To defame to devour the.., p.2
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       To Defame, To Devour: The Prequel to a Time-Travel Adventure, p.2

           Lewis J Jones
 
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  ‘You?’ Ardwick gasped.

  ‘You!’ the other man replied. ‘This is where you’ve been hiding?’

  ‘I’m not going back with you!’ Ardwick began, taking a quick succession of steps along the row of easels. ‘I know why you’re here! No.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’m not going Cackrich!’

  ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s too late now — they’re coming for you,’ Cackrich said, spotting the various doors and other possible entrances and exits around the room. ‘We need to board this place up before they get here and hope they don’t find you!’

  Cackrich went to move further into the room but instantly froze when Ardwick barked, ‘No - stop!’

  By the time Ardwick had whipped the small silver baton from his hoister and extended his arm before him, around his hand a lethal weapon had formed. Woven between his fingers and encompassing his whole hand from the wrist down, the weapon buzzed, ready to fire with a small glowing light pursed between its metallic lips.

  Cackrich looked at the weapon and turned a rather unimpressed glance at Ardwick. ‘Really? I’m trying to help you and you're going to shoot me?’

  Nothing but a stutter left Ardwick’s mouth, but his actions spoke a thousand words when with a fierce look he thrust the weapon towards Cackrich. ‘I’m not joking here! I will shoot you!’

  Seemingly more concerned with the lack of time than the rather feeble threat upon his life, Cackrich finally gave a nod, putting his hands up.

  ‘Who is coming?’ Ardwick asked. ‘Wh - how do you know they’re coming?’

  Staring at Ardwick with his dark hazel eyes, Cackrich said nothing. He stroked his thin moustache before flipping his hand over; he needn't say the name.

  ‘Not …’

  ‘Fraid so, yes, it’s him,' Cackrich confirmed, ‘so you know how quickly we need to get going!’ In a swift movement, he opened the door behind him again, grabbed the chains that Ardwick had unlocked and slammed the door shut one final time. ‘We’ll need to chain up the inside of this door and the two at the back there.’ He threw his gaze rather frantically around the room again, this time spotting a set of basement doors tucked beneath some crates that they would also need to conquer. ‘Don't worry, I've got something that’ll make sure no one can get in.’

  ‘But why are you here?’ Ardwick said, his hand shaking slightly as he tried his best to keep the weapon pointed at Cackrich. The muscles in his thick legs tensed, ready to launch into attack if the moment revealed itself. ‘What are you really here for? To warn me, or to make sure that I don’t get away until he gets here?’

  The chains in Cackrich’s hands stiffened at his touch and at his thoughtful command they were sent slithering like a long metallic snake up the wall, wrapping around the fixtures and zig-zagging across the door. As they continued to do so, Cackrich hastily took the few steps down to Ardwick, who shuffled around behind the row of paintings.

  Before Cackrich spoke he brushed his hands through his insipid, blond hair. ‘I’m here to help you, Ardwick. I’ve put a lot on the line already to get here before anyone else does, and they are coming. No time for questions, none of that now. We have to board up this room and pray that they don’t find you.’

  Dressed in a long black cloak with bright red hems and heavily buckled shoes, Cackrich gave a fleeting smile and nodded, imploring a similar response in Ardwick.

  Still eyeing Cackrich with great caution as he walked around the easels, but knowing not where he would run to if he had the chance — if there was still time, even — Ardwick finally reciprocated Cackrich’s expression and holstered his weapon.

  ‘Good man,’ Cackrich said, patting him on the shoulder, ‘now take this.’ He pulled out a small vial that contained a dark grey liquid. ‘Apply it to the chains you lock up. Two drops ought to do it.’

  ‘What about the door we came in through — want me to do those chains first?' Ardwick said, holding up his vial to inspect its contents.

  ‘It's okay, I'll do them in a moment.’

  ‘What does the liquid do?’ Ardwick said.

  Cackrich gave him a mischievous grin. ‘You don’t want to know,’ he said as he pulled out another vial filled with similar looking liquid for himself.

  In the minutes that followed, Ardwick successfully chained up the two remaining doors along the back wall. Once finished, he applied the stated dosage of liquid over each, which caused the chains to rattle and clank before becoming still again. Quite what infliction the liquid caused upon those who would touch it he did not know, but as Cackrich finished covering the basement doors, he moved over to him with an important question.

  ‘If we’re locking ourselves in then how exactly are we going to get out?’

  ‘I’ve got that covered, don’t worry,’ Cackrich said as he shuffled the last crate into place over the basement doors and sent another set of chains looping around its handles, just for good measure. He tapped out two droplets from his vial and watched the liquid splash on the chains, which quivered as ferociously as a rattlesnake's tail.

  There was a loud crack of thunder from far above that echoed around the empty chambers of the Abbey.

  'So what’s the plan? We’re going to sit here until they find us and kill us?’ Ardwick said, listening to the grumbles of thunder fade away. He then rubbed his face and leant back on one of the crates, watching Cackrich as he walked through the room to check that every door was sufficiently protected.

  ‘They’re coming after you, remember? Not me,’ Cackrich said.

  Ardwick gave an attempt at laughing, but even he wouldn't have fallen for it. ‘I thought we were in this together?’

  Cackrich did not answer. Instead he moved towards the easels again and ran his eyes along the lineup of the portraits revealed thus far. He uttered the first syllables of a sentence before stopping, and Ardwick watched as he thought carefully about how he was going to say the words. ‘I know the secret you’re protecting, why you fled,’ Cackrich finally admitted. ‘Why you've been running for all these weeks. I know that the secret you have is also the last thing he needs to find them again — ’

  ‘But he won’t just find them Cackrich, he will kill them! Don’t you think there’s been enough of that?’ Ardwick pushed himself off the crate and marched over to him.

  ‘Far too much, yes. But, if I may ask — why should it make any difference to you?’ Cackrich said fairly. ‘You’ve killed more than your fair few, did so with quite the spring in your step, as they used to say. Wasn’t it you who used to tell me how you’d bathe in the memories of those you’d seen to? I mean, we all get our kicks in different ways, but . . .’

  Ardwick's mouth turned down, and he looked away briefly. ‘It makes a difference to me because this time it’s different,’ he replied with an impatient firmness to his voice. ‘If he finds them, or they are killed, there will be no going back — there will be no way for them to prove that they are -’

  ‘That they are what?’ Cackrich replied sharply.

  ‘Innocent,' Ardwick said. He paused to watch Cackrich for his response, but as his face didn't reveal any obvious emotion he swiftly continued. 'If he finds them then they will never be able to reveal that they didn't kill those people, that they didn’t commit the first murder in one hundred years, that he did.’

  Cackrich came to look at Ardwick with a strong, almost verging on stern, expression before his face fell, and he nodded. ‘Who told you?’ he asked.

  ‘You did. Just now,’ Ardwick replied. ‘It's been a very strong suspicion of mine - I dared to believe what no one else could — that the Evergreens didn't commit their crime.' The locksmith's dying laughs came swimming through his memories, evidence of a person who couldn't believe such a daring, impossible truth.

  ‘And what difference will letting the world know the truth really make?’ Cackrich said next, watching the paintings as they stared back at him.

  Ardwick sighed. ‘All,’ he simply answered. ‘I am by no means a good person — I have done
what I have done and there is no going back for me — but what we have done, what he instigated, is far worse than anything that’s ever happened before. The world nearly ended a hundred years ago, and it was rebuilt and made a stronger, better place. But now it is all over, and there will be no going back from this if the Evergreens don’t declare their innocence. Even then, it’s a far fetched hope that we could recover again.’

  Cackrich was only half listening as he fiddled with something in his inside pocket. He continued to study the easels. With his foot he spread out the cloths and read the word ‘KILL” written between them. He looked up at the three remaining easels, still covered in black. ‘May I?’ he said to Ardwick.

  A slight sense of confusion emerged on Ardwick’s long, oval-shaped face. He was humbled that Cackrich had asked for his permission, as if the Evergreens belonged to him. Giving a short nod, he walked around to be beside Cackrich as he pulled the three remaining cloths to the floor.

  The darkness fell and the third generation of Evergreens, Nora, Daniel and Felicity, were revealed. Each looked no older than about seven or eight, with the girls looking almost like twins with chestnut brown hair, similar to their brothers. They all had round, innocent looking faces and bright green eyes. Just like their parents and grandparents, they too were smiling blindly through the portraits. And just like the rest of their family, they too were shackled in thick, black chains.

  It was almost as if the Evergreens’ false identities as murderers had been stripped away and their paintings, the seven pictures beneath the cloths, were their shining innocence. ‘Killers,’ Cackrich said. ‘Killers who never actually killed . . . but whose apparent act of killing killed the world. Poetic, eh?’

  Ardwick grumbled. ‘You always had a way with words.’

  Walking back and forth along the line up of easels, Cackrich gave a look as though Ardwick's words were a great compliment to him. ‘An appreciation for the art of words can get you out of a very tricky spot. Or get you into one, now I come to think of it. Either way, a wordsmith knows how to get exactly what he wants.’

  ‘And what do you want?’

  Cackrich turned away from the paintings and looked Ardwick straight in the eye. ‘I want you to show me what you found — the secret you ran away with . . . The secret of where they ran away to.’

  ‘The secr -’ Ardwick began before trying to shake the glum expression from his face. ‘I can’t, I can’t risk showing anyone, not even you.’

  ‘What I am here for is to help you,’ Cackrich said in a calm voice. ‘I agree with you that they don’t deserve this. They are innocent, and they don’t deserve to be in this place with those who truly belong here. I know that you came here to destroy these paintings, so they could never be hung upon these walls. And I also know that you hold the final key to where they have gone. But to help you I have to understand where they have disappeared to - I need to know where I can’t direct him to go — where they might be found.’

  The eyes of the paintings watched Ardwick as he moved back and forth in front of them.

  ‘Please,’ Cackrich said, touching Ardwick’s shoulder, ‘please let me help you. Let me help you by saving them. Let me unburden you of their secret.’

  ‘Trust me, he won’t find them. They’ve gone to a place far away from here. You won’t ever find them if you’re looking ahea -’ Ardwick tried cutting off his words but it was too late, and he gave Cackrich a shy glance to see whether he had caught them.

  ‘But if you’re looking back . . .’ Cackrick said, thinking aloud. ‘So more a matter of somewhen? They’ve gone back . . . in time?’

  Ardwick faced the paintings again with his arms crossed tight across his chest; he had said too much and now come to the decision that he wasn’t going to share the secret. As he thought of the few remaining contacts he had that he could persuade, or otherwise insist upon, to help him, he tried to fathom the path ahead. Where could he go next if he made it out alive? He did not notice Cackrich’s gesture until he spotted his outstretched hands from the corner of his eye.

  ‘I want you to have this,’ Cackrich said, presenting a small white maple leaf in the upturned palms of his hands. ‘As a sign of our friendship — and I think of you as my friend, someone I’d do anything for — I want you to have it.’ He moved his hand out further and nodded encouragingly.

  ‘I can’t take that,’ Ardwick said humbly, ‘that’s, no — it means so much to you.’

  Cackrich rubbed his eye and cleared his throat. ‘It does. It was my daughter’s favourite toy before she . . . And it has brought me great strength, seen me through some of the darkest days.’ He nodded encouragingly again.

  ‘How can you work for the man who did that, who tore your life apart?’ Ardwick said.

  ‘You find a way. You have to when you don’t have a choice.’ Cackrich examined the small piece in his hands one final time and wiped away a tear. ‘I couldn’t save her, so let me save someone. Let me save you. Allow me to remove this burden from you and I will protect them, I promise.’

  Silence permeated the room as Ardwick finally took the ephemor. He ran his index finger along the pointed edges, before gripping it carefully and slipping it into the pocket of his coat.

  ‘And if you’re too noble to keep it then you can give it back to me when you’ve made it through.’

  Ardwick nodded thankfully; he could never recall his fellow criminal being so generous before.

  ‘So . . .’ Cackrich said softly. ‘I’ve shared something with you . . .’

  ‘Ok,’ Ardwick said, ‘I’ll tell you. But only because I think you can help, but you have to ward him away from them, he can’t find them . . . the things he would do . . .’

  ‘I know,’ Cackrich said, 'and I will.'

  Taking a deep breath, Ardwick exhaled through tightly pursed lips. ‘Well, it was the last time you saw me, the day I had to run, that I discovered when the Evergreens —’ he began, however Cackrich had kindly held up a hand, causing him to stop.

  ‘Please, I need to see it,’ he said. ‘I know he prohibits us from possessing an Ephemor outside of our duties, but I have with me one that you may use.’ Cackrich slipped his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a small glass lightbulb. Inside, the coils were wrapped and twisted in peculiar shapes, ready to bring to life the memories that were committed to it. He gave the bulb to Ardwick and closed his hands around it. ‘Show me, and this will all be over.’

  Ardwick lifted the bulb in his trembling hands. ‘I’m not proud of this . . .’ he said. As he closed his eyes and plunged into his memories, Cackrich watched as the bulb began to flicker with life. It was as if Ardwick was pouring lots of different coloured liquids into it, which swirled into shimmery shapes and patterns as they filled up the bulb. Within the swirls Cackrich could see the glimmers of images refracting in the light. The coils began to glow bright orange until, finally, the contents of the bulb began to clear. After a minute of pensive silence, the coils dimmed and Ardwick opened his eyes. There was a moment’s hesitation as he lowered it into Cackrich's awaiting hands.

  ‘Thank you,’ Cackrich said, accepting the memory with a small bow. Within a few steps he had reached the door he had entered from and, once there, held the bulb up to his chest between his two hands and closed his eyes. The bulb glowed bright, its light emitting from between his long fingers and lighting up the room in rhythmic, pulsating bursts.

  A few minutes passed and when Cackrich had finished the coil dimmed again and he opened his eyes. For a brief moment he continued to look forward at the door. ‘So that’s where they went . . . when they went . . .’ he whispered. Turning around, he then walked down the steps, straight past Ardwick and over to the seven portraits. He stood in the centre of them, looking one way and then the next along the lineup of painted criminals. They looked back at him.

  ‘What you didn't see in that memory is that it wasn't me who found out where they had gone. It was someone else who found the proof of when the Ever
greens had escaped to. He was going to take the information straight to him. He was so determined to prove his value, his allegiance to him, but I couldn't let him do it. I . . . had to silence him. There was no way I could risk anyone knowing where they had gone!’

  ‘No wonder he couldn’t find them. We never thought to look as far back as the twenty-first.’

  Ardwick shook his head shamefully. ‘There aren’t many records of it left nowadays. It’s a century that has been almost lost to time, like most before it.’

  There was a silence, one that became increasingly awkward as the seconds ticked by.

  Cackrich gave a tremendous sigh, heavy with an undeclared truth. ‘Now comes the bit that I both love and loathe,’ he said with a dull voice.

  ‘What are you on about?’

  ‘Difficult thing to imagine, right? Loving and loathing something at the same time, I mean how is that possible?’

  ‘What are you on about? You're talking nonsense,’ Ardwick said.

  ‘My speciality, as I recall you saying,’ Cackrich replied with a grin. He walked over to the back of the room and from one of the crates pulled out a small red box. Setting it down on the floor, he traced his finger along the top of its lid, and after a small click it unlocked, and he opened it to pull out the large hourglass stored within it.

  ‘What is that for?’ Ardwick asked as Cackrich brought it over to him.

  ‘It’s will help me to help you,’ he mysteriously replied.

  Cackrich set the hourglass on the floor with great care as his fingers brushed over its fine wooden stand. The top pyramid-shaped bulb was slowly filling with silver sand, trickling up from the bottom bulb. As the sand passed over the threshold between the bulbs in the neck of the hourglass, it sparked alight before floating into the top bulb charcoaled and smoky.

  ‘This is a special hourglass. It is made to show how every second that passes doesn't just pass by — it is gone, expired. The particles are scorched and gone the moment they travel from the future to the past. It also suggests that the past can never be returned to.’ Cackrich gave a smirk. ‘Not how it works for us necessarily, but I understand the logic for those who live their life simply from one day to the next.’

  Then, from an interior pocket of his coat, Cackrich removed something else — this time a matchbox. He gave it a shake, almost teasing Ardwick who frowned, uncertain what was going to happen next. ‘Now are we ready for something unexpected?’ Cackrich said.

  ‘As ready for something unexpected as I can be, I suppose,’ Ardwick said. ‘What is going on? What are you doing?’

  ‘Are you watching closely now? Watch closely,’ Cackrich insisted. He removed a matchstick and struck it against the side of the box, igniting it. Then, placing the matchbox down, with the other hand he picked up the hourglass as he flicked the lit matchstick from his finger. Tumbling through the air, the split-second before the match touched the floor he picked up the hourglass and smashed it to the ground.

  There was a short, sharp, snap in the air, as if someone had clicked their fingers in both of their ears at the same time, and the atmosphere was different, as if the particles in the air were now vibrating at a different pitch. A bright spark burst from the shattered hourglass, and as Cackrich promptly withdrew his hand he saw the shattered fragments spinning through the air at an incredibly reduced speed. He stood up and saw that the matchstick was also slowly falling, its tiny flame dancing in the wind of its fall.

  Ardwick was now frowning at Cackrich; he knew exactly what he was doing, but didn't understand how this was going to help them escape necessarily.

  Cackrich then drew out another vial from his cloak, which contained clear liquid with an oily shimmer to it. In a single, unquestioning move he held it still beneath the floating match and then smashed it on the floor.

  ‘Within ten seconds you will be dead,’ Cackrich said in an abrupt voice as he stood up and faced Ardwick, standing only a few feet from him. ‘Ten seconds, and there’s nothing you can do.’

  ‘What? Are they here?’ Ardwick frantically replied, his head snapping around to each of the sealed exits. 'Did you slow down everything to give us more time?’

  ‘Exactly,’ Cackrich said, ‘well — to give you more time, shall we say?’

  ‘Why just me?’ Ardwick replied, stepping forward to Cackrich. ‘You can't sacrifice yourself for me!’

  Cackrich turned as Ardwick briskly walked over to him. The sharp look upon his face said the words before he had even conjured them upon his tongue: ‘I sacrifice myself for no one.’

  In a swift, unforeseen movement he pulled back his foot and violently swung his boot into Ardwick's leg. There was a loud CRACK! and Ardwick fell to the floor screaming in pain.

  ‘Hush now, hush — come on. Noise please, down — ah! ah!’ Cackrich said, waggling his finger to him as though he was talking to a toddler who was throwing a tantrum. ‘I said QUIET!’

  This time Ardwick obeyed as he continued to clutch his leg, whimpering tiny pointless words to himself. He tried to move his leg and Cackrich watched as the almighty pain seized his every muscle tight. Resigning from moving, Ardwick looked up to Cackrich standing over him, who was barely recognisable through the watery pain in his eyes. ‘I thought, you were going, to help me,’ he panted. ‘That's what you told me. That's what you said!’

  ‘I am, I have been helping you all along,' Cackrich replied, almost offended by the thought that he had done anything but this. ‘Helping you to your death.’

  ‘But - but you were giving me more time!’

  Cackrich's eyes narrowed. ‘More time to die,’ he answered vindictively. ‘But as you can see, time doesn’t always move as quickly as we would hope.’ He leant down to the matchstick spinning slowly, its tiny flames ready to spark a colossal fire the instance it kissed the oily liquid. ‘For you, ten seconds will be a long time. Beyond this room time ticks by as it should, as does it for you and I, yet everything in this room will pass by under the intense scrutiny of every, single, millisecond.’ Cackrich continued to watch the match sailing swiftly in gravity's gradual lure.

  ‘Pain gives us the strength to face what we must. I like to cause people pain for that reason!' Cackrich pushed himself to his feet again. 'You needed pain to face your death. Maybe now you will die with some kind of honour you pathetic excuse of a human.’ He shot his voice with such vigour that a few of his syllables flew from his mouth with spit, which trailed slowly through the air. Cackrich then smiled a strong, crooked smile and walked back over to Ardwick who shuffled away. ‘I am going to miss you though. We have been through a lot together.’

  Ardwick held his hands up to his face, fearing Cackrich's next move.

  ‘Oh, you have to laugh don’t you,' Cackrich gasped as he threw his hands on his hips. 'I mean you never saw this coming!’ He looked down to Ardwick, and his smile flatlined. ‘I don’t hear you laughing. Laugh,’ he growled.

  Cackrich placed his foot upon his captor's broken leg and Ardwick howled in pain. Part of his scream must have sounded like laughter for Cackrich nodded, satisfied, and after a few seconds he removed the pressure.

  There was a bright flash from across the room and Cackrich turned to see the match had finally made contact with the liquid; the flames had been ignited.

  His eyes bulging from his head, the flickering flames shone off the black holes of Ardwick's pupils. His breaths became even shorter as true terror he was feeling began to paint his face with deep-rooted fear. ‘Wh-what about your ephemor?’ He said, latching on to Cackrich’s rapidly fading humanity — the final straw he had left to take.

  ‘Oh that? That’s nothing.’

  Ardwick's held breath was extinguished as he exhaled heavily.

  ‘Told you about that months ago, told lots of people - you really need to have all these things put in place,’ Cackrich said, and removing a number of unlit matches from the matchbox he dropped them into the air like laying a sick trail of breadcrumbs as he walked along the row of pain
tings. They floated unnaturally, millimetre by millimetre dropping to the ground. ‘Need to have all these things ready to apply the moment you need them. I used it today and look what I achieved.’ Cackrich looked down at the white leaf ephemor that Ardwick now held in his hand. His dead eyes showed no sense of loss, remorse or otherwise guilt at what he was doing. ‘Keep it. It means nothing to me.’

  Ardwick turned to his leg again, which was bent at an unnatural angle, and his face became incredibly ugly as he winced, shuffling his weight. ‘I can't believe you lied to me,' he said with a sad edge to his words.

  ‘That’s what I do!’ Cackrich shrieked as he walked around the room, depositing further matchsticks in the air. ‘Oh, you should do it more often! Or - should have done it more often. So thrilling when you tell a lie and see it unfolding in someone else’s eyes, you can almost see that they have fallen for it. The hardest part is not giving away that you've lied.' Cackrich rolled his eyes down to Ardwick over the other side of the room. ‘You see, trust is a leverage, that is all. I leveraged you, to get you into position.’

  The fire had begun to rage as it indulged itself in the succulent flammable pool. The spark from the matchstick was flooding across the liquid, riding out a fascinating blue wave with bright yellow flames towards Ardwick.

  ‘Well I have nothing more to add,’ Cackrich said, now tired of the conversation. ‘The flames will grow, this room will burn and you’ll be dead within seconds. I, on the other hand, have news to share with a man who has grown incredibly irritable awaiting news of his illusive family. They’re not his family in any bloodrite, but after the length he has gone to for them they may as well be. Whitsnare waits for no man, not even me.’

  Ardwick looked up to the easels beside him. The Evergreens were looking down at him with their trusting, innocent smiles. 'At least I'm not alone. You're with me till the end.'

  ‘Until the end,’ Cackrich repeated, hopping up the steps to the door. He so much as barely touched the chains and they burst apart, exploding slowly through the room. ‘Remember I said I'd do this door in a minute?’ Cackrich said, giving the small vial a wiggle. He shrugged with an unashamedly coy look, guilty of yet another lie against his name. ‘You should have shot me earlier,' he said with just as little care, 'I would have.'

  Into his inside pocket the vial went, and from it came a rather peculiar looking key. It was long and rusty, and had a red ribbon wrapped around the top of its shaft. With a strong hand he thrust it into the lock, turned it two times to the right and then three times to the left, and then removed it. He went to open it but stopped, turning back towards Ardwick as if knowing he was going to speak.

  ‘There was never anyone coming, was there?’ Ardwick gave a gut-wrenching sigh, as though on some level he should have known this was how it was going to end.

  A faint grin pulled at the edges of Cackrich’s mouth. It wasn’t a malicious grin this time, it was almost heartfelt. ‘Never.’

  And with that Cackrich pulled open the door, stepped through, and firmly slammed it behind him without a second glance.

  TO DEFAME, TO DEVOUR

  — PART THREE —

  The Beginning of the End

 
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