I was day dreaming, staring deep into the dying embers of the coal fire, my eyeballs dry from the heat as I ignored the howl of the wind on a bitter January night. I jumped when a knock at the door interrupted my reverie. This was an insistent knock, a loud demanding knock; one that shattered the calm, refusing to be ignored. Sighing, I went to the door, angered by the loss of solitude made worse by the frigid wind that greeted me.
He was an old man with an old man’s frailties. His face was long, and his flesh grey and wrinkled. Dark bags beneath his eyes suggested insomnia, the curse of the old.
“Yes,” I said, not hiding the anger that I felt.
“I need to speak with you,” he snapped, seemingly equally irritable.
“Do I know you?” I asked, for his tone was one of a relative, making demands.
I did not like his look and was already pushing the door to when, remarkably swift for an old man, an arthritic claw grabbed the door and a boot thudded against the base.
I was scared now. He had shocked me. Feral eyes locked on mine, deep dark and accusing. “I need to talk,” he insisted.
My first thoughts were to call for help. Phone the police perhaps, but that would be too late. He was wild – a mad man standing halfway in my house. The simplest course seemed to be to let him in and listen to his ramblings, after all he was an old man and what harm could he do?
As he swept inside, I noticed for the first time his attire. It was outlandish to say the least, a long flowing tunic, grimed with dirt, and the cuffs frayed. At one time it had probably been blue, a deep rich colour, but under the dirt it was now hard to say. He smelt old, and a scent lingered that I found hard to place, but an image of a dragon swept to mind and I shivered, even though the door was now shut.
With a thud he dropped a sizeable doorstep of papers on the coffee table. The paper was sun-bleached and aged as much as he was. I shook my head; it was going to be a long night.
As I sat, a hand shot out and with strength belittling his years seemed to seek to crush my bones as though talking was insufficient to hold my attention. Well that did it; he had my attention now as dread coursed through my veins.
“I am Vastra,” he announced as though it was of some importance. “Vastra,” he repeated, his mouth agape. .
“My arm,” I wheedled for I did not relish the pain.
He looked at me, before releasing his grasp. My wrist was red and burned still from his grip. The wind rattled the window, deepening the mood.
“I have done much wrong and I need to atone,” he said, looking at me fiercely. I nodded and he sat back. His eyes swept around the room, glancing at the TV and the hi-fi, but somehow unseeing.
“I did them all wrong. I betrayed them, but I tried … in the end. Oh, yes, I tried. It is in the manuscript, I have written it all down. A labour of love some would say, but to me it is a curse, for my part in it was real, too real and the impact had repercussions across the world, ours and theirs.”
“Theirs?” I asked.
He nodded. “Demons. Dragons,” he said in a hushed voice
I believed him. Why shouldn’t I?
“Go on,” I said, enthralled.
“I was an ambitious fool. I thought that I controlled the imp, but I didn’t.”
When he said the word imp, something appeared, hovering by his side. A small demon-like creature, hairless, a green glow emanating from deep within its flesh. I jumped and could not hide my fear.
“Do not worry,” he sneered, glancing at the creature. “It is a memory, a shaol, a guardian spirit. That is all…
“Some guardian though! I can see yours, faint across the expanse of time. He will protect you as best he can; a sixth sense in the darkest hour. But why did I trust an imp? I was warned, by my friends … but I knew better, and the very people who would have helped me, I ignored, and worse, betrayed.”
His gaze dropped and the final word was barely a whisper. A tear slid down his cheek and fell upon the manuscript.
“No one is alone,” I said. “You must have friends, talk to them.”
He sniffed wiping the tears with his cuff, shaking his head. “I cannot, for I am banished from that world. Shastlan understood. The ghost of a dead emperor, exiled from his own world for deeds as bad as mine. What a pair we made, arrogant and foolish, engrossed in our own self-importance.
“And what of the people I betrayed. Kaplyn. As good a friend as any, but so far beneath my ambitious scheming. Of all the people, I hurt him the worst. I would make amends but I cannot.
“Because of me, his family and friends all died. I was responsible for Shastlan becoming his shaol. Mad whispering in the dark of the night. And dragons! An evil curse to blight the world. Demons and dragons, the choice was unfair. How could anyone choose and remain sane?”
“Surely it cannot be that bad,” I said when he fell silent, his gaze riveted to the manuscript.
“Read it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Judge me then, not before. I must atone.”
“How is this atoning?” I said. “You chastise yourself with a stick of your own making. How can I be your judge? Surely your friends have judged and forgiven you. Everyone has a spark of good deep within. They must have seen yours.”
“Read it!” he insisted.
I picked it up. Reverently. It was heavy as though weighted by the souls of the damned. When I looked up, he was gone. Yet the tearstain on the cover was as real as anything I had ever seen.
The Prophecy of the Kings, the title said. Flicking to the back cover it was signed Vastra.
Having now read the manuscript I wonder at our meeting. Was he a shoal, or a restless spirit wandering the worlds seeking redemption? Of one thing I am certain, if his world was real then the tale must be told. By doing so, it honours the dead, and forgives those who need to be forgiven.Excuse me then for claiming to be the author. It is a wondrous story and it will move you. As you read, think then upon Vastra, and Shastlan. Perhaps we can find it in our hearts to forgive, for now I know why so many people in their worlds would not. But then, that was Vastra’s intent, and if he knocks on your door in the dead of night, listen to his tale. It will move you, as it has moved me.