Through ash and darkness, voices swirled like buzzards come to pick clean her mind, her vision lost to images of madness; Da Vinci on a burning horse riding through a valley of corpses, her mother being desecrated by a bronze knight, his visor spilling blood forth upon each violent thrus and amidst it all she saw a pale walker; a deathly image of pain wrapped in leather and wire, the skin peeled from its teeth; its eyes burned of passion. It walked through a doorway of flickering lights toward her and in its hands it held a baby, stripped of skin and twitching. The infant’s eyes flickered open and shut, the eyeballs beneath pupil-less and pooling with blood. Barely formed digits scratched at its body, peeling great strips of viscous muscle and sinew from itself, the lengths peeling and falling to the floor like great crimson banners. The pale walker lifted the baby to its mouth and licked the side of its raw, open face before raising the baby up, the infant’s eyes opened fully, fly blown and rancid, its stretched and torn lips spitting only one pained and terrible word;
Maddy woke screaming, pulled from her unconscious reverie by the nightmare of her imaginings, waking to a reality that was much worse. She was in a bed, a cot of some description and all around her were the same; blood soaked sheets with bodies laid upon them, hundreds crammed into one room, no bigger than an office space. Casualties, some bloodied beyond imagining, others maimed, twisted by unimaginable cruelty; women, children, men and the elderly, all laid equal in the heat and the squalor of the room. Between them buzzed what must have been medical staff, though their stretched and soiled clothing and air of panicked indifference made them difficult to discern. Their lack of visible wounding and ability to stand upright obviously made them the most qualified there, yet Maddy could not recall what had brought her to such a place; her mind still spinning and her head shrieking with some internal pain.
“Doctor?” She wheezed at the passing images, “Nurse? Please?”
No reply, just occasional glances, acknowledgements but no help. This was a battlefield; the real outcome of man’s inhumanity to each other. Madeline had seen it too many times before, just not from this vantage point. The writer in her wanted to embrace the situation for the pure research it was, but the heart of her shrank in fear and she felt the emotions of an abandoned little girl swell up and push against her rib cage like a long suppressed ache. Tears pushed against the backs of her eyes, but as always, she did not cry. That was one of the sacrifices she had made when she cast herself as a witness.
“Hannigan?” The name barely crawled across her lips as her mind turned to her friend, her accomplice. He was nowhere to be seen from her limited vantage point and her mind raced to the worst scenarios possible, such was her experience.
The voice was cracked and aged and startled Maddy when she turned and saw that it came from the mouth of a small boy, no older than ten.
“What’s your pleasure?” He repeated, holding out his hands, upon which was a filthy, stained hessian cloth, wrapped around trinkets and baubles of unknown origin and dubious worth. Maddy tried to fan him away as she attempted to lever herself up onto her elbows to get a better look around the room. The boy persisted in pushing his wares into Maddy’s face while she gathered her stretch and her voice and shouted Hannigan’s name across the room. There was no reply save that of the clatter of chaos common to such scenes. Exhausted, her head fell back onto the stretch of filthy material which passed for a pillow and her head swam accordingly. Sweat streaked her face, heat and fingers of ice stabbed her skin and her hands reached down to her groin; a childhood gesture of comfort in times of sickness. There they felt something resting above the covers and she brought her hands out from under the blankets and slid them along the top until they touched the item. She held it up to her face and stared, amazed by the intricacy of it whilst simultaneously feeling terrified at its meaning. They had held them, in that room; played with them; brought wires and death from nothing with them.
She looked about herself for the boy, then around the room but there was no sign of him.
In her hands she held a box; a puzzle. It was eldritch and ornate; simple in its design and deadly in its execution.
Maddy held the box in her hands and as she turned it before her. She knew not what its purpose was, but she knew there was a story within.
“…one hell of a story…” She whispered to herself.