Two Minutes to Midnight - Opening Chapter
By Bethan Hall
A friend of mine once told me a schoolyard legend that would grow with each passing season. The legend of a man of the forest; as quick as the wind and as formidable as the tallest tree; whose cloak was made of night and shoulders were as broad and solid has stone. He was a giant of a man, hunched over and draped in a thick tattered robe. No one ever saw its face – that was covered too. Some say that it was just draped over, but other stories spun that when it reared its decrepit head there was a golden mask hidden under the darkness that bore the last stolen face.
Some stories mentioned antlers or horns, others spoke of it stretching giant crow’s wings that sprouted from its back and taking off into the night’s sky. An unearthly voice spoke lies in an incomprehensible tongue that seemed to move with the forest, rock you to your core and root you to the spot. He seemed to favour giant yew trees, and if you listened carefully you could hear him chopping away in the dead of night. The story, naturally, was considered by adults to be nothing more than an annoying conglomerate of a thousand different schoolyard fibs.
However, as much as the story changed, and as many forms as the creature took, one thing was always certain in every retelling; it was always carrying a book, bound in the wood of its beloved yew trees. A great tome would always be clasped in a long unhuman hand, they said. The Book of the Dead some called it; a Necronomicon, a Grimoire. Whichever sounded the most terrifying at the time. That’s why they called it The Bookkeeper.
And what The Bookkeeper would do was it would walk, and it would wander, and it would wait. It would wait for you. You have to ask yourself, what does a ‘bookkeeper’ want? It wants stories of course. Stories for its book. Your story. For those who walked alone in the forest were stolen and became another one of the Bookkeepers stories. Your tale was added to his book, and that was your final chapter.
There was a song the children would sing, I’ll see if I can recall.
The Bookkeeper, the Bookkeeper,
He wants to hear your story.
The Bookkeeper, the Bookkeeper,
His tale is rather gory.
He comes from where the fairies dwell,
He steals you when you walk the dell,
To add you to his book of yew,
He’ll take your face,
And leave no trace,
And that’s the end of you.
Naturally there were those who would talk their friends into late night visits to the dell, or others who would scream if someone even took them near to the trees. That’s the power of a fantasy, you see. They show who people really are.
You’re probably wondering if my friend ever saw the Bookkeeper herself. Well, just consider why it is I'm writing this account and not my friend. If you’re reading this then you’re likely doing so out of necessity, and you already know the kind of fate that awaits you. My friend met such a fate and so I am here to help. I don’t know how you found this account and I don’t know who you are. And I don’t know if any of this will be able to help you with what awaits you.
My first experience with that reality was far from as, provoked, shall we say? Given how that story turned out. I first realized I was connected like most people do, in dreams. In dreams we think we enter a world entirely our own, and most people do, and their dreams are as mundane as the rest of their lives. But for some of us we don’t get the comfort of knowing that the walls of our minds are the furthest we can wander whilst we’re asleep. This head of yours isn’t yours any more. Your mind forges the walls and the ground to lull you into a prison. You’re falling through a story made of your own sins.
I was alone when I first began to properly dream. It’s a distinct kind of loneliness as you’ll probably know. Like you’ve left alone as the ruler of a kingdom of one.
The first time I entered that transcendent state white lilies stretched out on fields before me like stars in the darkness. An endless sky to tread rolled out onto every horizon. The blooming stars swayed in a slight breeze as if caught up in a god’s swift retreat into the night. They beckoned me with a trustworthy gesture out of this small wooden house I had awoken in.
I stepped forward and my feet were like a force of nature on the ground. Grass was somewhat, harsher, than I remembered it to be. That’s of course, I thought, if it even was grass at all. The flowing hills were covered in whatever it was, but I could not see it for the night. All that stood out were the stars; tranquil beacons that seemed to light the whole world.
I looked up to see that the night’s sky did not return the loving gaze of the ground’s display. No stars gleamed for three billion light years away. They had all fallen to come and rest in my field. I was standing under an empty sky, and I found it totally sublime. Without anything being said I know it was all mine. My field, my stars, my sky.
I stepped again. The smell hit me like I had inhaled the whole planet in a single second. Up until this point I had been cautiously holding my breath, but as I submitted to my surroundings and let my body take in what was around me, the whole world stood still.
The alluring aroma of, something...strawberries, held me still. Then, only slightly, what was it? Wet grass? no. Some kind of spice? not quite. I couldn’t pin it. It changed by the second leading me from one memory to the next, recollections of a life millions of light years away that I could now see clearly. What should have been an empty dewy field had with one sense held me captive. Silence let me alone in my reminiscing of a thousand lives I had never lived. I closed my eyes.
Now, to understand the next part of the story you have to understand what you are. You’re a conduit for other things to travel from one world to another. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, you just are. They get you and they get the gate in your head.
When I at last opened my eyes I realised I was not alone in the field. A spectre was ahead of me and marching across the field right to where I stood. It made giant strides, gracefully marching through the lilies. Its skin was made of the night, black and covered in stars.
It began to run faster as it knew it had been seen. I was lucky I even noticed it at all. As much as I remember there was no face to make out but I didn’t look for long.
I was maybe twelve at this point and I did what any sensible child would have done, I ran. Turning on my heels in an instant I sprung for the door behind me and threw it shut. I slammed the bolt and leaned my ear against it waiting for something to happen.
I then heard Mageik for the first time - the language of them. It was like a voice was dancing on the wind. It was hardly a whisper yet it made my heart beat like a drum in my chest. As if snakes could talk and woo the world to do their will. A thousand whispers spun in the air. It can be slightly intoxicating.
Then the first crash came. There was no stomping of feet on the grass. It came without warning, as if the wind was trying to force its way inside. I was thrown back in shock but managed to quickly recover and prop myself against the door again. I tried to wake up, I really did, but you have to learn how. Then the second crash came. I began to cry. The voice floated in the air again. Another crash and I was completely weeping.
Than another crash came, and another, sooner each time. I didn’t know what it wanted and I didn’t care. I just wanted to be home. I didn’t want my field I wanted to be normal. I wanted my bed and my room and my house and my family. I didn’t want to be alone in a dream with that thing.
And with that, I was awake. I rarely get so lucky these days. Some people will tell you that you have to focus on reality to come back but that isn’t right. That is your reality now. And it only gets worse.
I awoke with a jump, lashing out at something that wasn’t there. My arm swung around and hit the wall with such a force that it broke the watch that my father had given to me for my birthday. I cried all night. You probably know the feeling. We all share that moment. When there’s no monster under the bed any more. The monsters are in your head.
There was a long while of being alone which for most people lasts forever. First I found Lily who was one of the main reasons I went on for as long as I did. On the off occasion her smile came out of its hiding place she would manage to light the whole world. Those who have seen the darkest things smile the brightest, and she’d seen worse than most of us.
There was a group of us, back then. Living in a place like London there was bound to be a few others that shared my abnormality. Together we managed to find six of us in all out of eight-million Londoners. You can probably understand we didn’t want to openly advertise. Had we done so we’d be surrounded by liars, or worse, doctors. No, we needed to be careful.
Together Lily and I found the perfect place to call our own, a decrepit and dead place outside of London all alone that was falling apart brick by brick. It was an old gothic house with no more windows and no more paint, but allowed us to gaze out onto the hills for miles. A place of our own had been denied to us. This was ours now. The first time we stepped inside Lily left my hand and walked ahead, breathing in the air. “Sanctuary,” she said, and it was christened.
The first time I really took in how she looked we were sitting atop the Sanctuary staring out onto the sunset. It was pretentiously poetic of us. It occurred to me I had never seen her wear anything other than mostly black, and I never expected to until they managed to invent a darker colour. Her love of it even extended to her fingernails which were always done. In contrast her skin was the whitest I’d ever seen. She had short hair the colour of fire that she would run her hands through and ruffle into chaos. It made her silhouette unique in the sunset.
“Do you think we’re special?” she asked as we hung our legs out over the roof. Her hand was tracing the edges of my broken watch as she leaned her head on my shoulder.
“Yea. Y’know,” she paused. “Significant or something.”
“They’re the same?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she slapped my watch in playful annoyance. “You know what I mean. Different, exceptional, important, unusual, something that other people aren’t.”
“Well we’re definitely unusual. But then again the best people are.”
She smiled at that and took my hand in hers. “You say the most usual things sometimes.”
That caused me to scoff, "And you don't? Miss 'imagine if our eyes changed depending on how we lived our life'."
She looked up at me and smiled. “Well your eyes are my favourite. Eyes are the closest to someone’s soul you can ever see. And yours are my favourite.”
"I think you just proved my point," I smiled back.
Now for the record, I hate my eyes. They aren’t ocean blue, or a dark brown, or a deep green – they’re grey, the least interesting eye colour there is. Lily’s eyes were green, and she hated hers too, but that’s because they ruined her carefully colour coordinated look. We were both content with each other’s.
Third and fourth were Danni and Will, a pair of twins who shared hardly any looks (granted they were a girl and a boy) apart from their coal black curly hair and family button noses. What they shared most of all were their dreams which they and their new-age parents took as a supernatural normality when they were young. It wasn’t long before the dreams became more sinister and Lily brought them into the fold. They had grown up speaking Arabic and so sometimes when we vented about dreams together they would go into long explanations about the importance of their native tongue. It was nice, it gave everyone a break for a while.
Bree was the most prone to dreaming out of any of us and it showed. We all succumbed to lifetimes in a single night every now and then whilst others slept in peace, but it was more of an occasion for her not to dream than for her to be subjected to another story to tell. She would shake with the force of a thousand lives lived.
Every time one of us had a dream we would meet in the Sanctuary to lean on one another. For Bree this was as much as possible, and the vivid ways in which she told her tales was chilling. We managed to repurpose a few pieces of discarded furniture into chairs and a large old sofa from the attic which they placed in the upper room.
Lily would perch herself on an old cupboard, Danni and Will on the sofa, I was complacent enough to be confined to a wooden stool, and Bree had a huge armchair to herself that looked as if it had been pulled from a therapist's office. Age had made it bulge in all the wrong areas but Bree was small enough to fold in her legs on the giant cushion and close her eyes when she needed. We made sure she did not fall asleep.
James came to the Sanctuary least of all. He was a singer of sorts floating along the scene in London and was therefore "always too preoccupied to deal in broken dreams". I secretly loved his music which is how we found him. He was older than most of us at around 26 but either respected us enough to not see us as younger or didn't care enough to. Tattoos covered him from foot to neck but he covered them like a hidden treasure under sleeves, watches, high collared shirts and other conservative clothes. "These etching of my darkest dreams will help you to escape from me."
When he did come James occupied whatever part of the floor most suited how he was feeling. Dreaming seemed to knock him off his pedestal. It was the only thing that could bring him low. He lasted longer than anyone else I have ever heard of. There was so much shit running through his system that it numbed the memories and sometimes cut out dreaming all together.
Together, we lasted for as long as we could. Here I’ll detail our balancing act. Our vain attempt to lie to ourselves.
We were the patients of an invisible illness. A plague of six. A poisoned few and the enemies of ourselves. Warriors, wanderers, and broken things with the audacity to hope. This is our story.