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The light and the promised cave both came into view over the next rise. The sight arrested me. The light burned at the back of a yawning cavern but as we approached a second glow began to spread across the slope ahead of us. A luminous mist. The spirit rose from the ground as a swimmer breaks the surface of a river. She moved across the snow-covered rocks. Back and forth before the cave mouth, illumination bleeding from each line, her face a death mask, jawbone gaping. She drifted closer, straggles of pale hair and tatters of dress unmoving despite the wind that tore across the hillside. The snow lit beneath her, each curious lump and bump of it commanding black shadows, revolving to point away from the spirit as she moved, as if indicating the many directions in which we might flee.
I felt Hakon shift behind me, turning to run. ‘Stay,’ I told him. ‘I’ve met ghosts before. None of them with a bite meaner than their bark.’
The white skull tilted on its vertebrae, cocked to the side whilst the empty orbits considered me. ‘Better run, boy. Death waits inside.’ Her voice was a cracked thing that set my teeth on edge.
‘No,’ I said.
‘My curse is on you.’ A bony digit marked me out as her target. Madness wavered in her words, and strain, as if each utterance were gasped out past some unbearable agony. ‘Run and you might outpace it.’
‘I’m too tired to run, ghost. I’m going inside.’
She drifted closer still, surrounding me with a light that held no whisper of warmth. ‘Needles and death, boy, there’s nothing in there for you, just needles and death.’ A gasp.
Something about being threatened lit a fire in my belly and, although the cold seemed all the more bitter for it, I felt more myself.
‘Needles? Might I prick myself on one? That’s probably the silliest curse I’ve heard in a long while – and men are seldom eloquent when sliding off my sword so I’ve heard some stupid curses in my time.’
‘Fool!’ The phantom’s voice built to a piercing shriek, the glow of her bones growing more fierce by the second. ‘Run while you—’ And just as swiftly she was gone, torn to shreds on the wind, her light extinguished.
I stood for a long moment, blind, pinched by the gale’s icy fingers. The moon peered through a wind-torn rip amid the cloudbanks and found the slope again before either of us moved to speak.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘That was unusual.’
‘Odin keep us.’ Hakon’s wisdom on the subject.
‘He’s as likely to keep us as the White Christ is.’ I had no bone to pick with heathen bone-pickers. One god or many, none of them ever seemed to like us much. ‘What did she think to terrify us with? Needles?’ I started in toward the cave.
‘What are you doing?’ Hakon caught my arm. ‘She said we’d die.’
I knew Norsemen took their evil spirits seriously but I hadn’t expected one deranged ghost to unman my axe-wielding barbarian so much. ‘If we see a needle we’ll avoid jabbing ourselves with it. How about that? We’ll go around.’ I drew my sword and waved him on. ‘Does she have some demonic sewing kit in there? Will the thread assault us? The thimbles hurl themselves upon me? Bobbins—’
‘We’ll die. I know. And what will we do out here?’ Something tugged at my foot as I made to take another step. I crouched and brushed at the snow and my hand came away dark with blood though I’d felt no bite. A gleaming coil of wire lay exposed, emerging from the stony ground, covered in thin blades sharp as razors. Hakon crouched beside me to look.
The wire was a thing of the Builders. None today could make such steel and have it sitting out in the wilds, still sharp, untouched by rust. I looked at the blood blotting into my wrappings then eyed the uneven terrain with new suspicion. The Builders made their own ghosts too – not echoes of emotion or shadows of despair such as men of our time might leave behind, but constructs built of data and light, powered by dry machinery where cogs turned and numbers danced. I mistrusted such monstrosities more than mere phantoms.
‘Perhaps we should build a windbreak among the trees,’ I said. ‘Try the tinderbox again and, if we can get a flame, build a fire big enough to put a boat-burning to shame.’
As I spoke the snow where the ghost had fallen apart began to glow and a second spirit rose through it, taking all the light for herself. There could be no confusing this one with the departed curse-maker. Mouldering bones and a death’s head grin had been replaced with alabaster limbs spun about with gossamer, her face ivory perfection, all compassion and kind eyes.
‘The cave is warm and safe.’ Golden tones pulsating through the light. ‘A place of sanctuary against the night. My sister’s madness does not rule there – though her curse lingers. I can’t break it but I can bend it. Even if a needle should prick you, you won’t die, only sleep a while.’
I made a courtly bow, there on the hill in the teeth of the gale and on the edge of my endurance. ‘Sleep sounds fine and good, but if it’s all the same to you, fair spirit, I’d rather slumber on my own terms.’ I held my hand and its red bandages out toward her. ‘Without needles. I’ve bled enough tonight already.’
‘If you see a needle … go around.’ She offered her suggestion with a hint of a smile and vanished, not breaking apart as the sister did but fading like a footprint on wet sand where the waves wash. I hesitated still but the thought of warmth pulled at me.
‘Come on.’ And I led the way forward, placing each foot with care and encountering no more razored wire.
Inside the cave the wind fell away within the space of three steps. It still shrieked and moaned outside but, where we stood, the dry flakes could manage no more than a lazy swirl about our boots. My ears rang with the near-silence after so long filled with that relentless howl, and almost immediately my head began to ache and my body burn. Pain is life’s signature. Sheltered at last, we stopped dying and started to hurt.
I returned to myself as if rising from the depths, reaching for a distant surface. The white ceiling greeted me. The table, the tubes, the straps. How long had I dreamed? Was Katherine still here or had her kiss grown cold upon my lips?
I thrashed in my bonds, sacrificing any shred of pride against a remote chance of escape. I stopped moments later, sweaty and with my hair strewn across my face. I spat out black strands and looked at those tubes and the clear liquids within. The drugs still pulsed in my veins, waiting to drag me back into sleep.
Flinging my hair back from my face, I banged my head against the table. ‘Fuck.’ It hurt and the dull clank might alert my captors but even so, I did it again, the other way this time, slinging the length of my locks back across my face and raising my head until the bones in my neck screamed.
It took seven attempts but finally my hair draped the bundled tubes and at the utmost lunge I caught some of the spare ends between my front teeth, ensnaring the whole bundle. I pulled down and, with my head against the table managed to get my teeth around one of the tubes itself.
In the ceiling corner a small red light began to wink above the glass eye that watched me.
It took several moments to feed the tubes through my teeth until they made a taut line to my wrist. I paused one time at a distant noise, a mechanical clunking that sounded once, twice, and fell silent.
With the tubes tight in my mouth, I shot a venomous look toward the watching eye and jerked my head. A sharp pain flared in my wrist as the needles tore free, followed by a dull ache and wetness – blood? Liquid from the tubes?
I started to pull my hand free. The pain of ripping the tubes clear proved nothing next to the agony that followed. It helped to think that if I didn’t escape then endless torments might be heaped on me whilst I lay trapped.
The hand is made of many little bones. I’ve seen them often enough, exposed in cut flesh or revealed by rot. With sufficient pressure these bones give. They will rearrange and, if necessary, crack, but there are no constraints the size of a wrist that will prevent a hand from being drawn through them … if you are prepared to pay the price.
My hand came free with a snap. The cost of freedom included broken bones, considerable lost skin, and agony. Without the lubrication from the fluids that had spilled out as the tubes came free, and my own blood, the price would have been steeper. Even so, my sword hand would not be fit to hold a sword for quite some while.
A loud clang, closer than before. A metal door opening.
On the stand that held the vials and tubes red lights began to blink and a high-pitched call rang out like the cry of some alien bird, repeating again and again.
Undoing tightly buckled straps with a broken hand and slippery fingers is difficult. Doing it fast, expecting at any second to hear the approach of footsteps, is still more difficult. In an ecstasy of fumbling I managed to get my other wrist unbound, cursing in pain and frustration.
The door that opened was not the one I imagined to lie somewhere behind my head but a small and thus far unsuspected hatch high in the wall to my left. The thing that emerged from the darkness behind the little door had too many legs, possibly ten, all gleaming silver and cunningly articulated. A bulbous glass ovoid comprised the bulk of its insectoid body, and within it a red liquid sloshed. Where the creature’s mouthparts should have been a single long needle protruded.
I started to unbuckle the first and topmost of the six belts holding me flat against the table.
The darkness of the cave mouth had been less profound than that of the night outside. A light had burned at the back of it. Hakon and I edged in deeper, axe and sword gripped in frozen hands.
The light still blinked and now we saw that it sat beneath the legend ‘Bunker 17’ and above a rectangular doorway set into the back of the cavern.
‘A Builder light.’ The cold circle of illumination had no hint of flame about it.
Hakon made a slow rotation, checking the shadowed margins. I glanced back at the falling snow, lit by the glow of the Builders’ light. White legions racing silent across the cave mouth. I wondered at the ghosts we’d seen. Spirits of those who failed to do correctly that last thing anyone ever has to, and die properly, or something older still … the minds of long-dead Builders trapped within their machinery and projected in some game of puppetry and shadow. I’d met both kinds before and had thought these ones to be true ghosts, but now my suspicions grew.
‘We should stay here,’ I said, turning and stepping away from the doorway.
As I did so a wave of warm air followed me, thick with the scent of roasting meat. I turned back to face the corridor leading away into the hill. ‘It’s a trap. And not a subtle one.’
‘In the north we take what we need.’ Hakon lifted his axe and advanced, already swallowing as the juices ran in his mouth.
My stomach rumbled. With a shrug I followed him in. ‘We do that in the south too.’
Lights went on ahead of us down the length of the corridor. Maybe one in seven of the white glass discs on the ceiling still worked but together they provided better illumination than any torch or lantern.
Fifty yards on and a heavy steel door blocked the way, but only partially. The thickness of it lay curled around the force of some unimaginable blow and it stood propped against the frame, heavier than an armoured warhorse but with room to slide past. Just beyond, through the gap, I could see a gleaming and many-legged insect, silver in the ancient light, needle-mouthed, its body a clear chamber filled with red venom.
‘I’ve seen the needle,’ I said, not turning away. ‘Going around might be difficult …’ I kept my eye on it against the possibility it might scuttle forward and sting me through my boot. ‘But I think if I beat it with my sword the problem should go away.’ It’s a technique that works on a lot of problems.
‘Uh,’ said Hakon. Not exactly the encouragement I’d been hoping for but I shrugged it off.
‘You hold the door. I’ll go through and stick it.’
‘Uh.’ Followed by the clatter of axe hitting floor.
I turned to see Hakon sprawled, five of the metal insects on his back, their needles deep in his flesh.
‘Shh—’ Something small and sharp stabbed me in the hollow of my back, ‘—it!’ I spun, trying to dislodge the thing but it clung with a dozen clawed feet. Warmth spread up my spine. ‘Bastard!’ I threw myself back, crushing the thing against the door. Others scurried out from little hatches in the wall beside the door. The ones on Hakon withdrew their needles and scuttled toward me.
I wrecked several with my sword, shearing off legs and shattering bodies but I went down with needles in my thigh, hip and foot before I got them all, my strength flowing away like water from a broken gourd.
‘I remember you, you little bastard!’ I snarled it at the needle-bug as it descended from the now-invisible hatch. My hope that it might not be able to scale the table waned somewhat at seeing its speed over the smoothness of the wall.
The first of the six bands came loose and I started on the next. The dry click of metal feet reached me as the insect vanished beneath the table. For all I knew there were holes under my back through which it could stick me. I worked on, fingers slipping across the next buckle. If the thing had any intelligence behind it, it would come up out of reach by my feet.
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