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Shards of broken glass glinted in the mud as moonlight cast its silvery web across the lake. The smashed beer bottle was just another of mankind’s dirty footprints trodden carelessly into nature’s delicate face. How could a person spoil such beautiful scenery so brazenly? It raised many philosophical questions—like, why did people not understand that their homes didn’t end at their doorsteps? The entire world was their home, to share and respect, but they were wrecking it one broken beer bottle at a time.
In his 100% white cotton shirt with nylon buttons, Ainsley was as much to blame as anyone for leeching the earth, but at least he tried to be mindful of the environment. His litter only went in a bin, he recycled enthusiastically, and he never killed a spider if he could help it. His latest car was a hybrid, for Heaven’s sake. While he might not be perfect, at least he was doing something.
Ainsley considered picking up the jagged beer bottle and disposing of the shards before they sliced open a child, or some magpie attracted by the glinting light, but he decided the risk of cutting himself was too high. It was the middle of the night, and the lake was almost pitch-black. The last thing he needed was an infection from a grubby piece of glass after just receiving the all clear from the hospital.
At just forty nine years of age, Stage 2 pancreatic cancer had come as a shock—a meteor of dread out of nowhere. He’d always been so healthy and spry—barely even a cold in as long as he could remember—so The Big C had been the last thing he expected. What on earth had he done to cause it? As a trained chef, hygiene had always been a priority to Ainsley. A non-smoker, and a rare drinker, he was just one of the unlucky. He had done nothing to earn his death, but the cancer didn’t care. The terminal-disease-winning lottery ticket had his name on it.
At first he had assumed he was a goner, and the look on his GP’s face had reinforced that gut feeling. Cancer was the end, he thought. A free pass straight to Heaven—or wherever else a person was destined to go. His life had ceased being numbered in years, and was now ticking down in days—perhaps in hours. The doctors had told him to put his affairs in order—just in case. Yeah, whatever, just in case. ‘Get your will sorted,’ was what they really meant. Time to choose the casket you want to spend eternity in. The more you do now, the less your ex-wife and daughter will have to be bothered with. The thought of leaving his teenage monster, Claire, had been the thing to finally break him. They might barely speak at the moment, but he loved her. For the first ten years, he and her cantankerous mother had raised their daughter together. It had been nice, and his little girl had been sweet. Perhaps she would be again, once the teenage hormones wore off, but he wouldn’t be around to see it. He would be rotting in a deep hole.
But his diagnoses hadn’t turned out to be a death sentence after all. For Ainsley, cancer had been six months of demoralising chemotherapy, followed by keyhole surgery that he was able to walk off in a day. In hindsight, he realised that the oncologists and surgeons had never moved beyond mild concern. For them it had all been entirely routine.
He was recuperating already, and could feel his body regaining strength every day. His biggest problem was insomnia—which was why he was wandering around the town’s lake at two in the morning—a lonely summer night with nothing but nature to comfort him. It wasn’t half bad. The solitude of deep night mixed with the gentle swaying of the trees around the water’s edge was about as serene as life could get. It was easier to appreciate such simple things now that he had escaped the slithery clutches of death, but it had also become much harder to tolerate people ruining it—like when they left behind broken beer bottles.
The bottle continued to offend him enough that he was forced to hurry along the path. The grassy embankment along the water’s edge was peppered with lumpy shadows—geese and ducks sleeping with their pointed heads tucked beneath their wings. Not wanting to disturb their feathery slumber, Ainsley gave them a wide berth.
On the lake, he saw the ghostly visages of a pair of swans. They seemed to be patrolling the waters, like sentries on a battlefield. There was also other movement. The water seemed to be bubbling. Boiling.
Ainsley scratched his head. “What the Hell?”
The birds on the embankment woke up and began to make noises, wings flapping.
The water foamed.
Ainsley couldn’t help himself. He hurried down to the edge of the water to try and get a closer look. The frothing continued, sending more birds into panic. Something emerged from the water below. The glistening shape broke the surface and started heading towards the bank.
Ainsley felt a tug in his guts, reminding him of the cancer that had recently dwelt there. What was happening? What was he witnessing?
The mysterious shape reached the embankment and flopped onto the mud. Under the shimmering moonlight it resembled a beached seal, but once it spread its arms and legs out, Ainsley realised that it was a man.
A hallucination, surely. It couldn’t be real.
Was Ainsley’s cancer truly gone? Maybe it had spread to his brain.
The soaking wet man was naked, but visibly alive. He clawed at the soft mud like a newborn coming into the world, but his pristine golden hair was unsoiled. His muscles bulged, even in the shadows. A Michelangelo sculpture come to life.
Ainsley dared approach, and knelt down next to the man. Reaching out a hand, he hesitated when the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood erect like soldiers on parade. But this stranger needed help, so he ignored the pang of anxiety, and reached his hands out to grab the naked man’s shoulders.
It was like grasping hot coals.
Ainsley yanked his hands back and yelled. The remaining geese on the bank took flight across the water. The stranger climbed to his knees, continuing to rise until he was at full height. The man was a juggernaut, seven feet tall and sculpted from white marble. His eyes were so blue that they caught the moonlight and shone like torches.
“Are you okay?” Ainsley managed to ask, looking at his burned hands but seeing they were now fine. Had he imagined it? “Your skin… I could have sworn…”
The stranger looked around for a few moments, but then tilted his head and seemed confused. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ainsley. What were you doing in the lake in the middle of the night?”
The stranger looked back at the water behind him and allowed his thin lips to slide into a scowl. He brought his hands up in front of his face and rotated them slowly like they were foreign objects—slimy mud covered them. “Earth,” the naked giant said with a sneer. “The stink of it offends me.”
“It’s just the lake,” said Ainsley, feeling a little offended by the comment for some reason. “Can be a bit pongy in the summer, I’ll admit. The smell of nature can—”
“Cease your noise, human. My ears tire of hearing it.”
Ainsley didn’t know what this man’s situation was, but it became quite clear that he was unhinged, and possibly even dangerous—unfriendly, at the very least. The fact that he was naked seemed to elicit no explanation from the man, and that in itself was abnormal behaviour. It was the middle of the night and no one was around for half a mile. Ainsley suddenly became acutely aware of that fact. “I, erm, should be going, sir. I hope that you’re okay.”
He was about to walk away when the hulking, naked stranger grabbed his arm. It began to burn immediately—even through his shirt cuff. What scared Ainsley most was that the man’s skin began to shimmer, eventually changing colour and shape until it resembled the exact clothing that he, himself, wore. The being had altered his appearance to match Ainsley’s!
“Where is The Spark?”
“I-I-I don’t know what you mean. Please, let go of me.”
The stranger tightened his grip. “The Spark, where is it? I hear its call. It is near. Where?!” He bellowed the last word and squeezed harder, snapping bone.
Ainsley screamed in agony. “I-I swear, I don’t know what you’re… what you’re talking about.”
The stranger bared his sharp, square teeth—everything about the man was square. “Then you are without use to me.”
Ainsley thought the stranger was about to let him go, but instead he found himself engulfed in flames, enduring the worst pain he could imagine. He ran down the bank, arms flailing and mouth wide and screaming, but by the time he leapt into the water, his broken arm could do nothing but flap helplessly. His leg caught in the reeds, which tightened like grasping hands and held him under the water. In agony, Ainsley inhaled lungfuls of muddy water.
It would have been better if the cancer had taken him.