's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Huw Saunders (email)

They shall call me mad - have judged me mad before the eyes of the world - but know that I am a man of science, and in truth it WAS NOT I who killed Doctor Gareth Wilds that day upon The Devil's Kitchen. Nor do I bear responsibility for the burning of his cottage or anyone who was at that time dwelling therein. But know this, I will never again go up the mountains by night.

It was in the second year of my own doctoral study, researching the purported health benefits of certain mildly poisonous fungi, when I first contacted Doctor Wilds. My colleagues in the department were reserved in their praise. He had, they said, produced some of the most pioneering work in the field of mushrooms - yet, I gathered from certain shaded mutterings, was something of an odd duck, having spurned the comforts of a tenured position for a more-or-less permanent position as a field researcher out in the sticks.

Under some little duress, Doctor Grafstein eventually confessed to me that Doctor Wilds had been notorious for extolling the recreational uses of certain of his objects of study - fond of, of a weekend, gobbling five grams of preserved specimens and putting on some music. Fool that I was! I saw no particular harm in Wilds' decadence, reasoning that this was simply an inescapable side-effect of being around any fungus with such properties. Eventually, someone would make a study of those effects as well - just as in entomology, constantly surrounded by stinging insects, if it had not been Schmidt who created his pain index somebody eventually would have.

I was young, and worldly - too worldly! I had read de Quincey, I fancied I knew what real vice was, and that the strange and tangible waking dreams that arise from the consumption of mushrooms were not it. So it was I entered into correspondence with Doctor Wilds, asking his advice on the propagation of laboratory specimens. His response came soon after, emphatically stating that laboratory conditions could only ever do so much, and that the optimum conditions were to be found in the highlands of Carvarvonshire - where he now based himself.

We exchanged some further letters on the finer points of cultivation, and then, finding myself wearied off the day-to-day of academic life, when he offered me room and board and a little time conferring in person, I was swift to accept. "Are you insane? Fucking off to the back end of Wales for two weeks? It's not exactly fucking Benidorm, is it?" responded my wife when I inquired of the possibility of her accompanying me on this diversion - she has never been quite so devoted to mycology as I. Thus it was I travelled alone.

As soon as I stepped onto the train it was as if I had embarked upon a journey back in time - it was a rickety inter-city with puddles on the floor and very poor dinner service. I focused mainly on the scenery. To the north of the coast rail track was the rather limp expanse of the Irish sea, cold, grey, and forbidding, but from the other window great mountains whipped by - one particularly rugged edifice, looming large on the edge of the land and stretching down into the waves, gave me a start when it appeared we were hurtling toward it on a collision course, only for us to ultimately pass beneath it.

When we arrived at the final station on the mainland, I immediately chartered a hire car to take me into the interior. We passed through a number of low-lying villages of grim terraced houses bordered by great shattered piles of excess slate, and I began to comprehend something of the national character. But then we passed out of the settlement and into open country, and before me unfolded the Vale of Ogwen, and all at once I realised that the rolling mountains of my journey had been mere foothills. Here, with shafts of light piercing the clouds, the land was cleft in twain - two sheer stern cliff-faces along one of which we climbed, meeting at the gentle fields far below which seemed so innocent of their surroundings.

We crept cautiously along the road - not quite a switchback, but full of twists and turns, and the near-vertical drop to one side never far from one's gaze. Wild sheep gazed down on us, perched upon the hillside at obtuse angles. Here and there on the far side of the valley I saw white lines that must be waterfalls. But for the tarmacadam of the road and the occasional fence of wire, rather than pure dry-stone, it could have been the neolithic.

Up and up we climbed, past increasingly lonely and ramshackle cottages that soon gave way to unspoiled cliffside, until finally we reached the natural corner at the end of the valley and the car jerked to a halt. "Up there," said the driver, pointing ahead of us. "Don't stray off the path." So up I went - the path, such as it was, being a succession of the flatter rocky patches which followed a thin stream. This road, too, nearly doubled back upon itself as it crept up a ridge. Finally, having crested this minor peak, I saw upon the plateau - at the foot of the mountain proper - a lake, and next to that a little thatched farmhouse with a number of pale cattle roaming around it.

When I crossed the stile and began the walk up to the farmhouse, I drew close enough to see that the beasts were not cattle, but sheep - great overgrown beasts which seemed to steam in the mountain air, regarding me coldly with long pupils, their coats so thick and matted that most were covered in a thin layer of topsoil, and some actually had shoots of grass growing from their backs. One of these lay in my path, being tended to by a hefty, sun-browned woman with dirt on her face, who cooed softly to it and occasionally kissed it upon the snout.

"Are they meant to have all this growing on them?" I asked her, and she looked up with a start – her neck bending painfully, as I realised she wasn’t just hunched over but actually hunchbacked.

"Oh. No, 's fine. Cut it off, it grows back again, don't it? All fine." She returned to her ministrations of the sheep. I was a little taken aback for a moment, then concluded she had taken me for an ignorant city-boy and thought I meant their woolen coats - and, finding no polite way to correct this, I stepped smartly around her and knocked on the door of the farmhouse.

For what felt like ten minutes I stood there, looking the door squarely in the face, and felt the mountain air beginning to creep through my clothes as behind me the woman prattled on to her sheep, making no sounds recognisable as words. It was when I began to consider knocking again that the door flew open and a waifish young woman with daisies in her hair welcomed me warmly and hustled me inside.

"Come in! Come in!" she cried, as good as hauling me across the treshold and then plucking at my coat, "The doc's been expecting you, he's been talking about this all week - how was the journey? Have you eaten? I'll stick the kettle on - here, let me take your back - we've made up a room for you..." Without fully understanding how I found myself in the kitchen, holding a mug of strong tea I had watched her dissolve some four spoons of sugar into, which seemed to explain her nervous energy. "I'll tell him you're here," she concluded, and vanished.

Suddenly alone, I began to look around the kitchen, oddly modernist in its design but for the ram's horns upon the wall - but then she was back, pointing me silently towards the stout oak door at the end of the hall. When I crossed through the portal it could have been the study of a country laird, so aged was the wood-panelling and the leather of the seats. From the grandest of these Doctor Wilds beckoned me in.

"Please, take a seat - you found the old place alright? Not that there's many false positives out there." The man was younger than I expected - though it was hard to tell past the orange spectacles he wore, around which all I could make out was a face of lined agelessness. In his lap he held a thick chunk of sod from which grew a single rose-bulb. "How is the state of mycology back in the city?"

I began to elucidate on the department's current projects. Before long he roared with laughter.

"You'll forgive me. The scientific community as it stands still pays worrying obeisance to taboos and regulations all its own. It seeks to remain staunchly ignorant, for instance, of the ancient relationships between man and mushroom, for no other reason than it does not fully understand them - and, I venture, does not want to."

When I asked him to explain further, he leaned forward, and over those strange spectacles I saw fire in his eyes.

"You are aware, surely, of the archeological theory that the first human settlements were primitive religious sites? The main rival to this theory is the idea that the first true settlements were breweries - humanity's traditional use of the surplus grain created when the species moved from hunter-gatherer to farming the land. In reality, there is no difference between these theories. Drunkeness and religious experiences walk hand in hand - both produce, in the human brain, feelings of contentedness and camaraderie. Or, if taken to excess, bloodlust. They change the way people think, anyone could confirm that, but more importantly, they changed the way people thought. Perhaps forever.

"Mycology is the third leg of this triumvirate. Psychoactive mushrooms are writ larger in human history than most dare to think. This is most clearly demonstrated in the recurrence of the Santa Claus myth. The details change down the years, by turns he is once Saint Nicholas and now a benign factory owner, but the central concept of the red-and-white gift-giver flying through the winter's night remains the same. This ultimately stems from the proliferation of amanita muscaria in the Northerly climes of Siberia. Early man witnessed these distinctive red-and-white mushrooms growing beneath the pine tree. So too did he witness the reindeer feast upon them, and then - to put it crudely - flying."

The hunk of turf in his lap began to move. For a frightful second I thought his stream of theorising was sending him into a fit, but then a wide leathery head emerged from beneath the grass, and I realised that what he was holding was in fact a hop-frog. It shifted its head, looking around the room - pausing on me for a moment, seeming to look me dead in the eyes - then opened its toothless mouth and yawned softly.

"It would be like some crude satire of the Christmas tradition if it were not real," Wilds continued, as if nothing had happened. "As it is, the Christmas tradition is rather a fancifulised recreation of this crucial step in human evolution. But there are certain precedents. One thinks of Easter, and how the messy business of egg-laying and Springtime rebirth is rendered in chocolate, of all things, instead of blood and amniotic fluid. Likewise few harvest festivals pay tribute to any sort of fertiliser, let alone the humble droppings of cattle."

I responded with some comment about harvest festivals not doing just tribute to the world's fungi either, and he smirked.

"A valid complaint. The psilocybin mushroom, which grows nowhere so fruitfully as here in the Eryri mountains, is in full bloom at approximately that time of year. Hence the proliferation of nature worship in these parts. The Mabinogion detail many mystical figures, gods or otherwise, but the most prominent and enduring is the Green Man, prefiguring in his way Judaeo-Christian concepts of the single all-father. But forgive me - when I pop I don't know when to stop, and I believe I smell dinner."

We sat around a table of roughly hewn slate, Wilds at the head still holding his tortoise and feeding it from the hand, as the waifish woman buzzed around us ladelling out great steaming spoonfuls of risotto flecked with herbs. When Wilds got his helping, the first helping, he began to proffer that to his hop-frog as well. The heftier woman sat in silence, eyes on her plate, raising and lowering her fork almost mechanically.

"How's the herd, Catrin?" Wilds asked, reaching out and stroking her arm with one slim finger.

"Undersupplied," she responded, not looking up, her wide flabby mouth barely moving. "Need more."

As I chewed the risotto, the powerful, earthy taste of some morsel threatened to make me gag - even the herbs and the heat could not quite disguise it. When I asked what was in it, the waif nearly sprang to her feet in the answering.

"Rice, onion, leek, basil, and that cheese that honks like spew - basically just the usual stuff - oh hell, do you have allergies? I should have checked, I should have thought - oh God, I'm sorry, do we still have the first-aid kit?" Within that minute she had shifted state from effervescent to wide-eyed with horror and guilt.

"Calm yourself, Seren," said Wilds, raising his hand and giving that inscrutable smile. "We've become rather accustomed to some very particular forms of cuisine, out here - you must forgive us, it can take the unprepared somewhat by shock." Which certainly seemed accurate. So soon after dinner, with the meal weighing heavy in my stomach and the room beginning to slide before my eyes, I repaired to bed.

It rained that night. Dense, thick drops eternally drumming upon the roof and against the window, with the pale light of the moon flashing through the cloud now and again like a searchlight. I felt as if I had slept for days, but the luminous hands of my wristwatch claimed I was still drifting somewhere in the small hours.

Eventually, unable to sleep, I sat up - maybe I had intended to read, or to bother my wife at home - but my attention was distracted when, across the cyclopean length of the bedroom floor silhouetted in the great portal that was the doorway, I beheld the hop-frog, its throat pulsing like a grey-green heart plucked from someone's chest that now floated before me. Each flash of light cast that squat shadow long and silver across the tangled forest of carpet, and I could perceive the strands of some growth upon its back.

As I squinted in the half-light, trying better to perceive it, it bounded off down the corridor - and, feeling some inexorable urge, I stumbled out from under the bedclothes and set off after it. Outside the bedroom, my quarry was nowhere to be seen - but, up ahead in the distance, the door to the cottage hung open, and banged and howled in the wind. I made my way toward it, the corridor seeming to twist and turn beneath my feet even though it was surely the same corridor I had negotiated so confidently just that previous day.

The sky was black outside - suddenly there was no sign of the moon, though the turf seemed to shine a dark green. A few of those filthy sheep stood a little way from the doorway, watching me, seeming to look directly into my eyes. Or dare I say through them? On a whim, my rationality deserting me I looked above the lintel for the horseshoe that is said to ward off evil. There was none - only the face of a man, wrought in greenish bronze and peering out from among the ivy.

A guttural, unearthly groaning that picked up above the sound of the rainfall made me turn on my heel - nearly stumbling over the doorstep as I did. It came from the far side of the house, that hollow that lay at the foot of the mountain proper. The gaze of the flock followed me as I crept along the side of the cottage, unsteady on the damp grass and leaning on the facade. With a thrill I thought of predators and beasts of the mountains, preying upon the sheep and tried to steel myself - but my guts seemed to be turning to water. At any rate it was not the rumbling snarl of a carnivore - rather it was something lower and flatter.

Behind the house a fantastic sight met my eyes, and now I was sure I was dreaming. There in the vegetable patch, Wilds lay flat upon the ground, naked, staring blindly at the sky. Catrin's stout figure was bent over his abdomen, drumming rapidly upon it like some savage jungle tom-tom - it was this that turned his ceaseless groan into a bizarre two-toned ululation. Each of them was bleeding from a dozen places - Seren, the slimmer girl, was hopping about the two on all fours, biting at their flesh and yapping like a hound. All of them, though it was hard to decipher, wore a gentle smile as one completely at ease with the world.

From there I remember nothing until I awoke in my bed the next morning. Even then my perception was somewhat shaky. When I put out my hand and felt warm skin next to me under the covers, I thought I must surely be at home with my wife - then I looked over and saw Seren's face, a face I had last seen contorted and barking in a frenzy. I must have started, for those delicate eyelids fluttered and then opened softly.

"Oops!" she breathed, and giggled. "Sorry! I didn't mean to scare you! I just, it's just, I couldn't get to sleep, and - and it looked so cosy under here. Did you sleep okay? Some people find this bed too soft. Do you want breakfast?"

Without waiting for an answer she sprang from the bed and was out the door, leaving petals on the pillow. I am yet wont to think this may have been the tail-end of some hazy dream. When I made it through to the kitchen she was attending to a pan of mixed meats and eggs, hovering over it as if she had been there for hours. "You awake," came Wild's voice from behind me, and when I turned my heart nigh stopped for a beat - he wore an extreme pallor, his skin looked like porridge. "We are of course used to rising...a good deal earlier in this part of the country." He coughed violently. "Please, sit. must excuse me. I've grown quite weary."

And so I sat - with Wilds slumped at the head of the table, me at its foot, and in the middle his frog, picking at a bowlful of salad and dried insects. Seren placed a fried breakfast that could have fed two in front of me and retreated to the side of the room, watching silently.

"My intention had been to take you up the mountain today," Wilds scratched out of his throat. While I could not see his eyes behind those inscrutable glasses, I felt the distinct sensation they were focused on something other than mine. "Not to summit it, you understand. Not in those shoes." He gave a wheezy little laugh. "There is a particularly fertile area - a real curiosity. It is located some fifty feet above the snow line, except in summer. Some of my finest specimens are drawn from there. Never fear, Catrin will accompany you. She knows the country well."

I breakfasted, although it was not easy. I seemed to shovel down endless mouthfuls of bacon and mushrooms and fried bread, and it barely seemed to dent the plateful. Eventually Catrin appeared, her fingers brown with soil up to the second knuckle, and wordlessly began to help me. Before long we set out, past the lake that lay behind the cottage and up into the heights of the Vale, where it seemed two separate mountain ranges had been wrestled together. Here the pathway became simply broken rocky scree, and waterfalls froze solid upon the sheer cliff-faces.

"Greater Glyder," Catrin rumbled without warning, her heavy walking-stick flashing out past me and pointing towards the snowcapped summit. "Not going all the way up there, don't worry. Not far now."

And she may have been right in terms of distance, but it was more vertical than horizontal. Before long we were travelling on all fours, crawling over tangles of boulders which shone with frost. I looked down upon the valley below - which, I hazily remembered, was a healthy day's climb above the actual valley floor - and saw a long patch of bare rocks, snaking its way through the short grass, and realised that, during warmer times of year, I would be looking at a river.

When, finally, we walked erect once more and the path became something more like steps than rubble, we came upon another dry-stone wall, the stile across this one made not of wood but of elderly, rusting metal. I must have considered what, if anything, this wall had been constructed to keep out or keep in, but then I must also have been out of breath. Catrin took its crumbling steps two at a time and waited for me on the other side, the image a straight-backed countrywoman, her only concession to having come halfway up a mountain a little flush in her face.

From here it should have been easier going, up a less daunting incline, but rather than solid ground here we were walking upon slate chippings that sucked out our feet as well as any bog or quicksand. Catrin dared not deploy her walking stick here - who could have said how deep beneath the surface it would sink? And then, as I felt my body beginning to betray me and collapse from within, we crested the mound - far from the peak, as I had been promised, merely onto another great plateau within the valley - and now I had snow on my shoes. From here I could see those further spines of the mountain ranges which crisscrossed the north of the country - this much closer to heaven, the sun seemed brighter.

Catrin led me into a shadowy area which floated incongruously between two bright white patches of further mountainside. Here I could feel the cold creeping up past the tips of my fingers. Behind a great icy boulder, there lay a pond, and I knew this was the place. That frosty little puddle seemed, even at first sight, almost sacred. A couple of sea birds paddled idly along its opposite bank. Catrin swung her stick out once more and pointed to something on the water's edge. The hardy spikes of mountain-grass had crystals of ice growing around them, resembling lilies of some precious gemstone, and at first I imagined she must be pointing them out - then I looked closer and saw them, closer to the ground, caps pulled close about them like winter coats, the mushrooms, the mushrooms I had come to find, the mushrooms growing thick and healthy here far above the world.

As I marvelled, Catrin – without even a sentimental pause - knelt beside me, one knee in the pond, and began gathering them up into a little wicker basket. Somehow instinctively aware these were not to be specimens, I hastily swept one up myself, and held it close, examining the distinctive gills I had heard so much about. They seemed ragged, more roughly hewn than I had expected, but then they were growing wild on a mountainside, and I could hardly expect them to be supermarket-ready.

When I looked up the clouds had swept in. Now the two peaks to either side of us were invisible, lost in the mist. Catrin straightened up, thrust her basket towards me - its contents covered by a gingham blanket - and wielded her stick like a cudgel. I might have appreciated just how hugely framed she was then, but even as she made ready to bash someone's brains in she was also shrinking rapidly backwards. The clouds pressed in further, until they were lapping at the pond's far shore, but still we could see those dark figures approaching through them - and it was then that Catrin seized my arm and dragged me in a spray of gravel behind the rock.

"I'm getting a reading from over this way," came a voice, distorted by electronic crackle. "It's hazy, though."

"So's the weather," a second voice spat back. "Hazy, hazy, hazy - fuck me, millions spent on this shit, it's meant to detect one very specific thing, and you give me 'hazy'. Next you'll be telling me if we're getting hot or cold - no, no wait, that would actually be an improvement."

Next to me, Catrin gritted her teeth, her mouth a tight line across her head - crouched low, ready to spring.

"We know they have to be around here. This is their best spot. Maybe they've been and gone, right? In that case, we just have to set up camp here. Settle down in the rocks-"

"Like fuck I'm spending another two hours up this bastard."

"You got another plan?"

"Easy. That cottage down the way, we level it. Call in the heavy squad and turn it over, properly. Where else they going to be holed up?"

A boot crunched on the ground, perilously close to us.

"Look here. Someone's been here."

"Oh yeah - someone's been picking."

I felt Catrin rise on her haunches, her huge fist turning white around her walking stick.

"What the fuck's tha- hurk!"

There came the distinct sound of something softly flopping into water - a gentle splash, a few pitiful little bubbles expiring on the surface. After a few loud curses the noise came a second time. When, after a little wait, we dared emerge from behind the rock, the mist was clearing. A shape on the far bank was washing its hands in the water, and then stood. Catrin strode forward, then relaxed when Seren emerged wraithlike from the last fingers of the fog, smiling away, now wearing roses behind her ears.

"Weather turned," she explained. "Thought I should come and fetch you."

The rain started in as we made our way back down.

Crossing a small gorge, I tumbled - but suffered no worse injury than one arm plunging up to its elbow in the stream. When we finally returned to the cottage, for it had been slow going in the mist, Wilds was at the door to receive us, pulling a towel around my shoulders and taking my damp arm with strong yet gentle fingers, ascertaining there was no break or sprain.

"Decent crop," grunted Catrin. I held out the basket, which, when I had tumbled, had landed with fortune in what must have been the mountain's single soft grassy patch. Wilds took it reverently and spread its contents out upon the kitchen table, hovering over it with fascination.

"Good. Many a seeker has been fooled by the so-called 'falsies'," he murmured, glancing up at me. "The most dangerous imitator reveals itself through the black spot on its tip. Many, however, do not have any tip to speak of, merely a rounded cap. I once thought to pen a thesis on there being some link between this feature of the mushroom and the myth of the witch's nipple, but-" Here, bending a stalk in his fingers, he cut himself off. "Well, there were presented more fruitful areas of study."

"It was just smut, anyway," smiled Seren, busying herself with the kettle.

"The section on received folk wisdom was, in many ways, beautiful. Yet I've always found myself drawn away from this more well-trodden ground, and towards new vistas of reality. Doctor Stamets' theory of an interconnected mycelial network that spans the known universe and beyond is fascinating, and one day it may make a half-decent work of science fiction. You see now my impatience with academia, I trust? How eagerly they stamp after something so fanciful, and yet reluctant to make any serious investigation of one of the oldest practices of the human race simply because of some antiquated by-law.

"And you know people use these recreationally? Imagine the sheer volume of useful data squandered there, vanished altogether when the morning comes! Even state apparati that are point-blank against any such use of these now grudgingly admit the beneficial psychological effects! Once more we are confronted with establishment authorities whose official line is, demonstrably, a series of insane lies!"

His voice had risen to a harsh bark, and he was pounding the table with his fist. His sleeve had ridden up, and I saw a livid red circle of tooth-marks on the soft white flesh of his arm. I must have been staring - he followed my eyes and quickly buttoned his cuff. The frog, the bulb on its back heavy and swollen, peeped over his shoulder and crawled up to rest there, eyes fixed on me and gleaming with uncanny intelligence.

"Forgive me," said Wilds. "It's close to my heart. The subject is a somewhat sensitive one - this, in fact, was behind my initial wariness when you first contacted me. More than once some self-christened psychonaut has come hassling us for tips - no interest in actual mycology, you know. This is why I keep a hatchet by the door." He stood suddenly - rising like a bolt, with no change in his posture, suddenly rigid and on his feet. "Anyway! I propose lunch, and later I am wont to understand there is music in the village."

The village was some five miles along the road, itself down the mountain - so the sun was low when we actually arrived. Seren flitted around us as we went, now bolting ahead, then falling behind, gathering wildflowers, so by the end her hair was well on the way to being a bouquet. The venue itself had once been a chapel, which now glowed from within, lit by unnatural light. Some youths by the entrance looked hungrily after Seren, but Catrin snarled at them and they shied away. Wilds swaggered on through the double doors, apparently oblivious.

Inside the old chapel a few sparse groups of people who were either too old or too young for such a place stood awkwardly - stranded between the walls and the dancefloor, such as it was. Wilds made straight for the bar and spoke with its tender in rapid, vowelly Welsh. In moments a large brandy was placed before me. When I expressed some little surprise Wilds spoke the language, he gave me a cadaverous grin and responded "Posh Welsh. We sound like you. But look - here comes the evening's entertainment.”

The crowd was beginning to thicken out as two people took the stage - a suntanned young man with a handlebar moustache and a wispy young woman with the same sort of tentative look in her eyes as Seren. They strummed a guitar in a folksy, homely sort of way and began to sing:

Ti di 'weld yr blodau ddisglair tyfu Cyn llaw difoes di cyffwrdd?

"One of yours, I believe. Robert Johnson," Wilds added, presumably to clarify, even though I remained in a mist. "The Elizabethan contrarian, rather than the legendary bluesman. He may also have made a pact with the devil, I'm unsure...the bitter irony being that we are supposedly a race who produce no solid creations, but simply sing and blow down instruments of plated silver, and we can't even write our own songs. And, granted, this long weekend has largely been concerned with the strictly ethereal, but I would perhaps hope that we have demonstrated its value to you."

A ti'n cydnabod o'n bwrw eira Cyn bod yr baw di farciodd?

Seren, entranced by the music, gobbled something out of a little bottle from an inner pocket then slipped it away. As endless silhouettes swirled before us blocking out the glow I began to mumble about not believing anything of the sort, but then I saw Wilds wasn't listening, and there were tears running from under his glasses. Two rangy men in sportswear approached us, then swiftly made an about-face when Catrin rose from her seat.

Mor gwyn, mor meddal, mor melys di hi!

The singers continued for a little while more. By the time they were over the chapel was full, and warmer than it would have been in daylight. Then loud drum'n'bass filled the building, and Wilds snapped upright and declared "Right. Time to go."

By now the sky was dark - but the roads were still bright, lit by trees that glowed from within with orange sodium. Seren walked along the wall between the road and the sheer precipice beyond. Even though it was made of uneven slate she traversed it with no little speed, as Wilds and Catrin followed along behind and chuckled. Then a van banged to a stop next to us, and all the doors opened. "Doc!" someone cried. "We tried to catch you down the village!" And a slew of people started to climb out - a goatish one in a military greatcoat, a brute with tattoos from his knuckles to his neck, a hefty figure bigger than Catrin wearing surgical scrubs, a seemingly endless stream of fierce-looking wildmen.

Everything went quiet, and suddenly Wilds's hop-frog was on his shoulder again. Although it was a still night, all the leaves of the trees began to rattle and clash together like so many loose teeth. A few worked themselves loose and drifted slowly, threateningly, towards the hooded figures who paused now midway out of the van. Seren reached into her back pocket and started to draw a little object out, something with a silver blade that glinted in the artificial light...

"We, we tried to catch you down the village," they repeated, quieter now, somehow penitent. "That, what was it, the unguent you gave Branwen - it worked. She actually left the house today." And the mob stood aside. Behind them, sitting in the van, the singers gazed out at us. Catrin's shoulders relaxed out of their attack position, and Seren's blade vanished. The trees all calmed down, and I began to breathe normally again. "We wanted to thank you."

"Oh, don't be silly," Wilds said weakly, trying to wave it away, but suddenly they were clutching him to their bosoms and loudly singing his praises.

 When they learned we were walking home, they refused to hear of it and ushered us into the van. As we sped along that winding road, they passed around a stone bottle of strong liquor with the alcohol crystallising eye-wateringly on the mouth, which, it transpired, was vodka flavoured with toffee. They smoked pungent local tobacco, and soon the back of the vehicle was thick with sharp-smelling fumes. Over the loud and raucous singing - a song which someone explained to me was about still being present after all these years - I distinctly heard Wilds talking with Branwen, the singer.

"The idea is about placing oneself at a remove...of stepping outside oneself, and thus gaining a greater understanding of the actions of others. Just as the preparation is simply a chemical reacting within a human body, and you can make an educated guess as to how it will effect you, so too can you glean greater insight into the actions of others, they will respond to outside stimulus in essentially the ways you would. Which I suppose sounds simple when you say it out loud, but it seemed like a significant milestone to me."

I had thought it was Wilds talking, anyway - but it was Branwen's voice, her mouth moving. Seren was caressing her hair has she spoke, and must have transferred some flowers from her hair to Branwen's, because now she too wore the flower crown.

We drove an alarming way up the mountain path, which had been created for no kind of wheeled transport, before abandoning the van at only a short walk's distance from the cottage. "Plenty of room over on the island," the man in scrubs was explaining to Wilds, one huge hand on his shoulder, alarming the hop-frog. "Morgan's got land, Lewis's got can grow all the product you need over there, conditions aren't too different. You and your man there know how to process it, and he can probably get at some fancy-Dan academic development's the limit." The sheep were lining the path to the door, as if to provide us with an honour guard, and I had the distinct sensation that nobody but me noticed or felt it worthy of commentary.

The cottage was mercifully warm and bright, even after such a short walk. Seren immediately set about mixing everyone enormous drinks. Wilds touched my arm. "Forgive me - how are the department's contacts with the pharmaceutical industry? We may have a spot of trouble getting the substance approved for sale in this country, but there are both ways around that, and a number of less discriminating markets. Obviously academia still has me blacklisted, and Gabriel here could be accused of malpractice, so you would seem to be the best placed."

"Well..." I murmured, but never answered. At that moment my phone vibrated in my pocket, so I excused myself to step outside and answer it. To my surprise, my wife answered."Kate! Oh hell, I'd meant to ring you - how are you, how are you doing, how's everything back home?"

"I was wondering if I could come join you up there," she replied tersely.

"You're not angry, are you?"

"No, no. I just thought that maybe me and my mother could come and stay up there as well. Do you think they'd have room for my mother?"

"Yeah, I imagine so..." And so I gave her the address of the cottage, as well as some approximate directions, and returned to the dining room.

“It just feels so good,” Branwen was saying, sprawled in the corner, looking happy to the point of bliss. Seren knelt over her, adjusting the flowers in her hair with a delicate hand.

“Of course it does,” she replied.

"Anything exciting?" Wilds asked me. He was leaning back in his chair, with one hand resting on his hop-frog as it drank voluminously from the glass on the table.

"Oh, just my wife. She wanted to know if she could come up here too."

"By all means," he replied with a magnanimous wave.

"I made sure she knew how to get up here. Strangest thing - she was asking if her mother could come as well. But her mother died five years ago."

Just as it had on that lonely road, with the streetlights glaring orange through the trees, everything went quiet. It seemed they all grasped a specific point at once, and, still in the dark, I began to feel somewhat uneasy. Catrin was the first to move - banging out through the door, and returning in moments with a suitcase of gunmetal and heavy clasps, which she thrust into my arms. "Take him," she barked, seizing Wild's hop-frog and holding him out to me as well. "Get him out of here."

"Yes," said Wilds, suddenly diminished, and coughed violently. "It is likely your wife is in danger. You must go...go to her."

"But wouldn't that put me-" I began. Before I could get most of the sentence out, Catrin had me by the arm and was frog-marching me out of the door. The mob from the village followed, bursting from the cottage like a cork from a gun, pointing my way to the van. Then the field lit up - no simpler light of orange halogen, but as if it was daylight.

"Too late!" someone shrieked, as the low, heavy, rotary buzzing of a million flies passed somewhere above us. We raced for the van, but a thick black cord fell from the sky in front of us, then another, and another. A figure in black slid down it and raised a weapon. Catrin bore hugely down upon them, but Seren reached them first - lashing out with thick black cords of her own, from her arms, that bound the figure like spiderweb. They crumpled instantly, I heard them screaming and Seren laughing, and I was happy enough to leave all that behind me.

More fell upon us from the air, and then the air was full of short explosions and flying bits of metal. I kept running, and mercifully, I and the goatish man reached the van. As we were on the point of taking off the van rocked on its hinges - I turned, preparing for the worst, but it was only Catrin scrambling into the back. We tore a sharp circle and bouncing from rock to rock back down the mountain. In the wing mirror I distinctly saw one of those dark figures being surrounded and overwhelmed by Wilds's filthy flock of sheep, and behind them, the cottage bursting into flames as balls of light streaked through the sky and slammed into it.

We tore through the Vale of Ogwen at perilous speeds, swerving through each dark curve toward the coast. I cradled the hop-frog in my arms, trying not to crush the beast as I was thrown about in my seat. Through the patch of forest ahead of us I could see the soft lights of the last of the mining towns, and I thought for a moment we were free - but then, as we rocketed through another bend, blue lights flashed ahead of us. The van screeched to a halt and I struck the dashboard with my face. A loudhailer screamed "Step out of the vehicle!", piercing and electronic. The goatish man kicked his door open and ran. There were two flashes, and for a moment I saw him, midway through vaulting a dry-stone wall, stricken and falling. I did not move. In moments, the van window was smashed through, and a huge weapon, dripping with features and accessories, was waved in my face. "Using your left hand, I want you to reach over, open your door, and step out of the vehicle."

The hop-frog raised its head. I heard a loud, angry curse to my left. The bulb on its back opened like a chrysalis into the most beautiful rose I had ever seen, and suddenly the air was full of pollen. The thug outside suddenly coughed and spluttered, then began to tear at their own neck, and before they vanished from my view I distinctly saw shoots of grass poking out from beneath their visor.

Four more vicious-looking gunmen were approaching, illuminated by the van's headlights with their guns trained on me. Once more I felt the vehicle shift upon its hinges, as the weight it carried changed. Then one of them screamed "We got a live one!" and let off a shot which punched through the windscreen, perilously close to my head, before Catrin fell upon him, her mouth obscenely wide in the blue light, and savaged him.

The others fired upon her, but her tough, tweedy flanks seemed to shrug off the bullets. On all fours now, she roared at them, a guttural, snorting sound, and rammed her head full into the nearest, who went down wheezing. It was here I am sure my mind betrayed me, and reality gave way to sheer phantasy, for before my very eyes I saw the hump on her back split open completely, and from it emerge a great flower, with the pockmarked red leaves and yawning central mouth of rafflesia arnoldi - or the corpse lily.

As one gunman tried to flee, she lashed out at him with thick, knotted cords, just as I had seen Seren do, and drag him howling back toward her. The other was desperately trying to ready their weapon for another assault when both her mouths - the one in her face and the one in her flower - vomited caustic sap upon them. As they slowly melted, their limbs slipping damp and sticky from their sockets, I watched with horror as the final gunman desperately clawed at the road for purchase, but was dragged, inexorably, into the gaping maw of that terrible flesh-coloured flower.

With her last victim's legs still poking out, Catrin roared again, exulting, and bounded off the road and out of sight with impossible agility. It was then, with the road clear, that I threw caution to the wind, struggled over on my seat, and began to drive - the fact I had no idea how an afterthought. But this barely seemed an escape, driving through an endless wooded lane, the headlights illuminating far too little, and the tangled forms of the trees as they sped by blurring and melding into one...

I awoke the next day on a train, with the hop-frog and the case of Wilds's secrets nowhere to be seen. When I finally found my way home, my wife explained she had made the call under duress by armed men wearing balaclavas and proclaiming allegiance to no known nation, who vanished as quickly as they had come. We changed the locks, and my life returned to normality for two happy months in which I scrupulously avoided all woodland and flowerbeds before I was taken into custody. Thus I insist once more - I had nothing to do with the disappearance of Dr Wilds, and my patent cure for anxiety is not in any legal sense his work. At most he contributed to a frame of thought under which I developed the product, and I am prepared to defend this in court.