The Storm

 

It was early afternoon, on a cloudy day in late spring, the sky showing bright blue through the gaps between the rows of heavy cumulus clouds, and occasionally, even the sun shone through to bring a brief cheer to the day. A wind blew fitfully, and chill, moving clouds of dust, and torn scraps of paper, such litter as there ever was these days.

Few people were abroad, women shopping, their children with them, or men alone, tramping wearily about the streets. There were no young men — they were generally waiting for the night, for violence that was their only life, those of them who could not, or would not, adapt to the rapid changes in life-style that had come upon them. Only the children seemed not to share in the general feeling of despair, too young yet to understand the pall that lay over their parents' lives.

One among them stood out for her radiance, as if some hidden flame burned within her, casting a brightness around her that lasted even while the sun was hidden. She walked amongst the everyday people as if she did not see them. And indeed, that was essentially the truth, for she walked without concentrating on the walking, her eyes not connected to her conscious perceptions.

She was young, and beautiful, and that also would set her apart from the rest, as would more subtle marks, down to the pale streak in her honey-gold hair, her perfect teeth, her immortality.

As one knowing herself above and apart from the common host, Jennifer Benchley, a self-made immortal, and witch, moved down the High Street in Chesterton, enjoying her existence, her perfect body. And yet there were flaws in her being subtler yet; the sure knowledge that her identity was something fragile erected over something ultimately vile. Soon she would have to commence a work nigh as great as that that she had so recently accomplished, a work that would be a partial suicide, a removal of that Other personality that belonged to her being.

And yet… Already she felt the weight of years hang heavy upon her. In this automated society, to live on forever would not go unnoticed. Even allowing her husk a semblance of age would only work for a century, and while it was feasible that science might develop its own methods of immortality before then, she would still be one to be remarked on for being a nobody; for surely such treatment would only ever be given to the great and important, to avoid drowning the world in human flesh that more quickly.

And a hundred years would be no time for an immortal. Jennifer shuddered slightly as she considered the true meaning of what she had won for herself, a one-way weary ticket non-stop to the end of time. To see the stars all across the universe gutter and die, perhaps be scavenged by the super civilizations of the day and be poured down black holes for power, until only those emptinesses and the last handful of inhabited worldlets existed, slowly dying, and she, at last forced to become a disembodied spirit wandering the darkness.

Alone.

Or perhaps… There were billions of years yet in which she might find companionship. She smiled wryly to herself and returned to reality, found herself walking down a side street of slightly shabby houses, and a couple of pubs which backed onto the river. Between them, a bridge spanned the steel grey flow, and she crossed onto the open greenness of Stourbridge Common. A man on a bicycle, wearing a blue donkey jacket, and cap, passed her and crossed the bridge, but apart from that there was no one to be seen.

There never was, she reflected, as she turned to walk along the riverside path, save on the sunniest days — or perhaps at the weekends — she had only ever come here on weekdays. A half a mile away, the railway crossed the river, and at that end of the common, cattle and a few horses grazed.

The sun, of a sudden, stood revealed, giving its warmth and brightness to a world turned grey, and even the wind became a gentler if not weaker, thing.

A feeling came to her then of the cycle of life, the living, breathing, pulsing of the Earth, of continual death and rebirth, a feeling of power and continuity, brought to her by some witchsense subtler than sight. And a feeling of separation, of being outside that bustle of activity.

A drop of rain fell upon her face, and then another, and another while the sun still shone. It poured heavily, the silver of the rain touched to gold by sunlight, drenching her coat, soaking it through in a few moments, then ceasing as suddenly as it had come.

The ground steamed faintly in the warmth of the sun, warming even the chill of Jennifer's damp garments, though she would have preferred to discard them, and run naked on the grass, in the sun, and perhaps the…

Rain. It had taken a little while for the true meaning of what had just happened sink through to her. After the ritual that had broken her free from her flesh, not fifteen hours before, she had been left with the embarrassment of having her previous disfigured body to dispose of, and with no better means to hand, had set it in a circle of concealment, and lain a curse of corruption upon it, at the foot of the Castle hill, behind the back wall of a garage and a power transformer, with the intention leaving until it rotted to the more easily disposable bones. But rain now would wash away the powder that marked out the circle, leaving her corpse open to any eyes. She prayed that her luck hold, and that the usually deserted hill remained deserted during the hours of daylight. And then in the dead of night, she would have to do what she had considered impossible the pervious night — dispose of the body.

But how? she asked herself as she turned back, to slowly retrace her homewards way. Fire, the obvious method, was blocked to her, for her entire supply of incendiary had been consumed by accident the night before, and it would be weeks before it would be possible to perform the rituals to enchant more.

Burial? it was a possibility worth thinking of — cover the site with the turves, and scatter the surplus dirt on the slopes, with a slightly more permanent spell of concealment to blur the details of the operation. That would mean lot of hard work, and the acquisition of a spade. There was one in the shed of the garden at home — had to be — for the entire back plot was used as a vegetable plot.

Well, that settled the matter. Now it only remained to set up the enchantment that would be needed to conceal her grave. And then the rain might well be of use to her, clearing people from the evening streets.

But it would be hard work, and there would be the awkwardness of carrying a spade there and back, and if it rained, it would be extremely uncomfortable, but there was little else she could do.


Home. Her first action on returning was to push a hasty note into the slot by the bell pushes cancelling all her appointments as a witch for the day, giving family business as a pretext.

Back, at last, in her room, she locked the door, and threw off her damp clothes, glad for a chance to towel herself down, and make a pot of tea. And then, to work, to decide what she would need, and when.

She returned to her bedroom, and turned on the television, keying the viewdata weather forecast for the area. It was good — rain from eight to midnight was the forecast, possibly with thundery outbreaks.

So… Lightning would be as effective as fire, if she were to focus the vast powers of a storm into cremating her old body, and that would make everything a lot more moveable. With increased enthusiasm for hem task, she returned to the study, seeking her tome on weather lore, and certain items of her equipment, as well as the items she had already sought.


Evening came, and the rain with it, heavy and constant, drumming down onto the dry earth, its noise so steady as to become unheard.

Jennifer waited an impatient half hour, so that the storm would be at its height when she arrived at the Castle hill, and then walked out into the steady downpour. The rain drenched her almost instantly, making her glad that she had chosen to wear only jeans and a T-shirt, and poured down her face in steady stream. She ran down the unlit streets, the sounds of her passage lost in the rain, and her figure lost in a gloom only slightly relieved by sky glow and the occasional, weak, street light.

Instinctively, she retraced the route she had taken the previous night, out to the open spaces that flanked the river throughout this town, along what was the nearest there came to a straight line between where she lived, and where, in a sense, she had died.

The lightning began as she crossed the river, a faint and distant stroke, visible only in the dimness of the light, at a distance unguessable, the sound of the thunder lost in the rain. Slower then, not because her new body laboured, but because the going was heavy, water already gathered in puddles upon ground that had been parched for a few weeks, turning the surface to a slippery mire, she crossed the openness, carrier-bag swinging wildly from one hand, and an oaken wand in the other, which pulsed with the power of the storm.

She crossed the road, and began to head towards the bridge across Jesus weir, when she noticed a blue light flashing ahead of her. Police. Jennifer froze, feeling as if a trap were shutting tight about her, knowing that she should have taken the longer way around, north of the river, along the main roads, the way that she had walked home the day before.

But now she was here, there was still a route she could take without passing over that bridge. Instead of veering right, towards the river, she followed the stagnant ditch that marked the border of Jesus College, along another of the paths that crossed the green.

Even so, she did not make the journey undiscovered. About half of the way there, she heard something ahead of her, caught a glimpse of movement through the rain and unlit dark. A policeman, with his radio on. Alone, she hoped, as she lifted up the medallion she wore, that was now her only protection against interruption.

The symbols graved on it glowed faintly blue as she held it forth, their wan light showing the man's face.

“There is no one here,” she whispered, “only the rain. You cannot see me for it, there is only my voice, but you will forget even that when I cease to speak. You will continue your patrol, as if all this had never even happened.”

As she spoke, she edged sideways off the path, and squatted down, waiting for him to pass, holding the medallion up until the light no longer showed him.

Only then did she move again, returning to the surer footing of the path, sprinting for the comparative shelter of the narrow streets that made the fourth border of he green and she was glad when she gained them. She was shaken by the police presence, annoyed at herself for not even thinking to check on the progress they had made at discovering the person responsible for two police murders.

Fighting down her fear, she continued into the tangled streets, working diagonally through them to emerge on the main road close to the river, and Magdalene bridge. She blinked in the sudden light, and then continued, between the two halves of Magdalene College, separated by a road that was overhung in places by Tudor frontage. There were people here, students, all dashing from shelter to shelter, oblivious of her as she passed, and cars that hissed in the rain-sluiced street as they passed.

The lightning was closer now, the sound of thunder giving it a distance of only a mile or so, and bright enough to show colour in its flashes.

Nearly there, she thought, as she crossed the road at the traffic lights, rejoining the path she had taken the night before, taking the climb easily in her supernal body, without slackening pace, and then, she could duck out of sight of the road, and she was there, and thankfully, alone. The discarded corpse that she had left there was visible as a whiteness in the gloom and clearly whenever the lightning flashed.

Jennifer hurried to stand by her corruptible form, and looked it over in disgust, at the scars that she had borne, and at the decay that had set in at her command. Then she ignored it as she set up a small circle of talismans, driving them deep into the earth with the blade of the trowel she had brought, and then, within the circle she discarded her hampering garments onto the ground, and bearing the oaken wand, spoke the words that would give her mastery over the lightning.

Blue fires played off the wand as she spoke, and ran down her perfect form in rivers. Tension gathered in the air, and remained for an instant that was stretched with pregnancy, before a howling shaft of light burst into existence linking cloud and ground, and was gone. The thunder was loud enough to no longer be a sound, just a wave of stunning force that nigh knocked her from her feet, and left her head ringing but Jennifer remained unmoved, continued the chant, and poured another of those immense discharges into the riven form at her feet. She paused to examine her work then aware that each of the bolts she had unleashed had contained the entire lightning release of the storm for the duration of their conjuring, an unthinkably large amount of energy, focused onto one small target.

And they had accomplished their task. Instead of the pallor of flesh, there was only bone and ash at her feet, ash that would be washed away in the rain, bone that she could remove, that would be most useful, even in its par-calcined state.

She bent to collect the larger bones, and bag them together, and then paused in mid motion. It took a second or so for her to realize what it was that she had noticed, which was nothing — the stilling of the wind and the rain, the ceasing of the lightning. She began to rise, warily, struck with sudden terror, before regaining a grip on herself. Nonetheless, she looked carefully around, holding tight onto her wand that she might loose power at any watcher.

And it was well that she did. Only an instant passed and the hair on her neck began to rise, and in a familiar stench of ionization another hungry bolt of lightning reached down. Instinctively, Jennifer fielded the blast, letting it splash towards other, more suitable paths to the earth. Then, as if at a signal, the wind and the rain commenced afresh, like a wild beast.

The rain that had been heavy now was hurled down like hail, stinging her bare flesh and chilling her through, while the wild wind tried to scrape her from the hillside. Desperately, she turned to face the wind as it blew from the south, holding her wand out in the hope that some of its virtu might weaken the icy blast.

And icy it was, for as the seconds passed, the temperature plummeted, the rain becoming a driving snowfall that began to build up against her faster than it would melt.

“Show yourself,” she cried into the wind, invoking binding words that would compel any sylph to her will, certain that her attempt to control the storm had angered one of those subtle spirits, but there was no abating of the unnatural storm. Lightning came again, but this stroke she let bounce back to its source, somewhere beyond sight in the wild skies.

That at last provoke reaction, a redoubling of the assault. The air now tore her nose and throat with its cold and she could not feel the frozen flesh where snow piled up, and was blown away again. She was sure now that her body ought already to have died in thermal shock, and was continually being renewed from her newly acquired immortality, but at a rate that might, all the same, overwhelm her, force her to discarnate, and become vulnerable to the darkness within her.

Then, slowly, the wind and snow began to slacken, then faster, until as fast as it had come, the fierce winds were again still, and in a nearly clear sky, the full moon shone bright upon the snow.

Ragged, the remains of the storm clouds were blowing briskly across the steely grey vault of the sky. The wind that blew fitfully seemed balmy, almost hot, by contrast. There was no sound, but that of far-away traffic.

Jennifer picked herself up, shedding great masses of snow, and looked around her. In her slipstream, no snow had settled, and her clothes remained, frozen, she suspected, to the round. A few meters beyond, her skull lay lopsidedly, looking up the hill. And in front of her stood a human shape, hidden by darkness to the normal eye, but clear in the witchsight, natural to her new form and outlined by a strange aura.

“You lived!” the other, a man, spoke, and stepped from shadow into the moonlight. He was about Jennifer age — maybe a couple of years one way or the other — and untidy, but there was a hint of something strange in his eyes, and an unmistakable tone of joy in his voice. “Another one. How long… how long have you been a storm… stormrider.”

“My story's not that simple. I… Were you the storm?”

“No — but I was up there — something hurt me and I kicked back, burned out the storm — landed here, to see what happened. You?”

“I called the lightning to destroy a body. My own body, the one I used before I grew this one. It's one of the problems of being an immortal.”

Did he believe her? Jennifer could not tell. His story was reasonable, explaining the lightning colours in his aura. She felt very vulnerable — with the skull still surviving, to be identified, she was still legally dead, and likely to be accused of her own murder to boot.

“I oughtn't believe you,” he said after a short pause, “but your story is as crazy as mine. And I'd sure like a try at your immortality. I'm Craig Allen. Care for hot drink?#8221;

“Will do. Just let me get dressed again.”


Coffee was welcome after that ordeal, its effect more psychological than actual, as it warmed hands and body. Indeed the room was hotter than usual, the fire on to dry Jennifer's clothes, while she sat deep in an armchair, wrapped in a heavy dressing-gown, and she revelled in the warmth like a cat


This is a late fragment, but I'm not sure where this was going. If it weren't for the last paragraph, it might stand alone as a vignette. Like the last story was Don't Fear the Reaper, this one was a later BÖC track, I am the Storm, but that was about as far as it took me. And this gives a terminus post quem of around 1980.

By the mid 80s, I had a very rough outline for the next real episode, Millenium Night.

After going abroad for most of the 90s, to avoid the ever more repressive Tory government, she would return in summer '99, maybe nine months after the election, at last, of an Alliance (Liberal/SDP) government, the sort of left-wing social-justice type of government we're still waiting for (after all Blair is markedly to the right of Ted Heath, the Tory PM of the early 70s). This return would be in order to see the eclipse in Cornwall, and would involve a side-trip to Tintagel, where something occult and Arthurian would take place, leaving her in possession of Excalibur.

Fast forward to late December '99. She drives in her electric car from Dover (having taken the Chunnel) A2, M25, M11, along roads barely ploughed clear of deep snow (remember, we were being promised an Ice Age just around the corner during the 70s; and we now might get such weather as the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Convergence falter), under massed sodium lights and an angry red sky. While people are partying like it's 1999, all sorts of mystic shit hits the fan — Jack o'the Greens, fey folk, dryads, chalk figures — and Jennifer has to do something involving Excalibur and the Rex Futurus. The fact that the the man second in line for the throne is William Arthur Phillip Louis of the House of Windsor might have been significant.

Alas, there are not enough details to tell this tale (what happens at Tintagel, the nature of the Y2K crisis); and the fact that it is in a significantly diverged time-line doesn't help

The idea then was to skip further and further into deep time, possibly into the Nancy Wolf future history, and beyond into the truly weird. But I never got as far as getting anywhere near being caught into the trap of trying to describe the Transcend/Singularity.

How does the cosmos work with devils and such? — as well as the DC/Vertigo setting does. I could say that in some fashion they are imprints in the Dust (as in Egan's Permutation City) who can interact with us, as the folk of the city could with the Autoverse; and that in Deep Time, downloading into the Dust would be the way out of the heat death of the positronium era and beyond.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Phoenix & Ashes

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