This one’s been out in the fields too long, Terry told himself. The smell was the first thing that he’d noticed when the man slid into the back seat of his cab. He stunk of that weird mix of sulphur and burnt wood that most people picked up if they’d taken to harvesting what little remained of the land in the Eastern part of the city.
Nodding at the rear-view mirror, Terry turned on his best business smile and asked, “Where to?”
The man waved his hand casually and said something. For a moment, Terry thought that he’d hissed at him. That was ridiculous though, because he’d already started the car and was heading to precisely where the man had asked to go. Terry blinked away the confusion and gave the mirror another glance, trying to take in his passenger. In truth, there wasn’t much to see. The man was dressed in a long, greying trench coat with the collar popped that, when combined with the slightly-too-large fedora resting on his head, left his face entirely shadowed. This is why I hate the night shifts. You get some real weirdos.
“So,” Terry tried. “You’re a harvester, right?”
“Of a sort,” the man rasped, the words carrying a hint of amusement.
“I thought so. If you don’t mind me saying, I knew the moment that you got in. It’s the smell, see? I get a few passengers from the fields, so I’ve learned to recognise the different areas workers.”
The man let out a short laugh and asked, “And if I did mind you commenting, what then?”
“Uh,” Terry stuttered, swerving the car around the remnants of a toppled telephone pole. “I, uhm …”
“Such a strange manner of speaking,” the man commented, then added, “Ah, pay me no heed. There are many things that I do not yet understand.”
Terry bashed the horn, sending a loud round of beeps into the night and scattering the brown and grey lizards that had spread out across the road. While most simply darted into the shadows, one scuttled its way up onto a nearby post box and let out an angry hiss as the car passed. Terry shook his head and asked, “You got a name?”
“I am called Scintillam.”
“I’m Terry. Scintillam, huh? Sounds Italian.”
“If you like,” the man replied, his dirty white teeth briefly cutting through the shadows of his clothing in a wide smile before dropping back into the darkness.
Terry sighed. He hated silent journeys because they reminded him too much of the last few days he’d had at home, but the stranger passengers were hard to keep talking. Still, if there was one thing that united all humans these days, it was a hatred for the invaders. “Sorry about the noise back there. There were some little ones on the road, crawlers I like to call them, and I wanted to clear them outta the way. Truth be told, there was a time that I’d have gone straight through them, but that sometimes does more harm than good, ya know? I learned that the hard way.”
“Ah, yes, the children. This area still belongs to the mud dweller, does it not?” Terry grunted in agreement and the man continued, “Given their heritage, I would imagine that they spend a great deal of time digging up the roads and the suchlike. That must make your job quite difficult.”
“You get used to it. Did you see much of it? When they all came?”
“Not really. I am more of a recent arrival.”
Terry raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Was that one of the Government schemes?”
The man flashed his eerie smile again and chuckled. “I suppose it was.”
“Well, you drew the short straw there, friend. I mean, I know that we’re dwindling in old London, but given that we’re the only ones that got attacked, I’m surprised that they send anyone our way now. Especially after that botched army thing. I think that killed off our hope, really. Still, we carry on. Not a lot else we can do, not with that barrier stopping us from leaving.”
“Quite so. Adaption and resilience are admirable traits, I think. They add a certain flavour to people I find. Tell me, Terry, are you a survivor of the original assault?”
“Yeah,” Terry replied, barely avoiding a head-on collision with another of the small brown and grey lizards. He ignored the muted thud of the thing snapping its jaws at his window and kept driving. “They were tough times. For all of us. I lost my wife in the first wave, and my house a few days later. That’s my bed now, right where you’re sitting.”
“I see. Was your home nearby to where you picked me up?”
“A few blocks, if that.”
“As I understand it, the mud dweller took the land from the great white beast of the skies. I am sure that it is of little comfort, but for all her arrogance, Air is currently losing the game.”
Terry turned the corner and started heading North. The change in temperature was instant, making it feel like he’d just driven through a wall of pure heat. It was far too dangerous to roll down the windows here. The children as Scintillam had called them were snappy but didn’t tend to attack in earnest unless they were in a group, at least back where the journey had started. The one’s here were smaller, but the red and orange monsters were far more vicious. So, he turned on the air con instead. The air was still uncomfortably warm, but at least it was circulating, which made it easier to imagine that he was cooler than he was.
Terry looked up at the rear-view mirror again. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought that smoke was rising from Scintillam’s mouth. I must be overdoing it, he told himself. I’ll head back after this, find a safe little derelict to park in, and sleep. I wish he’d stop smiling like that though. Damn creepy is what it is.
“This place smells a little like you,” Terry said, trying to keep the conversation going. The last thing he wanted was to start thinking too hard about the days after his wife was taken again. It had taken so long to get back on his feet after that, and even now he couldn’t bear to think about what had happened too much. One bite it may have been, but taken was a nicer word than eaten. “You guys do night harvests now?”
“We do, yes,” Scintillam laughed. “We always have to one degree or another, but more so now.”
“You said it yourself, Terry. All hope is gone. That dulls even the sharpest blade.”
Terry shivered at the sound of his own name. Scintillam was definitely one of the weirdest fares that he’d had in a while. Whether you were here at the start or not though, the whole situation was always gonna affect people. Scintillam was obviously just hit harder than some. He’d probably be OK after a while though, and as long as he paid, Terry would be able to order some supplies in. “Whatever you say, buddy. So, what was that you were saying about a game? And someone called Air?”
Scintillam let out a content sigh and sank back into the seat. “Air is the great white beast of the skies. Earth, brown and grey, dwells in the mud. The blue serpent is Water. And the wild, fearsome demon in red and orange is Fire. This is the order in which they currently stand, from bottom to top. Dragons you call them, though there are other words. For example, Fire, I call … Mother.”
“Mother?” Terry gasped, wide-eyed. “Then that means …” He slammed his foot onto the brake pedal and his cab skidded to the side of the thankfully empty road. Panicking, he reached for his door handle, but immediately recoiled in pain. The door was boiling hot, and the edges and joints glowed a faint red as they melted and fused together.
In an instant, Scintillam’s body lunged forward, snaking through the gap between the two front seats and twisting so that his glowing yellow eyes could peer out at Terry from the shadows beneath his hat. “The game. You asked of this, and now you must listen, those are the rules. Do you know why it is that no one can leave London once they enter?”
Terry shook his head and stammered, “N-No.”
“The first that came was our lord Aether. This was centuries ago of course, before the city was built. He made a deal with those that would settle here, agreeing to help them build and to bless their land so that it would remain suitable for their purposes. All that he asked in return was that, once London had grown sufficiently large, his children would be allowed to feast on the souls of those dwelling here. The first human settlers agreed readily. Even as they were then, they could see how long it would take to achieve sufficient growth, so what did they care? They would be long dead when the feasting began.
“As I understand it, your Mayor was very surprised when Aether returned to claim his payment. It seems that the bargain was not a tale that your people cared to pass down, though I suppose that is for the best. Now the Mayor, he fought, of course, but Aether is truly more of a monster than any of us. And his words …” Scintillam shivered with pleasure. “There is power in words, Terry, and it took but a few to seal the city so that the dwellers could not leave and his children could be released to feed. Ah, but his children are now adults and have children of their own, so what were they to do? Can you guess, Terry?”
“Th-they, uhm, let their children eat first?”
Scintillam laughed, and the raspy sound filled the inside of the cab. “They made a game of it. They unleashed their children, yes, but also took up residence themselves. They all feed, Terry, and there is no rule to govern who eats first. No, this is about dominion. You have seen how the atmosphere changes from place to place. When the souls of the city have all been devoured, the game will be over, and the family that holds the most land will be permitted to share a soul from lord Aether’s personal collection of delicacies.
“Now, how each beast goes about winning the game is up to them. Fire in particular is a beautifully devious creature, and she has devised a way to create … yes, I like the term harvester. She has created harvesters of souls. And each of us, just as her natural born children, have been granted the blessing of our mother’s magic. As I said, words and names have power. And a name freely given is a magnificent gift for those with power. Even a simple spark such as me can use this. Now. Sit Terry.”
Terry felt his body freeze in place. In a way, it wasn’t unpleasant. All pressure and strain left his aching muscles, and his mind began to calm. He’d heard stories of mysterious strangers leading people away only for none but the stranger to return. There had been rumours about the ones that returned being agents of the dragons, but Terry had always passed this off as mass paranoia. Peering into the shadows that hid Scintillam’s face, he knew that the rumours had been true, though the crackpots were wrong when they said that these agents were humans that had sided with the scaled monsters. Scintillam was no human, but he was no dragon either.
“What are you?” Terry whispered.
Scintillam flashed his toothy smile again and threw himself through the windscreen. He came to a stop a few feet in front of the cab stood, silently watching Terry. The ground began to shake, rumbling in a steady rhythm, keeping time with the steady thump, thump, thump that began to draw closer. Finally, Scintillam answered, “I am as I said. A simple spark, built from ash and sent forth by Mother to hunt for old souls. Those that enter the city after the sealing are welcome, of course, but it is those of you that were here from the beginning that matter the most. You see, Mother hates to lose. Now, be silent, Terry.”
And so it came to be that Terry could neither move nor speak. He simply sat, staring straight ahead. At the end of the road, a shape appeared, glowing gently in the darkness. Unable to lift his head, it was impossible for Terry to see what approached, but part of him knew. Within moments, a giant, clawed foot came to a stop a short way from the car.
Realising that he could not now even blink, Terry watched as Scintillam, still hidden beneath the trench coat and oversized fedora, turned and bowed to the foot. He watched as his final fare walked away without a second glance, and he listened as an ear shattering screech rang out from somewhere above him, plunging his world into silence.
I wonder what will happen to my soul after it’s eaten. Will I see … no. I don’t want to know. Not now.
Terry felt a rush of heat, and then, there was only darkness.