Here’s an exclusive read for you: the prologue and first chapter of THE WARLOCK. Make yourself comfortable, and prepare to enter a mystical place where ancient sorcery still holds sway in the modern world. Read on… and awaken the magic.
Egypt, February 1942
The concealed underground bunker, here in the far reaches of an endless sea of dunes, had been built using coarse hessian sandbags: thousands of them, packed tightly together by crews of sweating labourers during the merciless heat of the desert summer. The diggings themselves had been no less laborious, an excavation into the treacherous , powdery sands that refused to hold together, and even now, by the light of the few small lamps that cast their pale glow onto the inside walls, fine tendrils of dust trickled incessantly through the tiny cracks and filled the air with a dry, ghostly haze.
Outside in the darkness, under the glittering starlight, covered by carefully crumpled swathes of dun-coloured camouflage netting, stood several heavily armoured halftracks, parked in an irregular pattern that rendered them invisible from the air. Even to a casual passerby – and there were none here, five hundred miles from the nearest Wadi – the bunker would have seemed like nothing more than just another sand dune in the silent vastness of a desert that stretched unrelentingly to the horizon in every direction. There was a faint smell of diesel and oil in the still night air, the only hint of humanity’s unnatural presence in the ocean of shifting sand.
Several hundred miles to the east, General Montgomery’s famous Operation Lightfoot was almost underway: a deception on a grand scale, with tanks disguised as supply trucks amassing toward the front where the Germans had laid more than two million landmines.
Deep inside the bunker, a man sat at a table improvised from two rough wooden crates that had been stacked together, his expression thoughtful as he tapped a silver fountain pen against his temple, soberly considering the words he had just jotted down on the small square of paper that lay before him. He was tall, yet physically unremarkable, and as with almost all the rest of the soldiers who were present, his thin body characterized the cumulative deprivation and borderline malnutrition that plagued anyone who had already seen several years of incessant war.
His face, though, carried an appearance that was serene, almost regal, with a high forehead, oiled-back dark hair, and eyes that harboured great intelligence and insight. He wore, as was the fashion, a small, neat moustache, and his uniform was unusually clean given the squalid conditions under which he had travelled to reach this hidden bunker, his penultimate destination.
With him sat three other men, similarly attired, talking softly to each other as they played a game of cards and sipped water from battered metal canteens. The irregularly shaped bunker reeked of coarse rope and tar, and the rancid sweat of scores of men to whom the prospect of a bathful of water was only a distant dream.
The rest of the sunken floor space was taken up by a squadron of battle-hardened soldiers, away from the four newcomers, and the selection of fine champagne that they had looted from a German convoy two days earlier was being rapidly consumed in an atmosphere that was growing rowdier by the minute. Tins of corned beef were being passed around, a splendid feast to accompany the contraband champagne, the food eaten noisily from the points of the narrow combat daggers that the men commonly carried at their belts.
The ringleader of the raucous group, a giant broad-shouldered Yorkshireman with a head like a bull and a voice to match, was in a bellicose mood, and he was growing steadily louder.
“Aye, lads! Not long now, and ye’ll be on yer way back home to a proper regiment again, eh? No more bloody heat and flies. An’ no more o’ these scrawny desert women, now, either. Ye’ll be havin’ the finest crumpet that England has to offer… y’know how it is. Come back covered in glory, and there’s juice waitin’ for ya.”
He swigged deeply from the bottle he was holding.
“Show me yer rifle, she says. Well, get down on yer knees, I says.”
He paused as the group laughed uproariously, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder, a contemptuous gesture toward the four men who sat around the improvised table on the other side.
“Now, let me tell ye, lads… ye’re real soldiers, aye? Not like these office Johnnies who come flying in on their way to a holiday somewhere in Morocco or Algeria or summat. Never seen a day’s fighting in their lives, have they, eh?”
He paused again, noticing the quick glance from the seated figure across the room. There was a moment of evaluation, and he rose to his feet, pushing his makeshift chair back with a clatter, his eyebrows bristling at the perceived affront. Several men rose with him, and followed him as he made his way across the intervening space and came up behind the seated figure. There was sport to be had, and they were not about to miss out on the entertainment.
The Yorkshireman’s intended target ignored him, and simply continued staring at the small piece of paper on which he had written a few words.
The burly man tapped him on the shoulder, and the seated figure looked up at him, expressionless.
“Aye. I saw that. I saw what you did, eh?”
The seated man sighed, and turned halfway to look at the sergeant who towered above him.
“And what was it that you saw, my friend?”
The Yorkshireman glowered at him.
“I’m not yer friend… friend. And I saw yer lookin’ at me like that.”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“These are my friends. We’ve fought t’gether. I know who they are.”
“But you. You I don’t know. You and yer little mates over there. We do the bloody hard work… and you lot come swanning in like you own this desert.”
He thrust his chin forward.
“Well, you don’t, eh? And then you sit there and look at me as if there’s summat wrong with me. Aye? Well, this is where the war is. Not some bloody little office back in London. You got me?”
The seated man nodded solemnly.
“Indeed. Is that all?”
The sergeant glowered at him, balling his immense fists.
“Oh. Oh. Now we’re trying to sound like soldiers, are we? Looking for a fight, are we?”
The visitor pursed his lips, as if deciding whether to purchase a pair of trousers or not, then shook his head.
“Not with you, my friend.”
The larger man looked at him with a mixture of anger and contempt.
“I told you. Ye’r no friend of mine. You and yer… yer prissy little friends.”
He leaned in and looked over the other man’s shoulder.
“And that? What’s that? Love letter to yer boyfriend?”
His supporters burst into raucous laughter, but the seated man simply smiled and waited for the din to die down before replying.
“No. I only write to him on scented paper. This is a letter to my grandson.”
The Yorkshireman looked at him, his face reddening.
“Grandson? Ye’re taking the piss. You dinna have a grandson.”
The other man shook his head.
“No, I don’t. Not yet, anyway.”
He looked mildly at the sergeant.
“Is there anything else?”
The sergeant stared at him disbelievingly.
“Is there anything else, he says?”
He took a step back and beckoned, an invitation to stand.
“Is there anything else? Aye, there is. This is a man’s war, and we settle things like men.”
He jerked his head, raised his fists.
“Stand up. Stand up. And let’s see what ye’re made of.”
The seated man looked at him for a moment, then shook his head again.
There was a long moment of silence, and then a loud murmur of scorn among the Yorkshireman’s comrades, several of them shaking their heads in disbelief.
“Ye’re a coward,” said the sergeant, his contempt palpable, his face contorted into an expression of disgust. “A coward! Ah thought as much. Ye’re a bloody coward.”
Behind the seated man, one of the card players, a slight individual, thin as a rake, was rising to his feet with a grim expression, but the seated man glanced at him and shook his head, smiling momentarily.
“No, Jennings. Rather not.”
The sergeant looked at him, apoplectic with astonishment and disdain.
“Ye’ve not got the ballacks to stand and fight, but yer bloody little batman wants a scrap? The shame. The shame!”
He raised his hands in mock surrender.
“Ah, alright, then. At least we know what you’re made of, now.”
He pointed menacingly at the seated man and then clapped his hands together loudly, shaking his head before turning away.
“Lads! Bring another one of them bottles! Let’s show these bloody little milksops how real men celebrate another day in the war, eh?”
The small group surged away to the other side of the bunker, the shouts and laughter deafening in the confined space. Somewhere on the far side of the large mess table, a wrestling match had already broken out, and tin mugs were swept to the ground as one enthusiastic participant was hoisted onto the tabletop.
The sergeant paused, looking back over his shoulder at the man who was once again engrossed in his writing. He sneered and shook his head slowly.
“Ye should be ashamed tae be wearin’ that uniform,” he said loudly, although his voice was partly drowned out by the clamour.
“Ye’re not a soldier’s arse. Ye’re a coward.”
He spat expressively into the dust on the bunker floor.
“A bloody coward.”
If he had been any nearer to the object of his wrath, he would have heard the sharp crack from the far side of the makeshift table, but the sound was drowned out by the merriment of his troops. And, even had he been aware of its source, he would have refused to believe his eyes, or attributed it to the copious quantities of champagne that he had already downed.
The thin batman who had moments earlier risen to his feet, and then retaken his seat, was still staring grimly at the muscular sergeant across the breadth of the bunker. It was he who had reached down, grasped a corner of the sturdy wooden crate around which the four men were sitting, and in an act of concealed frustration, had broken off a section of the heavy wooden planking, as thick as a man’s wrist, crushing it to splinters in his bony hand, with no more effort than that of a child snapping and crumpling a dry blade of grass.
The orderly’s petulance did not go unnoticed by the officer with the pen, though, and he smiled again, shaking his head as he reached across and gently patted his valet on the shoulder.
“Come on, Jennings. You know better than that. Don’t bother yourself with these ones… they don’t know any better. You know that. It’s been a long wait, I know. But tomorrow, everything changes. Tomorrow… we have him.”
He pursed his lips and gazed evenly at his batman, and at the two men who sat alongside.
“And then, my friends… then, we’ll have a proper fight on our hands.”
His batman regarded him for a moment before nodding reluctantly.
“Alright… I suppose so. Sorry.”
“Good man. Let’s conserve our energy for tomorrow, chaps. We’re going to need it. Tell you what, old boy: why don’t you fish out the chessboard, and we can have a game or two before we turn in, hmm? At this rate, we’re probably going to be sleeping outside, what with all the commotion.”
He touched his pen to his moustache, a gesture of momentary reflection, and looked wryly at his companions before he resumed his writing, shutting out the clamour behind him as the drunken soldiers escalated their revelry.
Outside the bunker, the desert brooded silently, the temperature plummeting as the night asserted itself over the silhouetted sands. Oddly, momentarily, there was a faint scent not unlike that of rain in the air, despite the dryness of a landscape that had not seen water for centuries.
And hundreds of miles to the West, across the border in a small coastal town named Bir el Menastir, a man with eyes like dead black stones reached out and extinguished a candle, plunging his small stone cottage into darkness as he lay back on a mattress stuffed with straw. He had felt the stirring, ripples in an endless lake of connection, and he knew that the morrow would bring with it the arrival of those who sought him.
In the other cottages that dotted the rocky Mediterranean coastline, and in the boathouses along the beach, slept the town’s inhabitants, lulled by the sound of a welcome breeze through the tall palms and the gentle murmur of the waves. They were still, and at peace, unaware of the true nature of the man who lived in their midst, the man with the strange eyes and the scar on his chin, the man who they had supposed for years was simply a mad Englishman who had turned his back on his people.
Tomorrow, though, for those who might survive, they would know.
Because tomorrow, the man who lived among them would at last confront his pursuers, and the storm of destruction that would be unleashed would be, for them, far more terrifying than anything they could have imagined.
Even in the middle of a war.
Child of the pure unclouded brow,
And dreaming eyes of wonder,
Though time be fleet, and I and thou,
Be half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love gift of a fairy tale.
I have not seen thy laughing face,
Nor heard thy silver laughter,
No thought of me shall find a place
In thy young life’s hereafter.
Enough that now, thy wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy tale.
– Lewis Carroll / Omnia
Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
Off to his left, in the darkness, he caught a glimpse of a night train, travelling briefly alongside the roadway. The windows were brightly lit from within, yellow illuminated squares that looked for all the world like the grinning teeth of a giant Halloween pumpkin, undulating into an eerie grimace as the train twisted away and vanished momentarily behind a copse of trees. There was a second or two of utter darkness, and a sensation of having drifted momentarily up into space, no up or down, no sense of direction. The windows blinked into view again, dimmer now, receding into the distance as the railway lines veered away from the road.
Evan was tired, and he rested his head against the glass of the car window, feeling the chill of the smooth hard pane through his hair. His drawn face, to an outsider, would have looked quite a bit older than his eighteen and a half years, illuminated by the dim glow of the car’s instrument panel.
He sighed, rubbed his eyes, and glanced up.
“Hey, dad. We’ve got to be close by now. Do you want me to get the GPS out yet?”
His father looked at him with a faint smile, his features craggy in the near-darkness.
“Yeah, son. We’re about fifteen kilometers or so away from the turnoff. You might as well.”
They were hurtling through the night, a lone car on a deserted highway, the only travellers heading up into the looming mountains a little after midnight. The air was steadily growing colder, and Evan zipped up his jacket as he leaned forward to affix the navigator to the windscreen.
He turned it on, and sat back, rubbing his eyes.
As they followed the curve up towards the first cleft in the mountains ahead, tendrils of mist drifted across the road, white wisps of vapour that dissolved in the dazzle of the headlamps and whipped away to the sides as the car churned the chilly air ahead of it.
Evan was toughing it out, unwilling to give in to the drowsiness that he was feeling, knowing that his father must have been just as tired as he was. After the unexpected breakdown earlier that afternoon, and the frustrating wait for a local mechanic to fetch gearbox parts, they were several hours behind schedule, added to the long hours they had already driven. The monotony of the road was starting to take its toll, the miles blurring into each other, a looping fantasy painting of vague shapes in the darkness, the white lines flashing rhythmically past, he pocket of light formed by the car’s lights turning the freeway into a streaming first-person game of endless twists and turns.
Evan reached forward again, fighting his fatigue by toying with the car radio, but they were already well into the first majestic buttresses of granite and quartz that formed the giant foothills of the Drakensberg, and there was no signal, just a hiss of static that sounded like distant surf against stony cliffs. He shook his head, turning the radio off, then rummaged in the bag at his feet and pulled out a packet of crisps, offered them to his father.
Evan Senior smiled and shook his head.
“Not for me, sunshine. But thanks. There’s a service station coming up just before our turnoff – how about we stop and get a coffee?”
“Sure,” said Evan, sitting up in his seat and stretching awkwardly, opening the crisps anyway.
He bit into one experimentally, savouring the saltiness as his weariness began to recede.
A triangular signboard flashed by in the blackness, momentarily illuminated in the sweep of the lights: it carried an illustration of a leaping Kudu, the giant African antelope with horns like scimitars – a reminder to drivers that here, in the vast spaces of this thousand-kilometer mountain range, nature exercised right of way. Moments later, another signboard sprang into view, showing the pending offramp and a stylized illustration of a fuel pump and a hamburger.
Evan’s father eased off a little, looked at the navigator, and patted his son on the leg.
“Couple of minutes. We’ll be there soon, and then we can take a proper break.”
Evan nodded. His lower back was aching abominably, and his left knee was throbbing, a result of sitting immobile for too long. Right now, he thought wrily, he felt more like an inhabitant of a frail care home than the bright-eyed eighteen year old who had begun the journey just before sunrise earlier that day.
The journey itself, apart from the mechanical fiasco, had been spectacular. They had travelled through what could have been a coffee-table collection of South African tourist brochure photographs – verdant hills, lush riverine countryside dotted with green thorn trees, parched scrubland where the rocks shimmered hazily in the midday heat, and vast farmlands where fields of golden maize and flowed over the hills like a far-flung blanket. For Evan, going on a road trip had always been an adventure, and he had always delighted in the sense of anticipation, the thrill of discovery as new vistas opened up over every hill.
But this was different.
This… was permanent. And it had happened very suddenly and unexpectedly. No time to adjust, no time to ease away from the attachments and comforts of home, the friendships at school. Just his father, sitting opposite him in their small living room, explaining to him that, in order to inherit a very large amount of money from Granddad’s estate, they would have to pack up and move.
In two weeks.
And then it had been a crazy blur of sorting, packing, forgetting, panicking. Wondering what to take with and what to leave behind. Handing in school textbooks, explanations to friends, trying to appear casual. Blinking back tears as he walked away from Mrs Cunningham, who had put her hand on his shoulder one time, looked into his eyes, and told him that he was born to succeed, and that she believed in him, just when he was falling apart.
Saying goodbye to Brent and Sean, who had been strong for him four years ago when his parents separated and he thought he would die. Vowing that they’d message each other every day.
A farm, dude? C’mon! Make sure you post pictures, man. Are you shitting me? Your old man… inheriting a farm? And a shitload of money? Go for it! We’ll come visit you!
“Here we go,” said Evan Senior crisply, as he swung to the left, exiting the freeway. Ahead, they could see the bright red and blue neon of the service station and 24-hour restaurant come into view, like a spaceship hovering silently in the darkness and the watery mist.
They pulled into the one of the deserted parking bays just outside the diner, the tyres crunching on the loose gravel in the stillness. Evan groaned inwardly as he swung his door open and stiffly straightened his aching knee, pulling himself out of the car. He yawned, stretched, and looked around as his father got out and closed his door. It was utterly quiet, and even the speakers outside the diner, which would typically have been playing some hollow tune from decades ago, were silent. Through the smoked glass door of the staff alcove that served the forecourt, Evan could make out the dim shape of an attendant, sprawled back in a plastic chair, fast asleep.
The darkness beyond the perimeter of the service station was absolute, like a physical wall. Evan could make out nothing, not even a faint glow of distant lights, or illumination on the road that swept past.
The air was surprisingly, bitterly chilly, the mist swirling under the high plastic glow of the fuel station’s lights, tiny droplets of moisture condensing on the car’s windows as Evan watched. His father walked stiffly around the back of the car, clapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s get something to eat and drink. I think we deserve it after that last stretch.”
Together, they walked across the frigid parking area, and pushed into the brightly lit diner. There were three staff members lounging on chairs in the eatery, and one got up wearily and approached them with a wan smile. Her orange uniform was wrinkled, and she was obviously tired, but polite.
“What can I get for you, gents? Something to take with you, or would you like to take a seat?”
Evan Senior glanced at his son.
“We’ll eat here, I think. Let me see – I’ll have a coffee, large, please. And… give me a chicken wrap, with, ah, sweet chilli sauce. And a still water as well. What’ll you have, son?”
“Cheeseburger. And a hot chocolate, please,” said Evan thoughtfully.
She nodded pleasantly, and bustled off to place the order.
Evan looked at the plastic clock above the door. A quarter to one in the morning.
Must suck to have to work a shift like this, he thought. The restaurant was just like all the others they had stopped at earlier – chrome and plastic tables, artificial plants, posters on the walls depicting deriliously happy children and beaming parents. Seats covered in thick transparent plastic to make cleaning easier. Cooldrink fridges, cleverly positioned racks near the exit stuffed full of sweets and crisps. The faint smell of disinfectant vying for attention with the fatty aroma of basted burgers and french fries.
They seated themselves at a table near the front plate glass window, and Evan checked his phone. No messages. A quick Facebook update: Having snacks at 1am, still not there.
His friends would only see his post in the morning, anyway. His eyes felt gritty and dry, and he sighed as he rubbed them, slipping his phone back into his pocket.
His father looked at him with mild bemusement and a touch of sympathy.
“You okay? It’s been a hell of a long day. But we’ll be there soon… according to the GPS, we’re only about twenty-five kilos away. This is the last stretch, just a little bit further, and then we can throw down our things and get some sleep.”
“I’m not that tired, dad. Just a bit stiff. But it’ll be nice to lie down again.”
Evan Senior pursed his lips.
“Well, thank god there’s going to be someone there to meet us. I just hope he doesn’t mind us waking him up at this time of the night.”
He chewed reflectively at the edge of a fingernail and shook his head.
“It’s very bizarre. You know, the attorney didn’t even have a picture to show me. All he could tell me was that the place is big, and ‘well appointed’, whatever the hell that means. And like I said, the biggest mystery is why I didn’t even know about any of this. Your grandfather was supposed –“
“I know, dad,” said Evan wearily. “You told me.”
His father nodded and fell silent, looking away.
Evan knew that his father and grandfather had been estranged for as long as he could remember. They hadn’t talked for years, not even a phone call. Evan had never even met his grandfather.
It was fairly obvious why his father hadn’t known about the old man’s affairs.
The news had arrived by way of an email from an attorney in Johannesburg, requesting that Evan Senior call on him as a matter of urgency. A brief meeting at the attorney’s office, and the startling news that Granddad Vaughan had passed away, while travelling.
In Peru, of all places.
The timing, it seemed, was uncanny. The old man had apparently completely rewritten his will just before departing on the trip. Almost as if he had known something was going to happen to him.
And then the bombshell.
You stand to inherit the entire estate, Mr Durning, worth several million. In British Pounds, that is. You may take entitlement of a number of sizeable investments, yielding regular dividends, which means you will very likely never have to work for a living again. If you choose not to, that is. And, there are several small businesses, to assume directorship or dispose of as you deem fit. And two properties, one in Cape Town which has to be sold- we will attend to that – and the other, the farm in the Drakensberg Mountains, which may never be sold. All of this, on one condition: that you and your son take physical occupancy of the farm within twenty days of the reading of the will, and that nothing on the farm must be sold or given away.
And your father, Mr Durning, had one other stipulation, the attorney had said, looking up over the rim of his spectacles at Evan Senior. You must furnish me with an answer within twenty-four hours, or the entire bequeathment will pass to an organisation in England, the name of which I am not at liberty to disclose.
Please let me have your decision, Mr Durning, by this time tomorrow morning.
The waitress returned with their order, and Evan gratefully cradled the hot chocolate in his hands as he sipped at it, taking prodigious bites out of his hamburger, feeling his body responding gratefully to the comfort of the cosy diner and the surprisingly delicious fast food.
They chewed contentedly, feeling the stress of the day’s drive seeping away, and were finished within a few minutes. Evan realized he had been ravenous, and a sense of drowsy contentment crept over him.
His father stood, looking at his wristwatch.
“Alright, son. I’m just going to get the bill and go to the restroom, and then we’ll get going. Just another short hop, and we’re there. I’m going to have a hell of a good sleep tonight, I don’t mind telling you.”
Evan smiled and nodded absently at his father. He slipped out of the small booth, and made for the door, running his hands through his hair as he stretched and yawned.
Next to the exit, just inside the door, was a small wire magazine rack. On it was displayed several copies of a local magazine: some kind of community periodical, he supposed. The cover featured a picture of the majestic Drakensberg mountains, wreathed in mist, and a headline titled what will you find?
Above the rack was a colourful cardboard cutout of a hand, cupped as if holding something, and a sign: It’s free! Pick it up!
Evan smiled. He was an inveterate reader, and would normally be unable to resist a quick browse through anything he came across, but now was not the time. He yawned again, rubbing his chin reflectively, and pushed the door open.
He stepped outside, onto the concrete porch that ran along the front of the diner and around the side of the building, leading off from the forecourt to the convenience store and an adjacent liquor store, both of which were closed and in darkness.
The mist was thickening in earnest now, slow billows of frigid vapour swirling across the front of the buildings like ghostly waves breaking on an ethereal ocean. Evan stamped his feet, rubbed his hands together, and paced along the front of the diner, waiting for his father. As he reached the edge of the buildings, he peered around the corner in an act of idle curiosity, blowing softly into his cupped palms to keep them warm.
The reflected light from the forecourt and the diner was swallowed up by the mist and darkness just a few yards ahead of him, and he looked intently out past the perimeter of the service station, trying to ascertain where the roadway was. A very gentle breeze had begun to stir, and the coldness of the air seemed intensified as the mist was driven into his face, his ears numb from the sensation. The silence was almost palpable, and he could hear his own breathing.
A slight glimmer of light suddenly caught his eye through the mist, and he stared, intrigued, at the spot where he had momentarily seen it. It seemed to be several steps away, near the far corner of the dark buildings – a brief yellow glow, as if a very weak torch had sputtered into life and then expired. He cocked his head, stepped off the concrete kerb, and peered into the darkness, wondering what it was that he had seen. He took another step, overcome with curiosity, yet momentarily assailed with doubt.
What if it’s something dangerous? Would anyone hear me out here?
He squared his shoulders, and dismissed his flash of concern as probably being motivated by watching too many slasher movies. Come on Evan, he told himself. You’re behaving like a baby.
He took another step forward, away from the light and comfort of the forecourt – and froze. There it was again: an incredibly brief flash of weak illumination, visible for a split second, and then gone.
Evan glanced back over his shoulder, feeling a thrill of apprehension run down his spine.
The hell with it, dude. Go check it out. It’s probably a stupid flickering outside light or something. Come on, Evan. Brent and Sean would be laughing their heads off if they could see you now.
Steeling himself, he strode forward into the mist, down the side of the darkened building. After he had covered a dozen paces, he slowed, realising that the building was not one solid unit, as he had supposed, but that the convenience store and the liquor outlet were separated by a narrow, ceilinged service alley that led to a set of doors further in, probably to receive goods that were delivered. Although it was dark, he could still see well enough in the dim reflected glow of light off the mist from the front lights.
He stopped, and looked into the service corridor, realising that it was actually quite sheltered, and somewhat warmer than the icy air blowing into his face.
And then he saw it again, but more clearly this time. A peculiar luminescence, like the glow of embers in a dying campfire, seeming to drift across the corridor, winking out again like a light being switched off. It was obviously very small, and definitely not anything that posed a threat.
Evan stepped forward, relieved at the discovery, but no less curious.
He walked a few steps down the service tunnel, then stopped, seeing nothing. He waited, straining his eyes into the gloom, and just as he was about to give up and turn away, the tiny light flashed again and moved slowly across his field of vision. This time, it did not wink out, but drifted lazily from left to right in a haphazard pattern.
Evan exhaled loudly.
You idiot. It’s an insect.
He remembered seeing fireflies when he had been on a trip with his parents as a little boy, in a nature reserve. This was similar, in fact, identical, but the colour it emitted was a warm yellow instead of the cool green glow he remembered having seen as a child. Curious, he leaned forward, tracing the path of the small mothlike creature with his eyes as it silently meandered back and forth across the tunnel, a tiny point of light gleaming feebly as it fluttered away from him toward the dark recess near the concealed doors.
Evan sighed and shook his head, smiling to himself.
Dude, you know you’re seriously tired if you follow fireflies down a passage at one in the morning for entertainment.
He turned, and walked slowly back up the corridor, sniffing slightly, feeling the dampness of the mist against his face as he approached the exit again. He thrust his hands into his pockets.
As he reached the point where the corridor widened into the parking lot, just before he stepped out from under the cover of the roof, he paused.
The most peculiar sensation suddenly overcame him, something he could feel on a visceral level, but not quite define.
A sense of being pulled.
He turned his head – and froze, the hair on his head standing erect, his arms prickling with surprise and wonder.
Behind him, in the depths of the sheltered corridor, the one tiny point of light had suddenly multiplied. There were hundreds of little glowing dots, lighting up like sparks flying from a furnace, and they were coming toward him out of the darkness, as if driven by some kind of singleminded purpose.
The momentary illusion was terrifying – it was as if he was watching an amorphous body rise up and swim toward him through the blackness and the mist.
His sharp intake of breath coincided with the first of the fireflies reaching him, and in that bizarre moment of adrenaline freeze, he stood riveted with relief and amazement, motionless as the first wave of tiny lights swarmed around him.
Eddies in the current of a river, they began to orbit his body and head, like moths drawn to a light bulb. Several of them flew into him, touching his face with tiny wings that felt as soft as a snowflake, and bounced away in little balls of flickering fire. Within seconds, they had surrounded him, and he stood open-mouthed as they began to fly in unison, inscribing articulated rings and whorls around his head and limbs, like someone swinging a burning lamp on the end of a rope. Their number was steadily growing as more flew up from the recesses of the corridor, until it seemed as if hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of the tiny creatures were massed around him in sheets and streamers of golden light.
They were utterly noiseless – no whirring of tiny wings, no sound at all except for the sighing of the wind behind him that seemed to be picking up its tempo.
Evan stared in awe and disbelief at the spectacle surrounding him, and tried slowly moving an arm. The creatures altered their flight as he inched his arm up toward his face, and veered away in exaggerated, looping orbits as he extended his hand. The waxing and waning of the soft, irregular glow that they exuded was almost hypnotic, and he found himself wondering for a second whether he was not perhaps hallucinating.
Something even more peculiar began to happen, and he became aware of it almost as an afterthought, an abstraction: the fireflies were amassing and flying into the centre of his forehead, like a thin stream of water from an invisible hose. One after the other, then clusters, began to abandon their orbit, and fly gently but persistently into the same spot, directly between his eyebrows but about an inch higher. The sensation was pleasant, almost seductive, but also unbearably ticklish as the tiny wings burred against his skin.
The wind outside was gusting now, the sound of it against the gutters above him like a low moan. Evan pricked up his ears, listening in disbelief to the sounds being produced in the small access corridor by the hollow acoustics.
For a split second, the pitch of the wind altered, and a sibilence that was almost human was added to the hiss of the wind.
Yes, it said, in a voice that was husky and yet high-pitched, like that of a woman speaking softly.
Evan felt his flesh turning to ice at the sound. Rationally, he was aware that it was probably just an aberration of the wind whistling through the dark louvres above him, but somewhere deep down – in the intuitive subconscious – he realized that something unnatural and incredibly unnerving had just taken place.
He felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead, and a kind of desperate horror overtook him. It felt as if his insides had just turned to water, and he could not feel his legs.
More than anything in the world, he wanted to run.
Yessss. A deep sigh, like someone inhaling, and the word again, this time like someone running a finger around the rim of a singing champagne glass, a brittle and distorted word, the screech of fingernails on a blackboard.
But in the moment of terror and uncertainty, he was frozen in place, the fireflies whirling around him like a silent torrent of stars in the depths of space, everything unfolding in slow motion.
And then, like the breaking of a spell, his cellphone rang shrilly, a muffled cry of alarm from his pocket. Instantly, the fireflies winked into darkness, and Evan lost his balance in the gloom, stumbling awkwardly with the sudden disorientation and fetching up against the brick wall to his left as he groped for his phone.
“Evan!” came the voice of his father, perplexed and annoyed, sounding as if he were a million miles away. “Where the hell are you?”
“Just around the corner, dad,” blurted Evan, astonished at how shaken he sounded. “I’ll be there in a second.”
And then he was running, out of the dark corridor, into the roiling mist and the freezing wind that whipped his jacket hood into his eyes. A short breathless sprint up past the store and around the corner, into the glare of the forecourt lights and the spectre of his father gesticulating irritatedly at him as he stood next to the car, phone in hand.
He had no sooner slipped into his seat and slammed the door shut, than his father glared at him in mock exasperation.
“What the hell, Evan? I thought you’d gone to the toilet or something. Do you know how cold it is out there? What on earth were you doing, son?”
Evan shook his head.
“Geez, dad. It’s… it’s kind of hard to explain.”
“What? Well, try. What the hell were you up to?”
“I… I saw something. I went to have a look, and it turned out to be a bunch of fireflies.”
His father stared at him in disbelief.
Evan shifted, aware of how odd his story must be sounding.
“Er… yes, dad.”
Evan Senior shook his head and started the engine.
“That’s ridiculous. Fireflies only come out when it’s warm. You’ll never see a firefly in weather like this. Totally impossible. Now, seriously, what were you doing?”
“I told you, dad. I’m not kidding. I’ll take you there and show you if you like.”
His father snorted.
“As if. Fireflies, my ass.”
He reversed the car out of the parking bay, then braked and stared at Evan with mock suspicion.
“You haven’t been drinking anything, have you?”
“No, dad. Just good old hot chocolate.”
His father punched him playfully on the arm as he turned the wheel and nosed the car out towards the signposted onramp.
“I think you’re overtired, young man. Anyway, we don’t have far to go now.”
He paused as he accelerated and they sped up to merge with the freeway, the darkness absolute, the headlights reflecting off what seemed to be a solid sheet of mist.
“Our offramp is just down the road. And then after we take it, according to the directions, all we have to do is stay on the M72 until we go through the first pass, and then look for the signposting up to Long Bell.”
He snorted, looked at his son affectionately.
“Fireflies. Someone’s been reading too many fairy tales.”
He settled back into his seat and peered into the dark fog ahead of them, slowing slightly as the visibility worsened.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be there soon, okay? I think we’ve had more than enough excitement for one day.”
Ahead, like ancient slumbering giants, somewhere through the impenetrable darkness, lay the first enormous mountains, their peaks blotting out the stars that were already obscured by the thick mist.
And minutes ago, had Evan and his father looked more closely as they pulled away from the light and warmth of the service station, they might have spotted the gaunt, shadowed figure standing silently, motionlessly at the edge of the building, watching them as they departed into the darkness.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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