Once the bushes had stopped shaking, and the outraged cries had reduced to a soft moaning, the various hides and camouflage screens could be safely opened – and indeed were. Leaves dislodged from the trees and whipped up by ripping ropes were still swirling and dancing in the disturbed air in the clearing, and these lent an air of hurried readjustment to the proceedings. The group emerged into the open air, brushing themselves clean of errant twigs, leaves, and dirt.
Farren took it upon himself to check the pit on the other side of the now-swept space. He was heard to chuckle before he returned. “Well,” he said, “we didn’t get the monkey, but we did get the organ-grinder. Not sure he’s necessarily the brains of the outfit, mind.” He gestured vaguely behind at the ragged opening in the ground.
Pel and Raak bounded over to peer down. Pel had a coiled rope looped over his arm and shoulder and looked ready to shake it loose. Raak had knocked an arrow and was aiming it generally down into the pit without drawing. Em was the last to emerge from her concealment, and she took a moment to scan the perimeter of the clearing before engaging with Farren.
“So, all that and we didn’t get what we came for?”
“Yet” Farren replied. He jerked his thumb back to the pit where Pel was lowering himself down to their captive. “I can’t imagine he’ll be particularly difficult to persuade to talk.”
“Hope so – that was a lot of work.” Em sat on a large fallen tree trunk on the edge of the trail that had led here and cracked her knuckles. “Remind me again why we took this job?”
“Coin, same as ever, and a promise of passage on the next ship west.” Farren rubbed the back of his neck, then turned towards the pit to see Pel and Raak hoisting a dirt and leaf-covered youth back to the surface. “You’ll see, we’ll be on our way soon enough.”
The door had reappeared sometime overnight between the cleaners clocking off at eleven the previous evening, and the office manager arriving at six in the morning. Even then, nobody commented on it until a few hours later. The first mention was when a courier mistook it for the entrance to the IT team’s area and came to ask what was going on. From such mistakes and near misses are these things noticed – and if luck is with people, connections made to old stories and warnings.
As it happened, the office manager had been hazed by the refit project manager with stories of the doorway that wasn’t on the floorplans and that led to areas that hadn’t been listed for renovations. Jokes about their back rooms had mixed with internet memes and gamer’s jokes about glitches to fuel a nagging fear of the ill-defined. The office manager – Eileen – had promptly signed for delivery of the package and stowed it in a locker before going in search of hazard tape.
Ten minutes later, the door was adorned with black and yellow stripes and sticky vinyl warning signs forbidding entrance. She’d found them stuffed at the back of the office supplies cupboard. The calm lasted for maybe an hour or so before a grumpy IT helpdesk lad called Khurrum took a closer look after picking up the delivery. Despite Eileen’s protests, he swept aside the tape and poked his head in. He reported a corridor with some empty rooms off it – and while she held the door open, he went in to investigate a little further. To humour her, he didn’t leave her line of site and so didn’t go too far. Each room seemed to be decorated in an identical slightly yellowed off-white colour with unbroken beige hard-wearing carpet. Old fluorescent lights lent an unflattering blankness to the whole place by washing out what colours there were.
He pretended boredom, but he had to admit later that he was unnerved by Eileen’s nervousness. For her part, Eileen was even more troubled as the space described couldn’t possibly fit into the floor layout as she knew it. If there was a corridor there, it should have come out by the meeting room by the kitchen galley rather than opening into other rooms.
It might all have stayed a minor oddity, consigned to obscurity as a thing that made people scratch their heads as a ripple in reality, if other people hadn’t also had the same thought and started to try and use it as a cut-through. Eileen even caught a member of the sales team trying to set up a secret private office in there. That had come to her attention when he’d come round to complain at her desk about a lack of network ports and wifi signal. She’d sent him packing back to his assigned desk with a flea in his ear and a sheaf of new leads freshly printed from the calls database.
People, however, can’t resist an empty office space, and before long the department head got to hear about unused floor space and put in a call to IT. Despite Eileen’s private misgivings and attempts to appeal to the detail of rental agreements, the tapes were torn down and contractors hired to quote for running new cabling into the rooms beyond.
In the distance, he could hear the rumble and boom of battle getting closer. Dust fell sporadically, disturbed by the larger explosions, but he kept writing. Nothing stopped the scratch of his pen against paper, unless he needed to brush away debris fallen from the ceiling. Even then it was with an economy’s motion that barely broke the pace of The Work.
The Work would be completed. That had been decided, and so it would happen. Seething fields of probability collapsed into ordered rows of flowing cursive script to make it so. He deftly imposed his will on the process of the composition before him, and allowed himself a smile of contentment.
The moment stretched, poised on the tip of his pen, dragged against the inertia of time, and the shadows deepened around him. Pressure began to gather against his ears and across his skin, defying his steady progress as if the world had begun to hold its breath. Even a particularly loud boom of ordnance detonating right overhead did nothing to distract him.
Then he was done, and the only sound in the chamber was the click of the barrel of his pen as he laid it on the varnished tabletop surface beside the book.
There was another overhead rumble, but he paid it no attention. The future, or at least the moment he had calved away from nature’s flow, was now fixed in place. It spun from the linchpin of his design and this totem of declaration.
His task was done. Now the story would gather its strength and devour all opposition. He looked down, closed the book, and waited for the end.
“Come back when you’ve got your real face on. You’ve done it once, and you’ll feel better for it.” Robert hesitated at the door, nodded compliance, and closed it behind him. Quiller sat back and let out a sigh he’d barely noticed had been building.
Half an hour later, there was another knock at the door and the sound of someone clearing their throat. This time it was Rebecca, and she looked nervous until Quiller ushered her in and offered to put the kettle on.
She settled in the chair by the window and waited while he fussed with the cups and their contents. The proffered beverage, when it came, was hot and sugary and just the right temperature to warm all the way down. Quiller stayed quiet while she sipped at it, and then opened a notepad.
“Let’s start again then shall we? You said there was something odd going on?”
He’d been dozing lightly when the alarm went off, his phone screen dazzling in the gloom. He grabbed it and hit the icon that shut the noise off, which also darkened the screen again. Quiet returned to the storage room he’d hidden in.
He was surrounded by racks of clothing; each item shrouded in thin plastic dust covers. Between those and the carefully sealed and labelled boxes, the entire wardrobe inventory of the drama department had been his hiding place. With no performances scheduled for months, he’d been reasonably sure no one would have disturbed him.
He checked the time, more out of habit than anything else, and listened for any signs of life. Nothing could be heard, and there was only a very dim light showing under the door. He decided to risk it, and slowly turned the knob of the lock to prise the door open.
The corridor beyond was lit only by moonlight, with no lights from the windows on the opposite side of the lightwell. The hard-wearing carpet tiles made barely a sound as he moved towards the door at the end of the corridor. Beyond that was the bottom of the staircase to the main floor, but more importantly there was also the offices of the IT team.
Since being cut off from his allowance, he’d taken to stealing opportunistically whatever he could so he could keep flashing the cash around. He’d seen the delivery earlier that afternoon of a load of laptops, and figured it was a sign from the universe. Sneaking in to the storeroom for a few hours until everyone had gone was a small price to pay. He could break in, steal a few, then hide back out until the morning so he didn’t trigger any alarms.
Walking round the next corner, just as a couple of balaclava-clad men were already kicking in the IT engineers’ prep room hadn’t been in the plan…
The house was in good condition, with well-maintained greenery and a healthy hawthorne bush trained around the length of the front garden wall. The spikes and shoulders height span were neatly trimmed so as not to snag passers-by. He knew from personal experience how painful it would be to push through.
There was a lot of folklore surrounding hawthorne. Depending on who you asked it was sacred to elves, or fairies, or proof against witches or anything else that went bump in the night. When pressed however, even the most ardent occultist would admit it was usually just planted as a very good deterrent against burglars. If the occasional goblin or young child got snagged in it, well that was just a bonus.
Not being either of the latter, Quiller instead opened the gate, and after securing it behind him walked up the garden path to the front door. If he was as paranoid as Dyers had claimed he could have spent more time looking for problems or traps, but he felt that the odds of there being mantraps or tripwires lying in wait for delivery companies were fairly long.
When he reached the porch without incident, or even being blinded by a security light, he felt justified in that belief.
I miss the old days sometimes. I’m not talking about the current mess that is modern life, because let’s face it there’s always something new and frightening. I’m harking back to before I stepped through the veil and saw the world as it is.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat: looking out over the estate from my balcony and watching air sprites chasing each other round the rooftops and drainpipes will never get boring. I just sometimes wish I could hear something fall and clatter somewhere in the flat late at night and believe there isn’t a lonely ghost begging for some attention.
I know, woe is me, talk about spirit-world problems (do you see what I did there?) I hear it all the time from my peers and close ones: just get on with life and accept that you just have a view of a world that is infinitely weirder than most would ever credit. I get all that, I just sometimes long for it all to be a bit simpler. If nothing else I wouldn’t be up and down so much in the night.
For a while, I reckoned myself something of a magician with all this insight. I mistook being able to see things and take to them for being able to push the universe along the paths I wanted. I thought I knew it all, and on reflection that got people hurt when the universe pushed back.
The problem with being a seer is that it doesn’t preclude the requirement to take a good long hard look at yourself every now and then. It’s kind of implied in the job title.
Few places are as simultaneously comforting and intimidating at once as a good library – or indeed an evil one, come to think of it. The shelves of books are an immovable presence radiating both the call of old friends, and the uncertain promise of new people met at a rather sedate party. Either way you’re not entirely certain as to what will happen next.
The bustle of libraries, full of children, has been firmly quenched in these covid lockdown days, and more’s the pity. Instead we have a return to the deep silence that has always underpinned these places. Despite the faint traffic noise that sometimes murmurs and hisses in the background there is now a quiet and stillness that some find unnerving.
Those who remark on it sometimes say that the silence is expectant, and it makes them want to fill that awful void in an otherwise frenetic soundscape. I think that tells us as much about how uncomfortable they are with their thoughts in the quiet as any statement by the librarians; even if that statement is a simple “Shhhhhh!”
They eased their way out of the tavern’s door in ones and twos so as not to wake anyone sleeping in the common area. Bustling noises from the kitchen area suggested a breakfast would be forthcoming soon, but the prospect of fresh air untainted by sleeping body odours was a strong lure, at least until windows could be opened and more wholesome aromas allowed to circulate. There were benches and tables outside on the pavement, so at least they wouldn’t have to sit on the floor or lounge against walls like louche street thugs.
The bells were ringing in the morning in the distance – from Guildhalls and churches, libraries and public buildings the carillions blended and merged to form snatches of recognisable tunes obscured by distance and the mundane domestic sounds of the start of a new day. Carts were already beginning to make their way to market, or to deliver to any one of the many shops in this metropolis. A half-elf was brushing the road clear outside the bakery next door, his blue apron stained with flour from his early start. A dwarf in the livery of a courier service was directing envelopes from his wheeled case to doorways with a flick of a wand – messages and small parcels flying to letterboxes with quiet efficiency.
A gentle breeze scented with the smell of frying bacon wafted past and lifted the additional warmth of fresh bread from the bakery, and in that moment the travellers knew it was going to be a good day.
“The world is a place of wonder that doesn’t care if it is observed or not. Rivers flow and trees fall in woods whether or not anyone is there to witness. Sunrises don’t mind if anyone is awake; and clouds just get on with being part of the water cycle. It’s only when soppy humans get involved that the value judgements start: ‘Oh wow, that rainbow is beautiful’ carries as much weight as how icky it is to see that decomposing animal, or be uncomfortable about the rain trickling down my neck, or ‘how dare that virus kill all my herds and hit my profit margins?’
All of these things may be felt simultaneously by the same farmer in one field in the most breathtaking hillside view – and none of them are mutually exclusive or any more or less valid a manifestation of the complexity and wonder of this world. Wonders don’t have to be, and frequently are not, intrinsically beneficial or pleasant.
Do I sound jaded? A little distant perhaps? I don’t think I am, but I do get tired of hearing the same old exclamations and crying.” The dragon paused to take a sip of his martini and glanced around the bar. Nobody was paying any attention to us. That said, it was a Friday evening in Canary Wharf so not only was the bar packed but it was full of conversations about money and expensive toys. As far as anyone else was concerned we were just a couple more folks in the bar lucky enough to have grabbed seats and a table; and that probably meant we’d been there all afternoon.
I’d better explain. There was a distinct lack of scales, teeth, and fire breathing on view. Craddoc found they got in the way of running a Fortune 500 company, so only let his wings out at the weekend when he flew home to the valleys, or if he’d decided to work from home while moulting. He’d never revealed where home was exactly and I suspect it wasn’t exactly a converted farmhouse. We both left it as something not to be discussed and were both the happier for it.
“Anyway, my dear Dorian, what I’m trying to say to you is that it is a pleasure to see you again, for you are as wonderful to me as the sunlight on the Thames and the shadows beneath Tower Bridge.” His amber eyes seemed to twinkle with reflections of the sun off the skyscrapers outside but I’d long ago learnt to not look him directly in the eye. Just because he wasn’t trying to eat anyone right now, didn’t mean I had to tempt fate more than I usually do.
“Well, thank you Craddoc for putting me in my cosmic place. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s morn or the dew on a rose or would an avalanche seen from afar be a better analogy?” You do have to have a certain lack of regard for your own skin to tease a dragon, but I’d learnt that he did enjoy barbs that showed an appreciation of his wordplay.