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End of the Century

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End of the Century

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Author: Chris Roberson
Publisher: Pyr, 2009
Series: Bonaventure-Carmody: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

At the eve of the new millennium, teenager Alice Fell is alone on the streets of a strange city, friendless and without a pound to her name. She is not sure whether she's losing her mind, or whether she is called by inescapable visions to some special destiny. Along with a strange man named Stillman Waters, a retired occultist and spy - or so he claims - she finds herself pursued by strange creatures, and driven to steal the priceless "vanishing gem" that may contain the answers to the mysteries that plague her.

A century earlier, consulting detective Sandford Blank, accompanied by his companion Roxanne Bonaventure, is called upon to solve a string of brutal murders on the eve of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The police believe that Jack the Ripper is back on the streets, but Blank believes that this is a new killer, one whose motive is not violence or mayhem, but the discovery of the Holy Grail itself. And what of the corpse-white Huntsman and his unearthly hounds, who stalks the gaslit streets of London?

And in the sixth century, Galaad, a young man driven by strange dreams of a lady in white and a tower of glass, travels to the court of the high king Artor in Londinium, abandoned stronghold of the Roman Empire in Britain. With Galaad's bizarre dreams as their only guide, Artor and his loyal captains journey west to the Summerlands, there to face a threat that could spell the end of the new-forged kingdom of Britain.

These three adventures--Dark Ages fantasy, gaslit mystery, and modern-day jewel heist--alternate until the barriers between the different times begin to break down, and our heroes confront the secrets that connect the Grail, the Glass Tower, and the vanishing gem. And lurking behind it all, the entity known only as Omega.


Excerpt

Chapter One
Twilight
498 Anno Domini

IT WAS LATE MORNING when Galaad ?rst caught sight of the city, looming in the east. The trip from Glevum should have taken six days, but with the winter's cold, it had taken him nearer ten. Ten days of icy bridges over sluggish streams, the ground hard and cold beneath his thin woolen blanket at night even when he went to the trouble of clearing away the snow, freezing rain sometimes falling from the unforgiving gray skies, and harsh winds blowing when it didn't. Had he ridden, he'd have made the journey in a fraction of the time, but he'd not been on a horse since the accident, and couldn't conscience doing so now. Many of the hobnails from the soles of his caligae marching boots were missing, knocked loose and left along the roadside as signs of his passing, and those areas of his feet's skin not already thickened with calluses were now blistered, bloody, and tender. His left knee was swollen and sore from a fall two days before on an icy patch of road, but while the joint did not have a complete range of motion, it could support his full weight, though lances of pain shot up and down his leg when he did, so that he was able to continue, albeit with a pronounced limp. The bundle on his back was lighter, if nothing else, now that he'd eaten nearly all the supplies of food he'd brought with him from his home in Powys, though of course that meant that had he not reached his destination soon he'd have begun slowly to starve. But it was a point not worth dwelling upon, so Galaad pushed it from his thoughts.

Galaad had never before been this far from home. He'd been born in the municipality of Glevum in the kingdom of Powys, twenty-one years before, and had seldom strayed far from the banks of the river Sabrina. The western kingdoms had been largely spared the ravages of the Saeson invasion of Britannia, so that throughout most of his childhood, Galaad had known peace. By the time he was a full adult with a child of his own, the rest of the island knew peace as well, and had one man to thank for it. But the more Galaad's steps had brought him east, the more he saw upon the land the scars of the Saeson occupation.

In much of the west, the old order of the Romans had remained. The towns still survived, though their populations had diminished, tenants paid landlords, community farmlands were tended. But as Galaad had walked through regions where the war with the Saeson had been close at hand, it was clear that the public authority had collapsed. Towns stood abandoned, farms gone to seed and houses left to the elements. The remaining Roman nobility had ?ed across the channel to Gaul, ahead of the advancing Saeson hordes, while the peasantry had retreated to the rural areas of the west, watched over by former town magistrates who now styled themselves as landholders and kings.

But one man was bringing order back to the island, restoring authority and the rule of law. This was the same man who had driven the Saeson back to their huddled enclaves in the south and east, and established his court in the former Roman capital that lay between to hold the two groups of Saeson apart and to act as a bulwark against them for the rest of the island.

If any would know the meaning of Galaad's strange visions, the young man was convinced, it would be he. Perhaps then the phantom that haunted him could be laid to rest.

Limping, his feet blistered and bloody, his legs and back aching, Galaad approached the high city walls with a prayer in his heart. At the end of a long journey, he had ?nally reached Caer Llundain, home of the Count of Britannia and victor of Badon, the High King Artor.

Galaad, for his sins, did not know that his journey was only beginning.

##

Galaad's paternal grandfather had been to Caer Llundain, then still called Londinium, before the Saeson revolt and the migrations of the nobility to Gaul, when the city was still crowded with Roman citizens from all over the empire. Ships had sailed up and down the river Tamesa, bringing trade and traders from Gaul, Hibernia, and the Middle Sea, importing wine and textiles, exporting tin and silver. The capital's streets bustled not simply with Romans and Britons, but were painted in the many hues of the Roman empire--Germanics, Arabians, Syrians, Parthians, Africans, and more. Even with the formal secession of Britannia from the empire more than a generation before, when the emperor Honorius had instructed the nation to look after its own defense, some relations with Rome had been maintained, church envoys sent to the island on rare occasion to root out the Pelagian and Arian heresies, reports of the Vandals' sack of Rome carried back by traders. Londinium's brightest hours might have been behind it, its future uncertain, but in those days the city still thrived.

But that had been in the time of the grandfathers. Galaad had grown up hearing stories about the capital in the east, and had dreamt of seeing it at the height of its powers, but that day was long past, the sun that had risen over Londinium long since set. The city was now known as Caer Llundain, no longer a Roman city, but a Britonnic one. And the empire to which it had once been the furthest outpost was also no more, the last emperor Romulus Augustus deposed by the Goths the year before Galaad was born. By the time he had taken his ?rst breath, the empire was only a memory.

Galaad was not sure what lay beyond the city walls that loomed before him, but he knew it would not be the cosmopolitan metropolis of his grandfather's stories. For a young man from a relatively small municipality like Glevum, though, the sheer scale of Caer Llundain was still intimidating. The wall before him stood some eighteen feet high and ran right around the city, constructed of gray ragstone hauled miles inland from Cantium. The bridge he had to cross just to reach the western gatehouse spanned a ditch some six feet deep and nine feet wide. And if the wall itself was not imposing enough, then the foreboding bastions placed at intervals along the wall were sure to do the job. The bastions themselves, ?nally, looked like a child's playthings next to the gatehouse. Almost one hundred feet wide, side to side, the western gate was ?anked on either side by square towers of gray stone, their red-tiled roofs towering far overhead, two or three times the height of the wall itself.

Londinium had never fallen to the Saeson, in all the long decades of the war, and looking at the city wall now, Galaad was sure that he understood why.

Two arches opened through the thick city walls, one for traf?c leading into the city, one for traf?c leading out, and a gatekeeper stood in each, leaning on long-bladed javelins, ridged helmets upon their heads. As the sun climbed to its zenith and the hour neared midday, Galaad stepped off the footbridge and onto the threshold of the gatehouse.

"Who approaches?" The gatekeeper's tone was bored, almost sleepy, his words slurred and near inaudible. It took Galaad a moment to parse the strangely accented Britonnic speech, and then he hastened to answer.

"Galaad." He paused, not sure what other information was needed. "From Glevum," he went on in Britonnic. "That's in Powys, in the west."

The two gatekeepers exchanged a look, and one rolled his eyes while the other returned his attention to Galaad. "And what's your business here, Galaad of Powys?"

"I come to see the High King Artor, Count of Britannia," Galaad said, in a rush. "You see, I am plagued with visions, and I'm sure that if I were able to relate them to the high king, then he might be able to..."

The gatekeeper who had spoken raised his hand, motioning Galaad to silence. "Do you bring craftwork to trade?" He spoke as if by rote, without emotion or passion.

Galaad considered this for a moment, and shook his head.

"Do you bear arms?"

Galaad began to shake his head, then thought better of it. He raised a ?nger, begging patience, and slung his bundle from his back. Slipping loose the knotted thong that held the bundle together, he pulled out a blade sheathed in cracked and greasy hide. "I have a sword," he said, proffering it.

The other gatekeepeer stepped forward, and holding his javelin in one hand took Galaad's sword in his other. Then, his javelin resting against the crook of his elbow, he tried to pull the blade from the scabbard, but only with repeated attempts and considerable effort would the blade come free. It was an ancient leaf-blade sword, the dulled blade black with rust, the leather wrapping of the hilt pulled and cracked with age.

"It belonged to my grandfather's grandfather," Galaad explained, helpfully.

"You must be so proud," the gatekeeper said, his tone affectless, and ramming the blade back into the scabbard, he returned it to Galaad, then nodded over his shoulder at his companion.

"Um, yes," Galaad agreed, somewhat confused. He tucked the sword back into his bundle and began retying the thongs.

"You are free to enter the city," the ?rst gatekeeper said, returning to his script. "Know that the law of the High King is supreme here, as it is everywhere his rule extends, and that any infractions against his authority will be severely handled."

Galaad stood, slinging the bundle back on his back. "I understand," he said quickly.

The gatekeeper stepped aside, with a quick glance to his fellow, and then ?xed Galaad with an amused stare. "In that case, welcome to Caer Llundain, man of Powys. And good fortune to you."

Galaad smiled and nodded.

"You're going to need it," the other gatekeeper added with a rough laugh, his voice low.

Galaad's smile froze on his face, but instead of answering he scurried ahead, entering the momentary darkness of the tunnel through the nine-footthick wall. A handful of limping steps later, he walked back out into the cold winter light, and found himself in the city of Caer Llundain, home of King Artor.

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Roberson


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