We’re pleased to once again bring you an excerpt, this time from Chris Wooding’s new steampunk adventure novel, The Ace of Skulls: A Tale of the Ketty Jay (available this week from Titan Books)!

Here’s what the book is about:

The intrepid crew of the Ketty Jay have been shot down, set up, double-crossed and ripped off. They’ve stolen priceless treasures, destroyed a 10,000-year-old Azryx city and sort-of-accidentally blown up the son of the Archduke. Now they’ve gone and
started a civil war. This time, they’re really in trouble.

As Vardia descends into chaos, Captain Darian Frey is doing his best to keep his crew out of it. He’s got his mind on other things, not least the fate of Trinica Dracken. But wars have a way of dragging people in, and sooner or later they’re going to have to pick a side. It’s a choice they’ll be staking their lives on.

Cities fall and daemons rise. Old secrets are uncovered and new threats revealed. When the smoke clears, who will be left standing

Read on for an excerpt!


by Chris Wooding
Chapter One

The Optimist – Stormriding – Jez is Distracted – Women’s Intuition – A Majestic Decline

Captain Darian Frey was accustomed to long odds; his whole life, he’d been an outside chance. Lacking the ability to win in a fair fight, he survived instead by guile and the illogical optimism favoured by gamblers and drunks, which made the riskiest of plans seem like a good idea at the time.

That was how he found himself flying through the heart of a thunderstorm, on the trail of a target he couldn’t even see.

The Ketty Jay shuddered and bucked, shoved this way and that by crosswinds as Frey wrestled with the flight stick. Bulkheads groaned, fixtures rattled, thrusters clawed the air. Tatters of cloud flapped at the windglass like angry black ghosts.

Frey bullied the Ketty Jay onward, teeth gritted. Lightning flickered somewhere, a dull flare muted by the intervening murk, briefly illuminating the darkened cockpit. Frey winced in anticipation of the thunder, and cringed when it hit. His ears were still ringing when he felt his stomach plunge and the Ketty Jay was sucked down into an air pocket.

Ordinarily, he’d have left this kind of flying to Jez. She had uncanny night vision and a way of reading the wind that was nothing short of eerie. But that was before. These days, he didn’t trust her to fly at all.

‘Will you just give it up?’ he yelled at the storm in exasperation, as he hauled back on the flight stick hard enough to pop a shoulder joint.

As if at his command, the cloud flurried away and the Ketty Jay broke out into clear sky. The last light of dusk painted the night soft and bloody. A full moon shone down on a mountainous world of looming thunderheads, piled masses sliding past, borne on an invisible current.

Frey eased off on the flight stick and listened suspiciously as the thrusters settled back to their usual tone. The peace had come so suddenly that he suspected it was a trick.

When no immediate disaster occurred, he slumped back in his seat and allowed himself to relax for a moment. These last few hours had been hard on his nerves. He knew he shouldn’t be out in the open, but he needed the respite.

His eyes roamed the massive shelves and canyons of cloud, looking for a sign of their target. As expected, he found none. They’d be hiding deep in the storm, riding it as far as it would take them. Lightning lit up a distant cloud; a crackling grumble rolled across the sky.

He searched for Pinn and Harkins, but he couldn’t see them either. ‘You fellers alright up there?’ he asked.

‘Bored,’ said Pinn immediately, the pilot’s voice transmitted to Frey’s ear via his silver earcuff. ‘Haven’t you found it yet?’

‘I… er… actually I like it up here,’ said Harkins timidly. It’s… er… well, it’s sort of nice. Quiet.’

Quiet?‘ Pinn scoffed.

‘I’m just saying… I mean, why shouldn’t I-‘

Frey pulled off the earcuff before they could get to bickering, cutting the connection to his outflyers. ‘Jez. What can you hear? Jez?’ When there was no reply, he leaned round to look over his shoulder. The only other occupant of the cockpit was his navigator, sitting at her station in shadow. A small woman in shapeless overalls, black hair tied back from her face. She was staring at a set of charts on the metal desk in front of her, but she wasn’t seeing them.

Jez!‘ he snapped.

Her head jerked up and she fixed her gaze on him. Moonlight reflected from wide pupils, discs of bright white like the eyes of a night predator. Wolfs eyes. Frey felt an icy chill pass through him. Ever since Samaria, just being around her made him uneasy. She’d changed. Sometimes he dreaded being alone with her in the cockpit. ‘Can you hear it?’ he asked her, keeping his voice firm.

She looked at him blankly. He ran out of patience. ‘The freighter, Jez! What’s wrong with you?’

Realisation crossed her face, and she looked momentarily ashamed. ‘I’m sorry, Cap’n, I… She shook her head, waved it away. ‘Hang on a moment.’ She closed her eyes and listened. ‘We’re close now, but we’ve drifted. Drop to nine thousand, heading oh-fifteen. They’re about twenty kloms from us.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘I can hear the engines,’ she said. ‘Cargo freighter and… five or six outflyers running escort. They shouldn’t be flying through this kind of chop with craft that small but… She shrugged.

‘But they’re Awakeners,’ Frey finished for her. She managed a wan smile at that. A joke among the crew: the Awakeners were crazy. You had to be, with a maniac for a messiah.

Jez rapidly checked her calculations. ‘We’ll be over the wetlands in a couple of minutes,’ she said. ‘Time to make our move.’

‘I need you here on this, Jez,’ he told her. ‘Concentrate.’

She gave him a look that he couldn’t read, then a resolute nod. He hoped his reminder would be enough to keep her mind on the job.

She could hear the engines. At twenty kloms, in a storm, over the bellow of the Ketty Jay‘s thrusters. She’d always had good ears, but this was something else.

What else do you hear when you go away like that? Frey thought. What’s happened to you, Jez? What are you listening to?

‘Doc!’ he shouted over his shoulder, through the open door of the cockpit. ‘We’re getting close! Stay sharp!’

‘Right-o!’ Malvery called. He was up in the autocannon cupola, a blister on the Ketty Jay’s humped back, set above the main passageway which ran along her spine. Probably keeping himself warm with a bottle of rum. The doc reckoned his aim got better when he was drunk, but Frey had never known him to shoot sober, so he had nothing to compare it with.

Frey vented a little of the ultralight aerium gas from the ballast tanks to bring the altitude down. An anvil-shaped thunderhead loomed over him. He steered the Ketty Jay towards it and let it consume them.

Back in the dark, Frey felt the tension take hold of him again. His fingers flexed nervously on the flight stick. All he could see ahead was his own face reflected in the windglass, underlit by the glow of the dash gauges. Black hair, a stubbled jaw, handsome features that he counted as his only blessing of birth. Frey was not a man unfamiliar with his own reflection, but tonight it surprised him. He looked lean and hard. Haunted.

You can do this, he told himself. One freighter and a few shabby outflyers. Not even professional pilots. And rich pickings when we’re done.

He’d coughed up a lot of money for the information, buying from a reputable whispermonger who told him the target’s route and cargo. This time, he was determined there would be no surprises. He was doing things right these days. No more shady tips or jobs that seemed too good to be true. No more corner-cutting, no more screw-ups.

And he had reason to be confident. The last two operations had gone like clockwork. It didn’t matter that they were simple takes, small vessels with minimum escort caught sneaking through the volcanic passes over the Hookhollows. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t been carrying much, and most of what Frey stole he’d used to buy the information for this run. What mattered was how they’d executed their plans. His crew had been disciplined, efficient, and despite their bitching they’d worked as a team.

Encouraged by that, he’d decided it was time to step up to bigger prey.

The Awakeners had been stormriding ever since the civil war became official and the Archduke declared open season on their aircraft. For most freebooters, it took great persistence and a healthy dose of luck to catch a freighter in the winter storm channels over Vardia. But most freebooters didn’t have a half-daemon navigator on their side.

Even knowing their target’s route, it had taken a lot of searching before Jez picked up the trace. But now they were on the hunt, and closing in fast.

The Ketty Jay began to shake gently as the winds picked up again. Frey readied himself for another fight with the flight stick, but the battle he expected didn’t come. Instead, the shaking grew steadily more pronounced. He peered through his own reflection, willing the clouds to part. They refused. And still the shaking grew.

‘Jez? Is one of the thrusters coming loose or something?’ he asked. A vibrating aircraft was never good, in his experience.

Jez didn’t reply. He swore under his breath, turned round in his seat and found her gazing emptily at the wall again. She’d never been as bad as this before.

‘Jez, damn it!’ he barked. ‘Wake up!’

She jolted out of her trance, looked at him, looked past him. Her expression turned to horror as light washed into the cockpit.

Frey!‘ she shrieked.

He twisted back, saw the black cloud ahead turn to bright fog, a dozen burning suns lighting it from the inside. ‘Oh, bollocks,’ he muttered.

Floodlights.

He shoved the flight stick forward and wrenched the lever to execute an emergency vent of the aerium tanks. The Ketty Jay plunged as the clouds finally parted and the vast blunt snout of the freighter pushed through, bearing down on them like some titanic god of the storm. Frey yelled as he saw it and leaned on the stick, putting every ounce of his strength into the dive.

Not like this, he couldn’t die like this, not till he’d done what he had to do, what he’d sworn he’d do!

A wall of black metal roared towards him. The engines screamed as they forced the Ketty Jay downward. Malvery added his own bellow of incoherent fear from the cupola.

Come on come on come on!

And then they were beneath it, the freighter’s belly thundering overhead, shaking the Ketty Jay hard. Faster craft shot past them, tiny lights in the cloud, whipping by like fireflies.

In seconds, they were gone, swallowed up by the murk.

Gasping, Frey fed aerium gas back into the tanks, levelled the Ketty Jay out and then began to climb. No way he was staying in this damned cloud a moment longer. The gauges went momentarily dark and the engines stuttered as they were struck by lightning. He paid no attention; he didn’t even flinch when the thunder hit. He didn’t stop till they broke through the top of the thunderhead, and out into clear sky.

‘Cap’n,’ said Jez, her voice weak. ‘Cap’n, I’m sorry, I-‘

‘Stow it, Jez. We’ve got a job to do.’ He was angry, and scared, but mostly he was determined. They’d seen the freighter. They couldn’t let it get away now.

He raised his voice and called up to the cupola. ‘Doc? What’s the situation?’

‘Situation is I ain’t drunk enough for this bullshit!’ Malvery called back. ‘And we got fighters breaking cloud behind us. Escort’s giving chase. There’s one… two… ah, bugger it, I’m just gonna shoot at ‘em.’ Any further conversation was prevented by the steady thumping of the autocannon as Malvery got to work.

So the escorts had abandoned the freighter to take care of the danger. Good. That was exactly what Frey wanted. Out here in the open, he could deal with them.

‘Looks like we scared them as much as they scared us,’ said Frey, feeling a little bravado returning. ‘Pinn! Harkins! Get down here!’

He listened, but there was no reply. ‘Harkins! Pinn! Is anyone on this crew awake?’

‘Earcuff,’ Jez reminded him.

Frey looked down and saw the earcuff lying in the hollow of the dash where he’d thrown it. He cursed and clipped it back on his ear. ‘Pinn! Harkins! Get here now!’

‘On our… er… I mean… Coming!’ Harkins babbled.

Frey glanced at the silver ring on his little finger. It was thralled with a daemonist trick, linked invisibly to a compass in Harkins’ cockpit. The needle of the compass always pointed towards the ring. That was how the outflyers would find him in the storm.

He tried not to think about who was supposed to be wearing that ring. Now wasn’t the time.

The Awakeners opened up with machine guns and Frey threw the Ketty Jay into evasive manoeuvres. Even if they were as green as the whispermonger had promised, five or six pilots on his tail was no laughing matter. He couldn’t see behind him; the Ketty Jay was too big for that. All he could do was to make himself a hard target till help arrived.

His aircraft was more agile than her bulk suggested, but even so he couldn’t avoid the barrage entirely. Bullets ripped across the hull and Frey banked hard in the other direction. Tracer fire burned away into the distance and was lost to the night.

‘Doc!’ he shouted, during a pause in the firing. ‘How many?’

‘Five!’

‘Right,’ said Frey. ‘Let’s see if we can’t improve our situation a little. Hang on!’

Frey hit a flurry of pedals, levers and valves, venting aerium gas and opening the airbrakes to maximum. The sudden increase in weight made the Ketty Jay sink hard just as the airbrakes killed her speed.

Wind roared past them, as if they’d run into a hurricane. Frey was thrown forward towards his dash, but his restraining straps held him back. Jez scrabbled to keep her charts pinned on the desk before her.

There was a howl of engines, and three of the five fighter craft shot overhead, caught out by their target’s sudden deceleration.

Frey disengaged the airbrakes, boosted the thrusters and fed aerium gas back into the tanks. The Ketty Jay surged forward. He pressed down the trigger on the flight stick, and her underslung machine-guns clattered. His aim was good. The tail assembly of his nearest target was hammered into shreds, before a bullet hit the fuel tank and the explosion tore the craft apart.

The remaining fighters panicked and swerved off in two different directions. As they banked, he saw insignia on their wings and fuselages. A cluster of small circles connected by a complex series of lines. The Cipher, symbol of the Awakeners.

Frey couldn’t chase both, so he picked the biggest one, a battered old Kedson Stormfox, and went after it. At least he only had three behind him to worry about now. Maybe they’d be a bit more wary from here on in.

‘Pinn! Harkins! Where are you?’ he demanded.

‘Cap’n,’ said Jez from behind him. ‘They’re lining up on you. Pull left when I say… Now!

Frey banked to port, and a salvo of machine-gun fire ripped through the air where he’d been a moment ago. He glanced over his shoulder at her. ‘How’d you know?’ he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

She grinned. Her teeth looked ever so slightly sharper than normal human teeth. ‘Women’s intuition,’ she replied.

Yahoo!‘ Pinn yelled in his ear as he and Harkins came swooping down from overhead, machine-guns rattling. ‘It’s dying time, boys!’

Frey winced. Pinn had a habit of delivering lines like that on his way into combat. Presumably he thought it made him sound like some kind of action hero from a pulp novel, but really it was just embarrassing.

Frey opened up with his guns on the Stormfox. The pilot swerved, but only into the path of Harkins. The Firecrow’s guns raked across the Stormfox’s flank and shattered the cockpit canopy. It went into a dive, leaving behind it the awful ascending whine of an aircraft heading uncontrollably earthward. Then it disappeared into the storm and was gone.

‘Pursuit is scattering, Cap’n!’ Malvery reported.

‘We can deal with this lot,’ Pinn told him through the earcuff. ‘Go get the freighter.’

‘On it,’ said Frey. He pushed the Ketty Jay‘s nose down and looped around to head back the other way. Above him, his outflyers were chasing the freighter’s escort all over the place. Pinn in his gull-winged Skylance, Harkins in his new-but-second-hand Firecrow that Frey bought him after he thrashed the last one to extinction. Mentally unstable as they were, they were both exceptional pilots: Given the quality of their opposition, four to two wouldn’t give them much trouble.

The murk closed in over the Ketty Jay, and the wind began to shake her again. ‘Some directions would be good,’ Frey suggested.

‘They’re above us,’ said Jez from behind him. ‘Oh-thirty-five.’ She was frowning, a faraway look in her eyes, listening to something he couldn’t hear. ‘They’ve broken cloud, heading for another thunderhead.’ She focused again, and became excited. ‘Boost it, Cap’n. We can catch them in the open if we’re quick.’

‘How in damnation can you tell that from-‘ Frey began, then stopped himself. ‘Never mind. Women’s intuition.’

He opened up the thrusters and the Ketty Jay drove onward and out into clear air. They found themselves in a canyon in the sky formed by the sides of two clouds, with the night above them and the ground far below. The shallow lakes and waterways of the Ossia wetlands shone in the moonlight.

Ahead and slightly above the Ketty Jay was the freighter, a dark slab in the storm, its thrusters aglow as it pushed across the canyon towards the slowly swirling wall on the other side.

‘Where are the aerium tanks on a thing like that?’ Frey asked Jez, as the Ketty Jay powered towards its target. She was the daughter of a craftbuilder: she tended to know these things.

‘On the underside, set central, one ten metres fore of the tail assembly and one just aft of the nose.’

Frey gauged the distance between him and his target. ‘Only gonna get one shot at this before we lose it in the cloud again,’ he muttered.

‘Then don’t miss it,’ said Jez, helpfully. A smile touched the corner of Frey’s mouth. That was more like the navigator he knew.

The trick to bringing down a freighter was to hole the ballast tanks. Once it was leaking aerium, it would become too heavy to stay in the sky. As long as the leak was slow enough, the pilot would be forced to land. But if the hole was too big, they’d drop too fast, and there wouldn’t be much left to salvage afterward. Frey didn’t have more than a passing concern for the people on board – they’d signed up with the enemy, after all – but he was very keen on keeping the cargo intact.

The gap between them closed up fast as he came at it from below. Either the freighter crew didn’t see him, or it didn’t have any guns worth firing. The Awakeners must have been stretched thin on resources to trust their treasures to such a light convoy.

Doubt brushed him. Too easy? Too late now.

Frey picked his spot, zeroing in on the aft tanks. There was nothing there to suggest a vulnerable point; it was only Jez’s knowledge of aircraft that guided him.

Closer, closer, and the freighter’s nose had almost reached the cloud.

Now.

The Ketty Jay‘s machine guns rattled and a barrage of tracer fire whipped away through the night. Bullets scored the underside of the freighter. Then it slid into the cloud, and was lost to sight.

Frey throttled back and pulled away. He wasn’t chasing that thing in there, not after the scare he’d got last time. ‘Did I get it?’ he asked Jez.

She held up a hand to shut him up while she listened. Frey waited impatiently. Pinn’s triumphant whooping in his earcuff told him that his outflyers had polished off the escort.

‘Jez?’ he said again, when he could stand it no longer.

‘She’s losing altitude,’ Jez said, and gave him that ever-so-slightly frightening grin again. ‘She’s going down!’

Frey let out a little laugh, half of triumph, half of amazement at their triumph. ‘She’s heading for the deck, fellers,’ he said to his out-flyers. ‘Come and watch the show.’ And he put the Ketty Jay into a shallow dive, thankful to be heading out of the storm at last.

Below the clouds, the Ossia wetlands spread out beneath them, a glittering muddle of weeds and water, of wide, shallow streams and islands shaggy with trees. Far to the east was the shore of Lake Atten, barely visible, stretching from horizon to horizon. Overhead, the procession of clouds following the storm channels flashed and grumbled. Lightning jabbed at the ground in the distance.

The freighter sank through the floor of the storm and kept sinking. It was a huge, ungainly thing, without wings, only stumpy ailerons for steerage. Something more like a whale than an aircraft, something that didn’t look like it belonged in the sky at all. Frey watched its grand, slow trajectory towards the earth. There was something majestic in its decline.

‘Will you look at that?’ said Frey. He felt expansive in the aftermath of the battle, taken by a new appreciation of the world. ‘That’s kinda beautiful.’

‘I bet the hundred or so people panicking inside it don’t think it’s so beautiful,’ Jez observed.

‘Hey, we gave them a soft landing,’ Frey protested, pointing at the wetlands below. ‘Besides, it’s their fault for being Awakeners. There’s a civil war on, y’know.’

‘A civil war that we kind of, er, started.’

Frey didn’t need reminding of that. ‘It was going to happen anyway,’ he said, as he’d said to himself many times over the past three months. ‘We just made sure the good guys didn’t get taken by surprise.’

‘Get your retaliation in first,’ Jez said, quoting one of Frey’s favourite maxims.

‘Damn right.’

Pinn and Harkins joined them as they descended, following the freighter down, predators tracking their wounded prey. The Awakener pilot managed to keep his craft mostly level right until the last moment. Frey held his breath in anticipation as they reached the ground.

Bring her in safe, he told the pilot.

The freighter touched down, landing on its belly and skimming across water and turf, raising huge fins of spray to either side. As its weight gathered, it ploughed deeper into the earth, the back end fishtailing out, a colossal slow-motion skid accompanied by the hiss of water and the screech of tortured metal. Even from up high, and far removed from the chaos, it was awe-inspiring.

When the water settled, the freighter lay still. Partly submerged, missing a few parts, but almost entirely intact.

It had worked. Their plan had worked. Frey could scarcely believe it.

‘Alright, boys and girls,’ he said. ‘Time for the hand-to-hand. Let’s get down there and rob the shit out of ‘em.’ He flopped back in his seat. ‘Somebody wake up Bess.’

[End of excerpt]


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