Gunslinger

Summary

A monstrous alien life-form, the Cazash Tree has overrun Greater London and the time of spawning now threatens the planet. Society has been decimated by Kine, the addictive sap that bestows gifts for vicarious entertainment but can also kill. Society has been fragmented and fights to survive.  The Cazash Tree is almost unstoppable and able to create other entities, amongst them the Disciples, thirty-foot high creatures that roam the surrounding forests in search of adversity. Twenty-year old Swift is a Boughrunner, one of many protectors of the Cazash Tree addicted to Kine. The tree bestowed on Swift the skills of a gunslinger and that is her Gift, but she is different from other Boughrunners, determined to find her mother and to take revenge for the death of her brother.

Nature-loving Edenists live in the vast forests outside London. The Edenist cult worships a mythical dragon and its rider, who together will take them to paradise. They are also scientists seeking for a way to prevent the spawning but they have been infiltrated, their leader secretly addicted to Kine. Many of the Edenists possess second sight but Hope Oak has much greater powers and her autistic younger sister Leah is stronger still. The Boughrunners are hated by Hope’s people, but she is destined to join Swift in her fight for freedom. Swift’s mother Carmen Ghoul is also a Boughrunner, drawn into a quest to find the truth and a chance for redemption.

Ace is a self-serving wizard. He is forced reluctantly to take sides when saving Leah from a Disciple attack, but follows his own course until the final confrontation.

Fortified towns are dotted through the oak forests, each a despotic kingdom competing for resources. Avalon is one such town, a complex warren of buildings upon buildings dominated by a giant crane and ruled by a despotic family intent on building a rival empire to the Cazash Tree. The De Veres want the secret of the Edenists and intend to use the same powers to seize power. To do so, they steal the young and Hope and Leah are amongst them, but experiments with Kine only increase their power. When Ace arrives, they are able to escape with him.

The Hellon people live in the remains of the London Underground, able to remain invisible to the Cazash Tree through chemicals taken from a captive Disciple. The price they pay is blindness, but the Hellon have learned to see using other senses. They are engineers, capable of extending the tunnel network and using modified Underground trains to travel vast distances. They believe that they can exist undisturbed, but they are wrong.

Swift makes her way into the underground world of the Hellon, searching for her mother. She is captured and joins them, but must give up her sight. At first sworn enemies, Hope and Swift must join forces with Ace to defeat the Cazash Tree and save the world. To do so they must summon unusual allies, but no one believes the dragon or its rider are real. The rider is Dra Ona, first of the vampires and his dragon Firebreath is buried deep. No one knows what will happen when they are summoned but there is no choice. The Cazash tree is preparing to release female spores from giant flowers, but the male spore will be released by the people it has infected, resulting in their death.

Chapter 1

Swift and Lonewolf spent the daytime holed up in the remains of a London Underground station ticket office. The heart of the Cazash Tree was very near. More branches and roots had penetrated the riverside buildings since her last visit, ripping through roofs and buckling roads and bridges before heading upriver. Rusting trucks and buses dangled like Christmas tree ornaments from the hoary limbs and the gutted remains of the London Eye hung around a lofty fork like an old bicycle wheel. Apart from the thickets of metre-long thorns, the Cazash Tree bore a scatter of blackened and wrinkled leaves together with countless tokens of its victims – a child’s bobble hat, a rattle, a pearl necklace, an old shoe. It sought out items of interest and decorated itself in a celebration of destruction, bones woven into intricate patterns, skulls threaded like kebabs. She could hear the dense matrix of branches chafe and squeak in the wind. Poisonous leaves lay heaped in the corners of the ticket hall and the light was sickly.

“It’s my birthday,” Swift whispered, giving Lonewolf a kiss on the lips.

He put his arms around her skinny shoulders and hugged her tight. “Happy birthday, babe. How old are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “twenty, perhaps. Maybe nineteen. Who cares?”

Her earliest memories were of being afraid and dashing through twisting passageways lined with corrugated iron. As soon as she had been old enough to understand instructions and run, she was used to deliver weapons and drugs, sent through narrow tunnels under the massive steel walls that surrounded her ghetto. They didn’t know about the Cazash Tree, not then.

“I’ve got you an imaginary cake,” he said.

She could not remember any birthday parties, any games or presents or blowing out candles, things she had heard about from the old ones. Instead she remembered pain and fear and how she had once killed a man whilst he slept so she could steal, and how she had cried and wished so hard that she could undo what she had done.

“Make sure it’s chocolate.”

Lonewolf yawned. “I’m thirty-eight. That makes me almost twice your age, Swift. I could be your old man.”

She laughed and shivered, twirling his chest-hair around her finger and tugging it. “That’s sick.”

He rolled her onto her back and looked down at her thoughtfully, leaning on one arm. “I worry about you, Swift. I worry what’ll happen to you, when they – take me.”

The thought of being alone again was a gaping chasm. “I love you,” she said, burying her face against his chest. “I can’t be alone again, I’d rather die with you.”

“Don’t ever say that,” he whispered. “You have to carry on, when I’m gone.”

She wanted to hear him say he loved her but she already knew he did. His look told her what she needed to know, and the kindness in his laugh. His laugh was what had first attracted her to Lonewolf, that and the way he moved. He was not a big man but he was fast and decisive and the other Cazashin were still afraid of him.  But he was old, too old and the Cazash Tree knew no pity. Lonewolf must have read her mind because he put his hand on her leg and stroked her soothingly. “No one will hurt you now,” he said gently.

It was only sentiment talking, there were plenty out there who wanted to hurt her and one day in the next few years, the Cazash Tree would kill her too. She rolled away from him and sat up, pulling the dirty tee shirt over her knees and rocking from side to side as a lonely tear spilled from her eyelashes, trickling down her cheek. She sniffed and wiped it away.

“Carmen should be here by now,” she said. “I wish we could always be alone like this. Life is shit, but I don’t want to die.”

Lonewolf sat up with a small grunt and sprang to his feet, surprising her with his speed as he always did. He pulled on his sooty jeans and the remains of a denim shirt, buckling the gun belt around his waist so it hung low, the grip of the heavy Colt within easy reach.  The gun was the coolest weapon and no other boughrunner came near – the Cazash Tree didn’t like them to have too much power but Lonewolf had been favoured. His breath clouded in the air as she shivered. She chewed her nails, feeling the grit between her teeth and spat out the dirt. Something felt wrong and images were coming to her, flashes in her mind accompanied by stabs of pain.

“Who’s coming?” he said as he flexed his fingers.

“I don’t know. I can’t see it, not yet.” She saw his expression change as he realised what she was saying. Not human.

The row of fat cartridges in his belt gleamed like nuggets of gold in the half-light. The gun belt had come from one of the countless lower levels of the museum below the Tree. Swift and Lonewolf had been taken on a tour as part of their induction and their guide presented Lonewolf with the gun belt as if it was a religious gift. As soon as he put it on, Lonewolf was able to draw, aim and fire in a single movement and the weapon seemed like an extension of himself. Each of the Cazashins was rewarded in a different way by Darkness, the curious servant of the Cazash Tree.  Swift was given an old-fashioned cutthroat razor, the kind Sweeney Todd would have used when giving a close shave. She was disappointed at first, comparing it to the sexy Colt but in many ways it was more deadly – and completely silent.

That was the first time she met Darkness. She didn’t know what kind of creature it was, only saw the silhouette of something tall, smooth and slender, but she remembered the lying voice with remarkable clarity. Everything about the Cazash Tree was a lie but she would gladly give her life for it. Darkness held out the razor across his woody palm and bowed stiffly and she took it, flicking open the blade, spinning it around her fingers and she knew everything about how to kill. From that moment on, she was a boughrunner.

Swift dressed quickly as the cold began to bite, making sure the sacred razor was in her pocket, trying to force back the memories. Surprise was her weapon – a skinny teenager who needed love, with big haunted eyes as dark as sloes and a pale vulnerable face. Swift was small, quiet and deadly. Lonewolf motioned for silence as she pulled on her trainers before pressing herself against the wall.  He peered into the ticket booth whilst she kept still. Her heart was beating so loud she was certain it would betray them and he frowned at her, his finger against his lips.  He stopped peering and stood against the wall beside her and she saw the pulse ticking at his temple as fast as her own. He was sweating despite the cold and so she reached out to find his hand. He squeezed back but it was not reassuring – he was shaking. She was certain that a homunculus was hunting and there was no point in hiding.

Something long and whip-thin slid around the doorframe and along the wall towards them. The end split in two like the tongue of a snake. The tips trembled as it tasted the air and a single drop of dark liquid collected and fell from one of them. Swift realised she was reciting one of the ancient Edenist prayers as her hands trembled. The words were a confused rant about God sending a dragon ridden by his Son and a land of plenty where three moons and two suns hung in the skies, but it was strangely comforting. She could hear the rough hide scraping against the wall and her teeth chattered. Let it not be Darkness, she prayed. She could not forget what it had done to her.

There is nothing to fear, said the voice of Darkness in her mind. I have a task for you, my child.

As soon as she heard the dry creaking voice, Swift wanted to run down the static escalator and into the darkness of the Underground, despite the terrors that dwelled there. She would abandon Lonewolf. She would do anything to get away, but Darkness had taken control of whatever was inside her and she found herself walking outside with Lonewolf despite the silent screams. The homunculus was standing in the moonlight but shrouded in shadow. If she dared to look long enough, she could make out the smoothly elongated head and curiously pointed chin and ears that together formed a triangle. Only the three eyes were clearly defined, black and glittering within the cracked and fissured skin. They were the same eyes as the Disciples, the same as the Tree, everything in threes.

“Hello, Swift.”

The voice was deep and syrup-smooth with a curious resonance. The words filled Swift with calm, despite her fear of the homunculus. To look into the face of Darkness was a sensation of falling into deep, cool water as the luminescence closed over her head, and an odd feeling of being loved. It raised a hand. Three fingers like pale roots flowed outwards, touching her face and leaving behind a skein of mucus. Lonewolf stood beside her, his face blanked out and his arms hanging by his sides. How easily he could have killed it with the Colt, but Kine had stolen the essence of him. Darkness seemed satisfied with whatever it discovered and the fingers retracted.

Swift waited in silence as it showed her what it wanted her to do. She had to find a man in a silver wheelchair. She realised with a sense of shock that Darkness was frightened of the man. His name was John Downer and he used to be a priest, something she could not reconcile. Darkness touched the rough brick wall of the station with his hand and his fingers elongated and thinned, sliding through the mortar with ease. He reached up with his other hand and climbed quickly, slithering up the wall. He reached the roof and seemed to flow over it and bricks cascaded down the wall with his passing. Swift touched Lonewolf’s hand. He jerked awake and stared round.

“Has it gone?” his voice was a hoarse whisper.

She nodded. “Did you hear what it said?”

He stared at her and she saw beads of sweat on his forehead. “I don’t remember anything. It didn’t tell me anything, Swift. The tree doesn’t want me anymore. What have I done wrong? Why?”

She touched his lips with her fingers but she was mortally afraid. Lonewolf had been a faithful servant but the ways of the tree were beyond human thought and Lonewolf was grown old. It was his time, just as it would be her time and there was nothing that could be done. Before they left the confines of the tree, they needed to take their blessings and she knew that his sweating and shivering were withdrawal symptoms.  Without Kine he would die badly but with it he might die worse. She allowed him to share her thoughts as he listened to the instructions given to her by the tree, a series of images, sequences and feelings centred on the paralysed man called John Downer.

“What should I do?” she asked. “I won’t leave you.”

“You must find him,” Lonewolf replied, and kissed her. It was like kissing goodbye. “If you disobey, you’ll die from organ failure. There’ll be no more Kine.”

“Then come with me,” she said, her voice shaking. “We can make it without bloody Kine.”

He shook his head. “You know that isn’t true. We’ve both seen what happens. No one lives for ever.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her on the mouth, softly. “I love you,” he said. Finally.

She kissed him back, barely able to speak. “I love you too. I love you so much.”

He gave her a sad smile, his face white. “Come on, let’s get it over with, kiddo.”

It was time. Swift took his hand and led him to one of the roots spanning the road ahead. It was hanging down from the roof of a shop, entering a post office on the other side through the smashed front window.  The root was not completely smooth. The underside bristled with small feelers like the suckers on a starfish.  It was using them to pull itself inside the post office, sliding over broken glass. A series of small holes ran the length of the root and each one puckered upwards like a mouth ready for a kiss as they approached.  She went up to the root and Lonewolf followed, his breathing increasingly harsh. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t swallow and she thought she might be sick.

“I won’t let you,” she whispered, gripping his hand as tight as she could. “I can’t manage without you, I need you. We can run. We can make it if we go underground.”

He shook his head.

Swift had no words left. She needed to cry or to scream but a huge weight had settled on her chest as the scene unfolded. She was watching herself from somewhere far away, a small, lost, pale girl with a tear-streaked dirty face.

You first,” he said.

“Goodbye, Lonewolf,” she replied.

She let go his hand and hooked her hair behind her ears, lowering her face towards the root.  As she did so, a drop of clear amber liquid appeared in the hole nearest to her and she drank it greedily.  Warmth rushed through her and briefly, she was able to see the world through the mind of the Cazash Tree. The blessing did its work and the incessant, tearing hunger was dimmed.  A sense of euphoria filled her and she laughed, clapping her hands. Everything would be fine and Lonewolf had nothing to fear. The tree told her so, it was her friend.

“Come on, Wolfie.” She pulled him forward and he fell to his knees, his body shaking.  He looked up at her before unbuckling the gun belt and took it off, handing it to her. “I want you to wear this,” he said. “Promise me.”

The euphoria was gone and she was filled with a deep plunging fear but there was no other choice. She needed to hold him to her and tell him how she felt, that he was her life and her light but before she could speak, he took a sip and fell to his hands and knees. His body arched violently, bending up into a hoop and she could hear his bones creak. He was trying to say something but the pain was too great and all she could hear was a rapid panting. His body arched a second time, high in the air before he fell sideways and she jumped back out of range.  She could not bear to see him suffer. She wanted him to die and he could not. Without thought she pulled the gun and fired, and Lonewolf was dead.

Swift stood with her hands over her face, beyond tears and beyond grief. She felt completely numb and the remains before her could not have been the man she loved. She turned away and walked into the dark and she no longer cared if the tree could read her thoughts. She was now the gunslinger and all that mattered was revenge, even if it meant death – but she could not do it alone.

 

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