A Pest Most Fiendish | Tor.com

A Pest Most Fiendish

Miss Pippa Kipling and her automaton companion, the Porter, exterminate pests of the supernatural variety. What should be a typical job in your average haunted cavern soon derails in an inconveniently undead fashion. Even with the aid of her gadget collection and the Porter’s prowess, this task may prove fatal for Miss Kipling—or worse, rip her petticoat.


When Philippa Kennedy Kipling was informed of a very lucrative job through one of her many dubious contacts, she immediately implemented her trusty three-step plan. Step one: Do away with the competition. Jobs of a respectable wage were growing fewer in the rapidly industrializing kingdom. Underhanded methods were, on occasion, required to keep one out of the factories. Pippa would be keeping herself out of the factories. Oil stained the petticoat something awful.

The competition, in this particular case, was rather easily disassembled. Pippa simply had her companion, the Porter, disassemble the enemy’s coach. Really, one ought not to leave one’s coach unattended whilst travelling, even if it is to see to a cry for help from the forest (a cry which may or may not have resembled Pippa’s own).

Step one complete, Pippa and the Porter proceeded to step two: making friendly with the contractor. A Mr Bradbury, in this case. He greeted them on the threshold of the Banshee’s Dormitory. It was a rather spacious haunted cavern which, some believed, once hosted the court of the legendary Blood Fey, and was the spot wherein said Fey first crafted the realm-renowned torture serum, the Screamatogizer.

Mr Bradbury wore pin-striped trousers with four golden buttons forming a perfect square over his waist. The frilled tails of his velvet suit ghosted just above the damp ground of the cave on which Pippa and the Porter presently found themselves.

Pippa took the man’s well-manicured hand. It smelled of rose petals and vanilla. “Your servant, Mr Bradbury.”

“Your servant, Miss Kipling. I’m to believe you’re the pest control the Magistrate has sent?”

“Certainly.” Pippa flashed her work papers sideways, so that the E for “Expired” appeared an M. “For Magistrate,” Pippa clarified, “as my companion and I work for the Magistrate and have indeed been sent by our dear law-keeper.”

“Your companion . . . ?”

“The Porter,” Pippa supplied, with a nod to the willowy individual beside her.

“Your servant, Mr Porter.”

“The Porter,” Pippa corrected. “Ms the Porter, she prefers.”

The Porter did not take Mr Bradbury’s hand.

“Forgive her,” Pippa said. “I’ve yet to have manners programmed into her hand. Her feet, however, are quite proper.”

Mr Bradbury regarded the Porter warily. “An automated man?”

“An automated Ms, if you would. Not entirely, mind.” Pippa traced a finger from the Porter’s left shoulder to her right calf. “Just about that side, the right, and both of her feet, are clockwork.”

“She has a human heart?”

“Why, with those dimensions, I suppose she does. You’d never be able to tell.”

“How did so much of her end up automated?”

Pippa took Mr Bradbury by the arm and led him from the Porter. “Have you ever heard of lantern leaflings? Pests if ever there were. Squirmy little fleshy things, like to cover themselves in dead leaves. How do the leaves stick, you ask?”

“Why yes, I was wondering.”

“You see, the leaflings secrete a type of goo.”

“Goo? Oh my.”

“Yes, indeed. It helps them with their camouflage. They wander the forests, you see, with their lanterns, covered head to foot in withered foliage . . . Ah! I haven’t explained the lanterns, have I? Apologies, sir.”

“It’s quite all right. Do continue, Miss Kipling.”

“It’s all in the goo, you see. The leaflings, they make lanterns out of mammoth beetle husks.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a mammoth beetle, Miss Kipling.”

“My apologies, sir! Getting ahead of myself once again. Mammoth beetles, you see, are incredibly large and their shells are impervious to fire. Naturally, the leaflings would use such shells for their lanterns, while they eat the rest of the beetle.”

“Eat it, Miss Kipling?”

“Certainly. The leaflings must eat too, Mr Bradbury. But we’ve gotten off track, have we not? The leaflings, once they’ve made their lanterns, fill them with goo. The goo is incredibly flammable, you see, and all it takes is one kiss of a firefly to set them off.”

“I’m familiar with fireflies, Miss Kipling, and I believe you’ve confused them with another like creature.”

“Oh no, Mr Bradbury. There are two types of fireflies, and in the Boglands, where the lantern leaflings live, you’re wont to encounter the second kind. Some say the second kind are more evolved, but I believe them prehistoric. Several historians back up my claim, and I’d be happy to point you to their papers in the Westword Library, should you ever find yourself near the university.”

“Why, academia and scholarly whatnot is all beyond me, Miss Kipling. I’m a man of business.”

“Certainly. Speaking of which, we ought to get back to business, ought we not?”

Mr Bradbury glanced over his shoulder at Pippa’s companion, then dropped his voice: “But what of the Porter’s missing pieces?”

“My apologies, Mr Bradbury! I’ve left you short again. See, as I was saying, it’s all in the goo. Despite their stubby little legs and arms and heads, the lantern leaflings are quite swift-footed and—one would even venture to say—acrobatic. So, you see, should they find themselves tripped by a protruding root or misplaced pebble, they’re quite taken aback and can’t possibly find their footing. The lantern leaflings then fall onto their lanterns. Should chance have it that they, in the process, crush the lantern and release the fire within, the leafling, being coated in leaves and goo of the most flammable variety, shall explode.”

“Explode, Miss Kipling?!”

“Certainly, Mr Bradbury. The goo runs within them, you see. They’re coated with it from the inside out. Thus, they explode. So, should one be wandering the Boglands in the vicinity of an exploding lantern leafling, the inevitable will happen.”

“The inevitable, Miss Kipling?”

Wordlessly, Pippa looked to the Porter. Mr Bradbury followed her gaze.

“I see,” he whispered, breathless.

Pippa sighed. “If only her accounts were in order, the Porter would be able to purchase that replacement for her frontal lobe.”

“She’s missing a part of her brain?”

“Her automated brain, certainly. She’ll never be the same as she was before the lantern leaflings. Her family and I have accepted that she’s basically a lobotomized autolady. If only she were present enough to tell a cat from a cockroach.”

“She can’t tell the two apart?”

“She can’t distinguish coal from a sweet bun either, I’m afraid. I learned the hard way not to send her on grocery errands. Any errands, really. Oh, but don’t despair, Mr Bradbury. The Porter may not be able to function as a human being anymore, nor really comprehend the meaning of morality or compassion, but she’s a top-notch technician and combatant. We’ll fix this little problem of yours. Now, pray tell, what is your little problem?”

Shaken, Mr Bradbury began to explain his conundrum. It was much of what had matched the job description. Simply put: Mr Bradbury, a real estate mogul and representative of the Cavalier Contingency, was in charge of the company’s most recent resort endeavour; a chalet within the Banshee’s Dormitory.

Pippa and Mr Bradbury currently stood on the ledge where the chalet would be built. Mr Bradbury took her to the edge of the area and waved to the misty abyss below. On the far side, a lower ledge could just be seen through the tendrils of smoke.

“The proprietor informed us, prior to purchase, that there is another cavern, full of natural hot springs just beyond that ledge. We’d planned to build a lift from here to there, so that guests may partake of a soothing spa experience, but every team we’ve sent to plot out the lift has failed to do so.”

“Might it be possible for the Porter and me to have a word with those teams?”

“Oh, my dear Miss Kipling, what I meant by ‘failed to do so’ is that they’ve disappeared and—a small percentage of those consulted believe—quite died.”

“Hmm, I see.” Pippa waved at the Porter. “Do add that to the notes, pet. Perhaps put an asterisk by it?”

Mr Bradbury dropped his voice. “Is the automaton quite up for keeping notes?”

“Oh, certainly not. It’s bound to be gibberblub, but sometimes she makes the most delightful doodles and those always cheer me up during a potentially fatal mission. Did the teams take this charmingly convenient path over here?” Pippa waved to the precarious trail hugging the cavern wall. It disappeared into the mist partway down, and was so thin one would have to crab-walk to avoid falling.

“That is indeed the path. Shall you be taking the job, Miss Kipling?”

“Certainly, Mr Bradbury. Have you the contract?”

After signing both copies, one for Mr Bradbury and one for Pippa, and having the Porter witness, the deal was made and step two was complete.

“Miss Kipling.” Mr Bradbury pulled Pippa aside as the Porter started down the precarious trail. “Should you succeed in uncovering the scourge of our workmen, I will happily add a bonus to your commission, from my own pocket, for the dear, poor Porter.”

Pippa’s eyes welled and she squeezed Mr Bradbury’s hand. “You are a decent, beautiful man and I hope the gods of commerce smile on your chalet.”

On the way down the trail, Pippa flattened her hand against the cavern wall for support. Her palm ran over dazzling turquoise and silver mineral deposits, which traced their way down into the misty abyss. Pippa had no idea whether the minerals were actually turquoise and silver, but they were certainly the correct colours—and certainly the sort of things from which one could make a pretty trinket, which one could then turn over for a pretty penny.

“Do we know any miners?” Pippa asked the Porter.

“We shall not be having this discussion again. Speaking of repetitive exchanges . . . which was it this time? The supersonic mermaids?”

“The lantern leaflings.”

“I thought you’d retired that one, due to its implausibility.”

“Now, Gladys, do you really want to get into this while you’re in a very pushable position? There is evidence that confirms a high probability that the leaflings exist, most likely.”

“I don’t like ‘Gladys’.”

“My great-aunt’s name was Gladys. How about Genevieve?”

The Porter wrinkled her nose.

“You’re being very rude today. My great-aunt’s name was Genevieve.”

“You’ve only the one great-aunt.”

“She had a plethora of middle names. Her birth certificate was several leaflets long.”

“There’s a gap here. Do try to avoid it. I’m not in the mood to pull you up.”

“You’re not in the mood for anything kindly or generous today, are you?”

“I don’t see how I can be, without that manners upgrade.”

“It’s only your right hand that’s rude, Gretel. Do keep up with your backstory.”

It was impossible to tell how far it was to the bottom. For all Pippa knew, the trail could drop away to the Netherworld. If so, she’d need to negotiate a higher return on this venture.

When the trail began to broaden, the Porter paused. “There’s something about this mist.”

“Yes, most probably. But you’ve got lungs of literal steel and I’m wearing my Tropical Citrus protection perfume. Whatever the effects, we won’t be ruffled.”

“That’s a poor excuse for not running an analysis on the mist. It may point to a certain type of pest.”

“Why ruin the surprise?”

“Do the test, Miss Kipling.”

Rolling her eyes, Pippa pulled out one of the implements attached to the inside of her petticoat. It was a simple, corked glass vial, filled with white power. Tapping a bit of the powder into her palm, Pippa blew it into the mist. She and the Porter watched as the powder floated through the air like tiny snowflakes. The snowflakes began to crystallize, turning blue. Most of them fell into the abyss, but Pippa caught one. Plucking her spyglass from her belt, Pippa shook it to its full length and then held up the minuscule crystal.

“Well,” she said, after a moment of analysis, “it won’t kill us, per se.”

“Continue, per se.”

“It’s more a killing lubricant. When inhaled it loosens the soul from the body, so should we run into a pest of the soul-sucker family, they’d just need to gasp around us and—poof!—out come our souls. Run a search, would you Griselda?”

The Porter scowled but closed her eyes nonetheless. Her eyelids began flicking rapidly as her eyes rolled back in her head over and over, checking the database Pippa may or may not have lifted from the Magistrate, before her work order ran out.

“I’m not getting anything for ‘soul detachment mist’.”

“You’re just using the wrong keywords. Try ‘soul lubricant’ and ‘secretion’.”

“I don’t even want to know what I’ll get for that.”

“You’ll get the answer. Just try it.”

The Porter’s eyes gave an odd flicker, and Pippa knew she was rolling them. “Are you getting anything else from the mist?”

Pippa peered at the little crystal perched between her fingers. When she tried to pinch it apart, the contours of its tiny body tried to rip through her lace gloves. “It’s resilient.”

“In thirty seconds, I’m just going to assume we’re dealing with a succubus.”

“A succubus would help them build the chalet, not hinder them. Besides, it would never slum it in a cavern.”

“Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen—”

Pippa crushed the crystal in the palm of her hand. Uncurling her fingers, she found her palm full of glittering blue powder. She swept the spyglass over it. “Oh, I see. Search ‘undead’ and ‘parasite’.”

“I’ve got a hit. ‘Lichfiend’.”

“A lichfiend? Gadzooks! What’s a lichfiend?”

“‘They come from the bridge to the land of the dead. They breathe in ill will and breathe out soul-separating terror, which takes the form of a fog.’”

“Or a mist. They couldn’t have used the word ‘mist’? It’s much more a mist than a fog.”

“Hush, I’m still reading. ‘They create a special type of revenant—undead that devour the soul but not the flesh, blood or bone. A new revenant is created when an old revenant sucks out the soul of a living being. The lichfiend itself creates the first revenant of every horde, but can only suck out one soul per horde and so must rely on its revenants to increase the horde’s numbers and gather souls’.”

“Weak points?”

“The usual, for the revenants: Get the brain.”

“Headshots it is.”

“As for the lichfiend . . . ‘File does not exist’.”

“Which means?”

“Which means you programmed me with an incomplete database or—”

“That database is up-to-date, state-of-the-art, as of two years ago!”

Or none of the Magistrate’s workers have destroyed a lichfiend before.”

“So the pleasure is ours?”

“Presumably. It might be that the lichfiend can’t be killed. Our safest course of action would be to decimate the horde in its entirety, then relocate the lichfiend to a secure location.”

“‘Relocate’? You’re talking as if it’s a butterfly we need to release out the window. I don’t want to drag a pest that secretes soul lubricant halfway across the kingdom.”

“I wish you’d stop using those terms. They aren’t in the database.”

“Blisters on the database!” Pippa marched down the trail, muttering under her breath, “‘File not found’, my petticoat . . .”

The bottom of the abyss was not quite what Pippa had expected. It was, all in all, a rather disappointing abyss, in that it was no abyss at all, but flat, craggy rock smothered in mist.

“I don’t understand,” Pippa said, walking through the silent mist. “Where’s the lichfiend?”

“The fog appears to be coming from the ground,” the Porter said. “Watch your step, Miss Kipling.”

“Pippa, please—” Pippa’s words disappeared in a shriek as she disappeared through the ground.

“Miss Kipling?” the Porter called, from above. “Are you still breathing?”

“Yes, rapidly.” Pippa blinked around, then up. The Porter looked down at her from the hole Pippa had quite overlooked a moment ago. “It would appear I’ve found a series of underground tunnels, Giselle.”

“You’re much better at finding tunnels than suitable names.”

“What’s wrong with Giselle?”

“Are there any revenants down there?”

Pippa squinted into the darkness. The mist coiled along the ground, giving off a faint blue glow that lit the tunnels in an eerie light. “Not upon initial ogling. Be a pet and use your heat-scanner thingy.”

The Porter’s sigh echoed down the hole, followed by: “The revenants are around the bend, but their heat signals aren’t quite right. A bit warmer than one would expect from the dead.”

“Indeed, that’s quite curious—which bend?!”

“The one behind you, and they’re getting closer.”

Pippa scrambled to her feet. “Scan for the lichfiend while I distract the revenants.”

“The database doesn’t include a lichfiend’s heat pattern.”

“Then scan for an anomaly! I’m running now, Glenda!”

True to her word, Pippa took off down the tunnel. She could hear the revenants shambling much too quickly behind her. But “shambling” wasn’t really the word. No, Pippa would argue, were they not revenants, the monsters’ movements could certainly be described as “running”. But revenants could not run, only shamble—even the database knew that much.

Upon losing the revenants, an out of breath Pippa slumped against the tunnel wall. She didn’t fully slump, of course, for that would require leaning her petticoat-clad person on a very wet and likely stain-inducing surface. As it were, Pippa crouched, and caught her breath.

Once slightly less winded, Pippa pulled out her E-Pistol—one of two revolvers on her person, neither of which fired bullets of the gunpowder variety. Her E-Pistol shot messages, and at present she was in need of communicating with her automated companion. Before Pippa could do so, she heard the shambling of revenants again. Pippa hesitated to flee when she realized the shambling was coming no closer. If anything, the sound seemed isolated to the one spot, around the corner.

Returning the E-Pistol to her belt and pulling out her other revolver, the Catch 22, Pippa edged down the tunnel. At the corner, she saw a mass of revenants trying to squeeze through a hole in the cavern wall, which appeared to lead to a tiny alcove. From the alcove, Pippa could hear faint sobbing. Revenants did not sob. Nor, to Pippa’s knowledge, did the moles and other like rodents that frequented caverns such as this one.

Pippa stepped full round the corner and raised her pistol. “Jolly good evening, gents!”

The revenants turned and began shambling—no, this was certainly running—towards Pippa. She squeezed the trigger of her revolver and a net shot from its mouth. The revenants tangled in the net as its weighted, clawed ends dug into the ground, trapping the creatures on their backs. The revenants continued to reach for Pippa through the loops of the net, their mouths foaming.

“Your servant,” Pippa said, tipping her invisible hat to them as she passed. Crouching in front of the alcove, Pippa pressed her spyglass to her eye and peered in. What met her gaze was another eye, its horror and size amplified tenfold by her spyglass. Pippa lowered the device and found herself face to face with a youth of around eighteen. A scrawny boy, with not a scratch of hair on his chin, but plenty tangled on his head. He was dressed in patchwork overalls, half held round his skinny waist by a clunky work belt.

“Your eyes,” Pippa said. “Would you call them hazel or green?”

The boy gaped at her, his bony shoulders shaking.

“Perhaps you’re not the best to say. It’s hard to judge one’s own eyes, isn’t it? What colour does your mum say?”

“Um, hazel?”

“Hazel.” Pippa nodded to herself, then stuck her hand into the alcove. “Your servant, Mr Hazel. My name is Philippa Kennedy Kipling. Your employer, I believe, has hired my companion and me to tidy up his little mess.”

The boy stared at Pippa’s hand for a good minute more before taking it. His shake was hesitant, so Pippa had to put some elbow grease into it on her end. When they’d had quite enough of that, Pippa hauled the boy out of the alcove. He squeaked and tried to pry his hand from hers.

“No, no, Miss Kipling! I’m much safer in here, and you would be too!”

“Nonsense! I’ve quite handled the revenants. Er, quite nearly.”

Releasing the boy, Pippa unbuckled the giant mallet strapped to her back. Affirming her grip on its two-foot steel handle, Pippa gave the boy a reassuring grin. “Just a tick, Mr Hazel.”

“Wait!” he called, when Pippa advanced on the trapped revenants. “Please, Miss Kipling, they’re my friends!”

“I’m sorry, Mr Hazel, but they’re empty husks now. Quite soulless, I’m afraid.”

Pippa turned back to the revenants, but the boy’s voice cut through the mist: “No!”

Sighing, Pippa laid her mallet against the cavern wall. With a voice like that, the boy could have the whole horde on them in moments. She’d best take the sensitive approach.

Pippa pulled out a vial of purple powder and held it up to the boy. “See this, Mr Hazel?”

“A drug? Isn’t that illegal?”

“You’re confused, and it’s no wonder when one looks at the situation in which you find yourself. This is simply a hallucinogen.”

“But, Miss Kipling, that’s a drug.”

“No, no, Mr Hazel. It’s a tactical aid approved for pest control undertaken by certified Magistrate workers. Quite legal.” Pippa uncorked the vial and sprinkled the contents over the squirming revenants. “Now you see, Mr Hazel, were there souls still attached to your friends—that is, were your friends more than undead, soulless minions—this very fine powder would induce in them hallucinations of their loved ones. Revenants do not have loved ones, or any means to love or think, ergo your friends have become the aforementioned revenants.”

“But Miss Kipling, look.”

So Pippa did. The revenants had stopped reaching for her, and instead reached blindly into the distance, as if seeing something. Garbled sounds, almost resembling words, slipped from their spit-soaked lips. Their glazed eyes were filled with longing. Some of them were crying.

“Well, blast.” Pippa yanked out her E-Pistol and fired it at the ceiling. The boy squeaked at the sound, then stared in amazement as a little clockwork bird shot out of the pistol’s gaping mouth. The bird spread its iron wings and flapped them humming-beat swift over to Pippa.

Pippa said, “Do tell the Porter the revenants aren’t exactly revenants. Rather, it would appear the lichfiend hasn’t yet devoured their souls and is instead hoarding them. It would also appear this won’t be as simple as displacing the lichfiend to a secure location. Let’s try to keep the not-revenants breathing long enough to get them their souls back. No headshots.”

Once finished, Pippa waved the little bird away and it flitted off down the tunnel. She grabbed her mallet and said to the boy, “I’m terribly afraid you’ve just been signed up for a potentially fatal field trip. You see, I did quite a bit of running and I’m not exactly sure how to get you out from here. Just stay out of swinging range, yes? And do try not to get your soul sucked.”

The boy was rather pale and moon-eyed by the time Pippa was done, but she wrote that off as a natural look. Mallet in one hand and Catch 22 in the other, Pippa headed down the tunnel. She hadn’t a clue where the lichfiend might be, let alone what it looked like, so she figured she’d just go around trapping not-revenants until she happened upon something pestish.

After shooting down another batch of revenants, Pippa said, “How did you happen to keep hold of your soul, Mr Hazel?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t aware I was at risk of losing it, until you said so.”

“Oh, Mr Hazel, you’re always at risk of losing your soul. It’s just that some pests tease it out a bit more obviously than others. Say, do you use any perfume? Cologne?”

“Um, no?”

“What of the necklace you’re wearing?” Pippa indicated the strap poking out of the boy’s collar.

“Ah! I’d forgotten. It’s a gift from my granny.”

Pippa paused to inspect the necklace as the boy pulled it from his shirt. A flat, stone disk on a simple leather cord. Pippa pulled out her spyglass and held it so close to the stone the two nearly scratched each other. Lowering the spyglass, Pippa sniffed the stone.

“Miss Kipling?”

“Is your granny a hedge-witch?”

“No, she’s a pawnbroker. She likes me to wear her newer items, to advertise.”

Pippa tapped the stone at its centre. “This advertisement has saved your soul, Mr Hazel.”

The bird returned to them one tunnel later. It perched on Pippa’s shoulder and stuck its beak in her ear, reciting the Porter’s recorded reply.

“Yes,” Pippa said testily, “tell her I know that. I’m not naive. And even if I were, it’s a rather obvious outcome.”

“Is something wrong, Miss Kipling?”

“Oh, it’s only that my companion thinks I’m not aware that there may be no chance to save your friends, as their souls may simply disappear along with the lichfiend once we’ve disposed of it.”

“Pray tell, Miss Kipling, but what is a lichfiend?”

“I’ve not the foggiest, Mr Hazel. Akin to a lantern leafling, I’d imagine, minus the leaves. And the lantern.”

“Certainly not something so repulsive as that. The revenants are bad enough.”

“You’re acquainted with the leaflings?” Pippa exclaimed. To the clockwork bird, she said, “Do tell the Porter I’ve uncovered my definite source to the existence of lantern leaflings.”

The bird flitted off and the boy asked, “What now, Miss Kipling?”

“Now we reconvene with my companion. She’s discovered an underground cavern within the cavern, where she believes the lichfiend to be nesting. Naturally, Mr Hazel, you may stay at a safe distance while we confront the creature.”

“How will you confront it, Miss Kipling?”

“Cannon-fire, Mr Hazel.”

“Cannon-fire? Why, Miss Kipling, however will you get a cannon all the way down here?”

“What a silly question. How and however have nothing to do with getting cannons places. The cannon must simply always be.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Miss Kipling.”

“That is because—and I do not mean to be frank, Mr Hazel—you’ve no experience in the controlling of pests.”

“Why is it that you call them pests, Miss Kipling? Aren’t they just monsters?”

“Oh, pests are more than monsters, Mr Hazel. They’re Predators: Evolved Slaughtering Terminals. In other words, they are monsters our industrialization has evolved past pure monstrosity. As we destroy the land to create another more to our liking, we create destroyers that are not at all to our liking. ‘Pests’, the Magistrate calls them.”

“I see. Thank you, Miss Kipling. That makes much more sense.”

“I’m surprised your granny never explained the term. I thought it common knowledge.”

“I come from a quite remote settlement, Miss Kipling. The few visitors we get would be inclined to describe it as deserted.”

“I didn’t figure you for a bumpkin, Mr Hazel. You speak so smartly.”

“Thank you, Miss Kipling. I’ve learned much from my friends.”

“As have I, Mr Hazel. As have I.”

They came across the underground cavern not long after this. The cavern was divided by a wide, gushing river, which glowed a vivid aquamarine. There was a waterfall on the other side of the cavern, descending from a high, shadowy tunnel. A frothy mist coated the cavern.

“It appears revenant-free,” Pippa said, sweeping her spyglass throughout the cavern.

“Where’s the lichfiend?”

“Behind the waterfall, I’d venture to say. The spray is an ideal cover for the mist it creates, should it ever need to hide.”

As they walked along the river, Pippa pulled a vial out of her petticoat and tossed half its contents into the air in front of her. She kept her eyes on the fine white powder as it floated slowly around her. Walking through it, she said over her shoulder, “Do try not to breathe on any of it, Mr Hazel.”

“Why not, Miss Kipling?”

“Because I’m afraid it shall most certainly give you away.”

As she said this, the powder swirling around the boy’s head crystallized into little blue pellets that peppered his shoulders. The rest of the powder remained white, unaffected by the waterfall’s natural mist.

The boy cocked his head to the side, his boyish terror replaced by a cool confidence. “You fancy yourself terribly clever, Miss Kipling?”

“Terribly so, Mr Lichfiend. You see, even if the Porter hadn’t picked up your bizarre heat signal adjacent to my own very human heat signal, you know of lantern leaflings. That clinched it for me.”

“To compare me to those urchins was quite rude, Miss Kipling.”

“My apologies, Mr Lichfiend, but one might argue that sucking out the souls of innocent manual labourers is equally, if not more, rude.”

“Alas, I’m not one for debates.” The lichfiend closed his eyes with a sound that started out a sigh, and ended in a sort of moan. The mist about them began to glow and the lichfiend opened his eyes.

“Ah,” Pippa said, “that colour, I do know. It’s demonic blue.”

“I’ll be sucking out your soul now. That annoying perfume of yours will only slow the process, Miss Kipling, not arrest it.”

“Annoying? You really are rude. But perhaps not as rude as my companion.”

“Ah. The automaton. Where might it be?”

“Where might she be, Mr Lichfiend.” Pippa pointed over his shoulder. “This is she.”

The lichfiend turned just as the Porter, perched on an upper ledge of the cavern, fired her harpoon. The glistening weapon speared the lichfiend right through the stomach. It stumbled backward, right into the swing of Pippa’s mallet.

“I told you to mind the swing,” Pippa said, as the lichfiend went flying into the river. To the Porter, she called, “that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”

“Catch 22,” the Porter replied.

“You’re joking.” Pippa whirled and fired seconds before the lichfiend pounced on her. It hit the ground hard, struggling against her net. The lichfiend was soaked and still had the Porter’s spear sticking out of its middle. The side of its head had caved in where Pippa had struck, but instead of oozing blood, the wound oozed mist.

“Not a headshot, then?” Pippa turned and called to the Porter: “Add that to the database!”

“Vile humans!” the lichfiend shrieked, foam flying through the mist that coiled from its lips. “Vile, vile heartbeaters!”

“Vial, you said?” Pippa tossed another vial from her petticoat at the lichfiend. It shattered on the ground, spreading a cloud of pink powder.

The lichfiend started writhing as it shrieked: “No, no, no! Mine, mine, mine!”

The Porter stepped off her ledge, landed nimbly on the ground, and walked over to Pippa. “What exactly was that supposed to do?”

“Ah, now that was a lovely little exorcism blend I got for half-off at the market. It should have made this glutton regurgitate all those souls.”

“Perhaps there was a reason it was half-off.” The Porter grabbed her spear and jerked it free from the lichfiend. The lichfiend hissed at her as mist coiled from the hole in its stomach, the hole which had already begun knitting itself shut. “Any other ideas?”

“Certainly. That talisman it’s wearing is keeping it corporeal. If it hasn’t removed it by now, clearly it would like to stay corporeal. Shall we upset it?”

“Be my guest,” the Porter said.

The lichfiend started cackling as Pippa raised her mallet. “Silly, silly waif! Crush me, stab me, drown me—it won’t do any good! This talisman is impenetrable and so long as it’s intact, so am I!”

“I’m not trying to pierce your talisman, I’m trying to blow it up.”

“With your cannon?!” the lichfiend laughed.

“Yes.” Pippa pressed a button on the handle of her mallet. “With my cannon.”

The face of the mallet opened to reveal a glowing, fiery centre, getting brighter by the second.

The lichfiend blanched. “You have a cannon in your mallet?”

“Is there any reason not to?” Pippa tugged on the goggles resting round her neck and fired.

The lichfiend shrieked the second before it, and its talisman, were covered by blinding light. When the explosion cleared, there was a five-meter hole in the ground. The lichfiend and its talisman had quite disappeared. Pippa immediately uncorked another vial and tossed a handful of purple powder into the air. The powder clung to something, which started writhing uncontrollably, as if trying to shake the powder free.

“You’re not getting rid of that,” Pippa said. “It’s a little guarantee you won’t be taking corporeal form for a good long while. Itches mighty awful, doesn’t it?”

The powder whizzed about angrily.

“Yes, purple definitely suits you more than hazel. Get out of here, then, before I bring out my metaphysical cannon.”

The powder zipped away, disappearing into the mist of the waterfall.

“Are you sure about letting it go?” the Porter asked.

“It can’t cause any trouble in that form. If it could, it would have ditched the talisman to fight us. Besides,” Pippa said, out of the side of her mouth, “I don’t actually have a metaphysical cannon.”

“I know, Miss Kipling.”

“Yet. I don’t have one yet.”

The Porter sighed. “Let’s check on the pseudo-revenants.”

Sure enough, what they found squirming under the nets in the tunnels were not revenants, of the fake nor real variety, but, indeed, very confused workers. As they began freeing them, a thought occurred to Pippa, but she waited until the workers were well on their way before speaking to the Porter.

“Where do you suppose the lichfiend got its talisman?”

“I’m guessing you care very little about what I suppose, and rather there’s something you suppose.”

“Rather there is,” Pippa murmured. “The lichfiend knew you were an automaton, without my having said so. Also, there was a funny smell coming off its talisman. Faint, but present nonetheless, and I’ve an idea about its origin. Not even a foggy idea, nor misty, as it were.”

After seeing the workers out of the tunnel, and back up the precarious path—there were only four near-fatal falls—Pippa and the Porter were met by Mr Bradbury.

“You have my deepest gratitude, Miss Kipling, Ms the Porter. Whatever was it that stole away my workers?”

“Have you ever heard of a lichfiend, Mr Bradbury?”

“A lichfiend! Oh my! What’s a lichfiend?”

Pippa explained and Mr Bradbury paled. He broke in to ask, “Is it quite gone, for good?”

“Certainly. Your company is clear to continue with the chalet.”

“Charming.” Mr Bradbury’s smile was tight. He pulled out a clinking purse from his jacket. “Your payment, Miss Kipling, and the bonus we discussed.”

“Ah, the bonus! I do believe we ought to discuss that further, Mr Bradbury.” Pippa led the man away from his workers for a private word. “Why, Mr Bradbury, I do so love that cologne you’re wearing.”

“Thank you, Miss Kipling. A sweet floral concoction. My grandmother lent it to me.”

“Might your grandmother be a pawnbroker, Mr Bradbury?”

“Indeed she is. Are you familiar with the family name?”

“Something of the sort.” Pippa inhaled. “Yes. Lovely cologne. Quite like my perfume, I believe. It has that certain . . . soulful effect.”

Mr Bradbury tugged at his collar. “Miss Kipling, what was it you wished to discuss?”

“Oh, it will come back to me, I’m sure. For now, I’m curious about your grandmother. Did she impart to you any other gifts? Accessories, perhaps, that one might wear around the neck?”

The colour drained from Mr Bradbury’s face.

“Why do it?” Pippa asked quietly. “You endangered the lives of your workers.”

“It was necessary!” Mr Bradbury spluttered. He took Pippa’s hands and squeezed them desperately. “Please believe me, Miss Kipling! I had to do it, for the kelpies!”

“What do man-eating water horses have to do with this?”

“They live in the hot springs, you see. The first team to scout the cavern found a whole herd of them. Naturally, if word got back to the company, they’d have the kelpies removed. We can’t destroy their habitat for the sake of our chalet.”

“You didn’t strike me as the sort to stand up for the rights of man-eating water horses, Mr Bradbury.”

“That’s because I’ve been lying to you, Miss Kipling. I’m fully aware of the bountiful pest resources in the Westword Library; I frequent the university, in fact. While I may play the part of a company representative, my true interests lie in the preservation of paranormal entities.”

“Am I to take it, then, that you were pulling my leg and you have in actuality heard of lantern leaflings?”

“Oh, certainly not. Although the idea of such creatures fascinates me, I must admit I’m rather dubious about their existence.”

“And I must admit, Mr Bradbury, I’m not as sympathetic towards your plight after hearing you say that.”

“My apologies, Miss Kipling, but I take my pest studies very seriously. I cannot lie about my scepticism, once it is ignited.”

“I suppose I must respect you for that. However, I cannot respect a man who would put his workers’ souls on the line to protect a hot spring of kelpies.”

“And I cannot respect a man who would not do that. Ergo, my actions. I will take whatever punishment the company chooses to give, unless . . .” Mr Bradbury wet his lips. “Is there a way you and Ms the Porter may be convinced to keep my actions to yourselves?”

“Why, it just so happens that there is.” Pippa waved at the Porter. “He’s asking for the way!”

The Porter came over and pulled from her jacket a scroll, which she flapped open in front of Mr Bradbury’s face.

“An amended contract,” Pippa explained, “between you and ourselves, Mr Bradbury. The company need not be made aware of this contract, nor of the situations mentioned within.”

Mr Bradbury took the contract and quickly scanned it, his artfully sculpted nails tapping out an anxious rhythm against the paper. “I’m to never contract nor enable a lichfiend again?”

Pippa indicated the fine print. “Or a pest of any sort that’s likely to eat the flesh, blood, bone, soul or anything else relevant to the well-being and enjoyable life of a human and/or automated being.”

“But if I sign this, how am I to protect the pests of the world from exploitation?”

“That’s your problem, I’m afraid. But if you don’t sign, this recent altercation of yours shall be the Magistrate’s problem.”

Mr Bradbury gulped and accepted the pen the Porter offered. “Perhaps I could try promotional fundraisers.”

After Mr Bradbury signed the paper, Pippa dusted it with a handful of red powder.

“What’s that?” Mr Bradbury asked.

“Just a guarantee you’ll be keeping your word. Should you not, let’s just say a troupe of hobgoblins may be suddenly possessed to storm your residence, and not to thank you for preserving their hunting grounds, or anything of the like.”

“That sounds terribly troublesome.”

“Terribly so.” Pippa rolled up the contract and handed it to the Porter, who slid it back in her jacket. Pippa then took the pale-faced man’s limp hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Mr Bradbury. Your servant, as always.”

“As always, Miss Kipling,” Mr Bradbury murmured, half in a daze. Pippa left him like that as she and the Porter went on their way.

“Shall we stop by the market first, Gemini?” Pippa weighed the money purse in her hand. “I’m rather out of most of my powders.”

“I suppose Gemini’s your great-aunt’s twelfth middle name.”

“Nonsense. I just like the sound of it. You don’t?”

The Porter shrugged. “It’s better than your typical suggestions.”

“Then you’ll accept it?”

“I think not. I’m the Porter, you see.”

“I don’t believe I can argue with that.” Pippa tucked the money bag away, which completed step three of her trusty three-step plan: Acquire the money for the job, regardless of whether or not the job has been completed in a satisfactory manner.

Outside the Banshee’s Dormitory, the forest was seemingly silent but for the night breeze rustling amongst the treetops. On the way to their carriage, the steel frame of which glinted in the moonlight, the Porter stilled and cocked her ear to the sky. She held out her finger just in time to catch a fluttering clockwork bird. The Porter held it by her ear a moment, then said to Pippa, “We have another job.”


“A Pest Most Fiendish” copyright © 2016 by Caighlan Smith

Art copyright © 2016 by Kevin Hong


Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.