Introducing Tess and Cale
Demonseer – Book 1 of the Merlin’s Children series by RP Rawnsley
England: Whitby, North Yorkshire.
Monday morning, mid-October. Blustery, cold, and wet. I’m late for school, munching cold toast on the go, tired and cranky from staying up too late studying for my mock A-level exams. And then arguing with Mum this morning.
My mum has dreams. She calls them portents. I call them stupid.
She had a dream last night. A blind old woman with no tongue came to her and spoke inside her head. Like a Vulcan mind-meld, I suppose. Anyway, it was a dream, so weird stuff happens. Trouble with my mum is, she believes her crappy dreams.
Apparently, seven days will change me forever. I’ll discover my powers. I’ll nearly die. I’ll learn to kill.
Yeah, right. As if. I’m a violence-hating science nerd. And a big-time Marvel fan.
So… What the Hulk, Mum?
Grey hoodie pulled up, I hustle through the winding streets of Whitby old town. Higgledy-piggledy shops and houses, hidden courtyards, and dark ginnels running down to the shore.
I leg it past the steep stone curve of the 199 Steps—stairway to windswept cliffs and brooding abbey ruins. Seagulls cry and wheel overhead, scavenging for scraps. I scarf down the last of my toast before they dive-bomb me, and scoot round the corner onto Church Street, books clutched to my chest.
Something scuttles across the narrow street smack under my feet. Blood-red eyes gleam. Bony fingers tweak my ankle.
I stumble and my books spill over the wet cobbles. Muttering under my breath, I bend down and pick them up, hair swinging in front of my face. My glasses slide down my nose. I push them back, arms full of damp books, thoughts full of curses.
I hate demons. And I’m plagued with the rare–and annoying–ability to see them.
The demon cackles from a shop doorway. I glance across and catch a spite-filled gaze. The demon stretches rubbery lips into a ha-ha-gotcha sneer. It holds its palms out, bony fingers splayed, like a grisly shopkeeper showing off his wares. The little soul-sucker is standing next to a newsagent’s billboard with the latest headlines.
HOMELESS MAN MURDER HORROR
But that’s not all.
Dozens of demons line the street. Insubstantial shadows, grey or oily black, with eyes that glow like red-hot coals, or gaping voids where eyes should be. Fat ones, thin ones. Rat-sized, dog-sized, ape-sized. Demons with jagged teeth or slitted snouts, with tusks and horns and whip-like tails. They lurk in doorways, lean out of alleys, perch in rows on rooftops, like they’re waiting for a parade to pass.
Prickles run over my scalp and down my spine.
One or two demons are an everyday sight for me. Sometimes I’ll see a small group. They hang around in shadowy corners, looking for a host. But this many…?
I take a deep breath and plunge past them. Experience has taught me the best way to deal with Hellspawn is to ignore them. Everyone else does. Normal people hurry by, heads down against the mizzling rain. They have no idea.
Seeing demons is a really shitty ability. Distracting, embarrassing, and liable to get you locked up in a high-security psychiatric unit. You try telling your teacher you didn’t hear the question because there’s a demon on the ceiling pulling faces at you. Give me Spiderman’s abilities any day.
I skirt a puddle in the middle of the pavement, dodging demons and a large woman wielding an umbrella with intent. Safely past, I tug my hood forward and chew on the drawstring. I need to focus.
Demons or not, I have exams today. And if I’m to stand any chance of getting into med school next year, I need to get top grades this week. I’m the first person in my weird and wondrous family to even think about going to uni, and I need to prove to everyone I can do this. Because on paper, I’m a no-hoper with less than stellar GCSE results.
The reason for my poor track record is the same reason I have to do well now.
Tucked inside my jeans pocket I feel the small, reassuring lump of my little sister’s favourite tiny teddy bear, Sam. Inside my heart, the familiar ache.
Izzy made me promise to look after Sam, worried he’d be lonely when she wasn’t around anymore. For nearly two years I’ve kept that promise. I look after Sam, and he looks out for me. My lucky mascot.
He won’t be lucky if I don’t get to my exam on time. I hurry past mullion-windowed shops and cafes, all decked out with extra demons. They lean out from the doorways, jostling, jeering. Their words drill through my defences and scuttle into my brain.
You’ve got no chance. You’re a nobody. You’re a fraud.
You should’ve been the one who died.
They know, oh they know, how to press where it hurts. I hold Sam tight, and block the jabbering voices from my mind. Or try to.
Part of me believes every word.
Focus. Biology paper today. Mitochondria. Kreb’s cycle. Adenosine triphosphate. The words swirl around my brain like flies inside a bell-jar, bouncing off the sides, random, chaotic, and totally useless if I can’t pull it together. The sounds merge into a dull buzzing roar that expands inside my head, pressure building ready to explode.
The demons yammer and my skull is bursting. My lungs flutter, high and tight.
No way. Not happening. Breathe. I suck in a shuddering lungful, blow it out. Another. Good. Slow it down. Better. I can do this. I have to. For Izzy’s sake.
I square my shoulders. Check my breathing. The air smells like brine and seaweed, the signature notes of Eau de Whitby. Seagulls squawk and flap, ousted from their usual haunts by the demon invasion.
Demons be damned. Oh, wait. They already are.
‘So, what do you think they’re up to?’ The voice sounds about an inch from my ear.
I whip my head round.
An old man with boot-black eyes, a shaven head, and the daddy of all beards walks beside me, keeping pace with apparent ease. The beard is long, ivory-coloured, braided at the end, and bushy enough to hide several small animals. The man beams at me. He wears loose-fitting maroon robes, his appearance halfway between a Buddhist monk and an aged hippy, with a little Rasputin thrown in. His aura is a spiky halo of pale, duck-egg blue.
‘The demons,’ he says. ‘What do you think they’re doing?’
END EXCERPT 1
Talmain. Southern Darthia: Ten miles north of the Casalonian border
My ma once said, or so I’m told, that I have a powerful destiny.
But she’s long dead, and I don’t believe in destiny.
I adjust my grip on my longsword, my gaze fixed on the burning village. Watching for movement. Waiting for the fire to flush out the Darthian raiding party we tracked here, deep in enemy territory. The bitter stench of burning straw clogs my nostrils. Flames leap from one thatched cottage to the next, and shouts and screams rise from the blaze. My gut tightens.
Gods. I hate this.
I glance round to make sure my men are in position. We’re a foot patrol unit: lean, light, fast, adaptable. Twenty good Casalonian men, ranged across the dusty Darthian plain. Weapons ready, we watch and wait.
I believe in luck, but today is different. Today feels dirty. The luck that’s kept us alive so far seems twisted and slippery, and the raven pendant, my lucky charm, hangs dull and sullen round my neck.
Prince Braden’s high, mincing voice is stuck in my head. This village shelters raiders. Kill them all. Every man, every woman, every whining brat.
Prince or no prince, he’s a fecking arsehole.
We had it handled. Prince-Shiteface had to interfere. Bastard. There’s no need to burn this village, no need to kill farmers and children. But if I ignore his orders, I could hang.
Dense, choking clouds smear the air. Heat blasts my face. Three grey-uniformed Darthian soldiers, swords drawn, race through the gap in the wattle fencing that passes for a gateway.
‘Here come the Jackdaws!’ Razza shouts, his voice crazy-wild. ‘Kraa, kraa, kraa!’
The others take up the mocking chant. Here come the Jackdaws. Here come the Jacks. Grey uniforms. Black hearts.
‘Take ’em down, lads.’ I yell like all hell’s furies.
I can’t feel sorry for the Jack soldiers. They butchered dozens of our countrymen this morning at a farm compound, three hours’ march over the border. Entire families. Babes in arms, pregnant women, toddlers, grandmothers—the lot. They’re why we’re here. They’re why we fight. To protect the innocent.
Not to slaughter them.
Malk steps into the first Jackdaw’s path. Shield raised, he twists to deflect a blow. He lunges in for the kill, sword angled up below the breastbone. Straight for the heart, thrust and withdraw. The Darthian gurgles, slumps, falls. Jed and Razza scythe down the other two, their movements wicked fast.
A few more Jacks make a rush for it. One of them charges at me.
My focus narrows. The rest of the world dims. There’s just him and me and the rush of blood in my ears.
He screams a challenge. Strikes. I sidestep, swivel. His blade slices air. He’s off-balance, and I pivot and swing my longsword in a high, taut arc. The blow connects, the force shuddering along my arms. My blade shears through flesh and bone and exits in a spray of blood. He’s dead before he can draw breath to scream.
Pulse thundering, I whip round, scanning the battlefield for the next attack.
Villagers stagger out from the flames. Dogs, goats, chickens, and the last of the raiders run among them. Women herd their families. They clutch their young ones close when they see my men, but they keep moving, away from the heat and the suffocating smoke.
Jed turns to me, voice pitched low so only I can hear. ‘What do we do with the villagers, Cale?’
No survivors. Jed heard Prince Braden’s orders as clear as anyone, but he waits for my command. My mind’s screaming: Don’t be stupid. Follow your orders. But I listen to my heart and my gut. Screw you, Braden.
‘Women, children, unarmed men go free,’ I bellow above the noise. Weapons clashing, men shouting, children crying. A building collapses, roof crashing down.
‘You heard the man,’ Jed yells. ‘Let the village folk through.’
Gods help us. I touch the raven pendant. The charm’s worked well for us, so far. They call us the Lucky Patrol. Never lost a man.
I still feel cursed.
Something hangs over me, has done all my life. Something dark and pitiless. Biding its time. Waiting to strike. To steal the ones I love.
End Excerpt 2
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