Comments would be very nice for this one.
“Are you sure you want to be abandoned here, Sir?”
Richard Swift had to shake himself before he answered. The sail from the nearest town on the mainland – the Kyle of Lochalsh – had been thoroughly uncomfortable. He disliked boats intensely and preferred to avoid them where possible, but his orders had been clear. The trip from Scotland to the Isle of Skye was to be accomplished by mundane means, whatever he thought about them. There was too much chance of attracting the wrong sort of attention.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, producing a coin from his pocket. It was more money than the fishermen would see for several months of fishing. “I should be fine just here.”
He pretended he didn’t hear the fisherman’s snort as the boat drifted in to the hidden jetty, really little more than crude steps carved into the stone. The landing wasn’t really an island – it was linked to the Isle of Skye – but one glance at the map had told him that walking overland wasn’t really an option. Cold winds blew across the desolate island, cold winds backed by misdirection spells and other tricks intended to dissuade casual visitors from visiting the castle. The mundane world had forgotten that it existed and the current owners intended to keep it that way.
The fisherman couldn’t really be blamed, he told himself, as the boat came to a halt beside the jetty. They saw nothing more than a desolate wasteland, barely touched by the works of man, fit only for grazing sheep and perhaps fishing, when the weather was good. Richard nodded to the fisherman and scrambled up the jetty, peering up towards the sheer cliff face and craggy mountains. He’d once heard that the castle’s owners used the cliff face to practice abseiling, when they weren’t pushing back the boundaries of magic. There didn’t seem to be anyone out enjoying themselves today.
He leaned on his cane as the fisherman sailed away, no doubt wondering what manner of beastie would have the rich Englishman for dinner. Everyone knew that Skye was haunted, just as they knew that there was a giant monster in Loch Ness; if they’d known the real truth, they would have fled the Highlands and never returned. Richard shrugged as he started to walk towards the river, where it was flowing down into the loch. He hated to risk damaging a good suit, but there was no choice. The absence of any messages from the Newton Cabal had alarmed his superiors. It had been deemed prudent to approach the castle by stealth.
“Richard,” a voice said, from behind him. “You’re slipping, my dear.”
Richard cursed himself as he turned around, just in time to see thin air shiver and reveal the presence of a tall, slender woman with long dark hair and a devilish smile. Like many of her sisters in the Ladies of Hecate, she wore a dark dress that matched her hair, cut low to reveal the tops of her breasts. The Sisterhood had heard of decency, good taste and elegance, but preferred to have little to do with them. Besides, their enemies tended to be men and men could be distracted by a little cleavage waved under their eyes at the right moment.
“Magpie,” he said, doffing his bowler hat. Unlike her, he looked respectable, just another civil servant making his way through the British Empire, helping to keep the Empire on an even kneel as it girded itself for war with Germany. Prime Minister Chamberlain – a mundane if ever there was one – had claimed that there would be peace in his time. The magical community knew better. “How…pleasant to find you here.”
“You’re definitely slipping,” Magpie said, her smile brightening the day. “I could have turned you into a toad before you warded yourself, Richard.”
Richard ignored the implied threat. “I must say that you’re a long way away from home, Magpie,” he said. “Is there a reason you’re here at this time?”
Magpie’s smile grew even brighter. “Is there a reason you’re here at this time?”
“I think you know why I’m here,” Richard said, sharply. “Am I to assume that you’re here fr the same reason?”
Magpie sobered suddenly, her smile fading away. “One of the visionaries saw something that suggested it would be in our interest to investigate the silence that fell over the Newton Cabal,” she said, grimly. Richard could understand her feelings. Visionaries were always granted visions of important future events, but very few visions made sense until long after they’d come to pass. “They decided that I should be send up here to find out what had happened to them.”
Her face lit up again. “And to think that dear Richard is here to help me,” she added. “I’m sure between the pair of us we will have the mystery solved within the hour.”
Richard scowled at her, feeling the impulse to lift his cane and throw a spell at her that would wipe the smile off her face. But Magpie was a capable sorceress in her own right, skilled enough to fight him to a standstill the last time they’d matched wit and wisdom under the streets of Edinburgh. It would take too long to beat her, if he did manage to beat her. She might win the fight herself and then the authorities would have no way of knowing what had happened to the castle.
“I’m glad to have you with me,” he lied, smoothly. Magpie’s smile suggested that she wasn’t even remotely fooled by his casual air. “Would you like to lead the way, or would you rather be at my back?”
Magpie motioned for him to take the lead. “I’d pay money to watch your back,” she said, dryly. Richard found himself flustered, just long enough for her to see and grin at his embarrassment. She was so unlike the prim and proper society girls presented before the King every season, a woman so bright and full of life – and dangerous. The Ladies of Hecate flaunted convention and fed off the outrage they generated. “Please, lead the way.”
Up close, the river looked dangerously unsafe, the water running down fast enough to sweep almost anyone off their feet. Under the choppy waters, Richard knew that there were sharp rocks and other nasty surprises, many blurring the line between mundane nature and the magic that was in the heart of the world. He glanced at Magpie, unwilling to admit to any fear in front of her, and lifted his cane, shaping a single Word of Power within his mind. The waters started to boil, slowly disgorging a simple metal bridge that looked as if it dated back to the days before human settlements on Skye. It took only a casual glance to spy the bite marks on the iron, where a monstrous creature had chewed it into a bridge. Richard walked slowly across the metal, expecting to see the creator at any moment, but he reached the far side without harm. Magpie followed him, glancing around nervously. She’d seen the Troll-bites too.
“I thought they had to come and eat us,” she said, more to herself than to him. “If we hadn’t known the keywords to gain admittance…”
“True,” Richard agreed. The Newton Cabal had found the Troll – one of the few left within the British Isles – and bound him to their service. Nothing could have freed him, save Words known only to the Cabal’s Master, someone who would never have freed their valuable guard. The Troll’s departure meant trouble. He glanced at Magpie and saw that she’d realised it herself. Anything that could break through the defences around the long-lost Castle of Skye was deadly dangerous. “You could go back, you know.”
Magpie shot him a deadly look and walked past him, heading up the path towards the castle in the distance. No one knew who had built the castle – it dated back to the days before Robert the Bruce, before Scotland had ever really been a unified country – but history had forgotten it, long ago. It’s original stone had long since been infused with magical wards to keep out unwanted guests, or spying magic from afar. The Newton Cabal had been theoretical magicians, ready to risk their lives to push the boundaries of ignorance just a little further back. No one wanted them anywhere near a population centre, mundane or magical.
No wards shimmered in the air to block their path; no summoned entities demanded passwords before allowing them to proceed. The castle seemed as…mundane as a castle left to the careless hands of the mundane community, rather than a place where magic had burned brightly in a world that barely cared. Richard sucked in a breath as he saw the great wooden doors, carved from wood brought back from Faerie centuries ago. They had been shattered open by a powerful force, leaving debris scattered in front of the castle. Richard doubted that the Newton Cabal had been any less paranoid than the Windsor Cabal. The magicians would have warded their sanctuary with every ward known to exist. It hadn’t done them much good.
His training as an investigator took over and he studied the debris, pushing his emotions to one side. “The doors were forced open from the inside,” he said, slowly. Magpie frowned, and then nodded. Most of the debris was outside the castle. “Something hellishly powerful was trying to break out.”
Magpie lifted her hand, casting a complex hex pattern into the air. “I’m not sensing anything,” she said, slowly. “Whatever came here is long gone.”
“I hope you’re right,” Richard said. He lifted his cane again as he stepped through the doors, peering into the castle’s interior. “I really hope you’re right.”
Like most magical dwellings, the Castle of Skye was much larger on the inside than on the outside. It had once played host to dozens of the most curious sorcerers in the world. Now, it felt as cold and silent as the grave. He risked a small charm to summon a glowing ball of light and directed it ahead of them as they walked down the corridor, pausing briefly to glance at the portraits on the walls. Each of the black-rimmed paintings depicted a man in the prime of life, just after he pledged himself to the Cabal. Many of them hadn’t survived the results of their investigations into the mysteries underlying magic.
“Someone tried to make a fight here,” Magpie said. Richard followed her gaze into a room that had once been a dining hall, large enough to seat three hundred men and women comfortably. Broken chairs and tables lay everywhere, with weapons both mundane and magical scattered on the floor. “But where are the bodies?”
Richard had had the same thought. There were spells that demanded vast qualities of human blood and bone, none of them intended for peaceful purposes. The absence of bodies was deeply troubling, not least because many of the missing magicians had blood ties with the other Cabals. Their blood and bones could be used to work dark magic against their living relatives.
“I’m not picking up any emotional imprint at all,” Magpie added, after a moment. “Whatever did this came and killed without fear or hate.”
“If it killed at all,” Richard said, although he knew that it was unlikely that they would find any of the Cabalists alive. “What sort of creature was it?”
He hesitated, and then led the way down towards the stairwell that led down to the dungeons, half-expecting Magpie not to follow. Instead, she walked after him, picking up a couple of books from the floor and glancing down at them. Their titles were disappointingly mundane; whatever the older folks in the communities thought, there was no way to escape the mundane community completely. Not unless one was prepared to go all the way to the ends of the Earth.
“They should have had their most powerful wards here,” he said, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The original builders had intended to use the dungeons to keep prisoners; the Cabalists had turned the underground chamber into a Summoning Room. Even the merest notice in demonology knew to set wards, and more wards, until you reached the point where magic was muffled and demons couldn’t find a weak spot to exploit. “What could just cut through them so easily?”
“I heard tell that you investigators got some kind of special training,” Magpie said. Her voice was teasing, but he heard the curiosity behind her smile. The Cabals guarded their secrets jealously and rarely shared them with outsiders for free. “Could you cut through them like that?”
“I doubt it,” Richard admitted. Breaking through a ward, particularly one embedded in solid stone, was never easy. Whatever had broken loose in the Castle of Skye had simply sliced through them as though they weren’t there. “I think that…”
He broke off. “Oh,” Magpie said. “Call me crazy, but I think we’ve just found our missing magicians.”
The Summoning Room was massive, easily the size of a large playing field while still buried beneath the ground. There should have been all kinds of engraved symbols on the floor, each one designed to capture and channel magical power to summon and bind demons from the worlds below. Instead, the floor was covered in blood, washing endlessly from side to side as if it were pushed by an unseen breeze. The stench of blood – and worse – rose up to his nostrils and he stepped back, involuntarily. Magpie, he was relieved to see, did the same.
“Someone – or something – took apart all of the bodies,” Magpie said. She was casting other signs in the air, summoning her magic. “They were rendered down to blood and bone, and then the bones were taken. I cannot see who took their lives.”
Her next words revealed just how nervous she felt. “Do you think they were trying to perform a Grand Summoning?”
“I very much hope not,” Richard said. The three superior sprits who dominated Hell, second only to Lucifer Morningstar in sheer power and depravity, could only be summoned through a Grand Summoning, a coordinated process requiring a dozen magicians and a living sacrifice. A single mistake could set them loose on Earth to pillage and destroy as the fancy took them. “They couldn’t have been that stupid, could they?”
Magpie snorted. “Have you ever known a theoretical magician who actually had a sense of self-preservation?”
“Good point,” Richard agreed. “I think we’d better leave this place and call in reinforcements.”
Magpie didn’t say anything until they reached the library. It was empty; every book in the room had simply vanished. The Newton Cabal had had hundreds of thousands of volumes, Richard knew, including several that were unique. But why would a demon take books of magical knowledge when he would already have access to far greater knowledge and understanding than any mere human?
“A mortal did this,” Magpie said, flatly. “I don’t know how, but they he killed the entire Cabal and just vanished, taking the books with him.”
Richard couldn’t disagree with her assessment, not after they’d searched the rest of the castle. The vast stockpiles of potions materials – everything from eye of newt to blood samples from Faerie – were gone. So were the weapons that the Newton Cabal had devised over the years, designs that had been the envy of the magical world. Someone had broken into their stronghold, cut through their wards and then killed them all…
…Or perhaps the killer had been one of them, after all.
“I have to report back to London,” he said, finally. This time, there would be no need to take a passing boat to the mainland and then spend most of a day travelling south. He could walk the Faerie Roads now that he’d confirmed that there was nothing dangerous just waiting for the Roads before springing into action. “And I assume that you won’t be coming with me?”
Magpie leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Not tonight, handsome,” she said, mischievously. “The thought of entering the Tower with handcuffs on my wrists os not a pretty one.”
There was a flash of light and she vanished, taking the news back to the Ladies. The word would spread rapidly around the globe, probably being twisted out of all recognition in the process. He took one last look towards the stairwell leading down to the Summoning Room – and the bloodstained stone floor – before walking back towards the main door. The Master could see to have the castle cleaned and claimed by another Cabal, or perhaps it would be just left to rot in the mundane world.
For a moment, there was a very brief, but powerful sense that he was being watched. He lifted his club, ready to strike down anyone who threatened him, before the sense of unseen eyes slowly faded away. But he didn’t stop glancing back into the shadows, wondering what was lurking there. He was almost relieved when he stepped into the bright sunlight and the sense of being watched simply faded away.
Shaking his head, he mouthed the correct Word of Power and the gateway to the Faerie Roads opened up in front of him. Taking one last look at the castle, he stepped inside and let the door slam closed behind him. The castle could rot for all he cared…
…But the Newton Cabal had been pushing the limits on magical research for years. What, if anything, had they let into the world? All he knew was that they had to hunt it down before it killed and killed again. Even the mundanes couldn’t help it if their civilians died off in job lots. And how long would it be before the mundanes realised – really realised – that the world was a much stranger place than they really understood?
The Faerie Road twisted in front of him and he stepped out of thin air, near the Tower of London. His boss would be waiting for him there.