A long-dead, tormented and frightened Waymaster proved not to be the best or safest of pilots. We departed Tut Hill with a sickening lurch, and a rumbling shudder which sent everyone in the room crashing to the floor. We came down some interminable time later with an unpromising crunch. For a little while I lay inert, my every muscle aching and my poor head spinning dizzily.
Then Jay was at my side. ‘Hup,’ he said, and mercilessly hauled me to my feet. ‘Steady?’
I was, just about. Shaking knees aside.
Zareen was already vertical, and on her way to the door at a bouncing trot. Katalin and Mercer were on the far side of the bare little room, looking (to my secret relief) quite as shaken as I felt. And wary, too. Why? Had they not got what they wanted in bringing the cottage here?
Assuming we had arrived at the right place, of course. Zareen soon confirmed this, for having opened the front door a crack and peeped through, she proceeded to hurl it wide open and stomped out into the darkness beyond. ‘Ashdown ahoy!’ she called back.
That was when a third voice spoke. ‘Ashdown,’ it said, low and cracked. ‘I remember that name, of my youth.’ It was an old woman’s voice, the tones worn and faded by the passage of many a long year.
Dio sighed. ‘Go back to sleep, Maud.’
‘I think I will not,’ said Maud.
‘Ah!’ I cried. ‘How nice to make your acquaintance, Maud Grey. Or is it Greyer?’
‘Tis Greyer,’ she allowed.
‘Good. Excellent.’ I looked around. ‘And where might you be?’
‘They buried me in the back bedchamber,’ said Maud.
‘Buried?’ scoffed Wester. ‘Walled thee up, like the devil thou art!’
‘I am no devil,’ said Maud, winter-dry. Then she laughed, wheezing. ‘At least, no more than any Greyer.’
‘Who is “they”?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Who walled you up?’
‘My grandson,’ she said, with chilling indifference. ‘And granddaughter.’
Considering that Maud Greyer had herself interred the body of her own, freshly-hanged sister inside the cottage’s walls, I decided I did not wish to know any more about the Greyer family.
Bill, though, had no scruples. ‘Ves,’ he hissed, still stuck to the wall. ‘Have a care! There is nothing but evil in that one.’
‘How do you know?’
‘My mistress always greatly feared her sister.’
‘That is not true!’ shouted Dio.
But Maud chuckled. ‘It hath the right of it, thy odd creation. Thou wert always easily cowed.’
I felt a chill of foreboding. Dio Greyer, necromancer and High Witch of a powerful coven, found reason to be terrified of Maud? That did not bode well.
Whatever Katalin and George Mercer might know about Maud Greyer, it wasn’t reassuring them either. They had gone from wary to outright alarmed at the exchange, and I heard Katalin say in a fraught whisper: ‘She was not supposed to be here!’
‘Aye,’ said Maud. ‘They made fine work of me, did they not? Put it about that I had died of the Sweat, and into the wall I went with none the wiser.’ She paused, chillingly, and added in a musing tone, ‘I wonder what hath become of my descendants?’
I, for one, did not want to know.
‘I would like to be rid of these confines,’ continued Maud after a moment. ‘These rude walls, how they chafe after five hundred years!’
‘You must free me, but not her!’ Dio said. Her manner was commanding, but I detected a shrill note of fear somewhere behind.
‘And me,’ added Wester. ‘But never her.’
‘Thou shalt not leave without me.’ Maud’s words emerged barely above a whisper, but with a ringing power behind them that rooted me to the spot. ‘Thou shalt none of you leave without me.’
The door banged shut behind me. I could not even turn to see if Zareen had come back in; my muscles were frozen, and I could not move an inch.
‘I suppose you had to make her angry?’ said Bill venomously.
The walls rattled, and something dark and liquid began to seep through the whitewash and trickle towards the floor. ‘Um,’ I said, my lips numb. ‘Is that… that isn’t blood, is it?’
‘Yep,’ said Zareen, and walked past me into the centre of the floor. ‘You’d better stop, Maud Greyer,’ she said severely. ‘I will stand for no more shenanigans.’
I adored Zareen just then. Not only for facing Maud Greyer and her bleeding walls without a blink, but also for using the word shenanigans to describe them.
How exactly she was perambulatory when Jay and I and the two Ancestria Magicka operatives remained glued to the floor, well. That was another question.
‘Thou art no match for me,’ crooned Maud. ‘Fair potential thou dost indeed possess, but thou art but an acorn to my mighty oak.’ Blood began to drip from the ceiling, too, and to my horror a crack opened in the floor and swiftly widened. Something pale, unwholesome and smoky seeped through from below.
Zareen took all of this in with narrowed eyes, and nodded. ‘You might be right,’ she allowed. ‘Mercer!’
George Mercer’s head snapped up. ‘No!’
‘It’s not. Do something else!’
Judging from the silence, Mercer had no answer to this.
‘Stop being a wimp,’ Zareen ordered. ‘And stop pretending. The sheep routine’s getting boring.’
Mercer growled something, but he proceeded to push away from the wall he’d been leaning on, and ambled over to Zareen. This, apparently, came as much to Katalin’s surprise as to mine.
‘Zar?’ I tried. ‘What exactly is going on?’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said briefly. ‘But grit your teeth.’
She’d linked hands with Mercer, and to my stark horror her eyes turned black. I mean, Zareen’s eyes are almost black anyway, but all the whites filled in with solid black, too. ‘Can’t guarantee this won’t hurt a bit,’ she said.
Then the same thing happened to the eyes of George Mercer, and I shut my stupid mouth.
‘Ves?’ said Jay uncertainly.
‘Just do as she says,’ I said tightly.
Maud Greyer had figured her out, too, and she was not pleased. ‘Betrayer!’ she shrieked, losing her cool in fine style. ‘How durst thou turn the Arts against me!’ The floor washed over with blood, and it was bubbling and boiling; my feet began to burn. The walls shook so hard I expected the ceiling to come down at any moment and bury us all, and I could hardly hear Maud’s continued vituperation over the sounds of stones, tiles and beams all rattling against one another.
Zareen raised her voice to shout over the tumult. ‘Five hundred years!’ she intoned in an oddly ringing voice. ‘Ought to have been enough to learn some bloody manners!’
‘Spare me!’ shrieked Dio. ‘Spare John! We will do as thou dost bid us, and never seek to do thee harm!’
‘Sorry,’ Zareen said flatly. ‘Time’s up.’ Drops of blood leaked from the corners of her eyes, and from Mercer’s.
And, I realised, from mine.
A sharp, fierce pulse of pure power shot through the floor and raced up the walls. It manifested itself as a sea of shadow pouring forth from Zareen and Mercer and swallowed everything in its path — me, Jay, the book, all of it. That sea burned like lava and froze like ice, and every cell in my poor abused body screamed with pain.
So did I.
Somewhere in the distance I was aware of Dio and Maud Greyer and John Wester, making a cacophonous orchestra of indignation, fury and pain. But I had other things to consider, for besides the minor inconvenience of searing agony in my every organ, there were a few structural problems developing. The ceiling was raining chunks of plaster into the pools of blood below, and there came the splintering sound of stone cracking into pieces.
‘Zareen!’ I bawled. ‘You’ll bring the roof down!’
Too late. The splintering intensified, and a great, groaning tumult heralded the imminent collapse of the cottage. I had time only to grab what little magick I could muster, tears of blood pouring from my eyes, and weave up a shield before the roof shattered into chunks and rained down upon us.
My shield, shaky and feeble, did not last long. Neither did I. I’d thrown it clumsily over Jay, Zareen, Mercer and Katalin as well as myself, and I had the satisfaction of seeing it deflect at least the first wave of falling stone. But it could not bear up under the rest; my glorious, shimmering bubble dissipated into the air, a great slab of something distressingly solid collided with my head, and I passed out.
I woke up bathed in blood.
I cannot say it is the worst thing that has ever happened to me (don’t ask), but it may be imagined that I was not best pleased.
The cottage lay in rubble all over the once neatly-swept floor. Moonlight shone upon the pale face of Zareen looming above me, her eyes thankfully restored to their usual colour. ‘You alive, Ves?’ she was saying.
I took a breath, every second of which hurt like hell. ‘I wish I wasn’t.’
Her lips twitched. ‘Lies.’
‘Fine. I hurt, but I am relieved you didn’t manage to kill us all with your freaky shit.’
‘Nice work with the shield.’
‘Thanks.’ I sat up. Jay was leaning against the remains of a wall a few feet away, his black hair almost white with dust and a fresh bruise added to his already sumptuous collection. ‘Hi,’ he croaked.
‘You’re not dead either.’
Mercer was prone, apparently still out cold. Katalin sat guard by his side, cross-legged and heedless of the sticky, congealing blood she was sitting in.
All was quiet. The silence was eerie after all the noise of the past hour or so.
‘They’re gone?’ I said to Zareen.
She nodded once.
‘Uh huh. And what was that you did, exactly?’
‘Forcible exorcism.’ Zareen turned away and bent to pick something out of the rubble.
‘Did I know you could do that?’
Zareen didn’t answer.
‘Zar. Are you a necromancer?’ I looked sharply at Mercer. ‘And him, too?’
Zareen gave me a long, measuring look, and for a second her eyes flickered once more into deep, black pools. ‘Toil and trouble, remember?’ she said, and her voice was as bone-dry as Maud Greyer’s.
‘Does that mean yes?’
‘It means, don’t ask.’ Before I could speak again, she handed me her find — a book.
‘Oh, Bill,’ I sighed, stricken. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It would be ungenerous of me to reproach the heroine of the hour,’ said Bill.
I didn’t think so. It had not occurred to me to include Bill in my shield, and as a consequence he had been sadly crushed. He now sported three dents in his formerly pristine covers, and some of his pages were torn.
‘Zareen’s the heroine of the hour,’ I said. ‘Does it hurt?’ I tried to smooth his pages as best I could, a useless gesture.
‘I do not possess nerves, Miss Vesper.’
I winced, my own agonies not yet forgotten. ‘That sounds nice.’
‘It has its moments.’
‘What is that noise?’ said Jay, and hauled himself to his feet.
‘What noise—’ I began, but then I heard it: a thin, high-pitched whimpering coming from somewhere nearby.
Walking like an old, old man, Jay limped off into what remained of the next room. There were only the two rooms to the cottage, apparently, and the one we were in was by far the largest. Following Jay, I found what had probably once been the back bedchamber where Maud’s remains were interred. It was as empty of furniture as the other room, boasting only a dusty (and now broken) chair. The floor was thick with blood, rubble and debris, but in the wan moonlight that filtered through the empty window-frame I discerned a glimpse of something incongruously brightly coloured.
The whimpering gained in volume.
‘There’s an animal,’ said Jay, and ventured towards the window, stepping through the fallen stones with unusual care. He crouched, and began to pull away the wreckage from the corner.
A flash of pale, yellowish fur emerged, and Jay scooped up something tiny enough to fit into one cupped hand.
‘Here,’ he said, turning, and offered it to me.
I took it with infinite care, for it was a tiny, delicate creature, probably only recently born, and obviously in distress. It resembled a puppy, except its nose was much larger than that of a typical dog, and its forehead bore the tiny nub of a horn. I suspected, moreover, that when cleaned up and viewed in daylight, its fur would prove to be not so much yellowish as bright, sunny gold.
It was hungry, I concluded, for it seemed intent upon devouring my thumb. Fortunately, it had not yet developed much in the way of teeth.
‘Ouch,’ I said anyway, wincing a bit.
Jay smiled. ‘I think you are the properest person to take care of a tiny fluffy thing, don’t you?’
I beamed at him. ‘Without doubt. But how did it come to be here?’ I made to step past him to investigate the spot in the corner, but Jay got in front of me.
‘I wouldn’t,’ he said.
His face turned grim. ‘There were more.’
I didn’t miss his use of the past tense, and my heart sank. ‘How many?’
‘Two more like this one.’
I tried to get past him again, but he caught me and pushed me back. ‘They’re dead, Ves. No sense in upsetting yourself.’
‘Yes, because I’m marshmallow. You, of course, are made from solid rock.’
He just looked at me, his mouth grim and his eyes sad.
‘Fine, fine,’ I sighed and turned away, cradling the sole survivor of the wreck. ‘Zareen’s going to cry, you realise.’
‘She shouldn’t. They were not crushed. I would rather say they starved.’
‘Right. We’d better get this one to Miranda as soon as possible.’ I would have fed it on the spot if I could, but what did a baby horned puppy eat? I could offer it a whole feast of only slightly congealed blood only lightly seasoned with dust, but I doubted that would serve the purpose.
In the next room, Katalin and Mercer were deep in conversation with Zareen. I watched them for a moment, eyes narrowed, for it seemed to me that Zareen and Mercer were not quite strangers. Indeed, Zar’s actions of half an hour before had strongly implied that she knew more about George Mercer than we did. ‘Old friends?’ I said at last, when a lull offered in the conversation.
Zareen just flashed me an enigmatic look.
‘I know, I know. Don’t ask. We’re leaving on a mercy mission,’ I said, showing Zareen the puppy. ‘Can you deal with all this?’
It wasn’t fair to land her with that job, since by “this” I meant the wrecked cottage, the scattered bones of those who had once been interred within its walls, the sea of blood leaking all over the grounds of Ashdown Castle and, of course, the problem of the two Ancestria Magicka operatives who were still hanging around. But Zareen is equal to anything.
‘Go!’ she commanded. ‘Save the tiny, defenceless thing.’
‘We’ll send help from Home.’
‘That would be nice.’
‘Where’s the nearest henge?’ I said, turning back to Jay.
‘Assuming you don’t want to break into Ashdown itself at this hour, and in this state… too far to walk.’
I nodded. ‘Well then. I wonder if our Chairs are still there?’