In Defence of the Realm

Chapter 19

As I walked towards the gap between the twin trees the noise of the foreshore got louder – increasing – large waves crashing on a million pebbles, and then sparkling snaps and crackles as the invisible water receded.

There was no smell of ozone though; nothing to indicate a far off beach. As soon as I’d passed between the trees silence crashed in.

I rubbed my eyes. It seemed there was nothing but night here. Stupidly I hadn’t brought a torch. But gradually my eyes adjusted.

A dim light came from the horizon on my left. Where the horizon was and how far away it was, I couldn’t tell, but at least some light existed. I would’ve been stuffed otherwise.

It felt like I was in a huge cavern – the distance, and all around, demarcated by a blackness that was a few shades lighter than the dense, impenetrable black further on.

Wet looking slate-grey rocks edged either side of a grey path, its paving made of flat pebbles, myriad shades of grey but countable, more than fifty, I suspected.

The path I followed sloped downwards. The only noises that fluttered in the air were those of my footfalls on the scree path and my breathing. It was uncanny.

After the shock of the change had subsided I settled into a regular stride, and the millstone of responsibility I’d been passed lightened a little. I was on my way to do an important job and ahead lay the Conversion.

I attempted to check my progress against the map even though I thought it would be a fruitless task in the lacklustre illumination. But as I moved my finger closer to the marked out route, the lines and features luminesced on the surface of the map-scroll, and I could see it wouldn’t be long before I reached the Conversion.

I removed the salve from my satchel and was about to unscrew the lid when, from the corner of my eye, a skittish shadow caught my attention.

I looked up. Then left and right. Nothing. I dismissed the distraction as something my mind had created out of the surrounding blackness.

Jacob had instructed me to cover myself in the salve, though not to what degree. I unscrewed the lid just before something landed on my shoulder; a heavy hand? I was thrown across the ground. My heart pumped.

I scrambled to my feet, twisting from my prone position, and crouched; both hands fingertips to the ground; a kind of sprint position. I’d no idea where the tub of salve had gone, but that wasn’t my immediate problem.

Around me, in the periphery of my vision, in the darkness, strange creatures moved. They had elongated heads, almost hoody-like, rendering their mouths tube-esque, but bucket size in circumference, and lips protruding just the same. In this light the head looked dark-blue, much the same colour as their body. Small jagged teeth projected inward from the oval of the circle-mouth. Towards the back of their ‘head’ protruded lime green eyes, in the same way an alligator’s eyes would stick up from its own head. The eyes phosphoresced faintly.

I was reminded of the unintelligible ‘youth’ I’d stopped from stealing the postman’s bicycle – the few creatures around me and the one in my road seemed similar. Could it be that one or another of these creatures had been instructed to track me down?

I took the Knife of Zarcesaan from my satchel and removed it from its sheath. Although the light was limited it glistened, heartening me. I held the ready blade next to my right thigh.

One of the things came at me in a loping motion. Its arms bordered on vestigial, both held close to its chest. Further behind the lead creature I could make out many more. I assumed these were the Irdiroga Jacob had spoken of.

If I was going to get through this, I would have to make an example, and pray that they’d behave much in the same way any pack animal would do, after the alpha male had been slaughtered.

Brazen as any ASBO kid from the streets of Gloucester, it continued towards me. I watched unflinching and waited for a tell-tale. Then I saw it; its left leg tensed and I knew then it was going to pounce, or something similar. And it did.

It still caught me by surprise. I thought it may get a few feet off the ground. But it went straight up and disappeared into the absolute blackness that enveloped the limited cocoon of dim light that surrounded the area about me.

The rest of the pack stopped, as if waiting for the kill. I listened intently and my army training paid off. My hyper-awareness affected all senses and I could hear the miniscule perturbations of the air the creature made as it fell back to the ground. I ran backward ten paces. I was certain it would now land in front of me. And it did.

If anything so weird could look shocked, I was sure this creature did. But not as shocked as it looked when I launched my blade into its underbelly. In a huge arching motion I scythed the Irdiroga from gut to clavicle, my blade clipping, what must have been its ear, as it exited the Irdiroga’s body via its right shoulder.

Suggestions of orange embers delineated the path the knife had taken through this creature’s form. For a few seconds I could feel a strangling cold wetness cover my hand like a vile glove; the creature’s internal fluids having been spilt.

Then the Irdiroga collapsed into pieces resembling the burnt out remains of an almost extinguished Chinese lantern. The sensation in my hand dissipated in the same instant.

In my grip I could feel the Knife of Zarcesaan vibrate as it soaked up the ephemeral plasma-red tendrils that left the dying Irdiroga’s body, before the remains finally vanished like soot being dispersed by the minimal of breezes.

I looked up from the empty space that had been the body and none of the other Irdiroga could be seen; no shadows moving and no ripples in the air hushing sounds towards me.

I let my breath go. Wow! I’d not experienced anything that intense since Afghanistan.

After a few moments to collect my thoughts I checked the map once more. I was half way to the Conversion.

I looked around in the darkness for the salve, but couldn’t see where it’d gone. If I was to stop the Akh’Mori I couldn’t spare anymore time. I doubled my pace. The sooner I was through the Conversion the better. Or so I thought.

A blue light flashed and I had to blink. Somewhere, not so far in the distance, an oblong, reaching from the ground into the air, had flashed. The light was of a pale blue and the object was squarish, and elongated heavens-ward.

I knew I’d come across the Conversion. I reached into my satchel for the salve then remembered. I hoped I was ‘made’ in the same way Jacob had intimated and walked towards the light anomaly.

As I stood in front of the phosphorescent doorway, I took a deep breath, knowing this would be the next boundary to pass, before I could contact the Sidheóga and their Queen.

Thinking a little test prod of the gateway would allow me to judge the translation of my body, I dipped my little finger into the door.

Pain sliced through my fingertip traversing my arm. I tried to pull back to relieve my body from the agony. But it wasn’t to be. Once the Conversion had been entered, you were going through, I found out.

The bones in my fingers felt like they were being crushed as if in a washer-woman’s mangle, and the rest of my body followed what had begun.

I wished for the salve. I screamed for the salve.

Every bone in my body felt as if it was being deconstructed, made into small pieces, then remade: And I had no way to stop it. I was dragged through the gateway. The only thought I had the time to consider was; what would my head feel like if my tarsals and metatarsals felt this way?

I found out. Crushed and pulverised with no death to offer respite.

It would have been better if I’d lost the knife.

Crawling around the ground, hoping to lose the pain, I gradually came too and discovered I was still in one piece – no physical damage to be seen. The more conscious I became, the more the pain was shed like slithers of a snake’s redundant skin.

In moments the physical pain had left and I stood. Although the memory I had was bad, I knew I was free but the memory would be with me for some while.

I pulled the map-scroll from my satchel and studied where I needed to go next.