SAVING SEOUL by Steven Kelliher – EXCERPT and GIVEAWAY!
We’re super excited today to share with you an excerpt from SAVING SEOUL, the first book in Steven Kelliher’s new series Sword Punk:
Akio Prince is one of the best in the world at a dying art.
He’s put a lifetime of martial arts training to work in the arena, dueling with pulsing resin blades and glowing carbon fiber for the masses. But winning championships is small consolation while his city is taken over by the Hachinin, ruthless criminals spreading corruption, violence and debauchery across the east.
When the same syndicate that claimed the life of Akio’s master threatens the few friends he has left, he decides to make a stand.
After refusing to throw a fight at the behest of the city’s kingpin, Akio enters a dangerous game of hunter and hunted—a bloody revenge tour that will push him to his limits and put his martial skills to the ultimate test.
In the near-future far-east, where heroes are hard to find, Akio discovers that a little bad might do a world of good.
In Steven’s own words, “Sword Punk is my most action-focused series, drawing influence from western comics, eastern manga and 80s action pulp. It also represents an opportunity for me to indulge my martial arts knowledge on the page, writing high octane, impactful fight sequences between highly trained combatants in a way my Epic Fantasy and LitRPG settings don’t allow without breaking immersion.”
Steven has very kindly given us TEN Audible codes to giveaway – for details on how to enter, check out our Twitter page.
Please note – these codes are ONLY available for the UK.
Yellow and Blue
I could tell you I hated it.
The lights—all red, blue and neon purple. Shades and strobes that would put your grandmother in the hospital.
The sounds—the pounding of the ceremonial drum. The roar of the rabid crowd. The crackle of electricity as the announcer slammed the porous surface of the microphone with a voice that had gone from silver to hoarse over the course of the night.
I could tell you I hated the smells—the tang of sweat as it mixed with the sweet smell of sulfur and smoke from the fireworks and flares. The faint rot of the sticky audience floors, where the cement had long ago given way to a paste that infected the place and filled it with a pregnant musk.
I could tell you I hated all of that, but I’ve never been very good at lying.
Another roar to make my heart swell as the announcer made the introductions. Another boom and slap as a half-naked man struck a white canvas drum that was somehow louder than it was comically large.
A bow as a woman with long black hair dressed in blue armor with gold accents faced a man dressed in gold armor with blue. His hair was short-cropped and silver-white, and his eyes were a startling blue. Lit lenses for effect. And as I watched from the shadowed entryway, holding one of my blunted blades at my side, twirling it absently as the other rested in the sheath across my back, the first grimace crossed my face.
This, I did hate. The way a contest of honor was made a mockery on a public stage. The way martial artists turned from fighters into showmen. The way technique gave way to bluster, glory to adulation.
But then the fight started, and my martial mind took over.
Sang Hee was a sight less benevolent than her name would suggest, but she was damn fun to watch. She was also a former Olympic gymnast, which, given the elasticity of the stage on which they fought, put most opponents at a sound disadvantage at the outset. What made her truly interesting, however, was the fact that she was rich beyond belief. An heiress from the north whose money was difficult to trace, but impossible to miss.
It went without saying that competing in the most high-impact sport in the world was a … strange choice for someone like her. But there was always more to the story.
She leapt into a front roll and drew her quarterstaff, which ignited during the roll, glowing blue-white. Instead of coming up in her usual bounce, she stayed low and spun, carving the canvas with the lit weapon and whipping it back toward the golden boots of Dae, who wasn’t half as great as his name suggested.
He did manage a dodge. What’s more, he managed a good one, hopping just over the lit staff and moving forward instead of back, as Sang Hee had no doubt intended. He brought his own weapons out from across his back—twin double-bladed hand axes that glowed golden-yellow—and carved the place where Sang Hee’s head had been. Now she rolled back, landed the flats of her palms on the canvas and somersaulted up and over. She stood motionless, her staff thrumming and pulsing like a lantern as she held it stiffly behind her back.
“Close one,” she said, her voice amplified by the mic in her collar.
The crowd roared. She was an entertainer, through and through, and even I got caught up in it, bringing my hands up for a clap before I noticed a particular shadow staring from the President’s box slightly above and to the left of the fighting stage, looming like an emperor’s coliseum perch. Instead, I leaned from my place beside the red corner doorway at the edge of the arena and spat, the glob spinning down into a chasm that seemed bottomless. There was a distant glimmer of iron netting, small consolation should any fighter be tossed from the platform. It wasn’t unheard of. I’d sent a few there myself in the last three seasons.
They’d all survived, far as I knew, but sometimes their echoing screams woke me in the night, cursing me for their humiliation. I might not have killed them, but I’d effectively ended their careers. Being thrown from the ring marked the height of dominance. True fighters kept themselves in until they were weaponless or unconscious.
The two before me were true fighters. Of course, I didn’t think either one could stand up to me for long. I’d beaten Dae the season before. I’d never had the pleasure or misfortune (depending on whom you asked) of facing Sang Hee, a fact that had allowed us to be more cordial to each other than most were on the circuit.
I figured it was a given I’d see her in the Finals. But Dae had been training. We all had, no doubt. But Dae had really been training.
The golden-armored fighter never attacked Sang Hee straight on. If he stepped into the arc of that whipping staff, it might crack his skull along with his purse. Instead, he approached at angles, darting in with one blade—the golden blades standing out starkly atop black handles—before following it up with the other. Sang Hee was on the defensive. Dae attacked so often that she couldn’t afford to attempt any circular attacks. Instead, she turned her staff into an approximation of a blunted spear, jabbing it forward like a striking snake. She landed two solid hits, the resin weapon making dull thuds as it connected with the mix of rubber and plastic of Dae’s battle armor.
Seeing him reel back coughing reminded me to adjust my own padding. I placed my rubber blade back in its X sheath and gripped the suit just inside the collar, pulling. It was always too tight across my front and too loose across my back. I could almost hear the skintight material stretching as my blood warmed to the task.
It was a good fight. A damn good fight.
Dae had already lasted longer than Sang Hee’s last three opponents combined, and it looked as if he had no plans to quit.
Sang Hee, for her part, was the picture of calm. Right up until she wasn’t.
Apart from the one cheer when she’d made her voice heard, the crowd had been holding their collective breath. Now, a smattering of voices began to carry a chant. Soon enough, the rest took it up.
“Dae … Dae … Dae … DAE … DAE!”
Sang Hee had been forced to the edge of the platform so that her back heel was suspended above the black depths. Now Dae did come on straight, spinning so fast the yellow glow of his axes turned him into a lit top with a sunny corona.
Even from a distance, I could see Sang Hee’s smile, and my heart froze as she waited until the last possible moment before bringing her staff around her back and spinning with it. She did what should have been impossible. If she had stepped forward, Dae’s lead axe would have broken her orbital. If she had jabbed straight ahead with the butt end of her weapon, he’d have turned it aside and smashed it with one weapon and her nose with the next.
But she didn’t step forward and she didn’t plant. Instead, she stepped back, or seemed to.
As Dae reached her—rather, as he reached the place she’d been, Sang Hee swept her front foot back behind her, spinning so that just the ball of her rear foot remained balanced on the edge of the platform. The momentum of the spin kept her from tumbling over into the abyss, and the momentum of her staff, held at its very end, brought her back around. She came in at an angle as Dae stopped his spin and attempted to plant to keep himself from going over. He looked shocked, standing where Sang Hee had only just been. She might only have moved a foot to the right, but it was enough.
To his credit, he managed to get one axe up to block, though he held it too close to his head for my liking. Sang Hee didn’t care. Her staff met the haft between the two blades with an echoing crash and sparks flew as pieces of lit resin—blue and blinding yellow—broke off from the embattled blades. Dae let out a cry as he tumbled, the force of the blow passing through his block and cracking him in the temple. He landed in a drunken tumble and came up unsteadily.
And then Sang Hee was on him. He did well. Very well, all things considered, but when Sang Hee had you hurt, there wasn’t much point in fighting it. Best you could hope to do was last long enough to make an impression on the fans.
I swept my gaze over the crowds—all sixty horizontal rows of them—and even now, I could see their screens lighting up as the promoter terminal asked them to rate the performance of both fighters. Sang Hee would get a 10, as she always did. But then, performance scores only mattered if you lost. Now, Dae needed to dig in his heels and launch a counterattack if he hoped to earn anything above an 8—anything that would keep him in the League through to the next season.
The commentary booth was just ahead, suspended above the ring and lit by that sickly white glow that could only mark streaming cameras. The white-haired blowhards gesticulated wildly, red-faced and spitting, either praising Sang Hee’s performance or lamenting Dae’s latest big-stage failure, and both seemingly using more energy than the fighters in the ring.
Dae was quite popular with sponsors, or so I’d been told. Quite popular with the League, in other words.
As it turned out, he also wasn’t ready to lose, at least not quite yet.
Sang Hee had launched into a furious assault, her feet never set and her staff always spinning, until it slowed long enough to mete out its battering, blunt-force trauma on Dae’s forearms and shoulders and the center of his chest. Still, he’d managed to keep the thing from cracking him full in the head, and when Sang Hee set her feet long enough to send a jab forward that might’ve taken an eye out, Dae launched into a spin of his own.
I don’t know if he’d been playing possum or not, but it sure looked like it. One minute, he’d been reeling under that blue-white buzzing onslaught, and the next, he’d executed a perfect counter spin. Sang Hee saw it coming, but she’d already committed to her forward strike. In a moment the highlight shows would be going over for days, Sang Hee lifted the butt of the staff up to block. She managed to divert the angle of the first axe, and might have caught the other if it had followed the same path.
But Dae was more clever than he looked. At least, more clever than he had been last season. Instead of following the same horizontal path as the first blade, Dae’s second axe came up and over his head. Sang Hee’s eyes widened as she sat back and leaned her head out of harm’s way.
“What a dodge,” I said, knowing it didn’t really matter.
Dae hadn’t been aiming for Sang Hee’s head, and in her panic, she’d left her staff too far out in front of her. Dae couldn’t help but grin as the axe chopped down and hooked back, the curved bottom of one glowing edge catching Sang Hee’s weapon and ripping it toward him. Instead of catching it, he flung it back, where it struck the canvas and then careened off into the blackness, buzzing the whole way down. I watched it until it faded from view, far, far below, where the building met the damp streets of Seoul.
There was a pregnant pause, and even the chants of “Dae” stopped for a breath as Sang Hee rolled and executed another perfect somersault. She landed on her feet and wiped the sweat from her brow.
An explosion from the crowd, and now the white-haired men in the booth looked as if they might go right over, falling into the ring below or joining Sang Hee’s staff in the netting that might kill them in their silken suits.
Dae was the winner, so long as Sang Hee knelt before him. He stood there, axes hanging by his sides. He even loosened his grip on the hilts, dimming the yellow glow of the blades. He smiled a smile of victory and waited for the inevitable.
But Sang Hee did not kneel, and despite myself, I leaned forward so far I nearly fell into the pit myself, forgetting that the bridge from the red corner had been retracted until the fight was through.
Judging by the collective intake of breath, the crowd was as surprised as me. Judging by the way the glass in the President’s booth grew darker, the executives must have pressed themselves up against it, watching in macabre fascination as Sang Hee strode calmly toward her doom.
Killing was illegal in the Korean League. Looked bad for sponsors. Looked bad for the sport, if you could call it that. But it had happened before, and it would happen again, as long as fighters like Sang Hee let their pride get in the way of their livelihood.
Now, Dae had nothing holding him back. Sang Hee had chosen not to kneel, which meant he had no choice but to make her. He actually grimaced. Dae might have been a sponsored fighter, but I’d heard he was a decent man from a hard-working family. He had no desire to kill one of the League’s most popular fighters, but it seemed Sang Hee had a death wish. That, or she knew something the rest of us did not.
As it turned out, the latter turned out to be the case.
Dae reignited his yellow blades and held his axes up across his chest as if in prayer. He actually closed his eyes for a spell, and when Sang Hee was nearly on him, he exploded into motion. Dae cut and slashed, spun and charged without a thought to mercy or poise.
Sang Hee ducked and darted, leaned her head back and raised her hands to parry the very air the axes trailed behind them, but though her feet were never still—twisting and pivoting as she adjusted—they never took a backward step.
Dae was getting angry, and anger made him sloppy. He was armed, but that shouldn’t have made him careless, especially against a foe as experienced as Sang Hee. But then, we all need to learn somehow, and nothing learns you quite like pain.
Sang Hee stepped forward in the midst of Dae’s latest torrent. He actually looked surprised for a second, as if he couldn’t believe she would actually step into what could be a lethal range even for blunted resin blades. She stepped in even closer—too close now for the next swing to threaten her, and wrapped her arm around his right arm, locking up his elbow and twisting. He grimaced in pain and started to bring his left blade forward, but Sang Hee had him. There was an audible snap that echoed in the silence and Dae grunted rather than screamed.
Sang Hee slammed her hip into his and sent him up and over her back, keeping his broken arm locked the whole way down. He lost his grip on that blade as his arm went slack, and when his back crashed into the canvas—however unyielding it might normally be—the force jarred a shout from him and a gasp from the crowd.
To his credit, Dae managed to force a scramble, bringing his remaining blade in and striking out with the short hilt rather than the business end. The rubber slammed into Sang Hee’s nose and started a fountain of spurting red that had her rolling backward. Dae stood on wobbling legs as Sang Hee eyed him like a cat, crouched, teeth bared in a snarl. He looked pale, the pain from his arm warring with the shock of how quickly the bout had changed.
Dae should have cut his losses and knelt. He didn’t. I couldn’t help the smile that broke my face as Sang Hee channeled her pain into a furious assault that was nearly as potent as anything she could do with a weapon. In the place of a staff, she sent her legs into momentous spins, taking me back to my tae kwon do days. In the place of roundhouses and spinning back kicks, Sang Hee’s all took on a strange, circular flair that could only be explained by her time spent as a gymnast. The kicks came at such odd angles and moved with such velocity that Dae could do little more than dodge. When he struck out with his lone axe at a passing heel, the other came in on the end of a traditional wheel kick and cracked his jaw with a sharp echo.
Dae fell as Sang Hee rose, bringing her head back to the center line. His axe went spinning down to join her blue staff in the depths of the Soul Dome—a winking yellow firefly that heralded his imagined death.
Sang Hee stood motionless but for the rise and fall of her chest beneath her blue and golden padding. She was slick with sweat, her black bangs plastered across her face. The blood ran freely over her mouth, staining the canvas at her feet, where the hot lights would bake it into a syrup I’d have to be careful not to slip in when I was up.
Dae wasn’t getting up, and for a moment, I feared him dead. And then I heard him groan. We all did. It was comical and heartbreaking all at once, and Sang Hee dipped a bow to him that seemed a sight more genuine to me than the crowd took it.
“And your winner and first finalist of Season 6!” The announcer was lit once more in a flood of pulsing colored lights while Sang Hee looked beyond him, staring up past the rafters and out into the rain-soaked skies she could not see through the steel and aluminum roof. “Sang Hee!”
The roar was deafening. It easily supplanted anything I’d got last season. I wasn’t jealous. Quite the opposite. I was excited.
Sang Hee turned her bow from the vanquished Dae and turned more flourishing versions to the adoring fans, careful to make sure she twirled for the cameras that hung on their wiry webs and swung from gyroscopic motors that whirred like buzzing insects. She paused when she faced the President’s box and did not bow, but rather stared, her crimson face making her look anything but friendly—anything but subservient. I didn’t think the box was low enough or close enough for her to leap to it, but she looked like she wanted to.
The crowd loved her for it. They hated the League. Hated what it stood for. Hated the black suits from the Land of the Rising Sun as much as they hated the men who funded them and almost as much as they hated the thought of missing a single match in the League’s short and storied history in Korea.
Of course, it was all a part of Sang Hee’s act. Hero of the people. Fan favorite. Korea’s own. Unsponsored. On that point, at least, her act held weight. Of course, being a former Olympian and the daughter of a billionaire afforded a person certain advantages in that department. Still, she didn’t have to fight. I could respect her for that.
The rumble of the crowd was supplanted by the vibrations below my sock-thin boots as the gears turned. The walking bridge slid out with an oily hiss, stretching toward the ring, all black planks and oval white lights along the borders.
Sang Hee timed her walk perfectly, stepping onto the walkway without breaking stride just as it connected with the square platform. She hid her limp well as she walked toward me. Dae couldn’t say the same, unfortunately, as a pair of medics rushed in from the blue corner walkway and peeled him up off the canvas, depositing him unceremoniously onto a stretcher.
The crowd had already forgotten Sang Hee by the time she passed me by. She showed me a red smile, and I was surprised to see a plastic glaze to her eyes that suggested Dae had struck her harder than she had let on. She swayed a bit at the end and I leaned toward her. She caught my shoulder to steady herself and played it off as a playful greeting to the crowd, patting me on the rear as she trundled past.
“Thanks,” she whispered as she stole into the dimly lit hall and cut a path toward the locker room.
“Great show!” I called behind her. She just waved without turning back. “See you in the Finals,” I said to myself. I didn’t know if my heart was beating more furiously for that or for the fact that I was due up next.
I had already gone through my stretching routine in the locker room and I’d been standing here for seemingly an hour as the last few bouts had gone off. My muscles were warm and my mind was keyed to the task. All that remained was to see the thing done.
I looked up at the display that hung in the air above the ring. It was a black sphere of plasma during the bouts that turned to a glowing repository of highlights, advertisements and pulsing annoyance between fights. I chewed my lip in anticipation of the performance scores.
Sang Hee came up first. “W,” as was the case with all winners. It was a wonder they showed it at all. No surprise there. It was greeted by a loud and throaty cheer as her key demographics swooned.
“Come on … come on,” I whispered to myself, as if Dae’s incoming score had anything to do with me.
A louder cheer went up when the second number came up next to the sable-haired, blue-eyed image of the South Korean male.
“10,” I said, satisfied. “Not bad, Dae. Not bad at all.”
Performances, after all, weren’t all about winning. I dare say, if they let the audience give me one, I’d be lucky to break a 7, given how one-sided many of my fights tended to be. What was the word the Seoul sports media used to describe me this season? Workmanlike.
Nothing workmanlike about winning. After all, I’d had enough of bloody wars. Season 4—my first—had been full of them. Season 5 less so, and this season, I couldn’t recall a single fighter having landed anything that did more than smart. Of course, Sang Hee had faced the tougher competition. I wouldn’t argue with that.
Maybe King Kwan would have something to say about it. I’d heard he packed quite the punch.
The black screen faded for a spell and the lights went down. Now my heart was hammering in my chest.
“Next up!” the announcer screamed, his voice going from hoarse to reedy. “Your second Quarter Final match! Openweight division. Nine victories each to their names this season. Zero defeats.”
Of course there were zero defeats, or else we wouldn’t be here. The Korean League had taken all but the most controversial rules from its mother League in Japan. 64 fighters. Single elimination. Rinse and repeat.
I ached to step out onto the bridge, but the suits had been clear that I wasn’t to mess with the presentation any more than I had in the past. My fights were getting stale enough, they said. In paying my debt, it seemed I was affecting someone else’s bottom line. I spat into the airy depths again, and the spotlight tech chose that moment to focus on me.
It was blinding bright and I squinted. The crowd cheered, though not as loudly as they had for Sang Hee. Reduced to Dae-level applause. I nearly shook my head. Maybe I’d make this one more exciting for them. Maybe I’d keep him in it.
That was what I thought, but my heart beat even faster, if it were possible, and my palms had begun to sweat. The truth was, I’d never fought Kwan before. I only knew him through observation. We hadn’t met during Season 5. Lucky for him, each of us thought. Lucky for him.
Thing was, it really was a stroke of luck that had prompted Kwan’s exit from the previous tournament. Kwan wasn’t much of a dodger. He was huge and massive all around. Close to seven feet and weighing in at close to 300 pounds. But he had near impregnable defense, by all accounts. He used a shield with a glowing red blade surrounding it, like a disco Frisbee. It had been a prototype he’d been testing out last season. Resin must not have been cast right. It shattered under the weight of Mal Chin’s Euro-style sword, and then there’d been nothing to defend himself with. He’d taken a beating, and a bad one. It was a wonder they had let him compete at all this year, and a wonder he’d made it this far.
Mal Chin certainly hadn’t. The nasty Korean might have lost in the Semis, but he’d acquitted himself reasonably well. He’d been in an accident soon after. A fatal one, if you could believe it, and the media hadn’t done a whole lot of digging into circumstances that had seemed less than legitimate from where myself and a whole lot of others had been sitting. But then, few tears had been shed on the circuit. Mal Chin had kept to himself. He hadn’t done much media and his run during Season 5 was seen as something of a Cinderella story. He had few fans to speak of. Didn’t look like that was going to change anytime soon.
I’d grown so used to blocking out that reedy announcer’s voice that I had to blink to notice that Kwan was already standing in the ring. Every considerable pound of him. He wore a mask—a black one that covered the bottom half of his nose and all of his mouth. His armor was a deep and inky green, and he looked to have a new version of that black bladeshield he’d used last time. He didn’t pace, just stood there like a titanic statue of muscle and supplements, not that I could accuse him without being sued.
“And now … fighting out of the red corner … a man who needs no introduction …”
But a man who’s going to get one anyway.
“A man who followed up a first-round exit from his Season 4 debut with an undefeated stretch that earned him the Season 5 Championship and shows no signs of slowing down …”
My feet were itchy and my palms had gone from damp to dry. My heart had slowed and my vision had cleared and focused. My thoughts narrowed along with my attention.
“Introducing … PRINCE AKIO!”
A louder cheer than I’d been expecting. I didn’t even remember to spit at the intentional misread of my name. Akio Prince. Didn’t have to get very creative to turn that one around and use it as a moniker. But then, it hadn’t been my choice. It seemed fewer and fewer things in my life had come on the end of choice, lately. But then, choices were more akin to choosing which mountain to attempt to climb rather than which path.
Damn bastard always popped into my mind in the seconds before a fight. And he never seemed to offer advice regarding the contest at hand. Everything had been big picture to him, which is why he’d missed so many moments. But that wasn’t the story at hand.
I sighed and breathed it all in. I might as well enjoy it. After all, if the suits got their way—those cigar-toting fatsos in the President’s box—I’d be taking a dive tomorrow night. At least the debt would be paid.
Thoughts best left for tomorrow. Maybe Kwan would do me a favor and beat me tonight, fair and square. I didn’t think it entirely likely, but stranger things had happened.
“Right, then,” I said to myself, and stepped onto the walkway. “Time to play.”
You can find out more about the Sword Punk series, and Steven’s other work, on his website HERE.
SAVING SEOUL is available now from the following sites: