Ellis leads his Gundogs into Hell’s Heart to hunt Gluttons and shred their armour. But Gluttons are the apex predators of Hell’s Heart, the forest that heed their own gods and spits on the laws of men. And while hunting their dangerous prey, Ellis’ Gundogs must battle The Song of the forest because when The Song casts its rhythm into their bones, self-slaughter and murder are the only thoughts the Gundogs have left.
In Hell’s Heart, the trees are lord and master.
Dram, an imperious soldier commanding the respect of men, appears in the Gundogs’ mountain stronghold whilst Ellis is fighting The Song to reclaim his mind. Dram promises Ellis riches if he will venture into Hell’s Heart and use his specialist skills to retrieve a weapon that could end the war. Ellis grudgingly accepts, knowing he must use all his training to endure The Song and lead his Gundogs through hell. But as Ellis watches his friends die around him, his mind disintegrates, and he slowly succumbs to the madness spilling from the trees.
ARAYA is a work about the fragility of the mind and how emotional resilience can lead an individual to achieve great feats. It is a story of friendship and love, loss and madness, and that delicate balance between light and darkness which reminds us that we are made of flesh, and all flesh is doomed to die. A thriller about the human condition that explores the tyrannical hand emotions have over our decisions and quality of life, with prose that emphasise—we must be great with the time that we have.
Gundogs race against time in Hell’s Heart because with every passing second the forest tightens its noose and sharpens its blade.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
E.Detorres has worked in special education needs and mainstream schools which has inspired him to write about his experiences with unique people. His eclectic school experiences, from lunchtime supervisor to Assistant Head Teacher and Inclusion Manager, and his creative writing with English literature degree, and psychology masters has led him to write ARAYA—a thriller about the human condition. His passion for teaching influenced his psychology thesis in which he explored the phenomenon of flow experiences and the mental and emotional well-being of teachers. He was awarded a distinction for his psychology thesis and he hopes that his research can improve the lives of teachers and the children they nurture. He considers himself a forever student who constantly seeks to improve himself and enrich the lives around him.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
After working in education for eleven years, E.Detorres has taught in a range of UK educational settings, including children with autism in a special educational needs secondary school and in a mainstream primary school. His experiences teaching unique people and the challenges children and teachers face in schools has inspired him to write ARAYA. E.Detorres' relationships with teachers and children that love nothing better to dream and play are what influenced his characters. He hopes you fall in love with them and their stories and look upon the noble profession with awe and respect.
The Gundog snatched the money from the table. The merchant had given him a fair price for the armour he had shredded from the Glutton, but the Gundog still had no love for the peddler’s ilk, and his bared teeth said as much. Gundogs risked their necks and sanity when they ventured into the Black Forest, Hell’s Heart, to slay Gluttons; the most this merchant risked was cracking his nails when he grabbed hold of the armour to examine its splendour.
“Don’t look at me like that, son. I gave you a fair price,” the merchant said before gesturing for his assistants to carry the rest of the armour away.
“Fair, but still not enough.”
“How can it ever be enough?” The armour merchant stared deep into the Gundog’s eyes. “My father worked your trade. Entering Hell’s Heart to kill Gluttons and shred their armour. He died in the Black Forest like so many of you Gundogs do.” The merchant rubbed the armour. “And my mother died of a heart rent from mourning. She begged him not to go each time he donned his boots, and she would get on her knees and grab hold of his legs. She would cry, ‘Don’t go, darling, don’t go! Only mad men enter the trees, and only mad men return from them. If you ever loved me, stay! Stay with your beautiful children!’”
The Gundog set his imperious eyes on the merchant. It was the first time in weeks since he had been in company of humans other than the Gundogs of his unit. And he was always aware of the filth that clung to him when he met people outside of his trade—those with homes made of brick and fireplaces where they could warm their bones and safely hide.
“I listened to my father scream in his sleep about the abominations and the lullabies of the forest that drive men mad. I cleaned his body of sweat and urine when he passed out from drink to forget the black trees. I suffered his fists when he returned home and tripped over his legs. I listened to my mother’s comforting whispers when she said that my father worked a dark trade and co-existed with evil creatures, but that could not explain or justify his actions. And I wept every time I saw the crimson in his eyes when he returned from his mountain abode to be with us in town or when I saw that his body grew thinner with every visit.”
The Gundog stroked the money he had earned like it would grant him wishes. The cogs in his head turned as he listened to this corpulent man.
“You kill Gluttons and shred their armour. I sell it. And here we are, connected in this ecosystem, linked by the abominations that dwell in the Black Forest. I make a living so you can make yours. From the bastard trees, you take your coin. And because of the bastard trees, I give you coin.”
The armour merchant held up his hands and bowed his head as though a holy man was absolving him of all sin.
“That is the price,” the merchant said.
The Gundog bared his teeth once more.
“If you cannot accept it, then don’t enter the trees.”
The Gundog departed.
The slaver’s drum pounded in their heads as they worked, its rhythm as cruel as the nightmares it induced.
Alex Bright scanned the trees of Hell’s Heart while listening to her fellow Gundogs labour with monstrous crowbars to pry apart the Glutton’s armour. Alex was small, and her thin, wiry arms carried a weapon a metre and a half long, but the weapon’s size and weight did not hinder her from pointing it at the blackness welling in the trees. She clambered over the colossal tree roots and perched like a predatory bird.
“Quickly,” Alex heard Tristan say to the smaller man.
“There, get it in!” Smug replied.
Tristan stabbed the monstrous crowbar between the plates of armour. Alex’s keen eyes briefly turned away from the trees to watch Tristan and Smug shove against their crowbars.
Her eyes hurriedly returned to the blackness.
It was the trees.
The bastard trees.
Tristan and Smug plunged their crowbars into the flesh beneath the armour, then pulled to free it.
“This bastard is going to p-p-pay for s-s-some good pork!” stuttered the taller man. He had been trained to control his anxiety, and the techniques worked. But in the maddening forest, engaged with his task and crowbar, it was difficult for him to master his excitement. Just as it would be for oarsmen to control their emotions inside a war galley, with oil setting fire to timber and men, with whips lashing flesh and fortitude, and the biting iron chains that shackled them—a constant reminder that if the battle was lost, so were they.
Tristan pronounced ‘pork’ like ‘poke,’ and he licked his lips at the thought of the skin that cracked in his teeth and the juices that struck like the barb of an arrow. They were good at what they did. Better than most that plied the same trade. But they hadn’t eaten any ‘poke’ for weeks.
There were not many stupid enough to do what these fools did to put meat on the table. In this unforgiving environment that heeded its own gods and spat upon the laws of men, the Gundogs either got paid or they tightened their belts. And if that did not come to pass, they licked the moss that grew on the side of the mountain to keep the hunger at bay, as there was little else in this part of the world. Fresh produce and meat were procured in the small mountain town, Sorrentina, which took two days to reach by foot. The Gundogs had been hungry for weeks, but they were used to it.
Tristan and Smug were arguing, and Alex gestured for the men to be silent. She ran a finger along her weapon, each groove and dent in the metal was familiar, and she expertly levelled the weapon into a ready position. Alex was a Gundog of five years, and she calmly stared down the sights of her modified Rosarium Mark ii Tank-Destroyer. The gun had originally been designed to attack panzers in the Last Great War, and it fired high-velocity rounds to punch through tank armour. In Hell’s Heart, the weapon was known as the Dark Rum, and it took strong arms to lift and even stronger arms to wield with any sort of effectiveness.
Alex sensed something in the trees, but the trees were difficult to distinguish from the darkness, and if life was characterised by movement and change, then the Black Forest was uncompromising death. It was strange how the darkness immersing Hell’s Heart did not impede the growth of its trees, because the trees towered and were thick of trunk, as if they grew in tropical climates glutted with sunlight and rainfall. The trees appeared to sway, though there was no wind, and those who spent time in the forest said the trees waltzed to the lullabies—an impish dance that lent potency to The Song. The Song’s verse was different to all, and the poetry seeped into their thoughts and consumed them. The longer the Gundogs tarried in Hell’s Heart, the louder the lullabies. And this was their twenty-third hour.
A shape rushed towards her. It charged through the trees as skilfully as a jungle predator, its elegant movement nearly imperceptible, and bounded towards Alex. She adjusted her aim and fired her Dark Rum. Alex cursed when she missed the creature, and her sabot slug tore through trees and smashed them into splinters. She grimaced at the Glutton’s skill, and she felt her hands responding to the challenge as she deftly reloaded her Dark Rum without conscious effort and then stared down the weapon’s sights. The Glutton was mere metres from Alex, giving her heartbeats to correct her aim, albeit her experience informed her that she would be too late.
There was a sound like the crack of a whip. It was the unmistakable sound of a Dark Rum discharging, yet Alex had not pulled the trigger, and the Glutton fell backward. Alex looked behind her and saw Ellis Fast, the leader of their Gundog unit, his slim body tight with muscle and deprived of fat thanks to the challenging diet of the mountain. There were plumes of smoke escaping from the barrel of his Dark Rum. Alex had obstructed his aim, and Ellis had not been able to find the Glutton’s heart—located in the centre of its torso where the armour was its thickest—but he had blasted a hole in the Glutton’s leg. The Glutton crawled on the ground, and despite its injury it moved with astonishing speed. Alex took aim, quietened her mind, and tracked the Glutton’s charge into the trees to escape the humans. In a few seconds, it would be hidden in the shadows, but as though in malicious afterthought, the Glutton abruptly shifted its armoured body and changed direction. The shadows had not enveloped it yet, and the creature hurtled to the Gundogs holding crowbars and swiped Tristan with its armoured limbs before disappearing into the trees.
Alex gasped, showing uncharacteristic emotion. She had learned many things from Ellis, and how to control her emotions was one of them. Tristan’s ruptured organs had burst from his ribcage, and his iron crowbar slept lifelessly beside him. The guilt throttled her. She should have put the Glutton down with her first shot. That was how she had been trained. That was why she wielded a Dark Rum alongside Ellis—she didn’t miss. She screamed.
Ellis ran to comfort her and took her in his arms.
Life chose its moments well. When to fortify a man. And when to destroy him. There was an expression that Ellis thought suited this moment perfectly.
When it rains, it pours.
The instant Alex’s screams reached their zenith, there was an explosion in the sky, and the Gundogs looked to the heavens. Alex ceased screaming, and her eyes bulged in her skull as she searched the sky for the sound that still shook the earth. Tristan’s splattered blood was still warm, and she should still have been gasping at the sight of her comrade’s broken body. But Tristan was forgotten, and Alex was stupefied because Hell’s Heart was always immersed in silence as profound as the shadows of the trees, and the explosion was as unexpected as finding sunlight in the depths of the ocean. The trees danced and creatures with teeth and claws as brutal and harrowing as the forest itself raced across the dark earth.
The Gundogs saw an enormous aircraft fly overhead. Three of its four engines were afire, and its massive fuselage was riddled with holes. Smug dropped his crowbar and saw the name Our Lady of Sorrows painted in huge letters across the plane. Smug crouched as the huge aircraft shot overhead and flew deeper into Hell’s Heart. The thunder from its disintegrating engines shook the forest, and Alex fought to keep her balance as the lower-order creatures of Hell’s Heart lashed the air with their forked tongues and their bloodshot eyes desperately searched their surroundings.
Alex’s chest heaved in her struggle to still her heart, and the bewilderment of Tristan’s death and now this unprecedented sight of a burning machine flying across the sky was too much for her to bear. She needed to know that Ellis was with her and that he would protect her. One of the absolute requirements of being a Gundog was resilience. Ellis had trained them to defeat The Song sung to the rhythm of the slaver’s drum, and Ellis had also taught them how to recover if infected.
Focus on your work. It will set you free. The mind must serve, not impede.
The aircraft thundered overhead, and Alex recalibrated her senses. She concentrated all her attention on her environment, the people she was with, and the tasks she had to complete. And the most important task was her duty to her comrades. She found the leader of their Gundog unit beside her.
Ellis Fast’s jaw hung open. He was shaking, his Dark Rum forgotten in his hands. He sought the aircraft and craned his neck, even though the machine had long passed out of sight. A smile played on his lips, and he searched for the aircraft and whispered, “The second time. As good as the first…The Choir.”
The forest called him.
It said his name.
It called him back.
To venture into the trees, Gundogs had to armour their minds against The Song. For madness spilled from the trees like blood from a severed artery. A moment of weakness was enough for the slaver’s drum to cast its rhythm into a Gundog’s bones and infect. The Song used its sweetest melodies on Ellis, because it knew him well—this man that entered Hell’s Heart to grow fat on its yolk. And the trees would exact its vengeance like a spurned lover holding a ready sword. The Black Forest knew that Ellis was skilled in defending against The Song. But the inclusive poetry could adapt. And that was why the Black Forest and her creatures did not bow to the laws of men. Hell’s Heart met the challenge with equal skill and sent forth its siege engines to defeat the fortified walls of Ellis’ mind. The slaver’s drum struck a rhythm tailored to the darkness within the Gundog leader, and The Song assaulted Ellis with memories it knew would be too poignant for his defences.
The Song cast images of Ellis holding down limbs that lashed out, and the captive cursing and biting Ellis in his attempt to escape. Memories of his life before he travelled to the mountains and learned his trade of shredding and selling Glutton armour. A life before he created his Gundog unit. A life he escaped.
The Song reminded him this was the second time he had heard Hell’s Heart in concert like this. The Song had him now, and in the throes of his malady induced by the black trees, Hell’s Heart continued to whisper to him, and his smile widened. But the delight would give way to doom, and Ellis knew it. Ellis fought The Song for dominion over his mind. He was slumped over, and his downcast head was close to his knees. Alex laid her hands on his shoulder. He felt the familiar sensation of her hands rubbing against his muscles, and it soothed him. It was Alex’s duty to call him back and she panted as she spoke.
Ellis shook his head to clear it.
“We leave. Gather the tools,” Ellis said.
“Leave everything but the tools.” He peered into Alex’s grey eyes. “Including the body.”
Alex saw that he had made his decision. She held her breath and expelled it just as quickly, horrified and instantly relieved. His decision-making was a quality she admired about Ellis. It was one of the reasons she followed him to the mountains. And he was right—the knives of the forest grew longer. The emotional turmoil from a comrade’s death would render Gundogs more susceptible to The Song. And the burning machine flying across the sky was exciting the Black Forest into action, which made it even more perilous.
Alex sprinted to Smug and encouraged him to stand and shoved his crowbar into his hands. Smug stepped forward, then stumbled and dropped to a knee. He stared at the Tristan’s broken body and then the armour they had to leave behind. The Gundogs would not be eating pork or potatoes tonight.
The forest screamed as the lower-order creatures of Hell’s Heart ran to and fro, with their maws clicking and claws scraping against the trees. Ellis turned his back on the armour they had shredded from the felled Glutton. What good were potatoes and gravy if your stomach was ripped out? The Black Forest cried, and the trees began their rabid dance.
Ellis did not glance back at Tristan’s broken body as he led the way to their mountain abode. Alex knew it was a hard decision. Tristan was family, and they should have carried him back to celebrate his life. Instead they were leaving him, as well as the small fortune of shredded Glutton armour, which could have paid for three months of supplies and repairs to their mountain stronghold. Leaving armour was a sin to all those in the trade.
Smug suddenly fell to his knees. “Our Lady of Sorrows!” he said. “What’s she doing here?”
Ellis hoisted him up as he mumbled about how he did not understand. Smug’s face was drawn and haggard. They had tarried in Hell’s Heart for too long.
“She carries Earth-Breaker bombs! A City-Destroyer!”
Ellis held him tighter.
“Tris! Where’s Tristan?” Smug said.
“He’s dead,” Ellis replied.
“Dead…” Smug’s face collapsed, and he gripped Ellis’ shoulders and wept. Ellis put his mouth to Smug’s ear.
“You already bleed—”
Smug opened his eyes.
“Get a reward for it.”
Ellis’ words were like a forgotten song, its words fragmented and full of mourning. Their leader headed for their cave in the mountains, and Alex followed him. Smug made fists with his large hands and chased after his comrades. And still, they danced to the beat of the drum.
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