Although the day had begun with a cold dew upon the grasses and shrubs of this foreign land, it had managed to climb itself out of its torpor and by midday it had become extremely hot. Petras told her that she needed to cover her head or else she would be struck by the sun. She knew that it was important to follow his advice but she had no additional clothing with which to make a protective covering. The cruelty of the land, however, provided the sought after material.
They had been travelling for just a few hours when they came across the first village. Village was a loose term for the burnt out remnants. Scattered amongst the ruins, Kate thought she saw piles of rags. She was firstly confused at both the sight of the destruction and discarded clothing. She turned to the boy for some explanation before realisation shone its harsh light upon her.
“But?” the question choked her thoughts as revulsion and horror flooded up from the deep pit of her stomach. She bent double and heaved upon whatever there was in her emptiness. The pain of the act wrenched her disbelief from her.
Petras had seen so much like this that now he was now blind to the horrors. For him, the piles of rags were just that. He had stopped considering the rotting corpses that lay within them. What Petras saw was the chance to get some cloth that would save the girl’s head from the unrelenting attention of the sun that was now burning towards its apex. He was already returning from his first forage holding his offering before him, when he saw that the girl was doubled over and trying her best to vomit, he thought that it must be because the sun had already begun to work its inevitable ways upon her.
“Here,” he whispered caringly pulling a goat skin filled with water from beneath his robe, “drink this, but not quickly.”
The girl looked up at him and her face displayed the streams of tears that had cut through the reddened dust that had settled upon her. She pushed the skin away.
“What happened here? What type of a world is this?”
The boy was puzzled momentarily, her questions were accusations and he did not comprehend them. She was staring past him, her gaze trapped by the scene beyond. He followed her focus and finally saw what she saw, smelt what she smelt.
“It’s Pan. This is what he does.”
Kate was somewhere else. She was back in her room, hidden behind the flimsy excuse of a barrier. Inches away from her, was the dark thing. She knew its mocking tone, heard its invitations. This was The Piper, the same menace that was sweeping across this other world. Pan was the child that The Piper had grown from. Pan was the devilish merriment that accompanied murder and The Piper was its adult embodiment. Even evil cannot deny time, she thought.
She knew death as she understood the carnage before her. This was the work of an adolescent consciousness, these corpses that were like leftover play things that had lost their novelty. This was the other side of the promise, the realisation of the world according to Pan. A thought struck her, if this thing could age, then it could die.
Petras had been reading her mind.
“You want to kill him don’t you?”
Kate’s eyes burnt with intent.
“If you truly wish to kill him, I’ll work with you.”
“Why does he do this?” she asked after a time.
“He does it because he enjoys it. He desires to turn children against their parents, against the world. He leaves the bodies as a reminder of his power.”
“Why do they follow him?”
“Because he makes them believe and want to be part of his family. He promises everything a young mind could wish for and all they have to do in return is to show devotion. The other gods, well they just sit on high, this one, and trust me, he is a god, joins in the fray. He is their leader and their father. He is their brother and the sharp stab of wonder that comes about when the impossible is made real. Pan is god of madness.”
Indeed, Kate believed him to be so. She believed in the world that he had managed to bring into being. She believed in the fact of The Purge and equally believed that this world, this ancient world in which she had awoken, was most definitely real. She could touch it and it could hurt her. But if it could hurt her, she surely could hurt it, even to the death.
As she was considering the implications of this new state, she noticed that the eyes of the boy had become alert to something. The air around them was no longer filled with the industry of insects or the occasional call of birds. The very air had stilled and she heard it; silence. Silence, complete and utter, as if the whole landscape was hushed in anticipation or angst. Kate felt the old fear return but controlled it. Petras had her by her arm and was pulling her down and into the cover of a partially burnt hut. She noticed, with sadness, the remains of an uneaten meal discarded on a table. Not even time for one last supper.
They waited crouching in their hurried hiding place, the seconds of time straining ahead of them. Petras, watched the open ground, covering all angles with the eyes of one who had survived the hunters. Not for the first time, she found herself giving thanks to whatever force had brought the two together. This boy was part of it, had always been a part of it, and their trajectories had been forced to intersect. He knew this world as Joel had known the other. If Joel was to be found then she was sure that Petras would discover him. However, more important was his ability to read the land and its signals of danger. She watched him and trusted his instincts. Something caught his eye and she too tried to locate it.
Beyond the larger pile of bodies, which she had mistaken for clothes, the village fell away down a hill that led to the valley in which the river ran. Anything approaching the village from this side would have to climb a rocky path that was mainly suitable for goats or adventurous youngsters. Whatever, was now on the outskirts of the village, was coming from that direction, keeping low and out of sight. Both her and the boy waited and watched. They remained suspended in their vigil for some time knowing that to break this would give the game away. The sun beat down upon the dead and living assured of its own safety.
Kate felt a tug on her sleeve and looked at Petras. His eyes had become more intent and did not turn to explain. Instead, he offered the slightest of nods, a gesture that directed her own gaze. At first she saw nothing, just the waves of warm air rising from the ground. Then she saw the object of his attention. The top of a head bobbed up from behind one of the outlying corpses. The movement was almost indiscernible and she would have missed it completely if Petras had not been there. Now she was able to see it clearly as it moved stealthily along the ground. After some more time, it raised itself onto its feet and Kate could see that it was human. It was a child even younger than themselves.
Still they watched it and their caution was rewarded when the child, having carried out its recognisance, did one final sweep of the ruins with a slow and deliberate circle and raised its arms into a wave. The signal made, more emerged from the hillside approach. Kate counted six and noticed that one of their number was an elderly man creaking in the sunlight.
“Don’t disturb the dead,” the man uttered,“ but see if there is anything that we can use. We need bread if there is any and maybe some wine. I have had nothing but river water for the past three weeks and I think that I have imbibed the very nymphs themselves.”
The old man laughed to himself but nothing rose from the group to whom he was talking. Instead, they made their way into different directions seemingly set upon answering their mission. Kate and Petras kept low unaware that behind them a hushed pair of feet was making its way towards their position. Indeed, the only warning they received was the one that was cried out in alarm for the rest to hear.
Within moments, the entire flock were upon them. From nowhere, it seemed, they had produced rude but lethal looking weapons. Kate, who had not fully responded to the cry of alarm, found herself caught in a fierce headlock with the blade of a knife across her throat. Her assailant gripped the roots of her hair so that her throat became more exposed. Seeing this, Petras pulled back from his instinctive response, that was to throw himself upon the deadly attacker, and quickly searched for a weapon for himself.
The time it took for him to do this was enough to allow the rest of the pack to fall upon him. He lashed out with feet and arms landing punches and kicks whilst receiving many more back in return.
Finally subdued, his face pushed into the dirt, he too felt the sharpness of cold metal against his throat. They had been undone before they had even begun.