From the author: The Royal Occultist confronts an avian entity of the Pictish persuasion and its worshippers.
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In the light of the flickering torches, strange shadows danced across the stone of the church. Men and women in rough-spun robes intoned hymns in a language not seen since the last King of the Picts had fallen to Roman swords and Roman treachery. A flat grave-marker had been uprooted and laid flat across a tomb and the woman, head lolling thanks to the drugged powder mixed with her cider, lay across it.
"Is that Welsh?" one of the two shapes crouched behind a row of headstones whispered. The question was followed by the quiet snap of a Webley's ammunition cylinder falling back into place. "Only it sounds like Welsh."
"We're in Cornwall," the second shape replied, peering over the top of a headstone.
"That doesn't answer my question."
"I believe it's a fairly archaic form of old Cornish. Possibly even Pictish, considering the glottal stops."
"Oh yes, we must consider those, mustn’t we?" the first shape said, leaning forward. In the firelight, a thin face the colour of cinnamon and spattered with freckles was visible. Ebe Gallowglass flashed a white smile and turned dark eyes on her companion and employer. "Can I shoot them?"
"No. Not yet at any rate," Charles St. Cyprian replied.
"Who is she?" Gallowglass said.
"I have no idea. A tourist, most likely. I noticed them drugging her in the pub. I believe we're in the right place, however," he replied, peering up at the church steeple, nearly invisible in the dark. He lifted a hand out of the slightly damp grass and examined it. "This whole place is a cairn. And we're on a ley line," he continued, with the assurance of one who knows his job. Which was only as it should be, considering his title and position.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and passed through a succession of hands since. The list was a long one, weaving in and out of the margins of British history, and culminating, for the moment, in one Charles St. Cyprian, late of Chelsea and Kensington. It was his duty to investigate and confront head-on the likes of which was occurring now in front of him, by any means necessary.
"Oh good, as if the creepy church wasn't bad enough." Gallowglass frowned and peered between the headstones. "I hope they can't hear us."
"If they could, we'd know it. These good townsfolk don't strike me as the voyeur-friendly sort, wot?" St. Cyprian dug his fingers into the earth, feeling the almost-physical hum of whatever lurked down there. God or man or something else, whatever it was, it was like licking a vacuum tube in full glow. He shuddered and looked up. The stones of the church were steaming and the tree branches were rattling like swords. “Something is coming.”
“Good, I was getting tired of sitting in the damp,” Gallowglass said, hefting the Webley-Fosbery automatic she habitually carried.
“After you,” St. Cyprian said, pulling his own pistol. The heavy little Bulldog revolver was a comforting presence as he let it hang by his side. They stood and Gallowglass cracked off a shot, extinguishing a torch in an explosion of sparks.
“Good evening,” St. Cyprian said, stepping out from behind the headstones. The crowd turned, eager faces going pale and worried beneath sack-cloth hoods. “Sorry to be a bother, but we’ll be taking the young lady home, I think. Ms. Gallowglass?”
“Who are you then?” someone snarled.
“People with guns, Vicar,” Gallowglass replied. People backed away from her as she approached the makeshift altar. “Really says it all, don’t it?”
The vicar was a heavy-set man, with clean-shaven jowls resting on his collar and delicate spectacles perched on his red nose; the funhouse mirror version of the jolly country vicar. He held a large chunk of hardened kaolinite, its colourful surface covered in scrawled words and images. He clutched it tighter as St. Cyprian approached. “You can’t do this!” he sputtered. “This is unlawful!”
“It certainly is. Please do feel free to call a constable,” St. Cyprian said, reaching for the clay tablet. “I’ll just be taking that, shall I?”
“Billy,” the vicar bawled.
A polished club snapped down on St. Cyprian's wrist from within the crowd and his hand spasmed, dropping the revolver. He spun, driving his fist into the gut of the young man who wore a crisp constable’s uniform beneath his robes. A moment later, he was bowled under as the crowd surged towards him. He heard Gallowglass’ pistol snarl twice, and twitching bodies rolled away from him. Several people screamed.
“Do get up Mr. St. Cyprian, we haven’t got all night, now have we?” Gallowglass said, standing perched on the altar over the young woman, her smoking pistol extended. “And pick up your gun, would you?”
“Thank you, Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said. “As quick on the trigger as ever.”
“We’re getting you a lanyard for that thing when we get back to London,” she said. She looked up. The trees were trembling down to their roots now, and stray leaves spiralled across the graves and danced through the dark sky like bats. The ground seemed to groan beneath their feet and a headstone slumped, shattering as it fell.
“Time to go, I believe,” St. Cyprian said, yanking the clay tablet from the vicar’s hands and heading for the altar. “Carry this, I’ll get the girl.” He tossed the tablet to Gallowglass. As he stooped to pick up the girl, he realised that the crowd had fallen silent. A new sound growled through the churchyard, a soft inexorable noise like a razor sliding slowly across a freshly-oiled strop. St. Cyprian looked up.
The shape slowly circled the steeple of the church, dark wings flapping steadily. It rose and dropped onto the roof, making barely a whisper of sound. Wide wings spread and a low-slung skull rotated oddly as red eyes met St. Cyprian’s own. It opened an orifice that was more beak than mouth and more mandible than beak and shrieked once, loudly. The sound hummed the length of his bones like a current from a spitting generator and wrapped his thoughts in razor wire.
The robed villagers fell to the ground. The vicar crawled forward. “Diawla,” he said. “Diawla.” The creature settled itself on its perch, its wings folded and its eyes on the unconscious sacrifice.
St. Cyprian swallowed. “Well...he looks feisty.”
“Big too,” Gallowglass said hoarsely. “What is that thing?”
“Diawla,” the vicar said, rising to his feet with a grunt of effort. “The Great Devil-Owl who visited our ancestors and brought them glad tidings for a grim future. This church, this village, was built on his mighty bones and we have sung hymns to him all unknowing...until recently, that is.” He adjusted his spectacles and extended a hand. “Give me the tablet, please.”
“Oops,” Gallowglass said, dropping it. It shattered as it struck the edge of the altar and the pieces scattered into the grass. The vicar’s face went pale.
“Ah-ah,” Gallowglass said, aiming her revolver. Above, the owl-man shrieked again. St. Cyprian grabbed her wrist.
“Probably not the wisest course at the moment,” he said. "Gods-even old faded ones-don't like it when you shoot their high priests."
“But I’ll feel better.”
“Not for long.” St. Cyprian looked at the vicar. “We're leaving."
"Diawla won't allow that, I'm afraid. We've promised him a sacrifice, and a sacrifice he shall have." The man frowned. "It's only a little thing, in the end."
St. Cyprian cocked his pistol and placed the tip of the barrel between the man's eyes, causing them to bulge. "I thought you said that was a bad idea," Gallowglass said.
"I changed my mind," St. Cyprian said. Above him, unnatural feathers rasped against one another like sheets of iron. He didn't look up.
"Wait!" the vicar screeched, waving his hands. "You don't understand! It showed us-!"
Diawla shrieked, maw expanding to impossible width. Images crashed through St. Cyprian's brain like duelling freight-trains. He saw fury and sound and muddy fields and burning wrecks. He saw starving bodies pressed tight to barbed wire and fed in orderly queues into hungry ovens. He saw the green fields of England reduced to craterous ruin. He staggered and his finger tightened convulsively on the trigger of the Webley. Its roar shook him from the clutches of the visions and he fell back.
"You see?" the vicar said, squatting beside him, the lenses of his spectacles gleaming. "You see? War is coming again. And this war will shatter us as surely as the last one only tried to do. An empire in flames and my parish reduced to smouldering ruin. But Diawla can save us! He has promised us-"
St. Cyprian lashed out, the barrel of the Webley swiping across the vicar's brow and knocking him backwards. He lurched to his feet and swung the gun around, driving the crowd back. Head spinning, he wondered dully how the deal had been struck with the gargoyle thing crouching on the roof above. Had it come to them, or had they gone to it? Did it even matter? What was the old saying? An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure...one life, for the lives of all. A good deal, if you weren't particular about the one life being spent.
"What is one trollop's life worth?" the vicar bawled, clutching at his bloodied face, his spectacles askew.
"More than I care to spend. Get her to the car!" St. Cyprian said. A shape-Billy the Bobbie-lunged for him and St. Cyprian plugged him through with the Bulldog. The crowd began to scatter in animal-panic; these were no hardened cultists, only scared village-folk, driven to murder by fear. The vicar was trampled under by his own flock.
Gallowglass dragged the woman off the altar and away towards where their car was hidden behind the trees. St. Cyprian followed, glancing up. Diawla was gone, but he could hear the sharp-edged wing-beats somewhere in the darkness above the trees. He ducked his head and ran. A black Crossley 20hp rose up in front of him like a sanctuary on four wheels.
Gallowglass was already behind the wheel and had the engine growling. Even as the tires skidded, throwing up soft soil, he threw himself into the passenger seat. Claws scraped on the roof. "Go! Go!" he bellowed, twisting around and firing up through the canvas roof. An alien screech caused his teeth to rattle in his jaw and then the Crossley was speeding along.
"It's following us!" Gallowglass yelped.
"Keep going! Get us past the town limits!" St. Cyprian said, pulling himself up into a sitting position. He glanced at the back seat of the Crossley, where the girl still slumbered. "It won't follow us past them...I hope."
"This isn't an exact science!" St. Cyprian snarled. A black shape swooped across the road ahead of them. It banked sharply and swam through the air towards them, red orbs blazing in the Crossley's headlights. The impact shattered the windshield and sprayed them both with glass and talons that were as much bone as smoke reached for them. Gallowglass and St. Cyprian fired as one and Diawla shot away from them, screaming in frustration.
"Would you look at that? Bullets do hurt it!" Gallowglass crowed.
"He's not hurt, he's just annoyed," St. Cyprian said, cracking open the revolver and reloading. "Our only shot at getting out of here is to get past the town limits!" They sped through the village, taking the narrow, twisty streets at dangerous speeds. Wheels left the surface of the street as they took a corner and then a country lane stretched out in front of them. The Crossley shuddered as something crashed into it from above and the canvas roof tore and folded. Eyes like twin red suns burned into St. Cyprian's own and again he felt the weight of the future-to-come.
In his head, Diawla spoke in pictures-crude bursts of ancient history that flapped like moths against his mind's eye. St. Cyprian saw the fall of the last king of the Picts and the burial of Diawla by Roman spades and Roman backs and he saw too the war that was coming. He heard the sibilant promises of the dead god-thing; promises of protection and safety and all for the cost of a life. One life for many. Just one ounce of prevention and the disease of destruction would never reach the village. Diawla was reduced to the ghost of divinity, but it could protect the ground where it was interred. That much it could do.
Then, abruptly, the eyes and voice both were gone and the Crossley slewed to a stop at the centre of the crossroads that led to the village. Gallowglass let out a shaky breath and looked over at St. Cyprian. "Are you all right?"
"No," he said, getting out of the car and looking back towards the village. Something black fluttered across the moon like a ragged shadow and he turned away, a chill settling on his heart.
"No, I'm not."
This story originally appeared in Cat of Nine Tales (Rookhaven Publishing).
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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