I braced myself beneath the cloaking robe, braced myself and I think I even crossed my fingers hoping my protections would work, that it wouldn’t kill me, that it wouldn’t be too painful, that it wouldn’t knock me out and that they wouldn’t find me if it did…
A blinding migraine whacked the inner surface of my skull with cricket-bat force while something connected to it seemed to do something related to the rest of me. Distantly I felt my body convulse and sag.
Everything went black.
It was still dark when I woke.
My wardings had saved my life, certainly as they hadn’t found me but also from the extremes of that nasty hex. I was distantly aware of chanting and that the pitch black darkness was due to the pitch black cloak. I pulled it aside and peeked around the temple wall.
They must have figured I’d got away, perhaps that I hadn’t made it this far down. Either way they’d decided they’d best get on with whatever it was they were doing in case the Watch came knocking. There were some thirty black-cloaks with purple-robe and his lieutenant besides, all the minions in front of the altar, heads bowed, each with an athame and a smoking bowl of heady, pungent incense. Whether or not it was psychoactive or had anything inherently magical about it, it was doubtless helping with what was essentially a group-spell, a channelling of aether and intent from the group for their master’s workings.
I half remembered the entity speaking as I was returning to consciousness. Now its ephemeral manifestation above the altar plucked stronger chords of memory, not of it but… associations, associations I wasn’t able to put into words just then.
I checked my mobile. Not a bar in sight and it was well into the eleventh hour: midnight was approaching.
‘Bring forth the vessel,’ the entity rumbled. I hadn’t noticed any chalice or other container of significant size or nature but I was more intent right then on the entity which, before my Sight, became more distinct, a knobbly floating orb-shape with specs of darkness buzzing around…
Come on Marwood, come on – stop being some primitive interpreting shapes in the darkness to run back and warn your tribe of invented gods: what is it? Think ancient, think biblical, think what-the-hell-am-I-seeing-in-that-dark-rorschach shape?
Thoughts were beginning to form…
See not every dark spirit actually wants to come over to party on our side of the divide. But some actually can’t – or would rather not except under particular circumstances. Like when a host body of the optimal variety for its particular nature is made available.
A host body. A vessel.
This was serious warlocking.
Warlock came from the Anglo-Saxon for oath-breaker; and while I couldn’t imagine these boys had ever sworn an oath to the Worshipful Company as I had, I wasn’t going to give them a free pass on a technicality. The real oath I swore is that which everyone – as far as I and a good bunch of others are concerned – swears by default: Don’t be an evil shit. And these were evil fuckwit cultist warlock shits, oath-breakers by default and then some.
“The rules!” I wanted to shout, “you’re breaking the rules!” but I knew they’d only turn around and say: “Who cares?”
And then I got it: what the shape above the altar was, what the vessel was, what it was for, what all this was about. The shadowy orb wasn’t simply floating my Sight now told me – it was propped up, skewered atop a pole of the selfsame darkness of which it was composed. And it was a head, the knobbly bits being ears… and a snout. Those buzzing specs, as far as my mind had interpreted, were flies.
My sight had conjured associations of a book I’d been made to study at school, a book about kids on a tropical island who descend into superstition, depravity and violence.
I was channelling Lord of the bloody Flies.
You heard all kinds of rumours in this game. But the one I was thinking of, what with the Biblical angle, was the rumour of a legion of dark spirits cast from a man and into swine that then drowned in the Sea of Galilee. Well whatever it was, they were bringing it through into a boar-man – a pig man. Greater demon or no, I didn’t like to think of the power it would have in an optimal vessel, or the terrible secrets it might share with the sect who had provided it.
‘Is it… unsullied?’ it demanded when they brought out the chained Twrchwn. It slouched, rather more docile after munching the steak I’d taken from their fridge and doped with what I’d tried to remember being bane-substances in the right quantities for boar men.
‘It seems… woozy, still half-asleep perhaps. But yes.’
I got to my feet behind the wall, swaying slightly but I’d recovered from that hex as much as I was going to. I took out my sling and my sword from my bag. I put on the black robe for whatever good it might do.
Of the alchemical ingredients there wasn’t much left.
But that was because while they’d been gone I’d got busy painting up wards and getting other bits around the place that might help me screw up their plans and get out in one piece.
The chanting was back in full swing, the master speaking ancient words over them and moving athame and chalice through the air in practised movements. I figured they might be looking to finish bang on midnight but, either way, it had to be now. I collected my effects and crept around the walls and columns and began the incantations to activate the symbols I’d had time to get up.
Blast-wards, painted grey on grey, erupted from pillar and rock throwing bodies across the temple-space and into others. Simultaneously a number of spiritual apotropaic sigils went off for what good they might do against the entity’s presence and the master’s workings (and either way they shone which looked damn cool).
I lobbed in my remaining snooze-bombs while they were still bunched together and on their knees. Then I sent spark-cantrips into the clumps of flammable powder I’d planted beneath where the cultists now sat, setting robes aflame and men running and rolling to put them out. I tripped a couple of fuddle-glyphs, something I was still perfecting, but which added to the panic and confusion. There were a couple of other wards I swore I’d never get in the habit of using, things of the nature of the hex dolor that I’d really only learned of by circumventing them; but this was an extreme situation and they had the ingredients and they’d brought this on themselves.
The temple was a mass of flapping black into which I slung stones to stun and incapacitate. Purple fire manifested here and there, those with the presence of mind (if not necessarily the wisdom of restraint) conjuring their prized spell with which they’d been gifted by the all-wise master. Every attempt dissipated, or went into another or back on themselves. I saw at least one acolyte’s knife plunge into another in the chaos, and bodies going limp having tripped over robes or rock or each other and head-planted the ground. Others went down belatedly after bundling about in the dissipating cloud of morphinic bomb-powder.
Maybe some thought they were surrounded by invisible watchmen, or that their master or the entity had turned on them. Either way they stumbled at speed up the steps and onto the walkway. One fell off. Another was pushed. Will to power had become will to get the fuck away. I’d probably have felt pleased if I wasn’t still half-crapping it myself.
‘A sacrifice!’ the Baal-entity implored, ‘I can still come through!’
The lieutenant stood there, hood back, furious but resolute in the chaos. His buzz-cut hair was white but he was a big man and robust with it. He grabbed an acolyte and hauled him to the altar. I got off a shot with my sling and the stone glanced his shoulder making him spin round, his face contorted more in fury than the pain he must have felt. I launched another, aimed for his head, but his snarling lips muttered and aether coalesced into force, my missile glancing off the spectral shield with a crackle of blue light.
‘Get him,’ yelled the master, ‘I’ll finish the ritual!’
I tried for a shot at the master but it went wide because I had to move out of the way of an example of Malachi’s Ruin that was anything but low-grade from his advancing lieutenant. The oversized purple fireball burst against the wall beneath the scaffolding, spraying chips from its surface and sending a rattle up the structure.
A remaining black robe appeared behind my wall but ran at the sight of my raised sword. Another came round, more zealous and unafraid of my sword, though his nose wasn’t overly fond of my fist. I kicked him backwards past the walls extent, and he was torn from his feet by a sizeable globe of ruin.
Then the lieutenant appeared. I just had time to get my own shield up as another expert magical missile came at me, its aetheric potence sluicing around my shield’s extent, its raw force sliding me back a step. The shock rattled my brain sufficiently for me to lose focus and the shield with it.
‘Who are you?’ he roared, striding forward, ‘Who are you?’
It was too well enunciated for a football heckle, but I could quite imagine a hooligan would have been delighted to have this psychopath onside. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the words out to rekindle my shield to an effective level of protection before he got another missile off.
But then it took only one word to activate the ward I’d painted on my wall for just such an instance and he was blasted aside and into a pillar.
‘I’m Dave,’ I bellowed back, ‘from District Nine!’
And he fell unconscious.
From my Sight, from that feeling of presence, I could tell the entity was coming through. Even at reduced power from the hasty ritual, the drugged host, from my apotropaic sigils perhaps, I did not like my chances against it were it to gain form.
I didn’t mind my chances against the master though.
His sacrificed goon lay bloody across the altar and he had his back to me. My steps became strides became a run. He turned, saw me coming, started conjuring up something esoteric and unpleasant.
I got there first and conjured up my significantly less esoteric knee in his nads.
A face full of remnant snooze-powder from my pocket – pressed in for good measure – and he went down like a sack of spuds.
‘You are too late pissant mortal spec – I am coming through and my vessel waits!’
The umbral pigs head and pole had dissolved and expanded into a dense broiling swarm of fragments of utter blackness. It moved slowly from above the altar and toward its vessel, which now floated into the air and likewise toward it. I’d dropped my sling somewhere, found my sword instead – but the boar-man was already beyond its reach…
Before despair set in I spotted that they’d brought jars those of alchemical ingredients with necromantic applications into this space, and left them tidily next to the nearest the excavated rock face with a handy back-up chicken for good measure. I grabbed one armful of the former and another of the latter and got to work on a flatter section of stone on the temple floor. The buzzing form of the dark spirit was even larger and denser now, and nearly at the Twrchwn. But if I was quick enough…
It was a tricky circle but my master had put me through my paces in anti-pneuma – magic to combat spirits – ad nauseum, and I’d had a good bit of practice since. I didn’t like sacrificing anything, but if it was a chicken or me and London…
‘Sorry mate,’ I said to it, stuck in the circle I’d painted. It regarded me with beady eyes and pecked my hand. ‘Ow! Fuck you then!’
‘What do you think you are doing spec?’ gloated the Baal-entity. ‘An exorcism? A sacrifice? It will avail you nought!’
‘Not quite pal,’ I said and began the incantation, a bit of an old Latin number, making sure I wove in variations of boar and pig (sus, scrofa, porcus et al…)
‘What… what…’ the entity faltered. ‘What are you…’
I kept it up, retreating to my handy wall as I did.
‘I am owed a vessel; the warlock gave it to me on behalf of mortal man – it is my due!’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but it looked like you were having a little trouble there… so I’ve given you an alternative.’
‘Oh it’ll be fine,’ I said once I’d gotten the spell moving a bit and the entity was drawn unwillingly away from Rasher. Darkness churned in its ethereal form, vulnerable but obstinate – but ultimately unsuited to our plane, vulnerable as a spirit outside a body. ‘You might even prefer it.
‘…gallinaceus!’ I finished my bespoke incantation.
It pulled and pulled and pulled against the spell…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken in the circle.
…A spell that involved neither ritual slaughter nor exorcism…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken again (while the boar-man dropped to the ground with a grunt)…
…But a spell that wasn’t taking no for an answer. And suddenly the entity could hold out no more and its entire spiritual mass shot down into the circle, into the gallinaceus…
Into the chicken.
‘BAAAAAAWWWWWK!!!’ went the chicken.
…and exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.
‘Then again,’ I said, ‘maybe you should have stuck with your first choice after all.’
I sat there in a room of sleeping figures who’d planned to bring an ancient pig demon to Old London Town. I rather felt like a kip myself.
But I had calls to make.
‘Okay listen,’ I said, outside and with reception again; I was speaking to the nice lady who’d tipped me the wink and sent me alone to face a whole gang of necromantic cultists. ‘Tell the Watch this and make sure it’s word for word…’
She was sending it by the back channels. Even so I dropped in a few words I knew the Watch used for this sort of thing, stuff that in the right combination would get the alarm bells ringing: ‘Troy has fallen’ and ‘But the Trojans are only sleeping’ and other bits that built a picture. The Watch can take a damn long time to get off their arses when you call in a potential threat – but when you know exactly what’s going on and report that they seem able to distinguish it as reality rather than the delusions of old kith and the crank calls of the youth thereof. Course that often means you’re already up to your neck in shit or have just dealt with the problem for them. Anyways, I wasn’t too surprised when, shortly, my phone buzzed.
It was from the Watch, a round text to those of us on their books in some form, asking if we were in the vicinity and could check on a suspicious building (it looked like I might even get paid for saving the day for once). I gave it a minute, texted agreement, then called back five minutes later to report the hush-wards, an unconscious black-robe, the numbers of hangers on which hung clothes and robes in the cloak room, and the ambient aether being sufficient to disrupt reception. I didn’t know if that would mean I got to nick the credit back and frankly, right then, I didn’t care.
I’d left a glyph stone behind so I could tell if any of the cultists had woken and ignored the friendly warning I’d painted on the steps up the scaffolding (“If you think / that was bad / see what happens / when you step / past the / last of / these / words. (Dave – District Nine)”). Well it was a bluff given I’d run out of material with which to scrawl anything offensive beyond harsh language but you take what precautions you can (like, we practice safe sects – Oh man, I kill me).
But the glyph stone hadn’t gone off by the time the Watch showed their faces, so assuming no one had worked out how to get the hardened gloop out I’d shoved in that old brass lock, they’d all still be inside.
Well I repeated my findings in person to one of the five Watch people, noting the glyph stone I’d left. Another looked on suspiciously, as if my prompt response was some kind of admission that I’d been up to unauthorised sub rosa investigation beforehand and risked my life to thwart a bunch of necromancers. Well fuck it and, frankly, fuck him.
I headed back to the old boys café. Some of them stay open late and it was only down the road so I figured I might as well, even if I just got ignored. The light was on. The door was open.
There were no games being played. Everyone was stood, knelt or sat around that middle table and grumpy old Jozef Kovac. He looked asleep, like he’d dozed off in his chair. But I knew he wasn’t. The young man who’d sniggered was stood behind looking on, a tear streak down his face. The younger old codger was there also – it was he who caught my eye and nodded knowingly.
It is done, he seemed to be saying, and he knew it.
I closed my eyes and nodded back.
I left, turning over oversized and unwieldy thoughts, trying for some root of meaning in human nature, in what necromantic cultists did in the daytime, in the willingness of mortal souls to be twisted, in cleaning rotas and wills-to-power; and in the coincident death of a potentially lycanthropic, grumpy old Slovak.
They call me Marwood.
I’m off for a bag of chips.