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Darkest Hour
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Darkest Hour

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Author: Mark Chadbourn
Publisher: Pyr, 2009
Gollancz, 2000
Series: The Age of Misrule: Book 2

1. World's End
2. Darkest Hour
3. Always Forever

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
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Synopsis

The eternal conflict between the Light and Dark once again blackens the skies and blights the land. On one side stand the Tuatha de Danaan, golden-skinned and beautiful, filled with all the might of angels. On the other are the Fomorii, monstrous devils hell-bent on destroying all human existence. And in the middle are the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, determined to use the strange power that binds them to the land in a last, desperate attempt to save the human race. Church, Ruth, Ryan, Laura and Shavi have joined forces with Tom, a hero from the mists of time, to wage a guerrilla war against the iron rule of the gods. But they didn't count on things going from bad to worse...


Excerpt

a prologue life during wartime

May 2, 8 a.m.; above the English Channel:

"Somebody must have some idea what's going on." Justin Fallow fiddled uncomfortably with the miniature spirit bottles on his tray as he watched the dismal expressions sported by the air stewardesses. It was amazing how little fluctuations in the smooth-running of life were more disturbing than the big shocks. Those looks were enough to tell him something fundamental had changed; he had never seen any of them without those perfectly balanced smiles of pearly teeth contained by glossy red lipstick.

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. Everything will be back to normal in a few days." Colin Irvine stared vacuously out of the window at the fluffy white clouds. The reflection showed a craggy face and hollow cheeks that seemed older than his years. The trip to Paris had been better than expected; the business side tied up quickly, then two days of good food and fine wine, and one brisk night at a brothel. His head still felt fuzzy from the overindulgence and he would be happier if Justin shut up at least once before the plane landed.

"Well, I wish I had your optimism." Fallow's public school accent was blurred by the alcohol and he was talking too loudly. He flicked back the fringe that kept falling over his eyes and snapped his chubby fingers to attract the attention of one of the stewardesses. "Over here, please. Another vodka."

"I like a drink as much as the next man, but I don't know how you can get through that lot at breakfast," Irvine said, without taking his gaze away from the clouds.

Fallow slapped his belly. "Constitution of a horse, old chap." When the vodka arrived, he brushed the plastic glass to one side and gulped it straight from the bottle.

"Steady on, eh?" Irvine allowed himself a glance of distaste.

"But what if it isn't going to be sorted out in a few days?" Fallow drummed his fingers anxiously on the tray. "You know, we have no idea what's going on, so how can we say? A sudden announcement that all air traffic is going to be grounded indefinitely doesn't exactly fill one with confidence, if you know what I mean. Now that sounds serious."

"We were lucky to get the last flight out."

"I mean, the country could be on its knees in days! How will business survive?" His startled expression suggested he had only just grasped the implications of his train of thought. "Never mind your bog-standard business traveller who has to get around for meetings--they can muddle through with a few netcasts and conference calls in the short term. But what about import--export? The whole of the global economy relies on--"

"You don't have to tell me, Justin."

"You can sit there being sniffy about it, but have you thought about what it means--?"

"It means we won't be able to get any bananas in the shops for a while and international mail will be a bastard. Thank God for the Internet."

"I still think there's more to it than you think. To take such a drastic step?.?.?.?Trouble is, you can't trust those bastards in the Government to tell you anything important, whatever political stripe they are. Look at the mad cow thing. It's a wonder we're not all running around goggle-eyed, slavering at the mouth."

"You obviously didn't look in the mirror last night--"

"This isn't funny. Go on, tell me why you're so calm. What could cause something like this?"

"Let me see, Justin." Irvine began counting off his fingers. "An impending strike by all international air traffic control which we haven't been told about for fear it causes a panic. You know how much pressure they've been under recently with the increase in the volume of flights. Or some virus has been loaded into the ATC system software. Or the Global Positioning Satellite has been hit by a meteorite so all the pilots are flying blind. Or all those intermittent power failures we've had recently have made it too risky until they find the cause. Or they've finally discovered that design glitch that's had planes dropping out of the skies like flies over the last few years."

"I'd rather we didn't talk about this now, Colin."

"Well, you started it."

Justin sucked on his lower lip like a petulant schoolboy and then began to line up the miniature bottles in opposing forces. "I suppose all the trolley dollies are worried they might be out of work," he mused.

A crackle over the Tannoy heralded an announcement. "This is your captain speaking. We anticipate arrival in Gatwick on schedule in twenty minutes. There may be a slight delay on the--" There was a sudden pause, a muffled voice in the background, and then the Tannoy snapped off.

Fallow looked up suspiciously. "Now what's going on?"

"Will you calm down? Just because you're afraid of the worst happening doesn't mean it's going to."

"And just because you're not afraid doesn't mean it isn't." Fallow shifted in his seat uncomfortably, then glanced up and down the aisle.

What he saw baffled him at first. It was as if a ripple was moving down the plane towards him. The faces of the passengers looking out of the starboard side were changing, the blank expressions of people watching nothing in particular shedding one after the other as if choreographed. In that first fleeting instant of confusion, Fallow tried to read those countenances: was it shock, dismay, wonder? Was it horror?

And then he abruptly thought he should be searching for the source of whatever emotion it was, but before he had time to look, the plane banked wildly and dropped; his stomach was left behind and for one moment he thought he was going to vomit. But then the fear took over and it was as if his body were locked in stasis as he gripped the armrests until his knuckles were white. He forced his head into his lap. Screams filled the air, but they were distant, as though coming at him through water, and then he was obliquely aware he was screaming himself.

The plane was plummeting down so sharply vibrations were juddering through the whole fuselage; when it banked again at the last minute, the evasive action was so extreme Fallow feared the wings would be torn off. Then, bizarrely, the plane was soaring up at an angle that was just as acute. Fallow was pressed back into his seat until he felt he was on the verge of blacking out.

"It can't take much more of this punishment," he choked.

Just as he was about to prepare himself for the whole plane coming apart in midair, it levelled off. Fallow burst out laughing in hysterical relief, then raged, "What the fuck was that all about?"

Irvine pitched forward and threw up over the back of the seat in front; he tried to get his hand up to his mouth, but that only splattered the vomit over a wider area. Fallow cursed in disgust, but the trembling that racked his body didn't allow him to say any more.

One of the stewardesses bolted from the cabin, leaving the door swinging so Fallow could see the array of instrumentation blinking away. She pushed her way up to a window, then exclaimed, "My God! He was right!"

The whole planeload turned as one. Fallow looked passed Irvine's white, shaking face into the vast expanse of blue sky. The snowy clouds rolled and fluffed like meringue, but beyond that he could see nothing. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a shadow moving across the field of white. At first he wondered if they had narrowly avoided a collision with another plane, but the shadow seemed too long and thin; it appeared to have a life of its own. There was a sound like a jet taking off and then the colour of the clouds transformed to red and gold. A belch of black smoke was driven past the window.

Fallow rammed Irvine back in his seat and craned his neck to search the sky. Beside and slightly below the plane, flying fast enough to pass it with apparent ease, was something which conjured images from books he had read in the nursery. Part of it resembed a bird and part a serpent: scales glinted like metal in the morning sun on a body that rippled with both power and sinuous agility, while enormous wings lazily stroked the air. Colours shimmered across its surface as the light danced: reds, golds and greens, so that it resembled some vast, brass robot imagined by a Victorian fantasist. Boned ridges and horns rimmed its skull above red eyes; one swivelled and fixed on Fallow. A second later the creature roared, its mouth wide, and belched fire; it seemed more a natural display, like a peacock's plumage, than an attack, but all the passengers drew back from the window as one. Then, with a twist that defied its size, it snaked up and over the top of the fuselage and down the other side.

Shock and fear swept through the plane, but it dissipated at speed. Instead, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. Fallow looked around and was astonished to see that faces that had earlier been scarred with cynicism or bland with dull routine were suddenly alight; to a man or woman, they all looked like children. Even the stewardesses were smiling.

Then the atmosphere was broken by a cry from the aft: "Look! There's another one!"

In the distance, Fallow saw a second creature dipping in and out of the clouds as if it were skimming the surface of the sea.

Fallow slumped back in his seat and looked at Irvine coldly. "Everything will be back to normal in a few days," he mocked in a singsong, playground voice.


May 2, 11 a.m.; Dounreay Nuclear Power Station, Scotland:

"I just don't know what they expect of us!" Dick McShay said frustratedly. He threw his pen at the desk, then realised how pathetic that was. At 41, he had expected a nice, easy career with BNFL, overseeing the decommissioning of the plant that would stretch long beyond his life span; a holding job, no pressures apart from preventing the media discovering information about the decades of contamination, leaks and near-disasters. Definitely no crises. He fixed his grey eyes on his second-in-command, Nelson, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I have no desire to shoot the messenger, William, but really, give me an answer."

Nelson, who was four years McShay's junior, a little more stylish, but without any of his charisma, sucked on his bottom lip for a second; an irritating habit. "What they want to do," he began cautiously, "is make sure most of Scotland isn't irradiated in the next few weeks. I don't mean to sound glib," he added hastily, "but that's the bottom line. It's these power failures--"

McShay sighed, shook his head. "Not just power, William, technology. There's no point denying it. Mechanical processes have been hit just as much. I mean, who can explain something like that? If I were superstitious?.?.?." He paused. ".?.?.?I'd still have a hard time explaining it. The near-misses we've had over the last few weeks?.?.?." He didn't need to go into detail; Nelson had been there too during the crazed panics when they all thought they were going to die, the cooling system shut-downs, the fail-safe failures that were beyond anyone's comprehension; yet every time it had stopped just before the whole place had gone sky-high. He couldn't tell if they were jinxed or lucky, but it was making an old man of him.

"So we shut down--"

"Yes, but don't they realise it's not like flicking off a switch? That schedule is just crazy. Even cutting corners, we couldn't do it."

"They're desperate."

"And I don't like them being around either." He glanced aggressively through the glass walls that surrounded his office. Positioned around the room beyond were Special Forces operatives, faces masked by smoked Plexiglas visors, guns held at the ready across their chests; their immobility and impersonality made them seem inhuman, mystical statues waiting to be brought to life by sorcery. They had arrived with the dawn, slipping into the vital areas as if they knew the station intimately--which, of course, they did, although they had never been there before. For support, they said. Not, To guard. Not, To enforce.

"All vital installations are under guard, Dick. So they say. It's all supposed to be hush-hush--"

"Then how do you know?"

Nelson smirked in reply. Then: "We might as well just ignore them. It's their job, all that Defence of the Realm stuff."

"What are they going to do if we don't meet the deadline? Shoot us?"

Nelson's expression suggested he thought this wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility.

"I just never expected to be doing my job at gunpoint. If the powers that be don't trust us, why should we trust them?"

"Desperate times, Dick."

McShay looked at Nelson suspiciously. "I hope you're on our side, William."

"There aren't any sides, are there?"

A rotating red light suddenly began whirling in the room outside, intermittently bathing them in a hellish glow. A droning alarm pitched at an irritating level filled the complex. The Special Forces troops were instantly on the move.

"Shit!" McShay closed his eyes in irritation; it was a breach of a security zone. "What the fuck is it now?"

Nelson was already on the phone. As he listened, McShay watched incomprehension flicker across his face.

"Give me the damage," McShay said wearily when Nelson replaced the phone.

Nelson stared at him blankly for a moment before he said, "There's an intruder--"

"I know! It's the fucking intruder alarm!"

"--in the reactor core."

McShay returned the blank stare and then replied, "You're insane." He picked up the phone and listened to the stuttering report before running out of the room, Nelson close behind him.


The inherent farcical nature of a group of over-armed troops pointing their guns at the door to an area where no human could possibly survive wasn't lost on McShay, but the techies remained convinced someone was inside. He pushed his way past the troops on the perimeter to the control array where Rex Moulding looked about as uncomfortable as any man could get.

Moulding motioned to the soldiers as McShay approached. "What are this lot doing here? This isn't a military establishment."

McShay brushed his question aside with an irritated flap of his hand. "You're a month late for practical jokes, Rex."

"It's no joke. Look here." Moulding pointed to the bank of monitors.

McShay examined each screen in turn. They showed various views of the most secure and dangerous areas around the reactor. "There's nothing there," he said eventually.

"Keep watching."

McShay sighed and attempted to maintain his vigilance. A second later a blur flashed across one of the screens. "What's that?"

The fogginess flickered on one of the other screens. "It's almost like the cameras can't get a lock on it," Moulding noted.

"What do you mean?"

There was a long pause. "I don't know what I mean."

"Is it a glitch?"

"No, there's definitely someone in there. You can hear the noises it makes through the walls."

McShay's expression dared Moulding not to say the wrong thing. "It?"

Moulding winced. "Bob Pruett claims to have seen it before it went in there--"

"Where is he?" McShay snapped.

As he glanced around, a thickset man in his fifties wearing a sheepish expression pushed his way through the military.

"Well?" McShay said uncompromisingly.

"I saw it," Pruett replied in a thick Scots drawl. He looked at Moulding for support.

"You better tell him," Moulding said.

"Look, I know this sounds bloody ridiculous, but it's what I saw. It had antlers coming out like this." He spread his fingers on either side of his head; McShay looked at him as if he had gone insane. "But it was a man. I mean, it walked like a man. It looked like a man--two arms, two legs. But its face didn't look human, know what I mean? It had red eyes. And fur, or leaves--"

"Which one?"

"What do you mean?"

"Fur, or leaves. Which one?"

"Well, both. They looked like they were growing out of each other, all over its body."

McShay searched Pruett's face, feeling uncomfortable when he saw no sign of contrition; in fact, there was shock and disbelief there, and that made him feel worse. Moulding suddenly grew tense, his gaze fixed on the monitors. "It's coming this way," he said quietly.

Unconsciously, McShay turned towards the security door. Through it he could hear a distant sound, growing louder, like the roaring of a beast, like a wind in the high trees.

"The temperature's rising in the reactor core," Nelson called out from the other side of the room. The second tonal emergency warning began, intermingling discordantly with the intruder alarm; McShay's head began to hurt. "The fail-safes haven't kicked in," Nelson continued. He pulled out his mobile phone and punched in a number; McShay wondered obliquely who he could be calling.

"It's nearly here," Moulding said. McShay couldn't take his eyes off the security door; he was paralysed by incomprehension. That horrible noise was louder now, reverberating even through the shielding. He couldn't understand how the troops could remain immobile with all the confusion raging around them; their guns were still raised to the door, barrels unwavering.

The one in charge glanced briefly at McShay, then said, "If it comes through, fire the moment you see it."

What's the point? McShay thought. It's been in the reactor core and it's still alive! He was overcome with a terrible feeling of foreboding.

There was a sudden thundering at the door and it began to buckle like tinfoil; McShay thought he could see the imprints of hands in it. Despite their training, some of the troops took a step back. The roaring which sounded like nothing he had ever heard before was now drowning out the alarms.

"I don't wish to state the obvious, but if that door comes down, it will take more than a shower to decontaminate us," Moulding said in a quiet voice that crackled with tension.

McShay came out of his stupor in a flash; the thought that a security door designed to survive a direct nuclear strike might ever be breached was so impossible, his mind hadn't leapt to consider the consequences of what was happening.

"Everybody fall back!" he yelled. "We need to seal this area off--"

The next second the door exploded outwards. McShay had one brief instant when he glimpsed the shape that surged through and then the gunfire erupted in a storm of light and noise, and a second after that a wave of soft white light came rushing from the reactor core towards them all.

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Chadbourn


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Darkest Hour - Mark Chadbourn

- valashain
  (2/2/2014)

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