Burning the Devil

It was a long walk into the fens. 

The pull of the cart didn’t make the journey any easier; the weight shifted whenever the wheels hit shell craters or caught in fresh cracks along the road. Each time I heaved, cursed, and sweated the cart back into motion before carrying on. One foot in front of the other, mile after mile. 

Morning slipped unnoticed across the cold, clear sky, winter blue sliding into a silken grey that muted the edges of the flat landscape. In the near distance, sluggish waterways bordered by reed banks ran parallel to the road, the breeze coming off them carrying with it the promise of sleet. 

The road was a causeway, raised above the marshland so it wouldn’t flood during spring. Constructed from millions of tons of rock, braced, and sealed, it was now a cracked shadow of the highway that once brought prosperity to the city. I’d heard that a few miles further on, it was severed completely, rent by self-inflicted destruction the authorities thought would protect the city from the ravages of the uprising. It hadn’t worked, but if the creatures came, I’d at least be able to see them, though I was probably safe for a while yet. We’ve learned they mostly come at night. 

My foot stamped into a puddle, and I felt moisture stealing in, finding cracks in the old leather of my boots, creeping along the frayed stitching. The cart shifted, it’s two wheels skewing to one side. I wrestled it straight again and continued. 

‘Not long now. We’re almost there.’ My breath misted in front of my face. 

I walked on, ignoring the growing burn in the small of my back and the ache of my knees. I dismissed the unpleasant sensation of trapped sweat held back from my eyes by the scarf wound around my head. One foot after another, a snail’s progress, but progress, nonetheless.

In truth, I was lucky to make it out of the city at all, but the guards at the gate knew me. My mother had served with them for long enough, and they remembered me from when I was a child, even though I was a different creature then; sickly, with a grey pallor that almost became purple when my circulation slowed in the depths of winter. I’d sourced things for them these last months that curfews and intermittent siege would have left them without otherwise; medical supplies, blankets, even mild narcotics like kanpi. The advantages of knowing a trader, I told them at the time, put to better use than generation of profit. They didn’t need to know I wouldn’t be back before the gates closed against the night. 

There had been sympathy in their eyes when they saw what lay in the cart, an understanding that they might do the same thing as I, were our positions reversed. Even the portal-captain, curmudgeonly old Pencosi, had given me an extra water canteen and a muttered benediction to Him on Terra before opening the gates and sending me on my way. Perhaps deprivation had made us all a little more human.

‘Do you hear that? More human.’ I laughed and drew a ragged breath. 

The side road I needed came up quicker than I thought it would, a narrow, sloping trail of a thing leading down into the fens. I squinted, my sense of direction cast askew by weariness and the monotonous concentration required to keep the cart away from the potholes. 

For a few moments I rested, placing my hand gently across the sack lying on the rough wood of the cart to smooth out the edge creases. I patted a corner and straightened, grimacing with relief as I took sips of water from the canteen Pencosi had given me. 

The causeway gave unencumbered views of the marshes, level wastes clear as the eye could see. I scanned the expanse of sky, watching the scudding irregularity of cloud above. The city was a suggestion of smoke on the horizon far behind me, the road ahead a straight arrow into desolation. On either side the land was flat, threaded with meandering water channels and a carpet of whispering reeds broken here and there by small thickets of weary trees clinging to mounds of higher ground. Isolated animal calls came soft and low, fearful of attracting the wrong type of attention. I couldn’t blame them for being wary, and as the thought came, I unconsciously dropped a hand to the laspistol at my hip.

The air had weight; a quiet that became oppressive without movement to distract from it. I found myself turning on the spot, seeking a hidden threat that I knew existed but couldn’t see. 

‘There’ll be enough time. There has to be.’ My voice was low, an unconscious collaborator with the surrounding quiet.

I touched the old steel aquila that hung around my neck, bringing my fingers to my lips and forehead while I muttered a prayer to the saints. I stoppered the canteen, sloshing the remaining contents around before hooking it to my belt once more. Night would fall quickly, the afternoon becoming evening before I knew it, so I stooped to lift the cart handles, grunting with effort as the ache in my shoulders ignited again. I started to walk. 

The surface of the side road was rougher, undulating within a few hundred metres of the causeway as if the builders had lost enthusiasm constructing the smaller path. The fens stretched ahead, rushes and sedges bending with the whims of the breeze. I watched the swirls and eddies of the reeds with suspicion as I walked, searching for tell-tale signs of the fell creatures that plagued us. 

‘We’ll be fine though, won’t we?’ I spoke through laboured breath. ‘That’s what you told me. They won’t hurt us.’

I reached the village in the mid-afternoon. The outlines of buildings were visible from miles away, stark blocks against the grey shroud above. Those last miles were a tired stumble on numb feet as the fatigue in my muscles robbed them of proper function. Bearing the weight hadn’t been a chore; she had borne me for far longer, and yet by the time I staggered into the village square I was close to collapse. I dragged the cart into the centre, where a weathered statue of Alicia Dominica stood, and set it down. I let out a moan as my limbs cramped in the chill air. The saint’s features were blurred by time and weather. Lichen had taken hold in the pits left by erosion, yet still she stood, arm raised to the sky. I gazed at her for a moment, my fingers straying again to the aquila around my neck. 

A pall of silence hung over the village as if the absence of sound were a physical thing that had seeped into the buildings, infecting stone and wood and thatch. There were no animals snuffling around in the few streets, no corvids calling mournfully to one another from rooftops, no signs of human life. Empty, glassless windows stared at me as I shuffled about in search of water for the canteen, the weight of their hollow, staring frames settling heavier upon me with each step. Every building was dark, the village completely deserted. Only madmen would have remained, and there were enough of those here already. 

I used a small stab lumen to find a way into what had been a domestic dwelling. Shards of glass and splinters of wood littered the grounds where the windows had shattered and doors were smashed in. Claw marks scarred floor tiles and defaced walls. Furniture lay in pieces. Old, black blood stained everything. On one wall, I spied the burn marks of laser fire and paused, scanning the interior with the narrow beam of light. The creatures themselves might leave me be if I were lucky, but their half-human followers would not. 

I filled the canteen in the kitchen, gulping the water down, coughing and spluttering as it went against my breathing. The noise of it, the break in the silence I had caused, frightened me into a quick retreat.

They’d be here, somewhere. 

I built the pyre as quickly as I could. Many of the houses had wood stacked for the winter, and I knew which ones would have neat piles and which ones would be disorderly. This had been my mother’s village, and she had told me every detail of it during my own childhood. We’d talk beside the fire while we ate thick broth, she in her work clothes reminiscent of the Astra Militarum uniforms I saw in picture books, me with a hood over my head that I was reluctant to pull back, even at home. She always spoke of the village with a strange mixture of affection and resentment, though I didn’t recognise those emotions for what they were until much later. All I had wanted to know was whether the villagers had treated her the same way the city children treated me.

‘We’re a little bit different, Guidon, that’s all. Special, you might say. People are afraid of folk who are different, but we’ll show them. You and me, we’ll show them we’re just as good as they are, underneath.’

We’d clinked spoons together then, and she’d winked at me through the sadness in her eyes. 

I stacked wood around the cart under the shadow of the saint’s statue as the wind grew stronger and the afternoon fell into dusk. Scavenged kindling and scraps of old vellum filled the spaces between logs, anything that would catch when I set fire to it. I built with diligence, the exertion keeping the chill from my bones for a while longer. It was the final thing I could do for her, a last kindness in a world that had not been so.

With the gathering dark, the silence broke as the noise of my efforts was joined by sounds from outside the village. A flock of corvids passed overhead, their calls and the murmur of their wings a harbinger of whatever caused them to fly. I worked faster, eventually satisfied I had done enough. I didn’t untie the sack on the back of the cart; I wanted to remember her as she had been.

When it was done, I stared at the pyre for long minutes. The first flecks of sleet were in the air and the sounds drew closer, yet I stayed where I was, immobile.

My mind worked against me as I thought of my mother, a last-minute rush to process a lifetime of emotion, reaching for poignancy in this act of defiance. But she was only part of it. I thought of my long-dead ancestor, inflected on some nameless rock light-years away by the same creatures that stalked me now. I thought too of those others who had been part of my family’s tainted line; impure abominations who, through no fault of their own, were twisted versions of the blessed human form bestowed by Him on Terra. They’d started the rising, casting aside the conventions of their humanity to reveal the infection beneath. 

Yet I was free. Free because my mother had the strength to pursue a different path for me, for us both. Those decisions carried consequence; I would have no offspring, for any sons or daughters of mine would not be human at all. That was how the infection worked, re-writing genes, working its way to a place where the last generation of hearth-stealers would either claim a world as their own or produce the very creatures that had caused the infection in the first place. The insidiousness of the cycle sent a chill through me whenever I thought of it.

And so, in my own small way, I would end it. The taint would die with me. 

I doused the cart with promethium I’d brought from the city and stood back facing the pyre. Behind me, I heard a noise at the far end of the village; the scrape of long claws on stone heralding the careful tread of an approaching predator.

‘We proved it, didn’t we? Proved we were worthy.’

I let the tears come as I struck a flame from a small canister, shielding it against the wind. I lit the vellum, circling the pyre to repeat the process in several places. The fire hissed as it caught, becoming hungry as it found the kindling, and grey smoke started to rise in tiny, snaking columns. Within seconds the pyre was blazing, the heat of it welcome against my skin. 

They were closing in now, the fire making them cautious,  but I could smell their taint brought by the wind that bent the reeds, the foul stench of looming death. I heard the whisper of chitin plates rubbing against each other, the hiss of breath exhaled between needle teeth. It no longer mattered. I wept as I shrugged out of my coat, dropping it to the ground. The hairs on my arms rose against the cold as I lifted my shirt over my head, though it was not exposure that made my skin the mottled colour it was. 

Let them see. 

If I were to die here then I would do so with the truth revealed. Let them know I was kin to them, the same twisted genetic lineage, even as I rejected them. 

I reached for the knot tying the scarf around my head and undid it. As the cloth fluttered free to reveal the faint folds of my misshapen skull pushing against my skin, I turned to face the creatures, the fire at my back.

Eyes reflected the pyre flames, small circles of orange bright in the darkness. Shadow clothed them, lying deep between ridges on bulbous craniums and painting their mauve skin a deeper colour as they fanned out. Impossibly long tongues slithered at the air. 

I counted three, perverse xenos sickness made flesh. One stepped forward into the light, it’s too human hands dragging along the ground, and I recoiled in horror. I’d imagined I would be confronted by a regressed version of myself, but this was something dragged screaming from a nightmare. My stomach twisted at the sight of it; the second set of arms and their long, raptor claws glowing with reflected firelight; the hunched posture and the bone plates pushing against the flesh of its back; the way its legs hinged to bring it forward. The intelligence in its eyes was neither human nor animal, but something else entirely. It spoke of emptiness and motivation that I would not be able to comprehend, even if it were able to speak.

I spread my arms wide.

‘Do it. Kill me.’

The lead creature hissed and darted forward a few steps. I didn’t have time to breathe, it moved so fast. It came close, but didn’t attack, instead stopped a few meters away. Its hide was wet from the sleet and strands of water grass clung to the crests along its back, draped like forgotten banners across its bruise-coloured skin. Snarls came from its kin, rumbles of displeasure or impatience. It answered in kind, the mouth widening, displaying endless lines of teeth. Its tongue whipped out again, waving sinuously in the air. 

The heat from the fire behind me was intense, and I felt my skin tightening, but I dared not move. If I ran, it would be on me before my heart had time to beat. Had the circumstances been different, I might have reacted differently, but my mind was numb, rejecting conscious thought and feeling.

The creature stared at me, and I met its gaze. Seconds stretched into eternity. If it judged or held me as one of its own somewhere in the back of its alien mind, I have no idea. My eyes filled again, tears spilling down my cheeks as I tried to maintain that eye contact. My heart stilled in my chest, but eventually, I could endure no more. I squeezed my eyes shut, tensing as I waited for the blow that would end me.

I felt the breath of its passing as it broke away, the claws of its legs scraping ruts in the flagstones of the square. A chorus of grimaced snarls followed it, and for a moment I thought the other two would step in and butcher me where I stood. But the creature answered these with a roar of its own, and in the silence that followed, they were gone.

I began to shake, adrenaline rushing through my pounding heart as dizziness forced me to my knees. I gasped and vomited, bile and water splashing the ground in front of me. Slowly, I became aware of where I was, the chill daggers of sleet falling across my exposed skin. I crawled forward though my own filth and lay on my back, the flickering colours of the flames painting my skin.

I lay like that for a long time, until the fires began to die and the cold became too much.

It was a long walk out of the fens.

The fire had become embers as I left the village, the pyre reduced to ash, bright pinpricks of smouldering wood all that remained. There was light in the sky too, dawn breaking over the reed banks and slow waters as I went back the way I’d come. The creatures had not returned in the night, and as the village fell away behind me, there was no sign of them. 

I didn’t know why I’d survived. That’s what I told myself, but inside there was a seed, an infection of the mind, if not the soul. I could feel it germinating already, tendrils undermining my defiance and working against my denial. I would always be one of them, and that knowledge was as much of a legacy as the mutations I carried. My mother had been right; the hearth-stealers wouldn’t hurt one of their own. My lip curled a little at the thought. 

The air was a cold whistle over the irregular surface of the road, and in the distance animals called to each other just as they had the day before.  I pulled my coat closed and stuffed my hands into the pockets, my fingers grasping at the headscarf I’d let go into the mud the previous evening. I pulled it out, studying the mottled mauve of my hands.

‘Poor circulation,’ I said and laughed, low and bitter.

I reached up and tied the scarf in place, pushing it down so it covered my head, and put my hands back in the pockets of my coat. I thought about stopping and taking a final look at the village, perhaps to store the sight of it away as a memory. 

For a moment I paused, then put my head down and carried on.

About the Author

Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.