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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They 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.
His name is Daniel. He is our saviour, our father and our friend. He is very old and, now, very sick, but he still leads us while he draws breath.
A lifetime ago he told me about the time before the fall, when there were millions of people in every city and electronic lights made night indistinguishable from day. He told me about police and money, about cars and aeroplanes. He told me about decay, and decadence, and debauchery.
It must have been horrible, when the fall came. I try to imagine it sometimes, gutters running red with bloody vomit and mounds of corpses dragged outside the cities. Always death floated through the air, sneaking in through the nostrils and the mouth, smeared invisibly on door handles and bursting blood vessels under the eyes. It still lingers in some places, the Sleepless Death, but Daniel has kept us safe in his wisdom and might.
When I was very young my mother had been his consort, he said. She was one of many, accepted in to his service and kept on his farm. He had children too, dozens and more, brought up to know the light of his divinity.
I only remember her in fractions of memory. Instants, really, and I cannot know how close to reality they are. I remember her laughing, one day, and Daniel laughing with her. He has not laughed in a very long time. I remember her angry with me because I was hungry before bed and she could not stomach my whining any longer, I remember Daniel calming her. When I look at him now I see a different man, I see the loss of his consorts etched in the lines of his face, the weight of grief and the scars of revelation.
She was only the first of Daniel’s wives. After her passing came Angela and Sarah, then Ellie and Christine, each one gifted herself in return for the safety of her children. I can remember when the fields rang out with the sound of children at play, dozens of us, then near a hundred as the orphans flooded in, even as Daniel grew more solemn. I know now, I know that he was growing closer to God.
His first revelation was the hardest. It was born in blood and fire. He had agreed to take in some stragglers, fallen men before he really knew how far the world had fallen. They were kind enough for a little while. The ramparts around the farm still bear the tool marks of our betrayers as they were nursed back to health. It wasn’t for months that they acted, trying to steal his wives. Beautiful Angela, stoic Ellie and Sarah all killed for spite and jealousy. They are saints now.
We fought back, a horde of fresh faced children against the ragged fallen ones. Four of them died quickly, two of them were left. Daniel slept and nursed his wounds and his grief and screamed fevered visions into the night. When he emerged on the ninth day he had… changed. His skin had grown waxy and pale, his sweat glistened in the morning air and his left arm and leg moved with a pained stiffness. The socket of his left eye seeped a grey fluid while his right blazed with understanding. He gathered us together and began to speak and we were breathless with fascination. His hair was white now, streaked with the lustrous red it had been. He told us about the voice that talked in his long sleep, about the joyful news that he had spoken with glorious angels. Michael had come to him with his murdered wives, he said, and told him of his mission; a gospel of hope and protection against the ravages of the fallen world. He was here to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, and we were to be his army. All the while his eye socket twitched, his crippled half strained to move. He was half man, half martyr.
All of us listened in awe, but all of us were sceptical. How could we not be? He had been placed in shock and unfathomable pain. The two prisoners were the objects of our vengeance, castrated and nailed to the palisade as a warning to the rest of the fallen.
The years went by and every week we would gather for fresh sermons in the barn. At first we went along because it was enjoyable, a break from the labour of reinforcement and farming, but as time went by we went to hear the words. He gave us hope, meaning and purpose, he gave us a path to walk in to the future.
He would retreat sometimes, into the house with the women and girls he took for his wives. Sometimes he would see things in his sleep and preach to us from his dreams. Sometimes he would declare new laws and codes. Once or twice he emerged from his den and declare that a pair of his children should marry. All the while new people came, they would suffer the fate of all fallen, save for any children young enough to remain uncorrupted by the outside world.
I remember the day, years ago, that he decreed we were to expand our land. Some of the fallen live under a crumbling pylon on good earth with good cattle far too close for comfort. We went out during the day, all of us armed to the teeth. I carried my pitchfork and led ten eager lads against the abominations but Daniel? Daniel led us all.
Even then he was frail, walking on good days but stumbling and slow so we had built him a platform on which to sit. He slumped in the winged throne above us, lolling and wobbling with every step, gazing across the corn fields with eye and socket and raising emaciated arms to direct us. I can still hear the drums beating when I sleep, still see the sun blazing behind his perfect white hair. The sores on his pallid skin weeping for our sins.
He sits in his throne now, very still. Around him petitioners and guards are gathering. He is very still, very quiet. He has been thinking for some hours now, gazing into the realm of God with his seeping socket, caressing the faces of the saints with his withered hand, walking the sunlit fields of the Lord with his crippled leg. Someday he will join them and we will carry on his work, we will make the world his kingdom. Not today though, today we will bask in the glory of our God.
I close my eyes and I can still see the empty plain I used to play on as a boy. It used to go on forever, surrounded on all sides by the intemperate sea. I used to race across it with my friends, playing all sorts of games in the eternal summer. I did little of value, my life was simple then.
When I was four years old the revolution broke out. I remember the noise of the mob shouting at the temple gates and throwing stones at the last of the tyrants. I remember Gaius, my father’s Latin slave, taking me home. I think my last name was different then, we tend not to talk about the time before the Demos Kratia.
I raced Cleisthenes along the whole length of the plain once, shouting and whooping in wild abandon as Gaius tried to keep up. It was a hot day and the sea was calm, the statues on the Acropolis gleamed in the light. I reached the shore with miles of space between me and the others, looked into the waves and saw the face of Poseidon looking back. Just for a moment. I like to think he smiled. There was a little shrine of his there in those days, long since reclaimed by the sea.
I hear constant clattering and shouting, someone pushes me back in to line. I do not want to open my eyes. Not yet.
Cleisthenes caught up with me after a while. We stood in peace, looking at the infinite ocean in front of us, drinking in the sight. We spent the afternoon playing and lying on the beach, eating the olives Gaius brought with him. A ship sailed past, a huge gold figurehead on its prow. We had no words to describe our joy at witnessing such a marvel. To this day I still wonder who was on board, who was given such extravagance, it must have been the king of some barbarian land.
We reached home a few hours after that, running back all the way. I could not wait to tell my father of the ship and its beauty, to describe for him the painted sails and the massive size of it. He listened with a smile and told me he could understand my joy but that I should not revel in such things. He told me honour lay in simplicity, that easy living weakens a man. He told me about the food Heracles ate, the vile stew the Spartiates still wolf down to this day. I can hear orders shouted. I miss my father.
I cannot put it off any longer, I must open my eyes.
There are ten thousand of us in tight formation facing across the plain I played on when I was young. My armour is hot, the helmet has never fit me properly, and my spear is heavy in my hand. Not as heavy as my shield, of course, hefted in front of me to form an unbroken wall with my comrades. I am in the front line. The helmet presses awkwardly against my nose, I concentrate on it to drown out my terror.
Across the plain rise pillars of white smoke. It is dawn and the enemy have seen our manoeuvres, they have doused their watch fires and began to arm themselves. There is a flurry of activity in front of me.
I wonder; are they feeling this same terror? Did they hear their masters tell them, in their Persian tongue, to arm themselves and begin to quake? They are an army of the king of the east. They outnumber us, though by how much I cannot tell. I fancy I can see their ships pulled up in the shore. They are here to kill us or enslave us.
Last week I was on my farm, supervising my slaves feeding the goats and tending the olive groves. My land is poor but it is well worked, it is enough for me to afford to maintain my armour and my household. I want to be back there, I want to be lying in my bed with my wife and drinking my wine while the goats bleet about outside and the slaves gossip when they think I cannot hear them. I want to hear the familiar sounds, the sounds of home, not orders bellowed and repeated. Zeus, grant me courage.
Someone shouts and the army begins to move. I feel my battle cloak waving behind me and taste the dust thrown up by a thousand marching feet. It is a strange sensation, marching in a phalanx, you are part of a construct, a brick in a moving wall. It is noisy with clanking bronze as plates clatter off each other, the shriek of iron spear resting in the kink where shields overlap is constant. We are marching towards an unbeatable foe.
Some card begins to shout ‘always be the bravest, always be the best.’ It is the motto of the Myrmidons, the companions of mighty Achilles. We are Athenians, our patron goddess is wise and powerful but she is not the only one we have sacrificed for. We prayed to dreaded Aries to spare us from the horrors of war, but the enemy still came. We prayed to Poseidon to smash their ships to flinders, but the enemy still came. We sought the council of the oracle and payed tribute to hear the words of Apollo, but they were vague and complex and the enemy still came. Finally, in our desperation, we prayed to Zeus and Athena and Pan and Heracles and any god that might listen to spare us from the fate of so many other cities the barbarians have razed. The sounds of dying cattle mingled with the chants of the priestesses and the sizzling of burning incense, we had a hearty meal that night, but the enemy still came.
The line is wavering on the uneven ground. A phalanx must be rigid all the way along or the whole thing can collapse. This is bad, this is brewing catastrophe. They have wrecked cities already, cleared whole islands of innocent Greeks and looted our temples. They are an empire that stretches to the very end of the world and we are only a city. They are going to destroy us all.
The line is not a line any more. We are two thousand five hundred men across and four deep, thin for a phalanx, and the morning sun is heating up our armour. I can see three of the strategos, the generals from here; there marches Miltiades, stern and decisive, shouting at the men to get back in line. There marches Themistocles, cunning and resourceful, singing a hymn to Poseidon. There marches Callimachus, elected war archon, Polemarch, supreme commander, the very best of all of us. I wonder if the Persians see their generals too? If Datis and Artaphernes are busy shouting them into order while we advance?
I have seen a phalanx advance upon me once before, long ago. It was a squalid squabble over a scrap of land and I was full of thoughts of glory and adventure. War was pleasant to me then, I had not yet experienced it. When a phalanx comes you cannot see spears, levelled as they are to face you. You cannot see men, nor helmets nor marching sandals; all you see is a line of shields painted with the leering face of a hideous gorgon. Then the phalanxes crash together and the shoving begins, swearing and thrusting iron points, your hand begins to hurt from the repeated impact of spear tip on shield. Judder. Crash. Judder again. Scream oaths and curses. One side or another will run, whoever does not will pursue and cut them down. It is a terrible thing, to be slaughtered in panic.
The men who had fallen behind are now running to catch up, the line is reforming but it is slow. A sling stone rolls to a halt in front of me, we will be in range of them soon. To my left is a Plataean I do not know. I had forgotten that Plataea sent men to help us. They are a small city with little to their name but they have sent aid and are willing to shed their own blood to help us in this impossible fight. There are a few hundred of them here, far from their home. They have earned our eternal friendship.
I voted for Callimachus as war archon and I cannot remember why and there is not time to think now; we are nearing the enemy. stones are clattering off metal. It is a sound like no other. We are being shot at.
A fine spray of blood comes from the man to my right. He has been hit in the face by a sling stone. He is alive, and he will still fight, but he has lost most of his teeth. He is a fearsome sight now, sweat mingles with blood.
Another stone bounces off my shield and I realise something extraordinary; we are speeding up. A phalanx does not run, yet we are running. I hear Miltiades shouting the order to slow down but his voice is quickly lost in the din of clattering armour. Themistocles is running in grim silence, hefting his spear. Callimachus is shouting a battle cry, though I cannot make out the words.
I can see the Persians in the distance and my helmet hurts my nose because it does not fit and my shield is heavy and my cloak sits uncomfortably over my armour and my spear weighs too much and keeps me off balance and I cannot stop running. Their ships are pulled up on the shore and I miss my father and Themistocles is smiling and there was once a shrine to Poseidon near here and I can see the Persians getting closer. The air is full of dust and stones and the watch fires of the Persians are sending up white smoke and ten thousand men are running in full armour into the embrace of certain death.
In a moment of peace, before Aries is unleashed, I feel the sun on my face.
I can hear them now, babbling in their barbarian tongue and standing on our land. I hate them. I have to hate them. If I do not hate them then I will see that they are just men and I will not be able to kill them. I must hate them completely to survive this, so I do.
Callimachus began a battle chant and the nearest men took it up but now, distant from him, it is simply a bloodthirsty scream. We are issuing a war cry like savages from the west. It is full of terror and rage. The men who had fallen behind have caught up, the men at the front have formed up and the miracle happens.
I am a step away from the Persian line. I have run for a mile in my armour. Stretching away, as far as I can see in both directions, is a perfect wall of shields. Somehow, by some divine quirk, we have formed a perfect phalanx at the moment of decision. My mind pauses. My spear is comfortable in my hand. For now I am Achilles.
We hit them like an avalanche. A sea of bronze and fury. I do not recall even slowing down as I hit their lines. They fall before me, before all of us, like long grass before the sickle. This phalanx is a perfect machine, a corpse factory. Unstoppable.
The Persians wear tunics and trousers. Their soldiers carry long knives, slings and bows. They have no cavalry. They have nothing. Their bodies are small and malnourished. Our bodies are taut and well maintained. We fight for our vote. They fight for their king.
I stab. I stab. I stab. Men scream. Blood flows. My spear arm tires from constant murder. My cloak becomes tangled in the gear of a Persian corpse behind me so I cut it from my shoulders. A lucky knife swing dents my helmet. I am still bellowing, still advancing, still killing.
And suddenly the enemy is not ahead of me any more. They are brave to have held out for as long as they did. Ten thousand Greeks are whooping with joy and running forward to cut down the retreating Persians. They are fleeing to their boats and I am drenched in blood.
Then we are at the boats and capturing four of them. Callimachus is clambering up the side of a ship when one of the Persians hacks off his hand in one fell swoop and he falls down dead trailing his blood behind him in the morning air. Behind me the ground is made of men. It twitches and writhes. It is Hades, it is awful to look upon. Phillipedes is picking his way through the corpses to take word of the battle back to the city, his promise of help from Pan came true.
Miltiades is shouting again but nobody is listening. Already some have stripped off their armour and are wading in to the sea to mock the retreating ships. They do not see what Miltiades sees. They do not see what I see.
The Persian ships are sailing to the city and all of its defenders are leagues away.
The message gets through. It takes too much precious time but everyone is gathered together and readied for the return to the city. Athens is twenty six miles away and we have our war gear on and we have fought a battle and won against impossible odds and the day is hot and the enemy have ships. We are going to race them to our homes.
We begin. There are ten thousand of us. We are running over the corpses of our victims. We are running over the few of our comrades who fell today. We are running against hope, against the fast ships of the Persian fleet. My feet hurt and there is blood crusting on my eyelid. My helmet is dented but it is easier to wear it than to carry it while I run. I am near Themistocles and he is still chanting his prayer to Poseidon. He is as touched as they all say.
I utter a prayer to Hermes, we have to run so far. There are ten thousand of us running, the earth shakes at our footfall. My spear tip is notched, I must replace it. My wife and children are in the city. I am running. There are ten thousand of us.
Hours. Hours upon hours upon hours. We run over the bodies of the slain. Over discarded water bottles from the march towards the Persians. We run over spent sling stones shot out from their ragged line. We march over the uneven ground that slowly shook the phalanx apart. We are going backwards in time, to before the battle on the plain of Marathon. We are running to beat the ships of the Persians to our dock. If they reach the city and there are no defenders they could very well keep us out. If we reach the city before they do it will be impregnable. My thighs are burning with the effort.
I see the walls in the distance. They are gleaming with reflected sunlight.
I am tired and my feet hurt. My knee too, and when I look down I am surprised to see it bleeding. There is a long cut down my shin, I may never discover its source. It stings, badly.
We are ahead of the ships! We cannot stop, we cannot slow down, and we are so very exhausted. The ships had to sail around the peninsula and we could take the direct route but, even so, this is going to be close. This is going to be very close. Did we really just beat a Persian army? My vision wavers. It is so hot. We have run so far.
I can see the walls now. They tower over me. The Acropolis rises off in the distance. This is our land. This is where our Gods live.
I am through the city gate and the sound of ten thousand soldiers grows louder still now it can echo off the walls. I am more sweat than man now, the padding of my armour sticks to me uncomfortably. I consider heading home briefly to hide my valuables in case the Persians do break in somehow. I shake that thought off, I was not the only one to consider it. I can barely stand. I have run twenty six miles in my armour.
I am by the harbour and so are all my comrades. The Persian ships are changing course. They are going to head for home. We are jeering and cheering. I am thinking about the men I killed. Three, at least, I am certain. It is just now lunch time and we have done the impossible. We will be remembered forever for this. We butchered thousands, we have lost so few.
The city is safe. We have won and the city is safe. We are going to live. Forever.
It is hard to estimate the significance of the Battle of Marathon. It is barely mentioned in contemporary Persian records and the expedition of the Persian army was a success. But, and it’s an important but, the Greeks had begun to get the impression that the Persians were utterly unbeatable. Marathon itself was a crushing, overwhelming and total victory for Athens (and Plataea), estimates of the Persian body count vary between 4,000 and 64,000 but perhaps only 192 Athenians perished (including Callimachus, their elected General). There were at least 25,000 Persians to the 10,000 Athenians, though their equipment was rudimentary at best. All of the Greek dead are depicted on the Parthenon, effectively built as a war memorial for the conflict. Ancient warfare didn’t work like that, it just didn’t, more Athenians and Plataeans should have perished, that fact that they did not is ridiculous and extraordinary.
I really must protest and urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider this farcical expedition. Can you imagine the scandal if this gets out? Aside from the unseemly spectacle of a respected academic secluding himself with a pair of young women the nature of your research is unchristian and ridiculous. If you won’t cease this preposterous line of enquiry for your own sake would you at least consider the harm you could do to the university? Your little diversion could taint the research of everyone working within these walls.
You are my friend and I am immensely fond of you, I beg you not to throw your reputation away in pursuit of some absurd spiritualist fantasy. They’re all charlatans, George, you must know this in your heart of hearts.
I am disappointed in you, dear boy! For all your bluster you can be something of an old woman sometimes. You can be assured that I have taken every precaution to “cover my tracks” so to speak, telling nobody but you and Mister Sabilline (who was generous enough to give both the necessary funds and his full backing for this expedition). Besides, the girls’ father is here and I have engaged a room in a hostelry in the village rather than staying in the house with the others. I have told Miss Raycroft, my cleaner, that I am on holiday and she is kindly forwarding my mail to the nearest post office. You are too late, I’m afraid, we arrived yesterday evening.
You should see this place, John, it is a rare and rugged thing of beauty. Ashgrove house is enormous and overgrown, a Georgian pile set against one of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen. Huge and jagged rocks thrust towards the sky, the hills seem to roll like the sea and wild horses gallop hither and thither in the distance. I would holiday here, given the chance, and it saddens me that I have no time to walk amongst the bracken. The house itself sits atop an old hill fort, it rises out of the landscape like a beacon of the old order, like it wears its bloody history with pride.
I think I can do some good here John, honestly. Mister Sabilline believes these girls to be the real thing; true Mediums. They are slight and fey to look upon, almost as if they are half way in to the spirit world already. Tomorrow I shall explore inside the manor. Imagine it, John, contact with the other side, imagine death itself become a mere inconvenience!
I see. Well if it is too late to dissuade you I may as well help you, if only so I can keep this folly a secret from the wider world. You do know that Mister Sabilline is becoming a bit of a laughing stock? No matter; I expect a full account of your time up there, I will need to stop you getting carried away with this nonsense.
So then I suppose you had better give me some details. I am unfamiliar with Ashgrove house and your hint at a bloody history has somewhat piqued my macabre interest. These girls, also, what makes them such an exception to the usual parade of fantasists and thieves who claim to converse with the dead?
I do not believe your research will bear fruit and, to be perfectly honest, I hope that I am right. Death should be the end George, a world without death would be a terrible place.
I have had an astonishing day and I simply must tell all, though I shall try to answer your questions while I marshal my thoughts.
The house itself was the property of the Duchy of Norfolk until the last Duke was arrested in all that unpleasantness twenty years ago. There has been a hill fort, a castle and a mansion here since time immemorial and many of its masters, the ones we know of at any rate, were sadistic in the extreme. I am loath to repeat some of the more salacious and unseemly tales about this location but I shall say that it has served the purpose of a prison and place of particularly violent execution for the majority of its recorded history. If there is a place where spirits are likely to linger it is here.
The girls are a sweet pair. They are called Ruth and Lillian Foster and they are twins, both fifteen years of age. Ruth is by far the more talkative, Lillian being somewhat conscious of her pronounced lisp, but other than that these small differences they are very much identical. They are very slim with strawberry blond hair and dimples on their cheeks. They are pretty, I suppose, but they are somehow ethereal creatures, always distracted and distant.
Erwin Foster, their father, is an amiable and rotund chap with something of a liberal bent. He is stocky and short, hails from a mining family, and his hair is flame red. He is a deeply religious man but not overbearingly so, you would appreciate the selection of brandy he remembered to bring.
Their facility with their craft has been well documented in many periodicals, they caused quite a stir last spring when they demonstrated their abilities in the City. They find their trance works best when sat comfortably at a table, facing each other and holding hands, and they coax the spirits to answer their questions through gentle scraping and knocking sounds. I know, it sounds ridiculous and easy to debunk, but they are able to discover some of the most well kept secrets and personal details in this way. When I first met them they revealed such startlingly personal and well hidden information about myself that I was convinced immediately. Even Mister Sabilline is awed by their presence, I shudder to think what they must have heard about him.
Already our labours bear fruit, we made contact last night in the ballroom and I felt the temperature noticeably drop. The tapping at the walls grew louder until the building shook with the efforts of the dead. John, we are making history, if only you could see it!
You must understand that this whole thing seems squalid and unseemly to me. I do not for a moment doubt your sincerity, or your honest belief in your research, but I do think the best case here is that you are being taken for a fool. These twins and their father are conning you, I have no doubt, and I only wish you could see it.
Imagine that they aren’t, for a moment, imagine that all they do is sincere, is their lust for fame really the most useful thing they could be doing with this power? I have been reading about their activities prior to meeting with you and they have received a quite staggering sum of money for their services so far. Does it not strike you as odd, even cruel, that they would charge such a high price for people to speak with their loved ones?
Keep me up to date with your research, I feel the need to be your anchor to reality.
Today has beggared reason and turned the world upon its head. Contact was made once more but the usual gentility of the scrapes and bumps that the spirits elicit was replaced by an audible low moan and a distant grinding noise that set my teeth on edge and sent Mister Foster into fits of convulsions. The dead do not rest easily here, John, indeed they roil about in the shadows like a rough sea of melancholia.
The girls set to taking care of their father and I left them to it for a while, trying to follow the retreating noises, I am not a complete fool, John. I saw nobody and nothing but shrinking shadows as I ran through the dusty halls, clattering cutlery from the kitchen and what felt like minor earthquakes making me stumble.
Eventually I found myself in the kitchens, long emptied of any useful cookery equipment, and I could still hear quiet noises coming from somewhere nearby. It took me a minute of searching through the dusty detritus until I finally discovered an old pair of doors in the floor leading down, presumably, into a wine cellar. I took my lantern and began to descend the steps, noting that the walls there were of stone and appeared considerably older and less well maintained than the rest of the house. The ceiling was low, I had to duck to make my way down into the dark, and I could hear what sounded like ecstatic chanting ahead of me.
As you may imagine; by this point I was terrified. I was extremely conscious of my isolation and the difficulty of even finding my way back to the others once my business was done, I was also mindful that the machinations of the spirit world may have been at play ahead of me. There was no comfort to be had in discovery and little comfort to be had in the weedy light my lantern was emitting. Stumbling down in between the wine racks, clearly a much later addition to the under-croft in which I found myself, I began to take a few tentative steps towards what I believed to be the source of that dreadful noise.
What I saw there defies description. A black shape, a twisted man, arms stretching and billowing in the dark, piercing, lightning-blue eyes and an aura of malice like the end of days. I have no idea what it was, and it had vanished by the time I returned from my flight with the others, but I am certain, at least in my mind, that we are not alone here. It was not a ghost, John, it was not some lingering man from days long past. There is something old here, something that never died. Something that was never born.
I do not feel safe but the urge for discovery outweighs my fear, we are going to hold the next séance there, in the wine cellar.
Stop! For Gods’ sake man, are you simple? This is the stuff of children’s stories, the stuff of penny dreadfuls, would you seek spring heeled Jack if you heard rumours of his schedule? Would you go willingly into the arms of the covens and cults which seem to spring up in their hundreds with each new day? This way lies madness and wilful belief in falsehood, you cannot have abandoned your reason so completely. Please, stop this before you lose yourself to esoteric mysticism, it shall be the ruin of us all.
Too late. Too late. I have seen spiritus mundi split and the heavens disgorge their fetid bounty. The wail of falling souls trapped in a static abyss. There is no safety for the widow’s son, no divinity in the sigils of Kronos. I will feast on false enlightenment and taste the ashen air of a fallen world. All drifts towards its end. The light tumbles from on high, the dark rises towards a starless and eternal night. I see an Earth scoured, pitted and scarred, no dwelling places, no structure, a grey graveyard wrought across all land. This must be what Buddha feels like, certainty of truth. Dreadful certainty. It is beautiful.
I am coming to you now, I should be with you some short while after you receive this message. I advise you to pack a bag, I have contacted the local constabulary and they should be with you by now. I hope you get this.
I think I died yesterday. I am leaving you this letter, I have no time to post it but I believe you will come here soon. You will be filled with concern for me. Bless you for that.
I am sat here now, in the cellar, with the others. Ruth and Lillian no longer speak. Ruth’s hand is affixed to Lillian’s and they creak when they move. I take instructions from Erwin.
He is no longer Erwin. He waves his arms about and they bend at unnatural angles. He laughs at my pain and forces me to write letters of introduction for his daughters, he plans to take them around the world, to seed his evil everywhere. It is my fault, I should never have insisted they open their minds to any influence which may be present. I should never have told them that they would be safe without their usual safeguards. There was no ghost here, I have loosed something far worse on the world.
I don’t have long to write, my arms are heavy and soon I shall be shut in a suitcase and dragged about by these two girls until I am needed again. These little marionettes of the creature inside Erwin. I see a flickering light dancing in the distance sometimes, my spirit guide come to take me to a place of judgement, perhaps, but it is afraid to come closer to the thing I have loosed. It is a horrible feeling, John, to have no heartbeat. My pulse is gone, I am stiff with rigor mortis and I can feel my blood crusting in my veins. There are bruises forming where my blood has settled. Even my eyes are shrivelling as I desiccate in this dry hell. God help me. God help me.