VigilBy: Craig Saunders
First of all, I'd like to note that I have taken huge, towering liberties with history, science, culture...well, everything, throughout this novel. It is entirely intentional, and nobody's fault but mine.
Secondly, a massive thank you to Suzanne Delaney for the great work in editing this beast.
Third, thanks to Richard Rhys Jones and David Conyers.
Lastly, as always, this is for Sim.
He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am.
The Gospel of Thomas
The Present (1)
The Parisian Countryside
Year Zero: Apocalypse
A cold wind blows in from the west. It blows from the English Channel, across ploughed fields and through the city. It carries the sea and a feel of the French countryside, fragrant brown earth and bitter stones. It brings with it all the tastes and smells and textures of the world that was. But also, in that gusting, chill wind, a taste of things to come.
Fire and blood and black rain.
A chateau stands in the last gasp of sunset. It sprawls across the landscape. Two floors of white walls. Leaded windows in dark wood frames. The first floor is hidden behind a long expanse of wall, as white as the house. The outside of the wall has been cleared of brush and grass and trees. The surrounding countryside is flat and bare.
In the distance behind the house, the lights of the closest village brighten against the rising night.
A man, dishevelled, stands before the gates. His head is poised, his legs slightly bent, like he’s prepared to run. He turns his head toward the night that rises from the east. The chateau’s white walls take on the fading glow of the setting sun, the colour of sullied gold, then the illusion passes and the man is left standing before gates held fast only by a ghostly wall rising from the black earth. Nothing gold remains.
The man’s face is a map of scars, each line a road drawn from pain. His features are still clear despite the scarring. His nose is long and noble. His cheeks are just slashes of bone, pushing against pale skin. He looks as though he has never eaten, and if he did, it was so long ago that his body has forgotten the taste of food.
A fierce light burns in his dark eyes. They twinkle and darkle as the light laces through their deep shadowy sockets.
He doesn’t feel the bitter cold seeping from the earth. His feet are muddy, leading to pale white flesh of an unclad ankle, scars visible even there, ghostly in the dusk’s late light. His trousers are torn.
He takes a deep breath, like a man getting ready for a hard and dirty task. Favouring his left leg noticeably, the limp doesn’t stop him leaping to the top of the wall and balancing there like a bird perched on a telephone wire.
He listens to heavy-booted footfalls and an accompanying clack-clack-clack of a dog’s nails on the paving surrounding the chateau. The last of the light fades outside the walls, but inside, the artificial glow of security lights set around the chateau light every dark corner in their unforgiving glare. But this section of the wall is in darkness. It is a long time since he was last here, but he remembers it well enough.
Silently, the man pulls his long coat around him to stop it flapping in the cold wind.
A guard and a dog on a leash round the corner, walking calmly. The guard wears a stab vest, blue in the hard lights. He carries a baton but the dog is the only weapon he needs.
The guard is ignorant of the intruder. Then the man drops on him from above. With a hand held like a claw and power unhinted at in his narrow shoulders, he swipes the guard’s throat and tears through the windpipe. The guard’s scream whistles, the sound blanketed with blood.
Before the man can silence the dog in the same way, it snarls and takes a lump of flesh from his arm along with some of the threadbare coat. The man in the dark coat drops to one knee, bringing the dog down with him, and sinks his teeth into the dog’s neck. He rips fur and spine free with his teeth and spits. It is the first sound he has made. The grimace he makes is for the taste of the dog, not the pain.
The dog’s grip does not slacken. The man pries the dead jaws from his forearm without complaint.
Now the risk of discovery is greater. He is bathed in light.
Time began with that first impotent cry from the guard’s burbling throat. The man in the coat breaks into a run, limp barely evident now, and lowers his shoulder. He crashes through the door to the guard house. The second guard, far too slow, leaps from his seat and tries to reach a gun by his side, but the scarred man is faster. Much faster.