Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Whispers in the Flame

By Steve Cotterill

Nathan lay on his bed in the dark, flicking his battered lighter, bringing the flame to life, and letting it die again. Outside in the lounge, the telly thundered as his family watched some worthless program, letting their brains die piece by rotten piece. It was Tuesday so Mum was getting her medical fix. The television’s volume was turned up so loud that conversation was impossible, while Dad tried to read the paper and Sam pretended to do homework, itching to get it all over and done with and play a game. Nathan didn’t care; his eyes were consumed entirely by the flame, and his ears by the seductive crackling voice that only he could hear.

He had first heard it a few months ago, around Guy Fawkes Night. It had been his season then, running with boxes of fireworks, setting them off over the weeks leading up to November and for the entire month afterwards. Awe and envy filled him as the rockets rushed into the sky, exploding, sending sparks pirouetting through the night sky. He had played with matches and his Granddad’s old lighter of course, he always did, but that time had been special. He’d let the world fall away as he burned little things, losing time in the fire’s light and sound.

He could not remember the first time he heard her voice. He told himself that the voice belonged to a woman, although he had no proof. She had just been there, quite suddenly, watching as he set light to an old abandoned sofa on the heath. As the flames spat and licked like greedy little tongues, warmth growing inside and out. A presence had suddenly been beside him, a kindred spirit that Nathan welcomed.

Nathan was a gangly ghost boy, tagging along behind the other children, picked last for everything, no good for anything except for his own secret plans and projects. He was ignored, forgotten by all the others, a shadow that only got attention when other, bigger boys wanted to flex their muscles. At which point their eyes invariably found him, with their fists and feet following quickly afterwards. The idea of girls talking to him, voluntarily at least, was utterly unthinkable. The closest Nathan had come to a kiss was when Jade, the spottiest girl at school, had confessed that she’d heard he fancied her. Later it transpired that one of the year’s most popular girls had spread the rumor to embarrass both of them, and Nathan had retreated even further into his own private world.

After the night on the heath, the presence became a constant companion, joining him when he left the house, fading away when he got home, as if she loitered nervously on the tower block’s walkway waiting for him to invite her in to meet his family. She was there through school and bus journeys and at the shops where he hung around at weekends looking lost and alone, playing with his lighter, locked away in his own little world. There, as he made genies and did other tricks, her voice was always in his ear pushing him to go further and make bigger, better, more ingenious fires. Her enthusiasm was infectious, but it was only after the incident involving a dog and a couple of leftover rockets that she opened up and started to tell Nathan who she really was.

He flicked the lighter, held the flame for as long as he could. He brushed it with his fingertips. He listened. Her voice, sweet and smoky, filled his ears to the exclusion of all else. She spoke of glory days, when the city was just wood, straw, wattle, and daub, before it was truly a city at all. Straw rooftops would ignite with single breath, and she would carouse her way through the carnage the fire caused, whirling like a gypsy, her skirt flame spreading the fire wherever her feet touched.

Before Rome came the people of the proto-Londinium had worshipped her, spilling blood and flames in her honor; burning animals to give her nourishment. She had grown fat on sacrifices. Nathan’s nostrils seemed to fill with a sickly sweet scent, and he coughed a little as she whispered on, telling him how the Christians had come and she had fled to the shadows. Her worshippers had been driven underground. Hunts had ranged through the fledgling metropolis, seeking those who gave honor to the fire goddess, whose name had been lost to time even then (and those that learned it refused to reveal). No matter how many sermons were preached, hammered home even, about the wickedness of the old ways, the city’s fragility had kept her close to mortal memories and minds. Even after the Normans conquered England, men and women still sought her out in the city’s darker corners, seeking to appease her wrath and stay her hand.

In the shadows that the lighter’s flame cast across the wall, Nathan could see the things she spoke of, secret temples in people’s cellars where they burned spices from Arabia, and even further away, in her honor. He saw the gallows where her followers scrawled charcoal sigils on the frame to send the souls of criminals straight to her greedy, gaping maw, rather than to any form of rest. She showed him fleets of little fiery boats floating down the five little rivers that fed into the Thames on nights when the moon was at its darkest. The city had hosted a secret cult that had prospered through the centuries from kings, wars, plagues, and famines; even surviving into the Commonwealth. He could hear her laugh as she recalled gobbling down Charles the First’s soul, for her reach had been long then, and Hampton Court lay within her grasp.

Nathan shook his head as if to clear it and swung himself up. The things she told him were setting his veins afire. He licked his lips; his palms itched. The lighter was not enough. He needed a bigger fire. He reached for the rucksack that hung from the wardrobe door under the band poster pinned there. With hands that shook slightly, he unzipped it and listened as she spoke of flames leveling the city, her voice taut with joy and rage.

She recalled the fire spreading through the city, consuming everything in its path, and she had danced through flames and shadows, inciting them to grow large and fat on buildings and bodies. She had fed better that night than she had done for centuries beforehand, glutted on power and chaos, pain and death. Pudding Lane had become sacred ground, the one place she loved, the blaze had fed her so. Nathan felt her brittle joy fill him as he packed smuggled chemical bottles into his bag; it felt like an elation that was ready to crack.

“So what happened then?” he asked, casting a glance towards the door. “I mean, they rebuilt the city, didn’t they?” He kept his voice soft, hoping that the cat thin wail of an ambulance siren coming from the telly next door would cover anything he said.

There was a white-hot spark of rage that sent him sprawling across the room and into the wall with a loud thump, and he groaned as he slumped down on the floor beside the tiny computer desk. Books and computer games clattered loudly down around him and he froze.

“Keep the noise down, runt,” Dad shouted from the lounge, roused briefly from the pages of The Sun. Nathan tensed, watching the light under the door for his father’s shadow, waiting for the heavy tread of feet on the carpet, the angry wrenching of the door handle. It took a moment for him to realize his father had returned to agreeing with whatever the paper’s columnists had written today. Nathan reached for the heavy lighter and flicked it to calm his nerves, forcing his breathing to slow as he did so.

“Are you there?” he whispered, and waited. No answer came, and in panic he said a little louder, “I didn’t mean to upset you. Please talk to me.”

Images flickered in Nathan’s eyes suddenly, words exploded in his mind, both hot and angry. He could hear her bitterness and rage running through him like a torrent of lava. He saw the new city rising in brick and stone, layer upon layer, bound with the magic of math and architecture. A New Jerusalem as constructed by Wren and Hawksmoor, built upon the principles of sacred geometry and ancient knowledge. A city intended to be imperial, where all that was old and pagan would be forgotten, consigned to the cesspit of history. They had no place in their new world for the old city goddess with her bitter jealousies, quick temper, and what they called perverted appetites.

Cornerstones bound her to the earth, denying her the air above the city. Channels forced her power into the new streets and boulevards, trying to seal it for the good of King and country, to bind it into Wren’s purpose. Where that failed they drowned it, pushing it down into London’s underground rivers and out into the Thames where it was washed out to sea. And everything led to the seal, to the one place that held the whole cage shut. She had been silenced, her voice lost along London’s new streets and in the city’s new buildings. She used the new windows to watch as the metropolis changed and, in the few places where the prison’s walls grew weak, she screamed and beat against the bars until she was sore and exhausted. Finally, to add insult to injury the men had created a fiction concerning a pair of giants called Gog and Magog, whom they claimed had founded the city to try and drown out any lingering memories of her presence.

“If the cage was so strong, how come you’re talking to me now?” Nathan asked. He had recovered slightly, though his head ached fiercely. He crouched by the bag, checking the bottles for leaks.

The answer did not surprise him. Over time Wren’s notes had been lost, burned, or buried somewhere; and his successors scoffed at superstitious, primitive ideas such as spirits that lurked in the hearts of cities. The Georgians and Victorians had torn at the walls of the cage, weakening them with Neo this and Go that. The new sewer system and embankments, pioneered by Bazalgate, had immensely improved the city’s hygiene, but at the same time they had destroyed many of Wren’s conduits to keep the spirit’s power grounded, and she had relished a return of what had been stolen.

Railways carried her consciousness down the tracks to new parts of the city and allowed her to sense kindred spirits far away in other places, other metropolises: Liverpool groaning with fat from the misery of the slave trade, Birmingham black with soot and industry that left her a raddled crone, Sheffield with a scraping steel voice. She had found her own voice again, merely a whisper but just enough to find followers amongst the dispossessed and the hopeless and to entice them with promises. They whispered about her in the rookeries, where the fires burnt low and pitiful. She promised warmth in return for trifling favors: a quick stab in the dark and a scrawl of charcoal on the nearest wall, just enough to dedicate the sacrifice but to be washed clean in the morning rain.

The rucksack was nearly full now, sitting on the bed as Nathan slipped on his trainers. The voice was talking about the slums burning, about how entire families died in their tiny rooms, giving her terrible sustenance in tiny bite sized portions. Lime House, Mile End, and Whitechapel, she savored each name as if she tasted the flavors of destruction she had wrought.

She was a jealous spirit though, and the city was her toy. Nathan could sense her bitterness, her possessiveness as she spoke of the Blitz. All the things she loved had been wrenched from her, the flames caused by something else, a distant presence that was as crazed as she was, albeit in an utterly different way. Such a thing was not to be borne, and she had fought her own nature as best she could, briefly rejecting her urges. Not from any pity but because if London was to be destroyed, it would be by her will, and hers alone.

Nathan stood, made for the door. “I gotta go to the loo,” he told her. “I’ll be back in a minute ok?” She did not reply, and he took it that meant she assented. He slipped into the living room and blinked in the bright electric light. It had gone nine o’clock, and Mum had changed the channel to some American crime import, one of the ones with the funny camera angles and science. He had watched it for a while and even applied to College to get on a BTEC course that would let him study forensics. Now, though he did not think he would go; there were far more interesting things to do than muck about with dead bodies or take photos of tire tracks.

Dad cast him a baleful glance, his head rising briefly so that Nathan could just see his eyes staring at him coldly from over the paper’s top edge. Nathan ducked his head a little and tried to ignore it, rushing to the bathroom as his bladder urgently signaled it needed emptying. He locked the door behind him and pissed, staring at his reflection in the window as he did so. The need for fire was growing in him, the spirit’s story had seen to that, and he could almost smell the smoke and flames he planned to ignite. He licked his lips and fastened his fly.

“Nathan.” His head wrenched up. It was her voice, smoky and seductive, but for the first time he heard it properly, as if she was standing in the room with him, rather than an unseen presence that seemed to be so close he could touch her but at the same time was somewhere else entirely. He felt warm breath against his ear and felt arms slip about his torso, but when he glanced down there was nothing there. His eyes snapped to his reflection, questing for an answer.

In the window and, he realized as he glanced across, the mirror too there was the image of a woman. She had her arms about him and in the reflection he could see her long black-clad arms stretched around his t-shirt, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. She was beautiful. A wild tumble of red hair fell about her shoulders. Her eyes were cloudy black, looking out of chalk white skin; an eternal Goth like the bitchy clique at school who spoke to nobody. The bathroom suddenly smelled rich and strange, her scent oozing over the clean, antiseptic smell of soap and toilet cleaner, replacing them with smoke, spice, and warmth. Cinnamon and gunpowder mingled together with other scents drawn from Indian restaurants and Turkish kebab shops; the smell of heat itself. Her head dipped a little, she kissed him. Nathan gasped as she sucked at his neck a little, raising a love bite just where his neck and shoulder met; an alien heat spread through his veins.

“Do you like me, Nathan?” she whispered into his ear.

“Yes,” he told her, not even thinking to try and lie. Even if he had the words to dissemble, he knew his body would give him away. Other boys said you had to play it cool if girls asked you that kind of thing, that acting aloof was the best way to keep them interested, but Nathan could not do that. Somehow he knew the spirit had no time for that kind of game.

“Will you do a little something for me? Please?” Her breath was hot by his ear, her hands gentle on his flesh.

“What do you want me to do?” Nathan watched her lips. He knew he would do whatever she wished.

“Just what comes naturally to both of us, but in a special place?” Her voice was soft and seductive. She held him tight against her, and he blushed as she made eye contact.

Nathan swiveled his eyes, as if he could turn his head and see her standing next to him. “Where?” he asked. There was a warning voice at the back of his head, telling him to get a move on or Mum and Dad would want to know what he was doing in here.

“The lock,” she told him. “Burn it for me; you don’t have to destroy all of it. Damage it enough, and I’ll be free. We could be together like this all the time, just the two of us.”

“But I don’t know where the keystone is,” he whispered back.

“If I tell you, will you do it?” she asked. “I need you to Nathan; I need to be free.” There was an element of urgency in her voice that alarmed him, an undercurrent of madness that terrified him to his very bones. She stared at him in the mirror, her black eyes boring into his blue ones.

“Tell me where it is. I’ll,” he swallowed noisily, “I’ll see what I can do.”

She seemed to turn him somehow, her hands rising to cup his face. For an instant it seemed as if she looked him straight in the eye. He could feel the heat radiating off her as she pressed her lips to his. He tasted ashes on her lips; her tongue carried exotic flavors into his mouth. They kissed for what seemed like an eternity, and as she broke away she whispered where the lock to her prison was.

A knock on the door made him snap his head around, shattering the mirage, allowing the mundane world to intrude. “Nate, can you hurry up? I’m bursting for a wee,” Sam asked in a voice a million miles and years away.

“Crap, uh, yeah sorry. Give me a minute.” He splashed cold water onto his face and rubbed his eyes. There was a taste of smoke in his mouth, and his lips were warm but, aside from the love bite, they were the only signs he had just slipped into a slightly erotic daydream. The name she had whispered to him burned in his mind, imprinting itself into his thoughts. He knew somehow that nothing he could do would cool it down. He scrambled to the door and opened it.

“Are you okay?” Sam asked, face crinkled with concern.

“Yeah, sure why wouldn’t I be?” Nathan replied as he ducked past, letting Sam dash frantically into the bathroom. Stupid kid, always asking stupid questions.

He let the door to his bedroom close behind him and checked the rucksack over again, ensuring that he had everything he needed. He knew he was almost ready as long as he could get out of the flat.

His other gear was hidden in an old shoebox in the bottom of his wardrobe. He opened it quietly, reached inside, and pulled out the box. He had owned the box for years; once it had contained a pair of school shoes that he had long since outgrown. Nathan had co-opted the box for a much nobler, exciting purpose. Inside there lay a mausoleum of dead disposable lighters and old matchboxes. Each had served Nathan faithfully over the years and brought back memories. Near the top was a long box of kitchen matches. Nathan pulled them out along with a pair of nearly full turquoise lighters. He flicked them a couple of times, to check if they worked, grinning as the flames leapt up.

The old lighter slipped into its usual home in his coat pocket, the matches and disposables into the rucksack’s front pocket where they nestled beside a deodorant aerosol can. Mentally he concocted a list of things he needed to do in order to carry out the spirit’s wishes; he would need more fuel. The stuff in the bag would have been fine for a small fire like a sofa or even a car, if he could pry open the fuel tank. For what she was asking, though, he’d need at least a few cans of petrol and some accelerant to make the flames hotter, to make them spread faster. That meant either stealing a car or trying to buy petrol and lighter fluid from one of the local garages. He wondered how much money was in his bank account, probably not enough. Glumly he reached back into the box and pulled out the knife he had bought from a kid at school in a vain belief that having it might save him from being bullied. He returned the box to its resting place in the bottom of the wardrobe before quietly shutting the door and locking it.

He pulled on his hoodie and then his coat, pausing to make sure he could raise his hood over it. Gently, he shrugged the bag onto his shoulders and stepped out into the lounge. The cop show was still on, the loud music and special effects competing with the tinny tune coming from Sam’s game.

“Oh, his Lordship’s decided to join us has he?” his mother snapped from her armchair, not looking away from the screen. Nathan ignored her and headed towards the door. “Where do you think you’re going?” He realized she was looking at him now, the crime lab in Las Vegas quite forgotten.

“Out,” Nathan replied and then, feeling more was required, “Just out.” He began to pad carefully across to the front door, keeping his eyes fixed on his goal.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dad lower the paper. He folded it, deliberately, set it down before he rose.

“What are you going to do, more burning?” Dad’s voice was taut, cold.

Nathan froze, tensed. He knew the signs of his father’s bad temper too well.

It had all come out last month; the police had caught him out on the heath as the flames died on something nobody else wanted. It had taken hours to get everything sorted out, and he had spent the night in a police cell trying to ignore the sounds of other people they brought in. The spirit had been silent that night, and as his nails dug deeper into his hands, trying to keep the panic in his heart under control, Nathan had longed for the sound of her voice.

Predictably, he’d gotten into deep trouble for it; his parents were reluctant to forgive him. They had made him dispose of nearly all of his gear, throwing out everything they found in bin liners, dumping it at the bottom of the flats. Only his grandfather’s lighter and the shoebox had been spared because Nathan had managed to keep them hidden as his Dad yanked out everything else he had gathered. It had taken him ages to get enough gear to even burn anything decent — smuggling little pieces of this and that into the flat in the bottom of his school bag — let alone something large enough to satisfy his friend.

“No, just to see some friends,” he lied, hoping his parents were so absorbed in their own lives they did not realize his friends were few and far between. He shifted his weight nervously, and the bottles clinked. Idiot! He should have wrapped them up more carefully.

“You lying little sod!” Dad’s voice cracked. He was striding across now, his hand raised. Words were coming to his lips, words Nathan had heard through the wall late at night when his parents fought, thinking that he and Sam were asleep. Words about how Nathan was weird, how he was so unlike the other boys, that he would never amount to anything at all. And shouldn’t he have a girlfriend by now? The words “bloody puff” had been used more than once.

The hand fell sharply, and in panic Nathan’s own rose in response. He had been on the receiving end of his Dad’s anger more than once and knew exactly how much being hit by him could hurt. Expecting the worst, he braced himself, waiting for the beating to begin.

His hand shook as it made contact with his Dad’s arm. A hideous, shuddering pulse ran along his body and out through his fingertips. There was a sudden sickening scent of burning that sprang out of nowhere. Dad’s clothes caught fire; flames blossomed like flowers. Dad started beating at them; Mum was on her feet screaming for Sam. It was all that Nathan could do to tear his eyes away. Had he used the lighter without thinking about it?

He forced himself to look. There was only his hand. With a twinge of surprise, he realized the lighter’s comforting weight still rode in his pocket.

Mum rushed towards Dad, screaming at Sam to call the emergency services, the television quite forgotten. She was shouting at Nathan too, saying the same things as Dad. Something snapped inside him. The love bite on his neck pulsed with a ferocious heat. A heat haze settled over his eyes making the flat warp and shimmer. Fire spread through everything he saw, imposing itself like CGI in a film.

His gaze flicked over, finding his mother. There was a whooshing sound and she ignited, greasy flames spitting and rolling, spreading to Dad’s already screaming form so that they became some kind of grisly, twin torch made of human fat and tissue. Nathan forced himself to look away and saw Sam running with a blanket, the way they taught you to do at school.

The phone lay abandoned on the floor. A woman’s voice, tinny and small, asked which emergency service Sam needed.

Another pulse shuddered wildly through Nathan. His mouth tasted of hot metal and ash. Sam tumbled to the floor, clothes and hair igniting.

Nathan wanted to weep, to howl; grief stabbed at his heart suddenly like a knife. With suddenly clear vision he could do nothing but watch as they burned, writhing, screaming, until there was nothing left but stains on the carpet. He was unable to move — his legs simply would not work — and tears streamed down his face.

“What did you do?” he asked, addressing empty air. “You didn’t have to kill them. I could’ve got away.” There was no answer, but he could sense her, seething with energy out in the city, close but keeping her distance.

His legs gave way, and he collapsed to his knees, staring blankly at the place where his family had been only seconds before. On autopilot he reached for the remote control and turned the television off before dropping it to the floor.

Something touched his heart, a finger of flame that burned the grief away, spreading through his body until his tears had evaporated. Nathan gasped at the pain of it, and for a second he thought he smelled the spirit’s perfume, felt her hands stroking his hair. The love bite on his neck throbbed; numbness oozed through him as the pain died away and left him empty.

He knelt for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the ashy stains imprinted on the carpet. How long it would be until the emergency services arrived, he wondered. The neighbors were bound to have called them. As the thought rose, his head lolled a little and his eyes became blank, devoid of any emotion. His ears filled with the crackle and spit of flames; the memory of the spirit’s lips rose and wiped away his fear. He would be gone long before the police or fire brigade got here.

Finally he rose to his feet, something alien forcing him up and across the room, his legs working mechanically like an automaton’s, his eyes blind to everything but his goal.

The flat door swung shut loudly as he walked down to the lifts, leaving 1666 Pepys Tower behind. At the back of his mind, the part of him that was still Nathan knew that he would not, could not return. Purpose filled him to the brim, fiery thoughts crackling across his mind to the exclusion of anything else. He set off in the direction of the prison’s lock, towards St Paul’s Cathedral with bottles clinking in his backpack and his knife in his hand.

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Steve Cotterill is a writer based in Birmingham, in the UK. He’s a fantastika writer who has had stories in Horrorbound, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Corvus, and in the Last Line’s Lost Souls of the Asylum, as well as in the pages of Cogzine. Aside from writing he is a gamer, Goth, and geek and is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University. Drawn to the dark side of life, the things that keep him awake at night are the wonderful ideas in his head, and his cats.

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