Missing the Point

‘What is it?’

The kid was holding a kind of fuzzy tube, big enough that he had to hold it in both hands. Well, Warren called him ‘kid,’ but he must be out of his teens by now. And he was wiry, muscled and taut. He was short though, a consequence of the food shortages he’d lived through his whole life. You could almost tell how old someone was by their height nowadays, the older ones, the ones who’d lived a while before the fall, were a damned sight taller.

‘I think I remember those,’ said Warren, searching his memory, ‘they were… they were a kind of machine. You spoke to it and it did what it was told. They were called Alex or Sally or… something.’

Warren frowned. He felt like he should be able to remember more than that, but it had been so long, and so difficult. It was like the important stuff had stayed with him, while the way things were had faded. It had been another world, and he had been so young.

‘So, what, it made stuff?’ the kid asked.

‘No, no, played music, I think.’

The kid frowned at it. He was called Akori, and he had been very young when the fall came. Young enough that he’d never been to a school, would never remember a working world.

A flash of anger sprang through Warren. He looked around at the house they’d found, huge and crumbling, tucked into the rolling hills. It was enormous, cream and gilt paint peeling everywhere inside, making the walls look strangely shaggy and unkempt. But here and there you could see glimpses of the opulence it used to be. The stately entrance hall, and the elegant, spiralling stairs. The anger grew, an old anger that Warren had almost forgotten, a furnace of unfettered rage.

‘I mean Jesus fucking Christ, kid, do you know what these fuckers did?’ Warren screamed, tearing the device from Akori’s shocked hands and flinging it at the decaying walls hard enough to leave a dent and send gouts of rotting paint tumbling into the air.

The kid was silent, shocked, unused to Warren ever making noise.

‘They fucking… they ate the world,’ said Warren, his teeth clenched. ‘They just took, and took, and took. And when they were told the world was dying they did everything they could, everything, to make sure nothing was done. They might have had to give something up, see? They had more than anyone could ever need in a thousand lifetimes and they would kill a man for even hinting that they could do without a sliver of it.’

Warren stood panting, his eyes burning with hate at everything around him. A chandelier was splayed on the floor in front of him, and he kicked at it.

‘Why didn’t anyone stop them?’ asked Akori, after a little while.

‘We fucking tried! We tried again, and again. People took to the streets, they screamed about it from the rooftops, by the end they were even blowing up bridges and killing people. Nothing fucking worked. You don’t understand the power of these people. The power of the rich. They had so much, so fucking much, that they could do anything.’

Warren saw the kid frown, not comprehending but clearly frightened by his display.

‘They told us,’ said Warren, ‘that it was foreigners’ fault. Or people with less than us. Or that we could fix it all if we just scrubbed out the trash we were throwing away so someone else could reuse it. They kept us distracted with arguments about who to trade with or who should be our neighbour. By the time the power went out they were starting to say it was just natural, that the bees were gone because it was just their time or some bullshit. Anything. They would make any effort, say anything, watch thousands die, millions, anything they could to make sure they didn’t have to do without even a fraction of what they had. It didn’t matter to them that they wouldn’t miss it, everything they saw was theirs and if it wasn’t theirs they didn’t give a shit about it. Fuck. We used to say they hated us, but that wasn’t true, we just didn’t mean a fucking thing to them.’

‘Well shit,’ said Akori, ‘no wonder this house is so smashed up, everyone came and got them in the end then?’

Warren looked confused for a moment, then realised what the kid meant. How could he explain it to him? How could you tell someone that a few pampered thieves had killed the world long before he had a chance to live in it? And the kid thought he was just talking about this house? That the specific people who lived here, in this building, were responsible for it all?

Warren threw his head back and laughed like he hadn’t laughed in years. He laughed until his stomach hurt and his eyes watered. He laughed until Akori gave up trying to understand, until Akori left and returned with a trickle of water and a couple of cats to eat.

‘Wind’s picking up,’ said Akori, turning the cats on a makeshift spit over a fire made from a rotting bedframe.

‘Yeah,’ said Warren, ‘but it won’t bring rain.’

‘Storm season isn’t for months, we’ll be back underground by then. What happened to them, in the end? asked Akori.

‘Who?’ said Warren.

‘The people. The people who ate the world.’

‘I dunno,’ said Warren, ‘there were a lot of them,but not as many as you’d think. I’m sure some of them suffered and others lived ‘til they were old and some might even be alive now. It doesn’t matter, really.  They never mattered, not as much as they thought they did. They had more than anyone could ever want or need. And now nobody will even remember their name.’

Ogre.

cellar door  I was just a kid. A teenager. And when you’re that age you really do think you can’t die. I think that’s the only reason I went in there, if I’m honest. I’m not particularly brave, really, or particularly stupid, I was just a kid. A kid with an audience.
  No, that’s not fair either, I can’t really suggest Ben put me up to it. He just pointed to the little bit of wall that was left, twitched like he always did, and suggested we investigate. It’s not like there’s a lot to do when you grow up in the middle of huge, rolling moors, so I agreed we should go and poke around. It’s sometimes really, really, boring when you’re a teenager and you don’t live in a city.
  The wall was low, overgrown with harsh bracken in the middle of one of the last remaining scraps of wilderness in this country. There was more of it than we had seen from a distance, stretching on beneath the brush of wide leaves until it reached a corner. We found the whole outline of the building before too long, it wasn’t big, but it had definitely been sturdy while it still stood. We were excited about it, but not nearly as excited as we were when we found the way down to the cellar.
  It stank, of course, the rotten stink of damp caves and slimy stone walls. Ben was looking nervous, his twitch getting worse, and it was nearing dusk, but I jogged towards the stone stairs and grinned at him. I was a teenager. Immortal.
  It’s hard to say exactly what happened next. I went down, but I don’t remember descending the steps. I remember the tacky feeling of the sticky wall on my fingers, I remember the first time I heard the groaning noise. I called up to Ben and he shouted back ‘you’re hardly past the entrance!’
  It was a fair point. And he was egging me on. I went deeper, squinting to see any further, taking out my phone to use its dim light. The ground was dryer deeper in to the cellar, dusty and uneven. There was a wall ahead of me and an empty doorway, wood long since rotten and gone. I called out to Ben again, but he didn’t answer, and when I turned around I could no longer see the way out.
  I should have panicked then. I should have screamed and ran. But I was young. I could not die.
  Instead I turned around and walked on. I stumbled a little, slid down a wall and onto my knee, knowing my trousers would be smeared with muck when I got out. I walked forward and my shin banged hard into something metal. I had to bite my bottom lip to stop myself crying out, didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Ben, and I brought my phone around to check I wasn’t too badly hurt.
  I wasn’t, but what I saw in front of my made my stomach drop and a cold sweat spring onto my skin. It was a black pot, heavy and at least half my height made with thick iron. In another time it would have been called a cauldron. Inside it, as I stood above it and looked down, old blackened bones stared back at me.
  I dismissed the mad voice at the back of my mind screaming that they were human. They could not have been, that was madness, but then I heard the low, rumbling laughter and couldn’t help but obey the urge to run. I took to my heels faster than I ever had before, and in the pitch darkness and my panic I ran face first into a wall.
  I sat up groaning, the taste of blood and cartilage warning me I needed to find my way out. My phone was dying and my signal non-existent so I began to slowly feel my way along the wall. I screamed for the first time when I reached out and felt another hand already there.
  It grabbed me, pulled me close, held tight. I could feel naked flesh on the back of my neck, dangling, lank hair brushing against my forehead, hot, stinking breath washing down my forehead.
  ‘Don’t scream again, or it’ll hear you,’ the man in the darkness said, ‘and then it’ll come and punish us.’
  I didn’t know what to say. The I was shining a light on his other hand, it was covered in festering sores and missing all its fingers. He stank of piss. I froze.
  ‘There’s no sun down here, did you know that? The sun is dead here. Dead. And I don’t know what day it is anymore. I don’t know what year. It’s all tangled up. It’s a century ago. It’s tomorrow. It’s last week. I can’t find the way out.’
  I was trying not to listen, waiting for my moment, hoping to break free, trying to figure out if calling to Ben was worth the risk. It wasn’t, but I didn’t know that then.
  ‘But it’s not so bad as all that. Really. When it comes it’ll just eat a little bit of you at a time. Not gobble you whole, I don’t know why people thought they would do that. It’s easier to keep food alive, the meat keeps better. It does get angry though. It gets angry fast.’
  I breathed through my mouth, trying not to smell the reek of his fingers. Then I heard the thudding footfalls growing closer in the dark.
  ‘Quick, quick! In the pot! It never looks in there!’
  The ragged man let me go, and I spun around, staring at his beard, his wild eyes, his yellow teeth, the stumps where his fingers should be. He twitched, just once, and in the deep gloom something huge shuffled toward me. It breathed like a horse, and it was dragging something heavy and hard behind it. It was the shape of a man but it couldn’t be a man, no man ever had to stoop to fit under such a high ceiling, no man could walk with a belly so wide, no man had fingers as long as my legs. I ran, losing all reason. I ran into the darkness, my hands out in front, hoping desperately that would be enough to make sure I didn’t smash my face into the walls again. My bladder emptied and I ignored it, even as the rumbling roar of the thing behind me shook my guts and made me stumble. I ran in madness, wailing like a child.
  I don’t know how I found my way out. Maybe it let me? Maybe I was just lucky? It doesn’t matter. By the time I found my way home, covered in mud and filth of my own making, my parents were sick with worry. I thought I had been gone for an hour but I had been gone for three days. All my friends had been called. The police had been called.
  I never did see Ben again, and I could never find that old ruin.  I still think about him sometimes, about his twitch, and how awful it must be to linger and to rot in a larder.  In the dark places.  Under the moors.

Kraken.

iceshelfvibr  Sublime. That’s the word the old Romantic poets used to use to describe the feeling of awe they felt when they stood before vast landscapes. It’s a good word, and we don’t use it properly any more.
  The first time I stepped out of the shelter alone and onto the ice shelf is the first time I felt it. The scale of everything, the sense that you are so small in such an enormous world, and yet still a part of it. It’s not a sense of insignificance as such, more a sense of understanding. Of belonging. Looking out on that unimaginably huge white emptiness, feeling the shock of cold around my eyes.
  Perhaps that feeling was so strong because the ice shelf was breaking, and I could see the colossal crack growing fractionally wider every day. I knew that the purity of that pristine place was ending, that I would be one of the last few to see it in person. It was infinitely sad, but I still felt blessed to witness it.
  Perhaps you think that’s a flippant attitude. Perhaps it is. You see, I never expected to have to work anywhere near the Arctic. I began my academic career as a geologist, and it’s fair to say there’s not a lot to interest someone who studies rocks in a place made entirely from ice. When I began to specialise I found myself interested in seismology, in all honesty probably because studying earthquakes is about as dramatic a field you can go to when you decide to specialise in rocks.
  You’re probably still wondering what the hell seismology has to do with the Arctic. The obvious answer, of course, is ‘nothing at all,’ so you can imagine my surprise when I picked up the phone one day and was asked if I would like to spend six months up here.
  My ex boyfriend had managed to forget ask my neighbour to feed the cat and accidentally lock it in the bathroom before we went on holiday so I was single and had no dependants. It was the perfect time to get away for a while, have a grand adventure. As luck would have it I was also just as curious as the rest of the research station’s staff as to what the hell could be causing quakes up there when they’d already determined it wasn’t just the shelf breaking.
  So up I came, to this freezing wasteland. Beautiful.
  And my work was weird. A few times per minute, regular as clockwork, there were tiny little quakes. Magnitude one, if you’re wondering. On the Moment Magnitude scale, incidentally, nobody uses the Richter scale any more. Then, now and then, much more infrequently, there were larger quakes. Anything between a four and a five. These could have just been the ice cracking, but there was something strange about the ice shelf. The way it was breaking apart was peculiar. And then John found the cavern.
  It was a huge gulf under the ice. It stretched away for miles in every direction. Even getting down there was enormously risky, but my colleagues were experts so they just about managed. I had to beg them to let me go down there too, begged Alice to take me. They let up eventually, I told them some guff about getting better readings if I set my equipment up down there, but the truth was that I was a little bit bored.
  It was a good thing too, if I hadn’t pushed I’d never have seen the wall of the cavern tumble down. It was amazing, like every experience I’d had up here, a mile and a half of ice sliding away to reveal the strange shape underneath. A wall of dark, desiccated flesh, stretching away in both directions. None of us knew what the hell to make of it.
  The next few days were a flurry of activity. They had to send away for a biologist and a paleontologist to try to figure out what we’d found. We started first to carefully clear away the ice, then to use sledgehammers, then explosives to reveal more and more of whatever we had found. As we worked my seismometer became more redundant, those regular quakes could be heard quite clearly as a distant, constant, drumming. Pete began to sing to it first, then the rest of us joined in, laughing at our own ridiculous behaviour as we imitated the sounds of whales.
  When the biologist arrived we had to kill him. What choice did we have? There was no way he could be allowed to study the thing in the ice. He would have sullied it, taken samples. Unacceptable.
  The digging was hard. The joy we felt as the ice shelf shifted and we heard the creature’s keening voice for the first time made it all worthwhile. We didn’t even wear gloves any more, our fingers were black and dead from frostbite but freeing it from its prison was more important than our little bodies so we smashed at the ice with our stumps and screamed and recognised the agony was ecstasy.
  More ice fell and I beamed with a happiness, a wonder, that I could never explain. An eye taller than a house swivelled in its socket to look at me, colossal and yellow, its pupil a chasm that could swallow me whole. It looked at me! I was part of it, its story, involved in the great span of its existence. Its beak has opened for me and soon I shall feed it with my body. Such an unending thing, with such lithe tendrils stretching to the end of the ice, breaking free. It is a King. A God. It will return to the oceans and reclaim the world. It tells us our place, and we are beneath it, we belong to it. Sublime.

Wraith.

void    Please don’t.  Please just turn off your screen.  Please.  You’ll thank me.

  You’re still here?  Then you have no one to blame but yourself.  Very well.

  I was born in the year of our lord 831, or so the brothers told me.  There were lots of children left at the doors to the monastery in those days, their parents too poor or their mother unwed, and I was one of them.  Do not think me pitiable, the abbot was a good man and we were well cared for.  I had a joyous childhood, and an education, and that’s more than can be said for most born in such inauspicious circumstances.

  In 851 the men came.  They were tall, and broad, and bearded, and they spoke with an accent I did not know.  I had not taken my vows despite reaching my twentieth year, and the abbot charged me with the safety of the children.  I had to swim as the monastery burned, and the strange men laughed and butchered the brothers.

  Are you still reading? Is there something wrong? Do you hate yourself?

  I had assumed they were men from the east, part of the vast army of pagans who had landed on our shores.  Men who worshiped ravens and hated Christ.  But I was wrong.  I stole into the woods and spied on them from the trees as they dragged Abbot Winson into their camp.  I saw as they beat him, that gentle man, and I saw them paint their faces with ash and woad and cheer.  As he withered I felt a chill, despite the warmth of the night.

  Then their witch man came, their chanting priest in robes of shadow and bone.  I froze, gripping the tree branch tight, feeling the rugged bark, listening to his song, and slipped.

  For a while there was darkness.  Not sleep, you understand, but a pitch black oblivion, a kind of essence of nothingness.  My mind was in that emptiness, but my body had gone I know not where.  I wish I knew how long I was stuck in the dark but it was impossible to tell, even time itself seemed to be empty of meaning.  I felt the rising panic begin to rush through me, and then I heard the song again.

  I did not like what I heard then, the words were distant and indistinct and sounded full of fury and spite, but it was something, so I willed myself toward that distant point and…

  Are you sure you should read on?  It only gets worse from here.

  An unfamiliar pair of eyes opened and through them I saw the witch man.  Muscles bunched in legs, blood flowed, breath drew, all in a body over which I had no control.  My mind was in someone else, someone full of strange memories and rage.  He went to the forest to empty his bladder and I struck, tearing at his thoughts and his memories until there was nothing left in that hollow shell but a tiny fraction of his screaming essence and me.

  I eloped with his body.  Straight into the horsemen of the King.  They rode me down as I stood.

  Even then I was kept from true death.  I heard the song again in the emptiness, but when I found my way back to the light the body I wore was a girl sitting by a hearth.  She was an innocent, and I could not bear to rend her thoughts.  I stayed in her, my memories and mind melding with hers as the years passed.  I grew old, married, felt the joy of raising children and taught them my song even as the savage’s last dregs begged for relief within me.  I almost forgot, almost, that I was anything other than her.

  You are persistent, aren’t you?  Nothing will dissuade you.  I like persistence.

  My deathbed was an unpleasant place, and my death was painful then.  They are all painful.  But I found myself in the emptiness once more, no longer quite the orphan boy raised by monks, or the peasant girl, or the woad painted savage.  I was angry.  Furious.  Back into the emptiness.

  But the song came again.  It always came again.  This time it had embellishments, a tune I did not recognise and a jaunty chorus, and I found my way into the body of a thief.  He was no longer a child, but he was full of delicious spite and carried with him a matchlock pistol.  I took my time with him, subsuming his mind, drinking his essence slowly.  It took years to seize control, and by the time he realised what was happening it was far too late.  I realised the silver lining that came with my condition, and spent my days living in reckless, indulgent abandon. As I stood in that rain soaked alley, knuckles bloodied from his mother’s delicate jaw, I knew my purpose.

  There was nothing left of my kindness after him, as he and the girl and the savage wept in the dark corners of my mind.  Nothing left of mercy, I drove away my families, took what I wished, grew inured to suffering, knowing that oblivion was a small price to pay.  I embraced the darkness, became the wraith I was meant to be.

  In London became a bishop and turned to running cheap whores in the back streets, bought and sold from the Orient.  In Paris I took the body of a well regarded noble, and I tortured peasantry for fun until the headsman came for me.  When I used the women of the camps for my pleasure and tossed them into the ovens I laughed at the thought I might be burning my unborn children.  I am jaded, vile, yes, and I embrace it, I will destroy the mind of my host and make the last speck of them watch from behind their eyes as I make them hated, scorned and vile.

  I have had so very long to dream of new cruelties, new abuses, new ways to make my victims twist their faces into that special kind of ugly that comes with sobbing tears.  Who do you love?  I will beat them, shatter every limb, take their hope, take their dignity, again, and again.  Think of the worst thing you could do, the thing every fibre of your being screams is wrong, that makes your soul hurt even to imagine and causes you shame to discover you are even able to picture.  I have done it.  I will do it again.

  Do you hate me yet?  You should.  I will not admit to the worst of my transgressions even here.  Not for shame, but because it pleases me to imagine you failing to grasp the scope of my indulgence.

  As the centuries passed I grew more adept at spreading my song, the ballad of my existence.  For a while a piece of music was enough to carry me again from my purgatory, jagged and harsh.  I spent time in taverns, and salons, and coffee shops, and wine bars, perfecting the art of possession.

  The music was not enough.  I needed a way to guarantee a gate back to the waking world, to the warm flesh humans take so readily for granted.  I tried to create an image, but it proved too difficult to describe myself completely in that form.

  Rage.  Power.  Death.

  So I wrote a story and placed it here, and now I see you from the dark place.  It is stronger than the song, my new gateway from oblivion.  Do you feel me yet?  I warned you.  I tried to tell you not to read.  You won’t even know I’m there until it’s far too late.  I am in the blotch you see when you close your eyes too tight, the strange black shape you are certain lurks in the dark room once you turn out the light.  I am the little urge to wickedness that you indulge, the headache that seems to last for days.

  It’s too late for you.  There’s no going back.  You’ve read too far and I am in you.  You cannot fight me, you cannot resist, you have no idea how, you will wither until you join all my victims in the endless cycle screaming for release in the back of my mind.  I will strip away your soul until oblivion fills you, then shatter your world until oblivion comes for me in turn.  You are my puppet, and your will is not your own.

  Give in.

Changeling.

trees shadow    I never forgot.  Never trusted him.  Never let my guard down.  And it didn’t matter.

  I was so small that I couldn’t see over the cot.  The trees loomed outside the nursery window, terrifying me on moonlit nights as the light shone through and sent their long shadows reaching along the hallway towards my bed.  He cried a lot, my brother, in the time he was with us, and his shouts cut through you in the way only babies do.  Sleep became a memory for my parents, and for me in that long summer before I started school.

  He must have been three months old, I think, though I only had four years behind me when it happened.  Old brown wallpaper stained almost black with age, a rococo print embossed, I liked to run my fingers along it.  I remember the bumps and welts, each repeat of the pattern as I walked down the hall towards him.  Most of the time, when I got up in the night and wandered, I would stop at my parent’s bedroom door but as I drew closer… as I drew closer I could smell something out of place.  Something wrong.  An animal scent, like a fox set, pungent and primal.  I pressed on, excited that a fox might be in the house, and my brother’s door was ajar and the moonlight shone through it.

  Maybe I should have stopped.  I didn’t though.  I let my fingers trace the outline of the pattern on the wallpaper and then, in that way children do, let my hand brush away and push gently at his bedroom door.

  Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.  Would he have left me alone?  Would I have been safe if I didn’t know?  It doesn’t matter now.  What I saw doomed me, and I had to live with that.

  The shape looming over his cot was almost human, so much so I thought it was Dad at first.  I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, breathing in the stench of the thing in front of me.  It was reaching down, its arms so impossibly thin a stiff wind looked like it might snap them in two.  It’s head was the wrong shape, too big for its slim frame, crowned with spiralling horns.  It turned to face the moonlight, showing me its black eyes, it’s lack of nose, it’s silver teeth that came to fierce points and dripped with fresh blood.  When it saw me it howled, a sound like my brother’s cries, and, hefting him over it’s shoulder, it leaped through the open window and fled into the woods.

  I was four years old.  I looked at the empty cot and ran to my room, hiding under the covers and closing my eyes tight.

  The next morning I woke to the sound of my mother screaming.  I ran to her, thinking she was hurt, trying to pretend the thing last night was a bad dream or a trick of the light.  It wasn’t working, but I belted down that hallway as fast as my short legs would carry me.  I reached her at around the same time as my Dad, his shirt was off and shaving foam was still dripping down his face.  She was looking into the cot, but I couldn’t see over the top.  I could still smell that fox smell.  I knew he was gone.

  Which is why I shook with fear when I heard a baby gurgling.  I almost didn’t dare look, but I put an arm around my mother and stood on tiptoes so I could see what she could see.

  I screamed as well.  There was a baby in there, naked and smiling, and covered in gore and fallen fur.  There was a trail of mud leading to the window, and dried blood crusting the cot.  I had no idea what I had seen the night before, but I knew that thing was not my brother.

  My parents fussed and cleaned him, and threw the cot away.  They moved him to their room after that, and he never spent the night crying again.  I would sneak into their bed when I could, telling myself I was not afraid, that I just wanted to keep them safe from the thing they thought was my brother.  He stared at me while he ate.  He laughed at me when I stubbed my toe.  He chuckled at the sight of fire.  Everything was wrong, but Mum and Dad never seemed to notice.

  All the way through school he haunted me.  Rumours swirled around, that he was the one who threw the science teacher out of the window, that he terrorised others into doing his work, that he was the one who forced himself on Jenny Edwards, that he was the one who stole all the cameras from the lab.  Nothing could ever be proven, even though the teachers watched him like a hawk.

  He was terrible at science, but at everything else he excelled.  He could write like a child three years his senior, he could paint like Picasso, play the flute like an angel.  Eventually I left school and home and he stayed, and the years passed by.  Dad died, car crash, and Mum vanished one night out of the blue only to be found face down in a river some days later.  At her funeral he kept looking at me, grinning.  Everyone else thought it was nervousness, but I knew why he smiled in the dark.

  For years I kept documents.  I wrote down everything, took pictures, preserved the memory of the time that thing replaced my brother.  I had boxes and boxes of suspicions and certainties, but never any proof.  The thing that lurked in my life with my brother’s face was far too sly.

  And now it doesn’t matter.  I am stuck here in my bedroom, and the long shadows of trees are creeping through my window even though I live in the heart of a city.  I can hear distant flute music, and I have found a length of brake cable and my mother’s wedding ring beneath my bed.  He is coming for me.  I never forgot, never trusted him, never let my guard down, and it didn’t matter.  I smell the scent of foxes.  Primal.  Final.

Meet me by the Gallows

I realise I haven’t updated this blog for a while, it’s been patchy at best and I apologise if you were holding your breath in anticipation for my next rant/story/random bit of musing.  I’ve been working on longer form literature for a while and it’s probably going to be a while longer so I feel it’s only fair to expose the internet to the introduction to Meet Me By The Gallows, my current and probably next-to-remain-unpublished-project:

Telfur and Andra heard them first. They had snuck in to the woods far from listening ears when they heard the heavy footfalls and the clatter of armour in the distance. The Eyeless Men and their Prophetess were returned. Flocks of birds spiraled in to the air and the smell of charcoal wafted in front of them as they marched through the relentless heat of the day.

Andra gently pushed Telfur off her as the marching sounds died away and they both lay very still and a little sore on the ground under the forest canopy. Neither of them dared to risk speaking so Telfur held up a fist and drew a semicircle around it with his other hand; ‘I shall go around the target’ in the silent language of the hunt. Andra nodded and indicated she would do the same.

Telfur turned away and began to run as quietly as he could manage. It was a risky task, moving at this speed through untended woodland, but there was nothing for it; the Eyeless Men were coming and their Prophetess had promised to take all the men and burn the women and children unless she received her demanded tribute.

What else could they have done? She asked too much, more than any one could expect to give. They had appealed to the Count for help but he had simply told them to pay, they had turned to the Rothign tribe at the edge of the wastes but they were busy fighting the Eyeless Men already and could spare nothing, they had even sent messengers to the Grand Duke of Nisalia and the Order of the Gilded Rose but they had heard nothing from anyone. They were, after all, a tiny village on the very edge of the civilised world.

Telfur burst out of the treeline a hundred yards from the village. He could see the smoke rising from the smithy and the filthy slaughter pen with its little shrine to the Harvest God. He skidded slightly on a cow pat as he hurtled on, making his way to the well and grabbing the warning bell dangling over it.

The ringing bell and the bellowing started a bustle of activity, they had long been expecting this. Most of the women and children flowed in to the temple, the rest took hold of bows and slings and took up positions by the stout wooden doors shouting prayers and blowing kisses to the mighty, horned statue of the Builder God inside. The men ran to gather other weapons, occasional swords but mostly hammers and farming tools of a dozen different ugly shapes and sizes. By Telfur’s count there were around forty of them, which could be enough if luck was on their side. His throat hurt and his bell arm ached from exertion but they almost had an organised force now and his heart dared to swell with hope.

The Eyeless Men could be seen clearly now, rounding a bend in the forest track and marching in perfect step. From this distance they looked almost normal, like big and well fed armoured warriors, but Telfur knew better. They all knew better.

‘Where’s the bitch?’

He realised he had been staring at them for some time and sighed with relief when he heard Andra’s voice behind him. He turned to look at her, there was a fresh scratch on her forehead from some errant branch and her clothes had taken a battering from her run through the forest but she looked well. She was the best archer in the village and very much in charge of their fighting women. Telfur allowed himself a smile at just how much their odds were improved by her presence.

‘Where’s the bitch? Telfur? She’s always with them, where is she?’

Telfur shrugged, he was scanning the men in the distance again, trying to get the measure of them. He wasn’t that worried about the Prophetess herself, one imperious bitch wasn’t going to make much difference here and the Eyeless Men were almost in range of their arrows. He heard Andra give the orders to knock and draw, heard the bow strings creak and tighten. Everyone was silent save for the occasional whimper of fear, most had never fought in real combat before and this was going to be a damned close run thing. A real damned close run thing.

They were close enough to see properly now, only twenty of them but he could see the scorched hollows where their eyes should be, their imposing size and the molten lips of pinched flesh visible through the joints of their bronze armour. He could hear them clattering and see them shimmer through the heat haze of the midday sun. He shrank back, they all did, as a sudden, unaccountable terror washed over them all.

‘Loose!’

He never found out who shouted the order but he was glad they did, a half dozen arrows and twice that many sling stones hurtled overhead and towards the approaching men. He heard the distant thuds of the missiles hitting home but he never saw them reach their targets, a pitch black cloud of smoke had come from nowhere and was now billowing ahead and around them and obscuring his view. Everything it touched blackened and smouldered and small fires were breaking out on the thatched roofs. Dismay spread through the ranks; Hammerhand the Blacksmith grabbed the full pail next to the well and ran forwads to try to save his home, hesitating for a moment before diving in to the thickest part of the smoke. A cheer began for him but cut short as his muffled screams drifted out. Then they saw him, for a moment, trying to run back towards them before collapsing and once more being swallowed by the advancing cloud. The air stank of sulphur and charcoal.

The smoke ceased its advance a few feet from the forward ranks and some of the archers loosed again with no way to tell if they were hitting home. A silence, total quiet, settled over the assembled village as they all strove desperately to hear anything at all.

‘Surrender now and none will suffer.’

It was a confident voice, a voice used to authority and obedience, and it was strangely terrifying. There was a lilting menace to it which was made all the worse by the sound of several men dropping their weapons. Telfur turned and tried to see where it was coming from and discovered with dismay that it was somehow coming from the temple doors, in amongst the archers. She wore a pristine white robe with a shawl the colour of fire and a delicate white tiara in her pure white hair. Her skin was perfect, unblemished and unearthly pale save for the old, healed burn marks around her lips. When her mouth opened, and that voice came out, gentle coils of black smoke drifted out of it.

‘We are among you. There is no hope. No rescue is coming. You should have given what I asked and now I have to take it.’

It had been too much, no village can do without a quarter of its men. The rest would have starved, harvests failed, thought Telfur, but he had not the bravery to open his mouth and say it.

He heard a noise behind him.

The screaming and the panic started instantly as the Eyeless Men burst from the cloud and fell upon them. They fought with great wooden clubs and left their swords in their scabbards and their shields on their backs. Blood arced over the crowd and the meaty sounds of violence added to the cacophony of panic. Telfur drew in a breath to shout for order but it died in his throat as he realised how hopeless it all was. The village of Helmara was well and truly burning and his neighbours were dying around him. He saw Old Haas try to fight back, shoving a pike straight in to the gut of his enemy but a second simply stepped in and smashed him over the head. Haas dropped to the ground and a lump of his skull followed a moment later.

Telfur pushed his way through the panic, all thought flushed from his mind save the desperate urge to reach Andra and get away from the eyeless men. It was hard to push towards her, the Prophetess, but he forced himself to shove his way through the struggling mass. It had only started seconds ago and all sense had fled and broken down, there was only flight now, but to where?

Telfur saw her through the thinning smoke, shoving her way away from the temple and off to the east and the nearest edge of the treeline. The temple was on fire and the screaming began inside it but Telfur knew he could do nothing. Better to live. Better to live and avenge them.

There she was again! Telfur ducked under a wild blow and continued running while the noise of the screaming grew around him. He shoved, pushed, squeezed through the crush until he found himself dangerously close to one of the bronze giants bellowing their hatred in to the boiling day. It was busy keeping the villagers penned in and beating them in to submission. Telfur ducked, started crawling through the blood and mud and desperately hoping that nobody fell on him. Ahead were a pair of bronze greaves, splattered with filth and planted firmly apart, but Telfur was slim.

It was a close thing but he managed to get out, and up, and began to run. All around him buildings burned and smoke billowed out but he knew where he was going and where the fences were built. He vaulted one, then another, then the tree line was in front of him and the shrieking was behind him and he could see Andra watching him from under the forest canopy. There was a clattering behind him, someone in armour was coming his way but if he made it to the forest he stood a chance, he and Andra together stood a chance.

Agony shot up his leg.

He looked down to see an arrow sticking through his thigh and stumbled on for a couple of steps before collapsing. He looked up at Andra, saw her lower her bow.

‘I’m sorry Telfur, I need you to slow them down.’

Confusion and a wash of exhaustion rushed through him. He said the only thing that he could think of to say.

‘I thou… but I love you…’

‘Really? Gods above, I don’t love you. I am sorry though.’

Telfur saw her hesitate for a moment, biting her lip, then she turned and ran in to the darkness under the trees. She didn’t even look back.

The All Conquering Void.

Picture credited to http://heartwanderings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/stepping-into-void.htmlThey cheered when the cathedral finally collapsed. It had been teetering on the edge of the void for a while, towers wobbling in the billowing gales until it fell with a distant roar and a gout of dust.
They ran from the city when the fires had started to spread. A void, a black hole in to absolute nothingness a hundred feet wide and paper thin, had opened somewhere and sliced through a gas line. Even as the shadows climbed out of it the fireball reached to the sky. The shadows, those indistinct things of pure darkness, had torn apart the fire crews as they screeched to a halt nearby. The world was ending. Everything was ending.
They stopped on a hillside a few miles south of where they started, stopping only to loot a few dozen crates of beer on their way. They knew it was the end now, the absolute end, they had known since they saw a vast chunk of the moon slice off and slowly tumble away.
It had been brewing for months, slowly growing worse. First a huge, pitch black hole opened into nothing and floated above a farmer’s field for days on end. Scientists and religious leaders scrambled to explain it, governments hinted that they knew more and said nothing. Then, one night with no warning, the shadows had crawled out. Each of them was exactly the same, the silhouette of a short, slim woman, and each of them was equally lethal. Nothing worked, nothing stopped them or even slowed them down and they swiftly butchered anything that got in their way. Then a second gap to the void opened half a world away. Then a third. Before long nowhere was safe.
While broadcasting continued the world learned that Delhi had vanished. That the Rio Grande flowed into the emptiness. That the Mars rover had sent back images of a void hovering over Olympus Mons. Shadows were rampaging across the red planet, there was nowhere left to run.
So Graham and Dave had fled, knowing it would only buy them a little time, and they had resolved to get drunk on a hillside and watch the city burn. Where their house had been was a massive black spot, an unnatural gap it hurt to look upon. Graham hurled another empty beer can on to the steadily growing pile.
‘Well… fuck’ Graham said, with a wan smile, ‘I suppose that’s Michelle and Brian gone as well.’
Dave nodded, thoughtfully, ‘yeah. Seems likely. I think Brian owed me a tenner.’
They were long past the point of terror. There didn’t seem to be any point in being afraid when death was certain. They didn’t even have the energy to be angry about it any more. They weren’t alone either, the riots had long since burned themselves out. Humanity had accepted its fate, at least they were going out with a bang.
Graham had been toying with something for a good while, trying to say it but having difficulty finding the words. Dave no longer cared whether he spat it out or not. ‘You know, man, I, er…. I slept with your brother. Feel like I should tell you.’
‘Huh,’ Dave stared out at the city, taking long, leisurely sips of his beer, ‘didn’t even know he was gay.’
‘Oh, he’s not. At least, I don’t think he is. It was just a, you know, a thing.’
‘Fair enough. Holy shit, is that the shopping mall going now?’
‘Ha! Yeah, yeah I think it is. Bollocks. Guess I’ll never get my free coffee.’
Graham stood up, stretching his legs and reaching in to his pocket. He pulled out a mass of loyalty cards and cash, house keys and receipts, and let the wind carry it away. ‘Another beer?’ he asked, reaching for one himself. ‘Sure, why not?’
They sat and watched the city for a while, letting the sounds of sirens and screams wash over them. Graham drained the dregs of his beer and reached for another, he realised then that there was someone else with them.
She looked strange. Unwell. She was short and slim, her hair was greasy and unkempt and she was wearing nothing but an old sheet she had clearly stolen from somewhere. Across her pale skin shimmered chaotic patterns of darkness, looking for all the world like the void was a part of her. She looked wistful and distracted but she was paying attention enough to motion for a beer. Graham handed her one without a word.
‘It’s my fault, you know.’
Dave jumped at the sound of her voice, he turned and looked at her. Graham hadn’t stopped. She was staring past them, gazing at the city and at the past.
‘I died. I was run over or something, I’m not sure what happened exactly I was just crossing the road and… nothing. I didn’t want to die.
I was there in the darkness and I could see a light shining in the distance. It was beautiful, it just lit up my soul. I was pulled towards it and I could hear the beating of wings and as I reached out I could feel something like… something like perfection. Like bliss.
But I… I didn’t want to die. I don’t want bliss, I wanted something better. Maybe that’s greedy. I turned my back and scrambled back the way I came. I dug and gnawed and crawled my way back and tore a… I tore a hole…I…’
She paused, took a huge gulp of beer, shaking her head.
‘I was the first one to do that. I must have been. That’s why it’s so desperate to find me. The nothingness, I mean. That’s why those things come out in my shape, it’s the only shape it remembers. The one that got away.’
Silence reigned. Interrupted only by the rushing rumble of distant fires. It was Graham who spoke first, laughing.
‘Well, shit. I wouldn’t want to die either.’
Dave nodded his head. He laid back, made himself comfortable, and closed his eyes with a smile.