2. PICKING UP THE PIECES
Archie was, at last, allowing himself to mourn. He sat next to Mistress’ head, occasionally licking her cheek, and letting out long, low, keening wails of loss for his mother.
She would have been proud of the way he’d reacted to the emergency. She’d drummed the point into him, time and time again, that a good familiar always puts Mistress first. So when Archimedes scrambled, sodden, onto the rocks that lined the creek and beheld the flaming pile of rubble that had replaced his only home, he heard Faith’s voice in his head and felt her nipping at his scruff.
Mistress was in trouble, knocked-out and bleeding. T.O.P. police and fire brigade would be here soon but she wouldn’t want their ambulances carting her away. She needed to be hidden.
Archie wasn’t strong enough to move her, but as Elsie had fallen she’d sort of bounced off the railing (knocking Archie into the creek) and folded back on herself to lie in the middle of the bridge. There was enough space to draw a magic circle around her. With the wound on her head still leaking, there was enough of the red stuff to draw it with and marking the boundary with her own blood would enhance its efficiency a hundred-fold. Archie was worried he’d forget the incantation, but when the time came to say the words he could see them emblazoned across his vision like a holy autocue. While Elsie remained within the circle no T.O.P. would ever see the young witch on the bridge, even if they tripped over her.
Through her teachings to her young son, Faith was still protecting her Mistress.
Archimedes knew that Elsie had a strong elemental heritage and that wild water would help her heal. The only practice he’d had with aqua-kinesis was making the contents of his water bowl leap from one dish to another and back. He’d made quite a mess at the time. His plan was to call a pillar of water up from the creek, just as Elsie had before the house exploded, have it push through the knot-hole near Else’s face and bathe her injured head.
Frustratingly, wild water was much harder to get a grip on than tap water and as Archie struggled to exert some mental pressure he found his claws flexing in vain, scratching deep grooves into the wood. He felt the panic rising up inside his furry little chest. He couldn’t do this, it wasn’t fair!
This time the nip at his scruff was harder and Faith’s words in his head sterner. “Self-pity later. Save Mistress now.”
It took another minute or so for the kitten to seize on a lull in his storming emotions. He held the ideogram in his head and muttered the incantation to begin aqua-kinesis. He let his consciousness inhabit just the water molecules in his body. “I am water,” Archie decided. “I am water which thinks.”
He let his aura reach out to the creek below and felt the wild water churning. “You, and I are both water,” he told the creek.
“Weeee!” The creek yelled back, joyously rushing past.
“I can think well. You cannot. You should let me do your thinking,” Archie told the creek.
“Weeee! OK!” The creek agreed happily.
“Rather that all rushing that way, some of you should come this way.” Archie suggested.
There was a quibble in the creek’s unanimous voice. Some of the water liked Archie’s idea and little ripples and swirls burst a centimetre or two out of the water, but most carried on as normal.
“More fun to stick together,” the creek decided.
“Which of us does the thinking here?” Archie demanded.
“You do,” the creek sullenly agreed.
“Which way should you flow?” Archie tried to project certainty and power.
“Your way,” the creek sulkily accepted.
The creek began to raise slowly, a hump of water building on itself one sheen of water at a time. It was too slow for Archie; he wasn’t able to hold his emotions at bay for long enough at this rate of progress. If he panicked again he’d lose his grip.
Elsie’s blood dripped through cracks in the bridge and into the creek.
Archie felt the water swoon. “Oooohhhh!”
The creek remembered Elsie. It loved her.
Seizing the moment, Archie cast his aura out to encompass Elsie, stretching his young feline essence to snapping point. If he held this for too long he’d black-out himself.
“Rise up and save my Mistress!” Archie screamed at the water, feeding the creek a taste of Elsie’s essence through his own distended auric protuberance.
The creek remembered Elsie. It loved her. It wanted to save her.
The creek rose fast in a swirling pillar of water that burst through the knot-hole, lifted Archie off his paws and threw him to the edge of the magic circle. The pillar tip formed a smooth half-sphere around Elsie’s head and Archie leapt at it, trying to claw space for her to keep breathing. His plan had been to bathe her head, not drown Mistress!
A small cold hand pulled Archie back. It was Tyssul, the Naiad (water nymph) of the creek. She’d heard the commotion in her water and come to help.
“Be calm little one,” She whispered.
Tyssul leant into the water-sphere that swirled around Elsie’s head and laid a kiss upon her cheek. Elsie’s wound quickly closed-up and the blood washed from her face.
“She’ll survive,” Tyssul explained, “but the headache won’t be fun.”
“A thousand thanks, Tyssul”. Archie could barely get the words out. Pure relief seemed to have swollen his throat closed.
“You have done well, little one.” Tyssul gazed over at the smouldering ruins, lit in blue lights as two fire engines played their hoses over the remains.
“Faith?” Tyssul asked.
Archie shook his head, tears running freely now.
“My condolences, little one. She will be missed by many.” Tyssul drew herself up. Even standing straight backed she was under three feet tall. Slim and lithe with sharp Slavic features, tiny grey-blue scales and a sort of dappled moss leotard, Tyssul was a beautiful creature.
“I am ashamed to admit that I do not know your name, little one,” Tyssul intoned gravely.
“My name is Archimedes Lake but call me Archie, please.” Archie’s voice was faded, exhaustion kicking in.
“Tyssul Celemon Gwynwyd Sugyn is honoured to call you a friend, Archie.” She offered a hand, palm upwards.
“The honour is mine, Tyssul.” Archie touched his paw to her palm.
With that she was gone, fading quickly into a thick cloud of sparkling mist which drifted back into the creek.
The black and white kitten was feeling lightheaded. A normal day in Archie’s life consisted of intense bursts of play or lessons followed immediately by a deep and satisfying cat-nap. He hadn’t eaten for hours and the rescue efforts were taking a heavy toll. He needed to lie down before he fell down.
It was time to hand the baton on to someone else: Archie needed help. Tyssul was bound to her waterway, but she could have passed a message for him, had he thought in time! It was Babel that Archie trusted to take over and Faith had made him memorise Babel’s mobile number in case of an emergency, but Archie had no way to make the call.
Archie mewled quietly in despair. His exhausted mind felt like a ball of damp cotton-wool with thoughts moving at the speed of drowsy slugs.
Fairy-folk (they prefer to be called Sidhe) can hear their full name spoken anywhere on the mortal plane. That’s why Tyssul had carefully enunciated hers for him. He could call her back!
The politics of Sidhe are complex and confusing though, especially to a young kitten still learning the basics. Who knew how long the message might take to reach Babel’s ears?
Archie needed someone fleet of foot who could find Babel in person and fortunately there was another fairy whose full name Archie knew. He hadn’t gifted his name to Archie specifically, the kitten had been dozing under the sofa when the Puka had told Elsie, so using it was a breach of fairy protocol (Archie knew that much). But this was an emergency!
“Dzeko Dzevan Taraguire Taladdin!” Archie yelled with the last of his remaining strength.
A cool wind played across Archie’s whiskers and nose; he smelt exotic spices and burning meat.
Someone yanked his left ear back so hard that Archie thought it would rip right off. Before that pain had even properly registered another part of his brain was screaming about the knife pricking his throat.
A noise, like someone chewing on broken glass, crunched into his un-mauled right ear. It was followed by a rasping chuckle.
“I’m going to skin you alive and use your fur to line my mittens,” the Puka muttered viciously.
“Please, Dzeko. Elsie needs your help,” Archie managed to squeak.
“I can see that, flea-bag. Do you think me blind?” Dzeko didn’t seem overly bothered.
“Find Babel. Tell Babel. That’s all I ask,” Archie spoke carefully.
“You think to summon the Puka Dyoll and send him running as your errand boy? Are you thick in the head or huge in the balls?” Dzeko snarled.
The Puka released Archie’s ear and sized him between the back legs.
“Definitely thick in the head,” Dzeko laughed cruelly.
Archie couldn’t work out why the fairy was so angry until he remembered Faith explaining the huge importance they place on protocol. “I’m sorry that I called you without prior permission,” he apologised, as sincerely as possible.
The knife moved away from his neck a fraction of an inch.
“Don’t do it again.” Dzeko hissed. “Here, to help you remember.” And then Archie could smell that he was gone, exiting in the same magical Sidhe manner with which he’d arrived.
Archie didn’t understand that last remark about remembering until he felt a burning sensation. The Puka had sliced the tip of the kitten’s ear off.
It was all too much for the poor little guy. Archie wanted his mother, but he knew she was dead. He wanted his Mistress, but she was out for the count. He was soaking wet and freezing cold, starving, exhausted, bruised, battered, drained and running on empty. The kitten had done all he could to help, and in return a fairy had cut part of his ear off. It was all way too much.
Archie decided, at last, to let himself mourn. He crawled over and sat down next to Mistress’ head, occasionally licking at her cheek and letting out long, low, keening wails of loss for his mother, Faith.
By the time Babel got there, Archie had fallen into a fitful, twitching, nightmare-filled slumber. He got scooped up, dried off and tucked into a kitty bed in the back of Babel’s van without waking-up at all. You could have blown up a firework factory inside the world’s biggest bell and that cat would not have twitched a whisker in response. But still, when Babel kissed him on the forehead Archimedes smiled in his sleep, just a little.
Babel had landed his van in the clover field over the back of Elsie’s garden and snuck up to her through the bushes, homing in on her body with his dowsing rods. Unbeknown to little Archie, he and Elsie had long ago set up an enchanted warning system: when that reprehensible chunk of airborne brickwork bounced back off his beloved’s bleeding brain-box, the tiny door on the little bronze locket that Babel wore around his neck had burst open, releasing the unholy trumpeting sound of a thousand elephants being unhappily sodomised. He’d been in a church at the time, waiting to meet an informant, and when his sonic blast had detonated, ricocheting around the walls, the curate had spun around from his contemplations at the altar with the fear of god in his eyes, fully expecting to see a choir of pissed-off angels descending upon him. What he saw, seconds later, was a tall black man in a raincoat pelting panic stricken for the door.
Saying that Babel loved Elsie would be like saying that the sea was wet or the sky was a little airy: talk about pointing out the obvious. They had set up the emergency pager system the day she’d been expelled from her Coven because he didn’t trust the old crones not to try something nefarious before her case came to trial. When it went off at St. Michael’s, Babel had a high-speed fit. His heart leapt up through the roof off his mouth, choking him off mid-breath, then slammed into the backs of his eyeballs, sending stars careening across his vision. His jaw clamped shut on his tongue, filling his mouth with the metallic iron flavour of haemoglobin, his hands curled into claws, nails digging deep into the soft flesh of his palms, before his lungs abruptly lurched back into action and dragged air whistling through his flared nostrils. Without a clear thought in his head, Babel was on his feet and running.
Millions of drops of water had been falling down on the city of Bristol from an angry sky for hours by this point and the pavement was slick underfoot. Babel almost lost his balance as he accelerated around a corner out of the church grounds, but grabbed onto a passing postman, steadying himself and sending the unfortunate mailman sprawling into the road. With the postie’s racist curses ringing in his ears, Solomon ‘Babel-Tower’ Maringa, let his long legs stretch out into the familiar rhythm of his distance devouring lope. The van was parked a half-mile away and as the crow flies he could be at Elsie’s in twenty minutes.
The emergency pager had two different sounding functions: a manual alarm for when she knew she needed him and an automatic trigger if Elsie’s bio-feed spiked or crashed. It was the latter’s hellish noise which had given the curate of St. Michael’s a heart-attack, so he knew that Elsie was in real physical trouble. It had always seemed likely to Babel that the crones might try and snatch Elsie. For her bio-feed to crash like this, Faith’s defences must have failed or been overwhelmed. If the snatch-squad was going to move her, he’d need to get a tracer launched from the abduction site as soon as super-humanly possible to have any realistic chance of getting her back. If they got her squirrelled away in a safe-house she’d be dead to him. Such was the grim gist of Babel’s thoughts, running his internal inventory for the necessary magical equipment and ingredients and planning contingencies for the rescue mission. His body automatically navigated the fastest route back to his van, hurdling railings and sliding over car bonnets stopped in traffic as if every action was carefully choreographed in advance; there are times when being godling-touched is especially useful.
Having turned the final corner, pounding through puddles, his van in sight, it’s no wonder Babel was too distracted to notice the mischief of ratkins crouched behind the mouldy sofa, up against the graffiti splashed wall of the alleyway. If you’ve never seen a ratkin before, imagine the bastard lovechild of a goblin with downs-syndrome and his pet giant-rat. They stand on two legs, but run on four, have thumbs and can operate simple tools, have their own language, and are worse than magpies for stealing shiny things. They’re often kept by urban mages as sewer running couriers, and yes, the collective noun for a group of ratkins truly is a mischief.
The first Babel knew of this particular pack of furry fiends was as he slowed down to fumble blindly for his van keys in both his raincoat pockets and the alpha male ratkin took a running leap to head-butt him in the coccyx. Babel had stood up to worse blows in his time but this one came so unexpectedly that his knees buckled under the momentum and with his hands caught up in his pockets, all he could do to mitigate the blow as he went down was spin his torso and send his shoulder jarring into the concrete, rather than face-planting the floor. With the traditional ratkin battle-cry of “Spotty-foot!” the mischief charged him on mass.
Amid the kicking, biting and clawing of a ratkin bundle, Babel found time to whisper a prayer of thanks to Saga, the godling who gave him the gift of tongues as a teenager. Without that gift he wouldn’t have understood the ratkins’ chirruping speech.
“Sit on its head! Scratch at its eyes!”
“Don’t let it stand up!”
“The pocketsies! The keys will be in its pocketsies!”
The tiny-brained man-shaped rat-people are easily distracted in the heat of battle. To make sure they kept focused on their mission, they took up their orders as a chant.
“Knock the black man down and steal his keys and we shall get some tasty cheese!”
The rat pack sang as they scrabbled and struck at Babel, trying to find his pockets. From a bodily-harm standpoint, their attack was embarrassingly inept. A dozen angry six year-olds wielding forks would have been equally as effective. But had Babel not understood the ratkins’ song, he would have immediately pulled his hands out of his pockets to ward them off, allowing one of the nimble fingered thieves to reach in and nick his van keys. As it was, he kept his hands thrust firmly into his pockets and thrashed around on the floor with his head and legs like a fish out of water, if fish wore Levis and Doc Martins.
When one particularly dense ratkin straddled over Babel’s foot, trying to bite at his toes, the human seized his moment and scissored his legs violently, catapulting the toe-nibbler summersaulting face-first and upside-down into the alleyway wall before axing his heel back down onto another ratkin’s skull. The rest of the mischief stopped singing, stopped fighting and swivelled back and forth, looking down on their two unconscious comrades. They let out a soft coo of appreciation for destruction that had been unleashed.
In the midst of the stillness, Babel risked taking his hands out of his pockets to push himself to his feet. He snap-kicked the biggest ratkin in the face, mainly to relieve some frustration, but felt little satisfaction as the mischief hurriedly scattered with shrill cries of “No cheese! No cheese!” Who the hell had sent them to ambush him? There was no time to think about it, he had such bigger fish to fry that this minor mystery was like whitebait to Elsie’s whale. Casting these fishy metaphors from his mind, Babel slid behind the wheel of his van and started the ignition.
Babel was immensely proud of his van. It had started life as a regular builders van and had been ragged all over the midlands by its previous owner, a plasterer with a paunch called Pietro. Babel had acquired it for temporary use as a surveillance vehicle, reluctantly adapted it for permanent use when his old Land Rover got trashed by a worm-bomb, and as it pulled through scrape after scrape in style, he’d come to love it. Having always been a bit of a tinkerer, Babel had modified it here and there, called in a few favours with various artisans and magi-mechanics, got it blessed by every deity he was on good terms with and finally (with excessive fluke) managed (with one eye on the rising cost of diesel) to bind a demon from the Dave dimension inside his fuel tank.
The demon was called Billy Skank. Like most escapees from the Dave dimension all he really wanted from existence here was to hang-out in bars, hitching a ride in boozers heads’ just enough to feel the buzz of a few lagers run through their system and the taste of a good curry in their mouths. Since being tricked into the van’s fuel tank, Skank’s sphere of influence extended only as far as the bodywork of Babel’s van. Babel had a strict drink and drive policy, so with few drunk passengers to live vicariously through, Skank’s only pleasure was the taste of Indian spices in Babel’s mouth. Skank was, by nature, a lazy bugger and to get the van moving at any sort of respectable speed Babel was forced to use either the carrot or the stick as motivation. Being a kind and gentle soul (despite what the ratkins might be thinking) Babel was inclined to favour the carrot. The carrot, in Skank’s case, was curry. The hotter the better.
When Babel twisted his key in the ignition the cage of energies which kept Skank locked in a dark, quiet box, snapped open. His consciousness leapt outwards, embracing the only other sentient mind in his field of influence, Babel. Skank could feel what Babel felt. Skank could feel the cuts and bruises inflicted by the ratkin brawl, not to mention the pounding shoulder Babel had slammed into the floor. He could feel Babel’s pounding heart and surging blood. The sense of urgency was exhilarating.
“Yippee kai yay, mi amigo! Who stuck a bomb in your britches?” Skank screeched into Babel’s mind.
Through Babel’s eyes he saw Babel’s hand slap the glove box open. Skank knew what was kept in there. When he felt Babel’s fingers curl around the never-opened tube, he knew what was about to happen.
“Elsie’s. Fast.” Babel subvocalized.
The van was already rising from the ground, straight up, Harrier jump-jet style. When Babel spun the lid from the tube and squeezed Mama Bazinger’s extra hot vindaloo paste straight into his mouth the van lurched forward, pressing Babel into his seat as they accelerated up to terminal velocity in a fraction of a second.
Skank’s yodel of joy was deafening in Babel’s head. It took all his willpower to ignore the fire in his mouth and mash the paste around some more to further experience the flavour, rather than scraping it out with his hand and retching, as every natural instinct begged him to do.
Compared to hell spawned demon, Skank’s ability to possess mortals and wreak havoc was pathetic, but his particular abilities lay elsewhere. Billy Skank was an elemental gravity demon and twisting the gravity field around Babel’s car to make it fall upwards as fast as it would have fallen downward, if dropped from a helicopter, was easy as pie. Chicken tandoori pie.
Flying the van at terminal velocity was a seat-of-your-pants, stomach-in-your-mouth, spleen-on-the-floor kind of ride. But it certainly got you there fast.
Stumbling out the van and spitting globs of the mouth-searing curry paste into the clover, Babel hauled the rear doors open. Having flown over the flaming ruins of Elsie’s home, he no longer knew what to expect. This didn’t look like a snatch gone wrong. He hesitated over what kit to take.
Elsie was alive, but she might be trapped in the rubble. He had to find her so he snatched up his dowsing rods, pushing images of her body crushed and unconscious from his mind. If she was trapped she’d need freeing, so the small sack of kinetic jacks got clipped to one belt loop. If she was hurt she’d need healing; his medic pack was slung over one shoulder. If Elsie’s Coven were behind this, there could be traps, so his chemflairs went into one raincoat pocket. Finally, just in case some ass needed kicking, Babel selected a set of nunchaku from his arsenal and looped the chain around his neck. Thusly prepared, Babel levelled his dowsing rods towards the pillar of smoke rising beyond the hedges that bordered the field, cleared his mind of all distracting worry and closed in, physical and metaphysical senses all cranked up to max sensitivity.
It didn’t take long to find Elsie and Archie. Babel tossed a couple of chemflairs into the magic circle as a basic precaution, but there was no malignant influence present. He could see what a sterling effort the little kitten had put in. After checking Elsie’s pulse and reassuring himself that she was stable, Babel scooped up Archie and ran him back to the van. Popping the young familiar safely in the back and ridding himself of all the unnecessary equipment, Babel quickly went back for Elsie.
T.O.P. fire-fighters were already working on the blaze, so Babel moved quickly before one of them cast a glance in his direction. He snuck away with his beloved in his arms, unseen, or so he thought.
As Babel weaved between the bushes as the end of Elsie’s garden, he was unaware of the flying fox in the branches of the elm tree above his head. The megabat flew down onto the small bridge where Elsie had lain and licked at the blood Archie had used to draw his magic circle. Satisfied, she stretched out her meter-long wingspan and sprung into the sky.