The hood came off and I blinked in the anticipated spotlight. However, it was just a standard Anglepoise and I was cable-tied to a basic wooden chair, not a restraint-cum-waterboarding recliner. That shouted amateur, and amateur can be dodgy.
“Are you Mallory?” The voice was East End London with an undertone of anger. He was a big man in a black rollneck and camelhair car coat. Pretty much a walking cliché if you’re into retro gangland, but no less dangerous for all that.
Still, it never hurts to run your mouth. “I’d better be, buster, for your sake. Whoever hired you will be less than chuffed if you’ve lifted the wrong bloke. And I know you’re just muscle ’cos you and me, we have zero history.”
Rollneck’s gaze shifted to a point over my right shoulder.
“Quite correct, David – may I call you David?” Unseen had an inflection that reminded me of Peter Lorre. “The gentleman in front of you, and his two associates, are here to provide a physical inducement, should reason not prevail.”
The sky was always pink in the Beautiful Place. Maybe because it was Ffion’s favourite colour. The clouds resembled candy floss, the grass was the softest green, and the trees swayed gracefully even when there was no breeze. Birds sang the sweetest songs and bees hummed along. There were no wasps.
Ffion collected the souls of people who’d lived the hardest lives. The ones tortured by loss or pain or circumstance. Every night before sleep, she drifted on the other plane, looking for those who were lost. She smiled, she held them if they wanted to be held, and she guided them onwards.
The Beautiful Place took them all – even she felt soothed when she visited, though she couldn’t stay for long. When it faded from her grasp, a cold feeling of dread washed over her before she could push it aside and sink into sleep.
Ffion worked in the village bakery. She made cupcakes which were very popular with the locals celebrating occasions such as birthdays and Christenings. She made cupcakes for the village fayre to support the church even though she wasn’t religious. Once, she gave cupcakes to a teenager for free when he claimed they were for his poorly little brother. When she later found this to be untrue, she didn’t demand any money – she simply sighed and gave a sad smile.
The eye never has enough of seeing.
Megan’s mind wasn’t focusing. What was wrong with her?
She was crossing a busy intersection. The WALK light flashed like a beacon of warning. She had only so much time before the light would change. Keep moving. Focus.
Work was getting to her. Too much stress. She needed a change; maybe a new job.
Stop thinking about these things. Concentrate.
Her vision was acting up again. A well-dressed woman, a young man in casual attire, and two men in suits and ties had been walking toward her. A few other people also crossed her line of vision. But now the number of people multiplied several times over until there were dozens.
The images were dizzying.
Was that herself among all those people? She was walking toward herself, as though she were walking toward a mirror.
Harry Holden stumbles through Ballykey Cemetery, blood gushing from his throat, chest heaving with sobs. Faster, faster! Gotta get away! He staggers into a clearing dominated by a hawthorn tree, its every detail rendered sinister by pale moonlight. Despite everything, he shivers at the sight of it, remembering his nana’s oft-repeated warning: Never trust the wee folk, Harry.
The world spins.
As he falls, Harry glimpses thorny branches, blood-red berries and claw-like fissures on brown bark. He hears but doesn’t feel the crack when he lands, the cold already overtaking his body.
His eyes close and he knows they won’t open again. Not in this life, anyway. All his hopes and dreams cut short by the swish of a knife.
“Not… fair…” breathes Harry. His last words and there’s no one around to hear them.
Or so he thinks.
Deep below the house was a lab with walls of cold steel and soft luminescent light. There, a machine sat on a metal chair, cables inserted into the sockets placed within the spine, arms, and legs. A machine in the shape of a human female, with skin of metal and polymer. A gynoid, as was the technical term. It had been weeks since her creator had come to visit her. Thus all the greater was the gynoid’s surprise when her maker stood before her. She stood up, looking into the first eyes she had seen at birth. And now here they were: creation and creator, face to face once more.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I did. I really did. More than anything,” she said. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
Again, only silence and a glance as an answer.
She felt the distraught tension. She wanted to reach out and lock themselves into an embrace like before, but stopped herself. “Is it something I did? Is it because I changed?” she asked. “That I grew is just part of it. You knew that—”
“So it was, sweet friend, that––”
“Ah, dear friend, greatest and dearest of friends, I have distressed thee. Folly it was, folly and worse, for me to tell a story of such darkness. Thy physician’s stern looks rightly rebuke me, and thy grandchildren’s whisperings show clearly how heedless I have been. Let us call in the young ones again and I shall tell tales of happier times for Shir Shaheen and Roshan, such as the day the vintner came and how the sampling of his wares caused such commotion in Paridiz.”
But the old man in the bed, the dying man, will not be turned from his question. He leans forward from the many pillows that support him, determination in his voice, thin and frail as it is. “It was Safar, thy brother, and thou didst kill him?”
His friend, who has been his friend for more than the lifetime of an ordinary mortal, gives way. “Safar was his name,” says Shaheen. “And once he was my brother. But it was evil I destroyed that night, and glad I am I did so.”
The old man, grandfather and great-grandfather, but still in his heart the boy Roshan, falls back against the pillows. “So many hidden things hast thou revealed in thy tales today, all kept so many long years, weighing upon thy soul. Yet they are but trifles compared to this most bitter secret. How it must have pained thee.” He puts his hand, his aged, wizened hand, upon his friend’s. “Thou shouldst have told me this ere now, so I could have shared thy burden.”
Christmas Eve morning and it is good to be alive. Rudolph, the twenty-seventh reindeer of that name and the twenty-sixth generation since the great legend, prances out of the barn to his personal manger for his annual treat.
His favourite lichen, the one that makes his nose glow red, is missing. He will not be lighting the way for the sleigh tonight. Is he being retired?
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa says from behind.
“Is this a joke?” Rudolph grunts and turns to face him nose-to-nose, his breath freezing on Santa’s beard. “If so, it’s not funny. Where’s my lichen?”
“There’s a problem.”
“You bet there is.” He nudges Santa to force him to bend a little backwards.
“There was none to harvest this year.”
“Now must the young ones leave, as I would not have them hear my next tale. For though great happiness did Setareh bring to Roshan, darkness yet threatened them and all Paridiz.”
Dusk was falling, and throughout the city lights appeared, save at its very centre. For where Safar’s shining tower once had stood, darkness now reigned. Atop his own tower Shir Shaheen held a shard of desert glass, part of the crystal in which the vizier’s sorcerer had long ago trapped him, and as he turned it over and over in his hand, he watched the darkness.
His day had been spent labouring among the qanats beneath Paridiz, as each day had been spent for the past several months, ensuring fresh water flowed everywhere, bringing with it the ancient earth-magic; ensuring also that he could, at need, quickly redirect the waters and seal outflows to create the pressure for one more fountain.
He had done all he could. Nothing now was left but to watch and wait.
Behind him, Roshan paused in his ceaseless walking to and fro and stared towards the centre of the city where wraith-like shadows were forming a demonic simulacrum of Safar’s tower. Unnatural, unholy darkness swathed its ghostly walls, and fear bled from it.
“An illusion, I doubt not,” said Roshan, “but it seems almost that the shadows have become thicker, more solid.”
“It is no illusion,” said Shaheen.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Opinionated Gallery. I am Director Brandt, the site administrator.” I kept up my smile despite the obvious lack of interest from those few members of the press who’d bothered to attend. “Here at the Cybernetics Division of Anderson Industries, we craft personality constructs based on deceased corporate executives so that they may provide continued boardroom insight and guidance.”
Their indifference was like a sponge, sucking any last shreds of enthusiasm from an already mundane media event, but I persevered.
“Unfortunately, some of our creations have been considered too critical, too irascible, or just too lifelike by the new executives in charge.” I gestured to the horseshoe of twelve anthropomorphic busts. “So rather than see our work go to waste, this free gallery was established, where the public may seek advice from some of the leading captains of industry from the last half-century. And today we play host to a most distinguished guest, Howard Bell, the deputy director of Homeland Security.”
“Hark, dear friend. The daughters of thy grandchildren whisper amongst themselves, for they feel too long have I talked of battles and bloodshed and they wish to hear of gardens and nightingales and pretty things. So of gardens and nightingales and pretty things shall I speak. Yet must I talk of shadows, too, and a time when Roshan was ensnared and Shir Shaheen was called upon to free him.”
The chariot of time rolled ever on in Paridiz. More people came to live in the city – not only from the impoverished townships at the desert’s edge, but from Gorj itself. More buildings were rebuilt, more noise echoed from the houses, more stench rose from the streets; laws were made, taxes introduced, officials employed.
Roshan grew taller and broader, his chin boasting the beginnings of a dark beard. His grandmother grew a little frail, with more grey in her hair, more lines upon her face. Shir Shaheen alone seemed unchanged, yet in him was the greatest alteration – no longer did he hide away upon his tower or conceal his true self in an old man’s guise; no longer did resentment of the humans gnaw at his heart.
Yet ease was not his, for though he had cleansed the city, the blood-magic remained, and with more humans to prey upon, its resurgence was quickening. Already bloodshed and aggression, even murder, had shown its ugly face in Paridiz, and whether some humans were brought to violence by the whispered promises of power which they heard without awareness, or the brutality of some humans fed the blood-magic, the result was the same.