The Napoleonic Wars are almost over when Rifleman Davey Smith finds an unusual baby in a magical cave below an abandoned chateau. He names the baby Zero because of the mark on its forehead, the source of an extraordinary energy. The narrative follows the life of the time-bending child as Zero discovers his true nature, and the ensuing quest to save the few survivors of his race from a serial killer Witch named Fendinn. Zero must track down five mystical Symbols hidden on five worlds to turn back time and save his race, but killing only increases Fendinn’s power as she pursues him.
Zero is joined in his quest by intolerant and impulsive Jezebel Light (‘Moonie’), a hot-tempered tattooed dwarf named Capo, ex-con gun-toting Theodore Prism, knife-throwing fire-breather Loner, bearded fortune teller Mrs Macadam, contortionist Prudence Love and Police Sergeant Jacob Golightly. This unlikely team must find a way to work together to survive whilst adopting new personas as they dime-jump into each new world, crossing history into the distant future. When Moonie dies in pursuit of the final Symbol, Zero learns the true meaning of love and has one choice – to defeat Fendinn and change history.
Zero is a Vættir, a magical forest dweller from ancient times, feared and worshipped in remote parts of the world. Facing destruction, they dispersed the five Symbols of power across parallel worlds – Earth, Terra, Rithmee, Catalph, and Fendinn’s own world, Darkal. Zero and his mother the Vættir Prime fled from Fendinn, hiding in the Earth’s ocean deeps until discovered by Davey Smith. Zero alone has the power to travel between parallel worlds, amplifying the golden circle on his forehead by using a magical ring to conceal him from Fendinn. He is on the autistic spectrum, unable to communicate easily, innocent and naïve. He is also a mathematical genius with telekinetic powers, who must learn how to love and be a leader of his people.
Fendinn is a ritualistic killer, carving an ‘X’ across the faces of her victims, removing their teeth and eyes to increase her strength. She craves eternal life in physical form, but can only achieve it by consuming the energy of the Symbols as well as Zero’s ring.
This fast-moving, mind-bending novel is about the coming of age of Zero, the discovery of who he really is and of what he is capable. It is also about the meaning of love.
One hundred and fifteen years after finding Zero, Davey Smith lies dying in a circus caravan on an alien world. Outside the night-black windows, heavy canvas flaps as if taking slow breaths and rows of trucks stand in silence. As the wind cradles the caravan, Davey relives that miraculous day. No time seems to have passed at all.
The soldiers approach the three tents at dawn but the sun fails to rise, suffocated by a thick layer of cloud. There’s no one on watch because Napoleon still considers the British honourable, but for Davey and the remnants of the 95th Rifles, honour died on the fields of Leipzig and Dresden along with 200,000 men. Soldiers who view ducking musket balls as cowardice made easy pickings for English riflemen and so do slumbering French officers. Davey and Max take the first tent, ripping open the entrance with bayonets before firing at startled occupants point-blank and to hell with honour, the sharp crack of rifle shots shockingly loud in the silence. Two down, the other two bayonetted where they kneel with raised hands. Out then in again and no eye contact because seeing the soul depart brings ill fortune. Davey knows that prayers cannot wash guilt away and the King’s medal will not persuade God. A single shot comes from outside but there are no screams and death is quick, no one can ask for more. There were eight French officers in the small camp and three remain alive because they surrendered to Captain Jenkins. If they’d entrusted their lives to Pieter the Norwegian, they would have died slowly. The surviving officers are little more than boys, judging from the mix of terror and acceptance on the young faces and they have waxed moustaches and blond hair like Pieter, unusual for Frenchies. They could almost be English, Davey realises.
“What is your purpose in this place? What quest is it that you pursue on your own and without your men? You would do well to speak truth, lies will befall you ill.” The captain speaks slow and loud to the kneeling men.
The sun breaks through the cloud and smiles upon them.
Two of the prisoners look blank but the oldest of the three understands enough. “Not spies,” he replies, his accent thick. Then more bravely, “This La France. This our country.”
Jenkins sighs irritably and tries shouting louder. “Why are you here, man? It is in your best interests to speak openly and deny the suspicion that your manner demands.”
The oldest one is trying his best, almost at the point of tears but he cannot stop looking at the bloodstained bayonets. The captain points at the officers and then at the ground, a gesture lost on Davey. “What is the purpose of this quest that you undertake, for what do you search?”
Heads shake, bewildered. Tents flap. A buzzard mews in the blue.
Max doffs his cap. “If I may speak out so boldly, captain, perhaps it’s best to converse more simply with men who are not accustomed to the King’s English.”
The captain glowers. “There is wisdom in your words, Maximilian.” He turns to the prisoners and shouts louder. “I shall ask you one last time. Are you spies? Is your intent one of subterfuge and mayhem?”
The oldest one shakes his head emphatically. “Not spies. We not spies, soldiers. Not may-hem. War over now.”
The captain shrugs, shoulders heavy with disappointment. “I have tried my best to ascertain the truth but their silence bears witness. These men are condemned as spies and there is no honour owed to them.”
“War over. Please-”
Pieter hits the French soldier in the face with his rifle butt, then holds out his bayonet to Davey as the others stand in a silent ring. He is white-faced and hollow-eyed, and he looks crazy.
“Zero. We come to find Zero,” the oldest-looking prisoner blurts, spitting blood. He glances at Pieter and crosses himself.
The captain raises an eyebrow. “Do you jest with me on point of death, sir? Do you wish to say that you search for nothing? Save yourself, man.”
The Frenchman seems puzzled. “We search for Zero to make us rich. War ended.”
Davey sees the desperate hope in the Frenchman’s face and has to speak. “I am not afeard of taking life in the heat of battle, captain. But these three men have been captured in uniform and stand before us unarmed. They should be treated fair and well, as we would wish should that fate befall us. This man is without doubt an officer and has good breeding – with respect, sir. He has a gentlemanly demeanour and is fair of skin like an Englishman.”
The captain doesn’t like to be contradicted, especially when in the wrong. His bottom lip juts out obstinately. “The uniforms are a disguise. I would not expect a man of little education such as yourself to recognise a spy in uniform.”
The Norwegian looks hungry, wetting his lips and for a moment, Davey doesn’t recognise him – whatever swims behind Pieter’s washed-out blue eyes is capable of anything.
“If we let them go, they report our position and we will feel French blades in our guts. Is that what you want?”
Davey sees the scorn in Pieter’s face, a doctor who used to butcher men and women for a living and now butchers men for his country. Doctor Death. That’s who Pieter is, doctor Death, he thinks.
Jenkins draws his pistol and offers it to Pieter. “Use this.”
The sun cowers and the wind strokes Davey with chill fingers. “Wait, sir. He said they search for Zero, but English is not his tongue. Perhaps he means something different. Perhaps they search for a place or mark, or a person. He said it would make them rich, sir.”
The captain looks deep into Davey’s eyes as if they are about to be married and gives a small nod to Pieter that might be permission or gratitude. Pieter pushes the prisoners into a line, making them stand close together whilst the bloodstained tents flap and billow, and the air is warm and sweet with the scent of hay. One of the captured men is sobbing quietly, saliva dangling from his mouth and he looks very young. Somewhere in Davey’s mind arises the thought that they’d be haymaking back home, guiding lazy cobs across the meadow to turn the cut grass. He believes the French boys before him are also of farming stock, and from the same family by their look. They have resorted to begging and the crying one has wet himself.
How old are they?
Old enough to be killers, young enough to be loved. He thinks of his comrade Mikey Cribbage dying nearby, a magistrate and defender of the peace by trade – a man obsessed with solving seven bizarre murders involving mutilation and facial disfigurement, crimes that Davey Smith and the others had never heard of and which mean nothing. He thinks of the countless thousands of soldiers and horses splashed to the four winds, and the deafening symphony of suffering roars in his head as Pieter aims and tears run down the French boy’s cheeks. Davey thinks his heart might actually break.
The boy has a mother, he keeps thinking. The boy is just like me.
The officer in the middle mutters something, frowning with anger. The boy facing the pistol straightens up and stares back defiantly but his lip continues to tremble. “Please, we look for Zero. Rich.” He pulls a folded document from within his waistband and holds it out with a desperate smile. “See, Zero.”
Davey puts his hand on Pieter’s arm and tries to lower the pistol but it might have been embedded in rock. The fading light rushes into darkness. He cries out to God for help but God is not interested and it’s over in an instant, the sudden buck and report. The pleading face is gone as the heavy .69 inch shot hurls him back. Three bodies kick and twitch below the drifting smoke as the pale light returns. The weapon falls to Pieter’s side and even he looks shocked. Jenkins takes the murder weapon before reaching out to grip Davey’s shoulder.
“What choice did they have, be shot for cowardice or die in battle? What choice do any of us have? This is war, when all our fates lie in the balance and no one knows how the dice will fall. We are all born to die young, Smith. They are French, we are English – we found them unawares. Had the situation been reversed and they had found us sleeping, we would be facing their muskets. There is no other explanation needed. We are as chaff in the wind, Smith. Chaff.”
Davey knows the man is trying to be kind despite his habitual arrogance, but chaff in the wind is no great reassurance. “Thank you, sir.”
“Davey will not die young. Davey will be the oldest man on Earth.” Pieter speaks in his strange way, eyes focused on eternity, blue turned almost black. He chuckles as the bodies tremble, the one who had been at the back still alive and fighting for breath as he gargles blood. Pieter kicks him in the side.
“Look, they wish to stay on this world. They thought they would live forever, heroes fucking the pretty girls, bad boys the mothers do not like.”
He takes the bloodied bayonet from his belt and fixes it on the muzzle of his rifle, then stabs the injured one through the face until the body lies still. The wounds form a ragged ‘X’, a sick tribute to the magistrate’s quest. Pieter spits on the blankly innocent features and wipes the blade on the dead boy’s nightshirt.
“Fucking French, we should kill every one of them.”
He kneels down, taking pliers from his belt-bag and begins to remove their teeth for the denture-makers. Davey catches the captain’s eye and sees doubt. He wants to say something but the captain shakes his head. Pieter is not the first to be driven insane by what he’s seen.
It’s poor Mikey’s turn to leave the Earth. A bayonet caught him during the attack on the French officers and Davey imagines the wild, swinging blow in the confines of the tent. A man of honour but with poor judgement, Mikey insisted on volunteering for the ranks but death is no respecter of privilege. Captain Jenkins wouldn’t let Pieter finish him and keep to the pact, ordered the tall Norwegian to put his bayonet away even though Mikey was staring at them with pleading eyes – and Pieter knows how to make it quick as well as slow. They left the magistrate on the ground whilst they killed the French officers and no one expected him to remain alive.
Now, Mikey whimpers.
Max, who is busy searching through the dead boys’ clothes and pulling rings from bloodied fingers, pauses in his work. “The magistrate still breathes,” he cries delightedly. “There’s yet time to say goodbye.”
Pieter strokes his bayonet thoughtfully. “Prayers will not end his suffering.”
Mikey shivers and whimpers again. Davey kneels beside him as Mikey tries to say something, his eyes on the Norwegian.
“Face in face,” he gasps. “Scarlet.”
The voice fades but the light in Mikey’s eyes burns with urgency. He mouths again but there is no sound. Davey pats his shoulder and glances up at the smoke-filled sky.
“Daylight will end soon. I saw a house back there where we could take the magistrate, give him some brandy and a proper send off as befits his status. We need food and something to drink to renew our energies. We need rest for our souls and time to pray.”
Max waves the bloodied document. “What should we do with this?”
Pieter reaches out but the captain snatches it from him and gives a nod at the magistrate. “Take him with us.”
They pick up the groaning man and carry him across the meadows, trampling down the long grass and startling crickets, walking around scattered bodies dressed in foolishly bright uniforms red or blue whilst avoiding their accusing flyblown faces. All the while, a skylark sings in the gathering darkness. By the time they reach the chateau the magistrate is dead, the lark has fallen silent and Davey feels both glad and miserable. They drop the body in the hayfield and say a quick prayer whilst the building looms above, casting a cold shadow. Pieter wants Mikey’s teeth because they were particularly good, so they leave him crouched over the body with his tools and carry on.
There’s enough light to see the symbol for zero carved in the gateposts – a circle dissected by a diagonal line. As they walk between the fallen gates and crunch up the weed-strewn gravel, they come across two dead Englishmen in scarlet uniforms, still clutching the muskets with which they bayonetted each other. The dead men have fallen to their knees, leaning inwards against the hilts and gazing at each other blankly as if astonished. It’s a macabre sight even for the battle-hardened Davey. Pieter arrives and laughs in his crazy way as he pushes the dead men over, and they fall limply as if released from a spell. The captain remains silent and Davey knows what he’s thinking – they died because of zero, but he doesn’t know why.
A church bell tolls once, the sound lingering as if calling the dead.
Davey feels as if they have stepped through time. The driveway and orchards either side are whitening with frost, a deep crimson sky drenches the cluster of shot-riddled buildings and the air is keen. The empty windows seem to be begging for life. There is a ruined church next to the chateau, the bell tower all that remains intact despite a jagged crack that runs across it. Someone must have rung the bell but no one greets them. Rifles are held ready, men keeping in the shadows but there is only silence. The western half of the building is fire-blackened, much of the roof gone. A storm of bats rockets up into the velvet sky when Max shoulders open the front doors and the house exhales cold stale air that smells of mould. Davey doesn’t want to enter the place – the doors remind him of a temple, oaken and massive with handles fashioned like lion’s heads, or perhaps the devil that Pieter claimed to have seen on the battlefield – Old Nick himself, horns and all, head and shoulders taller than men. It was looking for someone, he said, and it wasn’t interested in the dead. It was hunting a witch.
In this place, demons and witches don’t sound so crazy to Davey. He finds himself thinking about Mikey’s last words and a sea of bodies that reaches the far horizon whilst the horned demon hunts its prey.