I came to my senses again. Must have been caught with… with another one… or something…
Whoever the hell it was must have got some artificium or something backing them up to keep this number of hex… Or maybe there was another…
Check the time.
Check the… phone (it’s called a phone I reminded myself) then get back in the weave and keep batting and picking and blocking and whatever the hell you can.
Phone – no bars, no surprise. Time. If I was any judge, fading befuddlement aside, I’d lost less than a half minute and…
I was back into the weaving and now was just knocking them around because it was a lot quicker and apparently all I needed to do was keep this going for a few minutes more and…
And while I was doing so the thought it hit me and…
And why had I spent a second wondering if it was the art student? Or the roadie? Or the camdenite? Or Mo or any other bastard for that matter? Why had I been looking at anyone else when the bloody suit had been talking into his bloody phone all this time? Because it’s not a case that Orange mobile has a signal when fuckwit mobile can’t get one, not when the cause of the disruption is the channelling from elsewhere of enough esoteric energy to super-charge half a dozen hardcore hexes. No it fucking is not.
Had I made him earlier, knowing who it was I could perhaps have traced back the threads and made shorter work of his maleficium. But as I was then, fuddled if only mildly and my focus caught up in the aetheric drama… I just had to keep knocking those hexes on and around.
But I was trying to work out if I could lob something over at the bastard and knock his concentration and…
Could I? (Could it be that Saviour – thy name is Bic?)
I waved the biro absently back and forth, back and forth, back and… I let it go with a flick of my wrist and all I knew was that it would be sailing in a parabola of some vaguely potential usefulness somewhere in his general direction… Then I was back in the abstract, back in the weave, sending round the curses and jinxes and round and round and round they go – where they stop nobody…
And then I had sense at where the threads were heading, where and to whom, who the victim was going to be in all of this and… Mo, foul old Mo, had a right to live whatever the hell this was about, at least I thought it was Mo and…
And I could ‘see’ into one of the hexes, and then another… See how to pull it apart and… And that’s what I was doing. Must have disrupted his concentration… not enough to stop them but enough to do this and that and that was another down and…
And suddenly there was a big surge of aaaaaeeeeettthhh…
And suddenly it was over: whatever had been going on had been played out.
I felt woozy for a moment – and then I didn’t.
Wall. Wall with tiles.
I was staring, total tunnel vision at a portion of wall between Mo and the possible builder, Mo on the blurred left periphery of my vision and…
And I was coming back to myself.
How long had I… had I been out? Long enough, apparently, for drool to pool and puddle and dribble from the corner of my mouth. I wiped my hand left cheek to chin, got rid of the spittle before it fell. How long…
Phone. Check phone… I couldn’t remember what the time had been beforehand but… Minutes maybe? Minutes. Bars – I’d got bars on my phone. And it was after four.
No one seemed to have keeled over. No one was panicking. Did that mean I’d done it, that everyone was all right?
I was suddenly aware of the café door closing and that certain folk were no longer there. I wasn’t looking around manically mind, the lingering befuddlement leaving a slow calm in its wake. The suit had gone. The art student had gone. The builder had gone…
And I needed to go. Like, pee go. I was aware I needed to go for a pee.
I bagged my stuff and headed into the cupboardly excuse for a khazi. Time had passed, I reminded myself while doing what needed to be done. My phone buzzed in my pocket as if in affirmation. I took it out. Two missed calls… new message. It was Alex. Then my dialling tone went off, Alex again.
‘Marwood? Marwood? Marwood are you okay?’
‘I’m… fine Alex. Your mate was right, something did go down…’
‘When I couldn’t get hold of you I was worried and I knew it might be magic disrupting the signal,’ (Alex paused for breath; I was rather touched by all the concern) ‘but then that would mean that there was something going on and…
‘Marwood – Marwood are you… peeing?’
I guessed I was. Yes, well, to be honest there was no guessing about it. ‘Um… No?’
‘Oh for… heaven’s sake Marwood… Phone me back when you’re not!’
She hung up and I was aware that the child in me was grinning his ass off so, feeling too tired not to, I followed suit.
I walked back through, realising the more direct path to the door took me past Mo. Given her earlier… words I’d have preferred to walk around. But it would have looked stupid – too obvious, too feeble – if I were to do that. Besides she’d had her fun. She had no reason to speak to me. And if she did I’d just keep walking past, keep on walking the short distance to the door and then I’d be outside, outside in the blessed bloody rain and I’d just keep walking and not look back…
But she wasn’t going to speak to me, I told myself. And what if she did? I was a magician. I dealt with dark shit. I had nothing to fear from a pervy old woman.
I felt her address like a jolt in the pit of my stomach.
‘I been watchin’ you,’ she said. ‘Watchin’ you watchin’ me; just like Jeremy fucking Beadle. But mostly I been watchin’ you.’
That strange feeling washed over me again, some kind of echo of the befuddlement, and I looked across the table to her and the leering grin I knew she’d be wearing.
And thoughts ran through my mind, thoughts that had begun stupidly when I’d looked back to her knitting in the middle of it all, thoughts I’d abandoned as stupid in the moment, disparate thoughts that now disappeared into obscurity leaving the truths that had been there all along. The kid – the little boy my thoughts now firmed – the one the other… Ladies had taken with them.
He wasn’t important in all this – and yet he was. It wasn’t a teenage pregnancy (a vaguely prejudicial half-presumption on my part), wasn’t the girl’s with the Croydon facelift. He was the other woman’s – the Mother’s.
Oh. Crap. This was serious shit – this was old pagan shit on the table here.
Not worshipping the great goddess or the goddess within, not buying books from the MBS dept of Waterstones or yer local Smiths. Not growing herbs, or going on retreat with your sisters (not that there weren’t a few genuine practitioners and covens amongst the modern Wiccan types). No this wasn’t any of that.
This was proper old tradition – perhaps the oldest: from when the men went hunter-gathering and learned what they learned and the women stayed behind and passed on mysteries that men could dismiss in disdainful jest (for they wanted knowledge only of pleasure and not the blood of the moon). This was lords and kings, rulers of counties and countries, humbled at the door to the birthing chamber and sloping off with their tails between their legs. This was healing and pelling and sour milk, brews and salves, flaccid cocks and remedies, spindles and distaffs and spinning wheels and weaving. And this was knitting needles off the books and away from the watchful eyes of unknowing men to preserve the lives or dreams or outward virtue of the woman who asked.
This was true old school cunning stuff, migrated from country to town and flavoured by brick and stone and mortar, the crap in its air and running in its streets, and working in its buildings and living in its homes, flavoured by it but unbroken in its transmission; Maiden, Mother and Crone, a coven of three, wyrd sisters and daughters and granddaughters thereof, true wicce of the big city.
The urban Wise.
I thought I’d been sent here to keep someone safe. And I had. That was probably all that truth-hack of Alex’s had divined, but knew it as cold iron truth.
It had to be me here, he’d told her, or someone was going to get hurt or worse and something bad would happen.
I didn’t know about the something bad. I’d thought I was here to keep ‘Mo’ safe, or one of the others. But I knew now which person in this café had been at risk during these hours.
And she’d been the one keeping me from harm.
‘Ah now y’sees the truth of it, Marwood,’ Mo grinned.
I felt a shiver at the sound of my name, and at the realisation that I’d had to be here to be as safe as I had been. If I hadn’t taken the job, dismissed the diviner… If I’d been elsewhere, elsewhere out there, in the open and exposed… How would I have fared then against a pro who’d got me in their malefic sights?
‘Maybe you’d ‘ave preferred the young un,’ Mo mused, closing up her handbag. ‘She might’ve set the blood rushing to them dogs cocks too much for them to work their maleficium.
‘Or maybe her mam, my eldest – her with the babe. She’s potent that one, especially just now with that lad. With her you got all that rage at the thought of some fucker dipping his finger in the brew and spoiling her gift to her ugly offspring – something like that anyways. But you got me and I’d say you been lucky either way.’
No, I’m all right here, Mo’s words to her younger counterparts came back to me as I stood there dumbly. She put away her knitting, the pattern of which I could feel the cat-curious part of me keening to see but which the wiser part (stronger on this occasion) studiously avoided in case I saw it, saw it properly, and discovered some truth therein from which I’d never properly recover.
‘Mind that weren’t bad, yer own workin’s. Y’managed to keep yer head for the most, kept yer focus in the fuddlement, kept those hexes and cursings on the move. Made me wonder…’
‘I… I thought I was the one keeping you safe… Lady.’ I said the word not as an American would, not as some unspecific term of address and possibly expression of bemusement and frustration as to a woman’s behaviour. No it was said with… respect. Because that was how you dealt with her like – well if you’d been properly trained and had the slightest bit of common sense about you. Not with fear, just respect. ‘Well someone here safe anyway,’ I finished.
‘Hah.’ She said. It was somewhere between a hah or a huh, between a grunt of hollow mirth and an utterance of the mildest surprise. ‘That so.’ She squinted then, in thought perhaps, her lips twisting into some new kind of ugly smile.
I said ‘I honestly thought… I saw the hexes going for you…’
‘Oh they were. They picked up on me in the end and one o’ them thought he’d ‘ave a go. Burned his fingers for him I did, burned them proper and left him with something to think on for a good long time…’
‘One of them?’ I queried then and Mo, still grinning, nodded. That had been the other thought that had begun to occur. This could have been a one man job but they in the plural hadn’t been fucking around. A collective effort of one or more maleficers: a hexer and a spotter, the latter being also a secondary on the hexing front, perhaps an artificer to handle the magical hardware I didn’t doubt was present. Well with the number of hexes and the aether-levels… ‘I made the suit in the end. The Polish guy… with the paper?’
I kind of wanted to get this right, recover a bit of propriety or something in this whole caper. I nearly picked the art student as the second, part from some undue sense of equality, and similarly from a sense of unlikely plot twist, just like I’d had a check on the waitresses. But life’s narrative is a little less clean and often a little more obvious…
‘Nah – builder; came in earlier, returned in his civvies.’ Dammit. ‘Like I says – some good work. Who knows, even by yourself maybe you could’ve… Well you wasn’t and that’s that.
‘Anyway… Came ‘ere as a favour I did – and don’t you go botherin’ that brain of yours with oo asked or why they wanted to make sure your tight arse was out of the fire. And I wouldn’t bother wonderin’ about them folk who set the fire going neither. Maybe you’ll one day know who sent them or maybe you won’t. It’s likely bigger than them and bigger than you.
‘You’re a pawn boy, just a pawn. But I gets the sense yer not that many checks from the other side o’ the board. You could change up, if you got there – if you wanted.
‘You could become a queen,’ she mused, all cunning and crafty and shrewish and shrewd. Then she cackled, throwing her head back in mirth: ‘Just like that Julian Clary!
‘I likes ‘im,’ she said: ‘‘e’s a dirty bastard.’
She settled back in her seat and put the rest of her things away.
‘You’ll be alright to go now. They knows they failed and they won’t try again and neither will the bastard what sent ‘em. They’ll look for an easier in for whatever they’re doin’ or wantin’ or whatever.’
She got to her feet and I thought she was going to go.
Then she said ‘Pass me yer mug. Don’t worry: I’ll take nothin’ from it and nothin’ from you, not knowledge nor anythin’ I’ll use against you. And what I give I give for free and with no obligation.
‘Not just anyone what can read tea leaves proper, Marwood. Not in these days of tea bags and what little escapes ‘em, and as for fucking pyramid bags…’ She rolled her eyes then looked straight at me. ‘Call it somethin’ for yer good manners an’ intentions – and from someone a lot older and wiser to a daft young bastard who’s going to get ‘imself in some real shit if e’s not careful.’
And she told me. And I listened.
‘Right, that’s me then,’ she said when she’d finished. ‘Got to get me lottery tickets for the big draw – double rollover this week.’
Frankly I pitied the National Lottery if this lady wanted something from them.
‘Julian fucking Clary,’ she cackled to herself as she stepped over to the doorway. ‘You don’t see ‘im so much these days. Not like that Frankie Boyle.
‘I likes that Frankie Boyle – e’s a filthy bugger.
‘Stay lucky boy,’ she said from the doorway, putting her brolly up. ‘Stay lucky.’
And then she was out and into the rain and gone, leaving me in some random greasy spoon in East London, somewhere in the metaphoric shadow of the metafucking Gherkin with the other flotsam and jetsam that had washed in. I didn’t follow suit, or follow her to the doorway to see her off. If I had she wouldn’t have been there, disappeared in some occult fashion into the rainy greyness and the weft of the great urbanity that is London; and if she had been there it would have been some anticlimax I couldn’t right then have taken.
They call me Marwood.
Don’t ask me – I haven’t a bloody clue either.
My head was angled down, as if absorbed in the free London rag. But my eyes flicked around looking for telltale signs of casting in any of the individuals present – paraphernalia, the furtive movement of lips pronouncing whispered words in variations of Latin, Hebrew or anything else – signs of discomfort in another. There seemed to be none.
Art student: flipping the pages of some glossy periodical. Suit: phone call. Roadie: slurping tea. Poles: arguing, maybe just talking, tone and cadence quite at odds with any conjuring I could imagine. Camdenite: phone – gossip about a friend who needed to lay off the recreationals. Del Boy: flicking through his Auto Trader (perhaps for surviving Reliant Regals or Ford Capris). Uncomfirmed builder: late lunch of chicken and chips.
I decided on something general for the under-table glyph, something to undermine the efforts of the majority of esoteric efforts, if only a little. Play the odds; business as usual. Surreptitious mutter of the appropriate words and all sealed and sorted. This close I could feel its presence in the localised aetheric landscape.
I rummaged in my bag considering some specific bits, and an arrangement thereof, that would seem the least strange to the general clientele; the least obvious to a fellow practitioner who now was doubtless present and up to no damn good. I went for my student configuration. Notepad for doodling (magical warding in biro still being territory no one so far had managed to effect). Textbook – Business Studies; nothing anyone would take interest in, or someone who was reading it. Mobile so I could use its signal reception – or lack of – as a magical barometer for how fucked up things were getting (currently down to one-two-one bars from a high five).
Then I took out my snow globe; might look a tad weird but not likely to be interpreted as anything more than eccentric ornamentation. I gave it a shake and those alchemied flakes swirled around the solution within the artificed container. Good for keeping the aether moving, the magic going round, without stopping on any one person with a bit of a helpful nudge by some incanting on top; also festive (if in no respect seasonally appropriate).
I had a few other bits to hand and hanging round my neck but that would do for now. I picked a pen, a Bic, to chew and waggle thoughtfully and got down to my studies which were of everything but what was in the book. I gazed at a vacant spot on the wall, a little above head height, and checked each customer from the corner of my eyes.
Who was it? Who?
Art student – young. If she was a mage she couldn’t have been beyond apprentice stage. Mind malefic magicians have very different attitudes to preparing someone for life in the magical world. Less responsibility and aptitude so much as capability and how can you be most useful (steeple fingers and rub together). Victim more likely – though for no reason that leapt out.
The suit was certainly old enough, but he was still on the phone. Money means motive means higher on the potential victim scale.
The roadie had got himself a magazine. I risked a look: a philosophy rag. Meant nothing. A lot of roadies are a lot more intellectual than the average person would give them credit for. Possibly he could mutter some incantation more discretely beneath that bad mother beard/moustache ensemble. I’d check again later.
Two of the poles were leaving with handshakes and rough humour as farewells, no break in the act if such it was. Mind a lot of Polish magicians – czarownik and znakhari – carried swords, not unlike certain elements of London’s Worshipful Company; and some of these boys took their sword-practice very seriously. I looked for long bags like mine but found only an absence. One sat there doing something with his mobile, the other was now behind a Polish paper behind which he could… well I was keeping tabs.
Camdenite – just gone to use what horrible excuse for a lav they had here. Del Boy was still looking for his next second hand car. The builder-by-suspicion had finished his late lunch (during which he couldn’t have been conjuring). Mo was doing her knitting.
Back to the roadie, back to the Pole behind his paper…
The last bars… bar on my mobile disappeared. I felt a noticeable surge in the aether; oh it was all happening now. But what was happening? And to who? And who was the cause?
I got muttering under my breath behind the cover of my arm while my hand massaged my forehead in concentration which I was (just not on module 4.5.2 – a case study on the relative merits of Dawson’s Spanner Emporium or whatever). I cycled the words – part active spell, part mantra – to tune me a little deeper into the unseen drama that was trying to unfold.
It was some kind of hex – no, a whole bunch of hexes. The kind I’d mostly encountered were ‘thrown’, combat hexes and blasts you could dodge or deflect if you’ve got the protections, or counters, or the knack and knowhow to unweave them. These weren’t those. These were the kinds of cursing normally done from afar. But this was all happening in situ, up close: Some targeted attempt at grievous subtle-bodily harm if not outright occult assassination.
Yeah I was pretty sure there wasn’t any thread of spell-work extending beyond the threshold of this place. The long range stuff needed soma aside from anything else, nail clippings, hair or blood from the target, naming true and unprotected, and ritualling besides. On the other hand it took some serious expertise to do something up close without the extras or overt canting and gesture. The fact it was happening at all – and in multiples – spoke of proper talent, regardless of whether any of it had yet to land, to collapse into harmful certainty on the intended.
I identified the clotted pattern of a pestilenta hex, some kind of illness. I got busy with my own canting, too quiet even to be called a whisper, just the faint verbal markers of consonants to outline the spell. I pried into the hex with the incantation then worked on it bespoke until it frayed and its potency bled to homeopathic levels. Rendered harmless I tried to discern what I could of the others.
There was some kind of blight curse, an almost sentient gnawing thing that would suck at the victim’s vitality causing a wasting hunger. There was a pretty serious jinx as well, something that even those who conjured such things had little understanding of their true workings. Alone it was hazardous; in combination with something else… Around they went and around, kept loose by my artificed alchemical snow globe, and nudged on helpfully by yours truly so none settled on whoever their intended target was.
I was distantly aware, in the grey outside, rain beginning to spatter.
Ah – that was a more straightforward shock-hex. Not a physical blast of fulgar (that’s wizard-speak for electricity, small scale lightning like) but an aetheric jolt direct to the body. It’d give you a brief fit maybe but it was really to leave you vulnerable to one of the other nasties whirling unseen in the immediate vicinity. I lost it but was pretty sure I could break it apart the next time it came round.
Still though, I couldn’t work out who the assailant was and who the assailed. Sometimes a particularly sensitive magician can tell the former from the concentration of aether around that person or track back the other way. Well I’m a little sensitive, but…
On the other hand the assailant had no reason to suspect that another magician was present. My own workings were subtle and the problematic nature of this hexing meant that one coming apart could be accounted for by other factors. As long as I kept the hexes from settling, or if I could work out who it was and interrupt them, that would be job done. If the diviner who’d sent me here was on the money – and this time dollars to dinar he had been – there was an expiry date on this situation. So assuming I could hold them off until 4ish I could call it a day…
Something occurred to me then… but it was stupid. It was the kind of stupid you’d be stupid to follow – but moreso to ignore. Because it was the kind of twist that could bite you in the backside if you didn’t rule it out.
It was an awkward move to make, something I’d otherwise worry would attract attention. To the civilian contingent it might look a bit weird – that, just then, I’d decided the inward-facing seat to my left was suddenly more preferable to where I’d been sat these last hours. But to a magician, especially one busily magicking, if anything it’d be confirmation that whatever they were conjuring was manifest. Moreover it would indicate that I was just a regular member of the public who’d unconsciously picked up something going on, something which they could only put in the context of a strong preference for another seat. At least I wasn’t facing Mo now. I was also facing away from the art student and the suit. But now I could see the counter and the waitresses behind, cleaning up in the post-lunch lull.
Like I say, stupid; but had I spent the whole time facing away from them, only to watch someone keel over when all the time someone was merrily muttering hexes while washing dishes and making sarnies I’d have felt really bloody daft.
I felt another little rush then of those injurious esoteric forces and ‘decided’ that my original chair had been better in the first place. Again I doubted this would cause the slightest bat of an eyelid from a hard-working maleficer. And the average Londoner would simply add further points to the warning / avoid column in my tally (chair-changing slightly muttery potential nutter – and damn, he was so cute as well!) moving me from the default amber alert status towards if not into the red. If that irked me in the slightest we’d have parted unspoken ways within an hour or so, and, in that case, they and London could fuck off anyway.
Seated again I took stock. No change, not of note. The art student was sketching. The Camdenite was heading to the lav. And Mo, in between slurps of heavily stewed tea, had got out her knitting (perhaps a burberry knock-off for the sprog who’d departed with whichever of the other ladies his mother had been).
I absently took a sip of my own tea, staring into the Sudoku and feeling for the aether and the spells that articulated it into something with purpose. There was sufficient present to keep the bars on my phone down but, if I was any judge, there’d be a less subtle surge when any one of those hexes ‘locked on’.
I picked up on another hex, a replacement pestilenta for the one I’d pulled apart. I began to zero in on it while thoughts played in the background of my mind and…
What just happened?
I felt… fine. But as if I dozed off for a moment… zoned out for a second… did I…
Check the time.
Glance to mobile. No, only a little time had passed – but it had passed. I’d briefly lost consciousness in some sense. Could just have been a flush, tiredness, a momentary… something. But no. No that was too unlikely.
I blinked, blinked it away, shook it off…
Must have caught a glancing blow from a sneaky befuddlement as it went round: unlikely with my globe on the go but not impossible (its flakes were settling so I gave it a shake). Possibly because I’d been looking out for hexes had meant I’d metaphorically stuck my big fat metaphorical head straight in its approach? In any event I was glad for the pendant beneath my shirt (good bit of counter-hex artifice that, and particularly with befuddlements…)
Back to it – straight back in. Didn’t know if I could be any more focussed, now I’d shaken off the hex anyway, but I tried.
The aether was escalating. Someone was getting desperate, keeping the magical force built and ready for when an opportunity might present itself.
Glance to phone. Confirms: no bars.
Outside the rain was coming down like a mother and thunder rolled like a big fuck-load of rolling thunder… or something. Ignore. Even if somehow connected to the drama at hand what mattered was what’s happening in here.
The Camdenite was returning from the lav (Little mental note – possibly she’d been up to something in there?) and I took in the Pole who’d lowered his paper and…
There was that replacement illness hex. I dug in verbally, less subtly now, savaging an opening to tug it apart.
And there was the shock hex. Zinged past me last time you little bastard but I felt you coming round… Countered, blocked, bursting against the little anti-hex counter I’d dropped in its path. The roadie’s eyebrows twitched, some strange notion popping into his head as a by-product of the popped hex… assuming he wasn’t somehow orchestrating the whole thing and…
Mo. Mo was knitting. Mo was knitting and her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, her lips moving oh so fractionally…
And then came the thoughts, thoughts I had to let flow past and around and through and over me while I batted experimentally at the jinx, picked carefully at the blight curse…
Knitting, I… No. No that was daft. I couldn’t frame the old ‘dear’ with…
The aether built again. We were heading to the crescendo of the piece. Whoever it was must have become aware, if they hadn’t been before, that someone was fucking with their efforts. I had to keep it up, had to keep…
(There – got the blight curse, at least enough to have its excesses leech into the background…)
Had to keep at it. They were playing power hands now, trying to channel and funnel magical force into their maleficium to blast through my attempts at blocking… So when they did lock on it would punch straight through the natural defences of whichever poor bastard was on the receiving end…
I caught another sneaky befuddlement: Oh no you don’t, I mentally told it as it tried to evade the ‘net’ I wove around it and…
My eyes did another circuit of the tables and the human flotsam and jetsam besides myself that had taken up temporary residence in the East London greasy spoon. I tried to blot out the whirrs and clicks and clinks and tapping of coffees and teas being made, the clatter of cash and change, the pooled jabber of conversation, and the faint smell of grease and coffee and disinfected table-wipes. Sunlight gleamed through the smudged windows but did little to illuminate what I’d come here to find out:
Which of them would be victim, which the culprit…
There was a table of ladies, by speech covering three East End generations (four if the baby was a girl and the teen pregnancy of the otherwise youngest); didn’t seem likely for either vic or perp. An old chap in suit and tie for a job he might once have had sat coughing away in the corner, doubtless ruing the day the smoking ban came in. I rather hoped the young bloke who’d come in with his beard, cap and laptop might have been the aggressor so I had an excuse to give him a slap.
The businessman in his late 40’s? He was sat at the front by the window, suited and freshly latte’d (doubtless a revolutionary development for this gaff) doing his paperwork and making sales calls on the go. An older gent was at the back reading the FT, perhaps just keeping his hand in or an eye on his shares. Well business meant money and money meant motivation, and if one of their dealings was significant enough…
There were others. Two twenty-something ladies whose skin tone and accents said Spain. Builder types eating a second breakfast. Another Mum (late twenties) with pre-school sprog… The bloke who I guessed had been studying the racing pages of the tabloid rag under his arm returned undaunted from the betting palace across the way.
I was still none the wiser as to what or which element was at risk of or about to inflict some potentially terminal injury of a magical or paranormal nature.
That’s why I get sent in see, magical-slash-paranormal stuff. Marwood by calling, magician by vocation and no, not the pulling rabbits out of hats type. Really. By present occupation – as in what in a professional capacity I was presently occupied with – it was off-the-book wild goose watching. I wouldn’t have liked a chase of the same but at least then I wouldn’t have been sat on my arse and trying to keep myself alert while the boredom, sales talk, coughing, and red label tabloid gossip was draining my will to live.
‘No, Alex,’ I’d said, ‘no. Not again.’
‘This is the same guy isn’t it? The diviner the Company axed.’
The Company was London’s – and the UK’s by extension – Worshipful Company of Magicians. It was the secret guild of which both Alex and I were members. She was directly employed by them though, in some secretarial role. Whereas muggins here, with a bit more of the hokum and a bag of cantrips, was doing the journeyman thing, further from their auspices and prone to getting caught up in some well intentioned do-gooding nonsense off the books when the call came.
Anyway it took a fair bit for their Chamber of Paragnosis (or whatever they were calling it these days) to give one of their truth-hacks – diviners – the boot, sketchy a magical discipline as it was. And I’d had first-hand experience of why this one had been.
‘I wasted a whole day on park benches in Wimbledon Common on his say so Alex. There was no attack, not by a black shuck, not by a warlock. So unless it was a bloody Womble using dark hexes in some territory war – and underground rather than overground – I lost a day for the cube-root of bugger all. I passed the time debating the odds on whether I was going to get haemorrhoids, and whether you were more likely to die from piles than boredom.
‘And as for the afternoon I spent at that bloody inner-city community farm with half a tube-full of school kids on the off-chance the Shetland pony was actually a Scottish horse beastie…’
‘Look I know but…’
‘Just tell me it’s not the same geezer. I mean it is him who sent me off on those other occasions isn’t it?’
Alex didn’t speak then – too honest that one. But that’s partly why I gave her my number in the first place. Then she said: ‘Yes it’s him. But he’s also the guy who gave the heads up on Aidan Travers.’
I’d sighed. This whole off-the-book business (sub rosa as we call it), trying to save a few lives and limbs where the Company has potentially dropped the ball, worked by a serious degree of anonymity. I hadn’t a clue who this guy was. Best I didn’t. But despite a good start when he foresaw the kidnap of the rising star of the ballet scene by a goblin element, I’d subsequently got the picture of just why he’d been given the heave-ho.
Bugger of it is is that it’s kind of like the National Lottery only in moral terms: once you’ve bought in to the sub rosa thing and paid your metaphorical idiot tax you’re caught in the bind. Like, what if this week it’s you?
But, much as I was willing to lend my services in a good cause I couldn’t keep doing this for no good reason, couldn’t let myself become a slave to the habit. It was like that giant bloody hand in the adverts repeatedly appearing; only it was its gargantuan middle finger that was extended and pointed upwards while entirely being there for my reference and consideration.
‘I did offer to contact one of the others instead Marwood – but he’s more insistent than usual and he says it has to be you. He says if you’re not there someone’s going to be hurt and something bad will happen because of it.’
I left my response for a few seconds to show my displeasure, knowing I was already going to go to the bloody café.
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘fine. But this is the last time. I expect to have cause to hit something in some fashion. If I don’t…’
Sadly an hour in beard-face packed up his laptop and left as I reached the dregs of coffee numero one. It was while I was working through my second that, from the ladies table, the teen with the Croydon facelift left with the lady of the generation above, taking the kid with.
The mouthy old trout who I’d already named ‘Mo’ stayed though (‘No, I’m all right here,’ she told her younger counterparts) and called over the waitress to order a steak’n’kidney pie with chips and mushy peas. The builders had gone back to the site for proper man-work and / or skiving with another cuppa with sufficient sugar to stand a spoon in. The old stock-market hobbyist had likewise departed with his pink paper. Others washed in as they washed out; flotsam and jetsam.
I’d axed my intake of burnt ground mud when I felt the caffeine jitters coming and asked for tap-water (I bloody resent paying for bottled water at the best of times). I was tracking present company with little glances while moving on from cocking up the medium difficulty Sudoku in today’s Metro to do the same on the simple one. ‘Mo’ had porked through her pie and chips and was wiping the excess from her chops with a napkin. The Spanish ladies were gone now, replaced by a less visually appealing table of East-European blokes, Polish at guess. Something in their rough cheer and intense bicker, made them the more credible threat than anyone else, but even that was a balance of the most likely of unlikely odds.
After nursing my tap-water for the better part of further hour I thought it probably time to order some food – from hunger, but also because I didn’t want the waitress / proprietor getting arsey. From amidst the filling trays the currified option of the Coronation Chicken (so named for its debut at our Queen Liz’s coronation) radiated up to me in cartoon nuclear-spill yellow.
It seemed to wink with its raisin embellishments in shared conspiracy. Choose me Marwood, it seemed to say; it’s all a crock of shit, even if it’s only us who knows it. I knew by then I was dangerously bored, but I was in need of some sense of camaraderie on this fool’s errand, even if it was that of a sandwich filling.
It didn’t taste bad. I ate it as slowly as I could. It didn’t last nearly long enough.
I looked to each occupied table in turn, wiping my mouth on a napkin in drawn out motions. More had come. There was another suit I was keeping eyes on – cockney, something of the Del Boy, used-car salesmen by prejudice. Pierced Camdenite chick, local for the cheap rent of the east at a judgement, shop hand of a truly boho boutique rather than some mainstreaming high-ticket knock-off for urban twats. Something in her spoke of a magician mate of mine; something to register but not on which to dwell. Similarities meant nothing.
Then there was the roadie – well that what I had him down as. An all-but-neckless pug of a man he was, decked in black T and combats, skin-bald but with compensating beard jutting from his chin. It was a proper beard that could have devoured that of the young bloke with laptop and cap at the same rate he currently was a double sausage, egg and chips. It was a face and body on the razors-edge of good-hearted alternative lifer and grizzled hard man of one-percenter biker morality and temperament, for which the former might be mistaken. An itinerant drifter, like many a journeymen mage and masters besides; a face that could be there one day, gone the next. Eyes on.
I had a foot to my bag: between there and a few other places I had a little something for all the regular eventualities and at least some of the less so. I’d got a few artificed doo-dads, bit of alchemy – powders, stones, liquids… a vapour or two. My sword and sling were in there also, though I couldn’t see a scenario where these might be more useful in a close-quarter café fracas than anything else. Still my hands were ready to reach for whatever, and my lips twitched, ready with whatever spell might seem appropriate in the emerging circumstances.
I’d also half-graffitied a glyph on the table’s underside in my alchemical pastels, something that could be likewise adapted for best use as charm or ward or something else. It would be quick to complete but, aside from having drawn it without looking, perhaps less effective than if drawn in one go (as if maybe the universe thought it was damn cheeky for the lack of commitment).
But still nothing. Every quiver I felt, each potential tug on those perceptions of the esoteric and paranormal, perceptions I’d honed in my apprenticeship and since, were nothing that couldn’t be explained away by anticipation and paranoia.
Wild bloody goose watch.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ the waitress asked giving the table a wipe, English-speak for order something or piss off you waster (well that’s how I took it anyways).
‘Um, bit of cake? The chocolate one.’ I was sure I’d seen a chocolate one. There’s always a chocolate one in case your mayo’ed sandwich or fried meat/chip combo proved too low in calories for your liking.
The sun had gone, westward and beneath some ugly cloud formation. My glance to the window trailed on the way back to take in the female art student (who’d snuck in, sat at the table to my left), original suit, roadie and then I’d check in on…
Ahead, calorie-dealing waitress now gone, Mo gazed directly at me.
‘You looking at me boy?’ she enquired in a voice rasped hoarse by a life of fags and shouted retorts that had never been withstood.
‘No,’ I replied, not too quickly, ‘just…’
‘Coz I’m free if you like what y’sees. I likes me a toy boy…’
No! a very loud voice in my head cried (Uhm, no, it added a little more calmly, no thanks, thanks anyway…)
Fortunately whatever gormless expression my face had fallen into was concealed by the blessed return of waitress avec cake, and I pulled open the free paper for screening value before she’d left (Mo cackling at my discomfort in her wake).
Crock of shit Marwood, the contents of my consumed sandwich mused up from my stomach, just a crock of shit mate. I’d lost my appetite but picked at the cake, wondering if to eat it was somehow disloyal to the coronation chicken. I was beginning to think it time call it quits. But part of me held onto the suspicion of something being there, just on the cusp, on the very limits of my senses.
I’d been half aware of one of the new arrivals. He’d gravitated toward the table the builders had been at when I’d first come in. I thought for a second he might be one of them. He wasn’t in his high-vis jacket now mind, or the work clothes they’d been wearing. Was I right? I tried to place the face from memory, the memory of this morning. It seemed to be tugging another instead (had we met?). I was also thinking about where he was sat, because there’d been four of them. And if he had been present this a.m., sat at the same table diagonally across from mine, he’d been obscured by the builder sat opposite. But he’d have had a good view of whoever was coming in…
Having got a cup of tea in to wash down the cake I retook my place and looked around again. Left round to centre: Art chick, suit, roadie… Right to centre: Poles, Camdenite, Del Boy, bloke who might have been a builder… And then the old hag sat opposite who I certainly wasn’t…
I’d just felt something. Definitely. Some kind of hokum – hard to tell what kind but definitely something.
There it was again, a flicker on the periphery of my sense of the uncanny. Something was happening.
I braced myself beneath the cloaking robe, braced myself and I think I even crossed my fingers hoping my protections would work, that it wouldn’t kill me, that it wouldn’t be too painful, that it wouldn’t knock me out and that they wouldn’t find me if it did…
A blinding migraine whacked the inner surface of my skull with cricket-bat force while something connected to it seemed to do something related to the rest of me. Distantly I felt my body convulse and sag.
Everything went black.
It was still dark when I woke.
My wardings had saved my life, certainly as they hadn’t found me but also from the extremes of that nasty hex. I was distantly aware of chanting and that the pitch black darkness was due to the pitch black cloak. I pulled it aside and peeked around the temple wall.
They must have figured I’d got away, perhaps that I hadn’t made it this far down. Either way they’d decided they’d best get on with whatever it was they were doing in case the Watch came knocking. There were some thirty black-cloaks with purple-robe and his lieutenant besides, all the minions in front of the altar, heads bowed, each with an athame and a smoking bowl of heady, pungent incense. Whether or not it was psychoactive or had anything inherently magical about it, it was doubtless helping with what was essentially a group-spell, a channelling of aether and intent from the group for their master’s workings.
I half remembered the entity speaking as I was returning to consciousness. Now its ephemeral manifestation above the altar plucked stronger chords of memory, not of it but… associations, associations I wasn’t able to put into words just then.
I checked my mobile. Not a bar in sight and it was well into the eleventh hour: midnight was approaching.
‘Bring forth the vessel,’ the entity rumbled. I hadn’t noticed any chalice or other container of significant size or nature but I was more intent right then on the entity which, before my Sight, became more distinct, a knobbly floating orb-shape with specs of darkness buzzing around…
Come on Marwood, come on – stop being some primitive interpreting shapes in the darkness to run back and warn your tribe of invented gods: what is it? Think ancient, think biblical, think what-the-hell-am-I-seeing-in-that-dark-rorschach shape?
Thoughts were beginning to form…
See not every dark spirit actually wants to come over to party on our side of the divide. But some actually can’t – or would rather not except under particular circumstances. Like when a host body of the optimal variety for its particular nature is made available.
A host body. A vessel.
This was serious warlocking.
Warlock came from the Anglo-Saxon for oath-breaker; and while I couldn’t imagine these boys had ever sworn an oath to the Worshipful Company as I had, I wasn’t going to give them a free pass on a technicality. The real oath I swore is that which everyone – as far as I and a good bunch of others are concerned – swears by default: Don’t be an evil shit. And these were evil fuckwit cultist warlock shits, oath-breakers by default and then some.
“The rules!” I wanted to shout, “you’re breaking the rules!” but I knew they’d only turn around and say: “Who cares?”
And then I got it: what the shape above the altar was, what the vessel was, what it was for, what all this was about. The shadowy orb wasn’t simply floating my Sight now told me – it was propped up, skewered atop a pole of the selfsame darkness of which it was composed. And it was a head, the knobbly bits being ears… and a snout. Those buzzing specs, as far as my mind had interpreted, were flies.
My sight had conjured associations of a book I’d been made to study at school, a book about kids on a tropical island who descend into superstition, depravity and violence.
I was channelling Lord of the bloody Flies.
You heard all kinds of rumours in this game. But the one I was thinking of, what with the Biblical angle, was the rumour of a legion of dark spirits cast from a man and into swine that then drowned in the Sea of Galilee. Well whatever it was, they were bringing it through into a boar-man – a pig man. Greater demon or no, I didn’t like to think of the power it would have in an optimal vessel, or the terrible secrets it might share with the sect who had provided it.
‘Is it… unsullied?’ it demanded when they brought out the chained Twrchwn. It slouched, rather more docile after munching the steak I’d taken from their fridge and doped with what I’d tried to remember being bane-substances in the right quantities for boar men.
‘It seems… woozy, still half-asleep perhaps. But yes.’
I got to my feet behind the wall, swaying slightly but I’d recovered from that hex as much as I was going to. I took out my sling and my sword from my bag. I put on the black robe for whatever good it might do.
Of the alchemical ingredients there wasn’t much left.
But that was because while they’d been gone I’d got busy painting up wards and getting other bits around the place that might help me screw up their plans and get out in one piece.
The chanting was back in full swing, the master speaking ancient words over them and moving athame and chalice through the air in practised movements. I figured they might be looking to finish bang on midnight but, either way, it had to be now. I collected my effects and crept around the walls and columns and began the incantations to activate the symbols I’d had time to get up.
Blast-wards, painted grey on grey, erupted from pillar and rock throwing bodies across the temple-space and into others. Simultaneously a number of spiritual apotropaic sigils went off for what good they might do against the entity’s presence and the master’s workings (and either way they shone which looked damn cool).
I lobbed in my remaining snooze-bombs while they were still bunched together and on their knees. Then I sent spark-cantrips into the clumps of flammable powder I’d planted beneath where the cultists now sat, setting robes aflame and men running and rolling to put them out. I tripped a couple of fuddle-glyphs, something I was still perfecting, but which added to the panic and confusion. There were a couple of other wards I swore I’d never get in the habit of using, things of the nature of the hex dolor that I’d really only learned of by circumventing them; but this was an extreme situation and they had the ingredients and they’d brought this on themselves.
The temple was a mass of flapping black into which I slung stones to stun and incapacitate. Purple fire manifested here and there, those with the presence of mind (if not necessarily the wisdom of restraint) conjuring their prized spell with which they’d been gifted by the all-wise master. Every attempt dissipated, or went into another or back on themselves. I saw at least one acolyte’s knife plunge into another in the chaos, and bodies going limp having tripped over robes or rock or each other and head-planted the ground. Others went down belatedly after bundling about in the dissipating cloud of morphinic bomb-powder.
Maybe some thought they were surrounded by invisible watchmen, or that their master or the entity had turned on them. Either way they stumbled at speed up the steps and onto the walkway. One fell off. Another was pushed. Will to power had become will to get the fuck away. I’d probably have felt pleased if I wasn’t still half-crapping it myself.
‘A sacrifice!’ the Baal-entity implored, ‘I can still come through!’
The lieutenant stood there, hood back, furious but resolute in the chaos. His buzz-cut hair was white but he was a big man and robust with it. He grabbed an acolyte and hauled him to the altar. I got off a shot with my sling and the stone glanced his shoulder making him spin round, his face contorted more in fury than the pain he must have felt. I launched another, aimed for his head, but his snarling lips muttered and aether coalesced into force, my missile glancing off the spectral shield with a crackle of blue light.
‘Get him,’ yelled the master, ‘I’ll finish the ritual!’
I tried for a shot at the master but it went wide because I had to move out of the way of an example of Malachi’s Ruin that was anything but low-grade from his advancing lieutenant. The oversized purple fireball burst against the wall beneath the scaffolding, spraying chips from its surface and sending a rattle up the structure.
A remaining black robe appeared behind my wall but ran at the sight of my raised sword. Another came round, more zealous and unafraid of my sword, though his nose wasn’t overly fond of my fist. I kicked him backwards past the walls extent, and he was torn from his feet by a sizeable globe of ruin.
Then the lieutenant appeared. I just had time to get my own shield up as another expert magical missile came at me, its aetheric potence sluicing around my shield’s extent, its raw force sliding me back a step. The shock rattled my brain sufficiently for me to lose focus and the shield with it.
‘Who are you?’ he roared, striding forward, ‘Who are you?’
It was too well enunciated for a football heckle, but I could quite imagine a hooligan would have been delighted to have this psychopath onside. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the words out to rekindle my shield to an effective level of protection before he got another missile off.
But then it took only one word to activate the ward I’d painted on my wall for just such an instance and he was blasted aside and into a pillar.
‘I’m Dave,’ I bellowed back, ‘from District Nine!’
And he fell unconscious.
From my Sight, from that feeling of presence, I could tell the entity was coming through. Even at reduced power from the hasty ritual, the drugged host, from my apotropaic sigils perhaps, I did not like my chances against it were it to gain form.
I didn’t mind my chances against the master though.
His sacrificed goon lay bloody across the altar and he had his back to me. My steps became strides became a run. He turned, saw me coming, started conjuring up something esoteric and unpleasant.
I got there first and conjured up my significantly less esoteric knee in his nads.
A face full of remnant snooze-powder from my pocket – pressed in for good measure – and he went down like a sack of spuds.
‘You are too late pissant mortal spec – I am coming through and my vessel waits!’
The umbral pigs head and pole had dissolved and expanded into a dense broiling swarm of fragments of utter blackness. It moved slowly from above the altar and toward its vessel, which now floated into the air and likewise toward it. I’d dropped my sling somewhere, found my sword instead – but the boar-man was already beyond its reach…
Before despair set in I spotted that they’d brought jars those of alchemical ingredients with necromantic applications into this space, and left them tidily next to the nearest the excavated rock face with a handy back-up chicken for good measure. I grabbed one armful of the former and another of the latter and got to work on a flatter section of stone on the temple floor. The buzzing form of the dark spirit was even larger and denser now, and nearly at the Twrchwn. But if I was quick enough…
It was a tricky circle but my master had put me through my paces in anti-pneuma – magic to combat spirits – ad nauseum, and I’d had a good bit of practice since. I didn’t like sacrificing anything, but if it was a chicken or me and London…
‘Sorry mate,’ I said to it, stuck in the circle I’d painted. It regarded me with beady eyes and pecked my hand. ‘Ow! Fuck you then!’
‘What do you think you are doing spec?’ gloated the Baal-entity. ‘An exorcism? A sacrifice? It will avail you nought!’
‘Not quite pal,’ I said and began the incantation, a bit of an old Latin number, making sure I wove in variations of boar and pig (sus, scrofa, porcus et al…)
‘What… what…’ the entity faltered. ‘What are you…’
I kept it up, retreating to my handy wall as I did.
‘I am owed a vessel; the warlock gave it to me on behalf of mortal man – it is my due!’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but it looked like you were having a little trouble there… so I’ve given you an alternative.’
‘Oh it’ll be fine,’ I said once I’d gotten the spell moving a bit and the entity was drawn unwillingly away from Rasher. Darkness churned in its ethereal form, vulnerable but obstinate – but ultimately unsuited to our plane, vulnerable as a spirit outside a body. ‘You might even prefer it.
‘…gallinaceus!’ I finished my bespoke incantation.
It pulled and pulled and pulled against the spell…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken in the circle.
…A spell that involved neither ritual slaughter nor exorcism…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken again (while the boar-man dropped to the ground with a grunt)…
…But a spell that wasn’t taking no for an answer. And suddenly the entity could hold out no more and its entire spiritual mass shot down into the circle, into the gallinaceus…
Into the chicken.
‘BAAAAAAWWWWWK!!!’ went the chicken.
…and exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.
‘Then again,’ I said, ‘maybe you should have stuck with your first choice after all.’
I sat there in a room of sleeping figures who’d planned to bring an ancient pig demon to Old London Town. I rather felt like a kip myself.
But I had calls to make.
‘Okay listen,’ I said, outside and with reception again; I was speaking to the nice lady who’d tipped me the wink and sent me alone to face a whole gang of necromantic cultists. ‘Tell the Watch this and make sure it’s word for word…’
She was sending it by the back channels. Even so I dropped in a few words I knew the Watch used for this sort of thing, stuff that in the right combination would get the alarm bells ringing: ‘Troy has fallen’ and ‘But the Trojans are only sleeping’ and other bits that built a picture. The Watch can take a damn long time to get off their arses when you call in a potential threat – but when you know exactly what’s going on and report that they seem able to distinguish it as reality rather than the delusions of old kith and the crank calls of the youth thereof. Course that often means you’re already up to your neck in shit or have just dealt with the problem for them. Anyways, I wasn’t too surprised when, shortly, my phone buzzed.
It was from the Watch, a round text to those of us on their books in some form, asking if we were in the vicinity and could check on a suspicious building (it looked like I might even get paid for saving the day for once). I gave it a minute, texted agreement, then called back five minutes later to report the hush-wards, an unconscious black-robe, the numbers of hangers on which hung clothes and robes in the cloak room, and the ambient aether being sufficient to disrupt reception. I didn’t know if that would mean I got to nick the credit back and frankly, right then, I didn’t care.
I’d left a glyph stone behind so I could tell if any of the cultists had woken and ignored the friendly warning I’d painted on the steps up the scaffolding (“If you think / that was bad / see what happens / when you step / past the / last of / these / words. (Dave – District Nine)”). Well it was a bluff given I’d run out of material with which to scrawl anything offensive beyond harsh language but you take what precautions you can (like, we practice safe sects – Oh man, I kill me).
But the glyph stone hadn’t gone off by the time the Watch showed their faces, so assuming no one had worked out how to get the hardened gloop out I’d shoved in that old brass lock, they’d all still be inside.
Well I repeated my findings in person to one of the five Watch people, noting the glyph stone I’d left. Another looked on suspiciously, as if my prompt response was some kind of admission that I’d been up to unauthorised sub rosa investigation beforehand and risked my life to thwart a bunch of necromancers. Well fuck it and, frankly, fuck him.
I headed back to the old boys café. Some of them stay open late and it was only down the road so I figured I might as well, even if I just got ignored. The light was on. The door was open.
There were no games being played. Everyone was stood, knelt or sat around that middle table and grumpy old Jozef Kovac. He looked asleep, like he’d dozed off in his chair. But I knew he wasn’t. The young man who’d sniggered was stood behind looking on, a tear streak down his face. The younger old codger was there also – it was he who caught my eye and nodded knowingly.
It is done, he seemed to be saying, and he knew it.
I closed my eyes and nodded back.
I left, turning over oversized and unwieldy thoughts, trying for some root of meaning in human nature, in what necromantic cultists did in the daytime, in the willingness of mortal souls to be twisted, in cleaning rotas and wills-to-power; and in the coincident death of a potentially lycanthropic, grumpy old Slovak.
They call me Marwood.
I’m off for a bag of chips.
(On to People Watching – Part 1)
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.