Authors: Ben Myatt
The Order of Britain
Book Two: Stone of Madness
By Ben Myatt.
© Ben Myatt, 2015
All rights reserved.
She was dragged into the room by one thin arm, and tossed onto the bed. She sat in the same position she always did, her dirty blonde hair hanging in unkempt strands across her face. She sat back against the headboard, and wrapped her hands around her knees, pulling them up to her chest.
The dress she wore may have once been white, but had faded to a filthy grey. The hem was torn, threads pulling from the line of the dress as it continued its long path to being unravelled.
The man who'd tossed her into the tiny attic room looked at her in contempt as she stared off into nothing. He spat on the floor, then walked over and slapped her across the face.
The girl's head snapped backwards, then slowly came around to stare forward once more. She showed no other reaction – her expression was neutral, all but the swiftly reddening skin on her cheek.
“Pathetic,” the man said, and turned away.
He walked from the tiny room, closed the door, and turned the key in the lock, before heading downstairs.
The girl sat staring, the stinging sensation in her cheek slowly fading in the still air of the empty room.
And then it wasn't empty any more. The man in the long coat stepped from the shadows near the door, and reached a fleshless hand out to stroke the girls hair. She didn't move, just continued staring straight ahead.
“They've hurt you, haven't they, my dear? Beaten you, ruined you, driven you to this...” He tapped her on the forehead with his knuckles. “Driven you somewhere inside there, deep where they can no longer reach you.”
A rictus smile crossed his skinless face and he reached into the pocket of his coat.
“But if I know anything – and I do – then part of you wants to make them hurt back. Part of you wants them to pay for what they have done. And that's where I come in.”
When his hand came out of his pocket, it was closed around something that shone light through his fleshless fingers. He opened one of the girl's hands, and slipped the object into her palm. Her fingers slowly closed around it, and went still once more.
In her hand, the light began to pulse, a steady thrumming that lit the room in flashes of illumination.
The skinless man smiled, and stood.
“Have fun my dear. I look forward to seeing your accomplishments.”
He turned, and walked back into the shadows. There was a sound like wind blowing, and then he was gone.
The girl sat staring, her hand clenched around the glowing jewel in her hand. Deep inside her mind, she felt her psyche begin to expand, creeping into the corners of the room. Like a cloud, her mind filled the available space, then began to leak outwards, travelling down the stairs towards the floors beneath. Her awareness travelled down to the lower floor, seeking out those who had locked her in this room.
Down in the servants' quarters, the Butler was staring moodily into the fire. The palm of his hand burned from where he had slapped the girl, but not as deeply as the shame burned in his soul. He was a portly man, his sparse white hair having long since faded from its youthful black. He sat back in his chair, and sipped from the cup of tea the Cook had handed him.
“It didn't go well then?” the woman asked.
“No. She's not improved.”
“And what did you do?”
The Butler glared at her from underneath heavy eyebrows, then ran a hand across his tired eyes.
“Nothing that we haven't all done. The girl's a bloody nuisance to us all.”
The Cook shrugged, and began to make up a tray of food.
“That for her?” the Butler asked.
“Aye. I'm used to feeding her by now. What the master did to her...”
Her voice tailed off at the Butler's warning glance. When he was sure she wasn't going to continue, he turned back to the fire.
“There are things we don't discuss. You know that.”
The Cook shrugged again, and lifted the tray. Opening the door to the back stairs, she began the long ascent up to the attic, the lanterns leading her way.
As she got to the landing beneath the attic, she paused. Was it her imagination, or did the shadows seem somehow deeper... darker, even?
She shook her head, clearing the fears from her mind, and progressed up the stairs, disappearing into the darkness of the attic.
The shadows closed behind her like mist. A listener would have heard the movement of the lock and door as she entered the room, and the clink of plate and cutlery as the tray was set down. Then there was silence.
The Butler had begun to clean his shoes when he heard the sound of the Cook re-entering the room. The stiff brush scraped across the black leather as he cleaned off the dirt of the day, and he glanced up at her.
“Everything alright? That was awfully quick.”
The Cook ignored him, and headed for the counter. The Butler shrugged, and turned back to his work.
In the kitchen the only sound was the scrape of brush on leather. Behind him, the Cook took a cleaver out of the wooden block. She hefted it a couple of times for weight, and turned towards the Butler. She walked across the room towards the fireplace. Instinct spoke to the Butler, and he half-turned towards the Cook. The Cook took pride in her tools, and the cleaver was sharp. It sliced into the Butler's skull as if it were a ripe melon, splitting bone and digging into the man's brain. The Butler stiffened, then went limp, his body slumping in the chair. The Cook raised one foot, planted it on the former Butler's chest, and pulled the blade free of his skull. The body tumbled to the floor, where it lay bleeding. The Cook returned the stained cleaver to the block, and withdrew a carving knife. Slowly, she raised the steel blade, and drew it across her own throat.
Up in the drawing room, the master of the house sat reading a text on the behaviour of wild cats in deep Africa. He reached up without looking, and tugged the bellpull to summon the Butler.
When no-one appeared, he looked up, his brow furrowing. He raised himself from his armchair, and walked to the door. Pulling it open, he shouted down the corridor.
“I say, where is everybody?”
He glanced up and down the hallway, frowning at the darkness.
“And why are all the damned lanterns out?”
He stepped back into the drawing room, grumbling to himself, and walked over to the bar. Pouring himself a brandy, he turned back to his armchair.
He stopped as the lantern by the door sputtered and went out. The glass fell from his hand as the darkness poured into the room like a liquid thing, tentacles and strands reaching out towards him. He backed into the corner, his eyes wild, and reached for the hunting rifle that stood there. Raising the gun, he fired wildly into the encroaching darkness. The black tendrils flowed around him, enfolded him, and pulled him into its depths.
There was a single scream.
Far across London, the great clock in the main hall of the Guild of Mages tolled midnight. The hallway was quiet, most of the members of the Guild having long since retired to their beds, But a few lonely souls were still hard at work within the building's depths.
Callum Drake looked up as the bell rang, then turned back to the task at hand. A tall, well-built man, his bald head smooth and dry, despite the difficult task facing him.
“Alright, drop the wards.”
To his left, Nathaniel Wittington-Smythe nodded. The rangy, brown haired agent waved his hand, dropping the protective ward that covered the front of the Cell. Behind him, Elizabeth Cartwright, her long black hair tied back into a ponytail, cocked her rifle. Callum shot her a look.
“Try not to shoot me.”
“That was an accident.” she snapped.
“Well, just don't do it again!”
The tall man flicked his wrist, and a long silver sword appeared in his hand. The sword wasn't a magical item – it was far beyond that. Six months before, in India, Callum had absorbed a voidstone, a jewel that channelled the infinite power of the universe through its facets. Able to handle the power through his mixed heritage of dragon and human, it had manifested as tattoos on his arm, and as the silver blade he held in his grip. Callum walked forward into the room, and towards the innocuous wooden panelled wardrobe at its centre. He stood in front of it, and readied himself.
Midnight is called the witching hour for a reason. Midnight is when the fabric of reality thins, and gets a bit frayed. It's at that point that things start to come through.
Most people don't believe in the things that haunt the night. The Guild, however, takes the time to believe in things that exist, even if no-one else believes in them.
Like Bogeymen, for example.
The doors of the wardrobe snapped open, revealing the darkness within. Elizabeth sighted over Callum's shoulder, and fired. Callum felt the bullet whistle past his ear, and heard it thump into something inside the wardrobe. A deep growl, rumbled in the depths of the darkness and, in a fluid, insidious motion, the Bogeyman poured itself out onto the floor. It stood up to its full, seven foot height, and glared down at the swordsman.
“Can you seal the wardrobe, please?”
Nathaniel held his hand out, palm up, and concentrated. A wall of golden flame leapt from the base of the wardrobe to the top. The Bogeyman looked over its shoulder, and seemed to shrink slightly.
“It's cut off from the void, Callum. Your turn!”
Callum grinned up at the creature, and swung his sword in a swift horizontal cut. The bogeyman's head flew from its body to fall to the floor, its body following suit.
Callum turned back to the two at the door as they walked into the cell.
“Well, that wasn't too bad...”
The bogeyman's corpse exploded. A hail of slime launched across the cell, drenching the three mages. Callum flinched as the hot slime went up his back, then covered his eyes with one hand.
“Did you know it would do that?”
“No. Otherwise I'd have been standing outside the bloody door.”
Callum opened his eyes and looked at his colleagues. The three of them were covered from head to foot. Elizabeth dropped her carbine to the floor, and sighed.
“There are days when I wonder why we signed up for this. This is one of them.”
“Nathaniel, Clarence wants to see the three of you in...”
Daniel Rivers, an eighteen year old apprentice mage, rounded the doorway, and took in the sight that beheld him. The three agents of the Order of Britain turned as one to glare at the sandy-haired young man, who quailed under their gaze.
“Clarence said he wants to see you straight away,” he said.
The trio continued to glare at him, their eyes staring out from beneath a veneer of grey-green sludge.
“I'll tell him you need an hour.”
“Do that, Daniel.”
The young man disappeared back round the corner. And Elizabeth sighed.
“I need a bath.”
“We all do,” Callum replied.
“At least you don't have hair to wash.”
Callum ran his hand across the slime that covered his bald scalp.
“Trust me, that isn't a consolation.”
An hour or so later, the three agents of the Order of Britain walked into the Star Chamber of the Guild. The round table at the centre of the room was occupied by Clarence Somerby, the hugely portulent head of the Guild council. The fat man looked up as they entered, nodded, and turned back to the man sitting at his side.
The trio of agents took seats at the side of the chamber, and listened.
“You're sure about this?” Clarence asked.
“There is no doubt. Magic is at work in Britain once more. We've had readings up and down the country that show the field of void energy has expanded.”
“Do you have any clues as to the cause, Daltrey?”
The spectacled, thin-haired man at the table said nothing, but his eyes flicked momentarily to Callum.
“Oh, just say it,” the Dragon-Blood said. “You think it's reacting to my voidstone.”
Daltrey had the decency to look momentarily abashed, then nodded.
“We believe it's a possibility. The surge has been recent, and the only recent event is the stone bonding with you, Mr Drake.”
“It's certainly a possibility – the voidstone is tremendously powerful. I don't think it's a direct cause, however. I suspect something might be moving in reaction to it.”
Daltrey looked doubtful, but shrugged. Many of the members of the Guild distrusted Callum – his half-human heritage was something they had been raised to hold in contempt. The fact that a voidstone had bonded with him rather than one of their more human colleagues rankled.
“Alright, Clarence, so what did you want us to do?” Nathaniel asked.
“Two things. First, I want you to look into these readings – there seem to be some severe spikes in the London area. We have other teams on site, but I want the Orders opinion.”
“Alright. What else?”