The ending of the world
They were laughing, all five of them, at some story of a holiday gone wrong. When she saw Barney look up, Jane turned to see what he was looking at, and there was Bran, standing in the doorway.
"What's wrong?" Paul asked sharply.
Bran shook his head. He looked dazed, and he was not wearing his glasses.
"Did you see Will?" Paul persisted.
Bran froze for a moment. Then he let out a breath and moved again, but it was enough. Jane knew the truth.
"You did," she said. "You saw Will, and he told you to go away, just like I said he would."
"Be quiet!" She had never heard such cold command in the voice of anyone human. "You don't understand anything. None of you understand anything."
He slammed the door and went away, his footsteps stamping up the stairs. Jane sat down, trembling. The others had the awkward look of someone who had witnessed an argument and did not know what to do.
So there you have it, her mind whispered.
Yes, Jane whispered back, and, with a shuddering sigh, she yielded, and let the enemy have her.
Will walked into the darkness of the distant past, to a time before man, before the Old Ones, before the enemy. His hand was held in front of him, parting the years like a veil. Time was no barrier for an Old One, but to go so far required effort. It felt like a long climb to a distant mountain, or maybe like a slow descent to a depth he would not be able to return from.
They were ready for him, caged and furious. He felt them calling to him when he was close, hungering for his blood, tugging at the ties that bound him.
Once, before, he had mastered them, though the mastery was fragile and would not last long. They were chained, but the chains were rusty, and would wear through with the passage of time. Their bonds were magic and power, but they were not enough to hold them forever. There was a chance that they would break free when they saw him, and overcome him, and this time there would be no going back.
They looked like white wraiths with hollow eyes, with long fingers that spilled out into the air, and bands of gold on their brows. They had feasted on his blood, and that had strengthened them and given them a more permanent form. The enemy's presence had bought a hint of them back to life, but Will's blood had made that life real. They were bound to him, and they could destroy him.
They hissed and surged when they sensed him. Will half closed his eyes. His blood was on their tongues and in the pits that were their stomachs. If he cared to, he could reach out to that blood, and feel what they were feeling, in broken images and scattered thoughts. Blood, hunger, hatred, fury… Blood so sweet, but now gone, and they were so dry, so hungry, and they wanted more, they needed more…
He drew himself back. "No," he said. "You will hear me."
They watched him, hating him. This was a time before the world had finished forming, when magic swirled unchecked, yet to settle down into Light and Dark. He saw them in a cage on a blackened hillside, beneath an orange sky, but he doubted such things were real. Even the mind of an Old One could not cope with some realities, and created a fiction, just to stop from going mad.
"You know who I am," he said. He said it out loud, though words were not necessary. They plucked what they needed from his mind and his soul, and he let them, giving them everything that they needed, except himself. "And I know who you are."
Of course he did. They shared a link that was closer than love. These things had been long dead, but he had birthed them, he and the enemy together. That was why he had almost failed, the last time he had confronted them. He had tried to stand outside of them, and command them, but they had been more wily and more strong. They had tugged at the link, and he would have been lost, if Bran had not been there, calling him back to his body to himself.
Bran was not here now. Will was alone.
"Release us," they hissed. "Let us take what is ours."
Images flooded his mind. Sheep slaughtered, and sweet sweet flesh. Children running in terror, and a swinging sword. Lights on a hillside, one by one extinguished. They had wandered free on the mountain for a few days, in only a shadow of the strength that could be theirs. They wanted more. They could be more deadly than the enemy, and more cruel.
Will raised his head. "No, I will not."
They screamed and shrieked and threw themselves at their bars. Will's veins burned like fire, as if his blood was leaping from his body, responding to their call, going to them. He wavered and almost fell, and cried out with the effort of keeping himself standing. From the knee downwards, he was encased in a swirling, blood-red darkness. He tried to remember what light looked like, what summer was like, and the face of a friend.
"Release us!" they commanded. "We will spit out your blood. We will find another. Let us go."
That was why he was here. He reached behind him, straining with just two fingers, and touched a faint patch of warmer air, that was his path home. He was still in control. Last time, he had wanted to end the link between them, so he could destroy them, but they had clung to him hungrily, almost dragging him down. Now they wanted to be freed from the link, and he was the one refusing to let it go. The positions were reversed. He was the one exerting the power, and they were the ones struggling so desperately to be free.
"We are linked," he told them. "We are bound by more than my blood."
"Liar!" they howled. "We are nothing like you, Old One, young one, bastard child."
"I know you," he said, and looked each of them in the pits that were their eyes.
These were the spirits of ancient mages, from the time before Light and Dark. They were mages and warlords from a time of chaos, when Wild Magic ruled, and people did what they willed. They had been human, and they had died in time, but their magic and the magic of their followers was strong enough that they had lingered in a kind of waking sleep, beneath the layers of the earth.
"I am your child," he told them. "I bear your blood, just as you bear mine."
"Liar!" they shrieked. Images came, of things tasted in the air when they had awakened from their long sleep, of things drifting over their mounds, barely noticed or remembered. They hated the Old Ones as invaders, and despised their alien magic. They hated the Light and despised the Dark. They thought the world was theirs.
"Listen," he beseeched them, and he showed them everything that lay inside him. He showed them family, and love. He showed himself as a toddler, blinking up at an adored older brother. He showed himself watching Bran walk away. He showed himself aged twelve, bereft of Merriman. He showed people laughing, and smiling, and weeping. He showed them the things he had realised in their fire, and the things Bran had shouted at him just before that.
"I am human," he told them. "An Old One, yes, but a human, too. You are my ancestors, from long, long ago. The people out there, living in the world today, are your last children. They are your legacy, but something is out to destroy them, turning them against each other, making them hate."
"An enemy?" they hissed. They knew that word. He felt them itch for swords and axes, for hands that could wield weapons, for mouths that could speak their spells. They had fought and died to protect their people in a harsh age.
Will spread both hands, palms upwards. "I am not your enemy. We are allies, fighting to protect your children from the true enemy. Will you let him destroy your world?"
They shrieked, an incoherent sound. Nothing came from them now but hatred and the need to kill.
"But not yet," he told them, and the force of their fury almost sent him to his knees. His blood screamed, and a finger of scarlet darkness coiled around his waist. "When the time is right, I will call you through the years. You will attack the person I command you to attack. He might look human, but he is not. He is a spirit, and he will try to escape."
"We are spirits, too," they said, "who once were the kings of men. We will stop this enemy if he seeks to leave his prison of flesh. We will bind him as you have bound us."
They hissed, for they still hated him. Violence filled their minds, and their hatred was like a heavy chain round Will's throat. He had no idea if they were lying, if they planned to betray him. The link was in images and feelings, not thoughts.
"I will summon you," he said. Home felt impossibly far away, but he turned, and, ever so slowly, found the strength to begin the walk.
Upstairs in the darkness of his room, Bran heard the front door open. Downstairs, Jane heard it, too.
Bran moved to the head of the stairs, his heart beating fast. Jane left unsaid the thing she had been speaking, and listened. Neither of them heard a thing. No footsteps sounded in the hall. Someone from inside had gone out.
Bran moved to the window on the landing, and Jane walked slowly to the window in the living room, pushing the curtain aside just enough to look slant-wise with one eye.
Both of them saw the same - a figure standing in the yard, hands on hips, looking up towards the mountain.
At last! Someone's doing something, Jane thought, and smiled at the thought of a man's strong fist, striking Will down when he suspected nothing.
Bran turned slowly away, thinking, So he has shown himself, then. It is him.
Neither of them moved.
The air was cool, the grass was moist, the fences and stiles were damp and solid. It seemed like an eternity since Will had touched such real and tangible things. There was very little real in the distant place where the dead were.
The light of Bran's house had guided him down from the mountain - distant specks at first, resolving into squares of gold that spoke of warmth and people. As he drew closer, he could hear the animals in the yard, but he could not see anyone moving. There were no shadows of dying people from the past, playing out their final hours in a misty echo of what once was. That either meant that the enemy was far away, or that he was close, but deliberately holding back, to make Will lower his guard.
He reached the gate that led into Bran's yard, and clutched at it longer than was necessary. A slit in the curtain told him that he was being watched. A shape stood at an upstairs window, but did not move.
It will all happen here, Will thought.
"There you are." Someone strolled towards him from a dark place in the yard.
Simon. Will moistened his lips, and tried to remember how to speak in words, to someone who could not rip impressions from your soul.
"You said you wouldn't be long," Simon said. "Jane's been half mad with worry in there, though of course she was trying not to show it. I think she's gone past worry to anger now, though, I'm afraid. It won't be pretty when you go back in."
Will said nothing. He did not take his hand off the gate. He was still outside, and Simon inside, the two of them speaking across wooden bars, as if one of them was in prison.
"Well, I'm glad we've got this chance to chat," Simon said, with every appearance of sincerity. "You're our leader in this great endeavour, but we've hardly exchanged two words. It doesn't seem right, does it?"
"There's been a lot happening."
"True." Simon nodded. "Still, I gave up a lot to come here and join your little group. I'm missing no end of important meetings. An aspiring politician really can't do that, you know. But what am I missing them for? To sit here and do nothing, while the only person who knows anything about what's happening goes swanning off for hours on end?"
It was said quite mildly, but it felt to Will as if something was shivering along his spine. Ice wrapped in honey. It reminded him of something, and he knew exactly what it was.
"I have to be honest," Simon said, "and admit that I don't really like you much so far. Nothing personal, of course."
"I understand." Moisture from the gate was seeping through into his hand. Will felt as if he was sinking into a dream, as if he was back in the world of the dead, and only the two of them were real. He tried to smile. "You didn't like me the first time, either."
"Really?" Simon shrugged. "But as I said, it's nothing personal. I don't like half the people I work for, but it doesn't stop me sucking up to them at meetings. I'm not a petty man, but I am an able man. Everyone in the Party is most impressed. So give me something to do, Will. Tell me what you're planning."
Careful… Will took his thoughts and feelings and thrust them along the link he shared with the dead. Guard them for me. Very faintly, he felt them shriek and fall on them, and for a moment he could hardly stand.
"You alright there?" Simon was asking solicitously.
Will nodded. "Fine. Better than ever. That's the key, you see."
Simon placed his arms on the gate, leaning forward in interest.
"I have to persuade the enemy to come here and try to kill me," Will said. "He said he would. He said I was standing in the way of his complete domination of the world, and that one day I would have to be removed."
"But not yet?" Simon raised his eyebrows. "Why not?"
"He…" Will swallowed. "He feeds on emotions. Because of who I am, mine are stronger and more… nourishing, I suppose. The tears of a wizard are like honey. That's what he said. He wants to destroy me, but he needs me here, too. I need to convince him that I'm no longer…"
"Nourishing?" Simon suggested. "That you've got over whatever emotional problems you had? That you're strong and happy and determined, and he might as well just swoop in now and kill you?"
Will nodded. He managed to stop his hand from trembling, but only just. Simon's hand was very close on the gate, lying there as if casually placed.
"So you're going to… what?" Simon raised that hand, gesturing up at the mountain. "Stand on the topmost peak and flash out some lightning bolts in an 'I am here!' signal? Stand there with your little minions at your side, cheering you on, making you strong?"
Will breathed in, and out again. "Anything that will make him come. I need to go in and talk to the others, and make them ready. I didn't tell them everything before. I can't do this without them."
Simon smiled. "It seems wrong to be confrontational about this, don't you think?" He opened the gate. Will took a step back, and then Simon was through. He closed the gate again, a barrier between them and the light.
"There," Simon said. "What were you saying? Something about being strong and ready, with no more tears to shed?" He chuckled. "Dramatic stuff. What makes you so sure that the enemy isn't already here?"
The dead things were inside him, feeding, growing, shielding. "We see… ghosts when he's near," he said. "There aren't any. And people… Jane. Bran. They're feeling it, but they're not broken. We needed time away from him. That's why we came to Wales. I need them strong, all of them. If the enemy took any of their minds, then I'd fail. I'd lose."
Simon was standing very close, his expression the same as that of another man, not so long ago, and not so far away. "Jane didn't seem herself," he whispered. He brought his hand up, rubbing Will's cheek with his thumb. "I'm sure you have many tears yet to shed, little wizard."
He felt them, then, the fingers in his mind. He saw friends turning away, and Bran's face twisted with fury. He saw family dying, and the world falling into flames and hatred as he stood and watched, powerless to stop them. He let his mind buckle and break, overcome by what he saw. Tears welled in his eyes, and fell on Simon's outstretched hand.
"There," Simon said, as soothing as a man to his lover, as a mother to her child. "There's an eternity of nourishment in you yet."
Behind his back, Will clenched his trembling fist. His true spirit was with the dead, consumed and guarded by creatures who hated him. The enemy was only touching a fragment, but enough, oh please, enough… Will was still… He was still…
"All alone and powerless," Simon's voice said, as if it was a song. "How merry a thing is that."
Will uncurled his fist, fingers stretched. Before he could do so, Simon punched him full in the face, a blow so sudden and unexpected that Will was powerless before it. He fell backwards, blinded by pain. Simon stood above him, so tall that his head seemed to touch the sky, and there was nothing in the world but him.
Jane watched it all from the window, biting her hand with the excitement of it. Simon was like a knight in shining armour, the strong big brother who went out and fought anyone who dared to upset his sister.
She watched them talk, and grinned to see how fragile Will seemed next to Simon. Then Simon opened the gate, and Will stepped back, and she knew that meant that her brother was winning.
The first blow was struck. Jane gasped, and recoiled just for a moment. I don't like violence! Will doesn't deserve… But that was the old Jane, forgetting who she was for a moment. The new Jane refused to let herself get pushed around and forgotten and dismissed. So what if Will seemed to think that he could save the world? He could not treat her the way he had treated her and hope to get away with it unscathed.
Simon's body moved, as if he was kicking Will's fallen form. Footsteps hammered on the stairs, and Bran rushed out into the yard, shouting incoherently.
"Barney," Jane said, quiet calmly, as she stepped away from the window. "Simon needs us outside. We Drews stand together."
Barney stood up, frowning with confusion. Paul and Jon, hated enemies and allies of Will, rushed out of the room together, following Bran. Barney went faltering out, and so Jane had a moment alone.
She used it well.
Bran had watched in agony, torn between fear and certainty. Simon was the enemy, and this quiet conversation between two men was actually a terrible battle for unimaginable stakes. If Simon wasn't the enemy at all, but Bran went out shouting that he was, it would alert the real enemy to too many things. If Simon was the enemy, then Will needed total concentration, and if Bran went running out, then…
Pressing his fist into his mouth, he had watched. He had seen them talk, seen a touch, seen blow…
With the blow, his decision was made. He tore down the stairs, out of the house, and across the yard; ripped open the gate, saw Simon's face, a veneer of politeness; saw Will on the ground, curled up against pain; shouted Will's name, shouted Simon's name, shouted at them to stop it, just stop it, please stop it…
He knew what it was like to be beaten. He knew what it was like to curl at someone's feet, begging for mercy. He knew the feel of a boot landing on a cheek, or a fist in the stomach, of the pain, of the sorrow, of the total humiliation of the thing. Nothing else mattered, not that this could be the enemy, not that they were fighting for the world. Bran had been there. Bran knew this.
"Don't!" He grabbed Simon's arm, tried to drag him away from Will. "Leave him alone!"
Simon swung casually with the other hand, a harsh blow in the face that sent Bran backwards, where he struck the fence and almost slithered to the ground. "None of your business, you Welsh freak," he said. "Your lover boy has been cruel to my sister. It's my right to teach him a lesson."
"He isn't…" Bran hauled himself to his feet again. "He hasn't…" But the others were there, all shouting at once. Everyone was shouting. Barney was saying, "Simon?", puzzled and betrayed. Paul was bellowing, a strange sound to come from such a quiet man. Will was saying something, his eyes on Bran, but Bran could not read the message. He did not know what he was supposed to do.
"Will," he begged. "What is it? What is it? Is it him?"
Too much shouting. Paul and Jon were both holding Simon now, hauling him away from Will by his arms. Barney was looking from Simon to Will and back again, as if his world had fallen apart. Bran crawled to Will's side, and shook his arm, but Will no longer seemed to know that he was there. His face twisted with torment, he moaned, as if he was fighting impossible foes in his mind. His lips kept on moving, but he made no sound at all.
"Please," Bran beseeched him. "Tell me how to help you."
He heard it in his mind, the faintest whisper, soft and shivering like a caress. It's Simon, it said, infinitely sad. It came with a fleeting impression of white hands and eyes like pits, of white mist and red blood, of hunger.
Bran recoiled, scraping his hand over his eyes. Was that Will? Will had never spoken in his mind before. Surely Will couldn't… But it had been there. If it was truly Will, then that meant… But what if it was the enemy, trying to make Bran attack the wrong target? He didn't know. He didn't know.
Surely the enemy wouldn't attack Will with his fists, not when he had so many stronger means at his disposal. Yes, surely that proved it. Simon was not the enemy after all, and this was…
"Let him go," Jane's voice commanded.
Bran turned round, and saw her approach as if in slow motion. No, Bran thought. Oh no… Earlier, he had been tormented with the image of Owen Davies striding forward with a shotgun, and Will falling before him, brought down by a bullet just when he needed to be strong. It was Jane who stood there with the gun, in just the same position. How? he thought, but of course he, too, had once almost taken a gun to Will. Jane had been there, and had seen where the gun was, and where he kept the key. It was his gun, and therefore the responsibility was his.
"Jane," Bran rasped. "Don't…"
"Ah, Jane." Simon smiled at her. "The last of them arrives."
"What did he say?" Jane demanded, her voice low.
Simon said nothing, clearly trying to spare her.
Keeping the shotgun levelled at Will, Jane walked forward. She wished the gun would stop trembling so. "Simon, what did he say? What did Will say about me?"
"I think you should put the gun down, Jane." That was Barney. He was a traitor, seduced by Will's magic to turn against his own blood. She ignored him.
"He said…" Simon was held prisoner by the hateful arms of Paul and Jon, but he kept his dignity. "I'm so sorry, Jane. He was boasting about the things he's been getting up to with Bran. He was laughing about how you used to trail him around, like a puppy. And he… I hate to say this, Jane, but he tried to come on to me. He's a pervert, just like his brother." Then he screamed, as Paul and Jon, moving together, twisted his arms behind his body. Their faces were twin masks of implacable fury.
"That's a lie!" Bran jumped to his feet. "It's a filthy lie!"
"Why would Simon lie?" Jane turned towards him. She wished that her voice was not shaking so. "Why would he tell me something that he knew would upset me, if it wasn't the truth? I saw them touch! I was watching at the window, and I saw them touch."
But Simon did the touching, her memory wanted to tell her. Will had been retreating, not gloating. And Will would never… He wasn't the sort of person to… She shook her head, clutching the gun tighter. Will was a wizard. He could make people believe any manner of lies. He could mess with her memory. He was a master of such things.
"He's saying it because he's been influenced by the enemy," Bran said, "just as you have been." He looked at Will, and seemed to make his mind up about something. "No, he is the enemy. He's stage-managing all of this to make us fall apart. I bet he's laughing inside."
Jane laughed. She hated how the sound was closer to tears. "Do you really expect any of us to believe that?"
Will was just lying there, his head moving from side to side, as if he was fighting something terrible in his mind. There was blood on his face, and she wanted to… No, of course she didn't. She wanted to hurt him, because of what he had done. That was why she had brought the gun. She was too weak to fight with her fists, and she had no magic, but even an Old One could fall before a gun.
"Whether we believe it or not," Jon said, "we cannot take the risk." He hooked his leg behind Simon's, and effortlessly jerked him to the ground.
"Leave him alone!" Jane screamed, but Barney was shaking his head. "No, Jane." He moved towards her, hand raised, clearly trying to take the gun. "Get away from me!" she shrieked. "You're a traitor." But he was just shaking his head over and over, saying that no, she wasn't herself, that the enemy had got her, that Bran was right on that, even if not about Simon… Oh, please, Jane, it can't be true about Simon…?
"Barney," she begged him. "Please… You're on my side. You're on our side. Will ruined your life. He made you lose your faith."
"No." Barney shook his head. "The truth was not how I thought it was. That is not the fault of the messenger. It is no-one's fault. It is for me to reconcile, and not for anyone else." He was right in front of her now. "Give me the gun, Jane."
"No," she sobbed, clutching it tighter.
"You don't know how to fire one of those things," Barney said. "You'll hurt yourself. You might kill someone."
"I want to kill someone." She pushed him aside, and pointed the gun at Will, but her arms were trembling, her muscles almost giving way. She could not see properly. There were tears in her eyes and voices in her mind, all saying different things. She wanted them to be quiet. If she shot Will, they would be quiet.
"Jane." Will raised his head. As she watched, he rose, like a corpse rising from a coffin. There was blood on his face, but he looked unharmed, and his eyes were deadly and clear. Liar! her mind gibbered. He had only been playing dead, all the while listening to everything, laughing. There was such laughter in her mind, all the time, louder and louder, until she wanted to clap her hands to her ears, but she could never escape it, never.
"You," Simon breathed.
Jane pulled the trigger. The gun slammed backwards into her body, and it hurt. It hurt so much, and the flash blinded her, and the noise was like the world tearing apart and ending. She dropped the gun, and bodies slammed into hers, pushing her to the ground, grabbing her. She bit her lip and tasted blood, and still the flash went on, silver now, not yellow, sheeting the world.
Will, she thought, with dazzled, battered mind. Will had his arm outstretched, a silver barrier against the shot. He was taller than a man, and Simon was screaming, shrieking, laughing. Laughter. Always laughter…
"Look after her," Bran hissed, and Barney said, "Of course," as if he was angry. They were both so close, voices by her ears, arms on her body. Then one side of her body was cold, as Bran stood up and left her, racing to the silver shield, and through it, to Will.
She blinked. Always Will, she whispered, but the laughter was gone from her mind, and, as she watched, Will raised both hands, and spoke a word, and then the world ended.
End of chapter thirteen