The world is broken. The coming of the Intelligence pushed the remnants of humanity deep into the tundra. What remained was a vast sea of ice and the machine city, Culouth. E’Malkai Armen, descendent of the Fallen, has been a citizen of Culouth his entire life. A bitter betrayal, and the inception of a war that will destroy millions of lives, forces E’Malkai to confront the past and undertake a pilgrimage that is his by birthright. As he travels to the cold tundra of the north, the realm prepares for war. The Path of the Fallen is a lonely and arduous path, but it must be walked for the sake of all mankind.
Excerpt from Dan O'Brien
There was a grand crystallized window along the port side of the vessel––the Harbinger. It afforded a view that overlooked Terra, as the blue planet had been called for the past thousand years. The sun cast a glare over its edges. Had one known what the world had looked like millennia previous, they would have seen the changes. The dark coloration of the seas, the murky, bruised clouds that covered a good portion of the land––save for the hundreds of square miles just beneath Culouth, the world above as it was called by those below.
A figure stood abreast the window; the one-piece jumpsuit was dark black, matching his short-cropped hair. The tight spikes were flushed forward. Hands clasped behind his back, he wore the expression of a military man.
His furrowed brows formed a sinister line over his cold brown eyes; the solitude that encompassed him reflected in his frozen glare. The corridor around him was bathed in shadow. The only light came from the glow of the planet below and faded illuminators that lined far off into the distance.
He was called Marion. Once he had been a respected member of the House of Te’huen, a warrior sect of Culouth that had waged wars against man and rim worlds alike.
He broke from Culouth, a clear distinction being made between those who chose to align themselves with Intelligence: fiber optic enhancements and regenerative replacements and those who opposed these technological interventions.
The clicking of footfalls resonated in the dismal chambers.
Marion did not bother to turn.
His dark eyes watched the slow rotation of Terra. His cheek muscles flexed. “So Kyien would not come himself I see,” Marion spoke with an air of confidence.
Deeper down the hall the lights flickered.
The running lights dimmed and then exploded in a shower of clear sparks. Black boots walked over the carpet of glass as each one shattered in turn. The face was shadowed over; only the stark white pants and the dark boots emerged from the darkness that seemed to surround the being.
“To see you?” responded the shadow man.
Marion lowered his head.
Eyes closed, his hands were still firmly placed behind his back. “A peace must be reached. Even your master must understand this….”
The man snorted indignantly.
He still hid in the shadows. His eyes were now illuminated crimson. Billowing energy flowed freely from his face. “There can be no peace. There will be no peace.”
“Why then did you bother to come here?”
The shadow man paced outside of viewing range, ignoring the question and posing another. “How many refugees are here with you?”
Marion’s surprise showed visibly in the cock of his head, looking back toward the shadowed figure. The twin clouds of energy shone like two animal eyes in the night. “What?”
“How many of your tainted kind walk this hollow home?”
“What is the meaning of this?”
The man emerged from the darkness, his features apparent for the first time. His bald head was tan. A jagged scar ran diagonally across his face, carving a ridge over his eye, nose, and ending just below his lip. A light brown beard covered his chin.
His brown eyes were tainted.
Crimson clouded where white should have been.
He wore a gray suit, fitted around his waist and flared out loosely over his thighs and legs. Marion inhaled sharply upon seeing the man move into the light.
His features darkened, outlining the set of his strong jaw. “He who kills his own kind,” whispered Marion. His words were like a hiss, a curse at the man who stood before him.
“I have no kind.”
“You have tainted the power of Terra, used its energy for the Intelligence. You were once a man, a human not unlike us,” reasoned Marion, his voice wavering.
“How many are here with you?” pressed the warrior with a level, unrelenting glare. A sweep of his hand dismissed Marion’s words.
“I am alone,” responded Marion.
The shadow warrior turned his head and looked toward the corridor wall. His face curled into a cruel grin. Turning back to Marion, the shadow warrior clucked his tongue against his cheek. “You lie,” he spoke with a hint of sarcasm and wagged his finger as if he were doing so to a sullen child.
“No,” called Marion, but it was too late.
The shadowed warrior raised his arm to the wall, flattening his hands against it. They shimmered with the same energy that consumed his eyes. The wall began to swell from the heat radiating out from his hands, the center brighter than the rings that flowed around it. Marion moved forward to intervene, but in the eyes of the shadow warrior he might as well have been standing completely still.
He had lowered his shoulder to bull rush into the dark warrior.
The denizen of shadow proved too quick, his foot flew out with true aim. He caught Marion along his kneecap, disintegrating the bone with inhuman efficiency and power.
“Damn you,” Marion snarled as he fell to the floor.
He grasped at the empty pocket of flesh riddled with shards of bone. His cold glance fell on the shadow warrior. His eyes welled with tears from pain and shock.
The shadow warrior did not even acknowledge the man’s pain.
“Why do you slaughter your own kind like cattle?”
The being looked down, but did not respond.
The wall melted away like a viscous liquid and pooled on the ground, solidifying into a gnarled mass of steel beneath the makeshift entrance. The shadowed man stepped through, his stride broad and the scowl carved across his features sunk in seriousness.
Startled screams erupted throughout the room.
Azure energy waves swirled with amber and complete darkness. He reached out with his left hand and traced it vertically. A spherical energy field formed around him. The energy blasts rebounded over the sphere, scorching the walls with burn trails as the crimson energy flowed outward from within the warrior, consuming him like a surreal flame.
He walked, searing the floor beneath him.
His eyes lacked the human quality they had previously.
The splatters of energy slammed into the sphere, melting like snow on a hot engine. The warrior grimaced outwardly as he sliced his hand through the air, energy ripping like a disc running horizontally across the room. Horrendous screams echoed against the darkened, blood-soaked walls.
“Why do you oppose what is meant to be?”
“Because they have chosen to be free,” muttered Marion as he struggled across the hole that the shadowed figure had created. A sigh escaped his lips as his arms struggled to carry his heavy, useless body. “You are a….”
The shadowed man’s eyes settled on Marion’s fallen figure.
His dark eyes seared into the man.
Sweat beaded at Marion’s forehead. The sheer heat from his energy choked Marion, forcing him to gasp as the oxygen thinned around the fallen Resistance warrior.
“I am what, lower being?” mocked the dark eyes.
Marion gasped for words.
Clawing at his throat and then his chest, he rolled over onto his back––his mouth opening and closing like a beached fish struggling for its last breaths. The shadow being spun and with him went the current of dead air. A sputter of air emerged from Marion’s open mouth and then his lungs took in a fresh taste.
A blade collapsed against the sphere.
Energy trickled like flakes.
The shadow figure lashed his arm out.
The blade collided with his outstretched forearm, shattering the reinforced steel. The face of the assailant came into view as the shadow warrior’s gloved hand wrapped around her throat.
Her blond hair fell over her shoulders. The tousled curls hung back from her face as he lifted her into the air. The veins in her throat bulged as she struggled to swallow. “Bastard,” she spoke, her words labored as she tried to breathe.
“You are only a child,” croaked the shadowed warrior, looking at the woman’s features with a snarl. Her blond hair was draped over smooth, tan features.
Intense blue eyes stared at him.
He shook his head, mental pictures flashing across his vision.
He saw images of a young woman.
Her short hair faded to white.
Dark eyes stared back at him.
He pulled back, releasing his grip upon the woman.
She fell from his grasp.
“Run, child,” groaned Marion, a defeated look in his eyes.
She remained crouched, staring up at the shadowed creature.
As she backed away using her hands to propel her retreat, the being’s energy dissipated. He lowered himself to the ground, the sphere fading, receding back into his body.
“We have to get out of here,” spoke Marion, desperately trying to move from the rubble. His hands clawed at the surface of the metal.
The girl backed away from the shadowed man. Her hands supported her as she backpedaled and then slipping, she tried to regain her balance.
She fell flat on her back.
Grimacing, she brought her hands to her face.
A dark liquid covered them.
She wiped them against each other and turned her hands into the half-light from the adjoining room. A thought ricocheted hollowly in her mind: blood.
She looked around in a panic.
There were bodies scattered all over the floor, blood smeared across the metallic walls. A wail started deep in her throat, a thin whining sound that was trapped in her chest.
“So much blood,” she cried, crawling up the walls.
She slipped with each step, the screeching sound escaping her lips. Placing her hands on her face, she let loose a primal scream. Its volume opened the shadowed man’s eyes––irises still consumed in fire. The sphere reopened once more, a devilish fire accompanying it. The heated gale knocked Marion back into the corridor and the girl against the wall, holding her there by an invisible force.
“You are not her,” he spoke.
His eyes were black now, like polished obsidian stones.
“What?” she queried through tight lips.
“You look like her, but it cannot be,” he continued, his presence unfolding around her.
Marion watched the exchange with a bewildered look. The dark warrior spoke casually, as if he were in tavern and not on a battlefield. “There is still time to end this madness, you don’t have to slaughter us like animals,” spoke Marion.
The shadowed figure looked at the man.
Disdain was plastered across his features.
Her overhead strike caught him across the skull.
She struck again, the steel bar gripped tightly in her hands, a cold snarl carved across her beautiful features. The shadow whirled on her, his face hidden in the crimson aura that consumed him.
He stared down at her, and then rose into the air menacingly.
“You are a brave girl, but that is not enough.”
He grasped the free end of the pipe and lifted it, taking with it the girl’s diminutive figure. She kicked her legs out in a useless gesture, striking him across the chest.
“You wish to make this a game?’ he mocked, cocking his head.
Reaching out with an unreal quickness, he grabbed her throat with his free hand and then threw her into the adjoining corridor. Her body collided with the opaque window that overlooked the world below.
A whimper escaped her lips as she rolled onto her back.
“By all means, run.”
“Don’t do this,” whispered Marion.
His voice wavered.
Glassy eyes watched the hungry, predatory look in the shadow’s eyes. The warrior turned, looking down at Marion and lifted his foot. He did not pause as he smashed down on the base of Marion’s overturned neck.
A crack echoed in the dismal chambers.
His eyes glazed over; death had claimed him.
“This must be done,” replied the shadow to the corpse.
Looking down into the dead gaze of Marion, he sighed.
Not one of regret, but of annoyance.
The girl had a good lead on him.
Her boots clicked as she charged through the corridor.
Her breath came out in practiced lengths.
The muscles of her legs pulsed with adrenaline as she glanced back, seeing only that the darkness of the corridor chased her. She breathed out as she slowed, her arms flailing at her sides as she ran.
The shadow warrior stood before her, his dark red eyes the only visible feature. As she backpedaled, he followed her. She looked down, seeing that each step he took seared the metallic walkway.
Burn marks stretched far off into the distance.
“Why?” Her words had a pleading tone. “This can’t be the power of the Believer.”
The shadow angered visibly.
The curl of his tight-lipped grin lessened and disappeared.
His face was like charcoal, the deep inset regions of the sun marred in extreme heat. “What could you know of the power of the Believer, the burden that it carries?”
“I know that you were not meant to have it, your dark heart.”
The shadow was upon her, a flash accompanying his sudden forward motion. He lifted her by the throat, holding her against the glass, high above his own body.
Tears streamed down her face.
Eyes held strong, but her lips quivered beneath his gaze.
“I will show you a dark heart,” he sneered.
He pulled her body back easily, as if she weighed nothing at all, and then flung her forward. His unnatural strength, coupled with her body mass, was sufficient to shatter the opaque window. A powerful sucking sound permeated the corridor as both of them were pulled out into space.
She shuddered in the cold abyss.
Her mouth gasped for only a moment; the lifeless scream trapped in her throat faded. The blood drained from her face as he let her free––her body floating weightlessly in the expanse of space.
The fire engulfed him completely, though it lacked the licking branches it had in an oxygenated environment. His eyes were buried beneath the dark power that claimed him.
He watched the girl drift away.
A voice whispered in space.
It was a woman’s voice, powerful and clear.
He shook his head defiantly, beating his fists against the side of his head. His human features appeared as the fire died away, leaving his listless eyes to stare off into space.
“I am no longer that man,” he screamed, his arms tucked close as he spoke the words. As he extended his arms over his head in a powerful motion, a wave of energy resonated from his body. The force of the power surged across the stars and disintegrated the space station.
He pulled his arms close to his body again.
The energy reached the limits of its power. And then as quickly as it had come, it returned to the shadowed warrior who had once been known as Ryan, son of Evan, but now as Fe’rein, the half-man assassin of Culouth.
E’Malkai: I heard that you wanted to speak to us.
Me: (clearing my throat) In a manner of speaking, yes.
Fe’rein: (glowering) What do you want? We have business left unfinished.
Me: I am releasing The Path of the Fallen, after nearly a decade hiatus, and wanted to let potential readers know a little more about it. Instead of giving them a dry summary or an adjective-laden exposition, I thought getting to know the characters might be a fun exercise.
Arile: (not making eye contact and looking away with a bored look on his face) What precisely would these potential readers want to know about us? We are an open book (snickers).
Me: Let’s start with something simple: Describe yourself to the readers.
Fe’rein: Darkness. Death. There is little else to know.
E’Malkai: (shifting uncomfortably behind his guardian) I do not know what to say about myself. I thought I knew what I supposed to do with my life, but there was always something missing. When I learned about the history of the Fallen and the journey my father began, I realized that I had to find out more, learn about where I came from.
Elcites: (grunting) I am no more than what is expected of me. I guard E’Malkai. That is all that matters.
Arile: I am the last of my people. We once could hear all the voices of the earth. The world has been broken. I can no longer hear what I once could. My people have been scattered into the winds, but I can still hear their distant voices. They speak of a new age, and of a final war.
Me: That all sounds quite dire. You make it seem like there is only darkness and sadness. Are there no happy moments in your life, memories that give you pause and hope when you consider them?
Elcites: The day I was given my charge, when I first met young E’Malkai, was the greatest and saddest day of my life.
E’Malkai: (looking up at the stoic look on his guardian’s face) I recall playing with my uncle once upon a time. (Pausing) The world changed, and so too did those memories. I cannot seem to look back upon the strained moments of my life and see happiness.
(Fe’rein scoffs and crosses his arms over his chest. He clearly is not going to answer the question.)
Arile: Each day is full of happiness and sadness, joy and terror. I find grace and importance in the simplest of tasks. This day is a gift. We must not look upon it with sorrow.
(I start to speak, but Fe’rein interrupts me, his power crawling over his skin like a swarm of frightening insects.)
Fe’rein: What makes this story any different than any of the other drivel available?
Me: That is a bit strong, isn’t it? I would like to think that my writing offers a fresh perspective on the fantasy and science fiction genre. I always try and include elements of ethics and philosophical assumptions in my novels, and this one is no different. I love to explore the elements of good and evil, as well as the murky gray area that is exposed when decisions and choices and are no longer easy. I think it captures the essence of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, as well as being a rousing adventure tale that a reader of any age can enjoy.
E’Malkai: How is it doing so far?
Me: It is a bit early in the game to really say much about it. I released it almost a decade ago and it was well received, but it was in desperate need of a strong editing session. Now, I feel like it accurately reflects my growth as a writer and that it has a strong chance of being pretty successful, perhaps my most successful work yet. Let’s put the focus back on you: What do you want from life?
E’Malkai: I want to set things right…
(Fe’rein stands suddenly. Elcites turns, interceding between the Dark Creator and the youth. Arile moves soundlessly behind the mion.)
Fe’rein: There is nothing to set right. I did what was necessary. They took Summer away from me. They had to pay.
Me: (standing) It seems as though I have struck a nerve. Let’s try something a bit easier, shall we? What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
Arile: (lowering his weapon) The search for truth, questioning my place in this world. Complacency weakens the mind. I value knowledge, intelligence, and logic.
Fe’rein: (sitting once more with a huff) Solitude. The power to do what I must to keep what I have claimed. Once, I valued family and love, but those times have passed.
Elcites: My charge, my mission.
E’Malkai: My family, the people who depend on and believe in me, even if that faith is misplaced.
Me: Speaking of family, did you turn out the way you expected? The way your parents predicted?
(Elcites maintains his ambivalent stare and Arile inspects something deeper in the darkness of the room.)
Fe’rein: I did not know my mother and father well. I have memories of them, brief glimpses of who they were, moments in time frozen and exaggerated. I used to wonder how they would judge me, but that doesn’t matter to me any longer. I turned out the way I did because of the choices I made. My father could not have known what would fall into my path. His plan for me is irrelevant.
E’Malkai: (looking at his uncle, Fe’rein, with sorrow) I did not know my father, but as I traveled north I learned much about the man he was and who he wanted me to be. My mother was secretive of my past, but I do not blame her. I realize now that she did not want me to die as my father had.
Me: That is quite sad. The path of the fallen began when Seth, your father, was cast from the Fallen and then ends when you return. Were you afraid of traveling north by yourself, E’Malkai? What is your greatest fear?
E’Malkai: Not being able to do what is necessary. Turnabout is fair play: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Me: A meaningful question indeed. I think I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was about six, I designed an entire play for my cousin’s birthday: sets, script, and little figures on Popsicle sticks. As the years went by, I found that the notion of storytelling was very attractive. This pursuit led me to writing my first novel in high school, a space opera that I published in 2002. Since then I have published ten novels and plan on telling stories until someone spreads my ashes over the sea. (Turning to Fe’rein) Fe’rein, what is your greatest regret?
Fe’rein: Beyond being summoned to this ridiculous farce, I would imagine the content of my life was the result of walking down a path to darkness. It was not sudden or abrasive, but instead incremental and engrossing. My greatest regret is taking my brother’s life. It was too late for me by then. I could only see darkness, despair.
Elcites: (clearing his throat) What was your intent with writing The Path of the Fallen? Why did you set us down this path?
Me: I wanted to tell a very particular story: one in which the line between good and evil become blurred and the consequences of a hero’s actions mean much more than defeating the bad guy. I liked the notion of a family saga wrapped up in an epic science fiction/fantasy novel. The hero’s cycle makes for a powerful story and often answers fundamental questions about the human condition. Hopefully, my book is successful to that end. (Taking a step forward and gesturing to Arile) Arile, how do you decide if you can trust someone? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
Arile: Trust, like respect, is earned. When I first met E’Malkai, it was his naivety and simple manner that let me know that I could trust him. Generally, the test of whether or not a person is trustworthy is created by the environment, selected for by pressures that challenge a person. The idea of being predisposed to trust, or not to trust, is born of not trusting oneself. Have you written many more stories? Are we to carry on, storyteller?
Me: As the book closes, the story does not end. The path has ended, at least metaphorically, but the journey is far from over. Book of Seth returns to the beginning, giving us a glimpse of the life of Seth Armen, as well as Ryan Armen before he was corrupted. The sequel, which takes place after The Path of the Fallen, is called Breath of the Creator and weighs in on what comes next. There are several other novels with transient beings not of your dimension: a supernatural detective solving murders in San Francisco; a young man who discovers what it takes to be responsible as the world falls apart; a love story set in an epic fantasy world. (Spreading my hands wide, acknowledging all of them) This question is for all of you, what is one strong memory that has stuck with you from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
Arile: I will never forget when I returned home from a hunt and found my village decimated, wiped from this earth by Umordoc. I took the long walk into the tundra, to die, but found peace and a new home. The winds have been my companion ever since.
Fe’rein: Your question is foolish, storyteller. My childhood was a lifetime ago. I am no longer that frail boy who walked beside his brother on the tundra.
Elcites: I do not recall my childhood. I was born on Terra and raised in Culouth. My youth was devoted to learning everything I could about human beings and their ways so that I might one day protect E’Malkai.
E’Malkai: Once I had fond memories, but now they all seem like lies meant to obscure my path. Storyteller, do you read other stories? Are you reading anything right now, or have you read anything recently that is worth mentioning?
Me: I have been reading A Dance of Dragons by George R. R. Martin. I have become very invested in that world, though I will admit that the pace of the narrative has slowed dramatically. I find myself undulating between being surprised and intrigued by the story and then suddenly being quite bored.
Elcites: How did we come into being?
Me: I am assuming you are asking me about my writing process. For The Path of the Fallen I wrote it for four months straight, including Book of Seth. Generally, I like to create a living outline that evolves as the characters come to life and begin to guide the narrative. It is dependent on the world I am invested in at any given time.
E’Malkai: Are our names meaningful?
Me: They are not derived from other lore, if that is what you meant. E’Malkai was named as homage to the naming scheme of the tundra people. It really depends on what I am writing. For instance, The Journey has names that are quite significant in terms of their meaning. Otherwise, I like to invent names for a particular world.
Arile: How do you define success as a writer? Have you been successful?
Me: Success is elusive once you define it. It becomes something that you aspire for regardless of the process and the craft. I would like to think that success is writing stories that people in enjoy and connect with, even if it is negatively. I think I have been successful in a very limited way: people have read my books and enjoyed them.
E’Malkai: Do you have words of wisdom about writing that you want to pass on to novelists and writers out there who are starting out?
Me: Write what you love and learn from criticism. The publishing world has changed. I have been writing for nearly a decade and I find that every year there seems to be a new opinion on which way the wind is blowing for fiction. Stay the course and do what you love. If writing novels and telling stories is what you want to do, then do that.
Fe’rein: I have noticed that you ask this ridiculous question of other storytellers: What is your End of the World Playlist? Why do you ask this question?
Me: I like hearing what people think about the notion of an end-of-the-world scenario. Also, I have a zombie novella of the same name and I like having the vibes out there for it. Do you guys have anything specific that you want to say to the readers?
Arile: E’Malkai of the South will do what he must to set the world right. His story will be passed on for generations.
Elcites: The path of the fallen is filled with both adventure and sadness. Follow E’Malkai and be transformed.
Fe’rein: I will have my day, in this life or the next. I am not evil, nor is E’Malkai good. We are merely opposite perspectives. You decide who visited more harm upon the world.
E’Malkai: I would like to think that I have done the right thing, taken the right path. The storyteller will not give away his secrets, but he might give you a glimpse. The greater question is: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers, storyteller?
Me: I am honored for anyone to read my novel. I hope that it will foster and appreciation of reading and the arts that is slowly disappearing among children and adults alike. I love to hear back from readers, so if you would like to get in touch with me, please be sure to check out my links below.
About Dan O'Brien
A psychologist, author, philosopher, freelance editor, and skeptic, Dan O’Brien has published several novels and currently has many in print, including: The End of the World Playlist, Bitten, The Journey, The Ocean and the Hourglass, Deviance of Time, The Portent, The Twins of Devonshire and the Curse of the Widow, and Cerulean Dreams. Follow him on Twitter (@AuthorDanOBrien) or visit his blog at http://thedanobrienproject.blogspot.com.
He also works as an editor at Empirical, a national magazine with a strong West Coast vibe. Find out more about the magazine at www.empiricalmagazine.com
He also works as an editor at Empirical, a national magazine with a strong West Coast vibe. Find out more about the magazine at www.empiricalmagazine.com
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Purchase Links for Dan O'Brien's Works
The End of the World Playlist
The Twins of Devonshire and the Curse of The Widow