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Authors: Sam Enthoven

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BOOK: The Black Tattoo
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"Well," he said, still not looking at Jack, not really.
 
"I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

"I'll go across the park with you," said Jack.

Charlie looked at him.

"I need the exercise," added Jack as casually as he could.
 
Lame as this was, it was the best excuse he could come up with.
 
He had to get Charlie to talk to him, and keeping him company across the park might be the only way.

Charlie shrugged — then made a face.
 
"I tell you," he said, "I don't.
 
Esme gave me a real going-over."
 
Slowly, creakily, he rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen them a bit.

"What about all that healing-yourself business?" Jack asked.
 
"I thought you were supposed to be invincible now or something."

"Not invincible enough, apparently," Charlie replied, and smiled.

Jack smiled back.

"Come on, let's go."

They set off.

Their silence was more companionable now, but Jack was still finding it hard to ask what he wanted.
 
In the end, he just blurted it out:

"Charlie, are you... okay?"

Charlie looked at Jack but didn't stop walking.
 
"Yeah," he said.
 
"Why wouldn't I be?"

"But isn't it... weird?"

"What, the superpowers thing?"

"Well, yeah!" said Jack.
 
"Come
on
."

Charlie made a dismissive gesture with one hand.
 
"It's not that weird, you know."

"No?"

"No," said Charlie, frowning now.

He thought for a moment.

"It's like... once you're into it — once you can do the stuff, you just... do it," he said.
 
"You know?
 
You just get on with it, and it all just feels right.
 
Everything's straightforward.
 
Clear.
 
Simple.
 
Until your mum rings up and tells you you've got to go home for
dinner
."

They crossed the road and went through the gate into the park.
 
Jack said nothing.

"I swear," said Charlie, "you should've heard her.
 
Nothing I could've said would've made any difference.
 
Straightaway she's like, 'You're with your father, aren't you?
 
You're seeing him behind my back!'"

"Oh, mate."

"Straight up," said Charlie.
 
"I couldn't believe it."

Five or six older boys were playing football on the big stretch of grass to Charlie and Jack's right.
 
At the end of the path, the church spire was already lit up for the night with its lights:
 
it stuck out of the ground and into the evening sky like a giant, pale spike of bone.

"It's going to get worse, isn't it?" said Charlie.
 
"This thing with my folks, I mean.
 
Mum's going flaky on me.
 
And Dad... well."
 
He stopped and turned to Jack.
 
"You saw him in the restaurant.
 
He just sat there looking all surprised, like he hadn't expected I'd be angry with him.
 
Like I was just supposed to say 'Yeah, sure, split up with Mum and go live with someone else, I don't mind!'
 
Honestly, he doesn't have a
clue
."

Past Charlie's shoulders, Jack could see the footballers coming closer:
 
one of them was lining up a shot at the goal — or the space between the two piles of jackets on the ground anyway.

"Saving the world's
easy
," Charlie was saying.
 
"I'd rather fight a demon, you know?
 
Better that than have to go through all this—"

Jack watched as the footballer took his shot:
 
he knew, with a sudden and absolute certainty, where the ball was going to end up.
 
And sure enough—

CLUMP!

It caught Charlie square on the back of the head, knocking him forward with the force of the blow.

Suddenly all six footballers were laughing.

"Sorry, mate!" called the one who had kicked the ball, smiling broadly as his friends caught up with him.
 
They all looked about sixteen or seventeen years old — certainly a lot bigger and stronger than Charlie and Jack.
 
One of them was laughing so hard he was making little snorting noises through his nose.

Jack had seen these guys before.
 
Year after year they spent the whole summer kicking their football around, and they never once seemed to get bored with it.
 
Jack looked from them to his friend.
 
Charlie was just standing there stiffly — head still forward from where the ball had knocked him.

"You all right?" called the lead footballer.
 
The others were still sniggering.

"Now, slowly, Charlie turned.
 
"Who kicked it?" he asked.
 
"You?"

"That's right," said the guy.
 
His smile was cocky, not apologetic at all — and certainly not apologetic enough for Charlie.

"Come on," said Jack quietly, "let's leave it."
 
But he knew he was wasting his breath.

"Why don't you watch what you're doing?" said Charlie.
 
"You stupid sod!"

For a whole second the six lads stared at him.
 
Then they burst out laughing again, all except for the one who'd kicked the ball, who just frowned.

"Listen, mate," he said, "I've told you I'm sorry."

"And I'm telling you,
mate
," said Charlie, "sorry's not good enough.
 
Get on your knees.
 
Right now."

Now everyone was staring at Charlie, even Jack.

"What?" said the lead footballer, grinning with disbelief.

"On.
 
Your.
 
Knees
," said Charlie, and at the sound of his voice, the boy fell as if he'd been shot.

From where Jack was standing, he could see the back of Charlie's neck.
 
He frowned.
 
Weird black shapes were appearing under his friend's skin.
 
Needle-sharp points of some inky-black substance were trickling up from under the collar of Charlie's T-shirt, widening into curved slivers of pure liquid darkness as they crawled up around his throat.
 
Now the shapes were creeping down out of Charlie's sleeves, sliding past his elbows and down his forearms with an oil-dark, liquid eagerness.

Jack recognized the shapes:
 
the curves, the hooks, the spikes.
 
He'd seen them that moring on Charlie's back.

It was the black tattoo.

It was
moving
.

"
Now
," said Charlie, barely speaking above the level of a whisper, but something in his voice made strange explosions go off behind Jack's eyeballs.

"
Wet yourself
."

The eyes of the hapless footballer fell closed.
 
A blissful expression crossed his face:
 
there was a moment of silence, then a soft, trickling sound, and now everyone was staring at the dark stain that was spreading down one leg of his shorts.

"Euugh!
 
Gross!" said someone.

The footballer woke up and looked down at his crotch, a look of total horror beginning to form on his face.

Charlie just grinned and turned his back.
 
The moment was gone.
 
The strange shapes of the black tattoo had vanished back to wherever they had come from.
 
Jack blinked.

"Come on, man," said Charlie to Jack.
 
"Let's go."

No one tried to stop them.

"Er... Charlie?" asked Jack, once they'd safely gone a few hundred yards farther down the path.

"Yeah?"

"Do you think it's safe?
 
Using your... powers like that?"

Charlie smirked.
 
"Who are they going to tell?"

In another moment, it seemed, they were standing outside the gate.

"Take care, mate," said Charlie, turning to go.

"Yeah," said Jack, to his friend's retreating back.
 
"You too."

 

 

JESSICA

 

The demon didn't even bother to visit Jessica on the third night.
 
By the fourth, she knew she was finished.

The Scourge just stood there at first, a scarecrow figure of rippling shadows.
 
Its arms hung loosely at its sides; its long, liquid fingers twitched lazily.

"
Humans
," it told her, "
with your little concerns:
 
your tiresome and selfish preoccupations.
 
I'd always thought demons were bad enough, but really — you people are something else
."

"Don't you ever shut up?" Jessica asked, and closed her eyes.

She reached past the pain in her body.
 
She reached past the terrible exhaustion in her head, the mental fatigue from keeping her circle going for so long — going further inside herself, further still.
 
In her lap, her brown hands opened slowly.
 
With a soft hiss, a thin blue spark appeared over her palms.
 
She poured herself into it, and the spark began to grow.

"
Think of it
," said the Scourge, "
what it'll be like when I succeed.
 
Think of the peace:
 
the pure emptiness.
 
The silence.
 
All Creation finally consigned to the Void.
 
All the noise, waste, and pointlessness wiped clean in an instant, when this witless boy helps me wake the Dragon, and at last we finish what it began
..."

While the demon spoke, the spark had swelled to the size of a marble.
 
The magical bolt was spinning, picking up speed, its surface becoming a rushing blur of scorching white and deepest midnight blue.
 
Jessica sent more of herself into it, reaching down inside for everything that she had left.
 
Now the bolt was the size of a squash ball and beginning to crackle and spit in the dark, stifling air of the tattered circle.
 
Jessica was as ready as she'd ever be.
 
Slowly, savagely... she smiled.

"
It's a shame, in a way, that you won't be there to see what I mean
," the Scourge was saying, "
to see what your flyspeck of a 'brotherhood' has been supposedly preventing all these years, because
—"

"Here's an idea," Jessica interrupted.
 
"How about you stop talking and come and get me if you can, eh?
 
Or are you planning on
boring
me to death?"

The Scourge looked at her.
 
"
I've kept you here long enough for my purposes
," it said.
 
"
You were a useful false trail for the others while you lasted, but now I'm almost ready to make my move.
 
In fact, there's just one more trick to play.
 
Funny
," it added, "
isn't it, Jessica?
 
All these years hunting me, preparing to face me, and that's all you were — a distraction.
 
Still
..."
 
The demon shrugged, its shoulders and neck dripping together in long, tarlike strings.
 
"
If you're ready to die, I'll be happy to oblige you
."

"Do your worst," she told it.

"
As you wish
."

 

*
       
*
       
*
       
*
       
*

 

Jack had been watching Charlie and Esme train all day.
 
While Raymond kept watch at the Fracture, Esme had been putting Charlie through his paces on martial arts, acrobatics, weapons training, flying — the lot.
 
Each new and amazing skill that Esme introduced to Charlie he seemed to master almost instantly, and without any particular effort.
 
By the time evening was coming round, Jack was thoroughly, utterly
fed up
.

He'd asked questions, made comments, and tried to keep his end up — and Esme had been polite enough to respond, even when (as seemed painfully obvious to Jack) his remarks had come less from any wish to share wisdom or advice than the simple desire to remind her that he was still there.
 
But the fact of the situation was, he knew, that both she and Charlie were far too engrossed in what they were doing to take any real interest in him.
 
After all (as he asked himself), why should they?

They were superhuman:
 
Jack wasn't.
 
They were powerful and important:
 
Jack wasn't.
 
Charlie and Esme were getting ready to fight the forces of evil:
 
Jack's job, apparently, was to sit there and watch.
 
It was as simple —
as typical
— as that.

So the afternoon had passed.
 
Jack was just letting out something like his three hundred and seventy-fifth sigh of the day...

...when everything started to go wrong.

"Oh!" said Charlie suddenly.
 
He broke out of the complicated silat arm-trap-and-sweep combination he'd been working through with Esme up by the butterfly room's ceiling and dropped to the floor.
 
His eyes were closed.

"What?" asked Jack, without much interest.

"It's... the demon," said Charlie.
 
His eyelids were fluttering strangely.

"What about it?" asked Jack.

BOOK: The Black Tattoo
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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