Dusk comes, cold and sharp. I sit by myself, my hands tingling from the chill and the oil I use to clean the guns. I wipe my cloth along the barrel of the launcher, making sure there are no spots of rust or cracks in the metal. The dust storm has gone and our journey has ended for the day.
Behind me the truck ticks as it cools. I like it; it sounds happy, like a dog lying across the hearth. Its machine rage has gone, for now at least, and it is at peace in this valley of tall grass and smooth trees. The dust thick plain is a distant memory from this place.
Wind makes the day shiver and for a moment I close my eyes and imagine that I am back on the farm, standing atop the water tower, lifting my arms into the breeze. I am the child I was a week ago, when none of this had happened.
I remember the day the raiders arrived, all swathed in their dust cloaks and riding their beasts. Some of the farmers fought back, even forming a militia of sorts and things had been good for a while. For a year the raiders had prowled the edges of our lands, never stepping foot into our territory. We heard them at night, screams of prisoners in the hills or the low rumbles of their monsters.
And then they simply smashed our defences in a rush; our palisade wall shattered by timed explosions, our moat stepped over by animals as big as any of our barns.
The first casualty had been grandmother; crushed under clawed feet. Grandfather had followed soon, bitten in half. Urlsa fell when a raider put a harpoon through her leg, the winch pulling tight and dragging her from my mother’s arms quicker than I would have believed possible. Dalla was caught by another of the men, pulled to the ground and swarmed by cloaked raiders.
How mother and father got us out I don’t know. All I remember is my father’s tattooed face and huge hands, blood dripping from his fingers as he reached to grab me. Then the thunder of the rig and the earthquake shake of its flight.
I had my eleventh birthday the next day, locked in the cabin of the truck, putting pressure on a wound in my father’s neck that wouldn’t close properly. Mother and Susanna stood on the firing step on top of the cabin, just as they had today and each day of our flight, shooting our pursuers. So far we had killed four to their twenty.
I don’t want to run anymore, but I also don’t want to fight.
“Hungry?” Mother moves in on my right, a plastic wrapped food brick in her real hand. In her other, the artificial one, she holds a bottle of water. She has undone the augmetic’s dust baffle, letting the oiled steel catch what light remains.
“Yes.” My voice sounds alien to me, a weak voice, like that of a child. I am no child, not anymore.
She sits down next to me, passing me the water and breaking off a piece of the food brick for me.
“Where’s Su,” I ask her.
“Fixing the engine.”
“Your father’s driving gave us a hole in the fuel pump. Su thinks we have the parts she needs to fix it, but I’m not sure. We may have to cannibalise a few bits to do it. It’s a full day’s worth of work.” Our truck is the scrapwagon we used to transport our crop of beaten up pre-war vehicles to the rust market every year. When we left it has been carrying the corpse of an old land car, a hover bike and part of a tank grandfather and I had pulled from the west fields a month ago.
“Scouting.” She pulls me closer and kisses my head. I can feel her warmth, smell her sweat, and hear her heartbeat.
“So, what’s he looking for?”
My mother sighs and rubs her face with her bionic hand, the servos purring under the glove she wears.
“He’s making sure we aren’t followed.”
“Why did they chase us?”
“Because they are weak, and the weak always take from the strong.”
“But we ran from them didn’t we, doesn’t that make us weak?” Mother breaths into my hair for long moments and I am content to close my eyes and take in her scent, listening to the rumble of her heart.
“Hieme, do you know how easy it is to raid and take from those who have? Those raiders take what they don’t have, rather than work for it. They don’t feed families or look after the sick, they just cut and run, taking all they can.”
“If it’s easier, then why don’t we do it?” I felt stupid as soon as I said it. I remembered how Dalla’s screams has echoed around the compound and how the raider’s laughter mingled with the growling of their steeds. Mother didn’t answer me, and I felt like I had failed some test. I tried again.
“You used to be soldier though, right? Don’t you want to work as soldiers anymore?”
“No, child. We want, wanted, a proper life for you and your sister, and the last place you should be is an army camp. Besides, soldiers often end up just as bad.”
“Where those raiders soldiers once?”
The breeze plays with mother’s dark hair, pushing it back and forward across her face. The sun has begun setting and the light makes her skin look like polished timber.
“Maybe. I remember a few regiments in the war that used therapod mounts.”
“Where do they come from?”
“Todo-Padre, child, I don’t know. They appeared during the Meta-War, some laboratory to the north probably cooked them up. There was a lot stranger during the war.” Mother pushes her hair from her face with her bionic hand, the mechanisms hidden by the baffle whirring in metallic harmony. We sit for a while longer, the food brick passing between us and the water slowly draining from the bottle.
“Why is it called the Meta-War?”
“Because it is the war the Meta-People started.”
“What’s a – ”
“What’s a Meta-Person? Hieme, please, I don’t want to talk about this tonight. This is the first time in a week that I’ve not fallen asleep in the back of the cab with the stink of engines and dust in my nose. Just let’s sit and enjoy the night as best we can. No more talk of blood and death, please.”
I don’t know what to say to that. So I sit, just as she bids me, taking in the red gold light that hits the mountains flanks high above us. The grass waves lazily in the breeze. The wind is the only noise apart from the ticks and clinks of the cooling truck and the metal on metal percussion of Susanna’s maintenance.
We sit for so long that real night begins to take shape around us, the stars peeking through the darkening blue of the sky. Mother began to snore.
I rise as gently as I am able, climbing the ladder to our passenger compartment, looking for a blanket to cover her. Susanna still digs through the engine’s guts, muttering words only she can hear. Our meagre supplies didn’t stretch much in the way of tools, the rig having only emergency materials. Already our water is low and the food bricks – hard cubes of processed meat and vegetables – are almost gone. Mother and father have gone without food for two days already in an attempt to stretch what we have even further. I realise then that father’s scouting mission must serve a dual purpose of foraging as well as protecting our back trail.
I pull the blanket from underneath the passenger seat where it has fallen during the day’s flight. Something heavy rolls in its folds and I pick up the statuette of Hodin, The Todo-Padre, warrior god that my parents pray to. This is the first time I have seen it in the week long flight across the salt planes. Why they rescued this when they had been unable to gather more supplies or help save more of our family?
I thought about the people we had lost.
That made it sound so petty.
My grandfather had died. My cousins had died. My friends had died. My family had died.
We four are the last survivors of what has been an extended family of twenty.
“Hieme,” a voice calls out in the darkness.
My father comes out of the gloom, moving quickly.
He is a shadow among shadows, his hair and beard wild and dark as the gathering night around us. Unlike mother, he bears no augmetic limbs, no modifications of metal or synthetic craft, save for the iron studs in his temple. Unlike his brothers, my uncles who burned on the farm like the rest of the family, he is whole. Perhaps the only whole man I have ever known. The war has touched all of my family, but my father is the only one who bears no sign of it.
“Hieme, Susanna,” his body heat reaches me before his hand does; he has been running hard for a long while. “Where is your mother?”
“Sleeping, what’s wrong?”
“We aren’t safe here.”
He holds up a rusted length of chain, a pitted, scarred hook hanging from one end.
Mother sits in the passenger seat, father in the drivers and we in the back. They talk, one watching us, the other scanning the darkness outside, swapping occasionally in unconscious synchronicity. The cab light is off, the only illumination the stars and moon above. They cast the mountain valley in a soft blue gloom, each shadow a plunge into dark waters and highlighted with frost.
“No lights,” father says.
“No sound,” mother adds.
“They will come if they know we’re here. They might come anyway, just looking,” father is already checking our ammunition stores, digging through what meagre resources we have. He has picked up the statuette of Hodin, placing it into the crate alongside our bullets, as if it were a weapon equal to them.
“If they do, you must stay silent,” mother says, her face pressed up to the glass of the windshield. Night has come, the scent of rain lurking in its depths.
“Is it the raiders?” Susanna asks. She smells of grease and hot metal, the perfume of the engine, and her hands are black with grime. My sister is strong in ways I can only hope to match. Older than me by several years, she has my father’s height and thick arms and my mother’s features and wine dark hair. Back home, when things made sense, she spent her days with grandfather in the machine hall on the farm, wrestling life into old engines and hammering new form into bent metal. In the darkness of the truck I can see her face in long solemn profile, pale and perhaps frightened.
“No. I wish it was.” Mother turns back to us, father switching his gaze to peer outside. “The raiders won’t come this far.”
“You may hear noises,” father pulls a second crate from the storage locker above the driver’s seat. He began flicking open the locks, his eyes twitching between his task and the glass plain of the windshield.
“Who’s out there? Is it beasts?” Beasts from the Meta-War had occasionally been sighted crossing the boundaries of the farm, trampling fences or rooting up our crops. The men would ride out and chase them away if they did. When they killed cattle we killed them.
“We need you to stay inside the cab at all times. Do not leave until we say that it’s alright.”
“But who’s out there?”
“Hieme, it wouldn’t help you if you knew,” father’s voice comes out in a whisper, as gentle as a whip lash. “You must stay in the cab. And we must have total silence. We can’t have the heater on, we can’t have the light on, we can’t even have you two talking in your sleep or snoring too loud.”
Susanna crosses her arms.
“Su,” mothers voice is tired, hungry, fearful, “knowing won’t help.”
There is a soft hiss, a pop and a puff of cold.
In his seat, father looks down into the opened crate. I see the long metal hafts of axes. They rest in a moulded indentation in the steel case, chill air playing across them. Mother and he share a look. She takes his hand in her own.
A second passes. Then another. Then more.
From somewhere outside a low sound, like a howl, touches the sides of the mountains, leaping from rock to rock, diluting in the darkness.
“Todo-Padre,” mother whispers.
“What’s out there?” It is a moment before I realise that I am the speaker.
Mother breaths out, her fingers touching the blade of one of the axes.
“They are a clan we met during the war. They live in these mountains. We fought them at the battle of New Birmingham. They only ever attacked at night. That’s their speciality. They would descend on our trenches, wielding these chains, hauling men and women back to the enemy lines.”
“Hieme, I don’t know. I’m sure I don’t want to. Their allies abandoned them after the battle, leaving them surrounded by our armour divisions. I thought they are all gone.”
“We are both wrong,” father gives her a weak smile.
They share another sad gaze.
“The best thing we can do is wait for dawn. We all need to rest. Your mother and I will watch. You two get some sleep.” Father grips the handle of one of his axes and opens the door. He drops to the ground and disappears.
Sleep does not come easily and when it does I dream of darkness. I lay in the darkness of the cabs rear seats, my body covered in a light blanket that I share with Susanna. I pillow my head on my arms, wanting sleep to take me, yet fearing the world of nightmares I may fall into.
Perhaps I am better off, however, with the terrors my imagination can create, rather than the horrors that may lurk outside in the darkness. I have seen more than I think a boy my age should. Will that change me as my parents have changed over the last week? Will I be as silent as father or as lifeless as mother?
I remember her smile, so bright and wide, her teeth white against her skins dark timber tone. No more smiles now, however.
The moon rises, bright and whole in the heavens. When I was younger grandmother had told me how Hodin had sacrificed his eye for knowledge and the power of his sacrifice had transformed it into the moon. I hope that is true; Hodin may see us and take pity. Not that the warrior god is known for his pity. The statuette bundled in the crate has a face of sharp lines and cruel features.
I turn over, kicking Susanna as I do so.
She kicks me back and her heel almost makes me scream out. I keep it in only by a force of will. Mother turns to look at us, her face unreadable in the blackness. I think she might speak but, somewhere in the night beyond the cabin, something calls in a wordless howl.
Without a word mother takes one of the axes from its case, opens her door with a muted click and is gone. She doesn’t even give us a backwards glance.
Susanna sits up, the movement making the blankets fall off us. We share a mute stair with each other.
“I…” I begin.
“Shhhh,” she jams her hand over my mouth, pushing me down against the seat.
Susanna reaches up to the gun rack above our heads, pulling down a homemade revolver, one of the last our grandfather made himself.
“Shhhh!” She cocks the weapon, checks its chamber and grabs the door handle. No, she means to leave, to leave me alone in the dark. Selfish Susanna, always thinking of herself! I lunge and pull her back.
“Hieme!” She thrusts me away, her lips curling. “Stay here.”
I don’t want to be alone, I’m sacred without her. Selfish bitch, she wants to run away.
“No, Su, you need to stay…”
Susanna opens her door. Cold air invades briefly before she vanishes outside.
I sit, the blanket pooling around my feet, my hands clasping across my chest. I am alone. I am abandoned. Father, mother and now Susanna have gone into the dark, swallowed up and never to return.
The figure of Hodin stares at me from the crate. I cannot see him in the gloom, but I feel his eye on me. What does the warrior god want? What would he demand of mother and father?
I open a crate for one of the guns, but it is empty. Susanna has taken the last one. Mother’s launcher and the long rifle are gone. The machine pistol I fired earlier is missing. Mother must have taken them whilst I slept.
Outside, the darkness waits for me.
The howl that drew my family away into the night calls to me now. I have nothing to answer it with. What does Hodin want from me? Am I to rush into the night like my parents before me? Like Susanna?
The weak take from the strong. I do not understand what she meant. One day, perhaps, but not today.
I remember mother’s words and pretend they give me strength. Pretend strength is all I have.
I open my own door.
My boots touch the damp grass with what feels like a roar of noise. My stomach feels like it has risen into my throat and even under the chill moon I can feel sweat bead my temples. I swallow, trying to see into the night.
The howl comes again. Closer than before.
Find father, I tell myself. Find mother and Susanna, get them back to the truck. Make sure they are safe. Hodin’s moon eye stares down, judging and silent. Cold air makes my breath fog, adding another shade of frost to the world.
I can see the valley ahead of me, light by moonlight. In the day it was a place cast in warm browns and earthy greens, granite capped and windswept. Now I see everything through a blue grey filter; the world tanned dark cobalt, highlighted in frozen azure.
I take my first real step forward, my hands leaving the metal of the rig behind. I have nothing in my hands to protect me and only the desire to find my family to spur me on.
I take a second step. The moon, Hodin’s eye, watches me. I will not shame myself beneath the Todo-Padres gaze. I put one foot in front of the other, my hands tight fists and my eyes blinking tears away. I must be strong like mother, like father. Susanna cried when our family died, she cried every day as we fled, but I did not. That makes me strong, like mother and father. Please let me be strong, please.
My lie spurs me on.
The flank of the mountain rises above me, its details rendered into dots and blurs I can only guess at recognising. Wind moans around its summit in a chill and mournful voice.
A shape moves in the gloom, juddering from one patch of shadow to the next.
I hear a clink of metal in the night.
Something booms in my ears, an organic orchestra in full swing and I fight to control the base rumble of my heart and the sharp woodwinds of my breath. Others must surely hear me, my terror must be audible for miles.
A shape begins to move, a darker scrap of darkness rising not a hundred yards away and bobbing towards me.
I can’t move.
The shape stops beneath the boughs of a tree.
Has it seen me? The moon shows me in stark contrast; how could it not?
The shape moves closer. I see nothing distinct, just a mass that spreads a wide shadow.
Hodin keeps on staring down, knowing my fear, judging me weak.
The shape comes closer, faster and faster. I make out arms that trail ragged shadows and a swollen body. Hodin laughs in my head, calling me a coward, judging me as a failure to my family.
I don’t care. I run, turning back to the dark bulk of the truck, the door I had left open a wide and inviting refuge. Something croaks behind me, and I hear the thrash of grass as it is torn aside by something running.
I hit the hard rubber wall of the truck’s tire and scramble up. The back seat feels slippery and I cannot grip it. I scrabble, my feet kicking at the air for a moment before I can haul myself in.
The door handle. Where is the door handle?
I make out the bobbing shape not twenty feet from the truck.
My hands find the handle and I swing the door closed. It booms closed, as loud and as violent as my heartbeat.
I need to lock the door. Brown shadows move outside, the window stealing definition. Something hits the truck.
Hodin laughs, his voice a pitiless roar in my head; Failure! Weakling!
The seat shifts under a weight not my own and I turn in time to see eyes and teeth rush at my face.
I know first that I am cold. Some freezing, sharp edged, paralysis holds me tight.
The next thing I know is that I am in total darkness.
I try to move, but I can’t.
I try to see, but I can’t.
All I can do is try to scream, but even in that, I fail. My mouth is filled with something thick and cold, like sour dough. It glues my lips together and hobbles my tongue. I can mewl and moan, but nothing else.
Something writhes against my chest, a rat sized lump that touches my flesh. I feel the scrape of teeth like rose thorns.
I cannot move my arms. I cannot even feel them. Sensation only comes from the movement on my chest. All else is void of feeling.
Hot little teeth scrape into my skin, a sharp spear of a tongue lapping at the cut. I cannot even feel my body as I try to thrash and move. More teeth curl into my chest and the tongue licks my blood again.
It’s eating me.
I tear my lips bloody as I force my mouth open, my scream strangled and filled with the cold mush. I spit and wail as the tiny, unseen beast devours me alive.
“Hieme?” Susanna’s voice.
“Susanna?” My mouth, filled as it is with chewy lumps, mangles her name. I try to spit it out as Susanna’s voice comes closer.
“Hieme, what’s wrong?” I can feel her warmth and smell her breath as she gets close. “Where are you?” The rasping teeth cut more skin, tasting my meat and blood.
I feel her hands tap blindly at my face and she gives a startled shriek and hugs me as best she can. I can feel her hands on my face but nowhere else. The tongue invades me, licking me up.
“It’s eating me,” I say, the creature slowly sucking and cutting its way into my skin, millimetre by millimetre.
“I’ll try and get you out, Hieme.” I hear tearing and feel my arms freed from their paralysis. Susanna pulls me up and I feel like I am being lifted from a slurry of cold glue. I run my hand across my chest, the fingers still dripping with chill ooze, more of the foulness sloughing off under my touch. I can feel the substance coating my body, feeling only returning where I wipe the stuff from me. It splatters to the ground with a sound like disembowelled guts.
My hands touch the body of the creature that hangs from my chest. It feels like old rubber. Its teeth and tongue lock it to me, its pulsing mass sucking more and more blood from me.
I scream again as I pull it free, the teeth tearing more skin and muscle. Its tongue leaves me last, sticking in me like a hot little string of my own meat being stretched and pulled from me. I throw it as hard as I am able, losing it in the dark.
I kneel, panting, feeling the wound in my chest and the chill creeping into my bones.
“Hieme,” Susanna puts her arms around me, the remaining slime squishing as she does so.
I cling to her, tears bubbling up towards the surface. I do not force them down or repress them, but they do not fall, nor do I heave in breaths of sadness and fear. I want to, but I can’t, like there is some switch that is broken within me, making me defective and weak.
A light bobs at the edge of my sight, something that adds texture and tone to the darkness at first, but then gives way to full blown illumination. Advancing in the wake of the light comes a man.
“Get behind me,” Susanna’s voice is a steel rasp in the gloom. I hear the man laugh, the sound like the mirth of tumours. He walks towards us and I can see a hairless face with long and craggy features in the soft glow of the purple crystal he carries.
Susanna and I clutch at each other, both wanting to defend our sibling.
“Stay back,” Susanna snarls.
The man comes closer, staggering and shuffling across what is revealed by his light to be a smooth rock floor. Cave walls rise about us and rough stone hangs above us. The purple light reveals irregular lumps and bumps on the otherwise smooth rock. The man opens his mouth to speak, his jaws working as if he is unused to the task.
“You’re in hell.”
“What?” Susanna holds me close, her eyes squinting against the weak light.
“You’re in hell. You’ve fluttered down to join me here.” What I can see of his mouth is smiling, his teeth black in the glow of the crystal. “But not for long. Ah, lass, you’re destined to be a new bride for the hive.” He licks his lips and looks at me, “but you’re the one I’m here for, boy. You’re meant for the children.”
“You aren’t taking my brother anywhere,” Susanna stoops to pick up a rock, her fingers coming up glistening in the slime from my cocoon.
The old man’s glow crystal shows me the rock floor in greater detail, revealing mounds of slowly throbbing skin and slime. I see the red robes of one of the raiders hidden amidst the jelly of one mound and within the translucent gunk I see a white maggot as long as my arm.
“See,” the old man grins, holding his crystal out at arms-length to let its light flow over the patch of floor I had rested on, “you’ll be missed.” A pale worm, rat sized, twitches in the slime that coats the rock. “He’ll miss his meal,” the old man continued, “but, thankfully, I won’t miss mine.”
He draws a knife and raises the crystal higher, the light illuminating the room all around us. Pulsing sacks of mucus plaster the walls, the floors and the ceilings, the white grubs moving under the slime as they burrow into the bodies inside.
Susanna shoves me aside as the old man’s knife slashes the air above my head. I trip and fall, my hand plunging into the jelly of one of the cocoons. Instantly I feel the limb go numb, a freezing sensation rippling along the fingers and up the arm and then all pain is swallowed by a void of feeling.
Susanna screams behind me and I hear the old man snarl. He hacks down with his knife again, opening a gash on Susanna’s arm. She falls into a mucus sack herself, his hand locking around her throat. They wrestle in the slushy remains of a man.
I pull myself up, my arm still a numb pulse in my brain, and put my shoulder into his ribs. He falls, whimpering in pain. His knife skitters on the floor and the glow crystal clanks across the rock.
I grab for the knife, my heart pounding a hole in my chest, and I stand between him and my sister. I have shot raiders before, but I can’t be sure I can stab this old man, even if it is to save Susanna.
He doesn’t give me a choice. The old man lunges up, flinging a handful of slime into my face.
I hit the ground again, the back of my skull slamming into the rock so hard that artificial stars dance in my vision. He is on me then, hands wrapping around my throat.
I can smell his stink, feel the grit and ooze on his fingers and the rough cloth of his rag clothing. My neck becomes a hot red line under his crushing grip, my head threatening to pop off. I claw his face, the knife opening trenches in his cheek. A wild stab takes his ear off and a second rips into his eye.
He staggers back clutching his ruined face, making noises like an animal lost in pain. Spit and blood spill from his lips and he sobs in great long huffs, his body trembling and frail.
Susanna moves in from the side, the rock smacking down on his head in one final, awful, blow. My sister is strong, far stronger than I. The stone impacts with the sound of a kicked bucket and blood splatters the cave wall behind.
We stand there for I don’t know how long, trying to breath normally.
Eventually Susanna grabs my hand.
“Come on,” she whispers, and stopping only to gather the knife and the glowing crystal, we run into the darkness.
We pass through lightless places that even our glow stone cannot illuminate. For what seems like an eternity we travel only on a purple sphere of rock floor in a midnight void. The darkness is filled with dripping, soft clicks and gentle fluttering, as if we are passing through someone’s dream of loneliness.
Now and then our light picks up a shape in the gloom, something moving just beyond our field of vision. I hear the flutter of wings and some moist sound I do not recognise. My head is filled with images of slime cocooned men and women, their bodies home for giant maggots. That could have been me. The wound on my chest burns, the blood covering my fingers each time I touch it. The maggot’s teeth opened a hole in me the size of a large coin and I can still feel its phantom tongue licking my meat clean of blood.
Susanna is quiet, so quiet I cannot hear her breathing. She holds me as we walk, each of us a crutch to the other. I still feel something in my chest, deeper than the wound the maggot dealt me. It is a pressure I cannot release. I hear Hodin muttered condemnations in my head and I pray that they are just my imaginings.
“Do you think mother and father are alright?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if they’re dead?”
I have no answers for Susanna.
“Don’t think like that. We need to get out of here.”
“You’re just like them,” she snarls. For a moment Hodin laughs in my brain, throwing words like weak, failure and false at me, staining my parents by their association with me.
“You’ve gone cold, just like them. It’s like you don’t care about what happened.”
I care. Oh, how I care. I don’t know what to say or how to show it, but I am worn ragged from care and fear and sadness.
“I…” I have nothing to give her, no words to tell her what I feel. More than one switch is broken inside me. More than one thing is wrong with me. Susanna’s face is filled with sad scorn. I want her to hold me, to tell me everything will be alright and to show me the way home. But she doesn’t have the answers, any more than I do.
We keep walking, the darkness ahead of us giving away no clues.
Our light glitters on still water. The reflected illumination shows a cavern around us, purple hued and slick with moisture. Moths swoop and glide across the lake surface and between the pillars of huge mushrooms.
One creature hovers close, wanting to get at our light. It is longer than my arm, its body easily equal to that of a dog and its wingspan as broad as Susanna is tall.
More moths appear, their wings filling the air with the sweet and dusty smell of their bodies. They fly closer to the light, one of them touching my arm as it passes.
I feel that same burst of cold numbness that the slime induced.
Susanna screams, one of the huge moths landing on her head and trying to stab at her with its abdomen. More moths descend, their legs barbed and hooked, reaching for us.
“Fuck off,” Susanna screams as another tries to land on her. We turn, running as fast as we can, the moths chasing the light, their wings buffeting us with downdraft.
I slash up at the creature above Susanna, tearing its wing.
The cave around us erupts in a hooting whistling roar and the moths vanish.
We run, our light showing us walls thick with more slime sacks.
From up ahead I can hear the whine of crude stringed instruments, the holler of drums and the snap of damp wood on fire. There are voices, raised in some kind of song.
We move towards the noise. Loose stones skitter under our feet. We come towards a new cavern. The light of our crystal is met and matched here by a new illumination; more glow stones bath the rock in macabre lambency.
Something shrieks, a loud rattling sound, a sound of mirth and jubilation rather than fear and pain.
“Wait,” Susanna stops me. “We need to be careful.”
I nod, knowing that to rush into the light will expose us to whatever makes merry in the cavern ahead. I can hear, just beneath the music, the beat of moth’s wings.
We creep forward, using the rock walls for cover. Susanna stuffs our stolen crystal into her pocket, her overalls swallowing the light and masking our advance.
The drumming and the shrieks ahead of us get louder, the music discordant and rawkus. We peer through the cave entrance.
Cowled figures dance in the light of a hundred glowing crystals and one massive central bonfire. Simple harps trill in the smoky gloom, pipes squeal and drums beat. The men and women, shrouded in rags and long robes howl and shriek, whirl and dance. On a dais in their midst sit twelve seated figures that have the straight backed demeanour of lords. Their own faces are not cowled but bare and misshapen in the firelight.
People whirl and dance and as they do so moths flutter here and there, some as small as fingernails, some as big as people.
The seated lords stand, their arms hung with as many hooked chains as rag cloths, and raise their heads to the caverns second entrance. The music slowly dies and in burst of fresh noise, more moths burst from the tunnel, more ragged clansmen following in their wake. Blood marks their bodies. Some hobble and limp, others cradle arms and sides, trying to stop their bleeding.
The moths settle on the gathered clansmen or else flutter around their standing leaders. I can see the pale flesh of their masters in the firelight. Their heads are mighty lumps, strange antenna protruding from their temples.
One walks from the group and the clansmen bow before him. I am able to see him more clearly and, in horror, I see the reason for his deformity. A moth, a huge creature, sits, implanted into his skull. Its wings cover his face save his mouth, wrapping many times around his head and the creature’s thorax and abdomen thicken his neck and back where they plunge beneath the flesh. The moth’s wings are rich with blood and I can make out its eyes, little atrophied lumps that stand just proud of the man’s forehead.
The injured clansmen raise their hands to him, offering I know not what. They jabber in a language I do not know and he silences them with a gesture.
I hear the mutter of the clan, the rustle of moth wings and the whisper of breath. The lord’s antenna twitch and silence descends.
The leader pulls a bone handled knife from his belt and raises it into the fire light.
The moths take off in an explosion of noise and movement. The sound of their wings is like a million pebbles rolling in the surf. The stink of them, the dust that flies off their bodies, fills my mouth like a sand storm.
And then a real explosion tears into the packed bodies in the cavern. Fire floods my vision, all but ripping away my sight. Bodies scatter like spring seeds, trailing fire as they burn.
Amidst the noise and smoke and confusion I see a man run from the secondary entrance to the cavern. Frost trails from the blades of the twin axes he carries and light gleams off the studs in his skull.
Clansmen run at him and, in movements too fast for me to follow, he kills them. Axes sweep in blue arks that become red trails as he charges forward.
Hooked chains lash out at him, bladed ropes and bone daggers lunge for him. He kills their wielders. All of them. One of the moth head leaders raises a whip to slash at him, but her hand falls into a patch of crystal before she can even begin her down swing. Her head lands alongside it seconds later.
My father. Only when the second explosion brings down part of the ceiling do I recognise him.
Mother moves by his side, in her artificial hand she holds her launcher, a new missile slotted into the breach, and in her other she holds the statuette of Hodin, its single eye a point of pure light in the kaleidoscopic nightmare around us.
She crushes a moth that tries to land on her with a back hand slap from her launcher and kicks a crawling clansman in the head. Her mouth is set in a grim line and the goggles that protect her eyes make her face alien and hard.
The clan leaders, their antenna flickering wildly, swing hooked chains at our parents.
Father catches a blade on the chest, his body ribboning under the weapon. He charges forward, blood spilling from him like water from a shredded sack.
Mother drops her launcher and catches the lashing chain coming for her, hauling the moth hosts off their feet. With a downward punch she crushes his skull like an egg.
Susanna pulls on my arm, getting me to my feet.
“Come on,” my sister drags me out into the flaming cavern aiming for the tunnel our parents entered from. We run through fire and broken bodies. I turn back to catch a fleeting glimpse of broken crystals tumbling, fire billowing and my parents destroying.
We exit the mountain on a sheer sided cliff face, high up enough to make the wind cut into our flesh. Susanna pulls at my arm and, even under my fear and panic, I want to tell her to get off me. I can walk and run on my own. I am strong enough. I am exhausted and terrified, but I am strong enough for this.
I don’t know how long we ran through the tunnels but I know it was a long time. The moon has sunk low in the sky and the east has a blush to it that heralds sunrise.
“No way down,” Susanna says.
“We can climb,” I say.
“Not if you want to make it down alive.”
Wind moans and I stare down the mountainside and the sheer drop beneath were we stand. We are higher up than I expected. I can see the tiny dot of our truck far below on the valley floor. The grass looks blue in the fading light of the moon and stars. There is a peace here, a cold and frosty tranquillity, away from the running and the hurting and –
“Hieme,” Susanna’s voice cuts through a lethargy I didn’t know I had. “We need to go back and find a way down.”
Go back into the dark filled with monsters.
“I’m scared.” I don’t know where the words come from. The moon, Hodins eye, judges me as the horizon narrows it.
I feel Susanna’s warmth as she comes close to me.
“It’s ok. So am I.”
“It’s different for you, though.”
“Why?” She puts her arms round me. I can feel something building and boiling inside me. I don’t know what it is.
“You… you always cry. You’ve cried every day since…”
“And you haven’t.”
“Neither have mother and father.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
I swallow. My vision mists and I blink away a tear. Another shame that Hodin must have seen. The feeling inside me writhes and twists yet I do not know what it is or what I must do to rid myself of it. More tears threaten me and I feel my throat harden into a lump. I do not know how to answer my sister, who has cried, wailed and sobbed for a week and yet who has also saved my life today, defended me at the risk of her own life and dragged me away from danger. I have seen her as coward and a hero and yet I have recognised only her cowardice.
What is wrong with me?
“Hodin will judge me…”
“Hodin is doesn’t care. Hodin is a god of battle, but not a god of soldiers. He doesn’t care what happens to you.” Susanna’s voice is soft and kind, but her words leave me feeling … empty? No, because the roiling inside me, the trapped hurt and pain, continues unabated. I don’t understand. I don’t understand what I have done wrong.
I feel a tear on my cheek. I let it hang there. More shame will not matter now.
Susanna puts her arms around me.
“Heime, it’s ok to cry.”
Boots crush stone behind us and a voice, a slur of a sound, rumbles something unintelligible. Susanna has turned before I even know it. The cliff edge is at our backs. The tunnel mouth forms a ragged hole before us, the staggering, limping shape filling it. I can see bandaged limbs, the glint of chain wound tight about muscled arms and dark patches of blood.
A huge man, stripped to the waist and covered in blood steps out onto the ledge. Chains and spikes are gathered about his arms and in his hands he holds a pair of axes that click and pop as they freeze the air around them. His face is a burn scarred mess, red raw and savage, tattoos peeking out from under the mask of blood.
“Father?” Susanna sees it before me, her face rumpled in disbelief.
He doesn’t hear her, he just staggers forward, legs stiff and uncoordinated. His exposed teeth are like a broken gate of tombstones in his face. He focuses on us, his shoulders heaving, his arms twitching.
He lets out a growl.
“Halt.” Mother appears behind him, emerging from the darkness to his left. In her right hand she holds the figure of Hodin, its eye still white hot. Her left, the augmetic, looks twisted, the knuckles red and trailing strings of flesh.
It is Susanna that speaks. I cannot take my eyes of father. He drools and sways and snaps his teeth, a low sound coming from his lips. He sounds like an engine on the brink of failure.
“We came to get you out,” mother says. She too sounds different, something in her voice lost.
I do not know the people wearing my parent’s faces. Susanna places herself in front of me.
“What happened to you two?”
Mother says nothing, twisting the statuette’s base instead. The glow disappears and our father sinks to the floor. His body shakes and quivers but the sound he makes continues, sounding even more broken than before. I finally hear my father cry.
Mother walks towards us, her steps slow and careful.
“Just know that we love you.” She places the statuette of Hodin on the floor and raises her right hand, the left hanging at her side.
Susanna holds me behind her.
“I don’t understand,” she says.
“Your father and I are not good people. We never were. We love you both, we love you so much that sometimes I think I might scream and scream until there is nothing left of me, but please, understand, in the war we were not good people.”
“What were you?” I didn’t want to speak, but the figure of the god on the floor makes me. I want to be worthy of Hodin, even now.
“Hieme, no… just no. We are your parents and we love you. Just let that be enough for now. We need to go back to the truck.”
Susanna holds me as I step forward.
Father tries to rise, but flops weakly on the floor. He rolls to his pack, his every movement writing pain across his face.
“We love you,” he whispers, “we love you, we love you, we love you.”
Mother wipes away her own tears and kneels besides her husband.
“One day, we’ll tell you, I promise,” she says, lifting father upright, “but for the moment, please just come with us.”
Susanna’s hand tightens onto my shirt and she is about to speak when I say; “you wanted to save us.”
“Yes,” mother says.
“Susanna,” I turn to my big sister, “we should go with them.”
Together, as a family, we walk into the darkness.