He found himself in a place he had never been before – a barren white landscape stretching endlessly in all directions. Above him, the stars spun and moved, glistening, shining, showering him with a sense of wonder. They looked like a matte painting, merging into infinity – a canvas across the cosmos.
How long had he been traversing this empty, near-blinding tundra? Had it been moments? Hours? Had he been here for his entire existence – every other moment a fallacy designed to trick him into a sense of normality? He didn’t know. He only knew two things: his name – and that his only option was to keep trudging forwards.
There were no roads upon this desert of luminous white. No paths to traverse, no corners to turn. He had but one choice – to move on and hope to find a reference point – some idea of where – or, perhaps more importantly, when – he was.
He remembered nothing before the time of this infinite NOW; not where he had been, had done, or was planning to do. He remembered nothing but walking, aimlessly, without cause or direction.
Am I dead? He thought, knowing that perhaps this was a ridiculous notion under any circumstances. Is this hell?
Then, a piercing sound shot out across the desolate landscape, shattering the silence and tranquillity, like a rapist infiltrating a coma-ward. A voice that boomed and crackled, seemingly tearing through time and space itself: a voice from beyond the pale.
The landscape shifted, moving away, as he was sucked up into a vortex, leaving the white behind, entering the dark. As he did, he thought he managed to glimpse a lone landmark in this featureless expanse: A black, dilapidated cabin.
Gabriel Molyneux woke up in his moonlit bed, a comic book on his lap. He had fallen asleep while reading. Was it just a dream? Blearily, he looked up, just able to fathom a huge, towering figure in the darkness, looming over the bed, staring at him with unfiltered disdain.
He swore that, for a second at least, the eyes of this tower of a man were glowing the deepest of crimsons. Gabriel’s eyes widened in dismayed shock, as he began to understand where he was, what was happening, and – most importantly of all – what was about to happen.
‘Where’s my tobacco, boy?’ The figure asked.
‘You fucking what’ Gabriel managed to mumble, still trying to reconcile himself with his new-found location inside reality.
He knew though, even in this state, that if this was reality, and he was awake, that those were very poorly chosen words. Please tell me I’m still dreaming, he begged himself, desperately hoping against hope. Then the fist flew; and Gabriel Molyneux discovered – in the rudest awakening one could manage – that he was very much awake.
Chapter One Better The Devil You Know
In the South-West of England, tucked deeply away in the murky heart of Gloucestershire, lies the isolated and rural area known as The Forest of Dean. Long it has stood, a gaping black hole in time, a relic of simpler, humbler days. A time when farming dominated the landscape, when racism and bigotry were widely accepted, and where if a working day did not end with your body ravaged and soil ingrained within the very pores of your skin, then, frankly, you had not worked at all.
If you head down a main road and cut through the various villages, towns and hamlets that comprise this rural time capsule you’ll find yourself surrounded by very little, save for dense tree life and wild flowers. Stripped away are the concrete mastodons that pollute the dense concrete skyline of cities, replaced instead by a horizon of small and simple buildings, enclosed within a dense dome of nature. By day, the sheep of the local farmers can be seen walking both streets and roads – free to meander to their hearts’ content. By night, the other, less domesticated wildlife crawls its way out of the crevices; the wily fox skittles about underfoot, the fleetfooted deer hop around between the Wild Oaks, and the large and heavy wild boar crash around the undergrowth, destroying all they come into contact with.
It could be said that in the contemporary world – a world that runs at one thousand miles per hour destroying the environment around it in pursuit of increasingly more impressive architecture, never once stopping to admire what was already here and has been for aeons – an area such as this could be considered a lost utopia. A simple place redolent of a simpler time. Ideal for tourism and retirements? Certainly. Ideal for those lost years between adolescence and the discovery of destiny? Certainly not. Like all small and secluded communities, the Forest had issues. These issues were hidden away from the tourists, and seldom alluded to by the inhabitants themselves. Boredom among the local youths had led to a mini rebellion of sorts. Not one fought via slogans or violence; rather, this revolution took place in the shadows, through the use of narcotics and loud music. Whilst the party scene was primarily a fine, enjoyable affair in which no harm came to those who chose to attend them, the substances imbibed at them were not so harmless. The Forest had a very active drug scene. In the midst of all this chaos stood a small village. A village so tiny, you would be hard pressed to call it a village at all. The term ‘Hamlet’ may be more appropriate for such a place. The Hamlet’s name was Hallowed Fern, a name which seemed extravagant in comparison to the more mundane toponyms in the area, such as Cinderford or Pillowell. The true nature of the name may never be known now, forever lost to archives nobody ever bothered making. Or perhaps they did make them. Perhaps they were lost in a fire long-ago, a fire nobody now speaks of. Ask the elders of the village and they may relay what little they know. Traditionally this consists primarily of hearsay and speculation. One theory that remains consistent throughout, however, is the idea that the name stretches back to a time when this area was still alive with pagan custom. But speculation it must remain – the notion of ever being able to confirm such ideas is long foregone. Hallowed Fern consists of one main road – that heads straight up from a neighbouring village – and ends at the top of the Hamlet, alongside the war Cenotaph. Along this road stand roughly five hundred houses, tucked away in various locations on either side. Some are adjacent to the road, others form small estates tucked away behind these initial houses. Most are semi-detached; occasionally one stands alone. Traditionally, this symbolises a wealthier occupant. Hallowed Fern Primary School is situated beyond the houses, on the right-hand side of the road, and on the left stands the Pharmacy. Tucked away behind the Pharmacy there is a small alley that leads in a circle to the shop, allowing underagers who have purchased alcohol from this shop to sneak home unnoticed – avoiding the road and, by extension, any vigilant parents that may be surveying them. If you choose to head straight up the road instead, you’ll find ‘THE SHOP’ on your left. There was no need for creativity here. As the owners will happily tell you, it is the only shop in Hallowed Fern. At the top of this main road, opposite the shop, across the street from the school, stands the Hamlet’s only functioning bus stop. At the stop stand ten teenagers, babbling and laughing. Behind this babbling gaggle of people is a figure distanced from them. A figure with shoulder-length dark ringlets of hair, and hazel eyes as dark and deep as infinity itself. That day, there were new features etched on Gabriel’s face. That day, he sported a ridiculous purple bruise accentuating the outside curvature of his eye socket. His jaw was swollen, as though a grapefruit had grown within it – a grapefruit that was trying its damned hardest to escape. Nobody in the line offered sympathy or asked for an explanation. They noticed, of course – it was impossible not to. But they merely giggled behind palms and whispered cruel things among themselves.
The bus – adorned with the legend THEATRE BUS – pulled up, and all the waiting passengers piled on. Each showed the driver their pass in turn, and boarded the vehicle that will take them to the local College. Gabriel hung back, allowing the others to pile on before him. He’s never been a fan of crowds or lines; he is a man who likes to lurk in the shadows, doing his best to remain inconspicuous. Eventually, it was his turn to enter the bus. The driver’s name was David Mitchell, known simply to friends and relatives as ‘Big Dave’. The Big was entirely ironic – as Dave stood a whopping five foot six – and couldn’t have weighed ten stone if he swallowed liquid concrete. Dave had dreams as a youth. He wanted to be a pilot. All day, everyday, Dave dreamed sweet dreams of soaring through the skies in his personal jet. He dreamt of piercing clouds in a great crashing crescendo of noise and jet fuel, forever free to fly as he pleased. Unfortunately for Dave, these dreams never came to fruition.
Now, at the age of forty-six, he was a simple bus driver. He had a small house. Two bedrooms. He had a wife, Laura, who frankly had bored the shit out of him for the last twenty-odd years; but where the hell else would he find anyone at this point? Whilst she may only put out twice monthly for him now, and most evenings would feature at least one lonely trip to the bathroom with a laptop and a packet of Kleenex, that twice a month was more than he could guarantee elsewhere. ‘Better the devil you know’, his departed mother Susan always said. Having spent most of his youth labelled a wild dreamer, alone in his bedroom, gluing together model airplanes he’d saved his weekly pocket money for, Dave knew a thing or two about isolation and loneliness. It was because of this understanding he had a lot of time for Gabriel. Some might even say he saw a bit of himself in him. If he is anything like me, thought Dave, as the rest of ‘the rabble’ flooded onto his bus, May the good Lord have mercy upon his soul. ‘How’s it going Gabe?’ Asked Dave, checking the ticket – as Gabriel walked onto the bus and gave him his change. ‘You alright lad?’. ‘ ‘m ‘ine,’ Gabriel mumbled through his clenched jaw, causing Dave to look up in curiosity. As he caught sight of what used to be the left side of Gabriel’s face, he did an extremely comical double take and dropped the change on the floor. ‘Holy shit!’ exclaimed Dave, mouth damn near hitting the bus floor, ‘What the fuck happened to you?’. What the fuck do you think happened, you idiot? Gabriel thought to himself, It doesn’t take Colombo to figure this one out. Guess that’s why you’re a bus driver. With some extraneous effort Gabriel managed to turn his face into something resembling a twisted smile. In truth, it looked more like a grimace, and not remotely charming. Dave meanwhile, realising he had been gawping at Gabriel like an act in a Victorian freak show, proceeded to fumble around on the floor, desperately hunting for a stray ten pence piece. Finally he found it, and looked back up at Gabriel, trying his best not to show his curiosity or shock. ‘’m fine,’ Gabriel repeated.
He took his change from the driver’s slightly unsteady hand, nodded his thanks, and headed up the aisle. As he walked the between the sea of seats on either side of the aisle, people made their feelings towards him apparent. Every time Gabriel approached a pair of seats that had only one occupant, said occupant would place their legs across the seat and shake their heads at him. The shake was often accompanied by a glare of pure disdain, and if it wasn’t their feet they used to barricade themselves from Gabriel, it was a bag or a book. Gabriel was forced to walk all the way to the back of the bus, like some poor negro before Rosa Parks and her great stand against oppression. He sat alone on the back seat, staring out the window, watching the trees and scenery rolling past him. He was very capable of becoming lost in his own thoughts, and quickly did – shutting off the rest of the world. He could no longer even hear the whispers and giggles of his fellow passengers that were often at his own expense.
The local college at which Gabriel studied was going through a renovation. The Royal Forest of Dean College had stood proudly for over sixty years, as archaic and rustic as they came. Unfortunately for history and sentimentality, the college had been purchased at the turn of the century and taken over by GlosCol – a larger conglomerate of colleges spread-out over Gloucestershire under a single corporate banner. Since the development, the college had lost much of its ‘small town charm.’ One thing that hadn’t changed was the small size of the classrooms. Small not just in physical size, but also in terms of the amount of bodies within them. Gabriel’s class of twenty-six was considered to be a rather large one. In the back of this classroom, tucked away in a dark corner, sat Gabriel. Whilst his classmates sat up attentively in their chairs, going so far as to lean over their desks to better hear the lecturer – prattling on about how This Is England was some form of time capsule through which one could view an authentic 80’s Britain – Gabriel doodled on a small scrap of paper. He drew a figure cloaked in black from head to toe. On his face was a mask. He created two other drawings; a figure with hair like snakes – and The Moon.
He smiled at his creation.
Yes, the Forest had a darker side, full of little problems and secrets. One of these problems was a generational gap. The elders of the community hailed from a simpler time, where certain laws and beliefs were less rigid, and the world was a much less politically correct place to live in. In an area like this, where hard work and graft on farms held prevalence over education and intellectual pursuits, the political landscape was very different. These old-timers, these relics from a previous era, held no fancy notions about racial or gender equality. A man worked, a woman cooked, and a minority was something to be both despised and ridiculed. Simpler times, they said – better times. One of these simple folks was Michael Saunders, a farmer of cattle and assorted crops. Despite being fifty-seven, years of fighting to manoeuvre large bovines, and ploughing the fields had left him with an impressively strong physique. At five foot ten, with a low centre of gravity, he was a stocky and powerful man. Like most farmers, Michael would often get into drinking in the evenings, after his wife – Elaine – had cooked him his beef. He had beef every night, and Elaine never failed to provide it. The few times she had, she received a quick backhand for her troubles, in the hopes she would remember never to forget it again. Michael was an assertive, domineering teacher, but his methods tended to yield results. He was no less assertive and domineering when it came to his son Jack. Like his father, Jack had helped out on the farm from a young age, and quickly became familiar with the nature of both cows and crops. However, unlike his father before him, Jack dreamed of bigger and better things. He discovered a talent for football during his youth; once scoring over one hundred goals for his Amateur team in a singular season; winning the ‘player of the year award’ in every age
category, season by season, between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Unfortunately for Jack, his father was a devout Rugby fanatic, considering football a ‘Poofter’s sport for ponces and homosexuals’. When Jack continued to defy his father’s politer requests to be done with the sport, he met with a severe injury one day, resulting in his ankle being crushed in a mysterious accident at home. Whilst he never divulged the true nature of this injury to anybody outside the house – besides his girlfriend Alice – both Jack and Michael knew how it had really happened. It involved an argument, a hard fist and a particularly heavy lump of beef being dropped on somebody’s foot. So Jack had a hard life – that was for sure – and regularly took a hiding from his vigilant father. There is an old adage ‘shit rolls downhill.’ In this case, the shit would be Michael’s fist. After crashing into Jack and performing its merry dance across his facial and various other features, it tended to roll downhill in the form of Jack’s fist connecting with whatever poor soul crossed his path that day. Jack, you see, had also become a rather large young man for his age, thanks to the farm work, and was distinctively more musclebound than the other nineteen-year-old lads in the local area. He stood by the college smoking shelter, holding Alice’s hand, waiting for his potential prey. Just last night he’d taken a royal beating from his loving old man for daring to ask him to stop referring to his mother simply as ‘wench’. Needless to say, his father was not particularly accommodating towards his 21st century ideals. Now he waited, one eye almost closed from the horrific bruise that encompassed it, staring (or squinting) across the sea of faces at the smoking shelter, waiting for just the right one to catch his eye. Then it arrived. He saw his victim and began to smile a sadistic smile. Gabriel was heading towards the smoking shelter, and judging by his face, somebody had already begun Jack’s work for him. Good. He liked a head-start.
The two of them, throughout their short, shared-history, had a storied rivalry that was well known amongst their peers. Like most rivalries and silly long-term grudges, it began over something petulant. As children, Jack and Gabriel had frequently played together, exploring the woods and playing games. Childhood – for most people – is often looked upon with nostalgia and fondness. This stems from the fact that it tends to be an innocent time – a time of imagination, fun and games. Gabriel was known – among the village children – as the ultimate developer of games. His imagination knew no rival, and he could create full scenarios and characters; fleshed out like those in his favourite movies and novels. Throughout those innocent times, Gabriel was not just accepted by his peers – he was respected. Unfortunately, as time goes by – and people age – adolescence brings a new brand of confusing issues. Like jealousy. Gabriel’s imagination and position as ringleader brought him a lot of admiration and attention, and Jack would eventually grow to despise this. His home life was atrocious, neither parent having time for him, and now all his peers were interested in Gabriel and not him. He had become the Robin to Gabriel’s Batman. He was effectively a shadow. A nobody. The guy everyone overlooked. One day this became too much for Jack. They were out, as usual, playing their childhood games. This time, they were mythological beings, fighting for supremacy of the Lost Kingdom of Gadaral. The kingdom had been torn apart by a huge civil war, as the king, Rico II, had gotten his hands on an all-powerful ancient artefact, and launched an apocalyptic attack on the surrounding countries. Rico was portrayed during this imaginary war by Jack. The rivals to Rico were The Rebellion, a rag-tag army of renegades dedicated to standing against the evil and restoring peace to the land. The leader of this rebellion was Hellatrix, played by Gabriel. The plan was that, on the battlefield, against the backdrop of chaos and bloodshed, the two of them would settle this war. If Rico fell, the power of the artefact fell with him, and his army of undead (taken care of by the other twenty kids playing) would be defeated, and good would prevail. The fight was supposed to be a faux sword-fight, contested with light sticks from the Forest. Hellatrix was supposed to triumph. Rico had other ideas.
It is worth noting that even ten-year-old Jack was a large lad, towering over Gabriel. As the two met for the pretend fight, they did their traditional circling, followed by carefully thought-out dialogue Gabriel had provided; ‘So, we finally meet, Rico. You will pay for what you have done!’. Gabriel declared, rather convincingly. He’d always been a decent actor. ‘Not today, mortal.’ replied Jack, as convincingly. This struck Gabriel as odd, as Jack had always been an atrocious performer. ‘Your arrogance will be your undoing!’ roared Gabriel, before beginning his mock charge. ‘I’m not playing, Gabriel’ said Jack, just as Gabriel reached him. He had no time to rethink his charge, no time to stop. He had time only for his eyes to widen in shock, before colliding with Jack’s stick. Gabriel howled in pain, like a wounded Coyote, before dropping to his knees. Being only ten, he had little control of his emotions, and burst into tears; ‘Why the fuck did you do that?’ He wailed. ‘Because now everybody can see who the cool kid really is.’ Jack replied. Cold as ice. With that, he whacked Gabriel again with the log, this time in the ribs. A cracking sound, followed by an unholy screech. This time Gabriel dropped to his back. The twenty other kids stood in shock, all far too afraid to say a word, yet too mesmerised to stop watching or walk away. Jack rolled Gabriel onto his back, sat on his chest, and began to punch him repeatedly in the face. For a ten-year-old child, this was beyond reproach or recourse. It was an attack of pure rage and disgust at a world that idolises a thinker like Gabriel, and has no time for a hands-on guy like Jack. It’s no coincidence that several weeks before this attack Michael Saunders had taken to booze, beating Jack, and now all that pent-up rage came flowing out in the form of his fists. He beat Gabriel to within an inch of his life that day, resulting with him taking a stint in the local hospital. Jack got grounded for a month, taking the beating of his own life from his father. He, however, never received the NHS treatment Gabriel did – his father couldn’t risk his secret getting out.
Instead, he spent weeks at home, slowly recovering naturally, without the aid of medical intervention. In his eyes, this was Gabriel’s fault. His revenge for the pain Jack had inflicted upon him was this hell. He had used his father as a vessel, and wreaked his vengeance. Nobody gets the last laugh on Jack Saunders though, no sir, and from that day forth, he swore he would make Gabriel’s life a living hell for as long as he should live.
Gabriel clocked Jack long before he clocked him. After years of being hounded, harassed and hassled by the lad – like with his step-father – Gabriel had developed a preternatural ability to predict his presence. Trying to avoid his eye, he slunk towards the far corner of the smoking shelter, and smoked his cigarette. Keeping his eyes on the floor, he did his best to avoid making eye contact with his nemesis, but this was proving difficult. Throughout his smoke, Jack hadn’t taken his eyes off Gabriel once, even to the neglect of his girlfriend, Alice. Alice was another part of the problem. She was extraordinarily beautiful, one of those rare faces that make-up makes worse as opposed to improving. Despite this, Jack had his eyes fixed on Gabriel; and whilst Gabriel tried his damnedest not to look, he couldn’t help but look up intermittently at her magnificent visage. Like a siren luring a sailor to his doom, her mere presence called out to him. Love would be an insanely strong choice of words considering their limited interaction, but a fire burnt within him for her. A fire that, due to Jack, he could never allow to burn as brightly as it might have. One of these sly glances would prove costly, as Gabriel selected exactly the same moment to look up as Jack. Their eyes locked, and Jack grinned a toothy sparkly-white grin. Gabriel tried to look away, but it was much too late for that, as Jack was now strolling towards him. Oh fuck, thought Gabriel, here we go again. ‘Gabriel, old pal, how’s it going?’ Jack smirked, dropping his cigarette on the floor, and stubbing it out with his foot. ‘What do you want from me?’
‘Come on Gabe, don’t be such a sourpuss!’ Jack’s response had that disgusting false-niceness that people put on when talking to a child. Coupled with his beaming grin, it was a disturbing scenario. Gabriel merely stared at him in response; a stare of distrustful disdain. ‘No need to be hostile, man. I just want a cigarette is all.’ Gabriel stared directly at the cigarette Jack had just crushed underfoot. ‘What makes you think I’ll give you one?’ ‘Cos, if you don’t,’ Jack said, still through that Cheshire-cat grin, ‘I’ll give you more bruises to add to your collection. Interesting choice of hobby, that.’ Gabriel stared at him, striving for fearlessness, but the nervous movement of his eyes betrayed him. ‘And who put the bruises on your face?’ Jack adds, twisting the knife, putting salt in the wounds, ‘Your Daddy?’ The crowd began to separate, sensing the upcoming hostilities. Alice, for her part, looked disgusted, as if Jack had gone too far. Gabriel just smiled; a wry, knowing smile. He looked up, and replied; ‘Like the bruises your Daddy put on yours?’ After a pause that lasted a second but felt like an hour, Jack gave his response. This response came in the form of a furious headbutt that cracked Gabriel’s nose, causing it to erupt in a crimson geyser. Stumbling backward, Jack kneed him swiftly in the stomach, emptying him of all wind, and dropped him to his knees. He took the pouch of tobacco that fell out of Gabriel’s pocket, and placed it within his own. ‘Amber Leaf?’ Jack looked at the pouch in disgust, ‘You fucking pikey.’ He stood over Gabriel, rolled and lit a cigarette, and breathed the smoke into his face. He flicked the cigarette to the floor, next to Gabriel’s face, before walking back towards the smoking shelter and taking Alice by the hand. As they walked away, Jack laughing to himself, Alice took a look over her shoulder at Gabriel. An unmistakeable look of sympathy and concern. She seemed to realise what she is doing, looked nervously at Jack, and when sure he hadn’t noticed, she flashed
Gabriel one final lingering look of apology, before she headed around the corner, hand in hand with Jack. Gabriel was left alone, writhing in agony, before a hand appeared out of nowhere, offering to help him up. He looked up into the eyes of his best friend; Michael Brown. He took the hand and was slowly lifted to his feet.
‘WAKE UP BOY!’