Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 30


The bullet came from the right, clipping the ear and striking Tolly’s skull at an angle. The force of it knocked his careering body aside and toppled it into the soil with a splat.

Ripped free of himself, soaring up and away, Tolly saw his form twitching like a trout. The naked limbs looked indecent against the churned earth. White skin was streaked with beaded blood. The thing looked…tossed aside.

He succeeded in checking his ascent, descended a few feet and hovered. He did not pause to wonder where he was, how he got there, or how he could see what he was seeing.

The thing below him looked vaguely disgusting, like a grub in dung. His vision seemed misted and liquid, as if he was looking through turbid water. Still that sweet pungency of violets.

Other bodies and parts of bodies were scattered around his own amid the iron litter. Many were relatively fresh, the blood not completely cold within them. Others were more decayed. The ground was swelling to take these like a slow sea claiming its own. The cadavers were gradually liquefying and running into the soil, becoming soft hummocks of putrefaction as the earth and all its creeping creatures drank them. There were thousands of corpses…then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, from the North Sea to Switzerland – a broad road of greenish, quaggy carrion – as Tolly rose, his vision clearing.

He became aware of living men, of the armies facing each other. Teeming warrens housed multitudes. Feral troglodytes crept and cowered in craters, holes, trenches, dugouts, cellars and pulverised ruins, disputing the corpse road that lay between them. Guns spat at each other in the dark.

Behind the lines men huddled in limitless fungal towns of tents. Despairing doctors and nurses strove with contorted impossibilities in huts and hospitals. Exhausted horses and mules strained against the drag of mud-stuck wheels. Engineers served brutish, painted mechanisms under hissing lights. Motors heaved over the tortured ground, farting petrol stink. More men were arriving in millions in ships and trains and marching columns, congregating for Hell’s orgy.

Tolly could see the entire Front from the Yser to the Alps, a writhing ribbon of pain. Poisoned air lurked in hollows. Shattered, haunted buildings loomed in the necropolis. Bone splintered in the soil.

He saw it all in one glance, from the gore-saturated morass of Flanders to the contested chalk lands of Picardy, Artois and the champagne country, the colour of pus. The pagan black forests of the Vosges gorged on fresh human sacrifice. He saw the dull-glowing holocaust of Verdun.

Further away, on the rim of night, were all the groaning, slaving lands of Europe where children whimpered, women sobbed and baffled men gasped at the impossible pain of broken manhood and broken hearts.

Tolly saw a swaggering skeleton a hundred miles high stamping from sea to mountains, trampling humanity under the smoking bones of its feet.

He felt no emotion. Emotion seemed superfluous.

Glimpses drifted by: Trog Ward, smoking his pipe, reading a scabbed brown book. Miranda Lockwood lifting a glass of some dark liquid to her lips. A thin, intense corporal behind the German lines at Langemarck was cleaning the green gas-corrosion off his buttons, polishing with obsessive determination in the light of a candle.

There was Ruth in her nurse’s uniform writing by lamplight in a long, silvered room lined with beds. She gave a start and looked around as if alerted by something.

And there was Harry, or what used to be Harry, lying violated.

Tolly rose clear of gravity and hung in the freezing indigo of near-space, unwinking stars about him. A preternatural sound like choirs of spirits came to him, faint and far away, sighing on the edge of hearing.

The moon hung behind him. He did not have to turn and look. He was able to see everything all around him, all at once, from both near and far. There were ships at sea with black submarines stalking them like sharks, fields of green and golden crops, sleeping villages. There was Saturn, wheeling in space on its lonely circuit of the sun, galaxies revolving in infinities of meaningless distance, alien planets bowed under lashing storms of poison rain.

The Front was a hell-glowing ribbon of fire like a fissure in a volcano. It flung up globules of bright stuff that rose in lazy arcs before breaking up and falling back to earth in tumbling showers of sparks. Some individual sparks arrowed out on into space, shooting past Tolly trailing streaks of faery fire.

It was given to him to know: these were souls. The sparks were human souls leaving bodies, falling back to be reborn or flying free to some other plane of being. One would be Harry’s.

So that’s how it was.

 Hanging here, seeing everything in the apogee of eternity, he realised: he was one of those sparks. He was his soul, conscious, drifting. His cast-off body lay in the mud far below, dispensed with.

So that’s how it was.

 Of course. How could it be anything other? Death did not matter. Nothing mattered except the diamond moment, here in singing space.

Time not being time, Tolly could not have judged how long he remained in the blue-white light of otherness. The now stretched and doubled back on itself like a snake swallowing its own tail, turning with the stars forever.

But…the earth was getting closer again. The glow of the fire-fissure was growing in intensity. He realised he was falling.


He accelerated, a quickening panic flooding his senses. He was plunging helplessly back towards the Front, towards no man’s land, towards the charnel road.

No –

He tried to twist somehow, to stop himself, go back, but could do nothing. He found himself plummeting like a shot bird towards the maggot that was his body. It was rushing up towards him. He was powerless – he would hit it!


With a great, shuddering scream of ‘R-u-u-u-t-h!’ Tolly failed to die and fell back into his body to be re-imprisoned. He rolled over, bleeding, face down in the copper-tasting corpse mud, and the fog rolled in.



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