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By MARK CHADBOURN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Mark Chadbourn
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe end
Icy rain blasted across the deserted seafront like stones thrown by a petulant child. Jack Churchill and Ruth Gallagher kept their heads down, the hoods of their windcheaters up, as they spurred their horses out of the dark countryside. Despite the storm, the ever-present smell of burning was acrid on the back of their throats. Twilight lay heavy on the Cornish landscape, adding to the abiding atmosphere of failure; of a world winding down to die. The heavy clouds rolling across the sea where the lightning flashed in white sheets told them the storm would only grow worse as the night closed in.
Dead streetlamps lined the road, markers for the abandoned vehicles that were rusting monuments to the death of the twenty-first century. Occasionally they caught a glimpse of candles in windows or smelled smoke from fires in the houses that had hearths; beyond that, there was only the oppression of the growing gloom.
As they rounded a bend, a light burned brightly in the middle of the road. Surprised, they slowed their horses until they saw the illumination came from an old-fashioned lantern held aloft by a man wrapped in a sou'wester, struggling to keep himself upright in the face of the gale.
"Who goes there?" he said in a thick Cornish accent.
"Friends," Church replied, "who don't want to stay out in the night a moment longer than we have to."
The lantern was raised higher to bring them into its glare. It illuminated the face buried deep in the shadows of the hood: suntanned; grey, bushy beard. He eyed them suspiciously. "Where've you come from?" he yelled above the wind.
"A long way." Ruth fought to keep her lank hair from her face. "We started off in the Peak District. It's taken us days-"
"Aye, well, it would." He looked from one to the other, still unsure.
As the lantern shifted again, Church noticed a shotgun in the crook of his arm. "You haven't got anything to worry about-"
"You can't trust anyone these days." He nodded towards a pub that glimmered with candlelight a few yards away. "In there."
Church and Ruth dismounted and led their horses towards the inn. The man followed a few paces behind; Church could feel the shotgun pointed in his direction. But as they tied up their steeds in a makeshift shelter adjoining the pub, the guard relented a little. "Any news?" A pause. "What's the world like out there?"
Ruth shook the worst of the moisture off her hair. "As bad as you'd expect."
The guard's shoulders slumped. "Without the telly or the radio it's hard to tell. We hoped-"
"No," Ruth said bluntly.
It sounded unduly harsh. Church added sympathetically, "We followed the M5, then the main roads down here. We never ventured into any of the big towns or cities, but-"
"Nothing's working," the guard finished.
"You better get in the pub," the man said with a sigh. "We haven't had any trouble here in town, but you never know. We've seen what's out there,"-he peered into the night-"and sooner or later they're going to get brave enough to come in."
"You're on watch all night?" Ruth asked.
"We do shifts. Everybody's involved. We're trying to keep things going. They'll tell you more in the pub."
Heads down, they ran from the shelter, but before they reached the door a crack of lightning burst over the sea. Church stopped to stare down the street.
"What is it?" Ruth blinked away the rain, following his eyes.
"I thought I saw something in the light."
"Probably another guard."
"It was on the rooftops, moving quickly. Looked like ..." He paused. "Let's get inside."
A blazing log fire in the grate was the most welcoming sight they had seen in days. With the candles flickering in old wine bottles all around the room, it created a dreamy impression of another time. About thirty people were gathered around. A young mother with a baby watched some children playing near the hearth. Four old men played cribbage in one corner with the grim determination of a life-or-death struggle. Everyone looked up when they entered. In one instant Church took in curiosity, suspicion and fear.
He was distracted by a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he passed. His dark hair was now almost down to his shoulders, and his close-cropped goatee was a sign he'd given up fighting against predestination; he resembled the future-vision he'd had of himself in the Watchtower between the worlds, watching a city burn. His features fell into a naturally troubled expression that served to make him look older. But Ruth didn't look any different. Her long brown hair tumbled in ringlets around her shoulders while her face still looked as pretty and serene as the first time he had seen it. There was something new there, though: an enduring confidence that gave her bearing.
A burly man in his fifties hurried over, one large hand outstretched. His skin had the ruddiness of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors in all weathers. "Welcoming committee," he said in a loud, deep voice. They each shook his hand in turn. He was Malcolm, a local businessman. "What brings you to Mousehole? Don't get many tourists these days." Although he was friendly enough, the steely scent of fear was palpable in the atmosphere.
What's happening to us all? Church wondered.
"We're looking for a safe haven." Ruth's calmness was the perfect antidote; Church could see everyone warm to her instantly. "It's not very pleasant out there." Her understatement made them smile.
"Any idea what's happened?" Malcolm's eyes showed he was both hopeful and afraid of what her answer might be. "We thought ... some kind of nuclear exchange ...?"
"No," Church said adamantly. "There's no sign of anything like that. Whatever's happened, it's not anything nuclear, chemical or biological-"
"Face up to it, Malcolm, it's the End of the World." A long-haired man in his thirties hung over his pint morosely. "You can't keep fooling yourself it's something normal. For Christ's sake, we've all seen the signs!"
Malcolm grimaced in a manner that suggested he didn't want to hear. "We're muddling on as best we can," he continued blithely. "Set up a local network of farms to keep the food supply going. With no communications, it's proving difficult. But we're pulling through."
"Boiling water," the morose man said to his beer. "Every day. Boil, boil, boil."
Malcolm glared at him. "Don't mind Richard. He's still working on his attitude."
"You're not alone," Ruth said. "We've travelled a long way over the last few days. Everywhere people are trying to keep things going."
That seemed to cheer him. "I've got to get back to the meeting-a lot of planning needs doing. You must be hungry-I'll get some food for you. We can't offer you much, but-"
"Thank you," Ruth said. "We appreciate your generosity."
"If this isn't a time to be generous, I don't know when is."
Malcolm left them to dry off at a table in one corner where the candlelight barely reached. "I feel guilty not telling them everything we know," Ruth whispered once they were sitting.
"They don't need to know how hopeless it all is."
Ruth's eyes narrowed. "You don't think it's hopeless. I can tell."
Church shrugged. "We're still walking."
"That's what I like about you." Ruth gave his hand a squeeze. "You're such a moron."
The exhausting journey from Mam Tor in the High Peaks had been conducted against a background of constant threat; although they saw nothing out of the ordinary, they were convinced they were about to be struck dead at any moment. Somewhere, Evil in its most concentrated form had been born back into the world: Balor, the one-eyed god of death, a force of unimaginable power dragging all of existence into chaos. Whatever it truly was, the Tuatha Dé Danann called it the End of Everything. They had expected fire in the sky and rivers of blood flowing across the land, but the reality had been more prosaic. At first there was simply a vague feeling that something was not quite right, then an impression of imminent disaster that kept them scanning the lonely landscape. There was a sour taste in the wind and occasional violent storms. The only true sign that the world had slipped further from the light was the complete failure of all things technological. No vehicles moved. Pylons no longer hummed. The night was darker than it had been for more than a hundred years.
The Bone Inspector had suggested Balor would not be at its peak until Samhain, one of the Celtic feast days marking an occasion when the great cycle of existence unleashed powerful forces. From a Christian perspective it was chillingly fitting: the Church had made Samhain into Hallowe'en, when the forces of evil were loosed on the earth. And there was no doubt the threat was gathering pace. The progression was like the darkness eating away at the edges of the vision of a dying man: each day was a little gloomier. Soon all hell would break loose.
There appeared little they could do; and just three months before the doors of Samhain opened: no time at all. But Church's experiences over the preceding months had left him with the belief that there was a meaning to everything; he refused to give in to fatalism, however dark things appeared. If the Tuatha Dé Danann could be convinced to help them, they stood the slimmest of chances.
To win over the Golden Ones, he had to expunge the Fomorii corruption from his body, an act he had been told could be achieved only in the mysterious Western Isles, the home of the gods somewhere in T'ir n'a n'Og. The journey to that place began at Mousehole on the Cornish coast, and a landmark called Merlin's Rock where legend said it was possible to spy a fairy ship that travelled between this world and the next. But one thing in the myths disturbed him greatly: his destination had another name-the Islands of the Dead.
More than anything, Church was glad he had Ruth along with him. Her suffering at the hands of the Fomorii had been terrible, but she had survived to become a much stronger person, free from the fear and doubts that had consumed her before. Now when he looked into her eyes it was like looking into a dark river where deep waters moved silently. She maintained she had died in the last few minutes before Lughnasadh, when she had been close to giving birth to Balor; only Laura's monumental sacrifice had brought her spirit back to her body. Whether that was simply a hallucination on the verge of death or the truth of the matter, it had forged something strong inside her.
As their journey to the southwest progressed, she had been relieved by the reappearance of her owl familiar. But when Church saw it dipping and diving in the grey sky, all he could think of was its manifestation as a strange bird-man hybrid when it had warned him of Ruth's capture in Callender. Could something so alien be trusted, he wondered?
Yet the abilities it had bequeathed to Ruth were extraordinary. She had told him how it had whispered knowledge to her that wormed its way into her mind as if she had known it all her life. When Church fell ill with a stomach bug after drinking from a dirty stream, she knew just the plant for him to chew to restore his health within hours. When they were beaten down by an electrical storm with nowhere to shelter, she had wandered a few yards away from his gaze and minutes later the storm abated. It was amazing, yet also strangely worrying.
Across the roiling, grey sea, lightning twisted and turned in a maniac dance. There was too much of it to be natural: nature's last stab of defiance. Resting against the edge of the window in the bedroom that had been prepared for Ruth, Church let his thoughts drift in the fury of the storm, considering their options, praying the power of hope carried some kind of weight.
"I hope you've got a strong stomach for sailing."
Ruth's words pulled him from his reverie and he turned back to the pleasant, old room with its wooden floorboards and walls draped with nets and lanterns and other sailing memorabilia. He felt secure in its warm aroma of candle smoke, dust and fresh linen.
Ruth sat on the edge of the bed, finishing the cold lamb, mashed potatoes and gravy the locals had prepared for them. "I wish we could pay them back for this." She speared the last piece of meat. "They must be worried about maintaining their supplies, yet they offered to take us in without a moment's thought."
"Doing what we hope to do will be payment enough."
She made a face.
"I'm not giving in to hopelessness. Not any more. You know the band Prefab Sprout? They had a song which went, If the dead could speak, I know what they would say-don't waste another day. That's how I want to live my life. Whatever's left of it."
The candlelight cast a strange expression on Ruth's face, both curious and concerned. "You really think there's a chance?"
She shrugged. "I try not to think beyond the end of each day."
The window rattled noisily, emphasising the frailness of their shelter. "I think about the others. A lot."
Ruth drew a pattern in the gravy: two interlocking circles. It hypnotised both of them for a second. "They might still be alive," she said after a moment or two.
"I feel bad that they might be back at Mam Tor now, wondering where we've gone."
"If they're alive, I think they'll find us. That bond brought us all together in the first place. It could do it again."
"That's another thing." Church sat on the bed next to her, then flopped backwards, bouncing on the sagging mattress. "Everything we've heard spoke about the five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons being one. The five who are one. One spirit, one force. And now-"
"Laura's dead. No doubt about that one." Ruth shifted uncomfortably. "Where does that leave us?" The question hung in the air for a moment and then Ruth pushed away the rickety table and sat back. "No point thinking about it now."
"There's something else that strikes me."
His voice sounded odd enough for her to turn and look at him; one arm was thrown across his face, obscuring his eyes.
"Three months ago when Tom called back the spirits of the Celtic dead, they said one of us would be a traitor-"
"You know any help the dead give is always wrapped up in mischief." She waited for him to move his arm so she could read his mood, but he lay as still as if he were asleep. "It's not me, if that's what you're saying."
"I'm not saying anything. I was just mentioning-"
He mused quietly for a moment. "I hope I'm up to it."
He gestured vaguely. "Everything. I do my best, like anyone would, but-"
"Not anyone. That's the difference."
"-I wonder sometimes how much is expected of me."
"I've never really been one to believe in Fate, but the more I've been through this, the more I've come to understand it's just a name for something else. We've been chosen, there's no denying it-"
"By God?" he said incredulously.
"By existence. Whatever. We have a part to play, that's all I'm saying."
He sighed. "I feel weary. Not physically. Spiritually. I don't know how much longer I can go on."
"You go on as long as you have to. This is all about a higher calling. It's about doing something important that's bigger than you and me. We can both rest when we're dead."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence until he said, "First light, then." He sat up and kissed her gently on the cheek. It was an act of friendship, but Ruth couldn't help the conflicting emotions she felt for him. "The two of us together, just like it was right at the start."
"You and me against the world, kid."
Voices echoed up from the bar as Church made his way along the dark landing to his own room: the locals, still trying to make head or tail of a life turned suddenly senseless. There was a twinge of sadness when he listened to their planning and rationalisations. Whatever they did, it would all amount to nothing.
He lay on his own bed for a while, staring into the shadows that clustered across the ceiling as his mind wound down towards sleep. A song by The Doors drifted in and out of his consciousness. Despite everything, he felt a deep peace at the very core of his being. He was focused in his intentions, ready to live or die as Fate decreed. Some of the debilitating emotions he had felt over the last few months were now alien to him: his despair after Marianne's suicide; the cold, bitter desire for revenge when he discovered she had really been killed. The knowledge that her spirit had survived death was a source of transcendental wonder that had lifted him from the shadows. He had known it from the first time her spirit had materialised to him outside his London flat, but in his misery, he had not realised what it truly meant. It was such an obvious thing, he still couldn't believe it had taken him so long to fully understand the monumental, life-shaking repercussions, but life was full of noise and the signal often got lost. The message that made sense of their suffering was plain, at least to him: live or die, there is always hope.
Excerpted from always forever by MARK CHADBOURN Copyright © 2009 by Mark Chadbourn. Excerpted by permission.
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