- Chapter 1 -

L'Empire de la Mort

 

Alex Chambers’ muscles screamed but he couldn’t stop running. Above, he could just make out the sounds of Paris at dusk, the hum of shoppers scouring the boutiques on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, the clatter of trams ferrying commuters and tourists alike. But the world down here was so different: the ancient catacombs that buttressed the city like arteries – a two hundred mile web of tunnels, caves and ossuaries lined with the bones of over six million corpses, disinterred from overcrowded cemeteries in the eighteenth century.

A subterranean city of the dead.

Racing through the half-light, Chambers’ grip tightened round the hilt of his Magnasword. If only he could stop and fight. He wanted that more than anything… but he knew he couldn’t. It wasn’t death that scared him – it was capture. He glanced back. The tunnel curved into darkness.

Through the gloom, four figures scuttled into view, scaling the walls, their yellow eyes locked on their prey ahead; monstrous beasts, each had eight limbs that sprouted from their torsos like grotesque human spiders.

Arachnoids.

Alex Chambers forced his aching body on. Even in his exhausted state, he was convinced he could defeat the Arachnoids. They didn’t concern him. No, it was the creature that accompanied them that did. Then he heard something that froze the blood in his veins.

A voice purred from the shadows. ‘Have you had enough, Templar?’

Drained of all energy now, Chambers’ pace slowed and he stopped.  He’d nothing left to give.

The Arachnoids clacked to a halt as a tall, cloaked figure soared from behind them, before landing deftly and striding forward elegantly like a swan across water.

 ‘I suggest it’s time we stopped this game. My Arachnoids will not lose you and I doubt your failing body could overcome them, never mind me.’ 

The creature removed its hood. At first, it appeared almost human, except for its deep scarlet eyes, twisting pointed ears and the deathly white pallor of its angular face.

Trying to be as discrete as he could, Chambers triggered the Lectroflare in his pocket. Although he knew his Order would never reach him in time, at least the device would record whatever exchange followed.

Then he had another idea.

He turned to face the creature, raised the Magnasword high and turned it on himself.

In an instant, the creature’s eyes locked on the sword and blinked twice.

An invisible force wrenched it from Chambers’ grip, sending it flying through the air and into the skeletal hands of the creature opposite him.

‘I don’t think it’s time for you to die. Not yet, anyway.’

Chambers knew he was in trouble now. Taking his own life was the only sure way to keep his secrets safe… and he had so many of them. ‘So who are you?’

The creature smiled, exposing tiny barbed teeth that blazed a chilling white against its thin black lips. ‘But I was told Templar Knights were so well informed? Allow me to present myself then - I am Lord Ballivan.’

Recognition flashed in Chamber’s eyes. His throat went dry but he made every effort to reveal no fear. ‘I’ve heard of you – a scumbag of the first order so I hear. Can I assume Morloch’s picked you as his new Hell Lord?’

‘I am indeed his envoy on this accursed earth,’ the creature replied, his voice cold and detached. ‘And you are Alex Chambers, First Knight of the Order of the Rose. Furthermore, I am aware you assisted John Kurnan in the killing of my predecessor: Lord Venogant. Let me assure you, I shall not share his fate.’

‘Venogant would’ve said the same thing until Kurnan lopped his head off and he crumbled to dust. He wasn’t so chatty after that.’

‘Oh, I’ve heard all about John Kurnan – quite a slayer from all accounts,’ Lord Ballivan replied. ‘And it seems there are occasions he doesn’t care who he kills. Yes, I’m certain our paths will cross at some point – in fact, I welcome it… his scalp will be a great prize. I shall send his severed head back for my King to mount on his wall. And never think to compare me to Lord Venogant. He was a fool and that is why Morloch corrected his mistake by appointing me his successor.’

Chambers knew there was no way out now. All he could do was to extract information for other Templars to benefit. ‘So you can fly … you’re telekinetic … what species of Demon are you?’

‘One unlike any your kind has seen before.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ Chambers replied. ‘I’ve seen more of you sleazeballs than I care to remember. And no disrespect, but you’re pretty much the ugliest of the lot.’ He nodded at the closest Arachnoid. ‘And that’s saying something considering the pretty boys you hang around with.’

‘That doesn’t interest me, Templar,’ Lord Ballivan replied. ‘What does, however, is an answer to a very simple question: where are the four?’

 To most, these words wouldn’t make sense, but Chambers knew exactly who Lord Ballivan referred to. ‘If you think I’d tell you then you don’t know me at all.’

‘Perhaps not, but you will tell me that which I ask.’

‘I’ll tell you nothing,’ Chambers fired back. ‘You can torture me... kill me for all I care, but I won’t say a word. I promise you that.’

‘We both know your death is inevitable,’ Lord Ballivan said matter-of-factly. ‘And I don’t need to hear an admission from your mouth. You asked what species I am - I am a Terroset. And you should gaze upon me with awe…’ His lips opened a fraction and his blood-red tongue inched out. Growing longer and longer, it filled the air, coiling languidly like a gigantic snake.

Frozen to the spot with revulsion, Chambers watched the tongue split down the middle and separate, the tip of each half making its way towards his eyes.

Moments later, Lord Ballivan knew all he needed to know.

- Chapter 2 -

The Most Special Boy in the World

Zak Fisher had not had a good day at school. He’d forgotten his dinner money and had to make do with half an egg bap off his mate, Jem, and two boiled sweets for lunch. He’d been given detention for sniggering when Mister Gimble’s false eye fell out during a numbingly dull lesson on soil. And finally the bus that ferried him home had broken down in a fit of black smoke and fumes.

No, it had not been a particularly good day at all.

As a rule, Zak liked school. Although only fourteen, he’d attended so many of them, and this latest one - Saint Quentin’s High School - was his favourite by some distance. If nothing else, he loved the fact the school took its name from the patron saint of coughs and sneezes.

 And Saint Quentin’s patronage felt particularly ironic as a severe outbreak of flu currently swept the school like a forest fire. Indeed, over the last month, every boy and girl in his year had been struck down with it. But not Zak. He’d never been poorly in his life - no colds, no fever, no measles, no chicken pox, not even toothache. Nothing.

And he’d never been happy about it.

His foster parents, Irene and Sidney Shufflebottom, put it down to him being the most special boy in the world. Zak just felt the unluckiest. Once, in a bid to get out of the school sports day, he invented an ailment called Rabbit Fever, which he claimed to have caught on a day trip to Knowsley Safari Park, but Irene said she’d only believe it if he grew a bobtail and started to hop.

Zak levelled the cap that flattened his dark brown hair and turned to face the shadowy November sky. After four miles of walking he could finally see the village of Addlebury.

Zak liked Addlebury. In his short life he’d lived in almost every corner of Britain, from a sheep farm in Lanarkshire to a terraced house in Derby, but this small leafy village in South Cheshire was the place he felt most at home. And being an orphan, it was a home he wanted more than anything.

A proper home.

He’d always found his circumstances rather peculiar. Every few years, for some mysterious reason, the authorities would make him change foster parents and he would live somewhere else with someone else. On some levels it had been an enjoyable way to grow up. Each foster parent taught him something new, an unusual, often dangerous skill they excelled in, something most kids his age didn’t learn – like sword fighting, advanced first aid, parkour, motocross, gymnastics, even base jumping. He proved to be an incredibly fast learner, mastering each new skill in no time at all. Still, for the most part, all this moving around made him sad. He wanted to be part of a family. And, more than anything, he wanted that family to be the Shufflebottoms.

They really were a lovely old couple.

Sidney Shufflebottom was undoubtedly odd. He liked chocolate éclairs and steam trains and pulled funny faces he claimed resembled famous landmarks like Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower. He’d been in the army, and was covered head to toe in strange scars. He would show them off proudly at every opportunity, but particularly at dinner parties with guests like Florence Potsworth, the Addlebury church warden, whose only passion in life seemed to be poking her sprout-like nose into other people’s business or Virgil Bunkle, the local butcher, whose entire conversation revolved around different ways of cooking offal. However, although Sid seemed proud of these scars he always responded vaguely when Zak asked how and where he got them.

Irene Shufflebottom was equally strange in her own way. She was a quiet, unassuming lady who loved to bake, read historical romance novels and collect brass rubbings. Zak, therefore, always found it highly amusing she was a Taekwondo Grandmaster, an expert clay pigeon shooter and ran the Kendo class in the Addlebury village hall on Tuesday evenings.

Passing the village post office and the pub, The Magpie Inn, Zak turned left into Halfpenny Lane and spied Fumbletree Cottage behind a line of beech trees. With its pointed thatched roof and ivy covered walls it looked like something from a fairy tale. As he approached, his green eyes lit up at the sight of Sid tending to a thick patch of flowers.

‘Hi, Sid,’ Zak said.

‘Hello, son. You’re a bit late, aren’t you?’

‘Bus broke down. Had to walk.’

‘Fair enough. And how was school?’

‘Not great. I got detention again.’

‘What for this time?’

‘I laughed when a teacher’s false eye fell out. I didn’t mean to but it was just so unexpected and -’

‘They gave you detention for that?’ Sid replied. ‘In my day we would’ve nicked it and used it as a marble. Anyway, dunna worry - if I had a quid for every time I got detention I could afford to buy Bowen Hall.’

It was then Zak spied the strange implement in Sid’s hands. ‘Why are you pruning … with nail clippers?’

‘Mrs Potsworth has popped round to see Irene, and I’d rather scoop my eyes out with a spoon than spend five minutes with that woman. I figured I’d spend as long in the garden as I could.’

Zak laughed. He pushed open the rusty gate and traipsed up the side path to the kitchen door, which he entered.

Irene Shufflebottom was standing at the stove, holding a bulging tray of Eccles cakes. ‘Hello, Zak,’ she said cheerily. ‘I was wondering where you’d got to.’

Zak walked over and kissed her cheek. ‘Sorry, Irene, the bus broke down and I had to walk.’

Another voice cut the air like a drill. ‘And you didn’t think of giving your foster mother a ring? She’s been beside herself with worry. I thought all of your lot had mobile phones nowadays.’

Zak turned to see Mrs Potsworth sitting at the table, her plump, puffy lips caked with sugar and currants.

‘Battery died on me.’ Zak held up his phone as if the very sight of it would get Mrs Potsworth off his back. ‘I’m really sorry, Irene.’

‘That’s all right, love,’ Irene said, flashing him a kindly smile. ‘At least you’re home. Would you like an Eccles Cake?’

Although ravenous, Zak had no intention of spending another second in the company of Mrs Potsworth. ‘No, thanks. I’m just going to -’

‘ - Go on, Boy,’ Mrs Potsworth said. ‘Irene’s worked hard on them. You’re a handsome lad, but you could do with more meat on your bones! You’re as skinny as a dog hair.’

Zak forced a smile. Mrs Potsworth had a really annoying habit of giving a compliment with one hand and taking it away with the other. He glanced at Irene, who pushed the tray at him. A glorious waft of buttery pastry filled his nostrils.

‘Go on, Zak,’ Irene said. ‘You know you want to.’

Zak reached over and took one. He wolfed it down in two bites.

‘Did you enjoy that?’

‘Delicious.’

‘Don’t mind if I have thirds, do you, Irene?’ Mrs Potsworth said, taking another Eccles Cake without waiting for a reply.

‘Of course not, Florence,’ Irene replied. ‘So what have you done at school today, Zak?’

Zak wasn’t about to mention his detention in front of Mrs Potsworth. ‘Not much. I had -’

‘- It doesn’t surprise me,’ Mrs Potsworth interrupted, spitting bits of Eccles Cake over the floor. ‘If you want my opinion education’s gone to the dogs.  Teenagers are studying too many useless subjects like Art and Music and English Literature, and leaving school only to hang around street corners, shouting abuse at elderly ladies, stealing plant pots and smoking weeds. No disrespect, Zak, but far too many of you lot are simply bone-idle. What we need - and I know the do-gooders would disagree with me on this – what we need is a jolly good war! Bring back the draft, I say … send them off to fight … teach them some discipline. Maybe then they’ll actually be of some actual use to society.’

‘Or maybe they’ll just get killed?’ Zak said.

Mrs Potsworth gave a dismissive shrug. ‘Then there won’t be as many of the little wasters stealing my plant pots, will there?’

Irene was about to challenge Mrs Potsworth when – BANG - the back door crashed open. The kitchen shuddered.

For a moment, a shocked silence filled the room.

Sid was standing there, his face devoid of colour. ‘I – Irene. I’ve just had a call from John Kurnan. He’ll be here in a few minutes. He’s taking Zak!’

Irene dropped the tray. It landed with a deafening clatter. ‘W-what? Why?’

‘They’ve found out Zak’s here,’ Sid replied. ‘Alex Chambers is dead. Mothmen are coming…’