The third and final installment of Lee Murray and Dan Rabart's award-winning series The Path of Ra launches in New Zealand on November 27. Check out the sneak preview below!
If you missed it, read Lee and Dan's interview here.
Penny and Matiu exchange uneasy glances.
There’s nowhere to park, the grass verges crammed with cars, so Matiu slows, looking both ways, searching for a spot.
To Penny’s left, Mount Māngere pokes its grassy knobbed shoulders above the modest suburban streets. Penny knows the domain well, occasionally walking the track to the top, sometimes bringing Cerberus for a romp on the terraces. There’s plenty for him to explore: the double-cratered hillock is humped and hollowed, scattered with lava bombs thrown out during the mountain’s last epic eruption 70,000 years ago. Still evidence of the original pa site, too. Penny can only imagine what it must have been like to live up there in those days. Like living alongside the gods. The views will have changed over time—from lush bushlands to today’s vibrant cityscape—but breath-taking, nonetheless. You can see forever up there: across the city to Rangitoto Island in one direction, and over Puketutu Island to the Manukau Heads on the other. It’s a special place, the kind where you can reach out and touch the heavens with your fingertips...
All at once, Cerberus howls. Startled, Penny glances back. The dog has dropped into the footwell and is frantically trying to squeeze his gangly doggy bulk into the small space. Hackles raised, he bares his teeth and growls, the sound so desolate that Penny’s marrow turns to jelly.
What’s up with him?
Twisting within the confines of her safety belt, Penny’s reaching a hand back to ruffle his ears and reassure him when she catches sight of her aunt. Penny’s heart seizes. If Cerberus is spooked, Mārama can only be petrified. She’s the living embodiment of the hollowed-eyed figure in that Munch painting.
Gripping the fabric of her dress in white-knuckled terror, Mārama’s mouth quivers in a soundless scream.
Penny whips her eyes back to the front and grasps Matiu by the arm. “Matiu! Something’s wrong with Mārama…” She trails off. Matiu’s expression is the mirror image of her aunt’s. What’s wrong with them all?
“Pen…” Matiu’s moan is full of agony, and he’s panting, as if he’s in pain. His eyes have a faraway look, of longing, or despair.
Oh cripes. They’re going to hit a car. Penny grabs the wheel, swerving the Solaris away from the kerb and back into the middle of the road. This is ridiculous. They have to get off the road or Matiu’s going to get them all killed. She slaps her brother on the arm, willing him to snap out it.
“Matiu, can you hear me? I need you to turn right. Go back a few streets. Find a space so we can stop.”
“Matiu. Turn right now.”
“OK,” he croaks.
He almost misses the junction, turning them sharply into Hastie Ave.
Nothing. Still nowhere to park. The streets are chock-full of cars and Penny would bet her right arm that every one of them is unlocked and abandoned.
“Matiu,” Penny urges. “Go left into Crawford. Left here. Turn!”
Finally, she spies a space up ahead. Fortunately, Matiu seems to have recovered, at least partially, because he manoeuvres the Solaris up onto the verge without being told.
He puts the car in park, then throws opens the door and rolls out onto the grass.
Penny too is out of the car, rounding the back of the vehicle, to check on Mārama. The door open,
Penny leans inside to comfort their aunt. Meanwhile, Cerberus is attempting to change footwells, his muzzle resting on Mārama’s legs.
“Matiu? You okay?” Penny says, while Mārama clings to her like a wet swimsuit. “What’s going on?” Her aunt mumbles something incoherent into Penny’s shoulder. Penny feels her tremble.
On his hands and knees now, Matiu shakes his head. “Dunno,” he gasps. “Bit of food poisoning, I guess. Feeling better now.”
“But Mārama’s got it, too. And it hit her at exactly the same time.”
Using the Solaris for support, Matiu staggers to his feet. “Milk must have been off.”
Penny frowns. Such a violent reaction from just a teaspoon of milk? And to hit that fast? Penny’s doubtful. Matiu doesn’t meet her eye, instead gazing back down the road towards the mountain.
The glare of sunshine on the white paint of the Solaris drives back the darkness, this well of black which was drawing him down. The sound of voices muffles the lingering, echoing scream that had come from nowhere, yet somewhere familiar, somewhere close, somewhere impossibly here.
But that’s all it was, a reflection; an echo. A glimpse of something darker. Something they missed. The old volcano has borne brooding witness to many a horror in its long lifetime, and today its very bones have cried out with the pain of whatever new atrocity has taken place under her watchful eye.
Taking a deep breath, Matiu pulls himself together, fingers drumming a rhythm on the bonnet. He turns as Mārama wraps him in a hug, her thin arms brittle as firewood as she draws him close, and then she is gone, and the sun hammers down and the scream still echoes, distant, in his head. Calling. Like somewhere a window has cracked open and from the darkness beyond comes a wind, cold and sour and haunted by the voices of the ghosts who want to step through. It may not be wide enough for them yet, but they will howl and rage and scrape their fingers along the glass until it shatters.
A patrol car pulls up alongside them, and Penny is talking to someone, and they’re bundling into the car, Penny up front and Beaker in the back. Matiu gets in the Solaris, Cerberus bounding in behind and, like he’s falling into a dream, the car is driving. Turning up the sloping, winding road which he knows will take them to the carpark and the ranger track, up the wide, angry shoulders of a volcano which, like her many close relatives, merely slumbers here on the fringes of the human world. This place which is the domain of Rūaumoko, just one step between the shifting heat of the earth’s crust and the screaming dark of the underworld.
It’s all coming together, and it’s all falling apart.
Matiu shakes his head clear. This is no time to freeze up. Shit just got real. He needs to be on his game. He rolls his window down and lets the hot, fetid wind rush over him. Tastes the anticipation. Rolls it on his tongue, and grins a grin which just might be a little bit mad.
“Just a bit further.” Stepping over the lip of the crater, she gazes down at the scooped-out core, and the sweat freezes on her back. Her breath freezes too, her chest wall constricting around her lungs.
“Oh my God,” Beaker whispers beside her.
Penny sinks to her knees on the grass, breathing in rapid, shallow breaths. She hugs her arms about her. What’s happening to the world? Two massacres in one day. How is it even possible? All these people: there has to be at least a hundred of them.
Now she knows what the officer had meant about everyone arriving too late. And why so many cars had been abandoned outside the community centres. Why hadn’t the police been told? Surely, someone must have known this was about to happen. Penny’s shock turns to anger. They knew and yet they chose not to say anything. The smallest clue would have been enough, the merest soupçon to raise the alarm. Why hadn’t they phoned it in, so the police could do their job? A text, a tweet, a hashtag, hell even ten measly characters could have avoided all this…this…waste.
Except it isn’t exactly the same as this morning. For one, the bodies don’t appear to be mutilated. There was no sudden biofueled explosion to fling butchered dismembered limbs across a blistered tarmac. No, this was quietly done, in silence, without fanfare or fireballs. Penny can tell because seen here, from above, the bodies form a pattern laid out on the slopes in neatly concentric whorls, increasingly tighter as they descend to the centre at the base of the hollow.
Penny is certain they laid themselves out this way. They did it voluntarily. She doesn’t need to look to know they all have the same motif tattooed on the inside of a wrist. Concentric whorls like a stylised koru, with a slash across the meridian: the emblem of the Touching the Sun cult.
An eerie ululation echoes over the domain and Penny looks up as Matiu and Cerberus come over the brow of the hill.
The fern is a plant of special significance to the people of Aotearoa. Represented by the koru, a curling inward spiral, it is a humble inhabitant of the bush, with dark fronds that turn in on themselves and only occasionally uncurl when the sun hits them through the shade of the trees they hide beneath. Over the centuries, it has come to represent the country’s sense of nationhood, an iconic swirl gracing the jerseys of national sports teams, government departments and the tail fins of the now defunct state airline. It symbolises pride, unity; humility and endurance. Survival.
Matiu had never realised how much the symbol means to him as a New Zealander, as Māori, until he stands on the lip of the crater, looking down into the maw of Mount Māngere, and sees that symbol laid out below him in flesh and bone, a corruption. A spiral of death descending into the grassy centre of the dormant volcano’s cone. Side by side, arms linked at the elbows, dozens of corpses staring blindly at the scorching sky. The koru means life, renewal. Rebirth. Not death. Not this.
Cerberus whines and strains against his leash as Matiu wanders along the perimeter tape. A ritualistic killing, the Touching the Sun wheatgrass juice, the bizarre symbology. It’s got Kerr written all over it. But she’s upped her game, or morphed it into something new. Not a single victim in a secret place, but a crowd out in the open, at a place where the line between this world and the realms of Rūaumoko and Hine-nui-te-pō grows thin.
There’s a roar building in the back of his head, a rushing white noise like an approaching waterfall, its current drawing him closer to the edge, and the plummet into oblivion. He fights back the urge to let it draw him in. He needs to focus now, and focus hard. The fingers of his left hand drum against his leg, thrum, thrum, thrum, a rhythmic counterpoint to the thunder of the beyond. A quiet challenge. The roar recedes, but only slightly. Just enough to choke back the scream rising in his throat, a desperate howl he had barely heard even though it’s coming from his own lungs. He stifles the cry, withering under the odd stares drifting his way.
At the very centre of the spiral, in what must have been the throat of the volcano several thousand years ago, there’s a gap. Matiu can practically see Sandi Kerr there, standing over her lambs, the shepherd holding the sacrificial knife. Asking them—no, telling them—to give their lives for whatever it is the madwoman seeks. A gate to another world, or the open jaws of a being as dark and vast and hungry as the night itself.
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