I needed to get something, anything to raise with the Watch ay-ess-ay-pee – and get the hell out of there.
The corridor twisted north again, ending after a few doors each side. I had a hunch that what I was looking for would be in one of the end rooms – because that’s where it would have to be rather than for the sense of drama. But I stuck to the plan: check each door, don’t leave potential surprises behind you to come and bite you in the arse. As happened it was the last on the right, but I made sure to check the left before proceeding.
The right room was empty as well, the more so given the noticeable absence in the north wall on account of the hole they’d knocked through into the next building. I peered through the vacant brickwork.
The light was meagre, cast by electric bulbs running around and down the gauntlet of scaffolding that completed a half circuit against the external walls, all right-angled and cross-bracing diagonal pipes. The room was… cavernous? Well it was the whole span of the building sans internal walls – floors as well. It extended up and down by three or four storeys each way. That the external wall was intact was hardly unusual – building works often only being given planning permission with the retention of the building’s facade; the unusual bit was that baalist cultists were up to something behind it. Further illumination breathed up from below.
I could make a few guesses: that someone in their order, somewhere between the developer and council, had caught the signs that there was something down here. And they’d diverted their diabolic intellects to piss around with and tie up the development process at both ends. Then they’d simply bought or rented part of the adjacent building through which I’d come – and knocked through.
My second glyph stone sent warmth to its counterpart in my pocket. If my priority was going to be to get past them and raise the alarm as best I could I had to get back into an empty room now. Instead I took a breath, stepped through, and began to make my way round the walkway on the scaffolding and down.
There were brighter lamps at the bottom, somewhere into the building’s foundations. Light came also from apertures from down there, doorways into some earlier building buried beneath this one and jutting slightly into the bottom level from the surrounding rock. I guessed they were using it as a handy living and work space, it being next to the much older thing they’d unearthed. A few more levels of careful descent and I could make out what it was.
More than a few old sites of worship have been discovered under London, buried temple spaces dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, Isis and Mithras, gods native to or appropriated by ancient Rome and exported to old old old Blighty ahead of Christianity, back when London was Londinium and this part of centre-north was covered by the Forest of Middlesex. Doubtless other gods were venerated, even if secretly. From the excavated floor projected the columns and part-walls of just such temple, a rocky altar intact within its span. I reached the bottom and crept over to it to get a better look.
I began to conjure a tiny bit of foxfire – magical light – to see better. But when I did…
It’s too easy to mistake a sense of foreboding which you know damn well you should be feeling for some definite malefic presence, latent or otherwise. But that developed sense of the supernormal – what we call Second Sight – flickered a clear warning, as if the spell connected with something, a memory of death and blood, of the violent sundering of body and spirit, and the rage of aether that came with.
If I’d been a newbie to this game I might have crapped it and cancelled the spell. But there was nothing to worry about, not as far as the connection went anyway. The light appeared in the palm of my hand (blue today, more fire-like than usual but wavier). I stepped around the altar and checked the carvings, traced their relief with my finger.
The sound of approaching voices came from the apertures: I nixed the foxfire and moved quickly around the exterior wall of the projecting building, into darkness, out of view. I caught the word Baal – Ba’al rather.
It meant master or lord. The baalob bit of baalobite actually meant master of obs – of spirits. But numerous Canaanite gods were referred to as Baal, or had names prefixed by the title. There were Baals of cities and places, of Tyre and Ekron and Peor and others. They were the gods denounced as false in the Old Testament: Ba’al Hamon and Hadad and Ba’al Sameme, Malage and Saphon…
Oh and Baal Zebub of course (and yes, that is very much the entity mentioned in scholarly classifications of the infernal variety, not to mention rhapsodies of the bohemian).
So they’d uncovered some old baalist altar, some secret place of worship and sacrifice for the immigrant Roman sickos who’d appropriated the Canaanite entity or entities in question. This place had the potency for the sort of workings the Endorians got up to (and to screw up your mobile reception) whether it was carved physically into the stone or imbued by layered memories of sacrificial death.
Two figures emerged, one rather taller in black robes pimped with distinguishing markings; the other wore purple, the colour of royalty, hazes, euroskeptics, helmets and people-eaters.
My hand was reaching for something hard to put in my sling, both from the moral outrage at who and what these bastards were as well as the more opportunistic impulse to potentially nail the lid on this whole thing in a few shots. It was a damn good job I didn’t. They were trailed by five silent black-robed others, heads bowed reverentially, each of whom would doubtless have loved the chance to prove themselves by having a go because they thought they were hard enough.
I huddled there, somewhat fearful one would notice me as they climbed the steps of the scaffolding opposite.
Their honcho, the Baal in purple, had a pained gait. Age? Accident? The onset of something caused by dabbling in stuff best left the hell alone? It was clearly why they’d gone to the trouble of building steps rather than making do with ladders.
As they reached the level where they’d knocked through, his second stopped in his tracks. He seemed to sniff the air, as if half-aware someone was sneaking around their gaff – but he shook his head and they moved on and round. I heard the faint hushed click of the door close behind them and got back on with the sneaking.
I headed through the aperture from which they’d come, still lit from inside. The temple and this structure were millennia apart, the latter probably being some Georgian or Victorian era offshoot of sewer or canal, stables perhaps for canal horses (we weren’t far from Regents Canal after all). I wondered whether or not this place had been excavated back then and connected to this temple – or whether the two had lain temptingly close but apart by metres of rock and chalk and earth and London clay.
There were three linked chambers of brick and stone, and a passage leading off, illumined part-way by electric lights, then to darkness. The first was more an entranceway and store for general paraphernalia, candles and suchlike. The second was much larger and contained a long table and chairs, and it was where they’d jacked into the national grid to power the lights and the fridge in the corner.
There was also a battery-cage of three suspiciously quiet chickens – suspiciously quiet until I spotted the hush-wards behind the cage. They were probably there as handy blood-sacrifices to get things going on the dark-workings front; well, the baalists could also have been working on discovering the Colonels secret recipe, or at least have the approximate ingredients to hand for post-sorcery munchies in the early hours when the local KFC knock-offs had shut.
The third space was small, a sort of ‘office’ area I assumed for the purple-robed master. Between this and the large room was where it all was, the developer’s plans, old historical texts in Latin, esoteric ones in Hebrew, and the more unique paraphernalia: athames, chalices, pestles and mortars, brushes for application, and a good store of alchemicals.
I mentally totted the latter, the relative levels of components and compounds – attorlade and mugwort, hellebore, arsenic, salt and sulphur, lunar caustic, cinnabar, rowan and thorn and more… There were candles on the main table also, presumably what they’d been working on. An unpleasant sniff identified them as being made from animal fats rather than wax. There was enough of the right stuff for a number of summoning or channelling possibilities.
Yeah, it was all going on baby.
I rekindled the foxfire and headed down the tunnel in its bluey light in the hope that I’d find something that would throw further illumination on the whole thing.
The smell got very bad very quickly, turning from musty to, well, something especially nasty.
I came first to an iron gate secured with an ancient brass lock – ancient but without sign of corrosion to hide the exquisite patterning. It would be simple to pick but I could feel the energy bound inside, waiting to leap at the unwitting fool who did so. Given time I might have been able to subvert the binding symbols or the lock itself, but time was in ever shorter supply. I left it and followed the tunnel and the smell into a rectangular room. I thought immediately of an underground stable, but that might have been because there was a lot of straw strewn across the floor. Also shit – but a good deal of straw.
I heard rustling, snuffling and the clink of chains. The smell was obscene, faecal matter of some variety but which couldn’t be human, unless the occupant was a patron of the legendary ‘Dodgy Maharaja of Bognor Regis’ (free poppodums and mango chutney with orders over five quid – and that closed down years back). But I couldn’t see jack shit so I turned up the foxfire.
Now I could make out a lump in the corner, a lump with limbs. Its frame rose and fell with sniffled breaths that became an inhuman snore. It paused mid-snore and shudder of its frame and-
It hefted itself round onto elbow, head turning and-
It was so fucking quick I barely made it aside. I backpedalled further over the cobbles out of range as it moved again to throttle itself at the chains extent; I did so again realising that even that was stupidly inadequate when a clawed hand raked out toward me, again, again, again…
It wasn’t clawed I realised, watching it now lash uselessly about a foot from my feet. Even so, if the thrashing extremity had connected with any of mine I’d have been in bad shape. But it wasn’t clawed: it was trottered.
I sat there panting realising how damn lucky I was, lucky for not having been clawed or trottered or whatever – actually that I hadn’t been gored by its tusks! But lucky also that the baalists had put so many hush-wards everywhere. It meant I was free to get myself killed in a noisy fashion without them being any the wiser until well after the event.
I got my breathing under control and, feeling oddly detached, sat in the straw watching the thing flailing vainly. It was naked but at least had bristles and grime as some kind of covering. I wasn’t looking to win any points on my Cymraeg / Brythonic pronunciation (or spelling for that matter) but I was pretty sure I knew what it was: A Twrchwn.
A Boar Man.
Pretty sure. I’d only seen one once before, back when I was temping as a Warden on the welsh border. I mean I don’t possess the greatest magical sensitivity but it didn’t strike me as demonic or anything of faerie, nothing possessed of a particularly magical nature so much as simply being unknown of by the general public.
Course it could have been a member of the urban-legendary monstrous breed of black sewer-swine, whose ancestor(s) had got into the underground River Fleet and mutated Ninja Turtle style amidst the feculence and over the generations on a diet of food waste, offal, rotten meat and dead dogs and whatever.
Supposedly they’d found their way into the Hampstead Sewers, but you also heard magician gossip on the subject of the Caledonian (Road) Boar which wasn’t a million miles away either. Mind many supposed sightings of have actually been trolls (and that’s a whole other story).
Anyway, the Twrchwn were amongst the Therians, the beast-folk, I was aware existed. Like their beastly fellows they were self aware but primitive to say the least (yeah there are others; I also met a Bruin during my stint on the Welsh border for a start, specifically in the Forest of Dean – it was all a bit like AA Milne on a bad acid trip). But that and whether Rasher here was Welsh, City of London and / or the results of some massively dodgy and almost certainly malefic magicians’ occult porcine eugenics program didn’t strike me as the point.
So what was? What was it here for? Security?
Not right then because all it was guarding was straw and its own crap.
I was trying to make some sort of sense of all this, but my mind was trying to remember the dialogue of that bit in Snatch where Brick Top explains how easily and quickly a pig can consume uncooked flesh (I rather wished it would stop). The thing took a few more swipes before dismissing me with a snouty sneer and slouched back to the wall for a snooze while I went over my limited options.
I could try and get back up, avoid some thirteen plus cultists and get outside; at least I now had some specifics to report to the Watch. If it came to it and there was no way of getting safely past I could try for a room with a window. I had the tools to prize the boards from them and some strong chord from which I could dangle so I’d break fewer bones. Still, that wasn’t top of my list. And if I didn’t like the odds of not being caught outside an empty room, I liked my prospects even less were I to be caught on the scaffolding on the way up.
On the thwarting front I could see a few more possibilities.
I could waste their alchemical stuff and maybe bash up their other paraphernalia in the hope they were essential to their plans – but that would give a pretty clear signal that someone was about and needed finding and having done to them whatever a twisted cultic mind might deem appropriate.
Perhaps I could find a way to unleash the Twrchwn without getting gored so it could do the job for me. But there were no guarantees either measure would be thwarty enough. And if I did get caught there’d be no-one to report back and they’d be free to try whatever they were doing at a later date. Besides I didn’t want to get caught, not by these boys.
Anyways, what occurred to me was that they’d been good enough to leave me down here with all their alchemical stuff and, if I was careful, they might not miss some of it. Which meant, given I kept a few bits on me anyway, I had a few things I could play with…
I was a bit too occupied in the temple area to notice the warmth in my pocket and hushed sound of the door to the knocked-through room above opening. But the striding descents, led by feet with an off-beat limp, alerted me to the danger of discovery. I stopped what I was doing and got behind the cover of one of the temple walls, pulling my nicked robe over me for good measure before the gaggle of cultists reached the bottom.
A black-robe headed through the aperture, returning directly to pass a chicken and chalice to the master. The acolytes went to their knees for some light chanting while he began a more serious invocation. He slit the chicken’s throat – and held its carcass to catch the blood in the chalice. He handed the corpse to his lieutenant and continued his litany, placing the chalice on the centre of the altar.
Above it, something began to manifest.
It was ethereal, insubstantial, but very definitely there, an outline of shadow against darkness with a mass you could feel rather than see. A pneuma akarthon, a cacodaemon – or spiritus immundus if you prefer the Latin.
A dark spirit, and a serious one.
Again I’d got experience of this kind of stuff. I knew enough to be afraid, but also to not let that fear take control, to not confuse the fearful with the terrifying. There are scales in this game.
The thing is, the thought came in my head, fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.
Strange thought. Kind of true… But it sounded familiar: very distantly, but familiar.
‘Great Baal,’ said the master while the others prostrated themselves, ‘some of our numbers are… unaccounted for.’
There was a rumble of displeasure and I noticed a couple of black-robes shaking.
This was something nasty from behind the veil of our mortal world, and it was serious… but, with my Sight, I could distinguish that its… emanations were not nearly as powerful as other things I’d seen. Of course that wasn’t a massive comfort given I’d been with a crew on those occasions, folk with heavy duty telemachia and the like.
‘Are we… betrayed?’
‘It would seem unlikely, but I cannot be sure.’
I listened in on their parley. There was reverence and respect on the master’s part, but the entity wasn’t raging, berating or threatening him for incompetence as one would an underling.
See necromancy is about communicating beyond the mortal veil, literally divination through the dead. Spirits of the human dead, sure, and lesser spirits can be pressed into service. But there are other things out there with rather more clout.
Making contact with any of these is one thing – but the point is to what end. Knowledge for the most, insight and glimpsed secrets of our world in return for sacrifices or errands in the mortal realm. But they might also share other knowledge, magical secrets beyond the sphere of necromancy. So we call them necromancers, but they end up having all manner of nasty bits in their magical repertoire. Anyway, this was some kind of partnership – but what were they trading?
‘And you have procured the vessel?’ came the Baal-entities voice…
Then the clattering of feet sounded on the walkway above.
‘Master!’ called the black-robe on his way down, faltering as he saw the semi-coherent thing above the altar. He was shot a seething look by both the higher-ups but got the words out anyway. ‘We found them! They were unconscious in the storage room. Master – we have an intruder!’
‘Seal this place! Two brothers at the junction and the front. Go out and summon the others, then search every corner of every room.’
‘At once master!’
‘You – search our chambers down here. Ensure the vessel is not compromised.’
‘We will use the hex dolor,’ the entity rumbled, ‘do your acolytes all have the rings?’
‘Yes Great Baal. I will begin it immediately.’
I was busy painting stuff on the wall and had been from the moment I heard the word ‘intruder’. It was a little something that might help hide me, a countermeasure for extrasensory kind of stuff but that did have a little efficacy on conventional senses, and I’d take whatever benefit it brought. But news of the hex dolor got me scrawling faster and using up even more precious ingredients.
If their rings had been a little more… culty, I might have thought to grab one along with the robe. But they must have been on their ring fingers (some metaphorical marriage to the sect I guessed), also why I didn’t look more closely.
Anyway this hex sounded like something they could set off to blast anyone without a secret decoder ring with something especially nasty. If I was lucky I’d be able to get some anti-hex warding up alongside the obfuscation glyph which I might hope would help with that as well. I glanced over to see a black robe return with gear from their chambers; the master received it to incorporate into the dark muttered spell he was working. I completed the warding, whispering words of my own to activate them.
The master’s voice rose in pitch and I could feel the aether bleeding from beyond to part-power the incantation; the hex was coming.
I pressed in behind the cabinet as a crackling orb of purple flame passed more or less where my head had been. It cast the corridor in a sweep of indigo light, to then explode and char the end wall of the corridor.
That was Malachi’s Globe of Ruin, a signature spell of this particular bunch of necromantic dicks. I didn’t know the exact sect of baalists they were mind: could be Esdraelons; or Esdraelonians; Gilboan Witnesses of the Accursed Mountain; the House of Ashtaroth…
Anyways, while I was ruminating on all cultists great and small I dug out and chucked a chymical bag in return at the corridor wall, just above where he sheltered behind his own cabinet, before ducking back. There was a pffff of impact. The powder, the dust of Morpheus – courtesy of the alchemy of yours truly – would be raining down and onto him. (Good stuff that if you fancy a snooze – like nytol on steroids).
I took a peek to make sure he was down and…
…NOOOPE – I pulled my head back sharpish as another ball of aetheric flame rushed past.
It wasn’t like I wasn’t crapping myself but the old instincts kick in; I’d dealt with these sorts before. Okay, not often alone. But I knew what I was doing and I wasn’t going down to some bog-standard cultic minion. No way, no how, not this Marwood – which is what I’m called by-the-by.
My mind span the options and what I knew of his sort; also – perhaps less usefully – what might happen if they got hold of me.
See there’s various folk up to no good with the applied hokum, self-serving types who’d probably sell their siblings if not their mothers.
Then there’s the actively villainous: ruthless bastards who commit evils mundane and supernatural as a matter of course. On the scale between these and the former it was diminishing odds on – and degrees of – how well you’d come out if they took you alive rather than vice versa.
But these guys… These guys were warped. Indoctrinated, warped and nasty, the last folk at whose ‘mercy’ you’d want to be. Also, they’re very proud of their heritage. And I had a hunch that these were the bunch who traced theirs back to the biblical Witch of Endor.
(Ooop – there came-went another off-colour firey missile.)
Mind the Witch of Endor is not, as might first be imagined, a wiccan of a short, furry race on a sanctuary moon a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. She was, if she ever was at all, an Old Testamental necromancer, a baalob, or at least a medium of serious talent. She probably wasn’t a bad old bird herself, not compared to the bastards who’d appropriated her. Either way they take great exception to anyone mocking their assumed lineage – it’s a really, really bad idea.
‘Oi, Wicket!’ I called out, ‘Isn’t it true that you lot were founded by Yuri Geller?’
Something was screamed in old Canaanite (a variety I couldn’t understand, though I doubted it was a wish for my general well-being). Then came the patter of footsteps along with the image of a raised athame, a ceremonial knife, ready to plunge into muggins here.
It seemed an appropriate moment to lob a chymical bomb straight in his face.
He teetered. He coughed white powder from his mouth.
He dropped down not dead.
I gave myself a moment but his unconscious body wasn’t going to lug itself into one of the empty rooms and out of site, more’s the pity. I was determined to learn a spell for that one of these days.
The address I’d been sent to was a little north of Marylebone. I checked it on arrival, in case I’d got it wrong.
It was one of those old men’s cafes, the kind you get in concentrations of an expat community (and make you muse suspiciously on how the proprietor pays the damn rent on its semi-prime location). Net curtains were drawn, I guessed as much to keep the sun off the old lads as for privacy – though the latter intent was rather undermined by the front door being wide open. There were indeed some ten or so old boys inside, playing cards or dominos and rumbling to one another in an east-European accent which, as it turned out, was Slovakian.
I went in and stood there stupidly. Eyes looked up… and back to the game at hand.
Then I said: ‘Uh, I’m here to speak to… Jozef Kovac?’
I don’t know why I asked it as a question because it wasn’t and wasn’t answered anyway.
There was a snigger in the quiet, a young man amongst the elders. One of the latter glanced to him and his hand of cards came up slightly, defensively, in unconscious acknowledgement of a rebuke of some kind. That was all I got.
But then I noticed a chap, old but younger than the others at his table, nodding to an empty chair. I took it and opened my mouth to address him but he shook his head and looked back to his dominoes as the older boys hadn’t stopped doing since I’d entered.
Was I meant to join in, pick up the unused dominos and take a turn? I figured otherwise. I didn’t know how to play anyway. Dominoes were for lining up and knocking down, not playing some kids game.
(In fact I’d probably have done just that had I been sat with anyone else who showed this little interest in my presence; but I didn’t and wouldn’t so I settled for plan B and sat there like a pillock.)
They muttered to one another in Slovakian, hard to tell whether observation or disparagement and also, in either case, if I was the subject. The final tiles were placed unhurriedly, to be followed by a growled exchange that sounded deadly serious but was broken with the rough laughter of each man in turn.
Whatever respect or awkwardness had held me back evaporated then – I was damn well going to speak…
I didn’t get as far as ‘um’ before the curmudgeonly old fossil to my right spoke in thickly accented English.
‘I know where you from. Is about time someone come.’
Too many indignant reposts were fighting to get out for any one to do so. Instead I said ‘Well I’m not here officially…’
He uttered something in Slovakian and received a muttered reply from across the table which, again, could have been everything or nothing to do with me.
‘Still,’ he said.
‘Okay, look I’m here and if you want to tell me…’
He stood then, hefting himself upright with the aid of an unusual walking stick, engraved in some fashion down its length, its top carved into some kind of axe shape.
‘Show,’ he said, ‘I will show you.’
He exchanged some leisurely Slovak grumbling and I received a nod of goodbye from the younger old geezer. Then we were out, into the sun, strolling southward down the street.
Mr Kovac would be kith, a member of London’s supernormal community. Not a magician though, not a member of the Worshipful Company of that esoteric profession as I was.
‘I tell them many times it is too quiet this place,’ he noted. Then (actually answering a question) said: ‘yes someone came. And they went again. And nothing. Still, it is too quiet.’
I couldn’t comment and didn’t (which was unusual in itself), not on the Company’s response or lack of, neither what they or I were meant to do about a building being ‘too quiet’ – or how it could be for that matter.
But I had a feeling there was something to check here. So that’s what I’d do, check. Check and move on: Job done.
I left Jozef (or whatever his name actually was) and headed along the run of buildings, past a section part-concealed by the branded hoardings of a construction company, to arrive at a grotty looking entranceway.
This place is too quiet, I heard his words again. I found myself thinking that his ears were big – all the better for hearing big perhaps – though in reality were of unremarkable dimensions. This place is too quiet: I picked the lock, got in and spotted why straight-off.
There’d been no outer security of a magical nature but hush-wards were inscribed on the inside, along with others designed to keep watchful eyes away. There were rather a lot of them in fact, inexpert, but the quantity made up for that. They continued inward and, as turned out, throughout, daubed onto plaster and unpeeled sections of wall and ceiling. Still it was an overcompensation – kind of fanatical in fact. Ironically it would have been these, doubtless there to prevent the locals hearing chanting and associated culty stuff, that would had drawn the attention of Mr Kovac.
A stairway led up to a cluster of empty rooms with boarded windows and then to the second floor – which was when the chucking of aetheric and alchemical stuff began. Ironically also and luckily, the wards meant the sounds of our scrap wouldn’t have been heard by any of his pals.
And now I’d got him stashed safely away I could hope he wouldn’t be seen either.
The building’s origins had been lost in myriad reuses: Reuses, extensions, joinings, subdivisions and knock-throughs. An old factory, or maybe a department store. I picked around, checking rooms for indicative contents and to make sure there were no further doors through which someone could get behind me. The corridor T’ed. I turned right.
And another robed figure appeared at its end.
I was slow. He was slower – and I had my sling to hand avec chymical payload to launch down the length of this wider and uncabineted corridor. I swung a rapid figure-8 over my back and released. Even if I’d missed, the back-spray of powder from the wall would have done the job. But it was pretty damn satisfying to get the bastard dead on. Another black-robe blundered into the dust cloud. I was about to decide on what to do about him in case he, unlike his mate, didn’t fancy a doze…
When a bullet hole appeared in the plasterwork to my left around the same time a ‘bang’ sound came from behind. I was already bundling into the open room on my right, thanking whatever heavens were up or out there that cultist number three had been a crap shot. I took very quick stock.
Moveable surfaces? Table. Plastic notice board. Sorry, plastic notice board with a cleaning rota on it (always a strong indication of malignant evil).
Decide which: Notice board on the technicality of wilful perversity. Don’t question – get on with. I pulled my brushes and alchemical paints from my pocket and scrawled on the most basic and functional blast-ward I could, muttering the imbuing cantrip the moment it was ready.
See I’m not so good with the telemachia – chucking magic missiles et al – but I’m pretty decent at enchanting and I’ve got pretty quick. Still the ward would only take down one of them and it wasn’t like they were going to come running in at the same time.
Of the pair of them I was more concerned about the guy with the gun. Gun in hands of inexperienced cultist beats purple fireballs in the hands of inexperienced cultist. There was no time for more reasoned analysis.
I held the board against the wall that divided this room from the one previous. Then (in case it helped) I called ‘You’ll never take me alive!’ conjured up a bit of impetus into an aetheric shield to press against it, and verbally tripped the blast-ward. Plasterboard erupted into the next room leaving a helpful man-ish sized hole to step through. Powdered plaster churned in a cloud therein and floated down under its own weight and onto me when I stepped through and to the doorway.
‘What did he…’
‘Did he… kill himself?’ I heard them ask.
Well they’d only have heard some kind of detonation in their kitchen.
I’d have been more concerned whether the hobnobs would still be intact.
(Of course it’s well established that dark cultists and malefic sorcerers don’t eat hobnobs. It’s an image thing aside from any deeper metaphysical allergy. They have to have posh selection boxes like what you get from Waitrose – M&S at the very least).
I peeked around, grinned and lobbed a chymical bomb. Both were at the kitchen doorway and it landed between them to mushroom up in their faces; I hoped they heard my words before they went into the land of nod.
‘I’m here to nick yer biscuits and fuck up your rotas.’
After minutes of further lugging I’d stashed all three in a closet-room and went for a quick shufty down from where the gun-toter had come; the corridor turned a corner and ended. I checked behind each door along its run but the abandoned rooms contained nothing of note except a changing room where hung a wardrobe of cultist chic.
I picked through the robes, wondering idly how people got caught up in this shit. Maybe it was how you were brought into the world of the paranormal. Like, you get shown that some crazy shit really can happen. And does happen. And is out there. And it’s while the world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away the fuckers got into your head and…
I figured, from the number of jackets replacing the robes on the hangers, that there were about eight Endorians knocking around, five with the three I’d taken down. But there were some twenty robes overall, so there might be some part-timers on the way after five. Still, that was a while off.
Should I have left there and then, left and called in the cavalry? Maybe. But the only people I could have phoned then, directly or through back-channels, were the Company – the Watch.
And it can be fine, even given you weren’t meant to be somewhere, weren’t meant to be doing something and you’ve got some serious talking your way out to do – just so long as you get someone with half a brain at the end of the phone. Like someone who can recognise that you’re not just some kith hoi-polloi with delusions.
But even then you can be waiting on the back-up. And if the info you give is incomplete or inaccurate it can cause a colossal fuck-up the like of which is only possible amongst people who believe they know better than everyone else, ie. a lot of humans full stop, and one hell of a lot of wizards. So I decided I’d sneak in a little further – get the low-down on whether they were up to anything more than obtaining ‘knowledge from beyond’ for financial gain – then I’d leg it before it got anything like close to five and drop the full weight of the Company on them.
I considered nicking and putting a robe on but right then this wasn’t a scenario where there were a legion of cultists from all over in which, if also robed, you can claim to be Dave from cult-district nine, have a decent guess at the secret under-leg handshake, and then wander off to throw a spanner in their invocatory works. It would also have been restrictive and rather hot.
Besides, I had every intention of not getting spotted from here on in. I stuffed a robe in my kit bag in case I changed my mind and headed back, past the kitchen, and got on with the snooping.
Room after room yielded nothing, no clue as to what was going on, nor cultist mooks on which to layeth the alchemical smackdown. And it took agonising time because I was being careful, quiet, pushing each door slowly open, every time for an anticlimax. But this was how it went sometimes. You just had to stay focused.
Then I felt a warmth in my pocket. I’d placed one of a pair of glyph stones at the building’ entrance, linked by symbol and substance to its twin which was in my pocket. The hush-wards prevented sound carrying more than around ten metres and not at all through the surfaces on which they’d been drawn; that warmth had just told me someone had come through the front door.
I pegged it back.
Peeking round and down the corridor, at least a half-dozen suits were heading left at the junction toward the robing room. Two lingered frustratingly, giving no sign whether they’d head in themselves before their fellows exited.
I’d found nothing like a functioning ritual space thus far and could assume it was further in. Therefore at some point they’d likely be going to it – which meant there’d be a good few empty rooms en route I could duck back into, sneaky-sneaky like, and let them past. I planted two further paired glyph-stones on my way back, and got on with the search, rather less cautiously than before.
The pre-five timeframe was pretty irrelevant now, but I took out my mobile anyway, which could still serve one of two functions beyond time-keeping. For one I could still call the Watch, provided the aether – that’s a kind of catch-all for magical energy – wasn’t sufficiently concentrated or active here to disrupt the signal.
Use number two is when, by lack of signal, you can tell that there is concentrated and active aether around.
This means you can’t call for back-up – also that something seriously sorcerous is going on. In combination this tends to mean one thing and one thing only: that you’re really rather fucking fucked. I’d checked it on arrival. I checked it again right then.
Right then my mobile fuckedometer was telling me that I was really rather fucking fucked…
The intensity faded. When it had she was stood just across the way from us, her expression all but neutral.
‘Aidan,’ she beamed then, her eyes resting on him. ‘I must apologise for the rudeness of these scullions and lackwits, these patches. I pray no true harm has befallen you by their misconceived and cloddish entreats. But the fault is theirs and theirs alone – and, regardless of how it came about, I am delighted you have come to visit.’
The pretty words were going somewhere however, somewhere where Aidan and I were in the shit. I had to say something before they were all around, binding us in etiquette, observance and obligation.
‘On… ehm, on behalf of us both milady, I thank you for your regrets and concern for wellbeing.’
Her eyes flicked to me (shifting to the regard one reserved for the turd one had just trodden in). ‘And this is?’
‘I am called Marwood,’ I said, shoving down the trepidation and digging up what useful words I could think of. I needed more than those so I dug deeper. ‘Um, I am Marwood of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion.’
I was sure she’d have figured out that I wasn’t here formally, that I had no back-up. But there could be consequences for her regardless, consequences that might give her pause even if I didn’t fuck this up.
‘He broughts lights into ‘ere missis,’ Charlie accused, ‘lights and irons and namin’s.’
‘Also on your account Chomping Charlie,’ she averred, ignoring on this occasion his term of address. ‘But enough of you.
‘Aidan, I have witnessed you, witnessed your movements and grace, your strength, the power of your expression. It has moved me in ways I remember feeling not ever. I see that you might be greater still, the greatest ever, a tower casting shade over your so-called peers. I would be your patron and your Terpsichore; I would make you immortal, set your movements in the stars of human memory. I ask only for your love and devotion in return for mine and the world besides.’
Maybe Travers was tempted but I’d disabused him of the fantasy he’d otherwise be entering. It proved enough and he spoke before I could say something by proxy (which was good because right then I’d got nothing).
‘Aye, well, that sounds deadly,’ he said letting native accent and idiom into the refined tongue he’d cultivated, deadly being a more recent Irishism for ‘great’ rather than terminally dangerous (which in the context would have worked just as well). It was as if he’d dug into his roots, drawing a sense of who he was that was useful to his predicament, of where he was from rather than that what now he did.
‘But I’m grand like,’ he politely affirmed.
‘Again my lady,’ I stepped in, ‘I thank you for your most timely intervention and gracious offer to my… associate here. We seek but peaceful egress to the mortal world without violation of the respected accords between our kinds.’
Malice flashed momentarily across her face but without the theatrics and special effects. Her look saddening, she plucked an apple from nowhere, a rosy red-green apple; gaslight glimmered back from its waxed skin.
‘Is that all you would have of me Aidan Travers?’ she asked, ‘for my aid in your return to the mortal plane?’
Hearing the wounded disappointment in her tone and seeing it in her face gave me hope that we’d got through this, because all that had to happen was for Aidan to say:
And suddenly – too late – I realised what she was doing.
‘Then catch,’ she instructed as she tossed the apple to him.
His hands came up to receive it before mine could use something to knock it or them aside. The smile returned to her face, directed to me first with scorn – given she knew I could probably get us both out unaided if only given time – then without to my charge.
‘That apple will enable you to walk back through whence you came – and back, should you later choose. Now what pray tell of equal measure will you offer in return?’
She’d got us again, if in a smaller way. Under the rules of etiquette she was quite entitled to something of at least equal value to the accepted ‘gift’. Oh it was iffy at best. But ‘iffy’ is the playground these guys and gals have played in since the dawn of fuck-knows (or whatever you call the era before human ‘time’ came about).
‘A… performance?’ Travers suggested before I could say anything.
‘A performance,’ she warmed, clasping her hands together as if in wonderment at the thought. Maybe this had been her plan in the first place, or a happy or at least acceptable alternative, but the delight on her face told me I needed to take control of things.
‘Then it is agreed Aidan Travers, a performance then. Well, in your own time.’
She walked off to take a seat on the back of the prostrate Charlie, taking out her fan to set a summer-nights breeze against her cheek. I breathed and took stock.
‘You’re a dancer right? Well whatever you do,’ I asserted, more on gut feeling than anything else, ‘Don’t dance.’
I rubbed my head, trying to think of something. ‘You got anything else up your sleeve? Can you juggle… unicycle… sing?’
‘I can sing,’ he said with sudden assurance. Maybe, I thought, we’d both still get out of here intact. The confidence drained slightly from his face and he asked: ‘What should I sing?’
I’d come up with the idea, but that was about as much as my brain seemed to want to do. ‘All I can think of is bloody ‘Knees up Mother Brown’,’ I said, and I was damn sure that wouldn’t go down well.
What else? My old man’s a… No. It’s a long way to Tipp… Definitely fucking not. What then? What? Could we get away with something modern? Maybe, but that was a field of traps, a song-list of a half-century, any one of which might be taken as insult. Bohemian Rhapsody? Lucy in the Sky? I Can’t get No…
No: anything that occurred seemed to have some connotation, some of which I couldn’t even articulate, but that either way would make things worse.
‘Well?’ Milady pressed, the gaslight now darkening around us save for a spot in front of Aidan.
Choose the form of your destruction, I heard from Ghostbusters in my memory. The choice was made: Travers inhaled and stepped forward.
I didn’t recognise it to begin with.
I was instantly thankful he’d intuited that my mention of ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ wasn’t a back-up suggestion, but I was still dreading that moment when realisation came, realisation of which of the many terrible options out there he’d chosen (Knees-up Mr Staypuft maybe). The unreformed small-town ape in me expected some show-tune or George Michael. I was wrong on both counts, and artist or genre besides.
Travers had a good voice, deeper than I’d expected and rich and rough and textured in ways unanticipated. I’d flinched at the sight of Milady’s face contort in fury when she realised she wasn’t going to get what she’d expected, and relaxed now that rage abated as she was lured in to Travers’ performance of Shane McGowan’s Celtic folk-punk lament:
‘I’ve been loving you a long time,’ we’d heard while my head was working it out, ‘Down all the years, down all the days…’ Now we heard how some friends ‘fell into Heaven’ and ‘some of them fell into Hell.’
Milady leaned in, entranced by mortal magic her kind could never learn.
‘On a rainy night in Soho
‘The wind was whistling all its charms
‘I sang you all my sorrows
‘You told me all your joys…’
I realised with mild surprise that a fox had entered the scene. It stopped and sat quietly, not so far from a few rats and a bunch of mice that had popped up to listen (I thought I could make out a party of cockroaches in the shadows as well).
‘I’m not singing for the future
‘I’m not dreaming of the past…’
I didn’t know if koboloi responded to music or if the ugly blighters could even appreciate it. Either way some of them and now the rest, all except Charlie the pew, were taking the opportunity to sneak off.
My eyes went back Milady.
At first I thought it was just my imagination that since ‘the ginger lady by my bed’, her hair had gone from straight and gold to gentle curling auburn, russet, titian, the colour of sunsets and cider and hazel and leaves in early autumn. But the doubt vanished when the twilight darkened to night and a gentle summer rain came down, as if from a broken swelter to cool us and the cobbles of that otherworldly street of Soho…
Seeing her as she was then tugged things I couldn’t put into words. She looked so beautiful and so vulnerable I could have sworn myself to her right then or placed cold iron through her neck and I’d never have known which until the moment before.
I did neither.
‘Now the song is nearly over
‘We may never find out what it means
‘Still there’s a light I hold before me
‘You’re the measure of my dreams
‘The measure of my dreams.’
I led us back through the wisps of fog towards Soho-normal. I doubted the apple would cause further complications, but it was more reassuring to do it my own way and Aidan rightly figured not to interrupt or question what would have otherwise seemed idiot mumbling. The cobbles seemed to change texture as I recited the litanies, and retreat somehow with each blink if not every step. I was pretty sure I caught sight of a Huguenots cross on a wall as the fog dissipated; that good sign was followed by the far-off ring of a rickshaw bell, and then the drumbeats and voices of the local Hare Krishnas having a wander and mantric sing-song.
We turned a corner and found ourselves back at the street market on Berwick Street.
‘Is it… over?’ Travers asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘We’re back.’
It was early evening, and while the western sun could not reach between the buildings and into the street it was light still and warm.
‘Best if I look after that,’ I told him and he happily gave up the apple.
He took a breath. ‘That was fierce.’
‘Grand,’ he replied straightway – and he wasn’t, and yet he was.
This kind of thing leaves a mark, but the nature of the Other is such that unless you’re aware that it does actually exist it has a kind of narcotic effect. It’s the minds reaction, and its opportunity to process, an impossible experience. The best thing for Travers was for it to drift entirely from his mind. And that was possible – but it had to happen soon. Fortunately I had something in mind, something brought on by the memory of where I thought and hoped Travers might have been heading in the first place.
Wishful thinking then. But now…
‘Look mate – Marwood… Thanks. Thanks for everything. Is there anything I can do? Free tickets or… that sounds shite I know but…’
‘Fancy a pint?’ I said, the John Snow being handily just round the corner.
‘Does the pope shit in the woods?’
‘I bet he does,’ I said.
‘Me too. All on me right?’
Well I wasn’t going to say no and it was for his benefit anyway. A good session on top of otherworldy narcosis ought to do the trick.
He’d perhaps wake with the faint memory of some bloke who helped him with directions and with whom he’d randomly decided to get hammered. Somewhere in the halls of mind the faint image of all-but impossible beauty, regardless of his preference, would haunt distantly but not large enough to impact on whatever life he had ahead. So we headed past the stalls and round to the replica of the pump that the eminent physician tracked the cholera outbreak to a few hundred years back, and the pub named in his honour (rather ironically as I think he was a teetotaller but there you go).
Even if Travers wouldn’t remember the night I would and we had a great crack, whatever we talked about. I have the vague memory of some later point of him making a mild pass at me which I accepted as a compliment because, the old small town Neanderthal aside, I’m okay with that and, quite frankly, I was long overdue a compliment of some sort. I believe it was a little after that that I was gyrating to my own rendition of Mr Boombastic to an immediate audience of one of the premier dancers of the Royal Ballet Company.
I wonder what milady would have made of it.
Or John Snow. Or Good old Dick Whittington.
They call me Marwood and it’s your round: mine’s a pint.
I had to make a quick call. The bag strap stuffed in my pocket was a sling but I wasn’t sure I could dig out and arm it with the right payload in time to launch it with useful effect. Instead I reached into my kit bag, dropping it to the floor to reveal the sword now in my right hand. That had their eyes widening, and more than from the foxfire.
I don’t keep it particularly sharp for the same reason I carry a sword rather than a knife: I can pass it off as recreational were I to be searched by the authorities.
(Only happened the once. It went okay except that the damned plod in question took the time to radio it in and used the word ‘larper’ as often as he could despite my solidly expressed and repeated insistence that I was a re-enactor (the misrepresentation of myself I found the more palatable). I was close to calling him a dickhead in order to establish a scale of accuracy for further dialogue but decided against it. That’s me, diplomatic to a fault.)
Anyway the sword was rather longer than their knives and with my human length arms they were going to have a considerably tougher time getting at me, even en masse. And it was made of iron, cold iron, and on this the folklore is spot on. Otherkind really do not like it.
‘Hold it,’ Charlie rasped to the more skittish of his crew. ‘E’s all alone an’ en’t none of that Company goin’ to give a crap if ‘e e’nt comin’ back. And the package s’worth plenty.
‘Spread. Spread round ‘im an’ e’ll be crappin’ it.’
Oh Charlie knew what he was doing. If they could get behind me or press me to the wall I’d be in trouble. Goblins may lack reach but they’re damn quick and damn sneaky…
‘Eel: lefty-sinister. Nik: righty-dex…’
‘AAAARGH!’ I articulated, charging straight at them with sword raised in a high guard before any had taken more than a few steps. Course then they were legging it as fast as bloody possible… most of them anyway. Charlie and Eel (who I gathered was the beanpole) stayed put, at least until the last few seconds when they scarpered as well.
I nearly tripped over Travers.
I got quickly to work on the rope that bound him with the bronze knife one had dropped, keeping my sword up ready in one hand. The goblins began to collect their wits, turning round after their flight. Shortly they’d realise they’d got me surrounded after all. The one plus side was that releasing Travers was a step in the right direction, a step towards ending this one way or another; also that, however scared he was he could at least cover a few of them with the knife I’d acquired. And something told me they wanted him in one piece…
‘What the… what the f…’ Travers began.
‘I’m Marwood. This is a knife. Take the knife Aidan. Take the knife, get up, and stay behind me.’
‘Holy Mary…’ Aidan said taking in the scene.
‘We’re going to get you out of this.’
‘This is fucking mental.’
Nik and Eel and the others were edging round and closer but, of more immediate concern, was the look I saw Charlie give another and what that other was now doing. Maybe Charlie was the brains and some others the brawn, but it seemed this one had a few magics of his own. I could feel he was doing something just as I could hear it, some kind of curse: a befuddlement at least if not some less pleasant kind of enchantment. I was damn grateful right then that I’d been drilled with at least some basic counters with fae magic in mind. I handed Aidan my sword and got to it.
‘Bind ‘im,’ Charlie demanded.
‘Ee’s slippery, Chompin’ Charlie,’ the goblin gurgled, ‘sneak-slippery…’
My fingers curled and straightened, touched tips and came apart as I felt the flow and intuited the most useful retorts to the little bastard’s spell-bindings. Gestures in working magic can certainly help; we tend to use them though they aren’t strictly necessary.
But right then they seemed to be making all the difference. I could feel the contest as an abstract pressure in my hands and fingers and I sensed how to press back rather than just defending myself. My right digits began to lock into something someway to that arrangement that shadowcasts a duck on the wall but I didn’t let that bother me. It felt… appropriate – and I could feel advantage build.
‘Daaaah,’ the goblin scorned, though in a more strained fashion. ‘Yer e’nt gettin’ nowhere with that hedgey… And me pals… me pals’re gettin’ round yer both.’
‘Don’t mark ‘im,’ Charlie urged his goons, doubtless with reference to Travers rather than me (joy). ‘Missis won’t like it if e’s cut.’
Right then I was too busy to think about what Charlie was saying. I was aware of Aidan was waving my sword, inexpertly but effectively – I couldn’t see it but thought I could feel it, iron moving through an air unfamiliar with its presence. But the fact that the encircling goblins were hamstrung rather by Charlie’s edict meant I could focus more on my immediate problem. I pressed the binder again.
‘S’not bad wizard… But y’en’t… getting me like that… Y’ent got me calling, me name…’
‘Well,’ I began, bringing forth that oh-so recent early memory of him waving his stiletto at me. ‘Then I’ll name you. I name you Mack, Mack the Knife. I back-bind you in that name, by oak, by ash and by thorn: Back-bound, broke and beat.’
I hadn’t a clue who Mack the Knife was (only that that bloke from Take That covered it) and the rest of it just came to me. But judging by the expression on Mack’s face it seemed to have done the job. Like I say bluff has its own magic in this place. I held my fingers as they were and (it seemed like the thing to do) sliced my hand thrice through the air, towards him with the last cut. Mack took a step back, astonishment plastered across his face.
‘Wossit… wossit do to I Chompin’ Charlie?’ he faltered, ‘Wossit do?’
‘Get the wizard!’ Charlie demanded as Mack dropped despondently to the floor. ‘Dancer-boy en’t going nowhere!’
‘We prefer magician,’ I retorted grabbing back my sword, ‘as it happens.’
I kicked one of the smaller ones before it could get a stab in. It went a satisfying distance and Aidan took my lead to do the same to the one called Nik. Three-ish down. Better odds. Nowhere near over.
‘What do you reckon Charlie?’ I addressed the brains while swinging a warning stroke back at Eel who I’d caught edging towards us in the corner of my eye. ‘Call it quits?’
Charlie looked unsure. The fight was still in him but he was taking stock.
‘Aidan listen to me,’ I whispered, ‘can you see my kit bag? Okay, we’re going to move over towards it, right? Slowly. Now…’
I had the smallest sense there was a remnant of the way through to Soho-normal, back the way we’d come. If so…
Charlie didn’t look like he’d given up on his prize just yet though and I gave warning flicks of cold iron to any goblin that looked like it might fancy its chances as we moved.
‘Marwood,’ said Travers, ‘Marwood, can you hear… horses?’
Now he mentioned it I could and so could the koboloi. Through those distant half-remembered notes of a good old music hall knees-up grew a freeform clatter of hooves on stone, accompanied perhaps by an afterthought echo of bullshit poetry and whispered jazz.
Through the lingering fog a hansom cab burst.
The horses were reined in noiselessly by the driver on the sprung seat behind, a frozen thin-limbed man-shaped scarecrow in beret and scarf and black roll-neck. He remained unmoving. After moments the door opened and the scent of parks and cut grass, garlic, coffee and car exhaust reached and churned in my mind, perfume against the faint odours of frying onions, and of retched alcohol and alleyway debauchery, of human effluence dried by an absent sun.
This would be the individual to whom the koboloi, now prostrating themselves in varying degrees and styles of fawning, had been bringing Aidan Travers. Maybe the real-world market had influenced the nature of this place, centuries of barrow-barter and exchange seeping through to make it auspicious for deals and trades regardless of how tangible the currency or commodity. The discomfiting warmth seemed to clench and my blood ran cold.
Her attire spoke of mad kings and unexpected queens: a pastel yellow muslin gown over a terracotta skirt, its cut revealing a pressed cleave of bosom. She hoisted her skirts in hands covered by long silk gloves as she stepped out and down (we got a shameless eyeful of ankle beneath, and what I was half-sure were a pair of Nikes). Her hair, scandalously uncovered, was the colour of never-seen corn sung of at the harvest festivals of inner-city schools, crayon golden; her skin was of peaches-and-cream, brick-buff and soiled alabaster.
‘Marwood,’ Aidan gasped, ‘I think I… I think I know her. She’s come to the ballet – three times at least. I can’t… I just… don’t know if I saw her then or… or if I’m just remembering her now. But I can see her there in the audience, clear as now: watching me.’
Oh fuck. Fucking fucking fuck.
Fuck on toast.
It was beginning to make sense, a pretty scary and now rather obvious sense.
This was fae aristocracy, at least I guessed it was – what passed for it round here anyway. With koboloi I mostly knew what I was doing, black shucks and trolls and spirits likewise. But this was totally off-script.
‘Evenin’ missis,’ Chomping Charlie gushed, coming upright and bowing again with a flourish. ‘We brought ‘im, the dancer-boy; just like yer arksed missis.’
‘Do not call me missis Chomping Charlie; not now, not ever.’ Charlie wasn’t looking quite so full of himself under her glare. ‘Moreover, I did not ask you to kidnap a mortal and bring him here.’
‘But… but you sez to brings ‘im mi… milady, and ‘ow gratefuls y’d be to oo would does it…’
She’d taken out a fan to wave which now she snapped shut. She jabbed the end under Charlie’s chin and pulled upwards.
‘I little goblin? I said nothing of the sort.’
‘Marwood,’ Aidan whispered, ‘can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?’
‘She likes you,’ I said after a moment.
‘But… I’m gay.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Maybe a guy – or a girl – is inclined to get freaky with her… maybe they’re not. They can’t change you like that, not if it’s not there already. They wouldn’t want to anyway. What her kind are after is… intensity. I imagine centuries of consciousness can lead to… boredom… ennui. They fall in love with mortals. Can be anyone really, just some random thing about a certain someone that sparks something in their… soul. But they tend to get bored rather easily.
‘Now someone with art, well that’s different. Art is sex to them, a drug. She’s seen you perform. She’s not after your body. She thinks she’s in love with you. But you’re her drug of choice; to her you’re a balletic motherlode of Columbian freebase.’
She strode through the prostrate koboloi (treading only on one) addressing them all in a voice that somehow combined Tara Palmer-Tomkinson with Eliza Doolittle after Henry Higgins had done his bit, all with a bit of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction lurking in the background.
‘We do not kidnap mortals,’ she chastised, possibly for my ‘benefit’ though she’d yet to acknowledge my presence. ‘We do not break the accords. I merely mused on what a happy chance it would be for a mortal of such art and spirit to be encountered; for we could offer them a life of art and pleasure in exchange for the simple pleasure of their company for the duration.’
‘See,’ I whispered to Aidan, ‘If she’d ordered them to kidnap you as she surely wanted she’d be breaking the rules. She wouldn’t do that – maybe can’t. The accords are as binding as chains of iron to their kind. Instead she’s nudged them to do the job so they’re in the firing line if they cock it up.’
‘So… what happens now?’
‘She offers you exactly what she said and the chances are you’d take it. They can’t make you do anything but they can be very convincing.’
‘A… life of pleasure… and art? I could think of worse things…’
‘Yeah, I hear heroin’s quite good fun as well. But even if I could afford the habit it’s hard to believe I’d make the choice to spend the rest of my life befuddled and half-aware and not giving a damn about who I am or anyone I’ve cared for because there may have been a worse option.’
Aidan had been watching her admonish the koboloi up to that point.
Getting it, now he looked at me.
Then she looked at us.
She didn’t move though it was as if she had, like the zooming refocusing of a camera, she shooting forward to fill your field of view, fierce in seeming and wrathful in intent should her will to be thwarted.
So it was a good job I wasn’t here to thwart her.
Wait – no that was exactly what I was here for.
Back in the old days, back when I ran with the old crew, this was the point someone would say something suitably righteous like “we’re going to kick your arse”. Or “your reign of terror is over you complete tosser”. Or – reserved for the most heinous wrongdoers of all and never uttered without good reason: “Brian Blessed does not like you – and he never will.”
But I wasn’t with the old crew, or any crew for that matter. And this was a member of urban fae aristocracy – that was a game-changer and even I know when to put the smart mouth and wise-cracks aside. Yes I do. Mostly. Sometimes. Well then anyway.
What I had by way of training was kicking in and an apotropaic incantation mumbled itself through my lips. I worked it as close to perfect as it could be, laying down some esoteric defences and markers around us; enough for a bluff but not so much as to be an outright challenge. That rushing vision of supernormal beauty became terrible, cruelty and malice writ across a face you could worship, whose retribution you’d welcome as deserved and just, coming ever closer but never arriving…
The story goes that when Dick Whittington had had enough of London he’d got somewhere into the borough of Islington before the Bow Bells rang out ‘Turn again Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London!’ Me, well I got rather further. But the point is that I couldn’t rightly tell you if that’s actually what happened; only that, compared to some of the weird shit I’ve seen in London, talking bells are pretty damn passé to say the least.
Just like good old Dick W I’d discovered – and had reaffirmed over two stints in the Big City and the years therein – that its streets are not paved with gold. They are, rather, pocked with gum, littered somewhat with the dispossessed, and otherwise busy with discarded fag butts.
I’d actually just contributed to the latter with a reflex press and twist of trainer-sole. This was, I’ll own, hardly civic minded. But in my defence my attention was rather more focused on the geezer I was tailing in the hope I could work out what the hell – or perhaps what from hell – the threat to his life and / or limb was. Nothing pleasant, it was safe to assume. Threats to life and limb generally didn’t carry colourful helium balloons or come with a cherry on top; and even if they did it would hardly endear them further to their intended victim. Beyond that I was pretty sure it was some threat of the supernatural flavour, especially as muggins here had been called up.
It’s what I do, see: blunder in blindly prodding paranormal wasp’s nests to see what came out in the faint hope I could deal with it.
My qualifications relevant to the endeavour? Magician, journeyman (I also gots me a B in GCSE geography).
They call me Marwood. They also call me Tef. They’ve yet to call me Mr Lover-lover or Mr Boombastic for that matter but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
‘Tell me everything you know about Aidan Travers,’ I’d said to Alex after she’d given me the heads up. Alex was a clerk in the Company, London’s secret guild of magicians. She knew I took on the odd pro bono thing off the books, and it was she who’d called me up when word from an unofficial source came of something wicked this way coming in Mr Travers imminent future.
‘He’s Irish. A dancer – an up and coming star of his generation. Just got a spot in the Royal Ballet’s production of…’
I listened, taking note of what Alex knew and the gaps therein that might prove relevant. I was nodding to myself when she’d finished.
‘Is he gay?’ I asked.
‘That’s very presumptuous Marwood,’ she chided: ‘Just because he’s a dancer doesn’t mean he’s gay. Would you ask the same thing if he was a… a banker?’
‘Is he a banker?’
‘No he’s not a banker.’
‘Is he gay?’
‘I think so yes.’
‘All righty then.’
‘And that’s relevant because?’
‘Haven’t the foggiest. Might not be. I just ask things as they occur to me.’
We had a brief exchange in which I made sure to mention that I had seen Billy Elliott, she that Billy wasn’t gay and that it wouldn’t matter if he was, me that I got all that and did we want to get on with the business of making sure nothing bad happened to the chap in question and she relented. I was very articulate.
We’d arranged to meet in the British Museum (where things end up after someone turns up in a foreign land and says ‘Hello, we’re British and we’re here to nick your cultural treasures’, and asks to be pointed in the right direction). Specifically we were in the cafe bit in the Great Court, sunlight beaming down through the great glass ceiling. I hadn’t thought to ask why here but here we were.
‘And where can I find Mr Travers?’ I asked her.
‘Over there,’ she said looking a little smug as if she’d scored some kind of victory, having earlier failed to categorically label me as being prejudiced against ballet or something.
‘Well that’s handy,’ I said. Somehow it didn’t seem to be the response she was after.
I’d tailed Travers around the bustling backstreets of the West End’s Theatreland, dodging chuggers (charity muggers to the uninitiated), and with a few stop-offs before following him back up the main drag of bookshops, bars and cafes. Then we were off into the square mile warren of Soho.
It was denser with people – harder to keep track of someone and less likely for a tail to be spotted – so I stalked closer. I was about five metres away by the time we passed a concentration of Soho’s sex industry, doorways to strip clubs, clip joints and peepshows, retailers of sex toys and erotic apparel, and purveyors of fine porn whatever your persuasion; we emerged in turn to a lively if slightly grubby backstreet avec street-market.
I knew this neck of the urban woods well enough and had hopes Travers might be aiming for the John Snow pub, so named for the physician who traced the cholera outbreak in London to a well hereabouts. I lost sight of him for a moment. The moment grew longer. My deflation at the receding chance for a pint was replaced with concern and I darted around the stalls and barrows in a manner I hoped didn’t look too shady trying to regain sight of him.
But then I apprehended something with what we call second sight.
It’s not vision as you’d imagine; it actually sort of plays on and through all senses in some way though on sight first and foremost. It’s an awareness of those beyond-the-normal things that we magician types deal with, something you cultivate to some degree or other during your apprenticeship.
The thing was that if I’d been out of luck spotting Travers with regular vision, detecting something with the sight meant Travers was out of luck full stop: right then it was provoking a sinking feeling.
See there’s not just other things out there, but other places. In pre-industrial times there was more of an idea of this, places beneath barrows and over the water and out in ancient woods: faerie-land, Otherworld (the demi-aevum if you want to get technical). Because the physical world is a little less defined than most people realise. And in certain liminal places there were – and still are – ways beyond and into what we loosely understand as realms of existence in the spirit of the world, its pervading unconscious; its dream maybe.
That’s how it supposedly was in those wild places, where spirit flows free and genius loci gestate over centuries. But cut down the trees, spread out the tarmac and lay on the bricks and mortar and that kind of goes out the window you’ve just built from the tree you’ve just cut down. It’s all about life, about living matter then – because you don’t get no trods or faerie-land in the weft of brick and stone in town and city.
Except you do.
Oh it takes time; a lot of time. A lot of time and a lot of people and countless layering of heightened emotion, love and hate, a sprinkling of suicide and murder, fear and stress and anger and bliss from every damn thing humans do to themselves and each other. But London’s got a lotta people and London’s had a lotta time. And in more than a few places the threshold, the barrier, is rather soft and rather thin.
It takes a particular sensitivity to be able to perceive these soft areas which, for better or worse, I have. And I’d got a nasty feeling that Mr Travers had just taken an involuntary trip into London’s hidden other world. I stashed my hoodie in my kit bag, leaving the latter open and making sure one of its contents was loose and to hand. I also unclipped the long strap and stuffed it in my pocket and for the same reason. Then I hefted it by the side straps and prepared to try and make my way through.
It’s hard not to speculate when you’re about to enter the demi-aevum: it tends to acquire something of the flavour of its local real-world past. Now Soho only really got going in the 17th century, becoming a French quarter after a big contingent of Huguenots came over and pitched up (I wasn’t entirely sure what Huguenots were, but I kept thinking of them as being called “huge nuts” which I found moderately entertaining). There’d been a smattering of posh English types here too but they buggered off and the area declined into poverty, prostitution, music hall and theatre, and then further to aspiring writers and crap poets and the hopes and dreams, and drunkenness thereof.
What it comes down to is that even the near-Other can be unpleasant at the best of times, and that’s in places with a more salubrious history; I really wasn’t that happy at the idea of going through this close to porn central for one thing.
I mean, okay, it’s not like if you spent all day looking at, I dunno, badgers that you’d end up dreaming about stripe-faced mustelids which is more or less the same principal. Still…
But there was nothing else for it. I focused on my breathing, let those anxieties register and go until my mind was as clear as it was going to be. Then I dredged up and began muttering a few litanies of ancient words I knew to assist the transition, keeping those words coming as I headed to the nearest side street, usefully one I’d never been down before. Between my own sensitivity, the spoken cantrip and my lack of knowledge I was able, with a few twists and turns down the backways, to press through into the near-Other.
The buildings were crooked slum tenements that seemed taller and narrower than even their mundane world counterparts. It was twilight. I was vaguely aware of the moon somewhere above (the Otherworld not giving any particular shit about what time of day the conventional world thought it ought to be). Mind it might have I was more aware of how surprisingly and pleasantly… somehow too pleasantly… warm it was, and the sounds of what might have been a vaudevillian knees-up coming from beyond the down-street wisps of fog.
I was in. I wanted out as soon as possible.
The Other is hazardous by its very nature, but there’s things there, old things that have gathered some kind of presence, physical or otherwise. Call them fae, call them otherkind, call them what you will, they can be pretty damn terminal to body or mind. If any were immediately present they were manifest only as shades amongst the shadows and fog: perhaps the dead, perhaps memories of, perhaps fae-kind, or perhaps echoes of folk in the real world.
But then I passed a doorway with something very definite lounging therein, female shaped, its posture equally soliciting, leering and resigned. I made damn sure not to look directly but saw it wore a shawl round its shoulders and its left hand held a veil across the lower half of its face. Gallows-curiosity burned but I knew in my gut I would never want to see beneath that veil – and I knew what to do which was to damn well keep moving.
Ahead, through a thin curtain of fog, smog or whatever the hell it was, I saw a bustling knot of shorter bodies. Between them they carried aloft a wriggling something half-covered by a sack, but not the legs that tried to kick out of their grip.
‘Ah, excuse me lads,’ I called, ‘I’m looking for a human mortal called Aidan Travers; I don’t s’pose that would be him in that sack you’re carrying?’
They were of different shapes and sizes. The lankier lurker at the back was as tall as me; the rest were rather shorter. Six faces – ugly faces, greeny, grey-ey faces that could perhaps have passed as choleric in earlier times – looked over and up at me.
Well that’s the old school general and technical name for them amongst the otherkind. These were the sods who gave King Lud so much grief back when the Big Smoke was called Caer Lud or Caer Lundain. I wondered if, given the historical presence of the Huguenots, they might be French, in which case they’d be gobelins; and based on that you could have a wild stab in the dark as to what they ended up being called in English (wild stabs in the dark being very much what these buggers were about).
‘Oo’s askin’?’ one hailed me in some kind of guttural kobold mockney, a rat poking its head from inside his jacket (a pet maybe, or a snack – not that to goblins the two were in any respect mutually exclusive).
I cleared my throat. This next bit was important and, while I normally feel a serious degree of disdain for formality, I had to get it right.
‘I am called Marwood, of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion. I am here only to secure the safe return of whichever mortals might be present, and present against their wishes.’
I’d taken in the glances between them and identified their leader, a fat toadish individual with a wide toothy overbite; in the eyes of his fellows he probably looked rather dapper, dressed as he was in swell clobber and sporting a top hat and some kind of Georgian era long coat, the tails of which trailed behind him on the cobbles. But it was another who replied to my address.
He was an inch taller than ‘the brains’ and seemed of a more modern persuasion – a fucking beatnik goblin with beret, goatee and rolled cigarette that may have been a reefer. I didn’t like the look of him, but then he had a pair of bongos slung behind him which I didn’t like the look of either.
‘Ee ain’t no wizard Charlie,’ he said to the leader, ‘Ain’t no smell o’ cantrip or witchin’ on ‘im.’
Well it’s true that many of us, the more powerful, tend to develop a certain aura with repeated use of higher order magics, something that can be noticeable even by regular folk. Luckily I’m crap at that kind of stuff. Yeah, that’s me: lucky.
I held my ground and recited the simple cantrip to conjure a bit of foxfire, magical light (highly useful if the electric goes and you need to find your way to the lav) in my right hand. It manifested as eldritch luminescence running green to blue and, with some verbal tweaking, I turned it yellow-white and brighter. Their eyes widened. It was something of a bluff, a promise of worse things I might be capable of; but bluff can be a kind of magic in the Other and as potent as any other kind… if it works.
Another goblin leaned in and muttered something that sounded like goblin-French to fat Charlie, who passed for the brains of the operation. Meantime a few of the others took out blades, a knuckle knife one, a stiletto another…
‘Piss off wizard,’ Charlie told me, speaking with affectations of imagined gentility, ‘We know’s you just ‘ave a few hedge magics and we en’t impressed.’
The rest gave vicious little grins and there was a thump and ‘oomph!’ as the gift-wrapped form of Aidan Travers was dropped to the cobbles. Those with knives out already waved them in the air, the others now drawing them to brandish in my general direction (with the exception of the myopic little sprog whose otherwise terrifying blade-strokes were directed at an unthreatening gas-lamp across the way).