|Piñatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice|
|A Fisherman's Guide to Bottomdwellers|
Nocturne – a night scene
John Henson Webb
a Lords of Misrule story
doors do not stop them
bolts do not stop them
they glide in at the doors like serpents
they enter by the windows like the wind
(extract from) Myths of Babylonia and Assyria
Donald A MacKenzie (1915)
The little girl danced across the meadow humming discordantly to herself; a cheerful nonsense tune that made her smile and raised her spirits. The sun was shining, the day warm; she was happy. Upon reaching the stile at the edge of the field she stopped and looked back. Trailing in her wake, as they always did when she sang to herself, myriad colourful butterflies performed their own dance upon the light breeze. Her smile widened and she laughed aloud.
Half-way across the flower-speckled meadow, following the path trodden down by the dancing girl, her equally red-haired but much less cheerful twin sister beheaded yet another white-and-yellow daisy. At her own pace she caught up with her twin, the latter still cavorting with the butterflies; spinning and jumping, lost in her inner world, playing with the insects, but away with the fairies.
The dog came awake, raising its muzzle above the confines of its circular wicker basket. In its instinct-driven consciousness the sleep-disturbing stimuli provoked a defensive response. Coming to its paws the dog stepped slowly from its bed, nostrils questing in the night-dark kitchen. A hush lay heavily over the room, pressing down with almost tangible force. Facing the outside door a growl started deep in the dog's chest, neck fur bristling in agitation.
A sigh; the faintest scratching; the doorknob rattled.
Rumbling through bared teeth the dog stared at the door, tail switching side-to-side. As the scraping came again, the dog's hackles rose, eyes searching for the source of its unease. Silent shadow flowed beneath, beside and over the kitchen door; tendrils of darkness snaked across the floor, the walls, the ceiling; shadow engulfed the mundane trappings of domestic life and rendered them into formless shades.
Claws scrabbling at cold linoleum the dog retreated into its small corner of the pack territory. Growls had becomes whimpers, its tail curled between shaking legs in a posture of submission. The dog recognised an old adversary. Its kin had protected mankind, their adopted pack, for long centuries and the shades had always been there, just beyond the comforting firelight, beyond the odour and noise of technology.
The shadows filled the room, every corner and crevice, before they tried to pass the inner door and infest the remainder of the house; but a power infused within the building thwarted their further movement. Above the silence, beyond the door, came a tapping-ticking noise, like too many clocks not quite running in synchronization. The shadows investigated the limits of their surroundings and then slowly withdrew.
In the now pitch-dark kitchen the dog unraveled.
Glover ran for his life, chest heaving with each snatched breath; with every step burning muscles threatened collapse. Abject terror propelled him on; his frantic footsteps echoing against the buildings that blurred by on either side.
Bursting from the oppression of the narrow mews, Glover found himself in a quiet cobbled street, bathed in moonlight and the inadequate illumination of too few streetlamps. Still in headlong flight he risked a backward glance, only to collide with a parked car. Winded by the impact he staggered, for a brief moment leaning against the vehicle, bile souring his throat. Fear overcame his exhaustion and sent him stumbling on.
Even over the noise of his own harsh breathing he could still hear the hated sounds of pursuit. Tears of pain blurring his vision, legs screaming their agony Glover tripped up a high kerbstone and went sprawling painfully across the pavement. The folio flew from his hands and scattered its precious contents. Behind him, inexorably, the streetlights were fading out one by one.
A breeze arose, stirring the scattered sheets of yellowed paper, tugging at Glover's clothes. Spectral fingers caressed him, stroking his grey hair, his pale skin. As the lights died their loss ushered in a despair so profound it slowed his laboring heart and smothered his fracturing mind.
With the darkness came a realisation of pain; pain inflicted by shadows armed with the illusion of sharp white teeth.
The gasping scream trailed away, fading into silence, swallowed by the gloom which now held dominion throughout St Cecilia Hospital.
Caught halfway along an arterial corridor leading, so the signs said, to A&E, Red Burroughs went motionless, heart hammering in her chest. A second agonised scream sent her scurrying for the imagined protection of the nearest doorway. The howl of anguish ended abruptly.
Flickering and waning the emergency lighting began to lose its struggle against the encroaching dark. Red pressed herself back against the double-door; the printed wooden sign at her shoulder said hospital chapel. She tried the handle; it was locked. Through the frosted glass there was a hint of movement, erratic and brief; instinct warned Red not to attract any further attention.
As always she was mad at herself; a consequence of the constant annoyance she suffered from all the imagined injustices life meted out – no money; no job; no boyfriend. But this time there was a cause, even if it was only for leaving the ward and the imagined protection of the three night staff. The plastic identity bracelet wrapped around her wrist a reminder of all her recent stupidities, including septicemia inflicted by two of her many self-administered piercings. She’d snuck out into the rear garden, provided for the enjoyment of convalescing patients, for a quiet smoke. She was almost calm enough for sleep when a ‘something’ caught her eye, a shifting of a patch of deeper shadow. Then all the lights began to fade.
Crouching below the chapel window she returned her attention to the corridor. Senses focused, she checked both directions. The way she'd come was now in total darkness, an uninviting prospect. Ahead the corridor stretched into twilight, appearing to be much longer than she remembered. About ten metres away, and on the other side of the corridor, more signs flanked another set of double doors and proclaimed them to be the entrance to Godfrey Maternity ward. Red scurried across the corridor, feeling momentarily exposed, slowly pushed open one door. Crossing the antechamber she entered the ward proper. Absolute dark lay over the long room, even the moonlight didn't penetrate the stygian gloom. And there were no sounds of newborn life; no sounds of proud parents, nor worried new mothers.
Red strained her ears, hoping for a familiar, everyday noise; but there was only the silence. Then the whispers reached her.
A susurration, like waves upon a pebbled beach, the voices ebbed and flowed about her; a caress, promises too faint to recollect, enfolded her in warmth and comfort. Red relaxed, her anxiety slipping away. She slid to her knees, tears starting in her pale green eyes. Relieved of all her many fears and worries by the half-heard words of comfort.
Then above the whispers she heard the footfalls - clicking noises like a dog's claws on the polished tiled floor. Red stared hard into the gloom, eyes fixed upon a glimmer coalescing in the darkness.
It took no deep empathy to know Thomas English wasn't happy with the assignment. Koto Kannon had tried explaining the situation various ways, but it always circled back to the stark fact that the Sisterhood needed Burroughs dead.
Standing in the herb garden of the London Chapterhouse, English repeated his answer. ‘I'm not an assassin!’ The anguish in his voice couldn’t be mistaken.
Kannon sat cross-legged on a patch of lush lawn, hands resting in her lap. ‘She’s dangerous because she doesn’t comprehend what it is she’s doing. She won't talk to us. Her actions could cause a disaster and kill many people, especially as she's within the city limits. If her experiment cascades the results will be horrific. The Sisterhood would prefer another approach, but for the greater good she must be stopped.’
Savagely ripping a handful of leaves from a sage bush English refused to face his partner. 'If it's so vital she's stopped can't another member of the Sisterhood do it?' A tone of desperation had entered his voice.
'No, we can't. Burroughs has thrown a wall around her home we can't penetrate. The Elders are uncertain as to how, but we've lost people already. If I try to pass the ward I could be killed; at least maimed.' Her voice had softened while she spoke. 'The Elders believe you'll remain untouched. You're male and the ward seems somehow aimed at females. We just don't understand how or what she's created. But the power radiating from her home is increasing and becoming unstable. The Elders have said it's likely you can use your talents without coming to harm, but be careful, Burroughs may sense you and retaliate.' She rose in a fluid motion and wrapped her arms around him, her dark, almond-shaped eyes fixed on his one good eye. 'I think they're sending you in because breaking into houses was once your vocation.' her smile was tentative. 'It's probably payback for the statue you dropped.'
As resignation overcame reluctance, the tension drained from English; Kannon hugged him tighter. 'I'll be just outside the ward. As soon as it drops I'll be there with you.' Her kiss upon his cheek was feather-light.
Though it stood apart from its neighbours, the house was unremarkable; a three-storey Victorian townhouse sited at the end of a cobbled mews. Outer stonework stained by time and the city’s pollution; sash windows requiring the remedial touch of a master carpenter. The old iron railings that fronted the property hadn’t seen fresh paint in a decade and the trees at each corner of the unkempt lawn were lifting the cobbles just beyond the fence-line. In the darkness of the early hours the building sat quiet and unlit, the blank windows reflecting the faint illumination of a streetlamp halfway along the mews.
From the vantage of a shadowed doorway English watched and listened, his good eye tight-shut, his deeper perception seeking any disturbance. Nothing; his ability could sense no tricks or traps. The Sisterhood couldn’t tell English where Burroughs’ ‘work room’ might be; it was most definitely within the house, but where they weren’t sure. So English let his ability fade and stood for a moment longer, appraising the building with the practiced eye of a thief. But he wasn’t the only one staring at the building. Scattered on the surrounding rooftops, innumerable cats, eyes shining in the sodium lamplight, also watched the darkened house. Though used to the odd activities of animals, whether real or the physical incarnation of spirits, their presence still unnerved English. He did his best to ignore them and maintain focus on the building.
Fifteen minutes later he crouched upon the wide sill of a first floor window, hem of his greatcoat trailing down, and slowly raised the wooden frame, keeping the sound of his entry to a minimum. The window became stuck when only half-open, but English was lithe enough to maneouver through the resulting gap.
The room was small, square, devoid of furniture and smelled of mildew. The old carpet still displayed the outlines of long-removed furniture; English pictured heavy oak dressers and wardrobes. No light shone around the door so he turned the knurled brass handle and gently tugged it open.
Once out on the landing he could see other doors, and a wooden switch-back staircase that led both up and down. He leant carefully into the void and counted floors; four – three above ground and a basement. Being methodical, he quietly headed upward, to search the place from the top down. He just knew the damned witch would have her ‘laboratory’ in the basement, probably complete with test tubes of bubbling liquids and a half-completed Frankenstein… Going up would put off the confrontation he still wished to avoid.
Reaching the top floor English paused in an area of deep shadow and once again allowed his talent partial release…
...smiles and laughter; sounds of joy and pain; music...patterns...discord...light and dark...violence and peace; screams and curses...
Leaning against the wall English let his pulse slow and the turmoil clouding his mind settle. As he regulated his breathing he became aware of a rhythm within the house which he hadn’t previously noticed. He couldn’t have identified the source, though it almost sounded like many clocks ticking; but ticking out of synchronization. At first he found it mildly annoying, the discordant sounds caused an irritation in his dead eye, but as he strained to make sense of the rhythm the irritation faded and a pattern emerged. He couldn’t sense the limits of the pattern produced by the sounds, it didn’t seem to repeat, instead unfurling and subtly altering as he listened. Realising he was becoming distracted, English resumed his search, pushing the rhythm to the limits of his senses.
Even with the ticking reducing the effectiveness of his ability, he sensed nothing unusual close by; with a sigh he began by checking the nearest room. This proved to be a master bedroom, and it looked like Burroughs wasn’t a tidy woman…
‘Bennachtaí. Bheath ian…concerned that her long association with the same human male has twisted her away from her true purpose. In the past she protected him against one of her own.’
‘She will heal when she returns to the dream.’
‘What if she brings a taint with her? If she should pollute the dream the way the humans pollute our world…’
‘She will heal!’
‘You know many Tuatha are against the Maidens being allowed back among us. Many would prefer to see them segregated. Her especially; she shows affection for the man.’
‘You, among the many! Such segregation would be no less than a living death.’
‘Then, perhaps, real death would be preferable.’
‘Their service to us should be rewarded in such a manner?’
‘They enter service in the knowledge it protects their people. Their lives are their service.’
‘Words! This is a vexing question that needs an answer, not evasion. Fare-thee-well Sister. Until we meet again…falbh anns a' aislinóideach.’
‘Soraidh go maith. Bheith ag aislinóideach.’
It had taken over an hour of deliberate progress before English reached the ground floor. Now he stood in a large kitchen, looking down at a dark stain that marred the linoleum. He couldn’t make out a shape, but its presence unnerved him. So far he’d found nothing apart from a few innocuous and powerless occult books. And that insistent tick-ticking. He knew his thoughts weren't clear; in his younger days he would have moved far more swiftly through a house twice this size and homed-in on anything of value without hesitation. Something wasn’t right. Either the Sisterhood were just plain wrong or they weren't telling him the whole story. He could feel no threat within the old building; on the contrary, he'd felt strangely buoyant, lighter on his feet, ever since he'd entered.
English contemplated the pistol he held in his right hand. He'd used it in service of the Sisterhood on numerous occasions, mostly against creatures of the dark, but sometimes against people. He’d convinced himself that those few instances were self-defence, but he had to acknowledge the Sisterhood had engineered those confrontations by sending him into harm's way. His memories of the killings were never clear; merely a hollow, sick feeling of guilt at damage done. The pistol returned to the deep pocket of his coat.
The final set of stairs led down. He now knew for sure that Burroughs’ 'work room' was located below. There was nowhere else to go; just down toward another confrontation.
He knew her as Koto Kannon; a nonsensical name, like all the human names they wore. She wore it as a badge of her service, and as a shield against the ill-feeling that radiated from the Tuatha and the Sidhe males she now seldom encountered. Before her call to service she’d answered to s'gealach'inío, but that was no longer her; now she was the object they’d crafted, shaped, like English, into a tool to act at their bidding.
She stood poised in the shadowed doorway previously occupied by her partner; her pale eyes watching the building. About her, scattered along the mews, other Maidens waited for the barrier to fall, their combined will constantly scratching at the wards, trying in vain to weaken the unseen defences. Burroughs’ continued defiance of the Aes Sidhe had to end, regardless of the cost.
Deeper shadow began to coalesce within the mews; ice rimed the flint cobbles; the already faint sounds of the city faded away. The Tuatha had completed their journey from elsewhere, drawing with them both the umbral darkness and the monster it contained.
In the troubled centre of her being s'gealach'inío feared that this could only end in blood.
Wooden benches and book shelves surrounded a square, low-ceilinged room with a floor of bare, packed earth. Upon almost every available surface stood a metronome; some clockwork, some powered by batteries. It unnerved English, but at least it was no mad scientists’ laboratory. Just the metronomes scattered among many books and other old objects, some of which radiated a power he could immediately feel. And standing in the farthest corner a figure watched him descend the last flight of steps.
Barefoot, her toes curled into the dirt floor, dressed in a simple linen gown, Amelia Burroughs remained motionless as the one-eyed man stepped down from the final wooden stair. She could feel the disturbance he caused in her pattern; his sadness and reluctance a jarring, angular intrusion among the soft, serenity of her immediate surroundings. The man came to a shambling halt.
‘For a hardened killer you’re not very self-assured.’ Her voice was steadier than she felt.
English stood for a moment, his aura a mass of spikes and razor-edges, flaring and retreating to the pulse of his distress. Finally he dropped to the floor, seated himself cross-legged before the woman.
‘I’m not a killer. I’d rather not be here, but I don’t have much choice.’ He kept his hands in his lap, trying to remain non-aggressive. Though there was not the slightest indication of power from Burroughs, English knew that some patterns took little time and effort to create; she was still a potential threat. But the room said otherwise; the lightness he’d felt resounded all the more within it, an almost palpable feeling of well-being, despoiled by the imperative of his mission.
‘Your’, he waved a vague hand, ‘experiments are dangerous. The Sisterhood need you to stop before something really bad happens.’
Burroughs snorted. ‘Sisterhood! The Aes Sidhe want me dead and they send their pet killer! I know of you; the one-eyed man who does their dirty work!’ Though her voice did waver, she stared down at English, fists clenched by her sides. ‘You’ve already murdered my boyfriend, you’ve killed my dog. I’m not scared of you or the bitches you work for…’
‘No! You could do a lot of damage and the Sisterhood just want you to stop!’
‘The Aes Sidhe want me dead! They don’t understand what I’ve discovered, just that it threatens their control. The Sisterhood… The Covenant. It’s all a pack of lies and I’ve seen through it!’ Burroughs advanced a few steps, fists now raised. English scrambled to his feet but left the pistol where it was.
Seeing the confusion and reluctance etched plainly across English’s face, Burroughs halted and drew several deep breaths.
‘What I’m doing down… all I’m doing… there’s nothing in my experiments that can harm people… Humans. Don’t ask me how it happened, but I found a pattern within musical rhythms that undo the glamours the eldritch use – the ‘spells’ they cast to hide themselves. If they come too close the glamour drops and they’re exposed for what they are. And they’re helpless.’
‘But the eldritch have hidden for centuries. The helped form organisations like the Sisterhood and created the Covenant to protect humanity from the darker creatures that…’
Burroughs snorted, ‘They sure did a number on you!’
When English remained silent, Burroughs continued.
‘The Covenant is a lie. Always was.’ She walked past English to one of the low bookshelves. ‘The Covenant says the Sidhe will remain hidden and in return mankind will leave them alone. Total bullshit! The eldritch are very much active. They find it easy to hide because the majority of modern society don’t believe in them. Nothing aids a masquerade like willful ignorance!’
Burroughs picked up a book and listlessly riffled the pages, her attention fixed on English. ‘I’m not the first to find patterns in music. People like Gurdjieff, who didn’t see the whole picture but got glimpses; people like Mozart, who got too close. The Sidhe had him killed.’
‘Why would the Eldritch do any of this?’
‘Why do they do anything! You’re the collaborator – you tell me!’
Shaking his head in negation, English spread his empty hands. ‘The Sisterhood… the Elders, they said the Eldritch retreated from mankind, but some of the creatures that once shared their world keep coming back. I’ve fought enough to know that’s true…’
‘Bullshit! The Sidhe send them on purpose.’
Burroughs watched as English struggled to frame a coherent response to her accusations; it looked as if the musical rhythms interfered with his ability to think clearly. Maybe he wasn’t such a willing pawn; perhaps his association with the Eldritch was more one-sided than he realized.
Moving slowly, English lifted the pistol from his pocket, extracted the magazine and racked the slide to demonstrate it was empty. Then he set it on the dirt and dropped to his knees.
‘I use to be a thief, still am when the opportunity arises. I was quite good; high-end antiques mostly. Always thought I had really good luck, getting past alarms, or people; finding a few small items that brought the biggest profit. Went all over Britain; stately homes, museums. Then I chanced-my-arm in Europe; in Paris. Good pickings for a while, though I never made as much as at home. Saw what I thought was either a nunnery or some other religious building; climbed a wall, saw a really ugly statue, then in through an open window… And that’s all I can really remember. Mostly it’s just a blank; an empty space. I think I remember a circle of faces and a broken statuette, but that’s about all.’ His face had settled into a neutral expression, anger and distress ebbing from him as he continued to speak. ‘After that I travelled all across Europe and even to America a few times; went where the Sisterhood sent me. But I just don’t remember most of it… Some mornings I wake up and I have no idea where I am. Or how I got there.’ A slow tear descended his cheek and was lost in his beard. ‘I’ve killed things. Monsters. But people too. I always thought I was the good guy. I’m not sure anymore.’
Crossing her ankles, Burroughs sat before English, the book still cradled in her hands. She didn’t know how to say what was needed without being brutal.
‘The Sidhe are systematically removing humanity’s defences. I doubt they intend to attack us physically, but they do have other methods.’ She opened the book’s heavy covers and turned pages as she spoke. ‘In a way I’m not sure I even blame them. They’re more ‘of’ the world than we are, and the Aes Sidhe have been badly affected by our actions. Ever since the Stone Age we’ve been poisoning them; our civilisation pours its shit into the sea and the rivers, sprays it onto the land and pumps it into the sky. And it all ends up back in the earth. Before they started attacking, almost from childhood, I was on good terms with them and I know how few children are born to them anymore. And many of those are twisted reflections of what they once were.’ She settled on a particular page in the large book. ‘What you call the Sisterhood is…’ she traced a line with a finger, ‘…the Sisterhood of the Blades, the Scian or the Knives of the Aes.’ Her finger stopped moving.
‘”The witches of the Sidhe govern their society. Their subservient men now remain deep below ground, unable to sustain the glamour the females are able to conjure. The Sisterhood of the Blades dispatches its Blade Maidens on matters where violent intervention is required. The witches, called Tuatha or Sanmhairé, direct these actions from their dark dwelling in An-sìth-chræith, travelling the world between.”
Burroughs closed the book and laid it gently on the floor. An ironic smile fleetingly crossed English’s face as he recognized the volume - Book of False Demons, written in 1561 by Erasmus Hom - he’d helped destroy a dozen copies over the years, though he’d never been allowed to read through it.
‘I can show you any number of old books that refer to the Sidhe. Sometimes they’re painted as the good guys, other times the bad.’ Burroughs waved an arm at the shelves behind her. ‘In an 18th century translation of Ludwig Prinn's De Vermis Mysteriis, they’re referred to as the “shadows under the hill”, who fought alongside the Picts against the Romans.’ She pointed to a specific shelf. ‘In Cornelius Agrippa's 16th century Occult Philosophy they’re said to kidnap children and suck the life-force from men.’
She looked English in the eye. ‘Do you remember travelling? I mean flying or going by boat, or even on a long train journey?’
He tried to remember, tried to recall the journeys, to picture passing scenery, the days changing; but his past unfolded in erratic jumps; a montage of cityscapes, old buildings, dark woods and quaint villages. There was no sense of continuity. Head in hands English let the memories come, trying to put them into a sequence that made any sense; that provided a structure he could follow and know his life belonged to him.
...Scraps and tatters and curved talons of fragmented stone; nightmare spawn seeking the blood of men...detonation of a pistol and the concussion along his raised hand; smells of cordite and human screams…a dead sorcerer in a wing-back leather chair; a blade of etched steel transfixing a once-beating human heart...burning books; burning buildings…bright spirits of nature and the darker spirits of humanity; crows, bears, magpies and men…thundering roar of motorcycle engines…days and nights; the golden glow of summer, the crisp bite of winter...smiles, laughter; joy and pain…discord...straight edge of violence and warm embrace of peace; screams and curses…a blur…fragmented. Incoherent. All and everything…
As English’s talent unwound, a flailing, broken mainspring, a slipped ratchet, he half-rose then fell backward, to stare unblinking at the wooden slates of the cellar’s ceiling. Pain flared in his head; brilliant points of light burst and died across the darkened lens of his dead eye. A vision of red and black motley, a knife of flint and auroch bone; bloodless lips drawn in a rictus smile. The world, such as he perceived it, receded.
For a moment she thought he’d died. Burroughs lurched to her feet, but as she crouched above him the even rise and fall of his chest stilled her rising panic.
‘Cuir ai sheladh amch cythraul! Brisedh síos ar y bacadh! Sheevra! Sluagh! Scríos y bacadh!’
In the doorway that hid her, s'gealach'inío watched in silence as the creature detached itself from that almost living darkness that confined it, dragged itself free of spectral shackles to stalk toward the old house. Hatred radiated from the sluagh, almost drowning the faint spark of sorrow emanating from the fading remnant of the human female to whom the Tuatha had shackled the demon.
She’d always felt pity for waifs and strays; for the half-starved birds that alighted in her courtyard garden, for the threadbare cats that mewled upon her stone doorstep. The man in the checkered greatcoat was more piteous than any half-dead animal. He lay there, tears flowing freely, sobbing at the memories he’d lost, the life he’d only half-lived. It seemed sensible to let him reach his own destination, however forlorn, rather than interrupt this spiritual journey. But an interruption came.
Sorrow shoved aside, English sat abruptly upright, listening. The sound of glass shards striking a tiled floor was quickly replaced by the complaint of door hinges needing attention.
Burroughs and English exchanged a worried glance. Burroughs’ fleeting look encompassed the cellar – her metronomes continued their timekeeping ticks, undisturbed by the commotion above. Scrambling to his feet English snatched up the Walther pistol and racked the slide. Safety still engaged, he half-raised the weapon toward the stairs.
Noises from upstairs resolved themselves into the faint slap of bare feet on tiles and then to the creak of the cellar door opening wide. For a moment all remained silent, then came a sigh and a nightmare descended the last few steps.
‘Red!’ Burroughs tried to push past English, startled and dismayed to see her twin come stumbling into the cellar. A torrent of inchoate rage swamped English as he tried to focus on the shambling figure; all he could perceive was a distorted human form, blood oozing from tears in its skin, cold rage burning behind crimson eyes. It radiated a savage pain as it forced itself through the barrier of the ticking rhythm, only the body it had stolen shielding it from destruction.
English threw out an arm to block Amelia’s passage, knowing without conscious thought that the approaching creature was no longer Red Burroughs. Neither was it alone – wisps of shadow cavorted about the figure, darting and looping about the confines of the cellar; striking against the metronomes, their merest touch stopping the mechanisms, peeling apart the intricate layers of Burroughs’ rhythm. Some had the look of dust motes, others the flicker of escaped embers; still more remained invisible to human eyes, only the sounds they made registering.
Amelia Burroughs’ concern was for her sister, disturbed at the unkempt and emaciated appearance her twin presented. English’s flailing arm carried no strength, she pushed it aside and threw herself toward Red.
In the confines of the cellar the first shot deafened her. It struck Red Burroughs in the right eye and ripped away half of her head. She didn’t fall and the howl that emanated from her distended mouth caused Amelia to back away in abject terror, stumbling and falling. Beneath the skin that had once housed Red Burroughs another being lurked, one not easily slain by mortal means.
Amelia Burroughs had never faced one of the sluagh sidhe, but Thomas English had.
Struggling against deep-seated fears but empowered by a growing anger, English held the pistol as steady he could and emptied its magazine, one deliberate shot after another, into the sluagh. The realisation of his servitude appalled him; even here he’d been nothing more than a distraction, a marked card in the sleight-of-hand the eldritch had performed. Thirteen slugs struck sidhe in the head and chest; thirteen impacts, any of which would have instantly killed the woman who once wore the ripped and shredded skin. Where the bullets tore into the sluagh the wounds bled a sickly yellow light along with the crimson blood. Ignoring the damage the sheevra, the skin-walker, stood firm, its attendant spirits continuing their mad cavort within the underground room, the metronomes falling silent in quick succession, a thin whispering replacing the ticking.
Ignoring furtive noises from upstairs, and having emptied his pistol into the sluagh, English screamed out his frustration and rage, leapt forward, to pound the ruined head with the butt of his pistol. Spattered by fragments of flesh and bone his manic energies tore free, illuminated by the unhealthy glow revealed, English released his vehemence into the sidhe. Amid the whirlwind of half-heard voices, tiny claws raked his skin; myriad teeth worried at his flesh. Within moments both the sheevra and the human were bloodied phantasms.
A sprawled heap upon the dirt floor Amelia Burroughs, rendered deaf by the gunshots, cried and shrieked as she watched the bearded man feverishly assault her sister. Unable to comprehend the frenzied violence her consciousness lapsed into a dreamworld of butterflies and sunshine, of gaiety and laughter. As her mind defended itself with delusions of peace, she failed to see the slight, pale-skinned figures enter the cellar.
Leading the troop of Scian who flowed into the basement room, s'gealach'inío cried out at the grievous wounds the fae had inflicted upon English. Snatching his bloodied head in her right hand she thrust a dagger toward his dead eye; the sigil-etched blade pricked him high on the cheek, the runes released their power…
I felt a tap upon my shoulder; turned slowly and noiselessly to face Koto. Despite the moonless night I saw where she pointed, to the toppled menhir that rested to the west of the stone circle. Crouched upon it was the indistinct, dog-shape shade. Koto raised a dagger; the sigils glowed balefully on its burnished blade; a Gabriel, Cŵn Annwn, Devil dog. We were in serious trouble. I'm almost out of bullets, Koto's covered in her own blood and now we're facing someone's cast off nightmare. I'm not at all happy…
… a wind blew through the trees, raising dust around the standing stones. Blood flowed freely from the many minor wounds that criss-crossed his flesh, but English continued pounding the skull of the gabriel with the butt of his empty pistol. When the Gabriel physically manifested to attack, English had replied in kind; when the Walther pistol discharged its last bullet the scared human had released his fear as anger. Bone finally cracked and a gory tide unleashed; English staggered and collapsed, falling into darkness as loss of blood bore him down…
Held between two Scian, Amelia Burroughs watched the man buckle, falling across the twitching corpse she finally realised no longer belonged to her sister.
Wrapped in a bodice and skirt that seemed to draw darkness about her, a Maiden crouched beside Burroughs, her large eyes drawn to thin slits, her mouth a grimace of distaste. Captured by the depthless eyes, Amelia Burroughs neither saw nor felt the etched blade that pierced her through the heart.
As if he weighed nothing, s'gealach'inío carried the fallen man from the building. Her sisters set a fire that reduced the building to a blackened shell; books, irreplaceable artefacts and two corpses were consumed by cleansing flames that brought joy to the hard hearts of the Tuatha.
A wren darted across the lawn of the Sisterhood Chapterhouse and disappeared into the relative safety of a mature sage bush. What little cloud crossed the pale blue sky was high and thin; birdsong enlivened the morning. Swathed in bandages and dressed in a white linen shirt, English lay upon a soft bed and watched daylight play through the window of his room. Beside him Koto continued to recount the tale of their defeat of the gabriel. Unable to focus on specific detail, English was content to sip sweet tea and listen to his partner’s lilting voice, lost within the rhythm of her words and the comfort they afforded him.
After she’d departed and he’d dozed for a while, English sat on the deep windowsill and watched the sun draw shadows from the shrubs and trees. Uncertain as to why, he kept finding himself humming an odd, discordant tune. He couldn’t remember where he heard it, but it made him feel happy and relaxed; even his numerous wounds stopped aching quite so much. Elusive, colourful movement caught his eye. Butterflies had begun to gather.
See I was told a tale
Of witches in a box
Lift the lid and spirits rise,
And I see them now, of course
13 Little Dolls
Sophie Ellis Bextor
The Lords of Misrule sequence will conclude in Grey Mare...
© Iain Henson 2015
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Ironspider - For those with a penchant for reading a series in order, and for completeness, the Misrule sequence is: The Written Word, Transgression, Hanging Stone and then Nocturne.
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