Sir Magnus Holmes, cousin to the more famous Sherlock, is asked to investigate the appearance of an otherworldly knight carrying a legendary sword in the cellar of a Victorian London pub.
“We was ’oping for t’other ’Olmes to take an interest,” said the publican. He wiped his fingers again on his striped apron as if this might somehow remove the strong aroma of beer that emanated not just from his hands, but his entire being. “Meaning no hoffence, your ’onour.”
He might mean no offence, but there was considerable doubt evident in his gaze, and some suspicion. This was centred on the recently regrown, rather wispy Van Dyke moustache and beard on the sprig of gentility in front of him, as if the facial hair might in fact be a disguise of some sort. A very bad one.
“Everyone wants Sherlock,” replied Sir Magnus Holmes with a heartfelt sigh. “However, I am here at his behest.”
“Beg yer pardon?” asked Jolyon.
“Sherlock sent me in answer to your note,” explained Sir Magnus, with an air of resignation. Nearly all his conversations, whether involving anything of importance or not, began with his cousinly connection to the very famous Sherlock.
Jolyon brightened a little at this, as Magnus continued.
“He considers this more of a matter for my particular talents, as it were. I do have my own expertise in certain areas. Allow me to introduce you to my keeper, Almost Doctor Susan Shrike. Mister Jolyon, isn’t it?”
“Julius Jolyon,” answered the publican automatically. “Er, your keeper, sir?”
“Sir Magnus will have his little jokes,” said the raven-haired young woman who did indeed carry a doctor’s Gladstone bag as if it were her constant companion, her attitude toward it making it seem not out of place with her otherwise modish, though sombre, ensemble of a deep blue velvet coat over a long dress, lace-cuffed and -collared. This was topped with a soft cap in a lighter shade of blue, adorned with a diamond brooch of some antiquity. “He meant to say medical consultant.”
“Oh yes,” said Jolyon. “Wery pleased to meet you, miss . . . er . . . halmost doctor.”
“What exactly is the trouble?” asked Sir Magnus. “Sherlock wasn’t very forthcoming, nor Doctor Watson.”
Susan Shrike sniffed at the mention of Doctor Watson, indicating her opinion of the man’s medical skills. He was very much of the old school and quite out of date as far as she was concerned. Susan hadn’t quite graduated yet from the London School of Medicine for Women, which was why Magnus liked to call her “almost doctor”, but she soon would be one of the very first officially recognised female doctors in Great Britain. Though this was only formal recognition of her skills and experience. Susan had been practicing medicine, of one kind or another, since she was fourteen.
“Best I show you, but the cellar’s . . . wery dirty,” said Jolyon doubtfully as he looked Sir Magnus up and down. The baronet was nattily attired, sporting a dove grey top hat, a frock coat of a similar shade, and a darker waistcoat with an unusually heavy gold watch chain. His collar was highly starched, his shirt white as the proverbial driven snow, his tie inimitable, and his immaculately pressed trousers seemed to almost merge with his shoes of brilliant patent leather.
He carried a cane with an ivory-and-gold handle, and all in all looked like someone who had never once crossed the threshold of a dirty cellar and never would.
“Nothing I like better!” exclaimed Sir Magnus. “Old holes in the ground are something of a specialty of mine.”
This was true, after a fashion. Sir Magnus’s primary area of knowledge was arcane practices, many of them necessarily conducted out of the sight of ordinary folk, and so very often underground. From necessity he had become more conversant than he would have liked with caves, hypogea, catacombs, Mithraeums, vaults, crypts, cellars, tunnels and all the other subterranean lairs and dwellings of those whose delvings were sorcerous as well as earthly. He was also quite knowledgeable about sacred groves and the like.
“Your inn, I believe, was built in 1539, as is proclaimed by the date in the stonework above the stables?”
“Rebuilt, sir,” said Jolyon proudly. “The hinitial hestablishment was one of them beer monks’ places, put up in the first William’s time, and as my grand-dad ’ad ’ad it they weren’t the first ’ere, oh no, there’s been beer ’ere since druid days, and Romans and all, some say.”
“Cistercians, I fancy,” muttered Sir Magnus to Susan, correctly divining the question forming on her lips concerning “beer monks”.
“If you’ve no hobjection, sir, it’s this way,” said Jolyon. “Would you care to take a gin and water in the parlour, the private parlour, miss . . . doctor—”
“I would not,” said Susan. “Where would Sir Magnus be if he needed my medical advice in the cellar if I’m in the parlour? I am not afraid of dirt. Or blood, for that matter.”
“Blood! There ent no blood!”
“Is your cellar well lit, Mister Jolyon?” asked Susan.
“Bright enough to see blood, if there was some!” protested Jolyon.
“Oh, that’s not what I meant,” said Susan. “Only Sir Magnus has sensitive eyes and does not see well in the dark. A storm lantern or similar will be necessary.”
“I am . . . that is my eyes . . . are almost completely better!” protested Sir Magnus, but he subsided as Susan arched her left eyebrow a fraction. He could see extremely well in the dark, as a matter of fact, but darkness of the kind that would be found in a cellar after, say, a single candle was extinguished, might trigger an unpleasant change in Sir Magnus, though he was mostly better.
Some months before, also while assisting a cousin, in this case Mycroft Holmes, Sir Magnus had been involved in a fracas with a particularly powerful sorcerer, a famous Hanoverian magical philosopher known as Krongeitz. He had originally come to England with George I, attempted to meddle with matters of state, been found out, tried to flee to join the Pretender, and got caught. He had then been immured in a bronze casket by Conyers Darcy, bearer of the white staff as Comptroller of the Household and thus, far less publically, Walpole’s secret Master of Magic.
Unfortunately, the records noting who was in the casket had been misplaced. Decades later the casket itself was moved from the deep cellars of the Tower of London and it had eventually ended up for sale at a church fete in Kent. The buyer, a curious curate, had opened the casket. Krongeitz had emerged alive and apparently none the worse for his long confinement, apart from a raging desire to wreak his revenge upon King George. Or, as it turned out, George’s descendent, Queen Victoria.
It had taken all the genius of Mycroft, some detective work from Sherlock, and the arcane talents of Sir Magnus and several others to defeat Krongeitz. He was once again in the casket, but it had been a very close-run thing, and Sir Magnus had copped a very powerful curse, which, despite various ameliorative spells and treatments continued to lurk within him.
The curse was triggered by darkness and certain other stimuli, so it was important to keep Sir Magnus well illuminated. An unpleasant change in the baronet would result in the irreversible change commonly known as “death” to everyone in the vicinity, in this case not just Mister Jolyon’s inn, but the entirety of Clerkenwell, and perhaps even farther afield.
“There’s two candles under glass to light ’im,” said Jolyon. “And I generally carries down a lamp.”
“Him?” asked Sir Magnus.
“Best y’see yourself,” replied the publican, leading them behind the bar to a storeroom, well stocked with bottles, kegs and barrels, with a door at the far end propped half-open. Beyond the door lay rough-hewn stone steps heading down into the twilit depths, accented by the flicker of candlelight.
Susan reached into the surprisingly voluminous pocket of her coat, and checked her purse revolver was positioned for swift removal and use. She had a larger British Bulldog revolver in her medical bag, but often the few seconds gained by using the little .32 were more important than the Bulldog’s .450 bite. Should gunfire prove to be ineffectual, Sir Magnus had a silvered blade within his cane. Should that not be sufficient, Sir Magnus was currently a weapon himself, after a fashion, albeit a double-edged sword . . .
Jolyon paused at the top of the steps to take down a lantern, which he lit with a match struck against his heel, the puff of sulphur-tainted smoke it sent up making Sir Magnus wrinkle his nose. After trimming the wick, the innkeeper settled the glass and held the lantern high as he started downwards.
“Watch yer step,” he warned, tapping with his boot to indicate that the middle of each stone step was deeply worn from use over centuries, creating slippery hollows, so it was safer to tread on the sides.
The cellar was much larger than anyone might have expected, far larger than the inn above. Even Jolyon’s lamp illuminated only a small portion of what seemed to be a limitless cavern, supported here and there by pillars of stone and brick and beams of ancient oak, evidence of several different ages of excavation and expansion. There were many barrels and kegs, and racks of wine holding cobwebbed and dusty bottles.
Some thirty feet away, in a straight line from the steps, there was a simple candle lantern set on a crate. In its small pool of light, Sir Magnus saw a man sitting on the stone floor, cradling a sword.
Not merely a man. A knight. Rusted mail hung off him, under a surcoat so rent and torn it was little more than rags over the metal. His battered shield, split in several places, lay at his side. His dented helmet was upended by his feet, which were wrapped in straps of leather, reinforcing the remnants of boots that had been marched on too far and for too long.
The knight’s hair was long and filthy, as were his moustache and beard, and was of no discernable colour, save that of dirt. His face was obscured by more dirt. He did not look up, his attention fixed on the goblet he held in his hand, a battered thing also, of brass or bronze, held at such an angle that wine slopped from it over his fingers, which were as dirty as his face. An empty bottle lay nearby, companionably nestled against a plate of gnawed chop bones.
Only the sword was bright and clean. A great sword, made to be wielded in two hands, its cross-guard dark iron above the brighter metal of the blade. It towered above the sitting man, the point wedged in a gap between flagstones, the flat of the blade resting on his chest and shoulder, the hilt high above his head, the bronze-wired grip and heavy bronze pommel gleaming.
There was writing on the blade, gold runes brighter even than the steel.
“He doesn’t stink,” whispered Susan to Magnus. “He should reek.”
“He’s not entirely present,” Magnus whispered back. “In this world, I mean.”
“Why is the sword so bright and clean when he is not?”
“Ah, there you have it,” whispered Magnus infuriatingly. “It is all about the sword.”
He raised his voice to speak to the publican.
“How long has he been here? Has he spoken?”
The knight did not move, or show any sign of hearing Magnus.
“My Norbert wuz first to spy ’im,” replied Jolyon. “When I sent ’im down for the ’48 claret. Day afore yesterdee. Just as ’e is now, sitting with that there blade. Norbert arsks ’im what ’e’s up to, but ’e don’t talk until Norbert gets up close and then ’e says foreign for ‘wine’—which Norbert knows on account of his Navy times in the Mediterabeum—and ’e ’ands over a coin or two.”
“He’s been here two days, like this?” asked Magnus. “But you only sent word to ask for Sherlock’s assistance this morning?”
“The coins wuz gold . . .”
“I see,” said Sir Magnus. “Could you show me one of these coins, please?”
“I ’spose I might ’ave one on me person,” said Jolyon reluctantly. He rummaged under his apron, hands moving in an apparent attempt to misdirect the onlookers as to where he actually kept his cash. After several more mysterious movements, he withdrew a small gold coin and slowly handed it over to Magnus.
“Hmmm. A Byzantine ἱστάμενον, which is to say, a histamenon,” remarked the baronet, holding it up close to his left eye. “Of Isaac I Komnenos. Here, take it and touch it against one of the iron hoops of that barrel.”
“Wot? Like this—”
The gold coin turned into sand as it touched the cold iron, trickling through the publican’s fingers. He gasped in surprise and, very quickly, sorrow.
“But! It wuz . . . it wuz gold!”
“Some would call it fairy gold, Jolyon,” said Magnus. “How close do you have to get before he responds?”
“Close,” replied Jolyon, faintly stunned. He was rummaging about under his apron again. “I ’spose the gold would stay good along as it doesn’t touch no iron?”
“Only until the new moon,” said Magnus. “Best not try and use it, Jolyon.”
“But ’e’s ’ad a dozen bottles of my best Burgundy,” protested Jolyon, his mind apparently more ready to grasp the concept of “fairy gold” than it was his own monetary loss. “And prime wittles as well. Best Yorkshire ’am, sausage, Mother Jolyon’s pork pie . . .”
“Why did you . . . eventually . . . ask for Sherlock’s assistance?” asked Susan. She delicately did not dwell on the fact that the prospect of more gold had clearly delayed any earlier attempt. But why had fear or suspicion eventually overcome the greed?
“Well, at first I took ’im for a heccentric gentleman,” replied Jolyon shiftily. “A payin’ one . . . but then there was the water . . .”
“Water?” asked Magnus.
“I come down this morning and ’e’s sitting in a river! Water a-gushin’ and rushin’ all around ’im, coming from nowhere, going nowhere! Now that ent natural, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” said Magnus. “I think I know what it is happening here, but I’d better have a few words with the chap myself. Susan, there is a slight chance that the . . . um . . . mythic envelope around this chap might trigger the Krongeitz . . . er . . . effect, so if you would prepare yourself?”
Susan nodded, set down her bag and undid the straps. Jolyon looked properly mystified, as was to be hoped.
Almost Doctor Susan Shrike’s primary responsibility as Magnus’s keeper was to be alert for the effects of the curse that the sorcerer Krongeitz had placed upon the baronet. This very powerful malediction that had resisted all attempts at removal, even by Magister Dadd, current leader of the coterie of official British sorcerers. The curse was fading, but until it was entirely dissipated, Magnus had to spend his nights locked up in the most private and secure wing of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the Insane, and either Susan or more rarely one of Dadd’s other associates accompanied him everywhere in daylight hours.
This was a form of torture for Magnus, who was deeply in love with Susan, but he would not declare himself until he was free of the curse. Susan was also in love with Magnus, but would not admit it, since she was his keeper.
In the meantime Susan was both witness to the more humiliating effects of the curse on Magnus and was also at great risk in her role as his keeper and safeguard, both things Magnus wished she were not subjected to. All this, combined with typical British reticence to discuss their relationship and its problems, led them to behave in such a repressed way to each other that everyone else around them knew immediately they were in love.
“Be careful, Sir Magnus,” said Susan.
Magnus stepped up close to the knight, who instantly reared up, lifting the sword. Curiously he did not hold it as a weapon, but grasped it under the hilt and brandished it as a cross.
“I have sanctuary here!” he growled. “I will not return to the Lady!”
He spoke a form of Latin, interspersed with some Welsh words, as Magnus had expected. He replied in his more classical Latin, knowing he would be understood.
“I’m not from the Lady,” soothed Magnus. “Nor do I seek to take you from sanctuary.”
The knight did not lower the sword. Magnus could smell him very strongly now, the stench of days or weeks without washing mixed with old blood and fear. Interestingly, apart from the few feet around the knight, the rest of the cellar had vanished into impenetrable darkness. Magnus was grateful the candle lantern was close by, light sufficient to hold back the curse that sought to rise within his blood and bone. He could feel it trying to manifest, an evil within that desired to join the darkness without.
“That sword,” said Magnus. “It is the king’s?”
“Yes,” said the knight dully. “It is the king’s.”
“I think the king asked you to take it somewhere in particular,” suggested Magnus gently.
“Aye,” said the knight. He glanced at Magnus, but kept peering off nervously to one side and then the other, as if he couldn’t make out what he saw there. “But he was wounded, nigh unto death. His mind was wandering, he was tempted by devils . . . I am a good Christian, I could not do as he asked!”
“I see,” said Magnus, his voice still soft, without threat. “You are Sir Bedivere, then?”
The knight shook his head. “My name is Bedwyr ap Pedrod.”
Magnus nodded. They were essentially one and the same, albeit differently named in various strands of the legend.
“I will not give up the sword to anyone save the bishop,” said Bedwyr firmly. “But he does not come . . .” He stared to the sides, eyes hooded, mouth working, dismayed words held back, until he could hold them back no more. “This is not the chapel!”
“No . . .”
The knight clapped a hand against his eyes and peered between his fingers. “Chapel . . . tavern . . . the very ground shifts and changes . . . I will not relinquish this sacred trust, no matter how long the Lady keeps me in this prison hole!”
Magnus looked around again. It was entirely possible Bedwyr did see himself in a prison hole. It was a kind of hole, in fact, though not one dug in earth, but a pinched-off pocket of unreality that should not exist.
“Have you tried to leave?”
Bedwyr looked near him, his half-crazed eyes trying to focus.
“How can I pass solid rock? Or reach the clean air so high above? Unless I take your ladder—”
He lunged at Magnus, but the baronet was already skipping backwards, out of the darkness, back into the storm lantern’s brighter light, where Susan and Jolyon looked on. Bedwyr subsided back into his crouch, oblivious to the greater world.
Magnus noted Susan’s searching gaze. He nodded to indicate he was unaffected by his curse. So far, at least.
“Well,” he said to Jolyon. “I think this can be sorted out. Tell me, have you any guests in the rooms upstairs at present? Any unusual guests, in particular?”
Jolyon’s rubicund forehead wrinkled.
“No guests at all just now, sir,” he said. “We only ’ave the three rooms, our main business being beer, as it were, and a little wine, and Mother Jolyon’s cooking, none finer for ordinary fare.”
“They must be close,” mused Magnus. “Any interesting characters become neighbours recently? Or, in fact, any new neighbours?”
Jolyon scratched his head, wiped his hands on his apron and scratched his head again.
“None I can think on,” he said. “None . . . none new.”
“Odd,” said Magnus. “Proximity is necessary . . . have you engaged any new servants? Any new customers hanging about?”
“No,” replied Jolyon.
“You said no new neighbours,” said Susan, who had caught how the publican had phrased his answer. “What about former neighbours who’ve returned after time away?”
“There’s old Mrs Davies!” said Jolyon. “You mean her? She ain’t new, but she has come back—”
“Where has this Mrs Davies returned to?”
“Next ’ouse along,” replied Jolyon, indicating an easterly direction with this thumb. “David Davies’s grand-dam she is, ’im as ’as the rag and bones shop, only ’e calls it a marine hemporium. He lives above, with his rib and I ’spose ’alf a dozen little ones, no it would be seven with Liccy as wuz born last month . . .”
“Where did Mrs Davies come back from?” asked Magnus. “And how long was she away?”
“She come back from wherever it wuz she went,” answered Jolyon with a shrug. “Nigh on twelve year ago she went off and just last Thursdee come back, as if she’d never left, and David ’aving to move the elder three chillum from the second-best room upstairs as was always ’ers. ’E never could gainsay ’is grand-dam, but then who could?”
“A commanding woman?” asked Magnus.
“The original matriarky,” confirmed Jolyon with a shudder. “I wuz that frightened of ’er as a boy. She leads ’er face, see, like the olden days. Frightful white, it is.”
Magnus and Susan exchanged a look. Certain kinds of sorcery and its associated alchemical practices led to gravely pockmarked skin, which practitioners covered up with a mask or heavy face paint. Indeed, as Jolyon said, in the old days often with the white lead paste favoured by great ladies.
“But what’s Mrs Davies got to do with this feller?” asked the publican.
“Oh, hard to say, hard to say, but her arriving at the same time may be of significance,” said Magnus. “We’ll have a chat with her, bye and bye.”
“And what about ’im?” asked Jolyon.
“Oh, he’ll be gone by nightfall,” said Magnus confidently. “As if he was never here. But let us ascend into daylight; we need not stay here any longer. Lay on, MacJolyon!”
“Go ahead,” said Susan gently, taking Magnus’s arm to hold him back for a few seconds.
“What exactly is going on?” she whispered close to his ear as the landlord huffed his way up the steps, being careful to tread on the sides and avoid the bowed middle.
“That’s Sir Bedivere back there,” Magnus whispered back. “With Excalibur. Which he has not returned to the Lady of the Lake. He’s a good Christian and is waiting to give it to a bishop.”
“Bedivere? Excalibur? But how is that poss—”
“Perhaps I should say he is a sort of echo of Sir Bedivere,” said Sir Magnus. “A shadow cast by the primary legend, twisted aside from its proper course . . . lesser in all ways, but still somewhat potent. The sword too. I mean it is not the Excalibur, but even a second-hand mythic resonance holds power.”
“But you said he’s not really here! I presume the sword likewise—”
“It is present enough for the adept who summoned or created this little mythic bubble to fetch it forth,” said Magnus. “Come on, let’s catch up with our chrysophilist landlord.”
Jolyon had already left the storeroom and gone into the public bar, where faint sunshine forced its way through the smoke-begrimed windows. A single patron—a working man of indeterminate age—lay slumped over one of the six rough-hewn tables. He’d been there when they came in, albeit not snoring quite so loudly as he was now.
“Which would be the point, as it were,” continued Magnus. “It is very difficult to get hold of magic swords by other means these days, even lesser ones. It’s almost certainly wanted for some particular killing. I hope not another plot against Her Majesty, or the Prime Minister . . . damnation . . . I fear Mrs Davies has anticipated us.”
The bell above the door jangled as a white-faced, red-bonneted old lady in a black bombazine dress with an enormous bustle thrust her way inside, holding a large wicker basket ahead of her like a shield. She shut the door, muttering something under her breath.
This last word and a momentary grip on Susan’s elbow arrested her motion towards her pocket, and the revolver therein.
“She’s an adept, it’ll only ricochet into her foes. She may not know us; we can bluff our way out—”
Even as he spoke, Mrs Davies saw him, stopped in the doorway and hissed like a train venting steam. Quick as a snake she reached into her basket, snatched a bottle and threw it at the baronet’s head.
Magnus jumped one way, Susan the other. The bottle hit the wall behind them and smashed, the green ichor it contained exploding into a web-like pattern of concentric circles and anchoring lines. The whole thing shivered, and the plasterwork behind it began to smoke and disappear.
“Blue pill!” snapped Magnus.
Susan was already on her knees, opening her bag, fingers expertly thrusting into the right pocket, gripping one of the large blue pills. She practiced exactly this for hours every week, knowing full well that when it was needed she would have to be swift and very accurate. She was swift, and the accuracy was demonstrated as she flung the pill unerringly into Magnus’s open mouth.
Even as he crunched down on the pill, Susan had the necklace of shimmering blue stones out and around her neck. There was only one such necklace in England, perhaps in all of Europe. It would only protect her, but all other mortals present would be in extreme peril from whatever Magnus was going to become.
Fear rose in her, but her greater fear was for Magnus. The blue pill activated the curse. Every time he took one, the curse’s hold on Magnus was strengthened and there was always the chance that with the encouragement of the blue pill, the curse would grow so entrenched it could never be removed. Then there would be only one recourse.
The yellow pill, to end the curse forever. And Magnus with it.. And Susan too, in all the ways that mattered.
All this flashed through her mind in an instant, but she did not, could not, dwell on it.
“Run, Mister Jolyon! Get everyone out!” she shouted. It wasn’t only what Magnus was becoming that scared her. The web of ichor now hung in a dark void where the old plasterwork had disappeared entirely, making a doorway into otherness. Something horrible, so horrible it could not be looked upon directly, was climbing up it, its wet multi-jointed legs scrabbling for purchase as if it were lifting itself up from some deep, differently oriented well at right angles to the wall.
Magnus screamed in agony and his clothes burst from him in all directions. Susan dropped to the floor as buttons flew overhead like bullets. Jolyon fell, struck by something, perhaps a patent leather shoe. He had not acted upon Susan’s warning; he’d just stood there with his mouth agape, eyes staring.
“Krongeitz!” swore Mrs Davies. She recognized what was happening and started to back out the door, scrabbling for something in her basket. But she was too slow. Magnus had become a cloud, an angry, roiling cloud of intense sapphire gas that rushed forward as if driven by an unseen, unfelt hurricane. The cloud fell upon the sorcerer in a fury, enveloped her, and there was a terrible shriek and the snap! snap! snap! of breaking bones. It dropped her a second later, a crumpled remnant, smashed flat like a worker crushed in a giant press.
Susan reached into her bag for the reversal powder, but the blue cloud was both swifter than she expected and smarter too, which was very unusual. Typically a Krongeitz transformee was a creature as stupid as it was lethal. This one wasn’t. The cloud moved so fast she barely saw it cross the room. It swept down and lifted her bag away, though it did not and could not touch Susan while she wore the necklace. She tried to snatch the bag back, but the cloud creature deposited it high in the beams of the sixteenth-century ceiling, beyond her reach.
The other creature chose that moment to launch itself out of its web, scuttling on its many limbs towards Susan, who leaped up on the closest table and drew her pocket revolver, emptying it at the thing even as she averted her eyes, unable to look directly at the abomination.
The bullets had little or no effect. Susan jumped to the next table, over the body of Jolyon.
The thing pursued her, but stopped at the innkeeper and lowered its bloated, blurry abdomen upon him. A moment later Jolyon’s arms and legs began to jerk and muffled cries began, which were mercifully cut short.
Susan choked and coughed as bile rose in her throat, but she kept moving. For a moment she hoped the blue cloud would attack the otherworldly entity that had come from the web, but Magnus did not. The curse made him into a monster tasked to kill people, and the web creature was as inhuman as you could get. Instead the cloud flew into the kitchen.
Someone in there—probably Mother Jolyon—screamed, but Susan ignored that. She ran for the storeroom, raced down the steps (remembering to tread on the sides) and rushed up to the knight, who jumped up and once brandished the sword as if it was a cross.
“I’m Saint . . . Saint Susan!” screamed Susan. The necklace of blue stones shone so brightly her head was surrounded by a nimbus of unearthly light, a veritable halo. “Give me the sword!”
Bedwyr handed over the sword with a sigh of great contentment and immediately vanished. Susan gripped the almost-Excalibur with both hands, surprised by its lack of weight, for it was not as heavy as she expected. Turning on her heel, she saw the thing from the web had finished with Jolyon and come after her.
It was fast, too fast. For a terrible fraction of a second Susan thought it would be on her before she could raise the sword.
But it went down the middle of the steps, and even with its many legs, it slid on the bowed and shiny stone and fell over itself, its terrible charge almost a pratfall, if anyone could bear to look at it long enough to laugh.
Susan brought the sword down once, twice, three times. She shuddered and choked and tried not to breathe in the hideous stench as sprays of ichor, pieces of wiry chitin and gobbets of horrid flesh flew from every sword stroke.
Interestingly, once the creature was dismembered and thoroughly dead, Susan had no difficulty looking at its component parts. But she did not pause for longer examination. She laid the ersatz Excalibur down with a whispered “thank you,” took the brooch from her cap, opened it with her fingernail, removed the emergency screw of paper that held the reversal powder and ran up the stairs.
Though she wished no ill will on Mother Jolyon or the staff of the inn, it was too late to hope for anything save that killing them had delayed the transformed Magnus long enough that he was still in the building. If he got outside, into the streets of London . . . if he remained in that shape until nightfall . . .
The blue cloud emerged from the kitchen as Susan came out of the storeroom. Again it moved more swiftly than she had anticipated, crossing the room in a split second to reach the door. But even as it gripped the handle and pulled upon it, Susan ran and threw the powder.
The cloud darted aside, fast as ever, and Susan gasped as she thought it had evaded every last grain of the antidote. But the cloud shivered and stopped in place. It shrank in on itself and with a pathetic popping noise, suddenly became Magnus again.
Naked and sobbing, he dropped down on all fours and vomited.
The single, drunken patron had been killed by the cloud and like Mrs Davies was now only a pile of compressed bones and skin, but his many-times patched overcoat was still over the back of the chair. Susan took it and draped it over Magnus’s shoulders. She had to tread around the remains of Jolyon to do so. His corpse was like something fished from the river after several weeks, all jelly and slime.
“You used the almost-Excalibur on the creature Mrs Davies summoned?” asked Magnus, wiping his mouth, though he did not get up. He glanced around, his eyes hooded, noting the crushed and flattened bodies. Then he looked over at the door to the kitchen.
“Yes,” said Susan. She followed his glance and added, “You did go in there. I’m sorry.”
“What was I?”
“Nothing I’ve seen before. A cloud. A thing of vapour, or gas. It was clever. Unusually so.”
Susan pointed to her bag in the roof beams.
Magnus nodded wearily.
“I’ll write it up in the book,” said Susan.
Magnus nodded again, even more wearily.
“Are you fit to move?” asked Susan. “We probably only have a few minutes. Someone will come in, and I don’t suppose Mycroft will want to be explaining you to the authorities for the second time this month.”
Magnus rose to his feet, pulled the overcoat around himself and buttoned it up. Susan got a chair, put it on the table, stood on it and retrieved her bag. While she did so, Magnus went to the front door, shot the top and bottom bolts, then walked over to the kitchen door and looked within. His shoulders sagged and he turned away.
“It wasn’t you,” said Susan. “Mrs Davies would have killed everyone anyway. Anyone who saw her with the sword.”
“Perhaps,” said Magnus. “We shall have to look into her family, you know. She was probably a descendent of Huw Llwyd, the so-called ‘Welsh Wizard’, and there might be others of the blood who have taken her path. We should leave the front door locked, go out through the kitchen. Did the sword vanish after you used it?”
“No,” said Susan. “Should it have? Bedwyr disappeared.”
“Yes. I’d better make sure,” replied Magnus. “Splash as much brandy and gin about as you can up here—we need to burn the place. I don’t like the look of Jolyon’s corpse. There’s something moving about inside it. Eggs, I imagine.”
Susan was sick then, despite herself, despite everything she’d seen and done, both as a medical student and as one of Dadd’s keepers. But she vomited efficiently, wiped her mouth and went to work, grabbing bottles from the bar, pulling corks with her teeth and liberally sprinkling alcohol everywhere. She poured an entire small keg of the inn’s best brandy over the corpse of Jolyon.
Magnus came back up with a long package wrapped in sacking under one arm and the candle lantern held high. Susan looked at the package and raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t know why it persists,” said Magnus. He was pale and moved slowly, as if his feet were weighed down. “It is only a mythic echo; it shouldn’t be here. Such things are summoned for a single use. But it remains . . . and we can’t leave it behind. Come on.”
At the doorway to the kitchen, he threw the lantern. Glass shattered, candle grease spewed out, there was a sudden whoosh of sapphire blue flames as the alcohol caught. The fire spread instantly, following trails of gin and brandy back towards the many bottles and barrels in and around the bar. Smoke billowed up, not quite quickly enough to cloak the horrid writhing as whatever was within Jolyon’s corpse reacted to the fire.
In the lane behind the inn, Magnus suddenly stopped. Susan, who had paused to shut the kitchen door behind her, almost ran into his back.
“I’ve just realised,” said Magnus.
“What?” asked Susan. She looked up at the sky. Though there were probably two hours till sunset, she was very keen to get both herself and Magnus back to Bethlem. She took his arm and urged him on to the next lane, from which they could cut back through to Rawstone Street, where Carstairs was waiting with the hansom cab. The sooner they were out of sight the better. Particularly the barefoot, wild-eyed Magnus, who was quite evidently naked under the greatcoat, since it lacked its three lower buttons and couldn’t be entirely done up.
“Mrs Davies had greater powers than I suspected. She managed to conjure more than the echoes of Bedivere and the sword.”
“The water flowing through the knight’s pocket reality. Think of the legend, the usual story.”
“Ah, I see,” said Susan. She looked around as they emerged from the lane, almost in a panic. But there was only the usual London horde thronging in the street, and Carstairs had spotted them and was whistling up his horse and forcing the cab into an imaginary gap in the foot traffic. “You mean there will be a Lady somewhere here . . . a mythic creature . . . will she be hostile? We have to tell Dadd!”
“No, I don’t think she’ll be hostile,” said Magnus thoughtfully. “Provided we complete the legend as it should be.”
“Right,” said Susan, calming herself. “That makes sense.”
She stared down a newsboy who was looking at Magnus and his burden with unusual interest, and led the baronet over to the cab. Carstairs reached down from his seat to flip open the door, his expression changing not a jot at the transformation of Magnus from the elegant gentleman of an hour before to a semi-naked tramp with traces of vomit around his mouth making his wispy beard even more horrible than before.
Susan got straight in with a sigh of relief, but Magnus paused on the step to give directions.
“Hyde Park, Carstairs! We have something we need to throw in the Serpentine.”
“The Thames is closer,” said Susan as Magnus passed her the sacking-clad Excalibur. He climbed in and shut the door.
“Yes,” replied Magnus. “But I don’t think a river would do. It really has to be a lake.”
He knocked on the ceiling, and they heard Carstairs whistle. The cab began to rumble and sway as it moved away. Susan put her bag up next to her on the seat, and rummaged inside, replacing the screw of paper in her brooch, making a production of it so her face was turned away while Magnus wiped his face and put on the simple, spare underclothes, trousers and shirt that were kept for him in the cab. He didn’t bother with stockings or shoes, since soon enough he would be chained up in his cell again.
They drove on in silence, surrounded by all the noises of the modern city, until Magnus cleared his throat and spoke, his voice harsh and sudden.
“Where do you keep the yellow pill, Susan?”
Susan started and looked out the window, eyes blinking away sudden tears.
“I do know about it,” said Magnus apologetically. “Both Mycroft and Sherlock told me. Mycroft knew, of course, and Sherlock deduced its existence—its purpose, if not its colour. They thought I should be told, though evidently Dadd does not.”
Susan tapped a button, outwardly of jet, upon her sleeve.
“Here,” she said. “But it is truly a last resort, Magnus. You are so much better! I’m sure in a few months—”
“But when the curse is dissipated, who shall be fed blue pills to fight against the enemies of England?” asked Magnus. He touched the wrapped Excalibur upon his lap. “Magic swords being somewhat out of fashion.”
“I don’t know,” whispered Susan, taking his hands. “Magnus, I do not know. But it will not be you. No more blue pills soon, and never the yellow. Never that.”
“Unless it proves necessary,” said Magnus bleakly. “Perhaps I might even choose to take it myself.”
“No,” said Susan, very sternly. “Stop talking nonsense. Tell me. Will we actually see the Lady of the Lake?”
Magnus smiled, a smile that did not banish the sadness in his eyes.
“We might see her arm,” he said. “That’ll scare the swimmers . . .”
“The Case of the Somewhat Mythic Sword” copyright © 2020 by Garth Nix
Art copyright © 2020 by Micah Epstein