The Phenomenals by F.E. Higgins – Extract

The Phenomenals

Lurid /’loo-rid/ n. Supermundane entity. Lurids are the restless shades of executed convicted criminals, often found where the bodies are discarded after death

Phenomenal /fuh-‘nom-un-nal/ n. Supermundane entity. Generally malevolent in nature, requiring expert handling to banish, destroy or neutralize. Phenomenals are particularly vile and are characterized by their tendency to gather in small groups and their ability to come and go unnoticed

See also Lemures, Vapids, Noctivagrantes, et al.

Chapter 1

THE HUNTER

The lucent moon cast her benign light across the glittering roofs of the northern city, and in that gentle light the frosted verges of the Great West Road gleamed eerily. An echoing chime announced the impending arrival of 12 Nox. And marking each chime, like a macabre pendulum, a decaying skeletal form swung to and fro on the ancient gibblet at Quadrivium Crossroads. Thus justice had been served.

Approaching this strangely affecting sight was a girl in a black leather paletot coat. Without hesitation she climbed the seven steps up to the platform and went straight to the body. She steadied it with her hand and looked up at the face. The features were unrecognizable; the local corvids had picked the flesh down to the bone.

‘Domna,’ she murmured, wrinkling her nose at the smell. ‘It’s not just the birds that have been at you.’ She lifted the sleeve of his left arm. His hand was gone, severed neatly at the wrist. From the way his trousers flapped, she could tell that his left leg was also missing. ‘Silvan beluae?’ she wondered, and looked over her shoulder at the dark forest some miles distant from the city. ‘But they rarely leave the woods.’

She jumped down from the platform, her thick-soled boots leaving a deep impression in the dirt, and was walking away when she saw two men come shuffling up to the gibbet. They were pushing a long, narrow handcart. They too climbed the steps and, as one sawed through the thick rope, the other stood ready to catch the body. It rattled as it fell and its skull snapped off and rolled on to the platform.

‘What was his crime?’ she asked.

Both men started at the sound of her voice. ‘Thievery and murder,’ said the man with the knife, peering down from the platform at what he took for a blond youth. ‘Robbed a perfumer’s and killed an Urban Guardsman.’

‘Could do with some perfume now,’ joked the second man.

Together they took the body and dumped it unceremoniously on to the handcart. The girl flinched. Even a criminal deserved a little more respect than that. She caught up with them as they started to wheel the cart away.

‘Where will you take him?’

‘To the Tar Pit. That’s where they all go. Best place for ‘is kind. Nany graveyard’ll have ‘im.’

The men hurried off one way and the girl watched them for a while before going in another. Her manuslantern swung back and forth at her side, casting an orange glow. She walked quickly, purposefully, the city lights twinkling behind her. The road was rutted, and the verges lined with ragged bushes and trees.

Shortly she came to two imposing granite pillars, once a magnificent gateway but now showing signs of dereliction. The stone arch that had spanned the gap between them lay nearby broken in two. The girl passed between the pillars and veered off to the left. The landscape changed, stretching away from her darkly, and the ground underfoot was no longer firm. Pools of water reflected the shining moon, and above a myriad blue lights flitted around, tempting her to follow them. But she maintained her path.

‘You won’t catch me out,’ she said, laughing. ‘Nany Puca will get me tonight!’

She continued, trying to ignore the constant howling that filled the air, to a set of iron railings. She followed them round to a pair of gates, rusted off their hinges, and as she passed between them she read the words wrought into the iron:

DEGRINGOLADE KOMATERION

In the abdumbral komaterion the air of abandonment was tangible. Mossy headstones and statues were barely visible above the tall grass. The girl walked on, stumbling occasionally, until she came upon a small dark building almost completely hidden in the undergrowth and covered in thick ivy. Its wide door was flanked by two columns which supported a pediment in the classical style. This was a kryptos, a building within which lay the bodies of the dead.

The girl took a large key from her pocket, unlocked the door and entered the musty tomb.

‘Well, Folly,’ she said to herself, ‘home, sweet home. At least for now.’

CHAPTER 2

THE THIEF

‘Spletivus!’ oathed Vincent, with justifiable feeling, as he watched the triangular piece of stone fall to the ground some fifty feet below him. It shattered. Only moments earlier his entire body weight had been supported by those fragments.

He laughed lightly at the near miss; it was not the first in his young life. As he continued to inch along the crumbling narrow ledge that ran across the front of the house he exhaled slowly and deliberately. He was not a stranger to precarity, but his current position was more precarious than most. He was four floors up; if he fell he too would shatter like that stone and be dead for sure. He wondered how many seconds it would take before he hit the ground.

But he had no intention of falling. There was a balcony to his left by which he planned to make good his escape through the house. Then the unmistakable sound of a sash window being thrown up caused him to reconsider. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a man craning his neck through the window. He groaned. ‘Constable Weed.’

‘We’ve got you this time, lad,’ crowed the uniformed man triumphantly. ‘You might as well give up now.’

Vincent looked to his left. Now there was another constable on the balcony. He stood at the railing with his arms crossed over his chest. ‘It’s the end of the line for you, sonny,’ he said. ‘The Pilfering Picklock will be no more.’

Vincent grinned. ‘If you want me you’ll have to come and get me.’

Both men frowned. ‘You’ve got nowhere to go,’ said Constable Weed. ‘Don’t be a fool. Come back.’

Vincent laughed. ‘To face the hangman’s noose? Not  a chance, gentlemen.’

He took a small grappling hook on a rope from under his long cloak and tossed it expertly on to the balcony, causing the constable to step back rapidly. He yanked sharply on it, pulling it back and securing it to the balusters. Then, before the disbelieving eyes of Constable Weed and his gape-mouthed companion, Vincent jumped out from the ledge to swing back into the house through the window below the balcony. He landed in a shower of glass but, cat-like, on his two feed. He brushed down his cloak and looked around.

He was in a large bedroom. The occupant of the four-poster bed in the centre of the room, around which were pulled heavy curtains to keep out the winter’s cold, had been snoring loudly. Not any more. A fat nightcapped head appeared from behind the drapes.

‘Evening, my good fellow,’ said Vincent.

‘What the . . . ?’ spluttered the man, but Vincent dazzled him with a beam of light from a device he had concealed in his hand. Then he raced to the door, opened it as wide as it would go and promptly hid behind it. The two constables came running in at the same time as the man emerged from his bed.

‘We’re after the Pilfering Picklock,’ shouted Weed. ‘He just came into your room.’

‘Good Lord! Then I think he just ran out again,’ said the man, still blinded by the flash of light and the fact that he had drunk rather more port than was good for him that evening.

‘Search every niche, every nook and every cranny in the house,’ ordered the other constable.

So all three – the woozy sleeper and the two constables – hurried from the room to join other members of the household, which included a number of servants whose irritation at being disturbed from their sleep was tempered rather nicely by the fact that their rich and less-than-generous employer had become the latest victim of the notorious thief.

The Pilfering Picklock himself waited until the syncopated footsteps faded, before pushing the door shut. With a practised eye he glanced around the spacious room. On the nightstand there was a crystal glass with a good two inches of red wine in it. He helped himself, of course, to the diamond cufflinks that sat next to the glass and slipped them into one of his many pockets. There was a gilded dressing mirror in a corner of the room and Vincent caught sight of himself. He pushed back his hood, smoothed down his cloak, bulging as it was with spoils, and ran his hand through his thick dark hair. He smiled his winning smile.

‘Vincent, you are a handsome fellow, no doubt!’

Then, aware that time was of the essence, he poked his head out into the corridor. A solitary gaslight glowed gently further down the hall. He could hear a medley of excited voices, but they were safely distant. He crept along the hall and skipped lightly down the stairs, three flights in all, sliding down the final banister (oh, they knew how to polish treen, these servants) and hurried to the front door. It was chained and bolted and locked and the key was gone.

‘Ha,’ laughed Vincent softly. ‘No doubt in my honour.’

He took from his belt what looked like a pair of long black pins. Seconds later the lock was picked and he was out on the street. He glanced up at the hook and rope with regret. He hated to lose any of the tools of his trade, but sacrifices had to be made. He walked quickly away from the house and, when a large barrel-laden wagon passed by, stepped into the road and hailed it. The driver looked him up and down.

‘Any chance of a ride?’ asked Vincent, and flashed his smile. ‘I can pay.’

The driver, a ruddy-faced fellow with big hands, mumbled something which Vincent took as a yes.

‘Splendid,’ he said cheerfully, and climbed up. As he settled into his seat he saw a copy of the local newspaper. And there in black and white on the front page was a head and shoulders portrait of a boy hardly recognizable as himself. The artist had had no choice but to draw him with his black hood up and his eye-mask. He smiled at the headline:

CONSTABLES YET TO CAPTURE THE PILFERING PICKLOCK

‘Definitely time to move on,’ decided Vincent. When the local newspaper had gone so far as to bestow a name on you, it was a sure sign that you had outstayed your welcome. And he knew he had been lucky tonight. Weed had been just a little too close for comfort. He turned to the driver.

‘Where are you off to?’

‘Eastwards,’ he replied vaguely.

‘The further the better,’ said Vincent.

**********

Vincent sighed deeply. The further the better had turned out to be significantly further than he had thought. For six days and nights now they had been travelling. The temperature had dropped considerably, the landscape was barren and the driver had proved to be a rather dull conversationalist who spent most of his time snoozing at the reins. So, when Vincent saw a city in the distance, he poked the driver and halted the horse.

‘Where are we?’

‘On the border of Antithica province,’ replied the driver. ‘But I ain’t crossing it. That city yonder, that’s Degringolade – the City of Superstition they call it. Won’t take you more’n a day or so, walkin’.’

Vincent looked again at the distant city. The sun was rising behind it and it sparkled with light, as if it had been sprinkled with glitter. He had heard of Antithica province but knew little about it. As far as he was concerned, any place where he wasn’t known held new opportunities.

‘I want to go into Antithica,’ he said decisively.

The driver shrugged. ‘I ain’t stopping you. But I’m warning you, it’s like a foreign country; they do things different there. It’s all card-spreaders and charms and who-knows-what.’

‘Thanks,’ said Vincent, and tossed a small paper packet to the driver, who opened it and smiled broadly at the pair of pearl earrings sitting in the fold. He looked up to thank Vincent, but he was already striding off down the road.

Excerpted from The Phenomenals by F.E. Higgins. Copyright © 2013 by F.E. Higgins.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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