Death comes to us all; life is the name of the game and everyone has a role to play.
When a group of live action role-players perform a ritual as part of a game, they unwittingly unleash an ancient evil that tears their world apart. The reanimated corpse of a long-dead magic user, corrupted by powerful dark magic, offers a promise of unlimited power, but at a terrible price. Having helped open this Pandora’s box, Mark and Elizabeth must race against time to close it again – before it’s too late.
This scary, at times touching, horror novel by Sara Jayne Townsend is a must read for all horror and gore fans.
Holding battle candles to light the way, the six figures formed a straggling line as they headed through the woods. “We should be cautious,” Cassius said. “The Minions of Darkness may be aware of what we’ve done. They might come seeking vengeance.”
“But I thought we’d banished the demon?” said the group’s scout, Pandora, with uncertainty. “Isn’t that what the ritual did?”
“If we have indeed succeeded in banishing the demon, the magic user controlling it will know by now. He will undoubtedly send his minions out for revenge. Pandora, why don’t you go scout? Let us know if anything’s lying in wait for us.”
Pandora nodded. Dousing the flame on her candle, she hurried silently up the path, slipping into the shadows and disappearing into the darkness.
“I don’t like it, Cass,” Arlon the warrior said. “We should have waited for daylight. In the dark, we’re ripe for an ambush.”
“As I’ve already explained Arlon, time is of the essence. The beast is gathering its full strength from the darkness. If we’d have waited until morning, it would have been invincible. By banishing it now, we only have to deal with the Minions of Darkness, not the demon itself.”
Arlon peered into the darkness, unsheathing his sword. “There’s someone out there.”
“It’s me,” said Pandora, her disembodied voice coming out of the blackness.
“Did you see anything?” Cassius asked.
Pandora moved into the group and lowered her voice. “There’s a group of four undead on the path up ahead. Two skeletons. One zombie. Another we haven’t seen before. Looks more powerful. Maybe a ghoul?”
“Oh great,” Arlon groaned. “Just when I was looking forward to a tankard of ale back at the camp.”
“I told you our work wasn’t done yet,” said Cassius. He addressed the group one by one. “Okay, Valkyrie, you go for the zombie. They move slowly, you’ll be fine. Koran, you’ve got a mace, go in for the skeletons. Only blunt weapons will defeat them. Arlon and I will go for the other undead beastie; we’ve both got magic weapons and we might need them. Ariadne, if you can, try and get a hit on the skeletons with your mace too. But don’t put yourself at risk; you’re our only healer. And Pandora, keep to the shadows and try and find a chance to use that killer backstab of yours. Everybody ready?” Cassius looked around at his group.
The sound of a techno beat resounded in the darkness. “Fucking hell,” Cassius muttered. “Who’s that?”
The others pointed at the warrior Valkyrie, who was rummaging around in her pack. Her hood slipped off, and a mane of dyed blonde hair fell over her face.
“Chelsea, how many times do I have to tell you to leave your fucking phone back at camp?”
“Sorry, David.” Chelsea pulled her iPhone from her pack and hastily hit the button to cancel the call.
David – also known as mage and party leader Cassius – threw his latex staff down on the ground. “Who the hell’s calling you at this time of night anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Chelsea said sheepishly. “I thought it was switched off.”
“I don’t know why the hell you’ve got it with you.”
“I like to know what time it is.”
“I keep telling you – no modern gadgets. If no one’s allowed to carry watches, they sure as hell aren’t allowed to carry mobile phones. If it rings again I’m going to toss it into the woods. Now you’ve really killed the mood. Just when I thought everyone was getting nice and spooked, your bloody phone rings.”
“I’m really sorry. When we get back to camp I’ll leave it with my stuff. Honest.” Chelsea switched the phone off and stuffed it back into her pack.
David sighed. “Well, the monster crew know exactly where we are now, so we’re not going to be able to surprise them. And if they heard that ring, I’ll bet they’re pissed off and ready to give us a hammering.”
“They’re between us and the camp,” said the warrior Arlon, otherwise known as Mark. “Let’s get this done so we can get back to the beer.”
David picked up his latex staff and held it aloft. “Alright, crew. Let’s go.” Adopting a dramatic pose, he led his group of live action role players into battle.
An hour or so later, Mark was feeling comfortably mellow in front of the camp fire. He drank Stella Artois from a pewter tankard and watched Elizabeth as she toasted some marshmallows. The weaponry he carried as Arlon, holy warrior and crusader, rested on the ground. He still wore his chainmail, heavy though it was. He’d learned from many years of live action roleplaying that you never took your armour off in camp. It took too long to get it on again and if you got ambushed you had to take the hits without the modification of armour, and that was a good way to die very quickly.
He had no idea what time it was, but he reckoned it had to be coming up to midnight. That last battle had been easier than he would have expected a final battle to be. The zombies and the skeletons were fairly easy to despatch, but the ghoul had been tough. Elizabeth’s cleric was down on healing power too, so the party were now resting in camp, hoping that was it for the day. Mark had a feeling there’d be another battle though. They wouldn’t be allowed to get off that easily. Not with one of David’s games. They’d all have just enough time to sit around the fire getting cosy and pleasantly tipsy, before there’d be some Big Bad out in the forest that they’d have to go and deal with.
The fire was burning brightly, big orange flames licking the wooden logs that the site kept for these occasions. There had been no rain in Gloucester for six weeks and the wood was bone dry, making it just right for burning. The dry spell was about to end though – dark clouds had been gathering all day and the forecast had been threatening rain for a week. They’d been lucky to have a dry weekend for this game. Mark cheerfully admitted to being a fair-weather LARPer – this was the first weekend of the year he’d ventured out onto a game. Tromping about in the woods with foam swords and sleeping on bunks in wooden huts was all well and good when it was fair and dry, but it was a different story when it was wet and cold. As he watched the hypnotic flames from the camp fire, he felt the heat warming his face and hands and took another sip of his beer. It was evenings like this that he enjoyed the most when live action role playing. He and David had enjoyed many LARP weekends over the years, but it had been quite a while since David had been persuaded out – his medical studies took up much of his time nowadays. When he’d suggested to David that they have one more outing, before David got stuck into finals, he’d been surprised that David had agreed so readily.
He watched Elizabeth holding a long thin stick over the fire, a marshmallow speared to the end of it. Elizabeth had joined the game design company Mark worked for six months ago. Like him, she was a game designer. Unlike him, she had a degree in software engineering. Mark was just naturally talented when it came to understanding computers; Elizabeth had made it her passion. But a degree doesn’t give you a high score in computer games – that came just as naturally to Elizabeth as it did to Mark. In fact, she was the keenest gamer Mark had ever met and in spite of several efforts he had made, he was yet to come anywhere near her score of total number of zombies slain in Resident Evil. Mark had fallen for Elizabeth the first time he met her. He had a thing for smart women. She was cute too, with her mane of auburn hair and her long eyelashes, enhanced by the glasses she generally wore. She’d switched to contact lenses for the game, since running about in the woods was a good place to lose one’s glasses, but he knew she didn’t like wearing them and would take them out at the earliest opportunity. First thing in the morning she would emerge from her bunk, squinting and marching straight to the toilet block with the little case she kept her contacts in.
Yes, there was no doubt that Mark had it bad for Elizabeth. The problem was he hadn’t got around to telling her how he felt yet. He knew she was single and they chatted a lot at work about personal stuff as well as their jobs, but he was scared to take the plunge and ask her out.
Elizabeth held the stick over the fire, turning it around to toast the marshmallow on all sides. The long billowing sleeves of the blouse she wore as Ariadne dangled perilously near the fire.
“Watch yourself there, Ariadne,” Mark said. “You don’t want to set yourself on fire.”
Elizabeth retrieved the stick from the fire and regarded the blackened marshmallow on the end of it. “Don’t worry about me. I’m protected with a spell of fire resistance.” She gingerly worked the marshmallow off the end of the stick.
“Spell of fire resistance?” Mark frowned at Elizabeth as she popped the gooey marshmallow into her mouth. “Don’t I get a marshmallow?”
Elizabeth grinned at him as she chewed, pulling another marshmallow out of the bag on the floor and skewering it with her stick. “I liberally sprayed my costume with fire retardant. I am prepared for all occasions. And you can have this marshmallow.” She returned the stick to the fire, turning it slowly to cook the marshmallow. “I called it a spell of fire resistance. I know David hates out of character talk.”
“Not that those two are paying any attention.” Mark looked across the fire to the other side, where Linus and Chelsea were sitting on a log together. Linus, aka Koran the fighting cleric, was Elizabeth’s brother and had done LARPing before. Chelsea, however, had not. Linus appeared to have invited her along because he fancied her. Mark still couldn’t figure out why Chelsea had agreed to come. Being a newbie to LARPing, she’d been encouraged to play a warrior, as this was the easiest kind of character to play. However, it was clear from the start that she’d not been getting into the game. She had half-heartedly swung her sword when it came to battle and she’d squealed and complained about being hurt whenever a member of the monster crew had landed a blow with a latex weapon anywhere on her person. She had complained constantly about getting leaves in her hair; or her trousers getting caught in brambles; or insect bites on her ankles; or feeling cold; or getting grass stains on her bum. In camp she complained about the uncomfortable bunk, the lack of toilet and shower facilities, not having anywhere to plug in her hair dryer, not having a decent sized mirror anywhere....it went on.
She had turned up enthusiastically enough, looking the part in sexy black leather trousers and a studded leather bustier, and initially she had responded fairly positively to Linus’s flirting. But two days in the wilderness had clearly taken its toll and Mark thought that Chelsea had grown rather bored of Linus’s attention. Watching them now, the body language was clear enough. Linus was leaning in to Chelsea, whispering something he clearly thought was funny. She had her body turned away from him, arms folded, and her face was wearing a decidedly hostile expression.
“It’s not looking like Linus is going to score tonight, is it?” Elizabeth said, following his gaze.
“Not at all,” Mark said. “Of course, LARPing is a rather peculiar choice for a first date.”
Elizabeth pulled the stick out of the fire to inspect the cooked marshmallow on the end of it. “And what would you recommend as a first date, then?”
“What?” Mark looked sharply at her. He could feel his face going red.
Elizabeth smiled. “Aw, did I embarrass you? Have a marshmallow. It will save you having to answer the question.” She held the blackened marshmallow under Mark’s nose enticingly. The sweet, hot smell it emitted was wonderful. He pulled the marshmallow carefully from the stick.
“Not had toasted marshmallow since I was a kid,” he said with his mouth full.
Chelsea got up abruptly from her log and crossed over to other side of the fire. From the disappointed expression on Linus’s face, Mark reckoned he’d just asked a crucial question and been rejected.
“Liz, can I borrow your hand cream?” Chelsea asked. “Mine’s got all grungy from falling on the ground earlier.”
“Don’t call me Liz,” Elizabeth scowled.
“Oh, sorry. Ariadne, then. I know David – sorry, Cass – gets so mad when we use real names.”
“It’s character immersion, Valkyrie. Besides that though, I meant don’t call me Liz. It’s Elizabeth. I hate being called Liz.”
“Really? Don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who went by Elizabeth before. Can I borrow your hand cream, then? I’ll get you some more when we get back home. I just can’t stand my hands all dry and cracked like this.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have lugged it around with you on the overland, it wouldn’t have got so dirty then,” Elizabeth said. “Everything gets dirty on an overland. You should have figured that out by now.”
“And have dry hands all day? Eww. Look, can I borrow it or not?”
Elizabeth sighed. “I suppose so. Come with me. I’ll get it for you.” She walked off to the sleeping hut and Chelsea followed.
Helen emerged from the toilet block and took Chelsea’s place on the log beside Linus. He didn’t acknowledge her. Linus and Helen had never met before this weekend. The only person in the group who had met Helen before, apart from David of course, was Mark. She’d been going out with David for about a year and Mark had met her at David’s flat on a couple of occasions. She was quiet and mousy – quite unlike the type of girl David normally fell for. Still, Mark reflected regretfully, he didn’t really know David’s tastes anymore. There had been a time when he and David had been soulmates, sharing everything and knowing more about each other than even their parents did. When they were in school, David spent so much time at their house that Mark’s parents used to joke that they had an extra child. But neither of them were kids anymore and it was sad – if inevitable –that when people grow up, they grow apart from their friends. Mark sometimes wished he could go back to those simpler times, when David was such a big part of his life.
He saw David on the periphery of his vision, chatting animatedly with the referee who was leading the monster crew. After a cursory nod, David strode purposefully towards the fire. The other ref, decked out in cleric robes, followed in his wake. Here it comes, thought Mark. He glanced down at the ground, locating where he had left his weapons when he put them down to enjoy his beer.
“It seems that our ritual was effective,” David said in the clipped tones he adopted as his character Cassius. “The demon has been banished.”
“So what’s the problem then?” Linus asked. “Can’t help but notice your friend there looks a bit anxious.” He gestured at the monster ref.
“This is Meddoc, a cleric from the village on the other side of the forest,” David said. “His meditations have revealed a disturbance in the Dark Forces. It seems the Minions of Darkness are gearing up for a major attack.”
“But why, if we killed the demon?” Helen asked.
“Clearly the evil magic user knows what we did and wants revenge. He’s going to throw all he’s got at us. If we attack now, we may get his minions before they reach full strength, and have a better chance of success. I want everyone armoured up and ready to go in five minutes.”
Mark drained the last of his beer and reluctantly set his tankard down on the ground. “Oh well, looks like relaxation time is over,” he said. “Once more unto the breach we go.” He picked up his sword and shield and reluctantly stood up, ready to go to battle once more.
In the darkness of the forest, candlelight illuminated a group of six figures, their faces hidden beneath oversized brown hoods. A five pointed star was marked out on the scrubby ground with strips of white fabric, secured into the ground by metal spikes at each point. At each of these points, a shrouded figure knelt, holding a candle. Other candles marked out the perimeter, casting a flickering light that caused shadows to dance across the trees that encircled the forest clearing.
The leader of the group, Cassius, stood in the centre of the pentagram, a candle in one hand and a sheet of aged parchment in the other. The words he read from the parchment were not in English, and though he occasionally stumbled over the unfamiliar language, he mostly read them clearly and unfaltering. When he finished reciting the words of the ritual he lowered the parchment and declared, “It is done.”
The five figures that had been crouched around the pentagram got to their feet. “What now?” said Arlon, the chink of chainmail under his cloak revealing his warrior status.
“We head back to camp,” Cassius said. “Our work here is done.”
“Nothing’s happening,” said Ariadne, the party’s healer.
“It will take time for the ritual to take effect. There’s nothing else we can do tonight. We should head back to camp and get some rest. We’ll know by morning whether or not it has worked.” He moved around the pentagram, blowing out each candle one by one.
Trevor Carty sat slumped in front of the TV, the flickering light from the ancient set the only illumination in the room. The hand that clutched the can of lager in his lap was big and calloused, and trembled slightly.
The darkness in the shabby room camouflaged its disarray. It hid the mould growing on the remains of a pizza that had been sitting on the coffee table in its takeaway box for two days. It was hard to tell just how many empty lager cans were cluttered about. The spent whisky bottles that were left rolling around on the floor were hard to see. The stains on Trevor’s torn vest and ripped jeans were not visible in the darkness, nor was the three-day-old stubble on his face. The fact that he hadn’t washed his thin greasy hair in a while was also hard to tell.
The darkness could not mask the sour smell of unwashed flesh and rotting food, however. Trevor Carty cared little about personal hygiene when he was in the grip of the demon that called out to him. He slumped in his arm chair, staring blankly at the football match on TV with vacant, red-rimmed eyes. He would eventually fall asleep in the chair, in a drunken stupor, as he had so many nights before. In the morning he would awake with a hangover, finally rousing himself from his chair in search of more alcohol to dull the pain. Painkillers just didn’t work anymore and one day was just like another. Trevor didn’t notice the passage of time. Apart from his neighbour, Sue, who would occasionally call round, nobody came to see Trevor. Nobody cared if he lived or died. Sue might have cared once; maybe once she’d worried about him. But lately the frequency of her visits had dropped off noticeably. Trevor reckoned she only came round now to make sure he wasn’t dead. If he lay dead and rotting for weeks, undiscovered, the stench would probably bring down the price of Sue’s house as it was attached to his.
The framed family photographs that were gathering dust on the bookshelf showed a version of Trevor Carty that was very different to the pallid, bloated, greasy-haired wreck that was slumped on the sofa. In the pictures he was handsome, rugged and smiling, his arm around the shoulders of a pretty blonde woman.
After Laura died, the life of her husband became pointed and groundless. He sought solace in alcohol, blind to the destruction it was wreaking on his own body. Or perhaps he was never blind – he just didn’t care anymore. He became so wrapped up in his own grief he failed to notice how his son was suffering. There were no pictures of David Carty beyond the age of 12; the age he had been when his mother died. That day, family life in the Carty household had ceased.
When Trevor Carty fell into an alcoholic slumber, he always dreamed of his wife and the way she was before the cancer ravaged her body. He dreamed she was still young, pretty and full of life; her lovely blue eyes sparkling, her beautiful blonde hair loose and unkempt. He drank so he could see her again. And then he drank some more, to seek oblivion, because whenever he woke up and remembered Laura was dead, the reality was just too unbearable.
In the darkness of the room, the figure materialised unnoticed. Perhaps it was the sudden cold that accompanied it that made Trevor Carty open his eyes. Somewhere deep in his alcohol-fogged brain, an alarm began to tickle his consciousness.
The room was freezing. Trevor’s breath was fogging in front of his face. The TV was no longer showing the game; the screen was full of snowy static. That feeling of unease in Trevor’s brain was becoming more insistent.
He leaned forward to put the lager can on the coffee table. His hand was shaking so badly that he spilled it all over the scarred surface of the wooden table. The room was silent, apart from the soft hiss of the malfunctioning television. A flash of movement caught the periphery of his vision.
Trevor turned slowly. He had no idea what he was expecting to see – the small, logical part of his brain that hadn’t been addled by years of alcohol abuse was insisting that there couldn’t possibly be anything there.
A tall skeletal figure stood in front of him. Its face was mummified rubbery skin stretched over a skull. The eye sockets were empty and there was only a bony hole where the nose should be. A tattered skull cap covered the crown of its head – the original colour was gold, but it had badly faded. Its desiccated body was adorned with a robe of a similar fabric. It hung in tatters, the mouldy fabric making the original colours – red and gold – almost indistinguishable. The bottom of the robe and the area where the figure’s feet should be disappeared into a haze of smoke.
The thing emanated a terrible smell – the stench of the grave and of long-dead flesh. Trevor’s mouth hung open, his eyes widening. All the years he hadn’t cared about life, wishing for the sweet release of death, disappeared in an instant. Suddenly he didn’t want to die. Not like this. Not at the mercy of this unholy Thing. He wanted to scream but he couldn’t; his insides felt like they’d turned to ice.
The thing advanced on him, raising its skeletal hands. As he got to see them closer, he could see they were mummified hands, the bones clearly visible beneath a thin layer of leathery discoloured flesh. Trevor froze in place as they touched his skin. Fear paralysed his body.
The thing was inches from him now. It opened its mouth, a raw wound in the desiccated remains of its face, and in the wake of a blast of icy cold air that carried with it the stench of death, it rasped, “Fear me.”
The thing laid its skeletal fingers on both sides of Trevor’s face and enveloped him in the freezing blast of fear and death that it emanated. He opened his mouth but his vocal chords would not work. He was frozen with fear, his body cold all over apart from the warm mess in his trousers where his bowels had betrayed him.
As his life left him, Trevor Carty’s last fleeting thought was that his worst fear of dying alone and undiscovered for weeks was about to come true.