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       Execution, p.17

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  The staircase cut diagonally down the cliff face, bolted into the rock, looking too much like the staircases back in the prison for my liking. I could see that it led to a small bay. There was a boat there, rocking in the tide. I looked at the blacksuits, thought of the pain they had put me through, the night they had shot Toby, and how they’d treated us back inside Furnace Penitentiary. I didn’t hate them, though. They had been turned, like me. They were victims too. I’d meant what I had said to Zee back at the hospital. I wasn’t on the same side as Furnace’s soldiers, but we weren’t enemies any more either.

  ‘One of you saved us,’ I told them as I walked onto the first step, the metal creaking. I held onto the railing with my good hand, the chipped iron cold to the touch. ‘Back at the hospital. His name was Sam. You know him?’

  ‘If he had a name, then he wasn’t one of us any more,’ replied the suit.

  I set off down the steps, taking it slowly, knowing that one slip could send me over the edge. And I wouldn’t be the first, I realised. The areas of beach that the sea hadn’t covered were littered with corpses, people who couldn’t handle the horror, people who had taken the easy way out. They hung over the shingle like seaweed. I tried to ignore them, focusing on my own feet as I descended towards the beach.

  ‘So where is the island?’ I heard Zee asking behind me, the wind tugging at his words.

  ‘About five miles out,’ one of the blacksuits replied. ‘It won’t take long.’

  I stepped onto the stony beach, walking over to the small motor boat that was bobbing up and down in the surf. A third blacksuit was sitting inside it, and he frowned when he saw us all approach.

  ‘Gonna be a squeeze,’ he said. I waded into the freezing water, the waves here smaller but no less aggressive, pulling on my ankles, trying to drag me out to sea. It was up to my knees by the time I reached the boat, the blacksuit grabbing my left hand and helping me on board. It rocked alarmingly and I sat down on the small seat at the bow before I could fall back out.

  ‘Welcome aboard, sir,’ said the pilot, adjusting his red armband so that it sat proudly on his arm. ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’

  I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t his general, but it didn’t seem worth it. Besides, I couldn’t deny that hearing those words, being called ‘sir’, sparked something in my gut, a rush of excitement. I’d been there before, standing in front of the warden back in the prison, dressed in another brand-new black suit. It had been one of the only times in my life when I’d felt I really belonged, when I’d felt I was part of something. It had been truly wonderful and truly awful at the same time.

  ‘Could have parked this thing a little closer to the beach,’ said Zee, the water up past his waist. The blacksuit pulled him on board, doing the same for Lucy and Simon. The three of them squeezed together on the middle seat, shivering. The other two suits stood on the beach watching us go.

  ‘They not coming?’ I asked, tasting salt on my tongue.

  ‘Got reports that the army is heading this way,’ the blacksuit replied. ‘Furnace has ordered all units to slow them down, to let you get to the island.’

  ‘So where are they all?’ Simon asked. ‘You need more than two guys if that psycho Panettierre is coming after you.’

  This time the blacksuit did scowl, using his massive arms to pull the starter cord. The engine came to life with a nasal whine, pumping thick black smoke into the air. I looked at the beach, at the cliffs, wondered if I’d ever see the mainland again, asking myself if I’d really miss it. With my parents gone, my old life all but forgotten, the only people who meant anything to me were on this boat. Zee and Simon – Lucy too, I guess – they were what truly mattered. So long as they were with me, I didn’t care where I was.

  And Donovan too, of course. When I closed my eyes I could see him here, that blazing smile of his bringing light and life back to the world.

  The blacksuit pressed the throttle, the boat accelerating out into the open ocean. I could have looked back, one last glimpse at the country where I had spent every single second of my life. But I didn’t. I stared ahead, waiting for the island to appear, the place where this would all end, one way or another.

  The blacksuit had been right. It didn’t take us long to reach it.

  Zee spotted it first, pointing his hand towards a dark smudge against the horizon. The ocean and the sky were almost the same colour, looking like two slabs of slate with the island trapped between them. It felt like we were travelling into a tomb.

  We sped closer, the boat bouncing on the rolling waves, the island like a tumour on the ocean. It seemed to grow and swell, its knotted black surface expanding until it dominated the skyline. It was just like in my dream, its cancerous cliffs of dark rock rising from the water like the walls of some ancient castle. And perched on top was that gothic mansion, its bent turrets raised like broken fingers to the sky. There were shapes moving up there, peering over the edge and watching us approach. They were too far away to make any sense of, but I had seen those creatures in my dreams, the very worst of Furnace’s creations.

  He could see us too. Furnace. I could feel his thoughts inside my head, a wordless welcome that made my ears ring.

  ‘Jesus,’ said Zee. ‘It’s huge.’

  It was, and still growing, until it seemed so vast that it sucked the last of the light from the world, plunging us into dusk. The blacksuit steered us closer, heading down one side of the hulking behemoth. The cliffs here were even taller than those at the front, so sheer that when I gazed up at them they seemed to bend out over the water, ready to slam down on top of us like an executioner’s blade. I had to look away or risk spewing my guts over the side.

  ‘I didn’t think there were any islands out here,’ Simon said, his face so pale it was almost green.

  ‘You kidding?’ replied Zee. ‘There are thousands. Most are too small to live on, but there are plenty like this one. I saw it on a documentary.’ He seemed to disappear into himself for a moment, then his face brightened like he’d just had the best idea ever. ‘Hey, you think they’ll ever make a documentary about us?’

  We laughed, quietly. I think we all knew that this one would be our last.

  The side of the island seemed to go on and on, an endless fortress of obsidian stone rising from the depths. I peered over the side of the boat, catching sight of shapes beneath the surface, creatures which moved alongside us, their spidery limbs entwined in some horrific underwater ballet. One rose up, nudging a skeletal head against the hull, making us all lurch. I caught a glimpse of its face, like a corpse whose mouth was open in a permanent rictus of terror. Only bubbles emerged from its toothless maw, but I imagined that if I stuck my head beneath the waves I’d hear it scream. I’d hear them all scream.

  ‘Ignore them,’ said the blacksuit. ‘They won’t hurt us, not unless Furnace wants them to.’

  ‘What are they?’ Simon asked.

  ‘He calls them leviathans,’ the man answered. ‘Don’t get too close, though, and don’t look them in the eye. They take it as a sign of aggression. Believe me, you don’t want to annoy one of these babies.’

  The creature beneath us vanished into the murky water, reappearing up ahead. One spindly, bone-thin arm rose up, too-long fingers sweeping through the salt-spray air as if beckoning us on. I could see the end of the island up ahead and the blacksuit throttled down, the boat slowing. The cliffs here sloped right to sea level, but there were man-made stone walls in their place, slick with algae, cannons mounted on top.

  ‘It’s an old naval outpost,’ Zee said. ‘From centuries ago, right? From the wars.’

  ‘This used to be one of the main shipping lanes in and out of the country,’ the blacksuit said, nodding. ‘Not any more, though. Nobody comes out here now, not since Furnace bought the island.’

  There was a massive archway in the walls, and the blacksuit piloted us through it into a small stone dock. He steered the boat with practised familiarity to the low mooring, throwing a rope aroun
d the rusted metal cleat. We bobbed lazily up and down, the sound of wood scraping against stone seemingly the loudest thing in the world. Each time we rose I could see the narrow path that led from the dock up through the fractured cliffs, the black stone carved by the elements into snaking towers, like we were in some ancient cathedral. There were shadows moving there, fluttering between the pillars, a constellation of silver eyes lighting up the gloom. A cry rose up, as forlorn as it was terrifying, and I wasn’t sure whether the flurry of calls that followed was an echo or a chorus.

  Either way, it made me wish we’d stayed on the beach.

  ‘Any time you like,’ said the blacksuit, waiting expectantly.

  ‘You’re not coming?’ I asked. He shook his head, and I thought I could see the emotion coiling in the molten silver of his eyes. He was scared.

  ‘We’re not allowed on the island,’ he said. ‘None of the blacksuits are. This place is only for Furnace and his pets.’ He looked at me, at all of us. ‘And now you.’

  ‘Great,’ I muttered. I grabbed the cleat with my left hand, struggling up onto the stone. The moment I set foot on it a wave crashed against the rocks outside the bay, seeming to rock the entire island, the explosion deafening. I don’t know why, but the sound made me think of a coffin nail being hammered in. I reached out and grabbed Lucy’s hand, hauling her up, doing the same with Simon and then Zee.

  ‘Good luck,’ said the blacksuit, wasting no time in revving the engine and steering the boat out through the archway. He didn’t look back.

  For a moment, the four of us stood and stared at the ocean visible through the gap, at the distant horizon. I could feel the island behind me, its vast bulk like some hideous spider waiting to sink its venom into us. I didn’t want to turn round, I wanted to throw myself back into the water, swim for shore. But I couldn’t, not with those things out there, the leviathans, the thought of their witches’ fingers wrapping around me, pulling me into the depths.

  No, we were trapped. There was only one way for us to go.

  I turned, looking up at the path which snaked towards the top of the island. Then I started walking, speaking as I went.

  ‘Let’s do this.’

  A Rock and a Hard Place

  ‘So,’ said Zee as we climbed. ‘You’ve got a plan, right?’

  The path was steep, and in places steps had been cut into the stone. We passed only one building: a crumbling ruin which Zee informed us had probably once been used to store gunpowder. It was empty now, which was a shame. Gunpowder might have come in useful. All around us rose those spires of black rock, eroded by centuries of wind and wave. It was impossible not to think of them as fingers, some subterranean giant ready to crush us in its grip. Or bars; the one time I looked back down towards the dock those towering columns blocked the view, like I was back inside my cell in the prison. Either way, they made it perfectly clear that there would be no getting out of here.

  Not until my job was done. Not until my promise was kept.

  ‘Alex?’ Zee said. ‘I don’t like it when you go quiet like that. Please tell me you know what you’re doing.’

  ‘Nope,’ I replied. ‘No plan.’

  Zee’s face fell, as he looked nervously up the slope. Shapes danced between the rock up there, moving in time with us, keeping their distance. All I could make out of them was their undulating limbs, too long, too thin, and those unblinking eyes.

  ‘You know this could be a trap, right?’ said Simon. ‘Maybe Furnace isn’t even here.’

  Furnace hadn’t spoken to me since we arrived, but I knew he was on the island. This wasn’t like back in the tower, in the city, when I thought I was facing him. Back then I hadn’t felt his fingers in my skull, pawing my thoughts. But now I could sense him as if he was standing right next to us. It wasn’t so much pain – the compass in my skull had faded – I just knew.

  ‘Oh God,’ said Lucy, clinging on to Zee’s arm. ‘I knew it, he’s just brought us here so he can kill us.’

  ‘If he wanted to kill us he would have done it back on the mainland,’ I said. ‘Or in the water.’

  ‘So tell me again why he’s asked you round for tea?’ Simon asked.

  I didn’t answer. I didn’t know. But it wouldn’t be long before I found out.

  ‘You think Panettierre is still following us?’ Zee said, changing the subject.

  ‘She doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who gives up easily,’ Lucy replied. ‘She’s coming, no doubt about it.’

  We walked the rest of the way in silence, eventually reaching the top of the slope. Another castellated wall had been built here, the gate rusted into broken teeth. I could hear those same cries from beyond, half-human, half-beast, setting my nerves on edge.

  ‘Doctor Moreau, anyone?’ asked Zee.

  I had no idea what he was talking about.

  ‘H. G. Wells? The Island of Doc— Oh, never mind; forget it,’ said Zee, obviously disgusted to be in such badly read company.

  I peered through the mouth-shaped archway, seeing a forest ahead. The trees were thick and short, barely twice my height, and they all looked close to death. It wasn’t surprising, there was barely any soil up here, and the permanent cloak of mist which hung in the air tasted like pure salt.

  As soon as I stepped through the iron teeth into the forest the cacophony of screeches and moans intensified. My pulse quickened, my heart a motor which drummed the nectar around my body. I held my right hand up, ready to defend myself if anything attacked, but other than the sounds and the distant, unformed shadows there was no sign of danger.

  We set off into the trees, the branches knitting overhead, blocking out what little light was left. My silver eyes picked open the gloom, making sense of the knotted trunks and writhing limbs. The ground was thick with undergrowth, centuries’ worth of untrimmed roots and weeds doing their best to trip us up, turn us back. Although I knew this wasn’t the orchard from my dreams – from Furnace’s memories – it looked a little too much like it for my taste.

  ‘This place is majorly creepy,’ said Lucy. ‘I don’t—’ but she was cut off by the sound of footsteps, running hard, the crack of wood as something forced itself through the trees.

  Something big, getting closer.

  We drew ranks, our backs together, feeling the ground shake beneath us. Then we saw it, a shape in the forest, too big to be human, bigger even than the berserkers. It pushed its way through the thick trunks like it was running through cocktail sticks, splintering the wood, heading right for us.

  ‘Down,’ I said, pushing the others to the ground and throwing myself on top of them, praying that we wouldn’t all be trampled to death. But when it reached us the creature skidded to a halt, demolishing one last tree with its immense bulk.

  I stared at it, unable to believe what I was seeing. The beast was human, or at least it had been. It stood four metres high, its body proportionately wide, formed of fleshy folds of grey skin. Its head was like a fist of countless knuckles. Two of those knuckles opened and closed, black eyes blinking down at us. Then its head seemed to split in two, a roar escaping its gaping mouth, spraying us with nectar-flecked spit.

  But that wasn’t the worst of it.

  I thought at first that there were people riding this beast, their forms strapped to its side with some kind of harness. When I looked more closely, however, I realised that those figures were part of it. Limbs grew from its flesh like buds on a plant, dozens of deformed arms and legs bristling on all sides. And there were faces too, beneath its skin. I could see them pressing outwards, their mouths opening and closing as if they were calling to us, pleading to let them out.

  I heard a low, desperate moan, a cry of utter terror, and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was coming from me.

  The creature stomped forward, sniffing the air, snorting from the twin scars of its nostrils. Then it reared, ready to bring its huge legs down on us – no, not legs, I realised, but hands – ready to pound us into the forest floor. I forced
myself to concentrate, to close my eyes. I had been able to control the other berserkers, maybe I could give this freak orders too. It was a long shot, but what else could I do? Even stabbing my bladed hand into that thing would have been like trying to bring down a rhinoceros with a butter knife.

  I blasted out a message, picturing the monster retreating into the forest, leaving us alone. In those few seconds I must have imagined it a dozen times, silently screaming my commands at it. I felt the ground shake as it slammed its fists down, opening my eyes to see it backing clumsily away. It shook its head, as if trying to dislodge a fly from inside its skull, never taking its eyes off me. The forms beneath its skin writhed.

  I got to my feet, the nectar a storm, making every cell sing.

  Lead us to him, I growled inside my head. Take us to Furnace.

  I pictured the mansion, the beast showing us the way. It opened its mouth again, its bellow like that of a cow being led to slaughter. But it had no choice in the matter. I was its general, and it would obey. With another shake of its head, one that knocked man-sized branches to the ground, it set off along the path.

  ‘What the hell is that thing?’ asked Lucy as we set off after it. ‘It had … people in it.’

  ‘Just another monster, forget it,’ said Zee. He turned to me. ‘What did you say to it? Is it going to lead us to Furnace?’

  ‘I guess we’re about to find out,’ I said.

  After a couple of minutes the berserker burst out of the forest, shedding leaves and twigs behind it. We followed the trail into a vast, open clearing, the size of a football pitch. The ground here was rocky and uneven, full of craters and crevices. It could have been the surface of the moon if it wasn’t for the mansion that sat at the other end of it. It rose from the island as if it had grown here, built from the same dark stone, its walls and its towers so random that they looked organic. The berserker was charging towards it with purpose, its folds of fat and its surplus limbs bouncing up and down as it negotiated the rough terrain.

 
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