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by Steph Bennion

PAW-PRINTS OF THE GODS is the sequel to HOLLOW MOON; a story of the future, a time when human ingenuity has bridged the vast cosmos and many millions have staked their claims where distant suns burn fierce in the sky...

CHAPTER ONE (excerpt)
Mind games

ebookRAVANA OPENED HER EYES and stared groggily at the grey shapes at the foot of her bed. The nurses never seemed to stop moving, but it was a silent ballet devoid of all personality and warmth. Yet the rest of her surroundings were no more inspiring, with the only attempt to brighten the white-walled windowless room being the pot of wilting flowers upon her bedside table. Now she was awake Ravana felt the need to make her own presence felt, but when she opened her mouth to speak she found herself lost for words, her mind sinking beneath a weight both heavy and cold as if a wet blanket had been draped over her thoughts.

The thinner of the hazy blurs moved closer and presented Ravana with a small glass of water and the customary daily cluster of brightly-coloured tablets.

“Your medication,” she snapped. Her English was tainted by a harsh Indian accent. Seeing Ravana hesitate, she thrust her hand closer and frowned.

“We must make you well again!” her portly colleague added merrily. She spoke with a sweeter Asian twist, which she then ruined by smashing her fist against an innocent spider upon the wall. “You must take them. They will make you big and strong!”

“Big and strong?” retorted her colleague. “Or do you mean fat and butch like you?”

“Let’s not get personal, Sister Lilith! We’re all professionals here.”

“There’s only one professional here, my dear Jizo,” grumbled Lilith. Still holding out the glass and tablets, she pointedly looked towards the mirror on the nearby wall and regarded her own reflection. “And I’m looking at her right now.”

Ravana hesitantly took the tablets from the nurse’s grasp, popped them into her mouth and washed them down with a gulp of water. The reassuring words of Jizo were hard to accept when the nurse herself stood licking bits of spider from her hand.

The few hours Ravana was awake each day passed by in an unchanging haze, with the same dull migraine clouding her thoughts and the same ache gripping her muscles and bones as she lay upon the bed. Every morning, if it was indeed morning, saw a fixed routine of waking, taking medication, a trip to the bathroom, then the interview room and back to bed. It could almost be the exact same day, replayed over and over again in her head. Even the bickering of the nurses and the conversations in the interview room continued to go over the same ground. She had no idea how many days had passed since her arrival, for how and when she got here was part of the gap in her mind where memories had once been.

Her eyes remembered how to focus and the nurse-shaped blobs resolved into two middle-aged Indian women wearing nun-like grey habits and headscarves. Ravana vaguely recalled being told that she was in some sort of church-run hospice, for reasons not fully understood but something to do with not having enough money or the right insurance to be taken to the city hospital. Nurse Lilith had commented on more than one occasion that being ill away from your home world was a risky business in the late twenty-third century.

Lilith now waited to take Ravana to the washroom, as she did every morning, though at the moment appeared to be more interested in whatever it was on the computer touch-screen slate in her hands. As far as Ravana could tell it was the same nurses she saw every day. Although their faces were far from memorable, the mean-spirited squabbling was a constant theme.

“Time to rise,” Jizo told her, interrupting her thoughts.

Ravana pulled back the thermal blanket, heaved herself out of bed and cringed as her weight fell heavily upon her weak right arm. She was getting more tired by the day, her hair felt dirty and lank against her face and she was desperately in need of a bath. She was dressed as always in a green smock that would never win any awards for fashion. Shuffling over to the wall mirror, she scrutinised her reflection. A bleary, drawn face stared back; she looked as bad as she felt and certainly a lot older than her sixteen years. The scar on the right side of her face lay vivid against her pale brown skin, the strange silver lines that faintly followed the crevices of the damaged tissue more apparent than ever. With a sigh, she pushed aside a matted length of black hair and turned as Lilith approached.

“Breakfast?” asked Ravana, weakly. She always awoke feeling hungry.

“Later,” Lilith replied, looking as if she did not care less. “Follow me.”

* * *

The nurse led her through the door and down a familiar white-walled corridor to the washroom, then waited outside while Ravana relieved herself in the cramped toilet and splashed a little water on her face to wake herself up. Every bare-footed step was painful and her muscles throbbed with the effort of moving bones that felt like fractured lumps of iron.

By the time Ravana emerged from the washroom, she was exhausted and ready to return to her room. The nurse instead led her in the opposite direction, past dozens of other blank doors until they reached one standing open. The routine was so familiar that Ravana did not wait for Lilith’s signal before stepping inside. The nurse did not follow but closed the door carefully behind her.

As Ravana’s gaze fell upon the two figures seated behind the desk, a flicker of both recognition and panic flashed through her thoughts and then fell back into the recesses of her clouded mind. It happened every time, then moments later the figures returned to being nothing more than grey shapes, wearing their habitual hooded cloaks that left their features in shadow. Both had the same curious halting and screeching voice she had decided sounded male. From previous meetings, the only way she had managed to tell them apart was by the motifs embroidered in silver thread upon the red sashes they wore around their shoulders and waists. One had tiny lions upon the scarlet fabric, while the other had stylised symbols of an archer ready to unleash an arrow. The nurses referred to them as the monks, which was as good a description as any.

“zz-raavaanaa-zz,” rasped the one with the lion-patterned sash. The edge of his hood trembled slightly as he spoke. Not for the first time, Ravana jumped as the words emerged like the muted wail of a steel grinder. In her mind’s eye she could almost see the fiery sparks issuing from the speaker’s hidden lips. “zz-taakee-aa-seeaat-zz.”

Ravana hesitantly sat down in the empty chair opposite the two figures, taking care not to look too closely into the shadows of their hoods. Other than the desk and chairs, the room was empty, with a large window behind where the grey monks sat. The enticing view, a deserted strip of coastline beneath a deep blue sky, she remembered being told was Pampa Bay on the moon of Daode. The window was open a fraction and the sound of distant crashing waves drifted in to fill the room with a soothing murmur.

“zz-brootheer-siimhaa-aand-ii-aaree-pleeaaseed-zz,” said the other monk, his buzzing tones identical to those of his companion. “zz-yyoouur-miind-haas-beeeen-shaatteereed-buut-iis-reecooveeriing-weell-zz.”

“Glad to hear it,” Ravana murmured, once she had deciphered the message.

“zz-yyoouur-meemooryyy-iis-aa-coonceern-zz,” intoned the first monk, whom she assumed was the aforementioned Brother Simha. “zz-brootheer-dhaanuus-aand-ii-muust-aask-thee-saamee-quueestiioons-eeveeryy-daayy-zz.”

“zz-haavee-yyoouu-reemeembeereed-hoow-yyoouu-goot-heeree-zz?” asked the other monk, presumably Brother Dhanus.

“Only what I’ve been told.” Ravana was tired and slurred her words.

“zz-whiich-iis-zz?” said Simha.

“I was in a virtual-reality game,” she said slowly. “Gods of Avalon. I reacted badly. The nurses say it was due to an old injury, something to do with my brain. They said I was taken to a doctor and then brought here. To rest while my mind recovers.”

“zz-teell-mee-aaboouut-thee-booook-zz,” screeched Dhanus.

“Book?” Ravana was puzzled, then shuddered. “There were books in the walls, closing in on me. The pages opened and spiders burst out...” The memory made her feel queasy. Her fear of anything with too many legs was not something she was ever likely to forget. “Then I was in bed, being told... something. Everything after that is a blank.”

She paused, disturbed once again by the cloud over her thoughts. It was hard to judge the monks’ reaction to what she was saying, but the tilt of their hoods suggested they were listening keenly.

Dhanus leaned forward. “zz-whyy-diid-yyoouu-coomee-too-daaoodee-zz?”

Ravana thought back to the series of events that had led her to Hemakuta, a city on the moon of Daode in the Epsilon Eridani system. She had jumped at the chance to go when the Newbrum Academy band, student musicians from Ascension in the Barnard’s Star system, chartered her father’s ship to take them to the peace conference in the city. The trip was a homecoming of sorts, for she had been born on Daode’s neighbouring moon of Yuanshi, a world split by civil war. She wondered if the peace conference had achieved its aims.

“Where is my father?” she asked. “Where are my friends?”

“zz-yyoouur-friieends-aawaaiit-yyoouu-iin-heemaakuutaa-zz,” Dhanus buzzed softly. “zz-ooncee-yyoouu-aaree-beetteer-yyoouu-caan-jooiin-theem-aand-reetuurn-hoomee-zz.”

“And my father?” This time there was an edge to Ravana’s voice.

“zz-wee-haavee-toold-yyoouu-beefooree-zz,” Simha replied harshly. “zz-hee-iis-faaciing-triiaal-foor-heelpiing-rooyyaaliists-oon-yyuuaanshii-zz. zz-yyoouur-friieends-weeree-luuckyy-noot-too-bee-aarreesteed-toooo-zz.”

Ravana fell silent, sensing the underlying malice in the monk’s words. She had vague memories of a man called Fenris and a young prince who had been kidnapped, but could not remember where they fitted into recent events. When she tried to think about her father’s place in the rebellion and the war on Yuanshi her thoughts were even more confused. Her shoulders drooped and she sank wearily into her seat.

“zz-yyoouu-aaree-tiireed-zz,” noted Simha. “zz-yyoouu-shoouuld-reest-zz.”

The door behind Ravana opened and she turned to see Lilith waiting to take her back to her room. The monks no longer looked her way and instead conversed quietly in the impenetrable staccato language she had heard them use before between themselves.

Ravana took this as a sign to leave. She rose from her chair and hobbled towards the door, her bones screaming in protest. Lilith was not a great conversationalist at the best of times and led her back along the corridor without a word.

Just before they reached the entrance to Ravana’s room, an adjacent door opened and Jizo stomped backwards into the corridor with a squirming young boy, carrying him like a sack with her arm clamped around his waist. The portly nurse swung her burden upright and a startled Ravana stared into the pale and frightened face of her previously-unknown neighbour.

The boy, who wore a green gown similar to her own, looked no more than ten Terran years old, with tousled blond hair crowning a pale face streaked with dirt. It was the first time Ravana had seen another patient and she attempted a smile. The boy looked up at the bedraggled Indian girl with the scar on her face and shrank back in alarm.

“What planet are you from?” he asked, scrutinising her carefully.

Ravana thought about this. "I'm from a moon," she said at last. "A hollow moon."

* * *

[End of excerpt from the novel PAW-PRINTS OF THE GODS.]

Follow Ravana O'Brien and friends in PAW-PRINTS OF THE GODS! On the forbidding planet of Falsafah, archaeologists are on the verge of a discovery that will shake the five systems to the core. Ravana O'Brien finds herself on another wild adventure with a mysterious little orphan, a cake-obsessed secret agent and a god-like watcher who is maybe also a cat. The cyberclone monks are preparing to meet their saviours. But nobody believes in prophecies anymore, do they?


Book 1
Book 2
Book 3
Book 4
Book 5
Main Sequence
Intro Anthology