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Old June 18th, 2013 (1:34 PM).
Cutlerine Cutlerine is offline
Gone. May or may not return.
    Join Date: Mar 2010
    Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
    Age: 23
    Nature: Impish
    Posts: 1,030
    Chapter Twenty-five: The Longest Night

    Ezra was troubled.

    Doubtless the King had his reasons for what he was doing; his kind always did. But he couldn't help but worry that those reasons might not be as sound as they had been in ancient times. After all, two and a half thousand years had passed since the city of granite and porphyry had been seared to dust under the withering attacks of the dragons; the great grey golems were mud and ether, and the bloodline had been extinct. Who knew what changes the modern world might have wrought on the character of a king so out of time?

    Harmonia was the problem. Between his silver tongue and the strength lent to his cause by Weland, he was capable of almost anything – and what he couldn't win with words, he would take by force, as the riots in Nacrene had proved. Ezra could not even begin to imagine how he had acquired such a gigantic army, or what he might choose to do with it – for, although it had appeared in the guise of a mere disconnected rabble, it was an organised force, he was certain of it. Perhaps the police would realise, in time, that not all of the rioters even seemed to live in Nacrene; perhaps they would notice that most of them had melted away into the background and disappeared from the city when their task was done. Ezra couldn't say. The only thing he knew for certain was that Harmonia had brought a city of one and a half million to its knees to take a single artefact from a museum. When the smallest weapon you have is a private army, Ezra thought grimly, your largest is too terrible to be guessed at.

    “What are you thinking?” asked Niamh.

    He turned, surprised. He had forgotten she was there.

    “I'm thinking about Harmonia,” he said. “I think he may be more dangerous than we thought.”

    “I think he's exactly as dangerous as I thought,” replied Niamh. “I should have killed him in his office.”

    Ezra shook his head.

    “No. It would have been worse – much worse – if you had. Then Caitlin Molloy would have been in sole control of his organisation, and she's worse than he is. Harmonia may be dangerous, but at least he isn't a psychopath.”

    “Ah.” Niamh nodded. “I forgot about her.”

    “That's one of her tricks,” Ezra said gloomily. “Everyone forgets about her, or doesn't notice her. Not until it's too late.”

    “You don't sound happy,” ventured Niamh. She was more comfortable removing limbs than comforting people, but she considered Ezra (more or less) her friend now, and was willing to give it a try.

    “I'm not,” he replied. “Harmonia knows we stole his computer. Yes?”


    “So he has a good idea of what we now know.”


    “So where would he expect us to go next?”

    Niamh thought.

    “To Driftveil,” she said. “To the warehouse where the gold is.”

    “And more than that,” Ezra said darkly. “It's... grotesque, I have to say. I'll tell you when we get there. For the moment, let's consider that he knows where we're going, and that if we get what we want from there, we'll have a criminal accusation that we can level against him and perhaps force him to release Smythe.”

    “There's something we can use to blackmail him in there?” she asked. “I know there's the gold, but that's kind of tenuous—”

    “More than gold,” said Ezra. “As I said, I'll tell you when we get there. I'd rather not talk about it. It makes me... uncomfortable.”

    “OK,” said Niamh, frowning. “Fine. So you say there's something we can use to blackmail him in there – something that he so desperately needs to keep secret that he'd rather give up Portland than let it out?”

    “That's it,” said Ezra. “Now look at the news.”

    He pointed at the TV and turned the sound on.

    “...recent riots in Nacrene,” the newsreader was saying. “Some incoming footage now...”

    Blurry images of people chanting, punching the air, waving banners; the camera pulling back, showing how many there were – thousands upon thousands, pressed so tightly together that at times it seemed like they had become one vast pulsating creature. Someone threw a stone and the camera fell; it went dark before it hit the ground, and the recording ceased with a crunch of trampled plastic and metal.

    “The group is using the same 'Plasma' chant that was used in the Nacrene riots,” said the newsreader. “Police are trying to disperse the protesters, but there are too many at present for current Driftveil forces to make an impact. There—”

    Ezra switched it off again.

    “A blockade,” he said humourlessly. “Harmonia's blockading his own warehouse, and it looks like he's the victim. Thousands of people throughout the country will be saying he deserves it – but how many more will say that he doesn't quite deserve this?” He shook his head. “And all the while, no one can get in or out.”

    Niamh bit her lip.

    “How did you know that this would happen?”

    “If you live long enough, you start to see patterns,” Ezra told her. “Nothing in human action is truly original. There are only variations on the old. I don't know how Harmonia is controlling these people – whether they're hypnotised or whether they're supporters of his cause – but once I saw them in Nacrene, I knew he would use them again. When a megalomaniac like him tastes power like that, he inevitably finds he likes the flavour. And so he does it again.”

    Niamh sighed.

    “You could have told me this earlier—”

    “I didn't know earlier,” Ezra said. “I didn't think about the warehouse – I was too concerned with N.”

    “Fat lot of good that did us.”

    “Yes,” said Ezra, and for the first time Niamh could hear the years in his voice – uncounted aeons, trickling like sand through the cracks between his words. “It was futile.”

    She didn't know what to say. She had never heard age like that before – age beyond all comprehension; age that encompassed the world, that cupped human achievement in the palm of its hand and planted its feet so far beneath it that they were out of sight. Virtually every civilisation in human history but the First Kingdom had risen and fallen in the time since Ezra was born, she realised, and the thought took her breath away.

    “Anyway,” said Ezra, getting to his feet. “There's no point worrying on that score. If the bloodline of the Kings is corrupt, the source of the corruption lies with the man who made it his tool: Harmonia.” He held out a hand. “To Driftveil, Niamh, and we'll see if our powers combined can stand against his petty blockade!”


    I didn't feel like sleeping any more, so I crept downstairs and watched TV in the abandoned lounge instead. Now, at two in the morning, there was no one about and I didn't have to hide my face – thankfully. My white hair makes me pretty unmistakeable.

    There was nothing on, of course – reruns of Skómst, of old Simpsons episodes, the twenty-four hour news – but I wasn't really watching. I was thinking about the little metal cone in the palm of my hand.

    I rolled it around, the broken cuffs jingling on my wrists. (I'd got used to them by now; apparently they were in fashion or something, and I'd seen so many other people wearing them that I no longer thought they stood out.) I wanted to know what it meant – it was a question, I thought. Or it was the closest we could come to one, as things were now. Jared had wanted to know something, I thought, trying to concentrate on the dream, but what had it been? I wasn't sure. At any rate, he hadn't managed to bridge the gigantic divide between us. All he'd been able to do was throw a stud over – a tiny act of connection, but an important one.

    It meant, I thought, that in some way we were one person as well as two. We stood for division, but it wouldn't mean a thing if we were entirely separate people – then we'd be the same as any other two randomly-selected people in Unova. There had to be something connecting us, some thing that we had in common, that united us in the midst of our division. Through that thread, I thought, Jared had sent the stud – and through that thread, maybe we could call to each other.

    I wasn't sure. It felt right, but feeling wasn't quite the same as reality, I knew – although from what N said, it might be closer to it than I thought.

    “Ah, well,” I said to myself. “You'll figure it out, Lauren. And you, Jared,” I added, after a pause, though I wasn't so sure about him.

    “Who are you talking to?”

    I turned. It was Bianca. She didn't look like she'd slept very well; her face was pale and her eyes red.

    “Myself,” I replied. “How are you?”

    She sat down next to me.

    “Not good.”

    I hugged her.

    “We'll solve the problem, you know,” I said. “I know we will. We've got Cheren, after all. He almost out-talked Teiresias – I'm sure your dad won't be a problem.”

    Bianca pulled away from me, frowning in bewilderment.

    “It was all he could do to persuade him to let me go in the first place,” she said. “How can he improve on that?”

    “He's learned,” I reminded her. “He's getting better – at Training, at thinking. At outsmarting people. I bet he can do it.”

    Bianca shook her head.

    “Why do you have so much confidence in him?”

    I paused. I hadn't been expecting that.

    “Well...” I shrugged helplessly. “I've seen him do things I never could. He's – he convinced Rood to let you go. He kept Teiresias waiting in the dark long enough for help to arrive, even though that help didn't really work out the way we thought. Every time something happens, Cheren rises to the challenge. If this were a novel, he would be the main character.”

    Bianca actually laughed then, which I didn't understand but which I thought must be a good sign.

    “You're adorable,” she said. “If this were a novel, you'd be the main character, Lauren.”

    “Me? What – well, just because I'm the centrepiece doesn't make me—”

    “Shut up,” said Bianca, good-naturedly. “Lauren. Forget about Cheren. You're the important one. And I think – I think you can make my dad see reason.”

    “Uh... what?”

    She shook her head.

    “Don't worry about it,” she advised. “I think that tomorrow morning it's all going to happen anyway, whether you want it to or not.”

    I stared helplessly. Mysteries were all very well when they were coming out of N's mouth, but put them in the hands of someone else and I couldn't fathom them at all.


    “Don't worry,” repeated Bianca. “And, Lauren...?”


    “Thank you,” she said, getting up. “I feel much better now.”

    I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing. I just watched her leave and listened to the sound of her footsteps on the stairs. It occurred to me that she was prettier than I'd first thought, but I let that thought slide away and covered it with my ties to Annie. Bianca was Cheren's, I thought, the future opening up before me like a book; give them five years, or ten, or fifteen, but they would come together in the end. They would have other friends, and girlfriends and boyfriends, perhaps even husbands and wives, all their own – but in the end, I was certain, it would just be them, as it was now. Cheren and Bianca, alone together.

    They didn't need anyone else, I realised. I wondered where that left me.

    I suddenly felt very tired. I clicked the TV off, and went back upstairs to bed. There would be time to worry about the future tomorrow; for now, I just wanted to sleep.

    Morning found me stuck in my room, wondering whether or not I could risk going outside without instantly being spotted and reported to the police; I was still there, dithering, when Cheren came in.

    “Thank you,” he said without preamble. “Bianca seems much calmer this morning.”

    I frowned.

    “How do you know that's down to me?”

    “Well, it wasn't me,” he said, “and it definitely wasn't Halley.”

    “F*ck you,” she said sleepily, from her nest among the sheets.

    “OK, maybe I did something,” I admitted. “Not much, though. I'm sure you helped too.”

    Cheren sighed.

    “Lauren, trying to compliment you is like trying to nail water to a wall. Please. Help me here.”

    “Sorry,” I said, blushing. “Thank you. We just had – um. We just talked a bit.”

    “Bianca's dad will be here at eleven,” Cheren said. “She wants you to talk to him then. Until that time – here.”

    He passed me Bianca's hat.

    “I'll stay with her,” he said. “You go to the computer room and look up anything you can that N might have told you.”

    “The hat is for...?”

    Disguise,” he said. “I know your hair's quite long, but you could sort of bunch it all up under the hat to hide it, couldn't you?”

    “Thus speaks a boy,” sighed Halley. “He's never had his hair done. I suspect he's done jack sh*t with it except have it cut when it gets in his eyes.”

    “Thanks,” I said hurriedly. “Come on, Halley. We'll – um – get going now.”

    “I have to come?”

    “Yes,” I said, looking in the mirror and adjusting Bianca's hat on my head. It didn't look particularly good on me, but then, I didn't suppose very many people could carry off an oversized green beret successfully. “You do.”

    She sighed.


    I was about to pick up Candy, but saw she was still asleep and decided to leave her be for now. We left the room, Cheren going left to his room and Halley and I turning right to the stairs. A couple of minutes later, I was seated in front of a computer, waiting for it to start up, and Halley was asleep on top of the monitor.

    “Um – Halley,” I said, “what do you think Bianca's dad's like?”

    “A fat bastard,” she replied, without opening her eyes. “Will that do?”


    “You asked me what I thought he'd be like. I have a mental image of him as being fat, and also as being a bastard. Is that clear enough for you?”

    “Why do you think that? It's not very nice...”

    “I have no idea why I think that,” she told me. “I just do, the same way I have a mental image of Steven Stone as being tall and handsome, even though I've never seen a picture of him.”


    She opened one eye.

    “Jesus Christ. You're serious.” She sighed. “Look, the point is – don't you ever judge someone before you've met them? Don't you get a picture of them in your head, despite not having anything to base it on?”

    I thought.

    “Um... no. Not really.”

    She shook her head in stupefied amazement.

    “You are a weird, weird girl. Your computer's ready.”

    “Ah. Thank you.”

    I opened the browser and began to search. It was time to put the flesh on the bones N had given me – time to cash in my endless secrets and see if I could come up with a few answers.


    Sh*t,” said Ezra, as the dark paths opened up around them. “Hold on tight.”

    Niamh started to say 'what', but didn't get any further than opening her mouth: he tightened his grip on her hand and began to fly.

    The darkness roared past on either side of them like water; the stones of the path blurred into one long grey mass beneath their feet. Neither Niamh nor Ezra touched it; if they did, Niamh thought, the impact would certainly be lethal.

    Abruptly, she became aware that Ezra was no longer human; he had dissolved, becoming something huge and dark with vast arching things that might have been wings. The part of him that gripped her wrist felt like a hand, but when she looked at it all she saw was a thick curl of something like ink that oozed at the corners.

    “They knew where we were,” he boomed, in a voice that was at once human and, somehow, not. “They were lying in wait – N! N must have given us away!”

    “Who?” Niamh screamed against the roaring wind; not a breath of air escaped her lungs, but Ezra seemed to hear anyway.

    “The Houndguard,” he replied. “Weland's ghuls!”

    And then she saw them.

    They travelled along their own paths, stones materialising before them and disappearing behind, and they did not restrict themselves to a single shape; they were men and women in armour of polished stone, and at the same time they were colossal grey hyaenas, easily six feet at the shoulder – and at the same time they were also vast smoky billowing things that boiled with tongues and teeth, and whipped trails of saliva through the air.

    Not all of the paths they used led towards the one Ezra and Niamh followed, and frequently they had to turn away to switch to a side-path that would bring them back on track – but they were, she noted, gaining on them. They were experts at navigating the paths, she could tell that at a glance, and given a few minutes they would almost certainly be upon them.

    “I'm going to kill that N kid,” Niamh said to herself. Then, louder: “Can't we get out of here?”

    “They're taking the exit paths,” replied Ezra. “There are few safe places to walk here, and they stand on every one between us and the holes that lead back to your reality.”

    “That's reassuring.”

    “Isn't it just.”

    The ghuls snaked closer, tacking across the paths like sailboats; one shot right over their heads, its paws and feet and pseudopodia striking the transient stones of the path so hard they cracked as it passed. Strings of spittle dripped down and sizzled into nonexistence on the back of the thing that had been Ezra; Niamh wondered what would happen if they touched her.
    And now the ghuls were closer still, and a pair succeeded in jumping onto Ezra's path just behind them, baying and yelling and howling in all their shapes; Niamh felt the swish of stone swords and the hot carrion breath of predators' mouths at her back, and turned in midair to face them, trailing horizontally out behind Ezra.

    The ghuls were worse this close up, she thought, staring grimly into the eyes of the foremost one; it had six pairs, all overlaid like layers in a crushed Viennetta, and each burned with a different species of fervour: the absolute concentration of a professional soldier, the brute ferocity of an apex predator, the incomprehensible madness of the seething toothed fogs – all were present, and each magnified the last, so that the whole effect was of something unimaginably fearsome that would have burned clean through the soul of any ordinary human.

    “Frige, you're an ugly f*cker,” she told it, and shot it eight times in the face.

    The bullets slammed deep into the hyaena's skull and shattered it, but they ricocheted off the warrior's helmet, and their effect on the hideous cloud was best not even contemplated. The different visual inputs clashed so violently that Niamh blacked out for a moment; when she regained her senses, she saw the ghul was pursuing her as steadily as ever, without apparent wounds in any of its three shapes.

    “Ezra!” she yelled. “They're bulletproof!”

    “You don't say!” he yelled back. “Hang on, we're jumping tracks!”

    There was a terrible nothingness—

    They were flying along another path, and the two ghuls that had been behind them, surprised, ran straight into a third that had dropped down just in front of Ezra before they jumped; the three of them fell from the path, and something that seemed to be mostly invisible swallowed them with a grotesque lip-smacking noise that reverberated through the void like thunder.

    “What the f*ck was that?”

    “A lost soul,” replied Ezra, jumping to another path to avoid another descending ghul. “If you leave the path, and if you survive the experience... Well. This place changes you. Skorvow!

    This last was spat with some venom at a ghul racing alongside them on a path just a few feet away; Ezra swept one massive wing into its back and knocked it off-balance, but it recovered quickly and sank a cluster of bony teeth into his substance. He roared in pain and flapped wildly, corkscrewing impossibly along the path, wings pulling in tight to avoid contact with the stones; Niamh had a wild, dizzying glance of blackness and grey fur and a flash of brilliant gold, and then they were the right way up again, and the hapless ghul was being catapulted across the abyss. She expected it to be snatched up like the others, but it seemed it was lucky; a path formed behind it perpendicular to their own and it scrambled to its feet, rejoining the chase at ninety degrees to the norm.

    And now, she saw, despite their earlier victories, that the ghuls were massing; canny and crafty path-finders, fifteen or sixteen of them were bunched tightly around them now on all sides, stones flickering in and out of existence so fast they hardly seemed to be there at all.

    “We have a proposition!” whooped one, in a hyaena's awful laugh. “Stop and listen!”

    “Do you think we're idiots?” asked Niamh, and shot at it to add to the insult.

    “I don't deal with Weland,” growled Ezra. “I'm not interested in any proposition.”

    “They're not interested,” yowled the ghul.

    “Then what?” snapped another.

    “They killed Dozla!” screeched a third.

    “And Mogwai!”

    “And Abydos,” said another one, using the fluid mouths of its smoke-form to unutterably horrifying effect.

    They might be fearsome, thought Niamh, but they weren't exactly clever beasts.

    “So we kill them!”

    “Yes! Kill them!” crowed the first.

    “Kill them! Kill them!”

    “Oh, they're as bad as schoolchildren,” sighed Ezra, swooping down to within an inch of the path to avoid a clutching talon from above. “Niamh! Are you willing to take a risk?”

    The ghuls around them blanched.

    “He's going to do it!”

    “He wouldn't do it!”

    “He won't do it!”

    “Just f*cking get us out of here!” yelled Niamh.

    “Oh Kågskr,” said one of the ghouls – quite quietly, but perfectly audibly, as if for a moment the rushing of the wind had faded to nothing. “He's going to do it.”

    And Ezra leaped off the path into the void.


    “OK,” I said. “So the spider and the cat – that's the fable of unknown provenance.”

    “Probably dates from the First Kingdom,” suggested Halley helpfully. “Knowing N.”

    “Oh yeah, that's a good idea. It probably does.”

    The story was about a spider who vied for control of the world's stories with a huge, powerful hunting cat; the cat was good at tracking the stories down and catching them, but the spider knew about the divided nature of cats, half elegance and danger and half graceless idiocy, and left a large ball of silk in her path. The great hunter couldn't resist lying down to play with it, and the spider made off with all her stories in the threads of his web.

    “It's easy to see why N says he's the spider and I'm the cat,” I went on. “I'm not sure if there's any more relevance to it than that, though.”

    “There might be,” said Halley. “There are a lot of cats about, aren't there? Teiresias always appears in a cat body, and I'm a cat, and apparently you are, in a way, and, well... Cats f*cking everywhere, that's what I'm saying.” She frowned. “Well. No, not literally – if there were cats f*cking everywhere, there'd be even more cats, but – well, you know what I meant.”

    “Yeah, I get it, thanks,” I sighed, wondering how this could be the same person who had talked so seriously and penetratingly about Bianca the night before. “Um. Then – er – there's this King Weland.”

    “The King of the demons.”

    “Yeah. There's a lot about him – I don't know how much is true. He's in a lot of old myths, but he's only called Weland in the very oldest. In the ones I know, he's usually Jrael – 'Sen and the King's Daughter', 'The Cloak of Woven Rivers', 'The Thane and the Druid' – everyone in Unova knows those.”

    “In White Unova, at least,” Halley corrected. “I doubt many in Jared's world remember old stories.”

    “Maybe so. But that's not the important thing.” I looked up at her. “The important thing... well, there's one story that comes up over and over again. It's in his title – world-eater. The creation story – where the children find a darkness in a pit near the water-meadow and it climbs into their hearts, and then they bring it home to the village, and it spreads throughout everyone else. And then it makes them take it to the city, where it eats its way through a thousand hearts and grows so big that it starts bursting through the flesh; and the sunlight touches it and burns it and in its pain the darkness makes its slaves dig down and bury the entire city under the ground. It ends 'And that is how the Archdevil was made, and how his tomb-city in the earth was built.'”

    “Where are you going with this?” asked Halley.

    “Well...” I hesitated. “Doesn't that give you some idea of what we're up against? How this... How do we even – can we stop him?”

    I was trying very hard to keep my voice from shaking at that point, and Halley must have sensed it; she jumped down off the monitor and rubbed her head awkwardly against my cheek.

    “Not us, exactly,” she replied. “Never just us. But you, and N, and Niamh and that Ezra guy...” She shrugged. “I have every confidence that it'll work out. You're the one going on about f*cking stories – that's how stories work, isn't it?”

    “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I suppose it is...”

    “Anyway,” she said, glancing at the lower right corner of the screen. “It's ten to eleven. Time to find Bianca.”

    “Ah!” I cried. “Yeah, yeah – let's do that.”

    I shut down the computer and hurried out to find the others; they weren't in any of our rooms, nor were they in the lounge, and it took a while for me to realise that they were outside in the small scrap of yard that separated the Centre from the street. As I passed through the doors, I realised to my surprise that Bianca's dad was, true to Halley's prediction, more than a little overweight; he had the comfortable, kindly shape of a pear, balanced on a pair of spindly legs. If he hadn't looked so angry, I would have taken to him immediately; as it was, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

    “...see what the problem is,” he was saying. “We've let you come far enough, haven't we? And the country's getting more dangerous by the day! Riots everywhere – you know there are rioters in Driftveil now? The League falling apart, the animal attacks on the Route 4 development...” He shook his head. “Bianca, sweetheart, I just—”

    “Hello,” I said, uncertainly. “Is this your dad, Bianca?”

    He glared at me, and I felt myself wilt like a plant caught in the searing eye of the sun.

    “Excuse me,” he said. “This is a family affair.”

    “Um,” I said, taking a step back without meaning to. “Er—”

    Bianca gave me a pleading look; I felt fear and the desire to help tugging on either side of my heart, shifting it out of place and making me feel queasy.

    Halley jumped up onto the fence and from there onto my shoulder, where she batted Bianca's hat off my head. Almost immediately, Bianca's father noticed my hair, and stared at me in startled recognition.

    “You,” he said, with wonder. “You're...”

    And then I realised what Halley had done; she had given me an opportunity to speak, and she had forced me into it – and, mentally thanking her as she dropped back to the floor, I said, “Yes, I'm Lauren White. You may recognise me from the news, but that's not why I wanted to speak to you.” Bianca's dad looked confused, and I felt myself growing more confident; I let myself be carried onwards on the wave of assurance, and went on, “My parents are worried about me too. I never really expected to be on this journey, so I never got to explain to them properly, and I am really worried about what they think. So I can sympathise with your concerns – after all, this is really, really dangerous. Demons and sinister politicians are abroad. People who are less than, or more than, human pop up and guide us from location to mysterious location, never giving us more than the tiniest hint about what's going to happen next.

    “But we keep going,” I said. “The sensible thing would of course be to go home and let someone else handle all of this – but I can't even consider that. And now, neither can Cheren or Bianca, either. Fate is moving like a flood, and we are all caught up in it – you could take Bianca home, but she would still be swept along in the water, and I think you would rather have her here, where at least she has others who understand what is happening to help her and protect her, than keep her alone at home where she's vulnerable to attack.

    “I don't know if what I'm saying makes any sense to you. Sometimes it barely makes sense to me – how can the world work this way? It just doesn't seem to fit with what we think about reality. But despite all of that...” I shrugged. “I don't know. I hope something of what I said rings true to you.”

    Bianca's dad stared at me for the longest time.

    “Bianca, get your hat,” he said. “We're going.”

    “No!” I cried. “No, listen—”

    “No, you listen—”

    “No, you listen, you fat f*ck,” growled Halley, which shut him up. “This is the centre of the f*cking universe here. Hear her out.”

    His eyes bulged and his mouth flapped uselessly like a fish's out of water.

    “I – a—”

    “Yes, a talking cat,” said Halley, climbing easily up his ponderous chest and settling around his ample shoulders. “Now” – she pointed his head at me – “listen to the hero.”

    His eyes met mine, and I felt something open up inside me – something that N cracked a little, sometimes; something that had split almost in half last night, when Jared had tried to talk to me – and I looked into his eyes with everything I had, a big, pale hand holding my own and a cluster of cold metal studs brushing my arm.

    Then the moment had passed, and the something closed up like a clamshell in my breast, and there was no one of myself here but me.

    Bianca's dad staggered back, shaken.

    “I don't understand,” he whispered, still staring at me. “I don't – what – who are you?”

    “It's confusing, I know,” said Halley, jumping down off his shoulders and sitting down at my feet. “You think the age of gods and heroes is long since past. But narratives like that never die, my flabby friend. They shed their skin and emerge with different scales, but they're the same at their core; from sacred trees to skyscrapers, gorgon to demon king, five thousand years can pass and things stay the same. Your daughter is caught in an epic, Mister Aaronson. Two thousand years ago, the scops would have sung her story in the mead-halls and lent her story the wings of immortality. You've lost that mindset, and believe me, so had I: no one loves the shiny, electric present more than me. But being around this motherf*cker” – she jerked her head up at me – “has forced me to broaden my views. “For want of a better way to put it, Mister Aaronson: here be dragons.”

    Bianca's dad sucked in a deep breath.

    “I think,” he said, in a quiet, shaky voice, “that the five of us need to talk this over.”


    Niamh ceased.

    On one level, she was aware of her body – of the pressure of Ezra's hand on her wrist, of the weight of the guns and knives in her coat, of her feet, drifting as if underwater through the abyssal nothing – but she could not convince herself of her own existence. And, as if determined to disprove Descartes with its dying breath, her mind decided that without a body it did not exist either, and stopped.

    There was absolutely nothing.

    Perhaps in the dream of some far-off sage a pack of ghuls were chattering, jumping up and down and arguing about what might happen to those foolish enough to jump off the path – but certainly, such a thing could never have happened in reality, for reality had stopped the moment the path had vanished from beneath their feet. Now there was nothing but the level waste, the rounding grey; they spun and drifted beneath the foundations of what Niamh had once called the universe.

    The void deepened, and the demon and the monster-slayer dripped gently on, drops of half-life in a world of endless apathy.

    For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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