If anything’s going to ensure you don’t notice the manifestation of a dark and dangerous sentinel spirit it’s a bloke wearing an eight inch strap-on over his Levis, half a French maid’s outfit and a ball gag he’s likewise put on for shits and giggles and is desperately trying to remove to warn you of the very same while alternately stabbing a finger in its general direction.
‘Hnnngh, nnng, hnnngh!’
No, Jack and I were far too busy howling at our pal the Dude’s continued inability to remove said item of BDSM paraphernalia while the Pneuma Akarthon was materialising in tenebrous billows from some as yet undiscovered article of arcane paraphernalia.
We’d been on what we called a two-pinter errand, a pick-up of an anonymously deposited blank envelope at an unassuming boozer in a down at heel district of Westminster. It was something for which a few pints didn’t hurt, helped in fact with the blending in: Our kind of job.
Having worked under D long enough to know we were at liberty to peruse the contents we had a gander. It was a list of addresses, premises with land registry numbers and other governmental identifiers and owner’s names. There were a few accompanying notes, unintelligible mostly unless you were in the know. We recognised a couple, knew they were on D’s watch-list.
‘This one’s only five minutes away,’ Jack said once we left the pub. ‘Note says it’s almost never visited.’
There was a night out down the line, not just because it was mid-December and, frankly, any excuse (not that we needed one either). Our pal Aco was returning to the wilds of South East Europe so there’d be a big somewhat Christmassy British send-off. But that was hours off.
I shrugged and the Dude grinned, amiable as ever. It’s not like we were half-cut and heading there now would mean we’d save someone – D, possibly ourselves – the job of B’ing and E’ing at a later time, also meaning he’d have intel to hand along with the list.
So three mildly tipsy wizards in their late twenties toddled along in the early London dark to the address in question. Yep, wizards. Individuals of arcane insight and application. Journeymen of London’s Worshipful Company of Magicians though – it must be said – in no respect on official business. We all wore hooded tops of distinct and impeccable style.
It was a street level entrance to an upstairs property on an unremarkable street. The windows had blinds drawn or were otherwise blacked out, though not quite so comprehensively you couldn’t have seen light slipping through had lights been on – which they weren’t: no-one home then presumably. It was secured by an old but solid front door with Chubb and Yale locks and only the sort of basic magical ward defence as you’d pick up from Argos if the catalogue retailer did threshold security enchantment. I was the wardcrack on the crew while the Dude counted picking locks amongst his hobbies. The Dude got to the Chubb and Yale, I was on the security sigils, and Jack provided the drum roll and stopwatch while the Dude and I shaved a few seconds off our joint record.
Bumping of knuckles all round.
We deposited an innocent-looking piece of artifice on the threshold – a magical early warning system should anyone be coming in after us – then trod lightly up the steep staircase ahead. On the way up we took another quick read of the background aether and sent off another wave of detection cantrips, just to confirm – lights off or otherwise – we weren’t going to be walking in on anyone. Conjuring our own particular flavours of foxfire, we entered the property proper, illumined in ghostly magical light in pastel shades of green, blue and yellow – then found and turned on a few lamps so we could go nosing through the merch hands free in the near-dark.
After a check of the places extent, making sure there were no doors on to other rooms or a back entrance that might deliver any surprises later, we got to it. The Dude took the back room, Jack and I split the equally large – but denser with junk – front.
I picked through stacks of mostly shit old vinyl albums even your Dad wouldn’t admit to, boxes of batteries, VHS tapes recorded and blank (assorted porn in the same and DVD besides), cartons of up-tarred fags from elsewhere in the EU and beyond, surrogate toy brand imitations and packs of other things that would keep the rugrats occupied (quite possibly by a trip to the A&E). There were assorted chairs and tables, some unbroken, vases… Then came the kind of perfume packs and associated knock-off product the hucksters flog in ‘last day of sale, everything must go’ enterprises run from temporarily vacant Oxford Street premises.
We’d been there some ten minutes noting anything that might prove pertinent when the Dude decided he’d unearthed sufficient articles of amusement that he just had to assemble an outfit and model them for our enjoyment.
So there we were, having gone from initial howling laughter at the Dude’s appearance to, if anything, even less controllable mirth at our pal’s desperate flailings and failings at removing a ball gag, to…
‘Fuck on toast!’
I’m actually not entirely sure which came from which of me and Jack (though I was pretty sure which came from the Dude), only that Jack was diving for cover while I got differently busy with incanting.
See Jack was entirely the most magically dangerous of our trio in a fight, having some serious pyrurgy at his fingertips. The Dude meanwhile was more than handy with the offensive hokum he had up his sleeves – when the arms in them weren’t trying to remove a ball-gag. But when it came to spirits – pneuma… Well guess who gets to stick his noggin in the way when those duties come up?
They call me Marwood. I just love it when it’s my turn.
Working in arcane Latin I went straight to pressing back its approach with cadenced muttering. I’d have noticed it soon enough from power it was gathering, and crap was it gathering some. To the naked eye it appeared as a mass of midnight-black smoke, continually, silently broiling back into itself. With the second sight us wizards cultivate there was the vaguest sense of humanoid within it, an abstraction of features contorted into quiet wrath at my workings. Flame rumbled throughout, concentrated perhaps where a head might be. I could even sense the pathological miasmatic bale-stuff of its semi-physicality and, my hands outstretched, I felt its pneumic potence like a physical force. I was barely keeping it at bay – more making it angry. I needed to change tack.
I switched up from arcane Italic toward proto Indo-European, felt a bit of give and navigated linguistically toward the Common Aryan of ancient Babylonia. Even being less fluent in a basically extinct tongue, I was getting on top of the bastard, and around it.
‘Marwood,’ said the Dude having de-gagged himself.
‘Little busy now mate.’
‘Marwood,’ Jack’s voice this time: ‘there’s a fucking other one.’
Sure enough another black cloud churned, gathering form and power a few metres away. I got a metaphorical-slash-metaphysical wrestling handhold on the first so I could speak properly. ‘Okay. Dude: go Babylonian on its arse. Just hold it if you can.’
I heard him doing just that. The Dude was a bit of an all-rounder so he could fill in temporarily for Jack or me, or some of our other pals if a second was needed.
‘I feel a right plum,’ said Jack.
He felt exactly as I did in circumstances where his capabilities were more appropriate, but I couldn’t be thinking about that now. I was hoping to constrain the spirit I was wrangling and send it back whence the fuck it came and all that. But I needed to be able to help the Dude in case he wasn’t up to whatever his threw at him.
I abandoned the subtleties of spiritual wrestling and went for the equivalent of a poke in the eye as hard as I damn well could. Its form billowed in pain, becoming sufficiently insubstantial that I could perceive the outline of the junk behind it; then it twisted into a rope of blackness and bolted somewhere into the depths of all the bloody junk.
Yeah, you can fuck right off.
The Dude was barely holding the second mass of smoky nastiness away from him and was clearly too occupied to communicate.
‘Alright mate,’ I said, ‘on three start to withdraw and I’ll take it. Ready? One, two…’
I’d already begun to take the weight in proto-indie again and took the full force on three. Seconds later I was using the experience I’d gained of the first spirit – and the fact that we’d caught it before it had garnered much power – to swiftly get this one where I wanted it. That was pressed in on all sides and condensing into a more solid abstract darkness.
‘I just disrupted the other one – it’ll be back. Dude, same drill as before but you might as well get some salt and iron filings ready to chuck while you’re waiting.’
‘I’ll go and make the tea shall I?’ said Jack.
‘Phone D first,’ I said.
‘Milk and two sugars when you’re done.’
With that I marshalled my offences and crushed the thing smaller and smaller, bits of its power flaking away as I did until it had to abandon what mass it had gathered and head for safety.
I heard a grinding sound somewhere in the street end of the room and started picking my way over using the old second sight to keen ahead for sign of either presence. I might actually have missed it amongst all the crap had the spirits themselves not manifested.
‘What’ve you found dude?’ the Dude asked.
It was an earthenware pot of some sort, purple-grey, like a squashed ball of overlapping halves. I ran my finger over the bas-relief of wedge-shaped Akkadian cuneiform.
‘Containment vessel at a guess: artificed for concealment. That’s why neither of us caught a whiff of the buggers beforehand. On which note…’
‘Yeah,’ said the Dude, as aware as I was that the first spirit – down but not sufficiently out as to slink back to its vessel – would be lurking nearby. ‘It’s just soaking up the background aether, licking its wounds. Faster now. Should be able to pinpoint any second n…
‘Over there – hiding behind the dodgy perfume.’
It escapes a lot of people – wizards – but the Dude’s pretty damn smart. I could count the number of our bunch I’d worked with who could zero to a thus depleted entity that quickly on one hand. Like I say, he’s smart. He’d even had the foresight to half unstrap the groinal-wear and tuck the extremity of what the inadequate might describe as an over-generously proportioned penis substitute into the pocket of his 501s.
Anyway there it was. You couldn’t have distinguished the unnatural darkness of its form from the natural shadow of its den of bootleg fresh fragrance boxes. But knowing it was there I could see the tiny crackles of orange, and a fiery little eye as well.
‘It’s like a miniature Eye of Sauron,’ I commented. ‘Or a… what’s another word for miniature?’
The Dude thought for a few seconds.
I looked at him. ‘What?’
‘Shetland. Things that begin with Shetland are small. Like Shetland ponies and, I dunno, Shetland… dogs. ‘Shet’ is probably Old English for small.’
‘Or short maybe,’ I said being pretty damn sure it wasn’t Old English for that either.
‘Exactly,’ said the Dude.
You just never could tell when the Dude actually believed something and when he was yanking your wotsit. I just shrugged.
‘Alright fine: It’s like a Shetland Eye of Sauron.’
As these kind of things went they were an optimal security solution for those who didn’t give a damn about human life: Minimum property damage, maximum scare the living crap out of you – and above average odds on a terminal result. I’d made relatively short work of them, but then this was one of my specialities. From what of their essence I’d picked up, their ectoplasmic form would carry all manner of pathological hexing. The thought made me angry for a moment.
‘How’s it going?’ Jack asked coming back round. Magic and manifestations have a bad habit of messing with yer mobile reception so he’d gone all the way to the back to get enough bars on his archaic Nokia brick.
‘Bloody smashing,’ I said. ‘I love going front line with paired pneuma akarthon of sufficient potence that their merest touch could well cause your pubic hair to garrotte your testicles. Get hold of D?’
Now whether the thing was taking umbrage at our apparent dismissiveness or just decided we looked sufficiently distracted for this to be the perfect time to make its move… right then it made its move. I don’t know if it was going for me or the Dude but it came at us. Even at reduced strength it would probably knock you for six and leave you with some half a dozen minor maladies for the near future.
I threw out a combined deflection-constraint spell, like a weighted net. At the same time the Dude chucked a handful of salt and iron filings which crackled into whizzy sparks on contact. I was already pulling the net tight and the whole thing dissipated save for a faint slither of mist that slunk off into another junk heap from which came the grind of a hidden jar closing.
‘Nice work boys,’ Jack exhaled, ‘very nice work.’ Knuckle bumps. ‘Anyway yeah, D’s on his way. Says to keep him appraised en route. So what’s the skinny?’
‘Guardian spirits at a guess,’ I replied, picking through to where I found the second earthenware jar. ‘Paired and bound to the vessels. Dormant inside having a good old kip but awakened by… movement, human presence?’
I was picturing the pair astride some ancient Babylonian gateway. Not this particular pair maybe, but the sort on which they were based if not. Bones also; a good few sets of bones as the decades passed. Protection for the sanctity of the temple of some forgotten god, or the secrets of dark mages in absentia. Not, I was guessing, for treasured archaic equivalents of criminal wastes of vinyl, chintzy pub furnishings, kinkwear and sex aids etcetera. But I was only guessing.
‘The question is whether they’re here for storage – or to protect something.’
That certainly was the question. But in one sense their presence answered the question of what we were doing here – or at least why the place was on D’s list.
We didn’t need the full background to have an educated guess at what all this was about. Reggie Franks, proprietor, was an aware nobody, aware of there being rather more going on in London, the UK and beyond than Joey Public is while ranking nowhere within that world. He’d be just loosely plugged into the bigger picture if only by the fact that someone knew he had space going and wasn’t fussed to ask questions when the money was good. Or maybe he fancied himself a player and was looking to get in on a bit of action.
But D’s interest would begin a few levels above. Cos if you’re storing misanthropic self-aware security ordnance you seriously weren’t up to anything good, and you wouldn’t be up to it on a large scale.
See Me, Jack, the Dude and the rest, we were a sub rosa crew: D’s crew. The Worshipful Company of Magicians certainly were there to keep people safe from the supernormal nasties. But it was also a finitely-resourced bureaucratic leviathan that was rather too prone to pat itself on its back for its successes while framing its failings in the realm of justified statistics and punishing anyone other than themselves who stepped in, all while quoting ‘the greater good’ over brandy and cigars.
There were, however, those of us prepared to pick up the slack. When malefic wizarding outfits got a foothold, people tended to get hurt. We preferred to get on with a sub rosa (that is an illegal, off the books, community-spirited) take down, and balls to the Company and their rulebook and statistics.
So to D Franks’ little storage operation would be a way in: to get to whoever this bunch of bastards were. He might just want to nudge them onto the Company’s esoteric radar in a manner they couldn’t ignore. Or he might be of a mind to destabilise whatever they were working on and make the costs and risks exceed the likely reward. Otherwise we might later end up tracking and taking them down ourselves. It was all the same to us.
Jack had a bit of reception now both pneuma had hit the hay so got texting with the description I gave him of the vessels. Shortly came the response.
‘Turns out he’s of interest to a party D’s working with,’ Jack related. ‘They’ve decided to move up-schedule. He says to finish the ‘audit’ and find a suitable rendez-vous point, in line of sight if poss. If you spot any of these…’ he held up the text so we could see, ‘then we take with. Marwood, D wants to know if you can seal the vessels.’
I mentally patted my pockets. Amongst other little packets was some Merseburg Lute (the good stuff). I did a quick calculation based on the circumference of the vessels lids: just enough. With a bit of pyrurgy by Jack – that’s fire working to the uninitiated – they’d actually be hermetically sealed. ‘Yup.’
‘I’ll let him know,’ Jack said. Then, as if in afterthought: ‘Oh and he asked if we’ve got enough Triple A between us to do the job.’
Triple A. A is for Alchemy. A is also for Accelerant. Lastly, in this context at least, A was for Asturian: as in that region of Iberia that’s particularly well known for multipurpose, aetherically responsive alchemical accelerant.
As happened we did. Basically we got to ethically, safely and confidentially firebomb the place. Our grins were entirely professional.
We waited for D outside a cafe down the way, London proffering some night-time drizzle as a lazy excuse for natural fire-fighting as flame scourged the upstairs store room, the fire only too real, its behaviour only semi-normal.
D’s connection had arrived first to represent his bunch, a shortish geezer all trimmed to rugged stubble in a zipped up black combat jacket. We couldn’t have placed his accent beyond somewhere from across all of Central and Eastern Europe and he didn’t give a name. Not at all rude mind. We already knew his crew were taking over but they were decent enough to ask if we’d like to set things going on account of the fact that we’d done the graft.
With a few arcane mumbles Jack had spontaneously combusted the Triple A and sent the flames swirling inward rather than threatening the surrounding premises. Then our non-disclosed compadres (five Jack guestimated) lifted the pyrurgic burden of avoiding collateral damage and public injury. The vessels inside were heat-proofed and sealed by moi to make sure the Fire Brigade weren’t any more at risk from them than they were from the flames. And while our compadres would put on a good show the brigade were at zero risk from that quarter. The shops below were closed anyway and the neighbouring properties, as noted in the report we picked up, were second city homes to absent commuting lawyers and politicians and their ilk so none of us gave the slightest shit if anything went slightly wrong.
A crowd of gawpers had gathered opposite, only one individual skirting straight past and toward us. He wore a black roll-neck under a modestly stylish tan suit. Modestly stylish: that was Shaman D all round.
‘Gentlemen. Looks like the arson is on fine form.’
‘Boss,’ Jack acknowledged.
‘We have brigade friends on duty. One will be arriving in the engine while the Company liaison will be expediting notification in their direction.’
Again that’s the Worshipful Company of Magicians. D was not technically a member but rather from a venerable allied magical tradition and essentially held in the same regard as a Company Master.
‘Look I hope we weren’t a bit premature in checking the place out D,’ Jack said, drawing D’s attention back from the fire.
Our boss’s eyebrows rose and he seemed to mull this over.
‘Not in any problematic fashion; more an unforeseen opportunity to advance a schedule simply requiring some reprioritisation. The proprietor is of no interest. But you’ve confirmed that he’s connected to persons who most certainly are.’
D’s amiable expression turned momentarily dark. Jack looked a little more at ease mind. The Dude went to use the lav.
Shortly the question would come, words that were plain and without deeper motive, that were inclusive of ‘was there anything further of note that might later become relevant’ to ‘did you fuck up in any fashion that you haven’t learnt from.’ D was one of a kind. He really did ask that question without side or trace of admonishment and accepted the answer without interest in the particulars.
Well none of us would have got busy with kinky apparel for kicks on a planned op, and none of us would have found amusement in it if they had. Because, outward professionalism aside, lives would likely be on the line. We just needed to expand our collective understanding of what constituted an op. We’d also decided that while two pints were a drop in the ocean for us, as a matter of form we wouldn’t be doing unnecessary jobs that appeared as straightforward as this had if we’d had a few.
‘Anything else I need to know?’
We handed over the bits we’d filched from all the crap in the storeroom. ‘Think that’s everything boss,’ I told him.
And that just left the pub. It usually did. But it so happened on this cold December eve that there was a good old bunch out for some wizardly festive unwinding because there was a leaving do. Aco had been over on the journeyman circuit these last months during which time he’d helped us out in the odd scrape and had become a pal. So of course he was getting a send off Blighty-style before he headed back to Macedonia-land.
Pretty much everyone from our gang was there. Anna, Johnny Madrigal, Dale “Oakie” Penderel, The Baroness, Tigger, Diana… Wizards all.
First rounds were on the others. That’s how it works when you’ve been on a job, planned or otherwise. We did our bit by serving up the doings of said escapade and, given we’d all come out of it okay, there was no little amusement about what the Dude had been up to.
We raised the second toast of the night to Aco then returned to chatting amongst ourselves.
‘I’m getting eggnog,’ the Dude shared. ‘It’s traditional.’
Jack and I caught up with our other close pal Anna while he went to the bar, presumably making sure Aco had had the full English treatment before he left. Shortly the Dude returned with glasses and a bottle offering it round.
‘Eggnog Marwood?’ he asked when he got to us.
I confess, heathen that I am, I’d never personally encountered eggnog – but I was pretty sure it wasn’t clear and colourless and supplied in bottles labelled Tequila.
‘Don’t mind if I do.’
At least it wasn’t Absinthe eggnog like last year.
‘Dude – your ears…’ said Anna. ‘Why are they sticking out like that?’
‘Yeah shit,’ I said, now properly seeing how they protruded just slightly through that centre-parted flat dark mop of a barnet. ‘I think I half noticed earlier but I was too busy noticing the rest of you and then, I dunno, fighting of a pair of moderately badass sentinel spirits.’
Our mate felt his ears himself, then came to his own realisation and grinned. It had actually been his finishing touch to his outfit.
‘Dick rings,’ he elaborated with, some might argue, due pride.
Because when he was mooching through the rest of the stuff he’d unearthed what he described as ‘a pick and mix box of dick rings’ and shoved each of his lobes through the ones he picked.
Yes we laughed and we also asked the Dude if they were actually as uncomfortable as they looked, and yes he said they were.
‘Dude,’ Anna said, ‘Probably time to take them off.’
He looked to me and Jack. Our shrugs expressed ‘well it’s up to you mate but, well, you said they were uncomfortable and we’ve probably got the big laughs already’.
Man were we wrong.
Because the Dude, thus dignified in his choice of comedic ear apparel decided, on balance, it probably was time to take them off and he began to do so.
He continued beginning to do so.
He was still beginning.
‘Guys I… I can’t get them off. They’re stuck they’re… Guys stop laughing. I can’t get them off. It’s not funny!’
A whole room of wizards seemed to be entirely of the opposite opinion.
‘Guys stop it!’
Some of us might even have been trying, if only to stop the pain in our sides and if there was a dry eye in the house I couldn’t damn well see cause neither of mine were.
‘I think I’m going to have to go to A&E!’
I had to use Anna for support.
So there it was. Surreptitious info drop. A bit of breaking and entering. Inappropriate fetish-wear modelling. Magical fight with ectoplasmic sentinel entities. Public-spirited arson of an arcane variety. Off to the pub for pints and non-seasonal spirit shots.
Just another evening in the life of a London wizard.
‘Merry fucking Christmas Marwood,’ said Jack when we could speak again.
‘Merry fucking Christmas Jack,’ I replied.
They call me Marwood.
Anyone for eggnog?