THE BATTLE OF BOLESKINE
Having long since missed the opportunity to get a letter into Foyers to meet the post, I finished the section I had written, folded the paper neatly and hid it in my bag.
I sipped the last of a pot of coffee that had come with the sandwiches and then descended to the “temple” to see how matters had progressed.
I felt very much surplus to requirements, a man with none of the skills that were needed for the business ahead. I knew that Carnacki viewed me as a liability, a weak link that should be locked up in one of the rooms where I couldn’t get in the way or provide an easy target for whatever might come. I sympathised with his stance, hearkening back to my military days when the last thing I would have wanted in the middle of a tense mission was a civilian getting under our feet. Still, I was determined that, as someone who was as yet uncertain as to his beliefs in the occult and the threat represented by Samuel Mathers and his confederates, I should witness all and be the conclusive voice of reason.
I found the four men in varying degrees of readiness, a large star shape – the aforementioned pentacle, I presumed – was drawn on the floor and there lingered the distinct smell of burning wood and wax. I could only imagine that the floorboards had been singed once again. Each man was working to his own method:
Dr Silence, his lips chattering away silently within the confines of his beard, appeared to be approaching matters purely internally. He stood facing one of the star’s five points reciting whatever incantation gave him strength, occasionally tapping his finger against the seam of his trousers as if counting stanzas.
Crowley was every inch the theatre satanist, dressed in flowing purple robes. He chanted loudly in Latin, dropping small nuggets of incense into a glowing censer. The incense flared and gave off balls of sweetsmelling white smoke. Looking at his eyes I could tell from his pupils that he had taken some form of drug. I recognised the look well enough from Holmes’ dark days. I would later read an article by Crowley insisting that heavy drug use was an important part of achieving the correct mental state with which to conduct rituals. An article that did his credulity no favours at all in the eyes of the medical fraternity.
Karswell appeared to be scribbling a series of foreign letters onto thick strips of parchment. Each piece would be carefully allowed to dry before being stacked in a small pile near the centre of the pentacle.
Finally, Carnacki, who approached the business of demons like a scientist. He had wired a set of linked glass tubes to a large wooden box. And was currently loading a heavy revolver with cartridges containing rock salt and silver, a powerful calibre against the forces of darkness, he insisted.
“Gentlemen,” I said, not wishing to interrupt those mid-prayer but feeling I should announce myself.
“Stand inside the pentacle,” Carnacki said, “and keep quiet.”
“Very well.” I did as I was told, well, almost. “Might I also have some cartridges?” I asked holding up my service revolver. “I think you’ll find they fit my Enfield.”
“But can you shoot?”
“I am likely a far better shot than you,” I said with a smile.
For once from Carnacki the smile was returned and he handed me a box of the custom-made bullets. “Maybe you’ll earn your place after all.”
We took our positions in silence, each staring out from one of the five points of the pentangle. It could hardly have been planned better, I thought to myself. If Holmes had been here we would have been one too many.
Slowly the natural light began to dim, the candles growing ever more potent as the shadows around them deepened.
I had noticed earlier the large terrace off Crowley’s temple, accessed from a north-facing set of French windows. The terrace had been coated in a thick layer of sand dredged from the banks of the Loch. When I had asked him why, he explained it was so that he could discern the footsteps of the demons that came to visit, even though they might be invisible to the human eye. I wondered now if ancient feet were leaving their indentations, if forces were creeping closer.
Within ten minutes or so the darkness was complete.
Crowley had insisted that the servants retire to their quarters and not leave them. Working for such a man I was sure they were used to this command. Which meant that when we heard sounds from the long corridor outside, we couldn’t mistake them for anything other than a sign of intruders.
“Steady now,” said Silence, holding out his hands and taking long, slow breaths, “the first wave is here.”
The noises were faint to begin with, the jangle of metal against metal, the tap of something hard on the floorboards. Then, after a few moments, the sounds coalesced and the raging drum of horses hooves came clattering along the corridor.
“The Angel of Death?” asked Crowley.
“Or just a horse spirit,” replied Carnacki. “Let’s wait until we clap eyes on it, shall we?”
“If it’s the Angel of Death, that’s the last thing you want to do,” said Karswell.
“Ah,” said Carnacki waving the comment away dismissively, “it won’t be the first time I’ve looked that bony old revenant in the eye sockets.”
The sound of hooves rose to such a terrifying volume that I had to squint against the persistent hammering. Books and ornaments fell from the tables and shelves as the house shook.
Then it appeared! A translucent figure, recognisably a horse but with something on its back: wet, chain-mailed feet pressed into chinking stirrups, a bare torso, more ribs than flesh, a skull of a face, its tombstone teeth chattering like a telegraph key hammering out a message.
“Allow me,” said Silence, who had continued to mutter under his breath throughout the last exchange. He raised his hands further and, though his body blocked a clear view, I swear it seemed as if two blazing figures burst from his chest. Both built seemingly from flames, the first was in the shape of a dog, a mid-sized animal, a Border Collie perhaps. The other was clearly a cat, its tail crooked into a question mark and its mouth opened wide to issue a sulphurous hiss.
“Dear God!” shouted Karswell. “Are they spirit guardians?”
Silence didn’t reply immediately, it was clear that he was concentrating on maintaining the animal creatures he had conjured forth. “Smoke and Flame,” he said eventually, his voice strained, “my animal spirits, the embodiment of two of my most loyal and courageous friends.” He gave a roar, throwing forward his arms, the fingers splayed awkwardly, twisted almost as if broken. “Fight it!” he shouted, and the creatures did so.
The dog chased around behind the creature on horseback, rearing up to tear at its shimmering flanks with its front claws. The cat leapt straight for the rider, pushing its sleek nose into its chest cavity and climbing upwards, a raging orange light shining out from the skull’s eyes, nose and mouth like the glow of a jack-o’-lantern.
The horse rose up onto its back legs, but Flame, the dog spirit, jumped higher, its fiery teeth snapping at the creature’s exposed belly. There was a shower of gelatinous matter that brought to mind the ectoplasm web in the dining carriage and then Smoke, the cat spirit, burst from the skeletal neck, the rider’s head shattering as the ball of fire exploded it from within.
There was a patter as the cooling embers rained down onto the floorboards, then all was silent but for the flickering sound of Flame and Smoke. Both creatures were sat on the floor now, their heat somehow not scorching the wood.
“Thank you, my friends,” said Silence and, as a pair, they jumped towards him and vanished.
“Round one?” I asked.
“Well and truly won,” Carnacki said then, looking down at my shoes he waved a cautionary hand. “Keep your feet well inside the line,” he said, “a fraction of you crosses that barrier and you’re no longer protected. Worse still, you rub a gap in the chalk and we’re all wide open to attack.”
“Right,” I said, suitably admonished. “Sorry, you must remember I am new to this.”
“Pray you live long enough to get used to it,” Silence said.
His eyes had taken on a dreamy quality and it was obvious from his stance that the effort of defending us against the first attack had taken a lot out of him. “I think I’ll let someone else take charge of the next one,” he said. “It will be all I can manage to stay upright for a while.”
“Let’s hope we have a little time to recover,” said Karswell, “I would rather we were all in a fit state to...”
He stopped speaking as a faint noise began to grow louder. It was a strange, high-pitched screech, the closest analogy I can think of is the noise a gramophone needle makes when slipping in the groove of a record. The room grew even darker as the noise grew louder, eventually we could no longer see the opposite walls and were stranded within an island of light cast by the closest candles.
In the darkness, at a point that seemed much too far away from us to still be in the room, a pinprick of light appeared and I began to wonder if that noise were not the sound made when something tries to force its way into our world.
“No rest for the blessed,” Carnacki said. “What is that?”
“Oh no...” Karswell whispered. “It can’t be...”
“What, man?” Crowley snapped. “We haven’t time for indecision. If you know what it is then act!”
The pinprick of light was slowly widening, unfolding even, into a tiny plume of smoke. That smoke began to grow as if, just on the other side of that sheet of space, there was an infernal engine getting its steam up.
“But there must be something attracting it!” said Karswell. “It requires a focus, a beacon to draw its power!”
“There’s nothing in the pentacle but ourselves,” said Carnacki, “and why would any of us draw this thing here?”
The smoke continued to unfold, becoming a larger and larger ball that hovered in the distance.
“Empty your pockets!” insisted Karswell. “All of you!”
We did as he asked, casting things onto the floor in the centre of the pentangle. Loose change, a couple of pocket knives, pipes, tobacco... all the usual gentlemanly belongings.
“Wait,” I said. “What’s this?” I held up a small piece of black card that I had found in the inside pocket of my jacket. “I swear I have never seen it before,” I said, “it must have been slipped in there while I was unaware.”
“Easy enough done,” said Karswell, “but the point is: can I get rid of it?”
For a bizarre moment the piece of paper lifted into the air entirely of its own volition and it seemed that Karswell would have no need to dispose of it for it would vanish itself.
“No you don’t,” said Carnacki, snatching it from the air as if it were a troublesome mosquito. “How do you negate the effect of it?” he Karswell asked.
“You don’t!” the smaller man insisted. “All you can do is pass it back to the person that gave it to you in the first place. Once the rune is cast, it cannot be revoked. The demon will hunt it forever!”
“Then I should run,” I said, mindful of how large the ball of smoke was getting, “draw it away from the rest of you.”
“Noble as ever, Doctor,” said Carnacki with a smile, “but Karswell will think of something. Won’t you?”
The air of delicate gentility that Karswell had previously shown appeared to be crumbling with the panic. He looked to Crowley, then back to us, then to the smoke that was now almost twice the size of a man. Lights flickered at the heart of it, like the spitting tip of a metal sparkler.
“Yes,” Karswell said finally, following my eyes towards where the demon was manifesting. “Give me the paper.”
Carefully making sure it didn’t fly away again, Carnacki did just that. Karswell held the fragment by the tip and I marvelled to see it worm around as if alive.
“Get me some of his blood,” Karswell said.
“Some of my —” I began, but Crowley had already gripped my hand and, pulling a curved knife from somewhere within his purple robes, he drew the blade across my palm, opening a thin cut in the skin. Karswell took my bleeding hand by the wrist and dipped the tip of the wriggling paper into the blood. It soaked it up like litmus paper, the dull surface turning shiny gloss as it dampened.
“Right,” Karswell said, keeping his eye on the smoke.
“Quickly, man!” Carnacki shouted, pointing to the floor where a large black footprint, almost like that of a three-toed lizard, burned itself into the wood.
“Eetz inti treiz,” mumbled Karswell, in a language I didn’t recognise.
“It’s coming!” shouted Silence.
“And it’s not the only thing!” cried Carnacki as a grotesque, swinish noise became audible over that stylus screech. “John!” It took me a moment to realise he meant me. “Get ready to fire!”
Another three-toed footprint burned into the wooden floor.
“Veesh lamma hyze!” Karswell continued in that strange dialect.
There was something appearing in the smoke, something covered in thick, dark hair, its horns straight like an alpine goat’s. It was running towards us, getting bigger and bigger as it sprinted along the impossible tunnel that was opening between Crowley’s house and whatever awful realm it came from.
“Ryad, kamma lan tash!” Karswell roared, the blood-soaked piece of paper vanishing from between his fingers.
The running creature faded as, slowly, the smoke began to shrink once more, folding back in on itself until it was nothing but the size of a golfb all, those brilliant, shining sparks glistening at its centre. Then nothing. The tunnel was gone.
“The paper was you,” said Karswell, out of breath, drained just as Silence had been. “Transportation spell, somewhere far away...”
“You mean that thing’s just going to burst out of nowhere in the midst of some poor innocents?” I asked, terrified that our problem had now become someone else’s.
“Problems of our own!” shouted Crowley as the snuffling noises grew louder and, out of the darkness that surrounded us, several small, grey figures appeared. They were troll-like in appearance, snouted, with long, yellow teeth that sat uncomfortably in their mouths. They moved slowly, their great weight surely making it hard for them to manoeuvre.
Carnacki fired, the bullet hitting the foremost and making a hole that melted around the edges, a grotesque, purple cream gushing from its centre. The creature fell and oozed away. Carnacki took another shot, and another...
“We need to take this in turns,” he said to me. “I fire, then you, with each of us reloading while the other keeps them back.” He fired again. “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” I said, standing next to him and weighing the Enfield in my hand.
“Good.” Carnacki smiled, and took his last two shots. “Go!”
I stepped forward, aimed, and slowly, calmly, took my six shots, timing it to coincide with the time it took Carnacki to load. With the last, I dropped to one knee and lined the shot to hit two of the creatures. I had no idea if the bullet would pass through both but felt it worth a try. It did, they may have been big but they were also soft.
“Show-off,” said Carnacki, but I could tell he was beginning to thaw towards me, not that I particularly craved his endorsement, I’d be happy just to survive the night. I had already shaken a handful of cartridges from the box in my jacket pocket into my hand and I ejected the spent casings and reloaded before Carnacki had taken his fifth shot.
I am particularly good at two things in life: being a soldier and being a doctor, taking lives and saving them. The irony doesn’t amuse me one bit.
“He must tire soon,” said Crowley, “this is leagues beyond his previous efforts.”
“He knows there are many of us,” responded Carnacki, reloading while I took my turn, “and this...” he gestured towards the creatures, “this is just cannon fodder, keeping us distracted before the next big threat.”
As if on cue, the ground shook. Karswell fell to the floor, cursing as some of his little pieces of paper fluttered around him.
“What was that?” asked Silence.
“At a guess,” I replied, taking my six shots quickly, “the next big threat.”
The ground shook again and we could hear the sound of breaking glass from somewhere along the corridor.
The creatures were coming in greater numbers now, more than Carnacki and I could manage with just the two guns.
Picking himself up, Karswell stepped alongside us, muttering under his breath, folding his little pieces of paper and pitching them towards the creatures. The paper pellets hit like small grenades, blowing holes in the creatures as surely as our bullets. Silence came to the fore also, not manifesting his animal spirits this time but instead sending percussive blasts of air from the tips of his fingers that had the same effect as both bullets and pellets.
Once more, the room shook as something large, something terrible, came our way.
“I need you to cover for me,” said Carnacki, as he reached for the glass tubes he had been connecting earlier. He looked to Crowley as he screwed them together. “You’re not being much help,” he said, “this is your battle, remember?”
I didn’t hear Crowley’s reply, I was too busy taking my turn at shooting the creatures that continued to flood towards us.
Boom. The earth shook again. This time the candelabra actually left the ground, all jumping half a foot or so before dropping back with a resounding thud. The candles flickered, a couple extinguishing, dropping us into even greater darkness.
“Nearly ready,” said Carnacki behind me, “nearly ready.”
The tide of small creatures ceased, the last falling to one of Silence’s flicks of compressed air. “Wait for a target,” he said, hands extended, long fingers twitching.
Karswell took the opportunity to create more ammunition, scribbling sets of runes on more blank parchment. He set great stock by the effects of these “words of power”, and having seen them in action, I couldn’t help but agree.
Another tremor, and the dawning certainty that there was something out there in the dark. A warm gust of air passed over us, a breath I realised, that brought with it the sweet, straw stench of an animal cage in a zoo.
“It’s right here!” shouted Karswell.
“Not for long,” insisted Carnacki, flicking a switch on the large wooden box that sat by his feet. There was a brief whine that built into a solid, low hum. In his hands the glass tubes were now constructed as a mirror of the chalk shape we stood in. Surrounded by a fan of metal shutters, the tubes glowed brightly, powered by the acid battery in the wooden box, cables hanging between the two as he strode forward. “The Electric Pentacle,” he explained, his face bathed in the blue light the device cast. “A weapon of my own design, the gas in the tubes has mystical properties, the light it casts is hugely powerful.” He moved to the furthest point in the pentangle. “It burns,” he said finally, pointing the pentangle out towards the darkness and flipping a large brass switch that dangled from one of the wires hanging around him.
The light from the Electric Pentacle pulsed and Carnacki triggered a switch at the rear of the device that brought the shutters down, surrounding the tubes like the petals of a flower, focusing their light in a steady beam directly into the darkness.
For a brief second we all caught a glimpse of the creature that was out there as the light reflected off its many black eyes, and the quivering mass of ganglia it sported where its mouth should be. Then there was nothing but the blue light, and the ground shook once more as the creature returned to wherever it had come from.
Carnacki gave a short cry as the Electric Pentacle began to smoke in his hands. “The cables!” he shouted, getting tangled in them. “Disconnect!”
I yanked the two, heavy-duty wires from the top of the wooden box and the light immediately cut out.
Carnacki slowly lowered the whole device to the floor and stepped back, waving his burned hands in the air. “Needs a bit more work,” he admitted.
“Seems just fine to me,” I said, “it’s certainly effective.”
Carnacki nodded. “True, but if it had exploded, I’m not completely sure it wouldn’t have torn a hole in the fabric of reality and that wouldn’t have been good.”
“What’s wrong with Crowley?” asked Silence suddenly, dashing over to where the man had fallen flat on his back.
“He is possessed,” said Karswell, stepping back slightly as Crowley’s body began to shake. “What did you do to him?” he asked Carnacki.
“Me?” Carnacki was clearly affronted. “What makes you think I did anything?”
“You were the last to talk to him.”
“I merely asked him why he wasn’t taking a very active role – a fair comment!”
“Gentlemen,” I said, grabbing Crowley’s arm and feeling for a pulse, “now is hardly the time.”
Crowley appeared to be experiencing some form of seizure, his teeth clenched, his brow furrowed. Beads of sweat trickled down his face as he thrashed around on the floor.
“Dear Lord!” I moved back slightly, startled by the sight of his body beginning to swell beneath the purple robes.
“What is happening to him?” Karswell shouted. “He’s inflating like a damned balloon!”
Silence moved forward, pushing between Crowley and I. “Forgive me, Doctor,” he said, “but this may be a matter that requires more than medical knowledge.”
Feeling it was hardly constructive to fight the man over it, I stepped back and allowed him room.
He held Crowley down as the robes continued to swell, as if he were filling up from the inside.
“The Breath of God!” declared Karswell. “It must be!”
Crowley’s eyes flickered open and he roared at the ceiling. The experience was incredible, a wind that raged through the room, knocking over the candelabra, smashing the censers and extinguishing the fires.
“It’s here!” Crowley shouted. “Help me push it —”
There was a sudden silence. The darkness was empty for a few moments then a match was struck illuminating Carnacki’s face. I heard him elevating one of the toppled candelabra and then watched as he relit the candles.
“Gone,” whispered Crowley. “It’s gone.”
“You destroyed it?” I asked.
Crowley shook his head. “Just sent it elsewhere, released it...”
“Released it?” Carnacki was beside himself with rage. “You’ve let it loose?”
Crowley nodded and Carnacki looked as deflated as I had ever seen him. “Then who knows how many will die before we might contain it once more.”