Jack of Ravens(10)

By: Mark Chadbourn


Church had an impression of the lines of force running out along the spine of Cornwall, across the Somerset Levels to Glastonbury, to Stonehenge and Avebury, and beyond, across the entire world. And more, Church could see the Blue Fire stretching out across the vast gulf of the years, connecting the future and the past. There and here, then and now, all linked; time and space united.

The force of the vision shook Church to the core. It had the familiarity of a returning memory, and Church couldn’t decide whether he and every other human being had always known about the Blue Fire, encoded in the genes, or if it was peculiar to his own lost memory.

Once the euphoria had ebbed and Church discovered he now had the strength to stand upright, he peered beyond the circle’s comforting perimeter once more. The azure incandescence revealed the approaching threat in stark relief. Moving rapidly across the countryside was a small army of inhuman creatures, squat and brutish with greenish skin, long black hair and monstrous features. It wasn’t their supernatural aspect that shocked Church, but the fact that the uniforms he had thought he glimpsed earlier were human skin and body parts worn as clothes.

‘Redcaps,’ he said, half-remembering the legends of the creatures that had once stalked the border counties.

‘What now, Giantkiller?’ Conoran said with concern.

Church fought back the poison still licking at the edges of his consciousness and wondered why everyone was suddenly relying on him.

‘Knock three times if you want in.’

Church started at the unfamiliar voice emerging as if from the air around him. None of the others showed they had heard it; they were fixated on the rampaging Redcaps, fear evident in their faces. Only Etain looked at Church with pleading eyes.

Church’s head swam. The voice had been in modern English. Another hallucination?

The Redcaps were already crashing into the circle of spiky gorse, their low war chant turning hungry as they scented blood.

Church reacted instinctively, slapping one hand three times on the white quartz stone.

Instantly there was a rumbling beneath his feet as a section of turf tore open in the centre of the circle. It rose up like a gaping maw in a shower of earth and stones. The Redcaps hesitated in confusion.

‘Come on!’ Church said to the others, unsure if it was the right thing to do but rapidly running out of options. He leaped into the dark hole. The other five followed his lead without a second thought, and then the ground thundered shut behind them.



12



‘Stand your ground. Do not be afraid.’ Conoran’s voice was resolute, but its timbre was muffled by the acoustics of the rocky tunnel in which they found themselves.

‘To what monstrous place have you brought us, Giantkiller?’ Owein asked. ‘Is this the underworld home of the Fomorii? Have you led us into the arms of those dark gods?’

‘Be silent,’ Etain said sharply. ‘The Giantkiller has saved our lives.’

‘What were those creatures?’ Tannis asked.

‘As far as I was concerned they were just myths … stories … not real at all,’ Church said. ‘Looks as if the stories had some basis in fact.’ Like the legends of giants terrorising Cornwall, and the stories of ley lines linking ancient sites. Everything that was happening to him had the slick, ungraspable feeling of a dream.

‘Let’s see where this tunnel leads,’ he said, hiding his disorientation.

The air was electric. He could taste iron in his mouth, and there was a feeling of being at the side of the ocean or on a mountaintop. The others followed him in silence, helping him upright whenever the poison overcame the restorative powers of the Blue Fire. He felt permanently queasy as the black and the blue fought for dominance inside him, and he knew that his death had only been delayed, not rescinded.

As they progressed, Church began to feel as if the tunnel was not in the earth at all, but somewhere else entirely. His suspicion was sharply confirmed when they ventured into a large chamber seemingly hewn from the rock. It was permeated by blue light, and for the first time they could see clearly.

Tannis touched Church’s arm and pointed upwards. ‘Proof, my friend, that since you arrived amongst us you have turned our world upside down.’

Above their heads hung the floor of the chamber – they were standing on the ceiling of an inverted room with a flagstone floor, walls covered with delicately etched Celtic designs, supporting columns and a stone brazier in which blue flames flickered. On the far side of the room was an upside-down doorway that looked inaccessible from where they were standing.

‘Should we sprout wings and fly?’ Owein asked in disbelief.

‘Let us return,’ Branwen pressed. ‘Those beasts will have departed by now. We can make our way back to Carn Euny by the light of the day.’

‘No,’ Conoran said. ‘Only here can the Giantkiller cure himself of the poison that infects him. Only here can he learn the path he must tread.’

‘Tell me, good Conoran,’ Tannis said warmly, ‘if this is a question that will not offend you: how do you know these things?’

‘The Culture has many secrets passed down to us from the First Days, when man was an infant and the rules were first carved in the earth.’

‘If we must venture on, how do we rise above ourselves?’ Etain looked around for a solution.

‘Walk.’

Once again, Church started at the same mysterious voice he had heard at the quartz stone, and as before it was for his ears only. This time he had no qualms about responding. He searched the nearest wall until he found what appeared to be a foothold. Resting his foot in the hollow, he pushed up, searching for another foothold. There was none, but he was surprised to find himself balanced effortlessly with his second foot merely touching the wall, perpendicular to the ceiling on which he had been standing, as if gravity had given up on him. The others watched uneasily as Church took another step. His stomach did a flip as he began walking up the sheer rock face.

‘Evil!’ Branwen hissed, and made a protective sign in the air.

‘The normal rules don’t apply here,’ Church said. ‘I think you can follow me.’

Etain pressed forward without hesitation and walked up the wall until she was at Church’s side ten feet above the ceiling. The others followed hesitantly.

Finally they were standing on the floor of the upside-down room. Branwen turned to one side and vomited, before wiping her mouth and uttering a curse-word that Church didn’t understand. He realised everyone was waiting for him to lead the way, but as he cautiously headed towards the far door, the blue flames in the brazier roared up into a column of fire that reached far above their heads. Church was shocked to see a face floating in its midst.

‘Finally. You really take some prompting.’ The flames made the features swim so it was difficult for Church to get a clear view, but he had an impression of a young, clean-shaven man with short, dark hair.

‘Who are you?’ Church asked, once he had got over the unreality of talking to a pillar of fire.

‘You can call me Hal.’ The voice was English, the inflection definitely twenty-first century.

‘As in the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey?’

‘If you like. ‘‘Open the bomb bay doors, HAL.” ’

Church knew instinctively that the being in the flames was teasing him, but there was no sense of malice. ‘It was you who told me how to get into this place, and to walk up the wall.’