Ed McDonald

The clouds closed in faster than I’d expected. Bad colour covered the world, and I ran.

The tell-tale trail of smoke that rose from the chimney of the Always House appeared ahead of me. It sat atop a rise in the land, a comfortable country cottage, splendid in its isolation.

Little in the Misery survived the Heart of the Void, but the catastrophic discharge of corruption had obeyed no rules. Where it had levelled the cities of Clear and Adrogorsk, it had torn this one cottage out of time and left it there. Unchanging, a blip in the fabric of reality, an island caught in a temporal distortion that meant that every day it was restored to exactly the same state.

I’d cut it close, and I was still a hundred yards from shelter when the sky opened. I pulled my hood up as the hissing drops fell, but the fabric soaked through quickly and the rain stung where it bled through, burning like nettle rash. Nenn’s ghost had buggered off, which was a shame since I sometimes thought that, had she lived, she might have enjoyed the stinging rain the way she’d grown to enjoy chillies. I ran harder, seeking a roof before too many of the venomous drops burned my skin, and the visions began to dance before my eyes.

I thumped the door open. It stuck for a moment, as it always did, and then I was out of the rain. I hung my coat by the ever-lit hearth, used an old apron to wipe the stinging water from my hands. The sting didn’t matter. I had endured worse and more. The visions it brought were the real threat. Terrifying, maddening glimpses of impossible things. A flurry of dark images, little more than impressions, and the maddening sense of sand, slipping away through trembling fingers. A face that could not be seen. Distant lives, crumbling into ash one by one. I had thought it had meaning once, but it was overwhelming, senseless, a shivering flurry of warped notions and fluttering pain, echoes of unknowable things. Those that got caught in it were left gibbering for days. The black rain had begun with the Crowfall. Many had died. More collateral damage in Crowfoot’s endless war.

No visions today. I wasn’t wet enough. I stripped off my sodden things, wedged the door shut, and went to the important business—making sure my matchlock and sword were dry. The little gear I had was too precious to risk rust.

I had discovered the Always House a long time ago, back when I was just gaining confidence in my ability to navigate the Misery. Back then, my trips had still been short. A month, maybe two. Over time I had begun to regard the Always House as mine, though given its time-lost nature, ownership was impossible.

Six years. I’d spent the best part of six spirits-damned years out here, alone but for the ghosts. It would be worth it, I told myself. When all was said and done, when it all came to a head and I could cast aside the deceit we had woven, when everyone that needed to die lay broken, it would be worth it. I had to believe that.

The house had been a simple dwelling, a regular farmhouse in a regular village somewhere outside the city of Clear. The city had not survived the Heart of the Void, but this one house had. Standing alone, surrounded by a patch of grass that never wilted, never required water. While the elemental devastation had warped and reshaped the world around it, some random stray spiral of magic had taken this house and cast it aside. It still had walls, a thatched roof that was in need of replacing on what was usually the northern exposure, simple panes of yellow glass in the windows. Its owners had been farmers, that much I could tell by the bill hook, the shears, the threshing flail, and other tools left piled in a corner. When the cataclysm had come, someone had been cooking pottage with leeks, onions, and three small bites of mutton. One of those morsels of meat was slightly larger than the others, and a second had a shard of bone in it. I knew them perfectly; every day, shortly after dawn, everything reverted to the state it had been in before. The pottage was always cooking, always contained precisely the same bits of food. The bag of hard old oats was back in the pantry, the mouse droppings lined the wall. The house groaned and trembled just before it happened, creaking as time bent and twisted itself out. I had no desire to know what would happen to me if I ever stayed inside during its reversion. The water barrel had been full when the Heart of the Void struck. That was the discovery that allowed me to become self-reliant for longer periods out in the Misery. At first I’d wished that those long-gone farmers had left me a bottle of brandy or a keg of beer, but after all this time, I found that I didn’t miss the drink. It was a quiet, humble existence, but that’s what life holds for most folk. There were times when I even found a measure of peace.

I cleaned my weapons thoroughly, treated them with a little oil, then wiped them down with a cloth. It was the last oil I had, my supplies spent. The distortion worked two ways. When the Always House reset what had been there before, it also devoured anything that was left inside. I’d learned that the hard way on my first visit, having left my supplies in what I thought was a safe place, only to find everything gone on my return. I’d tested it with rocks since then. I had no idea what happened to the things that were lost, but if I left the house, I took all of my possessions with me.

Why didn’t it devour me? Damned if I knew. Maybe being alive tethered me to the world more firmly, but that was a guess, and in truth it’s probably best not to find out. You don’t try to understand the Misery, you just try to survive it.