Read the entire short story ‘Snowfall’ right here!
The first snow of the year cascaded, coating the ground in a blank canvas on which the local populace marked their passage, and with it brought a chilling northerly wind that swept pitilessly across the whitened landscape. In this frosty grip the small and rustic town struggled to maintain their habitual lives; the shroud of snow and the icy air proving too harsh an environment for the crops and livestock. The town’s inhabitants’ last recollection of a winter this bad was some five years ago, when the elderly population took a serious hit and decreased to the propitious few. Now they were facing at least a few months of dreadful cold far worse than they were prepared for. Many of the town’s families gathered in their homes as the snow started to fall and prayed vehemently for a respite from the chilling air clawing at the windows.
The town was situated in the centre of a bowl-shaped landing, surrounded by towering mountain ranges that opened fleetingly into a larger valley. This larger valley was rarely traversed due to its volatile and unpredictable wildlife and hostile fauna, save for the seldom deliveries that came to the town every second month. Visitors to the town, outsiders, truly had little reason to visit or expect the sequestered hamlet to exist. Roughly a month ago they encountered visitors of an unusual sort but managed to make peace with them. The town trusted this would never happen again. Their brokerage of peace was a promise of safety.
Through the gaping split in the centre of the valley wall climbed two figures. They struggled with the eroding rock-face, slipping down its desolate ledges, gripping to its fraying and debilitated stonework, grunting as they moved into the snowy bowl. The valley wall was weather worn, beaten and cracked, and proved a challenge irrespective of how proficient a rock-climber you were. Their panting breaths were visible in the frosty air.
Wheezing, they dropped down into the empty tundra.
“Can we have a rule from now on?” groaned Rachel, readjusting her jacket. “No snow. I hate snow.”
Sean wined as he pulled his balaclava over his head. The ruthless air whipped and snapped. Glancing around the area, he spotted the pastoral town a short walk ahead. It consisted of a set of detached, pointed wooden houses that looked more like barns than homes, each accompanied by an array of outdated equipment; butter churners, rickety shovels, piles of snow-coated firewood, and old-timey apparatus that Sean recognised in appearance only. If he didn’t know any better, which he didn’t, he’d guess he accidentally ambled into a secluded Amish village. Remarkably and puzzlingly, windows were missing from all the houses. It wasn’t uncommon to come across an enigma in creation but this seemed like a normal town, a human settlement, thusly the dearth of windows was a staid source of unease. The snow covered the entirety of the town in an ankle high contest for dominance. Given the lack of tracks in the permeating white, Sean decided that the town’s inhabitants were staying indoors and since he couldn’t spot heating technology, he similarly decided this was for the best.
“What do you think of the town?” he asked.
Rachel peered through the falling snow. “If it wasn’t snowing I’d say we were in a Wild West film.”
“Cowboys,” said Sean excitedly. “That’s new.”
Trudging through the caking snow, they approached the town. In its stuttered circumference seeped a foreboding seclusion. They weren’t supposed to be there, no one but the town’s sheltered inhabitants were. Each house was decrepit and weak; the sole exception to this the aptly named ‘Town Hall’, which was an enormous building located in what was perceived by Sean to be the centre of the town. Its humped metal doors, spiral cap, large latticed windows and extended rear reminded him of music theatres back in his home ‘verse. He could easily imagine a pantomime taking place within its fortress like walls.
He pulled his jacket tighter as a breath of icy wind rushed forth. The Ogrohad never promised their lives would be luxurious but he hadn’t expected environmental hostility of this calibre. With the endless stretch of the multi-verse encompassing impossible possibilities, he’d hoped for a warmer climate.
“No cowboys then,” Sean sighed.
“What’s the name of the guy we’re looking for?” asked Rachel.
“Gorin,” answered Sean, peering around. “Gorin… something.”
“We aren’t going to find him standing around here.”
Sean grunted, stumbling to the nearest door and banging it angrily. The wooden door buckled under each blow.
“We don’t want to break in!” Rachel gasped.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “The door’s weak and I’m still getting used to the strength.”
From behind the door came sounds of shuffling, of objects scraping over wood, and then thankfully the sound of a key being turned. The door clicked then opened.
Bathed in a welcoming and warm light, a heavily bearded man stood in the doorway. He was dressed in what Sean believed to be typical Amish clothing; suspenders, checkered shirt, tapered trousers; the one article missing was an oversized, thick-rimmed hat.
“Can I… can I help you?” he questioned suspiciously.
“We’re looking for a man named Gorin,” said Sean.
A look of surprise overcame the man. “Oh yes! You must be our visitors. Please come in.”
He shifted aside to let the two enter. A warmth swept from a fireplace in the middle of the main room, which led directly to a humble kitchen area. To their right a pinewood staircase ascended the wall, each step menacingly sharp, while the narrow hallway in front of them joined to a larder.
“Get into the living room,” advised the man. “You must be freezing!”
“Thank you,” said Rachel, nudging Sean out of the way and plonking herself down in front of the roaring fireplace.
Sean observed the house. The living room was centred by a crudely crafted table, separating two dismal and grimy white couches. To counter-act the sheer sallowness of the paper-thin walls, paintings of rural and pleasant country-sides hung invitingly; shielded, metal lanterns draped from the roof, and various indigenous ornaments filled the rudimentary and often hazardous looking tables and desks slotted into the walls. He imagined this to look similar to the shanty house of a lumberjack living in the farthest boundaries of a distant forest. Its unassuming cosiness bawled a familial affinity.
Rachel ripped off her jacket and hugged the fireplace. Sean wandered around the main room, entranced by the imperious aura of family.
“My name is Ragar,” announced the bearded man.
Sean whipped round, having almost completely forgotten about him. He was pleasant man; happy and welcoming, and though his beard supported his earlier imagining of this house being a lumberjack’s cosy, isolated home, his eyes and haggard lines advocated a paternal presence.
“Ragar,” said Sean, extending a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Sean and that’s Rachel.”
Ragar took a step back defensively. Sean’s hand hung in the air.
“We don’t shake hands here,” the man explained.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Sean apologised, withdrawing the hand. “We’re uh… we’re not from around here.”
Ragar nodded, moving to the kitchen area. “Lily! Ethel!”
Sean kicked Rachel. She turned around.
“What?” she whispered.
“Come on, get up,” he said. “We have to be nice to these people.”
“You do. I don’t have to do anything but get warm.”
Thunderous booms erupted from the staircase. Down the steps raced two female figures. The first to approach was a teenage girl, long brown hair swaying as she moved. Her huge, bulbous white dress was more like a lifeboat than an item of clothing. Like her father her eyes emanated gentility and good-nature.
“Are these the visitors?” she gasped, wide-eyed. She observed both raptly.
“Yes, these are Gorin’s visitors. This is my daughter Ethel,” said Ragar, gesturing to the teenager. “And this is my wife, Lily.”
Stepping out from the shadows, a slender woman came into view. Her jet-black hair was pushed back into a tight ponytail, her ears pointed instead of curved, and her eyes, unlike her husband’s or daughter’s, were piercing and held none of their warm benevolence, and were far too large for her face. They were like two enormous planets shoved into her skull. Her smile reached widely and by all accounts should’ve been a gentle one, but from it seeped a peculiar smugness. Sean couldn’t figure out why the smile was so strange. In contrast to Ragar and Ethel she was clothed in a dark, slim fitting dress and walked barefoot.
“It’s nice to meet you both,” he said, grinning. “I’m Sean and this is Rachel.”
Rachel grunted, waving a hand lazily behind her head.
“You are both very welcome here,” said Lily. “You must have travelled a long way.”
“Oh, very long,” admitted Sean. “But it was a nice walk… other than those monkey things.”
He hoped they wouldn’t notice the sweeping laceration on the bottom of his hood. The ‘monkey things’ ruled the valley floor and didn’t take kindly to trespassers. That was- male ones. Rachel walked through unharmed whilst Sean battled a horde of two-foot chimps.
“We’ll take you to Gorin tomorrow,” said Ragar. “He has been looking forward to meeting you.”
“Yes, I’m sure he has. Quick question… why does he want to meet us?”
The question of why was nearly as burning as the question of how– how had Gorin contacted the Nephilim? How did he even know they existed? How did he know the chosen existed? He asked specifically for them; for their urgent assistance in a matter of life and death. He hadn’t disclosed the exact details, an amount scarce enough to obscure the nature of the request yet interesting enough to entice Sean and the Ogrohad’s inquisitiveness.
“There’s a serious matter he’d like to discuss with you,” explained Lily. “He’s called an immediate town meeting. We’re not entirely sure what he wants to talk about. All we know is that you’re here to help us.”
Sean rubbed his chin. “Is the town in trouble?”
“Not as far as we know.”
He walked around, taking in more of the room. The town was a strange one. Not a lot made sense. Regardless, the Ogrohad sent them to the field.
Rachel cursed Sean’s curiosity. She’d been dragged from home as his partner for the mission. They couldn’t go alone; none of them ever did. Gavin was with Jarn and Drada, fighting their way through a rose-tinted ‘verse crawling with one-eyed sharks. Adrian should’ve been here, she thought. He would’ve fitted in perfectly with a squalid, miserable, archaic town in the middle of nowhere. She was cold, hungry and tired. She didn’t want to be there in the slightest.
“We were preparing dinner before you arrived,” said Lily. “We would be honoured if you would join us.”
“Oh, we don’t want to be any trouble.”
“It would be our pleasure.”
“Well… since you put it like that,” Sean said, shrugging.
“Is there anything else you’d like?” Lily asked.
Rachel swirled around. “Have you got any coffee?”
Lily tapped her leg. “Coffee… I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
Snorting irately, Rachel turned her attention back to the fireplace. If she couldn’t have coffee she was going to soak up all the heat. The mess of snowflakes covering her were beginning to melt.
“Mother,” said Ethel, “would you like me to prepare the beds?”
Sean stepped in. “If that’s for us I have to insist we do that ourselves.”
Lily’s head cocked to the side. Her eyes widened, her smile stretched. Despite the extensive grin there was a definitive lack of happiness.
“Why would you do that?” she asked softly. “You’re our guests, please allow us to accommodate you.”
“You’d accommodate us by letting us do things ourselves. Please, I don’t mean any disrespect but I’d feel a bit more comfortable taking care of myself. As would Rachel.”
“I’m fine with it,” she mumbled.
For a second it seemed Lily’s smile might fade but she gracefully recovered it. Nodding, she gestured to the stairs.
“There’s a bedroom, first door on your left. It’s a little basic I’m afraid but it should do you both for a night. You’ll find linens in the cupboard.”
“Thank you very much, Lily,” he said relieved.
He gave Rachel another soft kick. She didn’t budge.
Looks like I’ll be doing this myself.
Excusing himself, he ascended the wobbly staircase and followed the crooked path. At the top landing the staircase gave way to another narrow hallway. The wooden flooring was frayed at its edges and Sean was wary of stepping on it. On the right hand wall were two shabby doors, on the left hand wall was a singular, empty doorway. Through it Sean could see two thin and soiled mattresses lying on the floor. He wondered how they could be prepared for such an outcome then brushed the thought aside. There were a lot of things about this strange town that didn’t make much sense and presently he was most concerned about the dirty state of their beds for the night.
Carefully and deliberately he snuck across the floor, removed the slightly cleaner linen from the cupboard, and clothed the mattresses. Their temporary bedroom was a dingy hovel; the wallpaper was peeling, the roof was sinking, the wooden beams that supported the walls were shedding and mouldy, and the floorboards curled as though trying to escape the musk of dirt that smothered the air. Rachel wouldn’t be happy, he thought. Without a window there wasn’t anywhere for the dirt or mould to go. He couldn’t summon so much as a smidgeon of energy to clean the place- after all, where would he put all the dirt?
There was a knock on the door.
“Are you managing?” asked Ethel.
Sean looked around.
“Yes, yes, I’m doing fine,” he said. “Fine, I guess. What do you do around here for fun? It doesn’t look like a very interesting place.”
“During the summer it’s very beautiful. Wide, open plains, the predators go into hiding, and there’s a lake not far from here that we go to often.”
“Ah… but what about winter? What’s there to do?”
Ethel’s bedroom was much like his own temporary one; unsophisticated, begrimed, and teeming in the kind of bacteria Sean kept locked away in his nightmares. They were sitting cross legged on the floor rolling a metal ball back and forth and had been doing so for the last ten minutes. Sean chucked on his best smile.
“So… you do this all the time then?” he said. “During winter?”
“There’s nothing else to do when it snows,” she answered sadly. “It’s too cold to go walking or chop firewood, the lake’s frozen, our crops are dead, so yes, I do this all the time in winter. This has been the worst winter in five years though, last year it wasn’t so bad.”
Sean caught the ball. Half of his mind was focused on not thinking about what unknown germs might be coating the metal orb. The other half was annoying him with what they might be.
“Have you ever been outside the valley?” he asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re not supposed to go out.”
“Because of the predators.”
His mind angrily recalled the ‘monkey things’.
“What kind of predators do you have here?” he pressed.
Ethel went quiet for a few seconds. Her eyes focused on the rolling ball and nothing else.
“What was it like coming here?” she said finally. “What did it look like?”
“Like it had been snowing for a few weeks,” he answered coldly. “Like a snowman vomited all over the valley.”
Ethel was visibly disappointed. She stopped rolling the ball. Sean caught the sudden change, immediately rectifying his uncalled for blurting.
“But,” he added, “I could imagine it being very beautiful during the summer.”
Ethel lit up.
“I’m sure that during the summer the valley is bright and wondrous, the sun beams through the boughs of the lustrous forests, lush green plains stretch for as far as the eye can see, a river gently meanders through the veins of the rocks, and deer and rabbits prance around in the grass unharmed. If it wasn’t for the snow it would’ve been a resplendent gem cradled by the arms of the mountains.”
She smiled. Sean could see true happiness like an open spring. She was young and innocent, at the junction of cynicism and candour, unaware that a path was to be chosen. Her sweetness would last only so long in a world like this.
“I’m glad that’s what you saw,” she said cheerfully. “That’s how I’ve always imagined it.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
Time was yet to strike her but he could sense an aged wisdom unbecoming of her youthful appearance.
“Eighteen and you’ve never left the town?”
He was startled by the revelation. By the time he was eighteen he’d travelled half the globe. In hindsight, he told himself, that was like seeing the inside of a single house on the endless street of creation. To not go beyond the confines of a simple town would drive him insane.
“We live here our entire lives,” she explained. “We’re born here, we grow up here, we marry and have children here and then we die here. It’s the way it’s always been.”
“Do you not want to break that cycle?” he suggested. “Be the one that’s different?”
“Different isn’t really appreciated here,” she said. “I thought you’d understand that.”
Sean screwed up his face. “What do you mean?”
“You’re different. You’re very different.”
“How am I different?”
She leaned in close.
“There’s something wrong with your eyes.”
At first he wasn’t sure what she was referring to, then the penny dropped. Present in the eyes of all ‘verse-travellers were slight silver specks- almost like augmentations- that merged harmlessly with the prevalent veins. It wasn’t explained exactly how or why this happened, and the Ogrohad elucidated no hidden reasoning behind it, but at the very least it was a quick and simple way to identify if someone was from another ‘verse. He’d been told by the Nephilim that this anomaly had tactical advantages.
“Ah, it’s a birth defect,” he lied.
“The woman has it too.”
“A shared birth defect, we’re twins.”
“Then why are you older?”
“How do you know I’m older? Do I look older?”
In a blind panic he touched his face, tracing the lines, tracking the frowns. Ethel grinned. The second penny dropped.
“Oh,” he grumbled. “I just told you. You’re very… clever.”
“I can prove I’m even cleverer than you think,” she said. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“No, we were invited here.”
“I mean from this world.”
Sean froze. There was no possible way of knowing that, no matter how astute she was or how clear her perspective, a logical deduction so drastic couldn’t have been pulled from nowhere.
“Have there been other people like us here?” he pressed nervously.
“No. Well- maybe. It’s a theory that some people talk about; that we originally came from another world or another planet or another universe and bred with the indigenous people here. They say we’ll know we’re being taken home when the silver-eyed angels come for us.”
He almost screamed for Rachel. Only a week ago he’d been appointed leader of the group, strongly against his will, and wasn’t entirely sure what the position meant. The Ogrohad made most of the decisions and the ones It didn’t, the Nephilim stepped in on. He wasn’t ready for leadership, for taking care of an entire team. He couldn’t take care of himself discussing an innocuous conversation with an eighteen year old.
“Uh… that’s… that’s not why we’re here,” he mumbled. “We’re here because we were invited, that’s all.”
“But you are from another world?”
“I didn’t say that, I did not say that.”
“Just admit I’m right.”
“I’m… I’m not admitting to anything.”
Her smile hadn’t faded. “I won’t tell anyone, you don’t have to worry about that. But fine, if you don’t want to talk about it I can’t force you to. Just so we’re both clear though, I know and now you know that I know. And so and so forth.”
Sean, impressed, jumped to his feet and paced. Ethel was astoundingly discerning. The silver specks were obvious when you knew they were there, when you knew to look for them, but almost nobody noticed them. Why would anyone be looking for something they didn’t know was there?
“You’re a very clever young girl,” he said. “Very clever, impossibly clever.”
“What was your home world like?” she asked.
He bit his lip.
“It’s what your world will look like in… oh… a few hundred years. More or less, anyway. Considerably stupider people, mind you, if you’re anything to go by.”
“I’d love to see another world,” she said wistfully. “It must be an incredible experience to walk on the surface of another planet, meet new people, have a different life… your days must be filled with joy.”
When the Ogrohad first collected the team, not too long ago, he’d been ecstatic. The opportunity to shed the chains of planet Earth and explore the infinite possibilities of the multi-verse was a chance at a new and better life. Then came the disharmonious, discomfiting screech of the future. It pierced him, reminded him that he wasn’t ready. He was now a leader in a battle he didn’t start, a general in a war he didn’t want to wage. He was yet to even encounter the Pantheon. On the few missions he’d taken part in his only enemy had been swarms of the Red Regime. Under the Nephilim’s guidance they’d been dispatched with ease. There wasn’t much joy to be gained when the imperious burden of obligation cruelly clamped you down.
And this eighteen year old girl, in a snow-coated, inconceivably befuddling town on an even more confusing world, who hadn’t walked a mile from her doorstep, viewed the endless possibilities as a buoyant raft on which to sail to happier shores. He didn’t want to poke holes in it.
“It’s amazing,” he said flatly. “Never seen anything like it.”
“You don’t sound so sure about that.”
“No, but you do. You sound sure that another world to look at, to walk on, to live on, would be an incredible thing…”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. The part of his mind that wished for Ethel to join the team, at least for a short while, shut down immediately. He’d taken a liking to her, she was sharp, keen, and could easily contradict his lack of enthusiasm. If someone else could be at his side, someone as ardent and spirited as her, maybe he’d perk up. But he couldn’t allow that. It would be thrusting her into harm’s way.
“Never mind,” he continued. “Never mind. Shall we go see if the food’s ready?”
The gruel on their plates undulated. It might’ve been a trick of the light but Sean was sure he watched it move. Rachel stabbed the green white mixture, sloshing it around. She couldn’t figure out what it was.
“What is this?” she asked moodily.
“It’s a combination of oatmeal, goat milk, butter and pig’s bladder,” said Ragar.
At the mention of the last ingredient Rachel gagged. Sean grabbed his fork and plunged it into the mix. As an experienced traveller he’d eaten his fair share of disgusting meals. He knew what to do.
Without thinking or looking he liberated a stringy, pungent blob and shovelled it down, allowing the taste to settle. The initial taste was overwhelming, flavours ducked in and out of range, seemingly wishing to escape the clutch of his taste buds and then all ultimately collected into one startling aftertaste. He stifled a gag.
“It’s…” he coughed. “It’s… got a kick to it.”
“I also sprinkled some wood carving on top,” Ragar added. “Gives the taste a little more flavour, don’t you think?”
Sean nodded, mainly to keep himself from vomiting. Rachel leaned over.
“You just ate part of a tree,” she whispered.
“Do not eat what’s on your plate,” he whispered back. “I’ll figure out a way to get some proper food in the morning.”
Spluttering and struggling to keep his stomach in check, Sean sat upright. Ragar and Ethel hungrily tucked into their food. He noticed that while Lily was present at the table, she didn’t have a plate.
“Are you not eating anything?” he asked her.
“I would love to join you but I ate earlier today,” she said.
“Oh, you only have one meal a day here.”
“Actually, I had a buffet earlier,” she informed him sweetly. “We were preparing the town hall for our meeting tomorrow.”
There was something blatantly amiss with her, Sean thought. Something he was missing. Though her words were spoken softly and clearly each one unnerved him. Her mannerisms were always deliberate and polite, her smile never cracking, yet to him they were feigned.
“I hope you didn’t go to any extra trouble,” he said. “We don’t even know what we’re here for.”
“If I had to guess,” said Ragar between greedy bites, “I would say it’s to do with Hormnes.”
At the mention of the name the family visibly trembled. Sean observed them curiously.
“Who’s Hormnes?” he asked. “They sound dangerous, they sound… interesting.”
“Hormnes isn’t a who,” Ragar explained. “It’s a what. It’s a creature that lives on the outskirts of the valley. A colossal, tyrannical beast that feeds on human souls.”
Rachel looked up, intrigued by the story.
“That definitely sounds like something we’d be called for,” she said.
“It killed many of us, terrorised our town, killed our livestock, destroyed our crops. For years it was the bane of our existence. We couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“But…” Sean mumbled. “It’s not here anymore. You must’ve stopped it somehow.”
There was a clink as Ragar laid his fork and knife down. He stared rigidly at Sean.
“It’s still there,” he claimed gravely. “But now there’s an arrangement. If it’s important it’ll be explained to you tomorrow, otherwise I don’t see much point in ruining our dinner over it.”
He returned to avidly gobbling down the abhorrent meal. Ethel, disturbed by the conversation, slowly chewed hers. Lily’s smile remained strong.
“You brought it up,” Rachel whispered under her breath.
Sean moved the conversation forward hastily.
“Is there anything else we should know about the town?” he said.
“They don’t take too kindly to outsiders,” said Lily. “We don’t get a lot of them. Don’t expect the welcoming atmosphere you received here.”
“Thank you… uh… for the food. We really do appreciate it but it’s…”
“Disgusting,” Rachel finished.
Sean laughed nervously, pointing to her then the food, then placed his finger on his lips. He dressed up his face with his best fake smile.
“She’s… she’s just joking, don’t worry about it. What she means is that we’re not really… used to this kind of… thing.”
The family raised an eyebrow in unison. Ethel giggled lightly, which was followed by Lily, then like a domino passed to Ragar. Sean joined in, revelling in his ability to defuse a tense situation. Rachel looked around at the unravelling scene icily, finding her own amusement in the ridiculousness of the transpiring event.
“Anyway,” said Sean, “I think we’ll be going to bed now.”
“Of course,” said Lily. “Sleep well.”
Rachel suddenly darted from her chair, clutching her mouth, towards the small door etched on the side of the staircase, nearly ripped it from its hinges, then ducked into the darkness. The unmistakable sound of puking escaped through the scraggy door. Sean shrugged awkwardly, dispelled a nervous laugh, then left rapidly to bed. Though he desperately wanted to make sure she was okay, allowing a scene of affection to be displayed publically was likely to earn him a broken nose. Plus, he thought, Rachel was strong, probably the strongest in the team and wouldn’t need his help.
Ten minutes later, Rachel stomped angrily into the bedroom. She slumped into bed without saying a word, turning away from him to face the doorway. After a few seconds of absolute silence she huffed, chucked the covers to the side, then turned back.
“Are you okay?” Sean asked.
“I’m fine. As fine as I could be in a snowy town stuck in the middle of nowhere with no heating, no good food and worst of all…”
Sean reached blindly for her hand. She found it.
“You heard them talking,” he said. “They need our help with something.”
“They didn’t tell us what they needed help with. We’re running blind here. Why couldn’t you have just waited for Adrian to come home?”
Sean shrugged. “You were there, you weren’t doing anything. Why not you?”
“You know why. And I’m not talking about the lack of coffee.”
He sighed, shuffling closer to her. There were a multitude of reasons not to choose Rachel for the mission, all of which the Ogrohad angrily recounted before they left, but Sean wanted her here. He argued with the Ogrohad on the subject of Rachel’s viability for missions. Naturally, he’d given up the argument. He didn’t want to upset the Creator. It was Rachel’s indifference that won him the fight to bring her along. Sean morosely predicted that this may end up being her last adventure in the multi-verse for a while. The plan was in its first few steps and he didn’t want it to stumble.
Now that he was their leader, he was overcome with a sense of futility and sinking. The new responsibilities vexed him, he wasn’t sure what kind of a man he was supposed to be. He was the newly appointed Captain of the ship and he didn’t have a bearing, he couldn’t read the stars, he didn’t know how to steer the damn thing and the crew was a particularly rowdy bunch prone to bouts of fighting and shooting. How was he expected to control it all?
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. If we’re good at anything it’s getting out of tight spots.”
“Have we really been doing this long enough to be good at something?”
“Well, yes, of course. A month is a long time when you think about it.”
“The Nephilim said we’d be stronger by now,” she moaned. “I’m still waiting for the day I can materialise coffee out of nothing.”
“I think it’s time for sleep.”
“You can sleep in this?”
She pointed at the filthy mattresses, half expecting a mangy rat to dart out from beneath the covers to echo her point.
“They’re not that bad,” said Sean. “I’ve slept in worse.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Alright, I haven’t. But it’s really not that bad.”
Rachel jumped from the mattress and paced irritably. Sensing her anxiety, Sean sought to neutralize it.
“Hey,” he said. “If you ever get a bladder infection, urine trouble.”
The unexpected pun shattered Rachel’s anger. She fought it at first but the edges of her lips twitched, curled, and then separated to allow a surge of uncontrollable laughter to pass. By the time the giggles dissipated she was in a far happier disposition. She silently cursed Sean’s innate aptitude for making her smile at the times she didn’t want to.
Her mind returned to the present, where a question demanded to be voiced.
“Why don’t the houses have windows?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Not really,” he said. “I mean, I have an idea, a guess, but I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Go for it.”
Leaping to his feet, Sean studied the blank wall, gliding his hand across it. There had never been a window there, nothing was covered up. The houses were built like this from their inception. He preserved a misgiving.
“You heard how Ragar spoke about this ‘Hormnes’ creature. They’re terrified of it, they truly believe it exists. And I believe them. The houses don’t have windows because the town is afraid of what they’ll see through them.”
“You think it’s real?” she enquired. “Isn’t this a typical, isolated small town belief, that there’s some kind of creature running about? Like werewolves or vampires or ghosts.”
Sean slowly turned to her.
“Yes, it’s a typical, isolated small town belief like werewolves or vampires or ghosts. And that should worry you.”
“Because they’re all real.”
The next morning Sean and Rachel, on empty stomachs and a sleepless night, were gracefully invited for breakfast. In the larder, Rachel took one look at the bowl of mushy yellow and without the slightest hint of poise, claimed the bathroom for the next twenty minutes. Sean, forever the adventurer, ate one spoonful. To his surprise, he enjoyed it immensely.
“What is this?” he gasped, shovelling more down his gullet.
Lily glided effortlessly to his side. Her sangfroid was immeasurable, her dignity infallible.
“It’s ground pig brains mixed with Ox urine,” she whispered.
Sean went rigid, his stomach thrashed violently. He glanced around the larder quickly, then to the kitchen, searching for a sink or a bucket to accommodate his stomach’s impending vacation. He couldn’t remember the last time he vomited over food. His stomach squealed. A few drips of mush rushed from the hanging spoon and returned to the larger, disgusting mass.
“Bluh…” he spluttered.
“It’s a delicacy here,” Lily continued. “Saved for the most important people.”
“Is it… is it…”
He coughed. He could swallow his pride with frightening ease. It didn’t matter all too much to him if he painted the larder a shade of yellow-green. This wasn’t his world, however, and he was compelled to observe and practice their customs. If Lily was telling the truth and this was indeed a rare delicacy lovingly crafted for VIPs, and since Rachel had abandoned him, he was obligated to rise above his delicate stomach and comply with the town’s traditions.
Painfully, he swallowed another bite. Lily’s smile inched wider. His stomach squealed again.
After Rachel returned from the toilet, the family announced the time was upon them for the town meeting. They collected their coats, which had been drying in front of the fireplace all night, and then ventured outside.
The first thing to catch Sean off-guard was the stinging, horrendous cold, carried madly into every nook by an inimical and furious wind. The second thing was the dainty impressions left in the snow; which thankfully stopped falling. There were scores of tracks leading to and from houses, all converging singularly on the town hall.
“Let’s go then,” said Ragar excitedly. “We’ve got a good day for it.”
Rachel looked around. Ragar was correct; despite the frosty chill and whipping gusts, the air was clear, the sun dimly shone, and a thrilling buzz generously wafted. As they walked to the town hall Sean glared inquisitively at the surrounding mountain walls. They reached indefinitely to the clouds, pointing malignantly at the heavens. The bowl was completely trapped by the towering mountain range. If the bowl was the palm of the valley’s hand, the mountains were its rickety, spiked fingers.
Now that the drifting snow was gone Sean noticed several tall pylons, only just bigger than the houses, dotted at specific points around the perimeter of the town like fence-posts. Each one emanated a red light from its tip that regularly faded in and out.
Before he could question what they were, the town hall’s metal doors swung open. Ragar urged him gently inside. Rachel noted the pylons too, questioning the validity of LEDs in a practically Amish culture.
The town hall was a gargantuan auditorium; Sean correctly guessing it was a former theatre. A slightly elevated stage was at the back, on which sat an occupied table filled with plates, jugs, and candelabras. Around its length were a group of seated elderly men, each one’s face barely visible behind raggedy, greying beards.
On the uneven floor three benches ran perpendicular, each one the length from the stage to the opposing wall and similarly garbed in catering utensils. Along all three sat the townspeople. They amassed at a number Sean wouldn’t have guessed given the small town’s atmosphere. Worse than that- every set of eyes settled suspiciously on the strangely clothed pair as though they’d recently indulged in a killing spree and this was to be their jury. Ragar shuffled ahead.
“These are the visitors!” he announced.
The gawking eyes didn’t falter at the declaration.
An elderly man sitting at the top table rose to his feet and spread out his arms.
“Welcome to the visitors!” he shouted. “Please take a seat.”
Ragar grabbed them by the hand and dragged them to the closest table, plonking them down on the uncomfortable wooden bench and then leaving with Lily and Ethel to the furthest table. While Rachel half-dangled off the edge of the bench, Sean sat beside a burly man who looked more suited for a war with Vikings than a town meeting. He growled softly as Sean awkwardly and apologetically tried to get comfortable.
The table was laid out in a simple form; a metal bowl between a broken knife and fork, a chipped wine glass each, and wicker baskets that Sean deduced to be sharing dishes were strewn carelessly along the length of each table. It was a humble affair. Given what food they’d already witnessed and the alarmingly menacing stares of the hostile populace this wasn’t going to turn into a lavish or spectacular day.
The elderly man’s voice boomed as he spoke, tinkling the glasses with every word. His shallow eyes and fatigued expression proposed a painful, challenging life lacking in joy or reward, a man who defined himself by his labours.
“Yes! Our visitors are most welcome here. Please join me in awarding them a round of applause.”
He started clapping. Begrudgingly, the rest of the town joined in. Sean registered the six robed, hooded figures standing ominously in the corner of the room. Unlike the rest of the town, they didn’t clap. They didn’t even move. For all Sean knew they could be dead.
Beside the hooded figures a collection of red containers and cords gathered dust. He felt that these should concern him, that there was something he was missing yet again, but the thought was pushed aside to concentrate on the matter at hand.
“You all know me,” the elderly man continued. “I am Gorin. Over the years our little town has had its problems, its issues. We’ve been nearly exterminated by the predators in the valley, five years ago a harsh winter descended and killed our crops, slaughtered a lot of our elderly and young. We’ve been through many trials together, we have stood as a proud people against the evil nature of our world.”
He slid down from the stage. The hooded figures stepped from the shadows in unison, walking head bowed to Gorin’s side in three pairs of two. They stood in wait at either side. Sean couldn’t see through the shade of their hoods.
“The worst thing of all, the worst thing we have ever faced together, is Hormnes.”
At the mention of Hormnes there was a communal shudder.
“This creature has plagued us for years. I remember when I was a child, when the sun’s beams cast an undying light on the valley, and Hormnes roamed the town’s outskirts. Able to cleave houses in two with a single swipe, able to eat men whole and swallow their souls. Hormnes is a terrible creature summoned from the deepest pit of hell to punish us. That’s what we believed. For years and years we believed that Hormnes was out divine judgement. Then, one day, everything changed.
“You all remember the day it changed. When the silver-eyed angels came for us.”
Sean’s heart froze. His fingers contracted.
“What’s he talking about?” Rachel whispered.
“I made a mistake…” he whispered back, eye wides with fear. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Gorin glared at the pair, pointing an accusing finger.
“The silver-eyed angels saved our lives, they halted the beast, kept it from attacking us. Without them we would all be dead. We are eternally indebted to them. They asked for nothing in return, they asked not for money, for resources, for soldiers. But they have returned to me with a request. We are honour bound to receive this request, to complete it. They have requested the vanquishing of their enemies.”
He pulled back the hoods of the two front figures. Rachel gasped, leaping from the bench. Sean followed her, brandishing his body as her protection. A metal bolt was shoved between the handles of the front doors.
Sean was panicking. His mind was racing, his heart was thumping. He looked to the windows. That was their only way out. Rachel couldn’t avert her gaze from the two figures’ white masks.
“Hey!” Sean shouted. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with here. They’re from the Pantheon, they’re evil!”
“The silver-eyed angels protected us from our devil. They shielded us, healed us, kept us alive. We will pay back our debt with your lives.”
The second pair of hoods were thrown back, revealing two more white masks. Sean gently nudged Rachel backwards. The further away they were from the Pantheon, the better. He had to keep her safe.
He’d made a mistake- a terrifying error. He walked straight into a trap, dazzled by the reflective snow, stunned by the people, and now Rachel was in danger. The Ogrohad didn’t expect a trap, the Nephilim hadn’t suggested it. How was he supposed to predict this?
They had to get to the windows, he thought. There were no other choices, no matter how much it hurt, they’d have to go through a window.
“Please,” he said. “You don’t understand what they are. They’re trying to kill everything. They must have had a reason to let you live, you must have a resource, you have something they need or they want. They want everything to end and you’re about to help them. Please, please don’t do this.”
The masked figures stretched. The rest of the town watched in a curious silence. They were waiting for the fight to begin. Rachel grabbed the handle of the gun she kept concealed in her jacket pocket. Knowing she was readying for a battle, Sean mirrored her.
Gorin took a step back, holding onto the last pair of hoods.
“You will not stop us. You will not escape from this place. You cannot run from the angels’ justice. They are here for your blood and they will not leave until they get what they came for. This is your end, devils.”
The last two hoods whipped back. Sean gracefully retrieved his gun and aimed directly at Gorin’s forehead. Rachel ducked beside him, staring at the closest Pantheon member down the sights of her gun. Sean’s head was a chaotic mess of disjointed thoughts and debilitating terror. He wasn’t prepared for this; he didn’t know a way out. He should’ve figured this out, he should’ve always had an escape plan. They couldn’t fight their way out, they couldn’t mow down innocent people like rats. A fight in such an enclosed space would have drastic casualties. The townspeople didn’t budge an inch, they didn’t blink, their stares never withered. He was wheezing, fraught, losing it, little more than a disordered splat on the pavement, desperate for a way out, for someone to save them.
Then he realised luck was on his side.
The last two uncovered hoods revealed only one white mask.
Turning around in shock at the long, brown haired woman smirking smugly, a stunned Gorin mumbled inaudibly. Grabbing him by his temples, she jerked him close, then threw her head into his path and knocked him out cold.
Sean took this as his signal to fire. Five shots burned their way through the Pantheon members, who dodged back to juke the incoming fire then rolled to put out the resulting flames. There was a sudden and guttural uproar from the townspeople. Grabbing Sean, Rachel leaped the bench and towed him to Emily.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Picking Gorin from the floor and heaving him over her shoulder, Emily winked.
“The Ogrohad thought it might be a trap,” she said calmly. “It sent us to keep you safe.”
As the townspeople uniformly vacated their seats and turned their minds to a mob mentality, Sean circled Rachel, pointing his gun offensively. It was all for show, of course, as he would have to be possessed to kill a town of innocent people. Gorin was the exception; the one bad apple of the bunch. They may have been willing to protect their own but they weren’t evil. They didn’t deserve to die.
The town encroached slowly, flourishing their forks and knives as weapons. Rachel glanced at the recovering Pantheon members as they too began to advance. They were locked in, ensnared, and the approaching circle of incensed and armed townspeople left few gaps for escape. Sean sensed a foreboding moment; one in which he’d have to utilise skills he wasn’t sure he could use. The talent required to properly employ energy, in the same way as the Nephilim, was astronomically high and the mental focus couldn’t be broken for a second. Thus far he’d managed feeble puffs of energy with enough force to knock over a particularly unstable house of cards. He didn’t want to fight, he wanted to run.
Only the shuffling, muffled footsteps of the encircling townspeople permeated the silence.
From the front doors an explosion erupted, sending chunks of wood, plaster, metal and solid concrete crashing through the hall. The resulting cacophony was a sonic assault almost as enervating as the initial blast. As the explosion recklessly lobbed debris, Sean, in a moment of panic and instinct, called on his energy reserve and constructed a protective shield around Rachel. At exactly the same time, Emily constructed her own barrier.
The debris froze, floating harmlessly as though gravity had simply retrieved its hat and coat and walked right out the door. It was suspended, caught between thin air and an extensive shield. Sean turned to Emily, ignoring the shocked gasps of the townspeople who were mesmerised by the scene, with a confused expression.
“What’s… what’s happening right now?” he asked.
“Uh…” she mumbled, shrugging. “I wish I knew.”
In the new, jagged opening at the front of the hall a silhouette, marked by dust and dark against the white snow, stood proudly. It stepped into the hall, gun drawn and aimed at the Pantheon members. The five of them retreated, arms raised defensively. The figure turned to Sean.
“Yes, we’re fine. You almost killed us.”
“But I didn’t.”
“You almost killed us.”
“The fact you can complain means it’s not as bad as you think.”
Jack motioned to the cracked hole. Rachel charged straight out, extending a middle finger to the townspeople as she left. Sean followed close behind. Emily curtsied sardonically towards the frightened Pantheon members while Jack scowled. With Gorin on Emily’s shoulder, they tailed Sean and Rachel as they sprinted to the edge of town.
Their boots dug into the snow as they moved. The town was silent; clearly every member of the town was in attendance in the hall. Sean couldn’t help but feel he’d missed something else important; a glaring detail he should’ve noticed. He didn’t have time to dwell on this however, there were more questions demanding to be asked.
“The Ogrohad thought this might be a trap,” he said angrily. “But didn’t tell us that?”
“You know what It’s like,” said Emily.
“I didn’t expect It to use us as bait. Why are we taking him?”
He pointed to an unconscious Gorin.
“What kind of information?”
“I really wish I knew.”
Sean stopped suddenly, nearly walking straight into a pylon. Peering up the length he registered the advanced wiring and technology completely inconsistent with the bucolic and out-dated surroundings. This was the work of the Pantheon. Another pylon pierced through the snow blanket thirty yards east. Purposefully and curiously, he soaked in more of the setting. Across the skin of the closest mountain range were terribly deep and profuse markings as though caused by gouging claws. Each one split the rock definitively and viciously.
“Hormnes,” he whispered.
Studying the pylon intently, he didn’t notice the conversation taking place a few feet away.
“It really did use us as bait, didn’t It?” said Rachel.
Emily placed Gorin down in the snow, wrapping her robes tighter.
“Basically. Looks like it anyway. It could’ve been worse though, at least you didn’t die.”
“But how did Gorin contact us? How did he manage all of this?”
“I don’t know,” Emily admitted. “It’s all a little strange.”
Jack was too busy inspecting his gun to notice another had joined their ranks. Rachel groaned, pointing lethargically at the hatted figure, the glassy eyes, and the sickening smile. At the sight of it, Emily scowled and nudged Jack,
“Sean!” Rachel shouted.
He turned on his heels. The figure, unperturbed by the snow, tipped his hat as a greeting. He was, as always, serenely calm and tranquil, as unflappable and cool as a glacier in an arctic storm. Sean sighed. Not him…
“What do you want?” he asked indignantly.
Ygssrettfurr twirled his cane.
“There’s really no need to be so moody. I came here to help you.”
“You never help,” Jack spat.
Ygssrettfurr was a peculiar man- if he could be called such- that materialised whenever and wherever he pleased. Regardless of the ‘verse or the situation he was permanently clothed in an expensive-looking black suit from which dangled a broken pocket watch, a red neck-tie, a perfectly fitted bowler’s cap, thick-rimmed oval-lensed glasses that popped his eyes to bug-status, and most importantly; a thick and heavy grin that never faded. He was by all accounts an elderly man and had been aptly described in the past as Sigmund Freud’s long lost twin brother. The cane, Sean thought, was for show.
The Ogrohad spoke little of the man, the Nephilim less so. Everyone in the know seemed to be afraid of him on some level. Admittedly, he had a proclivity for nipping in and out of existence and this particular detail frightened Sean the most. He could appear at any point, anywhere. He wasn’t bound by the same restrictions as the rest of creation. A being like that, Sean thought, deserved the fear it sowed.
“I can help,” he said. His voice was smooth and suave; ageless yet wise. “If you’d like me to help, that is.”
“Fine, help us,” Jack challenged.
“Sean is on to something- something very important. It might make the difference between living and dying.”
“Do you want to tell us what he’s thinking and why it’s important?” Emily asked.
“No, not really. But I suggest you remember that not only was I here-here, I was here. In a little while that’s going to make a big impact on the outcome of this little adventure.”
A sudden gust of wind broke line of sight; vision obscured by a conjured blizzard. When the snow settled Ygssrettfurr was gone. Sean wasn’t surprised.
“What was he talking about?” he quizzed. “Here-here and… here?”
“He’s referring to the ‘verse,” Emily guessed. “When he says ‘here’ he means this specific ‘verse. When he says ‘here-here’ he means his place within it.”
Sean rubbed his eyes. It wasn’t even the afternoon yet he’d already faced the Pantheon for the first time, been almost lynched by an angry mob, insulted by a mysterious wack-job that spoke fluent gibberish, and…
He saved Rachel. His heart skipped.
“Wait… I used energy back there,” he said. “Like, I actually used it properly.”
“Almost properly,” said Emily, checking on Gorin. “You extended the shield a little too far. That’s why the rubble didn’t hit anyone.”
“At least I saved those people.”
“I suppose you did. I suppose you saved all those people determined to kill us with a bunch of rusty knives and forks.”
Jack kicked Gorin in the side. “Can we wake him up?”
“And ask him what?”
“Whatever we’re supposed to ask him.”
“We don’t know what we’re supposed to ask him. You can’t ask a question if you don’t know the question.”
Rachel cracked her knuckles. “You should see the politicians in our home ‘verse.”
Jack crouched, slapping Gorin in the face. The elderly man spluttered awake. As his hazy eyes focused on the confusing shapes around him, he gasped in alarm and tried to scuttle away. Jack placed his boot down on his legs.
“Don’t go anywhere.”
Emily glided to Gorin’s side, gaining his immediate attention. There were certain techniques employed by Jack and Emily to extract the necessary information from a subject. They didn’t need mind controlling powers or trance-inducing substances, all they needed was a touch of ingenuity. Over the past month these techniques had been refined. Jack was especially good at the interrogation; having served his ‘verse as a former soldier he wasn’t afraid to push a subject to breaking point.
Looking into Gorin’s old eyes and seeing the pains of his life, Emily decided on a softer approach.
“Gorin, what has the Pantheon promised you?”
“Who are you?” he shouted. “Who are you people?!”
“It’s a good question and I’ll get to that eventually. But I need you to answer my questions, Gorin. You’d be helping us out a lot.”
Gorin scowled and spit.
“I’m not telling you anything! The Pantheon are the angels that delivered us from evil, saved us from absolute destruction, protected us from the beast. They asked for you and I delivered. You’re all nothing but a stain, a blemish, on the face of God’s world, nothing but a bunch of deranged killers!”
Well, he had his chance, she thought.
“All yours, Jack.”
The soldier eyed the old man eagerly. There was a new technique he’d been dying to test for a while. He wondered how the curmudgeonly old bugger would take to it. He knelt down in the snow.
“Do you know where the lower intestine is?” he asked.
Gorin’s expression changed instantly from anger to dread. The ominous question was answered by resounding silence.
“It’s right here,” he said, pointing to Gorin’s abdomen. The old man squirmed.
“You can’t scare me. I’m not afraid to die for the cause of angels.”
From his inside pocket Jack withdrew a short knife, small enough to be a concealed weapon, sharp enough to perforate ghosts.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said. “I’m not that kind of person. But there is something you might not be aware of, something your angels didn’t tell you about.”
The knife sunk into Jack’s abdomen with a squelch. Gorin watched in horror as he moved the sunken blade in a straight line from left to right. Blood poured out from the gaping wound. For added effect Jack kept his gaze locked on Gorin’s eyes. He wondered what the old man was thinking; what logic he’d be applying to the situation, if any.
He jerked the blade free from the flagrant and egregious slice. The human mind, when under massive amounts of duress, can do one of two things: completely shut down and explain the whole thing as a dream or perform mental acrobatics to contain, evaluate and rationalise the event. Gorin’s mind succumbed to the latter, expecting the soldier to drop dead within the next few seconds.
With his right hand Jack reached down to the open wound and peeled the first layer of skin back. Gorin gagged as the cut was separated, exposing visceral details and gory entrails that you don’t anticipate to witness from a living and breathing man. Jack’s hand disappeared into the gap, beckoning a surge of blood and mucus to escape. Gorin gagged again.
The smell travelled outwards like a rippling wave, claiming all nostrils as its prey. The snow was stained crimson, the leaking blood obstinately swarming the ground. Jack grunted as his fist vanished into the cavity. He grabbed the first solid object he found and heaved. From the wound appeared a soft, round gelatinous blob. Recoiling in horror, Gorin tried to run. With his free hand Jack grasped his foot and kept him immobile.
“Do you understand what you’re up against now?” he taunted.
Gorin was in outright shock, blubbering incomprehensibly and struggling against his captor. It was bad enough to watch a man stab himself with a knife, open a horrible gash, stick his hand into it and withdraw an organ, but to then listen to that same man talk as though nothing was out of the ordinary was excessively anomalous.
“Please…” he sobbed. “Please let me go! I don’t know what you want!”
“I want to know why the Pantheon kept you alive. Why did they save you?”
“I don’t know, I swear I don’t know!”
“There has to be a reason,” Jack continued, toying with the organ. “They don’t let anyone live unless they need them for some reason. Do you have any valuable resources? Secrets? Good soldiers?”
“No, nothing like that! Please… please let me go!”
Jack carelessly shoved the organ back into place. A few moments later blood stopped streaming from the wound, followed by an immediate and automatic re-sealing of the gash. He shuddered as the sinewy flesh knotted and tied. After a minute had passed he appeared completely healthy once more; and if not for the copious layer of blood on the snow and covering his clothes, it would be unreasonable to assume anything horrifically and mentally scarring had occurred.
“There has to be a reason,” said Jack. “What exactly did they say to you?”
Gorin, somewhat relieved the wound was gone but reeling from the sudden lack of one, urgently searched his mind.
“They said we were required, that we were needed for their plan. The whole town was in agreement, that we owed the angels for saving us. We had to do what they told us.”
“So they told you to invite us,” Emily piped up. “I’ll get to that problem in a minute but why did they want us here? They should’ve known a trap like that wasn’t going to work.”
“It almost did,” grumbled Rachel.
“They said they had a plan,” Gorin continued. “They… the town…”
Sean glanced over the town, gasping in disbelief as across the snow, passing the pylons, marched a large, huddled troop of red-clothed soldiers. They stood out against the white like sharks among catfish. This was worse than he thought. Not only were the Pantheon here they were amassing for an attack. The Red Regime complicated everything. The Pantheon members were controllers, commanders, they weren’t much in the way of fighters; but the Red Regime was an expendable force. The Pantheon could throw hundreds onto a battlefield to waste the enemies’ bullets and then launch another wave to finish the battle. Like a bloodied snake they overcame the town, maintaining a wide arch to cover as much ground as possible. They settled. Within seconds the entire town was under their control. Thankfully, Sean thought, they were all human as far as he could see- there weren’t any of stranger creatures known to plunder the dregs of the multi-verse.
“Shit,” he hissed.
The rest of the team followed his gaze, similarly expressing displeasure in muffled curses. There were only four of them against what Sean estimated to be a platoon of fifty.
“This just got a lot worse,” Rachel moaned.
“The soldiers are here,” Gorin cackled, to everyone’s surprise. “The soldiers are coming. The soldiers are here. That means the second part of the plan is underway.”
“What’s the second part?” Jack questioned.
Gorin grinned crassly.
“I told you our entire town was willing to give our lives for sake of the angels. We’re ready… we’re ready to give them.”
Sean’s mind vomited the pertinent information; the wires and metal containers bundled in the corner of the town hall, superficially innocuous, concealed a deeper, distressing significance. With the town radiating an Amish charm, these wires and boxes, technology beyond the immediate environ, should’ve raised red flags.
He was distraught, breathless, figuring the whole epiphany out. It was stretched, defined, gauged, and finally accepted.
“I made a mistake…” he said under his breath. “Another one. I made another mistake.”
“Sean, what is it?” asked Rachel.
“I have to go.”
Sean peered at the hostile town, which was crawling with soldiers. He’d be lucky to get in there alive, let alone survive.
“I have to go do something,” he announced. “I made a mistake and I have to fix it. I know what he’s talking about.”
He moved to leave. Rachel grabbed him by the arm.
“What are you doing?” she seethed. “If you go in there you’ll die!”
“I’ve been stupid, I walked us into a trap and now other people might die. I can’t let that happen.”
Rachel’s grip didn’t slacken.
“I can’t let you go in there, it’s suicide. They’ll shoot you down like you’re nothing.”
“We can’t all go in, it’s too risky. If it’s only me I can be stealthy and there’s no point in putting us all in danger. I need to do this, Rachel, I can’t let my mistake cost someone their life.”
From the determined glaze in his eyes, she realised there was no stopping him. He was going to do this regardless of the dangers.
“Fine,” she muttered. “But you better come back alive!”
“How would I come back dead?”
“By not coming back alive.”
Sean moved to leave again. Jack coughed to gain his attention.
“Uh… chief? What do you want us to do?”
Looking at the scene; the blood-soaked snow, the petrified and cackling old man, Emily and Jack waiting tolerantly for an order, a sudden sting of responsibility struck. He was in charge. He didn’t feel in charge, he didn’t feel like a leader or the boss. He hardly knew what he was doing, how could he give orders?
“Whatever you want…” he said, gawkily shrugging.
He toppled down the snowy hill, rolling at the bottom, and then snuck his way to the nearest building. Rachel nervously watched him leave, stifling the worry churning her stomach. She longed for him to stay safe, for the Ogrohad to influence the ‘verse in his favour, for the Nephilim or the Vanguard to rush to his aid, but an intrinsic and unavoidable dread told her none of these would come to pass.
Jack huffed, Emily raised an eyebrow.
“He’s not much of a leader, is he?” said Jack.
“You didn’t want to be it,” Emily pointed out. “He just needs some time to adjust and figure it out.”
“Time isn’t really on our side.”
“We’ve got a while yet, I wouldn’t worry.”
She turned her attention to the pylon, taking it upon herself to study the Pantheon’s work. Jack kept Gorin from running away. He wasn’t sure where the old man could run to, if there was a crevice in the valley wall or a secret escape route leading to the outer lands, but with the former soldier as a guard he would never reach it.
Blasts of wind brushed through the valley, collecting and carrying bundles of snow from the enclosing plains to the bowl and sprinkled the deposits generously. As the wind assailed her, Rachel stared into the town like a wife on a peer awaiting the return of her sea-legged husband, yearning for a miracle.
His back to the wall, Sean held his breath. On his left a pair of soldiers marched across the opening between the houses. Both were heavily armed with enough guns to take down a metropolis single handed. They sauntered by, not noticing the sweaty man hugging the wall of a house. Stealth was his preferred method of approaching missions; when you’re up against an endless army of tenacious and irreverent, heavily armed militants with a precise craving for your blood, you didn’t have a choice. However, as the snow continued to tumble down and the air chilled, with it bringing cogent blustery spells, stealth was increasingly difficult to achieve. With each crunching footstep Sean swore he was about to be discovered.
Following the contour of the house, he poked out his head and examined the situation. Immediately he snapped back to cover like a turtle returning to the safety of its shell. Soldiers were swarming everywhere; his earlier estimate of fifty a defunct relic of a hopeful mind. They were scanning the houses, searching the nearby areas, breaking down doors and smashing windows, all for the purpose of detecting the team.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he whispered.
Catching the town hall in the corner of his eye he realised he’d have to make it across the street and get through the front doors completely unnoticed. A hurried look down both ends of the elementary road established this to be impossible.
How am I supposed to do this?
There was ruffling beside him. Instinctively he fumbled for his gun. The tip of a cane on the palm of his hand urged him to stop, as well as a gesture for silence from the extended grin of Ygssrettfurr.
“How goes the fight?” he asked.
Sean’s heart fluttered. He was ready to run, hide, and escape, not to engage in a conversation he wouldn’t understand.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he whispered.
“What I always do.”
“Appear out of nowhere and generally be an annoyance?”
“You’re finally learning.”
Sean checked on the situation. The soldiers were continuing their ransack of the town; dragging people’s entire lives from their homes and into the snow covered streets, and then indulged in wanton destruction. He breathed a sigh of relief on reminding himself there weren’t any bodies. Then he was reminded of the whole reason he was sneaking into the town hall.
“Is there a real reason you’re here? You’ve already given us your nonsense for the day.”
“How are you planning to get into the town hall?” he asked.
“How do you know that’s where I’m going?”
Ygssrettfurr’s smirk beamed a shade brighter. What little Sean did know about the man was that he was frighteningly entertained by the naiveté of others, which was one of the many reasons the team didn’t enjoy his undependable company.
“You know, if you could go invisible your job would be considerably easier.”
“I can’t go invisible… can I? I didn’t think that was possible.”
“I imagine a skill like that would be a benefit to your longevity, don’t you?”
“Are you telling me I can go invisible?” Sean pressed.
“All I’m telling you is that it would be a handy skill to learn- like learning how to swim before you go out to sea.”
“How can you make jokes and treat this like it’s nothing?” Sean hissed.
“I’ve been around for a long time. There will come a day when all of this will be second nature to you, when staring down the barrel of a gun won’t worry you, and you’ll start making jokes as well. It’s bound to happen, provided you live long enough. There will also come a day when you won’t need me.”
“I hope that day comes soon,” Sean grumbled. “Are you going to help me or not?”
Ygssrettfurr stroked his beard and twirled his cane. Sean stuck out his hand to stop the twirling, afraid it would bounce off the wooden buildings and like a deafening klaxon reveal to the soldiers their position, but in typical Ygssrettfurr fashion the cane passed intangibly through the wood like a knife through a cloud.
“I’ll always help you out,” he said.
“Then why haven’t you been helping us? You can go anywhere you want, see anything you want, do anything you want, but you’re obsessed with making us feel like idiots. You don’t help us, you just spout random nonsense.”
“Are you sure? I could’ve sworn I’ve helped.”
Sean very nearly screamed at him, his patience was already running thin and he wasn’t sure how much more of Ygssrettfurr’s arcane ramblings he could stand without losing it.
“Help me- now.”
“Do you really think it’s that easy?” he mocked. “There’s no point in me telling you the answer to everything; as I said, there will come a day when you won’t need me at all. Answer me this: why wouldn’t you need invisibility in this situation?”
“What?!” Sean raged quietly. “You’re giving me riddles?! Help me!”
“Answer the question.”
He checked on the soldiers, who had abandoned their destructive leanings and were now patrolling the area in a sweeping formation. With the wide berth they had formed it wouldn’t take long to discover him. He observed the distance separating him from the town hall. It would take time to cross- time he didn’t have with the soldiers so close by.
“I could jump it,” he thought out loud.
“That doesn’t really negate the use of invisibility, does it?” argued Ygssrettfurr. “You would be telegraphing your presence to every soldier in a two mile radius.”
Sean cursed and searched the hidden details in his mind. He was too worried about the approaching soldiers a heartbeat away to focus on anything solid.
“If I could… I don’t know, I don’t know. If I could move fast enough, if I could teleport, if I could move the town hall closer to me, I could get there.”
Ygssrettfurr pressed his cane against Sean’s forehead.
“Now you’re getting somewhere. If only you could be fast enough to travel the distance. I reckon you’d have to be as quick as a blink.”
Sean, believing this to be as subtle as a train crashing through his front window, wacked the cane aside.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “The Ogrohad said I wasn’t ready.”
“Up until now you’ve had no reason to be. Do you remember what I told you before?”
He thought for a moment.
“Don’t punch a Grieced in the stomach?”
“If you want to walk on lava you should wear concrete blocks?”
“If the Ogrohad’s annoying me I should call it Ogro? Or do you mean when you told me that it’s important you’re not only here-here, you’re also here?”
Ygssrettfurr chuckled lightly.
“This world, the one with the Ogrohad, the one with me, the one that you and your team walked into not too long ago, is new to you; it’s a fresh place for you to stretch your legs. But it’s also dangerous. There was a man in your home ‘verse, I recall, named Charles Darwin. He inspired the phrase ‘only the strong will survive’. Most of your home ‘verse took this to mean that they should be at their physical peak, that the physically powerful will dominate the weak. That’s not what he meant. The strongest species is the most adaptable. If you want to survive this new world you will have to adapt. You see what you have to become to fight the Pantheon, to defeat Lilith. This is the moment you must choose to become that. Adapt or die.”
Sean looked at the town hall. He’d barely managed to construct a barrier around Rachel- and he assumed even that was due to stress and panic. Catching a flash of red in his peripheral vision, he was reminded he was panicking once more. The ability to travel short distances in a blur of motion, known colloquially as a ‘blink’, was a talent stressed to the team as vital to their continued survival. Thus far none had managed to properly execute one. The Vanguard explained it to them as like creating a thin fissure in the fabric of space that swallows the body then spits you out when you’re ready to get off the ride. Sean couldn’t make sense of it and Emily’s explanations hadn’t exposed the truth at all.
He could hear the crunch of the soldiers’ boots in the snow a few feet away. Laboured was his breath, dazed was his mind.
“In the event,” Ygssrettfurr added, “that this proves successful and you complete the blink, please keep in mind everything that I’ve said today. There’s a lot hanging on it.”
Sean turned to argue but the cryptic-articulator was gone. Focusing his attention back on the town hall, he steadied his breathing, calmed his heart, and cleared his mind. It was a now or never moment. It would take only a few more seconds for the soldiers to walk by and discover him. Somehow, against his own will and fears, he was going to have to blink.
A few seconds passed.
On the other side of the front doors, a stunned and dazed Sean tried to bring reality back into order. It was only for a brief second, and to an outside observer would have appeared to be nothing more than a confused man stumbling, but in that brief moment Sean witnessed a split in reality. Orbiting around him like dainty planets were transcendent orbicular beacons; pulsating blue and red, then switching to yellow and green, before ultimately touching upon the entire spectrum of colour. The effulgent coruscations blinked and revolved, enlightening the hall in brilliant swathes of dancing colours. Sean stood in the centre in awe-struck glory, yearning to reach into the twirling display and pluck from it a lucent souvenir. By the time his hand moved to accept a radiant gift from the transient fissure, dull and tenebrous reality reaffirmed. He blinked. The empty, freezing grey hall sullenly greeted him.
The benches were gone, the tables absent, leaving the grimy, dirt-marred floor in its wake. He glanced around, asserting he was indeed back in reality. His gaze gradually slowed, settling distressingly on the huddled group of people at the back wall.
Their faces were deathly white, their eyes alight with pure terror. The singular sign they were alive was the condensation they presented on respiring. Around their entirety like an entrapping harness was a thick, black tubular wire topped at both ends by pale, pronged sockets. Following the wire, Sean’s gaze caught the red metal canisters propped against the wall. He didn’t dwell on their purpose.
The wire hung, unconnected, in the hands of a young girl at the front of the group, her eyes red from crying. Sean cautiously stepped forward.
“Ethel, what are you doing?”
She yanked the cords closer, supressing a sob, quavering hysterically. Sean tried to stay calm. The worst thing he could do was upset her any further. Ragar placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Sean, you should go,” she sniffed.
“Ethel, you need to listen to me,” he said calmly. “The Pantheon have this way of thinking, that everything is disposable, that life is a resource and not a gift. That’s why they saved you from Hormnes, they needed you to do this.”
“Sean… please, just go.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
He glanced at the crowd and spotted young children at the back, no older than five or six. The entire town was here, their heads bowed, waiting for Ethel to connect the cords.
“Ethel, don’t let the Pantheon win,” he continued. “They’re evil, they’re not angels, they’re not here to save you. Put that thing down.”
She couldn’t hold back anymore; the tears like a babbling brook poured openly.
“I… you have to… you have to go,” she sobbed.
Sean could sense her pain like an echo, reverberating incessantly and rocking his core to pieces.
“Ethel, if you connect those two wires, you know that you’ll kill your entire town? All of your loved ones, your friends, everybody. Do you really want to be responsible for that?”
“I have to… I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice. You can choose to put this whole thing behind you, ignore the Pantheon-whatever they’ve told you it’s not true.”
He could see her resolve faltering. She didn’t want to do this, he knew it. But Ragar whispered in her ear; an unintelligible muttering that didn’t control the weeping but did trigger a noticeable reaction. Ethel shook her head.
“We have to do this for the angels,” she said. “We die for the cause.”
Sean took a step closer, she jerked the cords inches from touching.
“You don’t have to die at all!” he said. “I made a mistake, I walked in here and I signed your death warrants, but I’m here to fix it. I can save you, let me save you! Nobody has to die!”
Ethel quivered again. Sean wasn’t going anywhere; if soldiers came in he’d kill them, if Jack walked in he’d silence him. This was his mistake. This was part of the trap. If he hadn’t come running thoughtlessly here the town would be safe, the people would endure. This was his fault.
“You told me,” he added, “that you wanted to visit another planet, see another world, meet other people, live a new and better life. If you let me save you, I can do that, I can show you the truth of reality. But you have to let me save you! Please, please, please let me help you!”
Ethel, weeping and trembling, broke down.
“They won’t let you take me,” she sobbed. “I can’t go anywhere with you. This is our end, the angels demand it.”
“No, no, no, don’t say that. Don’t say it! I can help you, I can save you! Let me save you!”
“You can’t save the damned.”
She merged the sockets.
There was a blinding blaze of light and a thunderous explosion. Sean was thrown rearwards through the air. He hit glass. He hit snow.
As his senses returned, woozily and fuzzily, the outline of a ruptured window came into view. Tortuous columns of black smoke escaped through the fragmented glass. The cold smothered his skin.
He looked around- no soldiers. He looked to the sky- emptiness. As he lay in the cold, and as the snowfall drifted, he was sucked inevitably into a chasm of regret and helplessness. This time his mistake, his judgement, proved fatal, he alone was responsible for the deaths of the town. Ethel, a bright young girl with a positive future, had blown herself to pieces at the bequest of the Pantheon and he was powerless to stop it. This was his fault; this sin was a stain on his soul. His inability to suitably adapt, to utilise power when all else was futile, was how his failure would be remembered. The blood on his hands was a poignant reminder that the future proposed a darker, more treacherous course. Adapt or die.
Gorin winced as a third snowball smashed into his nose. He shivered as blocks of snow snuck down his clothes, slid down his back, and unremittingly chilled his form. From the previous snowballs his face terribly ached. Trying to wriggle free was pointless, Jack had him locked with his arms immobile. Rachel collected another pile of snow and started to form a fourth ball.
“How many points do I have now?” she asked.
“Two hundred,” said Jack. “You’ve still got another hundred to go to beat me.”
She condensed the snow into a taut sphere and aimed. Another one hundred points was a challenge; the face garnered fifty, the torso twenty, and the lower body sixty. This was her last throw; she needed to hit a very specific place to win.
To Gorin’s dismay, the fourth missile fired at an incredible velocity and plunged to a splint in any male’s armour. He buckled over. Rachel cried out in triumph, Jack groaned disappointedly in defeat.
“Rematch?” he insisted.
“Why would I? I won.”
“Best of ten?”
Rachel considered it.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Why would I risk the whole game?”
“I play to win… and I won. I don’t have to play anymore.”
Jack grunted, tossing Gorin aside. The old man sniffled as he hit the snow. Emily glanced around.
“You know, there’s no reason to treat him like that,” she said, still examining the pylon. “He did what he felt was right for the town, for the survival of his people. You can’t blame him for the side he chose, he didn’t know the Pantheon were evil. All he knew was that they saved him and his town from a monster.”
“We don’t even know if this Hormnes is real,” argued Jack. “And if it is, it might’ve been the Pantheon that brought it here.”
Ready to debate the point, Emily rescinded. The possibility for Hormnes to be a purely Pantheon creation, either fabricated to reflect the specific fears of the town or grabbed from a neighbouring ‘verse, was significantly large. It wouldn’t be the first time the Pantheon capitalised on the endless variables of the multi-verse to further their cause. But why, she thought, would this town be important to them? Why here of all places?
“Oh…” exclaimed Jack. “Did I just win?”
“No, you didn’t,” she said shortly.
“Are you sure? It definitely sounded like I won. You didn’t argue back, that usually means I won.”
“Keep your competitiveness for Rachel, you’re going to need it.”
A snowball collided with the side of his face. Rachel smirked. Gorin stirred.
He was without a doubt regretting his choice to side with the Pantheon. During Sean’s absence the rest of these strange people had enlightened him on the Pantheon’s methods of religious propagation; concede or burn. It was true that in his previous meetings with the silver-eyed, white-masked angels there was a constant underlying tone of power and fear ruling the conversation from afar. The moral questions hadn’t urged him to reconsider his path. The angels saved the town; they saved its people. In return all they asked for was a contribution to an ensnaring trap. He wondered if the second part of the plan was completed yet. They were too far away from the town to hear the explosion or notice the rising, snaking smoke pilfering from the newly-tarnished town hall.
“Is that Sean?” Rachel asked, peering at a figure making its way up the hill.
They all turned their attentions to the figure; that they could now correctly identify as Sean. Rachel registered a coldness in his eyes, a resolute gleam of furious rage. This wasn’t the usual look he conveyed; this was a side she was yet to witness.
“Something’s wrong,” she gulped.
“How do you know?” asked Jack.
He silently withdrew the question as Sean came closer. The wild flare was undeniable. He looked primed to kill.
“Sean, what’s wrong?” Rachel asked him as he came into earshot.
He barged through them without saying a word, stomping over to Gorin, lifting the old man to his feet. The team watched in horror as Sean flung the man ten yards away, blinked to his side, and then lobbed a volley of fists into his upper body. Gorin defended feebly, inadvertently permitting several jabs to connect.
Emily regained her senses first, rushing to the scuffle and dragging Sean away. He didn’t go easily. In fact, as Emily hastily realised, he didn’t go at all. A well-timed blink took him from her grasp and back into the fight. Pulling him up, Sean growled ferociously at Gorin.
“WHY?!” he screamed. “All your family, all your friends, all those kids… they’re all dead! You…”
In a rage he chucked the old man again, who slid across the snow and frantically grasped for traction. Sean didn’t let up, lunging and kicking him in the stomach. Rachel dashed to the gap, Jack moved to hold and pin Sean down.
“Sean, what the hell are you doing?!” Rachel cried.
He couldn’t articulate, his thoughts were engrossed and unified on a sole purpose.
“The whole town is dead!” he declared finally. “They’re all dead! That’s what he was talking about before, the Pantheon’s trap was two-fold. They were going to blow us to pieces if they couldn’t get their hands on us, the townspeople included. And now they’re gone. They’re gone and that…”
He pointed to Gorin, his shaking finger a definitive sign that rage was in complete control. The old man said nothing.
“Sean, calm down,” said Emily. “I know you’re angry but the Ogrohad requested Gorin be taken back. He’s a prisoner of war, a person of interest, we can’t kill him.”
“I let them all down!” he shouted. “I let them die, it was my mistake, we shouldn’t have come here. I’m not letting that bastard walk into our home. He doesn’t deserve to live! I could’ve saved them, I could’ve done something- anything! But he stopped me, he let us take him out here so he could save his own skin. Do you feel any remorse at all? Do you feel anything?!”
Gorin shifted, wiping clean drips of liberated blood. Sean believed he was about to apologise but instead the old man extended his middle finger. Rachel reaffirmed her position.
“Get out of the way, Rachel,” Sean warned. “He deserves to die!”
“The Ogrohad wants him alive,” said Emily, joining Rachel. “We take him home, we interrogate him, we find out what he knows about the Pantheon and why they were so desperate to bring us here and then you can do whatever you want. But you can’t kill him right now, he might have information that can help us.”
Sean shook his head.
“He’s not going anywhere. I’m not letting him walk into our home. This ends now.”
“Sean, this isn’t how we do things. This isn’t what the Ogrohad taught us.”
He recoiled, authorising his fury to wildly flail. As he battled his wits, a dark object incongruous to its placid white backdrop caught his attention. It was far off and initially he believed it to be a particularly blackened boulder or a stray soldier but upon focusing he made out the outline of a suit, a bowler’s cap and the faint glimmer of a pocket watch catching light. Ygssrettfurr was watching them.
What does he want? And why isn’t he over here annoying us?
This was an indirect message for him; a statement that wasn’t to be uttered in the company of others. Ygssrettfurr had predicted that one day his presence and quasi-assistance would become obsolete, that as Sean and the rest of the team grew in strength their perspective on creation would slowly alter. Suddenly, he understood what the mysterious man was referring to.
“It’s about time,” Sean said, turning back to Emily, “we started making decisions for ourselves. The Ogrohad is our ultimate master but It doesn’t see what we see, it’s not here to make the call. If we’re to face Lilith, if we’re to win against the Pantheon, we have to start making the tough choices.”
Jack stepped forward and raised Gorin to his feet. The old man trembled.
“What are you suggesting?” he asked. “We kill him right now?”
“I’m suggesting we talk about it. We’re supposed to be a team. The Nephilim and the Ogrohad said we should be sharing everything with each other, that we’re going to have to trust and depend on each other. Well, team- I have a problem with this man. I want him dead.”
“Sean, he has information we might need,” said Emily. “If we kill him right now there are so many problems we’ll have to face.”
“Information can be gained in other ways. He clearly doesn’t know what the Pantheon are up to, what they’ve got planned for the future, all he knows is what’s happened in this ‘verse. That’s not enough to save his life.”
Emily reeled back dejectedly. She didn’t like where the conversation was going.
“We could put it to a vote,” Jack suggested.
“I’m not voting on someone’s life,” said Emily.
“Then I guess it’s the boss’ choice.”
Sean glared at the old man. His choices, and Sean’s mistakes, had damned the town to oblivion. An entire populace was gone- vanished- and repentance was a sentiment Gorin refused to convey, if he felt it at all. Any family or friends he had, which was sure to be many since he spent his whole life there, were tragically dead and not a motion of guilt or pity crossed him. At some point he had picked a side to root for without knowing the other. That side was the Pantheon. That was unforgiveable.
“He dies now,” Sean proclaimed.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Emily asked him.
“I’m positive. This man is guilty of trapping us, assisting the Pantheon, and helping Lilith win. By the law of the Creator and Its creations, he is a traitor.”
“He didn’t know that. How could he? Are you going to judge and execute him on the basis of a law he didn’t know?”
“Yes. He’s guilty.”
Sean raised his gun. Rachel and Emily shuffled out the way. Gorin stared at the weapon, transfixed by the sinister quandary. Now that he was facing his inevitable annihilation, the old man was pricked by shame and beset by penitence. Death has a way of motivating the scattered influences responsible for understanding and acceptance to coagulate and condense. This baby-faced assembly constituted Gorin’s splintered state of mind.
The gun was suspended in the air. Sean teased the trigger. He wasn’t sure he could take the shot. Would Gorin’s sins become his own?
Suddenly a fist appeared and collided painfully with Gorin’s cheek. The old man stumbled then collapsed, knocked out cold. Sean traced the arm.
“What did you do that for?” he asked Rachel.
She rubbed her knuckles.
“You’re not a murderer,” she said. “None of us are. We don’t go around killing people, no matter what they’ve done. You’re not that kind of man, Sean, you don’t kill people for a bad choice. I wouldn’t…”
She didn’t need to finish, he knew what she would say. It was the way she was; hard, detached, but not unkind. He’d forgotten how frighteningly capable she was and how well she knew his mind. She was right: he couldn’t kill Gorin. Enough blood was on his hands already.
“What’s next?” she asked, moving the topic on hastily.
Shaking his head free, he focused on a plan. Stealth was out of the question, there was no need for it anymore. Hesitantly and gradually a plan began to take shape. It wasn’t a particularly extensive or clever plan; in fact, calling it a plan at all would be lying, but the idea took purchase.
“We go in,” he said, “we take the soldiers by surprise, we shoot them down, then we go home.”
Jack puffed, staggered by the idea. Emily scoffed.
“Are you insane?” she questioned sincerely. “There’s four of us and tons of them.”
“So? We can’t run out of bullets.”
“They’re called bolts,” Jack corrected him. “Or blasts or energy blasts or energy projectiles.”
Sean turned to him.
“What’s the difference between a bullet and a bolt?”
“Well, when you’re talking about energy a bolt is-”
“Hey!” Emily interjected. “Let’s focus here. Is that the only plan you’ve got? We go running in and fight our way out?”
“Have you got another idea?”
Emily thought for a few moments. A blockade was raised at every angle she approached. They could sneak their way to a mirror and leave unnoticed but there was information to be gained via a battle. They could assess the Red Regime’s abilities first hand. Fighting their way out presented a tactical advantage- the issue was, of course, a tactical advantage would be gained if they survived, otherwise it was like trying to explain the byzantine details involved in cross-universe bleeds to a six month old baby… an exercise in futility.
“Fine, I guess this is the best way out.”
“Good,” said Sean. “Jack, you go in fast and heavy, run down the main street screaming and shooting anything that moves. Rachel, you and Emily run in behind him, use him as cover if you have to. I’ll stick to the sides and deal with reinforcements.”
“You’re giving orders now?” Jack quizzed.
“Get used to it. Oh, also, I can blink now. I don’t recommend it.”
“Wait, you managed to blink?” Emily said in shock.
“Yes! I’m just as surprised as- no, wait, let’s focus. Are we all ready?”
The weather cleared exponentially as Jack waited on the outer boundary of the town. He counted thirty guards in total with the very real possibility of more hiding indoors. Like most soldiers before a battle they conversed little, scanning the surrounding area for an invading force. This worried Jack; they were primed for a battle at a time they couldn’t possibly expect one to appear. Behind him, Emily nudged gently forward. He was to be the front line of offense and defence. As long as he wasn’t shot directly in the head he didn’t have a problem with this. The nanos would keep him alive.
“Are you going?” Emily whispered.
“In a second, give me a second.”
“To figure out what I’m doing.”
“It’s really easy, you run in, you point, you shoot. An idiot could do it.”
“You would give an idiot a gun?”
“You’ve managed well so far.”
Jack grumbled. Sneaking across the snow to the closest house and ducking was a prepared Sean. He waved to the team.
“That’s the signal,” Emily said.
“I know, I know,” Jack retorted. “I’m sizing up my opponents.”
“You know, figuring them out, finding a weak spot.”
Rachel slapped the back of his head.
“Their weak spot is that you have a gun that you’re very good at using and they have to be excellent shots to kill you. Stop being a baby and get in there!”
Initially, the speech failed to rouse the fighting spirit, but at the sound of Rachel’s knuckles cracking, it surged up and commanded his legs to sprint headfirst at the soldiers.
Like a train going off the rails he staggered arbitrarily through the street, tripping up and falling face-down in the snow. The soldiers, unsure of what they just witnessed, approached the prone figure. Jack lay in wait.
As soon as the soldiers were close enough, he pushed against the ground, launching into the air, and immediately began firing. Caught by surprise the soldiers didn’t have enough time to react, five falling from the initial volley. Blood and bone violently spurted forth.
On the ground, he dodged a barrage of bolts, ducking under the line of fire. Throwing a few punches he managed to gain some breathing space. The soldiers lunged forward hoping to pugnaciously beat him with the butts of their guns. He slid out the ensnaring circle, grabbing one unlucky soldier by the leg as he slid and then lobbed him like a doll through the face of the closest house.
Rachel and Emily sprung their follow-up attack, firing bombardments of flawlessly aimed bolts into the intense firefight. They made their attack seem effortless, mowing down more than they could count in the space of a few seconds. Their assistance allowed Jack an opening to assault the heavy forces exiting the houses.
Not wanting to be undone, Rachel rushed from her hiding spot and tackled the first soldier she found. They wrestled to the ground, Rachel gaining the upper hand. The soldier was a middle-aged, hard-faced man probably picked from his home ‘verse for being a heartless thug. She smirked.
Bringing the butt of the gun down hard, she cracked his nose, then again, shattering his skull. He screamed and writhed before finally exhaling his last breath. She turned to Jack, grinning tauntingly. He caught the look but not the sly soldier leaping to bring his knife down in her back.
Before he could fire a round there was a distinctive blue blur that whizzed by, collided with the airborne soldier and sent him fluently plummeting into the distance. Sean appeared at Rachel’s side, valiantly employing his own body as an added shield. A few bolts glanced his sides and cut his shoulders but Jack knew it would take more than a platoon of the Red Regime to take him down.
Dodging to avoid a large discharge of plasma, he caught sight of Emily running to his side. He threw out his arm, commanding the nanos to fortify it. As she grasped the outstretched arm, he swung, throwing her like a discus. She cut through the air and rammed the soldiers too slow to avoid her.
Back to back, Rachel and Sean defended themselves. Both unknowingly provided energy barriers for the other, ensuring their survival. As the bolts ricocheted and whizzed, slicing through the cold air, Sean noticed a large huddled group of soldiers exit one of the nearby houses.
“Should we be worried?!” Rachel shouted, noticing them as well.
“That’s a good question!”
As Emily shot down an advancing pair of soldiers, she glanced over her shoulder and saw a weakened, limping Jack trying to retreat from a fight. His clothes were ripped and bloodied, his skin torn and hanging from the bone, and though the nanos were doing their best to heal and treat the plethora of wounds they were overwhelmed. Rolling to his aid she quickly dispatched the nearest soldiers, giving him a hasty look over. To put it bluntly, he wasn’t doing well.
“Sean!” she shouted. “We shouldn’t be on the street anymore!”
From a house to her left spilled further reinforcements. These were fresh-faced soldiers, eager to battle and untouched by fatigue. The team were now crammed in the middle of two converging ranks of soldiers. They backed up as far as they could, backs against the wooden walls of a house. The Red Regime simply had too great a number to overcome and the wounds everyone on the team had agonisingly received were taking their toll.
With nowhere else to run, Sean lunged at the front door.
“Get in! Get in now!”
Emily pulled Jack through, avoiding the predictable lobby of shots, while Rachel was compelled to fire a last few blasts of her own. Sean seized her, grimacing as a bolt sliced through his ankle, and yanked her inside.
Stray bolts shattered the wooden door and then abruptly ceased. Panting and gasping, Sean checked the team. Emily was out of breath, leaning on the wall for support, a third of her clothes in shreds and her cheeks drenched in blood. Jack was admittedly the worst of all; wide and deep lacerations all over the body, bone peeking through flesh, barely clothed at all, and was sprawled out on the floor gasping for air. As Sean looked him over many of the more serious wounds had already started to heal. The nanos were mercifully functioning correctly. He winced as they fused the skin and bone back together. Rachel, likely due to Sean’s intuitive shielding, was the least injured of the team though she wasn’t untouched.
To his surprise, she grabbed him and pulled him close, throwing her arms around him. He returned the gesture.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispered softly. “I don’t know what I’d do…”
“It’s okay, we’re all okay.”
Sean went silent. He listened for the inescapable explosions; for the Red Regime to come bursting through the front door guns blazing. But there were no such explosions. The area outside the house was utterly mute. He was tempted to tease the door ajar and check that they had indeed escaped a heavily armed platoon and this wasn’t a figment of their imagination. He decided against it.
“Why… why aren’t they shooting?” Emily panted.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Let’s figure this place out and- wait, isn’t this Ragar’s house?”
Rachel glanced around.
“Yeah, it is… and…”
She did a double take. In the living room, sitting on one of the filthy couches, was Lily. Legs crossed and a flaunting a hassle-free face, she clearly wasn’t in the loop.
Initially, Sean was in shock. He believed every member of the town had been present at the mass-suicide. But now- now– there was an opportunity for him to redeem himself, for his mistakes to be lessened. Lily was alive, somehow and against all odds, she was alive. He could save someone after all.
“Lily!” he gasped. “Lily, you’re alive!”
His heart dropped upon realising he’d have to break the news. He swooned to her feet, emanating respect.
“Lily, I don’t know if you’ve heard but the town… the town made a bad decision. They’re gone. Ethel and Ragar… gone. But right now I want you to focus on me, I want you to focus on the fact that you’re alive. You can grieve afterwards, you can shed your tears but in this moment, you’re alive! And that’s amazing! I can’t bring Ragar or Ethel back, I can’t save them, but I can save you. I can get you out of here, I can show you the truth of reality and all the amazing, wondrous things that come with it. I couldn’t save your daughter but I can save you, Lily. All you have to do is trust me.”
His spirit rekindled, he turned to the recuperating team.
“Jack, go to the larder and make sure there’s no way the Red Regime can get in here. Emily, go the top of the stairs and focus on the front door. If it opens at all- start firing. Rachel, you’re with me, we’re going to figure a way out of here.”
Jack moaned as he got to his feet, lamely starting towards the larder. Emily, still catching her breath, peered up the length of the staircase and groaned. Rachel cracked her knuckles.
As they moved in silence, a chilling sentence froze the house:
“She wasn’t my daughter.”
Sean went rigid. He furrowed his brow.
“But she called you…”
Suddenly the world drained of colour, the air choked itself, and the whole of creation seemed to halt. Sean was aware of his pounding heart, he was aware of Rachel at his side, he was aware of the woman sitting on the couch, but his senses were shutting down; they were crushed and overcome by a staggering and prostrating revelation. His mind wouldn’t allow the thought to take hold, it wouldn’t let such an impossibility exist.
Leaving his truly fractured mind, he moved to the door.
“If you open that door they’ll bomb the house.”
Meekly, he withdrew from the handle.
“Sean, what’s wrong?” Rachel asked. “What’s going on?”
Emily and Jack waited for his response. With his mind in splitting tatters, there wasn’t one to give. When he spoke next it was in a hoarse and hesitant tone, as though his voice wished not to give credibility to the shocking moment.
“That’s impossible,” he said. “It’s… it can’t happen.”
“You’re aware that you live in a multi-verse yet you call something impossible,” said Lily calmly. “That’s embarrassing.”
“Wait, how do you know there’s a multi-verse?” Emily questioned.
Sean stared exactly where he didn’t want to- straight into Lily’s eyes. He knew from the start there was an omission in her demure, that something was amiss. She smiled perfectly, awaiting the utterance of his new understanding. This was a moment he wasn’t prepared for.
“Lily… as in Lilith. Mother as in Mother Lamia.”
The sentence dangled precariously. The statement was impossible, the information indigestible. Lilith was their ultimate enemy, the being they fought against with every breath, She couldn’t be here in front of them. Emily stared blankly at Her in shock, Sean averted his gaze shamefully, Rachel clenched her fist, while Jack, without a second thought, drew his gun and fired two bolts. Connecting with the couch they summoned two explosions of feathers and fabric. Lilith sat back, unharmed and undisturbed.
“Take a seat,” she said, politely smiling.
They stared at her, expressing shock with slack jaws.
“You’ve got nothing else to do,” she added. “Take a seat.”
Lilith was the enemy. She was everything they despised and fought against. Their very existence was dedicated to Her defeat. As a God, or something freakishly close to one, She was practically omnipotent, omnipresent, and the Causal Nexus’s consistent assailant. She was extraordinarily powerful and equally as terrifying. In perspective, the Ogrohad was the Creator of the multi-verse, a being of unfathomable power, and It was petrified of Her. She wasn’t to be undervalued.
Like Ygssrettfurr Her origins and function in creation were unknown. She was an anomaly. If anyone was to know the truth it would be the Ogrohad but It failed to offer elucidation on Her existence, if such an explanation existed. She was enigmatic and mysterious, abnormal, and coincidentally completely psychotic. Unlike Ygssrettfurr however, Her agenda and motives were never in question.
Sean moved first, to their immediate surprise. He was drifting aimlessly in a sea of shock. Lilith was regarded as an incorporeal entity, at least, that’s what they were told. As far as he knew She wasn’t able to take physical form. It seemed this was the case given the bolts passed harmlessly through her. But Sean couldn’t shake his disbelief. Her presence here was an impossibility, a sheer gouge on the face of creation. He took a seat on the opposite couch. The team nervously followed.
“Now we can talk,” said Lilith. “We have a lot of things to discuss.”
“Fuck off,” Rachel growled.
“I know that you all have a problem with me, how I operate, but the Ogrohad and the Nephilim haven’t told you everything.”
“They’ve told us enough,” Emily scoffed. “You want us dead, you want the Nexus to collapse, and the multi-verse in ashes. That’s all we really need to know about you.”
Lilith shifted, rolling her eyes.
“And your little squad is going to stop me?” she snorted. “You barely survived a tiny fight against a handful of soldiers. I could crush you right now.”
Jack sneered, preparing his gun. Emily lowered his hand.
“We can’t hurt Her,” she said. “But She’s bluffing, She can’t hurt us either.”
“How do you know?” he asked.
“That’s what Ygssrettfurr was telling us. The fact he was here means this isn’t a dead ‘verse. She doesn’t have any power here.”
Lilith raised an eyebrow.
“It’s the term we’ve lovingly given to a universe you control.”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. But you are correct, I can’t harm you. My soldiers on the other hand… they can bomb this place to pieces if I give the order. Which I will if I think any of you aren’t giving me your full attention. I would like to begin with a question- what do you call me?”
Rachel readied an explosive paragraph of horrid expletives. Sean motioned for her silence. Emily took the question as a challenge.
“The crimson queen, scourge of the Kol’dah, the fire of fury, the wrathful God, bringer of blood, ender of worlds, the enemy, crazy red bitch. I could go on.”
Lilith seemed satisfied.
“That’s cute,” She said. “I particularly enjoyed ‘scourge of the Kol’dah.’ It makes me sound really, really evil, don’t you think? Now that we’ve got that out of the way there’s a few more items on the agenda I’d like to address.”
Rachel slammed the table, snapping it in two.
“You listen to me,” she ordered angrily, “I’m not listening to anything you have to say, you twisted psycho!”
“Rachel…” Sean whispered, clutching her hand. “Let Her talk.”
“What?!” she screeched. “We’re not listening to this!”
“We have to. This is why we’re here, this is what all of this has been about. They set the trap and we walked right in. We don’t have a choice.”
Lilith snapped her fingers.
“You have been assessed, evaluated and defined; your strengths identified and your weaknesses exposed.”
Emily gasped. This was worse than she thought.
“This… this wasn’t just a trap, it was a test!” she said.
“I had to know what I was dealing with,” Lilith explained. “The Ogrohad chose you, I had to find out why.”
“Shut up!” Rachel barked.
Sean couldn’t stop a smile. In the whole of creation she was the sole person who could tell a God to ‘shut up’ and not have it come across as ridiculous.
“You were brought here for a reason,” Lilith continued. “To be calculated, to be understood. The Ogrohad chose you and you chose It. I would like to know why.”
Jack stirred, pulling his gun free. He toyed with, checking the barrel, feeling the trigger. Emily sighed. An intimidation tactic like that would be miserably insufficient against Lilith. She wasn’t truly here, not in a corporal physicality anyway, and was inherently untouchable by the hands of reality.
“We didn’t choose the Ogrohad,” Emily claimed. “It chose us.”
“Wrong!” Lilith sung. “You were given a choice, you didn’t have to accept Its offer. You chose to side with It without knowing any truth, without knowing anything about creation. Since then you’ve blindly followed Its every word, trusting that everything It tells you is the legitimate reality. Why? Why believe It and not me? Why do you fight against me without understanding what I’m fighting for?”
“You’re fighting for the end of creation!” Rachel argued. “We’re fighting against you because it’s the right thing to do and we’re the only ones who can do it! Or are you going to try and rationalise your hate? Are you going to try and make us see that you’re secretly the good guy?”
Lilith shook her head regretfully. Sean detected a hint of exhaustion.
“I’m here to offer you… a choice,” she announced. “Since you began a month ago you’ve seen what we’re capable of, me and my armies. If you won’t listen to reason or logic, count the numbers. How big is your team now, six, seven? You can’t rely on the Nephilim or the Vanguard to save you, their numbers are dwindling as well. I haven’t taken a head-count recently but I would estimate our army to be in the range of billions. What do you think of your chances? Why not join me?”
Lowering his voice, Sean glowered directly into her eyes, maintaining a steely bond.
“Why here?” he grumbled.
Lilith cocked her head.
“What do you mean?”
“Why not here?” she said. “It was a good place to lure you in. You proved that.”
“But why… why did they have to die? They didn’t hurt anyone, they didn’t get in the way, you didn’t need them.”
Lilith’s smile twitched. Aeons of existence urged Her to be silent, that the answer Sean expected was the one She shouldn’t give.
“They were necessary,” she said softly. “I wanted to see how you’d react. If you’re truly bothered by the deaths of a few meaningless Neanderthals you’re making it extremely evident how ignorant and naïve you are. Creation is endless- their lives were worthless. It’s your lives that have value. You can change the war. They were just a means to an end.”
Around her hand, Rachel felt Sean’s grip tighten. He sniffed. Seldom was his anger expressed, rarely was the sight of his rage observed. The anger of a good man is to be feared, the anger of a great man is to be respected. Usually she was able to guess what thoughts were going through his mind. In this moment he was a stranger; the bubble of hatred in his eyes an alien intrusion.
Shooting up, Sean angrily stomped from the couch. Rachel flinched as he tore the bannister from the staircase and ripped it to shreds. Jack watched in astonishment as he powdered the wall, forming craters and splitting through the wood. Emily winced as the bathroom door was detached from its hinges and dumped in the larder in a pile of splinters.
He was like a raging hurricane, uncontrollable and instinctively destructive. Lilith watched him wreak carnage before speaking.
“Is something wrong?”
Staring at Her nauseating smirk lurched forth torrents of puke and uninhibited wrath. She was the enemy, the creature accountable for incalculable deaths, the God soaked in the blood of billions of universes. And there She was, sitting peacefully in front of him, mocking Her own heartless liability. People were dead, gone, and substituted by their evil killer.
“You… you…” he seethed. “You’ve done more than I could ever blame you for. Listen up, Lily, you may have set this whole town up as a trap, you might have lured us in and sprung it, but I’ve got news for you. I’ve got a few things to tell you. This whole idea was to test us, to figure us out, to size us up, and guess what- you’ve got it!”
Lilith, somewhat surprised, sat back and let him engage in his riotous tantrum.
“But this ship’s not water-proof, it’s not airtight. You made three mistakes, three huge, glaring mistakes staring you in the face! And let me tell you, they will be your downfall. They’re not going to save the people you killed or redeem me for my part in their deaths, but it’s going to mess you up. And the best thing about that… is that you don’t even know what they are yet.”
Her smile twitched again, her eyes narrowed.
“What are you talking about? What mistakes did I make?”
Sean grinned triumphantly, gesturing bizarrely to the house.
“Oh, the first one is a doozy and it’s so obvious, so, so obvious. I don’t understand how you haven’t seen it yet. I thought a God would be clever enough to figure it out. You said you wanted to know what we were capable of, how we worked, how we thought- well, now that you know, why don’t you tell me why I’m not in the slightest bit worried about you? Why aren’t you scaring me?”
“Enough! What are you talking about?”
Sean skipped to her, lowering to eye level. They shared a furious stare.
Eventually, Sean answered.
Her scowl vanished, replaced by a wry bemusement. Rachel scratched her head.
“That was… anticlimactic,” she grunted.
“Yes!” Sean continued. “A great big, porcelain food graveyard- a toilet. And where do you find toilets?”
In the bathroom, Rachel thought, trying to follow his train of thought. A second later the train pulled into the station.
“I should congratulate you,” Lilith yawned. “It takes a lot to confuse a God and yet somehow you’ve managed.”
Sean twirled, dynamism oozing from him like a heat. She watched, an eyebrow raised, as he proudly bowed in respect.
“But that’s not quite as bad as the second or third mistake. No- the second mistake is where you really let yourself down, this is where you really screwed up! Because it didn’t matter what else you said or did, by the point you decided someone’s life didn’t matter, you lost me. In fact, you did worse than that. You got me angry. And then you let me be angry. That’s not something you should do, if you value your existence, don’t let me be angry. Your second mistake, Lamia, was pissing me off.”
Lilith rose angrily to Her feet. The white of her penetrating eyes took on a crimson hue. Her smile was crushed, Her sophistication waning like a candle in the wind.
“Choose your words carefully,” she hissed. “I will not offer you redemption again. If you turn me down you will be running and hiding for the rest of your lives. I will hunt you down like dogs! Every universe will be drowned in fire. Either concede or burn.”
Sean met Her stony gaze aloofly.
“Running I’m good at, I’m fantastic at running. So we’ll run, we’ll hide, but do you know what that means? Can you get it through your pyromaniac mind what it means if we’re always running and hiding?”
Lilith scowled. He imagined Her as a starving lion behind bars; a danger to observe but enjoy.
“It means you’ll never have a life,” She said. “It means until I find you, you’ll be living in constant fear.”
“Nope!” Sean shouted. “But hey, since you’re so keen on us running, would you like to see a preview?”
Taking her cue, Rachel burst from the couch in a sprint, diving into the bathroom and hastily clambering through the small, oval mirror hanging on the wall. Jack and Emily followed immediately afterward, leaving hateful sneers in their wake. This was the plan he formed since the revelation- tear the bathroom door off and create an easy, fast escape.
Lilith watched them leave, powerless to stop it. Sean stood exultantly over the wrathful God. He had won. A startling change overtook Her; in place of cynical indifference was frustration, in place of Her desire to conquer was defeat.
“You can bomb the house now,” Sean said. “I’m on my way out anyway.”
She glared angrily at him.
“This isn’t a win for you. All you’ve done here is let a town die and refused me. I will find you, I will hunt you down. It doesn’t matter what’s standing in my way I will burn everything in my path to get to you. You’ve not won, you’ve just prolonged your defeat.”
“You said it yourself- we’ll always be running and we’ll always be hiding. But as long as we’re running and hiding, we’re surviving. As long as we’re alive you can’t win, as long as we’re breathing there’s hope. This battle isn’t a victory for us but it’s definitely not a victory for you. See you later, Lil.”
He winked and moved to the bathroom, then recalled an overlooked point.
“Oh, almost forgot- third mistake! You shouldn’t have made it so easy to hack into the shield you put around the town. Now that it’s down- oh- just about anything could walk in here.”
With a mordant and intentionally melodramatic salute, he vanished through the mirror.
Lilith slithered transparently through the front door. A quick check down the street confirmed several scores of the Red Regime dead, many more wounded and blemishing the blank snow. Stray gun shots had blown most of the buildings apart; burnt wood and cracked splinters littered the area. She scrutinised the survivors as they swept the town- undependable, flawed, human, but willing to give their lives to the cause, to light the flames and engulf in sorrow the endless boundaries of creation. They were disposable; a caustic infection, and like spores would infest the foundations and rupture, spreading their corrosiveness to the wind and infecting more and more of the multi-verse’s superficial façade.
There was a rolling, resonating boom. The world shook, shuffling mounds of snow.
One of the wooden pylons in view buckled. From behind the rounded hills a dark black outline clambered, rising like a shadowy whale out of a sea of polystyrene. The most prescient details to emerge were the unmistakable shapes of protuberant barbs, a dense coat of slovenly black fur, a hunchback, and a rancorous maw set to devour the world. The soldiers screamed a unified roar of terror, opening fire on the gargantuan, lumbering creature. Unperturbed by the bolts, Hormnes leered at the town, letting loose a quaking, grating roar.
Lilith blinked. This world was uninteresting now. She had no reason to stay. As though She was never there, Her form evaporated and dispersed like embers caught in the wind. The abandoned soldiers engaged the marauding creature as it raised its spiny arms with intent to eradicate.
“I didn’t expect Lilith to be there,” Jack admitted.
Sitting by the Ogrohad’s pit, the team recollected their senses. Emily was examining Jack for wounds, ensuring the nanos were doing their job, while Sean and Rachel caught their breath. Their injuries were healed and in the presence of the Ogrohad they were recovering swiftly.
“She wasn’t really there,” said Emily. “She was like a hologram.”
“You know what I mean. Imagine if She had really been there, like physically.”
“I don’t think we’d be alive if that were the case.”
Rachel stretched. As much as she enjoyed being outside there was a luxury at home that was lacking anywhere else. She buried her head in Sean’s shoulder.
“She wasn’t what I expected,” he said.
“She was a bitch,” Rachel echoed.
Jack flexed his arms. Pain was an unfamiliar sensation to him yet his body would intolerably ache from exhaustion if strained too far. Emily gave him the all clear.
“Ygssrettfurr turned out to be helpful as well,” Sean added. “That doesn’t usually happen.”
“And you managed to blink,” Emily exclaimed. “That’s the most surprising thing. I thought for sure Rachel would be the first to figure it out.”
“So did I,” Rachel mumbled. “But I’m okay with it, I guess. Sure, it would’ve been helpful for everyone if I learned it first but… fine.”
“It’s not like you can’t learn it anymore.”
“But… I won’t be first.”
Emily turned to the pit.
“What do you think of all this?”
The cavern quivered as a deep rumbling trundled through.
She will lie and cheat, for your souls to reap
“That clears everything up, thanks.”
Jack giddily got to his feet, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
“I need a shower,” he moaned. “Does anyone have a towel?”
“No,” said Emily. “Who would bring a towel with them?”
Sean’s hand hesitantly climbed to their surprise.
“Yeah… I’ve got one.”
“You brought a towel with you?” Jack chuckled.
“It’s something I picked up from my home ‘verse. As long as you know where your towel is you’ll never be lost.”
Jack mulled the thought over.
“Actually, now that you mention it, I’m slightly wary of a man that can travel between universes, go toe to toe with Gods, basically teleport to a place of his choosing, and still know exactly where his towel is.”
Leaving the thought lingering, Jack made his way to the bedrooms. Emily yawned, silently announcing her retirement.
Sean and Rachel were left alone in the cavern in total silence. Rachel was too tired from the mission to speak, Sean was too lost in thought. He considered his hand in the town’s death. No angle presented absolved him of his part in the tirade. Like a blind man walking into a minefield, he had flirted dangerously close to destroying what the team worked so diligently to build. Then there was the blood. A town full of innocents was the baggage his soul was dragging. From now until his end they would be his responsibility. As much as he wanted to blame Lilith, blame the Pantheon, there was no denying his simple curiosity irrevocably damned the townspeople. The Ogrohad wouldn’t care- he doubted It was capable of an emotion as striking as that- but he would carry the remorse until the end. A waning thought occurred to him.
“We left Gorin to die,” he said. Rachel, struggling to keep her eyes open, jolted upright.
“We did,” she confirmed sleepily. “What about him?”
“Do you think he deserved to die?”
“Are you questioning your morals?”
She grabbed him and pulled him close, donating a kiss on his cheek.
“You wouldn’t have killed him, you couldn’t. But you couldn’t let him live either. That’s the kind of man you are, Sean. It’s the kind of man you have to be now. We left him to die because you told us to.”
“You’re not helping,” he muttered.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “Not ever. You did leave him to die. If it helps, I think you made the right choice- kill him without killing him.”
He sighed. She could sense him falling to dark thoughts.
“Hey,” she whispered. “Broken pencils are pointless.”
She lit up as Sean burst out laughing. When he laughed, her heart rolled in ecstasy. There was a hidden detail in his smile that illumined his eyes with joy. His love for bad puns was an easy way to ignite it. He sighed again, this time to dismiss the persistent giggles.
“Okay, you’ve got me smiling,” he said. “I’m going to go rest up.”
As he left, just before he disappeared, Rachel offered an extra line.
“Velcro is a real rip-off!”
She grinned brilliantly as he walked away in fits of sniggering. A minute later Rachel wiped the sweat from her brow and moved to the kitchen. Her thoughts were composed of the future, of Sean’s decisions, of his passage through the temperamental and rocky road of morality. There was no man better prepared for the task, she thought, but he would have to be more than human in order to succeed. His flash of inspiration facing Lilith was what leadership begged of him at every moment. She would have to keep a close eye on him.
The bedrooms were silent. Jack was in the shower, Emily was sleeping soundly in her room. In the vast emptiness, nothing stirred or resounded. Sean sat on the edge of his bed, vacuously gawping at the rippling walls. The smiles were purely for Rachel’s benefit. The dark thoughts persisted; forever determined to elevate lamentations to the surface. Forgiveness wouldn’t be granted to him. Ygssrettfurr’s words domed his mind- adapt or die.
With Lilith’s truculent and vile entrapment came a renewed perspective. If he was to succeed, if the team were to endure and the multi-verse kept secure, he would have to adapt, he would have to improve; no more were allowed to die. This was his duty. To alleviate the burden of his sins, to wipe clean his hands, he would have to soar beyond the restrains of mortal limits and be Lilith’s equal. The plan would be kept in motion regardless of the cost to his own life. There was a long, long road ahead, and he had to prepare.