All Seems Eternal Now

 A Runelands Horror Story 

Finn was outside doing his chores when he spotted the harlequins. It was a flock of five, struggling furiously over the open sea. They came in low out of the wind, wings almost brushing the foaming whitecaps, into the relative calm of the little bay south of the lighthouse, and alighted on the water. They were maybe fifty yards away but Finn’s sharp eyes made out their slate blue feathers, the bold splash of red on their necks.

By the time he was able to set down the canister he had been toting from the oil house and fetch the shotgun, the ducks had paddled behind a rocky point across the bay and out of his sight. So Finn hunkered down on the big wave-washed rocks on the coast of the bay and waited, the gun across his knee.

At this point, making the shot was academic, Finn decided confidently. He was already imagining telling his friends where the bird would be mounted. Above the door in their little dining room, he reckoned, assuming his mother agreed. He was excited. Harlequins were rare at any time of year, but especially in early spring. Some of the oldtimers in town who had been duck hunting all their lives had never caught one. At his age, Finn certainly hadn’t.

He’d had the opportunity once before, and had even made the first hit (Finn’s accuracy usually impressed his seniors). But the bird had dived and surfaced a hundred yards away and escaped. Now Finn knew better than to only shoot once. With enough patience and knowledge, any creature could be understood. And hunted.

Finn focused his eyes into the distance, listening to the surf crash on the rocks at the mouth of the bay. The ducks would take off into the wind. He knew exactly where to aim. He flexed his fingers around the stock. Then motion on the far bank beyond his shooting zone caught his eye. Four people, distant and dark in the gray afternoon light, were picking their way downhill, along the coast road towards the lighthouse.

The travellers were well out of his range, but even so it was bad form to shoot in a stranger’s direction. You never knew who might assume you were hostile. On the other hand, surely a group of travellers would expect there to be hunting in these parts, and not think twice at the crack of a gun? Finn was reluctant to give up his trophy.

The ducks chose that moment to take off. Whether it was the people coming down the road that flushed them or just providence, Finn didn’t know, but he was half a second unprepared. He pulled up, led the birds for two moments, then changed his mind, let his breath out and lowered the gun. The harlequins jigged left, and then disappeared out to sea.

Finn shook his head in annoyance and glared at the four people, now closer, heading towards his home. He walked back to the buildings, picking up the oil canister he had left halfway there. He had time to tote it across the grounds to the rear of the lighthouse and attach it to the winch, and then walk back around. He leaned against the corner of the shed in what he hoped was a nonchalant pose, propped the shotgun on its butt at his side, and waited for them to arrive.

They were two men and two women, all in thick black woollen coats clutched at their chests to ward off the bitter sea wind. They crossed in single file over the rope bridge that led to the rocky island where the lighthouse stood. As they came up, the man in the lead approached ahead of the others. He had shoulders as wide as a clydesdale and a wiry chestnut beard. Early forties maybe? He looked like he had some dwarf in his lineage, so who knew.

“Evenin’ son,” the man called. “Yer Pa home?”

“Gone hunting,” Finn replied casually.

“Expecting him home soon? We’re in need of some aid.”

“Well he left five years ago, so we ain’t setting the table for him if that’s what you mean.”

Finn wasn’t usually so curt, but he was still annoyed about losing his prey. The man opened his mouth, then closed it. He removed his sock cap to reveal a short receding hairline and wiped his forehead. “Yer Ma, then?”

“She’s inside”. Finn shouldered himself off the edge of the shed and walked to face them. “What’s the problem, neighbour? Where you folks comin’ from?”

Two of the others stepped forward. The second man was tall and blond, with a hooked nose and a saturnine glower. The woman had mouse-brown hair escaping from her cap and a cockeyed grin. She was missing a tooth. The fourth woman lingered behind the others. Her pale face was downcast, and partially hidden by the hood of her cloak.

They seemed an incongruous mix to Finn. The hems of their coats were wet and muddy, and they were obviously tired. Definitely not local. Travellers from Maravilla maybe?

Brown beard hesitated a fraction longer and then gave Finn a nod. “Well son, name’s Fergus Dunborough, and this here is Sweyn Engstrom and Happy Shan Mulray. We’ve been travelling for many weeks on our way to a work camp up north. We have a contract to join a crew up there ... well three of us do. Mrs. Ross here -” Dunborough jerked his chin at the pale woman behind him - “is travelling with us to Zadar to reunite with her husband, from whom she’s been separated these past few years.

“We was s’posed to be there day after tomorrow but I’m afraid I am not accustomed to travel in the forest of these parts and we’ve been delayed.” He looked up at the dense, tall pines that crested the rocky bluff he had just come down. “Comin’ up the coast we seen your lighthouse, and figured there might be a boat or a team can carry us up a ways to make up the time.” Dunborough paused, “...we can pay for passage.”

“We have a boat,” Finn said, unsure if he wanted to consent to anything just yet. “As do several others in town. In any case, the sea’s too rough for travel tonight. You’ll have to wait ’til morning.” He eyed the group. “How much you offering?”

“Lookit this one, Fergus!” exclaimed the woman named Happy Shan with a cackle. “He’s gonna negotiate with you! How old are you, boy? Fifteen?” she leered forward, but Dunborough put up a hand to quiet her.

“Sixteen,” said Finn, indignantly. “And I drive the boat, so I s’pose I have some say in where she goes.”

“We’d be grateful...” Dunborough cut in, with a glare at Happy Shan, “... for any hospitality you care to offer young sir. We can pay you forty gold pieces to take us to Zadar or whichever spot on the coast it’s closest to. That’s ten gold a head.”

Finn managed to control his reaction to that particular sum, but before he could reply his mother pushed open the front door of the little brick cottage next to the lighthouse that was Finn’s home.

Margaret Adler was neither thin nor stout, a sort of middle-aged solid in build. Her blond hair was ribboned with some natural white, and piled in a long braid on top of her head, leaving her face free. She had high cheekbones and a strong jawline, and the beginning of crows feet. She wore a homespun, high-necked dress and had a polishing rag in one hand.

“Evening gentlemen, ladies,” she said, after looking them up and down. She sent a brief inquiring glance at Finn, who responded with a noncommittal shrug. “What’s the trouble?”

Dunborough gave sort of a half-bow, half-salute. “Ma’am. Just telling your boy here ... we’s looking for a ride up to Zadar in the morning.”

“Indeed. Well, my name is Margaret Adler and this is my son Finn,” she raised her eyebrows at Finn as though to say manners...? “Weather should be calm by sunup. In the meantime, are y’all in need of shelter?”

“We been camping this far, Ma’am. And Sweyn carries a tent for Mrs. Ross.”

“I believe we can do better than that,” said Margaret. “We have a bunkhouse on the other side of the property. It has only two beds but at least it is a roof. And there’s a wood stove for warmth.”

“Much obliged,” said Dunborough. “But are you certain the sea’ll be fit for travel by the morning? We’re already pressed for time and can’t afford to wait long.” Dunborough was gazing out at the vast gray expanse of ocean with skepticism, where the violent crash of waves against the distant rocks was causing white foam to leap high. The sky was overcast and mottled, turning orangey-maroon where the sun was westering in the late afternoon. The wind was whistling fierce, and currently buffeting all of them.

“I have no doubt this will die away overnight,” said Margaret with the confidence of a life spent on the coast. “Finn can take you north in the morning. The road to Zadar is less than a day’s travel by sea.”

The prospect of travelling anywhere further than local usually excited Finn. Having to do it escorting four possibly inexperienced strangers somewhat dampened the feeling. He preferred to explore on his own, with no one giving orders. “A steamer might be more comfortable for four?” Finn said mildly. “Plenty passing through town on the way to Tallwater...”

“The trawler can carry four passengers just fine,” Margaret said, eyeing Finn sharply. “Why don’t you folks get settled in the bunkhouse and then come up to the cottage for some supper.”

“Sounds mighty fine to me,” said Happy Shan. Engstrom grunted something indecipherable. Dunborough nodded. “Obliged again Ma’am. We was just discussing our fare with young ‘Finn’ here as you arrived.”

“Fare? Nonsense. You owe us nothing for simple aid, any more than does a sailor foundering on the rocks. Now. Bunkhouse is over yonder, supper’s in three quarters of an hour. Finn?” She turned back towards the house, the matter obviously settled.

The travellers adjusted their packs and Finn watched them go. As the last woman, Mrs. Ross, passed by she lifted her face and met his gaze. Finn unconsciously took a step back. Her eyes were the palest green, so pale they were almost like clear water. She didn’t blink. Finn felt as if a shadow had occulted the sun, darkness clouding the edges of his vision. All of her face seemed to dim except for her eyes, which gleamed like silver-green moonlight. He felt his stomach lurch, like stepping off a sudden, unexpected drop.

It only lasted a moment. When he blinked, it was just her, a pale face framed by dark hair in the cold afternoon light. She was younger and prettier than he had first noticed, maybe twenty-one, with a small chin and delicate lips, like a doll’s. She nodded and gave him a strange smile as she passed.

Finn took a steadying breath and hurried after his mother, who held open the door to the house for him. He didn’t quite know how to describe what he had just seen. Or thought he had seen. He decided it was best not to try. Instead he said, “well thank you for enlisting me as chaperone.”

“You’d prefer to stay and tend the light?” Margaret replied dryly. “Since when? Shame, Finnegan,” she tsked. “I expect you to be more neighbourly. Now, go fetch three of the rabbits from the larder, I’ll make a stew. And have you finished toting the oil?”

“No Ma’am.”

“Well sun’s going down, you’d best get to it.”

“You seem awful quick to trust these strangers, Ma,” said Finn seriously.

“The folk we help are always strangers, son,” said Margaret with a patient smile. “It’s not our duty to turn away those in need.”

Finn frowned skeptically.

Margaret gripped his shoulder and fixed him with warm eyes. He was tall enough to see eye-to-eye with her now; a year ago, he would have had to tilt his chin up.

“You didn’t see the big one’s rifle I’m guessing,” she said.

Finn frowned. “What of it?”

“Starks model, Skodian military issue. He’s a soldier, or was at least. They’re no bandits, these ones.”

Finn finished his chores while the travellers ate, and then had a small supper and turned in early. He woke before sunup the next morning and went down to the dock, where he lit the trawler’s coal oven and refilled the steam boiler. The early spring air was still cold enough to see his breath, and it was salty sharp. But the sky was clear, just as his mother had predicted.

Once the boat was ready, Finn headed back up to the cottage. He ate oatmeal and molasses, and put on a pot of coffee for the passengers. His mother was sleeping, having taken the night shift manning the light and the foghorn. Despite it being Finn’s turn for this particular duty, Margaret had insisted he get enough rest to get an early start the next day.

He grabbed some beans and biscuits from the larder, then went to his small room in the attic and fetched his frame pack and his father’s old rifle. He stuffed in a thick bedroll. Then peeled off his nightshirt to change.

Dust swirled in the early morning sunbeams as he moved about his bedroom. He heard the sounds of Dunborough and the others enter downstairs to eat, their footsteps muffled through the wooden floor. Finn strained to listen, but couldn’t discern the voices.

The group seemed harmless. And he had ferried adults places before. So why was his chest tight with apprehension? He thought about Mrs. Ross’s strange stare the previous evening.

Finn studied his own reflection in the small, blurry mirror on his bedroom wall. He was fit, but not tall. Most of his friends had already shot up past him. He hated that his chest and arms hadn’t filled out yet, and still looked like those of a slender young boy. His most notable characteristic was his birthmark. His finger traced the dark spidery rune that curled around his arm from his elbow over his shoulder to the side of his throat.

When Finn had been thirteen, three local boys had gone missing while exploring a cave up the coast. Most folks who lived in the area knew the place. It was called Great Tortoise Cave, and it had never been fully explored. It had a large domed opening onto the beach of a natural cove, and inside there was a secondary chamber higher up, with beautiful green limestone stalagmites. Past that, the cave branched into a hundred passageways that rose and fell like the veins of a mountain, sometimes narrowing tight, sometimes submerged in floodwater. Sea turtles would lay their eggs in the sand of the cave mouth in the summer, and they said that Great Tortoise Cave had got its name because sometimes a hatchling would get turned the wrong way, crawl into the cave, and be lost for two hundred years until it crawled out again, huge, wrinkled and ancient.

The three lost boys were nine, eleven, and twelve. They had gone exploring in the cave, and hadn’t come home for supper. Neighbours from all over had congregated at the cave mouth as evening set in. A team of men was sent in, carrying lanterns and the end of a length of rope with which to find their way back through the labyrinth. Finn remembered standing with his mother and other adults outside the entrance, faces grim with concern, as the lantern light disappeared, the rope uncoiled and snaked into the depths until there was none left. Four thousand feet of rope used, and nowhere close to reaching the cave’s end. The men had returned, faces drawn, heads shaking, and gathered in loose clusters to discuss options in low voices.

Finn knew even then that the tide would rise in the morning, and that time was short. He could remember staring at the yawning cave mouth, and feeling his birthmark ache.

Not a painful ache. More like the urge of a muscle that has lain coiled too long and needs to flex and stretch. He had turned to his mother and in a voice of utter confidence informed her that he knew he could find his way to the lost boys.

Even after emerging from the cave with the three boys, dirty and hungry but alive, none of the neighbours truly understood what he had done. That Adler boy has a knack for tracking was all the explanation needed amidst the tearful celebrations. The men from the village who had accompanied him into the tunnels had received an equal share of the credit for the rescue.

Finn had never explained how he’d done it. How one of the passages of a cavern just seemed to smell right. How a patch of moss had been minutely flattened just so. How the air hanging in a tunnel felt just slightly disturbed. How obvious it all seemed, how incomprehensible it was to him that no one else was able to notice these things. How every time he followed his instinct, his birthmark made his skin shiver, how it felt like a guitar string being plucked inside him, vibrating from throat to groin.

But it was more than just knowing which trail felt right. It was knowing whether it was right to choose to go in the first place. He knew … his mark knew … which choice was right for him.

The only person who he suspected truly understood that his mark was granting him this strange intuition was his mother, and she never asked him about it. But from that day forward, Finn had followed his mark and his feelings to guide him towards what was right. And away from what was wrong.

And now, standing stripped to the waist in his bedroom, tracing his birthmark in the mirror, feeling his chest tight with apprehension and those liquid green eyes haunting his memory ... Finn couldn’t feel a thing.

They set sail an hour later. Finn kept the trawler in sight of the shore. He set their course north at ten knots since the wind wasn’t too bad, navigating easily between the myriad rocky islands near the coast. The coastline was a dense tangle of pine and cedar perched on cracked granite cliffs. Between the dark greens and grays, cold bare branches of birch or black poplar scratched boney fingers in the air. Waves broke white over black rocks that jutted up like dragon’s teeth. The Dinianic Alps were faint blue on the horizon, and tapered to meet the sea like the point of a serrated knife.

The trawler was called ‘The Harbinger’. Finn’s father had given it the name six years ago, a warning to the big game they were certain to haul out of the sea. They had spent hours restoring it together. After the old man left, Finn had kept it seaworthy but only just, not quite having the time or passion to fully maintain it by himself. The wood siding was chipped and the paint flecked, and rust was starting to creep up the smokestack. But the engine worked, and she was reliable.

Mrs. Ross stayed below in the cabin. Happy Shan and Sweyn Engstrom sat on the focsle and Fergus Dunborough sat in the rusty metal fighting chair. Finn steered from the cockpit and watched them through the glass. Happy Shan produced a glass jug of maple-brown liquid and handed it to Engstrom, who hooked it with his pinky and took a long snort. He gasped and thumped his chest with his fist, and Happy Shan cackled.

By lunch they had travelled farther north than Finn had ever taken the trawler, into unfamiliar waters. He had a creased map of the coast that showed the towns and roads from Temple Bluff to Tallwater, but he left it in his pocket. There was only one way to go. Zadar was a small logging town a ways inland from a tiny unmarked port on the coast, and Finn figured they should be there by early evening. He could drop his passengers, sleep on the boat, and make his way home the next morning.

Dunborough came into the cockpit with a gust of sea air and pulled a cigarette out of a yellow paper pack. He struck a match on the dashboard and took a moment to get the cigarette smoldering, and then proffered the pack to Finn. Finn shook his head, but was secretly pleased that Dunborough had treated him as an equal.

“We on schedule, skipper?” Dunborough asked.

“Should be. I expect we’ll be at sea until late afternoon. How far is your work camp from Zadar?”

“After we deliver Mrs. Ross? Maybe two days travel into the mountains,” said Dunborough.

“What kinda hell will y’all catch if you don’t get there on time?” Finn had no experience with work crews, but he imagined some sort of barking foreman shaking his fist.

“The risk ain’t so much in catching hell as there being none to catch,” said Dunborough. “I was assured some weeks ago that there was need for three strong backs, but a crew’s only gonna hold an open spot so long when there’s work to be done and the margin’s thin.” Dunborough glanced at Finn. “Not that I imagine we will be late, now that you’ve helped us make up some time.”

“What is this work you’ll be doing?” Finn asked.

“Some of the educated types up in Tallwater got it into their heads to try to run the railroad through the mountains again. Been tried a few times before and they always ran outta gold and gave up, but this time they’ve hired a crew of artificers from Dungannon to rig up the gear, and some guild mages are crafting this arcane black sludge that turns granite into sand. Or something. They’re tunneling through. ‘Course, they still need us regular folk to build bridges and lay track.”

“A rail line all the way through these mountains?” Finn said, impressed. The range was notoriously impassable, the slopes choked with dense forest. Anything north of them had always seemed so impossibly distant it had never occurred to him that one day he might be able to travel there without a boat. And as easily as buying a ticket. “I’ll be.”

Dunborough grinned. “What’s the farthest you been from home, son?”

“I’ve taken the trawler pretty far up and down the coast,” Finn lied. He didn’t want Dunborough thinking he was green.

“Well, soon you’ll be able to go inland as well. With all the new thaumo-watchamacallits they’re comin’ up with these days to help folks get around, pretty soon the world’ll seem a whole lot less mysterious.”

“Zadar ain’t so mysterious,” Finn said. He had never been there, but many of the travellers he’d met at the lighthouse stopped at Zadar to resupply.

“Indeed,” said Dunborough. “I hope it’s plain as a pikestaff. We can get Mrs. Ross to her rendezvous and be on our way.”

“How’d you manage to end up with her in the first place?”

“Mrs. Ross?”


“She found us. She was looking to hire someone to make the trip. We was heading in that direction anyway, I figured it’d be easy extra gold.”

“How much do you know about her?”

“What do ya wanna know?”

Finn shrugged.

Dunborough’s face was thoughtful. “She’s … quiet. Keeps to herself. She was a school teacher in Dyre you know, before she decided to make the trip north. Taught the kids natural history.”

Finn gave a nod, but was having trouble picturing young Mrs. Ross as a teacher. His own experience had been in a one-room schoolhouse and the teacher was a grey-haired spinster.

Dunborough continued. “I got her talking once. She says to me, ‘Did you know, Mr. Dunborough, there are holes under these hills. Worms bore them. Bore into the bedrock, down, down, down, further than anything else can go. They chew it up and dissolve it and fill it with holes until it’s foam under our feet, ready to give way. Then they pupate there, in the deepest places, and when they come back up they’re reborn. Imagine being able to see what they’ve seen.’ How’dja like that thought? I told her I’d seen enough insanity when I was a soldier to spend time thinking about what the vermin do.”

Finn tiptoed his mind around this image of worms in the earth, trying not to get too close to it. He was suddenly eager to change the subject. “So, uh. You was in the army, then?”

Dunborough’s face became rueful. He took a long drag and dusted some ashes off his coat. His knuckles were like walnuts. “Was. Me’n Happy Shan.”

“What was it like?”

“You read some of them pulp paperbacks growing up? ‘Captain Orgruk and her Naval Adventures’? Trust me, the real thing … it ain’t like the storybooks.”

Finn frowned. “This one time a sailor on his way north come past our lighthouse and his boat overturned. Well we hauled him outta there and gave him a hot meal. Turns out he was dodging out on his duty to some army down south. He’d cozied up to this magistrate who fixed his papers so he wouldn’t have to fight.”

“Wish I’d thought of that,” said Dunborough.

“I always took him for a coward,” Finn blurted. He side-eyed Dunborough, but the man didn’t seem to take offense.

“Son, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that coward or not, we all wind up in the same place in the end.”

Mrs. Ross appeared at the door of the cabin. Finn hadn’t heard her emerge from the cabin below. The afternoon light was behind her. Her dark hair was pulled back and pinned at the nape of her neck, but wisps had escaped and blew across her face. She steadied herself on the door frame against the rocking of the boat.

“Excuse me, Mr. Adler. I wonder if you could tell me how much longer until we arrive?”

It was the first time she’d addressed him directly. Her voice was low, and Finn didn’t recognize her accent. It was husky, and indefinably foreign. And underneath Finn detected something else. Almost an urgency. Eagerness?

“I reckon another five, six hours to make land and then another hour on foot to Zadar,” Finn replied. She looked at him unblinking and he blushed and averted his gaze. Though she was perhaps only five years his senior, her mysterious beauty - and the idea of her as a married woman - made it seem like much more than that.

“I wonder if I might have a word in private with you, Mr. Dunborough,” she said at length.

Dunborough licked his finger and thumb and pinched the end of his cigarette, killing it. Then put it in his shirt pocket for later. With an avuncular waggle of his eyebrow at Finn he followed Mrs. Ross out onto the deck, closing the cockpit door behind him, which banged shut with a glassy rattle.

They stood on the deck just outside the cabin. Finn couldn’t hear their voices over the steam engine hissing and chugging below. He watched their body language surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye. Mrs. Ross kept her arms wrapped around herself against the ocean wind. Finn could see her lips moving, but her voice was inaudible. Dunborough’s baritone was just a murmur through the glass. The big man shook his head and folded his arms in irritation. Eventually Mrs. Ross turned away and climbed back down beneath the deck. Dunborough’s shoulders heaved with a deep breath and he pushed his way back into the cabin, shaking his head. Finn raised his eyebrows curiously, and Dunborough attempted to convert a frown to a smile. He wasn’t completely successful.

“Well, if it ain’t one thing it’s another,” Dunborough said. “Apparently, Mrs. Ross’s husband shall not be meeting her in Zadar after all. Her destination is a tiny village north of there. Fine time to learn this news.”

Finn suspected this wasn’t the full story. “How far?”

She can’t be sure,” Dunborough said through gritted teeth. “Twenty miles? She has been separated from Mr. Ross ... s’cuse me, Doctor Ross ... for years and always rode the carriage to and from. She don’t remember the exact way ... though she claims that the landmarks will become familiar.” He shook his head again and grumbled to himself, “I swear, our contract is as good as gone with all these delays.”

Finn was quiet for a time while Dunborough got his cigarette going again. High gray clouds were beginning to creep across the sky. A few scattered rain drops appeared on the windows.

Think twice before you commit, Finn’s father used to say. Despite Dunborough’s rough appearance, Finn was starting to like the man. This was a hunter … just a hunter of a different sort. Someone who had seen the world. Finn hoped to pry more stories out of him.

And then there was the idea of seeing Mrs. Ross to her destination. Where she came from. What was her village like? Her people? Were there more like her? Finn was curious, despite himself.

Finn rubbed his shoulder absently. His mark, under his jacket, gave no alarm. No warning. This may not be the wrong path. Does that make it the right path?

“Look,” Finn said. “How’s about I take you past Zadar another twenty miles and we hike in from the coast. I know this country. I’m certain I can locate this village of hers.”

It was a lie followed by a truth. Finn hoped Dunborough wouldn’t notice.

“I would never ask…” Dunborough protested.

“Indeed, it’s my offer,” said Finn.

“What about the boat?”

“We’ll find a cove and I’ll beach it when the tide goes out.”

“Well …” Dunborough squinted and looked out at the water, past Happy Shan and Engstrom to the gray waves. “If I were a younger man, I’d have more persistence to argue. You’ve got a good heart, boy. I’d be a fool not to accept help when it’s offered. What’s say I slip you ten of those gold pieces I mentioned and we call it square?”

Finn grinned.

In the early evening they decided to stop near the mouth of a small estuary. Finn dropped the anchor and chained up the engine, and they hoisted their packs. The descending sun had emerged from behind a large purple cloud and lit a gleaming line on the sea. The seagrass cast long shadows on the white sand and swayed gently in the salty spring breeze.

The forest enclosed them as they headed east, and almost immediately the sound of the waves disappeared behind them, replaced by the chirping and knocking of birds, and the whisper of wind in the canopy above them. These trees in the shadow of the mountains were the great ‘Ahrnacht’ trees: enormous and ancient, predating Hyperborea’s Great Crusade. Carpets of dripping moss coated the thick ridges of their trunks. In the crotches between roots, thin mist collected above the black earth. The air was clammy and wet.

The light grew orange and began to dim, and occasionally through the leaves Finn glimpsed the broad flat cliff faces of the mountains, towering above them like great cyclopean monoliths. Finn turned away from them, suppressing his unease at their massiveness. He felt that if he looked at them too long they would expand and fill the whole sky.

Mrs. Ross’s village was called Svatinya. It wasn’t on Finn’s map. It lay half a day’s travel inland near a marsh in the forested foothills north of Zadar, or at least so she remembered. There were rough landmarks she could recall … a dirt road, a burial mound. Striking eastward, Finn trusted his instinct to keep them moving in the right line. He sometimes meandered the group around rough territory, skirting edges like a cougar, but always coming straight eventually. His mark occasionally gave a satisfying prickle. Happy Shan had a rusty hinged compass in hand and glanced at him uncertainly a few times, but after the third or fourth check, Finn noticed her put it away and follow in his footsteps with the others.

When it became too dim to proceed they bivouacked in the lee of a massive nurse log that was as high on its side as Sweyne Engstrom was tall. Crescent-shaped shelves of white fungus huddled low on the trunk, all of them blanketed with silken webs of hyphae. The dead needles and sticks beneath their feet were wet and spongy and smelled of rot.

They gathered firewood and got a kettle boiling. Dunborough and Happy Shan pushed large rocks end over end, into a circle around the fire to use as stools. Dinner was salt pork, flatbread, black coffee, and a can of beans Finn shared from his pack. Happy Shan gave Engstrom a pull from her jug of hooch, and catching Finn’s look, grinned at him with her tongue between the gap in her teeth.

“It’s medicinal, son,” she said with a wink. She pointed at her cockeyed mouth. “Bar brawl. Concussion. Paralyzed half my face. I drinks this here nerve tonic, and it don’t spread.”

Dunborough rolled his eyes, and Happy Shan laughed and slapped her knee. She held the jug out to Finn. Not wanting to seem wet behind the ears, Finn accepted. He pretended to take a healthy swig, but pursed his lips to avoid swallowing too much; even then it scorched his throat and his vision swam. He managed to avoid gasping and when he handed the jug back, Happy Shan chucked him on the arm. “You’re a man now, Adler! That’s the real mountain dew.”

Engstrom produced a small fiddle and played a slow and lonely tune while Happy Shan warbled along off key. Finn watched the embers float up into the shadows. The moons weren’t visible through the branches. The firelight lit only the closest trees, leaving a curtain of darkness beyond. Finn could sense nocturnal life coming out of its den.

Across the fire from where he sat, Mrs. Ross stared into the flames, her arms crossed, cupping her elbows. The fire reflected points of light in her liquid green eyes.

The tune ended and they sat in reverie for a while. The birdcalls were gone, replaced by stillness and the incessant whine of crickets. Engstrom prodded the coals with a dead branch and rested his chin on one fist.

“They say these woods used to be nothin but flat meadow a thousand years ago,” Engstrom said abruptly. “The Gods came down from heaven, with barrels of wine and wagons of food and had themselves a jamboree. They capered around, they screwed, they howled into the night. And everywhere their feet touched the ground, up sprang a sapling. Thousand years later, and we have this...” Engstom gestured vaguely at the canopy above them.

“I think I’da preferred the meadow,” said Dunborough.

“You know what I think? I think there’s no way these trees get so big by themselves. Maybe some of them spirits stuck around.”

“You wanna bring the legion down on us?” said Happy Shan. “The old Gods’re dead and gone, numbskull. Young’ns learn that in public school. Crusade wiped them all out.”

“I dunno,” said Engstrom, staring into the darkness. “There’s stories about these parts. ’Member that Orc feller we met in Maravilla, the one with the eye-patch? He told me there’s places in these woods where the brush is so thick that no man has set foot there. That’s the real reason they ain’t never been able to run the railway through. Nothin’ to do with gold.”

“If no man’s ever set foot there, how’d he know about it then,” said Happy Shan.

“His grand-pappy told him,” said Engstrom. “There’s old holes and trees and glades, perfect for things to live. If there’s any place in the world where something might run aground from Crusaders out to get ’em, I do believe it’d be here.”

“Ain’t no Gods no more,” said Dunborough firmly. “If there ever were.”

Engstrom just shook his head and poked the fire.

“What do you believe in, Mr. Dunborough?” asked Mrs. Ross. She said it quietly, with mild curiosity. Happy Shan and Engstrom stared at her like their pet cat had just stood up and talked.

Dunborough sighed. “If I can grow it, kill it or eat it, I believe in it, ma’am. Otherwise, it makes no difference. It’s just dirt.”

Mrs. Ross nodded. “I knew men like you in Dyre. Fathers of young boys. They said they wanted their sons to know about the world. What they really wanted was for their sons to never know more than themselves. So certain they had seen everything.”

“I mean no disrespect, ma’am,” said Dunborough, “but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ve seen plenty. More than I want to.”

“Ignorance isn’t bliss, Mr. Dunborough,” said Mrs. Ross. “One day you’ll know this.”

“Your husband … the doctor … is he a learned man, then?” Finn asked, hesitant but fascinated.

She spoke fiercely into the fire. “He’s a researcher. A seeker. A pioneer. When he left to come north three years ago, he was on the verge of discovering the seam in the weave, and the secrets behind it. Soon we’ll be reunited.”

Finn didn’t understand. But he realized now what it was he had seen in her eyes when she had arrived at his lighthouse. It was the blaze of rapture.

“There are things alive under the roots of these trees that were already old when the Gods came to earth, Mr. Engstrom,” she said. “Older than the oldest demon in the abyss. They love their children. They love us too, but not in a way that you’d understand yet.”

Engstrom stomped to his feet and clapped his hands together. “Forget it lady. Weave and secrets. You can have ’em. I ain’t listening to this no more. Time for some shuteye.” He went to his bedroll and pulled his wool blanket up to his ears.

“Don’t take offense, ma’am,” Happy Shan called, loud enough for Enstrom to hear. “Sweyne never was much for book learning. He’s so dumb, he once climbed over a glass wall to see what was on the other side.”

“Aw, shuddup,” growled Engstrom.

Dunborough smirked and rose, which was the signal for all of them to turn in as well. They left the fire burning for warmth, and the cocoon of light gradually shrank as it died to coals.

Finn woke in the darkness with the need to relieve himself. He walked a few yards and did his business behind a dense tangle of bushes, arms tight at his sides and puffing out breaths in the cold night air. The forest was silent and black, and even to Finn’s sensitive eyes the shapes were featureless blue-grey silhouettes.

As he lay back down, his eyes travelled over the slumbering forms of his companions and his heart leapt into his throat as he met the gaze of Mrs. Ross, lying on her side but awake and wide-eyed, staring directly at him. He bit back a yell.

“Fucking hells,” he hissed. “You scared me.”

“I apologize, Mr. Adler,” she whispered. She rolled over and said no more.

Finn lay, heart pounding, for a long while.

After a time, his attention drifted over the stillness blanketing the camp. There was silence, but something else as well. Under the silence, he thought he heard something. It was like a wet rustling. He lifted his head and tried to focus on it, but the sound vanished and didn’t return. After a few moments he decided it was nothing.

When Finn woke at sunup, Engstrom was gone.

A cold fog hung under the canopy. The trees vanished into it ten yards away, and the sunlight filtered through in a gleaming haze. Engstrom’s blanket was flung to one side and his pack rested next to it, undisturbed. It was as though he had simply stood up and walked into the green.

Dunborough and Happy Shan scouted the surrounding area, calling out his name. The mist dampened their voices and they didn’t travel far. Mrs. Ross slowly packed her bag, her face neutral.

Finn was unnerved. Had Engstrom still been there when he’d roused in the night? He hadn’t thought to look and couldn’t remember. And Mrs. Ross had been awake before he had, hadn’t she? Finn asked her politely if she’d heard or seen anything, but she only shook her head.

Dunborough and Happy Shan ghosted out of the mist with grim faces. They stood apart and spoke in low voices. Finn walked slowly around the perimeter of the camp, eyes focusing for some sign. Wet leaves, long pine needles, moss and patches of slick, bare rock. Tiny rabbit tracks. Then his eyes fell on a boot print in a small triangle of mud, half-filled with water. He called the others over.

“Tracks lead east,” said Finn. “The direction we was going.”

They all took this in.

“Don’t make no sense,” said Happy Shan.

Dunborough frowned, mind spinning behind his eyes. He scratched his beard. He turned to Mrs. Ross and said sharply, “I’ve half a mind to turn back and leave you to make yer own way.”

Mrs. Ross stood silently, not meeting his gaze.

“Shit,” muttered Dunborough, the threat obviously empty. He turned back to Finn. “What about it kid. Think you can track him?”

Finn looked from Dunborough to Mrs. Ross and back. Of course, was the answer, Finn thought. But should I?

“I can do it,” he said, before even fully deciding himself.

“All right. First things first then, let’s find our man. Then we get the hells out of here. With a piece of luck that superstitious idiot just got himself spooked.”

They struck out, moving slowly as Finn scanned the ground. It wasn’t hard; to Finn the tracks were obvious, but he wasn’t encouraged by what he saw. The ground became wet as the land sloped gently downhill, and the boot prints were visible in the softer earth. They were uneven and scuffed ... the tracks of a drunk man, staggering and dragging his feet. Finn set his mouth in a grim line and didn’t speak, but his mind was filled with foreboding.

The mist dissipated as they moved east, and beams of yellow-green sunlight streamed through the branches. Motes of pollen floated lazily in the light, and the air grew humid. Clouds of tiny flies stuck to the sweat on Finn’s brow and the back of his neck. Fields of plump, sickly-red toadstools grew in the crannies between roots, their tops glistening with an oily residue. At one point, Happy Shan’s boot squelched ankle-deep in mud and when she yanked it free it emitted a sulfurous stench. Dunborough removed his coat and strapped it to the back of his pack, his face red with perspiration.

The brush began to thin as the ground grew wetter. Ponds of stagnant, scum-covered water lay on either side of them. The roots of the trees hovered over the pools, arching downwards like insect legs. Mrs. Ross suddenly gasped and shouted “look!”, pointing. They all snapped to attention and stopped in their tracks.

A large burial mound was ahead and slightly to their right, through the trees. It was wide, eight feet in height, and covered in moss and brambles. A narrow trail, slightly raised from the forest bed, snaked from the south and disappeared around the mound. Finn would have thought it was a game trail, it was so narrow and disused.

“We’re here,” Mrs. Ross breathed to herself. She turned to the others, her eyes shining with urgency. “My home is near. I recognize this place. Hurry!” She rushed ahead of them, moving faster than Finn expected.

“Hang on. Wait ... Gods damn!” Dunborough struggled after her, the mud sucking at his boots. They hurried forward, but Mrs. Ross seemed to flit over the ground as though buoyed. She disappeared around the mound. Rounding it himself, Finn could see the ground slope down a scramble of rock. Through the trees he glimpsed the green brightness of a clearing. He waited for Dunborough and Happy Shan and they followed Mrs. Ross towards it.

They emerged from the trees into an open fen, blinking in the light. A lake of shallow stagnant water, maybe two feet deep, bordered a wide mucky shore. Algae and lilypads covered the surface. Grey deadheads coated in scum broke the surface here and there. The water stretched into the distance, into the treeline on the far side. On the near shore, low walls of crumbling stone masonry were choked with vines and moss. Finn recognized them as the foundation of simple homes, long abandoned and overtaken by nature. Maybe there had been a village here once, a century ago. No one lived here now.

At the water’s edge, like an altar, was a huge jagged stump, the biggest they’d yet seen. It was as wide as the lighthouse back home, and as tall as a man. Shards of thick bark rose up past the edges of the bole, and Finn could tell it was hollow. He could almost picture how this elder would have looked a thousand years ago, its vast trunk disappearing into the haze above, its canopy blotting the sun.

Mrs. Ross genuflected near the base of it, hands on a huge root like she was clutching the back of a pew. Near her on the shore was Engstrom.

Finn gave a strangled yell when he saw. The tall man was slumped on the edge of the water. He was stark naked, sitting on his heels with his knees wide. His long arms hung limply at his sides, like a prizefighter knocked senseless. His chin rested on his chest, eyes glazed and rolling in their sockets, mouth slack and drooling. His knees and hindquarters were half sunk in the mud. Happy Shan shrieked and scrambled forward, shedding her pack. Dunborough pulled a machete from its leather sheath.

“Sweyne! What hap-” Happy Shan said, then recoiled in horror. Her heel caught and she sat down heavily in the mud. As Finn came up he was seized with revulsion. A tumescent tube of white, pulsating flesh snaked out of the water and had nuzzled up under Engstrom’s elbow and burrowed into the soft flesh on the side of his belly, just under his ribcage. It was as thick as Finn’s arm, and segmented like a worm. Blood dripped around the edges of where the thing had attached. Finn could hear a wet, slurping susurration, and see dark, chunky fluid being sucked down the tube with rhythmic contractions through the translucent skin

What is that!” Happy Shan screamed. Finn reacted in panic, shirking his pack and yanking his rifle over his head in a tangle of leather straps. Dunborough stood frozen, open mouthed.

Happy Shan pawed at Dunborough and snatched the machete from his hand. She slid to her knees next to Engstrom, shoved his arm to the side and brought her arm down in a mighty overhand chop. The blade severed the worm like a cucumber and sank deep into the mud. The thing reared up like a loose firehose, spraying a milky-pink fluid across half of Happy Shan’s face and the open palm she held up defensively. Instantly, Engstrom lifted his face to the sky, his mouth wide in silent agony. Then he toppled backwards, head and shoulders splashing under the water.

The worm thrashed about and then slid — retracted — back into the water with a splash. Something immense churned the water’s surface. Finn’s mind grappled with the impossibility of anything that big living in water so shallow.

The stub of worm still attached to Engstrom twitched. Happy Shan sat on the shore and savagely wiped mucous off her face. Dunborough grabbed both of Engstrom’s feet and started to haul the man out of the water when a voice over their shoulders spoke.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”

A man stepped out from behind the massive stump, wading through the water to the shore.

He wore the clothes of what might once have been a sophisticated professor — a high-collared shirt, a herringbone waistcoat — but they were faded to grey, fraying, and drenched with swampwater. If he had once been human, something had changed. The man’s proportions were slightly off. His upper arms were too long. His wrists protruded from his shirt cuffs, hands dangling near his knees. The skin on his face drooped, like a slipping mask.

Mrs. Ross cried out in joy and ran to him. She buried her face in his shoulder. His long arm encompassed her. His fingertips were fleshy bulbs with no nails.

“Doc Ross, I presume.” Dunborough said in a voice of steel. He turned and drew his rifle.

“I’m pleased you’ve arrived,” said Dr. Ross. His voice sounded like it was spoken through a mouthful of seaweed. “Behind schedule to be sure, but better late than never.”

“What have you done to him,” Dunborough growled.

“Ah. Our dear Mr. Engstrom ripened a little sooner than the rest of you. It was best we make use of him before he spoiled.”

“You’re one of them dark magic users, then,” Dunborough said. “I shoulda known.”

“Not anymore. I am but a concierge now, Mr. Dunborough,” said Dr. Ross. “I’m here to open the door for you.”

Happy Shan began to scream. She knelt, touching her face and looked at her fingers. Where the fluid from the worm had sprayed her, her skin was beginning to bubble and drip. Finn’s mind froze as he watched it slough off her cheek, her cockeyed grin becoming a skeletal rictus. Her right hand was already bare ropes of red tendons and nerves, horribly exposed.

Get it off. Get it off! Help me!” she screamed. She scrambled and ran blindly, staggering, groping at her face. Her shin hit a low stone wall and she barrelled head first into a deadfall and lay dazed and groaning.

The Rosses watched with detached fascination, but made no move to help or hinder. Finn raised his own rifle and aimed it at Dr. Ross’s chest. He knew a predator when he saw one. He felt hot panic rise in his throat. “I … I think we gotta light out. Right. now,” he said to Dunborough. His own voice sounded in his ears like a ten year old boy, wild and high.

“Not so fast, Mr. Adler,” said Dr. Ross. “Mr. Dunborough has a different way to go, I’m afraid.”

“You aren’t even gonna thank me for delivering your wife safely,” Dunborough said mirthlessly, backing away. He was stalling now. The fear in the stoic man’s voice was more frightening to Finn than anything that he had yet seen. “Not very neighbourly of you.”

“You misunderstand. You didn’t deliver her. She delivered you.”

“No, don’t think I’ll be staying here. This place is a ruin,” Dunborough gestured around the clearing with one hand, waving Finn backwards with the other.

“Oh, of course not here. You’re coming to live in the dark with us. This village is simply situated where the membrane is thin enough to pass through. Not entirely coincidental, as I’m sure you must have sensed.”

“Come with us, Mr. Dunborough,” added Mrs. Ross. “Our children have an eternity of hunger, and they crave men like you. Such a vigorous life you’ve led.”

“Bullshit!” said Dunborough.

Finn couldn’t take more. He aimed and fired a shot. The report echoed in the clearing. It struck Dr. Ross in the shoulder with a wet plop. A hole in his shirt snapped open, oozed black. Dr. Ross glanced at it, then back up to meet Finn’s gaze. He smiled, a black slit that stretched from ear to ear. His pupils weren’t right; they slid around like melting wax, and Finn’s world clouded —

— he was falling in a black void. No, it was a pit, deep in the ocean, with no visible bottom. The walls rippled with thousands of pale tendrils that waved to and fro like fronds, multi-segmented and horribly alive. They had mouths. The pit narrowed as he fell, the sides closing in. Some of the tendrils brushed over him, groping at his face, in his ears. A sickly green light glowed from below —

— Finn staggered backwards and fell, landing in cold mud that soaked his trousers and back. The forest doubled, the bright sun and green trees swimming dizzily before him. He swallowed nausea, but it passed momentarily, and his vision resolved to Dr. Ross leaning high over Dunborough, whispering in his ear. His gangly fingers draped over the big man’s neck. Dunborough clutched his unused rifle to his chest like a totem, his face fallen and defeated. Dr. Ross put his arm around Dunborough’s shoulders and led him to the bole of the massive hollow stump. Dunborough stepped up on one of the larger roots and peered over the edge. Finn heard the sound of wet, oily slithering from within.

Dunborough’s rifle fell from his limp hands and he moaned “ohhh, noooo”, and covered his face with his hands. He started to weep.

“Take him, my dear,” said Dr. Ross gently.

Mrs. Ross stood in ankle-deep water and held out her hand to Dunborough. He stepped down with a soft splash, and she led him around the trunk without a backwards glance.

Finn sat up. Happy Shan and Engstrom were gone. The only evidence of them left were the trough-like indentations where their bodies had been dragged through the mud to the water.

Dr. Ross lurched in front of him and Finn screamed.

“Now, now, Mr. Adler. Don’t lollygag here at the entrance. You have an errand to run. Go home. Grow old. Make your mark. We’ll be watching.” He turned and loped erratically to the water’s edge, and then descended into it, like a man walking into the sea.

Finn returned to The Harbinger alone.

He scrounged what he could from the empty clearing before leaving the forest. Happy Shan’s pack contained a few days of food and her empty jar of hooch. As he retrieved Dunborough’s rifle and machete from where they had been dropped, he waited with apprehension for a disturbance of the water, but it was silent and calm. He did not look into the massive hollow tree stump.

He reached the boat by evening and cast off without resting. It would be dark by the time he reached home. But the sea was calm and a warm spring breeze blew. The sky was a vault of orange and pink over the waters of the west rim.

The back of his head throbbed; he’d banged it when he’d fallen. Under his shirt, his mark was quiet. Finn laid his hand on his shoulder and left it there for a long time. He turned his feelings inwards and gritted his teeth. I don’t understand, but I will, he swore to himself. When I’m ready I’ll come back. And when I do, I’m bringing fire.

Near the shore, a mother harlequin duck led a line of paddling ducklings amongst the rocks. Finn watched an eagle swoop in low from the open sea and snatch a straggler in its talons. The mother flapped and splashed furiously, but the eagle soared high, and disappeared over the trees.

Finn sailed on, his eyes reflecting the blaze of the setting sun.

Written Feb 6, 2021