Snippet: Hitler’s Mages

16 Apr

Chapter One

“What Ho, Gabriel?”

Gabriel pasted a smile on his face as Bernie shook his hand firmly. He was young, but his body was already showing the signs of too much good living and too little hard work. As the younger son of a minor aristocratic family, it was unlikely he’d ever inherit anything worth having unless his older brothers died. Instead, he spent his time enjoying life, avoiding the attempts of his aunts to get him married off to a suitable girl – and pursuing every last fad that ran through London’s aristocratic community. Rumour had it that his family paid him a small stipend as long as he didn’t come home.

“What Ho,” Gabriel replied, with little enthusiasm. Bernie’s company was intolerable except in small doses, for all that there was little genuine malice in him. “I take it that tonight’s the night?”

“Of course,” Bernie said. “If you’ll come in…”

Bernie had rented – or purchased – a large townhouse near the centre of London, one close enough to the Houses of Parliament to feel as if they were connected, but far away enough to avoid attracting attention from the authorities. Chamberlain’s government might have been denying it, yet war with Germany was inevitable and those in power were concerned about the danger of German spies. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone with an impeccable pedigree had betrayed Britain to her enemies.

The sign just inside the door read THE WORSHIPFUL AND ANCIENT ORDER OF MYSTERIES, casting doubt’s on Bernie’s ability to hide anything. To those with the right eyes, it was easy to see the glyph underlying the words, revealing something far older than the society’s handful of weeks. The only ancient truth about the society was the fact that there was a sucker born every minute – and that had been known for thousands of years before the American had coined the expression. If Gabriel hadn’t seen the glyph, he would have suspected that the Council had sent him on a useless errand.

“Come on, old man,” Bernie said. “We’re just about to get started.”

Gabriel took one last look at the glyph and shuddered. It read, simply, THE HELLFIRE CLUB. Most people outside the magical community believed it to be nothing more than a harmless society for high-bred morons, founded by a would-be sorcerer called Crowley. Those who had grown up with magic knew better. The Hellfire Club was far older – and far more dangerous.

The men in the living room didn’t look particularly dangerous. Like Bernie, they were all of aristocratic blood – and yet unlikely to inherit anything of value. A good war would probably kill many of the chinless imbeciles off, unfortunately killing the men under them in the process. The Army had traditionally been the home for wayward second sons, with the Generals viewing good breeding as more important than military ability. Sometimes it worked out fine, but more often the British Army found itself struggling to cope with problems that the Duke of Willington would have known to nip in the bud.

A handful of serving girls moved through the room, wearing nothing apart from fancy necklaces and bangles. The eyes of the guests followed them, but without particular interest or even lust. They’d indulged themselves so much that they’d become jaded, unable to take interest in the simpler pleasures of life. Some turned to drugs, others to travel – and some turned to the Hellfire Club. They wouldn’t have been here if they hadn’t been willing to dabble in the occult. It was possible that they even believed what they preached.

Gabriel took a glass from one of the girls and listened to the conversation, careful not to take more than a sip or two of wine. No magician had a good head for wine, not if he wanted to remain a magician. That was hardly a concern for the guests, all of whom were drinking the finest claret as if it was nothing more than water. Conspicuous consumption was part of their life, a mocking defiance of the problems caused by the depression that had spread out from America and washed across the world. Few of them realised that there were others less fortunate, or how the aristocracy preyed upon their fellow men. Those who did were often called Communists by their fellows, who regarded Communism as a deadly threat. They might have been right.

But they weren’t just interested in drinking enough to blot out the world – and the ultimate purposefulness of their lives. They were nerving themselves up for something, something bad…something that suggested that this particular chapter of the Hellfire Club had already managed to demonstrate magic. Bernie was a fool, but he wasn’t that much of a fool – even though he wasn’t half as smart as he thought he was. And his butler would probably have seen through it if someone had tried to con Bernie out of his money.

Much of the talk was in nervous whispers, but Gabriel had always had good hearing. A handful of them were chatting about the races, or about last month’s hunting outside the city – nothing particularly important apart from their growing nervousness. Bernie had vanished somewhere while Gabriel had been listening and pretending to socialise, leaving Gabriel feeling out of place in the gathering. Not all of them were friendly to a man whose bloodline was far less illustrious than their own, even though his real bloodline dated all the way back to Queen Elizabeth – further, if one counted the families before John Dee had come to terms with the Faerie.

There was a loud gong and the chatter stilled instantly. Bernie was standing on a raised dais, looking down at the gathering. Gabriel almost didn’t recognise him at first. He had changed out of his respectable brown suit into a set of tacky red robes and a hat made out of gold and silver leaf, carrying a colossal staff in one hand topped with a glittering jewel. Despite himself, Gabriel almost started laughing at him; he looked absurd. The others didn’t seem to find it so amusing. They took Bernie seriously.

“Most honoured brethren,” Bernie said portentously, “the Grand Master of the Ancient Order of Mysteries summons you to the Place of Power.”

He led the way through a doorway that had been covered by drapes and down a long stairwell into the basement. The Place of Power turned out to be a fairly large room illuminated by burning torches placed along the walls, revealing a pentagram drawn on the stone floor and a single man standing at the rear of the room. Gabriel shuddered as he recognised a handful of the symbols surrounding the pentagram, some older than the human race itself. They were names of entities who could be invoked and manipulated by sorcerers, provided that the sorcerer was willing to meet their price. A handful seemed to have been drawn poorly, as if the person who had shaped them hadn’t quite known what they were doing. It was tempting to believe that Bernie had come up with the whole idea on his own, but Gabriel suspected otherwise. There were several names on the floor that weren’t known outside a handful of experts in the magical community. The mundane world had completely forgotten them in the centuries since Merlin had banished the gods from the Earth.

Bernie dropped into a sweeping bow and the rest of the gathering followed suit, bowing to the man at the rear of the room. His face was cloaked in shadow, the result of a simple illusion spell that hid his features from curious onlookers. Gabriel could have seen through the spell, but unless this magician was a complete amateur he would have thought to add wards to warn him of anyone penetrating his guise. And it was clear that he was a magician interfering in mundane society. The Council had been right to be concerned.

“Today is a great day,” the magician said. There was so much magic running through his voice that they would have cheered him even if he’d done little more than recite railway timetables at them. “Today we shall crack through the veneer separating us from the magic we can use to bend the world to our will. Today we shall finally make contact with the Beings who can aid us in our task. Today…”

He went on and on, while Gabriel listened carefully. The magician was clearly either mad or deluded – or both. Summoning a demon was never a safe thing to do, even with trained magicians and carefully-set wards. A single mistake and the demon would drag the magician down to Hell with him, or break free and wreck havoc before being banished back to Hell. It was possible to summon Beings who were not part of the hell-kin, but even they were dangerous. No one risked summoning angels if they wanted to live to see the next day.

The magician’s speech finally came to an end and they cheered. Bernie stepped forward to kiss the magician’s ring, followed by four other guests. They’d probably prefer to be called acolytes, Gabriel thought sarcastically, except it was chillingly clear that none of them knew anything about what they were doing. If they’d known what they were talking about, they would have run for their lives and not stopped until they ended up in Aberdeen. Instead, they took their positions at each corner of the pentagram, muttering chants under their breath. The remaining guests, including Gabriel, stepped back into the shadows. They apparently weren’t going to be called upon to make any contribution…

…Or were they? The unknown magician either didn’t know what he was doing – which was quite possible – or had devised a nastier spell than anyone had expected. There were few wards drawn on the floor, symbolising barriers beyond which the Being couldn’t cross – and nothing protecting the spectators from the Being. Did Bernie know that a single mistake might mean the end of his life? Gabriel rather doubted it. Bernie wasn’t keen on danger, or else he would have joined the Navy. A year at sea might be good for him.

“We begin,” the magician intoned. “Follow me.”

He started to chant out loud, shaping the words carefully as he spoke. They were nonsense syllables, rather than a genuine magic spell, something that puzzled Gabriel until he realised the truth. Chanting nonsense out loud would bring the speakers together in harmony until they were ready to start shaping real magical words into the ether. And then someone down below would start listening. The chant grew louder, almost semi-hypnotic in its intensity. A handful of watchers who had seemed on the verge of going upstairs and finding a drink – and perhaps a nubile companion for the night – visibly changed their minds and started to stare at the pentagram. Gabriel watched grimly as their gazes became fixed, their shared belief tearing away at the fabric of reality. He’d underestimated the magician. By uniting the watchers in shaping the spell, he’d added to its power.

The chant changed suddenly, becoming real. Each word was a name, one of many attached to a specific demon. None of them were true names, not ones that could be used to bind a demon properly, but they helped to define a demon’s identity and therefore could be used to summon one of them out of Hell. Gabriel’s teacher had once wondered if demons actually didn’t exist – at least as humans understood them – until humans had summoned them, shaping and then binding them into more tolerable forms. It might explain their ageless hatred of humanity if they had been beings made out of light and energy until their human masters had bound them in bodies of flesh and stone. Or maybe they were just nasty bastards, so consumed by their hate that it was all they had left.

Gabriel sensed it, even though the chanters wouldn’t sense it for several minutes. A presence had appeared in the chamber, watching them through eyes that saw through reality as if it were made of water. Something was pressing against the fabric of reality, something huge and awful and beyond human comprehension. If it broke through, it might be bound into a form that was tolerable – or perhaps it would rip apart local reality and drag them all down to hell. There were hidden great cities under the polar ice, cities that dated back to the era before Merlin, where once-mighty civilisations had been torn down by entities they had never been able to understand. It was always a dangerous mistake to summon something that one could not dismiss.

He touched his forehead as the presence grew stronger. The demon was reaching out to their minds, crawling through their thoughts. It’s mental touch was incredibly foul, reminding Gabriel of everything bad that he’d done in his life – and offering him the world, if only he would give up his soul. Too many had made the same deal in the past, only to discover too late that getting what they wanted wasn’t worth the price. Trusting a demon to keep a bargain in good faith was a fool’s game. His senses started to swim as the demon’s malign influence grew stronger. The watchers were also being slowly drained by the entity. It was drawing on their life energy to sustain its presence on the mortal plane.

But he had the evidence he needed to intervene. It was hard to step forward, to break the spell that the demon had laid upon its victims to keep them in its thrall, but Gabriel had been trained by the best. The spell shattered like a cobweb as he stepped forward, leaving his mind as clear as ever. He smiled as the magician turned and stared at him, even though he was still chanting out loud. The spell he’d designed should have sucked all of the spectators dry while they were effectively paralysed.

Bernie and his fellow acolytes were still chanting, but it was clear that the demon was drawing energy much more rapidly from those standing around the pentagram. A trained magician would have known to set wards so that that couldn’t happen, yet their magician had clearly not bothered to protect them. Their deaths would empower the demon to a remarkable degree, perhaps letting him loose upon the human world – or allowing him to grant the magician whatever he wanted from the demonic realm. Either way, it had gone too far. It had to be stopped.

Gabriel held up one hand as he walked around the pentagram. It was fizzing with blue fire now, casting weird flickers of light that seemed to bend and twist around the centre of the drawing, as if it now existed in a different world with different laws. The demon’s presence was growing stronger by the second, preparing for the decant into an idealised form devised by the magician. Or maybe he hadn’t bothered, knowing that the demon wouldn’t kill him outright. Why would he when the magician clearly intended to keep feeding his pet demon?

“Stop,” he said, firmly. Even at the last minute, a demon summoning could be halted – although there were risks involved. But then there were risks involved with anything that had to do with demons. “By authority of the Thirteen, this has to stop.”

The magician turned to face him, the shadow around his face slowly dispelling into nothingness. He was shorter than Gabriel had expected – height and magic went together, for reasons no one understood – and his eyes were wide and staring. All of his hair was gone, leaving nothing apart from a scar to mark where it had once been. Illuminated by the magic, Gabriel could see other demons feasting on his soul. Shit-Demons, they were called, Hell’s carrion-eaters. But still very dangerous. Only a soul who had willingly opened itself to evil could fall prey to the monsters.

“I won’t let you stop me,” the magician said. His voice was more telepathic than vocal, another sign of black magic. A black magician could project his thoughts into another’s head, knowing that his victim might be unable to separate his thoughts from the intrusive suggestions. “This is the way to true power!”

“No,” Gabriel said, as calmly as he could. He caught sight of Bernie and shivered. His almost-friend was aging right in front of him. His lush brown hair had turned grey and he was staggering, only the force of the demon’s will holding him upright. The entire room was dying – and once they were dead, the demon would be free. “This is madness. Let them go and we will help you.”

“They didn’t send me the Executioner,” the magician said. The demon’s presence was growing stronger and stronger, breaking into Gabriel’s thoughts. It was growing so powerful that it would soon be able to start draining Gabriel even through his protections. “They didn’t take me seriously. But they will when they see what I have become!”

He was beyond help, Gabriel realised, tiredly. Whatever resentments he’d felt over the course of his life had been twisted and magnified by the demons until he could no longer separate right from wrong. And he’d started preying on helpless victims, in breach of the magical community’s most sacred law. There was no longer any choice.

Gabriel lifted his hand and shaped a killing spell, only to see it absorbed by the energy surrounding the pentagram. The magician laughed at him, his mocking thoughts asking if Gabriel had bothered to consider the possibility that he might have protected himself. Maybe the Executioner would have done a better job, but the Executioner was only unleashed when it was already too late and the only way to solve a problem was through destroying it root and branch.

Instead, he reached into his hip pocket and produced a small revolver.

Quite calmly, he pointed it at the magician and shot him neatly through the head.

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