Christmas Spirits

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.

 Spirit 1

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.

Foxfire 1a

 *

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!’

‘Aaaaaahhh!

Mmmnnnnghh!

‘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.

‘Right… right.’

‘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.

‘Shetland.’

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.

‘Guys

‘Guys!’

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.

‘Seriously…

‘Guys!

‘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?

 

 

 

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People Watching – Part 3

 <- Part 2

   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…

   Pen.

   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…

   …ttthhhheerrrrr…

   …rrrr…

   …

   …

   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.

   Maiden. Mother.

   And Crone.

   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.

   Me.

   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.’

City Rain final 2

   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.

 

It could be YOU...

People Watching – Part 2

<- Part 1

   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).

 

Snow Globe

   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.

 

Cafe Counter 2

   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.

   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…

   …

   …

…On to Part 3

People Watching – Part 1

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.

F&A PW Coffee

   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.’

   ‘But Marwood…’

   ‘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.

It could be YOU...

   ‘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.

   Another hour.

   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.

Cor Chi 2

   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.

 

Cake

   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…

   Wait.

   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.

…On to Page 2

Bad Faith, Uncivil Society – Part 3

<- Part 2

   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…

 

LOTF 2

   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.

LOTF

   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.’

   ‘Then… begin.’

   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.

Fireball Underground explosion... Malachi's Ruin

   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.

 Fireball

   ‘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.’

   ‘No… NO!’

   ‘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.

 

Chicken

 

(On to People Watching – Part 1)

Bad Faith, Uncivil Society – Part 2

<- Part 1

   Wonderful.

   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 Brick Wall

   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.

 

Internal Scaffolding

   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.

 

Altar by Foxfire 3 Altar by Foxfire 4 Altar by Foxfire 1 Altar by Foxfire 5 Altar by Foxfire 2

   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.

   The higher-ups.

   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-

   Its face!

   ‘AaaaWWKHHWRAOOOOOW!!!!’

   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.

 

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.

 

LOTF 3

   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.

…On to Part 3