An Unexpected Encounter
Folly laughed softly, if a little bitterly, to herself as she watched the blue Puca lights flitting bewitchingly ahead of her, always out of reach, trying to lure her away from the path across Palus Salus, the treacherous salt marsh of Degringolade. In truth, she was grateful for their company. The roof of the world had been swept across with a broad brush dipped in thick black paint from a palette of shades of darkness. Neither star nor planet nor celestial body of any kind was visible. She licked her lips. Usually she tasted salt in the air, but now there was something different, a sort of metallic tang.
‘Odd,’ she mused, and carried on, keen to get back to the Kryptos. Folly carried a manuslantern, which glowed softly at her side, but it struggled to illuminate the ground more than a few feet ahead of her. The Puca lights had that strange quality that their own brightness cast no light on their surroundings. That’s why people end up in difficulty, thought Folly, they followed the blue flames not realizing that they were being led into peril. She was wise to their trickery.
‘You’ll not trip me up,’ she called out gaily and, as if in cheeky reply, the flares danced even more wildly.
Then, without warning, they were extinguished.
Folly stopped dead in her tracks. Her breath, already clouding, seemed to freeze. She held up the manuslantern but it was as if its light was swathed by gauze. She heard a soft sound, and felt the gentlest of breezes at the side of her face, followed immediately by a sharp crack as the lantern globe shattered, showering her cheek with jagged fragments of glass. She leaped back instinctively, releasing her hold on the lantern. It fell in a puddle of marsh water. The flame sputtered briefly and went out. ‘Domna,’ she hissed, admonishing herself for her unusual clumsiness. She turned her head slowly from left to right, her senses on high alert. Fear touched her heart; not because she was alone in the impenetrable darkness, but because she wasn’t.
Slowly, Folly inserted her hand under the front of her long leather coat and pulled out her Blivet. It was cold to the touch, and if there had been even the smallest amount of light its triplet tines would have coruscated like the low Gevra morning sun on a frozen pond. She gripped the rare weapon tightly and steadied her breathing, forcing herself to remain calm. She knew her situation was perilous. Someone, something, was nearby, and its intent was indubitably malevolent.
She listened for any sound at all that might tell her in which direction her enemy lay. She was not expecting to hear breathing; the dead have no need of air. Neither did she anticipate footsteps; bodies that don’t strike the ground create no noise. But there was something else, a thrumming, an almost tangible reverberation of the atmosphere around her. Experience told her this could mean only one thing. Somewhere in the nearby environs there was a Superent, a creature of the world of the Supermundane. There was no odour, and this was mildly worrying. Some believed that the smell of a Superent was inversely proportional to its malevolence: the less it stank the more dangerous it was. What Folly badly needed was light. It was not impossible to battle an invisible enemy, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
The taste in her mouth was stronger now and she grimaced. With her free hand she felt in a pocket and her searching fingers closed over a stunner. It was a small weapon, no larger than a walnut, but its size belied its strength. It wasn’t specifically designed to repel Superents, unlike the black beans and Natron she always carried (tonight she had the feeling that even a sackful of black beans and a dozen sprays of Natron would not deter this thing), but to shock. Still brandishing the Blivet, Folly threw the stunner at the ground in front of her. It exploded on contact with a loud bang and lit up the surrounding marsh with a bright white light. Folly could only hope it would last long enough to expose the Superent so at least she would know what she was dealing with.
It did, and the sight of her enemy caused Folly’s stomach to lurch.
The creature was right in front of her. It must have been ten feet tall, muted green in colour, like celadon pottery glaze, and shaped like a viscous liquid being poured from a height out of a glass. It had a face of sorts, complete with eyes and mouth, set within its large, wobbling torso. There were no discernible limbs and it moved as one mass of flesh. Folly, momentarily rooted to the spot, let out an involuntary gulp. She was no stranger to Superents, those baneful entities that were spawned from and inhabited the world of the Supermundane, but this was unlike any she had come across before. When, seconds later, the light faded, she was happy in some ways not to have to gaze upon its vile aspect any longer.
At last her sense of self-preservation took over, but it was almost too late. Just as the thing threatened to engulf her in its jellied folds of flabby corpulence, she covered her face with one hand and thrust the Blivet directly, with the confidence and deft execution that come only with practice, into the centre of the creature’s globular trunk. With a terrible screech of pain or anguish the Superent toppled forward on to Folly. She crouched down helplessly. It was too late to run. She feared she might not bear its weight, that she would suffocate beneath its mass. The thing covered her and it was like being engulfed in calf’s foot jelly. But the cold was so intense that it was burning her. Despite an almost overwhelming urge to scream, Folly managed to keep her mouth firmly shut. Her lungs were heaving, but she knew that whatever she did, if she was to have any hope of survival, she must not inhale this toxic substance. The pain in her chest was intensifying. She didn’t know how much longer she could stay like this. Just when she thought she might pass out, the Superent seemed to melt, as ice changes to water, and she found herself kneeling, an arm across her head, in a pool of repulsive, stringy mucous.
Gasping for breath, Folly sat back and thoroughly cleaned the revolting goo from her face, making sure not to lick her lips. Instantly all around her the Puca flared up and continued with their merry dance.
‘Well, kew very much,’ muttered Folly with sarcastic gratitude, staggering to her feet. It was disturbingly quiet. Not even the Lurids were howling. Had the wind changed? As if sensing that the danger was over, the clouds had moved on and the stars had chosen to reappear. She struck a Fulger’s Firestrike and by its light found the broken manuslantern on the ground. She could replace the glass later, but for now she just lit the wick, careful to keep her distance from the naked flame. She could see the silhouette of a group of trees ahead and knew that she was close to the Komaterion. She set off again, staying on the path, dripping goo and curling her lip at the thought of what she had just endured. One question plagued her the whole way.
What in Aether had just attacked her?
A Good Vintage
While Folly was engaged in her near-fatal battle on the salt marsh with the unidentified Superent, Vincent Verdigris, the erstwhile ‘Pilfering Picklock’, was having a rather less life-threatening time in Degringolade city.
He was standing at the sturdy wooden door of the magnificent wine cellar of a noted local wine merchant, Webster Salmanazar. This wasn’t the first time he had broken in to this cellar, but tonight he had been surprised to find that the locks had all been reinforced. He grinned, undeterred; if anything he was flattered, for this extra security was surely only put in place because of the Degringolade Daily’s constant warnings about Vincent’s lock-picking skills. Since his arrival in the city there had been a spate of burglaries. Many were down to him, but equally many were copycat crimes carried out by less skilful thieves hoping the blame would be placed on Vincent. Vincent was both amused and annoyed by this, and very pleased when the copycats were exposed. He did not want his reputation tarnished by amateurs. The Degringolade Daily had started a campaign in conjunction with a city locksmith, Will Van Clefhole & Son, to encourage the citizens to secure their homes until the ‘Phenomenals’, as Vincent and his three companions were now known, had been caught and thrown into the Degringolade penitentiary.
Earlier that evening Vincent had sat in what he liked to call his ‘eyrie’ (shared with a noisy flock of black corvids) behind the Kronometer overlooking the market square. From the heights of this lofty clock tower he had watched with a smile the scurrying Degringoladians as they emerged from Van Clefhole’s shop with extra keys and padlocks. He had noted too the comings and goings of the locksmith’s liveried cart and horse as it went about its business securing city properties.
Vincent laughed at the citizens’ naivety. All this extra security had an almost negligible effect on his activities. Granted it might slow him down a little, but he was so proficient at every aspect of breaking-and-entering that he paid it little heed. Van Clefhole and his son were not fools. They could see a business opportunity when it presented itself and were taking full advantage of the citizens’ fears. They weren’t installing anything that Vincent hadn’t come across before. In effect, they were merely doubling or tripling up on what was already there. Vincent was sorely tempted to break in to the locksmith’s. It didn’t seem right that they should profit quite so much from his crimes.
So, perhaps he hummed to himself a split second longer as he picked at the wine-cellar lock with the treen tools he had inherited from his father, but that was about the long and the short of it.
Once inside he locked the door again as he always did; it warned him if someone was coming, gave him extra time to hide or escape, and occasionally deterred someone from investigating an unexplained noise because of the very fact that the door was secure. He tapped his smitelight against his leg and instantly it revealed his surroundings. He would be eternally grateful to Jonah for retrieving the small device from Kamptulicon. A precious gift from his father, the ingenious light continued to serve him well.
He went quickly to the racks where row upon row of fine wines in dusty bottles lay waiting for him. Red and white and rosé, sweet, dry, sparkling and fortified; they were all there. Folly’s rabbit slumgullion benefited greatly from the addition of a full-bodied red, and Jonah’s fish stews (using stolen fish, of course) were given an extra dimension from a splash of a light white. He himself had tried his hand at horsemeat pie with a glug of port and it had gone down very well indeed.
Absentmindedly Vincent rubbed his sleeve on the metal prosthetic attached to his right arm. It was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, made from a strong yet light metal.
The removable fingers had jointed knuckles and responded readily to the flexing of his remaining digits within. The magnetic dial on the wrist had already proved its usefulness and he was quite certain that the hand had other tricks he had not yet discovered. He regretted the loss of his three fingers – of course he did – but he was getting used to it. Today he had attached all five false fingers and the hand resembled a metal glove. Oddly enough, the more he wore it, the less he was inclined to remove it. He had not been wearing it a full lunar cycle yet, but it was becoming an integral part of him. At night when he couldn’t sleep he liked to imagine who had owned the artificial hand before him – a great inventor, perhaps, or maybe it was part of an Autandron, one those moving metal men of which he had heard rumours. He made a mental note to ask Wenceslas Wincheap next time he was at the Caveat Emptorium.
Right now though, the still-healing wound was throbbing. He had done as Folly told him, soaking the raw flesh in salted water, smearing on a thick layer of soothing unguent and drinking the Antikamnial regularly. It was strong stuff, and the throbbing was a sign that its painkilling properties were wearing off.
Hungry and feeling more acutely the need for pain relief, Vincent turned to his task. He wanted to get back to the Kryptos before the Kronometer struck Mid-Nox. Quickly he chose two bottles of wine, a red and a white – both, by the look of the fussy labels, of a very high quality – standing on a small tasting table at the end of the rack. He dropped them into the deepest pockets of his cloak and was about to leave when the sound of voices and a key in the door stopped him in his tracks. Whoever was on the other side was fumbling, giving Vincent valuable seconds to slip out of sight between the wine rack and the wall. He flattened himself against the cold stone, destroying cobwebs and sending spiders running. Vincent was unworried by the visitor, doubtless the merchant coming down for a bottle.
The door opened. ‘The Lurids are quiet tonight,’ said the first man to enter.
‘Hmm,’ replied a second voice, also male. ‘Not a good sign.’
‘This way, this way,’ said the first man, rather excitedly, closing the door. ‘I left them out for you. The tasters report it to be the best yet from that year.’
‘Excellent, excellent,’ came the reply. ‘The thought of just a sip of it has me all a-tremble!’
Except he didn’t say ‘tremble’, he said ‘tremmel’, which caused Vincent to groan inwardly. He would know that speech impediment anywhere: Governor Leucer d’Avidus.
Vincent frowned. This was an unexpected turn. He, Folly, Jonah and Citrine knew that Leucer d’Avidus was inextricably linked with Leopold Kamptulicon and the Lurid and the fiasco down at the Tar Pit, and any man who claimed acquaintance with both Kamptulicon and Edgar Capodel could not be trusted at all.
Through the small gaps in the rack Vincent watched the merchant approach the tasting table. This simple action elicited a second silent groan as his fear was realized.
‘There were two,’ the merchant was saying. ‘A white and a red. I left them here.’
Leucer was beginning to get impatient, as evidenced by his tapping foot and its echo around the damp cellar. ‘Perhaps they have been stolen.’
The merchant started. ‘You mean by that Vincent fellow? But how? I have installed new locks all over the place.’
‘He and his little band of cronies are not called the Phenomenals for nothing,’ replied Leucer thoughtfully. ‘I hardly need to remind you, the particular skill of a Phenomenal is to come and go as it pleases without being seen. The Urban Guardsmen have not caught them yet and there have been no sightings. There is speculation that they have left the city, but we know that the boy, Vincent, is still here. He is like a sharp stone in my shoe.’
Vincent smiled. He was quite happy to be a stone in Leucer’s expensive shoes. He watched as Leucer turned up his own manuslantern and stared hard at the floor. ‘Who has access to this cellar?’
‘Nanyone except me. It stores my most expensive wines.’
‘Well, unless you have feet of different sizes, I suggest that someone other than you has been down here.’ Leucer pointed to the floor and both men stared hard at the sets of small and big footprints in the dust. Vincent dug his nails, metal fingers and all, into his palms in irritation at his own carelessness. The light in the cellar was poor, deliberately so to protect the wine, and he had not bothered to conceal his tracks.
‘I see nany prints leaving,’ observed Leucer slyly.
‘You mean the thief might still be here?’ whispered the merchant. ‘Shouldn’t we call the guardsmen? There’s a reward!’
Vincent made a face. Last he heard, the reward was one thousand sequenturies. A fair amount, a compliment to his lock-picking in fact, but he had no intention of lining anyone’s pockets. He watched with mounting unease as Leucer drew a long-barrelled pistol. The governor advanced along the racks, gesturing to the merchant to stand guard at the door.
Silently, smoothly and reluctantly, Vincent drew his own weapon, a treen dagger carved from Gaboon ebony. His heart was heavy. ‘Only amateurs steal with violence,’ his father used to say. ‘A real thief comes and goes like a shadow. There is no need for anyone to be hurt.’
Vincent sized up his opponents. He could see from the merchant’s quivering lip and shaking hands that he had no stomach for a fight. The governor, however, was another matter.
‘Come out, boy,’ called Leucer. ‘I know you’re in there.’
Vincent steadied his breathing and tightened his grip around his knife. ‘Sorry, father,’ he said silently, ‘but this is the way it has to be.’ The cellar was windowless, there was only one way out and Leucer stood between him and it.
Light glinted off the shining barrel of Leucer’s pistol as he advanced, but Vincent still had the element of surprise. He took a deep breath, issued a mighty roar and rushed head down at the oncoming enemy.
But before either could strike a blow or fire a shot, there was the most tremendous rumble and the cellar shook violently from side to side. The ground shuddered like the stiffened legs of a donkey being pulled where it didn’t want to go. Vincent was amazed to see a ripple cross the floor, like a wave in a pool. Everything seemed to be moving.
Over the deep roaring there came the higher-pitched noise of glass breaking. Wine bottles, shaken from the racks, were crashing one after another to the hard stone floor, shattering on impact, showering Vincent and Leucer and the merchant with their aromatic contents. Corks were popping at random and shooting around the cellar. Vincent thought this was what it must be like to be under fire from a hundred pistols.
It was impossible to stay upright and all three fell to the ground. Vincent found himself lying only feet away from Leucer, staring straight into the man’s eyes. Leucer was holding on to the wine rack with one hand and brandishing the pistol in the other.
‘Got you now, you scullion!’ roared the governor. He took aim as well as he could under the unsteady circumstances and Vincent could see his finger starting to squeeze the trigger. Desperately he tried to get to his feet. Then, unbelievably, a jagged-edged chasm opened up in the floor between them. The force of the fracture sent Leucer rolling helplessly in one direction and Vincent in the other.
As quickly as it had started, the rumbling stopped and the ground settled.
Clouds of dust swirled around the room. Panting and coughing, Vincent got to his feet. Leucer was on one knee across the chasm, searching the sticky, glass-smithereened-floor around him for his weapon. He snarled at Vincent as his hand closed over the pistol.
‘So long, guv,’ said Vincent with a grin and a wink. Then, as Leucer aimed the pistol at his head, he bounded over the prostrate merchant and made good his escape through the doorway, the ringing report of pistol fire in his wake.
Excerpted from A Game of Ghouls: The Phenomenals by F.E. Higgins. Copyright © 2013 by F.E. Higgins.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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