2013 in review and 2014 Schedule

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s posts, but I’m trying to jot up what’s happened this past year in my head and I need somewhere to put it down. Looking back, I suppose 2013 really was the year I got into publishing properly. Whilst I debuted on the indie author scene during 2012, with Inside Evil released in March 2012 and The Tower of Souls later on that summer, I really was still getting to grips with the industry and how it worked. It took until January of 2013 when CRYO and Pacifier 6 were published in quick succession, before Spirits of the Middlelands and New Alliances later on in they year. So, all in all, I published three full novels this year and a novella. Not actually very productive seeing as the majority of CRYO was actually rewritten and proofed in 2012. Still, a number of good things have happened this year:

  • Sales surpassed 500 books sold. I’m an indie prawn and don’t sell a huge amount. Getting to 500 is pretty amazing, and making over £1,000 in royalties is even more incredible.
  • Inside Evil was heavily edited and went perma-free. When I started I was a rookie and still finding my feet. I didn’t really understand how the world worked. When IE first went free, it was littered with problems. I picked myself up and dusted myself off from some unfortunate reviews, found a new editor and reworked the book.
  • I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time. I’m great procrastinator and will find any reason NOT to write. This year, NaNo fitted perfectly with my writing schedule so I used it to start CRYO; A Changed World. I ‘won’ NaNo and completed CRYO yesterday.
  • I branched onto new platforms. I’ve never been in Select; I’m a believer of not putting your eggs in one basket. This year, as well as going direct to Kobo when UK authors were allowed into the fold, I’ve also started getting my books onto GooglePlay. Sales have started to dribble in from B&N, Sony and iBooks too, which is always a good thing.

So, in about six-and-a-half hours, 2013 will be gone and 2014 will be here. I have a lot planned, and most of it hasn’t to do with writing. I’m going on holiday, getting married, going on a honeymoon, sorting out a visa for my other half to continue living in Britain and all manner of other exciting things. BUT, I mustn’t forget my writing. Whilst I thought I wrote a lot in 2013, the figures say otherwise and I want to increase my output this year.

  • Inside Evil. 2014 will bring the Inside Evil series to a close with ‘To Kill a Curse’. It’s bittersweet as this story has been with me the longest out of anything. I can’t wait to finally finish, but I’m sad to say goodbye too.
  • CRYO. As I’ve mentioned, CRYO; A Changed World now has a 1st draft. After a read through and then editing, I expect it to come out in February. I would anticipate getting the third CRYO book out in 2014 too, and a rough story is already formulating in my mind. I’m also intending on writing a few prequels which focus on main characters. John and Beth’s story will be free, and I have plans for short stories on Evie, Viktor, Anne and Franz too. I might even give horrid Agnes a little tale.
  • Pacifier 6. Despite loving this story, it really hasn’t sold; only a mere handful. I would love to write another novella at some point and I already have the story. However, it may not be worth my time if I’m not shifting copies, so any sequel is on the back-burner for now.
  • SOMETHING NEW. I do have another science fiction tale in the back of my head involving solar ships, disappearing planets and a small group of explorers. However, that’s about it (though I know as soon as I start writing, something will happen). I’m not yet sure whether this will be a project for 2014 or not.

So, for the coming year I have three novels planned and several short stories in the works. I’d like to get at least one further novel out (possibly two). For now, though, I’m going to go and enjoy New Year’s Eve cake!!

CRYO; A Changed World is written

Just over a minute ago I wrote the last sentence of CRYO; A Changed World. I can’t believe it’s done and I’m over the moon that I managed to keep to my schedule and have it complete before January – though only just.

A Changed World has been great to write, largely because I’ve really got to indulge in exploring a new world. Rise of the Immortals was all about the CRYO lotto, the cryonics process and what happened when the podmates first emerged back into the world. There was a lot of scene setting before John was even frozen. I thought it was important to convey the place he was leaving, and the struggle he found himself in when striving to fulfil his dreams whilst saying goodbye to loved ones. A Changed World is entirely different in the fact that it’s no longer a struggle of emotion, but the struggle for survival. The new world is unrecognisable and somewhat hostile, and the CRYO podmates have a lot to encounter. From inhospitable landscapes, flora and fauna, to new creatures and foreign cultures, John and his gang have many challenges to face in the new instalment.

Now that the first draft has been written, it’s time for the hard work to begin. The book came in shy of 90,000 words, but I normally add words as part of the editing and rewriting process, so I’m under no illusion that it’ll end up nearer 100,000; a similar length to Rise of the Immortals. I’ll be self-editing in January, before sending to another editor at the beginning of February. That means, all being well, it’ll be ready for publishing by March. I also have Keith Draws on-board again for the cover, so I’m excited to get to work on that.

Alongside editing, I’ll also be starting the next Inside Evil book; it seems like only yesterday I finished New Alliances! It’s going to be bittersweet for me as I’ll bringing all those story threads to an end, but will also have to say goodbye to my characters in more ways than one.

Anyway, for now, I’ll enjoy the adrenaline at the end of the race. Happy New Year!

Join me on G+

I don’t know about you, but I’m increasingly tired of Facebook. In the past, there have been many pros of using it, both as an author and for a personal account. Facebook pages were a great way of reaching out to fans and were ideal to ensure people didn’t miss important news. However, for me personally, there are now many annoyances:

  • My FB wall is no longer interesting, but cluttered with links, gifts and statuses that I rarely care about.
  • Facebook is making it practically impossible to reach out to fans. Even if you ‘like’ my page, you’re unlikely to actually see updates in your news feed.
  • FB paid ads and promotes have a decreasing reach. Even if I pay to promote an update so that it’ll appear on more of my fans news feeds, the numbers it reaches is still barely worth the expense.
  • And, then there’s the whole FB mantra of removing content which should be deemed appropriate whilst simultaneously allowing videos of be-headings and shootings to clutter the screen. Seriously, you remove a picture of two Indian men kissing but allow killings to be shown?!

Google+With this is in mind, I’m increasing turning to Google+ as a way to share news, chat with people and discuss my passions. I’ve set up a little Google+ community for readers of my work too. The benefit of this, over Facebook, is that YOU can post in communities, YOU can chat in communities, and YOU can do all of this without any of your posts being relegated to a tiny sidebar which no one reads (yes – FB, that’s aimed at you).

It has taken me a while to used to Google+. It’s no Twitter, and it sure isn’t Facebook either. However, what it is is a great foundation for reaching and talking to like-minded people. There’s no maximum characters, and it’s a good idea to actually have some long posts now and then. Joining communities doesn’t clutter your feed as it does with FB, and it’s easy to hop in and out. And then there’s the indexing; seriously, for authors, Google indexes your posts pretty instantly, making them highly searchable.

So, if you’re an author or a reader, head over, join my page or add me to your circles. Say hi, build your own profile and join the Google+ masses.

NaNoWriMo; When inspiration finally comes to fruition

I haven’t updated the blog in a while and that’s been because every available word at my disposal has been thrust into this year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for those of you who don’t know). And, for the first time it looks like I’m going to complete the challenge; 50,000 words in a month. I reached 40,000 yesterday so thought I’d take a brief gulp of air and push my head up to see what’s happening.

Many years ago as I was walking passed a building site, inspiration struck me. The first year accommodation for my university were four concrete and skyline-domineering tower blocks. They really were an eyesore, but I had many good memories. When the site was sold to developers, I assumed they’d simply blow the towers up; you know, Vegas style. As I walked by on this particular day, an extremely long crane with a unyielding set of metal jaws rose into the air instead, and it began to dismantle the towers from the top downwards. The image immediately sparked something in my head; it was like a great creature reaching into the air and causing destruction with ironic grace. At that time I was writing Inside Evil, and there was no way I could fit in these beasts. And so, CRYO took its first footsteps of life.

Like all things, the CRYO tale took on a life of it’s own; so much so that these beasts almost didn’t appear at all. John and Kath, my main characters in the first novel, took over my head and led the story where they wanted it to go. But finally, as I hit 30,000 words in the sequel, years of thinking finally came into alignment and the huge crane de-constructing my former home finally wormed its way into the pages of my book.

This year, NaNoWriMo has been a complete God send. It’s fitted in seamlessly with my writing schedule, and I intend to have about 60,000 words written by the end of the month; that’s two-thirds of CRYO – A Changed World complete. It’s been extremely interesting writing this sequel and taking John, Anne, Amity and co into the great world beyond the CRYO station. They’ve discovered – actually, they still are discovering – a lot of new things and are leading me in great circles around my story milestones.  There’s also the battle of a language barrier between my CRYO survivors and a new race to contend with ….it’s a difficult line to write a new language without it becoming absurd, whilst trying to put enough in to show the difficulties my characters face.

Whilst I was aiming to get this sequel out towards the end of February, it’s looking like it might come early…and that’s something I’m extremely pleased to hear!

Time-travelling via cryonics

I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction so naturally, when it came to writing, my mind was already inspired by the books I’d read and the movies I’d seen. One thing that fascinated me was cryonics; that is, the process of freezing someone and reviving them down the line. With current technology, though almost 300 people have actually been cryonically frozen, there’s no means to revive people. Even if they was, the damage done to their bodies is probably irreparable until some considerable leaps forward in bioengineering or nanomedicine are made.

One of the fantastic things about writing science fiction is that you can take a current technology and jump forward in time with it, letting your mind go wild about where a new technological breakthrough might lead. The use of cryonics has found popularity in mainstream entertainment, but I always found the process of actually ‘waking up’ a little too, well, ordinary. After all, this is a process where people are literally frozen into stasis. Why is it then, that when it’s often shown in movies, people just wake from ‘hyper-sleep’ a little too easily?

There are many cases where cryonics is used; Alien, Avatar and Star Wars immediately spring to mind. At least Han Solo woke with a bit of temporary blindness. It’s been used in television too, with Star Trek, Dr Who, Lost in Space, even the Golden Girls, all featuring the process. It’s something that continues to fascinate people. It’s also a process that allows time to pass without individuals have to age at all. Though, of course, that brings all sorts of time issues into play too; stay asleep long enough – whilst you go off on a mining expedition, for example – and you wind up being younger than your grandchild.

CRYO200pxWhen it came to writing CRYO; Rise of the Immortals, I was very aware that I didn’t want waking from cryonic sleep to be easy. Far from it. I wanted it to be incredibly painful and disorientating. I wanted to put people in a position where they thought twice about travelling to the future by having their bodily fluid drained and their cells frozen. Matters are made even worse when there’s a complete lack of personnel to help my characters acclimatise themselves. But that gives the story drive, provides yet another hurdle for my protagonist, John, to overcome.

Everyone’s take on cryonics is a little different, and all too often, the process is simply used as a means to get characters from A to B. And, yes, I’m guilty of that too; my 50 CRYO candidates go into the cryonics program to do exactly that, move from one period of time to another. But sometimes it’s these tiny details that can be embellished to create entirely new stories. My inspirational moment of ‘what if waking up from hyper-sleep wasn’t easy?’ has spawned an entire series. And I’ll make it no secret that I drew inspiration from my favourite shows, movies and books.

Cryonics is so often overlooked as a vital time-travelling method. It’s not instant, apart for those who are frozen, but it is time travel depending on how you view it. And, I’m sure, as the years go on and further technological advances are made, cryonics, like everything else, will evolve in the way it’s portrayed.

New Alliances is LIVE

New AlliancesI’m so stoked! New Alliances is now available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords. As I’m a UK-based writer, I don’t have direct access to B&N, so I’ll have to wait for the novel to work through Smashwords distribution channels. It’s also uploaded at Kobo, but isn’t yet live on their site.

Book 4 of the Inside Evil series was fantastic to write; mostly because I got to venture back into Gathin and discover more about this parallel world and those who inhabit it. Whilst there’s plenty going on in Ridgewood, a lot of answers are finally found as to where the Ammokra came from and why it comes in cycles.

Now I have to think about the fifth and final book – though I’m starting NaNoWriMo today and the sequel to CRYO comes first. Then the last installment of Inside Evil will arrive, and you’ll see from the end of New Alliances, that there’s quite a fight to be had! :D

Thanks for being brilliant fans, taking the time to read and leaving me reviews. It makes my day!

New Alliances – First Chapter Preview

I’ve done it. I’ve just pressed the PUBLISH button over at Amazon so New Alliances is on its way! Whilst the link’s aren’t live and I don’t even have an ASIN yet, I CAN share the first chapter. So, without further ado, here it is.

New Alliances

Chapter 1

 

New AlliancesAnother scream rang out in the darkness and Roberta pushed her hands tighter over her ears. The torturing had been going on for hours. The cries had been sharp and prolonged at first, until they gradually quietened to a muffled and dull whimper. Then they’d stopped, and she’d been relieved that the horrendous sounds were no longer eviscerating her ears. But it seemed the victim had only been given a slight respite, for another painful onslaught was soon brought upon them.

Roberta had quickly realised just where in Gathin she’d been thrust into. Through the opening at the top of the tall cylindrical tomb a light shone down upon her. But it was not the blue sky she originally thought, but a mural painted on a ceiling far above. The drop from the high room to where she lay now was vast. As someone had been dragged across the floor and propped into the chair that now covered the small spherical opening above her, Roberta had realised she was in Gathin’s central tower. It was the windowless pillar that rose out of the ground in the heart of the Queen’s domain. Above her was the room where she’d fought off the Queen of the North Realms, where she’d attempted to throw the doppelgänger to her death. The small opening was covered with an iron grate; the only barrier that kept the seat from dropping into the chasm below. As Roberta had surveyed the room, she’d realised that things, creatures…..people, were dropped from that height, for there was a mound of corpses in the room in which she was now trapped. They rose towards the middle like a newly forming mountain, the peak of which was directly beneath the opening above.

Looking into the darkness with the vague hope that she might’ve gained the sudden ability of nocturnal vision, Roberta picked out the top of the mound, the place where she’d found herself sprawled only hours ago. Perhaps it was days? She couldn’t be sure. The desiccated and mummified rat corpses that littered the floor of the room in their thousands, made Roberta’s skin crawl. She allowed herself, just momentarily, to remember that her sister’s body also lay amidst the mound, Natasha’s sunken face being dry and lifeless. But she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It might not be Natasha, it must be her sister’s doppelgänger. It had to be.

Now, Roberta was huddled against the outer wall of the circular room trying to shut out the sounds that came from above her. A thin layer of dead rats shifted as she moved, and though she’d managed to clear away many of them with her feet, a few rogue skeletons still creaked beneath her as she sat in resigned devastation. She’d fumbled her way through the dark as her fingers traced the rough stonework of her tomb, but she’d found no way out other than the obvious; a large impenetrable door that was solidly locked. At one point there’d been noise beyond, thick gravelly voices and then a deep snarl that could only have come from one of Gathin’s gigantic wolves. If she stayed in this room, she was dead. But if she alerted anyone that she was here…..it would be worse.

A scream rang out again, causing Roberta to look towards the grate and push her fingers even deeper into her ears.

“What use are you to me if you know nothing?”

The voice wrenched Roberta’s gut as she recognised it as her own. The woman she sought to kill was almost directly above her, but yet so far out of reach.

“Please…..forgive me, my Queen. I will remember, there must be something of use….please.”

“There’s only one thing you have that’s of use to me now.”

There was a small shriek of fear, and the man’s voice was cut short. Roberta drew her eyes to the floor as she saw a shadow fall still upon the grate. There was the sound of light rain, as if a sparse cloud was fluttering overhead and giving the land below a moist dusting. She knew the rain was crimson, that it splashed the mound of carcasses at the base of the tower with scarlet. The trickling ceased to be heard as a deafening roar echoed around her, and for a moment, Roberta twisted her head anxiously towards the small door, expecting it to open with a loud crunch. Movement at the top of the tower momentarily plunged her into complete darkness, until the roar was heard again and the grate was pulled back into place. Seconds later there was a sickening crunch as the tortured soul’s lifeless body from above was reunited with its lost blood. It landed on top of the mound with a thud, scattering rat carcasses and drawing the few live rodents on the edge of the room scuttling towards the centre for their newest meal.

Roberta wasn’t sure what drew her towards the body. Perhaps it was the morbid curiosity of seeing just what had been done to the man. Alternatively it was simply the chance to actually move with purpose from where she’d been stagnating in the darkness. Her fingers touched a revolting rat as she crept on her hands and knees towards the top of the mound, her only relief coming from the fact that the rodents she felt beneath her fingers were dead and not the living carnivores that seemed to have their beady black eyes upon her as an extra meal. She felt something wet on her fingers as she placed her hand down upon the gnarly head of one particularly gigantic creature. In the dark light it seemed little more than black goo on her hands, but as her eyes squinted to try and determine just what the viscous liquid smeared across her fingers was, she saw that the sound of rain had indeed been the splatter of a life force draining away. Despite appearing dark and black upon her fingers, she knew it was the scarlet ink of life.

After a brief attempt to wipe the blood from her hand, Roberta leant forward and tried to inspect the fallen figure. He’d dropped in such a way that he was sprawled on top of the heap, his arms laying at abnormal angles. His body was contorted and crushed by the severity of the fall, a limp wrist lying lifelessly before her. Such was the keenness of her eyes and the length of time that she’d been trapped in the dark, that Roberta found the light around her to be enough to perceive a diagram on the man’s wrist. She recognised it instantly, for it was the same symbol that Galdur had etched on his chest; the Ammokra. But Galdur, Roberta’s Icelandic gatekeeper, wore it to symbolise his part in keeping the dark from their door, to stop the curse breaking through to Earth and causing complete and utter devastation. Why should someone in Gathin have the Ammokra so carefully inked upon their skin? The man wore a long robe, the hood of which was covered in silver threading and feathers. A priest, perhaps? A Gathin man who wielded the curse that came to Earth every decade? Roberta couldn’t be sure, but he’d known something. Or, at least her doppelgänger had perceived that he’d held information important to her quest.

As blackness became her constant, a never-ending night, Roberta froze as she heard voices. They were deep; the grumbling of men, a sound that echoed through the tower’s many subterranean corridors and floated through the small grate in the door. They were not words meant to strike fear but sounded more like the heavy and irritable growl of souls who seemed to have contempt for the world around them, but they caused every fibre of Roberta’s being to grind to an immediate stop lest they hear her. The voices were not immediately outside the door, but way off down the tiny stone hallway, and though the fading footsteps showed no obvious threat of turning and heading back in her direction, Roberta realised that if she was to have any hope of surviving, she had to find a way out.

Waiting until the voices faded completely from earshot, she breathed a heavy sigh and attempted to pull her thoughts together. She was in a small circular stone tower. There was no way out other than a vastly thick door, and the only hole was a small slit where it didn’t quite reach the floor. Even though her fingers were slight, there was nothing to be done to get at the lock on the other side. High above, far out of reach, the single grate shone the slightest of illuminations into her cell, and scuttling around the edges were the rats who must be finding their way into the room through the small ground level grate. Roberta had held her hand to it upon her first circuit of the room and found it to be hot. The only conclusion she’d come to was that it was a funnel from the furnace, a way to push warmth up the tall tower and heat the cold rooms above that protruded high into the sky. It also accounted for the dry atmosphere that caused the corpses around her to mummify rather than rot into a sludgy hell.

Pushing herself down the heap, and momentarily realising that she was becoming used to the texture of corpses beneath her fingers – a fact which made her shudder more than the death around her – Roberta was quickly at the grate. When she’d first entered the tomb, her fingers had recoiled at the touch of warped and leathery heads, sharp and bony teeth. But now they dug into the bodies without concern. The hope in her chest rose as she realised that the grate was far more than a small sliver at the bottom of the room, but was deeper than she’d imagined, hidden beneath layer upon layer of rat. She threw corpses over her shoulder without concern, pushing mounds of spindly tails and flaking fur out of the way as she dug deeper into the pile before her. Within a few moments, the grate in the wall had emerged to be far greater than she had even dared hope. It was big enough for her to slide through, albeit on her stomach, but it was the one and only way out.

Placing her fingers carefully through the small holes on the barrier, Roberta gripped the metal carefully and gave it an almighty wrench. Nothing moved, not even the slightest jiggle that the needle of hope in her chest could get behind. She pulled again, still nothing. The metal grate didn’t budge in the slightest, and Roberta feared she might’ve given too much over to the hope she’d escape the dark dungeon.

She pulled her fingers from the metal and traced around the edge of the grate, looking for a crack, a weakness that she could take advantage of. There was none, but her fingers touched the outline of a screw and she dared to become excited again.

By now, her surroundings were of little consequence and she reached down to one of the decaying corpses, felt carefully along the brow of the rodent and then, with a swift crunch, broke one of the grossly long incisors from its skull. Attempting to unwind a single screw was extremely hard going, and several times Roberta had to stop as voices floated through the darkness. Behind her, there were the sounds of rats gorging on the fallen victim, incisors similar to the one in her hand, gnawing and chewing on fresh flesh.

Only the very tip of the tooth was any good to her plight, and the darkness and the fact that the bone continuously slipped out of the screw’s groove, caused Roberta to curse in the darkness. But, eventually, the screw became so loose that her nimble fingers were able to pull the fastening from the metal and the grate slipped on one side, making a muffled thud as it fell away. Roberta wasted no time in attacking the remaining screw in the opposite corner, the last fastening that prevented her from sliding into the horizontal shaft. It seemed easier this time, and whether it was the screw and tooth combination, or the increased urgency, the grate came away from the wall in no time at all.

Taking a moment to peer into the black void in front of her, Roberta wondered what lurked in the darkness. She placed a hand upon the inner side of the vent and felt warmth on the metal, nothing so hot that it scorched her skin, but the soft warmth as if a towel had been hung on a bathroom radiator. The exertion in the cell had caused Roberta’s hair to fall around her shoulders, and she scraped it back into a tight pony tail before dropping to her stomach and slithering into the vent. She inched forward several metres before realising that she didn’t want to alert anyone to her presence, and though contortion had never been her strong suit, she managed to twist herself around enough to pull the vent back into place. It wasn’t precise and she couldn’t replace the fallen screws, but it should evade being noticed for a while.

Inching through the vent was almost as painfully slow as removing the first screw had been. The tiny metal shaft was hideously small, a suffocating hot and grimy environment that made Roberta feel as if she was being suffocated from every angle. Her arms continuously smashed into her chin, and on the rare occasion where she managed to flick her head away in time, she simply banged into the top of the funnel instead. Every knock sent a low thudding sound flowing through the duct, and though the echo quickly died, Roberta began to increasingly fear that her stumbling around in the shaft would wake the entire tower.

After what seemed like forever, a time during which she wondered on several occasions whether she’d made the correct decision to venture into the hot air system, Roberta realised that the funnel had widened slightly. The knocks and bumps were becoming less common, not because she was more adept at navigating the maze, but because the space through which she slithered was larger than before. The metal beneath her fingers was becoming hotter, and providing that she wasn’t singed to death, there was the hope that she was nearing the furnace, coming to a possible place where she could escape the confines of this venting system and actually have room to stretch out. Room to attack if she needed to.

The metal creaked as she slithered forwards in the shaft, aware that her surroundings were quickly becoming too warm to deal with. There was something ahead of her, a break in the black surroundings on the floor of the vent through which she crept. The hole became more obvious as she dragged herself along, and soon Roberta saw that the opening was a small grate looking into a room below. There was no getting through it; it was far too small. But it brought a slight sense of relief that somewhere, in this maze of metal, there’d be somewhere to escape.

Dropping her head so that she could peer through the small window, Roberta realised that she must be close to the furnace. From the little she could see, the room below looked to be a storage facility for a vast number of metal canisters. There was another funnel dropping from the ceiling on the other side of the room, underneath which was an expanse of cushioned flooring to protect whatever fell from the heavens. As was usual with Gathin, there also seemed to be the grisly signs of death, with dark stains on both the floor and wall indicating that something, or someone, had had their blood spilled in the vicinity. Roberta shuddered; at least it wasn’t her own – yet.

As she was about to pull herself away from the grate and find one that was actually big enough to crawl through, Roberta froze. From below her came a deep rumble as if an earthquake was slowly erupting from under her very feet. A nose twitched and a huge hairy and black muzzle stalked into sight. Roberta ceased even breathing as she saw the nostrils below her sniff the air as if they knew she was there. The enormous hulk of Luguolo filled the room beneath her, the thin mohawk of ebony coloured fur that ran along his back, upright and bristling in the dry air. He could tell she was there, she knew it. But he didn’t look up, he just stood transfixed to the spot as a drop of moisture pooled on the end of his quivering nose and fell to the floor. From where she hung above him, Luguolo’s fearsome orange eyes were hidden, but she’d seen them devouring her before and knew he was preparing for a fight. Then, content that he’d surveyed the room and found it empty, he turned slowly and padded away, his tail almost brushing the very grate upon which Roberta lay as he did so.

It was several minutes before Roberta even dared move for she feared that Luguolo had simply sauntered out of sight and was now quietly crouched outside the room, awaiting his prey to stir. As she tried to regulate her heaving lungs and prevent an obvious gasp escaping her lips, she was aware of distant voices. They became gradually closer, accompanied by an odd clunking, until two men trundled into the room with an ancient wheelbarrow that looked on its last legs.

“’nother one gone then,” one man said, the top of his shiny bald head bobbing up and down as he leant over and pulled a canister into the barrow. “She won’t have any left at this rate.”

“Ain’t your concern,” the other warned as he held the barrow firmly whilst the canister was thrown in.

“Will be when she’s run out completely.”

“You ain’t the one who’s gotta cut out the symbol and feed what’s left to Luguolo. If it ain’t bad enough she’s got her fist upon us all, we ‘ave to bow to her flea bitten wolf pack.”

The man heaving the heavy metal cans stopped what he was doing and looked up warily at his companion.

“Don’t be sayin’ stuff like that.” His voice was lower and quieter than before. “She’ll hang us both just for thinkin’ it, let alone sayin’ it.”

“I’d like to see her try,” the man holding the barrow spat viciously whilst the other fell silent. “A’right then,” he said after a pause. “Not another word. C’mon, we gotta get this furnace stoked.”

After heaving one final canister into the barrow, the two men disappeared from Roberta’s sight, though the sound of them trundling along the stone corridor lingered in the air for some time. She wasn’t sure who she was more worried about; Luguolo or her own doppelgänger, The Queen of the North Realms. But there wasn’t time to pause for thought as she was keenly aware she was far from escaping and saving herself. Why did you put me here? She cursed the spirits of the Middlelands yet again for putting her in such a position. Surely a small and secluded lodge somewhere in the woods would have been a far better starting point?

With realisation that the metal beneath where she’d lain for several minutes had becoming increasingly hot, Roberta took a deep breath and forged ahead. She gave in to the risk that those wandering the tunnels below might hear her, and dragged her tired and aching frame through the network of funnels and tubes with the desperate hope that an exit could be found. The metal had become cooler than before, and she wondered whether the two men she’d seen had lapsed in their stoking responsibilities. That, or she’d actually bypassed the furnace completely. It seemed like hours later, but must’ve only been thirty minutes at most, when Roberta slithered around a particularly tight junction in the vent system and saw an opening ahead. It was larger than the previous grate had been, possibly wide enough to drop through, but what really caused hope to swell in Roberta’s chest was the fact that there was a dull glow emanating through it. It was one thing to navigate a maze of metal furnace vents, it was quite another to find a way out when, aside from the tiny occasional opening, there was no light at all. Here, as she edged closer and saw that the gaps within the vent were smaller than usual and more like bars, at least illumination was finally brought into her world.

Peering through the narrow slits into the room below, Roberta saw that she was hanging above a small square room with a taller than average ceiling. A faint glow emanated from an oil lamp pushed into one corner, the flame casting shadows across a collection of ancient and dirty chains that were securely attached to the wall. Beside one of the rusty metal fastenings, there were blood-covered and lifeless fingers. Roberta’s eyes scanned a hand and followed an arm to where a figure with long hair was collapsed on the floor, the legs pulled into a foetal position.

Vrony.

Find the previous books in the series, Inside Evil, The Tower of Souls and The Spirits of the Middlelands, by clicking the links.