The Chain of Sacrifice
Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.
- Terry Pratchett, ‘Reaper Man’, 1991
Through darkness and dust Matt fell. He plummeted, turning, his shoulder colliding with something hard, and then suddenly he was rolling blindly, tumbling down a slope. His arms curled around his head and his legs clutched to his chest and he braced himself for pain or death or worse-
And then abruptly he felt himself hit solid ground and with a sudden ‘oof’ he stopped.
Darkness. Complete and utter darkness.
“Hhhhhggggg…” The breath came painfully, through reluctant, shaking lungs, but to Matt’s everlasting relief it did eventually come. He lay there in the blackness for a few moments, waiting for his breathing to recover, completely unable to see, feeling like he’d just gone three rounds with a flight of stairs.
Get up, a dull, distant part of his consciousness thought; get out. Slowly, blearily, Matt attempted to comply.
His hands scraped around the ground, fingertips trembling, finding nothing but dirt. Slowly, Matt tested one leg, then the other, and with a winded groan rolled over to his stomach. He reached out until his fingers found solid rock and with an almighty effort pulled himself to standing. The darkness swam as he stood upright, lurching and spinning, and Matt clutched the wall for balance, tasting dirt on his tongue. It was still completely black.
“Okay,” he whispered to himself, cold, petrified, alone, “Okay.” Breathe. He was alive and relatively unharmed. Was he? In a sudden rush of panic, Matt fumbled up and down his body, patting over himself for hints of broken bones. A few things ached but nothing screamed. He let out a sigh of relief. Okay. Good. Now think. He’d clearly fallen down something, some hole in the earth, though obviously not too far, because he’d been banged about but not broken. He’d rolled down some sort of slope. That meant there was probably-
Groping blindly in the darkness, Matt’s fingers traced clumsily in random directions across the wall. Sure enough, within a few seconds, his left hand turned a corner, and Matt found himself gingerly patting an earthen incline. He moved both hands and put his palms to it, trying to judge the degree. If 0 was flat and 90 was a right angle this was… steep. Damn. Matt’s hands slid up the slope. Nope. No way was he getting back up that. Not with who knows how much space ahead, and nothing to grab or hold onto.
Okay. Okay. Just breathe, he reassured himself. You’re a little bit underground. That’s fine. Worse things have happened to better people. Jane was nearby. She’d probably heard the commotion, and even if she hadn’t, sooner or later the others would figure out he was gone. They could get, like, sniffer dogs or something. Or terramancers. Celeste as a bloodhound. They could find him. It’d be fine.
Stay put, Matt told himself. Don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be absolutely fine.
A soft scrape of wood creaked out from the darkness.
“Hello?” Matt called instinctively, before his hands jumped to his throat. Oh no. His gaze raced around wildly for the source of the sound, heart hammering in his chest. Nothing. He could see nothing.
“Hello?” he whispered, the words barely coming out. Fear, cold and clotting, rose thick inside his chest.
I’ve seen this movie, came the unbidden, terrified thought.
Wait. Wait, no, his phone! Matt’s hands scrambled to his pockets, fumbling for the- yes! Trembling, his arm reached out, and a beam of neon light cut straight into the darkness.
Right into the face of an old, hook-nosed woman.
“ARGH!” Matt screamed. He jerked backwards, his feet snagging on uneven ground, sending him lurching into a fall. His hands flayed wildly and it was only by chance that he caught himself, barely, fingers scrabbling against the rock. The phone fell from his grasp and landed face down in the dirt, its light fading to a tiny square creeping feebly around the edges. Matt swayed in the barely illuminated darkness, heart hammering.
Across the room the woman let out a low, soft chuckle.
“Come now,” she murmured, “No need for all that.”
Matt recoiled upwards, the back of his armour scraping rough against the wall. Faintly, distantly, he was aware that one of his hands was bleeding, but his screaming mind barely noticed. He stood there, frozen in place, as amongst a tomb of earth and darkness the old woman turned away.
“Better light, I think,” she said, and there was a hint of merriment in her voice. Her weathered hands reached over to the grey wooden table in front of her, her fingers tracing the curves of a small gas lantern. There was a ‘click’ and in an instant the room was set to dancing with an orange, flickering glow.
Room. They were in a room. Matt’s hands shook, his mind struggling to take in the details. It was earthen and square, barely ten feet high and maybe that again across. The walls were cut from earth; the ceiling was cut from earth. The floor had some grey cobblestones laid into it, wide and flat and thin, but dirt still showed between them. Along the sides rotted a few dark timber shelves, and in the centre was the wooden table where the old woman sat. A wooden bench was pressed against the far wall, and as Matt’s eyes swept the room the woman rose with her back to him and shuffled towards it, reaching for a small copper kettle atop a pine green camping stove.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. She didn’t seem as small now that she was standing, and in the dancing shadows Matt’s mad eyes thought they saw streaks of black still peppered through her grey and wispy hair. She had on a simple brown, floor-length dress, an overcoat and a knitted scarlet shawl, which draped loose around her shoulders as she bent and clicked the stove’s igniter. After a few seconds the flames ignited and the kettle began to boil. “We thought the armour would take most of the hit, and if not, well the Legion’s healers… very skilled. Still…” and she paused and cast a glance back at Matt, still frozen against the wall, “…I do hope you’re alright.”
The woman turned away from him and shuffled towards the nearby shelf, picking two porcelain mugs out with slow, deliberate movements. Somewhere far above them there was a distant boom and the ceiling marginally rattled. The mines, Matt thought sluggishly. This all felt like a dream. He could barely move.
“I… you… where is… how…?”
“A trap door,” the woman in the shawl said simply, turning back towards the benchtop, a mug in either hand, “Rather clever design. Slides right beneath the mud. Took some fiddling to get right. But it should keep young Miss Walker busy, bless her soul.”
“You know… Jane?”
“Oh yes. Know all about her. And you. Wonderful, the both of you.”
Matt stared at her, not knowing what to say. The woman appeared not to notice, humming contentedly to herself as she pried open a duck-patterned tin and spooned something pungent into the cups. She was hunched over, Matt noticed, hair dangling free across her face, and her skin was leathered and worn. Yet she lacked the frailty and wizening of age, and by Matt’s estimate was younger than his initial impression, maybe fifty-five, maybe sixty. Reluctantly, Matt forced his gaze around the rest room. The shelves, those that weren’t broken, were sparsely laden with tins and bowls, lone dusty cans, the odd cup and saucer. And the far wall, the one the bench was up against, was different from the others somehow. The left side – it wasn’t even. It looked like a pile of rocks, collapsed over something. The bottom of a staircase. Matt craned his neck and as he did he spied the edge of something at the woman’s feet, something flat and white, something familiar. A pillow. A camping mat.
“How long have you been here?” he murmured.
“Long enough,” said the woman, calm and unperturbed. Steam wailed from the kettle’s spout, and she lifted it off the camping stove and poured a slow stream of boiling water into both cups.
“Here,” she said kindly. She turned around and shuffled forward, back towards the front end of the table, her face hidden in shadows by the orange light. Matt’s eyes lingered on the camping bed, his thoughts churning. “Pomegranate. Good for the nerves, I think, when one has had a fall.” She held out a cup. Matt stared at her, her lank-hanging hair and shadowed face. In the lamplight, the corners of the woman’s mouth twitched, and in the distance, there came another thudding boom.
“It’s not poisoned dear boy. I’ve no means nor cause to hurt you. Come. Sit. Drink with me. I promise, by the time my cup is empty, you’ll be back in safer hands.” She patted the space on the wooden bench beside her but Matt stood frozen, unable to move. The old woman sighed.
“He said you probably wouldn’t. Ah well. All one can do is try.”
“Where are we?” Matt forced himself to ask. He took a slow half-step backwards. “What is this place?”
The woman waved an idle hand around. “What, this? A meat cellar, at some point. A few hundred years ago. Buried by a landslide some great eons past, but perfect for our purpose. Took us some time to clear, I’ll have you know. There were a few salami in here that sure weren’t fit for eating.”
Matt’s eyes traced around the room, the collapsing furniture, the cave-in. “But you can’t…” he tried to say, but the words didn’t want to come out. He clenched his eyes closed, trying desperately to control his breathing, to fight the billowing, rippling fear. He opened his eyes and found himself staring straight at the ground. His phone was still laying there, face-down. Matt bent to pick it up, then quickly jerked back upright. The woman hadn’t moved.
Matt drew a deep, shuddering breath. “What is this?” he muttered. He looked up at her, bloodied hands balled into fists. “Where am I? What’s going on? How’d you get trapped like this? Who are you?”
“This is a conversation,” the woman answered, simply and clearly, her hands wrapped around her tea, “You are ten feet below ground in rural Buzahishtë, Albania. I brought you here so I could talk to you, briefly, free from interference. My name is Cassandra Atropos. And I am not trapped here, Matt Callaghan; I am waiting, as I think you know. For we have much to discuss.” The ceiling rattled with another distant boom, setting the porcelain to chatter, and the woman glanced ever so slightly up. “And precious little time.”
A long, deafening silence stretched out into the cold dark air. The woman drew a long sip of her tea, trails of steam wisping around her nose. Matt’s heart pounded in his chest, a ringing in his ears, his head swimming and light.
“You’re the clairvoyant,” he whispered.
The old lady laughed. “No more than you, dear one. None of us are. There’s no such thing as clairvoyants.”
She chuckled. Matt’s brow furrowed.
“You knew where I was going to go,” he said, “Knew who I was going to be with. Know about Jane. How are you not clairvoyant?”
“All true,” said Cassandra, blowing steam off her mug, “But appearances can be deceiving. That’s the crux of a lot of this.” Matt stared at her.
“If you’re not clairvoyant,” he asked, “Then how’d you do all this? How’d you rob that bank?”
“Simple,” the woman replied, “I saw the future.”
“You saw the future,” Matt said flatly, “But you’re not clairvoyant.”
“No,” said the woman, “Because I did not see the future; I was shown it.”
“Right,” Matt said warily, “By who?”
“By the Weaver,” she replied simply, “The Watcher, the One Who Walks Through Walls.”
“And who is that?” Matt asked.
“My master,” the woman answered, “My teacher. My friend.”
She let out a long, contented sigh, her bony hand stirring her tea. “Let me elaborate. Seven years, three months and eight days ago, I was sitting in a locked room in an Athenian psychiatric ward. Depressed, you see. Isolated. Couldn’t handle all the noise.” She tapped the side of her head with a bony knuckle. “I wanted to kill myself. I was going to kill myself, had figured a way to do it and everything, with a little creativity, padded cell be damned.” Cassandra sighed again. “It’s amazing what the human mind can come up with when you really set it a challenge. Anyway-” she continued, completely nonchalant, waving away talk of her own suicide like gnats in the night air, “-I’m sitting there, thinking this was it, about to do the deed; when all of a sudden HE appeared.” A laugh, a pearling, joyous sound, pealed from her throat. “My word, it was such a fright. I thought for certain I was losing it, that my mind was playing a final, twisted trick – but then he didn’t go anywhere, and I realised it wasn’t a hallucination, and he asked me very nicely, in his kind and lovely way, if, as I was going to die anyway, I wouldn’t mind doing some good.” She shook her head at that last word, smiling and clicking her tongue. “I have to say, it was one of the more remarkable conversations I’ve had in my lifetime. You don’t often get someone who looks like that talking you out of suicide, let alone showing you the universe. Or at least a part of it. At first.”
She tilted her head, gazing wistfully up at the wall. “He showed me the truth. The strings, the web, his long game. What could be my part of it. My purpose. My destiny. And once I had seen that…” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “…I didn’t need to see anything more.”
And as she spoke, she turned so that her head caught the light, and with a rush of curdling horror Matt realised that where her eyes should be were two empty, blackened pits.
“Oh God,” he whispered.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).