Get a 1-Day Free Trial of ‘Unleashed – Free Trial’, a collection of 3 Horror Short Stories
Divinity – 2021 Vol 1, a new collection of 10 Horror and Fantasy Short Stories, comes from 6 countries, across 3 continents and includes Winners from our Go Green Prize, Fantasy Prize and Horror Prize. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.
Where now all that remains are ruins and the desolation of ash, once stood a great, prominent and prosperous civilization. Cities of stones and gold, rich lands of plentiful harvest and, of course, the prodigious race of Man. Kingdoms were built, warmongering at first but peaceful in time and as such, wars became stories of the past as men learned of empathy. And, in the center of it all rested the Silver Capital of the human world, built upon the very birthplace of mankind: the Cradle of Humanity.
Alas, the sacred tenets, these virtues written by men ironically guided them against their own nature, thus the Taint of Ash spread across the lands, foretelling the end of the human race in its entirety. As the bodies and flesh of the living turned into cinders, their minds too began to rot. The ones that were not consumed whole by ash slowly crumbled into lifeless husks, spared of the grasp of death only to wander amidst a world asunder. Years after years, the great crowns that once guided humanity forward splintered and fell to chaos, as the desperate kingdoms led their afflicted armies towards the Cradle of Man. There, they hoped to find an answer to their undeserved suffering. Yet the watchful knights of the Silver Capital, even in their pitiful state of ashen flesh, incessantly carried their eternal allegiance towards the protection of the birthplace of Man, sovereign and unyielding. In the end, war destroyed all that ash did not. It seemed there was no hope left for mankind, for indeed the very Soul of Humanity was tainted beyond recognition.
Some, however, were not. These very few souls were known as the Untainted Ones, for they had not fallen prey to the curse that had been set upon Man. Neither years nor steel could kill them, as each time one passed unto the next world, their spirit reemerged elsewhere.
In the deep chasms of a lost dungeon, darkened by the ash-covered sky, awoke a fallen knight, a wandering warrior, carrying a worn armor of plate dusted by time. His sheathed sword spelt rust, and his helmet sorrow. For a brief moment, the man chose to fall into slumber, as to never have to live and die again. Yet, when the crying plea of an infant echoed through the dark chambers of his prison, the fainted eyes of the knight opened anew – and the dungeon was silent once more. Again, the Untainted One arose, for after each death the thought of giving up seemed oh-so very enticing, yet each time was chased by the sombre memory from a bygone era.
The unnamed knight had done this before. His soul was forever fated to live again, destined to find the unseen path to the scarred corpse of his belongings in a perpetual cycle of rebirth. This time was no different. He stood up, and walked. Walked amidst the abandoned corridors of an ancient prison, crushing the bones of the dead beneath his boots, and to the wooden doors leading outside, to a desperate world left to ashes. As he opened the portal to unwanted freedom, the fresh wind of the sea stirred his torn cape, for the dungeon tower he had found himself in was built on the verge of a perilous cliff. The reborn man sat his gaze inland, standing over the vast plains of the once great empire of mankind, a world of endless desolation.
“Why am I here ?” muttered the helmed knight, as he took out of his pouch an iridescent powder of curious nature. As if it responded to his words, the powder shaped into hovering specks of light above his gloved hand, like a strangely antizing ember floating in the air. At the voice of the fallen knight, the mysterious sparks of light took flight and drifted east, towards the destiny of every Untainted One.
Even more fleeting than the strange light was the memory carried by the Untainted. The knight could remember his mortal existence, in a remote age before the world had fallen prey to the Taint of Ash, but had little to no recollection of his previous lives, nor the manner in which he had died each time. Always, for every death and rebirth, the Untainted Ones were guided by light, by use of an odd powder litting up their path towards their unknown goal, towards the Cradle of Humanity. None knew the purpose of their immortality, nor the reason for their purity of flesh. Either they could choose to fall into eternal slumber, losing themselves completely and, doing so, joining in likeness the fate of the tainted carcasses wandering the ruined kingdoms… or they could choose to perpetuate in their journey, blind, towards the light, nearing, with each life and death, their untold destiny.
In this new life, the fallen knight first traversed the desolate ashland of the west, vast fields that once yielded bountiful crops and abundant harvest. In the distance, dark figures hovered the plains of cinder, scarecrows, whose silhouettes hidden amidst the storm of ash appeared now more terrifying to men than to the black birds who had taken over their outlines.
The fallen knight stopped by an abandoned farming cabin before sundown, less the darkness of the night swallowed his path whole. The shack was not inhabited, as the knight found, on the ash-covered bed, the bones of a father, a mother and a child. He was no stranger to loss himself, and in thought fell to slumber.
As the first light of day shone through the dark clouds of the ashen sky, the knight was awoken by the same plea coming from the mouth of an infant baby. Once again he rose, and continued down his journey westward, inland.
On his path, the fallen knight came upon the lost village of an unknown nation. Few remaining inhabitants feared his arrival, while others praised him, prophicizing the Untainted as the saviors of mankind, the fighters of all evil, the enemies of the Taint.
“Untainted One. I recognize your attire.” said a blind old lady, her very chest, ridden by ash, on the verge of collapse.
Centuries old and well maintained throughout its life, the Willow Mansion stood tall and beautiful in the darkness of tall pines. The air surrounding it was usually quiet, since the estate sat atop a lonesome peak and watched the town below from a long distance. Several generations of Willows lived and withered away within its walls of stone, until only one lineage remained. Their family consisted of parents Robert and Ariella, and their six-year-old daughter, Molly.
On this particular evening, the Willows had dinner in the courtyard amidst frozen rose bushes and apple trees. Snow was falling from the heavens and had already settled thickly on most of the grounds below. The plants around them were nearly dead from the winter’s cold, but the Willows wore their winter’s finest clothing and sat beside an open fire. The family was served chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and string beans—a preferred meal by the Willows. Yet, the chicken and potatoes chilled rather quickly from the cool air, and the crispy string beans crunched like ice in their mouths.
Ignoring these inconveniences, Robert Willow watched the snowfall in awe. His black hair was well groomed and his olive-colored eyes crinkled at the corners, showing his age. “The fresh air is lovely,” he said to no one in particular. He often spoke to break the quietness that lingered through the course of these dinners. Work occupied most of his days, but on Sundays, such as this one, he wanted to spend time with his family. For this reason, he had insisted on dining outdoors, in hopes the unpleasantness would strike some form of conversation with his wife. “Isn’t the fresh air lovely?” Robert tried again.
Ariella Willow, however, was rarely one to complain, agree, or even speak. She was nearly motionless in her fur coat, with her light-blonde hair tucked underneath a heavy wool hat. She kept her blue eyes down, nodded her head in false agreement, and forked the cold beans on her plate as though she wanted to eat them.
Unnoticed, Molly scowled at her parents in secret from the other end of the table. Unlike her father, she did not favor the cold, but if her mother did not complain, then Molly did not have a voice to either. She did not find it fair: being six years old. Grown-ups never asked her what she wanted. They never even wondered if she was happy, which on this day she was not. Winter was a lousy time for Molly. Her hands were freezing underneath her gloves and her feet were wet from the snow in her boots. She could not run in the sunshine or play in the seemingly endless hedge maze. Friends, though scarce at all times of the year, were even rarer in the winter because the roads were too icy for visitors. Only the groundskeepers and maids spoke to her, but even they were too busy to play.
The Willows sat through this soundless dinner and when it was over, Ariella grabbed Molly’s hand and led her inside. They left Robert sitting alone in the courtyard, frowning at the snowfall. Molly glanced back at him through the glass doors, but he did not meet her eyes. She wished to speak to him, perhaps to apologize for not speaking, but Ariella did not release her hand until they were in the main hall and she could no longer see him.
Molly’s caretaker, Janet, was accustomed to her scheduled bath time before bed, and approached them from the grand staircase. She was a rather large woman with thick brown hair and honey-brown eyes, and for some reason, she always smiled.
Molly felt too cold for a bath. She glanced up at her mother gravely, but Ariella merely leaned down and planted a soft kiss atop her head. With a friendly nod at Janet’s curtsy, Ariella ascended the staircase in her long fur coat and disappeared off to the master bedroom.
“Come now, my dear.” Janet smiled at Molly when they were alone. “I have prepared your bath.”
Molly shook her head in protest and hugged herself for warmth.
“Do not worry,” Janet said comfortingly. “The water is warm.” She pressed a gentle hand against Molly’s back and led her up the staircase.
Molly never had a voice, not once. Not even with Janet. She wondered if the same had become of her mother, if she too would hardly speak when she reached her mother’s age. She hardly spoke now as it was. The thought frightened her, but she shook it off with a small smile. No, she was not like her mother or her father. Someday, she would find her voice—a good, loud voice—and she would scream at them all.
Janet led Molly all the way to the bathroom and undressed her next to the sink. The hot water caressed Molly’s legs as she climbed into the tub and sat down on its ceramic floor. She stayed quiet during her bath, kept her chin held high, and tried to keep her eyes open as Janet repeatedly scrubbed her and poured water over her head.
When Bonnie went missing, we did all the usual things parents do. I called 911; we filed the reports, cooperated with the police. We helped with the search. Late at night now, I sit in the rocking chair in her room and rewatch old footage on my phone. My face is illuminated with blue and white light as I stare at old photos, crime sketches, and news conferences I have memorized.
Mike and I were the parents on TV asking if you’d seen our child. “Ten-year-old female, brown hair, green eyes, last seen wearing a purple shirt and red shorts,” the sheriff said. Posters with her picture went up, and Amber Alerts simultaneously brightened hundreds of thousands of phone screens.
After a while, John Walsh’s group came to help find her. I remember hearing someone commenting on how odd I didn’t cry much, especially on camera. Once spoken aloud, the suggestion caught fire. Others agreed; things got ugly. Sticky sweet gossip clung to us; people stopped looking, convinced I knew more than I was saying.
They were right; I did.
I remembered the dreams. Hindsight accumulated memories into thick shadows that showed on my face and haunted my eyes. I’ve seen the same expression on the faces of other parents whose children have gone missing. There’s a look in the eyes as they scan crowds, searching for a flash of recognition. A hard swallow. A hidden secret that, if ever confided, would confirm insanity.
Folks eventually moved on. More urgent situations took over, and the police moved Bonnie’s picture to a billboard. The side of milk cartons is the old joke, but it’s not like that anymore. Every once a while, the local news station would send a team out to do an interview. The first time it was the main news anchor, then a procession of interns wearing too much lipstick and a plastered look of concern. “Kate, how does it feel to know your child is missing?”
“It’s not something you get over,” Mike would answer for me, voice cracking. “We wait for her every day.”
That’s the truth. Her room is the same as she left it; I haven’t changed a thing. Well, I made her bed. But I didn’t wash any of her laundry until she’d been gone for a full year. That day I sobbed, in private at the washer, loading the last few items of clothing that still smelled like her. I cried as I measured a cup of detergent and thumped the lid shut. What kind of mother washes away the scent of her child?
But when she gets back, I don’t want her to see a pile of rotting clothes. She won’t fit in them, of course. But she’ll be back, I reminded myself; she’s always come back before.
The other times weren’t this long. So, on that day, I thought she’d back in a few minutes. Then, a few hours.
That’s why I waited to call the police, which was the first thing I couldn’t explain. Delays imply foul play, and it wasn’t long before they asked if I was willing to take a lie detector. But I could hardly tell them the truth; they’d have hauled me away in a straight jacket.
Even Mike had a hard time at first, and he’d lived it all alongside me. Mike knows this trial from the first dream to the stab of seeing our little girl’s age progression photo high above us on I-4. It’s been a long twelve years.
The wars ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died in these dusts. Politicians drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Unbeknownst to whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder, some many moons ago under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag. Made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti, this was ideal land for battles. At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother without much opulence or opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where they lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms. The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.
Hajji and his mother’s fate were tied up with the Gulaag. She lived in constant fear like every other mother on the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Occasionally, she’d send him out on errands to tend the sheep, far into the desert.
Today, in the pale light of the first morning sun, Hajji took off. He took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. The army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’s war-cries, the Gulaag at their feet lay like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.
“Are you hurt?” Hajji asked.
The boy looked at him wide-eyed and nodded.
“Who did this to you?” Hajji asked again.
“Enemy,” he said. “Water, water, may I have some?”
Hajji looked around. Through serendipity, he found some prickly pears by the dunes. Under and over the sand he searched for something sharp. He found one; a flat pebble.
“Hang in there, okay?”
Hajji cut some pulp with the sharp edge of the pebble. Then he took the prickles out carefully. He pouched the pulp into the corner of his long shirt; he asked the wounded boy to open his mouth. Hajji squeezed the pulp. Droplets filtered straight through into his mouth.
It was cold, not the bitter and biting cold, but the still calm cold that follows after a peaceful snowfall. The kind of cold where you could lay in it until the snow melts. To a passerby that’s exactly what she was doing, spending her free time laying in the snow. It wasn’t until you got closer and realized she was covered only in tattered clothing and warm sticky blood that you realised the truth.
The village of Gable was spread out, each neighbor trying to be as far away from the other as they could possibly be. It was a loveless village, built to withstand the cruelty of those around them. The Dwarves resided in the center, their houses were once stacked together as a community but the empty rooms and buildings left crevasses where families once lived. They made up the smallest of the population, for the very reason that they were the bravest species ever to walk the continent.
The Orcs took up the space closest to the forest, their brutish nature keeping most other creatures at bay. Their watch towers spaced apart to watch the most amount of ground possible, serving as everything to them. If not for their weapons, the watchtowers would be the orcs prize possessions.
The Fae’s or Fairies (depending on your take of the entirety of the race) took the inner west side of Gable. They could be found farming or looking for anything else alive that they could make use of. Not typical actions for the magical creatures. But, after all, Gable wasn’t exactly natural in itself.
Lastly, there was ‘The East’ as it was called. The East was empty, it had been for centuries and would remain that way for eternity. The legends say humans once inhabited the land, but that leaves little room for logic and little explanation for the dark magic that hovers over the area.
It was mid rotation the day it was found, freshly fallen snow covered the village and the smell of smoke was on the horizons, making the orcs ever on edge.
“My dad says the snow is a sign of death.” Dergu said, kicking it with his military boots. orc teenagers were known for their short temper and constant need for altercations. His face was already littered with marks. Rusty red scars contrasting to the dark armour they all had to wear.
“You’d think your kind would appreciate it.” Neglorum grunted. “Being that you hide easier in it.” Ah there it is, the grumpiness and bluntness of the dwarf. Already so clearly ingrained in Neglorum’s personality.
“Some of us, like warm weather and fresh air Neg.” Dergu spat. “We don’t all have our heads affected by metal you know.” If not for their usual banter, one might think the two young adults hated each other. An onlooker would assume so, pale orc skin verses the darkness of a dwarfs. But for these two it was business as usual. (Heavens forbid they actually utilize the word friendship.)
“Insufferable.” A fleeting voice said from behind them. But before either boy could turn around the owner of the voice was in front of them. Ail Stone-Shade, or Stone, to people who knew him better than most, wasn’t as short as Neg or as tall as Dergu but his Big black eyes and pointy ears gave him away.
“Would it kill you not to sneak everywhere you go?” Neglorum asked brushing past him to continue on their way. It was the end of the month, and that means all three boys have been sent by their families to tend to the biggest tree on the edge of the forest. If the species could agree on one thing it was that this tree was precious and the most talented of their young should be tasked with its upkeep.
“Just because you insist on trampling around doesn’t mean I do.” Ail said, his light voice coming out as a song in the winds.
“What’s wrong, Stone? Scared the donkeys on your farm will notice you?” Dergu chuckled, slinging his broadsword over his shoulder. Having removed it in a startle when the Fae had first arrived.
“Trust me,” Ail said. “I’ve been noticed by the two biggest donkeys here already.” he said with a signature smirk. And It wasn’t long before the other two were chasing him down looking to push him into the ground for such a joke. But not as friends would of course, because in Gable friendships just aren’t allowed.
Raised from the desert dust five centuries before, the Hall of Might filled even the mightiest of men with trepidation. The High-Spiritual of Altrisia was no exception. He vomited his last meal over the steps before entering within, despite his best intentions. The brooding guards clutching spears and military standards threw cold shadows across his heart as he walked the angular corridors, his footfalls echoing away to the roof. He noticed things he usually missed: a defaced bust of Vuzar the Terrible; a guard with a great hound on a chain; a dried bloodstain marking the stone floor.
At last Gazaric passed under the Arch of Might, above which the standards of Ictriz, Vorlon, Methwin and Lothwan were carved in sombre splendour. His heartbeat quickened as he saw the High-Speaker on his distant throne, the mightiest man on earth. What remained of Gazaric’s confidence diminished with each advancing step, as if unseen demons devoured his spirit.
Five axes hung high on the wall behind Lord Zircal, their great blades interlocked on a roundel of lacquered cedarwood. The tyrant Vuzar had made the five tribes of Altrisia present these weapons after the third revolt against his rule, as proofs of eternal fealty.
Zircal wore a black leather jerkin and black breeches secured with a broad belt studded with polished garnets. He gripped the Thyrsus of Dawn in his gloved right hand. A thin gold circlet enclosed his cropped black hair and a jewelled elk – ancient symbol of the Irsun tribe – glittered over his heart. For all his pomp, an aura of despond hung about him. He raised his eyes, hard and sharp as knapped flint.
‘All night I dreamt of my skin rotting as I lay dead in the earth,’ he said. ‘I dreamt of maggots devouring my eyes. I dreamt of my bones crumbling to dust. I dreamt of mountains piling high on my resting place, erasing all trace of my existence. And though it was only a dream, it was also truth; for death awaits us all.’
Gazaric said nothing.
Zircal’s keen grey eyes transfixed him like spears. ‘What of your duel with Death, High-Spiritual? I feel his shadow on me.’
Gazaric paled, his neck muscles stiffening with sudden stress. ‘The Halls of Fire grow daily,’ he said glumly. ‘Yet still the Death Shock intervenes, shattering the Mind-Web when our bodies die.’
Zircal shook his head. ‘That is no good to me, High-Spiritual. The rasp of Death’s black zalcar troubles my every moment. His long cold laugh torments my dreams. He is the one foe I cannot defeat. You must do that for me.’
‘We are trying, High-Speaker.’
Gazaric frowned. If some individual could be found whose identity endured the Death Shock, that trait might be bred into future generations. But nothing in these days could save Zircal from death, or any other man. Oblivion or the Endless Forest awaited everyone, as the gods had decreed.
‘There is one coming that might be of help,’ he stammered.
Zircal shifted on his throne, eyes kindling with excitement. ‘Who is this person?’
‘A Sirval, Lord.’
‘They come from the Sirval tribe? The renegades who dwell beyond the Great Water?’
‘The same, lord. They have strange gifts, too.’
The High-Speaker stroked his chin with gloved fingers. ‘Such as?’
‘Some have trained their minds to endure the Death Shock, lord. Temporary death is part of their star-gazing ritual. They are my great hope.’
‘I see,’ said Zircal. ‘Be about it, High-Spiritual.’
Zerala had already forgotten her perilous journey across the Great Water. The Five Tribes had never departed these lands between Dark Sea and the Waters of Peace and their capital Alzara was the nexus of Altrisian power on the Earth. And she was the first of her people to travel here in centuries.
His toes are starting to burn, but burning is better than no feeling at all. He wraps his scarf tighter against his nose and mouth, his hot breath beading sweat onto his brow. His nerves are shot – stretched out too thin like strings of a violin ready to be plucked. To play the melody that will be the soundtrack of his death. His swan song. He laughs bitterly as he continues to trudge through the ankle-deep snow.
The snow stretches for miles, untouched and glistening. In the very centre of the beautiful blank canvas stands a lone tree. It is huge and hulking and magnificent. The branches are outstretched and drooping with the weight of the thick cover of packed snow. It looks like a canopy – like a shelter created by nature. A haven in this dismal time.
His fur-lined boots crunch through the snow. His progression is slow and weighty and it makes his heart hammer harder and harder. His pack is slowing him down even more but he can’t risk leaving it behind. His crossbow is his only chance of survival.
He feels exposed in this huge expanse of whiteness. He looks back at his progression, seeing the churned-up trail behind him and he hopes that the thing isn’t smart enough to follow footprints. Tears well in his eyes at the emptiness behind him. He still half expects to see his little daughter struggling to keep up. Her arms flailing as the packed snow refuses to let her pass. Her little chubby face red from the harsh wind. But it’s just him now, and he wonders how long he’ll last.
He reaches the tree and pushes the willowing branches aside. A small avalanche of snow assaults him. Some of it goes down the back of his coat and he grits his teeth in frustration. He goes under the shelter and brushes himself off – his gloved hands slapping away the stuff from his coat and pants. He’s walking backwards towards the trunk, focusing more on getting himself clean than where he is going. The snow is a lot thinner under here and so he stamps his boots to free them of the stuff. The top of his head brushes against something and he assumes it’s a low branch. He turns, and almost chokes on his own shock. He stumbles back, trips on his feet and sprawls out on his back amongst the crisp snow and twigs.
Hanging above him is a body. It’s swinging on a frozen rope. The body itself is blue with frost and missing its legs. Beneath it, the thin layer of snow is red with old blood. Bile rises in his throat and he has to press his fist against his mouth to keep it down.
So much for a haven.
But the snow had looked so neat and crisp. The thing must have at least stayed away since the last snowfall, which was in the night. Knowing there is no other place to rest, he uses his last ounce of energy to climb up the tree as high as he can.
The rumble of the Dwarf Probe detaching from the HavenCraft shook the station so hard that Piper fell to her knees and thought that the walls and floor would crumble from the force. With the tremor ended, however, she got to her feet and felt a simultaneous sense of relief and terror with the weight of what she just did.
She had walked around, exploring the newly empty corners of the quarters her comrades had left behind. They had only taken the essentials with them, fuel, the navigation equipment, all but one of their molecular synthesis tools, and nearly all their tools to capture energy from the next star they’d find, to gather enough energy before returning to the Craft to get all the supplies to make this new star their new Haven.
Piper poked her head into one of the rest chambers. She blinked in surprise, once, twice.
The Captain’s quarters…
Piper opened the door and peeked inside, eyes straight ahead.
Even with her absence, the room carried an aura of brilliance and steadiness that reflected The Captain’s character. Her bed was neatly made, the blanket barely wrinkled, the pillow placed dead center of the head of the bed, as if calculated to the nearest half-millimeter. Her spare coveralls were neatly hung in her standard, small closet, and her spare boots were placed with the same precision as her pillow. Even being secondhand, thirdhand even, her coveralls were neat and only lightly discolored. Only one pair of her boots had a single scuff on them. The Captain never said anything about it, but Piper suspected that she held herself to such a high and disciplined standard, not to gain the confidence of the fellow residents, but to gain the confidence of her own self.
Confidence was hard to come by, these days.
Piper swiveled her eyes to the left and found exactly what she was looking for.
She stepped inside the room and knelt in front of the bookshelf. Very few at Haven had enough books to fill a shelf, if at all. Piper had a few related to various chemistry disciplines. She had been privileged, studying to assist the Chief Synthesizer in putting together all the bonds and molecules needed to build what the population needed. A noble, but mostly wasted effort, and the past few decades had been nearly solely devoted to creating fuel for the Dwarf Probe.
But the Captain had rows and rows of books, maybe forty total. Most were nearly falling apart at the seams, some were almost unreadable with the yellowing of the pages, but they were there. And they all now belonged to Piper.
She gathered seven into her arms, not even looking at the titles, and held them close to her chest. She felt a wave of exhaustion hit as she lifted them, and realized that she needed to return to the Great Window.
She walked down the wide hallway she’d taken on the way to the quarters, passing more rest chambers as she did. More treasure chests to loot.
She approached the Window area, the great expanse where all would enter several times a day. There were small benches set up, but all but the weakest either stood or sat on the ground. The great red light streamed in, warm, inviting, therapeutic.
She entered and screamed, dropping her books. One of their spines, a dry husk of its younger self, cracked and fell apart, a small spurt of dust kicking up.
It was a man.
But all the others had gone on the Dwarf Probe, and Piper searched in vain for a reason that one would have stayed behind. She herself had argued with her comrades, and eventually the Captain herself for months, everyone trying to convince her that she was crazy for staying.
There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.
That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.
Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.
By the time I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots, it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet. Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.
Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.
On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glintings of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.
I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and birled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?
I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.
I couldn’t find it.
I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.
I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’
She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’
‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’