ve been a smoking huddle of huts on the horizon, two or three spires pointing at the sky, most of them long since crumbled or sunken into the shadow of tower blocks, their weathervanes outstripped by satellite dishes and radio masts.
The modern city must strike the giant as a vision of hell, surely. A festering, stinking bed of industry, a sea of clamour and smoke. Cormoran was angry and confused, clearly. A lumbering oaf at the best of times, he must’ve climbed from his bed with what amounted to a raging hangover. Had he realised that someone had stolen eight hundred years from him? That people had fooled him, forced him into slumber? Did the sickening song still ring in his skull? It was only a matter of time until his club started swinging this way and that, crashing down on an unsuspecting Greenwich, his shadow falling over the historic district as he trudged further downriver. Water, black and foul with the ceaseless river traffic, gurgled and slopped up the tributaries of creek and canal, a steadily rising wall of destruction that went crashing over houses, roads and railway tracks, prompting a fresh chorus of screams.
Ben made his move. Wings folded, he navigated the giant’s head, shooting over crusty ringlets of hair and emerging above his sloping brow, his coarse skin glistening with scars and runnels of sweat. From the giant’s temples, faded tattoos curled down to his jawline, which Ben recognised as markings from the Old Lands, back when such tribal symbols mattered. Giants were as old as the hills and just as hardy. Had Cormoran fought at Camlann, the ancient, legendary battle that had seen the fall of King Arthur? His brands appeared to suggest so, but whether he’d sided with the Pendragon or the Usurper, Ben couldn’t say.
Unhappy with the sight, an echo of a war that wasn’t lost on him, Ben set his gaze on Cormoran’s eyebrows several feet below him, a briar sprinkled with the frost of age. Snapping out his tail, he dived directly downwards, all four claws naked and splayed. Roaring a challenge, he raked his way down the giant’s face, leaving a scattering wake of blood.
Cormoran bellowed, but with the thunder of outrage rather than pain. As Ben pushed himself off the giant’s nose, Cormoran turned his cliff of a head, looking around for the source of the attack. Air, hot and rank, came blasting from the giant’s lungs, slamming into Ben like a battering ram, flinging him wheeling out into space, his wings flailing. The ground spun below, a kaleidoscope of buildings and streets. Then a hand, a wall of meat, came up to grab him.
With a grimace, Ben slipped through the giant’s fingers, the ridge of his spine scoring a vast and scabrous palm, missing a crushing end by inches. Fighting for calm, he let gravity drag him towards the earth, the wind ironing out his wings and tail, untangling him from his nosedive.
The sky shook as Cormoran lunged. The river crashed over the south bank and smashed down on Greenwich Pier, chasing screaming tourists before it, some snatched up by the squall. Up on the quay, a helter-skelter ride became a sudden island, the waters gushing around its stripy conical tower. Falling fast, Ben watched as the Cutty Sark, the famous clipper moored near the National Maritime Museum, budged and shifted in the barrelling tide. Her masts swayed, her rigging creaking in the gusting wind. The deluge cracked the framework securing her hull to the wharf, her cage of tessellated glass twisting and shifting, the vessel breaking free. The ship – named after, of all things, a dancing witch – hadn’t been at sea since the Opium Wars and she seemed oddly buoyant as the waves took her, bearing her aloft – and then ending her brief and final voyage in black smithereens against the walls of the Royal Naval College.
Ben looked away. Rolling in the air, tail lashing, he again steered himself for the heights. He slipped around the knoll of Cormoran’s knee, shooting over the jungle of the giant’s loincloth, his belly fat and pale enough to rival the Millennium Dome in the distance. Drawing level with the planes taking off from London City Airport, Ben could see the eastern limits of the capital, a living toy town about to get crushed. So many lives trampled underfoot. One way or another, he had to grab Cormoran’s attention, speak sense into him if possible, get him to head back to the hills.
Or find a way to kill him.
Such notions shattered as flames flowered around him, an explosion smacking him about the head, shuddering through his bones. Jags of metal came whistling past as he made his ascent, the debris bouncing off his horns and rump, startling, but unable to burn him. Peering through the smoke, he made out the helicopter – now missing its tail boom and rotor – wheeling across the sky, the pilot punching at the controls.
Well, you got your scoop. Hope it was worth it.
The chopper spun, rudderless, towards the earth. For a moment, Ben looked on, thrown off his battle charge. Then, with a grunt that carried a weight of reluctance, he turned and dived after the craft, his snout wrinkling at the stench of kerosene, his claws stretching out. In the cabin, the journalist watched him approach with bulging eyes. Even as the man vented a wail, he wrapped one of his arms in a seatbelt, clutching onto his camera for dear life. Impending crash or no, he didn’t want to lose his snaps.
In a snarl of metal and a belch of smoke, dragon and chopper thumped into Island Gardens, a park on the north bank. Debris clattered down, scorching the surrounding grass. Trees shook, wild with leaves. Hedges burst into flame. A quick scan of the area told Ben that the park was thankfully empty, the people scattering at the sight of the giant booming his way down the river. Small mercies. With no time to waste, he unfurled himself from the crumpled craft, a seven-ton length of crimson flesh having shielded pilot and passenger from certain death. Exhaling in a smoky plume, he watched the men clamber from the wreckage and crawl as quickly as possible away from him without so much as a backward glance, let alone a thank you.
With a sigh, Ben turned away from the crash site. His tail swept up a storm of leaves and his wings rattled the swings in the nearby playground. Nostrils trailing smoke, he pointed his snout back at the sky, back up at the towering menace. The sun shone overhead, beaming through the scudding clouds, but he felt a chill creep into his bones nonetheless. He was standing in the shadow of a two-hundred-foot-tall mountain of muscle, framed by the steel-blue sky.
The screams, though distant, were louder now, an odd stillness falling over the day. Gradually, the Thames was returning to calm, her waters slopping at the embankment. The faint roar of collapsing buildings and the wail of sirens filtered to Ben’s ears, faraway and dreamlike. A tingle went through him, goosebumps prickling from his snout to the tip of his tail.
Cormoran, Bane of the Summer Country, was looking down at him.
Whether distracted by the crashed chopper or dragon fire, the giant had stopped dead in his tracks, his rampage interrupted. He was peering down at Island Gardens – what must’ve looked like a little ring of scorched grass to him, with a small red bird cringing in the middle. The giant’s face was in shadow, but Ben felt eyeballs bigger than boulders taking him in all the same. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he found a sudden reason to regret his attention-seeking.
If there’d ever been a good time for diplomacy, this was it. There were certain codes among Remnants, certain ways of doing things. Calls to parley. Invitations to battle. Sure, bloodshed and terror had a funny way of following the formalities, but before all that, there was a kind of etiquette. Honour among fiends. Could he rely on that here? He could try.
Ben roared a challenge, calling for the giant to desist. This was the dragon city, after all, and Ben had made it his business to protect it. Sworn to protect it as he had sworn to protect all humans by upholding the Lore. The Lore might be over, but old habits died hard. Besides, it was home. Scratch Mordiford, far away in the Welsh Marches; London was the only home he knew, the one he’d chosen. In a growl of wyrm tongue that he hoped Cormoran could understand (and hiding the tremble in his voice), he demanded a moment to parley.
What do you say, big guy?
Cormoran bent, stretching out the rolls of flab that passed for his neck as he leant down for a closer look. His head blocked out the sun, granting Ben the unwelcome sight of his beard, flecked as it was with broken branches, struggling birds and the remains of sheep and cows – no doubt snaffled from some field or other on his way here. His face split in a grin that seemed as wide and as crooked as the river he presently stood in. Gobbets of drool splashed down on the park, each one forming a wide, viscous pool. Cormoran’s breath, an opened sack of a hundred farts, gusted all around Ben, ruffling his wings and flattening his tail as the giant spoke.
“Benjurigan. Backstabber. Snake.”
“It’s been a while,” Ben spoke through his fangs, hoping the giant would take them for a disarming smile, “but I see you remember me.”
“Cormoran never forgets a face.” The giant tapped his chest with a pillar of a finger, the echoes shaking the ground under Ben’s claws. “And I remember both of yours.”
“Wait a minute. I—”
It was no good. With that, their parley was over. Ben’s smile shrivelled up as a mighty arm came swinging down, aiming to squash him like a bug. Thrusting his haunches, he bounded out of the way, clods of earth and jags of machinery exploding all around him as several tons of ham-hock fist went slamming into the ground.
The smart thing, of course, was to make himself a smaller target. First to shrink were his wings, the leathery membranes folding up like umbrellas, his metacarpals merging with the rack of his flanks and spine, both dwindling in size. His arrowhead tail rippled towards his retracting snout and somewhere in the middle, his transformation met in the shape of a man. A flash of will, a gentle push, and impossibly, magically, the dragon coiled up inside new hominid dimensions.
Ben landed on the turf, a flame-haired, broad-shouldered man stumbling across the shuddering ground. Recovering himself, he headed west, sprinting across the park. Through the giant’s legs, he could see the twin domes of the Old Royal Naval College across the river, the classical façade, the pillared porticoes, trimmed lawns and statues stretching beside the Thames.
Between ornate golden weathervanes, the Grand Square had become an escape route for tourists, the last of the crowds haemorrhaging through the gates onto Romney Road. Ben surveyed the area with gleaming eyes, the crush of faces striking him as all too familiar, a blur of dread and desperation. Of spent disbelief. He had seen these expressions a lot lately, from London to Cairo to Hong Kong, a mosaic that he’d put together to work out their revelatory sum: the old order had shaken and fallen. The Lore, like the damned harp, like the Eight Hand Mirror, had shattered into pieces. The events of the last two years amounted to a disaster. All of them, Remnant and human alike, were standing on the edge of a new era, a new age – and things didn’t look too pretty.
Legs pumping across the grass, Ben tried to ignore the looming presence at his back, the imagined pendulum of fists about to come crashing down on him, or maybe a boot, grinding him face-first into the dirt, leaving a crimson puddle. He took in his surroundings in short, breathless flashes, searching for an escape route, some kind of solution.
Think, damn it. Think.
Half a mile to the south, the Royal Observatory stood on a hill overlooking the broad sweep of parkland where the Greenwich Palace had once stood, the birthplace of Tudor queens and the favourite haunt of kings. Ben reflected as he ran, remembering simpler, happier times, when he hadn’t had to deal with battle dragons and angry giants, the detritus of his unravelling world. Not that he hadn’t faced his fair share of trouble back then. History was like that, he supposed. The glow of nostalgia. The rose-tinted past. And if he didn’t get the hell out of here, he was about to become a part of it.
He did a double take as he spied the chimneys further up the south bank, the old building an eyesore of yellow brickwork rising over the rows of riverside houses. At once, his mind blazed with desperate inspiration, his eyes narrowing on the four angular smokestacks. It was a long shot, but it would have to do.
Panting hard, he skidded in that direction, darting towards the squat round building with the glazed dome that stood at the edge of the park, mere yards from the Thames. With a voluble slurp, Cormoran raised one boot from the river, trailing muck and fish and trash, and stamped down on the offending bank, trying to crush the little snake who’d dared to dicker with him. With the impact of his boot, the ground became a trampoline of thrown-up trees and earth. Ben didn’t hang around, waiting for a premature burial. Knocked off his feet, he let the tremors carry him into the domed building he’d been heading for, making a graceless entrance into the Greenwich foot tunnel. Bricks and glass showered down around him as he tumbled forward, his skull, spine and backside bouncing off the steps of a broad spiral staircase, down into the murk.
An ordinary man would’ve found himself sprawled at the bottom in a heap of broken bones, unable to move. Ben only had to wait a minute or so for his limbs to straighten, his bruises to fade, restored by the magic in his physique. Wincing, he sprang to his feet, a hand held out to the shuddering wall, the light fixtures flickering over his head. Often, his deep knowledge of the city, a shifting map of streets imprinted on his mind, came in handy. For example, when one had to flee from rampaging giants. In the early twentieth century, the foot tunnel had replaced an unreliable ferry service to ensure that labourers could reach the docks and shipyards on time – anything in the name of industry – and a similar expedience would work for Ben here. Peering into the gloom, he understood the risk he was taking. Bearing such a tremendous weight, the river bed was shifting, punching pipes, bridges, banks and perhaps tunnels out of true. But if he could make it safely to the other side, emerge behind Cormoran unexpected, he might just stand a chance . . .
He was pounding down the remaining steps before he’d finished making the decision. At the bottom of the staircase, he found himself looking down a long, round, white-tiled tunnel, the passage sloping slightly in the middle. Cracks had appeared in the walls, rank black water, grit and mud frothing through the fissures, breaches caused by the giant’s feet. Cricking his neck, Ben made his way forward, wading as fast as he could through the slop, his inner heat, retained even in human form, resisting the flooding cold.
By the time he’d reached the halfway point, he was up to his knees, his bare feet thumping on the concrete under him. A few yards further on and the water was boiling around his waist, the scales of his suit wet and slick. The lights overhead gave up the ghost, plunging him into darkness. He was near the staircase on the opposite bank when the waters rushed over the wyrm tongue sigil on his chest – the envoy’s symbol months redundant – then the flood was covering his chin, his nose and eyes. The tunnel was buckling, caving in.
Lungs aching, Ben thrashed in a swirl of bricks and filth, his hands splayed, blindly thrusting himself forward. Brackish water filled his nose and throat; the metropolitan river was anything but fresh. Mentally, he toasted himself for his smart move, with an imagined glass of Château d’Yuck. A creature of the sky, death by drowning was probably the worst thing that could happen to him. Sure, his kind found the proximity of water soothing, some long-lost primal echo, but that wouldn’t serve him here. Here, the deluge would simply extinguish him, snuff him out.
With a roar that only he could hear, Ben spun in the chaos, the water pushing him halfway up the staircase at the end of the tunnel, his skull and shoulder cracking against the wall. Gasping, he broke the surface, sucking air into his lungs. Coughing, cursing, he swept his sodden fringe from his face and climbed the steps hand over hand, trying to drag himself out of the muck. It was no good. Shaped as an ordinary man – one stupid enough to take this route – there was no way he’d escape the collapsing foot tunnel, the daylight filtering through the dome above a false beacon of hope.
Seconds later, Ben burst from the entrance to the foot tunnel, emerging on the opposite bank in a scatter of bricks. Wings shaking off glass, tail dripping filth, he hurled himself upwards in full dragon form, regaining the advantage of the heights.
A quick glance down revealed the state of the stricken wharf, the decimated Cutty Sark and the gushing market, the stalls carried off by the flood like brightly striped, ridiculous boats. The thoroughfare of the Royal Naval College had become a swirling morass of debris, of toppled statues, litter and the odd boat that had snapped free of its moorings. And there were bodies. Floating bodies. The grand old building was no longer a museum; it was a mausoleum. A dog shivered on a half-submerged plinth, whining for its owner. In the distance, the survivors clambered in droves up the slope of Greenwich Park, but considering the scale of the threat, the landscape of brawn and forest of beard above, no hilltop was going to offer a safe haven.
Snarling between his fangs, Ben soared up the two-hundred-foot cliff of legs, loincloth and back to the hirsute horizon of Cormoran’s shoulders. He snapped out his wings to slow his ascent, coming up behind the giant’s formidable head. The giant turned away from him, scanning the Thames for the red-scaled nuisance, his grunts and breaths – breaths that stripped leaves from the trees below– revealing his annoyance.
Before Cormoran grew bored and returned to his stampede through London, Ben made his move. Levelling his wings, he caught an air current that swung him around the giant’s skull and vented a roar of his own into his cavernous ear.
“Give it up, ugly. I don’t see a beanstalk around here, do you? The only place you’re going is down.”
The insult had the desired effect. Bellowing, the giant turned in the river, waves thrashing around his shins. He pummelled the sky with his fists, forcing Ben to make a manoeuvre worthy of the Red Arrows as he zipped through the gap between the giant’s elbow and torso. The London skyline smeared across the horizon, the Shard glittering in the sun, a sword rising from a lake of industry. Upside down, Ben crested the crown of the giant’s head, riding gravity as he fell back towards his intended destination, the yellow brick smokestacks below him.
Greenwich Power Station rose from the bank of the Thames, its four chimneys pointing at the sky. Despite the weatherworn look of the building, Ben knew that a fire still rumbled in its belly. Once, the place had been a boiler house and an engine room, housing great steam engines that had pumped power to the newly electrified London Underground. Generators had long since replaced the antiquated machinery, fuelling the Tube as the trains rattled through the veins of the city. Ben had never found the building below attractive, the massive brick warehouse designed as functional rather than architectural. All the same, the power station appealed today, representing as it did his last and only chance.
Glancing over his shoulder, it relieved him to find that Cormoran had followed him, the giant wading through the river, his face a moon of grinding teeth. Ben coasted further inland, over the riddle of streets that sprawled around the power station. He only hoped that the people in the houses below had caught the morning news and, taking the hint, run for the hills. It was too late to turn back now. It was a question of survival. Fight or flight.
Ben intended to do both.
With a crunch that shuddered through the borough, Cormoran dragged himself out of the river and stamped down on the power station, the roof caving in. Nearby, the spire of Trinity Hospital and the Star and Garter pub exploded in brick dust, plaster and glass under the giant’s boot. Standing in the crater where the warehouse had stood but moments before, Cormoran swung his club, taking out three of the station’s chimneys in one fell swoop. Like skittles, the smokestacks toppled, a smouldering blanket of debris and dust billowing into the surrounding streets. Parked cars flipped over like toys. Trees thrashed and lampposts snapped.
Rubble ricocheted off Ben’s snout, thumping on his horns and breast. He paid it no mind, dismissing the pain. His nostrils flared, smoking and twitching, picking up the bitter, sulphuric smell that was wafting its way into the day. The breath of the earth, raw and foul, mixed with some chemical compound. Gas. Natural gas. With the fall of a mighty boot, Cormoran had ruptured the huge turbines and the tanks inside the shell of the building, reducing them to crackling, hissing jags of steel.
With no time to spare, Ben swooped in low over the collapsing roof, his wings spread. He breathed in deep, then exhaled in a plume of fire. Flame blustered from his belly, venting from the chambers in his guts and sparked by his back teeth. Speeding through the gauntlet of the shattered building, he strafed the machinery under him, licking the wreckage with heat. Reaching the far wall, he skated upwards on a blazing cloak, past the tip of the giant’s club and out over the Thames.
The next second, the sky throbbed, the air above the power station drawing in tight, a fleeting moment of compression. Ben heard Cormoran grunt, the giant puzzled by the bonfire flaring between his legs. He lifted a boot, intending to stamp it out, when—
The world shattered. The ruptured gas tanks welcomed the untold heat of dragon fire, and Greenwich Power Station – foundations, walls, chimneys and all – took to the sky.
The explosion slammed into Ben, the fire overtaking him, a blast like a kick in the rump. Wings buckling, tail over snout, he went tumbling out over the river, the London skyline lost in the heat haze, the Shard rippling in the distance. Fighting for consciousness, he let the impact carry him and sailed over the Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf shimmering at his back. The moment he slowed, he snapped out his wings, his neck twisting towards Greenwich.
Cormoran, Bane of the Summer Country, was burning. In a pillar of flame, he stood, caught in the shattered bowels of the power station. Echoes smacked against the sky; the giant was howling to ring down the sun. His boots had become great stubs of ember and ash, indistinguishable from the blaze around him. His loincloth and hair, having kept out centuries of subterranean cold, had gone up like haystacks in a bushfire. Blisters, red and weeping, spread in angry pools across his skin. With a whoosh, the giant’s beard went up, his howl scaling into a deafening scream.
Head a burning crown, Cormoran managed to crash his way out of the ruins of the power station. Ben wanted to look away, but looking away was a privilege he couldn’t afford. He was hypnotised by the fire, riding on the winds of destruction and observing his handiwork. An idol towered over Greenwich Park, old as the hills, two hundred feet high. Cormoran had become an effigy, a blazing wicker man of flesh and bone. The giant berated the sky, his flailing arms stirring up thunder and smoke, setting fire to the bushes and the trees below. A scorched ring of grass, the width of a football pitch, spread out from the giant’s feet. Burning ashes shrouded the sky, a curtain falling on an age of secrets.
The power station had done its work. High overhead, Ben could see that Cormoran wouldn’t survive.
He wished he could say he was sorry.
Fee fi fo fum, motherfucker.
With a boom to shatter the earth, Cormoran fell. The giant dropped to his knees and then slumped face forward, collapsing across Greenwich Park.