Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Story excerpt.

In response to the writer's block post from yesterday, here's a couple chunks of raw content hammered out this morning. Be warned, it's pretty rough.

It began the year Jeremiah got shot.

The caravan had ventured a little too close to the edge of the void that year, and Jeremiah had paid the tax. The story of how he fell was legendary -- his bike skidding just an inch over the pale chalk line at the edge of the Old Road, but the rules had no room for argument. He'd been showboating for one of the young Esmereldas, trying to catch her eye, and maybe a little something more later besides, and so he'd pushed the bke to its limits. Bikes don't appreciate being mistreated -- the growl in the lowest registers, the deep-throated roar of protest when a throttle's opened up just wrong... All of these are warnings, the kind that Jeremiah always ignored, and this time the bike had had enough. Jeremiah made the bike whine, made it scream, and when he threw it around and so it would drop and spin and skid to a curving stop in a shower of sparks and fireworks, the bike put its own foot down. The bikes know the Roads -- that's why we pass them down from generation to generation with fear and reverence and honor and respect. We don't bequeath our bikes to our sons, we entrust our sons to the bikes. If we have enough of a good thing going, the bike will take the boy under its wing, so to speak, and whisper to him the rules, teach him how to move through the world with grace and glory. break that bond, and you yourself get broken. The bike knew exactly where the chalk line was drawn, and it subtle engineering planted the edge of its tire just an inch, a single solitary fatal inch, over the line at the end of Jeremiah's performance.

The result was instantaneous. Jeremiah didn't even realize what had happened -- he'd locked green eyes with the prettiest of the Esmereldas -- Tom Snyder's daughter, I think it was -- and he was grinning that big dumb grin that the girls never seemed to grow tired of, when the bolt came. He never saw it coming -- it came crackling out of the void like a lightening bolt from a cloud, a burst of that horrible pale balefire erupting from the darkness, illuminating the old runes on the side of the Road for a split second before pouring itself into the small of Jeremiah's back. There was a flash, and a crack as all of Jeremiah's joints suddenly lock straight still, and the choked gurgle as all the breath in his chest turned into something else. Some say the smell was sulfur, others say it was ozone, and still others say it was nothing that complex, just the smell of the boy cooking. His hair caught fire and his skin blackened, just as usual, but it was what came next that was odd. As the boy collapsed onto the Road and Snyder's girl began to scream, as the old hands moved forward to collect the bike and the corpse, in that order, all these rituals were thrown off by the sudden clear, crisp peal of a bell.

It was a perfect chime, ringing as if a giant godlike finger had just tapped some cosmic wine glass. There was the single note, and then nothing for a long minute. We all stood stock still, not daring to move, or even breathe. In all our years of dealing with the void, this was something new. New was bad.

At last we dared to move again, and of course the first things to move were our eyes. As slowly and quietly as we could, the entire tribe turned to look at the void. It hung there the same as it had a minute ago, a velvety black curtain of nothingness tracing the edge of the Old Road, dangling a few feet beyond the chalk line. Many children had died trying to reach out and touch the curtain, wondering what its strangeness would feel like against their fingertips; the instant their hands crossed over the chalk line there would be a flash, a crack, a smell and a tiny body. Never before, though, had there been the peal of a bell.

Also, never before had the curtain shimmered.

Even back then my eyesight had already begun to fade, so I had to squint and peer to see it, but I could hear the others drawing sharp breaths as they saw it. The void was usually as still and unmoving as a wall of obsidian, starting in a perfect line in the dirt and stretching all the way up into the sky and out of sight. This time, though, it shimmered and shook as if it were made of water, and a cool breeze was blowing across its face. Only there was no breeze, no wind at all, and the void was made of nothing so humble as water. Still, though, there it was – shimmering, rippling, almost undulating in midair. It reminded me of a dance I’d seen a young Esmerelda do when I was a boy, still too young for a bike of my own, and the effect then was just as hypnotic as it was now. I could not tear my eyes away from it.

I wish now that I had, for then I would not have seen what came next. The old hand nearest to Jeremiah’s fallen body, a brave old lunatic named Ruskin Hearne, dared to move more than just his eyes. He took a step forward, edging a little closer to the void but still staying well back of the chalk line. His face was pale, his hands were shaking, but he was still the bravest among us – and so did not deserve what the gods had waiting for him.

Ruskin broke no law. He crossed no line. But still the bolt came for him.

Just as with Jeremiah, there was a bright flash as the jagged bolt exploded from the void, arcing through the air and straight into Ruskin’s chest. His body immediately snapped backward, his spine jerking ramrod-straight and then nearly doubling back on itself as the bolt coursed through his body. There was the gurgle, and the choke, and smell, and finally the bell again – only this time, the entire caravan began to scream.

When the rules are broken, when all bets are off, what else can you do?

The next heartbeat was chaos. All of us turned and fled, either on foot, on bike or on wagon. The bike and the corpses were left on the road, forgotten in our need to get away. It’s a damn good thing we did, too – whatever malignant force had decided it was tired of obeying the rules was still thirsty for our blood. A third bolt erupted from the void, this time narrowly missing the shoulder of little Richie Grey, being hauled off in his mother’s arms as quickly as she could run. The bolt cut close enough that it singed his hair, and the wee boy began to howl. I could not blame him. A fourth bolt followed, as did a fifth – both of these were impotent and flashed out without striking a target, but the sixth struck Stephen Marshall full in the back of his head as he ran, and the bright flash of the bolt was prolonged by the sudden firelight from the man’s ignited hair.

Mercifully, Stephen was the last of us to fall. More bolts came from the darkness, but the caravan had retreated out of range. The void now shimmered with greater urgency, throbbing and pulsing and waving like the body of some great endless adder. Stephen’s wife was wailing and howling, making to run to her fallen husband but being held back by three young men fighting the fight of their lives. The warriors among us had their weapons unsheathed and unholstered, snarling impotently at the void. What could they do? You cannot shoot the void, cannot kill it any more than one could shoot and kill the night. They ached to try, but the wisdom of the tribe held.

Of course, the tribe knew so many things – or at least thought it did. We’d already seen two of our wise old rules broken in a handful of heartbeats, and it was little Sally Gray that spotted the third. She stood beside her mother, peeking out from behind the woman’s dress, staring wide eyed at the void and chattering in her high-pitched, terrified voice. The child pointed and tugged at her mother’s skirts. The woman reached down to shush her, but then heard what her baby was saying. The woman’s head snapped up, her eyes widened and she began to wail and point herself.

The void was moving.

The curtain of darkness was starting to sweep forward. Its black lip had already moved across the ground and was sweeping over the chalk stripe. A moment later the chalk stripe was gone, disappeared beneath the black cloak, and then it was inching toward the bodies of Jeremiah and Ruskin… Then it was on them, and then the horror was renewed – when the darkness touched the bodies, already blackened and charred from the bolts, they burst into flame. The light was reflected in the void as it engulfed them, making it look like nothing so much as a moving wall of thick black oil, but the flames disappeared into it with no resistance. Another moment and the flaming corpses were gone, completely engulfed – but by that point the caravan was no longer watching. By then we were moving again, screaming and fleeing as quickly as we could move, but to where we could not say.

Where do you go when darkness begins to move?

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