Necronaut

I can hear a song, ringing through empty corridors, tinny from a distance. There’s good and bad news in that. Good news; the ship is pressurized. The bad news is that on a ship this size there should be a constant hum of hundreds of machines, most of which are responsible for survival in the harsh vacuum of space. Only reason I can hear that damn song is those machines have all stopped. Just as I fear, I open my eyes to darkness, no lights and dead monitors. Everything is washed of colour, a world of greys and blacks out by the faint light of the starfield that hangs past the portholes. I slowly turn, absorbing the silence. My breathing, that echoing song…and nothing else. It’s hard to accept that I’m alone. Harder to accept that the strip lights, air scrubbers, gravity could are all inoperative. To say nothing of the engines themselves. I don’t remember what happened. How I came to be floating on the bridge. I’m just one of six technicians on this flight, the only reason I’d have to come to the bridge would be to fix a minor fault, like a flickering light or an unresponsive display. More to the point, if I was here when…whatever, happened then why was I left behind? If everybody really had left, why leave without me? I may be brave enough to travel through the unforgiving void of space for a living, but I’m not the self-sacrificing type.

That thought brings me up short. I’m probably going to die here. I don’t want to, but I can’t imagine another scenario at present. My problem with this is that with the ship engines down I might not live long enough to slowly asphyxiate once the air is too stale to breath. I’m more likely to be shredded on a cellular level by stray cosmic rays or did in explosive decompression caused by a random micro-meteorite impact. No power means no shields. I might be able to do something about that. Moving with purpose, I propel myself into the corridor and head for the aft of the ship. I have to use chemical lights to find my way through the ship’s interior; we’re bio-engineered for low light conditions, but not pitch blackness. As I move through the ship I see no signs of life. No signs of damage either. All the while, that song plays, on a loop, almost inaudible. When I reach the engine compartment, I encounter a problem. Lack of power and isolation aside. The door is shut, sealed. Above the handle there is a small red panel. That’s bad. It indicates explosive decompression has occurred in the engine room. I can’t immediately recall the nearest emergency supply locker, but that doesn’t really matter. If I got the door open I might depressurize the entire ship. And without knowing the nature of the problem there’s no guarantee I’d be able to get life support functioning again.

There’s an odd sort of comfort in the hopelessness of the situation. I’m resigned to my fate, my death at some indeterminate point in the future. Still, if I’m going out I might as well do it in relative comfort. Scuttlebutt holds that the first officer maintains a modest liquor cabinet. And while I’m in the crew module I can do something about that damn song. I make my way through the crew module, the song growing steadily louder. And there it is. I had no idea Henway was into retro earth music, would’ve had them pegged as a Jovian beats fan. I flick through the track listings, settle in something slow and mellow. Time for booze and oblivion.
I’m half a bottle in, surrounded by space heaters with internal batteries. Fate seems to be soaring me so far, funny as it is to say so given my imminent demise. I briefly considered trying to wire together every portable power supply onboard to try and power the ship’s systems. Then I realized I’d likely get myself in the attempt. It’s still bothering me, not knowing what happened. I’m not even sure how far along our course we travelled. I tried using the hardcopy starcharts to figure it out, but astronavigation is not my forte. We were about two thirds of the way to our destination. Launchpad. Official designation a string of letters and numbers most people don’t bother to memorize. It’s where they launch deep space probes from. A giant railgun, out past the boundary of our solar system. For safety reasons, although it’s a commonly held belief that should the thing fail critically, we’d find out catastrophically. It’s a well-paid posting. Not my speed though, hanging out in the void, just…waiting. Oh. I suppose my death’s be ironic. I wonder if the crew survived. Whether they reached safe harbout. The company supply out hefty settlements. Enough to retire on. That’s pretty funny, in a morbid sort of way  They’ll be able to spend the rest of their lives kicking back and drinking. Just like me.

I’m half awake and start trying to turn over when I remember where I am, what happened. Most of the heaters are powered down, and my mouth feels disgusting, so I assume I’ve been asleep for quite some time. I’m restless. Maybe I’m not as resigned to my fate as I thought, because this ridiculous notion has entered my head. I use some of the emergency supplies to freshen up and then I head for the airlock closest to the engine compartment. Whatever happened…I probably can’t fix. But I need to know. Suiting up for a spacewalk solo isn’t regulation, but I’m fairly sure the deals are secure. It takes longer than I expected to work the manual cranks to cycle the airlock, my arms and legs feel leaden. Like I ran a marathon. The exterior of the ship looks as undamaged as the interior. No clues here to the mystery surrounding me. I slowly plod across the curve of the hill towards the rear. The problem is immediately apparent and I fight the urge to cackle. The engineering compartment is…not there. The hull terminates abruptly, a carbon-scorched edge in a ring around the space where the engines should be. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It explains the lack of power, the evacuated crew. I just…I can’t, I…my mind feels, what…I

I awaken to an insistent beeping and a view of the starry void. O2 is running low. I switch the bottle for a fresh one and take a deep breath, two. I must have blacked out. I didn’t know that was a thing I do, it’s never happened before. Explains a lot. The panic of, well, whatever happened, must have triggered a blackout. I guess in the chaos they just didn’t notice me floating there in the dark. Wow, what a time for that to happen. I make my way back inside, slowly. The air inside is starting to smell wrong, sort of musty. I feel short of breath. Must be about that time. I go back to the distance I’ve fashioned for myself and work on what’s left of the officer’s booze. I’m a whim I turn the music player on and set that song to repeat. I like the symmetry. As my eyes begin to close, I wonder if the ship, this oversized coffin, will ever be found. Maybe I’ll drift until the stars burn out. I wouldn’t mind that. A dead astronaut, in a dead ship, sailing through a dead…

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Martha/groundskeeper/disgust

I asked a friend to suggest three things and then wrote a short story  around them. Feel free to do the same =)




“Eulalie! Dash it all, where have they got to?”

Martha Wight strode deeper into the woods, scanning the undergrowth bordering the trail. She stopped occasionally, stooping to fuss with some errant branch or plucking a leaf and tucking it into one of the many pockets that festooned her jacket and breeches. Her scowl remained fixed as she searched for the child.

When she agreed that morning to watch the child for a few hours, she’d had no idea of what a handful children could be. Trees and bushes and brooks had a tendency to remain relatively in place; children did not. Not even a little bit.

“Eulalie! Child, get your bony rump in front of me right this instant or there will be consequences!” she bellowed.

Grouse broke from a thicket, startled by her roar. Still no sign of the child. She resisted the urge to curse the tutor. It was hardly his fault an aunt had fallen ill, and he was to be commended for going to care for her, being the nearest relative to her. Had Martha known that a twelve year old could be the source of such vexation, she surely would have insisted the cook take charge of them.

“One would think a simple admonition to remain on the path was clear enough,” she grumbled as she strode along, “I’m quite sure I understood simple instructions when I was twelve…”

She stopped for a moment, recalling her childhood, and blushed at recollections of some rather outrageous escapades.

“Even so,” she muttered, and continued on. The small copse was thinning out. Martha felt a shadow of concern now. The grounds weren’t so extensive that her task should prove so difficult. Beyond the woods was a small meadow and past that the fence running the perimeter of the grounds. The house was grand, but its lands were relatively limited, having been sold off to the farms hereabouts by family ancestors whose debts had mounted to daunting sums.

Although Martha would have liked the larger grounds, she was content with what she oversaw. She was fairly young, to hold a head groundskeeper position for such an esteemed old family. But they trusted her, and she had lived up to that trust.

Until she misplaced their child. This might put a dent in the good relations she had hitherto enjoyed. She pulled her compact field glass and scanned the meadow. Right across, beside the fence, she could just about make out a huddled form with bright blue boots. Relief flooded her and she hurried across the meadow.

“Eulalie you little rotter! What were you thinking, rabbitying off like that?” she demanded, trying to sound stern rather than hysterical.

He looked towards her, face scrunched up.

“Martha, look. I found a gross thing,” he said, and pointed to the object of his disgust.

She looked down, and sighed. Up against the fence was a mostly-eaten rabbit. A fox must have run it to ground here and killed it. As a groundskeeper she was hardly a stranger to small dead animals but she could understand the child’s objection to the gruesome sight.

“Do you have to clean that up?” Eulalie asked, staring fixedly at it once more.

“Oh it won’t be long before nature takes its course; give it two weeks and there’ll likely be nothing but a few bones and tufts of fur to mark the spot,” she replied matter-of-factly.

He looked up once more, gaping.

“What does that mean?” he asked with equal parts horror and fascination.

She hesitated, considering the pros and cons of explaining the efficiency of carrion eaters, decided an impromptu nature lesson couldn’t hurt.

He listened, rapt, as she explained the eating habits of foxes and crows, and the rapidity with which insects and weather would dispose of what remained. He was especially interested in the beetles, wanted to go hunting for some right there and then. But the shadows were growing longer and the sun was sinking. Only by promising to bring him a jar of the voracious carrion eaters was she able to coerce him into heading back to the house.

“Go on ahead,” Martha told him, “and go directly to the house. I’ll mark the spot and come back later to find you some beetles.”

He headed away across the meadow, making a beeline for the manor.

Martha waited for him to enter the small copse, then rolled up her sleeves. She stretched her arm between the fence and grasped the rabbit corpse, drawing it back through. She’d been hard-pressed to behave in front of the child, but now she sank her needle-sharp teeth in with relish, crunching bones and greedily swallowing the remains. She received a generous stipend for her duties, but no boggart would pass up a tasty snack had they the chance.

Martha hurried after the child once she was done. She had been given very strict instructions by the tutor about when Eulalie was to be put to bed, and which incantations were to be said over the door.

A Solemn Conversation

They sat there, the two of them, on a grassy hillside facing the rising sun. Strikingly similar in appearance, yet their posture couldn’t have been more different. Jay was practically laid out, propped up on his elbows, ankles crossed. He stared out at the world before them, taking it in and smiling sadly. Dee slouched forwards, arms round his knees. He studied the ground before his boots intently, brow furrowed with worry.

“Strange really,” Jay said, realizing how silent they’d become and disapproving.

Dee didn’t notice, lost to his morose reflection. Jay glanced over, sighed.

“Dickhead, don’t ignore me,” he jibed playfully.

Dee glanced back briefly.

“Sorry. What’d you say?”

“It’s strange, yeah? Brand new day and it looks no different than usual. Bill’s gone, but to see this you’d never know he was there to begin with. Sort of lends perspective, when you think that we have so little impact on, well…on anything.”

Dee frowned deeply.

“Bill mattered,” he said, “to me, to us, to all of us. And we’re different, changed by losing him.”

“Yeah but even if a million people mourned, the sun would still be rising this morning. It doesn’t care. And when we’re all dead it still won’t care. Hard to be upset, thinking about that.”

Jay shrugged, added “Just how I feel.”

Dee’s frown didn’t lessen.

“Our friend’s dead, because he couldn’t stand how alone he felt, and you’re talking about how inconsequential he was. Bloody charming, Jay.”

“Hey!” Jay was indignant, “It’s not like it’s my fault, ya know? I mean, if he’d asked my opinion I would’ve told him to stick around.”

“That’s not how it works,” Dee muttered.

“Well I don’t bloody know how it works, do I?”

“Lucky you.”

“It still hurts, you knob. I don’t want my friends offing themselves. Even when they’re being a knob. And yeah, I don’t understand why he did it. I don’t get why he was lonely. Maybe if he’d talked to us then he’d know we wanted him around, and he’d be here with us, agreeing that you’re a bit of a knob.”

Jay was practically shouting, sat up now and looking a little angry.

“Or he’d be shaking his head cuz you’re being an insensitive prick!” Dee snapped, “Cuz life is so bloody easy, is it? Just don’t worry and it’ll all work out, is that right? I wish it were that simple Jay, I really do. But it’s not. You’re just too thick to–just forget it.”

“Don’t go.”

Dee was startled, for a moment. He sighed.

“I don’t want to go. Some days everything seems impossible, and even the good days can be difficult and it’s exhausting. But I don’t want to…to go.”

Jay sniffed, “Well, good. I mean, no, it’s shit. That it’s like that. I’m sorry. But I’m glad you want to stick around. And I’m sorry if I’m a bit of a knob about that stuff. I just really don’t get it.”

Dee couldn’t help but laugh at that.

“Mate, it’s my brain and I don’t get it,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry. I was being a dickhead because what happened to…what Bill did. There wasn’t some big change that triggered it. He just woke up one day and couldn’t stand to do it anymore. Live, I mean. And that’s pretty terrifying. Why am I different? Me and Bill, we’re pretty similar, so why am I still here when he’s not? I can’t help thinking about that.”

He glanced back. Jay was frowning, clearly angry, probably uncomfortable. Finally he met Dee’s eyes, spoke in careful, measured tones.

“If you want my opinion, it’s because you aren’t that similar. If you were, we probably wouldn’t be having this delightful little chat. Cuz I never talked to Bill like this, you know. I don’t think he talked to anybody about it, like this. I’m glad you do. I’d worry, I think, if we stopped talking about this. Maybe if…fuck it. He didn’t, and he’s gone; you do, and you’re still here. So maybe that’s the reason.”

Dee smiled.

“Didn’t know you cared, mate,” he teased.

“Dickhead.”

“Yeah.”

They sat there, the two of them, on a grassy hillside facing the risen sun.

November 29th

“So you’re the poo doctor?”

Irving Buchanen never imagined he’d visit the Pentagon. He certainly never imagined he’d be sitting in a tiny, windowless office deep within the basements, across from a general with so many stars and medals festooning his uniform that he clinked and chimed with every movement. And even if, by some extraordinary stretch of the imagination, he had conceived of such circumstances, he would definitely never have imagined that said general would have referred to him as a ‘poo doctor’.

“Ah, no sir. I’m–”

“So why are you here?” The general asked, “I don’t have all day son.”

The general’s aide leaned forwards, cleared his throat.

“Uh, sir? This is Professor Buchanen, sir. He’s the…the poo doctor.”

“I’m a palaeontologist!” Irving snapped.

The aide glanced down at a file, back up.

“You wrote a paper, ‘A study of oligocene coprolites’ correct?” He asked in such a way as to suggest he really wasn’t asking.

Buchanen blinked.

He chuckled, then broke out into full-blown guffawing. It was fully five minutes before his laughter petered out. He wiped tears from his eyes, looked from the aide to the general.

“That was a student paper. From three decades ago. Yes, I have an interest in coprolites, which are fossilized dinosaur feces. But poo doctor?” He snorted, “Not hardly!”

“Well golly, this ass is all we’ve got, right?” The general asked his aide, who nodded.

“Take him through and get him started,” the general continued, already turning to the next file on his desk, dismissing Buchanen and leaving him even further in the dark than before.

“Would you kindly explain to me what in the blue blazes is going on?” Irving demanded.

“Of course. This way, please.”

Irving gritted his teeth and followed, further down into the basement levels. The exited the uniform corridors into a lab, banks of computers and technical-looking equipment. White coats passed to and fro, clipboards and tablets annotated and exchanged.

One especially harried-looking young woman made a beeline for them.

“Is this him?” She asked.

“It is. We haven’t briefed him yet but I thought perhaps your people would prefer to do that.”

She nodded, “Best call. You barely comprehend what we’re talking about when we use layman’s terms.”

Irving liked her.

“I’ll leave you with Ms Childs. She’ll give you the tour and show you why we asked you here,” the aide told Buchanen stiffly, then turned and left, so quickly as to suggest he wanted to flee before Ms Childs found another opportunity to harangue him.

She gave Irving a cursory head to toe glance.

“You’re a palaeontologist, right?” She asked him.

He sighed happily, “I am, yes.”

“You should get a kick out of this then,” she replied, “follow me.”

They entered an even larger room, with some mysterious apparatus draped in tarpaulins. Atop a side table were boxes, all meticulously labelled, of various sizes.

Ms Childs stopped beside the table, turned to him.

“See the tarps? That’s a time machine. Or it will be, if we ever get it working. And we know we’ll get it working, because…”

Here she lifted the lid of one of the boxes and lifted out a very normal-looking coprolite.

Irving stared.

She hefted it, then passed it over.

He weighed it, turned it round in his hands.

“Okay, I’ll bite. How does a coprolite from the late Cretaceous prove that you’ll invent time travel?”

She took it back and led him towards a cabinet that reminded him of the x-ray machines in airports. She warmed it up, put the coprolite in a tray and rolled it inside.

“That’s not possible!” Irving exclaimed.

There was very clearly the mandible from a human skull inside the coprolite.

“What kind of elaborate prank are you trying to play?” He demanded.

“No prank. You can look at the sample again, study it, test it as much as you please. It’s legit.”

She retrieved a tablet, opened a file for him to read through. They’d subjected the rock to every test imaginable. It looked real, an authentic fossil, Cretaceous-era, most likely a large carnivore. His mind raced.

“There were no mammals of anything like our size back then,” he said, still disbelieving.

“See these boxes? We’ve been gathering them for a couple of years,” she explained, “Ever since an incident involving a collector, Francis Mayweather.”

Irving cocked his head, clearly curious.

“Mayweather has a fondness for fossils. One of which arrived at his home cracked. And inside were what appeared to be fingerbones. He started to look into it, until his fossil hit a lab that we were keeping tabs on. At that point we stepped in. Confiscated the fossil, the lab reports. And then we started to search. All these,” she gestured to the table, the boxes, “seem to be fragments from the same skeleton.”

“Hold on, why were you keeping tabs on that lab?” Irving asked.

“For the last decade, we’ve been aware that certain foreign powers have been funding research into time travel and so we keep tabs on any lab or university where there could conceivably be breakthroughs. It was sheer coincidence that Mayweather sent his samples there.”

Irving paced to and fro in a tight circuit, processing all he’d learned in the last hour. He could scarcely believe how radically his world had been altered.

“So why am I here?” He asked. “That still isn’t clear.”

She nodded, “I can see this is all quite overwhelming for you. You should probably sit down for this next part.”

There was something about her solemn tone he didn’t enjoy. Nor the look in her eyes, like she was delivering a terminal medical diagnosis. He sank onto a stool and clasped his hands tightly in his lap.

“This most recent find, the mandible. It has fillings. We were able to find a match through dental records.”

She paused. He waited. Continued to wait.

“You’re going to be eaten by a dinosaur, Professor Buchanen.”

“I’m sorry?”

“As am I, believe me. If it’s any comfort–”

He broke in, “Unless you’re about to tell me you’re joking, it won’t be any comfort at all!”

“We’ve no idea when this is going to happen, other than within your lifetime. But clearly you are part of our efforts to travel to the past, which is why we brought you here.” She continued, “That you’re also a palaeontologist is a happy coincidence.”

He frowned.

“Happy might not have been the best choice of words,” she conceded.

She stepped towards him, arm extended, and he shook the proferred hand automatically.

“Welcome to the Bureau for Chronological Surveillance and Security, Professor Buchanen.”

November 27th

The train raced down the track, and everybody who saw it pass gaped, astonished. If Dev had noticed, she wouldn’t have been surprised. A woman on top of a train fending off a gargoyle’s claws was fairly astonishing…

Days earlier, Dev had stepped off the plane and taken her first breath of German air. It was bitter, ashy almost. This was a country with permanent and terrible scars, although to the unenlightened it was no different to any other place. She hoped she could conclude her business here quickly. She didn’t want to be here long enough to grow accustomed to it.

It wasn’t often that she was called to Europe; the Guild had originated here after all. The world’s greatest monster hunters tended to come up in Europe. The problem was the location. A powerful geas lay about Cologne, dating back to the town’s founding in 34 BC. Dev’s heritage made her uniquely qualified to deal with trouble in Cologne. She was the only hunter that could enter the Old Town limits. There was an understandable panic surrounding the killings. Nothing supernatural should be able to enter the Old Town, so half a dozen gruesome mutilations with no trace of the killer’s dna, an indeterminate weapon and bodies being moved yards without a trail was definite cause for concern.

She was exhausted from the flight, but her determination to make this a short visit inclined her to head straight for the Old Town and start her investigation. She took a cab from the airport to the Old Town border. Standing at the edge of the warded area, she was aware of a…pressure, as though the air was thicker. The geas definitely still held, so anything magical or unnatural should be incapable of passing beyond this point. And yet. She’d studied the casefiles. Victims attacked, blood and flesh everywhere. But the bodies were moved yards away and dumped. No trail of blood, no tyre tracks, and no witnesses. Dev figured on two likely methods. Translocation, which was a significant magic to use for a seemingly trivial purpose, or flight. The geas still held, so a flying monster of some description seemed highly unlikely. None of the monsters local to Europe could pass the Old Town limits, and transporting a more exotic beast would be incredibly difficult without leaving some trace for the Guild to seize on.

That left a spellcaster. Which was only next to impossible, as Dev herself could attest to. But why use such a potent magic to move corpses such trifling distances? That suggested the location the body was dumped held some significance. Perhaps a mage was marking out a spellform of some sort. It would have to be of great importance to go to all this effort.

Having satisfied her curiosity for the moment, Dev made her way back to the Cologne Guildhall. It was located on the city limits, an acknowledgement of the geas. She left her bag with an orderly and was shown into the Guildmaster’s office. He was old, looked ancient. He shook slightly as he stood and extended an arm across his desk. Dev shook his hand gingerly, afraid of hurting him.

A smile creased his face.

“Ms Wing, a pleasure it is, to welcome you,” he said in heavily accented English, “From what I have heard you will be getting to the root of our little puzzle very quickly.”

She returned the smile and bowed slightly, replied, “With any luck I shouldn’t be here more than a few days.”

His smile faded slightly.

“No time for taking in the sights?”

She cleared her throat, a trifle embarrassed.

“The city’s aura is…a little hard to stomach,” she told him.

Best to be honest, she thought. Understanding dawned and he smiled gently, sympathetically.

“Well, your trip was long and I think maybe you are tired. I certainly am,” he replied, chuckling. “We shall talk more, come morning. You must breakfast with me and out Chief Hunter.”

She returned his smile gratefully.

“Thank you,” she replied, “that would be a most welcome honour.”

The same orderly from before was waiting outside the office. He led her to the chambers prepared for her, then withdrew. Sleep dragged her down into a jumbled, disquieting succession of dreams; pain and conflict, the sensation of a great, oppressive darkness…it it hadn’t been for the warded walls, the nightmares would have been terrifying.

She awoke the next day feeling far from refreshed, and was gratefully swigging black, bitter coffee in the commissary when she was approached by a small knot of hunters. Journeymen, to judge by their sash, the same rank she herself held.

“Is it true,” asked the young man at their head, “can you move beyond the barrier?”

“Yeah, it tingles but it’s passable,” she replied.

She pre-empted the next question, explaining the Guildmaster’s theory that a hunter descended of stock relatively clear of Indo-European roots could potentially thwart the geas. Her family was pureblood Japanese, although she herself had been raised in the USA because her parents had wanted to spare her from being taken and inducted into their homeland’s equivalent of the Guild. Its teachings and training were strict to the point of cruelty, and there was no life outside of service to the cause.

Devala Wing was unique, and that always came at a cost. In this case that meant notoriety. She rose, waving away further questions.

“Busy day,” she explained, “Really should get cracking.”

She returned to Old Town and strode through the barrier, trying to ignore the tingling. Dev headed straight for the first murder site. It was unlikely that any trace remained, but no hunter worth their salt would ignore the chance of catching a weak trace that might later be repeated elsewhere. She could feel the tension ebb away as she walked. The geas must block the psychic trauma of the land as well as most things supernatural. Maybe she could play tourist after all. For now though, she was more concerned with the feeling of being watched. Everybody is prone to those brief paranoiac chills that lead you to believe some unseen watcher is stalking you, but Dev hunted things that bumped in the night; when she got those chills the unseen watcher wasn’t imaginary.

It was a little after ten in the morning, a brisk but sunny day. And there was no screaming. This eliminated a lot of possibilities. The attacks had all occurred at night, but if her quarry-cum-stalker was moving about, unseen, in daylight then perhaps her mage theory held some weight. She would have to read for signs at both the kill sites and the locations the bodies had appeared. Hopefully the sites would give her something to go on. She consulted her map, trying to picture a pattern overlaying them, but there didn’t seem to be any. Unless the chronology was irrelevant. That didn’t fit with her understanding of magic but she didn’t specialize in human quarry. She’d have to ask back at the Guildhall for assistance on that front. Dev continued down the winding streets, lost in her musings, when the vague unease of being watched apiked. She glanced quickly about, one hand reaching inside her jacket and clasping the sword hilt hanging from her hip. A shadow flitted before her. Dev cursed and threw herself forwards and down, tucking into a roll towards the side of the street. There was a huge downwards draught and the snap of sails billowing in the wind, followed by a sight that chilled her blood. The creature was the size of a small man, just topping five feet, although it was crouch-legged and hunched over. Its hide was the colour of weathered concrete and looked like it would be almost smooth to the touch. Its limbs were long and thin, its body compact and rounded, barrel-like in appearance. The head, which sat atop the narrow, drawn in shoulders was straight out of a nightmare. Beaked, needle fangs, flaring bat ears and furious furrowed brow were bad enough, but the cold, dead stare of its eyes, pale grey and featureless, was causing Dev’s instincts to yell, Run! Hide! Pray! A pair of enormous wings flared out from its shoulders, dark membranes tipped with talons.

Impossible, but undeniably there before her. A gargoyle. It should not have been possible for this native terror of Europe to pass the barrier. Dev willed herself calm, felt her breath slow, her breathing even out. She stood slowly, sword hilt still grasped but not yet drawn. It stood up straight, studying her. The air of menace it gave off was palpable. As it stepped towards her, reaching out with one granite claw, she noticed a peculiar detail. There were seams running round the gargoyle’s arm, down its chest. She slid back, shuffling steps, eyes fixed on the monster.

Steeling her will, Dev drew her sword and leapt forwards, blade clanging as it beat aside the gargoyle’s claw. It reared back as though startled. The creature was unused to prey that fought back. Dev pushed forwards, moving the curved blade in big, upward swipes. The gargoyle flapped its enormous wings and lifted slightly into the air, back and away from the stinging nuisance facing it. Face set in a look of grim determination, Dev powered forwards and leapt. Her outstretched hand grasped the creature’s ankle but it flew on undaunted.

The rooftops blurred as it picked up speed. Dev tried thrusting up at the creature but her uncontrollable twisting made her best efforts ineffective. Not far above her gripping hand was one of the seams that criss-crossed the stone terror. This close, she could see the faint blue glow of a spell of some sort. Playing a hunch, Dev laid her sword against the seam and pushed. The creature bucked and twisted, its mouth open in an eerily silent roar. Dev grinned fiercely and pushed harder. With a sharp pop like a blown fuse, the seam parted and Dev found herself falling away from the gargoyle.

“Fuuuuuu-”

Her descent was halted abruptly and painfully. Wincing, she glanced around. The world still flew by, except for the floor. Her stunned brain identified the rhythmic clattering. A train, she lay on the roof of a train. A shadow swept across her field of vision, angled towards her. Cursing, she struggled upright and swung her sword. The gargoyle arrested its dive, cautious now of the blade’s bite.

The train raced down the track, and everybody who saw it pass gaped, astonished. Dev didn’t notice, too busy parrying stony talons. She stumbled as the train swayed, and her sword slipped from her grasp. The gargoyle immediately closed in, and Dev ducked away. Blows thumped against her back and shoulders, painful but not the tearing, rending pain she’d expected. She looked about her, noted the multiple lumps of rock that lay around her, some tumbling off the roof of the train. Taking her bearings, she realized the train had crossed the barrier.

She muttered a prayer of thanks to her ancestors that the barrier’s prohibitive qualities worked both ways. Dev grinned at the mostly intact foot she had kept ahold of. With any luck the culprit could be traced and the Guild could get some answers. Setting a murdering fiend loose where no Hunter could reach may have been simply for the sake of mayhem, but Dev felt certain that this was a mere hint of darker designs.

November 26th

“That dog just said woof”

I rolled my eyes.

“Brilliant observation Willis. A dog barked like a dog. Thanks for sharing,” I said, pouring sarcasm into every word.

My best friend, my only friend, glared at me from under his moppish fringe.

“No, Art,” he replied patiently, in a tone suggesting he was explaining to an idiot that water is wet, “the dog spoke. It said ‘Woof'”

I stared blankly at him for a moment. Then I switched my gaze to the dog in question. It had stopped at the mouth of an alley and I’ll swear to my dying day that when it realized we were studying it intently, the dog muttered “Shit!” before it bolted down afore-mentioned alley.

“Follow it!” I shouted, pointlessly it turned out, as Willis was already past me and gaining speed.

I pounded along in pursuit. We’d been trying to find a lead for weeks, and couldn’t afford to let the hound escape. Believe it or not, a talking dog wasn’t the ends we pursued, so much as a means to an end. The dog was a symptom which we hoped would lead us to a very particular cause.

Willis and I appeared to most people to be unemployed. The fools. We were, more correctly, employed in a great and noble cause. We guarded humanity against everything they couldn’t understand, countenance or comprehend. Not just ghosts or ghouls, oh no. Incursions from different dimensions, harbingers of…whatever the plural of apocalypse is; you fail to name it, we put ourselves in direct opposition to it. At last count, we’d saved the world seven times. The fact that you’ve never heard of us just proves how good we are.

All the portents suggested something big was coming. The signs hinted at impending doom. Frankly, I’d have preferred something more concrete. Like an anonymous text saying “Prepare for the zombie apocalypse.” Or a billboard warning of a plague of locusts on May 18th. Alas, the world is seldom fair.

A talking dog is a definite sign that something odd is occurring. Fortunately for us, the alley was a dead end. Unfortunately for us, the dog had really sharp teeth.

We prevailed, which explains how an hour later we found ourselves wishing we hadn’t. Willis and I share a flat. Simple, some would say bare, with basic furniture (some would say upturned crates and pallets). The dog was tied securely to the table by all four paws. I was stood in the corner of the room, video camera trained on the dog. Willis was sat a few paces away, glaring at the dog and dabbing grazes on his arm with iodine.

“Okay,” I announced to the room at large, “interrogation begins approx. three pm.”

“What’s a prox?” asked Willis.

The dog wheezed. Or chuckled. Probably chuckling.

“It means approximately, Willis,” I explained, “Saves time.”

Willis blinked.

“This is saved time? Whatever Art,” he replied.

I hate that technically he was right.

“Subject is apparently a canine, suspected of human speech,” I continued, “Officers Art and Willis present. Go ahead Willis.”

Willis nodded.

He placed his hands on the edge of the table, then screamed in the dog’s face.

“What the fuck!” exclaimed the dog, then muttered, “Oh bugger.”

“Did you get that Art?”

“Sure did. Nice job,” I congratulated Willis.

Willis grinned smugly at the suspect. We had him, and he knew it.

“What are you, then?” I asked the apparent pooch.

The mutt remained stoically silent.

Willis  circled the table, slowly, almost nonchalantly.

“We know you aren’t an ordinary dog,” he said calmly, “so you might as well level with us. We won’t necessarily hurt you, we’re just trying to find out what’s coming.”

The dog sighed, sounded tired.

“Willis, I’m you,” he said.

We stared at the dog. At each other. Back to the dog.

“I’m from three days into the future! I’ve come back to give you, me, us…to deliver a warning,” dog-Willis continued.

We’ve seen a lot of peculiar stuff, Willis and I, but this was hard to swallow. Time travel was a first for us.

“Why are we a dog?” Willis asked.

Dog-Willis whined, snuffled uneasily.

“We…we don’t exactly have a body anymore, in my time,” he explained sadly.

Willis shot me a frown.

“Thanks a bunch, Art,” he said bitterly.

“Oi! It might not have been my fault,” I retorted. I asked dog-Willis, “Was it my fault?”

“Sort of,” dog-Willis replied.

“A-HA” yelled Willis.

“I mean,” dog-Willis continued, “if you hadn’t of died tomorrow, you could have probably stopped me from sticking that device on my head.”

“A-HA!” I yelled, pointing triumphantly at Willis.

He shrugged, said very calmly, “You heard me, if you didn’t die then I wouldn’t be a dog.”

I gaped, speechless. Nothing new, when trying to to argue with Willis.

“Wait,” I turned back to the Willis-hound, “I’m going to die tomorrow? How? Why!?”

He shrugged, “No idea.”

“Why don’t you know?”

“You vanished. Vanish. And then you die. Died. I don’t know, it was pretty irresponsible of you.”

I threw my hands in the air, exasperated.

“But why are we a dog?” Willis asked.

“I can’t tell you,” Willis replied.

“Sanctity of the timeline?” Willis asked.

“No, I just don’t understand what the hell happened,” Willis replied.

“Fair.”

“Can we focus,” I interjected, “on what’s going to happen?”

Willis and Willis both looked at me.

“I die, circumstances unknown. Then you turn into a dog and travel back in time to give us a warning. Great; warn us about what?”

Willis-hound cleared his throat.

“Art. You’re going to die tomorrow.”

I screamed.

“Now, Art. Calm down. Panicking about your impending doom isn’t going to help,” Willis said impatiently.

“You’re both arseholes,” I bit back bitterly.

“What exactly leads to us becoming a dog?” Willis asked himself.

“I wanted to help Art-no idea why, he’s kind of a dick-so I found this guy on the internet who said he could view the past. I thought I could at least find out what happened, maybe exact bloody vengeance on his killer.”

I interrupted, “Wait, you said you didn’t know what happened.”

“Well, no. Because once I got there, I thought maybe he could send me back instead. He said it would be too dangerous, but I convinced him to try. And he was right. My body, like, disintegrated. But I was still there. This weird window the guy used to see the past showed the street we saw me on, so I tried to go through it. I kind of floated around until I saw that dog. It looked familiar, so I tried, uh, to move into it. And it worked. And here I am. Warning you.” Here Willis-hound glared at me.

I sighed.

“Sorry. Thank you Willis. I’m just a little on edge. Impending doom, ya know.”

I paced. I was worried. I had no idea why but I was about to die. Given our line of work there were any number of possibilities. Add to that, my genius partner apparently absented himself so if there was an impending apocalypse, nobody was around to stop it.

“What state was my body in?” I asked Willis-hound.

“You were decapitated. They didn’t find your head.”

I rubbed my neck, a little uneasy. That sounded rather painful.

“No other weirdness?”

Willis-hound cocked his head.

“Not…especially. Well. There was a strange message.”

I could feel my calm slipping further away.

“A message?” I asked, trying to sound reasonable.

“Yeah. It’s what gave me the idea to find out what happened. It was butned into the wall; the words ‘Find out what happened’ and a url.”

“Willis,” I said through gritted teeth, “Was it the url that led you to the time window guy?”

“Yeah. I figured you must have left the message to lead me to your killer. Didn’t work out though. Nice work, genius.”

I lost my temper then. I’d had enough, and was good and ready to tear into Willis-hound. Never got that chance though. There was a brilliant flash at that point and a thunderous bang.

A figure stepped out of the smoke, coughing. He-maybe it-wore a hood that obscured his-its-face and was carrying a large case of some sort.

“I come with a warning!” said the figure.

I wanted to cry.

“What’s in the box?” Willis asked.

“My head,” the figure replied.

He threw off his hood. He was old, very old. And he looked ofdly familiar.

“But I can see your head,” Willis replied.

The old man sighed. I sighed too.

“Art! He’s you.” Willis said, “I’d recognize that sigh anywhere.”

I turned to me.

“What’s going on? Who cut off our head?”

“I did,” I replied. Old me, I mean.

“I assume you have a reason for doing so. And that the explanation is compelling enough to persuade me to allow you to decapitate yourself,” I said.

At this point my head hurt so much that I wouldn’t have minded having my head cut off.

“Not really,” I, he, old me replied, “This is just the way I recall events occurring.”

“You mean,” I stopped, rubbed my temples, “You’re saying I travel back from the far future and cut off my young self’s head, then take the head and leave a message for my highly suggestible and irresponsible partner so that he’ll get his body disintegrated and project his consciousness back in time into a dog so he can warn me I’ll die. All so you can bring my head back to this point. And you do this, if I’m following, because that’s what you remember happening?”

Old man me shrugged.

“I was expecting it to make sense once I got here,” he said.

Willis frowned.

“This is a nasty tangle,” he said, “There must be a reason you did all this Art, but for the life of me I don’t see why. You’ve made a fine mess.”

“What!?”

“This was all your idea,” he said.

“I don’t even believe in predestination!” I shouted.

Willis-hound cocked his head.

Old man-me looked uncomfortable.

“I won’t do it!” I screamed, “I refuse to travel back in time and cut off my own head!”

Old man-me and Willis-hound blinked out of existence.

Willis looked at me and shrugged.

“You must have meant it,” he said.

I shook my head.

“Willis,” I said, sounding very tired, “sometimes I wonder if maybe the world deserves to be saved.”

He shrugged again, said, “What else are we going to do? Get jobs in a burger joint? This is fun!”

He had a point.

“Promise me one thing,” I said.

“Sure, buddy.”

“No time travel.”

“Plan.”

November 25th

He dragged the whetstone along his blade, the slow rasp sounding unnaturally loud in the aftermath of the battle. Most of the nearby soldiers he judged to be but recently conscripted; they stood or sat quietly and barely moved at all. Shock. He had seen it before. He had experienced it himself, the first time he went to war. He’d set out in mis-matched armour and carrying a halberd he barely knew how to use, full of enthusiasm and determination. The noise and sights of that first battle had wrung that from him, leaving him with the same hollow, unthinking stare these men wore. From their age, he could tell they were the Duke of Coran’s men; it had been a long time since war had reached that far east, and so these men had made it past several decades without witnessing the horrors of the morning gone.

If he recalled the battle order correctly, that put him just a short way from where he was headed. He rose to his feet and sheathed his blade, wincing at the twin spikes of pain that drove through his knees. He wasn’t sure how many years still stretched ahead of him, but there were undoubtedly fewer than lay behind him. Still, by his reckoning it should only take a few more jobs before he could hang up his swordbelt for good.

He headed east, unsurprised by the orderliness of picket lines and encampments he passed. The general in charge of this force was a superior tactician to his employer. Were it otherwise his services wouldn’t be needed. The knapsack he carried thumped gently against his back. The straps had come loose in the furor of battle. Not a concern, this close to his goal. Now came the tricky part of his mission. He uncinched his swordbelt and wrapped it round the blade, then bent beside a cart and wedged it up beneath the bed. Willingly disarming in the middle of the enemy’s camp wasn’t the typical behaviour one might expect from an assassin, but murder wasn’t on his agenda today. It took very little time to locate the baggage train, wagons and carts of supplies strewn throughout the small woods. His age worked in his favour here, just a grizzled old man no longer fit for battle, consigned to the baggage train.

He whistled quietly as he started to work through the the carts, rummaging through crates and baskets. His search yielded results, and with half a dozen small wooden bowls and a jug of vinegar added to his pack, he moved on.

This enemy general didn’t have his tent set up separately from his troops. By appearing to be down amongst his men, one of them, he garnered more respect. Even the assassin’s employer’s troops spoke with begrudging respect of the man. This made the assassin’s job easier to get in close. He moved through the camp, weaving through tents and getting the lay of the land fixed in his mind. He couldn’t help smirking cynically; the general might want to appear to be “one of the common folk” but his tent was fully five times the size of a common soldier and there were guards discreetly posted around it. They certainly looked like normal soldiers, but they had better quality equipment than a normal footsoldier and their stance and glade betrayed their purpose.

The assassin moved into a seemingly random tent and pulled back the tarp on the ground. He dug a small hole and laid one of the bowls in it, then filled it halfway with vinegar. And then from his backpack he pulled a small sack. Inside were seven azure crystals the size of his fist. He placed one in the bowl, where it began to glow. He pushed the tarp back, satisfied that the glow was concealed. Five times more, five more bowls and crystals placed. The light was failing; working his way around the sentries was time consuming and weary, bloodied soldiers were returning, crawling into their bedrolls. With every passing moment, discovery became a real danger. He pulled back the final tentflap and bit back a curse. The bedroll was occupied, a soldier snoring softly. He moved quietly, gently, until he was crouched over the snoring man. He lunged, hands wrapping about his victim’s throat and throwing all his weight into it, crushing and silencing the man with a calm brutality. It took mere seconds until the gargled last breath escaped. He continued with his purpose, preparing the final bowl. Task complete, all that was left was for him to retrieve his sword and leave. Rather than beat a retreat immediately, once he reclaimed his sword he clambered atop a cart. From his elevated perch he had a clear view of the general’s tent, and waited, curious to see what would happen.

As dawn broke, horns sounded to rouse the troops and signal preparations for the day’s battle. From seven points spread throughout the camp, columns of azure light shot up to the sky. A glow spread between them, bathing the general’s tent in blue light.

The assassin squinted against the glow, and was perhaps one of the few people to see the general’s tent and a dozen close to it blink out of existence.

From far across the battlefield there was a brief, blinking blue light. Given the hue and cry being raised, the assassin doubted anybody else had noticed. The mage’s rigual had worked. Granted, only the general should have been teleported away but if his employer’s troops couldn’t handle a dozen disoriented men, then this war had been even more one-sided than it at first appeared.

Content his job had been done, the assassin climbed down and started to make his way out of the camp. It was possible this conflict was done, now the master tactician had been captured. It didn’t matter of course. There was always another war brewing among these small countries, another payday round the corner.