My eyes did another circuit of the tables and the human flotsam and jetsam besides myself that had taken up temporary residence in the East London greasy spoon. I tried to blot out the whirrs and clicks and clinks and tapping of coffees and teas being made, the clatter of cash and change, the pooled jabber of conversation, and the faint smell of grease and coffee and disinfected table-wipes. Sunlight gleamed through the smudged windows but did little to illuminate what I’d come here to find out:
Which of them would be victim, which the culprit…
There was a table of ladies, by speech covering three East End generations (four if the baby was a girl and the teen pregnancy of the otherwise youngest); didn’t seem likely for either vic or perp. An old chap in suit and tie for a job he might once have had sat coughing away in the corner, doubtless ruing the day the smoking ban came in. I rather hoped the young bloke who’d come in with his beard, cap and laptop might have been the aggressor so I had an excuse to give him a slap.
The businessman in his late 40’s? He was sat at the front by the window, suited and freshly latte’d (doubtless a revolutionary development for this gaff) doing his paperwork and making sales calls on the go. An older gent was at the back reading the FT, perhaps just keeping his hand in or an eye on his shares. Well business meant money and money meant motivation, and if one of their dealings was significant enough…
There were others. Two twenty-something ladies whose skin tone and accents said Spain. Builder types eating a second breakfast. Another Mum (late twenties) with pre-school sprog… The bloke who I guessed had been studying the racing pages of the tabloid rag under his arm returned undaunted from the betting palace across the way.
I was still none the wiser as to what or which element was at risk of or about to inflict some potentially terminal injury of a magical or paranormal nature.
That’s why I get sent in see, magical-slash-paranormal stuff. Marwood by calling, magician by vocation and no, not the pulling rabbits out of hats type. Really. By present occupation – as in what in a professional capacity I was presently occupied with – it was off-the-book wild goose watching. I wouldn’t have liked a chase of the same but at least then I wouldn’t have been sat on my arse and trying to keep myself alert while the boredom, sales talk, coughing, and red label tabloid gossip was draining my will to live.
‘No, Alex,’ I’d said, ‘no. Not again.’
‘This is the same guy isn’t it? The diviner the Company axed.’
The Company was London’s – and the UK’s by extension – Worshipful Company of Magicians. It was the secret guild of which both Alex and I were members. She was directly employed by them though, in some secretarial role. Whereas muggins here, with a bit more of the hokum and a bag of cantrips, was doing the journeyman thing, further from their auspices and prone to getting caught up in some well intentioned do-gooding nonsense off the books when the call came.
Anyway it took a fair bit for their Chamber of Paragnosis (or whatever they were calling it these days) to give one of their truth-hacks – diviners – the boot, sketchy a magical discipline as it was. And I’d had first-hand experience of why this one had been.
‘I wasted a whole day on park benches in Wimbledon Common on his say so Alex. There was no attack, not by a black shuck, not by a warlock. So unless it was a bloody Womble using dark hexes in some territory war – and underground rather than overground – I lost a day for the cube-root of bugger all. I passed the time debating the odds on whether I was going to get haemorrhoids, and whether you were more likely to die from piles than boredom.
‘And as for the afternoon I spent at that bloody inner-city community farm with half a tube-full of school kids on the off-chance the Shetland pony was actually a Scottish horse beastie…’
‘Look I know but…’
‘Just tell me it’s not the same geezer. I mean it is him who sent me off on those other occasions isn’t it?’
Alex didn’t speak then – too honest that one. But that’s partly why I gave her my number in the first place. Then she said: ‘Yes it’s him. But he’s also the guy who gave the heads up on Aidan Travers.’
I’d sighed. This whole off-the-book business (sub rosa as we call it), trying to save a few lives and limbs where the Company has potentially dropped the ball, worked by a serious degree of anonymity. I hadn’t a clue who this guy was. Best I didn’t. But despite a good start when he foresaw the kidnap of the rising star of the ballet scene by a goblin element, I’d subsequently got the picture of just why he’d been given the heave-ho.
Bugger of it is is that it’s kind of like the National Lottery only in moral terms: once you’ve bought in to the sub rosa thing and paid your metaphorical idiot tax you’re caught in the bind. Like, what if this week it’s you?
But, much as I was willing to lend my services in a good cause I couldn’t keep doing this for no good reason, couldn’t let myself become a slave to the habit. It was like that giant bloody hand in the adverts repeatedly appearing; only it was its gargantuan middle finger that was extended and pointed upwards while entirely being there for my reference and consideration.
‘I did offer to contact one of the others instead Marwood – but he’s more insistent than usual and he says it has to be you. He says if you’re not there someone’s going to be hurt and something bad will happen because of it.’
I left my response for a few seconds to show my displeasure, knowing I was already going to go to the bloody café.
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘fine. But this is the last time. I expect to have cause to hit something in some fashion. If I don’t…’
Sadly an hour in beard-face packed up his laptop and left as I reached the dregs of coffee numero one. It was while I was working through my second that, from the ladies table, the teen with the Croydon facelift left with the lady of the generation above, taking the kid with.
The mouthy old trout who I’d already named ‘Mo’ stayed though (‘No, I’m all right here,’ she told her younger counterparts) and called over the waitress to order a steak’n’kidney pie with chips and mushy peas. The builders had gone back to the site for proper man-work and / or skiving with another cuppa with sufficient sugar to stand a spoon in. The old stock-market hobbyist had likewise departed with his pink paper. Others washed in as they washed out; flotsam and jetsam.
I’d axed my intake of burnt ground mud when I felt the caffeine jitters coming and asked for tap-water (I bloody resent paying for bottled water at the best of times). I was tracking present company with little glances while moving on from cocking up the medium difficulty Sudoku in today’s Metro to do the same on the simple one. ‘Mo’ had porked through her pie and chips and was wiping the excess from her chops with a napkin. The Spanish ladies were gone now, replaced by a less visually appealing table of East-European blokes, Polish at guess. Something in their rough cheer and intense bicker, made them the more credible threat than anyone else, but even that was a balance of the most likely of unlikely odds.
After nursing my tap-water for the better part of further hour I thought it probably time to order some food – from hunger, but also because I didn’t want the waitress / proprietor getting arsey. From amidst the filling trays the currified option of the Coronation Chicken (so named for its debut at our Queen Liz’s coronation) radiated up to me in cartoon nuclear-spill yellow.
It seemed to wink with its raisin embellishments in shared conspiracy. Choose me Marwood, it seemed to say; it’s all a crock of shit, even if it’s only us who knows it. I knew by then I was dangerously bored, but I was in need of some sense of camaraderie on this fool’s errand, even if it was that of a sandwich filling.
It didn’t taste bad. I ate it as slowly as I could. It didn’t last nearly long enough.
I looked to each occupied table in turn, wiping my mouth on a napkin in drawn out motions. More had come. There was another suit I was keeping eyes on – cockney, something of the Del Boy, used-car salesmen by prejudice. Pierced Camdenite chick, local for the cheap rent of the east at a judgement, shop hand of a truly boho boutique rather than some mainstreaming high-ticket knock-off for urban twats. Something in her spoke of a magician mate of mine; something to register but not on which to dwell. Similarities meant nothing.
Then there was the roadie – well that what I had him down as. An all-but-neckless pug of a man he was, decked in black T and combats, skin-bald but with compensating beard jutting from his chin. It was a proper beard that could have devoured that of the young bloke with laptop and cap at the same rate he currently was a double sausage, egg and chips. It was a face and body on the razors-edge of good-hearted alternative lifer and grizzled hard man of one-percenter biker morality and temperament, for which the former might be mistaken. An itinerant drifter, like many a journeymen mage and masters besides; a face that could be there one day, gone the next. Eyes on.
I had a foot to my bag: between there and a few other places I had a little something for all the regular eventualities and at least some of the less so. I’d got a few artificed doo-dads, bit of alchemy – powders, stones, liquids… a vapour or two. My sword and sling were in there also, though I couldn’t see a scenario where these might be more useful in a close-quarter café fracas than anything else. Still my hands were ready to reach for whatever, and my lips twitched, ready with whatever spell might seem appropriate in the emerging circumstances.
I’d also half-graffitied a glyph on the table’s underside in my alchemical pastels, something that could be likewise adapted for best use as charm or ward or something else. It would be quick to complete but, aside from having drawn it without looking, perhaps less effective than if drawn in one go (as if maybe the universe thought it was damn cheeky for the lack of commitment).
But still nothing. Every quiver I felt, each potential tug on those perceptions of the esoteric and paranormal, perceptions I’d honed in my apprenticeship and since, were nothing that couldn’t be explained away by anticipation and paranoia.
Wild bloody goose watch.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ the waitress asked giving the table a wipe, English-speak for order something or piss off you waster (well that’s how I took it anyways).
‘Um, bit of cake? The chocolate one.’ I was sure I’d seen a chocolate one. There’s always a chocolate one in case your mayo’ed sandwich or fried meat/chip combo proved too low in calories for your liking.
The sun had gone, westward and beneath some ugly cloud formation. My glance to the window trailed on the way back to take in the female art student (who’d snuck in, sat at the table to my left), original suit, roadie and then I’d check in on…
Ahead, calorie-dealing waitress now gone, Mo gazed directly at me.
‘You looking at me boy?’ she enquired in a voice rasped hoarse by a life of fags and shouted retorts that had never been withstood.
‘No,’ I replied, not too quickly, ‘just…’
‘Coz I’m free if you like what y’sees. I likes me a toy boy…’
No! a very loud voice in my head cried (Uhm, no, it added a little more calmly, no thanks, thanks anyway…)
Fortunately whatever gormless expression my face had fallen into was concealed by the blessed return of waitress avec cake, and I pulled open the free paper for screening value before she’d left (Mo cackling at my discomfort in her wake).
Crock of shit Marwood, the contents of my consumed sandwich mused up from my stomach, just a crock of shit mate. I’d lost my appetite but picked at the cake, wondering if to eat it was somehow disloyal to the coronation chicken. I was beginning to think it time call it quits. But part of me held onto the suspicion of something being there, just on the cusp, on the very limits of my senses.
I’d been half aware of one of the new arrivals. He’d gravitated toward the table the builders had been at when I’d first come in. I thought for a second he might be one of them. He wasn’t in his high-vis jacket now mind, or the work clothes they’d been wearing. Was I right? I tried to place the face from memory, the memory of this morning. It seemed to be tugging another instead (had we met?). I was also thinking about where he was sat, because there’d been four of them. And if he had been present this a.m., sat at the same table diagonally across from mine, he’d been obscured by the builder sat opposite. But he’d have had a good view of whoever was coming in…
Having got a cup of tea in to wash down the cake I retook my place and looked around again. Left round to centre: Art chick, suit, roadie… Right to centre: Poles, Camdenite, Del Boy, bloke who might have been a builder… And then the old hag sat opposite who I certainly wasn’t…
I’d just felt something. Definitely. Some kind of hokum – hard to tell what kind but definitely something.
There it was again, a flicker on the periphery of my sense of the uncanny. Something was happening.
My head was angled down, as if absorbed in the free London rag. But my eyes flicked around looking for telltale signs of casting in any of the individuals present – paraphernalia, the furtive movement of lips pronouncing whispered words in variations of Latin, Hebrew or anything else – signs of discomfort in another. There seemed to be none.
Art student: flipping the pages of some glossy periodical. Suit: phone call. Roadie: slurping tea. Poles: arguing, maybe just talking, tone and cadence quite at odds with any conjuring I could imagine. Camdenite: phone – gossip about a friend who needed to lay off the recreationals. Del Boy: flicking through his Auto Trader (perhaps for surviving Reliant Regals or Ford Capris). Uncomfirmed builder: late lunch of chicken and chips.
I decided on something general for the under-table glyph, something to undermine the efforts of the majority of esoteric efforts, if only a little. Play the odds; business as usual. Surreptitious mutter of the appropriate words and all sealed and sorted. This close I could feel its presence in the localised aetheric landscape.
I rummaged in my bag considering some specific bits, and an arrangement thereof, that would seem the least strange to the general clientele; the least obvious to a fellow practitioner who now was doubtless present and up to no damn good. I went for my student configuration. Notepad for doodling (magical warding in biro still being territory no one so far had managed to effect). Textbook – Business Studies; nothing anyone would take interest in, or someone who was reading it. Mobile so I could use its signal reception – or lack of – as a magical barometer for how fucked up things were getting (currently down to one-two-one bars from a high five).
Then I took out my snow globe; might look a tad weird but not likely to be interpreted as anything more than eccentric ornamentation. I gave it a shake and those alchemied flakes swirled around the solution within the artificed container. Good for keeping the aether moving, the magic going round, without stopping on any one person with a bit of a helpful nudge by some incanting on top; also festive (if in no respect seasonally appropriate).
I had a few other bits to hand and hanging round my neck but that would do for now. I picked a pen, a Bic, to chew and waggle thoughtfully and got down to my studies which were of everything but what was in the book. I gazed at a vacant spot on the wall, a little above head height, and checked each customer from the corner of my eyes.
Who was it? Who?
Art student – young. If she was a mage she couldn’t have been beyond apprentice stage. Mind malefic magicians have very different attitudes to preparing someone for life in the magical world. Less responsibility and aptitude so much as capability and how can you be most useful (steeple fingers and rub together). Victim more likely – though for no reason that leapt out.
The suit was certainly old enough, but he was still on the phone. Money means motive means higher on the potential victim scale.
The roadie had got himself a magazine. I risked a look: a philosophy rag. Meant nothing. A lot of roadies are a lot more intellectual than the average person would give them credit for. Possibly he could mutter some incantation more discretely beneath that bad mother beard/moustache ensemble. I’d check again later.
Two of the poles were leaving with handshakes and rough humour as farewells, no break in the act if such it was. Mind a lot of Polish magicians – czarownik and znakhari – carried swords, not unlike certain elements of London’s Worshipful Company; and some of these boys took their sword-practice very seriously. I looked for long bags like mine but found only an absence. One sat there doing something with his mobile, the other was now behind a Polish paper behind which he could… well I was keeping tabs.
Camdenite – just gone to use what horrible excuse for a lav they had here. Del Boy was still looking for his next second hand car. The builder-by-suspicion had finished his late lunch (during which he couldn’t have been conjuring). Mo was doing her knitting.
Back to the roadie, back to the Pole behind his paper…
The last bars… bar on my mobile disappeared. I felt a noticeable surge in the aether; oh it was all happening now. But what was happening? And to who? And who was the cause?
I got muttering under my breath behind the cover of my arm while my hand massaged my forehead in concentration which I was (just not on module 4.5.2 – a case study on the relative merits of Dawson’s Spanner Emporium or whatever). I cycled the words – part active spell, part mantra – to tune me a little deeper into the unseen drama that was trying to unfold.
It was some kind of hex – no, a whole bunch of hexes. The kind I’d mostly encountered were ‘thrown’, combat hexes and blasts you could dodge or deflect if you’ve got the protections, or counters, or the knack and knowhow to unweave them. These weren’t those. These were the kinds of cursing normally done from afar. But this was all happening in situ, up close: Some targeted attempt at grievous subtle-bodily harm if not outright occult assassination.
Yeah I was pretty sure there wasn’t any thread of spell-work extending beyond the threshold of this place. The long range stuff needed soma aside from anything else, nail clippings, hair or blood from the target, naming true and unprotected, and ritualling besides. On the other hand it took some serious expertise to do something up close without the extras or overt canting and gesture. The fact it was happening at all – and in multiples – spoke of proper talent, regardless of whether any of it had yet to land, to collapse into harmful certainty on the intended.
I identified the clotted pattern of a pestilenta hex, some kind of illness. I got busy with my own canting, too quiet even to be called a whisper, just the faint verbal markers of consonants to outline the spell. I pried into the hex with the incantation then worked on it bespoke until it frayed and its potency bled to homeopathic levels. Rendered harmless I tried to discern what I could of the others.
There was some kind of blight curse, an almost sentient gnawing thing that would suck at the victim’s vitality causing a wasting hunger. There was a pretty serious jinx as well, something that even those who conjured such things had little understanding of their true workings. Alone it was hazardous; in combination with something else… Around they went and around, kept loose by my artificed alchemical snow globe, and nudged on helpfully by yours truly so none settled on whoever their intended target was.
I was distantly aware, in the grey outside, rain beginning to spatter.
Ah – that was a more straightforward shock-hex. Not a physical blast of fulgar (that’s wizard-speak for electricity, small scale lightning like) but an aetheric jolt direct to the body. It’d give you a brief fit maybe but it was really to leave you vulnerable to one of the other nasties whirling unseen in the immediate vicinity. I lost it but was pretty sure I could break it apart the next time it came round.
Still though, I couldn’t work out who the assailant was and who the assailed. Sometimes a particularly sensitive magician can tell the former from the concentration of aether around that person or track back the other way. Well I’m a little sensitive, but…
On the other hand the assailant had no reason to suspect that another magician was present. My own workings were subtle and the problematic nature of this hexing meant that one coming apart could be accounted for by other factors. As long as I kept the hexes from settling, or if I could work out who it was and interrupt them, that would be job done. If the diviner who’d sent me here was on the money – and this time dollars to dinar he had been – there was an expiry date on this situation. So assuming I could hold them off until 4ish I could call it a day…
Something occurred to me then… but it was stupid. It was the kind of stupid you’d be stupid to follow – but moreso to ignore. Because it was the kind of twist that could bite you in the backside if you didn’t rule it out.
It was an awkward move to make, something I’d otherwise worry would attract attention. To the civilian contingent it might look a bit weird – that, just then, I’d decided the inward-facing seat to my left was suddenly more preferable to where I’d been sat these last hours. But to a magician, especially one busily magicking, if anything it’d be confirmation that whatever they were conjuring was manifest. Moreover it would indicate that I was just a regular member of the public who’d unconsciously picked up something going on, something which they could only put in the context of a strong preference for another seat. At least I wasn’t facing Mo now. I was also facing away from the art student and the suit. But now I could see the counter and the waitresses behind, cleaning up in the post-lunch lull.
Like I say, stupid; but had I spent the whole time facing away from them, only to watch someone keel over when all the time someone was merrily muttering hexes while washing dishes and making sarnies I’d have felt really bloody daft.
I felt another little rush then of those injurious esoteric forces and ‘decided’ that my original chair had been better in the first place. Again I doubted this would cause the slightest bat of an eyelid from a hard-working maleficer. And the average Londoner would simply add further points to the warning / avoid column in my tally (chair-changing slightly muttery potential nutter – and damn, he was so cute as well!) moving me from the default amber alert status towards if not into the red. If that irked me in the slightest we’d have parted unspoken ways within an hour or so, and, in that case, they and London could fuck off anyway.
Seated again I took stock. No change, not of note. The art student was sketching. The Camdenite was heading to the lav. And Mo, in between slurps of heavily stewed tea, had got out her knitting (perhaps a burberry knock-off for the sprog who’d departed with whichever of the other ladies his mother had been).
I absently took a sip of my own tea, staring into the Sudoku and feeling for the aether and the spells that articulated it into something with purpose. There was sufficient present to keep the bars on my phone down but, if I was any judge, there’d be a less subtle surge when any one of those hexes ‘locked on’.
I picked up on another hex, a replacement pestilenta for the one I’d pulled apart. I began to zero in on it while thoughts played in the background of my mind and…
What just happened?
I felt… fine. But as if I dozed off for a moment… zoned out for a second… did I…
Check the time.
Glance to mobile. No, only a little time had passed – but it had passed. I’d briefly lost consciousness in some sense. Could just have been a flush, tiredness, a momentary… something. But no. No that was too unlikely.
I blinked, blinked it away, shook it off…
Must have caught a glancing blow from a sneaky befuddlement as it went round: unlikely with my globe on the go but not impossible (its flakes were settling so I gave it a shake). Possibly because I’d been looking out for hexes had meant I’d metaphorically stuck my big fat metaphorical head straight in its approach? In any event I was glad for the pendant beneath my shirt (good bit of counter-hex artifice that, and particularly with befuddlements…)
Back to it – straight back in. Didn’t know if I could be any more focussed, now I’d shaken off the hex anyway, but I tried.
The aether was escalating. Someone was getting desperate, keeping the magical force built and ready for when an opportunity might present itself.
Glance to phone. Confirms: no bars.
Outside the rain was coming down like a mother and thunder rolled like a big fuck-load of rolling thunder… or something. Ignore. Even if somehow connected to the drama at hand what mattered was what’s happening in here.
The Camdenite was returning from the lav (Little mental note – possibly she’d been up to something in there?) and I took in the Pole who’d lowered his paper and…
There was that replacement illness hex. I dug in verbally, less subtly now, savaging an opening to tug it apart.
And there was the shock hex. Zinged past me last time you little bastard but I felt you coming round… Countered, blocked, bursting against the little anti-hex counter I’d dropped in its path. The roadie’s eyebrows twitched, some strange notion popping into his head as a by-product of the popped hex… assuming he wasn’t somehow orchestrating the whole thing and…
Mo. Mo was knitting. Mo was knitting and her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, her lips moving oh so fractionally…
And then came the thoughts, thoughts I had to let flow past and around and through and over me while I batted experimentally at the jinx, picked carefully at the blight curse…
Knitting, I… No. No that was daft. I couldn’t frame the old ‘dear’ with…
The aether built again. We were heading to the crescendo of the piece. Whoever it was must have become aware, if they hadn’t been before, that someone was fucking with their efforts. I had to keep it up, had to keep…
(There – got the blight curse, at least enough to have its excesses leech into the background…)
Had to keep at it. They were playing power hands now, trying to channel and funnel magical force into their maleficium to blast through my attempts at blocking… So when they did lock on it would punch straight through the natural defences of whichever poor bastard was on the receiving end…
I caught another sneaky befuddlement: Oh no you don’t, I mentally told it as it tried to evade the ‘net’ I wove around it and…
I came to my senses again. Must have been caught with… with another one… or something…
Whoever the hell it was must have got some artificium or something backing them up to keep this number of hex… Or maybe there was another…
Check the time.
Check the… phone (it’s called a phone I reminded myself) then get back in the weave and keep batting and picking and blocking and whatever the hell you can.
Phone – no bars, no surprise. Time. If I was any judge, fading befuddlement aside, I’d lost less than a half minute and…
I was back into the weaving and now was just knocking them around because it was a lot quicker and apparently all I needed to do was keep this going for a few minutes more and…
And while I was doing so the thought it hit me and…
And why had I spent a second wondering if it was the art student? Or the roadie? Or the camdenite? Or Mo or any other bastard for that matter? Why had I been looking at anyone else when the bloody suit had been talking into his bloody phone all this time? Because it’s not a case that Orange mobile has a signal when fuckwit mobile can’t get one, not when the cause of the disruption is the channelling from elsewhere of enough esoteric energy to super-charge half a dozen hardcore hexes. No it fucking is not.
Had I made him earlier, knowing who it was I could perhaps have traced back the threads and made shorter work of his maleficium. But as I was then, fuddled if only mildly and my focus caught up in the aetheric drama… I just had to keep knocking those hexes on and around.
But I was trying to work out if I could lob something over at the bastard and knock his concentration and…
Could I? (Could it be that Saviour – thy name is Bic?)
I waved the biro absently back and forth, back and forth, back and… I let it go with a flick of my wrist and all I knew was that it would be sailing in a parabola of some vaguely potential usefulness somewhere in his general direction… Then I was back in the abstract, back in the weave, sending round the curses and jinxes and round and round and round they go – where they stop nobody…
And then I had sense at where the threads were heading, where and to whom, who the victim was going to be in all of this and… Mo, foul old Mo, had a right to live whatever the hell this was about, at least I thought it was Mo and…
And I could ‘see’ into one of the hexes, and then another… See how to pull it apart and… And that’s what I was doing. Must have disrupted his concentration… not enough to stop them but enough to do this and that and that was another down and…
And suddenly there was a big surge of aaaaaeeeeettthhh…
And suddenly it was over: whatever had been going on had been played out.
I felt woozy for a moment – and then I didn’t.
Wall. Wall with tiles.
I was staring, total tunnel vision at a portion of wall between Mo and the possible builder, Mo on the blurred left periphery of my vision and…
And I was coming back to myself.
How long had I… had I been out? Long enough, apparently, for drool to pool and puddle and dribble from the corner of my mouth. I wiped my hand left cheek to chin, got rid of the spittle before it fell. How long…
Phone. Check phone… I couldn’t remember what the time had been beforehand but… Minutes maybe? Minutes. Bars – I’d got bars on my phone. And it was after four.
No one seemed to have keeled over. No one was panicking. Did that mean I’d done it, that everyone was all right?
I was suddenly aware of the café door closing and that certain folk were no longer there. I wasn’t looking around manically mind, the lingering befuddlement leaving a slow calm in its wake. The suit had gone. The art student had gone. The builder had gone…
And I needed to go. Like, pee go. I was aware I needed to go for a pee.
I bagged my stuff and headed into the cupboardly excuse for a khazi. Time had passed, I reminded myself while doing what needed to be done. My phone buzzed in my pocket as if in affirmation. I took it out. Two missed calls… new message. It was Alex. Then my dialling tone went off, Alex again.
‘Marwood? Marwood? Marwood are you okay?’
‘I’m… fine Alex. Your mate was right, something did go down…’
‘When I couldn’t get hold of you I was worried and I knew it might be magic disrupting the signal,’ (Alex paused for breath; I was rather touched by all the concern) ‘but then that would mean that there was something going on and…
‘Marwood – Marwood are you… peeing?’
I guessed I was. Yes, well, to be honest there was no guessing about it. ‘Um… No?’
‘Oh for… heaven’s sake Marwood… Phone me back when you’re not!’
She hung up and I was aware that the child in me was grinning his ass off so, feeling too tired not to, I followed suit.
I walked back through, realising the more direct path to the door took me past Mo. Given her earlier… words I’d have preferred to walk around. But it would have looked stupid – too obvious, too feeble – if I were to do that. Besides she’d had her fun. She had no reason to speak to me. And if she did I’d just keep walking past, keep on walking the short distance to the door and then I’d be outside, outside in the blessed bloody rain and I’d just keep walking and not look back…
But she wasn’t going to speak to me, I told myself. And what if she did? I was a magician. I dealt with dark shit. I had nothing to fear from a pervy old woman.
I felt her address like a jolt in the pit of my stomach.
‘I been watchin’ you,’ she said. ‘Watchin’ you watchin’ me; just like Jeremy fucking Beadle. But mostly I been watchin’ you.’
That strange feeling washed over me again, some kind of echo of the befuddlement, and I looked across the table to her and the leering grin I knew she’d be wearing.
And thoughts ran through my mind, thoughts that had begun stupidly when I’d looked back to her knitting in the middle of it all, thoughts I’d abandoned as stupid in the moment, disparate thoughts that now disappeared into obscurity leaving the truths that had been there all along. The kid – the little boy my thoughts now firmed – the one the other… Ladies had taken with them.
He wasn’t important in all this – and yet he was. It wasn’t a teenage pregnancy (a vaguely prejudicial half-presumption on my part), wasn’t the girl’s with the Croydon facelift. He was the other woman’s – the Mother’s.
Oh. Crap. This was serious shit – this was old pagan shit on the table here.
Not worshipping the great goddess or the goddess within, not buying books from the MBS dept of Waterstones or yer local Smiths. Not growing herbs, or going on retreat with your sisters (not that there weren’t a few genuine practitioners and covens amongst the modern Wiccan types). No this wasn’t any of that.
This was proper old tradition – perhaps the oldest: from when the men went hunter-gathering and learned what they learned and the women stayed behind and passed on mysteries that men could dismiss in disdainful jest (for they wanted knowledge only of pleasure and not the blood of the moon). This was lords and kings, rulers of counties and countries, humbled at the door to the birthing chamber and sloping off with their tails between their legs. This was healing and pelling and sour milk, brews and salves, flaccid cocks and remedies, spindles and distaffs and spinning wheels and weaving. And this was knitting needles off the books and away from the watchful eyes of unknowing men to preserve the lives or dreams or outward virtue of the woman who asked.
This was true old school cunning stuff, migrated from country to town and flavoured by brick and stone and mortar, the crap in its air and running in its streets, and working in its buildings and living in its homes, flavoured by it but unbroken in its transmission; Maiden, Mother and Crone, a coven of three, wyrd sisters and daughters and granddaughters thereof, true wicce of the big city.
The urban Wise.
I thought I’d been sent here to keep someone safe. And I had. That was probably all that truth-hack of Alex’s had divined, but knew it as cold iron truth.
It had to be me here, he’d told her, or someone was going to get hurt or worse and something bad would happen.
I didn’t know about the something bad. I’d thought I was here to keep ‘Mo’ safe, or one of the others. But I knew now which person in this café had been at risk during these hours.
And she’d been the one keeping me from harm.
‘Ah now y’sees the truth of it, Marwood,’ Mo grinned.
I felt a shiver at the sound of my name, and at the realisation that I’d had to be here to be as safe as I had been. If I hadn’t taken the job, dismissed the diviner… If I’d been elsewhere, elsewhere out there, in the open and exposed… How would I have fared then against a pro who’d got me in their malefic sights?
‘Maybe you’d ‘ave preferred the young un,’ Mo mused, closing up her handbag. ‘She might’ve set the blood rushing to them dogs cocks too much for them to work their maleficium.
‘Or maybe her mam, my eldest – her with the babe. She’s potent that one, especially just now with that lad. With her you got all that rage at the thought of some fucker dipping his finger in the brew and spoiling her gift to her ugly offspring – something like that anyways. But you got me and I’d say you been lucky either way.’
No, I’m all right here, Mo’s words to her younger counterparts came back to me as I stood there dumbly. She put away her knitting, the pattern of which I could feel the cat-curious part of me keening to see but which the wiser part (stronger on this occasion) studiously avoided in case I saw it, saw it properly, and discovered some truth therein from which I’d never properly recover.
‘Mind that weren’t bad, yer own workin’s. Y’managed to keep yer head for the most, kept yer focus in the fuddlement, kept those hexes and cursings on the move. Made me wonder…’
‘I… I thought I was the one keeping you safe… Lady.’ I said the word not as an American would, not as some unspecific term of address and possibly expression of bemusement and frustration as to a woman’s behaviour. No it was said with… respect. Because that was how you dealt with her like – well if you’d been properly trained and had the slightest bit of common sense about you. Not with fear, just respect. ‘Well someone here safe anyway,’ I finished.
‘Hah.’ She said. It was somewhere between a hah or a huh, between a grunt of hollow mirth and an utterance of the mildest surprise. ‘That so.’ She squinted then, in thought perhaps, her lips twisting into some new kind of ugly smile.
I said ‘I honestly thought… I saw the hexes going for you…’
‘Oh they were. They picked up on me in the end and one o’ them thought he’d ‘ave a go. Burned his fingers for him I did, burned them proper and left him with something to think on for a good long time…’
‘One of them?’ I queried then and Mo, still grinning, nodded. That had been the other thought that had begun to occur. This could have been a one man job but they in the plural hadn’t been fucking around. A collective effort of one or more maleficers: a hexer and a spotter, the latter being also a secondary on the hexing front, perhaps an artificer to handle the magical hardware I didn’t doubt was present. Well with the number of hexes and the aether-levels… ‘I made the suit in the end. The Polish guy… with the paper?’
I kind of wanted to get this right, recover a bit of propriety or something in this whole caper. I nearly picked the art student as the second, part from some undue sense of equality, and similarly from a sense of unlikely plot twist, just like I’d had a check on the waitresses. But life’s narrative is a little less clean and often a little more obvious…
‘Nah – builder; came in earlier, returned in his civvies.’ Dammit. ‘Like I says – some good work. Who knows, even by yourself maybe you could’ve… Well you wasn’t and that’s that.
‘Anyway… Came ‘ere as a favour I did – and don’t you go botherin’ that brain of yours with oo asked or why they wanted to make sure your tight arse was out of the fire. And I wouldn’t bother wonderin’ about them folk who set the fire going neither. Maybe you’ll one day know who sent them or maybe you won’t. It’s likely bigger than them and bigger than you.
‘You’re a pawn boy, just a pawn. But I gets the sense yer not that many checks from the other side o’ the board. You could change up, if you got there – if you wanted.
‘You could become a queen,’ she mused, all cunning and crafty and shrewish and shrewd. Then she cackled, throwing her head back in mirth: ‘Just like that Julian Clary!
‘I likes ‘im,’ she said: ‘‘e’s a dirty bastard.’
She settled back in her seat and put the rest of her things away.
‘You’ll be alright to go now. They knows they failed and they won’t try again and neither will the bastard what sent ‘em. They’ll look for an easier in for whatever they’re doin’ or wantin’ or whatever.’
She got to her feet and I thought she was going to go.
Then she said ‘Pass me yer mug. Don’t worry: I’ll take nothin’ from it and nothin’ from you, not knowledge nor anythin’ I’ll use against you. And what I give I give for free and with no obligation.
‘Not just anyone what can read tea leaves proper, Marwood. Not in these days of tea bags and what little escapes ‘em, and as for fucking pyramid bags…’ She rolled her eyes then looked straight at me. ‘Call it somethin’ for yer good manners an’ intentions – and from someone a lot older and wiser to a daft young bastard who’s going to get ‘imself in some real shit if e’s not careful.’
And she told me. And I listened.
‘Right, that’s me then,’ she said when she’d finished. ‘Got to get me lottery tickets for the big draw – double rollover this week.’
Frankly I pitied the National Lottery if this lady wanted something from them.
‘Julian fucking Clary,’ she cackled to herself as she stepped over to the doorway. ‘You don’t see ‘im so much these days. Not like that Frankie Boyle.
‘I likes that Frankie Boyle – e’s a filthy bugger.
‘Stay lucky boy,’ she said from the doorway, putting her brolly up. ‘Stay lucky.’
And then she was out and into the rain and gone, leaving me in some random greasy spoon in East London, somewhere in the metaphoric shadow of the metafucking Gherkin with the other flotsam and jetsam that had washed in. I didn’t follow suit, or follow her to the doorway to see her off. If I had she wouldn’t have been there, disappeared in some occult fashion into the rainy greyness and the weft of the great urbanity that is London; and if she had been there it would have been some anticlimax I couldn’t right then have taken.
I pressed in behind the cabinet as a crackling orb of purple flame passed more or less where my head had been. It cast the corridor in a sweep of indigo light, to then explode and char the end wall of the corridor.
That was Malachi’s Globe of Ruin, a signature spell of this particular bunch of necromantic dicks. I didn’t know the exact sect of baalists they were mind: could be Esdraelons; or Esdraelonians; Gilboan Witnesses of the Accursed Mountain; the House of Ashtaroth…
Anyways, while I was ruminating on all cultists great and small I dug out and chucked a chymical bag in return at the corridor wall, just above where he sheltered behind his own cabinet, before ducking back. There was a pffff of impact. The powder, the dust of Morpheus – courtesy of the alchemy of yours truly – would be raining down and onto him. (Good stuff that if you fancy a snooze – like nytol on steroids).
I took a peek to make sure he was down and…
…NOOOPE – I pulled my head back sharpish as another ball of aetheric flame rushed past.
It wasn’t like I wasn’t crapping myself but the old instincts kick in; I’d dealt with these sorts before. Okay, not often alone. But I knew what I was doing and I wasn’t going down to some bog-standard cultic minion. No way, no how, not this Marwood – which is what I’m called by-the-by.
My mind span the options and what I knew of his sort; also – perhaps less usefully – what might happen if they got hold of me.
See there’s various folk up to no good with the applied hokum, self-serving types who’d probably sell their siblings if not their mothers.
Then there’s the actively villainous: ruthless bastards who commit evils mundane and supernatural as a matter of course. On the scale between these and the former it was diminishing odds on – and degrees of – how well you’d come out if they took you alive rather than vice versa.
But these guys… These guys were warped. Indoctrinated, warped and nasty, the last folk at whose ‘mercy’ you’d want to be. Also, they’re very proud of their heritage. And I had a hunch that these were the bunch who traced theirs back to the biblical Witch of Endor.
(Ooop – there came-went another off-colour firey missile.)
Mind the Witch of Endor is not, as might first be imagined, a wiccan of a short, furry race on a sanctuary moon a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. She was, if she ever was at all, an Old Testamental necromancer, a baalob, or at least a medium of serious talent. She probably wasn’t a bad old bird herself, not compared to the bastards who’d appropriated her. Either way they take great exception to anyone mocking their assumed lineage – it’s a really, really bad idea.
‘Oi, Wicket!’ I called out, ‘Isn’t it true that you lot were founded by Yuri Geller?’
Something was screamed in old Canaanite (a variety I couldn’t understand, though I doubted it was a wish for my general well-being). Then came the patter of footsteps along with the image of a raised athame, a ceremonial knife, ready to plunge into muggins here.
It seemed an appropriate moment to lob a chymical bomb straight in his face.
He teetered. He coughed white powder from his mouth.
He dropped down not dead.
I gave myself a moment but his unconscious body wasn’t going to lug itself into one of the empty rooms and out of site, more’s the pity. I was determined to learn a spell for that one of these days.
The address I’d been sent to was a little north of Marylebone. I checked it on arrival, in case I’d got it wrong.
It was one of those old men’s cafes, the kind you get in concentrations of an expat community (and make you muse suspiciously on how the proprietor pays the damn rent on its semi-prime location). Net curtains were drawn, I guessed as much to keep the sun off the old lads as for privacy – though the latter intent was rather undermined by the front door being wide open. There were indeed some ten or so old boys inside, playing cards or dominos and rumbling to one another in an east-European accent which, as it turned out, was Slovakian.
I went in and stood there stupidly. Eyes looked up… and back to the game at hand.
Then I said: ‘Uh, I’m here to speak to… Jozef Kovac?’
I don’t know why I asked it as a question because it wasn’t and wasn’t answered anyway.
There was a snigger in the quiet, a young man amongst the elders. One of the latter glanced to him and his hand of cards came up slightly, defensively, in unconscious acknowledgement of a rebuke of some kind. That was all I got.
But then I noticed a chap, old but younger than the others at his table, nodding to an empty chair. I took it and opened my mouth to address him but he shook his head and looked back to his dominoes as the older boys hadn’t stopped doing since I’d entered.
Was I meant to join in, pick up the unused dominos and take a turn? I figured otherwise. I didn’t know how to play anyway. Dominoes were for lining up and knocking down, not playing some kids game.
(In fact I’d probably have done just that had I been sat with anyone else who showed this little interest in my presence; but I didn’t and wouldn’t so I settled for plan B and sat there like a pillock.)
They muttered to one another in Slovakian, hard to tell whether observation or disparagement and also, in either case, if I was the subject. The final tiles were placed unhurriedly, to be followed by a growled exchange that sounded deadly serious but was broken with the rough laughter of each man in turn.
Whatever respect or awkwardness had held me back evaporated then – I was damn well going to speak…
I didn’t get as far as ‘um’ before the curmudgeonly old fossil to my right spoke in thickly accented English.
‘I know where you from. Is about time someone come.’
Too many indignant reposts were fighting to get out for any one to do so. Instead I said ‘Well I’m not here officially…’
He uttered something in Slovakian and received a muttered reply from across the table which, again, could have been everything or nothing to do with me.
‘Still,’ he said.
‘Okay, look I’m here and if you want to tell me…’
He stood then, hefting himself upright with the aid of an unusual walking stick, engraved in some fashion down its length, its top carved into some kind of axe shape.
‘Show,’ he said, ‘I will show you.’
He exchanged some leisurely Slovak grumbling and I received a nod of goodbye from the younger old geezer. Then we were out, into the sun, strolling southward down the street.
Mr Kovac would be kith, a member of London’s supernormal community. Not a magician though, not a member of the Worshipful Company of that esoteric profession as I was.
‘I tell them many times it is too quiet this place,’ he noted. Then (actually answering a question) said: ‘yes someone came. And they went again. And nothing. Still, it is too quiet.’
I couldn’t comment and didn’t (which was unusual in itself), not on the Company’s response or lack of, neither what they or I were meant to do about a building being ‘too quiet’ – or how it could be for that matter.
But I had a feeling there was something to check here. So that’s what I’d do, check. Check and move on: Job done.
I left Jozef (or whatever his name actually was) and headed along the run of buildings, past a section part-concealed by the branded hoardings of a construction company, to arrive at a grotty looking entranceway.
This place is too quiet, I heard his words again. I found myself thinking that his ears were big – all the better for hearing big perhaps – though in reality were of unremarkable dimensions. This place is too quiet: I picked the lock, got in and spotted why straight-off.
There’d been no outer security of a magical nature but hush-wards were inscribed on the inside, along with others designed to keep watchful eyes away. There were rather a lot of them in fact, inexpert, but the quantity made up for that. They continued inward and, as turned out, throughout, daubed onto plaster and unpeeled sections of wall and ceiling. Still it was an overcompensation – kind of fanatical in fact. Ironically it would have been these, doubtless there to prevent the locals hearing chanting and associated culty stuff, that would had drawn the attention of Mr Kovac.
A stairway led up to a cluster of empty rooms with boarded windows and then to the second floor – which was when the chucking of aetheric and alchemical stuff began. Ironically also and luckily, the wards meant the sounds of our scrap wouldn’t have been heard by any of his pals.
And now I’d got him stashed safely away I could hope he wouldn’t be seen either.
The building’s origins had been lost in myriad reuses: Reuses, extensions, joinings, subdivisions and knock-throughs. An old factory, or maybe a department store. I picked around, checking rooms for indicative contents and to make sure there were no further doors through which someone could get behind me. The corridor T’ed. I turned right.
And another robed figure appeared at its end.
I was slow. He was slower – and I had my sling to hand avec chymical payload to launch down the length of this wider and uncabineted corridor. I swung a rapid figure-8 over my back and released. Even if I’d missed, the back-spray of powder from the wall would have done the job. But it was pretty damn satisfying to get the bastard dead on. Another black-robe blundered into the dust cloud. I was about to decide on what to do about him in case he, unlike his mate, didn’t fancy a doze…
When a bullet hole appeared in the plasterwork to my left around the same time a ‘bang’ sound came from behind. I was already bundling into the open room on my right, thanking whatever heavens were up or out there that cultist number three had been a crap shot. I took very quick stock.
Moveable surfaces? Table. Plastic notice board. Sorry, plastic notice board with a cleaning rota on it (always a strong indication of malignant evil).
Decide which: Notice board on the technicality of wilful perversity. Don’t question – get on with. I pulled my brushes and alchemical paints from my pocket and scrawled on the most basic and functional blast-ward I could, muttering the imbuing cantrip the moment it was ready.
See I’m not so good with the telemachia – chucking magic missiles et al – but I’m pretty decent at enchanting and I’ve got pretty quick. Still the ward would only take down one of them and it wasn’t like they were going to come running in at the same time.
Of the pair of them I was more concerned about the guy with the gun. Gun in hands of inexperienced cultist beats purple fireballs in the hands of inexperienced cultist. There was no time for more reasoned analysis.
I held the board against the wall that divided this room from the one previous. Then (in case it helped) I called ‘You’ll never take me alive!’ conjured up a bit of impetus into an aetheric shield to press against it, and verbally tripped the blast-ward. Plasterboard erupted into the next room leaving a helpful man-ish sized hole to step through. Powdered plaster churned in a cloud therein and floated down under its own weight and onto me when I stepped through and to the doorway.
‘What did he…’
‘Did he… kill himself?’ I heard them ask.
Well they’d only have heard some kind of detonation in their kitchen.
I’d have been more concerned whether the hobnobs would still be intact.
(Of course it’s well established that dark cultists and malefic sorcerers don’t eat hobnobs. It’s an image thing aside from any deeper metaphysical allergy. They have to have posh selection boxes like what you get from Waitrose – M&S at the very least).
I peeked around, grinned and lobbed a chymical bomb. Both were at the kitchen doorway and it landed between them to mushroom up in their faces; I hoped they heard my words before they went into the land of nod.
‘I’m here to nick yer biscuits and fuck up your rotas.’
After minutes of further lugging I’d stashed all three in a closet-room and went for a quick shufty down from where the gun-toter had come; the corridor turned a corner and ended. I checked behind each door along its run but the abandoned rooms contained nothing of note except a changing room where hung a wardrobe of cultist chic.
I picked through the robes, wondering idly how people got caught up in this shit. Maybe it was how you were brought into the world of the paranormal. Like, you get shown that some crazy shit really can happen. And does happen. And is out there. And it’s while the world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away the fuckers got into your head and…
I figured, from the number of jackets replacing the robes on the hangers, that there were about eight Endorians knocking around, five with the three I’d taken down. But there were some twenty robes overall, so there might be some part-timers on the way after five. Still, that was a while off.
Should I have left there and then, left and called in the cavalry? Maybe. But the only people I could have phoned then, directly or through back-channels, were the Company – the Watch.
And it can be fine, even given you weren’t meant to be somewhere, weren’t meant to be doing something and you’ve got some serious talking your way out to do – just so long as you get someone with half a brain at the end of the phone. Like someone who can recognise that you’re not just some kith hoi-polloi with delusions.
But even then you can be waiting on the back-up. And if the info you give is incomplete or inaccurate it can cause a colossal fuck-up the like of which is only possible amongst people who believe they know better than everyone else, ie. a lot of humans full stop, and one hell of a lot of wizards. So I decided I’d sneak in a little further – get the low-down on whether they were up to anything more than obtaining ‘knowledge from beyond’ for financial gain – then I’d leg it before it got anything like close to five and drop the full weight of the Company on them.
I considered nicking and putting a robe on but right then this wasn’t a scenario where there were a legion of cultists from all over in which, if also robed, you can claim to be Dave from cult-district nine, have a decent guess at the secret under-leg handshake, and then wander off to throw a spanner in their invocatory works. It would also have been restrictive and rather hot.
Besides, I had every intention of not getting spotted from here on in. I stuffed a robe in my kit bag in case I changed my mind and headed back, past the kitchen, and got on with the snooping.
Room after room yielded nothing, no clue as to what was going on, nor cultist mooks on which to layeth the alchemical smackdown. And it took agonising time because I was being careful, quiet, pushing each door slowly open, every time for an anticlimax. But this was how it went sometimes. You just had to stay focused.
Then I felt a warmth in my pocket. I’d placed one of a pair of glyph stones at the building’ entrance, linked by symbol and substance to its twin which was in my pocket. The hush-wards prevented sound carrying more than around ten metres and not at all through the surfaces on which they’d been drawn; that warmth had just told me someone had come through the front door.
I pegged it back.
Peeking round and down the corridor, at least a half-dozen suits were heading left at the junction toward the robing room. Two lingered frustratingly, giving no sign whether they’d head in themselves before their fellows exited.
I’d found nothing like a functioning ritual space thus far and could assume it was further in. Therefore at some point they’d likely be going to it – which meant there’d be a good few empty rooms en route I could duck back into, sneaky-sneaky like, and let them past. I planted two further paired glyph-stones on my way back, and got on with the search, rather less cautiously than before.
The pre-five timeframe was pretty irrelevant now, but I took out my mobile anyway, which could still serve one of two functions beyond time-keeping. For one I could still call the Watch, provided the aether – that’s a kind of catch-all for magical energy – wasn’t sufficiently concentrated or active here to disrupt the signal.
Use number two is when, by lack of signal, you can tell that there is concentrated and active aether around.
This means you can’t call for back-up – also that something seriously sorcerous is going on. In combination this tends to mean one thing and one thing only: that you’re really rather fucking fucked. I’d checked it on arrival. I checked it again right then. Right then my mobile fuckedometer was telling me that I was really rather fucking fucked.
I needed to get something, anything to raise with the Watch ay-ess-ay-pee – and get the hell out of there.
The corridor twisted north again, ending after a few doors each side. I had a hunch that what I was looking for would be in one of the end rooms – because that’s where it would have to be rather than for the sense of drama. But I stuck to the plan: check each door, don’t leave potential surprises behind you to come and bite you in the arse. As happened it was the last on the right, but I made sure to check the left before proceeding.
The right room was empty as well, the more so given the noticeable absence in the north wall on account of the hole they’d knocked through into the next building. I peered through the vacant brickwork.
The light was meagre, cast by electric bulbs running around and down the gauntlet of scaffolding that completed a half circuit against the external walls, all right-angled and cross-bracing diagonal pipes. The room was… cavernous? Well it was the whole span of the building sans internal walls – floors as well. It extended up and down by three or four storeys each way. That the external wall was intact was hardly unusual – building works often only being given planning permission with the retention of the building’s facade; the unusual bit was that baalist cultists were up to something behind it. Further illumination breathed up from below.
I could make a few guesses: that someone in their order, somewhere between the developer and council, had caught the signs that there was something down here. And they’d diverted their diabolic intellects to piss around with and tie up the development process at both ends. Then they’d simply bought or rented part of the adjacent building through which I’d come – and knocked through.
My second glyph stone sent warmth to its counterpart in my pocket. If my priority was going to be to get past them and raise the alarm as best I could I had to get back into an empty room now. Instead I took a breath, stepped through, and began to make my way round the walkway on the scaffolding and down.
There were brighter lamps at the bottom, somewhere into the building’s foundations. Light came also from apertures from down there, doorways into some earlier building buried beneath this one and jutting slightly into the bottom level from the surrounding rock. I guessed they were using it as a handy living and work space, it being next to the much older thing they’d unearthed. A few more levels of careful descent and I could make out what it was.
More than a few old sites of worship have been discovered under London, buried temple spaces dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, Isis and Mithras, gods native to or appropriated by ancient Rome and exported to old old old Blighty ahead of Christianity, back when London was Londinium and this part of centre-north was covered by the Forest of Middlesex. Doubtless other gods were venerated, even if secretly. From the excavated floor projected the columns and part-walls of just such temple, a rocky altar intact within its span. I reached the bottom and crept over to it to get a better look.
I began to conjure a tiny bit of foxfire – magical light – to see better. But when I did…
It’s too easy to mistake a sense of foreboding which you know damn well you should be feeling for some definite malefic presence, latent or otherwise. But that developed sense of the supernormal – what we call Second Sight – flickered a clear warning, as if the spell connected with something, a memory of death and blood, of the violent sundering of body and spirit, and the rage of aether that came with.
If I’d been a newbie to this game I might have crapped it and cancelled the spell. But there was nothing to worry about, not as far as the connection went anyway. The light appeared in the palm of my hand (blue today, more fire-like than usual but wavier). I stepped around the altar and checked the carvings, traced their relief with my finger.
The sound of approaching voices came from the apertures: I nixed the foxfire and moved quickly around the exterior wall of the projecting building, into darkness, out of view. I caught the word Baal – Ba’al rather.
It meant master or lord. The baalob bit of baalobite actually meant master of obs – of spirits. But numerous Canaanite gods were referred to as Baal, or had names prefixed by the title. There were Baals of cities and places, of Tyre and Ekron and Peor and others. They were the gods denounced as false in the Old Testament: Ba’al Hamon and Hadad and Ba’al Sameme, Malage and Saphon…
Oh and Baal Zebub of course (and yes, that is very much the entity mentioned in scholarly classifications of the infernal variety, not to mention rhapsodies of the bohemian).
So they’d uncovered some old baalist altar, some secret place of worship and sacrifice for the immigrant Roman sickos who’d appropriated the Canaanite entity or entities in question. This place had the potency for the sort of workings the Endorians got up to (and to screw up your mobile reception) whether it was carved physically into the stone or imbued by layered memories of sacrificial death.
Two figures emerged, one rather taller in black robes pimped with distinguishing markings; the other wore purple, the colour of royalty, hazes, euroskeptics, helmets and people-eaters.
My hand was reaching for something hard to put in my sling, both from the moral outrage at who and what these bastards were as well as the more opportunistic impulse to potentially nail the lid on this whole thing in a few shots. It was a damn good job I didn’t. They were trailed by five silent black-robed others, heads bowed reverentially, each of whom would doubtless have loved the chance to prove themselves by having a go because they thought they were hard enough.
I huddled there, somewhat fearful one would notice me as they climbed the steps of the scaffolding opposite.
Their honcho, the Baal in purple, had a pained gait. Age? Accident? The onset of something caused by dabbling in stuff best left the hell alone? It was clearly why they’d gone to the trouble of building steps rather than making do with ladders.
As they reached the level where they’d knocked through, his second stopped in his tracks. He seemed to sniff the air, as if half-aware someone was sneaking around their gaff – but he shook his head and they moved on and round. I heard the faint hushed click of the door close behind them and got back on with the sneaking.
I headed through the aperture from which they’d come, still lit from inside. The temple and this structure were millennia apart, the latter probably being some Georgian or Victorian era offshoot of sewer or canal, stables perhaps for canal horses (we weren’t far from Regents Canal after all). I wondered whether or not this place had been excavated back then and connected to this temple – or whether the two had lain temptingly close but apart by metres of rock and chalk and earth and London clay.
There were three linked chambers of brick and stone, and a passage leading off, illumined part-way by electric lights, then to darkness. The first was more an entranceway and store for general paraphernalia, candles and suchlike. The second was much larger and contained a long table and chairs, and it was where they’d jacked into the national grid to power the lights and the fridge in the corner.
There was also a battery-cage of three suspiciously quiet chickens – suspiciously quiet until I spotted the hush-wards behind the cage. They were probably there as handy blood-sacrifices to get things going on the dark-workings front; well, the baalists could also have been working on discovering the Colonels secret recipe, or at least have the approximate ingredients to hand for post-sorcery munchies in the early hours when the local KFC knock-offs had shut.
The third space was small, a sort of ‘office’ area I assumed for the purple-robed master. Between this and the large room was where it all was, the developer’s plans, old historical texts in Latin, esoteric ones in Hebrew, and the more unique paraphernalia: athames, chalices, pestles and mortars, brushes for application, and a good store of alchemicals.
I mentally totted the latter, the relative levels of components and compounds – attorlade and mugwort, hellebore, arsenic, salt and sulphur, lunar caustic, cinnabar, rowan and thorn and more… There were candles on the main table also, presumably what they’d been working on. An unpleasant sniff identified them as being made from animal fats rather than wax. There was enough of the right stuff for a number of summoning or channelling possibilities.
Yeah, it was all going on baby.
I rekindled the foxfire and headed down the tunnel in its bluey light in the hope that I’d find something that would throw further illumination on the whole thing.
The smell got very bad very quickly, turning from musty to, well, something especially nasty.
I came first to an iron gate secured with an ancient brass lock – ancient but without sign of corrosion to hide the exquisite patterning. It would be simple to pick but I could feel the energy bound inside, waiting to leap at the unwitting fool who did so. Given time I might have been able to subvert the binding symbols or the lock itself, but time was in ever shorter supply. I left it and followed the tunnel and the smell into a rectangular room. I thought immediately of an underground stable, but that might have been because there was a lot of straw strewn across the floor. Also shit – but a good deal of straw.
I heard rustling, snuffling and the clink of chains. The smell was obscene, faecal matter of some variety but which couldn’t be human, unless the occupant was a patron of the legendary ‘Dodgy Maharaja of Bognor Regis’ (free poppodums and mango chutney with orders over five quid – and that closed down years back). But I couldn’t see jack shit so I turned up the foxfire.
Now I could make out a lump in the corner, a lump with limbs. Its frame rose and fell with sniffled breaths that became an inhuman snore. It paused mid-snore and shudder of its frame and-
It hefted itself round onto elbow, head turning and-
It was so fucking quick I barely made it aside. I backpedalled further over the cobbles out of range as it moved again to throttle itself at the chains extent; I did so again realising that even that was stupidly inadequate when a clawed hand raked out toward me, again, again, again…
It wasn’t clawed I realised, watching it now lash uselessly about a foot from my feet. Even so, if the thrashing extremity had connected with any of mine I’d have been in bad shape. But it wasn’t clawed: it was trottered.
I sat there panting realising how damn lucky I was, lucky for not having been clawed or trottered or whatever – actually that I hadn’t been gored by its tusks! But lucky also that the baalists had put so many hush-wards everywhere. It meant I was free to get myself killed in a noisy fashion without them being any the wiser until well after the event.
I got my breathing under control and, feeling oddly detached, sat in the straw watching the thing flailing vainly. It was naked but at least had bristles and grime as some kind of covering. I wasn’t looking to win any points on my Cymraeg / Brythonic pronunciation (or spelling for that matter) but I was pretty sure I knew what it was: A Twrchwn.
A Boar Man.
Pretty sure. I’d only seen one once before, back when I was temping as a Warden on the welsh border. I mean I don’t possess the greatest magical sensitivity but it didn’t strike me as demonic or anything of faerie, nothing possessed of a particularly magical nature so much as simply being unknown of by the general public.
Course it could have been a member of the urban-legendary monstrous breed of black sewer-swine, whose ancestor(s) had got into the underground River Fleet and mutated Ninja Turtle style amidst the feculence and over the generations on a diet of food waste, offal, rotten meat and dead dogs and whatever.
Supposedly they’d found their way into the Hampstead Sewers, but you also heard magician gossip on the subject of the Caledonian (Road) Boar which wasn’t a million miles away either. Mind many supposed sightings of have actually been trolls (and that’s a whole other story).
Anyway, the Twrchwn were amongst the Therians, the beast-folk, I was aware existed. Like their beastly fellows they were self aware but primitive to say the least (yeah there are others; I also met a Bruin during my stint on the Welsh border for a start, specifically in the Forest of Dean – it was all a bit like AA Milne on a bad acid trip). But that and whether Rasher here was Welsh, City of London and / or the results of some massively dodgy and almost certainly malefic magicians’ occult porcine eugenics program didn’t strike me as the point.
So what was? What was it here for? Security?
Not right then because all it was guarding was straw and its own crap.
I was trying to make some sort of sense of all this, but my mind was trying to remember the dialogue of that bit in Snatch where Brick Top explains how easily and quickly a pig can consume uncooked flesh (I rather wished it would stop). The thing took a few more swipes before dismissing me with a snouty sneer and slouched back to the wall for a snooze while I went over my limited options.
I could try and get back up, avoid some thirteen plus cultists and get outside; at least I now had some specifics to report to the Watch. If it came to it and there was no way of getting safely past I could try for a room with a window. I had the tools to prize the boards from them and some strong chord from which I could dangle so I’d break fewer bones. Still, that wasn’t top of my list. And if I didn’t like the odds of not being caught outside an empty room, I liked my prospects even less were I to be caught on the scaffolding on the way up.
On the thwarting front I could see a few more possibilities.
I could waste their alchemical stuff and maybe bash up their other paraphernalia in the hope they were essential to their plans – but that would give a pretty clear signal that someone was about and needed finding and having done to them whatever a twisted cultic mind might deem appropriate.
Perhaps I could find a way to unleash the Twrchwn without getting gored so it could do the job for me. But there were no guarantees either measure would be thwarty enough. And if I did get caught there’d be no-one to report back and they’d be free to try whatever they were doing at a later date. Besides I didn’t want to get caught, not by these boys.
Anyways, what occurred to me was that they’d been good enough to leave me down here with all their alchemical stuff and, if I was careful, they might not miss some of it. Which meant, given I kept a few bits on me anyway, I had a few things I could play with…
I was a bit too occupied in the temple area to notice the warmth in my pocket and hushed sound of the door to the knocked-through room above opening. But the striding descents, led by feet with an off-beat limp, alerted me to the danger of discovery. I stopped what I was doing and got behind the cover of one of the temple walls, pulling my nicked robe over me for good measure before the gaggle of cultists reached the bottom.
A black-robe headed through the aperture, returning directly to pass a chicken and chalice to the master. The acolytes went to their knees for some light chanting while he began a more serious invocation. He slit the chicken’s throat – and held its carcass to catch the blood in the chalice. He handed the corpse to his lieutenant and continued his litany, placing the chalice on the centre of the altar.
Above it, something began to manifest.
It was ethereal, insubstantial, but very definitely there, an outline of shadow against darkness with a mass you could feel rather than see. A pneuma akarthon, a cacodaemon – or spiritus immundus if you prefer the Latin.
A dark spirit, and a serious one.
Again I’d got experience of this kind of stuff. I knew enough to be afraid, but also to not let that fear take control, to not confuse the fearful with the terrifying. There are scales in this game.
The thing is, the thought came in my head, fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.
Strange thought. Kind of true… But it sounded familiar: very distantly, but familiar.
‘Great Baal,’ said the master while the others prostrated themselves, ‘some of our numbers are… unaccounted for.’
There was a rumble of displeasure and I noticed a couple of black-robes shaking.
This was something nasty from behind the veil of our mortal world, and it was serious… but, with my Sight, I could distinguish that its… emanations were not nearly as powerful as other things I’d seen. Of course that wasn’t a massive comfort given I’d been with a crew on those occasions, folk with heavy duty telemachia and the like.
‘Are we… betrayed?’
‘It would seem unlikely, but I cannot be sure.’
I listened in on their parley. There was reverence and respect on the master’s part, but the entity wasn’t raging, berating or threatening him for incompetence as one would an underling.
See necromancy is about communicating beyond the mortal veil, literally divination through the dead. Spirits of the human dead, sure, and lesser spirits can be pressed into service. But there are other things out there with rather more clout.
Making contact with any of these is one thing – but the point is to what end. Knowledge for the most, insight and glimpsed secrets of our world in return for sacrifices or errands in the mortal realm. But they might also share other knowledge, magical secrets beyond the sphere of necromancy. So we call them necromancers, but they end up having all manner of nasty bits in their magical repertoire. Anyway, this was some kind of partnership – but what were they trading?
‘And you have procured the vessel?’ came the Baal-entities voice…
Then the clattering of feet sounded on the walkway above.
‘Master!’ called the black-robe on his way down, faltering as he saw the semi-coherent thing above the altar. He was shot a seething look by both the higher-ups but got the words out anyway. ‘We found them! They were unconscious in the storage room. Master – we have an intruder!’
‘Seal this place! Two brothers at the junction and the front. Go out and summon the others, then search every corner of every room.’
‘At once master!’
‘You – search our chambers down here. Ensure the vessel is not compromised.’
‘We will use the hex dolor,’ the entity rumbled, ‘do your acolytes all have the rings?’
‘Yes Great Baal. I will begin it immediately.’
I was busy painting stuff on the wall and had been from the moment I heard the word ‘intruder’. It was a little something that might help hide me, a countermeasure for extrasensory kind of stuff but that did have a little efficacy on conventional senses, and I’d take whatever benefit it brought. But news of the hex dolor got me scrawling faster and using up even more precious ingredients.
If their rings had been a little more… culty, I might have thought to grab one along with the robe. But they must have been on their ring fingers (some metaphorical marriage to the sect I guessed), also why I didn’t look more closely.
Anyway this hex sounded like something they could set off to blast anyone without a secret decoder ring with something especially nasty. If I was lucky I’d be able to get some anti-hex warding up alongside the obfuscation glyph which I might hope would help with that as well. I glanced over to see a black robe return with gear from their chambers; the master received it to incorporate into the dark muttered spell he was working. I completed the warding, whispering words of my own to activate them.
The master’s voice rose in pitch and I could feel the aether bleeding from beyond to part-power the incantation; the hex was coming.
I braced myself beneath the cloaking robe, braced myself and I think I even crossed my fingers hoping my protections would work, that it wouldn’t kill me, that it wouldn’t be too painful, that it wouldn’t knock me out and that they wouldn’t find me if it did…
A blinding migraine whacked the inner surface of my skull with cricket-bat force while something connected to it seemed to do something related to the rest of me. Distantly I felt my body convulse and sag.
Everything went black.
It was still dark when I woke.
My wardings had saved my life, certainly as they hadn’t found me but also from the extremes of that nasty hex. I was distantly aware of chanting and that the pitch black darkness was due to the pitch black cloak. I pulled it aside and peeked around the temple wall.
They must have figured I’d got away, perhaps that I hadn’t made it this far down. Either way they’d decided they’d best get on with whatever it was they were doing in case the Watch came knocking. There were some thirty black-cloaks with purple-robe and his lieutenant besides, all the minions in front of the altar, heads bowed, each with an athame and a smoking bowl of heady, pungent incense. Whether or not it was psychoactive or had anything inherently magical about it, it was doubtless helping with what was essentially a group-spell, a channelling of aether and intent from the group for their master’s workings.
I half remembered the entity speaking as I was returning to consciousness. Now its ephemeral manifestation above the altar plucked stronger chords of memory, not of it but… associations, associations I wasn’t able to put into words just then.
I checked my mobile. Not a bar in sight and it was well into the eleventh hour: midnight was approaching.
‘Bring forth the vessel,’ the entity rumbled. I hadn’t noticed any chalice or other container of significant size or nature but I was more intent right then on the entity which, before my Sight, became more distinct, a knobbly floating orb-shape with specs of darkness buzzing around…
Come on Marwood, come on – stop being some primitive interpreting shapes in the darkness to run back and warn your tribe of invented gods: what is it? Think ancient, think biblical, think what-the-hell-am-I-seeing-in-that-dark-rorschach shape?
Thoughts were beginning to form…
See not every dark spirit actually wants to come over to party on our side of the divide. But some actually can’t – or would rather not except under particular circumstances. Like when a host body of the optimal variety for its particular nature is made available.
A host body. A vessel.
This was serious warlocking.
Warlock came from the Anglo-Saxon for oath-breaker; and while I couldn’t imagine these boys had ever sworn an oath to the Worshipful Company as I had, I wasn’t going to give them a free pass on a technicality. The real oath I swore is that which everyone – as far as I and a good bunch of others are concerned – swears by default: Don’t be an evil shit. And these were evil fuckwit cultist warlock shits, oath-breakers by default and then some.
“The rules!” I wanted to shout, “you’re breaking the rules!” but I knew they’d only turn around and say: “Who cares?”
And then I got it: what the shape above the altar was, what the vessel was, what it was for, what all this was about. The shadowy orb wasn’t simply floating my Sight now told me – it was propped up, skewered atop a pole of the selfsame darkness of which it was composed. And it was a head, the knobbly bits being ears… and a snout. Those buzzing specs, as far as my mind had interpreted, were flies.
My sight had conjured associations of a book I’d been made to study at school, a book about kids on a tropical island who descend into superstition, depravity and violence.
I was channelling Lord of the bloody Flies.
You heard all kinds of rumours in this game. But the one I was thinking of, what with the Biblical angle, was the rumour of a legion of dark spirits cast from a man and into swine that then drowned in the Sea of Galilee. Well whatever it was, they were bringing it through into a boar-man – a pig man. Greater demon or no, I didn’t like to think of the power it would have in an optimal vessel, or the terrible secrets it might share with the sect who had provided it.
‘Is it… unsullied?’ it demanded when they brought out the chained Twrchwn. It slouched, rather more docile after munching the steak I’d taken from their fridge and doped with what I’d tried to remember being bane-substances in the right quantities for boar men.
‘It seems… woozy, still half-asleep perhaps. But yes.’
I got to my feet behind the wall, swaying slightly but I’d recovered from that hex as much as I was going to. I took out my sling and my sword from my bag. I put on the black robe for whatever good it might do.
Of the alchemical ingredients there wasn’t much left.
But that was because while they’d been gone I’d got busy painting up wards and getting other bits around the place that might help me screw up their plans and get out in one piece.
The chanting was back in full swing, the master speaking ancient words over them and moving athame and chalice through the air in practised movements. I figured they might be looking to finish bang on midnight but, either way, it had to be now. I collected my effects and crept around the walls and columns and began the incantations to activate the symbols I’d had time to get up.
Blast-wards, painted grey on grey, erupted from pillar and rock throwing bodies across the temple-space and into others. Simultaneously a number of spiritual apotropaic sigils went off for what good they might do against the entity’s presence and the master’s workings (and either way they shone which looked damn cool).
I lobbed in my remaining snooze-bombs while they were still bunched together and on their knees. Then I sent spark-cantrips into the clumps of flammable powder I’d planted beneath where the cultists now sat, setting robes aflame and men running and rolling to put them out. I tripped a couple of fuddle-glyphs, something I was still perfecting, but which added to the panic and confusion. There were a couple of other wards I swore I’d never get in the habit of using, things of the nature of the hex dolor that I’d really only learned of by circumventing them; but this was an extreme situation and they had the ingredients and they’d brought this on themselves.
The temple was a mass of flapping black into which I slung stones to stun and incapacitate. Purple fire manifested here and there, those with the presence of mind (if not necessarily the wisdom of restraint) conjuring their prized spell with which they’d been gifted by the all-wise master. Every attempt dissipated, or went into another or back on themselves. I saw at least one acolyte’s knife plunge into another in the chaos, and bodies going limp having tripped over robes or rock or each other and head-planted the ground. Others went down belatedly after bundling about in the dissipating cloud of morphinic bomb-powder.
Maybe some thought they were surrounded by invisible watchmen, or that their master or the entity had turned on them. Either way they stumbled at speed up the steps and onto the walkway. One fell off. Another was pushed. Will to power had become will to get the fuck away. I’d probably have felt pleased if I wasn’t still half-crapping it myself.
‘A sacrifice!’ the Baal-entity implored, ‘I can still come through!’
The lieutenant stood there, hood back, furious but resolute in the chaos. His buzz-cut hair was white but he was a big man and robust with it. He grabbed an acolyte and hauled him to the altar. I got off a shot with my sling and the stone glanced his shoulder making him spin round, his face contorted more in fury than the pain he must have felt. I launched another, aimed for his head, but his snarling lips muttered and aether coalesced into force, my missile glancing off the spectral shield with a crackle of blue light.
‘Get him,’ yelled the master, ‘I’ll finish the ritual!’
I tried for a shot at the master but it went wide because I had to move out of the way of an example of Malachi’s Ruin that was anything but low-grade from his advancing lieutenant. The oversized purple fireball burst against the wall beneath the scaffolding, spraying chips from its surface and sending a rattle up the structure.
A remaining black robe appeared behind my wall but ran at the sight of my raised sword. Another came round, more zealous and unafraid of my sword, though his nose wasn’t overly fond of my fist. I kicked him backwards past the walls extent, and he was torn from his feet by a sizeable globe of ruin.
Then the lieutenant appeared. I just had time to get my own shield up as another expert magical missile came at me, its aetheric potence sluicing around my shield’s extent, its raw force sliding me back a step. The shock rattled my brain sufficiently for me to lose focus and the shield with it.
‘Who are you?’ he roared, striding forward, ‘Who are you?’
It was too well enunciated for a football heckle, but I could quite imagine a hooligan would have been delighted to have this psychopath onside. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the words out to rekindle my shield to an effective level of protection before he got another missile off.
But then it took only one word to activate the ward I’d painted on my wall for just such an instance and he was blasted aside and into a pillar.
‘I’m Dave,’ I bellowed back, ‘from District Nine!’
And he fell unconscious.
From my Sight, from that feeling of presence, I could tell the entity was coming through. Even at reduced power from the hasty ritual, the drugged host, from my apotropaic sigils perhaps, I did not like my chances against it were it to gain form.
I didn’t mind my chances against the master though.
His sacrificed goon lay bloody across the altar and he had his back to me. My steps became strides became a run. He turned, saw me coming, started conjuring up something esoteric and unpleasant.
I got there first and conjured up my significantly less esoteric knee in his nads.
A face full of remnant snooze-powder from my pocket – pressed in for good measure – and he went down like a sack of spuds.
‘You are too late pissant mortal spec – I am coming through and my vessel waits!’
The umbral pigs head and pole had dissolved and expanded into a dense broiling swarm of fragments of utter blackness. It moved slowly from above the altar and toward its vessel, which now floated into the air and likewise toward it. I’d dropped my sling somewhere, found my sword instead – but the boar-man was already beyond its reach…
Before despair set in I spotted that they’d brought jars those of alchemical ingredients with necromantic applications into this space, and left them tidily next to the nearest the excavated rock face with a handy back-up chicken for good measure. I grabbed one armful of the former and another of the latter and got to work on a flatter section of stone on the temple floor. The buzzing form of the dark spirit was even larger and denser now, and nearly at the Twrchwn. But if I was quick enough…
It was a tricky circle but my master had put me through my paces in anti-pneuma – magic to combat spirits – ad nauseum, and I’d had a good bit of practice since. I didn’t like sacrificing anything, but if it was a chicken or me and London…
‘Sorry mate,’ I said to it, stuck in the circle I’d painted. It regarded me with beady eyes and pecked my hand. ‘Ow! Fuck you then!’
‘What do you think you are doing spec?’ gloated the Baal-entity. ‘An exorcism? A sacrifice? It will avail you nought!’
‘Not quite pal,’ I said and began the incantation, a bit of an old Latin number, making sure I wove in variations of boar and pig (sus, scrofa, porcus et al…)
‘What… what…’ the entity faltered. ‘What are you…’
I kept it up, retreating to my handy wall as I did.
‘I am owed a vessel; the warlock gave it to me on behalf of mortal man – it is my due!’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but it looked like you were having a little trouble there… so I’ve given you an alternative.’
‘Oh it’ll be fine,’ I said once I’d gotten the spell moving a bit and the entity was drawn unwillingly away from Rasher. Darkness churned in its ethereal form, vulnerable but obstinate – but ultimately unsuited to our plane, vulnerable as a spirit outside a body. ‘You might even prefer it.
‘…gallinaceus!’ I finished my bespoke incantation.
It pulled and pulled and pulled against the spell…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken in the circle.
…A spell that involved neither ritual slaughter nor exorcism…
‘Bawk,’ said the chicken again (while the boar-man dropped to the ground with a grunt)…
…But a spell that wasn’t taking no for an answer. And suddenly the entity could hold out no more and its entire spiritual mass shot down into the circle, into the gallinaceus…
Into the chicken.
‘BAAAAAAWWWWWK!!!’ went the chicken.
…and exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.
‘Then again,’ I said, ‘maybe you should have stuck with your first choice after all.’
I sat there in a room of sleeping figures who’d planned to bring an ancient pig demon to Old London Town. I rather felt like a kip myself.
But I had calls to make.
‘Okay listen,’ I said, outside and with reception again; I was speaking to the nice lady who’d tipped me the wink and sent me alone to face a whole gang of necromantic cultists. ‘Tell the Watch this and make sure it’s word for word…’
She was sending it by the back channels. Even so I dropped in a few words I knew the Watch used for this sort of thing, stuff that in the right combination would get the alarm bells ringing: ‘Troy has fallen’ and ‘But the Trojans are only sleeping’ and other bits that built a picture. The Watch can take a damn long time to get off their arses when you call in a potential threat – but when you know exactly what’s going on and report that they seem able to distinguish it as reality rather than the delusions of old kith and the crank calls of the youth thereof. Course that often means you’re already up to your neck in shit or have just dealt with the problem for them. Anyways, I wasn’t too surprised when, shortly, my phone buzzed.
It was from the Watch, a round text to those of us on their books in some form, asking if we were in the vicinity and could check on a suspicious building (it looked like I might even get paid for saving the day for once). I gave it a minute, texted agreement, then called back five minutes later to report the hush-wards, an unconscious black-robe, the numbers of hangers on which hung clothes and robes in the cloak room, and the ambient aether being sufficient to disrupt reception. I didn’t know if that would mean I got to nick the credit back and frankly, right then, I didn’t care.
I’d left a glyph stone behind so I could tell if any of the cultists had woken and ignored the friendly warning I’d painted on the steps up the scaffolding (“If you think / that was bad / see what happens / when you step / past the / last of / these / words. (Dave – District Nine)”). Well it was a bluff given I’d run out of material with which to scrawl anything offensive beyond harsh language but you take what precautions you can (like, we practice safe sects – Oh man, I kill me).
But the glyph stone hadn’t gone off by the time the Watch showed their faces, so assuming no one had worked out how to get the hardened gloop out I’d shoved in that old brass lock, they’d all still be inside.
Well I repeated my findings in person to one of the five Watch people, noting the glyph stone I’d left. Another looked on suspiciously, as if my prompt response was some kind of admission that I’d been up to unauthorised sub rosa investigation beforehand and risked my life to thwart a bunch of necromancers. Well fuck it and, frankly, fuck him.
I headed back to the old boys café. Some of them stay open late and it was only down the road so I figured I might as well, even if I just got ignored. The light was on. The door was open.
There were no games being played. Everyone was stood, knelt or sat around that middle table and grumpy old Jozef Kovac. He looked asleep, like he’d dozed off in his chair. But I knew he wasn’t. The young man who’d sniggered was stood behind looking on, a tear streak down his face. The younger old codger was there also – it was he who caught my eye and nodded knowingly.
It is done, he seemed to be saying, and he knew it.
I closed my eyes and nodded back.
I left, turning over oversized and unwieldy thoughts, trying for some root of meaning in human nature, in what necromantic cultists did in the daytime, in the willingness of mortal souls to be twisted, in cleaning rotas and wills-to-power; and in the coincident death of a potentially lycanthropic, grumpy old Slovak.
The story goes that when Dick Whittington had had enough of London he’d got somewhere into the borough of Islington before the Bow Bells rang out ‘Turn again Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London!’ Me, well I got rather further. But the point is that I couldn’t rightly tell you if that’s actually what happened; only that, compared to some of the weird shit I’ve seen in London, talking bells are pretty damn passé to say the least.
Just like good old Dick W I’d discovered – and had reaffirmed over two stints in the Big City and the years therein – that its streets are not paved with gold. They are, rather, pocked with gum, littered somewhat with the dispossessed, and otherwise busy with discarded fag butts.
I’d actually just contributed to the latter with a reflex press and twist of trainer-sole. This was, I’ll own, hardly civic minded. But in my defence my attention was rather more focused on the geezer I was tailing in the hope I could work out what the hell – or perhaps what from hell – the threat to his life and / or limb was. Nothing pleasant, it was safe to assume. Threats to life and limb generally didn’t carry colourful helium balloons or come with a cherry on top; and even if they did it would hardly endear them further to their intended victim. Beyond that I was pretty sure it was some threat of the supernatural flavour, especially as muggins here had been called up.
It’s what I do, see: blunder in blindly prodding paranormal wasp’s nests to see what came out in the faint hope I could deal with it.
My qualifications relevant to the endeavour? Magician, journeyman (I also gots me a B in GCSE geography).
They call me Marwood. They also call me Tef. They’ve yet to call me Mr Lover-lover or Mr Boombastic for that matter but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
‘Tell me everything you know about Aidan Travers,’ I’d said to Alex after she’d given me the heads up. Alex was a clerk in the Company, London’s secret guild of magicians. She knew I took on the odd pro bono thing off the books, and it was she who’d called me up when word from an unofficial source came of something wicked this way coming in Mr Travers imminent future.
‘He’s Irish. A dancer – an up and coming star of his generation. Just got a spot in the Royal Ballet’s production of…’
I listened, taking note of what Alex knew and the gaps therein that might prove relevant. I was nodding to myself when she’d finished.
‘Is he gay?’ I asked.
‘That’s very presumptuous Marwood,’ she chided: ‘Just because he’s a dancer doesn’t mean he’s gay. Would you ask the same thing if he was a… a banker?’
‘Is he a banker?’
‘No he’s not a banker.’
‘Is he gay?’
‘I think so yes.’
‘All righty then.’
‘And that’s relevant because?’
‘Haven’t the foggiest. Might not be. I just ask things as they occur to me.’
We had a brief exchange in which I made sure to mention that I had seen Billy Elliott, she that Billy wasn’t gay and that it wouldn’t matter if he was, me that I got all that and did we want to get on with the business of making sure nothing bad happened to the chap in question and she relented. I was very articulate.
We’d arranged to meet in the British Museum (where things end up after someone turns up in a foreign land and says ‘Hello, we’re British and we’re here to nick your cultural treasures’, and asks to be pointed in the right direction). Specifically we were in the cafe bit in the Great Court, sunlight beaming down through the great glass ceiling. I hadn’t thought to ask why here but here we were.
‘And where can I find Mr Travers?’ I asked her.
‘Over there,’ she said looking a little smug as if she’d scored some kind of victory, having earlier failed to categorically label me as being prejudiced against ballet or something.
‘Well that’s handy,’ I said. Somehow it didn’t seem to be the response she was after.
I’d tailed Travers around the bustling backstreets of the West End’s Theatreland, dodging chuggers (charity muggers to the uninitiated), and with a few stop-offs before following him back up the main drag of bookshops, bars and cafes. Then we were off into the square mile warren of Soho.
It was denser with people – harder to keep track of someone and less likely for a tail to be spotted – so I stalked closer. I was about five metres away by the time we passed a concentration of Soho’s sex industry, doorways to strip clubs, clip joints and peepshows, retailers of sex toys and erotic apparel, and purveyors of fine porn whatever your persuasion; we emerged in turn to a lively if slightly grubby backstreet avec street-market.
I knew this neck of the urban woods well enough and had hopes Travers might be aiming for the John Snow pub, so named for the physician who traced the cholera outbreak in London to a well hereabouts. I lost sight of him for a moment. The moment grew longer. My deflation at the receding chance for a pint was replaced with concern and I darted around the stalls and barrows in a manner I hoped didn’t look too shady trying to regain sight of him.
But then I apprehended something with what we call second sight.
It’s not vision as you’d imagine; it actually sort of plays on and through all senses in some way though on sight first and foremost. It’s an awareness of those beyond-the-normal things that we magician types deal with, something you cultivate to some degree or other during your apprenticeship.
The thing was that if I’d been out of luck spotting Travers with regular vision, detecting something with the sight meant Travers was out of luck full stop: right then it was provoking a sinking feeling.
See there’s not just other things out there, but other places. In pre-industrial times there was more of an idea of this, places beneath barrows and over the water and out in ancient woods: faerie-land, Otherworld (the demi-aevum if you want to get technical). Because the physical world is a little less defined than most people realise. And in certain liminal places there were – and still are – ways beyond and into what we loosely understand as realms of existence in the spirit of the world, its pervading unconscious; its dream maybe.
That’s how it supposedly was in those wild places, where spirit flows free and genius loci gestate over centuries. But cut down the trees, spread out the tarmac and lay on the bricks and mortar and that kind of goes out the window you’ve just built from the tree you’ve just cut down. It’s all about life, about living matter then – because you don’t get no trods or faerie-land in the weft of brick and stone in town and city.
Except you do.
Oh it takes time; a lot of time. A lot of time and a lot of people and countless layering of heightened emotion, love and hate, a sprinkling of suicide and murder, fear and stress and anger and bliss from every damn thing humans do to themselves and each other. But London’s got a lotta people and London’s had a lotta time. And in more than a few places the threshold, the barrier, is rather soft and rather thin.
It takes a particular sensitivity to be able to perceive these soft areas which, for better or worse, I have. And I’d got a nasty feeling that Mr Travers had just taken an involuntary trip into London’s hidden other world. I stashed my hoodie in my kit bag, leaving the latter open and making sure one of its contents was loose and to hand. I also unclipped the long strap and stuffed it in my pocket and for the same reason. Then I hefted it by the side straps and prepared to try and make my way through.
It’s hard not to speculate when you’re about to enter the demi-aevum: it tends to acquire something of the flavour of its local real-world past. Now Soho only really got going in the 17th century, becoming a French quarter after a big contingent of Huguenots came over and pitched up (I wasn’t entirely sure what Huguenots were, but I kept thinking of them as being called “huge nuts” which I found moderately entertaining). There’d been a smattering of posh English types here too but they buggered off and the area declined into poverty, prostitution, music hall and theatre, and then further to aspiring writers and crap poets and the hopes and dreams, and drunkenness thereof.
What it comes down to is that even the near-Other can be unpleasant at the best of times, and that’s in places with a more salubrious history; I really wasn’t that happy at the idea of going through this close to porn central for one thing.
I mean, okay, it’s not like if you spent all day looking at, I dunno, badgers that you’d end up dreaming about stripe-faced mustelids which is more or less the same principal. Still…
But there was nothing else for it. I focused on my breathing, let those anxieties register and go until my mind was as clear as it was going to be. Then I dredged up and began muttering a few litanies of ancient words I knew to assist the transition, keeping those words coming as I headed to the nearest side street, usefully one I’d never been down before. Between my own sensitivity, the spoken cantrip and my lack of knowledge I was able, with a few twists and turns down the backways, to press through into the near-Other.
The buildings were crooked slum tenements that seemed taller and narrower than even their mundane world counterparts. It was twilight. I was vaguely aware of the moon somewhere above (the Otherworld not giving any particular shit about what time of day the conventional world thought it ought to be). Mind it might have I was more aware of how surprisingly and pleasantly… somehow too pleasantly… warm it was, and the sounds of what might have been a vaudevillian knees-up coming from beyond the down-street wisps of fog.
I was in. I wanted out as soon as possible.
The Other is hazardous by its very nature, but there’s things there, old things that have gathered some kind of presence, physical or otherwise. Call them fae, call them otherkind, call them what you will, they can be pretty damn terminal to body or mind. If any were immediately present they were manifest only as shades amongst the shadows and fog: perhaps the dead, perhaps memories of, perhaps fae-kind, or perhaps echoes of folk in the real world.
But then I passed a doorway with something very definite lounging therein, female shaped, its posture equally soliciting, leering and resigned. I made damn sure not to look directly but saw it wore a shawl round its shoulders and its left hand held a veil across the lower half of its face. Gallows-curiosity burned but I knew in my gut I would never want to see beneath that veil – and I knew what to do which was to damn well keep moving.
Ahead, through a thin curtain of fog, smog or whatever the hell it was, I saw a bustling knot of shorter bodies. Between them they carried aloft a wriggling something half-covered by a sack, but not the legs that tried to kick out of their grip.
‘Ah, excuse me lads,’ I called, ‘I’m looking for a human mortal called Aidan Travers; I don’t s’pose that would be him in that sack you’re carrying?’
They were of different shapes and sizes. The lankier lurker at the back was as tall as me; the rest were rather shorter. Six faces – ugly faces, greeny, grey-ey faces that could perhaps have passed as choleric in earlier times – looked over and up at me.
Well that’s the old school general and technical name for them amongst the otherkind. These were the sods who gave King Lud so much grief back when the Big Smoke was called Caer Lud or Caer Lundain. I wondered if, given the historical presence of the Huguenots, they might be French, in which case they’d be gobelins; and based on that you could have a wild stab in the dark as to what they ended up being called in English (wild stabs in the dark being very much what these buggers were about).
‘Oo’s askin’?’ one hailed me in some kind of guttural kobold mockney, a rat poking its head from inside his jacket (a pet maybe, or a snack – not that to goblins the two were in any respect mutually exclusive).
I cleared my throat. This next bit was important and, while I normally feel a serious degree of disdain for formality, I had to get it right.
‘I am called Marwood, of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion. I am here only to secure the safe return of whichever mortals might be present, and present against their wishes.’
I’d taken in the glances between them and identified their leader, a fat toadish individual with a wide toothy overbite; in the eyes of his fellows he probably looked rather dapper, dressed as he was in swell clobber and sporting a top hat and some kind of Georgian era long coat, the tails of which trailed behind him on the cobbles. But it was another who replied to my address.
He was an inch taller than ‘the brains’ and seemed of a more modern persuasion – a fucking beatnik goblin with beret, goatee and rolled cigarette that may have been a reefer. I didn’t like the look of him, but then he had a pair of bongos slung behind him which I didn’t like the look of either.
‘Ee ain’t no wizard Charlie,’ he said to the leader, ‘Ain’t no smell o’ cantrip or witchin’ on ‘im.’
Well it’s true that many of us, the more powerful, tend to develop a certain aura with repeated use of higher order magics, something that can be noticeable even by regular folk. Luckily I’m crap at that kind of stuff. Yeah, that’s me: lucky.
I held my ground and recited the simple cantrip to conjure a bit of foxfire, magical light (highly useful if the electric goes and you need to find your way to the lav) in my right hand. It manifested as eldritch luminescence running green to blue and, with some verbal tweaking, I turned it yellow-white and brighter. Their eyes widened. It was something of a bluff, a promise of worse things I might be capable of; but bluff can be a kind of magic in the Other and as potent as any other kind… if it works.
Another goblin leaned in and muttered something that sounded like goblin-French to fat Charlie, who passed for the brains of the operation. Meantime a few of the others took out blades, a knuckle knife one, a stiletto another…
‘Piss off wizard,’ Charlie told me, speaking with affectations of imagined gentility, ‘We know’s you just ‘ave a few hedge magics and we en’t impressed.’
The rest gave vicious little grins and there was a thump and ‘oomph!’ as the gift-wrapped form of Aidan Travers was dropped to the cobbles. Those with knives out already waved them in the air, the others now drawing them to brandish in my general direction (with the exception of the myopic little sprog whose otherwise terrifying blade-strokes were directed at an unthreatening gas-lamp across the way). One took a step forward.
I had to make a quick call. The bag strap stuffed in my pocket was a sling but I wasn’t sure I could dig out and arm it with the right payload in time to launch it with useful effect. Instead I reached into my kit bag, dropping it to the floor to reveal the sword now in my right hand. That had their eyes widening, and more than from the foxfire.
I don’t keep it particularly sharp for the same reason I carry a sword rather than a knife: I can pass it off as recreational were I to be searched by the authorities.
(Only happened the once. It went okay except that the damned plod in question took the time to radio it in and used the word ‘larper’ as often as he could despite my solidly expressed and repeated insistence that I was a re-enactor (the misrepresentation of myself I found the more palatable). I was close to calling him a dickhead in order to establish a scale of accuracy for further dialogue but decided against it. That’s me, diplomatic to a fault.)
Anyway the sword was rather longer than their knives and with my human length arms they were going to have a considerably tougher time getting at me, even en masse. And it was made of iron, cold iron, and on this the folklore is spot on. Otherkind really do not like it.
‘Hold it,’ Charlie rasped to the more skittish of his crew. ‘E’s all alone an’ en’t none of that Company goin’ to give a crap if ‘e e’nt comin’ back. And the package s’worth plenty.
‘Spread. Spread round ‘im an’ e’ll be crappin’ it.’
Oh Charlie knew what he was doing. If they could get behind me or press me to the wall I’d be in trouble. Goblins may lack reach but they’re damn quick and damn sneaky…
‘Eel: lefty-sinister. Nik: righty-dex…’
‘AAAARGH!’ I articulated, charging straight at them with sword raised in a high guard before any had taken more than a few steps. Course then they were legging it as fast as bloody possible… most of them anyway. Charlie and Eel (who I gathered was the beanpole) stayed put, at least until the last few seconds when they scarpered as well.
I nearly tripped over Travers.
I got quickly to work on the rope that bound him with the bronze knife one had dropped, keeping my sword up ready in one hand. The goblins began to collect their wits, turning round after their flight. Shortly they’d realise they’d got me surrounded after all. The one plus side was that releasing Travers was a step in the right direction, a step towards ending this one way or another; also that, however scared he was he could at least cover a few of them with the knife I’d acquired. And something told me they wanted him in one piece…
‘What the… what the f…’ Travers began.
‘I’m Marwood. This is a knife. Take the knife Aidan. Take the knife, get up, and stay behind me.’
‘Holy Mary…’ Aidan said taking in the scene.
‘We’re going to get you out of this.’
‘This is fucking mental.’
Nik and Eel and the others were edging round and closer but, of more immediate concern, was the look I saw Charlie give another and what that other was now doing. Maybe Charlie was the brains and some others the brawn, but it seemed this one had a few magics of his own. I could feel he was doing something just as I could hear it, some kind of curse: a befuddlement at least if not some less pleasant kind of enchantment. I was damn grateful right then that I’d been drilled with at least some basic counters with fae magic in mind. I handed Aidan my sword and got to it.
‘Bind ‘im,’ Charlie demanded.
‘Ee’s slippery, Chompin’ Charlie,’ the goblin gurgled, ‘sneak-slippery…’
My fingers curled and straightened, touched tips and came apart as I felt the flow and intuited the most useful retorts to the little bastard’s spell-bindings. Gestures in working magic can certainly help; we tend to use them though they aren’t strictly necessary.
But right then they seemed to be making all the difference. I could feel the contest as an abstract pressure in my hands and fingers and I sensed how to press back rather than just defending myself. My right digits began to lock into something someway to that arrangement that shadowcasts a duck on the wall but I didn’t let that bother me. It felt… appropriate – and I could feel advantage build.
‘Daaaah,’ the goblin scorned, though in a more strained fashion. ‘Yer e’nt gettin’ nowhere with that hedgey… And me pals… me pals’re gettin’ round yer both.’
‘Don’t mark ‘im,’ Charlie urged his goons, doubtless with reference to Travers rather than me (joy). ‘Missis won’t like it if e’s cut.’
Right then I was too busy to think about what Charlie was saying. I was aware of Aidan was waving my sword, inexpertly but effectively – I couldn’t see it but thought I could feel it, iron moving through an air unfamiliar with its presence. But the fact that the encircling goblins were hamstrung rather by Charlie’s edict meant I could focus more on my immediate problem. I pressed the binder again.
‘S’not bad wizard… But y’en’t… getting me like that… Y’ent got me calling, me name…’
‘Well,’ I began, bringing forth that oh-so recent early memory of him waving his stiletto at me. ‘Then I’ll name you. I name you Mack, Mack the Knife. I back-bind you in that name, by oak, by ash and by thorn: Back-bound, broke and beat.’
I hadn’t a clue who Mack the Knife was (only that that bloke from Take That covered it) and the rest of it just came to me. But judging by the expression on Mack’s face it seemed to have done the job. Like I say bluff has its own magic in this place. I held my fingers as they were and (it seemed like the thing to do) sliced my hand thrice through the air, towards him with the last cut. Mack took a step back, astonishment plastered across his face.
‘Wossit… wossit do to I Chompin’ Charlie?’ he faltered, ‘Wossit do?’
‘Get the wizard!’ Charlie demanded as Mack dropped despondently to the floor. ‘Dancer-boy en’t going nowhere!’
‘We prefer magician,’ I retorted grabbing back my sword, ‘as it happens.’
I kicked one of the smaller ones before it could get a stab in. It went a satisfying distance and Aidan took my lead to do the same to the one called Nik. Three-ish down. Better odds. Nowhere near over.
‘What do you reckon Charlie?’ I addressed the brains while swinging a warning stroke back at Eel who I’d caught edging towards us in the corner of my eye. ‘Call it quits?’
Charlie looked unsure. The fight was still in him but he was taking stock.
‘Aidan listen to me,’ I whispered, ‘can you see my kit bag? Okay, we’re going to move over towards it, right? Slowly. Now…’
I had the smallest sense there was a remnant of the way through to Soho-normal, back the way we’d come. If so…
Charlie didn’t look like he’d given up on his prize just yet though and I gave warning flicks of cold iron to any goblin that looked like it might fancy its chances as we moved.
‘Marwood,’ said Travers, ‘Marwood, can you hear… horses?’
Now he mentioned it I could and so could the koboloi. Through those distant half-remembered notes of a good old music hall knees-up grew a freeform clatter of hooves on stone, accompanied perhaps by an afterthought echo of bullshit poetry and whispered jazz.
Through the lingering fog a hansom cab burst.
The horses were reined in noiselessly by the driver on the sprung seat behind, a frozen thin-limbed man-shaped scarecrow in beret and scarf and black roll-neck. He remained unmoving. After moments the door opened and the scent of parks and cut grass, garlic, coffee and car exhaust reached and churned in my mind, perfume against the faint odours of frying onions, and of retched alcohol and alleyway debauchery, of human effluence dried by an absent sun.
This would be the individual to whom the koboloi, now prostrating themselves in varying degrees and styles of fawning, had been bringing Aidan Travers. Maybe the real-world market had influenced the nature of this place, centuries of barrow-barter and exchange seeping through to make it auspicious for deals and trades regardless of how tangible the currency or commodity. The discomfiting warmth seemed to clench and my blood ran cold.
Her attire spoke of mad kings and unexpected queens: a pastel yellow muslin gown over a terracotta skirt, its cut revealing a pressed cleave of bosom. She hoisted her skirts in hands covered by long silk gloves as she stepped out and down (we got a shameless eyeful of ankle beneath, and what I was half-sure were a pair of Nikes). Her hair, scandalously uncovered, was the colour of never-seen corn sung of at the harvest festivals of inner-city schools, crayon golden; her skin was of peaches-and-cream, brick-buff and soiled alabaster.
‘Marwood,’ Aidan gasped, ‘I think I… I think I know her. She’s come to the ballet – three times at least. I can’t… I just… don’t know if I saw her then or… or if I’m just remembering her now. But I can see her there in the audience, clear as now: watching me.’
Oh fuck. Fucking fucking fuck.
Fuck on toast.
It was beginning to make sense, a pretty scary and now rather obvious sense.
This was fae aristocracy, at least I guessed it was – what passed for it round here anyway. With koboloi I mostly knew what I was doing, black shucks and trolls and spirits likewise. But this was totally off-script.
‘Evenin’ missis,’ Chomping Charlie gushed, coming upright and bowing again with a flourish. ‘We brought ‘im, the dancer-boy; just like yer arksed missis.’
‘Do not call me missis Chomping Charlie; not now, not ever.’ Charlie wasn’t looking quite so full of himself under her glare. ‘Moreover, I did not ask you to kidnap a mortal and bring him here.’
‘But… but you sez to brings ‘im mi… milady, and ‘ow gratefuls y’d be to oo would does it…’
She’d taken out a fan to wave which now she snapped shut. She jabbed the end under Charlie’s chin and pulled upwards.
‘I little goblin? I said nothing of the sort.’
‘Marwood,’ Aidan whispered, ‘can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?’
‘She likes you,’ I said after a moment.
‘But… I’m gay.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Maybe a guy – or a girl – is inclined to get freaky with her… maybe they’re not. They can’t change you like that, not if it’s not there already. They wouldn’t want to anyway. What her kind are after is… intensity. I imagine centuries of consciousness can lead to… boredom… ennui. They fall in love with mortals. Can be anyone really, just some random thing about a certain someone that sparks something in their… soul. But they tend to get bored rather easily.
‘Now someone with art, well that’s different. Art is sex to them, a drug. She’s seen you perform. She’s not after your body. She thinks she’s in love with you. But you’re her drug of choice; to her you’re a balletic motherlode of Columbian freebase.’
She strode through the prostrate koboloi (treading only on one) addressing them all in a voice that somehow combined Tara Palmer-Tomkinson with Eliza Doolittle after Henry Higgins had done his bit, all with a bit of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction lurking in the background.
‘We do not kidnap mortals,’ she chastised, possibly for my ‘benefit’ though she’d yet to acknowledge my presence. ‘We do not break the accords. I merely mused on what a happy chance it would be for a mortal of such art and spirit to be encountered; for we could offer them a life of art and pleasure in exchange for the simple pleasure of their company for the duration.’
‘See,’ I whispered to Aidan, ‘If she’d ordered them to kidnap you as she surely wanted she’d be breaking the rules. She wouldn’t do that – maybe can’t. The accords are as binding as chains of iron to their kind. Instead she’s nudged them to do the job so they’re in the firing line if they cock it up.’
‘So… what happens now?’
‘She offers you exactly what she said and the chances are you’d take it. They can’t make you do anything but they can be very convincing.’
‘A… life of pleasure… and art? I could think of worse things…’
‘Yeah, I hear heroin’s quite good fun as well. But even if I could afford the habit it’s hard to believe I’d make the choice to spend the rest of my life befuddled and half-aware and not giving a damn about who I am or anyone I’ve cared for because there may have been a worse option.’
Aidan had been watching her admonish the koboloi up to that point.
Getting it, now he looked at me.
Then she looked at us.
She didn’t move though it was as if she had, like the zooming refocusing of a camera, she shooting forward to fill your field of view, fierce in seeming and wrathful in intent should her will to be thwarted.
So it was a good job I wasn’t here to thwart her.
Wait – no that was exactly what I was here for.
Back in the old days, back when I ran with the old crew, this was the point someone would say something suitably righteous like “we’re going to kick your arse”. Or “your reign of terror is over you complete tosser”. Or – reserved for the most heinous wrongdoers of all and never uttered without good reason: “Brian Blessed does not like you – and he never will.”
But I wasn’t with the old crew, or any crew for that matter. And this was a member of urban fae aristocracy – that was a game-changer and even I know when to put the smart mouth and wise-cracks aside. Yes I do. Mostly. Sometimes. Well then anyway.
What I had by way of training was kicking in and an apotropaic incantation mumbled itself through my lips. I worked it as close to perfect as it could be, laying down some esoteric defences and markers around us; enough for a bluff but not so much as to be an outright challenge. That rushing vision of supernormal beauty became terrible, cruelty and malice writ across a face you could worship, whose retribution you’d welcome as deserved and just, coming ever closer but never arriving…
The intensity faded. When it had she was stood just across the way from us, her expression all but neutral.
‘Aidan,’ she beamed then, her eyes resting on him. ‘I must apologise for the rudeness of these scullions and lackwits, these patches. I pray no true harm has befallen you by their misconceived and cloddish entreats. But the fault is theirs and theirs alone – and, regardless of how it came about, I am delighted you have come to visit.’
The pretty words were going somewhere however, somewhere where Aidan and I were in the shit. I had to say something before they were all around, binding us in etiquette, observance and obligation.
‘On… ehm, on behalf of us both milady, I thank you for your regrets and concern for wellbeing.’
Her eyes flicked to me (shifting to the regard one reserved for the turd one had just trodden in). ‘And this is?’
‘I am called Marwood,’ I said, shoving down the trepidation and digging up what useful words I could think of. I needed more than those so I dug deeper. ‘Um, I am Marwood of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion.’
I was sure she’d have figured out that I wasn’t here formally, that I had no back-up. But there could be consequences for her regardless, consequences that might give her pause even if I didn’t fuck this up.
‘He broughts lights into ‘ere missis,’ Charlie accused, ‘lights and irons and namin’s.’
‘Also on your account Chomping Charlie,’ she averred, ignoring on this occasion his term of address. ‘But enough of you.
‘Aidan, I have witnessed you, witnessed your movements and grace, your strength, the power of your expression. It has moved me in ways I remember feeling not ever. I see that you might be greater still, the greatest ever, a tower casting shade over your so-called peers. I would be your patron and your Terpsichore; I would make you immortal, set your movements in the stars of human memory. I ask only for your love and devotion in return for mine and the world besides.’
Maybe Travers was tempted but I’d disabused him of the fantasy he’d otherwise be entering. It proved enough and he spoke before I could say something by proxy (which was good because right then I’d got nothing).
‘Aye, well, that sounds deadly,’ he said letting native accent and idiom into the refined tongue he’d cultivated, deadly being a more recent Irishism for ‘great’ rather than terminally dangerous (which in the context would have worked just as well). It was as if he’d dug into his roots, drawing a sense of who he was that was useful to his predicament, of where he was from rather than that what now he did.
‘But I’m grand like,’ he politely affirmed.
‘Again my lady,’ I stepped in, ‘I thank you for your most timely intervention and gracious offer to my… associate here. We seek but peaceful egress to the mortal world without violation of the respected accords between our kinds.’
Malice flashed momentarily across her face but without the theatrics and special effects. Her look saddening, she plucked an apple from nowhere, a rosy red-green apple; gaslight glimmered back from its waxed skin.
‘Is that all you would have of me Aidan Travers?’ she asked, ‘for my aid in your return to the mortal plane?’
Hearing the wounded disappointment in her tone and seeing it in her face gave me hope that we’d got through this, because all that had to happen was for Aidan to say:
And suddenly – too late – I realised what she was doing.
‘Then catch,’ she instructed as she tossed the apple to him.
His hands came up to receive it before mine could use something to knock it or them aside. The smile returned to her face, directed to me first with scorn – given she knew I could probably get us both out unaided if only given time – then without to my charge.
‘That apple will enable you to walk back through whence you came – and back, should you later choose. Now what pray tell of equal measure will you offer in return?’
She’d got us again, if in a smaller way. Under the rules of etiquette she was quite entitled to something of at least equal value to the accepted ‘gift’. Oh it was iffy at best. But ‘iffy’ is the playground these guys and gals have played in since the dawn of fuck-knows (or whatever you call the era before human ‘time’ came about).
‘A… performance?’ Travers suggested before I could say anything.
‘A performance,’ she warmed, clasping her hands together as if in wonderment at the thought. Maybe this had been her plan in the first place, or a happy or at least acceptable alternative, but the delight on her face told me I needed to take control of things.
‘Then it is agreed Aidan Travers, a performance then. Well, in your own time.’
She walked off to take a seat on the back of the prostrate Charlie, taking out her fan to set a summer-nights breeze against her cheek. I breathed and took stock.
‘You’re a dancer right? Well whatever you do,’ I asserted, more on gut feeling than anything else, ‘Don’t dance.’
I rubbed my head, trying to think of something. ‘You got anything else up your sleeve? Can you juggle… unicycle… sing?’
‘I can sing,’ he said with sudden assurance. Maybe, I thought, we’d both still get out of here intact. The confidence drained slightly from his face and he asked: ‘What should I sing?’
I’d come up with the idea, but that was about as much as my brain seemed to want to do. ‘All I can think of is bloody ‘Knees up Mother Brown’,’ I said, and I was damn sure that wouldn’t go down well.
What else? My old man’s a… No. It’s a long way to Tipp… Definitely fucking not. What then? What? Could we get away with something modern? Maybe, but that was a field of traps, a song-list of a half-century, any one of which might be taken as insult. Bohemian Rhapsody? Lucy in the Sky? I Can’t get No…
No: anything that occurred seemed to have some connotation, some of which I couldn’t even articulate, but that either way would make things worse.
‘Well?’ Milady pressed, the gaslight now darkening around us save for a spot in front of Aidan.
Choose the form of your destruction, I heard from Ghostbusters in my memory. The choice was made: Travers inhaled and stepped forward.
I didn’t recognise it to begin with.
I was instantly thankful he’d intuited that my mention of ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ wasn’t a back-up suggestion, but I was still dreading that moment when realisation came, realisation of which of the many terrible options out there he’d chosen (Knees-up Mr Staypuft maybe). The unreformed small-town ape in me expected some show-tune or George Michael. I was wrong on both counts, and artist or genre besides.
Travers had a good voice, deeper than I’d expected and rich and rough and textured in ways unanticipated. I’d flinched at the sight of Milady’s face contort in fury when she realised she wasn’t going to get what she’d expected, and relaxed now that rage abated as she was lured in to Travers’ performance of Shane McGowan’s Celtic folk-punk lament:
‘I’ve been loving you a long time,’ we’d heard while my head was working it out, ‘Down all the years, down all the days…’ Now we heard how some friends ‘fell into Heaven’ and ‘some of them fell into Hell.’
Milady leaned in, entranced by mortal magic her kind could never learn.
‘On a rainy night in Soho
‘The wind was whistling all its charms
‘I sang you all my sorrows
‘You told me all your joys…’
I realised with mild surprise that a fox had entered the scene. It stopped and sat quietly, not so far from a few rats and a bunch of mice that had popped up to listen (I thought I could make out a party of cockroaches in the shadows as well).
‘I’m not singing for the future
‘I’m not dreaming of the past…’
I didn’t know if koboloi responded to music or if the ugly blighters could even appreciate it. Either way some of them and now the rest, all except Charlie the pew, were taking the opportunity to sneak off.
My eyes went back Milady.
At first I thought it was just my imagination that since ‘the ginger lady by my bed’, her hair had gone from straight and gold to gentle curling auburn, russet, titian, the colour of sunsets and cider and hazel and leaves in early autumn. But the doubt vanished when the twilight darkened to night and a gentle summer rain came down, as if from a broken swelter to cool us and the cobbles of that otherworldly street of Soho…
Seeing her as she was then tugged things I couldn’t put into words. She looked so beautiful and so vulnerable I could have sworn myself to her right then or placed cold iron through her neck and I’d never have known which until the moment before.
I did neither.
‘Now the song is nearly over
‘We may never find out what it means
‘Still there’s a light I hold before me
‘You’re the measure of my dreams
‘The measure of my dreams.’
I led us back through the wisps of fog towards Soho-normal. I doubted the apple would cause further complications, but it was more reassuring to do it my own way and Aidan rightly figured not to interrupt or question what would have otherwise seemed idiot mumbling. The cobbles seemed to change texture as I recited the litanies, and retreat somehow with each blink if not every step. I was pretty sure I caught sight of a Huguenots cross on a wall as the fog dissipated; that good sign was followed by the far-off ring of a rickshaw bell, and then the drumbeats and voices of the local Hare Krishnas having a wander and mantric sing-song.
We turned a corner and found ourselves back at the street market on Berwick Street.
‘Is it… over?’ Travers asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘We’re back.’
It was early evening, and while the western sun could not reach between the buildings and into the street it was light still and warm.
‘Best if I look after that,’ I told him and he happily gave up the apple.
He took a breath. ‘That was fierce.’
‘Grand,’ he replied straightway – and he wasn’t, and yet he was.
This kind of thing leaves a mark, but the nature of the Other is such that unless you’re aware that it does actually exist it has a kind of narcotic effect. It’s the minds reaction, and its opportunity to process, an impossible experience. The best thing for Travers was for it to drift entirely from his mind. And that was possible – but it had to happen soon. Fortunately I had something in mind, something brought on by the memory of where I thought and hoped Travers might have been heading in the first place.
Wishful thinking then. But now…
‘Look mate – Marwood… Thanks. Thanks for everything. Is there anything I can do? Free tickets or… that sounds shite I know but…’
‘Fancy a pint?’ I said, the John Snow being handily just round the corner.
‘Does the pope shit in the woods?’
‘I bet he does,’ I said.
‘Me too. All on me right?’
Well I wasn’t going to say no and it was for his benefit anyway. A good session on top of otherworldy narcosis ought to do the trick.
He’d perhaps wake with the faint memory of some bloke who helped him with directions and with whom he’d randomly decided to get hammered. Somewhere in the halls of mind the faint image of all-but impossible beauty, regardless of his preference, would haunt distantly but not large enough to impact on whatever life he had ahead. So we headed past the stalls and round to the replica of the pump that the eminent physician tracked the cholera outbreak to a few hundred years back, and the pub named in his honour (rather ironically as I think he was a teetotaller but there you go).
Even if Travers wouldn’t remember the night I would and we had a great crack, whatever we talked about. I have the vague memory of some later point of him making a mild pass at me which I accepted as a compliment because, the old small town Neanderthal aside, I’m okay with that and, quite frankly, I was long overdue a compliment of some sort. I believe it was a little after that that I was gyrating to my own rendition of Mr Boombastic to an immediate audience of one of the premier dancers of the Royal Ballet Company.
I wonder what milady would have made of it.
Or John Snow. Or Good old Dick Whittington.
They call me Marwood and it’s your round: mine’s a pint.