EXCLUSIVE: Excerpt of Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

The release of Michael R. Fletcher’s Smoke and Stone is something we have been absolutely frothing over for a while now. Fletcher’s ability to invent such magnificent worlds, characters, and stories to piece them together in an engaging grimdark story is up there with the best authors in the business. But don’t let me talk your ear off about it, jump in and check out the latest and greatest from one of my favourite authors (and then take a look at that enticing cover!).

Akachi – Unbreakable Intent

A City of Sacrifice Novel

by Michael R. Fletcher

The entire city of Bastion is comprised of a single stone, two hundred and fifty miles in diameter, some seven hundred and eighty-five miles in circumference. In all Bastion, from colossal Sand Wall to the Wall of Gods at the centre, from the simplest Grower’s tenement, to the columns of the Senate, to the mighty vaults of the Banks, to the towering spires of the central churches, there is no seam to be found.

Bastion is a manifestation of perfection.

—The Book of Bastion

You can’t put this off any longer.

Standing outside Bishop Zalika’s chambers, Akachi lifted a hand to knock and hesitated.

Why had she summoned him? He’d done a passable job of leading yesterday’s sermon and there was no way she knew about last night’s attempt to sneak into the wing housing Precious Feather’s acolytes with Nafari. In spite of his friend’s claim to know a secret route, they’d been wholly unsuccessful. After spending three hours wandering, lost in one of the Northern Cathedral’s sub-basements, they eventually found their way back to their own room. They hadn’t actually managed to get into trouble.

Much as they’d wanted to.

More likely Zalika had invented some imagined trespass and was now going to punish Akachi for whatever it was she’d dreamed up. Luckily these things were rarely as bad as the real trouble he and Nafari found.

Bishop Zalika hated him. Well, she hated his father, the High Priest of Cloud Serpent. Her loathing of Akachi was incidental. He was an innocent victim of whatever past she and his father shared.

Mostly innocent.

He hadn’t known about their enmity until arriving in the Growers’ Ring.

For those born in the Priests’ Ring there were two paths: work as support staff to the people who shepherded the souls of all Bastion, or join one of the priesthoods and really become someone of consequence. All Akachi’s life, his father talked about how he’d someday follow in his footsteps. He’d make the journey to the outer ring, become an acolyte of Cloud Serpent in the Northern Cathedral, and earn his way back to the heart of the city.

Why didn’t he warn me about Zalika?

There was no point in stalling. He’d have to face her eventually and receive punishment for his crimes, real or imagined. Reaching up, he rapped on the oak door.

“Enter.” She sounded angry.

Breathing deep, he pushed the heavy door open and strode into the room. As Bishop of the Northern Cathedral, her quarters were palatial. The finest furniture and art crowded the space. Oak and leather sofas. Silk pillows. Thick rugs. Lustrous oil paintings depicting scenes from Bastion’s past hung on the walls. One showed a beautiful woman with skin dark as the space between the stars and the body of a terrible spider being thrown from the wall by a giant skeleton with a necklace of eyeballs. A colossal tapestry, twice the height of a man and as wide as six lying head to toe, showed the Last Pilgrimage, the shattered remnants of humanity fleeing their dying world, escaping to Bastion. He hadn’t seen anything like it since leaving his home in the Priest’s Ring. So much rich colour.

The big woman stood waiting, arms crossed. A cloak of owl feathers hung from her shoulders and swept the floor, sighing with resigned disappointment each time she moved.

She looked him over with a show of distaste. “You’re late.”

He wasn’t. “Sorry, Bishop.”

“What do you know of the Wheat District?”

“I heard it’s pretty rough, Bishop.”

“So, nothing.” She sighed in annoyance. “What do you know of the Loa?”

“Heretics. Worshippers of Mother Death.” He glanced at the tapestry. “They seek to end her banishment, return her to Bastion and overthrow Father Death.”

She stared at him, waiting.

“They…uh…use crystal magic, channel sorcery through stone. But their powers are limited with Mother Death’s influence unable to breach the Sand Wall—”

“I didn’t ask for a lecture.”

He rather thought she had.

“There’s a Cloud Serpent church in the Wheat District. It has been empty for years. Centuries.”

Was she going to send him out there to clean it? Would she punish him by having him mop abandoned churches? There were a lot of empty parishes in the Growers’ Ring. He could spend the rest of his life out there. No one would ever hear from him again.

Head bowed, he said nothing, waiting.

“The parish is yours.”

Mine? His own parish at nineteen? That was even younger than his father! “Thank you, Bish—”

“At least until I can find a real pastor.”

Ah. There it is. He should have known. “I’m honoured, Bishop,” he answered, keeping the hurt from his face.

“Don’t be. The nahual originally assigned this posting was assassinated on his way out from the Priests’ Ring.”

“I—”

“As was his replacement.”

“Oh.”

“As was her replacement.”

“Ah.”

She examined him with pebble eyes, wet and angry. “As was his replacement.”

“I see.”

“Doubtful,” Bishop Zalika said, fat earlobes swinging like greasy pendulums. “Try not to die before your replacement arrives.” She held out a sacrificial dagger.

“I shall,” he said, accepting the knife. “Try not to.”

He examined the obsidian blade. The smoke is the souls. That’s what the Book of Bastion said. He felt its death creep up his arm, a bone-shattering cold, and seep into his heart. It poisoned him.

Swallowing sour bile, he said, “Bishop, judging from the colour, this dagger has killed thousands.” He wanted to retch, to hurl this vile thing away. Can’t show weakness. “Should it not make the trip to the Gods’ Ring to be cleansed?” The gods would drain the souls from the blade so they might be reborn.

She sniffed at him and shook her head in disappointment. “It’s the only one available.”

Liar. He wanted to refuse, but a pastor without a sacrificial dagger was unheard of. The stench of death wafting from the knife twisted his stomach. As a pastor, it would fall to Akachi to punish those who broke the laws laid out in the Book of Bastion. Minor offences were punishable by whipping and could be carried out by the local Hummingbird Guard. Serious offences, however, were punishable by sacrifice on the altar. The act was, his teachers told him, a beautiful thing to send a man to the gods. Critical to the survival of Bastion, no duty was more sacred. Damaged souls, those who strayed from the Book, needed to be cleansed so they might be reborn.

Could he do it? Could he open a man and bleed him for the gods? He knew how, had attended countless lectures on anatomy. He’d even sat in on several sacrifices.

I can if I have to, he decided. I won’t let my father down.

But this foul and soul-polluted dagger… Zalika did this on purpose, no doubt.

“When do I leave?” he asked.

“A squad of Hummingbird Guard await you in the courtyard. Due to your tardiness, they’ve been in the sun for hours.”

He opened his mouth to protest and she waved him to silence.

“That reprobate, Nafari, will join you as will Jumoke. He’s an acolyte. Totally useless.”

“Thank you,” said Akachi with real gratitude. Nafari was his only friend. They grew up together in the Priests’ Ring. Jumoke, he didn’t know. Just another faceless acolyte.

“This is a punishment detail for both the acolyte and the Hummingbirds.”

And not for me? He wanted to ask what they’d done, but her expression suggested that might be a bad idea. Her expression suggests everything is a bad idea.

“Have you not kept them waiting long enough?” she asked, returning to her desk and shuffling papers as though he’d already left.

Exiting her Chambers, Akachi found Nafari, tall and handsome in a way that most women seemed to like, waiting in the hall.

“She called you a reprobate,” Akachi told him.

“I am. You ready?”

“No. You?”

“Nope. Let’s do this.”

They found Jumoke awaiting them in the Northern Cathedral’s great hall. Seeing Akachi, the skinny boy dipped a quick bow, coal-black hair falling in his face, and followed along a few steps behind. The acolyte carried a large pack, likely loaded with whatever supplies a new pastor would need. He dripped with sweat and blinked often, looking pale and gritting his teeth as if in pain.

Had he been recently lashed?

“You all right?” Akachi asked.

“We’re leaving the North Cathedral, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am fantastic.”

“Need help carrying that?”

Jumoke flashed a pained grin. “Nah. I earned this.”

A colossus of stone, not a seam or a crack anywhere to mar its perfection, this church was the religious centre of northern quarter of the Growers’ Ring. Sweeping arches, towering spires, impossible bridges suspended upon nothing but the will of the gods, all part of the single stone that formed Bastion. So different than the utilitarian solidity of the rest of the Growers’ tenements, the cathedral reminded Akachi of a giant spider’s web. And home. All the Priests’ Ring was as beautiful as this grand church.

The work of the gods humbled him to the core of his soul. They made this for us. Humanity brought itself to the brink of utter destruction and the gods built this bastion, took in the few survivors, and sheltered them from the world they’d killed.

He spent so much time dreaming of escaping the cathedral, but now that he was doing just that, it felt unreal.

A pastor. Well, kind of.

A grand adventure like the stories Mom used to read to him at bedtime. Tales of dark alleys, evil street sorcerers, and gangs of thieves defeated by heroic nahual and sorcerous nahualli. Life as an acolyte, and then later as a newly anointed priest, had been nothing like that.

Though when I dreamed of escape, I did think I’d be beginning my journey inward, back to the Priests’ Ring.

Priests of every denomination bustled about the cathedral’s great courtyard, intent on the daily business of maintaining and running Bastion. Here, in the Growers’ Ring, where grey seemed to define the world, the priests were an explosion of colour. Nahual of Snake Woman, vestments blood red, ceremonial shields worn over their backs, strode past, spears of ebony used as walking sticks. Father Death’s priests sweated under their multi-coloured cloaks of owl feathers. The nahual of Skirt of Vipers, robes mimicking the colouration of one deadly snake or another, went about the business of running the crèches and raising Grower children. Akachi even spotted the occasional banded red, white, and black of his fellow nahual of Cloud Serpent.

Seven Hummingbird Guard—three women, and four men—all wearing crimson armour of hardened leather in spite of the heat, awaited Akachi, Nafari, and Jumoke at the main entrance. The squad watched his approach through narrowed eyes.

The woman in charge nodded greeting. “I’m Captain Yejide. We’ve been assigned to you.” She exuded coiled strength, unbreakable intent.

The Hummingbird squad stank of leather and sweat, and for the first time Akachi found it a comforting scent. They’d keep him safe from the gangs of the Wheat District. A priest of Cloud Serpent, he wasn’t trained in violence or the arts of war. At least not in physical violence. As a nahualli he had sorcerous means of finding and defeating foes.

He wanted to ask what they’d done to earn this posting as punishment, but instead said, “How long are you staying?”

“Until assigned elsewhere, Pastor.”

“He’s not really a pastor,” said Nafari, winking at Akachi.

Akachi ignored his friend, who’d clearly been listening at the Bishop’s door. “Have you ever been in the Wheat District?” he asked Captain Yejide.

“Yes.”

When she didn’t elaborate, he said, “I’ve spent all of my time here in the Northern Cathedral. This is my first time out among the Growers. Is it really that bad?”

“Last week, two Guards were found bound to the district whipping post. Throats cut.”

“But Growers are forbidden weapons and tools! What could they use to cut a throat?”

She looked at him like he was an idiot and he decided she might be right.

“The whipping post is in the central square,” she said. “Yet somehow no one saw anything.” She wiped beaded sweat from her forehead. “Most of the time they just kill each other. Every street corner has a gang of Dirts claiming it as turf.”

“Dirts?”

“Growers. Most Dirts are too stupid to be dangerous, but there are so many of them…” She shook her head, mystified. “It’s a hotspot for the Loa as well. The heretics have their own secret churches hidden in the basements of Grower tenements.”

Dirts. The derogatory term left Akachi uncomfortable. As long as he was an acting pastor, his purpose was to educate them, to teach them the Book, and to protect them from their own ignorance. They were what they were. Hating them for being stupid was like hating a cow for being dull. He would do better. He would accept them for the flawed people they were and do what he could to improve their lives. He would bring them the Book and the Word as was his calling.

How long was he supposed to remain in the Wheat District? If his replacement left the Priests’ Ring now, they could be in the Growers’ Ring in eight or nine days. Less, if they rushed. No matter what Zalika said, even a temporary posting as acting pastor was a rise in rank and status. Would this be enough to begin his journey to the heart of Bastion?

A little over a week and I might be headed home!

Father would have to be impressed.

Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself. Priests were to serve in each ring as they earned their way inward, back to the gods. This posting, temporary and trivial as it might be, was the first step on the journey home. Even so, it would be years before he returned to the Priests’ Ring and saw his parents again.

“How long will it take to get to the Wheat District?” he asked.

Captain Yejide glanced at the sun, squinting. “If we set a hard pace, we might make it before night.”

“Let’s move, then.”

The Captain nodded, whistled a sharp blast, and the Hummingbirds formed a loose guard around Akachi, Nafari, and Jumoke.

Leaving the Northern Cathedral felt like leaving his home in the Priests’ Ring all over again. Everything he knew lay behind him.

‘It’s time to leave your childhood behind.’ Akachi’s father said that as Akachi left their home in the Priests’ Ring.

They were his last words before sending Akachi away.

Not ‘I love you.’

Not ‘I’m proud.’

But rather an admonishment not to disappoint.

Akachi had been twelve. Now, at nineteen, after seven years in the Growers’ Ring training as an acolyte, he was an anointed nahualli of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt, and following in his father’s footsteps.

It’s time to leave your childhood behind.

I think I have, Father. He considered last night’s attempt to sneak into the wing housing the acolytes of Precious Feather and winced. At least I’ve started, he amended.

Akachi slowed as they stepped into the street. Standing shadowed in the doorway of a tenement, a young woman caught his eye. She was beautiful, skin flawless, the whites of her eyes impossibly bright, almost as though she was lit from within. The woman stared at him, unflinching appraisal, face devoid of expression. Where the other Growers were filthy, bent with years of labour, she stood tall and proud, back straight.

Too clean. She looked like she’d be more comfortable in a priest’s robes, yet there she was, wearing a grey thobe like all the other Growers. He imagined her in the revealing robes of a nahual of Precious Feather.

Turning a corner, Akachi and his Hummingbird retinue left her behind.

The group walked south, following the Grey Wall separating the Growers and the Crafters. So huge was Bastion, the wall’s gentle curve was undetectable. It went on forever, disappearing in the wavering haze of heat, like it split the world in half.

It kind of does.

The Growers were roughly half of Bastion’s population. The other half, the Crafters, the Senate, the Bankers, and the Priests, all lived on the other side of that wall.

“The Grey Wall,” said Nafari, “separates everything interesting from everything not.”

We’re on this side,” said Jumoke.

The sun crawled higher, murdering the last hints of shade.

Some time later, when Akachi’s stomach grumbled in complaint, he realized the priests and acolytes back in the Northern Cathedral would now be sitting down to lunch. The Hummingbird Guard showed no sign of slowing or stopping to eat.

Though all the districts along the Grey Wall were in theory identical, all lined with repeating patterns of streets, tenements, central squares, and churches, each was, in some way, distinct. Every district came with its own scents and sights. The Growers also changed. The men and women of the Bovine District stank of manure. In the Potato District, Growers wore the dirt they spent the day toiling in. Some districts smelled like horses or pigs, and some reeked of fish or rotting vegetables. Everywhere he looked he saw the products of the Growers’ labours carted out behind teams of oxen, overseen by squads of Hummingbird Guard. Everything grown in this ring was taken to the Crafters’ Ring where it would be turned into the food, tools, and materials, that kept Bastion alive.

Akachi’s hunger became a background distraction, replaced by a more demanding thirst. And still the Guard showed no sign of stopping. His feet hurt, unaccustomed to such abuse.

They walked, following the wall.

Slitted eyes tracked the group’s progress. Sometimes clumps of ragged Growers would follow a dozen strides behind them for a few blocks before breaking off. Captain Yejide noted them but did nothing.

Am I going to be assassinated before I make it to the church?

That would certainly please Bishop Zalika.

“Are we there yet?” asked Jumoke, grinning when the nearest Hummingbird shot him an annoyed glance.

Glares of hate followed Akachi and his retinue everywhere. Whether it was due to the presence of the Guard, or his own robes of Cloud Serpent, he couldn’t tell.

Or do they hate all priests?

None of the lectures in the Northern Cathedral prepared Akachi for the seething anger, the obsidian edge of discontent surrounding him.

After hours of walking, Captain Yejide said, “We’re in the Wheat District now.”

They passed a church of Sin Eater. The nahual, dressed in countless layers of painfully bright white, face hidden beneath a voluminous cowl, stood in the centre of the street. The priest’s head swung back and forth as if seeking sin by smell alone. Sin Eater’s nahual wielded their power to cure or spread disease with a righteous fury. Even Akachi would be expected to attend service in that church at least once a month for confession.

Can’t imagine I’ll get up to much sinning out here.

Nafari, on the other hand, would no doubt find a way. He was already chatting up one of the Hummingbird women.

Captain Yejide led them through winding streets, eyes sharp. Turning a corner, she slowed, and held up a hand. The Hummingbirds, always alert, took up positions as if expecting attack.

“What is it, Captain?” asked Akachi. He scanned the alley. Piled garbage littered the street. Red sand dusted everything.

Nostrils flared, Yejide tested the air. “Going around will add an hour.”

Around what? Akachi only saw more of the same. “An hour?” His feet hurt from walking and he felt like he’d sweat out his last drop of water two hours ago. I’m going to sweat dust. He saw nothing amiss. “It looks quiet.”

“Your decision,” she said, waiting.

Akachi shot Nafari a questioning look and his friend shrugged, abdicating responsibility.

“On the one hand,” said Jumoke, “the alley does look more like an adventure than the main road.”

Akachi ignored the acolyte. Though the Hummingbirds had their backs to him, studying the streets and alleys, he felt their expectation, their impatience for a decision. He’d never been in charge of anything before. He hesitated, unsure. What if I choose wrong? But it was just another filthy alley. Could this be some Hummingbird hazing ritual, or were they testing to see if he took the longer, more cowardly route?

He glanced at the Captain. Her utter lack of expression told him nothing.

“We cut through,” he said. “If this district is to be my home, I need to see it. And the Growers need to see me.” He wanted to add something about how showing fear would reduce the respect of the locals, but in truth he was just tired and wanted to get to his new home so he could lie down.

Captain Yejide led the way.

The first clod of ox shit hit Akachi in the chest, staggering him. The second, still moist and heavier for it, connected with the side of his head. Sparks arced across his vision.

Blinking, he found himself on his knees.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.