Here, in the dry dust and ashes of the broken past, beauty is something long forgotten. Not a flower grows any more. Not here. Not for us. Music has been gone for longer than I care to remember, and the only scent carried on the wind is that of the chemicals that suffused every breath. Home is a long forgotten concept in this painful existence, colour long swallowed by the browns and greys of a world that should by all rights be dead. The last time I saw anyone was well over a week ago, when I bludgeoned a man's head in with a stone for the meagre food supplies and half a bottle of clean water he carried. They're gone now.
All I have with me now is my clothes; a worn long coat, faded black shirt and hard wearing trousers; a bag to hold any supplies I can afford not to devour on the spot, and a pistol with a handful of bullets for any time a rock doesn't work.
I am trying to paint you a picture here, of this world that I have been left. You may as well call me a king. I'm the best thing there is in this forsaken place. Of course, you could say that about anyone now.
I suppose to you, my life is barbaric. It is. I want to cast no illusion here. I am violent and probably quite insane, but in a world where a sip of the wrong thing can kill you as easily as a bullet, violence is the only currency that everyone accepts.
As I scramble over the stones in the hope of finding a root that hasn't already been eaten or a puddle of water, I cast a glance down into the town. There are no supplies in there. I ate them all a long time ago, on my last circle of this place. I think I keep coming back because it's where I grew up. I find it hard to just abandon all I knew so easily. Patterns make me a target, so I keep my timings erratic, but it had been far too long since my last visit. I lick my parched lips, hoping to find some moisture there. Maybe another look? Thirst is becoming a danger. If I don't find a drink soon, the hallucinations will start again, and then it is only a day or two till death.
I sniff some dust out of my nose, and detect the faintest of smells under the heavy ammonium. Sharp and sweet. Powder. Gunfire. This is bad. I scan my eyes over town again, and see a detail I missed the first time. A faint wisp of smoke, the signal of cheap powder discharge. I hadn't heard any shots, but that doesn't mean much. My ears are as ravaged as the land around me, though for different reasons. Anything occurring more than thirty paces in any direction may as well be silent.
I weigh up my options. Powder discharge meant a fight, and a fight normally meant a survivor. On the other hand... could I really afford to let the potential for scavenged water or equipment pass me by? My dry throat and dusty eyes tell me that taking a risk could kill me, but doing nothing would be suicide, so I load one of my few remaining shots and carefully descend the scree slope into the village.
Careful is the word here. I'm just going to grab anything I can. Water is priority, as is food. Warm clothes are important, first snow is likely in a week or two. Ammunition if I can see it, but don't hang around. The smell of powder is stronger here, nearly overpowering the natural stench of the war. Multiple shots then. Extra bodies to loot? Or just one tough bastard? Time to see.
Here, I pause. Something... no.
No, I must have slipped over the edge for a second there.
No one has played music in... forever. No one has cause to sing any more.
That haunting refrain that quavered on the edge of hearing must have been the first sign. To much radiation and no water to help flush it from my body. I've finally gone mad.
A dull wind raises the lank hair from my eyes for a second, and again I catch that ghostly melody. Rounding a corner on to what was, many years ago, main street, I finally fall into the madness. There is no other explanation for that sight which greeted my tired, burning eyes.
When I was a child, many days were spent dashing around the cobbles of Central plaza, laughing as we dodged merchants and parents alike. Summer evenings dangling our feet in the fountain's cool water.
The once proud memorial, recording the names of those who died in petty wars etched into each and every side, has long since eroded to little more than a flattened stump of marble. The cobblestones under my feet are loose as I step upon them. The thin carpet of fresh blood does nothing to help me keep my footing.
Scattered in a loose circle around the once proud statue are corpses. More dead than I have seen alive for years. Each one has a precisely placed bullet wound in the centre of their forehead, the source of the blood that seems to grab my bare feet. I barely register them, as I look upon the being that had alighted upon the podium left behind by the burning rain for this very purpose.
She stands, tall and slim, feet ensconced in cream boots lined with soft fur. Her legs are clad in torn black trousers with bands of metal climbing in horizontal bars up to Her belt, a wide leather strip with a pre-war patterns printed onto it. She wears a dark top which offers no protection to Her arms, and Her long black hair is held in a messy knot on top of Her head by a piece of black and white cloth. Her right hand is wearing in a fingerless leather glove, and has what resembled a spring wrapped around the wrist. Her left forearm is tightly bound in an vibrant red strip of silk, fluttering and flicking in the air as she moves. She has a burgundy scarf tucked into Her top, and a spiked bandanna hanging down from Her neck. Her skin is as pale as the grey ash that still floats throughout the air. Her eyes are lined with darkness, and apart from a few smudges of black ash on Her skin, she is blemishless in a world of stains.
In Her hands, she is holding something I never thought I would see nor hear again. She runs the bow smoothly across the black violin's strings, sending a beautiful note through the air. She seems not to notice the bodies that surround Her as she dances on the spot. Her legs arc and twist, and she turns to face away from me with a movement that leaves me wondering if she moved at all. As she completed each movement, the light and air sifted with her, until it seemed like the music was suffusing everything around Her with life and vitality. I could stay watching Her forever.
Her movements slowly became more frantic, but never losing that aspect of control that she had over Her body. She span quicker, twisted Her spine and legs, never missing a beat in the song she was crafting out of the desolation and hardship.
When she stops, I am barely aware. It's such a shock to hear the music come to an end, like being thrust into the snow having just been let into the warm for the first time in you life. I am angry that the music stopped, but then I look at her, and I am fearful. She is looking at me, eyes like shards of warm ice, cold fire. Did I do something? Did I make Her stop with my intrusion? The final refrain still sings it's way around my skull, and I only notice that I spoke when she replies. He voice is indescribable, but I will make the attempt anyway.
Like water flowing over parched stone, bringing life to a dry plain. Like firelight flickering, welcoming you home. Like being comforted, and never wanted to leave. I knew then that I never wanted that voice to stop. I would do anything to here that voice one more time.
She smiles at me, flashing perfect teeth, and I am filled with self consciousness for the first time since the war. She had asked me something. I couldn't respond. My teeth are yellowing and uneven. My clothes are shabby and in need of repair. I still have blood under my fingernails from the last woman I had met on the road. I am not worth Her attentions. I turn to leave.
She says something else, and something in Her voice has changed. It is sad now. Dejected.
I turn to look, and she smiles, and I can't help but smile back. I walk over to her. Shy. God, I've not been shy in... I can't remember. Odd.
She talks again, and my momentary worry fades away. Unimportant. She stands tall, and raises Her hands to either side of her, one hand holding the bow, the other the violin. She looks at me, a grin on Her lips and a quizzical look in Her eye.
I mutter my dissent. I didn't sing before the war. Constant dryness and dust will hardly have improved matters. I wouldn't want to tarnish Her with my inadequate voice. She looks sad, and lets Her hands drop to Her sides. Maybe I could just sing a little? To appease Her? Make Her happy again?
My voice is scratchy, rough and inconsistent. I wince and stop, clear my throat, and try again. Slightly better, but barely noticeable compared to her. I chance a glance at her. She is beaming at me, Her eyes wide and happy, like my voice is the nicest thing she has ever heard. I grin slightly, and Her smile intensifies.
The words leaving my mouth are not the words I sent there, but that's ok. I think she's helping me so I don't stumble over them. My voice is still weak, but they're getting stronger with each syllable I utter to her. I close my eyes, and before I know it, she has started playing again. She is plucking the strings, and the small notes are drifting between the ruined houses, echoing and returning to us, catching hold of my song and carrying it aloft.
Suddenly, something changes inside. The song coming out of me is strong and beautiful, smooth and rich, and I open my eyes to find Her dancing again, never missing a beat as she smoothly draws the bow across the strings. The corpses forgotten, she turns to me and bends at the waist, executing perfect bow as she steps off Her podium. I keep singing and she keeps playing, and we travel out of the circle of death.
She flicks Her body, and Her hair is suddenly unbound, and flies high above Her in an arc before coming to rest on Her shoulders. She dances across the town, and I follow her, never running out of breath nor stamina as we leap from broken shell to ruined rooftop, Her movements graceful and soft. The music has suffused the very landscape here, and every brick, stone and grain of sand vibrates with the music.
Slowly, she leads me out of town as the sun goes down, each dance travelling without movement as we crossed the blasted wasteland and the sun comes up, endlessly following the moon across the sky.
Slowly, I noticed a hole in our song. I had words that she supplied, and she had, up to now, supplied everything else needed, but now there was something else. She knew it too. We stopped wandering without purpose, and she started leading me somewhere. She knows where she's going. I follow her. I'll always follow her.
We cross rivers and traverse mountains before we arrive at Her destination. Halfway across a grassy field, she stops. Completely. The music stops too. So does the words. I trail off, and stare at her, content. I know the music will start again once she's found what she is looking for.
We stand in the field for slightly over an hour. Winter is fully here now, but I barely feel the bitter wind. In the distance, I hear baying. Wolves of some kind most likely. A minute later, the baying sounds again, louder. Closer. I feel no fear of them any more. They are efficient pack hunters. I have Her. They wont harm me as long as I am with Her.
Slowly, she starts up Her song again. It's slower this time. Sadder. I can feel it cast out into the world. No words come to me. No words are needed for this. The violin she has not let go of since I first set eyes upon Her produces such sweet sorrow that I weep openly, not caring as the tears freeze upon my cheeks.
I can see them now. Sleek streams of grey and silver, chasing a man in a brown leather coat with a black scarf tied around his neck. The wolves were catching, but they were running much slower than I had seen them run before. Conserving energy. They know as well as I that their quarry would fall sooner than later. Neither man nor beast seemed to see or hear our presence, but she keeps playing, dancing slowly on the spot.
Just as he passes us, the man stumbles as he tries to keep the wolves in his field of vision. He impacts the soft snow, and the wolves run past, flickering into nothing in the trees. He looks up at us with confusion and fear on his face. His hair is slick and damp from his fall. He climbs to his feet, and our saviour turns to look at him. He is captivated, just as I was. She smiles sadly, and the words come to me in a rush. As I pick up the song, our new friend spends a few seconds straightening his ruffled clothes, before shyly smiling at the two of us. He is caught in the song, but seems to notice the hole that has appeared. His face clears and I know the song will be whole once again. His voice is empty to start with, but we fill it with the music. His words are different to mine, long and slow. barely words at all. His voice is deep, and with it, he fills the hole.
We stand together, in this field, until the snow around us is filled with the song. It shifts as she dances, like a giant dress swishing at Her knees. The sun and moon resume their dance high above us, and we slowly start to move again.
Our song is full and rich, woven like a thick rope, it tethers us together stronger than friendship or bonds of blood. We are led across the field by our saviour, whomever she is, cross a river, and keep following the music.
I like to think of us like a shooting star, flying from one side of the sky to the other, sampling everything we never thought we'd see, bringing awe and wonder to all who saw us. And they did see us. We dance and sing and play throughout the world, travel from a lonely moor where we come across a weary old woman who views us with wonder before quietly passing on, to a crossroads where we stopped for a while, as several groups of people pass us by with weary eyes and laden backs. It breaks my heart to see them hurting, but there is nothing I can do for them. My angel looks to each of them, and they never look back. They never pass Her judgement. The three of us walk together through snow and wind, day and night, rain and sun, night and day. My beard grows long and thick, but when I reach to push it from my mouth, my questing fingers find my cheeks bare and smooth. I carry on.
Slowly, as my ears heal from constant exposure to the song, I hear a new hole. That's wrong. That implies the hole has been there since I joined. Perhaps I should say, as we travel together, us fateful three, a new section of song drops away. As I notice, the others do too. Again, we stop wandering, and start walking with purpose, the sweet song reverberating in our bones.
We stop, eventually, as a few hardy weeds start to force their way up through the ash in a bare leaved forest of bones. No animals walk here, and as our angel pulls the bow away from the strings, no sound disturbs us but our own breath and the thud-thud of our heartbeats.
Our protector turns to us, and in a voice of silk and whispers, begs us to listen, Her eyes alight with the inner flames of the sun that is setting behind her.
We stand like the tree trunks that surround us, holding our breath, begging our hearts not to make a sound as we strain to hear what she evidently already has.
There. A faint beat, in time with a heart. Satisfied, our leader turns and starts to walk, with that graceful, dancer's beauty in every move. She stalks through this bare forest of dead wood, closing in on the next acquisition of the song.
Though the trees, we follow her, our movements not as graceful, but sure and steady. In the distance a faint light glows like a firefly, and I am sure that this is our destination.
As we close on our quarry the beat becomes louder, more noticeable, and yet all at once it is weaker than before. Soft sounds come unbidden to my lips, and I shape them and set them free as the wolf man's voice swells behind me. Soft droning emits from the jet violin rested on Her shoulder and together we croon a song of loss and of pain.
As we step into the clearing the light is shining from, we see why the song has become so sad, as the beat of the drum is slowly worked around us like a quilt.
The light shines from four fire pits, set with round stones. The fires burn with unearthly hues of green and purple as the chemical salts that saturate every stick of wood ignite. In the centre of the clearing there is a shallow hole with a shrouded body, and sitting nearby with tear reddened eyes and ague driven shivers was a skeletally thin girl, clutching a home made drum composed of bone and hide. Her shoulders are wrapped in a thin, ragged cloak, and she shakes and rattles in between every beat.
She looks up as us blearily, and nearly falls as she stands. She reaches up to our angel, and our the violin in passed to the same hand as the bow. Her other hand takes the child's, ad leads her over to Wolf man and I. Hands are exchanged, and Wolf picks the child up, pulling her onto his shoulders. She giggles, but then sobers quickly. She tugs on Wolf's hair, and whispers in his ear, pointing to the body in the hole.
Wolf looks at our Angel.
Her father, in the grave. She dug it herself. He fell ill before she did, and she tried everything. In the end, she dragged him in here, and tried to put his body out of the reach of the scavengers that would remove him.
From her age, I guess she was born after the war. I don't know whether to envy her or pity her. She had never seen beauty. Never smelled a rose, never listened to proper music nor seen art. On the other hand, she had nothing to compare this dead world that we had to.
Either way, she grew with us as we wandered the wilderness. Her beat filled the hole in our music, kept us together. Eventually, she walked with us, as opposed to sitting on Wolf's broad shoulders. I think he saw her as his cub, little Ague. I think she saw him as a father too. She liked watching our Angel dance.
We travelled for days, years, weeks, never stopping our music. Ague, Wolf, Angel and I. We played wherever we wanted. The music was a tether, and it always pulled us onwards, but whether onwards was backwards or forwards remained a mystery.
After a time, I become convinced that I have seen all there is to see in the shattered world. My Angel has led me through broken forests, over jagged mountain peaks, and has shown me the sulphurous clouds from above. She has led us without fear, through barbaric camps of savage survivors, over mires of toxic pollutants. The longer I stay with Her, the more I am convinced that our madcap pathway has method behind it, but I am not sure what that method could be.
My singing takes on a mind of it's own, sometimes. Leaves me free to ponder. I think about home, and how long it has been since I laid eyes upon it. I think about the stars, the moon, the pathways of the sun. I wonder how long it has been since I last ate, last drank. Last took a breath.
Am I dead? Am I travelling the surface of Heaven, led by a real angel to my eternal judgement? Did I die all that time ago?
I don't think I'm dead. I don't feel dead. But then, what does death feel like?
If I were going mad, how would I know?
I'm sure I recall that quote from somewhere, but I can't remember where. Perhaps I made it myself? No matter, the sentiment stands.
There were several times, in those months and years, where we would be led to a destination for no reason other than so Angel could dance in solitude. Whenever this happened, we'd stand and watch, silent as she wove the violin into something beautiful all by herself.
I get a feeling, every so often, that our Angel is tired. Not tired from age, for she is ageless, nor tired from travel, for travel is one of the few things left now, but tired all the same. She never let the music fall, but there are slips, now an then. A note that quavers on the edge of obscurity. Some dream once held that is slowly hidden by the mist.
It is winter again now. Wolf is strong here, his thick coat and bristling hair bared its teeth at the cold and the snow. Ague and I simply follow the Angel. Wherever we've been led, the snow comes down sideways, blown into fantastical shapes by the howling wind. We're led upwards, scaling a mountain. Even with Angel picking the easiest paths, the going is surprisingly tough. It's been quite a while since I've felt affected by anything so mundane as the weather.
I don't know why we're here. Angel treads with the same purpose that led to Wolf and Ague, but no one would be out here. Even if there were a lonely soul to collect, they would never hear our song through this gale.
It wasn't until we'd left the icy storm behind that I realised that someone had heard us through the shrieks and howls of the wind. Frostbite was tall, blond haired and blue eyed. Wrapped in his thick but ragged snow clothes, I didn't see much else of him. Every time he breathed out, a puff of frost fell from his lips, but the guttural, keening noises he made, reminiscent of the wind, carried our song again.
It wasn't long before we picked up Twine too. She had been a city girl before the war. I could tell. She still clung to ridicules ideals like peace and civility. She had something in her. A taintless innocence that even Ague didn't posses. The men that had tried their best to take that innocence felt an Angel's fury through me that night. Twine still bore the thin red welt around her neck from where she had tried to end herself. She clings to me, even now. I think she thought I was her rescuer, her divine protector. She looked up to me as much as I looked up to Angel. It made me uncomfortable at first, but Angel doesn't mind. She almost encourages it. Her voice is the sweetest amongst us. Now she was here, the Angel only played the simplest of melodies. Just enough to keep us on track.
She Dances now.
Angel still plays a note or two, now and then. We don't really need her any more.
We don't need her any more?
She hasn't played a note now in so long. She's just danced as our voices and Ague's drum carries the song without her. It's an odd feeling. It's almost...
I realise that she's stopped walking. We're arrayed around her, in as perfect a circle as five people can make. Our angel stands upon a small rock in the middle of this featureless desert. She's stopped dancing. One by one, out voices and Ague's drum come to a stop.
With a hollow clunk, the violin hits the floor. The bow follows it a second later. A gentle wind caresses the hair that lies piled atop Her head. She turns, slowly. Taking us all in. Twine. Frostbite. Ague. Wolf. Thirst.
I never really knew their names. It was never important, up till now. We never needed to speak. We just... knew.
The Angel straightened her shoulders, and raised her right arm parallel to the floor. She slowly turned, and four echoing cracks split the silence.
Twine fell first, forever free of the nightmares that plagued her even while she was awake.
Frostbite hit the floor with a dull thump, warmth finally returning to his lips.
Ague's drum slipped from nerveless fingers and broke upon the floor.
Wolf went down without a sound, the cold moon reflected in his eyes.
At last, she turned to me. The pistol in her hand was black and dull, the edges picked out by droplets of silver light. Her arm was steady and still. Her eyes were warm as I looked into them.
Her head cocked to the left, and her index finger squeezed the trigger