The Hounds of Avalon are coming. For these are the twilight days, when eternal winter falls and the gods destroy themselves in civil war when an invasion force of ghastly power threatens to eradicate all life.
Humanity’s last chance lies with two friends, as different as night and day, but bound together by an awesome destiny.
Hunter: a warrior, a rake, an assassin; Hal: a lowly records clerk in a Government office. They must pierce a mystery surrounding the myths of King Arthur to find the dreaming hero who will ride out of the mists of legend to save the world. But time is running out, for when the Hounds of Avalon appear, all hope is lost…
Published by Gollancz (2005) & Pyr (2010)
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The final days of the human race started as they would end, with sapphire lightning bolts lashing back and forth across a stark hall. It appeared to the assembled group that a furious electrical storm was raging within the room, the air suffused with the smell of burned iron. Eyes shielded from the glare by sunglasses, the four men and one woman stood in awe behind the Plexiglas screen. They had the universe in their hands and they knew it.
Standing at the back of the group was Hal Campbell, at first ignored, now forgotten. Twenty-eight years old, bag-carrier, coffee-maker, officially titled chief clerk to the Ministry of Defence. Bookish, quiet and always watchful, sometimes Hal was happy in the obscurity with which nature had blanketed him; at others, he yearned to be involved in the great affairs he saw around him every day. But he knew it would never happen; there was no bigger barrier to this than his character, which shunned risk, wallowed in nostalgia, was overly sentimental and romantic and found security in the routine. After seven years climbing the career ladder in a world of quiet voices and filing cabinets, he knew he had now reached as high as he could go.
Another bolt of energy almost crashed against the Plexiglas window and the front line of viewers took a step back as one, before laughing nervously. Hal observed their faces, transformed into fantastic visages by the shifting shadows of the flashing blue light.
At the front, exuding authority, was the General. He was known simply by that title as if there was only one, but his full name was Clive Parsifal Morgan. Though in his late fifties, he still maintained the boyish, floppy haircut and superior demeanour he had developed at public school, honed at Welbeck College, turned into a fine art at Sandhurst. ‘He’s coming,’ he said simply.
‘How can you tell? I can’t see anything past all that damned flashing.’ David Reid pressed his sunglasses against the bridge of his nose and leaned towards the protective window. As he did so, his jacket fell open and Hal caught a glimpse of Reid’s handgun in its holster. Slicked-back black hair, piercing blue eyes, expensive dark suit.
Still thinks he’s James Bond, Hal thought.
Next to him, Catherine Manning stood icily aloof. Hal knew she’d been an investment banker in the City before the Fall; not much call for her occupation since the crash, but somehow she’d managed to find a place in the re-formed Government. Hal was impressed by her always impeccable appearance, long black hair gleaming, lips and eyes made-up despite the increasing rarity of any beauty products. She wore a smart pinstripe jacket and skirt, and standing next to Reid, Hal noted how alike they were in manner and dress.
The final observer was the Government’s chief scientist, Dennis Kirkham. Hal knew little about his past, but Kirkham was certainly well respected in current circles. He was a grey-faced man, quiet and intense, his thick glasses magnifying an unblinking stare that made Hal uneasy.
All eyes were fixed on the giant bluestone that dominated the hall. Proud and inspiring even torn from its context, it was still covered in lichen and clods of earth from Stonehenge. Hal couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sadness to see it there. For around 4,000 years it had stood guard over Salisbury Plain, but once the higher authorities had decided that they had another use for it, it had been uprooted and transported unceremoniously to its new location.
His attention was suddenly jerked from the megalith to the depths of the light display. In the infinite blue, he could have sworn he fleetingly saw a face looking back at him. Even more disturbing, it appeared to have his own features. He knew it was just a trick of the coruscating energy at play, but even so it left him with cold sweat trickling down his back.
‘He’s there, I tell you.’ The General tapped forcefully on the Plexiglas shield. ‘Can’t you see his outline coming through? Over there?’
Everyone turned their attention to the few pieces of electrical equipment that had been used to jump-start the bluestone’s residual energy. The red and green lights of a computer terminal were just visible through the sizzling blue glare.
Hal still couldn’t see anything, but Catherine Manning had become animated. ‘Yes – I see him! He’s made it!’
‘Let’s not get too excited yet,’ Kirkham cautioned, his face set. Of all of them, he was the one who most understood the risks. Hal recalled Kirkham’s briefing when Glenning had been selected. They had laughingly dubbed Glenning ‘the Psychonaut’, a name that had since buckled under the weight of its own accumulated mythology.
‘The chances are you may not be coming back,’ Kirkham had warned Glenning as they stood before the lecture hall whiteboard covered with Kirkham’s convoluted diagrams. ‘The knowledge encoded in all the old stories made it quite clear what would happen to mortals who ventured where they shouldn’t.’
Hal was jolted from his memory by a shimmer of blue light in the shape of a man near the spot the General had indicated.
‘Yes!’ Catherine said, her fists bunched in triumph.
‘Phasing in,’ Kirkham muttered to himself. He checked the set of monitors on the desk next to him. ‘Ozone level high. Ultrasound. EMF spiking. This is it.’
‘So you don’t have to be at one of the nodes after all,’ Reid mused. ‘As long as you can manipulate that energy, you can do it anywhere. Think of the implications.’
‘Yes, just think,’ the General said sardonically, ‘all you need is a four-ton megalith strapped to your back.’
A soundless explosion of blue light forced them to shield their eyes despite their sunglasses. When it cleared, the crackling bolts of lightning had gone and Glenning was standing near the bluestone, still wearing his RAF thermal flight suit.
Hal could instantly see that something was wrong. The pilot was shaky on his feet, disoriented, his skin as pale as snow. But it was his eyes that would haunt Hal in the coming months. Buried in their depths was a terror so vast that it appeared to be consuming Glenning from within. This was a man who had personally seen the very depths of hell, someone who knew that their life was already over and that what was to come would be worse.
Glenning stared at them all through the Plexiglas window and desperation carved its way into his face. He reached out one arm, opened his mouth to plead, and then he simply . . . disintegrated. It was as though, Hal mused later, he had been a statue carved out of sand, collapsing under its own weight. A pile of grey dust was all that remained in the sterile atmosphere of the hall.
Hal couldn’t quite believe what he had seen. One second Glenning had been there, living and breathing and human, and then, unbelievably, he wasn’t. Hal’s mind rebelled at what his eyes were telling it. Gradually, though, his incredulity became dismay at the loss of a man in such an inhuman way.
‘Another failure,’ Kirkham said levelly, checking his monitors.
Jubilation drained from Catherine Manning’s face, leaving behind a sickened horror. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, her voice dry. ‘What’s happened to him?’
‘The only way we’re ever going to cross over is by defeating that fatal flaw in our make-up that self-destructs whenever we try to pass through the barrier,’ Kirkham continued, ignoring the question.
‘We know that some people can do it,’ the General said. ‘We need to find out what they’ve got that we haven’t.’
‘Gladly,’ Kirkham said, ‘if we had one I could examine.’
‘What about Glenning?’ Hal couldn’t take his eyes off the pile of dust.
‘Yes, poor bastard,’ Reid replied. ‘Somebody is going to have to tell his wife.
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