The ancient gods of Celtic mythology have returned, and all that stands between them and complete domination are five flawed mortals. The Eternal Conflict between the Light and Dark once again blackens the skies and blights the land. On one side stand the Tuatha de Danaan, golden-skinned and beautiful, filled with all the might of angels. On the other are the Fomorii, monstrous devils hell-bent on destroying all human existence. And in the middle are the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, determined to use the strange power that binds them to the land in a last, desperate attempt to save the human race. Church, Ruth, Ryan, Laura and Shavi have joined forces with Tom, a hero from the mists of time, to wage a guerrilla war against the iron rule of the gods.
Published by Gollancz (2001) & Pyr (2009)
Icy rain blasted across the deserted seafront like stones thrown by a petulant child. Jack Churchill and Ruth Gallagher kept their heads down, the hoods of their windcheaters up, as they spurred their horses out of the dark countryside. Despite the storm, the ever-present smell of burning was just as acrid on the back of their throats. Twilight lay heavy on the Cornish landscape, adding to the abiding atmosphere of failure; of a world winding down to die. The heavy clouds rolling across the sea where the lightning flashed in white sheets told them the storm would only grow worse as the night closed in.
Dead street-lamps lined the road, markers for the abandoned vehicles that were rusting monuments to the death of the twenty-first century. Occasionally they caught the glimpse of candles in windows or smelled the wisp of smoke from fires in the houses that had hearths; beyond that, there was only the oppression of the growing gloom.
As they rounded a bend a light burned brightly in the middle of the road. Surprised, they slowed their horses until they saw the illumination came from an old-fashioned lantern held aloft by a man wrapped in a souwester, struggling to keep himself upright in the face of the gale.
“Who goes there?” he said in a thick Cornish accent.
“Friends,” Church replied, “who don’t want to stay out in the night a moment longer than we have to.”
The lantern was raised higher to bring them into its glare. It illuminated the face buried deep in the shadows of the hood: sun-tanned; grey, bushy beard. He eyed them suspiciously. “Where’ve you come from?” he yelled above the wind.
“A long way.” Ruth fought to keep her lank hair from her face. “We started off in the Peak District. It’s taken us days-”
“Aye, well it would.” He looked from one to the other, still unsure.
As the lantern shifted again, Church noticed a shotgun in the crook of his arm. “You haven’t got anything to worry about-”
“You can’t trust anyone these days.” He nodded toward a pub that glimmered with candlelight a few yards away.
Church and Ruth dismounted and led their horses towards the inn. The man followed a few paces behind; Church could feel the shotgun poised in his direction. But as they tied up their steeds in a makeshift shelter adjoining the pub, the guard relented a little. “Any news?” A pause. “What’s the world like out there?”
Ruth shook the worst of the moisture off her hair. “As bad as you’d expect.”
The guard’s shoulders slumped. “Without the telly or the radio it’s hard to tell. We hoped-”
“No,” Ruth said bluntly.
It sounded unduly harsh. Church added sympathetically, “We followed the M5, then the main roads down here. We never ventured into any of the big towns or cities, but-”
“Nothing’s working,” the guard finished.
“You better get in the pub,” the man said with a sigh. “We haven’t had any trouble here in town, but you never know. We’ve seen what’s out there,” – he nodded into the night – “and sooner or later they’re going to get brave enough to come in.”
“You’re on watch all night?” Ruth asked.
“We do shifts. Everybody’s involved. We’re trying to keep things going. They’ll tell you more in the pub.”
Heads down, they ran from the shelter, but before they reached the pub door a crack of lightning burst over the sea. Church stopped to stare down the street.
“What is it?” Ruth blinked away the rain, following his eyes.
“I thought I saw something in the light.”
“Probably another guard.”
“It was on the rooftops, moving quickly. Looked like…” He shrugged. “Let’s get inside.”
A blazing log fire in the grate was the most welcoming sight they had seen in days. With the candles flickering in old wine bottles all around the room, it created a dreamy impression of another time. About thirty people were gathered around. A young mother with a baby watched some children playing near the hearth. Four old men played cribbage in one corner with the grim determination of a life or death struggle. Everyone looked up when they entered. In one instant Church took in curiosity, suspicion and fear.
He was distracted by a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he passed. His dark hair was now almost down to his shoulders, and his close-cropped goatee was a sign he’d given up fighting against predestination; he resembled the future-vision he’d had of himself in the Watchtower between the worlds, watching a city burn. His features fell into a naturally troubled expression that served to make him look older; one of the prices of his burden. But Ruth didn’t look any different. Her long brown hair tumbled in ringlets around her shoulders while her face still seemed as pretty and serene as the first time he saw it. There was something new there though: an enduring confidence that gave her bearing.
A burly man in his fifties hurried over, one large hand outstretched. His skin had the ruddiness of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors in all weathers. “Welcoming committee,” he said in a loud, deep voice. They each shook his hand in turn. His name was Malcolm, a local businessman. “What brings you to Mousehole? Don’t get many tourists these days.” Although he was friendly enough, the steely scent of fear was palpable in the atmosphere.
What’s happened to us all? Church wondered.
“We’re looking for a safe haven.” Ruth’s calmness was the perfect antidote; Church could see everyone warm to her instantly. “It’s not very pleasant out there.” Her understatement made them smile in the face of what they truly felt.
“Any idea what’s happened?” Malcolm’s eyes showed he was both hopeful and afraid of what her answer might be.
She shook her head.
“We thought….some kind of nuclear exchange…?”
“No,” Church said adamantly. “There’s no sign of anything like that. Whatever’s happened, it’s not anything nuclear, chemical or biological-”
“Face up to it, Malcolm, it’s the End of the World.” A long-haired man in his thirties hung over his pint morosely. “You can’t keep fooling yourself it’s something normal. For Christ’s sake, we’ve all seen the signs!”
Malcolm shook his head in a manner that suggested he didn’t want to hear. “We’re muddling on as best we can,” he continued blithely. “Set up a local network of farms to keep the food supply going. With no communications, it’s proving difficult. But, we’re pulling through.”
“Boiling water,” the morose man said to his beer. “Every day. Boil, boil, boil.”
Malcolm glared at him. “Don’t mind Richard. He’s still working on his attitude.”
“You’re not alone,” Ruth said. “We’ve travelled a long way over the last few days. Everywhere people are trying to keep things going.”
That seemed to cheer him. “I’ve got to get back to the meeting – a lot of planning needs doing. You must be hungry – I’ll get some food for you. We can’t offer you much but-”
“Thank you,” Ruth said. “We appreciate your generosity.”
“If this isn’t a time to be generous, I don’t know when is.”
Malcolm left them to dry off at a table in one corner where the candlelight barely reached. “I feel guilty not telling them everything we know,” Ruth whispered once they were sitting.
“They don’t need to know how hopeless it all is.”
Ruth’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t think it’s hopeless. I can tell.”
Church shrugged. “We’re still walking.”
“That’s what I like about you.” Ruth gave his hand a squeeze. “You’re such a moron.”
The exhausting journey from Mam Tor in the High Peaks had been conducted against a background of constant threat; although they saw nothing out of the ordinary they were convinced they were about to be struck dead at any moment. Somewhere Evil in its most concentrated form had been born back into the world. The ancient Celts had characterised it as Balor, the one-eyed god of death, a force of unimaginable power dragging all of existence into chaos. Whatever it truly was, the Tuatha Dé Danann called it the End of Everything. They had expected fire in the sky and rivers of blood flowing across the land, but the reality had been more prosaic. At first there was simply a vague feeling that something was not quite right, then an impression of imminent disaster that kept them scanning the lonely landscape, a sour taste in the wind and occasional violent storms. The only true sign that the world had slipped further from the light was the complete failure of all things technological. No vehicles moved. Pylons no longer hummed. The night was darker than it had been for more than a hundred years.
The Bone Inspector had suggested Balor would not be at its peak until Samhain, one of the Celtic feast-days marking an occasion when the great cycle of existence unleashed powerful forces. From a Christian perspective it was chillingly fitting: the Church had made Samhain into Halloween when the forces of evil were loosed on the earth. And there was no doubt the threat was gathering pace. The progression was like the darkness eating away at the edges of the vision of a dying man; each day seemed a little gloomier. Soon all hell would break loose.
In the face of such a thing, there appeared little they could do; and time was short, just three months before the doors of Samhain opened; no time at all. But Church’s experiences over the preceding months had left him with the belief that there was a meaning to everything; he refused to give in to fatalism, however dark things appeared. If the Tuatha Dé Danann could be convinced to help them, they stood the slimmest of chances.
To win over the Golden Ones he had to expunge the Fomorii corruption from his body, an act he had been told could only be carried out in the mysterious Western Isles, the home of the gods somewhere in Tir n’a Nog. The journey to that place began at Mousehole on the Cornish coast, and a landmark called Merlin’s Rock where legend said it was possible to spy a fairy ship that travelled between this world and the next. But one thing in the myths disturbed him greatly: his destination had another name – the Islands of the Dead.
More than anything, Church was glad he had Ruth along with him. Her suffering at the hands of the Fomorii had been terrible, but she had survived to become a much stronger person, free from the fear and doubts that had consumed her before. Now when he looked into her eyes it seemed he was looking into a dark river where deep waters moved silently. She maintained she had died in the last few minutes before Lughnasad when she had been close to giving birth to Balor; only Laura’s monumental sacrifice had brought her spirit back to her body. Whether that was simply a hallucination on the verge of death or the truth of the matter, it had forged something strong inside her.
As their journey to the South West progressed, she had been relieved by the reappearance of her owl familiar. But when Church saw it dipping and diving in the grey sky, all he could think of was its manifestation as a strange bird-man hybrid when it had warned him of Ruth’s capture in Callender. Could something so alien be trusted, he wondered?
Yet the abilities it had bequeathed to Ruth were extraordinary. She had told him how it had whispered knowledge to her that wormed its way into her mind as if she had known it all her life. When Church fell ill with a stomach bug after drinking from a stream, she knew just the plant for him to chew to restore his health within hours. When they were beaten down by an electrical storm with nowhere to shelter, she had wandered a few yards away from his gaze and minutes later the storm abated. It was amazing, yet also strangely worrying.
Across the roiling, grey sea, lightning twisted and turned in a maniac dance. There was too much of it to appear right; nature’s last stab of defiance. Resting against the edge of the window in the bedroom that had been prepared for Ruth, Church let his thoughts drift in the fury of the storm, considering their options, praying the power of hope carried some kind of weight.
“I hope you’ve got a strong stomach for sailing.”
Ruth’s words pulled him from his reverie and he turned back to the pleasant, old room with its wooden floorboards and walls draped with nets and lanterns and other sailing memorabilia. It felt secure in its warm aroma of candle smoke, dust and fresh linen.
Ruth sat on the edge of the bed, finishing the cold lamb, mashed potatoes and gravy the locals had prepared for them. “I wish we could pay them back for this.” She speared the last piece of meat. “They must be worried about maintaining their supplies yet they offered to take us in without a moment’s thought.”
“Doing what we hope to do will be payment enough.”
She made a face.
“I’m not giving in to hopelessness. Not any more. You know the band Prefab Sprout? They had a song which went, If the dead could speak, I know what they would say – don’t waste another day. That’s how I want to live my life. Whatever’s left of it.”
The candlelight cast a strange expression on Ruth’s face, both curious and concerned. “You really think there’s a chance?”
She shrugged. “I try not to think beyond the end of each day.”
The window rattled noisily, emphasising the frailness of their shelter. “I think about the others. A lot.” Ruth drew a pattern in the gravy; two interlocking circles. It hypnotised both of them for a second. “They might still be alive,” she said after a second or two.
“I feel bad that they might be back at Mam Tor now, wondering where we’ve gone.”
“If they’re alive I think they’ll find us. That bond brought us all together in the first place. It could do it again.”
“That’s another thing.” Church sat on the bed next to her, then flopped backwards, bouncing on the sagging mattress. “Everything we’ve heard spoke about the five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons being one. The five who are one. One spirit, one force. And now-”
“Laura’s dead. No doubt about that one.” Ruth shifted uncomfortably. “Where does that leave us?” The question hung in the air for a moment and then Ruth pushed away the rickety table and sat back. “No point thinking about it now.”
“There’s something else that strikes me.”
His voice sounded odd enough for her to turn and look at him; one arm was thrown across his face as he leant against the window, obscuring his eyes.
“Three months ago when Tom called back the spirits of the Celtic dead, they said one of us would be a traitor-”
“You know any help the dead give is always wrapped up in mischief.” She waited for him to move his arm so she could read his mood, but he lay as still as if he was asleep. “It’s not me if that’s what you’re saying.”
“I’m not saying anything. I was just mentioning-”
He mused quietly for a moment. “I hope I’m up to it.”
He gestured vaguely. “Everything. I do my best, like anyone would, but-”
“Not anyone. That’s the difference.”
“-I wonder sometimes how much is expected of me.”
“I’ve never really been one to believe in fate, but the more I’ve been through this, the more I’ve come to understand it’s just a name for something else. We’ve been chosen, there’s no denying it-”
“By God?” he said incredulously.
“By existence. Whatever. We have a part to play, that’s all I’m saying.”
He sighed. “I feel weary. Not physically. Spiritually. I don’t know how much longer I can go on.”
“You go on as long as you have to. This is all about a higher calling. It’s about doing something important that’s bigger than you and me. We can both rest when we’re dead.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence until he said, “First light, then.” He sat up and kissed her gently on the cheek. It was an act of friendship, but Ruth couldn’t help a twinge at the conflicting emotions she felt for him.
“The two of us together, just like it was right at the start.”
“You and me against the world, kid.”
Voices echoed up from the bar as Church made his way along the dark landing to his own room: the locals, still trying to make head or tail of a life turned suddenly senseless. He couldn’t help a twinge of sadness when he listened to their planning and rationalisations. Whatever they did, it would all amount to nothing.
He lay on his own bed for a while, staring into the shadows that clustered across the ceiling as his mind wound down towards sleep. A song by The Doors drifted in and out of his consciousness. Despite everything, he felt a deep peace at the very core of his being. He was focused in his intentions, ready to live or die as fate ruled. Some of the debilitating emotions he had felt over the last few months were now alien to him; his despair after Marianne’s suicide; the cold, bitter desire for revenge when he discovered she had really been killed. The knowledge that her spirit had survived death was a source of transcendental wonder that had lifted him from the shadows. He had known it from the first time her spirit had materialised to him outside his London flat, but in his misery he had not understood what it truly meant. It was such an obvious thing, he still couldn’t believe it had taken him so long to fully understand the monumental, life-shaking repercussions; but life was full of noise and the signal often got lost. The message that made sense of their suffering was plain, at least to him: live or die, there is always hope.
Gradually his thoughts turned to Laura. Amid the sadness there was a twinge of guilt that he had misjudged her so badly. She had been selfish, cynical, bitter, cowardly, yet in the end she had sacrificed her own life to save another. He missed her. He had never come close to matching the intensity of her feelings for him, a love driven by desperation, loneliness and fear that burned too brightly, but he had certainly felt a deep affection for her. Given other circumstances, perhaps he could have loved her more; he wished he had been able to give her what she wanted.
Somewhere above him there was a loud clattering. The storm had plucked some slates from the roof, or torn down a chimney pot. The gale buffeted the building, wrapping itself around the frail structure, yet deep within the wind’s raging he was sure he could hear other sounds. The slates sliding down into the gutter, he guessed. He strained to listen. Despite its violence, the storm was soothing, like womb-sounds. Slowly, his eyelids started to close.
And then he was suddenly overcome with the strangest sensation: that he wasn’t in a room in a pub on a storm-tossed coast in a world turned insane by ancient powers. That he was in a stark white laboratory with lights blazing into his eyes, strapped to some kind of bench with shadowy figures moving all around. Somebody had a syringe waiting to inject into him.
And there was a voice echoing in his head, saying, “It all depends how we see the world.”
Uneasiness started to knot his stomach. He wanted to shout out, but he couldn’t move his lips. You’re day-dreaming, he told himself. Sleep came up on this image suddenly, but the words remained.
“It all depends how we see the world.”
Of late Ruth never found sleep easy. Whenever she was on the cusp, her mind flashed back to her lying in the cottage on Mam Tor on the brink of death with the obscene sensations of Balor growing inside her. Snakes writhing in her gut, slithering along her arteries and veins, her head resounding with the sensation of a thousand cockroaches nesting in her brain. But the worst was when the final date drew near and the thing had matured.
One day she had suddenly been aware of alien thoughts crawling through her mind; and then the awful feeling of another intelligence nestling at the back of her head, listening to her every secret, knowing her heart, slowly consuming her. It was like she was in a dark room with something monstrous standing permanently behind her shoulder.
She always woke with a start when she reached that point. It had been the ultimate violation, the scars so deep she was terrified she would never forget it. And in her darkest moments, she feared much worse than that: that it hadn’t gone away at all; that a connection had been made. Sleep finally came.
Ruth was dreaming, but some part of her sleeping mind recognised that it was not really a dream at all. Few details made sense, only abstract impressions adding shape to her thoughts. First was suspicion, until that gradually coloured into a growing apprehension. Then came the unmistakable sensation that something was aware of her. It was not simply unpleasant; she was overwhelmed with an all-consuming mortal dread, leaving her feeling she was going to choke and die on the spot.
Somewhere an eye was opening. Before she could drag herself away, the awful weight of its attention was turned fully on her, like a burning white light that made her brain fizz. And crackling through that contact was the intelligence she feared; a familiar, ugly hand reaching out to grip her. Her entire being recoiled. She wanted to flee, screaming, but it held her fast, probing continually, peeling back the layers of who she was.
She dreamed of a black cloud, as big as the world, and in the centre of it that unflinching eye that watched her alone. It was the source of insanity and hatred and despair. It was the worst of existence. The End of Everything.
He had noticed her.
Balor, she thought, and snapped awake as the word burned through her mind.
Her eyes ranged around the room without seeing. Aspects of the contact still seared her mind. She remembered… Black forces moving up around the edge of existence, starting to skin the world, pecking away at humanity, preparing to strip the carrion from the bones of all life.
She shivered at the thought of what lay ahead. But before she could begin to consider the depth of her fears, she half-caught a movement that snapped her out of her introspection.
Something was outside her window.
Church awoke, irritable and out-of-sorts with a nagging in his subconscious. The storm still rampaged across the sea-front, but there was another sound he knew had been the cause of his waking: an owl’s shriek mingling with a high-pitched mewling that set his teeth on edge. He was out of bed in an instant, pounding along the landing towards Ruth, his mind flashing back to all the blood in her room in Callander.
At her door the mewling was so intense it made his stomach turn. Without a second’s hesitation, he put his shoulder to the door.
Wind and rain gusted into his face through the windows hanging jaggedly in their frame. Shattered glass crunched under foot. Outside, Ruth’s owl emitted a hunting shriek. An impression of a grey wolf at bay formed in one corner, but then the image coalesced into something smaller but just as frightening; a dark figure like a black spider. Even the merest glance increased Church’s queasiness. It was obviously a man yet there was something sickeningly alien about it too.
When he turned to look at Ruth he saw her face was so cold and hard with brittle rage she resembled a different person. She was hunched back near the bed, her hair flailing around in the wind, one hand moving slowly before her as if she was waving to the intruder. Inches from her palm the air appeared gelatinous, moving out in a slow wave to batter her assailant with increasing pressure. Whatever she was doing, the creature’s mewling turned into howls of agony. It clutched a hunting knife and seemed torn between throwing itself forward to stab her, and fleeing.
Ruth’s concentration shifted slightly and her attack flagged. The eyes of the attacker took on a murderous glow as it attacked, screeching. Church was rooted in horror; Ruth didn’t stand a chance.
Her brow knitted slightly, her hand made one insistent cutting action and the intruder collapsed in an unconsciousheap.
Filled with questions, Church moved towards her. But when her head snapped in his direction a chill ran through him. She was still caught up in the intensity of the moment, fury locked in her face, so much she barely recognised him. Her hand raised, ready to strike out.
It took an uneasy second or two for recognition to seep into her coldly glittering eyes. “The bastard thought he could take me unawares again.” Her voice was drained of energy.
Cautiously, Church approached her until he was sure the Ruth he had seen earlier had departed, but it didn’t seem the time to raise his doubts. Instead he asked, “What is it?”
She levered herself off the bed and crossed the room. “What is it?” she repeated bitterly. To Church’s discomfort she launched a sharp kick at the prone figure. “He’s the bastard that cut off my finger.” She held up her hand to show him the mass of scar tissue that marked the missing digit. “The bastard that delivered me to the Fomorii and put me through weeks of hell.” She used her foot to roll the intruder on to his back. “Callow.”
Church started when he saw the figure’s face for the first time. It was indeed Callow, but so transformed he was almost unrecognisable. The wild silver hair and dark, shabby suit was still there, but his skin was as dry and white as parchment across which the veins stood out in stark black. Although he was unconscious, his lidless eyes continued to stare; in his gaping mouth they could glimpse the dark of rotting teeth.
“My God, what have they done to him?” Church knelt down to inspect him, but the sour stench that came off the once-man made him pull back.
“Careful. He’ll be awake soon.”
Callow was a sociopath. The itinerant had thrown in his lot with the Fomorii for his own ends, regardless of what would happen to the rest of humanity. He’d scarred Laura’s face with a razor and left her for dead, and he’d put Ruth through hell. Yet Church felt an overwhelming pity for the suffering he must have endured as punishment for his role in the Fomorii failure to retain the talismans.
They bound him tightly in the old fishing net that had hung on one wall, then waited for him to come to his senses. It was unnerving to watch his constantly staring eyes, not knowing if he was still unconscious or slyly watching them, but a slight tremor in his facial muscles gave away his waking.
“I ought to kill you,” Ruth said.
“Do it. Put me out of my misery.” He looked away. Tears had formed in the corner of his eyes, but unable to blink them away he had to wait for them to break.
“Don’t try to make us feel sympathy,” Ruth sneered. “You drained the well dry a long time ago.”
“I don’t want sympathy, or pity, or any other pathetic emotion.” It was the voice of a spoiled child. “I want you dead.”
The curtains flew up like a flock of birds as another gust of wind and rain surged in. “We were very generous to you when we first met,” Church said.
“I wouldn’t look like this if not for you. I wouldn’t be on my own, neither fish nor fowl. I can’t move among people any more, and Calatin will no longer-”
“Calatin’s been wiped from all existence by one of his own kind.” Church watched the confused emotions range across Callow’s face.
After a moment he began to cry again, slow, silent, juddering sobs, that wracked his body. “Then there’s nowhere for me!”
Unmoved, Ruth turned to Church in irritation. “What are we going to do with him?”
The sobbing stopped suddenly. Callow was watching them intently. “Little pinkies!” He started to giggle at this. “Five fingers, and I’m taking them one at a time, to pay you back for raising your hand against me! I took your finger, did I not, girlie? Your life should have followed, but I can rectify that, given half a chance. And I have another finger in my collection, too.”
It took a second or two for his meaning to register, and then Ruth flew across the room in fury. “What do you mean?”
The black veins tattooing his face shifted as his sly smile grew wider. “One little pinkie, one little life-”
Ruth cut his words short with a hefty blow to the side of his head. Church caught her wrist before she could repeat the assault.
“Temper, temper.” Callow’s overly-theatrical voice was incongruous against his hideous appearance. Yet when he looked into Ruth’s face his arrogance ebbed from him. He muttered something to himself, then stated, “The long-haired Asian boy, the one as pretty as a girl-”
“Shavi.” The word became trapped in Ruth’s throat.
Callow nodded soberly. “He’s dead. Most definitely. I took his life, and his finger, in Windsor Park.”
That last detail was the awful confirmation; Windsor Park had been Shavi’s destination in his search for the solution to Ruth’s predicament.
Ruth walked to the shattered window where she stood in the full force of the gale, looking out into the night, hugging her arms around her to protect her from her sadness. She was such a desolate figure Church wanted to take her in his arms to comfort her. Instead he turned his attention to Callow.
The twisted figure giggled like a guilty schoolboy. Church’s overwhelming sorrow began to transmute into a hardened rage. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to ease his emotions by striking out, but he controlled himself.
“I feel sorry for you,” he said to the hunched figure.
That seemed to surprise Callow, who looked upset and then angry. “The first of five!” he raged. “You’ll all follow!”
Church slipped his arm round Ruth’s shoulders; she was as cold and rigid as a statue. The rain was just as icy and stung his eyes shut, but he remained there with her until she slowly moved closer to him.
“Poor Shavi,” she said quietly.
Church recalled his friend’s deep, spiritual calmness, his humour and love of life. Shavi had been a guiding light to all of them. “We mustn’t let it drag us down,” he whispered.
Ruth dropped her head on to his shoulder but said nothing.
They rose at first light after a night in Church’s bed, trying to come to terms with Shavi’s death. Although they had only known him for a few months, he had affected them both deeply. They both felt they had lost much more than a friend.
The sea front was awash with puddles and scattered with the debris deposited by the gales, but it was brighter and clearer than any morning they had experienced since Lughnasad, with the sun rising in a powder-blue sky and not a cloud in sight. It felt strangely hopeful, despite everything.
Ruth’s room, where they had bound and gagged Callow, was reassuringly silent as they passed. No one else was up at that time so they ventured hesitantly to the kitchen alone for breakfast. Aware of the shortage of food, they only toasted a couple of slices of home-made bread each to take the edge off their hunger. While they ate around a heavily-scarred wooden table, Church surveyed the jars of tea and coffee on the shelves.
“I wonder what’s happening in the rest of the world,” he mused.
“I thought about this.” Ruth eyed the butter, but resisted the urge. “We get the analogues of Celtic gods because it’s part of our heritage, our own mythology. Do you think they got Zeus in Greece, Jupiter in Italy, some Native American gods in America, Vishnu and Shiva or whatever in India? The same beings perceived through different cultural eyes?”
Church shrugged. “Possibly. What I can’t figure out is why Britain is the battleground.”
“With communication down, anything could be happening. The rest of the world might be devastated for all we know.”
Church couldn’t take his eyes off the coffee and tea, things taken for granted for centuries. “The global economy will have crashed. There’ll be death on a massive scale – famine, disease. No international trade at all. Even here in the UK we’ve forgotten how to feed ourselves locally. What about in less-privileged areas?”
“Let’s look on the bright side: at least all the bankers and money-lenders will be out of a job.”
His laugh was polite and humourless.
“Best not to think about it.” Ruth watched him from the corner of her eye while she chewed on her toast, trying to see any signs of the melancholy that had debilitated him too many times in the past. “Creeping death is the last thing we need to worry about. Everything could be over in the blink of an eye.”
“You’re right.” He stood up and stretched.
“I always am. You should know that by now. It’s my hobby.” She finished her toast and tried to ignore the rumblings that still came from her belly. “We need to decide what we’re going to do with Callow.”
Church cursed under his breath. “I’d forgotten about that bastard.”
“We could execute him.” She appeared to be only half-joking.
Church forced a smile that faded quickly. “We can’t leave him here. These people have enough problems without a psycho like that around. And if Ryan and Tom are still alive he’ll just go after them-”
“We can’t take him with us!”
“We don’t know we’re going anywhere yet. If we do find the ship we might be able to do some good for him. I’m going to try to get the Fomorii shit cleaned out of my system. Maybe we can do the same for him-”
“Do some good!” she said incredulously. “The bastard murdered Shavi. Almost killed Laura.” She showed him the gap between her fingers.
“I know, I know.” He waved her protestations away. “But still. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, they say.”
Ruth grunted in grudging agreement, but as she rose from the table she muttered, “I still think we should execute him.”
“You sound more like Laura every day.”
The morning was brittle but filled with the warmth of a good summer. The air had the salty tang of seaweed and fish. In the daylight, Mousehole was quaint and comforting, hunkered up against the rugged Cornish coastline. Church and Ruth herded Callow along the deserted seafront, the half-man keeping his peeled egg eyes away from the brilliant light of the sun. Church was disturbed how the creature had begun to grow into his new form; his manner of walking had become almost insectile in the way he skittered in and out of the gutter, a little too fast, a tad too angular.
“You make a bolt for it, I’ll boil those freaky eyes out of your head,” Ruth said calmly. “You know I can do it.”Church eyed her, not sure if it was within her new powers which were as mysterious to him as the sea and which she did nothing to dispel. Callow flashed her a brief glance that suggested he would kill her given half a chance.
“What do we do when we get there?” Ruth asked.
“We call out for the ship to come to us.” It sounded so stupid, he winced. He wished Tom were there. Despite the Rhymer’s brusque and generally unpleasant manner, Church missed his wisdom and his knowledge about all the new, strange things that had found a place in the world.
The tourist information they had found in the pub pointed them in the direction of Merlin’s Rock. As Callow scuttled ahead of them, Church couldn’t shake the ludicrous image of the world’s most bizarre couple out walking their dog.
Ruth glanced at the white-rimmed waves before flashing a teasing smile at Church. “Better get calling then.”
“Your trouble, Ruth, is you’re too strait-laced to let yourself go,” he said wryly. “You should unbutton a little.”
“I’ll take that on board, Mr Black Pot.”
Callow started to edge away, sure the others couldn’t see his subtle movements. Church grabbed the collar of his jacket and hauled him forward so he teetered on the edge over the choppy waves. “Enjoy the view. You might never see it again.”
“You can’t make me go!” Callow protested.
“I can’t make you swim either, but I can put you in a position where you have no choice.”
“You don’t understand! Those wretched golden-skinned creatures will detest everything about me. They”ll make me pay for what the Night Walkers did to me, and it’s not my fault!”
“They don’t care too much for me either,” Church replied. “Thankfully I don’t give a toss what those in-bred aristocrats think. They might believe they’re better than us, but they’re not and given half a chance I’ll bring that home to them.”
“They’ll hurt me!”
“Not while I’m there. You deserve some justice for what you’ve done, Callow, but not at their hands. You’re one of us and if anyone’s going to make you pay-”
Callow struggled frantically. He calmed instantly when Ruth rested a hand on his shoulder.
Church moved away from them and faced the horizon. The wind rustled his long hair with soothing fingers; a tingle ran down his spine. He thought of Frank Sinatra singing Fly Me To The Moon, remembering the great times he’d had with that music playing in his head: kissing Marianne in the lounge of their flat in the early hours of New Year’s Day, staggering through Covent Garden, drunk with all his friends, watching the dawn come up on a boat on the Thames. They were at the start of something big, a great journey, and there was still hope; he could feel it in every fibre of his being. The moment felt right.
“Come to us.” The wind whipped the words from his mouth. He coughed; then spoke with greater firmness and clarity: “Come to us. Take us to the Western Isles.” Once again his voice appeared to be caught by the wind, but this time it rolled out across the waves. The tingling in his spine increased a notch.
Cautiously he scanned the horizon. The weather was so clear he would see any ship miles away. He glanced back at Ruth, unsure.
“Be patient,” she said firmly.
Once more he spoke loudly. “I beseech the Golden Ones to carry us, their humble servants, away to the wonders of the Western Isles.” Behind him, Callow sniggered.
For several long minutes he waited, sure he was making a fool of himself, but gradually he began to sense barely perceptible changes in the atmosphere. The air grew more charged until he could taste iron in his mouth as if he were standing next to a generator. He glanced back at Callow and Ruth and saw they could sense it too; Ruth was smiling, but Callow had an expression of growing anxiety. Church couldn’t stop himself smiling either – almost laughing in fact; a ball of gold had formed in his gut and was slowly unfolding along his arteries and veins.
Everything around became more intense. The sea shimmered as if the waves were rimmed with diamonds, emeralds and sapphires and the sun’s golden light suffused every molecule of the air. The scent of the ocean was powerfully evocative, summoning a thousand childhood memories. The wind caressed his skin until every nerve tingled.
This is the way to see the world, he thought.
Despite the glorious morning, a misty luminescence had gathered along the horizon like a heat haze over a summer road, igniting in him a feeling of delighted anticipation that he could barely contain.
“It’s coming,” he whispered.
It felt like the air itself was singing. Church realised he was kneading his hands in expectation and had to hold them tightly behind his back to control himself.
The white, misty light curled back on itself, suggesting a life of its own. There was a billow, another, and then something could be glimpsed forcing its way through the intangible barrier. His heart leapt.
A second later the ship was visible, ploughing through the waves towards him. It gleamed brilliantly in the sunlight, a water-borne star of gold, silver and ivory. At first it appeared like a Phoenician galley he had seen during his university studies. Then it looked Greek, and then Roman, then like nothing he had ever come across before, its shape changing with each crash of white surf on its prow, although he knew it was his own perception that was altering. Although a white sail marked with a black rune on a red circle soared above it, the ship didn’t appear to be driven by the wind; nor were there any oars visible. Every aspect of it was finely, almost oppressively, detailed. Fantastic golden carvings rolled in undulating patterns along each side, culminating in an enormous splash of silver and white like streamlined swan’s wings at the aft. The prow curled round into a statue with an awesome visage made of what appeared to be thousands of tiny, interlocking figures; the eyes glowed ruby-red. There was something about the design of the face that spoke to Church on a deep level; it was as if it was an analogy, the ultimate secret made plain for all to see.
Ruth appeared at his side, tense, eyes fixed on the approaching ship. Her arm brushed his and goosebumps rushed across his skin.
“It’s magnificent,” she said in a hushed voice.
Church turned, expecting Callow to be galloping away now Ruth had abandoned his side, but he remained just as fixated, although the wonder in his face was tempered by a steely streak of terror.
It took five minutes for the ship to reach them. Church attempted to scan the deck on its approach, but whatever was there remained hidden; his eyes couldn’t focus on it at all and he was repeatedly forced to look away.
When it was only feet away, a jewelled anchor lowered into the water. Church was beginning to feel a touch of apprehension.
Once the ship was secure, they waited; and waited. Ten minutes passed without a sign or sound. Before Church could decide on a course of action, there was a shimmer of movement on the deck, like light striking a mirror. A second later a booming voice rolled out over the water, the quality of it constantly changing across a wide scale so it sounded like it was rising from the deepest depths.
Electricity spiked Church’s spine and he suddenly wished he were a thousand miles away.