Excerpt: A Whisper of Southern Lights by Tim Lebbon

The lovelies at Tor.com were kind enough to ask me to share an excerpt of A Whisper of Southern Lights by Tim Lebbon, which will be out on May 10th! Enjoy!

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One
There was Hell on Earth, but Gabriel did not care.

It had been over two decades since his last meeting with the demon Temple. That had ended badly for both of them, and since then, Gabriel had been hiding in a dilapidated timber shack in the mountains of British Columbia. In that solitude, he had tended to his injuries and dwelled on the clashes past and those yet to come. His longevity had ceased to amaze him—the decades, the centuries rolled by—but the memory of his slaughtered family still shocked him numb. So long ago, so far away, and yet their deaths were fresh wounds on his soul. Something made sure of that. Made him remember afresh every day. He had defied time, and as if in revenge, time chose not to heal those dreadful wounds.

But over the past three years, as war rolled from one continent and hemisphere to the next, Gabriel had begun searching again. Europe was on fire, the Far East was in turmoil, and it was a good time for evil.

Gabriel knew that Temple would be out there. Drifting, plotting, killing when the mood took him, offering his services to those who could present the greatest satisfaction in return: a most challenging murder.

So, Gabriel had immersed himself in the war, seeking Temple in every place he visited. He travelled to Europe on a ship carrying tanks and anti-aircraft guns. They dodged the U-boats stalking the Atlantic, and upon arrival in England, he went directly to France. The BEF had been harried back to the beaches and port of Dunkirk, and Gabriel worked his way inland as hundreds of thousands were rescued and ferried back across the English Channel. He sat in a hayloft in France and watched sixty British prisoners machine-gunned to death. The shooter was not Temple. In Belgium, he stalked a small group of British soldiers as they made contact with a fledgling resistance, but the demon did not join their fight. In Germany, there were a million places Temple could be, but Gabriel found him nowhere. In Dortmund, he heard whispers of a demon haunting the mountains of Switzerland, and he spent months following a shadow. Sometimes, his wounds started to ache and he thought he was close, and there was a mixture of fear and elation because he knew this could be the end. It can’t go on forever, he thought. There must be an end, whether fate demands it or not. He also knew that there must be a reason, but he had ceased trying to discern what it could be. The whispers dried up, the trail grew cold and he found himself edging farther eastward. In Russia, the war and cold killed millions, and Gabriel searched mountains of corpses for the man with many faces. He heard tales of an immortal fighting with the Russians at Stalingrad, and he spent weeks wandering that frozen, dying city. He walked its perimeter, dodging bullets and bombs and escaping capture by both sides. He saw corpses being eaten and men and women executed for theft. The place was next door to Hell, but he was fast, and he knew how to hide.

He did not find Temple. And he began to despair.

With hundreds of thousands dying each day in Germany, Russia, Britain, France, Italy, North Africa and the Pacific, where was he supposed to look for an assassin? He could wander the streets of bombed cities or the turned soil of death camps, but the chance of them crossing paths when whole nations were in turmoil was remote.

It was early in 1942, whilst he sat in a bomb-blasted garden on the outskirts of a small village in southern Italy, that the land began talking to Gabriel for the very first time.

He had always known the meetings between himself and Temple were far from coincidence. Something brought them together, something guided them, but it was never seen or heard, felt or touched. It was a trace left behind by the man with a snake in his eye, an echo of the carved tree trunks in that woodland clearing of centuries before. But Gabriel had never known its nature.

With the sun scorching down and a soft breeze stirring the air around him, he heard a voice in the scheme of things. Leaves rustled out of time with the breeze; grasses swayed and shimmied; the trunk of a dead tree groaned.

That voice told him of a battle, and a man who was to die.

And Gabriel knew that he had to reach that man before death took him away.

Two
I was used to being afraid. I had been close to death many times over the previous few weeks—had shaken hands with it on several occasions—and it felt like a constant part of my life. I had seen my friends die, I had killed and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I was killed as well. I only hoped that it would be a bullet to the head rather than the gut.

We had fought our way down through Malaya, harried all the way by the Japanese. Bombed, mortared and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft, our numbers had dwindled drastically. Hundreds of men had been killed, many more wounded. Those wounded too severely to be moved were left where they fell. We realised later that it would have been far kinder to these poor blokes to have finished them off—the Japs were fond of using injured soldiers for bayonet practice.

Now we were dug in alongside a road leading to Singapore. It was crawling with people fleeing to the city, thinking that they would find safety there. And for a time, I had believed that they would be safe as well. How could such a powerful place fall? How could a fortress like this—defended by ninety thousand troops—succumb to an attack from out of the jungle and across the river?

But the last twenty-four hours had presented a harsh reality: we were going to lose, and the Japanese would take Singapore. Every bullet we fired now, every grenade we threw, was simply delaying the inevitable.

“Really close now,” Roger ‘Davey’ Jones said. He was lying next to me with the stock of his .303 Bren pressed tight to his shoulder. I’d seen him kill three men with a bayonet back in the jungle. He and I had become good friends. “We’ll see them soon.”

We listened to the sounds of battle from the north. Small arms fire, grenades and the intermittent thump thump of artillery. We still weren’t sure whose artillery it was, ours or theirs. Behind us lay Singapore City, and above it hung a thick black cloud from an oil-dump fire. The sky buzzed with aircraft, and miles away, we could hear the sound of aerial bombardment.

Several open trucks trundled along the road. I recognised the dirty white smocks of British nurses straight away. I’d made friends with one of them on the ship on the way over, and I’d often thought about her during the past few weeks, hoping she was still all right. I raised myself from the trench and watched the trucks rumble closer, praying for a familiar face.

“Must be close if they’re evacuating the hospitals,” Davey said.

“I heard the Japs are massacring the injured.”

“Down, Jack!” Davey grabbed my belt and hauled me back into the trench, and then the aircraft roared in.

We’d been bombed and strafed many times since leaving the jungle, but the fear never lessened. It was the growl of the aircraft’s engines, the cannon fire, the whistle of the bombs dropping, the impact of their explosions, the stink of battle, the endless crackle of shells striking metal and mud and flesh, and the knowledge of what we would see when it was over. There was never any hope that the planes would miss; we were sitting ducks, and those poor bastards in the trucks didn’t stand a chance in Hell.

It was a single aircraft this time, which was something of a blessing, but the pilot was a daring one. Instead of coming in over the fields, he flew straight along the road, cannons spitting death at a hundred rounds per second.

I pressed my face to the mud and squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel the impact of bullets through the ground, as though each death jarred the soil. I heard shouting, screaming, and then an angry roar that made me look up. Davey was kneeling with the Bren cradled in his arms, mouth open in a shout that was swallowed by the gun’s violence. He twisted right as the fighter flew overhead, then fell on his side.

I can’t die, he’d told me a few days before. I know something. I know the future of someone, so I can’t die.

“Davey!” I shouted. I scrambled across to him, glancing up to check what the Japanese fighter was doing. It was climbing and turning sharply, coming in for another run. I reached my mate, and the look on his face when he’d told me he couldn’t die was already haunting me.

He rolled over and grinned up at me. “Another magazine!” he said. “I think I dinged the bastard that time.” Davey lifted the Bren and snapped out the empty magazine, reloading just as the fighter swooped in and opened fire again.

“Stay low!” I shouted, but I don’t think Davey heard me. He glanced over my shoulder at the column of trucks carrying injured soldiers and bloodied nurses. His face fell. Then he stood and shouldered the machine gun, legs splayed, and opened fire.

The road exploded, dust and metal and bodies jerking in a chaotic dance as the heavy-calibre shells made a stew of things. I hit the dirt behind Davey, wishing we had more than one Bren. Other men were sheltering, and glancing back, I could see the look in their eyes as they watched Davey stand his ground against the Zero: a mixture of respect and disbelief.

“Davey!” I shouted.

I can’t die, he’d said. I know something . . .

Davey was lifted from his feet and thrown back over my head. His boots struck my helmet, and I felt blood spatter down across my back and shoulders. For a second, it looked as though he had taken off in pursuit of the Zero, but then he hit the mud behind me, and the fighter twisted away, heading back across the fields.

“Davey,” I said, “you can’t die.” But he was dead already; I could see that. No way a man could survive those injuries. No way.

I went to him first anyway, because he was my friend and he’d have done the same for me. While other men were climbing from their trenches to help out on the road, I knelt at Davey’s side and reached for his dog tags.

His hand closed around my wrist. He shouldn’t have been able to talk, not with his head damaged like that, but his tongue lolled in his mouth and his remaining eye was a stark white against the blood. It turned and fixed on me.

“Jungle,” he said, “saw him in the jungle. Snake in his eye. I knew; I heard and I knew. Terrible things, Jack. Too bad to remember, so I wrote them all down. Can’t let the Japs have it. Can’t let them know! Find it. Have to find it. One piece of paper . . . but it could change the world. That’s what the jungle told me. The trees, the vines, the sound of rain and the song it sang. Change the world.”

“Davey, keep still and try not—”

“I’m dead, Jack. The paper. Buried with Mad Meloy.”

“Meloy?”

“Jack . . .” His hand tightened, fingers pressing into my skin, but already the look in his eye had changed. He was gone.

Maybe he was dead when I reached him, I thought. Maybe I imagined all that?

“Jack?” someone shouted. I looked up to see Sergeant Snelling standing on the road, blood dripping from both hands.

“He’s dead,” I said.

Snelling glanced down at the ruined body before me. “’Course he is. There’re some up here that aren’t, so get off your arse.”

I spared one final glace back at my dead friend before climbing up onto the road.

He can’t have spoken to me, I thought. His head is almost gone.
#

The road was a scene of chaos and pain. One of the hospital trucks had caught fire, though everyone in its open back already appeared to be dead. It had tipped nose first into the roadside ditch. Some bodies had fallen into the dust, and those still on the truck were adding fuel to the flames.

Several more vehicles had been hit by the cannon fire. People were fleeing their vehicles now that the attack was over, helping each other to the side of the road, where soldiers were trying to help administer first aid. I saw several dead nurses. None of them looked like the friend I had made on the ship, although a couple were too badly disfigured to really tell.

I helped drag bodies from the rear of one truck and line them up beside the road. If we had time, we’d bury them later, but the priority now was to get the survivors on their way.

“Where are you heading?” I asked one young driver. He had a red cross on a band around his sleeve, and he’d painted another on his back.

“Alexandra Hospital,” he said. His voice was low and weary, his eyes older than his years.

“Good. You’ll be safe there.” I helped him smash the remaining glass from his cab’s windshield, then guided him along the road so that he could nudge the burning truck aside with his own. It seemed to growl as it moved, as though angry that it was not allowed to burn in peace.

I’d smelled burning flesh many times before, but I never got used to it. It was someone’s history going to smoke and ash: hands they’d used to soothe a child, lips they’d used to kiss. I hated that smell.

Once the road was cleared of bodies and broken vehicles, the surviving trucks went on their way. We waved good-bye. Some of the nurses even managed a smile for us, though in their eyes I saw a sort of mad, desperate pity. They knew that we’d be dead soon.

It was days later, while I was lying in the hell of Changi Prison, that I heard the fate of Alexandra Hospital. The Japanese arrived there, saw the red cross, stormed the building and over the space of two days put three hundred people to the bayonet.
#

Mad Meloy. Had Davey really mentioned him as he lay dying? I was not sure, but over the next few hours, as we awaited the first thrust of the Japanese army, I had time to dwell on things.

Meloy had died back in the Malayan jungle. He’d been killed in a vicious firefight with an invisible Japanese enemy. Everything about that brief, terrible battle had felt wrong. We’d already been fighting for several days, but when we were ambushed crossing a small river, it seemed like the end.

The mortars came in first, eruptions of water and mud that split our group in two, men dashing to either bank to take up defensive positions. Logic said that the attack was coming from behind, but we had quickly learnt that there was no logic in the jungle. The Japanese knew that too, and they put it to their advantage. They were vicious, disciplined, highly effective fighters, seemingly unafraid of death and able to slip from one place to another without being seen. So, when the gunfire started coming in on us from both sides of the river, confusion came down like a blinding mist.

Shouts, screams, orders barked and carried away by gunfire, more shouting, the sound of people stomping through heavy undergrowth, the thuds of mortar rounds landing in and around the river, rifles cracking through the foliage, submachine guns adding their more consistent crackle . . .

Mad Meloy was close to me and Davey, a grenade in each hand, forefingers around the pins. “Where?” he said. “Where?”

I risked a look above the rock I was sheltering behind. Uphill in the jungle, a swathe of leaves jumped and danced, as though stirred by a localised breeze.

“Eleven o’clock, twenty yards,” I shouted.

Meloy nodded at my rifle and Davey’s Bren, we nodded back, and he pulled the pins on his grenades.

Two seconds . . . one . . . Davey and I peeked around the rock and fired at the bit of jungle I’d indicated. Meloy stood between us and lobbed the grenades, one after the other. He stood waiting for the explosions.

“Meloy!” Davey yelled. “Get your stupid fucking arse down here!”

The grenades popped, and within their roar I heard the rattle of shrapnel finding trees and bushes.

Meloy dropped beside us and grinned. “Right on their heads,” he said.

The fight continued for an hour, and I became separated from Davey and Meloy, holding a position with Sergeant Snelling and several others.

Around midafternoon, the Japanese surprised us and melted away into the jungle, leaving their dead behind. We would encounter these same troops several more times during our retreat to Singapore. They ambushed, engaged us in an hour or two of intense combat, then slipped away to prepare for the next fight.

Thirty percent of our men were dead or injured.

Later, when Davey came out of the jungle, I thought he’d been shot. His eyes were wide and glazed, hands grasping at his chest as though to dig out a bullet. “Meloy’s dead,” he said.

“No! How?”

“He took three with him. Grenade.”

“What else?” Davey was distracted; I could see that. We’d all lost friends and continued to do so, but he and Meloy had not been especially close. Mad Meloy had not been close to anyone or anything except his own death. Perhaps all the Japs are like Meloy, and that’s why they’ll win, Davey had whispered to me one night.

“Nothing,” Davey said.

“Where’s Meloy now?”

“I buried him.”

“On your own?”

Davey glared at me, his eyes coming to life again. “There was a man. And a snake,” he said, then he frowned and looked away. “In his eye.” Then he turned and left, offering no more answers.

In the frantic retreat that followed, I had no opportunity to talk to Davey about Meloy’s fate and the man with a snake in his eye. And he never mentioned Mad Meloy to me again until that time just before he died.

Or just after.

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