I am just putting the final touches to the sixth Kormak adventure, Ocean of Fear. It’s a rousing sword and sorcery tale of pirates, gigantic sea monsters and dark ancient secrets. It should be available real soon now. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the first chapter.
FEET THUNDERED ACROSS the trireme’s deck as the crew raced to their battle stations. Drums sounded the beat for the straining oarsmen. Marines strapped on shields and drew shortswords. Crossbowmen wound their arbalests and fitted bolts into place. Sweating and puffing, the engine crew on the sterncastle manoeuvred the ballista to cover the shoreline.
Standing at the prow of the warship above the great beak of the ram, the tall greying man watched the distant village burn. A frown made his scarred face even more sinister. He shaded his cold grey eyes against the sea glare and studied the devastated little township on the forest’s edge.
Smoke rose above the huts and fires crackled along the wooden palisade. Dead bodies, some pierced with arrows, sprawled on the sand of the beach. He could make out no sign of life.
He walked back towards the stern. Superstitious sailors avoided his glance and made the Sign of the Sun when they thought he would not notice. They knew what sort of man carried a sword on his back. They knew why he was aboard and they did not like it. Since he had joined the ship three days ago in the northern Siderean port of Grahal, he had done nothing but make them uneasy.
As the man approached the sterncastle the ship’s captain broke off his discussion with the ship’s chaplain and nodded permission to join him on the command deck. “You may come up, Sir Kormak,” he said.
Kormak stalked up the stairs and studied the captain. Elias Zamara, by Grace of King-Emperor Aemon of Siderea, Captain of the Ocean’s Blade and admiral of this small pirate-hunting fleet, was almost as tall as Kormak, with the copper-blond hair and hawk-like features of a Siderean nobleman. He wore the elaborate ruffled collar and purple cloak of the royal court. A gold Elder Sign with three interlocked five-pointed stars hung on his chest like a badge of office. His manner was supercilious; the easy way he strode the command deck said that he was not a man to be taken lightly.
“Have we found what we are looking for?” Zamara asked. His haughty tone could not hide his nervousness. Distant cousin to the king or not, Elias Zamara was still a young man with no great experience in dealing with sorcery, no matter how many sea battles he had fought in.
“Too early to say,” said Kormak. “All I can see is a burned out village. Could be anything from Thurian raiders to an attack by elves who resent their lands being colonised.”
“They were most likely only heretics anyway,” said Frater Jonas. He gestured at the village as if condemning every soul in it to eternal damnation under the Shadow. The fleet’s chaplain was a short bird-like man with very black hair, very dark eyes and a neatly clipped spade beard. His olive skin, darker than the captain’s, made it clear that he belonged not to his country’s Sunlander nobility but to its peasantry.
Jonas wore the yellow robes of the Order of the Eternal Sun, an organisation said to wield power second only to the King-Emperor in Siderea. His hand stroked the solar emblem of his Order the way a man might a favourite cat. “They come here with their foul ways to escape the Holy Sun’s sight.”
The young nobleman looked at him with distaste, nor perhaps so much for the sentiments expressed but for the peasant accent they were expressed in.
“Someone certainly wanted them dead,” Kormak said. “The question is why.”
“There’s only one way we’re going to find out,” said the captain. “We’re going to have to send in a landing party.”
“Very well,” Kormak said. “Let’s go take a look.”
Scores of armed warriors from each of the fleet’s three ships filled the rowboats. Some of the marines rowed the small craft towards the strand. Others pointed their cocked crossbows in the direction of the beach.
Elias Zamara sat with his hand on his sword’s hilt. Frater Jonas clutched his Elder Sign as if it too was a weapon. He clearly expected some emissary of the Shadow to be waiting within the village to challenge his faith.
The marines kept their eyes fixed on the shore. They had the look of the typical Siderean professional soldier—stocky, dark-haired, medium height, olive-skinned. They were the same hardy breed that freed their country from the Seleneans and who were now spreading Siderean power across the Dragon Sea and the archipelagos of the World Ocean. Some said they were the best infantrymen the world had seen since the days of the Solari Legions and so far Kormak had found no reason to doubt that assessment.
The wind carried the smell of burned flesh, mingling it with the salt tang of the sea. The waves turned to white foam as they hit the sand and withdrew.
Kormak was the first to vault into the surf. Salt water wet him up to his thighs. Sand crunched beneath his boots. He made his way ashore as quickly as he could, uncomfortable with the way the water slowed his movements even for those few moments.
Silence brooded over the village. Gulls pecked at the corpses on the beach. Larger carrion birds fluttered skywards as they noticed the soldiers.
Kormak walked over to the nearest body. The dead woman’s skirt had been raised above her waist. Blood pooled between her legs. Someone had raped her then stabbed her through the heart.
A man lay nearby, his throat cut. Maybe he had been forced to watch the woman die before they killed him. Kormak fought to keep his mind from constructing narratives. It was all too easy to picture what had happened here. He had seen the like many times, the first when he had been eight years old and it had been his own people dying.
Two children lay nearby. They stared up at the sky with blank empty eyes. Their throats had been cut too. They bore a family resemblance to the man and the woman.
“It was a mercy,” said one of the soldiers. “The tykes would have starved to death without their folks to feed them.” He did not sound as if he believed it. He sounded like he was trying to comfort himself.
The state of the corpses and the fact that the fires still burned made it obvious the attack was recent, most likely last night, possibly even some time before the dawn.
The slow burn of an anger that he knew, given time, would become incandescent fury started in Kormak’s gut. He felt, as he always did, the need to make someone pay for this.
He unclenched his fists, took a deep breath and forced the rage down into the place where he had buried it long ago. A man in his line of work could not afford to give in to every spark of righteous anger. It was not his job to avenge these people. His duty was to find the sorcerer men called the Kraken and end his unrighteous career. Anything else was just a distraction.
“Silence,” said Zamara with the chill authority of the Siderean nobleman. “No talking. There may be enemies watching us even now.”
Frater Jonas bent over the children, made the Sign of the Sun, and then closed their eyes with surprising gentleness. He noticed Kormak looking at him.
“What?” he said.
Kormak responded to the harshness in his voice. “I thought they were only heretics.”
Zeal and humanity warred on the priest’s face. Humanity gained the upper hand, and Kormak found he liked the little man more for it. “Maybe so, but they were men and women, aye, and children…”
“Look at their faces,” someone said, despite Zamara’s order. Kormak understood what he meant. Terror twisted many of the dead’s features. It was hardly surprising under the circumstances but clearly the men found it uncanny. They were ready to be spooked at the slightest thing. The soldiers knew they hunted a mage.
The gates of the village had been torn off their hinges. More bodies sprawled in the earthen streets. The small huts had been burned. The large central communal hall, possibly a temple of some kind, was now only smouldering wreckage. Vultures rose from their feasts and flapped slowly away, as if too gorged to fly any faster.
“The attack came from the beach,” said Zamara. “No sign of assault from the forest. I think it’s safe to say this was the work of pirates.”
“But was it the pirates we’re looking for?” said Kormak.
“Split up! Search this place! Don’t wander out of earshot,” said Zamara. “See what you can find, though I doubt there will be anything. This place never had much to start with and it’s been picked clean. But look anyway!”
“I’ll need a party of men to gather up the bodies and prepare them for burning,” said Frater Jonas. “I’ll speak the rites myself.”
“Of course, Frater,” said Zamara. In the face of the death surrounding them, the mask of contempt had dropped from his face. He pointed to half a dozen men and said, “Gather the corpses.”
He selected half a dozen more. “Gather wood and prepare a pyre. We can spare some oil from the ship to send these people into the Light.”
Kormak was surprised. It was not the sort of wasteful gesture he expected from the young and ambitious Siderean nobleman.
“Sir,” said one of the soldiers who had fanned out through the village. “You had better see this.”
His words were addressed to the captain but his eyes were on Kormak.
“Lead on, Terves,” said the captain.
The soldier brought them to the corpse. It lay near the wall, in the shadow of the forest’s edge.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said and then clamped his lips shut, as if sorry he had spoken.
“I have,” said Kormak. The body looked desiccated. The skin had an ashen quality to it. The eyes were like shrivelled black olives. The flesh was flaking away. His mind drifted back to a dead child in the cold northlands of Taurea. Someone else he had been too late to save. Once more he found himself pushing his anger down.
“It looks like a mummy,” said Zamara. “I saw things like this south of the Dragon Sea, in the Necropolis in Umbrea.”
Terves nodded agreement. Kormak guessed both the captain and the old soldier had served time as part of the Siderean army holding the forces of Shadow at bay in that distant land.
“It’s no mummy,” said Kormak. “It’s dressed like a villager.”
“Look at it. It’s been dead for centuries,” said Zamara. He clearly wanted to believe that.
“It’s certainly dead,” said Kormak. “Most likely since last night.”
“Then we’ve found what we’re looking for,” the captain said.
“I think so, yes,” said Kormak. He bent down to inspect the corpse.
“When did you see the like?” Terves was white-faced but needed to ask. Zamara clearly wanted to know the answer as well for he said nothing to shut the man up.
“A few years ago along the edge of the Barrow Hills in Taurea, a wight had taken a child…”
“You think this was a wight?” Zamara asked, torn between disbelief and dread. Kormak shook his head.
“Wights rarely move from the places their bodies were interred, and there is no history of Kharonian barrow builders along the Blood Coast.”
“Who knows what lies back there in the forest,” said the soldier. “Those are elfwoods. The Old Ones dwelled there once. And some of them dwell there still.”
“I suspect it was something that feeds in the same manner as a wight,” Kormak said. He looked up. Zamara’s hand clutched the triple Elder Sign at his throat. Terves made the Sign of the Sun over his heart.
“Feeds?” The captain’s voice was flat. He was holding his fear under a tight rein.
“They devour the souls of their victims, consume their life force. Something has done the same thing here.”
“I heard the Kraken was a sorcerer but this is like something you expect from the worst sort of Shadow worshipper.”
“It may not have been him,” Kormak said. “Perhaps he has bound a soul-eater to his service. Some sorcerers do.”
Terves let out a small scared groan. His face was stony. If Kormak had not heard the sound he would not have known the man was afraid.
“In the name of the Shadow what manner of man are we hunting for?” Zamara asked.
“A very bad one,” Kormak said. “One who deserves to die.”
“If man he is, sir,” said Terves.
“Man or demon, this will kill him,” Kormak said, touching the hilt of the dwarf-forged blade that protruded over his left shoulder.
A noise from the far side of the village drew their attention. Frater Jonas came striding up. “It appears we have some survivors,” he said.
“Let’s see what they can tell us,” Captain Zamara said.