Authors: Frank P. Ryan
âBut we are not in the least hard-pressed.'
âYou think not?' A shaggy hand had curled around an ear as if anticipating the warning horn that sounded out from far below in the clearing before the beach. âAlas, it would appear that we must think of today and forgo worrying about what will happen tomorrow.'
âWhat are you hinting at?'
âAch, my two young friends â Iyezzz has brought you here so I can impart a secret. One that your friend Alan should know â a secret that you might use to your advantage with the reluctant King Zelnesakkk and the wily High Shaman Mahteman.'
Mark ushered Nan and Penny through the side door into the modest nave of the Church of the English Martyrs. A tall, colourfully-dressed black woman, who was carrying a candle in a tall brass candlestick, slammed the door shut behind them, confining them to a gloom as deep as twilight.
âThank de good Lord! Fadah Toowee is expectin' you.'
There was the flare of a match in the near distance â Mark saw a yellow flame appear a short distance away. In the feeble light of the newly-lit candle, he could make out a diminutive stooped figure which, closer-to, revealed itself to be a white-haired priest, clad in heavy gold-brocaded vestments over his black soutane. He was standing by a coffin, set on trestles in front of the vestibule before the arched main doors. The illuminating candle, in a candlestick identical to that held by what he took to be a West Indian woman, was perched atop the coffin lid. On the
floor, by the priest's polished black shoes, was an ornate brass bucket containing a brass-handled brush. There were no funereal flowers bedecking the coffin, just a splatter of brightly reflective droplets of water glistening over the lightwood top.
âIndeed, that's me. But who are you?'
Mark could hardly contain his relief. âI'm Mark Grimstone. I believe that Bridey will have sent a message. You have something for me?'
âHush,' he said, with a finger to his lips.
âDe Razzamatazzers is ganging up outside.'
Mark turned his attention from the white-haired priest to the woman âThe what?'
Penny answered, âRazzers!''
âHenriette, my housekeeper â she fears they're trying to break in.'
âDey all juiced up.'
âJuiced â you mean they're drugged?'
âJuiced up on de spirit. Dey hammerin' off an' on, all day. Dey sense it like we hear de music â de wave.'
Mark was about to ask her about what kind of wave the Razzamatazzers sensed when he sensed it for himself through his oraculum. Something was signalling, sending a message that wasn't audible through his normal hearing.
When he attempted to probe it, it became a deafening scream so uncomfortable he instinctively clamped his hands over his ears.
He glanced at Nan.
You hear it too?
Her wide eyes were answer enough.
Nan addressed him, urgently, mind-to-mind.
But before he could speak to Henriette, there was a thunderous hammering against the main doors. It sounded as if somebody was using a sledgehammer against the Victorian box lock.
âO Lord â dey breakin' in!' Henriette immediately put out her candle flame between her moistened finger and thumb. She was reaching out towards the second candle on the coffin, but it was too late. There was a violent crack and the lock crashed inwards onto the tiled floor. The twin doors sundered, throwing splinters of oak into the darkened hallway of the church. The old priest had fallen against the coffin, causing it to slip on its trestles, so it teetered on the brink of plunging to the floor. Henriette moved quickly, dropping the candlestick and steadying the tottering construction with one hand, while supporting the ageing priest with the other.
The interior was flooded with light as the headlights of a vehicle shone directly in through the breach. Father Touhey froze. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened,
staring past Mark towards the shattered door. When Mark spun round he saw a swarm of flying monsters pour in through the gaping entrance to invade the church.
âGrimlings!' the girl exclaimed.
Mark spoke quickly, urgently, âFather Touhey, Henriette, Penny â all three of you get behind me and Nan. Make yourself into the smallest possible target.'
âBut you'll be killed,' said Penny.
âI'm not sure we're killable.'
âI don't understand.'
âMakes three of us.'
Father Touhey muttered a prayer but Mark wasn't listening. He was studying the swarm more closely. The flying monsters looked like chimeras of mammals and insects. As big as tawny owls, they had transparent wings almost a foot in span. Their heads were obscenely human-like, with faces that reminded him of goblins. Their eyes were amber and glowing, glaringly fierce, and the jaws looked lethal, crowded with piranha-like teeth.
He heard Penny's warning. âGrimlings bite!'
As if with one mind, Mark and Nan grabbed a heavy brass candlestick apiece. The air within the entrance now buzzed and swarmed with Grimlings, their wings a whirring blur; but the repellent faces moved more slowly, more purposefully, assessing the situation within the church. Mark and Nan turned back to back, waving the heavy candlesticks to best ward off attack.
Mark followed Nan's alert. Through his oraculum he invaded the mind of the feral girl, to be startled by the strangeness of what he discovered there. He recognised that he was looking around himself at the nave of the church, in which the headlights threw everything into lurid contrasts of light and shadow. But there was an additional, astonishing perspective. It took him a moment or two before he could even begin to grasp what it might be.
Penny screamed. âWatch out!'
Within her mind Mark saw that the seemingly random movements of the vicious little brutes was coordinated into a purposeful weave. She was predicting their impending attack. He had the disorientating sense that it was Penny who was directing his mind and not the other way round.
Mark found himself testing her predictions, moving the heavy candlestick towards an incoming Grimling head with its snarling maw of teeth. The crunch of contact was satisfying. In seconds he and Nan killed a dozen of them, but then the gaping main doors were flung wide open. An enormous man, built like a Sumo wrestler, strode into the
church. His head was smooth-shaven, and embedded in the left side of his skull was the glowing silver sigil of the triple infinity. The Grimlings changed their pattern of attack to flow about him, like the shoal of pilot fish about a hunting shark.
âGrimlings bite â Scalpie kills,' hissed Penny.
âShit!' Mark felt the oraculum take fire in his brow. He shouted to Nan. âI'll deal with the Scalpie if you can deal with the Grimlings. Look after Penny!'
The Grimlings had altered their pattern, extending out into a dome enclosing all five of their prey. But they kept their distance, deferring to the giant warrior. The Scalpie was in no hurry to attack. His behaviour suggested ritual. He lowered himself to a kneeling position on the floor, placing a casket of polished ebony on the tiles in front of him and making a bow before opening it. He took out a single gauntlet, made out of articulated matte black metal, and drew it onto his left hand. With his mailed hand he lifted a dagger from the casket. It was heavy and ornate and the Scalpie handled it reverentially. The blade was a tapering spiral; it too was black â darker than the mere absence of reflection â and the handle gleamed with inlaid silver. There was a sigil of the triple infinity embossed on the hilt.
Mark stared at the dagger with disbelief.
Alan had described exactly such a dagger back on TÃr. It was the weapon of a priestly caste known as preceptors, who fulfilled some darkly spiritual role within the armies
of the Tyrant of the Wastelands. Mark guessed the Scalpie was the equivalent of a preceptor here on Earth. When the burly warrior spoke it was in a guttural alien language, he didn't recognise, though he heard the meaning of the words through the oraculum.
To the clay shall I sacrifice such dung as irritate my Lord
Thus, in a spirit of humility do I consecrate my unworthy offering
In blood shall I honour Thee, my life and soul unworthy, at your call
Spare me not!
Tear the still beating heart from my breast, if it pleaseth thee,
Oh blessed and everlasting Master!
Mark felt a shiver pass through him at a reminder from Nan of where their own power came from.
My oraculum is the oraculum of the Third Power. And the Third Power is MÃ³rÃgÃ¡n, the Goddess of Death
But what did all of that mean here on Earth?
He thought back to when Alan came to terms with his oraculum, the ruby equivalent â something he called the First Power. Mark had discovered that it worked best through instinct, when he didn't have to think about it, but as Alan himself had discovered, that wasn't such an easy thing to do.
The Scalpie was climbing back to his feet, the dagger
clasped within his mailed left fist. There was an eerie glow about the fist and the dagger, the sigil pulsating with silvery light in concert with the logo embedded in his skull. The Grimlings were moving again, the swarm's complex formations suggesting imminent attack. The air about Mark's head was filled with their buzzing and bumbling. He glimpsed a goblin face just inches from his own, the amber glow of the eyes, the flash of teeth. Within moments he had been bitten several times.
But he couldn't afford to focus on the swarm.
âNan â you okay?'
âI've got them â deal with the warrior!'
Mark took a firm hold of the candlestick. It was likely to be useless but he didn't have the confidence to throw it to one side. He tried to engage the oraculum, but he was untested in using it in combat. All it seemed to achieve was a tingling at the ends of his fingers.
Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw that Nan's eyes were all-black. The oraculum was blazing in her brow. He was glad to see it; she was far more experienced in wielding the power of MÃ³rÃgÃ¡n. Blue-black lightning flared, followed by squeals from the Grimlings as their bodies burst into flame.
âQuick,' Penny called, her voice high-pitched, curiously cat-like.
Mark found himself back within the strange landscape of her mind. The Grimlings were ignored, her entire focus on a centre of incandescent power. It had to be the Scalpie's
dagger. In her mind Mark saw the lines of force radiating from it, its purposeful trajectory bending and distorting the space around them.
There was a sudden rush and the gauntleted hand, with its flaring blade, was coming for his throat.
He moved instinctively, striking out with the heavy candlestick at the naked forearm above the gauntlet. He encountered flesh and bone and prayed to hear it crack, but a dreadful force rebounded against his strike, turning the candlestick black and searing his hand. The spiral blade of the dagger caught his right shoulder, moving diagonally down across his chest as he fell away. At the same time a tremendous bolt of black lightning struck the Scalpie, ensheathing him and whiting out his eyes. He fell back, turning as he did so, yet still he came back around to face Mark, his purpose unchanged.
Mark found himself on his knees, leaning on his uninjured left hand. He was trembling from the wound. He had no time to think, he had to force himself back to his feet.
Nan prompted him:
Mark switched his focus back onto Penny, re-entering her mind. Within her vision the Scalpie was just completing the act of turning round. His whole figure was illuminated by moving wavelets of power. As if in slow motion, the gauntleted hand rose to threaten Mark full square. At the centre of the lines of force, Mark saw the dagger approaching his throat once more. Then he saw another, faint, familiar power.
He roared the name through his throat and oraculum at the same time, thrusting his left hand into the air above his head. In that strange distorted world of Penny's vision, Mark saw the emergence of a new force within the battle arena. He sensed Penny's own astonishment as she saw the walls of the coffin exploding, a blue-black sun erupting from the mass of disintegrating wood. A wrack of lightning followed the twisting motion of the Fir Bolg battle axe, its sigmoid blades effulgent with Fir Bolg runes as it spun towards the raised hand of its master, striking home to be enclosed in Mark's fist, sheathing him in such a storm of power he felt his feet lift slightly off the floor.
There was no time to think. He heard Nan's whisper, mind-to-mind:
Mark knew, suddenly, that his eyes were as terrifying as Nan's. He didn't know if he could actually die, or if he was in fact already dead, but he was certain that something fearful was about to happen to him. He recalled Alan, when similarly threatened, with his ruby oraculum blazing. Alan had held the Spear of Lug, reaching out into the thunderclouds in the sky overhead, bringing down the lightning onto the Temple Ship and shattering the frozen lake in which they were trapped. He had looked so all-powerful in that first call upon his power. At the time, Mark had felt utterly diminished by the spectacle, but now he had to do the same. He had to draw on his oraculum if he was to
destroy the Scalpie â and the threat of the dagger with the twisted blade.
All of this passed in a moment, but during that moment, Mark felt as though the wound no longer existed: he felt stronger, more confident.
The loss of the Scalpie's vision after the axe had burst from the coffin in a lightning storm was to his advantage, but the blinded Scalpie was now sniffing at the air, trying to locate Mark through scent, instead. He was sweeping the spiral blade in great arcs before him, advancing towards where Mark now crouched with the battleaxe raised. Mark waited until the sweep of the blade passed by him, inches from his face, then he struck, stepping into what Penny saw as the next vicious arc. Mark brought down the wyre-glowing axe, severing the Scalpie's dagger arm just below the elbow. He ignored the tumble of limb, with its dagger. His eyes were on the white eyes of his enemy. His mind was focused on the anticipated next movement of the huge right hand, which was searching for his throat. Jabbing forward with the tip of the battleaxe he scored a line across his attacker's brow. The force of the strike, flared with lightning, caused the Scalpie to rear back, exposing a throat as thick as a normal man's thigh.