The castle was decimated — a blackened and pockmarked shell all that remained, as if it had been the target of an air strike. Overhead, the maroon sky boiled and churned. Lightning flashed, thunder boomed. Flashes of electrical discharge revealing the ground underfoot in grizzly, illuminated horror. Blood and guts for carpet.
“Erden! Erden!” I dimly registered Yarmina screaming my name. The creature’s cries were deafening — years of artillery fire, gunshots at close range, and death metal music had never felt as loud as this.
The soldiers behind me kept firing, a cacophony of panicked cracks in the night. Agony drove me forward. I noted that I had lost part of my right arm, as if someone had taken a bite out of the muscle near the shoulder. My face was smeared in swiftly-cooling gore. Incandescent emerald eyes settled on me, muzzle flashes lighting its grotesque head in monstrous staccato. Something between frog, wolf, and crocodile, I would stammer later. A nasal cavity that looked underdeveloped.
Physical trauma has the odd effect of cementing trivial detail in high definition in your memory. A gust of wind tousled Yarmina’s grey pixie cut. She had highlights and her eyes were wide.
She had been right all along. We should never have entered the purple-hazed portal without reconnaissance. She was right most of the time, I privately acknowledged. There was enough of her “I told you so’s” already. I had adored her for years.
The gunnies at the base told me they had seen her with a pretty boy on shore leave. That outright disqualified me — I was anything but pretty. “Ain’t never gonna happen,” they would say, whenever I was caught stealing a glance.
During a bombardment, once, in the middle of the Southland rainforest, our carrier went down. Command ordered everyone to lay low until help arrived. Seven days we spent in each other’s company. It was the best 168 hours of my life. At the end of a night of stargazing outside the village, I finally gathered the courage to make my move. For a brief moment, she returned my stare. Then burst out in laughter. A friendly punch on the shoulder. “You’re such a goofball.”
When the portal appeared, she was the first one to loudly question a manned mission without drone reconnaissance. But the labcoats were sure – their scans showed no signs of danger. Their hypothesis was that it was some gateway to another world. Instead, we ended up only twenty miles from the base, facing a foe that wouldn’t die.
I returned to the awful present, shouting.
The beast opened its mouth, its jaw distending, unhinged, revealing teeth and gore. Its saliva splashed onto my face. It was warm, sticky, and smelled like rotten eggs.
“Hold on!” Yarmina directed the soldiers to cover her.
In a flash, the creature was upon me, and I was alone. A snaking tongue lashed out flicking across my face as I tried to dodge away. For some reason, it didn’t immediately tear me apart. It was as though it was studying me. I was strangely calm, noting a small round object flying through the air towards us.
The blinding flash made the monster flinch, and I broke free, equally disoriented. Laser surgery had made my eyes sensitive to light.
I managed to scoop up my gun from the ground, but as I turned to aim it, my legs gave way and the world seemed to spin. I pointed it at the creature awkwardly, targeting an arm. My balance was off, and palms sweaty. But when the gun kicked reassuringly into my shoulder, I saw the grey limb arc cleanly away from the socket. Cyan blood. A hellish scream filled the night. Bizarrely, the noise made me think of the time I fell from the third-floor window of the family house, breaking my leg. A viscous, lumpy slime spilled out of the beast’s mouth. It smelled vile, like a dead rat covered in fresh vomit.
This time, the creature stepped back, clearly in pain and fearful of our weapons. Its cries of agony were oddly recognisable. Again, I thought back to my own experiences, that time I had been shot in the stomach on mission, and spent the whole journey back to base writhing in pain on the floor of the evacuation shuttle.
We were clearly winning. I took a few steps forward and so did others. Shouts of encouragement from Yarmina and her veterans rallied the troops, driving them on.
Then the creature picked up a boulder with impossible ease, and threw it at the regiment. I saw at least three soldiers go down and six more flee the scene. It was wounded, but still very dangerous. It arched its back and screamed out a cry of defiance to the heavens. Flashes of lightning spat across the sky in response. Then it crouched down and charged.
Straight at me.
I swallowed hard, but this time my hands were steady and I knew what to do. In one swift motion, I plucked a smart bomb from my belt and heaved it through the air and into the monster’s open mouth. The explosive lodged into its throat, and it began to gag.
“Run!” I yelled, punching a sequence of commands on my watch. As I followed the swiftly-retreating backs of the soldiers, I heard the detonation, and felt the muffled impacts as its gore peppered the grass.
“Portal!” Yarmina shouted. Looking up, I saw the window in the air shimmering erratically, much less stable than it had been when we entered.
“Go, go, go!” I ran towards it.
Everyone fled, sprinting for the distortion. As the last of the regiment fell through, back into normal daylight and fresh air, the purple hue dissipated and the portal winked out of existence.
The sun was shining brightly. As my eyes adjusted, the familiar lines of the base settled into view.
Later, the doctors looked me over with evident concern. A few hundred photos, half a dozen vials of blood, and a handful of x-rays. Yarmina sat watching from the opposite bunk, munching protein bars. A nurse stitched up the hanging bits from my arm and sutured the wound.
“Animal attack?” She busily applied the dressing.
“Something like that,” Yarmina answered for me.
“Could you give me something for the pain?” I asked quietly.
“I’ll ask the doctor.” She left the tent.
Yarmina slid off the bunk, picked up a cloth and wiped the side of my mouth.
“What are you doing?”
She frowned. “You’re dribbling. Can’t you tell?”
I was embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry. You look tired. We have a long day of debriefing tomorrow. Rest up.”
At chow time the following day, I sat quietly staring at my plate. Breakfast had tasted like a kitchen sponge, and lunch was no different. Yarmina watched me with concerned curiosity while sipping a diet soda.
“What’s wrong?” she asked in a low voice.
She leaned forward. “You’re sweating. And you clearly have no appetite. Something is definitely wrong. We have to go back to sick bay.”
“Let’s give it another day,” I stalled, swallowing my afternoon medication.
She stared levelly at me for a moment.
“What did you find out about the castle?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“The database description reads like a horror novel. Monster sightings, strange disappearances, people seeing their dead relatives. If it’s something horrible, it’s happened at Dornham.”
“Anything from the squints?”
“You mean the scientists? Yeah, the brass sent a field team out to the castle on our side. They found unusually high levels of radiation and the electrical activity is off the charts. Nothing to explain the portal or the creature.”
“We should lock it down. Set up a perimeter.”
“It’s a popular tourist spot. The townsfolk won’t close it down without good reason.”
“Flesh-munching nightmare things don’t qualify?”
“That’s actually a selling point,” she smirked.
“What kind of world are we living in?” I mumbled.
Before Yarmina could answer, I felt my insides churning. A sharp sting at the base of my stomach. I gagged. My breakfast saw daylight. The retches forced everyone’s attention. Yarmina tossed me a paper towel and quickly dragged me out of the mess hall.
I passed out somewhere between the entrance to the barracks and my bunk bed.
In the evening, my team endured several rounds of interrogations. It was hard to explain what we had seen.
“What was it?” asked a colonel, for the fourth or fifth time.
“I honestly could not tell you, sir,” was my perennial response.
The base scientists were baffled by the portal, and could not offer us any explanation about it.
“What else can you remember?”
“That thing,’ I started. ‘The creature. It was trying to communicate something.” I tried to explain what I felt I knew for the seventh or eighth time.
“Any idea what it was trying to say?”
“It wasn’t any language that I had ever heard. It wasn’t words, exactly.”
And so we got nowhere. The questions were repetitive, and the entire exercise tiring, but once everyone’s stories were down on paper and broadly matched up, the brass couldn’t think of anything else to ask us.
The following day, I asked Yarmina to look up Dornham Castle on the satellite scanner. She pulled up the logs and a live feed. It was standing tall, flawless. Being the town’s tourism cash cow, it was teeming with brightly-coloured anoraks and backpacks. But something at the back of my mind bothered me. It niggled at me. I felt that something bad was about to happen.
I had to see it. Prevent it. The arm that the creature had damaged was plastered up, immobile, so I couldn’t drive. My skin had gone an awful grey colour, almost greenish. Noises made me flinch, and anything brighter than the dim glow of the moon hurt my eyes.
If I was going to do something, it had to be soon — I felt sure I’d be quarantined before long. I requested a ride to the castle on a base transport.
The journey was awful. I sweated profusely.
“You okay, sir?” one of the escorting soldiers asked.
I nodded, dishonestly. No, I was not okay. I was running a fever, but also showing the symptoms of cyanosis. My fingers looked like they were swelling, under the fingernails. Somebody was playing Jenga with my internal organs. I turned over my hand.
“Oh my god,” I blurted.
My palms were now grey, and my skin was coming away. Big flakes, like scales. I realised that my breath smelled. Halitosis. Disgusted, I started panic breathing. Suddenly, my tongue felt swollen. A godawful rumble in my stomach.
“Stop the transport,” I said, in a voice that was not mine.
When they did not, I panicked. I scrabbled at the door handle. I couldn’t seem to grasp it, so I hurled my weight against it. It sheared off the hinges. I leapt out. I felt my clothes constricting me, and heard the tear of cloth.
‘“What the—,” I tried to say, but the sounds came out unrecognisable. I was a prisoner inside my own body.
A frightened soldier fired two rockets from the roof-mounted cannons of the transport. They missed me widely, but I heard the crack and tumble of masonry as they struck the castle. Limestone and wood scattered around me. I turned to see the castle ruined, the tourists and visitors blown away. Grisly remains littered the ground.
Then the transport disappeared.
Suddenly, the sky darkened. Mauve, then maroon. Web-like shapes danced in the roiling clouds as thunder rolled. My body was bulging, changing, grotesque. My fingers ached as bones lengthened, bursting from my fingertips.
As I felt my humanity ebbing away I saw a bizarre rent in the air, behind where the transport had been. The air around it shimmered purple. Silhouettes within. Then from it emerged a man who looked exactly like me, a clutch of soldiers at his back, and Yarmina.