The Night the Listening Stopped
by Mark Tomlinson
An owl hooted and took wing, soaring to the top of the tower where it settled on the highest windowsill and tapped the glass with its beak. Inside the chamber, an old man turned toward the window. On seeing the owl, his eyes widened and a smile visited his features for the first time in almost a decade. Stumbling to the window he pressed his nose against the pane, peering at the bird without.
‘Is it true?’ he asked. His voice, worn out with prayers and incantations, was little more than a croak.
The owl nodded and, spreading its wings, launched itself into the night sky, freed of its obligation at last.
‘Brother!’ the old man croaked, ‘our time is at hand!’
The old man busied himself, hurrying around the chamber, picking up items from the shelves that lined the walls and delving into the many trunks and chests and boxes that littered the floor, taking out pouches and other objects which he placed into a leather satchel hanging around his neck.
At last, the old man thought, after all these years, he has returned.
The old man shuffled to a desk piled high with books and parchments and rummaged for a while until, with a cry of triumph, he extracted a vellum sheet. He held it up to the light cast by a cresset set into the wall burning God knew what.
On the vellum were the densely packed characters of a tongue not meant to be spoken by humans. It was a tongue forgotten when the Pyramids were young, a language whose echoes had shivered in the air as the last dinosaur died. Even to the old man’s practised eyes, the words seemed to writhe like snakes on the page as if they wished to avoid being read aloud.
The chamber door was flung open and a shape out of nightmare stumbled through. Once it had been a man. Once it had known the kiss of sunlight and the touch of a May breeze. Now it was a shambling collection of wizened limbs held together by bandages and pitch and spells and a will still strong and evil — a creature of darkness and decay.
The old man turned to face the homunculus. The man’s face was almost beatific in its pleasure. ‘He returns, brother. This night, he returns!’
The creature opened a mouth rimmed with the crumbling remains of fangs and painfully forced out one word: ‘Truly?’
The old man nodded and, for a brief moment, they were young men again with the world at their feet and their arrogance driving them to seek for knowledge and learning in the ancient forgotten places.
‘There is much to prepare and time grows short. The owl has heralded him.’
The once-man turned and shambled out of the chamber. In what remained of his brain there burned a kernel of consciousness that hungered for revenge. Revenge on the world that had spurned him, vengeance on those who had risen against him. Their enemies would pay for the humiliation the two of them had been made to endure. The world would pay. In blood.
It entered a small alcove and took a sword down from a bracket on the wall within. The hilt was worn smooth by countless hands, and the black blade, though pitted and corroded with nameless substances over the millennia, still kept an eldritch edge. It glittered even in the gloom of the tower. With this sword they would slay the one who returned from the quest. With his death, once the preparations had been made and the invocations uttered, their power would know no bounds.
The old man paused in his work. Doubt suddenly seized him in its clammy fist. What if the one who returned now did not have what they had sent him for?
No, impossible, he would not be able to return to their tower if he had failed in his quest. Enough layers of protection had been cast over the spell that held him in thrall to ensure that. If he were not the bearer of the treasure they sought, he would be slime on the floor of a temple.
The old man shook his head as if he could physically dislodge the doubts. All would be well; it was natural for him to worry now that the end was so close. He was only human.
For now at least.
The thought amused him and he began to laugh. His brother took up the laughter and the tower seemed to shake with their unholy amusement.
Two floors below, the ghosts cringed at the noise.
‘That’s not a good sound,’ said the Maiden, clasping phantom hands over the place where her heart had resided before the old man had torn it out with an obsidian blade.
‘Had I my trusty sword...’ began the Knight only to be interrupted by the Pedlar.
‘Had you your trusty sword, you’d still be blasted to buggery like you were the first time.’ He tapped on the Knight’s blackened helm, which rang like a gong.
‘I cannot believe that they are going to triumph,’ said the Maiden.
The phantom host gathered around, shaking their heads, and moaned in agreement. ‘’Tis the end of the world,’ said the Knight.
‘I can’t say I’m bothered about the world, to be honest with you, not being a part of it any more. What gets to me is those two winning. It really gets my bloody goat,’ said the Pedlar.
‘What can we do?’ asked a voice from deep within the host.
All eyes turned to the Pedlar. He pointed a transparent finger at a tendril of cobweb hanging from the ceiling. He concentrated. His eyes crossed and drops of ectoplasm ran down his cheeks; but, after twenty seconds, the cobweb swayed as if in a draught.
‘I repeat my question,’ said the same phantom voice.
The Pedlar shook his head. ‘I’ve got a cunning plan,’ he said. ‘Now gather around.’
The old man was checking items off on a list he had carried in a locket around his neck for ten years. He lay them one by one on a bench.
‘The skull of Grilltrey the Green, the petrified penis of Phileas the Phrygian, a rope plaited from the armpit hairs of the Five Hundred Wives of Caliph Hassan of Viagarah, two vials of blood from the heart of a Unicorn, and a nutmeg.’
He called out, ‘Brother, fetch the cauldron.’
As he spoke, a fluttering sound drew his attention back to the window. A huge bat flapped its wings outside, filling the air with clamour and high-pitched squeals.
‘Brother, the bat, the bat. He is close, we must hurry!’
The old man gathered all the objects he had collected from the upper chamber, added a couple of grimoires and a sack of live frogs, grasped them all in his arms and staggered to the door.
At the threshold his brother met him. His brother bore the sword in his left hand and a large bronze cauldron under his right. ‘He is almost upon us, brother.’
The old man giggled, an incongruous sound coming from him. His brother stretched his desiccated features into a smile. Some stitches holding his right arm onto his body ripped with a soft sound. ‘It matters not, my brother. Soon we will be as we were!’
The pair shuffled out of the room and started down the worn stairs.
The ghosts clustered around the spiral staircase one floor below the brothers, an opalescent multitude united in a common purpose. The brothers stumbled awkwardly through them, shivering slightly in their chill essence.
‘Now!’ the Pedlar shouted.
A hundred vengeful spirits focused their concentration and placed insubstantial hands on the brothers’ backs.
They could not muster much in the way of force but, on the cramped, damp, slippery steps, they didn’t need much. The old man missed his footing and fell against his brother. The weight of the magical objects he was carrying was too much for the shrunken form to resist, and it toppled forward.
The brothers plunged down the spiral stairs in a tangle of limbs and a clatter of bronze and steel and stone and wood, rolling and crashing to the entrance hall far below. Bones snapped, skulls shattered, and the sword sliced through the back of the old man’s neck as they hit the flagstones. The stitches holding his sibling together burst apart and he was scattered across the floor.
The ghosts glowed bright with glee and raised their silent voices in howls of triumph.
Suddenly a mighty knock boomed on the door. ‘Is there anybody there?’ called a voice from outside.
The ghosts froze and listened.
There was silence for a time. The ghosts felt the easing of the magic hold on the man outside, the spell broken with the deaths of the brothers. That spell, in the form of a great black bird, fluttered up from the top of the tower and away into the moonlit night.
There came a second blow upon the door, which shivered in its frame. ‘Is there anybody there?’ called the voice once again.
‘Just go,’ the Pedlar whispered.
There was silence so deep that the ghosts could hear the sound of a horse cropping the turf outside.
There came a third and even louder knock on the tower’s door. ‘Tell them I came and no-one answered, that I kept my word,’ said the voice outside.
The ghosts listened to the echoes of his words fading slowly away.
At last they heard the sound of a horse trotting away and silence fell again.
The ghosts waited patiently for their number to be swelled by two new spirits. They had a lot to talk to the brothers about. After having listened for so very long they were at last about to have their say.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Tomlinson