From the author: The Royal Occultist hunts a barghest through the snickleways of York.
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The moon rode high over York, and its silver light sluiced over the city’s snickelways, filling the narrow paths and crooked alleys with shadows. All across the city, dogs had set to howling with the sunset and doors were hastily bolted and windows shuttered. The streets emptied as the shadows spread, as some atavistic impulse sent men and women scurrying for the safety of thick walls and lockable doors.
York was old, and had many strange currents, and those who lived there knew better than to ignore the silent warning to the curious that seemed to vibrate through the ancient stones of the city’s walls and gates. This was not a night to be out and about. Not this night.
Some, of course, inevitably ignored the warning of the stones—the lost, the lonely, the drunk, the tourist, and, in this case, the hunter. The latter sat on an upended milk crate in one of the city’s many snickelways, a bent lane called Dog End, smoking her fifth cigarette of the hour.
Beneath the brim of her flat cap, Ebe Gallowglass’ gaze swept the shadowed recesses of the medieval pathway through the haze of smoke rising from her cigarette. After a moment, she pulled it free of her lips and dropped it to join its fellows, still smouldering at her feet.
“Anything?” she said softly, trusting her voice to carry to where her confederate waited nearby. Charles St. Cyprian sat behind the partially closed alley door of one of the businesses that abutted Dog End, his Webley Bulldog in hand. If she turned around, she could just make out a slice of his dark grey Savile Row suit visible through the crack in the door.
Even squatting in a dim, damp alleyway, St. Cyprian dressed as if he were heading to a meeting at No. 10. In contrast, Gallowglass wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Soho dive or a betting shop, if one discounted her gender.
“No, and keep quiet. You’re the bait, remember?” he said.
“I remember,” she muttered, and lit another cigarette. “I’m always the bait.”
“You’re my apprentice. Apprentices are de facto bait.”
“I’m your assistant, and I want a wage increase,” she hissed, expelling smoke from her nostrils as she chewed the cigarette.
“You don’t get paid,” he said.
“That’s why I want a bloody increase,” she said.
“It’s not in the budget. Now quiet down. We don’t want to scare it off.”
“Not bloody likely,” she growled, but fell into a sullen silence.
After a moment, and in a tone of apology, St. Cyprian murmured, “Part of the job, Miss Gallowglass.” The job in question was that of Royal Occultist. The office was charged with the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of the eldritch, infernal and unnatural, by order of the Crown. Those responsibilities had passed through a succession of hands since the days of Good Queen Bess. St. Cyprian was its most current bearer, and together, they had fought things most people thought were myths. She had the scars to prove it.
Gallowglass reached surreptitiously under her coat and traced the seal of Solomon carved into the butt of the heavy Webley-Fosbery revolver that was holstered beneath her arm. She looked up. The two sides of Dog End sagged towards one another, creating an impromptu cathedral effect, and giving the shadows more room to play.
It had a bad reputation, Dog End. Every few years, some unwary soul traversed it on the wrong night in the wrong season of the wrong year and wound up throttled and gnawed, like goose caught by a fox.
There was an unbroken line of bad, black murder stretching through the centuries, back to when York was still Jorvik. Something lurked in Dog End on certain nights, something that stank of the Yorkshire moors and old stones and deep, rotting wells. It rode the lengthening shadows of the dusk into the city and padded across the roof-tiles on a mission that had been swallowed by history.
No one lived in the empty flats that flanked Dog End, and those unlucky enough to live on the streets at either end discovered religion early in their leases, if they didn’t simply pack up and leave after the first night they heard the hiss of claws on a window pane or saw the marks on their doorsteps.
‘The Devil of Dog End’ was what the local citizenry called it, though St. Cyprian referred to it as ‘the current docket’. Two nights previously, a rookie constable had responded to a cry in Dog End. They’d found his helmet the next morning, and not much besides. He’d blown his whistle, but there’d been no one nearby foolhardy enough to respond. Once, that’d been the end of it. But nowadays, not even a devil could get away with murdering a constable, without facing the King’s Justice, whether it came at the end of a rope, or in the form of .455 calibre cartridges, crafted from melted down church bells.
One of the lights that illuminated the street beyond Dog End flickered. It was a brief thing, but Gallowglass noticed it nonetheless, and her fingertips pressed to the butt of the revolver. Above her, the stars and moon were blotted out for a moment. Something had passed between them and her, across the rooftops. A chill slithered the length of her spine, as if she’d heard the howl of some great beast, though the night was dead silent.
“Showtime,” she muttered, rising to her feet. The evening fog rose up in wisps and coils from the uneven surface of the street. She flicked aside her cigarette and plumped a fresh one between her lips, though she didn’t light it yet.
“Be careful,” St. Cyprian said.
“Tah,” Gallowglass said, pushing away from the wall of the alley. She weaved and wobbled a bit, as if inebriated. From above, she probably looked like any other punter, stumbling home from the pub. Above her, something rattled across the stone tiles of the rooftop. The stones seemed to sigh around her, as if in resignation.
When the cry came, it seemed to emanate from every direction at once. Gallowglass stopped. She had reached the centre of the alley, where the moonlight stopped and the shadows began. The cry came again, bursting from a nest of shadows. She stepped towards it, only for it to echo a third time, from the opposite side of the lane. She looked around, bobbing slightly. Just out of the corner of her eye, she caught a black something slithering low over the ground. It moved too swiftly for her to follow, and she didn’t bother to try.
Instead, she hunched forward and made to light her cigarette. Something scraped on the stones above her head, and a shadow fell over her. She span about, dropping the cigarette and drawing her revolver even as she fell onto her back. Dog End reverberated with the crash of her pistol. The black shape twisted as it fell, and gave a shriek. She rolled aside as it landed heavily.
A long arm, hairy and oddly jointed, lashed out, and her coat sleeve tore at the touch of hooked claws. Eyes like red lamps met hers and she scrambled to her feet, Webley extended. It bounded to its feet and lunged for her, jaws wide. She fired again and again, backing away.
It fell and squirmed away, shuddering. “What the hell is it?” she coughed, absently rubbing her torn sleeve. It was at once a dog and an ape and worse things, wrapped in stiff hair and reeking of deep places. It moved with a sort of boneless whiplashing, limbs bending and popping with no consideration for anatomical limits. It had a face, of sorts within the hair, like that of a withered old man and a mouth filled with snapping wolf-teeth.
It stank of evil places and she gagged as its odour reached out towards them and filled Dog End. Everything felt damp, not from the fog, but as if they’d stepped into a dripping cave, where the rocks always ran with chilly water.
“Barghest,” St. Cyprian said, stepping out from his place of concealment, his own revolver aimed squarely at the thing. It humped towards him suddenly, resembling nothing so much as an undulating animal-skin rug, and his pistol barked. It screeched and reared up, impossibly large, larger than it had first appeared, almost filling the alleyway.
“From the old English burh-ghest or ‘town ghost’,” he continued, as he set his feet and fired again. Gallowglass did the same, firing until the Webley clicked dry. “A damned soul made flesh, seeking impartial vengeance on anyone unlucky enough to cross its path,” St. Cyprian continued. “There’s one near Darlington that looks like a headless man. But this one has a pedigree going back centuries...”
“Well isn’t that lovely,” Gallowglass said. “Doesn’t look like the type to give an autograph, if that’s your intention.” She ducked aside as it clawed at her. Its claws gouged the brick of the wall, and she was peppered with brick dust.
“Well, he’s hardly Lionel Barrymore, I must admit,” St. Cyprian said. He jerked back as a clawed hand swiped at him. It ripped the buttons off of his coat and tore the end of his neck-tie off. He cursed.
“I don’t think the church bells are working,” Gallowglass said.
“They’ll work,” St. Cyprian said through gritted teeth. He fired again and the barghest reared and shrieked and its long arms tore at the roof tiles. Tiles crashed to the street, causing St. Cyprian and Gallowglass to hop back. They were slowly, but steadily being driven out of Dog End.
“We’ve shot it so much it ought to be bloody clanging when it walks,” Gallowglass snarled, cracking open her Webley to reload. She jerked the pistol to the side, emptying the cylinder, as St. Cyprian moved in front of her, firing his Bulldog again.
“They’ll work,” he said again, desperately. “The sound of church bells is the way to send a barghest packing, traditionally. Shooting it with them ought to be—oh bugger.” The last two words were directed at the revolver in his hand as the cylinder clicked hollowly.
“Then maybe we should have done this in a bloody church,” Gallowglass snapped as she grabbed the back of his coat and hauled him back. She levelled her pistol as he stumbled aside. The barghest advanced, growing and screaming. Dog End seemed to shudder and quake in time to the creature’s writhing and howling as it squeezed forward, its hair rasping against the stones like steel wool over corrugated metal. Gallowglass fired as St. Cyprian pawed at his pockets.
“I’m rather afraid I’m out of shells,” he said. His voice was deceptively calm.
Gallowglass didn’t reply. The Webley-Fosbery bucked in her grip once more and then gave a despondent ‘click’. “Me too,” she said as she lowered the pistol. The barghest loomed up over them, its eyes burning like snapping torches. It resembled nothing so much as a great shadow, save for its drooling maw and its burning eyes. The shadow stretched towards them.
And then, like torches caught by a strong wind, its eyes went out. The thicket of fangs seemed to slough backwards into the darkness and the undefined shape of the thing slumped, like snow sliding off a roof-top. The black shadow that had filled Dog End came apart all at once, collapsing in clumps. A number of flattened slugs struck the cobbles, sounding like tinny bells. Last to go was the sense of oppression, which lifted and faded like a morning mist. Then, Dog End was empty of everything save the moonlight.
St. Cyprian released a shaky breath and said, “I told you the bells would work.”
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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