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The Written Word
a Lords of Misrule story
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"
Lewis Carroll (1871)
First off, let me just say I'm not here by choice. Given the option I'd still be in Berlin. But it wasn't up to us; we go where the bones point. Which puts us in the US of A, trying to track down an irritation the Elders can't shake. Koto's off on her shiny new bike and I'm stuck here in fashionable, old-money Boston, hoping Homeland don't realise we're back in their country. They're very possessive. And I don't like it here. I've never liked it here. Too many old ghosts.
Thomas English sat cross-legged on an uncomfortable bed, in a low-rent motel, facing the room's only doorway. A pistol rested in his lap; a precaution, nothing more. Just like the glyphs chalked over the fading blue paint on the inside of the door, the charms sewn into his clothing, or the medicine bag and oak wheel hung about his neck.
Despite an open window the room smelled musty, a faint exhalation of dry rot. It was an odour that reminded English of the Berchtesgaden library in Berlin; of dust motes spiralling in shafts of light thrown down from stained-glass windows, punctuating a gloom that lay over the reading room like a dirty gauze sheet. He liked the archaic library; it drew calm across him and banished the hustle of his disordered life. No, that was imprecise. His life had an order, but not one of his choosing; not since he’d stumbled upon the Sisterhood. They’d caught him in one of their chapterhouses, gloved fingers clutching an ugly Byzantine statuette. A dozen inscrutable eyes had held him, like a fly in amber, while an Elder circled him, nostrils flaring. The stench of his talent, the sixth sense he’d always relied upon, had saved him. Over the long years since he’d come to wonder if it hadn’t damned him too.
The Sisterhood enslaved him and gave him over to one of their own for training and control. Koto Kannon had made his life… interesting! And sometimes all he wanted was to pick someone's pocket and live for a while on the proceeds; to not worry about the things that observed humanity from the shadows.
Two miles off Interstate 93 and 11 miles north of the city of Boston sat the village of Lexford. An eclectic mix of French colonial châteaux and austere Quaker houses, it lay strewn haphazardly along a network of turnpikes radiating out from a small tree-lined common. In the tranquillity of a lazy autumn afternoon the intrusion of the two motorcycles was akin to an act of vandalism.
Way too quaint, thought English, who's preferred surroundings encompassed skyscrapers, noodle bars and bookshops. Kannon's opinion of Lexford remained hidden behind her helmet's smoked visor; not that her dark eyes ever gave much away. She slowed her bike as she neared the common, before swinging onto the east road toward Ballardvale.
A mile further on English slowed to a standstill behind Kannon's halted cycle, where she'd stopped outside the tumble-down stone wall encircling a house that, only charitably, could be called impressive. Kudzu, Virginia creeper and Devil’s Hair vied to reach the building’s rooftops, having already swallowed much of the first floor.
Kannon dismounted, perching her helmet on the bike's saddle, and began following a gravel path round the side of the house.
Pausing momentarily to remove his own helmet and survey the front of the building, the heavy front door, the closed window shutters, English trailed in his partner's wake.
He caught up with Kannon beside a rear porch, as she stood examining a sturdy oak door.
Within a swamp hickory thicket, somewhere behind the house, a lone whippoorwill sang to itself.
...from beyond it watched the male and female circumvent the warded entry...
Across the Threshold
English ran a gloved finger across the worn spines of an uneven row of leather-bound volumes, where they rested upon one dark wooden shelf among many. Despite titles in Latin, Greek, French, German and Hebrew, he could read each script, his lips moving silently whilst he translated. Encountering the final book on the shelf he called across to his female companion.
‘It's not here! No 'Book of False Demons' in any edition or language you'd care to nominate.’ He tapped the wood-stiffened binding on a folio volume, ‘he's got a decent copy of Unaspreken Culten!’
Kannon favoured him with a scolding look.
From where she perched upon the broad expanse of Osgood's mahogany desk, arms clasped about legs, chin on knees, Koto Kannon's oriental features creased into a deep and troubled frown. ‘It has to be here...’ She unfolded gracefully, to prowl soundlessly about Osgood's small but well-appointed library.
English raised an eyebrow. ‘Maybe it was all a bluff?’ then corrected himself. ‘Without the book he couldn't have known of the Sisterhood. And would've been no threat.’
Kannon waved a slim pale hand, taking in not only the library but the rest of the rambling, fake Elizabethan house. 'We have to locate and remove that book. If anyone else finds it then the whole mess begins over.' Osgood's unwelcome attempt at contacting the Sisterhood had precipitated their journey to New England.
English stared thoughtfully at Henry Bartholomew Osgood, seemingly sitting at ease in a wing-back leather chair. The man's death had been accidental, Kannon overreacting to an incantation Osgood had aimed at them. Still the pattern, though only partially evoked, had been intended to kill.
Kannon's stiletto protruded from Osgood's chest, the blade transfixing his heart. The glyphs etched in the steel would prevent Osgood's energies leaving the body, a safeguard against any patterns triggered at the moment of death.
English couldn't help but wonder where Koto replenished her seemingly inexhaustible supply of knives. Given that she left them stuck in doors and windows as wards, embedded in numerous objects to dispel patterns (the occasional person for a similar reason), she never seemed to run short.
Though his clothes, like Kannon's, had various protections sewn into their fabric, English obtained a psychological security from the pistol he carried under his chequered greatcoat. Knives had always looked too fragile, but he was forced to admit that Koto had extricated them both from more scrapes than he'd care to contemplate sober.
Leaping up, English sat upon the polished desk, legs crossed, occupying Kannon's vacated perch, but facing the corpse. He tapped a thumbnail against a tooth. ‘So, what sort of man was Henry Bartholomew Osgood?’
Kannon looked at her partner. She made a vague gesture with her left hand. ‘He was a side-show psychic with delusions of grandeur...’
‘Actually,’ English interrupted - he was disinclined to let Kannon rant about the pathetic megalomania displayed by the majority of male psychics – ‘he was an industrial chemist and a keen amateur naturalist.’
This fusion of science and the natural world seemed almost a prerequisite among males who manifested any kind or degree of talent. One day, thought English, some male psychologist will get around to explaining why; a female psychologist probably wouldn't bother. His own background had encompassed aspects of both disciplines, but acquiring the property of others had been a stronger draw than either industry or academia.
Kannon was still looking at him. Her face had relaxed back into the neutral oriental mask she habitually wore. ‘And?’ she prompted.
English fiddled with a Newton's Cradle that sat beside the telephone. ‘And so what can we deduce about his character from that meagre information? And from the fact that, apart from Mr Osgood's unintentionally relaxed posture, the only things out of place in this room are us!’
Kannon re-appraised the room in light of English's observation – the room did seem overly tidy; even the pale illumination of a half-dozen wall-mounted electric lamps carved straight lines through the internal twilight. Her instincts told her the layout of the room was more than happen-stance; its design spoke of purpose. Patterns and wards needn't be drawn out on surfaces, inscribed in stone or even vocalised. How two objects interacted could form a rudimentary pattern; a room-full more so. The sidhe were masters at forging links between objects; standing stones, earthen mounds, trees. Perhaps Osgood, through all his studies, had learnt some of the eldritchs' secrets. Aware of the depth of English’s abilities, a strong manifestation despite his gender and despite constant admonitions from the Elders, she was willing to run him on a freer rein.
She left the room with Osgood's body over her shoulder, still maintaining her finishing-school poise and balletic grace.
Alone in the wood-panelled room English let his senses wander, sub-vocalising his personal mantra and visualising the foci that unlocked his talent.
...it observed the male, saw skeletal fingers of power steal toward its domain...
...screams and laughter; curses; caresses...positive; negative...premonition; admonition...darkness and light...violence and pain...
...English snatched at the fleeting glimpse of hidden space inside solid form. Concentrating on the thread of a nebulous thought, he locked in on the distortion caused by a psychic stain imparted to the fabric of numerous volumes of lore by centuries of use and abuse. As he fought to catch hold of the phantasm the blood pounded in his temples and nausea soured his throat. Sweat beading his forehead, senses straining, English forced the tenuous contact to strengthen.
With a metaphysical rip the veil tore and the house released all its secrets. Staggered by the sudden surge, English fell to his knees and vomited.
When the psychic-storm abated, Kannon re-entered the room. English was sprawled in Osgood's chair, skin pallid and damp, breathing ragged. He raised a shaking finger and pointed at a section of bookcase.
‘There are eight volumes hidden behind the right-hand panel.’ His hand dropped lifelessly on to the desk. ‘Four bodies are buried in the cellar; one's resting in the attic. And there are two gabriels bound into the workings of the clock beside the fireplace.’
It took three hours for English to recover and for Kannon to prepare a suitable response to the threat they faced.
Blue chalk sigils were drawn across several of the wooden panels between bookcases, on the interior window shutters and the large doors. Despite this English couldn't shake a feeling of apprehension. Given the meagre strength of the wards upon the building's outer doors, Osgood hadn't seemed that capable, of not only summoning but bending the hounds to his will. But he'd sensed nothing else.
Hands on hips Kannon turned slowly to survey her efforts; they rarely had the luxury of preparing such effective defences. For himself English loaded his Walther pistol, then sat and observed his partner. When satisfied, Kannon beckoned English to stand beside her within the concentric circles she'd drawn upon the now bare, polished wooden floor of the study. English stepped over the blue chalk lines, careful not to disturb any of the symbols written into the space between the circles.
Kannon closed her eyes. She hefted one of her inscribed knives and threw it at the Victorian clock English had earlier indicated. The blade struck the mahogany body of the longcase clock, and with a thrumming vibration, buried itself an inch into the dark wood of the door. The atmosphere thickened; a half-dozen heartbeats thundered.
The temperature dropped; shadows encroached. English saw his breath condense in the rapidly cooling air. As he watched, darkness gather in the furthest corners.
Soundlessly, quickly, the round face of the clock distorted, twisted as if melting in extreme heat. The glass face exploded outward, fragments whipped into a vortex centred on the chalk circles.
Despite knowing what to expect, English flinched as the clock face shattered and the phantoms blew into the room. Temporarily unable to penetrate the protections offered by Kannon's warding circles, the gabriel hounds took solid form, drawing the glass from the air, dust from the bookcases and even loose threads from the worn furniture. Each appeared before one of the living organisms present in the study. Cŵn Annwn, Cù Sìth, gabriel ratchets; the names for the corrupted nature spirits were numerous, their legend spanned the globe. Conan Doyle appropriated the black dog and crafted the Hound of the Baskervilles, though his version wasn’t a frightened child’s cast off nightmare, a rabid dog drawn in a bad dream. Even as the apparition nearest Kannon took corporeal form, she threw a second knife. It struck the ghostly hound in its hindquarters, and where the sigil on the knife blade passed through the pattern that formed the essence of the gabriel, the pattern unravelled. In a flicker the hound once again became nothing more than a thought.
Through the fog of his breathing English stared at the phantom dog that had taken shape before him. He raised the Walther.
‘Bad doggy. No biscuit!’ He fired; as the slug touched the ghost-dog the inscribed rune released its energy in a violent flare that unmade the phantom to a score of vaporous tendrils.
A smile of triumph died unborn on English’s suddenly contorted face - pain ripped through his head; a lance of agony that again drove him to his knees. The Walther thudded to the floor. The hidden thing revealed itself.
‘Masque’ the word was a croak from a throat gone dry. English struggled against encroaching fear and darkness.
Crouched, knives raised, Kannon looked wildly about, searching for the source of her growing discomfort, for the power she could feel rising within the room.
Dressed in red and black motley, with rags bound about its feet and hands, a humanoid figure stepped from the grain of the clock’s wooden body. In its right hand it carried a knife of flint and auroch bone; in its left a thin switch of yew. Bloodless lips smiled, revealing teeth as sharp as a straight-razor. The eldritch spared a glance for Kannon, who now cowered against a bookcase, eyes downcast. Turning its back on the female the sluagh sídhe advanced upon English.
As the initial shock abated, English scrambled away from the creature he quickly recognised to be a fey. Beneath long, unkempt hair that at turns obscured or framed the sluagh's emaciated face, English glimpsed a black patch covering its left eye; the right glowed with a malevolent hatred. It was then English realised Osgood hadn't bound the gabriels, they'd been a gift; the spirits stolen from the pack of the Wild Hunt, that restless faerie host on its endless pursuit of the unknown - chasing after the demons that haunted the fey, in the same manner the fey haunted humanity.
Different societies produced different mythologies, but all shared the same fragment of truth, ritualised, stylised, in an attempt to take away the fear; Wild Hunt, Herlethingus, Harlequinade, the sluagh sídhe host was known by as many names as the spectral hounds it commanded.
Recovering his scattered wits, English circled the room, keeping distance between himself and the sluagh, which showed no haste in exacting its rage upon him. Neither did it seemed concerned that English's movements led him back to the Walther.
In a swift motion English scooped up the pistol, braced it in both hands and fired. The gunfire was deafening in the silence that had fallen; the sounds jerked Kannon from the fugue to which she'd succumbed. She watched as the enhanced bullets struck the creature; watched as the colour faded from the sluagh's clothing at each impact. But caused no other harm. In retaliation the sidhe pointed the yew branch at English, who felt his movements begin to slow, as if the very air were becoming solid. Panic gripped him, but struggle as he might, English could make little headway against the sluagh's power.
Rising to her feet Kannon looked at the knives she held, at the glyphs on the blades. She contemplated her options and realised that leaving English to die, or worse, was unacceptable. Replacing the knives beneath her coat she carefully drew two others. The glyphs were in a different script and the lines of each symbol possessed a faint luminescence.
Now almost immobile English was unable to either move the pistol or pull the trigger. Tongue playing across its teeth the sluagh raised the flint dagger, the point aimed at English's eyes. Emitting a shrill hiss the eldritch slashed the weapon forward.
English saw only a blur as Kannon lunged from nowhere, to deflect the blow of the blade of one of her own. The sidhe's dagger still made contact with flesh, incising a shallow scratch upon English's face, drawing blood upon his brow and cheek. A little deeper and the cut would have taken his left eye.
Ignored by the sluagh, Kannon had approached close enough to intercept its attack. Focussed solely on English the creature could mount no defence as Kannon slid her second knife into its back, severing the spine and puncturing its heart. The hiss of rage became one of pain and disbelief. Its single eye turned toward the female who'd assaulted it, but before the eldritch could react further Kannon speared her first knife through the widely staring eye. As the glyph detonated the sluagh became first earth, then air.
Released from the binding, English slumped to the floor, hands going to the wounds in his head. Despite the freely-flowing blood, they didn't feel too serious to his probing fingers, though pain from the cuts had caused an ache in the side of his face.
Standing silently for several heartbeats Kannon considered what she'd done and the likely consequences. Mouth set in a thin line she knew the eldritch had long memories and a price would, no doubt, be exacted. She turned to where English sat on the floor, using a scrap of blue cloth to staunch the blood. It wasn't in her nature to smile, but even in her almost fixed expression, her relief was legible.
After English had recovered sufficiently, they left; the house in flames. The two motorcycles roared louder than the fire, but made less of a lasting impression.
In the panniers on her blue motorbike Kannon carried the eight books English had discovered, one of which had indeeed proven to be a 1563 print of Johann Weyer's De Praestigiis Daemonum. On the two-hundred and second page occurred a single paragraph of seemingly innocuous text. But it mentioned the origins and nature of the Sisterhood and that was enough. Nothing within the library gave any clue as to the pact Osgood had entered into with the eldritch, nor was there any indication of what the sluagh had expected in payment for its service. That was one question among many for the Elders to consider.
For his part English had taken Unaspreken Culten, Rationarium Evangelistarum and a folio of Libre Mundi; along with a number of trinkets that would fetch a reasonable price at any antique market. The Sisterhood may have changed the direction his life had taken, but they hadn't arrested his penchant for opportunistic theft.
The headache the sluagh's attack had caused English was slowly abating, though the pain centred about his left eye was much slower to fade.
© Iain Henson 2013
This story has been viewed: 5321 times.
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