How far would one woman go for the greater good? How far would one man go for revenge?
Today, I have a new story for all of you, courtesy of Adventure, Magic and Nightmares’s first-ever guest author, A.K. Preston!
Mr. Preston’s book, The Gevaudan Project, will be available for purchase on March 3rd, and to promote it, he’s releasing this free, creepy little tale below.
So, without further delay, I give you…
Underneath all civilization, ancient or modern, moved and still moves a sea of magic, superstition, and sorcery. Perhaps they will remain when the works of our reason have passed away.
June 15, 2007
She had no perception of time in the trance, but it always lasted exactly four hours. She had only managed two in the beginning, and it had taken a year to double the number.
This time, it was an endless plain of flowing grass, such as she had seen in pictures of North America. There were neither trees nor hills, only the face of an impossibly large, sunless horizon. She could have walked off the edge into oblivion.
A pinpoint of light emerged out of the twilight sky and grew. Shifting. Flashing. A spectrum of color unfolded before her eyes in an instant – blue, red, violet, white, each lingering just long enough for her to acknowledge its presence. A rush of emotion – love, grief, hate, joy. Breath caught in her throat, and she forced her heartbeat to its normal tempo. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. Ka-thump.
The light transformed. Three red cardinals emerged in flight. The birds flew as one, their song reverberating through the air, soaring upwards into the sky. They reached a height and descended. No longer cardinals, but owls, gliding downwards in a soundless, predatory hunt. They too transformed – three glowing orbs, one white, one blue, one red. They spun in a concentric harmony, quickening, growing, then merged into a single, massive sphere of pure violet.
Celine suddenly heard her own voice. Her lips moved without volition – flowing, incomprehensible words with the music of verse. She lost herself within them. The sphere became the sun, rising, setting, rising, setting. Day and night flashed before her in an alternating dance, growing faster, urgent – days, weeks, months, years passing in a moment. The words poured out of her throat, quicker, louder, desperate, her body on fire.
The cycle intensified, dark and light blurring together until it seemed a glowing mist surrounded her. A high-pitched ringing in her left ear – then a human shape appeared.
Aeron was not bound to any single form and had appeared to her in many. A male this time, the features bearded and Far Eastern, but with golden hair and piercing, violet eyes. He had a lean, towering body, garbed in a sashed robe of red and white, arms folded and hidden within voluminous sleeves. The lips never moved, but Celine heard a liquid, feminine voice.
Hinges upon the door. Where is the gate?
“The Mountain falls.”
Time without beginning. How speaks the Master?
“There is no thought.”
Petals bloom. How leads the Path?
“There is none.”
Unnumbered All. Where abides the Truth?
“It is a lie.”
The Gate beyond dark. Where is the Way?
“To love is hate.”
Winds above waters. How answers the heart?
Sound in the abyss. Where is the star?
“It is not born.”
The sky descends. Where walks the Goddess?
Two is three. How forms the pearl?
“It cools in fire.”
Life is and is not. What is the ending?
“The will is the world.”
The measure lengthens as it dies. What is the Name?
“The word will perish.”
East is West, the North cannot descend. Who lights the fire?
“The fire is here.”
An arm reached out to her, the hand open with long, extended fingertips. Two of them pressed her forehead. Rise and do.
The plain and horizon were gone. Aeron too had vanished, but she still felt him. Celine looked out upon a vast landscape of greenery, flora and wildlife. Deer, rabbits, and birds grazed among lilies, buttercup, daffodil and all manner of flowers. The sky was aqua blue without a sun.
Her task lay at the center. A wheeled, framed bed of clinical white was set discordantly amidst the scene. A single form lay upon it – a child, blond, pale and seemingly lifeless. Celine came closer and saw this was illusion. The boy’s chest rose and fell in rhythmic, unconscious motions, a tube connecting from his mouth to a ventilator beside the bed.
She looked at him and pondered. Aeron’s tests were as inscrutable as his sayings. The meaning had to be divined, drawn out by a mind prepared through long instruction. For now, she could only wait.
It began as something barely seen, a line of brown at the edges of the green. It grew, festered, and spread, decaying shades of grey, black and yellow blending in the color. The grass succumbed first, withering into weed. The flowers shriveled into colorless death. Birdsong ceased, grazing deer began coughing, gasping, some crumpling to the ground. Life itself was fading.
Sharp, instinctive panic seized inside her chest and was pushed away. The fear was just another test amidst the larger one. She mastered it and opened her mind.
The boy. Celine turned to him again. His chest continued its rise and fall, oblivious as before. Her eyes fell upon the tube, followed it to the source of his artificial air supply.
It was the air. The lack of it, rather. It was being drawn away, consumed, leaving all else to die of suffocation. She found her own breathing unimpaired, and confirmed the trial. Her choice would determine life or death.
The ventilator. It was drawing oxygen directly from the atmosphere.
She regarded the boy, and her choice became clear. There was pity, yes, inescapable, yet mistaken. He would die once the machine had no more of his sustaining life force. And all else would die with him.
The ringing sounded in her ear. Aeron. She had chosen true. Only the deed remained.
She stepped closer and stood directly over him. The tube was endotracheal, extending directly down his throat. Pulling it out would be both difficult and inefficient, causing unnecessary pain. There was a switch on the machine – far simpler. She reached out and pressed it.
The chest fell and did not rise again. The lungs were long paralyzed, and the child lay still without the slightest convulsion. The only change was the color of his skin, shading first blue then gray in a silent testimony of his passing.
It was done.
All around her, life returned. Grass arose, flowers bloomed, fauna revived, the sky itself bursting into new, even more vibrant color and form. The ringing intensified, mingled with a rush of incredible emotion: joy, exuberance, love beyond imagining. It became light itself, brightening and blinding to suffuse all that was and would ever be. Aeron’s true voice, speaking without words.
The Circle shall be.
Then it was over.
It was 6 am. Her place on the balcony centrally faced the horizon. Dawn flared across a cloudless sky of orange violet. Reflected light glowed on the manor grounds below, seemingly ethereal.
There was a dull, aching loss from her Guide and Master’s parting. But his strength remained, sustaining her until they met again. As always, she awoke both refreshed and drained.
Celine rose to her feet, deliberately refraining from the use of her hands. Brief, shooting needles coursed down her hamstrings and calves as they broke the cross-legged stance through which she’d passed half the night. The pain was sharpening, vivifying, bringing both thought and perception into perfect clarity.
It had taken years, but the trance now reduced her sleep cycle by half. One day, she would replace sleep entirely with meditation.
She eased into a quick series of stretches that restored blood flow to her limbs. The sun now rose into visibility, tendrils of morning heat licking at the sweat-sheen over her skin. She finished the exercise and stood perfectly still, staring into the light for as long as her eyes could withstand the brightness.
“Good morning to you, Miss Locke.” A robe fell on her shoulders from behind. Celine drew it over her body (free of any other clothing) without turning around. To her left, two other staff members were preparing a table. Neither of them looked her in the eye.
Celine seated herself at the table and turned to the woman behind her. Frau Boschert, six feet tall, wide-faced and stocky, served as a bodyguard in addition to valet. She was the only member of the household staff – uniformly Swiss and female – permitted to touch her. Celine nodded to her and she stepped back to take up an attentive position at the bedroom entrance. Frau Amsler – smaller, slighter, and secretarial – stepped through the doorway beside her and sat down. She made no comment on her employer’s own state of semi-dress.
“Dr. Misra’s message came in several hours ago.” Amsler slid a PDA and stylus across the table. “I believe you will want to read it personally.”
Celine took the device and scanned over the screen. A satisfied expression settled over her face.
“There is, of course, some final processing to take place on the formal membership application,” Frau Amsler continued, “but that should be complete by the end of this week at the very most. For all intents and purposes, we can now officially consider the Foundation a full advisory partner to the United Nations Population Fund. I’ll be the first to offer my congratulations.”
“Gratefully accepted.” Celine closed the file and brought up another. “Any word on the carbon emissions bill?”
“As of now it’s still in committee. We just received an update from our lobbying firm this morning. They’ve talked to at least three staffers so far, and they all say it may be several months before it’s presented to Parliament.”
“Have they said why?”
“The concern is centered around some our suggested amendments.”
“Primarily the family planning provision. Mr. Cartwell suggested we withdraw it.”
“You may tell him that provision is non-negotiable.”
“He suggested it could be altered rather than eliminated.”
“A ‘voluntary’ version of the plan would destroy its effectiveness entirely. See to it he understands this is it not acceptable. You have this week’s schedule, I presume?”
“Of course. Just a few last items for your review.” Amsler manipulated the stylus on her own PDA and a fresh display appeared on her employer’s. Celine studied the screen and knit her brows.
“Cancel the British Petroleum meeting and confirm the one with Bishop Phillips. See if we can combine it with Monsignor Luca’s. A show of support from an Anglican and Catholic together will have twice the impact. It may even help the emissions bill amendment.”
“As you wish. Also, Mr. Essex requested a meeting with you today.”
Celine looked up, annoyed. “Regarding?”
“Some concerns on administrative payroll next quarter.”
“Put it down for this afternoon – three o’ clock. Not a minute before. Do I make myself clear?”
“Quite. Also, Public Relations has a draft of their latest press release for you.” The document appeared on Celine’s screen. She studied it for several seconds, then drew her stylus through several lines and sent it back it back to Amsler’s device. “See to it they make these changes.”
“Very well then. A good morning and good day to you, Miss Locke.” The household secretary rose from her seat and left without another word. The rest of the staff quietly followed. Frau Boschert did so last and closed the double balcony doors behind her.
In complete privacy again, Celine focused on her breakfast and began browsing the news on her PDA. Much of it bored her. Another article – several – referring to the “quagmire” in Iraq. A plane crash in Brazil. Disquieting rumors in the American subprime mortgage market. She made another entry on the search engine.
Her left ear began ringing almost immediately. Aeron. He had visited her outside the trance before, though the sound lacked the intensity it held in the visions. She selected one of the articles and began reading. It was a comparatively dry report, analyzing the grim financial prospects of Vanguard BioDynamics – a pharmaceutical firm she had never heard of before. She had no idea why it sparked his interest, but she saved the link obediently. A line from their earlier exchange floated almost audibly through her consciousness.
Winds above waters. How answers the heart? “It dies.”
There would be time later to unveil its esoteric meaning. The ringing faded, and she performed another search, selecting for science journals only.
There was a longer span of silence this time. But the ringing returned with almost shocking force. The title of another article stood out before her.
On the current state of transgenic sciences: Observations and proposals.
She read through the text. The ringing stayed constant, but became soothing, gentle. The article was several pages long, but she finished it within minutes, taking some extra time to study the author’s name at the very end.
Two is three. How forms the pearl?
“It cools in fire.”
This time, she understood immediately. But there was something else.
She rose from the table, leaving behind her unfinished breakfast. She opened the balcony doors and went through the master bedroom into the outer hall. The walk took her through corridors of tapestries, armaments, and antiques of all kinds interspersed with innumerable portraits of the dead. She passed by them all in perfect indifference.
Her path ended at an oaken door, looming and almost ominous. She opened it and stepped into Locke Manor’s single largest chamber.
The ceiling was exactly 40 feet high and quasi-vaulted, the room itself at least 2000 square feet. The invisible walls were obscured under shelves upon shelves, filled to capacity with the volumes of a hundred ages. Wheeled, mobile ladders provided access to the highest points. Entering it after all these years, she still felt like Belle in the castle of the Beast.
Her father had left behind the haphazard chaos of a habitual scholar, but she had imposed a ruthless order on the collection after his death. The books were clearly categorized, and she found the one she was looking for on one of the lowest shelves. La Bête du Gévaudan de Abbe Pierre Pourcher. The publication date of 1889 was prominently displayed on a yellowed cover page. She turned it and began sifting through the rest. The ringing’s various tones guided her through French-written passages that she quickly memorized. Aeron’s voice returned.
East is West, the North cannot descend. Who lights the fire?
“The Fire is here.”
For a time, Celine simply contemplated both the script and the memory. Then the image came. Dark, terrible and full of hope. A purpose – a design. The ringing intensified and ceased.
Yes, the fire was here. And she had found it.
Rise and do.
– – –
Frau Amsler was concluding a tense phone exchange with Treasurer Paul Essex when her personal cell phone signaled the beginning of another. She could have saved herself the time, but she checked the caller ID anyway. Celine. She reminded herself that the salary amply compensated for her employer’s bizarre, often disturbing personal habits and imperious whims. “Yes, Ms. Locke?”
“Cancel the afternoon meeting with Paul Essex. I want both him and Ahmad Sengar here by ten o’ clock sharp.”
“Is there anything I should tell them?”
“We’ll be discussing a possible acquisition – two of them, actually – and a new initiative…”
June 17, 2007
He had never been skilled in words, and they failed him even now. Degenerates. Primitives. Ignorant. Unevolved. Cowards. Weaklings. The terms reflected his thoughts but lacked the power behind them.
It had taken time for him to recognize the thing inside him. Hatred. Deep, boiling and utterly personal. It was a strange sensation, for he accorded few other human beings the significance required for such feelings.
Leopold Van Ruys stared out and did not see the surroundings of his home office. There were only vague images of the recent past. Stone-faced directors. Hissed warnings. Signed papers that had stripped him of everything.
His fingers tightened around an untouched glass of whiskey. They had done the unforgiveable tonight. They had judged him, and he would never accept that insult. As if he was in anyway subject to their arbitrary, primitivistic codes.
But in the end, none of it mattered. They had broken him, yes. But he would decide his own fate.
He already had it planned. His accumulated savings remained in the account at GLS. It was almost morning now. He would withdraw the entirety of it and then sleep until the evening. The night that followed would be one of ultimate indulgence. He would gorge himself on the offerings of a dozen culinary establishments. The last euro of his stipend would be consumed by victuals, wine, and liquor.
And then, having gained the supreme experience of human life, he would end his own. There were any number of bridges over the Spree River. Numbed by rich food and alcohol, he would barely experience any sensation as he drowned.
A thin, ugly smile spread over his lips. The investigation that followed would produce the exact scandal the Institute thought it was avoiding by his exculpation. It would be a final, infinitely satisfying revenge.
But they weren’t the only objects of his hate tonight. The smile faded and he turned murderous eyes to the locked filing cabinet beside his desk. The top drawer. A hidden folder at the very back. The gift from an unknown stranger he now cursed with all the impotence of a man who attributed power to no deity whatsoever.
He opened the drawer of his desk. He had briefly taken up and abandoned smoking years before. The cigars were long gone, but the matchbox remained. There would be one last use for it tonight.
The phone rang.
He paused and looked at the desk device with baleful eyes. He did not believe in Providence. This was irritatingly similar.
He let it ring several more times, cursed again, and lifted the receiver. “Hallo?”
“Am I speaking to Dr. Leopold Van Ruys?” The voice was in German, but the trace of a foreign accent kept him from hanging up immediately. “Yes.”
“Ah, splendid. My name is Paul Essex. I’m calling on behalf of the Richard J. Locke Foundation for Developmental Ecology. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”
He hesitated. “Yes.”
“Very good. We recently came across an article you published last year. On the state of transgenic sciences, I believe?”
His fingers tightened over the receiver. “What is it you want?”
“Our chairperson has a proposition for you. Would you be interested in an audience? We’re prepared to cover the costs of your trip to London.”
Every instinct told him to hang up the phone. But something… “When would we meet?”
“The day after tomorrow. We already have the plane ticket. Will that be suitable for you?”
There was a strange, high-pitched ringing in his left ear. “Yes.”
“Splendid. We look forward to meeting you in person, Doctor. I’m sure you’ll find this offer very interesting…”
To Be Continued…
“Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel.”
If you’d like to know more about this Dr. Van Ruys but don’t want to wait until the novel’s release on March 3rd, I’ve got some great news, Preston explores his past in The Patron, a story he’s hosting on his own site. In fact, here’s a link to the page: https://empyreanvoyager.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/final-countdown-starts-now/
Also, The Player, a follow-up tale to The Pythoness, will be coming out on February 28th, and it’ll be hosted by author Jess Hanna (http://www.jesshanna.com/), so make sure you visit his website on Wednesday.
Finally, if you’d like to pre-order your copy of The Gevaudan Project, check out these links: