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Jack of Ravens

By:Mark Chadbourn

PROLOGUE




Three women huddle in a dark place, their features swathed in shadow. They work diligently, one spinning threads, one measuring them. The third waits with a pair of shears. And as they go about their business, they sing in high, unsettling voices, of what was, of what is, and of what will be, and their songs change constantly, like the sea, like the sand on the beach.

The Daughters of the Night know this: nothing is as it seems. There are hidden patterns in the weft and weave of human existence. Only one thing can be trusted: the heart; and some threads that bind shall not be broken, however far they stretch across time or space.

Their song begins anew. The shears are poised …





Chapter One





THE GREAT DOMINIONS





1



Spectral mist drifted across the rolling grassland. The thin light of approaching dawn filtered through in shades of gold and pink, the whole world glowing as if newly formed. The only sound was the breeze; the stillness that followed a terrible storm had cupped the world in its palms.

Out of the gently shifting fog wandered Jack Churchill, as pale as a ghost, which in a way he was, hair as black as crow’s wings, a face that combined sensitivity and strength, sadness and hope in equal measure. His torn, bloodstained clothes revealed numerous minor wounds. And in his hand he loosely carried a sword that might not have been a sword at all.

He didn’t know where he was going, or from where he had come. Only one thing filled his mind: the image of a young woman with long, dark hair and a face as pale as his own; a name: Ruth; a sense of a deep and powerful love that gave meaning to his existence.

Exhaustion enveloped him, but the malaise went deeper than his weary bones; it felt as though the gentle fog had permeated his head, swaddling memories that only recently had been clear and sharp. He knew his name, that all who knew him called him Church. He recalled the basic details of his life – his work as an archaeologist, his family, his friends, his flat in South London – but the circumstances that had led him to that lonely landscape in such a dire condition were muddled and fading fast.

The grassland sloped away before him. He could smell wet vegetation, perhaps a hint of the sea.

Find a road, his subconscious told him. Hitch a lift. Get away. Get to Ruth, before it’s too late … for her, for you.

As he wrestled with his memory, he glimpsed movement in the drifting white – spectral shapes, there then gone, like circling wolves.

‘Who’s there?’

The echoes of his question were muffled by the fog, but the sound of his voice stirred something in him. He came to a halt and glanced down at the weapon in his hand. His eyes played tricks on him. Though every sensation told him he was holding a sword, for the briefest second he thought he was gripping a strange crystal formation glowing with a powerful blue light. His eyes blurred, static shimmered across his mind and then it really was a sword, the blade imprinted with strange, delicate runes, black against the silvery steel, the pommel an ornately carved dragon’s head.

The incongruity was disturbing; even more troubling was the realisation that he had not considered it unusual until now. Why did he have an ancient weapon? Why all the blood? Had he murdered someone?

His dazed incomprehension was interrupted by an inhuman roar thundering across the landscape. As the hairs prickled on the back of his neck, Church gripped the sword tightly, easily.

Whatever had made the sound was lost in the mist. An animal, Church told himself, though it sounded like no animal he had ever heard before. Uneasy, he slowly backed away from what he thought was the source of the noise. The mist was disorienting, and when the roar came again, it was unnervingly near at hand. Deep tremors accompanied it, as though an industrial machine was pounding away.

Church chose a direction at random and ran down the gradual slope, dodging gorse bushes and outcroppings of lichen-covered rock. By the time he realised he’d made the wrong choice, there were people running somewhere nearby, their fearful shouts punctuating the now-deafening roar. The ground shook so forcefully that Church could barely keep his feet.

Church had only a split second to throw himself to one side as something hurtled towards him. Crashing to the damp grass, he glimpsed a huge, dark mass that felt like a juggernaut whistling by only inches away.

A cry of terrible pain cut brutally short echoed nearby. Church’s unease turned to full-blown anxiety. An enormous shadow fell over him.

Looming above him, the top half lost in the reaches of the mist, was a giant figure that Church estimated must have been at least twenty-five feet tall. Yet it was not, by any description, a man. The legs that shook the ground were made of branches, earth, rocks, creepers and clumps of gorse. With a sound like the ground being torn open, the thing bent down rapidly and Church was confronted by a face constructed from a similar jumble of organic and inorganic matter, red eyes glowing from the depths.

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