• Torstein Beck

The Veil - Chapter 1

ONE

THE BEGINNING

2108 AD


Thunder churned. The front door splintered. He heard the first, but not the second.

Aaro rolled over in bed, a cool sheen of sweat on his skin, and stared at the bedroom door.


‘What’s wrong?’ Emilie asked, rousing.


He sighed, turning back and kissing her in the dark. ‘It’s nothing. Just the storm.’

Lightning split the sky and threw gnarled shadows across the room. Thunder rolled over the house.


She moved closer to him and her fingers climbed his chest, the warmth of her lips pressed between his collarbones.


He wanted to look at the door.


Her hands encircled his neck and her mouth found his in the darkness. The weight pressing down on him lifted and his hands traced the curve of her neck and cheek. He could feel the slow throb of her heart under his touch.


‘I love you,’ he whispered.

She smiled and kissed him again. He’d not said it much lately. Neither of them had. Ever since the baby, things had been different between them. Strange. He ran his hands through her hair and heard her swallow, her breath quickening against his skin. They kissed again, more passionately. He felt their legs entwine. The sheets rustled softly.


The window rattled in the frame, the wind picking up to a howl.


His hands moved down and discovered her body in a way that they hadn’t for a long time. The sleepless nights. The long working days. The letters from the bank, and the university. Late payments. Final warnings. It’d been a tough few months. Everyone was struggling to make a living these days. It was like the whole world had ground to a halt. Everyone had told them that having a baby would change everything, that now wasn’t the time. It wasn’t like they’d meant to. But they were safe, so what did it really matter?


Aaro was studying for his masters in mechanical engineering at Oslo University and would start his final year in a few weeks, and Emilie was in her final two years of veterinary school — but now, that’d all been put on hold. Another mouth to feed meant deferred years, extra jobs. Neither of them remembered the last time they’d made love.


And now, for no reason at all, it was happening. Neither said a word, neither breathed too loudly in case they jinxed it. Lila had been a notoriously light sleeper since the moment they’d brought her home. Aaro was surprised that the storm didn’t have her crying already.


He kissed Emilie again and felt her nails tug at his ribs. She moved closer and he smelled the remnants of the day’s perfume on her jaw, the faint scent of coconut in her hair, pressing his face against hers. They moved as one. Slowly. Savouring it. Drowning in every second, because each of them knew that at any moment, Lila would cry, and their bubble would pop. But she didn’t. They made love without thinking about time. She moved like he remembered and everything that he loved about her came crashing back. He’d forgotten that there was so much.


She was on top then, her long hair spilling onto his chest in a pool, her crystalline blue eyes almost aglow in the darkness. He watched her, his teeth in his lip, his hands on her hips as they got there together. She leaned in and kissed him again.


‘I love you,’ he muttered, the words catching in his throat.


‘I love you too,’ she said. He couldn’t tell whether the droplet that hit his chest was sweat or a tear. But it didn’t matter. They were them again and a smile settled across Aaro’s face. One he hadn’t felt for a long time.


Then came the thing they’d been waiting for. Lila began to cry.


They sighed in unison and Emilie fell next to him, enveloped in his arms.


‘I’ll go,’ he said. But she wouldn’t let him.


She held onto his fingers and shook her head. ‘Not yet. Just a minute more.’


He nodded slowly and kissed her again. She laid her head against his chest and kept it there, rising and falling with his breathing.


Lila didn’t stop.


Emilie was all but asleep when he let her down and stood up, his toes tingling in the cold air that blanketed the carpet.


He thought nothing of it as he went to the door. But as he opened it, he froze. The curtains fluttered behind him and he half turned, catching it out of the corner of his eye. A draft. It was unmistakable.


A loud bang echoed from downstairs and the image of the front door slamming lamely against the frame filled his mind. He swallowed hard and tweaked his ears. He could hear the wind in the house, the rain on the carpet in the hall, the thunder in the sky filtering up the stairs.

His breathing quickened and he stole a glance back at Emilie. She looked up at him, awake now, wrapped in the sheets. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked softly, reading the tension in his shoulders.


‘Stay here,’ he said, stepping into the corridor.


Lila’s room was down on the right, her door ajar as it always was, a thin blue line cast on the opposite wall from the nightlight in the corner next to her cot.


He approached quickly, silently, fists curled. There was a cupboard at the top of the stairs, and inside it was Emilie’s old field hockey stick. He’d get Lila, put her in with Emilie, and then he’d go for it.


He reached for the bedroom door and stopped. Something blinked across the strip of light, extinguishing it for a moment. Lila’s screams, strange and strangulated, built suddenly, deafened him, and then stopped.


Silence fell like a curtain.


Aaro’s mouth went dry and his heart thrummed. There was someone in Lila’s room. He glanced at the cupboard for a fraction of a second, but the time to get there and back was too much. He threw his shoulder against the door and burst in.


His feet hit the carpet, wet with blood, and he slid to a halt. His mouth fell open and he went to a knee, splashing in the warm liquid, his body folding under him, all the strength leaving his body.


A huge black shape uncurled slowly from the crib. Its serpentine tale scraped the floor and smeared the skirting board crimson. Its eyes, like lumps of onyx in the pale glow of the nightlight, flashed as they fell on him. Its forepaw, huge and clawed, slipped off the rail of the cot and hit the carpet with a dull thunk.


The air tasted like rust.


Blood dripped from its jaws. They opened a few inches, exposing razor teeth. A low hiss grew in its mouth, its forked tongue flickering.


It filled the room as it advanced, already close enough to feel its breath.

Aaro’s eyes moved from the half-shattered cot to the creature and back. She was still crying a moment ago but now…


He blinked in disbelief and tears blurred his vision. He couldn’t move.


It advanced towards him.


He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He’d heard the stories, seen the news, but he’d never thought that they’d ever get here. They’d always said they wouldn’t. That they couldn’t.

He looked down and watched a tear fall between his reddened hands pressed into the sodden carpet. He stifled a wretch.


‘Aaro?’ called Emilie from the corridor. Her voice was gentle, concerned. She still had no idea. No clue what was happening. He wanted to call out, to scream. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything.


He swallowed, his breath rattling in his chest. He felt his nails bend backwards as his fingers curled into the floor. She’s gone. She’s gone. There’s nothing you can do. But Emilie doesn’t need to see that. She doesn’t need to see this.


He heard the creaking of wood as the creature’s claws dug into the floorboards right there. Right in front of him. Close enough to feel.


And then he was moving. It was that or die.


He turned and threw himself into the corridor and it leapt after him. His hand slipped against the wall and left a smeared handprint, black in the twilight. Emilie was there, framed in their bedroom doorway, eyes wide, shining with fear as he charged at her, knees and hands stained red.


She opened her mouth to speak but no sound escaped her lips. Aaro’s arm encircled her stomach and he hauled her backwards. Behind him, the wall cracked and shook. The creature crashed against it and growled, dragging its bulk into the corridor.


Aaro’s skin erupted in gooseflesh as they entered the bedroom, the footsteps of the creature shaking the house behind them.


He threw Emilie onto the bed and the springs whined and sang. He turned, catching a glimpse of its open mouth, teeth jagged and sharp, before he slammed the door in its face.


A moment of stillness seized the room before it exploded in a shower of wooden shards and white paint. The pain blinded Aaro and he was launched backwards. He hit the wardrobes, cracks lancing through the glass like spider webs, and collapsed into a heap, winded. By the time he gasped, the thing was on him, bearing down, its tail still in the hallway behind it.

The springs squeaked again and Emilie’s feet hit the floor. She rushed forwards, blind with love and fury. The creature turned its head and in a tear-blurred blink, it had her too. It twisted to the side and seized her with one of its huge paws, batting her to the floor like a doll. She landed face down, cheek against the carpet. A muffled scream escaped her lips before the creature plunged its claws into her back.


Her blood splashed up Aaro’s legs as he watched as the light leave her eyes.


The creature’s jaws closed around the nape of her neck.


A single tear ran down her cheek, her face still and contorted.


Blood drunk, Aaro’s feet moved under him. He had to do something, anything. He rushed forwards, fists raised, teeth bared, but it was useless. With a flick of its head, he was sprawling to the floor again. He landed hard, rolling over splintered fragments of door. Pain shot through his arm and a trail of blood followed him to the wall. He stared up at the creature over the top of a chunk of wood lodged in his upper arm and stifled a grunt. The beast’s mottled eye closed to a slit and it glared balefully at him over its bulging shoulder, its paw still in Emilie’s back. It didn’t want to leave its meal, but it wasn’t about to let another go.


Aaro stole a glance at the corridor and the beast cocked its head. The kitchen. The knife drawer. He looked back. No, it was too far. He’d never make it. But the cupboard? The hockey stick.


He was already moving by the time the creature’s tail swung, whipping into the room. He hurdled it and was blasted with dust and plaster as it split the drywall next to the window in two. He landed and sprang forward, his shoulder screaming at him. The cupboard door rushed up and he wrenched it open. His hands closed around the hockey stick and he pulled it up and around his head just in time. It was in the hallway now. He took half a step forward and, with all the strength he could muster, brought it down on the monster’s skull.


The wood cracked and split, the lower half of the stick landing somewhere behind it. The creature looked up, unphased, and opened its mouth, hissing. Part reptile, part nightmare, covered in matted black fur. The hickory hockey stick had broken over its head and there wasn’t mark on it. Not even a welt in its leathery skin. Aaro looked at the handle in disbelief and barely had time to gasp before his vision strobed black. He opened his eyes and felt his head leave the broken plasterboard wall. He staggered and fell, watching the creature retract its foreleg. Aaro sank to the carpet, fingers still clutching the snapped piece of wood.


The beast loomed over him and once more lifted its leg, thicker than a railroad sleeper, ready to send him back to Emilie and Lila. Its teeth parted and with a final surge of will, Aaro jammed the jagged wooden handle into the roof of its mouth. It squawked and stamped its paw down, the claws sinking into the space where Aaro had been just a moment before. In the second that it was distracted, barely scratched by the attack, he’d rolled to the side. He just had to get away now. It was no use. There was nothing he could do but run. A switch had flipped in his head and terror was taking hold. Fighting was futile. The stairs would be suicide. The creature would catch him before he made the bottom. But the corridor was narrow and there was no way it could turn around, so maybe — just maybe — if he could get to the bedroom, he could make the window. The roof of the wood-store was below, and if he could reach it, then…

The thought was only half formed in his mind as he scrambled through the gap between the creature and the wall. His skin was cut and bruised where he’d been struck and his shoulder was throbbing, the piece of door still lodged there. He jumped over the back leg and faltered, pushing off from the creature’s tail and wedging himself through the destroyed frame. It snarled and hissed, writhing, trying to turn around. Its talons raked on the walls as it fought. Aaro tore his eyes from Emilie’s prostrate and mutilated body and looked to the window instead, his heart a blur in his chest.


The beast stepped backwards and watched him out of the corner of its eye. He took three steps into the room before the tail swung right and then slingshotted left, hitting him square in the hip. His back stretched and popped and his body contorted as he was flung through the air. Pain invaded him and darkness throbbed in time with his hammering pulse. He felt something sharp, saw a shower of glass falling around him, and then there was nothing. He spun through the darkness, deafened and blind. And then he hit the ground.


Lightning streaked across the sky overhead and shards of broken window pane plunged themselves into the earth, glinting in the momentary brilliance. Raindrops fell on his bare chest and warmth began to spread across his stomach. He reached down, retching sobs dying in his throat. The rain stung his eyes. He touched his skin and held his fingers up. Another flash of lightning painted them red.


The tail. The spines and scales had torn his skin to ribbons. He was bleeding. He could feel it around his hips, his back. Warm.


He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move.


He stared into the cloud-filled sky and cried, the names of his wife and infant daughter on his lips. ‘Emilie,’ he sobbed. ‘Lila…’


The rain continued to fall and the blood continued to run.


Aaro lay on the grass in the backyard of their house, the one that he’d broken himself to buy for his family, bleeding and alone, robbed of everything he held dear in the world.


The sound of thunder grew distant in his ears and the deep throb of his heart dwindled in his chest.


It was then that Aaro Emmerson drew a last, slow, shallow, raking breath and welcomed the cold embrace of death.


***


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