It would be easy to say that before the previous Totem of Man, Jacques Thuram, crashed into her life Ellie was a ‘normal’ young human woman, but that invites the inevitable question of what constitutes ‘normal’. Ellie was both as unique and idiosyncratic as the next girl but she didn’t stand out from the crowd, either physically or mentally. She was both pretty and smart, though neither to startling extremes, but nor was she forgettable, possessing a bubbly, humorous and endearing personality. I suppose I should say that she thought of herself as normal; a little more liberal than the norm for Britain as a whole at that time, but no more so than her middle-class bohemian peer group. I believe it is the very ordinariness of her pre-ascension life that makes folk tales of her dynamic growth and transformation into a revered heroine so popular with the Ascati. Had she been of royal blood or lived a life of high adventure beforehand Ellie would have entered the Shadespaces an already romantic figure and perhaps found the transition less traumatic. But to come from the grit and grey and everyday struggle of Lightspace Cardiff, to be thrust against her will and with such little guidance into the midst of the fourth Consolidation War, and to prevail against such seemingly insurmountable odds was truly astonishing.
The circumstances surrounding her ascension have been oft repeated and I shall not embellish my telling with imagined flavours and novelties to make this script more attractive, but shall endeavour to report faithfully the version Ellie told unto me. There may be some variance on account of the years since passed, but by and large my badgers have superb memories and I believe my retelling to be close to verbatim, if paraphrased in places.
Ellie had moved to Lightspace Cardiff just recently, scarcely more than two weeks before Jacques’ attack. She had moved to the city with her human fiancé, one Oliver Jarvis, about whom I shall say more in due time. Oliver had received a promotion at his place of work (as a code-maker for computers) which consequentially made the move to Cardiff necessary. Ellie was a musician of growing renown in their old home, the Lightspace new-town of Reading (which coincidentally occupies the same geographic location as the Shadespace city of Ginidare). She was a guitarist and singer, and the move to Cardiff had forced the disbanding of her rock music troupe, a sacrifice which only her love for and refusal to be parted from Oliver could have brought about. Her stated ambition was to form a new and better troupe in Cardiff. Reluctant to be financially reliant on her man, Ellie had found temporary employment as a barmaid in a nearby live music venue where she hoped to meet other musicians and kindred spirits. It was on her way home from her first night of work at this drinking-hole that Ellie was accosted by Jacques and the course of her life altered utterly. I shall let Ellie pick-up the tale:
“It was a cold night. A wet night. The kind of rain that don’t form puddles but seems to hover like this drizzling mist, miserable in front of your face. It had been warm when I’d come out, so I hadn’t bought my coat. The manager at Buffalos – that was the bar – he’d lent me this old hoodie from the lost property box. I swear, it must’ve belonged to some obese bloody giant, it absolutely swamped me, proper down to my knees. Warm though. Lent me some battered old brolly too but that made bugger all difference. Like I said, the rain seemed to be hovering in the air and I was walking into it as much as it was falling on me. I had the massive hood pulled down over my face so I could only really see the pavement a few yards in front of my feet. Headphones in too, of course. Didn’t walk anywhere without tunes back then. Totally in my own little bubble, singing along to some old-school Maiden.
First I knew about Jacques was when I saw his boots plant themselves right in my path. My head snapped up and I was about to give him an earful as I veered to his side. The words got stuck in my throat, like I’d swallowed a doughnut whole. He was wrong. Everything about him was wrong. So wrong. My eyes kept trying to un-see him. He was slipping in and out of focus. He was a blur, or a ghost, or a trick of the light; an optical illusions, a day-dream, a heat shimmer. He wasn’t there. If I looked away and looked back, he’d be gone. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t look away. He wouldn’t let me. He was holding me, with his eyes. Laughing at me with his eyes, but in a kind way. He was begging me not to look away, and all the fear choking my throat was hot and sad.
I’d read him from the feet up. Black boots. Brown jeans tucked into thick grey socks. Something dark and sticky looking: blood. My nerves screamed that it was blood, slicked down his left leg. The thigh and hip above were chewed up with dozens of bristles, thorns, something short and spiky. His left hand hung down by the wounded hip. It was holding a gun. Nothing modern, a silver revolver. I don’t know guns, but it looked like a shooter from a western. The gun grabbed the pit of my stomach and yanked it up to join the clog in my throat. He pointed the gun at my face.
His eyes were green; bright, laughing, Irish green. His hair was red, long and pulled back in a tail whipped forward by the wind, over his shoulder. He couldn’t have been more than thirty. He had this smile on his face, that I think was meant to soothe me. Make me think this was going to be OK. Some gibberish flashed through my mind that this was a mugging, that he wanted my wallet, or that it was worse, that he wanted my body. But another part of my head was screaming about the stinger, the giant ****ing hornet stinger that was stabbed all the way through his right shoulder, pointing at me. The street-lamp on the other side of the road was throwing his shadow onto the wall besides us and I could see it sticking out his back. I have always been afraid of bees, wasps, and hornets worst of ****ing-all. I recognised a giant stinger when I saw one. His right arm hung dead; useless and paralyzed.
Half his face and neck was a swollen, weeping mess of insect stings and bites. He was swaying on the spot, but the gun never left my face. He nodded slightly, as if to acknowledge the unreality of the situation.
“Ellie,” he said.
I gawped at him. He didn’t know me. If he knew my name, I was ****ed.
“Ellie, we don’t have much time.”
I felt like I should be screaming, running, or hysterically falling to pieces, but I wasn’t. I was just standing there, frozen, shaking a little. Feeling the shock and horror still jamming together in my larynx. There was a necklace, a jewellery chain, or two, I didn’t know, dangling from his fist around the gun, with pendants hanging from it. For a second he pulled the gun from my face to hang the chain thing around his neck. I went faint. I knew what it meant, but I didn’t know how. The chain thing was how he would die. He wanted me to kill him. My eyes were locked on his. He needed me to kill him.
“We don’t have much time before he gets here.” It was almost a whisper it was so soft.
From his colouring I would have guessed he was Irish, and it was only now, the third time he spoke that I heard his accent was French.
“What do I do?” The voice was mine, but the words weren’t. I didn’t choose to say them. I wanted this to be over. He was in pain, so much pain. I wanted it to be over.
“Take-up the grips. Come close.” His voice rasped in his throat.
He closed his eyes, and I was free. I was myself again. I could see him clearly. His waistcoat was purple with gold trim. I could’ve run then. I could have screamed. It never crossed my mind. He was like Darko, my childhood spaniel, the morning we took him to the vet to be put down. He was like my Grandmother, the night she got up from her sick-bed and sang Abba with my mother, right before she died. He loved me and he needed me to help him pass over: I couldn’t walk away.
I stepped up-close and smelt his wounds. My head reeled. His face reeked of pus and poison. He smiled. Under the wounds he smelt like Oliver. He smelt like my Dad. My Grandad and my Grandpa too. He smelt like the men who’d held me tight and told me everything would be alright. He smelt like the men I’d believed it from. I dropped my brolly, worked my fingers out the folds of the monster hoodie sleeves and took up the grips. They dangled from the chain around his neck, two of them, thick rubber ovals with finger grooves. I noticed the chain. It was thin, wire, covered in flakes that glittered in the yellow lamp light. Where the grips hung on separate wires, they fed through a solid silver boxy mechanism then looped twice around his neck.
“When it’s done, run home. Never tell a soul, but whisper it to the woods,” he breathed into my ear.
The words trickled down my spine like ice water on a baked summer afternoon.
“Whisper it to the woods,” I parroted back. Not understanding a word.
He opened his eyes and leaned back to look me full on. His brow was strong and calm. His jaw was clenched, his throat worked to keep back the saliva, and his eyes glazed with wetness. He was a good man. One of the best.
“My name was Jacques Thuram and I was the Totem of Man. Now, it’s you.” He nodded again, a final time.
I slammed the grips apart, as hard and fast as I could. My own vision suddenly blurred with tears. The death-chain worked like a charm, miniature pulleys making faint whizzing noises, the diamond coated wires slicing through his neck like a knife through warm country butter. The chain jerked my arms to a stop, it was fully extended. Jacques was decapitated. His head didn’t move, but a thin red line worked across his throat. It was done.
It took a moment for the universe to catch on, and then Jacques burned. He burned not with fire and ash but with light and sound. I was blinded and deafened and his passing scarred my eyes. I could see nothing but him. Hear nothing but him. He burned and I burned with him. Then it was done. It was done and he was gone. No dust, no remains, just gone.
“When it’s done, run home.” His instructions rung in my ears. I kept hold of the death-chain, clasped it tight to my wildly beating heart and ran sobbing. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know what had happened, but I grieved for Jacques. I’d loved him immediately and I missed him already. I didn’t understand.”
All this Ellie told me once I’d gained her trust and friendship. On a wind battered morning, with a couple of stiff drinks inside her she let spill these words that burnt her lips. We will never know exactly what Jacques had been through that night, but we can all guess. Where, until that day, every Totem had run and hid, Jacques stood and fought. It is clear that he was overpowered, but equally clear that he was not defeated. Jacques escaped and lived to recognise the folly of his stand. He was a marked man, tagged and trailed, with no real chance of survival remaining. Allowing his powers to fall into enemy hands was unacceptable and so he chose forced transference instead. The mushrooms say that they once gifted Jacques with visions of Ellie, many, many moons ago, back when Jacques was newly transcendent himself. They say these visions allowed him to recognise his successor without fear of mistake, but I wonder. I’ve never trusted mushroom talk, and I wonder how much was fated, how much was purely coincidental. Either way, what was done was done well.
Thus was Ellie made Totem and inherited the powers of Jacques, all unaware of what she’d done. The hellish spawn which pursued Jacques to take by force those same powers which Jacques had forced upon Ellie found the trail gone cold. It did not take long for the monster to deduce what must have happened and so it soon began to cast about for the new spore. The rain she’d earlier bemoaned no doubt saved Ellie’s life those first hours, washing the scene clean of her scent. Though most who walk those streets in Lightspace Cardiff know it not, the corner of Llantwit and Woodville is an Ascati holy spot now. I, and many of my kin, visit every year to pay our respects to Jacques Thuram, the Totem of Man who stood, on his own, against Swarm.