Edwin had suffered through twelve hours, thirty-two minutes and sixteen seconds of Marie’s personalised brand of bedside manner and he was about ready to throw himself at another pack of Hell Hounds.
‘Just sit still,’ she chided, tightening her grip on his Elbow. ‘It’s really not that bad, and anyway, we wouldn’t be doing this if you hadn’t decided to get into a wresting match with one of those bloody monstrosities.’ She frowned and sucked in her bottom lip, focusing on the muscle squirming beneath the hand that wasn’t pinning Edwin in place.
‘Easy for you to say,’ Edwin groaned, as the muscle seized and spasmed. ‘How many times have you had to regrow your own body parts?’
‘More often than you’d think, now shut up or I’ll leave you like this and we can see how well walking around without skin goes.’
Edwin scowled but shut up. It wasn’t as painful as having the flesh stripped from his bones but it still hurt like a bitch. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing through his nose but the smell of blood and burning flesh crept in. He swore and opened his eyes.
‘You know,’ said Marie. ‘I wouldn’t have to do this if you hadn’t walked headfirst into a trap. This sort of work is tricky and you haven’t given me much time to fix you up.’
There was a pop as one of his nerves fused into place and Edwin nearly bit his tongue off. The world flashed white and he could hear the ocean roaring in his ears. Swearing he resurfaced, Marie looking up at him apologetically.
‘Sorry, I should have warned you that might hurt.’
Edwin swallowed the rising vomit at the back of his throat and tried not to pass out.
‘Yeah,’ he croaked. ‘A little warning would have been nice.’
Marie shrugged and returned to her work. ‘You’re the one that wanted speed and refused any tonics.’
‘I don’t want to sleep for the next week and a half,’ said Edwin. ‘I’m working to a deadline and I’d like to see Syms stupid face when he realises that we’re in time and alive.’
There was another pop and Edwin thought he might be hearing angels.
‘Just a few more,’ Marie sang, and Edwin wondered if she’d done the last one on purpose when he mentioned Syms. He clenched his jaw and decided to shut up.
An hour later Edwin was sat in Marie’s kitchen, trying to ignore the fresh, unblemished skin on his arm. He’d get a few scars on it eventually he told himself, then it would look just like the old one.
He distracted himself by examining the Hell Hound’s head sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. Sammy had attempted to prop it up, using the salt and pepper pots to keep the head from listing the left, and someone, probably Marie, had stuck a plastic tea tray underneath the severed neck to save the table from demonic blood stains.
‘You’re sure you tried everything you could think of?’ Edwin leaned forward and poked the monster’s head with his index finger before sitting back satisfied when it showed no signs of coming back to life and trying to bite him.
‘I’ve done everything that can be done in our current situation,’ said Sammy. ‘Marie’s pretty well stocked but there’s a few bits that she hasn’t got and I was trying to avoid burning down her house in the process.’
‘You could have taken things outside.’
Sammy shrugged and jerked his head towards the window above the sink.
‘Since when does that have an impact on spell work?’ Edwin asked.
‘It doesn’t. I just don’t like the idea of getting wet right now. Anyway, there’s no trace of a summoning spell on this thing.’
Edwin had been in the process of leaning forward again and froze mid poke. ‘No trace of a summoning- what- what do you mean there’s no trace of a summoning spell?’ Edwin could feel his jaw hanging open.
The door to the garden opened and Marie bustled back in, closing Edwin’s mouth as she walked past him.
‘We’re not catching flies,’ she said.
‘Like I said, there’s no summoning spell,’ said Sammy. He was grinning and Edwin was got the impression that he was enjoying this a little bit too much. He sounded almost chatty.
‘How can there be no summoning spell. Hell hounds don’t simply walk out of Hell, they have to be summoned and that leaves a mark, a way to trace the person who did the summoning. If there’s no trace then that means… well it means…’ Edwin flailed for an answer.
‘It means they found a way to eradicate the mark or brought the beasties out of Hell a different way,’ grinned Sammy. ‘It’s incredible.’
‘Yeah, incredibly annoying,’ said Edwin. ‘We needed that information to tell us where to go next.’
Marie made another pass and jabbed Edwin’s shoulder. ‘Drink,’ she said, and placed a cup of steaming, green liquid on the table in front of him.
Forcing a smile, Edwin brought the cup to his lips and pretended to take a sip. He heard her sigh behind him.
‘I don’t know why I bother,’ she muttered and left the room. Edwin put the cup down.
‘Look, what you’re suggesting is that someone used massively difficult magic to summon demon hounds from Hell and then used magic that’s even more massively difficult to eradicate any trace of them being the ones to do so.’ Edwin dug his fingers into the skin between his eyes, rubbing at the headache forming there. ‘You realise how ridiculous that sounds? The research and power that would be required would be phenomenal.’
‘Yes,’ said Sammy.
‘So…’ Edwin continued. ‘There can’t be very many people who can do that. Can there even be anyone who can do that?’
‘Three, perhaps four.’
‘In this area?’
‘No, three or four in the world,’ said Sammy. In this area it’s more likely to be-‘ he broken off and counted out two fingers before shaking his head and putting the second one down. ‘One. There’s one person who might be in this area.’
‘Might be in this area? You’re not sure.’
‘People move,’ Sammy shrugged. ‘I’d suggest we try and do a locator spell before we head out.’
‘Won’t he be cloaked?’
‘She will be, but her ex-husband won’t.’
‘You think he’ll tell us where she is now?’
‘Most likely,’ said Sammy. ‘But he might want us to kill her in exchange for the information.’
‘Well we’ll see about that.’ Edwin pushed his chair back and stood beside the table staring at the Hell Hound’s head. ‘Hey Marie, would you mind-‘
‘Just leave it there!’ she yelled, her voice bouncing down from one of the upstairs rooms. ‘I’ll feed it to the pigs.’
Edwin and Sammy exchanged a look.
‘Huh,’ said Edwin. ‘I guess they will eat anything.’
Amelia Wranthorps ex-husband had been easily to find and even easier to convince into giving up his ex-wife’s whereabouts. He didn’t even ask them to kill her, just pass on a series of increasingly angry, bitter messages that Edwin had promptly forgotten.
When the truck eventually eased to a stop in front of the grey block of flats Edwin had worked out that there were six hours left before Syms deadline passed. Looking up at the broken windows and litter strewn steps he came to the conclusion that it was unlikely they would manage to sort everything out in that sort of time.
‘Didn’t powerful warlocks have castles once upon a time?’ he asked, squinting over the steering wheel. Sammy stayed quiet and Edwin hummed in agreement. ‘Yeah, I suppose times are tough on everyone with the economy and all, but still, this place?’
He checked his phone again but the app was showing that they had reached their destination.
‘We do get to see some lovely places don’t we,’ he sighed. ‘Right, let’s be getting this show on the road.
The old woman was small and wizened, like an apple left in the sun too long.
Edwin hadn’t spotted her at the first. The bare light-bulb had blow the moment he tried to flick the light switch, and the rest of the room was a jumble of broken furniture and smashed glass.
She sat hunched in an green, wing-backed armchair that had seen better days, her tiny frame swallowed up by the shadows and a pair of curtains that had fallen from the railing on the window behind her.
Her eyes followed him. Quick but unseeing.
‘They said you’d come,’ she rasped. Plumes of dust escaped with her words and Edwin heard Sammy edging around the room to try and find a path to the chair.
The old woman was dead. Not dead like Syms, but reanimated and preserved just long enough to parrot back a simple message. Rather like a super creepy answerphone recording. Sorry we’re not in. Leave your message after the corpse’s howl. Edwin kept his distance, letting Sammy get close up and personal with the dead old lady.
‘They said you’d come,’ repeated the woman. ‘Said you would come to stop them. That if you survived the first test you were to be given the choice to leaving well enough alone. If you did that you would be allowed to live until the End of Days.’
‘How generous,’ said Edwin. ‘Did they happen to mention when that might be?’
‘They said you’d come,’ started the woman. ‘They said you’d come. Said you would come to stop them-‘
Edwin watched as Sammy’s silhouette raised his hand and traced a symbol in the air above the woman. She turned to dust.
‘Just brilliant. Someone murdered our warlock.’ Edwin shook his head and toed a broken coffee table with the tip of his boot. ‘Well at least she won’t be raising anymore Hell Hounds.’ A photo fell out of its frame and eight faces stared up at Edwin. The Old Woman and what looked like seven grandchildren. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’ He turned for the door and realised that Sammy was still standing by the old woman’s remains. ‘Hey Sammy, let’s go.’
‘Just a minute.’ Sammy was frowning at the dust. ‘I think she’s been dead a while,’ he said.
‘Well yes,’ said Edwin. ‘Even I can tell that she’s been sat up here a while, I mean…’ he trailed off and thumped himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. ‘She’s been up here a while, which means the spell in the church was too young to be one of her’s. She’s not the warlock we’re looking for.’ Edwin groaned and sank into the remains of the settee. ‘That means we’re looking for someone else.’
‘Someone else with the same sort of power,’ said Sammy.
Edwin nodded and let his head drop. The faces of the old woman and her grandchildren smiled at him. He reached out to turn them upside down. A moment later her turned them over again.
‘Sammy? What are the chances of another warlock with the same level of power being born in her family?’
Sammy lifted an eyebrow and turned his gaze towards Edwin. ‘The chances? All the warlocks with this level of power are related. Families like to pair off promising individuals to create stronger offspring.’
‘Sounds like a recipe for inbreeding,’ said Edwin. He brushed the thought aside and held up the photo. ‘Let me rephrase the question. What are the chances of one of her grand-kids being able to raise Hell Hounds with no summoning trace?’ He watched Sammy’s face over the top of the photo. ‘Yeah,’ he grinned. ‘That’s what I thought.’
He flipped the photo and studied the seven younger figures.
One of them had managed to raise a pack of Hell Hounds and wipe all traces of the summoning spell from existence. Now the question was if they did it by choice, or if they were working for someone else.
‘Ready to go Sammy?’ Edwin asked. He stood and tucked the photo into his jacket. ‘It looks like we might have to put a pin in Syms deadline for now. We’ve got seven warlocks to find.’
‘Should we call for backup?’ Sammy ploughed his way across the room, wood splintered beneath his boots. He rooted out a biscuit tin from beneath a bookcase and shook the crumbs onto the carpet before returning to the old woman’s ashes and using the lid to scoop the majority of her into the container.
‘Nah,’ said Edwin. ‘We’ll be fine.’
Accepting the tin from Sammy he followed the other man out of the flat.
So far that week he’d almost been killed by Hell Hounds, regrown most of his forearm, and was currently carrying the ashes of a dead warlock of the highest power. What Edwin didn’t want to say was that he had a feeling they were the reinforcements, and he doubted there was anyone else after them.
Yeah, he thought. If they cocked this up, things might just go really, really wrong for the world.
End of Days wrong.
Link To: Solitary Creatures: Part One