Aphelion Issue 228, Volume 22
May 2018
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

Triptukhon

by Callum Colback




Part I
A Killer Comes

Feed the Habit


A man would die tonight. That much was certain.

The three moons hung in the sky, watching on without judgement, juggler’s balls suspended above the horizon in perpetual and barely perceptible motion. Their light illuminated the wooden cabin at the centre of the basin. It stood in the middle of the vast wastelands, neither structure nor organism to keep it company. Craters marred the ground around it, relics of the hard times that had come before these harder times.

From his vantage point at the top of the basin, Ezra saw a cloud of dust lift up into the orange sky. Particles confined to the ground for so long, part of a pre-destined existence of invisibility within some greater whole, thrown into the air and set on another course entirely, their fate cast to the wind and to hell with it. He thought in this instant how easy it would be to turn away, to cease the bloodletting, to throw his own fate to the wind. But, of course, he would not. His path was set; perhaps it had been since birth. The gun on his belt was his compass, the blood on his hands a constant reminder. And besides, it was not just his fate in the balance.

He dropped from his mounts metal back, worn boots thudding into the ground. The mechanical horse bent its neck to feign eating grass that wasn’t there. Nothing was there but sand and dirt and the creatures that moved below it. And two desert ants, each the size of Ezra’s thumb, embroiled in a battle next to his boot. The insects held each other with their vice like jaws, pinned in a death embrace. Ezra pondered what they were fighting for; food, honour (did insects know honour?), a woman? He smiled through cracked lips. Wasn’t it always a woman? The insects refused to let up and with one final, fatal twist of heads, they both crumpled, their short lives ended in an instance. The smile was wiped away and Ezra looked to the cabin. Through the sand blasting his face he could see a dim light flickering in one of the windows and a small coil of smoke twisting away from the chimney like a snake, squeezing the life from an invisible victim. The image sent a shiver through him and he made a silent prayer.

Let there be no collateral this time. And please, by the gods, not another child.

Leaving his metallic horse, Ezra stalked towards the cabin until he was crouching below a grimy window. The relentless moaning desert wind made it impossible to pick up any sound that might have been coming from within. The stained windows afforded no view of the inside. His heart thumped a little faster. Slender fingers of fear caressed his neck and set the hairs there to attention. Fear of the unknown, of uncertainty, of knowing a thousand possibilities hung in the balance of the next few minutes and any one of them could be realised and made fact. It was a fear he had relished and thrived on for so long, but today he found it only leaving his mouth dry, a sour taste on his tongue. The sourness was Myra, and fear of what may come to pass should she consume any more individuals for their power. The world would burn long before she was satisfied. That, and perhaps the taking of lives was taking its toll.

He wormed up next to the door and placed a hand lightly on the butt of the revolver strapped to his hip. The guns Devilswood grip was like an old friend, every notch and scar holding a memory. Faces from the past swam up in front of him. Myra herself, her nose scrunched up, emerald eyes holding a fire that had seen countless men, women, and children burn. Their daughter, the tiny newborns face slack and emotionless, void of any sign of life. The face of his father, not remembered as clearly as the old man’s fists. The young boy from the town of Calvary, a red hole burned forever between his eyes, eyes that no longer saw. Ezra blinked them away, they were no use to him now. Nothing but pain there.

He tightened the pinstripe tie around his neck until it squeezed his adams apple tight in his throat. A creature of habit, a slave of ritual. That was his perpetual ritual. A habit to be fed before the killing. His hand still caressing the gun hilt, he gently pushed against the door and grimaced as it let out a pained wail. Ezra crouched frozen for a moment, waiting for a shouted confrontation, or worse, a spread of shells to rip through the flimsy walls and perforate his body. There was still time to turn back, to bolt and run up the hill of the basin to his mount and ride away from here, away from everything.

No shout came. No bullets riddled his body. Slowly exhaling, Ezra stepped over the threshold. His feet carried him into the cabin. And the door swung shut behind him.


Ease the Pain



Inside the cabin was a hoarder’s paradise. Ancient articles and papers lined the walls in teetering stacks. Atop one Ezra could see a news cutting condemning the enslavement of sand-worms for mining. On another was a picture of the Matriarchs palace, a monolith made of pure gold that housed the planets ruling caste, an offensively garish show of wealth and power. The word ‘rapists’ had been crudely painted over the image in dripping red letters. It was a sentiment towards the Matriarchs that was echoed by most people outside of the Capitol. A sentiment founded in undeniable truth, but one that to speak would cost you your life.

Ezra continued through the building. Beakers and jars filled with coloured liquids sat on drunkenly leaning shelves and dilapidated cabinets, and there were bags everywhere. Bags and bags of, what he could not say, but they bulged bloatedly and it was safe to assume from the menagerie of other useless items littering the room they were nothing but junk.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, is that not what father used to say?

Yes, that was one of the many things he said back when he had a throat to say them with.

A layer of sand and dust covered every inch of the room. He squinted into the gloom with eyes bloodshot from the desert, but found no sign of the Ancient. Yet he was here. He could sense him. More, he could smell him. The unmistakable stench of waste material and lingering death that clung to the old and frail, mingled with a sweet musk that was both comfortingly familiar and sickening in equal measure.

Dahlias.

He moved with a practiced silence around the detritus littering the ground, avoiding upsetting the floorboards into groaning their discomfort. One of the fit-to-burst bin bags oozed brown liquid onto his carefully pressed trousers and a pang of fury tightened his gut. Ezra stopped, unfastened and re-fastened the top button of his pinstripe jacket, tightened his tie to choking point.

Ease the habit, ease the pain.

The little ritual siphoned the stress from him and he continued silently towards an opening where the flickering light he had seen from the window danced awkwardly and threw convoluted shapes upon the ground. Peering through the opening with one eye, keeping his body carefully hidden in the shadows, he saw his victim. The Ancient. Laid peacefully...

And blissfully unaware… Upon a small wooden bed that hugged one of the walls, the mattress on which he rested splattered a motley yellow and brown to match his robe. His hair was long and unkempt, his nails so long they were beginning to curl into spirals.

Before he knew what he was doing, Ezra found himself stepping over the threshold into the room. A magnetic force drew him in, abandoning all stealth and care. There was a thrumming pressure within that made it difficult to draw breath, and some decoration on the walls that forced his eyes away so he could not discern their nature. Instead he focused on the contents of the room, the dying old man.

The room was a tomb. A crypt with its buried still breathing inside. Wooden statues and coins surrounded The Ancients bed. Several vials of liquid similar to the ones that lined the shelves in the previous room lay on a stool near his head.

Medicine?

The Ancient was a living corpse. Why send someone to carry out a job nature was close to completing itself? The wooden carvings looked to be tokens to be taken with him when he left this world. No, not accurate. Some of the carvings did, but some Ezra recognised. He had seen them before, on a gold-plated dresser in a bedroom a long way from here. Remembrance teased at the corners of his mind; he had felt an oppressive sense like the one within this room before. Ezra’s hand went to the knot in his tie.

He forced himself to look at the walls. His eyes resisted, trembling violently in their sockets, moving at an unbearably slow rate. But eventually they obeyed.

He saw what his mind had wanted to deny him. Carvings. Great hideous carvings. They lined all four walls of this crypt of the living, cut into the brittle wood with wild slashes, disjointed and arcing. They cut into Ezra’s mind. Messages of hate, messages of rage, messages that curdled the blood in his veins and momentarily scrambled the electrical signals firing around his brain. He had never seen such anger laid bare before and it chilled him to the bone. He could not comprehend a man as frail and harmless looking as this ancient, with his hollow cheeks and sagging skin barely clinging to the pronounced bone of his skull, breeding such ugly emotion upon something. And then he checked himself. And ran a hand through his kempt hair, feeling the scar that ran from crown to spine. He had made that mistake before. He gritted his teeth, remembering the pain, both of blow and betrayal.

The room was heating up, growing more claustrophobic by the second. As Ezra watched on the carvings began to shimmer with an otherworldly glow that confused his eyes, making it painful to look upon them for long. Yet it was hard to look away, for in them he saw all the heinous acts committed, by himself and others. His eyes glazed over with bloodlust, the dirty hate of the carvings that surrounded him pulsating in his head like a drug. Runic symbols of violation and destruction that permeated every pore of his flesh and every conscious twitch of his being. Emotions and memories from his past flooded him. His father’s body appeared at his feet, throat pouring blood onto the floor. Sickness and guilt broiled in Ezra’s stomach. The body disintegrated into sand before his eyes, the grains whipped around the room and reshaped into Myra, lifelong lover, lifelong tormenter, nakedly dancing before him, the otherworldly power she commanded perverting his mind and bringing him to ecstasy. She leaned in and whispered to him,

“Bring me back anything of interest,”

Before twisting away, spinning and bursting into a thousand particles, lost in the carvings shining light.

The images went on, each one replacing the other in a blast of sand or a burst of light. Ezra fought through them to cross the room. On wooden legs he staggered to the Ancients bed and drew his revolver, seeing the dancing, twisting light reflected in the polished metal of its barrel. His demons reflected in it, and deeper yet the demons of his demons, rolling over and over each other in murder and fornication, singing to him in a thousand sultry voices. He wanted nothing more than to turn and leave this damned cabin, but the demons in the metal beckoned him closer. He must see it through. Payment was life. Payment was death. The ancient was laid below him, deep below a sea of hellfire, the old man’s chest fluttering shallow breath in and out, in and out. Ezra aimed the barrel into the ancient’s concave chest, his hand quivering, eyes stinging, cheeks warm with blood below and tears above. His finger coiled around the trigger, it’s metal cold against his finger. He cocked the weapon full and the resonating click was louder than a hundred thunderclaps. The hollow sound awoke something in the ancient, some dying ember of life still conscious to the world, and his eyes shot open. Two rings of penetrating blue whose blackened centre seemed to spiral inwards forever and ever.

Ezra sobbed once, and his guns barrel erupted death upon the old man below him.

Get the Girl



Blood from the ancient’s stomach fountained up, spattering Ezra’s face, and the world rushed in to meet him again. The terrible carvings throbbed less powerfully in his mind, the tears on his cheeks began to dry, and his overloaded senses returned to base level. The demons in the metal of his gun were gone, their invasive song petering out into the moaning desert wind.

Ezra dragged a hand across his face. What terrible magic had affected him so? A molestation of his mind, like a temporary insanity. This was some taint, some alteration to his conscious being. Killing was his job, to be carried out as such; ruthlessly, efficiently, coldly. Yet in the moments before he spilled the Ancients blood he had been a shivering wreck, a bunched spangle of nerves and paranoia and delusion. Even with exhaustion eating at his bones he should have resisted. He spat upon the floor. He had been warned the resident of this cabin posed a threat most grave, but the ease with which the ancient had perverted his mind while so close to death was troubling. More so that this evil felt familiar, it’s touch recognisable. A golden palace lodged like a tumour in his head.

He might have dug himself further into the dark hole of questioning and uncomprehending that he found himself falling into, had it not been for a snarl that shattered his inner thoughts like a sheet of ice brought down across his head. Ezra whirled, blood splashed revolver raised, one hand on the knot in his tie, but where the terrible sound emanated from was only a shadow of a doorway; what looked from its size to be a cupboard or storage room.

A dog, he thought, but it was a lie unto himself. The wet rasping sound was punctuated by the heavy breathing of a person. And as the person stepped into the light, the carvings upon the wall flared a bright red, light spilling forth, burning their twisted, malicious messages into the Ezra’s retinas until all he could make out was the outline of a young girl, a knife, comically disproportionate to her size, brandished before her.

‘HE WAS MINE!’ she screamed, her voice blasting air at him.

He aimed the gun at her silhouette, tiny in the doorway, and tried to shut out the light from the carving. The high pitch ringing filling the room was rising higher and louder, threatening to shatter his head in two.

Why, gods why? Must my soul be inevitably damned?

‘HE WAS MINE AND YOU STOLE HIM FROM ME!’

Ezra tried to tell her to calm down, put the knife down, he had not come here for her; but his mouth just opened and closed silently, unable to form the words. His gun seemed to have doubled in weight and he struggled to keep it aimed. Arm muscles screamed and tendons stretched as he fought to keep it in place.

She charged into the light. This crazed girl in a bright yellow shirt came hurtling at him, pig tails flying, spitting and snarling like a beast unchained.

Ezra had killed her relative; father, grandfather, whichever the ancient had been, he had killed him and she had stood and watched. Watched as the slug had entered his heart and stolen his life force. And so she flew at him, whatever she was, this little girl who’s rage and will for revenge had brought light spilling from scratches in the wall and filled the killers head with excruciating white noise. His hand was drooping under the weight of his gun, but with an incomprehensible noise tearing from his throat he raised it upon her once more. Still she came. A snarling savagery of teeth and knife and hate, pure and utter hate.

Let her stop, please let her stop. I cannot do this again.

You can.

I will not.

You will. You must.

It would be better to die here, under her blade.

That. Is. Not. Your. Fate.


Ezra managed to utter a single word, stop, over the din in his mind, only it came out as a whisper, trickling off his lips. His finger hovered over the trigger for a brief moment, willing her to stop, but then she was upon him and he fired.

Wide and high.

The bullet punched through the ceiling of the cabin. A thin shaft of moonlight spilled through, it’s light glinting on the blade in the girl’s hand as it cut through the air towards him.

There was time for his practiced hands to fire again, to send her wiry frame flying through the air, a hole in her chest and more blood on his soul. But he could not. Would not. Not again. Fate be damned.

The knife plunged into his shoulder, slicing through the fleshy part between joint and rib cage. He thought he felt the tip exit through his back, but the pain was so blindingly all-encompassing that he could not be sure. The girl stepped back, no knife in her hands, a look of uncertainty and confusion spliced on her face. The knife hilt was obvious and ugly in Ezra’s peripheral vision, protruding from his chest like a new-born’s head birthing from its mother. A black vignette was drawing in around his vision. The gun slipped from his hand. The room was rotating through a hundred and eighty degrees, the floor rushing up to meet him. He didn’t even feel the wooden floorboards hit his cheeks.


Part II
The Tortured Soul

The Last Night



Lily filled the vials with a trembling anticipation, the beaker she poured the swampy liquid from clinking against the rims of the thin glass tubes. The sound resonated around the wooden house. A slow creak came from outside of her little room and her heart leapt to her mouth as she feared she had woken the old man Barnard. He had been bedridden for a long time now and the green death drink she had been feeding him had addled his mind, as well as his insides, yet she had still seen him move with purpose and strength on occasion. She scrunched up her nose at the foul smell from the next room and placed a cork in the final vial. The one that would end his wretched life the way he had ended hers, for she had not lived, not really lived, since the night she had been taken.

She padded into the old man’s room and stood for a moment, a finger twirling absent-mindedly in her left pigtail, watching the short, sharp rise and fall of the his chest below his faded robe. The urge to slide the knife from her dress pocket and end his evil existence right there, in one swift moment, was almost impossible to fight. Almost, but not quite. He did not deserve such a clean end. She removed her finger from the tight coil of hair wrapped around it and found she had pulled several of the golden fibres from her head. Lily slid to the side of the bed where the wooden stool she had been made to carve rested. She placed the vials in a neat line on the seat and crouched next to the old man’s head, resting one hand on the drawn flesh and jutting bone of his arm.

“This night will be your last, demon”, she whispered in his ear.

It had taken months to reach this point, but it felt right to send him out of the world this way. That was the best word she could think of for it. Right. As if in answer to it, the ever-present shade inside of her uncoiled. She felt it spread its tendrils within her, a warming sensation from inside to out. Yes, tonight would be a good night. As she rose and tuned away from the befouled bed he rested upon she studied her carvings. They adorned every wall of the room, and they were the most beautiful decoration she could think of. The words had spilled out of her as she wrote, the blade in her hand buried halfway to the hilt in the hard wood, all the things she felt, all the things she wanted to scream at the world, and the old man. But she could not shout and scream them, once she might have, but she had been trained and beaten until she learnt her lesson. Then, when the fear of the beatings had left, it was the fear of what her anger brought with it that stopped her. So she channeled it into words and wrote them in huge scrawling letters. Wrote them in the one place the old man would see every day when his eyes fluttered open briefly as he spluttered up the growing decay in his flaccid lungs.

She smiled at her handiwork, as she often did, and sauntered back to her cupboard.


Polka Dot Boots



The old man had slipped out of the shadows, his long salt and pepper hair swept across his face like a bank robbers bandanna. He had sauntered over and scooped Lily’s fragile little frame up in his arms.

“No fears now child’, he said in hushed tones, “No fears. Barnard’s here.”

She had wailed and spilt tears in an unending waterfall upon the packed earth. Between snatched breaths of air she screamed at him that they were her mummy and daddy and a bad man had run them down on his metal horse and she wanted them to get up, why weren’t they getting up?

As if he hadn’t known.

He cradled her to his chest, so tightly she could feel his heart thumping quicker at her touch. She threw her arms around his neck and clung on tight, staring desperately over his shoulder at the crumpled bodies of her parents in the roadway.

She remembered him carrying her, through countless sunsets and sunrises, through towns and across wasteland, to his house. A small wooden cabin in a desert basin, surrounded by leafless trees that squirmed horizontally as if trying to escape the relentless heat of the sun. She remembered being told to forget what she had seen, that the short life she had shared with her parents had ceased but that it was only the start of a new life where he would care for her.

“You are my daughter now. Do you know what that means?”

Little Lily nodded, not knowing, not really.

“It means I will look after you for as long as you live, because you are mine. You were never really theirs you know.”

The malformed trees loomed above, the fingers of their branches reaching towards her, clawing for her.

“I don’t like this place,” she said

He set her on the ground outside the cabins door and looked down at her, wild eyebrows knitted together.

“This is my home, and yours too now. It is a safe place. A place nobody will ever find us. We can play together and have fun here.”

A smile split his features. It was hideous.

“You’ll see. Your mother was right to entrust me.”

A tear trickled down her pale cheek, sunlight glistening off the slug trail left behind. The cabin looked old and dirty, not a nice place to live at all.

“I miss my old home.”

More tears rolled silently from her emerald eyes. They blurred her vision and for a split second she saw the cabin engulfed in flames. The ground below it seemed to warp, rising like a great beast stirred below it. Lily inhaled sharply and her eyes widened. She looked to the old man Barnard and assumed he must have seen it too for he was looking back at her with fear.

“Your eyes” he whispered, but then his face changed and it was anger there instead.

“Get inside,” he said, and pushed her through the door and into the cabin.

Later, when the anger had left him he had talked at her again, this time in his soft soothing voice. Little Lily had just looked at him blankly, his words rebounding off her. An empty darkness filled her, inhabited by sadness and confusion, and a warmth slowly seeping into it. He had scrubbed the dust and dirt from her naked body as she sat in a huge metal tub of icy water. She remembered his darting tongue flicking in and out across his lips, the way his hands trembled as they worked the sponge across her back. And she remembered his boots. More than anything that was what she remembered. Riding boots, but not ordinary black or brown riding boots as her parents had worn. These were fancy boots, painted in a polka dot pattern of black base and deep red spots.

The words he spoke, nonsensical as they had seemed, had calmed her somewhat. She missed her parents fiercely; seeing her father’s thatch of dark hair bobbing about as he tinkered with one of his inventions, or hearing her mother croon melancholy melodies along to her blues guitar playing. But she was still alive, still here where they were gone. She recognised that as something she should be grateful for.

However, the image of the old man Barnard’s boots refused to leave her mind, something about them unsettled her, and when the night came there was more yet that unsettled her, far more than the boots speckled with blood.


The Thief
Pt. I



“Wake up.”

The words drifted down to Ezra. Through his love making to Myra he heard them. He knew he should follow them up, but the steely grip she had on his right shoulder was causing a pain that kept drawing him back into her.

“Wake up.”

“I am awake,” he grunted.

Myra’s nails bit harder into his shoulder. Purple light jumped from the fingers of her free hand, electricity shocking his bare skin where it touched. God she was fierce, the pain was almost unbearable. Her emerald eyes were locked onto his. Her lips parted and she spoke.

“Bring me. Bring me, Ezra. Bring me back anything of interest.”

Ezra looked down at her quizzically, uncomprehending. She had said the same to him before, the last time he left her, left her to…. He had not intended to stop, but her words halted his thrusting. Words rolled around on his tongue as he formulated a question that never came. Myra opened her mouth and her tongue was a blade. It shot out of and punctured his shoulder, a hot poker of pain through his body. His screams filled the golden bedchamber.

He opened his eyes to find the golden room had turned brown. Then he saw the young girl next to him and remembered where he was. His shirt was sticky with blood, clinging to his chest. He looked down and saw the knife hilt that had been buried in his shoulder was gone. A bunch of torn cloth rags had been pressed against the wound and tied on with more rags. The girl regarded him from over a can of beans. Her emerald eyes bore into him.

"Why didn't you shoot me?"

Ezra struggled to raise himself up on one arm. His right arm no longer seemed to be functioning; he could only just move the hand.

"I tried."

The girl snorted and shoveled a spoonful of the beans into her mouth.

"Well in that case you're a terrible shot."

"I will be now. Can’t even lift my arm."

So much was wrong in this picture. Everything about the situation screamed it at him. The ancient had been no threat, but this girl, whatever she might be, clearly was. Was she the real reason he was here? There was something so familiar about her, her movements, her expressions. And then there was her power, the power Myra and the Matriarchs coveted above all else.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The spoon hesitated halfway to her mouth. She dropped it into the can.

“No. Who are you?” she replied, “This is my home and you come out of nowhere, with no warning and no words, only violence.”

Pain lanced through Ezra’s body. He screwed his eyes shut against it. When he opened them the girl was staring at him, nose scrunched up, waiting for a response he wasn’t sure he had. He sighed and his one good hand went to the top button of his shirt, absent mindedly unfastening and refastening.

“I’m not sure I know anymore,” he said, “I was once a man; a son, a lover, a fa…”

His voice caught on the word Father. Silence hung between the two.

“I’m not sure I know either,” Lily said, “I was an orphan, then a prisoner, but now, who knows. Just Lily I guess. I had parents once, at least, I think I did.”

Her hand fluttered up to the top button of her shirt. Unfastened it. Refastened it. Ezra’s stomach lurched. He studied her features and saw her, properly, for the first time since she had burst from the closet. The emerald eyes, the golden hair, the way her nose scrunched up, seemingly aware of some unpleasant scent. It could not be, yet it was.

Realisation hit him like a silo. His throat turned dry and brittle. It felt like a bundle of twigs had been jammed down there. She was returned to him, his little girl was returned. He had been lied to, shown an illusion on the day of her birth and death. Here she was, alive, hidden from Ezra and the rest of the world, and now required by her mother. Cold swept over Ezra. Myra could not be allowed her. If she consumed their daughter for her power she would be unstoppable. The world, and every living thing in it, would burn. There was no place left where safety was certain, not from the Matriarchs and their all seeing Oracle children. There was only one choice.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Lily said, “Your face is white, is it because you’re bleeding?”

“It…It could be, although I think I did see a ghost. Do you remember your parents, Lily?”

Lily’s hand went to her throat again.

“Not really. I mean, I think I remember some things about them, but I don’t know if I do or if I imagined them.”

She tilted her head at Ezra.

“I see their faces sometimes when I sleep.”

He grunted.

“I see the faces of those I’ve killed, and not only when I sleep.”

She pointed to the ancient, still laid on his bed, a lake of red below it.

“Do you see him?”

“Not yet, but he will come.”

Ezra needed to end it. With every second, and every word, it would grow harder. Holding onto the desk next to him, he began to haul himself up. He lost his grip on it and fell back towards the ground, but Lily was there below his left shoulder to support him. She clumsily steered him to a hand carved stool and dropped him onto it.

“What did he do to you?” she asked.

Ezra sighed and rubbed at his eyes.

Bring me back anything of interest.

Lily hovered over him, waiting for an answer.

“Bring me my gun,” Ezra said.

Petulance flashed across her features, but she did as he said. There was a moment of hesitancy as she stood holding the heavy weapon, but then she placed it in his left hand. Ezra flicked open the chamber. Two bullets remained.

"Nothing" he said.

"What?"

“Nothing. You asked what he did to me. Nothing.”

"Then why..."

“Why kill him? What does it matter, he’s dead now.”

She glowered at him.

“He was mine to kill.”

The gun’s chamber snapped shut.

“He was the Matriarchs to kill. All of us, we’re all the bloody Matriarchs to kill, we’re just meat to them, objects to be used and discarded. What was he to you?”

Lily’s hands clenched into fists at her side and the light in the room wavered and dimmed.

“What wasn’t he to me? Abductor, Captor.”

Her voice wavered and her eyebrows plunged so low they threatened to bury her eyes.

“Torturer, Teacher, Slaver, Preacher.”

Ezra was struggling to breathe. The air had become heavy and humid. A pressure was building within his head, it felt like a hundred desert ants were in there trying to dig their way out.

“Thief” she whispered, and with that last declaration as soft as a breeze, the pressure in the room abated. Ezra gulped in a breath of air.

“But what does it matter,” she said, her eyes glistening, “He’s dead now.”

She turned and stalked to the far side of the room. Ezra mopped his brow. That anger, maybe it had been beaten into her by The Ancient, but more likely it had just been tampered by him, more likely it had been there since birth. Ezra knew.

“What is that you just did?”

Lily looked downtrodden, her eyes fixed on the floor.

“I don’t know. I can’t control it; it’s just something that happens when I get angry.”

She looked up at Ezra.

“Am I cursed?” she asked.

More than you know, and not in the way you mean.

He shook his head slowly.

“I am to take you back across the desert,” he said, “There is a woman there...”

“The same woman you came to kill for?”

“Yes, the same woman.”

“And what does this woman want with me?”

To consume you. To take your power. To tighten her hold on this cursed lump of rock we inhabit.

“Who knows,” Ezra said, “Now collect your things. It is a long walk back to civilisation.”

*****


Ezra could see Myra now, sitting in her damned golden tower waiting for him to return, Lily in tow. Lily whose stillbirth she had feigned. Lily, the daughter she had denied him of. How much could have been different? How many more people would still be alive? Blood coated Ezra’s hands, it ran off in torrents. He clenched them and felt the anger course through his veins. And when Myra had their daughter, which she would, there was no way to deny her, she would consume her for her power. Their daughter, the daughter Myra had stolen from him, was doomed to death. And with her death, the world would burn at the hands of Myra and her Matriarchs.

The gun in Ezra’s hand was heavy; by the gods it was heavy. And he was so tired. Tired of travelling. Tired of killing. Tired of walking the invisible tightrope which seemed to be his life. Tired that no matter what he chose he always seemed to be dancing to someone else's tune. Was it all a great cosmic joke? Were the planets laughing at him from above as he followed their carefully laid tracks? Or was it Myra he could hear cackling in his head.

Lily was moving around the room, gathering carvings and coins to take with her, placing them in a sheet she had laid upon the floor. Why had he let her play along with this charade? It was selfish; to want a few more moments with the daughter he had never had, to pretend they really could journey off into the desert together. Towards Myra or away from her, it made no difference. If they left this cabin, the Matriarchs would bring them in.

Chrome in the candlelight, the gun drew his eye. There was only one choice.


The Thief
Pt. II



Lily finished bundling the few possessions she had chosen to take into the sheet, cinched it, and turned to find Ezra standing opposite her. He was swaying slightly on his feet, his eyes boring into her. The knuckles of his left hand were white where they clenched the revolver at his side.

Her heart sank and the familiar emptiness, her friend for years, sidled back in to fill the void. She placed her pack on the ground and took a step towards him.

“Why don’t you sit back down a little longer? You don’t look so good.”

He slowly shook his head, his lips two pale worms sewn together. The look in his eyes was finality realised, fatally unrelenting. With those eyes he plunged a fist into her chest and wrenched her heart out. Lily met them.

“I didn’t want to cross the desert, not really anyway.”

“You don’t understand,” Ezra said.

Lily felt the heat flare up along her spine. Her carvings began to shimmer.

“No, you don’t understand! What gives you the right?” she asked, “You think I’m what, a demon?”

Grief penetrated Ezra’s heart. It was crippling in its pain, infinitely worse than the wound in his shoulder.

“I know what you are, Lily, and you’re not a Demon, gods you must know you’re not, you’re just a girl, just my…”

Ezra’s eyes burned as he fought back the tears and the word.

Daughter.

“But I have no choice, I cannot be responsible for what will happen if I don’t do this, I’m already responsible for too much.”

Blood trickled from Lily’s palms where her nails bit into flesh. The light from her carvings grew stronger. The floor under her feet rolled uneasily like a ship on water, something beneath was moving. Ezra glanced down, his hand reaching for his throat but coming up short with a wince.

“Lily,” Ezra shouted over the splintering floorboards and churning noise from below, “Lily I’m sorry it has to be this way, I’m so sorry.”

“It doesn’t. Let’s go the other way, let’s go as far the other way as possible, and then when we get there, we’ll keep on going. Further and further until we are as far away from this woman as possible.”

Part of Ezra wanted to believe it. There were rural places, past the desert lands and across the oceans, places yet untouched by technology. Places a man and a girl might steal away to; to be hidden from the Matriarchs, but nowhere was safe from Myra’s searching tendrils. He studied Lily’s face. There was still an innocence and naivety in those emerald eyes, somehow.

Would you still want to run if you knew she was your mother?

Ezra shook his head at her, glistening beads falling from his cheeks.

Lily laughed, a laugh utterly devoid of humour. Her voice dropped an octave.

“What’s to say this isn’t exactly what she wants, for you to end me here in this cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

Ezra’s eyes widened, then narrowed. The deep frown lines on his forehead grew deeper yet.

"How many bullets have you got left?” Lily demanded.

Her pupils had dilated to the point Ezra could see nothing but inky pools of darkness. The floorboards below his feet groaned and cracked, something huge and black was moving below, and it was coming up. The darkness clawed at Ezra, his mind was peeling apart. The layers of flesh and nerves that comprised it stretched and snapped and chaos reigned supreme inside his head. Lily laughed again and this time it was hysterical.

“Two. You’ve got two bullets left. One for me and one for you.”

It was impossible. He was no pawn. He had control.

“No,” he said, “I will not be a puppet any more.”

“You think we ever really choose? Do you think I chose any of this!?”

Lily threw her hands into the air and the beast that had been broiling below the floor burst forth. Black tentacles, fat and smooth, ripped through floorboards, splintering them to dust. The tentacles uncoiled into the room, wriggling frantically, lashing at the walls and ceiling. Where they struck smoked and sizzled under the slime they left behind. Fire flared up behind Lily, engulfing the wall at her back. Her hair was flowing out around her in gravity defying beauty.

Ezra felt a cold hand seize his heart. In the flaming wall he saw shapes dancing, resolving into an image. It was him, walking through a desert, a thousand bodies tied to his legs. With each step he dragged the mountain of corpses further across the sand. A crow landed on his shoulder and pecked his eyes clean out. He continued to walk on, a smile plastered on his blind face. A single Dahlia replaced the image, Myra’s face folded within its petals.

The flames jumped and the horrible image folded in on itself. There was only a wall of flames and Lily in front of it and the gun in his hand.

“So go ahead then, damn you!” she screamed.

One of the tentacles rose above Ezra. Its slime dripped onto his neck and he felt it burning through his skin.

“I am damned,” he croaked, “Surely I am, daughter of mine.”

Ezra fired. The bullet took Lily between the eyes. She fell backwards, a look of confusion etched on her face for the rest of eternity. The tentacles that filled the room writhed horrifically; shrinking, drying out, crumbling. Screaming echoed around and around, high and agonising. Darkness flowed from the room in swirling lines into Lily.

The corpses tied to Ezra’s legs reached up to him, their grey, rotting hands outstretched. A crow landed on his shoulder with a caw and pecked at his collar. Ezra smiled wanly at it.

He jammed the gun below his chin and fired again.


Part III
At The End

The World Turns



Ezra floated, suspended in space, above a planet.

The surface of the planet was burnt orange. Bright red cracks split it all over in jagged lines. Cogs, like those belonging to a rudimentary machine, protruded from the cracks. They clunked and turned in rhythm. Ezra looked around him and saw all of space was filled with the cogs too, all clunking and turning in harmony.

Fire rose from the cracks on the planet’s surface, consuming the cogs and engulfing the planet. Ezra watched a golden throne rise from the flames. The throne was giant in size, puncturing the atmosphere and protruding into space, smashing through the cogs, buckling and bending them where it struck.

A whisper tittered up to Ezra. It skittered around him, filling his head in Myra’s voice.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Far above the planet, alone in the darkness, Ezra wept.



THE END


2017 Callum Colback

Bio: Callum Colback is a Scottish born writer based in Bedfordshire, UK. He writes across all genres, although Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror are closest to his heart. When not writing he can be found sketching, playing guitar, and chipping away at the ever growing to-be-read pile of books stacked around the house.

E-mail: Callum Colback

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.