George Mann (george-mann.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
As a child he had practised on birds.
He’d grown quite adept at it: finding just the right kind of smooth-sided pebble, fitting it to the pouch of a catapult he’d stashed in his secret place in the woods, choosing exactly the right target.
He’d started with pigeons, but soon gravitated to magpies, and then ravens and crows. The bigger birds rarely died when they were struck by the stone, but were injured or stunned, making them easier to catch. He’d scoop them up with an old fishing net he’d stolen from another child’s back garden and find somewhere safe amongst the trees to hide. He’d turn them out from the bright green net and hold them in his cupped palms, thrilled at the terrified fluttering of their hearts, at the way their warm bodies shuddered as he wrung their necks; that final, juddering spasm of life.
He’d never felt guilt. More a crushing sense of disappointment that it was over so quickly; that the creature had died so easily, that its grasp on life had seemed so tenuous. He’d known death – he’d seen it visited upon others – and he was constantly amazed by how quickly, how willingly, the living embraced it.
It wasn’t so much a fascination with death that had inspired him to such acts, however, but more a need to understand how to control it, how to exert power over it. If the taking of a life was such a simple act, couldn’t the reverse be true, too?
He’d experimented with rituals to stir the creatures back to life, to breathe vitality into their silent corpses, but of course, he had failed. Real power, he had learned much later, was far more difficult to attain, and his juvenile efforts had been naive, ignorant, misguided. There was a toll to pay for mastery over such things. Sacrifices to be made.
Now, though, decades after his search had begun, he had found what he sought: the tools of his vengeance and the path to real power. He had pieced the rituals together from fragments, painstakingly interpreted every word, every symbol. Soon, he would put them to proper use. This was to be his finest hour, the summation of his life’s work. All he had to do was tread the path that had been laid out. The process had already begun.
The first two had been nothing, not really. The woman had nearly escaped, but once he’d caught her, it had been just like snuffing out another bird, holding her in his arms as she shuddered and died. He would be more careful next time, though. He couldn’t afford for them to get away.
It wasn’t that he’d wanted to kill them, more that he had no choice. These were the sacrifices, steps along the path towards transcendence. Steps towards being reunited with the one he had lost.
Out here, amongst the gnarled boughs of the Wychwood, he felt close to him, as if he could almost hear him whispering amongst the shushing of the leaves, urging him on. He would visit properly, soon. Tonight, however, he had a different task. Tonight he was here to watch.
He peered into the mirror he had propped upon the stump of the tree, and felt nauseous at the sight of the woman preening, peering out through the silvered glass as though she were looking right back at him. She brushed her hair, smeared ointments and creams upon her aged flesh, and he noted it all, monitoring every moment of her nightly routine, aware of every deviation from the norm.
This one was different from the others, so much more than a simple sacrifice. History had already chosen a far more terrible death for her. If he wished to follow in the master’s footsteps, then he had to free himself of those who had wronged him, destroy them through their own vanity. She would be the first.