Momentum carries me out of the water. Forwards, forwards, toppling. Something scratches my leg—a rock, or a stick—I don’t care. All I care about is moving forwards.
The sand beneath my feet feels so comforting that for one maddening moment I consider burrowing into it; gorging myself on it. But I can still hear the ocean at my back. It rumbles and roars. It reaches out with foamy white fists, clawing at the beach. It drags the sand away in layers, revealing the shapes of long dead, sideways things—crabs and fish and squid.
I feel the spray. Little more than a mist it still burns my skin like acid. I scream but make no sound. I stumble forwards. Forwards. How far must I run to get away from the sea?
I limp across the sand, past stones and overturned logs, until I reach a wall of trees raised up on a stone outcropping. The solidity of the rocks is comforting beneath my wrinkled palms; the geometry and dryness of them stark contrast to the wet, roaring horror at my back.
I clamber up the rocks and inhale the smells of the jungle. Great spiders hang down heavily between the trees, their markings like tribal war masks. I swat the spiders away. Here, amongst the cicadas and the rustling leaves, I finally rest.
But not for long. Beyond the trees the ocean still calls to me; it calls me back to that that uncanny, churning vastness beneath the waves. That terrible void.
I peek out from behind the tree. Sheets of water glisten as they glide up the sand. Back further, the ocean heaves and the waves grow higher. I watch one wave rise high above the rest and come crashing down towards me. I step back even as briny salt water spray lashes the trees.
I need to keep moving.
The jungle is filled with tiny blades. Serated branches and stings assail me at every step. The prickles and stingers and bugs cling to me like the decorative baubles on a festive tree.
I use vines to pull me up in places where the rocks are too steep. There is a cave near the top of the hill, set back from the edge. I frantically scrub off the detrius of the jungle as I descend into the darkness.
I do not want to sleep, but unconsciousness claims me. My body is broken and bleeding. The pain is too much. I dream of the thing that pursues me, the one-beneath-the-sea.
When I wake up the water has receded away from the trees. Spread out across the beach like oily, glistening entrails, are heaped piles of seaweed. There is so much of it that the sand can barely be seen beneath. There is a thick, salty tang in the air that makes it hard to breathe.
The water, it seems, cannot reach me here. But I don’t have the energy to celebrate. I barely manage to crawl away to toilet myself. I return to the cave beset with stomach cramps. My body is covered in perspiration and even the slightest hint of a breeze makes my teeth chatter.
I need to light a fire, but I have no way how. I need to eat but the only thing I can find nearby is a fallen coconut that I can’t break open. I chew on some of the stringy fur that clings to the outside of the shell and it doesn’t taste good.
I am very sick.
Sometime in the afternoon a breeze burrows down into the cave. I shuffle to the entrance and look down at the waves. They look so far away. I am so hungry.
I try—again—to break the coconut, but I can’t even lift it. My skin is grey. I have a wicked headache that pounds all my thoughts flat leaving only thin delirium.
The sky turns orange as though the sun has been punctured and is bleeding. The ocean has grown still and looks very dark. The beach has been strangled by even more seaweed. As I watch it twitches in the breeze.
I drift off somewhere between sleep and almost-death. I awaken, feverish and clawing at myself. I need water and the absurdity of that thought makes me laugh huskily. I look down at the beach and notice even more seaweed than before.
Now the seaweed is clinging to the front row of trees. It stretches between them, hanging down from the branches like heavy, unwashed hair. It jiggles and shakes as I watch it. It quivers in the wind.
But there is no wind.
The seaweed is sliding wetly between the trees. It slithers up the rocks and into the cracks between them. In one place it gathers in a lumpish, squirming mass and begins to rise up into the shape of a man.
I claw at my face. I glance about and see only the coconut. I frantically gather it into my arms, clutching it against me like a baby while I gather my breath. It takes every effort for me to raise it up higher—above my head—as high as it can go. My arms are shaking.
I close my eyes. I can hear the wet slurping of the seaweed as it comes to the entrance of the cave, but I won’t let it take me.
I drop the coconut on my head and it cracks.
Think of a nail; like you’d hit with a hammer.
Work as hard as you can to form that image in your mind.
Contemplate the length–maybe one or two inches; and the metal it’s made from (iron, most likely).
Hold it in your mind’s eye, and then: with your mind’s hands.
Touch the point of the nail with the end of your finger and notice that it’s sharp enough to prick your skin.
Bite down on it–feel the unyielding metal between your teeth.
Imagine a nail; like you’d hit with a hammer.
Focus on the simplicity of its shape. Ignore, for now, its purpose.
Vanish it–then bring it back. Practice doing this, until it becomes second-nature.
In the coming days and weeks and months, I want you to cast your mind back to the nail you’ve created. Touch it–turn it over between your fingers–conjure it up (again and again): make the nail as real as you possibly can.
Think of a nail, like you’d hit with a hammer.
Put it aside: but don’t forget about it.
You’re going to need it, soon enough.
George Michael is smiling, but his smile is one frozen–trapped–inside this snow globe of sadness.
He sings of an eternal “last Christmas”, never clearly defined. Such is the way in which the song is dragged along by the arrow of time and comes to be about every Christmas.
This Christmas exists only as suggestion; a promise that the woes of the last will not be repeated.
This year, George sings, to save him from tears, he’ll give his heart to someone special.
And yet, as the world spins and another winter’s snowfall begins; the lights blaze up all gold and crimson; the speakers crackle tinnily and, again, his voice–cheerful despite the sadness–again he laments, again:
Last Christmas: I gave you my heart.
The very next day: you gave it away.
This year: to save me from tears.
I’ll give it it to someone special.
It would not be so bad perhaps, if we could believe him. Yet clearly he mourns for the love that was lost–the love of last Christmas. His determination to “give his heart to someone special”, rings hollow–the forgotten dream of a promise yet fulfilled.
George is carrying presents. Creeping through the snow like some bronzed, idealised Father Christmas. The gifts are wrapped with ribbon and topped with bows, but they are mere props to enhance the illusion.
The truth is: those presents are empty.
Or, if they contain anything at all, perhaps it’s explosives with which he will seek to shatter the glass of the snow globe at last, to escape from this self-imposed purgatory, this seasonal time-loop of Christmas Cheer.
George will not explode the presents: he cannot. Because he is only an image.
And just like the static figures in a snow globe he will remain on the shelf, gathering dust, until another year passes and, again, it is taken out and shaken up (again) to remind us, forever to remind us, of “Last Christmas”.
Before you is a building–once grand; long fallen into disrepair. The building, all stone and spires and crumbling dark brick, teeters here at the edge of everything.
Ghosts swarm around the building, faces unrecognisable, speaking nonsense words. Perhaps you are one of them.
Then: the great wooden doors groan as they open. Wood splinters and dust kicks up from the ground. Somewhere you can here the sound of a great metal chain unspooling.
“Hello?” says a voice from out of the darkness. A light blooms–flickering torch light–and the interior of the building becomes visible. Thick red carpet lines the halls, paintings hang askew on the walls. Stone corridors lead off in all directions.
He moves towards you and speaks again: “I don’t get many visitors,”
The man is wearing a grey hoodie, tracksuit pants and sneakers. But he does not seem out of place here; in fact, it seems as though this is exactly where he belongs. He smiles and his eyes twinkle, although you also sense great sadness in them.
“Come with me,” he says. “I’ve got something to show you.”
He leads you down stone corridors, past paintings that show a variety of landscapes and faces. Some of the pictures only show splashes of colour. Others are blank.
He leads you through a junk room, piled high with weapons and armour. He leads you through a basement that hums with electricity, past switchboards covered in blinking lights and television screens showing static.
He leads you outside, across a helicopter landing pad and up a set of narrow stone stairs that wind around a tower.
“Not far now,” he says as you follow up the stairs.
At the top you find yourself in a small room. One of the walls has crumbled away, granting you a view of the uncanny, churning sky that surrounds this place.
“That is the Neverous Ether,” he says. “You’re not supposed to be able to see that.”
You open your mouth to ask a question but you have so many.
“There,” he points.
A tiny speck of light has appeared on the horizon. The moment you set eyes upon it, it seems to grow brighter. It pulses, each time growing larger, every second growing drifting higher in the sky.
The ball of light pierces through the clouds and shines down on your face. Behind it, the sky is blue. It is a sky that you recognise.
“There,” he says, smiling a satisfied smile. “That’s what I brought you here to see.”
Good Morning, Monday.
Tick, clunk, and all those other sounds of a dreary afternoon where the volume on the television is turned down to a barely audible murmur and the world outside the window passes by with the hiss of upswept rain: pitter-patter, whoosh.
More rain meant less customers. Malin sighed (prettily, she hoped), adding another noise to the hazy daze. She wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to on a day like this, to have something new to occupy her mind for a moment or two… anything to save her from having to read about the grape-seed diet, another pregnant celebrity, or those awful copy-pasted horoscopes all over again.
On the television screen behind the counter, a crowd of people were laughing, which meant that somebody had said something funny or that they’d won a prize. There was an advertisement about depilatory cream. Then another that showed a cat wearing a captain’s hat. The cat was singing a song about fish and the open ocean. Then that commercial gave way to yet another: claiming NOW was the time to get the ripped abs you’ve always dreamed of.
Malin leaned against the counter and inspected her fingernails, distracted for a moment by the way the french tips caught the sheen of the hanging light above her left shoulder, burnishing half of each nail in golden light.
Tingle. That was the sound of a customer, the wind howling as the door opened and quickly hushed into obeisance as it whispered closed. Malin saw his shoes first. Black, almost featureless boots. He also wore grey-black pants and a lumpy brown jacket that bore dozens of strange patches. The patches looked like little flags, but seemed to be the wrong shape.
Rain sluiced off of him, leaving a river in his wake. He had dark-grey hair and a few scars, but it was impossible to tell his age, other than that he had to be somewhere between thirty-five and ancient. Malin smiled at him, or at least she tried. But she could tell that his was a face unaccustomed to smiling: his eyes simmered with a strange keenness.
“What can I get you?” she asked as the man came closer. Then he became distracted by the television. The commercials had ended and the screen now showed talented children with talented pets.
“Excuse me, Miss,” said the stranger. “Would you mind switching to the news?”
Malin complied. “Sure,” she said. “But only if you buy a coffee, or something to eat.
The muffins are good.”
Malin pushed a button and the picture on the screen changed to that of a deadpan face reading from a teleprompter. Diplomatic bungles, struggling families, a medical technology break through, a medical emergency. Next… sport. After that, the weather.
Malin sighed (prettily, she hoped) and turned back to the customer. She didn’t care if his was a face unaccustomed to smiles, because hers was not.
“The… muffins, you said?” the man was giving the appearance of speaking to her, but Malin could tell that he was really watching the television out of the corner of his eye.
“Blueberry are my favourite, but we also have pumpkin and spinach, wholemeal, chocolate, mixed berry, choc-chip, and…” her voice trailed off as she realised any pretence that the man was still listening had slipped away. He was staring over her shoulder at the television screen. Gradually Malin’s awareness tuned into the tinny voice playing from the televison speaker, not deadpan anymore, but sounding somehow different…
We’re not sure what to make of these reports, but… bear with me, we have a lot of reports coming in. It seems like there has been—unconfirmed—explosions and… sightings? In several places now, and…
“He found us,” said the man in the jacket, in a way that made it clear he was not talking to Malin. Talking to yourself was the first sign of madness, that’s what Malin’s old Nana used to say.
“Who?” said Malin, her own voice sounded different to normal, as though it was playing from a second television in a different corner of the room. Images played out on the screen: engine parts floating in the sky, a distance shot of a field where black plumes of smoke were rising, and tall, dark figures stalking unnaturally towards the cameras.
The man reached across the counter and grabbed Malin’s shoulder. Somewhere around here there was supposed to be one of those panic switches that you hit if you were being robbed, but Malin wasn’t sure the service was even connected anymore (and she was even less sure she was being robbed).
“Listen,” the man’s breath rasped warmly in her ear. Up close Malin found that she could smell him, an unearthly mixture of war and magic. “You have just become the single most important person in the universe. I need you to do something for me, the next time this happens.”
“Next time?” there was a noise outside now, a strange whirring chirping noise that
was becoming louder than the wind. “I don’t understand, I…”
The man kept talking, but Malin didn’t hear anything else. The front windows of the café exploded inwards, glass dicing through the air like a blizzard of deadly snowflakes. Malin was flung against the rear wall of the café. Muffins tumbled in every direction.
Malin looked out through the front windows and realised the entire building had been
lifted into the air. Now it was slowly being tipped on its side, so that the broken windows were directly below them; deadly shards glinting between them the ground below.
Malin began to slide, as did tables and chairs and even the refrigerator that stocked cold drinks. Almost everything fell out of the shop, spiralling to the ground below. Somehow, Malin realised that the television was still playing:
…act of terrorism or war, some are even suggesting…
And then even the television was dragged out of its power socket, the cord whipping past Malin as it plummeted. She clung to the front counter and found herself staring down into the eyes of the stranger below. He was trying to pull himself up, but it was useless. Malin knew that she didn’t have the strength to help him and was forced to watch as his knuckles turned white and his grip began to falter.
“Remember,” he said. “Next time.”
– excerpt from “Malin”
I see patterns where there are none,
And if there are none,
Well then I’ll make some.
“You go first,” said Mal as he teetered on the precipice. Below, the Cloudscape broiled and sparked, shot through with flickers of brilliance.
For an Outworlder, the view would have been dizzying, at best. Maddening was far more likely. But the citizens of the floating city were used to living above the clouds.
However used to it they may have been, none fancied the thought of falling into the Cloudscape and disappearing forever with little more than a fading scream; which was why most of them stayed far above the clouds, on the high terraces, where they were protected by railings and barriers and large nets stretched out to catch them if they fell.
The wind whistled and cracked around the Low-Dwellers. Imbibed with thoughts of self-preservation, little Mal licked his lips and repeated:
“You go first.”
Born from a single candle, the God of Golden Light spilt out of the window and onto wet cobblestone. Unsteady, waxy reflections passed over Him as leathery boots tromped the winding corridors of the city. And wherever they went He followed: trapped in gas lamps, reflected onto belt buckles and shimmering in the glassy stares of the drunk and the hungry and those who were too much of one to remember what the other was.
Behind a façade of iron and glass an old man sat hunched over a desk carved out of jungle wood. He made scratchings on paper with a metal-tipped pen. The words that he scribed were not of the Queen’s language and few in Caladon would have been able to decipher the ornate symbols that he swathed expertly across the page.
Still, if you were to look closely, you would have seen the strain in the old man’s arm—an urgency in the tension of his wrist. For the letter he wrote was filled with strange portents, rising tensions and unlikely possibilities.
There was something like the sound of the rustling of leaves pressed up against the door by a sudden, violent breeze and the old man grew tense. The pen tumbled from his fingers as a pair of strong, gloved hands gripped him around the neck.
The gloves melted the life out of him in a matter of moments. His body slumped ungracefully to the floor. The murderer held up the letter, glacial eyes scanning the page, then dipped the corner of the parchment into the flame and watched as the letters dissolved into ash, unread by their intended recipient—though perhaps not forever, because fire never forgets.
With one final motion, the murderer snuffed out the candle and the storefront fell into darkness.
– excerpt from “Alex Magnus Vs. The Thuul”
Maze with Colour