Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

Today I have been thinking about genre in fiction. Not the nature of genre, its benefits and limitations as a means of categorisation, or the merits or lack thereof with regards to so-called literary fiction, but rather, what it means to me personally. Specifically with regard to the principal categories of speculative fiction (SF), namely: science fiction, fantasy, and horror; what I see as being the core elements of these labels, and what I like and dislike about them. I have also been thinking about crime fiction, but I’ll write about that another time.

There have been many arguments put forward about the nature of genre categorisations and the various ways in which they overlap and fertilise one another. There is a great deal of deliberate hybridisation and deconstruction of the boundaries of genre. It is not my wish to add further to this discussion at this point or to deny the imprecise and nebulous nature of genre tags. As I say, I’ve just been thinking about the (slightly bizarre) way the essence of these various genres translate to me. And why I might choose to explore, whether as a writer or reader, a particular area.

Now, anybody that knows me will know that horror is the genre I am drawn to explore most fully. It is my first love, in fiction terms, and I’ve read far more horror than any other genre. It is also the genre which forms the backbone of my own writing. I don’t agree with those who take the view that horror is simply a tone which can be applied to any work of fiction. That it is not a genre, but a stylistic or thematic tool defined by the intention to provoke, fear, dread or terror. I think it is those things, and that, yes, any work of fiction can have these “horror” elements, but I think to look at it solely in these terms is to disregard the fact that it has acquired the trappings of a genre, with convention, and history, and tropes that can be grouped together. And if we are to say that horror is not a genre on this basis, then we can say science fiction is not a genre, but just the application or exploration of science or scientific thinking in fiction form. And so on. So, if we accept there is something we might recognisably call the horror genre, then what is it? For some it is fiction about vampires or zombies, for others it is ghost stories and Gothic fables; some will see it as slasher fiction, with much gore and violence. I don’t know precisely what horror fiction is. I have some understanding of what it is in a historical sense; its relationship to and evolution from the Gothic tradition, and of the various arguments about its nature. But really, I only know what it is for me. Before I go further, I should say, I have a very ambivalent relationship with the term horror, because many of the things that might commonly be assumed to be at the core of horror fiction, I don’t much like or care for — juvenile tales of exploitative (often sexualised) violence, for one. And fiction defined purely by its intention to gross out the reader, for another.

Horror fiction for me is firstly and foremost the fiction of that which is hidden. Almost always with some accompanying aspect of, yes — fear, dread or terror. Certainly with unease. Disquiet. What if that which should properly stay buried finds a way to surface? What if we uncover that which is hidden, and the truth is more than we can handle? But it is this element of concealment that is more central to me than the fear element. It is really a sub-categorisation of mystery fiction in my mind. Allow me to divulge the weird (and let’s not enter into the murky world of weird fiction, and its various categorisations…) nature of my thinking.

I have been involved in various ways over the years with the study of shamanism (another term we could have a very long discussion about) and one of the things that is central to much of the material on shamanism, broadly speaking, is the idea of a tripartite cosmos; a middle world (this one, our earthly realm), an upper world (heaven or heavens, usually layered), and a lower or underworld (a chthonic realm of ancestors, the dead, etc). We could also simply say, Heaven, Earth, and Hell, or we might say, if we are that way inclined, superconscious, conscious, and subconscious and/or unconscious minds. You get the idea.

Now, because my brain is weird, it goes: aha! Horror — the fiction of the underworld. Hades’ scribblings. The stuff that looks at all those things buried away or that we would prefer were buried away. Things that we may obsess over, but that except in comfortable doses for a “thrill,” we prefer to keep at arms-length. Things that are not to be discussed in polite company. Stuff like death. And nasty secrets. And vampires that want to drink our blood (unless we think this is sexy, which — oh boy — is definitely a whole other conversation). Sex, though; that’s definitely there in various ways. There’s the whole Eros/Thanatos thing for a start. Not to mention that sex can involve, for various reasons, a lot of hiding away out of fear, and a lot of secrets we would like to see buried. And these are the things that I like about horror. This is what interests me, and what I seek out in the horror I read, and also why I am interested in writing, primarily, in a broadly horror framework. Because, basically, I find rummaging around in the dark caverns of the psyche fascinating. To my mind, no genre is better placed than horror to explore the hidden elements of society. At its best it can be deeply insightful, satisfyingly philosophical, and bloody unnerving to boot. What’s not to love? Well as I’ve already said, the element that sees the idea of horror as being all about the gore, or the adolescent shock aspects, but otherwise it’s all good (or bad. Whatever).

In the same vein, I see science fiction as being very much the fiction of this world. By which I mean the middle sphere (yeah, I know Middle-Earth comes under fantasy, smart arse), not just Earth. The entire manifest universe (or universes) is the middle world. Jupiter is part of the middle world in shamanic cosmology just as much as Earth, so is Alpha Centauri. Although the planets and stars are taken as a symbol of the upper world (we’ll get to the heavens and upper world in a minute). All that exists in the physical realm as we understand it is of the middle world in shamanic thought. And I say science fiction is the fiction of the middle world because I see it as about ideas (as is all speculative fiction) explored through the lens of scientific application, even if those ideas venture into the metaphysical. In other words, scientific methodology operates in a philosophically materialist framework; fiction that has as its basis the exploration of ideas, themes, or outcomes utilising the tools or framework of scientific methodology is materialist fiction. Ergo, its middle world fiction. And so, contrary to the ideas of many *waves at Margaret Atwood*, it’s also a kind of realist fiction in my mind.

Which means (I know, big surprise and shit) fantasy must be the fiction of the upper world(s). Mmm. The Jungian types reading this may well (quite legitimately), say, hang on there, fantasy is mythic fiction most often, and myth is the realm of the collective unconscious, archetypes and all that do-dah. I would agree. I’m nodding with you vigorously right now. But, but, BUT… the unconscious is the underworld, right? Isn’t that what you said? Indeed *strokes beard sagely* I did say that. At this point I could explore the way in which the deepest level of the underworld, and the uppermost heaven, wrap around and touch each other (in a purely platonic fashion, you understand – hand-holding at best); a kind of, the deeper inside you go, the further outside you go, thingy. But that’s just going to take us to a whole other level, let’s stick to the basics. Fantasy is in my mind primarily the fiction of myth and archetype. But myth serves principally as moral instruction. When Socrates and Plato got a little irritated with the endless repetition of the various stories about the goings-on among the Greek Gods, and announced, it’s all MYTH – god(s)dammit, they were not, as some thought, saying the Gods are not real. They were, rather like Buddha in relation to the Hindu Gods, saying their reality or non-reality is irrelevant, what is relevant is what we perceive to be true without questioning. What is the source of the stories we are told? And how does that influence our values, our behaviour, our choices, etc. It was about moral instruction, and the questioning or lack therof. It was about the quest for truth. Which is the realm of heaven, of the gods, and of myth. And because of the transcendent universal nature of truth as an absolute (as opposed to relative truth), not limited to the archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious, but expanded into the realms of the superconscious; an exalted state, enlightenment if you will, which it could be said is the ultimate goal and purpose of (true) moral instruction. All of which again exists in shamanic terms in the upper world, that is to say it is accessed via the upper world, and in fiction terms, in my weird bonce, in the realm of fantasy.

So there you have it. A little strange, I know, but when I look at the three core genres of speculative fiction, I see horror as exploring the hidden psychological underworld, and the fear associated with that; I see sci-fi as exploring the ideas of where our thinking in scientific terms might lead us in this world and beyond, and I see fantasy as exploring the mythic moral landscape. There is in truth a lot more nuance and ifs, buts, wheretofores, whys, and maybes, than this piece would suggest, but by linking the core SF genres to my understanding of the three worlds of shamanic cosmology, I have a kind of shamanic mind map that I use to explore genre.

©Jasonbaki 2015

The old tree groaned.

Perhaps in the knowledge it would soon be an accomplice to murder.

The victim, hands and feet bound, squirmed, struggled, and made panicked noises from behind a tight-fitting gag. The others sat him down at the base of the tree. One of them, the largest, out of breath from the effort it had taken to carry him, pulled the victim’s legs towards himself and then threaded them under the arch of a thick outgrowing root. A green pointed boot came away in his hand. He considered pushing it back onto the foot from which it had escaped but decided to toss it aside instead.

“Aw! He’s lost a boot. And look his ear on the left side has nearly come off,” he said to nobody in particular.

“You got the rope?” Said another. This one tall, and thin even with the black hooded robe he wore. He was addressing the third member of their amateur cabal.

“Yeah I got the rope, but I’m not climbing the tree, so you had better be good at tying knots.”

“Just give me the rope.”

“It will soon be dark.” It was the large one again, his breathing beginning to steady. He was looking at the cloudless and reddening sky.

“This had better work or we’re deep in it,” said the third, handing the rope to the tall one.

Royce, by unspoken consent their leader, seized the rope impatiently. “It will work. Why wouldn’t it? I know they come here, I’ve seen them.” He gathered the rope together with growing glee, and smirking widely, showed it to the one whose neck would soon wear it. The victim looked away.

“Just because you’ve seen them it doesn’t mean they’re going to respond. And even if they do respond it might not be in the way we expect.”  He was staring at the grass covered mounds on the hillside. His name was Hugh. He spoke with the same soft Welsh accent that had echoed through those valleys for generations.

“They’ll come, and they’ll respond as we expect. Just shut up.” Royce set the gathered rope on the ground and clambered out of his robe. He was wearing a dark t-shirt with a Celtic Knot design on it, faded jeans, and hiking boots. “You boys had better get your robes out of the bag as well.” He surveyed the tree looking for the best spot from which to begin his climb, and for the best place to fasten the rope.

“You know, we probably don’t need the props,” said the larger one. Raymond was his name, but they called him Redmond on account of his hair colour. “I mean, if this is going to work the way we think, all they really care about is the sacrifice.” He was studying the back of Royce who had now moved to the base of the tree and was testing for hand-holds.

“We need to do it the way it has always been done, and the book said they had pointy ears like an elf, and green clothing, and the others wore black hooded robes. Therefore we got the black robes and Harry has the elf costume.”

Harry, meanwhile, struggled trying to bring his feet out from under the root of the tree.  He was tired, and his struggles were weak. He had been drugged earlier and was still groggy. He leaned back against the base of the tree shutting his eyes as his head began to swirl.

“I never knew I’d end up being one of those insane murderer types you read about,” Hugh Said. He was still looking in the direction of the mounds. The sun was setting behind them, its red-orange glow a dying halo of contrasting colour against the lush green covering of the mounds.  “The weird thing is, I feel normal. I always imagined that if I went insane I’d at least feel different, even if I thought I was sane. Now I think I’m insane, but I feel…”

“Just shut the hell up will you. I’m trying to concentrate. Anyway, it’s not murder. It’s different,” Royce said. He was now a little way up the tree and poised above Harry who had sloped backwards, his eyes closed.

Harry began to hum. The sound clear despite his gag.

Ignoring Harry, Royce said, “I’ll need you to pass me up the rope in a second.”

Harry’s humming grew noticeably louder.

“What’s going on with him?” Redmond crouched a little and peered at his former friend. “He’s humming a tune, and he looks all delirious and happy. Sort of.”

Royce sat himself on the base of a thick branch which seemed ideal for the purpose he intended. “Leave him be, Redmond. It’s just his way of coping. Better he’s humming than bloody well screaming.”  Royce tested the branch, it seemed sturdy enough. “Pass me the rope.”

Hugh turned around and trundled to where Royce had put the rope. “We’re all completely insane.” He mumbled to himself.

Royce edged forward and took the rope from Hugh who held it out somewhat reluctantly. Hugh had his eyes on Royce, but his ears were listening to Harry. He started to feel light-headed.

Royce bagan tying the rope around the branch. A rising wind raised more murmurs from the tree as he did so. Royce fixed his attention on making good the knot. He did not notice Hugh and Redmond fall to the ground.

“Right, I think that should do the trick.” He gave the rope a tug — it held. “Excellent.”

Royce looked down to where his friends had been standing and were now splayed on the ground. His self-satisfied smile quickly replaced first by surprise and then anxiety.

“What the hell?” He said.

Harry was swaying now, rocking back against the trunk of the tree, and smiling visibly, his teeth biting loosely on the gag. The tune he was humming undulated high and low in time with his swaying.

“Now’s not the time to piss about guys,” Royce said, but he knew Hugh and Redmond were not the kind for such impromptu humour.

He began to edge backwards down the branch towards the trunk of the tree, and as he did his head began to spin. He managed to back up far enough to position himself once again just above Harry, before he fell and landed unconscious on top of his intended victim.

Harry didn’t feel any pain when Royce fell on top of him, even though the bulk of Royce’s rump dropped onto his waist and smashed him into the knotted base of the tree. He was elsewhere, lost in song, and focused on the figures calling from the twilight. One of them, slender to the point of being skeletal, walked towards him.  It was a curious movement, both graceful and jerky; a display of harsh angles and bony edges. Then a pallid face with thin lips and large black eyes appeared before him. It spoke and Harry heard the words faster than those stretched lips formed them.

“Why do you mock us?”  It said in an aged voice. “After all these years, you still have nothing better to do than taunt us?”

Harry couldn’t count how many figures were now before him, but it seemed like a dozen at least. He had stopped his humming. Fear was upon him, and pain from where Royce had landed on him. He tried to back up and felt something jagged dig against his back.

“I’m sorry.” He mumbled from behind the gag. “Don’t hurt me.”

The pale face withdrew a little, and the strange figure stood upright. It was tall. Harry couldn’t determine its gender from appearance alone, but its voice had been masculine. It appeared to be naked, but Harry’s vision was blurred and he could see no genitalia on display. The creature looked at Harry’s fallen captors.

“They brought you here?”

Harry nodded.

“To mock us.”

Harry shook his head.

The creature was in Harry’s face again. It smelled like dank earth. It raised a hand and slashed at him with midnight edged fingers. He winced and drew his head back, banging it against the tree. The gag fell away from his cheek on one side.

“Speak,” it said.

Harry regained his composure and shook his head vigorously to dislodge the gag from his mouth. He felt dizzy, and a warm trickle on his cheek.

“Speak,” it said again, withdrawing slightly.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“The truth.”

“We were friends. At least I thought we were friends. We played games together. You know, fantasy games. Not sex… Um. I mean like board games about fantasy things. Except we didn’t use a board really, either….”  He paused to test for a reaction, but was greeted only with silence.  “Anyway, we’ve been playing for a few years, met online, through a computer. You know. Do you know…?

The creature stared.

“It was good, but Royce was always into the fantasy thing a bit too much. He got lucky and found this apparently rare book after hunting for information about fairies. It had rituals in it that supposedly called the fairy folk. I thought he was nuts. But I guess I should have taken him more seriously. He told the others that if they did this one ritual, which required a sacrifice, the spirits, elves, would come and grant him great powers or immortality. He convinced them it wasn’t a real sacrifice as the elves would only take the victim to their world. I’m not sure actually how convinced the others really were, but I guess they were convinced enough. All along when I heard them mention stuff about it, I thought they’d get over it. They asked me to help find a suitable victim. I told them to grow up. They then decided I would have to do – I guess. Fuck. Royce said he came out here one night and saw elves. I’m thinking now that maybe he was telling the truth.”

The creature nodded, and sat itself down in front of Harry.

“Once we lived above ground as you do,” it began; “it was a battle, fought long ago, that forced us to retreat into the hills. Nevertheless people remembered us. They remembered what we had taught them. And they respected us. Back then we did not look as we do now, but the passing of time and the hatred of humanity has not been kind to us.”

Harry leaned back and listened, relaxing a little.

“Eventually the respect and reverence your folk once held for us was replaced by fear, and then some sought to make for themselves a name by seeking us out. They found ways to harm us, and to ward against our crafts, especially as we were weakened. They would hang us from the trees like your friends attempted with you, with chains made of hurtful metal, and our bodies smeared with painful pigment. They would mock us, and taunt us, and dare us to confront them.  In time we learned to stay away. To withdraw completely form the world of men. Humanity had become dangerous and demented, and there was no reasoning with men or their new found ideas. Thankfully, after some time they forgot about us. Eventually even their theatrical rituals invented to mimic and celebrate our suffering faded into memory. And now you come along. Unfortunately for you, after all this time we’re finally tired of hiding.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. And he meant it.

“Your remorse is not enough.”

“But I didn’t want any of this. They were going to hang me.”

“For hundreds of years we have hid from the surface because of the actions of your kind, do you really think your regret is of any consequence?”  The creature inched forward to peer into Harry’s eyes, its own dark eyes slickened with the appearance of an oily film.

“You cannot be allowed to live. You are a threat to us. We will announce our return to the world on our own terms.  Humans cannot be given opportunity to muster their strength against us.  I must tell you, in our exile we have grown hungry, as all of nature is now hungry from your actions. Even the tree is hungry. Can you not hear how it calls for your life?  This land has been stained by the actions of your people against us, and now only the life essence of the despoilers will remove that stain. Will revivify that which has wizened and stupefied. We intend to bring back vitality. To bring ourselves back to vitality. But you should know, in the past we never once required any sacrifice.”

“Please…”

Harry saw several of the figures beyond the one he had been talking to begin to close in on him. Then his mind began to spin, and a smile formed on his lips. He began to hum.  The aches and pain in his body subsided. He closed his eyes. He did not see Hugh and Redmond disappear down the hillside towards the mounds, dragged by shadows into darkness. He did not hear the sound of bone and flesh being rendered, or the last flashes of reflected sunset on the obsidian blade as it tore into the architect of his capture.  He did not feel the warm spray of Royce’s blood as it splashed across his face and stained his comic attire.  He saw and felt nothing. He heard only the enchanting melody that filled his mind and escaped his lips. He did not even feel the rope tighten around his neck. He certainly did not feel the breeze as he swayed back and forth.

I am lying in the dark deep underground. There is cold stone beneath me, jagged in places, and damp. I have become strangely comforted by the pain it causes as its ridges knead my near naked flesh. I am here against my will — what remains of it at least — forced into servitude, along with everyone else in this subterranean complex. I don’t recall exactly how I came to be here. I have only vague memories of a life before. Perhaps they are dreams. If ever there was a reality other than this, I know it now only as an idealistic yearning. If somehow I got from there to here, well, I think I probably just slipped and fell.

I’m not alone. The Tyrant — original, I know, but how else am I to think of him? — has enslaved many of us here. Mostly those imprisoned are children and young adults it seems. Now I come to it, I see very few actual adults. When I see anything at all that is. Some of these others serve him. Some, it seems, even do so willingly. I knew myself that if ever I was to find a way out then I must become one of those that serve. So I did. I have learned to play the game.

I can hear laboured breathing nearby, and an occasional suppressed cough. I wish those others were closer so that I might share the warmth of human contact. Many lay around the cavern floor as I do. Those less fortunate are locked in drawers held under large beds upon which none may sleep. More still are confined in cupboards. Of the transgressors, these are the lucky ones.

A heavy door scrapes open, followed by the widening glare of a harsh light. When my eyes adjust I am staring at a pair of booted feet, their dark shine just an inch from my face. They crunch on the gravelly stone floor. I can smell leather, and in my thoughts I equate it with power.

“Get up!” The voice is young, and lacks the authority I had conjured in my mind.

I strain my neck and let my eyes absorb the stark beauty of the crisp red and black uniform, and of the boy within struggling to invoke the presence it requires. I do as I am commanded. Afflicted by a dull ache in my joints, I wince. The boy needles me with a scornful glare, visible even in the gloom. Beyond his outline, I see the huddled shapes of the others scattered about the room. The boy in the uniform must only be fourteen or thereabouts. Lying here with this child stood over me it all seems so ridiculous. I could overpower him easily. But then I know there are more like him waiting outside the room – child soldiers, with guns, and other more frightening weapons.

I too have a uniform of red and black. The boy offers it to me now, a command in his eyes. I nod assent, stand, and take it from him. He watches me intently but impassively as I dress myself, then when I’m done he nods and points at the door behind.

Mostly I perform a dull routine of sentry duty watching over others in the same position I myself had occupied only a little while previously. Others who have fallen through a similar gap and who have disappeared from view. On account of my service I have been given access to new areas. Mostly corridors of metal – part of a facility that adjoins the more natural cavern network I was already familiar with, and where I still spend my nights. There are many places I’m not allowed access to, of course. I’m new and not yet fully trusted. I still have a way to go to prove my worth. To earn my metaphorical spurs.

I stand in front of a locker in a corridor walled by them, thinking of spurs for my boots. I recall the smell of leather and polish from the boy’s shiny footwear a moment ago. These days I have become accustomed to the smell of my own boots. But not today it seems. Today for some reason I cannot find them. I was certain I had placed them in my locker.

An alarm sounds. The metallic sheen of this part of the complex is suddenly bathed in a pulsating red glow, the rows of lockers all reflecting it eagerly. Have I forgotten my intention to escape this place? I am reminded now that I have to find a way out, even though I wonder if such a way exists. And now something has caused alarms to sound and there is a flurry of activity. Red and black clad men, adult men it seems, surprisingly, running to and fro in a panic. I should join them, but I can’t find my boots.

Someone approaches. A captain according to his armband.

“What are you doing? Get moving,” he shouts, spraying spittle in my face.

“I can’t find my boots,” I say, and suddenly it seems like the most profound thing I’ve ever said. As if somehow it explains all my lack of agency, all my meandering, all my despair. He glares at me and I can feel the disgust with which he regards me, as if my very existence blights his world.

“Then hurry up and find them,” he says, finally.

I don’t find them. I don’t even bother looking for them. I decide to make use of the commotion to search for a way out. I pause to gather my thoughts, standing barefoot on the hard floor of that long corridor, with its unmarked metallic walls and metal ceiling tiles, and I bathe in the red glow of the sentry lights that abound within it like so many angry pulsing stars.

The place is a maze. I’m not sure where to even begin looking for a way out. I’ve also noticed that the red lights aren’t the only things embedded in the ceiling, several little black turrets have appeared in places, and they rotate silently in line with my movements. Unsurprisingly they make me nervous.

I have no idea where to go. Uncertain what else to do I try to find the centre of the complex. Or a centre. I figure if I follow the direction from which the captain came I may at least find a barracks or something. It may seem strange to seek out the centre, but then the sentries have dispersed to… actually, I don’t know. Outside? The periphery? I could be wrong but I’m thinking probably not the centre. Maybe I’ll learn something important. If it comes to it I can say I’m lost.

Eventually I find myself in a long corridor, wider than the others, but otherwise just as featureless. It terminates at a set of double steel doors. Closed. No obvious sign of how to open them. I push. Nothing. What now? I lean with my back against the doors and sink a little towards the cold floor. It is silent in this section apart from the alarm. I place my ear to the door, half expecting the doors to swing open and dump me unceremoniously at the feet of some angry general or perhaps even The Tyrant himself. Nothing. Perhaps it would have been better to follow the others to the source of the disruption. A little way back in the direction from which I have just come another corridor leads off from the one I’m in, not as wide by the look of it, nor as brightly lit. I hadn’t noticed it until now. I take it. Not a huge amount of options otherwise. It is significantly darker, actually, and it opens out after a tense fumbling trek that seems to last an age, into a room. A very large room. Although somehow smaller for the presence that resides within.

“I’m sorry it has taken a little time for us to become acquainted,” says the presence. “The nature of the operation here requires a certain level of discretion. I’m sure you understand. Honestly, not many find their way to me. And it’s not necessary for the day to day running of things for my person to be made known to all. In fact it would be a great hindrance. But I recognised from the start that you and I would meet. Every now and then someone finds a way, and I sense them when they draw near. I think of it as a gift of intuition,” she says, tucking errant hair into a purple turban.

A pause. The woman removes a cigarette from somewhere inside the scarlet dress (robes?) that drapes her ample form, and ignites it on a nearby candle. One of the many candles that adorn the room. Odd that this room in the centre of a facility of cold metal and tracking turrets should be decked with candles. Odd as well that the candle is placed upon what looks like a cash register. And now I see that the room is full of those too, of different designs and styles from modern to vintage, each with a candle on top. The woman continues, “I won’t offer you a smoke, I don’t want to encourage you.” Then she winks at me, and behind an issuing cloud I catch sight of a smile. I really wish that I had not. The woman takes another drag of her cigarette, and as she does gold bangles, baubles, and bracelets of various kinds jangle on her wrist and arm. In her left hand she has what looks like a wine goblet, also of gold. She sips from it and it seems to darken the rouge of her lips.

“So, getting back to the advent of this encounter, what usually happens now in these situations is we agree on a way forward. There are always roles to fill for the willing.”

My mind is turning with questions, but I can’t gather enough cohesion to formulate any that would make sense. I am hovering on the precipice of a profound revelation, grasping mentally to secure it, but I am confronted by shadow, and fear, and inertia.

“I can’t find my boots,” I say.

“I know, honey. It’s okay. That’s not important now,” she says. And the cigarette flares once more.

I have apparently been given special privileges. There is a house – an understatement, a sprawling mansion – and I have been given permission to leave the subterranean complex to serve in this house under the charge of the most trusted servants. I am now being shown the run down and poorly lit living quarters by a pack of ragged looking young men. No sharp uniforms here I note. Several of them have taken hold of chunky iron rings and are straining to pull out a large wooden pallet like box to which the rings are attached from under a massive, and what I assume must be communal, bed. The servants lift the lid off the box and inside among some straw, and some unpleasant smelling detritus of indeterminable nature, are three young men bound hand and foot. They are also gagged, and apparently unconscious.

“They are kept stored like this throughout the house,” says one of the pack. “If the ones in your section have been taken out for any reason then you need to make sure they are put away before you sleep. Depending on what they’ve been used for you may need to clean them up. Most likely you will. Don’t worry too much if they are missing parts, but if any perish, there are rules regarding disposal which you’ll be told about later. Make sure you obey those, because people get them wrong all the time and it causes untold problems. In the meantime just remember to keep your section tidy. You’ll be paired up with Scotland who will show you the ropes.” His words barely register. I nod.

*****

“Why do they call you Scotland?” I ask.

“How come dae ye think?”

“They said you’ll show me the ropes.”

“Aye.”

He’s thin and pale. His hair is short and dark. Handsome. I feel oddly comfortable in his presence. He has a look in his eyes. An alive look. A rarity among those I’ve encountered in this place. It stirs me in ways I should probably find troubling, but don’t.

“Stay here until I come back. And get some kip,” he says. Sounding a lot less Scottish than a moment ago.

I feel like I’ve been asleep for a very long time, but in reality it was only a few hours. The house is quiet. A warm body sleeps next to me on one side, but on the other side is the edge of the bed. Below me there are thumps and muffled groans. It is dark, but not completely. I cannot tell the source of the ambient light, but I can spot the outline of a door. The one I came in by. That will do. I gather myself together.

Corridors. My existence is blighted by corridors. From the one I’m standing in I can see into a room, a kitchen by the looks of it, in which a young girl stands washing pans. She hasn’t noticed me. It occurs to me that this is the first girl I’ve seen in… I’m suddenly not sure if I’ve seen one before. Here. I mean. I must have seen a girl before. There was the woman only a few hours earlier. The woman at the centre of the underground complex with the cigarette and the smile. The woman in charge. But here now is a girl. Looking wretched. I move on. Probably best if I’m not seen.

The arm that grabs me from behind is lean and strong. A hand muffles my mouth. My right arm is pinned behind me and an elbow pushes into the small of my back, hard, but only enough to drive me forward. I’m led to a landing at the top of some stairs. The arm releases me, and spins me around. Scotland.

“Usually when a person has been given special privileges it is enough for them to settle down. At least for a while. But not you. You have curiosity. A dangerous thing.”

“I need to find a way out. I don’t belong here. I was somewhere else before. I remember. Vaguely, but I remember.” My voice finds some forcefulness, some vim. “I remember,” I say again.

“I don’t doubt you. And neither does she. But you have forgotten one thing. The alarms? Earlier? You found your way out of the routine assigned to you because there was commotion and alarms going off – right?” He does a little bobbing thing with his head.

“Yes, there were alarms and I was supposed to help but I couldn’t find my boots,” I say.

“They weren’t really your boots were they?”

“No.” I look at my bare feet.

“Okay. In brief. You’re not the first one to remember. But, you do seem to have triggered a particularly strong set of reactions. The alarms have been going in the underground for some time. And outside it has been storming relentlessly. She moved you here to placate you, as she always does, she is very accommodating like that. I’m guessing this time it hasn’t worked.”

“How do you know this? You don’t seem particularly placid to me. How is it that you don’t trigger alarms, and storms?”

“I did. I’ve been responsible for some pretty memorable storms. But somehow it wasn’t enough. The timing wasn’t right. And I learned to abide by the rules. I reigned in my nature,” he shrugged.

“She must be pretty stupid if she assigned you to me as a mentor. She must have known there was a risk?” I say.

“It’s been a long time. And who said there was a risk? I’m telling you this, but you have no idea what I’m going to do now I’ve caught you wandering the corridors at night when you should have been sleeping.”

At the top of the next flight of stairs, on a landing there, I catch sight of movement. A prowler. On four legs. I can just about see it, but I don’t believe what I’m seeing. It looks like a large cat. And then it roars.

“Shit,” I say, and make to run. Scotland grabs me by the arm.

“Relax. I told you there were storms. The leopard and the storms they are allied. Its presence is not unfamiliar to us. Whenever the storms appear so does the leopard. Whatever its purpose, it apparently has no intention of harming us.”

“And you?” I say, forcibly jerking my arm out of his grip. “What exactly is your intention?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I intend to claim my freedom.”

The sound of crashing and running echoes up the stairs from below. Something has woken the servants. I can hear shouts, and doors slamming. I look first at Scotland and then back up towards where the leopard was a moment ago. It has gone. I turn again to Scotland, and I see a young face wearied by years of compliance and servitude. But I see fire. Burning still.

“It’s your time too. Or soon will be.” I blurt at him. “This isn’t just about me. And somehow she knows. It’s no coincidence she placed us together. She was probably expecting things to calm down for a while. That you’d placate me long enough for her to figure out what was happening. She hasn’t forgotten the storms of the past, but she doesn’t know what is unfolding around her now. What we remember is outside of her power. This is bigger than her.” I’ve no idea where this stuff is coming from. My brain, like the storm I too can now hear raging outside, is super-charged.

“You think there aren’t rebels in the house? Would-be revolutionaries and factions of every stripe occupy the many levels of this place. It’s not all calm. Controlled. But not calm. None of them know what is really going on or what they would do if their efforts yielded notable success, but they push at things regardless. She obviously knows a lot more than we think. And she laughs at these rebels, who I’m fairly certain serve her, just in a different way. So maybe you are right, but she sees a bigger picture than we do right now,” he says.

“If those rebels serve her then it is probably because she uses them to create confusion. What is real? What is not? Those others don’t remember. We do. And that’s why she is afraid.”

“You didn’t even know about the storms or any rebels until just now and suddenly you can determine what is true in all this? Wow! I’m impressed.”

“No need for sarcasm.” I say, the force of my conviction lost.

“And you’re a better man than me, because honestly, I’ve just got far enough to recognise some of the surprising forms that the lies can take,” he continued, ignoring me.

*****

Scotland let me go. I knew he would. I’m outside, the cold biting against me. My feet, still naked, pound wet earth. Behind me is the mansion. And rising above the walls beyond it I can now see that it is just one of many. I imagine there to be a vast open plain full of these buildings each encircled within their own walled perimeter but linked by an endless network of underground catacombs and tunnels. I stay focused ahead where I can see a crowd of adults gathering in what looks like a driveway. There are double automatic doors positioned across it. They are open but slowly closing. There are servants and guards rushing towards the crowd of people gathered there. Those people look relaxed, indifferent to the frantic and near hysterical behaviour of the young servants, and not to have noticed the guards or the storm. I push on. I can see the leopard is sitting out in the open now. The dark raindrops falling on its fur look as though they are the cause of its spots. The leopard is the storm and the storm is the leopard. In this place the most surreal abstractions make a kind of twisted sense.

Shots are fired. The guards are shooting at the people gathered in front of the double doors. But the bullets are passing though them. And I realise those people aren’t really here. I get it now in one of those eureka type moments as if the lightning has struck me, and contained not surging currents of potentially lethal voltage, but divine inspiration. The storm. The alarms. The outside is crashing in. The wider outside beyond the walls of this place. And I am the reason. But so too is Scotland. In the past perhaps it wasn’t enough when just one remembered. But now there is more than one. Maybe there are others still that I don’t know about.

More bullets. One very close by. I need to be careful. I am still here in this world of the child soldiers with their red and black uniforms. I doubt their bullets will pass through me without harm. But I have nowhere to go. Only forward. My feet are slapping a sodden rhythm. My head is charged by the storm, and thoughts of Scotland, and leopards, and children bound under beds.

A lad rushes past me. He’s making a full-on dash for the gates. He’s from here — young and dressed in the tattered clothing of a slave. I am stirred from my mesmerism by his sudden appearance and bolt after him at full pelt. My mind doesn’t have time to question the whys or hows of his sudden appearance. We both run straight at the assembled crowd of newcomers and panicked servants. The crowd parts, but I suspect they needn’t have. We drive on through, this lad and I, and out of the gates as they are about to close.

In the streets beyond there are many puzzled faces. A few have stopped to look at the gates of the complex as they close, as though noticing them for the first time. A sign on the gates, made of red lettering enclosed within a red circle, reads: Cult II. From this side the gates look like they belong to an abandoned warehouse. I am in the outside world. Home? Free? I realise immediately and instinctively that the existence of The Tyrant and the world I have just left is completely obscured from sight here. The people going about their business are ignorant, but they are not unaffected. These worlds connect. One creates the other and vice versa.

The lad who came through the door with me is lying outside of the gates on the pavement, apparently asleep. In his soiled and ruined clothing he looks like any of the young homeless people you see on the streets in the big city. And in that I have perhaps the first truly lucid moment of recognition regarding my own life. Few pay the lad any mind. Although a small crowd are standing around looking disoriented and vague as if afflicted for a brief moment by spirit possession or alien interference. I wonder if when he awakens the boy will remember as I do. His was a lucky escape it would seem. A desperate last minute dash that thankfully aided my own liberation. Something that strikes me as a little convenient. Or at the very least bound by more than chance.

I walk on with no idea of where to head. Placing one foot in front of the other, I think of the servants in the mansion, the perverted caricature of some warped fable that is their reality, and I even wonder about returning. But I’m fairly certain if I opened the gates, if I could open the gates, I would find only an abandoned warehouse on the other side. I still have more to remember. I don’t even know how I got there the first time or who I actually am in this world. And there is certainly something very strange about the way I have come back. Very little makes sense. It is like my mind has replaced detail and logic with sign and suggestion. But I’m confident it’s just a matter of time. I’m getting the hang of this memory thing. And I at least know my feet are now encased in a comfortable, if exceptionally well worn, pair of boots. My own boots. If I have learned anything from that place, it is that these symbolic details matter.

I won’t question how the boots have come to suddenly appear since my leaving. I guess I’ll need to get the hang of these new rules in time. Like the way certain things are connected by threads that are not always obvious. That is something I feel I have also come to know. In my head I have this fuzzy sense of a multitude of interconnected life and environmental strands. I can almost see them. They completely elude the dulled sense of the crowd I now walk among, but they are webbed by them just as strongly. More, I might say. If I concentrate I sense that even the external world of seemingly fixed matter and form can be altered by plucking at the right situational thread; as though the apparently solid material world takes its shape according to a vast network of hidden thought lines. Of course my own mind could just be unravelling. Maybe I should seek help. I know I need to find a way to help those others. Especially that Scottish lad. With the fire in his eyes. Who desires above all else to be free. And whose time I feel certain is soon to come.