Bad Faith, Uncivil Society…

I pressed in behind the cabinet as a crackling orb of purple flame passed more or less where my head had been. It cast the corridor in a sweep of indigo light, to then explode and char the end wall of the corridor.

   Oh good.

Fireball

   That was Malachi’s Globe of Ruin, a signature spell of this particular bunch of necromantic dicks. I didn’t know the exact sect of baalists they were mind: could be Esdraelons; or Esdraelonians; Gilboan Witnesses of the Accursed Mountain; the House of Ashtaroth…

   Anyways, while I was ruminating on all cultists great and small I dug out and chucked a chymical bag in return at the corridor wall, just above where he sheltered behind his own cabinet, before ducking back. There was a pffff of impact. The powder, the dust of Morpheus – courtesy of the alchemy of yours truly – would be raining down and onto him. (Good stuff that if you fancy a snooze – like nytol on steroids).

   I took a peek to make sure he was down and…

   …NOOOPE – I pulled my head back sharpish as another ball of aetheric flame rushed past.

   It wasn’t like I wasn’t crapping myself but the old instincts kick in; I’d dealt with these sorts before. Okay, not often alone. But I knew what I was doing and I wasn’t going down to some bog-standard cultic minion. No way, no how, not this Marwood – which is what I’m called by-the-by.

   My mind span the options and what I knew of his sort; also – perhaps less usefully – what might happen if they got hold of me.

   See there’s various folk up to no good with the applied hokum, self-serving types who’d probably sell their siblings if not their mothers.

   Then there’s the actively villainous: ruthless bastards who commit evils mundane and supernatural as a matter of course. On the scale between these and the former it was diminishing odds on – and degrees of – how well you’d come out if they took you alive rather than vice versa.

   But these guys… These guys were warped. Indoctrinated, warped and nasty, the last folk at whose ‘mercy’ you’d want to be. Also, they’re very proud of their heritage. And I had a hunch that these were the bunch who traced theirs back to the biblical Witch of Endor.

   Yep, biblical.

   (Ooop – there came-went another off-colour firey missile.)

   Mind the Witch of Endor is not, as might first be imagined, a wiccan of a short, furry race on a sanctuary moon a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. She was, if she ever was at all, an Old Testamental necromancer, a baalob, or at least a medium of serious talent. She probably wasn’t a bad old bird herself, not compared to the bastards who’d appropriated her. Either way they take great exception to anyone mocking their assumed lineage – it’s a really, really bad idea.

   Really bad.

   ‘Oi, Wicket!’ I called out, ‘Isn’t it true that you lot were founded by Yuri Geller?

   Something was screamed in old Canaanite (a variety I couldn’t understand, though I doubted it was a wish for my general well-being). Then came the patter of footsteps along with the image of a raised athame, a ceremonial knife, ready to plunge into muggins here.

   It seemed an appropriate moment to lob a chymical bomb straight in his face.

   He teetered. He coughed white powder from his mouth.

   He dropped down not dead.

   I gave myself a moment but his unconscious body wasn’t going to lug itself into one of the empty rooms and out of site, more’s the pity. I was determined to learn a spell for that one of these days.

~

   The address I’d been sent to was a little north of Marylebone. I checked it on arrival, in case I’d got it wrong.

   It was one of those old men’s cafes, the kind you get in concentrations of an expat community (and make you muse suspiciously on how the proprietor pays the damn rent on its semi-prime location). Net curtains were drawn, I guessed as much to keep the sun off the old lads as for privacy – though the latter intent was rather undermined by the front door being wide open. There were indeed some ten or so old boys inside, playing cards or dominos and rumbling to one another in an east-European accent which, as it turned out, was Slovakian.

   I went in and stood there stupidly. Eyes looked up… and back to the game at hand.

 

Dominoes

   Then I said: ‘Uh, I’m here to speak to… Jozef Kovac?’

   I don’t know why I asked it as a question because it wasn’t and wasn’t answered anyway.

   There was a snigger in the quiet, a young man amongst the elders. One of the latter glanced to him and his hand of cards came up slightly, defensively, in unconscious acknowledgement of a rebuke of some kind. That was all I got.

   But then I noticed a chap, old but younger than the others at his table, nodding to an empty chair. I took it and opened my mouth to address him but he shook his head and looked back to his dominoes as the older boys hadn’t stopped doing since I’d entered.

   Was I meant to join in, pick up the unused dominos and take a turn? I figured otherwise. I didn’t know how to play anyway. Dominoes were for lining up and knocking down, not playing some kids game.

   (In fact I’d probably have done just that had I been sat with anyone else who showed this little interest in my presence; but I didn’t and wouldn’t so I settled for plan B and sat there like a pillock.)

   They muttered to one another in Slovakian, hard to tell whether observation or disparagement and also, in either case, if I was the subject. The final tiles were placed unhurriedly, to be followed by a growled exchange that sounded deadly serious but was broken with the rough laughter of each man in turn.

   Whatever respect or awkwardness had held me back evaporated then – I was damn well going to speak…

   I didn’t get as far as ‘um’ before the curmudgeonly old fossil to my right spoke in thickly accented English.

   ‘I know where you from. Is about time someone come.’

   Too many indignant reposts were fighting to get out for any one to do so. Instead I said ‘Well I’m not here officially…’

   He uttered something in Slovakian and received a muttered reply from across the table which, again, could have been everything or nothing to do with me.

   ‘Still,’ he said.

   ‘Okay, look I’m here and if you want to tell me…’

   He stood then, hefting himself upright with the aid of an unusual walking stick, engraved in some fashion down its length, its top carved into some kind of axe shape.

   ‘Show,’ he said, ‘I will show you.’

   He exchanged some leisurely Slovak grumbling and I received a nod of goodbye from the younger old geezer. Then we were out, into the sun, strolling southward down the street.

   Mr Kovac would be kith, a member of London’s supernormal community. Not a magician though, not a member of the Worshipful Company of that esoteric profession as I was.

   ‘I tell them many times it is too quiet this place,’ he noted. Then (actually answering a question) said: ‘yes someone came. And they went again. And nothing. Still, it is too quiet.’

   I couldn’t comment and didn’t (which was unusual in itself), not on the Company’s response or lack of, neither what they or I were meant to do about a building being ‘too quiet’ – or how it could be for that matter.

   But I had a feeling there was something to check here. So that’s what I’d do, check. Check and move on: Job done.

 

Hoardings

   I left Jozef (or whatever his name actually was) and headed along the run of buildings, past a section part-concealed by the branded hoardings of a construction company, to arrive at a grotty looking entranceway.

   This place is too quiet, I heard his words again. I found myself thinking that his ears were big – all the better for hearing big perhaps – though in reality were of unremarkable dimensions. This place is too quiet: I picked the lock, got in and spotted why straight-off.

   There’d been no outer security of a magical nature but hush-wards were inscribed on the inside, along with others designed to keep watchful eyes away. There were rather a lot of them in fact, inexpert, but the quantity made up for that. They continued inward and, as turned out, throughout, daubed onto plaster and unpeeled sections of wall and ceiling. Still it was an overcompensation – kind of fanatical in fact. Ironically it would have been these, doubtless there to prevent the locals hearing chanting and associated culty stuff, that would had drawn the attention of Mr Kovac.

   A stairway led up to a cluster of empty rooms with boarded windows and then to the second floor – which was when the chucking of aetheric and alchemical stuff began. Ironically also and luckily, the wards meant the sounds of our scrap wouldn’t have been heard by any of his pals.

   And now I’d got him stashed safely away I could hope he wouldn’t be seen either.

   The building’s origins had been lost in myriad reuses: Reuses, extensions, joinings, subdivisions and knock-throughs. An old factory, or maybe a department store. I picked around, checking rooms for indicative contents and to make sure there were no further doors through which someone could get behind me. The corridor T’ed. I turned right.

   And another robed figure appeared at its end.

   I was slow. He was slower – and I had my sling to hand avec chymical payload to launch down the length of this wider and uncabineted corridor. I swung a rapid figure-8 over my back and released. Even if I’d missed, the back-spray of powder from the wall would have done the job. But it was pretty damn satisfying to get the bastard dead on. Another black-robe blundered into the dust cloud. I was about to decide on what to do about him in case he, unlike his mate, didn’t fancy a doze…

   When a bullet hole appeared in the plasterwork to my left around the same time a ‘bang’ sound came from behind. I was already bundling into the open room on my right, thanking whatever heavens were up or out there that cultist number three had been a crap shot. I took very quick stock.

   Table. Cupboards.

   Knock wall: plasterboard. Cupboards – check later.

   Moveable surfaces? Table. Plastic notice board. Sorry, plastic notice board with a cleaning rota on it (always a strong indication of malignant evil).

   Decide which: Notice board on the technicality of wilful perversity. Don’t question – get on with. I pulled my brushes and alchemical paints from my pocket and scrawled on the most basic and functional blast-ward I could, muttering the imbuing cantrip the moment it was ready.

   See I’m not so good with the telemachia – chucking magic missiles et al – but I’m pretty decent at enchanting and I’ve got pretty quick. Still the ward would only take down one of them and it wasn’t like they were going to come running in at the same time.

   Of the pair of them I was more concerned about the guy with the gun. Gun in hands of inexperienced cultist beats purple fireballs in the hands of inexperienced cultist. There was no time for more reasoned analysis.

   I held the board against the wall that divided this room from the one previous. Then (in case it helped) I called ‘You’ll never take me alive!’ conjured up a bit of impetus into an aetheric shield to press against it, and verbally tripped the blast-ward. Plasterboard erupted into the next room leaving a helpful man-ish sized hole to step through. Powdered plaster churned in a cloud therein and floated down under its own weight and onto me when I stepped through and to the doorway.

   ‘What did he…’

   ‘Did he… kill himself?’ I heard them ask.

   Well they’d only have heard some kind of detonation in their kitchen.

   I’d have been more concerned whether the hobnobs would still be intact.

   (Of course it’s well established that dark cultists and malefic sorcerers don’t eat hobnobs. It’s an image thing aside from any deeper metaphysical allergy. They have to have posh selection boxes like what you get from Waitrose – M&S at the very least).

   I peeked around, grinned and lobbed a chymical bomb. Both were at the kitchen doorway and it landed between them to mushroom up in their faces; I hoped they heard my words before they went into the land of nod.

   ‘I’m here to nick yer biscuits and fuck up your rotas.’

   Booyah.

Hobnobs

   After minutes of further  lugging I’d stashed all three in a closet-room and went for a quick shufty down from where the gun-toter had come; the corridor turned a corner and ended. I checked behind each door along its run but the abandoned rooms contained nothing of note except a changing room where hung a wardrobe of cultist chic.

   I picked through the robes, wondering idly how people got caught up in this shit. Maybe it was how you were brought into the world of the paranormal. Like, you get shown that some crazy shit really can happen. And does happen. And is out there. And it’s while the world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away the fuckers got into your head and…

   Well anyway.

   I figured, from the number of jackets replacing the robes on the hangers, that there were about eight Endorians knocking around, five with the three I’d taken down. But there were some twenty robes overall, so there might be some part-timers on the way after five. Still, that was a while off.

   Should I have left there and then, left and called in the cavalry? Maybe. But the only people I could have phoned then, directly or through back-channels, were the Company – the Watch.

   And it can be fine, even given you weren’t meant to be somewhere, weren’t meant to be doing something and you’ve got some serious talking your way out to do – just so long as you get someone with half a brain at the end of the phone. Like someone who can recognise that you’re not just some kith hoi-polloi with delusions.

   But even then you can be waiting on the back-up. And if the info you give is incomplete or inaccurate it can cause a colossal fuck-up the like of which is only possible amongst people who believe they know better than everyone else, ie. a lot of humans full stop, and one hell of a lot of wizards. So I decided I’d sneak in a little further – get the low-down on whether they were up to anything more than obtaining ‘knowledge from beyond’ for financial gain – then I’d leg it before it got anything like close to five and drop the full weight of the Company on them.

   I considered nicking and putting a robe on but right then this wasn’t a scenario where there were a legion of cultists from all over in which, if also robed, you can claim to be Dave from cult-district nine, have a decent guess at the secret under-leg handshake, and then wander off to throw a spanner in their invocatory works. It would also have been restrictive and rather hot.

   Besides, I had every intention of not getting spotted from here on in. I stuffed a robe in my kit bag in case I changed my mind and headed back, past the kitchen, and got on with the snooping.

   Room after room yielded nothing, no clue as to what was going on, nor cultist mooks on which to layeth the alchemical smackdown. And it took agonising time because I was being careful, quiet, pushing each door slowly open, every time for an anticlimax. But this was how it went sometimes. You just had to stay focused.

   Then I felt a warmth in my pocket. I’d placed one of a pair of glyph stones at the building’ entrance, linked by symbol and substance to its twin which was in my pocket. The hush-wards prevented sound carrying more than around ten metres and not at all through the surfaces on which they’d been drawn; that warmth had just told me someone had come through the front door.

   I pegged it back.

   Peeking round and down the corridor, at least a half-dozen suits were heading left at the junction toward the robing room. Two lingered frustratingly, giving no sign whether they’d head in themselves before their fellows exited.

   I’d found nothing like a functioning ritual space thus far and could assume it was further in. Therefore at some point they’d likely be going to it – which meant there’d be a good few empty rooms en route I could duck back into, sneaky-sneaky like, and let them past. I planted two further paired glyph-stones on my way back, and got on with the search, rather less cautiously than before.

   The pre-five timeframe was pretty irrelevant now, but I took out my mobile anyway, which could still serve one of two functions beyond time-keeping. For one I could still call the Watch, provided the aether – that’s a kind of catch-all for magical energy – wasn’t sufficiently concentrated or active here to disrupt the signal.

   Use number two is when, by lack of signal, you can tell that there is concentrated and active aether around.

   This means you can’t call for back-up – also that something seriously sorcerous is going on. In combination this tends to mean one thing and one thing only: that you’re really rather fucking fucked. I’d checked it on arrival. I checked it again right then. Right then my mobile fuckedometer was telling me that I was really rather fucking fucked.

   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.

   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

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