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       Execution, p.18

           Alexander Gordon Smith
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  And it wasn’t alone.

  There were other creatures out here, dozens of them, teeming from the crevices in the rock like ants. Some actually resembled giant insects, their bodies hardened by the nectar, their skin the colour and texture of a beetle’s carapace, their lips twisted into crude mandibles. Others were closer to the children they had once been, still made of flesh. Their faces were broken but they were unmistakably human. That was where the resemblance ended, though. Their bodies were a cruel joke, as though they had been moulded from plasticine by a bored child, then left to wilt in the sun.

  Each one was unique, and they scuttled and bounded and limped over the rock to get a better look at us. They called out to each other as they moved, some sounding like toddlers wailing, others like pigs squealing. There were words in there too, but nothing which made any sense. These berserkers were too far gone to remember how to speak.

  I realised that some of the freaks were closing in, their faces warped by curiosity, or maybe anger. Near the cliff edge two were fighting, their massive arms taking chunks out of each other until one backed away with a whimper.

  ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘We should keep moving.’

  ‘Can’t you control them?’ Lucy asked.

  This close to Furnace, I doubted it. Two or three of them, maybe, but thirty, forty, maybe even fifty all at once with their master’s voice coming from the mansion? There was no way. We started moving again, slowly, afraid that any sudden movements might start a stampede. It was tough going. Some of the cracks in the rock must have cut right through the heart of the island because I could hear the sea down there, pummelling the rock. The sound reminded me of being back inside the prison, inside the chipping room after we’d blown the floor, about to jump into the river.

  ‘You thinking what I’m thinking?’ Zee asked, and I could see by the look on his face that I was. ‘At least we’ve got an escape route if those things decide they don’t like us.’

  I vaulted a narrow crevice, hearing the sonic boom of the waves down below. We wouldn’t last a second down there if we jumped. The river beneath the prison had nearly killed us, and the ocean was a million times more powerful.

  The closer we got to the mansion, the weirder it seemed. Two wide, three-storey wings sat on either side of a central tower, with a number of smaller turrets and spires reaching up from various other parts. I counted seven in all, each more elaborate than the last. At least twenty dark windows watched us approach. The berserker from the woods was trying to squeeze into the open front door, its bulk preventing it from entering. It heard us coming, pulling its head free and looking at me sadly.

  ‘This place must have been the barracks or something,’ said Zee as the mansion loomed over us. ‘They probably stationed a whole naval division out here, to keep a lookout for—’

  ‘You hear that?’ interrupted Lucy. I cocked my head, trying to hear anything over the roar of the ocean. And sure enough, there it was, that faint pulse of a helicopter. Simon bolted along the front of the building to the edge of the cliff fifty metres away, peering over, his hand shielding his eyes even though the sun was still masked by clouds. He turned, cupping his mouth and yelling through the wind.


  ‘Panettierre,’ I said. I ran to Simon, careful not to get too close to the cliff edge. Sure enough maybe two dozen navy ships of different shapes and sizes were heading this way, churning the ocean into a rage. Maybe half as many helicopters mirrored them in the sky.

  ‘How’d they get here so quickly?’ asked Lucy who had run to my side, clinging on to my elbow to stop her blowing off the edge.

  ‘Must have been ready to roll,’ Zee answered as he arrived, panting. ‘They were probably just waiting for coordinates from Panettierre. There’s a base up the coast from here, right? Suttermouth. No, Colvermouth, that’s it. They would have bypassed Furnace’s troops if they’d come from there. Jesus, it’s like Normandy or some-thing. There are loads of them.’

  There were, all packed with troops. They weren’t having a free ride, though. One boat was already sinking, smoke billowing from its engine. Two more had collided with each other and I saw a shape through a windscreen, a corpse-faced beast which was going to work on the crew. The leviathans were doing their job well, but they wouldn’t be able to stop them all.

  ‘Jesus,’ muttered Zee. ‘The army out here, Furnace in there, talk about being between a rock and a hard place.’

  I jogged back to the mansion door, everybody else following. The berserker towered over us, watching curiously. It leant down as I passed, trying to push itself through, the way I had commanded it to. I sent out a message for it to stand back and it did so. It kept its head level with mine, bracing its weight on its immense fists. Its knuckled eyes blinked at me, and it uttered gentle whimpers from its throat. I reached out with my good hand, resting my fingers on its cheek. It seemed to relish the touch, pushing against it. It could have been a massive dog if it wasn’t for those extra heads that stretched its skin, opening and closing their mouths in silent screams; if its face, as gnarled and deformed as it was, didn’t so clearly belong to a child.

  ‘Thank you,’ I said to it.

  Then I stepped through the door into the cool, dark interior of the mansion. My eyes barely had time to adjust to the dark – seeing a large reception room, decked in old furniture and paintings, grand staircases mirroring each other on both sides – before I heard the berserker utter a deafening howl behind me. I spun round to see that it had positioned itself outside the door, its corpulent body cutting out all but a trickle of light.

  ‘Hey!’ I shouted.

  ‘Alex?’ yelled Zee from the other side, his voice muted. ‘Make it move, we can’t get in.’

  I tried to concentrate, ordering the creature to get out of the way, picturing it standing clear of the door. Nothing happened, even when I tried again, mentally screaming at it to obey.

  ‘Move!’ I shouted, slapping the berserker with my left hand. It bent its head and glared in at me, another banshee wail blasting from its gaping jaw, but still it didn’t unblock the door. I went to slap it again but before I could I heard Furnace’s voice erupt inside my head, loud enough to shatter my thoughts to splinters.

  You must make this final journey alone, Alex.

  I realised that the words had knocked me to my knees, stealing my breath and my voice. I struggled up, feeling like I’d been hit by a freight train. Nectar trickled from my nose, its foul taste in my mouth, and I spat it out.

  ‘Wait for me here,’ I wheezed to the others, the words nothing more than a whisper. I clawed in a breath, said it again.

  ‘Alex, you can’t go by yourself, he’ll kill you!’ I couldn’t tell who had spoken: the berserker’s body muffled the sound and the ringing in my ears was just too loud. I put my left hand against the doorframe, saying a silent goodbye to my friends, praying for them to stay safe, praying that I’d live to see them again. Then I made my way into the building.

  From now on there was only me.

  Me and Alfred Furnace.

  The Calm Before the Storm

  The mansion was a warren of rooms and corridors, but I knew exactly where to go.

  I walked through the reception hall, between the staircases and through a set of double doors. It looked as if nobody had been here in years, decades even, everything covered in a layer of dust. The paintings on the walls were all of military leaders through the centuries, their medals muted by grime, their eyes following me. A massive chandelier swung from the ceiling as if something had just disturbed it, but mine were the only footprints on the filthy floor.

  A long corridor stretched out from the lobby, doors on either side standing open. I peered into a couple of the rooms but they were mostly empty, a few containing just scraps of old machinery and the occasional desk. One was packed with bunk beds, the same kind as had been used in Furnace, the sheets fluttering in the breeze from a broken window.

  I thought about going back to the
front door, telling Zee, Simon and Lucy that there was another way in. But what was the point? If Furnace wanted me here alone then that’s what was going to happen. There would be no arguing with him, not in his own house.

  I reached the end of the corridor, pushing through another pair of doors to find myself at the rear of the mansion. A staircase led down to the basement, the tiles cracked and stained. There was a window beside them, and through the crusted glass I could see the ocean far below and the battle taking place in it. Once the soldiers got past the leviathans then it wouldn’t take them long to find their way onto the island. If I wanted to keep Panettierre’s filthy hands off my friends then I was going to have to be quick.

  My footsteps rang hollow as I ran down the steps, the echoes seeming to last for far longer than they had any right to – as if the house had been quiet for so many years it didn’t quite know how to handle noise. At the foot of the staircase was another corridor, lit only by the sickly glow that seeped down from above. There were no rooms here, but halfway along the passageway was an alcove with a wooden bench. Propped up against the cracked white tiles was a plastic doll wearing a floral dress, one set of eyelashes missing. Next to it was a gas mask, covered in filth, its tube draped over the doll’s legs.

  I moved on, reaching another set of stairs leading down, these ones narrower. They led deep into the heart of the island, plunging me into such depths of gloom that even my silver eyes struggled to work out where they came to an end. Eventually I saw the outline of another double door, the light through the cracks so bright after the darkness that it was as if a fire raged beyond them.

  I hesitated, my bladed hand ready. I didn’t know what Alfred Furnace was now, what kind of powers he possessed. He had been alive for so long that he couldn’t still be human. I thought about the warden, when I had fought him in the tower. I thought about what he had become when he had drunk the new nectar – a being which lived right on the edge of reality, half real and half dream, something that could bend physics to its own will.

  But I had defeated the warden, I had brought him to his knees then let the wheezers slaughter him. And if he could die, then so could his boss. There weren’t many creatures that could survive being stabbed through the heart. No matter what Furnace said, what kind of twisted lies he would attempt to tell me, what offers of power he made, I would kill him.

  Or die trying.

  The heavy doors opened without a sound, revealing a world that was the complete opposite of the derelict mansion above. A plush red carpet ran the length of the corridor, the wood-panelled walls gleaming. The ceiling was made of vaulted brick arches and in each one was a spotless crystal chandelier. The light they cast was golden, banishing every shadow.

  There were noises here, and I followed them to the nearest door, my heart pounding so far up in my throat that I could taste nectar on my tongue.

  Inside the large room were seven rows of wooden cots. Two of them were occupied. In one was a baby, swaddled in cloth and evidently fast asleep. In the other, on the far side of the room, was a boy about two years old. He clung to the wooden bars of his cot, grinning, bouncing up and down on his mattress. When he saw me in the doorway he stopped, his smile vanishing, his brow creasing.

  I was so shocked by the sight of him that I almost didn’t see the wheezer in the room. Only, it wasn’t a wheezer. It wore the same clothes, that long trench coat, a bandolier of syringes around its chest. It had the same face, too, pasty flesh, its eyes like blocks of coal.

  But it wasn’t wearing a gas mask.

  It stared at me, its lipless mouth peeling back into some hideous parody of a smile, its black tongue flopping around inside like an eel. It twitched, the same way the wheezers back in the prison had, its head snapping back then its whole body juddering. The toddler watched it, starting to laugh, clapping its chubby hands together. I turned away, back into the corridor. I had to; the sight inside the room was almost enough to obliterate the last of my sanity.

  I carried on along the corridor, past a dozen more rooms like that one. I tried not to look but I couldn’t help myself, catching glimpses of more children, older now, strapped to machines or lying on operating tables. Some weren’t human any more, I realised, their bodies so bent and broken that they could only be called berserkers. The wheezers watched me pass with their dead men’s grins, uttering those same nightmare purrs and ear-piercing shrieks that I knew so well.

  I wanted to run in and kill them all, but there wasn’t time. For all I knew Panettierre was already on the island, rounding up Zee and killing the others. Besides, my fear of being caught by the wheezers, of ending up once more under their knives, was over powering. The thought of looking up into those piggy eyes while they smiled down at me made me nostalgic for the old wheezers, the familiar ones in gas masks.

  I walked on, feeling the nectar rage only for its fire to be dulled by fear, each cycle leaving me more exhausted. It was okay, though. I wouldn’t need my strength for much longer. There was just one more job to do, one more promise to keep, then I could rest for all eternity.

  The corridor ended up ahead in yet another double door. On one door was painted a coat of arms – a red and white shield, two apple trees growing on either side and an animal in the centre. I wasn’t quite sure what the beast was – a jackal, maybe? – but I recognised its silver eyes. They seemed to sparkle in the light from the corridor, as if the creature was ready to spring from the painting and devour me. On the other door was the Furnace logo I was more familiar with, emblazoned on a red flag.

  Even without the markings I would have known that these were Furnace’s quarters. I could feel him there, his presence an endless pulse which seemed to reverberate through my body. I paused, offering a prayer to anything that was listening. Then I reached out my hand, turned the handle and pushed open the door.

  Alfred Furnace

  I honestly don’t know what I’d been expecting. But it wasn’t what lay before me.

  I stood at the entrance to a large chamber, the ceiling draped in shadows. Columns of crumbling brick seemed to grow from the floor, and although they weren’t carved like trees – the same way as the ones back in the tower had been – they still resembled them, their vaulted branches interwoven overhead. A handful of flickering lamps were embedded in the walls, their nervous light doing little to illuminate their surroundings.

  A berserker was perched on either side of the room, basking in the darkness. I couldn’t get a good look at them behind the pillars, but I could make out bladed limbs of obsidian, jaws that dripped dirty saliva, and piggy eyes watching me warily. One of them growled when I entered, but neither seemed to see me as a threat.

  It wasn’t them which both fascinated and terrified me, though. It was the machine. It dominated the entire room, a monstrous engine of copper, glass and steel. Countless moving parts danced back and forth, producing a quiet pulse which made my bones shake. And yet it seemed organic too, as if it had sprouted from the damp stone, endless pipes like the thorny tendrils of a plant. It was enormous, stretching from one end of the room to the other and lost in the dark pools of the ceiling. Its design was so complex, and its movement so mesmerising, that it took me a while to notice the figure that was strapped to it, almost as if he had been crucified there.

  It was Alfred Furnace.

  He was human, and yet at the same time he wasn’t. His body had been ravaged by age, his skin so rotten that in places it hung off him in strips, like old jerky. Parts of him weren’t there at all – the upper half of his right arm, and the whole left side of his throat – and in those places sat a network of tubes and pipes, carrying the nectar around his body. He was so emaciated that he could have been a corpse, his skeletal ribs pulled open to reveal the organs beneath. Most seemed to have been replaced by pieces of machinery, yet his heart remained, as shrivelled and as black as a decayed fig, but still beating.

  It was his face, though, which almost sent me tumbling back through the door, which made a screa
m vomit up from my stomach, held in check only by the fact that there was no air in my lungs to fuel it.

  It was as if Furnace was three different people at the same time. I could see the child there, the one from my visions, a kid no older than me. And yet he was also an old man, his face as withered as his body, his skin the colour and texture of decomposed apples. The two faces seemed to strobe back and forth, so fast that they almost merged.

  But there was something else there too, a figure laid over Furnace’s head and body like a photographic negative, one that couldn’t seem to stay still long enough for me to focus on it. I knew what it was, though. I had seen this thing before.

  The stranger, the creature from the orchard.

  It was as if Furnace’s skin was radiating a living darkness, an impossible silhouette which thrashed and pulled and fought like a prisoner trying to escape his chains. I recognised his face, or the void where his face should have been, opening and closing as if formed of a million moving parts. The stranger’s eyes – no, the place where his eyes should have been – watched me, two gaping, boundless portals in his head that were infinitely darker than the shadows around them, like holes burned through the skin of reality. They seemed to suck in all the light and warmth from the room, devouring it, throwing out only cold night. I knew that to stare into those eyes for too long wouldn’t just erode my sanity, it would kill me.

  I collapsed to my knees, the pillar beside me the only thing stopping me from falling flat on my face. The same fear which had gripped me in my dream of the orchard had found me again, that unspeakable, unthinkable, unbearable terror. Everything in the room seemed to be unravelling, as if the surface of the world was peeling away to reveal the abyss beneath. That endless void was infinitely quiet, and yet at the same time it was deafening. I could feel drops of nectar drip from my ears, squeezed from my tear ducts, from my nose. I was unravelling too, every cell in my body withering into a dust which defied gravity, rising towards the ceiling.

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