Well, hello there.

Hi, readers. It’s been long time since the blog was last active, so first of all I’d like to say thanks for being patient. I’ve been working on a project that has taken up most of my time but now that I have a little more availability, I’m going to be posting on mmo ore regular basis.

Some things to watch out for in the coming months:

  • More short stories, both horror and otherwise
  • More poetry
  • More book reviews

Also, the thing I’m most excited about, which is…

More chapters of my novel in progress, The Keeping of the Light!

All of this, plus more, coming soon. Thanks all and, remember,

Keep writing.

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The Town That Moved (a short story)

Up on the plateau over the Silver Valley, there’s a wooded ridge of hills that runs from the southwest to the north in a wide arc. During the autumn and winter, the sun only shines on the northern side of those hills in the evening, just before sunset, and the trees that live there grow slow and old. There used to be a little stream that ran down from that place long ago, winding its way across the plateau floor before finally diving down into the valley in it’s slow approach to the sea. The stream, they say, was clear as crystal, so clean and unspoiled that looking at the streambed on a calm day, sometimes it was impossible to tell whether there was water flowing through it. It was said that if you scooped up a handful of this water to take a drink, it would appear as though you held nothing in your hands but air, and upon swallowing there was no taste of earth or salt or mineral, only pure refreshment and a general revival of the senses that came with good rest.

The people that lived in the valley drank of the water every day, and it was said that many of the folk there experienced unnatural long life and good health. It was also said that as the years went by, the townsfolk gradually moved their way upstream and away from the sea. Their houses were torn down and rebuilt over and over throughout the years, until a point where it seemed that the whole community moved as a single, driven organism. They worked and moved with a purpose, drinking of the water from that perfect little stream and building and rebuilding their houses and working their way, slowly but with determination, up through the valley toward the plateau.

A few years after the movement began, travelers would come to the town in the valley but would stand in confusion when they found no people, no houses, no town, at the end of the lonely highway. They found only the little stream as it slid patiently between the stones of the streambed toward its eventual destination at the coast. These travelers would remark and shout upon hearing that, having made their way through the length of the valley and starting the climb into the highlands, the townsfolk had given up building houses altogether and now kept themselves in little huts that lent themselves more readily to the constant tearing down and rebuilding if those people and their habits. There came a time, as well, where the people found it more appropriate to give up their huts for the warmth and comfort of tents, as the stony plains of the plateau did not lend themselves to the building of foundations and wooden frames. They took up spears and arrows and dedicated themselves to the chasing and killing of the noble caribou, and fashioned their hides into coverings for those little tents that had become their homes. They ate of the caribou and became masters of harvesting their milk for the making of many fine cheeses and dishes, and there came a moment where the people thought to follow the caribou away to the south in their great migration. However, the people decided against it, for they could not bear to leave the little stream for long.

They continued upstream, raising their young and teaching them in the ways of building strong tents and hunting the caribou when they were near. Travelers came few and far between along that cracked and dusty road now, and when they did they brought with them great spyglasses and binoculars to glimpse the people from the roadside. They watched as though watching film, passively, never thinking to interact or interject; not knowing that they could ever reach those townsfolk who once lived so near to the sea. The travelers watched and read magazines and talked among themselves about what pretty, colorful houses the people used to live in back when this was a real town, and eventually they would pack up their cars and return home, leaving their names written on the road sign in permanent marker and leaving little bags of garbage along the roadside to be inspected by the birds and rats once they drove away. Eventually the travelers stopped coming to the Silver Valley altogether, writing it off as a waste of time after reading the poor reviews from previous visitors and choosing other, more interesting venues to explore.

It is only natural, then, that nobody was watching when the people stopped building their tents and began to sleep under the stars in the open air. No outsiders witnessed when they stopped eating the flesh of the caribou and started eating among the caribou, grazing slowly on their hands and knees over the ancient plateau, holding their noses high in anticipation when a whisper of wolves came whistling through the crowd. As with all things, the interest in those people returned, and the new generation of travelers found their way to the old sign post at the end of the broken road, signing their own names and leaving their own garbage and watching through high-powered telescopes as the townsfolk loped naked over the plains, chasing and playing and laughing in their learned language. Many of the travelers wrote stories about the townsfolk and their ways, using them as allegory in great, sweeping tales of fiction, but sales were poor and those authors eventually took up more fruitful careers in finance and advertising, but they continued watching with renewed interest because by that time everybody knew of the people that had once lived in the valley.

It is an unlikely turn of events, then, that nobody was watching at the moment the townsfolk reached the ridge of hills and disappeared into the woods, kicking off the last of their shoes and garments and they followed the stream into the perpetual shade of those hills to drink and sleep and play. Outcry came at the loss of the townsfolk, and the travelers slept by the roadside and wept, holding up candles throughout the night and calling their loved ones to say that it was all, finally, over. A few curious outsiders did eventually return to the old, rusted sign at the end of the dirt road, and wandered the valley in search of artifacts and trinkets to be kept in museums. Their efforts did eventually turn up little bags of petrified and ancient garbage, which were carefully tagged and organized and placed in glass cases to be photographed and studied for centuries to come in universities and colleges and internet forums.

Once the excavations were done and the crews returned home over the old path, the obscure few who returned to the valley sometimes searched out the little stream in hopes of drinking that clear, clean water that used to flow down from the hills, but with the passage of time it was hard to tell the streambed from the tracks of animals and excavating machines, and all of the water they could find was stagnant and muddy. The stream could no longer be found among the bushes and stones of the ancient valley, and as the patience of adventurous individuals waned, people stopped looking for it altogether, and instead turned to watch the rolling of waves along the coast with their backs turned to the memory of the little stream. Sometimes, they talk about the stream and the town and the people that lived there, and sometimes they still tell stories inspired by those poorly sold books of ages ago, but for the most part now, everybody is in agreement that it’s unlikely the stream was ever there in the first place.

Spooky things (in audio form)

Just making a quick announcement that I will soon be linking out to narrations of my stories by various voice actors on YouTube. I particularly enjoy hearing the narrations because everybody has a slightly different take on the flow of these stories that I’ve been hearing in my own head for years. Also, these people do a great job of building atmosphere with the aid of great background music and sound effects at times. It really adds something to the experience.

Stay tuned for that, and more, coming very soon.

One Last Round – Part One – The Old Guitar

The hanging bell outside McCarrow’s pub rang again, signaling the exit of another lonely visitor who, after the usual weeknight dosage, stumbled homeward to their half-empty bed.

Back inside, four friends sat quietly around a wooden table. The table itself was dark, stained and sticky from the remnants of drink that had been spilled earlier in the night. The friends, three men and one woman, sat with a sort of dazed patience while waiting on Craig, the bartender, to bring out the next in a series of final rounds. While the old stained glass windows near the door pulsed with the suggestion of passing walkers, the pub nearly hummed with a sense of stillness. The lights were low, the radio had momentarily succumbed to static, and Craig had disappeared to the back room a while ago to check on the boilers or some other mundane task. After a long while, the radio flickered back to life and the woman sitting at the table motioned for her male companions to listen.

“Oh my God,” she said, “is that what I think it is?” She looked at the man sitting across from her and grinned.

Her friend looked less happy. “Lily, no,” he said, and looked around the shadowed room.

“Oh, hey it is you!” The man to his right said, patting his arm.

The song on the radio drifted through the pub, echoing with electric guitars and a lone vocal steeped in emotion. The man sitting across from Lily lowered his head into his hands and seemed to want to drown it out.

“Christ, Devin, why are you getting all embarrassed? It’s a great song,” said Chris. “I haven’t heard your stuff in a long time.”

“Yeah,” said Lily. “Why don’t you perform any more?”

“It’s just not my thing,” Devin responded, scratching at the rough tabletop.

Lily raised her eyebrows. “Not your thing? You used to be up all night writing and recording. I remember because you always flaked out from coming to parties saying you had to work on your music.”

“It’s not my thing anymore,” Devin said. “And can’t somebody turn it off?” He turned around in his seat but Craig had still not returned to the bar. “I don’t like to listen to that old stuff.”

Chris leaned back and folded his arms. “Why’d you give it up anyways?”

Devin shrugged.

“Come on, man. You used to get a lot of air time on campus radio. Why didn’t you ever send off a tape to CBC or something?”

“Seriously though,” said Lily, “you really could make it big with those songs. Why not pick it up again?”

Even Leo, who had been quiet the whole evening spoke up. “Yeah, I get not having the time when you dropped out and were job hunting, but why not now?”

Devin stopped picking at the table and shook his head. “I didn’t stop writing music because I dropped out.” He paused for a minute and glanced over toward the front door of the bar. “I dropped out to get away from the music.”

The three friends shared a look of confusion with one another. “What do you mean?” Chris asked.

Devin glanced at each of the others in turn. “The station guys never released the tapes?”

They all shook their heads. “What tapes?” asked Leo.

Devin rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You’re gonna call me crazy.”

“We won’t,” Chris said, and leaned in to listen.

As the song ended, Devin started to talk.

It was when I moved into that apartment off campus that it happened – a few months before that big fire broke out on campus.

Old duplex, house divided down the center, right? I got the left side – the whole half of the place – for three hundred a month. Normally, I would have thought the low rent meant there was something wrong with it, but when the landlord showed me the location I found something that made me ignore any doubts I was having. Under the bed poked the neck of an old electric guitar. I was shocked when I pulled it out and saw that it was actually a vintage Gibson Les Paul – a ’58 or ’59 model – and a beauty at that. It was immaculate, and only the finest hairline cracks ran along the finish, arranged in a way that made it look even more impressive. I held it against me and tested the strings and looked at the landlord. They seemed surprised I was interested in it, and told me to keep the “old thing” as the previous tenant left it behind and they had no use for it. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I never could stand living on campus. With all that noise and constant partying I could never concentrate on my studies or my music. Back then I thought the music was more important. Stupid. At that apartment, though, I had all the peace and solitude I needed. I even had a separate entrance, so there was never a need to interact with the neighbor on the other side. That being said, I wouldn’t have known that there even was another person living in the house if the landlord hadn’t mentioned them briefly. Apparently they had lived there for a long time, but he was quiet and had always paid the rent on time, no questions asked. I never did see my neighbour, only heard faint mumblings at night time when I assumed he was talking on the telephone.

The thing that was really odd about it was I never heard a telephone ring, he would just start talking. After a while I started to wonder whether he was talking to anybody at all, or if he was just talking to himself. Try as I might to eavesdrop, the walls were so thick I could never tell what they were talking about. I figured it wasn’t worth my time to dwell on it, so I just went on with my business. I finally had a quiet place where I could get some work done. I could finally start writing some music.

The old guitar did half the work: with that thing in my hands it was impossible not to feel inspired. I would sit there for hours into the night with my computer recording and my headphones on, meditating to the sound of that instrument. It sounds like a douchy thing to say, but sometimes I was blown away by the things I came up with. It was the best music I’d ever written and recorded.

The problem was, I couldn’t think of a single damned lyric.

I would write a few lines or half a chorus, but it was all garbage. Music without words works well enough for jazz, but this wasn’t jazz, and I wasn’t going to get on the radio with nothing but instrumental tracks.

It was painstaking, having come up with these perfect, beautiful guitar parts but not having any decent words to accompany them. I felt like I might as well give it up. Nights of recording turned into nights of self-loathing, and then after a while I stopped recording anything at all. I would sit by the computer with my headphones on, holding the old guitar in my hands and staring at the strings. I’d sit there for hours into the early morning, my ears filled with the sound my own blood pumping and the ambient static from the pickups humming in my ears. That went on for weeks. I felt like I was going a bit crazy, and then I started hearing things.

At nearly three in the morning one night as I was sitting there listening to the steady hum from the guitar in my headphones, I heard a voice in the house.

It freaked me out, because I never heard people walking by on the street, and I could never hear my neighbor’s voice that clearly. I threw down my headphones and jumped up – the guitar still hanging from its strap – and shouted out “hello!?” Nobody answered. I made my way through the apartment, pacing through each of the dark rooms, but there was nobody there. The door was locked. I was alone.

I shook it off and went to sit down again. I put my headphones back on and went back to listening to the static drone of the old Les Paul. That’s when I realized where I heard the voice – it was coming from the guitar.

The wiring must have been picking up the signal from a nearby telephone or radio, and it was being fed back to me through my headphones. Knowing now what I’d heard, I chuckled to myself, feeling foolish at thinking there was an intruder in the house.

It was really low, so I turned the volume up louder than normal, and that’s when I realized what it was exactly that I was hearing. It was my neighbor from the other side of the wall. He must have been talking into a telephone, because I can’t think of another way his voice was being picked up like that, but as I listened i never heard the other end of the conversation. Perhaps his correspondent wasn’t very talkative, or perhaps he really was talking to himself. Either way, I was fascinated.

The things he spoke about – love, loneliness, dreams, pain – drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. The cadence and tone of his voice – filtered through the static hum of the guitar – were hypnotic. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was grabbing a pen and writing down what I heard. I scribbled as fast as i could to keep up, and when my hand started cramping I hit record and let the computer do the work – I could just transcribe it later.

I had found my lyrics.

One thing was certain to me: my neighbor was completely mad. For him to talk the way he did, for hours at a time, he must have been in a world of his own. In a week I had five fully composed and recorded songs. I had more material than I knew what to do with.

I took the demos in to the student radio station and was told that I’d get a call later in the month once they’d had a chance to listen to them and decided which songs would get air time. After that I went on to class and did my usual thing, although I admit I couldn’t really concentrate on anything the professor was saying. My mind was on my music – if you could call it my music at all.

I got a call from the station before the end of the week. “Were taking it all,” they said, “and I hope it’s okay, Devin, but we actually started broadcasting it this afternoon.”

Obviously it was okay – I was thrilled! For the first time since I’d set out on my own, I felt like I’d really accomplished something. I felt like a champion, like I’d finally proved myself. That was an incredible emotion. I wasn’t prepared for the next question.

“Do you have more?”

In that moment I was still feeling the rush of accomplishment, and more than a little full of myself. “Yes,” I said, hardly even thinking before saying it.

Before I knew it I’d agreed to bring in another four songs by the next Monday. I only had five days to get everything together, but with the amount of material I had pre-recorded, I was confident I could do it. I’d mostly be transcribing more of the phone static, and that was easy work. My neighbour’s words would do the heavy lifting for me.

I left classes for the rest of the day, too excited to listen to a word of my lectures, and headed back to my apartment to start working. I pulled up the recordings of my neighbour and started listening, pen in hand, ready to transcribe. Within a minute, I had to pause and scribble to keep up. Again, I was astounded by the raw emotion in those words. It was a perfect line, the perfect way to open a song. However…

It was already the perfect opening to a song – one of the songs I’d recorded the previous week. I rewound and listened again, just to make sure. It was the same as what I’d already transcribed.

I skipped ahead through the recording, looking for new material. When I hit play again, I found myself listening to the static-filled voice lamenting with the pain of a lonely heart. It was beautiful, but I had heard it before. This was what I’d used as the second verse on song number two.

I spent the rest of the afternoon skipping through the recordings, but time and time again I would land on phrases, lines that I had already used. the same ideas and suggestions kept coming up, looping over and over. I stopped skipping through and let the recording play through all the way. Every twenty minutes, my neighbour would loop back and start repeating himself, recounting the same stories, dreams, ideas that he’d already spoken of. The whole recording, the whole three and a half hours, was of the man talking over the same twenty minutes of dialogue on an endless loop.

But it wasn’t prerecorded. I could tell, because even though he was saying the same things, his words would change ever so slightly each turn. There were little variations in his tone, his inflections that showed he really was talking over these things, constantly repeating himself. His words would vary ever so slightly as well, but that detail could have easily been missed if I wasn’t as obsessed with searching for it.

There were gaps in his repetition, though – every ten minutes or so he would pause and utter a few words that were out of place. It was bizarre, almost like he would go into a trance – or, break out of his trance – and speak something completely unrelated to whatever it was he was talking about at the time. Sometimes they were full sentences, sometimes just a few seemingly random words, and other times the static got so loud I couldn’t pick out any thing at all.

I started listening more carefully, collecting those fragments that didn’t belong and writing them out. They seemed connected, and when I compiled them together I thought I had found my new source of lyrics. I would have to create my new songs by combining those little fragments into something that made sense. With what I’d already recorded, though, I could only find enough for a verse or two. If I was going to write four more songs, I would need to listen in on more of my neighbour’s talking.

It was tedious work. Before I knew it the sun was coming up and I still only had enough lines for half of a song, maybe more if I mixed things around and used more repetition. It wasn’t perfect, though. The words and phrases he was throwing out there were related, but nothing really fit together that well. I would have to dedicate all of my time to the task if I hoped to make any progress at all. So, I cancelled all other plans, skipped class and continued with my work, stopping only to grab a sandwich and a tray of coffee, not pausing to say hello to my classmates and professors who recognized me.

As the hours dragged on I started behaving strange. I knew it, I knew I was being weird and that I should have given it up and gone to bed, but I couldn’t stop. My arms ached unless I was holding the guitar and my ears would itch and burn if I took the headphones off and stopped listening to my neighbour’s voice. After… hell I don’t know how long it was… I must have decided that I had enough material because I realized I was singing. I was playing and singing and recording. That was unusual for me, because I normally recorded all of the tracks separately to get the cleanest results. I usually took my time, but now I was absolutely frantic.

It was like the words couldn’t come out fast enough, and I couldn’t even be sure that I understood the words coming out of my mouth. Had I even written them down? How long had it been since I ate something? I wasn’t even sure what day it was. It must have been near morning, because there was a dim glow in the sky outside, and it was cold, so cold in the room. My throat was raw from singing and my breath tasted like copper. When I looked down at my hands, I was both terrified and revolted to see that my calluses had torn away, blistered, and ruptured. My fingertips were a ragged mess of blood and the guitar itself was a display of sweat and gore. My singing convulsed into a scream as I stared down at my bloodied hands, almost vomiting in fear but unable to stop playing. The static was thunder in my ears.

Finally, I managed to throw myself out of the chair, and as I did, the headphones were pulled off and I lay there on the cold, hard floor, holding my hands close to my chest and wriggling like an animal to get the guitar strap off of my shoulders and neck. Once I got to my feet, I made my way to the bathroom and ran the cold tap, holding my injured fingers in the stream to clot the bleeding. I bandaged them in gauze and changed into some clean clothes, threw myself down into bed, and feel into the deepest and soundest sleep. When I woke up, it was to the sound of my phone ringing, and when I picked it up it was the manager at the station on the other end.

“Devin!” he said, “Jesus, man, what are you doing? You said you’d have the demos to us by today. What’s the hold up?”

Embarrassed, confused, I told them I would be there soon and rushed to my computer. After getting a few hours of sleep, I felt ashamed at the way I had acted. I couldn’t believe that I would push myself so hard, to the point of exhaustion, for the sake of my music. Looking at my computer, I was astonished to find nine recorded demos – all of them newly saved from the last few days. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them, and quickly transferred them to my USB drive for submission. I grabbed my coat and, trying my best not to look at the bloodied guitar lying still on the floor, headed out the door to campus.

Apologizing like a child, I handed over the demos and ran to catch my class, hoping that my professor wouldn’t question my sudden and prolonged absence. Once I sat down and started sipping at my coffee, I immediately started to feel better. That sense of accomplishment and pride that I had felt the week before came rushing back. I had written over a dozen songs in two weeks, and was getting airplay at a major university and online. Sure, they weren’t my words, but who would ever know? No one.

That night, I cleaned up the guitar and my desk, and sat down to take it all in. I put on my headphones, leaned back in my computer chair, and pulled up the website for the student radio station to listen in. Every hour I heard one of my songs, and smiled with satisfaction. Only one thing bothered me – I didn’t hear any of the new demos, only the originals from the week before. Needless to say, it pissed me off. Why in the hell would they put so much pressure on me if they weren’t even going to play the damned tracks? I waited another hour but there was nothing – none of my new songs.

I sent a text to the manager, abrupt and wanting an explanation. I wasnt expecting a response back, as it was after 11pm. They responded almost immediately.

“Is this a joke?”

I stared at the message, infuriated. I replied back, “No, and stop wasting my time. What’s your problem?”

In seconds, I got another reply. “Listen, don’t bother the djs again. We’ll keep playing the demos, but leave us alone.”

I couldn’t beleive what I was reading, and was still trying to figure it out when they messaged me again. “If you send us any more shit like that, we’re taking you off the air. Goodbye.”

I was crushed. I couldn’t imagine how things could have gone so wrong. I closed the site down and pulled up my copy of the new demos. I put the nine tracks in a playlist and hit play.

Immediately, I felt my heart throbbing in my neck. There was no intro, no fade in. It was as though I had already been playing and singing when the record button was pressed. I was wailing, rambling incoherently like a madman, my voice straining in and out of tune with whatever the hell it was I was playing on that guitar. And I recognized what it was that I was singing. Those exact phrases, that endless loop that my neighbour had been reciting to himself over and over but in my own, distorted voice. The guitar was a cacophony of noise, distortion and screeching, and behind it all, layered under everything was the voice of the man next door. His ragged voice and my own recited that cycle of words in perfect unison, parting only for brief moments where he would stop, draw a sharp breath, and laugh. That horrible, howling, shrieking laughter.

I ripped the headphones off and threw them down, tripping over the cord as I scrambled from my chair and realized now that the mans voice and his terrible, mocking laughter was coming from behind the wall of my apartment. He was laughing, screaming, singing to me!

I ran. I ran to the only other place I felt safe – the university – and wandered the halls until morning. I talked to the head of residence and begged for a room on campus but that was useless since they had filled up months ago. I ended up crashing on a classmate’s floor for a few days until I could talk them into heading to the apartment with me. I grabbed my few belongings and got the hell out, leaving the key in the mailbox for the landlord to grab. I left the guitar behind. It was shortly after that when I dropped out.

It’s one thing to have experienced that, but it’s a whole other thing to be constantly reminded. Those first five songs keep creeping up on me everywhere I go, no matter how hard I try to avoid it. I eventually had them pulled from the air, but by that time they’d been uploaded to the internet, and had filtered their way into almost everything I hear. It’s like their everywhere I go. It’s like they… It’s like he’s following me.

Silence fell around their little table as Devin stopped talking. Nobody said anything for a long time, and Leo picked nervously at a loose thread on his jacket sleeve. Finally, the hanging bell outside the door rang again, knocking the circle of friends out of their trance.

“So there,” Devin muttered. “Now you know why.” He stared at the others, then at the empty bar to which Craig still hadn’t returned. The radio hummed with static. “Happy now?”

“No,” said Chris, shaking his head. “But…” he paused, glancing at the door. “But I think I’ve seen him.

The Balcony (originally published on Creepypasta.com)

I sat, staring blankly at the screen, for how long I can’t be quite sure. Desperate for something to watch, read, listen to… In search of some stimulation that might exhaust my mind to the point where going to bed seemed like a good idea. I closed my eyes and strained hard – pressing for some idea of what to type in the search bar but nothing came.

It wasn’t apparent to me how long I’d been sitting there, postponing sleep, gazing with glazed eyes at the monitor and refreshing the same social network feeds over and over again, waiting for some fuckwit I didn’t know or care about to update the world on their life happenings. Nothing changed, though – it was well past 2 am and most people were rolling over, ripping up the sheets and drooling on their pretty pillowcases.

Somewhere between the ears a sharp pain fired off and I realized I had a headache. Oh great… again. I reached for the bottle of ibuprofen sitting conveniently by my computer mouse and washed two of them down with the last mouthful of my warm beer. Refresh. Nothing happening. Couldn’t think of a song to listen to. Refresh. Same thing. No ideas for articles to read. Refresh. Nothing. They’re all sleeping, dammit. I snapped the laptop lid shut. Went to look out the window.

There was a streetlamp directly across the street from my little apartment, which I suppose was the reason I hated going to bed so much. One of the reasons, anyways. There wasn’t much to look at outside, either. Thin blanket of snow on the ground. Still cars in the neighbor’s driveway. Couldn’t see the stars… must have been cloudy. The apartment was even less interesting. A pile of half-read novels lined up on the shelf, arranged by size from biggest to smallest (dimensions, not pages). Drying rack full of dishes that were probably dry by now, but that could wait until tomorrow. Old flower-patterned couch made even more garish by the bright, blue and yellow striped blanket hanging over the back. And the walls…

The walls were the thing I hated most. Painted in that inoffensive, bland, mind-numbingly expressionless light beige that seemed to be omnipresent in every fucking apartment I’d ever been in. What I wouldn’t have given to paint those fucking walls. It would have been worth it, even if the damned landlord kept my damage deposit.

Leaving the window, I paced along the wall, dragging my hand as I had done over and over again, in moments of boredom. Around the kitchen/living room – divided by a half wall and made distinct by a clumsy architectural divider that reached off from the main wall by a couple feet – and around the corner to the short and narrow hallway that lead to my bedroom on the left and bathroom at the end. Strolled lazily into the bedroom, flicked on the light, looked around, flicked it off, and walked out again. Stopped for a quick piss in the bathroom. Frowned in the mirror. Then made my way back to the chair. I started flicking through the books on the shelf, but I couldn’t decide which one to read, so I gave up and sat down on the horrendous couch, staring out the sliding glass balcony door.

And that’s when I saw it.

At first, I thought my glasses were skewed, and I took them off, gave them a ritual wiping in my t-shirt, and put them back on again. No, it was still there. Hmph… that’s weird… It wasn’t anything shocking, nor was it one of those things that causes you to jump up in outrage – it just seemed a little bit… odd.

I had been looking at the picture frame sitting on the half wall that stretched partway across the floor between the kitchen and living room, which was perpendicular to the couch I was sitting on – and something about it didn’t look quite right. The picture frame was alright. The half wall looked right – as much as any half wall can – but there was something funny about were it joined to the outer wall of the apartment. I couldn’t be quite sure what it was, exactly, but it seemed like the outer wall was a good foot or more farther from me on the kitchen side than it was on the living room side.

I gave it a frown, then a giggle. Obviously, the landlord had done a bad job with the renovations and had done some miscalculations, and the inner paneling on the kitchen side was curved on one end. I didn’t know much about carpentry, but I had a basic understanding. Yeah, that’s it.

I got up, walked to the fridge for another beer and glanced at the wall again. My explanation didn’t convince me, as the wall looked flat as a wall could be. It was the damnedest thing, because from the kitchen side, the wall looked perfectly normal. Maybe it was the other side that was off. But I strolled back to the living room, and the wall on that side looked normal too. It didn’t make sense. I decided to forget about it, and set myself back on the couch and opened my beer – but there it was again. The wall in the kitchen looked farther than it should be, or the living room wall looked too close… it was hard to tell which was the case, but something was off, that much was certain.

I took a gulp of beer and got up again. I walked over to the corner in the kitchen and ran my hand along the wall near the floor. It certainly looked like things were joining up at right angles. I did the same on the living room side – it looked perfectly normal. I even grabbed a book and stuck it between the floor and the wall, and slid it across on both sides, and in both rooms the book fit snugly where the floor and wall met. Then I did the same, between the wall and the room divider. Perfect right angles. I sat back on the couch again, and now it seemed even more apparent.

It was as if the kitchen was longer than the living room, and impossibly so, as they both shared the same square space and outer wall of the building. It didn’t make sense. The wall to the left was definitely farther than it was on the right side of the half wall, but how could that be so? I shuffled my way around the rooms, observing the dimensions with squinting discretion, from every conceivable angle. No curve, no obvious deviations. If I could believe what my eyes were seeing – and I had no reason to doubt them before now – the kitchen should be protruding from the side of the building by about 12-15 inches.

I was flabbergasted. It just shouldn’t be. Even the thickness of the walls, which I guessed at about six inches, wouldn’t account for such an error. It wasn’t the way that geometry worked, but when I looked again from the couch the difference between the distances on the two sides was impossible to ignore. What the hell…

Surely, I thought, that there was some mistake, and the wall was joined awkwardly and I just hadn’t noticed it before. I’d have to go out on the balcony to reassure myself, and take a look at the outside wall of the building. My balcony ran the entire length of the kitchen/living room wall, placing the discontinuity about halfway down its length. Surely the exterior of the wall would reveal an outward jump. Now it made sense. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. I slid open the glass door and tip toed out into the winter air, the thin snow layer crunching and squeaking under my socks.

But to my surprise, the wall was entirely flat. I flicked on the balcony light to be sure. Perfectly flat. Straight, with no visible joins or angles anywhere. I pressed my hands hard against the cold vinyl siding and ran them from the sliding glass door all the way to the railing at the end. Defeated, I made my way back inside, and slid the door shut. I peeled off my wet socks and hung them over the edge of the bathtub to dry, and retreated to the couch once more, rubbing my cold feet.

It was at this point I started to feel uncomfortable, in a way that was almost indescribable. The very image of what I was seeing didn’t make sense. It was such a departure from simple logic that my brain couldn’t concoct any sort of explanation at all. The sensation that trickled over me was something that I can only describe as the opposite of deja vu. The sheer unfamiliar and nonsensical nature of the wall was all I could think about. I had to prove to myself that it wasn’t real.

I stomped down the hall to my bedroom, bare feet slapping on the floor, snatched my belt off the dresser and brought it out. I moved the chair, slid the kitchen table out of the way, so I had a quick, clear path around the half wall. I even took the picture frames off the half wall, and laid them on the table. Nothing to get in the way.

I started on the right side. I let the belt buckle touch the outer wall, and pulled it tight. The distance from the the wall to the end of the divider was about half the length of the belt. I pinched my fingers hard on the belt, marking the length I had measured. Now… I marched around, to the kitchen, put the belt buckle against the wall and pulled the belt tight.

Impossible, I thought. It was truly impossible. The belt wouldn’t even reach from the wall the the end of the divider. I leaned against the wall, my mind whirring with thoughts, questions. The one thought that dominated my being was that the space I was standing in, leaning against that wall, should not exist! If common sense were any sense at all, I should be on the balcony right now, staring at the vinyl siding on the outside of the building. A sudden feeling of dread washed over me – I felt hot and sick and shaky. I started to wonder what might happen If i were to close my eyes, but at that thought, the fear become so intense that I jumped away from the wall and ran to the bathroom where I promptly retched up my beer and what undigested remains there were of my supper.

What was happening to me? I had to sleep. Yes, that’s it. I was exhausted, and it had been a long week. Maybe it was the headache pills, I thought – I had downed them with alcohol, after all. And mixing drugs with booze can do crazy stuff, right? I closed my eyes hard, nodding my head and trying to convince myself that I had to be hallucinating. I was sleep depraved. I needed sleep.

I flushed the toilet, brushed my teeth, splashed water in my face, and turned to look down the hall. I realized then that I had left the balcony door ajar, and the cold winter air was putting a chill in the apartment. I started, but stopped again, when my peripheral vision revealed to me something which unnerved me in a way I had never known. It was at that point which I began to think I was losing my mind.

On the left side of the half wall, the kitchen stretched on, far beyond the physical limitations of my building, and filling that impossible space was – and It frightens me say it – a perfect mirror image of my own kitchen. The table, chairs, cupboards, and even the overflowing drying rack lay in perfect reverse imitation of my own, real kitchen. It was as though the wall of the kitchen had been replaced by a reflective surface, but as far as I could tell, this was not the case.

I breathed deep, shaking uncontrollably as I made my way slowly down the hall to the kitchen. I stopped halfway, at the linen closet which sat opposite my bedroom door, and grabbed the broom. I unscrewed the broom handle and clutched it tightly as I would a spear. It did nothing to make me feel safer.

I moved slowly – one foot at a time – holding the broom handle out in front of me and breathing heavily. As I got nearer, though, I could see that the discontinuity did not only mirror the kitchen – it was the entire apartment.

When I reached the point where the wall had been, I stopped and stretched out my hand. Nothing but empty air. This couldn’t be a hallucination, could it? No – something else was at work here. Something frighteningly real.

There was a draft moving through the air, flowing like a soft wind, and I realized that the sliding door to the balcony must also be ajar over there. I should close it. That seemed to make sense, at least.

I prepared myself to enter the space that should not be. Something about it still made me afraid to close my eyes, so I decided to try my best not to blink before walking over. Come on, you got this. I had a goal now. Simple enough, but still, that small purpose helped quiet the thoughts in my head a little. I swallowed, breathed deep, and walked into the impossible room. Made my way past the chairs, the books – even the fucking picture frames were there, but something about the pictures wasn’t right, and I averted my eyes as I passed. I turned right around the half wall and came to face the balcony door. I was right. It was open. However, what I saw beyond the door was not what I had expected. I had prepared myself – by taking into account the twisted anti-logic of the discontinuity – to encounter a second balcony. This was a whole new deviation. Nonetheless, I made my way through, back into the real living room, and slide the balcony door shut.

I sat on the couch again, picked up the half-drunk beer, and took a gulp. Spilled some on my shirt. I didn’t know what else to do but try and understand the situation as best I could. There was no balcony anymore. From where I sat, I could see the second kitchen to my left, beyond the real one, and through the sliding glass door I could see the opposing living room, couch and all – even the bloody half-drunk beer sitting on the coffee table. If I told myself that the kitchen wall and the balcony door were mirrors, I could nearly believe I was still sane. Yeah, I thought, it’s just a mirror. Just a big fucking illusion. Reflection. There’s the coffee table… my couch… my beer… all that’s missing is…

I heard a noise behind me, coming from what sounded like the bedroom. A faint “thwump”, like the sound of something soft clumsily hitting the floor. I froze. I could feel my eyes tighten. My pulse throbbed sickeningly in my neck. I could feel the cold sweat seeping through my clothes. I had to escape.

I clutched the broom handle as tightly as I could and ran for the front door. I grabbed the knob, whipped open the chain lock, and twisted it open in a frenzy. Tears filled my eyes and the scream my body had tried to produce had stopped at the dry lump on my throat. I slammed it shut again, as hard as I could have, and locked it. I pressed my back against the door and let myself slide limply down, down, down onto the floor. There was no exit. Outside the door had been just another entrance way like my own. An exact reflection.

And then I heard the noise again… thwump… coming from the bedroom. And again… thwump… louder this time. Thwump. The bedroom door opened slowly. Thwump. They were footsteps. Thwump… thwump… They were coming down the hall.

I do not know what gave me the strength to move in that instant. Some primal instinct, some basic will to survive kicked in. I would not sit sobbing in a corner, waiting for whatever cruel and impossible fate awaited me. I would not.

I launched myself from the entrance way, and made for the balcony door. I flew across the kitchen. Grappled the half wall and swung my weight as best as I could across the living room floor. I snatched the sliding door handle, heaved it open, and burst into the room that should not be. I drove it shut behind me, flicked the lock, and ran left, around the half wall to face whatever it was that had come from this impossible place – not daring to blink until I passed the boundary back into the real kitchen. I stopped short. The wall had returned. Solid. Real. I would have to go back through the balcony door again, but at least I had the upper hand – the door was locked from this side.

I clenched my fists so tightly around the broom handle that my fingernails must be drawing blood from my palms. My eyes were stinging now, but I still dared not blink. I could not let the perverse logic of the space get a chance to warp itself again. Not while I was still inside it.

Then, there was another noise. Not the muffled footsteps from before, but a clear, sharp “tick.” The sound of metal and springs and intricate precision.

The sound of the balcony door being locked from the other side.

No… I rushed to the sliding door and unlocked it, but it wouldn’t budge. I could see the lock switch on the other side – the real side – and it was engaged. I screamed. I swore. I cried. I yanked and tore and heaved and kicked and pounded the door, over and over and over. There was no use. No matter how much force I put on the damned door, it wasn’t going to move. It didn’t even shake. As long as it was locked from the other side, I would never be able to open it. I was defeated. My eyes were still open – I refused to let myself blink, and my vision had gone horribly blurry. They burned like fire from the air and my hysteria, but I couldn’t blink. I could not let that happen. I had to keep the real world in sight.

And then I saw the figure.. I watched with horror through the glass as the figure reclined on my couch. They picked up my half-drunk beer and took a long swig. They were looking in my direction. Staring out the glass of the sliding door right at me. By now my eyes were aching so badly and my vision so impaired that I could scarcely pick out any details, but I knew what it was. The realization of it was the end for me. I have not felt true, unhindered hope, or joy, or contentment since that moment, and I fear that I never shall. The figure on the other side was me.

It might have been an hour, maybe two, maybe three that I knelt there with my forehead against the glass. I never did let my eyes shut that night. I held the lids open for so long that my sight left me entirely. I do not know when it was that I finally slipped into unconsciousness, but it was not of my own free will.

When I awoke in the morning I found myself staring out onto the balcony. The sun was glowing through the trees and I could see crows flying in the distance. I slid the door open and fell out onto the snow-covered wood and stayed there for a very long time, watching the ice crystals melt in my breath. By the time the cold drove me inside, the sun was well up and cars were moving on the roads.

In the weeks and months that followed I paced in and out of that balcony door so many times a day I would lose count by noon. I didn’t want to stay in that apartment one moment longer, but the madness of the discontinuity wouldn’t let me leave. I was obsessed with finding a way back to the world from which I had come. The breaking point came sometime in March – I can’t remember when, exactly – when the landlord came pounding on my door, responding to multiple noise complaints. I had been attempting to tear down the kitchen wall with a framing hammer. There was a commotion, and I had a few very long talks with police, but eventually the landlord agreed not to press charges so long as I moved out immediately and paid an extra three months rent to cover the damages. I took the offer. I convinced the cops that I didn’t know much about renovating, but I was sick to death of that fucking paint and had to do something about it.

It’s been a few years now, and I’ve distanced myself from that place. I’ve since gotten a new job, made disastrous attempts at love. I’ve made things work as best I can, going from one day to the next. I’ve come to think of this world as real – I have no other choice. I will never return to the other side. Not now. As time goes on it becomes ever harder to remember that it ever existed in the first place. To this day, I can’t bear looking in the mirror. I seems to me that behind the eyes of my reflection there is some hint of malevolence… though at times it looks to me more like gloating.

I remind myself every morning that I am real. I am here. Wherever here is. Impossible or no, this world is mine now. I’ve come to see the obscure beauty in it. There is one thing that reminds me of the world I thought I knew, though – it happens every day when I watch the sun rising. I always expect it to come up in the west, but it never does.

It never does.

Deep Sleep (Part 2)

I’ve told you before about my wife’s nightmares and the strange condition that caused her to fall in her dreams, passing through the bed and everything below it. I’ve told you about her disappearance and my frantic attempt to rescue her from the depths below our home. There’s more.

I went down to the basement upon hearing the sheriff’s yelling, and found him and the deputy getting ready to leave. Sheriff told me that they’d received a call from across town and needed to go check things out. I didn’t ask questions, I already had enough on my mind. Before he left, Sheriff Thompson turned back and gave me a long, piercing stare. I expected an accusation, maybe even a threat. Instead all he said was “Be careful.” Then the two of them left.

Liam and I continued our work, scraping shovel after shovel of dark, hard earth from the bottom of the hole. We didn’t talk. I was just glad my boy was there with me. It was in the early morning, around 4am, when Liam climbed up to get a drink of water. Ever since I had started digging in the basement, there had been strange, barely noticeable sounds from below. As the others and I started making progress the noises got louder and louder. It seemed to me that the sounds where coming from the ground itself, not something below it. I had hoped for a while that it was Karen calling out from down there in the ground, but I didn’t believe that anymore. It wasn’t human, and if it was, it was a sound that only a great big crowd of people could make. It was like a drone or chant, like dozens or even hundreds of people exhaling all at once or whispering the same low word without stopping to breathe. Now that I stood alone in the pit, surrounded on all sides by the metallic stone walls, it was louder and more persistent than ever.

I stopped digging for a moment to listen to it. The sound became like an echo, or many echoes, of many voices blended together in a long, undulating chant. The rocks vibrated with it, as though there was a pulse flowing through the stones all around me. The air in the pit throbbed, and I started getting dizzy.

Above me, standing on the edge of the pit, Liam was staring down. He looked worried. He opened his mouth and shouted something down at me but all I could hear was the deafening roar in my ears. Slowly, deliberately, I lifted my shovel and drove it hard into the earth at my feet.

The floor of the pit collapsed.

I fell, screaming, into the void below. There was a brief moment of darkness before I felt myself engulfed in cold water. When I opened my eyes I could see stones and debris sinking into shadows all around me.

As I swam to the surface I was shocked by the silence in the cavern. The bizarre chanting had stopped completely and I could hear Liam shouting to me from above. In my fall I had swallowed a mouthful of water in shock, and as I spat and choked on my way to a nearby ledge I realized that it was salty, like the ocean. The light from above made it clear that I floated in the center of what looked like a small subterranean lake. To either side of me I could see a ledge that ran around the perimeter of the pool, and I swam over and pulled myself out.

“Dad,” Liam shouted down, “are you okay!? Talk to me!”

I hollered back that I was alright, nothing broken, but I could still sense the panic in his voice as he scrambled to look for a way to get me out. I could hear him up there in the basement looking through shelves for rope. One of the ladders had fallen through with me and it was sunken somewhere beneath the black water of the pool. I thought about diving down and trying to retrieve it, but something in the back of my head shut that idea down immediately.

While I was in the middle of trying to figure out how big the cavern was and what direction it reached, I heard a hushed noise coming from above. The sound of clanging and shuffling had stopped.

“Liam,” I called out, is everything okay?”

Instantly I realized what an idiotic question I was asking of my son. In that same moment I understood what the hushed noises were and why Liam had gotten quiet.

“It’s okay, son.” I rubbed the salt and sweat from my eyes. “Don’t cry.”

I comforted him as best as I could. I tried to help him regain his confidence – that confidence that I had seen in him since he was a boy. That same confidence that allowed him to climb trees and race bicycles and dive from wharfs into the ocean with a smile on his happy young face.

But looking back now I know that I could have done more. I could have made him feel safer. The truth is, my tired mind was distracted – all I could think about was searching for Karen. If I had survived the fall, she must also be alive down there somewhere.

Once Liam was back to work, I asked him to do something for me. It would take time to prepare the rope in a way that would allow him to come down and for us both to climb back out, so I asked if he could get me a flashlight. If I was going to wait, I may as well take a look around the cavern. Liam dropped something down the hole and I swam out to retrieve it, taking care not to linger for too long in the middle of the pool – something made me not want to stay in the water for too long at a time. He had placed a flashlight in a plastic shopping bag and blown up the bag with air before tying it tight. When I got back to shore and pulled out the flashlight, it was a little wet but when I flicked the switch it flared to life and illuminated the cave around me.

It was even larger than I thought. The cave ceiling towered about 20 feet above my head, reaching a high point at the center where I had fallen through. The walls down there were even darker than where we had been digging above, almost perfectly black. When I ran my hand over the surface it felt as hard and smooth as glass. Careless, I nicked my thumb on a sharp edge of cavern wall. As I watched a thin line of red well up on my thumbprint, the sound of the chanting echoed for a moment across the waters of the cave. I felt the skin across the back of my shoulders tighten, and after a long moment I realized my vision was starting to go blurry.

Shaking my head, I snapped out of it and saw for the first time that on the opposite side of the pool the cave narrowed into a tunnel or hallway and wound off into the subterranean dark. I started to make my way around the ledge toward it, doing my best to keep my balance and ignoring the beginnings of the familiar hallucinations that came with sleep deprivation. Around me the walls of the cavern began to ripple like waves. Shadows loomed in the corner of my eye and for a moment I actually considered lying down to rest. I fought it off, and soon I had made my way around to the narrow tunnel and shone my light inside. I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet ahead, because after that the tunnel curved off the right and out of sight.

I was about to go back and check with Liam on how he was doing but at that moment the chanting sound came again. A lone, brief echo vibrated through the walls of the tunnel and then I knew for sure that that source of it was somewhere down that dark and narrow passageway.

I felt something then that I hadn’t noticed before – the sound had a kind of alluring quality to it. It frightened me, but at the same time it seemed to call to me. I admit, I found myself wanting to be closer to whatever it was that was making the sound. When I glanced back to the cavern pool, I saw with a shock that I was already at least fifty feet into the passageway. Had I been walking without realizing it, or was it the sound that had drawn me in?

I walked a little further in, just to see what was around that bend up ahead. I walked around the bend and onward down a wide, low-ceilinged part of the tunnel where low rumblings could be heard coming from the floor beneath my feet. From there, I stepped out into what I can only describe as a dome. Looking around, my eyes began to blur again. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

Around the dome where at least a dozen other passages, maybe more, winding off out of sight throughout the underground. At the center was a deep, wide pit, rounded with an ancient stone stair that wound down into blackness. What was really strange, beyond anything else, was the wind moving around the cavern. It was so slight, so subtle, that it took the whole walk from the tunnel where I had come to the edge of the pit to notice it. Air was flowing, slowly and almost imperceptibly, out of the pit. After a few seconds, everything became still, and then that low and droning wind would flow back into the pit, followed by another brief pause of calm. The air pulsed, throbbed, around me. It felt like the breath of some enormous, sleeping thing.

I felt a droplet of water on my neck and looked up toward the ceiling of the dome. I realised, then, how far I’d walked. If my sense of direction was any good, I figured that the cavern where I stood was somewhere below the town harbour.

As I made my way back to the underground lake, I could hear Liam’s voice echoing down the tunnel. He wasn’t alone, and it sounded like the voices were coming towards me. As I reached the edge of the water, I could see Liam walking around with two other men, each of them holding flashlights. Through the glare, I could make out the faces of the Sheriff and Deputy flanking him on either side.

I told them what I’d found, and begged them to come with me back down the tunnel. Before I could go, though, Sheriff put a hand on my shoulder.

“The call we got,” he said. “The emergency.” The sheriff paused and glanced at Deputy Colby before continuing. “A boy’s missing. Disappeared. Mother checked on him after putting him to bed. He was just…”

“Gone,” Liam said, his voice shaking. “Just like Mom.”

I led them to the dome, all of them now believing that this was real. The four of us stood at the edge of the pit, staring into the darkness for a good long time. I looked at their faces, their eyes staring into the abyss. I could tell they could feel the breathing too. My hand was hurting, stinging with a sharp, cutting pain. When I looked down, I realized that I was still clutching Karen’s ring in my fist, so tight that it was pressed into the skin. I put it in my jeans pocket and started toward the grimy stone stair.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Down and down and down we walked, in circles around the pit that seemed to grow wider with every pass. The darkness around us was so absolute that it almost felt dense – solid. The beams from our flashlights were pathetic, illuminating only the winding steps directly in front of us with a pale, orange glow. The sounds of our footsteps on the stones made noises like the crunching of bones. Our breath trailed behind us in a mist.

After a few minutes of slow, careful walking, the stairs moved away from the wall and outward into the darkness. We walked out into that great big blackness, moving cautiously along the metre-wide walkway with unknowable depths on either side. We called out Karen’s name and the name of the lost boy as we walked, but there was no returning echo in that place. Our voices just died out without so much as a whisper, and I couldn’t help but feel like we weren’t underground anymore. I knew we were still in the cavern, somewhere deep below the harbour and the sleeping town, but looking around me it felt like we were walking through… nothingness. The darkness was endless. It was like we were somewhere in the cold and vast reaches of outer space – but there were no stars here. No lights except our own.

I could hear something out there. I could feel it. Something enormous. Moving. Breathing.

“There, ahead!” Sheriff Thompson shouted.

I shook myself out of the trance I’d fallen into and stared in front of us. My throat clamped shut and I wanted to scream out in relief but I was so overcome with emotion that all I could do was run to her. My Karen, my wife – there she was and she was alive! Alive! Before I could take in the scene or try to understand anything else I was there, wrapping my arms around her and sobbing. For that moment, those few seconds, nothing else in the world mattered. It was joy.

But it was all wrong.

Karen was alive – I could feel her breathing; her skin was warm to the touch – but what the hell was this thing she was sitting in? It was like a… a chair or… a throne? It was carved from what looked like solid bone but bones don’t get that big. It was all grey and dusty and covered in carvings that didn’t make sense to me. And why wasn’t she waking up? Why the hell were all these other people here – all resting in these bony chairs with their heads thrown back, silently sleeping? Who the hell were they all? And, Christ, some of them looked old. So old I couldn’t imagine them walking all the way down here. And why wasn’t she waking up?

Liam and I both shook Karen, shouted to try and get her to move but she wouldn’t open her eyes or respond. I tried to pull her up to her feet but it was like she was being held down by something. I couldn’t take her.

Sheriff Thompson and the deputy were both running around, shining their lights at the people seated around in that big circle trying to figure out who they were and if they were all okay. They found the boy – he was there too, nestled in the seat of his dusty throne. All told, there were eight. Men and women, the boy and another child – a young girl – all sitting, sleeping on this great stone platform in the middle of that impossible darkness down there under the ground. Across the circle from Karen, another seat waited. Empty.

As I fought to try and get Karen free, the hallucinations started again. The shadows around us swelled and bulged, and I saw the darkness as a vast, rippling curtain, holding back something that pressed on all sides around us. I squeezed my eyes shut, slapped my head to try and keep myself straight, but I was on the very edge of losing consciousness and I could hear the world growing quiet. I reached out a hand to Liam’s shoulder to try and steady myself but my hand just moved through the empty air. Liam was gone.

“Son,” I said as I turned around and saw him staring at the empty throne, “stay here with me.”

“Don’t you hear it?” he asked, not looking back. He took another step away from Karen and I. “It’s like it wants me.”

I didn’t know what to say, because the truth was, I could hear it. The sound from before, that echoed chanting, was back. Glancing over at the other two men and seeing their faces made it clear they were hearing it again, too.

“I know,” I said to Liam, walking towards him, “it’s been calling to me, too. Ever since I fell down here. Don’t listen to it.”

But he took another step toward the throne, and when he did the visions – the hallucinations from my sleep deprivation – got stronger. The air around me was boiling with movement. I made a move toward him and reached out, but my boy moved away from me.

“It’s where mom is,” he said. “I can talk to her there.”

“Your mom’s here!” I shouted, pointing back at the silent and sleeping Karen, “She’s right here! We just have to get her out of here and everything will be fine.”

“Listen to your dad, Liam” the Sheriff said, talking a step. “We don’t know what’s going on here but we all need to get ourselves and these people out – now.”

The chanting rose around us all, no longer distant but howling. My eyes widened in terror when I saw that the people around us, seated in the thrones, were now chanting along with it. Their eyes were shut – they were still asleep – but their mouths opened as they cried and moaned in unison with that sound, that otherworldly song that filled my mind with pain and longing. I saw the sheriff and deputy throw up their hands, trying to cover their ears and block it out. I stumbled ahead, trying to grab onto my son and hold him back, but I was too slow, too late.

Liam closed his eyes and walked calmly to his throne. He reached out a hand and grabbed hold of the bony structure, throwing himself into the seat. Then, all together, the nine in the circle whispered one short, sharp sound.

Then, silence.

Everything came apart. The world around us was shaking, rumbling. Screams and curses filled the air as the nine sleepers around us all woke and fell forward onto the ground. Liam whipped his head around, staring in shock at the throne he’d fallen from and clearly confused at what was happening. I ran to him, pulled him up. Together we ran back to Karen and she was moving, scrambling to her feet. She screamed our names and held onto us, her hands gripping like claws as the shadows in that deep place swirled and tore apart and rejoined again.
Deputy Colby scooped up the young boy in his arms and the Sheriff was trying to do the same with the little girl that was there but she kept fighting him, “No!” she kept yelling, “you don’t understand!” Finally, he was able to get a hold of her but she kept biting and thrashing in his arms.

“Okay,” Sheriff yelled above the rumbling noises, “We all need to-”

But he never had a chance to finish. Before he could so much as address the five adults that had gotten to their feet on the platform, they had run to the edge and thrown themselves off into the darkness.

“RUN!” I screamed, as dust, stones started to rain down from above. Liam and I both held one of Karen’s hands as we raced across the ledge and up the stairs of the cavern. The cops followed, hoisting the crying boy and the struggling, cursing girl over their shoulders. We ran as fast as our bodies could allow, our feet scratching and pawing at the stones as we climbed. At the stop of the circle stair we could see water rushing into the cavern from above – the ceiling was starting to cave in and all that water in the harbour was going to get down there in a hurry real soon.

We fled along the passageway back from where we’d come, back through the curving tunnel with the sounds of the collapsing earth all around. The smell of saltwater was strong in the air and wind was starting to rush out of the cave behind us.

Back at the underground lake we sent Deputy and Liam up the rope first so they could pull Karen and the boy up. Her hands were weak and she could hardly hold on but they got her out of there. Sheriff made me go next and he crawled right behind me grasping the still-struggling girl, the rope burning my hands because of how tightly I gripped it. We didn’t stop in the basement – we ran up the stairs and out onto the lawn with the crashing thunder noises following us.

The seven of us collapsed out onto the grass in the crisp dawn air and lay there listening to the rumbling sounds coming from below the ground. Everything was shaking. Then before our eyes, the house collapsed, exploding in a blast of sea water that rushed up through the cavern and pierced through the structure a good sixty feet into the air. The windows, walls, roof and all toppled and came tumbling down, drenched in the spray from that torrent of water. Everything we had, everything we owned was destroyed. Everything gone.

But we were alive.

Before long Sheriff had some other cops from the station come by and pick us up. They brought us all to the station where my family and I sat wrapped in blankets and holding on to one another, laughing, crying… not really knowing what to say or do. We held on, not letting go. Not for hours. The boy was okay – no injuries but clearly shaken and disturbed. His mother and father were there to get him in less than ten minutes, haphazardly dressed and clearly without having slept through the night. They asked Sheriff if this had anything to do with his nightmares, the awful nightmares he kept having and Sheriff shook his head but said nothing in reply only “He’s alright now. You’re alright.”

The girl, though… Nobody could figure out where the hell the girl had come from. She didn’t match the description of any missing persons case in the area, or even the province. Her clothes were strange – a ceremonial gown sewn by hand in a style that looked old-fashioned to put it lightly. She wouldn’t tell them her name and she fought so hard with them to try and get away that they had to lock her in a cell until she could be transferred to a facility. We could hear her muttering from down the hall of the station, whispering and talking to herself in a language that we couldn’t understand. The cops wouldn’t let us talk to her even though Karen insisted – she wanted to try and understand what had happened and she thought the girl might know something. She never did get the chance, though.

In the morning when the cops went to check on her in the cell, she was gone. No trace left behind, no means of escape. The security footage – according to Sheriff Thompson – revealed nothing.

The talk around the town was that during the earthquake the entire harbour damn near dried up, with water rushing in from the ocean and being swallowed in a great big crack as fast as it could go. All the boats were sitting lop-sided in the muck, fish flapping around on the seabed. It was the better part of an hour before things went back to normal and the damages to the boats and properties were catastrophic. It was on the news and everything, and there’s talk of geologists going in and surveying the area.

Some people said they saw something else, though, after the harbour had filled up with water again. Some sort of shape came moving out of the crack in the seabed, they say – a big thing that caused a swell of current behind it as it moved. Folks on a crabbing boat up the coast said they saw something too – some kind of big shadow moving under their vessel. Too big to be a whale, they said, more like a dozen whales or so all joined together, or something else entirely that caused a great big swell of waves and moved north along the coast faster than they could keep up with it.

We ended up getting out of town after all that went down. Karen took some time off to wait on a transfer and I gave up the work with the boys. My brother took us under his roof in the city. We’re closer to Liam now and get to see him more often. We still haven’t found work but that’s alright – we can live off the insurance money for a while and the two of us don’t need a big house anyways. Maybe we’ll look for a nice little apartment. We don’t need much – we’ve got each other, now.

Sometimes I’ll ask Karen about what happened but she doesn’t like to talk about it anymore. She did say one thing that bothered me. It still bothers me. She said that if Liam and I weren’t there when she’d woken up in the cave, and if we weren’t holding onto her as tightly as we were, she would’ve jumped too. She would have thrown herself off into the darkness to fall forever into whatever it was that waited below.

She hasn’t had the nightmares since, but I still can’t let it go. I can’t sleep while she’s dreaming. I lie awake watching her with a coffee, book or whatever I need in hand to keep the sleep away. There’s plenty of time to sleep when she’s awake – plenty of time to relax when I know she’s busy. Besides, I don’t like falling asleep that much anymore. My sleep used to be peaceful oblivion – no thoughts or dreams to disturb me. Nothing but pure rest. That’s how it used to be.

Sometimes when I’m alone now I’ll think about the darkness down there below the earth. My mind gets stuck on that empty nothingness and I imagine being one of those poor souls who threw themselves over the edge, or that strange little girl who disappeared from the station. I imagine falling forever, expecting to hit the bottom of some dark and terrible pit, but continuing to just fall. Down, down, down.

I’ve starting dreaming about it, too.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 14 – Lhorrenhelm

Jamie closed his eyes tight against the world and bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood. Gods, why did I have to look down? The rope around his chest seemed tight enough to squeeze the life out of him. He panicked and let go with one hand – tugging at the rope. He had to loosen it. He couldn’t breathe.

“Jamie!” Mavis said, above him and to his right. “Take a deep breath – slow. That’s it. You’re alright. You’re alright aren’t you?”

“Yah,” he managed, finally opening his eyes again. “I’m good. Lost my footing for a second.”

“We’ll rest when we reach the ledge,” Mavis said, “won’t be much longer, I think. Just take your time and don’t look down.”

“Think of fire, Jamie,” said Hektor from below. “Fire and hot stew and warm beer – that’s what’s over this cliff. Think about your friend. Lyca, right?”

Jamie nodded. “I’m good. Let’s keep going.” He focused as hard as he could on the rock face before him and Mavis’ choice of hand and foot holds above. We’re almost there, he thought. Finally.

It was seven days ago that they had been forced to flee to the west shore. Seven days since the grinning man and Shalsa and their band of tarred raiders had driven them off with spears and arrows, taking their only source of food. Or was it eight days? It was hard to remember. Jamie tried to count the meals he had eaten since – it was the best way to keep track of time. Each day they ate a ration chunk of swile meat – smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, and raw – and a bit of tack. The tack had run out three days ago, and Jamie was sure they had eaten tack four days in a row. No, it was five. Five days with tack, three with just meat. Eight days since their escape. Or is it nine?

Jamie had come to think of it as an escape but that was wrong too – they had been allowed to run. Forced to run. He remembered the spears and arrows singing through the air after them and Shalsa’s crazed taunting. The laughter. That horrible, amused laughter of the grinning man and his devils.

The message was still a mystery to Jamie and the others. The Oyen is with us? The nightmare only became more confusing when they opened the bag that had been given to them. Jamie emptied the contents into his hand, finding thirty-six bronze rings, many stained with dried blood. These people were murderers.

Now, it seemed, the nightmare was coming to an end. According to Hektor’s memory and Jamie and Mavis’ rough estimation, they should reach the capitol before sundown. The sky had brightened, the sunlight was stronger. If it would stop snowing for a damned minute, they might be able to see open sky. To their right, a sheer face of ice, toothed at the top by fangs of ancient frozen stone, ghostly in the clouds above. To their left, the Further faded into open ocean, and ice was spreading, breaking into pieces and being swept out along the shore by the ever-westerly winds. In their face and below their hands and feet lay the great stone cliff that they were climbing. Thirty feet up – maybe forty – the safety of the plateau waited, where the lands and city of Lhorrenhelm were nestled between the Western Ridge and the sea. Jamie dared not guess how many feet the fall was to the ground below.

The journey since fleeing to the western shore had been a treacherous one. On the eastern side, the Further sloped gently under the steep cliffs, leaving a belt of forest along the water’s edge. Here, the cliffs plummeted all the way down to the shore. No trees, no paths, just stretches of rocky till that threatened to give way to a slide into the water at each step. To cross the ice again was suicide – facing the raiders again would be certain death, and the closer they got to open ocean, the more erratic the ice conditions became. What should have been a few days hike had become a struggle to survive.

Twenty feet was all that remained until they were on level ground again. Jamie thought of the warmth of hot hearths and soup, stew, beer and strong, sweet wine. He could almost taste it. The thought excited him, but it came with an aftershock of guilt every time. Lyca, Geoffrey, the Straulks, the sisters… all those faces of home that were rationing out kelp and months-old root and scraps of meat at every meal. They would not have those luxuries for quite some time now.

By now no ships were moving in the bay. The journey back to Rivermouth would have to be by sled. The capitol had to have some tamers with moose or reindeer to spare. They had coin, but Jamie didn’t know whether it would be enough. He’d only ever traded a few coppers for traps in the past, and had no idea what a sled would cost, let alone beasts to haul it. Everything the people of their village had, or admitted to having, was in a tiny purse in his pack. Jamie didn’t want to lose it all on a bad bargain.

Ten feet above him, Mavis let out a cry. Jamie locked onto the rock face as tightly as possible – bracing his body against the shock when the line would go tight…

But then Mavis cried out again, and again. He shouted and whooped and started to laugh. He wasn’t falling – he was there!

“It’s beautiful!” he gasped. His voice was hoarse with cold and hunger. “It’s the most fucking beautiful field of snow I ever saw! Oh, Jamie-boy you’ll die when you see it!”

“Soon enough…” Jamie shouted back.

“Quit yer gabberin’ and help us up, Hunter!” said Hektor from below.

Hand over hand, foot over foot, Jamie made his way up, aided by Mavis pulling slowly from a few feet up, and then…

White! Everything was white. Blinding white. He was on the edge of the plateau, which stretched on and on for acres, rolling with gentle, low hills and specked here and there with brown where dead vegetable stalks jutted from beneath the snow. In the distance, Jamie could see buildings, towers, lights, and the brightest light of them all, shining like a red-and-orange star stop the highest lightkeeper’s tower in the north.

“Boys!” Jamie said, as Hektor climbed to his feet beside him. “We’re here.”

“You lead the way, lad,” Hektor puffed, slapping his hands together to get the blood flowing in his fingers. “But let’s get these ropes off first, yah?”

“Yah,” said Jamie, weakly. “To hell with these ropes.”

Beneath their feet the snow crunched and squeaked and their breaths drifted lazily around their heads in puffs of steam. It was colder up here, with no shelter from the wind, but their walking kept them warm, and the growing lights ahead of them kept them marching on. Hours later they were among huts, and then houses, and the buildings grew and grew. More and more were made of stone and they could feel the path beneath their feet harden from the spongy, half-frozen mud to slush-covered cobble.

Doors opened on either side as people looked out, astonished, at the strangers who had just wandered into their streets from the snowfield. A few greeted them, cautiously, but most stood behind their doors, and a few made it clear that they were armed. People were shouting to one another. Somebody was waving a torch in their faces…

Mavis was the first to fall. He tripped in his own feet and toppled in seemingly slow-motion to the snow. At first, he struggled, but then gave up and lay unmoving.

Hektor was next. They put his arms behind his back but didn’t get the fight they expected when he slumped lazily to his knees and closed his eyes – he was sleeping, knelt on the ground.

There were more around Jamie now, shouting something… why were they being so damned loud? And why did they all look so alarmed? He just wanted to sleep. And some food maybe… and…

“Help us?” he murmured, as a hand closed around his arm. There was a bronze ring on its finger. They all had bronze rings, these people. Jamie felt his knees buckle as they kicked him from behind and he collapsed in the road, face down with a mouthful of dirty snow.

Whalesong (a poem)

needles scraping bone,
heel and sole.

sliding cold inside your boots
you bear the weight of all you love,
while inches underneath
the giant gods of other worlds relay
their shepard songs.

empty aqua loneliness.

they disappear,
soaring softly into darkness and
sinking,

willing,

deeper than the sky is wide.

their dreams are of a solid state;
the breath that leaves their backs a
force of nature,

strong enough to rent the field on which you stand that now,
to us,
seems still as stone.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 13 – Riverfolk and Raiders

Lyca woke with a start. Her dreams had been wild and she had barely slept, but she realized now that things were okay. Okay? I must be going mad. Mavis and Jamie gone… Locke dead… Sherylyn dying… and Geoffrey, well…

Among all that had gone wrong, Geoffrey did seem to be pulling through. The day that the riverfolk arrived – the day of the attack – Lyca and Sherylyn had been rushed to the Straulks’ home and tended to as much as could be done. When she finally convinced them to let her return home she had arrived to find Geoffrey sitting at the table with Shenya Wyndhill, spooning out two big bowls of crow soup and patiently waiting for her to return. His fever seemed to be gone. Shenya told Lyca that as soon as he had heard what happened he climbed out of bed and insisted on going to see her. My little hero.

She busied herself changing the wrappings on her leg. The rags needed to be replaced every morning where the lynx had clawed through her flesh to keep the blood poison from spreading. At first her bandages stank of pus and rot, but each day the wound healed a little, and she grew stronger. There would be a gnarly scar, for sure – the beast had sliced damn near down to the bone. Lyca was certain she’d never run again. At least I can walk.

Geoffrey was still asleep, nestled in his pile of blankets and whistling through his nose. The fire crackled quietly, and Lyca eased carefully into her clothes to sit for a while. It seems so peaceful now. Even the snow is beautiful. Outside the stained, milky window the frozen stream by her cabin lay glistening like strands of silver in the weak morning glow. An icicle chimed as it fell from the eave. She wished she could stay there for good, listening to the world by the heat of the stove. Bugger it all, she thought angrily, and rose to prepare for the council.

The day the riverfolk arrived something came over the town – a sense of urgency. It had been too long without word from the capitol, and two of their own young men had traipsed off into the further to seek for answers, but finally Rivermouth’s eyes were open to the danger that crept toward them. The riverfolk were kind enough, but hard. They had journeyed three days from Greepetown after admitting defeat to winter and had suffered losses on the way. A young boy had succumbed to the cold on the second night, and a newborn babe had been snatched from her mother’s arms by a starving kreehawk. Their leader was Gerrik Hull, a hunter who had led the group south to find refuge. Not all of their people had come, though. Gerrik explained that half the town had refused to leave their homes. “You’ll lead us to our deaths, Hull,” his wife’s brother had told him. Her name was Hellyn.

Lyca woke Geoffrey with a gentle shake. “There’s hot water in the pot,” she told him, “put in a scoop of sap and drink up. I’ll get us some food when I’m back, okay?”

The boy’s face was still deathly thin, but his wide brown eyes were brighter now. His skin had lost the yellow hue and he spoke with more strength than before. He slept often but ate well. “Okay. Will you be quick, sissy?”

“As quick as I can, squirt.” She pinched his nose.

The front room of Straulk’s trading shop had been cleared out to make room. The shelves had all been pushed against the walls, and the two slender tables that served as Mr Straulk’s counter had been set end to end. There weren’t enough chairs and stools so most stood around, looking nervous. Lyca took notice of the Greepetown woman who had lost her baby, sitting near one end of the table. Her face was gaunt – eyes blank. Sherylyn was absent – her wounds were too grievous, and Lyca wondered whether she would survive.

“There’s a brave lass,” announced Tiny when she came in. He was a quarter man taller than most, strong as a bull and with a belly that sagged beyond the limits of his belt. “Grab y’self a seat now and get off that leg.” The big man dragged back a remaining stool and ushered her in.

“Your wound – how is it?” asked Gerrik.

“Better, much. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Yah, she’s a tough one, our Lyca,” said Shenya. Her voice was kind as ever, but her eyes were filled with worry. Lyca could only guess how she was dealing with her sister’s near fatal encounter with the lynx.

A few more came in after she sat down. Most of them riverfolk, whose names she did not know, but also came Felicia’s Aunt Bekka, and lastly Alek and Maya, with their twins.

“Aye,” said Mr Straulk. “Should we get on with this business, then?” A murmur of agreement was heard around the room.

“These are times of grave danger, none can deny.” said Old Crewe, who sat with his withered hands resting on the table’s edge. “Our friends to the north here present us with an option. One that we didn’t have before.”

“And a burden.” Straulk’s voice was low, but loud enough that everyone could hear. Lyca’s cheeks burned with sudden anger.

“We did not wish to bring hardship to your town, mister merchant.” It was Gerrik, from the end of the table.

“Anyone to think that would be a fool,” said Susan. Mr Straulk glared at her.

“Regardless, the choice we make today will almost certainly decide the fates of many.” Old Crewe looked around at the faces in the room. “But there are questions that need be answered first.”

“Aye,” muttered a few. The room was quiet for a moment.

“Your people, Gerrik, have lived on the Whitewater for years.” said Lyca. “You don’t rely on aid as we do. Why is it that this winter is different from any other?”

The riverfolk leader started to speak but held back. There’s something else, Lyca thought, something else he doesn’t want to say. It was his wife who spoke instead.

“Our people have put strain on you all, it’s plain,” said Hellyn, “but you must understand that we had no choice but leave Greepetown. The winds were fierce, food might not have lasted us. That much we could have suffered out as usual, like you say but…” She paused, glancing at Gerrik for a second. “But then we heard about the raiders.”

“Hellyn, those are just rumours.”

“Are they?” said another of the Riverfolk – a dark haired boy in his teens. “That man you found, though…”

Mr Straulk looked unsettled. “What’s this news? And why is this the first we’ve heard of it.?”

“Only rumours,” Gerrik said weakly. “We never saw them, not with our own eyes. It may not be true.”

“The man saw them with his own eyes. Surely that’s enough? If you didn’t believe it why would you agree to leave?” Hellyn pressed him.

“I’d rather not take chances when it comes to my family, you know that. But still, it’s hearsay.”

An explanation would be appreciated, I think,” said Tiny.

Gerrik spoke slowly and carefully. This is no tale he wants to tell. “I was returning from a hunt. Empty-handed. I was in earshot of the rapids when I heard something… strange. I thought it might be a moose, or maybe a stray keywing come down from the highlands. So I got closer and there was blood on the snow. No small amount of blood.” He glanced around at the waiting faces. “It was a trapper. Lost, weary. He had taken an arrow to the gut. He was talking madness, sick from blood poison. My first thought was he must have fallen on his own shaft.”

“Tell them what you told us,” said Hellyn.

Straulk’s impatience was overflowing. “You’d best not be hiding something important, Hull. You’re a guest here, remember that.” He’s so suspicious, thought Lyca. Mavis is so much like him.

“The poor sod had lost a lot of blood,” Gerrik said. “He might have even been dream-walking at that point. He was on the edge of death. When the poison gets in your blood you see strange things, everybody knows that.”

“He was attacked,” the brown-haired youth said. “By a band of raiders.”

“He thought he’d been attacked.” People were muttering now. The air tightened.

“How many men?” Tiny’s red face was strained with worry. “Hull, if there’s raiders attacking innocent people we need to know. I need to protect me and mine.”

“That’s why I wanted to tell you all, at once. I want to be clear that I’m not sure whether what this fellow said was true or not, but…” he struggled for words.

“But it convinced you. Some part of you, at least.” Lyca spoke up.

“Aye,” said Gerrik. “The part that loves my kin.” He turned to Tiny. “He said it was men and women. I don’t know how many, but a small group, at least. Men and women in tarred leather, armed with spears and bows.”

“When was this?” Shenya’s face was pale.

“Five days before we left Greepetown. We tried to gather as many as possible, but not everybody believed the tale. We dared not linger longer than that.” Gerrik looked to Mr Straulk. “Had I any reason to believe this man’s tale completely, I would have told you immediately. I didn’t want to spread panic.”

“You believed it enough to flee your home!” The merchant was visibly angry. “You believed it enough to leave half your people behind to escape and run to our land!”

“The cold, the conditions… We couldn’t risk adding the chance of violence-”

“My brother and wedsister are dead and dying, and you drag raiders here!?” Straulk burst, spraying spittle through the air.

ENOUGH!” boomed Tiny, slamming a club fist onto the table. “Seat yourself or I will, Straulk. Best you remember that if not for these people Sherylyn would be dead and cold already.”

The merchant shrank, and when he spoke again he did so quietly. “If not for Lyca, Sherylyn would be dead. Not for some river man.” He sent a final glare across the table at Gerrik and left, letting his own door slam shut behind him.

“Mr Straulk is still in grief. We all are. Don’t let him make you think you’re not welcome here.” Lyca said.

“Thank you,” said Hellyn. Her husband was silent.

“We have yet to decide,” Old Crewe wavered. “Do we stay, or do we go?”

There was a silence that seemed to last forever. The townsfolk had waited long enough to have council, and none of them had wanted the time to come. Even with what the riverfolk had brought, they would not have enough supplies for everyone to last out the winter. There was a chance that help would come, but many had little hope for Jamie and Mavis. A large portion considered them dead, including Mavis’ own father.

They had agreed without question – but with hesitation from the merchant – that Gerrik and his people would be welcome to stay, and with that agreement they knew there would come a dreaded crossroads. None had spoken aloud of it but finally feeble Old Crewe was the one to say it. Stay or go.

“It’s harsh to hear it so plainly.” Thom said, from Shenya’s side.

“True,” said the mapmaker, “but the answer is clear to me. We will not last the winter here.”

“Mavis and Jamie will bring help as soon as they reach Lhorrenhelm,” Lyca said.

“Given they survive,” said Maya. “And who’s to say the capitol will send help? From what I can tell, they’ve abandoned us.”

“What of Sherylyn?” Shenya asked the table. “If we take the journey she won’t make it. There’s no way she’s fit to travel, right Susan?”

Susan shook her head. “The beast’s claws are foul. Sherylyn’s cuts are festering now as bad as ever. And the fever… Helena says she can’t get it to stop.”

“She will have comfort on our sleds,” Gerrik said. “We can wrap her in furs and tend to her along the way. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and leading the moose.”

“And keeping watch,” added Hellyn.

“I’ll not sleep,” said Tiny, “not with this talk of raiders. I’d rather slip through the ice like a swile than be speared like one.”

“Speak not of such things, child,” said Missus Bekka. Her husband and son had both drowned years ago, before Felicia came into her care. “Use your fear, don’t bend to it. We’ll all have enough of it to face soon.” Tiny said no word but nodded respectfully.

“Have we decided?” asked Maya, rising. “Shall we gather our things? I say Aye.”

“Aye,” said her husband. “Aye,” said Old Crewe, and Shenya and Thom. “Aye,” said Tiny, and Missus Bekka. Slowly, the room came to it’s decision, although Lyca thought that here and there she heard a “nay” from the crowd.

“Aye,” she said, and stood from her stool. She winced as the raw flesh around her wound tightened. I must be strong, she thought. We must all be strong. Like Geoffrey.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 12 – The Grinning Man

The trio, led by Mavis, crept warily on through the night. Guided by the light of their flickering torches, they stepped precariously from pan to pan as the never-ending field of ice before them shifting with the movement of the water beneath. Inches lay between them and the icy depths of the Further.

This is madness, Jamie thought to himself as the white surface creaked and groaned. Once already he had fallen into the winter water and was not eager to do so again – especially being so far from shore and any hope of lighting a fire.

“We ought to look for holes, I say,” said Mavis, “where they come up to the surface to breathe.”

“Aye,” agreed Hektor from the back of the line.

“Any sign of the other lights, Hektor?” Jamie asked over his shoulder.

“None,” replied the older man, who was spying around with his eyeglass. “And lets keep it that way. No man has good reason to be on the ice at this time of night unless they are as starved as we are.”

“Perhaps they’ve succeeded in their hunt and returned home?” said Mavis.

“I doubt,” Jamie said. “There are no settlements on the West shore other than Birchbanks, and that is miles to the North of here. Lhorrenhelm is farther south.”

“I agree with Jamie. They would not have gone back this fast. Their torches should still be visible.” Hektor took another cautious look along the facing shoreline. “Nothing but black.”

“They must have camped for the night, then.”

“I hope so, Mave,” said Jamie. “I have a really bad feeling about meeting strangers out here in the dark. Especially those which douse their torches.”

They crept on, using their makeshift spears to test the sturdiness of each ice pan before walking onto it. Hektor started a low chant, half singing and half humming the words to himself as they moved on with their hunt:

            “The night is cold and winter long,
            and winds of western wilds sweep,
            but my fire is warm and whisky strong,
            and I must fight away the sleep.

            The trapper’s trail o’er hill and field,
            goes silently across the land.
            From traps I plea that none will steal
            the fruits of labours of my hand.

            Now come ye back just one last time,
            to northern reaches through the snow.
            But the greatest treasures I shall find
            are paths that lead my feet back home.

            The trapper’s trail o’er valley wide,
            leads restless men all to their catch,
            but wander not too long my friend…”

Hektor’s song trailed off. Something else had caught his attention. “Did ye hear that, lads?” he said, after a moment’s pause. The other two stopped.

“What?” Mavis and Jamie asked in unison.

“Shhh!” Hektor hissed, holding up his torch to silence silence them. “Listen.”

The trio held their breath. Jamie strained his ears hard, hearing nothing but the gentle whispering of drifting snow and his own heartbeat – which had grown faster and louder.

“I don’t hear…” he started, but then stopped. He could hear a faint noise, like the gentle stirring of water. Looking at his feet, his mind suddenly sprang into action. It’s coming from beneath us! He dropped to his knees and pressed his ear hard onto the ice.

“What in Aer’s name are you doing?” Mavis asked in disbelief.

“Bubbles,” he answered slowly. Sure enough, he could hear bubbles thudding softly against the underside of the ice pan, gathering together to form a pocket of air. “Something below us is moving!”

“Ha-ho!” Hektor heaved a hoarse laugh of excitement. “Mavis, quick – watch the edge of the ice!”

Mavis sprang into action. Readying his spear and raising his torch, he stared hard at the thin seam of water surrounding the ice on which they stood.

“There!” he said, aiming his spear at the westernmost edge of the ice. A gargling bunch of bubbles was squeezing up between the ice. Then, they stopped.

“It’s not coming to the surface?” Jamie groaned with disappointment, getting back to his feet. Mavis looked heartbroken. However, Hektor had not lost his spirit.

“What are you waiting for?” he pressed to his younger companions. “Follow them, lads!” follow the air! The beast will have to come to the surface to breathe soon!”

Jamie and Mavis came to their senses immediately. Raising their torches high to spread the light, the three men hurried onto the next ice pan just in time to see more bubbles appear at its far edge. Mavis paused as the ice shifted slightly under the sudden weight.

“Don’t stop, Hunter!” Hektor said hurriedly. “We cannot lose sight of the trail.”

“Run!” Jamie shouted, now feeling the intensity of the hunger in his stomach.

Mavis lead them onward. They scrambled and leapt from pan to pan, barely keeping up with the stream of bubbles that was emerging before them. They ran with torches held on high, ever westward, keeping balance with their modest spears. Once, Hektor slipped, but Jamie yanked him ahead before he could fall backwards into the briny abyss. After what felt like hours they came to a skidding halt on a huge pan of ice. It was rough and uneven, and looked like a small floating island made of smaller pieces frozen together. In a depression at the center of the ice drift was a large hole, smooth around the edges and roughly six feet across. Bubbles erupted furiously from it.

“This is it,” Jamie croaked as they hid behind a mound of snow.

“Ready your spears.” Hektor whispered.

“And keep your torches high,” Mavis added, “it might blind the creature and confuse it. We need all the surprise we can get.” The bubbling stopped, and they all help their breath.

After a second of silence something emerged slowly from the center of the ice hole. A massive head – like that of a short-snouted, whiskered bear – rose out of the water. It sniffed and snorted, spraying icy mist from its nostrils. It had large, black eyes and slick fur that was pale grey. It gazed curiously at the flickering torchlight for a heartbeat, and then disappeared below the water in a splash. The swile had gone.

“No…” Hektor groaned. Mavis swore and threw down his spear. Jamie got to his feet and kicked at the mound of snow they had hidden behind.

It moved.

The three men jumped back as cracks form in the snow crust covered the mound. Jamie had thought it was ice but no – it was moving. It was alive! A rumbling groaning snort was erupting and steam was rising as the enormous swile before them shivered sheets of glazed frost from its back.

Mavis scrambled to grab up his spear as the other two men lurched at the animal, pressing with all their weight to puncture the thick skin of the water beast, now writhing before them. Mavis stabbed now too, and blood was running onto the ice sheet. The animal fought, but its life was over. Hektor drew back and gave a final stab at the back of the creature’s neck and the deed was done. A head the size of a man’s torso fell limply to the ice – tusks and all.

“Shit,” Jamie said, grinning with disbelief. Hektor roared with triumphant laughter.

“Behold, the mighty Hunter!” he sang, and pounded Mavis on the back. They rapped spears together and cheered and Mavis knelt down to start cutting off slabs of meat. They wouldn’t be able to take it all back to the shore – there was too much. But now they had food, real food. Mavis had loaded two chunks of warm black flesh into Jamie’s pack when around them, torches suddenly flared into life.

“The hell – who’s there!?” Hektor shouted, raising his spear.

“Show yourselves!” Jamie said, following suit. A muffled, amused sort of laughter echoed back to them in response.

“I offer you our most sincere gratitude,” came a man’s voice, calm and cold. “For this feast you have provided.” Mavis stood up, brandishing his knife and baring his teeth.

“You will leave us,” he blared at the faceless taunter, hidden behind tattered scarf and blackened hood, “this beast is ours. We’ve earned it!” More cruel laughter. More torches lit up. Jamie was trying to count them now. Nine. Twelve. Sixteen. More and more faces lit up, all wrapped in scarves and wearing coats of dark leather, greasy and tattered. Nineteen. They carried short spears with long, evil blades and their eyes glinted with something that seemed like hunger. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.

“Mavis,” Jamie said, hushed, “look around.” But his friend was shaking with anger.

“We will leave you this beast now,” Hektor said, slowly but with commanding tone. “We will go-”

“No!” Mavis was livid. He waved his knife in the air. “YOU will leave now. Leave us be!” Hektor put a hand on his shoulder.

“We will go now, to hunt elsewhere.”

“Mavis, Listen. Let’s do what Hektor says, let’s go now.” Jamie could hear his own voice shaking, with anger but stronger was the fear. The crowd gathering around them was blocking the way they had come. The would have to run for it but… He peered back over his shoulder at the Western Ridge looming over them, outlined by pale blue moonlight.

“Go?” The cruel voice sifted through the drifting snow to them. “That is fair. We do not wish to do harm. But tell me – where will you go?” The half circle of figures moved closer. Each had a spear – some had bows. “Where do you call home?”

“We come from the capitol,” Hektor announced with some convincing authority. “We will move southward to hunt, out of your territory. Take this meat, consider it a token of peace.” Jamie could see that Hektor was gripping his spear tightly – preparing to throw it if need be.

“The capitol?” The man pulled down his scarf and spat onto the ice. He smiled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “Ah, so you are scampering away to the great city of the north,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, hunter-men,” he raised his own spear, “where does your allegiance lay? To Lhorrenhelm? To the High Keeper?”

“Aye,” said Hektor, “to the High Keeper.” Jamie held his breath. He hoped Hektor knew what he was talking about.

This seemed to satisfy the grinning man. He slid a tongue across his crusted lips and paused for a moment. “It seems you have found yourselves in a state of happy consequences, my hunter-men.”

“What?” asked a rasping voice from one of the other figures. This one sounded like a woman. “Just let them run off?” She pulled her scarf down as well, revealing a face smeared with tar and littered with iron rings. “These swine?”

“Not empty-handed, Shalsa,” said the grinning man. He turned back to the trio standing before the dead swile. “You will deliver us a message, hunter-men. You will leave this beast and you will take our message to the capitol. To the High Keeper. You will do this.” He offered his ugly smile again. The woman named Shalsa did not look pleased.

“This one had best leave his spear on the ground, as well,” she said, pointing a jagged blade at Hektor. “His voice is smooth but his eyes say ‘kill, kill.’ The capitol does not send hunters this far north in winter. They came for us, not swiles.”

“Now, now, Shalsa. These ones have value to us, not like the last.” He pulled a small cloth bag from a pocket.

“What is your message?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bag.

“This,” said the grinning man, swinging it back and forth. “Take this directly to your High Keeper. I want you to lay it at her miserable feet and tell her this: The Oyen is with us.” He tossed the bag to Jamie’s feet. “Hear me, scruff? The Oyen is with us. Can you handle that?”

Jamie nodded, terrified, and picked it up.

“And now,” the man said, walking backwards to where his comrades stood, “you run.”

The trio started backing away, slowly.

“He said, RUN!” shrieked Shalsa, and at that second six spears flew through the air, stabbing into the ground at their feet. The three men tore off, scrambling as fast as they could across the ice as more spears and arrows grazed threateningly close by them. The slipped and fell, climbed to their feet and ran and fell over and over again, and all the while they could hear the crowd’s laughter and Shalsa’s shouts of “RUN, SWINE, RUN! RUN!”

They didn’t stop until they collapsed onto the rocky western shore, gasping for breath and wincing at the pain in their feet and lungs. They spent the night there, nestled uncomfortably among the boulders and watching the torches burning a mile away out on the ice. Jamie was fitful, waking up every few minutes and staring off into the night, expecting to see toothy grins and tar-stained faces laughing in the darkness. In those moments where Jamie was awake he could see Hektor staring stone-faced at the torchlight.

The night was long and cold.