Copyright ©2016 by John Triptych
All rights reserved.
&ISBN& (soft cover) 978-621-95332-2-5
J Triptych Publishing
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, and/or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Deranged Doctor Design (http://www.derangeddoctordesign.com)
Interior formatting by Phillip Gessert (http://phillipgessert.com/)
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For Cholly and Freddie.
[From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.]
[Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.]
[Algernon Charles Swinburne
The Garden of Proserpine]
It was around eleven in the morning when the call for evacuation finally came but it was far too late. I had been sitting in my bedroom just staring at all the posters of my favorite cars that I had to leave behind and I was feeling rather gutted about it. I had two bags that were all packed up; I actually wanted to bring more but Dad said no, just bring what you could run with so I had one rucksack filled with my football kit along with my favorite t-shirts. The other gym bag was filled with two pairs of my best trainers and another pair of expensive inline skates (there was no chance that I would leave those behind) that I begged my mum to buy when we went shopping just two weeks ago when I turned thirteen. And finally my mini-laptop was strapped in on the bottom of the bag too. I had wanted to bring the two game consoles as well but Dad insisted we leave those behind. All that was left in the closet was my school uniforms and I most certainly wouldn’t be taking those filthy rags with me.
My dad started to shout at me from downstairs. “Steve, get down here, now!”
“I’m coming already,” I said as I ran out of my room and hurried down the small flight of stairs to the ground floor.
The two of them were just standing there near the front door, waiting. Dad was wearing a jacket over the wool sweater that my grandmother had knitted for him while she was dying of cancer in her hospital bed a few years back. My mother was wearing jeans and the blouse she usually wore at the office; her mascara had run down her cheeks and it was obvious she’d been crying. Both had on the rugged mountain rucksacks that Dad had bought for all of us when we went camping in Scotland last summer and it looked like they had filled them up with only the essential stuff.
It occurred to me that my sister wasn’t there. “Where’s Amy?”
They both looked at each other incredulously. Mum was wild-eyed; it looked like she was about to scream before she put her hand over her mouth.
Dad turned around and looked at me. There was a growing fear in his eyes. “I thought she was upstairs with you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Why would she hang out in my room all morning?”
Dad took off his rucksack and started to run upstairs, shouting some more. “Amy! Where are you?”
Mum’s chin was trembling as she placed both her hands on my shoulders. “Please tell me you saw her this morning, Steve.”
I couldn’t believe they thought she was with me. “I’m sorry, Mum. When I woke up I took a peek over at her room and she wasn’t there. The bed hadn’t even been slept in,” I said softly.
Mum put a fist in her mouth. “Oh my God.”
At that moment a loudspeaker could be heard in the street outside. “May I have your attention, please. The final call for the evacuation has begun. We have enough transports to take you all and you are advised to take only the items that you can carry. No pets will be allowed to join you. Can everyone please line up in an orderly manner so we can begin processing you now.”
Dad ran back down the stairs. His forehead was dripping with sweat. “Where the bloody hell is she?”
“Bill, we have to go,” Mum said to him as she tugged at my arm while opening the front door.
As the three of us walked out into the street we could see the whole neighborhood was there. Two military transports were at the end of the lane and it looked like representatives from the city council were there along with a squad of soldiers who were guarding everything. This was the first time I had ever seen armed men in full battle gear and it looked terribly exciting.
As we lined up behind our neighbors, the Tasker family, Dad turned around and looked at me. “Are you sure you don’t know where she went to? She seems to talk to you more than to us these days,” he said.
“I think I might know where she is,” I said.
Mum started to get hysterical again and several other families standing alongside us began to notice. “Oh my God, why didn’t you tell us! Where is she?”
I shrugged. “I think she might be with her boyfriend; his name is Mark, I think.”
Dad’s eyes widened like saucers. “How could she be with him at a time like this? Where does he live for God’s sake?”
I pointed to the other end of the street. “A few blocks down that way, just a few houses away from my mate Ray.”
Mum was livid. “So that’s why she didn’t complain when I asked her to make sure you didn’t walk alone to Raymond’s house—her boyfriend lived nearby and she never told us!”
Dad shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe all this. Why didn’t she ever tell us she had a boyfriend?”
“Perhaps because she thought you might not approve of him,” I said.
“Rubbish,” Dad said. “I’ve always been open minded about who she sees. She’s almost eighteen and will be taking her A-level exams next year.”
I winked at him. It was nice to see them squirming with worry for a change. They never used to ask for my advice on anything. “You do remember the last time she had a boyfriend, right? You almost threw him out onto the pavement.”
A city councilman at the front of the line was now standing beside us. He was busy jotting down names on a clipboard. “Okay, you’re next, can I have your names, please.”
“Symonds,” Dad said to him. “William, Emma, Amelia, and Stephen.”
The councilman checked off the page on his clipboard and then looked back up at him. “You gave me four names but there are only three of you.”
“Amelia’s n-not with us at this moment,” Mum said nervously. “But s-she should be here any minute now.”
The councilman shook his head. “I’m sorry but every slot in the vehicles must be assigned to the people that are here because we need to go right now.”
Mum was pleading with him. “Please, you can’t go yet, she will be here. I promise.”
A soldier who was standing beside the councilman began to point to the back of the lorry. “You need to get in there now, otherwise someone else will take your places, ma’am.”
Dad sighed as he took Mum’s bags. “Let’s just take our seats for now, we’re holding up the line.”
All three of us climbed up into the back of the military transport. Several of our neighbors were already sitting down in the rows as we took our seats and placed our bags in front of us. Mr. and Mrs. Tasker were there along with their great aunt, who had to be helped onboard because she was in a wheelchair. Leo Hill, the former footballer who retired a few years back, was also there along with his wife and four sons as well as the entire Patel clan; they occupied half of the forward compartment.
As more and more people slowly began to fill the back of the lorries, I had a strange feeling that I’d somehow forgotten something. That was when I started to rummage through both my bags. My curiosity soon turned to worry because I quickly realized that I had left my mobile phone sitting on my desk in my bedroom. It had all the emails and numbers of my best mates and we had made an agreement that we would contact each other as soon as we got to the safe zones. Without my mobile, there was only a very slim chance I would be able to hook up with them, if any.
Since the house was pretty close by and they were still loading people onto the transports I could still get over there and grab it. I quickly stood up and made my way to the edge of the lorry.
My dad noticed that I had gotten up and tried to grab my arm but he missed by a few inches. “Steve, what are you doing?”
I stole a glance at him as I sidestepped another old woman who had just been helped up into the lorry. “I’ll be back, Dad. I’m just going back to my room to grab my mobile.”
As I jumped out of the rear of the vehicle and started to run back towards the house my mother started to shout at me. “Steve! For God’s sake, come back!”
Another soldier who stood nearby noticed me and tried to pull me aside but I quickly shifted to the left as I narrowly avoided his grasp and continued to dash towards the house. It was less than a hundred feet away and I would have plenty of time to get back on the transports since there were still a few families being processed.
Grabbing the house key from my trouser pocket, I inserted it into the door and got it open in just a few seconds. As I ran up the stairs I heard my phone buzzing. Judging from the ringtone I knew that it was my best mate who was calling me so I swiped it from the table while leaping through the bedroom door and quickly activated it.
I placed the phone beside my ear. “Steve’s Skate Shop, how can I help?”
The voice that answered was definitely my mate, Raymond Lin. “Steve, they’re attacking us!”
I started to laugh. Ray was good at winding me up. “Bollocks. Come off it, Ray. I know you’re just taking the piss again.”
He sounded like he was running out of breath. “I’m not joking, mate! I’m running down the pavement away from my house! I need to get out of here!”
Now he had my full attention. “Ray? What happened? Where are you, mate?”
Ray’s voice was bordering on hysterical and I could hear him gulping air. “Those monsters attacked us just as we started evacuating. I think they got my mum and my dad. Oh my God!”
“Ray, where are you?”
“I-I ran away. I’m near Victoria Park. T-that old geezer was right.”
“What do you mean he was right?”
“Remember when you were at my place? The website that we looked at, remember? The old man who claimed to be a wizard, he was right about all this. Those monsters, they’re the Fomorians.”
“Ray, come off it—”
Just as I said those words the line went dead.
Bloody hell. I put the mobile phone into the right pocket of my hoodie and sighed. Just days ago my life was as normal as it could be. Now all of a sudden the world had gone topsy-turvy on me.
As I stood there dumbfounded I suddenly heard screams and shouting coming from the street below. When I looked down from the bedroom window I noticed that the few civilians left on the street were in a state of panic as they tried desperately to get onto the transports that were already moving away while the soldiers that were still on the ground were taking up firing positions. As I turned to look at the opposite end of the avenue I let out a cry of shock and surprise.
A horde of monsters was steadily making its way down the street. There must have been dozens of them and it looked like they were in all shapes and sizes. Some were walking on two legs while others didn’t have any legs at all and instead just used their hands while crawling on their swollen bellies or slithering forward using their snake-like torsos. A few had armored carapaces covering their insect-like bodies while others had a granite sheen on the blubbery folds of their skin. One of them had a single eye like a Cyclops while another had three. It was an entire gang of misshapen beasts that began to advance towards the panic-stricken people below.
I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move as I saw some of the soldiers open fire on the crowd of monsters while slowly retreating towards the end of the avenue. They were able to hurt a few of the creatures but their shots merely enraged the larger and more heavily armored ones. As the military transports were finally clear of the street the soldiers tried to get back into their Land Rovers but several of the creatures broke into a run and caught up with them. My mouth was open in shock and horror as I saw some of the poor soldiers being literally torn apart by gigantic claws and fanged maws. That was when one of the creatures turned and saw me staring back at it from my bedroom window. It hissed at me as it started towards the house.
I needed to do something, otherwise I would get eaten, just like in those zombie movies. I quickly got out of my bedroom and I remembered there was a small crawlspace in the corridor leading towards the stairs. A few years back I had found a panel behind the tub in the bathroom where I could move it and squeeze through. But that was when I was still a small child; I had gotten somewhat bigger since then. With no other choice I ran into the bathroom and closed the door behind me before opening the window. Then I thrust my hands into the back of the heater and pushed back the paneling behind it. Sure enough, the crawlspace was there. Hearing the creature coming up the stairs, I clenched my teeth as I started to squeeze myself into the narrow opening between the metal heater and the hole in the side of the wall. There must have been a nail sticking out the back end of the crawlspace because something sharp ripped through the back of my hoodie and cut into my skin as I got stuck. The pain was pretty bad but I held my breath and stopped myself from crying out; I heard the creature outside the bathroom door, beginning to smash it down.
There was no chance I could squeeze into that tiny space so I had to make a quick decision before I got turned into mincemeat. Looking up at the ceiling, I remembered a scene from a movie that I could possibly do. Just as the door was about to give way I climbed up on top of the sink before stretching my body out just below the ceiling. My hands were pushing on one side of the bathroom wall as I stretched my legs out and pushed as hard as I could on my feet on the opposite side so that my body was completely horizontal and I lay suspended right below the ceiling. I managed to get myself into position just as the monster burst through.
It shambled into the bathroom less than a foot below me. I clenched my teeth as my knees and arms began to buckle from the strain of keeping myself aloft. The creature looked like something out of a horror movie but it was totally real. One of its arms was longer than the other and both ended in long, black-clawed hands. Its pale head was a flat oval with round eyes shaped like an amphibian’s that were situated in the front part of its hideous face. It had a snake-like tongue that slid out and about as it tasted the air while its short, trunk-like legs ended in webbed feet. It smelled of rotten flesh and blood.
The creature hissed and snorted as it took a look at the open window. The pain in my arms was so intense that I felt like screaming but I bit my lip and closed my eyes. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, the creature finally turned around and waddled out of the bathroom. As I heard it moving back down the stairs I finally let go and was able to get my feet back on top of the sink as I took in a deep, silent breath while rubbing my sore arms.
Just to be sure I was alone I waited for almost an hour, ready to wedge myself back up towards the ceiling if it came back but thankfully the house became quiet once more. The sun was beginning to set as I carefully made my way around the house and made sure that none of those monsters were still around. As I got to the edge of the front door I carefully looked out into the street. Save for a few corpses lying around it was now largely deserted. I carefully closed the front door and locked it before going back to the bathroom upstairs. Since there was still a sharp pain across my back I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and took off my hoodie and then my shirt before twisting my torso so I could have a look at my back. Sure enough, there was a long cut where the nail had sliced across my back; it had stopped bleeding and it resembled a stylized crimson-colored lightning bolt across the back of my body. I remembered what my mum used to do when I got cuts so I took some antiseptic from the mirrored cabinet and used some of her cotton balls to absorb the medicine before using them to swab my back. Almost immediately I regretted doing that because it sent a burning pain all over the back of my body and I nearly screamed due to the agony. I made a makeshift bandage with what was left of the cotton balls and some electrical tape; when I was done my back looked like some sort of weird modern art exhibit but it was better than nothing. I went back to my bedroom and pulled out a new hoodie from the closet and put it on. My best clothes were in my rucksack, still sitting at the back of the lorry that had hopefully taken my parents away from this mess, so I had to make do with the ones that I really didn’t want to wear anymore.
I tried my mobile phone again but now all I got was a static line so I turned it off and put it back in my pocket. Trying to gather my thoughts while sitting on the edge of my bed, I fought off the urge to cry. I was now alone. Of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life this was by far the dumbest and I had a feeling that I might actually die soon.
Two days before all this happened I was in my best mate’s bedroom just mucking about. We had just come back from the skate park and it was almost time for afternoon tea. While lying on the floor by his bed I was leafing through some of his car magazines while Ray was sitting on his bed, busy playing on the videogame console in order to best my top score on Zombie Killer.
Raymond Lin had been my mate for two years now. His family was originally from Hong Kong but his parents left soon after the former British colony was finally handed back over to the Chinese. Ray was an only child who had mostly grown up in London and since his dad owned several Cantonese restaurants all over the city his house was much bigger than mine. His family was very posh and they had a holiday cottage in Jersey. With his round, black-rimmed glasses and deep dark hair, Ray looked like a Chinese version of that popular boy wizard that everybody talks about; in many ways we were exact opposites since my hair was fair and I didn’t need to wear glasses at all. He was also one of the brightest in my class and I teamed up with him every time there was a group activity and the class would divide itself into teams to take each other on. With Ray’s talent for solving tricky equations in maths along with his fountain of knowledge about all things, it seemed that I learned more from just talking to him than I did from listening to the teachers at school.
Ray was busy clicking away on the console pad but it seemed like he was chatting online as well. “Oy, Steve, have you heard about those weird weather patterns developing all over the world? The other players in my European league are saying it’s never ever happened before.”
I was busy concentrating on the specs of the newest Ferrari model that was coming out this year so I just grunted in reply as I kept staring at the pages of the magazine.
Ray frowned as he kept his eyes glued to the &TV& monitor. “You didn’t even listen to a word I said, did you?”
“Sure I did. You said something about weird players on the other side of Europe and their world playing patterns that are beating your top score every time.”
“Typical Steve, you just listen and whatever comes out of your mouth is utter tosh.”
I placed the magazine down on my lap and looked at him. “You’re just ticked off because I did the acid slide twice on the half pipe and you couldn’t.”
Ray just shook his head. “I already admitted to you that you’re a better skater than me, you tosser. I was talking about all this stuff that’s happening all over the world. The whole Internet is going mental just talking about it.”
“Yeah, I might have read about that on the chat rooms last night. Something about a massive country-wide sandstorm in the Middle East or something like that.”
“It’s more than just a sandstorm, mate. They are saying that the Iraqis and the Americans have lost contact with all of their troops north of Baghdad. I looked at some other websites and quite a few of them are saying it’s the end of the world.”
“Bollocks,” I said. “Sandstorms happen in the desert all the time. We learned that in school last year. Don’t you remember?”
“It’s not just the sandstorm; all the weather experts are also saying a massive cold front, with snow, mind you, is moving in from the Arctic in the next few days.”
I started to laugh. “Well, so much for all that global warming nonsense.”
Ray sighed. “You never take anything seriously, do you?”
“What’s there to be serious about? It’s summer now and school’s out! I think I’ll stay home this time and just mess about in the skate park all day and game all night.”
“Your dad likes camping, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he had plans to rent an &RV& for a cross-country camping trip around central Europe but I told him in no uncertain terms that I won’t be going. I doubt if my sister’s going either.”
“Amy? I heard that she’s got a new boyfriend again.”
“Yeah, she’s seeing that Mark Loman fellow. That’s why every time my mum has asked her to accompany me when I go over here she always says yes now, because her boyfriend lives down your street.”
“I know Mark’s dad, he came by our house a few times. Mark’s mum is Jamaican, I think.”
“Dad doesn’t like Amy’s choice of boyfriends,” I said. “The last one she brought over, he got mad and nearly hit him. I think Amy’s learned not to even tell them about who she goes out with now.”
“I don’t think your dad’s going to like Mark either; he does pot among other things, and he’s part of a gang that hangs out near the park.”
I shrugged. “I don’t care who she sees. It’s none of my business anyway.”
“That reminds me,” he said, giggling. “You remember the second to last day of school?”
“I remember Nigel and Dan getting into a fight, yeah. I can’t wait to see those two gits next term.”
“Oh, there was so much that happened that day. You’re not going to believe who I saw in the toilets.”
“Tell me then.”
“Alasdair and Ryan. They were in the stall together.”
“Alasdair? Your mate from scouts? I’ve forgotten who Ryan is.”
“Yeah, Alasdair the scout. Ryan’s the boy who always goes around by himself, remember? The emo kid.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now. What were they doing?”
“They were snogging in the stall.”
“Yeah, you know, making out, like kissing and all that.”
“I know what it means. Bloody hell, I didn’t know they were gay.”
Ray laughed. “All the girls were talking about it afterwards. Seems the word spread rather quickly.”
“Funny I never heard about it till now.”
“That’s because all you ever cared about was skates and gaming, you moron.”
“Piss off,” I said. “What other people do is none of my business anyway.”
“That’s just typical of you, just like you to be totally clueless about everything that’s happening right now.”
“What’s happening right now isn’t affecting me so shut up.”
“You’d better hope that all this stuff on the news is nothing. But if it is something then you’ll be sorry for not heeding their warnings.”
I smirked. “And just who are they exactly? Who’s making these warnings?”
Ray quickly pointed to his desktop computer before resuming his struggles with the console pad. “Get on my desktop, I bookmarked the website.”
“Alright then, I will,” I said as I got up, moved over to the chair and activated his computer. “What’s the password for your &PC& anyway?”
“It’s &RAYISGOD&, all caps.”
“If you were a god, you’d be the god of the loo,” I said.
Ray went back to playing on his console again. “Shut it. If you were a god, you’d be the god of dicks thanks to your little dick.”
“My dick’s bigger than yours,” I said as I waited until the computer was fully booted up before typing in the password.
“Your dick would get bigger than mine if you snogged Alasdair, I bet.”
“Spare me your gay inner desires and fantasies, Ray.”
“Spare me your inadequacies, Steve.”
I finally got the web browser to work. “Is this the one in your bookmark? The website of Amicus Tarr, the exiled wizard?”
“Okay, I’m having a look now,” I said as I began to scroll through the pages of text and pictures. “A lot of his stuff is pretty amateurish; I could design a better website than this. And I think I did just that in our computer class last term.”
Ray was furiously pushing the buttons on his console pad as he fought off an infinite number of zombies in the game. “Don’t bother about the web presentation, you knob. Read what he has to say; he’s had over a million hits on his site in the past twenty-four hours alone.”
I rolled my eyes as I continued to go through the web pages. Ray’s Internet seemed quite slow, as if there was some sort of traffic backlog that was affecting his bandwidth. “It says here that he’s predicting a cataclysmic event in Stonehenge by tonight. He also says that England will be invaded and occupied by a demon army within the next few days. This old geezer is completely mad.”
“Didn’t you watch the news this morning? There’s quite a crowd of people that are now over at Stonehenge.”
“Nope, didn’t bother. All I did was wake up and have my brekky before meeting up with you in the skate park.”
“You’re worse than a hermit, mate. You’ve got the telly and the Internet at home yet you don’t even bother with it unless you want to watch movies and play games.”
“That’s because I’m absolutely not interested,” I said. “Okay, I’ve read through most of his stuff and I think he’s completely mental. The millions of people who have gone over to this site of his must also be nutty, and that includes you.”
“As I said, if all of that comes true you’ll be sorry.”
I laughed again. “And what if it does come true? He doesn’t say anything about what to do if it does. He probably set the whole thing up in Stonehenge or something. Probably needs some money to remodel his old cranky website, I bet.”
“Well it does give his address on it,” Ray said. “Maybe we can head over to his place if the whole mess gets any worse.”
I turned my head and looked at him. Did he truly believe this? “Okay, so he lives not far from here, just over in Highgate. So what? You honestly believe he can put a stop to that sandstorm in the Middle East or maybe restore communications with Ireland again?”
“Ah, so you did watch the news then!”
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “I heard my mum and dad talking about the communications blackout with Ireland just before I headed over to the skate park, that’s all.”
“Did you read about what that wizard is saying about it?”
I turned my head back and scrolled down for the entry on Ireland in the old man’s website. “It says here that he claims that it’s the Fomorians that are doing the conquering and they will be here soon. What’s a Fomorian?”
“Don’t you remember the class we had two terms ago when our teacher was telling us about the myths of Ireland?”
“Two terms is too long ago for me to remember. Fill me in, please.”
“You really are a knobhead. Anyway, the Fomorians are supposed to be mythical creatures; they are a race of monsters that originally inhabited Ireland before the Irish gods defeated them.”
“So they’re like giants then? Like the enemies of Thor and the other Norse gods?”
“From what I’ve read they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are giants and some are dwarves. Some can fly while others crawl.”
“Well good luck to them. We’ve got the best military in the world; we’ve never been defeated in battle. The Germans and the Argies tried fighting us and we ended up winning in the end so all this doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Our military may be good against other people but these Fomorians aren’t people, they’re demons.”
“Ooh, I’m so bloody scared.”
“You better be because otherwise—” Ray stopped in midsentence. I peered over and noticed his game had frozen A few seconds later the screen reset and a message came up: &YOU ARE BANNED FOR CHEATING, PLEASE CONTACT CUSTOMER SUPPORT&.
I saw what had happened and started to laugh.
“What the bloody hell—” Ray said as he fumbled with the console settings. “But I didn’t cheat! How could they ban me from the game server like this?”
My howls of laughter were now so hard that my ribs were hurting and I could barely stay seated on the padded office chair.
Ray turned to look at me. His glasses were starting to steam. “You were playing on this console before I did, what did you do?”
My laughter was slowly winding down to a giggle or two but I kept at it. “I uploaded a targeting hack on your console so I could get the high score.”
Ray’s eyes widened. “A hack? You mean a cheat? You stupid bloody idiot! Now they’ll think I was the one who did it and they’re going to ban my account! You bloody arsewipe!”
I looked up at the ceiling while giggling. “I couldn’t very well put that hack into my console at home now, could I?”
“Why you—” Ray said before throwing himself at me. We both ended up on the floor as he tried to punch me but I was able to hold onto his wrists as we both started tussling and tumbling about on the carpet.
There was a short knock on the door as it opened and Ray’s mom peeked inside. “Okay you two, tea’s downstairs.”
My fist was suspended in midair and was just about to strike at Ray’s nose when I looked up at her and smiled. “Thanks, Mrs. Lin.”
Ray’s mother served us some crispy chicken wings along with steamed dumplings. We both wolfed it down and drank the hot, steaming Chinese tea. Ray kept looking at me with silent menace but most of his anger had pretty much subsided at this point. I always preferred to eat over at Ray’s house for tea because his mother was such a brilliant cook. My mum would usually just serve a chip butty with jam or ketchup for tea.
“Really good food, Mrs. Lin, it’s the best tea I’ve ever had,” I said to his mother, who was doing the dishes in the sink.
“Why thank you, Steve,” she said without turning around. “Will you be staying for dinner?”
I grinned. “Yes, please.”
Ray leaned closer to me. “You owe me twenty quid to get a new gaming account, you numpty,” he whispered.
I stifled a giggle as I sipped the rest of my tea.
There was a knock on the door. Mrs. Lin turned off the faucet and dried her hands with a towel near the sink before heading off to the living room to answer it. As soon as she left the dining area Ray punched me in the arm so hard that I nearly dropped the tea cup I was holding. I quickly put it on the table before taking a swing at his shoulder but he leaned back the other way and so I missed.
Just as I was about to get up and have a go at Ray my sister Amy entered the kitchen along with Mrs. Lin.
“I’m really sorry for bothering you, Mrs. Lin, but my parents want us back home right away,” Amy said to Ray’s mother before turning her head to look at me. “Steve, Dad has been ringing your mobile for the past half an hour, why didn’t you answer it?”
“Oh,” I said as I took my mobile phone from my front trouser pocket. “I had it on silent mode since we were busy gaming.”
“You’re going to be in trouble when we get home.”
“Do we have to go home now? It’s not even dark yet.”
Amy crossed her arms in frustration as she glared at me. “Dad’s orders, come on!”
I sighed as I got up. “Terribly sorry I can’t stay, Mrs. Lin.”
Ray’s mother just smiled as she took my plate away. “It’s okay, Steve, you’ll always be welcome anytime.”
Ray just rolled his eyes. “Not bloody likely.”
“See you later, Ray,” I said as I accompanied my sister towards the front door.
“Don’t forget the money you owe when you come back!” Ray shouted from the kitchen area just as I closed the front door to his house. As I turned towards the street I saw Amy standing there and hugging a tall, tanned man with curly hair who looked to be in his twenties. He had a leather jacket on and wore a black baseball cap that was turned backwards on his head.
I walked over and stood beside them. Amy noticed me and she gave the man a kiss on his lips before letting him go. “My brother’s here, I need to get going.”
The man looked at me and held out his hand. “I’m Mark.”
I shook it. “Steve.”
Mark turned back to my sister. “You sure you don’t want me to walk with you?”
Amy just gave him a slight smile. “You’d better not for now. Anyway, the house is less than a mile from here.”
Mark held her arms for a short minute before finally letting go. “Alright then, remember what I told you.”
Amy waved at him as he started walking away in the opposite direction. “I shall. See you later.”
As she started to walk back towards our house I moved alongside her. “So that’s your new boyfriend then. Mark, is it?”
She turned and gave me a serious look as she kept on walking. “Steve, please don’t tell Mum and Dad about him, we’ve just started seeing each other and I don’t think they’re ready for the news yet.”
I snorted. “Since when have I ever told them about anything that’s a secret?”
“Alright, that’s good,” Amy said. “Let’s just keep this between ourselves for now.”
“You owe me one though.”
She laughed. “Alright, I owe you one.”
“Twenty quid, to be precise.”
“I’m sure you’ve got that, your allowance is more than mine.”
“What do you need twenty pounds for?”
Amy frowned. “Alright, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll just ask Mum and Dad for it because I don’t have any money on me right now.”
“That’s fine, just tell them you need to buy a new lipstick or something like that.”
“Don’t be cheeky, Steve.”
“I know girls spend a lot more than men just on trying to look good and all. The world wouldn’t be in such a terrible state if women just scaled down on their makeup and hair and stuff.”
“You’re getting to be a real pain, you know that?”
We got home about ten minutes later. Dad was waiting as we rounded the corner and he opened the door and quickly ushered us inside. Mum was sitting on the couch and watching the news on the telly.
Amy took off her jacket and hung it on the coat rack by the door. “Why did you want us back so early? It’s still light out.”
Dad just shook his head. He was still wearing his suit from the office. “Something’s happening and I need us all here. I was calling you both on your mobiles for over an hour!”
That was when I noticed that our driveway was empty. “Dad, where’s your car?”
Dad looked down. “I had to leave it on the motorway. The traffic has been jammed up for miles in every direction. I had to walk back home and it took me over an hour.”
Amy looked confused. “What is it, what’s going on?”
Mum said nothing; instead she just pointed to what was on the telly. The screen showed lines of abandoned cars in almost every avenue in the city and news footage was being shown live from Amesbury, less than a hundred miles away. There were droves of people wearing white sheets and they seemed to be in some sort of trance as they slowly walked along the jam-packed motorways, heading for Stonehenge, the Neolithic ring of standing stones that served as a tourist attraction and an archaeological site. It looked like the Metropolitan Police had their hands full.
Dad sat on the armchair while Amy and I joined Mum on the couch. The newscasters were trying their best to explain the situation but they were just as confused as we were as to what was truly going on. One of the pundits who was doing the live commentary said it was apparently some sort of mass hysteria while the news anchor in the studio wondered if it had anything to do with the situation in Ireland. Just yesterday a massive cloud of fog had moved over the entire island and all communications with both Ireland and Northern Ireland were all of a sudden cut off. British authorities had stopped all air and sea traffic to the emerald isle for the time being as they tried to assess the situation. A Royal Navy task force had been dispatched to find out what was going on but they too had disappeared.
As the four of us just sat there trying to take it all in a strange thought occurred to me as I remembered the website that Ray had told me about. It seemed that the so-called old wizard had been right after all. I quickly got up and headed towards the stairs leading up to my room.
Dad turned and looked up at me. “Steve, where are you going?”
“To my room, Dad,” I said as I ran up the stairs. “There’s something on the Internet I want to look at.”
“Just don’t leave the house, please,” Mum said absentmindedly as she kept her eyes glued to the telly.
As soon as I got to my room I sat down beside my desk and turned on my laptop. Within a few minutes I was searching for that old man’s website but for some strange reason my Internet speed had slowed down to a crawl. It took several minutes of waiting before I finally got the address for his website using the search engine and then a few more minutes as I waited for his home page to load up. But the moment I finally got to see his website all I saw was a big black background; three words were all that was left on it: &I WARNED YOU&.
Right at that moment my laptop crashed. I let out a short curse as I rebooted the computer but after a few minutes I could no longer get any bandwidth on the Internet even though it still stated that my connection was valid and working. It seemed that the entire Internet was dead.
I took my mobile phone out of my pocket and started to call Ray’s number.
“Hello,” he answered from his mobile.
“Ray, I tried to get onto that old wizard’s webpage but all I got was three words on a blank screen. Then my Internet went out.”
“Same thing happened to me, mate. I couldn’t log onto any online game servers and now even my web browsing is shot. I called up Neil from school and he couldn’t get online either.”
“My parents are downstairs watching the news on the telly. Something’s going on in Stonehenge. Lots of people in a trance and there seems to be rioting too,” I said.
“I told you that this might happen just an hour ago and you didn’t believe me, you git.”
“Okay, I believe you now, you knob. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“I think if we get the chance we ought to go to that old wizard’s house. He predicted this would happen and would probably know what to do.”
“That’s a stupid idea, he will probably just tell us off or something.”
“You got a better idea then?”
“No,” I said. “Okay, let’s assume that yours is a good plan—how do we know where he lives when I can’t even look at his site anymore?”
“Hold on,” Ray said. “I think I can retrieve the original page in my temporary browsing folder. Give me a few minutes.”
“Just text me his house address, alright?”
“Talk to you later then, bye.”
I put my mobile phone on my desk and shook my head. This whole situation was bloody mental. But then a part of me thought that maybe this would all be back to normal by tomorrow so I decided to play a game on my laptop that didn’t require an Internet connection.
For the next few hours I created whole armies of tanks and sent them out against the computer-controlled opponent as I started racking up my high score. Every time I started playing these games I would lose track of the time and that suited me just fine. There would be quite a few more years before I turned into an adult so I was determined to make the most of whatever time I had left as a kid by just mucking about and having some fun.
While playing my fourth game I hardly noticed that the sun had gone down and night had finally descended. Just as I was about to muster a new army on my laptop I heard both my parents cry out. Startled, I jumped and the mouse flew from my hand and landed on the floor. After pausing the game I quickly ran down the stairs to see what was going on.
The living room was empty and the telly was showing nothing but static snow. As I looked around I saw that the front door was open so I ran outside. There were people from all over the neighborhood just standing on the street while looking and pointing up at the sky. My parents and Amy were standing just outside of the house.
I walked over to them, crossing my arms. “What was all that shouting about?”
Dad said nothing but just pointed up at the sky. As I looked up I saw massive beams of scintillating light that seemed to flow upwards into the dark sky like gigantic shooting stars. It was coming from the west.
It was then that I started to get concerned. “What happened?”
“Stonehenge,” Dad said as he kept looking upwards. “There was a commotion in Stonehenge and then the telly went blank. Then we heard shouts from outside of the house and now those streams of energy are coming from over there.”
Amy was trying to keep herself from crying. “But what does it all mean?”
“The end of the world,” Mum said softly.
The next day I woke up to find my dad just sitting on the side of my bed. The lights that were coming from Stonehenge had continued all of last night but I was getting tired so I decided to just stop staring at the sky and go to bed. But now, seeing Dad just sitting here this morning, I was starting to get worried again because this was the first time he had ever done this.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Dad, is everything alright?”
“The government has declared a state of emergency,” Dad said softly. “They told us to prepare for a possible evacuation.”
I scratched the top of my head. “Evacuate? Where are we supposed to go?”
He put his hands over his face and rubbed it. “I don’t know. But you need to pack your kit. Use the rucksack we bought for camping and just fit in the essentials, please.”
“Did you get your car back?”
“No, it’s still stuck on the motorway; they told everyone to stay in their homes for the time being and wait for the evacuation convoys.”
I reached over to the table beside my bed. “I’m going to call Ray and ask him what’s up.”
Dad stood up and walked towards the door. “I’ve tried calling the office and there’s no phone service for landlines and mobile phones are spotty- sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Internet and the telly are down too. All we’re getting now is a repeating message on the radio from the government.”
“Bloody mental,” I said as I finally got out of bed.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes I walked down the stairs and saw Mum preparing some food. She had a worried look on her face. Dad was standing outside in the street with his hands on his hips, talking with one of our neighbors.
“I’ve made some butties, they’re on the table,” Mum said softly. “If you need to eat something just help yourself. There’s a tin of biscuits in the cupboard as well.”
I grabbed one of the sandwiches off of the plate and smiled as it had bacon in it. “Mum, are you alright?”
She just shook her head. “I wanted to go to the supermarket but now they’re telling everybody to stay put. We don’t have much food left right now.”
I took a bite of the bacon butty and sat down as she poured me some tea. “Don’t worry, Mum, we’ve got the best army in the world and we’ve never lost a war; this will all be over quickly.”
As I finished half of the sandwich I turned and saw Amy coming down the stairs. She was fully dressed up in jeans and a jacket along with her red plimsolls. “Mum, I’m going out,” she said as she started for the door.
“You can’t go, Amy,” Mum called out after her. “There’s a state of emergency that’s been declared.”
Amy stopped in front of the door and turned around. She had an incredulous look on her face. “What? But I’m just going out to see my friends!”
Dad walked in through the slightly open front door as he heard the conversation. “Your mother’s right, Amy. We’ve all been told to stay put. I can’t even go to the office.”
My sister threw her arms up. “But this is ridiculous! My friends are less than a mile away! I’m still going to be close by. It’s not like I’m going very far. Come on, Dad.”
My dad bit his lip. “Amy…”
Amy’s face was now contorted in a mixture of anger and frustration. “I can’t stay here all day! There’s nothing on the telly and the phones don’t work! Please, just for a few hours. I’ll do anything you want me to!”
“We need some supplies, such as more food,” I said while stuffing the last of the sandwich into my mouth.
My mum looked at my dad. “I guess we could send them out for just an hour to get some shopping,” she said.
My dad shook his head. “The supermarket is at least a couple of miles away. That’s too far. If there’s trouble then they need to get back here in a hurry.”
“The corner shop is just down at the end of the street,” I said. “We could pick up some stuff from there.”
Dad frowned but I knew he would listen to reason. After a few seconds he sighed and pulled out his wallet. “Alright, Amy, take your brother and get some supplies for us at the corner shop. You can go see your friends but only the ones close by. And you both have to be back within an hour. Your mum and I will start packing and I’m also waiting for a call from the office so I can’t go with you.”
Amy and I looked at each other and grinned as we ran over to dad and took his money.
“We need bread,” Mum said, “at least two loaves and a pint of milk plus some tinned beans, please.”
“Don’t worry, Mum,” I said. “I will make sure to buy every single can of beans, beans, beans, beans, beeans, beautiful beans, smashing beans!”
“Now remember,” Dad said as we started for the door. “Keep close to each other and at the first sign of trouble you both come right back.”
Amy waved goodbye to them as I was first out of the door. “We will, Dad, thanks!” she said.
As we started walking down the pavement Amy handed me most of the money that she had taken from Dad.
I took it and put it in my trouser pocket along with the rest of the cash. “What’s all this?”
“I need you to cover for me,” Amy said. “I’m going to see Mark so you can just go ahead and buy what Mum needs at the corner shop, and we’ll meet back here in a few hours.”
“Oh, so you want me to do all the work now, do you?”
She sighed. “I’ve given you more than twenty quid there so you ought to be happy about it. Now you can buy whatever it is that you want.”
I took out the wad of cash from my pockets and started counting it as we kept walking. “Dad gave us a total of about twenty-five pounds so if I take the twenty there’s hardly enough money left for Mum’s shopping.”
“You’re starting to get annoying again, Steve.”
“Annoying is my middle name, you know.”
“Well, do you really need the full twenty quid right this minute?”
I grinned at her. “Not really, no.”
Amy’s cheeks went beet red. “I’m gonna slap you, Steve!”
By the time she was ready to hit me we were able to get to the front of the corner shop. Although the nearby supermarket had taken most of its business away, this was still the place to get some quick sodas, crisps and candy if you needed them at the last minute. There was a large group of people milling about and a long queue had formed since it seemed that everybody was stocking up on food and all.
I looked at the long line of people with my mouth open. “Bloody hell, we’re going to be here all day!”
“Right then,” Amy said as she pointed to the end of the line. “You need to queue up now. Mark’s place is just on the other side of the street so I’ll see you later.”
Now it was my turn to get angry. “Noo! I don’t want to stand in line for hours like this!”
“Well somebody’s got to do it and since you’ve got the money it’s your duty.”
I walked over to the end of the queue but I grabbed her arm to make sure she was with me. “If I’m standing in line then you’re standing here with me!”
She twisted her arm away from my grasp. “Steve, can’t you just stay here for a bit? Mark’s house is so close now.”
I frowned. “But standing here is just so pathetic! If you’re going to your boyfriend’s place then I’m heading over to Ray’s.”
“But if we both go then there might not be any stuff left to buy later.”
I drew in a deep breath. “I can do without beans. Let’s just tell Mum and Dad that the place was ransacked and there was nothing left.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “And what if Dad asks the other neighbors who are here right now? And what if we run out of food before the evacuation order?”
I was trying to figure out a good answer for her when I saw Mark Loman on the other side of the street.
He waved his arms and called out to her. “Amy!”
Amy smiled and waved back at him before turning to look at me. “Mark’s here, just stay in the queue for a bit while I think of something. Be right back,” she said to me before running over to where Mark was standing.
I bit my lip. Now I was stuck in this long line of shoppers while my older sister was going to have fun with her new boyfriend. As I sighed over my obvious predicament, an old woman who was standing in line in front of me suddenly turned around and stared into my eyes. I was startled and immediately took a step back and nearly collided with a woman and her baby who were standing behind me.
“Hello, Steve,” the old woman said softly while she grinned. Her stained yellow dentures and purplish gums were in slight contrast to her pale, wrinkled cheeks and the shock of silvery hair on her head.
It took me a little while to get over the sudden fright but I quickly recognized her. “Oh hello, Ms. Faulkner. How are you today?”
Ms. Faulkner was an old spinster who lived nearby along with her sister. My mum would sometimes invite them over for tea and they would talk endlessly about just how much things had changed and all that. I didn’t really know them that well but we always greeted each other politely when walking by.
She pointed a crooked finger at me and cackled. “You will journey to the land of the dead quite soon, lad. The Fomorians will not be too happy with you.”
What? I just stood there with my eyes wide open like saucers. “W-what d-do you m-mean, Ms. F-Faulkner?”
Her withered old hands grabbed me by the collar of my shirt as she leered at me, her face inches from mine. Her breath smelled of preserved fruit and ash. “Beware of the exiled one!” she hissed.
I cried out and nearly fell backwards before some helping hands in the queue held me up and supported me. Ms. Faulkner’s sister, Sylvia, took her by the arms and moved her away from me.
“Margaret, what is wrong with you?” Sylvia said to her before turning to look at me with obvious concern. “I’m so sorry about this, Steve. She has been hysterical for the last two days. I took my eye off of her for just a few seconds and now this has happened. Please forgive me.”
I forced myself to smile as I nodded in thanks to the other people in the line who had helped me. “It’s okay, ma’am. She just startled me is all, no harm done.”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” Sylvia said as she took her babbling sister by the arms and led her out of the queue. “I need to bring her back into the house now. She needs some rest.”
Several other people asked if they could do anything for her but Sylvia politely declined as the two old women walked off and disappeared behind the small crowd. The woman standing beside me asked again if I was okay and I answered in the affirmative and thanked her. At that moment I saw Amy running up alongside me accompanied by Mark.
My sister placed a hand on my shoulder. “Steve, what happened? I saw a commotion just as we were about to leave and I thought you got into some sort of trouble.”
“No, it was nothing,” I said. “Ms. Faulkner just got hysterical for a bit but her sister took her away. It’s over now.”
Amy still seemed concerned though. “I’m sorry for leaving you like that, Steve. Mum and Dad would kill me if anything happened to you.”
“Well you could thank me by staying in this queue so that I can go.”
She was taken aback by my obvious ploy and quickly got angry again. “Steve, you annoying little—”
Mark put his hand up and she stopped talking. “If you’re both looking for supplies I think my dad has some stuff that he stashed away over at my house. I’ll give some to you so that you won’t have to queue up here anymore. Anyway by the time you get your turn all the essentials will have been bought out already.”
Amy grinned and hugged him. “Oh you’re a lifesaver, Mark! Okay, Steve, let’s meet back here later and I’ll bring the groceries since Mark’s already got them.”
I started to smile as well. “So this means I can go then?”
“Yes, off you go. Let’s meet back here in a couple of hours,” Amy said as Mark put his arms around her and they kissed.
Not wanting to witness any more of their spectacle nor of the crowd I immediately bolted and headed for Ray’s house. Since it was just another half a mile it wasn’t much of a sprint to get there and I arrived within a few minutes. The streets were mostly deserted as most everyone was just staying put, anxiously waiting for word from the government as to what to do next.
When I did get to my best mate’s house I noticed that his dad was putting a number of boxes into the boot of his car. Mrs. Lin was helping her husband with the stack of containers just beside the front door.
“Hello, Mr. Lin. Hi, Mrs. Lin,” I said to them as I stood in front of the door. “Is everything okay?”
Ray’s dad just grunted in reply since he didn’t speak a whole lot of English while his mum looked somewhat stressed but she smiled politely at me as she took another box in her arms. “Hi there, Steve. Ray’s inside but we’re all a bit busy, I’m afraid,” she said.
I looked down. “Oh, I’m sorry for bothering you then.”
“Not at all, you can come in, Ray’s over in the kitchen. There’s food on the table if you’re hungry.”
As I went inside I noticed that they had somehow packed up most of their belongings and almost everything was in boxes. Ray was indeed in the kitchen as he was boxing up a stack of tinned meat.
He looked up at me and paused for a bit. “I thought you’d be back home packing just like everyone else.”
I shrugged as I walked up beside him. “I would be doing that if my dad hadn’t left the car on the motorway. Now they just wanted me to buy some groceries at the corner shop. I think we’ll be hunkering down until the government brings in some transportation. At least that’s what we’ve been told.”
“Well, my parents have decided to leave right away. That’s why we’re packing everything we can into the car.”
“Good luck with that. I heard all of the motorways into and out of the city are jam packed with cars.”
Ray sighed. “That’s what I told them but my dad insisted we pack anyway. It seems he thinks that this is Hong Kong all over again.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dad thinks that if we leave to go somewhere else then it will be okay again but what he doesn’t get is that there’s nowhere to run to.”
I started to scratch my head. “What do you mean there’s nowhere to run to? Isn’t the government going to evacuate us somewhere?”
Ray looked down at the kitchen floor. I’d never seen him this serious before. “All the stuff I read on the Internet just before it went out paints a pretty terrible picture. A lot of people are saying that the world is ending and others have said that the old pagan gods have returned. If this is happening everywhere then there’s nowhere to go that’s safe.”
“But that’s impossible! Why would the government tell us all to get ready to evacuate then?”
“Because that’s what governments are supposed to do,” Ray said. “They like to tell people that everything is under control in order to stop widespread panic but I can assure you that the MPs and the generals in the army must be in a state of fear as well. What’s happened in Ireland is probably going to happen here.”
I placed my hands on the kitchen table. “Okay, you said that it’s the Fomorians that are going to attack, right? But I thought they were from Ireland like you said so why would they be heading east over to us then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something is making them attack us or maybe they want something that’s here. I can only speculate since we aren’t talking to them.”
“Wait a minute, tell me again about the myths we learned in class. How did these Fomorians get defeated back in the olden days?”
“Well, from what I re-read again, it says that the other Celtic gods fought them in a mighty battle and defeated them and these new gods took over Ireland.”
“Right then,” I said. “So the solution to the problem is to summon the new gods and have them defeat these Fomorians all over again.”
“And how are you going to do that, Steve?”
I rolled my eyes. “How in the bloody hell should I know! You’re the one who studied all of this so why don’t you contact the government and tell them how to defeat these monsters.”
“Right, as if they’re going to listen to me.”
“Or maybe they’re working on it right now and all will be well by tomorrow,” I said.
“Or they muck it all up and make everything even worse and we all end up dead.”
“You’re such an optimist, Ray.”
“If summoning the good gods were that easy then why is it only the evil gods that have manifested themselves all over the world?”
“You’re asking me?”
“No, it was a rhetorical question. You’re too much of a knob to know the answer.”
“Alright, Einstein, why don’t you tell me what the answer is then? Come on, don’t be shy.”
“I wish I knew.”
I laughed. “So you don’t know the answer to your own rhetorical question either then. Look who the real knob is, knob.”
“Or maybe that Amicus Tarr guy knows the answer.”
“That old wizard again? Surely you don’t believe everything he says, do you?”
“Why not? He’s been right about everything so far.”
“Alright then,” I said. “If he’s been right about everything then why hasn’t the government gone over to his place and asked him about what’s going on?”
“Maybe they did. Maybe that’s why he shut down his website.”
“As you said, you’re just guessing. As for me I was warned about—” I stopped in mid-sentence as I quickly recalled what Ms. Faulkner said to me when I was in the queue by the corner shop.
Ray looked over at me. “You’ve gotten quiet all of a sudden. What is it?”
“Ms. Faulkner,” I said. “I met her in the queue and she said something weird.”
“What about her? What queue?”
“The queue over at the corner shop. My parents sent me and Amy out to buy some supplies and while I was standing in line Ms. Faulkner was there too and she said something strange to me before she went into hysterics.”
“What did she say?”
“I don’t bloody remember now! Wait…I think she was telling me to beware of the exiled one. When you mentioned that wizard I remember you said something about him being an exiled magician or something like that.”
“Yeah, that’s what it said on his website, it was titled The Exiled Wizard. Why would Ms. Faulkner tell you that?”
“I don’t know, she just turned and had a mental look in her eyes, like she was foretelling the future or something.”
“Bollocks. You’re just lying now.”
“I’m not! She really did tell me this and she grabbed me; we were so close I could smell her breath. The other people around us broke it up and she got taken away by her sister.”
Ray giggled. “Ms. Faulkner, the old widow’s sister went mental on you? What else did she say?”
“She also said to me that I would be going to the land of the dead and that the Fomorians wouldn’t be too happy with me.”
“Good lord, she said that to you? Did she think you’re going to die then?”
“I don’t know…I hope not!”
“Don’t take what she said seriously. Just the ravings of a senile old spinster.”
“Yeah, I’d like to think so,” I said. “But there was just something about it all…it felt like she wasn’t really talking to me but rather it was somebody else who was doing the talking.”
“You mean, you think she was possessed or something?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Bloody mental. Do you think it might have something to do with all this?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know but I would rather think that she was just mad. If she was truly possessed then I’m in a whole lot of trouble.”
Ray nodded. “Well, I’m sure it’s nothing. Just don’t think about it.”
I remembered the money I had and so I took out a small wad of cash from my pocket and showed it to him. “Oh, here’s the twenty quid I owe you for installing the cheat on your gaming account.”
But instead of taking the money from my hand he just looked away. “Keep the money. I can ask my parents to open another account when all this is over.”
For the next few hours we didn’t really talk much as I started to help Ray pack up the other boxes. His parents came back inside after they had stuffed their car with just about everything. When I realized that it was getting late I decided to get going but I just didn’t have the heart to say anything to Ray; he felt the same way, as we both thought we might never see each other again after this visit, so I just waved at him as I left. Mrs. Lin wanted to give me some groceries when she heard that I was supposed to be out on an errand but I politely refused since I knew my sister’s boyfriend would be providing some stuff for us anyway. My last impression of Ray that day was that he seemed quite sad to see me go and wished that we could somehow stop everything and just muck about for old times’ sake. But in the end it was all too emotional for me so I just walked away and headed back home.
By the time I reached the corner shop it was pretty much empty. There were still a few people milling about and talking to each other but the store itself was closed with a large “Sold Out” sign taped on the door. Amy and Mark were standing across the other side of the street so I crossed over.
Amy seemed pretty upset when I finally got there. “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for almost half an hour. Mum and Dad will be upset.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m sorry, Ray got into a bit of a problem so I had to help him out.”
Amy pointed at a paper bag sitting on the ground beside her. “There are the groceries Mark’s dad had so pick them up and let’s get moving.”
I bent down and picked up the bag while Amy turned and hugged Mark one more time and they soon started to kiss again. Not wanting to waste one more moment, I started walking back towards our house. When Amy noticed I was already a hundred feet away she finally let go of her boyfriend and ran after me.
When we got back to our street we saw Mum and Dad outside of the house waiting for us. Mum’s arms were on her hips while Dad had crossed his. They didn’t seem particularly happy but they cheered up a bit as we got closer and they noticed that I was indeed carrying some groceries.
Dad took the groceries from my arms and headed towards the kitchen. “Well it’s about time you two got back; we were starting to get a little bit worried.”
“Steve almost went over to his friend’s house but I made sure he stayed in the queue with me,” Amy said while looking at me. I stuck out my tongue at her in response.
Mum went ahead and hugged me before placing her hand on Amy’s cheek as the three of us went inside. “I’ll draw up a bath for you, Steve. Thank God the water’s still running,” she said as she started to walk upstairs.
Dad started to unpack the paper bag, placing a four-pack of beer, two packets of crisps, and half a dozen candy bars on the kitchen worktop. “What in the hell did you two buy?”
Amy looked at me with flushed cheeks.
I merely shrugged as I looked back at my dad with a straight face. “That was all they had left by the time we got to the front of the queue. Sorry, Dad.”
Dad looked up to see if Mum was listening and we both turned our heads too. She was not apparently so he quickly took the cardboard pack of four beers and hid it behind the kitchen trash bin. “Don’t tell your mum about this,” he said softly.
That night it was all pretty quiet. There was an occasional radio update but everything else that had to do with communications just wasn’t working. We all ate a quiet dinner, with biscuits and pasta in place of bread. There were still people milling about outside and my parents joined them as they all discussed what the devil was going on. I knew it would be pointless so I just went back to my room and started playing some shooters and simulations on my gaming console.
As I was going through a particularly brutal level there was a knock on the door and Amy came in. She sat down on the side of my bed and waited until I was able to pause the game.
“Steve,” she said softly. “I’m going to go out tonight to see Mark again. Could you cover for me again please?”
I narrowed my eyes. “You do realize that there’s supposed to be a curfew on?”
“Yes, I know that but I got a text from him and he really wants to see me. I’m so sick of staying here anyway. There’s nothing to do and no one to talk to.”
“You can talk to Mum and Dad, they’re just outside, talking to the neighbors.”
“Oh you know what I mean, Steve! I want to talk to people our age, not with them.”
“Well what do you want me to say?”
“Say anything you like. I just wanted you to know where I would be going so you wouldn’t worry.”
“I’m not the one who’s going to be worried. It will be Mum and Dad.”
Amy sighed. “Look, I’ll wait until they go to bed and then sneak out. They don’t check on me anyway—they haven’t done that since I was just a small child. I’m just telling you in case they get unhinged if they find out that I’m gone. Just reassure them is all I ask.”
“Then you’re going to get me into trouble if they realize that I knew and never told them about it.”
She drew in a deep breath. “If they get mad at you then I’ll take full responsibility. Can I ask you this one favor, please?”
I snorted in disgust. “Fine, but you’ll owe me again.”
For the first time today Amy smiled as she gave me a hug. “Oh thank you, Steve. I promise you won’t regret this,” she said before getting up and leaving my room.
But the next day I did indeed regret it as they began the evacuation and Amy was nowhere to be found.
A strange mist began to roll in all around the neighborhood not long after the Fomorians attacked. I stayed in the house for a few more hours while I contemplated what I would do next. Avoiding the windows, I crept about until I got to the kitchen and then reached into the cupboard to get at the packets of biscuits that I knew were still in there. As I sat down behind the worktop I ate a few biscuits before placing the half-eaten packet into the pocket of my hoodie in case I got hungry later. Distant sounds of screams, gunfire and explosions could be heard every now and then. I finally decided that I needed to leave the house and perhaps head over to Ray’s place since Amy’s boyfriend was also living nearby; if I could find any of them then perhaps it could still somehow brighten this horrible day.
Just before leaving I took stock of what I had. I took Dad’s hand torch from the garage with me just in case I needed some illumination later. Remembering what Ray said to me I checked my mobile phone and sure enough the address of that wizard Amicus Tarr was in my phone’s inbox. Since I didn’t know where else to go other than to Ray’s house, this would give me an additional goal just in case I didn’t find anybody. The last thing I took with me was my pocketknife. I secretly bought a knife from one of my classmates last year and I never told Mum or Dad but I always kept it hidden in my room. Now that the world was at an end I figured it was now or never when it came to having a weapon so I placed it in my right trouser pocket. I didn’t know what good it would do against these Fomorians but I figured having a weapon was better than having nothing.
It was late afternoon by the time I slipped out of the front door and into the street. The strange mist had settled all over the place and I could barely see out into the distance as I sneaked around the shrubbery at the front of our house. The bodies of the soldiers and a few other people were still lying on the street along with an upturned Land Rover. I had thought about perhaps going over to the corpses and maybe taking one of their guns but I had decided against it. For one thing I had no clue how to use a military rifle and my dad had warned me numerous times about playing with firearms so I just nixed the idea. Also, there was that unpleasant fact that some of the dead were my neighbors so I just didn’t have the stomach to scavenge around. Since there were shrubs and trees lining the pavement on our street I decided to make my way towards Ray’s place by dashing from cover to cover. In between running I kept my eyes and ears peeled in case any more of those creatures were about but so far the entire area seemed deserted; it was as if the Fomorians had fully ransacked the neighborhood and had moved on to other choice pickings.
As I continued onto the next street I began to notice quite a few more bodies and overturned cars all over the place. A loud bang sounded just as I was about to cross an intersection near the corner shop, instantly startling me. Thinking that it might have been a Fomorian nearby or something even worse, I quickly looked around and noticed that the front door of the corner shop was slightly ajar so I sprinted towards it and pushed it open before diving inside.
The interior of the shop was dark and the whole place was ransacked. There were upturned shelves and the floor was covered with trash. Since I was near the entrance I couldn’t see anything past the counter. Just as I turned my attention back outside, looking out from the slightly opened door, I heard some scuttling noises coming from right behind me. Taking out the torch from my hoodie’s side pocket, I turned it on and aimed the light into the darkened interior. All I could see were empty and trashed display shelves but I caught sight of something small moving near the edge of one of the corner aisles. As I focused the light on it I nearly dropped the torch due to the sudden terror of seeing something that wasn’t supposed to be real.
There was a small creature standing near the edge of the aisle. It looked like one of those ceramic garden gnomes but it was dressed in rags and had pale gray, hairless skin. Its body was squat and had very long, thin arms dangling by its sides while its legs were shaped like small tree trunks that ended in a pair of very large feet and even bigger toes. It gave me a grimacing smile and showed its jagged front teeth just below its hooked nose and yellowish eyes while growling at me.
The fear in me was so palpable that I could almost grab onto it and it made me just stand there like a stone statue. For a few endless seconds we both just stared at each other. My mouth was wide open and my eyes were now as big as dinner plates. Then all of a sudden the creature snarled as it placed a protective hand over its eyes before it scampered away into the darkness once more. It was all too much for me so I instantly turned and ran out of the shop as quickly as I could.
As I caught my breath while standing in the middle of the fog-filled street I turned and noticed that the creature did not follow me out into the fading daylight. Sticking close to the pavement, I once more started to make my way towards the other end of the avenue.
I had thought about calling out to see if anyone would hear me but I decided against it lest I attracted unwanted attention. The fear of being alone was slowly grinding itself down into my very soul and I was really starting to get nervous now. Was I the only one left alive in the entire city? Surely there must have been others who’d survived and were still here, right?
Night had begun to fall as I walked past a few more avenues before finally turning into the street where Ray lived. As I got closer to his house I noticed that his dad’s car was just sitting on the street. Running over to it, I saw that it had been gutted by fire; its windscreen was caved in and the stack of burnt boxes was sticking out from the open boot. Thankfully I didn’t see any corpses in it but the mere thought that it hadn’t even made it out of the street filled me with such intense dread that I had to spend a few minutes just standing there in order to catch my breath.
As I got to the front door of my best mate’s house I noticed that it too was slightly ajar so I peeked in. That’s when I saw a dozen of the small creatures scurrying about. They looked very similar to the gnome-like thing I encountered in the corner shop’s interior only they seemed to be hard at work scrubbing the floors and making the place clean. My eyebrows arched in confusion. Why would they be doing that?
An idea suddenly occurred to me, and I cupped my hands to make a funnel over my mouth.
“Ray, are you in there?” I shouted, hoping that my best mate would hear and call out to me.
The creatures instantly reacted, snarling and howling at me while shaking their tiny little fists. I placed my hands up in a gesture of peace as I backed away from the door. A few more shrieks came from the group before three of them climbed on top of one another to gain some height. The three elevated creatures moved behind the door and pushed it closed and I heard the audible click of the bolt being locked in place.
As I stood dumfounded out in the street I saw the creatures drawing up all the window blinds until the whole house could no longer be observed. I just shook my head. Just what the bloody hell was that all about?
Right then. So it looked like staying in Ray’s house was now out of the question so what was I supposed to do next? As I just stood there thinking I remembered Ray’s last call to me. He had said his own neighborhood was under attack and he was heading towards the park. So that was it then. I turned around and started to walk towards Victoria Park.
As I walked towards the nearby commons I passed by Finchley Central train station. The small building looked deserted and I couldn’t see past a few feet into the darkened entrance. With all the horrors I had encountered so far I figured there might be worse things lurking along the tracks if I made my way there using the platforms so I decided against it and kept on moving. Even though I kept walking I kept to the center of the road because I began imagining things that might be lurking nearby and using the very shrubs and trees that I was using as a means to ambush me instead.
The fact that the city’s automated illumination systems were still active filled me with some hope as I used the faintly yellowish streetlights to navigate my way as I walked into the commons. Victoria Park was one of the smaller parks around the neighborhood but I practically grew up in it; my parents used to take me here almost every weekend to play. Although the park was normally closed after dusk I slowly made my way around the manicured trees to see if I could find Ray. I noticed some movement near the playground and so I crouched down beside one of the bigger tree trunks and tried to observe it.
While trying to scrutinize what was in the playground I hadn’t realized that something was creeping up behind me until a pair of hands came up in front of my face and I was thrown backwards to the ground. As I yelled and tried to get up someone placed a knee on my chest and I could feel two hands choking my throat. As I pulled out the torch from my hoodie and tried to hit my assailant with it I accidentally flicked the power switch and the light shone on his face.
It was my sister’s boyfriend who was on top of me. “Mark, stop!” I cried.
Mark instantly recognized my voice and he let go of my throat and stood up. “Steve? Is that you?”
“It bloody well is,” I said as he helped me up. “You nearly killed me, you tosser!”
“Sorry about that,” Mark said sheepishly.
Amy came running across the playground. “Steve! Oh my God! It is you!”
I ran over to her and we hugged each other. For the first time today I actually felt somewhat relieved.
My sister started to tear up. “Oh Steve, thank God you’re alive. Where are Mum and Dad?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I was in the house and they were in the transports when the Fomorians attacked. I hid in the house and when I went back out they were gone.”
Mark scratched his head. “Fomorians? What the bloody hell are Fomorians?”
“Those creatures, you knobhead,” I said to him before looking back at Amy. “Mum and Dad might still be alive; I didn’t see their bodies on the street so they must still be alive. I know it!”
Amy placed a reassuring hand on my cheek. “It’s okay, Steve. I believe you. It’s good that you’re with me now so that we can go find them.”
I nodded. At least my sister was alive. This was the best feeling I’d had all day. “What happened to you? We were waiting for you back at the house all morning.”
Amy looked away and stared at Mark. “I ended up spending the whole night over at Mark’s place,” she said. “When we woke up it was almost midday and those things you mentioned attacked that part of the neighborhood too just as I was in the toilet.”
I giggled a little. “You were in the loo when it happened?”
Amy sighed. “I shouldn’t have told you that part but I’m sure you would have kept asking for more details anyway. Mark and I made a run for it and we were able to hide while those things just kept taking people and then killed them. It was horrible.”
I looked at Mark. “So what made you go here?”
Mark looked down at the twilit grass. “I had one of my stashes in the park and so I thought if I could hide those things over here then why not us.”
I nodded. “One of your drug stashes? Right.”
Mark’s face got flushed. “Oy, watch your mouth, you little—”
Amy waved him off. “It’s okay, Mark. He gets a little annoying sometimes.”
Mark looked away as he crossed his arms. “Now what do we do? It’s getting colder by the minute.”
I squeezed Amy’s arm very gently. “Have any of you seen Ray? The last time we spoke on the mobile he said he was nearby.”
Mark shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Steve. We haven’t seen him,” Amy said softly.
I looked up into the gloomy night. “I hope he’s okay. He’s my best mate.”
“You’re both quite resourceful,” Amy said. “If you survived then I’m sure he’s probably around somewhere.”
“Look, there are some people over there!” Mark exclaimed, pointing at the opposite end of the park.
As the three of us stared at the misty copse of trees less than a hundred yards away, we made out what seemed to be a small crowd of people that were silently standing there. Since we figured it must be either more survivors or a rescue party we started walking towards them as Mark shouted aloud to get their attention.
While getting closer however, I began to sense something was wrong as their bodies seemed to be too pale, as if they were part of the mist that surrounded them. I quickly ran up to Mark, who was ahead of us, and grabbed his elbow to stop him from going any closer. He turned and looked at me as if I was mental or something.
“I don’t think they’re human,” I said softly to him just as Amy walked up and stood beside us.
When we looked at the group of people again, they finally turned to face us. Their bodies seemed to be part of the fog swirling back and forth around them. These people also seemed to be dressed in strange, ancient attire that was clearly not from our century and their eyes were glowing like embers in the night.
Amy shrieked while Mark let out a curse.
I quickly turned around and grabbed both of them by the arm and started moving away from the ghostly horde. “Run!”
The three of us ran for our lives towards the other side of the park without looking back. Mark was the fastest sprinter but he took Amy by her hand and got her to run faster while I was right behind them. The only time we turned around was when we got to the outskirts of the park and stopped to catch our breath.
Amy’s long auburn hair was blowing in the wind as she placed her hands over her knees as she gulped lungfuls of air. “Oh my God, what were those people?”
Mark kept staring back from where we had come. “B-blimey. T-they looked like ghosts. Like spirits and such. Bloody hell.”
I was still breathing rapidly myself. “I don’t think we can stay here.”
Mark kept looking around, expecting trouble to come in from all sides. “Where do we bloody go then?”
I took out my mobile phone and searched the inbox. “Hang on, give me a minute.”
“What are you searching for there, Steve? We already tried our phones earlier and we didn’t get any signal,” Amy said.
“Be quiet for a minute,” I said as I looked for Ray’s text from yesterday. “Aha, there it is!”
Amy stood closer to me while Mark remained on the lookout for us. “What’s that?” she said.
I started checking the address with the offline map on my phone. “The house of a certain Amicus Tarr, an exiled wizard who just happens to live not far from here,” I said smugly. “His house is just over in Highgate.”
Mark snorted. “A wizard? What do you think this is, a bloody fantasy movie?”
“Have you got a better idea then?”
“Well, no,” he said softly.
“Alright then!” I said to him before looking at Amy. “Ray talked about him just a few days back. He put up a website that predicted everything so I think he’s our best chance to get to safety.”
“I don’t know, it all sounds dodgy,” Amy said. “Are you sure about this, Steve?”
I sighed. “If you’ve a better idea then I’d sure like to bloody well hear it.”
Neither of them answered.
“Right then, follow me,” I said to them as I started to walk towards the avenue over to my left.
Following my instructions, all three of us kept our heads low as we ran from one piece of cover to the next as we slowly made our way across the city. Highgate was just to the south of us as we skirted along Falloden Way, taking care to stay close to the trees and the fenced shrubs that lined the pavement. The going was slow and we had to skirt around Waterlow Park because we noticed another group of ghostly figures like those we encountered previously that seemed to float around the trees as if they were doing some sort of strange, supernatural dance.
Although it took us nearly two hours because of the constant issue of hiding behind cover after each short dash we eventually made it to the edge of Highgate Cemetery. As I checked my mobile phone for the exact location once more I soon realized that the house was just over in the next street.
“We’re almost there,” I said to the two of them as we crouched behind a pair of wheelie bins just a few hundred meters from the cemetery entrance. The massive park of Hampstead Heath stood just to the other side of us.
“You better be bloody sure about this, mate,” Mark whispered to me. “If you muck this up I’m going to kill you.”
I grinned at him. “You’ll have to get through my sister first.”
After another half an hour of weaving, sprinting and taking cover, we at last made it to the front of an old mansion. The rusty iron gate was open and we walked up and faced the massive oak doors on its facade. The ancient stone walls looked like they were crumbling and an overgrowth of withered vines had surrounded the edifice. The building must have been at least a hundred years old.
“I don’t like this,” Amy whispered as the three of us just stood there side by side. “Let’s just leave.”
“There’s nowhere else to go,” I said softly.
Mark sighed. “Alright, how do we get in then?”
I pointed to the old rusted door knocker that had a stylized skull carved on its base. “Just go ahead and use that.”
Mark took a step back. “I’m not touching it, it looks cursed.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” I said as I took hold of the rust-colored metal ring and swung it onto the flat base of the knocker. A loud thump reverberated through the tense silence but there was no answer. I tried it again. A few minutes later, still no answer.
“My guess is that there’s nobody home,” Mark said.
I took out my torch and shone it around the building. “Let’s look around, maybe there’s a rear entrance or something.”
“Why not try breaking through the windows,” Mark said.
Amy walked over to one of the large windows at the front. “There are bars on it and it looks like it’s been boarded up.”
“Let me take a look,” Mark said as he walked over beside her and examined the window.
I moved over to where they were. “Well?”
“Just as I thought,” Mark said as he took out a screwdriver from beneath his jacket. “It’s an old shuttered window. There’s a gap in between the wooden shutters that I can push this through.” With that he started to shim the small slit until the screwdriver caught the latch and then he just lifted it up.
With a slight creak, the shutters flew open and all that separated us from the inside was the old glass in the window panes. Mark took out a small metal paperclip from his pocket and unbent it until it was almost straight. Then he used the screwdriver as a base to bend the tip of the paperclip into an L-shaped angle. Once he had the tool finished he placed it into the lock on the window and began twisting it ever so slightly until he heard a click. Mark smiled as he placed the bits back in his jacket pockets then used both hands to pull the window panes outward. Although the window still had bars on it I was small enough to squeeze through them without any difficulty.
I was quite impressed. “Which dodgy school did you learn that from?”
Mark turned back to me. Even though it was mostly dark I could see him wink at me. “From the school of hard knocks. Now shut it and just get in there so you can open the front door from the inside and let us in, yeah?”
I quickly shifted my body sideways and pulled myself through in between the bars. My nose nearly got smashed but I was able to get inside with very little difficulty. The ground level was dark and the whole place looked deserted but as I made my way to the front door I noticed that there was a light coming from the grand hall beside the staircase. I quickly moved over to the foyer and unlocked the front door and pushed on it. The door opened with a slight creak and Mark and Amy slipped inside before I closed it once more.
Amy pointed at the light coming from the passage and said in a low whisper, “Is there someone in there?”
Mark tapped me on the shoulder. “Now what do we do?”
I stood up straight and started walking into the corridor leading to the hall. “We make an entrance, of course.”
As I made my way into the passage, Mark and Amy followed close behind. I had thought about taking out my knife to keep it ready but decided against it; I was the intruder in someone else’s house and the last thing I wanted was to get into a confrontation.
The hallway doors were made of solid brown wood and were as thick as the entrance doors. They were partly open and I could see a pale sliver of yellowish light shining through. I placed my hand on the door and pushed it open. It gave way with a slight creaking noise and I stepped inside. The great hall had a massively tall ceiling that stretched up to the second story. All along the walls were lacquered wooden shelves filled with old leathery hardbound books. Several sheaves of parchments were wedged in between these old tomes as if the owner had run out of space to store them. Antique lamps hung overhead and provided pale illumination across the room.
Standing in the center of the room was an old man. He was wearing a black gown and he was bent over an old wooden table with intricate carvings on its sides. As I looked on he seemed to be examining a black disk of some sort.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said in a low voice. “My friends and I made it into your home and I was hoping we could seek some shelter for the night.”
The old man didn’t react as he kept staring at the black object in his hands. I noticed that he was wearing a pair of thick glasses and had a white goatee that drooped all the way down to his chest. His pale silvery hair was unkempt and thick on the sides but it couldn’t hide his receding hairline. That was when I saw that he had a stone medallion that he wore on a chain around his neck.
Mark had stood beside me. “Is he deaf or something?”
Amy placed her hand on his elbow. “Just leave him be, he seems to be hard at work on something.”
Curiosity got the better of me so I started walking closer to the old man. There were other, smaller tables near the bookshelves and they seemed to contain a multitude of small glass bottles with some strange swirling gas inside of them.
“Steve,” Amy hissed softly. “Where are you going? Get back here.”
As I got nearer to him, I noticed that the object that the old man was holding seemed to be some sort of black mirror. He seemed to be concentrating on it as he just stared blankly at his own reflection. I just couldn’t help myself any longer so I moved over and stood beside him as I tried to look into the dark glass to see if I could notice anything as well.
The moment that my own reflection appeared beside the old man’s gaze he instantly put the mirror down on the table and then turned to look at me. I took a step back when I realized what I had done. Amy gasped and Mark tensed up as if he was ready to make a quick dash.
“That was very rude, young man,” the old man said without any emotion. “You shouldn’t be interrupting me while I am scrying through the looking glass. Doing so may sometimes bring unwanted attention to the both of us.”
“I-I am sorry, sir,” I said. “I was just curious as to what you were looking at since it might have shed some light on our current predicament and my curiosity got the better of me. Please forgive me.”
The old man’s eyebrows arched upwards in parallel. The blue irises of his eyes were magnified by the thick glasses he wore. “Hmm, I must admit that there is a lot more interest in these things nowadays. Now who are you and who are your friends and what are you doing in my manse?”
“M-my name is Steve Symonds, sir,” I said nervously before pointing over to my companions. “That’s my older sister Amy and her boyfriend, Mark Loman. W-we ran away when the Fomorians attacked our neighborhood and we made our way here. I noticed that one of your front windows was left open so I slipped inside and opened the door for them to come in. P-please, sir, we were just looking for a safe place to spend the night. We promise not to be a bother to you and I have some money to pay for lodging.”
The old man tilted his head back and let out a deep, throaty laugh. “Money? With all that’s happened you expect me to take your money? My dear boy, the world has changed and now currencies are a thing of the past.”
Amy and Mark said nothing; they just looked at each other.
“Y-you’re right, sir,” I said. “Well if you won’t take our money then perhaps I can assist you in anything that you need. I’m willing to do anything just for a place to stay until morning.”
The old man’s demeanor changed from mild amusement to interest. “My, that is an interesting offer you just made, Steve Symonds. After what I saw in the mirror I may be in need of a servant that could do a job for me.”
Amy smiled and she relaxed while Mark let out an obvious sigh of relief.
I smiled as well. “T-thank you, sir. Whatever you need from me, I am at your service. I heard you were a wizard of some sort.”
“Quite right,” the old man said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Amicus Tarr and I bid you all welcome to Clarent House.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Amy said as Mark smiled and nodded.
Amicus walked over to the middle of the room and I followed and stood beside him. He stared at Amy for a brief minute before clasping his hands. I noticed that his long, pale fingers had a multitude of jeweled and metal rings on them. “Young lady, you seem tired. I have an extra guestroom upstairs. It’s the first door to the left of the upper landing. It’s got a rather large bed and a couch for your…friend,” he said as he looked at Mark. “Steve can stay here for a bit so that I can acquaint him with what I need done.”
“Thank you, sir,” Amy said as she turned and started to walk out of the room. Mark nodded to me before he followed.
“Oh, and although the room may be stuffy, please do not open any windows,” Amicus said to them just as they were about to leave the room. “We mustn’t attract the Fomorians for they are all over the city by now and some of them track by scent.”
Amy and Mark smiled as they nodded in assent before walking out and closing the door behind them.
Amicus turned his attention to me. “Now then, lad, just how did you find out where I was living?”
“Well I saw your website when a mate of mine referred me to it,” I said. “This was before you shut it down and so I copied your home address from it and kept that on my mobile.”
“You are a very clever boy. What made you think that I was important at all?”
“Well, Ray, my mate, he said that you predicted all of this would happen and so if trouble came about then the best thing to do was to go and find you.”
“A logical plan of action,” Amicus said. “Although I must admit that I hadn’t expected things to unfold this rapidly. You see, I spent a lifetime gathering all these old tomes of magic and hoping and praying that I could somehow be the magician that I had dreamed of since I was but a small child. People ridiculed me and said I was insane. Now it turns out that I was right after all.”
I nodded. “Well, you definitely proved everyone wrong. If I could ask you, Mr. Tarr, do you know what brought all this about?”
Amicus shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I’m still trying to catch up with all that is happening myself. It seems that the ancient gods of myth weren’t imaginary at all. It seems that they were, in fact, real and now they have returned with a vengeance.”
“All the ancient gods returned? Is all this happening in the other parts of the world as well then?”
“Oh yes,” Amicus said as he walked back to the massive table in the center of the room. “The Aztec gods have returned to Central America and they are causing all sorts of havoc over there. They may even be powerful enough to conquer the United States and Canada. The old Slavic gods are now in Eastern Europe and I heard that there is a new coven of witches that rules over the Iberian Peninsula and they are currently embroiled in a war against the Inquisition. Scandinavia has been completely snowed under and there is now a land bridge of ice that connects the entire northern hemisphere. I wouldn’t want to set foot anywhere in the north though; that entire region is now the land of the giants.”
“Giants? You mean like those monsters I saw in the movies?”
“Exactly. Demons and spirits now roam with impunity all over the world, particularly in Africa and Asia. The ancient Sumerian gods now rule over what was once the Middle East and they are easily sweeping aside the three major Abrahamic religions. India is in a rather…unique situation.”
“Speaking of which,” I said, “where is our god? You know, the Christian one? Why hasn’t he reappeared just like all the others?”
“Who knows,” Amicus said. “Perhaps he is just biding his time or perhaps he doesn’t care. Or maybe it’s because he never existed at all.”
“So you’re saying that we were wrong about who it was that we believed in all this time?”
Amicus winked at me as he held up the black mirror once more. “That is a distinct possibility, lad. If one is to survive these days then one must be knowledgeable about the old gods and how to placate them. The alternative is death, or perhaps something far, far worse.”
“Alright then,” I said. “How were you able to protect yourself against these Fomorians? How is it that you are the only other person left alive that I’ve seen aside from the three of us?”
“Two things,” Amicus said. “Knowledge and power. I must admit on the latter part, however, that my magic somehow came alive only in the past few days; prior to that it never worked. There is still so much to learn and I am already an old man so time is of the essence. I must continue to find the answers before…”
Amicus looked away. “Before my old master returns and attempts to destroy me one final time.”
I thought about what he had said for a minute. “Your old master? Wait, it said on your website that you are some sort of exiled magician. Are there others like you?”
“Yes. I was once a member of the Temple of the Black Sun.”
“Temple? Is that some sort of church group?”
Amicus sighed at the silliness of my question. “It’s an order of magicians. We believed that magic was real and we were all devoted to a lifelong quest to find ancient artifacts so that we could gain power through them. Our Grand Magus was a man named Orlok, a thoroughly despicable individual. I studied with them for decades before they cast me out about twenty years ago.”
“What happened? Why did they cast you out?”
“Betrayal,” Amicus said. “For years I was considered to be next in line to become Grand Magus until another apprentice, an American named Solomon, outmaneuvered me. I was accused of making statements contrary to the Temple’s bylaws and then they cast me out of the order. They claimed that I was keeping secrets from them about a certain magical object. They said that I knew the whereabouts of this said item and I should have told them about it. I refused and so I returned to England alone. I later learned that my rival Solomon betrayed the Temple a few years later as well. What scoundrels they all are.”
“But since you refused to answer them then it sort of implies that you did know where this object was, right?”
Amicus smiled at me. His rotting teeth were stained brown. “You are indeed clever. Yes, I did in fact find the ancient relic and I didn’t tell them about it. I was hoping that they would see the error of their ways and would apologize and permit me to return and become the Grand Magus, but that Orlok fellow had plans of his own and so we engaged in a magical war for years and years until all this happened.”
I smirked. “Right then, so where is this magical artifact that you seem so happy about anyway?”
Amicus held up the blackened glass in front of me. “You’re looking at it.”
“That thing? It’s just a mirror, right? What is it supposed to do?”
“It is a scrying device made of black obsidian. This particular mirror is in fact Mayan in origin. I found clues as to its location when I made a trip to Mexico and found an old parchment that was hidden in a church there. Apparently the priests who ran that church had handed down the secret map to their successors in order to safeguard its location for centuries until I was able to acquire it. It is rumored to be the very mirror that can be used to talk to Tezcatlipoca.”
“Tez what? Who?”
“Tezcatlipoca,” he said. “He is one of the major deities of the Aztecs. One of the four gods who created the world according to that ancient civilization in fact, so it makes him one of the most powerful ever. His other name is the god of the smoking mirror. It is also rumored that the one who possesses the mirror can see into the future as well as being able to observe events that happen anywhere not only on the earth but also in other worlds.”
I had to admit that I was still skeptical. “Right, so it’s through that thing that you could predict all this was going to happen?”
“I had been staring into this mirror for decades until a peculiar thing happened just a few years ago,” Amicus said wistfully. “A strange man wearing an ornate mask appeared in my reflection behind me even though I was alone in my room. He told me that the gods would return soon. That was the one vision that I had and it haunted me for years. There was a time I had even thought that I was going mad. But now I have realized that the vision was indeed true.”
“So it works then?”
“Of course it does! I have been scrying into it these past few days and it helped me prepare and survive against the Fomorians.”
I was in schoolboy mode now and on a learning curve. “Speaking of the Fomorians, is it true that they were considered to be the original inhabitants of Ireland?”
Amicus nodded. “Yes, according to legend. And since we now know that myths are real I guess that assumption has been confirmed by recent events.”
“If they are natives to Ireland then what are they doing over here? Don’t we have our own gods and goddesses and such?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Amicus said. “The Isle of Britain was settled by many distinct peoples over time but since they didn’t have a written language, most of what we knew came from Roman and Christian sources. You must realize that Britain and Ireland were once a single landmass up until about fourteen thousand years ago. We know for a fact that the Britons, who may very well have been a Celtic tribe, mind you, came soon after the largely unknown Neolithic tribes that first raised the standing stones in places like Stonehenge and such. The stories of the Fomorians are from Celtic myths and legends so in fact, the myths of these creatures do belong here as well.”
“What about our own legends, like King Arthur and such?”
“The myths and tales of King Arthur happened much later, soon after the Roman Empire fell and Britain was subjected to waves of invasions and assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons. But then again the information we have on all this is quite scant so there are no definitive conclusions, I’m afraid.”
I looked down at the wooden floor. “So you’re saying there’s not much hope for us, then?”
“Hope for what? That our government will somehow rally our military and we will all of a sudden retake England from the Fomorians? Oh no, lad, that will simply not happen. You cannot fight gods with guns and cannons.”
“Well, if not guns then I was at least hoping to get that magic sword Excalibur so I could defeat these horrible creatures,” I said in despair. “I mean, what are we supposed to do now? Just lie down and die?”
Amicus moved closer to me and placed an old, trembling hand on my shoulder. “There may still be some hope yet, young Steve. You asked me if you could do something for me and in fact there is a task you are capable of doing in order to ensure that the Fomorians won’t attack us.”
“Okay, what is this task that you want me to do then?”
The old wizard winked at me, then started to walk towards the doors. “Follow me, if you please.”
So I started to walk behind him as we both left the great hall and moved further down the corridor until we stood at the end of it. In front of us was a smaller door that Amicus opened, inviting me to go inside. As I stepped forward I almost fell backwards in complete surprise when I saw endless reflections of my own image walking straight at me.
Amicus chuckled as he stopped me from falling on my back. “It’s not what you think it is. Look again.”
As I peered inside one more time I soon realized that it was a room full of mirrors that stared straight back at my own form. There were looking glasses of all sizes that occupied every single niche on the walls along with free-standing mirrors to create an infinite array of our own reflections from all angles.
I scratched my head. “What’s all this then?”
Amicus held up the black mirror as he stood beside me. “You might think that this room is but a mass of mirrors but it serves as a gateway to the other worlds. I have need of someone like you in order to retrieve a powerful relic from the time of legends. Once we have this item in our possession we will be fully protected from those demons lurking outside and your obligations to me shall be fulfilled.”
I nodded even as a growing sense of fear and mistrust began to raise the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. “So you want me to travel to another dimension and steal something for you?”
Amicus gently shook his head. “Steal? Of course not. You cannot steal something that has already been stolen.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“This particular treasure is underneath the trunk of a tree. It was buried there by raiders. All you have to do is get it and bring it back to me. It’s not heavy, I’m sure you could carry it on your own.”
I raised one eyebrow. He was hiding something, I could tell. “And this treasure, is it being guarded by something?”
He shrugged. “Well…yes and no.”
I knew it. “Come on then. Out with it.”
Amicus frowned. It was as if he hated having to tell the truth. “Yes, there is supposedly a creature guarding it but someone clever like you should easily take it without it even noticing. It will be a piece of cake, as they say.”
“This guardian, is it quite big?”
“You could say that, yes.”
“Is it strong?”
“Yes, I would say so.”
“Does it have claws and such?”
“Does it have a mouth that can swallow me in one bite?”
“I don’t know…”
“Oh all right, yes it does!”
I took in a deep breath. “So after admitting all of that, you want me to go in by myself and take this monster on and bring the treasure back to you just like that?”
Amicus looked up since he couldn’t look me in the eye. “Well that was the long and short of it…”
I grimaced. “And just how do you expect me to bloody do that?”
Amicus pointed a crooked finger at me. “Language.”
“Language my arse! You want me to go there and die for you, is that it? You’re mad!”
“Of course not; if you were to die then how could you bring the relic back?”
“Then how do you expect me to accomplish this?”
He squinted at me. “I am to assume you’re still a virgin, right?”
My eyes became as big as saucers again for the third time today. “What?”
“You did say you’re younger than your sister and you do look quite young so I assumed that you would be. I tried looking at the black mirror but it couldn’t tell.”
My cheeks were turning beet red. “What the bloody hell is this all about? Do you want to string me up as a sacrificial virgin or something now?”
“No, no, no,” Amicus said as he made a calming gesture with his hands. “I only asked that because this forest is in the realm of the faeries and they are predisposed to be more amicable to virgins and children so if I send in a virgin child our chances of success will be even greater. That’s all.”
I was still suspicious. “So this isn’t some sort of naughty insinuation or something like that?”
“Of course not! Who do you think I am?”
It was my turn to look away. “Just asking. For the record yes, I am still a virgin.”
“Alright then,” Amicus said as we both calmed down. “I need you to prepare, for this will be a long journey and it might take some time.”
“But what about my sister and Mark?”
“They are resting. When they wake up I’m sure they will wait for you.”
“But you said this will take a while and we were planning to leave by tomorrow.”
Amicus placed his hands on his hips. “And where do you expect to go afterwards? There’s nowhere outside that’s safe, you know.”
“But the government had us evacuated when the Fomorians attacked my street so that means there must be safe areas nearby and our parents are probably over there waiting for us.”
“Lad, the Fomorians have effectively conquered the whole of England,” Amicus said matter-of-factly. “Scotland may still be holding out but not for long since the faeries and the giants up north will start to consolidate their own holdings as well. The government has lied to you. There are no safe areas. Even going to other countries will not be safe since other gods now make their own domains there. I am sure your sister and her friend can be convinced to stay until your return.”
I was fighting to hold back my tears. “A-are you saying t-that my m-mum and dad…”
Amicus gently took hold of my arm. “We’re not sure of anything at this point, lad. Just stay strong until this task is done and I’ll see to it that we will look for your parents afterwards.”
I almost cried but I didn’t. After about a minute I calmed down and wiped away the tears that had slid over my eyelids with my hands. “Alright, I’m just going to tell my sister what I’m up to,” I said as I started to leave the room.
The old man’s grip on my arm suddenly tightened. “She is fast asleep, best not to disturb her. Anyway, time is different in the faerie realm so she will hardly notice that you’ve been gone.”
I twisted and pulled my arm away. “I’m going to see her anyway,” I muttered under my breath as I finally got out to the corridor.
Amicus called out to me. “I need you to go now! Hurry up and come back here!”
The sense of dread began to creep up in the back of my mind again but I forced it away as I ran up the stairs and headed for the left wing of the upper mansion. Stopping in front of the door to her room, I knocked softly. There was no answer. As I twisted around and was just about to head back downstairs again, I had a strange feeling that all was not right so I faced the door one more time and rapped my knuckles on it yet again.
There was still no answer so I finally turned the old latch and pushed the door inwards before stepping inside. The place looked like a bedroom from an old period drama on the telly; there was an antique four-poster bed with dark carved wood and crimson curtains hanging over it. The wood paneling along the walls looked Victorian and old painted portraits of long-dead people covered the panels. A few more tables along the side of the room contained rows of identical glass bottles, the same ones I had seen in the main hall. As I moved to the center of the room I noticed that Mark seemed to have fallen asleep on the old stuffed couch near the door. I walked over to the bed and saw that Amy was also in a deep slumber as she just lay there fully clothed on top of the ornately quilted blanket. She must have been so tired that she didn’t even bother to take her shoes off.
At that very moment, as I peered at her sleeping form, that sense that I had earlier returned to the back of my mind and filled me with trepidation once again. Something wasn’t right. As I looked closer I realized that her lips were painted black. I stood fully upright and scratched my head. Having known her since I was born, I never knew my sister to ever use black lipstick. She wasn’t into the goth or emo groups at her school as far as I knew. I placed my finger on her lips to try and brush the dark paint off when I realized that it wasn’t lipstick at all, her lips had somehow turned black!
I got hold of her shoulders and instantly began to shake her awake. “Amy! Amy! Wake up!”
It was no use. She seemed to be in some sort of deep sleep and she didn’t even move. For a moment I thought that she was already dead yet I could still see both her nose and chest moving slightly as she breathed. My fears were slightly relieved as I moved over to where Mark was and then I noticed that his lips were black too. Since he was a man I slapped him hard across his cheek to see if he would awaken but it was of no use as he too seemed to be under some sort of enchantment.
My mind was now racing in all directions as I quickly ran down the stairs, but just as I was about to run back to the room of mirrors, I quickly stopped in front of the open double doors of the great hall as I suddenly remembered something. It was an incident that had happened the day before in the queue in front of the corner shop when the old spinster said something to me.
“Beware of the exiled one,” she had said.
The feeling of dread was acute now as I stumbled back into the main hall. When I walked over to the tables along the sides that contained the tiny glass bottles I noticed that one bottle in particular seemed to contain a shimmering, opaque fog that would apparently twist in my direction as if it was somehow trying to gain my attention. I quickly moved in front of the table and picked it out from among the other small bottles and held it in my hand. As I peered into it, the mist within the bottle began to somehow take shape. My eyes widened in complete shock when the tiny little haze within the container became more distinct and transformed itself into Ray.
I cried out and nearly dropped the bottle but I was able to calm down fairly quickly as I looked into the container once more. Ray’s tiny form seemed to be contained within the vapors and he was gesturing frantically, as if trying to warn me about something.
“Oh dear,” a voice behind me said.
As I turned around, I quickly placed the bottle in the side pocket of my hoodie without anyone noticing. I knew that voice and it sounded like a man whose secrets had been shattered.
Amicus Tarr was standing in front of the hall doors. “I take it you happen to know one of the souls in those little bottles, yes?”
I took a deep breath. “You’ve been lying to me.”
“Lie? No, not really,” he said. “You just didn’t ask the right questions is all.”
“Let me ask them now then,” I said. “What have you done with my sister and her boyfriend?”
Amicus gently pulled at his goatee. “Just a simple enchantment. I placed them under a spell to keep them out of the way so that you would do this task for me.”
“Are you truly against the Fomorians?”
The old man chuckled. “Why should I deprive the Fomorians of England? What has this country ever done for me aside from ignoring me and my beliefs? All those that ridiculed me are now either suffering or are dead. That is just revenge for me.”
“Then you’re allied with those beasts, aren’t you?”
“Allied? No. We tolerate each other since I struck a bargain with them. They let me do what I want in exchange for…”
I pointed at the numerous glass bottles sitting on the tables. “In exchange for people’s souls?”
Amicus smiled once more as he held a crooked finger in the air. “My, you are indeed clever! Very well, I shall tell you everything. Yes, I do collect souls for them and in exchange they do not attack. I wanted you to go on this quest in order to get an old relic that will fully protect me against any future hostility so that I would not have to gather any souls in the future. Surely you can see that my plan is for the better, yes?”
“And I’m to risk my life in exchange for what?”
“In return I will restore your sister and her friend to the fullest of health. After you get me what I need you are all free to go but if you would like to stay I could have a use for you as a successor. I shall pass all of my knowledge over to you so that you can be a powerful magician yourself.”
“What about my parents and the others in my neighborhood? Did you kill them?”
Amicus shook his head. “Oh no, I have only taken the souls of the ones who were foolish enough to venture into my house. I doubt your parents even knew of me.”
I looked over at the multitude of bottles once more. “So all the souls you have here were the ones who came over to you and sought help and instead you murdered them? You are truly mad. You realize that you won’t get away with this, don’t you? Once the authorities hear of this you will be arrested.”
Amicus laughed again. “The authorities? You are a clever lad but still quite foolish. The government and all its authority are quite gone, I’m afraid. We have entered a new dark age of magic and gods in which only the strong shall survive. I ask you again if you will join me. If you do what I ask you will be granted more power than you’ve ever dreamed of.”
“Never. I’m not a murderer and I don’t want to be a bloody wizard.”
The old man frowned as he held the obsidian mirror in front of me. “Then you are a fool. So be it.”
It was then that I realized that I couldn’t move a single muscle in my body. I began to tremble; I was paralyzed yet I could still somehow sense everything that was going on. I tried to talk but my mouth wouldn’t open. My hands and feet stayed where they were. My eyes kept staring at Amicus as the old wizard channeled all of his power into the obsidian mirror. I could hear the beginnings of a terrible noise, as if the heavens were being torn asunder.
“I forgot to tell you the one other thing that the black mirror does,” Amicus said as a cloud of inky darkness began to erupt from the obsidian scrying glass and started to make its way towards me. “It can also send my enemies into the land of the dead. There you shall stay until you change your mind about my bargain.”
My mouth was finally able to function and I screamed while being engulfed in a smoke-filled darkness that completely blinded me so that all I could see was a black nothingness. The numbing cold began to permeate through my whole body and it felt as if the dark energies were tearing me apart before they devoured me. After that I stopped feeling anything at all.
There were a number of times when I wondered what it would be like to truly die. When I asked my mum about it for the first time when I was seven she simply said that it feel like going to sleep and never waking up ever again. A few days after that one of my other classmates in primary school told me that everyone had a soul and it would go to a wondrous place called heaven, where everything was nice and all that and so I asked him if heaven was so nice then why doesn’t everyone just kill themselves and stay there but then he said that you had to live a good life first in order to get there. When I asked him what that meant he told me to shut up so I slapped him in the face and he started crying and he told me I would be going to hell before the teacher pulled us apart. Hell, I soon learned, was a place of eternal torment and that unless I behaved myself I would surely end up there. When I told all my fears to my dad he simply said that neither heaven nor hell was truly proven so one could never be too sure what would happen when you die so it’s just better to wait. After he told me that I sort of stopped thinking about it for a bit.
The one time that death truly did affect me was when we visited my grandmother while she was in the care home. I was around eight years old then and I always wondered why everyone seemed so nice and quiet yet it felt like they were all hiding something. Granny had knitted a sweater for Dad and he proudly wore it while Mum couldn’t help herself as she made a loud snort and then left the room in tears. It had all felt so artificial and strange when a few days later my parents called me over to the living room and said that Granny had died of cancer. That was when I remembered all those things about heaven and hell and I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day when I finally realized just how cruel and heartless the world could be.
And now it looked like my questions might be truly answered as I woke up in the land of the dead. As soon as I opened my eyes I experienced an instant flood of awareness as all my other senses had also come alive almost instantly. The first image that I saw was the gray sky. I could not see a sun shining nor was it dark; it seemed to be an overcast day encompassed by a shroud of perpetual mist and gloom.
I had been lying on the soft, marshy surface of damp grass that I sensed was neither alive nor dead. As I sat up I noticed that every blade of grass in this seemingly endless bog was as gray as the sky. When I stood up and looked around I saw that the wet, gloomy mire was dotted with an occasional tree; their lone trunks of gnarled, twisted gray wood seemed to sprout out of the bog like some sort of petrified serpents that had tried to worm and slither their way into the misty air. There were also bog pools of dark, brackish water that seemed to contain stone statues of people in all sorts of deathlike poses just beneath the surface. I was instantly reminded of the time when we went camping in the Scottish moors last summer, only this particular land seemed more hellish and damned.
My feet were soaked as the wet ground had penetrated my trainers and so I walked around making mulching noises with every step as the cold dampness began to chill me all over my body. The visibility of the whole place was no more than about thirty feet as an endless fog seemed to cover the horizon in every direction. The more I traveled the more it seemed that this land had no end to it. As I kept on going, hoping to find a way out, I noticed that there was a hunched figure up ahead of me.
As I got closer to it, I saw it was an old woman; from my own memories it looked to be someone I knew. When I got to within ten feet of her she turned around and I got to see her face.
It was Ms. Faulkner. Her entire form seemed to be made out of the grayish mist that was all around us while her features seemed vaguely transparent as the wind continuously poked holes in her ghost-like body. “You are now in the land of the dead, Steve,” she said mockingly before cackling like a witch.
I screamed in fright as I turned and ran the other way. As I dashed across the horrific landscape, I could see that there were times that the mists would form into the familiar faces of the people in my neighborhood as well as an occasional classmate and they all seemed to call out to me, as if trying to either warn me or to lament about what had happened to them. Their shrill screams echoed across the infinite bog and I had to cover my eyes to prevent myself from going mad.
After a while I was finally out of breath and couldn’t run any longer so I finally gave up and just sat on the stump of a barren, gnarled tree. I brought my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them and put my head down. I was on the verge of crying my eyes out until I heard a small tapping noise coming from the side pocket of my hoodie.
My eyes went wide as I remembered that I had placed the glass bottle in the pocket of my hooded pullover. I quickly took it out and looked at the glass container closely. The swirling mists within the bottle reformed again and Ray’s tiny figure was staring back at me as he pointed at something above him. Realizing what he meant, I placed my other hand around the cork stopper at the top of the bottle and twisted it off. Almost immediately the bottle began to emanate a swirling black cloud; I set it down on the ground and stepped back.
Within seconds the black mist had subsided and Ray stood in front of me. He didn’t seem fully formed though—he looked to be slightly transparent and there was a strange, neon-green aura of energy surrounding him.
If he was a demon that planned to kill me I was far too tired to run anymore. “Ray, is that really you?”
He nodded. Ray was still wearing the same clothes as the last time I saw him. “It’s good to see you again, Steve.”
“Ray, what happened? How did you get into that bottle?”
He just shrugged. “Right after I called you I was able to make it to the park but I realized that it wouldn’t be safe there either. So I made my way to the wizard’s house using the address that I texted over to you. He seemed like a nice man and invited me inside after I knocked on his door. There were a few dozen others who had the same idea as me and we all just sat around in one of the rooms until the old man came back and served us some tea and reassured us that we were safe. I think we all drank it and pretty soon we were unable to move our bodies. Amicus then went to each one of us and began to chant some sort of spell and he used the mirror as a sort of focus for it. That old wizard destroyed my physical body and trapped what remained of my essence in a bottle along with the others.”
The words struck me like a bolt of lightning and I nearly fell over. “Y-you mean, you’re dead? Like a ghost?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
It was all too much now so I really did start to cry. My best mate was dead and his ghost was talking to me now while my sister was most probably going to be killed as well. I didn’t even want to think about what had happened to my parents.
For a few minutes neither of us said anything. Ray just stood there watching over me like some guardian angel while my tears and sobs just kept coming out. Just when I thought I had finally gotten over it I would all of a sudden think back to what had happened once more and the snuffles would start all over again. This kept on going for a bit until I was too exhausted to cry any more.
Ray was pretty patient over all this as he waited until I got my wits back together. “For what it’s worth, Steve, none of it was your fault,” he said softly.
I shook my head as I used my pullover sleeves as a handkerchief for my snot. “I just can’t believe that it all ended this way. I guess this means I’m dead too.”
“You’re not dead though.”
I turned to look at him. “What?”
“I said you’re not dead. Amicus Tarr didn’t destroy your body like he did mine, he simply opened a conduit to the dead lands and thrust you into it.”
“I-I’m not dead? How can you be sure?”
Ray took a few steps in front of me as he moved around back and forth to illustrate his point. “Look at me: I’m partly transparent and there’s this green glow around me. You on the other hand still have a full body and you can even cry and spit mucous all over the place.”
“My shoes and feet are pretty wet too. I think I’ll probably catch a cold and die if this keeps up.”
“You’re lucky then. I don’t even feel my body at all.”
I sighed. “I may be alive now but I’ll probably be dead soon enough. Then I could probably join my parents and all my troubles will be over.”
“I don’t think your parents are dead.”
“I said I don’t think they’re dead!”
“I heard you, what makes you think that? Did you hear from them?”
Ray looked down at the marshy ground. “I didn’t hear from them but I did hear from my own parents. They mentioned the ones who died that they knew but they didn’t bother to name your parents or you or your sister so that’s why I think they’re all still alive.”
I felt re-energized and I wanted to jump up in the air. “That’s great news, Ray! Thank you!” And then I realized something else. “But since you heard from your parents does this mean that they too…”
“Are dead? Yes, I would think so.”
I remembered Mrs. Lin and her great cooking. Ray’s mum and dad were always nice to me. “B-but how?”
“We were already in our car and about to follow the military transports but then those Fomorians attacked us from everywhere. Some giant smashed into the car’s windscreen and I think my dad was killed instantly. My mum screamed at me to get out and so I did but when I turned I saw that she was trapped in the front seat. I looked away and ran back towards the house and I heard her cries but I didn’t look back. It still bothers me now that I didn’t even turn around and try to rescue her.”
I tried to place a reassuring arm on Ray’s shoulder but my hand just went right through his ghostly form. “I’m sorry, Ray. I’m sure she wanted you to get to safety so there’s no shame in what you did.”
“If I could cry I would,” Ray said. “But it seems I just have no feelings at all in a body like this.”
“How did you end up contacting your parents?”
“Not long after my essence was placed in the bottle I heard my parents calling out to me. I tried as hard as I could and was able to acknowledge them and they were able to give me some information as to who had died and about the dead lands.”
“Well, at least you were able to talk to them again. But if all three of you are dead then how come you’re here with me now and your parents aren’t?”
“I think it’s something the wizard did,” Ray said. “He didn’t kill me outright unlike the Fomorians; he somehow distilled my essence and placed it in the bottle. And it may also be because of you.”
“Because of me? How?”
“You were transported to the land of the dead in a physical manner and you brought along the bottle containing my essence. I’m not quite sure how it all works but you somehow released me here and now I can wander to other places of my own free will.”
I smiled. “Then there is hope for you yet, Ray! If you’re not dead the way that the others are then maybe there’s a chance you can still be brought back to life!”
He just shrugged. “Anything’s possible I guess but I doubt it.”
I was feeling giddy now. “Chin up, Ray! If there’s a chance then we need to get to it right away.”
“I’ve never seen you this animated before, Steve. Or even this optimistic about things.”
“Thanks to your talk, you’ve given me hope. It’s the best news I’ve had in a long time and I think it’s exactly what I needed. I-I have to admit that I’ve always looked up to your guidance, Ray. I should have complimented you about this before and I’m sorry it took so long.”
“Well it seems we had to wait until I was dead to hear your words of praise about me but thanks anyway.”
“Don’t be cheeky, Ray.”
“Right, so what are you planning to do from here on then?”
“That bloody wizard Amicus has got my sister and her boyfriend in some sort of death sleep. I need to free them from it and get them out of that place.”
“Amicus Tarr seems to have become quite powerful. It’s going to be hard to defeat him.”
“I need your guidance, Ray. How do we beat that wizard? If you can get me over there can you use your ghost powers to destroy him or something like that?”
Ray sighed. “You’ve got three problems, Steve. The first is that I’m sort of non-corporeal which means that I have no physical form so that means I can’t help you at all. The second problem is that Amicus Tarr has that black scrying mirror which he is able to use as a weapon and that makes him unbeatable. And third and most importantly, you’re currently stuck here in the land of the dead. How are you even going to get back to Earth?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I was hoping you’d help me out on this, Ray. I’ve walked for hours and it seems that I’m going nowhere. Either I’m walking in circles or this massive bog is endless.”
Ray thought about it briefly before answering. “I think it may be a combination of both. This place, this spirit world seems to be tied in with your thoughts. You can travel to other parts of this world if you concentrate hard enough; if you fall into despair you’ll be wandering this place forever.”
I scratched the top of my head. “How do you know all of that?”
“I talked with other spirits while I was in the bottle,” Ray said. “Time seems to be different for me. Past, present and future are all one. I seem to remember guiding you into a forest of massive trees set in another part of the Otherworld. I feel that this hasn’t happened yet though it seems I remember it as if it happened yesterday. It’s all very confusing right now.”
”So you can sort of see into the future then?”
“I can see into a number of possible futures would be the better statement. It all just seems to depend on choices. For example I can see you deciding to give it all up and the bog just swallows you beneath its black waters and you join the damned souls in there and—”
I quickly put my hands over my ears. “Stop, it’s horrible! Don’t tell me any of that!”
“Can’t you tell me a good outcome instead so I can just follow it up? You know, like a cheat in a videogame.”
“Sorry, but it’s all pretty overwhelming. It’s like watching hundreds of versions of the same movie all at once and each one has a different middle and a different ending. If I tell you about each one then we’ll be here forever because the versions change endlessly.”
“Alright, I understand,” I said. “So if I can narrow this down to one specific question at a time, will it be more manageable for you that way?”
Ray smiled and he nodded. “Yes! I think you’ve got the right idea, Steve.”
“Alright, what do these dead lands consist of?”
“Okay, I think we could probably call this part of the dead lands the Bogs of Despair or Purgatory or something like that. It’s where the souls go when they have no idea what to do next.”
“Right. Well I definitely have an idea as to what I’m supposed to be doing so I shouldn’t be here.”
“And that idea is?”
I glared at him. “To get back to Earth and rescue my sister and her boyfriend, you knobhead!”
“Oh right, sorry. I’m getting overwhelmed by all the roads that lead ahead.”
“Anyway, back to my saga,” I said. “From here, where can I travel to which would lead me back to London quickly, please?”
“Let me see,” Ray said as he paused for a bit. “Right, from here you will need some sort of mythical relic that can enable you to travel on your own without having to rely on anyone else. I think that would be your best bet.”
“And that relic would that be?”
“Well there are a number of them out there. The Caduceus, which is a magical staff wielded by Hermes, will enable you to travel anywhere but you’d have to steal it from him and that might not be a very good idea…”
“Right, tell me another then.”
“Dionysus is another Greek god with a magical staff called a thyrsus and he would probably give it to you but I wouldn’t recommend it either because using it will drive you utterly mad in the end.”
“No, no cursed items for me—just make it a level one hundred magic weapon, if you please,” I said before an idea popped up in my head. “Oh, how about Excalibur? King Arthur’s dead, isn’t he? Perhaps his mighty, magical sword is looking for a new owner?”
“Excalibur doesn’t let you travel between worlds, you moron. Plus it’s guarded by a very powerful water spirit; you might end up dead if you attempt to take—”
“Shut it! What else is out there that you know about and that we can get to?”
“Oh, I got it! The silver branch!”
“What’s that then?”
“It’s from the old Irish and Welsh legends about a magical island in which silvery apple trees grow and where nobody dies. Before going into the Otherworld a person needed to take a small branch and he needed to carry it with him in order to make the journey from one world to another safely.”
“Right then, how do I go about getting one of those silver branches?”
“That’s the hard part.”
I took in a deep breath. “I knew you were going to say that. Out with it then.”
“The closest tree is in the realm of the Sidhe, a very dangerous race of faeries. They may be outwardly charming to you at first but you mustn’t anger them or appear rude or else they will turn on you and you’ll either end up cursed or ripped into a million pieces. And for God’s sake don’t make any sort of bargains with them or they will use it to their advantage.”
“So I just mind my manners and strike no bargains. That seems straightforward enough.”
“You will need to be very careful; those faeries will try to trick you and this could all end very badly.”
“Do they have any sort of weaknesses?”
“From what I’ve heard perhaps some bread could offer a sort of magical protection against them if they should choose to harm you.”
“Right then, is there a corner shop nearby that we buy a loaf of bread at?”
“Stop being cheeky. It’s a pity you don’t have any bread on you. I guess this just means you’ll have to take your chances and be very careful about it is all.”
I just shrugged. “Well, nothing’s ever easy these days. How do we get to these faerie lands then?”
Ray pointed out to nowhere in particular. “Just start walking in any direction and concentrate.”
I began going forward, careful not to step into any bog pools ahead of me. “Concentrate on what?”
Ray seemed to float just beside me. I envied him in that he didn’t seem to put any effort into moving. “The faerie realm is essentially a well-lighted forest and if you concentrate on the path ahead of you, you’ll soon notice that the way in front will start to change,” he said.
As I kept walking the mists ahead of me began to dissipate. My feet were soon treading on dry ground as the grass underneath them became greener and firmer. Soon I was surrounded by huge trees and undergrowth in all directions. The massively tall trunks seemed to reach out into the distant night sky that was full of stars. Small orbs of light danced all around and illuminated the forest like giant fireflies.
It had taken less than five minutes of walking but I soon realized that I had left the Bogs of Despair and I was journeying now into the realm of the faeries.
Whereas the previous realm held nothing more than a cold, howling wind that chilled my very bones, the world that the faeries inhabited seemed much more agreeable; I could hear distant laughter and the ringing of tiny bells out in the distance. The scents from a multitude of flowers reminded me of the time when I accompanied my mum into a perfume shop and I smelled over a hundred different scents, all of them inviting in some way or another. Unlike the gnarled and withered stumps of the bog world, the faerie trees were strong and fully alive and all sorts of fruits blossomed from stout branches filled with leaves. I had never seen so many variations of the color green before in my entire life.
As I turned to look at Ray he seemed almost real; his form seemed to have coalesced to the point where I was seeing him in full flesh and blood. His body was no longer transparent and it looked like he was back to normal as he walked along the forest path beside me. The only thing that still gave it away was his slight greenish glow.
I grinned. “Ray, you look…better.”
Ray looked down at his chest. “Yes, it seems that I’m not made of smoke anymore.”
As I placed my hand on his shoulder it once again went right through him. Although he seemed more real than in the previous world, his body was still an illusion. It was like walking with a three-dimensional hologram. “Sorry about that,” I said.
Ray only noticed my hand when it went through his head as I waved it back and forth to try to find something solid. “Hey, watch it!” he said.
I pulled my hand back. “I’m sorry, did that hurt?”
“No, but it was a bit strange seeing your hand go through my body as if it wasn’t even there.”
“Yes, it’s weird. It’s like you’re a computer graphic projection now. Seems the only thing that’s stopping you from fully coming back to life is a lack of substance,” I said.
“’Tis but a glamour, my young friends. That is the way of our realm,” a voice from behind us said.
We both quickly turned around. Sitting on a small boulder was a creature that was the size of a small dog. He looked like a man, only he was squat and had a very long beard that stretched down to his knees. His clothes seemed medieval, as if he’d just stepped out of a costumed play. As he smiled at us with gnarly yellow teeth, he took a puff from a long wooden pipe.
Knowing that I needed to be on my best behavior, I bowed slightly to him and smiled. “Greetings, sir. I’m Steve from London and this is my friend Ray.”
The little man leapt off the boulder as he took his hat off and bowed in return. “And I am Rumplestiltskin, a Korrigan from these parts.”
My eyes widened. “Are you really Rumplestiltskin?”
The little man nearly convulsed in laughter. “Nay, actually I have a different name but it is quite fun when one of you calls me by that since that is the only moniker for a dwarf ye all know.”
“My apologies then, sir,” I said. “I am quite new to these parts so your names are not familiar to me.”
“Right ye are, boy,” the dwarf said. “I go by so many names that in fact I have forgotten my original one! Nowadays everyone just calls me Tock.”
“Please to meet you, Tock,” I said. “Might I inquire as to where we are now?”
Tock put his hat back on as he walked up in front of us. “Ye are now in the realm of the Sidhe, otherwise known as the Eternal Forest, or more popularly called the Faerie Realm.”
“Quite a lot of names,” Ray said.
“Oh there are a lot more names to this place than what I just told ye,” Tock said. “An infinite array, in fact. But let us not bore each other with name calling; there is a feast to attend to!”
The dwarf beckoned us to follow him and we did. Soon the path in front of us had widened into a clearing of sorts and in the center of it was a copse of silver trees that were so massive I couldn’t see their tops. All around the trees were numerous creatures, some smaller than us and others bigger. There were also tiny faeries that flew about on dragonfly wings and they glowed brightly like miniature suns. The sounds of revelry as well as of flutes and drums were all around us.
Ray quickened his pace until he was beside Tock. “Looks like we stumbled into some sort of party; what’s the occasion?”
Tock ran ahead and then suddenly turned and jumped up and down in front of us like some sort of cheerleader. “We faeries always have revelry! We’ve been feasting since the dawn of eternity!”
I was about to call them all bloody mental but I kept my mouth shut and remembered that I needed to behave or else we would both be in very big trouble. Just as I was about to ask another question I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. I quickly turned around and came face to face with an extremely beautiful young woman. She had silvery hair that glowed and the white gown that she wore was as clean as my mother’s freshly laundered sheets. I couldn’t tell how old she was but she looked to be around Amy’s age.
She took her hand off my shoulder, stepped back a bit, and then curtsied. “Greetings, young lad. I am Charissa, princess of the Sidhe. I bid you welcome to our abode.”
I bowed slightly in return. “I’m honored to meet you, ma’am, I am Steve from—”
Her laugh interrupted me. “Steve from London and your spirit friend, Raymond. Yes, I know. Word travels fast here and now you have been invited to dine as our guests. My father the Erlking will be back soon and he is looking forward to meeting you both.”
“I-I thank you for the invitation, Princess Charissa. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest of your court,” I said, hoping that I told her the right words.
“Then ’tis settled,” Charissa said as she giggled with delight. “In the meantime you might like to rest a bit and perhaps get out of those damp clothes. I would like to offer you my personal chambers, Steve.”
Ray got close to my ear. “Better to play along. Since I don’t need rest or a change of clothes I’ll hang around Tock and see what I can learn. Let’s meet up again when the feast commences,” he whispered.
I nodded to him and both Ray and the dwarf started making their way to another part of the forest as I followed Charissa. Within minutes, the path had led us to a crystalline doorway that glowed brightly as if it was powered by daylight. Looking around, all I could see was the door, that seemed to exist by itself. Charissa was somehow able to open it with a wave of her hand and bid me to follow.
As soon as I stepped through I was suddenly in a massive chamber with walls of crystal all around me. Looking around, I noticed that the door had vanished and I couldn’t see the ceiling as the walls around me seemed to have an infinite vertical length that reached up into the dense clouds above. In the center of the chamber was a sunken pool of clear liquid. There were crystal tables and chairs all around. Everything glowed with its own inner light and it was so bright that I had to squint.
“Your shoes are still stained by the dead lands,” Charissa said as she pointed to a chair. “You need to remove them so that my servants can take the taint of death and despair away.”
I sat down on the chair and took off my trainers and damp socks. As soon as I placed them on the stone floor they were quickly snatched up by tiny little winged faeries that I had not seen before. As I stood up in slight surprise a swarm of them were suddenly upon me and I shrieked in surprise. But my sudden fears soon turned to laughter as I felt their tiny hands and legs tickling me all over my body. Within seconds it was over and they flew away. But as I looked down, all my clothes were missing and I was completely naked. I cried out a second time as Charissa started laughing again.
She was clearly eyeing my nudity as her playful eyes darted back and forth. “Were my servants a little too fast for you, Steve?”
Not wanting to be shamed any further, I realized that the only possible alternative to standing around naked in front of her was to get wet so I covered my private parts and ran over to the pool. I tested the strange, luminous water with my toes and it felt comfortably warm so I quickly lowered myself into it. Within seconds my feelings of coldness and dread were completely washed away. I closed my eyes and began to relax while just my head and shoulders stayed up above the enchanting waters of her bath.
Just as I sighed with contentment I felt her caressing hands on my shoulders. I opened my eyes and quickly turned my head and that was when I realized that she was sitting on the edge of the pool right behind me. She wrapped her pale, slender legs around my chest and started kissing me passionately on the lips.
I shrieked a little and gently pushed her away. Charissa seemed disappointed at first but then she smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed a mortal,” she said softly. “Especially one that is as handsome as you. The Fates have told me that you will grow into a very strong and attractive man in the years to come.”
“T-Thank you for the compliment,” I said. This was the first time that anyone other than my mum had kissed me so I was feeling quite awkward and uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what to do next. “I-I think I’m finished bathing now. Could I have my clothes back, please?”
Charissa stood up and clapped her hands. Suddenly all my clothes appeared on a nearby table along with a silvery towel. They all seemed to have been washed clean except for my pullover.
“All your clothes are now free of the taint,” Charissa said as she picked up the towel and handed it to me, “except for your tunic. My servants said that there was something foul in it and they couldn’t touch it.”
I started thinking what it was that repelled them as I gently took the towel from her and dried myself carefully, making sure to keep my sensitive parts covered. “Sorry, must have been something I picked up in my travels,” I said as I began putting my clothes back on.
“It’s of no consequence,” Charissa said. “I know of your quest to rescue your sister and her lover but if I might make a suggestion to you.”
I nodded as I buttoned up my trousers. “I’m always open to other ideas.”
“You are our first mortal guest in ages,” she said. “And you are still a boy as well. That makes you highly valued in our society. I pledge that no harm shall come to you if we were to marry. As you well know time passes differently here and you can live for a very long time in this realm. Your life will be one of endless bliss and you will be forever safe here as long as you are with me.”
I was in the middle of tying my trainers and then I just stopped. She was offering me a chance to stay with them. If I took her up on her offer then I would be living happily ever after, just like the happy endings in all those fairy tales. But then my thoughts turned to Amy and Mark. And then to my parents and Ray and what had happened to the city I was living in.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “While your offer is very tempting I must say no. My family is in trouble and I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try to make things right.”
Charissa walked over to me and placed her hand on my chin. “I admire your bravery and honor, Steve of London. I do hope that you succeed in your quest. And I hope that when all of this is done you will return to our lands and be with me again.”
I stood up and smiled. “Well, if I succeed then you never know…”
She instantly laughed as she hugged my shoulders and gave me another deep kiss. This time I went along with it. For a whole minute our mouths were locked together and I felt waves of sensuous pleasure wash over me. If my other classmates only knew of this they would be terribly jealous of my achievement. By the time our lips finally parted we were both grinning from ear to ear.
“Come,” she said. “My father has returned. I shall take you to our banquet!”
The feast was held in another huge clearing not far from where the silver trees were. There was a massive stone table shaped like a crescent and we all sat behind it as dozens of faeries danced and flew around in front of us. The Erlking was a giant of a man. He was dressed in some sort of tree bark armor and he had a long green beard that was constantly dampened by the frothy green beer that kept dribbling from his mouth every time he took a swig from his drinking horn, which was quite often. While the Erlking sat at the center of the table, Charissa was to his right followed by myself, Ray, and Tock. The food seemed mostly to be strange fruits and salads. There were also insects roasted on sticks which I didn’t touch. The liquid refreshments gave me a strange sensation as I drank from a cup that contained a fiery liquid with a cool peppermint-like taste which ran easily down my throat.
Since he was non-corporeal, Ray didn’t eat anything so he spent most of the time just whispering in my ear. “I’ve learned that since faeries don’t sleep and they live forever they get bored easily. This is why every night is like a banquet. They have to do something posh so they don’t get fed up by their existence.”
“So if they don’t sleep I guess this means we can’t steal a branch from one of those silver trees,” I said softly to him.
“I’m afraid not. One of them would see you either way and an alarm would be raised.”
“So how do you propose we get a branch then?”
“I think the only possible way short of fighting them is that they give you one.”
“How will I bloody get them to do that?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see if there’s an opportunity.”
Some time had passed and I drank some more of the strange, luminescent liquid that they would pour into my cup while the music and dancing continued in front of us. There was a time when I got drunk on a bottle of wine when I stayed overnight with Ray and another friend and we drank the whole lot before falling asleep. Drinking all that faerie ale sort of gave me flashes of color that danced around my eyes and all the movements around me seemed to blur. Ray said something to me but all I heard was gibberish.
I wasn’t quite sure as to what happened afterwards but the next thing I remembered was that the Erlking had stood up from his stone chair and he was addressing a crowd of faeries arrayed in front of him.
“…And so it came to pass that our guest, a boy named Steve from the human land of London, has graciously been invited as our guest of honor here,” the Erlking said as he raised his drinking horn in a salute to me. “But the other thing is that he has spurned our gracious hospitality and insulted my daughter when he refused her hand in marriage!”
I instantly came to my senses as I noticed that all the faeries were now looking at me and their demeanors had suddenly changed. It was just a moment before that their faces expressed merriment and bliss but now their appearance had taken on a malevolent, demon-like form and I noticed that their mouths that once formed smiles were now snarling with fanged teeth, and their eyes that had once been wide with wonder had narrowed into sinister slits, as if they were all predators carefully eyeing their prey.
“This is not good,” Ray whispered in my ear.
The Erlking’s salute to me soon turned into an accusing finger as he pointed at me. “This human boy, this interloper, has offended my house! We will show him the wrath of the entire faerie realm!”
As he said those words, I noticed that all the music and merriment had stopped and there was suddenly a cold, disturbing silence in the air. With the exception of Charissa, who had been tearfully cowering by the Erlking’s side, every other faerie had drawn their little swords and had pointed them all at me, like an array of silvery fangs that spelled my doom.
I knew I had to do something before they could attack so I stood up and put my right hand up, hoping that they would at least hear me out. “M-my thanks to the Erlking, h-he has been a gracious host to me this evening, as well as his beautiful daughter Charissa, who has been most kind to me. I must apologize if I have somehow offended his family and the entire people of the fey for that was not my intention at all. I-I had travelled to your fair realm in order to secure an item that I need in order to return to my world, for my family is in great danger and I wish only to keep them safe.”
Tock immediately jumped up on the stone table and stomped over the plates of food until he was right in front of me. “So, ye come here to steal from us, is that it? We have ways of dealing with those who steal from the fey folk!”
A roar of derision came from the assembled faerie hordes as the mob became even more agitated. I could see Ray looking at me with a deathly fear in his eyes. He knew that if anyone was going to get hurt then it would surely be me.
I looked at Tock and shook my head. “I have no intention of stealing from anyone. I had planned to ask for a favor from the Erlking and from the fey people to take but a single branch from your silver apple tree.”
The Erlking tilted his head back and laughed and I felt a wave of relief cascading through me when the other faeries started laughing too. “So you were going to ask us to give you a branch from one of our sacred trees?”
I smiled at him and nodded. “Yes, sir. If I could, please.”
The Erlking looked at me with haughtiness in his eyes. “Do you expect us to give away one of our most sacred items to a mortal just like that? A favor requires a bargain.”
I had a feeling that was coming. Ray had warned me about this before. “I’m sorry but I’m not asking for a bargain at all, just a favor.”
Howls of insults and anger once more erupted from the mass of faeries that were arrayed in front of us. It looked like the crowd was back to its demonic state as their blades were drawn and there were plenty of gnashing teeth.
“A gift without reciprocation is not in the nature of the fey,” the Erlking said. “If you expect something from us then you either give something in return or you must win it in a contest.”
I pulled out my pocket torch and showed it to them as I turned it on. “I have this artificial light and I will gladly exchange it for a tree branch.”
Tock roared with laughter and the crowd laughed with him. “We have many brothers and sisters who can make their forms glow at will; why would we be in need of that?”
It looked like that didn’t work so I put the torch back in my pocket before feeling the other stuff I had in there. I could have shown them my pocket knife but it seemed that each and every one of them had their own little daggers so that was pointless too.
I saw Charissa whisper into the Erlking’s ear and her father nodded in assent. “Since you have nothing of value to trade with I propose a contest,” the Erlking said.
I was feeling uneasy about all this. “What sort of contest?”
Tock waved his arms as he gestured to the crowd. “Let the fey decide!”
Almost immediately the crowd began to roar a single word. “Hunt! Hunt! Hunt! Hunt! Hunt!” they all chanted in unison.
Before I could say anything the Erlking pounded his massive fist on the stone table. “The fey have spoken! It shall be the Wild Hunt!”
The crowd roared with approval. As he said those words all I could do was look at Ray. My best mate looked like he was about to cry as he realized what it all meant. The Erlking and his riders would go hunting. And I would be the prey.
I must have been running for an hour when my legs started to hurt. I had been dashing from one footpath to another across the endless expanse of the mystical forest, preferring speed as opposed to trudging through the thick underbrush which would have slowed my progress down considerably. But as I heard the bellows of the hunting horns and the howling of the pack of dogs that they had sent out ahead, I wondered just how long it would be before they could catch up to me.
The contest was pretty straightforward: The Erlking ordered me to start running as quickly as I could while they prepared their mounts and their hunting hounds. If I could evade capture until the full moon was right above me then I had won the prize of the silver branch and was free to go. On the other hand, if I was captured before that time then I would be forced to stay in the faerie realm forever. I was determined to succeed because of my concern for my country and for my family. I was so close now that I dared not fail.
Ray had been moving alongside me, but since he was a ghost his legs didn’t start to buckle, unlike mine. He instantly faced me when my running had slowed to a brisk walk. “Have you gotten tired, Steve?”
“What does it look like, you knob,” I said, panting. “I don’t think I can move any further. How far away are they?”
“From the sounds of their dogs, they’re getting close,” Ray said nervously. “You’ve got to get a move on, Steve!”
The aches in my legs sent sharp pangs of pain rocketing up to my head. “I’ve got to rest, mate. I don’t think I’m going to make it. How far above us is that bloody moon?”
Ray looked up. “It seems you need just a little bit more time until it shines right above us. The Erlking said that once the moon is directly above the winning prey of the hunt, its light will shine a moon ray directly upon him. I think you should keep running just a little bit more and you could very well win this match, mate.”
“You can’t win, Steve,” a voice just to the right of me said. “My father has told the spirit of the moon that it must never move to its high point once he sounds the assembly horn for the hunt to begin.”
I turned and saw that Charissa had been standing there on my right flank. “How did you get here?”
She looked down. “Oh, Steve, I have been running with you all this time. I just made myself invisible. Now that you’re tired I fear that they shall catch you soon enough now.”
Ray shifted his form until he stood beside her. “What do you mean he told the moon not to move an inch? Can he do that?”
Charissa nodded. “My father rules the land of the faeries and as such he can control both the weather and the stars that shine above it. The moon itself can respond to his wishes and every time he calls for a hunt, he always finds and captures his prey.”
I had had enough. “What a dirty trick your own father pulled! And to think that I’m in this predicament because of you!”
Charissa covered her eyes with folded hands as luminous tears rolled down her arms. “It was not I who told my father of your rejection, Steve, please believe me! I had a fondness for you the moment I first laid my eyes on you and would have never wished this upon you. I realize that you will never love me if my father imprisons you here just like he did with so many others in past ages. The mortals that are trapped here without their consent ultimately wither and die and I do not want that to happen to you!”
I gently took her hands away from her face and smiled at her. “I-I’m sorry for telling you off like that. I had no idea that it wasn’t you who told. But you’ve got to help me find a way to win this contest.”
Charissa’s demeanor instantly changed from sadness into hope as she gave me a hug. “Oh Steve, if only there was a way to help you. But my father has never lost out to a single prey when he goes out on the Wild Hunt. The lone quarry always gets caught as they are ridden down because they are alone and have no help.”
“But Steve’s not alone,” Ray said to her. “I’m here to help and so are you. What can I do?”
I stepped back from her arms and nodded. “Yes, there must be a way! Since you have the power to become invisible can you make me invisible as well?”
Charissa shook her head. “I only have the power to make myself invisible or to change my form.”
My eyes opened wide as I thought of an idea. “That’s it then, if you can change your form can you become a copy of me and try to lead them away?”
Charissa smiled as she closed her eyes and began a silent chant. Within seconds her entire body began to shimmer into a blurred form and then quickly metamorphosed into an exact duplicate of me.
Ray tried to clap but no sound came from his hands. “Bravo! She looks exactly like you, Steve! That’s brilliant thinking right there.”
Charissa looked like me but her voice was still hers. “I’m going to turn left at the footpath ahead, Steve; you go the other way. I shall do this for you even though I have never helped a mortal before. But you must promise me that once you have the silver branch and are free to travel between worlds you shall come back here for a visit at least once for every year that passes by on your earth.”
I wanted to kiss her but it would have been like kissing myself so I just shook my own hand instead. “It’s a promise,” I said. “Thank you, Charissa.”
“Goodbye,” Charissa said as my copy began dashing forward; it soon disappeared behind a tangle of tall grass.
“Right then,” Ray said, and I saw that he too had somehow shifted his form to become an exact duplicate of my own. “Now there’s three of you.”
My mouth was wide open. “I didn’t know you could do that as well!”
“Well, since I can maintain this form just by concentrating then the next logical step was to see if I could change it since it’s all immaterial anyway,” Ray said. “So all I had to do was to keep a mental image of you in my mind as a sort of reference point, and apparently it doesn’t take much further effort to transpose that onto my appearance.”
I heard the barking of the hounds; they were not too far away. “I’d love to chat about just how fantastic this all is but we’ve got to get moving again.”
“Right, let’s go.”
And so we went on. With the two of us running side by side it would be very hard to distinguish who was the real me. That gave me a little bit of comfort and I deduced from the sounds behind us that the hunting party had split up in order to go after Charissa’s illusion of myself as well.
I kept on running through several more footpaths and my thoughts turned once more to a feeling of eventual defeat. There was still one big problem to deal with: Since the Erlking could control the moon and there was no way that heavenly satellite would ever give me the time to properly end the hunt, in the end the faeries would still win. But soon enough I had thought of another idea.
“Ray, just follow my lead,” I said while I sprinted ahead of him. “We’re going to take a path back to the bog lands.”
“Back to the dead lands? Why?”
My legs started to ache again but I kept on running. “The Erlking may be able to control the moon in his realm, but let’s see if he can do it in another.”
Sure enough the wooded path ahead of us began to blur as the grayish mist started to get more prominent. I felt the ground underneath begin to get softer as the solid grass began to give way to marshy peat.
But just as we were nearly there, a huge figure loomed ahead of us. I stopped and my concentration was broken as the mists began to recede and the images of the great trees of the forest became dominant once more.
It was Tock. He was riding on top of a very large black goat with silver horns on its head. It bellowed menacingly as it stood in front of us.
The dwarf was carrying an ornate black spear and he leveled it in our direction. “Ah, ’tis my good fortune to come upon ye just in time. I tasked myself to guard the entryways to the faerie realm and half-expected from ye an attempt to leave it before the hunt was over. It looks like my patience has been rewarded and I shall be the one to bring in the quarry.”
I pointed an accusing finger at him. “You’re the one! You told the Erlking that I refused Charissa!”
Tock roared with laughter and he could barely control his billy goat from charging at me. “’Tis true, aye it was me. The wizard tasked me to make sure that ye never leave these lands and he gave me a goodly supply of spirit bottles for my efforts too.”
Ray was quite angry too; his voice was perhaps an octave lower than mine but it was still quite similar. “You cretin! Do you realize that Amicus Tarr couldn’t care less about faeries? He’s in league with your traditional enemies, the Fomorians!”
“I have my own whims and destiny,” Tock said. “The Erlking has always taken the prize of the Wild Hunt but now it shall be me. With an honor like that I shall be given the hand of Princess Charissa and soon I shall become king of the faeries!”
“You’re completely mad,” I said. “The faeries will never bow down to an ugly dwarf like you.”
“Enough words,” Tock said as he hunched forward and prepared to charge. “The time of the hunt has drawn to a close. I shall now take my prize for my ultimate destiny awaits.”
The goat then reared up and let out a roaring bleat before it started to sprint towards us. As Tock leveled his spear towards my chest I couldn’t believe it was all going to end this way.
Ray instantly ran ahead of me as a sort of decoy since we both looked alike. “Move!”
I dived out of the way just as Tock’s spear nearly gored my chest. With Ray standing right in the same spot I had been in, the goat had thought that it was about to collide with me and so it suddenly stopped. Tock’s momentum and his lack of balance after his spear missed made him lean forward and he fell off of his mount.
The dwarf roared with rage as he picked himself up and grabbed his fallen spear. Ray was trying to beat on him but since he was just a spirit his fists kept going through Tock’s head. I dashed into the undergrowth to see if I could escape but the dwarf ignored Ray’s distractions as he ran after me.
I crouched down and started to move sideways, hiding among the tall grass while the dwarf kept thrusting at the undergrowth with his spear, hoping to skewer me like a cornered rabbit.
“I know ye be here,” Tock hissed as he kept thrusting his spear in all directions. “I can smell ye!”
I realized that he was going to get to me sooner or later so I was running out of time. I had thought about surrendering to him but judging from the crazed look in his eyes he would probably run me through with his spear the moment he saw me. That was when a distant thought began to manifest itself in my head. I recalled that Ray had told me that the best defense against faeries was bread and that the faerie attendants in Charissa’s chambers had refused to wash and dry my pullover because it had something in it that repelled them. That was when I remembered what I had in my hoodie pocket.
“Aha!” Tock said when he saw me stand up just ten feet to his right. “There ye are!”
Just as the dwarf was about to thrust his spear at me, I began crumbling the packet of biscuits that was still in the side pocket of my pullover and as he approached I threw the bits of crumbs right at his face.
Tock screamed the moment the crumbs hit his face and they began to melt through his skin. The dwarf dropped the spear as he fell on his knees in pain. I quickly turned around and ran back onto the path where Ray waited.
“Come on,” I said as I started to run and concentrate on the path ahead as it once more became misty.
“I hear horses behind us,” Ray said as he ran alongside me.
The sound of hooves soon became more acute as we kept running but I tried putting that worry behind me as I concentrated on the path ahead in order to transport us back to the bog lands.
The mists ahead of us became dominant once more as the woods slowly began to disappear. It was right then that I saw a gigantic black horse was now galloping alongside me.
“The hunt is over!” the Erlking bellowed as he leaned over and tried to grab my neck but his hand passed right through as he had attempted to take Ray instead.
Right at that moment we passed through the faerie realm and into the land of the dead. The Erlking’s horse started to lose its footing as it slowed down and started to slip on the damp peat of the bog lands. I raced ahead of them and narrowly missed falling headfirst into a bog pit but I was able to adjust my balance as I ran around it and jumped on top of a gnarled tree trunk.
The Erlking wasn’t as lucky as his horse finally buckled and he fell from the saddle and right into a bog pool. The king’s armor weighed him down heavily as he floundered in the brackish liquid. As he grabbed onto some nearby peat at the water’s edge in order to pull himself out, a multitude of pale hands leapt up from the dark waters, grabbed his shoulders and began to pull him into the murky depths.
The Erlking flailed as he tried to fight them off but the hands pulling him down were too many and his head started to slip beneath the black muck. “Help me!”
“I shall,” I said as I moved closer to the edge of the bog pool. “But you must tell me, have I won the contest?”
The Erlking’s head was now barely above the water. “Y-yes! You are t-the w-winner of the Wild Hunt! N-now help me!”
I took hold of the Erlking’s horse and grabbed the reins, throwing them to him. The king of the faeries grabbed hold of the straps that were tied to his horse and he began to pull himself out. With my guidance the horse started backing away and their combined strength was enough to pull the Erlking out, and he was sitting at the edge of the bog pool a minute later.
Ray was now standing beside me again. He was back to his own appearance and his form took on a grayish, spirit-like exterior once again. “Bloody hell, I can’t believe how that all worked out.”
I grinned. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Ray, even if you were a knob.”
“Oh piss off,” Ray said. “I pulled the double switch with you at the last minute. It was luck that he tried to grab me instead of you.”
The glade beside the copse of silver trees was quiet as the entire assembly of faeries was bowing down in stunned silence and respect. I stood underneath the trunk of the largest tree with Ray and Charissa by my side as I faced the Erlking and his elf ministers. Tock was nowhere to be seen as he had been banished to the lands of the dead for his treachery.
The king of the faeries reached out to the nearest branch of the tree and broke off a bit of it. He examined the branch carefully before the elves standing beside him formed a circle and placed their hands on the silvery limb. A soft chant began and soon the silver tree branch glowed with a faint reddish fire. A short minute later, they all withdrew and the Erlking turned and faced me once more with the branch in his hands.
“As the victor of the Wild Hunt, you are now considered a friend of the faerie realm and you shall be welcome here forever,” the Erlking said as he offered the tree branch to me. “May this item guide you through the many other realms that are out there, and may your travels be safe.”
I gently took the branch from him as he stepped back. “Thank you, sir.”
Charissa smiled as she gave me a playful kiss on the cheek. “The next time you return it will be more than just a kiss.”
I blushed and said nothing.
Ray tried to shake my hand but as usual it just couldn’t be done in his present state. “All’s well that ends well,” he said. “Now what?”
I looked at the silvery tree branch in my hand. “Now comes the hard part.”
We were both standing along one of the pathways leading away from the main clearing. Charissa said a tearful goodbye to me and begged me to stay with her a little while longer but I told her I needed to take my leave and so she remained behind, moping in her chambers. The Erlking and his court continued their endless feasting as we finally made our excuses and walked off. There was still an occasional winged faerie that greeted us as it flew on by but we were pretty much alone now.
As I stood there I looked at the glowing tree branch in my hands. “You know they never told us how this thing operates. Am I supposed to wave it around like a magic wand or something?”
“From what I remember about the myths and legends at school you’re just suppose to use it like a passport,” Ray said.
“What? I’m supposed to show it for stamping when we pass through customs at the airport?”
“You’re supposed to just carry it around with you, you knob.”
“Piss off, you git,” I said as I placed my arms by my sides along with the silver branch. “There’s one other thing that I just remembered.”
“Charissa said something to me a while back and now I’m a bit worried.”
“What did she say to you?”
“She said that time passes differently in the faerie realm. What do you suppose that means?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Ray said. “In many different stories I read it said that when a human stays in the land of the faeries for too long, something like hundreds of years passes by in the real world.”
My eyes widened. “Oh my God, how long have we been here?”
“Well from the time you had your bath to the time we had the feast, and to the time of the Wild Hunt I would say around four or five hours,” Ray said.
“Then we’ve got to hurry up and get out of here!”
Ray shrugged. “Well, you’ve got the branch so we might as well get started.”
“So what do I do? Just start walking with it?”
He nodded. “I would think so.”
I started walking along the path as Ray moved beside me. “So I should just concentrate on London then?”
“Yeah, that ought to do it.”
Sure enough the ground we were stepping on soon became harder than grass as the forest around us began to shimmer and transform itself into more distant trees and long stretches of green. Within moments the path that we were walking along became a sandy, concrete lane and I noticed some slightly elevated stretches of unkempt grass along with a bench not far from the walkway. There were copses of trees nearby. It looked to be late afternoon so there was still some daylight left.
I looked around. I felt that we were back in London but I just wasn’t sure where exactly. It looked like I was on top of a small hill since I could see the city skyline towards the south. “Where in the bloody hell are we?”
“We’re in a park. I think I remember being here before with my dad. This is Parliament Hill, in Hampstead Heath,” Ray said.
“We’re in the Heath? That’s not far from that old wizard’s house then,” I said as I looked around for Ray but he wasn’t there. “Ray? Where in the bloody hell are you?”
I heard his voice from somewhere close. “I’m standing right beside you, you knobhead.”
“But I can’t bloody see you, Ray!”
“Oh, it seems I can’t see my own hands either,” he said. “So it looks like I’m invisible when I’m back in our world, then.”
I sighed. “Bloody silly this is, now what?”
“Well, since you can still hear me it’s no different than before. The only thing we can’t do over here is play the old switch tactic like we did against the Erlking.”
“Great, let’s hope we don’t have to do that again then,” I said while pulling out my mobile phone from my pocket and turning it back on. “Hang on, it says on my phone that about two months have passed already!”
“Well, that’s not good.”
“You’re bloody right it isn’t,” I said as I scanned the city skyline. Parts of the city were still shrouded in mist and I could see distant fires burning over the Canary Wharf. I could see that a number of skyscrapers had been severely damaged and the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral was in ruins. The whole city seemed eerily silent.
“Steve, I can’t see anybody at all. What happened to everyone?”
A feeling of hopelessness began to wash over me. “One thing at a time, let’s get over to that old wizard’s house and get my sister out of there first. I don’t think we’re that far away, are we?”
“No, we’re quite close. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from here.”
“Let’s go, then.”
Since we didn’t see anyone I just decided to walk out in the open as we passed through Highgate Road until I saw the metal front gate of Amicus Tarr’s house a few minutes later. It didn’t seem any different since the last time I was here so I moved forward to see if I could unlock the gate and step into the grounds. But as soon as I stretched my arm to fiddle with the latch on the gate my hand hit something solid and invisible and I quickly drew back.
“Ray,” I said as I slowly put my arm forward and once again felt something solid in the air, like some sort of unseen barrier. “There’s some sort of force field surrounding the bloody house!”
Ray’s voice was very close. “Yes, I can see a sort of shimmering box of energy that isn’t visible to the naked eye and it’s surrounding the place. I think that old wizard must have cast a warding spell of some sort.”
“Do you think he knows we’re coming?”
“Possibly. But then again he might have put this defense up for the Fomorians.”
“Well, whoever he put it up for, it’s clearly working,” I said. “Any ideas on how we could get around this? Could I use the silver branch to reappear inside his house?”
“I would have thought that the branch was for travelling between worlds, not from one place to another in the same world.”
“Let me see if I can do it,” I said as I began to walk along the street beside the old mansion. I tried to concentrate and imagined the great hall of his house in front of me but after a few minutes of walking around, the path didn’t materialize. I cursed out loud in frustration.
Ray’s voice still seemed to be right beside me so it was obvious he was following me around. “Nothing doing then?”
I sighed. “Nothing at all. Help me, Ray!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Think, for God’s sake.”
“What is it you think I’ve been bloody doing all this time, you tosser. Wait,” he said, and his voice trailed off for a minute. “I think I got it.”
“I remember going on the Internet a few weeks ago and there was a news article about tunnels and catacombs in Highgate Cemetery.”
“What does that place have to do with this?”
“Well, when I noticed the warding field over the mansion, it only extended from the ground to the roof and it looks like it protects against the silver branch as well. But his defensive enchantment doesn’t cover the underground bit. He apparently wasn’t expecting anyone to come inside that way.”
I placed my hands on my hips and stared down at the pavement. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yes, we can go to Highgate Cemetery, access the tunnel through the catacombs and then use the silver branch to transport us inside his mansion once we’re close enough to sense the walls of his property.”
“That idea is completely mental.”
“Have you got a better idea?”
“Well, no, not really.”
“Alright then, let’s get going.”
Night had fallen by the time we made it to the front entrance of Highgate Cemetery. A strange mist began to waft through the chilly air and I was forced to turn on my handheld torch. The entire area was cloaked in darkness as the street lights in the city had finally given out and the only other illumination was the faint light of the full moon above us. Ray’s form was slightly more visible now, and I could just make out a shadowy outline; although I couldn’t see his full features at least I could tell where he was at present.
I let out a deep breath and I could see the steam coming out of my mouth. I was trembling, and it wasn’t just due to the cold air. “Are you sure about this, Ray?”
I could see Ray’s shadowy head move as he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I can sense a passage deep within the catacombs that could connect with the cellars in the old wizard’s mansion. If we want to get in there we have to get on with it.”
“Bloody hell, let’s get this over with then,” I said softly as I walked up to the entrance of the ornate gatehouse. I twisted the latch, which was curiously unlocked, so I swung the right gate open with a loud creak and then stepped through.
Highgate Cemetery was one of the oldest cemeteries in the entire country and lots of famous people were buried there. Split into two by a narrow lane in between, there was the west cemetery and the eastern part; I was heading into the former since that was where the entrance to the catacombs was. It was one of the major landmarks of the city and a huge tourist attraction. When we visited it a few years back, Dad and Mum took me along when they decided to participate in a guided walking tour of the place. Even though I wasn’t superstitious back then the spookiness of the tombs filled my imagination with so much terror that I slept in my parents’ bed for the next two days after we had made the trip. As I started moving into its grounds for the second time, the inner fear that I had thought I had grown out of soon began to manifest itself as an even more powerful force that kept me jumpy all night long.
While one could still get buried in the eastern part, the western area of Highgate Cemetery was overgrown with wild weeds and snakelike vines. As we started moving from the entrance and along the concrete lanes that circled the grounds, I couldn’t help but fear what had happened to this dreary place now that the old gods had returned; it had been a morbid experience the last time I was here and now with everything else that was happening, this could be the one place in which hell could truly open its doors to the world.
I was already feeling a bit terrified as shadows loomed over me from countless Catholic and Celtic crosses that marked the nearby graves along the lane. The stone angels that stood over some of the tomb markers gave me scant reassurance as I had a feeling that they were pretty much telling me that I was all alone, and they would not help at all if I ever got into trouble here. I remembered that the whole place was teeming with the reassuring noises of chirping birds the last time I was here; now it was deathly quiet—not even the crickets were chirping.
Ray’s voice seemed to be just behind my shoulder when he spoke. “Seems rather spookier at night without any lights on, doesn’t it?”
I was so startled by his sudden words that I must have leapt ten feet up in the air and I nearly dropped my torch. “You bloody git! Don’t surprise me like that!”
“Sorry, I forgot you still have a material body. Well, don’t be scared. I’m a ghost and you’re under my protection so if we do encounter any spirits, I can fight them off for you,” he said.
I kept on moving as quickly as I could. The entrance to the catacombs was somewhere in the northern part, just above the cemetery’s most famous landmark, the Lebanon circle. “If you are of any use in a fight I’ll be bloody well surprised since you don’t even have a physical body and all.”
“Well, if I’m a spirit then we can assume that I can fight off other immaterial spirits if they dare attack my best friend. If we encounter the vampire of Highgate on the other hand, well, I can’t help you there, mate. Sorry.”
My outrage overtook my fear as I turned and swung my left fist at him. It didn’t connect, of course. “Will you shut up about all that, you bloody arsewipe!”
His chuckling was quite annoying. “Sorry, just being a bit cheeky is all.”
“Well, it’s not your bloody arse on the line so shut it!”
It felt like a long time to me since I expected a ghost or something far worse to be lurking behind every grave marker that we passed but we soon made it to the front entrance of the catacombs without incident. There was a knee-high wooden barrier that partially blocked off the dark passageway that faced us up ahead.
Even though the night was quite cold my whole body was covered in a nervous sweat. “I’m quite glad we made it this far without anything happening yet,” I said softly.
“I agree,” Ray said. “There seems to be a stillness in the air. It’s almost as if the cemetery is the one peaceful place in this whole city.”
“Why do you think that’s so?”
“Perhaps the dead in the tombs all around us made a pact with the Fomorians and the others so as not to disturb this place? That’s the only thing that’s come up in my mind.”
“Well, let’s hope our luck continues then,” I said as I pulled at the barrier and moved it sideways until it no longer blocked the tunnel.
With the light of my torch leading the way, I stepped into the catacombs and began to advance slowly. The passageway had an arched overhang that was mostly made of old brick. All along the walls were squared recesses for entombing the dead in their coffins. What disturbed me the most was that while quite a few of the stone slabs that sealed the many coffins were still in place, other slabs had been taken out or damaged and I could see the edges of some of the old caskets sticking out. My fears began to bubble up to the surface again and I cursed myself for watching too many horror movies.
I kept on moving and hoped that we were close. “Ray, are you with me?”
His voice seemed to be coming from ahead of me this time. “Yes, mate. I think we need to make a turn at the next set of corridors and then we—”
Ray’s voice suddenly stopped.
I quickly began to shine the light around but since he was invisible in this world I couldn’t see what had happened. “Ray? What’s going on? Ray?”
And then I heard him crying. I could recognize his voice and it was definitely his weeping. “I miss my mummy,” he said in between sobs.
I was turning my head all around in confusion. “What?”
“Can’t you see them?”
“See who, Ray?”
“T-turn off your torch.”
The butterflies in my stomach had me gutted but I decided to trust him as I flipped off the power switch on the torch with my thumb. The darkness instantly enveloped me and I started to sweat heavily again. Seconds passed as my eyes slowly adjusted to the faint moonlight coming from the oculi set in the ceilings of the passageway.
I could see Ray as a faint shadow just ahead of me at an intersection. He was kneeling down and his head was bent over. I slowly moved forward until I was just beside him and turned to look at the corridor to his right.
Standing in the middle of the corridor just a few feet ahead of us were a pair of faint lights. They looked like orbs and they glowed very dimly with a soft white illumination. As I narrowed my eyes to get a better look I could see the faces of Ray’s parents within the boundaries of the ghost-like spheres. Their eyes were smiling and they seemed to have focused their attention at Ray.
My best friend’s voice seemed hollow. “They’re calling out to me. They tell me it’s time to go now.”
My mouth fell wide open. “No, Ray! Not yet! I need you, mate! Don’t go!”
Ray shook his head from side to side. “It’s all useless, they’re all dead. We might as well give it up.”
“Ray, please,” I said softly. “You can’t leave. Please, not yet. We’re almost there.”
“But the world that we know of is gone, Steve. What’s the use? Everyone’s dead and everything’s ruined. What’s the use?”
I took in a deep breath. I had never given a motivating speech before but I needed to give one now. “We will survive, Ray. Remember at school when our teacher talked about what happened in the Blitz? We didn’t give up, we kept on fighting! That was the whole bloody point! We kept our hopes up in our darkest hour and in the end we pulled through and we won. This is the same thing all over again, Ray! This will be our finest hour! Just hang on!”
Right as I said those words, the floating orbs began to shimmer as if taken aback by the force of hope. It was at that moment that I knew I could still get my best friend over to my side once more.
“Hey,” I said to the ghostly spheres. “You’re not really Ray’s parents, are you? You’re just a couple of bloody will-o’-wisps, aren’t you? Get the bloody hell out of here, you pair of gits! Go on!”
As I said those words, the orbs seemed to shimmer for a bit before exploding in a shower of sparks that blinded me for a second; I saw nothing but white flashes in my eyes for the next minute or two. After my eyes readjusted back to the darkness I could still see Ray’s shadow standing beside me.
“Thank you, Steve,” he said. “I admit I got a bit affected there by those creatures but your words were able to break the spell.”
I wanted to hug him but for obvious reasons that was pointless so I just smiled. “It’s great to have you back with me, Ray,” I said as I turned on my torch once more.
“And the same to you, Steve.”
“Right then, let’s get this over with!”
We rounded the next corridor in the catacombs and kept on going until we reached a dead end. I just stood there as I directed the light of the torch at a solid wall of brown brick in front of me.
I frowned. “Now what?”
“I can feel something beyond. There must be a hidden trigger along that wall,” Ray said. “See if you can find it.”
I used my free hand to start feeling the brown bricks along the wall to see if there was anything out of the ordinary. The light of my torch began to dim as I had kept it going for too long without a change of batteries so I hurried up a bit. Soon enough I clasped my fingers around a particular brick that seemed slightly unhinged. I tried pushing and pulling it but nothing happened. Then I tried shifting it sideways and I soon heard a loud click as the wall in front of me suddenly parted, revealing a previously hidden passageway beyond.
We both quickly moved into the new tunnel; I had a distinct feeling that we were running out of time. Within a few minutes I noticed that Ray’s shadowy form had stopped at the end of the second corridor that branched off into two other tunnels.
“There, the corridor to your left is right beside Amicus Tarr’s cellars,” Ray said. “We’re already inside—past his protective warding.”
“So this means I can use the silver branch now?”
“Right then,” I said as I pulled out the silver branch from my pullover and waved it in front of me as I started walking along the left corridor. Soon enough the tunnel in front of us began to shimmer and I could see the dimly lit corridor inside the interior of the old wizard’s house.
Without hesitation, I kept on walking as I prepared myself for the final confrontation with Amicus Tarr.
As we finally got inside the mansion, I noticed that we were in the corridor leading to the mirror room along with the great hall that was just ahead. There was an old wooden armchair that served as a decoration for the passageway so I crouched down behind it just in case that old wizard was walking around and looking for me.
I sensed that Ray was right beside me, so I turned my head and started to whisper. “Do you have a plan as to how we’re supposed to take him on?”
Ray’s voice was as soft as a distant breeze in my ear. “No, I thought you had a plan.”
I started to grind my teeth a little. “This is just wonderful. We’re about to take on a very powerful wizard and we don’t bloody know how to do that.”
“Alright then, let’s think about this for a minute.”
“A minute is just about all we have before he finds out we’re here.”
“Shut it,” Ray said softly. “Now think, what makes him so powerful?”
I rolled my eyes. “Because he’s a wizard?”
“Try using that brain of yours for once in your life, you numpty. Wizards have things that make them powerful.”
“You mean the black mirror?”
“Yes, the scrying mirror is what sent you over to the dead lands. It’s a very powerful artifact.”
“Yeah, it’s like a bloody level-eighty magic item like in that videogame, Dragon Onslaught,” I whispered.
“Right, so we need to get that mirror away from him. That’s the first step.”
“Assuming we can somehow do that, what’s the second step?”
“I guess without the mirror he’d just be like any other old geezer. You could probably have a go at him, Steve. You’re pretty good at fighting at school since you took a boxing class.”
“Are you sure? What if he’s got another magic item on him, like a staff of lightning or something?”
“I don’t recall him carrying anything other than that mirror.”
“He could have all sorts of stuff underneath that bloody poufy robe of his. He might even have a gun.”
“Wizards don’t use guns.”
“Well whatever. You just expect me to go toe to toe with him as soon as we nick his mirror? That’s a pretty stupid plan,” I said softly.
“Have you got another plan then?”
“Right, you bloody knob. Let’s get the mirror first and play it by ear after that.”
I crouched down and started to sneak forward, using the shadows in the corridor as cover. Making my way to the edge of the door to the mirror room, I braced myself for action before having a peep inside. There was no one there so I moved right on past it. When I got close to the doors of the great hall, I noticed that they were wide open. Since I had the feeling that Amicus was close I went ahead and pulled out the silver branch and kept a firm grasp on it with my right hand as I took a quick look inside.
The old wizard was there alright. He had moved the large table that had once been in the center and it was now over at the opposite end, like a stage. As I kept observing I noticed that he was facing the table and had his back turned; he was doing some sort of ritual chant. There were stacks of old books in front of him so it looked like he was in the midst of some very serious research. As I cast my eyes around I soon saw that he had absentmindedly placed the black mirror on top of one of the smaller stacks. That was my chance!
Keeping my head low, I slowly made my way into the great hall, moving directly behind him. Each step I made was deliberate and I placed my foot down slowly on the wooden floorboards lest he hear a creaking noise. Within a few minutes I was only a few feet away from him. I shifted the silver branch to my left hand and prepared to make a grab for the mirror with my right.
At that moment he sensed somebody was behind him and so he began to turn to his left. It was now or never so I quickly lunged forward and tried to make a grab for the looking glass. But just as I wrapped my fingers around that circular piece of obsidian, my hand passed right through it. The bloody mirror was an illusion!
I had a desperate thought and I thrust the tip of the silver branch between his shoulder blades but my whole arm went right through him as well. Both Amicus and the mirror that had been lying on the table were nothing more than decoys.
“Bravo,” Amicus said as he walked in through the double doors of the hall entrance. “For a minute there I thought you had me, lad. How did you get out from the land of the dead? I was able to observe you using the black scrying mirror but I lost sight of you once you made it into the faerie realm.”
I said nothing as I faced him while holding the silver branch in front of me as a sort of shield.
The old wizard started to chuckle. “Ah, you’re wielding the silver branch. So that’s it then! You somehow got a piece of the silver tree from the faeries and that explains how you were able to transport yourself back to Earth. I must congratulate you, for you are the cleverest boy I have ever known. It seems I did choose well when I asked you to be my apprentice.”
“I don’t want to be your apprentice, you slimy old git,” I said. “I just want you to release my sister and her boyfriend so that we can get out of here.”
Amicus waved a crooked finger at me. “Is that really all? I think you’ve come back here to steal my mirror away from me. Yes, you want to steal my power, don’t you?”
I shook my head. “You’re mad. I don’t want your power. I just want my sister back!”
“You will not take the one precious possession that I have, demon child,” Amicus said as he pulled out the black mirror from beneath his robes and held it in front of me. “The mirror of Tezcatlipoca is mine and mine alone!”
I leveled the branch so that it was in front of his mirror. “You’re a loony old man, you are!”
Amicus snarled as he concentrated and a black cloud began to emanate from the mirror once more, floating in my direction. I cried out and started waving the silver branch as the dark mist began to envelop me but the silver limb began to glow red and it quickly absorbed the cloud until there were only a few puffs left floating on the ground.
The old wizard was taken aback. “You were able to resist the black cloud? Impossible!”
“I may not wear glasses like a certain boy wizard that you know,” I said smugly. “But I can say that my magic is as strong as his.”
Amicus looked confused. “What boy wizard are you talking about?”
I frowned. “You’ve never heard of—oh, forget it! You need to surrender my sister safe and sound or you’ll get what’s coming to you,” I said as I pointed the silver branch directly at him.
Amicus sneered. “Oh really, what’s coming to me then?”
I tried to look as menacing as I could. “Something very bad, that’s what!”
“Empty threats,” Amicus said as he started to wave the mirror around. “There are so many things this obsidian mirror can do. Take this one for example.”
As he said those words an exact duplicate of Amicus suddenly appeared beside him out of thin air. I stepped backwards in complete surprise as another copy of the old wizard suddenly came into being to the left of me, just a few feet away. For the next few seconds this continued until there were over two dozen copies of him waving their black mirrors around as they started to surround me.
I kept on moving backwards until my lower back bumped the edge of the old wooden table behind me. Waving the branch back and forth to try and warn them away, I pressed against the table as the duplicates of Amicus began to crowd tighter; as they held out their numerous black mirrors at me they all began to laugh tauntingly. I cried out in helplessness.
“You’re finished, boy,” they all said in unison. “Your lone silver branch cannot survive against the onslaught of over two dozen black mirrors!”
At that moment I heard a loud crash coming from the corridor. All two dozen of them instantly stopped and looked up in surprise. Another loud crash sounded and one of them disappeared. Then there was a third crash and yet another Amicus was gone without so much as a puff of smoke. As I heard the fourth loud crash I soon realized that it was the sound of glass breaking.
Amicus threw up his hands in the air as the sound of breaking glass continued. “My mirrors! You are destroying my mirrors!”
I grinned as the old wizard started to retreat backwards. “Looks like the tide has turned,” I said.
He seemed to be beside himself. “How can this be? You’re here but someone is destroying my mirrors and I can’t see who it is. Who dares?”
“The ghost of Christmas past has come back for revenge,” I said. “You should have remembered your Dickens.”
When the sound of breaking glass had finally subsided, I stood in front of a lone, cowering Amicus as the old man tried to keep himself upright. The smashing of his mirror room could only have been done by Ray.
Just as I was about to take the mirror from his trembling hands, Amicus backed up and hissed at me. “I am not finished yet!” he said before snapping his fingers; his whole body seemed to shimmer for a bit before disappearing completely.
I started, looking around. The old wizard seemed to have vanished into thin air. As I continued to whirl about the room, expecting Amicus to materialize behind my back, I noticed Ray’s ghostly form entering the hall. My best friend had a sort of mild bluish glow surrounding his shadowy appearance that made him just slightly visible.
“I got them all,” he said. “I shattered all the mirrors in the other room. I think they might have been linked to other worlds and I was able to disrupt their connections. Where is he?”
“I have no bloody idea! One minute he was here and then all of a sudden he just vanished,” I said.
Ray scanned the room as he moved over to the table. “Did you think he went to another dimension or something?”
“Well, if he’s left the house then it’s time to go find my sister and her boyfriend upstairs,” I said as I started towards the open double doors.
Less than a second after I said that, Amicus suddenly rematerialized on top of the wooden table at the opposite side of the room, just as I heard the slamming of a door upstairs. As I turned and faced him I realized that he had Amy standing in front of him; he was holding a dagger beside her throat with one hand and had the black mirror in the other.
My eyes were wide open. “Amy!”
“Steve, help me,” Amy said softly as she struggled in vain since her hands were tied behind her.
Mark Loman came charging into the room; he had a silver candleholder in his right hand and his hair was a mess. “Amy! Get away from her, you crazy old geezer!”
I placed an arm in front of him. “Mark, stay back,” I said. “He’s got that bloody mirror and a knife.”
Mark was extremely agitated. He was almost jumping up and down as if he could barely contain himself. “He kept us prisoner in that room for months! Then I heard the crash and then the door was open but Amy was gone!”
“Stay back, all of you,” Amicus said. “One move and I shall cut her throat!”
Ray was beside the table when the old wizard reappeared and so he didn’t seem to have noticed my friend’s ghostly form. I immediately understood as Ray started to make his way behind Amicus. He needed some time and a distraction. Mark was about to gasp as he saw Ray for the first time but I nudged him slightly with my arm, which was still across his chest, to keep him from revealing anything.
“Amicus, please leave my sister alone,” I said calmly. “She’s done nothing to you.”
But the old wizard tightened his grip on her instead. He had a crazed look in his eyes. “Silence! You are in no position to bargain!”
Mark had some stubble beneath his chin and he smelled a bit. “You’ve been keeping us for so long here, what do you want?”
Amicus glared at me. “Give me that silver branch, now! Give it to me and your sister shall live; if you refuse then she dies!”
I pretended I was confused. “What do you need it for? You’ve already got the mirror for God’s sake!”
“No more talk, give it to me now!” Amicus said as he pressed the blade of the dagger deeper into Amy’s throat; she cried out in terror.
Right at that moment Ray extended a shadowy hand to cover the mirror as Mark and I dashed forward. Amicus finally saw Ray’s ghostly form and cursed as he slashed Amy’s throat with the dagger. Blood began gushing from my sister’s throat and she slumped down on top of the table.
I cried out the moment I saw what had happened and threw the silver branch at Amicus. The small limb from the sacred tree of the faeries collided with the black mirror and it was immediately transformed into a ball of energy that cascaded across the room, knocking Mark and me off our feet.
As I was getting back to my feet Amicus was still upright but he seemed to be suspended in midair. The black mirror that he was holding somehow held him aloft as it shimmered and crackled with released energy. The power of the silver branch had somehow overcharged the mirror and it began to warp the old wizard’s body like a piece of paper in the wind.
Amicus screamed as his body lost cohesion and he was transformed into a million pieces of darkness that were rapidly absorbed by the mirror. It floated for a bit before falling back down onto the table with a loud thump.
“Amy!” I screamed as I ran over to the table.
The energy surge had somehow coagulated the blood that was on her throat. Mark ran up beside me and began sobbing the moment he saw her. As I placed my hands on her chest I noticed that she wasn’t breathing.
Tears began to form in my eyes. We came so close to success and now this. “Amy! Noo!”
The power surge had somehow transformed Ray as well and his form was now shining with radiant energy. “Hang on, Steve, let me see what I can do,” he said softly as he knelt down beside her and placed both of his ethereal hands on top of her chest.
I stood by helplessly, watching as the energy flowing within Ray somehow started to swirl and began to move from his form over to hers. Within seconds Ray was back to his old shadowy figure again while Amy’s body seemed to glow slightly before the bioluminescence faded away.
Ray sighed and slumped on top of the table. “I’m sorry, that’s all I could do.”
Seconds later, Amy’s body began to twitch and she started coughing.
“Amy!” I exclaimed, putting my arms around her shoulders before looking back up at Ray. “You did it, Ray! Thank you!”
My sister opened her eyes. The wound on her throat had miraculously healed. “S-Steve, is it really you?”
I smiled as I hugged her. “Yes, it’s me. You’re alright now. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Mark and Amy went back upstairs to freshen up while I held the black obsidian mirror in my hand as I sat on top of the table in the great hall. It looked to be nothing more than an antique curiosity but I could feel the mystical power just coursing through it.
“I didn’t think we’d actually make it this far,” Ray said softly as his ghostly form stood beside me.
“All’s well that ends well,” I said. “You were brilliant, Ray. We make one hell of a team, I should say.”
He nodded. “We did well, didn’t we? So what’s next?”
“I need to find my parents,” I said. “If they’re still alive, that is.”
“I’m sure they still are, my own parents said so.”
“Those weren’t your parents back in the catacombs, Ray. They were some sort of wisps that tried to distract us from the real task.”
“Actually, Steve, they were really my parents,” Ray said. “When they realized your predicament, they decided to let me go in order to finish the job.”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry. I cursed them out because I didn’t realize it was them. My apologies, Ray.”
“It’s quite alright, they understood.”
I grinned. “Okay then. So are you ready for some more adventures with Steve and Ray?”
Ray turned and faced me. “I’m afraid not. I’ve got to get going, Steve.”
My eyes went wide again and I jumped off the table and got so close that I could almost touch him. “What the bloody hell do you mean? Where are you going?”
“When I died and assumed this form I knew it was temporary,” he said. “I had to find a new material body or else this shape would gradually dissolve. I could only make the transfer to another body once and it had to be in the nick of time.”
“Well, there are plenty of corpses around, I’m sure we can find something for you to get into—”
He interrupted me. “No, Steve. I don’t want to be a bloody zombie! Anyway I already spent my life force so there’s no point in finding another body now.”
“What? But you didn’t possess anybody! How could you have spent it already?”
“Through Amy,” he said. “She was already dead but I used everything in my power to bring her back. The energy surge from the mirror helped a lot too. I succeeded but now my form is starting to fade out. It’s taking all my concentration just to keep it together and talk to you right now.”
My mouth started trembling. This couldn’t be happening. “No, Ray! It can’t end like this! I won’t let it!”
“There’s nothing you can do anymore, mate,” he said. “We had a good run and I think I did my bit.”
Tears started to form in my eyes once more. “No, Ray! Don’t leave me! I couldn’t have done this without you! How will I find my parents without your guidance, mate?”
For the last time that evening Ray laughed. “You did most of it, Steve. In the end you really didn’t need me. All these things happened because you stopped being so self-centered and you finally became the hero that I always believed that you would become. You faced danger with more courage than I ever could have. I went along with you because I knew I couldn’t be harmed so I wasn’t scared since I was already dead. But if I still had my body there is no way I could have done all the things that you did.”
“There must be something I can do,” I said in between the tears falling down my cheeks. “The gods are real and they could maybe help bring you back. If we achieved all of this then there’s no reason why we can’t come up with a solution. Come on, Ray.”
“Even if there is a way to come back from being dead I would prefer to just move on,” Ray said. “My mum and dad are gone and I would rather join them in whatever afterlife there is waiting for me out there. There’s nothing left for me here. You on the other hand, you still have Amy and I’m sure you’ll get back to your parents. That gives you plenty of reasons to fight on.”
His form began to shimmer and grow faint. “Goodbye, Steve. Perhaps we will meet again in some other place and in happier times. Now go find your parents. Bye now.”
I cried out as I tried to hold him but his form faded away into nothing. The stress and the fatigue finally overwhelmed me and I knelt down on the floor and cried even more. My best friend in the entire world was now gone.
When Amy and Mark finally came down the stairs they saw me just sitting at the foot of the steps. My tears had pretty much dried out and I was too tired to cry any further.
My sister sat down beside me. “Mark told me what happened,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry, Steve.”
I just kept looking down at the wooden floorboards. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Amy put her arm over my shoulder. “He saved my life and for that we’ll always remember him. Do you recall what Dad said about Granny after she passed on?”
“Yes,” I said softly. “He said that no one really dies as long as you remember them.”
She smiled at me. “Exactly. You and I will make it a point to always remember Ray and his parents. If either of us forgets, we shall bash each other until we remember again, is that a deal?”
“Alright,” I said as we both stood up and hugged each other.
“So, mate,” Mark said sheepishly as he stood on the stairs a few steps above us. “Looks like you know the way and what to do next. So what do we do now?”
I took the obsidian mirror of Tezcatlipoca from my hoodie pocket and looked at its dark surface. As I saw my faint reflection staring back at me I thought I saw Ray’s smiling face for a brief moment just over my shoulder. I immediately turned and looked behind me but all I saw were the old wooden steps.
“We go find my mum and dad,” I said. “Then we take back our country from those bloody Fomorians.”
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THE END OF THE WORLD HAS BEGUN. WHAT DO YOU DO? Steve Symonds is just a typical 13-year old boy living in London. His main interests revolve around videogames, the internet, inline skating, and annoying his friends and family. But when the ancient gods of myth and legend suddenly appear out of nowhere and begin to cause havoc all over the world, Steve must find the strength and courage within himself in order to survive and ultimately prevail against a monstrous, supernatural tide of chaos that threatens all of humanity. Pagan Apocalypse is a complete stand-alone novel and it is not necessary to read the other books in the Wrath of the Old Gods series in order to enjoy it. This book is suitable for ages 12 and up.