This is the Ultimate Fantasy: a quest of epic reach spanning the globe under the mythologies of five great cultures - and finally crossing the barrier between life and death. Jack Churchill, archaeologist and dreamer, walks out of the mist and into Celtic Britain more than two thousand years before he was born, with no knowledge of how he got there. All Jack wants is to get home to his own time where the woman he loves waits for him. Finding his way to the timeless mystical Otherworld, the home of the gods, he plans to while away the days, the years, the millennia, until his own era rolls around again ...but nothing is ever that simple. A great Evil waits in modern times and will do all in its power to stop Jack's return. In a universe where time and space are meaningless, its tendrils stetch back through the years ...Through Roman times, the Elizabethan age, Victoria's reign, the Second World War to the Swinging Sixties, the Evil sets its traps to destroy Jack.Mark Chadbourn gives us a high adventure of dazzling sword fights, passionate romance and apocalyptic wars in the days leading up to Ragnarok, the End-Times: a breathtaking, surreal vision of twisting realities where nothing is quite what it seems.
Mark gives an overview of the book:
Church woke on horseback, his arms secured around a warm body in front of him and a woman's musk in his nose. At first he thought it was Ruth, then Etain, and finally the chill brought him fully round and he saw he had his arms around Lucia's waist. They were riding slowly through woodland with the rain dripping down through the canopy, the wind blowing all around, awash with the noises of nature. He could just make out the others ahead, dark shapes bobbing in the darker wood.
'Ah, so you are awake at last.' Lucia's voice was laced with sadness, and Church thought she had been crying. 'You flew too close to Aula's god. We are fragile creatures after all – our minds and bodies can only take so much.'
'Did the Green Man say he was going to help us?'
'Aula says that of all the gods he loves us as though we are his own children. He has requested aid, from whom I do not know. But he will not abandon us.'
'Gods,' Church said, still dazed. 'They manipulate us, and torment us, and twist us out of shape. Roll on the day when we are our own masters.'
'A revolutionary,' Lucia said humorously. She sounded better for it.
'Where are we going?'
'To greet the Ninth,' she replied with irony, 'and celebrate their joyous return home.'
At that they both fell silent. The horses continued at a measured tread. They carried no torch to keep themselves hidden, and the going was slow and dangerous in the pitch black. They were on one of the old, straight tracks the Celts who preceded them had carved into the landscape. It cut straight through the wood, roots twisting up and branches hanging down to make their passage even more precarious.
Briefly, Church had the impression of a figure in the trees watching their passing, but he sensed no threat, only curiosity. There was something familiar in its sleek, lithe appearance, and he remembered seeing something similar outside Carn Euny, just after the gathering that had mourned the stillbirth of the young Ailidh's baby. But whatever it was vanished within seconds, and in the tense atmosphere was just as quickly forgotten.
After half an hour they broke out onto moorland where there was nothing to protect them from the full force of the elements
'This god-forsaken country,' Lucia cursed quietly.' In Rome the rain is like velvet.'
'Why did you come?' Church asked.
'I was called by the Pendragon Spirit – it takes us to where we are needed. You know we cannot resist it. I hope to return home one day.'
'Church understood the plangent tone in her voice.
They came to a halt on a ridge. In the valley below, the full complement of a Roman legion marched in strict time. The thunder of their regimented step and the clank of their shields and armour gave the impression of a single giant machine of destruction moving relentlessly. Church could see why the Roman army was so feared across the known world, but even beyond that there was an unquantifiable menace about the Ninth Legion that chilled him all the more.
Joseph jumped from his horse and ran over to Church. He looked utterly out of his depth. 'Are you to lead us in Marcus's place?' he shouted above the gusting wind.
Lucia untied Church's hands so he could climb down. 'You're not suggesting five of us should approach thousands, even if Cernunnos is providing support?' he said. 'We'll be slaughtered in minutes.'
'But it is your role,' Joseph said, puzzled.
'It's not my role to lead people to their deaths.' All of them were looking at him, expectant, demanding; he couldn't turn away. He sighed resignedly.
'We need to get a closer look to see what we're up against,' he said reluctantly.
Decebalus agreed with his tactics. And soon he and Church were skidding down the rain-slick bank to more tree cover further down the hillside.
'The witch troubles me,' Decebalus said of Lucia as they moved under the branches. 'I do no trust her kind, and I do not like her at my back.'
'You've got to get over it,' Church said. 'The only way the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons can work together is through trust. You have to be a tight unit, ready to risk your lives for each other. Or else you're nothing… just five individuals. And what can anyone do alone?'
Decebalus took the lead through the dense wood until they came so close to the advancing legion that they could feel the ground shake. The big barbarian selected an old tree and motioned for Church to follow as he scaled the slippery bark with a speed that belied his size. He used his powerful arms to swing himself up onto the lower branches.
Finally they reached a branch as broad as a table along which they could crawl to a point fifteen feet or so above the place where the outer ranks of the Ninth Legion would pass. Decebalus hung upside down like a monkey to get a better look.
Church gripped the branch tightly as the tree began to sway with the approaching thunderous footfalls. When the first of the legionnaires marched into view, Church was transfixed by the jarring chiaroscuro intensity of the scene. The contrast of black shadows and white was too strong to be realistic.
As the legionnaires drew nearer, Church saw that to a man their faces were shockingly white, not with the bloodless look of fear, but the pure white of snow. And where their veins could be glimpsed, they were as black as ink with the poison that had spread from the metallic spiders embedded in each and every forehead. The legionnaires moved like robots, without the slightest hint of discomfort that Numerius had shown, and Church realised this must be the final stage of the process that had been intended for him.
Church glanced at Decebalus and quickly realised that his superstition had rushed to the fore, threatening to overwhelm him. When he had thought he was facing only men, Decebalus had been as brave as ever, but now he was pallid and shaking so much he was almost slipping from the branch.
Tugging at Decebalus's sleeve, Church managed to urge him back to the trunk, and soon they were on the ground and scrambling back up the hillside to the others. Decebalus was mute with fear, and Church despatched him to the horses so the others would not see. After Church explained what they had witnessed, Joseph and Secullian crossed themselves, but Lucia and Aula took it in their stride.
'What now? They are closing fast on Eboracum?' Lucia asked.
All eyes were on Church. 'I don't think any Brothers and Sisters of Dragons can be killed by the Army of Ten Billion Spiders. The Libertarian hinted that they can capture us, torment us, but they can't deal with the Pendragon Spirit. Everyone else can chop us into bloody chunks, but not the thing we're supposed to be opposing, which must really stick in their spider-throats.'
They eyed Church, still uncertain.
Decebalus appeared on the fringes of the group. 'The only way we are ever going to amount to anything is by trusting each other. That is what sets us apart as champions.'
'We'll ride to where the Sixth Legion is preparing to meet the Ninth,' Church said. 'We'll do what we can there.'
As the others returned to their horses, Decebalus said to Church, 'I don't believe a word of it, but if it gets them moving that is all that matters.'
As Church climbed onto the back of Lucia's horse, she asked him quietly, do we face our end?' She showed no sign of fear.
Church couldn't lie. 'I don't know.'
The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons bore down on the rolling, rain-blasted moorland as the two legions came together like two torrents of floodwater. At the point of impact, armour, weapons, bodies and limbs gushed into the air amidst a tumultuous sound of clashing.
The Sixth Legion held their ground, though Church knew the terrors that must have been running through their minds.
Church, Lucia, Aula, Secullian and Joseph were shocked by the ferocity of the battle along the front line, but Decebalus was unmoved. He urged the others to join the fray. As they closed, they could see that the Sixth Legion was outclassed. The Roman army would be unsurpassed for centuries to come, yet it had met its match in an enemy that was oblivious to fear and pain. The living legionnaires were being slaughtered by the black and white tide. The Sixth's archers loosed their shafts by the hundred, but wherever they struck no one fell. Church saw some of the undead legionnaires turn into marching pin-cushions, arrows protruding from heads and torsos.
'Come! Let us harry their flanks!' Decebalus bellowed. He was away before anyone could respond.
Church lowered Lucia to the ground. 'If you've got the abilities I think you've got, use them,' Church said 'Protect Aula, Secullian and Joseph. They'll be no good in this kind of fight.'
Feeling out of his depth Church urged his horse towards the battles. He'd learned fighting techniques during his time at Carn Euny, but the part of him that was still the dreamy archaeologist was apprehensive. Yet the Jack Churchill that was being forged in those ancient times was filled with a greater fear: that more would die if he did not act.
On the edge of the battle, Decebalus drove his horse on close and swung his axe. Heads leaped from bodies likes sparks flying up a chimney. Decebalus retreated just as quickly before a blow could be laid on him.
Lightening crashed into the midst of the Ninth, blasting bodies asunder. The wind gusted in unnatural eddies, slamming against shields with the force of a battering ram, Lucia was using her Craft to direct nature in their favour.
Church drew his sword and its illumination cut a swathe through the darkness more effectively than any lantern. In the blue glow, Church saw scores of black eyes snap towards him as one. It might have been wishful thinking, but he was sure he saw a glimmer of unease in those still, dead faces.
Shields went up to deflect Church's first three attacks, but eventually he found a way through the defences. His blade sliced through the skull of one of the white-faced legionnaires as if it had no substance. The blue fire filled his system, driving out his rational thoughts until he and the sword were one, and in that moment he felt what he was supposed to be – a champion empowered by the energy of Existence.
He fought until his body shook with exhaustion, retreating every time the Ninth cavalry moved towards him, only to return to the fray moments later. Decebalus fought in a berserker rage, his axe never resting.
Yet despite their attempts to sway the battles, the soldiers of the Ninth were too numerous and to inhuman. They crushed all who lay before them with machine-like efficiency.
'Retreat. Regroup,' Decebalus gasped to Church. Blood streamed from many wounds and a broken arrow shaft protruded from one arm. 'They will not be held back. We need something more.
Church was so exhausted he could barely lift his sword 'Where's the help Aula promised?'
They retreated to where Lucia and the others waited, and Joseph did what he could to tend their wounds. Lucia was flagging from her exertions with her Craft and had little left to offer.
Under the shelter of an oak Secullian sat crossed-legged in the grip of a trance. He rocked back and forth, speckles of spittle flying from his mouth.
'How long has he been like that?' Church asked.
'Too long, but we were afraid to wake him,' Aula said grimly. 'He felt some contact from the Otherworld-'
Aula's words caught in her throat as Secullian's remaining eye snapped open, the white glowing in the dark. He raised one trembling arm to point to the battlefield. 'Across the worlds they dance…'
At that moment, the undead legionnaires overran the Sixth Legion. The moor was covered with the mangled bodies of Roman soldiers.
As Church watched an event history never recorded, his vision was briefly obscured. When it cleared, at first it looked as if the moon had come down to the rain-lashed earth. A silvery glow suffused the bleak moor. Church blinked once, twice, and then realised what he was seeing. Cernunnos had been true to his word. A new army now stood where the Roman legion had fallen, their armour gleaming silver. Church recognised the banner of the Court of Peaceful Days. At the front, a goddess Church assumed was Rhiannon led a ferocious assault.
'The gods were true to their word. For once.' Decebalus flopped wearily onto the sodden turf, oblivious to the lashing rain.
'But will it be enough?' Lucia asked.
'And are we simply invading exchanging one invading force for another?' Joseph said.
'Bring on the days when we can defend ourselves.' Decebalus tore the arrow from his arm with barely a flinch. 'Gods. Devils. May pestilence fall on them all.'
(c) Mark Chadbourn 2006
A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the author of twenty novels and one non-fiction book. His current fantasy sequence, The Swords of Albion, continues with The Devil's Looking Glass in February 2012. A former journalist, he is...