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World's End
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World's End

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Author: Mark Chadbourn
Publisher: Pyr, 2009
Gollancz, 1999
Series: The Age of Misrule: Book 1

1. World's End
2. Darkest Hour
3. Always Forever

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
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Synopsis

When Jack Churchill and Ruth Gallagher encounter a terrifying, misshapen giant beneath a London bridge they are plunged into a mystery which portends the end of the world as we know it. All over the country, the ancient gods of Celtic myth are returning to the land from which they were banished millennia ago. Following in their footsteps are creatures of folklore: fabulous bests, wonders and dark terrors As technology starts to fail, Jack and Ruth are forced to embark on a desperate quest for four magical items – the last chance for humanity in the face of powers barely comprehended.


Excerpt

prologue

And now the world turns slowly from the light. Not with the cymbal clash of guns and tanks, but with the gently plucked harp of shifting moods and oddly lengthening shadows, the soft tread of a subtle invasion, not here, then here, and none the wiser. Each morning the sun still rises on supermarket worlds of plastic and glass, on industrial estates where slow trucks lumber in belches of diesel, on cities lulled by the whirring of disk drives breaking existence down into digitised order. People still move through their lives with the arrogance of rulers who know their realms will never fall. Several weeks into the new Dark Age, life goes on as it always has, oblivious to the passing of the Age of Reason, of Socratic thought and Apollonian logic.

No one had noticed. But they would. And soon.

chapter one
misty morning,
albert bridge

It was just before dawn, when the darkness was most oppressive. London was blanketed by an icy, impenetrable, February mist that rolled off the Thames, distorting the gurgle and lap of the water and the first tentative calls of the birds in the trees along the embankment as they sensed the impending sunrise. The hour and atmosphere were unfriendly, but Church was oblivious to both as he wandered, directionless, lost to thoughts that had turned from discomfort to an obsession, and had soured him in the process. If anyone had been there to see his passing, they might have thought him a ghost: tall and slim, with too-pale skin emphasised by the blackness of his hair and a dark expression which added to the air of disquieting sadness which surrounded him. The night-time walks had become increasingly regular over the past two years. During the routines of the day he could lose himself, but when evening fell the memories returned in force, too realistic by far, forcing him out on to the streets in the futile hope he could walk them off, leave them behind. It was as futile as any childhood wish; when he returned home he could never escape her things or her empty space. The conundrum was almost more than he could bear: to recover meant he would have to forget her, but the mystery and confusion made it impossible to forget; it seemed he was condemned to live in that dank, misty world of not-knowing. And until he did know he felt he would not be whole again.

But that night the routine had been different. It wasn't just the memories that had driven him out, but a dream that God had decided His work, the world, had gone irrevocably wrong and He had decided to wipe it away and start again. Inexplicably, it had disturbed Church immeasurably.

There was a clatter of dustbins nearby, some dog scavenging for food. But just to be sure, he paused, tense and alert, until a russet shape padded soundlessly out of the fog. The fox stopped in its tracks when it saw him, eyed him warily for a second, until it seemed to recognise some similar trait, and then continued across the road until it was lost again. Church felt a frisson of some barely remembered emotion that he gradually recognised as a sense of wonder. Something wild and untamed in a place shackled by concrete and tarmac, pollution and regulations. Yet after the initial excitement it served only to emphasise the bleak view of the world he had established since Marianne. Perhaps his dream had been right. He had never really been enticed by the modern world. Perhaps that was why he was so drawn to archaeology as a child. But now everything seemed so much worse. If there was a God, what would he want with a world where such a vital force as a sense of wonder was so hard to come by? Although most people seemed to hark back to some golden age where things were felt so much more vibrantly, it seemed to Church, with his new eyes, that they didn't even seem to have the passion to hate the world they lived in; they were simply bowed by the boredom of it: a place of routine and rules, where daily toil was the most important thing and the only rewards that really counted were the ones that came in currency. There wasn't anything to get excited about any more; nothing to believe in. You couldn't even count on God. Churches of all denominations seemed to be in decline, desperately stripping out the supernatural wonder for some modernist sense of community that made them seem like dull Oxfam working parties. But he had no time for God anyway. And that brought him in an ironic full circle: God was preparing to wipe the world clean and God didn't exist.

He snorted a bitter laugh. Away in the mist he could hear the fox's eerie barking howl and for a hopeful second he considered pursuing it to a better place. But he knew in his heart he wasn't nimble enough; his legs felt leaden and there seemed to be an unbearable weight crushing down on his shoulders.

And then all the thoughts of God got him thinking about himself and his miserable life, as if there were any other subject. Was he a good person? Optimistic? Passionate? He had been once, he was sure of it, but that was before Marianne had turned everything on its head. How could one event sour a life so completely?

It wasn't the damp that drew his shiver, but he pulled his overcoat tighter nonetheless. Sometimes he wondered what the future held for him. Two years ago there had been so much hope stitched into the direction he had planned for his life: more articles for the learned magazines, a book, something witty and incisive about the human condition, which also instigated a quiet revolution in archaeological thinking, building on the promise he had shown at Oxford when he had become the first member of his family to attain a degree. At twenty-six, he had known everything about himself. Now, at twenty-eight, he knew nothing. He was flailing around, lost in a strange world where nothing made sense. Any insight he thought he might have had into the human condition had been expunged, and poking about in long-dead things suddenly hadn't seemed as attractive as it had when he'd been the leading light of his archaeology course. It sounded pathetic to consider it in such bald terms, and that made it even more painful. He had never been pathetic. He had been strong, funny, smart, confident. But never pathetic. He had potential, ambitions, dreams, things that he thought were such a vital part of him he would never be able to lose them, yet there he was without any sign of them at all. Where had they all gone?

The only work of which he had felt capable was hack journalism, turning technical manuals into plain English and writing PR copy, bill-paying rather than future-building. And all because of Marianne. Sometimes he wished he could channel his feelings into bitterness, maybe even hate, anything that would allow him to move on, but he just wasn't capable of it. She'd dragged him out of life and left him on a mountaintop, and he felt he would never be able to climb down again.

With a relief that was almost childlike in its intensity, his thoughts were disturbed by a splashing of water which jarred against the sinuous sounds of the river. At first Church thought it might have been a gull at the river's edge, another sign of raw nature intruding on his life, but the intermittent noise suggested something larger. Leaning on the cold, wet wall, he waited patiently for the folds of mist to part as the splashing ebbed and flowed.

For several minutes he couldn't see anything, but as he was about to leave, the mist unfurled in a manner that reminded him of a theatre curtain rolling back. Framed in the white clouds at the river's edge was a hunched black shape, like an enormous crow. As it dipped into the eddies, then rose shakily, Church glimpsed a white, bony hand. An old woman, in a long, black dress and a black shawl, was washing something he couldn't see; it made him think of pictures of peasants in the Middle East doing their laundry in muddy rivers. The strangeness of a woman in the freezing water before dawn didn't strike him at first, which was odd in itself, but the more he watched, the more he started to feel disturbed by the way she dipped and washed, dipped and washed. Finally the jangling in his mind began to turn to panic and he started to pull away from the sight. At that moment the woman stopped her washing and turned, as if she had suddenly sensed his presence. Church glimpsed a terrible face, white and gaunt, and black, piercing eyes, but it was what she held that filled his thoughts as he ran away along the footpath towards Albert Bridge. For the briefest instant it appeared to be a human head, dripping blood from the severed neck into the cold Thames. And it had his face.


Ruth Gallagher had a song in her head that she couldn't quite place; something by The Pogues, she thought. Then she considered the holiday she hoped to take in the South of France that summer, before admiring the pearly luminescence of the mist as it rolled across the surface of the Thames. And when she opened her ears again Clive was still whining irritatedly.

"And another thing, why do you always have to act so superior?"

Clive gesticulated like he was berating a small child. He didn't even look at her; he had been lost in his rant for so long that she was no longer needed in the conversation.

"I don't act superior, I am." It was the wrong thing to say, but Ruth couldn't resist it. She had to stifle a smile when a sound like a boiler venting steam erupted from his throat. It didn't help that at nearly six foot, she towered above him. Such nastiness wasn't normally in her nature, but he had treated her so badly throughout the evening she felt justified, while still acknowledging the whiff of childishness in her response.

When they had met at the Law Society dinner six weeks earlier, she went into the relationship with the same hope and optimism as always; it wasn't her fault that it hadn't worked out. In fact, after so many previous failed relationships, she had tried especially hard, but Clive was like so many other men she had met in recent times: self-obsessed, nervous of her intellect and wit while professing the opposite, quickly becoming insecure when they realised she wasn't so desperate to hold on to them that she'd kowtow to their every whim and turn a blind eye to their many insufferable qualities. It didn't take her long to see that Clive equated long, dark, curly hair and refined, attractive features with some pre-war view of femininity which he could easily control.

That sort of attitude could have made her blood boil, but the simple truth was she had realised that night that she felt so far removed from him it was hardly worth losing sleep over.

But Clive was just symptomatic of a wider malaise. Nothing in her life seemed fixed down, as she had expected it would be by the time she approached thirty; the job, her great ambition since her father had instilled it in her at thirteen, left her feeling empty and weary, but it was too late to go back and start over; she was ambivalent about London; the best word she could find for her friends and social life was pleasant. It was as if she was holding her breath, waiting for something to happen.

She hummed The Pogues' song in her head, trying to recall the chorus, then turned her attention once more to the marvellous way the mist smothered the echoes of their footsteps. Not far to go until she was home, she thought with relief.

"And another thing--"

"If you say that one more time, Clive," Ruth interjected calmly, "I'll be forced to perform an emergency tracheotomy on you with my fountain pen."

Clive threw his arms in the air. "That's it! I've had enough! You can make your way home alone."

He spun on his heels and Ruth watched him march off into the fog with his head thrust down like some spurned, spoiled child. "The perfect gentleman," she muttered ironically.

As his footsteps faded away, Ruth became acutely aware of the stifling silence. She wished she'd left the club earlier, or at least countermanded Clive's order for the cab to pull over so they could have a "quiet chat" as they walked the last few hundred yards to her flat. London wasn't a safe place for a woman alone. Her heels click-clacked on the slick pavement as she speeded up a little. The rhythm was soothing in the unnerving quiet, but as she approached Albert Bridge other sounds broke through: scuffles, gasps, the smack of flesh on flesh.

Ruth paused. Her every instinct told her to hurry home, but if someone was in trouble she knew her conscience wouldn't allow her to ignore it. She was spurred into life by a brief cry, quickly strangled, that seemed to come from the river's edge in the lonely darkness beneath the bridge. Two itinerants fighting over the remnants of a cheap bottle of wine, she supposed, but she had seen too many police reports to know the other possibilities were both many and disturbing. She located the steps to the river and moved cautiously down until the mist had swallowed up the street lights behind her.


When he heard the same struggle, Church's heart rate had just about returned to normal, but his nerves still jangled alarmingly. The image of the woman's terrible face wouldn't go, but he had almost managed to convince himself he had been mistaken in his view of what she was holding. Just a bundle of dirty clothes, a trick of the light and the fog. That was all.

He had been approaching Albert Bridge from the opposite direction to Ruth when the scuffling sounds provided a welcome distraction. Negotiating the treacherously slick steps down to the river, he found himself on a rough stone path that ran next to the slim, muddy beach at the water's edge, where an oppressive smell of rotting vegetation filled the dank air. A slight change in the quality of light signalled that somewhere above the mist, dawn was finally beginning to break, but the gloom beneath the bridge was impenetrable.

With only the soothing lapping of the Thames around him, he wondered if he had misheard the source of the fight. He paused, listening intently, and then a muffled cry broke and was instantly stifled. Cautiously he advanced towards the dark.

Keeping close to the wall so he wouldn't be seen, odd sounds gradually emerged: heavy boots on stones, a grunt, a choke. Finally, at the edge of the darkness, his eyes adjusted enough to see what lay beneath the bridge.

A giant of a man with his back to Church grasped a smaller man by the lapels. The victim looked mousily weak, with tiny, wire-framed spectacles on a grey face, his frame slight beneath a dark suit. There was a briefcase lying on the ground nearby.

The taller man, who must have been at least seven and a half feet tall, turned suddenly, although Church was sure he hadn't made a sound. The giant had a bald head and long, animalistic features contorted by a snarl of rage. In the shadows, his pale, hooded eyes seemed to glow with a cold, grey fire. Church shivered unconsciously at the aura of menace that washed off him in a black wave.

"Put him down."

Church started at the female voice. A woman with long dark hair and a beautiful, pale face was standing on the other side of the bridge, framed against the background of milky mist.

The tall man's breath erupted in a plume of white as it hit the cold; there was a sound like a horse snorting. He looked slowly from Church to the woman and back, effortlessly holding his victim like a rag doll, his gaze heavy and hateful. Church felt his heart begin to pound again; something in the scene was frightening beyond reason.

"If you don't put him down, I'm going for the police," the woman continued in a calm, firm voice.

For a moment Church thought the victim was dead, but then his head lolled and he muttered something deliriously. There was contempt in the attacker's face as he glanced once more at Church and the woman, and then he hauled the smaller man off the ground with unnatural ease. Transferring his left hand to his victim's chin, he braced himself, ready to snap the neck.

"Don't!" Church yelled, moving forward.

In that instant, for no reason he could pinpoint, Church felt fear explode in every fibre of his being. The giant glared at him and Church had the disorienting sensation that the mugger's face was shifting like oil poured on water. He flashed back to the old woman at the water and what she was holding, and then his thoughts devolved into an incomprehensible jumble. His brain desperately tried to comprehend the retinal image of the giant's face becoming something else, and for a moment he almost grasped it, but the merest touch of the sight was like staring into the heart of the sun. His mind flared white, then shut down in shock, and he slumped to the ground unconscious.


Dawn had finally come when Church woke to the sensation of hands pulling him into a sitting position. There was a spinning moment of horror when he thought he was still staring at the changing face, and then he became dimly aware of the dampness of his clothes from the wet ground and a flurry of movement and sound around him. He grappled for some kind of understanding, but there was a yawning hole in his memory from the moment of his collapse, as raw as if he had been slashed with a razor.

"Are you okay?" A paramedic crouched in front of him, shining a light into his eyes. When the flare cleared, Church saw uniformed police and what were obviously plain-clothes detectives hovering near the river's edge.

Church remembered the mugger and his victim and suddenly lurched forward. The paramedic held him back with a steady hand. "Did you see what happened?" he asked.

Church struggled for the words. "Some kind of fight. Then?.?.?." He glanced around him curiously. "I suppose I fainted. Pathetic, isn't it?"

The paramedic nodded. "She said the same thing."

Nearby was the woman Church had seen earlier. A blanket was draped around her shoulders; a medic checked her over while a detective tried to make sense of her replies. As Church watched, she looked up at him. In the second when their eyes met, Church had a sudden sensation of connection that went beyond the shared experience: a recognition of a similar soul. It was so intimate that it made him uncomfortable, and he looked away.

"Do you feel up to a few questions, sir?" The detective offered a hand and Church allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. The CID man seemed unnaturally calm for the activity going on around them, but there was an intensity in his eyes that was disturbing. As they headed towards the water's edge, Church saw the body in the glare of a camera flash; the neck had been broken.

"How long was I out?" Church asked.

The detective shrugged. "Can't have been long. Some postman on his bike heard the commotion and we had a car here within five minutes of his call. What did you see?"

Church described hearing the noise of the fight and then seeing the tall man mugging his victim. The detective eyed him askance, a hint of suspicion in his face. "And then he attacked you?"

Church shook his head. "I don't think so."

"So what happened to you and the young lady?"

There was an insectile skittering deep in his head as he fought to recall what he had seen; he was almost relieved when the memory refused to surface. "I was tired, the ground looked so comforting?.?.?." The detective gave him the cold eye. "How should I know?" Church looked round for a way to change the subject. "Where's his briefcase?"

"We didn't find one." The detective scribbled a line in his notebook and seemed brighter, as if the disappearance of the briefcase explained everything; a simple mugging after all.

Church spent the next hour at the station, growing increasingly disturbed as he futilely struggled to express his fears in some form the police could understand. In reception, he bumped into his fellow witness, whose expression suggested she had had a similar experience.

"Look, can we go and grab a coffee? I need to talk about this," she said without any preamble. She ran her fingers through her hair, then lightened. "Sorry. Ruth Gallagher." She stuck out a hand.

Church took it; her grip was strong and confident. "Jack Churchill. Church. They weren't having any of it, were they?"

Ruth sighed wearily. "No surprise there. I'm a solicitor, in court every day. I found out pretty early on that once the police have discovered the most simplistic idea out there, they're like a dog with a bone. If they want to file this under M for Mugging, by God they're going to, and nothing I'm going to say will change their minds."

"A mugging. Right. And JFK got roughed up that day in Dallas." Church watched her features intently, trying to discern her true thoughts.

She looked away uncomfortably, disorientation and worry reflected in her face.

There was an intensity about her that Church found impossible to resist. They went to a little place on St. John's Hill at Clapham Junction, filled with hissing steam from the cappuccino machine, the sizzle of frying food and the hubbub of local workers taking an early breakfast. They sat opposite each other at a table in the window and within seconds all the noise had faded into the background.

Sipping her coffee hesitantly, Ruth began. "What did we see?"

Church chewed on his lip, trying to find the words that would tie down the errant memory. "It seemed to me that his face began to change."

"Impossible, of course," Ruth said unconvincingly. "So there has to be a rational explanation."

"For a changing face?"

"A mask?"

"Did it look like a mask to you?" He tapped his spoon in his saucer. The merest attempt at recollection made him uncomfortable. "This is what I saw: a man, much bigger than average, picked up someone with a strength he shouldn't have had, even at that size. Then he turned to us and his features started to flow away like they were melting. And what lay beneath--" He swallowed. "--I have no idea."

"And then we both went out at exactly the same time."

"Because of what we saw next."

Ruth gave an uncomfortable smile. "I'm not the kind of person who has hallucinations in a moment of tension."

Church glanced out of the window, as if an answer would somehow present itself to him, but all he could see was a tramp on the opposite side of the road watching them intently. There was something about the unflinching stare that disturbed him. He turned back to his coffee and when he looked again the tramp was gone.

"This whole business is making me paranoid," he said. "Maybe we should leave it at that. We're not going to discover what happened. Just put it down to one of those inexplicable things that happen in life."

"How can you say that?" Ruth exclaimed. "This was real! We were right at the heart of it. We can't just dismiss it." She leaned forward with such passion Church thought she was going to grab his jacket. "You must have some intellectual curiosity."

"I find it difficult to get curious about anything these days." There was a hint of surgical dissection in the way she eyed him; he almost felt his ego unpeeling.

"At least give me your number in case one of us remembers any more details," she said. It was too firm to be a request. Church scribbled the digits on a paper serviette and then took Ruth's business card for her practice in Lincoln's Inn Fields with her home number on the back.

As he rose, she said, in a quiet voice that demanded reassurance, "Were you frightened?"

He smiled falsely, said nothing.

Copyright © 1999 by Mark Chadbourn


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World's End - Mark Chadbourn

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